It was the spring of 1944; one could discern the season as one glimpsed the young leaves hesitantly peeping out from the trees that lined the tramway along the Bristol Road. Beyond that, Birmingham remained its proud but grimy old self, much as Victorian industry had left it, licking its wounds now from the Blitz two years before, but throbbing as busily as ever. Some people were looking ahead to a New Age, though it was still hard to see much further into the future than to the coming Second Front, and as a schoolboy I was too obsessed with the approaching School Certificate Examination to spend much time on futuristic fantasies. All the same, I knew a place where one could, once a month, dream in good company of a brave world that was yet to be.
Just five tram stops along the Bristol Road was a neighbourhood meeting place that, once every month, hosted the get-together of the Birmingham Esperanto Club. So far as I ever made out, the Club had evolved in the ‘twenties around a little circle of prim schoolmistresses; still there in 1944, they opened the meetings, kept the notes, arranged for tea and cakes and played the piano. But the Club had blossomed around and beyond them. Here to my adolescent delight I could find myself conversing with Free Frenchmen, grave Dutch sergeants, jolly sailors from Denmark and a great many other figures, high and low, English or otherwise, whom I might otherwise never have encountered. But my wise mother, Esperantist for a decade, had ushered me into the Club to broaden my perspectives, as she put it.
The understanding was naturally that one must converse all the afternoon in Esperanto, but what of it? Having mastered Latin conjugations and declensions, and found no use for them except to pass examinations, I was fascinated to encounter a language blessed with common sense virtues, a melodious sound and having rules of grammar that could be set out on a mere postcard. Why hadn’t Julius Caesar and his cronies thought of making Latin like that, two thousand years ago, instead of encumbering schoolboys down the ages with hic haec hoc and the like?
Caesar’s failure had ultimately been made good by a nineteenth century Polish ophthalmologist, Dr Ludwig Zamenhof. Having grown up in a racially and linguistically troubled environment he knew how the failings of communication could sustain tensions and seed mistrust. After experimenting for a decade or more he launched his project for an international auxiliary language – Esperanto, as it became known – in 1887. By the time the twentieth century dawned it was spreading like wildfire; two world wars threatened to put an abrupt stop to its progress, but after each it was destined to rebound. And there we were, a dozen nationalities, in provincial England in 1944, chattering away, joking, debating and espousing our various causes all in Dr Zamenhof’s language as if we had been born to it.
And almost before we knew what was happening, we found ourselves singing together Esperanto’s own rousing hymn:
En la mondo venis nova sento
Tra la mondo iris forta voko;……..
Per flugiloj de facila vento
Nun de loko flugu ĝi al loko……
For indeed, as it seemed to us – “a new belief had come into the world and a strong voice was resounding across it, wafted from place to place on the wings of a gentle breeze.” Such had been Zamenhof’s hope and belief from the start, and his poetic view of a better future had proved infectious. His language was indeed saturated with poetry; there had been artificial languages before and there have been others since, but some were frankly ugly to the ear and others suffered from the sterility of the philological study rooms in which they had been screwed together. Esperanto is not like that.; it is melodious and harmonious as well as being a better precision tool for sculpting ideas than any other language I have encountered. Ludwig must have been a jolly man, as well as a genius.
Now if all this is true – and I believe it to be so – why did Esperanto not take the world by storm long years ago? Why does it still bubble somewhere in the background, waiting for the world to come to its senses and accept it? Perhaps, I tell myself, it is all the fault of narrowly nationally minded politicians, peddling the greater expediency of global conquest by their own particular languages; yesterday French was all the rage, today it is English, tomorrow it will no doubt be Chinese. Or maybe one should blame the professional wordsmiths, arguing that a mere ophthalmologist cannot possibly have got it right. Esperanto has been decried, ridiculed and written off a hundred times, yet still it bubbles cheerfully on. Twiddle the knobs of your short wave radio and you will soon run into it, whether from Beijing or Vancouver, perhaps spiced with the heroic tones of “La Espero”:
Sur neŭtrale lingva fundamento
Comprenante unu la alian
La popoloj faros en consento
Unu grandan rondon familian……
That is it, precisely – “On a neutral linguistic foundation, understanding one another, the peoples will join together in one great family circle.”
And one day, as I still believe, the peoples of the world may indeed have the good sense to do it