An Afterthought, Yet a Preface.
Many of us—Scotsmen in particular—are too apt to look back and be absorbed in the life and literature of the past, to the exclusion of a needful interest in the present, as well as necessary hopes and strivings for a better future. The best type of student is interested in the past, not as an antiquary nor a romantic dreamer, but largely because of the guidance and encouragement it gives for life in the present and the necessary additions which each age, and if possible every individual, should make to the inheritance to be handed on to posterity. In this view history is not merely the engrossing story of yesterday, but a guide for to-day and to-morrow, indicating what to do and what to avoid, and justifying the person of public spirit by examples of those who dared and achieved under difficulties that must sometimes have seemed overwhelming.
As regards "The Bruce," its quality of "soothfastness " places it very high in value in comparison with "stories that are nought but fable," in our poet's own words. To be a Scotsman living and working in Scotland always was a handicap; but Sir Walter Scott surmounted it, and with Scots at least John Barbour should have honour such as he has not had. All good literature would die if people of taste and enthusiasm did not keep quoting and praising the masters of it. The public really prefers skimble-skamble stuff, provided it be new— ‘the spawn of the press on the gossip of the hour’ as Emerson has it. And it is because Barbour is a Scot, on a theme which does not commend itself to Englishmen, that he has been so resolutely ignored by a press become steadily anglicised, even dialect Scottish books now appearing from London
John Barbour, Father of English Poetry.
As a matter of all-important chronology, the Father of English poetry is not Geoffrey Chaucer, but John Barbour, of Aberdeen. Chaucer has been modernised by the skilful hands of Tyrwhitt and Cowden Clarke, and Barbour has been modernised by several unnoted editors, and in the end as at the beginning Barbour is a poet more nearly English than is the Southerner. If Barbour is more Scots, Chaucer is more French, and Scots and English have much more in common than French and English.
From Layamon onward there were poets who wrote a kind of English before Chaucer, as in Scotland there were poets, from Thomas the Rhymer onward, who wrote a kind of English before Barbour. But Chaucer is called the Father of English poetry because of the merit and volume of his work; and in quality and quantity Barbour also makes a great figure.
The band is not sent out when a child is born (though in some rural parts they used upon occasion to ring the church bell), and there was no registration of births in the early fourteenth century. The date of Barbour's birth is variously placed in 1316, 1320, and even as late as 1330. As by 1357, however, he was Archdeacon of Aberdeen—that is, chief administrator of the Church's considerable estate—it is hardly likely that he was then a young man of twenty-seven only; so that the earlier dates given for his birth are more feasible. There is the same uncertainty as to the birth-year of Chaucer. It is given as probably 1328. In any case, "The Canterbury Tales" were not begun till 1391. Some of Chaucer's minor poems are said to date from his college days; but this is conjecture. What is assured is that Chaucer was a bustling man of business till he was over 6o.
Barbour, on the other hand, himself tells us in his poem that "The Bruce" was fully half-finished by 1375, and a sum of £10 paid to him by the king's order in 1377 is usually regarded as a royal gift made on the completion of his great poem of some 14,000 lines.
City and Shire.
Barbour is sometimes referred to as a native of Aberdeenshire; but that he was an Aberdonian—that is, a native of Aberdeen city—is assumed by the authorities on fairly feasible evidence. The account of St. Ninian in the "Legends of the Saints" is accepted as being from the hand of John Barbour, and in it is a story of Jacques (James) Trampoure who had land in Aberdeen adjoining that of Andrew Barbour. The adventure of James Trampoure is so vivid in detail that the particulars are believed to have come directly and orally from Trampoure himself, and his being a neighbour of the Barbour family would explain how the story found its way into a Life or Legend of St. Ninian. The Andrew Barbour of the story is accepted as being the father or other near relative of John. A charter of David II. shows that an Andrew Barbour owned a tenement in the Castlegate of Aberdeen, from which, in the year 135o, an endowment was granted to the Carmelite Friars; but there is nothing to connect this Andrew with the archdeacon, John. There have been other attempts to find a father for John Barbour; but in the end the only certainty is that he had a father, and the hypothesis that connects him with Aberdeen is the most probable. In medieval Scotland barbers would most probably be found only in the larger centres, and that the name is derivatively a craft surname is accepted as evidence of the poet's plebeian origin. Be it said, the great poets, from Homer, the blind beggar of Chios, on to Robert Burns, the son of an Ayrshire crofter, mostly have been of plebeian origin. It is not only that they learned in experience and suffering what they taught in song, but they had the abounding interest in life in general which the folk of rank and riches reserve for themselves and their families. The poet pauses to wonder and ponder at the past or passing pageant. The climber, self-regardingly climbing, pauses to ponder only as to the next step in his own ladder: and as he has cared for nobody, in the end nobody cares for him.
I call Barbour the father of English poetry because the early Scottish "makkirs " called their medium "Inglis." By this they meant that their language was neither Norman-French nor Anglo-Saxon, as was the language in which the earliest British poems were written, among them Caedmon's Paraphrase and the Romance of Beowulf. It is true that Bishop Gavin Douglas, who was the first to translate an ancient classic into a spoken tongue, called his diction "Scottis"; but that was a century later than Barbour, and at a time when Scotland was specially emphasising its independence in several ways.
Before Chaucer, then; before King James the First of Scotland; before Dunbar, "darling of the Scottish muse," as he has been called, was John Barbour, of Aberdeen, with the greatest theme and the greatest hero that a poet of that age could have chosen. His theme was the making of a nation out a handful of beaten and almost despairing folk, their natural leaders on the side of the powerful invader. Moses and William the Silent are the only characters to be compared with the Bruce, and neither had his personal prowess. The poet who celebrated Scotland's national deliverer might well have more honour in his native city and in Scotland as a whole.
My old friend William Cadenhead, himself a graceful and pleasing poet, says of Old Aberdeen :
O stilly, grey, auld-farrant toun,
I cannot pace thy ancient street,
But, some quaint corner turnin' roun',
The auld-warld caries I think to meet--
Barbour intent upon the Bruce,
Scougal, that mild and gentle star,
Boece, the learned and abstruse,
Or Elphinstone or Gavin Dunbar.*
*Henry Scougal (1650-78), professor of theology in King's College at the age of 24, and author of the famous treatise "The Life of God in the Soul of Man." Hector Bocce (Boethius), a great Latinist, first principal of Kines College. Elphinstone and Gavin Dunbar, bishops of Aberdeen.
It is a pleasant and a natural fancy; but although Barbour was archdeacon of the diocese and prebendary of Rayne in the Garioch, the probability is that at the time when he was intent upon the Bruce he was a good deal absent from Aberdeen. The offices he held proved his capacity for affairs; but they must have been to some extent sinecures; for on August 13 in the year 1357, when he is first mentioned as archdeacon, he appears as having received a safe-conduct to go with three companions, for purposes of study, to the university of Oxford. There was then no university in Scotland, and scholars desirous of extending their studies under preceptors often went to the English colleges, a practice which even in the time of Edward III. the authorities south of the Border were very willing to encourage.
In 1364 Barbour is again in England with four horsemen (equitibus), and the following year he goes to St. Denis, near Paris, this time with six companions on horseback. In 1368-9 he pays a second visit to France, accompanied by two servants (valletis) and two horses, The University of Paris had then a high reputation for the study of philosophy and canon law, and as an administrator Barbour would have to be something of a lawyer.
It is not easy to decide whether these were visits for prolonged study or merely holiday excursions. If they were the sojournings of a student they would suggest that Barbour's archdiaconal duties sat lightly upon him.
Barbour at Court.
That he was by no means closely tied to Aberdeen there is still stronger, evidence relating to subsequent years. In t372 he appears as clerk of the audit of the king's household, the king being Robert II., the first of the Stewart monarchs. In 1373 he is mentioned as an auditor of exchequer. After this date he is evidently busy upon his great poem, which may or may not have been written, in whole or in part, in Aberdeen. If he required access to documents or to be in touch with survivors of the War of Independence, both of these would be more available in the midlands of Scotland; for Aberdeen had not then become “The Oxford of the North,” as it was at one time called.
Barbour was certainly a favourite of the Stewarts, and his references to them are affectionate; though it should be remembered that it was not necessary to go south to enjoy Court favour. The Scottish kings travelled the country with their court, the kain contributions to the Crown being collected and consumed in the locality. They used to spend Yuletide in Aberdeen, the Exchequer accounts bearing entries of the King's "lossis at the cartes."
Rewards of Authorship.
"The Bruce" was finished in 1376, and there is a grant of £m, by the King's order, from the customs of Aberdeen entered under date 14th March, 1377, As the £10 would be ten pounds Scots (16/8 in all), it was as well that the poet was otherwise provided for; though 16/8 would be worth at least ten times as much as it is now.
The following year there is a pension—not a gift—of 20 shillings sterling annually, granted to Barbour and his assigns in perpetuity. It is one of the advantages of a celibate clergy that, having no offspring, they are without motives to personal acquisition, and Barbour devised that, on his death, this pension should go the cathedral church of Aberdeen "for a yearly mass for his own soul and for the souls of his relations and all the faithful dead." At the Reformation it would cease.
In 1382-3-4 Barbour again appears as an auditor of exchequer. But at the end of these three years he perhaps took on another piece of literary work; for in 1386 he has royal gifts of £10 and £6 13/4, and in 1388 receives a fresh pension of £10 for life "for faithful service," to be paid half-yearly in equal portions.
It lasted, however, only seven years. On April 25, 1396, the first legacy payment of 2os. is made to the Dean and Chapter of Aberdeen, so that Barbour must have been dead before April 5, 1395, when the accounts for the year began. The date of his anniversary mass was 13th March, so that this is probably the date of his death in 1395.
Thus, born a few years after Bannockburn, he had lived in the reigns of the Bruce, his son David, and the Stewarts, Robert II. and Robert III.
Barbour, as already stated, wrote lives or legends of saints, and there are poems on Alexander the Great, and a Trojan Book, which survives only in Lydgate's "Siege of Troy," where parts of it are used to bridge the gaps in Lydgate's MS. They are introduced with the rubric: "Here endis Barbour and beginnis the Monk."
Wyntoun, who admires Barbour greatly, credits him with a metrical genealogy, "The Stewartis Oryginalle," but this is questioned—in any case, it has not survived; and Professor Skeat suggests that another of Barbour's lost pieces is a poem on the mythical colonisation of Britain by the Roman Brutus. One of Barbour's saintly legends deals with St. Machar, a purely Aberdeen saint.
But his fame rests upon his poem The Bruce, or, to give it its full title, "The Life and Actes of the Most Victorius Conquerour, Robert Bruce, King of Scotland."
I am a hater of war, and president of the branch of the League of Nations Union in my adopted town; but Barbour's poem on the fighting man Bruce (who was also a wise man and a statesman) is no jingo effusion. The difference between the soldier who attacks and the soldier who defends is as the difference between the madman running amok and the policeman or other stout citizen who arrests his career and brings him down. And that is simply all the difference in the world. War has been repeatedly, solemnly, and publicly renounced as an instrument of State policy, and all men and women of intelligence and goodwill must wish well to the Kellogg and other similar Pacts.
But history has to deal with the past, and I would have you make an effort with me to carry your thoughts back into the early years of the fourteenth century. The Golden Age of Scotland had come to an end with the death of Alexander III., in 1286. During the following quarter of a century Scottish men and women knew all the degradations of a country nominally and weakly governed, first, by the girlish Maid of Norway, and then by the faineant king, Baliol, with a brief interlude of mastery under the rule of Wallace the Guardian. From the cruel death of Wallace in 1385 the garrisons of Scotland were full of Englishmen who robbed, who insulted men, who outraged women, and generally tyrannised over a nation that had almost lost hope if we judge by the support given to alien rule by even Scotsmen themselves.
But in the Bruce came at last a Deliverer. He had hesitated long, had fought against his countrymen, and had tried, as Blind Harry tells us, to persuade Wallace that it was no use trying to make a stand against "proud Edward's power," but that he (Wallace) might become a vassal king under the English overlord. Wallace repelled the suggestion and berated the Bruce in angry terms, calling him
Thou runnagat that never yet did good,
Schamyst thou not that devourest thine own blood?
Whereat, we are told by Blind Harry, the Bruce "leuch." But he did ask for a further interview with Wallace, as if he were not quite sure of himself and the advice he had given. Indeed, one account says that he wept at Wallace's denunciation and his determination to hold the field.
Bruce Gets Rid of a Trimmer.
The defeat, betrayal, and death of Wallace, so far from adding to Bruce's acceptance of the apparent permanent conquest of Scotland, left him so ill at ease that the English king, with reason, distrusted him and had him spied upon. Bruce's life was considered to be, at last, so much in danger that on a friendly warning he fled from the English court to Scotland. Here he began his public career as a claimant to the Scottish crown by the murder of his rival John Comyn, the deed being sacrilegiously done on the altar steps of the church of the Minorite Friars in Dumfries. The provocation was that the Bruce had offered to support the Comyn if he would be a king independent of England, or that the Comyn should support him on the same footing, and the rival claimant's answers were so evasive that Bruce lost his temper and dealt the fatal dagger-blow. When we comment adversely on the bloodshed in the revolutions of other nations—as France and Russia—it behoves us to remember how few of the Scottish kings died in their beds and how the struggle for Scottish independence began with this double crime.
Bruce's Good Luck.
But Bruce, despite this rash and angry act, had astonishingly good fortune if we consider what might have been the results in an age when people made up for their lack of morals by being all the more superstitious. Murder was a daily occurrence, but sacrilege was really serious. Although Bruce had to live the life of a hunted outlaw for years, he never lacked for devoted followers of all ranks, and, most notable of all, the heads of the Church in Scotland favoured his cause despite the double crime he had committed. The loyalty to Bruce of the Scottish clergy was so puzzling to the Pope that he sent over two Legates to see what the Scots meant by it. When John of England was excommunicated by the Pope the whole country fell under the ban. Church services were suspended. There was no mass, no marriage in church, no christening, no burial in consecrated ground. In Scotland, however, nothing of that kind took place. The Irish, nearer our own day, have similarly defied the Pope. Forty years ago he denounced the Trish Plan of Campaign; but Ireland, in practice, suggested that he mind his own business, and went on its way.
