How Sensitive was Sapper?

Sapper (Herman Cyril McNeile) was not a writer famous for his sensitivity. He was a big man who wore bookmaker’s check suits; his friend Gerard Fairlie euphemistically described him as “not everybody’s cup of tea” and “a loud man” who “loved the vivid colours, the strong smells, the potent tastes.”

Bulldog Drummond, his most famous creation was definitely not overly sensitive. He solved most problems by “biffing” someone, or, in the case of Jewish white-slavers, issuing the order “Flog them to within an inch of their lives.” On ethnic issues he tended to show about as much sensitivity as the young ladies currently entertaining us on Celebrity Big Brother.

I was therefore very interested to read a letter to Richard Blaker from his publisher Ralph Hodder-Williams (of Hodder and Stoughton) about the galley proofs of Blaker’s war novel, Medal Without Bar in 1929:

I want you as a personal favour to take out the words “Soldiers’ stories by Sapper” about three paragraphs from the end… it is not very complimentary to Sapper. He is a very important author of ours and something in the way of being a personal friend. For another, I am going to try and get Sapper interested in the book…

For a third, it is not quite fair to Sapper. Personally, I mean, not as a writer of soldiers’ stories; for if you had heard Sapper talk about the War as I have you would find him a good deal more like Cartwright felt, at that particular moment, than you can possibly imagine.

[Cartwright is the main character of Medal Without Bar.]

It is perfectly true that the phrase as it stands is not a sneer, but it is equally true that Sapper, in his present mood, would take it for one, and he is about the most sensitive man I know.

So what was Sapper touchy about? His status as an author of genre fiction, often patronised by the more literary? Did he feel trapped within the (very profitable) genre that had made him famous? Or was he awkwardly aware that his wartime stories presented a view of soldiers that was out of step with the mood of 1929? Did hehave a nagging feeling that he had missed his chance to do full justice to the experience? 

Late in his life, Ted Hughes wondered about his career as a poet. In the early fifties, Sylvia Plath sent off a batch of his poems to Faber, with the emphasis on nature poems. If she had sent off a different selection, Ted wondered, would he have become a different type of poet?

Maybe Sapper was the same. He had made his name with tough manly fiction – but maybe was sensitive enough to realise that there was a world of experience outside the limits of his genre.

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