Friday, 7 December 2012

All Roads Lead to Calvary

Jerome K Jerome is best known for his comic novel Three Men In A Boat. It was his third published work and unfortunately for JKJ, easily his most successful. He peaked early. From Wikipedia :-

Finally, in 1885, he had some success with On the Stage — and Off, a comic memoir of his experiences with the acting troupe. Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, a collection of humorous essays, followed in 1886. In 1889 he wrote Three Men in a Boat which became an instant success and is still in print. Its popularity was such that the number of registered Thames boats went up fifty percent in the year following its publication, and it contributed significantly to the Thames becoming a tourist attraction.

Out of interest I recently downloaded all his work onto my Kindle and ploughed through his novel All Roads Lead To Calvary (1919). It’s easy enough to read, but whether or not I’ll ever read another JKJ novel, I don’t know. It isn’t great writing. Good but not great. Quotable though.

Mr. Airlie, picking daintily at his food, continued his stories: of philanthropists who paid starvation wages: of feminists who were a holy terror to their women folk: of socialists who travelled first-class and spent their winters in Egypt or Monaco: of stern critics of public morals who preferred the society of youthful affinities to the continued company of elderly wives: of poets who wrote divinely about babies' feet and whose children hated them.

What is interesting is the way JKJ’s socialism shines through. Essentially the novel is the story of a young woman, Joan Allday, who becomes a successful campaigning columnist for a major newspaper proprietor. Genteel left-wing one might call her, from the days when some of the upper middle classes took up socialism.

The naive optimism of the times, the idea that government could, should, must help the masses towards a better life after the horrors of the First World War is for me the most interesting aspect of the novel. These people really did believe in what they were doing, really did believe in the efficacy of their good intentions professed so earnestly around the dinner table. Often as not with servants hovering in the background.

"It's the dinner-table that rules in England. We settle everything round a dinner-table."

Whether JKJ believed these ideas to be feasible is another matter. To me, the next quote feels like JKJ’s deep cynicism about the social role newspapers - expressed through Greyson, one of his characters.

"I am paid a thousand a year," so Greyson read to them, "for keeping my own opinions out of my paper. Some of you, perhaps, earn more, and others less; but you're getting it for writing what you're told. If I were to be so foolish as to express my honest opinion, I'd be on the street, the next morning, looking for another job." "The business of the journalist," the man had continued, "is to destroy the truth, to lie, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, to sell his soul for his daily bread. We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping-jacks. They pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities, our lives are the property of other

Here it is again through Joan Allday.

She had lost her faith in journalism as a drum for the rousing of the people against wrong. Its beat had led too often to the trickster's booth, to the cheap-jack's rostrum. It had lost its rallying power. The popular Press had made the newspaper a byword for falsehood. Even its supporters, while reading it because it pandered to their passions, tickled their vices, and flattered their ignorance, despised and disbelieved it.

Greyson again - proposing a United States of Europe. It’s an old idea.

Greyson spoke with an enthusiasm that was unusual to him. So many of our wars had been mean wars--wars for the wrong; sordid wars for territory, for gold mines; wars against the weak at the bidding of our traders, our financiers.

"Shouldering the white man's burden," we called it. Wars for the right of selling opium; wars to perpetuate the vile rule of the Turk because it happened to serve our commercial interests. This time, we were out to play the knight; to save the smaller peoples; to rescue our once "sweet enemy," fair France. Russia was the disturbing thought. It somewhat discounted the knight-errant idea, riding stirrup to stirrup beside that barbarian horseman.

But there were possibilities about Russia. Idealism lay hid within that sleeping brain. It would be a holy war for the Kingdom of the Peoples. With Germany freed from the monster of blood and iron that was crushing out her soul, with Russia awakened to life, we would build the United States of Europe. Even his voice was changed. Joan could almost fancy it was some excited schoolboy that was talking.

I'm sure JKJ himself was no blinkered idealist, but it's a pity his novel doesn't bring this out in a more vibrant or humorous way.

He would not put up again for Parliament. He was thinking of going back to his old work upon the Union. "Parliament is played out," he had written her. "Kings and Aristocracies have served their purpose and have gone, and now the Ruling Classes, as they call themselves, must be content to hear the bell toll for them also. Parliament was never anything more than an instrument in their hands, and never can be. 

What happens? Once in every five years you wake the people up: tell them the time has come for them to exercise their Heaven-ordained privilege of putting a cross against the names of some seven hundred gentlemen who have kindly expressed their willingness to rule over them. After that, you send the people back to sleep; and for the next five years these seven hundred gentlemen, consulting no one but themselves, rule over the country as absolutely as ever a Caesar ruled over Rome. 

What sort of Democracy is that? Even a Labour Government--supposing that in spite of the Press it did win through--what would be its fate? Separated from its base, imprisoned within those tradition-haunted walls, it would lose touch with the people, would become in its turn a mere oligarchy. If the people are ever to govern they must keep their hand firmly upon the machine; not remain content with pulling a lever and then being shown the door."


Anonymous said...

There seems to have been a glut of writers of the languid gentlemanly sort around the 1890s. Perhaps one could live a pleasant lifestyle on not much money and journalism and writing paid fairly well. Perhaps living at the centre of a rich and self assured empire built on coal and surrounded by fish had something to do with it. I have read Three Men but did not feel the need for any more.

As for keeping my hand on the machine, I do not have the time or energy to trot along to the forum every afternoon. I must leave it to those who do have the time and energy - and therein lies the rub.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I think you are right, it seems to have been possible to live well enough on not much. Supposedly this was also true in Johnson's day.

James Higham said...

The naive optimism of the times, the idea that government could, should, must help the masses towards a better life after the horrors of the First World War is for me the most interesting aspect of the novel.

Very much so - a powerful delusion for all ages.

A K Haart said...

James - yes, surprising how old some of this stuff it - how deep the roots are.