The Orraman is on holiday so for the festive season we have rooted out an episode of 'Twixt Desk and Shelves' set in the fictional publishing offices of The Pelican, in the equally (almost) fictional town of St Congan's. This is from December 2016. A lot of things (and people) in St Congan's haven't changed much in a century! This episode deals with the fallout of an argument about who can use 'the club.'
‘I read your dialogue on the club scandal,’ said a visitor, ‘it was quite right except for one thing, as far as I know.’
Printer: What was that? Of course the conversation was given very much as it took place. I was only mildly interested, and I knew nothing of the facts at first hand.
Visitor: You spoke of whist and whisky having too much of a show. But it’s a dry club. There are no intoxicants supplied on the premises.
Printer; I repeat that I gave the conversation as I got it. I am positive about certain names having been mentioned of fathers who had withdrawn from membership themselves and forbidden their sons to go because they came home later and not sober. (Here the speaker gave several names.) And that isn’t all. A teacher friend called one night, having business with one of the leading members. He found two leading members there – men well up in years – and both were in the state which is called, ‘well-to-do,’ probably on the principle of contraries. They started to quarrel over the business the teacher has broached, and words ran so high that he left in despair of getting any sense or satisfaction. Both the men called upon him next day and apologised. (Here again names were mentioned.)
Visitor: That may be; but you’ll find it as I say. The old provost, one of the founders of the club, stipulated for no drink, and in this he had his way.
Printer: Well of course there are two different ways of carrying it in. There is deck cargo and there is stowed cargo.
‘I read your article about the club,’ said another visitor , a young man, a day or two later. ‘I may tell you that I was one of those who voted against the use of the rooms being given. I didn’t object to the wounded men having the run of the place, but to the way the thing was gone about. I should have let the Red Cross have the sole right to the place as tenants. The club is nothing to me; though I’m going up there to have a game of billiards now.
Printer (feeling there is some amount of contradiction here): But, my dear chap, what’s the good of voting against a thing if you favour it?
Young Visitor: As I say, I objected to the way the thing was gone about. And for that matter I was not altogether averse to the course taken by the majority. The matter was very fully considered, and there’s a good deal to be said for the majority .
Printer: Now you’re talking! Let’s hear what you have to say. I believe in giving both sides a show.
Young Visitor: Well, some of those who voted against the rooms being given knew something. For one thing, the wounded are being used by some folk for self-advertisement. Miss Dugald got the loan of Andrew Wilson’s cars, and drove the men here and there. Her name alone appeared as the Lady Bountiful, while Andrew was finding both the cars and the petrol, and his name never had a look in, though it should have helped his business to have the fair acknowledgement. Petrol costs money just now.
Printer: I had him in the other day, and he said he had read the article, but he offered no comment either way.
Young Visitor: Yes, that’s Andrew all over. And he had had some experience of the wounded men too. He gave them the use of a room at the Harmony and they carried in drink, and were very noisy and rackety. He had to stop it. They were stopped at the Duff Arms too. They walked upon the billiard table there, and were a downright nuisance. Still, I would have been in favour of letting them the rooms outright, and holding the Red Cross responsible for any damage done.
Printer: It’s a pity you didn’t carry a motion to that effect. I daresay the future before these poor fellows is calculated to make them a bit regardless.
‘A man was saying last night that you had stated in The Pelican what was not correct.’ So said a neighbour, coming in and starting to his tale without preliminary courtesy.
‘Good morning Mr Gill,’ said the Printer, bowing with marked elaborateness from behind his machine.
The hasty visitor repeated the omitted flourish, and proceeded with his story. ‘The Pelican said that no small businesses had been closed up locally, and this man pointed out that Cunningham the painter had had to shut shop and join the colours, and that you yourself wouldn’t have got your present premises if the previous tenant hadn’t had to go up for service.
Printer (smiling): Well, that’s what the Yankees call ‘a fair hoist.’ But did the Pelican say that? Oh, I remember! There was a note of four or five lines. The note stated, among other things, that while the English Tommy jeered at and insulted the slacker, the Scottish soldier congratulated him on his escape, and that I hadn’t seen a single badge being worn or heard of a business having to be sold to meet the call. This was written partly under your own inspiration. I had said that I thought the reference, in certain verses, to buying a ‘graip’ [Angled, dung-fork] from the military representative was a little below the belt; that I thought he was not to be brought in that way; and that he was independent to the point of brusqueness. You answered that, so far from being the case St Congans was famous for a great many exemptions since I came here – of young men too, and not even young men who are actually in charge of business. The whole position is different in large centres. There the members of the tribunals do not know the men who come before them; know nothing of their circumstances except what is stated in evidence; and consequently can have none of the sympathy that acquaintanceship naturally begets.
Mr Gill: Well, you see that the military representative has been changed.
Painter: Yes, but I take it that he has made the change himself- has resigned. I’m not denying that St Congans men have done and are doing their full share of the fighting. The casualty list shows that. But I do say that there isn’t much State-consciousness, or Community-consciousness, in the local population. I haven’t met an ardent politician since I came here. Start what subject you will, the local man tends to swing round to local gossip. Parliament is, of course, far away. There’s Taylor, the Socialist, of course. He is keen on all public questions. He is understood as an exception. He and I have a certain grim satisfaction in the way in which the war has brought home the fact of citizenship and personal political responsibility to people who have always spoken and acted as if politics didn’t matter. And now, by the Lord, it is evident that politics are all-important” If all the working men of Europe had been like Taylor and myself there wouldn’t have been a Kaiser or a war-lord in the civilised world today. The fact that working men neglected this, and turned up their noses at those whom they called ‘Socialist cranks’ is costing them their very lives. As I wrote long ago, ‘Duties neglected are as crimes committed, and may be even more deadly in their consequences.’ The penalty of neglecting to take your fair intelligent share in the government of the country is that you shall be misgoverned by other people, even to the taking of your life in a quarrel of which you don’t understand the most elementary meaning – even now. It is said that we are fighting for freedom, and I fervently hope and trust that we are; for I have always exercised my freedom to say and do what seemed to me good against the powers that be, both great and small. But is Rome fighting for freedom? Will the Czar give his own subjects freedom? Will he stop sending his subjects to Siberia without trial? Will he discontinue rewarding the leaders of the Black Hundred who massacre Jews on the holy days of the Greek Church? Freedom is not mere absence of restraint. It means the power to do things as well as the mere liberty to do them. I am free to play the fiddle or read Greek: but I never had lessons so I am without the power. A man who is uneducated is not free; the doors of opportunity are barred to him by his ignorance. The man whose means of livelihood are the property of another is not free. He has to accept the master’s terms. He has to work to accept the price the masters class is willing to give. With all his trade unionism – where he has any – he has not lessened by one penny the blackmail that the master-class is able to levy upon his labour. Only one thing will do that, and that is public ownership. And we’re going to have some of that.
