Tuesday, February 07, 2006

H G Wells: the romantic red rebel from Bromley

by Daphne Liddle

HERBERT George Wells has been in the news lately, 59 years after his death,
following the release of a new film version of his book War of the Worlds.
He is generally recognised as the founder of English science fiction
writing but too often the socialist input in his writings is not mentioned.

HG Wells was born on 21st September 1866 in Bromley, Kent. His father was
a gardener, an unsuccessful small shopkeeper and professional cricketer
while his mother worked on occasions as a housekeeper at a local estate.

In his book The New Machiavelli, Wells gives a thinly-veiled account of
his childhood and Bromley (called Bromstead in the book) at a time when it
was changing from a small agricultural market town to a much bigger London
dormitory town.

He was very uncomplimentary about the town and its predominantly narrow,
bourgeois culture, for which the town never forgave him. Until a few years
ago, Bromley council refused to countenance any kind of memorial to its
most famous son until the mid 1980s when they relented with a mural in the
market square. But this has since been painted over with a tribute to
Charles Darwin who lived in near-by Down.

Wells’ writings are full of an irreverent and capricious sense of humour
and his target is usually bourgeois hypocrisy and religiosity.

In The New Machiavelli he describes his childhood games: “Also she [his
mother] forbade all toys on Sundays except the bricks for church-building
and the soldiers for church parade, or a Scriptural use of the remains of
the Noah’s Ark mixed up with the wooden Swiss dairy farm.

“But she really did not know whether a thing was a church or not unless it
positively bristled with canon, and many Sunday afternoons have I played
Chicago (with the fear of God in my heart) under an infidel pretence that
it was a new sort of ark rather elaborately done.

“Chicago, I must explain, was based upon my father’s description of the
pig slaughterings in that city and certain pictures I had seen. You made
your beasts – which were all the ark lot really, provisionally conceived as
pigs – go up elaborate approaches to a central pen, from which they went
down a cardboard slide four at a time and dropped most satisfyingly down a
brick shaft, and pitter-litter over some steep steps where a slaughterman
(né Noah) strung a cotton loop around their legs and sent them by pin hooks
along a wire to a second slaughterman with a chipped foot (formerly Mrs
Noah) who, if I remember rightly, converted them into army sausage by means
of a portion of the inside of an old alarum clock.”

Later in the same book he describes his father’s frustration and anger at
the tyranny of property over people’s lives. He describes a conversation
with his father while on a walk: “‘I’m no gardener,’ he said, ‘I’m no
anything. Why the devil did I start gardening?

“‘I suppose man was created to mind a garden. But the Fall let us out of
that! What was I created for? God! What was I created for?

“‘Slaves to matter! Minding inanimate things! It doesn’t suit me you know.
I’ve got no hands and no patience. I’ve mucked about with life. Mucked
about with life.’ He suddenly addressed himself to me, and for an instant I
started like an eavesdropper discovered.

‘...more often than not, Wells’ futuristic machines are merely vehicles for
him to explore human relations and the natures of the societies who use
them. In the end it is the plight of human beings, with all their failings
and social problems that are at the heart of his stories’

“‘Whatever you do, boy, whatever you do, make a Plan. Make a good Plan and
stick to it. Find out what life is about – I never have – and set yourself
to do – whatever you ought to do. I admit it’s a puzzle.’ …..

“‘Property’s the curse of life. Property! Ugh! Look at this country all
cut up into silly little parallelograms, look at all those villas we passed
just now and those potato patches and that tarred shanty and the hedge!
Somebody’s minding every bit of it like a dog tied to a cart’s tail.
Patching it up and bothering about it. Bothering! Yapping at every passer-by.

“‘Look at that notice-board! One rotten worried little beast wants to keep
us other rotten little beasts off his patch – God knows why! Look at the
weeds in it. Look at the mended fence! There’s no property worth having,
Dick, but money. That’s only good to spend. All these things. Human souls
buried under a cartload of blithering rubbish.

“‘I’m not a fool, Dick. I have qualities, imagination, a sort of go. I
ought to have made a better thing of life’.”

The way in which property and petty bourgeois culture trap people in
stifling miserable lives – and the need to take drastic steps to escape –
is a theme he returns to again and again in his writings.

