Odyssey of a Liberal
Ch. 5 – The War Years
My departure from Prior’s Field in August 1915 marked the end of my jeunesse dorée. I was plunged from affluence and security into poverty and a hard struggle for existence. Nor was the transition made by slow and easy stages. It was more like the abrupt expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden they had failed sufficiently to appreciate.
My last year at school had been darkened by the money worries of my parents. We had pawned my silver and ivory-fitted monogrammed dressing case to pay my fare back to school and provide me with a little pocket money for my last term. But I had continued to live in comfort, eat well, study and play games as also to believe that my father’s financial difficulties were only temporary. I still expected to get to college. But after I came “home” to find we no longer had one, my great expectations faded fast.
My parents were now almost without resources and my father was beginning to succumb to the tubercular infection which had been only partially cured in Switzerland. His precariously restored health depended on his continuing to live in the country which he could no longer afford to do. Our beautiful house and garden at Ken Court had been given up. our furniture sold, and the proceeds used to pay off business debts. Mother’s jewels and furs, if not already sold or pawned, were gradually being disposed of to pay for groceries and the rent of the furnished lodgings in Hampstead where we now lived. My brother, who had enlisted in the army in August 1914 after a year at Cambridge had by now received a Commission in the Connaught Rangers and was soon to be fighting in France.
I was seventeen years old when I left school and was flung upon my own resources to earn a living. The only way open seemed to become a governess in the old tradition of decayed, or decaying gentlewomen. First, for a few months, I stayed in my Williamson grandfather’s house, where my mother and father, together or separately, briefly took refuge.
Grandfather was looked after by my two maiden aunts, Flossie and Nelly. I remember Flossie as a thin emaciated woman with huge cavernous dark eyes below a high, pale forehead surmounted by abundant plaited braids of silver streaked dark brown hair. Her smile was beautiful but her nervous fingers clutching mine aroused aversion instead of love and made me want to escape from her bedside. She was a typical unselfish and self-sacrificing Victorian spinster who let herself be bullied by my tyrannical Grandfather, a tall, majestic handsome old man with a long white beard and hawk-nosed face who could have served as a model for one of the formidable and self righteous prophets of the Old Testament.
Flossie had inherited some money from their elder brother Len, and during the last destitute years of my father’s life it was she who kept the wolf from our door. Besides providing my parents with 10 shillings a week from her own small income, she occasionally managed to extract a few pounds from my Uncle Ted, who was carrying on the family business. She also induced my grandfather to make us some small loans, all of which were carefully recorded in his will as debt against anything my mother should inherit from him.
My Aunt Nelly, baby of the family, was vivacious, vain and pretty with a trim figure, curly dark hair and sparkling eyes, fun-loving, dainty and elegantly dressed. She ought to have married well and been happy. Frustrated by my selfish grandfather whose daughters were expected to devote themselves to serving him, she had sublimated her longing for a husband and a home of her own, into a passion for cleaning and polishing and keeping things orderly and tidy. Nelly liked to sing and the only amusement I remember in the large dark living room was striving to strum the piano and sing with her in tune. Both of my mother’s spinster sisters adored my Uncle Ted, youngest child and only surviving son of my Grandfather’s nine children, whose occasional visits and many children supplied the main comfort and joy of the barren lives of my aunts.
My favorite aunt was Fia who, after marrying a not much good husband called Arthur Daggett, had become a successful saleswoman in women’s lingerie in London. Mother, although letting Fia help us out with gifts of clothes and food, did not really like this energetic aunt of mine, who in appearance most closely resembled my Williamson Grandfather and had inherited his business sense. To me, she now stands out as the only one of my many aunts with whom I had a certain affinity because she had the guts to battle the world despite the handicap of being a woman. She was fond of me and gave me lots of beautiful underwear and nightgowns as a trousseau when I went off to Moscow in 1928 to live with Arcadi without benefit of clergy.
