Monday, March 11, 2013

At sixteen

With contemporaries: I’m at far right
Here is the text of the essay I referred to in my last, as written in 1958. I don’t suppose it is intrinsically entertaining. To lighten it I’ve embedded some group photos in which my face may be seen, and an aerial shot of the place, Swainston Manor, which became my true home for a year or so. My parents had moved to a new house in a place I didn’t know at all, so I slept in their spare room during the school holidays, except for the summer, when I stayed with my grandparents at St Leonards-on-sea.

Swainston had been the home of some minor aristocrat till it was gutted by an incendiary bomb during World War II (1). It remained an empty shell until completely refurbished in the Fifties. When the school took it over and I moved in, everything was fresh and new, no expense spared, with floors and all trimmings in solid oak; the flat roof covered in fresh lead (on which I soon carved my name and other details for posterity). I’ll write about those times in future posts.

I’ve also added some fresh footnotes, clickable to get there and back.

We are on an over-populated planet, and it has been estimated that our population will be doubled in fifty years (2). On this planet there has always been conflict, a struggle between men for survival and comfort at the expense of one another. They have grouped themselves into tribes and nations and have fought wars, throughout history; and in these days every war must be more terrible than its predecessor. Struggle is inevitable and desirable to maintain a virile, practical, and active race (3), and it seems that war also will be inevitable unless another means is found to control population in the future. Whether this happens or not, conflict will continue between differing constitutional systems and ways of life. At the present moment the world is like a chess-board: Reds (4) and Whites are evenly matched and are gambiting for position. There is an occasional exchange of pawns, but it is mainly a matter of arranging the pieces in the best position for attack. The skill and advantage of style of the players counts more than power in terms of pieces. But White consists of a number of independent Nations, whose constitutions differ. One of these is Britain, supported by her Commonwealth.

At Swainston, with juniors, Mrs Erith and housemaster
In the case of Britain, we cannot talk of a Constitution so much as a heritage. American tourists in vain search the Record Office in London for a document laying down a rigid framework like their Declaration of Independence and the French “Declaration des Droits de l’Homme.” Britain as it is to-day has been steadily built up during the whole time of which we have historic record; brick has been laid upon brick and firmly cemented to its fellows. No great earthquakes have upset the solid foundations ; but laws have been added, changed, or repealed when necessary. Britain’s geographical situation as an island has affected her history more than is commonly realised. It enabled her to receive the invigorating influences of conquering peoples without the usual ravages and barbarian migrations that took place in Europe. We cannot say that she was defended from her enemies by the sea, before she had a navy, and the Viking raids are an example of her vulnerability, but it meant that conquering tribes settled in Britain instead of sweeping through it. Administration has rarely been a serious problem, owing to the ease with which a central government can keep order over most of the country. Scotland and Wales became separate from England because they did not fall in with this system so easily, and remained trouble spots for many centuries. We owe it to the Romans for establishing London, a system of roads, and many towns. When we consider our English heritage we must remember our fortunate situation, in

       This fortress built by nature for herself
       Against infection and the hand of war.(5)

We may eagerly try to impose our way of life on other nations, but they will have different things to contend with. For instance our monarchical stability is in no small measure due to the geography of England: few other countries can boast a succession of kings and queens unbroken—except in one instance (Cromwell)—from before 1066 to the present day.

With young cricketers
Our monarchy is the aspect of our heritage which excites the widest interest in the world : many republics honour the Queen on her state visits as if she ware their own monarch. Much has been said criticising the British tendency to processions and ceremony, but the fact is that it does no harm and satisfies a deep-felt need of the people. Religion is not a very unifying influence in Britain to-day, because there are so many different denominations, and many people are agnostic. The Queen embodies the highest ideals of the country, in religion, morals, and general behaviour. Those who say that she is a mere figurehead with nothing to do might do well to reflect that her every public appearance is minutely scrutinised by her enemies seeking to find fault and by those who seek to emulate her. Of course she is only human: we must not seek to draw a parallel with the Emperor-worship of the Roman Empire, where evil men, often of low birth, were worshipped as gods. It is the fact that she is a normal human being that creates her success; she keeps as closely as possible to her subjects, even to the extent of going down a coalmine. Her deprecators have argued that in other kingdoms such as Holland and Denmark the Royal Family send their children to state-run schools and go about unguarded and unnoticed. This seems to me to be erring at the other extreme, because the respect for royalty tends to wear off, and familiarity breeds contempt.

