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VOLUME I — 1905

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Articles first published in The Illustrated London News, 1905

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2022
Version Date: 2022-04-20

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FROM 1905 until his death in 1936, Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote a regular weekly column for The Illustrated London News, where it was printed under the general title "Our Notebook."

These articles were collected and published in ten volumes by the Ignatius Press, San Francisco, as part of its Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton. The first volume—The Illustrated London News : 1905-1906—appeared in 1989, the last—The Illustrated London News : 1935-1936—in 2012.

The RGL e-book edition of Our Notebook presents Chesterton's articles in a set of 32 volumes—one for each year of publication—built from digital image files of The Illustrated London News.

Descriptive titles have been added to the originally untitled articles.

Roy Glashan, 20 April 2022.



The Illustrated London News, 30 September 1905

I CANNOT imagine why this season of the year is called by journalists the Silly Season: it is the only season in which men have time for wisdom. This can be seen even by glancing at those remarkable documents, the daily papers. As long as Parliament is sitting, the most minute and fugitive things are made to seem important. We have enormous headlines about the vote on a coastguard's supply of cats'-meat, or a scene in the House over the perquisites of the butler of the Consul at Port Said. Trivialities, in a word, air made to seem tremendous, until the Silly Season, or the season of wisdom, begins. Then, for the first time, we have a moment to think—that moment to think which all peasants have and all barbarians, the moment during which they made up the Iliad and the Hook of Job. Few of us have actually done this. Hut the fact that the Silly Season is really the serious season is very clearly shown in our newspapers, for all that. In the Silly Season we suddenly lose interest in all frivolities. We suddenly drop the drivelling problems of the coastguard and the Consul at Port Said, and we suddenly become interested in controversies of which the contributors may be drivelling enough, but of which the problems are not drivelling at all. We begin to discuss "The Decay of Home Life," or "What is Wrong?" or the authority of the Scriptures, or "Do We Believe?" These really awful and eternal problems are never discussed except in the Silly Season. All the rest of the year we are light and irresponsible; now for a few months we are really severe. While the Whips are clamouring for votes we only ask "Do We Vote?"; when they have for a space left us alone we have time to ask "Do We Believe?" In the ordinary seasons we are always asking "Is this Government a Failure?" It is only in the Silly Season that we have the seriousness to ask "Is Marriage a Failure?" Yes; it is only during this fleeting time that we can really think of the things that are not fleeting. The time of our holidays is the only time in which we can really manage to turn our minds to these grave and everlasting riddles that abide behind every civilisation. The holidays are the only times when we are not carried away by every chance occurrence or staggered by every startling poster in the streets. The holidays are the only time in which we can judge slowly and sincerely like philosophers. The Silly Season is the only time when we are not silly.

This solemn character in holidays is, of course, implied in their very name: the day that is made a holiday is the day that is made holy. And in practice it will generally be found that holidays are opportunities for the emergence of the more serious side of a man. He has been kept during the rest of the year at trifling and passing matters—the writing of articles or the canvassing of soap. Now he rushes away to the things that are most eternal, sports in the simple country, hunting on the great hills. He is a clerk spending all the rest of his time in the newest and most changeable of all things—the suburbs. What does he do for his holiday? He rushes away to the oldest and most unchangeable of all things—the sea.

Of one thing I am quite absolutely convinced, that the very idlest kind of holiday is the very best. By being idle you are mixing with the inmost life of the place where you are; by doing nothing you are doing everything. The local atmosphere finds you unresisting and fills you, while all the others have filled themselves with the stuff of guide-books and the cheerless east wind of culture. Above all, refuse—refuse with passion—to see any places of interest. If you violently decline to see the Castle of Edinburgh, you will have your reward, a delight reserved for very few: you will see Edinburgh. If you deny the very existence of the Morgue, the Madeleine, and the Louvre, the Luxembourg, the Tuileries, the Eiffel Tower, and the tomb of Napoleon, in the calm of that sacred clearance you will suddenly see Paris. In the name of everything that is sacred, this is not what people call paradox; it is a fragment from a sensible guide-book that has never been written. And if you really want me to give the reasonable reasons for it, I will.

There is a very plain and sensible reason why nobody need visit places of interest in foreign countries. It is simply that all over Europe, at any rate, places of interest are exactly the same. They all bear witness to the great Roman civilisation or the great mediaeval civilisation, which were mostly the same in all countries. The most wonderful things to be seen in Cologne are exactly the things that one need not go to Cologne to see. The greatest things that there are in Paris are exactly the sort of things that there are in Smithfield. The wonders of the world are the same all over the world; at least, all over the European world. The marvels are at all our doors. A clerk in Lambeth has no right not to know that there was a Christian art exuberant in the thirteenth century; for only across the river he can see the live stones of the Middle Ages surging together towards the stars. A yokel hoeing potatoes in Sussex has no right not to know that the bones of Europe are the Roman roads. In a French valley the Roman camp is exactly the thing we need not see; for we have Roman camps in England. In a German city the Cathedral is exactly the thing we need not see, for we have Cathedrals in England. Exactly the thing we have not in England is a French open-air café. Exactly the thing we have not in England is a German beer-garden. It is the common life of the people in a foreign place which is really a wonder and delight to the eyes. It is the ordinary things that astonish us in France or Germany. The extraordinary things we know quite well already. They have been thoroughly explained to us by the insupportable cicerones of Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. The man who refuses to be moved out of his seat in a Parisian café to see the Musée de Cluny is paying the grandest tribute to the French people. It is the same, of course, with the foreigner in England. There is no need for a Frenchman to look earnestly at Westminster Abbey as a piece of English architecture. It is not a piece of English architecture. But a hansom cab is a piece of English architecture. It is a thing produced by the peculiar poetry of our English cities. It has never, for some mysterious reason, really been domesticated abroad. It is a symbol of a certain reckless comfort which is really English. It is a thing to draw a pilgrimage of the nations. The imaginative Englishman will be found all day in a café; the imaginative Frenchman in a hansom cab.

The hansom cab is a thing marvellously symbolic, as I have said, of the real spirit of our English society. The chief evil of English society is that our love of liberty, in itself a noble thing, tends to give too much prominence and power to the rich; for liberty means sprees, and sprees mean money. To break windows is in itself a large and human ideal; but in practice the man who breaks most windows will probably be the man who can pay for them. Hence this great power of an aristocratic individualism in English life; an aristocratic individualism of which the great symbol is the hansom cab. The chief oddity of the English upper class is the combination of considerable personal courage with absurd personal luxury. A foreign army would conquer them best by capturing their toilet-bags. They are careless of their lives, but they are careful of their way of living. And this combination of courage and commodiousness, which runs through innumerable English institutions, can be seen even in the hansom cab. Compared with most other vehicles, compared more especially with most foreign vehicles, it is at once more sumptuous and more unsafe. It is a thing in which a man may be killed, but in which he may be killed comfortably. He may be thrown out, but he will not really want to get out.

When I was going down the river on an L.C.C. steamer the other day, a man standing near me pointed out the piles of great buildings on either bank (it was by Westminster and Lambeth) and said, "This is calculated to impress the foreigner." Why should it impress the foreigner? Has the foreigner never seen a building more than one storey high? Do Frenchmen and Germans live in mud huts? Have they no abbeys in their countries or no bishops' palaces? No; if you wish to impress the foreigner, cling convulsively to your hansom cab. Never let him see you except in this vehicle. Drive round your back-garden in it; drive it up the centre aisle when you go to church. When the British Army advances into battle, let each private soldier be inside a hansom cab, and its enemies will flee before it.

I am deeply grieved to see that Mr. Max Beerbohm has been saying that he does not find London beautiful or romantic. Not only is London really full of romance, but it is full of a peculiarly delicate and old-world type of romance. Every other city is singing and buzzing with modern methods; especially the cities we commonly call decadent. Rome is smart and Yankee compared with London. Florence is Chicago compared with London. The old Italian cities are ringing with electric-cars and marked out into great maps of hygiene. Only our London retains its fascinating, crooked high-streets. Only our London keeps its own dreamy and deliberate omnibus. Adorable dreamer, whispering from its turrets the last secrets of the Middle Ages! Somebody said that about Oxford (if you think I don't know, it was Matthew Arnold); but it really applies to London and not to Oxford in the least. If you really wish to have your ears and soul filled with the song and imagery of the past, go into the Underground Railway at Victoria Station and ride, let us say, to the Mansion House. Close your eyes, and listen reverently for the names. St. James's Park—pilgrims with staffs and scallops... Westminster Bridge—the English Saints and Kings... Charing Cross—King Edward... The Temple—the fall of that proud, mysterious league of Templars... Blackfriars—a dark line of cowls! I beseech you, do not destroy London. It is a sacred ruin.


The Illustrated London News, 7 October 1905

PERHAPS the two most important people in our civilisation at present are the two elderly ladies who defended their residence with drawn swords. They are in the true sense a portent, that is, not merely a wonder, but a warning; they are sign in heaven of the apocalypse of London. At first one feels disposed to deal with their case merely fancifully; to let one's imagination run loose along the line of thought suggested. One thinks of their rallying round them a band of gay and desperate maiden-ladies, living in the saddle and by the sword, making raids from the hills and leaving burning cities in their terrible trail. One imagines them returning to carouse in their caverns amid gold and blood, calling tempestuously for tea as they hurl down their cutlasses and carefully remove their gloves. Hut I think, upon the whole, I prefer to contemplate the simplicity of the mere fact. I like to think of those amiable and respectable elderly modern ladies standing together in their parlour, the tea-cosy and the muffins on the table, the daguerreotype of Cousin Eustace and the coloured print of Queen Victoria on the walls, the neat bookshelf containing Enquire Within, The Lamp-Lighter, and an album with pink pages—and in their hands two enormous and shining cavalry sabres with which they are conscientiously ready to slaughter their fellow-creatures. They eyed the swords, I fancy, with a trace of disquiet. They must have looked rather like those figures of virgin martyrs that may be seen in the old illuminations--virgin martyrs each of whom carries a gigantic axe or a portable rack or a gridiron on which she has been grilled at a previous stage of her career. But in that case the saint carries the weapon of her enemies. It was certainly one of the boldest and most picturesque of the revolutions made by Christianity, this idea that the things used against a man became a part of him; that he could not only kiss the rod, but use it as a walking-stick. It was felt, I suppose, that when a red-hot spear had been driven clean through a gentleman's body it became in some sense his property. Torture itself was turned into a decoration; as if we were to make an artistic wall-paper pattern out of gibbets and cats-o'-nine-tails. Hut if applied to people who die now, it would be odder still. If a man died of typhoid in Camberwell, for instance, you would have to depict him (in Christian art) as embracing a very big drainpipe with a hole in it. Or if a man were thrown out of a hansom cab he (in Christian art) would be obliged to carry the cab, as it could not carry him. Alpine climbers who had met with fatal accidents would be a difficulty. It would be rather tiresome to hold a glacier in one hand wherever you went, or always go about with a precipice under your arm. But this fruitful subject of a modern martyrology is leading me away from the subject on which I started to speak, the subject of the spinsters with the swords. They, I repeat, were not martyrs holding the instruments of persecution. On the contrary, they were the persecutors. I fancy they persecuted a policeman (which must be a very jolly thing to do) by bashing his helmet in.

I have no disrespectful feelings towards these two poor old ladies, for there is nothing in the least disrespectful about being amused. We are all amused at our wives, but that is not inconsistent with being filled also with a sacred fear. The old ladies were, I believe, religious enthusiasts, which is all right. And, as for the matter of the policeman, my surprise is not at all directed towards the energy of their conduct on that head. We should always endeavour to wonder at the permanent thing, not at the mere exception. We should be startled by the sun, and not by the eclipse. We should wonder less at the earthquake, and wonder more at the earth. And on the same philosophical principle, I can say, with the most solid sincerity, that I do not wonder at the impatience of the old lady in knocking the policeman's hat off half so much as I wonder at the patience of all the rest of us in leaving it on. The thought that the world contains uncounted millions of sane and healthy men none of whom have knocked a policeman's hat off overwhelms me with a great tide of mystery, like the multitudinous mysteries of the sea. The two ladies were, I suppose, what we crudely, but for necessary purposes, call mad. But that has nothing to do with their being worthy of very serious and reflective study. On the contrary, mad people are sometimes more representative than sane ones, because they have a certain nudity of mind which shows many things that the wise know and conceal. It requires a very wise man indeed to teach fools. But he must be a very hopeless fool whom fools cannot teach.

The ladies with the swords are interesting in exactly the same manner that the Agapemone is interesting; of course, in much more reputable sense, and I apologise to the poor ladies for the comparison. But their similarity consists in this, that they are both evidences of the violent outbreak of elemental things in the suburbs It is the inviolable law of all civilisations that the thing you attempt to extirpate you will certainly exaggerate. Our modern cities, particularly the suburbs of our modern cities, are strictly and carefully designed to be sensible and secular; therefore they will certainly, before long, be on fire with the most senseless kinds of superstition. The men in happier lands shall live lightly with their faith, and take off their hats to Heaven as to an old companion. In Clapton you will have straight roads and straight talks, and a total ignoring of the mysteries Therefore in Clapton you shall have a man screaming in the sunlight that he is divine, made the stars, turning open sin into a sacrament. You shall teach all men that war and revolution are worse evils than surrender and slavery, that a blow is ungentlemanly, and a crusade caddish. Therefore the weapons that citizens will not take maniacs shall discover and brandish, and when men have left off wearing swords, women shall begin to wave them. For the truth is that the eternal things are rising against temporary things. The gods are rebelling against men.

