E.S. Turner

E.S. Turner wrote his first article for the Dundee Courier in 1927. He contributed to Punch for 53 years, and wrote more than eighty pieces for the London Review. His last social history was Unholy Pursuits: The Wayward Parsons of Grub Street. He died in 2006.

A multi-volume Anthology of Huntingdonshire Cabmen (‘sure to be the standard work on the subject’) was a running gag in J.B. Morton’s ‘Beachcomber’ column in the Daily Express. Compare and contrast, as the examiners used to say, with the anthology of Wednesfield trapmakers which occupies more than a hundred pages (with 70 more pages of non-Wednesfield trapmakers)...

In Finest Fig: The Ocean Greyhounds

E.S. Turner, 20 October 2005

The great ocean liners were the landmarks, grace notes and sometimes the agents of history. Born as I was in the Belle Epoque, admittedly in its dying days, I was well placed to marvel at the mightiest moveable artefacts of that time: the ‘floating cities’ of Cunard’s four-funnelled, five-syllabled fleet, Lusitania, Aquitania and Mauretania. They were the civil equivalent of...

When John Wesley visited Bath in 1739 to inveigh against the follies that flourished at hot springs, he was challenged by a fleshy, domineering figure in a white beaver hat, who demanded to know by what authority he was preaching. Wesley’s retort (or so he claimed) was ‘Pray, sir, are you a justice of the peace, or the mayor of this city? By what authority do you ask me these...

In Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall the society woman who ships girls to Rio is called Lady Metroland. Her husband, Viscount Metroland, takes his ‘funny name’ (as Paul Pennyfeather sees it) from a fantasy fiefdom of the London Metropolitan Railway, an advertising man’s conceit which tickled the imagination of the public in the 1920s. Metroland was the commuter catchment...

“With improved design was rekindled the passion for speed; road racing might be illegal but the solo ‘speed merchants’ were getting away with it. That early Lanchester which ‘sang like a six-inch shell across the Sussex Downs’ contained (in the back seat) Rudyard Kipling, a bit of a road-hog who had the nerve to proclaim that the car had at last brought a major blood sport to Britain … speed worship began to infect hard-headed urban councils, as one town after another began holding Grand Prix round-the-houses races, or even round-the-houses-and-into-the-trees races.”

“Outstanding among wartime shortages was common sense. Why certain acts were illegal was not always clear at the time and is now incomprehensible. The Transportation of Flowers Order, which banned sending cut flowers by rail, allowed them to be sent by petrol-wasting road transport. Under lighting restriction orders, a Naval officer at Yarmouth was fined for striking matches in a telephone box to read the dial.”

To kick-start a chronicle, a writer needs an attention grabber, usually a piquant item borrowed from mid-narrative. This history of the Tower Menagerie, founded 1235, begins on a winter day in 1764, when John Wesley, aged 61, arrived at the Tower with a flute-playing companion, to conduct what he called ‘an odd experiment’. The idea was to observe how the lions reacted to music,...

Bosh: Kiss me, Eric

E.S. Turner, 17 April 2003

From the 11th century to the 19th not a single Eric was to be found in England, according to the Harrap Book of Boys’ and Girls’ Names. Then in 1858 the schoolmaster Frederic Farrar, not yet a dean, published that passionately morbid tale Eric, or Little by Little. This was the book which, in the face of much mockery, put the wind up two generations of youth. Parents, seizing the...

The Edwardians turned out for some curious entertainments. In 1907 they flocked to hear Clara Butt, that towering contralto, sing the newly published Cautionary Tales of Hilaire Belloc, Liberal MP for South Salford and defender of the Catholic faith. All seats were sold countrywide. The Cautionary Tales – which tell of Henry King, ‘Who chewed bits of String and was early cut off...

The sitcom possibilities were many: the night alarm, with girls dashing from their beds, throwing battle-dress over their pyjamas and steel helmets over their curlers, naughtily adding a last-second dab of lipstick and arriving at the command post bright with excitement and night cream; the ensuing terrific din, which broke nearby windows and (allegedly) lavatory pans; the convivial stand-down, with buckets of hot cocoa drunk in the lingering scent of cordite.

The last time a ‘gentleman of the road’ cried ‘Stand and deliver!’ on an English highway is thought to have been in 1831. High tobymen, or horsed robbers, had yielded the field to low tobymen, or footpads, and roadside thieving had lost its traditional panache. By coincidence 1831 was the year the robber fraternity that had given the word ‘thug’ to the...

Gas-Bags: The Graf Zeppelin

E.S. Turner, 15 November 2001

On a May night in 1936, I saw that mightiest of zeppelins, the Hindenburg, floating above the skyscrapers of New York – a leviathan nearly as long as the Titanic, and as ill-starred. If Dr Goebbels had had his way the Hindenburg would have been called the ‘Hitler’ and would have borne an enormous swastika on its side, but Hugo Eckener, the man who gave substance to the dream...

White Peril: H. Rider Haggard

E.S. Turner, 20 September 2001

The author of King Solomon’s Mines and She composed his own epitaph, which was carved in black marble. It read:

Here lie the Ashes of Henry Rider Haggard Knight Bachelor Knight of the British Empire Who with a Humble Heart Strove to Serve his Country

Nothing there about his ripping yarns, the first of which had been hyped, in 1885, as ‘The Most Amazing Story Ever Written’....

It was widely supposed that London’s East End, in Victorian times, was a sink of evil, an outpost of the Cities of the Plain. Were there fifty righteous men to be found in this cockney Sodom? Well, yes, if you looked for them, and there were some uncommonly righteous lasses too. Together they had seen the vision splendid. Let Bernard Shaw, running on rich mixture, explain:


Morality in the Oxygen: tobogganing

E.S. Turner, 14 December 2000

The rope broke and down they bounced four thousand feet: the heir-presumptive to the Queensberry marquessate, a Lincolnshire clergyman, a 19-year-old Harrovian and a Chamonix guide. They were the casualties of Edward Whymper’s successful assault on the Matterhorn in 1865, lost during the descent; a tragedy supposedly honoured by nature with an enormous fog-bow, incorporating two...

Prison does nothing for the complexion, but spells in Newgate and Holloway, combined with a rackety way of life, had left unravaged the face of Mrs Georgina Weldon, whose radiant likeness appeared on the London buses in the year of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. An accompanying legend ran: ‘I am 50 today, but thanks to Pears Soap my complexion is only 17.’ London’s...

Will Self would have us believe that a volume of Saki’s stories, chosen from eight miles of second-hand books in a New York store, saved his life. That, he says in his introduction to this collection, should not be confused with changing his life. Faced with a 22-city promotional tour of America for one of his books (‘Not, you might venture, a deathly predicament in and of itself – but how wrong you are’), he was able to set against the ‘terrifying rootlessness’ of the tour the ‘triumphantly rooted character’ of Saki’s stories. I picture him, crammed in his aircraft seat, suddenly transformed, or perhaps stung, by a line like ‘to have reached thirty is to have failed in life,’ or wondering how to work off, on the next interviewer, a variation of ‘I love Americans but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is they never try to talk English.’’‘

John Fothergill, the high-handed host of the Spreadeagle at Thame between the world wars, described himself in Who’s Who as ‘Pioneer Amateur Innkeeper’. Evelyn Waugh, sending him a copy of Decline and Fall, inscribed it to ‘Oxford’s only civilising influence’. To those who, in 1931, goggled and giggled at his innkeeping confessions, Fothergill was the contumacious dandy for ever locked in combat with ‘clients’ who fell short of his standards, a man prepared to track down and rebuke a brigadier-general who, with his wife, dropped in to the Spreadeagle to use the lavatory without a please or thank you. Sharp-eyed in his white jacket and buckled shoes, he was quick to challenge those who aspired to use his premises for unhallowed coupling. (Client: ‘You think you can ask everyone who comes here if they are married?’ – ‘Yes, if I want to.’) To encounter the tyrant of Thame again two generations later is a downright delight. The angry and abusive restaurateur is still with us, as Craig Brown points out in his excellent short introduction, but John Fothergill, for all his eccentricities, snobberies and potty obsessions, had an endearing quality lacking in today’s kitchen boors; and for me this aspect was strongly confirmed by a rereading of his comic tour de force. The plain truth is that the man had a lot to put up with. After the initial shock, new readers are likely to find themselves cheering him on as he strives to tame the vulgarians, bounders and coxcombs of his day. Inevitably, they will wonder how Fothergill would have coped with that scourge of modern innkeepers, the upstart restaurant critic. Would he, on sighting the telltale notepad, simply have taken away the soup and cleared the table, as he did with that party of undergraduates who looked like throwing up? And, bearing in mind his scornful dismissal of a salesman who wanted him to rent a machine for dispensing bromide and aspirins, how would he have greeted a traveller eager to turn his much-abused lavatories into a bazaar of surreal contraceptives?’‘

