The crook who published ‘Helen Zenna Smith’

prince of T not-so-quiet-cover

In 1917 Netley Lucas was fourteen, but must have looked mature for his age. He got himself an officer’s uniform and used it to run up debts as, for a short but wild period he lived the high life. Inevitably, his luck eventually ran out, and he was sent to Borstal. After some more criminal activities, he changed tack, and became an author, first writing the story of his criminal life and then taking on the part of an expert, a criminologist writing with the authority of a reformed criminal. A further fall from grace put his reform in doubt, so he started a new career. Changing his name to Evelyn Graham, he took advantage of the public’s thirst for royal trivia by producing a string of supposedly authoritative royal biographies. When publishers got wary of him, he set up his own publishing company, which put out some interesting books, including Not So Quiet…, the novel about women at war that had all the marks of authenticity. Scandal and bankruptcy overtook the firm, and he ended up in prison again, after which he wrote another memoir My Selves, and lived for a few more grim and alcoholic years, coming to an unpleasant end in 1940. In just over a decade he lived through a variety of careers, each excessive, most spectacular and all were doomed to failure.
It is not a distinguished career, but Matt Houlbrook (previously the author of the book Queer London, which I strongly recommend) has seen that this rather seedy swindler’s progress tells us a lot about the post-war era in which he struggled and occasionally flourished. In his absorbing new book, Prince of Tricksters, he uses each turn of Lucas’s crooked life to illuminate some of the contradictions and uncertainties of the twenties. Read More »

Modern Troubadours

Thanks to Ann-Marie Einhaus for pointing me towards Lena Ashwell’s 1922 book  Modern Troubadours, an account of the musical and theatrical troupes organised by Miss Ashwell, which took entertainment to soldiers in France and elsewhere. (A digital versioncan be found at the Internet Archive.)

Ive just had a skim through so far, and I’m particularly struck by this description of the involvement of shell-shocked men into theatrical productions: Read More »

Michèle Audin’s ‘One Hundred Twenty One Days’


This novel (first published in French in 2014) centres on two mathematicians, both damaged in the first world war, and both nursed by the same young woman. Mortsauf has most of his face blown away, so is one of the gueules cassées;  he marries his nurse, becomes a successful academic and achieves a  position of influence under the German occupation. Gorenstein, who is Jewish,  suffers psychological damage in the war, and in an unexplained fit of violence murders most of his family. He is incarcerated, but continues to do mathematics.
These two disturbed men are the focus of a novel that explores a disturbed century. The most telling chapters are about the period that has been even more troubling to France’s conscience than the Great War, the period of the Occupation, with its betrayals and shameful complicities. Read More »

‘A splitarse bus’

V.M. Yeates spots a German aeroplane:

It was one of the new DFWs – a nice-looking, very splitarse bus.

‘Splitarsing’ is a frequent word in Winged Victory  It appears in Arnall’s  Portrait of an Airman, too. The context makes it clear that it means ‘making a fast manoeuvre’, and the Oxford English Dictionary gives us : Read More »


I  like discovering words that are new to me. This is from V.M.Yeates, Winged Victory (1934):

A flaming meteor fell out of a cloud close by them and plunged earthwards. It was an aeroplane going down in flames from some fight above the clouds. Where it fell the atmosphere was stained by a thanatognomonic black streak…

Thanatognomonic. what a word! It’s a medical term that means heralding the approach of death. I’m now looking for opportunities to use it in conversation.


‘Sapper’ paper online


A couple of years ago I was fortunate to be invited to the conference of Les Amis du Roman Populaire in Amiens. The topic was popular fiction of the First World War, and I gave a paper on ‘Sapper’: from Realism to Melodrama. This tried to explain how ‘Sapper’ ( Herman Cyril McNeile), who began as the author of realistic vignettes about the war, developed into the author of lurid and improbable thrillers. I traced a continuity between the wartime writing and the later work.

The paper was published (in French translation) in an issue of Le Rocambole, the society’s journal, and I had vaguely thought of enlarging and adapting it for an English-speaking  audience. I think  now that I shall be doing any more work on ‘Sapper’ in the near future, so I have put the English version of the paper online, among the pieces of longer writing on this site.

Because I was addressing a French audience who mostly knew nothing at all about  ‘Sapper’, I had to explain things that a comparable British audience would already know, so experts on the subject may find parts of the paper a bit elementary. I hope, though, that some at least will find it interesting.

Click here for the paper:  ‘Sapper’: from Realism to Melodrama.


The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival

ShoesMary McLaren in Shoes

I’ve been away on holiday, so haven’t seen as much of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival as I’d have liked to. It’s playing throughout July at cinemas from Scarborough to Sheffield, and the films are worth catching.
Yesterday I finally got to a session at the beautiful Hyde park cinema in Leeds (where I saw the Edith Cavell biopic Dawn a while ago). The evening featured a talk by Ellen Cheshire on women in silent cinema, followed by a showing of the recently restored version of Shoes (1916),  directed by Lois Weber. Read More »

Portrait of an Airman by Philip Arnall

arnall cover

If I were in the business of reprinting neglected novels, the one I’d start with is Portrait of an Airman, by Philip Arnall (pseudonym of Oliver Stewart). Many thanks to Steve Paradis for pointing me towards this book.
The novel traces a wartime career very like the author’s own, and it’s safe to assume that much in it is autobiographical. We meet the hero, Stephen Sloan, when he is a rather dissatisfied young officer in a Home Defence battalion. He resents his commanding officers (‘Fancy having to be ordered about by a little beast like that.’) and also dislikes the thought that he will eventually be sent to the infantry in France. More or less on a whim he applies to the Royal Flying Corps: ‘He envied the freedom of Flying Corps pilots who were given the charge of an aeroplane, and were then free in a way that he could never be.’ Read More »

Geoffrey Hill (1932 – 2016)

Geoffrey Hill has died, a remarkable poet and a profound critic. I heard him lecture  on war poetry at Oxford a few years ago, and wrote about it here. Read More »

The Somme on TV

I’m sure that the Somme vigils last night were very moving experiences, and it is absolutely right and proper to remember and honour the dead. I was very disappointed, though, with what I saw of the television coverage last night.
What follows may not be a complete account of the programme, since I am allergic to Huw Edwards when he is being pious, and switched off after a while. Read More »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 820 other followers