Critical assessments of J.B.Morton’s The Barber of Putney are hard to find, although for my money it is one of the best of the books that were written during the actual years of the war (though published just afterwards, in 1919.) Morton doesn’t make the index of either Fussell or Hynes.
So I was delighted to find a bracing attack on it by a critic writing from a Marxist angle, Peter Thomson, in the introduction to his 1997 guidebook to Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. Thomson uses Morton’s book as a contrast to Brecht’s play because it was republished by Penguin in the same year that Mother Courage was written. Thomson writes:
To a reader in the 1990s, the bad faith of J.B.Morton’s The Barber of Putney is palpable.
Evidence for this comes from the background of “Morton, a product of Harrow and Oxford who went on to earn a popular right-wing following as ‘Beachcomber’ in the Daily Express.” When using this ad hominem argument, Thomson skips over the surely relevant fact that when Morton enlisted it was not as an officer, but as a private in the Royal Fusiliers; Thomson’s claim about Morton’s “ignorance of the people about whom he writes” should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. I would guess that a lot of the book is a version of first-hand experience. One small example – the kind of detail that a novelist would not make up unless he himself had experienced this during training:
…after the first few weeks he made one big blunder. He forgot how to fix bayonets. He became flurried, and then paralysed.
”Didn’t half get chewed up,” he said afterwards. “Just couldn’t move my hands, not a blinking inch.”
Thomson goes on to describe the book as “an utter endorsement of the ‘theirs not to reason why’ approach to war.” This is interesting. In his introduction to the 1934 reprint, it is Morton who claims that, on the contrary, it is the the “self-styled enlightened people” represented the ordinary soldier in this way, trying “to persuade the young that the war was ‘futile’; that those who fought were silly dupes, swept away by emotional appeal; that nobody knew what it was about; that nobody can say who was guilty of beginning it all; and so on.”
In fact, Tim Henrick, Morton’s barber, does a lot of making up his own mind. He is unimpressed, for example, by the “platitudes” of his officer lecturers, but discovers that “the condensed wisdom of old non-commissioned officers meant rather more.” In this passage, and in some others, the book reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s literary hero, Kipling. Brecht responded to Kipling’s army stories because told tough truths – Kipling showed how the world worked, not how it was supposed to work. Brecht, I think, would have recognised the essential truth of some sentences of Morton’s that Thomson objects to:
…for the soldier in the trenches has no time to look beyond at the wider aspect… His business is simply with a few sandbags, a firestep, a fragment of trench.
That last bit sounds exactly like a minimalist Brechtian set design. The truth is concrete – the here and now, the actual realities, not the wider aspects and the fine ideas.
Morton shows the recruits of the New Army discovering the tough truths of soldiering in the early days of the war when “the whole army was learning, officers and men,” and Tim Henrick is taken through a series of ordeals that raise war’s challenges with increasing grimness, culminating in a face-to-face struggle with a German very like himself. Thomson describes the fact that Morton “centres his narrative on the unspectacular heroism of the British Tommy on the Western Front” as though this were a quite improper subject for a novelist, and accuses him of “unconscious contempt” for the soldiers. But this is a novel about someone who retains his decency through all the indecencies of war – I can’t see the contempt there.
Maybe Thomson was misled by the combative preface of the 1934 edition to judge the whole book by it. The war-books boom of the late twenties had produced many books emphasising the War’s futility, which was an idea easy enough to believe when the post-war decade had not produced a stable and prosperous world. In 1934 Morton seems to have seen the republication of The Barber of Putney as a way of reminding people of the authentic spirit of the War years, and wanted it to carry a propagandist meaning that it had not had in 1919.
Anyway, I strongly disagree with Thomson – but then I’d be dubious about any critic who dismisses a book on the grounds of its author’s origins, even when these are “Harrow and Oxford”.