Howard Spring at War

In Howard Spring’s memoir In the Meantime… (1942) he recalls his experience in an earlier war:

I did not remain in Bradford long after the war had begun. All sorts of queer activities broke out. I was not passed for the army, and found myself one of a group who imagined they were somehow helping our country by shooting on a miniature range.

Soon he moved from Bradford to a reporter’s job on the most respected of northern papers, the Manchester Guardian. (Was the vacancy because another man had gone to war? He doesn’t say.)
He has interesting things to say about the ethos of the paper (though it’s tantalising, because in this rather haphazard book of memoirs he rarely gives you a very full picture of anything).
He had joined a staff of perfectionists, each with a distinctive style, which it could be dangerous to follow. I like his appraisal of some of the paper’s star writers. There is chief reporter William Haslam Mills, for example:

If you followed Mills, you were at the risk, not having his resources, of developing a style which was all bloom and no peach.

Two writers whom I have often blogged about here, though, were no better as examples:

If you followed Allan Monkhouse, who had worked out a monkish style from which adjectives were banished as sins and adverbs as backslidings, the result might well be all stone and no plum; and C. E. Montague was the most dangerous of all. Monkhouse once told me that Montague had said to him that a good writer should be aware of an improvement in his style every month, which goes a long way to explaining why I, at any rate, cannot read a Montague novel without being aware of the incessant clicking of the brain behind the pen.

In anticipation of conscription, he taught himself typing, and was eventually enlisted into the Army Service Corps as a clerk. For most of the War he was posted at GHQ. Tantalisingly, the account he gives is impressionistic. The only glimpse of Haig is of him riding ‘one with his horse like a centaur, a posse of lancers behind him, with their pennons undulant and whickering in the air, towards his chateau outside the town.’
He was always out of the danger zone, and most of the work ‘dullness without danger; an occasional heightening of excitement at second hand’ (147). He seems rather ashamed of having been routinely awarded the meritorious service medal for his efforts.
One paragraph I liked, though, was a defence of staff officers. We have become so used to the fighting officers’ negative appraisal of the red-tabs who made their life difficult through bureaucracy and unwelcome orders that we are liable to take this version as the truth.

[C]riticism of the staff is as easy, and sometimes as thoughtless, as staff work is difficult and harrassing. Those who, apart from criticising particular blunders, dislike the general staff as the general staff, must do away with war itself [….] The staff, alas! cannot be infallible, much as every nation at war would like to possess so useful an instrument. No information on which an operation is based can be counted foolproof, no operation-order itself can be guaranteed as having a hundred per cent efficiency. A second lieutenant, making a bungle of a sortie, may lose the lives of half a dozen men and nothing be heard of it; but a staff blunder, with its direful consequences, immediately – and rightly – raises hell. But, do what you will about it, you will never have a staff of men who can make no mistakes; the only cure for war disasters is to have no wars to go wrong: and if our wars go right it means that other countries’ staffs have gone wrong.

Which is true, I think.



  1. Posted September 3, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I was looking for a Howard Spring Society (having enjoyed finding one for Barbara Pym.) and stumbled across and your analysis of his work in Manchester. H. Spring is probably my favourite author. His sagas have so many life-shaking events movingly implied rather than flatly described – a very effective technique.
    Thank you. Best Susan

  2. Posted September 3, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Yesterday evening at the Reading 1900-1950 reading group at Sheffield we had a heated discussion about Howard Spring. I gave a very favourable account of Fame is the Spur, and My Son My Son had its defender too, but many of the group had chosen one of his later novels to read, and their reviews were mostly negative.
    Some of the reviews will be appearing on the Reading 1900-1950 website, beginning with this general account of Spring by Erica.

  3. Posted September 4, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    My review of Fame is the Spur is now online at the Reading 1900-1950 site:

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