Gill (doubtfully): Socialism?
Printer: Yes, Socialism and plenty of it. Unlimited nationalisation and municipalisation in the interests of the public as against the profit-mongers. Socialism, the only sincere politics that ever were or any good, the only politics that please everybody when once the thing is socialised.
The Orraman will be back in the New Year.
The New Gateway – One year on.
It’s hard to believe it’s a year since I first wrote an editorial for The New Gateway. This time of year is traditionally one for reflection. And how much there is to reflect on in 2016. How the world has changed. Here’s a few highlights: Labour crisis, Conservative crisis, Brexit crisis, American President (crisis) – not to mention the refugees and economy (stupid).
Each month when one pens an editorial one is in the moment and only when you put them all together over a period of a year (and longer) do you realise that each little part becomes part of a whole which is then larger than the sum of the parts and is a witness to social history.
The New Gateway is true to the spirit of James Leatham’s original aim in offering a unique and alternative perspective on the past, present and future. It is not monetised and there are no gatekeepers controlling what is put ‘out there.’ (apart obviously from my editorial choices – but these are open and upfront – determined by putting out as broad a range of ‘previously published’ work from Leatham and the public domain with a smattering of truly ‘alternative’ contemporary perspectives.
It may be seen as propaganda from the past and present, but The New Gateway has no problem with the word or concept of propaganda in its original sense. There is no shame in presenting a different (even a minority) view.
An unquestioning adoption of words such as ‘propaganda’ and ‘democracy’ into the pantheon of ‘juju’ words – which become the clichés all too many people live by- stands in need of regular reappraisal and challenge if we are not to become victim to the bread and circuses of modern (including social) media. Today we are bombarded with information (some may say mis-information) constantly. It comes pre-packaged, easy to consume - ready info - and there is a greater need than ever for slow, considered information that has to be looked for and studied and not reduced to sound bites. This is what we hope we point a gateway to.
There are many more backwaters to explore and it is for the reader to learn how to engage with the information age – passive consumer of junk or questing for enlightenment beyond the obvious. That’s your choice. Our job is simply to remind you that you get out what you put in. The options are almost limitless but it requires the individual to engage at a level beyond what we are being taught. There is a world beyond Bestsellers lists, beyond Wikipedia, beyond celebrity… it’s out there – but you have to get up off your virtual couch to look for it.
Over this year The Deveron Press has worked on publishing its Centenary Collection of 10 books. The task is now nearly complete with just the ‘Socialist Shakespeare’ to make it through the final proof/publishing process before our anniversary year ends in May 2017. We believe that the Centenary Collection offers a good insight into the work of James Leatham as writer, editor and publisher and, brought together, the books become much more than the sum of the whole. Making hidden works and forgotten writing available again for a contemporary audience is something of a mission, a revolutionary act against the tsunami of capitalist driven version of publishing. I often sit and wonder what Leatham would have made of the technological (and social) changes (I hesitate to call them advances) of the past seventy years. Freed from copyright prison, his work now lives on. To read a book you first have to know it exists. We are bringing work back into print, and we do what little we can to tell the world it’s out here. It will always be a backwater, a side-show, an alternative – artisan publishing if you will (and if you can understand the irony of the ‘juju’ word artisan in this context!) and it’s up to the individual reader to pick and choose what they want. We’re always happy for feedback and to do what we can to promote the cause of wider, free access to public domain work. It’s a collaborative process, about sharing and openness, not about bottom lines and profit motives.
Have a wee scout around Gateway this month and you'll find that we are giving away omnibus ebook editions of cultural and political writings from Volume 1. Don't say we never give you anything! There's plenty on offer for free, but if you enjoy what you find here, we recommend that you put your hand in your pocket and buy one of our paperback publications. Not to make us rich, but for our own enjoyment and to demonstrate to us that there are readers out there who appreciate what we're doing.
And what of next year? We’ll carry on doing the same. This ongoing, quiet, determined logging, blogging and cataloguing of the kind of writing that has been airbrushed out of history or simply forgotten, may not start revolutions, but it provides an alternative to the mainstream and dominant narratives which surround and threaten to engulf us. The New Gateway offers a door into a different perspective. It’s for you to open the door when it suits you, explore what is behind, and make of it what you will.
As 2016 turns into 2017 I wish you all that you might wish for yourself going forward. If you enjoy The New Gateway, I’d appreciate it if you’d share that fact – tell others – and encourage them towards, if not through, the doorway we offer. See you on the other side!
From 'Letters to a young Writer IV' by William Robertson Nicoll in ‘The Bookman’ April 1894.
. . . Could I get you a little reviewing to do? Would the Tomahawk print anything in that way if you sent it ? You have never done anything of the kind, but it seems to be a way literary persons have of beginning their career, and you wouldn't mind trying your hand at it. You have nothing of your own ripe in your head just now, so you may as well concern yourself with other people's things.
Well, about the Tomahawk printing your first attempts I am doubtful, but if you stick to your ambitions you’ll probably have to enter journalism by one or other of its doors to earn your bread and butter while your great works are in the making, so it is none too soon to learn a bit of the trade. And in journalism reviewing comes handiest to anyone of a bookish turn. At the same time criticism is a work for which young untrained writers are highly unsuited, but this again does not prevent my advising early and constant practice in it to all who are ambitious to excel and succeed in literature, but who have not as yet been manifestly called to it. One of the most startling facts regarding the shoals of young writers’ MSS. Which pass through my hands is not their native want of ability, but the evidence they show of indifference to literature. Their contentment with poor models is surprising. Perhaps the writers have been too much at school, and have had little time. At all events, the fact remains so; and reviewing at least sends a reviewer to books. Ideally, reading may be the worst of all preparations for the career of a literary creator; the sky of heaven, the human heart, and human actions should perhaps give all the early experience needful. But I think the history of authors, even great ones, would show that as many have been sent to the closer study of nature and humanity by books, as by the observation of humanity and nature to literature. And if reading does not give the artist his impulse, at least it teaches him his craft.
