MIA  >  Bernstein  >  My Years of Exile


Eduard Bernstein

My Years of Exile

London peculiarities and English characteristics

THE emigration of the Sozialdemokrat from Zürich to London, after we four exiles had arrived in the English capital, necessitated, as one of the first steps to be taken, the renting of suitable business premises.

This was no simple matter. Since we did not wish to go very far afield from that part of town in which Engels was living, we could think only of renting a whole house, which would be large enough to contain counting-house, office, compositors’ room, publishing office, and, if possible, also the printing-press; for we entertained the idea, at first, of printing the paper ourselves, as we had done in Zürich, which necessitated a room in which we could set up a printing-press of by no means small dimensions. There were no business or industrial premises in the north-west of London so divided as to suit our purpose, we could only have found such premises in the neighbourhood of the City, where the rents are very high. We had to find either a large dwelling-house, with an outbuilding where the machinery could be set up, or a house with a shop and residential quarters at the back, such as are, indeed, to be found in great numbers in London; but in the neighbourhood which we were considering they are seldom of such a nature as to offer us all that we needed or desired. We had to make a thorough search: and so for us began the pleasure of house-hunting, as the English call it, which, like a great deal of other hunting, is an extremely fatiguing form of pleasure. But it afforded us the opportunity of obtaining impressions from every point of view of the social life of this section of the capital.

I use the word “section” deliberately; for Kentish Town; where we made our search; was only a small section of London, and it was not a particularly characteristic section either, with its East End surroundings. Nothing in the style of the place, nothing in the character of its life and its activities, betrayed its connection with the mighty commercial emporium of the British Empire. Many great cities include, in their growth, localities which they do not at once adapt to their geographical organisation. But nowhere does one encounter more unmistakable signs of the original independence of the locality than in a great number of the old towns and villages with which London has coalesced in the course of the years. In this mighty metropolis, as it is styled, for the geographical concept of London covers a whole conglomerate of villages and towns, whose centre is the actual capital, there prevails a heterogeneity and an irregular promiscuity of the individual parts which has not its like elsewhere.

For a long time the same thing was true in respect of the administration of London. Every place had its own local administration, the Vestry; and one Vestry troubled itself very little as to what the others did: a peculiar method of local government which was not conducive to any communal feeling affecting London as a whole. Only for a few common purposes a sort of federate body was created in 1885, under the style of the Metropolitan Board of Works; but it was very defective in its operation, and in the very year of our arrival in England Parliament was preparing to transform London into a county, with one single County Council, to be elected upon a fairly democratic suffrage. This County Council came into being in the year 1889, and soon acquired a certain notoriety as a novelty in the sphere of Municipal Socialism. But the heterogeneous character of the local administrative bodies was hardly modified thereby. Greater London retained its innumerable vestries and similar administrations, until at the beginning of the new century a Bill was passed which combined a number of the small vestries or added them to large ones, with the result that London is now divided into thirty municipalities, more or less equal in size, the more important affairs, such as drainage, the fire brigade, the elementary schools, traffic, etc., being regulated by the London County Council.

These newly created bodies have only very gradually affected the physiognomy of London. In the year 1888 there was as yet scarcely anything to be observed of this influence. At that time a map of London, showing all its many parishes, and their social physiognomy, was like a picture of a counterpane made up of innumerable patches.

