That’s all, really.
I’ve tried to tell you something about the world before the war, the world I got a sniff of when I saw King Zog’s name on the poster, and the chances are that I’ve told you nothing. Either you remember before the war and don’t need to be told about it, or you don’t remember, and it’s no use telling you. So far I’ve only spoken about the things that happened to me before I was sixteen. Up to that time things had gone pretty well with the family. It was a bit before my sixteenth birthday that I began to get glimpses of what people call ‘real life’, meaning unpleasantness.
About three days after I’d seen the big carp at Binfield House, Father came in to tea looking very worried and even more grey and mealy than usual. He ate his way solemnly through his tea and didn’t talk much. In those days he had a rather preoccupied way of eating, and his moustache used to work up and down with a sidelong movement, because he hadn’t many back teeth left. I was just getting up from table when he called me back.
‘Wait a minute, George, my boy. I got suthing to say to you. Sit down jest a minute. Mother, you heard what I got to say last night.’
Mother, behind the huge brown teapot, folded her hands in her lap and looked solemn. Father went on, speaking very seriously but rather spoiling the effect by trying to deal with a crumb that lodged somewhere in what was left of his back teeth:
‘George, my boy, I got suthing to say to you. I been thinking it over, and it’s about time you left school. ‘Fraid you’ll have to get to work now and start earning a bit to bring home to your mother. I wrote to Mr Wicksey last night and told him as I should have to take you away.’
Of course this was quite according to precedent — his writing to Mr Wicksey before telling me, I mean. Parents in those days, as a matter of course, always arranged everything over their children’s heads.
Father went on to make some rather mumbling and worried explanations. He’d ‘had bad times lately’, things had ‘been a bit difficult’, and the upshot was that Joe and I would have to start earning our living. At that time I didn’t either know or greatly care whether the business was really in a bad way or not. I hadn’t even enough commercial instinct to see the reason why things were ‘difficult’. The fact was that Father had been hit by competition. Sarazins’, the big retail seedsmen who had branches all over the home counties, had stuck a tentacle into Lower Binfield. Six months earlier they’d taken the lease of a shop in the market-place and dolled it up until what with bright green paint, gilt lettering, gardening tools painted red and green, and huge advertisements for sweet peas, it hit you in the eye at a hundred yards’ distance. Sarazins’, besides selling flower seeds, described themselves as ‘universal poultry and livestock providers’, and apart from wheat and oats and so forth they went in for patent poultry mixtures, bird-seed done up in fancy packets, dog-biscuits of all shapes and colours, medicines, embrocations, and conditioning powders, and branched off into such things as rat- traps, dog-chains, incubators, sanitary eggs, bird-nesting, bulbs, weed-killer, insecticide, and even, in some branches, into what they called a ‘livestock department’, meaning rabbits and day-old chicks. Father, with his dusty old shop and his refusal to stock new lines, couldn’t compete with that kind of thing and didn’t want to. The tradesmen with their van-horses, and such of the farmers as dealt with the retail seedsmen, fought shy of Sarazins’, but in six months they’d gathered in the petty gentry of the neighbourhood, who in those days had carriages or dogcarts and therefore horses. This meant a big loss of trade for Father and the other corn merchant, Winkle. I didn’t grasp any of this at the time. I had a boy’s attitude towards it all. I’d never taken any interest in the business. I’d never or hardly ever served in the shop, and when, as occasionally happened, Father wanted me to run an errand or give a hand with something, such as hoisting sacks of grain up to the loft or down again, I’d always dodged it whenever possible. Boys in our class aren’t such complete babies as public schoolboys, they know that work is work and sixpence is sixpence, but it seems natural for a boy to regard his father’s business as a bore. Up till that time fishing-rods, bicycles, fizzy lemonade, and so forth had seemed to me a good deal more real than anything that happened in the grown-up world.
