'Gey weet' as I sit here. An' yesterday was 'het'. The weather is about as predictable as anything else these days.
But one thing that is certain, is that my stint here on New Gateway is coming to an end.
This is the penultimate editorial before I conclude my stint of 30, in small tribute to Leatham's 30 Volumes of the original. There was never any way I could compete. But in the two and a half years I've been doing this, I've learned a lot and gained even more respect for Leathams energy, enthusiasm and commitment.
Criticism is easy, when it is 'that's no verra guid' variety. But few who criticise put their own talents or effort on the line.
All too frequently I hear complaints about authors - it used to simply be dismissed as 'vanity' publishing, but digital technology has opened the genie's box and it's now easier than ever for 'voices' to be heard. Which is, of course, a double edged sword.
So let's think a bit about standards. It would be lovely if everyone was well educated enough to be able to write perfect prose without typos or errors. It would also be lovely if people were a bit more kind to each other's creative endeavours. Those who criticise most do tend to be those with the 'best' education. 'Best' in the sense that they have been through schools that dinned in the rules (moral, social and grammar) but they mostly have one other thing in common - an inability to accept, or even thole (and certainly not celebrate) diversity.
I am not either endorsing a 'rush to the bottom' or a 'dumbing down' of anything. But I am suggesting that there are worse things in the world than typos or split infinitives. We have learned (or some of us have) that 'emotional' intelligence is also a 'thing.' It's something sadly lacking in many of the privileged (often who do not even see themselves as that - like us all, they consider themselves 'normal.) who rant and rave about 'bad' writing.
I'll nail my colours to the mast and say that in my opinion it's the ideas behind the words, the concepts, that make writing/and reading a value to the individual and society. We should, of course, strive to be a) the best we can be and b) the clearest we can in communication - but we should also recognise that different people have different limits, experiences and, yes, let's admit it, education. If a typo spoils your day, or your reading, you perhaps need to go and reappraise why you read.
I've read many incredible stories (and articles) by people who can't work out where an apostrophe goes. Mostly it doesn't matter. Sometimes it does. But if they are transporting me to another world, be that fact or fiction, I'm just grateful they've put in the time to share.
So let's all take J.M.Barrie's dictum on board - 'shall we make a new rule of life: always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary' - in respect of what we read (and write)
Perhaps you'd like to cogitate on that while you read this month's articles. Errors there will be. Time pressures there always are. Money there is none. But as Barrie also said 'the fault, Dear Brutus, lies not with the stars but within ourselves.'
Open your mind fully and you will find much less to 'criticise' in life and much more to revel in.
HOW MY MOTHER GOT HER SOFT FACE
On the day I was born we bought six hair-bottomed chairs, and in our little house it was an event, the first great victory in a woman’s long campaign; how they had been laboured for, the pound-note and the thirty threepenny-bits they cost, what anxiety there was about the purchase, the show they made in possession of the west room, my father’s unnatural coolness when he brought them in (but his face was white) — I so often heard the tale afterwards, and shared as boy and man in so many similar triumphs, that the coming of the chairs seems to be something I remember, as if I had jumped out of bed on that first day, and run ben to see how they looked. I am sure my mother’s feet were ettling to be ben long before they could be trusted, and that the moment after she was left alone with me she was discovered barefooted in the west room, doctoring a scar (which she had been the first to detect) on one of the chairs, or sitting on them regally, or withdrawing and re-opening the door suddenly to take the six by surprise. And then, I think, a shawl was flung over her (it is strange to me to think it was not I who ran after her with the shawl), and she was escorted sternly back to bed and reminded that she had promised not to budge, to which her reply was probably that she had been gone but an instant, and the implication that therefore she had not been gone at all. Thus was one little bit of her revealed to me at once: I wonder if I took note of it. Neighbours came in to see the boy and the chairs. I wonder if she deceived me when she affected to think that there were others like us, or whether I saw through her from the first, she was so easily seen through. When she seemed to agree with them that it would be impossible to give me a college education, was I so easily taken in, or did I know already what ambitions burned behind that dear face? when they spoke of the chairs as the goal quickly reached, was I such a newcomer that her timid lips must say ‘They are but a beginning’ before I heard the words? And when we were left together, did I laugh at the great things that were in her mind, or had she to whisper them to me first, and then did I put my arm round her and tell her that I would help? Thus it was for such a long time: it is strange to me to feel that it was not so from the beginning.
It is all guess-work for six years, and she whom I see in them is the woman who came suddenly into view when they were at an end. Her timid lips I have said, but they were not timid then, and when I knew her the timid lips had come. The soft face — they say the face was not so soft then. The shawl that was flung over her — we had not begun to hunt her with a shawl, nor to make our bodies a screen between her and the draughts, nor to creep into her room a score of times in the night to stand looking at her as she slept. We did not see her becoming little then, nor sharply turn our heads when she said wonderingly how small her arms had grown. In her happiest moments — and never was a happier woman — her mouth did not of a sudden begin to twitch, and tears to lie on the mute blue eyes in which I have read all I know and would ever care to write. For when you looked into my mother’s eyes you knew, as if He had told you, why God sent her into the world — it was to open the minds of all who looked to beautiful thoughts. And that is the beginning and end of literature. Those eyes that I cannot see until I was six years old have guided me through life, and I pray God they may remain my only earthly judge to the last. They were never more my guide than when I helped to put her to earth, not whimpering because my mother had been taken away after seventy-six glorious years of life, but exulting in her even at the grave.
She had a son who was far away at school. I remember very little about him, only that he was a merry-faced boy who ran like a squirrel up a tree and shook the cherries into my lap. When he was thirteen and I was half his age the terrible news came, and I have been told the face of my mother was awful in its calmness as she set off to get between Death and her boy. We trooped with her down the brae to the wooden station, and I think I was envying her the journey in the mysterious wagons; I know we played around her, proud of our right to be there, but I do not recall it, I only speak from hearsay. Her ticket was taken, she had bidden us good-bye with that fighting face which I cannot see, and then my father came out of the telegraph-office and said huskily, ‘He’s gone!’ Then we turned very quietly and went home again up the little brae. But I speak from hearsay no longer; I knew my mother for ever now.
That is how she got her soft face and her pathetic ways and her large charity, and why other mothers ran to her when they had lost a child. ‘Dinna greet, poor Janet,’ she would say to them; and they would answer, ‘Ah, Margaret, but you’re greeting yoursel.’ Margaret Ogilvy had been her maiden name, and after the Scotch custom she was still Margaret Ogilvy to her old friends. Margaret Ogilvy I loved to name her. Often when I was a boy, ‘Margaret Ogilvy, are you there?’ I would call up the stair.
She was always delicate from that hour, and for many months she was very ill. I have heard that the first thing she expressed a wish to see was the christening robe, and she looked long at it and then turned her face to the wall. That was what made me as a boy think of it always as the robe in which he was christened, but I knew later that we had all been christened in it, from the oldest of the family to the youngest, between whom stood twenty years. Hundreds of other children were christened in it also, such robes being then a rare possession, and the lending of ours among my mother’s glories. It was carried carefully from house to house, as if it were itself a child; my mother made much of it, smoothed it out, petted it, smiled to it before putting it into the arms of those to whom it was being lent; she was in our pew to see it borne magnificently (something inside it now) down the aisle to the pulpit-side, when a stir of expectancy went through the church and we kicked each other’s feet beneath the book-board but were reverent in the face; and however the child might behave, laughing brazenly or skirling to its mother’s shame, and whatever the father as he held it up might do, look doited probably and bow at the wrong time, the christening robe of long experience helped them through. And when it was brought back to her she took it in her arms as softly as if it might be asleep, and unconsciously pressed it to her breast: there was never anything in the house that spoke to her quite so eloquently as that little white robe; it was the one of her children that always remained a baby. And she had not made it herself, which was the most wonderful thing about it to me, for she seemed to have made all other things. All the clothes in the house were of her making, and you don’t know her in the least if you think they were out of the fashion; she turned them and made them new again, she beat them and made them new again, and then she coaxed them into being new again just for the last time, she let them out and took them in and put on new braid, and added a piece up the back, and thus they passed from one member of the family to another until they reached the youngest, and even when we were done with them they reappeared as something else. In the fashion! I must come back to this. Never was a woman with such an eye for it. She had no fashion-plates; she did not need them. The minister’s wife (a cloak), the banker’s daughters (the new sleeve) — they had but to pass our window once, and the scalp, so to speak, was in my mother’s hands. Observe her rushing, scissors in hand, thread in mouth, to the drawers where her daughters’ Sabbath clothes were kept. Or go to church next Sunday, and watch a certain family filing in, the boy lifting his legs high to show off his new boots, but all the others demure, especially the timid, unobservant-looking little woman in the rear of them. If you were the minister’s wife that day or the banker’s daughters you would have got a shock. But she bought the christening robe, and when I used to ask why, she would beam and look conscious, and say she wanted to be extravagant once. And she told me, still smiling, that the more a woman was given to stitching and making things for herself, the greater was her passionate desire now and again to rush to the shops and ‘be foolish.’ The christening robe with its pathetic frills is over half a century old now, and has begun to droop a little, like a daisy whose time is past; but it is as fondly kept together as ever: I saw it in use again only the other day.
My mother lay in bed with the christening robe beside her, and I peeped in many times at the door and then went to the stair and sat on it and sobbed. I know not if it was that first day, or many days afterwards, that there came to me, my sister, the daughter my mother loved the best; yes, more I am sure even than she loved me, whose great glory she has been since I was six years old. This sister, who was then passing out of her ‘teens, came to me with a very anxious face and wringing her hands, and she told me to go ben to my mother and say to her that she still had another boy. I went ben excitedly, but the room was dark, and when I heard the door shut and no sound come from the bed I was afraid, and I stood still. I suppose I was breathing hard, or perhaps I was crying, for after a time I heard a listless voice that had never been listless before say, ‘Is that you?’ I think the tone hurt me, for I made no answer, and then the voice said more anxiously ‘Is that you?’ again. I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little lonely voice, ‘No, it’s no him, it’s just me.’ Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed, and though it was dark I knew that she was holding out her arms.
After that I sat a great deal in her bed trying to make her forget him, which was my crafty way of playing physician, and if I saw any one out of doors do something that made the others laugh I immediately hastened to that dark room and did it before her. I suppose I was an odd little figure; I have been told that my anxiety to brighten her gave my face a strained look and put a tremor into the joke (I would stand on my head in the bed, my feet against the wall, and then cry excitedly, ‘Are you laughing, mother?’) — and perhaps what made her laugh was something I was unconscious of, but she did laugh suddenly now and then, whereupon I screamed exultantly to that dear sister, who was ever in waiting, to come and see the sight, but by the time she came the soft face was wet again. Thus I was deprived of some of my glory, and I remember once only making her laugh before witnesses. I kept a record of her laughs on a piece of paper, a stroke for each, and it was my custom to show this proudly to the doctor every morning. There were five strokes the first time I slipped it into his hand, and when their meaning was explained to him he laughed so boisterously, that I cried, ‘I wish that was one of hers!’ Then he was sympathetic, and asked me if my mother had seen the paper yet, and when I shook my head he said that if I showed it to her now and told her that these were her five laughs he thought I might win another. I had less confidence, but he was the mysterious man whom you ran for in the dead of night (you flung sand at his window to waken him, and if it was only toothache he extracted the tooth through the open window, but when it was something sterner he was with you in the dark square at once, like a man who slept in his topcoat), so I did as he bade me, and not only did she laugh then but again when I put the laugh down, so that though it was really one laugh with a tear in the middle I counted it as two.
