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Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter V
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|Chapter IV|| Autobiography |
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter V: Nationalism and Notting Hill
At this point of the story I must for a moment go back in order to go on. In the previous pages I have said a good deal about Art, both in the home and the school; of the art I lost by my own fault or gained by my father's merit; of the gratitude I owe to the amateur and the apology I owe to the art-master; of all I was taught without learning it, and all I learnt without anybody teaching it. But in a sketch of the period, this predominance of Art is rather out of proportion to the contemporary position of Science. It was true that I could never exactly be called a scientific character; and even as between the Classical and Modern sides of my old school, I should always have chosen rather to idle at Greek than to idle at Chemistry. But science was in the air of all that Victorian world, and children and boys were affected by the picturesque aspects of it. Several of my father's cronies were scientific either in their hobbies or their profession; one of them, a very delightful schoolmaster named Alexander Watherston, carried about with him a geological hammer, with which he would detach fossils from rocks or walls, to my intense delight; so that the very name of a geological hammer still suggests something primal and poetic like the hammer of Thor. My mother's brother, Beaumont Grosjean, was an analytical chemist by calling, and a man stuffed with humour; I can recall how he professed to have proved by analysis the purity of one single product of current commerce; which was Nubian Blacking; I believe it no longer exists; so I can be neither reproached nor rewarded for the advertisement. But he was so captivated with this one case of commercial probity that he used the name as a moral term of eulogy, saying "No man could have behaved in a more Nubian fashion," or, "Perhaps as Nubian an action as ever did honour to human nature." It was the same scientific uncle who told me various fairy-tales of science, which I regret to say that I believed much less than the fairy-tales of fairyland. Thus he told me that when I jumped off a chair, the earth jumped towards me. At the time I took it for granted that this was a lie; or at any rate a joke. What Einstein has done with it now is another story--or perhaps another joke. But I mention science and the scientific uncle for another reason here.
I am just old enough to remember in infancy the world before telephones. And I remember that my father and my uncle fitted up the first telephone I ever saw with their own metal and chemicals, a miniature telephone reaching from the top bedroom under the roof to the remote end of the garden. I was really impressed imaginatively by this; and I do not think I have ever been so much impressed since by any extension of it. The point is rather important in the whole theory of imagination. It did startle me that a voice should sound in the room when it was really as distant as the next street. It would hardly have startled me more if it had been as distant as the next town. It does not startle me any more if it is as distant as the next continent. The miracle is over. Thus I admired even the large scientific things most on a small scale. So I always found that I was much more attracted by the microscope than the telescope. I was not overwhelmed in childhood, by being told of remote stars which the sun never reached, any more than in manhood by being told of an empire on which the sun never set. I had no use for an empire that had no sunsets. But I was inspired and thrilled by looking through a little hole at a crystal like a pin's head; and seeing it change pattern and colour like a pigmy sunset.
I have already picked two quarrels with better men than myself, who were enthusiasts for childish romance, upon the reality of the romance of childhood. First, I disagree with them when they treat the infantile imagination as a sort of dream; whereas I remember it rather as a man dreaming might remember the world where he was awake. And second, I deny that children have suffered under a tyranny of moral tales. For I remember the time when it would have seemed the most hideous tyranny to take my moral tales away from me. And, in order to make this clear, I must contradict yet another common assumption in the romantic description of the dawn of life. The point is not very easy to explain; indeed I have spent the greater part of my life in an unsuccessful attempt to explain it. Upon the cartloads of ill-constructed books in which I have completely failed to do so, I have no desire to dwell. But perhaps, as a general definition, this might be useful; or, if not as a definition, at least as a suggestion. From the first vaguely, and of late more and more clearly, I have felt that the world is conceiving liberty as something that merely works outwards. And I have always conceived it as something that works inwards.
The ordinary poetic description of the first dreams of life is a description of mere longing for larger and larger horizons. The imagination is supposed to work towards the infinite; though in that sense the infinite is the opposite of the imagination. For the imagination deals with an image. And an image is in its nature a thing that has an outline and therefore a limit. Now I will maintain, paradoxical as it may seem, that the child does not desire merely to fall out of the window, or even to fly through the air or to be drowned in the sea. When he wishes to go to other places, they are still places; even if nobody has ever been there. But in truth the case is much stronger than that. It is plain on the face of the facts that the child is positively in love with limits. He uses his imagination to invent imaginary limits. The nurse and the governess have never told him that it is his moral duty to step on alternate paving-stones. He deliberately deprives this world of half its paving-stones, in order to exult in a challenge that he has offered to himself. I played that kind of game with myself all over the mats and boards and carpets of the house; and, at the risk of being detained during His Majesty's pleasure, I will admit that I often play it still. In that sense I have constantly tried to cut down the actual space at my disposal; to divide and subdivide, into these happy prisons, the house in which I was quite free to run wild. And I believe that there is in this psychological freak a truth without which the whole modern world is missing its main opportunity. If we look at the favourite nursery romances, or at least if we have the patience to look at them twice, we shall find that they all really support this view; even when they have largely been accepted as supporting the opposite view. The charm of Robinson Crusoe is not in the fact that he could find his way to a remote island; but in the fact that he could not find any way of getting away from it. It is that fact which gives an intensive interest and excitement to all the things that he had with him on the island; the axe and the parrot and the guns and the little hoard of grain. The tale of Treasure Island is not the record of a vague desire to go on a sea voyage for one's health. It ends where it began; and it began with Stevenson drawing a map of the island, with all its bays and capes cut out as clearly as fretwork. And the eternal interest of the Noah's Ark, considered as a toy, consists in its complete suggestion of compactness and isolation; of creatures so comically remote and fantastic being all locked up in one box; as if Noah had been told to pack up the sun and moon with his luggage. In other words, it is exactly the same game that I have played myself, by piling all the things I wanted on a sofa, and imagining that the carpet around me was the surrounding sea.
