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   Chapter 12 AN OXFORD FRIENDSHIP

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 16462

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Though it is the rule of these memoirs not to deal at any length or detail with living people, I feel I must make an exception in regard to Sir Bernard Mallet, the first friend I made at Oxford, the closest friend of my college days, and the dearest friend of my after-life. Of course, even in his case I cannot say all that I should like to say, for I don't want to expose myself to the gibe of the wit who, reading a sympathetic notice of a living man, declared that he did not care for funeral orations on the living! Another advocate of ascetic reticence in similar circumstances is said to have remarked that it was hardly decent to use such favourable expressions except in the case of a dead man! But, though I am not going to expose myself to the accusation of gushing, I cannot give a true picture of myself without dwelling upon Mallet's influence upon me. My friendship with him was my first experience of real friendship-the relation which it is in the power of youth to establish and maintain, a relation akin to the tie of brotherhood, and one which may have, and ought to have, in it an element of devotion.

Friendship between two young men, keen on all things political, intellectual, and literary, is rightly and necessarily founded upon talk. My friend and I were eager to know not only about each other but about everything else in the universe. Mallet's influence became at once very great upon me at a point where I much needed it. He was deeply interested, and very well-read for a boy of his age, in Political Economy. His father, Sir Louis Mallet, was not only one of the most famous and most enlightened of Civil Servants, but had made a scientific study of the theory of economics. Besides that he had acted as Cobden's official secretary when Cobden negotiated the Commercial Treaty with France, and had become deeply attached to the great Free Trader and his policy. From his father Mallet had learnt what was infinitely more important than anything he could learn in textbooks. He had learnt to look upon Political Economy not as something to be applied only to trade, but something which concerned our morals, our politics, and even our spiritual life. Though it, no doubt, involved Free Trade, what both the Mallets pleaded for was "the policy of Free Exchange" a policy entering and ruling every form of human activity, or, at any rate, everything to which the quality of value inured, and so the quality of exchangeability.

At the time when I went up to Balliol and sat down beside Mallet at the Freshmen's table in the Hall, wild and eager, shy and forthcoming, bursting with the desire to talk and to hear talk, and yet not exactly knowing how to approach my fellow-novices, I was an ardent, if theoretical, Republican and Socialist. I was, while only a schoolboy of fourteen or fifteen, a passionate admirer of Arch, the man who formed the first Agricultural Labourers' Union, and a regular reader of his penny weekly organ. It was the first paper to which I became an annual subscriber. Now, though I had noted some of the extravagances of the extremists, I was on the edge of conversion to full-blown Socialism or Communism. We did not much distinguish in those days between the two. I was especially anxious, as every young man must be, to see if I could not do something to help ameliorate the condition of working-men and to find a policy which would secure a better distribution of wealth and of the good things of the world.

Very soon, at once indeed, I confided my views to my new friend. Our conversation is imprinted upon my mind. Though, of course, I did not realise it at the time, it was destined to have a great effect upon my life. I told Mallet that I was so haunted by the miseries of the poor and the injustice of our social order that, however much I disliked it for other reasons, and however great the dangers, I was growing more and more into the belief that it would be my duty to espouse the cause of Socialism; then, be it remembered, preached by Mr. Hyndman in full and Mr. Henry George, the single-tax man, in an attenuated form. I was a Free Trader, of course, but if, as a result of the Free Trade system, the poor were getting poorer, and the rich richer, as, alas! it seemed, I was prepared to fight to the death even against Free Trade.

On this Mallet, instead of growing zealously angry with my ignorant enthusiasm, asked me very pertinently what right I had to suggest that the principles of Political Economy and Free Trade had been tested and had failed. He admitted that if to maintain them would prevent a better distribution of wealth, they must be abolished forthwith. He went on to agree also that if everything else had been exhausted, it would be right to try Socialism, provided one was not convinced that the remedy would prove worse than the disease. But he went on to explain to me, what I had never realised before, that the enlightened economists took no responsibility for the existing system. They held, instead, that the present ills of the world came, not from obeying but from disobeying the teachings of Political Economy. Everywhere Free Exchange was interfered with and violated, on some pretext or another. Even in England it would not be said that Free Exchange had been given a complete trial. It was, he went on to show, because they believed that the ills of human society could be cured, and only cured, by a proper understanding and a proper observance of the laws of economics that men like his father advocated Free Exchange so strongly and opposed every attempt to disestablish it.