As far as ruling the country is concerned in its more tangible forms, the Queen is closely connected with the Government. The average monarch has a longer reign than the term of office of the average prime minister, and the heirs are trained from a very early age in matters of state. This means that the King or Queen, though ruling by heredity, will have a vast fund of wisdom and experience, and be enabled in many cases to give advice to the chief ministers. The monarch is not connected with any party; we have seen the effects on nations whose presidents enter into politics. Eisenhower supports a different party from the majority in Congress and his efforts meet with continual frustration. Nasser, under the pretence of a democracy, is ruling the United Arab Republic almost like any medieval despot(6). The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has, of course, only one party and its leader is its political oracle. President Coty of France remains aloof from politics, and is, to a certain extent, a stabilising influence, but this influence is limited. The older established nations, such as France and England, distinguish between Country and the Government. In France “La Patrie” is over and above every government, and anarchistical views as to the government may be freely expressed without any decrease in patriotism. In Great Britain and the Commonwealth the situation is rather different: the Government is realised to be an essential part of the country. It is for this reason that the Queen always supports the party in power, though the Opposition fully lives up to its name, and sometimes causes a fatal division, as in the Suez incident. This latter is not a characteristic which is likely to provide an example for other nations, and seems to disprove the British “genius for compromise.”

Another attribute of the British is their “rare political sagacity” and their extreme tolerance and respect for freedom. Some people consider that freedom of speech and thought is carried too far, and that we preserve in our breast adders that will inevitably strike (in both senses of the word !). There is no decree against Communism, so long as its supporters do not break the laws of the land, and propaganda such as the “Daily Worker” is allowed to infiltrate unchecked. The leader of the Opposition is paid by the Government. Such an attitude is misunderstood by other nations, who tend more to the theory that if a thing is condemned by the majority it is wrong and should be stamped out. The extreme case of this is the U.S.S.R., and we seem to be the other extreme. Measures are still being taken to preserve this individual liberty of action, and thought, so long as it is not contrary to the State. The report of the Wolfenden Committee on prostitution and homosexual offences is an example. The curtailment of freedom in Britain always involves a public outcry. (7)In Egham, Middlesex, there is a controversy at the present time between the town council and caravan owners who have refused to leave their site. Though they have been paying rent, permission has not been given to use the site, and they have been ordered to quit. Since adequate housing facilities were not provided, they refused to go and dug trenches so that their caravans could not be towed off. It is unfortunate that the British capacity for compromise has not kept up with the British freedom of opinion. Nevertheless, it has been Britain who led the world in the defence of liberty, despite incidents such as the American War of Independence. Even this inspired the French Revolution by the eventual success of the Colonists.

It was the British who laid the foundations of democracy, just as it was the Romans who laid the foundations of law as it exists to-day. It was a very long time before Parliament embraced representatives from all classes of life and this step was not in the form of a revolution, like that of France, but “broadened slowly down from precedent to precedent,” as Tennyson wrote. Every change has been a step forward, from the Magna Carta to the women’s vote.

No free man shall be taken or imprisoned, nor will we go upon him unless by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To none will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice.

Simon de Montfort established the first real Parliament, and he established it for England. Since then it has become steadily more powerful, and the monarchical power has become less and less until nowadays, as a lawyer said, “Parliament can do everything but make a man a woman and a woman a man.” Parliament is the department of legislature, one of the three organs of government. The others are the Executive, which includes the Civil Service and Police, and the Judicature, which is a body of skilled judges, the High Court, who interpret the law and decide the issue of cases brought before them. This “trinity” has been copied by almost every other nation, though not with the same success. The Supreme Federal Court of the United States seems to have too much authority over Congress and the Executive in the Federal Government, as has been shown by the recent incidents in Little Rock, Arkansas (8). Yet on the other hand, it might be argued that the United States are more democratic than Great Britain, since their Congressmen obey the wishes of their constituents rather than the party whip.

