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John Burns

( Originally Published 1907 )

I WAS walking one evening along the Embankment when I overtook John Burns. The night was cold, but he wore neither overcoat nor gloves, for he scorns both as the trappings of effeminate luxury. He carried under his arm a huge bound volume of the Phalanx, a Labour journal of long ago, which he had just picked up at a bookstall. He plunged at once into a stream of that buoyant, confident talk which is so characteristic of the man.

" Here," he says, and his hand seizes me like a vice, bringing me up short before a tablet of the late Queen, let into the fence before the Temple. " Look at it. Been up five years. Not a scratch on it. I tell you there's not a country in Europe where there is a higher standard of public conduct than here."

A young couple of the working class pass us arm-in-arm. His iron grasp is once more on me, and I am swung round to take note of them. " That's not the sort of couple the people who vilify the working classes picture. Believe me, sir, the courting of the working classes is as pure and chivalrous as anything I know. You take it from me the working classes are morally as sound as a bell.".

A flower girl stops us, and with whispering humbleness proffers chrysanthemums. " Well, my lass, it's a cold night for your job." He puts money in her hand, but waves aside the blooms. " No, no, my girl, keep them. Do I look like a man that wants flowers? "

Ibsen said, ` The strongest man is he who stands alone,' he had J. B. in his eye." And he watches my merriment with quizzical good humour.

At Waterloo Bridge that terrible hand grips me again. He opens a door in the hoarding, commandeers a foreman, and crashes his way over masses of masonry and debris through the tramway tunnel which is being driven under the Strand to Kingsway, his big voice booming out questions and comments all the time.

Out on the Embankment again, he pulls up before a man, whether workman or loafer it is difficult to say. " Well, Higgins, what are you up to now? " And as Higgins proceeds with his apologia I escape.

There is the man, boisterous, confident, gaily aggressive, honest as the day, full of the egotism of the child, with the child's delighted interest in the passing show of things Cabinet Minister and working man—proud of his present, proud of his past, most proud of all that he has " done time " in one of his Majesty's prisons.

He stands four square to all the winds that blow, solid as a pedestal of granite, short and mighty of limb, like Hal o' th' Wynd, his great eyes flashing scorn and challenge from under the terrific eyebrows, his nostrils swelling with defiance, his voice bursting in upon the tranquillities like a foghorn, thick and hoarse from thundering in the open air, his grey hair and beard belying the enormous vitality of mind and muscle. A man indeed, virile and vehement, dogmatic as a timetable, with an argument as heavy as his fist—" the powerful, natural man " of Whitman's ideal. Plain living and high thinking his maxim no alcohol, no tobacco, no rugs and mufflers, no weak concessions to the flesh; but cold water and plenty of it within and without, early rising and hard walking, a game of cricket, a swim in the bath, and then out sword and have at you! A glorious swashbuckler of romance.

His life an ebullient joy. There is not a page in it that he slurs over. There is not an hour when he has not found it good to be alive. His boundless exuberance fills you like a gale at sea. His optimism seems to fill the whole world with the singing of birds and the laughter of children. There never was such a world. There never was such a country as this England of ours. There never was such a city as this glorious London. Do you doubt it? Do you talk of your Germany and your France? Sir, do you know that the average number of inhabitants of a house in London is eight and in Berlin eighty; that the mortality in London is 15, and in Berlin i7; that the average rent per room in London is so and so, and in Berlin so and so; that in fact, that an avalanche of statistics has suddenly descended on you, reducing you to abject and humiliated silence. Never was there such a man for statistics. He is a Blue Book in breeches. My brain reels at the thought of a conversation between him and Mr. Chiozza Money, each bringing up battalions of figures to crush the other, millions of figures, figures on horseback and figures on foot a perfect Armageddon of averages and tables and percentages. Oliver Wendell Holmes says that some men lead facts about with them like bulldogs, and let them loose upon you at the least provocation. John Burns' facts are bulldogs that leap at your throat and shake the life out of you.

