For the purposes of general education, the intricate interplay of personalities and accidents in this world débâcle can be passed over, as we pass over the details of the Great War or of Napoleon’s various military campaigns, and as Gibbon, the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published between 1776 and 1788) passed over a thousand years of Byzantine court life. Nowadays that sort of history has become a mine for those admirable biographical studies which are ousting the old romantic novel from the entertainment of our leisure so soon as our imaginations have passed beyond the purely romantic stage. All that is needed for our present purpose is some understanding of the broader forces that were operating through this lush jungle of human reactions.
The tempo of human affairs increases continually, and the main difference between the decline and fall of the Roman system and the decline and fall of the world rule of private-profit capitalism in the Twentieth Century lies in the far more rapid onset and development of the later collapse. A second important difference is the much livelier understanding of what was happening on the part of the masses involved. Each of these two great depressions in the record of human well-being was primarily a monetary breakdown, due to the casual development of financial and proprietary law and practice without any reference to a comprehensive well-being, and to the lag in political and educational adaptation which left the whole system at last completely without guidance. But while the former débâcle went to the pace of the horse on the paved road and of the written and spoken word, the phases of the new downfall flashed about the globe instantaneously and evoked a body of thought and reaction out of all comparison greater than the Roman precedent. So we see only a much compressed and abbreviated parallelism. From the demoralization of the deflated Roman Empire by the great plagues at the end of the second century of the Christian era, to the reappearance of commerce, industry, art and politeness in the cities of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was well over a thousand nerveless years; from the invasion of Belgium by the Germans in 1914 to the return of general material prosperity under the Air Dictatorship after 2010 was roughly a century.
The mental process, if for this reason alone, was much more continuous. It got to its conclusions while still in contact with its premises. The first world collapse was spread over a number of generations, each one oblivious of the experiences of its predecessor, but the larger and swifter part of the second world collapse fell well within the compass of a single long life. People who could remember the plentiful and relatively stable times between 1924 and 1928 as young men and women were still only at the riper end of middle age in 1960. Many who were children at the onset of the Hoover Slump were taking an active part in affairs in the days of the first international police, the Police of the Air and Sea Ways. It was possible to grasp what was happening as one whole. It is doubtful if any Roman citizen under the Empire ever grasped what was happening.
Nevertheless in each case there was a parallel obliteration of old ideas, the same effacement of boundaries, the same destruction of time-honoured traditions, the lapsing of debts and obligations, the disappearance of religious and educational organizations, the impoverishment of favoured and privileged classes, the recrudescence of lawlessness, the cleansing disillusionment. Each was the effectual liquidation of a bankrupt civilization preparatory to a drastic reconstruction.
We will now take a sort of rough cross-section of the world at about the date of 1960 C.E., and consider the condition of the main masses of the world’s population and the great forces at work among them. In the light of subsequent events we can realize that there was already a very considerable convergence of conditions going on throughout the middle decades of the century. But it may be doubted whether that was evident at the time. The goal towards which the fundamental bionomic forces were driving was everywhere the same, but the particulars varied widely with the geographical, ethnic and traditional circumstances, and their immediate interpretations were even more diverse.
We have viewed the events of the Era of European Predominance as the outcome of an uncontrolled irregularity in growth, of economic hypertrophy in a phase of political and cultural atrophy. An immense increase in the energy of human society had occurred which had relieved itself partly in a great multiplication of the human population (Europe from 180 to 420 millions between 1800 and 1914, says Werner Sombart, in spite of a great emigration), partly in a monstrous exaggeration of warfare, and less considerably in an increased fullness and speed of the individual life. But, as we have related, the forces of conservativism and functional resistance embodied in the creditor and legal systems were presently able to give pause to the release of fresh energy. For the second time in human experience the inadaptable quality of the financial and proprietary organization produced a strangulation and an arrest.
