My Discovery of England
Part 2 out of 3
In the long run this must count. Of all the various reforms that
are talked of at Oxford, and of all the imitations of American
methods that are suggested, the only one worth while, to my thinking,
is to capture a few millionaires, give them honorary degrees at a
million pounds sterling apiece, and tell them to imagine that they
are Henry the Eighth. I give Oxford warning that if this is not
done the place will not last another two centuries.
VI.--The British and the American Press
THE only paper from which a man can really get the news of the
world in a shape that he can understand is the newspaper of his
own "home town." For me, unless I can have the Montreal Gazette at
my breakfast, and the Montreal Star at my dinner, I don't really
know what is happening. In the same way I have seen a man from the
south of Scotland settle down to read the Dumfries Chronicle with
a deep sigh of satisfaction: and a man from Burlington, Vermont,
pick up the Burlington Eagle and study the foreign news in it as
the only way of getting at what was really happening in France and
The reason is, I suppose, that there are different ways of serving up
the news and we each get used to our own. Some people like the news
fed to them gently: others like it thrown at them in a bombshell:
some prefer it to be made as little of as possible; they want it
minimised: others want the maximum.
This is where the greatest difference lies between the British
newspapers and those of the United States and Canada. With us in
America the great thing is to get the news and shout it at the
reader; in England they get the news and then break it to him as
gently as possible. Hence the big headings, the bold type, and the
double columns of the American paper, and the small headings and
the general air of quiet and respectability of the English Press.
It is quite beside the question to ask which is the better. Neither
is. They are different things: that's all. The English newspaper is
designed to be read quietly, propped up against the sugar bowl of a
man eating a slow breakfast in a quiet corner of a club, or by a
retired banker seated in a leather chair nearly asleep, or by a
country vicar sitting in a wicker chair under a pergola. The American
paper is for reading by a man hanging on the straps of a clattering
subway express, by a man eating at a lunch counter, by a man standing
on one leg, by a man getting a two-minute shave, or by a man about to
have his teeth drawn by a dentist.
In other words, there is a difference of atmosphere. It is not
merely in the type and the lettering, it is a difference in the
way the news is treated and the kind of words that are used. In
America we love such words as "gun-men" and "joy-ride" and
"death-cell": in England they prefer "person of doubtful character"
and "motor travelling at excessive speed" and "corridor No. 6."
If a milk-waggon collides in the street with a coal-cart, we write
that a "life-waggon" has struck a "death-cart." We call a murderer
a "thug" or a "gun-man" or a "yeg-man." In England they simply call
him "the accused who is a grocer's assistant in Houndsditch." That
designation would knock any decent murder story to pieces.
Hence comes the great difference between the American "lead" or
opening sentence of the article, and the English method of
commencement. In the American paper the idea is that the reader is so
busy that he must first be offered the news in one gulp. After that
if he likes it he can go on and eat some more of it. So the opening
sentence must give the whole thing. Thus, suppose that a leading
member of the United States Congress has committed suicide. This is
the way in which the American reporter deals with it.
"Seated in his room at the Grand Hotel with his carpet slippers on
his feet and his body wrapped in a blue dressing-gown with pink
insertions, after writing a letter of farewell to his wife and
emptying a bottle of Scotch whisky in which he exonerated her from
all culpability in his death, Congressman Ahasuerus P. Tigg was
found by night-watchman, Henry T. Smith, while making his rounds
as usual with four bullets in his stomach."
Now let us suppose that a leading member of the House of Commons
in England had done the same thing. Here is the way it would be
written up in a first-class London newspaper.
The heading would be HOME AND GENERAL INTELLIGENCE. That is inserted
so as to keep the reader soothed and quiet and is no doubt thought
better than the American heading BUGHOUSE CONGRESSMAN BLOWS OUT
BRAINS IN HOTEL. After the heading HOME AND GENERAL INTELLIGENCE
the English paper runs the subheading INCIDENT AT THE GRAND HOTEL.
The reader still doesn't know what happened; he isn't meant to.
Then the article begins like this:
"The Grand Hotel, which is situated at the corner of Millbank and
Victoria Streets, was the scene last night of a distressing incident."
"What is it?" thinks the reader. "The hotel itself, which is an
old Georgian structure dating probably from about 1750, is a quiet
establishment, its clientele mainly drawn from business men in the
cattle-droving and distillery business from South Wales."
"What happened?" thinks the reader.
"Its cuisine has long been famous for the excellence of its boiled
"While the hotel itself is also known as the meeting place of the
Surbiton Harmonic Society and other associations."
"Among the more prominent of the guests of the hotel has been
numbered during the present Parliamentary session Mr. Llewylln Ap.
Jones, M.P., for South Llanfydd. Mr. Jones apparently came to his
room last night at about ten P.M., and put on his carpet slippers
and his blue dressing gown. He then seems to have gone to the
cupboard and taken from it a whisky bottle which however proved to
be empty. The unhappy gentleman then apparently went to bed . . ."
At that point the American reader probably stops reading, thinking
that he has heard it all. The unhappy man found that the bottle was
empty and went to bed: very natural: and the affair very properly
called a "distressing incident": quite right. But the trained English
reader would know that there was more to come and that the air of
quiet was only assumed, and he would read on and on until at last the
tragic interest heightened, the four shots were fired, with a good
long pause after each for discussion of the path of the bullet
through Mr. Ap. Jones.
I am not saying that either the American way or the British way is
the better. They are just two different ways, that's all. But the
result is that anybody from the United States or Canada reading
the English papers gets the impression that nothing is happening:
and an English reader of our newspapers with us gets the idea that
the whole place is in a tumult.
When I was in London I used always, in glancing at the morning
papers, to get a first impression that the whole world was almost
asleep. There was, for example, a heading called INDIAN INTELLIGENCE
that showed, on close examination, that two thousand Parsees had died
of the blue plague, that a powder boat had blown up at Bombay, that
some one had thrown a couple of bombs at one of the provincial
governors, and that four thousand agitators had been sentenced to
twenty years hard labour each. But the whole thing was just called
"Indian Intelligence." Similarly, there was a little item called,
"Our Chinese Correspondent." That one explained ten lines down, in
very small type, that a hundred thousand Chinese had been drowned in
a flood. And there was another little item labelled "Foreign Gossip,"
under which was mentioned that the Pope was dead, and that the
President of Paraguay had been assassinated.
In short, I got the impression that I was living in an easy drowsy
world, as no doubt the editor meant me to. It was only when the
Montreal Star arrived by post that I felt that the world was still
revolving pretty rapidly on its axis and that there was still
As with the world news so it is with the minor events of ordinary
life,--birth, death, marriage, accidents, crime. Let me give an
illustration. Suppose that in a suburb of London a housemaid has
endeavoured to poison her employer's family by putting a drug in the
coffee. Now on our side of the water we should write that little
incident up in a way to give it life, and put headings over it that
would capture the reader's attention in a minute. We should begin it
PRETTY PARLOR MAID
TO CLUBMAN'S FAMILY
The English reader would ask at once, how do we know that the parlor
maid is pretty? We don't. But our artistic sense tells us that she
ought to be. Pretty parlor maids are the only ones we take any
interest in: if an ugly parlor maid poisoned her employer's family we
should hang her. Then again, the English reader would say, how do we
know that the man is a clubman? Have we ascertained this fact
definitely, and if so, of what club or clubs is he a member? Well, we
don't know, except in so far as the thing is self-evident. Any man
who has romance enough in his life to be poisoned by a pretty
housemaid ought to be in a club. That's the place for him. In fact,
with us the word club man doesn't necessarily mean a man who belongs
to a club: it is defined as a man who is arrested in a gambling den;
or fined for speeding a motor or who shoots another person in a hotel
corridor. Therefore this man must be a club man. Having settled the
heading, we go on with the text:
"Brooding over love troubles which she has hitherto refused to
divulge under the most grilling fusillade of rapid-fire questions
shot at her by the best brains of the New York police force, Miss
Mary De Forrest, a handsome brunette thirty-six inches around the
hips, employed as a parlor maid in the residence of Mr. Spudd Bung, a
well-known clubman forty-two inches around the chest, was arrested
yesterday by the flying squad of the emergency police after having,
so it is alleged, put four ounces of alleged picrate of potash into
the alleged coffee of her employer's family's alleged breakfast at
their residence on Hudson Heights in the most fashionable quarter of
the metropolis. Dr. Slink, the leading fashionable practitioner of
the neighbourhood who was immediately summoned said that but for his
own extraordinary dexterity and promptness the death of the whole
family, if not of the entire entourage, was a certainty. The
magistrate in committing Miss De Forrest for trial took occasion to
enlarge upon her youth and attractive appearance: he castigated the
moving pictures severely and said that he held them together with the
public school system and the present method of doing the hair,
directly responsible for the crimes of the kind alleged."
Now when you read this over you begin to feel that something big has
happened. Here is a man like Dr. Slink, all quivering with promptness
and dexterity. Here is an inserted picture, a photograph, a brick
house in a row marked with a cross (+) and labelled "The Bung
Residence as. it appeared immediately after the alleged outrage." It
isn't really. It is just a photograph that we use for this sort of
thing and have grown to like. It is called sometimes:--"Residence of
Senator Borah" or "Scene of the Recent Spiritualistic Manifestations"
or anything of the sort. As long as it is marked with a cross (+) the
reader will look at it with interest.
In other words we make something out of an occurrence like this.
It doesn't matter if it all fades out afterwards when it appears
that Mary De Forrest merely put ground allspice into the coffee in
mistake for powdered sugar and that the family didn't drink it
anyway. The reader has already turned to other mysteries.
But contrast the pitifully tame way in which the same event is
written up in England. Here it is:
"Yesterday at the police court of Surbiton-on-Thames Mary Forrester,
a servant in the employ of Mr. S. Bung was taken into custody on
a charge of having put a noxious preparation, possibly poison, into
the coffee of her employer's family. The young woman was remanded
for a week."
Look at that. Mary Forrester a servant?
How wide was she round the chest? It doesn't say. Mr. S. Bung? Of
what club was he a member? None, apparently. Then who cares if he
is poisoned? And "the young woman!" What a way to speak of a decent
girl who never did any other harm than to poison a club man. And
the English magistrate! What a tame part he must have played: his
name indeed doesn't occur at all: apparently he didn't enlarge on
the girl's good looks, or "comment on her attractive appearance,"
or anything. I don't suppose that he even asked Mary Forrester out
to lunch with him.
Notice also that, according to the English way of writing the thing
up, as soon as the girl was remanded for a week the incident is
closed. The English reporter doesn't apparently know enough to follow
Miss De Forrest to her home (called "the De Forrest Residence" and
marked with a cross, +) . The American reporter would make certain to
supplement what went above with further information of this fashion.