Uplifting Lust: Mills and Boon

E.S. Turner, 6 January 2000

When the Berlin Wall came down ten years ago the publishers Mills and Boon moved swiftly into the breach. In a single day, we are told, their West German office gave away 750,000 copies of romantic novels to East German women. These escapers, it was assumed, now needed all the escapism they could get. In the benighted East their appetite for fantasy-fodder might – or might not – have been fed by titles like Daughter of the Stasi, The Reluctant Informer or Betrayal in Marxstadt, but here was escapism Western style, ‘wholesome’ and ‘hot’ at the same time (Joseph McAleer’s rating). It was wholesome in the sense that these paperbacks with their innocuous strong-man-and-starlet covers contained no swearing or four-letter words or blasphemies or gratuitous squalor, but hot in the sense that a high proportion of them offered scenes in which besotted lovers – doctors and nurses, as likely as not – engaged in free-ranging carnal joys, described at luscious length. The encounters seem to have been getting ever hotter, with the participants no more committed to hallowed union than they are to the missionary position. Today’s romantic novel has become one of the major curiosities of literature. Was this the blend of sugar and spice the women of Eastern Europe had been waiting for? Apparently, yes. Eastern Europe has proved ‘a huge new market’. In 1992 Poland bought 15 million Mills and Boon titles and the firm’s banner flew on Valentine’s Day above the former Communist headquarters in Warsaw.’‘

If the snappish Ambrose Bierce had been asked to define the word ‘exhibition’, he would probably have said it was an expensive faraway folly to which parents with fractious children journeyed to see a lump of coal, a steam engine and three hundred kinds of wood. As a schoolboy in 1925 I was taken, willingly enough, to Wembley to the British Empire Exhibition, then in its second triumphal year. I have only the fuzziest recollections of Imperial pavilions and palaces of engineering. Dimly, I recall seeing Canada’s life-size statue of the Prince of Wales in butter (‘My legs are too thick,’ he complained) but not Australia’s butter statue of the cricketer Jack Hobbs. I would probably have remembered seeing girls’ skirts being blown over their heads by jets of air had I been allowed anywhere near the amusement park (years later I caught up with this spectacle at Coney Island). What I do remember clearly from this outing is the subsequent evening stroll through the West End, where rich people who could not be bothered to pull the curtains could be seen going about their occasions in lush chandeliered rooms, their outer portals guarded by cockaded menservants. This, I felt, was what life was really about; if such were the rewards of Empire, so be it.‘

Etheric Vibrations: Marie Corelli

E.S. Turner, 29 July 1999

One of the least predictable roles played by the Devil in popular literature was that of literary adviser and agent in Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan, the outstanding bestseller of 1895. This singular book was a product of the publishing revolution which saw the death of the three-volume novel, beloved of the circulating libraries, and its replacement by a single, six-shilling volume which a new mass readership, avid for sensation, was ready to snap up on sight. It was also the book in which, on the author’s instructions, a notice was inserted: NO COPIES OF THIS BOOK ARE SENT OUT FOR REVIEW. Miss Corelli had suffered enough from the critics, that Devil’s crew, and if they wanted to read the book they could buy it (supposedly, her Yorkshire terrier was trained to tear up such hostile reviews as reached her). As a tract showing how Lucifer manipulated the literary establishment, The Sorrows of Satan might have enjoyed only a limited appeal, but it was also a passionate denunciation, as by a scatty Savonarola, of all society’s vices, flagitious or trumpery, the whole enriched by fiery apocalyptic visions.

Gilded Drainpipes: London

E.S. Turner, 10 June 1999

My worthiest ancestor, who in 1780 saved London from desolation – as I like to think – by ordering his redcoat militia to fire on the mob in the Gordon Riots, had another claim to notice. As a sheriff of London, Sir Barnard Turner was instrumental in abolishing Tyburn as a place of execution. In so doing he ended the tumultuous turnout of ruffians, whores and honest citizens who cheered, or execrated, the deathcart on its way from Newgate along Tyburn Road, now Oxford Street, to the gallows ground now known as Marble Arch. His action sprang from a moral impulse and not, I am convinced, from any desire to raise property values in the area known as Tyburnia. However, I gather from The London Rich that the ending of this long-standing nuisance was much valued by the hard-pressed aristocracy who, fleeing inner-city squalor, were seeking to build a new residential area north of Oxford Street. Only a generation later Macaulay, speaking on the Reform Bill, enthused over ‘that immense city which lies to the north of Great Russell Street and Oxford Street, a city superior in size and in population to the capitals of many mighty kingdoms; and probably superior in opulence, intelligence and general respectability to any city in the world’. This was pitching it a bit strong, though not for Macaulay.’‘

Ideally, one should be at the peak of fitness before starting to break the heads of Scots barbarians. The Emperor Severus, who undertook this necessary task in AD 208, suffered from gout. It is daunting to think that a man gripped by a malady so exquisitely sensitive to every bump of travel should have been carried in a litter all the way from Rome to Britain, then hoisted over the Hadrian and Antonine Walls to pursue a lot of hairy predators into the Hyperborean wastes. The campaign is described in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which I was belatedly reading when Gout: The Patrician Malady arrived for review. Strangely this book does not mention Severus, who is surely one of gout’s great heroes, but it confirms that Gibbon himself was suffering severely from gout while writing his ‘damned thick’ books about Rome. In later life he suffered also from a testicle swollen to the size of a melon, ‘which he did his best to ignore’, as one hopes everyone else did.‘

Suck, chéri: the history of sweets

E.S. Turner, 29 October 1998

One does not get far in this book before one’s eye is stopped by the reproduction of an advertisement placed by B. Henderson, of the China Warehouse, Rye Lane, Peckham. Miss (or Mrs) Henderson ‘respectfully informs the Friends of Africa that she has on Sale an Assortment of Sugar Basins, handsomely labelled in Gold Letters: “East India Sugar not made by Slaves”.’ There follows this assurance: ‘A Family that uses 5lbs of Sugar per Week will, by using East India, instead of West India, for 21 months, prevent the Slavery, or Murder, of one Fellow Creature! Eight such Families, in 19½ years, will prevent the Slavery, or Murder, of 100!!’ The mathematical projection may have been rickety, but what houseproud humanitarian could resist a purchase like that? And what housekeeper could fail to ensure that the bowl was always correctly filled?‘

Welcome, then, to this historic spa town, once calling itself the English Montpellier. The cherished waters, ideal for restoring the ‘animal functions’, have been reduced to a trickle from a single tap, hidden away from all but the curious; the Regency assembly rooms are the scene of a one-week monster carpet sale; and the crumbled colonnade for water-drinkers houses boutiques called Smarty Pants, Just Bums and Going for Bust. ‘Call this a spa?’ the valetudinarian out of Europe might say. ‘Where is your Grand Parc des Sources? Where are your salles de pulvérisation? And your first-class gargling-room? Have you no radioactive muds? We do not ask for dew-treading meadows, but what about a quiet garden with rows of brine-soaked hedges?’‘


E.S. Turner, 22 January 1998

Old-time shipwrecks are a richer, quirkier subject than most of us imagine. In 1841 the Nautical Magazine listed 50 ‘Causes of the loss of ships at sea, by wreck or otherwise’. In addition to ‘Mistaking of headlands’, ‘Driving on a lee shore’, ‘Sleeping on watch’, ‘Shifting of cargo’ and so on, the list includes:‘

The Sacred Sofa

E.S. Turner, 11 December 1997

Those who have visited the House of Lords as tourists may remember a notice entreating them not to sit on the Woolsack. Nobody at all will remember a light novel of thirty years ago in which the hero, detained in the Palace of Westminster for contempt of Parliament, was found on the Woolsack passionately entwined with his girlfriend. Reader, I wrote it. I well recall that a film producer of modest fame expressed an interest and asked me whether I thought the House of Lords would lend the chamber and the Woolsack for filming. Eager though I was to sell the film rights, I had to say I thought this unlikely. Not long afterwards the producer died suddenly and that was that.