The Scottish stoutness, however, was shown six centuries earlier, and it was shown in an age when a great emperor, Charlemagne, had done penance out of doors in his shirt on a snowy day at the bidding of the Church.
The Passion for Independence.
The explanation is that the Scottish people were transported beyond all other considerations by the passion for independence and getting rid of the alien invader whose domineering had driven Wallace, James Douglas, and many another spirited Scot into rebellion and the wild places.
The successes of the Bruce had indeed worked up this passion to fever heat, but it had burned for Wallace just a few years before, and after Bannockburn the flame continued. At the Parliament of Arbroath in 132o a remonstrance was drawn up by the assembled notables that still stirs the blood. After recounting the oppressions and cruelties of the English in Scotland, this eloquent document, which would of course be drafted in Latin, proceeds:--
But at length it pleased God . . . to restore to us liberty from these innumerable calamities by our most valiant Prince and King, Lord Robert, who, for the delivering of his people and his own rightful inheritance from the enemies' hand, like another Jonia, hath most cheerfully undergone all manner of toil, fatigue, hardship, and hazard. The Divine Providence, the right of succession, and the customs and laws of the kingdom, which we will maintain till death, and the due and lawful consent and assent of all the people, make him our king and prince. To him we are obliged and resolved to adhere in all things, both on account of his right and his merit, as the person who hath restored the people's safety in defence of their liberties. But after all, if this prince shall leave those principles which he hath so nobly pursued, and consent that we or our kingdom be subjected to the king or people of England, we will immediately endeavour to expel him as our enemy and the subverter of both his own and our rights, and will choose another king who will defend our liberties; for so long as one hundred of us remain alive we will never consent to subject ourselves to the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honour, but it is liberty alone that we fight for, which no honest man will lose but with his life.
This resolute talk to Pope John had the desired effect. The pontifical interdict was removed.
It was to a people imbued with this fiery zeal that Barbour belonged and for whom he wrote. It was not aggressive or aggrandising zeal, as of Spanish conquistadores out for loot, but the defensive pride and resolution which turned back the conquistadores of England.
The Great Poem.
"The Bruce" is in eight-syllabled verse, and has knightly prowess, frankly, as its theme, albeit including wise generalship, and a great deal of human nature, both good and bad. This poem, written before Chaucer, has the true method, skill, and spirit of poetry. Writers have claimed that its theme is freedom, and indeed its notable paean to freedom is the most frequently quoted of Barbour's lines.
Ah, freedom is a noble thing!
Freedom makes man to have liking,
Freedom all solace to men gives,
He lives at ease that freely lives.
A noble heart may have none ease,
Nor nought else that may it please,
If freedom fail; for free liking
Is yarned o'er all other thing.
Nay, he that aye has lived free
May not know well the propertie,
The anger, nor the wretched doom,
That coupled is to foul thralldom.
But if he had assayed it,
Then all perquer he should it wit,
And should think freedom more to prize
Than all the gold in world that is.
The poet himself states his theme in the opening passages of the poem, and, as will be seen, they contain no reference to freedom. He begins :
Stories to read are delectable,
Suppose that they be nought but fable;
Then should stories that soothfast were,
If they were said in good manner,
Have double pleasance in hearing.
The first pleasance is the carping,
And the other the soothfastness,
That shows the thing right as it was.
And soothfast things that are likand,
To men's hearing are most pleasand.
Therefore I would fain set my will,
If my wit might suffice theretil,
To put in writ a soothfast story,
That it last aye forth in memory,
So that no length of time it let,
Nor gar it hailly be forget.
For old stories that men reads,
Represents to them the deeds
Of stalwart folk that lived air,
Right as they then in presence were.
And certes they should well have prise
That in their time were wight and wise,
And led their life in great travel,
And oft in hard stour of battel
Wan right great prize of chevalry,
And voided were of cowardy.
As was King Robert of Scotland,
That hardy was of heart and hand,
And good Sir James of Douglas,
That in his time so worthy was,
That of his price and his bounty,
Into far lands renowned was he.
Of them I think this book to ma;
Now God give grace, that I may swa
Treat it, and bring it to ending,
That I say nought but soothfast thing.
Freedom the Underlying Spirit.
Freedom, however, is the motive implicit in and underlying the whole movement of which Bruce was the head and inspiration. And this freedom was not a negation—the mere absence of restraint, but the power to enjoy the peace and privileges of home and country, of property and independence under the law, to all of which the presence of an invader is a constant menace and actual daily abrogation. When Caliban utters his "Heyday, freedom; freedom, heyday!" Shakespeare meant to show a mentally and physically deformed wretch exulting in the removal of wholesome restraints. But the comparison does not apply to the normal inhabitants of any invaded country. The British Tommy, in occupation of German territory, did not domineer, but made friends of German men, and he married German women. His English forebears in Scotland were not restrained by law and were not restrained by natural amiability. William Wallace, returning from the river with his catch of fish, a boy carrying the basket, is asked to stand and deliver. How he dealt with the three insolent soldiers who made this demand is a matter of history, and the incident is typical of what the occupation of Scotland by an English garrison meant to the people over whom they were set, When Barbour called it foul thralldom he was uttering the general sentiment of all Scotsmen of spirit, and that there were districts of the country, such as Galloway and Buchan, where this sentiment was not shared, may have its explanation, but I have never seen it given.
The celebration of martial prowess and chivalry is, as we have seen, Barbour's declared theme; but the poet who in that remote day sang the praise of freedom and the foulness of thralldom as he did had more in view than the dealing of hard knocks and the exploits of individual sworders. This would not be worth stating if the contrary view had not been put forward.
Cleric as he is, he has an ardent admiration for the Bruce as a paladin who held at bay in a narrow pass 300 of the men of Galloway, his own countrymen, but in arms against him. Barbour pictures his followers gathering around him after an exploit of this kind, marvelling at and worshipping him for his prowess., When on the eve of Bannockburn, Sir Henry de Bohun, fully armed and mounted on a heavy charger, rides against Bruce, the lively Aberdeen cleric glories in the cool deftness with which the King turns his pony from the deadly lance, and, as the knight passes him, rises in his stirrups and sends his battleaxe crashing through helmet and skull. When the Bruce is chided by his lords for endangering his person, handicapped as he is, he has for sole answer that he has broken his good battleaxe. The risk proved worth the price; for--
This was the first stroke of the fight,
That was performed doughtily.
And when the king's men so stoutly
Saw him right, it the first meeting, .
Forouten doubt or abaysing,
Have slain a knight so at a strike,
Sik hardiment thereat they take
That they came on right hardily,
When Englishmen saw them stoutly
Come on, they had great abasing,
And specially for that the king
So smartly that good knight has slain
That they withdrew them e'erilkane,
And durst not one abide to fight,
So dread they for the king his might.
Hard Knocks the Price of Liberty.
As the world has gone, hard knocks have been the price of liberty. The English yoke sat sorely upon the Scottish people, and there was only this way of ending it. It has been so many times since then. In 1914 Germany was the Mad Dog of Europe, as Japan is now the Mad Dog of Asia, and so of the world. There is, unfortunately, only one way of dealing with mad dogs.
The economic boycott of Japan has done much to curb her aggression, and this has been backed by the adverse public opinion of the world. May the world's opinion wax in efficacy! It could not have served in 1314. Nay, what public opinion there was ranked itself behind England. The army of Edward II. was probably only a fifth of the number of 1oo,000 usually given, and the Scottish army was probably only a fifth of the thirty thousand usually credited to it—18 to 20 thousand on the one side and six to eight thousand on the other. But even so, the English king had Irish, French, and even Scottish allies fighting on his side for the worse cause. Perhaps it was because they came unwillingly to the muster that they were so willing to "turn and flee." Anyhow, here was a simple people, small in numbers, but with the best of causes and the greatest of leaders; and, however little delight a civilised human being can take in the slaughter of his fellow-men, the result of Bannockburn is an encouragement to all who fight in a good cause against heavy odds, whatever the nature and scale of the struggle. Truth and right have often failed, and will fail again; but here was one supreme occasion when they triumphed gloriously.
All law rests finally upon force. It is little use passing laws unless you have the power to enforce them, though this pressure, of course, takes many forms, not all of them lethal. The moral of this great poem—great in scale, in subject, and in execution—is still valid for us. It is that the virtue of courage is the keeper of all the other virtues. It matters not how sound our principles may he if we have not the courage to stand by them. One every day sees men bend and bear for want of the stalk of carte hemp in their moral make-up. And the great value of a poem such as "The Bruce " is that it fortified the Scottish nation for the centuries of recurring struggle which were to follow, in the Reformation, the Covenanting struggle, and the centuries during which, without a great leader, they had to preserve their independence against a rich and populous neighbour, who, after the manner of power, grudges all rivalry, and especially the rivalry of those nearest, There have been those who, like Sir Herbert Maxwell, were prepared to declare that they regarded Bannockburn as a calamity which merely deferred for four centuries the inevitable union of the northern and southern halves of this island. The answer is that a free union preserved the self-respect of the smaller nation, whereas a forced union would not only have been evil in itself, but in its lasting consequences, as in the cases of Ireland, Poland, Bohemia, and other conquered peoples have proved.
So much for the theme of “The Bruce” and the man and the conditions that inspired it. What of the treatment —the texture and quality of the poem itself?
I confess that I prefer to read the less archaic versions of "The Bruce," and the confession is made without apology. Who that really cares for Shakespeare wants to read the First Folio, with its long esses, omissions, and all the gross errors that Theobald corrected only after they had been current for centuries?
Lord Hailes, writing in the eighteenth century, said that Blind Harry's "Wallace" and Barbour's "Bruce" formed the Bible of the Scottish people. If that was true in his day it is very far from true now.
But there was undoubtedly much truth in what Lord Hailes wrote. Hugh Miller tells us that when he was about ten years of age he first read Blind Harry from a common stall edition of the poem, and straightway became conscious of his nationality. He certainly could not pick up a common stall edition of the "Wallace" now. I had been on the outlook for it all my life, and it is less than ten years since I acquired my black letter copy of it, with "The Bruce" bound in, from an Edinburgh bookseller's catalogue and at a fairly long price. Hugh Miller's copy was the Hamilton modernised version; and the point of chief interest in his remarks is his reference to the intense enjoyment with which, at ten years of age, he read it. This means that "The Bruce" is not difficult to understand.
"The Bruce" as a book it much easier to pick up than "Wallace"; but I find that even Blind Harry's poem must have been in fairly popular demand. A bibliography of the scarcer poem gives over fifty separate reprints of it, apart altogether from manuscript copies that must have been in circulation, or at any rate in existence, since at least 1488, the date of the only known manuscript copy of Blind Harry's poem, which is in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. It was first printed at Edinburgh in 157o, and long enjoyed great popularity among the Scottish peasantry. Some of the reprints were made in smallish Scots towns such as Ayr, Perth, Hawick, Falkirk, and other places not ordinarily to be regarded as publishing centres except for the ballads and chapbooks vended by the old-time hawker. My double volume is dated Edinburgh, 1758. It bears no publisher's name, and appears to be the edition printed by Robert Freebairn in 1715 or 1716, but issued (probably re-issued) with a false title-page forty-two years later. It includes the “Arnaldi Blair Relationes,” Arnold Blair having been a monk of Dunfermline and Wallace's chaplain.*
*John Major, who was born about 5469, says: "Henry the Minstrel, who was blind from his birth, composed in the time of my youth the whole book of William Wallace, and embodied all the traditions about him in the ordinary measure, in which he was well skilled. By the recitation of these [stories of Wallace] in the presence of the great, he procured, as indeed he deserved, food and clothing." The only Manuscript copy of Henry's works is that in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, dated 1488. It was first printed at Edinburgh in 157o. In his "Tales of Scottish Worthies," Patrick Fraser Tytler (Lord Woodhouselee) claims for it a certain historical worth as "the work of an ignorant man, who was yet in possession of valuable and authentic materials." On account of its glorification of the national hero it has enjoyed a long popularity among the Scottish peasantry, but it possesses no poetical merit except a certain rude fire and energy….Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th Ed., Vol. X., Blind Harry.
There is said to be no copy extant of Barbour's original manuscript of “The Bruce.” A manuscript of the poem is preserved in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, which was penned by John Ramsay in 1489. This Ramsay is stated to have been afterwards prior of the Carthusian monastery at Perth. In the library of St. John's College, Cambridge, is a manuscript dated 1487, and from the similarity of the writing to that of the Advocates' Library Manuscript, and from the fact that the initials of the transcriber are J. R., it is supposed to be another copy made by the monk Ramsay.
The Common Man Enjoyed the Book.
These details as to the one-time popularity of "The Bruce" are given to show that the wayfaring man enjoyed the poem, and enjoyment without comprehension is unthinkable. So that, despite words that are archaic, and stresses of accentuation that are artificial, the voice of John Barbour still speaks to us sincerely and vividly over the gulf of six centuries of time.
His language was in his day no jargon, but the speech of the people in all the northern midlands from York to the Highland line. Such words as "gar" for compel, "waur" for worse, "teem" for pour or empty, are still current, albeit fading in usage, in parts of Yorkshire where I have lived. Barbour and Blind Harry both use the word "while" for "until," and this is still the common form in the midlands of England, although it has died out in Scotland.
