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Authors: Michael Innes

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BOOK: Hare Sitting Up
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The well-informed Arthur paused. There was another – and this time rather baffled – silence. Then Jean thought of a relevant question. ‘How old is this Provost of yours?’ she asked.

‘Sixty-nine. He retires next year.’

‘Well, that’s
him
,’ Alice said with decision. ‘They just don’t, at that sort of age, know what it’s all about.’

‘Does he,’ Toby asked mildly, ‘have a stroke every now and then?’

‘Or have the surgeons,’ Gavin added, ‘been obliged to excise the softer bits of his brain?’

‘Oh, shut up,’ Arthur said crossly. ‘We’ll all be that age one day.’

‘Shall we?’ Jean asked. ‘I’d say that’s rather the point.’

‘Well, anyway, they’re not decent – personalities like that. Our Provost may have reaction-times like a hearse, but he does ask one to lunch.’

‘We can certainly drop him,’ Gavin said tolerantly. ‘He does no harm in your blessed college, and probably not much on Euratom either. But he’s a symptom of something pretty grim, you’ll agree. Our fathers, when they were our age, declaimed against government by the grey-haired. But they didn’t have to declaim against government by near-corpses. In those days, the really disabling diseases killed fairly quickly. Nowadays, you can have a man sitting at a conference table when there’s pretty well nothing left of him except will and judgement. And will can last longer even than judgement in a mortally sick man.’

‘That’s thoroughly true.’

This time, the silence was a startled one. For it was Juniper who had spoken. He hadn’t in the least meant to.

 

It was the ginger-headed Arthur – he who had already looked curiously at Juniper – who spoke first. He spoke to the accompaniment of a surprisingly sheepish grin, and to an entirely unexpected effect. ‘Hullo, sir. I’m afraid we’ve been failing to recognize each other.’

For a moment Juniper stared at him blankly. Then he laughed. ‘Well I’m blessed,’ he said. ‘It’s–’

‘Arthur Ferris, ’44 to ’48.’ The ginger-haired youth spoke quickly, in case his former headmaster should in fact be baffled. ‘The worst mathematician you ever got into Rugby, sir.’

‘I doubt that. Did you overlap with Bingo Parker? Probably not. But the surgeons had certainly been at
his
brain – in his first childhood and not his second – and taken out the bit with sums in it.’

Everybody laughed politely. Since the stranger had joined in their conversation, they felt that this was the thing to do. Probably they were a little sorry for Arthur, who had been gassing away, with this elderly beak of his beside him all the time. It was perhaps because Juniper was aware of this that he hastened a return to the former general topic.

‘I was saying I thought you right about will and judgement. One can never confidently trust the judgement of a very sick man. The will may crack much later.’

‘Then isn’t it odd, sir,’ Toby asked politely, ‘that what happens nowadays isn’t more disastrous than it is? Really important people seem to be kept alive in the most fantastic way. And their judgement can’t be – it can’t possibly be – what it was. They dominate contending nations – and yet here we are, alive, and the world at peace, more or less, and nobody’s killing anybody else except in quite obscure corners of it.’

Juniper nodded. He guessed that intelligence lurked in the easy-going Toby. ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘will is more important than judgement – up at that level. It can’t find solutions, but it can block the way. Sit at a table opposite to an absolutely inflexible will and – if you’re an absolutely inflexible will yourself – the probable outcome will be just nothing at all. And there’s no harm in that. It’s budging or being budged that may be fatal.’

The serious Jean sat up straight. Juniper could see at once that she was what they call father-eclipsed. Either she had to crumple before an elderly man or react against him vigorously. ‘You mean,’ she asked, ‘that we should see to it that near-corpses negotiate with near-corpses, and that they need have neither wits in their heads nor compassion in their bowels as long as their jaws set like rat traps?’

Juniper hesitated for a moment. He was aware that the other young people had become slightly uncomfortable. They were all capable of being serious – indeed they liked seriousness – but they hated a hint of any sort of emotional overtone to all this. And before he could frame a reply, the multi-coloured Alice again took on the role of smoothing things over.

‘But if you don’t budge and he doesn’t budge,’ she said, ‘then you will both go on manufacturing those ghastly things. And bankrupting yourselves in the process. For the expense is astronomical, isn’t it?’

