There are greater novels of the war – Her Privates We or Parade’s End, for example – but I don’t know a more likeable novel than J.B.Morton’s The Barber of Putney.
It’s the diametrical opposite of William J.Locke’s The Rough Road, which I wrote about a couple of days back. In The Rough Road the author moralised down at poor effeminate “Doggie” Trevor, and put him through all sorts of hellish suffering until he had learnt his lesson and become a proper manly man. The reader is encouraged from beginning to end to feel utterly superior to the pathetic protagonist, as he is brought up to the proper standard – our standard.
The Barber of Putney isn’t like that. Tim Himrick is a satisfactory enough man at the start of the book. He has his own successful small business and a loving wife. In 1914, he enlists, for reasons never made explicit. The author trusts that his reader will be able to fill them in.
The book begins with what most of his first readers would have recognised as a deliberately flat version of Christian’s leavetaking at the start of The Pilgrim’s Progress (which Paul Fussell describes as “the one book everybody knew”)
“So long, old girl! So long, Steve! Keep the pot boiling.
His pilgrimage will be very different from Christian’s, however, as he is not asking in dramatic anguish “What shall I do to be saved?” and different from “Doggie’s”, as he will not be radically transformed by his experiences.
Morton takes him through the various stages of initiation into Army life, the first of which is an army haircut, when “a regimental barber had cropped his hair, in a vigorous manner that hurt all there was of the barber in Tim’s soul; for he was a barber with a Putney reputation.” Tim has to learn the Army’s ways, but the process is not entirely a top-down one:
There follow initiations into training, and an undramatic journey to France, the journey up the line, the sight of a dead man, the death of a friend, and so on. The narrative voice is not Tim’s, but gives voice to what he can’t articulate; when he reaches France, for example, he can only say “Coo – fancy this!” but the narrator is able to hint at some of the complex feelings within him.
The kind of transformation that happens to “Doggie” in Locke’s book is in Morton’s a cause not for moralising, but for appreciative wonder:
Gradually Tim is inducted into more difficult experiences, culminating in a face-to-face struggle with a German very like himself. And at the end he goes home – not to the rural paradise that his friend Curly conjured up in pipe-dreams, but to his barber shop in Putney. If he is changed, it is in ways apparent only to himself, and perhaps to his wife. He has come through the experience proudly, has seen some of the worst that life has to offer, and has survived.
Curly is a great character – a regular who can sleep through anything, and has a good line in sardonic wit.
It’s in Curly that you get a hint of Morton’s later literary incarnation, as Beachcomber of the Daily Express, a humourist of staggering surrealism (His recurring characters include Mr Justice Cocklecarrot and Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht). When Curly starts talking about romantic novels you see the mind of a great parodist dying to let himself really go to town on them.
Otherwise the style is mostly simple sentences, describing the sensations of war as they come to Tim. Morton had enlisted as a private himself in 1914, and served in the ranks for two years before taking a commission when the officer shortage became very apparent. He’s more sophisticated than Tim but he doesn’t condescend to his character. He’s describing things that he too has actually been through, and the character of Tim lets him reduce things to their basic human meaning.
Morton was the original, apparently, of the practical joker Tommy Huggins in England Their England. I find it hard to reconcile that rather cruel character with the author of The Barber of Putney, but there you go. Richard Ingrams, in his introduction to a Beachcomber selection, confirms the picture of Morton as a huge figure with permanently muddy boots, a gnarled stick and a booming voice. Apparently Henry Williamson has a character based on Morton in the novel The Innocent Moon, which I don’t know.
Ingrams’ introduction contains snatches of the songs that Morton and his friends used to sing. For example:
Ladies, don’t be frightened, I’m an Indian,
I come from Timbuctoo three four five six.
The night I ran away it was a windy’un –
Oh girls take care, I’m full of Indian tricks.
What did Eve say to Adam,
The saucy little madam?
“Oh, Adam, you should eat more fruit.”