From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 17, p141-153.
On Being Out of Date
H. M. Tomlinson
BY the calendar, it was post-meridian for me long ago. I don't know how it has come about, but the octogenarian is not far ahead of me. He is in sight. I must have been keeping it up steadily for a long time without knowing that I was getting on. There the old man is, but it is hard to believe it, for I feel able to fleet past him when I overtake him--I should say, if I overtake him--to show him that the weight of the years is as light as a packet of minutes.
I feel really aged only when I look at what is called the present situation; though the sight of what men are doing with their earth must fatigue even the immortals. I am saddened by echoes out of a deep and hollow past only when I am told to admire, for reasons well argued, what I cannot admire; though I continue to pause with those who stand this week, in young and eager interest, noting the last and best in the windows of booksellers. I feel the burden of the years only when I hear appraisers of the arts, those with a present plurality of votes, a little too loud and long over the eternal glory of the current vogue.
"I have been dead two years," Lord Chesterfield is reported to have said, "but do not choose to have it known." Just imagine what a sportive rejoinder could be made by a light-hearted hearer who is not at all dead, is really very much alive, and of a generation provided with a brighter illumination of the truth through the beneficial advance of this and that. The searching question comes instantly from him, and is natural. "What," he asks with a smile, "dead only two years? No longer? How do you know?"
I fear the truth is that one does not know; and so some day he, even he, he himself, will find. He need not take it from me. Let him wait and see, and long and cheerfully may he have to wait. In the instance best known to me, it may be more than two years. A man cannot be sure of the time, when out of date.
Do be fair to him. If decease is admitted, strict accountancy over a few years is unnecessary, and perhaps impossible. Let me remind you of the queer tricks with time and space an ordinary non-Freudian dream can play, just as the alarm clock goes. Reality, too, is apt to get rather muddled, if stared at too curiously, as if it were the stuff that dreams are made of; as perhaps it is. So if a man is sunk in the past, coeval with Disraeli and Ally Sloper, is lost in the dark backward with the infinity of things that were, how can he say precisely when he left the sunlit glory of the present? He should be given a little latitude.
The past, we all know--or we shall, when old enough--is where the forgotten poets are with the great songs they never sang, where the failures are hidden that no doubt came to finishing strokes, where the bright ideals are that guttered out, the art forms so damnably silly, the high resolves that somehow sloped away to lower levels, and the mistakes and crudities in which, it seems, trust should never have reposed, though repose it did, when men knew no better. The glad day, radiant with promise, is not there. The shades have forgotten the south bank where the rathe primrose is modest in the sun, if conspicuous; they do not attend to the early morning news bulletin.
All the same, the past has one advantage for those who wander in its half-light, looking about for lost shapes they may recognize, should they be found. I see well enough, from where I am now, that the veritable present, with all its richness--or whatever you prefer to call it--is itself the past; and not only the past it is the future also. Which is a mystery, so I won't go into it. Too late! Anyhow, one thing is certain of time, whatever Einstein may say of it, of time that was, and is, and is to be: without the laughter of children, and the singing of birds, heard as if echoing from everlastingness, and delight as good as new when apple and cherry blossom are out again, and a right to the use of one's own mind as unquestioned as a free share in air and sun, then earth's best would be as the garden of Proserpine. What may be the truth about the apparition of existence I would do no more than venture a private word, but so much of that truth is surely in loveliness; for if joy is not a partial revelation of the Absolute, then goodness is no more than a convenient figment, like Greenwich mean time, and the worst is as the best; and so awful a conclusion won't bear looking at.
So when, as a man who prefers life to be quiet, at times called a pacifist by those in an abusive hurry, and I am rebuked for the violence of my opinion on what brings about anarchy and the uprising of folly against reason, which still continues to deafen us--I think nationalism has become a name for an affection in the head--I can only answer that the chance that laughter and innocence may be extinguished, and that mind should be censored in a straight jacket, is horrifying. I suppose my antipathy comes of being born early enough to be in the midst of the spectral doubts and fears loosed over Europe by the Franco-German war, Sedan, and the Commune; those shadows have increased to what we now contemplate, for this day the blue of very Heaven has darkened to the perennial menacing loom of the atomic age.