‘Certainly it is.’ Juniper followed this up briskly. ‘Killing people gets more and more expensive century by century, and war by war. And when you break down the cost of nuclear fission you get some quite fantastic results. Advertising vacant appointments, for instance. Getting the right man for a moderately senior job often costs £8,000, that way alone.’

Arthur Ferris laughed. ‘It would be bad if getting an assistant master cost that, sir.’

‘My dear Ferris, I’d regard it as a facer if it cost a thousandth part of it. Even for somebody who can teach mathematics with an eye on Rugby – and I assure you they’re much the hardest to get hold of.’

‘And it could all be spent on medical research,’ Alice said. ‘Or on getting millions of people in what Toby calls obscure corners of the world up at least to something near the bread line.’

‘They’d only breed faster,’ Gavin said.

‘That’s where medical research would come in.’ Alice hesitated for a fraction of a second. ‘Contraception’s no good as it is – not among primitive peoples. But if you can manage it orally, the old Malthusian nightmare is solved.’

Everybody started talking at once. And Juniper, who knew that his nerves hadn’t been too good of late, was suddenly aware that he was almost in a queer way. For, quite out of the blue, he felt affection for these young people – and felt guilty about them too. He liked the small boys at Splaine Croft – he just wouldn’t be there if he didn’t – but the shades of their prison house were still far off. These young men and women were, so to speak, just ready to be tumbled in. For a still moment, while the chatter ran on, Juniper sat back and wondered what fool or blackguard had made the world into which the tumbling must be done.

It was Toby’s voice that brought him back to an awareness of the course of the argument. ‘So if people must be killed,’ Toby was saying, ‘there’s everything to be said for doing the job cheaply. It comes to that. Back to Tamburlaine and Genghis Khan.’

‘But there’s also much to be said for doing it with discrimination,’ Juniper said. ‘High explosive wasn’t too bad there. If you dropped it from Zeppelins’ – he paused for a moment, wondering if any of his hearers would be very clear about what a Zeppelin was – ‘or torpedoed it into a passenger liner, you were at least still more or less taking aim. And even if you blockaded a whole nation, you presumably knew what you were about – if that indeed can be called knowledge, which is, presumably, unaccompanied by imaginative realization.’ He paused again, aware that there was a real stillness in the railway compartment. ‘But the hydrogen bomb is, of course, quite simply madness. It’s spectacularly effective – just as would be some contrivance for ensuring that the earth should fall into the sun. It’s indiscriminate to that degree. We bankrupt ourselves, as one of you said, to manufacture something which must destroy us if put into use. So cheap ways of indiscriminate slaughter would be a
little
more rational. And cheap ways of very large-scale but yet
controllable
slaughter would be more rational still. A relative rationality, of course. Considering the whole thing entirely as an inside job.’

There was silence. ‘An inside job?’ somebody asked.

‘Inside the madhouse. My generation are all inside. We’re trapped into making all our calculations as if an outside didn’t exist. Your generation has the job of breaking out, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Certainly we have.’ Toby stretched his long legs farther on each side of Juniper’s shoes. He had the appearance of being very relaxed. ‘But we need to get the know-how. A hint or two, say. And I take it you don’t mean, sir, that your own generation is entitled simply to abdicate responsibility?’

‘Certainly not. But I’m being a bore.’ Juniper suddenly felt so tired that he wanted to get out of the whole conversation. ‘It’s not really stuff for a schoolmaster to pontificate about.’

‘You seemed to have some specialized knowledge,’ the dark Gavin said abruptly. ‘Those £8,000 advertisements, for instance.’

Juniper smiled. ‘It’s very indirect. A sort of family connexion.’

‘We may all have that, in a manner of speaking.’ Arthur Ferris spoke after having remained silent for some time. ‘I don’t know whether you heard us joking about job hunting. Well, we can’t tell where any job will land us. Whether we’ve read Arts or Science, some vast industrial concern is quite likely to suck us in. That’s true even of the women–’

‘Thank you,’ Alice interrupted with spirit. ‘Although the probability is that we shall become governesses, no doubt.’

‘Don’t trail feminist red herrings, Alice dear. I’m saying we’re all liable to be sucked into concerns which have what you may call close family relationships with slaughter. There’s no escaping it.’

‘You can teach,’ Juniper said – and knew he said it a little stiffly. ‘Not much money. But you can teach in a decent school. I’ll get any of you a job tomorrow.’