[Illustration: J. St. Loe Strachey as an Oxford Fresman ?tat. 18]

We want as much as any Socialist to get rid of poverty, misery and destitution, and we believe we have got the true remedy, if only we were allowed to apply it. There would be plenty of the good things of the world for everybody, if we did not constantly interfere with production, and if we did not destroy capital, which would otherwise be competing for labour, not labour for it. By the madness of war and the preparation for war, we lay low that which prevents unemployment. We are always preventing instead of encouraging exchanges, the essential sources of wealth. Yet we wonder that we remain poor.

But the policy of Free Exchange, he went on, must not be regarded merely as a kind of alternative to Socialism. True believers in economics were bound to point out that the nostrum of the Socialists, though intended to do good, would do infinite harm if applied to the community. There was a possibility of release from the prison-house and its tortures by the way of Free Exchange, but none by the way of Socialism. That could only deepen and increase the darkness and bring even greater miseries upon mankind than those they endured at the present moment.

I listened greatly moved, and asked for more instruction. I soon realised that economics were a very different thing to what I had supposed. My father was a strong Free Trader and had talked to me on the subject, but without any great enthusiasm. He was an idealist, and in his youth had strong leanings, first to the Socialism of Owen, and then to the Christian Socialism of Maurice, Kingsley, and their friends. Though later he had dropped these views and had become a convinced supporter of Cobden and Bright in the controversy over the Factory Acts (and let me say that in this I still believe he was perfectly right), he had taken the Shaftesbury rather than the Manchester view. Right or wrong in principle, any proposal to protect women and children would have been sure to secure his support. He would rather be wrong with their advocates than right with a million of philosophers. Again, though he liked Bright, I don't think he ever quite forgave him for talking about the "residuum." My father had no sympathy with insult, even if it was deserved. With him, to suffer was to be worthy of help and comfort, and here, of course, he was right. Again, though he read his Mill, he was not deeply interested. He understood and assented to the main arguments, but he had never happened to get inspired by the idea that the way to accomplish his essential desire to improve the lot of the

poor, and so to save society, was by discovering a true theory of applying the principles of Free Exchange. As Sir Louis Mallet used to say, a great deal of this misunderstanding came from the unfortunate fact that we called our policy Free Trade, and so narrowed it and made it appear sordid. If, like the French, we had called it Free Exchange, we should have made it universal and so inspiring.

Mallet's words, then, came to me like a revelation. I saw at once, as I have seen and felt ever since, that Political Economy, properly understood and properly applied, is not a dreary science, but one of the most fascinating and mentally stimulating of all forms of human knowledge. Above all, it is the one which gives real hope for making a better business of human life in the future than was ever known in the past; far better than anything the Communist theorisers can offer. Let their theories be examined, not with sentimental indulgence but in the scientific spirit, and they fade away like the dreams they are.

My teacher was as keen as myself. But when two young minds are striking on each other, the sparks fly. It was not long, then, before I believed myself to have mastered the essential principles of Free Exchange- principles simple in themselves, though not easy to state exactly. To apply them in a lazy and sophistically-minded world is still more difficult. Even business men and traders, who ought to know better, ignore the science on which their livelihood is wholly founded.

Thus, with a halo of friendship and intellectual freedom round me, I learned what Economics really meant, and what might be accomplished if men could only understand the nature of Exchange, and apply their knowledge to affairs.

When I see some public man floundering in the morasses of sophistry, often a quagmire of his own creation, I say to myself, "There, but for Bernard Mallet, goes John St. Loe Strachey." I should, indeed, be an ingrate if I did not acknowledge my debt.

Here is Sir Bernard Mallet's account of me at Oxford in the year 1878.

SIR BERNARD MALLET'S MEMORANDUM

I can find no diaries-or any of the letters which I must have written to my people about Oxford, so I must do what I can without their help. I daresay they would not have been much use, as I never wrote good letters, and my recollections of our first meeting are still pretty fresh. It would be odd if they were not, for our Oxford alliance was far the biggest and most important influence in my life there.

