BOOKS / Planning for a braver world: This year marks the centenary of Aldous Huxley's birth. His most famous novel is a futuristic fantasy, but what lay beneath it was the crisis in Britain in the early 1930s

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THIS IS what Aldous Huxley wrote after a short tour of the area around Willington, in the Durham coalfield, in 1930:

Of all the more or less wealthy and well educated men and women who - in London drawing-rooms, at the Club, over luncheons in the City, in Government Offices - discuss the Unemployment Problem, the Shrinking of Dividends, the Dole, the Slump, the Depression in our Basic Industries, how many, I wonder, have ever taken the trouble to come and look for themselves at the particular facts summed up by these convenient generalisations? Uncommonly few . . .

Mining villages used to be noisy places - noisy and also melodious; for there was singing in the streets as well as shouting. Today they are remarkable for their silence. This is true to my knowledge not only of these Durham villages, but also of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire colliery towns. There is a slump in singing as well as a slump in coal. That these two slumps are closely correlated is obvious. Men out of work do not often feel an inner urge to burst into song. The only singing unemployed are those who wander through the streets of the great cities singing for alms from a charitable public . . . The material results of prolonged unemployment can easily be calculated. But who will ever be able to compute the sum of psychological mischief, for which it has been and is responsible?

Huxley had been invited to Willington by Charles Wilson (1891-1969), a native of the town who had begun his working life as a miner. By the mid-1920s, Wilson had become well known locally as a journalist and one-man adult education bureau. His mission was to entice men of letters to his home town.

Laurence Binyon, Lascelles Abercrombie and Sir Henry Newbolt were among those who came. James Joyce was invited, with the offer of a 'royal welcome' and all expenses paid. D H Lawrence, too, was the recipient of at least six letters, a postcard, two calendars, a nickel cigarette case and some poems from 'the irrepressible Durham miner man'. Wilson's letters gave details of the appalling conditions in the Durham coalfield. 'It depresses me very much to hear how badly the men are working,' Lawrence told him.

Aldous Huxley and Lawrence were close friends during the last three years of Lawrence's life, and would have discussed the widely reported social and industrial problems of the mining regions. When Huxley was invited to Willington shortly after Lawrence's death in March 1930, he responded favourably, telling Wilson that his description of the conditions in the Durham area was 'very depressing'. Although there was undoubtedly a tuft- hunting streak in Wilson, it is clear that he had a more noble interest in tempting celebrities to the North East: by the time Huxley visited the area, the Durham coalfield was blighted with the worst unemployment in England, and Wilson was well aware of the publicity which a writer of Huxley's stature might be able to focus on the hardship in his part of the country.

Huxley arrived in Willington on Friday 10 October, and delivered a lecture that evening to Wilson's study circle. The following day Wilson gave Huxley a tour of the area, and he was clearly dismayed by what he witnessed. One of the first things he did on returning to London, two days later, was to write to Marshall Diston, of the Independent Labour Party, who was seeking the views of prominent figures such as H G Wells, Arnold Bennett and Bertrand Russell on how best to solve the current political crisis. Huxley said that he would 'be enthusiastically on the side of anyone who gets us out of the social and industrial mess, of which the Durham coalfield provides such a terrifying example'.

A few months later, when the Opposition put a motion of censure against Macdonald's second Labour government over its handling of the economy, Huxley was listening from the Strangers' Gallery of the House of Commons. It was his first experience of Parliament at work, and he did not find the spectacle inspiring. In the article he subsequently wrote about his 'agonising experience . . . in the appropriately Gothic hall of the Mother of Parliaments', he arraigned the 'anachronistic bawling' and ponderous ineptitude of the 'Grand Old Men' of British politics:

Fiddling while Rome burns is bad enough; but twaddling, it seems to me, is even worse. So long as parliamentary procedure remains what it is, twaddling is unavoidable, prompt and comprehensive action all but impossible. Some such reforms in procedure as those suggested by Sir Oswald Mosley are obviously essential.

The previous year, with unemployment nearing two and a half million, the Mosley Manifesto had put forward 'an immediate plan to meet an emergency situation'. Britain's '19th-century parliamentary machine' would be required to relinquish control of the nation's affairs to a 'cabinet of five Ministers without portfolio, armed with 'power to carry through the emergency policy' subject only to the 'general control' of Parliament'.

