As I Please
Tribune, 24 January 1947
Recently 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
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. Didnt 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 cant 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.
The 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.
One of these celebrities was Pétain. It was at Fochs funeral in 1929.
Pétains personal prestige in France was very great. He was honoured as the defender
of Verdun, and the phrase
They shall not pass was popularly supposed to have been coined by him. He was
given a place to himself in the procession, with a gap of several yards in front of and
behind him. As he stalked past a tall, lean, very erect figure, though he must have
been seventy years old or thereabouts, with great sweeping white moustaches like the wings
of a gull a whisper of Voilà Pétain went rippling through the vast crowd.
His appearance impressed me so much that I dimly felt, in spite of his considerable age,
that he ought still have some kind of distinguished future ahead of him.
The other celebrity was Queen Mary. One day I was walking past Windsor
Castle when a sort of electric shock seemed to go through the street. People were taking
their hats off, soldiers springing to attention. And then, clattering over the cobbles,
there came a huge, plum-coloured open carriage drawn by four horses with postilions. I
believe it was the first and last time in my life that I have seen a postilion. On the
rear seat, with his back to the carriage, another groom sat stiffly upright, with his arms
folded. The groom who sat at the back used to be called the tiger. I hardly noticed the
Queen, my eyes fixed on that strange, archaic figure at the back, immobile as a wax-work,
with his white breeches that looked as though he had been poured into them , and
the cockade on his top-hat. Even at that date (1920 or thereabouts) it gave me a wonderful
feeling of looking backwards through a window into the nineteenth century.