According to Wikipedia, today (8 October 2020) is the 100th anniversary of the book publication in the United States of P.G. Wodehouse’s novel The Little Warrior, subsequently published in the UK as Jill the Reckless. As the Wikipedia entry quotes the definitive Wodehouse bibliography in support of its claim, I assume it is correct.
I’m going to refer to the book as Jill the Reckless, because that’s the title I have always known it by, and I also think it a much better, and less patronising, title than The Little Warrior (which is the description repeatedly used to describe Jill Mariner throughout the text because of her refusal to admit defeat in life).
It isn’t a “classic” Wodehouse title – I doubt if it is anyone’s absolute favourite – but it’s a lovely book in its own right, romantic, funny, and a little deeper than usual, emotionally speaking. It is quite unlike the later Wodehouse novels; it feels more meant.
I think I’ve written about it before. If I mistake not, I contributed an article about it to one of the Wodehouse societies in the mid-1990s, my first incursion into print (if you set aside the fact that the editor, disliking my style, recast every sentence so as to the give the impression of something hastily translated from the Serbo-Croat). But I can’t remember what I wrote, and don’t intend to try and find out.
Jill is first seen by us as the fiancée of the handsome-but-conventional Sir Derek Underhill, an ambitious young politician with an Aunt-Agatha-like mother. Jill makes a bad impression on the mother, leading to further mishaps including Jill’s arrest for brawling in the street (protecting an escaped parrot from the attacks of two blokes), and thence to Sir Derek’s decision to break the engagement. She goes over to America and joins the chorus of a new “musical fantasy” called The Rose of America, written in imitation of Gilbert and Sullivan. It is this which dominates the rest of the book.
Wodehouse knew the Broadway stage, having been the lyricist for many hit shows including a series with Jerome Kern, and he has a lot of fun at the expense of dilettante writers trying to revive comic opera in a culture entirely unsuited to it. (Wodehouse loved Gilbert and Sullivan, but he recognised that the Jazz Era was not the time to think of imitating them.)
Of course, there must a hero, and in this case he is a large, untidy writer, much given to Swedish exercises, called Wally Mason: “He reminded her of one of those large, loose, shaggy dogs that break things in drawing-rooms but make admirable companions for the open road” – an obvious idealised version of Wodehouse himself. (Wodehouse heroes are usually called things like Bill or Sam or Mike; it takes time to adjust to one called Wally.)
Interestingly, the thing that keeps Jill and Wally apart through most of the novel is not the usual farcical misunderstanding (mistaking a business lunch with an actress for a romantic assignation, etc.), nor even his or her mistaken belief of being in love with someone else, but something subtler. Jill knows she does not love Sir Derek Underhill any more, but nevertheless he’s still in her heart, cluttering it up:
“Suppose you had a room, and it was full – of things. Furniture. And there wasn’t any space left. You – you couldn’t put anything else in till you had taken all that out, could you? It might not be worth anything, but it would still be there, taking up all the room…. My heart’s full, Wally dear. I know it’s just lumber that’s choking it up, but it’s difficult to get it out.” It is only in the last few pages that the old bore is finally removed from the lumber-room.
So we have romance, and a backstage story of Broadway (Wally Mason is the play doctor who manages to fix The Rose of America and turn it into a hit); then there is Freddie Rooke, an excellent early-Wodehouse knut, more kind than clever, and even half a chapter written from the perspective of Bill the Parrot.
The book is slow to start: if Wodehouse had written it even five years later, he would have taken greater care to keep the reader’s interest high during the slightly under-powered Act 1. But once it is properly going, it is irresistible. Perhaps it is Jill the Reckless herself who “makes” the book, with her fearlessness and her occasional berserk moods. Having been recently reading a little bit about Wodehouse’s wife Ethel, I wonder if she was at least partly a model for the character….
I’m going to write a bit of something about the background to Alan Plater’s great 1985 comedy-drama The Beiderbecke Affair. If you’re a big fan of Plater and of the series, you may know most of what I’m going to say, but even if that’s the case, there’s a little bit at the end that you probably don’t already know. You might not be interested in it, but you won’t have known about it.
The tale of how the series came to the screen is a shaggy-dog story worthy of Plater himself. A thoroughly professional screen-writer, as well as a droll and witty one, Alan Plater had been commissioned at the end of the 1970s to adapt J.B. Priestley’s The Good Companions for television. He was asked to do it in 13 hour-long episodes, but he said he could do it in nine. When asked about the other four weeks, he said: “Easy. I’ll write you a four-part original. I fancy doing a non-violent thriller.” And so the deal was done.
What he came up with was a little thing called Get Lost! starring Alun Armstrong and Bridget Turner as two schoolteachers from Leeds caught up in a low-key thriller plot about… well, this, as explained by Alan Plater himself in his autobiography Doggin’ Around:
“The idea came from a newspaper item. It said that according to official records, twenty thousand people disappeared every year. I think that was the number. It might have been more, but whichever way you looked at it, it was a lot of people and a lot of unexplained disappearances.”
Get Lost! concerns the disappearance of the husband of Judy Threadgold (Bridget Turner) and her investigations, alongside fellow-teacher Neville Keaton (Alun Armstrong), to find out what happened to him. There’s a bit with a gun, but no one dies, and no one gets significantly hurt. It’s all about small events, little niggles, and droll dialogue. The series was broadcast in 1981.
What has all this to do with The Beiderbecke Affair? Well, Get Lost! didn’t set the world on fire, but it did well enough for Plater to suggest a sequel, provisionally entitled Get Lost! Revisited. (I think he should have called it Get Stuffed! or possibly Get Knotted!, but that’s another story.) He wrote the scripts but then discovered that Alun Armstrong wasn’t available for the filming. So, waste not, want not, he revised the scripts with different character names, the production team brought together an entirely new cast, and Beiderbecke was born. Without Get Lost!, The Beiderbecke Affair would quite simply never have happened.
All straight so far? Good.