'Aldous,' a contemporary noted, 'seemed to dislike and distrust (Mosley) but said he was very much alive.' Huxley had imbibed the Mosleys' sense of political exasperation in the weeks leading up to their abrupt departure from the Labour Party that February. By then, Huxley was convinced that the country faced a collapse of its social and political structures and that a radical overhaul of governmental and industrial organisation had to be effected as a matter of extreme urgency. His great theme was the importance of 'planning'.

'Planning was the key word of the 1930s,' wrote A J P Taylor, 'planned economy, plan for peace, planned families, plan for holidays. The standard was Utopia.' Planning was also Huxley's personal shibboleth during the composition of Brave New World. Around the time he witnessed the 'twaddling paralysis' of the Commons, he became involved with the then embryonic Political and Economic Planning pressure group (PEP). At the first discussion, it was agreed 'that National Planning is an immediate necessity for this country (and) that the present failure of politicians and others to undertake any serious work towards preparing a Plan and preparing the country to adopt one amounts to a major national danger . . .'

But the inaugural meeting of PEP proper, on 22 March, at which Huxley was elected a provisional Director of the organisation, was practically his last association with it. A fellow member later described how 'some agitation was caused by Aldous Huxley drawing a series of caricatures of those present during the meeting; he withdrew from PEP not long afterwards and his only comment was the writing of Brave New World'.

Certainly, Huxley began writing Brave New World early in April 1931. If anything, his belief in the need for planning intensified during the novel's composition, and Brave New World is emphatically not the work of a man who was either cynical about or wary of initiatives such as PEP's. In fact, it is likely that the difficulties Huxley experienced in writing the novel arose because he veered suddenly from his original intention of writing a satire on material progress and the global triumph of Fordism as the need for national planning became more imperative through the summer of 1931. Mustapha Mond, acting as Huxley's ideological spokesman, speaks up with passion and resolution for 'stability': 'No civilisation without social stability. No social stability without individual stability . . . Stability. The primal and the ultimate need.' Rather than a fictional embodiment of Huxley's supposed loathing of statism, or the legacy of a desultory and disgruntled flirtation with PEP, Brave New World can be seen as a tentative, paradoxical expression of Huxley's fervent interest in the planned state in the early 1930s.

Huxley found it difficult to reconcile a gradualist, democratic approach with his growing bent towards a more authoritarian solution to Britain's problems. Some members of PEP were afraid it might be confused with Soviet and Fascist models of state control. But Huxley, who was enthusiastic about the Soviet Five Year Plan, was not one of those pussyfooters. During 1931, as the national crisis seemed to worsen daily, he repeatedly sanctioned the bypassing of parliamentary opposition to Soviet- style planning:

There are two national plans at present on the English market - Sir Oswald Mosley's and the rather more fully worked-out plan propounded recently by the Week-End Review. Whether either of these plans, or indeed any large-scale plan, could be put rapidly into execution by purely constitutional means, I do not know . . . In the present case, a powerful minority, including almost all those now holding political power, may have strong objections to large-scale national planning. But if national planning is, by the highest human standards, desirable, then the actual desires of this minority will have to be overridden and the desirable thing imposed by force.

What was needed, Huxley wrote elsewhere, was 'a rejuvenated government, equipped with the necessary institutional weapons, and capable of acting swiftly and with a well-informed and intelligent ruthlessness'.

In August 1931 Huxley wrote that he felt '(with how sickening a sense of utter helplessness]) like Gulliver in the paw of the Brobdingnagian ape'. As the campaigning for the October General Election intensified, he had 'the impression of being in a lunatic asylum - at the mercy of drivelling imbeciles and dangerous madmen in a state of frenzy - the politicians'. The election resulted in a second National Government under Ramsay Macdonald, but for Huxley it only exacerbated his despair of conventional politics. In 1916 he had poured scorn on Fleet Street's clamour for 'Strong Men', yet by late 1931 he was all too ready to add his voice to the growing demand for vigorous leadership: 'We may either persist in our present course, which is disastrous, or we must abandon democracy and allow ourselves to be ruled dictatorially by men who will compel us to do and suffer what a rational foresight demands.'

One aspect of this ''rational foresight' was the demand for biological and social engineering. Unlike W B Yeats, who joined in November 1936, Huxley had no formal connections with the Eugenics Society. But the evidence suggests that his interest in eugenics was no less fervid.

