Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents


Filson had made Billy his sole heir and appointed his brother Tom and sisters Janie and Ben to be Billy’s guardians during his remaining two years as a minor. He made no mention in his Will of his second son Richard or any other friend or relation. He died possessed of no more than £1586 gross (£951 net), not nearly enough to satisfy his creditors of whom the chief was the Inland Revenue following years of tax evasion as he struggled to make ends meet. As late as September 1940 the taxman was still asking the BBC for details of payments made to Filson as far back as 1926 while, as a BBC official put it, Billy was ‘still waiting sadly for his estate’. Vera approached the publisher Martin Secker, who now controlled the Richards Press which held the rights of many of Filson’s books, with the idea of a memorial volume which might be a fitting tribute to Filson and at the same time pay off some of his debts. Secker asked Tom Young if he would write an introductory memoir to a selection from Filson’s writings (172). The book never materialized though almost a year to the day after Filson’s death, on 20 April 1939, the BBC [West? Bristol?]broadcast a half-hour memorial programme created by Moray McLaren (173), ([?then still]Assistant Director of Features and Drama) who read an appreciation written by himself and presented readings from Filson’s books and essays while two of his Shakespeare settings were sung. The script of this programme survives (174).


The memorial programme was a generous gesture on the part of an organization that had suffered a good deal from Filson in one way or another, but the BBC should have realized that his unruly spirit was not yet ready to rest in peace. One of those who took part in the broadcast was Eric Gillett (175), a close friend of Clifford Bax who had long ago told him all about Vera’s disastrous marriage to Filson -  a monster, Vera had informed Bax, who had sexually abused his own young son. Gillett, who had never met Filson, had wanted no part in any memorial programme for such a man, but Moray McLaren persuaded him not to drop out. The programme was broadcast live, and came close to disaster. According to Gillett the announcer was a ‘ridiculous pansy figure in a green suit’ [who was he?]. Not long after the start this figure mispronounced a word, causing the second reader, who was sitting across the table from Gillett and whose name was Duff [full name?],  to have a fit of silent giggles and pull faces at Gillett who nearly corpsed. Apparently listeners were completely unaware that anything was wrong. Tom Young wrote to their sister Ben:


How much I would like to think that he was aware of the splendid and triumphant tribute accorded to him a year after his death – a tribute not only to the brilliant work of his youth but even more to what he did and was in his trying middle and later years. (176)


Filson’s world died with him as Britain prepared for a new war. As the years passed, his name occasionally cropped up in memoirs and official histories, including those of the Manchester Guardian and the BBC.


On 5 June 1946 Frank Baker, conscious that had Filson lived, it would have been his seventieth birthday (177), wrote the first words of a novel which would  feature Filson as ‘Arnold Bardsley’, a pretentious elderly journalist (178). Here is Bardsley seen through the eyes of his ex-wife Olive as he joins her in a restaurant, their first meeting  for some time:


Be nice to him, be nice to him, for God’s sake try and be nice to him; it’s so easy to hurt him; he’s so vulnerable in his vanity. Be nice, it costs you nothing. Be nice – but gracious Heaven, here he is – enormous, bellying across that pile of carpet, outrageously blue with baggy eyes and exactly the sort of throat I’d imagined and that long, flexible nose. Like the Dong with the Luminous Nose, she thought; and she at once wanted to giggle. He was pattering on his very small feet in their neat, shiny black shoes towards her, all blue, all cloudy, like a bulge of smoke from a backyard bonfire, his hands padding the air beside him, as though he steered his way, as though his feet didn’t really support him. And now he was blowing his nose in a vast silk handkerchief and, God in Heaven! waving to her – two fingers flipped in the air in that old humiliating way, as though you were a dicky bird sitting on a gate waiting for a crumb. And that great, raddled, flat, face with the rather pained pinkish eyes and the thin grey hair drawn in wisps across the freckled skull.


… As always, he didn’t know how ridiculous he was. Yet the waiters didn’t seem to think so. There was one bending over him, and there was Arnold’s Lear-like nose tracking along the menu, and the wine-waiter hovering up like an acolyte at High Mass, waiting with lavabo and towel. ‘Duck, I think, don’t you?’ he murmured. (179)


