Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Ypres Salient

I made several visits to the First World War battlefields. This is an overall impression of Ypres and the surrounding area.

There were four principal battles at Ypres, interspersed with almost continual low-level bombardment and skirmishing. In autumn 1914 British forces managed to halt Prince Rupert’s 6th (Bavarian) army in their drive for the Channel ports. By the time fighting ground to a halt in the winter mud, the old pre-war British professional army had virtually ceased to exist, while the Bavarians had flung into battle so many semi-trained youngsters that they nicknamed it “the slaughter of the children”. One of those who survived was a certain Adolf Hitler. 1915 saw the second battle of Ypres, noted for the first use of poison gas. In 1916 the main action was away to the south, at Verdun and the Somme, but in 1917 came the great British offensive which became specially linked with the attacks on a village north-east of Ypres: Passchendaele; the battle in the mud. Finally in late summer 1918 there was a massive Allied offensive which drove back the German forces and led to the collapse of Germany. But in popular memory the name of Ypres is above all associated with disaster.

The whole area reminded me of the Fens, with very flat fields intensively cultivated (mostly with maize nowadays), above which the church spires stand out for miles. The water- table is only just below the surface, and it is easy to see how heavy bombardment would quickly destroy the drainage system and turn the whole area into a kind of filthy porridge, through which the troops would have to wade, and into which they frequently sank without trace.
Before 1914, Ypres was similar to Ghent and Bruges: a splendid city of the late middle ages, built on the wealth from the cloth trade with England. But whereas the other two had the great good fortune that the First World War passed them by, and their glorious buildings survived intact, Ypres was right on the front line for four years, and was completely destroyed. Although the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and other buildings look old, they are only painstaking reconstructions, which means the city lacks atmosphere.

The Cloth Hall has a fine museum of the war, and St George’s chapel just round the corner, is covered inside with the brass plates of British memorials. The most awesome modern building is the Menin Gate, inscribed with the names of 59,000 British troops whose bodies were never identified: they had mostly disappeared into the porridge.

Every evening the Menin Gate stages a ceremony where buglers sound the Last Post and wreathes are laid. When I was there it was blown by a couple of men from the town fire brigade who unromantically rolled up on mopeds, while Jupiter blazed brightly in the skies above. Around the city are the remains of an earlier age of warfare built for Louis XIV by Vauban: huge moated earthworks which were the safest place to take shelter during the German bombardments.

Around Ypres there lie a great number of British war cemeteries, much the biggest being at Tyn Cot on the Passchendaele ridge, looking back across the bloodsoaked fields to the city. It is built around three German pillboxes, with the central one now forming the base for a huge cross, behind which a wall contains the names of thousands more of the unidentified dead.

The British cemeteries have individual tombstones standing in serried ranks, mostly with individual name, rank and unit, but about third of them having no inscription other than “A soldier of the Great War; known unto God”, used for remains that could not be identified. But the most artistically impressive cemetery is the German one at Vladslo, with its leafy glades and two stark kneeling statues of grieving relatives. Instead of individual gravestones, the German system has horizontal slabs, each one of them inscribed with twenty or more names.

Also close to Ypres is the vast mine crater at Hill 60, complete with a German pillbox that had been rolled over onto its roof by the force of the explosion.

Further on past Shrapnel Corner is a great water-filled crater at Spanbroekmolen on Messines Ridge, together with German trenches and shafts, and whole walls of shell-cases at Frauenlob near “Whitesheet”, where Adolf Hitler stood in the front line, and revisited it in after the fall of France in 1940. We also saw the Field Dressing Station where the famous poem about the “Poppies” was written by a Canadian doctor, and at the Essex Farm cemetery the grave of a British soldier aged just 15 – and he was apparently not the youngest known casualty.

North of Ypres we find the Belgian trenches. Dixmuide, has a small museum and a vast war memorial, the Yser Tower, which just before my first visit had been blown up in the continuing linguistic struggle between Fleming-speakers and Walloon-speakers, because the wrong language had been thought to have been given too much prominence. Dixmuide also has the “Trench of Death” along the canal: a slightly bogus trench nowadays, since all the sandbags have been replaced with concrete. But it did enable us to see all the normal trench and dugout features: firesteps, firebays, machine-gun nests and so forth. There were even a few battered poppies to add to the atmosphere.

