‘Duty’ is a word which has changed its status in England during the last 100 years. In the 19th century, it was everywhere. In novels of the Victorian age (roughly 1840 to 1900) the great problem for the hero or heroine was to find out what was their duty. When they could see clearly their duty, they at once did it, without any questioning or doubt. The hero or heroine was contrasted with those who did not know, or did not do, their duty.
For instance, a talented boy who is a medical student gets a chance to go to the capital co study further and do research work. But his mother is sick and has no one to look after her. Should he leave her? Is his duty to his parent, or is there a higher duty to humanity in general? Soon after I arrived in Japan early in Showa, I went to a film of the life of Hideyo Noguchi. I could not understand what they said, but I recognized the shot near the end when he is fighting his way through the snow to the station leaving his dear mother behind. I had seen just such shots many times in British films.
Later I came to see the resemblances between British Victorians and Japanese Meiji men. There is no doubt that the idolization of duty did produce strong characters. Victorians were often hard, and proud of their hardness, in small things as well as great.
A famous Indian judge named Baijnath was invited with several other eminent Indians to visit Queen Victoria in 1885, and Baijnath wrote a small book about his experiences. Among many interesting things, he said: ‘If the Englishman has an appointment with you, he will arrive exactly on time. But he will not wait even two minutes if you are not there. If you come two minutes late, you find that he has already gone’, ‘again, he wrote: ‘They walk in the City of London , with terrible determination. Look at that man over there. From the way he walks, you would think he is going to face the end of the world. But he is only going for a walk in the Park’.
They were courageous: my uncle, in the Royal Navy, had to have a toe amputated. He thought it cowardly to use one of the new anesthetics like chloroform: he got drunk on rum, four medical students held him, and the surgeon sawed the toe off.
Many of them were scrupulously honest, according to the laws of the time, which however did not require kindheartedness. They thought they had a mission to civilize the world.(They understood by this to turn all other peoples into copies of British Victorians.) They had some high principles, which they often applied rigidly to the letter. They called this ‘doing your duty’.
The great example was the discovery of the charred body of a Roman soldier. The city was overwhelmed by a volcanic eruption in 79 B.C. Most of the inhabitants had time to escape, but the Roman soldier remained at his post, having no orders to leave it. I think even some Victorians might have had a few private doubts about this example of duty, but in public everyone applauded his devotion to duty.
The problems arose when they did the duty which was not absolutely clear. Of course I was not a Victorian myself, being born in 1914, but my father and his elder brother were brought up in this tradition. Both of them became musicians. My father showed exceptional talent even as a small boy, and became much better known than my uncle. They were both men of strong character, typical Victorians of the Victorian novel. This came out in an extraordinary way in the early 1920’s, when each of them had a good position as Musical Director of a large and famous theatre. It was usually an easy and well- paid job; but for two or three months, each would have a season of opera, ballet and so on, when the little orchestra of 18 was expanded to 60, and a first-rank musician(as both brothers were)was needed to rehearse them, sometimes for many hours.
All went well for some years, but then the two great theatres merged. The new management told my father that they were going to have only one Musical Director for the two theatres. It would be arranged that the two short opera seasons would always be at different times, so one Director could handle both. When he was away, he could easily hire a cheap deputy for the undemanding normal work. They offered the new position to my father, and added: ‘We want to keep you, but if you do not take it, we shall look for someone else. In any case, your brother will not continue with us. Make your decision’.
I was about 7, and heard about this much later from an aunt, but I remember vaguely the serious faces of my father and mother and some of their friends. It seems incredible to me now, but my father was not sure what was his duty. A third brother told him: ‘You cannot take your brother’s job. You must refuse; that is your duty. They think highly of you and want to keep you. Your refusal will make them reconsider, and they will keep two Musical Directors. Your duty is to support your brother. You must not take his job away from him’.
I cannot see that there was any question of duty. My father could not help his brother by giving up his own job as well. But it was an agonizing decision for him. My father was a brave soldier who volunteered for the Army when war with Germany broke out in August 1914. I had just been born, but he left us and spent four years fighting in the trenches in France. He had certainly done his duty then. But now he was not sure what was his duty. In the event, he did accept, and the third brother never to him again. The brother who lost his job, never complained, and my father found ways to help him indirectly. Soon after this, in 1927, talking pictures at the cinema, and the national radio, appeared. Many musicians lost their jobs. My father could adapt to the new techniques and did well, but his brother could not. Though he was now poor, he would never accept any direct help, and it had to be given secretly through the wives.
I met a similar case of supposed duty with two Japanese brothers. One was working in England, while the younger one was doing scientific research in Switzerland. The latter loved skiing. One day I met him at his brother’s flat, and afterwards the elder brother told me that the younger one had come to ask him for advice. There was an opportunity to extend his research grant for another year. He wanted, of course, to accept it, but he was not sure whether his motive was mainly the noble research, or just his wish to ski there. He asked his elder brother to tell him what was his duty. I could hardly believe my ears. Then I thought to myself: ‘Meiji attitudes, like our Victorians!’ (In fact, the elder brother told him to go home at once, and he did so.)
I do not feel that Duty applies in these cases, but then I am not Meiji/Victorian. I am however Taisho/Georgian (George V; 1910-36) and I find that young people today think some of my attitudes extraordinary. For instance, my generation never willingly took anything from the State. It was our duty to be independent of any help from outside. The great duty was honest work. Many of us still had the Victorian ideal: ‘He always does what he is expected to do; he is absolutely reliable’.
There were secondary duties: to educate oneself, to protect the weak, to fight fair(without tricks). There were relatively few rights. So when my State pension became payable to me at 65, I refused it. Then at 70, my young accountant told me that I would now get a larger one. He said: ‘You have paid income tax for over sixty years, and are still paying it on what you earn. You have a right to this pension’. I said I did not want it, as I was still working and disliked the humiliation of taking money from the State. He looked at me, and I could almost hear him thinking how to convince this old man to take what is due to him. Finally he said: ‘Look at your accounts here. You are in fact paying more in income tax on your writing than the amount of the pension. So you are still paying money to the State and not taking money from the State.
Then I did agree to take it, though for some years I felt somehow uneasy when it came in. There are many of my generation who do not claim the State benefits to which they are entitled. It is estimated that there is about £3,000,000 of State benefits which are not claimed by elderly people. Sometimes it is because they do not know about them, but in many cases they will not make the claims. And some of them are poor.
Since the foundation of the Welfare State, things have changed. Duties are not so much spoken about; rights are everywhere. Some people think they have a right to an interesting education, a right to leave home at 17 and get a new one, to be offered a satisfying job without drudgery but with long holidays, and so on and so on. A single person, even a parent, can live without working.
But in fact many youngsters who live in this way find that they are bored with it. Life has no meaning. Some drift into petty crime, but many are joining various groups – Christian groups, Buddhist groups, ecology groups and so on – in order to feel that their lives could have a meaning. There are 250,000 charities in Britain, many of them very small. They help old people, tabled people, animals and many other causes.
As in Japan, where many of the old classics have been reprinted in the Toyo Kanji so that people can read them easily, in Britain too the Victorian classics, especially novels and poetry, are being reprinted in popular editions. And they are apparently selling very well. The fact is that we are getting tired of just claiming rights: we are looking for duties.
© Trevor Leggett