The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Appendix VIII

On Canting Nonsense

The writer now wishes to say something on the subject of canting nonsense, of which there is a great deal in England. There are various cants in England, amongst which is the religious cant. He is not going to discuss the subject of religious cant; lest, however, he should be misunderstood, he begs leave to repeat that he is a sincere member of the old-fashioned Church of England, in which he believes there is more religion, and consequently less cant, than in any other church in the world; nor is he going to discuss many other cants; he shall content himself with saying something about two — the temperance cant and the unmanly cant. Temperance canters say that ‘it is unlawful to drink a glass of ale.’ Unmanly canters say that ‘it is unlawful to use one’s fists.’ The writer begs leave to tell both these species of canters that they do not speak the words of truth.

It is very lawful to take a cup of ale, or wine, for the purpose of cheering or invigorating yourself when you are faint and down-hearted; and likewise to give a cup of ale or wine to others when they are in a similar condition. The Holy Scripture sayeth nothing to the contrary, but rather encourageth people in so doing by the text, ‘Wine maketh glad the heart of man.’ But it is not lawful to intoxicate yourself with frequent cups of ale or wine, nor to make others intoxicated, nor does the Holy Scripture say that it is. The Holy Scripture no more says that it is lawful to intoxicate yourself or others, than it says that it is unlawful to take a cup of ale or wine yourself, or to give one to others. Noah is not commended in the Scripture for making himself drunken on the wine he brewed. Nor is it said that the Saviour, when He supplied the guests with first-rate wine at the marriage feast, told them to make themselves drunk upon it. He is said to have supplied them with first-rate wine, but He doubtless left the quantity which each should drink to each party’s reason and discretion. When you set a good dinner before your guests, you do not expect that they should gorge themselves with the victuals you set before them. Wine may be abused, and so may a leg of mutton.

Second. It is lawful for anyone to use his fists in his own defence, or in the defence of others, provided they can’t help themselves; but it is not lawful to use them for purposes of tyranny or brutality. If you are attacked by a ruffian, as the elderly individual in ‘Lavengro’ is in the inn-yard, it is quite lawful, if you can, to give him as good a thrashing as the elderly individual gave the brutal coachman; and if you see a helpless woman — perhaps your own sister — set upon by a drunken lord, a drunken coachman, or a drunken coalheaver, or a brute of any description, either drunk or sober, it is not only lawful, but laudable, to give them, if you can, a good drubbing; but it is not lawful, because you have a strong pair of fists, and know how to use them, to go swaggering through a fair, jostling against unoffending individuals; should you do so, you would be served quite right if you were to get a drubbing, more particularly if you were served out by some one less strong, but more skilful than yourself — even as the coachman was served out by a pupil of the immortal Broughton — sixty years old, it is true, but possessed of Broughton’s guard and chop. Moses is not blamed in the Scripture for taking part with the oppressed, and killing an Egyptian persecutor. We are not told how Moses killed the Egyptian; but it is quite as creditable to Moses to suppose that he killed the Egyptian by giving him a buffet under the left ear, as by stabbing him with a knife. It is true, that the Saviour in the New Testament tells His disciples to turn the left cheek to be smitten, after they had received a blow on the right; but He was speaking to people divinely inspired, or whom He intended divinely to inspire — people selected by God for a particular purpose. He likewise tells these people to part with various articles of raiment when asked for them, and to go a-travelling without money, and to take no thought of the morrow. Are those exhortations carried out by very good people in the present day? Do Quakers, when smitten on the right cheek, turn the left to the smiter? When asked for their coat, do they say: ‘Friend, take my shirt also’? Has the Dean of Salisbury no purse? Does the Archbishop of Canterbury go to an inn, run up a reckoning, and then say to his landlady, ‘Mistress, I have no coin’? Assuredly the Dean has a purse, and a tolerably well-filled one; and, assuredly, the Archbishop, on departing from an inn, not only settles his reckoning, but leaves something handsome for the servants, and does not say that he is forbidden by the Gospel to pay for what he has eaten, or the trouble he has given, as a certain Spanish cavalier said he was forbidden by the statutes of chivalry. Now, to take the part of yourself, or the part of the oppressed, with your fists, is quite as lawful in the present day as it is to refuse your coat and your shirt also to any vagabond who may ask for them, and not to refuse to pay for supper, bed, and breakfast, at the Feathers, or any other inn, after you have had the benefit of all three.