The most evocative sight near Ypres, however, is Hill 62, otherwise known as “Sanctuary Wood”. It is at least visibly a hill, which the Passchendaele ridge is not. On the hill an enterprising farmer soon after the war refrained from disturbing the trenches in the correct belief that they would attract tourists, though he let the trees grow up around them. So although the area is once again a wood, you can still gain a strong impression of what it must actually have been like: with rusty barbed wire and corrugated iron, muddy craters, water-filled dugouts and tunnels, shattered stumps, the odd unexploded shell, and general squalor.

It was the sheer beastliness of trench life, even without the shellfire, which came across most strongly – and this in fine weather, after it had hardly rained for a month. What it must have been like under bombardment and in pouring rain does not bear thinking about. This was reinforced by the little museum at the gate, which featured a stereoscopic viewer of old photographs, including some exceptionally grisly wartime scenes.

I wrote the following after my first visit:-

Sanctuary Wood, Ypres: School Visits

How can they understand a war poem? How can we?
Wars were far away and long ago
And nothing seen on television ever really happened.
Now the woods are full of children
Running through the muddy trenches
Dodging round the water-filled craters
Gawping at, or completely failing to notice
The occasional unexploded shell
And squeaking when their nice new jeans
(Fashionably ragged and torn at the knee)
Are stained with filth in the communications tunnel.
Below the woods the fields are grey with mist
Shrouding the view to the sinister places
The Menin road, and up to Passchendaele,
Behind us, Messines Ridge and Plugstreet. The children
Have been told, but already they’ve forgotten
And soon they’ll be off for hamburger and chips
(They’re looking forward to their succulent Belgian chips)
And leave the trenches and the shattered stumps
The rusty barbed wire and all the iron harvest of war
And arching over all, the chestnut trees
- None more than seventy years old
But sprouting strongly, because well fertilised
By someone who in happier circumstances
Might have married my grandmother
Or yours


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Max Beerbohm

Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm (to give him his full name) brought to perfection a number of different minor talents as a writer and artist. He first attracted attention as an essayist and reviewer soon after he left Oxford, and through this got to know all the cultural leaders the 1890s. He always seemed to be most at home in this decade: the age of Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and the English Decadents. He portrayed the leading figures of the time in a series of splendid little caricatures, in which he tried always to link physical appearance with character and outlook. He wrote a number of highly individual short stories. He was exceptionally gifted at parody, publishing very funny imitations of such writers as Kipling, H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, though he particularly relished parodying the later work of Henry James (he once said that Henry James’s style fell dynastically into three reigns: James the First, James the Second and the Old Pretender!). He always preferred to produce delicate, jewel-like miniatures, with every detail perfect, rather than attempt any major project. After 1910 he lived almost all the rest of his life in Italy, but on his brief returns to Britain he became a popular radio broadcaster, giving reminiscences of the times and people he had known. He was knighted in 1939.

Two caricatures by Max Beerbohm:-

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Aubrey Beardsley

He is likely to be remembered best for two works. His only novel, “Zuleika Dobson” (published 1911), is a fantasy about Oxford: not of course Oxford as it ever actually existed, but Oxford as we think it ought to have been. It tells of how Zuleika, the grand-daughter of the Warden of Judas College (!) visits the city and causes chaos as all the undergraduates fall hopelessly in love with her; especially the multi-talented young Duke of Dorset. Beerbohm is quite merciless with his characters, all of whom are monsters of egoism, incapable of the least degree of empathy with their fellow-creatures.

But best of all is his collection of short stories, “Seven Men” (published 1919, but later reissued with the addition of an extra story). Each story tells of Beerbohm’s meetings with imaginary but typical personalities of the 1890s. First comes “Enoch Soames”; an unsuccessful decadent poet who, distressed by his failure to attract any attention but convinced his brilliance would be recognised by later generations, offers to sell his soul to the Devil for a chance to visit the British Museum Reading Room in a hundred years’ time and see all the books which would have been written about him - an offer which brings unexpected results. “A. V. Laider” tells of a weak-willed fortune-teller, and leads to speculation about the inevitability of Fate. “James Pethel” is a man addicted to the thrill of gambling and risk-taking - the trouble is, he invariably wins, and therefore remains dissatisfied. There are two stories about the relationships between pairs of contemporary writers: “Maltby and Braxton” are two young novelists, each of whom writes a single best-seller, enjoys brief fame, then sinks into obscurity: “Argallo and Ledgett” (the story added later) are a reclusive genius contrasted with a highly-paid hack. Finally we have “Savonarola Brown”, an amateur playwright who spends years trying to write a tragedy set in Renaissance Florence, and finally dies, leaving Beerbohm himself to attempt to finish the play for him. Although the stories appear light-hearted, there is in fact a note of melancholy running through each of them.