We must be prepared for an increasing number of incidents of this type, Cockney incidents of a violent and ludicrous romance. We must not be unduly surprised at two London females carrying great swords. Before we have done with the matter we shall see bankers carrying battle-axes, curates hurling javelins, governesses girt with great knives, and charwomen settling affairs of honour with rapiers. The arguments by which the scientific persons attempt to prove that men must become more mechanical or more peaceful always ignore one not unimportant factor--the men themselves. Civilisation itself is only one of the things that men choose to have. Convince them of its uselessness and they would fling away civilisation as they fling away a cigar. The sociologists always say what wilt happen in the material world, and never seem to ask themselves what would be happening meanwhile in the moral world. A perfect allegory of this may be found in a passage of Mr. Barry Pain's delightful book, De Omnibus. The scientific working-man endeavouring to explain to the others the law of gravity, or some such triviality, asks the omnibus conductor what would happen if he, the speaker, dropped a penny into his, the conductor's beer. I quote from memory: "It 'ud drop to the bottom wouldn't it?" says the scientist "Yuss," I says, "that's one of the things that 'ud 'appen. Another thing 'ud be that I should punch your fat 'ed off at the root for takin' a lib with my liquor." That is the sacred and immortal voice of mankind replying to the insolence of the specialist. The sociologist tells us that all sorts of things under certain conditions must happen, that the obliteration of nationality must happen, that the command of everything by science and scientific men must happen; and all because some particular economic or material fact must happen. "Yuss," we says. "That's one of the things that'll 'appen. Another thing'll be that we shall punch their fat 'eds off at the root for takin' a lib with the moral traditions of humanity." Their evolution will go on exactly until our revolution chooses to begin.

If we cannot provide the great cities and the great suburbs with some kind of poetry, they will simply go on breeding these broken fanaticisms that make women wave sabres and men found insane religions. If we will not have religion, we are reduced to the even, more annoying necessity of having religions. If we will not have romance in dress, in carriage, in mode of thought, the romantic element in mankind will materialise itself in the form of a great clout on the head with a cavalry sabre next time we go to call on a maiden lady of independent means. For it cannot be too often insisted upon that the way to avoid sentiment becoming too sentimental is to admit the existence of sentiment as a plain, unsentimental fact, a thing as solid and necessary as soap. Some unhappy Stoics in the modern world are perpetually concealing their emotions for fear of what they call scenes. And the consequence is that they are always having scenes from morning till night. The sensible Stoical English father goes purple in the face and swears and splutters against the sensible and Stoical English son. The sensible and Stoical English son goes red to the roots of his hair, and curses and gasps and exclaims against the sensible and Stoical English father. And all because they will not simply and sanely confess their emotions. All because they will neither of them merely say, "My dear father (or son) I am horribly fond of you, and at this moment it would give me enormous pleasure to throw a chair at your head." Their reluctance to admit their emotions becomes the most violent of all their emotions. Their shame of sentiment makes them more sentimental than any man need naturally be. Romantic and openly emotional people never make scenes. They never make scenes, because to them emotion is an easy and natural thing, a thing as evident and human as a man's nose, a thing to be carried as lightly as a man's walking-stick; No, we must do what has been done in the South of Europe. Make your civilisation reasonably romantic, and anyone who is unreasonably romantic will be hooted down the street.


The Illustrated London News, 14 October 1905

EVERY nation has a soul and every soul has a secret: hence there are some incommunicable things in every people; some national virtues must always seem vices to the foreigner. Thus it is really true that no Continental thinker understands the English idea of liberty, even if he admires it. But there are other international misunderstandings which arise from the opposite fault. They arise not because we fail to realise how unlike nations are, but actually because we fail to realise how like nations are. We may pass as pardonable the deadlock of peoples who quarrel because their sentiments are different; but we need have no patience with the deadlock of those who quarrel because their sentiments are the same. Thus (to take an instance of the two misconceptions) we can understand a patriotic Englishman being astonished at the absence of patriotism in China. But, unfortunately, he is generally astonished at the presence of patriotism in France. In many cases an Englishman can understand France easily by the simple operation of supposing it to be England. For example, every normal Englishman is disgusted at the French duel. Hut he never can make up his mind whether the duel is disgusting because it is dangerous, or disgusting because it not dangerous. But if he would simply recall that English fight with the fists which his fathers practised and the poorer English still practise, he would find that, good or bad, it was a thing very like the duel, a thing generally harmless, occasionally mortal.

In the same way Englishmen wandering abroad see the violent caricatures in the comic papers of the Continent and are always especially struck by their anti-clericalism—by the fact that priests are there perpetually presented with monstrous visages, in degraded postures, tortured and torn to rags by the demoniac pencil of the artist; an inferno full of clergymen. And the English travellers always return to England and say that the whole of France or Italy is raging with atheism and that the Church is tottering to its fall. Yet it never occurs to them to look at the English comic papers and see what would happen here if the same principle were applied. An intelligent man from Mars turning over some stacks or volumes (poor devil!) of our English comic papers, would in the same manner form one firm and clear opinion. He would believe that the whole English people were on the point of rising against the institution of marriage and of destroying it for ever. He would find every page covered with jeers and sneers at the man who was contemptible enough to tie himself to a wife and a perambulator. He would find the married man invariably represented as a man of improbably small stature and manifest mental deficiency. He would find that these million jokes were all variations of two jokes: the glee of the married man when lie escapes from his married life, and the woe of the married man while he is tied to it. And, finding our popular humour one long scream against the married state, the man from Mars would naturally, in his intellectual innocence, suppose that the country was really raging with this revolutionary passion. He would suppose that mobs were battering upon the doors of the Divorce Court, demanding, en masse, to be admitted and divorced. He would imagine that wedding-rings were being melted down publicly in a great pot in Trafalgar Square. He would suppose that any couple daring to get married would be assaulted at the church-door by the infuriated populace and pelted with bricks instead of confetti. He would suppose that those tireless satirists and enthusiasts, the editors of Snaps and Wheezes, would go about to everybody's wedding and forbid everybody's banns. "For what else," he would say, "what else except the most passionate moral purpose, and the most relentless intellectual policy, what else but a crusading earnestness and an adamantine sense of duty could induce men thus to fill fourteen mortal volumes of Snippy Bitswith the same joke on the same subject?"

Well, we know that this is not quite the case. We know that there is no immediate likelihood of the English people pulling down St. George's, Hanover Square, or filling the streets with a sudden slaughter of mothers-in-law. In short, we know that marriage is attacked in this way not because it is a vanishing institution, but because it is an enduring institution. People jeer at it because they will not change it. People batter it because it will not fall. And a very little reflection will enable us to realise that what is true of the relation between Snaps and the strength of marriage is true also of the relations between the anti-clerical caricatures and the Catholic Church in Europe. If a man is resolved to part with anything or anybody, he can generally take leave of it with a fair amount of dignity and delicacy and even regret. So people who break off an engagement are often sympathetic and always serious. A thing that is departing is necessarily solemn. But if a man is going to live with it, he must learn to laugh at it.

For this reason, I, for one, can never agree with the censure often directed against joking Judges, against Mr. Justice Darling, for instance, or, to take a much better type, Mr. Plowden. It is perfectly true, as the journalists say, that when a Judge makes jokes it often happens that we do not think them very good jokes. Hut the error lies in supposing that the fudge himself imagines for a moment that they are good jokes. I remember a schoolmaster of mine, a moody and eccentric man, who as he stood with a long pointer in his hand explaining something on a blackboard, uttered some flippancy which was, of course, followed by an anarchy of school-boy laughter. In a flash he had swung round on his heels, and, pointing the ten-foot pole straight at me, exclaimed in a voice of thunder, "Do you think I think that's funny?" I professed agnosticism on the point. "No, boy, no," he said, wagging his head with an indescribable emphasis of asseveration; "I do not think it funny. Seldom in my life have I heard a more imbecile remark. I only say it in order to relieve the intolerable tedium of two hours in school." He was a man of great acumen and scholarship, and knew the difference between good jokes and bad as well even as a journalist. But he also knew something else. He knew that, if he had not allowed himself glimpses of a humane folly, and even a humane contempt for his own occupation, he would have rushed round the room screaming and brandishing a cane. He knew that if he had taken his position quite seriously for two hours, the floor would have been decorated with juvenile corpses. And so probably the Judges know this psychological necessity, and are never so wise as when they are silly. The schoolmaster knows that it is better even to lose his reputation as a wit than to lose his temper as a man and lose his position as a master. He knows that it is better to crack jokes about nothing than to crack heads about everything. And the Judge knows that the work he has to do is already so dreadful and responsible that to think of nothing but its dread and responsibility would paralyse the intellect and the will. His business is literally too serious to be seriously thought of. But he feels, as the schoolmaster felt, that it is better to become a cheap jester than to become some darkened and distorted fanatic of the law, making inhuman decrees in an inhuman atmosphere. It is better for the Judge to be a clown if that is his only way of remaining a man: that a Judge should be a clown is less shocking than that he should be only a Judge. So if he too often utters follies, do not jump to the conclusion that you have a fool on the Bench. If he did not utter them, you might have a madman there.

The fault, of course, really lies with the journalists themselves, who always feverishly report any judicial utterance which is followed by "loud laughter." This is a monstrous injustice. Suppose every idle or vulgar raillery which was uttered in other trades were reported: everything that one miner said to another before descending the dangerous shaft, everything that one soldier said to another when advancing into the line of fire, all the jokes that beguile the time on lighthouses or in fishing fleets. Every time a corporal said to a private, "Now we shan't be long," his joke would be examined and adjudged like a new book. Every time one policeman told another to put his head in a bag, he would be asked if he thought that equal to the repartees of Talleyrand or Whistler. Be, therefore, more merciful in this matter judge not, even if you can judge the Judge. You are in an awful hall of justice, no doubt. But he is only in his workshop. And be glad if he can sing at his work, as Shakspere's clown could sing at his work, although it was digging graves.

All this rambling train of meditations began in my mind with an admirable scrap of sarcasm of Mr. Plowden, who has, very unjustly I think, been constantly reproached with his raillery. It was that incident that every reader has probably noticed, in which Mr. Plowden dealt with a boy who had made a noise in what the inimitable policeman called a street of "first-class people." At the first blush one feels that the magistrate should have rolled the policeman in the mud with righteous indignation, explained to him indignantly the alphabet of human fraternity, asked with holy wrath if he was the footman of a few rich houses or the servant of a great people. But nothing could really have been better than Mr. Plowden's placid explanation to the boy, as he discharged him, "First-class people require first-class sleep." The basis of true democracy was revealed by appealing to a primary physical experience. It was as if we were to say that a particular kind of death was reserved for refined persons.

And this is a good example of the excellent uses that a man in that position can make of the smiling method. A crime had been committed, but it was not one that could be adequately dealt with except by satire; and satire was made the punishment of the crime, Mr. Plowden wielding a rod of roses. When I speak of the crime, of course I do not mean the little boy's: he hadn't one. I mean the policeman's.


The Illustrated London News, 21 Oct 1905

I WONDER what real detectives are like. It maybe that my life has been abnormally placid, but I have never wanted a detective. Neither (I anticipate your thunderbolt of repartee) neither has a detective ever wanted me. If he did, that is, it was a private yearning, an ungovernable individual affection, distinct from his business, and he let concealment feed on his damask cheek. And apart from these two positions, that of the patron and that of the material or subject-matter (I mean the burglar), it is hard to get into spiritual relations with detectives. Other important people are much more accessible.

Anybody can see an editor, so long as he comes with a list of the urgent reforms that ought to be effected in some other country. It seems to be an axiom of our admirable and mysterious trade that if you want to make things better in Norway you begin an agitation in Vienna, and if you are dissatisfied with the management of Portugal you ask the inhabitants of Glasgow how long they are going to submit.

Again, anyone can see statesmen—when there are any statesmen to see. As for crowned heads and great Dukes and the Pope and people of that sort, we know from a hundred kindly journalistic anecdotes that they are to be seen by any small child who has a broken toy or a wounded kitten. So that you or I have only to procure a hurt kitten (I do not countenance hurting the kitten on purpose), a hurt kitten and a damaged doll and present ourselves with one in each hand at the gates of the Vatican or the steps of the White House at Washington, to be immediately ushered into the presence by bowing flunkies and reverently saluting guards.

You can even know servants, by far the most remote, awful, and exclusive class in our community. I once knew a wild fellow who knew a butler. He saw the other side of that splendid moon; "silver lights and darks undreamed of," as Browning says. But you cannot very well know a detective, except by all the trouble of committing a crime; and when you have got as low as that you may as well go the whole hog and be a detective yourself: then you will know him intimately.

The only detective I ever saw gave evidence in a court where I was a juryman, and he was a hearty, happy, silly sort of man. He had blank blue eyes and light, horsey clothes, and he seemed, by his own account, to be on terms of boisterous affection with the whole criminal class, as all his reported conversations with his victims began, "Well, Jim," and "Now then, Joe."