There is no classic Scots. The differences between the speech of one county and another are so marked that south country folk cannot readily follow our north-country speech, and I should say that the novels of George MacDonald and William Alexander would be read with more appreciation in the north of England than in the south of Scotland. The poems of Edwin Waugh and Tim Bobbin in the Lancashire dialect show more deviation from standard English than does the verse of Barbour or the prose of Scott and Stevenson. What do you make of this, which I heard uttered by a Yorkshire baker :--
"There's tricks i' all trades, but none i' yars; though they do say as we gets uz mael from Jere Kaye's."
The translation is :
There are tricks in all trades, but none in ours; though they do say that we get our oatmeal from Jere Kaye's.
Jere Kaye's was a sawmill, and the libel on the trade was that the oatmeal was really sawdust.
In a popular Lancashire song, much sung in public houses, Edwin Waugh says?--
Aw've just mended th' fire wi' a cob,
Owd Swaddle has browt thi new shoon,
There's some nice bacon collops o' th' ob,
An' a quart o' ale posset th' oon,
Aw've browt thi topcwoat, dosta know,
For the rain's cumin' dahn very dree,
An' the har'stone's as white as new snow--
Come w'oam to the childer an' me.
Is "wioam'' or is "flame," I ask, nearer to the actual word "home"?
Barbour has many useful words that are no longer current in English speech or writing; and in a less degree the same may be said of Chaucer, though there the uncommon words are often obsolete. French forms such as the negative ne;
and then there is all the tribe of y-clads and y-mades, with the stressing of the final . Apart from his frequent stressing of the participal ing, which Barbour works very hard, he is much more truly an English poet than Chaucer. With the help of a glossary or Jamieson’s “Dictionary or of the Scottish Language” no reader who cares to try to enjoy Barbour need have any continued difficulty. It is not in the least a case of having to learn a new language.
This relates to the medium; but what of the quality? Barbour fulfils the Miltonic standard that poetry should be "simple, sensuous, passionate." The douce cleric is not very passionate, it is true. His theme is so moving in itself that he can allow the details to arouse excitement without writing up. Quietly graphic and affectionately garrulous, he is also, as old man Chaucer was, slily witty.
Thus in the outlaw stage, when the Bruce, with 200 of a following, has to make for Cantyre as a rendezvous for the winter, it becomes necessary to cross Loch Lomond. This is done in a single, small, leaky boat which the foraging Douglas has found in the loch. When they had been transported there three at a time they were hunting on the other side with some clamour. The Earl of Lennox and his men, hearing the din, concluded that it must be the Bruce's company. Each had given the other up for lost, perhaps dead or prisoners, and they had great joy in meeting thus, and there was much weeping and kissing among these great hearted companions-in-arms, On this Barbour has these bantering lines.
And all the Lordis that were there
Right joyful of their meeting were,
And kissed him in great daintie.
It was great pity for to see
How they for joy and pity grat
When that they with their fellows met,
That they weened had been dead; for thy
They welcom'd him more heartfully,
And he for pity grat again,
That never of meeting was so fain.
Though I say that they grat soothly,
It was not greeting properly;
For I trow traistly that greeting
Comes unto men through misliking,
And that none may but angry greet,
But it be women, that can weet
Their cheeks, whene'er they list, with tears,
The where well of them nothing dears.
But I wot well, without leesing,
Whate'er men say of sik greeting,
That meikle joy or yet pitie
May gar men so amoved be
That water from the heart will rise,
And wet the e'en on sik a wise
That it is like to be greeting,
Though it be not so in all thing;
For when men greets inkerly,
The heart is sorrowful or angry.
But for pity I trow greeting
Be nothing but an opening
Of heart, that shows the tenderness
Of ruth that in it closed is.
As a cleric Barbour may have officiated at weddings or baptisms where the women wept, since there are tears of joy as well as of sorrow.
One of the very creditable incidents in the career of the Scottish king occurred when he was helping his redoubtable brother Edward in an attempt to win Ireland for a kingdom. The Scottish army has just fought a successful action against an Irish and English force, of greatly superior numbers, and is about to resume the march, when, as Barbour says--
The King has heard a woman cry.
He asked what that was in hy.
“it Is the layndar, sir,” said ane,
"That her child-ill right now has tane,
And mon leave now behind us here,
Therefore she makes yon evil cheer."
The King said, "Certes, it were pitie
That she in that point left should be;
For certes, I trow there's no man
That he will not rue woman than."
His host all there arrested he,
And gart a tent soon stented be,
And gart her gang in hastily,
And other women to be her by
While she was delivered, he bade,
And sync forth on his wayis rade,
And how she forth should carried be
Or ere he forth Pure, ordain'd he.
This was a full great courtesy
That sik a king, and so mighty,
Gart his men dwell in this manere
But for a poor lavender.
Feeling for Nature.
It is said that Barbour shows little feeling for the beauties of Nature, being in this very unlike most of the Scots and English poets who followed him. A feeling for Nature is not likely to be very pronounced in men who are sieging and fighting and foraging, and it is natural that the poet who sings their deeds should share their mood.
But when the artful necessity arises for a dramatic pause in the narrative, Barbour can open with a graceful description of the springtide, as being the season when the Bruce leaves his winter home in Arran for the memorable Carrick exploit.
This was in Ver, when wintertide,
With his blasts hideous to bide,
Was overdriven, and birdis small
As throstle and the nightingale,
Began right merrily to sing,
And for to make in their singing
Sweet notes and also sounds so seer
And melodies pleasant to hear;
And als the trees begouth to ma
Burgeons, and bright blossoms alswa
To win the healing of their head,
That wicked winter had them made,
And all grasses begouth to spring.
I do not know if Chaucer had read these lines and other passages of a like kind, such as the charming prelude to the Bruce's Irish campaign in the month of May. They were written fifteen years before the English poet sat down to compose the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, with its well-known similar opening about Aprile with his shoures sote, that had perced to the rote, the smalle foules makes melody, and the rest of it. I am not decrying good Dan Chaucer, whose art and large humanity I alike admire; but John Barbour was first, and the distance between the two, in merit as in time, is not so great as to justify the advancement of the one and the comparative declassing of the other. Barbour, I repeat, was the earlier. Easy to improve upon another man's model.
Barbour shows his classical scholarship in the tales he puts into the mouth of the Bruce, of whom the tradition is that he loved to encourage his small following with heartening stories of pagan bravery. As the stories he told had not then appeared in any spoken language, it is good to think of the Bruce as a scholar as well as a paladin.
And, Catholic though John Barbour was, and living in the dark ages at that, he indulges in a long argument against astrology. It is fine to believe and admire and also to be sceptical, always in the right place.
I have said there is a good deal of human nature in "The Bruce," meaning by that human frailty. The wild-blood of the story is the king's brother Edward—brave, rash, and head-long. It is he who encourages Robert to remain and fight it out when it is discovered that the beacon fire which has lured them to the Carrick shore has not been lit by friends, but by enemies. And if it be Edward who has made a rash bargain as to the relief of Stirling Castle, it is Edward who boldly inspires the King to accept the position and make it good. He offends once again in Ireland, when, with his vanguard, he gets ahead and out of touch with the main body, who have to bear a formidable attack from which better scouting might have saved them. He is scolded by the King, and is indeed hopelessly incapable of the canny course supposed to be so characteristic of his countrymen.
The Bruce brothers were obviously no Galahads; and Barbour’s truthfulness compels him – loyal man and cleric though he be – to admit that Edward is living apart from his wife, and has as his paramour the sister of Sir Walter Ross. Edward Bruce’s slighted wife Isobel is the sister of the Earl of Athol, and as the Earl’s own wife is Johanna, daughter of the slain Comyn, it is not wonderful if the Earl, with his double grievance against the Bruces, should be on the side of the King, and even after Bannockburn remained so.
Having a Great Story to Tell.
The great advantage John Barbour had over poets such as Chaucer and Dunbar was that while they had to tell little stories, he had a great story to tell.
It is very natural that Aberdeen city should have provided the Bruce and his cause with a poet-biographer. Bruce had enemies in Buchan as he had enemies in the south of Scotland. But Aberdeen city and district were loyal, and it was at Inverurie and Oldmeldrum that the king, hardly recovered from a great sickness, took the field against his enemies, and, routing them in battle, burned Buchan in revenge for its support of his enemy the Comyn. At the same time he rewarded Aberdeen for its fidelity, not only by assigning it the motto of ‘Bon-Accord’ which it still bears, but by granting it the royal forest of Stocket, endowing the hospital of Turriff with the lands of Petty in perpetuation of the memory of his murdered brother Nigel, and compelling the recalcitrant Bishop Cheyne to expiate his disloyalty by building a bridge over the Don at Balgownie.
We should do well to keep green and fragrant the memory of John Barbour of Aberdeen, the first notable singing-bird of a nation of singers. The most material thing about a nation is not its lands, its minerals, its machines or its populous towns, but the soul and spirit of its people. Granted courage, resolution, and the ‘ingine’ of which Barbour’s countrymen have shown throughout the ages, all good things may be at their command. When the captains and the kings have departed they are mostly forgotten; but the name and fame of a true poet is in sooth immortal. Empires and systems may rise and decay, but so long as a single copy of a great piece of literature remains it can be reproduced and perpetuated to a life beyond life. The poet may have been blind and poor, a wandering minstrel, a beggar, or a measurer of ale-barrels; but when the great ones of the moment are forgotten, he will be remembered and honoured with the homage that men in the last resort always pay to man's highest attribute, mind.
The Factors of Civilization.
WHAT are the factors of civilization? What causes one community to grow and prosper materially and mentally, while another declines in population, wealth, all the real elements of greatness? The question is immensely practical. Scotland is bleeding white. Since the war over 300,000 of some of the best of her people have emigrated for good. In 1926 four times as many emigrants left Glasgow as went from all the English ports together. Scotland has some of the admittedly worst slums in the world. But for the wholesale invasion of Irish immigrants, the population would have shown a decline, It is said that every fifth child born in Scotland is Irish. In Glasgow in 1924 the figure was 284 per cent. They may be healthy babies—the Irish are of good physique—the point is that they were not the native population of the country, and that they were born to parents accustomed to a lower standard of life who came to Scotland, not to better her condition, but to better their own.
Our land goes back to pasture. Our grave social problems are relatively neglected. If there is no wealth but life, then we are losing the best part of our wealth—our people. Scotland's railways and banks are affiliated to English banks and English railways. The head offices of her great businesses are more and more situated in England. Her education only helps to swell the number of persons who seek careers in England and abroad; and as regards the education itself, it is said to sacrifice quality to quantity. She has no literary class. Her books are written and published in England. Her music, dramatic art, politics, machinery, newspapers, magazines, films are all made in England or abroad. Even her food is largely grown abroad. Her politics and public life are a disgraceful wrangle with Yahoos who can only bark and boo at their public servants.
Are these things beyond hope of remedy? Is it desirable that they should be remedied? Or is it right and inevitable that we should be absorbed, body, soul, and land, in the predominant partner, the American millionaire taking over the Highland wildernesses, and the Irish Catholic the Lowland slums?
The Nightmare City.
Do you recall the horrible cities of Wellsian fiction—piled up in story above story like American skyscrapers, roofed over with glass to keep off the rain and the cleansing, health-giving winds? Their people are serfs speaking a jargon of which "I seen it " and “He done it" are the beginnings. They wear a uniform, the mark of the beast being apparently insufficiently indicated by their degraded speech, accent, and faces. The news is no longer printed, but is galumphed out by mechanical loud speakers at the airless street corners, The country is for the most part a wilderness all round these huge Bastilles of the wretched. The women look you coolly and wantonly in the face, the relationship of the sexes being a matter on which no ethic has been promulgated. From these nightmare cities of the future the last pretence of religion or morals seems to have been stripped.
Make what discounts you please from this as an imaginary picture, it is impossible to deny that we are in several respects tending towards such conditions; and I say no man or woman of goodwill—the goodwill backed by some intellect —can view such a prospect with any feelings save those of dread and abhorrence.
Our forefathers fought to drive out the English conqueror, though he came with a superior civilization, and in our own day we have fought to keep out the German would-be invader. It seems an anti-climax not only to allow ourselves to be invaded by Irish and Americans, but to shake from our feet the dust of the country for which we fought, or, remaining in it, make no effort to develop its civilization.
I am not concerned for the preservation of the Doric; still less for the revival of Gaelic. The tongue that Shakespeare and Milton wrote, that Pitt and Bright spoke, the language in which the Bible is printed, is abundantly good enough for me. Lowland Scots in its various dialects is mostly just English corrupted, and I am not concerned about the preservation of corruption. I am not even concerned about the Anglicising of our institutions. We have learned most of our civilised habits from England, and we cannot do better than go on learning more. One of the chief English habits I should wish to see adopted in Scotland is the English habit of staying at home and working to make the land better worth living in. The cult of the dialect is fostered chiefly by Scotsmen in England. Your Scot abroad develops a tremendous amount of sentiment for his native land; but he will not live in it. When one hears the supposedly exiled Scot sing "0 why left I my hame?" the natural question is: Well, why did you? Was it just for more money? Or had you to run for it? The greatest service a man can do his native land is clearly to live in it, increasing its wealth and developing whatever is best in its life.
Nobody makes such outcry about patriotism as the Scot, and nobody shows less of the sincere patriotism which consists in living and working in and for one's own land. When we read that four times as many Scots as English left their country in a given year we do not pause to consider that it means 3o Scots emigrating for one Englishman, the population of South Britain being as eight to one of the northern land.
Let us consider the question in the light of broad principle, beginning with a definition.
Civilization is the progressive development and diffusion of intelligence and morals and the progress and diffusion of those arts and appurtenances of life that render morals, manners, and religion possible.
The first factor of civilization is population. The second is industry. The third is fair dealing between man and man. Race, climate, geographical position, natural resources, as will be seen, have very little to do with social progress. The human factor is all.