This game of self-limitation is one of the secret pleasures of life. As it says in the little manuals about such sports, the game is played in several forms. One very good way of playing it is to look at the nearest bookcase, and wonder whether you would find sufficient entertainment in that chance collection, even if you had no other books. But always it is dominated by this principle of division and restriction; which begins with the game played by the child with the paving-stones. I dwell upon it here because it must be understood as something real and rooted, so far as I am concerned, in order that the other views I have offered about these things may make any sort of sense. If anybody chooses to say that I have founded all my social philosophy on the antics of a baby, I am quite satisfied to bow and smile.
It is really relevant to insist that I do not know at what exact stage of my childhood or my youth the idea consolidated as a sort of local patriotism. A child has by the light of nature (or perhaps some better light) an idea of fortifying and defending things; of saying that he is the king of the castle, but of being rather glad than otherwise that it is such a small castle. But as it is my whole thesis that there is something very real behind all these first movements of the mind, I do not think I was ever surprised to find that this instinct corresponded to an idea. Only, by a rather curious coincidence in my life, it had only just developed as a private idea, when I found it clinched and supported by a public idea. If I have since gone back to public ideas, or to the outside of my existence, I have tried to explain that the most important part of it had long been in the inside of my life; perhaps a long time before I found it there.
I was one day wandering about the streets in that part of North Kensington, telling myself stories of feudal sallies and sieges, in the manner of Walter Scott, and vaguely trying to apply them to the wilderness of bricks and mortar around me. I felt that London was already too large and loose a thing to be a city in the sense of a citadel. It seemed to me even larger and looser than the British Empire. And something irrationally arrested and pleased my eye about the look of one small block of little lighted shops, and I amused myself with the supposition that these alone were to be preserved and defended, like a hamlet in a desert. I found it quite exciting to count them and perceive that they contained the essentials of a civilisation, a chemist's shop, a bookshop, a provision merchant for food and public-house for drink. Lastly, to my great delight, there was also an old curiosity shop bristling with swords and halberds; manifestly intended to arm the guard that was to fight for the sacred street. I wondered vaguely what they would attack or whither they would advance. And looking up, I saw grey with distance but still seemingly immense in altitude, the tower of the Waterworks close to the street where I was born. It suddenly occurred to me that capturing the Waterworks might really mean the military stroke of flooding the valley; and with that torrent and cataract of visionary waters, the first fantastic notion of a tale called The Napoleon of Notting Hill rushed over my mind.
I have never taken my books seriously; but I take my opinions quite seriously. I do not mention my fortunately forgotten romance because I wish to emulate the academic seriousness of Mr. Dodgson, who noted the exact conditions of time and landscape in which it first occurred to him that the Snark was after all a Boojum. But this detail of memory has to do with much more practical things. It happens to be the only way of explaining what was very soon to be my position in quite practical politics. It must first be clearly understood that contemporary politics, even in the common sense my own politics, were all driving or drifting exactly the other way. The two great movements during my youth and early manhood were Imperialism and Socialism. They were supposed to be fighting each other; and so doubtless they did, in the sense of waving Red Flags against Union Jacks. But as compared with those dim gropings in my own imagination, the two things were in union; at least as much in union as the Union Jack. Both believed in unification and centralisation on a large scale. Neither could have seen any meaning in my own fancy for having things on a smaller and smaller scale. That fancy itself was indeed too indistinct and instinctive as yet to suggest an alternative theory; and in some vague way I accepted the fashionable theories. I read Kipling and was attracted in many ways, though repelled in others. I called myself a Socialist; because the only alternative to being a Socialist was not being a Socialist. And not being a Socialist was a perfectly ghastly thing. It meant being a small-headed and sneering snob, who grumbled at the rates and the working-classes; or some hoary horrible old Darwinian who said the weakest must go to the wall. But in my heart I was a reluctant Socialist. I accepted the larger thing as the lesser evil--or even the lesser good.
Rather in the sense in which I was a reluctant Socialist, I was even ready to be a reluctant Imperialist. It was rather as the Mr. Burden of Mr. Belloc was a reluctant Imperialist; for indeed I inherited the tradition of an older business world, not unlike Mr. Burden's. All my instincts told me that I could not entirely lose hold of patriotism; neither then nor at any later time had I any liking for what is commonly connoted by pacifism. I was willing to accept colonial adventure if it was the only way of protecting my country; just as I was willing to accept collectivist organisation if it was the only way of protecting my poorer fellow-citizens. I was willing that Britain should boast of having an empire, if she really had nothing better to boast of. I was willing to let Mr. Sidney Webb look after the poor, if nobody else would look after them, or if (as seemed to be assumed as an axiom of social science) it was quite impossible for them to look after themselves. But nothing of my heart or my imagination went with these wide generalisations; and something inside me was always subconsciously burrowing in the very opposite direction. I remained in this vague but not entirely unhealthy state of mind, hung between an inward instinct I could not follow and an outward expansion I did not really wish to follow, until something happened in the outer world which not only woke me from my dreams like a thunder-clap, but like a lightning-flash revealed me to myself. In 1895 came the Jameson Raid and a year or two afterwards the war with the two Republics of South Africa.
