Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Boreham on The Signal Box

When I was a small boy in my Kentish home, I was occasionally missing—even at meal-times. As the years wore on, the alarm created by these mysterious disappearances of mine gradually subsided, not by reason of any dwindling value or importance attached to my person, but simply because a very shrewd conjecture could be formed as to my whereabouts. For at the foot of our garden, separated from it by a high bank, which was itself a romantic wilderness of blackberries, ran the railway. And just beside the railway line, not more than a hundred yards from the bottom of the garden, was the signal-box. Few things delighted me more than to spend an hour in that old signal-box. It was close to the mouth of the tunnel. I loved to hear the bell go ring-a-ting-ting when the train entered the tunnel on the far side, and to watch for its emergence on our side. It seemed to me positively uncanny that the signalman could tell by all these clanging tokens just where all the trains were. I liked to see him swing the great levers backwards and forwards, pulling the signals up and down, and at night-time causing the green and red lights to shine from the tall signal-posts. As I sat beside his great, roaring fire on winter evenings, and saw him stop the trains or let them pass, just as he pleased, I thought he must surely be one of the most important men in the country. I could scarcely imagine that the Prime Minister had greater authority or responsibility. And I remember, as clearly as though it were yesterday, that I used to sit on the stool beside that fire—face in hands and elbows on knees—wondering if I might hope, one great day, to attain to the glory of being a signalman. And, surely enough, I have.

For I have come to see, as the days have gone by, that we humans are expert and inveterate signalmen. We have a perfect genius for concocting mysterious codes; we revel in flashing out cryptic heliograms; we glory in receiving occult messages. We even communicate in this abstruse and recondite fashion with our own selves. A man will twist a piece of string round his finger, or tie a knot in the corner of his pocket-handkerchief, or stick a scrap of stamp-paper on the face of his watch, to remind him of something that has nothing whatever to do with string or handkerchief or stamp-paper. It is his secret code, and in the terms of that code this inveterate signalman is signalling to himself, that is all!

Moreover, we not only signal to ourselves, but we are fascinated by the spectacle of other people signalling to themselves. A novel becomes invested with a new interest when its plot suddenly turns upon the weird phenomena of a witch's cavern or the mysterious ritual of a gipsy camp. By means of her viper, her owl, her toad, her cauldron, her tripod, her herbs, and all the rest of it, the withered crone in the dimly lighted cave is signaling to herself from morning to night; by means of the crossed sticks where the roads fork the gipsies leave tokens for themselves and each other. Many a man will wear a charm hanging round his neck, or suspended to his watch-chain, of which nobody knows the significance but himself. Luther went down to his grave without revealing even to his wife the meaning of the five mystic initials that he had carved over the portal of his house. They are, he explained, the initials of five German words; but what those words were he alone knew. The signals stand to this day over the portal; the code was locked up in the great reformer's breast, and, deposited there, it descended with him to his tomb.

Henrik Ibsen, too, the great Norwegian dramatist, kept on his writing-table a small ivory tray containing a number of grotesque figures, a wooden bear, a tiny devil, two or three cats—one of them playing a fiddle—and some rabbits. `I never write a single line of any of any dramas,' Ibsen used to say, `without having that tray and its occupants before me on my table. I could not write without them. But why I use them and how, this is my own secret.' Here was a great and brilliant thinker happy in being able to flash covert messages to himself by a code which no one but himself ever knew! I instance these—the witch's cavern, the gipsy's ritual, the reformer's portal, and the dramatist's tray—to show that our passion for signalling is so ingrained and deep-seated that, if we cannot satisfy it in cryptic communication with others, we atone for the deficiency by signalling to ourselves.

After all, there is but one really universal language. It was spoken in the world's first morning, and people will still be speaking it when they are startled by the shocks of doom. It was the language of the Stone Age, and it will be the language of the golden Age. It is spoken all the world over by people of all kinds, classes, colours, and conditions; and if either Mars or the moon is really inhabited, it is spoken there too. The little child speaks it before he is able to lisp one single word of our clumsier dictionary speech; and the aged spear it long after the palsied lip has lost its utterance. It is equally intelligible to the English merchant on the London market, to the Indian trapper in the Western forests, to the Chinese mandarin in the far interior of Asia, to the South Sea Islander basking in the rays of an equatorial sun, and to the Eskimo in his frozen hut amidst the blinding whiteness of the icy North. It is known even to the beasts of the field and the birds of the air; they understand it, and sometimes even speak it. The universal language is the language of gesture. The shrug of the shoulders; the flash of the eye; the knitting of the brows; the curling of the lip; the stamping of the foot; the clenching of the fist; the nodding of the head; the pointing of the hand,—here is a language which is known to everyone. It has no alphabet, no grammar, and no syntax; but the simplest can understand it. Indeed, the simplest understand it best. The savage is a master of gesture. He speaks with every nerve and muscle. And the little child is no less eloquent. Playing with her doll on the floor behind my chair is a small scrap of humanity who has as yet uttered no word that a lexicographer would recognize. And yet it would be absurd to say that she has not spoken. Her pushings and pullings, her beckonings and pointings, her smilings and poutings, are as expressive as anything in any of your vocabularies. She has found a speech for which the builders of Babel sighed in vain—a speech that can be understood by men and women of every nation under heaven. It is the language of signals.