Always a war, or the threat of it. I can still sense the dubiety in an early home because of British battles with Zulus, Afghans, Egyptians and Soudanese. To make matters worse, just as I married, a Boer war began. It was then that some of my friends advised me, quite genially, yet with heartfelt conviction, that though I would not improve a lamppost, if hanging to it, that was a proper place for me.
My work in Fleet Street was still in its anxious stage, for I was new to it, when Russian warships, early on their long voyage to the sea floor in Japanese waters, flashed into a panic one night as quickly as their searchlights, and put broadsides into British trawlers on the Dogger Bank. A few of their many guns did not miss, and fishermen were killed. Those Russians, for a day or two, faced a fair chance of finding a sea floor earlier, before they could clear the English Channel; but what interested me in the affair, as much as anything, was the amusement British seamen found in the evidence that Russian admirals could see destroyers in what were only fishing boats dragging their trawls. Our men already knew what would happen to those Russians when Japanese warships were sighted.
Only a few years later there was no laughter from British onlookers, who paused on their way to business to watch in perplexity a most disquieting portent. Trains were pulling out of Charing Cross station with all their windows framing the happy faces of Austrians and Germans; other trains were crowded with Frenchmen, who did not appear to be at all happy. They were departing from London for they knew not what. It was the summer of 1914. My feeling at Charing Cross that day was that the sky might roll up as a scroll any minute. The echoes under the station roof were sepulchral, answering the cheers.
I was soon on the Continent. War, in its progress, had dropped on our doorstep. The telegraphs and telephones were dead, and at first a war-correspondent was an outlaw. The cross-channel ships, bound across, were empty, but when a journalist was returning with what news he had found, for he had to be his own messenger, the steamer was listing many degrees with its heavy burden of refugees. The Continent had been tilted up, spilling its people down to its coasts. The great loosening of nations had begun, and they have been adrift ever since. One thing only were you sure of, where all was a welter; you knew quite well, in this universal storm that had been long promised, and suddenly had burst, that Europe would never again see morning free from menace in the shifting opinions of your clever fellow men. They had more knowledge, and the enterprise and righteous wrath to use it, than was good for them.
I saw British infantry, in the early weeks of that war, swinging along towards it singing "Tipperary." The song was not sung in France after the September of that year, though it remained a favourite at home. To this day, when I hear that foolish and sentimental air, I know very well why a man has been known to go apart, to think over what might have been, and what is, and to weep in secret. That song, and the swift dissolving of our accustomed scene, the bright illusion we had mistaken for the everlasting hills, chanced to come together. The England we knew, once on a time, vanished with the men who marched away in an autumn that seems to be a century gone.
Perhaps here I had better bear in mind an Arab proverb, reminding us that it is good to know the truth, but better to know it and talk of palm trees. So is there an oasis about? We ought to be able to find a palm tree or two, somewhere.
Well, in that forgotten autumn, at least the horse-chestnuts along the Avenue des Champs Elysées were a fair substitute for confiding palms. They surprised. For a minute or two they reminded Philip Gibbs and Massey of the Daily Telegraph and me of what might be permanent where all else, supposed once to be for ever, was unreliable; they were calm, those chestnuts, and their candelabra were newly alight and buoyant, miraculously, in a Paris numbed and silent with fear. If a leaf had dropped into the road it would have been heard. There was no sound, except the thudding of the sullen guns.
There the trees were, in an awful conjunction of events, yet revealing that enough was under the heavens to warrant an attempt to anticipate spring; and we three stood in misgiving, knowing only a dreadful rumbling, for men again were locked in strife. It was by the Arc de Triomphe we were standing that afternoon, and nobody else was in the famous Avenue but a boy on a bicycle. Paris was like that. And how strange it was to us, that the tracery of Notre Dame rose triumphant into the gold of the sky, and was as gracious aloft, and as just, as though tragic events were only for victims down below caught in their hour. Ah, the incidental trifles! Why. should they admonish? Beset by the shadow of destiny closing in, we glimpse, as from a dungeon window, the indolent beauty of the earth. One wonders then, too late, why we never made the most of it, when we were free, and while it could be ours, if things lovely were our desire.