Subsistence Journalism

E.S. Turner, 13 November 1997

On 19 October 1844 the overweight William Makepeace Thackeray – if his travel diary tells the truth – laboriously climbed the Great Pyramid of Cheops and pasted up banners advertising Punch, ‘thus introducing civilisation to Egypt’. The Egyptians put up with this sort of thing. Thomas Holloway, the great pill-maker, is supposed to have introduced eupepsia to Egypt by advertising his product from the same vantage-point. Punch at least seems to have established a lasting reputation along the Nile, because it was by those shores that the young Mohammed Al Fayed eagerly turned its pages and developed, as he says, an indelible affection for British ways. Four years after the 151-year-old magazine folded, the Harrods pharaoh revived the title on a budget which, according to the author of this book, would have been ‘beyond the fantasising powers’ of Punch’s founders. But the founders would have boggled at many other developments in the history of their threepenny comic, not least the fact that, early this century, it could claim to have had five knights on its payroll – two editors, two cartoonists and one Parliamentary correspondent. That was the biggest Punch joke of all.’‘

A Very Good Job for a Swede

E.S. Turner, 4 September 1997

In his first Father Brown story, ‘The Blue Cross’, published in 1910, G.K. Chesterton introduced a ‘colossus of crime’ who seemed to have strayed in from Comic Cuts: a giant Gascon called Flambeau who planted dummy pillar boxes in quiet suburbs in the hope of catching the odd postal order, and who ran a fraudulent dairy company without benefit of cows, his agents merely moving the milk containers outside other people’s doors to the doors of his own customers. Was Chesterton, perhaps, making mock of Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of crime’ whose empire was not without its Comic Cuts aspects? Neither Flambeau nor Moriarty had anything like the reach or the ambition, of Dr Fu Manchu, the ‘archangel of evil’ who controlled the underworlds and fanatical sects of four continents and was out for world domination. The filmy-eyed mandarin, who surfaced on the bookstalls in 1913, was described by his creator, Sax Rohmer, as ‘the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man’.

In the index to that best of bedside books, the Army and Navy Stores Catalogue for 1915, there are 148 entries under ‘Brushes, various’. For men there were such essentials as moustache brushes, brilliantine brushes and revolver-cleaning brushes, but nearly all the other items were for the use of women about the house. Individual brushes were available for banisters, cornices, walls, halls, curtains, carpets, parquet, furniture (stiff crevices), furniture (soft crevices), libraries, billiard-tables, mattresses, conservatory windows, flues, lamp chimneys, boots, boot-tops, hats, hat-brims, velvet, crumbs, celery and dogs. These brushes were not interchangeable: no good could come of using a moustache brush to remove gunge from tile grout. There was enough thoughtful equipment there to give women maximum assistance in performing ‘one more day’s work for Jesu’, as the poet in the Servants’ Magazine put it. Of course, it was not all brushing, dusting and polishing, there was also squirting. The catalogue featured the Eclipse Radium Sprayer (‘Contains no radium’) which was a combined cleanser, polisher, dust-layer and fly-destroyer, warranted not to harm the finest fabrics. There were already electric fly-killers, a boon for women with high-piled hair who dreaded being ambushed by sticky fly-papers in the dark.

The Female Accelerator

E.S. Turner, 24 April 1997

There is not much left that cannot be done on two wheels. On the last page of this opulent book is a photograph of the Young Theatre of Riga performing Brecht’s Fear and Misery in the Third Reich on bicycles. We are not told what the critics said about this event. Was it an experience to lift the soul on wings, a mind-blowing epiphany? Or was it in the same class as a file of messenger boys delivering pizzas on unicycles? The author, Pryor Dodge, withholds his own opinion. He is introduced to us, not just as a bicycle buff, but as ‘a classical musician and aspiring Argentine tango dancer’, and should therefore be better equipped than some to interpret wheeled burlesque on the Baltic.

Flashes of 15 Denier

E.S. Turner, 20 March 1997

The sumptuary laws of Plantagenet times were designed to curb exuberances of attire, among which were sleeves cut so full that they trailed in the dung and shoes with such long points that a cartwheel could pass over them without crushing flesh. Every day, said Holinshed, ‘there was devising of new fashions to the great hindrance and decay of the commonwealth.’ In the matter of clothing, the sumptuary laws of the Second World War were directed at less dandiacal, but still state-threatening, indulgences: double-breasted jackets, double cuffs, turn-ups of all kinds, patch pockets, bellows pockets, belts, yokes, pleats, shirrs, flaps, tabs and all unnecessary adornment (one historian tells us that a West End dressmaker was taken to court for embroidering roses and butterflies on camiknickers). Here was the unusual, and some thought alarming, spectacle of a British government insisting on short skirts for its womenfolk, but it was a government which knew where to stop, and that was at the knee. Vast savings in labour and material could no doubt have been made if Captain Edward Molyneux or Captain Hardy Amies had come up with the mini-skirt, but there was trouble enough on the Home Front without pandering to what Hazlitt, contemplating Regency fashions, called ‘the greedy eye and rash hand of licentiousness’.

Wounding Nonsenses

E.S. Turner, 6 February 1997

The letters exchanged by Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh over twenty years were written, we are told, ‘to amuse, distract or tease’, a welcome function no doubt in times of bogged-down creativity. But it is clear they were also written to amuse, distract and tease posterity, since both correspondents were confident their dispatches would end up in the public domain, a consideration which did nothing to inhibit the flow of malice. Quite early in the correspondence Darling Nancy tells Darling Evelyn: ‘I’ve left you [in her will] all the letters I’ve kept. Your daughter Harriet might edit them.’ Asked by Waugh to burn a recent letter which was unfair to a friend, she replies: ‘What a rum request. I specially treasure your nasty letters, posterity will love them so. However just as you say.’ On a later occasion, tidying up his letters in a drawer, she muses: ‘I must ask Randolph [Churchill] how much he will give me for them.’ Literary jackals abound. Waugh warns that Cyril Connolly is ‘up to something rather fishy in collecting letters, I think for sale in America. Be wary! There is a nice nest egg for us all in our senility in our correspondence. American Universities are buying them at extravagant prices.’

Monstrous Millinery

E.S. Turner, 12 December 1996

To be shot from one’s horse in battle was something of an honour, but to be blown from the saddle in a gust of wind at a review was not. This misfortune befell the Duke of Wellington in Hyde Park on a May day in 1829. Much of the blame lay with his Guards bearskin cap, nearly two feet high, which he was wearing instead of his usual cocked hat. ‘Oh, what a falling off was there!’ exclaimed the caricaturist Paul Pry, showing the Duke in his white trousers alighting on horse dung. But the diarist Creevey says the top-heavy hero was ‘immensely cheered’ by thousands. After all, lusty young troopers were sometimes unhorsed in this fashion.

Unmuscular Legs

E.S. Turner, 22 August 1996

If it does nothing else, this volume should change people’s perceptions of lieutenant-colonels. One of them, a Dunkirk veteran who joined Eisenhower’s staff, wrote books with titles like Salome Dear, Not in the Fridge! and became a jolly television games-player (yes, Arthur Marshall); another, who served in Intelligence, took to wearing bangles and a large diamond in one ear, and was barred from Wimbledon for designing too-saucy dresses for tennis women (Teddy Tinling); a third, who rose from private in the Honourable Artillery Company, was a devout Christian who launched the Hammer House of Horror (Sir James Carreras). All demonstrated that a spell in uniform, as the sovereign’s trusty and well-beloved, never cramped a creative talent, and perhaps that a creative talent never cramped a military one. The singularity of their careers has earned them a place with ‘the last legitimate male Plantagenet’ and the builder of 5747 Sopwith Camels in the last quinquennial round-up of the Dictionary of National Biography. This is also the last of five volumes to which C.S. Nicholls has devoted her editorial talents. There will now be something of a hiatus, until the first volumes of the New Dictionary of National Biography, under Colin Matthew, begin to appear early next century, with all lives revised and the text sprinkled with ten thousand pictures.

Stormy Weather

E.S. Turner, 18 July 1996

On a June night in 1917, in his home at Walton Heath in Surrey, the Prime Minister asked to be roused at 3 a.m., because there was something he did not want to miss: the big bang from afar which would signify that British sappers had blown the top off the German-held Messines ridge. The sound came through on schedule. This was almost certainly the greatest man-made explosion of pre-nuclear times. Lloyd George later seemed unwilling to confirm that he had arranged to be woken for this occasion (it was a Press Association story) and the New Statesman thought it would have been ‘subversive of national dignity’ if he had.

