Douglas Jerrold is a writer who interests me greatly. I’m increasingly convinced that he is definitely the author of A Few Things you can do with One Arm, though I’ve no clinching evidence yet.
I’ve taken a look at his 1927 history of the Royal Naval Division, and it’s an odd mixture of styles. Parts of it are written in the euphemistic language of the military communiqué:
While consolidating their objective they experienced rather heavy losses, and they had also suffered severely from the enemy’s barrage before the attack began. The result was that two companies of Hood Battalion had to go up to reinforce them. Nevertheless they consolidated their objective, and the difficulties which had arisen on the 3rd in safeguarding the left flank were on this occasion avoided.
Those flat phrases – ‘consolidating their objectives’, ‘heavy losses’, ‘difficulties’ disguise more than they reveal, and sanitise the whole enterprise of the War.
On the other hand there are passages of terrific writing. Here, Jerrold is describing the scene at Gallipoli, just before the final retreat:
[O]n the very edge of those indifferent waters there remained to the end the wreckage of boats and stores; the once green slopes of the gully which closed the view were scarred with trenches and shell holes, and worn to the colour of dust by the ceaseless passage of men. Here and there were gathered in pitiful heaps rifles and equipment from the wounded and the dead, and amid this wreckage, across the sand still strewn here and there with rusted entanglements, men moved about with that brisk solemnity which one meets but seldom beyond range of the guns, which contrasts so markedly with the lackadaisical formalism of the base.
What strikes me as really effective here is not just the evocative imagery of dust, rust and wreckage which seems to sum up the whole doomed enterprise, so much as that phrase ‘brisk solemnity’ describing the unique serious efficiency of a professional in a life-and-death situation. And of course, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to get in a dig at the base, where mere appearances can pass for the real thing.
There is a pen-portrait of Jerrold later life in Anthony Powell’s autobiography, Faces in My Time. Powell knew him when he was director of Eyre and Spottiswoode, and presents him as immensely argumentative, and given to writing letters of verbose criticism to colleagues whose work displeased him. Hugh Kingsmill sometimes came in for these when literary editor of the New English Review. Powell records his response to them:
‘Douglas gets as much pleasure from writing me a pompous letter,’ Kingsmill once cried aloud in his exasperation. ‘as other people do from having a good fuck.’