The fact was very noticeable in France that year, while the fury of war was just across those fields, screened only by that line of sentinal poplars; and as if deaf to it, an old woman near, bent and hopeful over her garden herbs. A few years later, leaving the desolation of the Somme ground, that prospect of a corrupt planet, now dead, feeling that man was what Swift had said he was and had come to the end he had asked for, one reached Amiens. There was time to waste, and, all idle and unthinking, the cathedral was entered; and in a moment, as if from the vaulting, came the assurance that majesty also was of man and his work. Yes, even majesty; and you understood better, standing there, the composure and nobility in the face of the nameless young soldier you had paused over, when on your way. His body was in a ditch. He wasn't more than twenty, and he didn't look as if he had a bullet in his heart, but his shirt was open to show the mark. Yet he was nothing exceptional. The universal mud about was thickened by thousands of his anonymous fellows. Men are like that, forgetful of the incentive to gain. They give themselves. I can see now, from my place in the past, the deck of a ship of no importance, some insignificant figures showing on its bleak and swept deck, doing what they could to support her when she seemed to be going. They weren't fearful of their own safety, but it chanced to be their luck to keep their ship from overthrow in raging mid-ocean; a little mob of scarecrows, holding on and watchful lest the next vast roller should be too heavy for her. They were facing the worst, and once one of them bawled a wild insult at an uplifted mass about to fall on us. These are but common signs, never sought, to assure us, despite evil that seems inherent in the texture of life, that man and his efforts, at their best, are also a various manifestation of divinity and its purpose. It is something if the years teach us no more than that. It is enough. It is all one will get, and it is enough.
For in the ambiguity of reality we cherish even an indirect assurance. We have learned at least, by chastening, that whoever is confident he has read the riddle of existence is likely to come to grief, and to bring grief on others. At any given moment the apparition of things as they are may be as deceptive as the reflections of twilight in a mirror in an ancient house. It is that which makes it so hard for an old man, left behind by the desperate hurry of the world in its advance, to point to where in the years he found himself alone. It is no good looking about for so insignificant a year.
It may have been the day when the post-mortem critics discovered that Stevenson, once greatly admired, was no good, for he had nothing to say; or when D. H. Lawrence became a master, with so much to say that nobody could be sure of its importance, or when a learned don disposed of Milton, a poet too long offensive for our comfort with his classical dignity. Or it may have been the year when the more alert and better informed, who had heard timbrels sounding the advent of another and better age, advised us that Anatole France was worse than dead, for he had never been more than a miserable mistake. I recall also the shocks of an occasion when Charles Lamb, from being a hero as well as gentle, was turned into so sad a subject under a newly-discovered analytical probe for the soul that he had to be put where he could do no further harm to confiding innocents. That may have been the day when I, too, disappeared, taking with me the drear warning that, from youth up, I had been going to the wrong temple, and that it was too late to find another and begin an improved devotion.
There it was. In that year, whenever it may have been, all that my reading had taught me, my standard for measuring, was broken. It had lost its worth. So where was I? I saw, too late, that I ought never to have been at ease, especially when feeling most secure with my favourite volumes, free among the verities, and I alone at night, hearing no interruption but the wind and rain without. Still, one consolatory thought was left to a fellow who had fallen out of the reckoning. After all, what did he know about it when he was born, and entered life? Nothing whatever; yet the world was active all about him, conscious of its destiny, the midwife contented, having taken time by the forelock, and still getting on with it. He lived, for a brief spell, in childhood's everlastingness, the calm of world-without-end about him. In the same way, all unconscious of the event, a day came when he was out of date. Nobody warned him of it. If they had, he would not have known what was meant. Good friends standing around must have observed the melancholy change, but averted kindly eyes, and did not let on.