Swainston from the air
It is a pity that in Britain to-day the democracy that we enjoy does not present such an attractive picture to other countries. Newspapers live on crises and catastrophes, and positive achievements are often overlooked. We have strikes, conflicting foreign policies, marches to Aldermaston, and a steady increase in crime, especially among youth. Such appearances make other nations feel justified in curtailing individual freedom in militantly suppressing Communism (as in the U.S.A.), in censoring the Press (as in France recently), in banning subversive literature and punishing its authors, (as in the U.S.S.R.). But the British go in for long-term projects, and their policy, at best, is based on a wise understanding of each situation by comparison with precedents. In English law, which is the best in the world, when a doubt arises it is referred to previous cases, and what the verdict was then. There slowly develops a wealth of precedent which is eventually absorbed into the legal system of the land. The other basic principle of English law is that a man is regarded as innocent until he is proved guilty.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the British, which accounts for nearly all their peculiarities and foibles, is the fundamental principle that they are not fatalists. ‘When a difficulty is confronted, it is overcome. This characteristic is expressed in numerous English proverbs: “Half a loaf is better than no bread,” “Make hay while the sun shines,” “ A stitch in time saves nine,” “ Where there’s a will there’s a way.” Our philosophy is not one of sighing and saying with resignation “It is the will of Allah.” An Englishman cannot be confined, he will insist upon open windows, fresh air, exercise, sport. No wonder he has been classed with “mad dogs” who “go out in the sun.” No wonder his enemies find it impossible to imprison him in concentration camps, and to daunt his spirit by “ brain washing.” The more his basic principles and traditions are attacked, the more stubborn he becomes. In the arts he is romantic, because when cramped by the limitations of classicism his thought becomes sterile and merely imitative. “An Englishman’s home is his Castle” and he will defend it against all aggressors. He does not talk a great deal about his heritage, and when he does it is usually in a faintly satirical way. He will point out with pride the illegitimate origin of William the Conqueror, will celebrate the anarchistical attempt of Guido Fawkes, revere Lord Nelson, who disobeyed the commands of his superiors. The Englishman usually has an infinite capacity for laughing at his own ways; in the “Goon Show” we have a brilliant example.

At the present time we are not over-confident of Britain’s future status as a leading nation, We are concerned at the irresponsibility of youth and every so often look at the statistics with alarm. But one thing is certain: the youth of today is not lacking in imagination, resource, and initiative. There is immense potential in our youth, but it is like a beanstalk with nothing to support it: it continues to grow, but in no definite direction. Once a beanstick can be planted, a goal and a ladder for the younger generation, the supple green sapling will soon support itself and bring forth good fruit (9). More than anything else, it is stability that is the urgent need of the world to-day, for every minute of instability sets off sparks which may catch the tinder of war. We British can contribute to this; it is our heritage and our traditions, in the light of present-day conditions which mould our policies of to-day. Our heritage is not a dead thing: we learn from past successes and past failures. So long as we do not establish fatalism, or a defeatist attitude, or break away from the slowly built up treasury of precedent, Britain should hold her own in the future, and even exert the deciding influence on world events.

I. V. Mulder

(1) “Swainston Manor is the largest and oldest building in our area. The name of the house is said to derive from a Viking called Sweyne who is thought to have settled on the same site as the present house. The house was for many years the property of the Bishops of Winchester, until it was seized by King Edward I. Later it became the property of the Barrington family, in whose ownership it remained for 300 years. The last member of the family lived here until 1941, when the house was bombed during a wartime air raid. Full repairs were begun in 1950 and they took four years to complete at a cost of £50,000. The Manor then became a private school, until in 1981 it became a hotel for the first time. The oldest part of the Manor is the 12th. century chapel which is at present used for dances and banquets.
Source: BBC - Domesday Reloaded

(2)For the world, an underestimate:
1958: 2.9 billion
2008: 6.7 billion

(3)Not an idea that would be popular today except amongst neo-Nazis, perhaps.

(4)Reds and Whites - the opponents in the Cold War.

(5)Richard II, from John of Gaunt’s speech.

(6)I was merely parroting British propaganda. Nasser was a freedom fighter to the Arabs, uniting them against British and other colonists from the past.

(7)The town where my parents had moved.