The reviewer is not born but made. Of course, he must have certain natural gifts, chiefly moral, but these were not exclusively designed by Providence for his calling. It is not altogether a glorious career this; its records have been stained many times with blunders, incapacity, and injustice. They hide, too, a mass of excellent and forgotten work. But, inglorious as it may be, the work, in the present state of things, is in demand by publishers, by authors, perhaps even by readers. It is a way of eking out a more or less honest livelihood, and it is about as good a literary exercise as any young writer could be led to.
It has a past, even among press-hacks, by no means without honour. Men of genius have used it as a way of interpreting themselves as well as the author they set out to write on. It has high traditions as well as ignoble ones, and though it is not a career flattering to the vanity, it is today an eminently respectable one. A little log-rolling and much inaccuracy are nearly the only stains on its present reputation in England. But as there is the higher, so there is, in a literary sense, the lower criticism, that which , according to common belief, is the work of the office-boy. And to save you from this office-boy kind of ‘criticism’ I have suggested some preliminary practice, which many journalists will pooh-pooh, as something impossible and altogether needless. I would only remind such that Herbert Spencer’s ‘Ethics’ once got into the hands of a the wrong man of a newspaper staff, who dismissed it in a line or two, urgin the obscure author to choose a subject more suited to his abilities. This is reported to be one of the few jokes Mr. Spencer ever really enjoyed. Then there is the criticism which an editor finds useful for filling space, which offends people as little – unless they be particularly impatient of stupidity – as it informs or stimulates. It repeats the commonplaces of the world without a blush, and would serve up the multiplication tables if it could only manage to vary the phraseology. Hazlitt knew its author intimately, in social intercourse as well as in the press. ‘’The following list of his opinions may be relied upon: - it is pretty certain that before you have been in the room with him ten minutes he will give you to understand that Shakespeare was a great but irregular genius. Again, he thinks it a question whether any one of his plays, if brought out now, for the first time, would succeed… He wonders that the author of Junius was never found out… He thinks there has been a great improvement in the morals of the higher classes since the reign of Charles II.” And so on. Our stock phrases and stale dicta are other nowadays, but the spirit of the commonplace is always the same. Then there is the review of the book that has never been read, which is generally full of vaguely and guardedly complimentary adjectives, an exercise this not without practice in mental dexterity and in the art of saying nothing gracefully, and guarding your reputation for judgement, but not one likely to commend itself to young writers whose imagination and ambition will instinctively put them in the wronged and disappointed author’s place.
What I mean by training for reviewing is little more than this. While you have leisure, pay the homage of agreement or disagreement with the books that interest you, without a thought whether your manuscript is to be seen by other eyes than your own. Many a one has done this kind of thing in the leisurely days of his youth who never published a line of literary criticism. It matured in his mind and made him into a reader, which today is a much rarer thing than a writer. Even a young literary aspirant should have a past behind him, and did it consist in an acquired habit of literary judgement it would be valuable capital.
There is a style of criticism in vogue just now, particularly attractive to young writers, because it has two fascinating qualities: it is difficult of achievement, and it looks very knowing. Criticism generally resolves itself, in the end, into like and dislike, but these two are ordinary supported by reasons based on laws of style and taste which represent a great weight of tested opinion. But so-called impressionist criticism, in stating its likes and dislikes, omits the reasons, trusting entirely to moods. Now, criticism where the personal equation is large is always interesting and may be valuable. But to be valuable it demands a better stocked mind and memory, a wider experience and tolerance , than most young people generally possess. It presupposes too, judgement that has been in work so long or that is naturally so quick that its motions are almost unconscious and automatic.
The straightforward descriptive style is best of all for beginners, especially if the exercise be looked at with regard to its chief use, to make good readers. Find accurately the purpose of your book, if it has one, or the situation, or point of view, if it is a work of art. Can it be fairly and not too remotely compared with any other? If so, wherein are the two different? Is it to be regarded as an interesting narrative, or as a contribution to information, or as literature? Illustrate your statements by the aptest quotations you can find. They may sound very puerile, these directions, but hints against slipshod work are not often superfluous. Choose by preference books that are not new. Find out the pith and marrow for instance, of ‘Esmond’ or ‘Emma’, ‘Cinq Mars’ or ‘Les Trois Mousquetaires,’ of ‘The Essay in Criticism’ or ‘The Prelude,’ of ‘The Rivals, ‘ or ‘Edward II’ or Burke’s ‘Reflections,’ or Walton’s Lives or Cowper’s Letters – to give a mere haphazard selection.
The argumentative method can be your next step. Here your account of the contents of your book will be stopped every now and again to notice the strong or weak points, the novelties, the superfluities, or the absurdities. Examine, vindicate, and judge; only know something of what you are talking about. Learn to handle reference books skilfully, and to find your place in whatever library is at your disposal. Attack, but hit even a dead author fairly. Be as satirical as you like, when you feel assured you understand. You will be all the bolder that you are writing for yourself and not for a cold-blooded editor, and boldness is a good habit to begin with. But even at this stage, it is well to become used to being generous to a writer who is antipathetic to you.
Side by side with such practice, in this your time of leisure, should run some study of the best criticism, best in style, or in sanity, or in the work put into it. Read Macaulay, whose reputation is for the present a little undeservedly obscured, and recognise the mass of reading and reference he had ready for every review he wrote. Read Lamb, and see how gracefully and gently he carries his weight of out of the way learning. Read Hazlitt, and learn how the criticism of other people’s thoughts may be a vehicle of all that is most brilliant and original in a critic’s own mind. Read Lowell, and catch some of his fervour for the great literature of the world. Read Carlyle, and feel the heat of his moral fervour and understand all he demanded from books. Read Sainte-Beuve and Taine, for you miss a great chance of literary education if you don’t know French. I have named no living writers, it is not out of disparagement to the criticism of today, but because it is well to emphasize the fact that wisdom was not born this morning.
And when you have done this, and your editor gives you a chance, it may be to pronounce judgement on a worthless novel, or to summarise the merits of some work that has won your sympathies in ten brief lines. Such is the discipline journalism sometimes provides for her most high-souled helpers, but you will deserve to be a hack if you think your previous studies and your ambitious attempts were wasted.
