"A GLANCE AT THE FUTURE"
An Address By THOMAS B. COSTAIN, Novelist
Thursday, March 8th, 1951
CHAIRMAN: The President, Mr. Sydney Hermant.
MR. HERMANT: Members and Guests of The Empire Club of Canada: We are to hear an address today by Mr. Thomas B. Costain, Canadian-born novelist from Brantford, Ont. Mr. Costain started writing while in school and achieved his first success when his detective story was published by the Brantford Courier. Leaving High School Mr. Costain joined the reporting staff of the Courier at a salary of Five Dollars per week. He has since admitted that the real incentive was the opportunity this gave him of following Brantford's prize-winning Lacrosse Team around the countryside. He soon left the Courier for its competitor, the Brantford Expositer, and some time later he joined the Guelph Mercury as Managing Editor. Mr. Costain then moved on to edit three Trade Journals, the Plumber & Steamfitter, Hardware & Metal, and the Milliner & Dry Goods Review, an experience, he is quoted as saying, much more trying than anything he has done since. To crown his success to date Mr. Costain then became Editor of Maclean's Magazine. From Maclean's he went to Philadelphia where he remained as Chief Associate Editor of the Saturday Evening Post for fourteen years. After that he became story editor for a motion picture Company, then Consultant Editor for Doubleday & Co. his present publishers. At last he was able to devote his full time to writing. A lover of history it was natural that Mr. Costain's novels should most often be historical romances and that his non-fiction should be history in the narrative form told with colour and drama. His first historical novel "For My Great Folly" appeared in 1942. Since then he has produced a string of successes including "Ride With Me", "The Black Rose", one of the biggest sellers in the last twenty years, "The Moneyman" a story laid in 15th Century France, and "High Towers". "The Son of a Hundred Kings" published in 1950 has been universally acclaimed. It is a period novel of the 1890's and although, to the best of my knowledge, he has never admitted it the setting I understand is in his native City of Brantford. Late in 1949 Doubleday & Co. published "The Conquerors". This was the first in a series called The Pageant of England, telling the story history of England beginning with the conquest of 1066 and ending with the death of King John in 1216 a year after the signing of the Magna Carta. I understand that the next volume in this series will be entitled "The Eagles and the Weathercock". This book will cover a large part of the 13th Century. It is beyond my capacity to review Mr. Costain's books, but I do heartily commend them. Within a decade he has achieved an international reputation with six best sellers. The consistency and popularity of Mr. Costain's novels have made an enduring contribution to Canada and to the world of letters. It is now my pleasure to introduce Mr. Thomas Bertram Costain who will speak on the subject "A Glance at the Future".
MR. COSTAIN: Mr. President and gentlemen, I want to thank you for the very accurate information contained in the introduction by you Mr. President but I do feel that you rather over-did the finish as I am a very modest individual.
I lived in Toronto for 10 years and it was a very interesting experience as I was learning to be an editor. I left to seek my fortune in the United States in the years when it was possible to make a fortune.
It may seem presumptuous for a man who makes his living by writing of the past to speak of the future. I am not going to outline my pet theories, however, as to how the ills of a very sick earth may be cured. I am not even setting myself up in opposition to Jules Verne and H. G. Wells with predictions of the shape of things to come. My choice of a topic is due to the habit we fall into, when things are black and threatening, as they now are, of looking to the future with hope that a hint of an improvement maybe detected there. I have been thinking a great deal about the future and I am sure that conditions will get better. But I am equally certain that we can't sit back and wait for the clouds to clear away. There are things we must do; and I live in the ardent hope that we will get around to doing them.
There is, first of all, a little chore we might undertake in the fields of arts. This is not a matter of immediate urgency except that the forms of entertainment colour our mental outlook. We have not been getting from music, painting, letters and the theatre the right kind of assistance in overcoming the depression of our international and political troubles. In the first half of the century, which has just been completed after whisking past us with most incredible speed, we have had a revolution in all branches of the arts, most noticeable perhaps in letters and painting. The changes brought about have been at one and the same time constructive and destructive, elevating and depressing. They were introduced to us with much fluttering of banners and sounding of horns by the avant garde, but came heavily bedecked, it must be noted, with too much lunatic frimge. Those who are heart and soul in the vanguard are very certain that these changes have been necessary and quite remarkable, that the hypocrisies of Victorian days have been swept aside and that now the author, the artist and the composer have freedom for the first time to express themselves.
