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Envoi: the rot camp


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« on: January 25, 2023, 03:13:41 am »

I WENT up the hill, up Rotting Hill, to the rot camp, near the top. One needs some exercise, and this is where I prefer to take it. It is not that they have a monopoly of the rot in the camp, but it is where the rot flowers, the rot of Rotting Hill.

This is in a manner of speaking the Fun Fair of the Hill. I met Blossom on her way from market who gave me a brilliant decent smile. She is a plump flower of the Cornish Riviera, a walking Matthew Smith. I loathe thin flowers and her luxurious bulk breasts the waves of Rotting-hillers, flowing around the fish shop and the butcher's counter. Seen in the shops, she is like a figurehead of a gallant ship, a Saxon Queen perhaps, moving irresistibly, gently cleaving the surging mass. She is my toast in her sky-blue mackintosh.

I approached Colquhoun. He was stooping over a book in an untidy book-tray. I said "Hallo, what book?" He turned with some shyness towards me. "I was looking at a guide book. It is out of date." Colquhoun is not at all himself: I feel that he stagnates, there is something the matter. I know him very slightly and can only guess at what is adversely affecting him. He has been excluded from the Festival of Britain, he has not been invited to send a picture and he feels very bitterly this strange slight. Of the Hillworthies who are creative I place him first. I passed on and saw a kilt. This was MacBride, wittiest of Hillmen, swinging his kilt along without consciousness of the anomaly. He had an apprehensive eye upon Colquhoun whom he had seen handling a book. A few nights before MacBride and his inseparable companion had been sitting at a table in a public house. The kilt was not visible so I gathered, and his rich Scottish idiom was to be heard as he told Colquhoun a story of a trip to Wigtown. "The marn went aroond the heel, and then came back wuth eet," is the kind of way he talks. Several men at the bar hearing this strange music cocked a Britannic ear, one more especially. This latter eyed MacBride with undisguised xenophobia. "The bloody Irish are bloody well everywhere." But the man he was addressing had caught sight of the kilt beneath the table. "They're Jocks, Harry, they're no bloody Irish." "So they are. Good old Jocks," he vociferated, the minstrelsy of Harry Lauder warming his Brixton heart. But the popularity of this kilt had little effect upon MacBride, who said to the first man: "If you have anything you wish to say why do you say it to heem, why not to me!" What happened afterwards I was not told: but I reflected that a kilt might be a safeguard, among people whose dislike of all foreigners grows, though the kilt seems to dispel their mistrust.

Roy Campbell passed and he raised his large coffee-coloured hat. He walked as if the camp were paved with eggs, treading slowly, putting his feet down with measured care. 'Tis his war-wound imposes this gait on him of a legendary hidalgo. He was followed by a nondescript group, some say his audience. I noted a poetaster, a photographer, a rentier, and a B.B.C. actor. He is the best poet for six miles or more around. But he suffers from loneliness I believe. He is like a man who rushes out into the street when the lonely fit is on him and invites the first dozen people he meets to come up and have a drink. He led his band into "The Catherine Wheel".

As he was about to enter there was an incident. A small old lady in a bonnet appeared suddenly, shooting out of the Jugs and Bottles, seemed to get her ankles entangled, and fell. She was clutching something bright, I believe a new half-crown. Campbell stooped with the grandiose stiffness of a lay-figure, and lifted the disreputable old marionette to her feet. Saluting her majestically with lifted headpiece, he proceeded on his way into the tavern.

I had not gone far before I was met by the stupidest man on the Hill. He intercepted me near a rifle range, with targets representing Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini. I picked up a rifle and killed the Führer several times. Ironically observing my marksmanship, Mr. Stupid said, "Poor Hitler!" I put down the rifle. "I take a pot at all mass-murderers, whether sanctimoniously democratic, 'heroically' military, or bloodthirstily proletarian." "Oh, you do, Lewis. Very comprehensive. Why aren't you more up to date!" he asked the man. "You should have Uncle Joe, you know." The man said in a hoarse undertone, "Ah, Uncle Joe and ole MacArthur too. I don't make them, guv'nor." The stupidest man on the Hill looked at me slyly, as though to say, "I know how hard it is for you to bear me!" It is a kind of joke between us. He knows his power and knows how I fear him. He released me with a playful tap.

Having left the stupidest man I proceeded to the Borough Reading Room, where my playmate Arthur was in dark communion with the scribbling war-hounds of the United States, in the pages of an expensive monthly. As I passed he nodded gloomily, I nodded brightly back. After examining the advertisement columns of a half-dozen newspapers with a view to finding a second-hand dictaphone I left, discovering Arthur outside the swing-doors grimly replacing his spectacle-case in his overcoat pocket, as if displeased with the optician who had provided him with these aids to seeing, as he was with the printed page which they had enabled him to read. He blew his nose with a purgative blast.

"Arthur," I said, "you need a gin-and-tonic."

"That is so," said he and we directed our steps to "The Flying Horse", not far from "The Catherine Wheel". We seated ourselves at a round table and I went to the bar and fetched the drinks.

"'Tis a rotting world," said Arthur, picking up his drink which I had placed before him.

"It is rotten," said I. "It stinks, Arthur."

"I feel I am buzzing through space inside a rotten egg."

