Sunday, 27 November 2005

Social commentary: human rights, poverty, property and necessity

Whilst researching resolving conflicts between human rights - primarily contests between economic rights and cultural rights - I have enjoyed social commentary on those conflicts and on the myriad of issues surrounding them. Here I wish to present a few of them, which focus upon poverty, property and necessity (sometimes their formats have been changed to make them easy to read in a blog).

I have often heard some or all of the first four lines of the following, anonymously penned, nineteenth-century poem, but had the fortune to stumble on it in its entirety when I stumbled upon James Boyle's (2003) piece on "the second enclosure movement and the construction of the public domain". The poem runs thus:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don't escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.
In 1516, Sir Thomas More described "Utopia" (which actually translates as, 'No place', though he was (also) describing his vision of "Eutopia", 'Good place' - a perfect society). In Penguin's English translation edition, More (1965: 46-47) wrote:

'But that [war]'s not the only thing that compels people to steal. There are other factors at work which must, I think, be peculiar to your country.' 'And what are they?' asked the Cardinal. 'Sheep', I told him.

'These placid creatures, which used to require so little food, have now apparently developed a raging appetite, and turned into man-eaters. Fields, houses, towns, everything goes down their throats.

To put it more plainly, in those parts of the kingdom where the finest, and so the most expensive wool is produced, the nobles and gentlemen, not to mention several saintly abbots, have grown dissatisfied with the income that their predecessors got out of their estates.

They're no longer content to lead lazy, comfortable lives, which do no good to society - they must actively do it harm, by enclosing all the land they can for pasture, and leaving none for cultivation. They're even tearing down houses and demolishing whole towns - except, of course, for the churches, which they preserve for use as sheepfolds.

As though they didn't waste enough of your soil already on their coverts and game-preserves, these kind souls have started destroying all traces of human habitation, and turning every scrap of farmland into a wilderness.

So what happens? Each greedy individual preys on his native land like a malignant growth, absorbing field after field, and enclosing thousands of acres with a single fence.

Result - hundreds of farmers are evicted. They're either cheated or bullied into giving up their property, or systematically ill-treated until they're finally forced to sell.

Whichever way it's done, out the poor creatures have to go, men and women, husbands and wives, widows and orphans, mothers and tiny children, together with all their employees, whose great numbers are not a sign of wealth, but simply of the fact that you can't run a farm without plenty of manpower.

Out they have to go from the homes they know so well, and they can't find anywhere else to live. Their whole stock of furniture wouldn't fetch much of a price, even if they could afford to wait for a suitable offer. But they can't, so they get very little indeed for it.

By the time they've been wandering around for a bit, this little is all used up, and then what can they do but steal - and be very properly hanged?

Of course, they can always become tramps and beggars, but even then they're liable to be arrested as vagrants, and put in prison for being idle - when nobody will give them a job, however much they want one.'
Since I was a child, I have listened to Martin Carthy's (1993) rendition of the traditional folk song, "work life out to keep life in", the lyrics to which I found on Reinhard Zierke's web page (I've guessed the end-of-line punctuation). The song sets out the conditions of the poor and entreats the listener to empathise with them. It says:

Oh the working man as you can see
That is what he was born to be,
Married to the working wife
That is what she'll be all her life.
Never lived beyond their means
Nor sought assistance from their friends,
Yet day and night through thick and thin
They work life out just to keep life in.

Chorus (after each verse):
No matter friends whate'er befall,
The poor folk they must work or fall.
Through frost and snow through sleet and wind,
They work life out just to keep life in.

Do you see the women how make the gowns
For those in other parts of town?
It's a picture sorrowful to see
And I'm sure with me you will agree,
Meagre is our daily pay
To feed and clad a family with.
She's overworked she's tired and thin,
She works life out just to keep life in.

Oh mischief mine where do you roam?
When reason called you weren't at home.
If you take cheese from off the rat,
Is he then free to hunt the cat?
If free from unions, free from dues,
Are you free from choice, or free to choose,
Or free as any birds blown by the wind,
To work life out just to keep life in?
I am again indebted to Reinhard Zierke, whose web page also contains Martin Carthy's notes about the event at Rufford Park:
Rufford Park is not far from Mansfield, and in 1850 there was a showdown between local people and gamekeepers in the shape of a vicious and bitter fight, after which ringleaders were selected, tried and transported for up to 14 years.
John Roberts and Tony Barrands' notes explain the poachers' fate further:
A gang of thirty or forty poachers was attacked by ten gamekeepers, one of whom was mortally wounded during the battle. Four of the poachers were tried for his murder, found guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years.
I first heard Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson sing when they performed "broken-hearted among the pines" at Whitby Folk Festival in (I think) 1995. Nearly ten years later, I heard them again when they performed at the Royal Oak in Lewes in 2005.

Now, I can't remember whether they sang the following traditional folk song in Lewes or not, but it was on the album that I bought at the gig, "what we sing is what we are"; it is Coope, Boyes and Simpson's rendition of the traditional, "Rufford Park Poachers" (again, I've guessed the end-of-line punctuation).

This song in a sense responds to the other pieces I've collected together here, as it fulfils the predictions of Anon's poem and More's book and answers the questions posed by "work life out to keep life in". The song states:
A buck or doe believe it so,
A pheasant or a hare,
Were set on earth for everyone
Quite equally to share.

So poacher bold, as I unfold,
Keep up your gallant heart,
And think about those poachers bold
That night in Rufford Park.

They say that forty gallant poachers,
They were in distress,
They'd often been attacked when
Their number it was less.

Among the gorse, to settle scores,
Those forty gathered stones,
To make a fight for poor men's rights
And break the keepers' bones.

The keepers went with flails against,
The poachers and their cause,
So no man there again would dare
Defy the rich man's laws.

Upon the ground with mortal wound,
Head keeper Roberts lay,
He never will rise up until
The final judgement day.

Of all that band who made a stand,
To set a net or snare,
The four men brought before the court
Were tried for murder there.

The Judge he said "For Robert's death,
Transported you must be,
To serve a term of forty years
In convict slavery".

So poacher bold, your tale is told,
Keep up your gallant heart,
And think about those poachers bold
That night in Rufford Park.
More, T. 1965: Utopia. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.

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