(T. S. Eliot—a British subject, anyway—and a definite cat)
Being an Englishman of a certain age and type, I rarely speak to strangers in the street, though I always speak to cats—and strangers sometimes speak to me. Not long ago, a woman, elderly and rather frail, came out of her house as I was passing and asked me to open a tin of baked beans for her: the ring pull was stiff and her fingers were arthritic. In fact, the ring pull came off in my hand and, though she said she owned an old-fashioned tin opener and looked for it while I waited just inside her front door, she was unable to find it.
What struck me in retrospect was the fact of my being left for several minutes standing on my own inside her home. She’d never set eyes on me before. Did she trust me or was it more a matter of her not mistrusting anybody? Had she just been extraordinarily fortunate in her previous dealings with random strangers? Thinking of some of the people that I’d seen, and passed, within a few minutes’ walk of her house, I could only think it lucky for her that it was me, and not any of them, that she’d happened upon.
At the time of the horsemeat scandal about five years ago, someone on the news observed that trust takes a long time to establish but no time at all to lose. True enough, and true also of other things, which take so long to build up but can be so quickly screwed up, national health services, national public library systems and the like—civilisations, even.
‘Zounds, the room is already full of devils!’ Gustave Doré, from Œuvres de François Rabelais (Works of François Rabelais), Paris, 1854. (Source: archive.org)
So who do we trust? Two or three generations ago, a lot of people would have opted for doctors, teachers, bank managers, clergymen, the police, solicitors. Not all of those groups have lasted well in this respect. Politicians may never have been especially trustworthy but trust in them was probably never quite as damaged or as threadbare as it is now.
Who else is there? Family, friends, perhaps neighbours – and? Some people ‘trust’ the internet or social media – or yes, journalists (some journalists).
‘Artists are the antennae of the race’, Ezra Pound wrote, remembering Shelley and adding, characteristically, ‘but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists.’ Adrian Stokes wrote later, in Stones of Rimini, that ‘Poets alone are trustworthy interpreters’ – which sounds a little Poundian, and it should come as no surprise to learn that Stokes was drawn to the materials and settings of his major work by Pound’s Cantos.
George Santayana, who had presumably had a few unlucky encounters at the local pub, wrote in his Soliloquies in England: ‘Trust the man who hesitates in his speech and is quick and steady in action, but beware of long arguments and long beards.’
And here is John Ruskin—who did, indeed, sport a long beard, certainly in his later years and was not averse to long arguments—explaining in his Fors Clavigera (addressed, a wee bit optimistically, to ‘The Workmen of England’) some of the ramifications of his title:
‘Certain authoritative conditions of life, of its happiness, and its honour, are therefore stated, in this book, as far as they may be, conclusively and indisputably, at present known. I do not enter into any debates, nor advance any opinions. With what is debateable I am unconcerned; and when I only have opinions about things, I do not talk about them. I attack only what cannot on any possible ground be defended; and state only what I know to be incontrovertibly true.’
‘You will therefore find that whatever is set down in Fors for you is assuredly true, – inevitable, – trustworthy to the uttermost, – however strange.*’
Followed by this excellent footnote: ‘*Observe, this is only asserted of its main principles; not of minor and accessory points. I may be entirely wrong in the explanation of a text, or mistake the parish schools of St. Matthias for St. Matthew’s, over and over again. I have so large a field to work in that this cannot be helped. But none of these minor errors are of the least consequence to the business in hand.’
Now there was a – trustworthy – man with work to do. And rather wonderful, the comment that ‘when I only have opinions about things, I do not talk about them’. Lately, of course, a great many people feel no need to be informed about things or to know about things: why would they when they have opinions to voice?
Hindsight, even in fiction, is a wonderful thing. But—in or out of fiction—there is a need to adjust your opinions should the facts, or new knowledge of the facts, demand it. As Ford Madox Ford’s John Dowell remarks of Edward Ashburnham: ‘You would have said that he was just exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with. And I trusted mine—and it was madness.’
 Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 297.
 Adrian Stokes, The Quattro Cento and The Stones of Rimini (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 20, 26.
 George Santayana, ‘The British Character’, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922; Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1967), 32.
 John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), II, 379, 380.
 Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 16.