The parish of St. Pancras, of which Kentish Town forms a part, stretches from Holborn in the more central portion of London, to the neighbourhood of Highgate in the north-west. It undergoes many changes of character. In its southern portion the houses are still built in the old style which was in vogue in the eighteenth century, and the first half of the nineteenth; and they are so blackened with smoke that one realises their age at the first glance. Round about King’s Cross, where the termini of the Great Northern Railway, the Midland Railway, and (a little farther westward) the North Western Railway, are situated, everything looks black with smoke, and there are, or were, not a few streets which belonged to the category of slums – that is, the spawning-places of outward and inward demoralisation and depravity. Lately many of these have been pulled down, which has somewhat altered the aspect of things. But there is still far too much that is old and decayed. Farther to the north the prospect is a little more pleasing; the houses belong to the latter half of the nineteenth century, with half-basements, airy front rooms, and more cheerful windows. Still farther north, in the neighbourhood of Highgate-on-the-Hill, are streets with larger or smaller gardens before the houses, which at one time were suburban villas, but of which a great many have already suffered the first step of social degradation. This means that they are no longer inhabited by members of the social class for which they were originally intended, a circumstance which is betrayed by many external signs: lack of attention given to the front gardens, diminished cleanliness of the windows, the different character of the window-curtains, and many like symptoms.

The social degradation of the houses is a process which is often to be observed in London. It does not affect individual houses, but whole streets, or tributary roads. It takes place more or less as follows. A street or a section of a street is laid out, and houses are built for tenants of the well-to-do middle classes. Family residences with a flight of steps before the door, spacious domestic offices in the basement, lofty reception-rooms and bedrooms on the ground floor and first floor, and a wide entrance-door. It is understood, and often stipulated, in the lease, that no tenant may sublet rooms or a portion of the house; for this would diminish the respectability of the street. This condition will be observed for years. Then, perhaps, in one of the houses, for one reason or another, the family makes an exception, disposing, discreetly at first, of one or several rooms. After a time the same thing happens in a second house, and a third. But although the sub-letting is discreetly arranged at first, the secret cannot be kept in the long-run. In the windows appear the tell-tale cards which signify that “superior apartments,” etc., are to be let. And already the street is not what it used to be. If a house falls empty the owner must be a little less fastidious as to subletting, and must frame his stipulations a little less strictly. The same is true of the second and third removal. The notices that apartments are to let become more conspicuous, and the street ceases to be regarded as quite fashionable, even though it still preserves a certain smartness. Now come tenants who are less anxious to live in a smart dwelling-house than to let high-class lodgings, and the street gradually becomes a street of apartment houses. But even as such it retains its rank only for a little while. Gradually it loses its attraction for the more solvent lodgers, and with the class of lodger the class of tenant changes. People who make a business of letting apartments rent the houses. They themselves live only in the basement rooms, and perhaps one or two bedrooms at the top of the house. All the other rooms they let, and the house becomes a lodging-house, with the lodgers always coming and going. For such a house is quite unlike a house which has been originally built as an apartment house. The tenants are obliged to let their rooms to lodgers of all classes; in the high, airy rooms of the ground floor and first floors will be found people of a very different class from those who rent the less lofty rooms of the upper storeys. Yet no lodger is cut off from the rest so completely as in an apartment-house of the German or American type, which is more like a block of flats. As the house was intended for a single family, there is nothing on any of the floors to shut off the living-rooms from the landings. The rooms open directly on to the landings and passages, and since in the better class of houses it is regarded as improper and even insulting to lock one’s door, one never loses the feeling, in a large house of this kind, that one has no proper refuge of one’s own, but is living, as it were, in a dove-cot, where all the doves are flying in and out. Here I speak from personal experience, for on two occasions my wife and I were lodgers in a house of this description.