But there’s more, and here we’re venturing into deep waters, because what I’m going to say is pure speculation. It could be nonsense, explained by that old jester, coincidence. All the same, though, let’s just imagine something.
Back in 1979 or thereabouts, when Plater was turning his attention to adapting Priestley, let’s suppose he was reading some of Priestley’s other stuff as well. Let’s also suppose that one day he was turning the pages of Priestley’s 1949 volume of essays called Delight, which lists and describes some of the things that most delighted Priestley, including “Reading Detective Stories in Bed”:
“We enthusiasts are not fascinated by violence or the crime element in these narratives. Often, like myself, we deplore the blood-and-bones atmosphere and wish the detective novelists were not so conventional about offering us murder all the time. (A superb detective story could be written – and I have half a mind to write it – about people who were not involved in any form of crime. About disappearance or a double life, for example.)”
Those words could almost have been written by Alan Plater in his pitch for Get Lost! A mystery, without violence, without a crime, possibly about a disappearance? Now, there’s a thought….
As I say, this could just be coincidence. (And to keep the record straight, Priestley did write something like what he had outlined, in his 1967 novel It’s An Old Country.) But doesn’t it make sense to suppose that Alan Plater designed his little four-part thriller as an addendum to the Priestley: a deliberate tip of the hat to the Yorkshire sage, elaborating on one of his own ideas?
Note: in this blog I have referred to: Doggin’ Around by Alan Plater (2006), The Beiderbecke Affair by William Gallagher (2012), and Delight by J.B. Priestley (1949).
The following is an unrespectable rewrite of Tennyson’s 1854 poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” I wrote, if that’s the word, this version back in 2018, in the context of a wilfully ruinous Brexit. As such, there is a kind of satirical intent, but my version is not intended to be funny. I only wanted to bring out some aspects of the event that Tennyson seemed to be wilfully avoiding. I have kept most of Tennyson’s original. I have put my occasional changes and additions in italics. I am not a poet, and certainly do not intend to measure myself against Tennyson. However, I do remain proud of rhyming “hundred” with “dunderhead.” It’s not a “proper” rhyme, of course, but no worse than “hundred” and “blunder’d.”
Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. “Which guns?” No sound he made, But pointed the wrong way, the Stupid old dunderhead. So to the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there no man dismay’d, When ev’ry soldier knew Some one had blunder’d? Theirs was to make reply, Theirs was to reason why, Not just to do and die, Docile six hundred! Still, to the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volley’d and thunder’d; Storm’d at with shot and shell, Madly they rode pell-mell. Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred.
Unsheathed their sabres bare, Muscle and flesh to tear, Hacking the gunners there, Charging an army, while All the world wonder’d: Ploughed through the battery-smoke, Right thro’ the line they broke; Cossack and Russian Kill’d by the sabre-stroke Shatter’d and sunder’d. Kill them! Kill all you can! Slaughter each horse and man, Manic six hundred! Dodg’d they the shell and shot, Tasted the blood and snot, Kill’d and rode back, but not, Not the six hundred.
Corpses to right of them, Corpses to left of them, Corpses right under them Gutted and sunder’d; Riddled by shot and shell, Both horse and hero fell, Gored and dismember’d well, Crunch’d in the jaws of Death, Chew’d in the mouth of Hell, Till they who still had breath Saw it and chunder’d, All that was left of them, Left of six hundred.
When will the madness fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wonder’d. Grieve for the charge they made! Grieve for the Light Brigade, Crazy six hundred!
In those last minutes, the Great Leaders returned to their deep bunkers, and the missiles soared and dropped.
In every part of the world, every person that there is felt one searing moment of pain, as flesh stripped away.
In the silence that then fell, each person looked down at a bony arm or leg, clean and lithe and tough, and each person, now burned free of stomach, brain, heart and sex, of all the appetites that make a mortal, felt light and free.
Testing first one leg and then the other, and feeling their new lightness, they grinned with bony skulls and began, slow at first, to dance.
There remained in them no hunger or weariness, no greed, no need to slave, no earth’s burden. Without breath or heartbeat, to them even time meant nothing. They danced without ceasing, each movement a joy and a celebration. They danced to music that was not heard in the ears but, like all the best music, felt inside their heads.
In time, the clouds passed, and the Great Leaders, aged and bowed, emerged from their bunkers, to be greeted with a sight of such grooving and jiving and revelry as had never been known.
As one, the Great Leaders frowned deeply and tapped a foot, without speaking.
And the dead, abashed at their foolish behaviour, stopped dancing, first those nearest to the bunkers and then, in a wave, those further and further off.
They bowed their heads in shame and, one by one, they returned to their work.
It’s a novel, that’s all: a novel that happens to have not as many words as some other novels do.
Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, states that “Publishers and literary award societies typically consider a novella’s word count to be between 17,000 and 40,000 words.” That is, taking as a rough guide that 1,000 words cover about 3 printed pages, a novella is a novel of 120 pages (not including title page etc.) or fewer. Print size is a significant factor in this, of course.
Some famous novellas: A Christmas Carol, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Time Machine, Candide, Silas Marner, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Loved One, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, Wide Sargasso Sea, True Grit.
The pathetic thing is that despite the existence of these great, famous, beloved and admired works, the “novella” (i.e. the novel that happens to be short) is still widely devalued, simply on the grounds of word count. There was genuine controversy when Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 because some considered it to be “too short” to be a proper novel.
The above would perhaps not matter so much… I am sure Ian McEwan has learned to bear the sting… if it were not for the fact that this weird attitude affects what gets published in the first place.
Broadly speaking, a writer can only get their novella published if they happen to be a “name” already. The first time writer is advised, counterintuitively, that they must go big on their first attempt; anything small won’t even get looked at.
See, for instance, this guy called Chuck whose best advice to the novella-writer was: “finish this novella and stick it in a drawer. Then write a few novels, get them published, and gather a moderately loyal readership. When you do, a publisher will release your novella in a small print run and your loyal readers will gobble it up.” Thanks, Chuck!