Father had already spoken to old Grimmett, the grocer, who wanted a smart lad and was willing to take me into the shop immediately. Meanwhile Father was going to get rid of the errand boy, and Joe was to come home and help with the shop till he got a regular job. Joe had left school some time back and had been more or less loafing ever since. Father had sometimes talked of ‘getting him into’ the accounts department at the brewery, and earlier had even had thoughts of making him into an auctioneer. Both were completely hopeless because Joe, at seventeen, wrote a hand like a ploughboy and couldn’t repeat the multiplication table. At present he was supposed to be ‘learning the trade’ at a big bicycle shop on the outskirts of Walton. Tinkering with bicycles suited Joe, who, like most half-wits, had a slight mechanical turn, but he was quite incapable of working steadily and spent all his time loafing about in greasy overalls, smoking Woodbines, getting into fights, drinking (he’s started that already), getting ‘talked of’ with one girl after another, and sticking Father for money. Father was worried, puzzled, and vaguely resentful. I can see him yet, with the meal on his bald head, and the bit of grey hair over his ears, and his spectacles and his grey moustache. He couldn’t understand what was happening to him. For years his profits had gone up, slowly and steadily, ten pounds this year, twenty pounds that year, and now suddenly they’d gone down with a bump. He couldn’t understand it. He’d inherited the business from his father, he’d done an honest trade, worked hard, sold sound goods, swindled nobody — and his profits were going down. He said a number of times, between sucking at his teeth to get the crumb out, that times were very bad, trade seemed very slack, he couldn’t think what had come over people, it wasn’t as if the horses didn’t have to eat. Perhaps it was these here motors, he decided finally. ‘Nasty smelly things!’ Mother put in. She was a little worried, and knew that she ought to be more so. Once or twice while Father was talking there was a far-away look in her eyes and I could see her lips moving. She was trying to decide whether it should be a round of beef and carrots tomorrow or another leg of mutton. Except when there was something in her own line that needed foresight, such as buying linen or saucepans, she wasn’t really capable of thinking beyond tomorrow’s meals. The shop was giving trouble and Father was worried — that was about as far as she saw into it. None of us had any grasp of what was happening. Father had had a bad year and lost money, but was he really frightened by the future? I don’t think so. This was 1909, remember. He didn’t know what was happening to him, he wasn’t capable of foreseeing that these Sarazin people would systematically under-sell him, ruin him, and eat him up. How could he? Things hadn’t happened like that when he was a young man. All he knew was that times were bad, trade was very ‘slack’, very ‘slow’ (he kept repeating these phrases), but probably things would ‘look up presently’.
It would be nice if I could tell you that I was a great help to my father in his time of trouble, suddenly proved myself a man, and developed qualities which no one had suspected in me — and so on and so forth, like the stuff you used to read in the uplift novels of thirty years ago. Or alternatively I’d like to be able to record that I bitterly resented having to leave school, my eager young mind, yearning for knowledge and refinement, recoiled from the soulless mechanical job into which they were thrusting me — and so on and so forth, like the stuff you read in the uplift novels today. Both would be complete bunkum. The truth is that I was pleased and excited at the idea of going to work, especially when I grasped that Old Grimmett was going to pay me real wages, twelve shillings a week, of which I could keep four for myself. The big carp at Binfield House, which had filled my mind for three days past, faded right out of it. I’d no objection to leaving school a few terms early. It generally happened the same way with boys at our school. A boy was always ‘going to’ go to Reading University, or study to be an engineer, or ‘go into business’ in London, or run away to sea — and then suddenly, at two days’ notice, he’d disappear from school, and a fortnight later you’d meet him on a bicycle, delivering vegetables. Within five minutes of Father telling me that I should have to leave school I was wondering about the new suit I should wear to go to work in. I instantly started demanding a ‘grown-up suit’, with a kind of coat that was fashionable at that time, a ‘cutaway’, I think it was called. Of course both Mother and Father were scandalized and said they’d ‘never heard of such a thing’. For some reason that I’ve never fully fathomed, parents in those days always tried to prevent their children wearing grown-up clothes as long as possible. In every family there was a stand-up fight before a boy had his first tall collars or a girl put her hair up.