Max Beerbohm will always be something of a minority taste, but equally he has always had his admirers, ever since early in his career George Bernard Shaw hailed him as “The Incomparable Max!”

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Who really governed England in 1700?

(This entry is intended to follow on from my previous one, which was a summary of Gregory King’s census figure for England in 1688)

Before the latter part of the 19th century, and the coming of railways, electric telegraph, automatic weapons and national daily newspapers, no central government could ever directly control a country of any size; not even a relatively compact one like England, with its mild climate and easy communications. No army could travel more than about 20 miles a day, and even for a single person a journey from London to the Scottish border could easily take more than a week even in good weather. The central government had few troops, no professional police force, a tiny bureaucracy and little money; and also, crucially, it lacked information, of how many citizens there were, where they lived and how rich they were. Loyalties were mostly local, and concepts of national identity were slow to develop, though they were probably more widespread in 18th century England than in other countries. Consequently, most local power still resided where it always had been, with the local landowning elite; though as society gradually became less violent, the robber barons of the Middle Ages had settled down to being the “gentlemen of influence” by 1700. The landowners remained jealous of their local power, and resented interference by central government. Attempts by the Stuart kings to coerce the landowners had only led to civil war and revolution, and Cromwell’s attempt to rule England by military dictatorship had also failed; so by the 18th century the landowners were generally left in control.

Gregory King’s census of 1688 found a little over 16,400 families of significant landowners, classed as “nobles, bishops, baronets, knights, esquires and gentlemen”, whom we can describe as the “ruling class” of England in the early 18th century, in a total population of 5½ million. Of these, there were only 140 actual noblemen: a major and decisive difference between England and most continental countries. In France, Spain, Poland and other places, there were thousands of nobles, who passed on their status to all their children. Frequently their noble status was indicated by a prefix to the name (“de” in French, “von” in German), and they often had distinct caste privileges: only a nobleman could own land, or become an army officer: in France, nobles were immune from paying taxation. In England it had been decided in the Middle Ages that the great majority of the landowners, even the knights, were legally commoners. These people, the non-noble landowners, were collectively known as the “gentry”. In Parliament, they sat in the House of Commons, which they dominated, and whose importance largely depended on the presence of this large class of rich and independent-minded men. The nobles were too few to constitute a self-perpetuating caste; and as old families became extinct their numbers had constantly to replenished from below: from rich gentry and successful generals and political leaders. (Conversely, all the English nobility were rich, whereas on the continent there were thousands of poor nobles, often little better-off than the peasants around them, but clinging desperately to their caste privileges)

We can say that the real caste division in England was between “the gentry” and “the rest” . But exactly who was a gentleman? In Gregory King’s day it still had a specific meaning: a “gentleman” was a landowner who was rich enough not to have to plough his field with his own hands. Thus a working farmer was clearly not a gentleman, nor was an artisan or shopkeeper. But as the economy grew more complex and the educated middle classes more numerous, difficult questions would arise. It was always accepted that a military officer was a “gentleman”, but what about a clergyman, or a lawyer, or a millionaire merchant? Different pressures were at work here: many of the younger sons of the gentry were sent forth to earn their living in the law, the church, the government civil service, or even in “trade”, but were anxious to retain their social status; whereas it was always the ambition of a successful lawyer or businessman to buy an estate in the country and thus become a “proper” gentleman; or, failing that, at least to be recognised as something better than a mere workman. Two stock characters of comedy were, on the one hand, the farmer or bourgeois with absurd pretensions to gentility, and on the other hand, the country landowner who might be rich but who in in culture and behaviour was a ridiculous bumpkin. As against this, the gentry, and even the nobility, had no objection to marrying their sons to the daughters of wealthy city capitalists (not always with happy results, as illustrated in Hogarth’s series “The Rake’s Progress). In the 19th century the great public schools grew up to train the sons of the middle classes to behave as gentlemen, until in the end we reached the modern definition of a “gentleman” as simply someone with nice manners. The great secret of the English ruling elite was (and still is) not that it was exclusive, but that it constantly recruited successful people from the levels below.

