Rupert Brooke in Space

On Newsnight tonight, Benedict Cumberbatch read out an astonishing memo. It was written to Richard Nixon in 1969, at the time of the Apollo mission to the moon. William Safire had been asked to draft a speech for the President to make to the nation in preparation for the worst eventuality: that the astronauts, having made a landing, were unable to lift off again from the moon’s surface from the moon.

The speech strikes an appropriate note of elegiac dignity:

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edward Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

It moves towards a climactic ending that unashamedly appropriates one of Rupert Brooke’s greatest hits:

brooke in space

Click the image to see a larger version.

The whole speech can be read at:

Warwick Deeping’s ‘Old Wine and New’

Asked to write about Sorrell and Son for a newspaper series on bestsellers, Kingsley Amis recorded that he began by taking umbrage at the book’s snobbery, and marked particularly repellent passages by writing ‘piss and shit’ in the margin. After a while, though, he stopped annotating, because he had become so gripped by the story.
This matches my own experience when reading Warwick Deeping. I usually step into the world of his novels warily, expecting rancour and prejudice. I find these, and they grate. But then I get swept along by the narrative…
Old Wine and New (1932) is a case in point. It starts by introducing Scarsdale, a literary gent in peacetime who has become a nursing orderly with the RAMC on the western Front. One day he walks towards the front trenches, to see for himself the full truth of war. Read More »

Ernie Lotinga in ‘Josser in the Army’


In June 1927, T. S. Eliot wrote to Virginia Woolf:

Have just been to see Ernie Lotinga in his new Play at the Islington Empire. Magnificent. He is the greatest living British histrionic artist, in the purest tradition of British Obscenity.

Until recently I thought that almost all Lotinga’s film work had been lost, apart from the fragment of Acci-dental Damage at the BFI, which I wrote about some time ago.

Now the happy news is that Josser in the Army (1932) has been released on DVD. Read More »

The Women Police, and Warwick Deeping

It’s a hundred years since the introduction of women police in Britain, and there will be a documentary about their history on BBC4 next Monday.

I wonder whether the programme will explain how very unpopular they were at first, especially with women.

An interesting essay by Clare Langley-Hawthorne fills in the history. The first female force was the brainchild of Margaret Damer Dawson, who persuaded Sir Edward Henry, Chief Commissioner of Police,that there was a need for a group of trained professional women to tackle the worrying behavior of young women in wartime Britain. She was especially concerned that British men at railway stations were attempting to recruit Belgian women as prostitutes. Another worry was the influx of young women into cities across Britain. They had freedom and money (and the chance of jobs less regulated than domestic service) therefore were seen as likely to indulge in drunkenness and promiscuity.

Dawson’s Women’s Police Volunteers (and also the patrols of the National Union of Working Women) did their best to regulate the behavior of women liberated by the War’s opportunities. The NUWW inspected cinemas, for example, where it was believed that untoward things might be happening in the darkness.

I mention this because I was struck by a passage in a novel I’m reading at the moment. It’s Old Wine and New (1932) by Warwick Deeping, and there is a scene in London on Armistice Night, 1918. There is a scene where Marwood’s wife (one of Deeping’s fleshly and sensuous, and therefore evil, women) is out carousing with an Australian.

His face smiled a cruel icy smile.

‘What’s on?’

He heaved his way further, roughly, scornfully. He had a glimpse of a half-naked woman, and of other women. [….]

‘Go it girls. Leave nothing on.’

‘What’s happening?’

‘The totties are scragging one of the women police.’

Marwood’s wife let out a scream of laughter. Her face was exultant.

She is clearly on the side of the women (good-time girls who are sick of the policewomen’s interference?

For Deeping it is an expression of the new ugly spirit that would triumph in the post-war world. His book’s decent old-fashioned hero is deeply upset by stories like these:

When Scarsdale heard how a part of London had given thanks to God on Armistice night, he looked pained.

Was Deeping reporting an actual incident? I think he may have been.

Rose Allatini’s husband

cyril scott
Cyril Scott in middle age

Attempting to find out more about Rose Allatini, author of the extraordinary Despised and Rejected (1918), I’ve been looking at the autobiography of her husband Cyril Scott (1879-1970). He was a composer, and Bone of Contention (1969) is mostly about his music. It is a pleasant amble through his life, containing  many anecdotes in which celebrities remark on  how very good his compositions are.
There is also a good deal about the occult, the other main interest in Scott’s life. He had been converted to theosophy by Madam Blavatsky, but had moved away from the theosophical mainstream into a more personalised esoteric philosophy. It is in connection with the occult that most of the book’s scanty details about his marriage are found.
He says:

1921 was a momentous year for me; it was in that year that I made my first conscious contact with Master K. H. and that I married the novelist, later to become better known under the name of Eunice Buckley.

‘K. H.’ was the Mahatma Koot Hoomi, a disembodied spirit who communicated with selected mortals by way of telepathy and clairaudience. Scott explains: Read More »

W. Pett Ridge: ‘The Amazing Years’ (1917)

pett ridge

Few best-selling novelists are quite as forgotten as William Pett Ridge (1859–1930), who a century ago mapped the fascinating social borderland where the upper-working classes meet  the lower-middles. Social mobility is his theme, and he has the knack of getting you to care about his characters as they tread the uncertain paths of early twentieth-century life.
Pett Ridge was no more than a name to me before he became the month’s author at the Sheffield Hallam Popular Fiction reading group recently. The book of his that I read was Thanks to Sanderson (1911) and my review of it can be found on the group’s website. Sylvia’s review of his 1923 novel Miss Mannering  can also be found there.
Most of the group enjoyed the novels, and I began to wonder what Pett Ridge had written during the Great War years. I soon discovered The Amazing Years (1917), which is available free online at . The book is the story of the Hillier family of Chislehurst, as told by their servant  Weston, who has been with them since their early struggling days in Brockley.