So the conversation veered away from Father’s business troubles and degenerated into a long, nagging kind of argument, with Father gradually getting angry and repeating over and over — dropping an aitch now and again, as he was apt to do when he got angry —‘Well, you can’t ‘ave it. Make up your mind to that — you can’t ‘ave it.’ So I didn’t have my ‘cutaway’, but went to work for the first time in a ready-made black suit and a broad collar in which I looked an overgrown lout. Any distress I felt over the whole business really arose from that. Joe was even more selfish about it. He was furious at having to leave the bicycle shop, and for the short time that he remained at home he merely loafed about, made a nuisance of himself and was no help to Father whatever.
I worked in old Grimmett’s shop for nearly six years. Grimmett was a fine, upstanding, white-whiskered old chap, like a rather stouter version of Uncle Ezekiel, and like Uncle Ezekiel a good Liberal. But he was less of a firebrand and more respected in the town. He’d trimmed his sails during the Boer War, he was a bitter enemy of trade unions and once sacked an assistant for possessing a photograph of Keir Hardie, and he was ‘chapel’— in fact he was a big noise, literally, in the Baptist Chapel, known locally as the Tin Tab — whereas my family were ‘church’ and Uncle Ezekiel was an infidel at that. Old Grimmett was a town councillor and an official at the local Liberal Party. With his white whiskers, his canting talk about liberty of conscience and the Grand Old Man, his thumping bank balance, and the extempore prayers you could sometimes hear him letting loose when you passed the Tin Tab, he was a little like a legendary Nonconformist grocer in the story — you’ve heard it, I expect:
‘Have you sanded the sugar?’
‘Have you watered the treacle?’
‘Then come up to prayers.’
God knows how often I heard that story whispered in the shop. We did actually start the day with a prayer before we put up the shutters. Not that old Grimmett sanded the sugar. He knew that that doesn’t pay. But he was a sharp man in business, he did all the high-class grocery trade of Lower Binfield and the country round, and he had three assistants in the shop besides the errand boy, the van-man, and his own daughter (he was a widower) who acted as cashier. I was the errand boy for my first six months. Then one of the assistants left to ‘set up’ in Reading and I moved into the shop and wore my first white apron. I learned to tie a parcel, pack a bag of currants, grind coffee, work the bacon-slicer, carve ham, put an edge on a knife, sweep the floor, dust eggs without breaking them, pass off an inferior article as a good one, clean a window, judge a pound of cheese by eye, open a packing-case, whack a slab of butter into shape, and — what was a good deal the hardest — remember where the stock was kept. I haven’t such detailed memories of grocering as I have of fishing, but I remember a good deal. To this day I know the trick of snapping a bit of string in my fingers. If you put me in front of a bacon-slicer I could work it better than I can a typewriter. I could spin you some pretty fair technicalities about grades of China tea and what margarine is made of and the average weight of eggs and the price of paper bags per thousand.