The conduct of Lavengro with respect to drink may, upon the whole, serve as a model. He is no drunkard, nor is he fond of intoxicating other people; yet when the horrors are upon him he has no objection to go to a public-house and call for a pint of ale, nor does he shrink from recommending ale to others when they are faint and downcast. In one instance, it is true, he does what cannot be exactly justified; he encourages the Priest in the dingle, in more instances than one, in drinking more hollands and water than is consistent with decorum. He has a motive indeed in doing so; a desire to learn from the knave in his cups the plans and hopes of the Propaganda of Rome. Such conduct, however, was inconsistent with strict fair dealing and openness; and the author advises all those whose consciences never reproach them for a single unfair or covert act committed by them, to abuse him heartily for administering hollands and water to the Priest of Rome. In that instance the hero is certainly wrong; yet in all other cases with regard to drink, he is manifestly right. To tell people that they are never to drink a glass of ale or wine themselves, or to give one to others, is cant; and the writer has no toleration for cant of any description. Some cants are not dangerous; but the writer believes that a more dangerous cant than the temperance cant, or, as it is generally called, teetotalism, is scarcely to be found. The writer is willing to believe that it originated with well-meaning, though weak people; but there can be no doubt that it was quickly turned to account by people who were neither well-meaning nor weak. Let the reader note particularly the purpose to which this cry has been turned in America; the land, indeed, par excellence, of humbug and humbug cries. It is there continually in the mouth of the most violent political party, and is made an instrument of almost unexampled persecution. The writer would say more on the temperance cant, both in England and America, but want of space prevents him. There is one point on which he cannot avoid making a few brief remarks — that is, the inconsistent conduct of its apostles in general. The teetotal apostle says it is a dreadful thing to be drunk. So it is, teetotaller; but, if so, why do you get drunk? I get drunk? Yes, unhappy man, why do you get drunk on smoke and passion? Why are your garments impregnated with the odour of the Indian weed? Why is there a pipe or cigar always in your mouth? Why is your language more dreadful than that of a Poissarde? Tobacco smoke is more deleterious than ale, teetotaller; bile more potent than brandy. You are fond of telling your hearers what an awful thing it is to die drunken. So it is teetotaller. Then take care that you do not die with smoke and passion, drunken, and with temperance language on your lips; that is, abuse and calumny against all those who differ from you. One word of sense you have been heard to say, which is, that spirits may be taken as a medicine. Now you are in a fever of passion, teetotaller; so, pray take this tumbler of brandy; take it on the homoeopathic principle, that heat is to be expelled by heat. You are in a temperance fury, so swallow the contents of this tumbler, and it will, perhaps, cure you. You look at the glass wistfully — you say you occasionally take a glass medicinally, and it is probable you do. Take one now. Consider what a dreadful thing it would be to die passion drunk, to appear before your Maker with intemperate language on your lips. That’s right! You don’t seem to wince at the brandy. That’s right — well done! All down in two pulls. Now you look like a reasonable being!

If the conduct of Lavengro with regard to drink is open to little censure, assuredly the use which he makes of his fists is entitled to none at all. Because he has a pair of tolerably strong fists, and knows to a certain extent how to use them, is he a swaggerer or oppressor? To what ill account does he turn them? Who more quiet, gentle, and inoffensive than he? He beats off a ruffian who attacks him in a dingle; has a kind of friendly tuzzle with Mr. Petulengro, and behold the extent of his fistic exploits.

