home   |   -   |   A-Z   |  


CHAPTER THE FIRST


THE NEW SOURCE OF ENERGY

Section I

The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men

as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy, in the very beginning of the

twentieth century, the problem of inducing radio-activity in the

heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was

solved by a wonderful combination of induction, intuition, and

luck by Holsten so soon as the year 1933. From the first

detection of radio-activity to its first subjugation to human

purpose measured little more than a quarter of a century. For

twenty years after that, indeed, minor difficulties prevented any

striking practical application of his success, but the essential

thing was done, this new boundary in the march of human progress

was crossed, in that year. He set up atomic disintegration in a

minute particle of bismuth; it exploded with great violence into

a heavy gas of extreme radio-activity, which disintegrated in its

turn in the course of seven days, and it was only after another

year's work that he was able to show practically that the last

result of this rapid release of energy was gold. But the thing

was done-at the cost of a blistered chest and an injured finger,

and from the moment when the invisible speck of bismuth flashed

into riving and rending energy, Holsten knew that he had opened a

way for mankind, however narrow and dark it might still be, to

worlds of limitless power. He recorded as much in the strange

diary biography he left the world, a diary that was up to that

particular moment a mass of speculations and calculations, and

which suddenly became for a space an amazingly minute and human

record of sensations and emotions that all humanity might

understand.

He gives, in broken phrases and often single words, it is true,

but none the less vividly for that, a record of the twenty-four

hours following the demonstration of the correctness of his

intricate tracery of computations and guesses. 'I thought I

should not sleep,' he writes-the words he omitted are supplied

in brackets-(on account of) 'pain in (the) hand and chest and

(the) wonder of what I had done Slept like a child.'

He felt strange and disconcerted the next morning; he had nothing

to do, he was living alone in apartments in Bloomsbury, and he

decided to go up to Hampstead Heath, which he had known when he

was a little boy as a breezy playground. He went up by the

underground tube that was then the recognised means of travel

from one part of London to another, and walked up Heath Street

from the tube station to the open heath. He found it a gully of

planks and scaffoldings between the hoardings of house-wreckers.

The spirit of the times had seized upon that narrow, steep, and

winding thoroughfare, and was in the act of making it commodious

and interesting, according to the remarkable ideals of

Neo-Georgian aestheticism. Such is the illogical quality of

humanity that Holsten, fresh from work that was like a petard

under the seat of current civilisation, saw these changes with

regret. He had come up Heath Street perhaps a thousand times, had

known the windows of all the little shops, spent hours in the

vanished cinematograph theatre, and marvelled at the high-flung

early Georgian houses upon the westward bank of that old gully of

a thoroughfare; he felt strange with all these familiar things

gone. He escaped at last with a feeling of relief from this

choked alley of trenches and holes and cranes, and emerged upon

the old familiar scene about the White Stone Pond. That, at

least, was very much as it used to be.

There were still the fine old red-brick houses to left and right

of him; the reservoir had been improved by a portico of marble,

the white-fronted inn with the clustering flowers above its

portico still stood out at the angle of the ways, and the blue

view to Harrow Hill and Harrow spire, a view of hills and trees

and shining waters and wind-driven cloud shadows, was like the

opening of a great window to the ascending Londoner. All that

was very reassuring. There was the same strolling crowd, the same

perpetual miracle of motors dodging through it harmlessly,

escaping headlong into the country from the Sabbatical stuffiness

behind and below them. There was a band still, a women's suffrage

meeting-for the suffrage women had won their way back to the

tolerance, a trifle derisive, of the populace again-socialist

orators, politicians, a band, and the same wild uproar of dogs,

frantic with the gladness of their one blessed weekly release

from the back yard and the chain. And away along the road to the

Spaniards strolled a vast multitude, saying, as ever, that the

view of London was exceptionally clear that day.

Young Holsten's face was white. He walked with that uneasy

affectation of ease that marks an overstrained nervous system and

an under-exercised body. He hesitated at the White Stone Pond

whether to go to the left of it or the right, and again at the

fork of the roads. He kept shifting his stick in his hand, and

every now and then he would get in the way of people on the

footpath or be jostled by them because of the uncertainty of his

movements. He felt, he confesses, 'inadequate to ordinary

existence.' He seemed to himself to be something inhuman and

mischievous. All the people about him looked fairly prosperous,

fairly happy, fairly well adapted to the lives they had to

lead-a week of work and a Sunday of best clothes and mild

promenading-and he had launched something that would disorganise

the entire fabric that held their contentments and ambitions and

satisfactions together. 'Felt like an imbecile who has presented

a box full of loaded revolvers to a Creche,' he notes.

He met a man named Lawson, an old school-fellow, of whom history

now knows only that he was red-faced and had a terrier. He and

Holsten walked together and Holsten was sufficiently pale and

jumpy for Lawson to tell him he overworked and needed a holiday.

They sat down at a little table outside the County Council house

of Golders Hill Park and sent one of the waiters to the Bull and

Bush for a couple of bottles of beer, no doubt at Lawson's

suggestion. The beer warmed Holsten's rather dehumanised system.

He began to tell Lawson as clearly as he could to what his great

discovery amounted. Lawson feigned attention, but indeed he had

neither the knowledge nor the imagination to understand. 'In the

end, before many years are out, this must eventually change war,

transit, lighting, building, and every sort of manufacture, even

agriculture, every material human concern--'

Then Holsten stopped short. Lawson had leapt to his feet. 'Damn

that dog!' cried Lawson. 'Look at it now. Hi! Here!

Phewoo-phewoo phewoo! Come HERE, Bobs! Come HERE!'

The young scientific man, with his bandaged hand, sat at the

green table, too tired to convey the wonder of the thing he had

sought so long, his friend whistled and bawled for his dog, and

the Sunday people drifted about them through the spring sunshine.

For a moment or so Holsten stared at Lawson in astonishment, for

he had been too intent upon what he had been saying to realise

how little Lawson had attended.

Then he remarked, 'WELL!' and smiled faintly, and-finished the

tankard of beer before him.

Lawson sat down again. 'One must look after one's dog,' he said,

with a note of apology. 'What was it you were telling me?'

