THE STICKIT MINISTER
From The Stickit Minister and other common men (1893) S.R. Crockett
The crows were wheeling behind the plough in scattering clusters, and plumping singly upon the soft, thick grubs which the ploughshare was turning out upon an unkindly world. It was a bask blowy day in the end of March, and there was a hint of storm in the air—a hint emphasised for those skilled in weather lore by the presence of half a dozen sea-gulls, white vagrants among the black coats, blown by the south wind up from the Solway—a snell, Scotch, but not unfriendly day altogether. Robert Fraser bent to the plough handles, and cast a keen and wary eye towards his guide posts on the ridge. His face was colourless, even when a dash of rain came swirling across from the crest of Ben Gairn, whose steep bulk heaved itself a blue haystack above the level horizon of the moorland. He was dressed like any other ploughman of the south uplands— rough homespun much the worse for wear, and leggings the colour of the red soil which he was reversing with the share of his plough. Yet there was that about Robert Fraser which marked him no common man. When he paused at the top of the ascent, and stood with his back against the horns of the plough, the countryman's legacy from Adam of the Mattock, he pushed back his weatherbeaten straw hat with a characteristic gesture, and showed a white forehead with blue veins channelling it—a damp, heavy lock of black hair clinging to it as in Severn's picture of John Keats on his deathbed. Robert Fraser saw a couple of black specks which moved smoothly and evenly along the top of the distant dyke of the highway. He stood still for a moment or two watching them. As they came nearer, they resolved themselves into a smart young man sitting in a well-equipped gig drawn by a showily-actioned horse, and driven by a man in livery. As they passed rapidly along the road the hand of the young man appeared in a careless wave of recognition over the stone dyke, and Robert Fraser lifted his slack reins in staid acknowledgment. It was more than a year since the brothers had looked each other so nearly in the eyes. They were Dr. Henry Fraser, the rising physician of Cairn Edward, and his elder brother Robert, once Student of Divinity at Edinburgh College, whom three parishes knew as 'The Stickit Minister.'
When Robert Fraser stabled his horses that night and went in to his supper, he was not surprised to find his friend, Saunders M'Quhirr of Drumquhat, sitting by the peat fire in the room. Almost the only thing which distinguished the Stickit Minister from the other small farmers of the parish of Dullarg was the fact that he always sat in the evening by himself ben the hoose, and did not use the kitchen in common with his housekeeper and herd boy, save only at meal-times. Robert had taken to Saunders ever since—the back of his ambition broken—he had settled down to the farm, and he welcomed him with shy cordiality.
'You'll take a cup of tea, Saunders?' he asked.
'Thank ye, Robert, I wadna be waur o't,' returned his friend.
I saw your brither the day,' said Saunders M'Quhirr, after the tea-cups had been cleared away, and the silent housekeeper had replaced the books upon the table. Saunders picked a couple of them up, and, having adjusted his glasses, he read the titles— Milton’s Works, and a volume of a translation of Dorner's Person of Christ.
'I saw yer brither the day; he maun be gettin' a big practice!'
'Ay!’ said Robert Fraser, very thoughtfully.
Saunders M'Quhirr glanced up quickly. It was, of course, natural that the unsuccessful elder brother should envy the prosperous younger, but he had thought that Robert Fraser was living on a different plane. It was one of the few things that the friends had never spoken of, though every one knew why Dr. Fraser did not visit his brother's little farm. 'He's gettin' in wi' the big fowk noo, an' thinks maybe that his brither wad do him nae credit.' That was the way the clash of the countryside explained the matter.
‘I never told you how I came to leave the college, Saunders,' said the younger man, resting his brow on a hand that even the horn of the plough could not make other than diaphanous.
'No,' said Saunders quietly, with a tender gleam coming into the humorsome kindly eyes that lurked under their bushy tussocks of grey eyebrow. Saunders's humour lay near the Fountain of Tears.
'No,' continued Robert Fraser, 'I have not spoken of it to so many; but you've been a good frien' to me, Saunders, and I think you should hear it. I have not tried to set myself right with folks in the general, but I would like to let you see clearly before I go my ways to Him who seeeth from the beginning.'
'Hear till him,' said Saunders, 'man, yer hoast is no' near as sair as it was i' the back-end. Ye'll be here lang efter me; but lang or short, weel do ye ken, Robert Fraser, that ye need not to pit yersel' richt wi' me. Hae I no' kenned ye sins ye war the size o' twa scrubbers?'
'I thank you, Saunders,' said Robert, 'but I am well aware that I'm to die this year. No, no, not a word. It is the Lord's will! It's mair than seven year now since I first kenned that my days were to be few. It was the year my faither died, and left Harry and me by our lane.
'He left no siller to speak of, just plenty to lay him decently in the kirkyard among his forebears. I had been a year at the Divinity Hall then, and was going up to put in my discourses for the next session. I had been troubled with my breast for some time, and so called one day at the infirmary to get a word with Sir James. He was very busy when I went in, and never noticed me till the hoast took me. Then on a sudden he looked up from his papers, came quickly over to me, put his own white handkerchief to my mouth, and quietly said, ‘Come into my room, laddie!’
Ay, he was a good man and a faithful, Sir James, if ever there was one. He told me that with care I might live five or six years, but it would need great care. Then a strange prickly coldness came over me, and I seemed to walk light-headed in an atmosphere suddenly rarefied. I think I know now how the mouse feels under the air-pump.'
'What's that?’ queried Saunders.
'A cruel ploy not worth speaking of,' continued the Stickit Minister. 'Well, I found something in my throat when I tried to thank him. But I came my ways home to the Dullarg, and night and day I considered what was to be done, with so much to do and so little time to do it. It was clear that both Harry and me could not gang through the college on the little my faither had left. So late one night I saw my way clear to what I should do. Harry must go, I must stay. I must come home to the farm, and be my own ‘man’, then I could send Harry to the college to be a doctor, for he had no call to the ministry as once I thought I had. More than that, it was laid on me to tell Jessie Loudon that Robert Fraser was no better than a machine set to go five year.
'Now all these things I did, Saunders, but there's no use telling you what they cost in the doing. They were right to do, and they were done. I do not repent any of them. I would do them all over again were they to do, but it's been bitterer than I thought.'
The Stickit Minister took his head off his hand and leaned wearily back in his chair.
'The story went over the country that I had failed in my examinations, and I never said that I had not. But there were some that knew better who might have contradicted the report if they had liked. I settled down to the farm, and I put Harry through the college, sending all but a bare living to him in Edinburgh. I worked the work of the farm, rain and shine, ever since, and have been for these six years the ‘stickit minister’ that all the world kens the day. Whiles Harry did not think that he got enough. He was always writing for more, and not so very pleased when he did not get it. He was aye different to me, ye ken, Saunders, and he canna be judged by the same standard as you and me.'
'I ken,' said Saunders M'Quhirr, a spark of light lying in the quiet of his eyes.
'Well,' continued Robert Fraser, lightened by Saunders's apparent agreement, 'the time came when he was clear from the college, and wanted a practice. He had been ill-advised that he had not got his share of the farm, and he wanted it selled to share and share alike. Now I kenned, and you ken, Saunders, that it's no' worth much in one share let alone two. So I got the place quietly bonded, and bought him old Dr. Aitkin's practice in Cairn Edward with the money...'