The nation seemed solid for the war. It was far more eager for the South African War than it was afterwards for the Great War. The latter was obviously much more crucial, and in my opinion much more just. But it did not produce that particular impression of a unanimous shout of applause such as marked the campaign for the extinction of President Kruger's Dutch state. Crowds would doubtless cry both against Kruger and Kaiser; but the Kaiser with his moustaches never became so popular a caricature as the President with his chinbeard. The name became indeed a general term for anything exotic and alien; and a too elegant poet with long curly hair and velvet knee-breeches would be hailed by the apt and descriptive cry of "Kruger!" But the apparent unity covered more influential and instructive groups. Journalism and politics were for the policy of Annexation. Most of the newspapers followed the Daily Mail in its morals if not in its manners. The Liberal Imperialists practically took the lead in the Liberal Party, so that even the opposition could hardly oppose. And it must always be remembered that these pro-war politicians were those who were later charged with moderation or (very absurdly) with anti-patriotism during the war of 1914; Asquith and Haldane and Grey. It seemed that all moderate men were on what was called the patriotic side. I knew little of politics then; and to me the unity seemed greater than it was; but it was very great. I saw all the public men and public bodies, the people in the street, my own middle-class and most of my family and friends, solid in favour of something that seemed inevitable and scientific and secure. And I suddenly realised that I hated it; that I hated the whole thing as I had never hated anything before.
What I hated about it was what a good many people liked about it. It was such a very cheerful war. I hated its confidence, its congratulatory anticipations, its optimism of the Stock Exchange. I hated its vile assurance of victory. It was regarded by many as an almost automatic process like the operation of a natural law; and I have always hated that sort of heathen notion of a natural law. As the war proceeded, indeed, it began to be dimly felt that it was proceeding and not progressing. When the British had many unexpected failures and the Boers many unexpected successes, there was a change in the public temper, and less of optimism and indeed little but obstinacy. But the note struck from the first was the note of the inevitable; a thing abhorrent to Christians and to lovers of liberty. The blows struck by the Boer nation at bay, the dash and dazzling evasions of De Wet, the capture of a British general at the very end of the campaign, sounded again and again the opposite note of defiance; of those who, as I wrote later in one of my first articles, "disregard the omens and disdain the stars". And all this swelled up within me into vague images of a modern resurrection of Marathon or Thermopylae; and I saw again my recurring dream of the unscalable tower and the besieging citizens; and began to draw out the rude outlines of my little romance of London. But above all, perhaps, what began to repel me about the atmosphere of the adventure was something insincere about the most normal part of the national claim; the suggestion of something like a rescue of our exiled representatives, the commercial citizens of Johannesburg, who were commonly called the Outlanders. As this would have been the most sympathetic plea if it was genuine, it was the more repulsive if it was hypocritical.
For this was the best case for the war; that if the Boers were fighting for their country, the British were fighting for their countrymen. Only there was rather a queer look about some of the portraits of their countrymen. It was constantly asserted that an Englishman named Edgar had been murdered; but no portrait of Edgar was published, because it happened that he was entirely black. Other portraits were published; other Outlanders were paraded and they were of other tints and shades. We began to guess that the people the Boers called Outlanders were often people whom the British would call Outsiders. Their names were symbolic as their noses. I remember waiting with a Pro-Boer friend in the midst of a Jingo mob outside the celebrated Queen's Hall Meeting which ended in a free fight. My friend and I adopted a method of patriotic parody or reductio ad absurdum. We first proposed three cheers for Chamberlain, then three cheers for Rhodes, and then by degrees for more and more dubious and demi-naturalised patriots. We actually did get an innocent cheer for Beit. We got a more wavering cheer for Eckstein. But when it came to our impulsive appeal to the universal popularity of Albu, the irony of our intention was discovered; and the fight began. I found myself in a pugilistic encounter with an Imperialistic clerk, whose pugilism was at least no more scientific than my own. While this encounter (one of many other surrounding conflicts) was proceeding, another Imperialist must have abstracted my watch; the last I ever troubled to possess. He at any rate believed in the Policy of Annexation.