Section 2

In the evening Holsten went out again. He walked to Saint Paul's

Cathedral, and stood for a time near the door listening to the

evening service. The candles upon the altar reminded him in some

odd way of the fireflies at Fiesole. Then he walked back through

the evening lights to Westminster. He was oppressed, he was

indeed scared, by his sense of the immense consequences of his

discovery. He had a vague idea that night that he ought not to

publish his results, that they were premature, that some secret

association of wise men should take care of his work and hand it

on from generation to generation until the world was riper for

its practical application. He felt that nobody in all the

thousands of people he passed had reallyawakened to the fact of

change, they trusted the world for what it was, not to alter too

rapidly, to respect their trusts, their assurances, their habits,

their little accustomed traffics and hard-won positions.

He went into those little gardens beneath the over-hanging,

brightly-lit masses of the Savoy Hotel and the Hotel Cecil. He

sat down on a seat and became aware of the talk of the two people

next to him. It was the talk of a young couple evidently on the

eve of marriage. The man was congratulating himself on having

regular employment at last; 'they like me,' he said, 'and I like

the job. If I work up-in'r dozen years or so I ought to be

gettin' somethin' pretty comfortable. That's the plain sense of

it, Hetty. There ain't no reason whatsoever why we shouldn't get

along very decently-very decently indeed.'

The desire for little successes amidst conditions securely fixed!

So it struck upon Holsten's mind. He added in his diary, 'I had

a sense of all this globe as that'

By that phrase he meant a kind of clairvoyant vision of this

populated world as a whole, of all its cities and towns and

villages, its high roads and the inns beside them, its gardens

and farms and upland pastures, its boatmen and sailors, its ships

coming along the great circles of the ocean, its time-tables and

appointments and payments and dues as it were one unified and

progressive spectacle. Sometimes such visions came to him; his

mind, accustomed to great generalisations and yet acutely

sensitive to detail, saw things far more comprehensively than the

minds of most of his contemporaries. Usually the teeming sphere

moved on to its predestined ends and circled with a stately

swiftness on its path about the sun. Usually it was all a living

progress that altered under his regard. But now fatigue a little

deadened him to that incessancy of life, it seemed now just an

eternal circling. He lapsed to the commoner persuasion of the

great fixities and recurrencies of the human routine. The remoter

past of wandering savagery, the inevitable changes of to-morrow

were veiled, and he saw only day and night, seed-time and

harvest, loving and begetting, births and deaths, walks in the

summer sunlight and tales by the winter fireside, the ancient

sequence of hope and acts and age perennially renewed, eddying on

for ever and ever, save that now the impious hand of research was

raised to overthrow this drowsy, gently humming, habitual, sunlit

spinning-top of man's existence

For a time he forgot wars and crimes and hates and persecutions,

famine and pestilence, the cruelties of beasts, weariness and the

bitter wind, failure and insufficiency and retrocession. He saw

all mankind in terms of the humble Sunday couple upon the seat

beside him, who schemed their inglorious outlook and improbable

contentments. 'I had a sense of all this globe as that.'

His intelligence struggled against this mood and struggled for a

time in vain. He reassured himself against the invasion of this

disconcerting idea that he was something strange and inhuman, a

loose wanderer from the flock returning with evil gifts from his

sustained unnatural excursions amidst the darknesses and

phosphorescences beneath the fair surfaces of life. Man had not

been always thus; the instincts and desires of the little home,

the little plot, was not all his nature; also he was an

adventurer, an experimenter, an unresting curiosity, an

insatiable desire. For a few thousand generations indeed he had

tilled the earth and followed the seasons, saying his prayers,

grinding his corn and trampling the October winepress, yet not

for so long but that he was still full of restless stirrings.

'If there have been home and routine and the field,' thought

Holsten, 'there have also been wonder and the sea.'

He turned his head and looked up over the back of the seat at the

great hotels above him, full of softly shaded lights and the glow

and colour and stir of feasting. Might his gift to mankind mean

simply more of that?

He got up and walked out of the garden, surveyed a passing

tram-car, laden with warm light, against the deep blues of

evening, dripping and trailing long skirts of shining reflection;

he crossed the Embankment and stood for a time watching the dark

river and turning ever and again to the lit buildings and

bridges. His mind began to scheme conceivable replacements of all

those clustering arrangements

'It has begun,' he writes in the diary in which these things are

recorded. 'It is not for me to reach out to consequences I cannot

foresee. Iam a part, not a whole; Iam a little instrument in

the armoury of Change. If I were to burn all these papers,

before a score of years had passed, some other man would be doing

this

Section 3

Holsten, before he died, was destined to see atomic energy

dominating every other source of power, but for some years yet a

vast network of difficulties in detail and application kept the

new discovery from any effective invasion of ordinary life. The

path from the laboratory to the workshop is sometimes a tortuous

one; electro-magnetic radiations were known and demonstrated for

twenty years before Marconi made them practically available, and

in the same way it was twenty years before induced radio-activity

could be brought to practical utilisation. The thing, of course,

was discussed very much, more perhaps at the time of its

discovery than during the interval of technical adaptation, but

with very little realisation of the huge economic revolution that

impended. What chiefly impressed the journalists of 1933 was the

production of gold from bismuth and the realisation albeit upon

unprofitable lines of the alchemist's dreams; there was a

considerable amount of discussion and expectation in that more

intelligent section of the educated publics of the various

civilised countries which followed scientific development; but

for the most part the world went about its business-as the

inhabitants of those Swiss villages which live under the

perpetual threat of overhanging rocks and mountains go about

their business-just as though the possible was impossible, as

though the inevitable was postponed for ever because it was

delayed.

