Table of Contents
If I write about a hill that is rotting, it is because I deplore rot. For the decay of which I write is not romantic decay. But specific persons or Parties are in no way accountable for the rot. It is either the fault of everybody or of nobody. If we exist, shabby, ill-fed, loaded with debt (taxed more than any men at any time have ever been), let us recognize that the sole explanation of this is our collective stupidity. If it soothes us to pin the blame upon our masters, past or present, by all means let us do so. The fact remains that this is only a subjective judgement. But who is responsible for ten years of war in a generation? All human groups, whether French, German, Italian, Polish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Czecho-Slovak, or any other are like our own a raw material, and are not responsible for the shape they take. I should add that our ostensible masters are raw material too. War is what is immediately responsible for the chaos which afflicts us at the present time. No cause can be assigned for these fearfully destructive disturbances (though of course we account for them in this or that conventional way, in our history books and in our conversation). The most
wars have entirely altered our lives, that is all we can say.
In 1945 we ended a second, a six-year spell of war. We came out of this a ruined society, our economy destroyed, our riches vanished, our empire reduced to a shadow of itself, but our island-population (optimistically built-up to the absurd total of fifty millions) undiminished and requiring just as much food as when we had the money to pay for it. Naturally everybody was dazed. But into this situation burst a handful of jubilant socialists, voted into power, with an overwhelming majority, on the Labour ticket. They were in no way dismayed by the national situation; they proceeded to extract by huge taxation, direct and indirect, the colossal capital needed to stage a honeymoon for the liberated manual-working mass. This of course gave no one any time to despair at the disappearance of national prosperity. The majority of the nation was highly stimulated: and if the landed society was taxed out of existence, the middle class in rapid dissolution, on the whole England became a brighter rather than a darker place. To symbolize this extraordinary paradox the capital city burst into festivities all along the south bank of the Thames; there was whoopee at Battersea, there was the thunder of orchestras in a new national concert-hall, a thousand peep-shows, culminating in a Dome of Discovery lower down the river. This was staged in the ward sanctified by Shakespeare. In the Parliament the lamb lay down with the lion; the Tory bleated softly and snoozed beside the rampant socialist lion: all England seemed to have decided to forget that it had lost everything, and to live philosophically from day to day upon the Dole provided by the United States.
Such is the situation at the moment of writing. In spite of this extremely brilliant, if exceedingly artificial situation, nevertheless decay is everywhere, as might be expected. If an aristocratic society suddenly drops to pieces, after many centuries, and if a mercantile class of enormous power and wealth drops to pieces at the same time, there is inevitably a scene of universal wreckage and decay, as when demolition work is in progress. In a great city like London large areas, until ten years ago expensive and “select”, become shabby or even slummish overnight; the food and other shortages make an end of good restaurants, the shortage of power dims the streets, the high cost of everything turns a well-heeled citizenry into a shoddy, shabby herd, which shuffles round the shops from morning till night in a dense tide.
For the seamy side of socialist splendour the socialists are blamed. Mr. Patricks, the socialist shopman whose toy-shop you are invited to visit in the ensuing pages, says that his customers even blame the heat and the cold, the rain and the snow and the sleet on the Government. And then, of course, the very bounty of the socialists, their lavish honeymoon spending, militated against the austerity of life and dedication to work which was required to build the New Jerusalem. Decades of ca’ canny and the ingrained habit of go-slow, producing a population of the laziest workmen in Europe, has proved the arch-enemy of socialism. So there is a big cancer, a deep rot in the heart of the industry now controlled by the new masters, which it may require a very harsh dictator to eradicate.
I have now supplied you with the credentials of the Rot which is the subject matter of this book of stories. Among the persons gathered between the covers of
those who are more or less adult talk a good deal about the situation created by the rapid conversion of England into a Welfare State; the toiling majority naturally do not discuss “Welfare States”, merely respond vocally to the pleasant or unpleasant stimuli for which the “high-ups” of whatever political philosophy are responsible. But most of my personnel belong to the disintegrating middle-class, and they naturally discuss the Welfare State since it has a good deal of bearing upon their destinies.
At this point I should perhaps meet the question, to be anticipated after the above delivery of the credentials of the Rot, “Is this a political book?” Not more, it can truthfully be answered than some of Charles Dickens’ books, and all by Mr. Shaw, to go no further afield. If my characters are obsessed by politics, it is because today our lives are saturated with them. It is impossible for a work of narrative fiction worth reading to contain less politics than
And those who would contradict me and assert that contemporary fiction can be otherwise than steeped in politics are those who would prefer that you would not have anything to do with books that cause you to use your rational faculty. Best to confine your reading to Detective Stories and to Western Yarns! Nay why read at all, they would argue? Why not save paper so that the Government may have more for its multifarious bureaucratic activities—more than it
takes? Just turn on Dick Barton, then take the dog for a nice long tree-crawl and go to bed and dream of next summer’s Butlin Camp holiday!