The idea which prevails among the lower classes that it is not respectable to lock up one’s room is connected with another characteristic which I encountered first when looking for a house for the Sozialdemokrat; and afterwards when hunting for a dwelling-house for myself and my family. I met with a blind confidence on the part of the populace which I should least of all have expected to find in the vast city of London. When inhabited houses were not in question, the houses to be let which we inspected were absolutely empty. It did not pay to put a caretaker in charge. If one called at such a house a placard affixed to one of the windows, or a larger announcement, offered the information that the key was to be had at one of the neighbouring houses, and this key was usually confided to us without more ado, in the fullest confidence. Of course, there was seldom anything left in the house that was worth taking away, and a key is not a particularly valuable object. But it is not quite an indifferent matter if a patent key – such as are the majority of these keys – is lost: or if some one makes a wax impression of the key for subsequent use, as is very easily done. That in spite of this we, as utter strangers, were always unhesitatingly given the key upon demand, in order that we might make use of it and afterwards return it, was always a good deal of a surprise. And this is only an example of the fact that confidence and honesty are far more prevalent among the population of London than one would be inclined to imagine from all one has read of the thieves of the capital. In the same way, I had often occasion to note that in England far fewer documents are needed in general business transactions than I was accustomed to at home. The first occasion when this was impressed upon me occurred some weeks after our arrival, in connection with a transaction which at the same time revealed to me an unexpected aspect of the English people.

When my three fellow-exiles and I were forced to leave Switzerland I brought my nine-year-old stepson with me, while my wife, with our little daughter, who was two years younger, had to remain some weeks in Zürich, and then to stop awhile in Berlin, finally travelling to England oversea from Hamburg. For greater economy she took passage on a cargo-vessel of the Kirsten Line, and when I had learned at the London office of the firm that the vessel would stop at Gravesend, where the Thames estuary narrows down, in order to take a pilot aboard, I resolved to go thither to meet her. I obtained the pilot’s address, and on the appointed day I took the train in good time. The train took me to Tilbury, which lies opposite Gravesend, and from Tilbury one crosses the Thames, which is here of a good width, in a ferry-boat. On the way I had the pleasure of seeing some English card-sharpers at work. Not long after the train started one of the passengers sitting in my compartment got into conversation with a fellow-traveller, drew forth a few playing-cards, and explained to him the game which in Germany is known as Dreiblatt or Kümmelblattchen. This consists in detecting, among three cards which the player shuffles together, one of the cards which has been selected beforehand. The passenger accosted tried his luck, but was constantly mistaken. Now another passenger joined in, and declared that if only the cards were fairly shuffled it was quite impossible to miss the card; he wagered half a crown that he would find it every time. So saying, he staked the coin, and lost! Now he became excited, demanded another trial, and won once, twice, thrice; whereupon the man first accosted plucked up courage to wager half a crown, and he, too, won. He became more cheerful, and made further bets, as did the other, and although they lost now and again they nevertheless had remarkable luck, so that the player had often, to put his hand into his pocket in order to cover fresh bets. In the meantime, apparently attracted by the loud voices and the chinking of the money, a traveller in the next compartment of the old-fashioned carriage was watching the game over the partition. His comments grew louder and louder, and finally he, too, tried his luck with equally good results, until, at the last station on the outskirts of London, the train emptied, and besides myself there remained only a gentleman who had taken as little part in the game as I had. I had already read too much of card-sharpers to be in doubt for a moment as to the character of the game, and had feigned absolute indifference to it, appearing to gaze out of the window. But now I risked a remark, saying to my vis-à-vis: “Those three men were swindlers!” to which he answered: “All four belong to the same gang”; that is, the man in the next compartment was a confederate. The general public was quite alive to the nature of the game, and I wondered why the four rogues had risked their fares, and how they dared carry on their swindling so openly. The moment I or any other uninitiated person had been induced to bet upon the finding of the card the gambler would of course have indulged in a little sleight-of-hand.

About noon I reached Gravesend, and repaired to the pilot’s house. His wife, who opened the door to me, informed me that her husband had gone out, but invited me to enter, in a friendly manner, in order to wait for him in her sitting-room. I hesitated a moment; but the weather was certainly gloomy, so I took advantage of her offer, when she led me into a very well-furnished room, and gave me a number of albums and volumes of illustrated papers to look through. After a while the pilot himself arrived, and informed me, when I had explained the object of my call, that the vessel, which ought to arrive at two in the afternoon, was already signalled, but would not be in before seven in the evening, as there had been a very rough sea. He was quite prepared to take me with him then; I was to meet him at a spot on the river-bank which he described more exactly. I thanked him, and was about to leave, when he asked me whether I knew the locality. “No,” I replied; “I am quite a stranger here.” “But how will you spend the time, then?” he asked. “I really don’t quite know; I shall see about taking a walk in the neighbourhood. Perhaps you will be so good as to recommend me where to go?” He considered a moment, and then told me that at an hour’s walk from Gravesend – or a stranger could get there safely and conveniently by tram – was a large pleasure resort, Rosherville Gardens, where I should best be able to pass the time. This was an idea, so I thanked him and took my leave.