As late as 1980, surprisingly in view of the near-total oblivion which had overtaken his work, Filson’s name had still not been weeded out from the list of ‘Famous Writers in the English Language’ in Everyman’s Dictionary of Dates. In 1973 The Complete Motorist was reprinted in facsimile in a series of early motoring classics, as was With the Battle Cruisers in 1986, in an American  series of  ‘Classics of Modern Naval Literature’ (under its original British title, with an excellent new introduction by the Australian Commodore (now Admiral) James Goldrick who has seen active service in recent years in the Persian Gulf; this edition was reprinted in Britain in 2002). At least one of Filson’s introductions for the ‘Notable Trials’ series was reprinted in the ?1950s in Penguin Books. The 1970s saw a revival of interest in Bernard Walke and the St Hilary plays and, fulfilling Filson’s prophecy that Bethlehem would be heard again when the voices of its performers were stilled in death, the BBC’s 1934 recording of it was broadcast again in 1976, but without Filson’s spoken introduction.  In 1997 came an entirely new production, but this time with Filson’s own spoken introduction of 1934 (180). Among the dwindling band of people who still remembered his books one title was often mentioned: Titanic, a piece of instant journalism that can lay claim to being a documentary novel before its time. Occasionally much younger writers rediscovered his work, such as the novelist Jill Dawson who was moved by his feeling for Edith Thompson, executed for a murder she did not commit. In one form or another, most of Filson’s books are now available through the Internet.


The family are all long gone. Filson and Vera’s sons Billy and Richard were both killed in action in the Second World War (181). His brother Tom died in 1946, his sisters Janie in 1950 and Ben in 1956. His first wife Minnie, whom he hadn’t seen for fifty years, died in Florence in 1957. When Vera’s husband Clifford Bax (they never bothered to divorce) died in 1962 she said, ‘I’d forgotten that I had a husband.’ She herself lived on till 1974, dying just too soon for me to meet her when I began to take an interest in Filson’s life. But her son Paul North (died 2001) and grandson the ?journalist and writer Richard D. North have given me constant encouragement and generous support over more than a quarter of a century. What was left of Filson’s papers passed to Vera (known as ‘Minka’ to close relatives) following the death of their sons. She destroyed his diaries but kept correspondence from VIPs and some of the letters he wrote her before and just after they married. Filson and Vera’s younger son, Richard, a quiet and sensitive boy who inherited his father’s love of music, though unable to share it with him since the two scarcely met after his parents separated when he was three (182). He followed his brother Billy into the RAF and was killed at the age of 21, shot down on a reconnaissance flight over enemy lines before the battle of El Alamein in 1942. Billy joined RAF Coastal Command in 1937. Billy showed signs of inheriting his father’s love of writing, meeting the playwright Terence Rattigan while piloting Sunderland flying-boats in West Africa. A poem he wrote in January 1942 evokes relations between the sexes in wartime:


A hideous hat with shiny peak

Obscures her erstwhile chic coiffure,

Rough, shapeless clothes deform her curves,

Harsh hose have killed her legs’ allure;


Her talk is all of ‘discipline’,

‘Must keep the fighting women fit’,

And ‘shoulders back’, and ‘Chins up chaps!

We girls have got to do our bit.’


My little girl was never thus,

Laughed not so loud, nor slapped her thigh;

Pray God, before my leave is up

I’ll change her back to Laurelei.


In May 1945, the war in Europe over, Billy was still flying two-seater Mosquito fighter-bombers in jungle operations against the Japanese in Burma. he had won the DFC and bar, had grown a bristly moustache and was in a relationship with the young wife of a brigadier. Due to go home on leave, he insisted on flying an extra sortie, though not with his usual navigator. They were shot down bombing the Japanese on the Shan Plateau north of Moulmein, apparently hit by anti-aircraft fire from the ground and crashing into a river in the target area. When the news reached

Manchester, his uncle Tom Young said quietly, ‘Well, that’s the end of that family.’ Billy’s commanding officer wrote to Vera:


I am afraid the crash was a very bad one, so bad that we are sure everything was over instantaneously. … He was the outstanding squadron commander in the Wing and a marvellous leader in every way. Apart from his courage and efficiency, his delightful personality is one which will be missed wherever he has served. An hour with Filson in the evening was the best relaxation I have found in Burma …


Later … I have been going through Billy’s record and find that he had the phenomenal total of 235 operational successful flights to his credit, many of them extremely hazardous. I should imagine this is a record unbeaten by anyone in the R.A.F. (183)


‘Billy’ to his parents, this godson of the dashing Beatty had preferred to be known as ‘Filson’ in the RAF, perhaps remembering the time when he was a small boy in Cornwall and his father had put an arm round his shoulders saying, ‘airmen never cry’. After the death of each son, the flamboyant Vera distilled her grief in the classic restraint of a sonnet. The two sonnets, together with a third she wrote soon after for V.J. (Victory over Japan) Day, which fell exactly three months after Billy’s death, have been printed several times (184).