Huxley knew both Leonard Darwin's The Need for Eugenic Reform (1926) and R A Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), which proposed that a system of 'family allowances on a scale adequate to meet the actual expenditure incurred in respect of children' might enourage the 'prosperous' to have larger families and restore the fertility of the 'upper classes'. Huxley was also friendly with C P Blacker, General Secretary of the Eugenics Society from 1931 until 1952 and the principal architect of reform eugenics. Huxley's decision to discuss eugenics in his 'Science and Civilisation' radio broadcast of January 1932 owed much to this influence:

So far as our knowledge goes, negative eugenics - or the sterilisation of the unfit - might already be practised with tolerable safety. On the positive side we are still very ignorant - though we know enough thanks to Mr Fisher's admirable work, to foresee the rapid deterioration, unless we take remedial measures, of the whole West European stock. Eugenics are not yet practical politics. But propaganda could easily make them practical politics, while increase in knowledge will make them also purposive and far-sighted politics.

The Eugenics Society had begun a campaign to legalise voluntary sterilisation following the Wood Report on Mental Deficiency (1929). A government committee was set up in 1932; to the immense relief of the Society, the committee reported in favour of voluntary sterilisation but declared that compulsory sterilisation could not be justified on any grounds. In a letter to Huxley, Blacker emphasised again the Society's opposition to sterilisation by force: 'The adoption of a drastic eugenic policy by the Nazis has had the not unnatural effect of still further antagonising persons of Labour persuasion against eugenics.'

Huxley's article 'What Is Happening to Our Population' must have made Blacker very angry. Dismissing the opponents of sterilisation as either theologians or 'mystical democrats', Huxley rejects voluntary sterilisation as an inadequate means of staunching the multiplication of the unfit. He proposes that the putative rise in mental deficiency should be countered through a combination of the compulsory sterilisation of certified defectives - even going so far as to cite the Nazi legislation as a commendable precedent - and the creation of a system of allowances to promote the fertility of the professional classes:

If conditions remain what they are now, and if the present tendency continues unchecked, we may look forward in a century or two to a time when a quarter of the population of these islands will consist of half-wits. What a curiously squalid and humiliating conclusion to English history] What is the remedy for the present deplorable state of affairs? It consists, obviously, in encouraging the normal and super-normal members of the population to have larger families and in preventing the sub-normal from having any families at all.

Soon after he wrote this article, Huxley underwent a radical change of outlook, and the harbinger of racial decay began to turn into the saintly, reclusive humanist. The decade which had begun with Huxley holding Parliament in contempt for 'twaddling' while Rome burned concluded with him informing his brother Julian that 'Rome burns because it has not been sufficiently fiddled over'.

But if Huxley's ideas during the Thirties suggest chronic ambivalence, Brave New World is all the richer for it. The economic muddle, political inertia and social unrest which shaped Britain in 1931, and the panaceas put forward to resolve the crisis, lie just below the surface of the text. Unsure whether he is writing a satire, a prophecy or a blueprint, Huxley allows the novel to be read as a projection of the totalitarian dangers inherent in the corporate state or as a spoof on America. Paradoxically, it is the anxieties and uncertainties that beset Britain and Huxley in 1931 which guarantee Brave New World's status as a classic.

A fuller version of this essay will appear in 'The Art of Literary Biography', ed John Batchelor, to be published by OUP later this year. Eight of Huxley's books, with forewords by authors from Michael Palin to David Lodge and with a general introduction by David Bradshaw, have just been reissued by Flamingo, pounds 5.99 each.

Aldous Huxley: Born 26 July 1894, into well-to-do literary-scientific family. Mother died when he was 14; at 16 an eye infection permanently impaired his sight. First book (poems) published when he 22. Unfit for military service, he worked as a farm labourer at Garsington, where he met the Bloomsberries. Married Mari Nys, a Belgian refugee, in 1919. First novel, Crome Yellow, published 1921. From 1923, he lived abroad, first in Italy and France, then the United States.

Antic Hay (1923) was a cult novel for the disenchanted post-war generation. Point Counter Point established him as a novelist of ideas. But Brave New World (1932) is what most people remember (or misremember): a dystopian classic like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, but with America, not Russia, the model. Henry Ford presides over mindless lab-bred citizens, hypnotised by materialism and free sex to serve the world state. Only savages practise old (human) ways.

Huxley moved to the US in 1937; became interested in religion, meditation and hallucinogenic drugs (The Doors of Perception advocated mescalin and LSD; the Beatles put him on cover of Sgt Pepper). Hollywood ambitions unrealised. After his first wife's death in 1955, he married Laura Archera, a psychotherapist. By now, full status as a sage. Died the day JFK was assassinated, 22 Nov 1963.

(Photographs omitted)