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1: The Bishop's Fool (part 3)


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« on: January 21, 2023, 04:31:23 am »

DURING lunch food—or its absence—was not discussed as invariably it is at any mealtime in England today. One felt that something vaguely was the matter. Then one realized what it was: a certain topic was conspicuously absent.

One soon discovered, however, that the difficulty of getting enough to eat was only one of a large class of topics under an interdict. Eleanor Rymer happened to refer to the difficulty of obtaining a proper supply of reading-matter—of books. But at the word difficulty Rymer blustered into action, with that inimitable imitation of automatism of his, which his large wooden poker-face facilitated.

"Difficulty? Nonsense. There is no more difficulty today than five, ten, or fifteen, years ago."

"How about the petrol, in the first place?" Eleanor retorted with a show of fight, which of course was indispensable. "I cannot get books at Bagwick."

He pounced on petrol like a cat on an unwary tom-tit.

"Petrol? There is all the petrol that I can use." (He might have added can afford.) "There's plenty of petrol."

"Excuse me..." his wife began, laughing.

But he swiftly intervened.

"I know what you are going to say," he told her, "that you haven't got all the petrol that you can use. Before the war you took out the car once a fortnight at the outside. Now you feel you want it every day. You never went to Cockridge unless you could help it. Now you are always thinking of things in Cockridge or in Storby that you must have this minute." He turned to me. "Because there is a ration, a limit, people imagine they are short of something they never had so much of before, or perhaps never heard of before. To hear them talk you would think that formerly they covered hundreds of miles every day in their car, ate enormous porterhouse steaks daily, chain-smoked from the time they got out of bed to the time they got into it again, bought a box of chocolates every morning after breakfast and another just before tea."

"I know a number of people just like that," Eleanor agreed. But I felt Rymer must not be allowed to get away with everything.

"There are shortages," I remarked.

"Shortages," he retorted, "yes, if you want the earth. People today have as much food as is good for them—some, more than is good for them. People are putting on fat. I am. They have as many cigarettes or as much tobacco, as much beer as is necessary."

"As many clothes?" I enquired.

He stopped and eyed me blankly for a few seconds, as if holding a conference behind his poker-face.

"Clothes," he said slowly, "are not rationed."

Had he been dressed in the less formal of his two suits he would, I felt, at this point have stroked his black patch.

His wife was intelligent as well as beautiful, and addressed herself to the consumption of her piece of offal. (Why should the butcher, or, rather, the Food Office, employ this ghastly word?) She was accustomed, it was obvious, to being halted, turned back, and admonished upon the threshold of certain topics. Rymer would allow no one to grumble. No criticism of conditions under socialism passed unchallenged. He did not demand the quality of the bacon to be extolled (just eat it, would be the idea, and think of something else, such as how happy our grandchildren would be in a world from which all capital—small as well as great, had been banished): he did not require ecstasies at the mention of the Purchase Tax (some day there won't be much left to purchase, so there won't be any tax)—no, all Rymer exacted was silence about conditions under socialism. The Government are at war with Capital, it is total war: war conditions naturally prevail. Therefore, silence! Shut that great gap! Enemy ears are listening! All criticism aids capitalism.

Even Rymer would deny the existence of any obstacles in the path of socialism-in-our-time: his view of the socialist government's prospects are blindingly sunny. When he is foretelling an unprecedented export-boom, if (in the interests of sanity) one should mention the fact that the United States can supply itself with everything it requires, which it manufactures far more efficiently than any other country is capable of doing (vide Mr. Lippmann), Rymer pooh-poohs such a statement. He describes it as ridiculous. American goods, he will assert, are of very poor quality: the Americans would be jolly glad to get ours if they had a chance. We market our stuff badly over there to begin with. "But believe me once our industry is on its feet again our exports will soar, you see if they don't." Rymer has never been to the United States and has not the remotest idea what American goods are like, so he is not cramped in these patriotic flights by first-hand knowledge. His boundless optimism is firmly based in the most blissful ignorance. Should you speak anxiously of Great Britain's situation, living as she does upon a massive dole from the United States, he will say that that is our fault for having anything to do with the U.S., with Wall Street. Were we to arrange to receive a dole from Russia instead—say a billion or two, marrying the pound sterling to the rouble—we should soon be out of the wood! If we had the guts to cut ourselves loose from the Yankee capitalists, stopped spending money on an army which we didn't need, and had a pact with Russia, we should be as right as rain.