It was doubtless that same sister who told me not to sulk when my mother lay thinking of him, but to try instead to get her to talk about him. I did not see how this could make her the merry mother she used to be, but I was told that if I could not do it nobody could, and this made me eager to begin. At first, they say, I was often jealous, stopping her fond memories with the cry, ‘Do you mind nothing about me?’ but that did not last; its place was taken by an intense desire (again, I think, my sister must have breathed it into life) to become so like him that even my mother should not see the difference, and many and artful were the questions I put to that end. Then I practised in secret, but after a whole week had passed I was still rather like myself. He had such a cheery way of whistling, she had told me, it had always brightened her at her work to hear him whistling, and when he whistled he stood with his legs apart, and his hands in the pockets of his knickerbockers. I decided to trust to this, so one day after I had learned his whistle (every boy of enterprise invents a whistle of his own) from boys who had been his comrades, I secretly put on a suit of his clothes, dark grey they were, with little spots, and they fitted me many years afterwards, and thus disguised I slipped, unknown to the others, into my mother’s room. Quaking, I doubt not, yet so pleased, I stood still until she saw me, and then — how it must have hurt her! ‘Listen!’ I cried in a glow of triumph, and I stretched my legs wide apart and plunged my hands into the pockets of my knickerbockers, and began to whistle.
She lived twenty-nine years after his death, such active years until toward the end, that you never knew where she was unless you took hold of her, and though she was frail henceforth and ever growing frailer, her housekeeping again became famous, so that brides called as a matter of course to watch her ca’ming and sanding and stitching: there are old people still, one or two, to tell with wonder in their eyes how she could bake twenty-four bannocks in the hour, and not a chip in one of them. And how many she gave away, how much she gave away of all she had, and what pretty ways she had of giving it! Her face beamed and rippled with mirth as before, and her laugh that I had tried so hard to force came running home again. I have heard no such laugh as hers save from merry children; the laughter of most of us ages, and wears out with the body, but hers remained gleeful to the last, as if it were born afresh every morning. There was always something of the child in her, and her laugh was its voice, as eloquent of the past to me as was the christening robe to her. But I had not made her forget the bit of her that was dead; in those nine-and-twenty years he was not removed one day farther from her. Many a time she fell asleep speaking to him, and even while she slept her lips moved and she smiled as if he had come back to her, and when she woke he might vanish so suddenly that she started up bewildered and looked about her, and then said slowly, ‘My David’s dead!’ or perhaps he remained long enough to whisper why he must leave her now, and then she lay silent with filmy eyes. When I became a man and he was still a boy of thirteen, I wrote a little paper called ‘Dead this Twenty Years,’ which was about a similar tragedy in another woman’s life, and it is the only thing I have written that she never spoke about, not even to that daughter she loved the best. No one ever spoke of it to her, or asked her if she had read it: one does not ask a mother if she knows that there is a little coffin in the house. She read many times the book in which it is printed, but when she came to that chapter she would put her hands to her heart or even over her ears.
Who is John Galt?
Like all good mysteries, you need to do a bit of detective work for this article to really work. Prepare to click back and forth, go to other places and back again – do some research, some thinking and address the question seriously. You have been warned. You have nothing to lose but your ignorance.
For many a generation this question has been asked in connection with the mammoth work of the American Right Wing ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand. We might consider her the mother of neo-liberalism. But if you really want to find out who John Galt (the Scottish writer, the one, the original) then you don’t need to wade through that novel. You could do worse than read some of his own works: The (list names) and even Ringan Gilhaizie are ‘entry points’ But his ‘realist’ style from days long past can be hard to digest for some these days, so if you like to be informed before you dive in, you might like to read about him (and the debate surrounding him) here first.
Gateway Volume 1 number 6 re-published the article ‘John Galt, first of the Kailyarders’ and with Galt’s birthday being celebrated in May I thought to revisit it as well as that old hackneyed, overworn and completely outmoded concept in Scots cultural and literary history ‘Kailyard.’ If you remember I’ve gaun ma dinger on this subject a fair few times before- we haven’t given it a ‘category’ in the magazine, not wanting to give it that level of privilege… but scroll yourself back through my 2016 articles and you’ll find more than you ever wanted to.
Folk do tend to get themselves into a fankle when they discuss the K word. I’m still waiting to come across an argument from the academic elite which explains the thing in straightforward terms. It’s become the mother of all weasel words if you want my opinion. (Which presumably you do or you’ll have stopped reading by now!) A particular confusion was recently exposed by Cally Phillips of the Galloway Raiders in an article which, you can access HERE – I urge you to do so and then come back to my thoughts.
Done your required reading? Got some context? Well, prepare to embark again… because since Cally’s article was posted, the ‘esteemed’ James Robertson delivered a speech to the James Galt Society and you can read it HERE. He gives Crockett something more of a mention than the International Companion Cally critiqued – he accepts at least that Crockett was ‘an author’ but he doesn’t seem clear what either Crockett is about, or what Crockett is actually saying in his own introduction.
Blinded, I fear, by the myth of the Kailyard, Robertson toes party line (or what he thinks is established Scots literary ‘truth’). I just watch them all go round in circles as they try to justify their opinion of Crockett’s lack of worth based on an argument which itself doesn’t make sense. Crying that Crockett is ‘confusing’ is like trying to take a mote out of another’s eye before removing the plank in one’s own. Come on guys, let’s use the same criteria all round. If Galt is realist and Crockett is like Galt then Crockett is realist. But Galt is realist in a ‘rural’ way and that’s good yet Crockett is ‘realist’ in a ‘rural’ way and that’s bad? How so? And if both mix rural realism with romance (which then shows all the signs of a Scots Romance tradition transmuted from poetry to prose) isn’t it fair enough to suggest that this IS something of significance in the history of Scots literature and applies to all who use these methods – and that it ISN’T correct to dismiss this as kailyard. Never mind Who is John Galt? For me the question today in Scots literature is ‘Who is kailyard?’ And we need the question addressed with rigour and sense. The days of simply slinging the mud and closing eyes to Scots rural realism as we hang on to the discredited cult of MacDiarmid is fast approaching.
They are coming out of the shadows. Barrie and Crockett and others no doubt will follow. The gauntlet is being thrown down. If you are lazy enough still to bandy the word Kailyard in the context of the writing of the late 19th century Scottish writers – be careful – a quiet, rural revolution is afoot. People are waking up to the fact that ‘the dark ages’ of Scottish literature weren’t actually that dark after all.
Clearly, if evil preponderated in the world, men and institutions would go from bad to worse. But it is undeniable that on the whole they go from bad to good, from good to better. The lease of life is longer to-day than ever it was, which means that the average standard of health is higher than ever it was. There is less disease, and consequently less suffering from that cause. Plagues no longer decimate whole continents. Surgery is both more skilful and more humane. Before the days of anaesthetics patients were doped with spirits; the wounded man-of-war sailor, when going under the surgeon’s knife, was given a piece of leather to chew after he had been liberally dosed with rum. The hours of labour are shorter. Children are treated with more kindness at home and in school, nor are they allowed to go so early to work. The Elizabethan father tyrannised over wife and children. Servants were physically chastised. The penal code was barbarous and exacting. Homes were dark and noisome. Travel was restricted. Food was neither so good nor so varied. The salted meat eaten during the winter months, with the drinking of ‘hot and rebellious liquors,’ bred impurity of the blood and affections of the skin. The pains of life were greater and more numerous, the pleasures vastly fewer. The development of laughter and a sense of humour shows that we take our pleasures less sadly than the folk of Froissart’s day. Man’s inhumanity to man is lessened by sweeter manners, purer laws, and if the increase of education and good taste has made us more sensitive to the minor pains of life, we go on eliminating these as well as the grosser and more palpable evils.
Pessimism as a modern philosophy came too late in the day. To the extent that Schopenhauer’s teaching is not the outcome of personal hoggishness it is due to his study of Indian literature - the literature of a non-progressive Oriental people who in his day found little pleasure in life because they initiated no changes, made no movement towards making their lives more interesting.
Why a finely tempered mind like Thomson’s turned to pessimism has been so far accounted for. He was commercially a failure. He makes one of the dim characters in ‘The City’ say:-
And yet I asked no splendid dower, no spoil
Of sway or fame or rank or even wealth;
But homely love, with common food and health
And nightly sleep to balance toil.
It is not unlikely that that passage expresses poor Thomson’s own feeling. In spite of his philosophy as to the hopelessness of human effort to lighten human misery, he himself was comparatively energetic. Although he was not forty-eight at the time of his death, and much of his time had been spent in teaching and in clerical and secretarial work, his collected poems occupy over 800 pages in the fine two-volume edition published by Bertram Dobell. Exclusive of his work for ‘Cope’s Tobacco Plant’ (much of it merely intelligent compilation), he has left several volumes of essays and fantasies. So that for one who professed a belief in the futility of human effort, he was himself inconsistently industrious. His life was better than his philosophy.
Thomson, to all appearance, had a large infusion of Celtic blood, as he clearly had of temperament. The Celt is not unhappy merely because he nurses a melancholy humour. He loves losing causes and leads forlorn hopes because he is moved by the beautiful and the good as he conceives them rather than by that which is prosaically safe and certain. The more risk the more excitement and interest. He is driven by feeling rather than reasoning. A certain cause ought to succeed. He will support it because it is right, will go out to fight and to fall with a greater degree of pleasure than the Saxon will feel in backing a comparatively sure thing, for the Saxon does not love risk for its own sake, and is never over sure. The middle course, the compromise that settles nothing, but averts strife - that is repugnant to the true Celt. When he sings it is of beauty and bravery and death, and the music is as plaintive as the words. But that does not mean that he is unhappy.
Much of all pessimistic talk and writing arises from healthy weariness of the uneventfulness of life. The person who is always in one place, and living a humdrum or tiresomely hustling life at that, tends to become stale, and in the mood of stalemate everything is seen with a jaundiced eye. ‘What’s the good of anything?’ asks the Cockney song, and supplies its own answer ‘Why, nothing.’ No deeper feeling than a tired whimsy can have been behind the following outcry in ‘Vane’s Story’:-
For I am infinitely tired
With this old sphere we once admired,
With this old earth we loved too well;
Disgusted more than words can tell,
And would not mind a change of Hell.
The same old solid hills and leas,
The same old stupid, patient trees,
The same old ocean, blue and green,
The same sky, cloudy or serene;
The old two-dozen hours to run
Between the settings of the sun,
The old three hundred sixty-five
Dull days to every year alive;
Old stingy measure, weight and rule,
No margin left to play the fool;
The same old way of getting born
Into it naked and forlorn,
The same old way of creeping out
Through death’s low door for lean and stout;
Same men with the old hungry needs,
Old toil, old care, old worthless treasures,
Old gnawing sorrows, swindling pleasures;
The cards are shuffled to and fro,
The hands may vary somewhat so,
The dirty pack’s the same we know,
Played with long thousand years ago;
Played with and lost with still by Man –
Fate marked them ere the game began;
I think the only thing that’s strange
Is our illusion as to change.
That Thomson could be quietly jolly is amusingly shown in the following poem entitled ‘Aquatics (Kew),’ written in 1865, well within the period of his settled habit of mind:-
Tommy Tucker came up to Kew,
And he got in a boat - an outrigger too;
O, but the pity, the pity!
For Tommy had made up his mind to show
His pals and the gals how well he could row.
Would he were safe in the city!
The thing like a cradle it rocked in the tide,
And he like the blessed babby inside:
O, but the pity, the pity!
To hire out such shells, so light and so slim,
Is cruel as murder, for Tommy can’t swim.
Would he were safe in the city!
And why should they stick out the rowlocks that way?
He couldn’t keep both hands together in play:
O, but the pity, the pity!
He spluttered, missed water, and zig-zag’d the boat,
Each pull made a lurch, brought his heart in his throat.
Would he were safe in the city!
The river was crowded behind and before,
They chaffed, and they laughed, and they splashed, and they swore:
O, but the pity, the pity!
He twisted his neck to attend to some shout,
A four-oared came rushing - CONFOUND YOU, LOOK OUT!
Would he were safe in the city!
They made him so nervous, those terrible men,
That he could enough crabs for a supper of ten:
O, but the pity, the pity!
He crept back, a steamer came snorting astern,
With hundreds on deck - it gave him a turn:
Would he were safe in the city!
