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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: Left behind

29 August 2014

8:30 AM

29 August 2014

8:30 AM

The Spectator, 29 August 1914:

THE loafers in London look more pitiable than ever. The best have enlisted, and the rest are drinking to their good fortune and safe return. In the poorer streets a kind of holiday atmosphere prevails, and a sort of excitement which is in a measure pleasurable fills the air. The children rush out of school eager to go on playing at soldiers. The smallest boys tie tin cans about their persons and beat them with hoop-sticks as they march. In the byways of poor neighbourhoods London is still the London of thirty years ago. There is not much traffic. It is still possible to walk in the road if the street happens to be unusually full of people, and the children swarm in apparently greater number than where the traffic drives them to take cover indoors.

Dotted about the West of London there are many small islands of poverty. Little streets of small, low houses are clustered together. The squalor is not in the least picturesque. No sort of interest or tradition attaches to any of the buildings. It is the squalor of what were once poor suburbs and now are dirty slums. One such island of poverty lies on the south-west of Regent’s Park. It consists of a short and fairly wide thoroughfare with small streets running off on either side. It is in process of improvement. That is, portions have been pulled down, and the spaces have been boarded up, and many consecutive houses in many wretched-looking streets have been condemned and shut up. The broken windows stare down upon the hardly less condemnable houses whose lives have as yet been spared. The neighbourhood in a general way is dreary enough, but just now it is full of life. At the lowest corner of the wide thoroughfare stands a recruiting sergeant, and his influence has changed for a little while the life of the place. All the children are intensely excited. Many fathers have “gone to the war,” but not quite so many as are said to have gone by little boys and girls who cannot bear to be behind their friends and neighbours in importance. It is a tremendous step up in the world to have relations “at the front,” and “the front” has a very wide meaning to children. Indeed, it seems to include the whole of England, except London. Visions of victory and glory rise before eyes which have seen nothing but Regent’s Park and a squalid street. How do they picture these things? Story-books have not initiated them into the fields of romance. They are familiar with bands, and have occasionally seen soldiers riding down the fine streets not far off into which they seldom penetrate. Fighting they know something about. Did not Tommy Jones’s father get a month’s hard labour a little while ago for assaulting the police? The thought of conflict is fairly familiar to them. It is all very stirring, and not at all sad, for while “mother” is at home it is of no supreme consequence where “father” goes.

As for the grown-up people, they are almost equally excited, but excitement takes different people in different ways. The women are a great deal more out of doors than usual. Every one seems to move about more, to talk more, and, unfortu- nately, to drink more, than usual. The scraps of conversa- tion which reach one’s ears as one passes down the street are all upon one subject. “My husband will go, you know, like the rest,” says one woman addressing a little group of cronies. “He’s determined to go.” “What does he want to go for?” says a sharp-faced friend. “To have a smack at the Germans,” is the instant reply, delivered with a look of defiance. The questioner is not satisfied. There are a few, a very few, people who are born minimizers. They are not anything like so common as alarmists and exaggerators, but they exist, and there is something curiously irritating about them. Even in the present crisis they have an ignorant conviction that nothing will happen. “The papers make too much of it,” they announce, endeavouring to assume an appearance of superior knowledge. “They always do. You mark my words, and never believe the half they say.” But apart from these cold- headed fools, there are people to whom all excitement is painful. They are fairly common among the educated, and a few exist among the poor. What they ask of life is a sense of security, and that can only be attained in conjunction with sameness. All excitement has to them some connexion with dread, some relation to sorrow. in anxiety they get no relief from the bustle of the moment, and no pleasures but what we might call flat pleasures make them happy. For such natures, especially where they are found among the ignorant, the fer- ment of the last few weeks has been agonizing, but they are not many enough to make much show.

Monotony is detested as much among the overworked as among the blasés. Anything which breaks it is welcome, and just now it is so completely broken as to seem gone for ever. By a great number of usually dull people the anxious moment is enjoyed, and attempts at reassurance are not very well received. A woman who declared herself to be nightly expecting to hear of her husband’s death rather resented the explanations of the present writer to the effect that he was at present safe in England, and that there was small probability of his being sent on foreign service. “The public knows nothing,” she replied somewhat resentfully, “and it’s very difficult to say which is the safest place, here or abroad.” The state of mind argued no calculated indifference to her husband’s safety, and no undue or ignorant panic about the likelihood of a German invasion. It meant nothing but a desire for emotional dignity and to enjoy the full flavour of the psychological moment. Again, certain women who express no particular anxiety about menfolk have made up their minds that they will starve. It is idle for the workers from accredited societies arriving with money allowances to assure them that they will be provided for. They are not going as yet to believe it, and so lose, as they think, the true dignity of a soldier’s wife. There can be no doubt that exceptional distress of mind and exceptional intelligence go together. The people who really care, the fathers and mothers and wives who dread the news, take the trouble to inform themselves as well as they can. They know why they are anxious and seldom make ridiculous mistakes, although those who say out what others only think will always bring a smile to the lips of even the most sympa- thetic listener. ” I feel as if it were extra hard for me,” sail an elderly widow, whose exemplary son might even at the moment she spoke have been fighting for his country. “You see he is such a good boy—more than a husband to me he has been, far better than ever my husband was. You see,” she went on with tears in her anxious eyes, “there are so many bad boys about, boys that any one might be, as you may say, glad to lose, but mine was so different.” The educated do not say those things, do not perhaps think them in words, yet how true is the sentiment to human nature! An immense trust in Lord Kitchener prevails among the men, the hard-working men with families in good employ who descend to no excuses for remaining at home. “I fancy that leaving Brussels is what you may call a blind,” said one such on the morning that the news of the surrender of Brussels arrived. “You see, there is no doubt but what it’s Kitchener that has the handling of the whole business, and if he has told them to surrender he has his reasons. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s right.”

But if the martial stir is enjoyed among simple people, the absence of boasting is no less remarkable. Drink alone mars the dignity of the Englishman’s attitude this time. It is a new thing, this self-control, which can bear even the silence. Some force greater than the law is at work. Truly the “Recessional ” has been laid to heart. The power of poetry was never better illustrated. “The artist’s vantage o’er the King” again astounds us. Why have we nothing new from our master of martial song?

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