'I have tried to do my best for the lad, for it was laid on me to be my brother's keeper. He doesna come here much,' continued Robert, 'but I think he's not so ill against me as he was. Saunders, he waved his hand to me when he was gaun by the day!’
'That was kind of him,' said Saunders M'Quhirr.
'Ay, was it no',' said the Stickit Minister, eagerly, with a soft look in his eyes as he glanced up at his brother's portrait in cap and gown, which hung over the china dogs on the mantelpiece.
'I got my notice this morning that the bond is to be called up in November,' said Robert. 'So I'll be obliged to flit.'
Saunders M'Quhirr started to his feet in a moment. 'Never,' he said, with the spark of fire alive now in his eyes, 'never as lang as there's a beast on Drumquhat, or a poun' in Cairn Edward Bank '—bringing down his clenched fist upon the Milton on the table.
'No, Saunders, no,' said the Stickit Minister, very gently; 'I thank you kindly, but I'll be flitted before that… '
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The Future of the Party – More Pioneers
We sing ‘England, arise!’ But do we always mean it?
By the dark cities where your babes are creeping,
Naked of joy and all that makes life dear…
From each wretched slum
Let the loud cry come,
England is risen, and the day is here.
I am dealing with Glasgow as typifying commercialism at its worst but with the true sociological purpose of showing that evil has generated its own cure. Glasgow has risen. Even its card-sharpers quote the language of political economy, and urge that the gains of their nefarious practices in railway carriages represent ‘the rent of ability.’
Crooks have, indeed, in days gone by had somewhat of a look-in in connection with the Labour movement in Glasgow. Apart from free-lance adventurers who never had the backing of the Labour movement, there have been times in Glasgow when ‘the trade’ financed official Labour candidatures – for its own end. It got nothing; its support was withdrawn; and now Labour is paying for its politics, and stands to get much more satisfaction out of the support it gives to it politicians than ever it had from the publicans and football players who got (and get) so much of its money.
In these notes I am keeping clear of the adventurers and the men who were politicians first, last and all time – yea, even when an election was on, and the word Socialism was doing but occasional service as a party shibboleth. Casting the memory back over the past thirty years of the public life of Glasgow, one recalls many meteors that have flashed across the horizon, and have long since sputtered out. With these I have no concern.
Someone (John Morley I think) has said: ‘It is only the very great and good who have any faith in the simplest axioms; and there are few who are so lucky as to feel that 19 and 13 make 32 as certainly as 2 and 2 make 4.’
But the Collectivist solution of the world’s troubles is not at all difficult to understand. Indeed, it is so simple and irresistible that one has a difficulty in understanding how all the notable people who have adopted it of late did not adopt it as soon as they came to years of discretion. It was obvious to me forty years ago, at the age of seventeen; and that certain members of the Labour Party, now very active, were equally active against it only a few years ago, casts discredit either upon their mental or their moral make-up. ‘Go hang thyself, good Crillon,’ said Henry of Navarre. ‘We fought at Arques and you were not there.’
The proposition that Society can do whatever the individual can do is as self-evident in human relationships as the proposition that the whole is greater than the part is in mathematics. Society could not write the play of ‘Hamlet’ or the music of ‘Pinafore’; but it can command the services of the best contemporary genius and talent within the realm.
The cardinal principle of Socialism is that there is no function discharged by the landlord or capitalist that cannot be much more efficiently performed by the organised community. This is no mere assertion; the thing has been done. It is regularly done in time of war, and it could be done in time of peace. Indeed, it is done in time of peace. All the great undertakings are left to the State as a matter of course. When the banks threaten to put up the shutters the State comes to the rescue with its credit. The Panama Canal, the draining of the Zuyder Zee, the making of the Sudan railway through many miles of hostile country, the conduct of the Great War – all are left to the State. When a private company cannot finish its Ship Canal, and has spent all its capital, the corporation comes to the rescue with public money and finishes the job.
It is half a century since Frederic Harrison advised us to ‘Look to the State,’ and when Edward Bellamy’s great creation ‘Looking Backward’ appeared, Harrison acclaimed it as embodying a social system to which we were undoubtedly tending. And he welcomed it. This was in the eighties.
It was all so obvious then that a man had only to be in earnest about politics, free of a vested interest in the maintenance of muddlement, and willing to live and let live, in order to adopt it.
And so I prefer to tell of the humbly placed men who ‘saw the cat’ thirty or more years ago rather than the men who have come in because Socialism looks like winning. We do not suggest, as Henri Quatre did to Crillon, that they should go and hang themselves because they did not lend a hand when help was most needed; but we do ask them to consider well whether their timidity and their distrust of liberty and right is not making them hang back even now from the true implications of the Socialist principle. In view of current events and tendencies, the advice is far from superfluous.
The new Parliamentary party will have to make up its mind for the application of its principles constructively, and above all, will have to get ready for their application by much study, thinking, discussion, and planning, of which one sees little sign at present.
Reading the Socialist Review month by month, one would expect to see the questions of the future discussed there if anywhere. Can capitalism carry on? If so, how! And how long? Should Socialists try to help in the re-opening of foreign markets, or should they frankly admit that the game of capitalist civilization is up, and advocate the adoption of Collectivist principles now? If the Labour Party were returned to power on the not improbable early collapse of the present government, what would it do? The matter has not been discussed.
If France persist in her policy in the Ruhr, what remedy have we short of the unthinkable arbitrament of war? And if the policy of wrecking Germany is persisted in, what hope is there of the continuation of commercialism with our best markets gone?
Instead of such questions as these being discussed, all the concern of the editor of the Review (who is also leader of the Labour Party in Parliament) is about electioneering and the chances of Liberal reunion.
Turn to Mr Ramsay MacDonald’s books, and there is the same haziness about what the party would do in the way of reconstruction. One lends ‘Socialism and Society’ by request, to a keenly intelligent man of goodwill, and he hands it back with the puzzled comment ‘I cannot make out what he would be at.’ In MacDonald’s ‘Socialism and Government’ there is not a single reference to the all important role of the municipality and local governing bodies in general. I reviewed the book at great length years ago, and Mr MacDonald promised to reply; but he never did.
On the other hand, he admitted privately the rightness of my strictures on certain points, including this neglect of the great truth embodied in De Tocqueville’s dictum that ‘It is in the Commune that the force of a free people resides.’
That is to say, in the domain of local government. Having no practical or technical training, Mr MacDonald has, unfortunately, no discoverable constructive bent – a fact of which there are many disappointing proofs.
I am not disloyal, and I have no personal political ambition whatever. I advocated Socialism by voice and pen for years before MacDonald cut his connection with the Liberal Party. But his party will have to take him in hand, and I am leading the way, as I have always been apt to do.
And let me suggest, on a minor matter, that Mr MacDonald should try to curb his fondness for metaphors that are always second-hand and never particularly felicitous. The Archangel Gabriel, sowing dragon’s teeth, and getting into the ( ) have all done duty of recent weeks, and on the other hand one who looks in vain for specific detail as to the future.
Speaking to the Aldwych Club of rich men, he denounced ‘Ca’canny’ and Bolshevism, but said nothing of matter that ought to have proved of more interest to his hearers and the public, such as the advantages to everybody of nationalising the railways and the mines, about which one reckons the nabobs would have expected to hear. These would be the two first jobs we should expect a Labour Government to tackle. There is ‘Ca’ canny’ and sabotage and Bolshevism among the rich as well as among workmen, and he was addressing a rich man’s gathering.
