Twixt Desk and Shelves; Being Parleys with the Public in a Repository of Learning.
(From early 1920s)
To hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show…the very age and body of the time his form and pressure (Hamlet)
‘What a muddle of a world!’ said Peter Peevery as he put down the Printer’s paper.
Printer (coolly): What is it in particular?
Peter: I see here that the Government is rushing up the assessments upon houses by 30 to 40 per cent.
Printer: Ay, having taken sixpence off the rich man’s income tax they have to find the money in other directions. For one thing, they are imposing income tax upon people who never paid it before and are not fairly assessable now. They have been distraining on fishermen, who have done nothing since the war, and must be hard put to it to find a living, let alone pay income tax.
Peter: (with the idle person’s invariable insistence upon industry in other people): Well, why aren’t they working then?
Printer: We’re talking about incomes, not about diligence. The Income Tax Commissioners have no right to tax a man upon an income he doesn’t receive, whether he ought to receive it or not. Fishermen are discouraged from work because there is no market for their fish. The herring fishing used to occupy them practically all the year round, from the February fishing in the ‘South Firth,’ the spring fishing on the west coast and at Shetland, till the great summer fishing on the north-east coast and the autumn and winter fishing at Scarborough, Lowestoft and Yarmouth, which ended in December.
Peter: Well, why does it not occupy them now?
Printer: Because there is no market for the herrings.
Peter: There’s as good a market as ever. But I ‘aven’t seen a bloater for years, and not many kippers.
Printer: You good old fathead, you don’t know what you are talking about! Kippers and bloaters for home consumption don’t take a hundredth part of the herrings that used to be pickled for the German and Russian markets. The Germans and Russians can’t buy them, with the rouble and the mark so depreciated. Pickled herrings were to the Russian peasant and the German what brose and potatoes are to the Scots ploughman, or bacon and beans to the English. A servant engaging was promised so many herrings, and the farmers and others liked small herrings, since there was more in a barrel and a herring was a herring all the same.
Peter (with uncharacteristic disdain): I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Printer: You don’t need to know. You don’t mean to say that you refuse to accept facts because you’ve never heard them before? You think of fishing as an industry carried on for home consumption. And it isn’t. The capitalist fishing which now obtains is an export industry. Herrings outnumber in weight and value all other fish caught.
Peter: Nay, nay. When we see a fish truck – and smell it – it’s usually ling and ‘alibut and cod.
Printer: Ay, but you don’t see the fleets of steamers that carry pickled herrings in barrels to Stetting and Riga – or used to do. (He fished out a volume of a work of reference.) This is not up to date: but in 1900 there were 5,5200,000 cwts. Of ling, 424,000 cwts of cod, 157 cwts of ling 75,000 cwts. Of whiting, 72,000 cwts of skate and 143,000 cwts of mussels.
Peter: For the whole country?
Printer: I beg your pardon. I ought to have mentioned that these were the figures for Scotland only. But here’s another table for England and Wales. In England there are more haddocks and fewer herrings; but even then the herring has it against all other fish, though the English fishermen don’t pursue the herring to the same extent as the Scots.
Peter: But the English fish are not exported. They are for home consumption.
Printer: By no means entirely, sir. There is a big export trade – used to be at any rate – in dried cod and other white fish to Roman Catholic countries, for Lent and Fridays. There are vast yards in Hull, Grimsby, and Aberdeen for sun-drying and kiln-drying the fish and I knew a man who used to make journeys to Spain, Portugal and Italy just to sell fish.
Peter: A fishy bagman!
Printer: Quite so. The point is that in this as in other branches of capitalism, the production is so great, and the consumption by the underpaid workers is so small, that the enormous surplusage has to be sent abroad. Trawling is probably a very wasteful form of fishing; it rakes up the spawn and immature fish as well as edible fish. Anyhow all the grounds that have been trawled over for any length of time are scraped clean.
Peter: Fish are often scarce enough.
Printer: Tons of fish are carted off to the fields ever day at Aberdeen and I daresay at Grimsby as well. Twenty tons a day sometimes at Aberdeen.