Well, for more than five years that was me — an alert young chap with a round, pink, snubby kind of face and butter-coloured hair (no longer cut short but carefully greased and slicked back in what people used to call a ‘smarm’), hustling about behind the counter in a white apron with a pencil behind my ear, tying up bags of coffee like lightning and jockeying the customer along with ‘Yes, ma’am! Certainly, ma’am! AND the next order, ma’am!’ in a voice with just a trace of a Cockney accent. Old Grimmett worked us pretty hard, it was an eleven-hour day except on Thursdays and Sundays, and Christmas week was a nightmare. Yet it’s a good time to look back on. Don’t think that I had no ambitions. I knew I wasn’t going to remain a grocer’s assistant for ever, I was merely ‘learning the trade’. Some time, somehow or other, there’d be enough money for me to ‘set up’ on my own. That was how people felt in those days. This was before the war, remember, and before the slumps and before the dole. The world was big enough for everyone. Anyone could ‘set up in trade’, there was always room for another shop. And time was slipping on. 1909, 1910, 1911. King Edward died and the papers came out with a black border round the edge. Two cinemas opened in Walton. The cars got commoner on the roads and cross-country motor-buses began to run. An aeroplane — a flimsy, rickety-looking thing with a chap sitting in the middle on a kind of chair — flew over Lower Binfield and the whole town rushed out of their houses to yell at it. People began to say rather vaguely that this here German Emperor was getting too big for his boots and ‘it’ (meaning war with Germany) was ‘coming some time’. My wages went gradually up, until finally, just before the war, they were twenty-eight shillings a week. I paid Mother ten shillings a week for my board, and later, when times got worse, fifteen shillings, and even that left me feeling richer than I’ve felt since. I grew another inch, my moustache began to sprout, I wore button boots and collars three inches high. In church on Sundays, in my natty dark grey suit, with my bowler hat and black dogskin gloves on the pew beside me, I looked the perfect gent, so that Mother could hardly contain her pride in me. In between work and ‘walking out’ on Thursdays, and thinking about clothes and girls, I had fits of ambition and saw myself developing into a Big Business Man like Lever or William Whiteley. Between sixteen and eighteen I made serious efforts to ‘improve my mind’ and train myself for a business career. I cured myself of dropping aitches and got rid of most of my Cockney accent. (In the Thames Valley the country accents were going out. Except for the farm lads, nearly everyone who was born later than 1890 talked Cockney.) I did a correspondence course with Littleburns’ Commercial Academy, learnt bookkeeping and business English, read solemnly through a book of frightful blah called The Art of Salesmanship, and improved my arithmetic and even my handwriting. When I was as old as seventeen I’ve sat up late at night with my tongue hanging out of my mouth, practising copperplate by the little oil-lamp on the bedroom table. At times I read enormously, generally crime and adventure stories, and sometimes paper-covered books which were furtively passed round by the chaps at the shop and described as ‘hot’. (They were translations of Maupassant and Paul de Kock.) But when I was eighteen I suddenly turned highbrow, got a ticket for the County Library, and began to stodge through books by Marie Corelli and Hall Caine and Anthony Hope. It was at about that time that I joined the Lower Binfield Reading Circle, which was run by the vicar and met one evening a week all through the winter for what was called ‘literary discussion’. Under pressure from the vicar I read bits of Sesame and Lilies and even had a go at Browning.
And time was slipping away. 1910, 1911, 1912. And Father’s business was going down — not slumping suddenly into the gutter, but it was going down. Neither Father nor Mother was ever quite the same after Joe ran away from home. This happened not long after I went to work at Grimmett’s.
Joe, at eighteen, had grown into an ugly ruffian. He was a hefty chap, much bigger than the rest of the family, with tremendous shoulders, a big head, and a sulky, lowering kind of face on which he already had a respectable moustache. When he wasn’t in the tap- room of the George he was loafing in the shop doorway, with his hands dug deep into his pockets, scowling at the people who passed, except when they happened to be girls, as though he’d like to knock them down. If anyone came into the shop he’d move aside just enough to let them pass, and, without taking his hands out of his pockets, yell over his shoulders ‘Da-ad! Shop!’ This was as near as he ever got to helping. Father and Mother said despairingly that they ‘didn’t know what to do with him’, and he was costing the devil of a lot with his drinking and endless smoking. Late one night he walked out of the house and was never heard of again. He’d prised open the till and taken all the money that was in it, luckily not much, about eight pounds. That was enough to get him a steerage passage to America. He’d always wanted to go to America, and I think he probably did so, though we never knew for certain. It made a bit of a scandal in the town. The official theory was that Joe had bolted because he’d put a girl in the family way. There was a girl named Sally Chivers who lived in the same street as the Simmonses and was going to have a baby, and Joe had certainly been with her, but so had about a dozen others, and nobody knew whose baby it was. Mother and Father accepted the baby theory and even, in private, used it to excuse their ‘poor boy’ for stealing the eight pounds and running away. They weren’t capable of grasping that Joe had cleared out because he couldn’t stand a decent respectable life in a little country town and wanted a life of loafing, fights, and women. We never heard of him again. Perhaps he went utterly to the bad, perhaps he was killed in the war, perhaps he merely didn’t bother to write. Luckily the baby was born dead, so there were no complications. As for the fact that Joe had stolen the eight pounds, Mother and Father managed to keep it a secret till they died. In their eyes it was a much worse disgrace than Sally Chivers’s baby.
