Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water (1939)

This Penguin original, published November 1939, is a kind of travel memoir, although as you'd expect from Wells there's less description of the countryside through which he passes and more political analysis and future-speculation. Several of the pieces collected here were occasioned by his first (and last) visit to Australia, a five week trip from December 1938 to January 1939. He was invited as guest speaker at the 1939 Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) conference, and to this engagement he added various public appearances, radio broadcasts (recordings of two of these survive), lectures, dinners and interviews.

Australia, not to put too fine a point on it, went wild for Wells; and he did not disappoint, shocking what was, in 1939, still a pretty conservative Australian establishment by speaking against censorship, for abortion, and mocking Hitler as insane, incurring thereby two very public rebukes by the Australian Prime Minster Joseph Lyons. Lyons died unexpectedly, of a heart attack, shortly after Wells left the country. I'm not suggesting cause-and-effect where that mournful circumstance is concerned. Only ... well, you know.

In Search of Hot Water contains Wells's own account of the Lyons ‘incident’ in chapter 3: ‘Mr Lyons Protects Hitler, the Head of a Great Friendly Power, From My “Insults”’, which is pleasantly droll. Otherwise the book gives us various neatly-written descriptions of the Australia trip: the voyage out on the ‘SS Pukka Sahib’ (chapter 1), a vivid description of a bush fire (chapter 4) and so on. Other chapters speculate about the future, revisit the ‘Jewish Question’ (chapter 3), or survey the current UK political scene ( ‘the shattering of what are called progressive political groupings throughout the British system and the search for some working formula for their effective reorganisation, have been the most striking facts of the past six months’ [chapter 7, ‘Democracy in Patches’]—that's the six months up to March 1939). Wells insists he is still ‘Pro-World-Pax’, but he is not a fool. He understands that appeasement was a bad strategy. Mid-1939 is, I daresay, late in the day to press that point, but it doesn't make it any less valid. ‘Should we resist collectively,’ Wells asks, ‘or appease severally?’ adding, ‘no one has yet discovered where appeasement ends’ [7].

He blames the failure of the League of Nations on ‘sentimental nationalism’ [9] and makes some bold proposals for educational reform:
I propose that the present division of historical teaching into the chiefly political history of localities, of countries, of selected peoples, of periods, should be absolutely and completely scrapped. I propose that the teaching of Greek History, Latin History, Jewish or Bible History, English History, French History, Medieval History, German History, Chinese History, our Island Story, the Empire and so on and so on, as separate subjects, shall be entirely abandoned. [In Search of Hot Water, 9]
Wells position, here, has hardened. This is more than pedagogical reform, this is a new ferocity aimed at history as such—everything from the rise of fascism and the ‘Jewish problem’ and the new war is a consequence of what he, vividly but unhelpfully, calls ‘the poison of history’. This is, I really think, a problematic position to take. I've noted before on this blog that Wells's fiction often takes a frankly cavalier attitude to history, sweeping it away as if it were mere chaff and ashes. But history possesses a determining inertia quite beyond human powers to overcome: the more strenuous the effort to dispatch it, as with Pol Pot's ‘Year Zero’, the more disastrous and criminal the consequences for ordinary human beings. We can only understand present, and so influence the future, by situating it, historically. Always historicize, as somebody once said.

Wells was booked to address the Annual Congress of the International P.E.N. Association in Stockholm on the 4th September 1939. In the event the Congress was cancelled (it seems something had happened in Europe, or something, that made the organizers rethink the conference. I’m not sure of the details), but Wells includes his talk here as the book's tenth and final chapter: ‘The Honour and Dignity of the Free Mind’. It’s a shame the talk was never delivered, because it contains what today I understand are called ‘sick burns’ at the expense of Mussolini. Wells lists some of the atrocities committed by Italian fascists, and then says, since he is addressing a group of writers: ‘I propose to strip off all these disagreeable associations from Signor Mussolini, and to consider him simply as one of ourselves, a playwright, a journalist, an autobiographer’, before sticking the knife right in. Mussolini’s play about Napoleon, which Wells saw when it played in London, is ‘tawdry’, ‘silly’, ‘simple-minded’; his autobiography is ‘a foolish, undignified performance’ that reveals its author as ‘a snob, pretentious and disingenuous’ and so on. Never mind his demerits as a politician, Mussolini is a very bad writer. Speaking as a writer myself, let me assure you: the same chin-jutting Benito who would have remained wholly unmoved by criticisms of his politics would have been absolutely cut to the quick by this line of attack, if (as I assume he was) he was made aware of it. So full marks to HG, there.

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