Coming up the escalator from the Underground I had my head stuck in Maxim Gorky’s 1913 memoir My Childhood. Putting the book away and walking out into Christmas shopping in central London was too much like teleporting to a different planet.
A minute ago I’d been in a bare dark house where all children are beaten and men are violent, drunken murderers, where the only entertainment is torturing stray cats or beggars, where a boy has to steal from his mother to buy himself a school book. Now I was surrounded by mountains of unnecessary stuff, clothing and toys and films and furniture, so much choice, so much variety, most of it intended to entertain and distract us from what Gorky knew life is really like.
People passing by were arguing about the presents they’d bought or not bought; about the amount of money they’d spent and whether they could afford it. Complaining about there being too much stuff, too much clutter, too much choice getting in the way of what they’d really like out of life.
Socialist worker posters pasted outside the Underground pronounced that Capitalism is Dead.
Gorky survived the vicious, starved landscape of his childhood to become an intellectual leader of the Russian revolution. He wrote in My Childhood:
‘A long time afterwards I understood that Russian people, through the poverty and barrenness of their lives, love to entertain themselves with grief, they play at it like children, and are rarely ashamed to be unhappy. In their endless daily toil grief is a holiday and fire is fun; on an empty face even a scratch is an adornment…’
Gorky understood his poor like no one else. I wonder what he would make of our rich. The people he grew up among had nothing to divert them but their own misery. If he were writing today, I suspect he would only really be successful if he transformed My Childhood into a misery memoir…