Objectors and Tribunals

I’ve been dipping into Philip Snowden’s Autobiography (found yesterday in a charity shop). Snowden was the M.P. most consistently arguing for the rights of conscientious objectors. He is very interesting on the tribunals, claiming that the Military Service Act was generous in intention, giving definite rights to those unwilling to fight.

I cannot speak too highly of the efforts that Mr Walter Long [President of the Local Government Board] made to secure a fair hearing and a just treatment by the tribunals set up for the purpose of hearing claims for exemption. Indeed, not only Mr Long […] but Mr Asquith and Sir Herbert Samuel all did their best to secure the rights conferred by the Conscription Act upon the genuine conscientious objector.

These liberal intentions were thwarted by those given the power to enforce the Act. Local tribunals were ‘partly chosen from lists sent up by the political associations in the constituency, and the members consisted to a large extent of aged men who had made themselves notorious in the recruiting campaign’. When a Stipendiary Magistrate or a County Court Judge was made chairman of the tribunal, ‘their judicial experience was a real check upon their prejudiced colleagues’ – but many tribunals remained unchecked, and prejudice had free rein.

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Their Country’s Honour

York is not a city I know well, and I had never noticed before, just by the Minster, this handsome monument to those who died in the Boer War.

I was struck by the Gothic styling of the top half, whch contrasts rather with the plainness of the slabs of names at eye level. It is as though the eyes are led from the plain facts of death, up through some heroic figures of stalwart sevecemen, and up further to realms of the ideal.

I was even more struck by the wording on the tablet in front.

My photograph may not make this easily legible, so here is the inscription:

Remember those loyal and gallant soldiers and sailors of this county of York who fell fighting for their country’s honour in South Africa 1899 to 1902 and whose names are inscribed on this Cross erected by their fellow Yorkshiremen A.D. 1905.

Does any Great War memorial use the formulation that that the men had died ‘for their country’s honour’? None that I can think of. Isn’t the common form that they died for their country, simply? Or sometimes for Civilisation. For something more crucial even than honour?

I was in York to go to the theatre, to see Ralph Feinnes remarkable performance of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I have writen about it elsewhere.

If Summer Don’t (1921)by Barry Pain

Title page of the first edition.

Here’s an odd one, It’s a parody, by the humorist Barry Pain of that mighty best-seller of 1921, If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchinson. My copy of Hutchinson’s novel was printed in March 1922, six months after the first publication in August 1921. It is the twentieth edition (which maybe means impression, but it’s still pretty impressive.)

Hutchinson’s book was not only huge best-seller, but was also taken seriously as a modern novel that said important things about England and the war. It hit the mood of the time precisely.

Pain’s introduction skewers the book on two grounds:

Firstly, though Nona is a real creation, Effie is an incredible piece of novelist’s machinery. Secondly, I detest the utilization of the Great War at the present day for the purposes of fiction. It is altogether too easy. It buys the emotional situation ready-made. It asks the reader’s memory to supplement the writer’s imagination. And this is not my sole objection to its use.

I think those are good objections. Hutchinson’s Effie, the poor persecuted mother of a war baby, is a creature from melodrama, not from observed life; and the war is definitely used (as, to be fair, in many other novles of the twenties) to hammer home the writer’s prejudices and to prove his point for him.

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I am an admirer of Ken Burns’s documentaries, from his revelatory series on the American Civil War to his recent very enjoyable take on Country Music.

His Hemingway (now showing on BBC4) is well up to standard in most respects, clearly explaining the life and work of this remarkable writer.

One thing jarred. During the First World War, Hemingway served as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. Why does Ken Burns illustrate this with clips and images from the Somme and Passchendaele? Hemingway never went near those battlefields. The fighing on the Italian front was very different. Usually he’s much more careful than this.

Horatio Bottomley and the TLS

A couple of weeks ago, the TLS published a long article by Neil Berry about that awful old rogue, Horatio Bottomley. Mr Berry took the standard line on him, deploring his dishonesty, vulgarity and jingoism, which is fair enough up to a point – but actually Bottomley’s magazine, John Bull, is much more interesting than that.

I wrote a letter which has been published in this week’s TLS. Here it is:

Neil Berry’s article about Horatio Bottomley (April 9) properly deplores his chicanery and hypocrisy, and the rabid populism of his war writings. There is, however, a case to be made in Bottomley’s defence.

John Bull was more than a purveyor of fake news. It lingered over standard tabloid fodder, such as sexual misconduct by the clergy, but it also frequently exposed scandals and very properly embarrassed government departments. In 1910, for example, it reported on cruelty and abuse at the Akbar training ship (a reformatory institution for boys). When C. F. G. Masterman, an Establishment figure, produced an official report on the affair that whitewashed those responsible, Bottomley attacked him relentlessly. During the Great War, Bottomley was certainly distasteful in his rhetoric against the “Germhuns” – but an examination of the magazine shows a more complex record. (The examples I shall give here are all taken from the issue of November 18, 1916.)