The trouble over Joe aged Father a great deal. To lose Joe was merely to cut a loss, but it hurt him and made him ashamed. From that time forward his moustache was much greyer and he seemed to have grown a lot smaller. Perhaps my memory of him as a little grey man, with a round, lined, anxious face and dusty spectacles, really dates from that time. By slow degrees he was getting more and more involved in money worries and less and less interested in other things. He talked less about politics and the Sunday papers, and more about the badness of trade. Mother seemed to have shrunk a little, too. In my childhood I’d known her as something vast and overflowing, with her yellow hair and her beaming face and her enormous bosom, a sort of great opulent creature like the figure- head of a battleship. Now she’d got smaller and more anxious and older than her years. She was less lordly in the kitchen, went in more for neck of mutton, worried over the price of coal, and began to use margarine, a thing which in the old days she’d never have allowed into the house. After Joe had gone Father had to hire an errand boy again, but from then on he employed very young boys whom he only kept for a year or two and who couldn’t lift heavy weights. I sometimes lent him a hand when I was at home. I was too selfish to do it regularly. I can still see him working his way slowly across the yard, bent double and almost hidden under an enormous sack, like a snail under its shell. The huge, monstrous sack, weighing a hundred and fifty pounds, I suppose, pressing his neck and shoulders almost to the ground, and the anxious, spectacled face looking up from underneath it. In 1911 he ruptured himself and had to spend weeks in hospital and hire a temporary manager for the shop, which ate another hole in his capital. A small shopkeeper going down the hill is a dreadful thing to watch, but it isn’t sudden and obvious like the fate of a working man who gets the sack and promptly finds himself on the dole. It’s just a gradual chipping away of trade, with little ups and downs, a few shillings to the bad here, a few sixpences to the good there. Somebody who’s dealt with you for years suddenly deserts and goes to Sarazins’. Somebody else buys a dozen hens and gives you a weekly order for corn. You can still keep going. You’re still ‘your own master’, always a little more worried and a little shabbier, with your capital shrinking all the time. You can go on like that for years, for a lifetime if you’re lucky. Uncle Ezekiel died in 1911, leaving 120 pounds which must have made a lot of difference to Father. It wasn’t till 1913 that he had to mortgage his life-insurance policy. That I didn’t hear about at the time, or I’d have understood what it meant. As it was I don’t think I ever got further than realizing that Father ‘wasn’t doing well’, trade was ‘slack’, there’d be a bit longer to wait before I had the money to ‘set up’. Like Father himself, I looked on the shop as something permanent, and I was a bit inclined to be angry with him for not managing things better. I wasn’t capable of seeing, and neither was he nor anyone else, that he was being slowly ruined, that his business would never pick up again and if he lived to be seventy he’d certainly end in the workhouse. Many a time I’ve passed Sarazins’ shop in the market-place and merely thought how much I preferred their slick window-front to Father’s dusty old shop, with the ‘S. Bowling’ which you could hardly read, the chipped white lettering, and the faded packets of bird-seed. It didn’t occur to me that Sarazins’ were tapeworms who were eating him alive. Sometimes I used to repeat to him some of the stuff I’d been reading in my correspondence-course textbooks, about salesmanship and modern methods. He never paid much attention. He’d inherited an old-established business, he’d always worked hard, done a fair trade, and supplied sound goods, and things would look up presently. It’s a fact that very few shopkeepers in those days actually ended in the workhouse. With any luck you died with a few pounds still your own. It was a race between death and bankruptcy, and, thank God, death got Father first, and Mother too.