Ethnography affords no certain key; for the character of a race is not homogeneous. The Japs are of the same Mongolian race as the Koreans whom they dominate and the Chinese whom they beat in war, as they beat the Russians, both by land and sea. Latitude and climate give us no definite clue; for alert and agressive Japan is in much the same latitude as lethargic Turkey and stagnant Morocco. An insular position in a temperate zone is probably a helpful factor in the furtherance of civilization, Britain and Japan are both island kingdoms. But so are Madagascar and Ceylon, where every prospect pleases, and man alone is vile.
Whatever the factors of civilization may be, none of them has the permanence of situation or of race. The centres of population and the seats of power and prosperity change; and new peoples every now and again come to the front among the nations. Egypt and Persia are succeeded on the world-stage by Greece and Rome, who in turn give way to the Turk and the Moor. Spain has her glorious day, and ceases to be. In population, in the arts, and in science France has yielded place to Germany, as Britain in some respects does to America,
The composite character of a people is often credited with the honour of its achievements; but, while the British people are highly composite, the Japs, so far as we know, are not.
The Paradox of Environment.
Apart from the well-established fact that progress lies with the people of temperate latitudes, one other apparently universal law emerges from the mass of unrelated facts—the law, namely, that environment exercises a paradoxical influence on the achievements and progress of mankind.
A fine climate, a fertile soil, a favourable situation, instead of stimulating man to energetic and intelligent co-operation with Nature, which has done so much for him, has everywhere and always the opposite effect. It is so as between races, it is so as between nations, it is so as between provinces and towns. Man—combative, resourceful, interested in obstacles, nerved by difficulties—is made or unmade by the presence or absence of natural disadvantages in his surroundings.
There is a stage in the history of all communities when natural disabilities seem to set a final limit to social progress. Doubtless the primitive Cave Man had serious thoughts as to the increase of population, in view of the limited supply of cave dwellings, and for a time either the birth-rate would show a falling-off or else the superfluous children would be knocked on the head from a stern sense of parental duty. Child murder would be one of the virtues of stagnation. At length a genius would conceive the idea of a burrow in the ground, and the Cave Man would be succeeded, or largely accompanied, by the Eird, or Earth, Man. Thus again we see population forcing the pace of civilization.
Holland, low-lying, inundated by the sea from without and by rivers from within, had, over great tracts of it, to be rescued by man from the grasp of Father Neptune, who was walled out by dykes, and is now being steadily expelled, at great and wise expense, from the Zuyder Zee, as he was during age-long strife and effort, from the Polders. By the energy of man an apparently worthless collection of mud-flats has been protected, drained, and practically made into a country, and a garden country at that, whose people have for centuries taught horticulture and floriculture to the world. So far from the natural defects of the "ollant," or marshy, ground having retarded the progress or prejudiced the status of Holland, those very defects have been the making of the people and the salvation of the State. The energy and initiative developed in the struggle with Nature have naturally found expression in other directions. The Dutch were the first to curb the once all-embracing power of Spain. At that great crisis, as in subsequent stages of their history, they set the powerful invader at defiance by opening the dykes and letting in the sea. Rendered resolute and resourceful by difficulties surmounted and dangers over-passed, the people of Holland have been for centuries a free, enlightened, progressive, and commercially and industrially successful nation.
The story of Venice has much in common with that of Holland. The Queen of the Adriatic arose on a small group of salt-crusted islets, largely devoid of fresh water, piles having to be driven to secure foundations for the palaces and ware-houses which in course of time took the place of the fisher-men's huts of early Venice. But while Protestant Holland, under free institutions, waxed, the Catholic City-State of the Doges, under corrupt and despotic rule, waned or stagnated.
The triumph of man over his surroundings, and the gains derived by him from the struggle, have been exemplified nearer home.
Manchester, handicapped by forty miles of overland transit to the sea at Liverpool, spent fifteen millions sterling on a Ship Canal, the corporation coming to the rescue of private enterprise with one-third of the capital (45,000,000) raised on the security of the rates. But already before the making of the Ship Canal Manchester had managed to keep pace with Liverpool, despite Liverpool's seaboard situation at the mouth of the Mersey. And with the Canal opened, another new town has sprung up at its Manchester end. In the ancient demesne* where a few years ago the deer stole in and out among the trees, the bell of the electric car is heard, and the site of sylvan glades is occupied by streets of houses, shops, and factories, with here and there a church, hotel, or school.
In the middle of the eighteenth century Manchester had a population of only 800o. At that time Chester had 30,000 inhabitants within her city walls, which, by the way, are still standing. She had the noble estuary of the Dee at her doors, and fleets and armies came to and went from her across the sea. But Chester stood still ; and Manchester, some thirty miles distant, from being a poor market town, situated in an ill-watered plain, steadily grew till her population stands little short of a million, and, with her libraries, colleges, music, drama, and splendid press, she is not undeserving of the title of Modern Athens, conferred upon her by Gladstone in a complimentary mood; and this despite the smoke and soot.
What has Nature done for Manchester? There is coal at no great distance; but other communities have coal, and fail to turn it to account. Durham has coal, and languishes. Fife has coal, and falls back. Manchester is built up on cotton, and the cotton has to come thousands of miles by sea from the more favoured but stagnant southern States of America. Manchester has been made by man in disregard, if not in despite, of the environment.
[*Trafford Park, the seat of the de Traffords.]
Again, little over a century ago the Clyde was so shallow and innavigable that the story is told of a skipper, stranded for want of water, who threatened with physical chastisement a girl who came to draw a bucketful from the river, and so, as he feared, delay his progress. But the Clyde was deepened by successive generations of patriotic Glaswegians, till today the leviathians of war and of the Atlantic service may swim in ample draught where the shallow skiffs of former days stuck in the mud. And Glasgow, again, has been made by plain, homely men—men, allowing for the difference of nationality, like those early cotton-spinners of Manchester whom John Morley, in the "Life of Richard Cobden," describes as drinking ale and smoking clay pipes at the tavern in the evening: they "thee'd" and "thou'd" each other in the drawling dialect of Lancashire, but made fortunes and had correspondents in the ends of the earth.
So far as the Caucasian race, living in a temperate climate, is concerned, the flow and ebb of population would appear to depend mainly on the superficially adverse influence of natural surroundings. The white man, transplanted to India or the Gold Coast of Africa, wilts in the heat and the malaria. But outside the tropical belt—in Australasia, in South Africa, in North America—he bids fair to attain a material civilisation not inferior to that of Western Europe. The influence of climate shows in a relaxation of energy in very hot or in very cold countries; though heat is a more effective check to industry than cold.
Warm climates are usually accompanied by fertile soils—the Sahara is an exception—and while the heat is a deterrent to strenuous labour, the fertility of the soil renders such labour less necessary. But where, as in Scotland and Denmark, both climate and soil have been naturally unfavourable, man has been stimulated to increased exertion, with such results that Art is seen to accomplish more for man than Nature has done for him; though, of course, Art is but an application of means which Nature supplies.
As the growth of grass is increased by mowing, as the growth of hair is encouraged by cutting, as the health of shrubs is improved by pruning, so man's energy is braced by natural difficulties. The stony terraces of the Rhine valley have been clothed with earth carried up in baskets on the backs of men and women. The sandy soil of East Flanders has been made to support 70o persons to the square mile, and large quantities of agricultural produce are exported besides. The decomposed granite of Jersey, with no more organic matter than it consumes. So little suited for agriculture was Jersey in it, feeds 13oo persons to the square mile, and exports more naturally that a century ago the population lived chiefly on imported food. Its latter-day fertility is largely due to the use of sea-weed and bones. The wet clay of Scotland was broken up, aerated, drained, and fertilised by dressings of a drying character, till districts, remote from the markets, and formerly given over to barrenness, or producing but scanty and precarious crops, became great areas of agricultural production. On the other hand, the land of Essex, near the great market of London, and the lands of the Campagna around Rome, have, after centuries of cultivation under a favourable climate, gone very largely out of tillage.
Man can make soil and can alter climate. Afforestation and enclosures raise the temperature. When the Parisian market-gardeners' carts take vegetables to the city they bring back manure, and so much soil is made that tons of it are yearly carted off a single acre, and sold to dress lighter lands.
Driving Men Indoors.
An inhospitable climate drives men indoors, and their recreations, their arts of life, and not least their intelligence, benefit by the enforced sedentary habits. The people of inclement Iceland and the Scandinavian countries have long been famous for their love of song and saga, their zeal for education, and their cherishing of free institutions. The people of Catholic Italy and of Mahometan Turkey, cursed, as it seems, by an enervating climate and fertile soils, and by government long despotic in both, are ignorant, slothful, backward in the arts of life, and degraded as regards their standard of comfort.
Climate, soil, and situation, then, count in the opposite way to what might be expected as regards the contributions they make to the sum of material wellbeing.
It might be supposed that long established seaboard communities, with the ocean as their ready means of communication and transport, would grow in population, trade, and wealth, faster than inland communities. But it is not so. Indeed, so much is it the reverse that few considerations more strongly confirm the paradox of environment.
Natural advantages, unsupported by industry in the people—and they appear to be seldom so supported—are as much a bugbear to a community as an inheritance is to a careless and easy-going youth. London is the first city of the world, Glasgow is the second city of the empire; her claim no longer contested by Manchester and Liverpool. No one of the four was by nature a seaport town: they have equipped themselves with the facilities proper to seaports. On the other hand, such old-established and typical British seaports as Harwich, Dover, Plymouth, Southampton, Leith, Dundee, Peterhead, Fraserburgh, and Macduff make comparatively little of their position.
Bristol was the second port of the kingdom when Liverpool had only 200 seamen, and when the now broad estuary of the Mersey was a shallow "Lither Pool." But despite her long start, the public-spirited munificence of her citizens, her queenly position on the mingled waters of the Avon and the Frome, her proximity to the sea and to coalfields both north and south, Bristol has long been outdistanced by Liverpool and by Glasgow. Superbly swimming in waters, her streets seeming to the poet to teem with ships, Bristol is at the same time a well-built and splendidly appointed city, and has fine suburbs and beautiful surroundings. With 320,000 of a population, Bristol is in all conscience big enough. But if the Bristolians wished to keep pace with their neighbours on the West Coast, they must be disappointed; for they certainly have not done so.
Harwich, again, from the fourteenth century till 1867 was a Parliamentary borough returning two members. Time and again fleets of warships rode in its harbour, one of the finest on the east coast. Favoured by railway and shipping companies as a packet station, and by Government as a military station, having large imports of duty-paying goods —Harwich, with all its natural advantages and acquired favours, has still a population of only 1o,000.
That a seaboard position, with a good roadstead, is of value only if the community has manufactures to export and raw material to import, should be self-evident, London became a great port only as it became a great centre of trade and population. Liverpool has the whole export and import trade of Lancashire and the Midlands to feed it. Glasgow is not only the passenger port of Scotland, but it is, needless to say, a great emporium of the chemical, metallurgical, and ship-building industries, Cardiff has the coal and metals of Wales to carry. Hull has textiles, coal, organs, feeding stuffs, chemicals, and much general merchandise to export, in addition to fish.
The Inland Towns.
That towns may prosper without harbours, and languish with them, is strikingly shown by the statistics of population. Keeping away from the very large cities, the five typical inland towns Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds, Leicester, and Nottingham – all of modern growth – have combined populations numbering 1,957,070 persons. The populations of the five, typical seaport towns Plymouth, Devonport, Dover and Portsmouth (this last including three others) number together only 528,389 inhabitants, for practically eight seaboard townships, although all of them are of ancient standing, and most of them have had millions of pounds sterling of Imperial taxes spent upon them. That the finest roadstead in the world will not necessarily lead to a development of trade is shown on the seaboard of the Australian Commonwealth. On harbours there much borrowed money has been spent; but improvements, extensions, and even natural advantages, as at Sydney, have not been followed by great industrial expansion on land. Trade not only may and does flourish remote from seaboards: it even flourishes better inland than on the coast.
Man the Master.
Caucasian man at least masters his environment. The flow and ebb of population lie almost entirely with the people themselves. Industry, courage, a spirit of mutual helpfulness, encouragement to a new departure rather than criticism of it, faith in our neighbours, local patriotism—such are the requisites of civic success and the civilisation that goes with "the swarming of men." It is not geographical position, it is not coalfields, it is not cotton or iron, and it is not proximity to the sea that make a people. It is attachment to industrial processes, it is the willingness to make rather than merely to sell things, the courage resolutely to adventure in new and untried directions, the creation of wealth by intelligent labour rather than the hunting of wild beasts, or fishing, or the breeding and feeding and slaughter of domestic animals; though all these pursuits have their place and value. Communities succeed or fail in proportion to the intelligence expended by their people in many and varied directions, by the extent to which they refuse to put all their eggs in one basket, all their cargoes in one "bottom," and, above all, by the amount of industry and intelligence they display in the branches of business, whatever these may be, to which they set their hands.
Do these seem harmless generalities ? Let us apply them.
The small community does not find place for its young people. It is from it that the haemorrhage of the country takes place. The small community has health and peace and much superficial good fellowship, even where there may be the contempt of an intimacy which is unbrightened by personal gifts or graces. By these the rustic mentality sets no store as a rule; though it develops mild enthusiasms for such accomplishments as throwing the hammer and playing whist. It tends to measure men by what they have rather than what they are.
The Land of Do Without.
The small community may have beautiful surroundings; but to the young people who know they will have to leave it these fine things do but increase the irony of the fate that sends them forth as exiles, never again to return for permanent residence in most cases. For the rest, a small community is a Land of Do Without. The small community has no variety of industries, and the young people are denied the interest and education of looking on at varied processes, and making choice of the calling they would best prefer. Frequent funerals—for there is a large proportion of old people—represent the chief attempt at pageantry, the procession consisting of indifferently dressed men bobbing along out of step. Local gossip takes the place of large general interests. The small community often has no public baths, swimming ponds, or gymnasium. It does not possess public libraries, reading rooms, museums, or galleries of pictures and statuary. It has no theatre, no good concerts, and is rarely visited by great preachers or platform orators. These are the extras, the graces of life that ennoble it, raising man from the position of the muck-raker, the hewer of wood and drawer of water; nay, divested of literature, music, and oratory, he is little above the beasts of the field; for they also eat, drink, sleep, work, and enjoy other pleasures of the senses. Vita sine literis mars est (Life without literature is death) ran the old Roman saying.