I get back with great goodwill to my humble heroes who were Socialist first and politicians a long way afterwards. It will be part of my plan to discuss the future of Glasgow in a chapter all to itself. The question has already emerged in a Trades Council resolution which is all in favour of retaining the capital system – on international grounds, if you please.
One of the steadiest, most resolute of the early Glasgow Socialists was Willie Nairn, who, although a labouring man, was for years a very shrewd and keen, regular correspondent of Justice. Hi pen-name was Sandy Macfarlane; he was an S.D.F.er; but, although resolute and stalwart, not narrow. He took the chair for me once, much to my surprise, at an Albion Hall meeting for a lecture, ‘What is the Good of Empire?’ delivered during the South African War. I can recall even now the pleasure I had in his stern approval of the lecture as ‘economically, politically and morally sound and in strict accordance with Socialist principles.’ The boys said it was a great compliment from Nairn, and this, not so much because he was a stickler for orthodoxy, though he was that, as because he was an undemonstrative man whose approval, when given, counted for all the more. Nairn is long dead, and had a Socialist funeral by his own request.
William Nairn conveyed such an impression of integrity that he was once taken to task by a Glasgow policeman haling, like Willie, from the north country, as to why he, a respectable man, should consort with a lot of Fenians.
To this Willie demurred. They were not all Irish. There was Hob Hutchison. Well, where did he come from? Stranraer. Wasn’t that near enough? Then there was Pat Curren: he was Irish certainly. Then there was Doyle, yes, he was Irish too. But there was Stewart ‘who comes’ said Nairn ‘from about the same place as ourselves’ ‘Does he?’ said the bobby indignantly. ‘I don’t care what you say. If he comes from the north he must have risen left shin by some Irish hairs han’.’
One of the earliest warriors I noticed about the S.D.F. meetings in Glasgow was John Turley. John was a cabinet maker earning fairly good wages, and a steady man; but, in case he should be accused of respectability, he would not dress or even shave for Sunday. He shaved before going to work on Monday, and my recollection of him is that he wore a red muffler, and had a strongish growth on his chin always at week-ends. Turley had two stereotyped questions which he put at lectures.
John Toole was an Irish hammerman, who, after the manner of his race, had a real grievance. He use to put it in this way:
I have no grievance against being born into this world to live in penury and labour for the benefit of others. Some people might find it unpleasant to do that because they are uneducated and have no better idea of what life ought to be. But the great grievance I have against the capital class is that, instead of leaving me in my ignorance and misery, they have educated me so that I should be more able to appreciate my abject position in this hell upon earth. That is my grievance against capitalism.’
These two last ‘cards’ appear in rather a bitter vein; but there were quiet humours as well. One man, a Clyde deportee who had a stutter, once said at a business meeting;
I b-beg to p-p-propose David McLean as a member of this branch. He m-might not know much about M-Marxian ec-economics; he is a damned good man at a p-pro-Boer meetin’!’
A well known figure in the movement of the nineties was Bailie George Mitchll, who managed a reform bookshop and printing business. George was a quiet-spoken, canny going man whose health was not robust. In the old days of horse traction he visited the tramway stables one day and was promptly accosted by a strapper as to what his business there. George said he was a councillor and had a right to be there; but two men set upon him and bundled him out. They got carpeted for it afterwards, and many said it was unfair, as George ‘did not look the part.’
Another time, when he had become a magistrate, he was about to enter the magistrates’ room behind the bench on the day of a licensing court. In order to prevent solicitation of the magistrates, a policeman was on duty inside the door of the room. As George proceeded to enter, the policeman asked what he wanted. ‘I’m a magistrate,’ said George. ‘So am I,’ said the policeman sarcastically, and proceeded to close the door on Geordie’s neck. The altercation attracted the notice of Bailie P.G.Stewart, who was already in the room, and who did look the character, and poor Mitchell was allowed to enter, with apologies from the policeman.
It is depressing to think how many of these men are long since dead, at comparatively early ages; but that is the price men pay for living in large cities. Returning to Manchester after an absence of eleven years, I met an old acquaintance. Inquiring as to men who had been our contemporaries, and mostly men in the thirties and early forties, one was greeted time after time with the answer ‘Dead!’ ‘Dead!’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘Oh, he’s dead too.’ I had never till then adequately realised what a toll of life the city takes.
There were many bright spirits, jovial companions, good speakers and disinterested workers in Glasgow then, such as George Neil, an ex-army sergeant, Scots draper, poet and singer; Robb, the Burgoynes, Pollock and others whom one cannot specially single out because they were just normal good fellows.
But there was a speciality about Camlachie Dickson. A Fifeshire farm hand, he had emigrated for a time to America. Lecturing on ‘The Mississipi Valley in Relation to International Socialism’ Dickson took about three-quarters of an hour to get from Fifeshire to the boat at Glasgow. The bad cheese and margarine on board were exhaustively condemned and he had spent an hour and a half talking before he at last got to work, ploughing, in the Mississipi Valley. He was parading up and down the platform ploughing, the stilts in his hands, in imagination, when the big rough voice of Jock Bain bawled, ‘Half-time Dickson!’
Such are some of the rank and file who did the propagandist work in the early days before Socialism became Labourism. There was much character among them. They were quite disinterested. To them Socialism was a religion, not a career. They got their hands gown for the expenses of the work. They kept the door open for lecturers, and they scattered literature through various agencies. It is in such ways that movements are maintained till better times come, always provided there is a good idea behind them.
A Socialist Official.
In a niche all by himself stood James Thomson, Superintendent of the Corporation Baths and Washhouses. A descendent of the poet Burns, Mr Thomson himself was full of picturesque prose, full of ingenious, original ideas, which were printed mostly in Justice over the signature of Dan Baxter, but sometimes in official reports on the work of his own department, in which he was enthusiastic. Personally he was always the cheeriest and most amiable of mortals, and his official superiors gave him much of his own enlightened, benevolent way.
Part Six next Month
From Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’ to ‘illiterate peasants’ we are used to the notion that education is a guard against ignorance. Perhaps the more apposite pithy statement though is:
Knowledge is power.
And received wisdom (I suggest) is that those who do not ‘understand’ or ‘appreciate’ ‘great literature’ are ignorant. But who determines ‘great’ or even ‘good’ literature?
In Scotland, for example, The ‘Scottish Renaissance’ laid down the law (basically) that modernism was the way to go and anything that didn’t fit into a ‘canon’ developed pretty much by a bunch of 1920s poets wasn’t fit for purpose. [Obviously I’m generalising, simplifying and provoking in this statement but think about it please!]
In early 21st century Scotland I suggest we have an urban centric, academic elite (who deny they are such) who dictate what is ‘good’ and what being ‘educated’ means.
My problem is that often those urban folk are ignorant of the rural landscape and culture. Thus they misidentify it or misinterpret it.
This is part of a general problem framed as a question thus:
What are we to make of those intellectuals or academics who know all about x but can only interpret y in terms of x even when it is inappropriate?
This question brings me back to one of my favourite conundrums: What is ‘good’ writing?
[We could just as well substitute well educated for good]
The statement is:
Good writing = x
(where x means ‘obeys the rules and shows the marks of all that we bring together under the set (or label) x’)
Writing outside of this set or label (we shall call it y, but it could be z or a or any other sort of thing) cannot, by definition be ‘good’.
However, from this problem, the question arises:
Who determines the rules? Who sets the rules?
And here we find ourselves addressing Hierarchy as power.
