Reviewed: The Journey Not The Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the Years 1939 to 1969. By Leonard Woolf (The Hogarth Press, 1969).
How many Leonard Woolfs would there have to be before the world would be safe from war?
The fifth and last volume of his autobiography, finished shortly before his death, at the age of eighty-eight, gives plenty of material for such questions; the book is far from being a collection of reminiscences to divert his contemporaries. Leonard Woolf was a great fighter for truth and for reason, a hater of cruelty, an internationalist. In the 1930s, when the virtues of fascism as against democracy were sometimes talked of here, I first learned of Woolf and became grateful to him for his devastating and well-titled book in defence of democracy, Quack Quack. One could couple his name with Bertrand Russell’s; both Woolf and Russell, while identifying themselves with the liberal-radical cause, also condemned Stalin’s brutalities, and he tells us in this book how, when he wrote Barbarians at the Gate for the Left Book Club, the editorial committee tried to persuade him to be softer on Stalin—but he refused to change, and they gave in to him.
The record here is of wartime London with its bombings; the death of Virginia Woolf; and the success of his Hogarth Press, which continued to print distinguished books and which he kept deliberately on a small scale. Beside all this there is much of Leonard Woolf himself. When he travels in his later years, he shows us his internationalism and humanity by picking out for his and our delight his chance conversations with fellow spirits among the locals. Thus his taxi-driver-guide in Israel tells him when they come to Nazareth that he will find an Arab guide for him there, ‘I do not think it is fair for a Jew to show visitors over an Arab town’.
We have a brief return to a theme of an earlier book in the series; how at his school it was a terrible crime to be a ‘swot’, and how masters joined with boys in applying this code. He tells us that he did not accept this code, but kept out of serious trouble because he was moderately good at sport. It sounds like my own Australian schooldays; but it was a long time ago and perhaps it is not so true today. But this experience must always have been in his mind when later he joined the Fabians and worked with committees that set out to inform Labor politicians. His self-imposed task must have called for endless patience. We can guess what he felt when the first Labor government entrusted the Colonial Office to Jimmy Thomas, ‘an ignorant, frivolous political buffoon’.
Leonard Woolf finally looks back over his 170,000 hours of work and asks himself whether he has achieved anything. He knows that what he did he did well. He was a good administrator, whether in Ceylon in colonial days or as a Civil Service arbitrator in London or as editor of the Political Quarterly and more briefly of the New Statesman. His question is whether he influenced events at all. His answer is no, and its gives him no real comfort that a few tiny things were accomplished. But he does not conclude that he ought to have stayed at home and cultivated his garden. He is sure that his hatred of cruelty and unreason would have driven him anyway to be a fighter all his life. And he must surely have been buoyed up by hopes all the time, in spite of his summary. As a young man he watched the Dreyfus case in France, which ended in a thrilling victory for the cause of truth, with the liberals of the world facing the French army and church and the Right. This story comes in more than once into his autobiography. And Woolf must have known, just as he was strengthened by this victory, how countless readers of his own writings were thereby moved towards or strengthened in the cause of reason and international goodwill.