BIG-CITY JOURNALISM: VII
England is a country known for its eccentrics, and of the many I interviewed in the 1960s, I am hard put to name my favorite. Gwendoline Barter, a middle-aged lady who so hated the killing of innocent foxes by the British nobility, that she flung herself into a fox hole and dared the hunters to do their worst, must rank high among them. And how about the British MP who, during a House of Commons debate, said “The British public house has declined into a sordid state that I personally find extremely agreeable.”
And what about Charles Hamilton, a little old man who greeted me in a dressing gown, wearing a black skull cap, in the small roughcast house in which he lived alone, looked after by a housekeeper, perched on a cliff in a small village called Kingsgate-on-Sea, where the Thames becomes the English Channel? Since 1908 he had written, and had published under 25 pen-names, probably more words than any living man, estimated at 100,000,000, and in 1961 when I met him a few months before his death, he admitted to still writing 250,000 a year.
Hamilton was better known to the public as Frank Richards, the name he used as he poured out stories about the life lived in a variety of public schools that he invented for the purpose. His greatest character, Billy Bunter, known as “the fat Owl of the Remove,” a pupil at Greyfrairs school, was a boy so unattractive, physically and in almost every other aspect, that one would have expected there would be no demand for more stories about him. Dead wrong: in 1960 Billy Bunter, first created in 1908 by Hamilton in a boys’ magazine, The Magnet, was a still big hit on British television, and my own children, as they grew in England during the 1960s were omnivorous devourers of the hard-covered books that Hamilton began to write in 1946.
There is a certain form of English humour that is more or less untranslatable into foreign languages: I remember lending a book by P.G.Woodhouse whom I regard as not only one of the funniest English writers but also one of the greatest masters of English prose, to a woman of my acquaintance whose first language was Polish, with my warm recommendation. She handed it back to me and said, “Is that supposed to be funny? I just couldn’t understand it.”
Like Woodhouse, who created his characters also in 1908, and who was still writing about that same world, his characters unchanged, when he died in 1975, Charles Hamilton’s many characters, and especially Billy Bunter, never changed during the 50 years of their existence. The books he was still writing were selling a steady 20,000 copies each, and they were still full of the inimitable Bunter cries of “Yarooh!” “Oh, my hat!”, “Scrag ‘im,” and “Dragimoff!” No one had ever heard of Charles Hamilton until he gave an interview to a London newspaper in 1940, and revealed he was the man behind all those stories and all those pen-names. In the same year, George Orwell, in an essay that became famous for Horizon, the leading intellectual magazine, attacked Hamilton’s books as weapons of class indoctrination, and an evil social influence,.
I asked him about that. “He wasn’t a bad chap, you know, Orwell,” he said. “But he had this maddening habit of saying everyone was out of date. I certainly shut him up. Silly ass!” He wrote a long response to the Orwell essay, which the editor of the magazine, Cyril Connolly said he was amazed to receive, because he had assumed Frank Richards was long since dead. Yet here he was twenty years later, full of spirit and very much alive, and strenuously defending the morality of his characters. Though Bunter is described in Wikipedia in negative terms, such as “(his) defining characteristic is his greediness and dramatically overweight appearance. His character is, in many respects, a highly obnoxious anti-hero. As well as his gluttony, he is also obtuse, lazy, racist, inquisitive, deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited.”
But, Hamilton told me, he had never written a word a boy could not read aloud to his mother. “I’ve always tried to influence boys along the right lines, to teach them to play the game. I can’t think of a job more important, can you?”
He added: “Of course, he will pinch another fellow’s jam tart, but only because he is so greedy he can’t stop eating. He might call an Indian boy a nigger, but you see, it’s understood that he’s a silly young ass.”
As I was leaving him Mr. Hamilton ventured a few words on the current Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who reminded him of Gladstone, whom he had been taken to hear when he was a boy. “He is handsome, the very picture of the benevolent uncle, and I am sure he’s harmless. But he talks the most awful tripe.”