The oldest of Mother’s six sisters, Bessie, was plump and prosperous and exceedingly respectable and conventional. Her eldest son Tom, a tall, heavy set, amiable young man, flirted with me, flattered me and occasionally took me out to dine and dance, bringing a little gayety into my life during this dull and dolorous period of my teens.
There was also Maudie, the black sheep, or whatever the equivalent term is for a female. The widow of an actor, she had three beautiful children and little visible means of subsistence besides the charity of her sisters until her daughter Doris became a show girl.
Lastly there was Minnie, a professional invalid who spent her life in bed expecting everybody to be sorry for her and provided with a generous allowance by my grandfather. Indeed my bevy of aunts ran the whole gamut of Victorian and Edwardian female types.
I should explain how it came about that my father was ruined and unable to restore our family fortunes.
Shortly before the war he had invested all his capital in an agency for Austro-Daimler cars – precursors of today’s universally known Mercedes Benz automobiles. The Balkan war had hit the agency hard and the 1914 war finished it. He would no doubt have recovered from this misadventure, as from others in the past, had his tubercular trouble not been revived and aggravated by worry and London fog.
My father’s hobby was mathematics and his bedside reading the Differential Calculus. He had become absorbed in the discovery, or mathematical working out, of a new curve making possible the construction of a rotary pump without the usual valves and springs. This “Utley Curve” as it came to be called could have made our fortune had it not been for the War. As my father now painfully discovered, no new, unproven invention could secure either government backing or private financing in England at that time.
After the war, when my father was dead, although Temple and I with great difficulty managed to keep up the patent payments for some years, we eventually lost out and my father’s invention profited only others.
In a printed prospectus issued by the Kitson Engineering Company, which developed my father’s invention and put it on the market in the Twenties, the KITSON-UTLEY ROTARY PUMPS were shown to “derive their superiority over other pumps from the Utley Curve,” which “is not a circle but its shape is such that both edges of the blade or impeller maintain contact with the curve continuously when the rotor is rotated and the sliding movement of the blade through the rotor is uniform for each degree of rotation. These Pumps have neither valves nor springs, consequently they work for long periods without repairs.”
Arthur Kitson, as far as I know, derived as little benefit from the Utley Curve as the Utleys. A dynamic and successful American engineer and businessman, his main interest was currency reform and abolition of the gold standard. He was a “Douglasite,” if anyone still remembers them. This is probably the reason why he failed to make money for himself or for us and lost control of the Kitson-Utley Pump through bankruptcy. I have a dim recollection that my mother received two hundred pounds from Arthur Kitson as a down payment but that was all we ever got. For many years, however, we were to retain, if no longer the dream of revival of the Utley fortunes, the hope that Mother would eventually receive some income from my father’s invention.
My letters to Mother through the years contain frequent references to “the pump” -accounts of interviews with lawyers when we expected to be able to sue with success to obtain payment of royalties from those who had acquired the design of the “Utley Pump;” fleeting offers of settlement which never materialized; the recurring difficulty of raising the money to retain our patent rights. We finally lost out because we did not have the financial resources needed to fight. My father’s old solicitor friend, J. J. Edwards, at 28 Sackville Street, who helped us without charging a fee, was either just too old or too lacking in experience in this field of law to protect our patent rights.
