Last updated on 14th February 2021
From ‘A Return to Nature’, a short story in The South Country (1909). Here, Edward Thomas describes a small and rather pathetic demonstration by famished unemployed men in London; the attitudes of various onlookers are particularly telling. This passage reveals his acute conscience regarding social injustice.
The multitude on the pavement continued to press straight onward, or to flit in and out of coloured shops. None looked at the standard, the dark man and his cloudy followers, except a few of the smallest newspaper boys who had a few spare minutes and rushed over to march with them in the hope of music or a speech or a conflict. The straight flower-girl flashed her eyes as she stood on the kerb, her left arm curving with divine grace round the shawl-hidden child at her bosom, her left hand thrust out full of roses. The tender, well-dressed women leaning on the arms of their men smiled faintly, a little pitiful, but gladly conscious of their own security and pleasantness. Men with the historic sense glanced and noted the fact that there was a procession.
One man, standing on the kerb, took a sovereign from his pocket, looked at it and then at the unemployed, made a little gesture of utter bewilderment, and dropping the coin down into the drain below, continued to watch. Comfortable clerks and others of the servile realized that here were the unemployed about whom the newspapers had said this and that — (“a pressing question” — “a very complicated question not to be decided in a hurry” — “it is receiving the attention of some of the best intellects of the time” — “our special reporter is making a full investigation” — “who are the genuine and who are the impostors?” — “connected with Socialist intrigues”) — and they repeated the word “Socialism” and smiled at the bare legs of the son of man and the yellow boots of the orator. Next day they would smile again with pride that they had seen the procession which ended in feeble, violent speeches against the Army and the Rich, in four arrests and an imprisonment. For they were angry and uttered curses. One waved an arm against a palace, an arm that could scarcely hold out a revolver even were all the kings sitting in a row to tempt him. In the crowd and disturbance the leader fell and fainted. They propped him in their arms and cleared a space about him. “Death of Nelson,” suggested an onlooker, laughing, as he observed the attitude and the knee-breeches. “If he had only a crown of thorns . . . ” said another, pleased by the group. “Wants a bit of skilly and real hard work,” said a third.