Filson Young

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

Table of contents

7. “The Pilot”

Freelance work in Manchester was an anticlimax after the dash to Mafeking. Filson’s book about the Relief had done well, and he wanted to write more. London was the centre of literary life, so when in June 1901 he was offered the assistant editorship (i.e. no 2 on an editorial staff of two) of a London weekly called The Pilot, he accepted at once, and wrote to tell Scott and thank him for having given him his chance on the Manchester Guardian; he also offered to send occasional contributions from London.(81) His thanks were heartfelt: thirty years later, speaking at a Manchester Grammar School Old Boys’ reunion dinner, he claimed Manchester had been his university – Grammar School, Cathedral organ loft and Guardian:


‘everything I know about writing I learned on the ‘Manchester Guardian,’ with Scott, C.E.Montague(82) and not least my own brother, who looked after my doings and was the best teacher of English I have ever had.’ (83)


The Pilot was one of several political-cultural weeklies in London at the time and had published a rave review of The Relief of Mafeking. Roughly speaking, dailies brought the news and weeklies commented on it. Other weeklies in 1901 were The Spectator (Liberal Unionist, i.e. right-wing Liberal), The Saturday Review (Conservative), The Speaker (Radical, i.e.left-wing Liberal) and The Outlook (Conservative with a special interest in the Empire). The founder and editor of The Pilot, D.C.Lathbury,(84) had recently been editor of a weekly confusingly called The Guardian, once described as ‘a rather solemn newspaper of mainly ecclesiastican interest, the organ of Bishops and archdeacons’. This Guardian had sacked the ageing Lathbury In 1899 because, severely shaken by the South African war, he had set himself against the general current of opinion and repeatedly denounced in print the government policy that had led up to the war. But friends rallied round, and in 1900, enabled Lathbury, nearly seventy years old, to found The Pilot as a weekly review of ‘politics, literature and learning’. The Pilot enjoyed a great succès d’estime but succumbed after a few years to financial ruin as Lathbury had no head for business. Since C.P.Scott and most of his staff held the same view as Lathbury of the government policies that led up to the war, it is hardly surprising that Lathbury turned to the Manchester Guardian when he needed a junior assistant, choosing the one of its two South African correspondents whose work he most admired (judging by the contrasting reviews of Filson’s and Atkins’s books in The Pilot).


Lathbury persuaded Filson to write more articles about what he remembered from South Africa.(85) These interesting pieces fill in the background to his news dispatches, describing camps, hospitals, life on the march with Pollock and the ‘moving home’, and details of the technical problems of getting news home from the front. Later he added portraits of his bête-noire Kitchener and his hero Methuen, adding an evocative description of Methuen’s headquarters at Boshof, where battle-plans rustled against the fuchsia to the strains of a Bach fugue carried in through the open window by the breeze from a nearby house where a Boer girl was playing the piano. Lathbury got him to review books to review by R.L.Stevenson, J.A.Froude and Marie Corelli, among others, and let him write about church music and opera. On two Saturdays Filson made the most of his day off to report to the Manchester Guardian from Hyde Park on two social events of the fashionable London season that he knew were already anachronisms in a brave new motor-conscious world: meets of the Coaching Club and the Four-in-Hand Club, still graced by a ‘brilliant turnout’ of mostly titled people.(86)


Meanwhile, through the Pilot, he was beginning to meet a different kind of aristocracy. Lathbury, no businessman perhaps but an editor with an eye for quality, had assembled a distinguished team of writers. During Filson’s first year on the paper the prolific and stylish Andrew Lang wrote regularly on literature; other contributors included Hilaire Belloc, an authority on all things French and already known for his light verse for children; the liberal anti-imperialist C.F.G.Masterman, later to hold ministerial office under Asquith; the biographer, novelist and short story writer Anne Thackeray Ritchie, (daughter of the novelist Thackeray and aunt of the as yet unknown Virginia Woolf), and, as correspondent on church matters, the social reformer Charles Gore, currently Bishop of Worcester and future first Bishop of Birmingham. Among occasional contributors were such Manchester Guardian figures as L.T.Hobhouse (an early opponent of the South African war and later Professor of Sociology at London University) and two close friends, J.B.Atkins and Tom Young, who now generally wrote as T.M.Young. There were also occasional poems from, among others, Tom and Filson’s cousin and early literary mentor, the now paraplegic Helen Chisholm. A list of forthcoming contributors published in January 1902 included the novelist Henry James, the literary critic George Saintsbury, and the literary biographer and art historian Sidney Colvin, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.


