Tidying one’s books always takes longer than planned. Today, as I shifted volumes from one shelf to another, in the hope of making a little more room, I found a book that I had not looked at for years. Like so many others of my disparate collection, it had got itself into the wrong section. It is Max Beerbohm’s Mainly on the Air (1946), mostly a collection of his radio broadcasts from the thirties and forties. Included in the volume, though, is a short story from 1921 (when it first appeared in Squire’s London Mercury).
This is ‘T. Fenning Dodworth’, a tale in the spirit of Max’s very best prose work, Seven Men. It pretends to be a memoir of Dodworth, an ultimate insider, famed for his cutting wit, which is comprehensible only to political insiders. In practical terms, Dodworth fails at everything: despite fighting several campaigns, he is never elected to parliament; given a paper to edit, his elevated style repels readers; when he commits to a political campaign (such as opposing Lloyd George’s People’s Budget) it inevitably fails. Yet among the insiders his reputation constantly grows. Every worldly failure is counted an exquisite triumph by those who see his intelligence as too fine for mere worldly success, or impressing those outside the inner circles: “You can’t saw a plank of wood with a razor.”
I thought at one time that Max never wrote about the Great War, but his account of Dodworth’s wartime career crams a great deal into one paragraph:
No longer young, he did not acquire more than a smattering of the military idiom, nor any complete grasp of strategy. But he was ever in close touch with the War Office and with G.H.Q., and was still fairly oracular. Several times in the last year of the conflict, he visited (with temporary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel) certain sectors of the Western Front and made speeches to the men in the trenches, declaring himself well-satisfied with their morale, and being very caustic about the enemy; but it may be doubted whether he, whose spell had never worked on the man in the street, was fully relished by the men in the trenches. Non omni omnia. Colonel Dodworth was formed for successes of the more exquisite kind. I think the Ministry of Information erred in supposing that his article, ‘Pax Britannica—And After,’ would be of immense use all the world over. But the error was a generous one. The article was translated into thirty-seven foreign languages and fifty-eight foreign dialects. Twelve million copies of it were printed on hand-woven paper, and these were despatched in a series of special trains to a southern port. The Admiralty, at the last moment, could not supply transport for them, and the local authorities complained of them that they blocked the dock. The matter was referred to the Ministry of Reconstruction, which purchased a wheat-field twenty miles inland and erected on it a large shed of concrete and steel for the reception of Dodworth’s pamphlets, pending distribution. This shed was nearly finished at the moment when the Armistice was signed, and it was finished soon after. Whether the pamphlets are in it, or just where they are, I do not know. Blame whom you will. I care not. Dodworth had even in the War another of his exquisite successes.
I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more efficient skewering of the self-important who tried to win the War with words.