1 OCTOBER 1948, Page 12



IWAS invited last week to attend, and to take part in, a debate organised by a group of serving officers. These ardent soldiers, whose ages range between twenty-five and thirty-five, have founded a Dinner Club, which meets at stated intervals and debates subjects not falling within the usual regimental routine. On the occasion when I attended the motion before the meeting ran as follows: "That this Dinner Club feel that there is a marked decline in the English youth of today, by comparison with the days of their fathers." The mellow, old-world flavour of this sentence was enhanced by the use of the archaic word " English," a term employed during the nineteenth century to designate the inhabitants of this island. My delight at again encountering this obsolescent word was slightly chilled when I found that the chairman and the main speaker were of distinguished Scottish parentage ; evidently they had deliberately chosen the term to designate only that part of our youth which lives south of the Tweed. No protests were raised against this deft insult ; the dinner proceeded with great amity, and the debate which followed, and which lasted well beyond midnight, was varied, illuminating and informed. I soon discovered that most of those who took part in the debate assumed that the expression " youth " did not cover the young men who fought at Alamein and Arnhem, but applied only to their younger brothers who, during the last three years, have been entering the services. The " decline " which was regarded as so marked was not therefore a decline from the great vintage of 19oo to the lesser wines of 192o, but a decline from the youth of 1945 to the youth of 1948. It seemed unfair to me to condemn a whole generation on the sulkiness of a few recruits over so short a period. The post-war generation' must be given more time before we can assert with any justice that they are in fact poor successors to those who won the war. But these slight-initial words and acts of injustice did not, I was glad to observe, in any manner mar the amenities of debate.

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It was agreeable but not rejuvenating for me (who was the only nineteenth-century figure present) to realise that these stripling officers already regarded themselves as belonging to the older genera- tion, and that they adopted towards the 1945 vintage a tone of elderly, almost parental, concern. I was startled to hear the first speaker (a very handsome boy with the milk of Eton still wet upon his lips) assert that what was wrong with English youth today was their lack of any sense of responsibility ; this came, he suggested, because they had not been beaten sufficiently hard' when at school. The country, he asserted, was getting soft ; and the sincerity with which he spoke, the very arguments which he used, took me back to the days of good King Edward and beyond to the dialogue between the Just and the Unjust Cause which Aristophanes, two thousand-odd years ago, inserted in the Clouds. The next speaker, a very vigorous young man, delivered an attack in unmeasured terms against what he described as " the ghastly 'twenties." I have always had a weakness for that epoch myself, which produced many of our most gifted contemporaries, and I regretted when the puritan revival of the 'thirties laid its cold hand upon our universities.% The officer who developed this thesis was original in that, instead of abusing the rising generation, he vented his indignation against a generation which basked and battened when he must himself have been but two or three. A generation, after all, which has not merely been justified in its intelligence, but which did not, when it came to the point, do so very badly during the late war. Yet the majority of speakers confined themselves to the subject of the motion, and did in fact say many hard things about the young men and women who were at school during the war and who are now between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one.

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I was distressed by this. I have not, it is true, had many oppor- tunities of forming any extended acquaintance with the generation which is so abused. But I am at least old enough to know that never in the long history of life of man on earth has one hungry generation failed to abuse its predecessors and above all its suc- cessors. Such of the young people of the post-war vintage as I have had die good fortune to meet and speak to seem to me as charming as any generation that I have known. Polite they are, attentive to their elders, modest in their ways, interested in all manner of new things, clean in habits, and to my mind infinitely more alert than I was at their age or than the generation or decade that immediately suceeded my own. I can recall that when I was nineteen years of age I was stranded for a few hours at Preston between two trains. I went out into the town and sat upon a bench in a public garden. I thanked God that I had not been destined to live in Preston. I compared the life led by the youth of Preston at that date with that enjoyed by young Germans of similar age and class. What did the young Preston bank clerk do with his Sundays ? His opposite number, at Eisenach or Dort- mund, would be a member of some hiking club ; out he would go into the woods and Valleys accompanied by his girl friends and boy friends all singing together highly romantic songs ; and in the evenings he would sit in some beer garden under the lime trees and for a very few pence would enjoy excellent beer and a fine orchestra. What, I thought, does the Preston bank clerk do with his evenings ? I am speaking of forty years ago. Since then everything has changed. The ..whole system of education has broadened ; our young men have also caught the Wandervogel habit ; there is the wireless and the cinema. The boy or girl who lives. in Preston today has infinitely more chances of pleasure and develop- ment than had their fathers or. grandfathers. And these wider opportunities have certainly rendered them more humane.

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As I listened to complaint after complaint being made against the lazy louts of 1948, I was stirred to protest. After all, if I were called up for military service, I should not reach the depot scintillating with social charm. I should slink in sullenly, and seek for as long as possible to retain my real interests and ideas within the privacy of inx own mind ; the only form of privacy which, during eighteen months, I should be able to enjoy. The officers who took part in the debate last week were fully alive to these facts. Their attitude was not one of ,hopelessness regarding the post-war generation ; far from it, it was rather that they were themselves perplexed with the problem of how to deal with these boys and girls. Perplexed also (and here again I share their perplexity) with a curious enigma. The bank clerk at Preston in this year 1948 has a life of infinitely greater scope, variety and interest than did his father in 191o. Yet whereas the father was probably a gay bird, the son in all likelihood is glum. Why is it that the younger genera- tion (for whom life is rendered so rich and varied) should take less interest in life than their parents did in 1910 ? Or is it that the reticence which the young rightly observe in the presence of their elders renders us eternally obtuse to the high spirits which seethe inside ? I wish I could think this, but I do not. I feel that among all the drabness of the first decade of this century there was far more actual gaiety of mind and spirit than there is today. We have done much to render the young generation richer, healthier and better educated than their fathers ; but you cannot impose gaiety by Act of Parliament.

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If any young people read this page they will reply:" But of course he finds us glum, because he is imagining a past gaiety which in fact he did not himself possess." I beg them to believe that I am not indulging in a sentimental fallacy. I really do think that young people, even children, have not got the lovely high spirits which we ourselves possessed when young. To some extent this may be due to the general- insecurity which hangs above us in a fog. But I do not think that young people have ever been rendered really glum by insecurity. I think it is rather, as one officer at the Dinner Club suggested, that they have lost respect: respect for others and respect for themselves. That is a hard but intelligent saying. How interesting to ponder on •the suggestion that spontaneous gaiety does not flourish except in the atmosphere of respect !