Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

In Praise of Beachcomber (J B Morton)

It has been a long, grey winter, and I’ve been in great need of some of my favourite vintage humour. Nostalgia is my thing, mainly for the surreally funny columns of the newspapers I grew up with. Tastes change, and there seems to be no place for the Peter Simples and Beachcombers now. Their trademark was the stock characters and ongoing sagas they created that stick in the mind and make me smile just at the thought of them.

The Beachcomber column started in the Daily Express, headed By The Way, in 1917, and was an innocuous diary and gossip column. Later taken over by D B Wyndham Lewis (co-editor of the hilarious anthology of good bad poetry The Stuffed Owl), it gained its reputation for surreal humour. The last and greatest Beachcomber was J B Morton, who took over from Wyndham Lewis in 1924, and continued to write it for 50 years, until he was sadly and unceremoniously sacked in 1975. Morton was influenced by Belloc, a friend of the family, and is associated with his style of writing and ‘muscular Christian’ mental outlook. He was loud and bucolic, part of J C Squire’s literary cricket team so wonderfully described in A G MacDonell’s England, Their England (I must dig that out and review it some time). I’m beginning to wonder if he might have been a model for the South Downs-loving Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm – although there are plenty enough candidates for that honour.

Morton, predictably for someone with his connections and influences, is a reactionary figure in some ways, who had it in for modernity, socialism, bright young things etc. But he was no apologist for the Establishment, though his satire was never revolutionary, or even particularly malicious, and this I think is why his characters and targets are remembered with such affection by people (like me) who don’t totally share his outlook, and wouldn’t be seen dead with the Daily Express even when it was a respectable newspaper.

How to write about humour, that most elusive writing to describe? I’ll have to resort to quoting him sooner or later. What makes one laugh is so deeply personal. Beachcomber will either make you laugh long and hard (he has that effect on me), or leave you stony-faced, rolling your eyes. But I hope that we can agree on at least one thing (out of two) – his wildly inventive comic genius, and/or his amazing gift with words.

His columns were a mixture of original pieces and continuing sagas. Just the names of his recurring characters can make me smile – Captain Foulenough, con-man, cad and bounder par excellence, holding court in the public bar, with his tales of derring-do:

Amazed that an Army Captain should have so many naval adventures, a pretty widow who frequents the Lord Nelson asked him if he liked liaison work. The Captain turned slowly to look at her, rubbed his forefinger along each wing of his moustache, flicked an imaginary crumb off his shoulder, cleared his throat, rolled his eyes, and answered in a low voice “I adore it”. There were roars of laughter and the widow turned red as a blood orange. “I meant war work” she said. “I didn’t, ” said Foulenough with a prodigious wink.

Mr Justice Cocklecarrot’s cases dissolve into chaos when he cannot resist verbal sparring with the prosecuting and defending counsel, respectively Mr Tinklebury Snapdriver and Mr Honeyweather Gooseboote. Dr Smart-Allick, and his terrifying school Narkover (a lifelong war waged on Harrow, which he hated), make Molesworth’s St Custards and its Headmaster Grimes look like the merest Dame-school. From time to time Dr Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht turns up, with a plan to send a rocket to the Moon, or at work on thousands of inventions ( … “a method of freezing meat skewers, a hand-woven esparto grass egg cosy which plays ‘Thora’ when released from the egg” … – however, when I told my husband about “a screw that screws screws into other screws”, he told me, quite seriously, that such a thing exists).

He is a scourge of the literary world, unkind to book reviewers and publishers’ blurb writers alike. A running joke is a review of successive editions of ‘The List of Huntingdonshire Cabmen’ (“A humble litany that clutches the heart”). A lot of his effect is the accumulation of lunacy, so a single example of one of his publishers’ blurbs (from “New 7/6d Fiction”) doesn’t give the full impact of a page of them – nevertheless, this is a favourite:

A SOCK ON THE JAW by BRASS WILLIAMS
An unalloyed narrative of stark frenzy on the Southern Seas. Tells of a Hawaiian maid and her gypsy lover; how love came to them amid island enchantments, and how Desmond, disilllusioned, threw her to the cuttlefish, with a careless laugh.

