One More River: Ants and Bees

The dynastic age was gone, with its appendages, feudalism, and the Church. Even wars would now be fought for peoples and their markets. No more dynastic or religious wars. Well, that was something! ‘We’re getting more like insects daily,’ thought Sir Lawrence. And how interesting! Religion was nearly dead because there was no longer real belief in future life; but something was struggling to take its place — service — social service — the ants’ creed, the bees’ creed! Communism had formulated it and was whipping it into the people from the top. So characteristic! They were always whipping something into somebody in Russia. The quick way, no doubt, but the sure way? No! The voluntary system remained the best, because when once it got hold it lasted — only it was so darned slow! Yes, and darned ironical! So far the sense of social service was almost the perquisite of the older families, who had somehow got hold of the notion that they must do something useful to pay for their position. Now that they were dying out would the sense of service persist? How were the ‘people’ to pick it up? ‘Well,’ thought Sir Lawrence, ‘after all, there’s the bus conductor; and the fellow in the shop, who’ll take infinite trouble to match the colour of your socks; and the woman who’ll look after her neighbour’s baby, or collect for the waifs and strays; and the motorist who’ll stop and watch you tinkering at your car; and the postman who’s grateful for a tip; and the almost anybody who’ll try and pull you out of a pond if he can really see you’re in it. What’s wanted is the slogan: “Fresh air and exercise for good instincts.” One might have it on all the buses, instead of: “Canon’s Colossal Crime,” or “Strange Sweepstake Swindle.”

—John Galsworthy, One More River/Over the River [End of the Chapter book III, The Forsyte Chronicles]

Indeed, “whipping it into people” did not work in the long term for Russia, and it seems to be breaking down in China too. But then the “bees’ creed” is wavering everywhere. What to do?

Swan Song: In Winchester Cathedral

The town seemed an old place. There was something in a cathedral, too; and after breakfast he went to it. The chancel was in activity — some choir practice or other. He entered noiselessly, for his boots were rubbered against damp, and sat down at the point of balance. With chin uplifted, he contemplated the arches and the glass. The place was rather dark, but very rich — like a Christmas pudding! These old buildings certainly gave one a feeling. He had always had it with St. Paul’s. One must admit at least a continuity of purpose somewhere. Up to a point — after that he wasn’t sure. You had a great thing, like this, almost perfect; and then an earthquake or an air-raid, and down it went! Nothing permanent about anything, so far as he could see, not even about the best examples of ingenuity and beauty. The same with landscape! You had a perfect garden of a country, and then an ice-age came along. There was continuity, but it was always changing. That was why it seemed to him extremely unlikely that he would live after he was dead. He had read somewhere — though not in The Times — that life was just animated shape, and that when shape was broken it was no longer animated. Death broke your shape and there you were, he supposed. The fact was, people couldn’t bear their own ends; they tried to dodge them with soft sawder. They were weak-minded. And Soames lowered his chin. They had lighted some candles up there in the chancel, insignificant in the daylight. Presently they would blow them out. There you were again, everything was blown out sooner or later. And it was no good pretending it wasn’t. He had read the other day, again not in The Times, that the world was coming to an end in 1928, when the earth got between the moon and the sun — it had been predicted in the Pyramids — some such scientific humbug! Well, if it did, he, for one, wouldn’t much mind. The thing had never been a great success, and if it were wiped out at one stroke there would be nothing left behind anyway; what was objectionable about death was leaving things that you were fond of behind. The moment, too, that the world came to an end, it would begin again in some other shape, anyway — that, no doubt, was why they called it “world without end, Amen.” Ah! They were singing now. Sometimes he wished he had an ear. In spite of the lack, he could tell that this was good singing. Boys’ voices! Psalms, too, and he knew the words. Funny! Fifty years since his church-going days, yet he remembered them as if it were yesterday! “He sendeth the springs into the rivers; which run among the hills.” “All beasts of the fields drink thereof; and the wild asses quench their thirst.” “Beside them shall the fowls of the air have their habitation; and sing among the branches.” They were flinging the verses at each other across the aisle, like a ball. It was lively, and good, vigorous English, too. “So is the great and wide sea also, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.” “There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan, whom Thou hast made to take his pastime therein.” Leviathan! That word used to please him. “Man goeth forth to his work, and to his labour, until the evening.” He certainly went forth, but whether he did any work, any labour, was the question, nowadays. “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being.” Would he? He wondered. “Praise thou the Lord, O my soul, praise the Lord.” The singing ceased, and Soames again lifted up his chin. He sat very still — not thinking now; lost, as it were, among the arches, and the twilight of the roof. He was experiencing a peculiar sensation, not unpleasant. To be in here was like being within a jewelled and somewhat scented box. The world might roar and stink and buzz outside, strident and vulgar, childish and sensational, cheap and nasty — all jazz and cockney accent, but here — not a trace of it heard or felt or seen. This great box — God-box the Americans would call it — had been made centuries before the world became industrialised; it didn’t belong to the modern world at all. In here everyone spoke and sang the King’s English; it smelt faintly of age and incense; and nothing was unbeautiful. He sat with a sense of escape.

