Letter: Atheism, Cycling, Depression in 1929

Written on Wednesday, May 15, 1929

First, a bit of context and explanation. Owen was Gwyneth’s brother. Gwyneth had gone to Japan in 1924 as a governess for a younger cousin. When her Uncle, Aunt, and cousin had returned home to England in 1926 or 1927 she had decided to stay on in Japan, staying with my grandfather’s sisters in my great-grandparents’ home. While living there she met my grandfather and they fell in love and decided to marry and emigrate to Canada. In 1929 he left Japan and went across the Pacific to Canada and she went back to England to see her family one more time before crossing the Atlantic to meet her husband-to-be in Canada. This letter would have been written during that visit in 1929. She thought she likely wouldn’t get another chance to go to England and see her family and she was right. Though she lived until 1981 in Canada, she never returned to England after her 1929 visit.

I love this letter so much! It feels incredibly precious to me. In reading it, you get the feeling that Owen was a person born in the wrong time. He was uncomfortable among his contemporaries, a difficult person. He may have struggled with mental illness (certainly it seems so from his letter, though I had never heard a hint of it from my father). At the least the tone of his letter suggests to me that he struggled with some amount of depression.

I’m fascinated by his anger and his hopeless idealism and his depressive’s ability to turn every possible opportunity into a failure. I’m fascinated by his apparent atheism in a very christian family. Gwyneth herself was on her way to marry a man who had worked as a missionary in Japan, and who constantly exhorted her in letters to put all her trust in God, and others in her family seemed to have been as christian as anyone else was.

And I love his self-deprecating humour and the love he has for his own writing, even as he seems to mock it self-consciously. I love that he wrote this letter to his sister and the things it gently speaks about their relationship with each other. I love the description of 1920s cycling culture and especially the dig at the sneer of the Motorists.

12 First Avenue,
Acton Vale,

Dear Gwyneth,

I have suddenly woken up to the fact that today is Wednesday + next week-end is Whitsun, so that in another three days I shall be seeing you. I’ve got the most appalling “wind-up”, but I suppose I shall pull through somehow or other.

I have already told you I am “ye complete failure”. For several years now, with the exception of a short period of temporary insanity from which I am happily recovered, I have been wondering what life is about. That is to say, what do we exist for? The varied and picturesque religious conceptions are entirely beyond my belief. Christianity, for example, is very ingenious, but I cannot believe in it. To imagine one single all-powerful God in place of the dozens that previously existed was a good idea. Unfortunately the “all-powerful” part didn’t seem quite to fit, so they had to invent the Devil. Heaven was conceived as a rather vague but bee-autiful reward for the successful devil-dodger, while Hell was thrown in as an additional incentive for those who looked upon Heaven’s existence as rather shadowy and doubtful. Those obstinate beings who would not “believe” were, of course, utterly beyond consideration so they were just persecuted with as much ferocity as were the Christians themselves before they were sufficiently powerful to protect themselves and to inflict torment on others.

And I haven’t nearly enough fingers + toes to count all the wars that have been fought in the name of Christianity. Think, for instance, of the marauding bands of robbers who, under the style of “Crusaders” tried to filch Palestine from the owners.

Wars are now hopelessly out of date (until the next one comes). The modern method is to invent machines to enable one man to do the work of a hundred. Fifty of these men may or may not be absorbed by the increased demand for a cheaper article. The other fifty are thrown on the dole and soundly rated by magistrates and others in similar precarious jobs as work-shies and loafers.

I have frequently walked + cycled through the East End of London. I have done the same through the West End. I have read several of H.G. Wells’ books, and I read a considerable part of both a morning + an evening newspaper every day. It all leaves me utterly fogged. How can a man run a Rolls-Royce and profess Christianity, unless he is a hypocrite? And why have we, at one and the same time, wide-spread unemployment and wide-spread want? While men live in squalor + poverty in the East End, Christians find themselves at liberty to spend millions on their beautiful + extravagant churches and cathedrals. Some foll once brightly informed me that running a Rolls-Royce + building millionaire cathedrals provided employment for some of the unemployed. He seemed quite hurt when I suggested that the same money spent on providing food + clothing for necessitious (sic) people would employ and equal number to far better purpose. I admit I suggested with more force than persuasion, but his so obviously foolish idea made me tired.

