It was about that time I managed to get a job for one of those ex-officers who long after the war still found themselves at a loose end and unable to make a place for themselves in civil life, until some of them took to crime and some to despair and some to a bed-sitting-room hired for the night with a gas stove and a shilling-in-the-slot machine and a bolted door which had to be burst open in the morning.
Philip Gibbs’s Young Anarchy is a twenties novel that is haunted by memories of the Great War. Its foregrounded subject is rebellious Youth, drawn by the rival temptations of hedonism and left-wing politics.
Gibbs’s narrator, as usual, is a well-meaning observer, eager to see the good in all parties, and torn in his loyalties. He is, however, one of those who “belong to the old tradition and find it hard to reconcile ourselves to the spiritual anarchy and lawlessness of this younger crowd.” Although he responds to the energy and truthfulness of the young, he feels uneasy that “those two words – obedience and duty – […] do not enter into the language or mentality of this post-war generation.” His analysis leads him to the conclusion that:
…it was the war itself which was the cause of all this. It brought down more than the crowns and the kingdoms. It killed more than the millions of dead. It smashed something in the minds of men – age-old traditions of thought, the foundations of faith, many hopes and illusions in the soul of humanity, the ancient discipline of social life. Its heritage of misery and ruin left a cynicism which has been bequeathed to the very children of the years that followed.
But though the war was disruptive and unsettling, it provides a standard by which the post-war world can be judged. The novel’s narrative traces the story of a group of young people exploring the possibilities of a new and freer world, but on the edges of the picture there are shabby men wearing service medals, ex-sergeants proud of their war service, and men blinded on the Somme, now begging in the streets.
Gibbs’s narrator finds himself involved, sometimes willingly and sometimes not, with the family of the reactionary Bishop of Burpham. The Bishop’s son, Jocelyn, goes to Oxford and meets an ex-miner from Ruskin College, who converts him to socialism. The daughter, Nancy, writes a best-selling novel (compared with The Constant Nymph) that controversially sums up the spirit of the age. The Bishop disowns them both, and can do nothing but fulminate helplessly against what he sees as the decline of civilisation.
The Bishop’s sister, Elizabeth, is more positive about Youth. During the war she had successfully run a canteen, and in the twenties organises a night refuge for don-and-outs (many of them ex-soldiers, of course). She sees the potential in Youth, and so tries to organise a League of Youth that would work together for the good of the country. There is a set-piece description of the inaugural meeting that is one of the best bits in the book (Gibbs was good at describing public meetings. In his Intellectual Mansions, S.W. (1910) there is a terrific account of the Prime Minister being heckled by suffragettes). For a start, most of the people who have come to the join the League of Youth are grey-haired (which reminds me of when the National theatre puts on a play about and for the daring young, and most of the seats are occupied by culture-vulture pensioners). Then, when the Bishop starts to speak, the Communists begin heckling, the Hooray Henries attack them, and everything fragments into chaos.
We follow Jocelyn’s campaign as a Labour candidate, a disillusioning experience for all, and the novel seems set for utter pessimism about the prospects for England. But then the National Strike occurs.
Gibbs was the most topical (and fast-working) of novelists, and published this book in September 1926, only a few months after the events described. The meanings he finds in the strike are paradoxical, and rather interesting.
When the Strike begins, the narrator expects the worst: “It was impossible to believe that there would not be rioting, mob violence, looting, lawlessness.” But what is expected to be the most disruptive and negative event of the book turns out to be unifying and almost entirely positive. For a start, the hedonistic Glad Young Things buckle to and do their bit. They drive buses, wearing their plus fours and tasselled socks, show good humour when they do hard work unloading food at the docks. “The post-war youth of England,” the narrator decides, were “as like as peas in a pod to another crowd of youth I had known, twelve years ago, when the country was in danger.”
The wartime spirit is demonstrated not only by the undergraduates and public-school boys who step in to keep the country going. The office workers and shop-girls who ride on the unofficial buses develop a community spirit that was not there before. The working men, too, show that they have not been corrupted by militants. They show solidarity with the miners by striking, but they are not violent. The only clashes are marginal and minor. What Gibbs sees as the dogged, essentially peaceful spirit of England wins out against extremists of all sort – whether the fanatical Communists who are represented as taking their orders from Moscow, or those on the Conservative side who would like to bring things to a crisis. Churchill is seen as a divisive figure (“that fat brat” one character calls him.
The cynicism and selfishness of youth is seen to be only apparent, and the spirit that won the war is still alive. What is more, the young upper-class men who took a hand at real work have gained a respect for the workers, while the workers have seen that the upper-classes are not as soft as they look. It’s as if the post-war unease has been brought to a crisis, the boil has burst, and health can now return to the country.
Which is, of course, a very right-wing interpretation of the General Strike, but it’s one that was common at the time. Maybe I’ll look at some more General Strike novels, and see if they too relate to a myth of the war.