I was called a Pro-Boer and, unlike some Pro-Boers, I was very proud of the title. It expressed exactly what I meant much better than its idealistic synonyms. Some intellectuals indignantly repudiated the term, and said they were not Pro-Boers but only lovers of peace or pacifists. But I emphatically was a Pro-Boer, and I emphatically was not a pacifist. My point was that the Boers were right in fighting; not that anybody must be wrong in fighting. I thought that their farmers were perfectly entitled to take to horse and rifle in defence of their farms, and their little farming commonwealth, when it was invaded by a more cosmopolitan empire at the command of very cosmopolitan financiers. As no less an authority than Mr. Discobolus says in Lear's Nonsense Rhymes, I thought so then and I think so still. But this sort of militant sympathy naturally separated those who thought as I did from our colleagues who were mere anti-militarists. The consequence was not unimportant to me personally. It was that I found I belonged to a minority of a minority. Most of those who not unnaturally sympathised with the British, disapproved of us for sympathising with the Boers. Most of those who sympathised with the Boers disapproved of us for sympathising with them for the wrong reasons. Indeed, I do not know whether the Jingo or the Pacifist found us the more offensive and objectionable. It was in this rather quaint condition that I naturally gravitated towards a friendship which has since played so considerable a part in my life, public as well as private.
My friends had just come down from Oxford, Bentley from Merton and Oldershaw from "the House", where they had figured prominently in a group of young Liberals opposed in varying degrees to the current Imperialism; a group containing many names sufficiently famous afterwards; John Simon, now the well-known statesman and advocate, and Francis Hirst, the economist. Soon after our reunion in London, I went to meet Lucian Oldershaw at a little restaurant in Soho. It was in the days before everybody had discovered the whereabouts of Soho; and these small French eating-houses were only valued by a few gourmets on the ground that they were still places where it was possible to eat. I have never been anything so refined as a gourmet; so I am happy to say that I am still quite capable of being a glutton. My ignorance of cookery is such that I can even eat the food in the most fashionable and expensive hotels in London. Sometimes, in those luxurious halls, inhabited by the heroes and heroines of Oppenheim and Edgar Wallace, the food is just a shade too bad even for me. But those who really prefer eating good cutlets and omelets to living on gilt plaster and pantomime footmen had already found their way to delightful little dens off Leicester Square, where in those days a man could get a half-bottle of perfectly good red wine for sixpence. To one of these I went to meet my friend, who entered the place followed by a sturdy man with a stiff straw hat of the period tilted over his eyes, which emphasized the peculiar length and strength of his chin. He had a high-shouldered way of wearing a coat so that it looked like a heavy overcoat, and instantly reminded me of the pictures of Napoleon; and, for some vague reason, especially of the pictures of Napoleon on horseback. But his eyes, not without anxiety, had that curious distant keenness that is seen in the eyes of sailors; and there was something about his walk that has even been compared to a sailor's roll. Long afterwards the words found their way into verse which expressed a certain consciousness of the combination, and of the blend of nations in his blood.
Almighty God will surely say,
St. Michael, who is this that stands
With Ireland in his doubtful eyes
And Perigord between his hands,
And on his arm the stirrup-thongs
And in his gait the narrow seas
And on his mouth Burgundian songs
And in his heart the Pyrenees?
He sat down heavily on one of the benches and began to talk at once about some controversy or other; I gathered that the question was whether it could be reasonably maintained that King John was the best English king. He judicially decided in the negative; but, by the standards of Mrs. Markham's History of England (to which he was much attached) he let the Plantagenet off lightly. After all, John had been a Regent, and no medieval Regent was a success. He went on talking, as he has, to my great pleasure and stimulation, gone on talking ever since. For this was Hilaire Belloc, already famous as an orator at Oxford where he was always pitted against another brilliant speaker, named F. E. Smith, who later became Lord Birkenhead. Belloc was supposed to represent Radicalism and Smith Toryism; but the contrast between them was more vital, and would have survived the reversing of the labels. Indeed the two characters and careers might stand as a study and problem in the meaning of failure and success.
As Belloc went on talking, he every now and then volleyed out very provocative parentheses on the subject of religion. He said that an important Californian lawyer was coming to England to call on his family, and had put up a great candle to St. Christopher praying that he might be able to make the voyage. He declared that he, Belloc, was going to put up an even bigger candle in the hope that the visitor would not make the voyage. "People say what's the good of doing that?" he observed explosively. "I don't know what good it does. I know it's a thing that's done. Then they say it can't do any good--and there you have Dogma at once." All this amused me very much, but I was already conscious of a curious undercurrent of sympathy with him, which many of those who were equally amused did not feel. And when, on that night and many subsequent nights, we came to talking about the War, I found that the subconscious sympathy had something of a real significance. I have had occasion to say, somewhere or other, that I am an Anti-Vivisectionist and an Anti-Anti-Vivisectionist. Something of the same mystery united our minds; we were both Pro-Boers who hated Pro-Boers. Perhaps it would be truer to say that we hated a certain number of unimaginative, unhistorical anti-militarists who were too pedantic to call themselves Pro-Boers. Perhaps it would be truer still to say that it was they who hated us. But anyhow that was the first link in the alliance. Though his military imagination flung its battle-line far across history from the Roman Legions to the last details of the guns of Gravelotte, and mine was a parochial fancy of an impossible skirmish in Notting Hill, we knew that the moral of the fable and the facts was the same; and when I finished my Cockney fantasy, I dedicated it to him. It was from that dingy little Soho cafe, as from a cave of witchcraft, that there emerged the quadruped, the twiformed monster Mr. Shaw has nicknamed the Chesterbelloc.