Was he the typical detective of real life, I wonder? He was certainly very different from the typical detective of fiction, which some think a safe guide. But, of course, it is not difficult to see why the detective is harder to know than these other persons of importance: of course it is his business to be hard to know. Editors do not wish to deny that they are editors—except (as I am informed) when poets are hovering round. Statesmen do not wish to convey that they are not statesmen; the impression, if conveyed, is conveyed with a beautiful unconsciousness. But to be a detective is not to look a detective: and if our force is really efficient (which, I admit, is enormously improbable) there must be quite a number of people in private and public stations whom we see and hear of every day who are really policemen because they seem so very unlike it. Perhaps you are a policeman. Perhaps I am. For my part, I have always had my doubts of Mr. Hall Caine.

But while my acquaintance with real detectives is disgracefully slight, my acquaintance with the detectives of popular fiction is full and accurate. At least, it would be if I could remember all the cartloads of sixpenny stories I have read. There is no kind of book so easy to read again, except the great classic. We read a Dickens story six times because we know it already; these things are a mystery. But if we can read a popular detective tale six times it is only because we can forget it six times. A stupid sixpenny story (no half-hearted or dubious stupidity, but a full, strong, rich, human stupidity), a stupid sixpenny story, I say, is thus of the nature of an immortal, inexhaustible possession. Its conclusion is so entirely fatuous and unreasonable that, however often we have heard it, it always comes abruptly, like an explosion, like a gun going off by accident. The thing is so carelessly written that it is not even consistent with itself: there is no unity to recall. The reader cannot be expected to remember the book when the author cannot remember the last chapter. We cannot guess the end when the writer does not seem to know it. Such a story slips easily on and off the mind; it has no projecting sticks or straws of intelligence to catch anywhere on the memory. Hence, as I say, it becomes a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. It gains an everlasting youth. It becomes something like the bottomless purse of Fortunatus or the jug that could never be emptied which belonged (I think) to Baucis and Philemon. Pack it in your trunk when you travel across the desert. Strap it in your knapsack when you climb Mount Everest, this precious, this supernaturally stupid work. Would that the sun in its splendour could be thus forgotten, and the mountains that meet the morning, and the very weeds at our feet, that so we might see them anew; that we might leap back from the weeds as from the green fingers, that we might stare at the sun as a strange and gigantic star!

It is beautiful and comforting to think what a vast army of amazingly brilliant detectives I have forgotten all about. For a moment they filled the mind; they proved that it was not the captain, they took out all the stair-rods, they showed who ate the last sardine, they confronted the bishop (or him whom we must call the bishop), they examined the button-hook (we had better call it a button-hook), they found the secret of the revolving conservatory, they found the box of matches (of matches!), they did all these sumptuous and bewildering things—and I cannot remember one of their names, nor the names of their books, nor the names of their authors. Is this some ethereal, evanescent quality in detection as such? Or is it, perhaps, easier to remember a real detective when he has taken you up once or twice? Perhaps this psychological truth of ours may offer some sort of explanation of the phenomenon of the old offender, the man who is always being put in the dock for the same crime. Perhaps crimes fade from the mind, like criminal novels. Perhaps the hoary and hardened footpad when brought into court is firmly under the impression that he is a First Offender. Or perhaps the mind acts as it does in the case of the detective incidents in fiction. I have often read the same melodramatic story time after time, and always remembered at the same point that I had read it before. Perhaps it is the same with the coarser and more material embodiments of crime. Perhaps an old convict will feel quite shy and boyish when about to cut up a banker with an axe. But just as he is cutting off the banker's left leg, he will stop suddenly, the axe poised in the air, his finger to his forehead, his eyes brilliant with a new-born thought. He will experience that strange and sudden conviction of having done the thing before which so much perplexes our psychologists. He will slowly realise that the day before, at that very same hour, he was also cutting off the left leg of a banker. It may be that every time a man is convicted of a crime it comes as a poetic surprise to him: the jury is engaged, so to speak, in telling him a refreshing romance. It may be so, I say. On the other hand, I confess, it may not.

When I began this article I intended to write with a most earnest and urgent moral purpose. But I seem somehow to have lost the thread of it. It was going to be all about the true spirit in which to approach criminal mysteries, and how much we had been misled in the matter by the popular atmosphere of criminal fiction. I was going to point out the following marble and colossal truths. That everybody's mind in dealing with a fact, like the Merstham fact, for instance, is probably really influenced, mad as it may seem, by contemporary detective fiction. That this is so, because in every age men are always more influenced by romance than by reality. That this is so because real details are so varied and broken, while a widely distributed book is the same for everybody. The Balham Tragedy (or what not) has happened to somebody; but we may say that the tragedy of "The Study in Scarlet" has happened to everybody. It has happened to everybody as an idea; and ideas are the things that are practical.

Nor is the next truth less important. It is this: that the peculiar evil of the impression produced by detective stories lies in this: That detective stories, being fictitious, are much more purely rational than detective events in actual life. Sherlock Holmes could only exist in fiction; he is too logical for real life. In real life he would have guessed half his facts a long time before he had deduced them. Instead of deducing from the weak t's and the Greek e's of the letter of the Reigate Squires that their story was inconsistent, he would simply have seen from their faces that they were a couple of scamps. Instead of discovering that Straker, the horse-trainer, was a bad man, by cross-examining milliners in London and asking questions about lame sheep, he would probably have learnt the fact from Mrs. Straker. In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, I forget which, the detective expresses his scorn of the mental operation known as "guessing," and says that it "destroys the logical faculty." It may destroy the logical faculty, but it makes the practical world. It cannot be too constantly or too emphatically stated that the whole of practical human life, the whole of business, in its most sharp and severe sense, is run on spiritual atmospheres and nameless, impalpable emotions. Practical men always act on imagination: they have no time to act on worldly wisdom. When a man receives a clerk who comes for employment, what does he do? Does he measure his skull? Does he look up his heredity? No; he guesses.


The Illustrated London News, 28 Oct 1905

SIR THOMAS BROWNE, whose tercentenary was celebrated at Norwich the other day, was, as everybody knows, a medical man. He was a rather curious kind of medical man; and there are a great many points in which he presents a somewhat singular contrast to our doctors of to-day. For instance, instead of being a doctor who became a knight, he was a knight who became a doctor; a bizarre and topsy-turvy conception. He was a doctor who wrote an eloquent and exhaustive work on urn-burial, churchyards, and death generally; a subject which doctors are now understood to avoid. But in nothing is he so permanently interesting as in his relations with the remarkable zoology of his time. His superb religious rhetoric and the whole literary side of him are obviously immortal.

Nothing finer has ever been said about the soul than that phrase of Browne's that it is a thing in man "which owes no homage unto the sun." But a more delicate defence is needed of his quaint science, and, indeed, of all the mediaeval science from which he drew his ideas. We know that his theology was true. We know that his zoology was untrue; but do not let us too readily assume that it is therefore unimportant. The whole of that old, fantastic science is misunderstood. It made every creature rather a symbol than a fact. But, then, it thought that all material facts were valuable as symbols of spiritual facts. It did not really very much mind whether the lion was a noble animal who spared virgins. What it did want to make clear was that, if the lion was a noble animal, it would spare virgins.

Let me take this example of what I mean. Every modern person of intelligence can see quite easily that the heraldic lion is very different from the real lion. But what we moderns do not quite realise is this: that the heraldic lion is much more important than the real lion. Words positively fail me to express the unimportance of the real lion. The real lion is a large, hairy sort of cat that happens to be living (or rather happens to be dying) in useless deserts that we have never seen and never want to see; a creature that never did us any good, and, in our circumstances, cannot even do us any harm; a thing as trivial, for all our purposes, as the darkest of the deep-sea fishes or as the minerals in the moon. There is no earthly reason to suppose that he has any of the leonine qualities as we ordinarily understand them. There is no ground for imagining that he is generous or heroic, or even proud. Some people who have fought him say that he is not even brave. He does not touch human life at any point at all. You cannot turn him, as you can the ox, into a labourer: nor can you turn him, as you can the dog, into a sportsman and a gentleman. He can share neither our toils nor our pleasures: you cannot harness a lion to a plough, nor can you, with a pack of lions, go hunting an elephant. He has no human interest about him. He is not even good to eat. From the fringe of his mangy and overrated mane to the tip of his tail (with which, I understand, he hits himself in order to overcome the natural cowardice of his disposition), from his mane to his tail, I say, he is one mass of unimportance. He is simply an overgrown stray cat. And he is a stray cat that never comes into our street. He is living his commonplace existence in regions where no white man can live without going mad with monotony and heat. We have to put him in our museums and such places, just as we have to put tiny little chips of grey stone that look as if you could pick them up in the street, or homely-looking brown beetles at which no self-respecting child could look twice. We have to do this because there are in the world a race of extraordinary people called men of science, who want to know all the facts, whether they are interesting or uninteresting-facts. They cross-examine us about our experiences, as do the austere detectives of fiction about whom I wrote last week. They want to know every little detail of every passing day, however dull or seemingly unimportant. They ask us to search and prod our memories for the small things that so easily escape us; they attach importance to every little domestic incident, even to such a trifle as a lion.

But the only kind of lion that is of any earthly practical importance is the legendary lion. He really is a useful thing to have about the place. He holds up the shield of England, which would otherwise fall down, despite the well-meant efforts of the Unicorn, whose hoofs are deficient in a prehensile quality. The African lion does not matter to anyone. But the British Lion, though he does not exist, does matter. He means something; it is the only true object of existence to mean something; and the real African lion has never succeeded in meaning anything at all. The legendary lion, the lion that was made by man and not by Nature, he is indeed the king of beasts. He is a great work of art, a great creation of the genius of man, like Rouen Cathedral or the Iliad. We know his character perfectly well, as we know the character of Mr. Micawber or Macbeth, or many other persons who have never taken the trouble to exist in a mere material way. His virtues are the virtues of a grand European gentleman; there is nothing African about his ethics.

He has the sense of the sanctity and dignity of death which is behind so many of our ancient rites. He will not touch the dead. He has that strange worship of a bright and proud chastity which is the soul of our Europe, in Diana, in the Virgin Martyrs, in Britomart, which left a single white star in the sensual storms of the Elizabethan Drama, and which is reconquering the world in its new form--the worship of children. The lion will not hurt virgins. In an innumerable number of the old legends and poems you will find the description of the refusal of some eminent lion to touch some eminent young lady. Some say that this sense of delicacy is mutual; and that young ladies also refuse to touch lions. This may be true: but even if it is true it probably only applies to the lower or actual lion, the mere lion of Africa, a negligible creature whom we have already dismissed to wander in his deserts, deserts which are as futile as himself and which form the dustbin of the universe.

The valuable lion, we have agreed, is a creature made entirely by man, like the chimaera and the hippogriff, the mermaid and the centaur, the giant with a hundred eyes, and the giant with a hundred hands. The lion on one side of the royal shield is as fabulous as the unicorn on the other side. In so far as he is not merely fantastic and impossible, he consists of all the aggregate good qualities of a kind of super-celestial country gentleman. He is the English aristocrat in a lion's skin. I intend no unpleasant allusion to another animal who once assumed that costume. I mean merely that the fabulous lion is really a human being: a thing which it is extremely difficult for a real lion to be. The heraldic lion is fading, I fear, upon our escutcheons. He still swings valiantly, however, over certain places of entertainment where so many of the kindlier traditions of our ancient civilisation have taken refuge. If you see the Red Lion, which should be on the shield of a knight, painted only on the signboard of an inn, remember all the great truths that you have read in this article; remember that this heraldic lion on the sign is the symbol of all that has lifted our Christian civilisation into life and energy and honour--magnanimity, valour, a disdain of easy victories, a scorn for all the scorners of the weak. Do not pass by "The Red Lion" with indifference or contempt. Now I come to think of it, you may not pass it by at all.

The heraldic lion has, perhaps, sprawled rather too widely over this article. A great many other examples might be taken. The heraldic leopard is not without his good points. The dog-headed men in Africa were full of interest; nor must we forget Sir Thomas Maundeville's memorable description of a hippopotamus, that it was "half man and half hors." That is what may be called an impressionist or symbolist sketch of it; it avoids teasing details, and gives a sense of mass and atmosphere. I have often looked at the hippopotamus in his cage at the Zoological Gardens, and wondered which part of his appearance or physiognomy impressed the incisive Sir Thomas Maundeville as being contributed by some human person of his acquaintance. Had Sir Thomas seen a very human class of hippopotamus, or had he mixed with a hippopotamic class of men? But the general remarks which I have made about the mediaeval lion, the heraldic lion, apply equally well to all these other mediaeval monstrosities or combinations. They were all fictitious. They were all entirely different to and independent of, the living creature upon which they were supposed to be modelled. And those who wrote about them and talked about them, and gravely disputed about all their characteristics, physical, mental, and moral, were, at the bottom of their hearts and the back of their minds, totally indifferent to whether they were true or not.

The Middle Ages were full of logic. And logic in its examples and symbols is in its nature entirely indifferent to fact. It is as easy to be logical about things that do not exist as about things that do exist. If twice three is six, it is certain that three men with two legs each will have six legs between them. And if twice three is six, it is equally certain that three men with two heads each will have six heads between them. That there never were three men with two heads each does not invalidate the logic in the least. It makes the deduction impossible, but it does not make it illogical. Twice three is still six, whether you reckon it in pigs or in flaming dragons, whether you reckon it in cottages or in castles-in-the-air. And the object of all this great mediaeval and Renascence science was simply to find everywhere and anywhere examples of its philosophy. If the hippopotamus illustrated the idea of justice, well and good: if it did not, so much the worse for the hippopotamus. These ancients sought to make the brutes the mere symbol of the man. Some moderns seek to make Man a mere symbol of the brutes. These old scientists were only interested in the human side of the beasts. Some new scientists are only interested in the beastly side of the men. Instead of making-the ape and tiger mere accessories to the man, they make man a mere accessory, a mere afterthought to the ape and tiger. Instead of employing the hippopotamus to illustrate their philosophy, they employ the hippopotamus to make their philosophy, and the great fat books he writes you and I, please God, will never read.