Economically, the small communities are parasitical. A healthy community absorbs its own natural increase. But the small communities obviously do not do this, or they would not remain small. The villages, little towns, and open country shed their natural increase upon the cities, and complicate all the standing problems of urban life. The small community looks to the city to take its sons and daughters almost as a matter of course. The cities have to absorb, not only their own natural increase, but the increase of the rural districts as well.
One of the many arrestive steps taken by the Italian Dictator Mussolini is to stop emigration from Italy. He rightly holds that the name and fame of Italy, oldest of the large European States, are dragged in the mire by the, degraded position her sons take abroad as vendors of ice-cream, organ-grinders with monkey colleagues, vendors of roast chestnuts, and, in the United States, navvies. If the Duce sees his way to support the rapidly increasing population of the Italian Peninsular, with its high birth-rate, he must have found a key to social prosperity for which statesmanship elsewhere is not even looking.
One speculates how Mussolini will approach this problem of making Italy support its own sons. Will he, for one thing, go to employers and say, "I find that two of your apprentices finish their time next month. Your income and business show that you can afford to keep them on as journeymen. Your bread (or clothes, or joinery, as the case may be) is the same price as or dearer than the loaf in the nearest city, and as you have had the services of these young men for years at a low wage, it is your duty to keep them on at the city wage. If they are discharged merely because their apprenticeship has expired, you will be fined periodically the amount that they would have earned as journeymen at standard rates."
I suggest that as one of the possible methods, short of socialising industry, whereby the problem of absorbing the natural increase of population may be solved. That the country employer should automatically dump his apprentices upon the City is not only obviously unfair to the city, but to the small community as well. For the parents who have brought up a son and maintained him on a nominal wage during the period of his apprenticeship have a real grievance against the employer who, by turning him off as soon as he becomes a journeyman, passes sentence of expulsion from home and kindred upon him, and this usually for no other reason than greed or unenterprising timidity. The youth has been educated at the expense of the township, and the community as a whole has a moral right to object to its money being wasted upon the training of those from whom it is not to derive any benefit.
Mussolini, doubtless, has nothing to say against the young journeyman going upon his travels voluntarily in order to acquire experience and see the world. But the process of creating an army of unemployed workmen must stop somewhere, and to arrest it where I have indicated is to deal with it at the fountain-head.
The Prime Cause of Unemployment.
The problem of unemployment is primarily created by low wages. The largest body of consumers is the wage-earning class; but obviously they cannot consume if they are not allowed to produce and earn full wages. Even so, to retain population in a country or a district is the best way to beget a demand for the produce of labour. Careless people speak of a large centre as affording more openings for the young person in quest of employment; but the truth really is that, in proportion to the number of openings, there will always be more candidates for those in a large centre than in a small.
Pessimism of Small Communities.
In the small community all new departures are viewed with pessimism. The newcomer spends his money on shop, factory, or printing office to an accompaniment of head-shaking, and no attempt is made to help, but the reverse.
The people spend their money, by preference, more and more out of town, the motor bus and reduced rail fares helping this anti-social tendency. Goods will be bought in the city at higher prices from an idea that the quality is better. The saying that "No good thing cometh out of Nazareth" was doubtless coined by the Nazarenes themselves. Lower wages are paid because usually there is no trade unionism to force them up. The employer is thus able to take it easy, play golf and bowls, run about in a car, and shoot clay pigeons. He breaks his promises every day from sheer inertia and lack of conscience. Thus all life goes slowly. Everything hangs fire. Three men will be seen winding an empty bucket up out of a hole, and often an entire staff will be seen smoking, talking, and looking at something done or to be done.
Public improvements are resisted on the ground of the expense, nobody considering that the money is spent locally. Men starve their own business and practise personal economies, in order to invest their savings elsewhere; and then they ask, What are we to do with our boys?
If the big city can carry out big schemes, the small town can carry out small schemes; for the expense will be proportionate in either case. But in a city those at the head of affairs are not so amenable to criticism, and there is next to none anyhow, the citizens rejoicing in the expenditure that increases prosperity by circulating money, and the improvement remaining as an asset.
To ensure the development of civilization that comes with population the inhabitants of small communities need--
(1) To believe in themselves and their neighbours.
(2)To encourage local trade and industry by spending money at home wherever possible.
(3)The son should oftener follow the father's calling, instead of seeking to become a professional man away from home. A scavenger living in the town is of more use to it than a great man who has left it.
(4)Wages should be as high as the business can afford. A community of slums on the one hand and palaces on the other is a congeries of human hogs; and this is a matter of wages.
(5)Slums should be ordered to be destroyed by the local authority, and no congestion of buildings should be allowed.
(6)Saving money may be wasteful. A community is rich, not by the money it saves, but by the money it spends. Britain is being crippled by the saving of the New Rich, who invest their savings abroad, and help to intensify foreign competition. The old county families lived up to and even beyond their incomes, and the money was mostly spent at home. Money left to sons is usually a curse sooner or later. It is better to live rich than to die rich. Money inherited represents that which is lightly come by, and it usually goes as lightly, the prodigal suffering in the process of living idly and spending, as the saver suffered in working and saving.
(7) Agriculture is the basis of all civilization, and any country that neglects its soil or allows it to lapse from cultivation is on the road to ruin. The British farmer does not work, and he will not co-operate for marketing. £20 worth of produce is taken from each acre of naturally poor land in Flanders, as compared with from each acre of better land in Britain. There is 80 per cent. of co-operation among Canadian farmers as compared with 10 per cent. in buying and 4 per cent. in selling with the British farmer. £400,000,000 go abroad every year for foodstuffs that we could grow ourselves. That is the root of the whole evil of British and especially Scottish decay. The expenditure of that money in the home market would make the difference between depression and decadence on the one hand and prosperity and progress on the other.
Civilization goes forward as a result of the capacity for not becoming tired, and there are more world-novelties to keep us alert than ever there were There is no sign that we are becoming tired as a nation. We have, for one thing, more zest in non-intellectual pleasures than ever we had, and, just at present, a horror of any attempt to teach us. Our aversion from anything "highbrow" (as if the brain were not, as it is, the chief muscle in the human organism) reverses the excellent attitude of our parents and grandparents, who revelled in mechanics' institutes, libraries, lectures, and classes. They fell away from that because science, they found, was being used chiefly as an instrument of trade competition, which intensified the working pace of life.
When, as the result of pending changes, we realise that work has become the service of ourselves and our fellows instead of a means of earning dividends for people who cannot spend them; when we realise, with more than Elizabethan spaciousness, how absorbingly interesting is the world and the life of man upon it, civilization will go forward, as never before, under social arrangements that are at last really worthy of that most social of all animals—Man.
THE DOOM OF THE GREAT CITY
BEING THE NARRATIVE OF A SURVIVOR WRITTEN A.D. 1942
WILLIAM DELISLE HAY
"— How can I
Repress the horror of my thoughts, which fly
The sad remembrance?"
Sir J. Denham
All killed! The words went to my heart like a knife. Can you fancy the very extravagance of dread? It was mine then. Can you imagine the utmost, climax of terror? I knew it at that moment. How I looked, what I said or did, what I thought even, these things I know not. The awful pang had shot into my heart and brain, had benumbed my inmost soul.
Fear! It was scarcely such a sense: I had no thought of personal danger, hardly a recollection even of the too possible fate of those dear ones who were more to me than life; the agony that held me then, that has pursued me through sixty years of time to hold me now, was no common sense of fear. It was that overwhelming, all-mastering dread which men alone can know who are on a sudden taught their own immeasurable littleness; who are witnesses of some stupendous event, whose movement shows the hand sublime of Nature, the supremacy of Nature, the supremacy of offended God.
Yes, you know now, though I knew not then, the full, extent of that hideous catastrophe: how, like the sudden overflow of Vesuvius upon the town below; like of yore the wings of the angel of death had overshadowed the sleeping hosts of Assyria, or like that yet older tale a world had sunk beneath the waters, so, in like manner, the fog had drawn over midnight London an envelope of murky death, within whose awful fold all that had life had died.
Can you understand now the train of reasoning which led your, grandfather to expatiate on all that was vile and wicked in the once-entitled "Modern Babylon"? Do you not see why I rather recall the evil and forget the good? Else were not my grief multiplied a thousand- fold, my anguish of pity more absorbing? And thus reflecting, may I not look up to Heaven still reverencing Just God; still dwelling in earnest faith on the love and mercy of Him Who is the Father of His creatures?
Although our knowledge of what had actually taken place was as yet extremely vague and limited, still we were sensible that the "Great City" beyond us lay stupefied, paralysed, to all seeming devoid of life, and that at an hour — it was now approaching noon — when it was usually busiest. This was alone unparalleled and horrifying, and as minute chased minute by and still no news relieved prevailing fears, and still the horrid fever of suspense made things seem darker, so the first consternation spread and deepened until a vast wave of awful, unheard-of terror rushed back from the outskirts of London. By this time every vehicle that could be put in motion was loaded with goods and with women and children, while crowds of people of all stations and sexes were hurrying along the roads which led to the country. Whither, none knew or cared; their only anxiety was to get away beyond the influence of the LONDON FOG, which their magnified panic believed was steadily advancing outward from the town. I cannot think that my own faculties had remained unshaken amid the frenzy of fear that boiled up around me; yet the deep sense of awe that fell upon me seemed to banish all merely personal fears. By-and-by, soon after noon I think, I noticed a sensible alteration in the fog; it became lighter around us, while puffs of wind were now to be felt at short intervals. The line of mansions along the crest of Champion Hill, previously invisible from the lower ground where we were, now came out into view. O was pretty sure that the fog was becoming more tenuous — "lifting," in short. The recollection of my mother and sister came before my mind so strongly that I resolved instantly to make my way to them. I intimated my resolution to the Forresters, my companions. They did not attempt to dissuade me, but the old man wrung my hand and said, "Come back to us, my lad, if — " and he nodded and turned away. Then I passed on my road into London.
It was but a step away from the remaining groups of people collected about the railway station and the last houses of East Dulwich, and I was at once alone. My way at first lay up Champion Hill, along a road bordered by fields and gardens belonging to the mansions higher up. .Once these were passed, rows of smaller dwellings lined the road which passed along the crest of the high ground to Denmark Hill, whence the streets were continuous and part of London. As I came down the street that emerged upon Denmark Hill, I began to be dreadfully affected by the fog, that seemed to become worse at every step. It was very thick and dark upon the Camberwell side of the hill., and appeared to have a peculiar irritating pungency which made me cough incessantly, until. I found that by muffling my nose and mouth in my woollen wrapper I was able to endure it better. After a while, either the density of the fog had greatly decreased or my throat became more callous to it, for I was able to breathe without any difficulty. At this time I was still oppressed by a feeling of unutterable awe; which absorbing presence seemed to leave no room for any other sentiment. Added to this there now came over me a terrible sense of loneliness, indescribably horrible indeed in such a situation. I traversed the foggy street, seeing objects but indistinctly at ten yards distance. I saw no living being, no faces at the shrouded windows, no passers by, no children playing in the gardens or the road; not even a sparrow fluttered past to convey to me the sense of companionship. And then the frightful, muffled stillness that seemed to hold me down in a nightmare trance; not a sound of traffic, no rattle of carriages and carts, no scream and rumble of trains, no clamour of children or costermongers, no distant hum of the midday city, no voice or whisper of a wind; not the rustling of a leaf, not the echo of a foot-fall, nothing to break the deathly stillness but the panting of my laboured chest and the beating of my trembling heart. Below the brow of Denmark Hill, in the street leading into Camberwell, I stumbled over something in the path. It was the body of a policeman lying stretched across the pavement. Horrified, I stooped beside him, striving to find a spark of life, but he was cold and dead. There he lay, as he had probably been struck down upon his beat, the face fixed and set, the skin of a mottled bluish cast, some black moisture hanging about the nose and lips and on the beard. It seemed to me the first realization of some horrible dream; I would have shouted for aid, but my voice sank back upon my lips and I dared not cry aloud. Hastily I fled on upon my way. Alas! horror lay thick before me, and thicker yet. As I came out into the open square called Camberwell Green I saw three cabs standing on the rank; the horses had fallen and were lying dead between the shafts, while at a little distance an indistinct mass upon the sidewalk was probably the bodies of the drivers; I ventured not to approach them. I faced the road leading to London Bridge, meaning to take it; some huge object loomed up before me through the fog. Approaching, I found this to be an omnibus; but, O God! did ever man before me witness such a sight? I supposed subsequently that this was some belated car from the Middlesex side of the river, that with its load of passengers had struggled bravely on through the gathering gloom of the preceding night to this point, where it had been overtaken by the death-dealing acceleration of fog. We know from the printed accounts that there was abundant evidence discovered to prove that the crisis occurred at different hours in several localities. This was the object that barred my road, seen indistinctly and weirdly in the misty light, as I suddenly came upon it. Drawn across the roadway, probably by the plunging of the horses in their last suffocative agony, it presented a spectacle more appallingly hideous than the most distempered imagination could easily picture to itself. Ah! I can see it yet, in all the vivid ghastliness that was burnt indelibly into my remembrance. The driver, and those who occupied the front seats, still sat, but not as they sat in life. The attitudes of the corpses showed the sudden agony and spasm of their deaths. The driver hung forward sustained by the belted apron, his clenched hands thrown out before him, and in one he still clutched a portion of his whip that he had broken possibly in the final struggle. On either side of him were other bodies showing too plainly the effects of the convulsion that had overpowered them. One sat still upright, his arms thrown back and grasping at the rail, his head, supported from behind, was erect and left the face in view. Oh, the insupportable horror of that dead man's look! The staring eyes, the gasping mouth, the livid skin, the strained and tortured whole. Below them lay the horses, dead in their harness; above and behind, the roof of the vehicle that had been full-occupied with men, was now loaded with their bodies. One or two had dropped from the top and lay upon the ground below, while one hung head-downwards over the side. I could see the interior of the car where women had chiefly sat. Poor creatures! they had been coming home, perhaps, after their day's work or evening's pleasure, and now I saw them entwined together in a twisted, contorted heap, that made me fancy I could even behold the writhing, the piteous interlacing of hands, the convulsive catching at each other, and hear the choking shrieks and cries for succour that too surely here had made more dreadful the spasm and terror of sudden death.
