Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Mobs

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Let me, correct reader, be pardoned if I bustle into my subject at once without more ado. The secret of the unpremeditated character of a mob’s movements, which changes quickly from rage to laughter, and back again, lies in the loss of individual responsibility felt by those who compose it. Each member yields to the licence of concealment, and follows the last whim; sometimes his neighbour’s, sometimes his own. A quick definite proposal is caught in a moment. Each one is ready for anything, having nothing ready himself. A gentleman, once, being mobbed, and in danger, cried out, “A guinea for whoever will take my side.” “Here you are, sir,” cried a fellow. “Hit him boys,” retorted the briber; “hit him boys! he’s a traitor.” “Hurrah!” shouted the mob, and let their intended victim off, to thrash the substitute thus cleverly supplied. A grin, a wink, will turn a mob, if delivered at some happy pause; but woe betide the man who loses his temper, or attempts to argue with such an audience. It is bad enough to be proved wrong when you are alone, and have to think of the consequences of a rejoinder, but when you are lost in a crowd, and are only “a voice,” conviction is intolerable. Unanswerable logic must be bonneted at once, if sternly and correctly urged. It is not fair; combatants must be armed alike, and a mob cannot debate with reason. But do not let us on this account be hard upon mobs. They are an essential part of the British constitution, without which the three estates would fail. Suppress mobs and you drive the inflammation to the vitals. Mobs are the representative assemblies of those who cannot be otherwise heard. Philanthropists may plead their destitution and labour for their improvement. The decorous friends of the people, however, are too polite. It is all very well to have an honourable member pleading your rights in his place in parliament, or on the platform, but there is a keen vulgar perception of abuses which he will seldom represent. The bloated aristocrat is, we will say, insensible to reason, and able to repay satire. Well, then, a plain coarse joke which he cannot return will set things straighter, or if he won’t wince at that, try a rotten egg. If you can’t answer his logic, you may dirty his coat. He has his fling at the mob in the way which he thinks most damaging, but how shall the mob reply. The hustings will be taken down to-morrow. Time presses. The chance will be gone. You don’t seriously intend to hurt him, but you must make a hit. A dead kitten is very soft and nasty. Here goes. And the Honourable Augustus Fitztwaddle is answered. The unerring plebeian hand will touch its hat to him next Christmas, when he goes to “brush” at the patrician battue, without any accumulated sense of degradation. Conceive the restoration of equality between the street-boy and the magistrate, when the former reflects upon his summons to the potentate to “speak up, old boy,” which met with such pronounced success. He can laugh at his pompous airs now. He shut him up once. I confess I enjoy the details of electioneering intelligence, especially of the catechising of a candidate. I think of the triumph with which the cobbler reads the account of his shrewd cross-examination of Lord Foozle. The independent incorruptible reporter jots it all faithfully down, with [continued laughter] in explanatory brackets. Bravo! reporter, you have dispersed a serious accumulation of bile. You have put the parlour of the Cat and Bagpipes into the best of humours with itself, and therefore with the constitution, and things in general. Cobbler does not strap his wife for a month. Local paper is thumbed to rags, and stained with convivial beer. In melancholy contrast to all this we read of the police regulations in many parts of the continent. The arrests of artisans who sing prohibited songs, pot-house oracles caught discoursing at the corner of the street, impulsive students who march in chorus. Why, an Austrian inspector would drive an English town into open revolution, and sour the politicians of Britain in a month. Some time ago I found myself in a foreign mob. Even the little boys had no mischief in them. It was at some races. There was no ragged edge of vagabond amusement to the orthodox business of the day. The people promenaded with the patience of sheep. There was nothing analagous to a knock-em-down on the course. The inevitable dog did his duty, and galloped over the ground in unpleasant consciousness that he was having his day, but he was the only offender. There was an air of decent respectability about the whole thing which was quite depressing, like the intellectual recreation at the old Polytechnic It was in France. Depend upon it, this ordinary tractability of French crowds accounts in a great measure for their frantic madness at extraordinary times. It must come out sooner or later. The vulgarity and licence of an English mob is one of the great safeguards of the nation. It feels that it need not be hurtful if it may have its say. Indeed, it cannot well do much harm. There is seldom severe biting when barking is freely allowed. The English crowd has no glut of grievances for a revolution, or even a respectable émeute. It lets its steam off too fast. It never meets without being rude. It sets to work at once with goading the nearest policeman, and commits high treason against the government by its remarks, to begin with. And that not with mere badinage, but downright spleen. Most loud talkers in a mob are quite angry and in earnest. They say the most irritating things they can, on purpose to irritate. A 1 vanquishes them with smiles. You may break his bones with words if you can. But you may not in France. Everybody is expected to be polite; the consequence is that many gather such a store of compressed ill-feeling as some day to burst them, and blow the windows of the constitution out. Let us care nothing for the words of a mob. But didn’t you hear what that great fellow with a hair cap and a stick said? Oh yes! and what do you think he did? He went home, gratified beyond measure at having said it, and melted his malice in a pot of beer. I confess that the extraordinary tameness of these Frenchmen left an impression on my mind of deep-rooted dangerousness, rather than of apparent simplicity. There were sores enough inside to have made people more demonstrative; but it is an ill sign when a blister will not “rise.” There is mischief within which will show itself some day.