The revolution we have witnessed in the world of letters has been due largely to the influence of Freud, the study of the mind and of the hidden impulses and fears and desires which are at the base of human behavior has become the prime interest of most modern novelists. They are so concerned with this study that they believe everything else to be futile and not worth their attention. There has developed also a hard and materialistic approach due to the interest in ideological development. The combination of these two influences has filled the typical modern novel with gloom and despair and it has made the style in which it is told metallic and heavy. Many modern novelists are so concerned with what they have to say that they consider how they say it of secondary importance. Technical skill has ceased to be necessary. It seems to have been forgotten that books are in a sense a compact between two people, the writer and the reader, and that the reader's efforts to understand what the writer has to say should at least be made as painless as possible.
Many modern writers have forgotten other things which are still more important. They have forgotten that over the centuries great men, men of genius and infinite understanding, created a literature from which the world has drawn its inspiration. The men taught high ideals. They had hopes and inspirations as well as fear and despair, and they expressed the lessons they were striving to teach in the form of epic stories. They did not scorn the art of story-telling, and they were so critical of themselves in the matter of style that through their efforts the art of the novelist attained a high degree of perfection.
Out of the work of the great writers of the past came certain rules which were obeyed in the world of letters. Standards of judgment were recognized by which all literary effort could be appraised. The new schools of writing make it very hard indeed for standards of judgment to be applied. They have taken delight in breaking the rules into a thousand pieces.
Frankness has become license on the printed page. Of recent years there have been many novels, some of which have shown signs of authentic genius, which have been full of profanity and blasphemy from start to finish. There is no word which cannot be printed in books; there is none which has been overlooked. Sex is treated exhaustively and frankly with some of the sly glee of smoking room talk. A steady succession of books has been written about subjects which were once taboo. The competition which led authors to outdo one another in nothing left to be said which has not already been said. There is no subject, no matter how revolting, which has not been seized upon and analyzed and discussed with a gravity which did not entirely conceal the smacking of lips which accompanied it.
I am sure this suspensions of rules and disregard of ethics has done much harm. Certainly it has made it hard sometimes to distinguish the conversation of the dining-room from that of the saloon. It has coloured thinking, without a doubt, particularly the thinking of the young.
In revolution, artistic as well as political, there is always a desire to change everything at once, to bring about the millenium with a gesture. In painting, for instance, things have moved with bewildering rapidity, one school following another. Some months ago I had a demonstration of this desire to hasten things, I visited an Art School and took occasion to look at the beginners' class in oil painting. They were working from life and the model was an ancient man with a huge white beard. The students without exception were working in abstraction. They were getting the old man down on canvass in many guises, with two heads, with one eye, with no nose, even in cycles and whirls of colour which had no relation whatever to anything human. They were painting him in violent purples and poisonous greens and in great splashes of scarlet. Their sketches had one thing in common only; they all ignored that white beard.
It has been my understanding that training in the arts is a rigourous apprenticeship and that first of all the student is taught to draw. I am certain that no one can attempt caricature successfully or depict the spirit of a thing rather than its outward guise unless able to draw the object first with accuracy. I asked the man in charge if he intended to instruct the class in draughtsmanship. He answered, emphatically, No. He did not care whether they learned to draw or not. What he wanted them to bring to their work was the clear, untrammelled vision of a child making its first drawing with a piece of chalk.
It was an interesting observation but I am inclined to think that what the child draws is not due to a clear untrammeled vision but to the unsteady and untrained hand with which it works.
It is clear, of course, that I am a prejudiced witness. I still prefer the fine stories of earlier days to symbolic writing and the stream of consciousness novel; which is often a very muddy stream indeed. I feel a happy expansion of spirit when I look at a Rembrandt or any great canvass of the past but I come away from an exhibition of modern painting in, a puzzled and somewhat depressed state of mind. I delight in the melodious music of the past but find dissonance hard on my ears. In other words, I am very old fashioned indeed.
