Does it come Before or After the Living Wage?
Socialization: Does It Come Before or After the Living Wage?
‘THE GREATEST SOCIALIST ARGUMENT IN THE WORLD.’
I have had lying by me for some time a deadly, detailed, pedestrian analysis and denunciation of the new I.L.P. policy of Rationalization and the Living Wage as the combined substitute for Socialization. ‘Socialism and the Living Wage’ (Communist Party, London. 2s.) is by Mr. R. Palme Dutt, the editor of The Labour Monthly, and I take no pleasure in writing that it is a devastating expose of the new attitude of a large section of the Labour Movement in Britain. I am sorry that the position here revealed should be so true. Mr. Palme Dutt is, I understand, a notable chess player. The patience required for that game has carried him through these 238 pages of citation and argument to the conclusion that the I.L.P.’s Living Wage policy, and admiration for Fordism and High Wages, have taken the place of nationalization and municipalization. The villains of the piece are numerous. They include Mr. Brailsford, Ben Turner, John Wheatley, and Tom Johnston. For once, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald’s name does not figure in the indictment. Because he does not even fall in with the Rationalising movement, he is represented as a mere conservative.
Wheatley and Johnston.
As usual, Mr. Wheatley’s clearness of statement causes him to be singled out as an exponent of the policy of desertion and substitution. Writing in Forward (3o/1o/26), he said:
The idea behind that proposal [the I.L.P, living wage proposal] is that the State should be the authority in fixing wages and incomes even while industries are privately owned . . , We should begin our Socialism by socialising . . the purchasing power of the workers before embarking on the nationalization of the means of production.
On this Tom Johnston makes the comment:-
Mr. Wheatley has come to the conclusion that nationalization of this or that industry might well wait until it has customers capable of purchasing the goods which the industry produces. And that means an assault upon poverty first.
When Mr. Palme Dutt characterises these statements as ‘cheap-jack electioneering’ rather than ‘serious economics’ one is bound to agree. For it has always been our claim, supported by the facts, that socialization is itself ‘an assault on poverty.’ In their own city of Glasgow, Messrs. Wheatley and Johnston will find tramcar drivers and conductors whose wages are much higher and their working day much shorter than those of the private-enterprise busmen, while the service was long since immensely cheapened to the public, and better and cleaner cars were at once provided by the municipality than those run by the old sweating private company. The margin of ‘profits’ remaining after all these improvements has been used (1) to pay off the capital cost of the service, and (2) in relief of local rates. Thus the workers, the users of the cars, and the general community all have their poverty ameliorated by the socialization.
Lack of Imagination - Cold Feet.
These simple facts are not worth stating so far as the Living-Wage stunt-mongers themselves are concerned. They know them perfectly well. But there are probably thousands of rank-and-filers- I have met a few in my propagandist travels - who have taken cold feet so far as both nationalization and municipalization are concerned. They envisage the spread of national and local ownership as a slow and tedious process in which the great mass of the electorate will take no particular interest. Their theory appears to be that, unless the worker’s own particular industry is being socialised he cannot get up enthusiasm for the extension of collectivist benefits to other people.
If this were true, if it were the case that the average wage-earner cared only for immediate benefits to himself, then we might very well ask: What hope would there be that we should ever see industries and services socialised on any fairly general scale? I grant at once, not very much.
Socialization Never Made an Election Issue.
Happily it is not true. The truth is that plain nationalization and municipalization have never been made election issues by any party in the State, not even by the Labour Party. Scores of industries and services have been socialized; there is hardly a business, from rabbit-raising at Torquay and oyster beds at Colchester to horse-racing at Doncaster, pyrotechnic displays at Bournemouth, and sports grounds everywhere, that has not been taken up even by Individualist corporations, simply as matters of good business. Every day sees some Collectivist departure somewhere, though we do not hear of them all. It has not been reported, for instance, in any ordinary newspaper that the Labour Councillors of Clydebank run a successful cinema, or that the corporation gas department of Huddersfield has long sold cheap coal to manufacturers there.
The striking success of Sheffield’s municipal printing office will not be starred by any ordinary newspaper. This concern was started on the footing that the various items of municipal printing would be charged at the prices that had been paid to the private firms for them. It was not required that the new establishment should show a profit all at once; but the report on the first eight months’ working shows a credit balance of over £3800, the work is better done, and the number of employees has been increased from seven to seventy-one. This is entirely what was to be expected, and but adds to the long tale of triumphs for Direct Labour.
Sheffield City Council has a Collectivist majority; but the services indicated have mostly been socialised by administrators who think they do not believe in Socialism. Is it not reasonable to suppose that if socialising were a declared policy in elections, specific businesses or services being selected for the application of the principle, the electorate would not become much more habituated and converted to the idea of public ownership?
Yet one sees elections turn on anything rather than the idea of making the community master in its own house.
Elections are fought over a Red Letter, Reparations and the hanging of the Kaiser, Chinese Labour in a remote colony, free robbery as against protected robbery, a shortage of cordite, or William O’Brien’s trousers.
The Living Wage an Electioneering Stunt.
The Living Wage is not really much better. As Mr. Palme Dutt shows, even its own protagonists do not believe in it. Mr. Brailsford, writing in The New Leader (8/1/26) said:
If we talked of a living wage of £8 or £12 for every worker, the agricultural worker would most justly laugh at us. Nor would it be much more honest at this stage to talk of a wage of £4 for every worker. The whole of the wealth produced in this country to-day, however ruthlessly you divided it, would not yield such a wage all round. Ours is a poor country under the present management. UNTIL INDUSTRY HAS BEEN DRASTICALLY RE-ORGANISED, IT CANNOT PAY A GENUINE LIVING WAGE. Any figure which we could honestly promise at once would mean a big gain in the basic wage only to men and women in the more depressed trades.
Not much enthusiasm for the one and only slogan here. Surely agriculture is ‘a depressed trade.’ Even with wages as low as they are, land is put under grass to reduce working expenses, and the number of employees steadily falls. For British grain and British beef have to contend with grain grown on prairie land and with beef fed on ranches where the labour employed is peon (that is, serf) labour. Even so, the grain and the beef are brought to the British market at freight rates which help still further to lower prices, while the British railways impose rates for inland transport which cripple the British agriculture and pamper the foreign importer. To nationalise the railways and help the British farmer instead of penalising him would be a benefit as obvious and feasible as the Living Wage is cumbrous and impossible. Where, under capitalism, is a living wage to be found for the miner? Export coal has to compete with coal from Poland, where the miner’s wage is just about a third of even the present wage paid to the British miner, while the French miner’s wage is little more than half the British wage. Again the remedy is nationalization, with consolidation and the stoppage of waste in both the getting and the marketing of coal.
But when all would be done, there would not be much of a revival for coal, which has, happily, seen its best days.
That the remedy is nationalization Tom Johnston is equally well aware. In the Forward of October 27 he writes of ‘The Greatest Socialist Argument in the World.’ It is an account of the publicly-controlled electricity supply provided by the harnessing of Niagara. The Commission which manages it for the State, with the municipalities as share-holders on the Canadian side, supplies current at one-third the price charged by private enterprise on the American side. The American official investigator, Mr. Judson King, in a report issued by the American Government Printing Office, Washington, said in 1924:-
As I started out to see the great Chippewa Canal, and went around the famous falls, I passed the International Railway Bridge over the Niagara River. The cost of lighting the bridge is another study in efficiency. The west, or Canadian side, is lighted by the Hydro people; the east, American half, by a New York Company. The same number of lights, the same bridge, the same river, the same method of production; average monthly cost for 1921 on the Canadian side 8.43 dollars, and on American side 43.10 dollars.
The private-enterprise price there is five times the Collectivist price; but the ratio does not hold throughout. Mr. Johnston quotes a published statement by Sentor Morris that the Canadian publicly-owned system ‘serves more than a million customers at less than one-third the rate charged by private companies on the American side.’
Even so, the Commission and the Municipalities make good profits. Last year the Commission’s surplus, after providing for interest and reserve fund, was over £100,000 while the municipalities had net surpluses amounting 1,291,086 dollars. The Canadian public-enterprise price is 2d. per kilo hour as against the American private-enterprise charge of 6d. We are not surprised to learn that the American hundred dollar-shares are quoted at 1700, thanks to several waterings and the usual gambling.
These are the bovrilised facts of Mr. Johnston’s seven-column article. I thank him for having the candour to say that the Canadian scheme was floated by Tory politicians. Quite so. And it was Coalition (mostly Tory) politicians who built Gretna, and it was Labour politicians who threw it away to help Philip Snowden’s Budget (though it did not help much.) During the railway strike of 1911 I sent a long telegram to Mr. Winston Churchill and to Mr. Ramsay MacDonald suggesting that the Board of Trade should take over the service and run it till the companies came to an agreement with the men, and if they did not come to a satisfactory agreement, for the public as well as the men, that the Board of Trade should go on running the service. Mr. Churchill’s reply was formal, but rather encouraging. Mr. MacDonald’s reply was that a time of strike was not the time to nationalise. I was not suggesting nationalization, but a temporary expedient on governmental lines which might pave the way for nationalization. But it is never the time to nationalise if you don’t want to do it.
Seven years later Mr, Churchill said the policy of the Government was to nationalise. But A. M. Thompson, the late Frank Rose, and other professed Socialists long since wrote against Nationalization on the ground that a better system of transport could be devised. Sir Eric Geddes, in the worst of the post-war slump years, said publicly-controlled transport was the ‘one bright spot’ in the business horizon; and here in the same Forward in which the benefits of socialised electricity are praised by Tom Johnston as ‘The Greatest Socialist Argument in the World,’ official figures are also given by the Acting Editor of Forward showing the immense success of the nationalised railways of Canada, whose net surplus after paying interest on capital had risen rapidly from three millions in 1922 (first year under public enterprise) to 48 millions in 1926, while rates had been reduced. Under private enterprise there was a loss of 36,000,000 dols. in 1920.
Fordism Creates Unemployment.
Surely there would be more money for a living wage where the revenue was increased twelve-fold. As a matter of fact, operating expenses were reduced, though not by wage cuts. Very obviously the way to enable a business to pay better wages is to make the business more of a success from the revenue-earning point of view, and nationalization and municipalization always do that.
I have dealt with Fordism on previous occasions. The figures showing that America had 10 per cent. of unemployment (four millions out of 40 million workers) have appeared since Mr. Palme Dutt wrote his book. This increase of unemployment is confessedly due to ‘prosperity’ and mechanization. If high wages were the outcome of low profits - if Labour were securing a larger share of the cake - it would be possible to regard them as representing progress. But there is abundant evidence that the high wages of the United States (and high wages are by no me universal there) have the usual capitalistic complement of high profits, with re-investment of the profits and gambling with shares, so that, as we have seen, a hundred dollar share sells at 17oo dollars, and electricity which is sold in Canada at twopence costs sixpence on the American side of the river. Labour is advancing in status when it is able to buy back a bigger share of the goods it has produced; but with 11,000 millionaires in the States how can it be pretended that Labour is any nearer getting its own there than here?
Are not nationalization and municipalization infinitely better than any of the strange gods to which the reformists of capitalism have ostensibly transferred their allegiance? Or is the transference conscious humbug, dust for the eyes of the electorate, or, in Mr. Dutt’s phrase, ‘Cheap-Jack electioneering’?
No Communist Remedy Offered.
Probably Mr. Dutt believes no more in piecemeal socialising than the I.L.P. does. His exposure offers no alternative to the Living-Wage humbug. As a chess-player he is content to play a game which has no results, except that he probably finds both the chess and the exposure amusing. He may answer that Capitalism is breaking down, that the Revolution is inevitable, and that it is not necessary to advocate constructive Socialism by instalments. The answer is to be found in the present state of Russia, which is falling back upon capitalism, as Stalin complains, because of a lack of constructive genius, plus the determined opposition of the peasants not to give the Revolution more of a chance.