My thanks were sincere. The man had made an excellent impression on me. There was nothing insincere about him, nothing consequential, and while he had evinced a certain interest, which struck me as quite proper, he was far from being intrusive. The establishment to which he had directed me might well repay a visit in fine weather. A vast garden, with fine pleasure-grounds and extensive fair-grounds, where there were arrangements for every possible amusement and pastime: swings, switch-back railways, roundabouts, shooting-galleries, Aunt Sallies, “try-your-strength” machines, and many similar diversions. But since it was a working day, and bad weather into the bargain, there was no crowd to enliven it all, and all the amusements offered were provided for me alone. So I wandered, somewhat restlessly, through the pleasure-grounds, rejoicing in the flowers of all sorts that grew there, and admired a steep and fairly lofty wall of rock-work, at the end of the garden adjoining the river, which was overgrown with climbing plants, while from the top of the wall one enjoyed a fine panorama. Earlier than was necessary I returned to Gravesend, and repaired to the appointed meeting-place beside the river.

It was a lonely landing-place; the only human beings to be seen were a few workmen, busy over some sort of a job. One of them asked me if I was looking for any one. I explained my business, whereupon they showed me, unasked, all sorts of attentions, which, after all I had read of the English, I should never in the least have expected of such men. To begin with, having seen me standing for some time alone on the bank, two of them dragged up a bench, and invited me to be seated. Then, as a slight drizzle set in; one of them brought me a tarpaulin. When the rain began to fall more heavily they invited me to take my place on a covered scaffolding, which had evidently been erected as a look-out in stormy weather. Then, after some little time, they asked me whether I would not like to go to a restaurant and get some food; the vessel was not yet in sight, and when she was, one of them would fetch me. At first I declined; but as after a time one of them once more came up to me and explained that I could still go and get a quiet meal, and that I could certainly trust them for the rest, it seemed to me impolite to refuse the offer, so my interlocutor led me into a street where there were several eating-houses and restaurants, left me to make my choice, and thereupon took his leave, assuring me once more that I should be fetched in good time. He kept his word. About nine o’clock – so late had it become in the meantime – I was called for, and found the pilot on the bank. He bade me get aboard his boat, and took me out to the vessel, which we boarded, in the most profound darkness, by means of a rope ladder which was let down to us. I begged one of the workmen, who had come with us in order to take back the boat, to give his comrades my warmest thanks, and had some trouble to persuade him to accept a token of my gratitude.