These scanty suggestions may give you a hazy idea of my notions of the world. Suppose I follow accepted practice + plunge into business for all I am worth. That’s not much, but it is not obstacle to fortune getting. If I succeed, what can I do? I can let the East End go hang, and spend it on myself, as most Christians do. Only I shouldn’t be a hypocrite, because I do not profess Christianity or any other “anity” (unless it’s insanity!). If my conscience is too strong I can distribute it (the fortune, I mean!) where it is needed. Even the latter apparently laudable life is inherently unsound, however. By building up a fortune, however small or large, I should be assisting to maintain the system which results in such violent extremes, and even by spending all my pickings on others I shall do more harm than I can possibly do good. In fact a life spent trying to do good by making a fortune to give it to the poor is similar to a man on a desert island trying to keep himself alive by eating his own body.

So I wonder what to do. I have no desire, at present, to acquire money for my own benefit. I consider it worse than useless to get it for others. On the other hand, living as I do now I can be no earthly good at all, and my only consolation is that “nothing” is greater than any negative quantity. The only other course I can see is to get all the money I can and then use the power that money can buy to modify the principles that result in the extremes of East End + West End. But such a scheme is nothing less than stupendous and it needs a giant to carry it out. Me a giant? Oh! Heavings! Anyone less than a giant would do more harm than good.

So I’m stymied again.

No. I expect if the future were visible I should see myself carrying on as now for a few years and then suddenly getting lonely, saving like fury, marrying the first bit of fluff I can find who is not downright ugly, and settling down to a nice quiet peaceful hen-pecked suburban life between the works, the back garden, and the ten-year-old Morris Cowley. My dear, it’s just too thrilling to think that even now someone may be taking out on the road for the first time a posh (?) brand new Morris which in the years to come, after many vicissitudes, will fall into my hands to enable my wife and me to regard the vulgar and careless pedestrian and the absolutely intolerable push-bicyclist with that condescending sneer which is the Divine Right of Motorists.

So do all, or nearly all, dreams end. The trouble is that I am still dreaming, and a dreamer has to wake up before he can come to earth to consider mere mundane matters. (Please note the alliteration.)

Anyhow, I am coming to Brighton instead on Saturday evening. We have from Saturday mid-day to Wednesday morning. Quite good, considering everything + the state of the weather. The latter will be perfect. And you can’t catch me out on that, either, whatever it is like. I enjoy the beauty of the rain quite as much as I do the glory of the sun. Many a time (and oft) have I revelled in a downpour as a welcome and refreshing change from seemingly perpetual sun + droubt (sic). Bright October, with her chilly mornings and frosty nights is a beloved harbinger of joyous midwinter runs when a steady “fifteen” brings you to the kindly old inn, that only the cyclist knows of, all aglow and ready for the welcoming handshake of the proprietor. A speedy rinse, and an appetite sharpened by fresh air and exercise too (and so, a healthy appetite) makes short shrift of a supper fit for the Gods. A quiet hour by the flickering fire, and we dream of the days to come – February snows to give the land a fairy-like look that no town-dweller knows of – March winds to blow the butter off your bread, to make you fight for your tea, and then to waft you briskly home again – May showers which wet you through before you can struggle into your cape, + then obligingly cease, bad ‘ceas (sic) to ’em – and the long awaited glory of summer –

You know, the trouble with me is St. Writers’es Dance. Once I start I can’t stop. If only it were readable I could make a fortune + rival Edgar Wallace in quantity as well.

This bilge has taken up two solid hours and three quarters of my time. My time is worth nothing, so you can work out the value of the bilge. And I am half inclined to tear it up and write – Dear Gwyneth, Many thanks for your letter + birthday greetings. Coming Saturday evening. Love to all, Owen