The London Children And The New Democracy

IT was only a fortnight ago, on a bright July afternoon, that the poor children of darker London east aside their tattered grammars and thumb – marked copy-books, trooped hilariously out of the inky schoolrooms and plunged straight into the delights and ad-ventures of a summer holiday. The illustrated papers of that period depicted the boys bathing in the Serpentine, paddling and fishing for tiddlers ” in shallow, weedy waters ; and the girls pushing along miniature, decrepit perambulators—vulgar, discarded egg-boxes, some of them—containing battered, ghastly-looking dolls.

Freedom and recreations, therefore, for the poor children of darker London. Then, all of a sudden, the end of peace—and the crash of war. Abandoning the Serpentine, the Tommies and Billies joined up with paper caps, wooden swords, tin pails and kettles, and marched vigorously and patriotically about the streets, cheering their Country and their King. Splendid patriot-ism also of the Carries and Gerties, who emptied their perambulators in order that they might serve as ambulances. It was a grand, a noble spectacle. On and on the children marched, beating their tin pails, saluting, acclaiming : and encouraging their King and Country. But in-stead of giving the children the Country’s grateful thanks, instead of generously coming forward with doughnuts, apples and ginger-beer, what has the Country done ? The Country—0 bitter shame ! 0 indelible disgrace ! — has cur-tailed the children’s summer holiday, and ordered them back to their teachers, discipline, grammars and schoolrooms !

Mature, methodical people, like you and me, realise, of course, that in adopting this drastic measure the Country, or rather the L.C.C., has only had the children’s own interests at heart. Our educational authorities fear that Tom and Bill, as they heroically march the streets with pails and kettles, might be mowed down by murderous motor omnibuses. Also (as many of their husbands have joined the forces, and times, generally, are bad) it is probable that the mothers of our Toms and Billies, and our Carries and Gerties, will be unable to provide their children with sufficient food. Hence the hurried re-opening of the schools. The schools intend to feed the children, to save them from the dread-noughts of the streets ; but it would be indiscreet and indelicate to acquaint London’s small, shabby boys and girls with the real facts of the situation. Tell them the truth and they would immediately exclaim ” We ain’t afraid of motor buses,” and ” We ain’t frightened of not getting enough to eat.”

We ain’t done no ‘arm. We’re down upon the Germins, that’s all we are,” declares the leader of a band of boys to me in a back street off Edgware Road.

He and his followers are seated on a doorstep, resting, after a long march to Trafalgar Square and back. On the ground their wooden swords, battered pails and kettles, and a board that bears (in chalk) the stirring, eloquent inscription : “No More Germin Sossijes.”

” Only down upon the Germins, that’s all we are,” repeats the leader of the band of London’s Tommies and Billies. ” And back we go to school—the lot of us—and all becos we’ve spoken up nice and proud for our Country.” Angrily he beats a battered old kettle with a stick of charred firewood. Another warrior produces further din from a crippled pail. A third manifestant whistles shrilly and derisively. As they thus demonstrate, I count them up. Eleven in all. Eleven patriots and heroes-fighting for King and Country—yet,–sent back ignominiously to school !

” But you won’t have a bad time of it,” I intervene. ” I don’t mind telling you that a good many of your teachers are missing. When they left on their holidays they went to Germany and Switzerland, and now they can’t get back.”

“‘Ooray ! ” shouts an urchin.

“‘Ooray! ‘Ooray ! ” cry other delighted urchins.

Back to the old school tomorrow,” sneers a passing constable. ” No wonder you’re merry and bright.”

But the urchins hear not the mocking words of the policeman. They consult, and whisper, and laugh joyously together. They break out into another “‘Ooray ! ” They’ dance with sheer ecstasy. More bangs on the crippled kettles and pails. When I ask for an explanation of his gaiety, the leader of the band shouts with laughter.