It would be grossly unjust to suggest that all or most of the antiwar party were like the prigs I have mentioned; though few of them of course were military in the Bellocian manner. And to one group of them I have a permanent gratitude; the Oxford group which I have already mentioned; and which included my own friends from Oxford. This group was just then enabled to achieve a very important work; which will probably be not without an ultimate effect on history. It managed to buy the old Radical weekly paper The Speaker and run it with admirable spirit and courage in rather a new mood of Radicalism; what some of its enemies might have called a romantic Radicalism. Its editor was Mr. J. L. Hammond, who was afterwards, with his wife, to do so great an historical service as the author of studies on the English Labourer in the last few centuries. He certainly was the last man in the world to be accused of a smug materialism or a merely tame love of peace. No indignation could have been at once more fiery and more delicate, in the sense of discriminating. And I knew that he also understood the truth, when I heard him say the words which so many would have misunderstood; "Imperialism is worse than Jingoism. A Jingo is a noisy fellow, who may happen to make a noise on the right side. But the Imperialist is the direct enemy of liberty." That was exactly what I meant; the Boers might be making a noise (with Mauser rifles) but I thought it was a noise on the right side. It was at about the same time, and by the same connection, that I was able to begin making a very small noise on the right side myself. As I note elsewhere, the very first articles of mine to appear publicly were art reviews in the Bookman; and the original responsibility of letting me loose in the literary world lies with my friend the late Sir Ernest Hodder Williams. But the first connected series of articles, the first regular job in support of a regular cause, was made possible for me by Hammond and his friends of the new Speaker. It was there that I wrote, along with many pugnacious political articles, a series of casual essays afterwards republished as The Defendant. The name of Defendant is the only thing I cannot defend. It was certainly a quite incorrect and illogical use of language. The papers were in defence of various other things, such as Penny Dreadfuls and Skeletons. But a defendant does not properly mean a person defending other things. It means a person defending himself; and I should be the last to defend anything so indefensible.
It was by the same political connection that I was drawn still further into politics, as well as still further into journalism. The next turning-point of my journalistic fate was the purchase of the Daily News by the Pro-Boer Liberals; for it had belonged up to this moment, like practically every Liberal daily paper, to the Liberal Imperialists. A group of Liberals, of whom Mr. George Cadbury was the principal capitalist and the late Mr. R. C. Lehmann the principal practical journalist, appointed as literary editor my friend Mr. Archibald Marshall, who in his turn had the rashness to appoint me as a regular weekly contributor. Here I wrote an article every Saturday for many years; I was described, in the phrase of the time, as having a Saturday pulpit, rather like a Sunday pulpit. Whatever were the merits of the sermon, it is probable that I had a larger congregation than I have ever had before or since. And I occupied it until I gave it up long afterwards, at another political crisis, the story of which I shall have to tell on a later page.
I began to see a little of the leading politicians, though they seldom talked politics; and I imagine that politicians seldom do. I had already interviewed Lord Morley, when I was given the commission in the English Men of Letters which he edited; and I had been struck by something indescribable which has marked most public men of his profession. He was quite friendly and simple, and I am sure quite sincere; but he was in a manner cautious; and conscious of the possibility that his followers might lead him further than he wished to go. He spoke with a certain fatherly admiration of my friends of the Pro-Boer party, Hammond and Hirst and the rest; but he seemed to warn me that they were too fiery; and I did not want to be warned, being myself on fire. In short, he was a wise and good man; but he was not what numberless and nameless admirers would have thought him; he was not a clear intellectual fanatic; a foe of compromise; a sheer democrat called Honest John. He was a Front-Bench man, though a good one. The same applied to most of the Front-Bench men I have known; and I am glad to say I knew mostly the good ones. I had great joy out of the hearty humours of old Asquith, the late Lord Oxford; and though our conversations were light and even flippant, he was one who rose gloriously to flippancy. Once when he appeared in Court dress, on some superbly important occasion, an uncontrollable impulse of impertinence led me to ask whether the Court sword would really come out of its sheath. "Oh, yes," he said, shaking a shaggily frowning head at me, "Do not provoke me." But he also had about the fundamentals of politics and ethics this curious quality of vagueness, which I have found so often in men holding high responsibilities. He did not mind answering a silly question about a sword; but if it had been a sensible question about a super-tax, he would have adopted, however genially, a fencing sort of swordsmanship. He would have faintly felt that he was being heckled, and almost been disposed to ask for notice of that question. I have a difficulty in not darkening the fine shade that I intended; he was very public, as public men go; but they all seem to become hazier as they mount higher. It is the young and unknown who have decisive doctrines and sharply declared intentions. I once expressed it by saying, I think with some truth, that politicians have no politics.
As a fact, the one Front-Bench man who seemed in the days of my youth still eternally young was for me, in those days, on the opposite Front-Bench. The wonderful thing about George Wyndham was that he had come through political life without losing his political opinions, or indeed any opinions. Precisely what gave him such a genius for friendship was that life had left in him so much of himself; so much of his youth; so much even of his childhood. He might never have been a Cabinet Minister; he might have been any common literary or artistic fellow, with a soul to save and some dim and secretive ideas about saving it. He was not always trying, like Charles Augustus Fortescue, "to take a judgment broad and wide"; he had prejudices and private dogmas for which he would fight like a private person. When once or twice the talk of Mr. Asquith turned to religious matters, I found he was fully satisfied with that sort of broad idealism, that rather diluted "essence of Christianity" which is often sincere but seldom significant of any special social decision. But George Wyndham was an Anglo-Catholic as an individual, and would have practised his religion in any state of life. There was about him that edge, like the edge of a sword, which I cannot help preferring to being knocked down with a spiritual sandbag.