Oh, pitying heaven! For sixty years I have prayed unceasingly that the hideous memories of that awful day might be blotted from my mind.
I turned in an excess of horror from that grim load of dead, and rather than pass by it I took another road. So great was the effect of these horrors upon my mind, so terrible was the emotion I experienced, that I pursued my way with difficulty. Sometimes I fell upon my face or upon my knees in a very frenzy of agitation, while my mind kept working in a voiceless prayer to the Supreme. Tottering and shaking in every limb I went on my way, swaying and staggering with the palsy and delirium of abject dread. Scarcely knowing what I did, I followed the tramway rails in the centre of the road, caring little in which direction they led me. But the fog, unmerciful before, had mercy to me then; its loathsome mantle shrouded numberless deadly horrors from my view, and veiled a veritable Valley of the Shadow of Death as I passed through it. Gradually I recovered in some degree from the first intensity of my emotions, and walked on, still. trembling, but calmer. I kept my eyes bent upon the ground, and held along the tramway, not daring to look up in case my eyes might again encounter some fearful spectacle. Often I passed by dark object of whose dismal character I was but too well convinced, though I avoided their inspection.. Several times I saw the body of a man or of a woman lying close to the track. At length I came to a bridge; it was Vauxhall Bridge, and here I lingered for a while, listening to the sound of the waters beneath. The plashing of the river was a friendly sound in my ears, the first sound that had broken the deep stillness of the fog-hound region since I had entered it; it cheered me up in some indescribable way. I passed across the bridge and again took my way onward through the streets of the silent city.
Not far from the bridge, upon the Middlesex side, I came upon another awful sign of the impartiality and completeness of the tremendous catastrophe. Close to the edge of the pavement there stood a carriage — one of those elegant and voluptuously-appointed vehicles which the wealthiest people were wont to use. The spot I had now reached was no great distance from the fashionable quarter of London, where every night one might see numbers of such carriages conveying aristocratic parties to and from their residences. It seemed as though this equipage must have missed its way in the obscurity, and been brought to a stand, for one of the gorgeously-liveried flunkeys lay prone beside the door, while his fellow had fallen from his perch behind. The mailman, huddled up upon his seat, appeared as though watching his horses, which lay in a confused heap below him, their smooth and silken coats still handsome beneath the bravery of silver harness. I noticed a coronet upon the, emblazoned panels, and as I looked through the window of this splendid carriage my eye was caught by the glitter of jewellery, the gleam of white skins, and the flash of bright colours. O sad, heartrending spectacle! An elderly lady reclined in a corner, while stretching forward, with arms encircling her as though imploring help, were two fair girls. The piteous agony and terror that distorted those once lovely faces was rendered more fearfully startling by the magnificence of their dress and adornments. Weak and unstrung in nerve as I was, my tears flowed at the sight of these patrician beauties, fresh from the tender frivolities of the Court or the ball-room, lying out here, the victims of that clammy, relentless fog. Again I turned and fled, but not for far, till once more my steps were arrested. And here was a strange and woeful antithesis to the last picture — one of those sights too common to be noticeable in living London, yet how infinitely, solemnly mournful in the city of the dead! Two miserable little bodies in the gutter, two poor little ragged urchins, barefooted, filthy, half-naked outcasts of the stony streets, their meagre limbs cuddled round each other in a last embrace, their poor pinched faces pressed together and upturned to heaven. To them, perhaps, death had been but release from life. What a contrast to the occupants of that carriage, not a stone's-throw off! One common doom, one common sepulchre of gloomy fog, there was for the richest and the poorest, the best and the worst alike.
I went hurriedly on, my faculties whirling confusedly with these accumulating shocks. I felt as though I were left alone on earth, and indeed I was the only living creature amid multitudes of dead that but a few hours ago had filled the houses and the streets around me with life. Why had I been left to live when Death had garnered such a mighty harvest? O London! surely, great and manifold as were thy wickednesses, thy crimes, thy faults, who stayed to think of these in the hour of thy awful doom, who dared at that terrible moment to say thy sentence was deserved? And I, a lingering survivor of thy slain, oh, pity that it should have been my task to tell of thy CORRUPTION, to bear witness to thy PUNISHMENT!
It was strange that all this while I had not felt any distinct apprehension for my mother and sister. I had not connected them in my mind with the idea of death. I had yearned to be with them when danger and alarm was all around. I longed intensely to see their dear faces, to hear their dear voices, and to lead them beyond the bounds of the ghastly metropolis; but I had somehow no realised sense of the approach of danger to them personally. But now the first shadowy suspicion of what might be came into my mind; vague, it may be yet sufficient to spur my footsteps more quickly onward. The thought that the all-pervading death could seize upon my treasures had not definitely come before my mind; such a fear was too monstrous, too appalling for me to entertain; for you know, my grandchildren, that those two darling women were all the ties I had in the world; on them my whole affections were centred; they were the sum and substance of my life. Now that I had conceived the dim possibility of the approach of evil to them I was instantly overwhelmed by the desire to be with them. These thoughts were mingled with those terrifying emotions that I have told you were evoked by the scenes I was witnessing. Pressing my hands over my eyes to try and shut out the now more frequently recurring spectacles of death, I staggered forward till at length I came beneath the wall of Buckingham Palace. There was a slight stir in the air, and a perceptible lightening of the grimy vapours, as I turned into the space before the palace. I saw the outline of the trees in St. James's Park, and above the high facade of the palace I caught a glimpse of the flagstaff, with the drooping standard hanging almost motionless. I passed the gates a sudden dazzle of scarlet caused me to start; it was the sentry in his box. Standing upright as though in life, propped against the wall of the sentry-box, his rifle resting butt-end upon the ground, his hands crossed upon the barrel, the heavy bearskin oil his brows adding to the look of stern, resolved despair that was expressed in his set and staring eyes. There he remained, steadfast in death — a dead sentinel watching the dead. Not far in front of the gate lay the body of a woman — God knows who or what! She lay there upon her face with extended arms, her rich furs and silks dabbled in the mud, her delicately-gloved and jewelled hands vainly grasping at the stones, her painted cheek and yellow hair pressed into the mire of the gutter. Bethink you, was it not enough to unman me to pass through these familiar places in the hours of daylight, and. to see nothing but a dreadful series of deaths spread out into a continuous panorama of horror before me? Aye! do you wonder now that sixty years have failed to efface these awful details from my mind? Imprinted, burnt upon my memory, such recollections must remain with me till I, too, am claimed by Death!
I think that at this juncture some kind of madness came over me. For some time past my brain had seemed to reel, sickened with its terrible impressions; yet still striving with outstretched hands to blind my sense of sight, unsteadily yet frantically I hurried forward. Down the Mall, behind terraces of palatial mansions, and through Trafalgar Square, I reached the Strand. Scarcely can I portray in words the dire and dismal scenes that met my vision here. From Charing Cross and onwards, I crept along, one solitary shuddering wretch, amid such a hecatomb of deathly woe, as may well defy the power of man to truthfully describe. For here, where on the previous night had throbbed hot and high the flood-tide of London's evening gaiety, was now presented to my poor fevered sight, the worst, most awful features of the whole terrific calamity. I had entered into the very heart and home of Horror itself.
Somewhere near the middle of the Strand, an impulse I can scarcely define drove me to seek refuge from the piled horrors of the street. Although it was so central a thoroughfare as to have gained for itself the cant name of "High Street, London," yet I had but little personal acquaintance with it. One place I knew slightly, a tavern-restaurant, where I had occasionally dined or supped with acquaintances. Thither I bent my steps, picking my way in shivering dread among the corpses that strewed the way — aye! strewed the pavement and the roadway so thickly, O God! so thickly! Somehow I think I must have hoped to find there friendly, sympathizing, living faces; I know not else why I, a lonely wanderer among those thousand mute, stricken victims, should have been seized with another soul-shaking shock, another paroxysm of maddening fear. I had entered the half-open doors of the restaurant, and passed within the bar, where still many of the gas-lamps burnt brightly, mixing with the murky daylight and adding a baleful ghastliness to the scene. No voice, no sound were there to welcome or to check me. I stood unheeded in a house of the dead. Behind the bar a heap of women's clothes huddled in a corner caught my eye: I needed not to look more closely to see that it was a barmaid, for nearer to me was another, drawn down as though by some unseen force from behind, her hands still grasping the handles of the beer-engine, her head fallen back upon her shoulders, her body half-hanging, half-crouched upon the floor. Poor girls! The last time I had seen them only a few days before they had stood there in all the vanity of youth and beauty, decked with flowers, cheap jewellery, and flashy clothes, smiling on the customers they supplied, bandying "chaff " with their admirers, and listening greedily to the vapid compliments of the boozy dandies, some of whose bodies now lay prostrate at my feet. So had they been occupied up to the sudden awful moment when the FOG-KING had closed down upon his prey. I dared not pass beyond the threshold of the house, yet the one rapid glance that my eye took of the scene within sufficiently impressed its details on my memory. There were the half-empty glasses upon the counter, those who had been drinking from them lying stark upon the floor men in all the frippery of evening dress, the cigar or cigarette just fallen from their twisted lips; men in less conspicuous attire; here and there a woman or two; most of them, alas! showing too plainly by the garish ostentation of their garments the class to which they belonged; further on, in the supper-room behind, I could see the dishes and supper equipage upon the tables, while, in the chairs around them, on the floor below, and leaning across the tables themselves, in all the dreadful confusion of sudden death, in all the hideous contortion of paralyzed panic, were the mortal remains of those who had been sitting there joyously supping, when the hour of doom had struck. Ah! and there was one sad group that struck me more than all the rest, from which, too, they seemed to differ strangely; it was a, man and a woman boy and girl, perhaps I should rather say —who occupied the corner of a couch close to the door. Her arms were thrown around his neck, her face was pressed down into his bosom, and he, holding her to him with convulsive embrace, lay back in his seat, his strangled face upturned with such a yearning agony of entreaty for aid where aid there was none, with such expression in the glassy eye, in the parted lips, from which. I fancied I could still hear issue the hoarse accents of despairing prayer and frenzied supplication. that the sight seemed to congeal the remaining life-current within me. Dizzy with aright, my whirling brain drew some strange analogy between that young man and myself, between the dead girl he clasped in his dead arms and my sister.
Again I was in the Strand, striving to pass a hideous barrier of carriages and cabs, interlocked, overturned and confounded in one still medley of death; the bodies of horses, of men, and of women intermixed in the horrible confusion. I crossed the street the better to avoid it, and came under the portals of one of the principal theatres. The doors stood open and the gas-lights were flaming within; but few bodies lay about the entrance as I stepped inside, impelled by a swift fascination I was powerless to resist. I passed down the gay and glittering corridor that led into this temple of pleasure; becoming in some degree accustomed to the sight of death, I walked unheeding past the silent, crouching forms of those who had been the guardians of the place. Proceeding, I opened a swing door, drew aside a curtain and stood within the theatre. Pity me, my grandchildren, pity me. Oh, if you have hearts that feel — and I know you have you will pity your miserable grandfather. Of all the awful sights imprinted on these eyes that day, relentlessly impressed upon a too-faithful memory, I witnessed then the most horrible, the most gruesome, the most ghostly and unutterably terrific of all. I stood upon the floor of the theatre, close to the stage, within the portion of the house then called "the stalls," and from that point I had a full and instant view of the whole interior. The gas still burnt, and threw a light upon the scene more brilliant than perhaps it had been on the previous night; and the people no, not the people, the DEAD! — there under the glaring light they sat, they lay, they hung over the benches, the galleries, the boxes, in one tremendous picture of catastrophe! Beside me were soft and delicate women with their shimmering silks and dainty dresses, with jewels 'sparkling on their necks and arms, with bouquets and fans and other frivolous etcetera, still emanating the perfume and rich odours of the toilette; and with them were men in their sombre garments and starched courtliness, all huddled in their places in every attitude of frantic woe. Behind them stretched the "pit," filled with its crowd of commoner folk, mingled and inextricably involved in a chaos of heads and limbs and bodies, writhed'and knotted together into one great mass of dead men, dead women, and dead children, too. Overhead, tier above tier, rose the galleries, loaded with a ghastly freight of occupants, some of whose bodies hung forward across the front. And the orchestra and stage had also their grim array of horrors. The scenery was set to represent some ancient palace hall, and the stage was open to its furthest limit. Piled upon the boards in fantastic heaps were the bodies of numbers of ballet girls, whose spangled, thousand-hued and tinselled costumes, and all the gorgeous effects of spectacle and ballet, made infinitely more fearful that still and silent scene. Right in the centre and front of the stage there lay one corpse, still fair in death, with streaming hair and jewelled arms, with royal robes and diadem, the queen and sovereign of the pageant; and she — oh, mercy! had fallen prone upon the footlights. The dull, low flames had scorched and burned some of her drapery, and a sickening smoke, still rose from the spot where a once white and rounded bosom pressed down upon the jets, now charred and — oh, why was reason left me to remember these sights? I turned to hasten out once more into the only less terrible street, and as I moved I stumbled over the body of a man. He had passed for youthful, possibly, the night before, but death had lifted the mask that art had made, and I saw the wrinkled face beneath the cracking paint, the false teeth half ejected from the drawn lips in their last fearful gasp, the claw-like hands clutching desperately at the chair, and the whole false roundness of the form lost in a shrunken, huddled heap. Sickened almost to death at the horrors before me, like a drunken man I reeled out into the street again.