"Miss De Forrest when seen later at her own home by a representative
of The Eagle said that she regretted very much having been put to the
necessity of poisoning Mr. Bung. She had in the personal sense
nothing against Mr. Bung and apart from poisoning him she had every
respect for Mr. Bung. Miss De Forrest, who talks admirably on a
variety of topics, expressed herself as warmly in favour of the
League of Nations and as a devotee of the short ballot and
Any American reader who studies the English Press comes upon these
wasted opportunities every day. There are indeed certain journals
of a newer type which are doing their best to imitate us. But they
don't really get it yet. They use type up to about one inch and
after that they get afraid.
I hope that in describing the spirit of the English Press I do not
seem to be writing with any personal bitterness. I admit that there
might be a certain reason for such a bias. During my stay in England
I was most anxious to appear as a contributor to some of the leading
papers. This is, with the English, a thing that always adds prestige.
To be able to call oneself a "contributor" to the Times or to Punch
or the Morning Post or the Spectator, is a high honour. I have met
these "contributors" all over the British Empire. Some, I admit, look
strange. An ancient wreck in the back bar of an Ontario tavern
(ancient regime) has told me that he was a contributor to the Times:
the janitor of the building where I lived admits that he is a
contributor to Punch: a man arrested in Bristol for vagrancy while I
was in England pleaded that he was a contributor to the Spectator. In
fact, it is an honour that everybody seems to be able to get but me.
I had often tried before I went to England to contribute to the
great English newspapers. I had never succeeded. But I hoped that
while in England itself the very propinquity of the atmosphere, I
mean the very contiguity of the surroundings, would render the
attempt easier. I tried and I failed. My failure was all the more
ignominious in that I had very direct personal encouragement. "By
all means," said the editor of the London Times, "do some
thing for us while you are here. Best of all, do something in a
political way; that's rather our special line." I had already
received almost an identical encouragement from the London Morning
Post, and in a more qualified way from the Manchester Guardian. In
short, success seemed easy.
I decided therefore to take some simple political event of the
peculiar kind that always makes a stir in English politics and
write it up for these English papers. To simplify matters I thought
it better to use one and the same incident and write it up in three
different ways and get paid for it three, times. All of those who
write for the Press will understand the motive at once. I waited
therefore and watched the papers to see if anything interesting
might happen to the Ahkoond of Swat or the Sandjak of Novi Bazar
or any other native potentate. Within a couple of days I got what
I wanted in the following item, which I need hardly say is taken
word for word from the Press despatches:
"Perim, via Bombay. News comes by messenger that the Shriek of
Kowfat who has been living under the convention of 1898 has violated
the modus operandi. He is said to have torn off his suspenders,
dipped himself in oil and proclaimed a Jehad. The situation is
Everybody who knows England knows that this is just the kind of
news that the English love. On our side of the Atlantic we should
be bothered by the fact that we did not know where Kowfat is, nor
what was the convention of 1898. They are not. They just take it
for granted that Kowfat is one of the many thousand places that
they "own," somewhere in the outer darkness. They have so many
Kowfats that they cannot keep track of them.
I knew therefore that everybody would be interested in any discussion
of what was at once called "the Kowfat Crisis" and I wrote it up. I
resisted the temptation to begin after the American fashion, "Shriek
sheds suspenders," and suited the writing, as I thought, to the
market I was writing for. I wrote up the incident for the Morning
Post after the following fashion:
"The news from Kowfat affords one more instance of a painful
back-down on the part of the Government. Our policy of spineless
supineness is now reaping its inevitable reward. To us there is only
one thing to be done. If the Shriek has torn off his suspenders he
must be made to put them on again. We have always held that where the
imperial prestige of this country is concerned there is no room for
hesitation. In the present instance our prestige is at stake: the
matter involves our reputation in the eyes of the surrounding
natives, the Bantu Hottentots, the Negritos, the Dwarf Men of East
Abyssinia, and the Dog Men of Darfur. What will they think of us? If
we fail in this crisis their notion of us will fall fifty per cent.
In our opinion this country cannot stand a fifty per cent drop in the
estimation of the Dog Men. The time is one that demands action. An
ultimatum should be sent at once to the Shriek of Kowfat. If he has
one already we should send him another. He should be made at once to
put on his suspenders. The oil must be scraped off him, and he must
be told plainly that if a pup like him tries to start a Jehad he will
have to deal with the British Navy. We call the Shriek a pup in no
sense of belittling him as our imperial ally but because we consider
that the present is no time for half words and we do not regard pup
as half a word. Events such as the present, rocking the Empire to its
base, make one long for the spacious days of a Salisbury or a Queen
Elizabeth, or an Alfred the Great or a Julius Caesar. We doubt
whether the present Cabinet is in this class."
Not to lose any time in the coming and going of the mail, always
a serious thought for the contributor to the Press waiting for a
cheque, I sent another editorial on the same topic to the Manchester
Guardian. It ran as follows:
"The action of the Shriek of Kowfat in proclaiming a Jehad against us
is one that amply justifies all that we have said editorially since
Jeremy Bentham died. We have always held that the only way to deal
with a Mohammedan potentate like the Shriek is to treat him like a
Christian. The Khalifate of Kowfat at present buys its whole supply
of cotton piece goods in our market and pays cash. The Shriek, who is
a man of enlightenment, has consistently upheld the principles of
Free Trade. Not only are our exports of cotton piece goods, bibles,
rum, and beads constantly increasing, but they are more than offset
by our importation from Kowfat of ivory, rubber, gold, and oil. In
short, we have never seen the principles of Free Trade better
illustrated. The Shriek, it is now reported, refuses to wear the
braces presented to him by our envoy at the time of his coronation
five years ago. He is said to have thrown them into the mud. But we
have no reason to suppose that this is meant as a blow at our
prestige. It may be that after five years of use the little pulleys
of the braces no longer work properly. We have ourselves in our
personal life known instances of this, and can speak of the sense of
irritation occasioned. Even we have thrown on the floor ours. And in
any case, as we have often reminded our readers, what is prestige? If
any one wants to hit us, let him hit us right there. We regard a blow
at our trade as far more deadly than a blow at our prestige.
"The situation as we see it demands immediate reparation on our
part. The principal grievance of the Shriek arises from the existence
of our fort and garrison on the Kowfat river. Our proper policy is
to knock down the fort, and either remove the garrison or give it
to the Shriek. We are convinced that as soon as the Shriek realises
that we are prepared to treat him in the proper Christian spirit,
he will at once respond with true Mohammedan generosity.
"We have further to remember that in what we do we are being observed
by the neighbouring tribes, the Negritos, the Dwarf Men, and the Dog
Men of Darfur. These are not only shrewd observers but substantial
customers. The Dwarf Men at present buy all their cotton on the
Manchester market and the Dog Men depend on us for their soap.
"The present crisis is one in which the nation needs statesmanship
and a broad outlook upon the world. In the existing situation we
need not the duplicity of a Machiavelli, but the commanding prescience
of a Gladstone or an Alfred the Great, or a Julius Caesar. Luckily
we have exactly this type of man at the head of affairs."
After completing the above I set to work without delay on a similar
exercise for the London Times. The special. excellence of the Times,
as everybody knows is its fulness of information. For generations
past the Times has commanded a peculiar minuteness of knowledge
about all parts of the Empire. It is the proud boast of this great
journal that to whatever far away, outlandish part of the Empire
you may go, you will always find a correspondent of the Times
looking for something to do. It is said that the present proprietor
has laid it down as his maxim, "I don't want men who
think; I want men who know." The arrangements for thinking are made
Incidentally I may say that I had personal opportunities while I
was in England of realising that the reputation of the Times staff
for the possession of information is well founded. Dining one night
with some members of the staff, I happened to mention Saskatchewan.
One of the editors at the other end of the table looked up at the
mention of the name. "Saskatchewan," he said, "ah, yes; that's not
far from Alberta, is it?" and then turned quietly to his food again.
When I remind the reader that Saskatchewan is only half an inch
from Alberta he may judge of the nicety of the knowledge involved.
Having all this in mind, I recast the editorial and sent it to the
London Times as follows:
"The news that the Sultan of Kowfat has thrown away his suspenders
renders it of interest to indicate the exact spot where he has
thrown them. (See map). Kowfat, lying as the reader knows, on the
Kowfat River, occupies the hinterland between the back end of
south-west Somaliland and the east, that is to say, the west, bank
of Lake P'schu. It thus forms an enclave between the Dog Men of
Darfur and the Negritos of T'chk. The inhabitants of Kowfat are a
coloured race three quarters negroid and more than three quarters
"As a solution of the present difficulty, the first thing required
in our opinion is to send out a boundary commission to delineate
more exactly still just where Kowfat is. After that an ethnographical
survey might be completed."
It was a matter not only of concern but of surprise to me that not
one of the three contributions recited above was accepted by the
English Press. The Morning Post complained that my editorial was not
firm enough in tone, the Guardian that it was not humane enough, the
Times that I had left out the latitude and longitude always expected
by their readers. I thought it not worth while to bother to revise
the articles as I had meantime conceived the idea that the same
material might be used in the most delightfully amusing way as the
basis of a poem far Punch. Everybody knows the kind of verses that
are contributed to Punch by Sir Owen Seaman and Mr. Charles Graves
and men of that sort. And everybody has been struck, as I have, by
the extraordinary easiness of the performance. All that one needs is
to get some odd little incident, such as the revolt of the Sultan of
Kowfat, make up an amusing title, and then string the verses together
in such a way as to make rhymes with all the odd words that come into
the narrative. In fact, the thing is ease itself.
I therefore saw a glorious chance with the Sultan of Kowfat. Indeed,
I fairly chuckled to myself when I thought what amusing rhymes
could be made with "Negritos," "modus operandi" and "Dog Men of
Darfur." I can scarcely imagine anything more excruciatingly funny
than the rhymes which can be made with them. And as for the title,
bringing in the word Kowfat or some play upon it, the thing is
perfectly obvious. The idea amused me so much that I set to work
at the poem at once.
I am sorry to say that I failed to complete it. Not that I couldn't
have done so, given time; I am quite certain that if I had had
about two years I could have done it. The main structure of the
poem, however, is here and I give it for what it is worth. Even as
it is it strikes me as extraordinarily good. Here it is:
............... modus operandi;
............. Dog Men of Darfur:
Excellent little thing, isn't it? All it needs is the rhymes. As
far as it goes it has just exactly the ease and the sweep required.
And if some one will tell me how Owen Seaman and those people get
the rest of the ease and the sweep I'll be glad to put it in.
One further experiment of the same sort I made with the English
Press in another direction and met again with failure. If there is
one paper in the world for which I have respect and--if I may say
it--an affection, it is the London Spectator. I suppose that I am
only one of thousands and thousands of people who feel that way.
