You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 3

A.R.W. And H.G.

WHICH shall it be? We may set about the answer in either of two reciprocal ways. Throughout this story from the very beginning the same choice of aspects has confronted us, We can ask, can the species as a whole achieve this tremendous feat of adaptation demanded of us? Or we can turn to the individual samples we have selected for examination and.ask whether, with such material, there is any hope of arresting the blazing catastrophe that now detonates about us? If there is hope, however faint it may be, in Edward Albert Tewler, then there is that much hope for the world. If world revolution is not latent and credible in his circle, in his offspring and outcome, in the reactions he evokes and the chain of consequence he transmits, then is it equally impossible and incredible of his species as a whole.

Our double answer must end in a note of interrogation.

Let us tell first of all, as simply and plainly as possible, the behaviour of our hero during the world conflagration, and then swing our attention round to the battling ideas and interpretations in which that behaviour was framed and shaped. We have to deal faithfully with the traditions and wisdom of the human past, the divinities, the mighty reputations, the vast long-unquestioned assumptions by which the Tewler mind has been enslaved and stultified. If the Tewlers are timid and disingenuous fools by education and enslavement rather than by birth, there may be hope for them. There may be salvation for them yet, without the intervention of a quite impossible saviour.

As the storm broke, Edward Albert’s first reaction was an extreme indisposition to take any part in it whatever.

At the outset we had to tell of the marked reluctance of Edward Albert to live at all. The normal human being is born against its will. It has to be thrust and lugged into this chilly and disconcerting universe. Edward Albert, you will remember, took twenty-three hours. The first noise he made was a cackle of protest. We have told with all necessary particularity of his cowering childhood and the slow appearance in him of an urge of revolt and self-assertion. Even as a child he was not purely fear and submission. He could put out his tongue at caged lions; he could feel a stir of scepticism about the All-seeing God. Lust broke through a net of dread and religious uglification to the squalid satisfactions we have detailed. Something could rebel in him.

The education he received was cramping and old-fashioned even for his time. But the old traditions of sectarian misdirection still in spite of a certain advance in technical efficiency, cripple and distort the general mind. “All that has been changed,” cry indignant teachers under criticism. But the evidence that this teaching of theirs still fails to produce a public that is alert, critical and capable of vigorous readjustment in the face of overwhelming danger, is to be seen in the newspapers that satisfy the Tewler public, the arguments and slogans that appeal to it, the advertisements that succeed with it, the stuff it swallows. It is a press written by Homo Tewler for Homo Tewler all up and down the scale. The Times Tewler, the Daily Mail Tewler, the Herald, the Tribune the Daily Worker; there is no difference except a difference in scale and social atmosphere. Through them all ran the characteristic Tewler streak of wilful ignorance, deliberate disingenuousness and self-protective illusion.

The opening phase of world catastrophe took Edward Albert completely by surprise.

A slogan that dominated the English world at that time was “Safety First.” In his childhood, Edward Albert remembered there had been a card with that inscription upon the mantelshelf of his mother’s living-room, but that had been a chance anticipation. He could not remember how it had got there or what became of it. The Safety First phase in British history came later, and it was largely due to an organised campaign on the part of the Insurance companies, transport services, and all the great damages-paying corporations, to train the public not to incur damage. It spread through the whole social body; it intensified the respectful feudal tradition that you cannot be too careful if you want to avoid trouble; it infected and dominated the administration of the country; it became the national motto. Dieu et mon Droit was felt to be an old-fashioned piece of swagger that might easily get us into difficulties. So that when at last Mr Neville Chamberlain gave up appeasement, in a fit of exasperation at the unendurable mockery of his umbrella, and declared war, Edward Albert, in common with a very considerable number of his comfortable independent fellow — citizens, made no attempt whatever to join in the fray. He concentrated his thoughts very largely on the discreet husbanding of his investments and whatever safe forms of tax evasion could be discovered.