George Wyndham had all sorts of odd and original notions; and one of his eccentricities was to set a subject for conversation and ask for opinions all round, as if it were an examination or a game. One day I remember he sternly announced "Japan," and asked me to start with a few words. I said: "I distrust Japan because it is imitating us at our worst. If it had imitated the Middle Ages or the French Revolution, I could understand; but it is imitating factories and materialism. It is like looking in the mirror and seeing a monkey." He held up his hand like a master of the ceremonies, "That will do. That is enough;" and passed on to the next, who was I think Major, now General Seeley; who said he distrusted Japan for certain Imperial reasons connected with our Colonies and national defence. Then Mr. Winston Churchill said that what amused him was that as long as Japan was beautiful and polite, people treated it as barbarous; and now it had become ugly and vulgar, it was treated with respect, or words to that effect. Then Charles Masterman, in his manner of luxuriant gloom, said the Japs were Huns who would sweep us off the earth; that they were much stronger and more skilful than we, and were also detestable. Then one or two others spoke, expressing the same negative view, and then Wyndham, in his whimsical way, wound up with one of his extraordinary historical theories (of which he had a large selection) and said the Hairy Ainu was the cousin of the European and had been conquered by these horrid Mongols. "I do think," he said gravely, "that we ought to come to the rescue of the Hairy Ainu." And then somebody said with simple wonder; "Look here; we've been all round the table; and every manjack of us, for some reason serious or otherwise, seems to hate the Japanese. Why are we not only allies of the Japanese, but forbidden to say a word against them in any of the newspapers? Why is it the fashion or convention to praise the Japs everywhere and all the time?" But at that, I think, Mr. Churchill smiled the inscrutable smile of the statesman; and that veil of vagueness, of which I have spoken, seemed to descend upon everybody; and we never had an answer to the question, either then or since.
Charles Masterman, of whom I have just spoken, was a very remarkable man. He was also a very subtle and curious character; and many of my own best friends entirely misunderstood and underrated him. It is true that as he rose higher in politics, the veil of the politician began to descend a little on him also; but he became a politician from the noblest bitterness on behalf of the poor; and what was blamed in him was the fault of much more ignoble men. What was blamable, as distinct from what was blamed, in him was due to two things; he was a pessimistic official. He had had a dark Puritan upbringing and retained a sort of feeling of the perversity of the gods; he said to me, "I am the sort of man who goes under a hedge to eat an apple." But he was also an organiser and liked governing; only his pessimism made him think that government had always been bad, and was now no worse than usual. Therefore, to men on fire for reform, he came to seem an obstacle and an official apologist; but the last thing he really wanted was to apologise for anything. He had a startling insight into character, and a way of suddenly expressing it, so that it braced rather than hurt. As Oldershaw once said to me, "His candour is beautiful." But his melancholy made him contented, where happier men were discontented. His pessimism did the worst work of optimism. In person he was long, loose and lounging; and nearly as untidy as I was.
Apart from these various glimpses of various parties, my main work was on the Daily News, then practically controlled by Mr. Cadbury with Mr. A. G. Gardiner as its well-read and sympathetic editor: and I only dimly appreciated what I now see to have been the process by which the press came to be run like a big business. I remember gazing blankly at the poky little entrance being replaced by a revolving door; then a novelty to me, though probably to nobody else. It reminded me vaguely of a cattle-gate, and I remember asking old Mr. Cadbury whether it was meant to keep cows out of the office. He laughed immensely at this simple jest, having himself an attractive simplicity; but the incident is connected chiefly in my mind with a jest rather less Arcadian. There was working in the office a very prominent journalist of the Nonconformist culture, who took himself so seriously that in any crowd of common men he was certain to be taken frivolously. I am ashamed to say that I circulated, about this bland and blameless publicist, a legend that the mechanical structure of the new door was the key to the mystery of his permanent presence in the office. Again and again he had been thrown out, but with such ill-judged violence that the swinging portal swung him back again into the interior. The more unerring the aim, the more violent the energy, with which old Mr. Cadbury flung him towards the frontsteps, the more certain was his successful contributor to turn up smiling and be swept back to his office and his desk. Thus, I would say, having even then a tendency to moralise along such lines, every mechanical improvement brings a new problem with it. I do not demand faith in the fable, but I have not been discouraged in the moral, by seeing motoring lead to massacre, aviation destroy cities and machines increase unemployment.
