P.N. Furbank

  • Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusion of a Very Ordinary Brain (since 1866) by H.G. Wells
    Faber, 838 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 13330 4
  • H.G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography edited by G.P. Wells
    Faber, 253 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 13329 0
  • The Man with a Nose, and the Other Uncollected Short Stories of H.G. Wells edited by J.R. Hammond
    Athlone, 212 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 485 11247 7

The problem for social prophets, it would seem, lies not in getting the future right, which appears not to be too difficult, but in predicting the response which the future will command. ‘A thousand men at a thousand glowing desks, a busy specialist press, will be perpetually sifting, criticising, condensing, and clearing the ground for further speculation.’ So writes H.G. Wells in A Modern Utopia in 1905, neatly envisioning the micro-computer. And there is a lot to be said for the micro-computer. But such ‘glow’ as it possesses is purely literal and mechanical. Indeed, already in Wells’s sentence, any more metaphorical glow pertains to the future and to ‘further speculation’.

In the same Modern Utopia there are beautiful tramways and motorways cut through lovely landscapes, labour-saving inns with no projecting surfaces, windows hermetically sealed because of air-conditioning, wall and floor heating, automatic soap dispensers and dirty-towel chutes. The sense of place and local patriotism has been abolished, and people are expected to travel all over the world, as well-off people did in Britain. ‘The population of Utopia will be a migratory population beyond any earthly precedent ... a people as fluid and tidal as the sea.’ The people will be recorded, by thumb-print, in a central world-registry.

Well, it has nearly all come true, but it does not particularly elate us. Indeed it may even depress us. But neither the expected elation, nor the depression, are reasonable. The truth is plain that, though a limited amount of social planning is necessary for any well-intentioned government, it is essentially foolish to try to plan a whole future way of life – that is to say, to construct a blueprint of what shall make future people happy. It is not in such a fashion that value comes into the world. Value has to come into being in its own way and in its own time, and each time afresh.

Anyway, Utopias in the blueprint sense, as opposed to their employment as satire or moral exemplum, won’t do, and the argument against them was put very satisfactorily by G.K. Chesterton in Heretics. ‘The weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the small ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.’

The stresses of these two problems, which afflict any prophet, are very visible in Wells. But so is a third problem – the difficulty for a futurologist in knowing what, ethically speaking, he is ‘up to’. A concern with the future is, for one thing, a form of imperialism; and Wells, formed as a writer in the Joe Chamberlain era, was an arch-imperialist – the ‘World-state’ representing, as it were, his Lebensraum. However, what Tono-Bungay deliberately brings home to us is that this was the age, not just of colonial empires, but of shady financial ‘empires’ like those of Whitaker Wright and Terah Hooley. Wells, it seems to me, was haunted by the knowledge that his methods as thinker and prophet as much resembled those of Uncle Edward Ponderevo, promoter of the world-famous patent medicine Tono-Bungay, as they did those of Plato and Marx. For one thing, did he not, just like Uncle Ponderevo, construct his campaigns around slogans? And do not the slogans – ‘the competent receiver’, ‘the Open Conspiracy’ and ‘the socialist world-state’ – have a ghostly likeness to the Tono-Bungay ones: ‘Health, Beauty and Strength’ and ‘Simply a proper regimen to get you in tone’? Again, what, from one point of view, was his stormy association with the Fabian Society but a frustrated ‘take-over’ bid? Beatrice Webb put her finger on this when, soon after her first encounter with Wells, she described him in her Diary as a ‘speculator in ideas’ (the financial overtones being plainly implied). The business scene offers familiar parallels, moreover, to the Webbs’ willingness (which later cost them dear) to use Wells. ‘He is a good instrument for popularising ideas’ was Beatrice Webb’s opportunistic assessment: his ‘loose generalisations’ could be made use of by ‘gradgrinds’ like herself and Sidney.

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