Thursday, September 15, 2016

Groans of the Britons

To “write to the Times” is the climax of an Englishman's threat, and one of the most powerful consolations of his disappointments. It has been wittily represented as an absolute necessity for an age which has ceased to believe in the invocation of saints; nor can there be any sort of doubt as to the sincerity or potency of the supplications, which are, in fact, the voice of public opinion. The ballad of “Jacob Omnium and his Horse,” and the 12 and 13 Vic. c. 75, jointly commemorate the victory of a groaning Briton over the Palace Court-one of the last remnants of the glory of the Hereditary Grand Marshals of England. There is considerable reason to doubt whether there would have been any Minié rifles at the battle of Inkermann if Sir Charles Shaw had not expounded their merits to the public through the columns of the morning newspapers. The Militia Bill of 1852 was owing almost entirely to what was known as the Invasion panic of that year; and both Annette Meyers and Kirwan—the painter convicted of murdering his wife—were saved from execution principally by the efforts of those who discussed their cases in the daily papers. It is curious to watch the issue of the various complaints which from time to time appear in this manner, for nothing can furnish a more remarkable comment on the nature and limits of the real influence of the press. At first sight, the operation would seem to be simplicity itself. It has become almost commonplace to say that newspapers are omnipotent. Mr. Carlyle speaks of the Fourth Estate, “which let the other three hold if they can;” and there is a popular impression that, in addition to the saintly attribute of being invoked, editors possess, in modern times, the apostolic power of binding and loosing. But on looking more closely into the matter, we think that this impression will be very greatly modified. A newspaper is essentially and pre-eminently a mercantile speculation. Whatever else it may do, it must either pay or stop. The managers of a paper are therefore compelled to limit the patronage which they extend to gentlemen with grievances by the degree of interest which they suppose the public to take in the subject; and as the public at large care extremely little for any misdeeds unless they immediately affect the general comfort, and are capable of being dramatically presented to their notice and speedily and efficiently redressed, it is upon such subjects only that the power of writing to the papers is a really important privilege. To sweep away an obsolete court, to apply a new invention to the public service, to pardon a man unjustly condemned to death, are such obvious remedies for glaring abuses that the power of demanding is almost equivalent to a guarantee for obtaining them. On the other hand, when any question can be made to turn upon a disputed matter of fact or upon a set of obscure details, unless it is a matter of overwhelming public interest, the newspapers are nearly powerless.

This is, no doubt, the best side of the practice which we are examining; but it has other aspects, which may easily be confounded with this, though they are in reality fundamentally distinct from it. One large class of letters to the papers may be classified under the head of bores. There are persons who have quasi intellectual hobbies, which an ungrateful public does not care to notice, but which, when intelligence is scanty and subjects are few, a despairing editor will thankfully admit to replenish his ill-furnished columns. The author of this class of contributions is generally well aware of the rights of his position. He fondly believes that his letters are a favour to the paper to which they are addressed, and will create a sensation, and he takes his line accordingly. We can never read such letters without a kind of pious awe, for we always feel that the writer's eye is upon us, and that if we skip a single sentence we are guilty of a wilful sin against light and knowledge. Yet, after all, what dreadful reading they are! Secondary punishments and reformatory schools are usually the chosen themes. The writer begins by claiming some part of the editor's valuable space for a subject of deep—he might even say the deepest—social importance. He contends that we have gone too long upon the principle of punishing crimes which society has itself done much to produce, and that if we spent in prevention—and so on, through the history of the reformed boy who was taken up by a philanthropist at Bristol and exported to Canada, whence he wrote to say he had saved 6s. chimney-sweeping, and transmitted eighteen-pence for the Sunday schools of his native village. And this is followed by the counter story of the unreformed boy, who, when under sentence of transportation for life for a burglary with violence, told the chaplain that it was “all along of the crushers a-taking away his character when he looked out for work”—till at last we arrive at the long-expected conclusion, with a suppressed feeling that the world would be much more comfortable, and rather less dull, if some jovial tyrant would gag all the philanthropists and hang all the criminals. There is a regular round of subjects of this kind. Just before Parliament opens, we are pretty sure to have Mr. Locke King and the Law Reformers. Immediately on the prorogation, we get some deadly-lively writing from “A Templar,” or “A Law Student,” about the Inns of Court and Legal Education; and at the dead season of all, when a country paper would take to its gooseberries and frogs, Mr. Muntz emerges like a nineteenth century Solomon Eagle, with the awful cry—“Inconvertible notes, inconvertible notes—yet ten years of a golden currency, and England shall be destroyed.”