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There’s No Story Here (1944) by Inez Holden

Those of us interested in life in Britain during the First World War have often had cause to envy those researching the Second, who have the records of Mass Observation to supply them with a plenitude of everyday detail, mostly about the dullish routine of everyday life – the sort of stuff that only incidentally gets recorded in fiction.

Handheld Press has just reissued an interesting oddity – a novel imbued with the spirit of Mass Observation, set in a munitions factory, There’s No Story Here, by Inez Holden, first published in 1944.

The novel is set in a huge munitions factory, seven miles in circumference, employing 30,000 workers, and in the spirit of Mass Observation, we are told all about it. Do you want to know what was in the parcels that people at home sent munitions workers? Here they are:

tomatoes, onions, chocolates, knitting wool, family photographs, a game or a puzzle, a postal order or some stamps, a book or some magazines, a piece of heather or shamrock, a locket, a bracelet or ring, some biscuits, shortbread, a flower in a pot, or packets of seeds to be planted in the hostel allotment, some underwear, hair slides, or a comb.

Inez Holden is very good at lists.

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Francis Brett Young, D.H.Lawrence and other novelists

I wrote a while ago about Francis Brett Young’s portrayal George Redlake, who is of the wrong sort of middlebrow novelist – flashy, seduced by fashionable ideas, and not interested in people as individuals. His 1930 novel, Jim Redlake contains other novelists, though, apart from the hero’s unsatisfactory father.

The most notable is a man called Starling, who comes to live in the same seedy London boarding house as Jim. He is a man from the Midlands whose ‘sunken eyes smouldered fiercely as coals’:

His brow was massive, and cleft, at the root of a flattened pugnacious nose, by a zed-shaped wrinkle like a deep incision [….] Jim might have taken him for a motor-mechanic who did a little boxing ‘on the side’, till he looked at his hands, which were small, white and delicately-shaped, though long-nailed and stained at the finger-tips with two kinds of ink.

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A Middlebrow Manifesto

Cover of the first edition (1930)

I’m have a fondness for books that manage to include a literary manifesto of some sort, and the openingpages of Francis Brett Young’s Jim Redlake (1930) contain what amounts to a declaration of what a novel ought to be, and how novelists should confront the world. It does so implicitly, by contrast, in its very enjoyable depiction of someone who is the wrong sort of novelist – George Redlake, the eponymous hero’s father.

I call it a middlebrow manifesto, but that does not mean it is a defence of the middlebrow against the highbrow. Francis Brett Young is too sure of his values to be worried by highbrows; no, it is a declaration of the value of Brett Young’s kind of middlebrow novel, against the claims of another, flashier variety, superficially exciting, but without staying power. Here is George Redlake:

By the time he was twenty-five he had found himself adopted by a small and, as he thought, esoteric group of grim intellectuals whose flatteries turned his head.

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Marching on Tanga

Penguin covers, 1940 and 1941

Now here’s an oddity. The same book, issued by the same publisher. One edition is labelled fiction, the other travels and adventure. From what I can gather the first was published in 1940, the second in 1941.

With books about war, it’s often difficult to tell novel from memoir. Novels can contain big chunks of the writer’s experience; memoirs can contain much that is invented. I’ve come across books that were first marketed as memoirs, and then (a bit more honestly) as novels – Evadne Price’s Not So Quiet…, (by ‘Helen Zenna Smith’), for example. But I don’t think I’ve ever come across one first labelled fiction, and then sold as a memoir.

Francis Brett Young was a prolific novelist, and this book was based on his experiences fighting with Smuts in German East Africa. The book had first been published in 1917. Randall Stevenson calls it ‘an outstandingly vivid vivid account of campaigns in East Africa.’ Maybe it was the vividness that made Penguin at first think it was fiction. Young later properly novelised his war experiences in Jim Redlake (1930).

I’ll try to find out what happened, though with research libraries shut for the foreseeable future, this could take a while.

‘Illusions of Peace’ at the NAM

I should have given a blog mention to this before the event (but don’t worry, you can still book up for tomorrow’s sessions – details later).

I’ve spent the day at the first day of an online conference about the aftermath of the Great War. Illusions of Peace is hosted by the National Army Museum, but not physically, of course. Each of the historians spoke from home, and good old Zoom brought us all together.

The general theme was that marking 1918 as the end of the war was a pretty Anglocentric thing to do. Elsewhere violent conflict was continuing

The first session today presented four papers about the postwar period in Europe – in Italy, France, Eastern Europe and Germany respectively. In the afternoon we heard about Britain’s involvement in Russia after the war, and about our (not very successful) attempts to intervene and direct matters in Turkey and Iran.

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