1911, 1912, 1913. I tell you it was a good time to be alive. It was late in 1912, through the vicar’s Reading Circle, that I first met Elsie Waters. Till then, although, like all the rest of the boys in the town, I’d gone out looking for girls and occasionally managed to connect up with this girl or that and ‘walk out’ a few Sunday afternoons, I’d never really had a girl of my own. It’s a queer business, that chasing of girls when you’re about sixteen. At some recognized part of the town the boys stroll up and down in pairs, watching the girls, and the girls stroll up and down in pairs, pretending not to notice the boys, and presently some kind of contact is established and instead of twos they’re trailing along in fours, all four utterly speechless. The chief feature of those walks — and it was worse the second time, when you went out with the girl alone — was the ghastly failure to make any kind of conversation. But Elsie Waters seemed different. The truth was that I was growing up.
I don’t want to tell the story of myself and Elsie Waters, even if there was any story to tell. It’s merely that she’s part of the picture, part of ‘before the war’. Before the war it was always summer — a delusion, as I’ve remarked before, but that’s how I remember it. the white dusty road stretching out between the chestnut trees, the smell of night-stocks, the green pools under the willows, the splash of Burford Weir — that’s what I see when I shut my eyes and think of ‘before the war’, and towards the end Elsie Waters is part of it.
I don’t know whether Elsie would be considered pretty now. She was then. She was tall for a girl, about as tall as I am, with pale gold, heavy kind of hair which she wore somehow plaited and coiled round her head, and a delicate, curiously gentle face. She was one of those girls that always look their best in black, especially the very plain black dresses they made them wear in the drapery — she worked at Lilywhite’s, the drapers, though she came originally from London. I suppose she would have been two years older than I was.
I’m grateful to Elsie, because she was the first person who taught me to care about a woman. I don’t mean women in general, I mean an individual woman. I’d met her at the Reading Circle and hardly noticed her, and then one day I went into Lilywhite’s during working hours, a thing I wouldn’t normally have been able to do, but as it happened we’d run out of butter muslin and old Grimmett sent me to buy some. You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro. Elsie was leaning against the counter, cutting off a length of cloth with the big scissors. There was something about her black dress and the curve of her breast against the counter — I can’t describe it, something curiously soft, curiously feminine. As soon as you saw her you knew that you could take her in your arms and do what you wanted with her. She was really deeply feminine, very gentle, very submissive, the kind that would always do what a man told her, though she wasn’t either small or weak. She wasn’t even stupid, only rather silent and, at times, dreadfully refined. But in those days I was rather refined myself.
We were living together for about a year. Of course in a town like Lower Binfield you could only live together in a figurative sense. Officially we were ‘walking out’, which was a recognized custom and not quite the same as being engaged. There was a road that branched off from the road to Upper Binfield and ran along under the edge of the hills. There was a long stretch of it, nearly a mile, that was quite straight and fringed with enormous horse- chestnut trees, and on the grass at the side there was a footpath under the boughs that was known as Lovers’ Lane. We used to go there on the May evenings, when the chestnuts were in blossom. Then the short nights came on, and it was light for hours after we’d left the shop. You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons we went over Chamford Hill and down to the water-meadows along the Thames. 1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It’ll never come again. I don’t mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you’ve either had and don’t need to be told about, or haven’t had and won’t ever have the chance to learn.