To resolve this we have to sign up to the following:
Do not call an apple an orange or a banana. Do not blame a chocolate bar for not being an apple. Both have their place in our diet. [I like to use food analogies where possible, though it pains me, especially if writing before dinner]
If a ‘good’ diet is a balanced diet, then we might consider the same applies for writing. We should not simply go for the fibre, or the caviar, or the Michelin starred food any more than we should gorge ourselves on fast/junk food. There are degrees of subtlety in everything. And so with literature and/or fiction.
It is too easy for the academic or the ‘intellectual’ or the ‘educated’ to set rules which are effectively just their opinion/bias/prejudice or indeed lack of understanding of that outside their experience. Thus it was that Scottish fiction of the 1890s has been labelled ‘Kailyard’ [insinuating poor/common]. The irony is that now we know Kale is a ‘superfood’ (in other words, it’s good for you). Yet the educated elite find it harder to accept that fiction which does not deal with either urban industrialisation or post war or post modern concerns has either value or a place at the table. [however, since they find it hard to accept that they are an ‘elite’ at all I suppose it’s not that much of a surprise. People do not always self-define accurately – perhaps not often.]
Let’s look at it from another angle:
Can you compare Scott with Welsh? I mean ‘Sir Walter’ with Irvine of course.
The answer, as to all interesting questions is yes and no. But you have to determine on what grounds (or rules) you are drawing the comparison. And that’s when we get back to the education debate. If only those in hierarchical power (academic elite or indeed publishing marketers) tell us how to draw the comparison, we will get a limited set of rules.
Hierarchy does not support diversity. Hierarchy is about those at the bottom feeding those at the top. The majority may feel they are ‘ruling’ but they are actually only supporting the elite who actually rule. This is a feature of representative democracy, that we give up our ‘real’ rights to choose, allowing others to make that choice for us. And guess what. They choose what they like or what suits them. So if they are urban-centred, intellectually biased – to say nothing of wanting to promote an agenda of hierarchical power – then anything outside this will be labelled ‘bad.’
And guess what? Literature is a great way to control. If your agenda is to promote (say) capitalism and or ‘talent is the result of genius’ or ‘only those who are educated are capable of saying anything worth reading’ then you can simply knock anyone outside this criteria out of the park by claiming the ‘authority’ to state that they are ‘bad’ literature.
And your job is done as long as people read like sheep and do what they are told and remain happy in the ignorance of representative democracy. I’m not suggesting totalitarianism or even autocracy is a better option to democracy. I’m not promoting fascism or even out and out anarchism (depending on your definition) but I am pointing out that unless we actively engage we tend to get fed an unbalanced diet. So that unless we step outside of whatever our ‘comfort’ zone is as regards definitions of education, and ‘quality’ in literature we are not really giving ourselves the chance to be ‘educated’ in a broader sense. Knowledge is power. Abdicating a level of personal responsibility towards ‘what we know’ is the thin end of a slippery wedge!
Just a thought.
Don’t believe everything you are told by people who tell you they know better than you.
James Thomson (B.V.*)
The Laureate of Pessimism
‘The joy of grief.’ – Ossian
*B.V., the pen-name used by Thomson, is a contraction of Bysshe Vanolis. The ‘Bysshe’ was Shelley’s middle name; the ‘Vanolis’ is an anagram of Novalis, the pen-name of the German poet Fredrich von Hardenberg, whose life, like Thomson’s, was strongly affected by the death of a young girl to whom he was attached.
How vast the difference between the career and writings of the two James Thomsons! The poet of ‘The Seasons,’ as well as poor ‘B.V.,’ was a Scotsman; but the eighteenth-century Thomson was as fortunate as the other was the reverse. We need not grudge the earlier poet his comparatively prompt success. The man who first in his century turned the attention of poets from ethical gymnastics and society trifles to observation of nature, the country, and rural sights and scenes and sounds well deserved the sinecure post (as surveyor-general of the Leeward Islands, at £400 a-year) which enabled him to polish the stanzas of ‘The Castle of Indolence’ as he lounged and sucked the peaches in his garden at Richmond.
The one James Thomson was pretty much everything that the other was not. The author of ‘The Seasons’ was a son of the manse, had a university education, went to London at 25, found tutorial employment at once, and made a hit with his first poem ‘Winter’ the following year (1726).
The nineteenth-century Thomson was the son of a Greenock skipper, who died in ‘B.V.’s’ boyhood, and the orphaned lad, educated in a charity school (the Royal Caledonian Asylum), became an army schoolmaster. He disliked life in the army, and left it in 1862, to become in turn solicitor’s clerk, secretary of bubble companies, contributor to the National Reformer, contributor to ‘Cope’s Tobacco Plant,’ and finally miscellaneous journalist, but always having his mind occupied with unpopular themes and he himself showing even more than the usual traditional unskilfulness of the poet ‘to note the card of prudent lore.’
When all is said, the son of the Port Glasgow skipper is immeasurably the finer poet of the two. In power and passion, in brooding thought, in the quality of ‘heart,’ in the wedding of apt expression and sonorous music to the most intimate, fateful, and daring speculations of the human mind, the happy, indolent sinecurist was a child by comparison with the fate-buffeted poet of pessimism.
As a philosophy of life pessimism is probably anti-social; yet one is not quite sure. From at least the time of Job there have been pessimists, and it would be hard to say whether or not they have found less zest in life than the optimists. It is certain they have often been excellent citizens.
Broadly speaking, the optimist is one who hopes for the best and takes the world easily, often with excellent results to himself, or, as more often happens, to herself (for women are more optimistic than men). The results to society are a different matter.
The pessimist, on the other hand, full of a sense of the perversity of human affairs, lays himself out to play checkmate to Fate, to leave the fewest possible chances to Fortune to play him jade’s tricks. Thus, by guarding against the worst, he often secures the absolutely best.
The optimist believes that, all being for the best in this best of all possible worlds, given good intentions, he will contrive to muddle through.
The pessimist believes that man is his own providence; that nothing is but doing makes it so; that the choicest or most lavish gifts of Nature are useless unless turned to account by man the co-operator; that Nature has her own way of going forward with her work, and that while often she is kindly and beneficent, sometimes she can be appallingly cruel; in any case it is for man to look around and ahead, learning the law of her operations and co-operating with her kindness and exploiting it to the utmost, but guarding against her occasional caprice and cruelty.
An optimist will build and plant on the slope of a volcanic mountain, arguing, if he thinks about the matter at all, that the mountain has been quiet for generations and will surely last his time. The pessimist will labour elsewhere.
Of course there are degrees of both pessimism and optimism. Dr. Pangloss represents Voltaire’s satirical portrait of the unteachable optimist. The Brothers Cheeryble and Mark Tapley are among Dickens’s numerous attempts at the character of the optimist. Dickens’s cheerful characters must have exercised an exceedingly wholesome effect in checking mere grumbling and fostering a fashion of cheerfulness. Unfortunately his optimists are all minor characters, and the impression conveyed is that their outlook owes much of its roseate hue to comparative thoughtlessness and inexperience of life.
