Page updated March 2012.
I’m trying to make sense of A.M. Burrage. I’ve read his War is War (by “Ex-Private X”, 1930) – one of the most vivid, and definitely one of the most scabrous of war memoirs. I’m interested in the monstrous gap between the personality that comes through this book and the one implied by the romantic fiction that Burrage was actually writing for the magazines at the time of the war. Trying to investigate this, I have found that Burrage’s career gives a good view of some lesser-known aspects of the literary culture of the first half of the twentieth century.
Biographical details about Burrage are hard to come by, so I am very pleased to have found the valuable essays by Jack Adrian in The St James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers, and in the introduction to his Burrage short story collection, Warning Whispers. These outline the basic details of Burrage’s life and career, but there are still many gaps. This essay is a working document, not a polished and finished product. Any new information I find will be added as and when I discover it. I’d very much like to hear from anyone with more information, especially about his personal life in the inter-war years. Or from anyone with ideas about where I might discover more information.
* * *
Alfred McLelland Burrage was born in Hillingdon, Middlesex on 1st July, 1889. His father was Alfred Sherrington Burrage, a writer, mainly of boys’ magazine fiction. His uncle was also a writer of boys’ fiction, and a more celebrated one. He was Edwin Harcourt Burrage , author of books like Handsome Harry of the Fighting Belvedere (1894), and editor of The Young Briton. The Bodleian index shows 28 books by Edwin Harcourt Burrage, mostly stirring tales of adventure. Alfred Sherrington Burrage, on the other hand, does not seem to have made it into hard covers.
The 1891 census shows the young Alfred living at Uxbridge Common, Hillingdon. The household consists of:
Alfred S. Burrage Author age 40 born in Norwich
Mary E. Burrage age 36 born in Shoreham, Sussex
Alfred M. Burrage age 1 born in Hillingdon
Laura Parsons Lady’s Companion age 29 born in Shoreham
The 1901 census shows the parents living at 1, Park Villa, Newbury, but offers a couple of mysteries:
Alfred S. Burrage Author age 57 born in Norwich
Mary E. Burrage age 42 born in Shoreham, Sussex
No sign of young Alfred, or of Laura Parsons. Were they just away visiting somewhere on census night? Or had Alfred gone away to school? The parents’ ages seem remarkably flexible. I’ll see if I can discover which (if either) set of figures is accurate.
A memoir of boys’ writers by “Ralph Rollington” (available on the internet at
) gives a brief but attractive picture of Alfred Sherrington Burrage:
I must not omit to mention Alfred Burrage, brother of E. H. Burrage, a most prolific author, who wrote under the names of “Cyril Hathway,” and “Philander Jackson.” He penned several stories for “The Boy’s World,” and “Our Boys’ Paper,” “The Boys of England,” and other papers.
Alf. Burrage was a splendid mimic, and used to cause roars of laughter when he told his funny stories about Ernest Emmett, “The Cheerful,” and mimicked his deep bass voice and his stately walk and actions. He was a born actor, and like the rest of the Fleet Street “boys” lived up to his income.
If the boys’ fiction papers provided a living, it was probably not a very lavish one. The census returns give hints about the social standing of a neighbourhood, and some of the Burrage’s neighbours in Newbury in 1901 were a tailor’s journeyman, a corn porter, a grocer’s assistant and a lodging-house keeper.
Alfred Sherrington Burrage died in 1906. A biographical note in Lloyd’s Magazine, 1921, suggests that young Alfred was at this time at St Augustine’s School, Ramsgate, a Catholic foundation. It was in this year that the sixteen-year-old A.M.Burrage had his first story published, in Chums, one of the more prestigious of the boys’ papers. Most teenagers who make it into print do so out of creative gusto, but one suspects that for Burrage it was a more serious matter. His mother, aunt and sister had to be kept, and magazine fiction was the family business. Jack Adrian writes:
Long before he reached his majority Burrage was a busy professional writer earning excellent money, and by the age of twenty-five he was not only turning out stories and articles for Boys’ Friend Weekly, Boys’ Herald, Gem (writing as ‘Cooee’) Comic Life, Vanguard, Dreadnought, Triumph Library, Cheer Boys Cheer, but unlike his father and uncle, had branched out into the even more lucrative adult market.