(8)This was a garbled reference to what the English press were saying. We had looked on the events in Little Rock as a demonstration that we in England by contrast were free of racism, and more civilized than the Americans. Then there were some violent street clashes between black and white youths in Nottingham, which were reported round the world as being somehow equivalent to the extraordinary confrontations at Little Rock, referred to in my last. Which was unfair. So again, I was reflecting British propaganda. There was indeed no overt or official racism in the UK, no Jim Crow laws, but there were prejudices, of which I knew nothing at the time. See a paper here on the topic.

(9)Not an idea likely to be expressed by so many 16-year-olds today; except perhaps fatherless boys, semi-orphaned, if they are able to be honest.


Bryan M. White said...

"Those who say that she is a mere figurehead with nothing to do might do well to reflect that her every public appearance is minutely scrutinised by her enemies...."

I'll bear that in mind, Young Vincent ;)

Bryan M. White said...

Interesting essay. Made me go back and dig up my old notebook. (I don't think I'd have the guts to post any of my old stuff, though.) It did make me think about the fact that our writing tends to be that much more serious when we're young, something defiant, stiffly set in the jaw, as if we were the first person to ever think of these things and we have to bludgeon the world with our simple ideas.

And it's not to say that our convictions are any less firm. Quite the contrary. My convictions are more intricate and refined, more worked over and thought out, than they were when I was younger, and I can see that yours are as well. It just seems that we've calmed down, softened, taken a more subtle shape. But, then again, maybe it just appears that way. Maybe when I look at back at those notebooks, it's not just the boldness I cringe at, but also the ideas themselves, how obvious and transparent they are and, in some cases, how horribly wrong. Maybe it's the combination of such mundane ideas delivered in such an earth-shattering way that makes it hard to even read now.

Davoh said...

Beautifully written .. or should i write 'written beautifully'. The comprehension of this polyglot language "English" becomes difficult when "written".

Davoh said...

... or, might just say - Yep, see you.

There is a verbal greeting somewhere in Africa, which is not the equivalent to the recent English "hello" ... apparently it belongs to a long story of human interaction.

Translates into "I see you".

Can't use whatever 'vocalisation' in this case - all i can say is "I read you". meh.

ZACL said...

I enjoyed the photos and the story that was associated with them, Vincent. On the whole, it's a lovely, sensitive post.

Apart from the political propaganda, there is a beautifully composed essay from the pen of an educated young boy.

I couldn't help thinking about what the marker (censor) might have said if your writing had been more revolutionary for the time, and whether this might have consciously or subconsciously influenced the content of your assignment.

Vincent said...

I don’t recall Davoh ever saying something I wrote was beautifully written till now. (I think you were being indulgent to that young Vincent, despite my writing “might do well to reflect”). These days I avoid journalistic cliché “like the plague”; and note that Google clocks 147,000 occurrences of that rather noxious phrase.

Yes, my convictions also have become over time “more intricate and refined, more worked over and thought out”. But there’s a simple explanation. Now they really are my convictions, and not a rehashing of what I have just absorbed.

In the writing of the piece I was frequently guided, in facts but also opinions, by a Pelican book which (after checking through the usual channels) I’m pretty sure was The Queen’s Government by Sir Ivor Jennings. One had no choice in these matters but to research, select, digest and paraphrase. I made a point of never plagiarising text One got used to this kind of thing when carrying out essay projects in History.

I’ve also wondered about whether someone edited my text before it was printed in the School Magazine. I look at all the other articles submitted by boys I knew. They all have perfect spelling, punctuation and sentence construction. There was an editorial committee, consisting of Mr Gaskin the History Master and two boys.

I don’t know whether they would have actually censored out anything without consultation, and I can’t imagine writing anything “revolutionary”. I was a pacifist, but the only time I ever told anybody about it was when Captain Bradley, the teacher commanding our cadet contingent, told me off for unpolished boots and slovenly uniform. I was stung into an emotional outburst, a quite unconvincing attempt to suggest that my failure to look smart on parade was somehow a one-man demonstration against the horrors of war. He gave my rhetoric the contempt it deserved.

What consciously and unconsciously influenced the content of my assignment was to say what would please the headmaster, in thanks for his kindness and trust in me. I think I tried to explain this in the previous post “Me and the Little Rock Nine”.

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