Let Youth Tell Us
The Scepticism Of Fighting Youth
By J. B. PRIESTLEY, English Writer and Commentator
Broadcast over British Broadcasting Corporation System, July 26, 1943
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 765-766.
THIS is the sixth—and last—round. Only another ten minutes. In an old Chinese garden there is an inscription that reads: "Enjoy yourself. It is later than you think." Unfortunately if you realize that it is later than you thought, you find it difficult to enjoy yourself. I have thought of fifty subjects for this talk—some permissible, but others needing that private broadcasting system which some correspondents seem to assume I possess somewhere—and I have dismissed them all. In fact, you might say, I have turned it up. Let the next man carry on. But I wish that next man, allowed to talk to you at a peak time, could be a young man from one of the fighting services: a soldier from Sicily or North Africa; a young man from a submarine or destroyer; a pilot or rear-gunner; and preferably not a regular soldier, sailor or airman, but a young man who joined up simply to fight this war for us. And I should like this young fighting man, who could if necessary be anonymous, to be given permission to tell you all that he and his comrades are thinking and feeling. He should be encouraged to dig into himself and to show us what he finds there. This wouldn't be easy.
Wrestling with Angels in the Darkness
For all their saucy airs and loud intolerant judgments, the young are really shy and not very articulate; they have not yet arrived at the easy—and perhaps dishonest—tricks of expression of middle-aged or elderly public men. The young still wrestle with angels in the darkness. But it is the young who are fighting so that there shall be a real world—and not a long nightmare—after the war; and that world will be largely theirs, if only because they will have to live in it much longer than the rest of us can expect to do. And I cannot see that, from their point of view, the outlook is bad. For in order to avoid collapse and chaos, the world into which we are now entering must inevitably be a world of change, in which sudden decisions must be made and instantly acted upon, a world in which great demands will be made upon people's creative effort and enthusiasm, a world of huge responsible tasks, in which men will have little chance of dropping into comfortable routines of existence but, on the other hand, will see before them, freely offering themselves, many magnificent opportunities. And here I remember, from five-and-twenty years ago, how I, then a very junior officer of no great ability, by chance found myself faced with the task of organising, within a few days and with dubious materials, a camp to hold several hundred men; and though I am no organiser of camps or anything else, I remember, still with delight, the happy toil, the fun and glory, of those few days:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
So Wordsworth cried, and it is significant that he was referring to the time when he was young, enthusiastic, rather disreputable and cheering the French Revolution, and not to the time when he was old, respectable, writing ecclesiastical sonnets and receiving a pension. My point is, then, that what may well be absent from the world we are entering—solid comfort, secure little privileges, promotion by seniority, rule by precedent, and authority divided between mandarins and brigands—are not things for which normal healthy youth, and indeed the young in heart of any age, have any enthusiasm. Whereas, what that world will offer, if it is to offer anything beyond a gigantic steel dogfight, are precisely those things that youth wants, namely, change and opportunity, a chance to prove itself, an honest outlet for that deep creative urge which is one of man's most precious, if disturbing, possessions. And here I Quote the same poet:
something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith's transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.
But now I shall be sharply contradicted, and by people who deserve to be listened to. For they will say, truthfully enough; "Look here, this won't do. I've been asking some of these fighting chaps what they want after the war, and they say, that all they want to do is to be quiet and take it easy, to find a cottage somewhere with a bit of garden and some fishing in the neighbourhood". Quite so: the reportdoesn't lie. But it's mostly only a mood, a mood of reaction against living all the time with a crowd of other men, against the dust and confusion of the roads leading up to the front, against the fury and roar, the terror and desolation of battle itself. What's better then than the idea of things as they used to be at their best, one sort of man seeing himself setting off again to the football match or the pub, or strolling with his wife round to the pictures, and another sort of man seeing himself larking with the children in the garden or showing his schoolboy son how to conjure the trout out of the shadows? Fine, fine! I could do a dozen talks on what we'd all like to happen, for I've never been afraid of happiness as a subject. And didn't the great Bishop Butler himself say: "It is manifest that nothing can be of consequence to mankind, or any creature, but happiness"? But I don't take too seriously this pose that says in effect: "Once I'm out of this, I want to be quiet, and don't let anybody bother me again". If I did take it seriously, I should feel miserable about it, because I heard a lot of this stuff twenty-five years ago, and too many men acted on it, with results that we all know.
Unfortunately you can only lounge in a garden or do a little fishing, this side of Eden, on certain terms. You can do it this week, perhaps only this week-end, only on condition that you will return to doing something very different next week. Or if not, then you are merely shirking. Or if you say: "I've done my share, let somebody else have a go at patching up the world", then that somebody else may do something that will soon yank you out of your quiet garden. But, I repeat, I don't take this lotus-eating idea very seriously. What must be taken seriously is something that has been much commented on lately both in and out of print, and that is the apparently deep-seated scepticism of fighting youth. I'd like my youth broadcaster to talk to us about that. Clearly it doesn't go too deep down, otherwise this country would be losing instead of winning the war, and the epic of courage, enterprise and endurance would not come to us fresh every morning and evening.
Fields in Whitechapel
But parents and sensitive elders notice this scepticism, this interior twilight. One of them writes to me: "It makes me feel very unhappy as I realise that these young men and women are not only disillusioned about the official tub-thumpers but apparently lack faith in anything. Yet they live beauty, are fair and generous, and (mostly) do not display their deeper thoughts". And he might have added that, faith or no faith, some of them fight as gaily as Elizabethans and others as grimly as Cromwell's Ironsides. They are a puzzle. So, I say, let one of them take the microphone and explain why he is so dubious about a world that will be better fitted for youth—generous-minded, energetic, creative youth—than for anybody else; or if he doesn't really believe that anything so good can happen, let him explain to us how he and his fellows are going to be cheated, and by whom; if he's doubtful about his comrades, let him admit it, and if he's doubtful about the rest of us, which is more likely, then let him tell us so. You see, it may be that youth and maturity are merely still at cross-purposes, not yet using words in the same way. Children often surprise us in this fashion, and often turn out to be right. Somebody I know went to Whitechapel the other day, and, asking some children where they had been, was told "we jus' come fru the fields". Fields in Whitechapel! She didn't believe them. So they showed per, triumphantly, the places where the bombing had blown all the houses away, and she saw that grass was growing there and the tall willow-herb, and that the children were fright. The fields had come back to Whitechapel. And if fighting youth will talk to us, we may make more wonderful discoveries than this, and be glad the middle-aged have stopped Making it Monday.