Adrian notes the help given to the young author by Isobel Thorne, who presided over the off-Fleet Street publishing firm of Shurey’s. Adrian characterizes Shurey’s publications as “low in price, modest in payments, but whose readers were avid for romance, thrills, sensation, strong characterization and neat plotting”. Isobel Thorne has been credited with pushing Edgar Wallace into writing the Sanders stories that were the foundation of his career as a fiction writer.
The years from 1890 to 1914 were the golden age of magazine fiction. New techniques made printing cheap, and other media had not yet lured the mass audience away from the printed word. There was a huge market for writing that was lively and commercial. P. G. Wodehouse, another writer who began by writing boys’ stories, recalled the plenitude of markets for writers of fiction in these years:
[W]e might get turned down by the Strand, but there was always the hope of landing with Nash’s, the Story-teller, the London, the Royal, the Red, the Yellow, Cassell’s, the New, the Novel, the Grand, the Pall Mall, and the Windsor, not to mention Blackwood’s, Cornhill, Chambers’s and probably about a dozen more I’ve forgotten.
By the time of the Great War, Burrage was an established magazine writer, having been published in prestigious magazines such as the London Magazine and The Storyteller, as well as more downmarket ones like Short Stories Illustrated (40 pages for a penny, and it doesn’t even rate an entry in Mike Ashley’s Age of the Storytellers). A man in his mid-twenties was eligible for service in the Armed Forces, and in December 1915 Burrage attested under the Derby scheme – which means that he affirmed his availability to enlist if called upon. In 1916 conscription was introduced, and Burrage seems to have pre-empted this by volunteering to join the Artists Rifles, a territorial unit.
He would have enlisted at the Artists Rifles Headquarters in Duke’s Road, near Euston. The building is now used as a dance studio, but this terracotta sculpture of Mars and Minerva is still above the door, through which AMB would have passed before he met the recruiting officer Captain C.J. Blomfield, to read the oath and kiss the Bible.
Matthew Hollis describes the Artists Rifles in Now All Roads Lead to France, his biography of Edward Thomas. (Thomas was in the Gidea Park camp where Artists Rifles recruits were trained, at about the same time as Burrage, as was another poet, Wilfred Owen. There is no record of any of the three having met one another.)
The Artists Rifles formed in the middle of the nineteenth century as a volunteer group of writers, painters, musicians and engravers; Minerva and Mars were their patrons. They founded their headquarters in Dukes Road in 1880, one of twenty-eight volunteer battalions that combined to form the London Regiment. Dante Gabriel Rossetti had served with the Artists, as had Algernon Swinburne and William Morris. [....] Eventually recruitment was limited by recommendation from serving members (‘they let in anybody now who will pay 25/- a year subscription’, Thomas complained), but for the time being it was a popular choice among university and public school graduates, who were frequently considered such capable officers that they were poached by other army units or chosen to set up Officers Training Corps. In excess of 10,000 officers were commissioned during the war after training with the Artists Rifles. The Royal Artillery alone took over a thousand. But they suffered appalling casualties; some 6,000 of the 15,000 serving Artists were killed, wounded, or posted missing or captive.
(A Roll of Honour, possibly incomplete, can be found here.)
In War is War Burrage strongly insists that he was a volunteer, not a conscript, but joining an upmarket territorial unit might have been an attempt to get a more socially congenial army posting; had he waited to be conscripted, he could have been put in with men that he would have found less congenial. Unlike Thomas and Owen, he did not progress to a commission. In War is War he hints that this was because he was a very unmilitary person, and an unsatisfactory soldier (while being scathing about the quality of many of the officers set above him). Might it also indicate that his formal education was sketchy, and not of the sort that would have qualified him as officer material?