“Socialism” is a word to which we need not pay very much attention. Socialism is merely the name of something which is happening to us, something which could not otherwise than happen, in view of all historical factors present, above all the proliferation of mechanical techniques. If we refrain from looking upon it as a purely
phenomenon we shall understand it better. In the present work there is, however, one factor which is especially stressed; namely, socialism seen as a final product of bible-religion.
Conscience is at the root of the principle of Social Justice—without it what would be there? That ethical impulse is of a potency to which no “law of nature” could attain. It is all that remains of Protestant Christianity excepting Christmas Carols, the sacraments of baptism and of marriage, especially in villages where the church is the only public building: and except for burial, of course, since there is nowhere you can dispose of a corpse except the churchyard. But the conscience is almost entire still with some people, though they regard God as quite as Victorian a phenomenon as The Lady of the Lamp and would couple the Bible with Euclid as part of the quaint furniture of childhood.
They would be very surprised indeed to hear they had a conscience. Let me try and show in a few words, how absolutely impossible socialism would have been without the Christian religion. Mr. Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps as much as Mr. Gladstone are good church-going Christians: and their “socialism” is Mr. Gladstone’s “liberalism” taken to its ultimate conclusion. In other words, liberalism was an early stage of socialism. And the nineteenth century of liberalism was demonstrably a product of Christianity: it was at long last the Christian seriously trying to put the New Testament into practice. The culmination of this movement, still using the word “liberal” to describe itself, was Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act. That was a most revolutionary measure, far more “advanced” than any adopted in any other country at that time. Finally, the logical conclusion of Gladstone and Morley, and Lloyd George and all their fellow preachers of social fair play, of social justice, was for the classes possessed of money and power to surrender them, and, of course, for England itself as a nation owning a quarter of the globe to surrender everything—as has recently been done in the case of England’s greatest possession, India—except this island; and even that must in the end not be looked upon with too possessive an eye.
Now, without the teaching of the New Testament—and we must not forget the Old, and that the Jews were the most moral nation the world has ever seen—or some similar teaching such as Stoicism (and there are exceedingly few teachings of this type), no man gives up anything he has acquired whether it be wealth or land or goods. Why should he? He will fight to defend them with desperation. If you informed him that “Property is a theft” he would laugh at you. Such a saying, in the first instance, to be successful, had to appear with a supernatural sanction. To test the accuracy of what I am saying, you only have to consider whether you would give up anything but a small fraction of your property in order to share it with your less fortunate fellows. There are very few of us who could willingly do so. But a long process of religious conditioning (latterly operating through such words as “decency”, “fair play”, etc. etc.) has led us to a point at which we empower the State to deprive us of practically everything. This is the work of Jesus.
As I have suggested, it would be absurd to take to task contemporary socialists for carrying to its ultimate conclusions nineteenth-century liberalism. It would be slightly more sensible to criticize the earliest liberals (for, as you would assert, their sentimental and unreal policies), as undoubtedly you would do, were you a catholic or felt no longer, even in “hang-over” form, the spell of the Sermon on the Mount. Above I have advocated the discarding of the political approach to contemporary happenings. And I cannot do better than to end this foreword upon a reminder of this earlier counsel. Let me couple with this the advice that you look upon the politician as it is best to look upon a war, as a visitation of the Fiend.
1. The Bishop’s Fool
Returning from Sweden a short while ago, in the M.S.
a sumptuous ship, I experienced the utter peace which only sea-travel can provide. A few passengers, I among them, had made their way to the sun-lounge beyond the American bar. We wallowed in deep cushioned receptacles, rocked upon the gently heaving sea; a music programme of the Swedish radio crooned away at a suitable distance. Like all peace it was artificial, and no doubt a little sugary, but all of us were conditioned to appreciate any kind of peace. It was one of the appropriate amenities of a neutral vessel: we were going back to blood, sweat, and tears No. 3. Even the boastful growl of the alcoholic American which could be heard from within, nearer the bar where he crouched over a table, vainglorious but confidential, even this was soothing, like the rumbling of a volcano not in eruption. And upstairs three young Englishmen, innocent of vulgar emulation, hurled deck quoits or whatever they were called, and when their quoit was expelled from its transitory nest complimented the other fellow and obviously preferred to be the loser. Success is always a little beastly. It is less glorious to sit upon another fellow’s chest than to be sat on by another fellow—if he is a decent fellow. For this voyage at least we were all to be out of reach of human passions. Even the unseemly effort involved in the propulsion of this luxurious monster from one side of the North Sea to the other was only felt as a muffled throb, an agreeable subterranean tom-tom.