John Davidson’s anthemic ode to poverty, ‘Thirty Bob A Week’, has endured as a frequently anthologised poem (along with his less representative ‘The Runnable Stag’) since it was penned in 1894, while the author scrimped a hack’s wage in London to support a wife and two children, and when he had the spare time, pursue his literary ambitions. These ambitions were partly fulfilled around this period with his third volume of verse, Fleet Street Eclogues (1893), which achieved considerable popularity through its brilliantly subversive balladry (controversial at the time for its gritty social themes and diction). But his later, more epic works, such as The Testament of John Davidson (1908) – which veered towards a philosophical acceptance of the very Social Darwinism he attacked in his earlier more socialistic anti-materialist poetry, as exemplified in the above poem – met with little success either critically or publicly. The final ray of light for Davidson was a Civil List Pension granted him in 1906, but it was not enough to rescue him from the build-up of years of privation, artistic and economic struggle, depression, asthmatic problems and burgeoning hypochondria which fatally fixated on the belief he had cancer. Apparently, and as his final suicide note indicated (he had penned many before, often in poetic form), it was the dread of a long dragged-out death that finally led him to drown himself off the coast of Penzance, his final home. In light of this retrospective fact, it loads the line ‘He knows the seas are deeper than tureens’ (soup dishes) in the poem above, with a haunting resonance.

Thanks partly to the posthumous championing of his works by TS Eliot – whose own poetry, particularly ‘The Love-Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ and the brilliant gossiping lingo of ‘A Game of Chess’ from his modernist masterpiece The Wasteland, reflected a detectable Davidson influence – Davidson’s poetic reputation survived the critical hiatus of his latter years, through the stylistic upheavals of the 20th century, and now, into the post-modernist 21st century. However, since Davidson’s work was both subversive in content as well in its use of traditional form (such as the lyric and, as above, the ballad), his oeuvre is difficult to pin down and one might suspect that a poem such as the masterly ‘Thirty Bob A Week’, in its unapologetically anti-capitalist theme, might prove an awkward future anthology contender as long as editors hallow from a certain apolitical professional mainstream. It would be difficult to imagine one of the current pool of solicitors, university academics, linguists, physicists and creative writing tutors who form the main pool of established poets of today shining to, let alone empathising with, the gritty theme of such a poem as this for posthumous anthologising. But for many poets of today who operate in the untutored margins, where one might think historically the most radical creativity of any generation would be active, will strongly identify with the perennial themes of economic oppression, poverty and artistic struggle against the crushing demands of industrial society, all addressed in this mini-masterpiece.

For after all, for many of us, little has changed since Davidson confronted these issues in such an 'music hall' manner way back in 1894. Similar themes went on to be novelised powerfully by many social writers, some contemporaneous to Davidson, such as George Gissing (New Grub Street, 1891), Arthur Morrison (A Child of the Jago, 1906) and Arnold Bennett (The Grim Smile of the Five Towns, 1907), HG Wells (The World of William Clissold, 1926; Kipps, 1905 etc.), his fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw’s legion satires (and lesser known social novels such as An Unsocial Socialist, 1887), through to the later social documentaries of George Orwell (e.g., Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier). But it is more so the socialist novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1906) by Hastings writer Robert Noonan, under the pen name Robert Tressell, a politically astute middle-class skidder who lived and worked at first hand with the working-class journeymen and painter-and-decorators he studies in said book, that appears the natural inheritor, in prose form, of the empirical dialectic – and indeed dialect-ic – voiced through the working-class narrator of Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob a Week’. Indeed, the narrator could very well be Tressell’s alter-ego Owen in said novel - though Davidson's narrator is a downtrodden clerk locked in the ‘dull official round’, as opposed to a blue collar worker; but he is evidently working-class in diction and phrase, intellectually canny to his plight and trapped potential. Davidson, like Tressell after him, was also something of a middle-class skidder, hailing from a comfortable Scottish background but skidding down in his own lifetime into relative poverty, through a combination of ill health (neursathenia or 'nerves' in his case), having to provide for a family while working as an underpaid journalist in 1890s London, coupled with the perennial artistic disenfranchisement suffered by any truly ambitious writer who seeks to produce true literature as opposed to profitable pulp (an echo in the real life Davidson in this aspect to the fictional impoverished writer Edwin Reardon who is incapable of writing for the market in Gissing's superb and now even more relevant New Grub Street).

