Seventy Years in a Filthy Trade

Andrew O’Hagan meets E.S. Turner

Mr Turner is my favourite Edwardian. He sits in a chair under the window. He doesn’t waste a lot of words. And when he laughs he rocks a little. The sky is busy and blue over Richmond. Every few minutes a plane goes by. They seem to enter the window-frame just about head height; each one passes through the ears of E.S. Turner, and on from there to some Spain or America. He isn’t bothered. He’s nearly ninety. He’s thinking of things to say about his life. And when he speaks he speaks in a small way. His voice seems aware of the danger it’s in.

‘Mmm,’ he says. ‘My first article for the Dundee Courier. I got 15 shillings for it, five of which I spent going up in an aeroplane, an old Moth, which flipped once or twice round a field. It’s an odd thing that though I can remember things from World War One – German prisoners being marched through the streets, biplanes practising looping the loop, and that heart-stopping “falling leaf” descent – I have no recollection whatever of the Armistice of 1918.’

Mr Turner’s living-room has a collection of antique irons. One of his lamps is made from an old Veuve Clicquot bottle. You see plants here and there; a carpet-world of potted ivy; a teddy-bear out of time on a small chair. Mr Turner has twice been married for 25 years. His wife is out today. She is one of the Council’s housing officers, coping just now, her husband says, ‘with importunate Kosovars and other Balkan wanderers’. But she leaves behind her a sense of order. And here Mr Turner sits with his books: the ones he’s written, the ones he’s read. Down by his legs, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Pick of ‘Punch’, Gout: The Patrician Malady, and his own new one, Unholy Pursuits: The Wayward Parsons of Grub Street. ‘While I live in the byways of history,’ he says, ‘my wife lives very much in the real world.’

The boy Turner once told the headmaster of Orme Boys’ School in Newcastle-under-Lyme that he wanted to work on a newspaper. ‘A filthy trade,’ said the good Dr Rutter. We ponder this in silence for a moment. Mr Turner taps at his lips with a long finger. Beside me on the sofa is the most recent number of the Richmond and Twickenham Times (proprietor David Dimbleby). It carries an interesting letter on page four.

Sir, While thanking you for printing a story about my forthcoming book Unholy Pursuits: The Wayward Parsons of Grub Street I would like to point out that this is not my third, but my 19th book.

May I also express a fogeyish surprise at seeing myself described as ‘Ernest’ in the headline.

I first started writing headlines 70 years ago, but in my time we did not indulge in first-name familiarities on the lines of ‘Sidney Goes to the Gallows’ and ‘Ann (90) Fells Burglar.’

This first-naming of all and sundry is the curse of the age and is rendered no more acceptable by the fact that nurses and policemen do it.

I wonder, though, if your Mr Dimbleby writes a book at the age of 88, will you refer to him as David? Or even Dave?

Perhaps you will allow me to sign myself with the initials I have always used as an author. – E.S. Turner.

Mr Turner’s new book might well be his best. It is written in the immaculate, softly-joking prose that has served him all these years; a writing that cares to be fresh and elegant. His book looks at some late 18th-century lives, moonlighting parsons to a man, who were sick of their duties as ‘birch-wielding clerics’ and sermonising frumps, and who sought glory and preferment as playwrights, duellists, authors ‘on the town’. Most were libellers and some became editors. In a phrase that would no doubt have set the head of Mr Turner’s former Head anodding, we learn of the society in which ‘the journalist rated somewhere between apothecary and cat-skinner.’ And the seediest of these parson-scribes found a natural home in the Grub Street of the day, an acre or two of foundling newspapers and inky warrens, inhabited, as Dr Johnson had it, ‘by writers of small histories, dictionaries and temporary poems’.

Small history has a firm memory of some of these characters, but I doubt if they have ever been rendered so clearly as a group, or so hilariously as a palsied social tribe. There’s the horrible bookseller Edmund Curll, Pope’s enemy of twenty years, who is spattered with ordure in The Dunciad; ‘stage-struck priests’ like the Rev. John Home, whose Douglas gave rise to a Scottish roar from the pit: ‘Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?’ There is word of parsonical whorings and slayings, of deep draughts in taverns and stews; there are all manner of clerical bruisers, men like the Revds Henry Bate and William Jackson, successive editors of the Morning Post, who gave themselves up to sparrings and scandals, and whose journalistic darts were dipped in poison. They were reckless and factional men in a reckless and factional age: E.S. Turner has something of James Boswell’s felicity when it comes to conveying the whiff and fever of the period in question. He shows us the men whom Cowper deplores in ‘The Task’:

The pastor, either vain
By nature, or by flatt’ry made so, taught
To gaze at his own splendour, and t’exalt
Absurdly, not his office, but himself.

