The Nineteen Thirties by Mogens Klitgaard
Translated By J. F. S. Pearce
It was a cold drizzling January morning, typical Copenhagen weather
for the time of year, when a lorry drew up in front of a small
draper's shop in the old part of the city. The grey light of morning
had just dispersed the dense, watery gloom from the muddy street. On
mornings like these, people don't bother much about what their
neighbours are up to, and nobody took much notice when the contents of
the little shop, together with some poor furniture were carried into
the lorry. The strong, burly forms of the remover's men could be seen
struggling in the semi-darkness with boxes and tied-up bundles of
bedding, and then a woman came out of the narrow shop door, carrying
in her arms a few flower-pots with some miserable flowers in them.
As it began to get lighter, the rain started. A man came along and
stuck a notice on the shop window: To Let.
Of course, it was all the fault of the hard times. Month after
month the turnover had decreased. Lundegaard had done his best to keep
things going, God knows; he wasn't the man to give up at the first
fence—he had taken goods on credit, he had borrowed from his family,
he had tried a sale, he had had thousands of hand-bills printed, and
his son had distributed them around the district—all to no avail.
More and more bills came in, and more and more customers stayed
The last few years had been Hell on Earth for the Lundegaards.
Their work was wearisome and unprofitable, and their income was so
small that it was as much as they could do to keep body and soul
together. Poul, their son, had been out of work almost continuously
since he finished being an apprentice. Their daughter, Anna, was doing
a little better. She had a job in a large store, and her wages at
least covered most of her modest needs.
During this time, their life had been nothing but toil and
drudgery, dirt and poverty. And still their struggle had been in vain.
Their last hope had been the Christmas shopping rush.
One grey January morning, their poor possessions were moved to a
flat with a view over the back yards of a side street in the Vesterbro
January in Copenhagen is a wretched month, and in a Vesterbro back
yard it is sheer Hell. The people freeze and starve, the air is heavy
and damp around the filthy houses, and even the rats have a poor time
of it—surprisingly, the priests are the only people who seem to get
on well in this part of the town. There is no shortage of relief work,
and the workers in the vineyard of the Lord do not renounce their
temporal needs for spiritual ones. Is it not written that a man must
look to his own? God is merciful towards the needs of his priests.
Religion is the opium of the masses. Mrs. Lundegaard stood in need
of that opium. There was a meeting of the Friends of God every Friday
in the Chapel of the Nazerenes, where they would bewail the sins of
the world. She had always had a healthy and practical outlook, but
this had changed completely with the closing of the shop.
Twenty-five years ago, when she had married Lundegaard, they had
been solid, well-set-up members of the middle class. Business was
good, and they had two charming, healthy children. Then they had had
their dreams about extending the business, acquiring a better social
standing, and perhaps having a pretty little house somewhere on the
outskirts of the town, with a lawn and flagpole. They had been
industrious and energetic, and no doubt happy, although they hadn't
realized this until afterwards, and in the evenings, after the
children were in bed, they would take out their bank-book and enjoy
themselves seeing how their capital was increasing, and in these
evening hours they used to dream their pipe-dreams.
They never got so far as owning a villa, but they did have a little
summer-house that they cycled out to in the evenings after the shop
was closed and the books made up.
The war, of course, was responsible for their financial success,
which promised such a happy future, but as the impact of the World War
faded, so the volume of their trade declined.
But it wouldn't get really bad, after all; they were of a good,
solid family, and quite well off. In Lundegaard's opinion, their poor
trade just now was only the result of a transitional phase, and, thank
God, they had a little behind them to see them over it.
But trade never did pick up. It became worse and worse, and their
troubles piled up as the months passed.—It's the crisis, Lundegaard
said, and read aloud an article in the paper describing how many small
shops had had to close down. By then the children were grown up, but
owing to the difficult times, they got a poor start in life. They had
to sell the summer-house, they had to sell the cycles, and the family
had to be content with short excursions to the surrounding
In any case, they gradually lost their taste for amusement and
outings. Lundegaard used to lay awake at nights, thinking things over.