The moderate pessimism that makes men more careful is to the good; but excessive pessimism like that of James Thomson, instead of leading to the taking of extra care and pains, begets despair and the anticipation of failure half-way. The philosophy of the confirmed melancholiac is that ‘man was made to mourn,’ and that all attempts to combat Fate are foredoomed to failure. Others not so far gone have outfaced adversity with a heart for any fate. Samuel Johnson, Grimaldi the greatest and saddest of clowns, Heine chained to his mattress grave, all refused to be beaten. With a little luck, Thomson also might have done so. The descriptions of him as a young man are that he was ‘wonderfully clever, very nice-looking, and very gentle, grave, and kind.’ His portraits show the good looks, his writings prove all the rest and a good deal more. The man who conceived ‘Aquatics (Kew)’ and ‘Sunday up the River’ was witty and spirited and had a capacity for happy laughter.
But Thomson had sheer bad luck from the start. He was unlucky in being made an army schoolmaster. No branch of work in connection with the army could have suited one of his ideas and temperament, and as it happened, he was first sent to teach the rough and uncultivated men of a militia regiment. He was even more unlucky in the circumstances of his discharge from the army, which took place because of the minor fault of a brother schoolmaster. He lost his sweetheart by death at an early age, and mourned for her all his life. He was unlucky in the opinions he espoused and the associates with whom he consorted. A man who knew Latin, French, German, and Italian was worthy of a better change than Thomson made when he left the army to become a solicitor’s clerk. He was unlucky in his friendship with Mr. Bradlaugh and the fact that some of his best poetry appeared in The National Reformer, which could not give him the audience he deserved. His friends are of opinion that Mr. Bradlaugh, despite his kindness to the poet, did not appreciate his poetry, especially the best of it. Certain it is that readers of the National Reformer protested against the appearance in it of some of Thomson’s finest verse - that is to say, the greatest pieces of literature that ever did appear in the Reformer.
Thomson is said to have inherited a taste for drink. In any case the convivial habits of the army had taught him to drink, and his lonely life as a bachelor in London lodgings, his lifelong sorrow for the loss of his early love, and the precarious nature of the living he earned would all combine to foster irregular habits.
When in October, 1809, the poem ‘Sunday up the River’ appeared in Fraser’s Magazine, James Anthony Froude was so charmed with it that he conferred with Charles Kingsley on the subject, and Kingsley being of the same mind, Froude invited the poet to breakfast with him. They got on very well together, and it might have been hoped that something would come of the meeting. But if Froude and Kingsley admired ‘Sunday up the River,’ not many besides appear to have been struck with it. The critics did not ‘discover’ the new poet, and when he afterwards submitted the splendid ‘Weddah and Om-el-Bonain’ to Froude it was not accepted. Poor Thomson sent nothing further to that quarter. ‘Weddah’ finally appeared in the National Reformer. Thomson sent a copy to Mr. William Michael Rossetti, who recognised the beauty and power of the poem at once, and both the Rossetti brothers remained Thomson’s friends. ‘A Voice from the Nile’ appeared in the Fortnightly Review; but the bulk of Thomson’s work, and all the best of it, appeared in the National Reformer, and was almost, of course, as good as buried there.
When Thomson’s greatest poem, ‘The City of Dreadful Night,’ first appeared in the Bradlaughite sheet some notice was taken of it by The Academy and The Spectator, and the numbers containing it were in great demand. Among those who congratulated Thomson was George Eliot, whose letter was more esteemed by him than it deserved to be. The successful novelist had herself coveted success as a poet, and did not achieve it; but that does not prevent her from adopting a slight air of patronage in the following letter which she sent:
Dear Poet, - I cannot rest satisfied without telling you that my mind responds with admiration to the distinct vision and grand utterance in the poem which you have been so good as to send me.
Also, I trust that an intellect informed by so much passionate energy as yours will soon give us more heroic strains, with a wider embrace of human fellowship in them - such as will be to the labourers of the world what odes of Tyrtæus were to the Spartans, thrilling them with the sublimity of the social order and the courage of resistance to all that would dissolve it. To accept life and write much fine poetry is to take a very large share in the quantum of human good, and seems to draw with it necessarily some recognition, affectionate and even joyful, of the many willing labours which have made such a lot possible. - Yours sincerely, M. E. LEWIS.
An invitation to visit her home and some human fellowship extended to the poet would have been better than a stilted letter; and to an ordinary kind woman this would have seemed the natural and proper salve to apply to a spirit which could find expression in language like the opening stanzas of ‘The City’:-
Lo, thus, as prostrate, ‘In the dust I write
My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears.’
Yet why evoke the spectres of black night
To blot the sunshine of exultant years?
Why disinter dead faith from mouldering hidden?
Why break the seals of mute despair unbidden.
And wail life’s discords into careless ears?
Because a cold rage seizes one at whiles
To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth
Stripped naked of all vesture that beguiles,
False dreams, false hopes, false masks and modes of youth;
Because it gives some sense of power and passion
In helpless impotence to try to fashion
Our woes in living words howe’er uncouth.
Surely I write not for the hopeful young,
Or those who deem their happiness of worth,
Or such as pasture and grow fat among
The shows of life and feel nor doubt nor dearth,
Or pious spirits with a God above them
To sanctify and glorify and love them,
Or sages who foresee a heaven on earth.
For none of these I write, and none of these
Could read the writing if they deigned to try;
So may they flourish, in their due degrees,
On our sweet earth and in their unplaced sky.
If any cares for the weak words here written,
It must be someone desolate, Fate-smitten,
Whose faith and hope are dead, and who would die.
Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
In that same city of tremendous night
Will understand the speech and feel a stir
Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
‘I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
Travels the same wild paths, though out of sight.’
O sad Fraternity, do I unfold
Your dolorous mysteries shrouded from of yore?
Nay, be assured; no secret can be told
To any who divined it not before;
None uninitiate by many a presage
Will comprehend the language of the message,
Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.
The title of this great but unspeakably sad poem would doubtless be suggested by the insomnia to which Thomson was a victim. Several of his chief poems, such as ‘In the Room,’ ‘Mater Tenebrarum,’ and ‘Vane’s Story,’ suggest habits of midnight work and a mental activity in the night time which would be an affliction if the creative mood was not upon the poet. The Dantean gloom of ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ is unrelieved by the highly specific details in which the Italian poet indulges himself. Description, indeed, there is; but it is shadowy, tending to create an atmosphere rather than giving concrete details. It is bodeful, argumentative, compassionate with a glowing ineffable pity that has nothing to match it in literature. Thomson can be picturesque in many different styles of graphic delineation, but in ‘The City’ he has a message to deliver and is so full of it that he forgets the artifices of the picturesque. Argument, infinite pity, infinite passion are the staples of the poem, and there is not a weak or a slovenly line in it.
The way in which the phantoms of misery crowd upon the wakeful is reflected, as said, in much of Thomson’s work. In fact he has a poem with the title of ‘Insomnia,’ in which the bane of the actively minded is depicted with a power more simple and direct than in ‘The City of Dreadful Night.’ He says:-
I heard the sounding of the midnight hour;
The others one by one had left the room,
In calm assurance that the gracious power
Of sleep’s fine alchemy would bless the gloom,
Transmuting all its leaden weight to gold,
To treasures of rich virtues manifold.
New strength, new health, new life;
Just weary enough to nestle softly, sweetly,
Into divine unconsciousness, completely
Delivered from the world of toil and care and strife.