In War is War, he writes: “Even after conscription had been brought in I might have been kept out on compassionate grounds.” which refers, I think, to the fact that he was supporting his mother and two other female relatives by the efforts of his pen. They seem to have been totally dependent on him, which is one reason why he kept on writing stories during wartime, even when with the army in France. His uncle, the more celebrated storyteller Edwin Harcourt Burrage, died in 1916, which might have made the relatives’ dependence on Alfred’s pen even more obvious.
Burrage continued to produce magazine stories while in the Army. He had tried out various genres, but his speciality was the light romance: boy meets girl; a slight obstacle crops up; obstacle is overcome; happy ending. Burrage could work clever variations on this simple formula almost ad infinitum. In War is War he describes his main problem with wartime writing:
The problem of censorship was an acute one to me. It was well enough to write a short story, but the difficulty was to get it censored. Officers were shy of tackling five thousand words or so, written in indelible pencil…
He found a chaplain willing to undertake the task, but in return had to appear holy. A slightly compromising incident, when the chaplain found him sprawled on top of a young girl, closed that opportunity. However, “there were ‘green envelopes’ which could be sent away sealed and were liable only to censorship at the base, but these were only sparingly issued… I met an A.S.C. lorry driver who had stolen enough green envelopes to last me for the rest of the war; and since he only wanted two francs for them I was free of the censorship from that day forward.”
Burrage seems to have regarded writing essentially as a means of money-making; though he enjoyed the activity of writing, in War is War he expressed a low opinion of what he produced.
It was a great relief to me to write when it was at all possible – to sit down and lose myself in that pleasant old world I used to know and pretend to myself that there never had been a war. Some of my editors seemed of the opinion that we were not suffering from one now. One… used to write to me saying “Couldn’t you let me have one of your light, charming love stories of country house life by next Thursday.” I would get these letters in the trenches during the usual ‘morning hate’ when my fingers were too numb to hold a pencil, when I was worn out with work and sleeplessness, and when I was extremely doubtful if there ever would be another Thursday.
Burrage fought at Paschendaale, and in the retreat of 1918, before being invalided out of the army. He returned to the fiction magazines, which were experiencing a post-war boom.
In 1919, Burrage would write to Richard Blaker, an ex-soldier who had decided to try his hand at becoming a writer, and had had two war stories accepted by Land and Water. Burrage replied to hios request for advice:
Your war stuff is the real stuff. I can follow you because I fought over the same ground; but most magazine editors employed their wartime more profitably, and that stuff means nothing to them. Moreover there is still – God knows why – a prejudice against short stories dealing with the war. There are one or two highbrow journals whose editors haven’t that prejudice, but I think both the form of the story and its lack of conviction would put them off. But, as I said, the Blue might have it if you care to chance your arm.
In 1920, when Lloyd’s published his “Captain Dorry” series of stories, the magazine publicized it with a short editorial character-sketch of Burrage, which indicates something of the personality that he presented to the world at this time:
A.M. BURRAGE is the type of young man who might very well walk out of one of his own stories. He commenced yarn-spinning as a boy of fifteen at St Augustine’s, Ramsgate, writing stories of school life to provide himself with pocket-money. Since then he has won his spurs as one of the most popular of magazine writers. Everything he does has charm and reflects his own romantic spirit – for he is incurably romantic and hopelessly lazy. It is his misfortune, although he would not admit it, that his work finds a too ready market. Nevertheless, his friends hope that one day he will wake up and do justice to himself. Otherwise he may end up as a “best-seller”, a fate which doubtless he contemplates with equanimity.
“Hopelessly lazy” does not seem to fit an author who in any given month might have stories in three or four different magazines. Burrage was not a star writer (His name only occasionally appears as an enticement on the magazine cover) but he was a dependable one, producing readable work that usually stayed within its genre, and was more likely to be pleasing than challenging. Among the stories from the immediate post-war years, however, there are some that hint that he wanted to say something about his war experience, though knowing that stories of combat or Army life were not what editors required.