But, of course, I mustn’t mock him. He’s only reflecting the actual attitude in the publishing world. The simple fact is that in today’s environment a first-time writer like H.G. Wells would not have been able to get The Time Machine published; nor would Rebecca West have been able to publish TheReturn of the Soldier. They would have had to limber up first with some bloated slab of prolix garrulity.
The intelligent reader may guess that I have myself written a novella and am having serious qualms as to whether it will be touched. Oh, intelligent reader, you are so sharp you may cut yourself. You are quite right.
I have written a novella, I confess it. It is short. Not a word is wasted. I have sent sample chapters to agents, and I am awaiting a positive response.
The longer I wait, the greater my qualms become. It is the best, and actually the biggest, thing I have written. If this does not work, what will? The voices that nag in my head become louder; all the louder to drown out the silence of the agents.
But that isn’t the point. No, intelligent reader, it is not, in spite of your quizzical look. I like short novels myself; I prefer them to long ones, all else being equal, because I know there will be no padding. I am impatient, especially in these times. The point of writing is communication. If that can be done quickly and precisely, is that a fault?
As you may know, P.G. Wodehouse is one of my literary obsessions. I do a separate blog about those Wodehouse books for which the illustrator Ionicus did covers in the 1970s and 1980s. However, I’m going to write something here which is quite separate from the subject of that blog, concerning a matter which Ionicus didn’t illustrate.
In 1940, P.G. Wodehouse and his wife Ethel were living in Le Touquet in northern France. They were still there when the Nazis invaded. Wodehouse was taken prisoner by the Germans and, like other “male aliens” under the age of 60, was held in internment camps (at Loos, Liège, Huy and Tost) between September 1940 and June 1941. He was released a few months before his sixtieth birthday, and he made five broadcasts from Berlin about his experiences. I don’t propose to go into the ins and outs of this episode, except to say that he was not a traitor and his broadcasts were not pro-Nazi propaganda, but at the same time his actions did demonstrate a near-criminal idiocy which Wodehouse later acknowledged and of which he was thoroughly ashamed.
But I do want to focus on some of the things Wodehouse wrote about his time in the internment camps, both because of what they tell us about Wodehouse and his comic style, and also because they might explain some of the later misunderstandings that have hovered over the broadcasts.
The first thing he wrote about his experiences was an article called “My War With Germany” which was published in the American Saturday Evening Post on 19 July 1941. I won’t be talking about that, even though it sounds fascinating, because I haven’t read it yet (though I did order a copy of the magazine from the US yesterday).
However, I have read most of the other published materials, including the texts of the broadcasts themselves and some published extracts from a full length manuscript which he wrote but which he decided in the end (very wisely) not to release to the public, except for some passages which appeared in the book Performing Flea: A Self-Portrait in Letters (1953).
Performing Flea is mostly a collection of letters from Wodehouse to his friend William Townend about life, writing, pekes, and associated subjects. These letters were extensively rewritten by Wodehouse prior to publication, but they remain a valuable and faithful portrait of the author.
The second half of the book relates to Wodehouse’s war years and includes the above-mentioned extracts from the camp book (which he foolishly wanted to call Wodehouse in Wonderland). The Penguin edition of Performing Flea, which appeared in 1961, also included the texts of the broadcasts as they were published in the magazine Encounter in 1954. These texts were rewritten and tidied up versions of what Wodehouse had actually read out over the airwaves in 1941, but broadly speaking they accurately reflect the tone and content of the broadcasts. The actual broadcast texts have since been published, in Wodehouse at War by Iain Sproat (1981) and in P.G. Wodehouse: A Biography by Frances Donaldson (1982), and I have compared the two versions.
Reading the war material as presented in my Penguin edition of Performing Flea, I was forcibly struck by the strange effect of the Wodehouse tone, which had been developed for application to light romantic comedies about earls, butlers, young men in spats, and carefree young things, now applied to harsher experiences.
Wodehouse and his fellow prisoners had first been taken to Loos Prison where they were assigned cells – his was “a snug little apartment measuring twelve feet by eight” containing a bed, a table, a chair, a small basin and tap, and “what Chic Sale in his famous book, The Specialist, calls ‘a family one-holer.'” The walls were covered with drawings executed by French convicts, “very much in the vein which you would expect from French convicts.”
Wodehouse shared this “snug little apartment” with two other prisoners. Their diet consisted of soup – “You just took a swig, and then another swig to see if it had really tasted as peculiar as as it had seemed to be the first time” – and bread. The bread was so tough that it had to be bitten apart, and Wodehouse was the only one in the cell with teeth strong enough to do this, so he did the biting for all three of them.
After a few days of this, cooped up in the cell together except for half an hour every morning standing with all the other prisoners in a small yard, the smell in their cell took on a distinctive character:
“The cell smell (or stink) is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number 44 at Loos was one of those strapping, broad-shouldered, up-and-coming young stenches which stand with both feet on the ground and look the world in the eye. We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet. And when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out, we took it almost as a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.”
(I should add that all the above quotations are from the Encounter version of the broadcasts, and in every case the wording is identical with or very similar to what was actually spoken in 1941.)
It was when I read the above passage that what Wodehouse was doing came into focus. Because in factual terms he was telling us the plain truth, with names and dates complete. He told us that the internees were crammed three per cell when the cells were designed to hold one each, that they were fed a horribly meagre diet and let out of their tiny cells for only half an hour a day, and that their cell stank horribly. The indignity of when they had to use the toilet can be easily imagined.
And yet he made all of this sound funny! He brought to it the same detached and amused tone that is also in his novels, so that it is easy to forget that it was he, himself, that had gone through it all.
After a week or so at Loos, the internees were moved on to Liège barracks by cattle truck. This is how Wodehouse summed up the experience in the Encounter version of the broadcasts (not in the original): “I suppose a merciful oblivion comes over a sardine before it is wedged into the tin, but if it could feel, I know now just how it would feel.” Take away the humour, leaving only what Wodehouse is telling us, and his wish for “merciful oblivion” stands out.
At Liège, there was an initial catering problem, that is, a lack of utensils for the men to eat out of. For instance, no soup bowls.
