06 May 2013

E. Nesbit and the Fabian Society - a topsy-turvy world

Extract from Five Children and It:
[The Psammead to Jane] ‘Just wish, will you, that you may never be able, any of you, to tell anyone a word about Me.’

‘Why?’ asked Jane.

‘Why, don’t you see, if you told grown-ups I should have no peace of my life. They’d get hold of me, and they wouldn’t wish silly things like you do, but real earnest things; and the scientific people would hit on some way of making things last after sunset, as likely as not; and they’d ask for a graduated income-tax, and old-age pensions and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that; and get them, and keep them, and the whole world would be turned topsy-turvy. Do wish it! Quick!’

Anthea repeated the Psammead’s wish ...

(E. Nesbit, Five Children and It, Puffin Books 1959, pp.213-214)
Edith Nesbit wrote a number of highly popular children's books, under the name ‘E. Nesbit’. Five Children and It, first published in 1902, is about children who find a Sand-fairy, or Psammead (a small furry creature which is able to grant wishes) in a gravel pit.

Edith Nesbit was a founder-member of the Fabian Society, dedicated to social reforms in a generally socialist direction, so she may well have been in sympathy with the developments which the Psammead deplores as likely to turn the world topsy-turvy.

The Fabian Society took its name from a Roman general* noted for his delaying tactics, and its motto was ‘Festina Lente’ (hasten slowly). Its logo was a tortoise. The Fabian Society was soon superseded by other socialist societies with a more aggressive and collectivist approach, which eventually led to the Welfare State in 1945.

By now we have all the social reforms which the Psammead would have liked to avoid (and more), Western civilisation is on the verge of collapse, but almost no one would question the desirability of ‘free’ secondary education, of the vote depending only on reaching a certain age, or of graduated income tax, as well as of miscellaneous ‘benefits’.

The national health service had not yet been thought of in 1902, and Nesbit does not mention it in the extract quoted. But it was not difficult to predict that reforms of this kind, once they started to be made, could never be reversed (Margaret Thatcher’s ‘ratchet effect’) and would eventually ruin any society which adopted them.

* Fabius Maximus