A Year of It


THE morning light on the upland is so free and cheerful that night’s ambiguity is cleared. The heights stand firm, with the sea as eternity under them. I notice also that time is at work on the war. Its quiet attention to the affair is becoming visible. The raw rim of the crater where the bomb fell behind the house is already softened by sprouting thistle, ragwort, and sorrel. In the innocence of morning, the shadows of old fears — of the disquiet of that night, for instance, when for seconds out of the universal noise we heard one brute coming for us, and miss — are all but gone. Today I don’t remember much about it, only that the house made an effort to go, but changed its mind. The man we really want, to remember and to tell us later what it meant, is Dante; failing him, time had better work over it, and the grass grow.

Glad of the assurance that time needs no encouragement, I went up later to see the cavity. It used to be a dead and ghastly warning, but it is being persuaded, it is beginning to agree with the landscape. Its bouldery depth is steep, but it possesses a pool now, a bright eye, so I clambered down. At the bottom the air was warm and still, the air of generation. Where the huge explosion was, life has begun. The water was tepid, and stirred with creation. A frail water spider, the first I have seen, has ventured in after the bursting steel. And in the rubble about the new pond, associated with a dance of today’s gnats, were scattered numerous fossils of the Lias — Rhynchonella, Terebratulina, and ammonite. Those shells of a sea which flowed here æons before the earth was ready for us and our goings-on, when only the dragons of the prime were active, are looking up again at the same old sun, brought out of the dark backward by the violence of a young Nazi — whose own name is lost, for he then plunged into his contemporary sea.

Take the hour and the latest news, take only what is important at the moment, and a sense of frustration amid general lunacy will get you down, if you let it. There the damned impediments to a rational existence still are, and more of them. They pile up. Where is a way out? There is no escape. The worst of war is the imprisoning monotony of it. Even in quiet interludes vigilance must be kept against the coming of you don’t know what, though sea and sky are empty, and the smoke of soldiering is only that of the cooks. You feel like a fool, but it is expedient not to be one. Stoop in the garden, forgetfully, for an inspection, the day being deceitfully windless and blue, and the chill of the shadow falls from a cloudless sky. The abrupt utterance of multiple machine guns is of extreme ferocity.

I climbed out of the crater, and stood watching a flock of starlings on the turf among the cattle; birds and beasts ignored the roaring overhead of a squadron of our fighters. And I paid the less attention to the flying engines, except to admire the close geometrical pattern of their formation. The nerve and skill of those men of the air make no concession to prudence, not an inch. I do not watch the men aloft in concern, as last year, for I have seen them in action, and know they have mastery. There is no apprehension today when they pass. We know they can do it. Yet at night, when the radio recites the day’s work in war, you will find the other listeners lifting their eyes to you when, at the end of a recital of tasks accomplished, the voice falls, and adds, ‘Twelve of our bombers have not returned. ‘

A year ago today I should have watched those aeroplanes in anxiety. The contest for possession of us had begun. We stood in the streets, in the fields, and looked up. Many invisible engines patterned the sky with a delicate lacework of white lines slowly evolving and increasing in graceful loops and spirals, all you could see of battle, and from out of it a shape would form and grow, and fall headlong flaming. A year ago, this trifling island was much too close to a continent occupied by triumphant enemies. From North Cape to Finisterre we were beset. The Atlantic was at the back of us, and that was all. Our army was rescued from France, but its guns were not; and, though you face it, destiny makes no sign. Yet I suppose destiny is not in the stars, and absolute, but is subject to will. If challenged, it must change. A year ago we were alone. Aid was out of sight, except for what went on in the clouds, and that was all but viewless, as a rule, though heard well enough. No other aid would come till too late. Yet somehow, out of the conspiratory blue, out of clandestine occasion, aid has come, as decisive as judgment.

Whence came it? Well, whence come fellowship and generosity? We see humanity’s affairs displaced, and rioting to an unknown end. Appeals to what is cruel and hateful bring response that dismays reason, earth’s fissures and the dark corners of the mind erupting lies everywhere, as if the devil’s runes had been read. But how miraculous also can be the defiant word! Baffled men look up. By an inadvertent sign, despair is stayed; for men do not want to die in chains. Hope may sink to a faint glim, but it will resist all blasts of the facts, a principle of undying life. In secret, its cherished point refutes midnight. Though wrongs so change a land that familiar landmarks are false, and all intercourse is heartless, here and there a clod will hide the beginning of resurrection and revolt.