The money and credit organization of the prosperity of the nineteenth century differed in many respects from, and was more elaborate than, the Roman, but its life history was essentially the same. It wound itself up in the same fashion. First came a vast expansion and increase of private fortunes and then destructive taxation. So far history repeated itself. The European system, like the Roman system before it, impoverished itself finally by the violent expenditure of its vast windfall of energy. It repeated the same blind story of wastage, but with the unprecedented headlong facilities science afforded it. It ran through its available fortune and was helplessly in debt in a few decades. The height of its expenditure was between 1914 and 1950. Thereafter the pace was less catastrophic.
Regarded even as destruction the New Warfare proved in the end to be a failure. It went to pieces when it was attempted. It did not kill as it might have killed—which is why the reader is alive to read this history. The actual battles of the European wars in the Forties—the purely military operations, that is to say—in all their ramifications cost mankind hardly a quarter of the battle slaughters of 1914-1918. And yet they mark the highest level of scientific fighting ever attained by mankind. The Asiatic troubles had been more destructive because they were nearer the barbaric level, but even there the actual deaths in warfare are estimated as under nine million. Of these, nearly five million are to be ascribed to the final offensive of Japan in 1938, the deadlock in Central China, the desperate fighting with the Kuomintang levies west of Hankow, and the subsequent retreat.
Man had fallen as short as all that of the magnificent horrors he had anticipated. He had failed to raise war to its ultimate mechanical level. The social and political dislocation following upon these two main struggles was indeed proportionately far greater than the disorder of 1917-1919, but warfare was its prelude rather than its cause. This New Warfare, which the prophets had said would end in a scientific massacre of mankind, passed insensibly into a squalor of political fiascos, unpayable debts, unsubscribed loans, scrapped machinery, insurrection, guerilla and bandit conflicts, universal hunger and the great pestilences. Gas Warfare and Air War faded out of the foreground of human experience, dwarfed and overwhelmed by the more primitive realities of panic, famine and fever. The ultimate victor in the middle twentieth century was the germ of maculated fever. The main causes in the fall of the world’s population from about two thousand million in 1930 to a little under half that total in 1960 were diseases or simple starvation, arising directly from the complete economic collapse. Where war slew its millions in a few great massacres, pestilence slew its hundreds of millions in a pitiless pursuit that went on by day and night for two terrific years.
As Imhoff has said, there is no single European history of these Famished and Pestilential Fifties which followed so swiftly on the war years; there are ten million histories. The various governments created by the Treaty of Versailles were for the most part still legally in existence throughout this age, but with the monetary cessation they had become so faded and ineffective that they had ceased to have any great influence on everyday life. Some, like the British and the French, limited their activities to efforts—generally quite futile efforts, at tax-collecting; they went on finally in a way which will remind the student of the old tribute-levying Empires before the Helleno-Latin period. They interfered spasmodically with local affairs, but for the most part they let them drift. They ignored or compromised with active resistance. The British government was still, it seems, paying arrears upon its various loans, in 1952, to such stockholders as it was able to trace. The records are obscure; the payments seem to have been made in a special paper currency without real purchasing power. Other governments, like the Italian and Spanish, carried on as real administrative bodies within restricted areas. Rome, for instance, remained in fairly effective control of the triangle marked out by Genoa, Florence and the Mediterranean Coast, and Barcelona and Madrid kept order throughout most of the Peninsula except the Sovietized Spanish Riviera, Portugal and Andalusia.
The process in America was roughly parallel. Detachment was easier so soon as the bankrupt railways ceased to operate there, because the distances between population centres were greater and the capacity of the people for local autonomy much greater. They were still not a century from pioneering. The railways never resumed after the pestilence. The authority of the Federal Government of the United States shrank to Washington, very much as the Eastern Empire shrank to Byzantium, but Washington had none of the vitality of Byzantium, and it was already a merely historical capital long before the revival of tourism towards 2000. Germany as a unity did not survive the Polish wars, and Berlin dwindled rapidly to the status of a group of villages amidst the ruins of the Polish aerial bombardments.
