The Glass Walking Stick



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THE OLD NURSE


1936

I WAS recently reading a very interesting study which set my thoughts rambling on many themes; and not least on the theme of old nurses. For many other reasons it should be of interest to English people; especially those of them who have had the rudimentary intelligence to be interested in Irish people. For it is clear that the memories with which the mind of this old nurse were filled, and almost choked, were the memories of the great Irish Famine, which she had known in her childhood and which she communicated so vividly to an American child. The Irish Famine was more than an earthquake; it was an explosion. As an explosion scatters the arms and legs of a single man, so this catastrophe scattered the separated parts of a single people; and that most tragically, before our own people had attempted any real justice to that people. For that reason, the ruin of Ireland simply strewed the whole earth with the enemies of England. What region in the world, cried the Trojan after the Fall of Troy, is not full of our ruin? What region in the world is not now full of that wrong which we remedied so late? The testimony of the old nurse in America is all the more forcible, because of the patient simplicity with which she narrated such wrongs. Nobody is blamed for an earth quake; and nobody is of necessity blamed for an explosion; but people are blamed for their conduct during an earthquake or after an explosion. And it is the ugly truth that the blight of the Famine was not merely a blight upon a particular order of vegetables; among the blighted, not to say the blighters, were to be found a higher order of animals; even including politicians. The old Irish nurse meekly witnessed to the wickedness of a neighbouring landlord who would not give food to starving men unless they were of his own faction. And everyone knows that a hundred juries handed down Lord John Russell as a murderer. For that part of the record alone it would have been well worth recording. But I confess that I was very much interested in this Irish-American nurse merely considered as a nurse. She was a pattern of that paradox of submission and supremacy which belonged to that sort of old-fashioned servant. And it set me thinking about some thing that was lost, when the nurse gave place to the governess and the governess gave place to the school mistress. Bad and good abound in both; but something organic gave place to something official.

What is the matter with English Education is that it is discussed in Educational English. Even criticisms of Education, even complaints of Education, even confessions by educationists of the inadequacy of education, are all uttered in educational English. Educational English is not at all the same as educated English. It is a curious sort of technical jargon, possibly necessary and suitable to a science or a trade, but casting, as do all such terminologies, a curious air of coldness and unreality upon all that is discussed. It is not the style in which anybody talks; even when it is the style in which somebody unfortunately speaks. It is not the style in which the educationists themselves talk, when they are talking as educated people and not as educationists. This can be felt in the way in which the very words used tend to contradict their own meaning; as in the word, ‘individual’, in some sweeping generalization about ‘giving individual attention’.

It never occurred to the Victorian child, when his nurse was talking to him in his infancy, that she was giving him ‘individual attention’. It might have been quite a large family; but in that sense there were no relations except individual relations. Nor need a nurse of the old sort always consciously individualize; she was quite capable of packing all the children off to bed on the probably sound generalization that the children, as children, were becoming a nuisance. But the point is that the philosophy of the nurse began with one baby and went on to other babies as they arrived. The philosophy of the teacher be gins with one class, or one school, and then goes on to decide, with a sigh, that it must give a little more individual attention. The individual is discovered in the mass, as the atom was discovered in the familiar mass that we call matter. But the nurse was nearer to the father and mother, in the fact that the relation was organic and not official. The nurse may have been a mere shadow of the mother; but that sort of shadow is of the same shape. Nay, that sort of shadow is of some substance. Because it is very close to the creative realities of birth and babyhood, it has a quality that can never be described in Educational English. It will never be named at any educational congress. It is difficult enough to name it anywhere; and in most cases it remains nameless because it is natural. And men, especially modern men, are even more afraid of the natural than of the supernatural. But anyhow, if ever we did want to name it, we should never find even a word for it in all those wordy generalizations. It belongs to quite a different sort of English from any Educational English; to that world of words in which men wrote, ‘Hast thou not a blessing for me, O my father?’ or, ‘The smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.’ Or in which men said, ‘Unto us a Child is born.’







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