I am very sorry that the first Collectivist State should not be a striking success for all the world to see and imitate. I am no more in love with slow Gradualism than is Mr. Palme Dutt, and would like to believe that Gradualism could be made rapid. But Russia is a peasant State, and the peasant is a fierce Individualist. In Russia as in Britain the peasant has been neglected by the propagandists of the Collective way of life. Concentration on rural propaganda, and the re-peopling of depopulated areas with men from the towns having truly social instincts, seems to be the moral deducible from our failure in the Sleepy Hollows. In the prologue to ‘The Earthly Paradise’ Morris asks us to
Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town.
Yes; it is just six counties of England and one in Scotland that we have to forget. We have to forget Lanarkshire, Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Stafford, Warwick, and Middlesex, and remember that the 40 counties of England, the 12 of Wales, and the 34 of Scotland are fundamentally agricultural and pastoral, with crafts and callings galore that are not yet essentially altered by the advent of the machine industry. Our entire approach to the Social Revolution must be conditioned by that pleasant fact. Coal, cotton, metallurgy, and engineering are going, and as export trades will more and more continue to go, our one-time customers catering for themselves, and even competing with us. The new adjustment will be based upon agriculture, forestry, fishing, and crafts, producing for a home market vastly increased by a more widely diffused purchasing power; for the population will no longer be exploited in furtherance of the nightmare chimera of commercialism. Capitalism is busy writing off its millionfold losses. The end is not yet. The final loss of capitalism itself will be the nation’s gain.
On the 1st of February, 1882, I left business early about half-past three in the afternoon, if I remember aright, and went home. The next day being my birthday, I had resolved, with my employer's permission, to make it a holiday; and in order that we might all enjoy it to the best advantage, a little excursion had been planned among us. My mother, my sister, and I, had agreed to accept the invitation of some of our few friends, and to go out to their house on the evening of the 1st remaining with them until late on the following day. As our friends resided in a locality called Lordship Lane, not far from the suburb of Dulwich, we anticipated no little pleasure from the excursion, and it was consequently with feelings of delighted expectation that I hurried home from business that afternoon, to carry off my two dear ones with me on our projected visit. But our plans were overthrown by the horrible state of the weather. For weeks before, London had been stifled in a fog of varying density, but that afternoon it had grown so dense that my mother did not like to venture through it, especially since of late there had been tales about of accidents occurring from this cause, and my sister of coarse could not leave our mother. However, the two dear creatures had prepared everything for my departure, and were determined that I should go off alone; they were also extremely anxious that I should, if invited to do so, remain the second night at the Forresters', as my intimacy with young Wilton Forrester was likely to be of great service to me, and my good mother was anxious for me to "cultivate the friendship," as she said. I was much disappointed at their determination not to go, and would fain have stopped myself, but maternal counsels prevailed, and I set off. I found my way, not without considerable difficulty, to the railway station at Ludgate Hill. Everything was wrapped in murky gloom, though it wanted quite an hour of sunset, and the gas-lamps that were alight all day were wholly insufficient to penetrate the cloudy atmosphere with their sickly lights. I got into a train that went in my direction, and congratulated myself with the thought that I should soon be out of the worst of the fog, at any rate. I do not remember whether anyone ever attempted to write a history of London fogs, their gradual rise and progress, or gradual increase in duration and density, up to their terrific culmination; but such an essay would form a deeply interesting one. A London fog was no mere mist: it was the heavy mist, in the first place, that we are accustomed to in most latitudes, but it was that mist supercharged with coal smoke, with minute carbonaceous particles, "grits" and "smuts," with certain heavy gases, and with a vast number of other impurities. It was chiefly the result of the huge and reckless consumption of coal carried on over the wide-extending city, the smoke from which, not being re-consumed or filtered off in any way, was caught up and retained by the vapour-laden air. The fog was the most disagreeable and dangerous of all the climatic sufferings that Londoners had to bear. It filled the nostrils and air-passages of those who breathed it with soot, and choked their throats and lungs with black, gritty particles, causing illness and often death to the aged, weakly, and ailing it also caused headaches, and oppression, and all the symptoms that tell of the respiration of vitiated air. Londoners were well accustomed to the inconvenience of these fogs, and looked upon them in the light of a regular institution, not caring to investigate their cause with a view to some means of mitigating them. The fog the city had been known from time immemorial, especially in those districts lying near to the river, or to localities that had originally been marshes; but it was only of late years that the recurrence of fogs during autumn, winter and spring, had assumed such alarming proportions Even twenty years before the period I am writing of the fog was seldom so thick and foul in character, or it was so only over very limited. areas; while if it continued for more than a few hours at a time, that was considered a fact to be severely commented upon. But the plague had increased in. severity of late — so much so, that its density turned day into night, and clothed night in impenetrable obscurity; its extent was greater, involving all the districts between Hampstead and the Surrey hills and stretching from Woolwich to Bayswater; its continuance was such that weeks at a time often passed over while the detestable mantle still hung above the streets. The late years of incessant rain and cold had proved conducive to the prevalence of fogs, which now appeared in unwonted seasons with all their worst features. Besides the constant annoyance from impeded traffic, from the want of light, and from the injury to health, there were other reasons for dismay; accidents by river, rail, and road were frequent and disastrous; vessels collided upon the Thames, trains ran off the lines, and their passengers were maimed or killed; while garotters, burglars, and all the guilds of open crime, revelled in contented impunity. Yet still, no one seemed to think the "institution" other than a huge joke, and not a serious evil to be earnestly combated by science, with energy and municipal wealth for helpers.
In the train, as I was journeying through the fog, I was introduced to a new feature of the prevalent affliction — a forerunner of what was so soon to follow. Although it was too murky within the carriage, in spite of the feeble glimmer of an oil-lamp overhead, for the passengers to distinguish one another very clearly, yet conversation was carried on, perhaps all the more volubly on that account. One subject engrossed attention, and from the frequent ejaculations of dismay and manifest terror that it excited, I bent forward to listen to what was said. The principal speaker was sitting at some distance from me, but his voice rose dominant above the rest, and this is the substance of what I heard:--
"Yes, gentlemen," — he was saying, "the report's true enough, God help us! In fact, there's no doubt about it at all. I was down Thames Street myself to-day, and actually saw some of the bodies being carried along. Down Bermondsey way, in some of those crowded little streets and courts, was where it happened. They say the fog got suddenly so awfully thick that you couldn't see your hand. before your face. About midday I should think it was; and I can well believe it, for it was nearly as bad when I was down there, a couple of hours later. Well, they told me that in some of those streets the people were choked with the fog; regularly strangled and killed outright; men, women, and children. Some were in their shops and houses, and some were in the street, but they just dropped where they stood. I was that scared, that when I saw them carrying a couple of bodies into a public-house, I just turned and came away as fast as I could. Some said there was hundreds dead, and others said it was not above a dozen altogether. I don't know, nobody seemed to know, the rights of it; they couldn't, you see, the fog was still so dense. But, good. God! gentlemen, just fancy what it would be if the like was to happen in the City. Some were talking about gas from the sewers; I don't know anything about that, but I know it's made me so nervous that, business or no business, I go out of town to-night, and stop out till the fog clears off."
A moment later we came to a station, and the speaker got out. I set down what he had said as a gross exaggeration, as did most of my fellow travellers; still I could not help a horrid feeling of dread and foreboding coming over me. I suppose there was a good deal more conversation in the carriage, but I remember nothing of it. By-and-by we came to my station, and I left the train. Here the fog was nothing more than a light white mist; indeed, the real London fog never crossed the Surrey hills. I took my way up Lordship Lane, breathing more freely, and seeming to get inspirited at every step, so marked was the change from the heavy atmosphere I had come out of. I need not tell you of the cordial and kindly reception that I found awaiting me. The Forresters were a genial, old-fashioned family, inhabiting a comfortable, old-fashioned house standing in its own walled garden, and looking down upon the trim plastered villas that were springing up all around it. The family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Forrester, three daughters, and the son, Wilton, who was my senior by a few years, and who was a physician, though not in practice. They were in good circumstances, but not what the world then considered rich. I had made Dr. Wilton Forrester's acquaintance some two years before under somewhat singular circumstances, which had led to my introduction to his family, and by degrees to our present intimacy. The family were very hospitable, and subsequent events, of which you are aware, showed them to be kind and warm-hearted in no common degree. On that memorable evening they gave me a most kind welcome, expressing ready disappointment at not seeing my mother and sister with me. It was agreed that in the morning Wilton and I should go into town and fetch them out; nothing short of my promise to that effect would pacify the good people. I will pass over the details of the pleasant evening that followed dinner; it was like all such evenings among an agreeable family circle. I soon saw that no tidings had reached these amiable folk relative to the rumour I had heard in the train, and I forbore to speak on the subject, as the girls were full of jokes about the fog, and well primed with a hundred amusing anecdotes of the strange predicaments that were constantly befalling people in the clouded streets. They might well laugh who were removed beyond the influence of the fog, but such was the fashion in which everyone was accustomed to treat the subject — until that night.
Afterwards, when Mr. Forrester, Wilton, and I were sitting over our pipes in the smoking-room, I told them the story as I had heard it. They were infinitely shocked, as may be imagined, and slightly incredulous the affair was so novel in character, so contrary to all previous experience, that we hesitated to accept it for truth, rather preferring to suppose that some unforeseen accident of a less unheard-of description had been the basis from which the rumour had sprung. Naturally, we continued to talk of nothing else, and I remember that Wilton gave us the benefit of his scientific acquirements in our various speculations. As our talk bore very much upon the explanation of the subject of my narrative, I shall endeavour to recall the substance of it for you. It began by my observing that I could not understand how the fog — however bad it might be could become sufficiently thick or poisonous as to destroy life. Moreover, we had been accustomed, more or less, to London fogs ever since London existed, and I had never heard that people had been killed by them in that way before; the present fog had lasted since Christmas, and was not so thick to-day as it had been sometimes previously. My argument therefore was, that as the fogs had not before been found directly hostile to life, it was to be presumed they were not so now, since no distinctly new element had been imported into them. You perceive, my children, that, young and unthinking as I was my spirits had risen with my surroundings, and under their influence I was inclined to take the usual Londoner's view, and to scoff at the idea of a time-honoured nuisance turning out an actual danger. But both my companions were of different opinion. The elder Forrester said there was clear evidence that the fog injured health, even to the point of proving very quickly fatal to old people, and to those who were suffering from chest complaints or pulmonary weakness of any kind. There was clear evidence that it already did do so. The statistics of the death-rate showed this to be so beyond dispute. It was also evident to old inhabitants of London that the fogs were becoming aggravated every year, and the injury they did was increasing in due proportion. He did not see that we were justified in supposing the fogs to have attained the worst extent of virulence, although he sincerely trusted they had; and if it was shown that they were at present directly injurious to health, and an immediate cause of death to certain invalids, it could be easily understood how the intensification of the fog -would tend to the detriment of human life. Yet he was not prepared to credit the report I had heard, because it really seemed too much in the nature of a fable, and he thought such an event could scarcely happen under present existing circumstances. Although he saw the possibility of such accidents in some distant period of the future, yet he could not realise to his mind their actual occurrence now. Such was the old gentleman's opinion; meanwhile Wilton had been fidgeting in his seat, occasionally shaking his head, and giving vent to smothered ejaculations. When his father finished speaking, he said somewhat as follows: "The more I come to think of the rumour you have heard, the more I am inclined to admit the possibility of its entire truth. I recollect a case that was brought into hospital during the very severe fogs of a couple of winters ago.* [* 1880] It was that of a cabman, who had suddenly pitched headlong off his seat, and was picked up dead. The cause of death was at first supposed to be fracture of the skull, and it was held that the fall had resulted from drunkenness. However, the post-mortem threw an entirely different light upon the case. From it we had reason to conclude that the fall must have taken place after life was extinct, and there was no sign of any organic disease or chronic mischief to account for it. The cause of death was evident from the state of the lungs and air-passages, which were highly congested. The bronchi and tubes ramifying from them were clogged with black, grimy mucus, and death had evidently resulted from a sudden spasm, which would produce suffocation, as the lungs would not have the power in their clogged condition of making a sufficiently forcible expiratory effort to get rid of the accumulated filth that was the instrument of death. That was the only case of actual death from inhalation of London fog that I have seen myself, but there have been many others exactly similar reported."* [* Dr. Broadbent, one of the leading physicians of that day in London, also, I believe, had one or two such cases that came under his notice during the same fog.]