The practical effacement of these bankrupt political systems in a few years, the equally rapid drying up of general transport and communications, the crescendo of the monetary breakdown, the speedy degeneration of military organizations, threw back the tasks of social order upon such local and regional leading as still existed. They found themselves astonishingly called upon. In Europe, as all over the world throughout this extraordinary decade, towns, cities, rural districts, discovered themselves obliged to “carry on” by themselves. The plague only drove home that imperative need. The municipal authorities organized such health services as they could against the infection, or gave way to emergency bodies that took things out of their hands. When the plague disappeared, they were like shipwrecked sailors on a strange island; they had to reconstitute their shrunken economic life. They used old authority for new needs and old terms for new things. Here it would be an energetic leader who called himself the Mayor or the Duke, here a resolute little band, self-styled the Town Council or the Citizens’ Union. Here “advanced” terminology prevailed, and it was a “Soviet of Workers” which took control. In effect the latter would be very similar to a Citizens’ Union. Its chief distinction was its consciousness of being in a new social phase.
There was the most extraordinary variation in the political structure of this phase of dislocation, and a flat contradiction between the actual and the “legal” controls. Across South Germany, Poland and North France, the prevalent impression was one of social revolution, and Soviets were in fashion. But they were very different in character from the original local Russian Soviets. It was possible to find a Communist district referring itself vaguely to Moscow, lying side by side with another that was under the control of its former owners and employers and professed to be, and often was, still in communication with the national government in the capital. An uneasy truce would be maintained between these theoretically antagonistic systems. Deputations would go for authority in various disputes—arrears of taxes in hand—to Westminster, Paris or Rome, very much as the barbarian chiefs of the Early Mediæval period would upon due occasion refer to Byzantium or Rome. Local conflicts and revolutions were constantly occurring. They were recognized at the capitals only as local riots and municipal readjustments.
Scattered through this disarticulating Europe were the vestiges of the old militarism, broken fragments of unpaid armies with irreplaceable weapons and a dwindling supply of ammunition. They consisted of the officers who were soldiers by profession, and the levies who had not been disbanded or who had refused to be disbanded because there was no employment for them outside the ranks. These men had their officers very much under control because of the great facilities for desertion. In some cases these shrivelled military forces were in contact with the capital and the old legal government, and conducted, or attempted to conduct, tax requisitions and suchlike surviving functions of the old order; in other instances they became frankly brigand forces, though often with high-sounding titles, Public Order Guards of the Emergency Army. Most merged with the local police of aggressive Mayors or councils. Small wars of conquest went on in the early Sixties. Old empires and sovereign states reappeared, in duplicate or triplicate, and vanished or became something else. After 1960 there were even quasi-military forces levying contributions, keeping a sort of order, and professing to be Modern State nuclei. They would occupy the old barracks and accommodation of garrison towns.
In the Forties these soldiers had been raw recruits. In the following decades those who remained in their old formations became formidable middle-aged rascals in patched and shabby and supplemented uniforms. Some of the commandants had gained control of local aerodromes and local munition factories, but everywhere the military found themselves more and more out of sympathy with the technical workers they needed to make these acquisitions effective. They degenerated to the level of the nineteenth century infantry and were at last glad to get even a few thousand roughly made cartridges to replenish their supply.
Under the necessity of doing things for themselves, people did things for themselves that they had left to the central government for a century. Even during the World War, and in the year or so of stress that followed it, various French Chambers of Commerce had supplemented the deficiency in small change by local token coinages. Now this practice reappeared widely. Today our museums contain hundreds of thousands of specimens of these improvised European coins of lead, nickel, tin and all sorts of alloys, jetons or checks of wood, and tons of signed, printed paper notes, useful in the local market, acceptable for rents and local taxes, but of no avail at all at a distance of a few score miles. The local bank manager as often as not would improvise a local credit system in cooperation with the local solicitor; the doctors would contrive a way of getting along without the Home Office. There were still printers’ establishments in most centres of population, and for some years local periodicals, often of considerable originality, appearing weekly or monthly and printed on the roughest and most variable paper, supplied all that remained alive of the European Press. But their foreign news amounted to little more than rumour. The great Press agencies were bankrupt and dead; the telegraph organization was out of gear.
