25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 15

The Conformity of Non-Conformity


AYOUNG gentleman recently advertised him- self in the personal columns of The Times as possessing 'modern opinions.' And, alas, one knows exactly what he means. The wrongness of mass culture, the rightness of mass politics. Any- one, anywhere in the world, regardless of educa- tion aod experience, is capable of making the most momentous political decisions, but citizens even of the more sophisticated countries are quite incapable of choosing their own toothbrush or deciding if they want a washing machine. This is because the processes of commercial advertising are so much more effective than those of political propaganda. The worst thing in the world is poverty, but the British people are abandoned to a sordid materialism because they are interested in increasing their command over goods and services. Any attitude that can be called 'radical' is admirable, while any argument that sets out to define the limits of human knowledge or to preserve rather than overturn inAtutions is at best unimaginative, at worst purely selfish. The rebel is always right, no matter what he is rebelling against. The critic of society is always justified, regardless of the basis of his criticism. 'Satire' is the highest form of literature, and it is valued according to the violence of its expression rather than the justice of its criticism.

In England at the moment some difficulty indeed seems to be experienced in finding targets, and one of the more heart-rending spectacles of modern life is a young man trying to find something to rebel against. It is not so much that there is nothing to criticise as that, to fit in with modern orthodoxy, the targets must be carefully chosen. There is a tradition in rebellion, as in other things in Britain, and the necessity of conforming to tradition is no doubt why so many of the attacks on the society of these islands seem concerned rather with nineteenth- than with twentieth-century problems. Fearless attacks on the House of Lords, the Monarchy or even the public schools are hardly calculated to make any contribution to the solution of distinctively modern problems. Nor can a studied disregard of those social conven- tions abandoned in the 1914 war be regarded as evidence of marked originality. Anyone reading our more progressive writers might well think that we are still living in the world of Trollope, if not Dickens and Thackeray. It is indeed reported that there are countries where this mis- take is made.

It is, however, quite possible to be up-to date on the internal affairs of other countries. To support, for instance, the immediate introduction of universal suffrage, even if it is automatically followed by the one-party State, into any ter- ritory which has not already adopted it. To advocate with generous enthusiasm the splitting- up of large estates all over the world, even if this is automatically followed by a fall in the production of foodstuffs. To exhort the white population of Africa to risk their property and even their lives in the cause of democracy, at least of a people's democracy. A delight in vicarious sacrifice is one of the characteristics of 'modern opinion'; it gives the thrill of virtuous intention without the pain of actual loss. This is a great advantage, and the tradition of non- conformity has others. It gives the young writer, as established traditions always do, confidence to express himself and a better chance of getting published and even read. To an imaginative writer it is useful to know what ought to be thought 'and said, still more to know that there are certain opinions which no sympathetic character, criminal or psychopath though he may be, could possibly hold.

It is this insistence on the day before yesterday which makes so much contemporary drama, fiction and journalism good dirty fun. The fundamental purpose of all these is, after all, entertainment, and in real entertainment the theme must be familiar. That splendid situation in which the rich industrialist buys the ancient house of some ruined squire and is snubbed by the county is as familiar as Cinderella, and seems to be as popular. It would be a shock to television audiences to realise that the industrialist would need men with bayonets to keep the county out, and that he and the ruined squire undoubtedly spent their last interview deploring the present level of taxation.

The barriers of class and the difficulties of overcoming them is another English, although not a British, theme, the northern part of these islands preferring other traditions. It is a wonder- ful piece of psychological therapy. There is now no male in England who cannot attribute any failure or disappointment in his career to having gone to the wrong school: sadly the grammar school comments that if only he had been to a public school; sorrowfully the mother. of the juvenile delinquent pleads if only he had not failed the eleven-plus; ruefully the Etonian MP, who has not got office, remarks that if only he had gone to a grammar school he would now be assistant parliamentary secretary to the ministry of cultural welfare.

The tradition of non-conformity also helps us to avoid wasting our .time and making ourselves miserable by thinking about the real problems of the modern world, which are probably in- soluble anyhow, and, even if we could find solutions, we live in a country too weak to insist on their adoption.

Of course there will come a time when the day before yesterday becomes last Wednesday week, and when this is reached perhaps it will be necessary to modify the tradition. But all true radicals, rebels and non-conformists will pray that the time does not come too soon. They still have much to say about the evils of feudalism.