For the vast majority of the people, who lived in villages in the countryside, government was overwhelmingly local, and authority would be represented by the local landowner rather than by someone from the capital. Here a system had been evolving ever since mediaeval times, the essence of which was that everyone had a part to play, the nature of which depended on social status, So a great nobleman would be Lord-Lieutenant of the county; the King’s representative and the commander of the county militia (a notably ineffective organisation, which completely failed to check the Jacobite revolts of 1714 and 1745. A landowning gentleman would hold the office of Sheriff, which dated from the Middle Ages (though sadly there was no Sheriff of Nottingham at the time when Robin Hood is supposed to have lived!), and the gentry would also serve as Justices of the Peace.
The basic role of the J.P.s was to judge minor offences, but as time went on more and more functions were given them: to issue warrants, administer the Poor Law, regulate apprenticeships, maintain the highways, even to assess and collect the Land Tax; but by this time their authority to regulate prices and wages had mostly fallen into disuse. They would be assisted in these responsibilities by those a level below them in the social scale; the farmers, craftsmen and shopkeepers, who would be roped in to serve as parish constable, overseer of the poor or surveyor of highways; and the very poor could in theory be set to labour repairing the roads. All this service was effectively compulsory, and no-one was paid; and not surprisingly some of the jobs were onerous, costly and unpopular.
All positions which involved actual decision-making were held by the landowners. But there were never quite enough to fill all the slots. No Catholic could hold office, and if any other landowner was excluded, it meant he was considered to be too stupid or politically unreliable. No doubt most of them did their best, but the prejudiced, dim, brutal or simply useless J.P. is a stock target for satire from Shakespeare through to Dickens, and even makes an occasional appearance in Kipling. Most people would only encounter direct agents of the central government when the King’s judges came round twice a year to hear the most serious cases at the Assizes, or if there were dealings with the Customs and Excise, which were administered by professional agents

The House of Commons was dominated by the landowning gentry and the sons of peers (who were legally commoners), alongside some eminent lawyers, millionaire London merchants, senior military officers and men who would nowadays be regarded as civil servants. The ancient system was that each county elected two M.P.s, the “Knights of the Shire”, who were almost always major local landowners. In addition (and omitting the M.P.s from Wales, Scotland and Ireland) approximately 200 towns had royal charters which entitled them to choose their own mayors and councillors, arrange their own bye-laws and taxes, have their own magistrates, and also elect their own M.P.s; usually 2 per town. By the 18th century most of these boroughs had become tightly controlled, and usually returned landowners or important outsiders to Parliament rather than their own citizens. M.P.s were not paid, and the expense of electioneering could be considerable, but competition was always fierce, for reasons of family prestige and the openings becoming available for lucrative jobs in the government. Voting would be by the farmers, the educated middle classes, and the better-off shopkeepers and craftsmen, totalling perhaps a quarter of a million throughout the country. Bribery and corruption was widespread.

In many ways, England at the start of the 18th century can be considered as what we would nowadays call a “third-world country”. There were a few people of extreme wealth, ruling the great mass of the very poor, a corrupt political system, and even over-dependence on a single industry, with 80% of the nation’s exports being woollen cloth. Nevertheless England was, with the possible exception of Holland, the most advanced country of the time.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Gregory King's Census for England in 1688

Gregory King was an amateur statistician who attempted to produce, by using tax returns, a census for England for the year 1688. This was the first time such a detailed project had been carried through, and predated the first government census by more than a century. Historians have debated ever since as to how accurate his figures were, but any social history of the time is likely to begin with King’s findings.

His method was to divide the population into five broad categories: first, the landowning gentry; then what we would today call the professional middle classes; the working farmers; the shopkeepers and craftsmen; and finally, much the biggest class, the poor. Each category was then subdivided by job or rank, the number of households in each subdivision given, and an average annual income and expenditure calculated for each. The most obvious defect with this system is that the “household” included not just immediate family, but all dependents living on the premises, including servants and apprentices; and that therefore no figures are given for these huge demographic classes. (Conversely, the poorest classes would have very small “households” under this system, for all their children would have left home at a very young age, to work as apprentices or servants)

King’s first class is the landowning elite. It is headed by the 160 noble families, with an average household of 40 and an annual income of £3000. (Some of the wealthiest might have been worth ten times this, with well over 100 servants). There then follow the 26 Bishops (who would mostly have been drawn from the landowning class), and over 16,000 non-noble landowners, labelled as “baronets, knights, esquires, gentlemen” (see notes, below). Their average incomes ranged from £800 down to £280, and their household size from 16 to 8. The expenditure of the landowners would also be very high, though largely voluntary: huge sums might be expended on building, entertaining, art-collecting and politics, let alone gambling; but much of this was deemed necessary to maintain a social position, and landowners who did not spend lavishly were rarely respected.

