It is true that familiarity breeds respect. It is almost impossible for the average educated man to know anything whatever about the working classes. The educated and the workpeople move, as it were, in worlds of different dimensions, incomprehensible to each other. Very few men and women from our secondary schools and universities, for instance, can long enjoy solemnly tickling the faces of passing strangers with a bunch of feathers, or revolving on a wooden horse to a steam organ, or gazing at a woman advertised as “a Marvel of Flesh, Fat, and Beauty.” The educated seldom appreciate such joys in themselves. If they like trying them, it is only “in the second intention.” They enjoy out of patronage, or for literary sensation, rather than in grave reality. They are excluded from the mind to which such things genuinely appeal. But let not education mock, nor culture smile disdainfully at the short and simple pleasures of the poor. If by some miracle of revelation culture could once become familiar from the inside with one of those scrubby and rather abhorrent families, the insignificance would be transfigured, the faces would grow distinguishable, and all manner of admired and even lovable characteristics would be found. How sober people are most days of the week; how widely charitable; how self-sacrificing in hopes of saving the pence for margarine or melted fat upon the children’s bread! They are shabby, but they have paid for every scrap of old clothing with their toil; they are dirty, but they try to wash, and would be clean if they could afford the horrible expense of cleanliness; they are ignorant, but within twenty years how enormously their manners to each other have improved! And then consider their Christian thoughtlessness for the morrow, how superb and spiritual it is! How different from the things after which the Gentiles of the commercial classes seek! On a Bank Holiday I have known a mother and a daughter, hanging over the very abyss of penury, to spend two shillings in having their fortunes told. Could the lilies of the field or Solomon in all his glory have shown a finer indifference to worldly cares?
Mankind, as we know, in the lump is bad, but that it is not worse remains the everlasting wonder. It is not the squalor of such a crowd that should astonish; it is the marvel that they are not more squalid. For, after all, what is the root cause of all this dirt and ignorance and shabbiness and disease? It is not drink, nor thriftlessness, nor immorality, as the philanthropists do vainly talk; still less is it crime. It is the “inequality” of which Canon Barnett has often written—the inequality that Matthew Arnold said made a high civilisation impossible. But such inequality is only another name for poverty, and from poverty we have yet to discover the saviour who will redeem us.
THE GREAT UNKNOWN