Why under the circumstances the Spectator failed to publish my
letter I cannot say. I wanted no money for it: I only wanted the
honour of seeing it inserted beside the letter written from the
Rectory, Hops, Hants, or the Shrubbery, Potts, Shrops,--I mean from
one of those places where the readers of the Spectator live. I
thought too that my letter had just the right touch. However, they
wouldn't take it: something wrong with it somewhere, I suppose.
This is it:
To the Editor,
Your correspondence of last week contained such interesting
information in regard to the appearance of the first cowslip
in Kensington Common that I trust that I may, without
fatiguing your readers to the point of saturation, narrate
a somewhat similar and I think, sir, an equally interesting
experience of my own. While passing through Lambeth Gardens
yesterday towards the hour of dusk I observed a crow with
one leg sitting beside the duck-pond and apparently lost in
thought. There was no doubt that the bird was of the
species pulex hibiscus, an order which is becoming
singularly rare in the vicinity of the metropolis. Indeed,
so far as I am aware, the species has not been seen in
London since 1680. I may say that on recognising the bird I
drew as near as I could, keeping myself behind the
shrubbery, but the pulex hibiscus which apparently caught a
brief glimpse of my face uttered a cry of distress and flew
I am, sir,
(Ret'd Major Burmese Army.);
Distressed by these repeated failures, I sank back to a lower level
of English literary work, the puzzle department. For some reason
or other the English delight in puzzles. It is, I think, a part of
the peculiar school-boy pedantry which is the reverse side of their
literary genius. I speak with a certain bitterness because in puzzle
work I met with no success whatever. My solutions were never
acknowledged, never paid for, in fact they were ignored. But I
append two or three of them here, with apologies to the editors of
the Strand and other papers who should have had the honour of
publishing them first.
Can you fold a square piece of paper in such a way that with a
single fold it forms a pentagon?
My Solution: Yes, if I knew what a pentagon was.
A and B agree to hold a walking match across an open meadow, each
seeking the shortest line. A, walking from corner to corner, may
be said to diangulate the hypotenuse of the meadow. B, allowing
for a slight rise in the ground, walks on an obese tabloid. Which
My Solution: Frankly, I don't know.
(With apologies to the Strand.)
A rope is passed over a pulley. It has a weight at one end and a
monkey at the other. There is the same length of rope on either side
and equilibrium is maintained. The rope weighs four ounces per foot.
The age of the monkey and the age of the monkey's mother together
total four years. The weight of the monkey is as many pounds as the
monkey's mother is years old. The monkey's mother was twice as old as
the monkey was when the monkey's mother was half as old as the monkey
will be when the monkey is three times as old as the monkey's mother
was when the monkey's mother was three times as old as the monkey.
The weight of the rope with the weight at the end was half as much
again as the difference in weight between the weight of the weight
and the weight of the monkey. Now, what was the length of the rope?
My Solution: I should think it would have to be a rope of a fairly
In only one department of English journalism have I met with a
decided measure of success; I refer to the juvenile competition
department. This is a sort of thing to which the English are
especially addicted. As a really educated nation for whom good
literature begins in the home they encourage in every way literary
competitions among the young readers of their journals. At least half
a dozen of the well-known London periodicals carry on this work. The
prizes run all the way from one shilling to half a guinea and the
competitions are generally open to all children from three to six
years of age. It was here that I saw my open opportunity and seized
it. I swept in prize after prize. As "Little Agatha" I got four
shillings for the best description of Autumn in two lines, and one
shilling for guessing correctly the missing letters in BR-STOL,
SH-FFIELD, and H-LL. A lot of the competitors fell down on H-LL. I
got six shillings for giving the dates of the Norman Conquest,--1492
A.D., and the Crimean War of 1870. In short, the thing was easy. I
might say that to enter these competitions one has to have a
certificate of age from a member of the clergy. But I know a lot of
VII.--Business in England.
It is hardly necessary to say that so shrewd an observer as I am
could not fail to be struck by the situation of business in England.
Passing through the factory towns and noticing that no smoke came
from the tall chimneys and that the doors of the factories were
shut, I was led to the conclusion that they were closed.
Observing that the streets of the industrial centres were everywhere
filled with idle men, I gathered that they were unemployed: and when
I learned that the moving picture houses were full to the doors every
day and that the concert halls, beer gardens, grand opera, and
religious concerts were crowded to suffocation, I inferred that the
country was suffering from an unparalleled depression. This
diagnosis turned out to be absolutely correct. It has been freely
estimated that at the time I refer to almost two million men were out
But it does not require government statistics to prove that in
England at the present day everybody seems poor, just as in the
United States everybody, to the eye of the visitor, seems to be rich.
In England nobody seems to be able to afford anything: in the United
States everybody seems to be able to afford everything. In England
nobody smokes cigars: in America everybody does. On the English
railways the first class carriages are empty: in the United States
the "reserved drawingrooms" are full. Poverty no doubt is only a
relative matter: but a man whose income used to be 10,000 a year and
is now 5,000, is living in "reduced circumstances": he feels himself
just as poor as the man whose income has been cut from five thousand
pounds to three, or from five hundred pounds to two. They are all in
the same boat. What with the lowering of dividends and the raising of
the income tax, the closing of factories, feeding the unemployed and
trying to employ the unfed, things are in a bad way.
The underlying cause is plain enough. The economic distress that
the world suffers now is the inevitable consequence of the war.
Everybody knows that. But where the people differ is in regard to
what is going to happen next, and what we must do about it. Here
opinion takes a variety of forms. Some people blame it on the German
mark: by permitting their mark to fall, the Germans, it is claimed,
are taking away all the business from England; the fall of the
mark, by allowing the Germans to work harder and eat less than the
English, is threatening to drive the English out of house and home:
if the mark goes on falling still further the Germans will thereby
outdo us also in music, literature and in religion. What has got
to be done, therefore, is to force the Germans to lift the mark up
again, and make them pay up their indemnity.
Another more popular school of thought holds to an entirely contrary
opinion. The whole trouble, they say, comes from the sad
collapse of Germany. These unhappy people, having been too busy
for four years in destroying valuable property in France and Belgium
to pay attention to their home affairs, now find themselves collapsed:
it is our first duty to pick them up again. The English should
therefore take all the money they can find and give it to the
Germans. By this means German trade and industry will revive to
such an extent that the port of Hamburg will be its old bright self
again and German waiters will reappear in the London hotels. After
that everything will be all right.
Speaking with all the modesty of an outsider and a transient visitor,
I give it as my opinion that the trouble is elsewhere. The danger of
industrial collapse in England does not spring from what is happening
in Germany but from what is happening in England itself. England,
like most of the other countries in the world, is suffering from the
over-extension of government and the decline of individual self-help.
For six generations industry in England and America has flourished on
individual effort called out by the prospect of individual gain.
Every man acquired from his boyhood the idea that he must look after
himself. Morally, physically and financially that was the recognised
way of getting on. The desire to make a fortune was regarded as a
laudable ambition, a proper stimulus to effort. The ugly word
"profiteer" had not yet been coined. There was no income tax to turn
a man's pockets inside out and take away his savings. The world was
to the strong.
Under the stimulus of this the wheels of industry hummed. Factories
covered the land. National production grew to a colossal size and
the whole outer world seemed laid under a tribute to the great
industry. As a system it was far from perfect. It contained in
itself all kinds of gross injustices, demands that were too great,
wages that were too small; in spite of the splendour of the
foreground, poverty and destitution hovered behind the scenes. But
such as it was, the system worked: and it was the only one that we
Or turn to another aspect of this same principle of self-help. The
way to acquire knowledge in the early days was to buy a tallow candle
and read a book after one's day's work, as Benjamin Franklin read or
Lincoln: and when the soul was stimulated to it, then the aspiring
youth must save money, put himself to college, live on nothing, think
much, and in the course of this starvation and effort become a
learned man, with somehow a peculiar moral fibre in him not easily
reproduced to-day. For to-day the candle is free and the college is
free and the student has a "Union" like the profiteer's club and a
swimming-bath and a Drama League and a coeducational society at his
elbow for which he buys Beauty Roses at five dollars a bunch.
Or turn if one will to the moral side. The older way of being good
was by much prayer and much effort of one's own soul. Now it is done
by a Board of Censors. There is no need to fight sin by the power of
the spirit: let the Board of Censors do it. They together with three
or four kinds of Commissioners are supposed to keep sin at arm's
length and to supply a first class legislative guarantee of
righteousness. As a short cut to morality and as a way of saving
individual effort our legislatures are turning out morality
legislation by the bucketful. The legislature regulates our drink,
it begins already to guard us against the deadly cigarette, it
regulates here and there the length of our skirts, it safeguards our
amusements and in two states of the American Union it even proposes
to save us from the teaching of the Darwinian Theory of evolution.
The ancient prayer "Lead us not into temptation" is passing out of
date. The way to temptation is declared closed by Act of Parliament
and by amendment to the constitution of the United States. Yet oddly
enough the moral tone of the world fails to respond. The world is
apparently more full of thugs, hold-up men, yeg-men, bandits,
motor-thieves, porchclimbers, spotters, spies and crooked policemen
than it ever was; till it almost seems that the slow, old-fashioned
method of an effort of the individual soul may be needed still before
the world is made good.
This vast new system, the system of leaning on the government, is
spreading like a blight over England and America, and everywhere
we suffer from it. Government, that in theory represents a union
of effort and a saving of force, sprawls like an octopus over the
land. It has become like a dead weight upon us. Wherever it touches
industry it cripples it. It runs railways and makes a heavy deficit:
it builds ships and loses money on them: it operates the ships and
loses more money: it piles up taxes to fill the vacuum and when it
has killed employment, opens a bureau of unemployment and issues
a report on the depression of industry.
Now, the only way to restore prosperity is to give back again to the
individual the opportunity to make money, to make lots of it, and when
he has got it, to keep it. In spite of all the devastation of the war
the raw assets of our globe are hardly touched. Here and there, as in
parts of China and in England and in Belgium with about seven hundred
people to the square mile, the world is fairly well filled up. There
is standing room only. But there are vast empty spaces still.
Mesopotamia alone has millions of acres of potential wheat land with a
few Arabs squatting on it. Canada could absorb easily half a million
settlers a year for a generation to come. The most fertile part of the
world, the valley of the Amazon, is still untouched: so fertile is it
that for tens of thousands of square miles it is choked with trees, a
mere tangle of life, defying all entry. The idea of our humanity sadly
walking the streets of Glasgow or sitting mournfully fishing on the
piers of the Hudson, out of work, would be laughable if it were not
for the pathos of it.
The world is out of work for the simple reason that the world has
killed the goose that laid the golden eggs of industry. By taxation,
by legislation, by popular sentiment all over the world, there has
been a disparagement of the capitalist. And all over the world
capital is frightened. It goes and hides itself in the form of an
investment in a victory bond, a thing that is only a particular
name for a debt, with no productive effort behind it and indicating
only a dead weight of taxes. There capital sits like a bull-frog
hidden behind water-lilies, refusing to budge.