Anxious to keep his own work as much as possible in the public eye, Filson succeeded in having a group of settings for voice and piano of Five Lyrics by George Meredith published in a fine fin de siècle cover in 1901. I am told by experts who have looked at them (87) that in general the numerous songs Filson composed are, though not outstanding, well above average for their type and period, avoiding both excesses of sentimentality and the fashionable heavy chromaticism which traced its origin to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. As a songwriter, Filson preferred a clear tonality closer to folksong and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Though he admired Tristan, Filson always rated Meistersinger one of the greatest creations of the human spirit; indeed, he gave its name to his next book, Mastersingers, a selection of the essays he had written for Baughan and The Musical Standard in 1898; he dedicated the book to his organ teacher Kendrick Pyne. Mastersingers came out in 1901 from the proprietor of that supposed weekly circular for young suburban ladies with strict fathers, William Reeves, from his London premises at 83 Charing Cross Road. The publication of the Meredith songs caused no great stir, but Mastersingers was widely and favourably reviewed and brought Filson’s writing on music to a wider public. Though never over-modest about his own abilities, even Filson must have been staggered to read in the  Saturday Review that J.F.Runciman, once so rude about the readership of the Musical Standard, judged Filson’s repackaging in book form of apprentice pieces he had written for the same periodical to be ‘by far superior to anything yet produced by the English writers on music’. In fact Filson was a follower of the ‘new’ music criticism introduced by Bernard Shaw and others in the early nineties, an approach which laid emphasis on beauty in music and the powerful emotions it might arouse. Filson not only instinctively shared this attitude but knew how to communicate his feelings, simply because he was a better writer than most music critics of the time. In Mastersingers, he shared with the reader his response to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Bach’s Organ Fugues,

Mozart’s Requiem, Tchaikowsky’s Sixth Symphony and the work of Charles Villiers Stanford. He also included a memoir of the late Sir Charles Hallé, whom he had seen conduct, but the piece in which he revealed most of himself was the long essay on Berlioz that concludes the book and is the only entirely new piece in it. Filson not only admires Berlioz’s music [?especially his talent for orchestration, but also his existentialist approach to life]. In always following his own impulses Berlioz, for Filson, was a hero:


To be consistently impulsive … becomes noble when the consequences of every impulsive act are bravely met … To fulfil his own nature was [Berlioz's] only law.(88)


Meanwhile an older man with a mind of his own had reached a crisis in his life in 1901. Filson’s father William was barely sixty but relations with his rich and philistine Salford congregation had deteriorated to a point at which he preferred to retire to Bramhall in Cheshire with his wife Sarah. Not everyone had been against him, but the hostility between William’s supporters and his detractors had caused a lot of ill-feeling. His enemies accused him of shutting himself up in his study to write sermons when he should have been visiting the sick. William retorted that he had better things to do than fussing round old ladies with colds. The ‘Fasti’ or annals of the Presbyterian Church in England record  that in his troubles his methodical habits and calm deliberateness had saved him from the exhaustion which a nervous or excitable nature might have brought upon him [collate this with Chapter ?1]. There is no record of Filson’s attitude to his father’s troubles at this time, but we may feel sure William had his son’s support; loyalty was always important to Filson and we know he was very fond of his father and remained so, if by now their views on many subjects must have differed.


Working with Lathbury on The Pilot, Filson seemed to be settling down. He bought a fox-terrier called ‘Mr Joey’ who would be his constant companion for the next eleven years, and a few months later, in Chichester on St Valentine’s Eve 1902, he married a girl with an Anglo-Irish background called Minnie Catherine Duckett whom he seems likely to have met either in Cape Town or on the voyage out to South Africa. Minnie was about a year younger than himself. Her father was a major in the Royal Scots Fusiliers, and The Relief of Mafeking, published in September 1900, is dedicated to ‘M.C.D.’ The very last words of the book read like a secret message. Filson, about to leave Lichtenburg on his final recall to England, meets a half-battalion of Scots Fusiliers on the march, a piper at the head of each company. The officers are envious when they hear he is on his way home, ‘But they did not know that, just for one moment, I would have given the world to turn and follow the piper.’  The young couple’s first home was in Richmond, and they would set out on motoring expeditions, with Mr Joey tucked under the driver’s arm, in their little red steam car, apparently a light American ‘run-about’ of the variety known as a Locomobile. After about a year they moved to a house in Epsom called ‘Briar Cottage’.


