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catallaxy in technical exile

The Lion and the Ostrich

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In 1963 Arthur Koestler wrote an essay called ‘The Lion and the Ostrich’ for a series titled “Suicide of a Nation?”. His essay described how the class structure of England and the mentality of the workers and the “toffs” made Britain the sick nation of Europe after World War 2. This is a remarkable achievement because Britain in the Victorian era was described as the workshop of the world, ruler of the ocean waves and arguably the premier world power.

Koestler reported that in the period 1950-55 British exports increased by 6 per cent while those of the Common Market grew by 76 per cent. The comparative figures for the following five years were 13 per cent and 63 per cent. Through the 1950s no industrial nation had a lower growth of per capita output than Britain and the growth of the national income of the Common Market countries doubled that of Britain.

The British decline was the result of a long process and it has been suggested that England was the wrong place to lead the industrial revolution because the upper classes were hopelessly biased against manual work (indeed against paid work of any kind – recall the segregation of the paid professional cricketers from the amateur gentlemen in separate dressing rooms until 1963), against wealth (unless acquired by inheritance) and against trade, industry and enterprise generally. Many of the new magnates bought country estates and blended into the old aristocracy, hoping that their past would be forgotten, quite unlike the US where self-made men were proud of their achievements and were happy to celebrate them in public.

The genteel middle classes and especially the literarati came to share the views of the aristocracy and the radical critics of trade and industry. Charles Dickens is just one of a galaxy of writers, poets, cultural commentators and even historians who failed to understand the nature of the processes that were at work and misrepresented either explicitly or by implication the reasons for the comparatively tough living conditions of the factory workers and other urban dwellers. The qualification ‘comparative’ is important because the baseline for comparison was usually the situation of the well to do, or else some mythical and idylic image of the lifestyle of rural villagers and farm workers.

The case of Charles Dickens is instructive because he has lent his name to the “Dickensian horrors” of the time and because he actually experienced some manual work, unlike most of the educated commentators. Like the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, it is instructive in a different sense than that intended by critics of the system. Dickens spent 6 months at the age of 12 in a small blacking (boot polish) factory, owned by a relative, where he earned six shillings a week, working with a team of boys pasting labels on tins. This was a tragic decline for Dickens who had been living in ease and comfort because his father (John) enjoyed an income of 350 pounds per annum in the Navy Pay Office. Dickens senior had ideas above his station, possibly because he grew up in contact with the grand house of Lord Crewe where his father was the head butler. John Dickens and his wife habitually lived beyond their means and they spent almost six months in Marshalsea debtors prison until a relative left a legacy that paid off the creditors. For some reason Charles was not immediately released from the job and he believed that his mother actually wanted him to stay on.

During those months Charles visited his parents daily but he lived in desperate uncertainty about his future. The experience was so traumatic that the theme of the abandoned child is a recurring motif in his books. The horror of the experience had nothing to do with the work itself which was light, safe, and indoors. It was the violent reaction of a highly imaginative child to the sense of being betrayed by his mother and father, and “cast down” from his proper station in life. This was entirely the fault of his parents and it had nothing to do with his own working conditions or the industrial system at large. After six months Charles left the factory and completed his secondary schooling with three years in a private college.

In considering the conditions of the urban workers it is essential to check some aspects of the evidence that is tendered. First, ensure that the evidence was actually contemporary. Hutt reported that it was common for critics of the factories to make use of evidence and observations from previous decades, as though nothing had changed in the meantime. Second, take account of the options that were open to the workers and consider whether they would have been better off somewhere else, if indeed employment was available elsewhere.

As a result of propaganda from radical agitators “below” and the prejudiced literati “above”, the relationship of cause and effect between markets and welfare became inverted and free markets have been blamed for practically every economic ill that afflicts the human race, from the suffering of the workers in the eighteenth century to the Great Depression.

Arthur Koestler’s essay is a sharp-eyed outsider’s account of the way that the spirit of enterprise in Britain was ground down between the millstones of trade unionism and the prejudices of the upper classes. He described the split personality of his adopted countrymen. “The Englishman strikes one as a hybrid between a lion and an ostrich. In times of emergency he rises magnificently to the occasion. In between emergencies he buries his head in the sand. [This] guarantees that a new emergency will soon arise”.