Eleanor now brusquely changed the subject. She selected one quite free of political entanglements. The unprecedented sumptuous summer weather—that had nothing to do with a planned economy or the redistribution of wealth. No one was to blame if the weather was bad, no one had to be thanked except God if it was fine. And then she went on to say how perfect the weather had been up in London, where she had been on a visit to relatives. She thought nostalgically of London, and I asked her if she had been to any shows. No, she said, no: just shops. But she continued—with great inadvertence—to complain how difficult it had been to shop. There were such dense herds of people. Where on earth did they all come from!

Rymer waited until she had finished, and then he struck:

"Where do you come from, my dear, there is always that." The slightly Johnsonian answer to her conundrum his wife received with a wry smile, having detected her faux pas too late. "Those people are the masses of women...."

"They weren't all women!" she laughed.

"Women," he said firmly. "They come in their millions from the suburbs and the slums and the slums and suburbs of other cities. The pavements are impassable. It is like cutting one's way through a dense and rubbery undergrowth."

"What an excellent description!" his wife exclaimed.

"I agree they are dense," he went on. "Of course they are. For the first time in their lives they have sufficient time and money to go shopping in the most luxurious stores—where they could not go before."

Here I joined in with alacrity.

"Could not go," I said, "because of their class—without being followed around by store-detectives, stared out of countenance by shopgirls from behind counters, asked every minute by a shopwalker what articles they required. Any charlady now can go in, try on a mink coat or two, then fling them down and say she thinks she'll wait till next season when they may have a better assortment. Harrods is jammed with charladies. The working-class throng Selfridges like Woolworths at Christmastime. That really is socialism. Observe that in Moscow the slums are barred from any but the slum shops."

We returned to the drawing-room after we had eaten and sat talking for a long time; it is a very peaceful spot, but in Rymer there is no peace. My hostess was washing up the dishes. She was absent at least and there was no one else in the house. The knuckly proliferation of the polygonum waved beyond the window-sill, the yellow leaves tumbled past from a tree, a wasp appeared on his way from the larder where he had been able to find no jam, no honey—nothing sweet, because the English had won the war and consequently are not allowed to grow sugar in their West Indian islands, and there is not enough beet sugar to go round. Also I noticed a sick-looking bird. The crumbs put out for it were, of course, full of bran and chalk. I suppose it was constipated. It should have pecked off as much corn as it wanted before it was cut, making a rule to touch no human food. The corn gone, why not fly off to some more sensible country? What are wings for?

I think that politics and poetry are what interest Rymer almost exclusively. At that moment politics were uppermost in his mind because the question of communism (at his instigation) was coming up the following week at the diocesan conference, and he was of course to speak, or hoped he would be able to. Communism is with him something quite unreal, for he certainly is not a communist. He is of the generation of the great fellow-travellers of the 'twenties, who painted the universities pink. But it was a solemn rag, a generational badge, and meant no more than a painter's stunt, painting for a little all red or all blue, to make a "period" with. Rymer like scores of thousands of others, had had his "pink period". It shocked all the aunts of the time terribly, and scandalized his clergyman-father. It was revolt—it symbolized Youth—his most glamorous moments had been pink.

Youth past, these redmen of the Oxford and Cambridge Colleges forgot all about it—real life began, dressing-up was at an end, the minarets of Moscow faded on the horizon. And in any case Soviet Russia had proved a somewhat tough and embarrassing comrade to "travel" with. On the other hand, because Rymer had been buried in the depths of the country ever since Oxford he lived in the past a lot, and continued to potter around with Karl Marx, like a mascot of his youth rather, and he still got a kick out of it. That was part of the story of Rymer and the Kremlin. The rest of it was traceable to professional religion: the frivolous sizar and the fakir must be mixed.

When I asked him what he was going to say next week to the crowd of clergymen he said he would point out that in the contemporary world communism, or marxism, was, because of the huge development of Soviet Russia, too great a factor in world-affairs for the Church to ignore, as it had been disposed to do up to now. "Let us put aside our prejudices," he would invite them, "let us examine this controversial theory of the state, and let us ask ourselves if there is anything in it which we as Christians should endorse." He and Herbert Stoner the "red" Storby parson, had succeeded in "winning over" several of their colleagues. He named others who would have nothing to do with it—who asserted that the Church should set its face against "this atheistic creed" and all its works. These were he told me the "place-seekers", clergymen on the climb, who dreamed of deaneries and bishoprics. The only imaginable consideration which would impel clergymen to feel other than sympathetic towards communism was self-interest. Such was his extraordinary view. As this was absurd I thought I would help him to dispel from his mind so foolish an error.