Life in my Grandfather’s gloomy mansion, where he was eventually to die in his nineties, soon proved as unendurable to me as to my parents. I found a job teaching, which paid me enough to rent a small furnished room of my own and to buy a modicum of food and some badly needed clothes. I lived largely on bread, margarine and marmalade. Fortunately, one of my school friends, Sybil Hesse, lived not far off in the pleasant suburb of Didsbury and I was always welcome at her parents’ home to spend a night or a weekend-have some fun playing games, enjoying good food and beautiful surroundings. I had befriended Sybil at school when she was having a hard time on account of her shyness and the fact that she enjoyed an egg at breakfast by special request of her parents who thought she was delicate. Her parents, with typical Jewish generosity, offered me a home in their house if my Grandfather would pay my fees to study at Manchester University. My Grandfather, now in his eighties, refused, not having changed since the days when he had denied my mother the education he could easily have afforded to give her. Sybil, whose parents in 1915 changed their name from Hesse to Hescott on account of the hostility during the 1914 war against anyone with a German name, has remained my dear and loyal friend although nowadays when we meet in England we have little in common besides the memory of times shared in our distant youth. In London in the twenties, I emancipated her from her wealthy Christian-Jewish bourgeois environment, and the domination of her beautiful and imperious mother, by getting her a job with the League of Nations in Geneva. There she blossomed out, made many friends and enjoyed herself immensely before getting married – inevitably, perhaps, to a prosperous Jewish businessman despite her longing to break away from her original environment.
In 1916 I left Manchester to take a job as a resident governess in Hampshire where I coached a boy called Ian for his private school entrance examination. There I lived very comfortably but was bored and lonely, so that early in 1917 I was glad to become a clerk at the War Office in London at a starting salary of only 35 shillings a week. This enabled me to be re-united with Mother and Dada in the small house they had managed to rent in the suburb of Lewisham and furnished with little besides beds, a few chairs, and packing cases which served as kitchen, dining and writing tables. My memories of this short interlude with my parents are few. The most vivid one is of a night when having got water heated for a bath, the air raid warning sounded and the lights went out. This did not mean much or any danger in those days and I did not abandon the rare luxury of wallowing in hot water by candlelight to go down to the cellar.
I also recall, I know not why, waiting for my father to board a bus in Whitehall after he had told me how nice I looked in the new thin, dark blue Voile dress I had just bought for ten shillings, out of the first money I earned at the War Office. When so much else of far greater importance has been forgotten, I can still see in my mind’s eye the texture, color and form of that dress as well as remember how little it cost.
With shame I also recall the irritation I all too frequently showed at home at Dada’s coughing. I must have realized that he could not help it, but I could not help wanting to escape from the sound of it. He was a very sick man endeavoring by the utmost use of his will power to overcome the disease that incapacitated him.
My father’s gallant spirit shines through in the letters he wrote during the 1914 war while he was in London vainly endeavoring to market his invention and Mother was enduring the cold charity of her father’s home. They are replete with assurances that “the outlook is very promising.” Old friends or former colleagues, now Members of Parliament or in important government positions, are giving him introductions and backing, leaving little doubt that he will “get a good job either in the Inventions Bureau or in Munitions.” In June 1915 while I was still at Prior’s Field, he wrote to Mother:
I am feeling very much better and my voice is very much better too, so do not feel uneasy about me. I am resting thoroughly, going to bed early, not smoking, drinking no whiskey, taking my eggs and Horlick. In fact doing all I ought to do and nothing I ought not. I am really better, dear, coughing less and feeling stronger ….
My darling, I am unhappy that I have made your life so miserable. I cannot be happy until I have got life straight again for all of us and it is hard to do so as things are, but I will do my best.
I love you, dearie, now as always ….
If only I were well and strong again, things would soon go right. As it is, bear with me and know that I think all day long of your courage and your devotion to me.
Ever your true lover,
Although my father’s friends among “the high and mighty” did little more than give him introductions which led only to unfulfilled promises, he, like my brother, aroused affection among all those among whom he dwelt.
While his wealthy friends such as Reeves Smith, managing director of the Savoy Hotel Company, and his fashionable wife “Maudie,” did no more than occasionally invite him to dinner at the Berkeley where they lived, the landlady of his Hampstead lodging house on Crossfield Road was so generous and kind that she charged him no more than it cost her for the meals she provided.