“At the back of the barrack yard there was an enormous rubbish heap into which Belgian soldiers through the ages had been dumping old mess tins, with bits chipped off them, bottles, kettles, and containers for motor oil. We dug these out, gave them a wash and brush up, and there we were.
“I had the good fortune to secure one of the motor-oil containers. It added to the taste of the soup that little something which the others hadn’t got.”
Again, take away the Wodehouse spin, and the plight of the creator of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster and Lord Emsworth comes into a startling focus – and that is without taking into account the further comment on his sojourn in Liège that “without wishing to be indelicate, I may say that until you have helped to clean out a Belgian soldiers’ latrine, you ain’t seen NUTTIN’.”
Their next billet was at the Citadel of Huy (pronounced something like “oui” – hence the explanation in the original broadcast script that “when I say Huy, I don’t mean ‘we’ – I mean Huy”). Due to a shortage of blankets, for the first three weeks Wodehouse had no blankets at night at all and had to make do with a raincoat. (In addition, he, like the others, had to sleep on the floor, with only a thin layer of smelly straw on it.) The Kommandant, a stickler for parades, kept ordering extra parades through the day for the flimsiest reasons.
“Take it by and large, then, ‘tough’ is the adjective I would use to describe those weeks in Huy. Our spirits were at their lowest ebb…. there was a rather noticeable absence of squareness about the meals.”
That last sentence did not appear in the original broadcast, but the message was still clear in the broadcast. The following passage, in the slightly elaborated Encounter version, drives it home to those willing to see:
“In order to supplement this meagre fare [of ‘bread, near-coffee, and a watery soup made from dry vegetables”], we began to experiment with foods…. I myself relied mostly on wooden matches. I used to chew them between the front teeth, champ into a pulp, and swallow. I would not say it was filling, but it helped.
“I found, too, that Tennyson’s early poems make quite good eating, as do Shakespeare’s sonnets, especially if you have some cheese to go with them. And when the canteen opened, we could sometimes get cheese…. Wrap this up in a page of Shakespeare’s Sonnets or ‘When Claribel low lieth’, and add some wooden matches, and you had something which, while not perhaps a gala dinner with coloured balloons and squeakers, was at any rate something.”
In the eighth week of their stay at Huy, which as we have seen was characterised by a lack of basic bedding, pointless parades, and a diet that had to be supplemented by wood and paper, they got news that they were to moved again – for what proved to be the last time, to a lunatic asylum in Tost, Upper Silesia.
It was not in any version of the broadcasts, but in the extract from Wodehouse in Wonderland published in Performing Flea, that he said: “There is a flat dullness about the countryside which has led many a visitor to say, ‘If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?'”
Wodehouse found Tost to be an improvement on the previous places, and there is, in his account of the months spent there, a worrying sense of wishing to praise the conditions there.
As I have said before, I don’t wish to get too involved with the ethics of what Wodehouse did. However, one important point to note is that the broadcasts were made from Berlin, at the heart of Nazi Germany. If they had been too obviously critical, they might not have been permitted to go out. Wodehouse’s primary intention was to reassure his friends, especially in America, that he was well. But apart from that, there was a very delicate balance to strike. If they were not permitted be over-critical, it is also clear that Wodehouse wished to use them to tell something like the truth. Dressed up in jokes, yes, but still, as far as one can see, the truth. And that is, it seems to me, a very remarkable thing.
Right at the start of the first broadcast, Wodehouse had taken care to tell his listeners something important – again in the form of a joke. This is the authentic broadcast text, not the revised later version which is less pointed in its wording:
“It is just possible that my listeners may seem to detect in this little talk of mine a slight goofiness, a certain disposition to ramble in my remarks. If so, the matter, as Bertie Wooster would say, is susceptible of a ready explanation. I have just emerged into the outer world after forty-nine weeks of Civil Internment in a German internment camp and the effects have not entirely worn off. I have not yet quite recovered that perfect mental balance for which in the past I was so admired by one and all.”
In short, he stated quite simply and plainly that his time in internment had left him feeling disturbed in his mental balance. That in itself implies something about the internment. Perhaps there was also in this a pre-emptive apology for anything he might go on to say.
Wodehouse was a compulsive joker. Even in private correspondence, his unique phraseology, at an angle to English as spoken by anyone else, still showed through. In circumstances like the ones he now found himself in, it was a two-edged sword. It allowed him to say in these broadcasts things he might not otherwise have got away with. But it also meant that it was all too easy for everyone, not just the Nazis but any English and American listeners too, to notice only that he seemed to be saying internment was fun, and to ignore the hard substance under the tone.
Re-reading his novel Spring Fever lately, which he wrote in 1943 though it wasn’t published till 1948, something stuck in my memory. The hero, Mike Cardinal, has been wooing Teresa in a light, joking manner for most of the novel until she finally asks if he doesn’t think his manner is too flippant to be taken seriously. Mike replies in anguish:
“There you are! That’s it! I felt all along that that was the trouble. You think I’m not sincere, because I clown. I knew it. All the time I was saying to myself, ‘Lay off it, you poor sap! Change the record,’ but I couldn’t. I had to clown. It was a kind of protective armour against shyness.”
Was this, written when Wodehouse had at last realised his flippant broadcasts had been taken as treason in a time of war, a disguised apology for his folly?
I’m going to tell you the story of a case of technical assault which took place in the lobby of the House of Commons in the year 1893. What makes the incident especially unusual is that the assailant was a Member of Parliament and the victim was a Punch cartoonist.
This little tale intrigued me when I found out about it a year or two ago. I meant to write about it then, but I never did. So I’ll do it now.
Harry Furniss (1854-1925) was one of the major late Victorian caricaturists.
His drawings are always full of life and fire, even if on occasion they seem to my eyes a bit harsh. Furniss may be known to some today as the illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s dreadful children’s books Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), but a better legacy is his work for Punch from 1880 to 1894, especially his drawings for the “Essence of Parliament” column and of Gladstone in particular, dagger-like collars and all:
As can be seen above, he signed his “Essence of Parliament” sketches “Lika Joko”, but this wasn’t meant to fool anyone, and everyone knew it was Furniss really.