A mass of strange faces that all stared and laughed,
And the more Tommy flustered the more they all chaffed:
O, but the pity, the pity!
They passed him and roared out: ‘HEAD ON TO THE SWELL!’
But he thought he would rather keep out of it well:
Would he were safe in the city!
So it caught him broadside, and rolled him away,
As a big dog rolls over a puppy in play:
O, but the pity, the pity!
It rolled him right over – ‘Good HEAVENS! HE’LL DROWN!’
For his arms they went up, and his head it went down.
Would he were safe in the city!
Three men dragged him out with a hook through his coat.
He was blue in the face and he writhed at the throat:
O, but the pity, the pity!
They hung his head down, he was limp as a clout,
But the water once in him refused to turn out:
Would he were safe in the city!
To the house by the bridge then they carried him in;
He was taken upstairs and stripped to the skin:
O, but the pity, the pity!
They wrapt him in blankets, he gave a low moan,
Then lay there as stark and cold as a stone:
Would he were safe in the city!
Then they forced down his throat neat brandy galore,
He had taken the pledge, too, a fortnight before:
O, but the pity, the pity!
As it mixed with the water he woke in a fog,
For his belly was full of most excellent grog:
Would he were safe in the city!
He got very sick, then felt better, he said,
Though faintish, and nervous, and queer in his head:
O, but the pity, the pity!
He paid a big bill, and when it got dark
Went off with no wish to continue the lark:
Would he were safe in the city!
His coat was stitched up, but had shrunk away half,
And the legs of his trousers just reached to the calf:
O, but the pity, the pity!
No hat; they had stuck an old cap on his head;
And his watch couldn’t tell him the time when he said:
Thank God I am safe in the city!
The quotations given show our poet as pessimist or as light humourist. But he had periods of equable serenity as well. In ‘Sunday up the River’ he appears to us as the great-hearted happy lover, who can give himself to the delights of a day with the Adorable She without any background of misgiving. He lives wholly in the present.
I looked out into the morning,
I looked out into the west:
The soft blue eye of the quiet sky
Still drooped in dreamy rest.
The trees were still like cloud there,
The clouds like mountains dim;
The broad mist lay, a silver bay
Whose tide was at the brim.
I looked out into the morning,
I looked out into the east:
The flood of light upon the night
Had silently increased;
The sky was pale with fervour,
The distant trees were grey,
The hill lines drawn like waves of dawn
Dissolving in the day.
I looked out into the morning;
Looked east, looked west, with glee:
O richest day of happy May,
My love will spend with me!
This happy poem is full of felicitous changes of rhythm and form, but all is joyous. In the full tide of his happiness he says as the lovers float in their boat:-
Give a man a horse he ran ride.
Give a man a boat he can sail,
And his rank and wealth, his strength and health
On sea nor shore shall fail.
Give a man pipe he ran smoke,
Give a man a book he can read;
And his home is bright with a calm delight,
Though the room be poor indeed.
Give a man a girl he can love,
As I, O my Love, love thee;
And his heart is great with the pulse of fate,
At home, on land, on sea.
This beautiful poem is full of reaches of lyric joyousness like that, and leaves the reader with the feeling that in reasonably propitious circumstances the poet could have been steadily and quietly happy without necessarily losing the passionate energy which was the mainspring of his genius.
An Uninspiring Time.
The fifties and sixties or even the seventies of the last century were not a specially brilliant time. None of the great hopes now cherished by large masses of the people had any place in the national life of Thomson’s day. Politics took little stock of social legislation at all. The franchise had been granted to the urban householders by the Act of ’67; but it was done grudgingly, and the newly enfranchised had no very definite ends in view when they found themselves introduced to political power. Those versed in the political secrets of the time tell us of the difficulty Gladstone had, even in the middle eighties, in understanding what Mr. Chamberlain with his unauthorised programme could really be driving at. Leaping and bounding commercial prosperity, as measured in Budgets, with interludes of ‘a spirited foreign policy,’ represented the politics of the day. The social outlook of Thomson’s time was so arid that even a poet of the abounding virility and comfortable circumstances of William Morris felt bound to describe himself as ‘the idle singer of an empty day’ and to repudiate all idea of tilting at the social monsters of the time. Had Thomson lived another twenty years he might, like Morris, have found a purpose and a hope in life in spite of his temperamental bias. As it was, he had destroyed most of the illusions that made life worth living long before that sad day in June, 1882, when he died in the University Hospital, London, from internal hæmorrhage.
He regarded his life as ‘one long defeat.’ His career raises the sorely vexed question, once again, of what is to be done, what CAN be done, with the typical poet. There is no certain answer. As the world grows older and the constituency increases of those who know great poetry when they see it, perhaps it will be possible for a poet to get at least as good a living as a professional footballer, it not as the direct result of the purchase of his poems, then by a pension from the State. Even then, it is extremely doubtful if a poet so unconventional as James Thomson would be accepted as a fit object for a pension. Poor ‘B. V.,’ he perhaps more than any of his brethren fulfils Carlyle’s figure of the poet as a man set on fire and sent down the river of life a blazing spectacle for the benefit of the on-lookers on the banks.
Can it do any good to call attention to such work? Is the Book of Job or of Jeremiah or of Lamentations deserving of notice? As one of the really great poets of the nineteenth century Thomson commands notice from those who would see literature (and life) truly and see it whole. That he should have been mostly ignored by literary criticism up to now is not difficult to account for. His story is inexpressibly sad, as are his themes. But when allowance is made for the distastefulness of dwelling upon the tragedy of his life, it is still remarkable that those who have cared to write of Chatterton and Savage and Villon, of Poe and Burns and Byron and Keats and Shelley - all of them men of tragic lives, and Villon at least with a squalid career - should have fought shy of a great poet of our own day who committed no crime against anyone save himself. Perhaps it is because those others were overtaken by tragedy, while Thomson seemed to go out to meet it half way, and certainly in the end embraced it and made it his theme. Is it only another of Thomson’s pieces of ill luck that he should be denied even the posthumous fame to which his genius so richly entitles him? We must look upon all phases of thought be it only to reject them for clear reason. The life of James Thomson is one more proof of how sadly true it is
Can the Teacher Make Readers?
There can be no intelligent citizenship without good reading and plenty of it; and the lack of intelligent citizenship costs the world vastly more than the cattle, vine, and beer diseases cured by Pasteur, The mistaken South African War cost Britain 250 millions, and the Boers were handed back their virtual independence after all, just as Mr. Churchill’s attempts to suppress Bolshevism have cost the taxpayer 150 millions, besides the loss of Russian trade. Intelligent citizenship would have prevented these flamboyant adventures on the part both of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain and Mr. Winston Churchill.
What can the teacher do to stimulate a love for good reading? He can at least show his own love for it and he can show the fruits of it. I have grateful, affectionate recollection of how my own old schoolmaster communicated his enthusiasm to us. When the summer holidays came he was off to the Trossachs one year, to the northern Highlands another, to the West Highlands, the battlefields, the ruined abbeys, the castles and peel towers of the Borders, the Islands of Orkney and Shetland, the Scottish and Welsh mountains (he had climbed the higher ones), and the famous falls, about which he had botanised and geologised and had scrambles and wettings. He ‘did’ the old historic towns such as Stirling, St. Andrew’s, and Linlithgow, and the palaces of Scone and Falkland. As a good Scot he knew something of the history, antiquities, geography, industries, literature, the varieties of dialect, and the treasures of Scottish song. He could make a history or geography lesson entrancing by extra detail told with enthusiasm and embellished with anecdotes and narratives of personal adventures. All this he would work off, smiling, his heavy eyebrows twitching, and his eyes sometimes flashing, while he kicked one heel upon the other in his pleasure and excitement, which naturally communicated itself to us and made us pleased and excited too. This, of course, is a matter of personality, and a teacher either has it or he hasn’t. In many cases he would disdain thus to wear his heart on his sleeve, from some absurd idea of dignity, about which the really great are never troubled. As Josh Billings says, ‘Owls are grave, not because of their wisdom, but because of their gravity.’ I can say only that Dr. John Roy communicated his own enthusiasm for the things of the mind to several generations of lads who have done well for the world and in the world.
He taught English literature biographically, making us love Goldsmith the man and then making us admire the gentleness and simple beauty of his style. He made fun of the turgidity of Macaulay, but made us realise the patient care and accuracy with which he collected information. From ‘Caedmon’s Paraphrase’ to ‘Locksley Hall’ our teacher ranged over the field of English Literature, and made us admire and reject for reasons given. There was no Stopford Brooke primer then, nor was Logie Robertson’s book in the field. But I keep my Collier’s ‘History of English Literature’ still, and do not find it far out even in the light of later standards.
In history it was again Collier, errors and all, but supplemented by much disquisition from his own reading. In Scottish history he was strong on the splendid ‘Tales of a Grandfather,’ in which there is colour and flow and animation unknown to the bald and sterile summaries of to-day.
Probably most ardent students of history will find that they owe their taste for the subject quite as much to the glamour of the Waverley novels as to anything they learned in school in the way of professed history. The first Duke of Marlborough said he knew the history of England chiefly from reading Shakespeare’s historical plays.
I do not know exactly how history fares in the schools of to-day. I fancy, rather badly. One was glad to learn that, under the influence of the propaganda of the League of Nations, the old-fashioned conception of history as a series of stirring stories of campaigns and the prowess of heroes was likely to be considerably modified. That is very much to the good; but what has taken its place? Boys want heroes and girls heroines. A book such as Charlotte Yonge’s ‘Book of Golden Deeds’ should make an admirable schoolbook, and, as a corrective to our shopkeeping tendencies, too much cannot be made of the devotion and the vast life-interest of the career of a man such as Bernard Palissy, the self-taught potter, who for a critical and successful experiment fired his oven with the chairs and stools of his poor home, in spite of the protests of his weeping wife.
Individual heroes do not represent history of course; but the driest period of history, as recognised, has its heroes, and the struggle over institutions can be as fascinating as hand-to-hand fighting. The story of the Reform Bills of the nineteenth century abounds in incidents as good as the staple of the ‘bloods’ that boys read. There were in Scotland midnight drillings of pikemen, spies, treachery, arrests, transportations, and hangings, the pathos and romance of failure and suffering, followed in no long time by the success of the Bill of ’32 and the Municipal Corporations Act of ’33, which were not carried even in England without the, burning of Northampton Castle and the partial burning of Derby and of Bristol. In Bristol also Sir Charles Weatherall, the City Recorder, a strenuous opponent of the Reform Bill, had again and again to be rescued from the hands of a mob bent on lynching him. In 1867, before the later Reform Bill became an Act, the railings of Hyde Park were thrown down by sheer pressure from a dense mob, and the Home Secretary appealed with tears to the Reform leaders to help him in preserving order. There were rick-burning and the smashing of machinery by the Luddites ere the Factory Acts and the Repeal of the Corn laws were passed; and in the Chartist movement leaders were imprisoned, one of them, the brilliant orator and poet, Ernest Jones, writing a poem in prison with his own blood.
All these incidents give colour to the story of reform even in the nineteenth century. But, truth to tell, modern history has little of a look-in with the compilers of school histories. Even professors like to end their history with Claverhouse, or at the latest the Forty-Five, and one meets graduates and teachers who have never heard of any of all these stirring and momentous modern occurrences and movements.
Historical Test Questions.
I once in the hearing of a teacher noted over the north as a collector of folk-song mentioned casually ‘the English Revolution.’ ‘What English Revolution?’ he asked, blankly. What could I say but that I meant the Revolution - the Revolution of 1689, which established the right of Parliament to rule the country, gave it control of the army and the navy, limited the power of the monarchy to constitutional and more or less decorative functions, and, in short, did for Britain what the Revolution of 1789 did for France. The English Revolution was rightly considered of so much importance by Charles James Fox and Sir James Mackintosh as to justify them in writing histories of it, and it is the great theme of Macaulay’s four volumes as well as one of his essays. But evidently my headmaster friend had not attached any special significance to it.
