The Holdup That Failed

I

WE are living in a novel by H. G. Wells — the early Wells, who had not begun to repeat himself; and as truth is usually better than fiction, so is our present life far better than anything that ‘H. G.’ has imagined.

In the first place, we are not hampered by the middle-class ‘intellectual’ with his perpetual howl for free love — as though freedom in love were a novelty. The lower class, with nothing to lose by an informal attitude toward this question, and the upper class, who are similarly released, always have practised free love. More often than not, it has meant sticking to one wife or one husband with a perfect loyalty. It is only the restless middle class, or the half-baked, who stand and argue and drag this pink herring across the path of progress. Or, perhaps, it is only the middle class who read novels and are represented by the popular novelist.

Well, on Tuesday, May 4, it began, and it has been going on the whole week, and it seems likely to go on a bit longer. Tuesday was something like the first day of the Great War; but whereas the war was tragedy, this thing is comedy. I do not mean that it is funny or humorous; I use the word ’comedy’ in its classic sense of a tragedy reversed — as Meredith used it in his essay, and as the old dramatists used it. The youth of the nation is not being killed, nor is it going to be killed. There may be a few broken heads and so forth, but not more than are usually broken in our boxing rings and playing fields. There may even be some killed and badly damaged, but probably less than the number which is a constant of our twentieth-century civilization. With rare trains running, roads empty, mines and factories closed, there should be fewer casualties than the average.

On Tuesday we woke up to a changed and, in some respects, a better world. I am living about thirty miles from London; we have a little town close at hand and a larger town twelve miles away. Most of us get our living out of milk, meat, eggs, and poultry. There are a few orchards and hop gardens; but milk is the great industry. Our one factory is ‘the tanyard,’ as we call it, a prosperous affair, run by a family which has risen from the ranks, and which, therefore, understands and is on excellent terms with its workpeople. Some of us are commuters and go up to London daily from one of our three railway stations. Our great swell is the Astor who controls the Times and the Observer and whose sister-in-law, Lady Astor, sits in Parliament. We have a sprinkling of old ladies and gentlemen who have retired from active work and who cultivate their gardens and mean well by everything and everybody — plain, average human beings who have seen a wide bit of the world and whom we like. Our only aliens or foreigners are three citizens of the United States who practise their art in a furnished cottage which they have taken for a year. We have no immigrant Jews, Irish, Italians, Negroes, or other difficult neighbors whatsoever, though in all probability many of us have such among our ancestry.

In a little world like this you can see the whole thing at your leisure; in London, or any other big city, you see too little or else too much, and in the end you see nothing. This is what is the matter with our politicians, agitators, and other maniacs. Here, surrounded by a vast population of cows, bullocks, chickens, ducks, geese, sheep, horses, pigs, dogs, cats, and bees, who all do their work without much fuss or speech-making, we manage to keep sane. Nor are we without culture or the distractions of a big city. We have books in plenty and the time wherein to read them; we have wireless and gramophones, and therefore music; our picture galleries are nature’s own, and just now, with every orchard in blossom and every tree breaking into leaf, they can knock the Royal Academy into a cocked hat as far as landscape painting goes; and being full of songbirds — lark and thrush and nightingale, blackbird, wren, and robin, to say nothing of cuckoo, ringdove, woodpecker, and chaffinch — they have the Louvre and the National Gallery fairly beat, and you can throw in the Metropolitan, Prado, and Pitti. At least, that is how we feel about it.

And, thinking deeper, we feel that modern industrialism, in so far as it holds men back from God and nature and locks them up in hideous cities, must inevitably breed riot and confusion; so that the autocrat can do no other than send his subjects forth to war, or the agitator than spur them on to revolution. Henry Ford has seen this, and Cadbury, Mond, Leverhulme — all the great employers. So too have the destroyers.

But I must get back to Tuesday morning and the changed world which awaited us.

The railways and the local bus services had stopped running, no newspapers arrived, and we were all rather in the dark. I cycled over to Southwell, our nearest town, where I know everybody and everybody knows me. It was something like the first day of the war. The weaker vessels exploded, but most of us sat tight.