The Illustrated London News, 4 Nov 1905

IT is an error to suppose that statistics are merely untrue. They are also wicked. As used to-day, they serve the purpose of making masses of men feel helpless and cowardly. If I choose to light a pipe I am not the less free because ten thousand others are doing exactly the same. People have used much too freely, for instance, that phrase "reaction." If my father thought treacle better than honey, and I think honey better than treacle, England has experienced a reaction. If one party wins at one election, and another party wins at another election, it is a reaction. Some people have invented a very wicked phrase for it; they call it "the suing of the pendulum." But a man ought to be ashamed to be compared to a lump of lead. A pendulum swings because it cannot help it. But if there be a man who is ready to regard himself in the light of a pendulum, I have no use for him. Such a man ought to hang himself. Then he could be a pendulum and swing as much as he liked. But individual live men do not behave in this mechanical way; and about individual live men nobody even dreams of expecting it. It is quite true that this automatic recoil, or jumping back to an original position, is characteristic of inanimate or semi-animate things. It is quite true that if you find a tree bending over a river and you pull it violently backwards (with your well-known Herculean strength) and then release it, it will tend to resume its original position. But it is not true of a human being. It is not true that if you find a respectable gentleman bending over a book, and pull him violently backwards, and then release him, he will resume his original position. He will not do so in the least. He will throw himself into all sorts of new and animated positions, and possibly hit you in the eye. And then the statisticians say that if you have two thousand respectable gentlemen in a long row, all bending over two thousand separate books, and if you pull them all backwards and let them all go, they will all fall back into their places like the keys of a piano. I greatly doubt it. I believe they will hit you in the eye; and in case you do not happen to have two thousand eyes, or enough to go round, they will wait in a long queue, like people at the pit of a theatre, for the privilege of hitting you. At any rate, I fancy that if you act on this statistical principle, you will get knocked about. I hope you will.

And I have another quarrel with statistics. I believe that even when they are correct they are entirely misleading. The thing they say may sometimes be positively and really true: but even then the thing they mean is false. And it must always be remembered that this meaning is not only the only thing to which we ought to pay attention, but is literally, as a rule, the only thing our mind receives. When a man says something to us in the street, we hear what he means: we do not hear what he says. When we read some sentence in a book, we read what it means: we cannot see what it says. And so when we read statistics. It is impossible for the human intellect (which is divine) to hear a fact as a fact. It always hears a fact as a truth, which is an entirely different thing. A truth is a fact with a meaning. Many facts have no meaning at all, as far as we can really discover; but the human intellect (which is divine) always adds a meaning to the fact which it hears. If we hear that Robinson has bought a new fire-screen, we always wish to be able to say, "How like Robinson!" If we hear nothing else at all but this, that a man in Worthing has a cat, our souls make a dark, unconscious effort to find some connection between the spirit of Worthing and the love of domestic animals, between the night-songs of the feline and the sound of the sea at night. So when some dull and respectable Blue-Book or dictionary tells us some dull and respectable piece of statistics, as that the number of homicidal archdeacons is twice that of homicidal deans, or that five thousand babies eat soap in Battersea and only four thousand in Chelsea, it is almost impossible to avoid making some unconscious deduction from the facts, or at least making the facts mean something; thinking dreamily for a moment of deep, insoluble things, such as Battersea or the moral state of archdeacons. It is psychologically impossible, in short, when we hear real scientific statistics, not to think that they mean something. Generally they mean nothing. Sometimes they mean something that isn't true.

Let me take an imaginary but quite ordinary and straightforward example of the way that, as I think, the thing occurs. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you and I live in a respectable street. At No. 1, let us say, live the Pilkingtons. Well, we all know Pilkington, poor old chap. He is a man who seems to be constitutionally incapable of doing any work at all. He would lie in bed all day if it were not that his wife is a fiery and somewhat despotic person; and even she only manages to get him to start breakfast about eleven. At No. 2 are the Vernon-Spatchcocks, who, as we all know, live the Simple Life, and cannot keep their servants. They have planned out their day with an awful punctuality for a pure ideal of hygiene. Every morning at about four o'clock they start for a long walk to Hampstead or some objectionably healthy place, and are back by eleven precisely, where they partake of their first meal, a little fruit and some milk or some such muck. At No. 3 is my friend Miggs, who has a clean Christian breakfast at a clean Christian hour. At No. 4 is Major Macnab, whose wife is such an invalid, and he is so chivalrous a husband that, however hungry he may be, he always keeps breakfast waiting until she is able to appear, which is generally about eleven. At Nos. 5 and 6 are two dull sane people having breakfast at nine and ten respectively. At No. 7 is no less a person than the illustrious Hinks; and as you have all learned from innumerable illustrated interviews, Hinks finds he can work best in the fresh morning air; it is when the mists are melting and the sun baring his face of brass, that those quaint fancies and tender half-touches throng into his mind, with which he delights us all in "The Money-Lender" every week. Consequently, he finds it more convenient to write before breakfast, and, in the ecstasy of composition, commonly writes on until eleven, when he begins breakfast. At No. 8 is another ordinary lazy man, who gets up to an eleven o'clock breakfast, because he prefers it. At No. 9 lives the Hon. Galahad Gramme, who gets up late for obvious reasons, and with a violent headache. At No. 10 are the Wimbles, who are mad on everything French, and take what they call a déjeuner at eleven exactly. At No. 11 lives a man named Pickles, who breakfasts at nine.

And now along this street comes the Collector of Statistics. He makes inquiries into the above conditions, and finds this mathematical and quite indisputable fact: that out of these eleven families a majority of no less than seven take their breakfasts at eleven o'clock. It is a fact undoubtedly. But that is all. It is not a significant fact. It is not a truth. It does not mean anything whatever. But the mischief of the matter is as I have said: the moment we have the fact we cannot help feeling as if it was something more than a fact. The Collector of Statistics writes a great book, or makes a solemn speech, in which he says lucidly and decisively, "In such and such a street no less than seven people out of eleven have breakfasts at eleven o'clock." And the mind of man (which I may remark is divine) instinctively adds a spiritual generalisation and comment. It says, "Lazy beasts." But this is quite mistaken and false. The people in the street I pictured are no lazier than anybody else. Hinks works like a man possessed of devils. The Vernon-Spatchcocks do not eat at eleven because they are lazy, but because they are so unpleasantly strenuous. Major Macnab is occupied all day on his "History of the Mrs. Muggleton Relief Expedition." The street appears lazy in a book of facts; but is busy and fruitful in the book of life. Statistics never give the truth, because they never give the reasons. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine reasons for doing anything: and if people have none of these reasons for doing it they do it without a reason.

Perhaps you think that this example of mine is wild or inapplicable because the Collector of Statistics does not as yet concern himself with what hour we select for breakfast. Do not be too confident on this point. Logic is essentially an insane thing, and we do not know what the scientific oppressors of mankind may be up to next. But it is strictly and literally true that the method described above is the method applied to many most important and tormenting moral problems of our day. For instance, it is the method applied to the problem of drink. This imaginary statistician said, "Seven men to four" breakfast at eleven; but forgot to ask why they breakfast at eleven. The real statistician says—"Seven men to four" (in some place or other) "take to drink;" but he does not ask why they take to drink. Taking to drink is a mere external act, like taking breakfast at eleven. Not only can two men take to drink for different reasons; they can take to drink for opposite reasons. Jones takes to drink because he is poor and has no other pleasure. Smith takes to drink because he is rich and has no other occupation. Brown takes to drink because he is prosaic and cannot enjoy anything else. Robinson takes to drink because he is poetical and can enjoy everything else, but thirsts for more enjoyment. Tomkins takes to drink because he is a bold man and anxious for experience. Jenkins takes to drink because he is a coward and afraid of pain. The habit of the modern statisticians is always to get hold of these external acts, which mean nothing, to cut them off from their psychological causes, which mean everything, and then to put them thus detached into the human mind (which has been well called divine), where they produce a wholly false impression. They say, "There were so many eleven-o'clock breakfasts in Tub Street," though these included some lazy breakfasts, some strenuous breakfasts, and some accidental breakfasts. They say, "So many men got drunk," though this included one happy bridegroom, two unhappy poets, and one dipsomaniac. They say, "So many men were hit in our street," but they conceal the reasons. And what on earth is the use of all that?


The Illustrated London News, 11 Nov 1905

I RECEIVED a letter the other day asking me what I meant by saying that, when we read another man's statement, we do not read what he says, but only what he means. Of course, this truth is subject to some possible modifications. I admit that if a man sends us a letter written in the ordinary Roman character but composed in Zulu language, it is then very likely that we shall see what he says, but be at some slight loss about what he means. But if a man is writing to us, as I imagine the majority of our correspondents do write to us, not only in a language which we use ourselves, but in an idiom and verbal custom which we use ourselves—if, in short, he is not only using our language, but using our language as we are accustomed to use it—then the general proposition holds good: we see what he means; we do not even see what he says.

For instance, the letter probably begins "Dear Sir." Now, if it had begun "Beloved Sir" we should not have known in the least what the man meant. We should merely have been considerably astonished at what he said. Or, if he had begun his letter "Darling Sir," we should in the same way have been very much struck by the actual expression used, but the meaning might not be immediately clear to us, especially if he went on to say that unless a remittance was immediately forthcoming, he should be obliged to put the matter in the hands of solicitors. You and I receive these threatening letters by every post; they choke up the front passage; yet it never occurs to us that there is anything funny in the fact that the man begins by describing us as "dear." This is because we never actually read the word "dear" at all. We do not read what the man says; we only read what he means. And what he means when he says "Dear Sir" is not in the least what he says. What he means is, "Because I consider you an atrocious brigand and a disgrace to human society, that is no reason why I, in addressing you, should omit the customary ceremonials of a citizen and a civilised man."

I trust this rough example will serve to illustrate the point which puzzled my correspondent. Many others, of course, might be given. I myself, for instance, can never manage to use the ordinary salutations such as "How are you?" or "Very well, thank you!" as if they had any meaning at all. I use them in an entirely ceremonial sense. If both my legs had been shot off by a cannon-ball and both my eyes blown out of my head with a bombshell, and my right arm lopped off with a sabre, and if the General of the opposing army were to pause opposite me and, nodding in a friendly way, were to say, "How do you do?" if I had any feeble voice to answer with, I should say: "Very well, thank you."

Similarly, if I had cut him up with a great sword and left him lying about the place in pieces, I should put to him the ritual query, and if he did not answer "Very well, thank you," I should be enormously surprised. In the same way, when I meet men in the pouring rain I always say, "A fine day," and sometimes they disagree with me, which upsets me a great deal. But this is all individual. The main point is, that when men live together in a society they soon learn the significance which the mass of that society attaches to certain words or phrases. They soon learn to pay attention to what people mean; and they soon learn to pay no attention whatever to what people say.

A child came up to me a day or two ago (on the fourth of November, to be precise) and asked for alms, not with a mere selfish appeal to my pity, but with resonant, indeed partly metrical, appeal to my historic and Protestant sentiment. The child had golden hair, of course, and blue, ethereal eyes which were pathetic, in spite of their profound trustfulness. But his refined and oval face, together with his angelic smile, were somewhat obscured by his wearing an enormous artificial nose, which seemed to give him a great amount of pleasure. The rest of his paraphernalia was common, one may say, to all religions and ceremonies. Fireworks are of the nature of many other human rites: for fire is the essence of nearly all ritual. To burn something, to make a blaze, is one of the most natural outcomes of strong conviction of any sort. Faith exhibits itself in works, and above all in fireworks. To set fire to a thing is perfectly right, especially when we are celebrating some great principle; but do not set fire to the other man: the other man seldom burns well. Fireworks, then, I could understand; and, seeing a few boys playing with squibs, I knew that behind them, in historic reality, rose the towering flames from all the old altars of the earth. The Guy also is quite natural. He is simply the idol: the thing which wild human creatures (and tame human creatures too) make from some dark impulse to realise their own bad dreams. The South Sea Island deities are of this class, and the artistic posters of Mr. Aubrey Beardsley. Savages and modern artists are alike strangely driven to create something uglier than themselves. But the artists find it harder. The Guy, then, is simply a Guy: he is 'ugliness for ugliness' sake. He goes with cannibalism and human sacrifice and the pessimistic minor poets, and all the many forms of devil-worship. But why a false nose? What is the significance of that? I do not seem to remember that among any of the former religious celebrations of mankind. What can it mean? Does it represent some abnormal power of vigilance of the senses called forth by the famous danger of the Gunpowder Plot? Is it intended that when the Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons suddenly smelt gunpowder, his nose swelled to these enormous proportions with the effort of detecting it?