The ordinary school histories are both snobbish and inaccurate, and so dessicated by condensation that the facts given can be regarded as no more than so many pegs upon which to hang a dissertation. They need to be supplemented by the more copious narratives of Green, Macaulay, Freeman, and Froude, with amplification on the social and economic side from such books as De Gibbins’ ‘Industrial History’ and Professor Thorold Rogers’ ‘Economic Interpretation of History’ and ‘Six Centuries of Work and Wages.’
A bad tone was given to English history for many years by the High Tory prejudices of David Hume, and as to many episodes he is both skimpy and inaccurate. For one thing, Cromwell, the greatest chief magistrate Britain has ever had, got no kind of fairness till Carlyle published the Life and Letters.
For another, the great English uprising known as the Peasants’ Revolt was long founded on the biassed, scornful, and erroneous account of French Froissart. Froissart represented John Ball, the intellectual leader of the revolt, as a mad priest, and confused Wat Tyler, of Maidstone, the military leader, a soldier of fortune who had served abroad, with John, the Tiler of Dartford, who cut down the poll-groat bailiff with his helving hammer. John Ball was really the greatest of Wickliffe’s Lollard preachers, who, with the newly-translated Bible in hand, went out to preach the Kingdom of Heaven upon Earth, and attacked serfdom specifically. I have written a short history of what was really a splendid movement, the first fruits of reading the Bible in the vulgar tongue; and I am glad to say my amended version of the revolt is now used in a good many English and Irish private schools.
One other historical error of great significance is the statement that the Three Estates of the Realm consist of Sovereign, Lords, and Commons. This tends to destroy the whole idea of Representative Government. The three estates really are (1) the Barons Spiritual, (2) the Barons Temporal, forming together the House of Lords, and (3) the Knights of the Shire and the burgesses of the towns, forming, as the Third Estate, the House of Commons as originally convoked by Simon de Montfort. The word Estate means a status or condition in life. The estates were classes who got their living in a particular way. So that those who deprecate the idea of class feeling and class representation in politics are denying the whole principle of representative government, which was expressly designed to secure direct class representation. The idea was that there might well be an antagonism of interests between the classes, and that the members of one estate could no more represent the other than the buyer can represent the seller, or the master the servant, or the offender be his own judge.
The New Fourth Estate.
There has now risen up a Fourth Estate in the Realm, the workers with brain and hand, and this estate also has found 142 direct representatives in Parliament. The English National Union of Teachers is, I believe, affiliated to this estate, recognising that its members live neither by rents nor by profits gained from the labour of other people, but upon wages earned by service to the community. The difference between wages and salaries is that wages are paid weekly or fortnightly, and salaries monthly or quarterly. This is a distinction rather than a difference. The nature of the status is the same. A workman asked that his wage be called salary, irrespective of the amount, on the ground that salaries were always rising, but wages were always coming down!
Is it possible that a slight weakness in history in the north of Scotland goes some way to explain how or why the northern teachers have not found their class consciousness, and have not given it political expression, but still continue to support the old historic parties, without considering their fundamental significance?
State-controlled education, without price, if not without money, represents not Socialism, but Communism, Socialism meaning everyone according to his deeds, while Communism means everyone according to his needs. The father of ten children has them educated partly at the expense of the man who has none, and this is quite as it ought to be. But it embodies the Communistic principle nevertheless. It seems an anomaly that the northern teachers, unlike other men and women engaged in the public services, do not help the only political party which seeks to confer upon all servants of the community, as well as upon the public, the advantages to be obtained from the elimination of private enterprise, with its appalling waste, inefficiency, and economic injustice.
I am content to leave the matter there, as I am not engaged in political propaganda, but in the discussion of education in general and the teaching of history in particular. The story of the past is worthy of study only as it helps to illuminate the problems of the present.
I should have liked to touch on the teaching of morals and manners in school; should have liked a word, a good many words, on the place of athletics; should have liked to answer the question ‘Does Sport Produce Sportsmen?’ and should have liked to discuss the value of certain subjects, such as Mathematics and Technology. I confess I am jealous of every subject that curtails the time given to literae humaniores. For we need the humanities more than ever. Young people are not ‘finished’ at school. They are only begun. The teacher can but introduce them to the great field of knowledge which they must cultivate for themselves, or not, in after life.
With the world in chaos around us, due to jealous, greedy, domineering ignorance, and an incapacity to profit either by the examples or the warnings of the past, there never was a time when knowledge, breadth of mind, and goodwill were more needed to set the feet of the nations in a more excellent way. It the child is father of the man, how tremendously grave is the responsibility of those who have the moulding of young minds and dispositions in their keeping! Parental control and influence never were more lax than now. The young people of previous generations were chivvied and tortured. To-day one feels that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and that they tend rather to be pampered. The one policy is nearly as mistaken as the other. Neither adults nor juveniles can afford to run on a loose rein. Life consists of doing what we would rather not, from getting up early on cold mornings to giving up life itself for an ideal or on a humane impulse.
Living on Our Past.
Nor will it do to live upon our past and the heritage handed down to us. And that is what we are doing to too great extent. The fathers that begat us made roads by forced labour or forced payments. They planted hedges and woods that gave shelter, raised the temperature, improved the amenities, and provided an ultimate supply of timber. ‘Be aye stickin’ in a tree,’ said Dumbiedykes. ‘It’ll be grouin’ while ye’re sleepin’!’ They built stone walls and farmhouses, and they marled and subsoiled and took in the peatbogs and barren places. They won great civic liberties and rights, not without suffering and death itself. We do none of these things. The young men fought to preserve the liberties of Europe, but they make little use of them now that they are won. Surely some part of the responsibility for all this slacking lies at the doors of those who have had the shaping of the present generation.
The Scotland of Burns’s Day.
The day before yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and one can’t help thinking of the immense difference there is between the Scotland of Burns’s day and the Scotland of to-day. There are the motor cars, the furs and finery of the women, the better housing, all the improved features of the merely material civilization; but what does it profit a nation if it gain the world and lose its soul?
The Scotland of Burns’s day and for two generations to come - say to the time of Dr. John Brown, the brilliant, big-hearted lover of dogs and humans - was a Scotland possessing a veritable galaxy of talent and genius. Contemporary with Burns, or just before him, were Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, Hume and Robertson, the historians, with Sir Archibald Alison and Patrick Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee. There were Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart, and Sir Wm. Hamilton, the great exponents of the ‘Scottish school of philosophy.’ There was, in a niche all by himself, Adam Smith, the father of political economy as a branch of moral philosophy in his allowance. There were Galt and Scott and Miss Ferrier, the novelists; Home, the reverend author of ‘Douglas, a Tragedy’; and of critics and essayists what a company! Jeffrey and Christopher North and Macvey Napier, who were to attract north to Edinburgh, Sydney Smith, De Quincey, and the contributions of Macaulay, those classic essays sent home to the Edinburgh Review from India, during the brilliant ten years of Macaulay’s exile, while he revised the Indian Penal Code.
The Edinburgh Review was the most powerful periodical in the world at the time. But it was not the only Edinburgh one. There were Blackwood, Tait’s Magazine, Fraser’s Magazine, Macmillan’s, The North British Review, and Chambers’s Journal.
Then there were the great dames who made songs and sang them, accompanying themselves on harpsichord, spinnet, or harp, They spoke Scots, as their menfolk did, but they spoke it with grace and comeliness, we are told. They had high spirits and wit, both natural and the kind distilled from books and reading.
A Distinctive Spirit.
The Scotland of those days had a distinctive spirit and genius. But what can be said of the Scotland of to-day? It is a colourless province of the all-too-predominant partner, rich in money and comfort indeed, but at what a cost! Its books and plays and music are mostly English. It has adopted the inferior part of English civilization. The fine English courtesy and manners it has not adopted, nor has it acquired the English gift for music. It is not uncommon to hear sneering remarks about the tinkling of pianos in every house in England; but if there is this universality of taste for music in England, there is yet, mixed up with much that is merely popular and not very good, an undoubted body of real musical taste. It is better to have errand-boys and shopgirls going about singing or whistling operatic airs heard at ‘the pictures,’ and showing the possession of an ear for music, than to have a handful of the select knowing music and playing it with a painful dependence upon the printed score, and making music a mere drawing-room and concert accomplishment, without having it really in their hearts and their heads.
It is the graces that make life worth living. Coal and bread are highly necessary, but no one can wax enthusiastic over a ridge of coal or a mountain of bread, and the villa on the cinder heap does not provoke one to lyric raptures. There is more artistic, disinterested happiness in a wayside cot, with a fiddle in it and a few well-thumbed good books, than in mansions that contain pianos that no one in the house can play, and, for books, chiefly motor-car catalogues and company prospectuses and share-lists. The sections of the newspapers devoted to ‘wills proved’ convey the impression that Scotland is per head a richer country than England nowadays; for the Scots legatees often head the lists with fortunes of five, six, and even seven figures, while English testators taper away down with diminishing sums of four and three figures. Quite enough for anybody to leave. Why should anyone add to the pains of death by having so much to leave for other people to fight about and be demoralised by? Is it because the Englishman prefers to live rich rather than die rich that he leaves so comparatively little?
It rests with us to ask ourselves individually what are we to do about this temporary loss by Scotland of her soul.
Were I a teacher I should like to be able to feel that I had done my duty to the full, both in school and in the world; for the teacher also is a citizen, with the obligation resting upon him in a special degree, in proportion to his intelligence, to help to hand on some addition to the heritage of liberty and right left by those who ‘did their deeds and went away.’
Glasgow in the Limelight
Humour, Quickness, Turbulence
The Municipalism that blesses, the Industrialism that blights.
Glasgow has always occupied its fair share of the limelight. The ebullience of Mr David Kirkwood, with which one has much sympathy as a rule, is in character with the native temperament. The term ‘canny’ as applied to the Scot is a standing proof of the infelicity of national labels. It is always forgotten that the word ‘Scot’ means tempestuous, windy, stormy.
Glasgow had Bread Riots to correspond with the Meal Mobs of Aberdeen and the Porteous Riots of Edinburgh, with the Edinburgh ‘rabbling’ of a Lord Provost, who was found hiding in a cup-board and was roughly handled. As far back as 1725 the Glasgow mob made its power felt in a riot against the Malt Tax. Bands of men, armed with sticks, paraded the streets and threw stones at the town officers. They put the authorities into such a state of alarm that an urgent message was sent to Edinburgh for troops. The Provost connived at this summons; but its chief instigator was the local member of Parliament, Daniel Campbell of Shawfield whose handsome mansion-house was plundered and wrecked, the mob being headed by a man in woman’s attire, a common device with Scots crowds of rioters in those stormy days.
Two companies of soldiers presently entered the town, and martial law was proclaimed; but so little intimidated were the inhabitants by the mounting of guards and the display of force in general that they taunted and stoned the soldiers till they fired upon them volley after volley, killing or wounding many of those who came within range. The alarm bell in the Townhouse was rung, hundreds of citizens flocked from all parts, and, breaking into a magazine, equipped themselves with a medley of weapons and set off to avenge upon the hated English soldiers the deaths of their fellow citizens. Warned by the Provost, however, Captain Bushell and his men beat a hasty retreat for Dumbarton Castle, fifteen miles distant, which they reached through a demonstratively hostile countryside. The Provost was arrested, and more troops were sent; but for the time being the spasm had passed. In the result, the Captain who had lost his head by reason of the taunts and stone-throwing was tried and sentenced, but received the King’s pardon on account of the provocation received; the Provost was liberated; and the obnoxious M.P. who had called in the soldiers received £9000 in compensation for the wreck of his house; but the Malt Tax was allowed to stand unrepealed.
The people of Glasgow mostly had no votes then; but now that they have, they take the more excellent legislative way for the redress of grievances. For that matter, they are still prepared to assert ‘the sacred right of insurrection’ in addition. Scotland is nowhere more Scots, in the sense of being turbulent, than it is in the Second City: ‘scenes’ at Westminster are the natural, spontaneous expression of the national temper, and it never had more legitimate reason for flaming up than it has in these days of governmental ineptitude and frank reaction, with, oddly enough, a Glasgow representative at the head of it all.
