Limehousesailortown does not do politics – sailortown exists for the sailor. Whilst the ships are in dock unloading their cargo their mariners and ships cats scurry ashore. After weeks at sea battling with the elements, cooped together in small, over-familiar groups they come onto land, wherever they may be in the world, with a little money in their pockets and a desire to be entertained. Just beyond the dock gates they find dance halls and music halls, ale-houses and catnip dens, brothels and night clubs. They are enticed by ice-cream vans, burger bars, winkle stalls and pie-‘n-mash tents. Juke-boxes blare, fish and chips sizzle and dour missionaries fret after their souls.
Westwards along Ratcliff Highway the stews and doss houses peter out to be replaced by wholesale warehouses stuffed with pepper and cinnamon, teas and coffees, wines, spirits, carpets and beds, monkeys, macaws – and the contraband wares of smuggler and river pirate, produce not fanfared on the signs above the doors. At the Highway’s western end, dingy curiosity shops, junk shops proclaiming themselves to be antique emporia, ships’ chandlers and the tagareen stores of the bum-boat men huddle together between the river and the soup kitchens and meeting halls of Whitechapel. Whitechapel does do politics.
Boz and Phoebles stopped off for a light lunch in the ground floor bar of the catnip den that occupies the remainder of the building below their bedsit. Snowdrop was singing a selection of songs from Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and should probably have stuck to juggling. She was accompanied by Sam on upright and Mouse Jackson on tenor sax and they were really quite good, as was the eel pie and mustard ice-cream. Once fortified, the ginger pair set off towards Wapping High Street and onward to Whitechapel, for a little under-cover detective work.
Toynbee Hall, that vicarage-gothic edifice which might well have seen William Morris and Peter Kropotkin pass through its doors in times gone by, was hosting a debate on Class Unity, The Co-operative Movement and World Solutions to World Problems. As delegates gathered a degree of disharmony was already beginning to emerge. Old Labour was present with a Yorkshire ex-colliery brass band; Marxists and Leninists and Trotskyists and Maoists were in dispute over the subjects for discussion, procedural details and the exact fillings for the sandwiches; La Columna Internationalistas, in red neckerchiefs were acting as unofficial bouncers. Huddled in small yet noisy groups and eyeing each other suspiciously were collectivist-anarchists, mutualist-anarchists, communist-anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-surrealists, Situationists and The Brick Lane Zapatistas. Consuella Starcluster was there with her tambourine, and the Kittens of Chaos had brought along a breakaway anarcha-feminist chapter of the WI who were starting to heckle. Boz and Phoebles, thinly disguised in matching ‘Red Ed’ t-shirts, cloth caps and mufflers, slipped unobtrusively into the hall and, with backs to the wall, quietly observed. The discord was beginning to spread to a gathering crowd outside in Commercial Street and scuffles were breaking out.
Round the corner, where an insignificant and darkly narrow passageway, plastered with faded and torn inflammatory posters and bills, opened out into Angel Alley a soapbox had been set up outside the offices of the Freedom Press. White cats in brass bound and riveted, midnight-dark goggles guarded its corners like Trafalgar Square lions and Slasher McGoogs had mounted it to address an unenthusiastic crowd.
“Comrades! You do not need me to point out the architects of your sorry condition.
I am not here to itemise the burdens heaped upon you by self appointed tyrants, to list the injustices, to pick through the corruption and filth, the graft and malfeasance that has shackled the masses to a life of perpetual toil and wrung out a wealth of obscene proportions to heap on the privileged few. You can denounce your oppressors without my help.
Yet, to be just to these poor men of pelf,
Each does but HATE HIS NEIGHBOUR AS HIMSELF:
Damned to the mines, an equal fate betides
The slave that digs it, and the slave that hides!”
He paused at this dramatic climax – Silence… until one of the sinister white cats began to clap pointedly. There was a ripple from the audience followed by a Whoop and a couple of Yeahs. The front two rows of uncomprehending felinity were made up of feckless alley cats of assorted shapes, sizes and colours, but behind them was a press of black and white ships’ cats and their docker cousins. These toms were politically aware and wanted to be roused. Slasher stepped up the rhetoric, wringing his cap and waving a clenched fist.
Early next morning began the first ever mass-strike of ships’ cats. Vessels without their cats could not sail, the docks clogged up with stranded shipping and new arrivals rusted at anchor in the roads; cargos rotted and rats ran wild. Dockland fell eerily silent.