What boots it to recall the long succession of frightful sights I witnessed by the way? All up the Strand bodies lay thick as on some battle-field, save that never battle-field was so grimly terrible as this. Here was a part of the town that had been thronged with pleasure-seekers and with those who catered for them, when the crisis came. Cabs, carriages, and omnibuses were numerous here, some overturned in the struggle of their horses, some grouped together or standing singly in all directions, but all silent and motionless, with dead horses fallen from their shafts, with dead men and dead women upon and within them. Oh, appalling and doleful memory, why cannot I fly the remembrance? And bodies of men, of women, and even of children, gaily-dressed and ragged intermixed, were piled upon the pavements. Yes, there they lay, the old, the young, the rich, the poor ; of all ranks, and stations, and qualities, all huddled in one cold and hideous death; while open eyes, piteous faces, distorted limbs, and strange, unnatural attitudes, told the tremendous tale of that sudden midnight agony.
At length. I reached our home; I entered the house and descended to the basement where we dwelt. Impatiently and fearfully I opened the door and passed into the sitting-room. Yes, there they were. The fire was cold and gray, but the cat lay curled upon the rug in her accustomed place. In the armchair sat my mother, and beside her, on a stool, my sister, just as they often loved to sit, with arms embracing each other. Was it my voice that broke the horrid stillness of the room — so hoarse, so changed? "Mother! sister! darlings!" No answer. Nearer I went, treading slowly and tremblingly. Again my hoarse accents jarred the heavy air as I knelt and took my mother's hand. "Mother! sister awake! " Ah! God of mercy! The horrid truth came home tome at last. Dead! dead!!
* * * * *
Children, I can write no more. I am shaken unutterably shaken by these recollections. Much more I saw and knew, but, in pity's sake, press me not to tell you of it. And when you read elsewhere, or others tell you of THE DOOM of that GREAT CITY, think with tender sorrow of the awful load of memory that has so long been borne by YOUR GRANDFATHER.
"The rich, the poor, one common bed
Shall find in the unhonour'd grave
Where weeds shall crown alike the head
Of tyrant and of slave."
Spending a Penny in the Public Domain.
By Rab Christie.
Public Domain means we can all read it freely doesn’t it? It means something is free from copyright restrictions right? And if I want to read something from 1833 the chances are that I won’t fall foul of copyright. Think again. Not all public domain is equal and the laws of copyright are being adopted by those with an eye on the commercial game. Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising.
All I wanted to do was to read (and share with you) some articles on Printing from 1833. They were originally published by Charles Knight in his ‘Penny Magazine’ in 1833. The Penny Magazine ran from 1832 to 1845. It’s safe to assume Charles Knight is long dead. So we should be able to read his work freely? Think again.
Here’s the journey I took in trying to source these articles. It’s the journey you, or anyone else interested in the history of printing might have taken. Ordinary people, not academics. Because I’m sure that many ordinary people are as interested in the history of printing now as were then when the Penny Magazine was freshly off the presses (priced you’ll note ONE PENNY)
The preamble is that I actually found and read these articles some months ago – following a reference on Victorian Literature (as is my wont, heading off down some narrow byways. For me that’s one of the joys of reading, you can take little diversions and find some incredible things you never even dreamed of!) I found a student digitization project from 1995 where the articles were transcribed and made available in a number of formats online. Free. A student project. But any of us could read them. I noted down the link and in time for this month I clicked it. NO SIGN OF THE PROJECT.
Okay. Undeterred I used my internet search skills. Which means Googling of course. It’s public domain material, it shouldn’t be that hard to find, surely?
Google gave me several links – most of them to restricted sites. By that I mean you have to either pay to access content or you have to be part of an academic establishment. I’ll come back to this point.
What do we do when we hit a dead end online? Wikipedia of course. And there is an entry. With links. Here’s the gen:
Which suggests this is going to be a breeze. Except that the first two of the external links have been cut off leaving only the Internet Archive link available.
Where’s the problem?Click the link and access all the articles free online. Happy days. Except….
The problem is that there are huge square boxed chunks cut out of the text randomly. Forgive me, but as a reader, I do actually want to read the whole of something not to have to guess what’s in the cut out boxes!
If you don’t mind the boxes, you can read it online here https://archive.org/details/ThePennyMagazineOfTheSocietyForTheDiffusionOfUsefulKnowledge
Even having navigated through all this, they don’t seem to have (or I couldn’t find) the ‘supplemental’ editions in which the articles I actually wanted to read were. (Though I did find several very interesting pieces which, had I not had to guess what was in the big blank boxes, might have been satisfying)
Remember, we are looking for Charles Knight’s Commercial History of Printing. It’s nothing to set the heather alight. It’s not political or radical or even interesting to most people. Not important enough for anyone to have published in its own right in nearly 200 years (though it is quoted in quite a few books dealing with literature, publishing and history in other contexts.) I hate nothing more than not being able to get back to primary sources. Especially when I know they exist and I’m being blocked because I’m not part of the ‘pay to play’ or academic world.
The suggestion is, if you are an ordinary person, why would you even want to read a Penny Magazine from 200 years ago?
But why wouldn’t you? And if you do want to, why should you have to either pay for the privilege or be part of an academic establishment?
In a digitised world, why is this information not freely available. It has been digitized, but it is restricted by the copyright of those who have digitized it. That has to be wrong.
In the case of the Penny Magazine (and it is one of literally hundreds of such titles) you cannot freely access the information.
And I’m beginning to think that Google has rather more to do with this than I’d like.
Here are the ways you can get your hands on these articles:
There is quite a second hand trade in The Penny Magazine with copies at £5 per issue. (but I’ve not seen any for the 4 articles that make up The Commercial History of Printing)
You can join Ancestry.com and they will let you read them online. Or they suggest you might like to buy them from: Archive CD Books Ltd : Penny Magazine, 1832–1844. Gloucestershire,
Here’s the information on that: ‘Issues of The Penny Magazine printed between 1832 and 1844 are contained in this database. The weekly periodical was an illustrated publication aimed at a British working class audience and priced at one penny. Created for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge by Charles Knight the magazine was meant to provide means for those unable to receive formal teaching to educate themselves. The Society itself was backed by Lord Brougham who was a member of the Whig party and interested in liberal reform.
For the modern reader this collection of Penny Magazines provides a rich assortment of articles and illustrations about British culture and life at this time period. Each issue is packed with general-interest articles ranging in subject from animals and history to well-known places of England, sermons, and poetry. Though at first successful The Penny Magazine could not sustain its success due to competition and dependence on high circulation. The final issue was printed in 1844.
For the genealogist this collection yields insight into the worldview their ancestors may have had. Wood cut illustrations provide detailed pictures and portraits, personal stories are expressed through poetry and anecdotes, and thorough descriptions of locations where your ancestor may have lived are all accessible.’
(I took this from their site – breaching copyright or helping promote them? For me, you put something on the internet, you are happy for people to quote it! Forgive me if I’m wrong.)
My point from the sales blurb above is that the suggestion is that we might well be interested in reading volumes of The Penny Magazine but if you want to do so Archive CD books will charge you nearly $20 for each yearly volume. It’s a commercial venture of course and they are quite within their rights to do this, and I’m more than happy that people ‘add value’ to work. I also appreciate (I do enough of it) that the work of re-digitizing does take time and effort - but I’m afraid I’m not prepared to pay $20 for a CD copy of something that is in the public domain.
You can read some online for free from Google. They have been digitized by a variety of American institutions.
What you can’t do is download unless you are ‘a partner organisation.’ That’s pay to play folks. If we can read online, why can’t we just download a PDF? I suppose it’s all to do with people protecting what they see as their time/effort put into the digitizing. But I question whether that’s something we should be commercialising.
The waters here seem very muddy. And all tied up with definitions (and potential commercial gain) from public domain and copyright. Google explain their policy as follows:
Public Domain or Public Domain in the United States, Google-digitized: In addition to the terms for works that are in the Public Domain or in the Public Domain in the United States above, the following statement applies: The digital images and OCR of this work were produced by Google, Inc. (indicated by a watermark on each page in the PageTurner). Google requests that the images and OCR not be re-hosted, redistributed or used commercially. The images are provided for educational, scholarly, non-commercial purposes.
Note: There are no restrictions on use of text transcribed from the images, or paraphrased or translated using the images.
I suggest the note is because ultimately there is very little bite in the Google Digitized public domain position. They know that really everyone is free to do what they want. Transcriptions are okay. Really there are ‘no restrictions’ but they do want to protect their investment - the problem here is that this makes it well nigh impossible for the ordinary person to read a lot of public domain works (unless streamed online). I suggest that this is something we should resist.
Over the coming months we will (through diverse means) transcribe and republish The Commercial History of Publishing by Charles Knight. And in order not to upset any of the big boys, we’ll publish it online FREE with open access. That should comply with ‘non-commercial purposes.’ Bear with us. It will take a bit of time to source and transcribe.
One thing that we came across during this search was the following: Jeremy Norman’s History of Information. http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=3761
It’s well worth a look both in and outwith the context of Knight’s Penny Magazine. I don’t know who Jeremy Norman is, but marvel at the time and effort that’s been put into his website/s and ask yourself whether he or Google is doing the ordinary reader the better service?!
So – off you go – spend a penny – and happy internet hunting! Remember the public domain belongs to ALL OF US.
I’ve never been a fan of E.M.Forster, but over the years I’ve pondered from time to time (in idle moments) what the ‘Only Connect…’ which sits provocatively resplendent on the title page of my ancient Penguin copy of the novel means.
These days one can find answers at the click of a mouse and so I went online to see if I could get any joy. I discovered the full quote from Chapter 22 (I admit, I may have lost the will to live by that stage in reading the novel all those years ago) and here it is:
‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’
I certainly like the suggestion that ‘prose and passion’ should be exalted. I also like the invective to ‘live in fragments no longer.’ But I suspect the meaning I make from this quotation isn’t that close to the meaning Forster was intending to be derived from it.
One of the good things about a post post-modernist world, is that we are all free to have our own opinions on things and can make commentary (and argument for discussion) without fear of being plain ‘wrong.’ Of course the author’s intention may not be what I ‘read’ into the piece, but my ‘reading’ is also valid. Sometimes I am uplifted by this and sometimes I fear it’s the start of a slippery slope. However, taken all in all, I find that making meaning in the field of literature is something best undertaken with a degree of free spiritedness. Post-modernism may tend towards a nihilistic stance or suggest a level of ‘meaninglessness’ about fiction, but if you take it as part of a dialectic from thesis Modernism, antithesis Post-Modernism and synthesis post post Modernism (I don’t know another word for where we are – critical reflection maybe?) then it need not be so damning.
Further online research about ‘only connect’ suggests that Forster is talking about the connection of personal relationships. All well and good. But before I go much further, I shall point out that this article is not about Forster. And in so far as it is about ‘connections’ it is about my own interest in connections.
We are pattern-makers. Meaning-makers. We find patterns in any and everything and then we attribute meaning to them. But whether the meaning is personal or universal, that’s often debatable.
So here I am, about to start a series of explorations in which I find patterns and make meaning from them. And why I have to ditch Forster here, because this is about Scottish writers. I am going to explore two sets of ‘connections’ and in doing so I hope to say something interesting and different , perhaps thought provoking if not profound, about the history of Scottish literature. I also have, to some extent, to ditch my own dialectic. After all, I’m substantially looking at the period immediately preceding modernism – a period that is generally thought of as a ‘dark age’ in Scottish fiction. This in itself is false.
The fiction of the 1880’s through to the First World War (which is the period I shall concern myself with) is actually an incredibly rich and vibrant one. It is a time when publishing changed fundamentally (and I think for the better!) Authorship was no longer the province of the gentlemanly classes. It became a viable career. Reading was no longer the privilege of good breeding or high class, but became a mass pastime, with mass-market publications available for all classes and tastes. Of course, this presented something of a challenge to the established order. I submit that in the same way as the Romantic poets posed a fundamental challenge to the 18th century Enlightenment, so the writers of the fin de siècle (especially may I say the 1890s) offer a substantial slap in the face to the old way. Modernism was the rebound and the triumph in Scotland of modernism via the manufactured Scottish ‘Renaissance’ has cast a long shadow on too many of Scotland’s writers. It’s time to throw away the dark age perception and start to draw other patterns – make other meanings. And that’s what I’m going to do in the next few months.
I shall start by posing you a question. What connects the following authors? Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, S.R.Crockett, J.M.Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle and John Buchan? You may come up with many answers. The one I’m looking for (and at) is their Edinburgh Connection.
Let me explain the link: Robert Burns had his poetry published as ‘The Edinburgh Edition’ ( in 1787 ) and Robert Burns met Walter Scott around that time. Walter Scott was a boy of 15. Walter Scott attended Edinburgh University (in 1783) as did Robert Louis Stevenson (1871) S.R.Crockett (1876) J.M.Barrie (1876) and Arthur Conan Doyle (1876). John Buchan was Chancellor of Edinburgh University (1937-40).
So one area of interest, at least for me, is ‘The Edinburgh Boys’ – particularly the class of ’76. Within this subset (and including RLS and John Buchan) I see another connection. That of being blighted by bestsellers.