I recall only now that more than a year ago, when rowboats and launches were getting the British army out of France, a wrecked land, I met nobody in London who questioned what had to be done next. The only doubt was, in a day or two, whether the French fleet was against us as well as the German army. We learn today that away from our shores it was judged we would recognize downfall, and make what terms we could with the conquerors. What else was there to do? Yet at home I never heard a word about it. Nobody saw it. Nobody could have heard of it. Barricades in the streets did not suggest it to our people. They did not even know that they were not thinking of it. There were no heroes, either, and no heroics. Men departed, without saying why, to the nearest recruiting office. Our people do not see, to this day, that it concerned anybody else when they looked out, noticed disaster as if a wet day were setting in, and went on doing whatever the job was. It was a generous word in a broadcast from London by Dorothy Thompson which drew my own attention to the curiosity. It appears that all the time we were being watched.

Is there not a deal to be said, after all, in favor of simple faith? Though it be all unconscious in the ordinary man, it can animate. It is true that our pride, or plentiful thick heads, or both, and a recollection of ships and the sea — all that may have helped to fix an attitude to fate which had a miraculous outcome now clear for all to estimate; but that outcome was no more devised than the unpredictable ever is. Nevertheless, it is now seen that in that simple acceptance of destiny, to do the best with it, Fascism was defeated.


As for the distance a little candle will throw its beam, I doubt, for another thing, whether we see yet the full range of Roosevelt’s counsel to ‘cut out the dollar sign.’ That was more than an instruction to ease the difficulties of a debtor. It has never happened before. We may be sure that sour and sterilizing comment will do its worst, for bigots we have always with us, that daft compound of ignorance, conceit, and mischief. No nation is free from them, nor ever can be, for dross in the gross is natural. Yet a new thing is certain. The head of a great state abolished with a contemptuous gesture the most gnarled and ancient of the bars to friendship. The cash nexus went. It was an instant release of power. In that revealing of unity in a cause above the claims of the countinghouse, the old jealous bickering and thwarting vanished from between two peoples. They were no longer apart; anyhow, say they are now close enough to feel the troubles of each. Sympathy had a chance to flow freely. A word did it.

The art of diplomacy hitherto has been devoted to the ancient game of crabbing. It studied to increase the odds. Its part in affairs has been a fastidious endeavor to check the vulgar circulation of life about the globe. For the advantage of human intercourse, it believed inhumanity to be highly beneficial. Now we have seen with what ease an enlightened statesman can liberate the instinctive trust and good will of his fellows. It is with relief we see it is not more dead lumber we need piled up between us, but less. Since light is released, and we view each other better, let us make no mistake about it, as we did in 1919, nor allow our politicals to make it.

In that year a door for the deliverance of men, found not without cost and difficulty, was opened, but at once shut. It was, in fact, slammed. The echoing finality in its bang depressed us into apathy. We retired, petulant and rather abusive, each to his old national designs within the jealous bounds of privilege. The consequence of that folly is our present preoccupation. Men perish daily, and in hosts, because of it. And it would be gentlemanly not to regard death and mutilation as an historical abstraction, distant, dry, and innocuous, and no more disfiguring our own doorstep than the drainage of plague in Tibet. Blood can be seen issuing, the desolation stinks, and the cries of personal agony are heard. Do not doubt that this infection, this poison from decaying life and labor, will enter our abodes and touch our bones. The fault will spread to its origin. Each one of us is answerable, and should accept. We had forgotten that democracy means us. Each is responsible for all. Cowardice in government is our own. The wheel comes full circle; and the wages of cynical indifference is death.

Another chance for us is here, after twenty wasted years, and this time it arises in urgency out of the tumult. That means, I suppose, it is a last chance, for one can but guess the date of another is in the Ides of March. If we lose it, then we are lost; it is as well to be plain, while there is time to save curselves. The separating ocean is this day our communication, part of a common order, kept by two ensigns with one purpose — the safety of peaceful men. That is a rational act, when it benefits everybody but evildoers. Exclusive privilege kept by guns is as spurious as plenary inspiration, but an agreed protection of commerce on international highways is as ordinary and necessary as a policeman on patrol; and is there no reason to safeguard our inheritance of the things of the spirit? But whether it be shop or temple, or both, if our peoples are of one mind about it, then their purpose is unassailable by any conspiracy of envy. And battle is but transient.

