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You might remember when we started this book that author Rook wasn't going to push for a moral. "I do not know that there is any particular moral to be drawn from this book," he said, "and in any case I shall leave you to draw it for yourself." You'll also remember that I took this as a good sign.

Well, I suppose Rook just couldn't resist. Chapter 20 ("Politics", which was Chapter 15 in the HTML text that gave me fits) gives us a concentrated bout of moralism. But first, a wonderland of scene-setting delight:

Young Alf was late for his appointment. We had arranged to meet on the Embankment in the neighbourhood of Cleopatra's Needle, at eleven; and the quarter past had just boomed from Westminster. It was a clear night, with a full moon shining and turning the Thames into a fairy river spanned by bridges of gossamer. Have you never seen Charing Cross railway bridge by moonlight? As I came up in the train I encountered a party of people who were going out to see the illuminations, for it was the Prince of Wales' birthday. Why do people not go out in parties to lean over the parapet of the Embankment and watch the Thames by moonlight? The river always has its fascination. On a dark night, when the drizzle drenches to the skin, and the Embankment is empty of its customary tenants, the river is mysterious, and a little bit awful. Awful, because you can see nothing of it. Only an occasional flicker of light through the rain. You hear the pull of engines, which cross the sky and now and then stop to whistle impatiently. Now and again the throb of a passing tug, which, unseen, steals out of hearing. Below you, the lap of the water against the concrete - the wash from the stern of the tug. You lean over, and look into blackness. You think of despairing women who cast themselves over bridges into the outstretched arms of death. A boat creeps into hearing; there are pauses between the strokes, as though the rower were given to meditation. The river-police. Yes; it is the Styx, and here is Charon.

But this evening it was fairyland. The tide was at the full, and the moonlight transfigured the sordid details of the Surrey side. Fairyland in front, as you leaned over the parapet and watched the silver path of the moon upon the river break into ten million diamonds as the tug crossed it. But turn, and you are facing the Inferno. (pp. 236-7)
Of course, this time all this dandy pinky-out cloud-gazing is setting the stage for a touch of social realism, which makes all that fairyland talk easier to take.
In the distance, somewhere, someone is playing a tune on a penny whistle:

' Oh! Come all ye Faithful,
Joyful and triumphant!'

An enterprising musician, with a sense of the fitness of things; for we are near the season of Advent, when our mood demands that hymn. Here comes one of them, too. Neither joyful nor triumphant, but shuffling along upon a leg that is manifestly inadequate to its task. He stops now and then; and then he comes on. You could have told him, having walked along from Charing Cross. The seats are full. He must be new to misery if he expects to find an empty seat on the Embankment after eleven at night, and not a cold night. Why, already there are some, less lucky than the rest, sleeping on the pavement, their backs propped against the parapet.

He passes on, and I see no more of him. No doubt there is plenty of room in Trafalgar Square, or if that by any chance is full, Hyde Park is a spacious bedroom.

Save for an occasional cab the Embankment is very quiet. Now and then an arm is flung, or a dim form shifts with a grunt into an easier position. But, on the whole, it is an abode of silence. Early rising is the rule among those who sleep on the Embankment, and that renders it advisable to go to sleep as early as possible. The lap-lap of the river against the Embankment wall was a sort of lullaby. (pp. 237-8)
And through this scene of quiet desperation comes Alf, fresh from a run-in with the local Salvation Army. As you can imagine, Alf isn't a big fan of would-be reformers, especially the ones who treat their field trip to the lower classes like a jaunt to the London Zoo.
'But,' I objected, 'I'm always hearing of Associations, and Societies, and Leagues, and so on, which aim at raising the - I mean they aim at giving you a chance. Why, there are young men who come from Oxford and Cambridge and live in settlements in the lowest quarters of London in order to - well - in order to give you a-'

'I know all about that,' said young Alf. 'There's toffs come down Lambef way, an' I've showed 'em round. One night two of 'em come an' arst me an' Maggots to show 'em round. Show 'em everyfink, they said. One of 'em was a orfer.'

'A - what?'

'Orfer, wrote about fings in the papers.'

'Ah, of course.'

'So me an' Maggots walked round wiv 'em, an' showed 'em where the fences lived, an' one or two uvver fings, you unnerstand. An' then they wanted to see some more, wanted to see where I kipped, if you please. So I fort it was time to pull down their ear. Wasn't likely we'd get much if we waited till the show was over. See? So I says there was a doss close by, an' what was they goin' to spring. Well, we couldn't pull down their ear for more'n 'arf a dollar. An' soon as we got that we nipped on to a tram and left 'em. No. They 'adn't seen nuffink. What you fink?'

'Well, I expect they were rather disappointed,' I said.

'Fort they was goin' to see 'orrors,' continued young Alf, 'an' they didn't see nuffink. I know that sort. Come down jest as if they was goin' to look at a lot o' wild beasties. I sin 'em, too, when a lot o' prisoners was bein' took from one jug to anuvver. Starin' at 'em, - somefink cruel. I bin there meself. Why can't they take the prisoners early in the mornin' when there ain't no one about; or else late at night when no one can't see 'em? Eh? They don't give us a chawnce. Not a 'arf chawnce.'

Young Alf's eyes gleamed rather savagely, and he spoke as though he meant what he was saying. I seemed to have struck a deeper layer of his nature.