Throughout the later months of 1939 Tewler England and Tewler France did not so much wage war as evade it. They potted at the enemy from behind the Maginot line and left Poland to its fate. They watched Russia readjust its frontiers in preparation for the inevitable struggle against the common enemy with profound disapproval. That Prince of Tewlers, the young King of the Belgians, obstinately refused to prepare a common front against the gathering onslaught. He was neutral, master in his own country, he insisted, and nothing could happen to him. He uttered a squeal for help when his frontier collapsed upon him and vanished from the scene, and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men will never restore a Europe that will have any r61e for him again. The military science of France and England required that when an army is outflanked it should either retreat headlong or surrender. When confronted by a pincer-like movement, a soldier and a gentleman abandons his men and material and bolts home, ascribing his defeat to the decadent morals of the time. The British tradition then was a Day of Prayer, But wars are won by ungentlemanly persons who break the recognised rules of war and swear freely. The reaction of Almighty Providence to these Anglican praying bouts was ambiguous. The English and French strategists got themselves soundly licked by tanks, planes and this professional horror of nippers, and they were rather scandalised by the obstinacy of their men who insisted upon going on fighting until disaster took on an appearance of glorious retreat. Goebbels had only to say “Envelopment” or “Penetration”, and the confidence of the American and English military experts ran out at their heels. Pétain surrendered France. Until that happened Morningside Prospect had seemed a whole world away from bloodshed and violence. But the French collapse sent a shock through the villas. Newspapers fluttered at the garden gates and men sat in the golf club house with grave faces and stopped to talk war upon the tees. The Prospect had felt very stout-hearted about the U-boat sinkings and the German sea raiders. Its confidence in our navy was uncritical and complete. It gloried vicariously when the ship-saving instincts of the Admiralty were outraged by the Ajax and the Achilles, and Nelson came down from his aloofness in Trafalgar Square to revive the traditions of mutinous infighting. Morningside had never believed that our island frontiers could be scaled. And then came a positive air invasion of Britain. This scared and impressed the Prospect very badly, and it was only a year later that a belated but well-written pamphlet told them and the world all about the Battle of Britain. What was more obvious was that air raids were increasing at a great pace and that the Battle of the Atlantic was affecting the grocers’ bills. There had been black-out regulations in operation after November 1939, but the Prospect had never taken them very seriously until the autumnal raids of 1940. Then the mutual watchfulness of the neighbours was stimulated to the pitch of acerbity. Mr Copper of Caxton, in spite of his mature years, almost had a fight with a young fool on leave who was actually smoking a cigarette! outside one of the Celestial Prospect villas, and he followed this up by a denunciatory visit to the Brighthampton Police. The Brighthampton Police asked Mr Copper if he couldn’t perhaps do something to help, instead of just giving trouble,

Mr Copper was before all things a clear-headed man.

“It’s come to a point when people like us have got to look after things a bit,” he said to Mr Pildington. “We ought to have some sort of Vigilantes about.”

Mr Pildington thought there ought to be a Committee of Public Safety. “There’s people,” he said, “been coming up air raid nights and sleeping out on the links. It isn’t safe. It isn’t — orderly. We ought to call a meeting.” In a week the idea was well in hand. There was a suggestion that either Sir Humbert Compostella or Lord Foundry, formerly Sir Adrian von Stahlheim, be made chairman, but Sir Humbert, it seemed, was on a mission to America for an indefinite period, with his entire family, to organise American and British trade relations, and Lord Foundry was too deeply occupied with the production of munitions to be able to spare the time. He was known to advocate the production of tanks of the land ironclad type on a large scale, but so far the British military authorities had only been badly defeated twice by these unsportsmanlike weapons, and Lord Foundry had an up-hill job to put his ideas into operation. By the summer of ‘41, however, he was making the country tank — conscious. But I anticipate. The meeting was in October, ‘40. There was some doubt about inviting Mr Droop to the meeting.

“I can’t stand that leg-pulling of his,” said Mr Copper, “when it comes to serious things.” But liberal ideas prevailed and Mr Droop came to the meeting and didn’t bring up any nasty remarks about Sir Oswald Mosley or anything unpleasant of that sort. Indeed in some ways he was almost helpful.

The Committee met and passed several resolutions. They would employ the two jobbing gardeners who worked the Prospect as night watchmen and they would make a subscription to the Local Defence Volunteers. They then dispersed, thinking heavily. “I don’t like the way things are going,” said Edward Albert to his Mary. “I feel somehow we ought to be doing more about it.”

“What could you do?” asked Mary.

“I think we ought to have drilling on the links.”

“They’d cut up the greens,” said Mary.

“We could keep ’em off the greens,” said Edward Albert.

“We could keep a member on the links to see to that.”

The Local Defence Volunteers became a useful receptacle for elderly military men conversant with the tactics of fifty years ago, but still anxious to impart ideas of duty, discipline, social respect and restrain the notorious panic possibilities of the lower orders. Presently the Volunteers were actually drilling, three days a week, with sticks and old rifles, while representatives of the committee watched over the amenities of the links.

These formidable preparations were subjected to a certain amount of ungenerous criticism by people who had seen something of the fighting in Spain, France, Holland and elsewhere, and after due consideration the military authorities issued their white armlets and changed their names to the Home Guard, H.G.s.

