09 Dec Chapters 4: The Ever Present Danger and 5: The Room
‘The Ever Present Danger’ is both the prospect of being laid off and of dying of poverty. The families in our story live hand-to-mouth and can’t afford any interruption in their meagre income. Seeing them at work gives us the opportunity to get to know them. Little Bert White is an unwaged apprentice who’s given the worst jobs, while Crass the foreman toasts bloaters by the fire in comfort. Easton seeks to protect himself by sucking up to Crass. Crass enjoys having an audience for his complaints about Owen.
Their workplace, ‘The Cave’, is showing some progress, and Mr Sweater calls to see his house. Sweater and Rushton conspire to abuse their positions on the town council to arrange for the town to pay for a necessary connecting drain. This casual corruption is bread and butter to them. Meanwhile Bert gets into trouble pushing an overloaded handcart and gets caught taking a rest – immediately getting spotted and roasted for being idle.
Owen gets called to the office and everyone thinks he’s going to be sacked for banging on about workers’ rights. But when he gets there Rushton asks Owen to apply his particular skill to the decorative work Sweater wants for his drawing room. Owen, delighted at the opportunity to use his art, negotiates for the chance to do it well. He is forced to take all the risk in the transaction, yet Rushton will profit from his talent. This is typical of the way Tressell recreates arguments about labour relations using small and direct human stories.
Chapter 5 opens with the men showing concern for Owen, and we discover how much they like and respect him despite his peculiar ideas. When he arrives, he launches into exactly the kind of lecture that makes him difficult to to share a lunch break with. As he paints, he points out the ills in the current system of inequality and inhuman treatment of the working poor, and blames poor Easton for not having helped to changed it. Later Owen works on the designs for Sweater’s drawing room and meets Linden’s grandchildren in the street. He is aware of their precarious condition, and invites them home to play with his son and the kitten they met in Chapter 2, paving the way for the friendships that will develop between the families.
Rushton agrees to Owen’s plans for the drawing room, trying to cut corners on materials even as he is privately assessing the healthy profit he will make from Owen’s effort and talent.