Koestler escaped from Portugal, spent six weeks in Pentonville Prison as an illegal entrant and then joined the Alien Pioneer Corps to “dig for victory” on vital defence works. The foreigners in the Corps were “too keen” because they objected to the ritual tea breaks which involved marching back to barracks, losing hours of valuable digging time. The CO insisted that they would have to take the tea breaks, otherwise the British Pioneer Corps and the local trade unions would raise hell. This was a few months after Dunkirk, under the threat of German invasion.

In the course of digging for freedom and later in the Ambulance Service Koestler discovered a great deal about the lower strata of the working classes and he came to understand something of the cold class war that divided England. This was nothing like the Marxist class consciousness that he knew intimately from his involvement with the militant Socialist parties of Europe.

I soon learned that the world is divided into Them and us. The “T” is capitalised, the “u” is not. Politics hardly entered into this attitude; instead of the fierce class hatred which had scorched the Continent with revolutions and civil wars, there was a kind of stale, resentful fatalism. I learned to conform to our unwritten Rules of Life: Go slow; it’s a mug’s game anyway; if you play it, you are letting your mates down; if you seek betterment, promotion, you are breaking ranks and will be sent to Coventry. My comrades could be lively and full of bounce; at the working site they moved like figures in a slow-motion film or deep-sea divers on the ocean-bed. The most cherished rituals of our tribal life were the tea-and-bun breaks, serene and protracted like a Japanese tea ceremony.

Some of my buddies came from the slums; some of them had been taught as children to use cupboard drawers for chamberpots. The majority were a decent lot, with untapped human potential buried under the tribal observances.

Writing in 1963 he reported that the improved standard of living since the war had given the working classes the consumer goods and comforts of the middle class but the frontier between the two civilisations (he almost wrote two nations) remained in place. One side embraced a complex social pyramid with multiple subdivisions but a common commitment to some basic aims and values, mostly to do with gracious living or its outward appearance. The other side will have none of it, least of all aspirations for success.

In his view the British working class had become an immensely powerful, non-competitive enclave in a competitive society and most of that ethos derives from the culture and methods of the trade union movement. Koestler instanced the need for the socialist government in 1946 to call in the army to maintain food supplies during a strike by London transport workers. Another item in his ‘This England’ file was a strike by railwaymen at Southampton because they were no longer permitted to have their hair cut by railway employees, in railway time, on railway premises. Other items were more alarming.

In 1956 a Merseyside dispute between joiners and metal-workers about who should drill the holes in aluminium sheets led to a strike which lasted six months and attracted national attention. It was regarded as a kind of music hall joke, an endearing quaintness of characters out of Dickens. Two years later,The Times reported that four hundred men had to be dismissed as redundant, eleven thousand were threatened with the same fate, that production on three vessels and a submarine had to be postponed indefinitely because the boiler-makers and the drillers could not agree who was entitled to use five stud-welding guns designed to weld nuts and thimbles to metal plates. It then transpired that the use of this quick and efficient method had been prevented by this dispute between the two unions for the last twelve years. (My bold, Koestler’s italics).

Two vivid memories come to mind. First a scene in Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin, after several hours spent at the moving assembly belt going through the same sequence of three or four jerky motions, keeps repeating them like a wound-up automaton after the belt has stopped moving. The second is a television interview with two young Merseyside workers, occasioned by one of those demarcation disputes about who should drill the holes. Asked by the interviewer why they were opposed to young people learning more than one skill, to acquire more knowledge, flexibility and all-round understanding of the production process, the young lads rigidly, stubbornly, repeated: “Because that would lead to unemployment. We don’t want to be pushed about. We remember 1929.”

They did not, of course, remember 1929, only what their elders had told them and their union leaders had taught them. It was the sacred doctrine that the man who lays the cold-water pipes must not be allowed to lay the hot-water pipes, the man who makes the cable must not be allowed to make the casing for the cable, a doctrine which holds up as an ideal the narrowing of a man’s potentialities, his rigid specalisation in a single, mechanised, automatic routine – his reduction to a robot. Chaplin’s nightmare has become the boilermaker’s wish dream.

In 1980 Koester reprinted this essay in a collection titled Bricks to Babel with a short postscript.

Since Suicide of a Nation? was published in 1963, the downward trend has accelerated, while the underlying causes which it attempted to indicate have become more visible. The ostrich’s tail displays an occasional nervous twitch – but there is no sign to date of the lion rising to the occasion.

He did not realise as he wrote that the lioness had arrived!

Written by Admin

April 16, 2006 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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