Save in a few exceptional centres, the diffusion of news by radio died out completely. The manufacture of receiving sets was entirely disorganized. From 1930 to 1970 the “ether” for all except the special purposes of air transport was still. There is a long and interesting study in the Historical Record Series of the vicissitudes of posts, telegraphs and telephones between 1950 and 1980. There seem to have been extraordinary survivals. Apparently London, Paris and Rome were in telephonic communication almost without a break, and the news of the great London landslide was telephoned to Madrid and thence radioed to Buenos Ayres in 1968. But that may have been a revival connected with the new Sea and Air Control.
The disappearance not only of radio sets but of an enormous variety of small conveniences and appliances was extraordinarily rapid after the collapse of world trade. Photography, for instance, was wiped out almost at once. The bicycle became rare, and the old pneumatic tyre was replaced by a thin solid one of often very badly adulterated “remade” rubber. Electric lighting flickered out and vanished for want of the proper material for filaments. All electrical material deteriorated, and tramway systems either fell into complete disuse or returned to horse traction.
Ordinary life had been lowering its standards bit by bit from the World War onward. First one thing went and then another. Neither in the British nor the French provinces did the housing of the common people recover from the cessation of building during the actual warfare. Except in places like Berlin or Vienna where there had been a vigorous outbreak of post-war building which provided accommodation in excess for the shrunken population, the mass of Europeans were even more congested and dirty in their domestic accommodation than they had been before the conflict, though indeed they never sank to the immemorial squalor and poverty of the Chinese and Indian towns. Cleanliness diminished at such a pace as to be noted even by the newspapers after 1933. There are constant complaints of the dirtiness of the streets and the bad repair of the roads, and regretful comparisons with the trim orderliness of twenty years before.
Clothing declined with housing. The clothing trade shrank steadily per head of population for nearly forty years. The city crowds, in spite of the more and more abundant uniforms (until 1950), lost nearly all their former brightness and élan. People patched up their old clothing for want of new, and rags became increasingly common. The supply of boots was very restricted. The mass production of boots had been commandeered at the outbreak of the war and was never turned back to commercial use because of the complete financial ruin that ensued. But the old-fashioned shoemakers had been driven off the face of Europe long before by this mass production, and so throughout the Famished Fifties the Europeans were very painfully shod. Spain had the best boots and France and Britain took to sandals—and chilblains. A certain manufacture of footwear went on in some centre in Bohemia, now untraceable, and next to Spain ranked Central Europe in the order of shoe welfare. There was an extreme scarcity of hats everywhere.
There was also a universal decline in the little comforts and accessories of life to which the world had grown accustomed. Except in a few favoured regions where it was actually grown, tobacco disappeared. The mass production of cigarettes died out, and those who smoked, smoked pipes of substitute. Real tea became a great rarity, and sugar was scarce. Dietetic diseases and diseases of under-nutrition increased.
During the strain and effort of the Great War most of the Europeans had already learnt something of contrivance and makeshift. Now they were to have a decade of domestic management under difficulties. The Germans were already familiar with the word Ersatz; there was much technical knowledge and ability diffused among them; and it is indisputable that they contrived to keep much nearer comfort than the rest of the world during these dismal years. They devised substitute leather, substitute cotton, substitute coffee and tea, substitute tobacco, substitute quinine and opium, and a very respectable list of other substitute drugs.
