The things I am describing, and most of those I am about to describe, could have happened to anyone in Great Britain in this middle century. It might not be on this pretext and it would almost certainly not be with this degree of melodrama, but no one, however respectful of the law as far as he understands it, can consider himself safe from such a sudden reaching-out by the arm of social discipline. For one thing, there can be scarcely be an adult, under our complicated system of legislation by wartime edicts which remain in force during the years of peace, who has not broken the law in some way which renders him liable to imprisonment. He may live a decent, even a God-fearing life, he may meet his obligations so far as he knows them to the State and to his fellow men, he may have the strictest moral code in matters of commerce, sex and behaviour, but if anyone, and particularly anyone in authority, wishes to find ways in which he has broken the law, those ways can be found. Although he may not be pulled out of bed in the small hours and taken to the local gaol, he may easily find himself caught up in the cruel machinery of accusation, events, punishment—the whole rigmarole invented by society to quell those insufficiently inconspicuous.
If he conforms to pattern this is far less probable. If he lives in a semi-detached house with a wife and two children, buys a television set by hire-purchase, laughs at the radio comedians of his choice, differs from his neighbour only in being Conservative to his Labour, or Catholic to his Protestant, or Oxford to his Cambridge, then the chances of his being singled out by authority are so small that he would have to arouse the personal spite of a local policeman or police informer to find himself involved in trouble. But if he should have any of the rebel in him, if he should resent the fearsome regimentation by majority ruling of our time, If he should dare to live and talk with a little individuality and perhaps even show himself prepared to snub the society which seeks to embrace him, then almost certainly when the chance occurs he will be for it. Society too strongly resents a man’s difference from it to suffer the least suggestion of such mild and icky.
It is true that in this respect I had invited victimization. I had not only made my own kind of life in defiance of almost universally accepted standards and conventions but in a book called The Life for Me had openly boasted of it. This book been published about eight months earlier and had aroused a good deal of resentment in the district. The way of life described in it was not a literary figment but had been my own open and perhaps—as I see now—somewhat defiant way. Defiant not of law but of convention, a greater power which can call English law to its aid. I had not been self-consciously rebellious, indeed all I had sought to do was to live, eat, drink, laugh and make friends in ways of my own choosing. I had, as I said in that book, filled my home with cheerful young people indiscriminately chosen for their own qualities from among writers, politicians, Gypsies, the services and the underworld. Mine had been above all a happy household, free of archaic inhibitions, full of people met casually or of long acquaintance, some of whom cared deeply for the things I like in literature, food and humour, some of whom understood none of that, but all with a certain gaiety or charm or originality, or perhaps merely youth and high spirits, which I respected. Week-ends there were spontaneous occasions with sometimes improvised beds in the sitting-rooms and freedom for friends to help in the work of the house or not, as they liked, to converse, put on gramophone records, drink, lie on the lawn, lounge, or go out to walk or shoot or play darts or drive to the coast, as they felt inclined. It had an atmosphere created without design with a certain loving care and most people who knew it liked it and wanted to come again.
It may be imagined that this had not pleased the residents in the more pretentious local houses, who were for the most part of the impoverished middle classes, pathetically clinging to the bourgeois conditions of an earlier age. Nor had it, as I was soon to find, pleased local officialdom.
I have often thought since about a conversation I had with a friend of mine of many years standing who had come to see me at Ticehurst with his wife and children some months previously. Chairman of a Bench of Magistrates in another part of England, a man of wide and deep experience in the ways of malefactors and the methods of the police, with sound human sympathies and frank and fearless outlook, he sat on the little brick terrace behind the long house alone with me, and gently lectured me, as his seniority in years and wisdom entitled him to do.
“I don’t think you realize how much resentment all this must cause,” he said. “The age of individualism is dead and you will simply not be allowed to live as you wish.”
“I can scarcely believe that. And anyway, surely the police aren't going to lend themselves to restrictive practices to please some nebulous majority.”
“My dear chap, the police force, like everything else, has changed. I know nothing about your local men but I do know how nearly all policemen work and think and behave in other districts. You and I were brought up to think of a country policeman as a friend, a man to turn to in trouble who did his best to check the petty crime of his area with a certain decent discretion and humanity. All that has gone. The Metropolitan force is still a very fine organization which works without vindictiveness for the common weal. But when you get out of the big cities you find a different set of ideas at work. Ambition—you must have met this kind of ambition in the army—personal ambition can be a damned dangerous thing. And there is a widespread belief nowadays, which I hope is not justified by fact, that promotion for each individual depends on the number of convictions he achieves. Imagine the life of a policeman in a country village. He’s usually detested and often distrusted. His wife is suspected of carrying scraps of village gossip to her husband and finds herself cold-shouldered by the other women. The man himself lives in the shadow of ridicule and dislike and sweating up and down on his bicycle, standing outside the local at closing time, making heavy-handed inquiries about small offences, he may feel himself slighted and grow embittered and jealous. I know them, Rupert. I’ve seen them at work. They are always on the lookout for a well-publicized conviction which may mean for them a pat on the shoulder from a higher official. That’s largely true of the superintendents and inspectors, too. They’re out to make a name for themselves.”†
“But I can’t see what this has to do with me.”
“You’re a sitting quarry. You’re just about well-known enough to get headlines for any case brought against you, and any case would be popular with your local gentry, I feel sure. Don’t ask me what.” He smiled at the garden and at Tito the Peke disporting himself under the chestnut tree. “It could scarcely be for keeping a disorderly house, because you’ve got a natural sense of orderliness. Any old charge. But I do think you should be a bit realistic about it.”
I was not. If realism meant abandoning my own standards of personal liberty I was not interested. Now I wonder whether, if I could have foreseen everything, I would have listened to my friend. I do not think so. I’m not sure that the whole experience has not been worth while. Perhaps more than worth while.
* in 1953 Rupert Croft-Cooke was found guilty of three counts of indecency—on perjured testimony he maintained—and sentenced to nine months imprisonment; he served six months in Wormwood Scrubs with a short interlude in Brixton Prison. The Verdict of You All is the account of his arrest, trial and imprisonment.
† see the assessment by Carolus Deene in Chapter Seventeen of Our Jubilee Is Death by Leo Bruce (London, 1959): “The whole business of the British police force is not what it was founded for, the maintenance of law and order, but getting convictions.”