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

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]

Swan Song: The English in 3400 A.D.

The day had been somewhat English in character, but by the time he reached Dorking had become fine enough to enjoy. He had seen little of the England that lay beyond the straight line between his river home and Westminster, for many years; and this late afternoon, less preoccupied than usual, he was able to give it a somewhat detached consideration. It was certainly a variegated and bumpy land, incorrigibly green and unlike India, Canada, and Japan. They said it had been jungle, heath and marsh not fifteen hundred years ago. What would it be fifteen hundred years hence? Jungle, heath and marsh again, or one large suburb — who could say? He had read somewhere that people would live underground, and come up to take the air in their flying machines on Sundays. He thought it was unlikely. The English would still want their windows down and a thorough draught, and so far as he could see, it would always be stuffy to play with a ball underground, and impossible to play with a ball up in the air. Those fellows who wrote prophetic articles and books, were always forgetting that people had passions. He would make a bet that the passions of the English in 3400 A.D. would still be: playing golf, cursing the weather, sitting in draughts, and revising the prayer-book.

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

The White Monkey: Conversational Football

Down there the conversation was like Association football — no one kept the ball for more than one kick. It shot from head to head. And after every set of passes someone would reach out and take a cigarette, and blow a blue cloud across the unclothed refectory table. Fleur enjoyed the glow of her Spanish room — its tiled floor, richly coloured fruits in porcelain, its tooled leather, copper articles, and Soames’s Goya above a Moorish divan. She headed the ball promptly when it came her way, but initiated nothing. Her gift was to be aware of everything at once. … she presented them all, showed them off, keeping her eyes and ears on the ball lest it should touch earth and rest. Brilliant evening; but — a success?

—John Galsworthy, The White Monkey [A Modern Comedy, The Forsyte Chronicles]

I guess English football hasn’t changed much in the last 90 years. If only they paid more attention to Spanish football than Spanish décor!

[Apologies to non-soccer fans to whom my comments will mean nothing. And I beg the pardon of any English football fans out there. 🙂 ]

The Forsyte Saga: With Bells On

In her room she had a fancy to put on her “freak” dress. It was of gold tissue with little trousers of the same, tightly drawn in at the ankles, a page’s cape slung from the shoulders, little gold shoes, and a gold-winged Mercury helmet; and all over her were tiny gold bells, especially on the helmet; so that if she shook her head she pealed. When she was dressed she felt quite sick because Jon could not see her; it even seemed a pity that the sprightly young man Michael Mont would not have a view. But the gong had sounded, and she went down.

She made a sensation in the drawing-room. Winifred thought it “Most amusing.” Imogen was enraptured. Jack Cardigan called it “stunning,” “ripping,” “topping,” and “corking.”

Monsieur Profond, smiling with his eyes, said: “That’s a nice small dress!” Her mother, very handsome in black, sat looking at her, and said nothing. It remained for her father to apply the test of common sense. “What did you put on that thing for? You’re not going to dance.”

Fleur spun round, and the bells pealed.

“Caprice!”

Soames stared at her, and, turning away, gave his arm to Winifred. Jack Cardigan took her mother. Prosper Profond took Imogen. Fleur went in by herself, with her bells jingling….