And the marvel is that with all this welter of facts his thinking is so clear and his judgment so sound. The reason is that he knows life at first hand. And by life I mean the life of the common people to whom he belongs and whom he genuinely loves. He has worked with them in the engine-room at sea and ashore; he has thundered to them on Tower Hill, in Hyde Park, and Trafalgar Square. He has lived among them, and never deserted them. He is easy in any company, but most at ease with them. He knows the London of the people as perhaps no other man knows it. He has spent, and still spends, months in tramping its streets, talking to the people, talking to the policemen, dipping into sunless alleys, peering into back yards. This vast metropolis is like an open book to him. It is as though he could not only name the streets, but could tell you the story of the people in the houses, and the contents of the kitchen pot.

This insatiable thirst pursues him abroad. He goes to Germany, sees its sewers and its sanctuaries, marches with its army, talks with the cabmen in the street, comes back laden with invisible imports of precious facts more bulldogs for the unwary.

He is probably the best known man in the country —certainly the best known man in London, for which he has done magnificent service as the embodiment and the driving force of the Progressive movement. Popular enthusiasn has dowered him with the properties of his namesake. Someone was declaiming at a meeting that " A man's a man for a' that," adding,, " as Burns says," whereat the audience rose with cheers for " good old John." And he dominates his enemies as much as his friends. In a 'bus during the last L.C.C. election two Moderates were discussing the " Wastrels." " Look at the Poor Law," said one. " Costs four millions a year. Nice pickings there." " Yes," said the other. " I wonder what John Burns' share is." " One million sterling, sir," thundered a voice from the other end, and the menacing eye of John Burns gleamed over the paper he had been reading unseen. Living ever in the crowd, ready ever to cross swords with whomsoever will, his life is full of comedy and episode. Adventure dogs him as it did the knights of old. He is always snatching children from the imminent deadly hoof, or plunging into the river, or stopping runaway horses, or carrying " accidents " to the hospital. Members never fall ill in the House except when John Burns is there to carry them out, and at fires he is sublime. His voice frightens the flames into miserable surrender.

His honesty is above suspicion. Money cannot buy him, threats cannot coerce him. For eighteen years he was the mainstay of the government of London, a working engineer, living upon his grant of £200 from his Society, and never a breath of suspicion against his honour. No " job " could abide his wrath. A Battersea official told me that one was contemplated in his department of the borough. He went to Burns and told him. In five minutes he was away on his bicycle like the wind. By noon he had smashed the intrigue. Such passion for the public interest is magnificent. Think of it beside the appalling municipal corruption of America. Think what such an example means to us, not only in cash, but in the wholesome ideals of citizenship. See, too, how he is cleansing the Augean stables of Poor Law administration. His claims as a legislator on the grand scale yet remain to be proved; but as an administrator he is worth millions to us.

Like Sir Anthony Absolute, no one is more easily led when he has his own way. You cannot argue with him any more than you can argue with a sledge-hammer. He has no subtleties either of thought or of conduct. He is plain as a pike-staff. What is in his mind must out, and if he doesn't understand a thing he damns it. He has no secrets and no cunning, and when he is attacked he hits back with his fist. His oratory has never lost the fortissimo of his Trafalgar Square days, but he loves the finery of words—words of " wondrous length and thundering sound," words in full-bottomed wigs and court dress. He would have felt that Johnson was strangely feeble when he said that something " had not wit enough to keep it sweet," but he would have forgiven the great man when he corrected himself and said, " It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction." That is the sort of verbal thunderbolt Mr. Burns hurls at you when he has time to think. Yet, like Johnson, his first impulse is to express himself in brief, emphatic Saxon and homely imagery, of which he has an abundance. " Sir," speaking of two young politicians of cold exterior—" Sir, the only difference between them is that one is strawberry and the other vanilla they're both ices." And of an acrid person who is reported to be suffering from stomach trouble —" What can you expect of a man who has drunk nothing but vinegar for forty years? " But when he has, so to speak, time to dress, he is a verbal aristocrat. His adjectives march in triplets, and his sentiments in antithesis, as though he belonged to the eighteenth century instead of the twentieth. He is more proud of his library of six thousand books than of his place in the Cabinet, and would rather be caught by the photographer while reading a book on the pavement outside a secondhand bookshop in Charing Cross Road than when coming from a levée in Court costume. Not that he has any objection to velvet coats, knee breeches, and shoe buckles. Privately, I think, he knows they suit him as well as the bowler hat and the reefer jacket that he wears on all other occasions as the sign of democracy.