Even though I think A A Milne is a literary genius and a national treasure, I cannot resist the demolition job that Beachcomber does on his poetry – this is from ‘When We Were Very Silly’:

Some one asked
The publisher,
Who went and asked
The agent:
“Could we have some writing for
The woolly folk to read?”
The agent asked
His partner,
His partner
Said, “Certainly,
I’ll go and tell
The author
Now
The kind of stuff we need.”

Ouch! And, Tee-hee.

Beachcomber is of his time, and so there is some reliance on funny foreigners and chucklesome minorities – but I cannot help laughing at the 12 Red-bearded Dwarves, who have a high old time causing uproar in Mr Justice Cocklecarrot’s court, arraigned for placing a ladder against a pretty lodger in their digs so that one of their number can steal a kiss on her ear; or at the Filthistan Trio, from Thurralibad, who roam around London looking for places to perform their time-honoured folk tradition of see-saw (which brings them too before Mr Justice Cocklecarrot from time to time).

Then every so often, there is a tiny piece so topical it makes me choke with laughter and surprise at the same time:

STOP PRESS
Financier Caught by Nose in Rat-trap says, “Cheese Makes Him Sick.”

The only title of J B Morton’s in print currently is The Adventures of Mr Thake, though he published many anthologies from his column over the years. (Oswald Thake is one of his stock characters – a Wooster-ish young-ish (very -ish) man whose Jeeves is a malevolent Gentleman’s Gentleman called Saunders, who, far from getting him out of scrapes, pushes him in deeper – not a favourite of mine, but it’s a great conceit.) After his death, his reputation was kept alive by Richard Ingrams, who published a couple of collections – mine is The Bumper Beachcomber. London: Bloomsbury, 1991 (ISBN 0747509646). Many of his other titles can be found from Amazon and Abebooks re-sellers.

21 comments on “In Praise of Beachcomber (J B Morton)

  1. kirstyjane
    March 4, 2011

    Brava! This has made my day. I love Beachcomber and have since I was far too young to get quite a lot of the humour. Like Coren, Beachcomber has supplied any number of bits of prose and verse which have stuck permanently in my mind and which I hope will never leave.

    The Moon and I came face to face
    In some deserted country place.
    I thought the Moon was heavenly;
    I wonder what it thought of me?

    Incidentally, Dr. Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht is supposed to have invented the electric toothbrush well before its time – although I note that Bracerot never really took off.

    Oh, and:

    Hush, hush,
    Nobody cares!
    Christopher Robin
    has fallen
    downstairs.

  2. kirstyjane
    March 4, 2011

    (And now I am off to Show My Knees, like grandma, and blow whistles like baby.)

  3. Hilary
    March 4, 2011

    Ooh good – another Beachcomber fan! I wondered if an appreciation of Alan Coren might go hand in hand.

    But, I’m sure you’ll agree that the world would be a better place if Bracerot had had the success it deserved.

  4. kirstyjane
    March 4, 2011

    Whoosh! Down fell his Nordic breeches.

    I really should learn to turn that automatic quoting response off. Yes, you and I seem to have remarkably similar tastes in comedy. Great minds and all.

  5. Jackie
    March 6, 2011

    This was a totally unfamiliar subject to me. I would wager that it’s a specific type of British humor that is more complicated than most American humor. I’m sure that says volumes about our cultural differences. LOL

  6. Nikki
    March 7, 2011

    I love that you turn to certain books to see you through the grey days. I always turn to childhood favourites, I wonder why that is? Nostalgia, probably. Great review!

  7. Ela
    March 14, 2011

    I came to Beachcomber through the Radio 4 series (with Ingrams, John Wells, John Sessions and Patricia Routledge). As a result, I can’t read about Smart-Allick without hearing John Wells’ slithery tones, nor Cocklecarrot without hearing Ingrams’ rather querulous-sounding voice. I love Morton’s character names, and the stories which turn into increasingly demented sagas (such as Carstairs’ trousers and The Saucy Mrs Flobster).