Just weary enough to feel assured of rest,
Of sleep’s divine oblivion and repose,
Renewing heart and brain for richer zest
Of waking life when golden morning glows,
As young and pure and glad as if the first
That ever on the void of darkness burst
With ravishing warmth and light;
On dewy grass and flowers and blithe birds singing,
And shining waters, all enraptured springing,
Fragrance and shine and song, out of the womb of night
But I with infinite weariness outworn,
Haggard with endless nights unblessed by sleep,
Ravaged by thoughts unutterably forlorn,
Plunged in despairs unfathomably deep,
Went cold and pale and trembling with affright
Into the desert vastitude of night,
Arid and wild and black;
Foreboding no oasis of sweet slumber,
Counting beforehand all the countless number
Of sands that are its minutes on my desolate track.
And so I went the last to my drear bed,
Aghast as one who should go down to lie
Among the blissfully unconscious dead,
Assured that as the endless years flowed by
Over the dreadful silence and deep gloom
And dense oppression of the stifling tomb,
He only of them all,
Nerveless and impotent to madness, never
Could hope oblivion’s perfect trance for ever:
An agony of life eternal in death’s pall.
The philosophy of this unhappy man did not in its main principles necessitate that he should be a pessimist at all. He sees in the Universe, he says, neither Good nor Evil; only Necessity.
I find no hint throughout the Universe
Of good or ill, of blessing or of curse;
I find alone Necessity Supreme;
With infinite Mystery, abysmal, dark,
Unlightened ever by the faintest spark,
For us the flitting shadows of a dream.
And again -
The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
It grinds out life and death and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart, or mind, or will.
What we are here for is a question which many have asked and no one has answered. Walt Whitman was as optimistic a poet as Thomson was the reverse; yet while he says he does not know what anyone is here for he also says he will go on trying to find out. Meanwhile he sings the love of comrades, the lifelong love of comrades.
Is it not possible to be happy if we will master so much of the laws of life, learn enough of how the world-mill does its grinding and adapt ourselves to the requirements with as much of wisdom and courage and kindness to others as possible? If the universe is a grinding mill it is the business of philosophy to teach us how to avoid the wheels that would hurt us while making them do our offices, as already said.
Part two next month.
The Great Enemy of Mankind.
Mankind has many special enemies; but the greatest, the most comprehensive, enemy of all is the hoofless, hornless, tailless, depersonified devil of ignorance. A poet writing in this locality has epitomised the position in three quatrains.
Ancestral man scarce stood erect,
Low-browed and hairy, Nature’s slave;
His puny powers of no effect,
He gorged on carrion in a cave.
And now man soars aloft on wings,
Holds converse o’er ten thousand miles,
A million ships his sustenance brings,
A hundred arts his ease beguiles.
Ancestral man was fierce and dull,
Stark torture was his daily toy,
But now the wheel has circled full -
Man shares his fellows’ grief and joy.
The countless steps in that great ascent have been achieved by gradually acquired knowledge, with its mental and moral by-products, understanding and sympathy. Knowledge is of course the antidote to the bane of ignorance. Ancestral man was naked and often cold till he learned that warmth could be secured by wearing the skins of beasts, to be followed later by the plaiting of mats, and still later by the weaving of cloth. He devoured his food raw till he learned, by rubbing one stick upon another, to produce fire. He lived in caves and borrows till he learned to make tents of hides, or huts of mud and osiers or of blocks of ice. But the arts and relaxations of life in northern lands did not arise till, to clothing, cooking, and housing, he added the great boon of artificial light. As Charles Lamb whimsically suggests, our forefathers, lying around churlishly in the dark, had no temptation to cultivate wit or humour when it would have been necessary to feel the face of your neighbour in order to find out if he was smiling; and he concludes that jokes came in with candles. It ought to be added that the fashioning and decorating of weapons of war and the chase and utensils of domestic use also benefited by the introduction of the fir candle and the oil lamp.
The Noble Calling of Teacher.
It is the business of the teacher to abate or entirely to remove the multifarious disabilities imposed upon man by his ignorance of the laws, facts, and forces by which he is surrounded, and there can be no nobler or more useful calling.
But thus to enlarge our survey of the scope of teaching, to take all knowledge for our province, as Bacon said he had done, would be to extend our thesis beyond what would, for this occasion, be practical limits. Every mother who initiates her daughter into a little turn of housewifery, every workman who gives a lesson, be it only by performing a cast of his calling before the eyes of a tyro at the trade, would in that sense be a teacher. Let me say at once, also, that I have no desire to make school education technical, industrial, or even commercial, except in so far as the general education which all men and women equally require may be and ought to be of service in the specialised callings of life.
The other day, in connection with the centenary celebrations of the birth of Louis Pasteur, we were reminded afresh of Huxley’s saying that Pasteur by his discoveries had in a few years’ time saved as much money as would have covered the whole indemnity paid by France to Germany for the war of 1870-71. I refer to that, not with the object of emphasising the value of chemistry as a special study, but only by way of showing that if one branch of one science can be of so much value to the world, it follows that ignorance of that as of other sciences must have its counterpart of disastrous loss. It is not from ignorance of such matters as Pasteur studied that the world is most likely to suffer. Pasteur’s researches affected diseases in cattle, sheep, fowls, vines, and silkworms, and the souring of wine and beer. We may he sure that any discoveries affecting trade, and in no way connected with politics, will be promptly accepted and applied. We need have no fear that discoveries having an immediate and obvious commercial value will, on any large scale, be wasted upon an unreceptive world. [On a revision, I am not so sure of this. There was the idea of the synthetic dyes, rejected in Britain, the country of its origin, and taken up with success in Germany. And there is the French intensive cultivation, still neglected in Britain. The claim is at least relatively true. - J. L.] But there are, nevertheless, realms of knowledge, the discoveries in which would be of at least equal value, which are not at all generally explored or their safe and certain principles turned to account in practice.
Reading the Basis.
I am to confine my attention to the humanities.
The basis of all education is reading. The laboratory demonstration is founded, oftener that, not, upon a lesson which the demonstrator has previously read. The oral lesson in class is usually an exposition either of the actual printed lesson before the class, or it will embody the results of the teacher’s own reading. In efficient teaching the teacher will use the fruits of much reading cognate to the subject in hand. The teacher who is, as the saying has it, only one lesson ahead of the pupil will not, in my view, be much of a teacher.
My first complaint against the education of to-day is that it does not teach young people to read with understanding and delight, or even with ordinary fluency; in short, to love reading. For thirty-five years I have had to read proofs as a corrector to the press, both north and south of the Tweed, my copyholders being boys and girls supposed to be of rather special intelligence. The reading was best in Aberdeen, tending in some instances to be too rapid and declamatory. This was during the eighties. Going to Manchester in the early nineties, I found it not quite so distinct or so ready. The pronunciation was more accurate, when you heard it, though, with changing copyholders, there were some who muttered and mumbled and stuttered and stumbled, evidently not enjoying the job at all. Returning north, I found reading uncouth in Peterhead, though not without animation. Going to Yorkshire in 1908, I found it not so good as it had been in Lancashire a dozen years earlier, but better than in Peterhead. In Turriff it is worst of all - least intelligently understanding and most barbarous in accent, though one minds the accent less than the lack of understanding.
As regards the understanding, so necessary to clean type-setting, the truth is I spend my days in a struggle with dirty proofs, the result of inability on the part of the compositor to recognise the identity of common words in fairly plain handwriting, mostly my own. It is so bad that if one’s vigilance be relaxed, some wholly unexpected and incomprehensible error is sure to pass. If half a sentence is left out, its omission is not detected till the proof is read, which means that no attempt is made to follow and apprehend the chain of reasoning.