A wee story for Christmas - first published in December 1940 in The Gateway.
For the benefit of English readers, the Auld Lichts were the Original Seceders who left the Church of Scotland because of differences of opinion alike on points of doctrine and church government. They were evangelicals who objected to ‘cauld morality’ sermons and to the law which allowed a patron to impose a minister on the parish and people without their consent and free choice. The Disruption of a hundred years later was an assertion of the same right of a congregation to choose its own pastor. This right was legally recognised by the abolition of patronage in 1874.
The most unexpected element in Lichtie was in his drollery. Considering the preposterous beliefs he held in what is called religion, it was perplexing how readily his mind saw the mildly ludicrous in everyday events and sayings. He brought the gravity of a chancellor to the consideration of every topic, and made you wonder if you were not a trifler in a world of momentous solemnities. And yet he had a quirk of natural whimsicality that left you uncertain. If you asked him how he did, he would answer, ‘Oh, jist battlin’ awa.’ This reply he gave you always in the same undeviating tone. But you could never be quite sure what he meant by it – whether he intended you to infer that life was a discouraging battle or that he was enjoying the tussle. His tone gave no clue.
Lichtie’s genial neighbour, Geordie Crow, had one day ‘a narrow shave.’ Geordie was a blacksmith, and his smiddy was roofed with flagstones. One of these slid off as he was passing and just missed his head by an inch or two. He told the story to Lichtie, adding ‘Wasna that Providential escape, Robbie?’
After musing a little, Robbie said gravely, ‘Weel, I dinna see ony Providence in it, Geordie.’
The blacksmith drew back a step and looked at the immobile figure. ‘Only twa inches nearer, and the flagstane would hae killed me, man,’ he cried
Lichtie was unconvinced, and stated the fact in his own way.
‘If Providence threw the stane at ye, Geordie, He would either hae struck ye or made a wider deliverance – twa feet or mair.’
Geordie was puzzled by this, but tried again. ‘It’s this way, Robbie,’ he argued. ‘It cam’ sae near me that if it hadna been for the interference o’ Providence it micht hae clove my skull, man.’
The stoical Robbie could not follow this caprice.
‘I canna tak’ it in, Geordie. Providence couldna baith knock the flagstane aff the roof to kill ye, and at the same time keep it awa frae its mark.’
‘An’ why no?’ queried the amazed blacksmith.
This insistence slightly nettled Lichtie.
‘A’ I can say,’ he remarked stubbornly, ‘is this – that if Providence aimed at ye, and then repented, it would be because ye wasna fit to dee, Geordie!’ And he walked off solemnly.
Did anything so simple occur to them as the loosening of the slab by ordinary natural wear and tear and then the operation of the law of gravity, the passing of the blacksmith at the moment being pure fortuity? It would be hard to say. The discussion at any rate was purely theological, and irreverently ignored the only real laws of the occurrence.
The blacksmith, who thought he had proved a clear miracle, gazed after his inscrutable acquaintance in wonderment. Was Lichtie taking him off, or was he really being rebuked? He was bewildered, as Robbie’s hearers often were.
Lichtie was a mason to trade. While doing some repairs at Lengar Castle, the proprietor condescendingly asked the old man if he would like to see through the building; and without waiting for a reply he opened the front door and signalled Robbie to enter. The marvels of the interior did not escape the sturdy mason. He admired in his own fashion the scope of walls, staircases and rooms; but to any remark of the complacent castellan his sole answer was ‘Ay.’ ‘A fine view from this window’ was met solemnly with ‘Ay.’ The pictures and statuary were similarly honoured. When the two arrived at the doorstep again the laird sought to draw out his guest.
‘Well, a fine mansion, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Ay,’ replied Lichtie, ‘an’ yet, d’ye ken, it wudna mak a SKYLICHT in oor Father’s hoose!’
Robbie left Willie Dow’s son Peter in the same plight. Peter had been in London for a year or more, and returned to the village in fashionable clothes. He called on Robbie as an old neighbour. Robbie gravely scrutinised him from head to heel.
‘Good fit, ain’t it?’ remarked the youth, turning himself round maliciously to allow Robbie a full view.
‘Fits ye like a coat o’ paint, sir,’ was Lichtie’s verdict.
Had it been another person’s. Peter would have considered it a neat saying and would have felt flattered. But Robbie was no sartorial connoisseur, and his remark must have meant something else. Did he infer that, like a rotten paling painted, Peter had only a skin-deep respectability? Who could tell? Peter came away hurt. Then he changed his mind. In the end he remained perplexed.
Fourteen miles Lichtie tramped every Sabbath. (We must not say Sunday – that was in Lichtie’s view only the profane, pagan, official name for the Lord’s own day.) His Auld Licht church was seven miles away. He was never absent unless very ill, and indeed often made the double journey in great enfeeblement. His house was one of the old type, with a hinged shutter to the window. This shutter was never opened on the Sabbath, which was thus no sun-day with his abode. His chief reason, however, was that he might not see the kind of weather until he was outside. Thus a sunny day did not tempt him to wander in his garden and neglect attending ‘the means of grace’; and if snow lay deep on the ground he did not know of it until he had stepped outside: and then, having committed himself so far, there was little to be gained by going back, even had he been tempted to do so. By this manoeuvre he held ‘the flesh’ by a firm rein.
He was taciturn to the end, and his droll turn remained also. When the neighbour who attended him in his last hours asked him if he had any ‘message’ for her, he merely answered, very feebly but earnestly, ‘Dinna forget God; an’ keep yersel’ clean.’
To her last breath she did not know whether to be pleased or offended. And he left the minister in a similar haze. To him he said, ‘Never preach the gospel in a dirty collar, sir.’
To warn people against venial ‘sins’ they are not likely to commit is very Calvinistic and unpleasant; yet we were all of one mind that Robbie was a saint and a mystic; but whether he was a satirist or not remained an open question. The children seemed to understand him best. His solemnity was an amusement to them, and they were never annoyed by the equivocal sayings he uttered to their seniors. When they christened him ‘Lichtie’ it was done more in a spirit of affectionate familiarity than to proclaim his connection with the Auld Licht Kirk.
The Names in the Novels
One great open secret of the classic stamp which is upon these fictions lies in the author’s happy choice of unforgettable names, both for places and for characters. We learn from Forster’s ‘Life’ – what we might have divined from experience of the range and peculiarity of actual English names – that the nomenclature in Dickens, when it was not obviously coined, as in Do-the-boys Hall, was taken down from signboards, nameplates, newspaper reports, and the everyday hearing of the ear.