We are living in a universe that is constantly trying to talk. It does not understand any of your artificial or manufactured languages—your Hebrew or Greek or Latin; your English or German or French—but it understands the universal language, the language of gestures, the language of signals. ‘The air,’ says Emerson, ‘is full of sounds, the sky of tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object is covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent.' The stars above my head are signalling; the astronomer masters the code and reads the secrets of the universe. The stones that I tread beneath my feet are signaling; the geologist unravels the code and interprets the romance of ages.

All Nature is one intricate system of signals as any naturalist will tell you. Let Richard Jefferies speak for them all. In discussing the birds that shelter in the ivy under his gable, he says that often a robin or a wren will pounce upon a caterpillar whilst the grub is still concealed among the grass. How is it done? It is all a matter of signals. `The bird's eyes, ever on the watch for food, learn to detect the slightest indication of its presence. Slugs, caterpillars, and such creatures, in moving among the grass, cause a slight agitation of the grass blades; they lift up a leaf by crawling under it, or depress it with their weight by getting on it. This enables the bird to detect their presence, even when quite hidden by the herbage, experience having taught it that, when grass is moved by the wind, broad patches sway simultaneously, whilst, when an insect or caterpillar is the agent, only a single leaf or blade is stirred.' The birds learn the code and readily interpret the signals. Those who live near to Nature soon acquire the same habit. The poetry of the countryside abounds with rhymes and couplets that are, after all, only expositions of Nature’s signals.

When elm leaves are as big as a shilling,
You may sow French beans if you be willing.

What is this but the interpretation of the code? The whispering elm leaves are the farmer's signal-flags. The universe, like the baby on my study floor, is always pathetically trying to talk to me; and the pity of it is that I am so slow to understand.

The language of signals is, I have shown, the one universal language. That is why, when man has something really great to say, he says it, not audibly, but visibly. The lover abandons the dictionary; he can say what he wishes to say so much more expressively by means of signals. A look; a pressure of the hand; a ring; a kiss,—what vocabulary could compare with a code like this? And it is a code that is comprehended in every nation under heaven. Or what man could express in so many words all that he feels when, for example, he waves his country's flag? ‘Have not I,’ Carlyle makes Herr Teufelsdrockh inquire, ‘have not I myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crow’s meat for a piece of glazed cotton which they call their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three grochen? Did not the whole Hungarian nation rise, like some tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser
Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown, an implement, as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value little differing from a horseshoe? It is in and through symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being; those ages, moreover, are accounted the noblest which can the best recognize symbolic worth and prize it the highest. For is not a symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the Godlike?' When, that is to say, man has something really great to say he says it by some mute sign or silent symbol. Similarly, when God has something to say to the Jew alone, he may perhaps cause His messenger to say it in the Hebrew tongue; but when He has something to say to all people everywhere, He always speaks the universal language, the language of gesture and symbol and sign. He speaks to the universal heart by means of the Ark, the Scapegoat, the Passover, the Mercy Seat, the Serpent in the Wilderness, the Cities of Refuge. Such signs need no translation; they speak to people of every clime and time. In the New Testament the same principle holds true.

He talked of lilies, vines, and corn,
The sparrow and the raven,
And tales so natural, yet so wise,
Were on men’s hearts engraven.
And yeast and bread and flax and cloth,
And eggs and fish and candles;
See, how the familiar world
He most divinely handles.

When God has something really vital to say to people, God says it in a language that requires no translation or interpretation. God says it in a way that all people can comprehend. 'The veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.' All people everywhere can see the awful and profound significance of such a signal. A person may be unable to grasp the doctrine of the Atonement; but where is the heart that does not respond to the Vision of the Cross?

We are inveterate signalmen. We begin to make signals as soon as we crawl from our cradles; we are still making them when tottering down to our graves.
`It may be, master,' said Richard Bannatyne, John Knox's faithful serving-man, 'it may be that you will still he able to recognize my voice after you have become oblivious to every other sight and sound. When you are apparently unconscious, I shall bend over you and ask if you have still the hope of glory. Will you promise if you are able to give me some signal, that you will do so?

The old reformer made the promise, and, a few days later, turned into his room to die.

Grim in his deep death-anguish the stern old champion lay,
And the locks upon his pillow were floating thin and grey,
And, visionless and voiceless with quick and labouring breath,
He waited for his exit through life’s portal, death.

‘Hast thou the hope of glory?’ They bowed to catch the thrill
"That through some languid token might be responsive still,
Nor watched they long nor waited for some obscure reply,
He raised a clay-cold finger and pointed to the sky.

So the death-angel found him, what time his brow he bent,
To give the struggling spirit a sweet enfranchisement.
So the death-angel left him, what time earth's bonds were riven,
The cold, stark, stiffening finger still pointing up to heaven.

It is a great thing when the signalman's last signals are as unequivocal as that.

F W Boreham, ‘The Signal-Box’, The Uttermost Star (London: The Epworth Press, 1919), 9-18.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Romsey Signal Box