Monday, May 16, 2005

H. G. Wells - The History of Mr. Polly

When Leon Trotsky described the people who made up the mass backbone of the Fascist movements of Europe in the 1930s, he wrote:

"On the scales of election statistics, one thousand Fascist votes weigh as much as a thousand Communist votes. But on the scales of the revolutionary struggle, a thousand workers in one big factory represent a force a hundred times greater than a thousand petty officials, clerks, their wives and their mothers-in-law. The great bulk of the Fascists consists of human dust."

This "human dust", these clerks and petty officials etc, by and large came from the mass of the middle classes, desenfranchised and ruined by the economic collapse of the early 1930s. The Middle Class, Trotsky went on to argue spends much of it's time economically on the edge. Small changes in the economy can ruin them easily. The very nature of their employment and livelihoods mean they have little collective means to organise - often (as shown in this novel), the small business men and shopkeepers have nothing but contempt for their fellows.

H.G. Wells' novel doesn't deal with the rise of Fascism. Nor even does it deal with economic collapse. Instead, his book about the life of Mr. Polly, is about how empty life can be. How hard you have to work to make a living, and how little satisfaction you gain from it. How difficult it is to break out of your existence, or change the it's direction. How huge and powerful the forces ranged against little you are.

Mr. Polly, eventually does find a way out. He runs away into the idylic English countryside and finds the life he craved. I don't know if Wells' really that men like Mr. Polly were the reality, or that such succesful "escapism" was a route out of alienation or poverty for the majority of people, certainly it seems a perculiarly "English" notion of redemption.

The History of Mr. Polly, was written in 1910. It predates World War One and the rise of Fascism, and World War II. But you can't help but feel that Mr. Polly was really lucky. A few years later, he might well have found himself in the midst of a far bigger malestrom.

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