Monday, 4 December 2017

A Year of Prophesying (1924)



A Year of Prophesying is a collection of fifty-five pieces Wells wrote in 1923 and 1924 for the London-based Liberal newspaper The Westminster Gazette. To quote David C Smith, ‘in the wake of the fame created by the Outline of History’ Wells was ‘in great demand for articles of every sort for the press’ [Smith, 279]. Through the decade he published a huge number of such pieces on all sorts of topics for all sorts of venues: ‘the Six Greatest Men in History’ (Jesus, Buddha, Aristotle, Asoka, Roger Bacon and Lincoln, in case you're curious), the world's ten most important books, the seventeen most important dates in History and more. He wrote on education and education theory, on politics and the World State, on the potential of psychoanalysis, on ‘Christ Died—Do We Care?’ and ‘What Is Success?’ By no means all of these fugitives were collected, and in fact a good number have never been republished.

The unifying thread in A Year of Prophesying, as the title suggests, is: pieces that look to the future. A couple have to do with technological advance: in the future, Wells predicts, small airplanes will replace cars as private runabouts (such planes ‘need not cost more than a Ford car, even now, and it is almost as easy to fly as it is to drive an automobile’ [2]) and central planning and advances in building technology will result in ‘the whole population of industrial London’ being ‘rehoused in fine and handsome apartment buildings, with night and day lifts, roof-gardens, and ... light, air and conveniences’ [50]. But most are political in nature, with a strong bias towards Wells's big theme: the absolute necessity, as he saw it, for a World State, ‘that great Confederation of Mankind’. Wells several times here regrets that, despite his earlier enthusiasm, ‘this League of Nations at Geneva is not even the germ of such a thing’ [1].

There's a good deal of speculation about the future cartography of Europe. On money, Wells thinks Keynes right in arguing for the abolition of the gold standard, and indeed predicts that it will come to pass. He thinks the 1924 law preventing Japanese immigration into the USA might lead to war between America and Japan (‘I do not see how a war between Japan and the United States can be avoided’ [46])—a prophesy which came true, of course, but not for the reasons or within the timeframe Wells stipulates. Otherwise he has interesting things to say on Communism, which he thinks will spread to India, China and Japan, but which (he says) is waning in Europe [49]; and he sums-up his proposals for educational reform: doing away with the Classics and reconfiguring school and university syllabi.
We need a world-wide common education of which the history of life and the sciences of life and matter are the two main divisions, in which drawing, mathematics, and living languages are studied as tools and methods of expression and not as subjects in themselves, and in which music is properly utilised in the development of aesthetic perception. In such a modern education the dead languages and literature can play only a subordinate and illustrative and properly proportioned part. [21]
But, frankly, Wells's strike-rate as a prophet is not good. He reports recent outrage at fascist violence in Italy and ponders ‘whether we are in sight of the beginning of the end of Fascism’ [45] and he confidently predicts not only the imminent institution of proportional representation in British politics, but that this change will lead to the ‘extinction’ of party politics [39]. On the other hand, he is capable of writing that is both strangely contemporary-sounding and nicely passionate, as when he deplores our destruction of the natural world:
The dwindling world fauna of this planet is in urgent need of international game laws and a supernational game-keeper. Species of whales are being exterminated because the ocean is no man's land, and if one State restrains its whalers from excessive wasteful slaughter they can shelter their activities beneath some less scrupulous flag ... Any species of birds or beasts that lives under a careless flag may be exterminated by the sportsman and on one have a right to protest. The gorilla, they say, is going fast, and the African elephant. These marvels of life, these strange and wonderful beings of whose vitality and impulses we know so little, are being killed because they are insufficiently protected. Yet the gorilla belongs not to the flag that claims its habitat but to all mankind. It belongs to me, to any man in Canada or in Texas, as much as it does to any West African or any Belgian. But there is no world control to protect these grotesque and marvellous creatures for us and for our children's children. [48]
His point is that only the World State can save the whale (‘the plight of such animals bring home to us the need for free trade, free speech, and free movement everywhere under unified world controls’), which is not good prophesy; but it's striking to see these environmentalist sentiments being articulated at all as early as 1924.

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