The most famous protest against the war in 1917 was Siegfried Sassoon’s. Much less well-remembered is the sudden and vocal conversion to pacifism of Skimpole, of St Jim’s School, as recorded in the Gem comic.
I’m preparing a talk on the treatment of the war in the Magnet comic for a conference in November, so thought I ought to take a closer look at the Magnet’s sister paper, the Gem.
By and large, the Gem stories are less interesting. Though the extraordinary Charles Hamilton wrote most of the long stories in both weekly magazines (as Martin Clifford in the Gem, and as Frank Richards in the Magnet) he put more of his talent into the Magnet, I think. Yet the Gem does make strong points about several wartime issues. There is a good story, for instance, about the boastful son of a war profiteer coming to the school. And in November 1917, we get the story of Skimpole the pacifist.
Skimpole was a regular character in the Gem, known for his enthusiasm for big abstract ideas (such as socialism) with no regard for their practicality. (Is his name a reference to the childish, unworldly and irresponsible Skimpole of Bleak House?) In an earlier story he had been described like this:
Skimpole was dreamy and visionary, he had huge ideas and many of them, but he never reduced any of them to a practicable shape.
He was the best-natured and most absent-minded fellow in the School House, and he would carry out his peculiar ideas on the subject of Socialism at any expense to himself or anybody else. He never got half way through an idea without throwing it aside for something new – something just as visionary and impracticable.
In some stories he is contrasted with another student, Glyn, the schoolboy inventor and engineer:
Bernard Glyn was very different. He was hard-headed and practical; his ideas were less far-reaching, but he carried them all out, and he never touched a new piece of work till the old one was finished. (Gem 80)
In ‘The St Jim’s Pacifist’ of November 1917, Skimpole gets a new craze – pacifism, and ‘Martin Clifford’ gets a fair amount of comic mileage out of the situation. Some of the satire is clunkingly obvious (Skimpole reads a pacifist treatise by ‘Professor Balmycrumpet’) and this is one of those stories where beatings of stupid people are presented as unreservedly funny.
There are some good scenes, though. Skimpole takes it on himself to offer the hand of pacifist friendship to Herr Schneider, the German master. He stands up in class and begins to make a speech:
‘I consider it my duty to assure you, sir, that there is, at least, one individual within the walls of this scholastic institution who does not share in the general hatred and disgust felt toward your countrymen [….]
And I assure you, sir, that though you belong to a barbarous and revolting race. I do not at all look on you as something below the level of the human species…’
This does not go down well with Herr Schneider.
Even better is an incident where the satire finds a target less obvious than the pacifist. One of the teachers, Mr Selby (‘a rather interfering gentleman’, we are told) sees Skimpole’s poster announcing a pacifist meeting, and attends. Skimpole tries to convert him:
‘I am aware, sir, that you are very keen on the war, like so many gentlemen over military age,’ went on Skimpole brightly. ‘But I hope to bring home to your mind sir, that -’ Even Skimpole faltered as he caught the terrific expression on Mr. Selby’s face.
‘Skimpole!’ stuttered Mr Selby. ‘You – You insolent young rascal!’
‘Pray do not be offended, sir,’ said Skimpole. I assure you, sir, that I did not intend to give offence. But you will remember, sir, that when it was rumoured that the age was to be raised, you showed very great alarm – all the fellows noticed it – and -’
This goes down extremely badly, and it is pretty obvious that Skimpole, for all his daftness, is getting close to uncomfortable truths.
In the end, a German air-raid convinces Skimpole of the Hunnishness of the Hun, and he immediately goes to the opposite extreme – trying to enlist, although he is only fifteen. He is rejected.
It’s a lively enough story, though generally predictable. What I found interesting, though, was that Hamilton wrote this (as Martin Clifford) just a few months before writing a much more nuanced account of pacifism in ‘A Conchy at Greyfriars’ (Magnet, October, 1918). In the later story he presents pacifism as misguided but worthy of respect.
What changed his mind? Dissatisfaction with the earlier story? The events of 1918? Some personal experience that made him look at pacifism differently?
The more one gets into them, the more interesting Hamilton’s wartime stories become.
All the Magnet and Gem comics can be found at www.friardale.co.uk