Sailing sadly beyond belief

Expanded from a piece written for The Finger, October 2005.

One of the most individual books ever written about the South Devon area is Under Sail Through Red Devon, by Raymond B. Cattell, published in 1937. The author, a young man from Torquay born just over a century ago, describes in it his adventures around the South Devon coast and along the estuaries in a small boat. He even, in a canoe, makes his way against the flow onto Dartmoor.
The style is maybe a little self-indulgent for today’s tastes, but those hot, sultry 1930s summers, in what sounds like an almost sub-tropical South Hams, are beautifully evoked. The river towns and creekside villages were, it seems, full of beautiful young women who, leaning over ancient bridges or sitting seductively on rocks, were eager to engage the author in dalliance, intellectual discourse, or both at once. It is altogether a joyous, youthful book, speaking vividly of a long-vanished innocent world, and I have quarried from it for my own books and articles, relishing his descriptions of places and his debate with the schoolmaster at Aveton Gifford (who, shortly before that time, would have been teaching, and thrashing, my father), on the pronunciation of the village’s name. Amongst much else he visits Berry Pomeroy Castle, and apparently experiences one of its most famous hauntings, and speculates on the origins and contents of South Hams White Ale, a strange concoction once drunk in the Modbury and Kingsbridge area.

Contemplating the River Dart, he reflects that:

‘The waters of the Dart must curl into cynical little smiles at having to flow past three such very different institutions in so short a distance – first Buckfast Abbey with its attempt to revivify a past age; then Dartington with its free and intelligent children trained for a constructive life of peace, and finally Dartmouth Naval College whose sons are hardened to be dogs of war to protect alike the ancient and modern, the intelligent and the cloistered.’

Sailing enthusiasts regard the volume as a classic, as do many lovers of the Devon landscape who have never set foot on a boat. I know several people who have described it as a favourite book, if not their favourite of all time. They are soon going to be very unhappy with me indeed.

Because all is not lovable. We know now, of course, that the 1930s was one of the least ‘innocent’ decades in recorded history, and though that cannot be blamed on Cattell, the views he held played their part. There is an anti-Semitic element in the book which, though hardly unusual for the time, is jarring in someone supposed to be a progressive young intellectual. He also expresses a boringly predictable desire to blow up people’s homes along the coast because they spoil his view. And he does rather harp on the need for the more intelligent of us to breed lots of children, which seems cranky, if not a little sinister. So who was he, and what was he about?

Raymond B. Cattell (1905-98) was, during much of his lifetime, regarded as one of the great behavioural psychologists of the 20th century. When he published Under Sail Through Red Devon he was best known for devising ‘culture free’ intelligence tests. He lived in Dartington for a while, and taught at the famous progressive school. In the late 1930s he moved to the USA, where he remained for the rest of his long life, holding distinguished academic posts, publishing numerous books and papers, winning awards. He married three times, fathered several children, and lived surrounded by admiring students and disciples. He was proud to be a Devon man, even giving the county’s name to one of his offspring. He retired to Hawaii because, he said, there was nowhere else in America that could satisfy a Devonian. He was courteous and gentle in manner, and retained to the end his eye for a pretty girl, always ready to charm and flirt.

Cattell’s psychology was of the sort that seeks to reduce everything to a mathematical formula. This might be enough to put many people off, but it gets far darker, because he was a life-long proponent of the dubious science of eugenics. He openly admired Nazism, and from the 1940s onwards he developed his ideas into a new religion (his word) called Beyondism. This is a social and political philosophy so crude and callous as to make the selfish individualism of Ayn Rand look positively altruistic, and the policies of Thatcher (and her successors) seem actively benign.

Beyondism is old-fashioned social Darwinism with a vengeance. The rich and successful are obviously the highest types of humanity, and should be rewarded and encouraged to breed. The rest of us are incompetent failures, and will have to go to the wall. Rich countries should stop helping poor countries, leaving them to perish in anarchy and chaos. Races should be kept apart. Concepts like humanism, equality, respect, compassion and dignity are sentimental and obsolete, as, indeed, are most human beings. While Cattell doesn’t actually advocate genocide, there’s a need, he says, to think about ‘phasing out’ incompetent populations.

These are not the ravings of an isolated fanatic, remember, but a world-famous academic who has taught at Harvard. Nor can such sentiments be dismissed as private opinions, regrettable, perhaps, but of no relevance to the value of his work. They were an integral part of it. Yet Cattell’s obnoxious doctrines provoked little scholarly dissent. He never, it is true, made much effort to widely propagate them: as most of us are too stupid to understand them anyway, there was little point. The local publisher who re-issued ‘Red Devon’ in two volumes in the 1980s (Adventure Through Red Devon and Under Sail Through South Devon and Dartmoor, Obelisk Publications, Exeter, 1984 and 1985), who obviously liked and respected Cattell, knew nothing of Beyondism, and did not thank me when I told him. But the decades of silence from academe regarding these ideas is disturbing.

Raymond B’s boat was finally scuttled, however, in 1997, when he was scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Psychological Foundation. There was immediate uproar, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that he was a fascist and racist (somebody had finally noticed). Tired and ill, the 92-year-old Cattell responded by saying that he’d never wanted the award anyway, he’d grown up in a very different world, and all he’d ever done was encourage his brightest young friends to have babies.

All very sad. Is this the young man who sat in his boat and contemplated the crowds at Torquay regatta, on a long-ago summer evening, and described it all so memorably?

‘Often I have paused on my oars, alone out here in the velvet blackness of the bay, watching the eruption of glittering life, listening to the faint snatches of music and song drifting across the waters, thinking of lovely faces, and round limbs that danced in the summer night, in the light of the fair, a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, tonight. Thinking of the exuberance of life in the strange glare of carnival, and how, amidst the glitter and the gold, one seems to come nearer to some hidden truth about the oneness of all the streams of life… Then I would drift in nearer to the hurrying stream and catch a glimpse of happy faces and bright eyes. Here a young couple, perhaps a honeymoon couple, laughing as they whirl into the crowd, bearing coloured balloons. There an older man with streaks of grey in his hair, recapturing perhaps for a moment the carefree joys of youth. In the shadow of yonder palm tree a youth is stealing his first kiss. And one knows that, the probabilities of life being what they are, there will be some for whom this night will be, beneath the gaiety and laughter, a night of inner loneliness and heartbreak.’

How can a man with such a capacity for empathy come to de-humanise and devalue his fellow beings to such an extent? And what do I do now with Under Sail Through Red Devon? Banish it from my shelves and expunge all references to it from my writings? I haven’t, though I know people who would, and would expect all their friends to do the same. But I’ll never enjoy it as I did. Patriotic Devonians can, however, be glad of one thing. Cattell lied about being one. He was actually born in Staffordshire.