George Moore: War and disillusionment
From Ave (1911)
“England is, at present, the ugliest country. Oh, I have changed towards England. I try to forget that I once thought differently, for when I remember myself (my former self) I hate myself as much as I hate England.
“Doesn’t the lack of humour in the newspapers surprise you? This morning I read in the Pall Mall that we are an Imperial people, and being an Imperial people we must think Imperially, and presumably do everything else Imperially. Splendid, isn’t it? Everything, the apple-trees included, must be Imperial. We won’t eat apples except Imperial apples, and the trees are conjured to bear no others, but the apple-trees go on flowering and bearing the same fruit as before…”
It would be better to get away from London and waste no more time joining people in their walks, to try to persuade them that London was an ugly city, or to wring some admission from them that the Boer War was shameful…
The incident is one among hundreds of similar incidents, all pointing to the same fact that nothing but the war interested me as a subject of conversation or of thought. Every day the obsession became more terrible, and the surrender of my sanity more imminent. I shall try to tell the story as it happened, but fear that some of it will escape my pen; yet it is all before me clear as my reflection in the glass: that evening, for instance, when I walked with a friend through Berkeley Square and fell out with my friend’s appearance, so English did it seem to me to be, for he wore his clothes arrogantly; yet it was not his clothes so much as his sheeplike face that angered me. We were dining at the same house that night, and on looking round the dinner-table I saw the same sheep in everybody, in the women as much as in the men. Next day in Piccadilly I caught sight of it in every passer-by; every man and woman seemed to wear it, and everybody’s bearing and appearance suggested to me a repugnant, sensual cosmopolitanism; a heartless lust for gold was read by me in their faces – ‘for the goldfields of Pretoria which they haven’t gotten yet, and never will get, I hope.’
In the dusk England seemed to rise up before me in person, a shameful and vulgar materialism from which I turned with horror, and this passionate revolt against England was aggravated by memories of my former love of England, and, do what I would,
I could not forget that I had always met in England a warm heart, a beautiful imagination, firmness and quiet purpose. But I just had to forget that I ever thought well of England, or to discover that I had been mistaken in England. To bring the point as clearly as I may before the reader, I will ask him to think of a man who has lived happily and successfully with a woman for many years, and suddenly discovers her to be a criminal or guilty of some infidelity towards him; to be, at all events, one whose conduct and capacities are not those that he had credited her with. As his suspicions multiply, the beauties which he once read in her face and figure fade, and her deportment becomes aggressive, till she can no longer cross the room without exciting angry comment in his mind. A little later he finds that he cannot abide in the house, so offensive is it to him; the disposition of the furniture reminds him of her; and one day the country through which they used to walk together turns so distasteful that he longs to take the train and quit it for ever. How the change has been accomplished he does not know, and wonders. The hills and the woods compose the landscape as they did before, but the poetry has gone out of them; no gleam of sunlight plays along the hillsides for him, and no longer does the blue hill rise up far away like a land out of which dreams come and whither they go. The world exists only in our ideas of it, and as my idea of England changed England died, so far as I was concerned; an empty materialism was all I could see around me; and with this idea in my mind my eyes soon saw London as a great sprawl of brick on either side of a muddy river without a statue that one could look upon with admiration.
They must have felt that my departure was decreed, though no reasons were given, except that the Boer War had rendered any further stay in England impossible to me.