As I Please
Tribune, 29 November 1946
Here is an analysis of the front
page of my morning news-paper, on an ordinary, uneventful day in November 1946.
The big headline goes to the U.N. conference, at which the
U.S.S.R. is putting forward demands for an inquiry into the strength of Anglo-American
forces in ex-enemy or allied countries. This is obviously intended to forestall a demand
for inspection of forces inside the U.S.S.R., and it is plain to see that the resulting
discussion will lead to nothing except recriminations and a prestige victory for this side
or that, with no advance, and no attempt at any advance, towards genuine international
The fighting in Greece is growing more serious. The
constitutional opposition is swinging more and more towards support of the rebels, while
the Government is alleging that the so-called rebels are in fact guerrillas operating from
across the frontier.
There is further delay in calling the Indian Constituent Assembly
(this column has a footnote: Blood-bath in India: Page Two), and Mr Gandhi has starved himself
into a condition which is causing anxiety.
The American coal strike is continuing, and is likely to
have disastrous effects on world grain supplies. Owing to other recent
strikes, the United States has cancelled delivery of two million tons of steel to Britain,
which will further complicate the British housing problem. There is also an unofficial
go slow movement on the Great Western Railway.
Another bomb has gone off in Jerusalem, with a number of
casualties. There is also news of various minor unavoidable calamities, such as a plane
crash, the likelihood of floods all over England, and a collision of ships in the Mersey,
with the apparent loss of 100 head of cattle, which I suppose would represent one
weeks meat ration for about 40,000 people.
There is no definitely good news at all on the front page. There
are items, such as a rise in British exports during October, which look as if they might
be good, but which might turn out to be bad if one had sufficient knowledge to interpret
them. There is also a short statement to the effect that the occupying powers in Germany
may shortly reach a better agreement. But this is hardly more than the
expression of a pious wish, unsupported by evidence.
I repeat that this pageful of disasters is merely the record of
an average day, when nothing much is happening: and incidentally it occurs in a newspaper
which, rather than most, tries to put a good face on things.
When one considers how things have gone since 1930 or
thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization. I do not argue
from this that the only thing to do is to adjure practical politics, retire to some remote
place and concentrate either on individual salvation or on building up self-supporting
communities against the day when the atom bombs have done their work. I think one must
continue the political struggle, just as a doctor must try to save the life of a patient
who is probably going to die. But I do suggest that we shall get nowhere unless we start
by recognizing that political behaviour is largely non-rational, that the world is
suffering from some kind of mental disease which must be diagnosed before it can be cured.
The significant point is that nearly all the calamities that happen to us are quite
unnecessary. It is commonly assumed that what human beings want is to be comfortable.
Well, we now have it in our power to be comfortable, as our ancestors had not. Nature may
occasionally hit back with an earthquake or a cyclone, but by and large she is beaten. And
yet exactly at the moment when there is, or could be, plenty of everything for everybody,
nearly our whole energies have to be taken up in trying to grab territories, markets and
raw materials from one another. Exactly at the moment when wealth might be so generally
diffused that no government need fear serious opposition, political liberty is declared to
be impossible and half the world is ruled by secret police forces. Exactly at the moment
when superstition crumbles and a rational attitude towards the universe becomes feasible,
the right to think ones own thoughts is denied as never before. The fact is that
human beings only started fighting one another in earnest when there was no longer
anything to fight about.
It is not easy to find a direct economic explanation of the
behaviour of the people who now rule the world. The desire for pure power seems to be much
more dominant than the desire for wealth. This has often been pointed out, but curiously
enough the desire for power seems to be taken for granted as a natural instinct, equally
prevalent in all ages, like the desire for food. Actually it is no more natural, in the
sense of being biologically necessary, than drunkenness or gambling. And if it has reached
new levels of lunacy in our own age, as I think it has, then the question becomes: What is
the special quality in modern life that makes a major human motive out of the impulse to
bully others? If we could answer that question seldom asked, never followed up
there might occasionally be a bit of good news on the front page of your morning
However, it is always possible, in spite of appearances, that the
age we live in is not worse than the other ages that have preceded it, nor
perhaps even greatly different. At least this possibility occurs to me when I think of an
Indian proverb which a friend of mine once translated:
In April was the jackal born,
In June the rain-fed rivers swelled:
Never in all my life, said he,
Have I so great a flood beheld.
I suppose the shortage of
clocks and watches is nobodys fault, but is it necessary to let their prices rocket
as they have done in the last year or two?
Early this year I saw ex-army watches exhibited in a showcase at
a little under £4 each. A week or two later I succeeded in buying one of them for £5.
Recently their price seems to have risen to £8. A year or two ago, alarm clocks, which at
that time could not be bought without a permit, were on sale at 16 shillings each. This
was the controlled price, and presumably it did not represent an actual loss to the
manufacturer. The other day I saw precisely similar clocks at 45 shillings a jump
of 180 per cent. Is it really conceivable that the cost price has increased
Incidentally, for 45 shillings you can, if you are on the phone,
arrange for the telephone operator to call you every morning for nearly 18 months, which
is a lot longer than the life of the average alarm clock.
Under the heading, The Return
of the Jews to Palestine, Samuel
Butler records in his Note-Books:
A man called on me last week and
proposed gravely that I should write a book upon an idea which had occurred to a friend of
his, a Jew living in New Bond Street . . . . If only I would help, the return of the Jews
to Palestine would be rendered certain and easy. There was no trouble about the poor Jews,
he knew how he could get them back at any time; the difficulty lay with the Rothschilds,
the Oppenheims and such; with my assistance, however, the thing could be done.
I am afraid I was rude enough to decline to go into the scheme on
the ground that I did not care twopence whether the Rothschilds and Oppenheims went back
to Palestine or not. This was felt to be an obstacle; but then he began to try and make me
care, whereupon, of course, I had to get rid of him.
This was written in 1883. And who would have foreseen that only about sixty years
later nearly all the Jews in Europe would be trying to get back to Palestine of their own
accord, while nearly everybody else would be trying to stop them?