To Scotsmen, Welshmen, or Irishmen who have never lived away from their own country, the Dickens names often appear incredibly absurd. There are ugly names in the Celtic lands – McCulloch, MacFadyen, MacGurk, Auchinachie are not exactly verbal poems – but at least the Celtic names have a meaning: Mac is ‘the son of,’ and auch is ‘a field.’ But some English names would appear to have been affixed for their absurdity. No name is too grotesque, too jeering, to gross, or too ugly to be an actual name carried through life by some unfortunate English man or woman who must repeat it to strangers, be addressed by it in speech or writing, or hear it announced at a great public assembly. What are we to think of Hogben, Quirk, Titterington, Coffin, Bugg, Ragg, and Juggins? Passing along Chester Road, Manchester , one day with Robert Blatchford and William Palmer the artist, we sighted a brass plate bearing the legend: ‘Tipper, Contractor.’ My companions smiled when I called attention to its appropriateness; but hey had evidently seen without thinking of it before. A little later, in Stretford Road, we came upon the name ‘Godbehere’ over a Bible shop, and again it was the northern newcomer who was struck with the oddity rather than the English journalist and the English artist who passed the shop regularly.
When in Dickens’s page we light upon place names like Chinks’s Basin, Millpond Bank, and the Old Green Copper Ropewalk we may be sure that the great writer has seen these names and joyfully jotted them down for use. They were almost certainly real names. In Hull to this day there is a Bowlalley Lane and a Land of Green Ginger.
The surnames in these novels are forever identifies with typical human characteristics as adjectives and substantives. Coined names like Gradgrind and Bounderby carry their meaning in their face; but names less indicative of personal characteristics have nevertheless become generically descriptive. The groveller is Uriah Heep; the whole tribe of cracksmen are Bill Sikes; Sarah Gamp’s surname has provided a short synonym for umbrellas that have now little in common with the plethoric paraplui she carried; Chadband and Stiggins stand for the class of theologians - now mostly extinct, one would say - whose unction was in inverse ratio to their sincerity.
The names seem to go in pairs, because they are chosen upon a principle, and we link them so much with pleasure in the mere enumeration. There is Jarley and Marley, and Lillyvick and Linkinwater. There are Podsnap and Snodgrass, Peg Sliderskew and Poll Sweedlepipe. We bracket Joe Gargery who had ‘sich larks’ with Barkiss who ‘was willin.’ When we think of two hard, hemit-like old hunks we couple Scrooge who was hard bitten by habit rather than nature with the diabolical Quilp who rioted in badness. If we think of lawyers it is impossible to remember Spenlow & Jorkins without recalling Dodson & Fogg. There are names that suggest the qualities of the characters who bear them, as they were, of course, intended to do – the Brothers Cheeryble as optimists, Murdstone, the hard man whose name is suggested by grindstone; Miss Flyte, whose estate took flight in litigation; Serjeant Buzfuz who was indeed all fuss and buzz; Trotty Veck, Silas Wegg, Newman Noggs, Mark Tapley (the very name for a man from a public house) ; Mrs Pipchin (what a name!) and Mrs Gummidge , who grumbled so long and then turned out a trump. What a galaxy of memories they call up, and how they have served the world with catchwords and similes, from Wilkins Micawber’s ‘Waiting for something to turn up,’ and Captain Cuttle’s ‘When found make a note of,’ to the proverbs and metaphors of the Wellers, father and son.
To many a million the England of Charles Dickens and his people is the only England there is; and when we read that Germans in the trenches read the novels of Dickens in greater numbers than did our own Tommies, it seemed no wonder that they should have been so ready to fraternise with us at the first Christmas of the Great War, or that afterwards they should have mutinied against fighting the compatriots of an author in whose hands English humanity appears, on the whole, in such a delightful guise.
Well, we may say that the foundation of Dickens’s style was the close attention with which he observed, the intense feeling with which he wrote, and the happy patience with which he unfolded the humours of character in humble individuals with whom both the queerest freakishnesses and the greatest tenderness are oftenest to be found. One thinks of all the art expended on the Aged Parent, deaf and past work, yet affectionately cherished and humoured by his son, who in the city was the hardest of legal nuts. But the secret of Dickens’s humour and wit and kindness is beyond us. The combination has a moral as well as an intellectual basis. Like Shakespeare, Dickens must have been a great lover of his fellow men.
It is often argued that Dickens was greatly given to exaggeration. For anyone who read the daily marvels of the press and keeps an open eye for the marvels of ordinary life it would be hard to say that the greatest wonders of the mere novelist can be exaggerated. One has met queerer people in life than any novelist dared to put in his books. There are many things that are impossible, but hardly any that are improbable.
All fictitious presentation of character has by its concentration necessarily the effect of exaggeration. To set down actual occurrences and speeches in the order of their occurrence, with all the inconsequent, insignificant things said and done in between the events and conversations that are of moment, would not be worth while. The artist must exclude the unessential in word and act. We all have friends and acquaintances who do and say, at intervals, things which we call characteristic. But during most of the time their words and acts are quite ordinary, and of no literary significance. In plays or novels, however, characters must always speak in character, and acts must have dramatic significance. This means that the ordinary must be excluded, and thus exaggeration becomes inevitable. A play or novel, thus, cannot be natural. They can only approximate to nature. It is enough that Dickens in his exaggeration can always carry us along with him. The story marches as a story, and the oddity of the characters, their odd names, their odd surroundings, their unusual experiences, and the didactic (teaching) significance of the whole tale, give it its value, in Dickens’s case a supreme value.
The Open-Eyed Sociologist.
The sociologist in Dickens never sleeps. He cannot take Pip to Mr Pumblechook’s shop without giving a picture of the whole High Street which is of vast economic significance:
Mr Pumblechook appeared to conduct his business by looking across the street at the saddler, who appeared to transact his business by keeping his eye on the coachmaker, who appeared to get on in life by putting his hands in his pockets and contemplating the baker, who in his turn folded his arms and stared at the grocer, who stood at his door and yawned at the chemist. The watchmaker, always peering over a little desk with a magnifying glass at his eye, and always inspected by a group in smock-frocks poring over him through the glass of his shop-window, seemed to be about the only person in the High Street whose trade engaged his attention.