The vessel reached London after midnight, but could not take up her berth, as in the meantime the ebb had set in. We had to camp out on board for the night, and it was morning when we were able to step ashore on St. Katherine’s Wharf. I left the trunk which contained a great part of the family’s clothes and linen in a little carrier’s office opposite the wharf, to be forwarded, and then put my wife and daughter into an omnibus which took us all direct to our lodgings. When we arrived there we suddenly discovered that we had no luggage receipt! Bewilderment, bordering upon horror! Now we should never recover our things! What was to be done? I set off to drive the long weary way from Regent’s Park, in the neighbourhood of which I had secured temporary quarters, back to St. Katherine’s Wharf. In the carrier’s office I found an elderly man, and made my plight known to him. I had arrived by steamer that morning and had left a large black trunk in the office, giving my address. The man looked in his book. “That’s correct,” he said. “The trunk was given in here as you say.” “Yes,” I observed, “but I was not given a receipt!” “A receipt? What do you want a receipt for?” he retorted. “Well, one has something to show when one gives up one’s luggage,” was my answer. Indignantly he repeated that the trunk was entered in his book, and that that was enough. To give a receipt for it was superfluous, and no one would ask to see it. “That may satisfy others,” I said, “ but I am accustomed to receive a written statement in such cases. Please be so obliging as to give me one.” He hesitated. “I will willingly pay for it,” I added. Even that did not fetch him at first. But at last he allowed himself to be persuaded, and wrote me the desired receipt, assuredly not without reflecting what crazy fellows these Germans were. For that matter, I fancy I have often given the English occasion for this reflection, not always without some suspicion of the fact. Occasionally I have been guilty of disregarding the national customs while fully conscious that the natives would regard me as a crazy foreigner, and when my attention has been called to this result of my behaviour I have given an answer similar to that of the sturdy imbecile, who, when taken to task because he allowed his delicate little wife to beat him, quickly replied: “Well, well, it gives her pleasure, and it doesn’t hurt me.”

However, these were always cases in which no one’s reasonable feelings were hurt, and in which I could assure myself, after full consideration, that the national custom was due to some unreasonable prejudice, or that its rational explanation was based upon some long-forgotten opinion. Here, on the contrary, no such prejudice was in question. To the man in the carrier’s office his day-book was a record, and from the moment when the trunk, with the correct address, was entered in the book, there was, according to his practical experience, no longer any need of making out an individual receipt.

In the same way, no luggage receipts are given on the railways, in connection with the transport of passengers’ luggage. If one turns up at a railway station with luggage which cannot be taken into the carriage with one, it is given to a porter, who puts it on his little trolley, takes it along to the luggage-van, and there unloads it. On arriving at one’s destination one goes to the luggage-van, points out one’s luggage as the van is being unloaded, to a porter, who will carry it on his shoulder or load it on his two- or four-wheeled trolley, and leaves it to him to bring it to the station exit. This is done without any further expense than a tip to the porter, and, as I have said, without any luggage receipt. For Germans coming to England for the first time this seems an almost uncanny state of affairs. Professor Karl Schorlemmer, who was Henry Roscoe’s collaborator in his great Handbook of Chemistry, and an intimate friend of Marx and Engels, described to us, in 1891, in a very droll manner, how bewildered his German colleagues were, when on travelling from London to the International Scientific Congress in Edinburgh they were obliged to entrust their luggage to the railway without the accustomed receipt. “Make your minds easy,” he told them, “your luggage is safer here than in the Fatherland.” But they would not believe him until experience had assuaged their anxiety. It once happened to me, on returning to London from the South Coast, that the porter, instead of putting my luggage into the van for Victoria (the terminus for the west of London), put it into some other luggage-van. Unfortunately, I had neglected to provide the trunk, which bore no other distinguishing mark, with even so much as a label giving my name and address. All I could do, when I discovered, at the terminus, that the trunk was not in the train, was to describe its size and colour to an official to whom I was directed. But although the thing happened on a day of unusually congested traffic, – that is, at the end of the holidays, when parents were returning from their summer outing with their children, who were going back to school, – the trunk was safely delivered at my house on the following day. Matters could not have gone better in the land of the most meticulous rules and regulations.

That year we spent, for the first time, a few weeks on the South Coast; as a matter of fact at Eastbourne, not far from Brighton. This very charming town is regarded as one of the most select watering-places in England; but we were assured that we could manage there with quite moderate means, and we found that this was so. In the eastern part of this town of over 30,000 inhabitants we found lodgings for ourselves and our two children, consisting of two bedrooms, and including the use of the sitting-room, service, and the preparation of our meals, for a guinea a week. According to the general custom in English watering-places, we bought our food ourselves, or gave orders that it should be bought; but the landlady saw to the cooking of breakfast, midday dinner, and supper according to our wishes, laid the table in the sitting-room, and sent up the courses by her servant.