It was in 1953 that the first Holsten-Roberts engine brought

induced radio-activity into the sphere of industrial production,

and its first general use was to replace the steam-engine in

electrical generating stations. Hard upon the appearance of this

came the Dass-Tata engine-the invention of two among the

brilliant galaxy of Bengali inventors the modernisation of Indian

thought was producing at this time-which was used chiefly for

automobiles, aeroplanes, waterplanes, and such-like, mobile

purposes. The American Kemp engine, differing widely in principle

but equally practicable, and the Krupp-Erlanger came hard upon

the heels of this, and by the autumn of 1954 a gigantic

replacement of industrial methods and machinery was in progress

all about the habitable globe. Small wonder was this when the

cost, even of these earliest and clumsiest of atomic engines, is

compared with that of the power they superseded. Allowing for

lubrication the Dass-Tata engine, once it was started cost a

penny to run thirty-seven miles, and added only nine and quarter

pounds to the weight of the carriage it drove. It made the heavy

alcohol-driven automobile of the time ridiculous in appearance as

well as preposterously costly. For many years the price of coal

and every form of liquid fuel had been clambering to levels that

made even the revival of the draft horse seem a practicable

possibility, and now with the abrupt relaxation of this

stringency, the change in appearance of the traffic upon the

world's roads was instantaneous. In three years the frightful

armoured monsters that had hooted and smoked and thundered about

the world for four awful decades were swept away to the dealers

in old metal, and the highways thronged with light and clean and

shimmering shapes of silvered steel. At the same time a new

impetus was given to aviation by the relatively enormous power

for weight of the atomic engine, it was at last possible to add

Redmayne's ingenious helicopter ascent and descent engine to the

vertical propeller that had hitherto been the sole driving force

of the aeroplane without overweighting the machine, and men found

themselves possessed of an instrument of flight that could hover

or ascend or descend vertically and gently as well as rush wildly

through the air. The last dread of flying vanished. As the

journalists of the time phrased it, this was the epoch of the

Leap into the Air. The new atomic aeroplane became indeed a

mania; every one of means was frantic to possess a thing so

controllable, so secure and so free from the dust and danger of

the road, and in France alone in the year 1943 thirty thousand of

these new aeroplanes were manufactured and licensed, and soared

humming softly into the sky.

And with an equal speed atomic engines of various types invaded

industrialism. The railways paid enormous premiums for priority

in the delivery of atomic traction engines, atomic smelting was

embarked upon so eagerly as to lead to a number of disastrous

explosions due to inexperienced handling of the new power, and

the revolutionary cheapening of both materials and electricity

made the entire reconstruction of domestic buildings a matter

merely dependent upon a reorganisation of the methods of the

builder and the house-furnisher. Viewed from the side of the new

power and from the point of view of those who financed and

manufactured the new engines and material it required the age of

the Leap into the Air was one of astonishing prosperity.

Patent-holding companies were presently paying dividends of five

or six hundred per cent. and enormous fortunes were made and

fantastic wages earned by all who were concerned in the new

developments. This prosperity was not a little enhanced by the

fact that in both the Dass-Tata and Holsten-Roberts engines one

of the recoverable waste products was gold-the former

disintegrated dust of bismuth and the latter dust of lead-and

that this new supply of gold led quite naturally to a rise in

prices throughout the world.

This spectacle of feverish enterprise was productivity, this

crowding flight of happy and fortunate rich people-every great

city was as if a crawling ant-hill had suddenly taken wing-was

the bright side of the opening phase of the new epoch in human

history. Beneath that brightness was a gathering darkness, a

deepening dismay. If there was a vast development of production

there was also a huge destruction of values. These glaring

factories working night and day, these glittering new vehicles

swinging noiselessly along the roads, these flights of

dragon-flies that swooped and soared and circled in the air, were

indeed no more than the brightnesses of lamps and fires that

gleam out when the world sinks towards twilight and the night.

Between these high lights accumulated disaster, social

catastrophe. The coal mines were manifestly doomed to closure at

no very distant date, the vast amount of capital invested in oil

was becoming unsaleable, millions of coal miners, steel workers

upon the old lines, vast swarms of unskilled or under-skilled

labourers in innumerable occupations, were being flung out of

employment by the superior efficiency of the new machinery, the

rapid fall in the cost of transit was destroying high land values

at every centre of population, the value of existing house

property had become problematical, gold was undergoing headlong

depreciation, all the securities upon which the credit of the

world rested were slipping and sliding, banks were tottering, the

stock exchanges were scenes of feverish panic;-this was the

reverse of the spectacle, these were the black and monstrous

under-consequences of the Leap into the Air.

There is a story of a demented London stockbroker running out

into Threadneedle Street and tearing off his clothes as he ran.

'The Steel Trust is scrapping the whole of its plant,' he

shouted. 'The State Railways are going to scrap all their

engines. Everything's going to be scrapped-everything. Come and

scrap the mint, you fellows, come and scrap the mint!'

In the year 1955 the suicide rate for the United States of

America quadrupled any previous record. There was an enormous

increase also in violent crime throughout the world. The thing

had come upon an unprepared humanity; it seemed as though human

society was to be smashed by its own magnificent gains.

For there had been no foresight of these things. There had been

no attempt anywhere even to compute the probable dislocations

this flood of inexpensive energy would produce in human affairs.

The world in these days was not really governed at all, in the

sense in which government came to be understood in subsequent

years. Government was a treaty, not a design; it was forensic,

conservative, disputatious, unseeing, unthinking, uncreative;

throughout the world, except where the vestiges of absolutism

still sheltered the court favourite and the trusted servant, it

was in the hands of the predominant caste of lawyers, who had an

enormous advantage in being the only trained caste. Their

professional education and every circumstance in the manipulation

of the fantastically naive electoral methods by which they

clambered to power, conspired to keep them contemptuous of facts,

conscientiously unimaginative, alert to claim and seize

advantages and suspicious of every generosity. Government was an

obstructive business of energetic fractions, progress went on

outside of and in spite of public activities, and legislation was

the last crippling recognition of needs so clamorous and

imperative and facts so aggressively established as to invade

even the dingy seclusions of the judges and threaten the very

existence of the otherwise inattentive political machine.

The world was so little governed that with the very coming of

plenty, in the full tide of an incalculable abundance, when

everything necessary to satisfy human needs and everything

necessary to realise such will and purpose as existed then in

human hearts was already at hand, one has still to tell of

hardship, famine, anger, confusion, conflict, and incoherent

suffering. There was no scheme for the distribution of this vast

new wealth that had come at last within the reach of men; there

was no clear conception that any such distribution was possible.

