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.
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
Who went and asked
“Could we have some writing for
The woolly folk to read?”
The agent asked
I’ll go and tell
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:
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.