Hence the way to restore prosperity is not to multiply government
departments and government expenditures, nor to appoint commissions
and to pile up debts, but to start going again the machinery of bold
productive effort. Take off all the excess profits taxes and the
super-taxes on income and as much of the income tax itself as can be
done by a wholesale dismissal of government employees and then give
industry a mark to shoot at. What is needed now is not the
multiplication of government reports, but corporate industry, the
formation of land companies, development companies, irrigation
companies, any kind of corporation that will call out private capital
from its hiding places, offer employment to millions and start the
wheels moving again. If the promoters of such corporations presently
earn huge fortunes for themselves society is none the worse: and in
any case, humanity being what it is, they will hand back a vast part
of what they have acquired in return for LL.D. degrees, or bits of
blue ribbon, or companionships of the Bath, or whatever kind of glass
bead fits the fancy of the retired millionaire.
The next thing to be done, then, is to "fire" the government
officials and to bring back the profiteer. As to which officials
are to be fired first it doesn't matter much. In England people
have been greatly perturbed as to the use to be made of such
instruments as the "Geddes Axe": the edge of the axe of dismissal
seems so terribly sharp. But there is no need to worry. If the edge
of the axe is too sharp, hit with the back of it.
As to the profiteer, bring him back. He is really just the same
person who a few years ago was called a Captain of Industry and an
Empire Builder and a Nation Maker. It is the times that have changed,
not the man. He is there still, just as greedy and rapacious as
ever, but no greedier: and we have just the same social need of
his greed as a motive power in industry as we ever had, and indeed
a worse need than before.
We need him not only in business but in the whole setting of life, or
if not him personally, we need the eager, selfish, but reliant spirit
of the man who looks after himself and doesn't want to have a
spoon-fed education and a government job alternating with a
government dole, and a set of morals framed for him by a Board of
Censors. Bring back the profiteer: fetch him from the Riviera, from
his country-place on the Hudson, or from whatever spot to which he
has withdrawn with his tin box full of victory bonds. If need be, go
and pick him out of the penitentiary, take the stripes off him and
tell him to get busy again. Show him the map of the world and ask him
to pick out a few likely spots. The trained greed of the rascal will
find them in a moment. Then write him out a concession for coal in
Asia Minor or oil in the Mackenzie Basin or for irrigation in
Mesopotamia. The ink will hardly be dry on it before the capital will
begin to flow in: it will come from all kinds of places whence the
government could never coax it and where the tax-gatherer could never
find it. Only promise that it is not going to be taxed out of
existence and the stream of capital which is being dried up in the
sands of government mismanagement will flow into the hands of private
industry like a river of gold.
And incidentally, when the profiteer has finished his work, we can
always put him back into the penitentiary if we like. But we need
him just now.
VIII.--Is Prohibition Coming to England?
IN the United States and Canada the principal topic of polite
conversation is now prohibition. At every dinner party the serving of
the cocktails immediately introduces the subject: the rest of the
dinner is enlivened throughout with the discussion of rum-runners,
bootleggers, storage of liquor and the State constitution of New
Jersey. Under this influence all social and conversational values are
shifted and rearranged. A "scholarly" man no longer means a man who
can talk well on literary subjects but a man who understands the
eighteenth amendment and can explain the legal difference between
implementing statutes such as the Volstead Act and the underlying
state legislation. A "scientist" (invaluable in these conversations)
is a man who can make clear the distinction between alcoholic
percentages by bulk and by weight. And a "brilliant engineer" means
a man who explains how to make homebrewed beer with a kick in it.
Similarly, a "raconteur" means a man who has a fund of amusing
stories about "bootleggers" and an "interesting traveller" means a
man who has been to Havana and can explain how wet it is. Indeed, the
whole conception of travel and of interest in foreign countries is
now altered: as soon as any one mentions that he has been in a
foreign country, all the company ask in one breath, "Is it dry?" The
question "How is Samoa?" or "How is Turkey?" or "How is British
Columbia?" no Ionger refers to the climate or natural resources: it
means "Is the place dry?" When such a question is asked and the
answer is "It's wet," there is a deep groan all around the table.
I understand that when the recent disarmament conference met at
Washington just as the members were going to sit down at the table
Monsieur Briand said to President Harding, "How dry is the United
States, anyway?" And the whole assembly talked about it for half an
hour. That was why the first newspaper bulletins merely said,
"Conference exchanges credentials."
As a discoverer of England I therefore made it one of my chief
cares to try to obtain accurate information of this topic. I was
well aware that immediately on my return to Canada the first question
I would be asked would be "Is England going dry?" I realised that
in any report I might make to the National Geographical Society or
to the Political Science Association, the members of these bodies,
being scholars, would want accurate information about the price of
whiskey, the percentage of alcohol, and the hours of opening and
closing the saloons.
My first impression on the subject was, I must say, one of severe
moral shock. Landing in England after spending the summer in Ontario,
it seemed a terrible thing to see people openly drinking on an
English train. On an Ontario train, as everybody knows, there is
no way of taking a drink except by climbing up on
the roof, lying flat on one's stomach, and taking a suck out of a
flask. But in England in any dining car one actually sees a waiter
approach a person dining and say, "Beer, sir, or wine?" This is
done in broad daylight with no apparent sense of criminality or
moral shame. Appalling though it sounds, bottled ale is openly sold
on the trains at twenty-five cents a bottle and dry sherry at
eighteen cents a glass.
When I first saw this I expected to see the waiter arrested on the
spot. I looked around to see if there were any "spotters," detectives,
or secret service men on the train. I anticipated that the train
conductor would appear and throw the waiter off the car. But then
I realised that I was in England and that in the British Isles they
still tolerate the consumption of alcohol. Indeed, I doubt if they
are even aware that they are "consuming alcohol." Their impression
is that they are drinking beer.
At the beginning of my discussion I will therefore preface a few exact
facts and statistics for the use of geographical societies, learned
bodies and government commissions. The quantity of beer consumed in
England in a given period is about 200,000,000 gallons. The life of a
bottle of Scotch whiskey is seven seconds. The number of public
houses, or "pubs," in the English countryside is one to every half
mile. The percentage of the working classes drinking beer is 125: the
percentage of the class without work drinking beer is 200.
Statistics like these do not, however, give a final answer to the
question, "Is prohibition coming to England?" They merely show that
it is not there now. The question itself will be answered in as many
different ways as there are different kinds of people. Any
prohibitionist will tell you that the coming of prohibition to
England is as certain as the coming eclipse of the sun. But this is
always so. It is in human nature that people are impressed by the
cause they work in. I once knew a minister of the Scotch Church who
took a voyage round the world: he said that the thing that impressed
him most was the growth of presbyterianism in Japan. No doubt it did.
When the Orillia lacrosse team took their trip to Australia, they
said on their return that lacrosse was spreading all over the world.
In the same way there is said to be a spread all over the world of
Christian Science, proportional representation, militarism, peace
sentiment, barbarism, altruism, psychoanalysis and death from wood
alcohol. They are what are called world movements.
My own judgment in regard to prohibition in the British Isles is
this: In Scotland, prohibition is not coming: if anything, it is
going. In Ireland, prohibition will only be introduced when they
have run out of other forms of trouble. But in England I think that
prohibition could easily come unless the English people realise
where they are drifting and turn back. They are in the early stage
of the movement already.
Turning first to Scotland, there is no fear, I say, that prohibition
will be adopted there: and this from the simple reason that the
Scotch do not drink. I have elsewhere alluded to the extraordinary
misapprehension that exists in regard to the Scotch people and
their sense of humour. I find a similar popular error in
regard to the use of whiskey by the Scotch. Because they manufacture
the best whiskey in the world, the Scotch, in popular fancy, are
often thought to be addicted to the drinking of it. This is purely
a delusion. During the whole of two or three pleasant weeks spent
in lecturing in Scotland, I never on any occasion saw whiskey made
use of as a beverage. I have seen people take it, of course, as a
medicine, or as a precaution, or as a wise offset against a rather
treacherous climate; but as a beverage, never.
The manner and circumstance of their offering whiskey to a stranger
amply illustrates their point of view towards it. Thus at my first
lecture in Glasgow where I was to appear before a large and
fashionable audience, the chairman said to me in the committee room
that he was afraid that there might be a draft on the platform. Here
was a serious matter. For a lecturer who has to earn his living by
his occupation, a draft on the platform is not a thing to be
disregarded. It might kill him. Nor is it altogether safe for the
chairman himself, a man already in middle life, to be exposed to a
current of cold air. In this case, therefore, the chairman suggested
that he thought it might be "prudent"--that was his word,
"prudent"--if I should take a small drop of whiskey before
encountering the draft. In return I told him that I could not think
of his accompanying me to the platform unless he would let me insist
on his taking a very reasonable precaution. Whiskey taken on these
terms not only seems like a duty but it tastes better.
In the same way I find that in Scotland it is very often necessary to
take something to drink on purely meteorological grounds. The weather
simply cannot be trusted. A man might find that on "going out into the
weather" he is overwhelmed by a heavy fog or an avalanche of snow or a
driving storm of rain. In such a case a mere drop of whiskey might
save his life. It would be folly not to take it. Again,--"coming in
out of the weather" is a thing not to be trifled with. A person coming
in unprepared and unprotected might be seized with angina pectoris or
appendicitis and die upon the spot. No reasonable person would refuse
the simple precaution of taking a small drop immediately after his
I find that, classified altogether, there are seventeen reasons
advanced in Scotland for taking whiskey. They run as follows: Reason
one, because it is raining; Two, because it is not raining; Three,
because you are just going out into the weather; Four, because you
have just come in from the weather; Five; no, I forget the ones
that come after that. But I remember that reason number seventeen
is "because it canna do ye any harm." On the whole, reason seventeen
is the best.
Put in other words this means that the Scotch make use of whiskey
with dignity and without shame: and they never call it alcohol.
In England the case is different. Already the English are showing the
first signs that indicate the possible approach of prohibition.
Already all over England there are weird regulations about the
closing hours of the public houses. They open and close according to
the varying regulations of the municipality. In some places they open
at six in the morning, close down for an hour from nine till ten,
open then till noon, shut for ten minutes, and so on; in some places
they are open in the morning and closed in the evening; in other
places they are open in the evening and closed in the morning. The
ancient idea was that a wayside public house was a place of
sustenance and comfort, a human need that might be wanted any hour.
It was in the same class with the life boat or the emergency
ambulance. Under the old common law the innkeeper must supply meat
and drink at any hour. If he was asleep the traveller might wake him.
And in those days meat and drink were regarded in the same light.
Note how great the change is. In modern life in England there is
nothing that you dare wake up a man for except gasoline. The mere
fact that you need a drink is no longer held to entitle you to break
In London especially one feels the full force of the "closing"
regulations. The bars open and shut at intervals like daisies
blinking at the sun. And like the flowers at evening they close their
petals with the darkness. In London they have already adopted the
deadly phrases of the prohibitionist, such as "alcohol" and "liquor
traffic" and so on: and already the "sale of spirits" stops
absolutely at about eleven o'clock at night.