The Staidness of Trousers

E.S. Turner, 6 June 1996

George Moore, ‘daring’ novelist and absentee landlord, sage and humbug of Ebury Street, seemed born to be insulted. ‘An over-ripe gooseberry, a great big intoxicated baby, a satyr, a boiled ghost, a gosling’ – these were among the Dublin epithets collected by his fellow writer Susan Mitchell and here passed on by Tony Gray. Manet thought Moore’s face had the look of a broken egg-yolk, and his first portrait of the author ‘was described by the critics as like that of a drowned man, taken out of the water’. Sickert’s portrait was likened to ‘an intoxicated mummy, a boorish goat’. Moore, entering into the spirit of the game, said JacquesEmile Blanche made him look like a drunken cabby. Additional insults are to be gleaned from Wintle and Kenin’s Dictionary of Biographical Quotation: Henry Channon called him ‘that old pink petulant walrus’; Gertrude Stein compared him to ‘a very prosperous Mellon’s Food baby’; and Oscar Wilde found his face ‘vague, formless, obscene’.’

A few yards back from the Bund, in Shanghai, is the Freedom Hotel, formerly the Cathay. It makes an undistinguished stopover, but has one claim to notice: it is where, in 1930, Noël Coward holed up, suffering from flu and, with only a pad of paper and an Eversharp pencil, wrote Private Lives in four days (having earlier conceived the plot during a restless night in Tokyo, when he was visited by a shimmering vision of Gertrude Lawrence). Four days to write a classic comedy was good going, but he had already written Hay Fever in three. In 1941, when hard up, he withdrew to the Italianate folly of Portmeirion in Wales (presumably festooned in barbed wire) and knocked out Blithe Spirit in seven days. Those were probably his three most popular plays (Blithe Spirit ran for four and a half years). Whatever the man was, he was a superb professional. The pity of it, or conceivably the charm, was that he was also a professional enfant terrible.

The Torturer’s Apprentice

E.S. Turner, 5 October 1995

Eric Lomax, as a young Royal Signals officer, had the misfortune to get caught up, with a third of a million others, in what has been called a ‘logistic imperative’, an enterprise more vulgarly known as the Death Railway, planned and carried through by the Japanese Imperial Army. At any point in history a logistic imperative is something to be avoided at all costs, whether it involves cutting the Americas in two or building St Petersburg in a freezing swamp. It is familiar lore that on the labour-expendable rail route from Siam to Burma each sleeper represented a human life. More than twelve thousand of Lomax’s fellow prisoners of war died of disease and vile treatment, as did an estimated one hundred thousand ‘coolies’ from neighbouring lands. Lomax, for breaking his captors’ rules, had both his arms broken in a flogging to which was added water torture; his punishment was roughly equivalent to the old-time treatment for an obstinate sailor – the cat-o’-nine-tails and a keel-hauling. Mercifully, if surprisingly, no flashbacks portraying these events were shown in the lightly fictionalised television film Prisoners in Time, which was based on The Railway Man. Given what was done in the film The Bridge over the River Kwai, that stirring symphony of false notes, it can hardly have been an easy decision for Lomax to allow his life to be re-scripted and interpreted by others. Millions will have seen Prisoners in Time, but this well-written and well-judged book is the superior article.’

Mighty Merry

E.S. Turner, 25 May 1995

Anyone who has ever settled down to read The Holy Bible in Pitman’s Shorthand, or even Three Men in a Boat in the same form, will have a mild idea of the task which faced the Cambridge graduate John Smith (a sizar, married with one child) when in 1819 he was hired to decipher the six volumes of Samuel Pepys’s diary on which Magdalene College had sat for over a century. Smith did not know the system of shorthand the diarist had used, but he was a resourceful, if prickly, worker and toiled at the task for three years, leaving out only the passages he marked as ‘Obj.’ (objectionable). The richer by £200, he then followed his father into the Church. We would do well to remember the Reverend John Smith in a year which sees the first publication in paperback of the work on which he did the initial drudgery. This entire version, infinitely corrected, is the transcription first published in 1971 by R.C. Latham and W. Matthews (designated thus on the cover, but becoming Robert Latham and William Matthews on the title-page). If some books are classifiable as blockbusters, these 11 stout volumes are more of a Thames barrage. The last two of them, the Companion and Index, were the sole responsibility of Robert Latham, who died this year (Professor Matthews died in 1975).


E.S. Turner, 6 April 1995

Dr Johnson in his Dictionary defined ‘network’ as ‘anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections’. How, then, would he have defined ‘zip-fastener’? Since a certain testiness was apt to impair his objectivity, he might have settled for something like: ‘a hateful device in which collinear interdigitation usurps the function of buttons.’ He would happily have concurred with Carlyle in deploring the rage for calculated mechanical contrivance to replace manual operations. What was (and is) so wrong with buttons, snaps, poppers, hooks, studs, laces, toggles, drawstrings, safety-pins and even old-time fibulae? But, as Robert Friedel shows, the passion for novelty has become the real mother of invention; necessity rarely enters into it. Today the greatness of a nation is measured by the aggregated lengths of zipper to be found in its people’s wardrobes. The zipper has ceased to be the sine qua non and ne plus ultra of the privileged West. Friedel’s book reveals that the Japanese have won the race to zip up the world; his figures show that the Yoshida company, with its doctrine of the ‘cycle of goodness’, now has 171 zipper plants and factories in 42 countries, turning out 1.25 million miles of fasteners annually. How much longer can the last noble savage resist the zippered loincloth?


E.S. Turner, 23 February 1995

Which famous Victorian poet-painter was the 20th child of a dodgy stockbroker? Yes, it was the man in the runcible hat, Edward Lear. His latest biographer, Peter Levi, confides to us that, like Lear’s mother, his own grandmother also had 21 children. Easily lured into digression, Levi adds that ‘it is not uncommon in such families that by some mysterious compensation of nature a number of the children or grandchildren should be childless, and that is what happened in Edward’s family.’ Seven of the Lear siblings never had a chance to breed; the gifted 20th turned out to be, as the Victorians used to say, not the marrying kind. By another mysterious compensation of nature he rejoiced greatly in the company of children and is described in this book as ‘one of the world’s natural uncles’.

Do Not Fool Around

E.S. Turner, 24 November 1994

The man of the year in 1909 was Louis Blériot, in whom I have a personal interest, since I was a five-month foetus at the time of his cross-Channel flight. Notoriously, this exploit showed that Britain was wide open to aerial attack and I was one of numerous infants born in the Belle Epoque who were called on to spend up to four years of their adult lives trying to shoot aircraft out of Britain’s skies; and a damned difficult task it was.

Wrong Trowsers

E.S. Turner, 21 July 1994

The patron saints of tailoring, it seems, include Homobonus, who ‘all week long cut garments that were miraculously assembled’ every Sunday while he was at Mass, and Bartholomew, a victim of flaying, who ‘carried his skin draped over his arm’ rather as if returning with a suit from the cleaners. Whether either of them would be happy to retain his patronage of the scissor-men after leafing through Farid Chenoune’s heavyweight dossier – in which the dandy and the incroyable give way to the quiet gentleman and the dégagé sportsman, only to be followed by a collapse into androgyny, street-wise dumb insolence and ‘a syncopated disestablishmen-tarianism’ – is problematical. This book packs some of the nastiest shocks since Richard Walker in The Savile Row Story (1988) disinterred a Lloyd’s Weekly News headline on a sweatshop exposure of 1892: ‘The Duke of York’s Trowsers Made in a Fever Room.’’’