Even in my benighted condition of mind, however, I am able to bear testimony to the good which the revolution has brought about. I can see that it has released us from foolish restrictions and inhibitions, that it has opened the window and allowed some needed fresh air to get in, that it has vigour and originality and daring. It has developed important new schools of writing, painting and composition.
In accomplishing this, however, it has done what a revolution always does; it has contended that only the new is worth while, that nearly everything of the past is musty and useless. In admitting the fresh air, moreover, it has also admitted a great deal of dust and dirt as well, and more of the odour of the stable and latrine than any room should have.
What I hope to see in the near future is a stock-taking. I would like to see an effort made to decide how much of the new is worth retaining and how much should be discarded after a half-century of trial and experiment. At the same time we could look over the work of the past with awakened vigilance and decide how much of it should be kept and used, how much of it cast aside for good.
The stocktaking should be a thorough one. We should go over, first the new stock, the fruits of modern schools, which will be found largely in the store windows and on the front counters. We should then take down from the dusty top shelves and from under counters and even the dark recesses of the cellar all old stock for which the demand has been falling off, the novels of the old masters, the paintings of the days before Cubism. This part of the work should be done with the greatest care. The classics are sadly in need of pruning and something should be done to save future generations of school children from the stuffy, longwinded tomes which we were compelled to read when I was young. The chromos of the past, the silly romances and the tear-jerking songs of the Gay Nineties can be dispensed with as easily as the worst productions of the lunatic fringe.
The most important result would be the establishing again of some of those badly bent or broken and forgotten rules of the past, and the setting up again of workable standards of judgment.
The Rules must be rescued from the dark corner to which they have been relegated. They must be brought out and dusted off and then studied with the utmost care. Some of them will be hopelessly antiquated. Some will be as right for use today as when first written. For instance;
1. Good Taste is essential to good art in any branch.
2. Anyone can write or paint badly. The true artist is a master of his craft.
3. Pornography on the printed page is on a par with the scribbling done with chalk on walls.
4. Some at least of the four letter words are unprintable.
In the matter of standards of judgment there will be greater difficulty. The painter, for instance, has been allowed to make his own standards. He says, "This is what I see", or "This is how I want to depict this particular object on my canvas". It is relatively easy for him to proceed along those lines and almost impossible for the eye of the beholder to decide the degree of his success. We must somehow devise a yardstick by which these completely personalized ventures may be appraised. I have no idea how it may be done. Certainly, however, we must be afforded more protection than we enjoy now from the results of the self-imposed standard. We must no longer be awed by the shoddy or taken in by the efforts of pretentious fakers.
Standards are easier to set and to apply in the field of letters, but we must again realize that no method of judgment can be perfect. The best seller list, for example, is a poor yardstick. Near the top of the list will always be found some books of questionable worth. Always there will be distinguished novels and splendid works of non-fiction which never manage to climb. In refusing to be taken in by quick popularity, however, we must at the same time beware of efforts that are always being made to compel wide attention for books which are in reality suitable only for a very limited audience and which inevitably fall into the silence of forgetfulness as quickly as a meretricious book club choice.
If the half century from which we have just emerged has brought us much tribulation, it has at the same time provided the most miraculous advances in science. The whole face of living has been changed by the things we have learned to make and the secrets we have been wringing from nature. There is every reason for intense pride and satisfaction. And yet it seems to me that there is equal reason for fear and doubt. New power should not be placed in the hands which are not ready for it. We should not be assuming the Godlike privilege of ruling hitherto hidden forces of nature until we have educated ourselves to rule them well. We should not be marching ahead so triumphantly in our quest of the absolute, our intent to wring power and wealth from the bowels of the earth and the waters of the sea and to go on jet-propelled excursions to the moon while we so obviously are marking time morally and spiritually. An advance in one direction will bring nothing but grief if we do not maintain the same pace in all directions.