This means that after theatre hours London is a "city of dreadful
night." The people from the theatre scuttle to their homes. The
lights are extinguished in the windows. The streets darken. Only
a belated taxi still moves. At midnight the place is deserted. At
1 A.M., the lingering footfalls echo in the empty street. Here
and there a restaurant in a fashionable street makes a poor pretence
of keeping open for after theatre suppers. Odd people, the shivering
wrecks of theatre parties, are huddled here and there. A gloomy
waiter lays a sardine on the table. The guests charge their glasses
with Perrier Water, Lithia Water, Citrate of Magnesia, or Bromo
Seltzer. They eat the sardine and vanish into the night. Not even
Oshkosh, Wisconsin, or Middlebury, Vermont, is quieter than is the
night life of London. It may no doubt seem a wise thing to go to
But it is a terrible thing to go to bed early by Act of Parliament.
All of which means that the people of England are not facing the
prohibition question fairly and squarely. If they see no harm in
"consuming alcohol" they ought to say so and let their code of
regulations reflect the fact. But the "closing" and "regulating"
and "squeezing" of the "liquor traffic", without any outspoken
protest, means letting the whole case go by default. Under these
circumstances an organised and active minority can always win and
impose its will upon the crowd.
When I was in England I amused myself one day by writing an imaginary
picture of what England will be like when the last stage is reached
and London goes the way of New York and Chicago. I cast it in the
form of a letter from an American prohibitionist in which he
describes the final triumph of prohibition in England. With the
permission of the reader I reproduce it here:
THE ADVENT OF PROHIBITION IN ENGLAND
As written in the correspondence of an American visitor
How glad I am that I have lived to see this wonderful reform
of prohibition at last accomplished in England. There is
something so difficult about the British, so stolid, so hard
We tried everything in the great campaign that we made, and
for ever so long it didn't seem to work. We had processions,
just as we did at home in America, with great banners
carried round bearing the inscription: "Do you want to save
the boy?" But these people looked on and said, "Boy? Boy?
What boy?" Our workers were almost disheartened. "Oh, sir,"
said one of them, an ex-barkeeper from Oklahoma, "it does
seem so hard that we have total prohibition in the States
and here they can get all the drink they want." And the good
fellow broke down and sobbed.
But at last it has come. After the most terrific efforts we
managed to get this nation stampeded, and for more than a
month now England has been dry. I wish you could have
witnessed the scenes, just like what we saw at home in
America, when it was known that the bill had passed. The
members of the House of Lords all stood up on their seats
and yelled, "Rah! Rah! Rah! Who's bone dry? We are!" And the
brewers and innkeepers were emptying their barrels of beer
into the Thames just as at St. Louis they emptied the beer
into the Mississippi.
I can't tell you with what pleasure I watched a group of
members of the Athenaeum Club sitting on the bank of the
Thames and opening bottles of champagne and pouring them
into the river. "To think," said one of them to me, "that
there was a time when I used to lap up a couple of quarts of
this terrible stuff every evening." I got him to give me a
few bottles as a souvenir, and I got some more souvenirs,
whiskey and liqueurs, when the members of the Beefsteak Club
were emptying out their cellars into Green Street; so when
you come over, I shall still be able, of course, to give you
We have, as I said, been bone dry only a month, and yet
already we are getting the same splendid results as in
America. All the big dinners are now as refined and as
elevating and the dinner speeches as long and as informal as
they are in New York or Toronto. The other night at a dinner
at the White Friars Club I heard Sir Owen Seaman speaking,
not in that light futile way that he used to have, but quite
differently. He talked for over an hour and a half on the
State ownership of the Chinese Railway System, and I almost
fancied myself back in Boston.
And the working class too. It is just wonderful how
prohibition has increased their efficiency. In the old days
they used to drop their work the moment the hour struck. Now
they simply refuse to do so. I noticed yesterday a foreman
in charge of a building operation vainly trying to call the
bricklayers down. "Come, come, gentlemen," he shouted, "I
must insist on your stopping for the night." But they just
went on laying bricks faster than ever.
Of course, as yet there are a few slight difficulties and
deficiencies, just as there are with us in America. We have
had the same trouble with wood-alcohol (they call it
methylated spirit here), with the same deplorable results.
On some days the list of deaths is very serious, and in some
cases we are losing men we can hardly spare. A great many of
our leading actors--in fact, most of them--are dead. And there
has been a heavy loss, too, among the literary class and in
the legal profession.
There was a very painful scene last week at the dinner of
the Benchers of Gray's Inn. It seems that one of the chief
justices had undertaken to make home brew for the Benchers,
just as the people do on our side of the water. He got one
of the waiters to fetch him some hops and three raw
potatoes, a packet of yeast and some boiling water. In the
end, four of the Benchers were carried out dead. But they
are going to give them a public funeral in the Abbey.
I regret to say that the death list in the Royal Navy is
very heavy. Some of the best sailors are gone, and it is
very difficult to keep admirals. But I have tried to explain
to the people here that these are merely the things that one
must expect, and that, with a little patience, they will
have bone-dry admirals and bone-dry statesmen just as good
as the wet ones. Even the clergy can be dried up with
firmness and perseverance.
There was also a slight sensation here when the Chancellor
of the Exchequer brought in his first appropriation for
maintaining prohibition. From our point of view in America,
it was modest enough. But these people are not used to it.
The Chancellor merely asked for ten million pounds a month
to begin on; he explained that his task was heavy; he has to
police, not only the entire coast, but also the interior;
for the Grampian Hills of Scotland alone he asked a million.
There was a good deal of questioning in the House over these
figures. The Chancellor was asked if he intended to keep a
hired spy at every street corner in London. He answered,
"No, only on every other street." He added also that every
spy must wear a brass collar with his number.
I must admit further, and I am sorry to have to tell you
this, that now we have prohibition it is becoming
increasingly difficult to get a drink. In fact, sometimes,
especially in the very early morning, it is most
inconvenient and almost impossible. The public houses being
closed, it is necessary to go into a drug store--just as it
is with us--and lean up against the counter and make a
gurgling sound like apoplexy. One often sees these apoplexy
cases lined up four deep.
But the people are finding substitutes, just as they do with
us. There is a tremendous run on patent medicines, perfume,
glue and nitric acid. It has been found that Shears' soap
contains alcohol, and one sees people everywhere eating
cakes of it. The upper classes have taken to chewing tobacco
very considerably, and the use of opium in the House of
Lords has very greatly increased.
But I don't want you to think that if you come over here to
see me, your private life will be in any way impaired or
curtailed. I am glad to say that I have plenty of rich
connections whose cellars are very amply stocked. The Duke
of Blank is said to have 5,000 cases of Scotch whiskey, and
I have managed to get a card of introduction to his butler.
In fact you will find that, just as with us in America, the
benefit of prohibition is intended to fall on the poorer
classes. There is no desire to interfere with the rich.
IX.--"We Have With Us To-night"
NOT only during my tour in England but for many years past it has
been my lot to speak and to lecture in all sorts of places, under
all sorts of circumstances and before all sorts of audiences. I
say this, not in boastfulness, but in sorrow. Indeed, I only mention
it to establish the fact that when I talk of lecturers and speakers,
I talk of what I know.
Few people realise how arduous and how disagreeable public lecturing
is. The public sees the lecturer step out on to the platform in his
little white waistcoat and his long tailed coat and with a false air
of a conjurer about him, and they think him happy. After about ten
minutes of his talk they are tired of him. Most people tire of a
lecture in ten minutes; clever people can do it in five. Sensible
people never go to lectures at all. But the people who do go to a
lecture and who get tired of it, presently hold it as a sort of a
grudge against the lecturer personally. In reality his sufferings are
worse than theirs.
For my own part I always try to appear as happy as possible while I
am lecturing. I take this to be part of the trade of anybody labelled
a humourist and paid as such. I have no sympathy whatever with the
idea that a humourist ought to be a lugubrious person with a face
stamped with melancholy. This is a cheap and elementary effect
belonging to the level of a circus clown. The image of "laughter
shaking both his sides" is the truer picture of comedy. Therefore, I
say, I always try to appear cheerful at my lectures and even to laugh
at my own jokes. Oddly enough this arouses a kind of resentment in
some of the audience. "Well, I will say," said a stern-looking woman
who spoke to me after one of my lectures, "you certainly do seem to
enjoy your own fun." "Madam," I answered, "if I didn't, who would?"
But in reality the whole business of being a public lecturer is one
long variation of boredom and fatigue. So I propose to set down here
some of the many trials which the lecturer has to bear.
The first of the troubles which any one who begins giving public
lectures meets at the very outset is the fact that the audience
won't come to hear him. This happens invariably and constantly,
and not through any fault or shortcoming of the speaker.
I don't say that this happened very often to me in my tour in
England. In nearly all cases I had crowded audiences: by dividing
up the money that I received by the average number of people present
to hear me I have calculated that they paid thirteen cents each.
And my lectures are evidently worth thirteen cents. But at home in
Canada I have very often tried the fatal experiment of lecturing
for nothing: and in that case the audience simply won't come. A
man will turn out at night when he knows he is going to hear a
first class thirteen cent lecture; but when the thing is given for
nothing, why go to it?
The city in which I live is overrun with little societies, clubs
and associations, always wanting to be addressed. So at least it
is in appearance. In reality the societies are composed of presidents,
secretaries and officials, who want the conspicuousness of office,
and a large list of other members who won't come to the meetings.
For such an association, the invited speaker who is to lecture for
nothing prepares his lecture on "Indo-Germanic Factors in the
Current of History." If he is a professor, he takes all the winter
at it. You may drop in at his house at any time and his wife will
tell you that he is "upstairs working on his lecture." If he comes
down at all it is in carpet slippers and dressing gown. His mental
vision of his meeting is that of a huge gathering of keen people
with Indo-Germanic faces, hanging upon every word.
Then comes the fated night. There are seventeen people present. The
lecturer refuses to count them. He refers to them afterwards as
"about a hundred." To this group he reads his paper on the
Indo-Germanic Factor. It takes him two hours. When he is over the
chairman invites discussion. There is no discussion. The audience is
willing to let the Indo-Germanic factors go unchallenged. Then the
chairman makes this speech. He says:
"I am very sorry indeed that we should have had such a very poor
'turn out' to-night. I am sure that the members who were not here
have missed a real treat in the delightful paper that we have
listened to. I want to assure the lecturer that if he comes to the
Owl's Club again we can guarantee him next time a capacity audience.
And will any members, please, who haven't paid their dollar this
winter, pay it either to me or to Mr. Sibley as they pass out."
