Sunday, March 22, 2015

Confessions of a Mouthbreather

In 1938, afraid that the coming war in Europe might be the end of him, Henry Green decided to write, at 33, his autobiography, "Pack My Bag". It is an informative, entertaining account of a young man from the privileged class of England, a well-schooled lad with many insights to offer about the affects and effects of his upbringing on a Gloucestershire estate replete with horses, hounds, and the trappings of the hunt, his pressure-cooked Eton and Oxford education and engagement in the art of social climbing for one's very survival, and finally his happy brief time among the working-class at his parent's factory. The following excerpts are from these latter days among those common people whose company he enjoyed more than any others.



"I was soon to leave Oxford for good....I lived in lodgings, worked a forty-eight hour week first in the stores, then as a pattern-maker, then in the ironfoundry, in the brass foundry and finally as a coppersmith, and wrote at night. Week in week out I averaged eleven hours a day, so that I was only a visitor, I hardly took part at all in the life outside the "shop."...

"This was to make up for doing no work for years, with my hands or my head but only with my feelings. So that when I say I found the life satisfying and I had never before been satisfied, the long hours of being occupied may have coloured what I thought I saw so that it may only be, but surely this is more than just something, that the life was happy....

"The men themselves, the few that bothered to think about it, were of the opinion I had been sent there to be punished. They can take it from me theirs is one of the best ways to live provided that one has never been spoiled by moneyed leisure which is not as they would put it, something better....

"People are inclined to dismiss too airily the big difference money makes in the amount of security their money gives them. On three or four pounds a week life can be comfortable so long as the family is in good health, but what margin there is cannot cover protracted illness. That and the question of whether he can keep in work are the two great worries of the artisan, but this last does not bother him too much, if he knows his trade he can get another job except during one of the comparatively rare cycles of bad trade. As against this he need not think overmuch about his work while at it, and when he knocks off for the day he has no reason to think of it again until the next morning. On top of that there is the deep, the real satisfaction of making something with his hands. This has to be experienced to be believed, it is more than sensual and is obviously the purest form of self-expression....

"One and all are violently opinionated, it is not lack of education, I do not know what it is, and reading does surely require an open mind. They are like Americans, they may say they agree but they never listen, and this is one reason why they express themselves with an unheard of clarity. And their speech, unadulterated by literature as it is and unaffected when I was there by the B.B.C. has something which is much more than clearness. When they describe, as everyone knows, they are literally unsurpassed in the spoken word, as in the following:...

"In the trenches, in the War, before they were going over the top and they had an issue of rum, see, but one of the chaps felt a bit queer and put his down on the parapet because he reckoned he'd bring it up if he swallowed it. And a big rat come along and drank it down, then sits up and says, 'now for the cat'."...

"The gayest of all were the oldest labourers. Why this should be so I have no idea. It may be that their families had grown up so that the struggle to raise them was over at last, but most likely they had got into that blessed state when you forever cease to give a damn. Their obscenity, always in the form of comment or shouted advice was superb, beyond imagination magnificent. They had their off days but fewer than anyone else and some of the things they said, unprintable of course, will warm me always. If one should come to think of it at the end they would be worth dying for by those heroic comparisons in simple words so well chosen and arranged, so direct a communication they made one silly with laughing."



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