"Ordinary people," I explained to him, "find it difficult to reconcile with their conscience anything short of censure of the methods employed by the Russian leaders. I do for instance. I see what is good in the theory, but I cannot swallow the practice."

To this he made no reply. He could have argued, for instance (for even the worst cause is polemically defensible), that barbarity had marked the regimes which the revolutionary governments had supplanted, in Russia and elsewhere. He even could have instanced the cruelties still inflicted upon people daily by the operation of the capitalist economy, or any existing economy, or spoken of "poverty in the midst of plenty": to which of course there are answers, too, for a good debater. There are plenty of answers to the criticism of any policy. He is not interested in being an advocate however. He just enjoys pushing under people's noses something they detest. He does not want to find himself in the role of selling it to them, of being too serious about it. And, as I have said, he is genuinely no Red.

Where politics are concerned Rymer is not, as I have also said, merely what-is-left of a 'twenties undergraduate fellow-traveller. What does conspicuously remain, it must be confessed, is the juvenile impulse to épater le bourgeois. But behind the exhibitionism is an authentic issue, that of the priest inheriting a rotted religion from his laodicean fox-hunting ancestors which he would naturally desire to reinvigorate. That he should borrow a little reality from politics and pump it into the decayed tissues of the Church is an obvious proceeding, more especially as his instinct must inform him that what he would be borrowing had, in the first instance, been stolen from his religion. That that instinct, alone, is involved was proved by Rymer's reception of my subsequent identification of socialism with Christianity.

Whatever is at work behind the mask has the character of a religious experience: i.e., he knows. With any cause that he embraced, it would not be a civil marriage. Meanwhile he is as tightly sealed-up as a clam. In his secretiveness (that of the priest, resembling the woman's) he sees no point in exposing what he knows, or intuits, to the crude processes of the human reason. So he remains very reticent and his manner is aloof and also casual. "Here it is. What do you think of it?" That kind of thing. Then he will turn his back and saunter away: never get into a serious argument if he can help it, though he is willing enough to argue provided you do not show signs of pressing matters too far.

If socialism, instead of Christianity, were an official cult, and he its bonze, he would teach from the absolutist angle—carelessly, almost disdainfully, without "proofs". He would deal in mystical fiats, allowing of no argument. But socialism is not his religion. He probably regards it as a reflection, upon an inferior (a political) plane, of Christianity. Or he would so regard it if he were going to be rational and orderly about it, and come out of his muscular mist.

Of course Rymer is quite explicit about a number of things. He asserted for instance on this occasion that "whenever Christianity and communism have been confronted, Christianity has won the day". But his reason for making this assertion was not in order to arrive at some objective certainty, but in order to sway opinion. From this it would follow, if I interpret him correctly, that Christians need not fear to hobnob with communists, for the communists would all succumb to the superior medicine and become Christians—or, the only alternative, take to their heels. If communism, like any other form of socialism, were in fact only Christianity on a lower and mundane level, then (1) in close contact and association with Christianity it would naturally be elevated and in the end rise to the Christian level: and, further (2) there is an obligation to protect socialism against the wicked world. He did not push on into all these implications of what he said, though I have done so. His policy was to lead the mind in that direction—though I was never quite certain what he explicitly proposed.

Russia, he observed, must be regarded as "a great missionary field". "Ah, you mean to effect conversions, do you, among the reds?" I asked. "You propose to convert Stalin to Christianity?"

He looked down, then said shortly and cheekily: "Yes—p'raps."

He knew he was talking nonsense, but he didn't care.

After this absurd conversation I felt discouraged. Sitting a little while in front of Rymer's poker-face makes one feel that way as a matter of course. That socialism was something that needed defending against the wicked world was a proposition with which I was in agreement—provided it was the Western variety. But these were propositions existing in isolation from reality. For socialism could be taken over by the worldly, and then who or what was it required protecting? The worldly are never so dangerous as when they masquerade as idealists.