Such a crisis in existence is unremarked by us. It is thus unlike the merry hour of the night when Marie Lloyd stepped down to the footlights. That night we all knew where we were. We knew in a moment we were one with our fellows; but not for long. Not for so very long, now one comes to think of it. Change was already at hand, quite unsuspected. A day was soon to be with us--and how quickly it seemed to come!--when a young critic, who had never seen Marie, met our reminiscent amusement with a cold and puzzled stare, which turned to polite mockery. He put the legend of Marie with dexterity in its appropriate place, with other relics, in the museum of grandfather's curios. This, one learned in due humility, was another day, with another form of humour, less barbarous.
I suppose it is. I have to bear in mind that I remember clearly--it was long before I knew Marie--the news arriving of Isandhlawana. What was that? Only the name of a battle in one of our many wars. There was a music-hall song about it at the time.
All honour to the Twenty-Fourth,
Of glorious renown,
England, avenge your countrymen,
And strike the foemen down.
The Twenty-Fourth we know now, I think, as the South Wales Borderers. Our foemen then were Zulus. What were Zulus? With that last question, from a young listener, a gulf opens between past and present as deep and echoing as the bottomless. In its year, however, Isandhlawana caused a grave and general emotional disturbance, besides political and military uproars. I can still see the angry light in the eyes of my father, usually so mild and patient, as he argued Isandhlawana with an uncle. That Disraeli again!
You see how it is. My father must take some of the blame from me. He was born in 1848. At his birth, many of the thrones of Europe were wobbling on three legs and hardly deserved so many. Revolutions were happening all over the map. It was a year when fear behind all national policies was never equalled again till 1917 and the Russian revolution. Is there a more destructive emotion than fear? If by unlucky chance it is touched off by righteous indignation, then Sunday is taken out of the week for years. Fear has more desperation and endurance than common sense; it is as steadfast as courage, and is hardly to be distinguished from courage. When allied with ignorance, the archangel Michael himself, leading the host of light, would have his work cut out.
Then we were at war as long ago as my youth? Why, yes; but luckily tobacco, the only solace left for a poor man when beset, was then as cheap as hay. You could get a good pull of it for coppers. In so early a year, we had not been taxed enough, thus there was more room in which statesmen could move about, doing their best for everybody. I find that some war or other is for me a dating point, a landmark, as good for that purpose as a popular song. And how well a song will tell us the year of it! Somehow, too, a war and a song go together.
Back we go, beyond "Tipperary" and Mons, to the Somme and "The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling a-ling." Beyond again to the Boer War, when, as I remember it, nobody sang the "Absent-Minded Beggar," but all preferred "I'll be your Sweetheart if you will be mine." Back still more to trouble by the Nile, and "Over the burning sands of Egypt, under a scorching sun"; and to a confusion of Burmese, Chinese, Zulu, and Afghan upsets. "We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do" was only a threat that we might join in a fight that was going on. I was about then. It was that Disraeli again. To say nothing of incidentals, such as "Good-bye, Dolly Gray" and the Spanish-American war. Is there yet an end in sight? I noticed, though, there wasn't much of an inclination to sing a new song during the last great war.
If it were the concern of a superannuated man, I should say that I've had quite enough of it, and that it surprises me others accept it all as customary and inevitable as Christmas carols. Nowadays, owing to wars and such matters, old smokers have been forced to put by the tobacco jar; their wives use their favourite briars instead of moth-balls. Would that be progress, to an old smoker? When solace that once could be had at fourpence an ounce costs four shillings, quiet old men have to go without an anodyne. Still, compensatory gas-masks are free.
And books, too, which accompanied a pipe, are not what they were. They are getting out of reach. Some are unobtainable. New bombs to be published have what is called priority over school books. And everyone is numbered, and must prove their identity on demand. A minor official may solemnly order an imbecility to be done, and done it must be, to the day. Progress through long years, from my father's day, and all through mine till I fell out of the running, has been so ordained by elected persons, that--well, take stock of the outcome! Do you love it? Where are we now? It begins to look as if we must find another word for what we named civilization. Civilization turns out to be an order of society an intelligent Hottentot would instantly reject, if he knew the truth of it. He would prefer to roam his stony desert. (Aren't you glad I have passed out?)