The issue of Punch dated 26 August 1893 contained its usual “Essence of Parliament”, including a summary of debates for the Irish Home Rule bill. The text includes the following passing snippet: “Once the blameless BARTLEY [Sir George Trout Bartley, M.P. for Islington] signalled out Member for South Donegal, mentioning him by name as responsible for particular exclamations. ‘Don’t presume to mention my name,’ said MACNEILL, leaning across gangway.”
All this was mild enough, but unfortunately it was accompanied by a cartoon by Furniss of the said Member for South Donegal, whose name was J.G. Swift MacNeill:
It may be admitted at this point that Mr MacNeill had some reason to be offended. The portrayal of the Irish in the Victorian age as monkey-like savages, notably in the pages of Punch, was part of the larger history of England’s harsh and often inhuman treatment of Ireland. Nevertheless, it must also be admitted MacNeill’s actual appearance gave Furniss something of an excuse for his portrayal; and it was not Furniss’s job to be kind when faced with such raw material.
The issue of Punch was dated 26 August, but as in the case of many other weekly magazines it was actually on sale earlier in the week. The lobby incident occurred on the evening of 25 August, and was widely reported thereafter, though the actual facts are to some extent a matter for discussion. Here is the beginning of the report in the Daily Telegraph of 26 August 1893:
The article is somewhat prolix, but the meat of the information can be found here, following a description of the Punch cartoon which is almost more offensive than the cartoon itself:
To repeat the above in shorter form, MacNeill accused Furniss of drawing the caricature, and on receiving confirmation of the fact rained abuse upon the cartoonist and struck him “three or four times” on the back or shoulders with his cane.
Here’s another account, from the Westminster Gazette of 26 August 1893, full of circumstantial detail and witness statements:
The main addition to the previous information, according to Furniss himself, is that “the blows were not very hard. They were more probes than blows.” At the risk of overkill, here’s an interview with Furniss in the Westminster Gazette on the same day:
And there, in one sense, the matter closed. Furniss made a complaint, but didn’t seem very worried about following it up; indeed it appears he was discouraged by Parliamentary officials from doing so.
However, it so happened that amongst his many other commitments he wrote and illustrated a “London Letter” for some of the regional papers. This included the Ipswich Evening Star, which I have consulted. The London Letter published on 2 September 1893 includes, not surprisingly, a detailed account of the incident – with illustrations. The online copy that I have accessed reproduces the illustrations in a bad, smudgy form, but luckily Furniss also included them in his 1902 book The Confessions of a Caricaturist, and it is these versions that I will include here.
In his London Letter, Furniss describes the incident as greatly exaggerated by the papers, and “the salvation of the silly season.”
“So many papers have given startling accounts of this attack upon me, some stating that I was caned, others that I was pummelled, shaken like a dog, and so on, that I am glad to take the opportunity of giving a clear statement of what really occurred.”
According to Furniss, MacNeill called Furniss “a low blackguardly scoundrel”, adding “I want to assault you”, and “forthwith he nervously and gingerly tapped me, as if he were playing with a hot coal. He then danced off to members who were looking on, crying, ‘This is the scoundrel who has caricatured me; witness, I assault him!’ and he recommenced the tapping process which constituted this technical assault…. I treated the hon. member exactly as the policeman did the blue-bottle, with perfect indifference, not even troubling to brush away the trifling annoyance.”
Furniss then proceeded to describe an encounter immediately afterwards with Dr Charles Tanner, M.P. for Mid-Cork, which made it clear to him that the whole “assault” was a put-up job amongst the Irish M.P.s as revenge for some comments made in Furniss’s touring show The Humours of Parliament.
There are more details to this story, but I’ve said enough. In the end, it’s something about nothing, and Furniss’s side of the story smells just a wee bit fishy to me, and I don’t feel the fault was all on MacNeill’s side. Nevertheless, the fact remains, there was a time in 1893 when a cartoonist got assaulted in Parliament just for being a cartoonist, but in a couple of weeks, somehow, the whole thing was forgotten.
David Low is still known as one of the great masters of the political cartoon. His glory years were probably the 1930s and 1940s. In 1934, he invented Colonel Blimp for his page in the London Evening Standard: a elderly, absurd retired officer always spouting the latest reactionary nonsense, in the process managing to muddle it even further in the direction of absurdity. The scene was always the Turkish Bath, the nearly naked Colonel pontificating to a permanently baffled Low, and his pronouncements always had the same formula: “Gad, sir. xxxxx is right…”
The Colonel is probably best known today through the Powell and Pressburger film The Life andDeath of Colonel Blimp, but that is really the tale of Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy, quite a different character. We will not speak of him again.
I’m not going to detail the history of David Low’s Colonel Blimp in this place, but there’s a good article on him here. It is notable that the owner of the London Evening Standard, Lord Beaverbrook, was often ridiculed by Low in the pages of that same paper.
I only mention the Colonel now because I recently noticed how some of his pronouncements, uttered 80 or 85 years ago, could almost have been uttered yesterday by certain British public figures well known to all.
This is no time for subtlety. I am referring to Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson and others of their ilk.
The past ten years or so have had startling parallels with Britain in the 1930s. From 1931 onwards the United Kingdom had a “National Government” of all parties, just as we had a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 to 2015. The rise of political extremism combined with governmental stagnation sounds most familiar.
The figure of the harrumphing retired military man (usually a Major) was already a stereotype of the period, perhaps most familiar to us today through the mysteries of Agatha Christie. Many in the 1930s insisted he was out of date. But as Low saw, Blimp was alive and well.
I am taking these cartoons from two large albums: Low’s Political Parade (1936) and Low Again: A Pageant of Politics (1938). Unfortunately, the Blimp cartoons are undated in these albums, so I am unable to date them here. However, evidently they are all from the 1934-1938 period.
