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U3A Writing: The Canvasser

Dorothy Grist, writes an evocative description of a fruitless crusade to try to make conditions better in an area where every effort seems hopeless.

The canvasser parked his car at the end of the street, and switched off his lights. He had stopped under one of the few functioning lamps, as he felt it gave some degree of security. “Thank goodness I don’t have a flash car,” he though, glancing at his 15-yr-old banger. “It’s unfortunate that my constituency is in such a poor area, but it can’t be helped.”

Of course it had to be raining, which added to the general gloom and darkness.

The tenement buildings were over a century old, and had been built as a utilitarian measure to house the local factory workers. Years ago the flats might have been respectable enough, but with the advent of the Welfare state, they had gradually sunk into slums. Picking his way carefully, the canvasser had to avoid tripping on the uneven, broken slabs. Litter abounded - obviously the Council did not visit the area often to sweep the streets and remove refuse, including dog’s excrement.

A mangy dog slunk along the opposite side of the street. The groundfloor flats had their windows boarded up - a telltale sign of vandalism. Even the dimly lit windows of the upstairs flats looked dirty, with poor quality curtaining roughly drawn across some of them. Some wags had left their mark with graffiti on both the wood and the dirty stonework of the lower flats – a poor attempt at wit, but pertinent observations of the general conditions.

“ANARCHY RULES.” and “RAISE THE WAGES OF SIN.”

Dressed in jeans and anorak, and clutching his clipboard and leaflets, he ventured inside the first close. There was a stale smell. Was it bad sewage, drains or over-cooked cabbage? Although the canvasser had not eaten for some time, the aromas of food cooking on several of the landings were not appetising.

He wondered if he could do any good by coming here. What could he offer? Better living conditions? How could he change the attitude of not paying rent and rates and encourage the residents to take some pride n their surroundings?

The first flat he stopped at had a door knocker, which he used. It felt grimy to the touch; and it must have been a long time since anyone had wiped it. The paint was peeling off the door. He was sure someone was in, as the television was turned up loudly. There was a letterbox lower down and he realised on knocking again, that a pair of eyes were peering out at him. He judged this to be a small child, examining him suspiciously; however, no one volunteered to open the door, and so he pushed a leaflet through the letter box.

On the next floor, he rang the doorbell. Obviously the occupants were wary of strangers, because it was only at the third attempt, and having been viewed through the peephole, that the door of the flat was cautiously opened on a chain. He tried to explain the purpose of his visit, using a pamphlet. This was surreptitiously taken in, and the door hastily shut – not to be re-opened.

The next flat had a family row in full progress, as the heightened voices, punctuated by swearing, could be heard outside on the landing. Suddenly the door opened and a young man stormed out. On seeing the canvasser, he paused only to advise him, “I wouldn’t hang around here, if I was you.”

The canvasser decided to take his advice, and moved on. When he finally got a response, it turned out to be an elderly man, who was very deaf, and the easiest way was to leave a pamphlet. The strong smell of cat’s urine on one landing finally helped the canvasser to decide he had had enough for one night. Anyway, he had made so little direct contact and had ended up mostly putting the pamphlets in letterboxes.

Out in the street again, he noticed some vandal had broken off his wing mirror. Perhaps these people with their air of hopelessness were beyond help. The place smelt of poverty. As he drove away, he wondered if it would make any difference coming during the day.

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