But the Glasgow man is, nevertheless, over-engined. Even their fellow-labourists in Parliament urge that the Glasgow members are ‘excitable.’ The folk of St Mungo’s are subject to many more neurotic stimuli than other people. The market never ceases in the congested city. Because of the busy commercial life and the limited area upon which a dense population is piled in houses of flats, street-cleaning is largely done in the night-time, though boys with shovel and handbrush dangerously dodge the endless traffic by day as well. The whistles of night trains lumbering overhead upon the arches, and the sirens of shipping in the river must make a special strain upon the nerves even of the sleepers. To the dweller on Clydeside the peace and rest of silence is forever denied. Men may sleep through racket, but it cannot be deep, relaxed, full-stretched slumber. Tired Tommies slept during a bombardment; but it was noticeably a sleep with many starts and twitches, which must have entailed a certain nervous tension even if the starts and twitches were unconscious.
With the morning ‘horns’ an inferno of noises begins. At six o’clock in the old days, in a walk, say by Haggs Castle, from Plantation, from Scotland Street to Kinning Park, from Polmadie on the east to Govan on the west, one could trace the ululation in all notes of the scale. The hoarse roar, typical of the brutality of much of Glasgow’s industry, is not so racking as the crepitation of boring and crushing machinery; but it has nevertheless a more dismally depressing sound.
If this is a bad beginning, still worse remains behind. Glasgow has processes in her shipyards and foundries that render communication by ordinary speech impossible. It is said that 40 per cent of boilermakers are deaf, and is it any wonder if the Glasgow man’s ordinary conversation out of doors is often an angry shout where there is no cause for anger?
Much time and money are expended over the suppression or abatement of noise in London. Architects labour at floors, walls, ceilings, and windows in order to deaden sound, and outside devices to the same end are represented in the laying down of gravel and tanners bark, and the covering of opposite walls with ivy or other foliage. It is found that the minimising of noise has its direct result in the increased efficiency of the workers who have been relieved, to say nothing of their increased comfort. One would be glad to learn of a similar campaign against noise was afoot in Glasgow; but one’s experience of Glasgow’s indwellers is that they profess to rather like the noise. One has heard Englishmen, long resident in the Second City, not only defend the noise, but discover a healty asset in its smells and an aesthetic lure about Dickson’s Blazes.
The neurotic tensions caused by its noises, its rush of traffic, and the hot industrial and commercial pace, has other regrettable aids. Wullie Paterson lives mostly in two-roomed tenements, with many neighbours, and of course there are no gardens, while his bleachgreen is a pole projecting from the windo. He and his wife do not believe in open windows, nor has he a stomach for wholesome fare. ‘Nane o’ yer parrich and mulk for him,’ says one who knows him well; and he adds; ‘The baking of bannocks and the making of good Scots broth are alike outside the ordinary powers of his wife… she has a settled convitction that new bread is more digestible than stale, and treats ‘him’ and the bairns to boiled tea and ham at every other meal, with shop-made potted head and a slice of shop made plum pudding for the Sunday dinner’ - when there is one. Often I have found that there was no Sunday dinner; that early high tea took its place. The Glasgow writer, whom I am debarred from naming, adds: ‘Small wonder that Wullie Paterson is outwardly spare, grim, and fierce, and that his children grow up small of bone and badly nourished.’
Before the war there were districts of Glasgow – Cowcaddens is given for one – where the householders spent on the publicans from two to three times as much as they gave an the house proprietors in rent. The Scot all over is a heretic on the rent question. I have heard a comparatively well-to-do man in an Aberdeenshire town say: ‘Imagine paying aicht poun’ for a hoose to bide in!’
The correspondent whom I have cited above writes of the Glasgow man’s ‘savagery’ in drink, and especially after a spell of ill-luck with the ‘bookies’; but of this I have no direct knowledge, the workmen with whom I associated being free of the betting virus. A friend who was for a time in low water had to live in a working-class tenement, and his wife assured me that her husband was the only man in the building who did not give his wife an occasional thrashing.
One night I had a shock and very nearly got myself into a scrape. Passing the end of a mean street with some friends, we could hear the screams and moans of a woman who was being dragged along the street by her husband. Women at the end of the street cried out, ‘He’s twistin’ her airm!’ They were some way off, but I started to run after them with the natural impulse of trying to stop cruelty so repellent. But my friends held me, and the men who had come out to the doors on hearing the hullabaloo declared that it served her right; that the man had gone and taken her out of a public house; and that he had ‘stood owre muckles at her hands a’ready.’
I was on a missionary visit, and the shock of this sight, and the feeling conveyed by the bystanders that the incident was comparatively ordinary nerved one’s denunciation of the horrors of civilization as it still existed in ‘cruel Scotland.’
The temper of the Glaswegians is quick, but surely it has its offsets. Wullie Pai’erson is a live wire. I don’t suppose he lasts; but for work it is an undoubted asset while it does. Even the ‘funny stories’ about Glasgow often have a touch of temper about them.
An Englishman found himself in a Glasgow street crowd which had assembled, apparently, over some accident. ‘What has happened?’ he asked.
‘A man fa’n aff a larry,’ he was told. No wiser for the quick explanation he applied to another.
‘It’s a man fa’n aff a larry.’
Still no wiser, he made a third attempt, and got a sharp answer.
‘Man, ye maun be a stupiet fellah. I’ve h’ard ye an twice, an I’ve h’ard ye twice tell’t that it’s a man fa’n aff a larry!’
The explanation, need it be said, was that a man had fallen off a lorry.
A story is told, not very often, which illustrates Glasgow’s great achievement, the deepening of the Clyde. One day a skiff of the shallow draught of the eighteenth century was stuck on a mud-bank in the as yet undeepened river. A girl came down to fill her bucket near the stranded vessel. The angry skipper hailed her: ‘If ye tak’ ae drap o’ water oot o’ this, I’ll hit ye owre the heid wi’ the marlinspike.’ He was afraid his progress might be delayed, and was for taking no risks.
In the early days of steam navigation one of the craft propelled in the new way passed another vessel in the Clyde, perhaps with a pitying smile from the man on the bridge. ‘You an’ yer blasted deevil’s reek!”’ exclaimed the man who was being outpaced. ‘I’m content tae gang wi’ the breath o’ God Almichty.’
Wullie’s phrases are sometimes picturesque enough. It was a Glasgow man who described a tall, lean man as ‘a man like a lang drink o’ watter!’
A man who had a hump on one shoulder was said to have a knot in his gallowses (braces.) A well-known Glasgow magistrate who always refers to his mother as ‘the aul’ yin,’ once described how another relative ‘Gaed lookin’ for an escape o’ gas wi’ a licht, an’ he fund it, an’ he’s been in the infirmary for three weeks!’
The same dignitary used to sing occasionally, but in his musical essays was wont to harass the accompanist by straying into another key. When asked what key he was singing he once said, ‘Aye, gie me the key o’ the washin-hoose.’
Jocular heckling has long been a feature of the political life of Glasgow. Thus a candidate was asked: ‘Wad ye be in favour o’ a blin’ man bein’ chairged for stairheid gas?’
And talking of gas, there was an air of jocular originality about the escapade of an offender who was sent to prison the other day for keeping an illicit whisky still, which he had operated with several hundred thousand feet of gas stolen by an illicit connection established with the corporation mainpipe!
But sometimes the causticity has no redeeming feature of wit or humour. At a St Andrew’s Night concert in Hull once I sat just in front of a pursy man, clean-shaven except for a moustache, who was accompanied by two women – his wife and perhaps his sister, their conversation specifically connecting them with Glasgow. On such occasions Scots people are apt to be in a specially good humour; but my man certainly was not; and though his companions sometimes demurred to his censorious remarks, his mood was infectious at least to the extent of freezing geniality in others. Thus when a very acceptable singer had finished his first number, and was leaving the platform amid a storm of applause, the man in the rear remarked, when the din had subsided; ‘Ay, Bob Burnett. He’s a good singer and he knows it!’ In due course cam Scott Sinner, the Strathspey King, whose appearance evoked the bored comment; ‘Och, ay, always the same old thing wi’ him.’ While others smiled and beamed at the surge and vim and unerring accuracy of the veteran’s playing, with difficulty restraining their desire to find the floor as the fire of music got into their feet, the scornful remark came from behind; ‘Look how he saws!’ The fiddler played his own lovely ‘Lullaby,’ gave clever barnyard imitations, and ‘took off’ a parrot with laughable realism. But it was all of no use to the critic behind, who remarked with impatience, ‘What’s next?’ almost before the artist had finished.
The Glasgow correspondent whose name I am unable to give testifies to the fundamental kindness of Wullie Pai’erson as exemplified in the attitude of his children towards him. Coming stained and tired from his toil, his little boy hails him from his street play: ‘Gie’s a cairry, feyther!’ and the father, tired as he is, lifts the urchin on to his shoulder and then carries him up several flights of stairs to his won door.
Yes, human nature has a beautiful power of resiliency and of rebound from evil conditions. Even the industrialism of Clydeside cannot corrupt it beyond remedy. Thinking of the various amenities of the great western city – it’s parks, libraries, art galleries, baths, its municipal lectures and recitals in choirs, its car service, its ferries, its fine supplies of gas, electricity and water, its farms and works department (and of course one does not!) resist the feeling that most of its evils it owes to private enterprise, and most of its amenities it owes to the Socialism of the Municipality in other words, what it suffers it suffers at the hands of commercialism in haste to be rich and too heedless of what it does in the process, and what it enjoys it enjoys to the extent that it has taken its business or its comfort or its pleasure into its own hands. The same may, indeed, be said of other cities, but in the case of Glasgow the contrast is specially violent, between the harm that others have done to the citizen, and the good that the citizen has done for himself through his own publicly elected, controlled, removable, responsible, and capable public servants. It is the great lesson that Glasgow has yet to teach to the outer world, and the moral of it is not yet at all sufficiently appreciated. That is why these chapters have been written. They will conclude with a final chapter on ‘The Abolition of Glasgow’ – a thesis that will not surprise those of its new Parliamentary representatives who, like the wideawake and capable member for Shettleston, Mr John Wheatley, realise that the export industries upon which the city and its people have existed and grown and multiplied must give place to another way of living and making a living.
THE STICKIT MINISTER
From The Stickit Minister and other common men (1893) S.R. Crockett
The crows were wheeling behind the plough in scattering clusters, and plumping singly upon the soft, thick grubs which the ploughshare was turning out upon an unkindly world. It was a bask blowy day in the end of March, and there was a hint of storm in the air—a hint emphasised for those skilled in weather lore by the presence of half a dozen sea-gulls, white vagrants among the black coats, blown by the south wind up from the Solway—a snell, Scotch, but not unfriendly day altogether. Robert Fraser bent to the plough handles, and cast a keen and wary eye towards his guide posts on the ridge. His face was colourless, even when a dash of rain came swirling across from the crest of Ben Gairn, whose steep bulk heaved itself a blue haystack above the level horizon of the moorland. He was dressed like any other ploughman of the south uplands— rough homespun much the worse for wear, and leggings the colour of the red soil which he was reversing with the share of his plough. Yet there was that about Robert Fraser which marked him no common man. When he paused at the top of the ascent, and stood with his back against the horns of the plough, the countryman's legacy from Adam of the Mattock, he pushed back his weatherbeaten straw hat with a characteristic gesture, and showed a white forehead with blue veins channelling it—a damp, heavy lock of black hair clinging to it as in Severn's picture of John Keats on his deathbed. Robert Fraser saw a couple of black specks which moved smoothly and evenly along the top of the distant dyke of the highway. He stood still for a moment or two watching them. As they came nearer, they resolved themselves into a smart young man sitting in a well-equipped gig drawn by a showily-actioned horse, and driven by a man in livery. As they passed rapidly along the road the hand of the young man appeared in a careless wave of recognition over the stone dyke, and Robert Fraser lifted his slack reins in staid acknowledgment. It was more than a year since the brothers had looked each other so nearly in the eyes. They were Dr. Henry Fraser, the rising physician of Cairn Edward, and his elder brother Robert, once Student of Divinity at Edinburgh College, whom three parishes knew as 'The Stickit Minister.'