The Colonel has much to say on many issues home and abroad. I’m only going to mention one or two, of especial relevance to us.
We have already seen his opinion of international organisations like the League of Nations; he was a steadfast supporter of “splendid isolation” for England. We will certainly have an excellent opportunity of seeing how that works after Brexit.
As we look back on Britain’s glorious past as the benevolent head of a cooperative Empire, it is also good to know that the Colonel was fully behind its aims, right alongside Churchill.
Like so many of our wisest heads today, he firmly believed in the moral benefits of a military training.
Needless to say, he yielded to no one in his support for freedom of expression.
This was only a part of his overriding belief in the importance of good old British Liberty.
Above all, like our own Prime Minister today, he knew the full value of an Englishman’s word of honour.
In October 1937, the Secretary of War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, called Colonel Blimp a “figment”. Low did not take kindly to this, and responded with a full page cartoon showing Hore-Belisha as chief mourner at the head of a funeral cortege with three Blimp guards hauling the Colonel himself, “not dead but sleeping.”
Hore-Belisha tried the trick again two years later, declaring in the House of Commons in May 1939 that Colonel Blimp was dead and buried. I don’t know how Low responded to that sally, though I am sure he must have done. Perhaps all this rhetoric fed into the film of the Colonel’s “life and death”. I don’t know that, either.
But I can tell you one thing. If Colonel Blimp was not dead but sleeping in 1937, he has now awakened, like a useless version of King Arthur, and he is with us now.
If you had asked me in the early to mid 1990s what my favourite film was, I would have puzzled and confused you by saying, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”
Hardly anyone seems to have heard of it, even though it was written and directed by Preston Sturges, a master of the screwball comedy, whose films The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels are regularly cited (here for example) as being among the best film comedies ever made. Miracle never seems to make it onto any such lists, even though I still reckon it contains some of the most dramatic-funny sequences I have ever seen.
Mind you, looking back at it now, I can see that it has some fairly problematic elements. I might talk about that later. But for now, I just want to start telling you about it.
It was released in 1943 and it is a war film, in a way. It is set in the idyllic mid-American town of Morgan’s Creek. The local cop is an irascible gent called Officer Kockenlocker (William Demarest), and no, I don’t know how they got away with that name either. He has a daughter called Gertrude (Betty Hutton). Trudy Kockenlocker. There’s going to be a “kiss-the-boys-goodbye” party before the local recruits go off to war, and Trudy wants to be there to do her bit for the war effort. But her father forbids her.
So what she does is persuade Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) to “take her to the pictures”, and this will allow her to sneak off to the party, coming back to the movie house later on so that Norval can then escort her back home. Norval, who is starry-eyed about the war and would love to join up but can’t because he has high blood pressure leading to spots before the eyes at any moment of stress (“The spots!”), is a slight, stammering wreck of nerves with a quiff of curly hair and a fondness for bow ties. He was clearly an inspiration behind Norville Barnes in the Coen Brothers’ 1994 film The Hudsucker Proxy.
Anyhow, Norval, who is entirely in Trudy’s thrall, isn’t happy with the plan but goes along with it anyway.
At the big party, Trudy dances with a lot of soldiers. Later, the champagne begins to flow. But, at the insistence of the film censors, Trudy does NOT get drunk. No, sir. What happens is that during a particularly energetic bout of jitterbugging, she dings her head on a glitterball, and after that, well, things get a little hazy.
Next morning, Trudy rattles up to the movie house in Norval’s car, now almost wrecked, saying what a nice time she had, and clearly still pretty well out of it. Norval is outraged, having spent all night at the movie house till he got chucked out, and then on a bench. Her father is incandescent when they roll up home at eight in the morning, but that is as nothing compared to what happens when Trudy starts remembering what happened.
She recalls, as she talks with her sister Emmy, that one of the soldiers said it would be great if everyone in the party got married. Then, as she is relating this, she finds a ring on her finger.
What is more, a few weeks later, and after a visit to the doctor, she knows she must have got married, for she is pregnant, and that couldn’t have happened if she wasn’t married, could it?
This being the case, she has to prove she is married. Only she can’t remember the man’s name (“I think it had a Zee in it… like Ratzkiwatzki…”), doesn’t know where she got married, and didn’t give her right name. So, no proof. There is only one thing for it, as she decides in discussion with Emmy: she must persuade Norval to marry her. As Emmy says in her ruthless way: “He was made for it, like the ox was made to eat and the grape was made to drink.” (Quotations are from the shooting script reprinted in Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges (University of California Press, 1995).)
The rest of the film is concerned with the these young idiots’ increasingly frantic plans to correct the situation. Along the way, Trudy falls in love with Norval. Norval remains an idiot, but becomes a little less hopeless, and almost grows into the role of hero that the film has made for him. Trudy’s predicament seems about to end in disgrace and ignominy when a final miracle, aided by a little local corruption, saves the day.
Must I describe it? Must I spoil the ending? It’s tempting, but I’ll try not to, if only because that final whammy, which takes up the last 15 minutes or so of the film, is the most crazily exhilarating sequence I know, paced, timed, and choreographed in a perfect fusion of action, pulse, music and montage. You have to see it for yourself.
I first saw the film in about 1990 or 1991. The Nineties were for me a black hell. I was shy, a loner, fundamentally inadequate in my own eyes; I spent long periods unemployed because I felt I was unemployable. I certainly had only the slimmest chance of being selected in an interview setting.
At that time, Channel 4 bulked out its listings with screenings of old films in the mid-afternoon slot. They broadcast the films of Preston Sturges over about two weeks – not as a “season” but because they were, presumably, cheap. When, alone at home and on the dole, I switched on and saw this odd, wisecracking film, I was puzzled. Occasionally the hero would break out with some patriotic sentiment in the most earnest tones – “Except maybe getting into the army, nothing could make me happier than helping you out” – but it kind of sounded like the opposite somehow. I switched over, and then back again. There was a scene where, without anything being said right out, it became clear the heroine had got pregnant by a soldier she didn’t know, and I thought, “What is this?? This was made in 1943?” And the ending just clean knocked me over. That’s when I started raving about it.