Look for a moment at what medical science is achieving. Diseases are being conquered one by one. Soon the study of old age deterioration will bring results and the human race will have a much longer life expectancy. We will never again achieve those fabulous days of which we are afforded glimpses in the Bible: "And the years that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty", or "And the days of Mathusala were nine hundred, sixty and nine years", or "And Noe was five hundred years old and begat Sem, Cham and Japheth". It is quite certain that we shall never again produce Adams, Mathusalas or Noes, or that family responsibilities will be prolonged to such a late stage; but we can be sure that the twilight of the normal life will be considerably extended. None of us here today will participate in this, at least to any extent. The best we can expect is to have a glimpse of the new Promised Land. Perhaps we are lucky. I can conceive of nothing more bitter than an interminable old age spent in pottering about and in ill-natured idleness, and I can't see that we are doing anything to make possible a better use of the boon of longer life. We are not consciously schooling ourselves to a needed new philosophy or giving thought to ways of making the extra span of years useful to ourselves and to society.
The inevitable advance in manufacturing facilities is bound in time to reduce working hours and it is reasonable to believe that before very long people will be employed for a few hours only each day. I am certain that very few persons are fitted to use so much leisure with benefit to themselves. Will it become necessary to have traffic lights in the sky when all the people with empty hours to spend take to the air in flivvers? They will rush about aimlessly all day and then spend their evenings in front of luminous discs, in company with crotchetty and unhappy old people who don't know what to do with their time, watching some Milton Berle of the future and the perennial Lone Ranger.
And yet an extension of leisure time and a longer span of life could be tremendously beneficial. We go to great lengths to educate ourselves for our working years. Isn't it now time to think of educating ourselves for the increased leisure and the longer years which the future promises?
There is another problem infinitely more pressing. We are making atom bombs which shake whole states and light up the sky over the space of continents. Each year from now on we will produce even more grotesque wonders in the field of destruction. It is a frightening thing that we can discover this mighty power, and learn how to throttle and use it, while the spiritual resolution of mankind is still unequal to the maintenance of peace between nations. The instinct of distrust is still so strong in us that we cannot confine the loosing of atomic power to useful purposes. Race and colour and creed have kept nations apart. New ideological differences have been added as a still more disturbing factor and, although we have organized the United Nations, the world is split into warring factions.
We must face the fact that the release of atomic energy is not an end--unless we make it one--that it is, in reality, a beginning. If we had a Jules Verne over a typewriter in every town on the continent, the lot of them would not succeed in conceiving anything so fantastic as the secrets we are going to acquire before very long. Those still nebulous discoveries may be of the kind to give one nation or race--and not necessarily the Anglo-Saxon--dominance over the others. It may even be that on some fateful day in the not distant future a group of individuals, working with all the equipment of science, with batteries and engines as well as test tubes, will suddenly find in their hands a force so great that it will be in their power to corner the wealth and resources of the globe or, even more terrifying, to enslave the people of the world. It is easily conceivable that they might lack the moral strength to resist. Such things are possible in a one-sided world, a world where material things dominate.
There is still a greater danger, however, than these spectacular possibilities, the effect on human habits and ways of thought of this multiplication of interests and conveniences. The more complicated that life becomes, the less time we have for the improvement of our minds and the tending of the spiritual forces within us. What will be the effect when everyone has an air flivver (as we will soon) and can fly from Toronto to New York and back in a day or zoom out to Winnipeg for a week end? When every household will have a small receptacle filled with atomic power and the problem of heating, cooking, and service generally can be controlled by a few switches? When we go about with pocket telephones and radio sets in the bands of our hats?
The answer is not hard to find. We will become restless, more like children with new toys, clamouring for more and more new things. We will become less conscious than we now are of the responsibilities we are taking on our shoulders, less capable of perceiving the dangers of this reckless speeding up of a mechanical existence.
What are we going to do? How can we go about raising ourselves morally and spiritually to our high materialistic level? How can we speed the footsteps of the preacher, the teacher, the business man, the artist, so that they may overtake the fast striding man of science so far out in front?
The engineer and the scientist, fired with zeal and enthusiasm have succeeded better than they knew; that is our difficulty. It's not that we are seriously lacking on the moral and spiritual sides. Anyone who studies the past must be struck with the steady improvement mankind has shown down the ages. Man gets more reasonable, more enlightened, more kindly and decent and clean all the time. It is true he isn't entirely civilized yet, as shown in the recent war, but he is well on the way. Give him as much as a full century of peace and happiness and he might shake off the last hold of those atavistic tendencies which trace back to the Stone Age and in emergencies still come out in us.
