15 Grandeur and Misery of Liverpool
[. . .]
Jacques and Jonathan headed for the port, crossing narrow muddy streets where
English poverty and misery showed off a hideous luxury. Nearly all the women
wore indescribable hats which, having formerly flowered on blond well-to-do
ladies, and then wilted on the bun of some shopkeeper or chambermaid, now
finished up decomposing — the word is not too strong — on the heads of the
most unfortunate creatures on earth. Faded ribbons and flowers unclassifiable
even in artificial botany still hung there, held on by that filthy damp produced
by the English fog and coal-dust.
These misérables, dressed in inadequate rags, went barefoot through the black, sticky mess. From their dragging way of walking and their faces scarred by poverty, one knew that this sad population hailed from a manufacturing town. The innumerable workshops are not inspected often enough, unlike the French ones, and the work frequently exceeds what human beings are capable of. Labour sells at an atrocious price: witness the number of working women shut up in disgusting rooms, working fifteen hours a day, without skirts, without petticoats, without blouses even, simply wrapped up in covers with holes in them. There have been cases of women spending years like this without going out, without ever being allowed to go out.
In the streets where the working classes stagnated, there was no end to the children. One could not take a step without bumping into a dozen half-naked urchins, shouting and wallowing in the slippery quagmire. Jacques was always amazed to hear them speaking English, although it was the most natural thing in the world; despite the absurdity of his surprise, he could never quite get used to it.
In general, everybody seemed to live with great freedom. The policemen intervened in people's affairs only when asked to do so. There were apparently fewer arguments than in France, and, most certainly, less noise. This freedom even degenerated into debauch, for the strangest professions were carried out in full daylight, without English modesty thinking of protesting.
Purely verbal modesty, Jacques decided in the end.
There was a great deal of activity in the area near the docks, with beer and
spirit houses appearing on all the street-corners. One drank at the counter, and
the ale and the port arrived in glasses full to the brim. The former seemed
excellent to Jacques, but the latter, fit only for port-workers, who were indeed
once the only consumers and hence gave it its name. As for the gin, brandy,
whisky, rum toddy (a concoction with lemon and sugar), "mint julep"
(mint cordial), "cocktails" (spicy mixtures which brought tears to
those drinking them) — he had no desire to even hear about them.
Liverpool had until then adopted the demeanour of an ordinary town, but now emerged as a huge port city. Its wet-docks represented a Herculean labour, impossible to describe: sometimes double or triple, they stretched out over more than three miles. It was hard to understand how to get from one to another, and an outsider could hardly have escaped from this liquid labyrinth, even if he had used Ariadne's thread.
So hurried are the ships that the water disappears from underneath them. The vessels are uncountable, and of all shapes and countries. Thick-set Dutch barges, invariably fresh and stylish in their glossy tar coating; elegant steamships with long ornate cutwaters, lined up along the quaysides; three-masters with tonnages that would put the finest frigates to shame, announcing their impending departure by gaudy little boards on the rear displays of a thousand ships; poetic, alluring names, inlaid in gold and borrowed from the fabulous realms of India or the East Indies, from Afric's burning shores, from the gulfs, straits, streams and rivers of the Americas and the South Seas; flags of all nations, floating in the mist and showing up the grey uniformity with their loud colours; mountains of bales spilling coffee, sugar and cotton onto the covers of the holds, Campeachy and mahogany piled up, all the products of the colonies, filling the air with exotic, redolent fragrances; an army of workers, mostly wearing bowler hats and huge aprons tied at the waist; waggons gliding along the railway lines, whose involved winding intersected and became entangled; curious machines for the most varied tasks, cranes, derrick-crabs, the entire mechanical menagerie, toiling ceaselessly, lifting packages, sacks, corpulent crates stuffed full of goods; in the middle of this ant-heap, steam-whistles, the rattle and clank of coasters, the grating of chains, the shouts from caulkers hanging from a ship's flanks, the muffled wheels of carriages on swing-bridges, the horses' shoes clattering over metal plates, the water splashing between boats knocking into each other, the wind whistling through a forest of masts, further out the muffled breathing of the incoming tide: the sights and sounds of a port which held in an entire sea, the activity, the movement, the din.
In short, Liverpool Docks.