Part 3, Chapter 1
When I came home that evening I was still in doubt as to what I'd
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spend my seventeen quid on.
Hilda said she was going to the Left Book Club meeting. It seemed
that there was a chap coming down from London to lecture, though
needless to say Hilda didn't know what the lecture was going to be
about. I told her I'd go with her. In a general way I'm not much
of a one for lectures, but the visions of war I'd had that morning,
starting with the bomber flying over the train, had put me into a
kind of thoughtful mood. After the usual argument we got the kids
to bed early and cleared off in time for the lecture, which was
billed for eight o'clock.
It was a misty kind of evening, and the hall was cold and not too
well lighted. It's a little wooden hall with a tin roof, the
property of some Nonconformist sect or other, and you can hire it
for ten bob. The usual crowd of fifteen or sixteen people had
rolled up. On the front of the platform there was a yellow placard
announcing that the lecture was on 'The Menace of Fascism'. This
didn't altogether surprise me. Mr Witchett, who acts as chairman
of these meetings and who in private life is something in an
architect's office, was taking the lecturer round, introducing him
to everyone as Mr So-and-so (I forget his name) 'the well-known
anti-Fascist', very much as you might call somebody 'the well-known
pianist'. The lecturer was a little chap of about forty, in a dark
suit, with a bald head which he'd tried rather unsuccessfully to
cover up with wisps of hair.
Meetings of this kind never start on time. There's always a period
of hanging about on the pretence that perhaps a few more people are
going to turn up. It was about twenty-five past eight when
Witchett tapped on the table and did his stuff. Witchett's a mild-
looking chap, with a pink, baby's bottom kind of face that's always
covered in smiles. I believe he's secretary of the local Liberal
Party, and he's also on the Parish Council and acts as M.C. at the
magic lantern lectures for the Mothers' Union. He's what you might
call a born chairman. When he tells you how delighted we all are
to have Mr So-and-so on the platform tonight, you can see that he
believes it. I never look at him without thinking that he's
probably a virgin. The little lecturer took out a wad of notes,
chiefly newspaper cuttings, and pinned them down with his glass of
water. Then he gave a quick lick at his lips and began to shoot.
Do you ever go to lectures, public meetings, and what-not?
When I go to one myself, there's always a moment during the evening
when I find myself thinking the same thought: Why the hell are we
doing this? Why is it that people will turn out on a winter night
for this kind of thing? I looked round the hall. I was sitting in
the back row. I don't ever remember going to any kind of public
meeting when I didn't sit in the back row if I could manage it.
Hilda and the others had planked themselves in front, as usual.
It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place.
Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make
you want to keep your overcoat on. The little knot of us were
sitting in the light round the platform, with about thirty rows of
empty chairs behind us. And the seats of all the chairs were
dusty. On the platform behind the lecturer there was a huge square
thing draped in dust-cloths which might have been an enormous
coffin under a pall. Actually it was a piano.
At the beginning I wasn't exactly listening. The lecturer was
rather a mean-looking little chap, but a good speaker. White face,
very mobile mouth, and the rather grating voice that they get from
constant speaking. Of course he was pitching into Hitler and the
Nazis. I wasn't particularly keen to hear what he was saying--get
the same stuff in the News Chronicle every morning--but his voice
came across to me as a kind of burr-burr-burr, with now and again a
phrase that struck out and caught my attention.
'Bestial atrocities. . . . Hideous outbursts of sadism. . . .
Rubber truncheons. . . . Concentration camps. . . . Iniquitous
persecution of the Jews. . . . Back to the Dark Ages. . . .
European civilization. . . . Act before it is too late. . . .
Indignation of all decent peoples. . . . Alliance of the
democratic nations. . . . Firm stand. . . . Defence of
democracy. . . . Democracy. . . . Fascism. . . . Democracy. . . .
Fascism. . . . Democracy. . . .'
You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the
hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button,
and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy. But somehow it
interested me to watch him. A rather mean little man, with a white
face and a bald head, standing on a platform, shooting out slogans.
