Jolly Jack and the Preacher

Patrick Parrinder

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Culture for Democracy would, I think, have been a better book if it had placed the 20th-century relations between commercial and élite culture in some sort of historical perspective. The literary criticism of Leavis (for whom LeMahieu nurses a particular odium) can hardly be understood unless we see him as the last, or one of the last, of a line of secular cultural prophets who despised ‘public opinion’ and yet knew that they had responsibilities to discharge in the marketplace. Much of their time was spent attacking the other stall-holders. After Wordsworth, Carlyle, Newman, John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold spoke up for the liberal university and the higher journalism as natural bulwarks against the tide of commercialism. In LeMahieu’s eyes such figures stand convicted of a cultural élitism which stemmed from their-groundless – fears of political democracy. Decoded, the title of his book implies that ‘culture’ is questionable, but democracy is sacred. As an American observer of modern Britain, LeMahieu seems to be a loyal subscriber to his own nation’s political mythology.

Whatever we make of the United States, Britain remains a guided democracy, a society which treats its own traditions with often exaggerated deference. The inroads made by commercial mass communications in the first two decades of our century were followed by a reassertion of authority and cultural hierarchy, and then by a series of compromises between demotic and élite culture in the Thirties and Forties. Such is, more or less, the outline of LeMahieu’s narrative. The century began with technological innovations such as the cinema, recorded music and the Linotype machine. There was a huge increase in the potential cultural market, brought about by the growth of the white-collar lower-middle class and by advances in the disposable income and amount of leisure time enjoyed by most sections of the community. By the Twenties, for example, a gramophone could be bought for about four pounds, which may have represented a week’s wages for T.S. Eliot’s typist or her boyfriend the house-agent’s clerk. The character of the new mass media had much to do with the low educational attainments of white-collar workers. British governments claimed then, as they claim today, that they could not afford to educate the majority to the level which most of our industrial competitors have felt to be necessary for democratic participation. Lord Salisbury, the Conservative Prime Minister, sneered that the Daily Mail was written for office boys by office boys, but much of what is most characteristic in modern British culture has been produced for ordinary men and women by Oxbridge graduates.

Among the media developments of the early 20th century the most influential, surely, was the emergence of the modern popular newspaper. The press, with its division into the sports page, the women’s page, the crossword and so on, has structured and isolated a whole range of leisure interests; it has sentimentalised and personalised our responses to public events (as early as 1912, the Daily Mirror devoted its whole front page to a studio portrait of the widow and child of the captain of the Titanic); and it has transformed the English language, through its endless patterns of brash vocabulary and stereotyped syntax. R.D. Blumenfeld, when editor of the Daily Express, recommended words such as ‘mystery’, ‘secret’, ‘tragedy’, ‘drama’, ‘comedy’, ‘scandal’, in newspaper headlines, but this falls far short of the full tabloid battery of ‘rap’, ‘bid’, ‘probe, ‘swoop’, ‘axe’, ‘shock’, ‘plot’, ‘hoax’, ‘romp’, ‘blaze’ and the rest. Even such commonplace abbreviations as TV, MP, mum and dad probably owe much to their currency in headlines and placards.

Tabloid style is the vehicle of an energetic sensationalism for which nobody makes any apology. The Daily Mirror style of news presentation, as one of its editorials maintained, is a ‘necessary and valuable public service in these days of mass readership and democratic responsibility’. LeMahieu writes appreciatively of the design sense and pictorial flair to be found in popular newspapers, though he knows that other thoughtful commentators have accused them of trivialising events. (For Wordsworth, the very existence of news reports – ‘the rapid communication of intelligence’ – was trivialising.) Marxist and Leavisite critics of the press have regarded it as a capitalist conspiracy, run by a handful of controllers at the expense of the multitude, and indeed the concentration of ownership had begun well before the First World War. More might be said about the social origins of journalists. Traditionally they are supposed to have had very little formal education, but that did not stop the editor of the Mirror complaining – in 1911 – about the Oxford men and Eton men among his staff. Have things changed very much? Certainly at Oxbridge in the Sixties a high proportion of the undergraduates seemed to be headed either for the media or for the teaching profession, and the one medical student with whom I had a slight acquaintance became the Radio One Doctor.