At the other extreme were the shiftless Irish. Until the return of production their physical misery was very great indeed. One observer doubted if there were a million yards of new cloth produced in that country between 1950 and 1960. “They live,” he reported, “on buttermilk, potatoes, whisky and political excitement. They have contrived garments of woven straw, often very picturesquely dyed, which they call Early Erse and of which they boast inordinately, and they warm themselves by means of fires of peat and dung and a great warmth of mutual invective.” This sounds quite barbaric. Yet it is to this period that we owe the graceful—though, according to a recent Historical Documents report, rather rickety—Church of the Atonement, built on the site of the Dublin Royal College of Science after that had been suppressed by the Censorship of 1939 for “teaching biology in a manner tending to disintegrate the Holy Trinity”.
The student must be more or less familiar with the representations of this period in that useful compilation Historical Scenes in a Hundred Volumes, and he has probably read a number of romances and stories of this time. Actual photographs are least abundant in the later fifties and early sixties. There were still plenty of cameras in the world, but the supply of films seems to have died out after 1955, and there are hardly any but slow wet-plate exposures after that time for nearly ten years. We get only a few score of such animated snapshots as were abundant during the preceding decades, and there are no European cinematograph films at all. Neither was there much sketching except of single figures, and so the editors have had to supplement their material by very carefully studied drawings and photographed restorations made at a later date.
There are six interesting snapshots of scenes in Lyons in 1959. Someone seems to have found a spool of film and been able to develop it. One shows the big central square, the Place Bellecour as it was called, on a market day. Earlier pictures show a big bronze equestrian figure of Louis XIV, but this had already disappeared, probably it had been melted for its metal; and the windows of some of the big buildings, formerly hotels and hospitals, in the background have the empty frameless look of gutted houses. But the scene is quite a busy one. It was probably the monthly market, and there is a considerable amount of cattle, numerous horses being traded, hurdled sheep, many goats and a row of pig-pens. The people are mostly peasants wearing straw hats and either very old coats or in some cases shawls wrapped about them. Townspeople are still wearing the clothing of the ’thirties, shabby and patched, and there are three market officials or magistrates in the old-world top hat. In the foreground a bearded man leads a couple of oxen harnessed to a small “runabout” car in which a corpulent woman sits in front with a crate of ducklings while behind is a netted calf. The lady smiles broadly at the camera, unaware that she is smiling at posterity.
Another of these snapshots shows a bowls competition in the deserted railway station. It is clearly a festive occasion, and several games are in progress. The rails have disappeared from the tracks, which have been levelled for the game, and the ponies and mules of the players are tethered on the platform in a long line. The doors of the various bureaus have been taken away but the inscriptions Chef de Gare, Salle d’Attente, Restaurant, are still faintly visible. There are two long tables on one of the middle platforms on which simple refreshments are being served. A third picture shows a crowd staring at the ruins of a row of houses which have just collapsed down a steep slope in what is apparently the district known as Fourvière. Here two bearded men in the unmistakable uniform of the old Alpini are keeping order. We know as a matter of fact that the Lyons municipality at that time had three regiments of these soldiers quartered in barracks. They are wearing sandals supplemented by cloth strips that are twisted round their legs, and their cloaks are in good condition.
Three others of these photographs give us a glimpse of the state of affairs in a disused silk factory. Up to the time of the economic collapse, the silk manufactured at Lyons was still largely that produced by the silkworm, but the supply of raw material seems to have died out more or less completely in the Rhône valley, and the shrinkage of trade and then the war diminished the importation of the reeled-up thread. But silk was needed in the manufacture of shells, and probably there were special efforts to maintain the supply up to the last. This particular establishment seems to have been carrying on a diminished output until the Lyons commune in 1951. Then no doubt it was abruptly abandoned. One photograph shows a great heap of paper litter among weaving-machines and a number of petrol cans. Apparently there was an attempt to fire the place. Another gives a vista of winding-machines shrouded in spiders’ webs and fine dust. In a third a wild cat crouches among the spindles of a spinning-machine and spits at the unwanted intruder. The machinery has all the complicated clumsiness characteristic of twentieth-century mechanism. Apparently a window of some sort was opened or a blind drawn back to make this particular photograph, for the picture is blurred with a multitude of whirling moths, most of them out of focus, evidently just stirred up.
