By ROBERT LYND
“SAFETY First,” says General Seeley in Fear, and Be Slain, “is a vile motto.” There was surely never a more undeserved attack on a piece of ordinary common sense. No one, so far as I know, has ever attempted to exalt the motto into a golden rule. Ii is a saying chiefly used in order to encourage motorists not to run over pedestrians, to encourage pedestrians not to be run over by motorists, to encourage railway-travellers not to lean out of the window or to leave the train while it is in motion. All these seem to me to be eminently desirable ends. I have never yet heard even of a fire-eating admiral who inaugurated a society to teach people to drive, walk, and travel dangerously. No member of the A.A. has proposed to alter a well-known slogan into “When in doubt go fast.” We do not attempt to nurture courage in the young by bidding them always cross the road before the traffic has stopped. Nor has Eton, with all the glorious traditions of its playing-fields, yet instructed its children to lean as far as possible out of the window when travelling in railway trains, and to make a point of jumping out while the train is in motion. I doubt if even General Seeley would recommend these courses as a necessary part of an education in bravery. He, too, believes in “Safety First” when it is common sense to believe in it.
It may be that the constant repetition of the phrase on hoardings and elsewhere has been misunderstood by the present generation, and that many people have come to regard it, not as a rule of behaviour in traffic, but as a complete philosophy of life. Possibly the post-war parent conceals from his infant the perilous example of Daniel in the den of lions. Instead of telling the story of David and Goliath, he may, for all I know to the contrary, be poisoning the nursery mind with a tale of a shepherd boy who, when his people were being destroyed by war, stuck cautiously to his sheep, avoided the battle zone, and lived to enjoy great riches. If this is so, then no doubt the boy who stood on the burning deck has fallen into disgrace—perhaps deservedly. It is melancholy to think that the Roman who leaped into the gulf may now be laughed at in the nursery as a lunatic, and that Horatius Cocles may be held up to odium as a living negation of the cornmercial virtues.
Not so was it when I was a child. In those days our little imaginations were stocked with saints and soldiers who had not enough business instinct among them to run a confectionery shop. A man could scarcely be too heroic for our greedy appetites. We had recitations about lifeboatmen, songs about firemen. A young girl, refusing to recant her faith and tied to a stake so that she might be drowned by the advancing tide, seemed not a fool, but a heroine to us. A missionary who landed on a South Sea Island only to be knocked on the head and put in a pot by black men who did not understand what he was talking about was an admirable fellow in our eyes. Death itself we were taught to regard lightly by the example of little Willie in the hymn which begins:
“I would like to die,” said Willie,
“If my papa could die, too.”
With so many incitements to live dangerously ringing in our ears, indeed, it is surprising that most of us contrived to survive our teens.
And it was not only our parents and our nurses who egged us on towards the heroic life. Our schoolfellows were in the same conspiracy. “Coward” was the name that we feared most, and even small girls could make a small boy who had offended them flush at the chanted chorus :
Cowardy, cowardy custard,
Eat your father’s mustard.
Cowardy, cowardy carley,
Eat your mother’s barley.
With that vile song ringing in his ears many a nervous boy has retreated down the corridors of shame. And, to escape the imputation of cowardice, many a srnall boy has submitted to the lesser pain of a bleeding lip, a lost tooth or a discoloration of the flesh around his eye. On the football field, again, to be called a funk was worse than wounds. I myself as a rule did my best to assume the appearance of valour while secretly consulting my safety. But this was upon instinct and was not the result of a philosophy of “Safety First” instilled into me by my elders or my contemporaries. And, indeed, on the few occasions on which I forgot the possibilities of injury and flung myself recklessly into the maelstrom of the game, I experienced a happiness that makes me even now believe that courage must be the most intoxicating of all forms of pleasure. It may be wondered why in that case I do not choose to live courageously. I can only say that I have not the slightest idea. I ought certainly to be a hero, for I was bred on heroic literature. Apart from the books that were put into my hands by my elders, I had early access to the noble exploits recounted in the innumerable pennyworths of the adventures of Deadwood Dick. If to make the heart beat faster over daring deeds is the mark of great literature, then surely the penny dreadfuls were great literature.
Looking back, I can see no reason in my bringing-up why I should have grown up a coward who prefers a comfortable bed to a martyr’s bonfire, and who would rather listen to a chaffinch singing than win the Victoria Cross in a battle. Many people, while urging their children to dare to be Daniels, at the same time take every opportunity to prevent them from being so. They are brave in their generalizations, but in particular instances they counsel timidity. I do not remember ever having been prevented in this fashion from doing any brave deed upon which I was bent. I cannot remember, now that I come to think of it, ever having been seriously bent upon doing a brave deed. I was warned not to sit down in wet shoes and stockings, but there is nothing conspicuously brave in sitting down in wet shoes and stockings. My aunts nervously forbade me to wander along the river-banks but it was for no heroic purpose that I frequented the river-banks, but to gather water-lilies. In most other respects, I was exhorted to be a great deal braver than I was. I was encouraged to go to bed in the dark, to go upstairs in the dark, and was allowed to live largely in the company of other boys most of whom scarcely knew what fear was. Hence it cannot have been an inculcated philosophy of “Safety First” that tamed my spirit. Nobody whom I knew believed in “Safety First.” I myself did not believe in it. I merely acted on it.
Perhaps, if my elders had kept drumming “Safety First” into my ears from my earliest infancy, the results would have been better. Perhaps, if they had done so, my natural love of contradiction would have triumphed, and out of sheer contrariness I should have become a hero. I, too, might have thought it a vile motto if anybody had said it to me. But, alas, even my nurse, as she gave me foul medicine in a spoon, always called on me to be a hero, a Trojan and a Stoic. And I rebelled—and am what I am.