Under Thirty Page
SAFETY FIRST ?-11
[The writer is a practising barrister, aged 291 1. THE chance of physical adventure," wrote the Editor in his article introducing the " Under Thirty Page," " is not for everyone." Nor, it must be added, is the inclina- tion. Nor, further, will it be safe to label as cowards those in whom a craving for adventure, a wanderlust which can only be satisfied under conditions of hardship, are lacking. For a sensitive mind the 8.3o train to the City may hold greater terrors than the most precipitous peak in the Alps ; courage will as often consist in facing the tedium of everyday life as in leaving the country to follow uncharted ways and to face unimagined dangers. May not even the track of the explorer be a way of escape from yet sterner realities ? Most people either start life with responsibilities, or, like myself, acquire them as they go along. Is it not a man's plain duty to subordinate all else to discharging them ? And is not freedom from material cares, which most men can only purchase, if at all, by unremitting attention to a safe business, the healthiest and most natural atmosphere in which the mental and spiritual qualities can have scope to develop ?
If the generation which is now coming to maturity is to be condemned for its love of security and tranquillity, it does not by any means stand alone. The England of Nelson was also the England of Jane Austen : incidentally, the one helped to find the money for the other's exploits. 1788, the year in which Phillip landed in Sydney, was also the year in which the first complete edition of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published ; and if ever there was a man who played for safety, it was Gibbon. His only spiritual adventure was his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and parental pressure and the Calvinist climate of Geneva speedily nipped this in the bud. Still less did Gibbon hold the world well lost for love : when his father disapproved of the match which he proposed to make, he simply sighed as a lover, and obeyed as a son. And that was all. Everything had to be subor- dinated to the comfortable and orderly progression from being the son of a wealthy father to being himself the owner of an adequate estate. If Gibbon had incurred his father's disapproval, he might have been forced to earn a living : like Coningsby, when, in straits, ,he might even have had to consider practising at the Bar. He would not, perhaps, have seen the moonlight on the ruins of the Colosseum, and so The Dedine and Fall might never have been written.
There is, indeed, a strong case to be made for a policy of caution. It is obviously true that no wise man will undertake risks which do not further the particular enterprise upon which he is engaged, and that since for most of us the enter- prise which overshadows all others is that of earning a liveli- hood, the sensible course is to find the safest career available and then pursue it. It cannot be said that such a course is morally wrong ; yet for myself I can never altogether enter into the mentality of those who adopt it. What is there to be said against it ?
The chief drawback to it is that it ignores the fundamental condition of human life—death. We all of us have to live dangerously, not because it is more virtuous to do so, but simply because we have no choice. No man really knows the dangers which he has to face, and a man who plays for safety is playing blind man's buff. A man may refuse to join an expedition to the Arctic and perish in agony in a fire. He may refuse a post in Nigeria for fear of malaria, and catch pneumonia. If he puts his responsibilities before all else, and accepts a post, whose work he finds irksome, because the salary is assured, he may develop some physical infirmity, such as blindness or deafness, which will incapacitate him for his work ; whereas without the " safe job " he might have developed a faculty for writing, for which deafness and even blindness are not overwhelming handicaps. Of course, it may turn out otherwise. He may keep the post till he is seventy and live on a pension till he i. a hundred. It is simply that if his predominant motive was safety he was backing a horse of erratic performance at unreasonably short odds—a speculation which to me, at least, has no appeal.
In its tendency to adopt a policy of " Safety First " it is easy to abuse the generation of those who are now under thirty. It is necessary, in order to appreciate the significance of the tendency to take into account its background. Instead of economic advance this is, on the whole, an age of economic retreat. For most men its economic opportunities lie in the service of large corporations rather than in the develop- ment of a private business, in mass production rather than in craftsmanship. Those who are under thirty have been brought up in an atmosphere of " times are not what they were," of complaints of the passing of the golden age of opportunity, whether on the Stock Exchange or in the factory. Small wonder if their reaction to the economic world is one of fear ! Add to this, that but for the one fear, of war, the chances of living a long life are greater now than ever before, and the reasons for scrambling for security become obvious.
Pessimism is the heritage of the " Under Thirties." Brought up amid the strains of the War and post-War periods, we are also, so far as the propertied classes are concerned, the children of parents who for biological or other reasons have had small families. My paternal grand- father had seven children : of these two did not marry, three had one child and two a family of two. I suppose this piece of family history is quite typical. Our parents regarded economic security as their birthright ; we know that in our generation it probably will not exist ; and naturally we do not like it.
In this pessimism lies our greatest hope. The destruction of hopes of material security clears the ground for building on firmer foundations knowing that the morrow, whatever we may do, is precarious, we have the better opportunity to make the best of today :
" He who has once been happy is for aye Out of destruction's reach . . ."
It is our business to make a study of-happiness, for ourselves and for others, knowing that we live in a world of boundless uncertainties and limitless possibilities.
It is impossible, from generalities, to see what these possibilities are. Even the purely economic opportunities cannot be summarised in a gloomy aphorism. I can only speak with certitude of my own class, but among those less fortunate I know men who have broken away from the restrictions of working for a wage, and earned comfortable livings as, for instance, independent carpenters and joiners. For all, or almost all, there may be the adventure—I will not even consider the word " responsibilities "—of marriage. I think I am the second of the " Under Thirty " writers to be a parent, and I suppose that in avowing that I am also testifying to my belief in the future : what is more sig- nificant is that, in spite of all alarms, there has recently been a small rise in the birth-rate.
No individual's experience, particularly when he is under thirty, can cover much ground. But it is true that on each of the two occasions when I have taken important risks, the result has been to enrich my life, and, it may be added, to fill my pockets rather than empty them : whereas on the all too many occasions on which I have played for safety the result has been frustration and disappointment :
" He either fears If s fate too much, Or his deserts are small, Who fears to put it to the touch, To gain, or lose it all."