In spite of his illness, my father had written, “a number of letters to everybody I could think of who could possibly help” and had “some nice letters back.” Sir Sidney Oliver, Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, had replied saying he would see what he could do to help. “The fact is, however,” my father wrote:
You never saw anything like the confusion and chaos there is in all the Government offices I have been into. Everybody seemed to be running up and down doing nothing, nobody ever knows where anybody else is or what they are doing. One day one man is doing one job in one department and the next day he is in some other department doing something else. It is heart-rending to see so much muddle and to think of the men at the front dependent on such an organization. I don’t think much of Lloyd George’s management of the Munitions job. Everybody tells me it is the same thing all up and down the country—muddle and mess everywhere, five men doing one man’s job in one place and in a few places one man doing the work of ten men. The Inventions Bureau itself seems to be overstaffed – that is, they have too many men there already, but they are most of them totally unfit for the job. The Secretary practically told me so himself, and said I was just the sort of man he would like to have there. The difficulty was to make room for me. Anyway it is evidently only by hammering again and again at different doors that one can hope to get in. The difficulty is that I have not much strength to do the hammering with, especially when the weather is so beastly as it has been this week.
By 1917 my father’s spirits had begun to flag as his health deteriorated at an ever faster pace, and his hopes of either a job or the adoption of his invention by the Munitions Board sank to zero. But he was as ever more concerned with my mother’s unhappiness in Manchester than with his own “tiredness” and “the cold East wind” which had compelled him to rest at home.
Now that I have for many years been a citizen of the United States, and for years before a foreign resident in this generous country, I realize that it must seem incomprehensible to most Americans that neither my father’s wealthy friends nor those whom he had helped in former years, gave us any material assistance in those days of adversity. It was not in the British temperament or tradition to give or receive “charity.” You kept “a stiff upper lip” and starved or died quietly.
Former friends of my parents would occasionally invite us to a luxurious lunch or dinner – but none of them ever thought of helping us financially. Perhaps this was also our own fault since my parents pride forbade their asking or taking help from well-to-do friends.
At the time, all this seemed natural. The contrast with America, which I came to know many years later and where I have experienced great kindness and generosity, is so striking that for all her faults, the United States will always remain my chosen country.
My father’s health continued to deteriorate and we knew he would soon die unless he went to live in the country. My school friend, Phyllis Vickers, lent us her family’s summer cottage in South Cornwall where the mild climate offered hope of preserving his life. When my father and mother went there in the fall of 1917 I was left in charge of their few remaining salable possessions consisting of some rare books. I remember going off during my lunch hour at the War Office to sell a vellum-bound edition of the original text of Burton’s Arabian Nights while Zeppelins were hovering over London. The policeman at the side entrance warned me to stay under cover and when I refused, told me that my blood would be on my own head. Of course, there was little real danger. It was child’s play as compared with the bombings of World War Two. In any case, I was too intent on meeting the book dealer who would enable me to send some desperately needed money to my parents to heed the friendly advice of the Bobby outside the War Office. It is a measure of my preoccupation during the war with pressing family cares that I remember this incident so clearly, but have forgotten the immediate impact made upon me by the Bolshevik Revolution which occurred at about this time.
Temple, unaware of quite how bad things were with us, was enjoying the war as he enjoyed all life’s experiences.
After being wounded on the Somme in 1916 he was sent to Mesopotamia in command of a draft of the Connaught Rangers. Writing to us from the Durban Club in Natal in June, 1917, before sailing further East, he told us that his long stopover at the Cape had been “one of the best times of my whole life, which you know is saying a lot.” He had seen in the newspapers that the 16th division, in which he had fought in France, had gone “over the top at the Messines ridge show,” and hoped we had sent him the casualty list. “I wish I had been there,” he wrote from Durban, “really and truly I do.” He had been “lazing about aboard ship, lying in the tropic sun” while his friends had gone to their death and it had made him feel “absolutely mad at the time.”