It has been my own emotion, so I suppose other travelers have felt it, but the sight of the American emblem in strange waters has always affected me as if it were next to my own flag. Do we not know, though we grudge admitting it, that this war, with its corrosion by substantial and mental filth from Shanghai to Bordeaux, would never have begun had others been aware that American and British ships, as sure as sunup, would have orders for common action should any power hoist the skull and crossbones? Of course we know it. Then why not admit it? Is not taking care that peace be kept an object suitable for intelligent men? Predatory rulers hungry for more control do not hesitate to take it, when confident they can hold it. What is the use of friendly peoples’ having a better ability if they fear to use it till the ability is lost? The truth is, except to the atrabilious, that by not doing what easily we could have done we have allowed the wilderness and pestilence to invade civilization and destroy culture over half the earth. Casuists could raise well-informed and intricate answers to that, and they will, for no man enjoys taking blame for what is bestial; but the direct minds of ploughman and mechanic, better used to observing cause and effect, will own to it that what we asked for we have.


What we have, what we see, is the murder of the life we knew. Let us keep the original salt in words for this. But there is far worse in it than murder. The very memory of what was good flies in the wind with the dust that was habitations and orchards, and the desert replaces the university. Even language decays. Men fear to use the right words, so the rot in the tongue speaks with the authority of disease, and names as Order the obliteration of the humanities. I know this European reality is unbelievable, because I am a witness, and it tangles and dismays all I had supposed was established by ancient law and custom as proper to man’s sight and understanding. You know how the vagaries of a portentous dream make no sense, for, though it appears to have information and logic, the thing seen is outside space and time, with implications sombre and dubious.

The sights of this war are the same. You must doze off in a London shelter on a raid night to know that we are shadows, and circumstance phantasmal. You arouse, puzzled by impossible chiaroscuro in a confined space, smelling the smell of the grave, unbending with difficulty to overcome what perhaps is rigor mortis, while hearing the blaring of Tartarus. The profile of a stranger, a kneeling girl, — when did she descend to join us? — shows dimly, and she is laughing quietly. You hear her telling someone unseen that she woke, put up her hand, and felt the earth close to her nose. Did he hear her scream? She thought she was buried alive.

A man mutters. There is a space of silence, until come another series of volcanic bursts. The grave shudders. The girl still kneels, apparently in a shroud, and she is still laughing quietly, to herself now, or else sobbing, maybe both. The bass of the man mumbles, ‘Forget it.’ ‘I can’t,’ she whispers; ’I want to — can you find this pin at my throat ? ‘

To make sure you are not underground forever, you crawl up, and out. It is not easy. There is brilliant light without, but it is intermittent, alternating with blindness, and the tortuous upward way by which you arrived leaves you uncertain of direction. This is what used to be the open air. Here you are again. Nothing can he made of it. Uncertain lights disclose momentary shapes you do not recognize. You stand amid flashes from nowhere, as if numerous metallic doors were opening continuously to release a subterranean incandescence and were thundering back on their hinges to be at once burst open again. It is London and its guns. A red glare far away holds in one area a tier of clouds. There is a groaning out of night that increases to an overwhelming roar. You have no time to dive underground, but the bombs erupt some streets away. You thought it was your knees that shook, and do not blame yourself, but it was only the earth in repugnance.

The first sight of the scene under the sun next morning rebukes you. Then it was but a nightmare? No. It is advisable not to go into that doubt. Explore it, and you may uncover enough to perplex views that you had supposed would abide all questions. There was a shipping parish I knew, and its past, somehow, was mine. I had felt myself actual there with the adventurous days of the great trading companies, the frigates, and the clippers. I went into that place recently, having a doubt. Home and school had been there, but soon I saw I need not look for them. These my familiar ways? I was appalled. ‘And the places that knew him shall know him no more.’ But how if he remain, and the places not? What then? It is a reversal of the natural. Or perhaps centuries had trafficked past while I was quiet, and I was only a ghost returned to wander among the relics of a forgotten life. Here I could see that the work of mortals, and the things they love, cannot be kept by affection. The dust will have them. There must be more ghosts in London than ever now, wandering unseen and alone, seeking what they knew, but will never find.