It wasn’t till late summer that we began what’s called living together. I’d been too shy and clumsy to begin, and too ignorant to realize that there’d been others before me. One Sunday afternoon we went into the beech woods round Upper Binfield. Up there you could always be alone. I wanted her very badly, and I knew quite well that she was only waiting for me to begin. Something, I don’t know what, put it into my head to go into the grounds of Binfield House. Old Hodges, who was past seventy and getting very crusty, was capable of turning us out, but he’d probably be asleep on a Sunday afternoon. We slipped through a gap in the fence and down the footpath between the beeches to the big pool. It was four years or more since I’d been that way. Nothing had changed. Still the utter solitude, the hidden feeling with the great trees all round you, the old boat-house rotting among the bulrushes. We lay down in the little grass hollow beside the wild peppermint, and we were as much alone as if we’d been in Central Africa. I’d kissed her God knows how many times, and then I’d got up and was wandering about again. I wanted her very badly, and wanted to take the plunge, only I was half-frightened. And curiously enough there was another thought in my mind at the same time. It suddenly struck me that for years I’d meant to come back here and had never come. Now I was so near, it seemed a pity not to go down to the other pool and have a look at the big carp. I felt I’d kick myself afterwards if I missed the chance, in fact I couldn’t think why I hadn’t been back before. The carp were stored away in my mind, nobody knew about them except me, I was going to catch them some time. Practically they were MY carp. I actually started wandering along the bank in that direction, and then when I’d gone about ten yards I turned back. It meant crashing your way through a kind of jungle of brambles and rotten brushwood, and I was dressed up in my Sunday best. Dark-grey suit, bowler hat, button boots, and a collar that almost cut my ears off. That was how people dressed for Sunday afternoon walks in those days. And I wanted Elsie very badly. I went back and stood over her for a moment. She was lying on the grass with her arm over her face, and she didn’t stir when she heard me come. In her black dress she looked — I don’t know how, kind of soft, kind of yielding, as though her body was a kind of malleable stuff that you could do what you liked with. She was mine and I could have her, this minute if I wanted to. Suddenly I stopped being frightened, I chucked my hat on to the grass (it bounced, I remember), knelt down, and took hold of her. I can smell the wild peppermint yet. It was my first time, but it wasn’t hers, and we didn’t make such a mess of it as you might expect. So that was that. The big carp faded out of my mind again, and in fact for years afterwards I hardly thought about them.
1913. 1914. The spring of 1914. First the blackthorn, then the hawthorn, then the chestnuts in blossom. Sunday afternoons along the towpath, and the wind rippling the beds of rushes so that they swayed all together in great thick masses and looked somehow like a woman’s hair. The endless June evenings, the path under the chestnut trees, an owl hooting somewhere and Elsie’s body against me. It was a hot July that year. How we sweated in the shop, and how the cheese and the ground coffee smelt! And then the cool of the evening outside, the smell of night-stocks and pipe-tobacco in the lane behind the allotments, the soft dust underfoot, and the nightjars hawking after the cockchafers.
Christ! What’s the use of saying that one oughtn’t to be sentimental about ‘before the war’? I AM sentimental about it. So are you if you remember it. It’s quite true that if you look back on any special period of time you tend to remember the pleasant bits. That’s true even of the war. But it’s also true that people then had something that we haven’t got now.
What? It was simply that they didn’t think of the future as something to be terrified of. It isn’t that life was softer then than now. Actually it was harsher. People on the whole worked harder, lived less comfortably, and died more painfully. The farm hands worked frightful hours for fourteen shillings a week and ended up as worn-out cripples with a five-shilling old-age pension and an occasional half-crown from the parish. And what was called ‘respectable’ poverty was even worse. When little Watson, a small draper at the other end of the High Street, ‘failed’ after years of struggling, his personal assets were L2 9s. 6d., and he died almost immediately of what was called ‘gastric trouble’, but the doctor let it out that it was starvation. Yet he’d clung to his frock coat to the last. Old Crimp, the watchmaker’s assistant, a skilled workman who’d been at the job, man and boy, for fifty years, got cataract and had to go into the workhouse. His grandchildren were howling in the street when they took him away. His wife went out charing, and by desperate efforts managed to send him a shilling a week for pocket-money. You saw ghastly things happening sometimes. Small businesses sliding down the hill, solid tradesmen turning gradually into broken-down bankrupts, people dying by inches of cancer and liver disease, drunken husbands signing the pledge every Monday and breaking it every Saturday, girls ruined for life by an illegitimate baby. The houses had no bathrooms, you broke the ice in your basin on winter mornings, the back streets stank like the devil in hot weather, and the churchyard was bang in the middle of the town, so that you never went a day without remembering how you’d got to end. And yet what was it that people had in those days? A feeling of security, even when they weren’t secure. More exactly, it was a feeling of continuity. All of them knew they’d got to die, and I suppose a few of them knew they were going to go bankrupt, but what they didn’t know was that the order of things could change. Whatever might happen to themselves, things would go on as they’d known them. I don’t believe it made very much difference that what’s called religious belief was still prevalent in those days. It’s true that nearly everyone went to church, at any rate in the country — Elsie and I still went to church as a matter of course, even when we were living in what the vicar would have called sin — and if you asked people whether they believed in a life after death they generally answered that they did. But I’ve never met anyone who gave me the impression of really believing in a future life. I think that, at most, people believe in that kind of thing in the same way as kids believe in Father Christmas. But it’s precisely in a settled period, a period when civilization seems to stand on its four legs like an elephant, that such things as a future life don’t matter. It’s easy enough to die if the things you care about are going to survive. You’ve had your life, you’re getting tired, it’s time to go underground — that’s how people used to see it. Individually they were finished, but their way of life would continue. Their good and evil would remain good and evil. They didn’t feel the ground they stood on shifting under their feet.
