To Be Taken With A Pinch Of Salt

To Be Taken With A Pinch Of Salt

The Savour Of Salt : A Henry Salt Anthology edited by George Hendrick and Willene Hendrick. Centaur Press, Fontwell, Sussex BN18 0TA, £12.95, 204 pages.

When Henry Stephens Shakespear Salt, the subject of this anthology, died in Brighton in 1939, at the age of 88, he had himself written the address for his funeral. In this, he announced 'I shall die, as I have lived, a rationalist, socialist, pacifist and humanitarian.' His friend Bernard Shaw might have made the same claim. What differentiated the two men was not their beliefs but the degrees of eloquence, guile and therefore effectiveness with which they fought for them.

Unlike Shaw, Salt was born to privilege. Educated at Eton, as a King's Scholar he then went on to Cambridge, which he found sadly lacking in concern for what he called 'the higher social ethics.' He returned to Eton to teach and to wed the Lower Master's daughter - with unfortunate results since, a lesbian, she maintained a life-long refusal to consummate the marriage. Many people believed that, such was his high-mindedness, Salt remained a virgin until, at the age of 75, his wife by now dead, he contracted a second marriage with his 35-year-old housekeeper.

Having decided that his fellow beaks were both cannibals and exploiters of the working class, Salt announced to the headmaster, Dr Warre, that he wished to quit Eton. 'It's the Vegetarianism,' Dr Warre gravely concluded. No, Socialism must take its share of the blame, Salt replied. Dr Warre was appalled. ' Socialism! Then blow us up, blow us up! There's nothing left for it but that!' Salt, however, was far too gentle a man to blow up anyone even verbally.

In The Heart of Socialims Salt confesses to being one of those people who 'have lived for years on an unearned or partly unearned income'; so presumably, through the fortunate chance of being descended from the well-to-do Allnatts of Shrewsbury, this man who so often inveighed against a rentier class, was a rentier himself. Although no doubt usefully, he cannot have been gainfully employed in editing The Humane Review and The Humanitarian simultaneoulsy for a number of years; and though the Hendricks in their introduction write of 'a steady stream of essays, books and poems urging reforms', that stream cannot often have been swollen with cash.

Salt can be touchingly unworldly, as in his belief that the sole cause of crime is social injustice. One also sometimes smiles at the sententious gravity with which he puts forward a view - as when he writes: 'The Humanitarian League always looked with disfavour on the expression 'dumb animals', because, to begin with, animals are not dumb, and secondly, nothing more surely tends to their depreciation than thus to attribute to them an unreal deficiency or imperfection.'

But it is impossible not to admire Salt as plucky leader of an often derided or bull-eyed minority which, in many instances, has now been transformed into a majority. Hunting; corporal punishment; capital punishment; vivisection; the spoliation of the countryside; what he quaintly called 'murderous millinery' ie the trimming of hats with the feathers of rare birds: he was a pioneer in protest against all these things.

'Salt as a Man of Letters' (the title of one section of this anthology) writes well about Shelley and Thoreau, authors with whom he felt a particular affinity; reminisces amusingly about Shaw and two former headmasters of Eton, Balston and Hornby; and produces some sharp satirical verse, of which the following quatrain still remains apposite:

So, hey! for England's glorius rights,
Free sellin' and free buyin',
Free libraries; free pews; free-fights,
And a free ditch - to die in!

It is easy to see why Shaw held a man so unlike himself in so much affection and esteem.

Francis King

Financial Times, August 19, 1989, p. 14