When Robert Fraser stabled his horses that night and went in to his supper, he was not surprised to find his friend, Saunders M'Quhirr of Drumquhat, sitting by the peat fire in the room. Almost the only thing which distinguished the Stickit Minister from the other small farmers of the parish of Dullarg was the fact that he always sat in the evening by himself ben the hoose, and did not use the kitchen in common with his housekeeper and herd boy, save only at meal-times. Robert had taken to Saunders ever since—the back of his ambition broken—he had settled down to the farm, and he welcomed him with shy cordiality.
'You'll take a cup of tea, Saunders?' he asked.
'Thank ye, Robert, I wadna be waur o't,' returned his friend.
I saw your brither the day,' said Saunders M'Quhirr, after the tea-cups had been cleared away, and the silent housekeeper had replaced the books upon the table. Saunders picked a couple of them up, and, having adjusted his glasses, he read the titles— Milton’s Works, and a volume of a translation of Dorner's Person of Christ.
'I saw yer brither the day; he maun be gettin' a big practice!'
'Ay!’ said Robert Fraser, very thoughtfully.
Saunders M'Quhirr glanced up quickly. It was, of course, natural that the unsuccessful elder brother should envy the prosperous younger, but he had thought that Robert Fraser was living on a different plane. It was one of the few things that the friends had never spoken of, though every one knew why Dr. Fraser did not visit his brother's little farm. 'He's gettin' in wi' the big fowk noo, an' thinks maybe that his brither wad do him nae credit.' That was the way the clash of the countryside explained the matter.
‘I never told you how I came to leave the college, Saunders,' said the younger man, resting his brow on a hand that even the horn of the plough could not make other than diaphanous.
'No,' said Saunders quietly, with a tender gleam coming into the humorsome kindly eyes that lurked under their bushy tussocks of grey eyebrow. Saunders's humour lay near the Fountain of Tears.
'No,' continued Robert Fraser, 'I have not spoken of it to so many; but you've been a good frien' to me, Saunders, and I think you should hear it. I have not tried to set myself right with folks in the general, but I would like to let you see clearly before I go my ways to Him who seeeth from the beginning.'
'Hear till him,' said Saunders, 'man, yer hoast is no' near as sair as it was i' the back-end. Ye'll be here lang efter me; but lang or short, weel do ye ken, Robert Fraser, that ye need not to pit yersel' richt wi' me. Hae I no' kenned ye sins ye war the size o' twa scrubbers?'
'I thank you, Saunders,' said Robert, 'but I am well aware that I'm to die this year. No, no, not a word. It is the Lord's will! It's mair than seven year now since I first kenned that my days were to be few. It was the year my faither died, and left Harry and me by our lane.
'He left no siller to speak of, just plenty to lay him decently in the kirkyard among his forebears. I had been a year at the Divinity Hall then, and was going up to put in my discourses for the next session. I had been troubled with my breast for some time, and so called one day at the infirmary to get a word with Sir James. He was very busy when I went in, and never noticed me till the hoast took me. Then on a sudden he looked up from his papers, came quickly over to me, put his own white handkerchief to my mouth, and quietly said, ‘Come into my room, laddie!’
Ay, he was a good man and a faithful, Sir James, if ever there was one. He told me that with care I might live five or six years, but it would need great care. Then a strange prickly coldness came over me, and I seemed to walk light-headed in an atmosphere suddenly rarefied. I think I know now how the mouse feels under the air-pump.'
'What's that?’ queried Saunders.
'A cruel ploy not worth speaking of,' continued the Stickit Minister. 'Well, I found something in my throat when I tried to thank him. But I came my ways home to the Dullarg, and night and day I considered what was to be done, with so much to do and so little time to do it. It was clear that both Harry and me could not gang through the college on the little my faither had left. So late one night I saw my way clear to what I should do. Harry must go, I must stay. I must come home to the farm, and be my own ‘man’, then I could send Harry to the college to be a doctor, for he had no call to the ministry as once I thought I had. More than that, it was laid on me to tell Jessie Loudon that Robert Fraser was no better than a machine set to go five year.
'Now all these things I did, Saunders, but there's no use telling you what they cost in the doing. They were right to do, and they were done. I do not repent any of them. I would do them all over again were they to do, but it's been bitterer than I thought.'
The Stickit Minister took his head off his hand and leaned wearily back in his chair.
'The story went over the country that I had failed in my examinations, and I never said that I had not. But there were some that knew better who might have contradicted the report if they had liked. I settled down to the farm, and I put Harry through the college, sending all but a bare living to him in Edinburgh. I worked the work of the farm, rain and shine, ever since, and have been for these six years the ‘stickit minister’ that all the world kens the day. Whiles Harry did not think that he got enough. He was always writing for more, and not so very pleased when he did not get it. He was aye different to me, ye ken, Saunders, and he canna be judged by the same standard as you and me.'
'I ken,' said Saunders M'Quhirr, a spark of light lying in the quiet of his eyes.
'Well,' continued Robert Fraser, lightened by Saunders's apparent agreement, 'the time came when he was clear from the college, and wanted a practice. He had been ill-advised that he had not got his share of the farm, and he wanted it selled to share and share alike. Now I kenned, and you ken, Saunders, that it's no' worth much in one share let alone two. So I got the place quietly bonded, and bought him old Dr. Aitkin's practice in Cairn Edward with the money...'
'I have tried to do my best for the lad, for it was laid on me to be my brother's keeper. He doesna come here much,' continued Robert, 'but I think he's not so ill against me as he was. Saunders, he waved his hand to me when he was gaun by the day!’
'That was kind of him,' said Saunders M'Quhirr.
'Ay, was it no',' said the Stickit Minister, eagerly, with a soft look in his eyes as he glanced up at his brother's portrait in cap and gown, which hung over the china dogs on the mantelpiece.
'I got my notice this morning that the bond is to be called up in November,' said Robert. 'So I'll be obliged to flit.'
Saunders M'Quhirr started to his feet in a moment. 'Never,' he said, with the spark of fire alive now in his eyes, 'never as lang as there's a beast on Drumquhat, or a poun' in Cairn Edward Bank '—bringing down his clenched fist upon the Milton on the table.
'No, Saunders, no,' said the Stickit Minister, very gently; 'I thank you kindly, but I'll be flitted before that… '
To find out more why not download the Stickit125 PDF. Free.
The Future of the Party – More Pioneers
We sing ‘England, arise!’ But do we always mean it?
By the dark cities where your babes are creeping,
Naked of joy and all that makes life dear…
From each wretched slum
Let the loud cry come,
England is risen, and the day is here.
I am dealing with Glasgow as typifying commercialism at its worst but with the true sociological purpose of showing that evil has generated its own cure. Glasgow has risen. Even its card-sharpers quote the language of political economy, and urge that the gains of their nefarious practices in railway carriages represent ‘the rent of ability.’
Crooks have, indeed, in days gone by had somewhat of a look-in in connection with the Labour movement in Glasgow. Apart from free-lance adventurers who never had the backing of the Labour movement, there have been times in Glasgow when ‘the trade’ financed official Labour candidatures – for its own end. It got nothing; its support was withdrawn; and now Labour is paying for its politics, and stands to get much more satisfaction out of the support it gives to it politicians than ever it had from the publicans and football players who got (and get) so much of its money.
In these notes I am keeping clear of the adventurers and the men who were politicians first, last and all time – yea, even when an election was on, and the word Socialism was doing but occasional service as a party shibboleth. Casting the memory back over the past thirty years of the public life of Glasgow, one recalls many meteors that have flashed across the horizon, and have long since sputtered out. With these I have no concern.
Someone (John Morley I think) has said: ‘It is only the very great and good who have any faith in the simplest axioms; and there are few who are so lucky as to feel that 19 and 13 make 32 as certainly as 2 and 2 make 4.’
But the Collectivist solution of the world’s troubles is not at all difficult to understand. Indeed, it is so simple and irresistible that one has a difficulty in understanding how all the notable people who have adopted it of late did not adopt it as soon as they came to years of discretion. It was obvious to me forty years ago, at the age of seventeen; and that certain members of the Labour Party, now very active, were equally active against it only a few years ago, casts discredit either upon their mental or their moral make-up. ‘Go hang thyself, good Crillon,’ said Henry of Navarre. ‘We fought at Arques and you were not there.’
The proposition that Society can do whatever the individual can do is as self-evident in human relationships as the proposition that the whole is greater than the part is in mathematics. Society could not write the play of ‘Hamlet’ or the music of ‘Pinafore’; but it can command the services of the best contemporary genius and talent within the realm.
The cardinal principle of Socialism is that there is no function discharged by the landlord or capitalist that cannot be much more efficiently performed by the organised community. This is no mere assertion; the thing has been done. It is regularly done in time of war, and it could be done in time of peace. Indeed, it is done in time of peace. All the great undertakings are left to the State as a matter of course. When the banks threaten to put up the shutters the State comes to the rescue with its credit. The Panama Canal, the draining of the Zuyder Zee, the making of the Sudan railway through many miles of hostile country, the conduct of the Great War – all are left to the State. When a private company cannot finish its Ship Canal, and has spent all its capital, the corporation comes to the rescue with public money and finishes the job.
It is half a century since Frederic Harrison advised us to ‘Look to the State,’ and when Edward Bellamy’s great creation ‘Looking Backward’ appeared, Harrison acclaimed it as embodying a social system to which we were undoubtedly tending. And he welcomed it. This was in the eighties.
It was all so obvious then that a man had only to be in earnest about politics, free of a vested interest in the maintenance of muddlement, and willing to live and let live, in order to adopt it.
And so I prefer to tell of the humbly placed men who ‘saw the cat’ thirty or more years ago rather than the men who have come in because Socialism looks like winning. We do not suggest, as Henri Quatre did to Crillon, that they should go and hang themselves because they did not lend a hand when help was most needed; but we do ask them to consider well whether their timidity and their distrust of liberty and right is not making them hang back even now from the true implications of the Socialist principle. In view of current events and tendencies, the advice is far from superfluous.
The new Parliamentary party will have to make up its mind for the application of its principles constructively, and above all, will have to get ready for their application by much study, thinking, discussion, and planning, of which one sees little sign at present.
Reading the Socialist Review month by month, one would expect to see the questions of the future discussed there if anywhere. Can capitalism carry on? If so, how! And how long? Should Socialists try to help in the re-opening of foreign markets, or should they frankly admit that the game of capitalist civilization is up, and advocate the adoption of Collectivist principles now? If the Labour Party were returned to power on the not improbable early collapse of the present government, what would it do? The matter has not been discussed.
If France persist in her policy in the Ruhr, what remedy have we short of the unthinkable arbitrament of war? And if the policy of wrecking Germany is persisted in, what hope is there of the continuation of commercialism with our best markets gone?
Instead of such questions as these being discussed, all the concern of the editor of the Review (who is also leader of the Labour Party in Parliament) is about electioneering and the chances of Liberal reunion.
Turn to Mr Ramsay MacDonald’s books, and there is the same haziness about what the party would do in the way of reconstruction. One lends ‘Socialism and Society’ by request, to a keenly intelligent man of goodwill, and he hands it back with the puzzled comment ‘I cannot make out what he would be at.’ In MacDonald’s ‘Socialism and Government’ there is not a single reference to the all important role of the municipality and local governing bodies in general. I reviewed the book at great length years ago, and Mr MacDonald promised to reply; but he never did.
On the other hand, he admitted privately the rightness of my strictures on certain points, including this neglect of the great truth embodied in De Tocqueville’s dictum that ‘It is in the Commune that the force of a free people resides.’