It will not bear thinking about, not yet. Dolors must ease, and the mind be at rest. Reconciliation takes time. Meanwhile, as a beginning, I am trying to be a forgiving man. It is necessary to forgive before we begin to think anew, and there is much to forgive. For one thing, one hard to forgive, do you see the reason why so much of Europe is ashes and shambles? The reason is simple. It has nothing to do with politics, imperialism, economic necessity, living space, nor any of the muddles which fine theories declare land us in conflict; nothing at all. It is simply because in all European communities except one there was no will to war. That is the reason. Our fault was that we were peaceable; and worse, that we let it be known. Our enemy’s confidence that he could take what he wanted came not of his strength. It came of his knowledge that his neighbors were so humane that they shrank from violence. He thereupon made greater uproar with his ironmongery to shock them. He saw they were reluctant to fight. They had had enough of that — too much of it; and he invested in Europe’s horror of more dead bodies.

His neighbors, for their part, persuaded themselves that it was safe to dismiss as an orgy of self-indulgence this new outbreak of German glory. It would pass with exhaustion. They hoped — therefore they believed — that those melancholic processional hordes, with banners, trumpets, and drums, meant no more than that the Germans across the road were enjoying themselves in the way Germans oddly prefer. Most of us had weakened, too, in an old faith, had all but lost it, though Thor lived on. We had forgotten that god, with the rest of divinity. Hitler knew that he and his like had caught everybody else at a juncture in human progress when we were irresolute while considering what we had better do with our earth, so vastly improved by new knowledge, yet worsened for men. While we hesitated, with more concern for welfare than for war, the Nazis struck; their tribes erupted, and smoke was billowing from their line of march. It is hard to forgive murder and destruction made the easier through using the natural trust men have that decent instincts are shared by all.


A year ago the smoke was heavy over much of Europe, and the savage rejoicing of the plunderers was all we heard out of the smother. The turn of our islands was next, and we were waiting. The great decisive battles in the sky which followed over London and its suburbs, ‘from Hammersmith to Dungeness,’ when Hitler’s imperious air squadrons were showered down to further rejoicing, but not his, told everybody concerned that civility had a chance now, if honest men would take it. This they began to do, though slowly and doubting, because falsity in long use had so rotted language that life and its defilement looked much alike. The ambiguity in words and opinion had gone far to paralyze wit and good intent. Recovery of faith was slow, though old cities and their treasures continued to burn, burn with their inhabitants.

One Sunday morning last June—a deceptively calm and bright morning, in nature’s ignorant way — we went to the wireless box to release the news from everywhere. We did not expect either gladness or grief; we had no expectations; a beleaguered garrison becomes hardened to all but the great shocks. The first word we heard brought us up all standing. At dawn, that day, Germany invaded Russia.

The wild surmise of Cortez was nothing to ours. What did this mean? Did Hitler know more about the Russians, to their disadvantage, than had come our way? It might be so. His malign cunning has become a legend. Either he was sure he could do it, or else he was committing suicide. We remembered falteringly that Stalin had shown undue haste and anxiety to please the Nazis, after the Balkans and Crete were submerged. That Hitler was shooting his friends so soon after declaring, before his own people, that eternal peace was established between the Russians and the Germans was nothing whatever, not even treachery. He has no rule but lycanthropy. You might as well censure the doings of the plague on moral grounds. One thing only was clear: Hitler must have judged he could safely turn east, and leave our execution to a more convenient season.

It was as if destiny had sounded a loud trumpet. But with what purport? The tranquil Sunday morning made no other sign; only a peacock butterfly was sunning itself on the Buddleia by the window, and it vanished as someone in the room began to wonder aloud. Was another country going the way of Germany’s neighbors? If it were, and all Russia’s wealth from as far as Vladivostok should flow to Berlin, what then would happen to us? Did this mean war in perpetuity? An answer was not ventured. We were told only that our leader would speak to us about it that night. I did remember, as one remembers in awe the large repose of antiquity, that Russia, like China, like the Himalayas and the sea, has managed so far to survive all changes in the weather.

