THE STRUGGLE RENEWED
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
Proverbs XXVI, 4.
Somewhere about the beginning of February 1919, I was at last discharged from the prison hospital and returned to my old quarters in C3.33. Before my hospitalisation, Hall C had become somewhat noisy from the activities of those rebels in the basement. There was always someone talking and the speaker’s voice seemed to float up and fill the whole hall. The place had not been built for public speaking and the acoustic properties were such that the sound was loud enough to be irritatingly distracting, yet because of interference from the echoes, it was quite impossible to follow what was being said. Being of a taciturn nature myself, I used to wonder what they found to talk about so much. Guy Aldred’s voice could be heard going on for hours on end. In addition to lectures and discussions, they frequently entertained one another by organising concerts. At other times they would have what they called a serenade, that is to say they all simultaneously rubbed the handles of their spoons backwards and forwards across the fluted glass of the gas boxes. Those who had demolished the said glass, gave vent to their enthusiasm by banging the cell doors. The din was terrific and sometimes seemed to set my nerves all on edge. Yet I cannot blame them. For only he who has passed through the ordeal of imprisonment, can realise the need to release expression.
When I came back from the hospital, I found to my relief, all this altered. When the cells were locked for the night after suppertime, the space was as still and quiet as the grave. The explanation was due to the fact (of which I was initially unaware) that in the interval, there had been a change in governor, Mr. Green having been replaced by Major Blake. I hastily disclaim any relationship with the latter, for according to my judgement, he was the most un-gentlemanly and ruffianly individual whom I have ever found masquerading under the name of a gentleman. He was a military man with a most brutal, unrefined and coarse mind. Nevertheless, I felt some measure of humiliation in the thought that COs who had shown themselves intractable and noisy under a kind and gentle (if perhaps rather ineffective) governor, should have allowed themselves to be kicked into submission by a brutal bully. Yet that was not a correct understanding, because what really happened was that most of the men continued their protest by going on hunger strike. I also subsequently learned that my neighbour, Stanley Hodgson, had also gone on strike against the tyrannical new governor and had been removed to the dungeons.
Major Blake had been in charge for about a month when I returned to Hall C. I saw no reason to change my course of refusing to work and in consequence, after I had been back about a fortnight, I was reported by the Taskmaster for not having done my task. When I arrived at the Governor’s office to answer the charge, I was surprised to see a different Governor in the seat of the mighty, but my surprise increased enormously when this ‘gentleman’ began to launch into a tirade of swearing, cursing and insulting me like a common soldier of the line, as only an old soldier can. Stripped of the unprintable, which considerably shortens it, he proceeded as follows, “What religion are you? Oh I see, a Quaker. You began to quake I suppose when the war started. You’re nothing but a stinking coward and a common criminal besides, just as much a criminal as the man who stole my watch …” He ran on in this strain for some minutes, during which time I listened in silence and mostly in calm indifference, but with cold contempt in my eyes.
I felt that such a man was beneath my notice, if I were to maintain my dignity and considered that despite our respective positions, I was proving to be the better gentleman. The words of Shakespeare came to mind, ‘There is no terror Cassius in your threats, for I am armed so strong in honesty that they pass by me as the idle wind, which I respect not’. I also remembered what Mr. James had said when he told me of the advantage we COs had in being able to control our tempers and then I realised it was Major Blake’s aim to provoke a display of anger. To be forewarned is to be forearmed and I forthwith determined to allow nothing to disturb my tranquillity of mind.
I remember experiencing a sort of vague wonder, on the subject of the barbarity that lay near the surface under a thin veneer of polish. Who said something to the effect that if you scratch a gentleman, you will find a savage beneath? The remark discloses a profound shrewdness of observation and was certainly apt here. The widely held view that education and culture will refine the human race is a fallacy. The acquisition of knowledge by an evil-minded man merely renders him a greater force for evil, while the acquirement of culture only opens up more subtle and insidious means of accomplishing his evil ends. There is one and only one means of refining and ennobling human nature and that is contact with the mind of Jesus, that manifestation to us of God in the flesh. Because of this, it comes about that real true gentlemen are often found among ignorant and uneducated artisans.
But reverting to my interview with the Governor. At length after finding that his efforts were achieving no effect, he finally lost his own temper and let forth a titanic shout of anger, “Get outside!” Mr. Ralph, the Principal Warder was standing outside and I would think that to obviate the Governor getting stirred up to any greater measure, promptly seized me by the shoulder and being a powerfully built man, spun me round and whirled me out of the office. Having got me outside he said, not unkindly I thought, “Get away to your cell lad.” I departed thinking sadly of the degrading depths to which a man can prostitute his God given attributes.
I had not been in my cell long and was still engaged on the same depressing reverie, when the door was unlocked and Mr. Ralph came in. He strode right past and then turned round and stood looking at me with legs astride and his hands behind his back. This was a most extraordinary gesture, as it left me on the free side of the cell, with the door open. If I had slipped out and slammed the door behind me, he would have been left in a very awkward predicament. He looked at me with a kindly smile and said, “Well you know what you’ve got, don’t you?” Replying in mystified bewilderment, “No, I didn’t hear any sentence pronounced.” He evidently regarded this response as naive, for he exploded in a hearty laugh saying, “Well that IS it.” I smiled more in appreciation of his merriment (for this was the only time I ever saw a Principal Warder indulge in a real laugh) than in respect of the fiasco to which he was referring. He suddenly became serious and laying his huge hand gently on my shoulder, in a quiet voice said with kindliness, “Now rest lad.” With that he departed, closing the door softly behind him, another extraordinary thing for a prison officer to do. On thinking over the affair afterwards, I became convinced his demeanour expressed an admiration for my conduct, while in a weak physical condition. I had faced without flinching the violent threats of a brutal bully and the only effect upon me was to intensify my loathing of the avocation of the soldier.
A month passed by and once again I found myself down for report, on account of my continued refusal to work. But before appearing before the Governor, I was first taken to the doctor’s office for examination. The doctor commenced with sounding my chest and had scarcely applied his stethoscope, when he sharply turned to his attendant and called out, “Hospital, at once! Don’t stop to get his things, send them over afterwards.” The Governor was therefore deprived of the pleasure of roundly abusing me again.
Strange as it seems to me, the incidents that I have put down are all that I can remember between my two terms in hospital. I recollect that I spent whole days walking up and down my cell, trying to keep warm and counting the paces as I went. I have not the faintest recollection of going out to exercise and whether they were conversational or not. Nor can I recall a single incident concerning another CO (or any other prisoner for that matter). The Church of England services and Quaker meetings are also an empty void.
Whose Image and Superscription?
The story of a First World War conscientious objector