spinestripphotoA Conversion ‘ is the penultimate story in Arthur Morrison’s collection ‘Tales of Mean Streets‘ The story’s title, not without irony, is the correct one for the tin. Scuddy Lond is a petty criminal who time after times mitigates his crimes with protestations of repentance, and of having been led astray. I worked in the criminal justice system for a few years – long enough to witness the process that Morrison so forensically describes. It carries people no worse than myself down very different roads.

‘Temptation had prevailed against him.’ ‘…the villainy of older boys had prompted him to sin…’  ‘Betting, he protested, was this time the author of his fall.’ ‘Strong Drink, he declared with deep emotion, had been his ruin.’

Society, in Arthur’s time (of which more later), as now, connives with him in avoiding the truth, and foils the solution, of his actions. ‘because the real cause was always hunger,or thirst, or betting, or a sudden temptation, or something quite exceptional – never anything like real, hardened,unblushing wickedness.’

Scuddy spirals down – or up if you prefer -into greater crimes, and then one day is drawn into an evangelical meeting where he experiences that eponymous conversion. What has interested me about Arthur Morrison’s short stories, which I only recently discovered, is not only the gritty realism of their content,  but the spare, simple, and enduring clarity of the form.

The scene in the mission hall is an extended and lightly veiled metaphor:

‘with passion, and pain…’    ‘his throat swelled and convulsed’ ‘with gasps and groans and sobs…’ ‘a tide of grievous sensation…’  ‘a chorus of ejaculations…’ ‘a debauch of emotion…’

Over nearly two pages of description the converts are called to ‘Come-come!’    ‘….Only-only come!’  Scuddy rises and joins in with the other penintents in ‘standing forth who had found grace that night.’  Arthur Morrison leaves us in no doubt as to what we should be imagining:

‘His emotional orgasm was spent, and in its place was a numb calm,’

The ending of the story is delicious,and I’ll leave it for you, if you can find a copy. What surprises me about Morrison’s story is that it was written and first published in the late nineteenth century. The collection was first published in 1901, more than a decade before James Joyce’s Dubliners. I read ‘A Conversion‘ in Tales of Mean Streets‘ by Arthur Morrison, The Boydell Press,1983.

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