There came Mr. Hillier’s good luck in the City with the agency in Basinghall Street, and we moved to The Croft, where I was told to make no reference to Brockley, and to disclose to the maids of the house, or to the servants at any other house, no particulars of early days that had been imparted to me in confidence or gained by observation.

The novel begins in late July, 1914. Read More »

‘Is that all?’

From W. Pett Ridge’s novel, The Amazing Years (1917):

“Where were you wounded?” was the usual inquiry, and the soldier could never tell whether the questioner wanted geographical or bodily information. “l’m sure you must be dreadfully keen on getting back to the fighting line,” was a remark that did not always gain an enthusiastic and affirmative answer. “How we envy you in being able to take a part in the struggle!” sometimes received a non-committal jerk of the head ; the Sister and the nurses listened later to the comments on this aspiration. The sentence that remained long in the memory of the ward was one made by a wealthy woman from Blackheath. She arrived, with the obvious determination to say the correct, the tactful, the exactly appropriate word.

“And what injuries have you sustained, my man?”

“Well, lady, as you see, I’ve lost my left arm, and I’ve got rather an extensive collection of shrapnel in my right leg.”

“Oh,” she remarked, casually, “is that all!”
And passed on to the next bed. The Sister declared that imitations of this visitor were popular for weeks.

When War Art is Bad Art

In Manchester on Friday Marion and I visited the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery. The handsome building has been enlarged, and its redesigned interior looks very stylish indeed.
‘Stylish’ also describes some of the art inside, but in a not-so-positive way – in the sense of ‘more style than substance’.
One piece struck me as the absolute epitome of Bad Art. It is called ‘War Room’ and it is part of a retrospective exhibition by the award-winning conceptual sculptor Cornelia Parker.
cornelia parker Read More »

‘Oh What a Lovely War’ on tour


It’s over fifty years since I first saw Oh What a Lovely War at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. The anniversary revival at Stratford East gained some good reviews last year, so I took the opportunity yesterday to catch up with the touring version of the production at  Manchester Opera House.
I went with mixed feelings. The show made a great impression on me when I was young, and in the seventies I greatly enjoyed acting in an amateur production (except that the moustache I wore when caricaturing General French was very unreliable). But I now know that much of the history the play relates is more than a bit dodgy. So what would the show look like on stage fifty years on?
The audience was surprisingly sparse. We filled less than half the stalls, and I don’t think there were many upstairs. Maybe this is partly because it’s not easy to buy tickets. The website that tries to sell them to you is clunky and laborious, and wants to charge an extra £4 booking fee to the already pricey cost of each and every ticket. I decided to get my ticket directly from the theatre, but when I got there found a notice to say that the box-office was shut, and tickets could be bought from the Palace Theatre, ten minutes walk away. After a lengthy wait in a queue there, I bought our tickets from a pleasant and efficient young man, but the Ambassador Theatre Group certainly doesn’t do its touring productions many favours by the way it operates.
This version of the show opens before the lights go down, with pierrot-actors coming into the audience for a chummy chat, to get us in the mood I suppose. Then there is a brief prologue, added to the original script, explaining what a pierrot show was. This included the show’s one topical quip: mention of seaside donkeys was accompanied by a photo of Nigel Farage. When the play opened in London last year, they apparently used Michael Gove. Easy targets?
The first number, ‘Row Row Row’ tells us that we are going to be in for a crisp and energetic production with lively choreography. Then we’re into the potted history of the causes of the First World War, played as farce. For Joan Littlewood and her collaborators back in 1963 this was a crucial part of the play. The Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and, as I’ve shown previously on this blog, the original production’s programme pointed up the topicality of the play’s depiction of an accidental world war.

Joan Littlewood’s main historical advisor, Raymond Fletcher (Labour M.P. and, it was later revealed, a Soviet spy) wrote a programme note: Read More »

Logistics and Support

Almost all writing about the War is about the sharp end – the fighting. The only novel I’ve read that is set in a labour battalion is Robert Keable’s Simon called Peter (and the subject of that is the chaplain’s sexual awakening, rather than the essential forestry work carried out by the soldiers who are by and large indifferent to his vicarish efforts.)

Most soldiers most of the time were more likely to be involved in hard graft – digging, building, transporting – than in shooting.  And the job of GHQ had much less to do with battle tactics than with organisation and logistics. (Even an attack as overwhelming as the German Spring Offensive could falter and fail if inadequate staff work failed to keep the advancing forces supplied.)

So it’s good to be reminded of the unsung heroes of the War, in a guest post on Jessica Meyer’s blog, by Christopher Phillips, a Leeds postgraduate student, who has been researching Gerald Holland, who was put in charge of coordinating canal transport to support the British Army’s huge effort in France:

By the end of June, just six months after Holland had arrived in France, inland water transport had moved: 19,142 tons of supplies; 27,421 tons of road stone; and had evacuated over 600 men from the battle zone by ambulance barge.

You can read the blog post here:


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