Clibborn, our local justice of the peace, who has a general store and who governs our water and gas services, had an official notice pasted up in his shop window, asking for volunteers. I went inside to explore, and Evans, the assistant, a mild little man who so far has always paid due and overdue respect to my exalted rank, received me with a burst of maniacal laughter, which meant either ‘Here is another poor deluded devil come to sign away his birthright,’ or ‘Why, even he is turned against us; everybody is against us!’ I dare say Evans feels that he is underpaid and exploited by the capitalist, and that now, at last, has come his chance; and that here am I, — with others like me, — walking up and volunteering to take his job and the jobs of his fellow workers. He recovers with a start and tells me that Mr. Clibborn is in the office behind the shop; so, merciless and implacable, I go on, prepared, according to Evans, to grind the faces of the poor — to save them from their own lunacy, if that is possible, according to my own view of the situation.

Mr. Clibborn is a substantial Englishman, with a sound head on his shoulders and a good record of publicservice. He represents fair play, selfcontrol, and fitness for his peculiar function. Evans, on the other hand, is a temperamental Celt, who could no more run a store than I could, and who, were it not for a romantic wife, would consider himself in clover.

Our Government must have been ready for the Communists, or whatever they are. There is the printed notice in the window, and next Mr. Clibborn hands me a printed form, which I fill out; and so that’s settled. I have registered my name, address, military rank, and readiness to deal with any matter relating to what soldiers call ‘Supply and Transport’ in any part of the country. Or, in plainer English, I am prepared to handle food and fuel or to move them from one place to another. This offer goes to district headquarters, for, like the ‘ Bolshies,’ we have commissars all over the shop now, and no half-witted demi-semiOrientals either, but ordinary fellows with the usual British notion of things, who use a bathtub in the morning.

I decline to be a special constable for three reasons: I am six years over the age limit; I feel that the younger men, and especially the ‘ wanglers ’ who shirked service in the war, should go first (I am willing to bet that the latter will fight like blazes when it is a question of guarding their own shop windows); and, to be honest, I have done it once — and was utterly and completely bored by it. I have four women and eight hundred chickens and ducks to look after at home, and that’s all the police work I intend doing for the present. If things get really bad — Mr. Clibborn sees my point and I sail out again.

In the street I see the idiot whom we call ‘The Bolshie’—almost affectionately, for he makes us laugh. Nominally a visitor sent down here for his health’s sake, in reality he is an emissary whose business it is to prepare us for the greatest of all Revolutions. When it breaks out he, I presume, is going to take charge of us. Just now he is haranguing Tom Ade, the postman, a perfectly impermeable and hopeless case. Ade winks at me and I wink at Ade. The Bolshie drives his right fist into the palm of his left hand and tells us what is wrong with the world. To-morrow he will tell us that the Welsh Guards have mutinied and that Mr. Saklatvala is in Buckingham Palace. He is an elderly man in a topcoat and a muffler, above which glows a head like that of a demented rabbit.

The tanyard is at work as usual, but farther up the street I bow to the vicar’s wife and the vicar. Like most vicars nowadays, and in spite of the smug self-satisfaction of the majority of his superiors, the poor chap is shockingly underpaid, and his four kiddies are underfed, and his wife is far from having a gay time of it. He goes on pluckily and not very skillfully, and just now he is on his way to be sworn in as a special constable; for, whatever his limitations as an orator and parish priest, he has a clear conception of duty.

This morning his wife has ‘gone off the deep end,’as we say, and is rather difficult to answer. ‘It’s worse than the war,’ she begins; ‘then we had n’t all this class hatred. We all stood together; but now — ’

We two men — heartless wretches both! — remain unmoved.

I venture to remind the lady that the war meant the loss of a million young lives and the crippling of a million others. ‘This thing makes me laugh,’ I ended.

The lady goes on disconsolate. If she likes to belong to a class, it’s her affair, not mine.

To tell the honest truth, both she and the vicar are rather obsolete and belong to the dark ages before the war. They amuse old maids and middleclass snobs, and a few loyal souls who are able to ‘put the cause above the man.’ The Church, unfortunately, means a good deal more to them than Christ; but they are so abominably hard up that I can forgive them anything. Their real service to the community resides in the fact that they have produced four decently bred children who, in spite of present hardship, and probably as a consequence thereof, will be better stuff than their parents.

Outside the local newspaper’s branch office I meet the local reporter, a spavined hack who lisps in bromides, clichés, and journalese. He is hot about ‘the freedom of the press,’ as, of course, he would be. I say, ‘It’s a good time to get divorced or to go bankrupt; even a small murder or two might pass unnoticed.’ He brightens a little and answers, ‘So it is.’

