By HAROLD NICOLSON
AFRIEND has sent me a book just published by the Editions de Minuit in Paris under the title Le Secret Anglais. It is written by Monsieur Jean Bailhache, who knew this country well before the war, and who has been over here recently to examine the effect of changed conditions upon our national character. M. Bailhache was both surprised and impressed by the energy which as a nation we displayed in 194o. It seemed strange to him that a country which had seemed to him lethargic could suddenly have been galvanised into so vast and uniform an effort: it seemed in- explicable to him that people who set such immense store by per- sonal liberty should have so readily accepted governmental direction and control: and he was startled by the fact that a race which he had assumed to be lacking in imaginative vigour should suddenly have displayed such remarkable technical and scientific ingenuity. To him England, with her " relaxing " climate, her mists and under- tones, had appeared the modern Arcadia over which was spread a soft blanket of gentleness. How came it that this home of quiet became so rapidly fierce? " It was," he writes, " to save her gentle- ness that she fought so hard." That certainly is a welcome phrase. But M. Bailhache is not content with facile compliments and vague generalisations. He seeks to divide our national character into its several components and to examine how these diverse elements combined in the face of danger to create that great surge of national will-power which won the war. In that he is a man of sympathy and intelligence, and one who possesses a deep admiration for the British people, he deals affectionately with our faults ; but in that he is a Frenchman habituated to the mechanics of exposition, he seeks to weave around us a neat pattern or thesis, which may perhaps be too tidy to correspond to all the facts. His analysis none the less is acute ; it is salutary to see ourselves reflected in such keen and friendly eyes.
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His central argument is that the British people have through generations acquired the habit of conserving nervous force. Where- as other nations are continually expending that force in the frictions of life, the British have learnt the secret of minimising those frictions, with the result that when their instinct of self-preservation is aroused they have a vast fund of nervous energy which has as yet been unexpended. There is, I suppose, some truth in this assertion ; but where M. Bailhache is so stimulating and provocative is in his analysis of the means by which, in our daily habits, we practise economy in the use of nervous fuel. Foreign observers have often criticised our intellectual and aesthetic lethargy, our fear of plans and formulas, our suspicion of extremes, and our idiotic passion for muddling through: M. Bailhache is the first Frenchman that I have discovered who deduces virtue from these defects. To his mind the curious lack of intellectual or even conversational energy which differentiates the ordinary Briton from the citizens of Continental countries is to be explained by our constant endeavour to save ourselves the expendi- ture of nervous or psychic energy. It is not, as some critics have suggested, due• to national indolence, but arises from a congenital instinct to accumulate nervous force. The phenomenon, for instance, of " British reserve " is not to. be ascribed to a deficiency of social instincts, still less to an absence of human interests, but to a deliberate intention not to waste power in meaningless conversations. M. Bail- hache, for instance, spent sixteen hours in a railway carriage travelling to Scotland and back ; there were six occupants of the carriage, and no one during the whole journey uttered a word. Was this ungracious and inhumane? Not in the least. These six people on their way to Edinburgh and back were quietly charging their batteries.
* * * * M. Bailhache thereafter develops this theory in order to cover many diverse manifestations of our insular temperament. Our in- stinctive tendency to turn off the light and not to waste our batteries extends to the optic and acoustic nerves, even to the senses of taste and smell. Not only is the Briton unaware of the ugliness of his streets and buildings, but he does not observe his fellow-citizens
when he meets them in the ordinary walks of life ; to notice the unessential would appear to him to place an unnecessary strain upon the optic nerve. Our indifference, moreover, to the art of cooking does not imply that our palates are defective, but merely that to fuss about foOd is to expend energy upon an unessential. The British, moreover, have acquired what M. Bailhache well calls " an unequalled mastery of the art of mental defence ": no people in the world have developed so perfect a technique for resisting the invasion of unfamiliar ideas. This tendency, he feels, is sometimes indulged to an exaggerated degree. Our excessive intellectual stinginess accounts, in his view, for our meagre conversational powers, for the " somnolent vacuity " of our clubs, and " for the proud and glacial contempt manifested by some public-school men towards even the most entrancing intellectual situations." Our passion for economy affects also the areas of the imagination and the emotions. We strive very hard to spare ourselves the fatigue of imagining (or indeed of foreseeing) situations which are either un- familiar or disagreeable. It is this which fosters our "dumb optimism," a quality which is both soporific and infectious. Even our sense of humour (and in this I agree entirely with M. Bailhache) is a mechanism devised to*protect us against the intrusion of dis- turbing realities.
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"It is," he writes, "their fear of passion which has rendered the British so dispassionate." How comes it therefore that a nation so sparing of any expenditure of intellectual or emotional energy can be capable of such astounding vigour? That, M. Bailhache admits, is " the English miracle." He ascribes our capacity for sudden effort as due, partly to the accumulation, owing to our odd little ways, of vast reserves of nervous energy, and partly to our organic sense. " The British nation," he writes, " is a gigantic animal ; an animal which is conscious of its own organic life?' He rejects the theory that our famous civic sense arises from a capacity for obedience ; on the contray, the British are averse from discipline imposed from above ; they create their own discipline, or rather their own order, among themselves. The civic sense of the British is based upon mutual confidence between the Government and the governed. It also derives its strength and validity from a general awareness that civic order in itself implies an economy of nervous expenditure. Hence our natural respect for law. M. Bailhache then tells a story which I fmd illuminating. One evening he was reading the newspaper in the presence of some English friends. He came across a paragraph in which there was a description of a smash-and- grab raid in the West End " Ignoring the traffic lights," ran the account, "the bandits dashed through the streets at eighty miles an hour." To the French mind that bit about the traffic lights is ex- quisitely comic ; his English friends did not, until he had explained the point, understand why he was so amused. I can imagine myself reading that paragraph without realising that it was absurd ; no Frenchman could read it without a guffaw. It is an interesting example.
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I hope I have not presented M. Bailhache's argument in the shape of a fantasy : it includes much acute observation. He himself admits that as a result of two wars we are beginning to distrust our old easy-going, economic ways. " The English," he writes, " have learnt that an excessive paralysis of the functions of will and understanding might be dangerous for an animal which has a passion for liberty." Are we in danger, owing to class conflicts, of losing our old organic sense? Will our former confidence in our rulers, our former instinct for law and order, survive the regimentation which is now inevitable? M. Bailhache is aware that the British people are today extremely tired. He well knows our capacity for sudden eccentricity and ex- plosion. But he believes evidently that our natural avoidance of all unessential effort will replenish our batteries and that our strong instinct for self-preservation will again unite us to efforts such as in i94o aroused the wonder of the world.