    I have a version collected/edited by Michael Frayn, which your post is making me want to read again!

  8. Hilary
    March 15, 2011

    Ooh, thank you for reminding us of The Saucy Mrs Flobster! Another Beachcomber name that doesn’t even really need the associated lunacy to make it funny.

    I must look out for the Frayn collection – it would be interesting to see if he picks out different favourites from Richard Ingrams’. Thank you!

  9. kirstyjane
    March 16, 2011

    At this point, I feel it incumbent upon me to point out that Wivens has fallen down a manhole.

  10. Hilary
    March 16, 2011

    *After a long pause* Which Wivens would that be?

  11. farcalled
    November 23, 2011

    I love this one

    “Fancy that!, hesaid handing a rhinocerous to the pigeon fancier.

  12. farcalled
    November 23, 2011

    Couln’t resist adding to the Carstairs (life of) saga with this:

    “Carstairs occasionally felt the need to swing by London “For a change of lion cloth and a jig with the ladies” as he put it. Arriving at Southampton he invariably disembarked into the arms of Lady Fey of Fotherbottom who never failed to twitter “Oh Carsty, you do smell of elephant, how lovely. Let’s go somewhere quiet where I can brush the dust of Empire off you” Formalities thus dispensed with, the couple were wont to retire to the Sea View Hotel near Fotherbottom for the customary cocktails and high jinks. The whereabouts of Lord Fotherbottom, although a mystery, seemed to interest no one.”

  13. Wally Downes
    July 12, 2013

    Could somebody PLEASE suggest where I may get any Beachcomber stuff ,especially the audio gear! Only discovered it today and haven’t stopped laughing. I am ,I suppose a bit of a cloth eared idiot by all accounts, but I love this and am in need of guidance.

  14. Hilary
    July 12, 2013

    Hello Wally – I’d suggest Radio 4 Extra, where ‘Beachcomber By The Way’ is being repeated right now, but I’m guessing that may be where you’ve discovered Beachcomber.

    I stocked up on older collections by checking secondhand booksellers on Amazon Marketplace and AbeBooks – I got good clean copies quite cheaply. As far as I know Richard Ingrams and co are the only people who’ve produced an audio version, and I can’t find evidence that it has ever been published as an audio book.

    However, I have just made a quick search for ‘Beachcomber Morton’ on Amazon and found several promising secondhand copies of collections at low price. Good hunting!

  15. Neil Foster
    September 29, 2013

    I have always been a fan of the Goons but Beachcomber has that same wacky sense of humour, surreal plots and ridiculous names. I have “The Best of Beachcomber”(1963 – Introduction by Michael Frayn). Sample: “SIXTY HORSES WEDGED IN CHIMNEY – The story to fit this headline has not yet turned up.” My copy of the book I bought from a charity shop for 20p. It is marked “Withdrawn from Gwynedd Library Stock”. Why? Didn’t the staff find it funny??

  16. Mike Bye
    April 17, 2014

    Wivens? . . ..”E.D.”. – of course – ertswhile Mouser in the Cocklecarrot household.

    ‘High winds in the Channel – Lady Cabstanleigh blown two miles off course”

    then there’s Spike M’s equally glorious – ‘High winds in the Channel – Wolverhampton closed to Shipping’

  17. Mike Bye
    April 19, 2014

    Good old Snibbo!

  18. Pingback: The Bronts | Gert Loveday

  19. Mike Bye
    November 24, 2014

    Anyone else remember ‘Pharmbutta’ – introduced during the lean years of Labour
    after WW2?

  20. Pingback: #AtoZ Challenge: B | The Great North American Book Journey

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This entry was posted on March 4, 2011 by in Entries by Hilary, Non-fiction: Humour and tagged , , , , .

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