Spelling and Pronunciation.
Certain simple words are habitually mis-spelt, time after time. Among these are such words as ‘briny,’ which, by one young person after another and by the same person again and again, is rendered ‘brimy’; ‘identify,’ which regularly appears as ‘indentify’; ‘would have been’ for ‘would have been,’ ‘hundreth’ and ‘lenth’ for ‘hundredth’ and ‘length,’ ‘smock’ for ‘smoke,’ ‘accidently,’ ‘franticly,’ ‘strageticly’ (for ‘strategically’!), ‘pattren,’ and ‘alright,’ which are all wrong in accordance with the wrong pronunciation. A word as spelt is an ideograph, a picture of the idea, with its etymology, affinities, and evolution preserved; and if you have not the right spelling you have not got the picture. The vicious circle is that words are wrongly spelt because they are wrongly pronounced, and they are wrongly pronounced because they are wrongly spelt. It is the wrong spelling that comes first with what may be called book words, as apart from the simple words a child uses before it learns to read. The person who writes ‘sep e rate,’ as so many do, can have no idea of the root word ‘p a rity,’ as in comparative and disparate.
In my experience as a printer, prepositions, copulatives, and the passive particles ‘has’ and ‘have’ are altered in defiance both of the written copy and the requirements of sense in the sentence. A dictionary kept at hand is worn foul with frequent consultation, English being apparently found to be, many times in a day, an unknown tongue.
This tells its own tale as to the lack of reading; but the neglect of reading is made obvious in other ways. The assumption that children will not read for pleasure is reflected in the schoolbooks. The everyday labour of the savage, hunting, becomes the sport of the civilised man; and, reversing this, in school nowadays you use as lesson-books the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the plays of Shakespeare, which we sat up to read for pleasure at nights after our lessons were done. We used to buy single plays of Shakespeare, Massinger, Ben Jonson, ‘The Gamester,’ ‘The Rivals,’ ‘The School for Scandal,’ and the plays of more modern dramatists - all in the penny reprints of William Dicks. The print was small; but the appetite was avid. I still retain, after some wandering, ‘The Shaughraun,’ ‘The Octoroon,’ ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts,’ and ‘Rob Roy,’ as relics of those days of our later school time or early years of apprenticeship.
Youthful Omnivorous Reading.
A local teacher complained one day that not one boy in his class knew anything about Hannibal on being questioned. In my schooldays most of the boys of my class at the age of ten to twelve were accustomed to read and discuss with enthusiasm a book entitled ‘The Wars of the Carthaginians,’ in which, of course, Hannibal was the central figure. It was one of the volumes in the old Cottage Library, published by Milner & Sowerby, of Halifax, many of which formed the subjects of our schoolboy and school-girl talk. Books we all read then were ‘The Wolf of Badenoch,’ ‘The Scottish Chiefs,’ ‘St. Clair of the Isles,’ ‘Gulliver,’ ‘Tales of a Grand-father,’ ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and the ‘Arabian Nights.’ These in addition to a heavy weekly crop of ‘penny dreadfuls’ such as The Boys of England, The Young Men of Great Britain, The Sons of Britannia, The Boys’ Standard, and serials in numbers, such as ‘Jack Harkaway,’ ‘Tom Floremall,’ and ‘Tom Wildrake.’ These we bought and lent to each other, not without abundant comparing of notes, and vocal efforts in the art of dramatic and graphic narration ourselves. My recollection of these serials is that they were well written, that the proprieties were observed, that villainy was always punished and virtue duly rewarded. They could have done us nothing but good, and the reading itself was a mental exercise.
We were all boys fond of a lark, and did not mew overmuch in the house. In fact, our reading inclined us to adventures by flood and field, without any Boy Scout paraphernalia or tutelage. We were free agents, and if the freedom was sometimes abused, there was the less of the Jessie Ann about us.
Of myself as of my own children I can say we had read all the novels of Scott before we had gone very far into our teens. (Disparaging remarks are sometimes made about the tales written in the period of Scott’s decline, such as ‘Count Robert of Paris.’ I can only say that I enjoyed this story of the Varangian Guard and the Court of Constantinople so much that it made me turn as a youth to Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’ for the history of the place and period.) To have such books given us as studies, as lessons, would have seemed to us as laughable as it would have been to bribe us to eat sweets. As a boy I had a stouter appetite for print and more aptitude for assimilation than I have now. There were in our house two big volumes of small print in double columns called ‘Chambers’s Information for the People,’ and I read these pretty well from cover to cover, including articles on Metallurgy, Mining, Arboriculture and Horticulture, Farming and Live Stock, Printing, even on the Clan Tartans; and I learned the first nine or ten rules of Algebra, only to forget them again because they were useless to me and in themselves quite uninteresting. On the other hand, I have not forgotten about the agricultural improvers, Mechi, Jethro Tull, and ‘Turnip’ Townshend, because their work is useful to us all and in itself interesting.
At the age of fourteen I found myself one of some half-a-dozen apprentices in an Aberdeen printing office, most of us from humble homes, but all of us reading such books as Plutarch’s Lives, Macaulay’s Essays and Lays, with, as the years went on, Mill’s ‘Political Economy,’ Henry George’s ‘Progress and Poverty,’ Spencer’s ‘Study of Sociology,’ and presently a volume of essays by Prof. Bain, including an essay on ‘The Art of Study.’
It was a time of much discussion of anti-theological science, and the reviews were full of articles by such men as Huxley, Tyndall, Grant Allen, St. George Mivart, Herbert Spencer, and Frederic Harrison. We boys in our teens read such books as Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ and ‘Descent of Man,’ Oscar Schmidt’s ‘Doctrine of Descent and Darwinism,’ and the Nature books of John Burroughs. Of these youths one is now a retired colonel, having risen rapidly from the ranks; another is a minister of the gospel in Canada; three are master printers; and one is or was the Liberal member of Parliament for Bedford-Leigh in Lancashire.
What of To-Day?
Is such reading being done by the young men of to-day? I see no signs of it. It was an excellent training for citizenship, as apart from obsequious climbing and gradgrind getting on. The climber works for self. The good citizen seeks his advantage in the general wellbeing. But now at the end of the school year one hears parental complaints about the poor pass in English. The blame is put upon the teachers. It is the business of the teacher to make silk purses out of sows’ ears - if he (or she) can. But obviously this possibility is greatly limited by the quality of the lugs available. Given a good standard of intelligence, the pupil needs only direction and the run of the text-books in order to absorb all sorts of learning. On the other hand, there is a certain brute-beast recalcitrance, cool unconcern, or sheer stupidity – sometimes the attitude is a blend of all three - upon which exposition and reiteration are expended in vain, producing little effect beyond a feeling of annoyance in the teacher. Parents who give their children no help or encouragement, who have forgotten the rules or lessons themselves, or perhaps never knew them, who maintain a home atmosphere that is inimical to books and reading, who regard all reading as a waste of time, expect the teacher to undo the effects of their own heathenish materialism, and this during a few hours of the day on five days of the week.
English as a language cannot be taught. You may teach the grammar; but the learning of a language in its length and breadth is a matter of years of delighted reading.
It is not reasonable to expect that teachers can make much of the English of pupils who come from households where there is no feeling for books and language, or indeed for education as a whole. A teacher can tell what sort of home a pupil comes from. The child from a commercial domestic atmosphere, where all the little talk there is relates to business and bargains and chattels and prudence, and not taking risks, and having an eye to the main chance, is as a rule a slow, recalcitrant scholar, except perhaps in arithmetic, the tendency of which is, naturally, in accord with his peculiar genius.