The second-most-prosperous class is the professional or educated middle class, though of course King did not use such a term. It included such people as merchants, government officials, lawyers, clergy and military officers. There are approximately 65,000 households in this class, with 4 to 8 in a household, indicating that virtually all would normally keep a servant or two. Incomes ranged widely: a merchant trading internationally might be worth over £400 a year, and top officials could well be better-off than the poorer gentry; whereas a poor curate might have to struggle on as best he could on under £50. Many of this class would have been younger sons of the landowning class, obliged to go out and earn their living.
The twenty years following King's survey increased the importance and wealth of this class immensely: the need to finance two major wars against France led to the creation of the National Debt and the Bank of England, and the emergence of the City of London as the world's greatest financial centre. The sudden rise to prominence of the new millionaire financiers was deeply resented by traditionalist landowners, but many noblemen saw the possiblilities of reviving the family fortunes by marrying their sons to the daughters of wealthy bankers.

The third class is the working farmers, divided into 160,000 freeholders, who owned their land outright, and 150,000 tenant farmers. (At this time, the word “farmer” did not necessarily involve agriculture, but meant someone who rented; as in “tax-farming” or even “baby-farming”). Incomes ranged from over £90 to under £40. The better-off farmers would have farm-hands or maids living with them.

The very large number of farmers contrasts with the comparatively small number of shopkeepers (50,000) and skilled artisans (60,000), showing that England in Gregory King’s day is still an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Their incomes are estimated as £38-£45 a year. Households are small; a shopkeeper or craftsman probably has one or more apprentices living on the premises, but his own sons have gone to be apprenticed with someone else.

Finally we come much the biggest class of all: the poor. King actually labels them as “persons decreasing the wealth of the country”, since he could not see how they could survive on their miserable incomes. The numbers are vast: 364,000 households of unskilled labourers on an average of £15 a year; 400,000 “cottagers and paupers” (the last remnants of the English peasantry), barely surviving on £7 or so a year, and before long to be reduced even further by the Enclosure movement; 85,000 “Common soldiers and sailors” on £14 - £20; and finally the extraordinarily large number of 30,000 “vagrants and beggars”, with virtually no assessable income. King thus calculated this vast class of the poor as more than half the population of the country; but since his working method did not assess servants as a separate category, the overall number of poor people would in reality be even greater.

The total population of England, according to King, would be 5½ million (a tenth of today’s figure), of whom well over half lived in a household with an income of less than £20 per year. Although King does not attempt any breakdown by age, it would have been a country dominated by youth. Surveys in specific towns at the time suggest that two thirds of the population would have been under 25 years old. The total number of adult males in the country would probably be little over one million.
England was still overwhelmingly agricultural: about 75% of the people lived in the countryside; 10% lived in London, and all other towns put together contained a mere 15% of the population! It was only in the census of 1851 that it was found that the majority of people lived in towns - probably the first time this had ever happened in human history!


1. One crucial difference between England and most Continental countries was the very small number of nobles: 160 in King’s day, rising from around 50 in Tudor times to reach 500 or more in Victorian Britain and over 1000 today. By contrast there was in England a large class of landowning gentry, who were, legally, “commoners”. By contrast, in France, Spain, Germany, Poland or elsewhere all the landowning class were nobles, with particular caste privileges (in some countries only a nobleman could own land, become an army officer, hold certain offices of state, etc), none of which applied in England. But conversely, these countries had a great many poor nobles, many of them hardly better-off than the peasants, but clinging proudly to their privileges. The English nobles were few, but all were rich. One consequence of the small numbers was that the English nobles were too few to constitute an inbred group: noble families tended to become extinct after a few generations, hardly any noble families could trace their line back to the Middle Ages, and numbers were constantly having to be replenished from below; usually from the richer gentry and successful generals, admirals and politicians.

2. The “baronets, knights, squires and gentlemen” of King’s classification are collectively known as the “gentry”. At some time in the Middle Ages it was decided that these people were legally commoners, not nobles. In consequence, these people were eligible for election to the House of Commons, and from Tudor times right through to the start of the 20th century, they dominated it: almost all M.P.s were landowning gentry, plus a sprinkling of lawyers, officials and military men, with just a few rich merchants from the big cities. This is of crucial political importance: the House of Commons was run by a class of rich, influential and independent-minded landowners, without whom the history of England would have been very different.

