Dad Tells Sonny. The Tale of the Twelve

“An inquisitive child soon demonstrates the shallowness of a parent’s knowledge.”–Someone or other.

“What, are you reading, Dad?”

“Just a pamphlet some kind-hearted, benevolent soul has left for my enlightenment, my son.”

“And what does the design at the top mean with the two large letters N.S. either side?”

“The lady with the angel’s wings and the tea tray represents Victory, and the two mystic letters represent quite a number of things.”

“Such as–”

“Nettleford’s Screws, Never Sweat, Noodles Swindled — ”

“Yes, but, Dad, be serious. What do they say the letters stand for ?”

“The heading is National Service, my son.”

“And what does that mean ?”

“It means, mon enfant, that in punishing the wicked and unspeakable Hun for the unpardonable crime of getting his wack in first, thousands upon thousands of Englishmen have been battered into pulp. Further thousands are required to undergo the same delicate process, the idea being that in the human pulping competition, we can just about lick the horrid Hun. The residue will be an ‘After the War Problem.’ Now then, these potential thousands of sacrifices are at present shivering, with glassy eyes and clammy hands, in whatever shoes they have managed to get into, hoping against hope that Murder will overlook them. This is where N.S. comes in. N.S. will say to the Man in a Small Way, ‘put up the shutters, you’re unessential.’ The Man in a Small Way will say, ‘but what about my busi­ness ? It’s essential to me, anyhow.’ To which N.S. will answer, ‘No Sauce, and No Shirking. Your business, if there’s any left after the National Sweatshops, Ltd. have done with it, will be an After the War Problem. Then he and his porter, his ox and his ass, his manservant and his maidservant, are pushed into the service of some big fat brother, possibly a competitor ; or into ploughing, aeroplane construction, quarrying, or other similar soft jobs, for which they are as suitable as a pickaxe is for painting landscapes, the result being that more of the country’s youth is made available for gory pulp. See ?”

“Yes, Dad. But surely they don’t put it like that, do they? ”

“Listen ! ‘Twelve good reasons why every able-bodied man should enrol for National Service.’ And then in brackets, ‘Read these reasons carefully and see if you can deny any one of them.’ So you see, my son, they explicitly invite my opinion. They ask me if I can deny any one of them.”

“And can you, Dad ?”

“I can, but I’m not going through the whole dozen for you or anybody else. For one thing life’s too precious, and for another it’s past your bedtime.”

“Oh, come, Dad, don’t be mean. Have a go at some of them at any rate.”

“Well, number one says the war is reaching its climax. Right ! Leave it at that. Number two says victory will mean the preservation of of our homes, our lives, our liberties, ana all we hold dear, while defeat means the opposite. Now, son, where is Jones the greengrocer’s son ? ”

“You know he was killed at Festubert, Dad.”

“And did he join the British Army as a free man ?”

“No, Dad ! As a conscript. He loathed the Army.”

“And what has become of his home ?”

“Why, his wife had to sell most of it and go and live with her mother.”

“So that his liberty was the first thing to go, his life next, followed by his home and all he held dear.”

“Yes, Dad. But supposing the Germans had got over here ?”

“Well, son, could much worse have happened to him ? And further, mine infant, do you have to deprive a person of liberty before he will fight for it ? Take an illustration. Do I first have to undress you in order to make you clothe yourself ? Silly, isn’t it ? Now, son, I could say much more to you under the heading of liberty, but one of the present British liberties is that I mustn’t say it. Now for number three. This starts thusly :

“‘Because—having passed laws to compel men of certain ages to fight—it is the bounden duty … of every man to see that the Army and the Navy are provided with every­thing they need to secure Victory.’

“Notice, my little sonlet, there is still some little honour amongst politicians. ‘Having passed laws.’ Not ‘The nation having passed laws,’ or ‘The Forces of Fat having passed laws,’ or you ‘The Government having, etc.” So, for ought that appears to the contrary, we might say, ‘Mrs. Northcliffe having passed laws,’ or ‘The Forces of Fat having passed laws, it is the bounden duty of every man to do as he is told.’ Yours not to reason why ; yours but to do or die. In happier times we might permit ourselves to style this brazen effrontery, or we might give the faculty of wonder an airing by trying to reconcile the bringing of compulsion into a community revelling in liberty. But, my child, liberty is what you will know when you get older as an abstraction ; that is, it has no separate existence. That’s why it’s so popular in England, where the worship of the non-existent is as old as the hills.”

“That is a bit beyond me, Dad, but I suppose it’s all right. Now for the number four, old chap.”

“I told you before I’m not going to waste time on twelve chunks of fatuity when I might be reading Anatole France.”

“What does Anatole France say, Dad?”

“Oh, lots of things. For instance : ‘Wars are a hereditary evil and a lascivious return to savage life ; they are a criminal puerility.’ ‘Even now the white races communicate with the black and yellow ones only with the intention of subjecting or massacring them.’ ”

“He doesn’t flatter us, Dad, does he ?”

“No, son. This sounds prophetic, doesn’t it ? ‘The peace conference of the Hague, con­vened in the very midst of barbarism, contributed but little towards the maintenance of peace.’ ”

“When was that written ?” “I don’t know, but the volume in which I have it is five years old.”

“Hm ! I suppose ‘in the midst of barbarism ‘menus civilisation as we know it.”

“Got it. He says in another place: ‘what we call civilisation is nothing else than the present state of our customs and what we call barbarism is the state of the past.’ ”

“Dad, why are parsons exempted from Army Service ?”

“That’s nothing to do with Anatole France.”

“But doesn’t he say something that fits in anywhere ? ”

(After a search) “Well I’m jiggered ! Listen to this. ‘In telling the nations that one must suffer in this world in order to be happy in the next, religious tradition has obtained from them that pitiful resignation to all oppressions and iniquities.’ ”

“That seems to score a bull’s-eye, Dad.”

“Yes, pitiful resignation seems to fill the bill, exactly. Remember how the people took Conscription. Now the parsons are booming National Servitude.”

“I wonder what Anatole France would say if he had read the ‘Twelve Reasons.’ “

“I don’t know. Possibly, ‘it is his reasonable conversation which mostly frightens us in a madman.’ ”

“Dad, why did you say N.S. stood for Nettlefold’s Screws ?”

“Simply a passing fancy of mine, son. Nettlefold’s Screws are useful little articles and have provided several politicians with enough to keep them out of the Union.”

“What are they used for, Dad ? ”

“Oh, lots of purposes. But one use they have invariably.”

“And that is?”

“Screwing down corpses.”

“Good night, Dad !”

“Good night, son ! ”


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