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Appropriately enough Miss Barter also lived on a clifftop overlooking the English Channel, as if standing on guard for all those British standards of sportsmanship and decency that she fancied were under attack in modern attitudes towards animals. She was one of a team of protesters who disrupted the annual meeting of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which they criticized for holding an equivocal attitude towards fox-hunting. These protesters had already been expelled from the RSPCA and had formed their own League Against Cruel Sports, a more radical organization. Now they shouted and yelled from the balcony, barking and baying like hounds, until they were thrown out. The RSPCA had never known anything like it.
From her clifftop fortress she poured out eight letters a week to newspapers all over the country arguing against fox and stag hunting, and throwing in for good measure “the beastly farming research people who kept chickens in cages, induced anaemia in calves and turned animals blind to make them move around less and so put on more weight.” As for her most famous incident, she explained it to me thus: “I really could not bear the noises they” --- the fox-hunters --- “were making. I’m afraid I just lost my temper. I charged like a tank through the undergrowth. I remember shouting ‘What’s all this filth?’ I grabbed the spade they were using, jumped into the hole and sat down in the classic manner.” She proved to be impervious to their arguments, and stayed where she was until the fox-hunters had to abandon their chase.
“ I saved one fox, anyway,” she told me with satisfaction.
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Here is an account I wrote in my book Memoirs of a Media Maverick (Between the Lines, Toronto, 2003) that unfortunately hardly anyone has read, of one of the extreme, but gentlemanly right-wing British groups of the 1960s:
“One of the greatest moments for A.K.Chesterton and the League of Empire Loyalists came at one of Harold Macmillan’s first speeches as Prime Minister. A woman in the fourth row of the stalls collapsed in a faint in the aisle. A man sitting nearby rushed to help, waving a stethoscope. In the silence that followed his examination, the doctor shouted, ‘Stop the meeting! My patient is suffering from a fit induced by the treasonable policies of the government.’ The patient sprang to her feet, crying, ‘I beg to confirm the doctor’s diagnosis.’
“They loved to tell that story in the League’s small dusty office, across from the House of Commons. The ‘doctor’, Austin Brooks, a tall red-bearded man who had once impersonated a Greek Orthodox bishop denouncing an invitation ‘to the killer Makarios’ to the Church of England’s Lambeth conference, was chortling in one corner of the room as he stapled and stamped, and pored over mailing lists; while the ‘patient’, Miss Avril Walters, whom I had seen being tossed out of many a meeting after uttering her ritual cry, ‘The League of Empire Loyalists denounces this treason!’, was similarly busy at another table.
“Mr. Chesterton founded the League in 1954, intending it to be like any other pressure group. But when he found he could not get any publicity among the babble of right-wingers, left-wingers, religious fanatics, rationalists, pro-Europeans, anti-Europeans, Communists, Fascists, anti-slavers, anti-euthanasians and others who make up the swirl of political dissenters in London, he started to pull off stunts, so as to draw attention to the cause. The League’s aim was to restore ‘the white Dominions’ as an economic entity free of the domination of Moscow or Washington, to withdraw Britain from all entanglements with such as the US, the south-east Asians, NATO and other foreigners, and to modernize Imperial preferences.
“ ‘The Tory party is rotten through and through,’ Mr. Chesterton told me, ‘lacking in principle, lacking in guts, and it has a tremendous responsibility for the disasters confronting the British nations.’
“From her corner Miss Walters cries that it is ‘sovietization by stealth.’ A dear old lady licking stamps at another table nods in agreement; a young boy stapling at another table seems indignant. Mr. Brooks says, looking rather contemptuous of his companions, that West Indians should be sent home.
“ ‘It is not likely to happen,’ said Mr. Chesterton, ‘because treason has eaten so deep into the morale of the white people, they have lost their spirit.’ ”
I can’t even imagine what he would be saying now, in the world of Brexit. Cock-a-hoop, no doubt, but grievously dismayed by all the hesitations and prevarications that have accompanied the stumbling British effort to withdraw from Europe. It has always been true that to such people, “the foreigners begin in Calais” an attitude exemplified by a newspaper poster I once saw after a heavy storm that announced, EUROPE CUT OFF. Not Britain cut off from Europe, but Europe cut off from Britain.