” Old Barrett—one of our teachers—went to Germiny for ‘is ‘olidays, and, of course, the Germins ‘axe got ‘im,” cries the leader spasmodically.

“‘Ooray -! ‘Ooray ! ‘Ooray ! ” scream the followers. Thus the children console themselves ; it belongs to childhood to recover joy. But adults want sympathy—need conversation.

During the last day or two I have been having a good deal to do with strangers ; and strangers have been having a good deal to do with me. In tubes and omnibuses and open spaces, I have suddenly found myself engaged in conversation with all sorts and conditions of unknown people, even with ladies and their cherished, sacred children. How the first overtures were made I am not quite clear. Somebody has smiled, or somebody has sighed, or somebody has said nothing, has only looked, and lo ! conversations have been opened and conventions broken down, the stiffness and reserve for which the English nation is notorious have been superseded by spontaneity and naturalness.

Indeed one might almost say that there are no strangers left in London. In normal times lots and lots of lonely souls ; but to-day the loneliest of them easily finds someone to gossip with. No introductions are necessary ; everyone speaks to everybody else ; and pathetic, faded spinsters and shabby, solitary old fellows have been invited to emerge from their obscurity and join in the general conversations and gossip about governments. The rich city man is as approachable (about war schemes) as the workman. Prosperous shopkeepers exchange confidences with crossing-sweepers ; pert errand boys are on familiar terms with stalwart constables; the stout, ever-garrulous charwoman calls the lady of the house ” my dear,” and even ” nuts, ” flappers,” actor-managers and Sloane Square mannequins have put aside their airs and graces and heroically succumbed to the spirit of the hour. A most admirable and sympathetic spirit, since it brings together every class in the community. War devastates, annihilates ; but war also destroys class prejudices, and humanises. Already out of the war there has been born in London a new democracy.

I admit that this new democracy—this freedom in opening sudden conversations—is sometimes puzzling and disconcerting. One hears the oddest arguments and theories ; one is told things staggering enough to take one’s breath away. This afternoon, for instance, whilst I am resting on a bench on Hampstead Heath, my neighbour, a thin, elderly man with weak whiskers, a dull eye, but emphatic manners, impulsively invites me to survey the heavens. Apprehensively I look upwards, expecting Zeppelins. Nothing, however, but sombre, sullen clouds. Not the speck of an invader—and I say so.

” I didn’t mean Germans ; I meant the clouds,” replies my neighbour crossly. ” Don’t they look like the Dreadnoughts in the North Sea—the same -dark grey colour, frowning, menacing ? Firing, we, know, affects the weather. A great battle is raging—perhaps on sea, no doubt on land. I shall immediately go home, and enter this observation in my diary.”

No sooner has he left the bench, than down on it sits a burly man with an evening newspaper. In-stead of _reading it, he reflectively strokes his face and chin. Then he informs me that he is engaged at a furniture remover’s, and that ” something is worrying and puzzling and upsetting ” him. Of course, as one of the new democrats, I express concern and sympathy.

” You’d ‘ardly believe it, but it’s a fact,” my new neighbour solemnly relates. ” It’s fit to put in the papers. Just ‘ave a look at me, and tell me —does I need shaving ? ”

” Not much, perhaps a little,” I reply ambiguously.

” Now listen. For many years I only wanted a shave every second day,” solemnly continues the furniture remover. ” But I ‘ad one yesterday, and I wants another to-day ! And it’s been like that ever since we’ve gene to war. Yes ; a shave every day. And it’s the war that ‘as done it. Why, I couldn’t tell you. Fancy a war making your beard grow faster ! ‘Ardly credible, but wot I’m telling you is the solemn truth. Me, Jim Barker, of Little Adam Street, Camden Town, takes ‘is oath that this ‘ere face was shaved yesterday ; it wants another shave today ; and it’s the war that’s worked it. But, being an Englishman, wot does a few extra shaves matter ? ”

We all of us recognise that as Englishmen what is required of us is to suppress, or, at any rate, conceal, emotion. We must be calm.