He became nervous and irritable, he got bags under his eyes, and he
took to the bottle in an attempt to deaden his anxiety about the
It was almost a relief for the children when the blow fell. Anna's
wages just covered the rent of the little back flat, Poul had his
dole, and if Lundegaard could get a job rent-collecting or something,
they would probably be able to prevent the situation from getting
Then it became apparent that such work was not easy to find. It was
necessary to put down fidelity money as a guarantee—but eventually
things began to look a little more promising. Lundegaard's brother and
brother-in-law put together the necessary money, although rather
reluctantly, and it became clear through their attitude that they were
not having too good a time of it either. Lundegaard's brother was a
bank official, and his brother-in-law a civil servant. Their wages had
been cut, and furthermore there was the inflation, which put up the
price of groceries, so the money did not go very far.
The winter dragged by wearily for those people whose lives were
lived in the dirty stone abysses of Vesterbro's slum district.
Every day Lundegaard set off on his tiresome round. Up stairs, then
down. He had doors slammed in his face, and he collected more curses
than rents. His wife struggled heroically to keep up the family's air
of middle-class respectability. She scrubbed and washed the damp
little rooms, and patched, mended and brushed their worn-out clothes.
The children only came home to sleep. Anna used to go out with a boy-
friend, and Poul spent his evenings with friends of his own age,
hanging round the gate.
One day, whilst on his busy way through the town, Lundegaard passed
their old shop. It had already found a tenant, and now it was a
florist's. He had been unable to resist the temptation to try and find
out about it from people in the street. They told him that the flower
trade wasn't really a profitable one, and that the new tenant seemed
to be feeling the pinch already. He was said to be a jobbing gardener,
who had got tired of working himself to death for other people, and
had decided to try his luck with the few coppers he had been able to
set aside from his wages, but luck didn't seem to be coming into it
much, at least, the former jobbing gardener would stand for hours in
the window, staring gloomily out into the street, and the number of
customers who were attracted by his modest window display was
extremely small. But there was no doubt that, at bottom, he was an
optimist, since he had got married on the strength of the future
success of his business, and, as far as could be seen, his wife was
expecting a child before long.—If success were born of toil and hard
work, everything would have been all right, for the gardener went to
the market every morning, and kept the shop clean and attractive, and
made a really good show of the flowers in the window, but then, who
can afford flowers in these hard times?
It was some slight comfort to Lundegaard that his successor had not
had any better luck with the place than he himself had. That showed
that it was the place and the times that were at fault, and not
Lundegaard's lack of business sense.
So he could hardly keep a note of triumph out of his voice when he
told his wife how their old shop was getting on. But his wife didn't
like being reminded of their former life in the world of commerce. It
recalled to her mind's eye the beautiful sights, the summer-house,
their social position, the lawn, and the garden house surrounded by
hollyhocks, and the memory of this lost Eden clouded her eyes, and
brought a lump to her throat.
"There, there," Lundegaard comforted her. "We were never much to
write home about, you know."
"But we did have a shop, and money in the bank," she said, weeping.
"Now look where we are."
The poor rent collector didn't know what to do or say. He stroked
her hair awkwardly, and said he thought things might turn out all
right after all.
He himself didn't really believe that, though. Not when he was
honest with himself. They had toiled and laboured to bring their
dreams to life, and in the process, they had lost their vitality. They
were now both approaching the half-century, and it wasn't easy to see
how they were to get a fresh start.
Lundegaard became quite melancholy. Only now did he realize the
full extent of their misfortune. Flitting, putting their wretched back
rooms in order, and his efforts to find work had completely occupied
his thoughts, and only now did the fact penetrate his mind that they
were seeing the ruin of their lives' work.