Shopping in Lucerne

E.S. Turner, 9 June 1994

Making love on a dead cat was a fantasy of the Belle Epoque. The much-quoted squib by Anon went:

Fit only to be a greengrocer

E.S. Turner, 23 September 1993

When 19-year-old Rider Haggard, an underachiever straight from the crammer, secured his first job in 1875, his mother addressed an earnest poem to him. He had now finished drifting ‘adown Life’s vernal tide’ and faced a stiffer challenge. ‘Rise to thy destiny!’ she exhorted. ‘Awake thy powers!’ His father, Squire Haggard (a crusty fellow, but otherwise unlike the old villain invented by Michael Green), had viewed him as fit only to be a greengrocer. The post found for him was that of junior aide to the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal. Within two years, as a sort of legal odd-jobs man, he had been deputed to raise the Union Jack for the first time in the Transvaal, and had helped to hang a Swazi chieftain for murder (taking over from the drunken executioner, according to his own story). This was good going for a greengrocer. Why, then, did he not rise to his destiny and become a great judge, a tribune or a proconsul? He had the imperial instincts in abundance. His misfortune was that it was the time of the gross military disasters of Majuba Hill and Isandhlwana, with the Boers waiting to snatch the lands the Zulus claimed. Britain could not, or would not, hold on to the Transvaal. Disenchanted, the young adventurer decided that the time had come to make money out of Africa, like everyone else. Instead of digging for gold or diamonds, he turned to supplying ostrich feathers for fine ladies back home. Four years after hoisting the Union flag he and his wife (a ‘brick’ of a girl, not his first choice) rented their house at £50 a week to the members of a Royal Commission organising the cession of the Transvaal, leaving Queen Victoria to enjoy that most nebulous of assets, suzerainty. Then he was back in Britain, with a confident presence and a good moustache, an imagination topped up by strange sights and ‘the highest sort of shame, shame for my country’. And perhaps a touch of shame at having made £50 a week out of the national climb-down?


E.S. Turner, 19 August 1993

In the sixth year of Queen Victoria’s reign two well-bred brothers-in-law faced each other with pistols in the fields of Camden Town and one shot the other dead. The survivor, who had issued the challenge, was sure that his Merciful and All-Seeing Maker would hold him guiltless, for he had been grievously wronged: in the course of a business dispute he had been ordered out of the other man’s house in front of a servant. Both parties were officers and gentlemen, and at this level a breach of good manners could carry the death penalty. ‘Satisfaction’ could be demanded for an accusation of lying or cowardice, for eyeing a woman, for derisive laughter or taking a pinch of someone’s snuff without permission. Such rules did not apply, of course, to solicitors or tradesmen, though editors and even contributors could find themselves called out. The affair of the brothers-in-law greatly perturbed nation, government, church and throne. Thereafter the rate of duelling fell to a trickle, but there were many who saw its decline as a fatal blow to the maintenance of good behaviour.

Above the kissing line

E.S. Turner, 28 January 1993

It calls for a certain robustness of spirit to embark on an escapade which, with ill luck, could create six widows and 27 orphans. Such robustness was possessed by Mademoiselle Henriette d’Angeville, the first lady (repeat, lady) to climb Mont Blanc. She claims to have weighed the human odds beforehand, but it is hard to picture her with her six guides, on that bright September morning in 1838, ticking off the potential casualties on her fingers and then, in the face of tout Chamonix, boldly crying: ‘Excelsior!’

E.S. Turner shocks the sensitive

E.S. Turner, 20 August 1992

The chronicler of that glorious cad Flashman, last encountered as General Sir Harry Flashman VC, was himself a man at arms. As a one-striper in General Slim’s 14th Army George MacDonald Fraser took part in ‘the last great battle in the last great war’, a showdown which was also ‘the final echo of Kipling’s world’. More specifically, it was the struggle for Meiktila and Pyawbwe on the Rangoon road which settled Japan’s hash in Burma. The author, too young to vote in the 1945 Election, was not too young to lead older men into action (‘the voice of the schoolboy rallies the ranks’). He was expected to kill Japanese in hand-to-hand fighting, whereas this reviewer, by the luck of the draw, was expected only to kill Germans at five or six miles range in the stratosphere. Fraser’s mates were called on to ponder such ethical problems as: does one instantly shoot Japanese found asleep in a hut, or does one wake them up first? For the record, they took the view that it did not greatly matter, but it wasn’t really right to shoot sleeping men. Along the way they learned that the problem with bayoneting an enemy was that the bayonet often bent and even when it didn’t it could be hard to pull out (a batman explained to his officer that ‘the way to free a bayonet is to fire a shot into the body. The theory is that it lets in air, or releases pressure on the blade, or something’).


E.S. Turner, 11 June 1992

David Benedictus is the Editor of Readings for BBC Radio’s Book at Bedtime. His Sunny Intervals and Showers is ill-suited for late-night reading, since it is not good to have the mind quickened from torpor by such speculations as ‘What happened to all the water in Noah’s Flood?’ or ‘Can the beatings of a butterfly’s wings start a typhoon?’ or, on a more practical level. ‘Could I have dealt with a mischievous fireball in the kitchen as summarily as that (unnamed) Smethwick housewife who “courageously sent it packing, and suffered nothing more serious than a burnt frock”?’ Still less does it assist slumber to reflect on the implications of that 1990 Sun headline (surely the longest Sun headline ever written) which said: ‘Britain has gone sex-crazy as red-hot lovers rush to do it in the great outdoors, say experts.’

Sorcerer’s Apprentice

E.S. Turner, 19 December 1991

There are rich pickings still to be had in the jungle of literature, where dead authors half-buried in brambles continue to yield abundant fruit. Hardly had the sequel to Gone with the Wind been published than the news came that Galsworthy’s Forsyte family was being given an extended life-span which would take the characters into the television age, for which they were clearly designed Already any number of hands, licensed and otherwise, have helped to further the adventures of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves, Billy Bunter and Charles Pooter; not forgetting, from an earlier age, Flashman and Rochester’s mad wife. In a class of their own come the surrogate writers who are authorised to enrich the leftovers of a dead storyteller. The late, prolific Alistair MacLean (‘Ach, any idiot can write a book’) did not bequeath a hero who became a household name, but he left a clutch of story lines which, for one reason or another, he did not wish to flesh out himself. Four of his plots have now been worked up by the near-homophonous Alistair MacNeill; two of his screenplays had already been turned into novels by John Denis; and a third screenplay is undergoing similar treatment by Simon Gandolfi. In this curious world there are occasional legal hiccups. One such, not so much a hiccup as a cardiac arrest, recently befell HarperCollins when they were prosecuted and heavily fined at the insistence of Warwickshire trading standards officers. The complaint was that readers of books based on MacLean outlines were being misled by the layout of the jackets into believing that these were the works of the master himself, since his name appeared in the traditional bold condensed type above the title, with that of the real writer in less assertive type below. Now, in the latest of the MacNeill series, Time of the Assassins, the two writers have their names in type of equal height, but MacLean still enjoys star billing above the title and MacNeill’s name is preceded by ‘Written by’. No doubt the implications of this case will be borne in mind by anyone who aspires to supply yet another ending for Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Not bothered

E.S. Turner, 29 August 1991

William Spencer Cavendish, sixth Duke of Devonshire, was born ‘in a somewhat furtive manner for a baby of his exalted rank’. In 1790 his father, the fifth Duke, and his mother, the giddy Duchess Georgiana, had been travelling in the Low Countries, where the Austrian threat became such that they bolted for the safety of Revolutionary Paris. The party included the Duke’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster, and his four young children, two of them by Lady Elizabeth, whose company Georgiana ‘for reasons best known to herself … loved more than that of any living soul’. Georgiana’s mother, Countess Spencer, was also in the group, for the Devonshire Set was nothing if not close-knit. On the eve of the accouchement Lady Elizabeth very prudently displayed her slim form at the opera, so heading off any rumour of a changeling. In the birth chamber several witnesses testified that the child was Georgiana’s (the event has echoes of the ‘warming-pan affair’ which embarrassed James II’s Queen). Having given her husband a long-wanted male heir, the Duchess naturally expected him to pay off her prodigious gambling debts. This he failed to do. Soon she became pregnant again, this time by a future prime minister, Earl Grey, who in years to come would be happy to present the white wand of a Lord Chamberlain to the sixth Duke.

Uncle William

E.S. Turner, 13 June 1991

The Duke of Wellington, defending the Lord Chancellor of Ireland for distributing lucrative posts among his family, complained of the ‘senseless outcry against public men for not having overlooked the ties of blood and Nature in dispensing the patronage of office’. Nepotism might offend radicals and the authors of denunciatory Black Books, but it was a fact of public life, and nowhere was the practice more honoured than in the Church of England. Was it really a bad thing? The Passing of Barchester examines in fine focus the case of a 19th-century Dean of Canterbury, William Rowe Lyall, himself childless, who found Church appointments for his younger brother, four nephews and three nephews-in-law. If there was any ‘senseless outcry’ against Dean Lyall on grounds of favouritism the author does not mention it: though there must surely have been occasional mutterings in the ‘Canterbury triangle’ which was the forcing-ground for Lyall’s nominees. In this illuminating and well-written book Clive Dewey’s concern is to explore not merely the workings of nepotism but the operations of Church patronage in general, and to assess its social and political implications. Did the system, as he suggests, preserve the Church of England from disestablishment and disendowment?