English cookery, as we know, is essentially unlike Continental cookery, and dispenses with many incentives to appetite. To philosophise over the matter, one might regard it as the antithesis of the ingenious cookery of the French, which is distinguished by its variety; and if we acknowledge this as specifically synthetic, then we may describe the English cookery as crudely empirical. However, one need not necessarily think of half-raw beefsteaks. Many things are quite fully cooked in England. But the leading idea in English cookery is that the character or individual savour of the food should be as far as possible preserved, while the mixing of the food with supplementary condiments is left to the individual consumer as he sits at table. Those who do not like the condiments with which the table is usually provided for this purpose, and which are often very pungent, will have to put up with the comparative monotony of English cookery. Yet this cookery is not without its advantages; the only difficulty for the foreigner coming to England is to discover them and duly profit by them. This should not be very difficult for the Germans, whose native cookery exhibits a more or less comprehensive eclecticism.

In England there was much more freedom than I had supposed in the matter of bathing, and of bathing-places in particular. Of course, in the fashionable part of the great walk and drive along the seashore, which every watering-place possesses, and which with us is called the promenade, but in England, as a rule, the parade, certain rules of decency prevail, the infringement of which would be regarded as scandalous. But otherwise every one may order his life and pleasures as best suits him; only he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. On the beach itself all sorts of entertainments are offered to the public: from acrobats of every kind, and nigger minstrels who play comic dialogues and sing the latest popular songs, with the audience joining in the refrain, to wandering preachers of one or another denomination, who at one time endeavour to convert the public that gathers round their “pitch,” and at another hold open-air services or sing hymns, there is something to please every one’s taste. Bathing is possible only at certain states of the tide, and along the parade is allowed only from bathing machines. The price for the use of a machine was more than my means would justify my paying, so that I should have had to dispense with bathing at Eastbourne if I had not had the opportunity of doing so beyond the limits of the parade.

To the east of a tower, since pulled down, by which the parade came to an end, I found, almost the first time I went on a journey of exploration, a wide stretch of beach by the water’s edge, where a fair number of people were sitting or lying on the shingle; a notice-board, at least six feet wide, affixed to two tall posts, informed me in large letters that bathing was not allowed here. To my great, yet not disagreeable surprise, I perceived, upon approaching, that people were nevertheless bathing in that very place. In all peace and comfort adults and children, who had left their clothes on the beach, were disporting themselves in the water, and no one said them nay. One could see that the spectacle was by no means an unaccustomed one to the recumbent public. To my questions whether people often bathed there, I received the answer: “Every day, when the weather permits.” On the very next day I was among the “free” bathers, and during the rest of my visit to the seaside I took the opportunity of becoming thoroughly acquainted with Thetis.

Once only while bathing there I made the acquaintance of a coastguard. It was a very rough day; the waves were pretty high on the beach, and the “free” bathing-place was empty. I was seized by the desire for once to bathe in a rough sea. I went fairly close to the water’s edge with my son, then ten years old, and we began to undress. Suddenly a coastguard stood beside me. “Can you swim?” “Yes!” “Can the youngster swim?” “No” “Then you can bathe, but not the youngster.” “Thank you, sir!” That was the whole of our conversation. But my dealings with Dame Thetis were not much longer on that particular day. When, ready for my dip, I approached the water and considered the breakers more closely, I saw at once that swimming was not going to be of much help to me. The wind was blowing hard from the west. I concluded to swim straight against it as far as possible, so that on coming out I could land at the same point at which I had left the beach. No sooner said than done – or rather not done. To be sure, I threw myself, as I had intended, into the water; but after the fourth stroke I had to turn about, for I felt a violent tendency to sea-sickness. At every stroke I must have swallowed a good deal of sea-water. Instead of landing where I entered the water, I was thrown up on the beach at least forty yards to the east of it. One could scarcely speak of swimming in connection with my return. I had to surrender myself helplessly to the storm, and once ashore crept painfully up on to the dry beach, overwhelmed at intervals by the visiting-cards flung after me by the tossing element, which continually dragged me back a little-way. As the beach at Eastbourne consists not of sand but of shingle, the process was not entirely painless. For my thoughtlessness I had received a punishment which, though by no means unendurable, was quite severe enough to last me for some time.