Yes, they were indeed ruined. All that they could expect of life
now was a struggle against poverty and dirt. He felt a dull feeling of
protest growing within him. What had they done to deserve such a fate?
They had been honest and industrious people, hadn't they? Surely a
hard, working life entitled them to a peaceful old age? The world
seemed to have have gone mad. Now he had to chase up and down stairs
to earn his bread. The otherwise amiable and peaceful Lundegaard was
beginning to be invaded by an unspoken feeling of rankling bitterness.
The big stores stole trade from decent people, and employed their
children at ten shillings a week. The big stores were able to carry
on. They expanded and expanded, whilst one little shop after another
had to close, and their owners might go their ways, wherever they
liked—if they hadn't held on so long that the work-house was the only
way open to them.
It was an ordinary sort of January day for Copenhagen, with slush
on the ground, and the air damp and misty. The thermometer on the
Tollbooth registered between 38 and 40 degrees, pork went up a penny a
pound, the newspaper seller in his little wooden kiosk on the corner
was quite blue with the cold, and the paths in the parks were covered
in a layer of white, which turned to water wherever you put your feet.
The Exchange reported debentures as being brisk, and stocks as being
stable, and a little tobacconist in Osterbro gassed himself. He was
tired of life, and business was poor.
It was late afternoon, and Mrs. Lundegaard had had to put the light
on to see; even at mid-day the rooms were only poorly lit. They really
ought to economize in lighting, but there was so much that had be
done. Patching and darning. From time to time she had to go out into
the kitchen to see to supper.
She had the table laid by six o'clock. Anna had come in, and was
sitting by the window mending a silk stocking. Mrs. Lundegaard thought
she was beginning to use a lot of make-up lately. It must cost a lot.
Neither of them said anything. They each lived their own lives. But
they always had to be thinking of money. It was difficult to make the
household money stretch far enough. The food had, above all, to be
filling, and it was a pity that the girl, who put nearly all her wages
into the home, always had to take such a poor lunch to work with her—
it was like parading their poverty before her companions at the shop.
Mrs. Lundegaard thought she might try and do a little better with
Anna's lunch. But then there was the money to think about. She might
be able to earn a little by taking in sewing. The greengrocer's wife
said that one of the big clothing stores in Vesterbrogade was looking
for people to do sewing at home. Her eyes weren't so good as they had
been, but she could get glasses. They wouldn't cost a lot, and the
sick club would pay some of it. Poul had come in, and was doing
something in the bedroom, but Lundegaard still wasn't in.
He still wasn't in at half past six.
Mrs. Lundegaard looked anxiously at her daughter. Anna didn't like
having her supper late. She always had to go out as soon as they had
finished their meal. Poul didn't care when they ate—he didn't seem to
care about anything. They might as well begin, and Lundegaard would
probably walk in whilst they were eating.
They had their meal in silence. They finished it, and cleared the
table, and still he wasn't in.
—-Lundegaard didn't come in until late at night. He was drunk. She
had never seen him like that before. His clothes were dirty, and he
talked nothing but nonsense.
Lundegaard woke up in the night, and tried to force his attentions
upon her. She wept, and her thoughts turned again to religion. A life
of purity and beauty, in spite of poverty. God, and self-discipline,
might help. They had lived a worldly life, and this was their
punishment. A husband who drank and misbehaved himself, a man of his
age; a daughter who was never at home, and a son who was almost a
stranger to his mother.
"For my part, I wouldn't give a damn if we did have a war, and the
sooner the better," said Nielsen, pushing out his lower lip, as he did
when he wanted to play the strong man. "It might clear the air, and
everything's so upside down now that it couldn't be any worse anyway."
"You must be a mad to think of such a thing," said Poul. Nielsen
was a clerk, out of work, and lodging in the front part of the house.
They stood leaning up against the gate.
