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An essay by James Runciman

The British Festival

Title:     The British Festival
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

Again and again I have talked about the delights of leisure, and I always advise worn worldlings to renew their youth and gain fresh ideas amid the blessed calm of the fields and the trees. But I lately watched an immense procession of holiday-makers travelling mile after mile in long-drawn sequence--and the study caused me to have many thoughts. There was no mistake about the intentions of the vast mob. They started with a steadfast resolution to be jolly--and they kept to their resolution so long as they were coherent of mind. It was a strange sight--a population probably equal to half that of Scotland all plunged into a sort of delirium and nearly all forgetting the serious side of life. As I gazed on the frantic assembly, I wondered how the English ever came to be considered a grave solid nation; I wondered, moreover, how a great percentage of men representing a nation of conquerors, explorers, administrators, inventors, should on a sudden decide to go mad for a day. Perhaps, after all, the catchword "Merry England" meant really "Mad England"; perhaps the good days which men mourned for after the grim shade of Puritanism came over the country were neither more nor less than periods of wild orgies; perhaps we have reason to be thankful that the national carnivals do not now occur very often. Our ancestors had a very peculiar idea of what constituted a merry-making, and there are many things in ancient art and literature which tempt us to fancy that a certain crudity distinguished the festivals of ancient days; but still the latter-day frolic in all its monstrous proportions is not to be studied by a philosophic observer without profoundly moving thoughts arising. As I gazed on the endless flow of travellers, I could hardly help wondering how the mob would conduct themselves during any great social convulsion. Some gushing persons talk about the good humour and orderliness of the British crowd. Well, I allow that the better class of holiday-makers exhibit a kind of rough good nature; but, whenever "sport" is in question, we find that a certain class come to the front--a class who are not genial or merry, but purely lawless. While the huge carnival is in progress during one delirious day, we have a chance of seeing in a mild form what would happen if a complete national disaster caused society to become fundamentally disordered. The beasts of prey come forth from their lairs, the most elementary rules of conduct are forgotten or bluntly disregarded, and the law-abiding citizen may see robbery and violence carried on in broad daylight. In some cases it happens that organized bands of thieves rob one man after another with a brutal effrontery which quite shames the minor abilities of Macedonian or Calabrian brigands. Forty or fifty consummate scoundrels work in concert; and it often happens that even the betting-men are seized, raised from the ground, and shaken until their money falls and is scrambled for by eager rascaldom. Wherever there Is sport the predatory animals flock together; and I thought, when last I saw the crew, "If a foreign army were in movement against England and a panic arose, there would be little mercy for quiet citizens." On a hasty computation, I should say that an ordinary Derby Day brings together an army of wastrels and criminals strong enough to sack London if once the initial impetus were given; and who can say what blind chance may supply that impetus even in our day? There is not so much sheer foulness nowadays as there used to be; the Yahoo element--male and female--is not obtrusive; and it is even possible for a lady to remain in certain quarters of the mighty Downs without being offended in any way. Our grandfathers--and our fathers, for that matter--had a somewhat acrid conception of humour, and the offscourings of the city ministered to this peculiar humorous sense in a singular way. But a leaven of propriety has now crept in, and the evil beings who were wont to pollute the sweet air preserve some moderate measure of seemliness. I am willing to welcome every sign of improving manners; and yet I must say that the great British Festival is a sorry and even horrible spectacle. What is the net result or purpose of the whole display? Cheery scribes babble about "Isthmian games" and the glorious air of the Surrey hills, and they try to put on a sort of jollity and semblance of well-being; but the sham is a poor one, and the laughing hypocrites know in their hearts that the vast gathering of people means merely waste, idleness, thievery, villainy, vice of all kinds--and there is next to no compensation for the horrors which are crowded together. I would fain pick out anything good from the whole wild spectacle; but I cannot, and so give up the attempt with a sort of sick despair. There is something rather pleasant in the sight of a merry lad who attends his first Derby, for he sees only the vivid rush and movement of crowds; but to a seasoned observer and thinker the tremendous panorama gives suggestions only of evil. I hardly have patience to consider the fulsome talk of the writers who print insincerities by the column year by year. They know that the business is evil, and yet they persist in speaking as if there were some magic influence in the reeking crowd which, they declare, gives health and tone to body and mind. The dawdling parties who lunch on the Hill derive no particular harm; but then how they waste money and time! Plunderers of all sorts flourish in a species of blind whirl of knavery; but no worthy person derives any good from the cruel waste of money and strength and energy. The writers know all this, and yet they go on turning out their sham cordiality, sham congratulations, sham justifications; while any of us who know thoroughly the misery and mental death and ruin of souls brought on by racing and gambling are labelled as un-English or churlish or something of the kind. Why should we be called churlish? Is it not true that a million of men and women waste a day on a pursuit which brings them into contact with filthy intemperance, stupid debauch, unspeakable coarseness? The eruptive sportsman tells us that the sight of a good man on a good horse should stir every manly impulse in a Briton. What rubbish! What manliness can there be in watching a poor baby-colt flogged along by a dwarf? If one is placed at some distance from the course, then one may find the glitter of the pretty silk jackets pleasing; but, should one chance to be near enough to see what is termed "an exciting finish," one's general conception of the manliness of racing may be modified. From afar off the movement of the jockeys' whip-hands is no more suggestive than the movement of a windmill's sails; but, when one hears the "flack, flack" of the whalebone and sees the wales rise on the dainty skin of the immature horse, one does not feel quite joyous or manly. I have seen a long lean creature reach back with his right leg and keep on jobbing with the spur for nearly four hundred yards of a swift finish; I saw another manikin lash a good horse until the animal fairly curved its back in agony and writhed its head on one side so violently that the manly sporting-men called it an ungenerous brute. Where does the fun come in for the onlookers? There is one good old thoroughbred which remembers a fearful flogging that he received twenty-two years ago; if he hears the voice of the man who lashed him, he sweats profusely, and trembles so much that he is like to fall down. How is the breed of horses directly improved by that kind of sport? No; the thousands of wastrels who squander the day and render themselves unsettled and idle for a week are not thinking of horses or of taking a healthy outing; they are obeying an unhealthy gregarious instinct which in certain circumstances makes men show clear signs of acute mania. If we look at the unadulterated absurdity of the affair, we may almost be tempted to rage like Carlyle or Swift. For weeks there are millions of people who talk of little else save the doings of useless dumb animals which can perform no work in the world and which at best are beautiful toys. When the thoroughbreds actually engage in their contest, there is no man of all the imposing multitude who can see them gallop for more than about thirty seconds; the last rush home is seen only by the interesting mortals who are on the great stand; and the entire performance which interests some persons for a year is all over in less than three minutes. This is the game on which Englishmen lavish wild hopes, keen attention, and good money--this is the sport of kings which gluts the pockets of greedy knaves! A vast city--nay, a vast empire--is partially disorganized for a day in order that some dwarfish boys may be seen flogging immature horses during a certain number of seconds, and we learn that there is something "English," and even chivalrous, in the foolish wastrel proceedings.

