A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The Family from One End Street was published in 1937. A quick look at some of the key events of that year reminds us that this lonely and unloved decade did not have far to go to find its sorrows: the Moscow trials; Condor Legion bombing raids in the civil war in Spain; the Hindenberg disaster; the disappearance of Amelia Earhart; the Japanese occupation of Beijing; Italy leaving the League of Nations. Britain contemplated a what-might-have-been in the marriage of Wallis Simpson to the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII. The tale of the working class Ruggles family living in the fictional town of Otwell-on-the-Ouse was itself born out of the suffering witnessed by its author in the 1920s. Commissioned to illustrate a book about the lives of children in London, she was shocked by the conditions in which the poorest of them had to live. The book was written, partly, in response to what she had seen. Yet, just as the events summarised above do not enter into the novel, neither do scenes of working class poverty highlighted, for example, in another bestseller of the nineteen-thirties, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier.
Instead the Ruggles solve their crises and enjoy their adventures as a family, surrounded by other families in similar circumstances, but somehow apart, a world unto themselves. Mr. and Mrs. Ruggles do not listen to the radio or read any of the national papers. The outside world manifests itself in various branches of officialdom: Jo Ruggles, father and dustbin man, keeps a pig in the back yard and his wife, Rosie – mother to their seven children and owner of the Ideal Laundry, worries that one of the neighbours will complain to the Sanitary Man. Kate, second of their children, passes the eleven-plus test which will take her into secondary education, the first member of the family to go. The ‘government’ will pay her fees but not her school uniform, which leads to the tale of the day when Kate loses her school hat at the beach. The word ‘government’, as used by the novel’s characters, covers every branch of bureaucracy not found in the local council. It implies a distant authority, at times inefficient but charged with the ultimate responsibility of setting to right any wrong suffered by the community.
By cutting the Ruggles off from the rest of the world, we focus on them as both individuals with distinct personalities and as members of a tight-knit group. The seven children are all cared for and clearly loved. Voices raised in anger quickly turn to concern as the facts become clear. Grudges are never borne. Lily Rose irons a green silk petticoat, shrinking it to a fraction of its size; Jim stows away on a barge and is nearly whisked away to France in a concrete pipe; Jo Ruggles (junior) smuggles himself into the local cinema and falls asleep in the musicians’ room. They are scolded because they are children who, as children do, let their imaginations run away with them or let enthusiasm get the better of them. But they are not punished – at most they are given another chance to show that they can learn from their mistakes. Reading these stories of high jinks and childhood dares it is hard to fathom why the book was turned down by six publishers for what was termed its “grittiness.” Looked at in the light of contemporary social ills, its view of the world through the eyes of the Ruggles’ family seems nothing less than charming. Yet, as I mentioned above, the book was published at a time when men, their minds and bodies shattered, waited for execution after their sham trials in Stalin’s Moscow. Whatever “grittiness” was present in the book, it was charming enough then to be serialised on BBC radio’s Children’s Hour in 1939, a year not without its own particular grimness.
People, the book seems to say, are basically decent, whatever their social background. John Ruggles, Jim’s twin, is carted off in error to London by a middle class couple (they send a telegram to let his mother know that he is all right: no mobile phones in 1937 Britain) where he joins in with their son’s birthday party. Snobbery does rear its head but he is treated kindly and praised to his mother for his manners. Lost items are always returned by post and the postage refunded. There is always a kind railway ticket collector to open the barrier to catch the last train. A discovery of forty one pounds in the rubbish taken to the municipal dump propels Jo Ruggles into the limelight as, unable to keep even a pound of his good fortune, he hands it in to the police saying:
I don’t see as I could…it aint right to start with…
But, more than decency, I think that Eve Garnett was trying to impress upon the readers of the novel that respectability, the value that helps us all live a public life, plays as important a role in the the working class as in any other. It’s more than coincidence that she dwells at length on details of the clothes worn by the characters. Threadbare and patched, washed into pale colours they may be, but they are not rags and best is kept for Sundays and outings. My mother, who grew up in a Scottish industrial town in the 1930s, has mentioned more than once how quickly and easily a family could fall into disgrace through unemployment, illness or drink. Clothes were always an indicator of social respectability and pride. Her father, a coal miner, always wore suits and tied a neckerchief into his eighties. Perhaps that is what made the novel so strikingly new in Britain on the cusp of war: we are all the same.
Had I tried to read this book as a child, I doubt I would have finished it. It is, as I mentioned, charming, too charming for a twelve year old boy. But now, forty-three years older, scunnered (as we say in Scotland when we’ve had enough) from the news of the last weeks and days, I relish its warmth and lightness of touch. I recommend it to anyone seeing solace in these hard times. Let the Ruggles take you into their lives and, as one of the characters says, follow the example of:
Eight human beings…achieving complete happiness and their life’s ambitions for five shillings a head.
Eve Garett: The Family from One End Street (Puffin Modern Classics, 2014). ISBN 9780141966656. RRP £6.99.