Again, to be quite open, I can’t say that I regret the disappearance of a certain type of newspaper. I picture that honest fellow, Lord Beaverbrook, reduced to impotence — not a standard fluttering, not an express running! Or the morons and poseurs of the pink reviews, who are reaping what they have sown; or the historians who specialize in debauched millionaires, the muck heaps of sport, society, the American continent, and all the rest of it. Even Messrs. Gilbert Frankau and Michael Arlen are lost to us, and Epstein and that scintillating dog, Bendago. Instead, a nightingale is singing outside my window.

Farther up the street I bump into our three citizens of the United States, who are American in nothing except their passports. Zangwill would describe them as ‘Children of the Ghetto’; we call them ‘The Little People.’ Being ‘intellectuals,’ they have no particular flag, no particular God, no particular anything. We find them rather pathetic. This morning they are more jumpy than usual and prophesy blood, rapine, and slaughter. They get annoyed when I laugh at them. Zangwill is right. They are children. Yet, so is Mr. Saklatvala.

And so is Mr. Hammond. He sees me, and, beaming all over, ‘Let me swear you in as a special constable!’ he cries, as though he were offering me the Garter set in diamonds or the viceroyalty of India. I thank him and decline the honor. He is persistent and wants to lead me back to Mr. Clibborn, for, when pressed, he admits that ‘swearing in’ lies beyond his powers and that he can only lead the bride up to the altar. Mr. Hammond is our bright, particular busybody, and this row gives him what he so dearly loves, a chance of getting into the picture without taking scratch or scar. Not since the war has he had so full an opportunity.

I am afraid that poor Dick Hammond gets a good few ‘in the neck’; for not everybody is as polite as I am, and his war record is well known to us. However, nature has endowed him with a skin so thick that he might well have ventured; and even to-day he is merely distressed when our Elizabethan farm laborers call him a ‘little bastard’ and remind him that he stayed snug at home while better men went out and died for him.

From this painful topic let us pass on to new delights. There is the road by which our milk is sent to London. Cycling home, I meet lorry after lorry, heavy with cans and driven by volunteers. Each bears the official label, ‘Foodstuffs.’ Yet some drivers, being of a humorous turn, have chalked up ‘Babies’ Booze,’ while one wag describes his load as ‘Bulls’ Milk.’

At home we count up our coal and find that we are rather short; so, later on, off I go to ‘Martin’s Wood’ with Martin. He is our hired man, and is a genius. We call the wood ‘Martin’s Wood’ because this year he has speculated in it, buying from a local landowner the right to cut it down and do what he likes with it.

Martin has his axe, I have a sack, and in the wood we find Martin’s hired man, a toothless ancient who might have stepped straight out of the pages of Thomas Hardy. So might Martin. We are only thirty miles from Charing Cross, but we are away from the main roads, and the old unchanged, unchanging spirit is still with us.

I love these countryfolk and feel at home with them. Our old, true aristocrats, from the royal family downward, are only these people multiplied by n. The Prince of Wales is a perfect instance. His vocabulary is unflinching and direct; his main suit is common sense; he has the heart of a lion, the body of a racehorse. Martin is equally thoroughbred, and so is the ancient, though rather in the Shire class — ‘heavy draught,’ as we used to say in the army.

We chop up wood, we smoke our pipes, and talk — mostly about birds, for the world is full of them. Then comes the ‘Dear Brutus’ theme, beginning with ‘If I had my time over again —’ Martin says that he ’d ‘scheme’ if he had his time over again. ‘Scheme’ is the countryman’s word for business. He’d be the cause of work in others. So would the ancient. If our new Tory Party has any sense it will see to it that such men find a career. Martin and the ancient would each have done well in America; their children would have done better; the ancient’s grandchildren would probably have had a place on Long Island and a skyscraper in New York.

We talk about Italy, for Martin served on the Italian front under Cavan, after that last tragic dispatch of Cadorna, — surely the most poignant document of the whole war, — wherein a great soldier and a greater gentleman names regiment after regiment and brigade after brigade which ‘basely betrayed the Fatherland.’