What's he doing? Quite deliberately, and quite openly, he's
stirring up hatred. Doing his damnedest to make you hate certain
foreigners called Fascists. It's a queer thing, I thought, to be
known as 'Mr So-and-so, the well-known anti-Fascist'. A queer
trade, anti-Fascism. This fellow, I suppose, makes his living by
writing books against Hitler. But what did he do before Hitler
came along? And what'll he do if Hitler ever disappears? Same
question applies to doctors, detectives, rat-catchers, and so
forth, of course. But the grating voice went on and on, and
another thought struck me. He MEANS it. Not faking at all--feels
every word he's saying. He's trying to work up hatred in the
audience, but that's nothing to the hatred he feels himself. Every
slogan's gospel truth to him. If you cut him open all you'd find
inside would be Democracy-Fascism-Democracy. Interesting to know a
chap like that in private life. But does he have a private life?
Or does he only go round from platform to platform, working up
hatred? Perhaps even his dreams are slogans.
As well as I could from the back row I had a look at the audience.
I suppose, if you come to think of it, we people who'll turn out on
winter nights to sit in draughty halls listening to Left Book Club
lectures (and I consider that I'm entitled to the 'we', seeing that
I'd done it myself on this occasion) have a certain significance.
We're the West Bletchley revolutionaries. Doesn't look hopeful at
first sight. It struck me as I looked round the audience that only
about half a dozen of them had really grasped what the lecturer was
talking about, though by this time he'd been pitching into Hitler
and the Nazis for over half an hour. It's always like that with
meetings of this kind. Invariably half the people come away
without a notion of what it's all about. In his chair beside the
table Witchett was watching the lecturer with a delighted smile,
and his face looked a little like a pink geranium. You could hear
in advance the speech he'd make as soon as the lecturer sat down--
same speech as he makes at the end of the magic lantern lecture in
aid of trousers for the Melanesians: 'Express our thanks--voicing
the opinion of all of us--most interesting--give us all a lot to
think about--most stimulating evening!' In the front row Miss
Minns was sitting very upright, with her head cocked a little on
one side, like a bird. The lecturer had taken a sheet of paper
from under the tumbler and was reading out statistics about the
German suicide-rate. You could see by the look of Miss Minns's
long thin neck that she wasn't feeling happy. Was this improving
her mind, or wasn't it? If only she could make out what it was all
about! The other two were sitting there like lumps of pudding.
Next to them a little woman with red hair was knitting a jumper.
One plain, two purl, drop one, and knit two together. The lecturer
was describing how the Nazis chop people's heads off for treason
and sometimes the executioner makes a bosh shot. There was one
other woman in the audience, a girl with dark hair, one of the
teachers at the Council School. Unlike the other she was really
listening, sitting forward with her big round eyes fixed on the
lecturer and her mouth a little bit open, drinking it all in.
Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were
sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a
bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats.
You know the type. Been in the Labour Party since the year dot.
Lives given up to the movement. Twenty years of being blacklisted
by employers, and another ten of badgering the Council to do
something about the slums. Suddenly everything's changed, the old
Labour Party stuff doesn't matter any longer. Find themselves
pitchforked into foreign politics--Hitler, Stalin, bombs, machine-
guns, rubber truncheons, Rome-Berlin axis, Popular Front, anti-
Comintern pact. Can't make head or tail of it. Immediately in
front of me the local Communist Party branch were sitting. All
three of them very young. One of them's got money and is something
in the Hesperides Estate Company, in fact I believe he's old Crum's
nephew. Another's a clerk at one of the banks. He cashes cheques
for me occasionally. A nice boy, with a round, very young, eager
face, blue eyes like a baby, and hair so fair that you'd think he
peroxided it. He only looks about seventeen, though I suppose he's
twenty. He was wearing a cheap blue suit and a bright blue tie
that went with his hair. Next to these three another Communist was
sitting. But this one, it seems, is a different kind of Communist
and not-quite, because he's what they call a Trotskyist. The
others have got a down on him. He's even younger, a very thin,
very dark, nervous-looking boy. Clever face. Jew, of course.
These four were taking the lecture quite differently from the
others. You knew they'd be on their feet the moment question-time
started. You could see them kind of twitching already. And the
little Trotskyist working himself from side to side on his bum in
his anxiety to get in ahead of the others.
I'd stopped listening to the actual words of the lecture. But
there are more ways than one of listening. I shut my eyes for a
moment. The effect of that was curious. I seemed to see the
fellow much better when I could only hear his voice.
