In Praise of Barley Brew

E.S. Turner

  • Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc by Joseph Pearce
    HarperCollins, 306 pp, £20.00, July 2002, ISBN 0 00 274095 8

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 in Dreadful Agonies’, and Rebecca, ‘Who slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably’ – are in iambic octosyllabic couplets and can run to fifty lines or so. How did Clara Butt contrive to sing these metricated fables? What tune, or tunes, did she employ? Were children, at whom these tales were supposedly directed, admitted under parental guidance? And what did Belloc think of her efforts, which are said to have done nothing but good to his sales? (‘I’m tired of Love: I’m still more tired of Rhyme/But Money gives me pleasure all the time.’) As Joseph Pearce tells in Old Thunder, he was already fretting over his increasingly lightweight reputation for comic verse and was pursuing ‘meatier material’. He had under his belt The Modern Traveller, that splendid satire on African exploration (‘Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim Gun, and they have not’), and The Path to Rome, an idiosyncratic bestselling account of his solo pilgrimage by foot across Europe in 1901, lodging at one franc a night and fording rivers as necessary.

In that year of the Butt performances he told a friend ‘I have written one good poem every day now for 4 months’ – not bad going for a busy MP. Usually he insisted that he wrote verse, not poetry. His output ranged from those cautionary echoes of Struwwelpeter to roistering drinking songs, from tender lyrics to excoriatory ballades, from moral alphabets to ‘imitations and grotesques’ (among which must be counted his ‘Newdigate Poem’ in praise of ‘The Benefits of the Electric Light’: ‘A smell of burning fills the startled air –/The Electrician is no longer there’). In later years he told Maurice Baring: ‘Verse is the only form of activity outside religion which I feel to be of real importance; certainly it is the only form of literary activity worth considering.’ That he should now be remembered and quoted for his frivolities is the penalty of his genius. Where would the leader-writers, financial pundits and even cartoonists be without his renowned two-liners like ‘And always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse’? Belloc had the same gift that he attributed to another genius, limpidly defined as that of ‘the choosing of the right words and the putting of them in the right order, which Mr Wodehouse does better, in the English language, than anyone else alive’. Belloc added to exactitude and an airy fluency a brisk heartlessness:

We had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared;
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is . . . My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!

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