But this, unfortunately, is not enough. We lack the time for steady, comfortable progression. We need a quick awakening, an immediate response to this peril. Today we are reaching out for the inner secrets of creation and there must be something more nearly godlike about us if we are to use them wisely. Unless we can put restraint on ourselves and keep our prying hands away from the book sealed with seven seals--and I am certain the fear of falling behind in this mad race will make such restraint impossible--unless we do, we must suddenly achieve for ourselves true nobility of aim, the resolution of an almost divine purpose, above everything else a willingness to ask guidance of the God who made everything in the beginning.
We would have then the answer to all our ills. If we can make morality a stronger force than electricity, if we can put the will to serve above the will to gain, we will be able to live in justice and safety and brotherly love; perhaps even in a world of peace.
There are so many things which should be attended to in the near future. There is the fact that we seem to have mislaid or forgotten the sense of service. I wonder if there is any desire now to start trains on time or any concern as to whether they arrive on schedule? Promises are made by contractors, store-keepers, trades people generally, without any serious intention of keeping them. The Russian word "nitchevo" sums up this new state of mind. It means tomorrow, perhaps, sometime, when I get ready, what does it matter. We have lost also some of that necessary feeling of pride in work, the desire to make a product perfect. Too often purchased goods are delivered in imperfect condition or short in quantity. This began, I suppose in the last war when it was impossible to do better and people accepted what they could get without complaint. It's a far cry from olden days when a craftsman took intense pride in his work and handed down his secrets and his methods to his sons. That was the age of the handmade article which was a joy to behold and which lasted practically forever. If we don't have a care, we'll find ourselves in the age of the shoddy, the cheap, the breakable.
I am inclined to fear that this loss of the will to serve is general, that you'll find it near the top as well as in the lower ranks. Each one of us should take a look into his mind and see if some of the fine necessary fervour for giving our best hasn't been lost.
The world must learn some day to profit by experience. Why should each generation make the same old mistakes?
Why are we able to forget the horrors of war in as short a time as twenty years and march blithely into another one? Why do politicians have no concern for the lessons of the past and repeat the familiar blunders in administration? Some day--and may it be soon!--governments will establish departments of experience, where the records of the past will be kept, to be consulted when problems arise. It will surprise our political wise men how often they will find the right answer there.
We are free men today, free to live our individual lives, free to conduct business as we see fit. There is no way to protect the long suffering public from such things as the absurd fashion dictates handed down from Paris, from long movie trailers, from singing commercials, from the loading of our daily mail with printed matter, from long speeches and long sermons, from the present giving racket which has involved us in handing out gifts on every kind of holiday, on St. Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, anniversaries, going away gifts and coming home gifts to those who gave going away gifts, from the tipping evil which is creeping into everything. We are living in a time of tribute, a period of outstretched palms.
All this, I know, is very trivial. Small things annoy us but they don't matter. There are so many serious problems which do matter that we can laugh at the absurdities and paradoxes of life.
A short time before I left to come here I was in the New York Public Library. It was a bitter, windy day and the corridors were filled with derelicts who had come in to get warm. We are doing better than we did in the past with the orphan problem and somehow--I confess I don't know how--we take care of old ladies. But in the larger American cities there has been too little done for the homeless old men. You see them around, unshaved, ragged, undernourished. Poor hopeless old fellows! We have been striving earnestly to meet the displaced person problem but we don't seem to care about our own displaced old men.
There is something I have said on previous occasions in Canada which I think I must repeat now. I have a sense of complete loyalty to the country of my adoption. I have been afforded the opportunity to achieve some of the things I wanted in life and I have been treated with the utmost generosity. I have a wide circle of friends in my new home and my roots have gone down deep. But there is always a sense of exhilaration in coming back to Canada; and I am aware as soon as the train crosses the border. It may, of course, be that the long wait at Black Rock acquaints my subconscious with what is happening. I prefer to think there is something different about the low rolling ground which I see in the early dawn when I look from the window of my berth, that a voice calling an order on the station platform carries a familiar note, that there is a pattern about the villages, even that there is something in the air which says to me: "Young fellow, you have come home again".
