Friday, 6 March 2015

The Lodger: History and Sociology

I can’t remember where I once read a piece about ‘the lodger’ as an archetype within British society, but I think I can recall the sociological and historical essentials: ‘the lodger’ sits squarely within late Victorian society, and then stretches his/her legs through the next one hundred years, until the swinging nineteen sixties, before disappearing into owner occupation. Parallel with that, ‘the lodger’ had a shelf life as a sub-genre of crime fiction, specifically of murder fiction.

Lodgers existed in agricultural British/English society before the gentrification of yeoman farmers during the ‘Agrarian Revolution’ of the 18th century, but lodging was to become an urban trope, with the industrial revolution. The 1842 report into urban sanitary conditions revealed the almost unimaginable over crowding in the slums of our new industrial cities, but this was mostly family multi-occupancy. The novels of Charles Dickens do, it is true, portray individuals, who lodge within the homes of other families, but it was the rise of white collar service industries in the late nineteenth century which put the lodger on his armchair pedestal.

Shabby-genteel clerks, commercial salesmen, shop assistants, typists, secretaries, and so on, were occupations that accelerated in number in the heyday of Victorian and Edwardian imperialism. You got a wage but you needed a room to rent – and you lodged with families who were themselves struggling with bills. It’s how the working class lived: and familiarity bred superciliousness, suspicion and snobbery, with the intrusion of strange lower middle class lodgers into the diction of ‘This is a respectable ‘ouse, I’d ‘ave you know.’

It was a world of suburbs and back streets and tube lines and railway yards and hissing gas mantles. It was a world illuminated by elementary education and ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. It was not the rural milieu of Mayhem Parva and Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers (‘snobbery with violence’); instead, it was the world of George Orwell’s essay on the Decline of the English Murder. It was the world of the News of the World: of poison, money, sex, melodrama, social class and domesticity.

All this makes ‘The Lodger’ sound as antiquated as John Betjeman, or a WH Smith railway station kiosk’s fiction stand, or Ealing Studio’s ‘The Ladykillers’, or Joe Orton’s ‘Entertaining Mr. Sloane’, and yet …

History is not always linear, there are sometimes circularities: the era of the masses buying their own home or having a council house is over; that heyday that started between the wars has gone ... Three or four generations, that’s all, before the market economy took it away.

The market economy also changes dictionaries (Farewell Bluebell! Good morning Broadband!): the word ‘lodger’ is rarely used nowadays, it’s more ‘multi-occupancy’, I suppose. The lexis might alter, ‘but the memory lingers on’, and, indeed, that liminal figure is now reappearing in this zero hours, intern, new, freelance, capitalist paradise.

You have been warned …

By the way, it’s a bit foggy tonight, isn’t it?

Who’s that at the door?

Stroud Film Festival launch
with Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger and live score from Minima
Friday 13 March
Launch 6pm, Film Screening: 7pm 
Goods Shed, Stroud GL5 3AP

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