“It is so funny,” he wrote, “how I always get soft and easy times shoved on me against my will-yet this has been a wonderful time. This is a lovely country and I am coming back here sometime. How my wretched draft can still sigh for England is beyond me. India is even more fascinating we are told. I do not think I could ever stop wandering now. I always had a tendency that way, and the sort of life that has been thrown at me has developed it beyond all bounds. I think I had better become a naturalized gypsy.
“You know I was complaining when last at home that I was getting old and slightly tired. All that feeling has died away and I have recovered that old primitive joie de vivre. Life is a good game played quickly. Incidentally I must quote you some verses of Robert Service I have just come across:
This out of all shall remain They have lived and have tossed So much of the game shall be gain Though the gold of the dice has been lost.*
“Shall we adopt this as a family motto?”
The death of my father in January, 1918, brought me the first great grief of my life. I had loved him dearly, and thought him the most wonderful person in the world – wise, tolerant, kind, never ill-tempered, and until the last absorbed in the course of history rather than in himself. Arriving in Cornwall on leave from my job at the War Office in London I saw him choke to death as his exhausted heart could no longer pump blood through his diseased lungs. The night before he died, when half conscious, he pronounced his own epitaph, saying: “I, Willie Utley, born Skipton in Craven – just missed being great.”
He had missed becoming great, or even successful, because he used or dissipated hi exceptional intelligence, talents and energies in too many endeavors; or perhaps because he loved life too much and had savored it too fully to pursue only one objective. Before he died he murmured Shakespeare’s lines about the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, and said he was curious to know whether he had been right in thinking that death is nothingness.
Among the cherished letters which my mother preserved through the years there is one from Temple dated December 1, 1917 from Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers now called Iraq, written in pencil on sweat stained green paper, a few months before my father’s death which contains passages which express better than anything I can write today, an epitaph on the life of my father and mother as well as Temple’s sanguine temperament:
Really though, Mother, horrid as things are now, don’t you think that taking yours and Dada’s life as a whole, you have had more of the good things of life than the average? You have had some real joyous times. You have had some most wretched times, but adding them together, is not every moment of pain canceled by a moment of pleasure, and a surplus of pleasure left? That is more than can be said of most people’s lives.
At the bottom of your heart, would you not sooner have had your life and your present condition, than say the life of Mrs. Reeves Smith. Dada and you have played high, won greatly and lost greatly. You might have played low and won little, and lost little. You were greater than that though.
Do hang on both of you. You mean more to me perhaps than you imagine. You are the only permanent thing in my existence. The only two human beings I care a fig for. I have a great many pals, but of all who have been killed, not one has made me drink a whiskey more or less to their memory. For all my buck and bravado, home, which means no country, but you and Dada, is a great deal to me. You see you are the only home I shall ever have, for I am quite convinced that I must never marry. First, because I would make a wretched husband; secondly because all women that attract me physically would make most wretched wives. Moreover, I value my freedom and my solitude too much. And as I live my life I could not afford to give any hostages to fortune. So please remember that you are the only thing without myself, without you I would become a complete egoist.
I think I will shut off the self-revealing emotional stuff now. The entire population of the Cornish village where my father died came to his funeral. Many of them had done all they could to help my mother while she nursed him in the two-room cottage which had been their last refuge. Some had fetched water for her from the pump across the road; others had carried groceries from the nearest shops several miles away, or brought gifts of cooked food. And when I arrived at midnight from London two or three days before he died, I was met at the nearest railroad station and accompanied on the three-mile uphill walk in moonlight to the lonely cottage where my parents lived.
The pastor whose last services my father, still an agnostic, had rejected, blessed his grave. We had no money for a tombstone, and in any case this seemed as unimportant to me as it would have seemed to him. He had been born in obscurity in Yorkshire and lies in an unmarked grave in Cornwall, but he lived a full life and left to his children an abiding memory of a man who, even though he “missed being great” had the quality of greatness.