The child from a home in which the humanities have something of a look in - books, music, cheerful human chat and plenty of it - is apt to be friendly with his teacher, interested in his lessons, and, even with quite moderate parts, will get on with the work of the class with cheerful readiness and some show of progress.
When one hears complaints of alleged bad teaching one is very sorry, first of all, for the teachers who have to struggle with invincible stupidity, almost without hope; for even if the average youngster is taught certain things, and learns them, they are forgotten in a year or two after leaving school. People who do not read and discuss soon lapse into barbarism. As the Roman saying has it, ‘Life without literature is death’ (Vita sine literis mors est). One need not claim that teachers have done their best, or even that their best would be good enough if they had done it. But preachers and teachers and writers need encouragement to do their best, and there is no encouragement from a blank wall of stupidity. The ineffable Spooner once intended to address a rural meeting as ‘sons of toil,’ but, with his trick of reversing, he called them ‘tons of soil.’ Anyone who has addressed a rustic audience indoors on a week-night, must have felt that Mr. Spooner’s inverted description was not entirely inappropriate. The ‘soil’ may be all right for some kinds of seed; but when we find a typical rural centre showing a bad educational record year after year, it is impossible to resist the feeling that the fault lies, not with the teachers, but with pupils, parents, and the general atmosphere as regards the things of the mind.
Inimical Atmosphere Generally.
One town I know was known of old as Grabtillum and as Porkopolis. We do not associate brilliant intellectuality with grabbing and with swine. A community does not as a rule have it both ways, though we may cultivate material prosperity and still give our leisure to the finer things of life. Manchester – ‘the modern Athens,’ as Gladstone called it - is one of the most intellectual cities in Europe, and this expresses itself in its abounding and brilliant and independent Press, in much political discussion, in a school of drama, in lectures, a literary quarterly, and the best music out of London. By music, Sir Charles and Lady Hallé lived in honour and dignity there for many years. A Londoner writing in a Sunday paper described how, as he stood one day in a Manchester bookseller’s shop, he witnessed a railway cart draw up to the door with a load of copies of Lord Morley’s ‘Recollections,’ when that book was still comparatively new. On his surprised inquiry, he was told that this was only one of several consignments they had had of that hook, which sells at 24s. for the two tall volumes. The business men of Manchester have the reputation of being the keenest and brainiest of all men of business, yet this critic could ask with some show of reason, ‘Is there any other town in the world where the doors would, so to say, have to be taken off the hinges to receive repeated consignments of a book dealing with high politics and literature?’
The other day a local Tory was complaining about the extreme addiction to sport on the part of the young people. I mentioned that I had hoped something from the re-starting of the Mutual Improvement Association after the awakening caused by the war; that a Literary Society started in a neighbouring small town 25 years ago was still going strong; that the ‘best people’ - clergy, lawyers, business men, doctors, and bankers - took the most active part in its work; that largely-attended meetings were held, speakers being often brought from a distance; and that it was considered ‘the thing’ to belong to ‘the Literary.’ But here, I said, ‘the heads of the town’ play bowls in the summer time and billiards and cards in the winter, and pass the door of the ‘Mutual’ on their way up to the Club. The young men follow suit. It is the frivolous seniors who make the frivolous juniors. We cannot give all our time to business and unlettered pleasure, and expect to be cultivated folk and to have brilliant boys and girls.
The atmosphere of country life is inimical to learning. It ought not to be, but it is. A local farmer who reads Pater and Buckle, and has a room expressly built for the housing of books, once said, ‘What is there for a body to do in the country in the winter nichts but read?’ But he is a rara avis. In the country the emphasis is put, not upon what a man is or knows, but upon what he has. As I want nothing for nothing, and am not likely to get anything for nothing if I wanted it, I have no motive to adopt this sycophantic attitude, even if I were willing to do so. What need anyone care how much a man has if he is dull and unpleasant to meet? And what need anyone care how little a man has if he be keenly intelligent, companionable, easily lighted up, and possessed of great universality of interest.
PART TWO NEXT MONTH
Friday the 13th in an age of superstition.
Being dumped by text used to be considered the height of bad manners. So how much worse is the prospect of Global Armageddon by tweet? Well, that’s the Trump era world we live in. Am I alone in feeling like I’m going to have to spend the next couple of years (if I’m lucky) not breathing, in the hope that we’ll get through it relatively unscathed? And then ‘four more years?’
As I write this shades of ‘war is inevitable’ ‘not in my name’ keep swirling round my mind. The Cabinet is meeting in Downing Street. The MP’s are ‘revolting’ that they want to have their say but they’re not due back till Monday. By which time decisions may have been made. Or not.
In the meantime, the media (social and anti social) argues for and against fake media – and the people of Syria continue to be a pawn in the ugliest game in town.
And nothing we can do will make any difference. We, after all, are just so much data. The human is almost totally stripped from the phrase human resources. We have become resources. Is this a consequence of Brand Loyalty? The best dystopia money can buy, anyone? We can’t blame Zuckerberg for it all because we all ran to help him open the bottle and let the genie out and we’re still there, enjoying the bread and circuses of the early 21st century. Ultimate® is alive and well and we are all doing ‘productive work’ for them every time we log on.
This is the ‘context’ in which we look back this month in Gateway. Leatham offers pieces on Optimism/Pessimism and the Orraman goes his dinger on Ignorance, both of which have something of a particular relevance to my current mood. Perhaps it’s just me. The more Leatham I read the more I find that the problems have all been experienced and noted before. Do we never learn? Is it more that we mutate and survive and that the virus of hatred and corruption (and capitalism) is stronger than any other virus. The hopes of Socialism held in the 1920s certainly seem to have disappeared. Though even in the 1920s Leatham was reflecting back on how much had been ‘lost’ from the early, optimistic days of the emergence of Socialism. (real Socialism that is, before, as he points out, it became Labourism.) The pessimist in me sees Socialism as a cause seems as dead in the water as Communism is in practice. But then Soviet era Communism itself was a corruption of a noble ideal. The ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’ never really caught on. If I could imagine Donald Trump reading a book (let’s face it he doesn’t even write his own books) it would be more Ayn Rand than anything else. But who reads any more these days? I mean, who really reads?
Flip the coin to optimism? Today it’s hard to impossible to do. As we hold our breath Bay of Pigs style over the weekend to see who will blink first – or what ‘conclusions’ will be made about what the ‘best’ response will be to the Assad regime – I can’t find anything of comfort. I’m lost in the political algorithms of who will work out the best ‘probability’ in the particular game theory that’s being played out. I’m trying to second guess which interest is best served how and how it will be dressed up for us and which variety of fake news will contain any grain of something that used to be believed in called truth in it.
Is it any wonder we seek escapism in fiction? Though even in fiction I suggest there’s plenty to exercise the mind beyond simple escapism. This month we offer you an insight into the world beyond the ‘Stickit Minister’ – you have the option of escapism by just reading a story – or delving deeper from the download of the ‘retrospective’ by Cally Phillips, the leading Crockett authority of our times. It may be a niche interest, but isn’t it a more positive way to spend your life than finding ever new ways to justify killing ever more people in order that the virus of capitalism continues to prosper and dominate the globe? Like I said, optimism’s thin on the ground this weather at the Gateway.
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