‘I’ve had many strokes of luck in my career,’ says Mr Turner, ‘so I don’t want to moan too much about having to self-publish. If I’d had a longer life expectation I might have hung on a bit longer and kept trying for a commercial publisher. You might wonder why I didn’t get myself an agent, but agents don’t want to take on octogenarians.’ After 18 excellent books Mr Turner’s publisher decided to call it a day. They said it was the sort of book they could happily have published ten years ago. It would appear that Mr Turner has come full circle, and then circled back some more. ‘I take some cheer,’ he says, ‘from the way in which one of my Grub Street parsons established a triumphant marker in the field of self-publishing. The roustabout Rev. Charles Churchill could not get a single bookseller-publisher to give him £5 for his verse satire The Rosciad. Publishing it himself, he cleared £1000 in two months, earning as much from it as a humble curate might earn in a lifetime.’

E.S. Turner’s most famous ancestor is remembered in a well-known print by Francis Wheatley which marks the martial efforts of Sir Barnard Turner. In 1780 Barnard – as the Richmond and Twickenham Times might say – was in command of troops of the London Foot Association, who opened fire on looters taking part in the Gordon Riots. The painting shows him standing at the head of his musket-wielding soldiers, the mob in the foreground passing chairs and swag from the windows above. There’s also the delicate question of William Swiney Turner, Sir Barnard’s son, a clerk in the Bank of England, who was tried on a charge of complicity to defraud the bank of £10,000. Young Turner was acquitted, but the affair is still referred to as ‘Turner’s Fraud’.

Frederick William Turner, our author’s father, was a churchgoer and a teetotaller, a desk-man in the Post Office Engineering Department in Liverpool. Ernest Turner was born in the Wavertree Garden Suburb in 1909. The place was built for a class that Mr Turner now thinks extinct, that of ‘meritorious artisans’. The family bookcase was weighted with the massed works of Swedenborg (Arcana Coelestia) and a ‘splendid’ volume called The Bible in Pitman’s Shorthand. The boy Turner was more interested in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, with its message of life being but ‘One Moment in Annihilation’s Waste’, and its firm advocacy of wine. He committed the whole thing to memory. His father was less keen.

Mr Turner’s mother was Bertha Pixton Norbury. She was a painter of portraits and landscapes. ‘She painted well, in an amateur sort of way,’ he says, ‘in the way that Victorian ladies did.’ He first went to school in Shrewsbury. He remembers very well a Miss Wallett. ‘We sat around a big table triumphantly chanting the multiplication tables.’ She would ask them what is meant by this word ‘Sacrament’? Each child would look up. ‘An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’ Curious matter for the under-tens. Ernest Turner was a good pupil. He won a few prizes and enjoyed himself memorising passages of Macaulay’s Lays. By the time he was at Orme Boys’ School (Arnold Bennett’s alma mater, then in the hands of the unpropitious Dr Rutter) young Turner was inclining towards journalism.

Ernest Turner went to Glasgow. He became a sharp eye on the Evening Times, and in time a sharp voice, with columns and leaders and bits for a giggle. He describes those days in his ABC of Nostalgia: ‘How backward, how mealy-mouthed, how cliché-ridden and yet how endearing were the newspapers of between the world wars. The secret of the identity of Santa Claus was never wantonly disclosed in their pages . . . It was no job for a university man, whose only job on a newspaper was to write leaders urging the Dictators to look before they leaped.’ Certain things surprised Mr Turner about Glasgow. The tram went all the way to Loch Lomond. Some areas had pubs on every corner, others had sweet shops. He also remembers the staggering number of cinemas and the staggered newspapers, four mornings and three evenings, all receptive to freelance contributions. ‘The subs on the Glasgow Evening Times were a profane lot,’ he says, ‘but they knew their jobs. I could never master the business of getting the racing results into the Stop Press. One of them wrote well-esteemed poetry; one wrote a life of Keir Hardie, the cloth-capped Old Labour MP.’ Later, on the Scottish Daily Express, he shared the subs table with James Cameron, ‘a good friend, a brilliant reporter. In my lifetime the coarsening of the press has been astonishing. Papers are bigger, but there’s less and less news.’

He went to America on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary. ‘About a hundred reporters,’ he says, ‘each of us desperate to find a stowaway.’ At one brief period, while going back and forth, he owned a £10 Chrysler on each side of the Atlantic. (‘There’s glory for you.’) Between the wars he travelled on Hitler’s Bremen and Europa, also on Mussolini’s Conte di Savoia, and the ships of the Anchor Line, out of Glasgow. In 1934 he motored through a swastika-hung Rhineland in a Morgan sports three-wheeler. ‘This fascinated the Brownshirts everywhere,’ he says, ‘but failed to promote an entente cordiale.’

He joined the Army in 1941 and served in the Royal Artillery (anti-aircraft). His battery engaged night raiders over Clapham Common and Raynes Park, and later shot down many V1s at Dungeness. He was posted to Brussels to help launch the army magazine Soldier. ‘It’s still going,’ he says, ‘and if you’d asked me then which magazine would die first, Soldier or Punch, I should certainly have said Soldier.’ He moved the magazine to a devastated Hamburg in 1945, where it was printed on the presses that had turned out Goebbels’s famous magazine Signal. ‘A very good magazine,’ says Major Turner.