Or did the search-party of the House of Commons all specially assume patent iron noses for the purpose of protecting themselves against the fumes of the possible explosion? In any case, the artificial nose has evidently become ritual. As a matter of fact, it is not much more unreasonable than many other ritual disguises. The enormous pink proboscis which I saw the little boy wearing was not very like his real nose, I imagine. But the false nose was much more like his real nose than a Judge's wig, for instance, is like a Judge's real hair, when he has any. Nobody, I suppose, imagines that Mr. Justice Darling, let us say, has snow-white locks streaming down to his arm-pits, which are combed and curled into the form of the faultless head-dress which he wears. So that, after all, there might be a reasonable chance for the false nose as a piece of public formality. When a Judge was about to make some dreadful decision, he might put on a Roman nose instead of the black cap. A public speaker might produce the ornament at some sensational moment of his mounting rhetoric. When he said, for instance, "We must add to our policy some new and bold feature," he might produce the nose suddenly from his trousers pocket. When he said. "The whole face of our behaviour must be changed," he might with a sudden gesture startlingly change it. Then there might be such a thing as an ordered and systematic party significance in noses. How gratifying it would be if, as a consequence of the widespread and considerable excitement produced by the erection and celebration of the Gladstone statue, the finest feature of the Gladstone physiognomy were made a matter de rigueur. How delightful it would be if no Liberal politician were allowed to appear in public without his Gladstone nose! How greatly this would alter the appearance of Mr. John Burns! How enormously it would improve the appearance of Mr. Winston Churchill! And then think how it would operate upon the other side in politics. Would the sharp Chamberlain nose be sold, with an eye-glass attached? Would it really be popular with Tariff Reformers? Would Mr. Chaplin, for instance, who happens to have been given by Nature an exceedingly fine nose, be really satisfied with this Imperial substitute? But I am plunging into matters beyond my depth.

It is a part of the unchanging mystery of man that the nose sounds funny. I cannot imagine why, but all the other essentials of the human face have entirely solemn associations. If one speaks of eyes as such we do not think of "Two Lovely Black Eyes," or any degraded context; we think of the lady's eyes which are like stars in some Cavalier's sonnet. When one speaks of the mouth we do not think of grinning through a horse-collar; we think of some such thing as "the mouth of gold," the name by which we still remember a Father of the Church, St. Chrysostom. But the nose seems to lack legends. No Cavalier sonnet speaks of the lady's nose as being like a star. No great saint of the Church (within my limited hagiological knowledge) is popularly known as "the nose of gold." The amatory poets have not even found a metaphor for the human nose. The ear, we know, resembles a shell. It does not resemble a shell in the least, as a matter of fact; but the resemblance is close enough for the thing to have become formal in poetry. The eye, in the same way, is like a star. Actually, nothing could possibly be more unlike a star; but the resemblance is established. I learn from some poets that a lady's mouth is like a bow. It is about as much like a bow as it is like a Lee-Metford rifle; but the comparison does exist in literature. Nobody, however, has even suggested any nasal comparison. Apparently there is nothing in earth or heaven, nothing from the lowest fishes to the farthest stars, that bears even an approximate resemblance to the female nose. And I think that this instinct is right. I have tried to think of something that is like the female nose, but with very indifferent success. No less than four things suggested themselves as comparisons —but upon mature consideration, I will not state what they were.

These are very idle meditations that have led me away from my little friend with the false nose. There is, in all seriousness, something almost infinitely strange and solemn about the tercentenary of the Guy Fawkes plot ending in this preposterous proboscis. Commit a sin, one of the monstrous and suffocating sins that stifled the Court of James—commit a sin, and you may be damned for it, but humanity will not be damned for it. A few centuries after, it will only be remembered as an opportunity for wearing a large cardboard nose.


The Illustrated London News, 18 Nov 1905

SOME of the people who talk most about "change" and "progress" are the people who can least imagine, really, any alteration in the existing tests and methods of life. For instance, they make "reading and writing" a test for all ages and all civilisations. Reading and writing are in themselves simply accomplishments, very delightful and exciting accomplishments, like playing the mandoline or looping the loop. Some accomplishments are at one time generally fashionable, some at another. In our civilisation nearly everybody can read. In the Saracen civilisation nearly everybody could ride. But people persistently apply the three "R's" to all human history. People say, in a shocked sort of voice, "Do you know that in the Middle Ages you could not find one gentleman in ten who could sign his name?" That is just as if a mediaeval gentleman cried out in horror, "Do you know that, among the gentlemen of the reign of Edward VII, not one in ten knows how to fly a falcon?" Or, to speak more strictly, it would be like a mediaeval gentleman expressing astonishment that a modern gentleman could not blazon his coat-of-arms. The alphabet is one set of arbitrary symbols. The figures of heraldry are another set of arbitrary symbols. In the fourteenth century every gentleman knew one: in the twentieth century every gentleman knows the other. The first gentleman was just precisely as ignorant for not knowing that c-a-t spells "cat," as the second gentleman is for not knowing that a St. Andrew's Cross is called a cross saltire, or that vert on gules is bad heraldry.

We talk, with typical bigotry and narrowness, about the Alphabet. But there are in truth a great many alphabets besides the alphabet of letters. The letter alphabet was only slightly used in the Middle Ages: these other alphabets are only slightly used now. A certain number of soldiers learn to convey their meaning to each other by abruptly brandishing small flags. Others talk to each other in an intimate and chatty way by flashes of sunlight on a mirror. These alphabets are now as peculiar and restricted an accomplishment as writing was in the Dark Ages. They may some day be as broad and universal a habit as writing is now. In some future age we may see a lady and gentleman, one on each side of the table, arguing in an animated way by waving little flags in each other's faces. We may see distinguished ladies at their bedroom windows, with their looking-glasses turned towards the street, shaking the looking-glasses violently in order to communicate with a friend a few miles off. This will be especially satisfying, for it will provide them with a use for their mirrors, articles which they find at present to be entirely without raison d'être.

How strange it is, then, that we should so constantly think of education as having something to do with such things as reading and writing! Why, real education consists of having nothing to do with such things as reading and writing. It consists, at the least, of being independent of them. Real education precisely consists in the fact that we see beyond the symbols and the mere machinery of the age in which we find ourselves: education precisely consists in the realisation of a permanent simplicity that abides behind all civilisations, the life that is more than meat, the body that is more than raiment. The only object of education is to make us ignore mere schemes of education. Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously. The latest fads of culture, the latest sophistries of anarchism will carry us away if we are uneducated: we shall not know how very old are all new ideas. We shall think that Christian Science is really the whole of Christianity and the whole of Science. We shall think that art colours are really the only colours in art. The uneducated man will always care too much for complications, novelties, the fashion, the latest thing. The uneducated man will always be an intellectual dandy. But the business of education is to tell us of all the varying complications, of all the bewildering beauty of the past. Education commands us to know, as Arnold said, all the best literatures, all the best arts, all the best national philosophies. Education commands us to know them all that we may do without them all.

I saw in the newspaper the other day a startling example of all this. It seems that the Duchess of Somerset has been going into some Board School somewhere where the children were taught fairy-tales, and then going into some Board of Guardians somewhere else and saying that fairy-tales were full of "nonsense," and that it would be much better to teach them about Julius Caesar "or other great men." Here we have a complete incapacity to distinguish between the normal and eternal and the abnormal or accidental. Boards of Guardians are accidental and abnormal; they shall be consumed ultimately in the wrath of God. Board Schools are abnormal; we shall find, I hope, at last some sounder kind of democratic education. Duchesses are abnormal; they are a peculiar product of the combination of the old aristocrat and the new woman. But fairy-tales are as normal as milk or bread. Civilisation changes; but fairy-tales never change. Some of the details of the fairy-tale may seem odd to us; but its spirit is the spirit of folk-lore; and folk-lore is, in strict translation, the German for common-sense. Fiction and modern fantasy and all that wild world in which the Duchess of Somerset lives can be described in one phrase. Their philosophy means ordinary things as seen by extraordinary people. The fairy-tale means extraordinary things as seen by ordinary people. The fairy-tale is full of mental health. The fairy-tale can be more sane about a seven-headed dragon than the Duchess of Somerset can be about a Board School.

For all this fairy-tale business is simply the ancient and enduring system of human education. A seven-headed dragon is, perhaps, a very terrifying monster. But a child who has never heard about him is a much more terrifying monster than he is. The maddest griffin or chimera is not so wild a supposition as a school without fairy-tales. Through the briefly reported remarks of the Duchess of Somerset could easily be read the dark and extraordinary opinion, the opinion that a fairy-tale is something fantastic, something artificial, something of the nature of a joke. Of course, the very reverse is true. Fairy-tales are the oldest and gravest and most universal kind of human literature. It is the School Board that is fantastic. It is the Board of Guardians that is artificial. It is the Duchess of Somerset who is a joke. The whole human race that we see walking about anywhere is a race mentally fed on fairy-tales as certainly as it is a race physically fed on milk. If you abolish seven-headed dragons you would simply abolish babies. Some swollen-headed, dehumanised little tadpoles might remain behind, making a ludicrous pretence of infancy; but they would probably die young, especially if they were brought up on the life of Julius Caesar. Some parts of the life of Julius Caesar, if you told every word of it, would seem to be a little unfitted for infant edification; especially his early adventures. But if every word of his life were told, we might console ourselves with coming into possession of the one really important fact about him and every other man. If every word of his life were told, his life would begin with a vivid description of how much he enjoyed fairy-tales. Some of the fairy - tales he enjoyed to the end of his life: for he was exceedingly superstitious, as are all men of great intellect who have not found a religion.

Here, then, we have a curious instance of a person mistaking a quite temporary social atmosphere for the eternal sanity. For, to begin with, even in the mere matter of physical fact the fairy-tales are much more of a picture of the permanent life of the great mass of mankind than most realistic fiction. Most realistic fiction deals with modern towns—that is, with one short transition period in the smallest corner of the smallest of the four continents. Fairy-tales deal with that life of field and hut and palace, those simple relations with the ox and with the king which actually are the experience of the greatest number of men for the greatest number of centuries. The real farmer in most real places really does send out his three sons to seek their fortune; he knows uncommonly well that they will not get it from him. The real king of the majority of earthly royal houses is really ready to offer to some wild adventurer "the half of his kingdom." His kingdom is so uncommonly small to begin with that the division does not seem unnatural. Even in these physical matters the fairy-tale only seems incredible because we are in a somewhat exceptional position. It seems incredible to us because the big civilisation we have built is a specialist and singular and somewhat morbid thing. In short, it only seems incredible to us because we ourselves shall very soon be incredible.

In the same newspaper, or in some similar one, I came across another example of exactly the same lack of large education and a sense of the proportions of history. Another lady of similarly good position wrote to the Daily Telegraph suggesting that the children of Board Schools ought to be discouraged from dressing—or rather that their parents ought to be discouraged from dressing them—in fanciful finery and foppery, in laces or velvets or ribbons. She urged that the boys at Eton or Harrow are made to dress with sobriety in black and white and grey. But she did not realise that this is done merely because it happens at this moment to be the fashion of the aristocracy to dress with sobriety in black and white and grey. An Eton boy is dressed quietly not because it is manly, but because it is fashionable. And she did not seem to be aware that, hardly more than a century ago, the whole aristocracy did dress in laces and velvets and ribbons. The parents of poor children are again doing merely the normal human thing. They are dressing their children as gentlemen were dressed yesterday and may be dressed to-morrow.


The Illustrated London News, 25 November 1905

DR. MACNAMARA said the other day at a journalists' dinner that one of his constituents had reproved him for attacking the House of Lords. The final argument the man offered in defence of that Chamber took the following form. "After all, you can't deny that it keeps 'em out of the public houses."

There is something very simple and noble about this innocent retort of the poor upon the philanthropy and legislation of the rich. It is not perhaps very difficult to keep the nobility out of public houses. The national life might, however, be improved if we could keep the nobility out of private houses. It is strange how few people seem to see the deep and solemn significance of these two expressions. It is strange that the phrase "public house" should be so lightly and mechanically used that it is actually possible to utter it with an intonation of contempt. This is a mournful example of that perpetual degeneration of words which is the whole history of human language.

It is impossible to imagine a more splendid and sacred combination of words, a more august union of simplicity and glory, than this great phrase "a public house." It exPresses in one word all that is oldest and soundest and most indestructible in the idea of human society: the house where every man is master; the house where every man is guest. As we should have private ties, so we should have public ties. As we should have private prayers, so we should have public prayers. As we have private houses, so we should have public houses. Even if we lament the license of their use, or regard them as having been degraded into mere drug-shops, we ought still to regard every public house as a temple, a temple that has been profaned. When we come upon some noisy drunkenness—or worse, upon some quiet and dignified drunkenness—we should speak of it as of men brawling in church. "That men should do such things!" we should say, and then, with a break in our voices and a low and hoarse tone, "in a Public House!" I know of one other parallel to this profanation of a noble civic phrase. You will hear men speak with the same accent of flippancy and bathos the word "Music Hall." What could be more coarse and commonplace than the style in which everybody speaks of a Music Hall or a Public House? And what could be more exalted or heroic than such ideas as a Hall of Music or a House of the People? Some defilers of the sanctuary, I have even heard, say "Pub" when they mean Public House. They might as well say "Cat" when they mean Cathedral. They might as well call a Palace an "old Pal."