I have heard this speech (in the years when I have had to listen to
it) so many times that I know it by heart. I have made the
acquaintance of the Owl's Club under so many names that I recognise
it at once. I am aware that its members refuse to turn out in cold
weather; that they do not turn out in wet weather; that when the
weather is really fine, it is impossible to get them together; that
the slightest counter-attraction,--a hockey match, a sacred
concert,--goes to their heads at once.
There was a time when I was the newly appointed occupant of a
college chair and had to address the Owl's Club. It is a penalty
that all new professors pay; and the Owls batten upon them like
bats. It is one of the compensations of age that I am free of the
Owl's Club forever. But in the days when I still had to address
them, I used to take it out of the Owls in a speech, delivered, in
imagination only and not out loud, to the assembled meeting of the
seventeen Owls, after the chairman had made his concluding remarks.
It ran as follows:
"Gentlemen--if you are such, which I doubt. I realise that the paper
which I have read on "Was Hegel a deist?" has been an error. I spent
all the winter on it and now I realise that not one of you pups know
who Hegel was or what a deist is. Never mind. It is over now, and I
am glad. But just let me say this, only this, which won't keep you a
minute. Your chairman has been good enough to say that if I come
again you will get together a capacity audience to hear me. Let me
tell you that if your society waits for its next meeting till I come
to address you again, you will wait indeed. In fact, gentlemen--I say
it very frankly--it will be in another world."
But I pass over the audience. Suppose there is a real audience,
and suppose them all duly gathered together. Then it becomes the
business of that gloomy gentleman--facetiously referred to in the
newspaper reports as the "genial chairman"--to put the lecturer to
the bad. In nine cases out of ten he can do so. Some chairmen,
indeed, develop a great gift for it. Here are one or two examples
from my own experience:
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the chairman of a society in a little
country town in Western Ontario, to which I had come as a paid (a
very humbly paid) lecturer, "we have with us tonight a gentleman"
(here he made an attempt to read my name on a card, failed to read it
and put the card back in his pocket)--"a gentleman who is to lecture
to us on" (here he looked at his card again)--"on Ancient Ancient,--I
don't very well see what it is--Ancient --Britain? Thank you, on
Ancient Britain. Now, this is the first of our series of lectures
for this winter. The last series, as you all know, was not a
success. In fact, we came out at the end of the year with a deficit.
So this year we are starting a new line and trying the experiment of
Here the chairman gracefully waved his hand toward me and there
was a certain amount of applause. "Before I sit down," the chairman
added, "I'd like to say that I am sorry to see such a poor turn-out
to-night and to ask any of the members who haven't paid their dollar
to pay it either to me or to Mr. Sibley as they pass out."
Let anybody who knows the discomfiture of coming out before an
audience on any terms, judge how it feels to crawl out in front of
them labelled cheaper talent.
Another charming way in which the chairman endeavours to put both
the speaker for the evening and the audience into an entirely good
humour, is by reading out letters of regret from persons unable to
be present. This, of course, is only for grand occasions when the
speaker has been invited to come under very special auspices. It
was my fate, not long ago, to "appear" (this is the correct word
to use in this connection) in this capacity when I was going about
Canada trying to raise some money for the relief of the Belgians.
I travelled in great glory with a pass on the Canadian Pacific
Railway (not since extended: officials of the road kindly note
this) and was most generously entertained wherever I went.
It was, therefore, the business of the chairman at such meetings
as these to try and put a special distinction or cachet on the
gathering. This is how it was done:
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the chairman, rising from his seat on
the platform with a little bundle of papers in his hand, "before I
introduce the speaker of the evening, I have one or two items that I
want to read to you." Here he rustles his papers and there is a deep
hush in the hall while he selects one. "We had hoped to have with us
to-night Sir Robert Borden, the Prime Minister of this Dominion. I
have just received a telegram from Sir Robert in which he says that
he will not be able to be here" (great applause). The chairman puts
up his hand for silence, picks up another telegram and continues,
"Our committee, ladies and gentlemen, telegraphed an invitation to
Sir Wilfrid Laurier very cordially inviting him to be here to-night.
I have here Sir Wilfrid's answer in which he says that he will not be
able to be with us" (renewed applause). The chairman again puts up
his hand for silence and goes on, picking up one paper after another.
"The Minister of Finance regrets that he will be unable to come"
(applause). "Mr. Rodolphe Lemieux (applause) will not be here (great
applause)--the Mayor of Toronto (applause) is detained on business
(wild applause)--the Anglican Bishop of the Diocese (applause)--the
Principal of the University College, Toronto (great applause)--the
Minister of Education (applause)--none of these are coming." There is
a great clapping of hands and enthusiasm, after which the meeting is
called to order with a very distinct and palpable feeling that it is
one of the most distinguished audiences ever gathered in the hall.
Here is another experience of the same period while I was pursuing
the same exalted purpose: I arrived in a little town in Eastern
Ontario, and found to my horror that I was billed to "appear" in
a church. I was supposed to give readings from my works, and my
books are supposed to be of a humorous character. A church hardly
seemed the right place to get funny in. I explained my difficulty
to the pastor of the church, a very solemn looking man. He nodded
his head, slowly and gravely, as he grasped my difficulty. "I see,"
he said, "I see, but I think that I can introduce you to our people
in such a way as to make that right."
When the time came, he led me up on to the pulpit platform of the
church, just beside and below the pulpit itself, with a reading desk
and a big bible and a shaded light beside it. It was a big church, and
the audience, sitting in half darkness, as is customary during a
sermon, reached away back into the gloom. The place was packed full
and absolutely quiet. Then the chairman spoke:
"Dear friends," he said, "I want you to understand that it will be
all right to laugh tonight. Let me hear you laugh heartily, laugh
right out, just as much as ever you want to, because" (and here
his voice assumed the deep sepulchral tones of the preacher),-"when
we think of the noble object for which the professor appears
to-night, we may be assured that the Lord will forgive any one who
will laugh at the professor."
I am sorry to say, however, that none of the audience, even with
the plenary absolution in advance, were inclined to take a chance
I recall in this same connection the chairman of a meeting at a
certain town in Vermont. He represents the type of chairman who turns
up so late at the meeting that the committee have no time to explain
to him properly what the meeting is about or who the speaker is. I
noticed on this occasion that he introduced me very guardedly by name
(from a little card) and said nothing about the Belgians, and nothing
about my being (supposed to be) a humourist. This last was a great
error. The audience, for want of guidance, remained very silent and
decorous, and well behaved during my talk. Then, somehow, at the end,
while some one was moving a vote of thanks, the chairman discovered
his error. So he tried to make it good. Just as the audience were
getting up to put on their wraps, he rose, knocked on his desk and
"Just a minute, please, ladies and gentlemen, just a minute. I have
just found out--I should have known it sooner, but I was late in
coming to this meeting--that the speaker who has just addressed you
has done so in behalf of the Belgian Relief Fund. I understand that
he is a well-known Canadian humourist (ha! ha!) and I am sure that we
have all been immensely amused (ha! ha!). He is giving his delightful
talks (ha! ha!)--though I didn't know this till just this minute--for
the Belgian Relief Fund, and he is giving his services for nothing. I
am sure when we realise this, we shall all feel that it has been well
worth while to come. I am only sorry that we didn't have a better
turn out to-night. But I can assure the speaker that if he will come
again, we shall guarantee him a capacity audience. And I may say,
that if there are any members of this association who have not paid
their dollar this season, they can give it either to myself or to Mr.
Sibley as they pass out."
With the amount of accumulated experience that I had behind me I
was naturally interested during my lecture in England in the chairmen
who were to introduce me. I cannot help but feel that I have acquired
a fine taste in chair men. I know them just as other experts know
old furniture and Pekinese dogs. The witty chairman, the prosy
chairman, the solemn chairman,--I know them all. As soon as I shake
hands with the chairman in the Committee room I can tell exactly
how he will act.
There are certain types of chairmen who have so often been described
and are so familiar that it is not worth while to linger on them.
Everybody knows the chairman who says; "Now, ladies and gentlemen,
you have not come here to listen to me. So I will be very brief; in
fact, I will confine my remarks to just one or two very short
observations." He then proceeds to make observations for twenty-five
minutes. At the end of it he remarks with charming simplicity, "Now I
know that you are all impatient to hear the lecturer. . . ."
And everybody knows the chairman who comes to the meeting with a
very imperfect knowledge of who or what the lecturer is, and is
driven to introduce him by saying:
"Our lecturer of the evening is widely recognised as one of the
greatest authorities on; on,--on his subject in the world to-day.
He comes to us from; from a great distance and I can assure him
that it is a great pleasure to this audience to welcome a man who
has done so much to,--to,--to advance the interests of, --of; of
everything as he has."
But this man, bad as he is, is not so bad as the chairman whose
preparation for introducing the speaker has obviously been made at
the eleventh hour. Just such a chairman it was my fate to strike in
the form of a local alderman, built like an ox, in one of those small
manufacturing places in the north of England where they grow men of
this type and elect them into office.
"I never saw the lecturer before," he said, "but I've read his
book." (I have written nineteen books.) "The committee was good
enough to send me over his book last night. I didn't read it all
but I took a look at the preface and I can assure him that he is
very welcome. I understand he comes from a college. . . ." Then he
turned directly towards me and said in a loud voice, "What was the
name of that college over there you said you came from ?"
"McGill," I answered equally loudly.
"He comes from McGill," the chairman boomed out. "I never heard of
McGill myself but I can assure him he's welcome. He's going to
lecture to us on,--what did you say it was to be about?"
"It's a humorous lecture," I said.
"Ay, it's to be a humorous lecture, ladies and gentlemen, and I'll
venture to say it will be a rare treat. I'm only sorry I can't stay
for it myself as I have to get back over to the Town Hall for a
meeting. So without more ado I'll get off the platform and let the
lecturer go on with his humour."
A still more terrible type of chairman is one whose mind is evidently
preoccupied and disturbed with some local happening and who comes
on to the platform with a face imprinted with distress. Before
introducing the lecturer he refers in moving tones to the local
sorrow, whatever it is. As a prelude to a humorous lecture this is
Such a chairman fell to my lot one night before a gloomy audience
in a London suburb. "As I look about this hall to-night," he began
in a doleful whine, "I see many empty seats." Here he stifled a
sob. "Nor am I surprised that a great many of our people should
prefer to-night to stay quietly at home--"
I had no clue to what he meant. I merely gathered that some particular
sorrow must have overwhelmed the town that day.
"To many it may seem hardly fitting that after the loss our town
has sustained we should come out here to listen to a humorous
lecture,--", "What's the trouble?" I whispered to a citizen sitting
beside me on the platform.
"Our oldest resident"--he whispered back --"he died this morning."
"Ninety-four," he whispered.
Meantime the chairman, with deep sobs in his voice, continued:
"We debated in our committee whether or not we should have the
lecture. Had it been a lecture of another character our position
would have been less difficult,--", By this time I began to feel
like a criminal. "The case would have been different had the
lecture been one that contained information, or that was inspired
by some serious purpose, or that could have been of any benefit.