My Williamson grandfather, who had grudgingly allowed my mother ten shillings a week during the last year of my father’s life, cut off even this pittance after he died. I brought mother to London where we lived in a small cold water flat on the £2.10.0 that I was by then earning.
With a rent of sixteen shillings a week and war prices for food we had a hard time. I used to walk to work to save two pence in bus fare, and eat a meager lunch most days at “Sebastian’s” in Soho where a substantial ham sandwich cost only six pence and a cup of good coffee only a penny or two. I greatly appreciated the boon afforded to my young appetite by Mrs. Williams Ellis, who worked under me at the War Office and provided sandwiches of bread and jam in mid-afternoon with tea. She was comparatively rich, being a “grass widow” with an allowance from her officer husband. She was, no doubt, a lady of very easy virtue, but she was generous and kind, and sufficiently competent in her work for me not to feel that I was being bribed by jam and bread to cover up for her.
I was starved for other things than food during this period of my life. I could not afford pretty clothes and I had few opportunities to enjoy myself. Mrs. Ellis invited me to parties where the company she kept may have been rather vulgar and was certainly not intellectual, but was jolly and kind. I spent Armistice night with her and her friends in gay and riotous fashion but in those days I was very abstemious and unlike the others ended up sober.
My first “romance,” if it can be called anything of the kind since it never got beyond the stage of lunches and dinners, holding hands and a few kisses, was with an Indian Army officer called Farrell. By this time I was a section head with a semi-private office and he frequently came visiting for the ostensible purpose of consulting me on questions of payment to officers of the Indian Army who came under the jurisdiction of my section of “Finance 2.” Captain Fanell was a tall slim, black-haired, violet-eyed, beguiling Irishman who in his courting used the gambit of having a wife who misunderstood him. Thanks partly to the warnings of Mrs. Ellis, who was as wise in the ways of men as I was ignorant, I failed to succumb to his charm although I was greatly attracted to him. He was good for my morale at a time when I was lonely and poor and out of my element and had no confidence at all in my feminine allure.
My last recollection of the debonair Captain Farrell who could well have been the hero – or villain – of a Kipling story or a Ouida novel, is his “Indian Gift” of a gold wrist-watch. After having delighted me with this wonderful present prior to returning overseas, he took it back a day or two later, telling me that his wife had found out about it and raised hell. Today, I wonder whether the real reason for his strange behaviour was my failure to “fall”—in other words, be seduced. Which episode recalls to me a story my father liked to tell about his bachelor days. His “laundress,” as the Temple charwomen were called, had come to him one day with a woebegone face and said: “Sir, you have seen my pretty daughter?”
“Yes and a nice attractive girl she is.”
“Well Sir, a terrible thing has happened; she has fallen and I don’t know what to do.”
After my father had commiserated with her, she remarked with a Juliet’s nurse smirk: “She would fall again for a trifle, Sir.”
In later years I often recalled this story because it seemed so apposite to the behaviour of many liberal “fellow travellers” of our time. After first falling for the lure of communist promises of a good time to be had by all and later disillusioned by “Uncle Joe Stalin” after the war, they are still today all too ready to “fall for a trifle.” whenever it suits the Kremlin’s purpose to appear conciliatory.
While resisting the blandishments of Captain Farrell, I began an enduring friendship with Walter Field and Russell Green who were my “opposite numbers” at the India office on the other side of Whitehall. I knew them first only as voices on the telephone, in arguments as to whether their office or mine was responsible for this or that officer’s pay on this or that duty, in this or that theater of war. We became personally acquainted after Russell Green and I began swapping Latin quotations, and engaging in discussions on the classics in which we vied with one another in displaying our erudition, thus wasting government time in conversations which bore no relation to the war effort. Walter for his part, delighted me by his flippant remarks concerning the bureaucracy in general and War Office versus India office in particular.