That is competitive commerce – the small market town of wasteful hops and idle shopmen, with only one busy craftsman in the street.
As to sentiment, Dickens was one of the earliest of early Victorians; and while his fund is as fresh as ever, the pathos, say, of Little Nell and the old man is tiring. But with all his sentiment, he was ahead of his age, even ahead of the present age, in his socioeconomic shrewdness. It is still the fashion to sympathise with the money-lender’s victims, and judges gain cheap popularity by denouncing the money-lender. The dishonesty of borrowers who do not mean to pay, and of idle extravagant people who live well upon credit, taking goods they have no intention of paying – of this we hear only as a joke, though it is no joke to billed tradesmen and to the honest folk who are charged to make good the losses incurred with the bilkers. On this Dickens eighty years ago was more sound than all the judges who give all their sympathy to the plunging borrower and their scorn to the men who risk their money in the most desperate of all ventures, spending their lives in coping with conscienceless impecuniosity. He makes Arthur Gride in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’) soliloquise:
Ten thousand pounds! How many proud printed dames would have fawned and smiled, and how many spendthrift blockheads done me lip-service to my face and cursed me in their hearts, while I turned that ten thousand pounds into twenty! While I ground and pinched and used these needy borrowers for my pleasure and profit, what smooth-tongued speeches and courteous looks and civil letters would have given me! The cant of the lying world is, that men like me compass our riches by dissimulation and treachery; by fawning, cringing and stooping. Why, how many lies, what mean evasions, what humbled behaviour from upstarts who, but for my money, would spurn me aside as they do their betters every day, would that ten thousand pounds have brought me in! Grant that I had doubled it – made cent. per cent. – for every sovereign told another – there would not be one piece in all the heap which wouldn’t represent ten thousand man and paltry lies, told, not by the money-lender, oh, no, but by the money- borrowers, your liberal, thoughtless, generous, dashing folks, who wouldn’t be so mean as to save a sixpence for the world.
That is not only good sense, but good drama. The money-lender is made to speak just as a money-lender would speak. It is the essence of drama to be able to put yourself in the place even of characters with whose sorry trade (as in this case) you have no sympathy.
I have quoted extensively from ‘Great Expectations,’ not only because of its ‘artistic’ merits as a tale, but because it seems to embody its author’s latest, wisest attitude to life. In its conclusion, Pip, who has lived upon the ex-convict’s bounty without knowing the source of his unearned income, from the moment the coarse but affectionate man turns up, revolts against accepting another penny of his money.
The money has been lawfully earned abroad: it is the human channel through which it comes that Pip cannot abide.
How many men and women of today would jib at the fortune that came through such hands? It is such men as Magwitch, coarse in speech, in feature, hands, and habit, who make most of the world’s wealth. Are we to believe that because the rents and dividends of the idle well-to-do come through the hands of lawyer or stockbroker the dependence of the well-groomed, well-schooled, travelled, expensively-turned-out people is any less dishonourable?
If the upshot of Dickens’s tale counts for anything it is that every man and woman who does not work for a living is in precisely the same degrading position which Pip found so dishonourable when his patron turned up in person. Pip would not have the course Colonial’s money. He and his friend Herbert Pocket alike declared the idea intolerable. Is it tolerable for the well-to-do generally to live upon the labour and earnings of just such men, multiplied manifold, but keeping themselves mostly out of sight?
The miner, the navvy, the slaves of the stokehold, the bloated men of the brewery, the anaemic factory hands, the wretched beings from soapworks and chemical works, one of whom declared to an R.A.M.C friend that the life in the trenches was a holiday by comparison with his ordinary occupation in civil life – these are, mutatits mutandis , men very like Abel Magwitch, gnarled hands, bristling hair, sidelong doglike chewing, rude speech and all. But it is from these conscripts of toil that the idle shareholder draws his (or her) dividends. The shareholder cannot help it, it may be said. But he could help to change entirely the system of production and of life. As it is he votes and subscribes to prevent the system being altered.
Dickens does not thus drive home the general social significance of his story; but he must not only have known that it had no other significance, but intended it to carry that significance. Morally the whole story points to that.
Nay, it must be because his well-to-do readers have seen such teaching running through a great part of his work that they discover he was ‘not a gentleman.’
If to be a ‘nice’ man, falling in with the tastes and outlook of the masters rather than the serfs, be the test, then Dickens certainly was not a gentleman. The point need not be laboured. To many of us it will be in such ways, for such teaching, that the real noblesse oblige of Charles Dickens – himself a hard worker all his life – most truly emerges.
Thus we come back to the point from which we set out – the social purpose of these tales.
The large industrious class of pointless writers of fiction are annoyed that we should look for any such. ‘The business of the novelist’ says one of them, is to tell a plain tale in which his characters should be left to express themselves in action.’ So that the tale is to be plain as well as meaningless.
Why a plain tale? We used to say ‘a penny plain, tuppence coloured,’ the colours evidently doubling the value. We can get plain tales from the newspapers; but the significance of them is not shown, and the simple reader often finds them meaningless on the ‘plain’ presented elements. The Singh-Robinson case, or any cause celébre of the hour, is much more novel than any novel; but who shall say that the full significance of these plain tales is realised? For the rest, it is desirable that the characters who ‘express themselves in [recorded] action’ should be worth expressing. So many characters are not.
Yet another best-seller says: ‘The novelist should before everything else be an entertainer, a teller of tales.’ The implication of this is that worth-while characters, great events, and spirited narrative are not entertaining. This is not only hard on the historian and the biographer, but it is hard on the novelists who have had a purpose to serve as well as an entertaining story to tell – Dickens, for one, among many.
The author of a particularly sordid story of the East End of London says: ‘All this high falutin’ chatter about ideals! A playwrights’s and a missionary’s calling appear to me to be two distinct and separate callings which should not be permitted to overlat. The one aim of a novelist or dramatist is to amuse.’ Poor Shakespeare, the moralist and poet! Poor Shaw, the missionary! Poor Dickens, poor George Eliot, poor Charles Reade, poor Victor Hugo, poor Bellamy, poor Wells, hopeless hight falutin’ chattering idealists all, but also, somehow, great entertainers. Why did you not confine your attention to ladies of the type of ‘Liza of Lambeth,’ instead of introducing us to Desdemona, Lady Macbeth, Imogen, Constance, Catherine Eliassoen and Joan of Arc?