"Yes, perhaps," said Nielsen. "Mad, or desperate. I'm looking at
the matter from my point of view, as it affects me. The others can
take whatever view they like. I think you put things nicely and
concisely, but your way of doing so annoys me just a little. You are
always talking about 'we' and 'us'. There isn't anyone who will lift a
finger to help you unless he can get something out of it.—And for my
part, I don't care what happens, things can't get any worse. I've been
out of work for eight months, I owe money left and right, I've had a
summons from the police court, and I go and wait at the Labour
Exchange four or five hours every other day. My landlady here, who was
so considerate when I was working, is all the time trying to provoke
me to do something that would give her a pretext to turn me out. And I
don't blame her, either, she can't pay her rent with my excuses. If I
meet one of my old acquaintances in the street, I hardly have a chance
to get beyond 'Good Morning', when they say: 'Well, old fellow, I've
got to get along now.' My girl-friend left me after I'd been out of
work five months. I can quite see her point of view; it was no good a
girl like her being engaged to an out-of-work clerk, who wasn't even
in a trade union, because, when he had work, his friends didn't think
it was quite nice. And if I had the luck of the Devil, and went and
got a job, well, you know what a clerk gets yourself. It might have
been all right if I'd had a steady job, and perhaps had a chance to
worm my way on, or else elbow my way forward but when you're 29 to
start with, and out of work for eight months, then it's useless,
hopeless. No, let this damned war come as soon as it likes, it must
clear the air one way or another. It'll make a change at any rate, and
that'll be something."
Poul went up to Nielsen's room. Nielsen went into the kitchen to
try and get two cups of coffee out of his landlady. Poul had a look
around the room. Even if there was nothing in the world to be
miserable about, that room would soon get you down. If you looked out
of the window, there was a concrete yard, a garage for lorries,
dustbins, and a lavatory. Across the yard was the back part of the
house, where he lived, and an electro-plating works. Goodness knows
how many different people had lived in that room in the course of
years. The walls were decorated with three different pictures of the
King of Rome, and a photograph of a hotel in Hjorring. In one corner
was a green wash- stand, with an enamel bowl and ewer, and on the
little shelf above it were Nielsen's razor, comb, tooth-brush and so
on. It was hardly surprising that Nielsen preferred to stand around in
When Nielsen came back with the coffee, they sat down and started
to talk about girls. But they discussed them rather as if they were
something belonging to the past, or the distant future, than anything
else. Nielsen showed him photographs taken when he was in work, and
used to go on outings with his girl. Poul had seen these pictures
before, but he looked at them again, out of politeness. It was almost
as if Nielsen possessed nothing else worth looking at but these snaps
of a girl sitting squinting into the sun from a grassy bank in the
woods, or lying in a bathing costume on the beach at Solrod. There was
also a rather older picture of a football team for which Nielsen had
once played. Nielsen was third from the left, marked with a little
They could hear a wireless in the back part of the house playing a
"We were brought up to be respectful and decent," Nielsen said.
"That is just what is making a mess of our lives. We ought to be
ruthless, cynical and merciless. There are plenty of opportunities in
a town like Copenhagen, if only you aren't green enough to wait for
them to turn up of their own accord. You don't want to stand in a tidy
queue waiting for your turn, you want to throw regulations and
morality to the winds and use your head instead. Morality was invented
by the people who want to keep all the best opportunities for
Poul said nothing. He rarely did have much to say. He looked after
himself, took care to be at home at mealtimes, sat for hours over a
cup of coffee, and nothing with it, in the milk-bar on the corner, or
else stood or lounged about in the gateway.
Lundegaard did not feel too well after the previous evening's
events. He sat looking out of the window, and didn't seem to know how
to deal with the situation. Whether to adopt a distant attitude, or
whether to be repentant. The matter wasn't all that straightforward.
The fact was, he had used some of the money he had collected. Apart
from that, money was running out right and left; there was still the
gas bill from the shop to be paid. He had been given time to pay it,
as with so many other bills. What use was that, though, things were
never going to get any better.