‘Turbot, sir,’ said the waiter

E.S. Turner, 4 April 1991

When Bishop Berkeley wrote his philosophical treatise linking tar-water, that sovereign cure-all, with the sublimest mysteries of the Christian religion, a lay critic said it reminded him of the man who began by talking about Alexander’s battles and ended up by describing an Armenian wheelbarrow. That is how it was in the bar parlour of Wodehouse’s Angler’s Rest: ‘In our little circle I have known an argument on the Final Destination of the Soul to change inside forty seconds into one concerning the best method of preserving bacon fat.’ There is more than a touch of this creative restlessness in After Hours with P.G. Wodehouse. Readers of this journal may recall a Diary by Richard Usborne (LRB, 4 October 1984) in which a determined investigation into the origins of Wodehouse’s use of ‘exquisite Tanagra figurine’ led to an evocation of the days when cut-price Boeotian coroplasts cluttered the shops of St Tropez. That Diary is reproduced in this devotional work: an assembly of writings and addresses (at home and abroad) on Wodehouse, with the transcript of a seance thrown in. Devotional, did one say? Yes, but witty, sagacious and an example to the dons and soldiers tilling the same vineyard.

Heroic Irrigations

E.S. Turner, 6 December 1990

In Europe the health-seeker may still go barefoot in dew-treading meadows, as enjoined by Father Kneipp, or sniff the gentle mist from rows of brine-soaked hedges, as at Bad Kreuznach, or wallow in the black mud laid on at almost any decent spa. What the British call sea-bathing is available as thalassotherapy, or, with added sand, as thalassopsammotherapy. Less agreeably, the spas offer heroic irrigations not to be described. The inhalatorium and the gargling-room beckon, and so do the salles de pulvérisation. It is all there for those who have not lost their faith. The Rheumatism Map of France and the Faulty Nutrition (Overeating) Map of France are studded with welcoming old spas, their resources judiciously updated.

On my way to the Couch

E.S. Turner, 30 March 1989

The title of this book comes from a television critic’s shrewd observation: ‘Whenever I see Mr Ludovic Kennedy in a television studio, he gives me the impression that he has been good enough to drop by to see if he can lend a hand while on the way to the club.’ A comparable judgment, also quoted in the book, appeared in the Times after Mr Kennedy had interviewed a nervous Cardinal Hume: ‘By his assurance, condescension, ease of posture and conversational initiative, Mr Kennedy might just as well have been a bishop testing a candidate for ordination.’ Clearly here is a man with all the confidence and aplomb in the world. As the recent chairman of Did you see? he smoothly concealed any distaste he may have felt for the more freakish performers on his viewing panel; and as the one-time pillar of Panorama he was not too pompous to play himself in Yes, Prime Minister and ask questions about the British sausage. His life has been pitched at an agreeable social and professional level. As a young man he danced four nights running at Holyrood Palace with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, something he says he had ‘entirely forgotten’ until he found in his papers a ‘Dear Ludo’ letter from Princess Elizabeth thanking him for his wedding present. (Old men forget, but this is forgetfulness indeed!) He is on amiable terms with landowners like ‘Johnnie Dalkeith’; he is an habitué of Brooks’s; he has known what it is to wear the aiguillette as a governor’s aide-de-camp (in Newfoundland, in an interval in his war service); he has had the pleasure of sitting in the Queen Mary’s cinema and seeing his own wedding (to the ballet dancer, Moira Shearer) featured in a newsreel as one of the ‘weddings of the year’ (the other being Elizabeth Taylor’s first). As a Liberal Parliamentary candidate he twice scored high polls at Rochdale and he tells us that if he had agreed to fight Edinburgh Central he had David Steel’s ‘generous’ promise that, if he lost, he would be recommended for the Lords. As a communicator he has met or interviewed everybody and travelled everywhere; and he has sufficient faith in television as a universal educator to say that, in this respect, ‘I believe my career has been well spent.’ He is not without enemies, of a sort; they have caused him to be blackballed in three clubs, two of them golf clubs – the sort of setback which irks Mr Kennedy more than it would some of us.’

Zero Hour

E.S. Turner, 29 September 1988

The last Dakota to fly supplies into Berlin in 1949, at the end of the Soviet road-and-rail blockade of that city, was inscribed with one of those apt Biblical references which the Services (usually the Royal Navy) seem able to conjure up at will: Psalm 21, verse 11. The verse reads: ‘For they intended evil against thee; they imagined a mischievous device, which they are not able to perform.’


E.S. Turner, 15 September 1988

Louis Heren, the veteran foreign correspondent, had hoped to become editor of the Times in succession to William ReesMogg, when Rupert Murdoch bought the newspaper. Heren was told that, at 61, he was too old. Under Harold Evans he failed to flourish (‘Evans trashes me, to use the US Army expression, and most of my former colleagues in his book Good Times, Bad Times’), so he took his redundancy money and settled for writing books. His autobiographical Growing up in London was followed by Growing up on the ‘Times’ which concentrated on his overseas assignments. Both were vivid and zestful memoirs.

Do what you wish, du Maurier

E.S. Turner, 31 March 1988

A reviewer faced with 1,155 pages about Robert Maxwell is entitled to look at the pictures first. Joe Haines’s biography contains over eighty photographs of his hero, many in colour. Mostly they show him hobnobbing with crowned heads, presidents or prime ministers, with a pop star or a footballer thrown in. One picture, more puzzling than some, is captioned ‘Maxwell and team, about to leave Ulan Bator in the Mirror jet’. What can conceivably be the Mirror’s interest in Outer Mongolia? Why does the Mirror need a globe-girdling jet? And is it not a bit tricky getting permission to fly a private aircraft across the more remote people’s republics? Then there is a picture of an uncommonly orgulous vessel captioned ‘Lady Ghislaine, Mirror Holdings’ ocean-going yacht’. Where is she normally berthed? (Not in Liechtenstein, that’s for sure.) On what missions is she normally employed? Is she ever used for Mirror works outings? Is she perhaps a ‘nice little earner’ when chartered to Arabs? A picture with a cosier domestic appeal shows the one-time home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, Headington Hill Hall, near Oxford, now the ‘council house’ seat of Robert Maxwell, lit up by rockets at night, with a huge illuminated sign saying ‘Happy Birthday Bob’ suspended from a tall tree. Perhaps because the picture does not show the full dimensions of Maxwell’s leased Escorial, there is also a view of Headington Hill Hall in the snow.

High Spirits

E.S. Turner, 17 March 1988

William Blake’s Proverb of Hell, ‘Sooner murder an infant in his cradle than nurse unacted desires,’ appears unexpectedly as a chapter epigraph in this autobiography by the once-notorious ‘Bomber Baronet’ of the headlines, Ranulph Fiennes. It is probably as good an excuse as any for indulging a compulsion to circle the globe by way of both Poles, a feat which Fiennes accomplished with the blessing of the Heir to the Throne and many hundreds of sponsors. In a life of turbulence he has shown a singular talent for getting others to subsidise his unacted desires, which is the secret of true happiness. Were all his commercial sponsors equally happy with their investment? Did some of them, perhaps, hope to see the names of their products perpetuated in the Polar landscape – Mount Weetabix, Cape Oxo and so forth? As it is, the natural features in those parts tend to be named after the more lowering emotions like Dread, Disappointment and Despair.’

Disgrace Abounding

E.S. Turner, 7 January 1988

How did the Great War – the first total war – affect the class structure of English society? An exhaustive answer, as Bernard Waites recognises, is probably beyond the power of any one historian. The difficulty is that class structure, or ‘social differentiation’, is something which, unlike crime or illegitimacy or whooping cough, defies both definition and statistical analysis. It depends on subjective attitudes, not on income or education or domicile, and is thus a most slippery concept on which to rear up an edifice of social theory. No one doubts that the Great War wrought changes in attitudes as between ‘Us and Them’, but many of these changes were already on the way. Dr Waites does not shy from the question: if the Archduke’s driver had not made the wrong turning in Sarajevo, would the class structure of England have been much different in 1924? He notes the belief of many that ‘England was about to experience unprecedented class conflict when the war broke out,’ and that Ernest Bevin declared in 1914, for what it was worth, that the country was on the eve of ‘one of the greatest industrial revolts the world has ever seen’. In the event, the fierce, class-rooted, industrial strife which had disfigured the early years of the century continued, intermittently, through the war, giving the impression, in the slightly bemused words of the Ministry of Labour, of ‘unrest paralysed by patriotism – or, it may be, of patriotism paralysed by unrest’. There were some bad moments: in the summer of 1918, thanks to a miniature general strike involving even the London Police, the dead lay unburied in England as well as in France.’