Radio, as it developed, had a curiously symbiotic relationship with Fleet Street. The newspaper owners did not oppose the BBC’s explicit and legal monopoly, since radio was forbidden to compete for their advertising revenue. But the BBC under Reith deliberately set out to educate and improve its listeners. In 1932 Leavis praised the Corporation for taking its function with ‘admirable seriousness’ (though he changed his mind soon afterwards). Until recently sentences beginning ‘Except for the BBC ...’ were a regular feature of almost any critical survey of popular culture. LeMahieu juxtaposes the BBC under Reith with a number of other developments, in typography and industrial design, in record reviewing, film criticism and documentary cinema, which constituted a reassertion of élite culture in the Twenties and after. Certainly these were all minority enterprises. As more radio sets were sold, the BBC began to dilute its Reithian values. Few British adults ever saw a documentary film, or any film not made in Hollywood. Eliot’s typist turning to her gramophone for post-coital solace is unlikely to have been a subscriber to the Gramophone. The Shell-Mex advertising campaign, lavishly praised by art critics such as Clive Bell and Kenneth Clark, appeared at a time when motoring was still more or less a luxury pursuit. Yet these initiatives made possible the ‘common culture’ of Britain in the Thirties.

A ‘common culture’ is a slippery concept: to what extent does it genuinely need to be held in common? For LeMahieu such a culture came into existence decades ago, while for Raymond Williams, who used the term in Culture and Society, it belonged to a socialist future in which the media were no longer subject to monopoly control and the working class was no longer culturally voiceless. Yet the visionary conclusion to Williams’s book (written at the time of the Suez invasion) betrayed a certain nostalgia for the period of democratic advance and national unity leading to the Labour victory in 1945. But should we not go further back – to the period of Charlie Chaplin, for example, or to T.S. Eliot, who as a young man enjoyed jazz and the music hall, and read the comics and the sports page? Eliot celebrated Marie Lloyd as a culture-heroine, but he also deplored the passing of the music hall and its replacement by the cinema. We might conclude that a common culture is always primarily a matter of faith, or alternatively that it is always there in some form but that intellectuals only recognise its forms when they are at their last gasp.

Perhaps LeMahieu is an intellectual of this sort, since his version of the common culture of the Thirties and Forties has as its figurehead J.B. Priestley. Priestley, the subject of his final chapter, is presented as a demotic ‘man for all media’, straddling the commercial and élite cultures of his time. Against him are ranged the dissenting voices of the Marxist Left and ‘the Leavises’, though both the Left and the Leavises are seen as making significant concessions to the needs of mass communication as the decade wore on. Parts of the Left were transformed by the advent of the Popular Front, which persuaded the Daily Worker to broaden its appeal (it started a home beauty column, and featured patterns for serviettes embossed with a hammer and sickle), and led Communist intellectuals to write Penguin Specials and texts for the Left Book Club. As for the Leavises, LeMahieu’s view is that their defence of minority culture was undermined by their obsession with the very forms of self-promotion and publicity-seeking which they so stridently condemned.

There is a need for serious thinking about Leavis’s legacy, but unfortunately this book does not provide it. Ten years after his death, his literary-critical writings tend to promote either automatic dismissal, evasion or embarrassment rather than any genuine revaluation. LeMahieu’s decision to speak of ‘the Leavises’ in the plural is symptomatic. It opens the way to gossip and personal resentments, while ignoring the fact that, apart from Fiction and the Reading Public, all the couple’s major works appeared under the signature of F.R. Leavis. LeMahieu suggests that the Leavises became ‘celebrities’ of minority culture by ridiculing their academic colleagues, disregarding scholarly decorum and relentlessly personalising the issues involved in cultural dissent. Though he has definitely done his homework, he feels no obligation to unravel the historical roots of Leavis’s thought or to assess his contribution to literary criticism.

Like the writings of the New Critics in America but unlike any subsequent academic criticism in the English-speaking world, Leavis’s early work took its impetus from a full-scale revolution in artistic sensibility – the sort of creative upheaval which occurs only once a century or so. For this reason it was always bound to be divisive and embattled. In addition, the new movement – Modernism – was for the most part profoundly anti-democratic, concerned not with raising the cultural level of the many but with asserting the intellectual and expressive mastery of the few. In broad terms, Leavis’s life’s work was devoted to the exposition of two great Modernist writers, Eliot and Lawrence: while their work remains of interest his championship of them, and of the literary and linguistic ideals he believed them to embody, is unlikely to be forgotten.