A lady novelist, whose interest lies in making out that Shakespeare and Dickens are back numbers, in reviewing the book of a brother-in-trade, says;
The philosophy of any novel is negligible; what matters in it is style, atmosphere, imagination, the drama of events or of emotion, and character presentment. ‘These Barren Leaves’ is restful, refreshing, and entertaining. You feel at the end of it that you have been paying a leisurely visit to a gossiping and amusing house party, no more unintelligent or tiresome, though a good deal more affectionate, than the average set of people in real life.
Do you want to read about ‘an average set of people in real life?’ Why should you? Is it not better to keep the very best company that you can? Average talk is neither wise nor interesting. Average people are very much opposed to learning anything, and mostly they are appallingly ignorant, even of the business out of which they make a living. This ‘average set of people,’ are the company at a country house. One has sat hour after hour in the smokeroom of a country house in the company of politicians, proconsuls, physicians, authors and divines, and their conversation ranged over topics the bare mention of which would raise a smile form ‘an average set of people.’ But their conversation was intensely absorbing, informative, and so stimulating that it impressed one afresh with a sense of one’s own limitations, and raised still higher the studious ambition. In addition to that, it was witty and entertaining as the talk of average people never is. Greville of the ‘Memoirs’ was a horsey man, keeping the company, often, of jockeys and stableboys. But he was, by virtue of his birth and family influence, Clerk to the Privy Council. He often met in company Macaulay, Sydney Smith, Lord Holland, Lord Melbourne, and the Duke of Wellington. After such a meeting he would enter in his journal remorseful lamentations over time mis-spent with average people, and make good resolutions for the future; and he was on the less wise because these resolutions were not kept.
The best company should be good enough for anyone. If we cannot keep it in person we can do so in literature – the best man in a thousand years are better in their books than ever they were in personal contact. It is not arrogance or superior personism to want to associate with grown-up people. The average person has not quite grown up. The C3 people wallowing in gossip about the football or the billiards which they do play, and the sporting chances of politicians in whose politics they take no interest, are spectators at a show of whose antecedents, meaning, and possible course they have no idea. Why make books about the Grey Mass when there are outstanding people, events and things to write up?
If we wish occasionally to read novels as a dissipated alternative and alternative to books about real people who matter, important events that did happen or are happening now, or the science and the story of the world and the universe in which we live, the masters of fiction are good enough; and the test of their quality is the extent to which they have used their tales, not merely for amusement, but in order to shed real light on the life of man the struggler, still so imperfectly known to us. Regarded as entertainers, it is not to the journeymen of the craft that these masters of craft will take a back seat.
Addendum to the Second Edition.
As criticism of the foregoing, it is said that the crusades of the didactic writers will destroy the value of their fictions when the propaganda has done its turn and the evils are exposed no more. But ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ is still a great seller because it is the most graphic exposure of the many evils of chattel slavery. ‘Don Quixote’ is not out of date because it satirises the absurdities of medieval chivalry. The grosser evils of the factory system have been removed, but ‘Mary Barton’ is still a classic because it illustrates them in detail; it has had a lease of life not extended to Mrs Gaskell’s less didactic novels, beating even the exquisite semi-autobiographical ‘Cranford’ which is the Cheshire home of her youth, Knutsford. The Bronte stories have always a serious background, probably all unnoted by the careless reader – the Napoleonic wars, high prices, and the Luddite firing of factories and smashing of machinery. Sir Walter Scott is not a back number because his tales have usually a purposeful historic setting: it is the non-historic ones such as ‘St Ronan’s Well,’ that are less successful. Thackeray’s ‘Esmond,’ and ‘The Virginians’ are among his more enduring writings because they revive the atmosphere of an age that is ‘dead’ only to those whose lack of imagination leaves them uninterested in history , which with Mr Henry Ford, they probably find to be ‘all bunk.’
To the thoughtless, ‘didactic’ means ‘of the nature of copybook maxims.’ Be it said in passing , the crystallised wisdom of the copybook maxim is better gear than ‘the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate,’ and much better than the full, true, and particular account of the dawn of Lady Ermytrude’s passion for the chauffeur. Didactic means teaching, and now that fiction has become the only reading of the largest class of those who look at a book at all, it is more than ever necessary that it should be informed with purposes. ‘The Jungle,’ ‘King Coal,’ ‘The Brass Cheek,’ ‘Looking Backwards,’ ‘Elmer Gantry,’ among the more modern American novels with a purpose –aren’t they all good enough tales as such? Of didactic the greatest entertainer of the time has written in the preface to ‘Man and Superman’: ‘When he declares that art should not be didactic, all the people who have nothing to teach and all the people who do not want to learn agree with him emphatically.’
PART ONE: This is a long article and will be available for free download in pdf format when part three is posted in February.
Is the State the Enemy of the People?
History, gentlemen, is a struggle with Nature - the misery, the ignorance, the poverty, the weakness, and consequent slavery in which we were involved when the human race came upon the scene in the beginning of history. The progressive victory over this weakness - this is the development of freedom which history displays to us.
It is the State whose function it is to carry on THIS DEVELOPMENT OF FREEDOM, this development of the human race until its freedom is attained.
The State is this unity of individuals into a moral whole, a unity which increases a million-fold the strength of all the individuals who are comprehended in it, and multiplies a million times the power which would be at the disposal of them as individuals. - FERDINAND LASSALLE: The Working Man’s Programme.
Till all, recanting, own the State
Means nothing but the People.
Travellers report that Arab boatmen used to be incapable of pulling altogether with a ‘Yo, heave ho!’ (or its Arabic equivalent), but tugged separately and ineffectively; and an inability fully to co-operate is noted as a characteristic of primitive man, animals, and the insane. Most of our present-day troubles appear to be fundamentally due to the lack of organization, and of the efficiency, economy, and real freedom (from disabilities) that come with a proper adaptation of means to ends. Is there less freedom to all because of the rules of the road, the regulation of traffic, and the principle of the queue? The man who elbows, jostles, and spreads himself in car or carriage curtails the freedom of other people.