The gentlemen with small, but real, grievances form another class of writers to the papers. If any one would take the pains to examine the files of the Times for some months or years, he would find the most striking confirmation of our view as to the limits of the influence of the kind of writing which we are considering. The occasional correspondents of the daily papers denounce a great number of very real grievances, but they go on protesting against them for years together without getting them removed, unless the grievance is glaring, and the remedy obvious and simple. We should like to know how long the great question of the passage of cabs through St. James's Park has been debated, or how often the wickedness of innkeepers and the dearness of travelling in England has been denounced. The schemes suggested by various correspondents of the papers for making a communication between the guard and the driver of a train, and the thrilling denunciations of the avarice of the directors who could not adopt them, would fill a small volume. Such topics as these are like the creaking hinge and the unpainted coach panel, which so grievously disturbed Uncle Toby and his father. The reason why these small evils are not remedied by a machiner which possesses such enormous power in some directions, is curious. Of course, if the Times contained a column of castigation of the conduct of the directors of any one railway every day for months together, they would be brought to see the error of their ways; but as the public would soon be tired of the subject, the apparently boundless power of the paper is, in fact, confined to very occasional manifestations. It can only hit a blow now and then at considerable intervals. The attacks of a newspaper are like the fire of a cannon, the metal of which begins to run if the gun is discharged too often.

Sometimes the complaints which a bold Briton pours into the sympathizing bosom of his newspaper are the most curious illustrations of the intense and disinterested affection which an Englishman feels for himself. That he, the heir of all the ages in the foremost files of time, should be uncomfortable, strikes him not so much in the light of a personal wrong as in that of a blot on the face of creation. His cultivation of his own comfort—as one of Eugéne Sue's heroes remarks—n'est pas une fonction, c'est un sacerdoce. His unexpressed, perhaps unconscious, but unalterable conviction—the universal postulate which lies at the root of all his beliefs—is that the world was made for him. This frame of mind breaks out at times in the most marvellous lamentations to the Times. Some time ago, a gentleman wrote to bewail the degeneracy of the age, because he had had to walk upwards of a mile in some remote part of London before he could find a cab at five o'clock in the morning. Another made similar remonstrances because there was no railing to the footpath up Helvellyn; and two patriots debated for weeks about some disputed charge in an inn at Dover. Nor is it to English grievances alone that these utterances are confined. In the early art of the present autumn, there must have been some ten or fifteen complaints addressed to the English papers about the monstrous wickedness of the Swiss innkeepers and the Prices which they charged for their horses. It is impossible not to feel a sort of admiration for the man who can nurse his wrath till it assumes this awful form. Most of us have taken the numbers of cabs, and have declared with indignant threats or impressive civility, according to our special idiosyncrasies, our unalterable determination to bring the offending driver before the judgment seat of a police-court; but who ever did it? “Non sum qualis eram,” is almost every man's feeling when he comes down to breakfast next morning. To be jostled about in a filthy court by greasy policemen, and to lose the morning in hearing people fined five shillings for being drunk and disorderly, is a penance too great for most men's public spirit. Let us, therefore, give due honour to those who make a note in their pocket-books of the sins of a Swiss guide, and keep their indignation warm enough for use all the way from Berne to Basle, from Basle to Strasburg, thence to Paris, and so home. Indeed, newspaper letters sometimes cast a wonderful light on a man's character. One would like to know the patriot who sent that awful instrument to the Times the other day, which would so disfigure a robber, after “caressing” his face for a single moment, “that his own mother would not know him." What did he think the editor would do with it? Or what special interest had he in protecting that gentleman against the friends who might embrace him somewhat too lovingly on his way home from Printing-house-square? Even our old friend Paterfamilias gave us a new light as to his character yesterday, when he announced to all the garotters his habit of walking home with a loaded cane and a set of “knuckle dusters"—whatever they may be. There is something touching in the freshness of the faith which such a veteran grumbler feels in his Times. Fancy a man boná fide loading himself with weapons of war, on account of an alarm excited solely by the indignation of a few noisy victims. It is as if the man who shows the whispering gallery at St. Paul's should be really frightened at hearing a nut cracked there.

The most wonderful man of all is the gentleman who sent his sons to Eton because he objected to flogging, in order, apparently, to have a chance of getting into a controversy with Dr. Goodford. If he had lived in the days of Moloch, he would probably have made his children pass through the fire for the sake of entitling himself to expose the system in the columns of the Jerusalem Gazette or the Samaritan News. What must be the patriotism of a man who exposes his sons to what he considers a filthy and degrading punishment, in order that he may, through the columns of a newspaper, incite the classic youth of Eton to follow the examples of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Perhaps his own heroic progeny will adopt the rôle, and sharpen their penknives.

After all, grumbling, which is the Briton's unwritten Magna Charta, has its secondary as well as its primary advantages. No age ever photographed itself like our age. Whatever its faults may be, was there ever such a history of England as the broad sheet of the Times?  What would we give for the files of some similar paper published in Greece or Rome! How it would make those dry bones live! How it would enable us to study not only the gravest transactions, but the minutest traits of an extinct character! Future Macaulays will put the nineteenth century on the stage in a manner which would drive Mr. Kean to despair.

Saturday Review, Nov 22, 1856.

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