As one attempts a comprehensive view of those opening years of

the new age, as one measures it against the latent achievement

that later years have demonstrated, one begins to measure the

blindness, the narrowness, the insensate unimaginative

individualism of the pre-atomic time. Under this tremendous dawn

of power and freedom, under a sky ablaze with promise, in the

very presence of science standing like some bountiful goddess

over all the squat darknesses of human life, holding patiently in

her strong arms, until men chose to take them, security, plenty,

the solution of riddles, the key of the bravest adventures, in

her very presence, and with the earnest of her gifts in court,

the world was to witness such things as the squalid spectacle of

the Dass-Tata patent litigation.

There in a stuffy court in London, a grimy oblong box of a room,

during the exceptional heat of the May of 1956, the leading

counsel of the day argued and shouted over a miserable little

matter of more royalties or less and whether the Dass-Tata

company might not bar the Holsten-Roberts' methods of utilising

the new power. The Dass-Tata people were indeed making a

strenuous attempt to secure a world monopoly in atomic

engineering. The judge, after the manner of those times, sat

raised above the court, wearing a preposterous gown and a foolish

huge wig, the counsel also wore dirty-looking little wigs and

queer black gowns over their usual costume, wigs and gowns that

were held to be necessary to their pleading, and upon unclean

wooden benches stirred and whispered artful-looking solicitors,

busily scribbling reporters, the parties to the case, expert

witnesses, interested people, and a jostling confusion of

subpoenaed persons, briefless young barristers (forming a style

on the most esteemed and truculent examples) and casual eccentric

spectators who preferred this pit of iniquity to the free

sunlight outside. Every one was damply hot, the examining King's

Counsel wiped the perspiration from his huge, clean-shaven upper

lip; and into this atmosphere of grasping contention and human

exhalations the daylight filtered through a window that was

manifestly dirty. The jury sat in a double pew to the left of

the judge, looking as uncomfortable as frogs that have fallen

into an ash-pit, and in the witness-box lied the would-be

omnivorous Dass, under cross-examination

Holsten had always been accustomed to publish his results so soon

as they appeared to him to be sufficiently advanced to furnish a

basis for further work, and to that confiding disposition and one

happy flash of adaptive invention the alert Dass owed his

claim

But indeed a vast multitude of such sharp people were clutching,

patenting, pre-empting, monopolising this or that feature of the

new development, seeking to subdue this gigantic winged power to

the purposes of their little lusts and avarice. That trial is

just one of innumerable disputes of the same kind. For a time the

face of the world festered with patent legislation. It chanced,

however, to have one oddly dramatic feature in the fact that

Holsten, after being kept waiting about the court for two days as

a beggar might have waited at a rich man's door, after being

bullied by ushers and watched by policemen, was called as a

witness, rather severely handled by counsel, and told not to

'quibble' by the judge when he was trying to be absolutely

explicit.

The judge scratched his nose with a quill pen, and sneered at

Holsten's astonishment round the corner of his monstrous wig.

Holsten was a great man, was he? Well, in a law-court great men

were put in their places.

'We want to know has the plaintiff added anything to this or

hasn't he?' said the judge, 'we don't want to have your views

whether Sir Philip Dass's improvements were merely superficial

adaptations or whether they were implicit in your paper. No

doubt-after the manner of inventors-you think most things that

were ever likely to be discovered are implicit in your papers. No

doubt also you think too that most subsequent additions and

modifications are merely superficial. Inventors have a way of

thinking that. The law isn't concerned with that sort of thing.

The law has nothing to do with the vanity of inventors. The law

is concerned with the question whether these patent rights have

the novelty the plantiff claims for them. What that admission

may or may not stop, and all these other things you are saying in

your overflowing zeal to answer more than the questions addressed

to you-none of these things have anything whatever to do with

the case in hand. It is a matter of constant astonishment to me

in this court to see how you scientific men, with all your

extraordinary claims to precision and veracity, wander and wander

so soon as you get into the witness-box. I know no more

unsatisfactory class of witness. The plain and simple question

is, has Sir Philip Dass made any real addition to existing

knowledge and methods in this matter or has he not? We don't

want to know whether they were large or small additions nor what

the consequences of your admission may be. That you will leave to

us.'

Holsten was silent.

'Surely?' said the judge, almost pityingly.

'No, he hasn't,' said Holsten, perceiving that for once in his

life he must disregard infinitesimals.

'Ah!' said the judge, 'now why couldn't you say that when counsel

put the question?'

An entry in Holsten's diary-autobiography, dated five days later,

runs: 'Still amazed. The law is the most dangerous thing in this

country. It is hundreds of years old. It hasn't an idea. The

oldest of old bottles and this new wine, the most explosive wine.

Something will overtake them.'

Section 4

There was a certain truth in Holsten's assertion that the law was

'hundreds of years old.' It was, in relation to current thought

and widely accepted ideas, an archaic thing. While almost all the

material and methods of life had been changing rapidly and were

now changing still more rapidly, the law-courts and the

legislatures of the world were struggling desperately to meet

modern demands with devices and procedures, conceptions of rights

and property and authority and obligation that dated from the

rude compromises of relatively barbaric times. The horse-hair

wigs and antic dresses of the British judges, their musty courts

and overbearing manners, were indeed only the outward and visible

intimations of profounder anachronisms. The legal and political

organisation of the earth in the middle twentieth century was

indeed everywhere like a complicated garment, outworn yet strong,

that now fettered the governing body that once it had protected.

Yet that same spirit of free-thinking and outspoken publication

that in the field of natural science had been the beginning of

the conquest of nature, was at work throughout all the eighteenth

and nineteenth centuries preparing the spirit of the new world

within the degenerating body of the old. The idea of a greater

subordination of individual interests and established

institutions to the collective future, is traceable more and more

clearly in the literature of those times, and movement after

movement fretted itself away in criticism of and opposition to

first this aspect and then that of the legal, social, and

political order. Already in the early nineteenth century Shelley,

with no scrap of alternative, is denouncing the established

rulers of the world as Anarchs, and the entire system of ideas

and suggestions that was known as Socialism, and more

particularly its international side, feeble as it was in creative

proposals or any method of transition, still witnesses to the

growth of a conception of a modernised system of

inter-relationships that should supplant the existing tangle of

proprietary legal ideas.