It was a voice that sounded as if it could go on for a fortnight
without stopping. It's a ghastly thing, really, to have a sort of
human barrel-organ shooting propaganda at you by the hour. The
same thing over and over again. Hate, hate, hate. Let's all get
together and have a good hate. Over and over. It gives you the
feeling that something has got inside your skull and is hammering
down on your brain. But for a moment, with my eyes shut, I managed
to turn the tables on him. I got inside HIS skull. It was a
peculiar sensation. For about a second I was inside him, you might
almost say I WAS him. At any rate, I felt what he was feeling.
I saw the vision that he was seeing. And it wasn't at all the kind
of vision that can be talked about. What he's SAYING is merely
that Hitler's after us and we must all get together and have a good
hate. Doesn't go into details. Leaves it all respectable. But
what he's SEEING is something quite different. It's a picture of
himself smashing people's faces in with a spanner. Fascist faces,
of course. I KNOW that's what he was seeing. It was what I saw
myself for the second or two that I was inside him. Smash! Right
in the middle! The bones cave in like an eggshell and what was a
face a minute ago is just a great big blob of strawberry jam.
Smash! There goes another! That's what's in his mind, waking and
sleeping, and the more he thinks of it the more he likes it. And
it's all O.K. because the smashed faces belong to Fascists. You
could hear all that in the tone of his voice.
But why? Likeliest explanation, because he's scared. Every
thinking person nowadays is stiff with fright. This is merely a
chap who's got sufficient foresight to be a little more frightened
than the others. Hitler's after us! Quick! Let's all grab a
spanner and get together, and perhaps if we smash in enough faces
they won't smash ours. Gang up, choose your Leader. Hitler's
black and Stalin's white. But it might just as well be the other
way about, because in the little chap's mind both Hitler and Stalin
are the same. Both mean spanners and smashed faces.
War! I started thinking about it again. It's coming soon, that's
certain. But who's afraid of war? That's to say, who's afraid of
the bombs and the machine-guns? 'You are', you say. Yes, I am,
and so's anybody who's ever seen them. But it isn't the war that
matters, it's the after-war. The world we're going down into, the
kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed
wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric
light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while
you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous
faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the
Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really
worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that
they want to puke. It's all going to happen. Or isn't it? Some
days I know it's impossible, other days I know it's inevitable.
That night, at any rate, I knew it was going to happen. It was all
in the sound of the little lecturer's voice.
So perhaps after all there IS a significance in this mingy little
crowd that'll turn out on a winter night to listen to a lecture of
this kind. Or at any rate in the five or six who can grasp what
it's all about. They're simply the outposts of an enormous army.
They're the long-sighted ones, the first rats to spot that the ship
is sinking. Quick, quick! The Fascists are coming! Spanners
ready, boys! Smash others or they'll smash you. So terrified of
the future that we're jumping straight into it like a rabbit diving
down a boa-constrictor's throat.
And what'll happen to chaps like me when we get Fascism in England?
The truth is it probably won't make the slightest difference. As
for the lecturer and those four Communists in the audience, yes,
it'll make plenty of difference to them. They'll be smashing
faces, or having their own smashed, according to who's winning.
But the ordinary middling chaps like me will be carrying on just as
usual. And yet it frightens me--I tell you it frightens me. I'd
just started to wonder why when the lecturer stopped and sat down.
There was the usual hollow little sound of clapping that you get
when there are only about fifteen people in the audience, and then
old Witchett said his piece, and before you could say Jack Robinson
the four Communists were on their feet together. They had a good
dog-fight that went on for about ten minutes, full of a lot of
stuff that nobody else understood, such as dialectical materialism
and the destiny of the proletariat and what Lenin said in 1918.
Then the lecturer, who'd had a drink of water, stood up and gave a
summing-up that made the Trotskyist wriggle about on his chair but
pleased the other three, and the dog-fight went on unofficially for
a bit longer. Nobody else did any talking. Hilda and the others
had cleared off the moment the lecture ended. Probably they were
afraid there was going to be a collection to pay for the hire of
the hall. The little woman with red hair was staying to finish her
row. You could hear her counting her stitches in a whisper while
the others argued. And Witchett sat and beamed at whoever happened
to be speaking, and you could see him thinking how interesting it
all was and making mental notes, and the girl with black hair
looked from one to the other with her mouth a little open, and the
old Labour man, looking rather like a seal with his droopy
moustache and his overcoat up to his ears, sat looking up at them,
wondering what the hell it was all about. And finally I got up and
began to put on my overcoat.