Mrs. Lundegaard didn't mention what had happened. She did say that
she was thinking of trying to get some sewing work to do at home. They
discussed it a little, but they decided they would have to buy a
treadle machine on the hire purchase, because the old hand machine
wouldn't be much use. Lundegaard thought they might be able to raise a
loan of ten pounds or so, and by that means clear off all their
financial worries at one blow. Once they were settled, perhaps things
might be a little easier again.
Lundegaard knew that it was possible to raise such a loan. He might
use the furniture, or the fidelity money his brother and brother-in-
law had put up as security. It was no use going to a bank, of course;
banks didn't go in for that sort of thing. But Lundegaard knew the
address of a money-lender. Everybody knows where money-lenders and
abortionists can be found. The poor of Copenhagen have their own
"Advertizer". It lacks government approval, admittedly, but
nevertheless it has no trouble reaching its subscribers.
Mr. Salomonsen owned housing property, and also indulged in a
little money-lending from time to time. Providing reasonable security
was offered. He sat in his comfortable chair in his comfortable room,
and listened quietly to Lundegaards story. He didn't actually have
much to do with that sort of thing; he didn't care for it,
misunderstandings arose so easily, besides, what security was there
that he would get his money back? He had done people favours like that
before, and had received nothing but thanklessness and hard words in
Lundegaard became more emphatic, and put his case more forcefully.
Mr. Salomonsen meant what he said. Where was the security for his
money? How was it unreasonable to fix a rate of interest proportionate
to the risk he was running? When people came to him for help, as they
were always doing, then surely his help was needed. Mr. Salomonsen
knew and approved of the parable of the unfaithful steward. Mr.
Salomonsen was a good Christian. Mr. Salomonsen was a useful citizen.
Some banks looked askance on his activities, and the banks had great
influence with the press. Once Mr. Salomonsen had been a little boy
playing in the Sondermark, and the other boys used to set on him,
because he was weaker than them, and didn't know how to stand up for
himself. And now one of those boys might pay a visit to his office. In
those days young Salomonsen used to say the Lord's Prayer every night,
and though he didn't do that now, he thought it couldn't do any harm,
at least. Mr. Salomonsen and his wife, formerly his housekeeper, went
to church at all the great church festivals.
He really had to have some security. Lundegaard had thought the
fidelity money would do. Besides, he had a good job. He was only
temporarily embarrassed. Besides, wouldn't the furniture do for
security? It had cost enough.
Mr. Salomonsen looked at his watch. He always went to the billiards
saloon in the afternoon, to play a game with one of his great friends.
And perhaps a hand of poker in the back room afterwards. Mr.
Salomonsen liked playing poker. It was an absorbing game. And he was a
Lundegaard went to considerable trouble to try and think of
something that would satisfy Mr. Salomonsen as security. The only
steady financial factor in their poverty-stricken world was Anna's
wages. A mortgage on her wages? Anna would never agree to that. He
might be able to borrow from a bank after all, if his brother and
brother-in- law would stand as security for him. That would be the
second time. He could remember the expression of injured pride on
their faces that he should call upon family ties to such a mean end.
He wasn't going to ask them again. He had to have that loan from Mr.
Salomonsen, and then clear it off again as quickly as he could. There
in Mr. Salomonsen's cheque-book, tucked in his waistcoat pocket were
the ten pounds that could put an end to all his troubles. They might
find their way into his own pocket, and settle all his worries. And he
had used some of the firm's money, too.
Mr. Salomonsen considered the matter of a mortgage on Anna's salary
deeply, and then sat down at his desk and drew up several documents.
On his way home, Lundegaard went into the Central Station and put
Anna's name to one of them—she would never find out, anyway.
Whenever you spoke to anybody, they all said: There's going to be a
war—sooner or later there's sure to be a war. But in their hearts
many of them cherished a fond hope that it wouldn't really come to
that after all. In any case, they took no action to prepare for it.
