After many years as a teacher, I retired and began researching for a Ph.D. on the fiction of the Great War - especially the books, stories and plays that were written during the War or immediately afterwards.
For quite a long while now I’ve been collecting examples of the ‘White Feather’ meme, variations on the situation where a woman (often elderly, always self-righteous) accuses a man of being a coward, and is then shown to be ridiculous because he is already a soldier, or is a wounded ex-soldier, or whatever. This postcard shows a farcical variation I hadn’t come across before:
I read jokes like this were a way of keeping the war in its place – by making fun of the excessive kind of war enthusiasm that bosses other people about and intrudes into other people’s privacy.
It’s by Chris Hopkins, who has just published a book on Greenwood. The book is a thorough study of Love on the Dole, the novel for which Greenwood is famed, but the blog sets out to show that he was more than just a one-book man.
By the way, this week’s TLS reminds us of another Manchester author, with a review of a new edition of Howard Spring’s Fame is the Spur, which shows the gradual corruption of a working-class socialist politician. Both Spring and Greenwood deserve readers.
How seriously was Lawrence of Arabia taken in the mid-thirties? I ask because one of the running jokes in Alan Melville’s detective story Death of Anton (1936) about the unreadability of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The novel is set in a circus, and one of the clowns carries a copy of the book around to impress others, but never manages to actually begin reading:
Not reading, merely turning the pages. Mr. Mayhew (for that is his name in real life) has been looking for a suitable place to begin reading the book ever since he bought it, but up to now has failed to find one.
Was this a private joke of Melville’s, or a reflection of a common opinion? Maybe the opinion was only common in the rather camp theatrical circles where Melville thrived. Maybe people like him found it hard to take Lawrence seriously (if only because Lawrence took himself so very very seriously).
Since the well-informed readers of this blog were so helpful in identifying the ‘Wounded Soldiers’ painting, Rod Beecham asks if anyone can help with some more images, which may be more difficult.
In his book he wants to reproduce this image of J.M. Keynes by Roger Fry:
He has permission to use the image from Bridgeman Images, but no one can tell him when it was painted (1918?), the medium used, or its dimensions. Any ideas how we can find out?
Also, he would like to use this painting of Philip Gibbs:
It was probably painted around 1943, by Joyce Rowland (although the signature says ‘J.Cowdery’). This ambiguity is solved by this website, a history of the Rowland family which shows that Joyce Rowland married Mr Cowdery (and also that she was related to Gibbs). Rod has tried to contact the site to find who owns rights to the painting, and further details – but so far, no answer. Once again – any ideas?
Failing permission to use the painting, Rod would like to use this photo of Gibbs:
Has anyone any idea who took the photo, or who owns the rights?
This is just a note to recommend the exhibition Rhythm and Reaction, at Two Temple Place in London. It tells the story of the introduction of jazz music into Britain before and after the Great War.
From the banjo-playing of the minstrel shows and productions like In Dahomey (1903), via the groundbreaking Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1919) to the absorption of jazz into the repertoire of dance bands, it’s a good story, and told well here, with photos, paintings and artefacts.
The exhibition has much to say about the cultural anxiety caused by jazz in the uncertain postwar years, and highlights the story of John Bulloch Souter’s The Breakdown, a painting that was selected for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1926.
This showed a black saxophonist in evening dress sitting on a ruined statue of Minerva, while a naked white woman dances with abandon to his seductive music. many complained at the implied miscegenation, and the Colonial Office described it as “obnoxious to British subjects living abroad in daily contact with a coloured population”. So hostile was the reaction to the picture that the Academy withdrew it from display, and Souter himself chose to destroy it. Pictured here is a new version that he painted in the nineteen-sixties.
Also included is a menu card designed by Wyndham Lewis for the Cave of the Golden Calf Cabaret and Theatre Club. Arthur Machen was one of the turns advertised on the programme.
There are good paintings by William Roberts and others, but one thing I missed was any reference to T.S. Eliot, who loved to go dancing to the latest hits, but shared Souter’s cultural anxieties (and expressed them better in The Waste Land). Sweeney Agonistes shows him at one loving and and fearing syncopated rhythms.
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag.
At the Sheffield Hallam popular fiction reading group, we have been reading Gibbs this month. I read The Winding Lane, his 1931 study of a middlebrow novelist caught between, on the one hand, the pretensions of the intellectual coterie who write the book reviews, and on the other, the vulgarity of the mass market. It’s an interesting study in the sociology of literature, though not a very good novel. My review is online here.
Two members of the group read The Reckless Lady (1924) and thoroughly enjoyed it, finding it readable and interesting. One of them has written a review that is online here.
I’m really glad they liked the book, since it was I who suggested Gibbs as author of the month. I had been afraid that people might find some of his books stodgy.
Others read some of his later (post-1940) novels and were less impressed. Gibbs was a journalist-novelist, and the best of his early novels were essentially eye-witness accounts. I get the impression that later ones were more second-hand, re-hashes of what he had read in the papers, rather than what he had seen.
Googling the 1932 novel The Anxious Days, in an attempt to find out what it was about, I found this paragraph from it, which I rather like:
There was the author of the latest “best seller”, condemned to the flames of hell—and magnificently advertised—by that austere moralist, Mr. James Douglas. She was a young creature with her pretty back bare to her waist, looking as innocent as a German doll.
James Douglas was the journalist who loved to kick up campaigns against books he considered immoral. He succesfully inspired prosecutions of Lawrence’s The Rainbow, of Rose Allatini’s Despised and Rejected, and of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. He tried to stir things up about Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady, but Bennett was too smart for him.
The novelist hero of Philip Gibbs’s 1931 novel The Winding Lane is an ex-soldier rather ill at ease in the literary world. At the Pen and Palette, a bohemian club catering for the artistic set, he notes the taste of some of the members:
Some of these middle-aged women praised with rather hysterical enthusiasms the grossness of certain war novels which had lately been the vogue.
Gibbs’s hero reads the book with an anxiety that is presumably Gibbs’s own:
He had read some of them with interest and emotion. Certainly they had stripped the war of any false glamour which it might have for youth, and some of them had been written in blood and agony, but most of them had falsified the war by bringing in sex stuff which had no place in the normal experience of trench life and billets. Men were too tired to worry much about that side of life. There were no women within reach of No Man’s Land, nor within forty miles of the front line. Some of these novelists of war had gone to the latrines for their inspiration and had overloaded their pages with blasphemy and obscenity having little to do with the war, which he hated as much as they did. These things, anyhow, were trivial in relation to the great ordeal, and accidental to the spirit of the men. Personally, as a writing man, he shrank from the foul word and the obscene incident. By all his training in decency he was inhibited from that grossness.
Gibbs had not been a soldier; he had been a war correspondent – perhaps the best of the correspondents, with a huge admiration for the men who fought, and a compassion for their suffering. His determination to report accurately got him into conflict with the censors. His Realities of War (1919) was one of the first books to be openly critical of the generals’ management of the war.
In his novels since the war, the war had been his touchstone for judging men and events (as it is in The Winding Lane). At the heart of his books is an admiration for the courage and decency of the men who endured the war; to some degree he idealised them.
The books and plays that followed All Quiet on the Western Front and Journey’s End were very varied, but many of them did not idealise the soldier. They showed him as fallible, sometimes frightened, sometimes cruel. They showed him swearing and randy, and were not shy of the lavatorial facts of life.
Judging by his novels, Gibbs was a reticent man when it came to such subjects. He skirts sexual matters in a way that weakens him as a novelist. And the sometimes gross physical details recounted in war books must have reminded him that though he was close to the war, he was never actually in it, had never had to endure long gruelling weeks in the trenches.
Some of this account is dubious. No women within forty miles of the front line? The brothels of Poperinghe were just eight miles from Ypres. And the suggestion that young men could be too busy to think about sex does not really square with my experience of life. Does it with yours?
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