He came back to London as Soldier’s editor after the war. He wrote a book about blood-and-thunder literature, intending it to be called The Penny Blood, but the creator of Billy Bunter was appalled at the idea of his work being corralled under such a heading, and so the book became Boys Will Be Boys, and a bestseller. Some people felt that E.S. Turner may have invented a new kind of book – the popular social history, very British, very funny, but written with a glistening elegance.

Mr Turner wrote books about courting and courtiers, about doctors and servants, army officers and beaks. Who but E.S. Turner could be the author of a book such as Taking the Cure, a history of spa-going? Or Amazing Grace, a cool look at dukes? Before there was Dava Sobel, or Nick Hornby, or Fermat’s Last Theorem or Andy McNab, there was Mr Turner, and his series of second-hand typewriters. ‘I remember a van arriving out of the blue with a fine stock of near-prehistoric machines,’ he says. ‘My father very decently bought one of these for £5 and I used it for many years.’

They have always been light, Mr Turner’s fingers on the keyboard, with a strongly human pulse just under the skin, a richness of personal feeling in the blood. From A History of Courting:

The Edwardian age was a curious blend of romantic roguishness and winked at wickedness. It was a dying, yet a germinal age. Under the willows on the river, the straw-hatted suitor bravely endured all the amorous provocation that went with punts and parasols; yet his thoughts, like his hands, were strictly under control. If his imagination required lascivious exercise, he could spend Saturday night gloating on the frail beauties in the music-hall promenades; and if he required more than mental exercise, that could be arranged too.

He also wrote for Punch. Miles Kington remembers him coming into the editorial lunches. ‘A lot of the writers were rather arrogantly self-effacing,’ he says, ‘but Ernest always seemed to me like an elder statesman. He knew how to do it. He still does. He would come into those meetings with the most extraordinary ideas. “Have you noticed the way the French are such hypochondriacs?” he’d say, “at those village markets they always have diagrams and suchlike of the human body, always worrying over themselves.” And then he’d be off writing a funny piece. He takes hold of a subject, advertising or boys’ magazines, and he causes you to feel you’ve learned everything there is to know about the subject.’ Mr Kington laughs for a moment or two. ‘And that’s not all,’ he says, ‘his parodies of Betjeman are better than Betjeman.’

The Britain Mr Turner writes about may (like Punch) no longer be here. The following squib, A Short History of England, was rejected by a magazine on the grounds that it might upset newsagents:

Farewell, Plantagenet! And toll the bell
For Mowbray and de Vere. A further knell
For Smith and Robinson. Now meet Patel.

There’s always a whole new set of things you’re not allowed to laugh at. And now you can’t laugh at newsagents. You can’t snigger at class, or Princess Diana, even if you’re the sort of person who might always have done so. Mr Turner might say we fought for the right to say farewell to Smith, the right to meet Patel. But it would not be a popular thing to say. The newer Grub Street has set itself against the everyday ambivalence of being British. All trumpets, no prat-fall.

So what is British publishing for, if not to enjoy finding readers for a book as good as Unholy Pursuits? A ton of dreck falls dead from the presses every day. Maybe the readers have changed. Maybe the only things that matter are the importances of now. All ears are open for tomorrow’s gossip today.

And yet there’s the importance of being Ernest. I ask him which of his badmouthing parsons he likes the best. ‘Oh Bate,’ he says. The Rev. Henry Bate, ‘the most mettlesome . . . of newspaper editors . . . a man whose multiformity of roles would have delighted those jugglers in antithesis, the Augustan poets’. Bate was ‘the fighting parson’, forever causing or taking offence, getting into scrapes, apt to keep a rendezvous at the Spread Eagle Tavern, and fight ‘a 20-minute bout of fisticuffs with the uncouth Captain Miles’. The latter, one might add, would be sent home by the man of God, with ‘his face a perfect jelly’.

Mr Turner sits at the window with cheese and wine. The last of his hair points to the buzz over Richmond. ‘Some of those moonlighting parsons,’ he says, ‘they were such wonderful rascals.’ And he enjoys his memories of his own scribbling times. ‘For fifty years I’ve had a bad dream about leaving blank spaces on the page,’ he says, ‘ever since I was a columnist, with a deadline approaching. I’d wake up thinking I hadn’t made it.’

Things are going dim outside. And Mr Turner sits with his excellent book at his knee, the one that is of our time, but not of our time, and which cost him much more than his usual trouble. Sometimes Mr Turner can’t think of an answer to one of my questions. But when he sits at the typewriter, and begins to write, great swathes of his story come clean. He would later send me these typed pages. And they sit here in front of me now, covered in shadows of print, and they speak of a man altogether present. ‘I don’t know how you’ll get a whole article out of me,’ he said. ‘I haven’t a whole lot to say.’

An aeroplane flies into Mr Turner’s ear. He stares at his books. I imagine the sound of the engines, or a five-shilling spin in a Moth.