The dog-fight had turned into a private row between the little
Trotskyist and the boy with fair hair. They were arguing about
whether you ought to join the Army if war broke out. As I edged
my way along the row of chairs to get out, the fair-haired one
appealed to me.
'Mr Bowling! Look here. If war broke out and we had the chance to
smash Fascism once and for all, wouldn't you fight? If you were
young, I mean.'
I suppose he thinks I'm about sixty.
'You bet I wouldn't,' I said. 'I had enough to go on with last
'But to smash Fascism!'
'Oh, b-- Fascism! There's been enough smashing done already, if
you ask me.'
The little Trotskyist chips in with social-patriotism and betrayal
of the workers, but the others cut him short:
'But you're thinking of 1914. That was just an ordinary imperialist
war. This time it's different. Look here. When you hear about
what's going on in Germany, and the concentration camps and the
Nazis beating people up with rubber truncheons and making the Jews
spit in each other's faces--doesn't it make your blood boil?'
They're always going on about your blood boiling. Just the same
phrase during the war, I remember.
'I went off the boil in 1916,' I told him. 'And so'll you when you
know what a trench smells like.'
And then all of a sudden I seemed to see him. It was as if I
hadn't properly seen him till that moment.
A very young eager face, might have belonged to a good-looking
schoolboy, with blue eyes and tow-coloured hair, gazing into mine,
and for a moment actually he'd got tears in his eyes! Felt as
strongly as all that about the German Jews! But as a matter of
fact I knew just what he felt. He's a hefty lad, probably plays
rugger for the bank. Got brains, too. And here he is, a bank
clerk in a godless suburb, sitting behind the frosted window,
entering figures in a ledger, counting piles of notes, bumsucking
to the manager. Feels his life rotting away. And all the while,
over in Europe, the big stuff's happening. Shells bursting over
the trenches and waves of infantry charging through the drifts of
smoke. Probably some of his pals are fighting in Spain. Of course
he's spoiling for a war. How can you blame him? For a moment I
had a peculiar feeling that he was my son, which in point of years
he might have been. And I thought of that sweltering hot day in
August when the newsboy stuck up the poster ENGLAND DECLARES WAR ON
GERMANY, and we all rushed out on to the pavement in our white
aprons and cheered.
'Listen son,' I said, 'you've got it all wrong. In 1914 WE thought
it was going to be a glorious business. Well, it wasn't. It was
just a bloody mess. If it comes again, you keep out of it. Why
should you get your body plugged full of lead? Keep it for some
girl. You think war's all heroism and V.C. charges, but I tell you
it isn't like that. You don't have bayonet-charges nowadays, and
when you do it isn't like you imagine. You don't feel like a hero.
All you know is that you've had no sleep for three days, and stink
like a polecat, you're pissing your bags with fright, and your
hands are so cold you can't hold your rifle. But that doesn't
matter a damn, either. It's the things that happen afterwards.'
Makes no impression of course. They just think you're out of date.
Might as well stand at the door of a knocking-shop handing out
The people were beginning to clear off. Witchett was taking the
lecturer home. The three Communists and the little Jew went up the
road together, and they were going at it again with proletarian
solidarity and dialectic of the dialectic and what Trotsky said in
1917. They're all the same, really. It was a damp, still, very
black night. The lamps seemed to hang in the darkness like stars
and didn't light the road. In the distance you could hear the
trains booming along the High Street. I wanted a drink, but it was
nearly ten and the nearest pub was half a mile away. Besides, I
wanted somebody to talk to, the way you can't talk in a pub. It
was funny how my brain had been on the go all day. Partly the
result of not working, of course, and partly of the new false
teeth, which had kind of freshened me up. All day I'd been
brooding on the future and the past. I wanted to talk about the
bad time that's either coming or isn't coming, the slogans and the
coloured shirts and the streamlined men from eastern Europe who are
going to knock old England cock-eyed. Hopeless trying to talk to
Hilda. Suddenly it occurred to me to go and look up old Porteous,
who's a pal of mine and keeps late hours.