These particular pictures are valuable because of their authenticity. There are also two contemporary dry-plate pictures of the Café Royal, the big restaurant of the Grand Hotel of Stockholm, deserted and still intact. They are oddly suggestive of two pictures of the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome as they appeared a hundred years earlier. And there is also a photograph of the remains of the old dining-room of the Hotel Métropole at Brighton in England before it was undermined and fell into the sea. But all the rest of the pictures given in Historical Scenes between 1955 and 1963 are arranged pictures. The Transport organization was running scores of aeroplanes and radio communications were restored long before the complex manufacture of photographic apparatus and material was set going again.
There are some very interesting restorations of conditions in London showing the empty streets and the vacant tumbledown warehouses of the city after the pestilence. The pictures of the corridors of the hotels in the Strand turned into hospital wards are very impressive. So too is the sketch of a great fight between the cow-keepers and the potato-growers for the possession of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens in which three hundred people were killed. The dreadful pictures of the bodies of plague victims floating down the Thames and accumulating in the Pool of London, however, are now said to be exaggerated.
We try in the midst of our present securities to imagine the phases of anxiety, loss, incredulity and reluctant acquiescence through which the minds of hundreds of millions of Europeans passed, day by day, from the general comfort of the Twenties, through the shocks, fear, horror, rage and excitement of the war cycle, into this phase of universal impotence and destitution. The poor perhaps had a less vivid apprehension of disaster than the rich. Even in the days of General Prosperity, as it is called, they had at the best what we should consider very dull, drab, irksome lives. Even though they mostly ate sufficiently, they ate badly, and there was never a stage of universal decent housing at any time for them. They went from bad to worse. They passed from toil to unemployment and lethargy. But the middling sort passed from good to bad, from something one might almost consider tolerable living to the hopeless neediness of the masses.
A class that went through great unhappiness everywhere during this period was the class of elderly and “retired” persons and persons of “independent means” (and no responsibilities) which had expanded so enormously during the First Age of General Prosperity. This superfluity of prosperous humanity had spread itself out very pleasantly over the world, oblivious of the exertions that sustained social discipline and ensured its security. Insensibly it had taken the place of the old administrative and directive noblesse and country gentry. The investment system during its period of steady efficiency had relieved this social stratum of every bother. There were great areas of agreeable country, residential districts, given up to this “well-off” society, to its gardens, which were often delightful, its golf-courses, race-courses, mountain sport centres, parks, country clubs, plages, and hotels. It wilted a little during the World War, but revived again very hopefully in the decade of hectic and uncertain expansion that followed. Then, as the Great Slump developed its grim phases, this life of leisure passed away.
The Phase of Economy is really a misnomer. There was really no economy; there was strangulation and inaction through a cessation of expenditure. Nobody—unless it was a dexterous speculator on a falling market—grew richer, or even relatively richer. The only profits appeared in bank balance sheets. As the malady of arrest spread, traffics declined, enterprise died out, borrowing states and corporations suspended payments, and these children of good fortune, these well-off people, found themselves confronted at the same time by a suspension of payments and more and more urgent charitable appeals. Their bankers and solicitors informed them that first this trusted prop and then that was in arrears or in default. The waters of repudiation rose, submerging security after security. If they sold out and hoarded, some fluctuation in exchange might still engulf great fractions of their capital. “Whatever else may be falling off, sleepless nights are on the increase,” a financial paper remarked in 1933. The head full of self-reproach that tossed on the crumpled pillow in the villa marked time with the fretting of the unemployed who worried in the stuffy cold of the slum.