My conceptions of English virtues are probably rudimentary; but I quite fail to discover where the "nobility" of horse-racing and racecourse picnicing appears. My notion of "nobility" belongs to a bygone time; and I was gratified by hearing of one very noble deed at the moment when the flashy howling mob were trooping forward to that great debauch which takes place around the Derby racecourse. A great steamer was flying over a Southern sea, and the sharks were showing their fins and prowling around with evil eyes. The _Rimutaka_ spun on her way, and all the ship's company were cheerful and careless. Suddenly a poor crazy woman sprang over the side and was drifted away by a surface-current; while the irresistible rush of the steamer could not of course be easily stayed. A good Englishman--honour for ever to his name!--jumped into the water, swam a quarter of a mile, and, by heaven's grace, escaped the wicked sea-tigers and saved the unhappy distraught woman. That man's name is Cavell: and I think of "nobility" in connection with him, and not in connection with the manikins who rush over Epsom Downs.

I like to give a thought to the nobility of those men who guard and rule a mighty empire; but I think very little of the creatures who merely consume food and remain at home in rascally security. What a farce to talk of encouraging "athletics"! The poor manikin who gets up on a racer is not an athlete in any rational sense of the term. He is a wiry emaciated being whose little muscles are strung like whipcord; but it is strange to dignify him as an athlete. If he once rises above nine stone in weight, his life becomes a sort of martyrdom; but, abstemious and self-contained as he is, we can hardly give him the name which means so much to all healthy Englishmen. For some time each day the wondrous specimen of manhood must stew in a Turkish bath or between blankets; he tramps for miles daily if his feet keep sound; he starts at five in the morning and perhaps rides a trial or two; then he takes his weak tea and toast, then exercise or sweating; then comes his stinted meal; and then he starves until night. To call such a famished lean fellow a follower of "noble" sport is too much. Other British men deny themselves; but then think of the circumstances! Far away among the sea of mountains on our Indian frontier a gallant Englishman remains in charge of his lonely station; his Pathans or Ghoorkas are fine fellows, and perhaps some brave old warrior will use the privilege of age and stroll in to chat respectfully to the Sahib. But it is all lonely--drearily lonely. The mountain partridge may churr at sunrise and sundown; the wily crows may play out their odd life-drama daily; the mountain winds may rush roaring through the gullies until the village women say they can hear the hoofs of the brigadier's horse. But what are these desert sounds and sights for the laboriously-cultured officer? His nearest comrade is miles off; his spirit must dwell alone. And yet such men hang on at their dreary toil; and who can ever hear them complain, save in their semi-humorous letters to friends at home? They often carry their lives in their hands; but they can only hope to rest unknown if the chance goes against them. I call those men noble. There are no excited thousands for them to figure before; they scarcely have the honour of mention in a despatch; but they go on in grim silence, working out their own destiny and the destiny of this colossal empire. When I compare them with the bold sportsmen, I feel something like disgust. The real high-hearted heroes do not crave rewards--if they did, they would reap very little. The bold man who risked everything to save the _Calliope_ will never earn as much in a year as a horse-riding manikin can in two months. That is the way we encourage our finest merit. And meantime at the "Isthmian games" the hordes of scoundreldom who dwell at ease can enjoy themselves to their hearts' content in their own dreadful way; they break out in their usual riot of foulness; they degrade the shape of man; and the burly moralists look on robustly, and say that it is good.

I never think of the great British carnival without feeling that the dregs of that ugly crowd will one day make history in a fashion which will set the world shuddering. I have no pity for ruined gamblers; but I am indignant when we see the worst of human kind luxuriating in abominable idleness and luxury on the foul fringe of the hateful racecourse. No sumptuary law will ever make any inroad on the cruel evil; and my feeling is one of sombre hopelessness.

_July, 1889._

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James Runciman's essay: British Festival