—John Galsworthy, To Let [The Forsyte Saga]

This reminds me of another show-stopping entrance…

Lady Sybil shows off her daring Harem Pants. Downton Abbey.

The Forsyte Saga: A Boy and His Books

… nothing of vital importance had happened after that till the year turned; when, following a day of utter wretchedness, he had enjoyed a disease composed of little spots, bed, honey in a spoon, and many Tangerine oranges. It was then that the world had flowered. To “Auntie” June he owed that flowering, for no sooner was he a little lame duck than she came rushing down from London, bringing with her the books which had nurtured her own Berserker spirit, born in the noted year of 1869. Aged, and of many colours, they were stored with the most formidable happenings. Of these she read to little Jon, till he was allowed to read to himself; whereupon she whisked back to London and left them with him in a heap. Those books cooked his fancy, till he thought and dreamed of nothing but midshipmen and dhows, pirates, rafts, sandal-wood traders, iron horses, sharks, battles, Tartars, Red Indians, balloons, North Poles and other extravagant delights. The moment he was suffered to get up, he rigged his bed fore and aft, and set out from it in a narrow bath across green seas of carpet, to a rock, which he climbed by means of its mahogany drawer knobs, to sweep the horizon with his drinking tumbler screwed to his eye, in search of rescuing sails. He made a daily raft out of the towel stand, the tea tray, and his pillows. He saved the juice from his French plums, bottled it in an empty medicine bottle, and provisioned the raft with the rum that it became; also with pemmican made out of little saved-up bits of chicken sat on and dried at the fire; and with lime juice against scurvy, extracted from the peel of his oranges and a little economised juice. He made a North Pole one morning from the whole of his bedclothes except the bolster, and reached it in a birch-bark canoe (in private life the fender), after a terrible encounter with a polar bear fashioned from the bolster and four skittles dressed up in “Da’s” nightgown. After that, his father, seeking to steady his imagination, brought him Ivanhoe, Bevis, a book about King Arthur, and Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He read the first, and for three days built, defended and stormed Front de Boeuf’s castle, taking every part in the piece except those of Rebecca and Rowena; with piercing cries of: “En avant, de Bracy!” and similar utterances. After reading the book about King Arthur he became almost exclusively Sir Lamorac de Galis, because, though there was very little about him, he preferred his name to that of any other knight; and he rode his old rocking-horse to death, armed with a long bamboo. Bevis he found tame; besides, it required woods and animals, of which he had none in his nursery, except his two cats, Fitz and Puck Forsyte, who permitted no liberties. For Tom Brown he was as yet too young. There was relief in the house when, after the fourth week, he was permitted to go down and out.

The month being March the trees were exceptionally like the masts of ships, and for little Jon that was a wonderful Spring, extremely hard on his knees, suits, and the patience of “Da,” who had the washing and reparation of his clothes. Every morning the moment his breakfast was over, he could be viewed by his mother and father, whose windows looked out that way, coming from the study, crossing the terrace, climbing the old oak tree, his face resolute and his hair bright. He began the day thus because there was not time to go far afield before his lessons. The old tree’s variety never staled; it had mainmast, foremast, top-gallant mast, and he could always come down by the halyards—or ropes of the swing. After his lessons, completed by eleven, he would go to the kitchen for a thin piece of cheese, a biscuit and two French plums—provision enough for a jolly-boat at least—and eat it in some imaginative way; then, armed to the teeth with gun, pistols, and sword, he would begin the serious climbing of the morning, encountering by the way innumerable slavers, Indians, pirates, leopards, and bears. He was seldom seen at that hour of the day without a cutlass in his teeth (like Dick Needham) amid the rapid explosion of copper caps. And many were the gardeners he brought down with yellow peas shot out of his little gun. He lived a life of the most violent action.

—John Galsworthy, Awakening [The Forsyte Saga]

Who needs video games when you have books?