E.S. Turner, 1 October 1987

Three writers on the strength is a potential embarrassment for any fighting unit. In the Great War the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers could muster Robert Graves (Good-bye to All That), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer) and Frank Richards (not, as some have supposed, the creator of Billy Bunter but the author of Old soldiers never die, an excellent view of the war by a Regular in the ranks). As many will know, Good-Bye to All That, published in 1929, erupted like a burst of mustard gas; much of the book turned out not to be the plain truth but the treacherous higher truth. Among those who took exception, on personal grounds, was Sassoon, to propitiate whom the publishers carried out last-minute surgery on the book. Another who objected to its ‘hyperbole’ and inaccuracies was Captain J.C. Dunn, the veteran and outstandingly fearless medical officer (a former combatant in South Africa) who had been attached to the Battalion. As a corrective to Graves, and perhaps as some sort of answer to war poets in general, he produced a magnificent tour de force, the length of three ordinary books, called The war the Infantry knew, which was published anonymously in a limited edition late in 1938, when people were preparing for the next instalment of Armageddon. Its reissue is most welcome, as is the well-informed Introduction.


E.S. Turner, 25 June 1987

Some writers have an unfair start in life. ‘When I was born, in July 1923, my mother was carried on a litter or “dandy” to the hospital by two murderers. My first ayah was a Burmese murderess called Mimi. Our servants were murderers.’ I do not recall Raleigh Trevelyan slipping this information into the lunchtime conversation when he was my publisher (a very helpful and tolerant one – interest duly declared). He was born in the Andaman Islands, the penal settlement run by the Raj off the coast of Burma, where his father, Walter Raleigh Trevelyan, was an Army captain. There may have been chain-gangs clanking away on the roads, and predatory savages on the neighbouring isles, but gracious living was not excluded: Government House had a ballroom the floor of which was polished by two murderers who held a third by the arms and legs and swung him up and down.’

Blacks and Blues

E.S. Turner, 4 June 1987

In the eyes of Wilfred Thesiger, the world has all but succumbed to galloping and indiscriminate Westernisation. He is grateful to have completed his wanderings just in time. Unlike Chesterton’s Last Hero, the Last Explorer will not need to cry, at the end:

Keeping the peace

E.S. Turner, 2 April 1987

The French Marshal MacMahon said: ‘I shall remove from my promotion list any officer whose name I have seen on the cover of a book.’ He spoke for high commanders everywhere. ‘Damn your writing, mind your fighting’ was the snub likely to greet a British officer with literary pretensions. The Duke of Cambridge opposed the founding of the Army Journal and the Cavalry Journal on the grounds that nothing but indiscipline could result from allowing serving officers to discuss their profession in print. These scribbling fellows could be ruthless self-advertisers, like Churchill and Baden-Powell. There was nothing wrong with an officer giving himself a manly pseudonym and writing about pig-sticking in Blackwood’s – or, of course, with a general writing his memoirs on retirement. Today serving officers appear to suffer no untoward restraints. Nick Vaux, who led 42 Commando Royal Marines in the Falklands, waited only for his brigadier, Julian Thompson, to write No Picnic before weighing in with March to the South Atlantic.’

Women of Quality

E.S. Turner, 9 October 1986

Wider still and wider grows the span of authors’ acknowledgements. My forbearing husband/wife, my secretary who corrected my spelling, my patient editor and Lord Weidenfeld Whose Idea it Was – these we have grown to expect and honour. Elizabeth Longford, now in her eighties, thanks two family doctors who ‘made life so secure for us’ (and who themselves survived to 90 and 86). She is grateful to one son-in-law for ‘introducing me to the perfect diet during a critical time in the writing of this book’ and to another for a stimulating holiday in the sun: ‘It was an exhilarating experience to listen to the Pinters’ and Billingtons’ play-reading sessions, interlaced with passionate talk about Amnesty and Star Wars under the stars.’ She is grateful, too, for the custom of ‘manuscript bartering’ prevalent in the family, on the basis of ‘I’ll read yours if you’ll read and criticise mine.’ All of which is a foretaste of the warm family feeling which pervades this chronicle of politics and parturition (babies are born to the author on pages 143, 149, 179, 204, 211, 217, 239 and 252).’


E.S. Turner, 4 September 1986

It seemed to me, when editing Soldier in 1946, that a blown-up colour photograph of Monty’s ‘fruit salad’, his massed rows of medal ribbons, would make a good front cover. Would he agree to lend our photographer his battle-dress blouse, a garment as glorious and sacred as the High Priest’s breastplate? We need not have doubted. He also gave us a key to the ribbons, some of which – like the Order of Nicham-Iftikhar (Tunisia) and the Order of Ouissam-Alouite (Morocco) – might have baffled even a crowned head. It was all part of the Monty service, or, as some would say, publicity service.’


E.S. Turner, 3 July 1986

After his first novel was published, Somerset Maugham was a frequent guest at Holmhurst, in Sussex, of that indiscreet memoirist, Augustus Hare, then in his sixties. At morning worship, with the servants, Maugham noticed that the wording of the prayers was unfamiliar. ‘I’ve crossed out all the passages in glorification of God,’ explained Hare. ‘God is certainly a gentleman, and no gentleman cares to be praised to his face. It is tactless, impertinent and vulgar. I think all that fulsome adulation must be highly offensive to him.’

Superior Persons

E.S. Turner, 6 February 1986

‘We travellers are in very hard circumstances,’ said Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. ‘If we tell anything new we are laughed at as fabulous.’ This mistrust of the footloose is endorsed by the trenchant definition of ‘traveller’s tale’ in Chambers’ Dictionary: ‘an astounding lie about what one professes to have seen abroad’. To be sure, this batch of 19th-century travellers’ tales features some astounding liars, but there are also some reasonably honest witnesses. These include the stiff-backed statesman whom Max Beerbohm called ‘Britannia’s butler’, two twin widows on a Gospel quest, a get-rich-quick bride in Amazonia, a caustic spinster in India, a writer of fairy-tales, a future poet laureate teamed with a leading delineator of bosoms and bums, and a respected novelist earning his crust in Ireland. ‘No one expects literature in a work of travel,’ said Mary Kingsley (she who was saved from the spikes of the leopard pit by her thick, sensible skirt), but many Victorian travellers had an eye on the popular magazines and lecture platforms. The sheer profusion of outlets, at the century’s end, probably tempted fabulists.

Soldier, Sailor, Poacher

E.S. Turner, 3 October 1985

To qualify for admission to Great Britons it is necessary, first, to have died between 1915 and 1980. Ideally, the candidate should have performed some work of noble note, or at least public note, but there is room for the select two or three who fell down on the job (the diplomats who failed to rumble Hitler) or those who, like Guy Burgess, simply did something the influence of which on events is ‘too profound to ignore’. So much for the word ‘Great’. The word ‘Britons’ is also strained by the inclusion of, for example, Gandhi, Smuts and De Valera. The subtitle ‘20th-century Lives’ does not disqualify a Great Victorian like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was born in 1836 and in 1873 became the first woman member of the British Medical Association (she died in 1917).

A Potent Joy

E.S. Turner, 4 July 1985

In World War Two the science of antiaircraft gunnery rested on a single, shaky postulate, known as ‘the ack-ack assumption’: namely, that a raider would fly at constant speed, constant height and on a constant course. Only if this rule was obeyed could the gunners arrange for their salvos to rendezvous with the target, which would travel three or four miles during the half-minute or so it took the rounds to reach the required height. A lone raider could ‘jink’ to baffle the predictors, though a massed formation of bombers was most unlikely to do so.

Educating Georgie

E.S. Turner, 6 December 1984

According to Barbara Tuchman, quoted on the jacket, there is ‘a startling royal family scandal buried at the heart’ of this biography of Queen Mary. What steaming titbit can her fellow American, Anne Edwards, biographer of film stars, have turned up at this late hour? Can it really be that rather overworked rumour that identifies Prince Eddy, the Queen’s first fiancé, as Jack the Ripper? Indeed it can. James Pope-Hennessy did not find room to discuss this matter in his 685-page life of Queen Mary published in 1959, possibly because the hue and cry after Prince Eddy had not then gained its full impetus, possibly for other reasons. What can Anne Edwards tell us about this business? Unfortunately she knows no more than anybody else and can only ask a string of questions.