‘But what if we taught sedition?’ Toby asked cheerfully. ‘Or, if not sedition, at least thoroughly subversive ideas? What if we marched the kids to one of those atom-busting places, and urged them to lie down and bite the bobbies in the calves? It might be keeping schoolmastering going as an honourable profession, if you ask me. But what would the parents say? And what would happen to the fees?’

‘What indeed,’ Juniper said, and let his tone indicate his disinclination to pursue this line.

‘I’m much more interested,’ Gavin said at once, ‘in something else. It’s the twilight of the gods idea – the fascination of bringing everything else down with you as you fall. Hitler was gripped by that, I imagine. But you needn’t necessarily be a Wagnerite to feel the tug of it.’

Alice crossed a green leg over a yellow one. ‘Death-wish stuff,’ she said. ‘How does it correlate with actually dying? Does anybody know? You see, we’ve been talking about the dangers of concentrating power – and far more potential destructive power than has ever existed before – in the hands of old, sick men. Suppose they’re dying because they
want
to die–’

‘Which is very great rot to begin with,’ Toby interrupted cheerfully.

‘But I’m just trying to keep an open mind. Would there really be any tendency in an old, sick man – an unconscious tendency, I mean – to take the whole outfit with him?’

For a moment everybody considered this problem soberly. And again Juniper found himself strangely moved – this time, just by the silence. The thought of these young people didn’t perhaps go very deep. But they were applying what information they had – including some surprisingly old-fashioned psychological conceptions – to problems that were very real to them. And to him.

‘I don’t believe in your fatal old men,’ Arthur said. ‘I’m more ready to be scared of fatal young ones. Chaps just like you and me. The chaps who cruise round with these things in the sky. What about one of them going off his head?’

‘But they’re not quite like you and me.’ Toby said this with ironical conviction. ‘They’re not highly educatable types like us – and therefore, of course, they’re far less neurotic and unstable. Which is fortunate, is it not?’

Once more Jean sat up straight. ‘What awful rot! It’s been proved again and again that the most surprising people will pack up under strain. And I think Gavin is right with his twilight of the gods stuff. And then, you know – I’m not sure if it’s the same thing – there are people obsessed with a violent pathological loathing of the whole human species. I have one in my own family, as a matter of fact. Imagine giving Jonathan Swift a hydrogen bomb.’

‘Jonathan Swift?’ Arthur asked. ‘Is that a chap at Balliol?’

‘He wrote a book called
Gulliver’s Travels
,’ Jean said crushingly. ‘As it’s a nursery book when the awkward bits have been expurgated, even you might be supposed to have heard of it.’

‘All right, all right,’ Arthur said, slightly abashed. ‘But there
is
a Jonathan Swift at Balliol. I’ve played squash with him.’

‘And have you ever,’ Gavin asked, ‘played squash with D H Lawrence?’

‘A bearded chap at Trinity,’ Toby added gravely.

‘Of course if you have to talk like idiots–’ Arthur said, gravely offended, and reached for a newspaper.

‘Perhaps you’d prefer a book?’ Gavin asked, and held out the volume he had opened at the beginning of the journey. ‘I’ll show you at which end to begin.’

Without rising to this childish insult, Arthur took the book and glanced at the title. ‘
Women in Love
? I’ve read that one.’

They had all, it seemed, read
Women in Love
– a fact that surprised Juniper a good deal. But he remembered having been told that, for this generation, Lawrence was the sole novelist to have survived from the beginning of the century.

‘Is there something relevant,’ he asked Gavin, ‘in
Women in Love
?’

‘Something frightfully relevant, if you ask me. Do you remember a character called Rupert Birkin? He ends up all cosy and smug with something he calls an ultimate marriage, while his unenlightened friend Gerald Critch walks out into the snow and gets frozen dead like a rabbit. That’s the story. But, earlier on, Birkin has this hating mankind in the guts neurosis pretty badly.’

‘Lawrence had it himself,’ Alice interrupted. And added conscientiously: ‘On one side of his complex nature, that is.’

‘Birkin,’ Gavin continued, ‘invites this girl he’s going to have his ultimate marriage with to agree that humanity is dry-rotten, and that healthy young men and women are in fact apples of Sodom with insides full of bitter, corrupt ash. Humanity is a huge aggregate lie, and things would be better if every human being perished tomorrow. He asks her – this girl he’s going to sleep with, mind you – whether she doesn’t find this a beautiful clean thought. No more people. Just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up.’

BOOK: Hare Sitting Up
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