Porteous is a retired public-school master. He lives in rooms,
which luckily are in the lower half of the house, in the old part
of the town, near the church. He's a bachelor, of course. You
can't imagine that kind married. Lives all alone with his books
and his pipe and has a woman in to do for him. He's a learned kind
of chap, with his Greek and Latin and poetry and all that. I
suppose that if the local Left Book Club branch represents
Progress, old Porteous stands for Culture. Neither of them cuts
much ice in West Bletchley.
The light was burning in the little room where old Porteous sits
reading till all hours of the night. As I tapped on the front door
he came strolling out as usual, with his pipe between his teeth and
his fingers in a book to keep the place. He's rather a striking
looking chap, very tall, with curly grey hair and a thin, dreamy
kind of face that's a bit discoloured but might almost belong to a
boy, though he must be nearly sixty. It's funny how some of these
public-school and university chaps manage to look like boys till
their dying day. It's something in their movements. Old Porteous
has got a way of strolling up and down, with that handsome head of
his, with the grey curls, held a little back that makes you feel
that all the while he's dreaming about some poem or other and isn't
conscious of what's going on round him. You can't look at him
without seeing the way he's lived written all over him. Public
School, Oxford, and then back to his old school as a master. Whole
life lived in an atmosphere of Latin, Greek, and cricket. He's got
all the mannerisms. Always wears an old Harris tweed jacket and
old grey flannel bags which he likes you to call 'disgraceful',
smokes a pipe and looks down on cigarettes, and though he sits up
half the night I bet he has a cold bath every morning. I suppose
from his point of view I'm a bit of a bounder. I haven't been to a
public school, I don't know any Latin and don't even want to. He
tells me sometimes that it's a pity I'm 'insensible to beauty',
which I suppose is a polite way of saying that I've got no
education. All the same I like him. He's very hospitable in the
right kind of way, always ready to have you in and talk at all
hours, and always got drinks handy. When you live in a house like
ours, more or less infested by women and kids, it does you good to
get out of it sometimes into a bachelor atmosphere, a kind of book-
pipe-fire atmosphere. And the classy Oxford feeling of nothing
mattering except books and poetry and Greek statues, and nothing
worth mentioning having happened since the Goths sacked Rome--
sometimes that's a comfort too.
He shoved me into the old leather armchair by the fire and dished
out whisky and soda. I've never seen his sitting-room when it
wasn't dim with pipe-smoke. The ceiling is almost black. It's a
smallish room and, except for the door and the window and the space
over the fireplace, the walls are covered with books from the floor
right up to the ceiling. On the mantelpiece there are all the
things you'd expect. A row of old briar pipes, all filthy, a few
Greek silver coins, a tobacco jar with the arms of old Porteous's
college on it, and a little earthenware lamp which he told me he
dug up on some mountain in Sicily. Over the mantelpiece there are
photos of Greek statues. There's a big one in the middle, of a
woman with wings and no head who looks as if she was stepping out
to catch a bus. I remember how shocked old Porteous was when the
first time I saw it, not knowing any better, I asked him why they
didn't stick a head on it.
Porteous started refilling his pipe from the jar on the
'That intolerable woman upstairs has purchased a wireless set,' he
said. 'I had been hoping to live the rest of my life out of the
sound of those things. I suppose there is nothing one can do? Do
you happen to know the legal position?'
I told him there was nothing one could do. I rather like the
Oxfordy way he says 'intolerable', and it tickles me, in 1938, to
find someone objecting to having a radio in the house. Porteous
was strolling up and down in his usual dreamy way, with his hands
in his coat pockets and his pipe between his teeth, and almost
instantly he'd begun talking about some law against musical
instruments that was passed in Athens in the time of Pericles.
It's always that way with old Porteous. All his talk is about
things that happened centuries ago. Whatever you start off with it
always comes back to statues and poetry and the Greeks and Romans.
If you mention the Queen Mary he'd start telling you about
Phoenician triremes. He never reads a modern book, refuses to know
their names, never looks at any newspaper except The Times, and
takes a pride in telling you that he's never been to the pictures.
Except for a few poets like Keats and Wordsworth he thinks the
modern world--and from his point of view the modern world is the
last two thousand years--just oughtn't to have happened.
I'm part of the modern world myself, but I like to hear him talk.
He'll stroll round the shelves and haul out first one book and then
another, and now and again he'll read you a piece between little
puffs of smoke, generally having to translate it from the Latin or
something as he goes. It's all kind of peaceful, kind of mellow.