I think it must have been within two or three days of my arrival at Balliol as freshman, in October, 1878, that I found myself sitting beside you at dinner in Hall. No doubt we soon found out each other's names. Yours at once fixed my attention because, as my father was then Under Secretary of State for India and in intimate relations with your two uncles, the great Indian statesmen, Sir John and General Richard Strachey, it had long been familiar to me. This seemed to place us at once, and give me a topic to begin on. Not that conversation was ever lacking in your company! I remember to this hour the vivid, emphatic way you talked, and your appearance then-your rather pale face and your thin but strongly-built figure. I was at once greatly impressed, but I am not sure that the first impression on a more or less conventional public-schoolboy (such as I suppose I must have been) was altogether favourable! Certainly I have always thought of you as a reason for distrusting my first impression of a man! Luckily for me, however, we continued to meet. You were so alive and unreserved that you very soon posted me up in all the details of your life and family, and drew the same confidences from me; and we soon found that we had so much in common that in a very few days we fell into those specially intimate relations which lasted through our Oxford days and long after. It is not easy to analyse or account for the rapid growth of such a friendship, but on my part, I think, it was the fact of your being so different from others which at first slightly repelled, and then strangely attracted me. To begin with, you had never been at school; you knew nothing of Greek or Latin as languages, nor of cricket or football! But the want of this routine education or discipline was no disadvantage to you (except for certain serious misadventures in "Mods.!") because your personality and strong intelligence enabled you to get far more out of exceptional home surroundings than you could have got out of any school. You had kept all your intellectual freshness and originality. In English literature, from the Elizabethan downwards, you had read widely and deeply, and your wonderful memory never failed you in quotation from the poets. You ought really, with those tastes and that training, to have become a poet yourself! and till politics and journalism drew you off I often thought that pure literature would be your line. But your political instincts were even then quite as strong; you came of a family with political interests and traditions; and as a boy you had met a good many Liberal statesmen-either at the house of Lady Waldegrave, your mother's friend and country neighbour, or at Cannes, where your family used to spend the winter. But your politics had rather a poetical tinge! Shelley, Swinburne, Walt Whitman coloured your ideas-you were a democrat and republican, with a great enthusiasm for the United States and for the story of Abraham Lincoln. But you were never faddist or doctrinaire, and your practical bent showed itself in the keen interest you took in the noticing of political economy in which I used to dabble, and which we used to discuss by the hour. You seemed, without having studied text-books, to have an intuitive grasp of economic and fiscal truths which astonished me and others much better qualified to judge than I was. The real truth is that, though there were, no doubt, gaps in your mental equipment which may have horrified the dons, you were miles ahead of most of us in the width and variety of your interests, in your gift of self-expression and, in a way, in knowledge of the world. Every talk with you seemed to open up new vistas to me. I was perhaps more receptive than the usual run of public-schoolboy, as I too had had interests awakened by home surroundings and tradition. We both of us, in fact, owed a very great deal to our respective fathers, and it was a real pleasure and guide to me to be introduced later to your father and home at Sutton Court-as I know it was to you to get to know and appreciate my father.

But I must not wander from my subject, which is to try and give a faithful account of how you struck me in those days. I have said nothing yet of one of your characteristics which I think weighed with me, and impressed me more than anything else, and that was the remarkable power you had, and have always retained, of drawing out the best in others. Intellectual power or force of character (or whatever you like to call it) is so often self-centred as to lose half its value. With you, however, it was different. You always appeared to be, and I think genuinely were, quite as much interested in other people's ideas or personalities as in your own-or even more interested. You listened to them, you questioned, you put them on their mettle, you helped them out by interpreting their crude or half-impressed thoughts, and all this without a trace of flattery or patronage. By this, and by your generous over-appreciation of them, you inspired your friends with greater confidence in themselves than they would otherwise have had. In your company they were, or felt themselves, really better men. To one of my disposition, at all events, this was a source of extraordinary encouragement and help. I felt it from the first, and I cannot omit mentioning it in my attempt to describe what you were like when we met at Oxford. I am afraid it is a poor attempt, and wanting in details which contemporary records, if they had existed, could alone have supplied. But I hope you may find something in it which will suit your purpose. I don't think, after all, you have changed as much as most people in the forty-odd years I have known you!

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