Generally, meanwhile, I began to see something of the political world, and especially that allied to our own wing of the Liberal Party; notably in the enjoyment of the hospitality which the late Mr. Cadbury used to extend to large gatherings of his contributors and friends. It was an entertaining experience, especially when it illustrated, as it generally did, the very varied elements of which our party was made up. It was at one of these house-parties of the Cadburys that I first met a man for whom I had a very great regard, apart from the fact that his company was always amusing; I mean Will Crooks, for it always jarred against his whole solid personality to refer to him as Mr. Crooks. I have known a great many Labour members, and liked most of them; quite as much at any rate as Liberal members. The Labour members I knew covered every type from frigid Cambridge dons to eccentric English and Scottish aristocrats. Will Crooks was the only Labour leader I ever knew who reminded me for a single moment of the English labouring classes. His humour really was the humour of an omnibus conductor or a railway porter; and that sort of humour is a much more powerful and real thing than most modern forms of education or eloquence. His criticism on beholding a company of advanced Socialist intellectuals was not that they gave too concentrated a power to the abstraction of the State, or that they followed an impossible ideal unsupported by self-interest, but that, as he put it, "They got no backs to their 'eads." His wife also was as representative as a Roman matron; and it is in connection with her that I specially recall the curious clash of types and cultures that went on even inside our own political party. I remember an ethereal little lady with pale blue eyes and pale green garments, who was the wife of a well-known Anti-War journalist. She had a touching timidity in advancing her ideas; but, when they were advanced, they were a very serious business indeed. I remember that Mr. Noel Buxton, whose acquaintance I made about this time, was describing in an animated and amusing fashion the scurry and scamper of his life while contesting a seat at the election. In a dreadful hour, he happened to use the expression; "I just had time to snatch a cutlet--"; and the prophetess in the green garments was goaded, by the god within her, to speak. When Buxton had left the room she did so.
"Do you think that was really necessary?" she said with a painful fixity, like one in a trance. "Man is no better for a cutlet. Man does not really need cutlets."
At this point she received hearty, one might almost say heavy support, from what was probably an unexpected quarter.
"No, my dear," said Mrs. Crooks in resounding tones, "A man doesn't want a cutlet! What's the good of a cutlet? What a man wants is a good chump chop or a bit of the under-cut; and I'd see he got it."
The other lady sighed; it was not quite what she had meant; and she was obviously a little alarmed to advance again against her large and solid opponent and be felled to the earth with a mutton-bone. But that little comedy of cross-purposes has always remained in my memory, as a perfect parable of the two kinds of Simple Life, the false and the true.
The vegetarian lady was really a very charming lady; but a very serious lady. Almost immediately after the above incident, I had to take her in to dinner. We passed through the conservatory, and merely in order to change the subject, in a flippant fashion I pointed to an insect-eating plant and said,
"Don't you vegetarians feel remorse when you look at that? You live by devouring harmless plants; and here is a plant that actually devours animals. Surely it is a just judgment. It is the revenge of the vegetable world."
She looked at me with staring blue eyes that were absolutely grave and unsmiling. "Oh," she said, "But I don't approve of revenge."
This, I need hardly say, shattered and prostrated me altogether; I could only murmur in a vague and sullen manner that of course, if she didn't believe in revenge, what was Christianity coming to, or words to that effect. But she long lingered in my thoughts and her type of thinking has run through all my life and times, like a thread of pale green and blue.
I mixed myself in politics also in other ways; I can hardly say in more practical ways. For the politics were not very practical politics--at least, not when I practised them. Charles Masterman used to swear with derisive gusto that when we went canvassing together, he went all down one side of a street and up most of the other, and found me in the first house, still arguing the philosophy of government with the first householder. This was perhaps unduly darkened by a jovial pessimism which belonged to Charles Masterman. But it is perfectly true that I began electioneering under the extraordinary delusion that the object of canvassing is conversion. The object of canvassing is counting. The only real reason for people being pestered in their own houses by party agents is quite unconnected with the principles of the party (which are often a complete mystery to the agents): it is simply that the agents may discover from the words, manner, gesticulations, oaths, curses, kicks or blows of the householder, whether he is likely to vote for the party candidate, or not to vote at all. I learnt this lesson gradually myself; from a vast variety of human faces and gestures revealed by the opening of front-doors. My friend Oldershaw and I went down together to canvass for a Liberal candidate in the country. It seems strange now to remember that, in our innocence, we did not know anything about him except that he was a Liberal candidate. He was, so far as my knowledge goes, a perfectly worthy and respectable gentleman; but as we passed through that and many other political elections a curious and obscure feeling began to grow in my mind. At the time I was not even conscious of it; even now I do not know how to describe that cold and creeping suggestion of the subconsciousness. When it ultimately rose to the surface and shaped itself, long afterwards in other campaigns, into a half articulate question, I think the question was, "Why is the candidate nearly always the worst duffer on his own platform?" To these elections and by-elections, to which I went in many places, many other speakers also went, always more eloquent and, then at least, much better known than I. There were on the platform men like John Simon and Belloc who spoke as well as it is possible to speak, probably better than they have ever spoken since. And all the time, as often as not, the man we were sending up specially to speak, in the supreme court of Parliament, could not speak at all. He was some solid and dressy tailor's dummy, with a single eye-glass or waxed moustaches, who repeated exactly the same dull formula at every separate meeting. There is something interesting, as a matter of psychology, in this unconfessed half-consciousness in the mind of youth that things are not really right, even while the will and the convictions are ready to shout with loyalty to their perfect and universal rightness. Looking back on it now, after those other political experiences of Marconi days, which I shall have to describe later, I know exactly what it was I felt; I also know exactly what it was I did not understand. I know that what runs modern politics is money; and that the superiority of the fool in the frock-coat over Belloc and Simon simply consisted in the fact that he was richer than they were. But I was then quite innocent of all these things; and especially in the case of the first Liberal candidate I worked for, I shouted with sustained enthusiasm and fidelity. The extraordinary thing, about the first candidate I worked for, is that he got in.