Soon Russell and Walter were “dating” me or, more accurately, Russell did the dating and Walter the paying when we all three dined together either at Walter’s club in Whitehall Court, or at some Soho restaurant. Walter who had been rejected for military service on account of his bad eyesight, came from a well-to-do Jewish merchant family from Glasgow and lived with his parents in Hampstead. He later became my brother’s closest friend. There was to be a time when I thought I loved him and he was to remain my friend all his life until he died in England in 1959.
Russell Green, who was of proletarian origin, his father being a factory foreman, had obtained his school and University education on scholarships and had won the Newdigate Prize Poem at Oxford where he was a friend of Aldous Huxley’s.
He had married young and was separated from his wife who came from the same “working class” background and who must have had a hard time living with Russell who was as unhappy as only a selfish class conscious intellectual can be.
Russell Green imagined he was in love with me and used to send me poems which flattered my ego but failed to inspire any physical response in me. I never took him seriously, although I pitied him and had an affection for him without believing his sorrows were any more real than the love he professed for me. I laughed with Temple at the ardent verses Russell addressed to me expressing his love and his “faith that from betrayal breathes again,” and was flattered rather than offended by the contempt and despair he voiced at my frivolity or cold-heartedness when I made fun of him.
I should be grateful to poor Russell Green whose great expectations of his own genius were never to be fulfilled. He gave me sorely needed confidence when I was “young and twenty.” Together with Captain Farrell and Walter Field he dispelled my fear engendered at Prior’s Field that to be “brainy” was tantamount to being unattractive as a woman.
Among the few relics of my youth in printed or written form which were neither confiscated in Moscow in the 30’s nor destroyed in London in the Blitz, there is a slender volume of Russell Green’s poems, published in 1923 on the flyleaf of which is written:
To Freda Utley,
Below this is written: “What was that superb impromptu euphuistic epigram? The hobby horse of your discontent becomes the Pegasus of your ambition?” – Ah God, the tragedy …. there was a King in Thule . . became a clerk in Whitehall.”
Russell Green, although an egotist and an inveterate poseur, had the redeeming quality of being able to mock himself. Maybe, he might have been a “King in Thule” – meaning a great bard – had he been born in another age instead of driven by economic necessity to become “a clerk in Whitehall.” But had the divine spark of poetic genius burned brighter in him, it would not have been drowned in self-pity, or stultified by his need for security, and he would not have sunk into obscurity after his brilliant beginnings.
Today in my seventies, I can perhaps take pride that I once inspired some quite good verses by a minor poet, as when he wrote:
When time and change have taken me from your eyes
And I am home again in solitude
Think of me not as one whose heart pursued
Each sudden fire that on the marshland flies.
Not as the reckless fugitive from despair
Caring not of the road of his escape
From the impending shadow of the shape
Of love betrayed and of the lost betrayer.
Think but of one adrift in the storm of time
Who saw the cloudwrack sundered by a star
And with a new faith followed from afar
The light untrembling in the air sublime.
In the same volume of his published poems, he included one written when he was mad at me because, when rejecting his daily demands to see me, I had capped one of his classical quotations by citing Juvenal’s lines that pleasures are best enjoyed if rarely indulged in. As printed it reads:
Voluptates commendat rarior usus
Which she quoted)
He had lain at feasts that toiled from sun to sun,
Drunk daylong draughts of brute oblivion,
Drowned spirit in the dead sea of desire,
Parched even sense to dust in sensual fire,
Withered his heart in the burning sand of remorse
Till age came limping on . . .
This senile raker of imperial styles
Prying about with scatologic eyes!
This bombous crater of exhausted force!
Shall he suffice to curb the youth in me?
This desiccated dotard! Shall I see
The pure and vernal passions of my brain,
The faith that from betrayal breathes again,
The ardours I imagine – all that I am,
Butchered to make a Roman epigram?