After some more cases of the same kind had been quoted, Mr. Forrester began speculating as to the way in which the fog might have acted in destroying life, in the instance of the people in Bermondsey. His theory was, that the air underwent some extraordinary chemical changes that, loaded with carbon in a finely-divided condition, and with the various products of combustion, there might happen possibly under an electrified condition of the atmosphere a sudden increase of affinity, by which carbonic oxide would be formed in prodigious quantity. As this gas is fatal to life, every breathing thing within the area of its influence would die. But Wilton combated this opinion; he said :--
"If what you were supposing were to be possible, and were actually to happen, there would be a sudden alteration in the volume of the surrounding air; this would be sufficient, I think, to produce formidable air- currents whose progress and agitation would be quite rapid enough to preserve such an admixture of oxygenated air as would prevent the ill effects to life that you are afraid of. No; I see only one way in which the fog is likely to act as a life-destroying agent apart, that is, from its action in carrying poisonous germs and spreading epidemics, which illustrates its slower action but as a rapid and immediate extinguisher of vitality the cause must be bronchial spasm. You see that each inspiration draws into the lungs a quantity of gritty particles; these necessarily inflame and lacerate the structures with which they are brought in contact, besides mechanically choking the passages; hence follows spasm of the bronchi, spasm of the glottis. Usually there exists the power to recover from this rapidly. Prolonged or energetic coughing brings up the cause of obstruction and relieves the muscular contraction, and the asthma or 'choking fit' is over. But suppose," continued Wilton, "such an aggravation of the fog, such an increase in its density, compression and carriage of mechanical impurity, as to make each one inspiration contain the same amount of irritative matter as do, say a score or so of inspirations at present. What would be the effect of that ? There would not be the chance of a recovery; each gasp would. distress, aggravate the distress, suffocation, complete and sudden would be inevitable. That is the way in which the cabman's death was brought about; and that is the way, in my opinion, in which the Bermondsey affair took place."
"The more I study these things in my mind the gloomier become my forebodings. We do not know the laws which govern the fogs of London, because in some measure they are artificial, and so differ from other mists. We only know that they have tended to become 'worse,' as we express it, of late years. How are we to know that this intensifying has reached its limits? May not the loss of life be even more serious from this cause? It is a pity that Government, and private individuals too, have not been readier in striving after some means of abating what we have long known to be an intolerable nuisance, and what seems about to become a very grave evil. Scientists have indeed made suggestions, but no steps have as yet been taken to determine their practical utility. Perhaps this accident in Bermondsey may direct attention to the subject."
I can remember yet the indescribable thrill which passed through me during these conversations. How wonderful it seems to me, looking back upon these events, that the warning never came until too late to be of service, that the cause for alarm so shortly preceded the blow. About the very time that we were sitting talking, scenes were enacting not so far from us that — but I must proceed regularly with my tale.
As you may guess, the horrible rumour which I had heard so circumstantially detailed, together with the conversation arising out of it later in the evening, went with me to my bed, and, impressed deeply on my mind, filled my sleep with all the wild phantasmagoria of frightful dreams. I rose in the morning feeling feverish and unrefreshed, and filled with a weird presentiment of evil that I was powerless to shake off. I drew up the blind, and looked out of the window. The sun was shining in a pale, sickly kind of way through the mist, which, however, seemed to be lightening a good deal. Towards the south one could see for a considerable distance, the mist being light and hazy; but in an opposite direction it deepened into a dense brown fog-bank, which lay along the line of the Surrey hills, completely shutting out all view beyond. I turned away with a shudder as my thoughts flew to my dear ones who were far in the depths of that hideous obscurity. Downstairs the family party was assembled for breakfast, the ladies light-hearted and full of raillery, the men depressed and anxious. There was a discordant tone in our voices, and an absent-mindedness in our manners which brought down on our heads many a light shaft of feminine wit; for both the Forresters, father and son, were, like me, oppressed with a troubled sense of something wrong, the result of our last night's talk. We were all most eager for the arrival of the morning papers, hoping they might relieve our fears, but neither the post nor the papers made their appearance. This was extraordinary, when ten o'clock came and still no tidings from the outer world had reached us. Our evident uneasiness had extended itself to the ladies, in spite of our efforts to seem cheerful, making dismal attempts at jocularity, saying that the postman must have lost his way in the fog, and so forth. But it was all to no use; a portentous gloom hung over us and refused to be lifted. At length we could bear it no longer, and making some excuse about going to see what had delayed the post we three men sallied out, and took our way down the hill in the direction of East Dulwich. Now up to this time I do not recollect that I had any actual sense of fear. A feeling, indefinable and objectless, of despondency and nervous shrinking I have already confessed to just such an inexplicable sensation of presentiment, of waiting for some unknown, un-thought of horror that was lying ready to appear, but was at present shrouded from view, which everyone knows as an accompaniment to that class of dreams we call nightmare: yet I had in no sense realized the immediate approach of evil to myself or to those I loved. I think I have pretty accurately expressed the nature of my inward feelings up to the moment when the two Forresters and I commenced our walk. But every moment after that brought nearer and nearer to my mind the horrid reality of dread; fixed deeper inwardly a fuller horror as events became known and an agony of unutterable fear gradually filled every sense and thrilled every nerve within me. Aye, my grandchildren, little can you understand the utter intensity of that all- absorbing terror, which even now causes my very soul to quake within me as I write. This is no exaggeration; wait, and read the awful tale, if I can command myself to finish it.
As we came out into the high-road, we overtook a gentleman who was proceeding in the same direction as ourselves. He 'was a neighbour of the Forresters, and was known to them, so we fell into conversation. Like us, he had been much perturbed by the non-appearance of the postman, and he was now on his way to try and obtain tidings of him. From him we gained the first startling piece of intelligence. This gentleman had seen the "special edition" of an evening paper the previous night, 'and in it, he said, was an account of the-accident in Bermondsey. The report said that over five hundred lives were certainly lost, but that, owing to the dense fog in the locality, and the difficulty of getting men to enter it, the exact total could not yet be known. It went on to add that although people in the adjacent district asserted the cause of the calamity to have been simply a sudden and overwhelming access of fog, this could not have been the true reason, because it was contrary to all previous experience; "wherefore," said this sapient journal, "we must suppose that a gush of foul sewer-gas, or some similar poisoning of the thick and heavy air, produced the fatal effect;" a piece of reasoning which almost moved Wilton to laughter. This is a fair illustration of how strangely fixed in the London mind was the notion that their fog was always to be, what it always had been, innocuous to the generality of people — an idea which had served to prevent any steps being taken in the direction of rendering it really so. Now, as we had seen reason to admit the possibility of the mere fog acting as a direct destroyer, we were sadly disheartened by this confirmation of the evil news. It is easy now to follow the train of conclusions which rnade our vague anxieties assume a more vivid shape.
Firstly, supposing it proved that the fog could kill an individual — and Wilton had proved that — what was to hinder its killing a number of individuals in a certain spot? and that was now proved to our minds. Again, if the fog could attain to such virulence over any special locality, there was no just reason for supposing that its area of destructive maleficence might not be enlarged to an almost indefinite extent. So thinking and talking, we passed on down the road towards East Dulwich.
As we entered that part of Lordship Lane which formed the main street of East Dulwich, and where such shops and public-houses as the suburb boasted were to be found, we became aware of a very great commotion going on. The fog was here somewhat denser than on the higher ground we had left, though it was still only a whitish mist. But the usually quiet street, so far as we could see through the mist, presented a most unaccustomed spectacle. People were rushing wildly to and fro, groups were gathered in the roadway, on the pavement, inside and outside of the public-houses and the shops; all seemed imbued with ungovernable and frantic excitement, and on every face might be traced the same expression, panic, terror, fear! What was the matter?
Hastily we mingled with the throng, anxiously we questioned first one and then another. None seemed to know exactly what had occurred; none were possessed of details, yet the very vagueness of the thousand rumours lent potency to their fears, while all concurred in one frenzied outburst THE FOG! Some told us that all access to town was shut off by an impenetrable wall of fog; others said that no person or vehicle of any kind had come out of town that morning. Some spoke of the entire cutting off of all communication with London as a temporary nuisance and a good joke, but their blanched faces and quivering lips too plainly showed the dread. that was at work within them; while others there were who told of men that had essayed to penetrate the vaporous veil, and who had returned, scared and choking to speak of dead men lying in the street whose bodies they had stumbled over, to tell of the suffocating intensity of the dreadful fog. So asking and so answered, we came to Champion Hill railway station, where a large but awestricken crowd was gathered. Here we learnt the fullest details that were yet known. All traffic into and out of London was indeed suspended, or rather, had never commenced. No trains had come out from the London termini, no response had been received to signals or telegrams ; while men who had started to walk into town had either never returned, or else had shortly retraced their footsteps, panting and half-strangled. Telegrams from other suburbs and outskirts of town brought intelligence of a precisely similar state of things existing in those localities. No one had come from London, no one had succeeded in entering it. Such public conveyances as were wont to start every morning with their freight of "City men," had made efforts to do so in vain. They had been forced to relinquish the attempt, owing not only to the black obscurity, but also to the unbreathable character that the fog seemed to have assumed. Crowds of men who lived in the suburbs and were employed in the City by day, thronged the stations, a dreadful panic having taken possession of them and altered their usual demeanour. Instead of the accustomed noise, bustle, and brisk hurry, white-faced groups consulted together in whispering tones; and many, utterly demoralized by excess of terror, had gone home to carry off their families to some place of greater safety. All round the "Great City" lay a wide belt of suburban districts, and these were now —so it seemed — given up to confusion, peopled with panic, and invaded with dismay. What were my feelings now? Judge for yourselves. Do you suppose I can tell you? A man came down the station steps, as we terrified wretches cowered together below, loudly exclaiming:--
"I tell you, it's damned nonsense; they CAN'T be all killed in London!"
The final episode will be here on Gateway next month.
James Leatham, writing on Sir Walter Scott in 1915
A Word About Sir Walter.
Last year was the centenary of the publication of ‘Waverley’; 1915 is the centenary of ‘Guy Mannering’, and next year will see the hundredth anniversary of ‘The Antiquary.’ As at the end of a century of fame on still meets many good people who say they ‘can’t read Scott,’ a word may not be out of place as to this great man and great writer by one who owes so much to him as I do. I had begun to read the Waverley novels before entering my teens, and I have been reading and re-reading them ever since, with increasing appreciations.
One offset to the disadvantages of being a Scot is that you stand an extra chance of being grounded in the Waverley novels. In severe Scottish households of a former generation prose fiction was contraband: but an exception was always made as regards Sir Walter on the plea that his tales were ‘founded on facts’ – as if the writings of other novelists were not, or as if it made any difference, as a rule, whether they were or not. The average modern story is of course largely autobiographical; it is inconceivable that it should be otherwise, inconceivable that novelists should evolve narrative incident, and characterisation out of their inner consciousness. As an intensely fecund and rapid inventor, Scott’s incidents and characters were probably, in most cases, formed to a much less extent on actual occurrences and personages than those of less fertile improvisators. What the plea in favour of Sir Walter most probably meant was that he never chose themes that were not in the highest degree epic and worthy; that his must uttered nothing small.
