The Importance of Being Decent
In January 1939, as Europe was convulsing to the rhythms of what George Orwell would call ‘the tom-tom beat of a latter-day tribalism’, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and E. M. Forster were gathered at Waterloo Station. It was a solemn occasion. Auden and Isherwood were about to leave the country of their birth for the United States, where, several months later, Auden would compose ‘September 1, 1939’, the ominous poem in which he would look back on ‘the low dishonest decade’ he had just lived through, and tremble at the one to come. Auden and Isherwood attracted much criticism for their decision to leave England at so crucial an hour, yet Forster refused to abandon his friends. As he bade them farewell at Waterloo, he told them that it was now their duty to ‘keep away’ and ‘see us sink from a distance’. It would be his duty, he continued, ‘to face a world which is tragic without becoming tragic myself ’.