That is to say, in the domain of local government. Having no practical or technical training, Mr MacDonald has, unfortunately, no discoverable constructive bent – a fact of which there are many disappointing proofs.
I am not disloyal, and I have no personal political ambition whatever. I advocated Socialism by voice and pen for years before MacDonald cut his connection with the Liberal Party. But his party will have to take him in hand, and I am leading the way, as I have always been apt to do.
And let me suggest, on a minor matter, that Mr MacDonald should try to curb his fondness for metaphors that are always second-hand and never particularly felicitous. The Archangel Gabriel, sowing dragon’s teeth, and getting into the ( ) have all done duty of recent weeks, and on the other hand one who looks in vain for specific detail as to the future.
Speaking to the Aldwych Club of rich men, he denounced ‘Ca’canny’ and Bolshevism, but said nothing of matter that ought to have proved of more interest to his hearers and the public, such as the advantages to everybody of nationalising the railways and the mines, about which one reckons the nabobs would have expected to hear. These would be the two first jobs we should expect a Labour Government to tackle. There is ‘Ca’ canny’ and sabotage and Bolshevism among the rich as well as among workmen, and he was addressing a rich man’s gathering.
I get back with great goodwill to my humble heroes who were Socialist first and politicians a long way afterwards. It will be part of my plan to discuss the future of Glasgow in a chapter all to itself. The question has already emerged in a Trades Council resolution which is all in favour of retaining the capital system – on international grounds, if you please.
One of the steadiest, most resolute of the early Glasgow Socialists was Willie Nairn, who, although a labouring man, was for years a very shrewd and keen, regular correspondent of Justice. Hi pen-name was Sandy Macfarlane; he was an S.D.F.er; but, although resolute and stalwart, not narrow. He took the chair for me once, much to my surprise, at an Albion Hall meeting for a lecture, ‘What is the Good of Empire?’ delivered during the South African War. I can recall even now the pleasure I had in his stern approval of the lecture as ‘economically, politically and morally sound and in strict accordance with Socialist principles.’ The boys said it was a great compliment from Nairn, and this, not so much because he was a stickler for orthodoxy, though he was that, as because he was an undemonstrative man whose approval, when given, counted for all the more. Nairn is long dead, and had a Socialist funeral by his own request.
William Nairn conveyed such an impression of integrity that he was once taken to task by a Glasgow policeman haling, like Willie, from the north country, as to why he, a respectable man, should consort with a lot of Fenians.
To this Willie demurred. They were not all Irish. There was Hob Hutchison. Well, where did he come from? Stranraer. Wasn’t that near enough? Then there was Pat Curren: he was Irish certainly. Then there was Doyle, yes, he was Irish too. But there was Stewart ‘who comes’ said Nairn ‘from about the same place as ourselves’ ‘Does he?’ said the bobby indignantly. ‘I don’t care what you say. If he comes from the north he must have risen left shin by some Irish hairs han’.’
One of the earliest warriors I noticed about the S.D.F. meetings in Glasgow was John Turley. John was a cabinet maker earning fairly good wages, and a steady man; but, in case he should be accused of respectability, he would not dress or even shave for Sunday. He shaved before going to work on Monday, and my recollection of him is that he wore a red muffler, and had a strongish growth on his chin always at week-ends. Turley had two stereotyped questions which he put at lectures.
John Toole was an Irish hammerman, who, after the manner of his race, had a real grievance. He use to put it in this way:
I have no grievance against being born into this world to live in penury and labour for the benefit of others. Some people might find it unpleasant to do that because they are uneducated and have no better idea of what life ought to be. But the great grievance I have against the capital class is that, instead of leaving me in my ignorance and misery, they have educated me so that I should be more able to appreciate my abject position in this hell upon earth. That is my grievance against capitalism.’
These two last ‘cards’ appear in rather a bitter vein; but there were quiet humours as well. One man, a Clyde deportee who had a stutter, once said at a business meeting;
I b-beg to p-p-propose David McLean as a member of this branch. He m-might not know much about M-Marxian ec-economics; he is a damned good man at a p-pro-Boer meetin’!’
A well known figure in the movement of the nineties was Bailie George Mitchll, who managed a reform bookshop and printing business. George was a quiet-spoken, canny going man whose health was not robust. In the old days of horse traction he visited the tramway stables one day and was promptly accosted by a strapper as to what his business there. George said he was a councillor and had a right to be there; but two men set upon him and bundled him out. They got carpeted for it afterwards, and many said it was unfair, as George ‘did not look the part.’
Another time, when he had become a magistrate, he was about to enter the magistrates’ room behind the bench on the day of a licensing court. In order to prevent solicitation of the magistrates, a policeman was on duty inside the door of the room. As George proceeded to enter, the policeman asked what he wanted. ‘I’m a magistrate,’ said George. ‘So am I,’ said the policeman sarcastically, and proceeded to close the door on Geordie’s neck. The altercation attracted the notice of Bailie P.G.Stewart, who was already in the room, and who did look the character, and poor Mitchell was allowed to enter, with apologies from the policeman.
It is depressing to think how many of these men are long since dead, at comparatively early ages; but that is the price men pay for living in large cities. Returning to Manchester after an absence of eleven years, I met an old acquaintance. Inquiring as to men who had been our contemporaries, and mostly men in the thirties and early forties, one was greeted time after time with the answer ‘Dead!’ ‘Dead!’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘Oh, he’s dead too.’ I had never till then adequately realised what a toll of life the city takes.
There were many bright spirits, jovial companions, good speakers and disinterested workers in Glasgow then, such as George Neil, an ex-army sergeant, Scots draper, poet and singer; Robb, the Burgoynes, Pollock and others whom one cannot specially single out because they were just normal good fellows.
But there was a speciality about Camlachie Dickson. A Fifeshire farm hand, he had emigrated for a time to America. Lecturing on ‘The Mississipi Valley in Relation to International Socialism’ Dickson took about three-quarters of an hour to get from Fifeshire to the boat at Glasgow. The bad cheese and margarine on board were exhaustively condemned and he had spent an hour and a half talking before he at last got to work, ploughing, in the Mississipi Valley. He was parading up and down the platform ploughing, the stilts in his hands, in imagination, when the big rough voice of Jock Bain bawled, ‘Half-time Dickson!’
Such are some of the rank and file who did the propagandist work in the early days before Socialism became Labourism. There was much character among them. They were quite disinterested. To them Socialism was a religion, not a career. They got their hands gown for the expenses of the work. They kept the door open for lecturers, and they scattered literature through various agencies. It is in such ways that movements are maintained till better times come, always provided there is a good idea behind them.
A Socialist Official.
In a niche all by himself stood James Thomson, Superintendent of the Corporation Baths and Washhouses. A descendent of the poet Burns, Mr Thomson himself was full of picturesque prose, full of ingenious, original ideas, which were printed mostly in Justice over the signature of Dan Baxter, but sometimes in official reports on the work of his own department, in which he was enthusiastic. Personally he was always the cheeriest and most amiable of mortals, and his official superiors gave him much of his own enlightened, benevolent way.
Part Six next Month
From Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’ to ‘illiterate peasants’ we are used to the notion that education is a guard against ignorance. Perhaps the more apposite pithy statement though is:
Knowledge is power.
And received wisdom (I suggest) is that those who do not ‘understand’ or ‘appreciate’ ‘great literature’ are ignorant. But who determines ‘great’ or even ‘good’ literature?
In Scotland, for example, The ‘Scottish Renaissance’ laid down the law (basically) that modernism was the way to go and anything that didn’t fit into a ‘canon’ developed pretty much by a bunch of 1920s poets wasn’t fit for purpose. [Obviously I’m generalising, simplifying and provoking in this statement but think about it please!]
In early 21st century Scotland I suggest we have an urban centric, academic elite (who deny they are such) who dictate what is ‘good’ and what being ‘educated’ means.
My problem is that often those urban folk are ignorant of the rural landscape and culture. Thus they misidentify it or misinterpret it.
This is part of a general problem framed as a question thus:
What are we to make of those intellectuals or academics who know all about x but can only interpret y in terms of x even when it is inappropriate?
This question brings me back to one of my favourite conundrums: What is ‘good’ writing?
[We could just as well substitute well educated for good]
The statement is:
Good writing = x
(where x means ‘obeys the rules and shows the marks of all that we bring together under the set (or label) x’)
Writing outside of this set or label (we shall call it y, but it could be z or a or any other sort of thing) cannot, by definition be ‘good’.
However, from this problem, the question arises:
Who determines the rules? Who sets the rules?
And here we find ourselves addressing Hierarchy as power.
To resolve this we have to sign up to the following:
Do not call an apple an orange or a banana. Do not blame a chocolate bar for not being an apple. Both have their place in our diet. [I like to use food analogies where possible, though it pains me, especially if writing before dinner]
If a ‘good’ diet is a balanced diet, then we might consider the same applies for writing. We should not simply go for the fibre, or the caviar, or the Michelin starred food any more than we should gorge ourselves on fast/junk food. There are degrees of subtlety in everything. And so with literature and/or fiction.
It is too easy for the academic or the ‘intellectual’ or the ‘educated’ to set rules which are effectively just their opinion/bias/prejudice or indeed lack of understanding of that outside their experience. Thus it was that Scottish fiction of the 1890s has been labelled ‘Kailyard’ [insinuating poor/common]. The irony is that now we know Kale is a ‘superfood’ (in other words, it’s good for you). Yet the educated elite find it harder to accept that fiction which does not deal with either urban industrialisation or post war or post modern concerns has either value or a place at the table. [however, since they find it hard to accept that they are an ‘elite’ at all I suppose it’s not that much of a surprise. People do not always self-define accurately – perhaps not often.]
Let’s look at it from another angle:
Can you compare Scott with Welsh? I mean ‘Sir Walter’ with Irvine of course.
The answer, as to all interesting questions is yes and no. But you have to determine on what grounds (or rules) you are drawing the comparison. And that’s when we get back to the education debate. If only those in hierarchical power (academic elite or indeed publishing marketers) tell us how to draw the comparison, we will get a limited set of rules.
Hierarchy does not support diversity. Hierarchy is about those at the bottom feeding those at the top. The majority may feel they are ‘ruling’ but they are actually only supporting the elite who actually rule. This is a feature of representative democracy, that we give up our ‘real’ rights to choose, allowing others to make that choice for us. And guess what. They choose what they like or what suits them. So if they are urban-centred, intellectually biased – to say nothing of wanting to promote an agenda of hierarchical power – then anything outside this will be labelled ‘bad.’
And guess what? Literature is a great way to control. If your agenda is to promote (say) capitalism and or ‘talent is the result of genius’ or ‘only those who are educated are capable of saying anything worth reading’ then you can simply knock anyone outside this criteria out of the park by claiming the ‘authority’ to state that they are ‘bad’ literature.
And your job is done as long as people read like sheep and do what they are told and remain happy in the ignorance of representative democracy. I’m not suggesting totalitarianism or even autocracy is a better option to democracy. I’m not promoting fascism or even out and out anarchism (depending on your definition) but I am pointing out that unless we actively engage we tend to get fed an unbalanced diet. So that unless we step outside of whatever our ‘comfort’ zone is as regards definitions of education, and ‘quality’ in literature we are not really giving ourselves the chance to be ‘educated’ in a broader sense. Knowledge is power. Abdicating a level of personal responsibility towards ‘what we know’ is the thin end of a slippery wedge!
Just a thought.
Don’t believe everything you are told by people who tell you they know better than you.
James Thomson (B.V.*)
The Laureate of Pessimism
‘The joy of grief.’ – Ossian
*B.V., the pen-name used by Thomson, is a contraction of Bysshe Vanolis. The ‘Bysshe’ was Shelley’s middle name; the ‘Vanolis’ is an anagram of Novalis, the pen-name of the German poet Fredrich von Hardenberg, whose life, like Thomson’s, was strongly affected by the death of a young girl to whom he was attached.