3. Exactly who, or what, was a “gentleman”? In King’s day it had a specific meaning, namely; someone who was sufficiently rich not to have to work his land with his own hands. (“ A gentleman did not get his hands dirty”). But as the economy grew and became more complex, questions arose. Was a successful lawyer a “gentleman”? or what about a top official, or even a rich merchant? In the end, the term “gentleman” came to acquire its present meaning: someone with polite manners. (I hope to explore this matter further in a future entry)

4. The chances of the children of the poorest families ever rising in the world were very slight. Even becoming shopkeepers or skilled artisans might be beyond them. Craftsmen ( the carpenters, smiths, weavers etc) were trained and qualified by apprenticeships, which had been tightly regulated ever since Tudor times. But for a boy to enter an apprenticeship for a well-paid “trade”, his father would probably have to put up some money, which would be beyond the reach of the very poor. In some cases it was even more difficult; when Shakespeare was a boy in Stratford-on-Avon, the tradesmen of the town were ordered only to accept apprentices from the children of their fellow-citizens, and were banned from taking on peasant boys from the countryside.
One of the very few legitimate outlets for an ambitious boy from such a background was to join the army. The pay of a private soldier was too low to attract a skilled man, and the army was recruited overwhelmingly from the farms (plus a fair number of petty criminals on the run!). Discipline was very harsh, but the restless peasant lad could at least expect a reasonable diet, better clothes and footwear, and the chance of adventure and maybe some plunder!

(In my next entry, I shall look at England around 1700; particularly the various roles of the different classes in the politics and local government of the time)

Living on benefits

I recently read a newspaper article by a certain John Bird, explaining how essential it is to get those people living on benefits to start working, even if they receive no actual payment from their employers in return. Long-term unemployed people living on benefits, it was argued, are more likely to be addicted to alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, to suffer mental health problems, and to have their children underachieve at school.

I am always suspicious of arguments which use a great deal of emotive language: in this case, "the hell-hole of benefits", benefits as a "Bastille", whole communities "ghettoised", whereas governments supplying benefits to the unemployed have the adjective "caring" firmly in quotation marks: terms like these always suggest that the argument is neither very strong nor particularly logical.

I can only speak from personal experience. I was fortunate enough to be able to retire early, and my wife gave up working several years earlier. Neither of us has ever regretted this: the only defect I can see in not working is that it doesn't pay so well. There is no reason whatsoever for those without work to stay vegetating at home, for in our experience there are plenty of things that can be done at minimal cost. The unemployed could get involved with the local church, or volunteer to help at a charity shop. They could start their own keep-fit schedule, cultivate the back garden if they have one, or, for intellectual stimulation, join their local U3A ("University of the Third Age", aimed specifically at the retired and or unemployed, costing the vast sum of £8per year, plus £1 for every meeting attended). As for their children underachieving at school, they would seem to be ideally placed to help their children with homework or, more enterprisingly, learn new subjects alongside them.

There seems on the face of it to be no reason why the long-term unemployed should be idle, even if out of work. Unemployment stems from economic causes, but idleness is a matter of choice. Or is Mr Bird in fact arguing that those living on benefits are likely to be the dregs of the lumpenproletariat, completely feckless, lacking any internal stimulus, and needing the discipline of formal work to save them from the weakness of their own characters? In that case he is possibly right: I wouldn't know.

I think the best comment ever made about the allegedly demoralising effects of living on government handouts was made in a Parliamentary debate on the subject around 1930, following the Wall Street Crash and the coming of the Great Depression. Lady Cynthia Mosley, who was, rather improbably, the Labour M.P. for Stoke-on-Trent, answered someone who put forward an argument similar to that of Mr Bird by saying that all her life people had paid her large sums of money for doing nothing at all, and she didn't think it had demoralised her!

(Footnote: "Lumpenproletariat" was a term used by Marx in the "Comminist Manifesto" to describe the lowest section of the working class: unskilled, frequently unemployed, semi-criminal. Marx considered them useless for revolutionary purposes; in fact he was as contemptuous of them as Mr Bird is)

Cultural Differences

Many years ago my aunt, who had been a missionary in Hong Kong before the war, told me the following anecdote about her experiences there:-
A couple of young British consular officials were playing tennis on a hot day, watched by a rotund and no doubt extremely rich Chinese businessman. As they came off the court, he commented that he didn't understand why they should bother to do something like that, when they could easily afford to pay someone else to do it for them!