If I’d Had a Fiver…

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Jan 3, 1948 

If I’d Had a Fiver… 

Some of the things we read in the papers about the world in which we live are almost as hard to believe as the things we read in fairy-tale books.

I find it hard to believe, for example, that a boy of fifteen can earn £5 10s. as a weekly wage. Yet a boy who appeared in the East London juvenile court the other day admitted that he did so, and—more incredible still—complained that this was not enough so that he had to steal in order to have enough money to “have a good Christmas.”

What would I not have given at the age of 15 to be sure of having £5 10s. in my pocket every weekend! How I should have scorned trams and such cheese-paring means of conveyance. Nothing less than a hansom or a car—a horse car, of course—could have satisfied my love of regality, and I should always have told the driver to take me to the same place—the confectioner’s shop known as Thompson’s.

There I should have sat down at a table with a plate-load of cakes in front of me. Chief among the cakes would have been those joys of the kind called “snowballs”—light affairs composed almost entirely of whipped cream.

Shortbread there would have been, too, such as no one born after 1914 has ever tasted. Sugar-topped castles and crescent-shaped jam tarts would have been the mere commonplace of the festive table and only the Lucullian luxuries would have been good enough for me.

I do not say that I should have eaten all these things myself. I was fond of company and would gladly have played host to any boy who could be trusted not to eat more than a half.

Then—perhaps after a cup of creamy coffee—we should have gone out and strolled to a bookshop a few yards farther along the street and I should have taken down from the shelves one of the buckram-bound works of Stevenson or a blue-and-gold volume of Rudyard Kipling or a slim collection of verse by a new poet or the last sensational novel by Hall Caine or Marie Corelli.

Having paid for one or all of these, I should still have considered how to get rid of the rest of the £5 10s. that was burning a hole in my pocket and, hailing another car, we should have jumped on to it and taken an expensive ride out into the country.

I doubt, however, whether I could ever have got through the £5 10s. in a week.

Even if I had had only £1 a week, however—or ten shillings itself—I doubt whether I should have complained that it was not enough. We of the old bourgeoise thought in terms of pennies; and silver coins were riches to us. A penny for a tram, a penny for a bun at the school tuckshop, and threepence for admission to a football match on Saturday—what more could a man expect of life?

Perhaps we were not ambitious enough. Perhaps we should have been more successful later on if, like the boy with £5 10s. had felt that, however much we possessed, it was not enough. Alexander the Great was like that when he wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. There is no limit to the insatiability of the human appetite. When once the appetite is sharpened £5 10s. is not enough, nor is £5000, or indeed, £500,000. Whether this craving for more makes happiness is another question, I doubt whether the boy who cannot be happy on £5 10s. a week will ever be happy till he learns how to be happy on a good deal less than that. Let him try giving £4 10s. of his wages away every week and see whether that won’t make him happier.

It is the sort of thing I would not do myself but that I like to advise other people to do. Anyhow, what is the good of having too much money chasing too few cakes—which is all big wages could mean to a sensible boy nowadays!

If snowballs were still obtainable, and if they were 10s, each on the other hand, I should perhaps be inclined to agree with the £5 10s. boy that he is being paid less than a living wage.

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