But how is the tolerance of the coastguard or coast guards to be reconciled with the great notice to the effect that bathing was “not allowed” in that place? This has never been quite clear to me. It is possible that the people of Eastbourne actively enforced the right of bathing in contravention of the order, as such incidents are not rare in England. In 1866, for example, at the time of the second great suffrage campaign, the London democracy actively enforced the right of using Hyde Park for demonstrations, and on this occasion tore down the iron railings which had until then surrounded the most fashionable park in the capital. The railings were not set up again, and a particular part of Hyde Park has since then been the recognised meeting-place for very large demonstrations. Another instance occurred in connection with one of the largest theatres in London. When Henry Irving was manager of the Lyceum he bethought himself one day of offering the visitors to the pit of his theatre a convenience. He had the seats numbered, so that the playgoers who sat in the pit need no longer struggle for their seats. But he did not know his public. On the very first evening when the new arrangements were to be tried, he was greeted, when he appeared, with a general “Hullo!” from the pit, accompanied by hissing and booing. He advanced to the footlights and called out to those in the pit: “Are not the new arrangements agreeable to you?” “No!” came the answer as from a single throat. “Do you wish to go back to the old arrangements?” “Yes,” was the equally unanimous reply. “Very well, then, you shall have them again.” On the following day the new arrangements were done away with, and so far as my memory serves me the old ones are still in force.

But to return to the “free” bathing at Eastbourne it may be that the notice which declared that bathing was not allowed forbade it merely to ensure that every one who bathed there did so at his own risk. Examples may be cited in support of such an explanation. A prohibition of this kind has to be extremely positive before the Englishman will accept it as unconditionally binding upon him in matters of this sort. At the East Coast watering-places, which I often visited later, and which are preferred by many English people, because the sea-breezes are fresher there, I have not, as a rule, seen any such notices.

To the west of Eastbourne the cliffs along the coast gradually rise until they form the great chalky headland of Beachy Head, nearly six hundred feet in height. Overgrown with grass on the top, it slopes gently at first, and then suddenly falls steeply to the water, while down below it exhibits all manner of recesses and outlying masses. From the landward side an extremely fine drive leads up to the summit. Enterprising visitors have repeatedly attempted to climb Beachy Head from the beach at low tide, whereby many have nearly lost their lives. If they were unable to reach the top, and the tide rose in the meantime, they were left between the devil and the deep sea. From the coastguard station, which stands at the highest point of the Head, it is impossible to see what is happening on the face of the cliff, nor will a call for help carry thither. Only if he is noticed from the direction of the sea can the climber count upon help.

About five or six miles off Beachy Head, in the year 1895, the Avelings, the old Communist Leaguer Friedrich Lessner, and myself, on a very rough day of autumn, cast into the sea the urn containing the ashes of our Friedrich Engels. Engels, who died on the 8th of August 1895, had directed, in a letter enclosed with his will, that his body should be cremated and the ashes thrown into the sea. And since we knew of his predilection for delightful Eastbourne, the sea off Beachy Head was chosen as the most suitable spot for the execution of this portion of his last will and testament. Since then, however, the impression has gained a hold upon me that this disposition of his ashes may perhaps have been dictated by another motive than his love of Eastbourne and the sea. The idea of Lethe may have been in his mind. The letter was written shortly before Engels’ death, and the last year of the loyal brother-in-arms of Karl Marx had been saddened by a conflict. Much did not indeed immediately concern Engels, but in the course of which things came to pass that must have affected him deeply. The sociable evenings which we had spent in his house were robbed of the cheerful humour which had always characterised them months before his last serious illness.