When HG Wells’ father’s business collapsed he and his elder brothers were
apprenticed to a local draper’s shop. But a childhood accident that
resulted in a broken leg and enforced inactivity had sparked Wells’ thirst
for reading and the local library became one of his favourite haunts.

He started out along the path of self-education that became available then
through the public library system. He also became a teacher-pupil in 1883
at the privately-run Midhurst Grammar School. From there he won a
scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London and studied biology
under T H Huxley. But he left four years later without a degree, married his
cousin Isobel and became a correspondence school teacher.

As a young man Wells became a socialist thinker, seeing socialism as a
science that would free humanity from the lunacy and oppression of capitalism.

He also began writing, scientific text books at first and then in 1885 he
produced his first great work of science fiction, The Time Machine. Most
modern dramatisations and critiques of this work totally ignore its
socialist essence, seeing it as simply an adventure in time travel – which
was original enough in its day.

But Wells used The Time Machine as a vehicle to examine what would happen
to human society if there never was a socialist revolution and capitalism
continued to its logical conclusion – with the bourgeois and working
classes growing ever further apart until they become two different but
interdependent species.

His hero travels into the future and arrives at a time when at first
everything seems idyllic. The beautiful vegetarian child-like people – the
Eloi – live simple, happy lives playing and doing no work at all.
Everything is provided by machines, which are made and operated by unseen
hands. It seems at first like a new Garden of Eden.

But the Eloi fear the dark because at night the fearsome Morlocks emerge
from underground caverns to hunt and eat the Eloi. The Morlocks are
pale-skinned, ugly creatures who live underground and spend their lives in
darkness and toil, creating the wealth and comfort that the Eloi enjoy but
taking a terrible revenge. This is the division of humanity into ruling and
working classes taken to its extreme logical conclusion.

Wells took the need for emancipation from hidebound, restrictive bourgeois
culture into his private life with great vigour.

His marriage to his cousin lasted only two years and plainly the marriage
had been at her insistence if he wanted her in his bed. “I didn’t believe
in marriage anyhow,” he lamented, “The great thing was not marriage but
love. I invoked Godwin, Shelley, Socialism.”

In 1893 he had an affair and eloped with one of his students, Amy
Catherine Robbins. Eventually he married Amy but continued to have many
affairs, including with the writer Rebecca West, with whom he had a son,
Adam West.

He met Bernard Shaw and became a member of the Fabian Society – a group of
intellectual socialists who believed in a gradual transition to socialism,
believing that the capitalist class would eventually see the irrationality
of their system and give it up. He was always a bit of an outsider in the
group because of his working class accent and later he clashed with the
leaders over the lack of dynamism in their policies.

A common taunt of the time was that at Fabian rallies, when the cry went
up, “What do we want?” the answer would be “Gradual change!”, “When do we
want it?”, “In due course!”

Wells tried to turn the Fabians into a more revolutionary organisation but
his debating skills were no match for those of Bernard Shaw and in 1908 he
left the Fabians.

He did stand as a Labour candidate for the London University seat in 1922
but failed to win the seat.

In 1917 the Russian revolution greatly enthused Wells and in 1920 he
visited the Soviet Union and met Lenin. Wells was cynical about the
ambitious plans for socialist construction and described Lenin as “The
dreamer in the Kremlin”, while Lenin described Wells as “What a little
bourgeois! What a philistine!”

And he became a prolific writer, producing The Island of Dr Moreau, a
satire on the dangers of science combined with ruling class arrogance. The
Invisible Man
followed in a similar vein and in 1889 he produced The War of
the Worlds. In this book the Earth is attacked by invaders from Mars who
have a far superior technology. Human defences completely fail to halt the
invaders who are intent of wiping out our race in order to use the planet
for their own purposes. But just when all seems lost, the invaders start to
die, victims to earth’s microbes, to which they have no immunity.

Again and again, Wells reminds his readers that human beings are not
necessarily the pinnacle of evolution.

In The Invisible Man, the “hero”, Griffin, believes his discovery has put
him above the rest of the human race, destined to use his advantage to rule
lesser mortals through a reign of terror. But the ordinary people, the
working classes, upon whom he makes his first assaults, while puzzled and
afraid, do not react as Griffin had hoped.