But though I fear I was not of much use to the electioneering, it was ultimately of some use to me; as I saw more of the country life than a Londoner like myself had yet imagined, and encountered not a few entertaining country types. I remember at another election a sturdy old woman of Somerset, with a somewhat menacing and almost malevolent stare, who informed me on her own doorstep that she was a Liberal and I could not see her husband, because he was still a Tory. She then informed me that she had been twice married before, and both her husbands had been Tories when they married her, but had become Liberals afterwards. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder towards the invisible Conservative within and said, "I'll have him ready by the 'lection." I was not permitted to penetrate further into this cavern of witchcraft, where she manufactured Liberals out of the most unpromising materials; and (it would appear) destroyed them afterwards. But she was only one of a number of such quaint and forcible rustics whom I encountered in my political travels. Nor indeed were they the only things that I encountered. For all this funny little fuss of politics was in this case spread out like a sprawling sham fight, or the manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain, over that enormous area of noble hills and valleys which had seen so many vaster struggles in the past, reaching back to that aboriginal struggle of the Pagans and the Christians which is the genesis of all our history. And such primitive things were probably already working their way to the surface of my own mind; things that I afterwards attempted to throw into very inadequate but at least more elemental and universal literary form. For I remember the faint and hazy inspiration that troubled me one evening on the road, as I looked beyond the little hamlet, patched so incongruously with a few election posters, and saw hung upon the hills, as if it were hung upon the heavens, remote as a pale cloud and archaic as a gigantic hieroglyph; the White Horse.
I only mention it here because there will be some misunderstanding even of my accidental and amateurish intervention in politics, if it is not understood that our political idealism, unpopular as it was, was felt inwardly as national and not as international. It was that which was a permanent source of irritation and misunderstanding, both within and without the political party. To us it seemed obvious that Patriotism and Imperialism were not only not the same thing, but very nearly opposite things. But it did not seem obvious, but very puzzling, to the great majority of healthy patriots and innocent Imperialists. It seemed equally puzzling to a great many anti-patriots and anti-Imperialists. Towards the end of this period, we published a book intended to explain our rather peculiar position; it was called England a Nation; it was edited by Oldershaw and had contributions by Masterman and myself and others. One of the contributions came from an Irish Nationalist member, my friend Hugh Law; and it was about this time, naturally enough, that I began to see something of the Irish Nationalists and to feel a strong and special sympathy with Irish Nationalism. Of this I may say more in another place; it is sufficient to remark here that it is to me a considerable satisfaction to think that I have always felt it the first duty of a real English patriot to sympathise with the passionate patriotism of Ireland; that I expressed it through the worst times of her tragedy and have not lost it in her triumph.
Curiously enough, however, my sharpest memory of the puzzle of this patriotic paradox, and the difficulty of making others see what to me was so obvious, is not connected with Ireland or with England; but, of all places in the world, with Germany. Some time after all these events, I had to visit Frankfurt, where I took on rather casually the task of lecturing on English literature to a congress of German schoolmasters. We discussed Walter Scott's Marmion and other metrical romances; we sang English songs over German beer, and had a very pleasant time. But there was already stirring, even among those mild and amiable Germans, something that was not so pleasant; and though they expressed it quite politely, I suddenly found myself once more in the same difficulty about the national and the imperial notion. For, speaking to some of them at large about literature, as to a merely cosmopolitan world of culture, I touched on this preference of mine for what some consider a narrower national idea. I found that they also were puzzled; they assured me, with that gravity with which Germans alone can repeat what they regard as a platitude, that Imperialismus and Patriotismus were the same thing. When they discovered that I did not like Imperialismus, even for my own country, a very curious expression came into their eyes, and a still more curious notion seems to have come into their heads. They formed the extraordinary idea that I was an internationalist indifferent, or even hostile, to English interests. Perhaps they thought Gilbert Keith Chesterton was an alias of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Anyhow, they began to talk more openly, but still vaguely; and there grew gradually on my consciousness the conviction that these extraordinary people really thought that I might accept or approve, on some toshy ethnological or sociological ground or other, the extension of the Teutonic Race at the expense even of the impotence or absorption of my own land. It was a somewhat difficult situation; for they said nothing definite that I had any right to resent; it was merely that I felt in the atmosphere a pressure and a threat. It was Der Tag. After thinking a moment, I said, "Well, gentlemen, if it ever came to anything like that, I think I should have to refer you to the poem of Scott that we have been discussing." And I gravely repeated the answer of Marmion, when King James says that they may meet again in war as far south as Tamworth Castle.
Much honour'd were my humble home,
If in its halls King James should come;
But Nottingham has archers good,
And Yorkshire men are stern of mood;
Northumbrian prickers wild and rude. ...
And many a banner will be torn,
And many a knight to earth be borne,
And many a sheaf of arrows spent,
Ere Scotland's King shall cross the Trent.
I looked at them and they at me, and I think they understood; and there rose up like an enormous shadow over that drinking-hall the terror of things to be.