But gentleman who wanted to keep the Lords out of Public Houses committed an unconscious irony when he wished to achieve that end by keeping them in the House of Lords. For the House of Lords is a Public House. So is the House of Commons. That is the one really agreeable thing about them. I do not refer to the mere fact that they are, I believe, both licensed to sell stimulants, like any ordinary Public House. Nor do I allude to the fact that its occupants are sometimes chucked out. I mean that behind the existence of these things is the same idea that is behind the old inns of the world: the idea that man lives in something else besides a private house, that in the words of Aristotle (the Greek of which you have on the tip of your tongue), "man is by nature political." And if the taverns and the drinking-shops do not look very much as if they lived up to their sublime destiny— well, there are some churlish people who think that the Houses of Parliament... but perhaps we had better not go into that. Suffice it to repeat, for the benefit of the philanthropist who wished to keep the Lords out of public houses, that the House of Lords is itself a Public House. And that there are some people who would like to keep the Lords out of that one.

We certainly live in times of a resurrection of moral inquisition. Last week I had to comment on a Duchess who wished to prevent children having fairy-tales. Here we have been noticing a man who wants to prevent Peers having drinks. As I regard both as normal human rights, I resent both interferences, but perhaps last week's was the more urgent of the two, as the power of Duchesses over children is greater than the power of Dr. Macnamara's constituent over Dukes. I once saw in a French paper an advertisement in enormous letters of "Rum; comme on le boit dans la Chambre des Lords à Londres." It was pleasant to think of Lord Spencer and the Archbishop of Canterbury clinking pots full of that piratical drink. If they do so they can continue; they are in no immediate danger from Dr Macnamara's constituent. The Duke of Devonshire may have his half-and-half or the Duke of Argyll his simple bitter-and-dash without any qualms for the present. For these people are too powerful to be called "a modern problem." So perhaps we had better pass to more urgent topics.

The Bishop of London's remarks about Christian Science seem to have been rather sensible. In a controversy in which one side is always urging us to use purely mental means, and the other always urging us to use purely physical ones, his contribution practically resolves itself into asking why we should not use both? Everybody knows there are such things as physical causes and results. Everybody knows there are such things as mental causes and results. How far either of them goes nobody knows. Why, then, should not a man use them indifferently and equally as he sees them applicable at the moment? And observe that this is not mere commonsense: it involves also an important moral distinction. Every saint worth calling a saint worked cures by mental power. But no saint worth calling a saint would have refused to give a man a bottle of wine or a wooden leg. They gave the spiritual help, but they would never have refused to give the physical help. They would no more have thought it degrading to cure a man by physical means than they would have thought it degrading to give a man bread or boots or food or fire. But some of the Christian Science people do definitely think it degrading to use the physical means at all. And this is the real quarrel between Christian Science and Christianity.

Christianity says, in essence, something to the following effect:

"If you say that you can work miracles, I do not say that miracles are impossible. I have been abused by everybody for some hundred years for saying that they were possible. But if you say that physical means are wrong, I will knock your head off. If you say that you yourself can fly up through four floors to the top of your house by means of miraculous levitation, I have no quarrel with you at all. Many of my saints have said the same. But if you say that it is degrading to a decent man to get to the top of his house by means of his legs, then, with a sacred sense of responsibility, I will knock your head off. If you say that you can live without food for nine months by miraculous means, I do not quarrel with you. But if you say that other people are poor creatures because they eat meat and drink wine, like the Apostles, then I do quarrel with you—nay, I knock your head off. And if you say that you can cure sickness by the use of your will, I do not quarrel with you—nay, I applaud you. But if you say that a man who has cured people by drugs and bandages ought to be ashamed of himself because his methods are physical, then by all I hold most sacred I will knock what you call your head off! "

In short, it is not the supernatural part of the Christian Science atmosphere, but the anti-natural part of it, to which we object. It is not what the Christian Scientists do, but what they refuse to do. To Christianity the supernatural is more than genuine; it is almost commonplace. The great saint of Christianity has miraculous power, but he does not use it uniquely or specially. I might almost say that the great saint has miraculous power, but does not take it seriously. Nothing is more to be noted in the case of the great spiritual figures of Christian life, beginning with the highest of all. than the fact that they use mental help as if it were physical—casually, on impulse, almost at random. They give a man a miracle as they might give him a light for his pipe. They open the eyes of the blind as they might open a carriage-window for a lady. They remove a man's leprosy as they might remove a piece of fluff from his coat. The miracle has in its atmosphere nothing especially solemn or mystic about it. It is an act of good-nature: but it is the good-nature of a god. It is a sort of celestial politeness. And nothing would be further from the mind of these prophets or saints than the Christian Science notion that physical methods are base or inferior. For them, healing a man by spirit is as obvious as healing him by soup. But healing him by soup would be quite as dignified as healing him by spirit.

After writing recently in this column some remarks about the nose never figuring in amorous poetry, I ought to have been prepared to be triumphantly contradicted; for those generalisations are never exactly true, especially when they take the form of a universal negative. One correspondent wrote me a very charming letter drawing my attention to a case which I certainly ought to have remembered—that of the lady whose nose was "tip-tilted like the petal of a flower." This is very delicately done; I doubt if it could be done again. In any case, a careful selection among flowers must be made by the young lyrist who wishes to compare his lady's nose to any of them. Tiger-lilies, carnations, sunflowers, and such instances should be avoided. Another obliging gentleman sent me a postcard with the following quotation from the Song of Solomon—"Thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh towards Damascus." This is all very well when one is an Eastern despot and can pay compliments in freedom. But if in these days I endeavoured to ingratiate myself with a lady by comparing her nose to the Eiffel Tower it is not quite so easy to say what would happen.


The Illustrated London News, 2 December 1905

PRACTICAL politics are in this world continually coming to grief; for the truth is that practical politics are too practical for this world. This world is so incurably romantic that things never work out properly if you base them on the sound business principle. For instance, it is always assumed in modern social philosophy that ornaments, curiosities, objets d'art, etc., are things that people add to their lives when they have procured all that is solid and sensible. The actual fact is quite otherwise. The savage wears an objet d'art in his nose before he discovers that clothes are of any use at all. Man discovered that dress was a luxury before he discovered that dress was a necessity. It is not only true that luxuries are more noble than necessities; it really seems as if they were more necessary than necessities.

I see that the vicar of a very poor district has made an experiment of quite extraordinary interest. He suggested that the poor should bring out all the objects of interest that they had in their houses; and he undertook to see that they got the best possible price for them, if they cared to sell. There is a wonderful irony and significance about his offer. He asked the poor to produce expensive things: and they did. He demanded diamonds, so to speak, from the men who had no bread. He asked the starving what treasure was hidden in their houses. He knew human nature. The incredible fact fell out exactly in accordance with his demand. The people who could hardly keep the rags together on their backs brought out of their houses things which were not only genuinely worth study, but were genuinely worth money. They were all curiosities, numbers of them were expensive curiosities. Several of them had that unique quality which more than either use or beauty draws out money in torrents and maddens the hearts of millionaires. One poor woman, for instance, had a patchwork quilt made out of fragments of the French and English uniforms at Waterloo. Words are absolutely inadequate to express the poetry of such a quilt as that; to express all that is involved in the colours of that strange reconciliation. The hope and hunger of the great Revolution, the legend of isolated France, the starry madness of the Man of Destiny, the nations of chivalry that he conquered, the nation of shopkeepers that he did not conquer, their long and dull defiance, the last agony of Europe at war with a man, the fall that was like the fall of Lucifer—all those things were on that poor old woman's quilt, and every night she drew over her poor old bones the heraldry of a thousand heroes. On her coverlet two terrible nations were at peace at last. That quilt ought to be strung up on to a great pole and carried in front of King Edward and President Loubet in every celebration of the Entente Cordiale. That quilt is the Entente Cordiale. But a poor householder owned it and never thought of its value.

The other exhibits had, in one way or another, this same quaint and picturesque and unexpected character. One man had a walking-stick made of glass and filled with sweets. If there were children in the house, the preservation of that glass stick has something of the insane sublimity of a religion. Many had weapons of undoubted antiquity. Several had weapons with definite and ascertainable historical associations. A boot of the Duke of Marlborough was (I think) one of the exhibits. I do not know how this boot became detached from its fellow; but when I recall the clear intellect and fine financial genius of the Conqueror of Blenheim, together with that liberal disdain of the pedantries of personal dignity which also distinguished him—in short, when I reconstruct the whole moral character of Marlborough, I think it highly probable that he sold one of his boots for threepence, and hopped home.

Another of the vicar's parishioners had an old picture of the Flood, so old that quite competent authorities described it literally as priceless. I do not know how old this picture of the Flood really was (perhaps it was a water-colour sketch taken on the spot), but it is a mere matter of fact that the owner received for it a sum such as he had never seen in his life. Yet he had let the thing hang on his walls quite undisturbed probably through many periods of acute economic distress.

Some of the exhibits were entirely wild and odd; but I am not sure that I did not like them as well as any. One was a stuffed lamb with an unnatural number of heads or legs or something, which had really been born on some country estate. Simple and uneducated people have no horror of physical monstrosities; just as educated people have no horror of moral monstrosities. But the broad characteristic of all the things described was emphatically the fact that they were interesting things. And this is particularly a quality of them as things collected by the poor. The cultivated classes go in for what is beautiful; but the uncultivated for what is interesting. For example, the more refined people concern themselves with literature—that is, with beautiful statements. But simple people concern themselves with scandal—that is, with interesting statements. Interest often exists apart from beauty; and interest is immeasurably better and more important than beauty. I myself know a man who is beautiful and remarkably uninteresting. The distinction is one that affects religion and morals and the practical philosophy of living. Existence often ceases to be beautiful; but if we are men at all it never ceases to be interesting. This divine creation in the midst of which we live does commonly, in the words of the good books, combine amusement with instruction. But dark hours will come when the wisest man can hardly get instruction out of it; but a brave man can always get amusement out of it. When we have given up valuing life for every other reason, we can still value it, like the glass stick, as a curiosity. For the universe is like the glass stick in this, at any rate: it is unique.

But the important point is this, that the uneducated are, by their nature, the real conservers of the past; because they are the people who are really not interested in beauty, but interested in interest. The poor have this great advantage over the ordinary cultivated class, that the poor (like a few of the best of the very rich) are not affected by the fashions: they keep things because they are quaint or out of the current line of thought. They keep Old Masters because they are old, not because they have recently been discovered. They preserve old fashions until the time when they shall become new fashions. For the man who is ten years behind his time is always ten years nearer to the return of that time. You go into the poor house in the vicar's poor parish and find a picture of the Flood which is really ancient. It is daily becoming darker and older and more remote from the modern world; and it is daily becoming more important. You go into the average house of the average cultivated gentleman in the same parish, and you find — what do you find? Not an unfashionable picture which grows more priceless as it grows older, but a fashionable picture (or rather a brown or green photogravure reproduction of a fashionable picture), a fashionable picture which does nothing cf the kind, a fashionable picture which, whatever its technical merits or the temporary interests attaching to its artistic school, is actually growing more worthless every instant that it remains in existence. The people who own it.are people who always want the best art that one can get for money at a given moment. And the best art that one can get at a given moment is always—the most fashionable art. They can never dare to be behind the times; that is, to be independent of the times. In such an educated household you will always find the brown print of Burne-Jones's Golden Stairs, and the grey-green print of G.F. Watts's Hope. You will not find the priceless picture of the Flood, except under the careless keeping of the very rich—or of the very poor.

It is the same with all the other examples which I have offered above. The upper middle-class family would not have preserved the glass walking-stick full of sweets. The family would have bought the walking-stick while the fashion was on; but the upper middle-class family would have eaten that walking-stick long before the fashion was over. The upper middle- class family would not have preserved with that perfect simplicity even so fine a thing as the patchwork of Waterloo. Ten to one they would have valued a cartridge-belt of the C.I.V. more than those rags red with the sacred blood of the last battle of Napoleon. The upper middle-class people would not have been content with keeping the boot of a dead Duke, being more happily engaged in licking the boots of a live one. The thing alive, the thing of the moment, must always be overpoweringly attractive to the fashionable class; and with the exception (as I have said) of some of the best and simplest and most patriotic of the aristocrats, it is heavily doubtful whether the sudden pillage of all the houses of the educated classes would reveal possessions strictly of the same interest as those revealed in that insane museum which the adventurous vicar set up. A sudden pillage of all those houses would probably reveal that what they considered their individual good taste was, in fact, the fashion of the whole of their class. The uncommon poets would be common to all of them. The uncommon bindings would be common to all of them. The uncommon panels and wall-papers would be common to all of them. Hardly one of them would have the moral magnificence to have in their houses a thoroughly inappropriate thing—such, for instance, as a stick full of sweets. That is a treasure only found in the homes of the humble: but it is the inappropriate thing which is interesting for ever. Nobody ever understood the romance of humble life so well as Dickens—its patience and its extravagance, its endurance of ancient evil, its love of fitful festivity, its disorderly and yet kindly methods, its uncomfortable love of comfort, its dark and almost maniacal respectability. Dickens felt all this in his very bones, and the very names of his books often express the enduring elements in the life of the poor. The poor all have Hard Times. The poor all have Great Expectations. But in no name did he more certainly strike the note of what makes the poor streets fascinating than in the three words, the Old Curiosity Shop.


The Illustrated London News, 9 December 1905

A CERTAIN politician (whom I would not discuss here on any account) once said of a certain institution (which wild horses shall not induce me to name) that it must be mended or ended. Few people who use this useful phrase about reform notice the important thing about it. The important thing about it is that the two methods described are not similar but opposite; between mending and ending there is not a difference of degree but of vital antagonism of kind. Mending is based upon the idea that the original nature of the thing is good; ending is based upon the idea that the original nature of the thing is bad—or, at least, has lost all power of being good.

