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James L. Sauer on George Moncrieff-Scott’s Burke Street
by George Moncrieff-Scott
New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1989
One of the chief casualties of modernity has been our loss of the memory of things human and the breaking of our organic interconnection with the past. Modern capitalism engenders a rootlessness of ever-mobile professionals; socialism creates a hive-like urban proletariat. Modern industrialism does both. The civil life of the home, the small town, and the rural countryside have largely been replaced with life in the global slum or universal shopping mall. Johnson’s dictum that “he who is tired of London is tired of life” no longer holds the same punch. New York is no longer a Big Apple, but a Big Onion.
Burke Street, originally published in 1956, and now reprinted in the Library of Conservative Thought Series edited by Russell Kirk, is a novel-like creation built upon memories of a fading world. That old order was not without its problems, nor without its charm.
Burke Street is a small pleasant avenue in Edinburgh being demolished by the growing university. Our narrator reminisces about the eight houses on this street, all of which he has been in at some time or other in his life. Each house contains a fragmentary picture of a fragmenting world. Burke Street is not an idyllic avenue, but it is a human lane full of history and humanity.
In Burke Street no. 1 we encounter Peggy Neale-Swinton, a modernist member of the literati, enamored of the psychological approach to life and art. Her type now dominates the English departments of colleges as it once dominated the drawing rooms of yesteryear. She terrorized her aunts with a constant reading between the lines of their every word, action, or hobby. Psychoanalyzing the old girls’ love of their garden was a hellish task which Ms. Neale-Swinton found an intellectual duty. Freudian and Marxist criticism often takes this form of removing the masks of our culture, not understanding that culture is a mask. What they call hypocrisy, we call civility.
Ms. Neale-Swinton had her own opinion of her neighbors, looking down upon them like psychological specimens: “They’re both a bit potty. They’re brothers. The bent one is quite potty. They’re the sort of people who are absolutely full of complexes and inhibitions. . . . They live next door, their name’s Bruce. They sing psalms in the drawing room and sometimes I have to bang on the wall to make them stop.” The brothers Bruce lived in no. 2, one was a sermonizer, the other a simpleton. Hardly the kind of people fit for our progressive world.
The Reverend John Bruce was an incompetent preacher, as our narrator points out: “I saw him lean forward, look down at his listeners, and cry pressingly, as though answering muddled questions—perhaps his own: ‘He loves us!’ With that the sermon was over. . . .” His sermon made no sense but for this one three-word distillation. His life, sad and pitiful by Ms. Neale-Swinton’s measure, was lived in fraternal devotion to his broken brother. He loved him!
Six more houses reveal dozens of more personalities: Boarding-house types, a Grandmother, Old College Faculty, New College Faculty, Students, First Loves, Last Loves. The street was history to a life, to hundreds of lives.
Meanwhile, the workmen continued to throw off the red pantiles to make room for the university. Modernism is deconstruction.
Though all is in flux, all change need not be destructive to human life. Change can either be like a cancer or like a tree; growth can kill or bear fruit. Modernity seeks technical order without a moral order and is therefore doomed to ugly success. As Santayana said in a theological context: “As to modernism, it is suicide. It is the last of those concessions to the spirit of the world which half-believers and double-minded prophets have always been found making; but it is a mortal concession.” In a changing world, we must have a rock on which to stand. We must have gardens, if only to remind us of another garden.
The importance of books like Burke Street for rootless urban savages like myself is that it reminds us of a place and time that might have been, that is not, and yet might be. It is a longing for the domestic life, for home—that better City. It is also a sad reminder of how much more fit we seem for the life of the bustling university than the neat little neighborhood.
But it is not Burke Street for which we long—for that street, like this work, is already so joined to the gray growing sprawl that it cannot be preserved. It is in the meadows beyond Burke Street that we look for our path; search for roads not taken; and long to walk in lovely lanes where men still look up from their work, and children play ancient games, and women hang the wash in the windy summer air, the laundry fluttering like flags of a Secret Kingdom.