Ay, but he associates with prize-fighters; and that very fellow, Petulengro, is a prize-fighter, and has fought for a stake in a ring. Well, and if he had not associated with prize-fighters, how could he have used his fists? Oh, anybody can use his fists in his own defence, without being taught by prize-fighters. Can they? Then why does not the Italian, or Spaniard, or Affghan use his fists when insulted or outraged, instead of having recourse to the weapons which he has recourse to? Nobody can use his fists without being taught the use of them by those who have themselves been taught, no more than anyone can ‘whiffle’ 200 without being taught by a master of the art. Now let any man of the present day try to whiffle. Would not anyone who wished to whiffle have to go to a master of the art? Assuredly! but where would he find one at the present day? The last of the whifflers hanged himself about a fortnight ago on a bell-rope in a church steeple of ‘the old town,’ from pure grief that there was no further demand for the exhibition of his art, there being no demand for whiffling since the discontinuation of Guildhall banquets. Whiffling is lost. The old chap left his sword behind him; let anyone take up the old chap’s sword and try to whiffle. Now much the same hand as he would make who should take up the whiffler’s sword and try to whiffle, would he who should try to use his fists who had never had the advantage of a master. Let no one think that men use their fists naturally in their own disputes — men have naturally recourse to any other thing to defend themselves or to offend others; they fly to the stick, to the stone, to the murderous and cowardly knife, or to abuse as cowardly as the knife, and occasionally more murderous. Now which is best when you hate a person, or have a pique against a person, to clench your fist and say ‘Come on,’ or to have recourse to the stone, the knife, or murderous calumny? The use of the fist is almost lost in England. Yet are the people better than they were when they knew how to use their fists? The writer believes not. A fisty combat is at present a great rarity, but the use of the knife, the noose, and of poison, to say nothing of calumny, are of more frequent occurrence in England than perhaps in any country in Europe. Is polite taste better than when it could bear the details of a fight! The writer believes not. Two men cannot meet in a ring to settle a dispute in a manly manner without some trumpery local newspaper letting loose a volley of abuse against ‘the disgraceful exhibition,’ in which abuse it is sure to be sanctioned by its dainty readers; whereas some murderous horror, the discovery, for example, of the mangled remains of a woman in some obscure den, is greedily seized hold on by the moral journal and dressed up for its readers, who luxuriate and gloat upon the ghastly dish. Now, the writer of ‘Lavengro’ has no sympathy with those who would shrink from striking a blow, but would not shrink from the use of poison or calumny; and his taste has little in common with that which cannot tolerate the hardy details of a prize-fight, but which luxuriates on descriptions of the murder dens of modern England. But prize-fighters and pugilists are blackguards, a reviewer has said; and blackguards they would be, provided they employed their skill and their prowess for purposes of brutality and oppression; but prize-fighters and pugilists are seldom friends to brutality and oppression; and which is the blackguard, the writer would ask, he who uses his fists to take his own part, or instructs others to use theirs for the same purpose, or the being who from envy and malice, or at the bidding of a malicious scoundrel, endeavours by calumny, falsehood, and misrepresentation to impede the efforts of lonely and unprotected genius?

One word more about the race, all but extinct, of the people opprobriously called prize-fighters. Some of them have been as noble, kindly men as the world ever produced. Can the rolls of the English aristocracy exhibit names belonging to more noble, heroic men, than those who were called respectively Pearce, Cribb, 201 and Spring? 202 Did ever one of the English aristocracy contract the seeds of fatal consumption by rushing up the stairs of a burning edifice, even to the topmost garret, and rescuing a woman from seemingly inevitable destruction? The writer says, No. A woman was rescued from the top of a burning house, but the man who rescued her was no aristocrat; it was Pearce, not Percy, who ran up the burning stairs. Did ever one of those glittering ones save a fainting female from the libidinous rage of six ruffians? The writer believes not. A woman was rescued from the libidinous fury of six monsters on —— Down, but the man who rescued her was no aristocrat; it was Pearce, not Paulet, who rescued the woman, and thrashed my lord’s six gamekeepers — Pearce, whose equal never was, and probably never will be, found in sturdy combat. Are there any of the aristocracy of whom it can be said that they never did a cowardly, cruel, or mean action, and that they invariably took the part of the unfortunate and weak against cruelty and oppression? As much can be said of Cribb, of Spring, and the other; but where is the aristocrat of whom as much can be said? Wellington? Wellington, indeed! A skilful general, and a good man of valour, it is true, but with that cant word of ‘duty’ continually on his lips, did he rescue Ney from his butchers? Did he lend a helping hand to Warner?

