Weekend reading: H.G. Wells: On Becoming a Socialist
Becoming a Socialist: from “New Worlds for Old” (London: Macmillan), pp. 16-19: “A walk I had a little while ago with a friend along the Thames Embankment…(1908):
…from Blackfriars Bridge to Westminster. We had dined together and we went there because we thought that with a fitful moon and clouds adrift, on a night when the air was a crystal air that gladdened and brightened, that crescent of great buildings and steely, soft-hurrying water must needs be altogether beautiful.
And indeed it was beautiful: the mysteries and mounting masses of the buildings to the right of us, the blurs of this coloured light or that, blue-white, green-white, amber or warmer orange, the rich black archings of Waterloo Bridge, the rippled lights upon the silent flowing river, the lattice of girders, and the shifting trains of Charing Cross Bridge–their funnels pouring a sort of hot-edged moonlight by way of smoke–and then the sweeping line of lamps, the accelerated run and diminuendo of the Embankment lamps as one came into sight of Westminster.
The big hotels were very fine, huge swelling shapes of dun dark-gray and brown, huge shapes seamed and bursting and fenestrated with illumination, tattered at a thousand windows with light and the indistinct glowing suggestions of feasting and pleasure. And dim and faint above it all and very remote was the moon’s dead wan face veiled and then displayed.
But we were dashed by an unanticipated refrain to this succession of magnificent things, and we did not cry, as we had meant to cry:
How good it was to be alive!
Along the embankment, you see, there are iron seats at regular intervals, seats you cannot lie upon because iron arm-rests prevent that, and each seat, one saw by the lamplight, was filled with crouching and drooping figures. Not a vacant place remained, not one vacant place.
These were the homeless, and they had come to sleep here. Now one noted a poor old woman with a shameful battered straw hat awry over her drowsing face, now a young clerk staring before him at despair; now a filthy tramp, and now a bearded, frock-coated, collarless respectability; I remember particularly one ghastly long white neck and white face that lopped backward, choked in some nightmare, awakened, clutched with a bony hand at the bony throat, and sat up and stared angrily as we passed. The wind had a keen edge that night, even for us who had dined and were well-clad. One crumpled figure coughed and went on coughing–damnably.
‘It’s fine,’ said I, trying to keep hold of the effects to which this line of poor wretches was but the selvage; ‘it’s fine! But I can’t stand this.’
‘It changes all that we expected,’ admitted my friend, after a silence.
‘Must we go on–past them all?’
‘Yes. I think we ought to do that. It’s a lesson perhaps–for trying to get too much beauty out of life as it is, and forgetting. Don’t shirk it!’
‘Great God!’ cried I. ‘But must life always be like this? I could die, indeed, I would willingly jump into this cold and muddy river now, if by so doing I could stick a stiff dead hand through all these things in the future,–a dead commanding hand insisting with a silent irresistible gesture that this waste and failure of life should cease, and cease forever.’
‘But it does cease! Each year in its proportions it is a little less.’
I walked in silence, and my companion talked by my side.
‘We go on. Here is a good thing done, and there is a good thing done. The Good Will in man–‘
‘Not fast enough. It goes so slowly–and in a little while we too must die.’
‘It can be done,’ said my companion.
‘It could be avoided,’ say I.
‘It shall be in the days to come. There is food enough for all, shelter for all, wealth enough for all. Men need only know it and will it. And yet we have this!’
‘And so much like this!’ said I.
So we talked and were tormented.
And I remember how later we found ourselves on Westminster Bridge, looking back upon the long sweep of wrinkled black water that reflected lights and palaces and the flitting glow of steamboats, and by that time we had talked ourselves past our despair. We perceived that what w