Today I read with a smarting of the eyes close to tears Russell Green’s outpourings in verse – sublime or ridiculous. I am no judge of modern poetry which has no rhyme or reason or makes much sense to me, so I conceive it possible that some of his poems are more beautiful and express more than many written in our time by poets who have achieved greater fame. Russell Green lacked the good looks or the charm which make women and the world fall for even second rate poets and other literary characters of small talent but great pretensions.
Meeting again in the late thirties after my return to England from my experience of love and terror in Russia undreamed of in his small world, I found Russell Green complaining of his mistress’s unfaithfulness and failure to understand him just as formerly he had complained of his wife’s shortcomings. I have long since lost touch with him and do not know if he is still living, but the truth of his line that “the hobby horse of one’s discontent becomes the Pegasus of one’s ambition” is incontrovertible.
During the war years the international outlook I had acquired form my father’s teachings and my continental education prevented me from becoming a ‘war patriot’. I could not hate the Germans, among whom I had dear friends and who had been so kind to me at La Combe, and my knowledge of history precluded me from believing the war propaganda which represented them as being a peculiarly aggressive or wicked nation. Then, as in later years, I always enquired, how come, if the Germans were so aggressive it was not they, but we, their Teutonic English cousins, who had acquired an Empire upon which the sun never set?
I had some prejudice against the French as the most chauvinist and military-minded nation in Europe, as a result, no doubt, of the overdose of French literature I had swallowed while at school in Switzerland, which had given me a conception of France as a nation eternally seeking la gloire and honoring the Napoleonic tradition above the revolutionary. But I had in general no national or race prejudices and believed that men are much of a muchness everywhere in the world.
My good grounding in history at Prior’s Field also caused me to distrust the League of Nations as an instrument to ensure peace and democracy. I can remember mustering the courage to get up at a public meeting in 1919 to suggest that the League appeared to be one of the victors against the vanquished and might prove to be no better than the Holy Alliance set up after Napoleon’s defeat to preserve the status quo.
Among my vivid memories of this time is the profound impression made on me by Sybil Thorndyke‘s performance in Euripides Trojan Women, put upon the London stage shortly after the Armistice while the starvation blockade of defeated Germany was being continued in order to force the Weimar Republic to submit to the Versailles ‘Diktat’. In this play, written during the war between Athens and Sparta, the victorious Greeks decide to throw Hector’s young son Astyanax from the battlements of Troy, lest the seed of the Trojan hero survive to menace their hard-won victory. And the child’s mother, Hector’s widow Andromache, awaiting her fate as a Greek slave among the other Trojan captives exclaims:
Ah, ye have found an anguish to outstrip all tortures of the East, ye gentle Greeks.
Time was in my youth, after the first World War, when all who claimed to be liberals opposed the peace of vengeance which was to make a second World War inevitable. I lived to see the contrast when, during and after the Second World War to “make the world safe for democracy,” many of those who claimed to be liberals but were racists at heart, not only demanded the unconditional surrender of our enemies, but favored the Morgenthau Plan for the starvation of millions of Germans and the conversion of what remained of Germany into a “goat pasture.”
O tempora, o mores, as the Romans said. Or better to quote one of the many memorable sayings of the greatest of all historians. Thucydides, who in recording the decline of Athenian humanitarian virtues during the course of the Peloponnesian War, wrote: “War, teaching men by violence, fitteth them to their condition.”
Today, surveying the wreckage of hopes for an enduring peace which followed both World Wars, it seems all too clear that those who lack the compassion and intelligence to spare their defeated enemies can never know peace. In 1919 an unjust peace imposed according to the precept ‘woe to the vanquished’ created Hitler and the Nazi movement. Today we have to contend with the vast power and ruthless will of our erstwhile ‘ally,’ Soviet Russia, whom we ourselves enabled to become a colossus bestriding Eurasia by our unprincipled and cruel demand for the unconditional surrender of our German foes.
Time was when the mills of God ground slowly, but in our day and age they grind exceeding fast.