But this is not so. We understand that this lecture which Mr.
Leacock has already given, I believe, twenty or thirty times in
Here he turned to me with a look of mild reproval while the silent
audience, deeply moved, all looked at me as at a man who went around
the country insulting the memory of the dead by giving a lecture
"We understand, though this we shall have an opportunity of testing
for ourselves presently, that Mr. Leacock's lecture is not of a
character which,--has not, so to speak, the kind of value, in short,
is not a lecture of that class."
Here he paused and choked back a sob.
"Had our poor friend been spared to us for another six years he
would have rounded out the century. But it was not to be. For two
or three years past he has noted that somehow his strength was
failing, that, for some reason or other, he was no longer what he
had been. Last month he began to droop. Last week he began to
sink. Speech left him last Tuesday. This morning he passed, and he
has gone now, we trust, in safety to where there are no lectures."
The audience were now nearly in tears.
The chairman made a visible effort towards firmness and control.
"But yet," he continued, "our committee felt that in another sense
it was our duty to go on with our arrangements. I think, ladies
and gentlemen, that the war has taught us all that it is always
our duty to 'carry on,' no matter how hard it may be, no matter
with what reluctance we do it, and whatever be the difficulties
and the dangers, we must carry on to the end: for after all there
is an end and by resolution and patience we can reach it.
"I will, therefore, invite Mr. Leacock to deliver to us his humorous
lecture, the title of which I have forgotten, but I understand it
to be the same lecture which he has already given thirty or forty
times in England."
But contrast with this melancholy man the genial and pleasing person
who introduced me, all upside down, to a metropolitan audience.
He was so brisk, so neat, so sure of himself that it didn't seem
possible that he could make any kind of a mistake. I thought it
unnecessary to coach him. He seemed absolutely all right.
"It is a great pleasure,"--he said, with a charming, easy appearance
of being entirely at home on the platform,--"to welcome here tonight
our distinguished Canadian fellow citizen, Mr. Learoyd"--he turned
half way towards me as he spoke with a sort of gesture of welcome,
admirably executed. If only my name had been Learoyd instead of
Leacock it would have been excellent.
"There are many of us," he continued, "who have awaited Mr. Learoyd's
coming with the most pleasant anticipations. We seemed from his
books to know him already as an old friend. In fact I think I do
not exaggerate when I tell Mr. Learoyd that his name in our city
has long been a household word. I have very, very great pleasure,
ladies and gentlemen, in introducing to you Mr. Learoyd."
As far as I know that chairman never knew his error. At the close of
my lecture he said that he was sure that the audience "were deeply
indebted to Mr. Learoyd," and then with a few words of rapid, genial
apology buzzed off, like a humming bird, to other avocations. But I
have amply forgiven him: anything for kindness and geniality; it
makes the whole of life smooth. If that chairman ever comes to my
home town he is hereby invited to lunch or dine with me, as Mr.
Learoyd or under any name that he selects.
Such a man is, after all, in sharp contrast to the kind of chairman
who has no native sense of the geniality that ought to accompany
his office. There is, for example, a type of man who thinks that
the fitting way to introduce a lecturer is to say a few words about
the finances of the society to which he is to lecture (for money)
and about the difficulty of getting members to turn out to hear
Everybody has heard such a speech a dozen times. But it is the paid
lecturer sitting on the platform who best appreciates it. It runs
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, before I invite the lecturer of the
evening to address us there are a few words that I would like to say.
There are a good many members who are in arrears with their fees. I
am aware that these are hard times and it is difficult to collect
money but at the same time the members ought to remember that the
expenses of the society are very heavy. The fees that are asked by
the lecturers, as I suppose you know, have advanced very greatly in
the last few years. In fact I may say that they are becoming almost
This discourse is pleasant hearing for the lecturer. He can see
the members who have not yet paid their annual dues eyeing him with
hatred. The chairman goes on:
"Our finance committee were afraid at first that we could not afford
to bring Mr. Leacock to our society. But fortunately through the
personal generosity of two of our members who subscribed ten pounds
each out of their own pocket we are able to raise the required
(Applause: during which the lecturer sits looking and feeling
like the embodiment of the "required sum.")
"Now, ladies and gentlemen," continues the chairman, "what I feel is
that when we have members in the society who are willing to make this
sacrifice,--because it is a sacrifice, ladies and gentlemen,--we
ought to support them in every way. The members ought to think it
their duty to turn out to the lectures. I know that it is not an easy
thing to do. On a cold night, like this evening, it is hard, I admit
it is hard, to turn out from the comfort of one's own fireside and
come and listen to a lecture. But I think that the members should
look at it not as a matter of personal comfort but as a matter of
duty towards this society. We have managed to keep this society alive
for fifteen years and, though I don't say it in any spirit of
boasting, it has not been an easy thing to do. It has required a good
deal of pretty hard spade work by the committee. Well, ladies and
gentlemen, I suppose you didn't come here to listen to me and perhaps
I have said enough about our difficulties and troubles. So without
more ado (this is always a favourite phrase with chairmen) I'll
invite Mr. Leacock to address the society; oh, just a word before I
sit down. Will all those who are leaving before the end of the
lecture kindly go out through the side door and step as quietly as
possible? Mr. Leacock."
Anybody who is in the lecture business knows that that introduction
is far worse than being called Mr. Learoyd.
When any lecturer goes across to England from this side of the
water there is naturally a tendency on the part of the chairman to
play upon this fact. This is especially true in the case of a
Canadian like myself. The chairman feels that the moment is fitting
for one of those great imperial thoughts that bind the British
Empire together. But sometimes the expression of the thought falls
short of the full glory of the conception.
Witness this (word for word) introduction that was used against me
by a clerical chairman in a quiet spot in the south of England:
"Not so long ago, ladies and gentlemen," said the vicar, "we used to
send out to Canada various classes of our community to help build up
that country. We sent out our labourers, we sent out our scholars and
professors. Indeed we even sent out our criminals. And now," with a
wave of his hand towards me, "they are coming back."
There was no laughter. An English audience is nothing if not literal;
and they are as polite as they are literal. They understood that
I was a reformed criminal and as such they gave me a hearty burst
But there is just one thing that I would like to chronicle here in
favour of the chairman and in gratitude for his assistance. Even
at his worst he is far better than having no chairman at all. Over
in England a great many societies and public bodies have adopted
the plan of "cutting out the chairman." Wearying of his faults,
they have forgotten the reasons for his existence and undertaken
to do without him.
The result is ghastly. The lecturer steps up. on to the platform
alone and unaccompanied. There is a feeble ripple of applause; he
makes his miserable bow and explains with as much enthusiasm as he
can who he is. The atmosphere of the thing is so cold that an 'Arctic
expedition isn't in it with it. I found also the further difficulty
that in the absence of the chairman very often the audience, or a
large part of it, doesn't know who the lecturer is. On many occasions
I received on appearing a wild burst of applause under the impression
that I was somebody else. I have been mistaken in this way for Mr.
Briand, then Prime Minister of France, for Charlie Chaplin, for Mrs.
Asquith,--but stop, I may get into a libel suit. All I mean is that
without a chairman "we celebrities" get terribly mixed up together.
To one experience of my tour as a lecturer I shall always be able to
look back with satisfaction. I nearly had the pleasure of killing a
man with laughing: and this in the most literal sense. American
lecturers have often dreamed of doing this. I nearly did it. The man
in question was a comfortable apoplectic-looking man with the kind of
merry rubicund face that is seen in countries where they don't have
prohibition. He was seated near the back of the hall and was laughing
uproariously. All of a sudden I realised that something was
happening. The man had collapsed sideways on to the floor; a little
group of men gathered about him; they lifted him up and I could see
them carrying him out, a silent and inert mass. As in duty bound I
went right on with my lecture. But my heart beat high with
satisfaction. I was sure that I had killed him. The reader may judge
how high these hopes rose when a moment or two later a note was
handed to the chairman who then asked me to pause for a moment in my
lecture and stood up and asked, "Is there a doctor in the audience?"
A doctor rose and silently went out. The lecture continued; but there
was no more laughter; my aim had now become to kill another of them
and they knew it. They were aware that if they started laughing they
might die. In a few minutes a second note was handed to the chairman.
He announced very gravely, "A second doctor is wanted." The lecture
went on in deeper silence than ever. All the audience were waiting
for a third announcement. It came. A new message was handed to the
chairman. He rose and said, "If Mr. Murchison, the undertaker, is in
the audience, will he kindly step outside."
That man, I regret to say, got well.
Disappointing though it is to read it, he recovered. I sent back
next morning from London a telegram of enquiry (I did it in reality
so as to have a proper proof of his death) and received the answer,
"Patient doing well; is sitting up in bed and reading Lord Haldane's
Relativity; no danger of relapse."
X.--Have the English any Sense of Humour?
It was understood that the main object of my trip to England was
to find out whether the British people have any sense of humour.
No doubt the Geographical Society had this investigation in mind
in not paying my expenses. Certainly on my return I was at once
assailed with the question on all sides, "Have they got a sense of
humour? Even if it is only a rudimentary sense, have they got it
or have they not?" I propose therefore to address myself to the
answer to this question.
A peculiar interest always attaches to humour. There is no quality of
the human mind about which its possessor is more sensitive than the
sense of humour. A man will freely confess that he has no ear for
music, or no taste for fiction, or even no interest in religion. But
I have yet to see the man who announces that he has no sense of
humour. In point of fact, every man is apt to think himself possessed
of an exceptional gift in this direction, and that even if his humour
does not express itself in the power either to make a joke or to
laugh at one, it none the less consists in a peculiar insight or
inner light superior to that of other people.
The same thing is true of nations. Each thinks its own humour of
an entirely superior kind, and either refuses to admit, or admits
reluctantly, the humorous quality of other peoples. The Englishman
may credit the Frenchman with a certain light effervescence of mind
which he neither emulates nor envies; the Frenchman may acknowledge
that English literature shows here and there a sort of heavy
playfulness; but neither of them would consider that the humour of
the other nation could stand a moment's comparison with his own.
Yet, oddly enough, American humour stands as a conspicuous exception
to this general rule. A certain vogue clings to it. Ever since the
spacious days of Artemus Ward and Mark Twain it has enjoyed an
extraordinary reputation, and this not only on our own continent,
but in England. It was in a sense the English who "discovered" Mark
Twain; I mean it was they who first clearly recognised him as a
man of letters of the foremost rank, at a time when academic Boston
still tried to explain him away as a mere comic man of the West.
In the same way Artemus Ward is still held in affectionate remembrance
in London, and, of the later generation, Mr. Dooley at least is a
This is so much the case that a sort of legend has grown around
American humour. It is presumed to be a superior article and to
enjoy the same kind of pre-eminence as French cooking, the Russian
ballet, and Italian organ grinding. With this goes the converse
supposition that the British people are inferior in humour, that
a joke reaches them only with great difficulty, and that a British
audience listens to humour in gloomy and unintelligent silence.
