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The Tooting Broadway
A Boring Job,
Yoga and the Occult
An extract from Is this Theosophy?
Ernest Wood is describing a period
in the 1890s in which he finds relief
from a boring job and social
conformity in the opportunities
offered by inner work
My third period of unemployment bade fair to become permanent, but at last a vacancy arose for an apprentice in a “gents’ outfitting” shop which had been newly opened in our suburb at the end of a row of shops near the railway station.
It was thought that I might follow in the same path as my brother and ultimately have a shop – or a chain of shops – of my own.
This time the apprenticeship was a more formal affair, and I had to sign on for three years. Apparently, as the formalities increased the emoluments diminished.
I had sunk from five shillings to three shillings and nine pence a week, before, and now the salary was to be nothing for the first year, five shillings a week for the second and I forget what for the third.
The hours of work also increased, from to on weekdays (except for Wednesday, which contained a half-holiday), but to on Saturdays, with an hour for lunch and an hour for tea.
The work was not hard, but some ten hours’ standing and one hour’s quick walking every day proved fatiguing, and often I used to arrive home so tired at night that I had to go upstairs to bed on my hands and knees. I was left alone in the shop a great deal and used to consider it a pleasant thing when a customer came in.
I was soon able to do everything connected with the business, except the actual buying of goods – on that side the proprietor seemed anxious that my tuition should be delayed as long as possible. I think that all
he wanted was a cheap salesman, which he certainly got!
From beginning to end I disliked the year and a half which I spent in that shop. I used to get tired, as already mentioned. Sometimes my attitude when alone – which was constant, as the proprietor more and more stayed at home, and once he was away for weeks in hospital – might have served as illustration for a modern murder story, as I lolled across the counter in a state of mental as well as physical despair.
To add to my distress, my clothes gave me endless trouble. My socks were always coming down (it was before the invention of sock suspenders). My hands were always tensely curled up, trying to hold up my loose cuffs. The stiff loose shirt front was always trying to get through the opening of my waistcoat.
One size of collar was too small and the next size was said to look too big. My shoes were heavy and clumsy, but this was my own fault, for I bought them myself and got them like that to thwart a craving in myself for something quite the opposite.
Sometimes in the long idle hours of waiting for customers I used to picture how I could be quite cheerful and comfortable in that shop if I could dress in a style of my own, combining the conveniences of dress worn by all kinds of people….
I think that for the most part I hit in my imagination upon a costume which would have made mankind healthier and happier if it could have been introduced,
though it was certainly not in keeping with aspiration for success in the “gents’ outfitting” business! It would have made all the difference in my own life. It may be that there was some morbidity in part of it, but as I look back upon it I see that it contained not only a desire for relief from very real and constant discomfort, but also a longing for something positive in the way of
lightness and refinement – a desire for material spirituality.
But all that was not to be, and I remained thoroughly out of accord with my environment. The demands of a ridiculous and cruel orthodoxy in dress, associated with caste ideas (in America they talk of the “white collar” class, but we had no word for it in England), have always been inexorable.
I remember when I was at school that one day there came along the street a gentleman wearing a soft felt hat dinted in at the top. The boys ran after him shouting, “Trilby, Trilby!” I was the only one not to share in that pursuit, though I too thought the hat an absurd shape. Perhaps the masculine element of mankind is a bit cynically acceptive of coarseness and earthiness. A rough assertiveness, even if clumsy and unintelligent, adds to its sense of personality or life.
It would be interesting to record the beginnings of adolescence. But that does not seem possible. Either there was nothing in particular or I cannot remember
it. Such slight physical discomfort as I may have had was not associated with any sexual imaginings. I am quite sure that I never dreamed or thought about girls or women. I knew that men and women got married and set up joint establishments, but I did not know that there was any physical connection between men and women, either for pleasure or the production of children. I must have been unusually unknowledgeable for my age in such matters.
Where did my thoughts run? I am afraid they were mostly negative, preoccupied with present discomforts and future economics, with only an occasional lifting
of the imagination to pictures of freedom, open skies, sunshine and foreign travel, though at the same time I knew that these could not satisfy me, for I wanted to solve the economic problem for everybody, not only for myself, though that came first.
Two or three times I had been to the city to an old house which had fallen on evil times, to get the shirts cut to measure by my employer for his richer patrons. My destination was one room, bare of furniture but for a sewing machine, a crooked table, some broken chairs, a screen, and a dirty mattress laid on the floor in one corner.
There were an old woman and two girls, the
former bent out of human shape, with red eyes, an underlip hanging far over (from constant wetting of thread) and a thickened flattened thumb (from pressing
the cloth), the latter preparing for the same dreadful fate. With my own eyes I had seen something which might well have inspired Hood’s Stitch, stitch, stitch ...In poverty, hunger and dirt.
I had not been at the shop more than a few months when I was saved the long walk several times a day by our removal from Clough Road to 12 Silverdale Road – I am bound to say that builder had a genius for inventing fetching names for his streets.
The new house was only two or three minutes’ walk away from the shop, and this time it was not rented but bought outright – a nice semi-detached house with a good-sized lawn, on which one could, and did, play croquet.
On this occasion my employer earned a bit more of my dislike by quoting, I suppose for want of something else to say, that three removals were as bad as a fire, which
I – absurdly sensitive as usual – took to be a criticism of my father, which I could not tolerate.
It was at this period that I made my first experiments in Indian Yoga. I found an article in a popular magazine, describing how the yogis developed extraordinary powers by means of special methods of breathing.
I felt that I needed special powers, since the ordinary ones seemed of little use in life unless conjoined by some chance with special opportunities. So once, in the
, when I had the shop to myself, I went into the back room (which had been newly acquired and contained a chair) and sat down to practise the breathing exercises prescribed. I did it for about forty minutes.
At that point I heard somebody come into the shop. I rose from the chair and walked to the front room without feeling the floor I walked on or any sense of my own weight.
My employer entered and asked for a pair of scissors, which I found and handed to him without any feeling of the article or sense of its weight. I must have looked
peculiar in some way, for I remember he stared at me very hard and with a surprised expression. The incident passed off.
Gradually my sense of touch and weight returned. I did not perform the experiment again, as I considered it to be dangerous. Still it remained in my mind as an interesting possibility, to be pursued further if an opportunity for greater knowledge in connection with it should turn up.
Another occult possibility came within my ken about this time. When we were out cycling one Sunday morning my father told me about a lecture of Mrs. Besant’s which he had just attended. She had spoken of visits to the worlds of the dead, describing the modes of life of the departed as continuing the mental and emotional interests with which they had left the earth, and she had concluded by saying that almost anybody who would take the trouble could develop the use of astral and mental bodies so as to move in those worlds and observe for themselves.
I vowed to myself that I would hear Mrs. Besant on her next visit, and would do this thing myself if it were really true. These were dangerous subjects, I knew – populus vult decipi – but I would be scientific about them.
The Tooting Broadway
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