The Forsyte Saga: The Passing of This Age

The Queen was dead, and the air of the greatest city upon earth grey with unshed tears. Fur-coated and top-hatted, with Annette beside him in dark furs, Soames crossed Park Lane on the morning of the funeral procession, to the rails in Hyde Park. Little moved though he ever was by public matters, this event, supremely symbolical, this summing-up of a long rich period, impressed his fancy. In ’37, when she came to the throne, ‘Superior Dosset’ was still building houses to make London hideous; and James, a stripling of twenty-six, just laying the foundations of his practice in the Law. Coaches still ran; men wore stocks, shaved their upper lips, ate oysters out of barrels; ‘tigers’ swung behind cabriolets; women said, ‘La!’ and owned no property; there were manners in the land, and pigsties for the poor; unhappy devils were hanged for little crimes, and Dickens had but just begun to write. Well-nigh two generations had slipped by—of steamboats, railways, telegraphs, bicycles, electric light, telephones, and now these motorcars—of such accumulated wealth, that eight per cent had become three, and Forsytes were numbered by the thousand! Morals had changed, manners had changed, men had become monkeys twice-removed, God had become Mammon—Mammon so respectable as to deceive himself: Sixty-four years that favoured property, and had made the upper middle class; buttressed, chiselled, polished it, till it was almost indistinguishable in manners, morals, speech, appearance, habit, and soul from the nobility. An epoch which had gilded individual liberty so that if a man had money, he was free in law and fact, and if he had not money he was free in law and not in fact. An era which had canonised hypocrisy, so that to seem to be respectable was to be. A great Age, whose transmuting influence nothing had escaped save the nature of man and the nature of the Universe.

And to witness the passing of this Age, London—its pet and fancy—was pouring forth her citizens through every gate into Hyde Park, hub of Victorianism, happy hunting-ground of Forsytes. Under the grey heavens, whose drizzle just kept off, the dark concourse gathered to see the show. The ‘good old’ Queen, full of years and virtue, had emerged from her seclusion for the last time to make a London holiday. From Houndsditch, Acton, Ealing, Hampstead, Islington, and Bethnal Green; from Hackney, Hornsey, Leytonstone, Battersea, and Fulham; and from those green pastures where Forsytes flourish—Mayfair and Kensington, St. James’ and Belgravia, Bayswater and Chelsea and the Regent’s Park, the people swarmed down on to the roads where death would presently pass with dusky pomp and pageantry. Never again would a Queen reign so long, or people have a chance to see so much history buried for their money. A pity the war dragged on, and that the Wreath of Victory could not be laid upon her coffin! All else would be there to follow and commemorate—soldiers, sailors, foreign princes, half-masted bunting, tolling bells, and above all the surging, great, dark-coated crowd, with perhaps a simple sadness here and there deep in hearts beneath black clothes put on by regulation. After all, more than a Queen was going to her rest, a woman who had braved sorrow, lived well and wisely according to her lights.

Out in the crowd against the railings, with his arm hooked in Annette’s, Soames waited. Yes! the Age was passing! What with this Trade Unionism, and Labour fellows in the House of Commons, with continental fiction, and something in the general feel of everything, not to be expressed in words, things were very different; he recalled the crowd on Mafeking night, and George Forsyte saying: “They’re all socialists, they want our goods.” Like James, Soames didn’t know, he couldn’t tell—with Edward on the throne! Things would never be as safe again as under good old Viccy!

Slow came the music and the march, till, in silence, the long line wound in through the Park gate. He heard Annette whisper, “How sad it is and beautiful!” felt the clutch of her hand as she stood up on tiptoe; and the crowd’s emotion gripped him. There it was—the bier of the Queen, coffin of the Age slow passing! And as it went by there came a murmuring groan from all the long line of those who watched, a sound such as Soames had never heard, so unconscious, primitive, deep and wild, that neither he nor any knew whether they had joined in uttering it. Strange sound, indeed! Tribute of an Age to its own death…. Ah! Ah!… The hold on life had slipped. That which had seemed eternal was gone! The Queen—God bless her!

It moved on with the bier, that travelling groan, as a fire moves on over grass in a thin line; it kept step, and marched alongside down the dense crowds mile after mile. It was a human sound, and yet inhuman, pushed out by animal subconsciousness, by intimate knowledge of universal death and change. None of us—none of us can hold on for ever!

