The Love of Freedom

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Dec 27, 1947 

The Love of Freedom

 The Love of Liberty takes many strange forms. During the past week, for example, boy apprentices at an R.A.F. Station have been protesting against the tyranny which compels them to have their hair cut before going on leave and the still crueller tyranny which forbids them to smoke ’till they are 17½ years old.

Apparently the modern boy attaches more importance to matters of hairdressing than boys did in the past century. A boy in those days who care tuppence about the look of his hair was regarded as a freak. If my own hair grew a little longer than most, it was not through vanity, but through laziness.

The cinema, however, seems to have changed all that. Boys nowadays—or some of them— look as if they had spent quite a long time at the mirror trying to adapt their appearance to the Hollywood conception of young blood.

Hence, when they are ordered to the barber’s so that they may be restored to the likeness of human beings, there is an outcry that suggests the need for a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Boys in Their Teens.

* * *

As for the right to smoke, I doubt whether it was ever claimed by boys in any previous generation. Half the charm of smoking lay for boys in the old days in the general assumption that at that age it was wrong to smoke.

These R.A.F. Boys, however, feel that they are being robbed of their natural rights by a despotic prohibition, and are particularly conscious of their slavish state when, in the outer world, they see younger boys blowing smoke through their noses like their uncles. It is clear that freedom is not simply a matter of having a vote. It is a matter of being allowed to do what you want to do. Long before we were 17½ most of us had rebelled against the tyrannies of compulsion. Small boys are said—I do not know on what evidence—to revolt against the tyranny of soap even in the nursery.

I do not remember whether I was a Gaitskellite in early life. The tyranny that I do remember embittering my life when I was a boy was the tyranny of the bowler hat and gloves that I was expected to wear on my way to church on Sunday. To me those gloves were manacles and the bowler hat was an instrument of torture.

* * *

Wearing that helmet, I walked churchwards with a scowl that must have led passers-by to mistake me for an atheist. But it was not against Presbyterianism, it was only against the ritual dress of the day that my heart pounded in rebellion.

I felt a slave as I had felt still earlier in life when, proud of my first walking-stick, I was about to set out with it for church one Sunday in the country and a beloved aunt said to me: “I think, Robert, you might dispense with a cane on the Lord’s Day.” At that moment, freedom meant for me freedom to carry a walking-stick even on Sunday.

When I came to London first, many women were furious at the tyranny that suggested they should take off their matinee hats in the theatre.

At the time of the introduction of the Lloyd George insurance bill, again, duchesses announced that never would they submit to the slavery of licking stamps for their servants’ insurance cards.

In more recent years some people have refused to submit to the tyranny that forbids them to scatter nutshells or waste paper in the parks, and there are others who regard it as slavery to be compelled to take their right place in a queue.

Others feel that their liberty is circumscribed by their having to carry and identity card and denounce any proposal to keep a register of everybody’s finger-prints as though, in such circumstances, England would become a land of helots.

The truth is, many people enjoy grievances and would have them even if they were in an earthly paradise. They demand rights that were never thought of by Tom Paine when he wrote “The Rights of Man,” such as the right to smoke before the age of 17½. I advise them to read “The Duties of Man,” by Mazzini; and one of those duties seems to me to be to smoke, if you like before you are 17½, but to realize that it is absolutely wrong.


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