‘Thirty Bob A Week’ is a seering indictment of industrial drudgery and mind-numbing routine, voiced through a cockney narrator whose parochial idioms and turns of phrase produce some potent and often deeply moving poetry – the beautiful image of a wife ‘made of flint and roses’ instantly springs to mind as an example of this colourful blue-collar tongue, a sort of effortless poetry of the proles. Davidson is able to take grammatical liberties by speaking through a cockney narrator, and produces some – albeit less hackneyed – Kipling-esque slang-constructs such as ‘difficultest’, ‘’rythmetic’, ‘the'ries’ and the inevitable ‘ain’t’s’ (though commonly used in the 19th century by, ironically, the upper classes and aristocracies – perhaps by way of asserting their common bond with the working classes, bypassing the people in-between with whom they have less in common than the former). There is a palpable element of Kipling-pastiche in this poem, and one suspects this was conscious on Davidson’s part; the narrator sounds like one of Kipling’s ‘Tommy’’s, though this version is talking about urban impoverishment rather than Fuzzy Wuzzies putting the wind up his pith helmet in the Sudan; a clerk in khaki as it were, for he soldiers through the daily battles of industrial survival. This anti-capitalist twist on Kipling is truly revolutionary.

But as always Davidson takes the ironic, satirical route to communicate his clerk's latent, though unconscious, militancy, with lines very much summing up the massochistic working-class instinct to sculpt a hair-shirted, almost Calvinistic cult out of their own un-fussing exploitation:

But you never hear her do a growl or whine,
  For she's made of flint and roses, very odd;
And I've got to cut my meaning rather fine,
  Or I'd blubber, for I'm made of greens and sod:
So p'r'haps we are in Hell for all that I can tell,
  And lost and damn'd and served up hot to God.

A trumpeting of gritting one's teeth through adversity as a timeless working-class virtue (or in this case, lower-middle-class/aspiring working class, since his job as a clerk suggests an attempt at transcending the working-class proper, and in its pseudo-Cockney idiom, reminds one rather of the hapless protagonist in The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith, which no doubt Davidson had read). Something of the British sense of sinfulness in hardship, as if one is being punished for wrongs in a previous incarnation through otherwise unjustifiable poverty in the present, a sense of destiny as in a Hindu Caste System, a negative karma, ostensibly trips through the poem but is always under-hinged by a growing sense of questioning, the slow assembling, via the clerk's existentialist volte-face in his refusal to believe in 'fate', of a class consciousness.

There are also phonetically spelt words to directly echo cockney pronunciation, such as ‘Suburbean’; and a similarly tempered malapropism in the misspelling of egregious to read ‘engrugious’. While ‘rummiest’ is a slight distortion of the then-used but now archaic word ‘rummy’, meaning ‘odd’, ‘queer’, ‘funny’ and the like. Other strange phrases such as the ‘hunks’ the narrator’s wife stitches towels for apparently means, or used to mean, ‘a surly old person; a miser’ (presumably the same type of usurious shrew who leads the impoverished Raskolnikov into the deadly cycle of Crime and Punishment) . The loaded phrases and authentic class diction of the poem makes it not only an eminently enjoyable and moving poem imbued with verbal colour and singing rhythmn, but also one which serves in a way as a miniature of social history. An invaluable piece on many levels: an indictment of capitalism, a cockney sing-a-long and a last gasp of working-class consciousness, all rolled into one.

Occasional voices have emerged through the last century touching on privation at first hand, probably most notably the Supertramp poet WH Davies; others such as Martin Bell have more latterly touched on hardship, albeit more temporary than chronic. Today, in spite of the growing embourgeoisment of contemporary poetics (though conversely manifest in growing linguistic impoverishment), there is an underground of poetry being produced (and occasionally managing to get into print, through such radical publishers as Smokestack, Sixties Press, Five Leaves, Waterloo and Survivors’ Press, to name a handful) from the social margins, working-class or more often than not, classless, but from poets still writing in relative privation (indeed, some of the poets on this very site such as Peter Street and David Kessel testify to this existent breed); some even living the old ‘garret’ way in grubby urban bed-sits in the thrall of slum landlords. Yes, such circumstances are still part of our society sadly, even if many arbiters of ‘the poetry scene’ choose to deny it, or even worse, dismiss it as literary cliché. The poetry of poverty is still a part of modern British society, no small thanks to the erosion of the Welfare State through Thatcher and New Labour – things having come full circle again with a thump prompting some of us to wonder sometimes whether the Attlee Government ever really happened at all.

Poetry and poverty are in many ways intertwined, for even if poets are fortunate enough not to suffer any material hardships, most of them in various ways suffer other forms, since the genre is misunderstood by most in society, and often perceived as a private indulgence rather than as a public-spirited cultural contribution. But then as long as only one ‘class’ – if you like – of poets are given exposure through the supplements and leading publishers, a monopolised vent for their own specific perspectives, perhaps the public are partly vindicated in their prejudice. I hope the more marginalised voices of today’s poetry scene will not come to be as overlooked as no doubt many posthumously unsung poets were of former times, simply by fault of their social circumstances. Take the ‘v’ out of poverty and with a little rearrangement, you get something else far more positive, and it’s our duty not to ignore it. John Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob A Week’ is an enduring bastion to the timeless struggle of the oppressed creative spirit in the material tyranny of capitalism, which is (still) for many the antithesis of artistic (and spiritual) freedom.

Alan Morrison © 2008