How vast the difference between the career and writings of the two James Thomsons! The poet of ‘The Seasons,’ as well as poor ‘B.V.,’ was a Scotsman; but the eighteenth-century Thomson was as fortunate as the other was the reverse. We need not grudge the earlier poet his comparatively prompt success. The man who first in his century turned the attention of poets from ethical gymnastics and society trifles to observation of nature, the country, and rural sights and scenes and sounds well deserved the sinecure post (as surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands, at £400 a-year) which enabled him to polish the stanzas of ‘The Castle of Indolence’ as he lounged and sucked the peaches in his garden at Richmond.
The one James Thomson was pretty much everything that the other was not. The author of ‘The Seasons’ was a son of the manse, had a university education, went to London at 25, found tutorial employment at once, and made a hit with his first poem ‘Winter’ the following year (1726).
The nineteenth-century Thomson was the son of a Greenock skipper, who died in ‘B.V.’s’ boyhood, and the orphaned lad, educated in a charity school (the Royal Caledonian Asylum), became an army schoolmaster. He disliked life in the army, and left it in 1862, to become in turn solicitor’s clerk, secretary of bubble companies, contributor to the National Reformer, contributor to ‘Cope’s Tobacco Plant,’ and finally miscellaneous journalist, but always having his mind occupied with unpopular themes and he himself showing even more than the usual traditional unskilfulness of the poet ‘to note the card of prudent lore.’
When all is said, the son of the Port Glasgow skipper is immeasurably the finer poet of the two. In power and passion, in brooding thought, in the quality of ‘heart,’ in the wedding of apt expression and sonorous music to the most intimate, fateful, and daring speculations of the human mind, the happy, indolent sinecurist was a child by comparison with the fate-buffeted poet of pessimism.
As a philosophy of life pessimism is probably anti-social; yet one is not quite sure. From at least the time of Job there have been pessimists, and it would be hard to say whether or not they have found less zest in life than the optimists. It is certain they have often been excellent citizens.
Broadly speaking, the optimist is one who hopes for the best and takes the world easily, often with excellent results to himself, or, as more often happens, to herself (for women are more optimistic than men). The results to society are a different matter.
The pessimist, on the other hand, full of a sense of the perversity of human affairs, lays himself out to play checkmate to Fate, to leave the fewest possible chances to Fortune to play him jade’s tricks. Thus, by guarding against the worst, he often secures the absolutely best.
The optimist believes that, all being for the best in this best of all possible worlds, given good intentions, he will contrive to muddle through.
The pessimist believes that man is his own providence; that nothing is but doing makes it so; that the choicest or most lavish gifts of Nature are useless unless turned to account by man the co-operator; that Nature has her own way of going forward with her work, and that while often she is kindly and beneficent, sometimes she can be appallingly cruel; in any case it is for man to look around and ahead, learning the law of her operations and co-operating with her kindness and exploiting it to the utmost, but guarding against her occasional caprice and cruelty.
An optimist will build and plant on the slope of a volcanic mountain, arguing, if he thinks about the matter at all, that the mountain has been quiet for generations and will surely last his time. The pessimist will labour elsewhere.
Of course there are degrees of both pessimism and optimism. Dr. Pangloss represents Voltaire’s satirical portrait of the unteachable optimist. The Brothers Cheeryble and Mark Tapley are among Dickens’s numerous attempts at the character of the optimist. Dickens’s cheerful characters must have exercised an exceedingly wholesome effect in checking mere grumbling and fostering a fashion of cheerfulness. Unfortunately his optimists are all minor characters, and the impression conveyed is that their outlook owes much of its roseate hue to comparative thoughtlessness and inexperience of life.
The moderate pessimism that makes men more careful is to the good; but excessive pessimism like that of James Thomson, instead of leading to the taking of extra care and pains, begets despair and the anticipation of failure half-way. The philosophy of the confirmed melancholiac is that ‘man was made to mourn,’ and that all attempts to combat Fate are foredoomed to failure. Others not so far gone have outfaced adversity with a heart for any fate. Samuel Johnson, Grimaldi the greatest and saddest of clowns, Heine chained to his mattress grave, all refused to be beaten. With a little luck, Thomson also might have done so. The descriptions of him as a young man are that he was ‘wonderfully clever, very nice-looking, and very gentle, grave, and kind.’ His portraits show the good looks, his writings prove all the rest and a good deal more. The man who conceived ‘Aquatics (Kew)’ and ‘Sunday up the River’ was witty and spirited and had a capacity for happy laughter.
But Thomson had sheer bad luck from the start. He was unlucky in being made an army schoolmaster. No branch of work in connection with the army could have suited one of his ideas and temperament, and as it happened, he was first sent to teach the rough and uncultivated men of a militia regiment. He was even more unlucky in the circumstances of his discharge from the army, which took place because of the minor fault of a brother schoolmaster. He lost his sweetheart by death at an early age, and mourned for her all his life. He was unlucky in the opinions he espoused and the associates with whom he consorted. A man who knew Latin, French, German, and Italian was worthy of a better change than Thomson made when he left the army to become a solicitor’s clerk. He was unlucky in his friendship with Mr. Bradlaugh and the fact that some of his best poetry appeared in The National Reformer, which could not give him the audience he deserved. His friends are of opinion that Mr. Bradlaugh, despite his kindness to the poet, did not appreciate his poetry, especially the best of it. Certain it is that readers of the National Reformer protested against the appearance in it of some of Thomson’s finest verse - that is to say, the greatest pieces of literature that ever did appear in the Reformer.
Thomson is said to have inherited a taste for drink. In any case the convivial habits of the army had taught him to drink, and his lonely life as a bachelor in London lodgings, his lifelong sorrow for the loss of his early love, and the precarious nature of the living he earned would all combine to foster irregular habits.
When in October, 1809, the poem ‘Sunday up the River’ appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, James Anthony Froude was so charmed with it that he conferred with Charles Kingsley on the subject, and Kingsley being of the same mind, Froude invited the poet to breakfast with him. They got on very well together, and it might have been hoped that something would come of the meeting. But if Froude and Kingsley admired ‘Sunday up the River,’ not many besides appear to have been struck with it. The critics did not ‘discover’ the new poet, and when he afterwards submitted the splendid ‘Weddah and Om-el-Bonain’ to Froude it was not accepted. Poor Thomson sent nothing further to that quarter. ‘Weddah’ finally appeared in the National Reformer. Thomson sent a copy to Mr. William Michael Rossetti, who recognised the beauty and power of the poem at once, and both the Rossetti brothers remained Thomson’s friends. ‘A Voice from the Nile’ appeared in the Fortnightly Review; but the bulk of Thomson’s work, and all the best of it, appeared in the National Reformer, and was almost, of course, as good as buried there.
When Thomson’s greatest poem, ‘The City of Dreadful Night,’ first appeared in the Bradlaughite sheet some notice was taken of it by The Academy and The Spectator, and the numbers containing it were in great demand. Among those who congratulated Thomson was George Eliot, whose letter was more esteemed by him than it deserved to be. The successful novelist had herself coveted success as a poet, and did not achieve it; but that does not prevent her from adopting a slight air of patronage in the following letter which she sent:
Dear Poet, - I cannot rest satisfied without telling you that my mind responds with admiration to the distinct vision and grand utterance in the poem which you have been so good as to send me.
Also, I trust that an intellect informed by so much passionate energy as yours will soon give us more heroic strains, with a wider embrace of human fellowship in them - such as will be to the labourers of the world what odes of Tyrtæus were to the Spartans, thrilling them with the sublimity of the social order and the courage of resistance to all that would dissolve it. To accept life and write much fine poetry is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the many willing labours which have made such a lot possible. - Yours sincerely, M. E. LEWIS.
An invitation to visit her home and some human fellowship extended to the poet would have been better than a stilted letter; and to an ordinary kind woman this would have seemed the natural and proper salve to apply to a spirit which could find expression in language like the opening stanzas of ‘The City’:-
Lo, thus, as prostrate, ‘In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.’
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden.
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?
Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth
Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles,
False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;
Because it gives some sense of power and passion
In helpless impotence to try to fashion
Our woes in living words howe’er uncouth.
Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.
For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try;
So may they flourish, in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be someone desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hope are dead, and who would die.
Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night
Will understand the speech and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
‘I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths, though out of sight.’
O sad Fraternity, do I unfold
Your dolorous mysteries shrouded from of yore?
Nay, be assured; no secret can be told
To any who divined it not before;
None uninitiate by many a presage
Will comprehend the language of the message,
Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.
The title of this great but unspeakably sad poem would doubtless be suggested by the insomnia to which Thomson was a victim. Several of his chief poems, such as ‘In the Room,’ ‘Mater Tenebrarum,’ and ‘Vane’s Story,’ suggest habits of midnight work and a mental activity in the night time which would be an affliction if the creative mood was not upon the poet. The Dantean gloom of ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ is unrelieved by the highly specific details in which the Italian poet indulges himself. Description, indeed, there is; but it is shadowy, tending to create an atmosphere rather than giving concrete details. It is bodeful, argumentative, compassionate with a glowing ineffable pity that has nothing to match it in literature. Thomson can be picturesque in many different styles of graphic delineation, but in ‘The City’ he has a message to deliver and is so full of it that he forgets the artifices of the picturesque. Argument, infinite pity, infinite passion are the staples of the poem, and there is not a weak or a slovenly line in it.
The way in which the phantoms of misery crowd upon the wakeful is reflected, as said, in much of Thomson’s work. In fact he has a poem with the title of ‘Insomnia,’ in which the bane of the actively minded is depicted with a power more simple and direct than in ‘The City of Dreadful Night.’ He says:-
I heard the sounding of the midnight hour;
The others one by one had left the room,
In calm assurance that the gracious power
Of sleep’s fine alchemy would bless the gloom,
Transmuting all its leaden weight to gold,
To treasures of rich virtues manifold.
New strength, new health, new life;
Just weary enough to nestle softly, sweetly,
Into divine unconsciousness, completely
Delivered from the world of toil and care and strife.
Just weary enough to feel assured of rest,
Of sleep’s divine oblivion and repose,
Renewing heart and brain for richer zest
Of waking life when golden morning glows,
As young and pure and glad as if the first
That ever on the void of darkness burst
With ravishing warmth and light;
On dewy grass and flowers and blithe birds singing,
And shining waters, all enraptured springing,
Fragrance and shine and song, out of the womb of night
But I with infinite weariness outworn,
Haggard with endless nights unblessed by sleep,
Ravaged by thoughts unutterably forlorn,
Plunged in despairs unfathomably deep,
Went cold and pale and trembling with affright
Into the desert vastitude of night,
Arid and wild and black;
Foreboding no oasis of sweet slumber,
Counting beforehand all the countless number
Of sands that are its minutes on my desolate track.
And so I went the last to my drear bed,
Aghast as one who should go down to lie
Among the blissfully unconscious dead,
Assured that as the endless years flowed by
Over the dreadful silence and deep gloom
And dense oppression of the stifling tomb,
He only of them all,
Nerveless and impotent to madness, never
Could hope oblivion’s perfect trance for ever:
An agony of life eternal in death’s pall.
The philosophy of this unhappy man did not in its main principles necessitate that he should be a pessimist at all. He sees in the Universe, he says, neither Good nor Evil; only Necessity.
I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlightened ever by the faintest spark,
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.
And again -
The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
It grinds out life and death and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart, or mind, or will.
What we are here for is a question which many have asked and no one has answered. Walt Whitman was as optimistic a poet as Thomson was the reverse; yet while he says he does not know what anyone is here for he also says he will go on trying to find out. Meanwhile he sings the love of comrades, the lifelong love of comrades.
Is it not possible to be happy if we will master so much of the laws of life, learn enough of how the world-mill does its grinding and adapt ourselves to the requirements with as much of wisdom and courage and kindness to others as possible? If the universe is a grinding mill it is the business of philosophy to teach us how to avoid the wheels that would hurt us while making them do our offices, as already said.
Part two next month.
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