Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey' s Speech

From the Whitefriars Journal,vol. II, 8, April 1905, pp. 175-81.

On 10 March 1905 on the occasion of the Club's Annual Dinner, held at the Empire Hall, the Trocadero, with Friar F. Carruthers Gould as Prior, Friar Winston Churchill, M.P., proposed the toast of 'Literature', coupling with it the name of Sir Edward Grey, M.P.:

Winston Churchill's speech can be found here

Sir Edward Grey, in reply, said:

I thank you most cordially for your reception of the toast, and I thank Mr. Churchill most sincerely for the terms in which he proposed it. I hardly recognised myself in some of the eulogy which he bestowed upon me, for I think he gave me credit for distinction in at least three separate careers – as a fisherman, a politician, and a business man – a very formidable record, but not nearly so formidable as Mr. Churchill's record. He has achieved distinction in at least five different careers – as a soldier – ('hear, hear') – a lecturer, a war correspondent, an author, and last, but not least, as a politician. ('Hear, hear.') I think I have understated it now; he has achieved two careers as a politician – (laughter) – one on each side of the House. That makes six altogether. (Laughter.) His first career on the Government side was a really distinguished career. I trust that the second will be found even more distinguished and more prolonged. ('Hear, hear.') The remarkable thing is that he has done all this when, unless appearances very much belie him, he has not yet reached the age of sixty-five – (laughter) – which is the minimum age at which a politician ceases to be young. All of us who have been in the House have watched his career there with great interest and great admiration, and those of us who had the privilege of spending some years in the House when his father was still there have watched it with especial appreciation, since, sometimes when I am watching Mr. Churchill speaking in the House of Commons, I think I see gleams like the flashing of his father's sword, which, to all of us who had the privilege of being in the House with Lord Randolph Churchill, quicken old memories which are dear to us, and quicken the appreciation and satisfaction in the career of his son. (Applause.) But he is not going to be any pale reflection of anyone; he is going to leave his own mark on the public life of the country in no unmistakable fashion. ('Hear, hear.') He has the three qualities necessary for success – ability, courage, and insight. I would have said I think it is possible he will some day be Prime Minister of this country, if it were not that there are some fifty or sixty promising members of the House of Commons of whom, when they make a speech on the platform, this is invariably said by the gentlemen who move and second the vote of thanks. (Laughter.) But it is not in politics enough that a man should have ability and intellectual qualities. The question is not what a man is but what he is going to become. Politics either make or mar a man. The man who is tested by politics is sure to be pretty well hammered. If he is of good metal the hammering does him good, and only gives the metal a finer temper and a keener edge. I have seen Mr. Churchill tried by adversity, and if I can judge by the sparks that flew from him bright, and strong, I think his metal is hard and true. There is a severer test, the test of prosperity and success. There are signs that he is entering upon that. I trust that it may be a really severe test and long prolonged. (Applause.) Before I come to what I judge, from what I have heard, to be the subject of the evening, namely, fishing – (laughter) – I should like to say a word or two about literature. I am neither a poet nor a literary man; I gather from the Prior's speech that the two are distinct. I remember that in one of Ibsen's plays one of the heroines, or perhaps I should say one of the girls, said that, as far as she was concerned, she did not care for books – books were so irrelevant.