To know Scott’s work in its length and breadth is to have secured the respectable beginnings of a working knowledge of the history of the world. I know of no books that might more fittingly be turned to account for school lessons than just precisely the novels of Sir Walter. They represent history teaching by examples. To have read ‘Ivanhoe’ is to have a knowledge of life, of dress, fare, habits, and housing in early Norman England such as no serious history could possibly convey. It is inconceivable that any young person should read through the novels of Scott without becoming a student of history for life. He ransacked the life of the world, from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, for stirring themes with which to engage his romantic pen.
Scott and History.
The Crusades are discussed at close quarters in ‘The Talisman,’ the Santon of the desert and the Saracenic warrior coming in for treatment as well as the crusaders themselves.
In ‘Count Robert of Paris,’ the last and poorest of all Scott’s novels, and written when his mind was breaking up, the court of Constantinople in pre-Mahometan days is discussed, with special reference to the Saxons of the Varangian guard, men who, rather than accept the Norman dominations in England, had accepted service under the Emperors of the East.
In ‘Castle Dangerous’ the vexed and turbulent life of the Border is presented.
Switzerland and the strange International secret society known as the Vehmgericht are handled in ‘Anne of Geirstein, or the Maiden of the Mist.’
The savage strife and lawlessness of Scotland under the early Stewarts is graphically presented in ‘The Fair Maid of Perth.’
The spacious days of Queen Elizabeth form the theme of ‘Kenilworth’ in which the Virgin Queen herself and Raleigh and Leicester move across the scene.
The break-up of the monastic system and the Reformation in Scotland are inwound with the sad fortunes of Queen Mary and the amusing affectations of the Euphuists in ‘The Monastery,’ and its sequel ‘The Abbot.’
It is at the court of the first Stewart king of England that we follow ‘The Fortunes of Nigel,’ a young Scottish lord who followed the British Solomon to his new capital.
The ‘Legend of Montrose’ is laid in the time of the revolutionary government of Charles the First’s reign as that movement went forward in Scotland; and as a work of art this tale is notable as containing the character of David Dalgetty, the quaint soldier of fortune who loves to refer to Marischal College, Aberdeen, as his alma mater.
‘Woodstock’ is a tale of the Cromwellian period, in which Sir Walter, despite his strong aristocratic sympathies, is as fair to the great Protector as he is severe to the roystering cavalier types.
‘Peveril of the Peak’ relates to the reign of Charles the Second, and introduces the celebrated dwarf Geoffrey Hudson.
‘Old Mortality’ is a splendid handling of the Covenanting period, the tale itself of great interest, and the pourtrayal of the Covenanters wonderfully fair, especially when we consider that Sir Walter was a high Churchman who deprecated anything approaching to zeal in religion.
‘Rob Roy’ is laid in the period, if it has little to do with the incidents of the rebellion of 1715. ‘Waverley’ follows the fortunes of Charles Edward Stewart in the ’45. ‘Redgauntlet’ revives echoes of this uprising, is full of incident, and has quaint characters such as the Quakers of Mount Sharon with their net fisheries, Wandering Willie and his tale, and the pathetic Peter Peebles, prototype of poor Miss Flyte, the ruined and crazy litigant in ‘Bleak House.’
‘The Heart of Midlothian,’ besides containing such splendid characters as Jeanie Deans, the Laird of Dumbledykes and douce Davie, embodies the notable episode of the Porteous riots, so typical of the turbulent Edinburgh mob of a bygone day.
This, it must be admitted, represents a wonderful series of historic novels, tapping the story of the nations at some of the most stirring stages in the life of the world.
All the history is comparatively good and safe so far as it goes. When Scott notably deviates from historical accuracy the fact is usually stated.
Let us take, first, ‘Quentin Durward,’ as illustration how the Great Magician could make himself at home abroad. Its lifelike portraits of ‘the sagacious, perfidious, superstitious, jocular, political tyrant, Louis XI and of Charles the Bold, and the vivid colour and movement of this first great romance of the lowlands of Europe, secured for it a rapturous welcome in France, which, of course had seen nothing of the kind before. On its first appearance in Edinburgh ‘Quentin Durward’ had been, as Scott said, frostbitten; but the French enthusiasm reacted upon Britain, and the novel had at last the reception it deserved in the country of its birth. Germany had long before been fully awake to the merits of Sir Walter, and was, indeed, unfailing and steady in its appreciation.
‘Quentin Durward’ contains, so far as we shall ever know, as faithful portraits of Louis XI and Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, as we are ever likely to have. Scott simply went to Philip des Comines as Shakespeare went to Plutarch, and breathed the breath of life into characters to whom the historian had given everything except colour, speech, and movement. Louis here appears to us in his habit as he lived, his worn clothes and shabby hat stuck round with leaden images, to which, taking off his hat, he would offer a prayer. We see him suspicious yet trustful, sceptical yet superstitiously credulous, hanging upon the horoscopes of his astrologer, yet ready to turn upon him at the least sign of a miscarriage in the fulfilment of these forecasts. We realise him as shunning war, yet capable of taking command, and showing both cool courage and sagacious generalship when war could no longer be avoided; witty and superficially kind, yet ready to be promptly and mercilessly cruel; by turns lavish and penurious with his money; driving away the nobility of France from his own court by his lack of taste for the parade and adventure of kingcraft and by his disinclination to foster any kind of power in the realm save his own; making favourites of his barber and executioner, yet promptly checking any disposition on their part to forget their real position. Such and so varied are the features of this complex personality, helping us to realise once again how very mixed and mingled good and bad may be in human nature as a whole – a fact which we constantly tend to forget.
The dangers of wilfulness in the head of State are graphically brought out in the picture of Charles of Burgundy. The character of this stormy and headlong ruler is shown, not so much by the descriptive analysis as in the blustering speeches and violent commands he issues. It is self-revelation in the true method and spirit of drama.
Scott’s Dramatic Faculty.
Scott was an aristocrat in sentiment and opinion. He preferred to write of kings and nobles, of tournaments and sieges and pitched battles and hand to hand encounters. He loved the high parley of court and camp rather than the ‘clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate.’ He spoke of his own manner as ‘the bow-wow style,’ and of giving his characters ‘a cane and a cocked hat.’ But he was full of universal human sympathy as well.’ As with Chaucer, no character was too humble for his art, and, unlike Shakespeare, he did not introduce such characters to make game of them. They are not dolts and butts in his page, but men and women with whom we can sympathise. In ‘Ivanhoe’ we have the faithful if surly Gurth the swineherd as well as his master Cedric; we have Wamba the jester as well as Athlestane, descendent of kings; Friar Tuck is sketched with rather more fullness of sympathetic detail than is expended on his boon companion of a night, Coeur de Lion, the crusading King of England.
Scott’s men and women in humble life are the real flesh and blood folk of fiction. Nothing is more signally characteristic of him than his dramatic faculty of going out of himself, of putting himself in the place of the widely diverse characters by whose mouth he speaks. Whether they be old wives such as Meg Merrilees, Mause Headrigg, or Meg Dodds, or old men like Trapbois, ready to do anything ‘for a consideration’; Hubert the Archer whose ‘grandsire drew a good bow at the Battle of Hastings’; Edie Ochiltree, the king’s bedesman; or Jonathan Oldbuck, the antiquary whom Edie loved to banter over his ‘finds,’ they are all thoroughly human, with character lineaments that live on the mental retina. Andrew Fairservice, the pragmantical gardener-thelogian; Cuddie Hedrigg, the placable and plausible ploughman; Caleb Balderstone, most faithful of servants, and intensely concerned about covering the nakedness of the land; Richie Moniplies with his ‘sifflictation,’ a true Scottish Sancho Panza of the seventeenth century – these are the best characters in the realm of Scott folk.
His heroes and heroines are for the most part mere lay figures without individualising traits. In the tale before us, Quentin Durward, the fair-haired young Scottish adventurer in France, is indeed rather a full-blooded fellow. We can form some idea of his tall athletic figure, his readiness for hard knocks and prompt words, his naïve frankness and shrewd watchfulness. But of his fiancée, Isabella Countess of Croye, how little we know! Wilfred of Ivanhoe engages our sympathies by his misfortunes if nothing else; but at best he is a shadowy character; and s for the fair Rowena, we have to take the author’s word for her all the time. Neither of them does or says anything by which we could remember them. If by possibility we could meet either, how should we know them?
As shown in ‘Quentin Durward.’
In ‘Quentin Durward’ also it is the minor characters of whom we have the most vivid recollection. Hayraddin, Maugrabin, the gipsy of the elf-locks, the knavish tricks, and the indominatble spirit; Ludovic of the Scar; the whimsical assistant executioner Petit-Andre, who uttered jocosities as he fixed the hempen cravat about the victim’s neck – these are more realisable than the counts and court dames who make speeches at Louis and Duke Charles.
Scott’s great dramatic impartiality is very well indicated in ‘Quentin Durward.’ Aristocrat as he avowed himself to be, and despising tradesmen and merchants as he causes his kings and cavaliers to do, he is nevertheless willing to concede ‘points’ to the burghers of Liège. The portrait of Pavillon, the tanner Syndic of that great free city, is not ill-natured in effect, whatever Scott’s intention may have been in his satirical account of the fat tanner’s difficulties with his armour and his repugnance to fighting. From quite as good an authority as Sir Walter, from John Froissart himself, we know that the burghers of Ghent at least gave a very good account of themselves again and again even when they took the field against the chivalry of the time handicapped by famine and inferior numbers. Scott makes the Liègeous party to the murder of the Bishop of Liège. Indeed he makes a butcher of Liège the Bishop’s executioner. In point of fact the Bishop was murdered by William de la Marck’s own hand, and the citizens of Liège, though they had joined in the conspiracy against the Bishop, were as much horrified at his murder as was the rest of Christendom at the time. But while Sir Walter is unfair to the Liègeois in the mass, his dramatic conscience will not allow him to be downright unfriendly to these rich and free burghers as individuals. Pavillon the tanner, his lieutenant Peterkin, his daughter Gertrude and Hans Glover, Gertrude’s bachelor, all appear in a kindly light as performing friendly offices, at some risk to themselves, to Quentin and his young Countess. Scott also has the fairness to admit that these burghers showed a degree of taste in their household appointments not to be matched even in the royal castles of France.
But the most signal proof the novel affords of Scott’s dramatic fairness is his treatment of the wild and reckless gipsy Maugrabin. When the gipsy is sentenced to death for masquerading as a herald in order to deliver an insolent message from the Boar of Ardennes, Quentin Durward tries to impress upon him the need of receiving a priest that he may make his peace with god. The wild man refuses this counsel. ‘What cans’t thou expect,’ says Quentin, ‘dying in such opinions and impenitent?’
‘To be resolved into the elements,’ said the gipsy Pantheist, pressing his fettered arms against his bosom: ‘my hope, trust ,and expectation is that the mysterious frame of humanity shall melt into the general mass of nature, to be recompounded in the other forms with which she daily supplies those which daily disappear, and return under different forms – the watery particles to streams and showers, the earthly parts to enrich their mother earth, the airy portions to wanton in the breeze, and those of fire to supply the blaze of Aldeboran and his brethren. In this faith have I lived, and I will die in it! Hence! Begone! Disturb me no further! I have spoken the last word that mortal ears shall listen to!’
These opinions would doubtless be as far as possible from representing the views of Scott himself.
The Time of ‘Quentin Durward.’
The period of the tale is the vastly interesting third quarter of the fifteenth century, just after the invention of the art of printing (1444), the fall of Constantinople (1453), and the dissemination of Arabian learning over Europe. Hardly an echo of these great events, or other great events which were even then preparing, finds its way into the novel. There is a bare reference by one of the characters to the winged art of printing; it was almost impossible that Scott, an author and partner in a printing business, could have avoided that. But when we see the abundant and picturesque use made by Charles Reade, in ‘the Cloister and the Hearth,’ of the general social stir of that teeming time, and, in particular, the marvels of the printing press as successor to the labours of the monkish scribe and illuminator, we realise the strides which the novel has made, in the best hands, since Sir Walter’s day.