We have the Diary of Titus Cobbett, who rode on a bicycle from Rome and along the Riviera to Bordeaux in 1958. He had begun life as an art dealer, and had served the British Inland Revenue for some years as a valuer of furniture, pictures and the like. His tour seems to have been a journey of curiosity. He complains bitterly of the difficulty of changing money between Genoa and Bordeaux. He seems to have had some obscure diplomatic or consular function, but of that he is too discreet to speak. Perhaps he was sent to make a report, but if so there is no record of his instructions.
His description of that smitten coast is still very interesting reading. He had, as a young man with good connections, known Monte Carlo well in the twenties, and the places he visited were often those at which he had stayed as a guest. He records the abandonment of hundreds of lovely châteaux, locked-up, unsaleable, abandoned, in the keeping perhaps of some old domestic, or frankly looted by the people of the district, once delightful gardens whose upkeep had become impossible, blind tangles of roses, oleanders, pomegranates, oranges, cypresses, palm trees, agaves, cacti and weeds; unremunerative hotels allowed to fall into ruins, broken-down water-conduits washing away the roads, bungalows taken over by the peasants. Something of the same swift desolation must have come upon the Campagna and the villadom of the Bay of Naples during the ebb of Roman vitality, but this had been a swifter decline. The roads, he says, were very variable, but a great number of the road signs and roadside advertisements were still making their mute appeal to a vanished traffic. As he rode along wondering whether he would find a reasonably clean and hospitable shelter for the night, he read, he says, picked out in metallic knobs that answered brightly to his oil lamp:
CU SINE RENOM
T T LE C NFOR M RNE
Whither had host and guests departed? Where were the owners and tenants of these villas and gardens; the bright clientele of the pleasure resorts? Many of them no doubt were already dead, for the Riviera owners had been mostly middle-aged and oldish people. The rest were back in their own countries leading impoverished lives, full of tiresome reminiscences, lost in the universal indigence.
Cobbett visited the ruins of the old Casino at Monte Carlo, and the younger Sports Club. The ceiling of the American Bar had fallen in a few days before his visit. “They looked small,” he says. “When I was young they had seemed tremendous places.”
The celebrated garden in which suicidal gamblers used to put an end to their troubles was overgrown with mesembryanthemum.
Yet there was one exception to this general decadence, and our observer stresses the significance of that. Air traffic was still going on. Between Rome and Marseilles he notes very precisely that he saw thirteen aeroplanes going east or west, besides two that he heard before he got up in the morning. “I doubt if I should have seen so many twenty-five years ago,” he writes, and goes on to enlarge, very illuminatingly, on the revival of trade and the possible revival of order these throbbing mechanisms portended. At Nice and at Marseilles he noted there was shipping—“not mere fishing boats but ships of a thousand tons or more”; and at Nice they were building a bigger ship—he estimated it as a three-thousand tonner. We have no other records of shipbuilding between 1947 and 1962. Long before 1940 the building of very big ships had ceased to be a “paying proposition” and it is fairly certain that no sea-going ships whatever, big or little, were built anywhere in the world in the early fifties. Year by year the transport system of the bankrupt planet had been sinking into disuse. It is only nowadays that our historical students are attempting to work out statistical charts of that swift decadence.
Cobbett also notes with surprise and hope a stretch of railway (operated by lever trolleys and a petrol engine or so) between the port of Marseilles and some inland quarries. He was clearly under the impression that no railways were operating in the world any longer. So soon as the traffic had sunken to a level below the possibility of paying subsistence wages, maintaining the permanent way and meeting running expenses, it had been impossible even for speculative buyers to handle these once valuable properties. They had become old junk on the landscape, tracks of torn and rusty rails smothered in agaves and wild flowers. He mentions the beauty of the viaducts of the old Sud de France, and tells how he bicycled along the footworn side-path of the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée in preference to the road. The peasants had used the derelict railway as a convenient iron-mine, and few rails remained. Most of the sleepers had been used for fuel.