In “A Town of Memories” (Grand Magazine, 1919) he adapts his usual romantic genre to the purpose. The story describes a young officer returning to the town where he had grown up before the war. He is unrecognized, and there is no interest in his war experiences or the fact that he was awarded the D.S.O. The townsfolk have their own interests and priorities. At the end, though, he finds a beautiful young woman who had hero-worshipped him when she was a schoolgirl, and the story ends in the required romantic manner, with the stuffy notables of the town discomfited by the alliance.
During this period Burrage diversified away from romance into different genres. Even before the war he had experimented with stories of the supernatural (the genre for which, after his death, he was to be best remembered). “The Recurring Tragedy” (Lloyds Magazine, 1920) deals melodramatically with a General who had used his men ruthlessly in the war of attrition. He imagines a terrible vision of his past life, as one who betrayed Christ.
Burrage also produced an interesting, if not wholly satisfactory series for Lloyd’s Magazine in 1920 about a gentleman crook, more or less in the tradition of Raffles, but taking the genre in a new direction.The Strange Career of Captain Dorry is about an ex-officer (with M.C.) who meets the engaging and mysterious Fewgin, a gentlemanly receiver of stolen goods and reader of minds. By observing Dorry, Fewgin astutely realises that he is a candidate for recruitment to his select band of ex-army thieves – who steal only from “certain vampires who made money out of the war, and, by keeping up prices, are continuing to make money out of the peace.”
Fewgin justifies what he does:
“I help brave men who cannot help themselves. I give them a chance to get back a little of their own from the men who battened and fattened on them, who helped to starve their dependents while they were fighting, who smoked fat cigars in the haunts of their betters, and hoped the war might never end.”
These are the values of that other ex-officer, Bulldog Drummond, taken one step further. Drummond in The Black Gang sets up a proto-Fascist organisation to punish with the enemies of England in ways that the police can not – often with a rhino-hide whip – but his motives are disinterested. Dorry and Fewgin commit outright crime, and happily profit from it.
In the first of the stories, they are robbing a man who made a fortune manufacturing inferior jam during the War, one Isaac Sheintz (no prizes for guessing his religion – the stories are consistently anti-Semitic). Sheintz has bought a valuable pearl necklace for Muriel Stedwich, the daughter of an impoverished family, who is being forced to marry him (Sapper used a similar situation in Mufti). Dorry and Fewgin steal it, but the morality of the story is maintained because they do not profit – the proceeds go to the impoverished decent chap whom Muriel truly loves, so that she can now marry him.
Other stories deal with a second-hand dealer who cheats old ladies, so is robbed in his turn, a family of nouveaux-riches who have bought up an old family home, and are scared out of it by apparent poltergeists, and a dishonest socialist who is cheating his Russian paymasters. The most interesting of the group is about some treasure buried in wartime, and an officer who has killed the men who share the secret of it.
Although the stories have their roots in the gentleman-crook genre descended from Raffles, they are significantly different from their model. Bunny, the narrator of the Raffles stories, is often plagued by conscience, and he and Raffles get their come-uppance finally. First Bunny goes to prison, and then the pair of them get a chance to prove their worth as gentleman-rankers in the Boer War. Dorry and Fewgin suffer few qualms, and in the five stories printed in Lloyds for 1921 get no kind of come-uppance or punishment. They are ex-soldiers dealing with he problem characters of the post-war world, and the stories back them to the hilt.
In another post-war story, “The Enemy over Yonder” (Grand Magazine, 1919) a shell-shocked ex-officer murders an offensive war profiteer – an action is thoroughly endorsed by the narrative. In these stories Burrage seems to be demanding that someone be held accountable for the suffering of the war – and hitting out at the profiteers, socialists and foreigners who were conventionally blamed for the disturbances of the post-war world.
