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On The Guinea Stamp Post by :vvvvDave Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :2147

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On The Guinea Stamp

My eye was caught as I passed along the street just now by an advertisement on a hoarding which announced that Mr. Martin Harvey was appearing in a new cinema play entitled The Hard Way, which was described as

A FINE STORY BY A PEER.

I confess that I took an objection to that play on the spot. It may be a good play. I don't know. I never shall know, for I shall never see it. But why should it be assumed that you and I will run off to the pay box to see a new play "by a peer"? Suppose the anonymous playwright had been a lawyer, or a journalist, or a pork-butcher, or a grocer. Would the producer have thought it helpful to announce a new play by a pork-butcher, or a lawyer, or a grocer, or a journalist? He certainly would not. He would have left the play to stand or fall on its merits.

Why, then, does he think that the fact that it is by a peer will bring us all crowding to his doors? You may, of course, take it as a reflection on the peerage. You may be supposed to think it such a miraculous thing that a peer should be able to write a play that you may be expected to go and see it as you would go to Barnum's to see a two-headed man or a bearded woman? We may be invited to see it merely as a marvel, much as we used to be invited to go and see the horse that could count or the monkeys that could ride bicycles.

If it were so I should feel it was unjust to the peerage which is certainly not below the average in intellectual capacity. But it is not so. It is something much more serious than that. It is not intended to be a reflection on the peerage. It is an unconscious reflection on the British public. The idea behind the announcement is not that we shall go to see the play in a spirit of curiosity, as if it had been written by an ourang-outang, but that we shall go to see it in a spirit of flunkeyism, as if it had been written by a demi-god. We are conceived sitting in hushed wonder that a visitor from realms far above our experience should stoop down to amuse us.

I wish I could feel that this was a false estimate of the British public. It would certainly be a false estimate of the French public. The most splendid thing, I think, in connection with the French people is their freedom from flunkeyism. The great wind of the Revolution blew that rubbish out of their souls for ever. It gave them the sublime conception of citizenship as the basis of human relationship. It destroyed all the social fences that feudalism had erected to keep the people out of the common inheritance of the possibilities of human life. It liberated them from shams, and made them the one realistic people in Europe. They looked truth in the face, because they had cleaned its face of the dirty accretions of the past. They saw, and they are the only people in Europe who as a nation have seen, that


The rank is but the guinea stamp:
The man's the gowd, for a' that.


It is this fact which has made France the standard-bearer of human ideals. It is this fact which puts her spiritually at the head of all the nations.

I am afraid it must be admitted that we are still in the flunkey stage. We are still hypnotised by rank and social caste. I saw a crowd running excitedly after a carriage near the Gaiety Theatre the other day, and found it was because Princess So-and-So was passing. Our Press reeks with the disease, and loves to record this sort of thing:--


THE DUKE OF CONNAUGHT IN NEW YORK.

While strolling down Fifth Avenue the
Duke of Connaught accidentally collided
with a messenger boy carrying a parcel,
whereupon he turned round and begged the
boy's pardon.


You see the idea behind such banalities. It is that we are stricken with respectful admiration that people with titles should act like ordinary decent human beings. It is an insult to them, and it ought to be an insult to the intelligence of the reader. But the newspaper man knows his public as well as the cinema producer. He knows we have the souls of flunkeys. I am no better than the rest. When I knew Mr. Kearley, the grocer, I looked on him as a man and an equal. When he blossomed into Lord Devonport I felt that he had taken wings and flown beyond my humble circle. I feel the flunkey strong in me. I hate him, but I cannot kill him.

It is not the fact that inferior people get titles which should give us concern. It is not even that they get them so often by secret gifts, by impudent touting, by base service. These things are known, and they are no worse to-day than they have always been. Every honours list makes us gape and smile. If we see a really distinguished name in it we feel surprise and a certain sorrow. What is he doing in that galley? I confess I have never felt the same towards J.M. Barrie since he allowed a tag to be stuck on to a great name. What did he want with a tag that any tuft hunter in public life can get? It is only littleness that can gain from titles. Greatness is always dishonoured by them. Fancy Sir Charles Dickens, or Lord Dickens, or Lord Darwin, or Lord Carlyle, or Lord Shakespeare, or John Milton masquerading as the Marquis of Oxfordshire. Yes, Tennyson became a lord and was the smaller man for the fact. Who does not recall Swinburne's scornful comment:


Stoop, Chaucer, stoop;
Keats, Shelley, Burns bow down.


And who did not share the feeling of Mark Pattison at the pitiful anti-climax? "There certainly is something about Tennyson," he said, "that you find in very few poets; in saying what he says in the best words in which it can be said, he is quite Sophoclean. But this business of the peerage! It is really so sad that I hardly like to speak of it. Compare that with Milton's ending and mark the difference."

But it is the corrupting effect of titles on the national currency that is their real offence. They falsify our ideals. They set up shams in place of realities. They turn our minds from the gold to the guinea stamp and make us worship the false idols of social ambition. Our thinking as a people can't be right when our symbols are wrong. We can't have the root of democracy in our souls if the tree flowers into coronets and gee-gaws. France has the real jewel of democracy and we have only got the paste. Do not think that this is only a small matter touching the surface of our national character. It is a poison in the blood that infects us with the deadly sins of servility and snobbery. And already it is permeating even the free life of the Colonies. If I were an Australian or a Canadian I would fight this hateful taint of the old world with all my might. I would make it a criminal offence for a Colonial to accept a title. As for us, I know only one remedy. It is to make a title a money transaction. Let us have a tariff for titles. If American millionaires, like Lord Astor, want them let them pay for them at the market rate. It would be at least a more wholesome method than the present system. And it would bring the whole imposture into contempt. Nobody would have a title when everybody knew what he had paid for it. It is a poor way of getting rid of the abomination compared with the French way, but then we are some centuries behind the French people in these things.


(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On The Guinea Stamp

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