Fighting, ambuscades, an escape from hanging, an escape from drowning, the safe conveying of distressed ladies, the discussions of Louis, Charles and their courtiers with a pitched battle to crown all – such are the elements of ‘Quentin Durward.’ The characterisation and still more the dialogue, have Sir Walter’s usual spirit and wit, and if we realise that the great modern romancists – Hugo, Dumas and Reade in the great fiction already referred to – had yet to come, we are, nevertheless, not surprised to learn that ‘Quentin Durward’ was received with as much enthusiasm in Paris as ‘Waverley’ had been, earlier in the day, in Edinburgh. There was, in truth, nothing in French literature even remotely approaching in character or quality to this novel of French life. The publisher, Constable, had indulged in gloomy forecasts as to its reception – for no reason to be discovered from the tale itself. But the fervour of the welcome extended to it in France reacted on the popular estimation of it in this country. It was quickly translated into German and Italian, and everywhere on the Continent was received with great favour, not less as a true historical study than as a tale of living human interest.
On His Own Ground.
I propose now to give some little examination to the third novel, ‘The Antiquary,’ as representing Sir Walter on Scottish ground, where he was undoubtedly at his best. ‘The Antiquary’ was Scott’s own favourite novel, and the reason of this preference should not be difficult to understand. He wrote it when his mind was still fresh and full. ‘Waverley’ and ‘Guy Mannering’ had gone before, and the fervour with which they had been received would deepen Scott’s conviction that he had struck a new vein of romantic writing as noble in its kind and even more distinctive than the plays of Shakespeare compared with other writings of the Elizabethan dramatists. Jonson, Massinger and Marlowe were all inferior to Shakespeare: but the genre was similar. Whereas Scott had neither precursors nor contemporaries in romantic prose fiction. There was Galt – who never came into his own – coeval with Scott, and a master in his own very different field – and soon there were plenty of followers of much merit.
But if we would appreciate how completely original Scott was we have only to think of the novelists who came before him. Richardson, Fielding, Smollet, Goldsmith – how different they all are from Sir Walter! There was ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ the wooden romance of lively Horace Walpole, who was utterly an Englishman of the eighteenth century, and incapable of sincere constructive imagination. All of them were living and some of them were writing about the time of the Rebellion of 1745, when the wild ‘petticoat men’ penetrated as far south as Derby; yet there is no echo in their novels of that most startling incursion. We cannot conceive Scott living in and writing of such a period without turning to account its most outstanding public event.
Since Sir Walter set the example of illustrating history in the historic romance there is scarcely a period, incident, or great personage that has not been made to do duty by writers of prose fiction; though it must be said that the Scots and the French have done and are doing much more in this field than English writers, who, with the genius of their nation, have a history but are nowise interested in it, nor seek to interest their fellow-countrymen. Dickens wrote of the period of the Gordon riots, and Thackery of the reign of Queen Anne; but they, in common with most of their fellow-countrymen, preferred to deal with the life of their own times.
That the glamour of the past and the golden radiance of the future should be discarded for the greyest realities of the everyday present is not easy to understand. The stories of George Gissing and Mr Pett Ridge, for instance – how determinedly drab they are! The struggles of poverty, the hundred and one manifestations of snobbery, the perpetual dragging in of commonplace details about food and eating, as if the authors had never become accustomed to having enough to stay their stomachs – how can anything of a public be found for that philosophy of the starveling, which is only the more contemptible when the people are represented as bearing their disgraceful, preventable poverty with base contentment. How could a fine writer like Gissing, how can a clever writer like Mr Pett Ridge, sit down day after day to work on elements such as these when the whole world of space and time was and is open to their choice? To say that there work is true to life is nothing to the point. The Multiplication Table is true; but it is not an exhilarating study. A brick wall is a solid fact: but as an object of contemplation or analysis it is not capable of much human or any other kind of interest.
Gissing greatly admired Dickens, but does not seem to have noted that his hero was in all he wrote the politician, the social reformer, the healthy cheerful man who pourtrayed the poor not without hope that their poverty was remediable, and that with the conviction that it was the business of the man of letters to help to remedy it, preparing the way for the politician by moulding public opinion. Charles Reade was imbued with a similar purpose. Sir Walter himself dealt with the historical struggles for freedom – the Reformation, the Civil War, the Covenanters; and, Tory as he was , his scrupulous fairness compelled him to show the merits of the men he pourtrayed, with a leaning (if anything), not to his own side, but to the other. From a perusal of ‘Woodstock’ we rise with a just sense that the Cavalier type as represented in roystering Roger Wildrack was by much the inferior of the psalm singing Puritan whom he mocked. Similarly in ‘Old Mortality’ we find the Covenanters depicted as men of more character and prowess than the men who harried them. Thus Balfour of Burleigh, insultingly challenged to a fall by the trooper Bothwell, throws the challenger, a bigger man, with such violence that he lies for a moment as if dead. It is in the same splendid tale that we witness the heroic constancy under torture of the young preacher MacBriar, who swoons under the agony of ‘the boot,’ but protests against the secular usurpation with his last breath. These are scenes of which the stuff of public spirit and civic genius is made.
Who would not, on a deliberate view, rather pore upon the noble canvas of ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’ or ‘Old Mortality’ than ‘The Wickhamses’ or ‘The House of Cobwebs’? The one is a true as the other, while in incident, background, atmosphere, and noble characterisation the historical novels leave the drab cockney realism in the mud. This is what Ruskin had in view when he spoke of the characters of a distinguished English novelist as ‘the sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus.’ Who writes of snobbery must himself be a snob. Scott kept aristocratic company, had the Duke of Buccleuch for kinsman; hob-nobbed with George the Fourth and his brother the Duke of York,; but when he occasionally introduces a Duke or an earl into his story, they appear as natural human beings, not like the rococo noblemen of Disraeli, who have always to be surrounded with the paraphernalia of their rank, from the peacock on the terrace to the coronet on the chair-back. Even then, it was on humble characters that he expended his most detailed and sympathetic art – the old begggarman Edie Ochiltree, the old gipsy wife Meg Merriliees; Mause Headrigg, the old scolding Covenanter wife and her son the pawky ploughman, Cuddie.
His art was in accordance with his life in this respect. The bustling alewife at Fushie Bridge said of Sir Walter: ‘Oh, but he’s company for kings, an’ yet he’ll mak himsel’ company for me, he’s so aiffable an’ pleasant to a’ ranks.’ One of his favourite anecdotes was of an elderly woman who warmed his heart by calling herself ‘a poor old struggler,’ When in Ireland he gave a shilling to a man for some sixpenny service, he said ‘Remember, Pat, y0u owe me sixpence.’ And Pat delighted him by replying, ‘May your honour live till I pay ye!’ Lockhart recounts how Scott, tired with a long walk, leaned upon the shoulder of Tom Purdie, his gamekeeper and forester, how he scolded Tom for neglecting to carry out his instructions as to the thinning of a hedgerow, and thereafter transferred his hand to the shoulder of Constable the bookseller. Tom disconsolately dropped behind; but, the party coming to a gate, he ran forward to open it. Scott, seeing the ex-poacher’s chagrin, asked him for a pinch of snuff, and put his hand on the shoulder once more. The forgiven and gratified henchman was then pleased to say to Sir Walter that he ‘would take his advice’ about the thinning. It was Scott himself, who, with great enjoyment, told the last part of the story.
To our Tale.
‘The Antiquary’ is to some extent autobiographical. In a preface to the edition of 1830 Scott speaks of the chief character, Jonathan Oldbuck, as reflecting the characteristics of a worthy old friend of his boyhood’s days, and this was understood to mean George Constable of Wallace-Craigie. But Scott himself had some of the features of his Antiquary. Jonathan Oldbuck was both book-collector and antiquary, and so was Scott. The one lives at Monkbarns, and the other at Abbotsford. The author was a sheriff, the character was a justice of the peace. Both were landed proprietors. Oldbuck was descended from a famous printer, the founder of the house. Scott was a partner in the great printing concern of Ballantyne & Co. Both had been disappointed in love. The Antiquary amused himself by chiding and chaffing his nephew Captain Hector McIntryre, and Scott’s letters to his son Walter, also an officer, have banter and reproof as their constant notes.
But George Constable certainly was an antiquary, a landed proprietor, and may have had other features of Jonathan Oldbuck. It was he who helped to form Scott’s tastes as a collector when the author of ‘The Antiquary’ was a young man haunting the beach and the cliffs about Prestonpans, where the scene of the novel is laid. Scott’s tastes had so much in common with those of the laird of Monkbarns that he was moved in his later years to begin a descriptive catalogue (never finished) of the contents of the Gabions of the late Jonathan Oldbuck, Esq.’ That the zeal shown by the Antiquary of the novel in adding to his collection was excelled by Scott himself is shown by many a letter to Daniel Terry, the actor, in London, who besides dramatizing a number of the novels (terryifying, Scott called it), bought much antique furniture and armour for him. Thus in the fortieth chapter of Lockhart’s ‘Life’ the following passage occurs in the very first letter we light upon: -
I was now anxious to complete Abbotsford… I am quite feverish about the armoury. I have two pretty complete suits of armour – one Indian one and a cuirassiers, with boots, casque, etc; many helmets corslets, and steel caps, swords and poinards without end, and about a dozen of guns, ancient and modern. I have beside two or three battleaxes and maces, pikes and targets, a Highlander’s accoutrement complete, a great variety of branches of horns, pikes, bows and arrows, and the clubs and creases of Indian tribes.
These details are interesting as showing that Scott knew something of the weapons and the clothes of the armed men, who figure so numerously in his pages; though they were hardly collected as mere ‘properties’ to the writer. Scott lived in the old world. His reading and thoughts were remote from the time of his life, so much so, that when in his later years he took to pamphleteering against the Reform Bill his friends had to tell him that the arguments had already been put forward by other Tories and had been completely and decisively answered from the other side. A man cannot write from 6am till breakfast time, and neglect the periodical press as Scott did, without being hopelessly behind the time, as millions of voters still are, without having Scott’s good excuse.
‘The Antiquary’ abounds in great scenes and descriptive passages. The treasure-hunting in the old Priory of St Ruth and the rescue of Sir Arthur and Miss Wardour from the Halkethead Crags will appeal to a large class; but such incidents have been much handled by other novelists; though one does not recall any writer who had introduced them before Scott. The most characteristic scene is that in which Oldbuck delivers to Lovel his enthusiastic disquisition on the Kaim of Kinprunes, that account into which the old bedesman Edie Ochiltree breaks with his deadly untimeous ‘Praetroian here, Praetorian there, I mind the biggin’ o’t.’ The stone bearing a sacrificing vessel, and marked ‘A.D.L.L.’ was to the fervid Antiquary nothing less than a Roman monument whose inscription might ‘without much violence’ stand for Agricola Dicavit Libens Lubens. Old Edie’s cruel explanation that the vessel was, as the initials indicated Aiken Drum’s Lang Ladle, appears to have amused Dickens so much that he paraphrases the incident in a chapter of ‘Pickwick’ in which an inscription on a stone discovered by the members of the Club is ultimately found to mean nothing more historically momentous than ‘Bill Stamps his Mark.’
Of the descriptive passages two stand out beyond the others. The one is the account of the Antiquary’s study, with its little black Elzevirs, its calthrops, spurs and buckles, its mutilated copy of ‘The Complaynt of Scotland,’ its old ballads and broadsides ‘not one of them later than 1700 and some of them an hundred years older,’ and, as the genius loci of the apartment, a big black cat. The other is the account of the achievements of the Antiquary’s redoubtable ancestor, the printer, who won the hand of his former master’s daughter, under the terms of her father’s will, by being the only one among her many suitors who could set the types and pull a proof of his work, which he did, as clean ‘as a triple revise’ (that is a third corrected impression.)