If I mend an armchair it is because I want an armchair. I mend the armchair because I wish to restore it to a state of more complete armchairishness. My objection to the armchair in its unmended state is that its defects prevent it from being in the fullest sense an armchair at all. If (let us say) the back has come off and three of the legs have disappeared, I realise, in looking at it, not merely that it presents a sense of general irregularity to the eye; I realise that in such and such respects it does definitely fall short of the Divine and Archetypal Armchair, which, as Plato would have pointed out, exists already in heaven.

But it is possible that I might possess among my drawing-room furniture some object—let us say a rack or a thumb-screw—of which the whole nature and raison d'être was repellent to my moral feelings. If my thumb-screw fell into slight disrepair, I should not mend it at all; because the more I mended the thumb-screw the more thumb-screwy it would be. If my private rack were out of order, I should be in no way disturbed; for my private code of ethics prevents me from racking anyone, and the more it was out of order the less likely it would be that any casual passer-by could get racked on it.

In short, a thing is either bad or good in its original aims and functions. If it is good, we are in favour of mending it; and because we are in favour of mending it, we are necessarily opposed to ending it. If it is bad, we are in favour of ending it; and because we are in favour of ending it, we ought to fly into a passion at the mere thought of mending it. It is the question of this fundamental alternative, the right or wrong of the primary idea, which we have to settle in the case of receiving money for charity from members of dubious or disputed trades, from a publican to a pirate.

This is an extremely good example of the fact I have often enunciated, the fact that there is nothing so really practical and urgent as ideal philosophy. If being a publican is a bad thing in its nature, then the quickest way of getting a good settlement is to punish a man for being a publican, to suppress him like a smuggler, to treat the man who administers beer like a man who administers poison. But if being a publican is a good thing in itself, then the quickest way of getting good publicans is to admire a man because he is a publican, to follow him in great crowds, and crown him with laurel because he is a publican. It is a practical course to destroy a thing; but the only other practical course is to idealise it. A respected despot may sometimes be good; but a despised despot must always be despicable. If you are going to end an innkeeper, it can be done quite easily with a hatchet. But if you are going to mend an innkeeper, you must do it tenderly, you must do it reverently. You must nail an extra arm or leg on to his person, keeping always before you the Platonic image of the perfect innkeeper, to whose shape you seek to restore him.

So I would deal with the seller of whisky or of battle-ships, whose contributions to charitv were spurned for conscience' sake by Mr. Bernard Shaw's latest dramatic creation. Certainly M Major Barbara's rejection of the alms cannot rationally be imitated unless we suppress the trades. If we think these tradesmen wrong, it is absurd merely to refuse their contributions to charities. To do so amounts merely to this: that we tolerate them all the time they are doing evil, and only begin to insult them when they begin to do good.


The Illustrated London News, 16 December 1905

IF a man must needs be conceited, it is certainly better that he should be conceited about some merits or talents that he does not really possess. For then his vanity remains more or less superficial; it remains a mere mistake of fact, like that of a man who thinks he inherits the royal blood or thinks he has an infallible system for Monte Carlo. Because the merit is an unreal merit, it does not corrupt or sophisticate his real merits. He is vain about the virtue he has not got; but he may be humble about the virtues that he has got. His truly honourable qualities remain in their primordial innocence; he cannot see them and he cannot spoil them. If a man's mind is erroneously possessed with the idea that he is a great violinist, that need not prevent his being a gentleman and an honest man. Hut if once his mind is possessed in any strong degree with the knowledge that he is a gentleman, he will soon cease to be one.

But there is a third kind of satisfaction of which I have noticed one or two examples lately—another kind of satisfaction which is neither a pleasure in the virtues that we do possess nor a pleasure in the virtues we do not possess. It is the pleasure which a man takes in the presence or absence of certain things in himself without ever adequately asking himself whether in his ease they constitute virtues at all. A man will plume himself because he is not bad in some particular way, when the truth is that he is not good enough to be bad in that particular way. Some priggish little clerk will say, "I have reason to congratulate myself that I am a civilised person, and not so bloodthirsty as the Mad Mullah. Somebody ought to say to him. A really good man would be less bloodthirsty than the Mullah. But you are less bloodthirsty, not because you are more of a good man, but because you are a great deal less of a man. You are not bloodthirsty, not because you would spare your enemy, but because you would run away from him. Or, again, some Puritan with a sullen type of piety would say, I have reason to congratulate myself that I do not worship graven images like the old heathen Greeks. And again somebody ought to say to him, The best religion may not worship graven images, because it may see beyond them. Hut if you do not worship graven images, it is only because you are mentally and morally quite incapable of graving them. True religion, perhaps, is above idolatry. But you are below idolatry. You are not holy enough yet to worship a lump of stone.

In turning over a pile of newspapers I noticed two cases of this confusion. In one case Mr. F.C. Gould, the brilliant and felicitous caricaturist, delivered a most interesting speech upon the nature and atmosphere of our modern English caricature. I think there is really very little to congratulate oneself about in the condition of English caricature. There are few causes for pride; probably the greatest cause for pride is Mr. F.C. Gould. But Mr. F.C. Gould, forbidden by modesty to adduce this excellent ground for optimism, fell back upon saying a thing which is said by numbers of other people, but has not perhaps been said lately with the full authority of an eminent cartoonist. He said that he thought "that they might congratulate themselves that the style of caricature which found acceptation nowadays was very different from the lampoon of the old days." Continuing, he said, according to the newspaper report, "On looking back to the political lampoons of Rowlandson's and Gilray's time they would find them coarse and brutal. In some countries abroad still, 'even in America,' the method of political caricature was of the bludgeon kind. The fact was we had passed the bludgeon stage. If they were brutal in attacking a man, even for political reasons, they roused sympathy for the man who was attacked. What they had to do was to rub in the point they wanted to emphasise as gently as they could." (Laughter and applause.)

Anybody reading these words, and anybody who heard them, will certainly feel that there is in them a great deal of truth, as well as a great deal of geniality. But along with that truth and with that geniality there is a streak of that erroneous type of optimism which is founded on the fallacy of which I have spoken above. Before we congratulate ourselves upon the absence of certain faults from our nation or society, we ought to ask ourselves why it is that these faults are absent. Are we without the fault because we have the opposite virtue? Or are we without the fault because we have the opposite fault? It is a good thing assuredly, to be innocent of any excess; but let us be sure that we are not innocent of excess merely by being guilty of defect. Is it really true that our English political satire is so moderate because it is so magnanimous, so forgiving, so saintly? Is it penetrated through and through with a mystical charity, with a psychological tenderness? Do we spare the feelings of the Cabinet Minister because we pierce through all his apparent crimes and follies down to the dark virtues of which his own soul is unaware? Do we temper the wind to the Leader of the Opposition because in our all-embracing heart we pity and cherish the snuggling spirit of the Leader of the Opposition? Briefly, have we left off being brutal because we are too grand and generous to be brutal? Is it really true that we are better than brutality? Is it really true that we have passed the bludgeon stage?

I fear that there is, to say the least of it, another side to the matter. Is it not only too probable that the mildness of our political satire, when compared with the political satire of our fathers, arises simply from the profound unreality of our current politics? Rowlandson and Gilray did not fight merely because they were naturally pothouse pugilists; they fought because they had something to fight about. It is easy enough to be refined about things that do not matter; but men kicked and plunged a little in that portentous wrestle in which swung to and fro, alike dizzy with danger, the independence of England, the independence of Ireland, the independence of France. If we wish for a proof of this fact that the lack of refinement did not come from mere brutality, the proof is easy. The proof is that in that struggle no personalities were more brutal than the really refined personalities. None were more violent and intolerant than those who were by nature polished and sensitive. Nelson, for instance, had the nerves and good manners of a woman: nobody in his senses. I suppose, would call Nelson "brutal." But when he was touched upon the national matter, there sprang out of him a spout of oaths, and he could only tell men to "Kill! kill! kill the d——d Frenchmen."

It would be as easy to take examples on the other side. Camille Desmoulins was a man of much the same type, not only elegant and sweet in temper, but almost tremulously tender and humanitarian. But he was ready, he said, "to embrace Liberty upon a pile of corpses." In Ireland there were even more instances. Robert Emmet was only one famous example of a whole family of men at once sensitive and savage. I think that Mr. F.C. Gould is altogether wrong in talking of this political ferocity as if it were some sort of survival from ruder conditions, like a flint axe or a hairy man. Cruelty is, perhaps, the worst kind of sin. Intellectual cruelty is certainly the worst kind of cruelty. But there is nothing in the least barbaric or ignorant about intellectual cruelty. The great Renaissance artists who mixed colours exquisitely mixed poisons equally exquisitely; the great Renaissance princes who designed instruments of music also designed instruments of torture. Barbarity, malignity, the desire to hurt men, are the evil things generated in atmospheres of intense leality when great nations or great causes are at war. We may, perhaps, be glad that we have not got them: but it is somewhat dangerous to be proud that we have not got them. Perhaps we are hardly great enough to have them. Perhaps some great virtues have to be generated, as in men like Nelson or Emmet, before we can have these vices at all, even as temptations. I, for one, believe that if our caricaturists do not hate their enemies, it is not because they are too big to hate them, but because their enemies are not big enough to hate. I do not think we have passed the bludgeon stage. I believe we have not come to the bludgeon stage. We must be better, braver, and purer men than we are before we come to the bludgeon stage.

Let us then, by all means, be proud of the virtues that we have not got; but let us not be too arrogant about the virtues that we cannot help having. It may be that a man living on a desert island has a right to congratulate himself upon the fact that he can meditate at his ease. But he must not congratulate himself on the fact that he is on a desert island, and at the same time congratulate himself on the self-restraint he shows in not going to a ball every night. Similarly our England may have a right to congratulate itself upon the fact that her politics are very quiet, amicable, and humdrum. But she must not congratulate herself upon that fact and also congratulate herself upon the self-restraint she shows in not tearing herself and her citizens into rags. Between two English Privy Councillors polite language is a mark of civilisation, but really not a mark of magnanimity.

Allied to this question is the kindred question on which we so often hear an innocent British boast—the fact that our statesmen are privately on very friendly relations, although in Parliament they sit on opposite sides of the House. Here, again, it is as well to have no illusions. Our statesmen are not monsters of mystical generosity or insane logic, who are really able to hate a man from three to twelve and to love him from twelve to three. If our social relations are more peaceful than those of France or America or the England of a hundred years ago, it is simply because our politics are more peaceful; not improbably because our politics are more fictitious. If our statesmen agree more in private, it is for the very simple reason that they agree more in public. And the reason that they agree so much in both cases is really that they belong to one social class; and therefore the dining life is the real life. Tory and Liberal statesmen like each other, but it is not because they are both expansive; it is because they are both exclusive.


The Illustrated London News, 23 December 1905

MOST of us, of course, spend half our time in abusing journalism, especially those of us (like myself) who spend the other half in writing it. But when we pass from abusing a thing to reforming it, we commonly pass from an easier condition to a much stormier one, for there is nothing more united than opposition, and nothing more divided than reform. When two men unite against a third with hearty and unanimous enthusiasm, it is generally because one thinks he is too far to the left and the other that he is too far to the right.

And so I fancy it would be if we all fell to work reforming journalism. I for one feel a dark and penetrating consciousness that the things I should alter in journalism would be quite different from the things that other people would alter; I fear I should hoard their off-scourings and throw away their pearls. For instance, most of the idealistic reformers of journalism cry out first and foremost against the things called snippets; that is, against short paragraphs, abrupt anecdotes, fragments of fact from the police court and the street. For my part, I feel snippets to be the one thoroughly honest and genuine and valuable and philosophic part of journalism. The part of journalism that I would feel attempted to suppress would be the serious part: the leading articles and the learned reviews and the authoritative and infallible communications from special foreign correspondents.

Everyone seems to assume that the unscrupulous parts of newspaper-writing will be the frivolous or jocular parts. This is against all ethical experience. Jokes are generally honest. Complete solemnity is almost always dishonest. The writer of the snippet or cheap par. merely refers to a fugitive and frivolous fact in a fugitive and frivolous way. The writer of the leading article has to write about a fact that he has known for twenty minutes as if it were a fact that he has studied for twenty years. I do not in the least mind getting my jokes from the Marquis of Harmsworth (or whatever his name is to be); it is only the idea of getting my views from him that seems like carrying the joke too far. I do not in the least object to the Yellow Press when it is irresponsible. It is when it is responsible that I draw the line at it.

I often find little slangy paragraphs in the daily papers which are full of philosophy. They balance and correct the levity of the leading articles. The solemn palace of compromise and hypocrisy will often be smashed to pieces by some little pebble that the penny-a-liner has picked up only because it was a curiosity. Suppose, let us say, that some elaborate editorial begins like this, as it easily may:

"We do not wish for a moment to minimise the sufferings caused by the lack of regular employment."

Well, we know by the very tone of the thing that this is a lie. We know that the writer does want to minimise the sufferings, etc., if he possibly can. But if we look at some other column or at some other paper, our eyes may encounter, let us say, some such title as, "Tried to Eat his Boots." We find it is a record of some lunatic who gnawed his own shoe-leather in his hunger. It is only one case, and a wild one; but it does just manage to take us into a more actual atmosphere. We do realise what hunger is: we realise that hunger is not a thing that can be minimised; we realise that it is not a thing that can be exaggerated.