The word 'Sociology' was invented by Herbert Spencer, a popular

writer upon philosophical subjects, who flourished about the

middle of the nineteenth century, but the idea of a state,

planned as an electric-traction system is planned, without

reference to pre-existing apparatus, upon scientific lines, did

not take a very strong hold upon the popular imagination of the

world until the twentieth century. Then, the growing impatience

of the American people with the monstrous and socially paralysing

party systems that had sprung out of their absurd electoral

arrangements, led to the appearance of what came to be called the

'Modern State' movement, and a galaxy of brilliant writers, in

America, Europe, and the East, stirred up the world to the

thought of bolder rearrangements of social interaction, property,

employment, education, and government, than had ever been

contemplated before. No doubt these Modern State ideas were very

largely the reflection upon social and political thought of the

vast revolution in material things that had been in progress for

two hundred years, but for a long time they seemed to be having

no more influence upon existing institutions than the writings of

Rousseau and Voltaire seemed to have had at the time of the death

of the latter. They were fermenting in men's minds, and it needed

only just such social and political stresses as the coming of the

atomic mechanisms brought about, to thrust them forward abruptly

into crude and startling realisation.

Section 5

Frederick Barnet's Wander Jahre is one of those autobiographical

novels that were popular throughout the third and fourth decades

of the twentieth century. It was published in 1970, and one must

understand Wander Jahre rather in a spiritual and intellectual

than in a literal sense. It is indeed an allusive title,

carrying the world back to the Wilhelm Meister of Goethe, a

century and a half earlier.

Its author, Frederick Barnet, gives a minute and curious history

of his life and ideas between his nineteenth and his twenty-third

birthdays. He was neither a very original nor a very brilliant

man, but he had a trick of circumstantial writing; and though no

authentic portrait was to survive for the information of

posterity, he betrays by a score of casual phrases that he was

short, sturdy, inclined to be plump, with a 'rather blobby' face,

and full, rather projecting blue eyes. He belonged until the

financial debacle of 1956 to the class of fairly prosperous

people, he was a student in London, he aeroplaned to Italy and

then had a pedestrian tour from Genoa to Rome, crossed in the air

to Greece and Egypt, and came back over the Balkans and Germany.

His family fortunes, which were largely invested in bank shares,

coal mines, and house property, were destroyed. Reduced to

penury, he sought to earn a living. He suffered great hardship,

and was then caught up by the war and had a year of soldiering,

first as an officer in the English infantry and then in the army

of pacification. His book tells all these things so simply and

at the same time so explicitly, that it remains, as it were, an

eye by which future generations may have at least one man's

vision of the years of the Great Change.

And he was, he tells us, a 'Modern State' man 'by instinct' from

the beginning. He breathed in these ideas in the class rooms and

laboratories of the Carnegie Foundation school that rose, a long

and delicately beautiful facade, along the South Bank of the

Thames opposite the ancient dignity of Somerset House. Such

thought was interwoven with the very fabric of that pioneer

school in the educational renascence in England. After the

customary exchange years in Heidelberg and Paris, he went into

the classical school of London University. The older so-called

'classical' education of the British pedagogues, probably the

most paralysing, ineffective, and foolish routine that ever

wasted human life, had already been swept out of this great

institution in favour of modern methods; and he learnt Greek and

Latin as well as he had learnt German, Spanish, and French, so

that he wrote and spoke them freely, and used them with an

unconscious ease in his study of the foundation civilisations of

the European system to which they were the key. (This change was

still so recent that he mentions an encounter in Rome with an

'Oxford don' who 'spoke Latin with a Wiltshire accent and

manifest discomfort, wrote Greek letters with his tongue out, and

seemed to think a Greek sentence a charm when it was a quotation

and an impropriety when it wasn't.')

Barnet saw the last days of the coal-steam engines upon the

English railways and the gradual cleansing of the London

atmosphere as the smoke-creating sea-coal fires gave place to

electric heating. The building of laboratories at Kensington was

still in progress, and he took part in the students' riots that

delayed the removal of the Albert Memorial. He carried a banner

with 'We like Funny Statuary' on one side, and on the other

'Seats and Canopies for Statues, Why should our Great Departed

Stand in the Rain?' He learnt the rather athletic aviation of

those days at the University grounds at Sydenham, and he was

fined for flying over the new prison for political libellers at

Wormwood Scrubs, 'in a manner calculated to exhilarate the

prisoners while at exercise.' That was the time of the attempted

suppression of any criticism of the public judicature and the

place was crowded with journalists who had ventured to call

attention to the dementia of Chief Justice Abrahams. Barnet was

not a very good aviator, he confesses he was always a little

afraid of his machine-there was excellent reason for every one

to be afraid of those clumsy early types-and he never attempted

steep descents or very high flying. He also, he records, owned

one of those oil-driven motor-bicycles whose clumsy complexity

and extravagant filthiness still astonish the visitors to the

museum of machinery at South Kensington. He mentions running

over a dog and complains of the ruinous price of 'spatchcocks' in

Surrey. 'Spatchcocks,' it seems, was a slang term for crushed

hens.

He passed the examinations necessary to reduce his military

service to a minimum, and his want of any special scientific or

technical qualification and a certain precocious corpulence that

handicapped his aviation indicated the infantry of the line as

his sphere of training. That was the most generalised form of

soldiering. The development of the theory of war had been for

some decades but little assisted by any practical experience.

What fighting had occurred in recent years, had been fighting in

minor or uncivilised states, with peasant or barbaric soldiers

and with but a small equipment of modern contrivances, and the

great powers of the world were content for the most part to

maintain armies that sustained in their broader organisation the

traditions of the European wars of thirty and forty years before.

There was the infantry arm to which Barnet belonged and which was

supposed to fight on foot with a rifle and be the main portion of

the army. There were cavalry forces (horse soldiers), having a

ratio to the infantry that had been determined by the experiences

of the Franco-German war in 1871. There was also artillery, and

for some unexplained reason much of this was still drawn by

horses; though there were also in all the European armies a small

number of motor-guns with wheels so constructed that they could

go over broken ground. In addition there were large developments

of the engineering arm, concerned with motor transport,

motor-bicycle scouting, aviation, and the like.