I cannot help thinking I am not very relevant to the toast, though, after what Mr. Churchill has said about my book on fishing, I feel I must read the book again. Politics, in my opinion, are not a good training for literature. There is a certain antipathy, I think, between literature and politics. The question, in putting a notice of motion on the order papers of the House of Commons, arose the other day whether the word 'mysterious' should appear in the motion – to avoid a suspicion of party politics, I should say this motion did not have reference to the Prime Minister and the fiscal question. (Laughter.) I was rather in favour of the word being included in the motion, but I was told it would not do; it was not Parliamentary. I asked, if 'mysterious' was not a Parliamentary word, what was it? (Laughter.) I was told it was a literary word, and not suitable for the order paper of the House of Commons. (Laughter.) In politics we have not time to give to the missiles we hurl at one another the perfect shapes of works of art, and I am not surprised that you should shudder at the rough and uncouth way in which Parliamentarians often express themselves. (Laughter.) When to Macaulay was put the enquiry why, with his brilliant gifts of writing, he should take the trouble to take any part in the current politics of the day, he replied that a man who was in the habit of writing about the deeds and the great men of the past could not help wishing to take a hand in the public affairs of his own day. (Hear, hear.) That, I think, is what men of energy undoubtedly feel about public life, that the energy and emotion which are so concerned with literature should be applied to the facts of the day in which we live. Still, I think there is an antipathy between literature and politics. If I am asked how I reconcile the fact that men like Mr Gladstone and Disraeli were men of letters as well as politicians, my answer is that I do not reconcile it at all, and that I do not wish to reconcile it. My ambition and desire is to be a great author; this I shall never be, but I like to think it is politics that prevents my being a great author. If I like to hug that idea do not see why I should not. It is no great harm to anybody.

You will remember that Frederick the Great wanted to be a poet and that Carlyle, who wrote his life, wanted to be a great silent man of action. (Laughter.) It would be something to be a great and anonymous author. I suppose you can be great and anonymous in literature; but you cannot be in politics. The risk in politics is that you are small and notorious. (Laughter.) I do really wonder whether any great literary man has been anonymous. I except everybody who writes for the Press, for they, of course, merge their individuality in a great organ of public opinion. There is the author of the 'Letters of Junius' – brilliant, I think, but not great. There is Homer, somebody may say. But I think his anonymity was unintentional, even if it was real. And there is the question also whether the author of the plays of Shakespeare is anonymous, but I hope that question is not seriously raised in the Whitefriars Club. ('Hear, hear.') For us in political life, literature is not a career but a recreation. You have to be very careful about your recreations in public life. There are some which are legitimate and some which are illegitimate. (Laughter.) The legitimate are riding and golf. I never get on a horse if I can help it, and I play no golf. But I have two recreations, one game and one sport, the sport of fishing and the game of tennis, and I have seen it stated that anyone who indulges in these two things disqualifies himself from taking part in public affairs. ('Hear, hear.')

May I suggest that, no less than golf, fishing, besides patience, cultivates restraint of language – as do some other things? I remember one day when Mr. Churchill and I were guests in a house in the Highlands I had spent the day in fishing. It was a hot day in August. I had fished hard and caught nothing. Every fly I had used had gone back into my box, as Mr. Churchill would say, unbitten. (Laughter.) I thought I had acquired considerable practice in the art of patience, but more was to come. My lesson in patience was not complete. In the cool of the evening, when I was somewhat exhausted, Mr. Churchill arrived, fresh as paint, in a motor-car to take me home. (Laughter.) My lesson in patience, as I thought, was at an end. I longed to be home. I entered the motor-car. We had not gone more than one hundred yards, Mr. Churchill driving, when the motor-car broke down. (Laughter.) In the end my lesson in restraint of language and in patience was far more complete than it would have been if it had been restricted to my fishing experience. (Laughter.) The difficulty about literature is that it is not a recreation if you bring a tired mind to it.

