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The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review October, 1920

A Poor Philosopher

A Poor Philosopher

My friend Topper and I were beggars to argue. Top was a man I'd got a lot of time for. One of the steadfast sort that you don't like to be caught tripping by. Not that he said much, but you felt, as I might say, that you'd contradicted yourself—a kind of moral mathematics. Got an unusual stock of irony, but he tried to keep it under. Once he wrote some verse for the "Spike," called the thing the "Way we Have at the 'Varsity," and had it turned down. It began:—

Dear Fresher, while you are in learning
With people of culture about
(Though Philistine longings are burning
Within) do not hazard a doubt,
But give yourself up to our manners,
As snobs of the day set the style,
And plume yourself under the banners
Of culture awhile.

But that was the side of Topper that he tried to keep under; and he was rather glad that the Editor saw through Topper, though, had got some of the queerest notions. You should have heard him talking when there were just two or three of you in a cosy drawing-room. Topper, by the way, had had a rather bad time on the whole—domestic trouble and that sort of thing: mother ran away with an old flame and father went downhill. From one or two things he let drop I gathered he had had a pretty lean time. How he got to College I don't know—he never had any money, even there.

As I say, Topper had some queer notions in that head of his. He was something of a politician, but he swore by no party. "Most of them," he used to tell us, "mean well in a faint-hearted way." page 38 But he was great on Democracy. I couldn't quite "take" him, myself. I think Democracy means giving everybody a vote. "No," says Topper, "Democracy means believing in the people." "You Christians," he used to say, "are supposed to love your neighbour—well, your neighbour is the man next door. Who lives next to you?" This used to get me nettled. You see my father is fairly well off—not what you'd call rich, you know, but middling well off. I suppose he takes out a couple of thousand a year. "Do you mean to say," I would fire at him, "that we are responsible for the mess those people make of things? In a country like this any man can get a living." At which old Top would grin and say, "Pen, me lad, you do the system credit. Come and try the latest batch of Mrs. Brooks' cakes and drown your indignation in a cup of Lipton's tea."

He never joined much in College festivities. He was pretty hard up and didn't care to go to dances in his shabby best. He did complain to me once or twice that we tried to run them in such style. "I'm disappointed," he said, "that in a young country like this we must ape the Old World outfit. Why shouldn't the University set a standard of "simple manners" as well as purer laws. Let them cut out evening dress. Few of those boys can really afford it. And we really must not wear a class uniform."

Topper had read hard in Economics, and he had a theory. "What we want," he declared, "is a general return to simplicity. Hundreds of thousands of people don't get enough to eat. Now, what is produced is determined by what we demand. Let us cut out evening dress and big houses and plate and demand only what is needed to keep us fit and strong; and these things will be produced, not only for us, but for all." Of course, I saw through the fallacy of this straight away, but Topper was determined to act by it. "Why," he would say—and this was the only thing he got really worn about—"why, this method of ours simply comes to hitting the man that is down. In pre-historic days the lubber whose father had bequeathed him the stoutest arm took the lion's share of the grub, and the rest in their turn took what was left. Among us, the man whose father had the fattest purse not only takes the lion's share, but he also decides what sort of tuck there's going to be. And if, as happens, what he wants takes so much time and labour to make that others get nothing at all—so much the worse for them. It seems clear to me that not a single cigar, not a piece of silver, not a keg of whisky should be turned out till every man, woman and child in the land is getting three square feeds a day. And the next step? You knock off buying cigars, wearing silk socks and fuddling your head with wine."

Poor old Top had a love affair. From the way things went I don't think the trouble was very serious. He went out to an evening with me; and as we walked home I saw he was smitten. I arranged for him to see quite a lot of her. One day he began to ask me questions about her—where did she come from, who were her people, and what did they "do"? She was an English girl, come out for a few years' change, her father a Canon of the Church of England, with a tidy income. I really think she liked the old chap. But suddenly Top accepted a job in Canada, and came to say good-bye. He left me most of his books. He hadn't many, but there were a number that he had just bought on heredity, eugenics, and such like. I found them quite interesting.

page 39

I really liked Top, and it was a real jolt to part. I often thought it was a pity he had had such a bad start. If he'd been better off, he'd never have had those cranky ideas of his. "We're a queer kind of beast, Mr. Dodd."