Griffin loses his temper with the people around him and reacts with
increasing violence. The police are called and eventually he is hunted and
lurches from one disaster to another, until he is killed by an angry mob.

In The Country of the Blind, Wells bases a short story on the old proverb
that “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. Wells points
out that the very opposite is true. In the real country of the blind people
cannot understand the concept of sight and have no faith in it. They
mistrust the one-eyed man who has stumbled among them by accident, accusing
him sometimes of madness and at others of dealing with dark forces. Their
society has evolved to cope perfectly well without sight. Eventually, if he
is to become one of them and fit in, he must agree to have his one eye
removed – the source, as they perceive it, of his madness.

The First Men On The Moon (1901) was a prophetic description of the
methodology of space flight and The War In The Air (1908) describes a
catastrophic aerial war.

In 1914, in the World Set Free, Wells wrote about future nuclear weapons –
based on Einstein’s theories, which had been published in 1905. His atomic
bombs are armed by biting a stud and then flung from the cockpits of
two-seater planes over enemy territory. The planes are powered by atomic
engines. These nuclear weapons do not merely explode but continue to
explode for many half-lives of their “Carolinum” cores.

Harking back to his childhood games with lead soldiers, Wells wrote Little
Wars, which is now recognised as the first recreational wargame. Many
gamers and hobbyists regard him as “the father of miniature wargaming”.

He predicted tank warfare long before the outbreak of World War One in The
Land of the Ironclads
. The gunners in his ironclads track the image of each
target using a camera obscura a fire the weapons using what would now be
called a joystick and fire button, pre-dating many computer games.

But more often than not, Wells’ futuristic machines are merely vehicles
for him to explore human relations and the natures of the societies who use
them. In the end it is the plight of human beings, with all their failings
and social problems that are at the heart of his stories.

After the First World War Wells published several non-fiction works,
among them The Outline Of History (1920), The Science Of Life (1929-39) and
Experiment In Autobiography (1934).

In 1917 Wells was a member of Research Committee for the League of Nations
and published several books about the world organisation. Between the years
1924 and 1933 Wells lived mainly in France.

He had great hopes that reasonable people all over the world would
eventually adopt socialism gradually and peacefully. But he failed to
understand the fundamental contradiction between capitalism and the
interests of the working class.

In 1934 he visited the United States and spoke to President Roosevelt and
then visited Moscow and interviewed Stalin. He had great hopes for a
meeting of minds between the two and told Stalin: “The old financial world
is collapsing; the economic life of the country is being reorganised on new
lines [the New Deal]. Lenin said: ‘We must learn to do business,’ learn
this from the capitalists.

“Today the capitalists have to learn from you, to grasp the spirit of
socialism. It seems to me that what is taking place in the United States is
a profound reorganisation, the creation of a planned, that is, socialist,

“You and Roosevelt begin from two different starting points. But is there
not a relation in ideas, a kinship of ideas, between Washington and Moscow?

“In Washington I was struck by the same thing I see going on here; they
are building offices, they are creating a number of new state regulation
bodies, they are organising a long-needed civil service. Their need, like
yours, is directive ability.”

Stalin responded: “The United States is pursuing a different aim from that
which we are pursuing in the USSR. The aim which the Americans are pursuing
arose out of the economic troubles, out of the economic crisis.

“The Americans want to rid themselves of the crisis on the basis of
private capitalist activity without changing the economic basis. They are
trying to reduce to a minimum the ruin, the losses caused by the existing
economic system.

“Here however, as you know, in place of the old destroyed economic base an
entirely different, new economic basis has been created.”

He went on to explain that any improvements that Roosevelt might achieve
could only be temporary because the capitalist economic base remained,
which would always continue to produce crises.

Towards the end of the interview Wells said: “I cannot yet appreciate what
has been done in your country; I only arrived yesterday. But I have already
seen the happy faces of healthy men and women and I know that something
very considerable is being done here. The contrast with 1920 is astounding.”

The Second World War left him disillusioned and his last book, Mind At The
End Of Its Tether
(1945), expressed pessimism about mankind’s future
prospects. Wells died in London on 13th August 1946. In the end it was his
dreams that were unrealistic.

first published in 2005