Book Review: ‘The Day is Coming’
The above is the title of a book by William Cameron (MacMillan, New York). It is the story of a craftsman who commenced work in the ‘eighties. The story finishes just before the outbreak of the present war. The book is divided into three periods: the first is concerned with the establishment of the Arts and Crafts Guild in the East End of London; the second describes the transfer and establishment of the Guild in the beautiful little old town of Westencote in the Cotswold Hills, where it flourished for ten years and then collapsed, killed by commercial competition: the third period covers the privations of the craftsman and his family back in London, and the way he climbed up to comfort again.
It is the life of a man singularly fortunate in the beginning who, immersed in the early crafts revival and in an almost self-contained community, loses contact with the world until he reaches middle age. Then, on the dissolution of the craft community, he returns to face the pitiless world of capitalist competition and cheap production into which he has difficulty fitting. He sinks for a time into despair, passes through the horrors of a great war, loses his treasured possessions, loses his faith in the possibility of social change, and, finally, accepts and fits into a cheap and nasty world for the sake of economic security. As an escape from the things that he hates, he builds himself a dream world of his own which goes back to mediaeval times. Into this world he retires in his leisure moments, letting the world of reality go by and accepting all its evil manifestations with an “of course and of course.” In his old age the ominous rumblings that herald the impending catastrophe of 1939 set him searching for a safe place to live in the country, and he goes back to Westencote. But the town has become almost unrecognisable. The motor car, the aeroplane and the jerrybuilder have swept away the beauty he used to enjoy. The reaction drives him to the bottle, and in a drunken dream on the hillside above the town he is revisited by William Morris and the old circle of craftsmen, who show him a vision of the hell to which civilisation is heading, reproach him for his supineness, and urge him to take up again the struggle for social change lest the people, and their capacity for beauty and happiness, sink to utter destruction. Waking, he makes the great decision that converts him to a man again.
Reading this book brings back to the mind memories that crowd of times long since gone by. The vigorous and youthful ‘nineties, the beginning of the new century with its hopes and promise. 1914 and the shattering of a world; the hansom cab, the motor car, and the aeroplane; dreams, enthusiasms, and the starkness of reality. The author has told his story well, and his vivid descriptions of the East End, its people and its ways are excellent. So also are the criticisms of society, social movements and social products which are threaded through the book—sometimes with gentleness, sometimes with savagery, and sometimes with cynicism. It is a pity that nearly all the characters he has chosen to make these criticisms are the less cultured working men, thus giving some support to a false idea of the intellectual capacity of workers, which will inspire in some readers a sympathetic and patronising pity.
We would like to have given some representative selections from the book, but our restricted space will not permit it. We will, however, give one extract from the first few pages as a specimen.
The story opens with an account of a meeting held by the Socialist League on a foggy November night in 1887 in the East End. A beer crate is set up in the market place in the midst of fish, whelk, tomato, cabbage and old clothes stalls, and the meeting is accompanied by drunken brawls and the stall-holders shouting their wares. William Morris is the speaker, and his audience consists of a few poverty-stricken and decrepit people of the neighbourhood. To these people Morris addresses burning words, of which the following is an extract:-
“France is arming and Germany arming! The whole civilised world rumbles with the threat of war on the most monstrous scale of modern times! At this period of crisis, this is the message of the Socialist League to the working men of England: Turn a deaf ear to the recruiting sergeant! Refuse to be dressed up in red and taught to form a part of the modern killing-machine for the honour and glory of a country which gives you only a dog’s share of many kicks and few halfpence!”
There are many other meetings, lectures and conversations in which Morris and others of his group express in forthright language their condemnation of present society and their propaganda in favour of a new social order from which poverty and ugliness will be banished. A social order in which the things that are made will be useful and beautiful and the makers will work happily because they will find joy in their work. One of the main threads woven into the story is a hatred of ugly, scamped, and shoddy work.
The Socialist Party of Great Britain appears in a few places in the story, and there are quotations from our principles and our 1914 War Manifesto. We are sorry that its chosen representatives should belong to the less cultured group to which we have already referred. They drop their aitches, put them in where they don’t belong, and express themselves in language that does not suggest great reading. This does not convey a correct impression. The early members of the Party were bent on building a higher form of society and made great efforts under difficult circumstances to acquire as much culture as they could in all directions because they wished to be worthy of a place in the society they intended to build. A few of those active in the early days were Watts (a carver), Fitzgerald (a bricklayer), Anderson (a house-painter), Elrick (a civil servant), Gray (a railway clerk), Jacomb (a compositor), Kent (a commercial traveller), and Lehane ( we forget what he was except a wild Irishman!). Some of these men were genuine craftsmen. They did not use the pronunciation of Oxford or Earls Court, but plain, accurate and forcible English, and their aspirates were in the right place!
A further criticism we would make concerns certain remarks that could have been left out without marring the pictures of a character or an event—in fact, in places the picture would have been strengthened without them. We will give an illustration of what we mean.
When the Westencote community collapsed and the craftsman realised a dream had vanished and he would have to go back to the old grind, he packed up and then went for a walk up the hill for a last look back at the little own.
“He was glad May wasn’t with him—or the children. He wanted no one. He sank down on the grass, and peered down into the great valley below. At that moment, if the most beautiful woman in the world had been lying naked with him in that lonely spot, he might have thrust her aside as a nuisance.
“‘Might,’ he thought with a grin, as he saw once again the bodies of the girls and women with whom he had shared adventures since his marriage.” (Page 328.)
Imagine a man who has just seen the bottom fall out of his world having thought to spare such a grin. Curse, foam at the mouth, shake his fists at the sky—yes, but a sly leer? We cannot imagine it.
Again, after the birth of the craftsman’s child, another craftsman said to him, referring to the former’s wife :—
“She’s a good cow, Arthur; just like my ol’ missis. . . . A woman, Arthur, ought to be a good, well-fed cow. If she ain’t—why, then, she’s udderly useless!” (Page 294.)
Does it sound credible that a member of the Socialist League would talk like this at a time when woman’s position in society was a burning question?
For some peculiar reason, modern novelists who aspire to “Leftishness” feel that they must indulge in his kind of thing. Perhaps they fear a charge of squeamishness, or they are staking a claim for popularity: When it was necessary to shock the reader there was some ground for it, but modern readers are past shocking. Fortunately, Cameron has not allowed much of this to creep in, but we wish he had kept it out of this type of book altogether, as it is a blemish here and brings the reader up with a nasty jerk.
We make these criticisms because the book was well worth doing, is well done, and is well worth reading. It is a vivid and authentic picture of a vital section of the life of the last fifty years. It should stand the ravages of time.