His emotions are primal and are exhibited with entire candour. He has strong hates and strong affections, and expresses both with the frankness of a primitive nature. A noble sentiment well expressed delights him as a brightly coloured picture delights a child, and the sergeant who, when a gun carriage had overturned in some manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain and Mr. Burns had helped to extricate the men, said, in reply to his inquiry as to whether anyone was hurt, " The men of the Royal Artillery are sometimes killed, but never hurt," captured his heart for ever. The truth is that he is a victim of phrases. If he may make the phrases he does not care who makes the Bills. And to be just to him, he has probably said more witty things than any man in politics.

It is not necessary, even if it were possible, to allocate the blame for the bitterness that has sprung up between him and the Labour party. At the root, I think, in spite of Tower Hill and Trafalgar Square, he was always something of an Individualist and a bureaucrat. But whatever the merits of the quarrel, he has certainly given knocks as hard as those he received. And at least no reminder of the past ever puts him to silence or to the blush. When someone at a meeting recalled his saying of other days, that no man was worth more than £500 a year, and contrasted that saying with his present salary, he answered with stentorian good humour, " Sir, I am a trade unionist. The trade union wage for Cabinet Ministers is L2000 a year. Would you have me a blackleg? "

He has his foibles. He is himself the most interesting man he knows. He sees himself colossal, a figure touching the skies. He walks round himself, as it were, and he is filled with admiration at the spectacle. Wonderful ! What a man ! It is the egotism of the child, so frank, so irresistible, so essentially void of offence, so ready to laugh at itself. There is a story —ben trovato, perhaps —that when Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman offered him a seat in the Cabinet he bowed himself out with the remark, " Well, Sir Henry, this is the most popular thing you have done." It is a story good enough to be true. It sums up so admirably the amiable weakness of this robust man.

Withal, what an asset he is to our national life! What a breeze he brings with him, what wholesome fresh air, what unconquerable buoyancy ! I am told that he is less popular in Battersea than he was. Then so much the worse for Battersea. If it has ceased to follow him, it has ceased to follow an honest man and a great citizen. He has fallen away from grace in the eyes of the Labour Party, who find the accents of the Treasury Bench different from those of Tower Hill. So they are; so they must be. But, in spite of a certain stiffening, as it were, of the muscles of the mind, his heart beats true as ever to his first and only love the common people. He chastises them ; but he loves them, not with the aloofness of a superior person, but with the love of a comrade, who offers them a shining example. If he will only check the tendency to intellectual hardening which some of us observe, guard against the subtle advances of the official spirit, suspect the flatterer, and occasionally listen to old friends who will not flatter, he has a long career of service to the people before him.

But when all is said one cannot resist the conclusion that John Burns' true vocation is not that of a minister but of a challenger, and that public life has lost far more than it has gained by harnessing him to office. I would rather hear him in Hyde Park, his great voice booming across to the palaces of Park Lane. his huge fist shaking defiance at social wrong, than hear him trying to modulate his accents to the restraints of office from the Treasury bench. He was a more heroic figure when he burst, as Llewellyn Smith and Vaughan Nash have described, into the arena of the great Dock Strike than he is to-day, and it is better to think of him scaling the front of the Local Government Board office, determined to be heard by the authorities within, even though he had to be heard through the windows, than to think of him sitting inside and securing a K.C.B. for the official who tried to sweep him from the window-sill in the old rebellious days. He is the greatest voice and the biggest personality the people have produced in our time and he should have remained a free voice. As a statesman there are plenty to eclipse him, for he has little constructive genius and no gift for the manipulation of men. But as a citizen he has had no rival.

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