'What'd be the good o' me tryin' to go straight?' asked young Alf. 'Fink they'd let me? not them.' (pp. 241-3)
And at this point, the chapter jumps the tracks...big time. For this is the point where the electric lights burning at Westminster inspires Rook to launch into a heavy-handed civics lesson.
'It's a big place,' I continued, looking up the river at the Houses of Parliament, with their rows of lighted windows and the little button of electric light on top. 'Inside, seven hundred of the finest men in Great Britain. Behind them, the civil service, the police, and the British Army and Navy - all bent on making you a good boy. It's long odds, young Alf Then there's the Church, too; with the archbishops and the clergy of the diocese, curates, and all; to say nothing of ministers of all denominations, district visitors and philanthropists. Vestries, too, and Parish Councils, and - Lord, yes! - the London County Council. The Lord Chamberlain and the Censor of Plays as well; the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, and the Common Councillors, and the Judges of first instance, and the Judges of- Good gracious me! young Alf! All this mass of authority against nine stone something of lawlessness. You can't fight it, young Alf. Parliament, police, Judges, Army, Navy, and Reserve Forces, with Her Majesty the Queen at the summit, - you had better step over to the other side and shout with the bigger crowd, young Alf.'

'What's the use o' talkin'?' said young Alf again. I looked around at him. His teeth were set hard. (pp. 244-5)
Which is the effect it had on me, coincidentally. But wait, there's more, because it turns out Alf has a few reform-minded ideas of his own if he was fronting his own Hooligan political party. He's got two main planks in his platform:
  1. Catch 'em young before they get too big a mouthful of the sideways path. Before they start going crooked, take them entirely out of their neighborhoods and teach them a proper trade.
  2. Do not send juvies to jail. His reasoning here is that jail only has the power to terrify if you haven't done a stint, and once it's not a mystery, it might be more of an inconvenience than a proper deterrent. Alf recommends reform school, which is totally different. *snort*
Which is all well and good, but does this stuff for the greater good sound like "our" Alf, the Alf who couldn't give a piss in the wind about the so-called "greater good" unless he was working an angle? As if to drive that home, this bit of pie in the sky is immediately followed by defeatism: "Oh, Parlymint's no good. That's what Jimmy's always said. You got to look after yerself. No one else won't. They don't give us a chawnce." He also doesn't view the prison option as entirely unbearable. Even solitary confinement gives you a bit of quiet to form more of your bad ideas.
'But what about this prison-gate mission?' I said. 'I always understood that when a prisoner came out of gaol, he was met at the gates, taken to have breakfast, and offered a chance of living an honest life.'

Then young Alf gave his opinion of the prison home which well-meaning philanthropists offer to the discharged prisoner. I fancy he was prejudiced, and I will not set forth his criticism in detail. But, in effect, his opinion was that there is not enough difference between the prison and the home outside the gates to induce a boy to choose the certainty of the latter rather than the chance of the former. Moreover, if you are not a skilled workman at some trade other than house-breaking or pocket-picking, you won't get wages enough to live on. If you are a skilled workman, you will get less than the ordinary rate of wages, because you are only taken on as a favour, being a discharged prisoner. Oh, no! Politics don't give you a chance.

'But there's always some pals to meet you when you done your time,' continued young Alf. You come out in the mornin', feelin' as if all the world was against you, an' there's free or four pals waitin' wiv a word o' welcome. Makes you feel you've got some frens left. See? An' then you 'ear what's bin goin' on, an' if anyfink big's comin' off. See? It's the symperfy.'

Young Alf's hands were dug deep into his pockets, and his shoulders were hunched about his ears. (pp. 251-2)
As it turns out, Alf actually did have a really and truly honest job once. It didn't end well, but it wasn't his fault.
'[...]It was a real honest job, strite. I 'ad a place at a general store, - coals an' grocery, and fings like that; an' fore long I 'ad the management of the ole show; I was as careful of every penny of me master's money as I was of me own, an' took a dam sight more care of it than what 'e did. An' then one day there comes a split pokin' 'is nose into the show. Sin me drivin' round wiv the pony cart. See? An' 'e tells my master that I done time. Then what appened?'


' 'Course I got the push.'

'That was hard lines.'

'Got a bit o' me own back, though.'

'How was that?'

'I see what was comin'. An' when I took the pony on me rounds, I taught 'im not to let anybody drive 'im but me. See? I can always get along wiv anyfink in the shape of a 'awse; an' fore I'd done wiv that pony 'e'd do anyfink I told 'im to. An' no one else couldn't 'andle 'im. I reckon they 'ad a fair ole time wiv that pony when I got the push. 'Arf killed the master, I unnerstand.'

Young Alf thought he must be going.

'Supposing someone were to offer you a job,' I said.

'I bin finkin',' said young Alf. 'If I could get a job as watchman.'


The idea seems ludicrous enough.

'Look 'ere,' he said. 'You know them spy-'oles they 'ave in shops - an' places - so's the copper can look in, eh? well, they ain't no good. 'Cause, if I'm workin' a shop like that, I've got me pal outside, an' when the cop comes along I get the wheeze, an' lay down unnerneath the spy-'ole, so's the cop can't see me. What they want's a man that'll setup all night an' keep a eye on the place. Don't you fink so? You fink I could get a job as watchman?'

It seemed doubtful.

And yet if I were quite sure that young Alf were on my side, I would ask no better guardian against burglars.

Young Alf watched me narrowly.

'That want's a bit o' c'rac'ter, I s'pose,' he said.

'I'm afraid it does, Alf,' I replied. (pp. 253-5)
Assuming was working from the original UK edition (which is being presumptuous, but that's my perogative), I can see why the presumed Chapter 15 ended up as 20 in my copy. After 200+ pages of simply relating the ins and outs of the crooked path, we're suddenly confronted with the most concentrated appeal to higher ideals and aspirations yet. It's not quite as jarring this close to the end as it would be midway through, but it's still waaaaaay out of left field.

Next: Alf has to get a hurry. Wink wink, nudge nudge. We're almost done with #2 and this time I mean it!


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