During the twenties, Burrage occasionally made it into hard covers, with Some Ghost Stories, for example, and with Poor Dear Esme, about a boy, who for complex reasons of plot, has to disguise himself as a girl. The latter is very funny, and highly recommended. Through the decade, Burrage maintained his astonishing rate of production of magazine stories, and was caught in one of the publishing traps of the time. Money came from short stories in magazines (a single magazine story could earn as much as the royalties on a first novel) but literary prestige came from extended work in hard covers. Reginald Pound in his history of the Strand Magazine (to which Burrage of course contributed) gives a picture of him at this time, linking him with another prolific writer Herbert Shaw (alias Frank Herbert, alias Captain Frank H. Shaw) as:
“two Bohemian temperaments that suffused and at times confused gifts from which more was expected than come forth. They had a precise knowledge of the popular short story as the product of calculated design. Both privately despised it, though it was their living.”
By the late twenties, for a variety of complex reasons, there was a boom in war books. All Quiet of the Western Front was a best-seller, and publishers were eager to find a British equivalent. Burrage wrote War is War, a caustic and very credible account of his service in the Army. It was published as by “Ex-Private X”. In the book, Burrage says: “were it otherwise I could not tell the truth about myself and others” but this may not have been the only reason for the pseudonym. Jack Adrian writes:
Victor Gollancz, who published the book and greatly admired it, had to point out that the critics would hardly take the book seriously if it became known that the author earned his living producing two or three slushy love stories a week.
The Gollancz contract ledger in the Gollancz archive at Warwick University gives some basic commercial details for War is War. The advance was a generous £200 on receipt of manuscript, a figure which presumably reflects Gollancz’s high expectations for the book. As a comparison, in the same year Bernard Newman’s counterfactual war story The Cavalry Went Through was given an advance of only £50, on publication. Dorothy Sayers was given £150 advance for Strong Poison, but more generous royalty terms (15% for the first 5000, and thereafter 20%, which is pretty good. Burrage was on 10% for the first 5,000, 15% for the next 5,000, and thereafter 20%. Unlike Dorothy Sayers, his sales probably never reached the 20% level.)
In a 1931 letter to Dorothy Sayers, Burrage says ruefully that War is War “promised to be a great success, but was only a moderate one” so Gollancz’s optimism about its prospects were not fulfilled.
War is War received a mixed critical response. Some reasons for the antipathy for it in some quarters can be deduced from Cyril Falls’s comments on it in his survey, War Books(1930):
This book is extremely uneven in quality. The account of the attack at paschendaele and of conditions at Cambrai after the great german counter-attack are very good indeed; in fact among the best of their kind. But the rest is disfigured by an unreasoned and unpleasant vituperation of superiors and all troops other than those of the front line, which is all the more astonishing because the author is inclined to harp upon his social position as compared with that of many of the officers with whom he came in contact. He does not use as much bad language as many writers on the War, but his methods of abuse will leave on some of his readers at least a worse impression than the most highly-spiced language.
The letter to Dorothy Sayers mentioned above is part of the correspondence about the ghost and horror anthologies that she edited for Gollancz, which included some stories by Burrage. The correspondence between Sayers and Burrage starts off as merely business, but Burrage knew Atherton Fleming, her husband, “whom I hope to encounter soon in one of the Fleet Street tea-shops.” Tea-shop being a euphemism for pub – both Fleming and Burrage were drinkers on a scale that became problematic.
In her replies, Sayers comes across as very sympathetic. She clearly enjoyed Burrage’s writing – especially what he called his “‘orrible” stories. One of the stories that Burrage offered Sayers in 1931 was “a rather joyous specimen called “The Waxwork” which no editor of a periodical dared to publish.” She replied:
What you say about “The Waxwork” sounds very exciting, just the sort of thing I want. Our nerves are stronger than those of the editors of periodicals, and we will publish anything, so long as it does not bring us into conflict with the Home Secretary.