We discuss the Italian army like experts, and Italian wine, women, and song like Martin Luther, of whom this Martin has never heard. Nor has either of them ever heard of Mussolini, or, for that matter, of Mr. Chaplin or of Miss Pickford. They have never heard a jazz band or read a ‘best seller’ or discussed free love, but they have done most things worth doing and said most things worth saying, and they and people like them have taught me most of what I know.

We don’t bother much about the strike, which we regard as a town affair that hardly affects us producers; and as to the capitalist, we agree that he is a bit of a dog, but that we are quite able to cope with him, and that there are capitalists and capitalists.

I stagger home with a load of wood; Martin helps me over the brook; the ancient reloads his pipe and goes on chopping and dreaming and singing an old song.

' When I come back from the war,
They will give me a medal,’

it begins. The war is the war that ended at Waterloo and seems to be much like the last war. Only the tune is different — a haunting minor air that follows me up the lane like the cry of a plover. The late war has given us nothing half so good.

II

The above impressions were put down during the first days of the strike. To-day it is over. The news came through about lunch-time last Wednesday and we all said ‘Thank God!’ and meant it. We have had rather a hectic week of it.

Without wireless and Mr. Henry Ford it would have been quite impossible, but the fools who stampeded the T. U. C. forgot wireless when they suppressed the newspaper, and forgot Mr. Henry Ford when they wounded the railways; and of course there were aeroplanes as usual — a good deal more than usual. The aeroplane people have been having the time of their lives. But the chief omission of all was a complete misreading of the British character, combined with an entire ignorance of the fact that the war, though it may have hurt us, has left us a nation of experts. To take my own case, for instance. Before the war I was a comfortable literary gent who played cricket all summer, shot in the autumn, and followed hounds, beagles, and other dogs till cricket and tennis came round again. Wrenched out of these employments, I was a ‘cop’ for six weeks, then a second lieutenant who had to talk military French and German; next a French railway guard, grocer, and supercargo; then a hospital case; next a trainer of recruits; back in France, a detective; and, by turns, newspaper editor, horse and mule master, adjutant, clerk, shipwrecked mariner, spy, nervous wreck, tramp, or draft conductor in Macedonia, Marseilles, and Italy; and finally camel and horse master, publisher, pressautocrat, and historian in Egypt, Palestine, and the Desert. The war gave to most of us these opportunities. Cook, Pugh, Citrine, and the other shirkers, pacifists, and rotters who plotted the strike had forgotten that. So we who volunteered could fill the bill, whether it was a case of running a locomotive, loading up lorries, printing a newspaper, working a power station, or driving anything on wheels. Only a tenth part of us was called upon, and a great Party, stampeded by its Polish Jews and Celtic pinheads and what is known as ‘ political passion,’ had better sit down and learn something about the country it aspires to govern before it tries these tricks again.

Twice during these eight days I rode up to London, my friends in the milk industry aiding and abetting. As a curiosity of the strike, I may mention that milk, being socialized, or controlled by the Government,— it comes to the same thing, — had improved in quality to such a degree that everybody in London was talking. It left here without added water, and even the poor old retailer had n’t time to dilute it!

One rascal, however, had triumphed. I called on the grain merchant who supplies our local miller. Grain, which is the raw material of chicken and, therefore, of eggs, had gone up a shilling the hundredweight. ‘You can take it or leave it!’ said the grain merchant. I took it, of course, and I reported him to Woodhouse, our food commissar, who, being a lawyer, had probably overlooked the fact that eggs, which we are bound to sell at prestrike prices, depend on grain, and that if grain goes up we are indeed undone.

The town has been described by countless correspondents, and America knows far more about it than we who have had no newspapers. I had scarcely realized how English it was, and how cool and collected. Lacking the immense foreign populations of Paris or New York, and aided moreover by thousands of young men and women from outside its radius, London was all right. Wearing out its tires and its shoe leather, perhaps, but there were compensations and diversions enough to please the most blasé and sophisticated. The people I admired most were the rank and file of the strikers. They were neither cowed nor afraid; but, unlike the politicians, they were prepared to ‘play the game.’ And they played it like gentlemen. The hooligans who gave some trouble and murdered one old gentleman were not strikers.

