H. W. Nevinson: Peaceful Rebel

Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Dec 4, 1948

H. W. Nevinson: Peaceful Rebel

    H. W. Nevinson, who died eight years ago at the age of 85, was a man of peace with an extraordinary gift for being on the spot wherever there was a war or a revolution, or even a riot or a rowdy scene.

    He was a shy man who nevertheless had hardly come down from Oxford when as a champion of the Greeks he behaved with such defiance at a public meeting that he was thrown out by the stewards.

    He was instinctively an artist, in words and, equally instinctively, a man of action; and it was only as a result of a chance meeting with Massingham that he was persuaded, instead of enlisting as a soldier in the Greek cause, to go out and write about their war against the Turks for the “Daily Chronicle.”

    That was a turning point in Nevinson’s career. From that time on he was a writer with a pen in the service of every good cause in whatever part of the earth it was to be found.

    Not that he was ever an idealist or propagandist of the kind that sees only evil on the other side and only good on his own.

    In an essay included by Mr. H. N. Brailsford in a selection he has just made: Essays, Poems and Tales of H. W. Nevinson (Gollancz, 18s), Nevinson declares: “My natural weakness is tolerance, politeness, moderation, a judicial benevolence or sympathetic understanding of an atrocious enemy. I can even understand Hitler, and feel a stupid tolerance for Mussolini.” (This, however, was written before Hitler had committed his crowning villainies.)

    He was certainly incapable of believing either in the extreme goodness or extreme wickedness of his fellow mortals. In a characteristic sentence he once wrote of that noble old anarchist, Kropotkin: “he never fully realized how incalculably lower than the angels we remain.”

    His sense of humor, by the way, usually enabled him to see the comic side even of the heroes he venerated. In his autobiography he recalls, for example, an exquisitely ludicrous mispronunciation by Kropotkin, who, referring in a speech to the “slaughter fields of Europe” spoke of them passionately as “the slutter fields of Europe.”

    It was the mingling of several conflicting elements in his nature that made Nevinson so good an essayist—an essayist so good that Mr. Brainsford claims for his work a lasting place in English literature, producing this selection in support of his claim.

    Nevinson once spoke of himself as a man of conservative tastes and revolutionary convictions, and the conservatism that he kept out of his politics has left its mark on his prose, which is written in the grand tradition of English.

    One of the most attractive qualities in his work is his irony, as when, referring to his experiences in the South African war, he writes: “Time eats all things, and in time came our entrance in Pretoria, but even then it was two years before I could range over the wasted lands and see our soldiers, with happy sentiment, forgiving the men and women whose country they had desolated.”

    It was the ironist in him, again, that wrote of Bleriot’s first flight across the English Channel: “With whirring motors and infinite collaboration of planes and angles he has done, at great peril, what an eagle does daily without a movement of its silent pinions, what a swift does a thousand times an evening with screams of delight, and a tom-tit by cheerful flapping of its tiny feathers.

    “On the strength of feats like these man rightly calls himself the paragon of animals; but what does an albatross call him when it sees him fly?”

    Still, this recent “faster-than-sound” business does suggest that man is a paragon that might impress even an albatross.

    All the essays have a personal flavor, none of them could have been written by anyone but the author. One or two of them, however, are confessions to a greater degree than the others.

    In a late essay the author imagines himself lying on his death-bed and confessing to an attendant priest that he chiefly repents of the things he has not done, and, being asked to name his sins of omission, he replies: “Their name is legion … but two chiefly; once, when on a chilly morning before breakfast Captain Amundsen asked me to fly with him to the North Pole, and I refused without enough reflection.

    “And, again, when sick almost to death with Jerusalem fever in the midst of the Syrian desert, I was asked through wireless by a great editor to proceed to China and that also I refused.”

    That was characteristic of Nevinson, the adventurous, who, toward the end of his life, became, as has often been said, a legendary figure.

    Arriving after death at the place of judgment he was told by Rhadamanthus that he was not to be sent to Hell for his sins after all. “You will suffer another 50 years of Europe,” said the judge, “which in these present days is hardly to be distinguished from a cycle of Hell.”

     From that you will see that Nevinson was not a revolutionary of the optimistic kind. His view of life, indeed, was nearer Thomas Hardy’s than Kropotkin’s. If it had not been so, he might not have been so good a writer, or even so good a revolutionary.

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