As I Please
Tribune, 24 January 1947
I was listening to a conversation between two small businessmen in a
Scottish hotel. One of them, an alert-looking, well-dressed man of about
forty-five, was something to do with the Federation of Master Builders. The
other, a good deal older, with white hair and a broad accent, was some kind
of wholesale tradesman. He said grace before his meals, a thing I had not
seen anyone do for many a year. They belonged, I should say, in the £2,000-a-year
and the £1,000-a-year income groups respectively.
We were sitting round a rather inadequate peat fire, and the conversation started off with the coal shortage. There was no coal, it appeared, because the British miners refused to dig it out, but on the other hand it was important not to let Poles work in the pits because this would lead to unemployment. There was severe unemployment in Scotland already. The older man then remarked with quiet satisfaction that he was very glad – ‘varra glad indeed’ – that Labour had won the General Election. Any government that had to clean up after the war was in for a bad time, and as a result of five years of rationing, housing shortage, unofficial strikes and so forth, the general public would see through the promises of the Socialists and vote Conservative next time.
They began talking about the housing problem, and almost immediately they were back to the congenial subject of the Poles. The younger man had just sold his flat in Edinburgh at a good profit and was trying to buy a house. He was willing to pay £2,700. The other was trying to sell his house for £1,500 and buy a smaller one. But it seemed that it was impossible to buy houses or flats nowadays. The Poles were buying them all up, and ‘where they get the money from is a mystery’. The Poles were also invading the medical profession. They even had their own medical school in Edinburgh or Glasgow (I forget which) and were turning out doctors in great numbers while ‘our lads’ found it impossible to buy practices. Didn’t everyone know that Britain had more doctors than it could use? Let the Poles go back to their own country. There were too many people in this country already. What was needed was emigration.
The younger man remarked that he belonged to several business and civic associations, and that on all of them he made a point of putting forward resolutions that the Poles should be sent back to their own country. The older one added that the Poles were ‘very degraded in their morals’. They were responsible for much of the immorality that was prevalent nowadays. ‘Their ways are not our ways,’ he concluded piously. It was not mentioned that the Poles pushed their way to the head of queues, wore bright-coloured clothes and displayed cowardice during air raids, but if I had put forward a suggestion to this effect I am sure it would have been accepted.
One cannot of course, do very much about this kind of thing. It is the contemporary equivalent of antisemitism By 1947, people of the kind I am describing would have caught up with the fact that antisemitism is discreditable, and so the scapegoat is sought elsewhere. But the race hatred and mass delusions which are part of the pattern of our time might be somewhat less bad in their effects if they were not reinforced by ignorance. If in the years before the war, for instance, the facts about the persecution of Jews in Germany had been better known, the subjective popular feeling against Jews would probably not have been less, but the actual treatment of Jewish refugees might have been better. The refusal to allow refugees in significant numbers into this country would have been branded as disgraceful. The average man would still have felt a grudge against the refugees, but in practice more lives would have been saved.
So also with the Poles. The thing that most depressed me in the above-mentioned conversation was the recurrent phrase, ‘let them go back to their own country’. If I had said to those two businessmen, ‘Most of these people have no country to go back to’, they would have gaped. Not one of the relevant facts would have been known to them. They would never have heard of the various things that have happened to Poland since 1939, any more than they would have known that the over-population of Britain is a fallacy or that local unemployment can coexist with a general shortage of labour. I think it is a mistake to give such people the excuse of ignorance. You can’t actually change their feelings, but you can make them understand what they are saying when they demand that homeless refugees shall be driven from our shores, and the knowledge may make them a little less actively malignant.
other week, in the Spectator, Mr Harold
Nicolson was consoling himself as best be could for having reached the
age of sixty. As he perceived, the only positive satisfaction in growing
older is that after a certain point you can begin boasting of having seen
things that no one will ever have the chance to see again. It set me
wondering what boasts I could make myself, at forty-four, or nearly. Mr
Nicolson had seen the Czar, surrounded by his bodyguard of enormous Cossacks,
blessing the Neva. I never saw that, but I did see Marie Lloyd, already
almost a legendary figure, and I saw Little Tich – who, I think, did not
die till about 1928, but who must have retired at about the same time as
Marie Lloyd – and I have seen a whole string of crowned heads and other
celebrities from Edward
VII onwards. But on only two occasions did I feel, at the time, that I
was seeing something significant, and on one of these occasions it was the
circumstances and not the person concerned that made me feel this.
The Estate of Eric Blair
Reproduced here under educational Fair Use law