Here again, as so often in his novels, Scott seems actually to go out of his way to write up the opposite views to those which he himself held. The Antiquary is a Whig, proud of his descent from the early German printer Oldenbuck, and rather scornful about the ‘old nobility’ generally, and the ancestors of his Tory neighbour Sir Arthur Wardour, in particular. When that pompous knight obliquely reflects upon the Antiquary’s descent from a Westphalian printer, old Jonathan makes the spirited reply; ‘I conceive that my descent from that painful and industrious typographer Aldobrand Oldbuck, who, in the month of December, 1493, under the patronage, as the colophon tells us, of Sebaldus Scheyter and Sebastian Kammermaister, accomplished the printing of the great Chronicle of Nuremberg - I conceive, I say, that my descent from that great restorer of learning is more creditable to me as a mean of letters than if I had number in my genealogy all the brawling, bullet0 headed, iron-fisted, old Goth barons since the days of Crentheminachcrime –not one of whom, I suppose, could write his own name.’
‘If you mean the observation as a sneer at my ancestery,’ said the knight with an assumption of dignified superiority and composure, ‘I have the pleasure to inform you that the name of my ancestor, Gamelyn de Guardover, Miles, is written fairly with his own hand in the earliest Ragman Roll.’
‘Which,’ says the ready Antiquary, ‘only serves to show that he was one of the earliest who set the mean example of submitting to Edward I.’
As against the pompous futility of Sir Arthur and the tragic gloom and remoteness of the Earl of Glenallan, the Antiquary shows as a man of admirable shrewdness and spirit, whose liability to be deceived over Roman camps and his professed dislike of ‘womenkind’ are engaging fallibilities from which the dull and ordinary are exempt.
The dramatic power which enabled Scott to place himself at the start point of the old Whig Antiquary serves him equally well with the splendid sustained character of Edie Ochiltree, the old beggar who refuses to be provided for on the ground that he does not need it, and that any change in his state must needs be for the worse.
‘I am,’ says Edie, ‘the idlest auld carle that ever lived. I downa be bound down to hours o’ eating and sleeping; and, to speak the honest truth, I wad be a very bad example in ony weel-regulated family… I could never abide staying still in ae place, and just seeing the same joists and couples aboon my head night after night… and then what wad the country about do for want o’ auld Edie Ochiltree, that brings news and country cracks frae ae farm steading to anither, and gingerbread to the lunes and helps the lads to mend their fiddles and the gudewives to clout their pans, and plaits rushes and grenadier caps for the weans, and busks the hinds flees, and has skill o’ cow-ills and horse-ills, and kens mair auld sangs and tales than a’ the barony besides, and gars ilka body laugh wherever the comes? - troth, my leddy, I canna lay down my vocation; it would be a public loss.’
When Miss Wardour tries to tempt him with the prospect of being independent, the old man says: -
‘I am mair independent as I am. I want nae mair at ony single house than a meal o’ meat, or maybe but a mouthfu’ o’t – if it’s refused at ae place I get it at anither – sae I canne be said to depend on ony body in particular, but just on the country at large.’
He has just helped to save Miss Wardour’s life and that of her father, and she presses him to accept a sum of money at least.
‘That I might be robbed and murdered some night between town and town! Or what’s as bad, that I might live in constant apprehensions o’t! Im no – (lowering his voice to a whisper, and looking keenly about him) I’m no that clean unprovided for neither; and though I should die at the back o’ a kike, they’ll find as muckle quilted in this auld blue gown as will bury me like a Christian, and gie the lads and lasses a blythe lykewake too; sae there’s the gaberlunzie’s burial provided for, and I need nae mair – were the like o’ me ever to change a note, wha the deil d’ye think wad be sic fules as to gie me charity afiter that? It would flee through the country like wildfire that auld Edie suld had done siccan a like thing, and then, I’se warrant, I might grane my heart out or ony body wad gie me either a bane or a bodle.’
It is it the grand apologia for all the gangrel fraternity, of which there are still many representatives in the land of Edie.
Scott’s attitude towards the old-fashioned beggar of Edie’s type is amusingly brought out in the memorandum contributed by Allan Cunningham to Lockhart’s ‘Life’ Recounting a conversation they had, Cunningham tells how he said to Scott:
‘I knew a man, the last of a race of district tale-tellers, who used to boast of the golden days of his youth, and say that the world, with all its knowledge, was grown sixpence a day worse for him.’
Scott: How was that? How did he make his living? By telling tales and singing ballads?
Cunningham: By both; he had a devout tale for the old and a merry song for the young; he was a sort of beggar.
Scott: Out upon thee Allan! Dost thou call that begging! Why, man, we make our bread by story-telling, and honest bread it it.
There are suggestions that for the character in the lyric and epic revelry of Burn’s ‘Jolly Beggars’; but Edie lives to us as a more flesh-and-blood beggarman than any that we have met even in real life. *
*For that matter there are suggestions for the character of the Antiquary in the seven poems addressed to Captain Francis Grose, the real antiquary of whom Burns writes:
He has a fouth o’ auld nick- nackets:
Rusty airn caps and jinglin’ jackets,
Wad haud the Lothians three in tackets
A townmont gude:
And parritch pats, and ault saut-backets,
Before the Flood.
The hero, Lovel, is not very lifelike. He shares the usual characteristics of Scott’s heroes, who are apt to be the sport of middle-aged caprice, or tutelage. Isabella Wardour, too, is a somewhat colourless heroine, such a young gentlewoman, in fact, as we might expect to be sketched by a sensible middle-aged man who had been married seventeen years before, at the age of twenty-six. Sex-love is not a very large element in a manly life; and it is only another recommendation that the ‘love interest’ is kept comparatively subordinate in the Waverley novels. It is something that Lovel contrives to be a young man of spirit, address, and capacity, combined with modesty. If he has few recognisable lineaments, there is plenty of ‘character’ in the tale without.
As a bustling picture of Scottish life in the first decade of the nineteenth century, when coastwise folk lived in daily and nightly expectation of a landing by the French ‘The Antiquary’ has a special topical interest for us at present. Besides the chapters devoted to the alarm of invasion, a German charlatan and rogue serves as the villain of the tale. The many variations played on the surname Dousterswivel illustrates Scott’s genius for coining amusing and suggestive names of every kind. These he seemed to have on tap, and he introduced them in his speech and letters as if the supply were inexhausitible. Thus, in a letter to Terry, he refers to the actor’s infant son as Master Mumblecrust, though the happy cognomen would probably be invented for no other reason than that he had momentarily forgotten the child’s Christian name.
We are apt to think of our own day as being exclusively the period of literary ‘booms’ and big things; but it is interesting to learn from Lockhart that the first 6,000 copies of ‘The Antiquary’ were taken up in six days. Miss Corelli and Mr Hall Caine can easily beat that with the much larger population and advertising methods of today. But it was a great event for the year 1816.
With the intoxicating demand there was for the writings of this great man of letters it is not surprising that Scott, his printer partners, his publishers, and all associated with him should have lost their heads. Sir Walter had put £6,000 into Ballantyne’s business, which had been transferred from Kelso to Edinburgh at his instance. This was pure goodwill to the Ballantynes because they were good printers and men of literary taste. When we read amimadversions on Scott’s anxiety for money and his often careless writing, it is well to remember that he shared his prosperity freely with others, and that when the crash came through no fault of his, he gallantly shouldered and bore the burden of writing off a debt of £117,000, such a kind of liability as no man ever tried to lift by such means, the power of a single rapidly-moving pen. That he so greatly succeeded is a splendid tribute to both his genius and his character.
The criticisms of his hasty style – of what Stevenson calls ‘his brave neglect’ are misplaced to the extent that probably he could work in no other way. There was nothing niggling or stippling in his genius. The mark of his style is a certain splendid naturalness and sober animation. He had no particular mannerisms; yet what reader of discernment could fail to tell a prose passage of his at once? He wrote from an overflowing mind, which all his life and experience contributed to fill. If he wrote much he read much, and his intense acuteness, his marvelous memory, his enormous circle of friends, and his essential happy-heartedness, wit, humour, and kindly feeing represented such an equipment for his work as no writer of fiction had before or has shown since. He and Robert Burns have been Scotland’s greatest asset; for the soul of a country is the most material thing about it. When all the generals, judges, statesmen, captains of industry, and even great physicians and surgeons Scotland has produced are forgotten, the world created by these two will be freshly remembered and still potent to cheer, inform, and fortify all who directly or indirectly owe the best part of their thoughts to the printed word, as who does not?
James Leatham's Socilism was inspired by the work of Laurence Gronlund (it was not possible to obtain Marx in Britain except in German in the 1880's) and for a deeper understanding of the concepts which sparked Leatham's life-long beliefs, and the milieu in which it operated, you can explore through the public domain. If you know where to look. We're giving you a start point with a review by Edward Bellamy, an American contemporary of Leatham's. Bellamy also wrote 'Looking Backwards'
Edward Bellamy’s 1891 Review
THE "CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH"
Mr. Gronlund's New Edition of this Important Work Reviewed
The New Nation volume I, pages 224-5
Mr. Laurence Gronlund has, to some extent, revised and annotated his excellent manual, the "Co-operative Commonwealth," and Messrs. Lee & Shepard have gotten out a fresh edition of it. We recommend its perusal to our readers, not only on account of its general merits, which are high, but because, especially in its annotated form, it brings out clearly some of the radical differences between Mr. Gronlund's theory of the coming order of industry and that of the nationalists.
Reference is here made to those differences not in any spirit of controversy, but because we fully agree with Mr. Gronlund that they should be clearly apprehended. They mainly arise out of wholly opposed theories as to the fundamental organization of the future industrial system. It is the proposition of nationalism that this should be a system of complete integral co-operation and equal industrial partnership of the people, based upon and conterminous with the national organism. It is Mr. Gronlund's theory that the coming commonwealth will consist of a sort of confederation of trade unions, each wholly independent of the others as to its internal organization and with a central supervisory board or council of arbitration to keep the peace between them. The germ of this coming order Mr. Gronlund professes to see in the trade union, while the nationalist sees it in the nation. It will readily be seen how vital are the nature and consequences of the difference between regarding the nation and the trade union as the unit.
Each trade union, according to the "Co-operative Commonwealth," will have complete control of some one branch of business or industry, such as cotton-working, or some department of agriculture, or whatever it may be. It will regulate the production, rate of wages and all the conditions of the members of that industry, except the price of its products, which will have to be submitted to the revision of the central administration. It seems to us, considering that each trade union will wish to get the highest price possible for the least work, and that it will act as a unit for this purpose, and that the various unions will be likely to make all sorts of log-rolling and political combinations for this purpose, that the central authority will have to be a very powerful as well as highly incorruptible body in order to perform its functions properly. In view, moreover, of the fact that each citizen would look to his union and not to the nation for his maintenance and welfare, he would naturally back his union at all times against the central authority. Trades-unionism would take the place of patriotism, and it is to be feared that such a state would hold together but a very short time.
Besides this, the natural resources of the country and its natural monopolies are the property of the people as a whole. To permit particular classes of workers to monopolize them, and work them for all they could make out of the rest of the country, would be no more just than it is now to permit groups of capitalists to do the same thing. The country and its resources belong equally to all the people, and may not be divided. The proposition of Mr. Gronlund, on page 137, that when the transition period arrives, every trade union should appropriate the plant of the industry it is employed in, and proceed to carry it on upon the above plan, seems to us radically unjust. The coal mines do not belong to the coal miners merely because they work in them. The street pavers might as well claim the streets, or the doctors their patients. It would be of small profit to expropriate the present individual owners of the means of production merely to put them in the hands of groups of individuals, who would be actuated by the same motive of making the most out of them which was permitted. It is only in the name of and for the benefit of the people as a whole that the present possessors of the country can be righteously expropriated. This common and integral ownership of the capital of the country by its people is the economic cornerstone of nationalism, just as the brotherhood of all men is the moral corner-stone. From each of these two fundamental principles equally, proceeds the deduction that the increase from this common estate must be equally enjoyed by all. To this principle of economical equality, which he oddly enough calls ‘equal wages,’ Mr. Gronlund objects strenuously. He should direct his objection deeper, namely, at the postulates of human brotherhood and the common heirship of the earth by all, from which the principle of equality of maintenance necessarily results.