Arthur was in bad spirits. His periodic glance at the World Press, always makes him like this. The expensive U.S. monthly I had seen him reading had informed him that Russia already had enough hydrogen bombs to blow the British Isles out of the water, but that the United States had ten times as many, twice the size, and could sink half of Russia in the Polar Seas. There seemed little doubt that both these countries would soon be at war. Arthur was one of those men who was forever nittering about in the future.

"I cannot see, Arthur, what you expect of this earth-ball. You know it is composed of dung. You talk as if we were flying around upon one of space's fairest mud-drops played to by the music of the spheres. This is a nasty place, Arthur. Millions of little organisms compete, only the police make them keep their hands off one another. I could name at least a hundred citizens who would kill me if it were not for the C.I.D. But with nations it is a different matter. There is no police force to restrain them from exterminating their neighbours. I cannot see why you should expect a nation to behave itself better than a man, Arthur."

"All right," he said. "But must we have this rotten government?"

"You think it would be better to conserve than to socialize?" I asked him.

"Yes, it would," grumpily muttered Arthur.

"But can you not see that they are the same? The conservers flung all our money away in mad wars. Now, disguised as an honest working man, they are engaged in a huge confidence trick. The stars have been changed, but the play is the same. Cannot you feel the state's great greedy hand in your pocket? It is robbing you to pay its gambling debts. Its war debts. It is the same hand. These names, Arthur, 'conservative', 'socialist', 'communist', mean very little. They're just like the fancy-names of medicines. You should keep your eye fixed upon the State. Stalin is a Czar in a cloth cap. Mr. Attlee...."

"Yes, yes, all right. But these gamblers, these states, that gamble with our money, get progressively poorer. What will they be like after another fling?"

"Millions of Englishmen will be cancered or starved. The states, all earth's states, dazed and imbecilic will be squatting in the gutter. But my God, Arthur, how did fifty million people get on to this island. It is a rabbit warren, on a coal mine. You can't feed that number. Quite impossible. But there is no decent excuse for keeping our numbers down with rat poison or something, so what does a poor state do? It gets another state to come and kill us off. Russia is the Ratin man, of the 'fifties of the twentieth century."

"All right."

"You always say all right, Arthur."

"What do you expect me to say?"

"Well, something different to that, Arthur. It is not in harmony with your customary attitude of unrelieved gloom, where nothing is right."

"Is it? But I agree with what you say about the state. It is rotten luck having these beastly things fixed on our backs. I wish we could get rid of these infernal states of ours, don't you?"

"Of course I do. We are out of luck and that's a fact. But you speak of the state, Arthur, as if it were a parasite. Really it is the other way round. The state to which we belong is a truer image of the universe than we are, just as our private minds depart from the norm. The 'mob-mind' is the more central, the nearer to nature."

"All right," howled Arthur, "I agree. And where do we go after that?"

"Nowhere, Arthur. We are always at the same spot. We go nowhere, Arthur."

"All right," muttered Arthur. "All right."

I was obliged to say good-bye to him at this point. He remained in the public house brooding upon the socialist administration, for I had not succeeded in convincing him that socialism was the same thing as conservatism or as communism. I delivered a parting shot before I left however: "If your lovely conservers were here, Arthur, they would have to pawn you for what you are worth just as much as the present lot. Debts have to be paid. No government would have any choice but to sell you up."

"Rot," shouted Arthur. "The socialisms use me as a golden brick to build their New Jerusalem."

"That's politics, Arthur, not economics."

Near "The Flying Horse" was the booth of the sorceress Betty, who looked the beautiful witch that she was, just nut-crackery enough to qualify and no more. She crouched over her crystal, her black eyes riveted upon the future. I went up and crossed her palm with silver. "What do you see in your crystal, Betty, as that affects myself!" Drawling a little, "I see a tall, dark man," she said. "How original, Betty."—"I see a small woman with reddish hair."—"Has she got bad teeth."—"No, she gives a dazzling smile as she picks your pocket." I laughed, saying "Good morning", and headed north. Betty always tells your fortune that way if you venture to be ironical.

As I was nearing "The Catherine Wheel", Roy Campbell at the head of his group, responding to the mirth of his followers with a series of spasmish nods of the torso of jovial assent, emerged from the famous public house. From the expressions of those about him I could see that he had been telling them how the bull tossed the matador the full length of the arena, how Campbell caught him and laid him gently down, executed a tourniquet before the bull could reach them, but when he did, head down, and kicking up the dust, Campbell killed him with the fallen matador's espada. He was now obviously walking out of the bull-ring, stepping gingerly to the deafening applause of the officionados.

Ours is a great hill. Almost at its gates I encountered Augustus John, his blue headlights blazing on either side of his bronzed beak. He had heard there were some mumpers encamped not far from the Borough Reading Room. There was an anticipatory glare of fraternity in the old Romany Rye's gaze.

Lastly, standing by one of the gate-posts, was Britannia. She wore what Yankees call a "liberty-cap" (hired from Moss Bros.). Once so robust, she was terribly shrunken: some wasting disease, doubtless malignant. The trident now employed as a crutch, she held out a mug for alms. I saw in the mug what looked like a phoney dollar bill, and dropped myself a lucky threepenny bit. I would give my last threepenny bit to poor old silly Britannia. In a cracked wheeze she sang "Land of Hope and Glory". I must confess that this last apparition, and its vulgar little song, rather depressed me.

THE END

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