Editorial: How fragile we are
I’m writing in June, and, with so much talk of the First World War, I̕m wondering what today would look like if we turned back the calendar 100 years. It turns out it’s the first day of Ascot, with new security to stop suffragettes throwing themselves in front of horses. The Telegraph has photographs of suffragette bomb damage to St George’s church in Hanover Square, London. The women’s rights movement is unignorable; perhaps it is making progress.
The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is on, with 2,245 works on display. Here too, there is increased security after the suffragette Mary Wood slashed John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Henry James with a meat cleaver six weeks ago.
General Booth is presiding over the Salvation Army International Congress, celebrating record membership numbers, but mourning the devastating loss of 130 members who died en route when the Empress of Ireland sank after a collision in Quebec. Londoners are still talking of “the worst storm on record” two days ago, with hailstones the size of walnuts, and 3.7 inches of rain falling in 160 minutes in Richmond.
The local authority allows the first mixed bathing in the Thames at Weybridge – the Telegraph carries photos of that too. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is being serialised in The Egoist, and the hit musical Hullo, Tango is drawing crowds to the London Hippodrome. The Royal Munster Fusiliers hold a dinner in the Grand Hotel, Trafalgar Square. Lancashire play Middlesex at Lords.
The day’s papers advertise the latest new technology: the “Auto-wheel”, a 16mph motorised bike (“Stop pedalling! The engine propels YOU. Simply steer.”) Alongside it are the Raleigh All-Steel bicycle, the Siddley-Deasy motor car and the wooden refridgerator (simply add your own ice daily). Readers are also invited to buy Elliman’s Embrocation to make their baths “silky and antiseptic”, Sargol tablets “to develop the bust” and Rose’s lime juice.
Less than a fortnight from today, an Austrian Archduke’s car will take the wrong turning in a Sarajevo motorcade. As a result, fighting will break out between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Thanks to the system of alliances that have been keeping peace in Europe, all the powers in Europe will be dragged into a war. It has been half a century since the British fought in Europe; a whole one since we faced the prospect of invasion. We say: “We didn’t start this, but we’ll sort it out; a short sharp shock should do the trick.” Thanks to our new technologies, the war will be insane, and, in just four years, 17 million people will be killed.
How fragile we are, when one bullet is all it takes to turn our civilisation into this. How hard it is to see it coming. Blessed are the peacemakers.
This article was published in the July/August 2014 edition of Reform.