Peoplc still love to repeat the famous story of how John
Bright listened attentively to Artemus Ward's lecture in London
and then said, gravely, that he "doubted many of the young man's
statements"; and readers still remember Mark Twain's famous parody
of the discussion of his book by a wooden-headed reviewer of an
But the legend in reality is only a legend. If the English are
inferior to Americans in humour, I, for one, am at a loss to see
where it comes in. If there is anything on our continent superior
in humour to Punch I should like to see it. If we have any more
humorous writers in our midst than E. V. Lucas and Charles Graves
and Owen Seaman I should like to read what they write; and if there
is any audience capable of more laughter and more generous
appreciation than an audience in London, or Bristol, or Aberdeen,
I should like to lecture to it.
During my voyage of discovery in Great Britain I had very exceptional
opportunities for testing the truth of these comparisons. It was my
good fortune to appear as an avowed humourist in all the great
British cities. I lectured as far north as Aberdeen and as far south
as Brighton and Bournemouth; I travelled eastward to Ipswich and
westward into Wales. I spoke on serious subjects, but with a joke or
two in loco, at the universities, at business gatherings, and at
London dinners; I watched, lost in admiration, the inspired merriment
of the Savages of Adelphi Terrace, and in my moments of leisure I
observed, with a scientific eye, the gaieties of the London revues.
As a result of which I say with conviction that, speaking by and
large, the two communities are on the same level. A Harvard audience,
as I have reason gratefully to acknowledge, is wonderful. But an
Oxford audience is just as good. A gathering of business men in a
textile town in the Midlands is just as heavy as a gathering of
business men in Decatur, Indiana, but no heavier; and an audience of
English schoolboys as at Rugby or at Clifton is capable of a wild and
sustained merriment not to be outdone from Halifax to Los Angeles.
There is, however, one vital difference between American and English
audiences which would be apt to discourage at the outset any American
lecturer who might go to England. The English audiences, from the
nature of the way in which they have been brought together, expect
more. In England they still associate lectures with information. We
don't. Our American lecture audiences are, in nine cases out of ten,
organised by a woman's club of some kind and drawn not from the
working class, but from--what shall we call it?--the class that
doesn't have to work, or, at any rate, not too hard. It is largely a
social audience, well educated without being "highbrow," and tolerant
and kindly to a degree. In fact, what the people mainly want is to
see the lecturer. They have heard all about G. K. Chesterton and
Hugh Walpole and John Drinkwater, and so when these gentlemen come to
town the woman's club want to have a look at them, just as the
English people, who are all crazy about animals, flock to the zoo to
look at a new giraffe. They don't expect the giraffe to do anything
in particular. They want to see it, that's all. So with the American
woman's club audience. After they have seen Mr. Chesterton they ask
one another as they come out--just as an incidental matter--"Did you
understand his lecture?" and the answer is, "I can't say I did." But
there is no malice about it. They can now go and say that they have
seen Mr. Chesterton; that's worth two dollars in itself. The nearest
thing to this attitude of mind that I heard of in England was at the
City Temple in London, where they have every week a huge gathering of
about two thousand people, to listen to a (so-called) popular
lecture. When I was there I was told that the person who had preceded
me was Lord Haldane, who had lectured on Einstein's Theory of
Relativity. I said to the chairman, "Surely this kind of audience
couldn't understand a lecture like that!" He shook his head. "No," he
said, "they didn't understand it, but they all enjoyed it."
I don't mean to imply by what I said above that American lecture
audiences do not appreciate good things or that the English lecturers
who come to this continent are all giraffes. On the contrary: when
the audience finds that Chesterton and Walpole and Drinkwater, in
addition to being visible, are also singularly interesting lecturers,
they are all the better pleased. But this doesn't alter the fact that
they have come primarily to see the lecturer.
Not so in England. Here a lecture (outside London) is organised on a
much sterner footing. The people are there for information. The
lecture is organised not by idle, amiable, charming women, but by a
body called, with variations, the Philosophical Society. From
experience I should define an English Philosophical Society as all
the people in town who don't know anything about philosophy. The
academic and university classes are never there. The audience is only
of plainer folk. In the United States and Canada at any evening
lecture a large sprinkling of the audience are in evening dress. At
an English lecture (outside of London) none of them are; philosophy
is not to be wooed in such a garb. Nor are there the same commodious
premises, the same bright lights, and the same atmosphere of gaiety
as at a society lecture in America. On the contrary, the setting is a
gloomy one. In England, in winter, night begins at four in the
afternoon. In the manufacturing towns of the Midlands and the north
(which is where the philosophical societies flourish) there is always
a drizzling rain and wet slop underfoot, a bedraggled poverty in the
streets, and a dimness of lights that contrasts with the glare of
light in an American town. There is no visible sign in the town that
a lecture is to happen, no placards, no advertisements, nothing. The
lecturer is conducted by a chairman through a side door in a dingy
building (The Institute, established 1840), and then all of a sudden
in a huge, dim hall--there sits the Philosophical Society. There are
a thousand of them, but they sit as quiet as a prayer meeting. They
are waiting to be fed--on information.
Now I don't mean to say that the Philosophical Society are not a good
audience. In their own way they're all right. Once the Philosophical
Society has decided that a lecture is humorous they do not stint
their laughter. I have had many times the satisfaction of seeing a
Philosophical Society swept away from its moorings and tossing in a
sea of laughter, as generous and as whole-hearted as anything we ever
see in America.
But they are not so willing to begin. With us the chairman has only
to say to the gaily dressed members of the Ladies' Fortnightly
Club, "Well, ladies, I'm sure we are all looking forward very much
to Mr. Walpole's lecture," and at once there is a ripple of applause,
and a responsive expression on a hundred charming faces.
Not so the Philosophical Society of the Midlands. The chairman rises.
He doesn't call for silence. It is there, thick. "We have with us
to-night," he says, "a man whose name is well known to the
Philosophical Society" (here he looks at his card), "Mr. Stephen
Leacock." (Complete silence.) "He is a professor of political economy
at--" Here he turns to me and says, "Which college did you say?" I
answer quite audibly in the silence, "At McGill." "He is at McGill,"
says the chairman. (More silence.) "I don't suppose, however, ladies
and gentlemen, that he's come here to talk about political economy."
This is meant as a jest, but the audience takes it as a threat.
"However, ladies and gentlemen, you haven't come here to listen to
me" (this evokes applause, the first of the evening), "so without
more ado" (the man always has the impression that there's been a lot
of "ado," but I never see any of it) "I'll now introduce Mr.
Leacock." (Complete silence.)
Nothing of which means the least harm. It only implies that the
Philosophical Society are true philosophers in accepting nothing
unproved. They are like the man from Missouri. They want to be shown.
And undoubtedly it takes a little time, therefore, to rouse them. I
remember listening with great interest to Sir Michael Sadler, who is
possessed of a very neat wit, introducing me at Leeds. He threw three
jokes, one after the other, into the heart of a huge, silent audience
without effect. He might as well have thrown soap bubbles. But the
fourth joke broke fair and square like a bomb in the middle of the
Philosophical Society and exploded them into convulsions. The process
is very like what artillery men tell of "bracketing" the object fired
at, and then landing fairly on it.
In what I have just written about audiences I have purposely been
using the word English and not British, for it does not in the
least apply to the Scotch. There is, for a humorous lecturer, no
better audience in the world than a Scotch audience. The old standing
joke about the Scotch sense of humour is mere nonsense. Yet one
finds it everywhere.
"So you're going to try to take humour up to Scotland," the most
eminent author in England said to me. "Well, the Lord help you.
You'd better take an axe with you to open their skulls; there is
no other way." How this legend started I don't know, but I think
it is because the English are jealous of the Scotch. They got into
the Union with them in 1707 and they can't get out. The Scotch
don't want Home Rule, or Swa Raj, or Dominion status, or anything;
they just want the English. When they want money they go to London
and make it; if they want literary fame they sell their books to
the English; and to prevent any kind of political trouble they take
care to keep the Cabinet well filled with Scotchmen. The English
for shame's sake can't get out of the Union, so they retaliate by
saying that the Scotch have no sense of humour. But there's nothing
in it. One has only to ask any of the theatrical people and they
will tell you that the audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh are the
best in the British Isles--possess the best taste and the best
ability to recognise what is really good.
The reason for this lies, I think, in the well-known fact that the
Scotch are a truly educated people, not educated in the mere sense
of having been made to go to school, but in the higher sense of
having acquired an interest in books and a respect for learning.
In England the higher classes alone possess this, the working class
as a whole know nothing of it. But in Scotland the attitude is
universal. And the more I reflect upon the subject, the more I
believe that what counts most in the appreciation of humour is not
nationality, but the degree of education enjoyed by the individual
concerned. I do not think that there is any doubt that educated
people possess a far wider range of humour than the uneducated
class. Some people, of course, get overeducated and become hopelessly
academic. The word "highbrow" has been invented exactly to fit the
case. The sense of humour in the highbrow has become atrophied,
or, to vary the metaphor, it is submerged or buried under the
accumulated strata of his education, on the top soil of which
flourishes a fine growth of conceit. But even in the highbrow the
educated appreciation of humour is there--away down. Generally, if
one attempts to amuse a highbrow he will resent it as if the process
were beneath him; or perhaps the intellectual jealousy and touchiness
with which he is always overcharged will lead him to retaliate with
a pointless story from Plato. But if the highbrow is right off his
guard and has no jealousy in his mind, you may find him roaring
with laughter and wiping his spectacles, with his sides shaking,
and see him converted as by magic into the merry, clever little
school-boy that he was thirty years ago, before his education
But with the illiterate and the rustic no such process is possible.
His sense of humour may be there as a sense, but the mechanism for
setting it in operation is limited and rudimentary. Only the broadest
and most elementary forms of joke can reach him. The magnificent
mechanism of the art of words is, quite literally, a sealed book
to him. Here and there, indeed, a form of fun is found so elementary
in its nature and yet so excellent in execution that it appeals to
all alike, to the illiterate and to the highbrow, to the peasant
and the professor. Such, for example, are the antics of Mr. Charles
Chaplin or the depiction of Mr. Jiggs by the pencil of George
McManus. But such cases are rare. As a rule the cheap fun that
excites the rustic to laughter is execrable to the man of education.
In the light of what I have said before it follows that the
individuals that are findable in every English or American audience
are much the same. All those who lecture or act are well aware that
there are certain types of people that are always to be seen
somewhere in the hall. Some of these belong to the general class of
discouraging people. They listen in stolid silence. No light of
intelligence ever gleams on their faces; no response comes from their
I find, for example, that wherever I go there is always seated in the
audience, about three seats from the front, a silent man with a big
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