I don't believe there is such thing as a Canadian type. We are neither predominantly fair nor dark. We are above the average in height but we are not sons of Anak. There is no distinguishing features which marks a Canadian for what he is at first glance, a special kind of nose, a recognizable jaw, an exclusive cut of jib generally. When you find yourself in a group exclusively Canadian, nevertheless, you realize the fact. I sometimes attend meetings of the Canadian Society in New York and I am conscious instantly of a racial solidarity. It may not be a physical matter at all. It may instead be similarity of training, of thought and belief and tradition.
If you live on the outside you realize that there is nothing but admiration for this great country of ours, that the Canadian people are well liked, that what they have accomplished is regarded as sound and fine. You realize that Canada has a great deal which must be preserved. I am not referring to the untapped resources of which we hear so much. I am speaking of the traditions of the people who have opened up this country and have settled it and who have mapped out for themselves a nation of wisdom and farsightedness.
This brings me to my final concern with the future. Canada is growing rapidly in population, in strength, in wealth. When I lived in Toronto my home was in the far reaches of the northern section. I used to think, particularly on a cold winter day when I worked late and had a windswept half mile to walk from the streetcar line, that very little stood between me and the North Pole. Today the city has rolled over that section and done such a splendid job of absorbing it that I can seldom find the street on which I lived. It is built up solidly for miles beyond the pleasant boulevard where I was one of the early pioneers. Every time I visit this city, in fact, I am stunned by the evidences of unceasing expansion which I see. They tell me that architectural staffs are being driven to distraction by the constant demand for new variations of style for houses, that they long for the day of wireless telephones and pipeless sewage disposal. I hear that farmers living as far out as Brampton and Newmarket are afraid to make anything but conditional plans. They say, "I'll start cutting the hay tomorrow--if Toronto doesn't grow out this far overnight." I hear that your sins--no, I had better find a more accurate word--for your pains, then, you are going to construct an underground system of transportation. I can think of nothing which will teach you more rapidly that growth has its disadvantages.
All of Canada is growing and prospering at much the same gait. A study of the tables makes it apparent that the population has been doubling roughly every thirty years. At this rate Canada will have over fifty million people when my young grandson reaches my present age. It will be one of the powerful nations of the earth. There will be great cities dotted all over the western plains. The oil barges will be plying down those mighty rivers from the Mackenzie Basin as thick as pleasure boats on the Thames. The whole Cambrian Shield will have been prospected, and people living in towns along the coast will not be able to look up without seeing airplanes in the sky. Canadians have every reason to be proud of the manifest destiny of the land where they were born.
And yet I can't view this prospect without some apprehension. I don't know what the feeling here is on this question of growth. I may be a solid minority of one, a single old fashioned voice piping up against a united body of thought. On the other hand it may be that a definite policy has been established which makes any comment superfluous. Nevertheless, I am going to say what is in my mind. Don't let this fever of expansion mount too far in your veins. Don't grow too fast! Don't grow too much! Don't grow so fast that the Canadian type will be lost in a melting pot. Don't grow so much that it will be possible for the incoming rush of alien people, with their own ideological conceptions, their isms and their ways of life, to submerge the native stock, don't grow so much that it will be possible for the traditions and ideals of Canadianism to be swallowed up in political patterns under which you would not willingly live.
MR. HERMANT: We are proud to have as our special guest today Group Captain Douglas Robert Stewart Bader, D.S.O. & Bar; D.F.C. & Bar; Legion d'Honneur; Croix de Guerre.
Group Captain Bader is probably the most widely known of the surviving pilots of the Battle of Britain. He is particularly remembered in Canada as the Commander of the No. 242 Canadian Squadron R.A.F. during that epic battle which turned the tide of the war. In 1946 Group Captain Bader returned to the Shell Oil Co. Ltd. with whom he had been associated prior to the War. Group Captain Bader has kindly consented to say a few words and to express the thanks of this meeting to Mr. Costain.
VOTE OF THANKS, moved by Group Captain Douglas Stewart Bader.