So far is this principle of equal maintenance for all and no ‘wages’ for any, from being impracticable, that it will be found in effect the only rule by which any radical industrial reorganization can be made practicable. It is already the experience of trade unions that a uniform scale of wages, regardless of differences in personal efficiency, is the only way to keep the union together, and the larger the union should become, the more diillcult will it be found to secure voluntary agreement to inequalities of advantage. If Mr. Gronlund's ‘co-operative commonwealth’ ever succeeds, it will only be by borrowing this idea from nationalism. With the adoption of this principle, the fatal difficulty of settling on prices for the products of the unions, and also that of adjusting wages within each union, would disappear. Trade jealousies, otherwise certain to be fatal to the state, would be prevented, and true national unity made possible.
Moreover, without this equality of maintenance, women would always remain at the same relative disadvantage to men which they now suffer from. Mr. Gronlund talks very generously about women, but as he proposes that productive activity should, as now, solely determine wages, woman by her physical disadvantages, would always remain in the same comparative economical inferiority to man in which she now stands. Of course the economical equality of citizens is not expected to be realized except as a result of the complete establishment of Nationalism.
It is rather surprising that in this later edition Mr. Gronlund has not dwelt more upon the movement for the public conduct of industry by municipalizing and nationalizing of business, which has recently become so prominent, especially in America. He could scarcely have done so, however, without recognizing the fallacy of his contention that the trade union is the germ of the coming order, and that it will come through the extension of trade-union control over industries. Present tendencies seem to indicate quite the reverse. It seems to be along the line of nationalism, and increasing public control of industry for the common benefit, that the change is coming. The ballot, not the strike, seems likely to bring it about.
note: Laurence Gronlund and Edward Bellamy both introduced socialist ideas to late 19th century America. This review of a late edition of Gronlund's Co-operative Commonwealth appeared in Bellamy's newspaper The New Nation. It indicates great differences in how they each envisioned socialist relations of production and the transition to socialism.
To read an online copy of ‘The Co-Operative Commonwealth’ click HERE
(You can download it, but the quality may be poor!)
It’s true that Sir Walter Scott these days is a man more written about than read, and a writer who is hard to ‘sell’ to a modern audience. I am not the only one who has struggled manfully over many years to try and engage with his work. It seems it has been that way for quite a while.
Writing a century ago James Leatham notes: ‘As at the end of a century of fame on still meets many good people who say they ‘can’t read Scott,’ a word may not be out of place as to this great man and great writer by one who owes so much to him as I do. I had begun to read the Waverley novels before entering my teens, and I have been reading and re-reading them ever since, with increasing appreciations.’
Leatham then goes on to give us a load of good reasons to read Scott. He’s a favourite with many 19th and early 20th century writers. Writers I respect and enjoy such as R.L.Stevenson, James Leatham and S.R.Crockett grew up on Scott. Surely I should be able to enjoy his work as well as they?
We need to remember though, that these three men all read Scott in their youth (can you imagine it being deemed appropriate children’s reading today?) and this was in no small part due to the fact that there wasn’t ‘the competition.’ Crockett had a choice of The Bible, Histories of the Covenanters or sneaked copies of ‘penny dreadful’ magazines – until he discovered Scott. At which point he forsook all reading of penny dreadfuls; considering Scott to be much more worthy of his attentions. He bullied his schoolfriends to do likewise! This was in the 1860’s. Stevenson would have been introduced to Scott in the 1850’s and Leatham in the 1870’s. By the turn of the century though, things had changed.
I know this because Crockett’s children, ‘could not read Scott’ and when he was tasked by Scott’s publisher with writing abridged children’s versions, Crockett made good mileage of this fact. He created a ‘fictional’ family who engaged with the stories in ‘The Red Cap Tales’ and ‘The Red Cap Adventures.’ I’ve read Scott by extension, this way, but I still have to say the bits I enjoyed most in Crockett’s books were the Picton-Smiths interjections rather than the Scott stories themselves. Even at one step removed they didn’t do it for me.
My track record on Scott is not impressive. Over 30 years I’ve tried and failed to read: ‘Ivanhoe,’ ‘Heart of Midlothian’ (twice) ‘Rob Roy’ (3 times) and I’ve more or less skimmed my way through ‘Guy Mannering.’ It’s a pretty pitiful record, but enough to give me the reasons why I think I can’t read him. I determined that I would read one novel thoroughly before penning this piece though – and so I fought my way through ‘The Antiquary.’ Of it Leatham says:
‘as representing Sir Walter on Scottish ground, where he was undoubtedly at his best. ‘The Antiquary’ was Scott’s own favourite novel, and the reason of this preference should not be difficult to understand.
I finished it. I even enjoyed bits of it. Some of it’s about publishing and that was interesting to me. But it also reconfirmed my personal reasons for not liking Scott. I shall share them with you. Not to discourage you from reading the man, but to give some insight into the nature of reading preferences and what we can derive from them.
Read without prejudice?
Generally speaking I think it’s important to read without prejudice. Yet I find that I cannot shake my prejudice of Scott’s politics, his class, and his view of the world, when I try to read his work.
As Leatham says: ‘Scott was an aristocrat in sentiment and opinion. He preferred to write of kings and nobles, of tournaments and sieges and pitched battles and hand to hand encounters.’ This is part of my problem. I’m not interested in the lives of those at the top of the hierarchy.
I also, personally, struggle with all 18th century novels. I just don’t like the 18th century. I don’t like the attitudes, the social hierarchies and I don’t like the way they are reflected by the writing of the time. It’s not surprising that the ‘classic’ fiction from that time supports the establishment view. This still holds true today to a great extent and in the 18th century, before writing really opened up to the ‘lower’ classes as a job rather than as an aspirational pastime for those with nothing else to do but vicariously manage their estates and count their money, publishing was a market for the aristocracy and upper middle classes.
I am wise enough to know that one doesn’t have to agree with what one reads, and that stepping out of one’s comfort zone is a good way to learn, but you have to believe me when I say, I’m very well read, and I’ve read more than enough 18th century fiction and history to give me the basic idea of what it’s all about. By choice I prefer to read 19th century fiction, written by what were then the ‘new’ writers, whose perspectives tended to be sighted lower than the manners and joys of the ages of Enlightenment and Improvement. For people who like the 18th century (or want to know more about it) and for people who are interested in the views of the elite during that time, Scott and many others will be and will remain ‘great’ works. What we need, I suggest, to recognise, is that we all have life prejudices (or belief systems) and that not all writing will re-inforce our views and that after a time, life becomes too short to read work that counters all you hold dear. But this in no way is a reflection of the works themselves.
Hitting the target (market)
For me, Scott offers a view of Britain which I cannot endure or accept. I resist it both on grounds of nationality and class. Scott was writing for a particular audience and it’s not just that I am not that audience, how could I be 200 years on? it’s that the values of that audience are anathema to me. Scott was writing from a class position which was privileged, he saw romance in nature but he was stuck with the view that class hierarchy was vital to maintain propriety in society and that he was motivated largely by status and money. I am only interested in the romance in nature part of his writing and I find this is too often swallowed up in the ideological stance he promotes. According to Scott, England and Scotland can (and should) come together to form Britain. Working together (post union) he believes we will be stronger both economically and as a society. Scott is ‘High Tory’ and I’m not. The divisions he shows between Highland and Lowland serve to illustrate what happens if you don’t have a clear, strong, unified society. The ‘Romance’ of the Highlanders and the ‘dourness’ of the Lowlanders are not just pastiches, they are deliberately used to show parts of a divided whole and Scott’s answer to resolving the divisions seems to be to place Scotland in its rightful place as part of a bigger Union, Great Britain.
Do books have a shelf life?
I find Scott’s characters are generally somewhat cardboard. To be fair, I find this about most 18th century writing. Perhaps it is because they were not intended to be ‘realistic’ in the way I expect or enjoy. After all, it was not (I believe) until George Eliot that the ‘interior’ world of the character was used in fiction. It’s no surprise then that with Scott I can find no empathy with the characters. I don’t have enough to connect me to them. It is in this respect that I differ in opinion from Leatham who said: Scott’s men and women in humble life are the real flesh and blood folk of fiction. Nothing is more signally characteristic of him than his dramatic faculty of going out of himself, of putting himself in the place of the widely diverse characters by whose mouth he speaks.
Does this serve to do anything other than tell us that what we think of as ‘real’ these days is quite different from 200 and even 100 years ago. And that shouldn’t be a surprise, should it?
Scott is hard to read, not just because of the themes and content of his writing but because of the language and most importantly the ‘style’ of his writing. The 18th century style is long-winded and difficult for many modern readers. I had to read ‘The Antiquary’ out loud (in my head) to engage with it. It’s a much slower read, but then remember in its day – and for a long while afterwards – it was the way people read. They did not have the diversion of radio or TV, the pacing of modern film (and novels) and the general speed or range of cultural consumption that we enjoy today.
Those times are not our times and we should not expect to read 18th or even 19th century fiction as if they are modern stories for modern people. There is much more to learn from them. My interest in 19th century fiction is contiguous with my interest in the 19th century in particular, and ties in with an interest in the social changes, the ‘Romantic’ tension between civilisation and the individual, the shift from rural to urban and the loss of ‘community’ that went with it and issues such as that. I am not interested in ‘modernist’ fiction any more than in 18th century because, for me, the modernists try to make things intellectual and complicated whereas I am all for emotion and sentiment and heart in my reading matter. All I’m saying is it’s horses for courses and when we read (or struggle to read) we would do well to have an awareness of this. Of why we even want to read in the first place. What does reading do for us?
I submit that books do not have a fixed shelf life, but that our relationship and engagement with them, and what we want or can get out of them is both personal and changes with time (in our own lifespan and during the cultural and social transformations we experience.)
Is the naturalistic fallacy a fallacy?
The key thing I want to keep in mind about Scott and my failure to relate to his work is that we’re not dealing with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ here. We’re not playing a ‘blame’ game. We’re not even really saying he’s irrelevant. I’m just suggesting that we need to understand our expectations and learn to appreciate that our personal opinion is not the authoritative thing we all too often promote it as.
Everyone has an opinion on just about everything. People tend to think their own opinion is the right one. Because opinion is linked firmly to belief system. But the difference between belief and fact, the shift from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ and the whole notion of the naturalistic fallacy – and whether it is one or not- are important aspects of our lives and of our engagement with fiction (among other things).
The difference between ‘I like’ and ‘it’s good’ is one that too many people too often forget. If you want to delve further into this you’re going down the path of G.E.Moore’s Naturalistic Fallacy and ‘between good and yellow.’ I advise you to do so, but I don’t have time to explore it in depth here. I’ll take it as given (dangerous I know). The basic suggestion is that that ‘good’ (like colour) cannot be defined by anything other than itself.
When we talk ‘good’ in a book we are privileging our own personal opinion. And our ‘authority’ stands or falls by the respect others accord to our opinion. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery in this respect. I’m not interested in that. What I look for is sound reasoning as to why something is or isn’t appealing to a particular reader. I’m looking for points of connection between myself as reader and the original writer, and also between myself as reader and the critic/writer. I don’t need to be told what is ‘good’ by anyone else. It’s interesting to know how they engage/respond to writers but I am not in the business of doffing my cap to anyone, be they academic or award winning bestseller. For me the only authority that counts is epistemic, and that’s not always the most appropriate criteria for writing about works of art.
Let’s just accept that when even the most adept critic says ‘this book is good’ they are in fact saying ‘it’s good for me, from my perspective, according to my understanding.’ Having spent over 30 years personally engaging with fiction/literature and all manner of other writing, I have a position of quite some strength from which I can argue my ‘belief’ which is that (for me) authorial intention is important. For me, a certain concurrence between form and content makes reading easier (and often more enjoyable) but I also can appreciate work which steps outside of my ‘rules.’ For me the ‘heart’ of the writer is more important. The ‘honesty’ with which they write is my guide. And this, of course, is something of a personal experience. And that said, I can appreciate writers without enjoying them. After all, primarily what I want from reading is enjoyment, and this comes from both confirming and challenging my belief system and prejudices and my belief in the honesty, integrity and skill of the writer.