I have been building up an inductive Rymer which has some coherence: but that is not at all what transpires on the outside. He was dishing out to me the kind of rigmarole he had prepared for the conference. The diocesan conference was going to be a grisly affair.

But I then decided to see if I could break into this absurd reserve, by enlarging upon the whole question of Christianity and communism. I thought I would explain something about it, and see if I could tempt this cleric out of his shell. It was a passing énervement, no doubt, but at that moment the large, blank, harassed, formality of the mask in front of me was a challenge. The reserve struck me as insolent and stupid. Why is this silly fellow playing a part with me! is what I was disposed to ask. It is the way one is bound to react in the end, before a shut door. This is particularly the case, if from behind the shut door comes a constant stream of words, all vetted for public consumption. Anyhow—verbally—I charged at the shut door.

"It has always been obvious to me," I began, "that the Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount plays a major role in the history of socialism."

"Not the Sermon on the Mount," Rymer, a little sullenly, but lazily, objected.

"Oh, I see: not the Sermon on the Mount," I said.

"Well, why that?" he asked.

"I understand perfectly, as a matter of fact, your objection to that. Contemporary socialism is so phenomenally tough that you would rather not have the Sermon on the Mount mentioned in connection with 'purges', faked trials, and labour camps."

Rymer said nothing.

"The idea that socialism is unthinkable without Christianity does not appeal to you. Yet was it not fundamentally a Christian impulse that moved the Western intellectuals (even though no longer Christians) to champion the cause of the oppressed and 'underprivileged', the underdog?"

He neglected the second member of this compound question, answering the first. "Socialism", he said, "is not unthinkable without Christianity."

"In that case you differ entirely from the present socialist administration."

"Do I?" he sang, amusedly musical.

"So it appears. One of their brain trusters is my authority." And I produced a cutting from among some papers in my pocket. "Here is a cutting from the Paris Herald Tribune."

It would be impossible for Samuel Rymer to scowl, he is really too gentle in spite of his brutal dimensions but he made an effort to do so. At the mention of anything to do with the United States he reacted violently. The United States, in spite of its weaknesses, I like, so this is of his idiosyncrasies the one that appeals to me least. He drawled, in a bored and withering voice:

"Do you read the Herald Tribune?"

"Sometimes. But listen. The headline reads 'Ex-Adviser of Attlee Attacks U.S. Capitalism as Immoral.'"

"I'm glad Americans are being told what their capitalists are like," he breathed guardedly. "That's good."

"So you are prepared to accept a moral basis for the indictment?"

He blinked and let that pass.

"Well, listen now." (I read.)

"American capitalism was attacked as immoral and producing a neurosis with 'the stature of a national disease', in a long article in Fortune magazine by Francis Williams ... former public relations adviser to Prime Minister Clement R. Attlee.

"Mr. Williams called his article 'The Moral Case for Socialism'....

"'I am a socialist,' wrote Mr. Williams, 'because I believe that only within a socialist society can human rights be assured....'

"... Mr. Williams said it is no accident that many early leaders of British socialism were drawn from the churches and non-conformist chapels. 'It was not personal economic interest but ethical compulsion that drove men like Attlee, Cripps and others to try to build a more moral society,' he wrote...."

(I stop reading.)

"Finally we are told that Mr. Williams speaks of the 'great American tradition of freedom and democracy'."

Rymer's response was instantaneous. "Which is utter nonsense, the Americans have never known what freedom is. It is funny to hear freedom spoken of in the same breath with the lynchers and witch-hunters."

"You are interested in freedom now?"

"Of course I am." He was aggressively bland and blank.

I sighed. "Freedom, reverend sir, is what socialism takes even less interest in than does monopoly-capital. A socialist sympathizer must learn to be very guarded where freedom is concerned. Alas, there are far more political prisoners and concentration-camps—far less freedom of movement, less freedom of speech, in the Soviet Union than in the United States. Socialist England is far more regimented already than is the United States."

Rymer muttered something about the "third degree" and "prohibition". We were now approaching that invisible line, dividing the terms on which he was prepared to discuss something, from the terms on which he was not prepared to do so.

"But once we begin to discuss freedom...! Cela n'en finirait plus. Let us say that Christianity and socialism is our subject. Would you object if, instead of leaving this question of the religious origins of socialism floating about in the clouds, I brought it down to earth and attached it to a few hard facts from which it could not escape?"