A lot of my enthusiasm was to do with the film itself, both its quality and its outrageousness. But I can also see that something more personal was at work too. Norval Jones is of course a figure of fun, with his nerdy awkwardness, his bow ties, his debilitating stammer, his nervous laugh, his spots before the eyes. And yet he is also the hero, indomitable as a cartoon character, who after every disaster just gets up and tries again. I could see myself in him. I could forgive that he was a comic butt because we, the viewers, travelled with him, through the flames of that laughter, to the other side where he triumphed over all and got everything he desired, and more besides.
I have always been a little sceptical of the idea that what a viewer wants to see on the screen is someone like the viewer: this whole notion of “being seen.” Isn’t it the whole idea of art that one is taken imaginatively somewhere else, into lives that are different from one’s own?
But, thinking about The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, I see that perhaps I was wrong. Norval was someone remarkably like the person I thought I was, clumsiness, hesitant speech, nervous laugh and all. The comfort of seeing him, and even being given the permission to laugh at him, was actually liberating. (Such figures don’t need to be exempt from ridicule.)
Nevertheless, I can see now how uncomfortable some of the elements are. For instance, there are harsh words for someone who has sex with a woman incapacitated with drink or befuddled with concussion.
Again, Officer Kockenlocker, the single parent of two daughters, is a volcano of fury, constantly threatening his daughters with violence (“What you two ought to have is a good shellacking!”). He succeeds in being a comic figure because the only person we really seeing him hurt is himself, as when he aims a great walloping kick at one of his daughters, misses, and falls back on his bum. But I can see that from a certain angle, for instance if one had parent who was actually like that, it could all seem less than funny.
You could view the film as “Trudy Kockenlocker Learns Her Lesson”, and the plot certainly shows her being taught to turn her back on her wild partying and to settle down with a nice young man in a bow tie. In that sense, it’s one of Sturges’s more conservative-minded offerings, though it scarcely seems that way in the viewing; the script goes out of its way to avoid censuring pregnancy out of wedlock, and it is the hypocrites and priggish moralists who earn the contempt. In some of Sturges’s other films the plot is all the other way, as in The Lady Eve where it is the wild heroine who teaches the priggish hero a lesson he will never forget. Perhaps Miracle only really makes sense from Norval’s perspective: after all, one can see why he wants to marry Trudy, but it’s harder to see that he is any great prize from her point of view….
Nevertheless, and thinking about it all again, I still think it is a wonderfully good film, a little miracle in its way. Somehow or other, and I have read all about it but still don’t understand how he did it, Preston Sturges managed to make a film with a whole sheaf of things in it that should have been impossible in Hollywood in 1943. And the result was something that is about three times as funny as it has any right to be, and which helped to save me at the lowest point of my life.
This is going to be about Terry Pratchett. But it will also be about the much more trivial matter of who rules us and what we can do about it.
Due to the things I want to say, there will certainly be spoilers, particularly about the Terry Pratchett novels “Guards! Guards!”, “Witches Abroad” and “Lords and Ladies.” If you haven’t read these and don’t want to be told the plots right now, please don’t read on.
I’ve been a fan of Terry Pratchett ever since 1988, when the fifth Discworld novel, “Sourcery”, came out. At first, what I loved about his stuff was the sheer funniness of it. The jokes had panache and style. Most of all, perhaps, it was very apparent that he was having a whole lot of fun in the writing – which is, both then and now, a pretty rare thing.
As each new book came out – and it must be remembered that for a long while this happened twice a year, an amazing rate to be producing work of such high and increasing quality – well, as I say, as each new book came out, it was as if he were discovering new vistas to the range of his powers. One could almost hear him saying, “Oh, it turns out I can do THIS… Now how would it be if I tried THAT as well?… Oh, wow!”
And it quickly became clear that as well as jokes he could, and would, also do more “serious” things.
Now at this point I’m running up against the oddities of language which act against comedy. Because if I say that his comedy gained “depth” and “seriousness”, that definitely implies the comedy became less funny, which isn’t the case. Applying comedy to real life doesn’t kill comedy. It changes the laugh, that’s all.
I should probably be terribly careful about the words I use, but I can’t be bothered. Let’s just take it as read that “seriousness” can also be an ingredient in comedy, and move on.
One of the “serious” themes that Terry Pratchett has come back to again and again is the problem of the corrupt and evil absolute ruler, and specifically how to get rid of them.
In “Guards! Guards!” (1989) the city of Ankh-Morpork is taken over by a fire-breathing, people-eating dragon, summoned from another dimension by a feeble-cunning schemer called Lupine Wonse, who believes he will be able to control the thing he has called. Of course I would not dream of suggesting that Lupine Wonse reminds me of anyone in public life today.
The dragon first terrorises the city and then becomes its King. Wonse discusses the situation with the civic leaders. The dragon needs tribute: gold for its pile. It also needs feeding….
“The silence purred at them as Wonse talked. They avoided one another’s faces, for fear of what they might see mirrored there. Each man thought: one of the others is bound to say something soon, some protest, and then I’ll murmur agreement, not actually say anything, I’m not as stupid as that, but definitely murmur very firmly, so that the others will be in no doubt that I thoroughly disapproved, because at a time like this it behooves all decent men to nearly stand up and be almost heard…”
And so it is that the Dragon quite suddenly flips in the people’s minds from being the enemy of the city, attacking it and flaming its citizens, to its revered (or, what is practically the same thing, feared) ruler. The dragon itself is puzzled when Wonse suggests it doesn’t actually need to threaten people with its flames in order to rule: people will give it their gold, even sacrifice to it their monthly virgin, of their own free will. Wonse tells the dragon:
“And in good time, they’ll come to believe it was their own idea. It’ll be a tradition. Take it from me. We humans are adaptable creatures.”
The dragon gave him a long, blank stare.
“In fact,” said Wonse, trying to keep the trembling out of his voice, “before too long, if someone comes along and tells them that a dragon king is a bad idea, they’ll kill him themselves.”