Some sections of the people wanted a war. The depressed classes,
unemployed people who were up to the ears in troubles which they had
no hope of getting out of, and who were only kept going by the thought
that whatever happens the sun'll keep on rising in the morning and
setting at night; people who were in constant fear that their
embezzlement would be discovered before long; little people, whose
difficulties mounted up from day to day, and to whom suicide sometimes
seemed to be the only solution—and, of course, there were the
It was just about then that a well-known Copenhagen editor wrote
that a good sharp war would have a refreshing effect, and that it
would increase trade and production, provide work for idle hands and
increase profits. There was a man in a tram, who said: If only we
could be sure of remaining neutral, as we were in the Great War. the
sooner it comes the better. Do you remember Copenhagen in 1915-16?
Life was worth living then. Then he hummed a snatch of a war-time
song: 'Let's drink and dance the whole night through'. And he was a
well-dressed man, a respectable man, with a trustworthy face and
Some people hated war, and feared it, and read war preparations
into everything. Building a bridge, making a road, flying displays and
military parades on Sundays to let the Tommies' families see how keen
they were, and what a fine time they were having. There were pacifists
who said that people ought to be conscientious objectors, and people
from the workers' organisations, who said the arms ought to be used in
a better direction.
Lundegaard overheard many conversations about the approaching war.
At the office, in the pubs where he used to go with a few chance
acquaintances to have a glass of beer to warm himself up. They never
brought up such subjects at home. Anyway, the papers were always full
of re-armament everywhere. The newspaper-seller on the corner, a
Communist, said that you would know when the war was going to start,
because the shipping companies' shares would go up. Those sharks in
the exchange knew all about making money out of wars. But there were
other things to do than to watch the price of shipping shares.
Lundegaard felt almost as if it were something that didn't concern
him. Now he could get some money and be rid of the worst of his
It had become the fashion to talk about the coming war, just as
people talked about the weather, accidents and the six-day cycle race.
All the current phrases were bandied about. People kept to the time-
honoured conventions, and came out with the usual wise but hackneyed
observations on the day's news, and no one contradicted them. No one
spoke honestly and independently, in fact, no one had any opinions.
Why should they bother, when they could find them ready-made in the
leaders in the papers? On the whole, conversations consisted of
exchanges of standard clever remarks. If there was a railway accident,
it was 'Terrible. Think of their poor families!' If there was a fraud
trial, it was 'You'd never believe that a man like that, with a large
steady income would do such a thing. Let's hope he gets a good stiff
term of imprisonment. He'll get off with a fine, though, you see, or
else they'll let him out of prison when the fuss's died down. If it'd
been a poor man, it'd have been different.' If the subject of war came
up, it was 'There'll be another war, all right. There'll always be
wars as long as there are two people left alive on the earth.'
It seemed almost as if everybody was going round hiding their real
thoughts and their own little private selves under a cover of current
catch-phrases. After all, people don't know much about each other.
They live side by side, day in and day out without ever really knowing
each other. That was one of the advantages of these conventional
remarks; nobody need ever reveal his true self. No one knew that Mrs.
Lundegaard took money from the scanty housekeeping to give to the
collection at the Nazarenes' chapel; no one knew that Lundegaard was a
regular customer of the girl in the mauve dress, who, after dark, at
least, always stood on the corner of Vesterbrogade; and no one knew
that Poul had plans to leave home and to force his way into a fuller
life, even by methods that the law regards as deserving of prison, if
And as to Anna, no one knew that every morning on her way to the
shop she used to give her lunch packet to the old woman who sits by
the church, and that she used to buy daintily made sandwiches that
could stand the inquisitive gaze of her fellow shop-girls. No one knew
very much about Anna anyway. She was always civil towards her parents,
but never told them anything about herself. She went off in the
mornings, came home for her meal, and then disappeared again. She
slept in the dining-room, and Poul slept in the kitchen, and no one
noticed what time she came home.