"Why should I mind," he smiled, "if you regard it as important?"

"Our conscience must be clear. A muddy conscience is a bad conscience. But how can the conscience be clear unless we see clearly? Our conscience has no rest, nor has for years, it is being appealed to all the time by the contemporary politician. But before the conscience can function properly, or be of any service at all, we must see clearly. The politicians have a policy to sell us: let us get the clearest view of it we can—and of the politician! It may be a genuine moral article: or of course it may only be baited with a big moral appeal. No moral judgement is possible without a sharp image of the thing at issue."

"An almost cartesian desire for clarity!" Rymer smiled tolerantly.

"Appeals to the conscience seldom fail especially with the English. The fact that it is the conscience to which appeal has been made is so reassuring, too! A political party so appealing must be a peculiarly moral party! One takes for granted that a man appealing to one's good feeling, to one's humanity, must surely himself be a good humane man—the majority at least are apt to draw this conclusion."

"You are saying I suppose that socialists are attempting to secure power disguised as men engaged in a moral mission?"

"I am saying nothing of the sort. Nothing should be taken for granted. It is advisable to gain a clear idea of what is actually proposed, lest the conscience, working in the dark, mislead one. That is all."

"Are you saying," Rymer enquired, "that a stupid person cannot possess a conscience?"

"Obviously not so good a one as a wise man."

"Oh!" howled Rymer.

"When a matter is beyond their understanding people cannot judge it morally any more than in any other way. But that is what I wanted to discuss. I am not as clear as I would like to be myself upon a number of points. But this is really a side-issue."

"No it isn't," he interrupted. "Your case stands or falls upon that."

"My own conscience feels clear, as I am quite sure yours does. I would like to check up on its functioning however. The way to do that is to test the validity of one or more of the main beliefs responsible for the clear feeling. I always suspect a clear conscience, don't you?"

"Yes."

"In giving my own conscience this overhaul I may assist you to discover whether your conscience is as sound and as clear as you think."

"Speak for your own conscience. Mine is all right."

"You think so. You may be mistaken. People often buy things in a shop and when they get them home find they do not like them at all."

"Short-sighted people usually."

"Why, exactly. What they thought they saw in the shop has changed into something else: into its real self. They have bought something they did not bargain for. Now the kind of socialism which people, in their woolly and hazy way, have fastened on their back, may be one of those things that look very different later on to what at first it seemed. As an indication of what I have in mind, there have been many things to cause misgivings in socialist behaviour (especially in the official class) since the Welfare State took over from free enterprise. In a word, those who have come to rescue us from Power have themselves displayed too patent an appetite for power. The old bosses are being economically liquidated. Too often it seems that Bossiness has come in their place. As this state-power grows more absolute, will not these disquieting symptoms develop? English socialism as we know it today is complex: in it what is desirable and what is undesirable do battle."

"Because a few officials misbehave...." Rymer waved his hand to dismiss such insignificant blemishes.

"There should be an extremely searching debate upon the type of new society—'collective', as it is called—being thrust upon everyone in England with practically no debate—such as a parliamentary Opposition is supposed to provide. I am not against that new society: I am against the way it is being adopted. To confer such unheard-of powers (such as no feudal king in England has ever possessed) upon a group of politicians just because they say they are 'socialist', is absurd. In the mind of the majority 'socialist' signifies a selfless person dedicated to the welfare of mankind. Somebody may not like socialists, because he thinks they are too good and moral to suit him. But the moral status is taken for granted."

"Are you disputing the bonafides of socialism?" he asked me.

"No," I answered. "It is frightfully important that that moral essence of socialism should be a reality, that is all, and even more that it should stop a reality. I believe that some machinery should be invented to make certain that it does so stop. Finally there should be no blank cheque."

"You are too distrustful."

"You are too authoritarian. Are we for Authority, however corrupt or callous it may become? My conscience cries out for checks."

"That conscience of yours is dreadfully over-developed, isn't it. I don't remember ever hearing of one like it." His face was furrowed in mock-concern.

"I think it is yours that is under-developed," I told him. "If it is as modest in size as I suspect, mine must, of course, seem enormous."

"An enlarged conscience is pathologic," was how that bout ended, he nodding his head admonitorily as he spoke. "It is nothing to be proud of; I should keep it quiet if I were you."

We laughed humourlessly.

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