I’ve been a bit knocked sideways by illness for the past week, so the big question has been – what to read?
Previously, I had been reading a lot of Henry Williamson, but he was out of the question. Williamson can make me feel queasy even when I’m in the best of health.
My daughter had the right idea when she brought her copy of The Man with Two Left Feet into hospital for me. This is the P. G. Wodehouse of 1917, before he was completely P.G.Wodehouse (except, of course, in the story ‘Extricating Young Gussie’, where Wooster and Jeeves make their first appearance). I was especially taken by the stories ‘At Geisenheimer’s’ and ‘The Making of Mac’s’, where Wodehouse, newly arrived in America, is finding out whether he can be an American writer, producing neat fables in the O. Henry manner with no hint of his English origins, or of the distinctive style that he had developed in his writing for boys.
Even better for a convalescent were two other books. Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green (1934) is a larky book about a pair of young men hunting for heiresses and disrupting the life of a Cotswold village. It is most notable for its zinging satire on the ‘Union Jackshirt’ movement, whose local representative, the large, beautiful and warlike young Eugenia says the most terrible things with a sweet idealism that charms almost everyone. There is a brilliantly-done contrast beteeen her essential innocence and the implications of what she says:
But today has been wonderful. I was able to keep a non-Aryan family from getting into my carriage at Oxford simply by showing them my little emblem and drawing my dagger at them…
Eugenia seems to be mostly a portrait of Nancy Mitford’s sister Unity, with some touches of Diana, who married Oswald Mosley. Apparently the book caused much ill-feeling in the family, and Mitford was persuaded to excise some chapters describing Captain Jack, the idolised leader of the movement, based on Mosley.
This book was just what I needed after several grim days spent with Henry Williamson’s The Phoenix Generation, the 1965 novel in which he revisits his 1930s enthusiasm for Mosley and Hitler, with a few moments of doubt, but without much self-awareness. And of course, complete humourlessness. Mitford in this book and Wodehouse in The Code of the Woosters were two conservative writers who could be lethal to English fascism by pointing out how ridiculous it looked, and showing how promoting the triumph of the will inevitably involved a blindness to other people’s feelings. I don’t think other people were very real to Williamson; his fantasies are as idealistic as Eugenia’s, but he did not have her excuse of youth.
Even better as sickbed reading has been Julian Symons’s 1955 biography Horatio Bottomley. Symons tells the story of the great swindler’s triumphant rise to national fame and fortune, quite undettered by business collapses, bankruptcies and criminal prosecutions.
He was a wonderfully persuasive man. Symons tells of several cases where angry creditors came to Bottomley, protesting that the stock he had sold them was worthless, and left the meeting with no refund, but having bought shares in Bottomley’s latest wild business venture.
Of course it is the war years that are most interesting. Julian Symons has some interesting pages on the strife between Bottomley and C. F. G. Masterman, who would, of course in 1914 become the head of the fledgling propaganda sevice at Wellington House.
When young, Masterman had lost some £2000 in one of Bottomley’s companies, and so hardly had reason to be well-disposed towards him. The real friction between them began in 1910, however. Bottomley’s John Bull magazine, already established as the nation’s leading muckraker, had campaigned about conditions on the Akbar training ship (a reformatory institution for boys near Liverpool). Those in charge kept control by means of cruel and vicious punishments, in the course of which some boys had died and others had attempted suicide. Masterman was called in to make enquiries, and produced a smooth establishment-style report which showed his distaste for the ‘random and reckless’ accusations made in John Bull; he defended the men accused of cruelties, though recommending their transfer elsewhere.
Bottomley not unreasonably saw the report as a whitewash, and made Masterman a target. When Masterman became a candidate for the safe Liberal seat of Bethnal Green, Bottomley and his papers led a highly personal attack on him, so that he only scraped in with a 184 majority.
In February 1914, when Masterman was given a cabinet post, he had to stand for re-election. This time, according to Symons:
Bottomley’s organisation excelled its previous efforts in bribery, scandal-spreading, and oratorical and physical violence.
Masterman was defeated.
Bottomley became a tremendous and popular publicist in the cause of the war effort, but relations between him and the wartime establishment were often uneasy. John Bull had always positioned itself as the voice of the underdog, speaking up to authority on behalf of the ordinary man. Early in 1915, the ‘Tommy and Jack’ column was started in the paper. Soldiers and sailors were invited to send in their complaints, which the paper then publicised and sometimes investigated.
There was plenty about the poor conditions in training camps, there were items like this:
On some golf links in Sussex a raw recruit encountered a person dressed in civilian trousers and military tunic. The boy did not know he was an officer and failed to salute. Thereupon the strangely-dressed individual sent him back to camp, and next morning tried him – being judge, jury and witnesses in one. The unfortunate boy is now enjoying 14 days in the cells.
Such a column was dubiously legal, and Symons says that at the start of the war the government considered bringing proceedings against Bottomley for inciting servicemen to break King’s Regulations. They realised, however, that in the context of a citizen army, such a column had its use as a safety valve. Symons says:
So far from prosecuting Bottomley it is said that Lord Kitchener and Lord Derby […] discussed these grievances at a weekly breakfast, sometimes with Bottomley himself.
From the issues of John Bull that I have seen, Bottlomley and his editors were careful to keep publication of grievances limited to problems in British training camps; the actual war zone seems to have been out of bounds.
The extent to which Bottomley was regarded as the spokesman of the soldier is shown by an incident which Symons does not mention, and possibly did not know about.
In 1917 Bottomley was one of the celebrities invited to France to see the Army at work, on the understanding that he would then spread the good word back at home. The mutiny at the Etaples training ground broke out while he was there, and the mutineers sent representatives to see him with their grievances (which were about just the kind of insensitivities that had appeared on ‘Tommy and Jack’s page’).
What part he played in the negotiations is unknown, but most of the mutineer’s grievances were recognised. No account of the episode appeared in John Bull.
After the War, Bottomley’s financial sins caught up with him, and he spent several years in jail. Julian Symons tells the story with great gusto, and the book is highly recommended for any convalescent who fancies reading a roller-coaster life, with more ups and downs than his own temperature chart.