All a little like a school-master, and yet it soothes you, somehow.
While you listen you aren't in the same world as trains and gas
bills and insurance companies. It's all temples and olive trees,
and peacocks and elephants, and chaps in the arena with their nets
and tridents, and winged lions and eunuchs and galleys and
catapults, and generals in brass armour galloping their horses over
the soldiers' shields. It's funny that he ever cottoned on to a
chap like me. But it's one of the advantages of being fat that you
can fit into almost any society. Besides we meet on common ground
when it comes to dirty stories. They're the one modern thing he
cares about, though, as he's always reminding me, they aren't
modern. He's rather old-maidish about it, always tells a story in
a veiled kind of way. Sometimes he'll pick out some Latin poet and
translate a smutty rhyme, leaving a lot to your imagination, or
he'll drop hints about the private lives of the Roman emperors and
the things that went on in the temples of Ashtaroth. They seem to
have been a bad lot, those Greeks and Romans. Old Porteous has got
photographs of wall-paintings somewhere in Italy that would make
your hair curl.
When I'm fed up with business and home life it's often done me a
lot of good to go and have a talk with Porteous. But tonight it
didn't seem to. My mind was still running on the same lines as it
had been all day. Just as I'd done with the Left Book Club
lecturer, I didn't exactly listen to what Porreous was saying, only
to the sound of his voice. But whereas the lecturer's voice had
got under my skin, old Porteous's didn't. It was too peaceful, too
Oxfordy. Finally, when he was in the middle of saying something, I
chipped in and said:
'Tell me, Porteous, what do you think of Hitler?'
Old Porteous was leaning in his lanky, graceful kind of way with
his elbows on the mantelpiece and a foot on the fender. He was so
surprised that he almost took his pipe out of his mouth.
'Hitler? This German person? My dear fellow! I DON'T think of
'But the trouble is he's going to bloody well make us think about
him before he's finished.'
Old Porteous shies a bit at the world 'bloody', which he doesn't
like, though of course it's part of his pose never to be shocked.
He begins walking up and down again, puffing out smoke.
'I see no reason for paying any attention to him. A mere
adventurer. These people come and go. Ephemeral, purely
I'm not certain what the word 'ephemeral' means, but I stick to my
'I think you've got it wrong. Old Hitler's something different.
So's Joe Stalin. They aren't like these chaps in the old days who
crucified people and chopped their heads off and so forth, just for
the fun of it. They're after something quite new--something that's
never been heard of before.'
'My dear fellow! There is nothing new under the sun.'
Of course that's a favourite saying of old Porteous's. He won't
hear of the existence of anything new. As soon as you tell him
about anything that's happening nowadays he says that exactly the
same thing happened in the reign of King So-and-so. Even if you
bring up things like aeroplanes he tells you that they probably had
them in Crete, or Mycenae, or wherever it was. I tried to explain
to him what I'd felt while the little bloke was lecturing and the
kind of vision I'd had of the bad time that's coming, but he
wouldn't listen. Merely repeated that there's nothing new under
the sun. Finally he hauls a book out of the shelves and reads me a
passage about some Greek tyrant back in the B.C.s who certainly
might have been Hitler's twin brother.
The argument went on for a bit. All day I'd been wanting to talk
to somebody about this business. It's funny. I'm not a fool, but
I'm not a highbrow either, and God knows at normal times I don't
have many interests that you wouldn't expect a middle-aged seven-
pound-a-weeker with two kids to have. And yet I've enough sense to
see that the old life we're used to is being sawn off at the roots.
I can feel it happening. I can see the war that's coming and I can
see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the
loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I'm not even
exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me.
Ordinary chaps that I meet everywhere, chaps I run across in pubs,
bus drivers, and travelling salesmen for hardware firms, have got a
feeling that the world's gone wrong. They can feel things cracking
and collapsing under their feet. And yet here's this learned chap,
who's lived all his life with books and soaked himself in history
till it's running out of his pores, and he can't even see that
things are changing. Doesn't think Hitler matters. Refuses to
believe there's another war coming. In any case, as he didn't
fight in the last war, it doesn't enter much into his thoughts--he
thinks it was a poor show compared with the siege of Troy. Doesn't
see why one should bother about the slogans and the loudspeakers
and the coloured shirts. What intelligent person would pay any
attention to such things? he always says. Hitler and Stalin will
pass away, but something which old Porteous calls 'the eternal
verities' won't pass away. This, of course, is simply another way
of saying that things will always go on exactly as he's known them.