At Fréjus there was an aerodrome, and here he describes a very illuminating conversation with a Spanish-American aviator who had served first with the Poles, then with the Germans, and finally with the French during the warfare. Cobbett was impressed by the evident revival of trade, and surprised to find rubber, spices, mercury and block-tin among the commodities coming by air from the East, while clocks, watches, compasses, knives, needles, buttons, hardened glass and the like were going back in exchange. Most of the trade was barter, and the profits were so considerable that there seemed every reason to expect a steady expansion of the service.
He seems to have learnt for the first time of the developing combination of air-merchants who were mostly aviators surviving from the war. They had already organized a loose world union, it seems, and were keeping the airways and air lights in order.
Cobbett remarked on the shipping revival he had noted.
“We shall have to watch that,” said the aviator significantly.
“You take passengers?”
“When they can pay a passage.”
“But this is civilization coming back!” cried Cobbett.
“Don’t believe it! It’s a new civilization beginning.”
And he seems to have opened Cobbett’s eyes for the first time to some of the ideas that were already taking shape in such brains as his. “World Empire?” he said. “That’s an old idea! The men who hold the air and the transport hold the world. What do we want with empires and that stuff any more?”
Cobbett was greatly impressed by this conversation. He went on across France to Bordeaux, where it seems some sort of money awaited him, thinking this over and jotting down his thoughts. He makes one sound and interesting parallel between this new World Transport Organization and those Hansa Merchants who played such an important rôle in the revival of civilization about the Baltic and North Europe generally after the Roman collapse. “After all,” reflects Cobbett, “we have never given organized transport and trading its proper importance in history.”
At Bordeaux he sold his bicycle and was able to get a passage in an aeroplane to Le Bourget (an aerodrome of old origin near the ruins of Paris) and thence to fly to Hendon. His ’plane landed at Le Mans for an exchange of goods. His delight to escape from the rough roads he had been riding is infectious.
He describes the recovery of the devastated French forests in the form of scrub, and he peered down at the little peasants’ clearings that were appearing in groups and patches round the old towns. He sees the aviators and mechanics at the aerodromes with new eyes, and he learns from them of the way in which World Transport was picking up and reinstating metallurgical and electrical works. He has an eye for the beauty of Le Mans cathedral, which he had seen and admired in his student days, and which he rejoices to find intact, and he describes that early monument to the pioneers of aviation in the Place below which still survives. Amiens cathedral also was uninjured at that time.
His diary ends on a melancholy note. Apparently he had not visited England for some years, and he is shocked by the ruinous desolation of the outer suburbs of London. Plainly he had lived in and loved London as a boy. A part of Hyde Park, in spite of the opposition of the squatter cultivators, had been converted into an aerodrome, but he found the rebuilding of the central region haphazard and unpleasing. He objects to the crowding of heavy buildings, with their vast anti-aircraft carapaces of cement, at the centre, due to the decay of suburban traffic facilities. It looked, he says, like a cluster of “diseased” mushrooms. “When shall we English learn to plan?” he asks, and then with an odd prophetic gleam he doubts whether the northern slope of the Thames depression, so ill drained and so soft in its subsoil, can carry this lumpish mass of unsound new buildings to which the life of the old city was shrinking.
Only ten years later his fears were to be justified. The bed of the Thames buckled up and the whole of the Strand, Fleet Street, Cornhill and, most regrettable of all, the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral of Sir Christopher Wren, so familiar to us in the pictures and photographs of that age, collapsed in ruin and perished in flame. The reader who has pored over Historical Scenes in a Hundred Volumes,—and what child has not?—will remember the peculiar appearance of the old Waterloo Bridge, crumpled up to a pent-house shape, and the grotesque obliquity of the Egyptian obelisk, once known as Cleopatra’s Needle, that venerable slab of hieroglyphics, cracked and splintered by air-raid shrapnel, which slanted incredibly for some years before it fell into the banked-up water of the Lambeth-Chelsea lake.