No first-class intelligence had been sought to specialise in and

work out the problem of warfare with the new appliances and under

modern conditions, but a succession of able jurists, Lord

Haldane, Chief Justice Briggs, and that very able King's Counsel,

Philbrick, had reconstructed the army frequently and thoroughly

and placed it at last, with the adoption of national service,

upon a footing that would have seemed very imposing to the public

of 1900. At any moment the British Empire could now put a

million and a quarter of arguable soldiers upon the board of

Welt-Politik. The traditions of Japan and the Central European

armies were more princely and less forensic; the Chinese still

refused resolutely to become a military power, and maintained a

small standing army upon the American model that was said, so far

as it went, to be highly efficient, and Russia, secured by a

stringent administration against internal criticism, had scarcely

altered the design of a uniform or the organisation of a battery

since the opening decades of the century. Barnet's opinion of his

military training was manifestly a poor one, his Modern State

ideas disposed him to regard it as a bore, and his common sense

condemned it as useless. Moreover, his habit of body made him

peculiarly sensitive to the fatigues and hardships of service.

'For three days in succession we turned out before dawn and-for

no earthly reason-without breakfast,' he relates. 'I suppose

that is to show us that when the Day comes the first thing will

be to get us thoroughly uncomfortable and rotten. We then

proceeded to Kriegspiel, according to the mysterious ideas of

those in authority over us. On the last day we spent three hours

under a hot if early sun getting over eight miles of country to a

point we could have reached in a motor omnibus in nine minutes

and a half-I did it the next day in that-and then we made a

massed attack upon entrenchments that could have shot us all

about three times over if only the umpires had let them. Then

came a little bayonet exercise, but I doubt if Iam sufficiently

a barbarian to stick this long knife into anything living. Anyhow

in this battle I shouldn't have had a chance. Assuming that by

some miracle I hadn't been shot three times over, I was far too

hot and blown when I got up to the entrenchments even to lift my

beastly rifle. It was those others would have begun the

sticking

'For a time we were watched by two hostile aeroplanes; then our

own came up and asked them not to, and-the practice of aerial

warfare still being unknown-they very politely desisted and went

away and did dives and circles of the most charming description

over the Fox Hills.'

All Barnet's accounts of his military training were written in

the same half-contemptuous, half-protesting tone. He was of

opinion that his chances of participating in any real warfare

were very slight, and that, if after all he should participate,

it was bound to be so entirely different from these peace

manoeuvres that his only course as a rational man would be to

keep as observantly out of danger as he could until he had learnt

the tricks and possibilities of the new conditions. He states

this quite frankly. Never was a man more free from sham heroics.

Section 6

Barnet welcomed the appearance of the atomic engine with the zest

of masculine youth in all fresh machinery, and it is evident that

for some time he failed to connect the rush of wonderful new

possibilities with the financial troubles of his family. 'I knew

my father was worried,' he admits. That cast the smallest of

shadows upon his delighted departure for Italy and Greece and

Egypt with three congenial companions in one of the new atomic

models. They flew over the Channel Isles and Touraine, he

mentions, and circled about Mont Blanc-'These new helicopters,

we found,' he notes, 'had abolished all the danger and strain of

sudden drops to which the old-time aeroplanes were liable'-and

then he went on by way of Pisa, Paestum, Ghirgenti, and Athens,

to visit the pyramids by moonlight, flying thither from Cairo,

and to follow the Nile up to Khartum. Even by later standards,

it must have been a very gleeful holiday for a young man, and it

made the tragedy of his next experiences all the darker. A week

after his return his father, who was a widower, announced himself

ruined, and committed suicide by means of an unscheduled opiate.

At one blow Barnet found himself flung out of the possessing,

spending, enjoying class to which he belonged, penniless and with

no calling by which he could earn a living. He tried teaching

and some journalism, but in a little while he found himself on

the underside of a world in which he had always reckoned to live

in the sunshine. For innumerable men such an experience has

meant mental and spiritual destruction, but Barnet, in spite of

his bodily gravitation towards comfort, showed himself when put

to the test, of the more valiant modern quality. He was saturated

with the creative stoicism of the heroic times that were already

dawning, and he took his difficulties and discomforts stoutly as

his appointed material, and turned them to expression.

Indeed, in his book, he thanks fortune for them. 'I might have

lived and died,' he says, 'in that neat fool's paradise of secure

lavishness above there. I might never have realised the

gathering wrath and sorrow of the ousted and exasperated masses.

In the days of my own prosperity things had seemed to me to be

very well arranged.' Now from his new point of view he was to

find they were not arranged at all; that government was a

compromise of aggressions and powers and lassitudes, and law a

convention between interests, and that the poor and the weak,

though they had many negligent masters, had few friends.

'I had thought things were looked after,' he wrote. 'It was with

a kind of amazement that I tramped the roads and starved-and

found that no one in particular cared.'

He was turned out of his lodging in a backward part of London.

'It was with difficulty I persuaded my landlady-she was a needy

widow, poor soul, and I was already in her debt-to keep an old

box for me in which I had locked a few letters, keepsakes, and

the like. She lived in great fear of the Public Health and

Morality Inspectors, because she was sometimes too poor to pay

the customary tip to them, but at last she consented to put it in

a dark tiled place under the stairs, and then I went forth into

the world-to seek first the luck of a meal and then shelter.'

He wandered down into the thronging gayer parts of London, in

which a year or so ago he had been numbered among the spenders.

London, under the Visible Smoke Law, by which any production of

visible smoke with or without excuse was punishable by a fine,

had already ceased to be the sombre smoke-darkened city of the

Victorian time; it had been, and indeed was, constantly being

rebuilt, and its main streets were already beginning to take on

those characteristics that distinguished them throughout the

latter half of the twentieth century. The insanitary horse and

the plebeian bicycle had been banished from the roadway, which

was now of a resilient, glass-like surface, spotlessly clean; and

the foot passenger was restricted to a narrow vestige of the

ancient footpath on either side of the track and forbidden at the

risk of a fine, if he survived, to cross the roadway. People

descended from their automobiles upon this pavement and went

through the lower shops to the lifts and stairs to the new ways

for pedestrians, the Rows, that ran along the front of the houses

at the level of the first story, and, being joined by frequent

bridges, gave the newer parts of London a curiously Venetian

appearance. In some streets there were upper and even third-story

Rows. For most of the day and all night the shop windows were

lit by electric light, and many establishments had made, as it

were, canals of public footpaths through their premises in order

to increase their window space.