But although everyone is striving to be calm, everyone of us is in a tense, emotional condition. During the greater part of this sunny, radiant afternoon I have been looking here, there and everywhere for what I may term a natural face, just an ordinary, normal, everyday face, but I have sought and searched in vain. Or, if I have beheld such faces, they have belonged to infants in arms and babies in perambulators. Oh, to be a baby in these hectic days, an innocent baby with a bottle and a rattle ! Try the experiment of looking for natural faces yourself. Begin, in the mirror, with your own face. If you be honest, you will admit that a sudden change has come across it.

Of course I do not suggest that the faces of the present hour have undergone vicissitudes so remarkable as to render them conspicuous at a distance. The majority of faces, even a couple of yards away, appear normal. Still, fever is there ; the skin is dry, hair has lost its sheen, eyes are jaded, strained, contracted—underneath them, shadows. Moreover, mouths and nostrils twitch, and hands are restless, and legs have a nervous way of shooting outwards. Even as I write, in the smoking-room of a leading club, a member renowned for his composure has changed his chair for the third time in fifteen minutes. No reason for changing chairs ; nor is there any more reason why another member should be for ever going up and down the staircase. Then a third member—usually the quietest of souls—has acquired the noisy, irritating habit of jingling his coins in his pockets. A fourth is constantly snap-ping his fingers, a fifth cannot keep his pipe alight —there, the first member has changed his chair again. But enough of the honourable members of this leading club. They are all the same. Like everyone in London, they are doing their utmost to keep calm—and cannot manage it.

Nor shall we ever manage it ; we should be as chilly and lifeless as the oyster or the jelly-fish if we could. If there be a superman in this kingdom who can produce an infallible remedy or method for keeping calm-in other words, for keeping our thoughts off the war—we don’t want him though he be acclaimed as the greatest of all physicians and philosophers. Keep calm, whilst the newsboys are shouting ! Keep calm, whilst contradictory rumours are hurtling to and fro ! Keep calm, whilst no definite information is forth-coming from the North Sea, Belgium, France, Austria and Russia ! We know nothing, and even when we do receive decisive news-what will it be ? So we live, and shall continue to live, in a state of suspense—the cruellest and most intolerable of all ordeals and conditions. If only we knew something…. But no, silence is the strict, obligatory policy of modern warfare, and we must bear with the suspense and go on striving to be—no, to appear, calm.

How to manage it ? The one and only way is to forget the war. But how to do it ? It is reported that Christian Scientists, and other strange kindred sects, are saying to themselves a thousand times a day : There is no war there is nothing but sunshine, happiness and peace.” I have tried this alleged: remedy myself. But it does no good. If anything, it makes one worse.

A multitude of Londoners have tried bridge, chess, draughts, billiards, dominoes, gardening, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, Euclid and Shakespeare, The Vicar of Wakefield, The Belle of New York, the summit of Primrose Hill. But in every ease these endeavours to keep their minds from off the war have miserably failed. A No Trump hand, but what’s happening in Belgium ? In off the red—probably the bloody colour of the Franco-German frontier. That song from The Belle of New York, ” Follow on, Follow on.” . . . Calm ! As a last hope, a final refuge, I betake myself to a swimming bath. But no sooner have I appeared in my bathing attire on the tiled plat-form that surrounds the swimming bath than a voice from the water cries out excitedly :

” Any news ? ”

Before I can reply, the speaker and other fellow-bathers swim rapidly towards me, and splutter forth the same eternal question : ” Any news ? What’s the latest ?

Thus even the swimming baths have become restless, warlike waters. However, I take the plunge and swim along ; and as I swim along the nearest bather to me ejaculates spasmodically : ” The German Emperor’s done for—but we mustn’t shout out just yet—lots more to come—thing to do’s keep calm—thing to remember–”

But here my fellow-swimmer involuntarily swallows a quantity of water–and chokes.