Father was failing, and he didn’t know it. It was merely that times were very bad, trade seemed to dwindle and dwindle, his bills were harder and harder to meet. Thank God, he never even knew that he was ruined, never actually went bankrupt, because he died very suddenly (it was influenza that turned into pneumonia) at the beginning of 1915. To the end he believed that with thrift, hard work, and fair dealing a man can’t go wrong. There must have been plenty of small shopkeepers who carried that belief not merely on to bankrupt deathbeds but even into the workhouse. Even Lovegrove the saddler, with cars and motor-vans staring him in the face, didn’t realize that he was as out of date as the rhinoceros. And Mother too — Mother never lived to know that the life she’d been brought up to, the life of a decent God-fearing shopkeeper’s daughter and a decent God-fearing shopkeeper’s wife in the reign of good Queen Vic, was finished for ever. Times were difficult and trade was bad, Father was worried and this and that was ‘aggravating’, but you carried on much the same as usual. The old English order of life couldn’t change. For ever and ever decent God-fearing women would cook Yorkshire pudding and apple dumplings on enormous coal ranges, wear woollen underclothes and sleep on feathers, make plum jam in July and pickles in October, and read Hilda’s Home Companion in the afternoons, with the flies buzzing round, in a sort of cosy little underworld of stewed tea, bad legs, and happy endings. I don’t say that either Father or Mother was quite the same to the end. They were a bit shaken, and sometimes a little dispirited. But at least they never lived to know that everything they’d believed in was just so much junk. They lived at the end of an epoch, when everything was dissolving into a sort of ghastly flux, and they didn’t know it. They thought it was eternity. You couldn’t blame them. That was what it felt like.
Then came the end of July, and even Lower Binfield grasped that things were happening. For days there was tremendous vague excitement and endless leading articles in the papers, which Father actually brought in from the shop to read aloud to Mother. And then suddenly the posters everywhere:
GERMAN ULTIMATUM. FRANCE MOBILIZING
For several days (four days, wasn’t it? I forget the exact dates) there was a strange stifled feeling, a kind of waiting hush, like the moment before a thunderstorm breaks, as though the whole of England was silent and listening. It was very hot, I remember. In the shop it was as though we couldn’t work, though already everyone in the neighbourhood who had five bob to spare was rushing in to buy quantities of tinned stuff and flour and oatmeal. It was as if we were too feverish to work, we only sweated and waited. In the evenings people went down to the railway station and fought like devils over the evening papers which arrived on the London train. And then one afternoon a boy came rushing down the High Street with an armful of papers, and people were coming into their doorways to shout across the street. Everyone was shouting ‘We’ve come in! We’ve come in!’ The boy grabbed a poster from his bundle and stuck it on the shop-front opposite:
ENGLAND DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY
We rushed out on to the pavement, all three assistants, and cheered. Everybody was cheering. Yes, cheering. But old Grimmett, though he’d already done pretty well out of the war- scare, still held on to a little of his Liberal principles, ‘didn’t hold’ with the war, and said it would be a bad business.
Two months later I was in the Army. Seven months later I was in France.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58