The larger and richer British Tewlers had always had a profound and perhaps justifiable fear of an armed population, and for a time it was debated whether such weapons as were available ought not to be kept under armed guard at some strategic point and only actually issued to the men when the invader was already in ^he country. Time enough then for a policeman or somebody to knock them up and tell them what was afoot. In the event of German troops actually appearing, the Home Guard was to communicate the sinister news to the nearest policeman, who would act according to the printed instructions which in most cases had not yet been delivered to him. All road signs were removed, all maps called in, and every arrangement made for any British forces that might be in being, to get hopelessly lost in their own country.

Meanwhile the detonations of the war mounted to new levels of horror and violence. The ever-mounting flames advanced more and more closely towards Edward Albert. He found his own anxiety reflected in the faces of his neighbours, He talked in his sleep. He dreamt of a gigantic figure, the War God Mars, but rather like Lord Kitchener in the early posters, pointing a vast forefinger at him. “What is that fellow there doing? I want him”

It was no good pleading his defective health. He had already gone down to a Brighthampton doctor for a thorough overhaul. He had said nothing about it to Mary for fear of alarming her needlessly. He had been stripped, punched, X-rayed, sampled, tested for eyesight (slight astigmatism), everything. “Sound as a bell,” said the doctor. “Congratulations. They’ll be calling up you forty-twos in no time now,”

“I can’t stand by and do nothing,” he told Morningside.

“I’m going to qualify for the Home Guard now.”

His action brought Mr Droop to the same decision, but Mr Copper and Mr Stannish preferred to do clerical work in Brighthampton that would release younger men for the forces. But the designer of tessellated pavements who had been holding out as a conscientious objector with an unsound lung, was suddenly excited by Edward Albert’s example, recanted his objections and joined up for training. His wife was already in uniform as a tram conductor. Mrs Rooter also appeared in an authoritative get-up. She was some sort of accessory policewoman, detailed to protect the stray girlhood of Brighthampton from the immoral impulses that brought them up like moths at twilight to the Prospect Estate. Her flickering electric torch, her sudden challenge like the voice of conscience, was apt to be belated. “What’s this?” she would say. “You can’t do this, you know, here. You really can’t.”

They had thought otherwise, and more often than not they had.

Naturally enough Edward Albert and his friends discussed the Home Guard from various points of view. At first very few people had considered it as an actual fighting force. It was just another unimplemented threat to Hitler. “Let him come and he’d jolly well see,” was the idea. “We’d see what Jerry would do first and then we’d tackle him,” We were not like these here Frenchies. And so forth.

Mr Copper’s idea was that the job of the Home Guards was first and foremost to keep order and prevent any guerrilla fighting that might provoke Jerry to reprisals. “Don’t give him an excuse,” said Mr Copper. “And when the war is over you’ll be a sort of supplementary police to suppress strikers and mutineers and all that sort of thing. The country’s bound to be in a rotten state.”

But Mr Droop held that when the war began to turn at last against Germany we might send an expeditionary force into Europe (“God help us!” said Mr Stannish), and then the Home Guards would have to defend the country against any counter-raids. So it ought to be armed and trained as a real modern fighting force. Apparently that was being done in some parts of the country, but not in others. There was, said the authorities, “considerable local autonomy.” That is to say, the authorities suffered from the common characteristic of Homo Tewler the whole world over, an undetermined confusion of ideas. So long as they behaved with a certain mean discretion, the particular things they did were of secondary importance.

Throughout the early months of ‘41, the Brighthampton Home Guard was a black-out and curfew Home Guard. Then came a violent change of policy. Somewhere higher up, there was positive knowledge that Jerry had carefully worked — out plans for an experimental raid on the Brighthampton district. There was to be a try-out in the Cretan fashion with parachutists and crashed troop carriers. There was to be a support of small swift craft. The British were in possession of the German plans a month ahead of the event. At a stroke preparations became swift, secret and competent. Suddenly Canadian and some Polish troops appeared in the district in a sort of unobtrusive abundance, and the local Home Guard reinforced by specially trained key men, was put through a course of combatant training at headlong speed.

“Practically I’m a guerrilla so’jer,” said Edward Albert to his wife. “Think of it I If I see a German I’ve got to shoot him or disarm him and he has the right to shoot me at sight, if he sees me first. It isn’t at all the sort of thing I’m good at. I’ve said that very likely I’d be much more useful somewhere else. And now they’re asking for you to come and help with this here camouflage. They paint a chap up so’s he don’t look like anything on earth, green and black and great dabs like cow droppings and things. They say I’ve got to paint my face and hands green. Then I’ve got to crawl about there on the links with a rifle, ready to take up a position and pot at them when they come.”

“Maybe they won’t come.”

“We got to be ready.”

“The world’s gone mad,” said Mary Tewler, and added after reflection; “I suppose we got to ‘umour it.”

So she camouflaged Edward Albert until you might have trodden on him before you realised he was there.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wells/hg/you-cant-be-too-careful/book5.3.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30