John King gives us a glimpse of the London Dr Barnardo would have experienced
back in 1866 as portrayed in
Simon Blumenfeld’s 1930s novel 'Doctor of the Lost' and explains why the book is as relevant today as when it was published.
The East End that Thomas Barnardo found when he first came to London in 1866 was one of great poverty. This was a time of rampant capitalism, when the few were becoming very wealthy at the expense of the many.
London was the capital of a great world power, and yet Barnardo found himself surrounded by disease, unemployment, prostitution, alcoholism and violence. Even more shocking were the thousands of hungry children he saw sleeping on the streets, many dying from the cold. He decided to act, offering food, shelter and education. He stayed and fought for their futures, part of a parallel tradition of charity and service. Jealous rivals tried to smear Doctor Barnardo, but he won his battles and his work continues to this day.
Simon Blumenfeld’s account of Doctor Barnardo’s arrival and early years in the East End – Doctor Of The Lost – was written in the 1930s, when the old ways were being challenged by an organised working class and the seeds of a post-war welfare state were being sown. Blumenfeld was a devout communist and in the novel he links the revolutionary spirit of Barnardo’s religious drive to his own beliefs.
Discussions between Barnardo and a non-religious colleague filter through the text while, in keeping with his debut Jew Boy, Blumenfeld recreates a dynamic, if cut-throat, east London. There is hardship and sorrow, but also humour, morality, bravery and a host of well-drawn characters. It is an optimistic work, one that merges the two eras.
In many ways, Doctor Of The Lost is more relevant today than when it was first published. The idealism of the 1930s and post-war era has been replaced by a familiar greed; a selfishness that is now hidden behind a stream of liberal values that are very rarely lived. Those who question this doublespeak are belittled, told they live in the past, and yet the return to a society where profit drives every decision and the privatisation of core services is seen as progress is actually a return to a much older model. Doctor Of The Lost may tell us a lot about London in 1866, but it tells us even more about London in 2015
London Books is an independent publisher which aims to bring old and
new fiction together in a tradition that is original in its subject
matter, style and social concerns.
John King is a co-owner of London Books and edits its London Classics series. He is also the author of novels
'The Football Factory' , 'Headhunters', 'England Away', 'Human Punk',
'White Trash', 'The Prison House' and 'Skinheads'.
Sarah Wise and Ken Worpole will be looking at Dr Barnardo in the East End of London on Tuesday 24 February.
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