The dragon blinked.
For the first time Wonse could remember, it seemed uncertain.
“I know people, you see,” said Wonse, simply.
This is the thing, the recurring idea from Terry Pratchett that has kept coming back to me all through these last few years. While the dragon remains outside the power structure, it is the enemy. But once it gets through, and becomes, however grotesquely and horribly, the “King”, it has become at some group psychological level “one of us” and it is as if we are powerless to resist.
In “Lords and Ladies” (1992), the kingdom of Lancre is invaded by evil elves and they threaten to take over the kingdom altogether. The book makes a metaphorical connection between this and beekeeping:
“That was the thing about bees. They always guarded the entrance to the hive, with their lives if necessary. But wasps were adept at finding the odd chink in the woodwork around the back somewhere and the sleek little devils’d be in and robbing the hive before you knew it. Funny. The bees in the hive’d let them do it, too. They guarded the entrance, but if a wasp found another way in, they didn’t know what to do.”
Yes, it does sometimes feel as if Terry Pratchett were somehow satirising this, our era of Trump and Brexit, 20 or 25 years before it happened. The wasps, the dragons, have taken over.
This has nothing to do with politics. You don’t need to be a liberal “snowflake” to see and hear with your own eyes and ears the nature of Donald Trump. You don’t need to be of the cosmopolitan liberal elite to notice the naked lies and corruption that have characterised the Brexit project from the beginning.
But, even granted the prophetic nature of Terry Pratchett’s books, the question still follows: What can we do about it? It’s all very well saying it’s is a remarkable prediction of the fix we are in, but does he also give any clues as to how to get out? In the two tales I have mentioned, the narrative conclusions are not much use to us: battles, slayings, a last-minute romance for the dragon. They make for satisfying endings, but it would be unwise for us to rely on them in our own circumstances.
It is comforting too to imagine that we will be saved a Pratchettian hero – a Sam Vimes or a Granny Weatherwax. But they are, of course, fantasy figures: who we would be if we had the cojones. Which reminds me… here’s another passage from “Lords and Ladies”:
“Magrat stuck the sword in the mud and hefted the battleaxe….
“She knew there was such a thing as heroic odds. Songs and ballads and stories and poems were full of stories about one person single-handedly taking on and defeating a vast number of enemies.
“Only now was it dawning on her that the trouble was that they were songs and ballads and stories and poems because they dealt with things that were, not to put too fine a point on it, untrue.”
But let’s turn to “Witches Abroad” (1991). It’s a story about the power of stories, and especially of fairy stories. Pratchett knew all about the power of stories; they were his bread and butter. They provide solace. They give power to the powerless. They give hope. They can also, in the hands of the powerful, be a very effective means of controlling people.
Even when you know you’re being manipulated by a story into ignoring certain obvious facts, you still feel the story’s power which can be impossible to resist.
(For instance, after the 2016 Brexit Referendum there were calls to revoke Article 50, or to annul the Referendum; and there were good reasons to do so – the Referendum’s advisory nature, the closeness of the result, the lies told, the overspending, the manipulations, the corruption. But all the same, there was a strong narrative feeling that it was “too late” – you can’t close Pandora’s box, you can’t turn back the clock. These were narrative reasons and not really logical, but they were powerful all the same. And now it really is too late.)
In “Witches Abroad”, in the far-off city of Genua, a witch, a fairy godmother, uses stories to wield power. Cinderella, the Frog Prince, the Sleeping Beauty, all become mixed up in a narrative that cannot be assailed because it is so strong. The fact that the result will not be happy for anyone concerned is an irrelevance.
“Lily is using them,” said Granny. “Don’t you see that? You can feel it in this whole country. The stories collect round here because here’s where they find a way out. She feeds ’em…. She wants the girl to marry the prince because that’s what the story demands.”
The “story” is heading towards a “happy ever after” which, in real and actual fact, is an awful manipulation of the “Cinderella” figure of the tale (here called Emberella). In order to save Emberella from a happy ending worse than death, the “story” must be destroyed. (Brexit is the Will of the People. Brexit is a golden opportunity to unleash Britain’s potential which has been shackled too long in the chains of Europe. Sunlit Uplands! Hurrah!)
But the story is too strong to be destroyed willy-nilly. You have to know how to do it, at just the right moment where the story is amenable to change. Yes, indeed. Every story has a “crisis”, a moment of reversal, perhaps several. It is at this moment that the story is vulnerable to change.
Granny Weatherwax finds the right moment: “All stories had a turning point, and it had to be close… The story whipped along like a steel hawser. She gripped it.” I said I was going to give spoilers, but this moment is really too good for me to give much away. If you need details, read the wonderful, brilliant book.
Yes, that’s the way to fight back: see the story that is being told us, and find the amenable moment to wrest it from the other side’s power and to tell our own story, which is closer to the actual reality of things.
There have been moments aplenty in the past few years when the Brexit story could have been seized on the Remain side; especially during the period when we had a hung Parliament, and the Government’s slender majority leaked away to nothing and beyond. Those moments have been lost now, in spite of everything. Maybe another chance will come again, but if it does, there will have to be an Opposition wily enough to know what to do and (crucially) when.
In America, the story is approaching a new turning point with the upcoming election; again, the right moment will only be seized if the opposition knows exactly when and how to do it.
We don’t need a Sam Vimes or a Granny Weatherwax, though should either happen to come along, they would do very nicely. We just need people in opposition who are good enough.
Oh, this has gone on too long. I’ll wrap it all up like this. Back in the 1990s, it was a common observation that young people in the UK (and in the US too?) were only reading Terry Pratchett. This was often assumed to be a bad thing. Perhaps it’s easier to see these days that his works are more complex, sophisticated, and downright good than many noticed at the time. But the major point is that, if the rumours were true, there is now a whole generation steeped in his works and their attitudes, and 25 years on they are in exactly the right place right now to see Trump, and Johnson, and all the rest of them, and to know exactly what they are looking at; and, perhaps, to have an inkling of how to respond.