In active middle-life the opportunities of getting recreation out of literature become more and more rare. There are some authors, no doubt, who are so gay, so happy in themselves, so light-hearted, that they give us recreation when we are tired and have lost the resources in ourselves. I forbear to mention living names, for there are some here who both in poetry and prose give us that recreation, and we are grateful to have it, however tired we may be. When we go further back to other days, we find three authors, whom I may call light-hearted and happy, to whom we can go – Izaak Walton, Gilbert White, and Thomas Love Peacock. I see there are some lovers of Peacock present. I warn them against trying to get others to read Peacock. Have you known what it was to invite two people to dine in order to meet each other, and then find that they did not get on, and to experience the uncomfortable sensation that each of them thought the worse of you for being a friend of the other? So it has happened to me with regard to Peacock. I have tried, at least once, to introduce a friend to Peacock and I have failed and been conscious that my friend, I fear, thought the worse of me for my enthusiasm about Peacock; and what was more disagreeable, I felt sure he suspected me of thinking the worse of him for having failed to appreciate Peacock. (Laughter.) But it was not of these people that Mr. Churchill mainly thought when he spoke. He was thinking of Plato and Cicero and Erasmus and Bacon and Wordsworth and other great names, and in deference to him I feel I must say something about these giants of literature. You cannot, I think, get your recreation from these great men when politics or business are taking all your energy. The great men in literature ask of you something in return before they give their gifts. They ask of you some enthusiasm, some imagination and some freshness of your own. A friend of mine, Mr. Birrell, quoted the saying as a rule to follow 'Whenever a new book comes out, read an old one'. I do not say I follow that precept; if I did I should not say it in this company. If you have made the acquaintance of these old writers when you were younger, you go to them not as to strangers, but as to old friends. Some years ago, there was a song with a refrain, 'He's all right if you know him, but you've got to know him first'. It always reminded me of Browning's poetry. (Laughter.) The question is – At what age ought we to begin to make the acquaintance of great men of literature? I think the general experience is that you do not do it much before twenty-one. I remember at school a boy of thirteen who spent his spare hours, while we were playing cricket and football, reading Greek plays in the original for his own amusement. What was still more remarkable was he was a very good fellow and was very popular, but he was a rare exception. The usual practice is, in early days, to read what we should afterwards consider as literary trash. There is an old saying that a man ought to have read enough philosophy to have found that he can do without it, and we should have read enough trash before the age of 21 to find that we do not want any more. From 21 to 35, I think, comes the golden age of making acquaintance with the great authors, and when you have once made their acquaintance you can always, I think, in later life return to them and find easily, however tired you may be, the things you put there when you read them when you were young. There is a further stage beyond the stage of middle life – the stage of old age. Of that I may speak freely, as I know nothing about it. It is a time of unlimited leisure that we shall spend with old friends in a library. There is a garden outside the library, and, of course, a suitable river – not flowing too fast, nor, at the same time, flowing too slow, which is a worse fault. (Laughter, and 'hear, hear'.) That will be the happiest time of all. I, in those days, shall have no thought of politics except to read the reports of the brilliant speeches which Mr. Churchill will still be making in the House of Commons. (Hear, hear.) Just think, those of us who are engaged in political occupations, what our libraries are now, compared with what they will be when we get old – the quantities of clippings, the drawers full of opponents' speeches kept in the hope of being able to produce a quotation at an inconvenient moment; pamphlets and magazines by the hundredweight; blue books and Hansards by the ton. I think of the splendid time I shall have making a bonfire of them all. How I will stir the fire and how I will mulch my rose buds with the ashes! But there will be one exception. I shall have there, amongst my old most cherished friends on the library shelves, a complete and well-bound set of your Prior's political cartoons1, which I venture to prophesy – in spite of all the warnings we have had in public life against prophesying – will still be then, as they certainly are now, not only unsurpassed but unequalled for wit and humour and point and good sense. (Applause.) And when I turn their pages I shall not fail to remember with pleasure that in the middle time on which I have been dwelling, of work and drudgery and comparatively little leisure, there was an occasion when I spent a pleasant evening and had a lucid interval as the guest of the Whitefriars Club, (Applause.)

It was at the conclusion of Sir Edward Grey's speech that Lord Rosebery entered. The Prior took the occasion of a momentary interval to propose his Lordship's health, which .was cordially honoured. Lord Rosebery was not pressed to respond, and, in signing his name in the visitors' book, he signalised his silence by writing the words Rosebery (dumb).' 

1Works by Friar Francis Carruthers Gould (1844-1925) included Froissart's Modern Chronicles, (1902, 1903 and 1908), The Gould-en Treasury (1906), The Westminster Alice with Hector H. Munro – 'Saki' (1902), and with Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Cartoons in Rhyme and Line (1905)