Sunday 6 December 2009

The Cost of Living

I've been half-reading a small book on Edward Thomas, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop that was so perfect of its kind I couldn't bear to leave without buying something. On closer inspection, I discovered that this nicely produced little book was a 'Faber Student Guide', published in the mid-80s and clearly designed to fit poor Thomas's works to a Procrustean bed of Marxian analysis. This approach does yield the odd insight in passing, and the book's concentration on Thomas's prose as well as his poetry is refreshing. There's also enough extensive quotation from both to remind the reader of the real thing. But, putting all that aside, it was a biographical detail that caught my eye. Thomas's father was a clerk - 'staff clerk for light railways' at the Board of Trade - and on his Civil Service salary alone, he was able to support a wife and large family (six sons), plus domestic help, in a large detached house near the common in Clapham. So, at that time, a clerk in the Civil Service could afford what today only millionaires or the recipients of City bonuses can run to. What level of inflation does that suggest? It's barely computable. Similarly, in The Death of the Heart, set in the 1930s, we are informed that the total income of the Quayles amounts to £3,000, which is ample for a large house on Regent's Park with live-in domestics, all the comforts of upper-middle-class life, and long holidays abroad (when travel was relatively dearer). To achieve that standard of living today would surely require an income nearer £3 million than £3,000. My question is - What happened? Why would it now cost a fortune to live in the kind of style our middle-class ancestors took for granted? No Marxists need respond.


  1. When I moved into my old house in south London, there was still the remains of a headboard for a bed in the old cellar - dank, unlit save for a slit of a window, uninsulated, full of coal dust and well under 6 ft high. According to elderly neighbours who'd moved to the area before the last war, this was where the "Welsh servant girl" would have lived. So I suppose the short answer to your question is that we don't treat people like that anymore. In the same way, the Army doesn't have to reject recruits due to the illnesses of malnutrition as happened in the two world wars in industrial towns like Birmingham and Manchester.

    I suppose something similar happended in France with the watershed being the second world war. Smallholders - those who wore the "bleu" - couldn't make a go of it any longer and moved to jobs in factories in the cities. As a result, rural depopulation is still very evident in some parts of France. A village that might have had 300 people in 1945 now has a quarter of that number.

    I'm sure there's much more to it than this, of course, but part of the answer may be that we've done our best to end the worst horrors and even things out a little. Even so, the past 10-20 years of banksters, oligarchs, stock market rackets and the like suggest we could easily return to the former levels of inequality. Just ideas.

  2. Also worth noting that tho' "clerk" connotes a humble status to our ears, the term once covered a wide range of posts, and extended upwards to include senior officials.

    We can still see vestiges of this: e.g. the Clerk of the House of Common is a very elevated personage (and arguably the most powerful person in Parliament).

    (cf. secretary)

  3. Good points both - though prewar domestics were often treated very well and gained definite advantages from being 'in service' - after all it was quite a competitive market so they could pick and choose (hence the 'servant problem'?). And Sir W, what you say is true - but there's surely no post in the present Civil Service (or even the Quangocracy) that could support a detached house in Clapham, wife, large family and servants.

  4. I think it's because there were relatively fewer wealthy people and they earned relatively more.

  5. Then the Welsh servant girls should have come to our 1920s house - the live-in servant got a perfectly OK first-floor bedroom that is now my study, with views over the back garden and across some playing fields. But I didn't get a room of my own until I went to University whereas everyone nowadays seems to feel that their nippers should have a room each from a young age.