Peter: I don’t believe it!
Printer: Well, it’s candid of you to say so. Some would refuse to believe , without saying so. But the facts have nothing to do with your knowledge or your belief.
Peter: It isn’t sense to ask me to believe that twenty tons of good food are wasted as manure.
Printer: Oh, Mary Ann! Have you never heard of tons of apples and plums being allowed to fall and rot because they can’t be marketed? Have you never seen turnips being ploughed back into the ground because too many have been produced? If a thing can’t be marketed at a profit, it won’t as a rule, be marketed at all. When the railway companies penalise home trade and encourage the foreigner by grossly preferential rates it is a wonder if apples come to London cheaper from California than from Kent.
Peter: But that’s nonsense.
Printer: Well, if it’s nonsense it is well enough known. It is part of the endless nonsense with which we put up in the name of private enterprise. A State railway wouldn’t carry American apples for a fraction of the price charged to British orchard=keepers.
Peter: You do ask one to accept some steep stories!
For only answer the Printer produced a book by a barrister-at-law and quoted the following carriage-rates – Ton of apples, Folkstone to London 11/1 California to London 15/8; British meat, Liverpool to London £2 Foreign do, Liverpool to London 15s; Eggs, Galway to London £4,14: Denmark to London 24s; Normandy to London 16/8 plums and pears Queensborough (Kent) to London 25s, from Flushing (Holland) 12/6; timber, foreign 8/10; home 16/8. There’s a lot more of it, the items including home pisnos, £3 1/ foreign 25s; timber foreign 8/10, home 16/8; and so on. You began about a muddle of a world. I don’t know what you had specially in mind/ But all that is, I take it, part of the muddle. How can we expect an unregulated world to be anything but a muddle?
Peter: Ay, there was the muddle at Wembley. More folk bought than there was room for.
Printer: Yes, all the railway companies worked on their own. But who would have expected the crowds to behave so childishly? Instead of going away quietly, when they saw the place full, as they might have done with complete advantage, they stormed the place.
Peter (Groaning): Ye don’t know football crowds, or ye wouldn’t expect them to go away.
Printer: There was the Tower, the Zoo, the British Museum, National Gallery, St Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and matinees and sights galore.
Peter: Muddle I ‘ad in view was not only this I told you of – about the risin’ of assessments, but I see the Government sold the seized German ships for an old song, and it hasn’t even got all the money for them yet.
Printer: No. The ships were sold two or three years ago, and only ten millions have been paid instead of something like 19 ½ millions.
Peter: Yes, something like that.
Printer: It looks as if you had only to be a big defaulter in order to get off. However, the ships are no use. There was plenty of shipping laid up already. The German ships only made bad worse.
Peter: What would you have done with the Germans? We ‘ad to take their shipping.
Printer: Had we? I didn’t know. We were not bound to punish ourselves even in order to punish the Germans.
Peter: If the Government ‘ad got that money it would have saved taxation.
Printer: Well it wouldn’t have helped our shipyards… No, no; the whole idea of reparations looks to me to be fatuous – under industrialisation Take our debt to America. How can we pay it all?
Peter: It can be paid like any other debt, can’t it! We’ve got it reduced.
Printer: Yes, we’ve got it funded, and will have to pay only 30 millions a year instead of 50 millions a year. But what have we to pay it with?
Printer: We have no gold and we have no goods that America wants. America has more gold already than is good for her. She has 79 point something of a gold reserve – twice as much as the American Federal law requires, and all it does is raise prices and hurt trade. The only things we could export would be coal and shipping: and America already exports coal and doesn’t want ours. As to shipping, nearly one half of her mercantile marine is laid up already – close on 6 million tons out of just under 11 millions of a total tonnage. What can we send to America that she hasn’t got too much of already?
Peter: Aih, I give it up. But it’s a funny thing that Germany should come so well out of the war, and everybody else so badly.
Printer: The people with no conscience, no brains, and no morals always seem to score. But there is something in the saying that virtue is its own reward.
Peter (slily): I reckon ‘at to be.
The Printer gave him a look; but what, he felt, was the use of arguing with a disease.
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