Mr and Mrs Lathbury lived nearby and Filson and Minnie spent pleasant weekends with them.  But The Pilot, still high in prestige, was losing money. At the end of May 1902 Lathbury reduced its price from 6d to 3d in a desperate attempt to increase circulation. In November, though now selling 3000 copies a week, it ceased publication altogether.(89) So Filson was out of a job though, as he told C.P.Scott, he was busy preparing a new project about which, when he could speak more freely, he wanted to ask Scott’s advice and help; he called it ‘a chance that comes about once a century’ but did not say what it was. He had another reason for writing to Scott: Tom had done a lot for him and he felt the Guardian was not rewarding his unassuming elder brother adequately for his work or making full use of his abilities. Tom had recently been sent to America to report on the American cotton industry – a subject of great importance to Manchester – and had written what is probably still the longest series of articles the Guardian has ever devoted to a single topic – twenty-five in all; these would soon be reprinted in book form and translated into French, Spanish and Japanese, forming a standard reference work. (90) Filson pleaded:


I wonder if you will let me say, with regard to The American Cotton Industry, that I do hope you will give my brother a chance to use some of the qualities that are revealed there? I mean the (in my opinion) perfection of observation, and the insight into sociology quite apart from the main interest of the book. I know my brother very well, and I think it would be a thousand pities if those qualities were to go unused. In a very few years they will be rusted away. He taught me all I know about writing and I know you have in him an ideal observer – war-correspondent – a thousand times better than me. Please do not think this impertinent, or that I imagine that you are not aware of my brother’s qualities. I have always felt that on a subject like this I could speak to you without being misunderstood and you have been a very good friend both to me and to him. (91)


Next year Scott promoted Tom to Commercial Editor, but Tom was less interested in writing for the Guardian than Filson supposed – he asked Scott to make editing and supervising the commercial and financial side of the paper his first duty; and said he would be happy to write only when he could find time for it.


With or without Minnie, Filson found a good deal of time for travelling in 1902. He had a passion for lighthouses, those powerful symbols of man’s struggle with the elements, perhaps derived from one of his favourite authors, R.L.Stevenson, who came from a family of lighthouse builders. In February – perhaps on honeymoon – he visited the Heugh lighthouse on the

north-east coast, and in May the Bass Rock lighthouse at the entrance to the Firth of Forth; and a piece of more than 6000 words he wrote about the latter was accepted by John Murray’s Monthly Review – Filson’s first breakthrough into a highbrow literary journal. Such experiences would eventually feed into his first and most successful novel, the one Jean Rhys

so much admired as a young girl in the West Indies. But for the moment the mysterious ‘chance that comes about once a century’ was uppermost in his mind. This almost certainly had something to do with his first meeting, about this time, with the newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe.




81 FY to C.P.Scott, 14 June 1901.


82 Charles Edward Montague (1867-1928), novelist and critic, for 35 years staff writer on the Manchester Guardian, achieved widespread fame in the last decade of his life. His unfinished A Writer’s notes on his Trade was published posthumously in 1930.


83 ‘M.G.S. Old Boys’ in the Manchester Guardian, 15 Dec 1934.


84 Daniel Conner Lathbury (1831-1922). After The Pilot died a few years later he edited  W.E.Gladstone’s correspondence on church and religion (1910).


85 ‘South African Byways’ in The Pilot, 20 July to 14 Dec 1901. Reprinted in Memory Harbour (1909)


86 Manchester Guardian, 8 and 16 July 1901.


87 The expert editor of English song Michael Pilkington, the late specialist music publisher John Bishop (Thames Publishing) , the late composer Alan Ridout, and the composer and editor John Mitchell.


88 Mastersingers (William Reeves, 1901), 198-9.


89 ‘Generous friends’ did enable The Pilot to rise yet again the following month like a phœnix from the ashes, but a few months later Filson decided that his future lay elsewhere.


90 Ayerst Guardian: Biography of a Newspaper, 337.


91 FY to C.P.Scott, 12 Nov 1902. This letter is also evidence that The Pilot did close briefly at this time.

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