The demands for amalgamation, consolidation, and working agreements are simply reactions from the hindrances and losses due to licence and confusion. A hundred and twenty competing railways amalgamated into six groups, with a saving of expense which has enabled them to carry on despite the handicap of the heavy road traffic. But they amalgamated to suit their own interests. A still greater consolidation in the public interest could be effected by amalgamating the six groups into one State service. Coalmining companies ought long since to have followed the example set by the railways; but it seems they will do so only on State compulsion, and to this all Individualists think they are opposed. Socialism is, they pretend, ‘the end of all things.’
The objection to nationalization is the most palpable of all the prejudices. The State is our friend even if we have no other. It takes an interest in us almost as soon as we are born, and if there is no one else to bury us the State will do it. If a poor woman whom nobody would have looked at is knocked down in the street, the representative of the State will hold up the whole of the traffic till she is gathered into safety. She will be taken to hospital and have such skill and care as she never would have got from her friends. The organised community is her best friend.
We all fall back upon the State when in trouble. Even the malefactor is glad of police protection from private vengeance. The capitalist himself, much as he hates and professes to despise the State, is glad of a State subsidy, and is fain to appeal to the courts for justice as against birds of his own feather. I one day came upon a group of youths who were tormenting a blind man. When they saw me they ran away, and a policeman coming upon the scene almost at the same moment, he took hold of the bind man in kindness. The sightless face was strained with fear and anxiety, but when the bobby laid hands on him the man seemed to know the difference. He ran his sensitive fingers rapidly up and down the bobby’s buttons, and his face broke into a pleased smile. He knew it was the protective hand of the State rescuing him from private enterprise.
Private enterprise no longer builds houses, or plants trees, or lays down sewers, or carries out large electrical installations. These things all bring us back to the State. The traders of the United States clamour for railway rates the same as those of Canada, because, although Canada is much more sparsely peopled than the States, it can give lower rates, the service having been nationalised. There are no dividends to find.
The Post Office is the biggest and most efficient business in the country, and it gives the cheapest service. Although it does not exist for profit, but primarily for service, it netted £44,000,000 of profit during the thirteen years 1912-25, in spite, too, of all the gratuitous services (constantly being increased) which it performs. The Civil Services are turning over £223,000,000 worth of business a-year, and they do it on working expenses of £11,000,000, or about 5 per cent. No private business is managed upon so small a percentage.
The Social-Democratic State.
Since the time of Plato at least wise men have looked to the State and to the principle of Nationalization as affording the means of social redress. For eighty years the Socialist demand has been for the setting up of a Social-Democratic State, with national ownership of land and machinery. This did not mean that purely local industries were to be managed by a Government bureau at Whitehall, but merely that the communal authorities in localities possessing valuable natural resources such as coal or granite, or acquired skill in metallurgy or textiles, should own allegiance to a central authority that would prevent the setting up of local monopolies claiming monopoly privileges.
This ideal of mutually interdependent and co-ordinated communities of weavers and fishermen, of graziers and grain-raisers, is evidently too large for some minds; and we have had first the Syndicalist demand for the politically independent trade union, and now we have, apparently, a demand from some who regard themselves as Socialists for the political independence of the commune. This last conception is as old at least as the time of the Communards of 1871, who in several populous centres of France rose in armed revolt against the newly-formed Republic, and declared for ‘a free federation of independent communes.’
France and Britain are free federations of communes already; and as to the ‘independence,’ London and Leeds no more need or want to be independent of each other than the nose needs or wants to be independent of the eyes or ears. This idea of the State as an evil is the great bugbear which stands between the nation and the control of its essential services. Critics who turn a blind eye to the gross and palpable evils of Individualism - with its recurring holdups and its permanent waste and inefficiency - inveigh against the imaginary evil of the functions of the State being indefinitely increased, and the business of the nation being made to flow through the Post Office to a still greater extent than it is now doing; though be it said the Post Office has added Old Age Pensions and State Insurance business to its numerous other departments with the maximum of ease, efficiency, and economy. Still, the dislike of certain aspects of bureaucracy is wholesome enough. But the suspicion with respect to excessive centralization becomes itself an excess when the suspecters go on roundly to declare, as they do, that the State is in any case an evil.
Social Evils not State-Created.
We are NOT at war with the State. The evils of life have not been State-created. It was not the State that called slavery into existence; but it did something to protect the slave from his master. The slave was the captive of his owner, who had originally either taken him prisoner in war or captured him in a slave-raid. But while the State did not introduce slavery, and there was slavery before there was a State, it was the State that abolished it, finding twenty millions sterling for the compensation of the dispossessed ‘owners’ in British Dominions, while in America the North fought the South to abolish it.
Serfdom was a remnant of slavery. The basis was the strong hand and willpower of the dominant class. Where it was abolished the State either abolished it summarily, as in Russia, or connived at its abolition by declaring, as England did in the fourteenth century, that a year’s residence in a corporate town freed the serf.
In its inception landlordism is not State-created. The strong men who came to Britain with Hengist and Horsa found the land cultivated by free and half-free colonii, who had been left behind as a relic of the Roman occupation. The masterless man, living in a wild country, made haste to find himself a strong man for master. He was willing to abandon the wild places, the No-Man’s Land, and till another man’s land because of the protection that lay in numbers and the fighting capabilities of his chief. Up to the reign of Alfred, the Saxon tribesmen were freeholders, owing fealty to no overlord. They had got their land from the invading chiefs in freehold, on the ground of their strength, courage, and skill in battle, and it was because of the lack of public spirit on the part of these tribesmen that Alfred the Great and Archbishop Dunstan (the wisest and most public-spirited men of their time) called into existence the feudal system, which made the tribesmen only holders of the land of which they previously had been owners. They would not come out and stay out to repel the Danish pirates. They were individualists who would fight an invader if he appeared within their own hundred or shire, but they would not follow him up and drive him out of the country. The thought of the goodwife, the children, and the farmstead left behind drew them off the pursuit. And so the feudal system had to come as the punishment for the Saxon’s lack of public spirit.
The State thus created the feudal system, but it left millions of acres of folk land and Common land for the poor freemen and the serfs, and time and again it protected the commons from illegal landlordial encroachment. Even Charles the First, tyrant, torturer, and pledge-breaker as he was, did his best to preserve the commons. He learned that Rockingham Forest had dwindled from sixty miles in width to six miles, and in 1633 he appointed a Commission to inquire into these appropriations. The noble depredators, one of whom was the Earl of Essex, were forced to disgorge and were stiffly fined. Rockingham Forest, as public land, was protected by the State for the people.
Part Two next month...
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