The chubby pimpernel

by

Charles Ryder, both eager to preserve order and hankering for a street skirmish, skips back across the Channel in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

I returned to London in the spring of 1926 for the General Strike.

It was the topic of Paris. The French, exultant as always at the discomfiture of their former friends, and transposing into their own precise terms our mistier notions from across the Channel, foretold revolution and civil war.

Every evening the kiosks displayed texts of doom, and, in the cafés, acquaintances greeted one half derisively with: ‘Ha, my friend, you are better off here than at home, are you not?’ until I and several friends in circumstances like my own came seriously to believe that our country was in danger and that our duty lay there.

We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes.

We crossed together, in a high-spirited, male party, expecting to find unfolding before us at Dover the history so often repeated of late, with so few variations, from all parts of Europe, that I, at any rate, had formed in my mind a clear, composite picture of ‘Revolution’  the red flag on the post office, the overturned tram, the drunken N.C.O.s, the gaol open and gangs of released criminals prowling the streets, the train from the capital that did not arrive.

One had read it in the papers, seen it in the films, heard it at café tables again and again for six or seven years now, till it had become part of one’s experience, at second hand, like the mud of Flanders and the flies of Mesopotamia.

Then we landed and met the old routine of the customs-shed, the punctual boat-train, the porters lining the platform at Victoria and converging on the first-class carriages; the long line of waiting taxis.

‘We’ll separate,’ we said, and see what’s happening. We’ll meet and compare notes at dinner,’ but we knew already in our hearts that nothing was happening; nothing, at any rate, which needed our presence…

He collides fortuitously with his old chum Mulcaster, who already has enrolled with the defenders of property, but whose paramilitary urges remain equally unsatisfied:

We dined that night at the Café Royal. There things were a little more warlike, for the Café was full of undergraduates who had come down for ‘National Service’.

One group, from Cambridge, had that afternoon signed on to run messages for Transport House, and their table backed on another group’s, who were enrolled as special constables. Now and then one or other party would shout provocatively over the shoulder, but it is hard to come into serious conflict back to back, and the affair ended with their giving each other tall glasses of lager beer.

‘You should have been in Budapest when Horthy marched in’ said Jean. ‘That was politics.’

[…]

We went to a number of night clubs. In two years Mulcaster seemed to have attained his simple ambition of being known and liked in such places. At the last of them he and I were kindled by a great flame of patriotism.

‘You and I ‘ he said, ‘were too young to fight in the war. Other chaps fought, millions of them dead. Not us. We’ll show them. We’ll show the dead chaps we can fight, too.’

‘That’s why I’m here,’ I said. ‘Come from overseas, rallying to old country in hour of need.’

‘Like Australians.’

‘Like the poor dead Australians.’

Boy Mulcaster (Jeremy Sinden)

We were sitting round after luncheon that day when Bill Meadows came back from the telephone in high spirits.

‘Come on,’ he said. ‘There’s a perfectly good battle in the Commercial Road.’

We drove at great speed and arrived to find a steel hawser stretched between lamp posts, an overturned truck and a policeman, alone on the pavement, being kicked by half a dozen youths. On either side of this centre of disturbance, and at a little distance from it, two opposing parties had formed.

Near us, as we disembarked, a second policeman was sitting on the pavement, dazed, with his head in his hands and blood running through his fingres; two or three sympathizers were standing over him; on the other side of the hawser was a hostile knot of young dockers.

We charged in cheerfully, relieved the policeman, and were just falling upon the main body of the enemy when we came into collision with a party of local clergy and town councillors who arrived simultaneously by another route to try persuasion. They were our only victims, for just as they went down there was a cry of ‘Look out. The coppers,’ and a lorry-load of police drew up in our rear.

The crowd broke and disappeared. We picked up the peace-makers (only one of whom was seriously hurt), patrolled some of the side streets looking for trouble and finding none, and at length returned to Bratt’s.

Next day the General Strike was called off and the country everywhere, except in the coal fields, returned to normal. It was as though a beast long fabled for its ferocity had emerged for an hour, scented danger, and slunk back to its lair. It had not been worth leaving Paris.

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week.

Counter-revolutionaries thwarted by the absence of revolution; heroic ambitions frustrated, and reduced to play-acting, by the sedate doddering of British Labourism: it is a droll picture. (This blog has described the historical context of British society in the interwar years, and aspects of the political situation in Europe during the 1920s.)

But the scene is less farcical, and the players politically sharper, than the official anti-austerity ‘opposition’ mustered today against Mulcaster’s boyish lookalike, the Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey.

Such opposition has, for now and in the manner predicted, been successfully ushered, to the advantage of political stability, into unthreatening and expedient channels. In thrall to Labor and the Greens, faithful to the trade unions: la gauche respectueuse backed by tidy street demonstration.

One feature of this landscape is the extraordinary burst of publicity given lately by Australia’s mainstream media to Socialist Alternative, a tiny organization itself well versed in street theatre.

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