Stevenson is best known for ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Kidnapped,’ often dismissed as children’s novels; Crockett for ‘The Raiders,’ ‘The Lilac Sunbonnet’ and ‘The Stickit Minister’, damned as ‘Kailyard.’ J.M.Barrie is hog-tied by ‘Peter Pan,’ Conan Doyle couldn’t kill off ‘Sherlock Holmes’ quickly enough and John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ dogged him for his entire publishing life. In each case the books were bestsellers and brought wealth and fame for their respective writers. But in no case are these the apogee of the writer’s talent or ambition. This suggests to me that there is some mileage in considering the double edged sword of publishing success.
So over the next few months I’m going on a journey, to explore some of these connections and I hope you’ll come with me. We might all learn something.
This is just a brief heads-up. Why not reconnect with some of these writers – especially some of their lesser known work – in advance of the series commencing for real next month? You can obtain all their work in digital format these days. Let’s start a new revolution and get reading the ‘forgotten Scots from the dark ages!’
Stevenson, Barrie, Conan Doyle and Buchan’s ‘Complete Works’ are all available as ebooks from Delphi www.delphiclassics.com and well worth the £3 a pop that the ‘parts’ editions cost.
For Crockett the place to go is The Galloway Raiders and/or the ‘unco’ store. There is as yet no ‘Complete Crockett’ and many of the works you can find online as digit al downloads are poorly scanned documents, but Ayton Publishing Ltd are in the process of bringing his work back into print. You can get about half of his oeuvre via The Galloway Raiders in paperback and ebook formats. www.thegallowayraiders.co.uk is the place to start your quest.
Or if you know which book you’re looking for go direct to http://www.unco.scot/store/c26/S.R.Crockett.html
There’s plenty there to get you started.
And if you really can’t splash the cash – why not see what your local library has in stock. Venture beyond the current bestsellers list and start exploring bestsellers of a byegone era. You may be pleasantly surprised.
It’s time to join the reading revolution! See you next month for Part One of ‘The Edinburgh Boys: Class of ‘76’
This month’s Gateway online features James Leatham’s classic pamphlet, ‘Factors of Civilization’. This is a very thought provoking pamphlet – and I’d recommend reading it all (even the bits you disagree with!) Indeed some paragraphs had me getting very hot under the collar (The Doric especially) and calling Leatham for a turncoat – until I read to the end of the paragraph and realised he has a point!
That’s the great thing about Leatham, because he is writing and publishing ‘without fear or favour’ he can say controversial things and challenge us to engage with them. There’s a good deal of sense in what he says and as he points out in his patriotism – perhaps if we don’t like the way things are, it’s up to us to do something to change that!
If you also read Leatham’s cultural offering this month ‘John Barbour: Father of English Poetry’ I am fairly sure you will not come through without feeling Leatham abounds in contradiction. Think a bit more deeply and you may find that contradiction lies within yourself. It is, I suggest, part of the human condition.
It should go without saying (for fear of being accused of contradiction) I have ‘issues’ with Leatham saying things like:
‘All good literature would die if people of taste and enthusiasm did not keep quoting and praising the masters of it. The public really prefers skimble-skamble stuff, provided it be new.’
Yet there is part of this I agree with. Take out the ‘good’ and lose the final sentence and I have less problem. Really he’s saying ‘praise what is worthy as a means of keeping it alive.’ That’s not quite so bad (though we do have to agree on what ‘worthy’ means. In its entirety the quotation seems like a really classist statement to me – I either have to think that Leatham was in fact a cultural snob – or perhaps I need to understand history better.
Perhaps the context in which this was written and the context in which I receive it are not just worlds away but almost incompatible, or inconceivably different. The lines of communication are definitely flawed in some respect. But that does not, in my opinion, mean one should dismiss either this statement, or its place in the entirety of its essay.
For a start, taking things out of context – which most quoting does – is a tricky game. The soundbite is not reliable. And reading an essay is a skill, which requires a level of concentration and an active engagement (including disagreeing) with the argument put forward. We should not be afraid of that or shy away from it. We should not dismiss someone’s argument because there are bits we don’t like. Or even damn it completely because we see contradictions. No one is in a position of full knowledge and therefore our most deeply held convictions are always open to charges of weakness, often contradiction, when viewed from a different perspective. The important thing, surely, is the creative communicative act that occurs when reading – finding out how another person sees the world – even, and perhaps especially when this challenges your world view – is a valuable part of life in general and reading in particular.
Which brings me on to the central point of this month’s editorial. Freedom (and fairness) of publishing. Not freedom of the press per se, but of the act of publishing. The ubiquitous cliché ‘publish and be damned’ is no longer worth the consideration it has been given. For me, as for Leatham, I choose a new stance and it is ‘publishing is an adventure.’
We are, in case you hadn’t noticed it, living in the middle of a publishing revolution. It used to be said that everyone has a novel (or book) in them. Now everyone, with minimal skill, effort can publish that book at virtually no financial cost. Whether this is a good thing or not is a very complex issue.
The freedom to publish allows creativity to flourish. It also potentially drowns us in poor quality reading material. I could direct you to the Orraman’s article last month on reading (or not) Sir Walter Scott, to start dealing with the thorny question of what is ‘good’ in relation to reading matter.
For me, publishing has been about profit and product for far too long. I believe it should be about choice and creativity. I do not intend to bang on about the bad state of ‘traditional’ publishing – life is too short – and it simply diverts from my central premise.
I am more interested in discussing what level of awareness there is (or isn’t) amongst the general reader about things such as the ‘bestseller’ culture? Most people I speak to are woefully unaware of the ‘pay to play’ aspect to publishing. Most people are woefully ignorant of publishing at all when it comes down to it. For the most part they don’t care where their reading material comes from – who made it (even who wrote it) and who brings it to the bookshelf. All most people seem to care about is ‘is it good.’ And by this they mean ‘is it popular’ and by this they mean ‘will people laugh/scorn/denigrate/stigmatise me if I say I like this.’
I ask: Was the genie let out of the bottle with Fifty Shades? Is this the kind of book we have all secretly been wishing for our whole lives? Or was it the mother of all marketing campaigns. Yes, forgive me, in the world of capitalism, the altruist becomes a cynic.
I further suggest that readers need to open their mind not just to what they consume but where they find what they consume, and they need to question whether they are really making choices or are being ‘sold’ to.
It’s a classic freewill/ determinism dilemma. We all want to believe that we are making choices in our reading matter – but we tie our identity (especially our social identity) up with being acceptable to our group. If that ‘tribe’ is aspirational then we want to read ‘literary fiction’ and nothing but ‘literary fiction’ will do.
Highbrow readers do not want to read ‘popular’ fiction – but in fact what the marketeers have achieved is making a range of ‘populars.’ The popular is no more than the group acceptability factor made concrete. If all your friends like something you like it too. If that is a police procedural, or a cosy crime, or chic lit all well and good. It’s fashion folks. And it’s fast fashion. These days one season we are being sold sado-masochistic erotica and the next season it will be bodice ripper historical. Now fantasy, now sci-fi. Genre is king in the publishing hierarchy. You’ve got to be able to pigeonhole your book in order that you can create your cult of readers. In the modern world, of course, mutating genre and creating transgenre genres is also all the rage. But the key commonality is that all these are ‘created’ – and not by the author. They are branding exercises. And while branding may be a creative endeavour, it’s not the kind of creativity I’m interested in. Branded fiction is all the rage - don’t get me started on ‘celebrity’ fiction.
So where are we with all this? My point is simply that it’s time to wake up and realise that the profiteer publishers are selling to you, not offering you a free choice. And it’s been going on so long that people are losing the ability to make a choice.
The choices we think we have are: – shall we read it as hardback (showing our high status) paperback or ebook? Will we pay £20 or £10 or Free, or will we even find our books in the library? Will we get our fiction from the charity shops, or from Amazon online? But these are essentially choices of delivery platform. Surely more important is WHAT we are reading and what choice we have in the whole affair.
Active choice means engagement. In modern publishing this means navigating many shark infested waters. Whose recommendation can you take at face value? Reviews of ‘indie’ writers books by other ‘indie’ writers (who we assume may also be readers) are often denigrated and indeed the whole ‘indie’ movement is subject to the cry: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. It’s a cry issued by the gatekeepers and those with a vested interest in reducing YOUR choice.
For me, if there is vanity in publishing it is in publishing something that is not worth reading. But what is not worth reading?
In actuality, perhaps the vanity from the perspective of a writer is in thinking that you can make a living as an author. That you ‘deserve’ to make a living as an author. That what you have to say is interesting enough or important enough for the whole world to want to read. Or worse still, the belief that the whole world NEEDS to read what you write. But this vanity is embedded into the aspirational capitalist nature of our society. It’s what keeps the wheels of industry (and publishing) turning – but it is not the best friend of the reader.
Traditional mainstream publishing is a very small fish pond. Or perhaps better viewed as the top of a pyramid structure. The ‘lucky’ or privileged few get to publish ‘properly’ with the endorsement of the elite power structure and the rest are only expected to engage by reading the work of the elite.
Well, if we peasants start revolting they have other ways to get our money off us. They may help us to spend our money publishing ourselves, and they’ll take our money off us to market ourselves – but we are swimming against a very big tide. We are low down in the pyramid structure – and they keep us waiting to throw a six to get onto the snakes and ladders board of life.
Publishing success lies in finding the people who want to read what you write. But for all too long this has been mediated by the elite. And they are not going to let their grip go easily. This is the real crux of the dilemma at the heart of ‘the publishing revolution.’
And I can’t help but think that we should be focussing on other issues in this publishing revolution of course. Perhaps we should be looking at both environmental and cultural issues.
There is a strong environmental argument for Print on Demand technology for one thing. And for digital content. We all know that the ‘ereaders’ and ‘technology’ carries its own environmental ‘footprint’ but this is not a good argument to maintain an outmoded method of printing which sees thousands of books pulped and remaindered just so that in the first instance they can be printed ‘for peanuts.’ There is a third way. Print on Demand offers the best practice example of publishing. But it is being hijacked by unscrupulous pseudo publishers who are offering ‘reprints’ at over inflated prices, which are essentially just photocopies (usually poor ones) slapped between covers. And this poor quality threatens the progress of the genuine opportunities offered to authors and publishers by the true Print on Demand model. Digital publishing is the future, in all its formats, but it offers a great threat to the traditional models of publishing. For that reason alone we should embrace it. But not be fooled. eBooks should not cost £5 and they certainly shouldn’t cost £50 as I saw one academic publication priced recently. The pricing wars in ebook publishing are simply reflective of the traditional powerhouses trying to undermine the freedom of the masses. The costs of producing ebooks (especially where a print book exists) are minimal. The potential profits are huge. The traditional mainstream publishers still have to work out how best to maximise this profit – and we as customer are very vulnerable at the moment. We are guinea pigs in the market.
Consider the costs of printing: (The article on Spending a Penny is worth a look in this regard) Printing 1 book is expensive. Printing 10 equally so. Printing 100 still makes the cost too high for ‘the market’ to bear. Print 1000 and you are starting to see a profit on a book of £8.99. Print 10,000 and you can push your book out into all the stores at £3.99. But is a £3.99 book better than an £8.99 book? In any way. And simply being able to produce many books cheaply irrespective of the environmental wastage of this model must be considered as unsustainable. Again, there is a whole other article on this, so I won’t go into it in depth just now. Suffice it to say: there is no fair trade in books.
Publishing has not been about the creator (or one might suggest the consumer) but about profit for the market driven capitalists. Yet writing is a creative act. Publishing has been and sadly all too often remains the commercialisation of that creativity. In a capitalist model, exploitation is bound to follow. What about a non-exploitative publishing? What is the possibility of considering non-commercial creativity as a success? Is this plain madness? It’s another issue to consider – again beyond the boundaries of this article. I’m just trying to make you start thinking – start questioning – start making choices.
We do well to remember that what is important in books is the CONTENT and that the ‘delivery platform’ is less so. These days we can take 1000s of books with us wherever we go on a device which weighs less than any paperback. Indeed, we can actually take 10,000 books with us on a micro SD card (you just need to find a place to ‘plug and play’ and that is all an ereader or tablet is – a plug and play device). As technology improves maybe soon we’ll just carry our media ‘libraries’ with us on portable flash drives and plug into whatever techno- receptor is available wherever we are. Hardware and software companies, like the publishers, are fighting to maintain their control and their profit-driven businesses in the face of a revolution many of us are not even aware we are part of.
It’s happened with music. It’s happening with video. And like it or not, books are just another option in the plug and play world. They’re not always the sexiest option -perhaps that’s why erotica is being marketed heavily these days – the marketeers are desperate to keep books sexy! Some of us might just see through that. There are, believe it or not, other reasons to read.
We are really lucky in the early 21st century because we have access to the most incredibly diverse range of reading material in the history of history. We are cursed because we have forgotten how to make active choices. While we prefer spoon feeding, or need to look over our shoulder as to whether our choices make us socially acceptable, we are more impoverished than the illiterate peasant of earlier times. Access isn’t everything. Low price isn’t everything.
Even if we have the ability to make an informed choice about what we read, the bookmarks are stacked against us. Unless you start from the position that the books you REALLY want to read may well be invisible and you are going to have to hunt them down, then you will never reach your potential as a 21st century reader. You can be one of the beautiful people. You might be one of the rich, or successful or intellectual or cultured elite. But you are living in poverty all the same.
Poverty of creative expression is a real issue. Which is why I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to publish, to do so. There are many reasons for publishing and the vanity is in the reason for writing, not in the writing itself.
Reading and writing have become slaves of capitalism and commerce. That is simply a fact. And the real publishing revolution lies in freeing books and their readers (in whatever format) from the shackles of ‘good’ and ‘bestselling’ and taking them into the world of creativity and choice.
In conclusion I have no more to say than that I believe reading the articles in this month’s Gateway are a step in the right direction towards opening the mind, challenging one’s beliefs and at times prejudices, and embarking on a more active, choice-driven pattern of reading. And it won’t have cost you a penny. The profit is all yours.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.