Within sight of my home, in the war years, I was challenged, and had to show my papers; my porch was only a few yards away. I do not complain of this; it arose out of necessity, a sufficient reason for anything that despoils and is hateful; it arose, to put it another way, out of things as they are. The soldier who held me up turned out to be a sailor, so we sat down to yarn of ships we had known. Young people would see nothing unusual in such an incident. One cannot blame them. They are used to it. Even their elders are willing to take handsome rhetoric as a substitute for liberty. The closing about us of the net of the State has been going on for long years, and imperceptibly, except to those aware of it. It is not easy to respect tangles that trip the feet; it is not easy to admire a wise administration which heightens anxiety in the citizen, makes him pay more and more for less and less, taxes him by such nice gradation that when he is bent double under it he still supposes he is upright, while in return nothing comes to him freely but a partshare in memorial cards. But, thank God, there is still a man known as Old Adam; a contentious fellow. A time may come, perhaps, when he will question the way of things; and, if he does, he will get the sort of answer he needs. I shall die with that faith in my heart.
Now, as to liberty, for which we are so often at war, and progress, which we strive to keep going on and on--you won't believe what I am going to tell you--but personal liberty, in my time, has become, very insidiously, about as commodious as the backyard from which Beulah could be viewed if it wasn't for the obstructions in between. As for progress, I have found that to be one of the silliest hallucinations that ever gammoned men into getting on or getting out; usually, out. The aeroplane, for one thing, is not progress. It is only an exchange of engines for legs. Where do we want to get with it, and why? Few people ask that, so there can be no getting on because men may fly instead of footing it. The aeroplane has lost more time than it has saved by many years, except that it has destroyed great communities in far less time than was in the power of the Black Death.
In my young days, when bound out, and England was only a light at night dwindling astern, a traveller was really free and at large. No wireless, no news for many weeks. There was nothing but the yarns of messmates, and nothing to be seen but the sky and the ocean, and at night the shadow of a masthead sweeping to and fro among the stars. Well, old whisky aboard was half a crown a bottle, and the best tobacco I have ever smoked--you cannot get it now, even in Piccadilly--was three shillings a pound. Somehow, we managed. We pulled through. No B.B.C. helped us.
At my first foreign port I walked ashore. Nobody asked for my passport; no officer of customs looked into my bag; yet it was a city of Africa under French governance. All the time I was in North Africa--except in Tripoli of Barbary, then under the rule of Abdul the Damned--the assurance of my Foreign Office was forgotten. And in Tripoli the Turks handed back the document as if it had no interest; and did not so much as remark my conspicuous camera.
Forty years later, in a circuit of the Mediterranean, from Tangier to Istanbul, at every port I was faced by brisk and suspicious men with automatic guns. It might be hours before they were satisfied that one was no worse than a potential criminal, a wretch not yet incriminated. That difference in the Middle Sea troubled me. Fear and denial were found waiting wherever the gangway was lowered. Nor was it only at the quayside that ugly doubt was met. While at sea, and the shore but a distant shadow, we watched narrowly from our deck any approaching aeroplane; just as in other years, I suppose, seamen watched a strange sail, when piracy and slavery were major industries. My son was with me on that voyage, and he accepted the difference as proper to his day; he was a little sceptical over my comparisons. So will you be; but both you and he are mistaken. As I am out of date, I well know the difference between personal freedom and dependence on a petty official's rubber stamp. Rubber stamps are for the rumps of sheep.
May I give another instance? It shall be the last, and you may miss it, having had enough, but it is for your benefit. It gives you a dating point. In 1910 I arrived, for the first time, at a shore of the United States. I had no papers, and hardly any money. So what happened when I met Authority? I did not meet the august thing. I went down the gangway with my bag, quite openly, and took a tram into the city. That was all. Nor did it strike me as odd. From there I went to New York. Not a question was asked. In America, quite simply, I was, and every American was friendly. Try it now!
At least, however young and independent you may be, you know better than to do that. Your prudence, then, is a measure of our advance in forty years. This day you do not exist, or you have no right to be alive, without a collection of rubber-stamp marks, to be shown on demand. As I am out of the running, there is no call on me to protest against the meaning of it all. It is your day, my young friend. Make what you can of it; but do remember you are a son of Old Adam.