Now my faith in Winston Churchill as a leader in this war — it fits him perfectly, this particular war — is as old as Stonehenge. It is hereditary. But, while waiting for his message — there were many hours to wait, for I had counted them — it was impossible not to recall the evidence of an antipathy in our midst, probably invulnerable, for everything Russian, except its old literature, ballet, and a few dishes.

I have never been to Russia, and can claim no firm knowledge of it; but, perhaps because I am an old propagandist myself, I was never able to feel the fashionable antipathy for Moscow. The invasion of Finland, though it was excused by Communists using the arguments of imperialists, was infamous; and that we see afterwards the reason why a crime was committed never justifies crime. That act was the more startling because until that year the business of the Russians had kept them indoors, strictly attentive to their own affairs; as well as we could read Stalin’s ideas, one was that Naboth was welcome to his vineyard. But there remained always the Russian people, despite the spoiling of Finland, and it was easy to retain the belief that there must be wit and character of the highest order prevalent in a folk that gave us Tolstoy, Chekov, Dostoievsky, Gogol, and others of that order, and so recently. Nor does it require more than a trifling recourse to the intelligence to see that a people who from nomadism and pastoral ways jumped overnight a full century of industrial progress, measured by the Western scale, could not all be docile half-wits, requiring our pity.

Moreover, one gets to know the expert interpreters of other nations from the vehemence of their dislikes. A fairish experience has taught me that it is not unusual for an observer of a strange spectacle, however spacious and reserved it may be, to respond to little in it except the oddities which conflict with his own habits and prejudices. That is why I read the stories brought back from Russia by my contemporaries as I did the Thousand and One Nights when a boy; there is truth in it all.

All very well for me; but how about the august clubs in Pall Mall? And our Premier’s associates? What a gorgeous mess we shall be in tonight, I thought, if prejudice has more to say of this new aspect of reality than understanding! And America? You never can tell how a full moon will affect the tides of human emotions. Fate depended, as ever, on choice. But for mankind the choice now was final. We were at the last pass; whether back to the void of old night, or to continue in reason in our adventure towards a kingdom that might be? It depended on a word.

If we have not thanked Providence for it, let us do so now, that at nine o’clock that night of June 22, 1941, we heard a man speaking. Winston Churchill swept away all but the essentials. He called to the Russians to hold; we were with them. As we listened, we could hear the barriers fall between two estranged peoples. It was certain, before that day was out, that if Hitler could not unriddle the Russian enigma before the snows met him — and no man has done it yet — then he would join the company of great conquerors in the coldest deep of Hades.


It is still far from winter, as I write. The swallows are here, and the harvests are not yet gathered in. Yet, as for those Russians, if ever again I am called a bolshevik I shall not protest my innocence; I shall accept the insult as a garland. The Russians die for us without complaint. For us, I said. For you, for me. What greater sacrifice could men make? It is true they cannot help themselves, but when challenged they made the answer of free men, and it was for us also they made it.

The pattern in events is emerging. This war, we see now, transcends the defense of democratic institutions. It is above self-interest and national interest. It has no concern with frontiers. All social, economic, and political divisions, the miserable signs of personal and national ascendancy, have vanished, since it is manhood itself that is threatened. Monarchs, hierarchs, presidents, and premiers come down in it to the same choice as the nobodies. Their souls are no more valuable, and that is the simple value which must be defended or go. This challenge is to manhood. This war is the last phase of the war which began in 1914, and is for mastership or fellowship, as was prophesied long ago.

Who is for the fellowship? Whether or not our earth, when this tribulation is past, will become the place which the dreams of good men have told us it could be, at least here we are, free to make it so if we will it, and to decide whether we shall be subject to the gun, instead of keeping to the order to which men have attained, free to pursue our quest of the city not made with hands.

All the doors of the mind are open. There is no return. It is too late for regrets, reproaches, recriminations, and recourse to precedent. The past has lost arguments, claims, and privileges. We have no power to go back. There is no authority now but the trifling voice of conscience. And what is conscience, without fealty to our neighbor? The Chinese dying in his unseen mountain, the Russian peasant on his prairie watching his home burn, are our neighbors, and to be aware of that, in full understanding that one’s own body is hurt, is a release of the spirit with greater power for good than is in all the systems of politics. We have lived a century, and witnessed its events, since last autumn.