The freedom of a mob, moreover, is not only a wholesome relief to itself, but a suggestive lesson to its butt. You may be sure that those who are coarsely but truly criticised, don’t forget the hints they get, even if they affect to despise them. The “voice” at elections generally hits a blot. A man will be shy of displaying offensive peculiarities who knows he may have them shouted out under his nose. It is something for him to feel that he must be civil perforce, though it be only for a day or two, to those whom he would always ride roughshod over if he could. But he can’t, and so he behaves himself. He takes off his hat and smiles. There’s some fallacy in the assertion that most people take an ell if you give them an inch. They don’t. They accept the inch. It would be more true to say that the surrender of the less secures the greater. The tub thrown to the whale saves the ship. The bow disarms the man who meditated an insult. “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

There is a deal of truth in mob law, and those who are shocked at the mere mention of it are respectable outsiders. But suppose you belong to the mob yourself (and mobs are made of men, women, and children), how then? Is there no wholesome gratification in the thought that you, addressed in the riot act, dispersed, moved on, &c., &c., have yet after all a quick rough sense of justice. Yes, you don’t want disorder, but only protest against some passing abuse or petty police encroachment. The licence of our English mobs is most useful in resisting this last. The charm of English freedom lies in the paucity or obsoleteness of our laws. You may do almost anything so long as you don’t break the ten commandments. But there always will be some fussy, sniffing officials or legislators who try to trim up the constitution. They won’t do anything to annoy the middle classes at first; they begin therefore with some act or regulation about pot-houses, street-vagabonds, or some living nuisance. Straightway the nuisances protest with bellowings, menaces, perhaps with a breaking of windows, and indiscriminate pelting of suspected respectability. I a nuisance? says one of them. You are another. Don’t you order me off your doorstep when you come home to your dinner, and give me into custody for asking an alms? Don’t you pull up the window when I have called a cab for you, and touched my hat? Don’t you walk safe and daintily over my crossings free of expense? Don’t you speak to me as if I were your slave? Don’t you—confound you—ain’t you a nuisance, rather, yourself? And so the vagabonds protest against any extra police regulation, or attempt to legislate away their special offences. And they are right. They are right in striving against the multiplication of social and sumptuary laws. They are the useful house-dogs which indeed wake us sometimes by their barking, and will bite the master himself if provoked enough, but which certainly keep intruders off, and check the itching fingers which would meddle with our personal rights and possessions. The mob may be disagreeable enough—rude, rank, unreasonable; but it will safely prevent any attempts to drill and trim us up by punctilious legislators or officials. Hands off!—let us be. I button my pocket, feel that my watch is safe, and am much obliged to Demos, who is kind enough to do the dirty work of my citizenship for me.

H. J.