The Children's Book

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

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Authors: A.S. Byatt
he detected Humphry’s style in some of the attacks. He was himself not happy with the state of affairs. But he believed the Old Lady should put her affairs privately in order. What Humphry was doing, if he was doing it, was treachery to the Bank, and treachery to Basil, who had put him there. Moreover the writings endangered Basil’s own dealings, and even his reputation.
    They joined the group in time to hear Tartarinov’s remarks about blowing up obstacles. Basil muttered to his brother that he kept odd company for a man in a responsible position. Humphry said with even-toned bad temper that his beliefs were his own business.
    “Not if they include condoning explosions and skulduggery. Where your activities are not ludicrous, they are murderous.”
    “And gold-grubbing and wage-slavery are not murderous? Do you know how goldminers live? Or the poor creatures who stitched your fine shirt, and bled onto it?”
    “You will not better their condition by parading along the Strand in your frock-coat and silk hat, selling pamphlets.”
    Humphry began to speak the speech he made at meetings. He described the three
million
people swarming in the fetid wilderness beyond the Bank, without food or clothes to keep them in health, or beds to sleep in. The Social Democrats had claimed, in their despised pamphlets, that 25 per cent of workers earned too little to subsist without hunger and sickness. Mr. Charles Booth had challenged this figure and done his own meticulous survey of the poor. And he had revised the figure—
upwards
, Basil,
upwards
. Not 25 per cent but 30 per cent of working families tried to survive on less than £12 os od per month. Think, said Humphry provocatively, tilting his champagne glass at his brother, how much of what you regard as personal necessities can be purchased for £12 os od.
    Basil did not feel able to mention the considerable moneys he disbursed to charities.
    Humphry went on. He described the furious decline of the state of an injured worker—a man with a crushed hand or foot, or an eye blinded by splinters. In
no time at all
he had no house, no food, his children starved, their clothes were pawned, they slept in the workhouse or in the streets, his wife had to sell herself for bread. Mr. Booth and Mr. Rowntree had looked into schooling. At times of
no special distress
, they found, there were 55,000 children in London schools alone who weretoo weak from hunger to be expected to learn
anything
. “Fifty-five thousand is a large number. Now, imagine them one by one, child by child…”
    Basil said that he was not a meeting, to be worked up. He would like to find practical solutions to the problem of poverty. He did not think it would be solved by fomenting revolution, or blowing up public buildings and injuring innocent bystanders.
    Humphry said, as he had said before in meetings,
    “I once walked through Poplar behind two ragged men. They bent continuously to the pavement, picking up orange peel and apple cores, grape stems and crumbs. They cracked the pits of plums between their teeth for the kernels inside. They picked single undigested oats out of horse dung. Can you imagine?”
    Florence Cain, who was lifting a shrimp patty to her lips, dropped it on the grass.
    Violet said “Really, Humphry, I see no need to disgust and upset the children.”
    “Don’t you?” said Humphry. “I hope they will remember, and remember again when they are choosing how to live.”
    The boys and girls listened. Tom tasted the plum kernels and oats in his dry mouth. He knew he would sleep badly. Philip wrinkled his brow and backed away. Those lives held up to horrify were his life. He was one of the many who were poor. And he had left his poor mother, and made his sisters poorer. He felt dully angry—not with Basil, the rich man, but with Humphry, who had made him into an object, had appropriated his hunger.
    Charles Wellwood was truly affected. He had a logical mind and a Christian upbringing. In school

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