Engels’ had been a hospitable house. On Sundays his political and personal friends were expected, whenever they had time, to spend the evening with him, and there was almost always quite a respectable party of guests of various nationalities. As there were interesting personalities among them, I shall devote a special chapter to them. The talk on these evenings was unrestrained. Serious subjects were indeed touched upon, but did not constitute the exclusive subject-matter of our conversation. There was a great deal of jesting, and we were always grateful if any guest would sing a song, serious or cheerful, and the good Bordeaux which Engels favoured saw to it that we were in the right humour. The more lively we became, the more plainly did our host’s features betray his inward satisfaction, and many a time he would even send for champagne, and himself strike up one of the old students’ songs, such as were sung in his youth. Of English songs he conceived a particular affection for the old popular political song, The Vicar of Bray.

In this song, which dates from the early part of the eighteenth century, a clergyman relates how he altered his ecclesiastical and political opinions with every change of government that occurred between 1685 to 1715, in order to retain his living. Taking the song as one’s authority one can learn by heart quite a deal of English constitutional history. It begins with the “golden time” of “Good King Charles” the Second, and ends with the accession of the Guelph George the First. The refrain throughout is

For this is law, that I’ll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir,
That whatsoever King may reign
I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir.

Under Charles II the good man preached the absolute grace of God and the doctrines of the English High Church. Under James II he was all for toleration in respect of the Catholics, looked kindly upon the Romish Church, and “had become a Jesuit, but for the Revolution” (of 1688). Under William III he taught a manly pride in respect of the throne

Passive obedience was a joke,
A jest was non-resistance.

With the reign of Queen Anne he became a Tory, and rejected all sophistries connected with the dogma of the State Church. Finally, when George I came to England “in pudding time “ and the Whigs became all-powerful, he became, with them, an advocate of “moderation” and daily forswore “the Pope and the Pretender.” Now he will remain unchangeably loyal to the “illustrious house of Hanover” – “while they can keep possession.”

Engels had translated this song into German verse for the Social Democratic Song-Book Vörwarts (Zürich, 1886). Some verses were extremely successful; in others, since he kept to the English metre, the greater prolixity of the German language made it impossible to reproduce the English text in all its compactness. Even so brilliant an interpreter as Freiligrath failed now and then to achieve this compactness in many of his German versions of the songs of Robert Burns, masterly as they were in general.

The refrain of The Vicar of Bray sounded very well in Engels’ version

Denn dieses gilt und hat Bestand,
Bis an mein End soll’s wahr sein
Dass, wer auch König sei im Land,
In Bray will ich Vikar sein.

And the spirit of the last verse is excellently preserved

Hannovers hoher Dynastie
(Mit Ausschluss von Papisten),
Der schwör ich Treu – solange sie
Sich an dem Thron kann fristen.

Denn meine Treu wankt nimmermehr
(Veränderung ausgenommen),
Und Georg sei mein Furst and Herr –
Bis andere Zeiten kommen.

Herewith we will take our leave of this classic representative of the turncoat, and to conclude with we will take an old drinking-song, to which Sam Moore, the friend of Engels and Marx, and the joint translator of Marx’s Capital into English, would often treat us. It deals with “three jolly postboys,” who sit in the Dragon Inn and empty “many a flagon.” It is in the true spirit of “Merry England”.

Wer guten Wein hat
Und doch sick nüchtern hält,
Ist wie das dürre Laub
Das im Herbst zu Boden fällt.

And the refrain goes thus

Komm, Schankwirt, giess die Becher voll,
Bis zum Überlaufen,
Heute wollen wir fröhlich sein,
Heute wollen wir fröhlich sein,
Heute wollen wir fröhlich sein,
Und morgen Wasser saufen.”


Last updated on 12.8.2022