I went into the War Office and saw B——, who is a friend of mine. ‘Nothing doing, old bird! ’ (I quote verbatim.) I rang up two magazine editors. They were taking a holiday. I lunched with C——, who knows all about the royal family. King George, of course, was anxious, but, one and all, they were glad to be rid of the reporters and the press photographers. Who would n’t be? The Prince of Wales, especially, was enjoying this respite. He knows that such attentions are a part of what he calls his ‘job,’ and, like the good sportsman he is, he stands them; but he would far rather be standing these press lads a square meal, or even a drink, if need be. The Duchess of York is delighted to have had her baby without the usual nauseating gossip, which must make even a baby sick, and, on off days, regret that it had ever been born. On Sunday, while Messrs. Trotsky and Company were giving out that the Guards had mutinied, the Prince, the Duke, and Princess Mary were actually in their midst, attending divine service in the Guards’ Chapel.

As a matter of curiosity I wandered up to our foreign quarters, into Soho and the district east of Aldgate. ’Business as usual’ seemed to be the universal slogan, rather more than less so. The foreigner, Jew or Gentile, comes here to make money. It is only when he gets a bit ‘above himself,’ as we call it, that he inclines to be a nuisance. Townand, usually, streetbred, he knows only one part of life, and that the worse part; logical, and

out to win at any cost, he forgets that the English are not logical and that we care far more for the game than for the winning of the game. He forgets that it is much more amusing to travel than to arrive, and that it is only when we are really in a corner that, we find ourselves. A strange race, no doubt; but what else can you expect from a nation of islanders? And such are the most of us. You must allow us the defects of our qualities.

At my sister’s I find my nephew Frank, who is an art student, and who is now doing duty as a special constable — that is to say, he is relieving the regular police, who throughout this disturbance have borne the real heavy brunt of it.

I also find two American boys, fellow students and intimates of my nephew. They are working their way through our art schools with true American grit, and after a day spent in study they get on to more gainful jobs, the one transforming himself into a bell-hop, the other working as cloakroom attendant in the same hotel. My sister is putting them up over this crisis, which she describes as ‘rather a spree.’ So does my niece, who is ‘out of work’ as well; for the Weekly Highbrow — she is its editor’s private secretary — is to-day a washout, and all its fatuous oracles and embittered women are in the street.

From this Anglo-American jollification I wander off to Fleet Street in a bus packed with sixty passengers and driven by Jehu the son of Nimshi, who is accompanied by a policeman in case of trouble. The conductor who takes our fares seems to be giving a slightly overcrowded reception wherein he enacts the part of smiling host. He is a young man of the working class, out of a job yesterday, glad to be in one to-day. The driver is what he calls ‘a toff.’ The two go well in harness and already address each other by their Christian names.

In Fleet Street, however, I hear less about the newspaper world than I can hear at home; for our ‘Major Astor,’as we call him, has borrowed men and vehicles from the Castle and estate, and between them they are making possible the production and distribution of the Times. Astor has his coat off and is ‘working like a black’ at the machines; gardeners are packing the bundles; chauffeurs and estate mechanics are driving the loaded lorries into the country and round the town; and friendly aviators are assisting. The men brought up from here are lodged and fed in the Major’s town house, a few doors from the German Embassy and the residences of Lord Balfour and the late Marquis Curzon — the best address in London. And they are producing the best newspaper, sane, independent, and full of meat, though cut down to a bare four pages.

III

At home we had grown used to our deserted railway stations, to one post a day instead of four, to news by wireless instead of newspapers. We listened in at 10 A.M., at 1, and 4, and 7, and 9.30 P.M. We heard the authentic voice of Mr. Baldwin and that of the Home Secretary; but most familiar of all was the voice of some gentleman unknown, who hemmed and hawed and lost his place and found it and told us everything that it was good for us to know and made the sort of jokes one finds in Punch — a very human creature, I should say, who did his best not to bore us. We shall miss him when it is over, and no doubt read his name in the next honors list, for he deserves a K.B.E. at the very least.

It was he who broadcast the news which made us all cry ‘Thank God!' and thank Him in good earnest on that evening.

The original idea had been to hold a joint service of intercession, but this was now all altered. At seven o’clock we gathered in the little square, the vicar with his flock, the Baptist minister with his, the Salvation Army commandant with hers. Each of the three addressed us. The vicar gave out Hymn No. 142 and ‘Oh God, our help in ages past’; and so, though Trotsky had invited us to ‘fight like devils,’1 we sang like angels.

  1. In Moscow a newspaper bearing this name was started by ‘Bolshie’ sympathizers.