Swan Song: Progress, what is it for?

A long time he sat there, nostalgically bemused, strangely unwilling to move. Never had he breathed anything quite like that air; or so, at least, it seemed to him. It had been the old England, when they lived down here — the England of pack-horses and very little smoke, of peat and wood fires, and wives who never left you, because they couldn’t, probably. A static England, that dug and wove, where your parish was your world, and you were a churchwarden if you didn’t take care. His own grandfather — begotten and born one hundred and fifty-six years ago, in the best bed, not two dozen paces from where he was sitting. What a change since then! For the better? Who could say? But here was this grass, and rock and sea, and the air and the gulls, and the old church over there beyond the coombe, precisely as they had been, only more so. If this field were in the market, he wouldn’t mind buying it as a curiosity. Only, if he did, nobody would come and sit here! They’d want to play golf over it or something….

In the old time here, without newspapers, with nothing from the outer world, you’d grow up without any sense of the State or that sort of thing. There’d be the church and your Bible, he supposed, and the market some miles away, and you’d work and eat and sleep and breathe the air and drink your cider and embrace your wife and watch your children, from June to June; and a good thing, too! What more did you do now that brought you any satisfaction? ‘Change, it’s all on the surface,’ thought Soames; ‘the roots are the same. You can’t get beyond them — try as you will!’ Progress, civilization, what were they for? Unless, indeed, to foster hobbies — collecting pictures, or what not? He didn’t see how the old chaps down here could have had hobbies — except for bees, perhaps. Hobbies? Just for that — just to give people a chance to have hobbies? He’d had a lot of amusement out of his own; and but for progress would never have had it. No! He’d have been down here still, perhaps, shearing his sheep or following a plough, and his daughter would be a girl with sturdy ankles and one new hat. Perhaps it was just as well that you couldn’t stop the clock!…

And very slowly he went back to the lane, so as not to get hot, and have to sit all damp in the car. But at the gate he stood, transfixed. What was all this? Two large, hairy horses were attached tandem to the back of his car with ropes, and beside them were three men, one of whom was Riggs, and two dogs, one of whom was lame. Soames perceived at once that it was all “that fellow!” In trying to back up the hill, which he ought never to have gone down, he had jammed the car so that it couldn’t move. He was always doing something! At this moment, however, “the fellow” mounted the car and moved the wheel; while one of the men cracked a whip. “Haup!” The hairy horses moved. Something in that slow, strong movement affected Soames. Progress! They had been obliged to fetch horses to drag Progress up the hill!

—John Galsworthy, Swan Song [A Modern Comedy, The Forsyte Chronicles]

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2 comments on “Swan Song: Progress, what is it for?

  1. Beautiful, really! Here is the one place in the book here I can identify myself with S’s thoughts!

    • Sylvia says:

      He is certainly the perfect foil for the flighty 20s. All he and his generation worked so diligently to build up is being spent by the generation that doesn’t want to think about anything serious after the war. What a wild swing of the pendulum.

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