Through being printed in Sayers’s best-selling anthology, this story became one of Burrage’s best-known, and it was filmed several times; in 1959 it was the basis for an episode in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series.
As the correspondence progressed, Burrage revealed something of his present circumstances. He tells Sayers that he is suffering from “neuritis at both ends (legs and eyes)” and hints at his drink problem:
Fleet Street is not a good place for a man who delights in succumbing to temptation, and whose doctor says that even small doses of alcohol are poison to him.
Dorothy Sayers responds sympathetically, saying that her husband:
…agrees with you entirely about the temptations of Fleet Street; he has, however, succeeded, through sheer strength of character, in being able to drink soda-water in the face of all his fellow-journalists.
In another letter, Burrage apologises for his delay in sending proofs of a story:
I have had a pretty thin time lately through illness and anxiety. And for days on end haven’t had the energy in my to write a letter [sic] , and when I had the energy to send a complete set of proofs to you I found I hadn’t the postage money (This is when you take out your handkerchief and start sobbing). I owed my late agent over £1000, so I got practically nothing out of War is War. He stuck to it. Well, he is paid off now, and so are my arrears of income tax. All this took a toll of my very small earning capacity, and I have been sold up. This on top of something which promised to be a great success and was only a moderate one, was a bit too much for me. Still, in spite of sickness I am resilient and shall float again. “You can’t keep a good man down,” as the whale said about Jonah.
The phrase “my very small earning capacity” sounds odd coming from a man whose stories were everywhere, and who must have been earning several times the average wage. He could not command the rates paid to the literary stars with high critical reputations, but his fluent pen must have been earning him several pounds per thousand words, even when he was ill. Was he still having to support relatives? Did the money mostly go on booze? Was he just a chronic mis-manager? How much of the chaos of his life can be ascribed to the after-effects of the war?
His private life seems equally mysterious; did this purveyor of hundreds of girl-meets-boy romances ever have a partner of his own? Well, yes, his death certificate suggests that he did – but who was she?
At the end of the letter just quoted, Burrage offered Sayers a detective plot:
Some day I hope to meet you, and I can give you a really good plot, which I can’t use myself, because everyone tells me I can’t write detective stories. But this one is a joy. Perhaps one afternoon, when there is nobody else about but your husband, you might like to invite me to tea(?) and I will tell you the plot. The proviso is because I obviously couldn’t tell the plot in front of a crowd, and also because I dress like a Comedy Tramp turn on the music halls.
(The question-mark after “tea” is Burrage’s, and presumably hints that he would welcome the offer of a stronger drink.)
Sayers responded enthusiastically (“Rather! By all means come to tea, any time you like. I am looking forward to hearing that detective plot.”) but that is the last letter in the Gollancz archive. I don’t know whether they ever met.
The self-deprecation of that letter seems typical of the man. He was about forty-two years old when he wrote it, but it seems to be coming from the depths of a ruined life. He lived until 1956, and kept writing – the Evening News alone published forty of his stories between 1950 and 1956.
Burrage’s death certificate shows that he died at Edgware General Hospital on 18th December, 1956. The causes of death are listed as:
1a. Congestive cardiac failure
II. Bronchitis (chronic.
He was sixty-seven years old. The informant was H. A. Burrage. widow of deceased; their address was 105, Vaughan Road, Harrow. I wonder when they married, and how she coped with his unconventional lifestyle.
The name of A.M.Burrage does not appear in respectable literary histories, but ghost story enthusiasts hunt down his collections, and he appears in many spooky anthologies. I’m interested in him because of War is War, one of the few Great War memoirs written frankly by a private soldier. It’s a most unromantic book to come from a purveyor of romances.
Some day I’m going to get round to looking properly at the ghost stories, and maybe trying to link their preoccupations with Burrage’s life. For the meantime, though, here’s the result of my investigation so far. If you know anything else about the man, please do let me know.