As for Filson, the tireless communicator wrote his own epitaph in his final contribution to the Radio Times (185):


Confession, Credo and Envoi


To communicate every week for so long a period with so large a public is not a common experience among writers. For my part, however it may have affected my readers, or however much or little they may have learnt, I have learnt a great deal. It has been a lesson to me in the almost infinite importance of accuracy on the part of those who write. I have learnt how easily the rightness and wrongness of the written word may affect the thought of thousands and give it a right or a wrong direction. … I know I have often been dull; in seeking to write only the truth, I have often told it unpalatably, or myself been mistaken. I can only say that with regard to broadcasting or anything else I have never consciously written here anything that I did not believe to be true; and I think I have been fairly consistent in my principles of what should be the broadcast listener’s attitude towards the world we listen in. Those principles can very easily be stated. I believe that the best in everything will, if faithfully adhered to, make in the long run the strongest and widest appeal. I hold the Christian faith, the truth of which I believe to be enshrined in the Church Catholic. I believe that in matters of art also there are principles of beauty which are enshrined in canons of taste founded upon a long tradition. I believe that form is indispensable to art; that harmony is better than chaos, that rule is better than anarchy, and that there can be no progress that is not based on a wide use of experience and tradition. And I believe that when you have sorted out these principles and applied them as a test to all departments of human activity, broadcasting included, everything we do or experience must ultimately be found ranked with one of the two great and irreconcilable forces; with right or with wrong, with truth or with falsehood, with beauty or with ugliness.


That, I think, is the last message I would like to leave with the readers and listeners who have been patient enough to accompany me in thought through all these years in the rambling journey that ends today. My best wish for them is that they may always be found, and their influence used, on the side of right, truth and beauty. There can be no compromise.



172  Martin Secker to Tom Young, 7 June 1938.


173  Moray McLaren (1901-71), previously assistant editor to Sir John Squire on the London Mercury, was at this time the BBC’s Assistant Director of Features and Drama. He later left broadcasting to be a full-time writer.


174  After the broadcast the producer, Felix Felton, asked the BBC to send a copy of the script to Filson’s sister Ben.


175  Eric Gillett (1893-1978), in conversation with SM, 5 April 1976. Gillett, sometime Johore Professor of English Language and Literature at Raffles College, Singapore, was a prolific editor, publisher, broadcaster and writer mainly on English literature.


176  Tom Young to Sara Isabel (‘Ben’) Young, 16 May 1939.


177  Incidentally, Filson’s brother Tom (1873-1946) died exactly a week later.


178  Identification confirmed by Frank Baker in conversation with SM, 4 Aug 1976. Baker also said that ‘Olive’ was based on a woman called Dorothy Elton, but that he knew of no connection between Dorothy Elton and Filson. However, Hugh Hynes reported to SM (4 Aug 1976) , that Bernard Walke (who died long before Frank Baker’s novel was written), had told him (Hugh Hynes) that Dorothy Elton had in fact been an ‘old flame’ of Filson’s, but that by the time Hugh Hynes came on the scene any romance that may have existed between them had been reduced to irritation, at least on Filson’s side, because of Dorothy Elton’s fearful habit of being a ‘persistent picknicker’ whom nothing but bad weather could frustrate.


179  Frank Baker, The Downs So Free (1948), 248-9.


180  The 1934 recording of Bethlehem was repeated on [?Radio 4, ?date in 1976]. A completely new production by Marion Nancarrow, introduced by Filson’s own 1934 voice, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 Dec 1997.


181  As were the two sons of Filson’s friend the herald, Archie Russell, who in the 1930s lodged on the top floor of Filson’s last home, 2 Campden Grove, Kensington.


182  Katharine Graham (conversation with SM, Aug 1975) remembered Billy as very good-looking, extrovert and great fun, and his brother Richard as gentle, sensitive and musical, owning a fine collection of records that she used to listen to with him.


183  Ernest Whitely to Vera Bax, 17 May 1945.


184  As for instance Catherine W. Reilly (ed), Chaos of the Night, Women’s Poetry and verse of the Second World War (1984), 13-14.


185  25 Sept 1936. He never wrote for the press again. His Radio Times feature, ‘The World We Listen In’, had been the longest series of his life. It ran continuously from 10 Oct 1930 to 25 Sept 1936. It had also provided him as a writer with the biggest audience of his life, increasing steadily from 1,334,063 in 1930 to 2,628,757 by 1936. (figures from Briggs, vol II [?The Golden Age of Radio], 281). On 17 Sept 1936 ‘G.W.S.’ [assistant editor of RT??] wrote to Filson, ‘Herewith six page proofs of your final article, as requested. I shall very much miss the difficult job of cutting your copy to fit the page week by week.’


The End

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