E.S. Turner, 1 December 1983

The William stories – of which the first four are now reissued – came out over a span of fifty years. When they started, in 1919, women were still sniffing sal volatile and when they ended boys had begun sniffing glue. William, of course, could fantasise without the aid of glue. He was not the sort to pull up saplings wantonly; he merely overturned caravans accidentally. His crimes were the venial ones of truancy, trespass, gaining money by false pretences, unlawful picketing, kidnapping (of babies, which enjoy being kidnapped) and petty theft, as from the missionary-box in his home. Theft from a missionary-box? Isn’t that a bit like stealing from blind men? Ah, but the missionary-box contains only three-halfpence, enabling William to inveigh powerfully, and with the reader’s full sympathy, against his family, who lavish large sums on their own pleasures but can spare only this paltry sum for the poor heathen. He does not, however, put the three-halfpence back.–

Earls’ Sons

E.S. Turner, 20 October 1983

Under a plum tree on the quad at Balliol a solemn Scots undergraduate was entertaining his parents to tea when another undergraduate who had been hiding in the branches ‘fell’ with a clatter among the tea-cups, explaining that he had dropped because he was ripe. As Belloc said: ‘God be with you, Balliol men!’ Was Aubrey Herbert, this human plum, ever ripe enough to be king of Albania, a country which twice offered him the throne? After finishing Margaret FitzHerbert’s excellent book the reader may be in two minds; at least King Aubrey would have wielded the sceptre with more panache than Lord Rothermere on the throne of Hungary. Herbert was the son of the fourth Earl of Carnarvon. His half-brother, the fifth Earl, was the co-finder of Tutankhamen’s tomb. His nephew, the sixth Earl, once kept him under observation of a sort, in Constantinople, for British Intelligence. Of Herbert’s generation Margaret FitzHerbert says that their inheritance from the Empire-builders was ‘an ease around the world, and an infinite self-confidence. Following their knightly imaginations, wandering across the face of the earth, they had no axe to grind. Theirs was, briefly, an age of chivalry, soon to be laid at rest in the trenches …’

Funny Mummy

E.S. Turner, 2 December 1982

Stephen Leacock, the English-born, Canadian-reared humorist, has a single entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: ‘Lord Ronald … flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions’ (1911). Innumerable speakers, writers and politicians have helped themselves to this very serviceable joke; Leacock himself, writing in old age, used it without acknowledgment to illustrate a scientific disquisition. Perhaps he had forgotten that he was the originator of it.


E.S. Turner, 1 October 1981

In a storeroom at Sussex University lie the records of Mass-Observation, an organisation of anonymous people-watchers which in its heyday ran into much criticism. Some of its supporters made large claims for its methods and findings; respectable journals hailed a new form of social research, while others jeered; Evelyn Waugh complained of ‘pseudoscientific showmanship’. During World War Two a minute by an official in the Ministry of Home Security described Mass-Observation reports on blitz morale as ‘a most extraordinary mixture of fact, fiction and dangerous mischief’ emanating apparently from ‘the intelligentsia’ (see Living through the Blitz by Tom Harrisson, co-founder of the organisation).

Manners maketh books

E.S. Turner, 20 August 1981

If the Knight of Glin, the MacKinnon of MacKinnon and the McGillicuddy of the Reeks did not exist, there might be less need of books of etiquette. These veterans of Debrett’s Correct Form (where they rubbed shoulders with Midshipman the Duke of Loamshire, a difficult guest to place at table, especially with admirals present) are back trailing their dignities in Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners. However, the degree of overlap between the two works, both prefaced by Sir lain Moncreiffe of That Ilk, Chairman of Debrett, is not excessive. Correct Form was about how to address people; the new book concentrates on how not to offend them.


E.S. Turner, 16 July 1981

As the Duke of Wellington was stung to complain, the British officers in the Peninsular War were ‘the most indefatigable writers of letters that exist in the world’. Even at this late hour their correspondence is still being discovered and published. In 1979 appeared the spirited letters of George Hennell, a young volunteer who presented himself to General Picton at the siege of Badajoz and was commissioned within six weeks into the 43rd Light Infantry. Now we have the high-minded and contentious letters of an ensign in the Guards, John Aitchison, who soldiered on after the war to become General Sir John Aitchison GCB, with a baton in his reach when he died at 87.

Great Thoughts

E.S. Turner, 7 May 1981

‘It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations,’ wrote Sir Winston Churchill in My Early Life. In America this need was famously recognised by the publishers of the Elbert Hubbard Scrap Book, containing the 2,500 greatest thoughts. Hubbard went down in the Lusitania, but his book was advertised with great vigour for the benefit of tongue-tied partygoers who found their fellow guests talking about Nietzsche. ‘Elbert Hubbard did all your reading for you,’ the publishers said. ‘His book will make you so well informed – you’ll never need to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable in company again.’ Of late, the uneducated, and even the educated, have been well served, for the familiar thick tomes of Hoyt, Benham, Bartlett, Stevenson, the Oxford (recently revised) and the Penguin have been joined by works like the Wintle/Kenin Dictionary of Biographical Quotations and numerous slimmer, more specialised, often racy volumes; and now, in paperback, comes a curiously titled blockbuster from Macmillan.


E.S. Turner, 3 July 1980

We are now well into the Great Vegetable Revolution. ‘For the majority of the population,’ writes Jane Grigson, ‘vegetables as a delight, to be eaten on their own, belong to this century, even to the period after the Second World War.’ She gives much of the credit for this shift in taste to Elizabeth David, who in the 1950s preached that the fruits of the earth were more than mere adjuncts to flesh. Now the high price of meat is doing Mrs David’s work for her.

Dear Sir

E.S. Turner, 15 May 1980

What does it cost these days to buy a knighthood or a life peerage? Henry Root, who claims to have made a fortune out of wet fish, applied to the Conservative Board of Finance to find out. ‘I read recently,’ he wrote, ‘that a “drop” of as little as £25,000 to one of our leading politicians was enough to obtain a seat in the Lords for the donor. Has inflation bumped up the price? Let me know. I’m waiting with my cheque-book ready.’ In reply, he received a cordial and unoffended letter from a major-general, addressing him as ‘Dear Mr Root’, explaining, ‘I think I must make it absolutely clear that there is no question of buying Honours from the Conservative Party,’ and saying he was ‘most grateful’ for the support extended to the Party by Root.

Short Legs

E.S. Turner, 24 January 1980

Who prizes objectivity? Not Piers Brendon, who has had enough of long ‘photographic’ biographies and is all for ‘the irradiation of an epoch by means of sharp biographical vignettes’ in the Lytton Strachey tradition. ‘The camera’s lens reflects verisimilitude,’ he writes, ‘whereas the prism of the artist’s imagination refracts truth.’


Something in the Tea

4 December 2003

Touching on the hazards of fraternisation with the ex-enemy in postwar Germany, Richard Wollheim says: ‘Every day the army cooks were instructed to step up the bromide ration in the tea until the taste was bitter, and the spoon stood virtually upright in the billycan’ (LRB, 4 December). The notion that the Army ‘put something in the tea’ to deaden priapic urges has long been...

In the Breach

25 September 2003

In a cogent piece by Stephen Sedley I find this: ‘A judge sitting without a jury has no alternative but to look at the evidence she is offered.’ I am used to seeing God referred to as She, but why is a Lord of Appeal joining in the tease?

A Golden Zep

15 November 2001

Responding to my review of Dr Eckener’s Dream Machine, J.F. Darycott (Letters, 3 January) refers to recent research suggesting that the cause of the Hindenburg disaster was the highly flammable coating on the ship’s fabric which resulted in a rapid spread of flames along its length. Douglas Botting, the book’s author, mentions this theory, and gives ‘discharges of an electrostatic...

Rumanian Traits

6 December 1984

E.S. Turner writes: I suppose we shall never know why Sir Osbert Sitwell thought Queen Mary’s style to be Rumanian. Oddly enough, at the time of Edward VIII’s abdication, the Queen is supposed to have exclaimed ‘Really, we might as well be in Rumania!’; presumably she was thinking of King Carol and Mme Lupescu. This, of course, is irrelevant to the point at issue.


Frances Donaldson, 16 October 1980

Britain lost three times as many combatant lives in the 1914 war as in the 1939 and, by the end of 1916, more than in all wars since the Plantaganets. (France lost twice as many as we did in the...

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