—John Galsworthy, In Chancery [The Forsyte Saga]

The Wind in the Willows: The Many-Pocketed Animal

He gave the name of the station that he knew to be nearest to the village of which Toad Hall was the principal feature, and mechanically put his fingers, in search of the necessary money, where his waistcoat pocket should have been. But here the cotton gown, which had nobly stood by him so far, and which he had basely forgotten, intervened, and frustrated his efforts. In a sort of nightmare he struggled with the strange uncanny thing that seemed to hold his hands, turn all muscular strivings to water, and laugh at him all the time; while other travellers, forming up in a line behind, waited with impatience, making suggestions of more or less value and comments of more or less stringency and point. At last—somehow—he never rightly understood how—he burst the barriers, attained the goal, arrived at where all waistcoat pockets are eternally situated, and found—not only no money, but no pocket to hold it, and no waistcoat to hold the pocket!

To his horror he recollected that he had left both coat and waistcoat behind him in his cell, and with them his pocket-book, money, keys, watch, matches, pencil-case—all that makes life worth living, all that distinguishes the many-pocketed animal, the lord of creation, from the inferior one-pocketed or no-pocketed productions that hop or trip about permissively, unequipped for the real contest.

—Kenneth Graham, The Wind in the Willows

As a person who rarely ventures forth without enough supplies and equipment to survive an earthquake, zombie invasion, or two-hour wait for the doctor, I completely sympathize with Mr. Toad. I suspect that if The Wind in the Willows were written today Toad would never leave Toad Hall without his Burberry murse.

The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin: The Passage of Time

He opened a book he had borrowed from Posulov and stared with distrust at the even lines of print:

“They all promised to cling to one another, to help one another at all times, to rescue one another from danger, to sacrifice their lives for one another if necessary and to avenge the death of any of their number.”

Kozhemyakin drew the lamp nearer without taking his eyes off the book.

“So sacred was this vow that a father would take vengeance on his own son to fulfil the demands of the blood-contract made with the brotherhood.”

He closed the book for a second, then re-opened it cautiously at the first page, put his elbows on the table and began to read. He read as long as his eyes could see, and when at last he raised his head he discovered that the room was light and the trees in the orchard had thrown off the heavy robes of night.

Surprised, he got up and walked about the room, smiling to himself and shaking his weary head.

So that’s what books are for, he thought. So that you don’t notice the passage of time.

Snatches of what he had read floated through his mind like clouds, changing colour and shape, merging, separating, vanishing. He made no effort to hold on to them, so astonished was he by the magic force that could make him forget himself so utterly.

A little later he undressed, lay down and feel fast asleep.

Next morning, as he was washing himself in the kitchen, he said to Shakir:

“Tell anyone who asks for me that I’m not at home.”

“Even Nikon?”

Kozhemyakin considered.

“Yes, even Nikon. Anyone at all. I shall be very busy.”

After breakfast he seated himself by the window and opened the book again.

Reading came to be essential to him It was as if he had been going down a long pathway through open fields and had been stared at from all sides by hostile eyes which seemed to be demanding something of him; he longed to hide from them but there was nowhere to hide; and now he had found a sequestered niche from which he could not get so much as a glimpse of the irritating life around him, a niche in which he could live without noticing the dull monotonous passage of time. He read slowly, going again and again over the lines that pleased him most, and whenever he approached the end of a book he would anxiously finger the diminishing pages that remained….

“…I want some more history,” he said to Posulov.

“There is no more history.”

“What do you mean?” asked the startled and incredulous Kozhemyakin.

“I haven’t got any more books on history.”

“Then get some. When you go to Vorgorod for goods I’ll give you some money to buy books. Serious ones. Ask somebody what to buy.”

So accustomed had he become to reading that he could not get through the day without it, and if he had no new book he would re-read old ones. Amazed by the strength of his passion he said to himself:

Fancy that! I used to look down on people who had a passion for cards and other things, but look at me now….

When Posulov returned and brought him a big box of new books he was overjoyed. He instantly cut the pages of all of them and arranged them in two high stacks on the floor beside his desk; from them he selected Solovyov’s History, put it on his desk, opened it at the first page and walked up and down in front of it for some time, postponing the pleasure of beginning.

Soon he was again reading all day long; reading until his eyes ached, jealously guarding his solitude, going nowhere, taking no interest in anything, hardly bothering to glance at the hands of the clock that noted the passage of time on the yellow fly-spotted face.

—Maxim Gorky, The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin