Jolly Jack and the Preacher

Patrick Parrinder

  • A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars by D.L. LeMahieu
    Oxford, 396 pp, £35.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 19 820137 0

‘I belong to the Beardsley period’, said Max Beerbohm, thereby beginning one of criticism’s most imperious habits. The authors of scholarly books such as The Shakespearean Moment, The Pound Era or The Auden Generation are following Beerbohm’s precedent in appropriating a cultural epoch under the name of a single artist. Yet, as D.L. LeMahieu points out, the great majority of their contemporaries had never heard of, still less read, these totemistic figures. A Culture for Democracy is concerned to argue that there was a genuinely common culture in mid-20th-century Britain, a culture which embraced ‘the unemployed labourer in Huddersfield, the Oxford don, the shopkeeper in Leeds, and the typist in Grimsby’. The book pursues cultural history by the accumulative method, piling up instance on instance and secondary source on secondary source; those in need of the information it contains will find that it amply repays study. LeMahieu conscientiously shuns autocratic value-judgments and their advocates, but his approach is more literary and imperious than at first appears. He, too, has his culture-heroes and representative spokesmen.

To start with, there is that suspiciously Audenesque cross-section of the citizenry of Grimsby, Oxford, Leeds and Huddersfield: poetic fantasy masquerading as mass-observation. As cinemagoers, LeMahieu tells us, they would have seen Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, and as radio listeners they would have tuned into In Town Tonight. It may be so, but then again it may not. The Oxford don may have been delayed at High Table, and the typist may have gone to her trade-union branch. What LeMahieu means to indicate here is the existence of a unified public, with identifiable wants which the mass media were able to supply. What the public wants was the title of a 1909 play by Arnold Bennett, usefully disinterred at the beginning of this book, which focuses on the politics of public taste in a modern democracy.

In Bennett’s play Sir Charles Worgan, a press baron, becomes the patron of a progressive theatre-manager, Holt St John. (Worgan also rather superbly patronises Oxford University, and receives an honorary doctorate for his efforts.) But Worgan soon falls out with St John, since he insists that art is an investment and that the theatre, like Fleet Street, is useless without paying customers. He puts the profit-motive before any other even when the muckraking journalism of one of his papers begins to uncover some forgotten secrets in his own family circle. Worgan is a monster impervious to ordinary human relationships, but does he really command public taste in the way that he thinks? According to St John, no mere salesman can ever do so: ‘Public taste is continually changing ... It’s we who change it.’ John Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, once made a very similar statement. ‘The best way to give the public what it wants is to reject the express policy of giving the pubic what it wants,’ he told an audience in 1930.

Bennett, when he created Sir Charles Worgan, was the columnist of A.R. Orage’s minority journal the New Age – not yet the bloated sage of the Evening Standard’s reviewing section. The verbal battle between Worgan and St John is to my mind a drawn one (though LeMahieu awards the victory to the newspaper proprietor). At a certain level their function is to compete with one another for public attention, rather than acting as the spokesmen for inherently incompatible values. William Wordsworth, whose essays and prefaces originated much of the rhetoric of high-cultural debate, distinguishes between a taste for poetry – which involves active mental participation by the reader – and one for ‘rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or sherry’: but he then affirms that an original poet has the task of ‘creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed’. The same applies to the manufacturers of most new products, so that the poet-critic has this in common with the advertising agency. Both are in the business of forming the public’s view of what it wants.

Literary criticism, as an arbiter of taste, has a vested interest in sounding more antagonistic towards the rest of capitalist society than it really is. A producer who can invoke the authority of superior values and standards has a powerful means of positioning himself within the cultural market, though at the cost of being forced to attack competing products. Wordsworth inveighs against ‘frantic novels’, ‘sickly and stupid German tragedies’ and ‘idle and extravagant stories in verse’ in the course of defending Lyrical Ballads, and he professes his loyalty to ‘the PEOPLE, philosophically characterised’, rather than to the fickle contemporary public. In other words, his poems are a blue-chip, long-term investment for the discerning buyer. He soon attracted enthusiastic supporters and private patrons, and (since no society is run entirely on market lines) he was able to lobby successfully for the office of Distributor of Stamps.

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