Barnet made his way along this night-scene rather apprehensively

since the police had power to challenge and demand the Labour

Card of any indigent-looking person, and if the record failed to

show he was in employment, dismiss him to the traffic pavement

below.

But there was still enough of his former gentility about Barnet's

appearance and bearing to protect him from this; the police, too,

had other things to think of that night, and he was permitted to

reach the galleries about Leicester Square-that great focus of

London life and pleasure.

He gives a vivid description of the scene that evening. In the

centre was a garden raised on arches lit by festoons of lights

and connected with the Rows by eight graceful bridges, beneath

which hummed the interlacing streams of motor traffic, pulsating

as the current alternated between east and west and north and

south. Above rose great frontages of intricate rather than

beautiful reinforced porcelain, studded with lights, barred by

bold illuminated advertisements, and glowing with reflections.

There were the two historical music halls of this place, the

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, in which the municipal players

revolved perpetually through the cycle of Shakespeare's plays,

and four other great houses of refreshment and entertainment

whose pinnacles streamed up into the blue obscurity of the night.

The south side of the square was in dark contrast to the others;

it was still being rebuilt, and a lattice of steel bars

surmounted by the frozen gestures of monstrous cranes rose over

the excavated sites of vanished Victorian buildings.

This framework attracted Barnet's attention for a time to the

exclusion of other interests. It was absolutely still, it had a

dead rigidity, a stricken inaction, no one was at work upon it

and all its machinery was quiet; but the constructor's globes of

vacuum light filled its every interstice with a quivering green

moonshine and showed alert but motionless-soldier sentinels!

He asked a passing stroller, and was told that the men had struck

that day against the use of an atomic riveter that would have

doubled the individual efficiency and halved the number of steel

workers.

'Shouldn't wonder if they didn't get chucking bombs,' said

Barnet's informant, hovered for a moment, and then went on his

way to the Alhambra music hall.

Barnet became aware of an excitement in the newspaper kiosks at

the corners of the square. Something very sensational had been

flashed upon the transparencies. Forgetting for a moment his

penniless condition, he made his way over a bridge to buy a

paper, for in those days the papers, which were printed upon thin

sheets of metallic foil, were sold at determinate points by

specially licensed purveyors. Half over, he stopped short at a

change in the traffic below; and was astonished to see that the

police signals were restricting vehicles to the half roadway.

When presently he got within sight of the transparencies that had

replaced the placards of Victorian times, he read of the Great

March of the Unemployed that was already in progress through the

West End, and so without expenditure he was able to understand

what was coming.

He watched, and his book describes this procession which the

police had considered it unwise to prevent and which had been

spontaneously organised in imitation of the Unemployed

Processions of earlier times. He had expected a mob but there was

a kind of sullen discipline about the procession when at last it

arrived. What seemed for a time an unending column of men

marched wearily, marched with a kind of implacable futility,

along the roadway underneath him. He was, he says, moved to join

them, but instead he remained watching. They were a dingy,

shabby, ineffective-looking multitude, for the most part

incapable of any but obsolete and superseded types of labour.

They bore a few banners with the time-honoured inscription:

'Work, not Charity,' but otherwise their ranks were unadorned.

They were not singing, they were not even talking, there was

nothing truculent nor aggressive in their bearing, they had no

definite objective they were just marching and showing themselves

in the more prosperous parts of London. They were a sample of

that great mass of unskilled cheap labour which the now still

cheaper mechanical powers had superseded for evermore. They were

being 'scrapped'-as horses had been 'scrapped.'

Barnet leant over the parapet watching them, his mind quickened

by his own precarious condition. For a time, he says, he felt

nothing but despair at the sight; what should be done, what could

be done for this gathering surplus of humanity? They were so

manifestly useless-and incapable-and pitiful.

What were they asking for?

They had been overtaken by unexpected things. Nobody had

foreseen--

It flashed suddenly into his mind just what the multitudinous

shambling enigma below meant. It was an appeal against the

unexpected, an appeal to those others who, more fortunate, seemed

wiser and more powerful, for something-for INTELLIGENCE. This

mute mass, weary footed, rank following rank, protested its

persuasion that some of these others must have foreseen these

dislocations-that anyhow they ought to have foreseen-and

arranged.

That was what this crowd of wreckage was feeling and seeking so

dumbly to assert.

'Things came to me like the turning on of a light in a darkened

room,' he says. 'These men were praying to their fellow

creatures as once they prayed to God! The last thing that men

will realise about anything is that it is inanimate. They had

transferred their animation to mankind. They still believed

there was intelligence somewhere, even if it was careless or

malignant It had only to be aroused to be

conscience-stricken, to be moved to exertion And I saw, too,

that as yet THERE WAS NO SUCH INTELLIGENCE. The world waits for

intelligence. That intelligence has still to be made, that will

for good and order has still to be gathered together, out of

scraps of impulse and wandering seeds of benevolence and whatever

is fine and creative in our souls, into a common purpose. It's

something still to come'

It is characteristic of the widening thought of the time that

this not very heroical young man who, in any previous age, might

well have been altogether occupied with the problem of his own

individual necessities, should be able to stand there and

generalise about the needs of the race.

But upon all the stresses and conflicts of that chaotic time

there was already dawning the light of a new era. The spirit of

humanity was escaping, even then it was escaping, from its

extreme imprisonment in individuals. Salvation from the bitter

intensities of self, which had been a conscious religious end for

thousands of years, which men had sought in mortifications, in

the wilderness, in meditation, and by innumerable strange paths,

was coming at last with the effect of naturalness into the talk

of men, into the books they read, into their unconscious

gestures, into their newspapers and daily purposes and everyday

acts. The broad horizons, the magic possibilities that the spirit

of the seeker had revealed to them, were charming them out of

those ancient and instinctive preoccupations from which the very

threat of hell and torment had failed to drive them. And this

young man, homeless and without provision even for the immediate

hours, in the presence of social disorganisation, distress, and

perplexity, in a blazing wilderness of thoughtlesspleasure that

blotted out the stars, could think as he tells us he thought.