For ever and ever, cultivated Oxford blokes will stroll up and down
studies full of books, quoting Latin tags and smoking good tobacco
out of jars with coats of arms on them. Really it was no use
talking to him. I'd have got more change out of the lad with tow-
coloured hair. By degrees the conversation twisted off, as it
always does, to things that happened B.C. Then it worked round to
poetry. Finally old Porteous drags another book out of the shelves
and begins reading Keat's 'Ode to a Nightingale' (or maybe it was a
So far as I'm concerned a little poetry goes a long way. But it's
a curious fact that I rather like hearing old Porteous reading it
aloud. There's no question that he reads well. He's got the
habit, of course--used to reading to classes of boys. He'll lean
up against something in his lounging way, with his pipe between his
teeth and little jets of smoke coming out, and his voice goes kind
of solemn and rises and falls with the line. You can see that it
moves him in some way. I don't know what poetry is or what it's
supposed to do. I imagine it has a kind of nervous effect on some
people like music has on others. When he's reading I don't
actually listen, that's to say I don't take in the words, but
sometimes the sound of it brings a kind of peaceful feeling into my
mind. On the whole I like it. But somehow tonight it didn't work.
It was as if a cold draught had blown into the room. I just felt
that this was all bunk. Poetry! What is it? Just a voice, a bit
of an eddy in the air. And Gosh! what use would that be against
I watched him leaning up against the bookshelf. Funny, these
public-school chaps. Schoolboys all their days. Whole life
revolving round the old school and their bits of Latin and Greek
and poetry. And suddenly I remembered that almost the first time I
was here with Porteous he'd read me the very same poem. Read it in
just the same way, and his voice quivered when he got to the same
bit--the bit about magic casements, or something. And a curious
thought struck me. HE'S DEAD. He's a ghost. All people like that
It struck me that perhaps a lot of the people you see walking about
are dead. We say that a man's dead when his heart stops and not
before. It seems a bit arbitrary. After all, parts of your body
don't stop working--hair goes on growing for years, for instance.
Perhaps a man really dies when his brain stops, when he loses the
power to take in a new idea. Old Porteous is like that.
Wonderfully learned, wonderfully good taste--but he's not capable
of change. Just says the same things and thinks the same thoughts
over and over again. There are a lot of people like that. Dead
minds, stopped inside. Just keep moving backwards and forwards on
the same little track, getting fainter all the time, like ghosts.
Old Porteous's mind, I thought, probably stopped working at about
the time of the Russo-Japanese War. And it's a ghastly thing that
nearly all the decent people, the people who DON'T want to go round
smashing faces in with spanners, are like that. They're decent,
but their minds have stopped. They can't defend themselves against
what's coming to them, because they can't see it, even when it's
under their noses. They think that England will never change and
that England's the whole world. Can't grasp that it's just a left-
over, a tiny corner that the bombs happen to have missed. But what
about the new kind of men from eastern Europe, the streamlined men
who think in slogans and talk in bullets? They're on our track.
Not long before they catch up with us. No Marquess of Queensbury
rules for those boys. And all the decent people are paralysed.
Dead men and live gorillas. Doesn't seem to be anything between.
I cleared out about half an hour later, having completely failed to
convince old Porteous that Hitler matters. I was still thinking
the same thoughts as I walked home through the shivery streets.
The trains had stopped running. The house was all dark and Hilda
was asleep. I dropped my false teeth into the glass of water in
the bathroom, got into my pyjamas, and prised Hilda over to the
other side of the bed. She rolled over without waking, and the
kind of hump between her shoulders was towards me. It's funny, the
tremendous gloom that sometimes gets hold of you late at night. At
that moment the destiny of Europe seemed to me more important than
the rent and the kids' school-bills and the work I'd have to do
tomorrow. For anyone who has to earn his living such thoughts are
just plain foolishness. But they didn't move out of my mind.
Still the vision of the coloured shirts and the machine-guns
rattling. The last thing I remember wondering before I fell asleep
was why the hell a chap like me should care.