What is definitely unacceptable to me is anyone turning ‘I don’t like it’ into ‘It’s no good.’ There is no shame in saying a writer is not for you. Especially if you are able to articulate your reasons. As I said, the respect accorded to the critic should be the strength of their reasoning not where they stand in any hierarchical system. But all too often writers are put down because they are not ‘liked’ by the right kind of people. This is fine to keep a mainstream hierarchical society ticking over smoothly. But if you are in any way a radical, or position yourself out of the mainstream of consumer capitalism, you should pay scant attention to the ‘authoritative’ position.
And what about Scott? Well, when all is said and done, as regards Scottish fiction, Scott does still have an important cultural place. Scott is the daddy. What he was doing in his day was new and in some ways challenging – and certainly had significance for those who came immediately afterwards. He was at the forefront of Romanticism, but struggling with the tension of the changes between 18th and 19th century Britain (and Scotland in particular). His work does to an extent hold a mirror up to the age and culture in which it was written. Scott has a deal of narrative significance.
I suggest that before you read Scott you need to consider your expectations very closely. And if he doesn’t fit your reading enjoyment matrix, then don’t read him – but don’t blame him. Conversely, if you like 18th century literature you most likely will enjoy Scott.
Perhaps if you rub Burns and Scott together and blow on them hard enough you create at least Stevenson, Crockett and Buchan. There is no doubt that Stevenson and Crockett especially were deeply influenced by Scott and that both of them took him forward a step. The difference between Stevenson and Crockett in this regard is less in their narratives structures (though again, as each moves fiction on by a generation they find their own narrative styles) and more their perspective as writer. They both loved adventure romance but Stevenson was closer in background to Scott and Crockett was the living, breathing example (as was his contemporary Barrie) of the ‘lad o’pairts.’ With Scott, Stevenson and Crockett you have the chance to look at Scotland (and particularly the Lowland Scot) from top to bottom and that’s an interesting comparative analysis. For my generation Stevenson and Crockett are not ‘hard’ to read, but I can accept that for younger people they may be. That’s to do more with language and pacing than it is to do with anything else. I’ll come clean and say that while I’ve long enjoyed Stevenson and Crockett, I’m less interested in their 18th century stories than in their other work. That’s me. It’s no recommendation or otherwise to you.
It’s simply a suggestion to explore your prejudices and expectations before you engage with any writer (particularly from the past) and to recognise that in reading a book you are entering into a two way relationship the goal being communication. If you don’t like something, perhaps you don’t understand it, or perhaps you just don’t like it.
Will I read more Scott? I can think of as many reasons not to as to do so. There are more than enough books I enjoy reading to keep me going for the rest of my life. I like to re-visit books I read in earlier decades, to see how I and they have changed in the intervening years. I read for my own reasons and my own pleasure. I have long since ceased reading to ‘impress’ or ‘be accepted’ into any social or cultural group.
Each person has their own reasons for reading and their own opinion on what they read. Reading is an intensely personal thing after all. May I suggest that, when we bring our reading experience into the public arena, there are better things to do than puff ourselves up and suggest that our personal opinion is what it’s all about.
I may not enjoy reading Scott, and I may not like all that he represents. But I’m not going to suggest those are reasons for anyone else not to read him.
So – if you struggle –ask yourself why. Honesty is the best policy after all. And it’s not Scott’s fault.
They say the only certainties are death and taxes and recently we seem to have been hearing an awful lot about both. A tranch of high-profile ‘celebrities’ have died recently. Perhaps this is the sign of things to come as the first of those who came to fame as a result of the 60’s social revolution (those who didn’t succumb to live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse) are now aging and becoming victims of our other great societal scourge – cancer. (Though dementia is waiting in the wings for recognition!) However, iconic celebrities are always with us, they are an infinitely renewable commodity, and it is taxes I really want to focus on in this editorial piece.
Already this year we have all become aware of the ‘T’ word in a number of contexts. From Google and the ‘iconic’ companies tax affairs to the Scottish government finally (almost) achieving tax powers and the stooshie regarding Council Tax (will they/won’t they sign up), to say nothing of Scotland ‘refusing’ the Bedroom Tax (remember the Poll Tax anyone?) taxes seem to command more interest among the ordinary folk than referendums on Europe. Even given the refugee/migration ‘crisis’ happening all around us, our focus remains more firmly ‘at home.’ We want to know how our income will be affected at home before we stretch our thoughts beyond our own patch. Being part of Europe (or not) seems far less important to the average Scot than the immediate result of what’s in his pay packet (or benefits cheque.) I suppose this is natural, but it doesn’t seem so long ago that we were all beefing on about ‘social justice’ and I wonder whether we appreciate that social justice is an international, nay global issue. We seem happier to sign up for global capitalism (and its benefits to us) than to accept the consequences of a global system of injustice brought about by said global capitalism.
Certainly taxation is one of the big issues of our day. And there’s nothing new in that. Leatham had plenty to say about it over his 60 year writing career. But he also believed in the concept of social justice beyond one’s own pay packet.
‘if it were the case that the average wage-earner cared only for immediate benefits to himself, then we might very well ask: What hope would there be that we should ever see industries and services socialised on any fairly general scale? I grant at once, not very much.’
More than a century on, I wonder how many of us truly look beyond our own pocket when taxation is mentioned. I think that it’s interesting (never mind important) to look back to a time when the world was very different. A time before the tax laws that now govern us were dreamt up to suit the capitalists. Before capitalism itself was a shoe-in for the new global religion. And so, in this edition of Gateway, you have the opportunity to go right back to the 1880s/1890s with Leatham as he undertook his own political awakening. In an introduction to ‘cooperative collectivism’ one can see a path that was not taken. It may have its utopian element and indeed its pitfalls, but while today’s system may have lost the utopia element (or even the desire to put social justice for all at the heart of our society) it has many pitfalls of its own. Capitalism is no more workable than utopianism for the vast majority of people. The battle ground is really between self interest and community values.
We need utopianism like we need emotion. And today we are in dire need of an injection of both into our individual and cultural beings. ‘Emotion’ has been down a long dark path in the last century, with what was once seen as ‘noble’ sentiment becoming dismissed then denigrated in favour of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘intellectual’ approach. How’s that working for us? I suggest that a bit more looking at heart and a little less head-based competition could make us into a somewhat more caring, thoughtful and socially just society. Forget ‘what’s in it for me?’ and start thinking about others as different but equal to self. I believe this might be termed embracing diversity. But words are just words. We need to think really seriously about the meanings attached to the words we adopt. It’s a case of don’t just talk the talk…start putting on the shoes for a different journey.
Imagine if we accepted that all are equal in social value and that money is a myth. (Maybe even a ‘creation’ myth for the God of Capitalism).
That’s hard to take on board? After all, money is at the centre of global capitalism. But I ask, whom does is serve? Most of us, after all, serve it.
While today many seem to unquestioningly accept that the world (and all of us in it) are/is capitalist/s, in Leatham’s early years this was far from a given. Maybe it’s high time for us to revisit some of the philosophical and political views from the past. Views that have for too long been hidden under the cloak of copyright, which is a handy tool for silencing divergent voices. Leatham wrote:
‘Are not nationalization and municipalization infinitely better than any of the strange gods to which the reformists of capitalism have ostensibly transferred their allegiance?’
When thinking about the living wage, note that Leatham said, ‘I am a lifelong opponent of low wages and pinchpenny parsimony’ and that he fought for the print workers to have decent working conditions, at great personal cost, in the 1890s. What can the junior doctors in England learn from him? What can we all learn from him?
We have to accept that many things have changed over the last century or so – but I think we are falling into a dangerous place when, as we seem to currently, we place The First World War as the focal start point for our ‘history.’ I suggest we look back before this centenary from time to time to the world as it was before The Great War and learn something about the people and the ideas who did not ‘win the day.’ We are always fed the history of victors. It’s up to us to find out about the losers. I submit that for the many of us who are not iconic celebrities, or millionaire business men headed for Presidential glory, we are all to varying degrees ‘losers’ in the capitalist system. The glory of the system is that it keeps telling us to aspire to be ‘winners.’ That we can all be President/pop-star/billionaire businessman/ footballers. Sorry to burst your bubble but we can’t! In a pyramidical structure we cannot all be at the top. Talk about utopian dreams!
Jeremy Corbyn is often accused of being a throwback to the Labour Party and ideas of the 1970s, as if that is necessarily a bad thing. I think we need to look back somewhat further than that. And I submit that James Leatham could teach him, them (and us) all a thing or two about Socialism. It’s certainly not the narrative of socialism I ever learned through academic study or media engagement. When I read Leatham I see nothing so much as opportunities lost.
I offer a warning. We live in a world of information overkill. A world where there is so much ‘content’ out there that we are encouraged to ‘tailor’ it to our own needs. All the while we are in danger of being guided (and duped) like sheep toward the abbatoir. It is time to step outside of the box and recognise it for the constraining sheep pen (or gilded cage) that it is. It has become ever more important for us to seek out different opinions and views and learn how to think for ourselves. We need to learn how to engage with and assess argument across the spectrum. We need to start looking in the places not up in lights, and not celebrity endorsed, if we want to find answers that do not accord with the mainstream/box/cage/prison in which we find ourselves on the rare occasions we raise our heads from our consumer-based feeding troughs.
When I was growing up there were (generally) three kinds of young people. Those who bought into Top of the Pops and those who eschewed it, seeking their musical pleasure and education beyond that mainstream. Subculture or counter culture if you will. And then, there was the rare breed who could ‘consume’ all the musical culture of the time, put it into context and understand that being tribal about music or culture (or politics) is actually the consequence of being manipulated.
We are all manipulated now, on a daily basis. But we don’t have to sit back and take it. We need to wake up and question what we are told. We need to find out and work out and understand for ourselves. The flow of information may be overwhelming and the easy way is just to accept what’s given out. Accepting the news ‘your way’ isn’t the answer. That’s just a way to reinforce prejudice and small mindedness. We need to step outside our comfort zones. We need to put some effort in. Otherwise, we are totally condemned to a world where it’s acceptable for corporations (and individuals) to do outrageous things with the get out clause ‘we’re working within the tax laws.’ We need to remember that sometimes laws need to be changed. And we need to stop giving over the responsibility for our lives to everyone else.
So, in this month’s Gateway, I hope you’ll use the articles as a start point for your own journey of discovery. Start thinking for yourself about the big issues. Taxation amongst them. Ask yourself – how did we come to this situation? Really. And what can/should we do about it? Look below the sound bite. Engage.
Headline news: ‘Scotland votes on tax raising powers and votes to keep them the same. Beneath that? The Scottish Government is engaged in a major battle with the UK government. The outcome will affect all of us. The ‘financial settlement’ is the key issue of our day. Without independence it’s a battle fought with one hand tied behind our back – as indeed this year is the ‘tax raising’ power. Next year our Government will have the power to raise (or lower) taxes at a variable rate. We don’t know who the government will be that has to make that decision. We will decide on that in a few short months. Let’s make it an informed decision!
There is so much we don’t know about the future (or even the present) and we have been taught to believe that security is possible. It’s not. We still cannot predict the future, but if we look at the past we can start to see recurring patterns. About winners and losers if nothing else.
We don’t know when or if tax law will change so that corporations have to be more transparent. We live in uncertain times. It’s always been the case. But if we don’t find out more about how we got here, and what alternatives were abandoned on the way, we are not fully prepared to fight for a better future – we’ll just sit back and take the future we are given. Is that what you really want? I don’t. There may be nothing we can each do as individuals that makes a difference. But when the moments come that we are given the power to have a say – it’s up to us to take some personal responsibility, start learning, and make our choices with informed judgement.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.