'I saw life plain,' he wrote. 'I saw the gigantic task before

us, and the very splendour of its intricate and immeasurable

difficulty filled me with exaltation. I saw that we have still

to discover government, that we have still to discover education,

which is the necessary reciprocal of government, and that all

this-in which my own little speck of a life was so manifestly

overwhelmed-this and its yesterday in Greece and Rome and Egypt

were nothing, the mere first dust swirls of the beginning, the

movements and dim murmurings of a sleeper who will presently be

awake'

Section 7

And then the story tells, with an engaging simplicity, of his

descent from this ecstatic vision of reality.

'Presently I found myself again, and I was beginning to feel cold

and a little hungry.'

He bethought himself of the John Burns Relief Offices which stood

upon the Thames Embankment. He made his way through the

galleries of the booksellers and the National Gallery, which had

been open continuously day and night to all decently dressed

people now for more than twelve years, and across the

rose-gardens of Trafalgar Square, and so by the hotel colonnade

to the Embankment. He had long known of these admirable offices,

which had swept the last beggars and matchsellers and all the

casual indigent from the London streets, and he believed that he

would, as a matter of course, be able to procure a ticket for

food and a night's lodgings and some indication of possible

employment.

But he had not reckoned upon the new labour troubles, and when he

got to the Embankment he found the offices hopelessly congested

and besieged by a large and rather unruly crowd. He hovered for

a time on the outskirts of the waiting multitude, perplexed and

dismayed, and then he became aware of a movement, a purposive

trickling away of people, up through the arches of the great

buildings that had arisen when all the railway stations were

removed to the south side of the river, and so to the covered

ways of the Strand. And here, in the open glare of midnight, he

found unemployed men begging, and not only begging, but begging

with astonishing assurance, from the people who were emerging

from the small theatres and other such places of entertainment

which abounded in that thoroughfare.

This was an altogether unexampled thing. There had been no

begging in London streets for a quarter of a century. But that

night the police were evidently unwilling or unable to cope with

the destitute who were invading those well-kept quarters of the

town. They had become stonily blind to anything but manifest

disorder.

Barnet walked through the crowd, unable to bring himself to ask;

indeed his bearing must have been more valiant than his

circumstances, for twice he says that he was begged from. Near

the Trafalgar Square gardens, a girl with reddened cheeks and

blackened eyebrows, who was walking alone, spoke to him with a

peculiar friendliness.

'I'm starving,' he said to her abruptly.

'Oh! poor dear!' she said; and with the impulsive generosity of

her kind, glanced round and slipped a silver piece into his

hand

It was a gift that, in spite of the precedent of De Quincey,

might under the repressive social legislation of those times,

have brought Barnet within reach of the prison lash. But he took

it, he confesses, and thanked her as well as he was able, and

went off very gladly to get food.

Section 8

A day or so later-and again his freedom to go as he pleased upon

the roads may be taken as a mark of increasing social

disorganisation and police embarrassment-he wandered out into

the open country. He speaks of the roads of that plutocratic age

as being 'fenced with barbed wire against unpropertied people,'

of the high-walled gardens and trespass warnings that kept him to

the dusty narrowness of the public ways. In the air, happy rich

people were flying, heedless of the misfortunes about them, as he

himself had been flying two years ago, and along the road swept

the new traffic, light and swift and wonderful. One was rarely

out of earshot of its whistles and gongs and siren cries even in

the field paths or over the open downs. The officials of the

labour exchanges were everywhere overworked and infuriated, the

casual wards were so crowded that the surplus wanderers slept in

ranks under sheds or in the open air, and since giving to

wayfarers had been made a punishable offence there was no longer

friendship or help for a man from the rare foot passenger or the

wayside cottage

'I wasn't angry,' said Barnet. 'I saw an immense selfishness, a

monstrous disregard for anything but pleasure and possession in

all those people above us, but I saw how inevitable that was, how

certainly if the richest had changed places with the poorest,

that things would have been the same. What else can happen when

men use science and every new thing that science gives, and all

their available intelligence and energy to manufacture wealth and

appliances, and leave government and education to the rustling

traditions of hundreds of years ago? Those traditions come from

the dark ages when there was really not enough for every one,

when life was a fierce struggle that might be masked but could

not be escaped. Of course this famine grabbing, this fierce

dispossession of others, must follow from such a disharmony

between material and training. Of course the rich were vulgar and

the poor grew savage and every added power that came to men made

the rich richer and the poor less necessary and less free. The

men I met in the casual wards and the relief offices were all

smouldering for revolt, talking of justice and injustice and

revenge. I saw no hope in that talk, nor in anything but

patience'

But he did not mean a passivepatience. He meant that the method

of social reconstruction was still a riddle, that no effectual

rearrangement was possible until this riddle in all its tangled

aspects was solved. 'I tried to talk to those discontented men,'

he wrote, 'but it was hard for them to see things as I saw them.

When I talked of patience and the larger scheme, they answered,

"But then we shall all be dead"-and I could not make them see,

what is so simple to my own mind, that that did not affect the

question. Men who think in lifetimes are of no use to

statesmanship.'

He does not seem to have seen a newspaper during those

wanderings, and a chance sight of the transparency of a kiosk in

the market-place at Bishop's Stortford announcing a 'Grave

International Situation' did not excite him very much. There had

been so many grave international situations in recent years.

This time it was talk of the Central European powers suddenly

attacking the Slav Confederacy, with France and England going to

the help of the Slavs.

But the next night he found a tolerable meal awaiting the

vagrants in the casual ward, and learnt from the workhouse master

that all serviceable trained men were to be sent back on the

morrow to their mobilisation centres. The country was on the eve

of war. He was to go back through London to Surrey. His first

feeling, he records, was one of extreme relief that his days of

'hopeless battering at the underside of civilisation' were at an

end. Here was something definite to do, something definitely

provided for. But his relief was greatly modified when he found

that the mobilisation arrangements had been made so hastily and

carelessly that for nearly thirty-six hours at the improvised

depot at Epsom he got nothing either to eat or to drink but a cup

of cold water. The depot was absolutely unprovisioned, and no one

was free to leave it.


H. G. WELLS. EASTON GLEBE, DUNMOW, 1921. CONTENTS PRELUDE THE SUN SNARERS CHAPTER THE FIRST THE NEW SOURCE OF ENERGY | The World Set Free | CHAPTER THE SECOND THE LAST WAR