As a second-generation Modernist critic, Leavis followed Eliot and Lawrence in combining Continental influences (in his case, the crucial influence was apparently Spengler’s Decline of the West) with selected themes from the 19th-century cultural prophets. From sources as varied as Wordsworth and Nietzsche Leavis constructed an ideal of sane and vital experience, of intensity of ‘life’, which he then located in and behind the most ‘exploratory-creative’ instances of poetic language. ‘Life’ was not a common but an uncommon standard: ‘There is no “modernist” poetry, but only two or three modern poets,’ he once wrote. Nevertheless, the two major critical manifestos that he published in 1932-3 – New Bearings in English Poetry, and the never-reprinted collection of essays For Continuity – made clear his self-identification with the fortunes of Modernism. Where New Bearings offered detailed commentaries on the work of Pound, Eliot and Hopkins, For Continuity added studies of Lawrence and Dos Passos together with a serial critique of a whole body of contemporary writers and intellectuals (Wells, Bennett, Dreiser, the Auden group, the Marxists, Max Eastman, Edmund Wilson, and most significantly, the later Joyce) whom Leavis judged to have fallen by the wayside. Few if any of his later books were as clear-minded as this, and there is no other work in the last half-century of English literary criticism which can measure up to its avant-garde credentials.

As Graham Hough once observed, there is a demonic element in Lawrence (and in the other great Modernists) which will never be absorbed by bourgeois society – but this plays no part in LeMahieu’s picture. For him, Modernism is a church broad enough to embrace the functionalist appearance of the Fleet Street tabloids, the sleek lines of Odeon cinemas and Frank Pick’s designer revamping of the London Underground. Avant-gardes, in other words, only count when their stylistic inventions, isolated and sanitised, begin to permeate the existing structures. Such a dogmatic Fabianism in cultural politics makes it natural for LeMahieu to award the custodianship of the Thirties sensibility, not to Leavis, but to that very different product of the Cambridge English Faculty, J. B. Priestley.

Priestley, indeed, was an expert communicator and a decent and honourable figure. In his autobiography he described himself as a professional who had ‘talent but no genius’; asked to name the most representative ‘Common Man’ among the writers of his time, he would most likely have conceded the title to H.G. Wells. It was Priestley who delivered the address at Wells’s funeral in 1946. A Culture for Democracy shows absolutely no curiosity about the achievements of Wells and Shaw, who reached as wide an audience, and left a more enduring influence, than Priestley did. English Journey and Priestley’s wartime radio talks remain associated with a particular set of ideals and values, and with a vocabulary which is now as dated, in many ways, as Leavis’s. The onward sweep of democracy, if that is what it is, has been unkind to both men’s choice of words.

Nearly two hundred years ago Wordsworth charged that the growth of cities tended to ‘blunt the discriminating powers of the mind’. ‘Discrimination’ was a crucial item of Leavisian terminology and, as recently as 1964, there was a Pelican volume edited by his former collaborator, Denys Thompson, called Discrimination and Popular Culture. Nowadays that would probably be consigned to the Race Relations shelf: ‘discrimination’ as a positive term is hardly available any longer. Among the other keywords of Leavis’s criticism, ‘continuity’ and ‘tradition’ have been blunted by repetition while ‘value’, ‘currency’, ‘standards’ and even ‘maturity’ now seem, in his early writings, to take some of their urgency from fiscal anxieties. Leavis’s pamphlet ‘Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture’, which lamented the debasement and inflation of the intellectual currency and the overthrow of standards, came out a year after the Wall Street crash and a year before Britain finally abandoned the Gold Standard.

What, then, of Priestley’s ‘common humanity’, ‘decency’, ‘homeliness’, ‘patriotism’ and ‘strength of English life?’ Some of these terms are taken from English Journey, and some from his BBC Postscripts of May and June 1940; but Priestley’s vocabulary, which soon became George Orwell’s, is too complacently non-political to have survived the grave national crisis which brought it forth. When he broadcast about Dunkirk, he spoke of the heroism of the paddle-steamers – little holiday steamers called Queens and Belles which ‘let you see their works going round’ – that had saved the British Army from unthinkable disaster. Such homespun heroism in peacetime would have occasioned bitter debate. It is not just the Little-Englandism of Priestley’s terms which is absurdly inadequate today. For surely the real strength of English life is that it has provided a cultural framework for disagreement, dispute and the clash of opinions, even if ‘Englishness’ is more often identified with the depth of the national affection for pigeons, paddle-steamers, pets and peers (not to mention princesses). We inhabit not so much a common as a divided culture, with adversarial politics inscribed in the country’s regional and national structure, in religion and in education, and in the legal and parliamentary systems. In Britain the open conflicts of the Civil War and the 18th-century rebellions gave place (in all but the unhappy instance of Northern Ireland) to various forms of peaceful and ritualised conflict, from team games to two-party rivalry, taking place within a general – if often precarious-context of freedom of assembly and expression.