In conclusion, the writer would strongly advise those of his country-folks who may read his book to have nothing to do with the two kinds of canting nonsense described above, but in their progress through life to enjoy as well as they can, but always with moderation, the good things of this world, to put confidence in God, to be as independent as possible, and to take their own parts. If they are low-spirited, let them not make themselves foolish by putting on sackcloth, drinking water, or chewing ashes, but let them take wholesome exercise, and eat the most generous food they can get, taking up and reading occasionally, not the lives of Ignatius Loyola and Francis Spira, but something more agreeable; for example, the life and adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, the deaf and dumb gentleman; the travels of Captain Falconer in America, and the journal of John Randall, who went to Virginia and married an Indian wife; not forgetting, amidst their eating and drinking, their walks over heaths, and by the sea-side, and their agreeable literature, to be charitable to the poor, to read the Psalms, and to go to church twice on a Sunday. In their dealings with people to be courteous to everybody, as Lavengro was, but always independent like him; and if people meddle with them, to give them as good as they bring, even as he and Isopel Berners were in the habit of doing; and it will be as well for him to observe that he by no means advises women to be too womanly, but bearing the conduct of Isopel Berners in mind, to take their own parts, and if anybody strikes them, to strike again.

Beating of women by the lords of the creation has become very prevalent in England since pugilism has been discountenanced. Now the writer strongly advises any woman who is struck by a ruffian to strike him again; or if she cannot clench her fists, and he advises all women in these singular times to learn to clench their fists, to go at him with tooth and nail, and not to be afraid of the result, for any fellow who is dastard enough to strike a woman, would allow himself to be beaten by a woman, were she to make at him in self-defence, even if, instead of possessing the stately height and athletic proportions of the aforesaid Isopel, she were as diminutive in stature, and had a hand as delicate and a foot as small as a certain royal lady, who was some time ago assaulted by a fellow upwards of six feet high, whom the writer has no doubt she could have beaten had she thought proper to go at him. Such is the deliberate advice of the author to his countrymen and women — advice in which he believes there is nothing unscriptural or repugnant to common-sense.

The writer is perfectly well aware that, by the plain language which he has used in speaking of the various kinds of nonsense prevalent in England, he shall make himself a multitude of enemies; but he is not going to conceal the truth, or to tamper with nonsense, from the fear of provoking hostility. He has a duty to perform, and he will perform it resolutely; he is the person who carried the Bible to Spain; and as resolutely as he spoke in Spain against the superstitions of Spain, will he speak in England against the nonsense of his own native land. He is not one of those who, before they sit down to write a book, say to themselves, What cry shall we take up? what principles shall we advocate? What principles shall we abuse? Before we put pen to paper we must find out what cry is the loudest, what principle has the most advocates, otherwise, after having written our book, we may find ourselves on the weaker side.

A sailor of the Bounty, waked from his sleep by the noise of the mutiny, lay still in his hammock for some time, quite undecided whether to take part with the captain or to join the mutineers. ‘I must mind what I do,’ said he to himself, ‘lest in the end I find myself on the weaker side.’ Finally, on hearing that the mutineers were successful, he went on deck, and seeing Bligh pinioned to the mast, he put his fist to his nose, and otherwise insulted him. Now, there are many writers of the present day whose conduct is very similar to that of the sailor. They lie listening in their corners till they have ascertained which principle has most advocates; then presently they make their appearance on the deck of the world with their book; if truth has been victorious, then has truth their hurrah! but if truth is pinioned against the mast, then is their fist thrust against the nose of truth, and their gibe and their insult spirted in her face. The strongest party had the sailor, and the strongest party has almost invariably the writer of the present day.

200 The ‘whiffler’ was the official sword-flourisher of the Corporation.

201 Tom Cribb (1781–1848), champion pugilist.

202 Thomas Winter (1795–1851), pugilist.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51