Or to take some lighter example, a leader-writer may say, after some unimportant bye-election (the thing is true of all or any parties), "Without any disposition to deny the outward fact of Mr. Simkin's defeat, we may yet point out that in the present fluctuating state of the seat it amounts to a moral victory." But if we read elsewhere a paragraph headed, 'Said He Was Coals,' and if (attracted by the mystery of that elliptical description) we read it and find that it is an account of how the defeated candidate could only escape from the fury of the populace by being carried in a coal-sack on the back of a coal-heaver— then I think we may say that we realise a certain emphatic quality in the political incident which the political article did not give to us. We realise that the victory, however moral, could hardly be said to be on the side of the gentleman in the sack.

I earnestly adjure the Seeker After Truth (if he still survives) to leave the earnest and elaborate parts of the newspapers and join me in poring over the snippy paragraphs. They are not tainted with any of the evil and idle modern philosophies; they are not chosen because they are instructive, and therefore they are instructive. They are mentioned simply and solely because they are odd facts; but it is something that they are facts at all, for this is more than can be said for any of the alleged facts which are introduced in order to prove this or that political or moral or social conception. Men state their exceptional facts; they alter their typical ones.

Let me take an example; I saw in a newspaper paragraph the other day the following entertaining and deeply philosophical incident. A man was enlisting as a soldier at Portsmouth, and some form was put before him to be filled up, common, I suppose, to all such cases, in which was, among other things, an inquiry about what was his religion. With an equal and ceremonial gravity the man wrote down the word Methuselahite. Whoever looks over such papers must, I should imagine, have seen some rum religions in his time; unless the Army is going to the dogs. But with all his specialist knowledge he could not place Methuselahism among what Bossuet called the variations of Protestantism. He felt a fervid curiosity about the tenets and tendencies of the sect; and he asked the soldier what it meant. The soldier replied that, it was his religion to live as long as he could.

Now, considered as an incident in the religious history of Europe, that answer of that soldier was worth more than a hundred cartloads of quarterly and monthly and weekly and daily papers discussing religious problems and religious books. Every day the daily paper reviews some new philosopher who has some new religion; and there is not in the whole two thousand words of the whole two columns one word as witty or as wise as that word "Methuselahite." The whole meaning of literature is simply to cut a long story short; that is why our modern books of philosophy are never literature. That soldier had in him the very soul of literature; he was one of the great phrase-makers of modern thought, like Victor Hugo or Disraeli. He found one word that defines the paganism of to-day.

Henceforward, when the modern philosophers come to me with their new religions (and there is always a kind of queue of them waiting all the way down the street) I shall anticipate their circumlocutions and be able to cut them short with a single inspired word. One of them will begin. "The New Religion, which is based upon that Primordial Energy in Nature..." "Methuselahite," I shall say sharply; "good morning." "Human Life," another wall say, "Human Life, the only ultimate sanctity, freed from creed and dogma..." "Methuselahite!" I shall yell. "Out you go!" "My religion is the Religion of Joy," a third will explain (a bald old man with a cough and tinted glasses), "the Religion of Physical Pride and Rapture, and my..." "Methuselahite!" I shall cry again, and I shall slap him boisterously on the back, and he will fall down. Then a pale young poet with serpentine hair will come and say to me (as one did only the other day): "Moods and impressions are the only realities, and these are constantly and wholly changing. I could hardly therefore define my religion..." "I can," I should say, somewhat sternly. "Your religion is to live a long time; and if you stop here a moment longer you won't fulfil it."

A new philosophy generally means in practice the praise of some old vice. We have had the sophist who defends cruelty, and calls it masculinity. We have had the sophist who defends profligacy, and calls it the liberty of the emotions. We have had the sophist who defends idleness, and calls it art. It will almost certainly happen—it can almost certainly be prophesied—that in this saturnalia of sophistry there will at some time or other arise a sophist who desires to idealise cowardice. And when we are once in this unhealthy world of mere wild words, what a vast deal there would be to say for cowardice! "Is not life a lovely thing and worth saving?" the soldier would say as he ran away. "Should I not prolong the exquisite miracle of consciousness?" the householder would say as he hid under the table. "As long as there are roses and lilies on the earth shall I not remain there?" would come the voice of the citizen from under the bed. It would be quite as easy to defend the coward as a kind of poet and mystic as it has been, in many recent books, to defend the emotionalist as a kind of poet and mystic, or the tyrant as a kind of poet and mystic. When that last grand sophistry and morbidity is preached in a book or on a platform, you may depend upon it there will be a great stir in its favour , that is, a great stir among the little people who live among books and platforms. There will be a new great Religion, the Religion of Methuselahism: with pomps and priests and altars. Its devout crusaders will vow themselves in thousands with a great vow to live long. But there is one comfort: they won't.

For, indeed, the weakness of this worship of mere natural life (which is a common enough creed to-day) is that it ignores the paradox of courage and fails in its own aim. As a matter of fact, no men would be killed quicker than the Methuselahites. The paradox of courage is that a man must be a little careless of his life even in order to keep it. And in the very case I have quoted we may see an example of how little the theory of Methuselahism really inspires our best life. For there is one riddle in that case which cannot easily be cleared up. If it was the man's religion to live as long as he could, why on earth was he enlisting as a soldier?


The Illustrated London News, 30 December 1905

EVERYTHING that is really lovable can be hated; and there are undoubtedly people who hate Christmas. It is not difficult to divide them roughly according to their reasons for doing so. There are those, for instance, who hate what they call vulgarity and what is really mankind. There are those who dislike playing the fool, preferring to act the same part in a more serious spirit. There are those who cannot sit down to a steady meal because they have those insane American nerves which the Scriptural writer prophesied when he wrote (foreseeing the life of the rich Yankee): "There is no peace for the wicked." There are those who object to Waits—I never can imagine why. There are those who hate Christianity and call their hatred an all-embracing love for all religions. There are those (equally unchristian in their basic sentiment) who hate Paganism. They regret the Pagan quality in the Christian festival; which is simply regretting that Christianity satisfied the previous cravings of mankind. There are some who cannot or will not eat turkey and sausages. Of course if this is simply part of a private physical necessity, it may leave the soul still in a sound Christmas condition. But if it is part of a philosophy, it is a part of philosophy with which I disagree. I hold myself in a simple abstract position towards the vegetarian and towards the teetotaler. I can respect the thing as a regimen, but not as a religion. As long as the man abstains from low motives I can heartily sympathise with him. It is when he abstains from high motives that I hold him as a heretic.

There are these people, then, who dislike Christmas, and no doubt they are very numerous. But even if they are the majority, they are still essentially mad. Christmas must certainly be delightful to the normal man—if he can be found. I need hardly point out to any readers of this paper so alphabetical a fact of philosophy as the fact that the normal does not mean merely the average. If there are only four men in the world, if one has broken his nose, another had his eye put out, if the third has a bald head, and the fourth has a wooden leg, it does not in the least affect the fact that the normal man, from whom they all by various accidents fall short, is a man with two eyes, two legs, natural hair and an unbroken nose. So it is with mental or moral normality. If you put round a table four of the most celebrated philosophers in modern Europe, no doubt you would find that each had his little abnormality. I do not say the modern philosopher would have a broken nose; though, if there were any spirit and courage in the modern populace he would get one fast enough. Let us say that he had a mental dislocation, his spiritual nose broken, and that some similar criticism applied to each of his three companions. One of them (let us say) might be so constituted that he could not see blotting-paper without bursting into tears. The second (the Prophet of the Will to Power) would be constitutionally afraid of rabbits. A third would be always expecting a visit from a nine-headed monkey. A fourth will expect the Superman. But precisely because all these insanities are different they leave untouched the idea of the central sanity from which they all fall away. The man who is mad on blotting-paper is sane on rabbits. The man who believes in a nine-headed monkey is not such a fool as to believe in the Superman. Even if there be no other men in the world but these four, there is still existent in idea the Normal Man of whom each is a variation or rather a violation. But I incline rather to think that the Normal Man does exist also in a physical and locatable sense. Hiding in some crazy attic from the fury of the populace (whose fiery faces fill the street below like a sea), barricaded against the madness of the mere majority of men, there lives somewhere the man whose name is Man. Wherever he is he is at one with himself, and the balance of his mind is like music. And wherever he is he is eating plum-pudding.

As I walk down the street I admit that I can understand a sensitive person being a little bored, or at least a little bewildered, with the external displays of Christmas, the shop-fronts full of sheafs and sheafs of incongruous Christmas cards or with children's toys that only madmen could make and only millionaires buy. One writer against Christmas went so far as to say that the shopkeepers for their own commercial purposes alone sustain Christmas Day. I am not sure whether he said that the shopkeepers invented Christmas Day. Perhaps he thought that the shopkeepers invented Christianity. It is a quaint picture, the secret conclave between the cheesemonger, the poulterer, and the toy-shop keeper, in order to draw up a theology that shall convert all Europe and sell some of their goods. Opponents of Christianity would believe anything except Christianity. That the shopkeepers make Christmas is about as conceivable as that the confectioners make children. It is about as sane as that milliners manufacture women.

Still, as I have said, I can understand a man finding the common Christmas shows incomprehensible or tiresome. The Christmas cards especially sometimes reach the flattest and dreariest level of caddishness or cant. But this is simply because we leave Christmas symbolism so much in the automatic hands of hirelings. It is not because we feel too Christmassy, but because we do not feel Christmassy enough. All these hilarious human observances are in this respect in the same position: as long as they are enjoyed they are enjoyable; it is only when a priggish criticism is brought to bear on them that they become, in practice, prosaic and irritating. It is not the popular belief in them, but a popular disbelief in them that makes them a general nuisance. The opponents of ritual attack it on the ground that it becomes formal and hollow. So it does. But ritual only becomes formal and hollow where men are not sufficiently ritualistic.

For instance, we may gaze reverently at a row of popular Christmas cards, and find them chiefly dependent upon some extraordinarily indirect and elephantine puns; puns that could not possibly have occurred jocularly or as jokes to any conceivable human fool. One, let us say, will exhibit a simple and unmistakable picture of a hat. Attached to it will be the cunning legend, "Wishing t(hat) you may have a happy Christmas." The word "hat." I may explain (lest the irony be at first too subtle), is contained in the word "that," and isolated from it by brackets. Or perhaps we see some other symbol We may see, say, a realistic neck-tie or cravat, with the explanation that the inventor wishes you an "en-tie-erly" happy New Year.

Now the fact that I wish to point out about this kind of joke is, not that it is a bad joke, but that it is psychologically and in its nature not a joke at all. No man thought of it as a joke. The man who made it up did not burst into a yell of laughter; which is a test. Nothing is more pitiful (I need hardly say) than the cant objection to a man laughing at his own jokes. If a man may not laugh at his own jokes, at whose jokes may he laugh? May not an architect pray in his own cathedral? May he not (if he is any artist worth speaking of) be afraid of his own cathedral? But, as I say, these postcard puns are not jokes; they are not bad jokes. No man ever drew the breath of life, no man, however coarse, crapulous, vulgar, half-witted, partly insane—no man ever existed who tried to turn the word "that" into the word "hat" as a conversational witticism. There is nothing exuberant, nothing jolly about such a joke; rather it is a gloomy effort of intellectual subtlety. Happy people make bad jokes, but not that bad joke. Nobody would say it however happy he was. Nobody would say it however drunk he was. It does not come, and cannot come, out of the sincere merry-makers of Christmas, however ignorant or silly or brutal they may happen to be. Only too obviously it comes out of the mechanical mind of persons whose only business it is to add such unbearable jests to such unmeaning pictures. Briefly, such frivolity does not come from the frivolous. It does not come from those who are allowed a holiday. It comes too evidently from those who are not allowed a holiday. It comes from those laborious unfortunates for whom Christmas is not Christmas. It is not a product of the observance of the Christmas spirit, but a product of its violation.

As for the people who positively say, in so many words, that the inanity or heaviness of such heartless and headless jokes as these is only an example of the stupidity and ignorance of the common people, I don't know what to say to them, except to tell them to take the wool out of their ears. The man who can seriously believe that the lower classes are stupid in the matter of humour can never have even seen an omnibus, much less been on one. The man who can talk of educating the sense of humour of the poor must be one of those rare persons so firm (or so munificent) as never to have had a row with a cabman. The wit of the working classes is not only immeasurably superior to the lumbering jests of the Christmas cards; it is much superior, as literature, to the wit of the educated classes. If, therefore, anybody tells me that wishing you an "en-tie-erly" happy Christmas is put on the cards because it is the only fun ordinary people can comprehend, he tells me something which I simply know to be untrue. He might as well tell me that the neck-tie is put in the picture because it is the only thing they wear. No; the real reason of this Christmas silliness lies, as I have said, in the neglect of Christmas. If the ordinary people were making their own jokes to please themselves, they would be good jokes. As they are being made by paid people to please ordinary people, they are bad. It is often a mistake to go to specialists; but it is always a mistake to go to them for high spirits.

The truth, I think, is, in this and many other matters, that public life is actually stupider than private life. The country is sown thick with little debating clubs in which the speaking is much brighter and more suggestive than the speaking in the House of Commons. In every street there are two or three people at least who tell their children far better impromptu fairy tales than the slush of sentimental imitations that fill so many magazines. And the great public celebration of Christmas, as it appears in jokes, songs, and pictures, is far below what is going on behind the nearest front door.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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