Filson Young

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

Table of contents

11. Motors and motormen

So far so good, but what next? Filson was not short of work; ever since he finished The Sands of Pleasure in October 1905, Richards had been sending boxloads of MSS to Ruan for his attention. He was now on Richards’ payroll at £100 a year as reader and general literary adviser, a job held by E.V.Lucas before Richards went bankrupt. Meanwhile he mulled over various ideas for a new book and, so as not to lose momentum, he struggled to write a series of short stories about cars. He pushed these aside to produce in no time at all a potboiler entitled The Happy Motorist: an  Introduction to the Use and Enjoyment of the Motor Car. Richards brought out this slight non-technical work aimed at amateur drivers and beginners on 8 March 1906, but it had nothing like the success of The Complete Motorist, on which it was loosely based and which was continuing to make money for Methuen. But on the day in January when he wrote the last word of The Happy Motorist, he wrote in excitement to Richards:

I want you to tell me what chances a book by me called The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus would have. There’s a subject! That great poetical Italian, sailing about with his brothers, picturesquely misbehaving himself, slaving, pirating, court-intriguing – there’s everything in it, I believe. It has been very little done … The best life of him, published in 1830, I think, exists only in Italian, but Elisina would help me over that. (138)

Richards’ first reaction was that Columbus wouldn’t sell because there would be no feminine interest, and that since it would be Filson’s fifth or sixth successive different sort of book, the public might not take it seriously. But next day (10 Jan) he wrote ‘The Columbus idea grows on the mind; I think increasingly well of it’, while Filson would listen to no objections:

Columbus has human interest, to wit Columbus’s marriage, his begetting of an illegitimate son, who accompanied him everywhere, and divers rapes by his crew! Also dawns and sunsets, vesper singings at sea in leaky boats, and romantic episodes innumerable. Also I have another idea for a novel, but they all want talking about. (139)

So it was decided that Filson’s next big book would be a biography of Christopher Columbus.

Elisina had returned to London, and on February 21 her fourth child, Geoffrey H. Grant Richards, was born in the Marylebone Road house where Richards had been living on his own.

Filson, moving between Ruan, his parents’ home in Bramhall and London, was increasingly hard up. Encouraged by the success of The Sands of Pleasure, he had decided the previous autumn to ‘have done with opportunisms and journalism’, and when in December 1905 J.L.Garvin wrote praising the novel and asking him to write for the Outlook again, he said he was too busy. This was all very well, but like Richards he had expensive tastes and needed more money than The Sands of Pleasure could make for him. Within a few weeks he had swallowed his pride and was looking for work. His first target was the Tribune. This was a new Liberal quality daily, a sort of London equivalent of the Manchester Guardian; it began publication on 15 January 1906 and closed two years later after losing a lot of money. But its short career started in a blaze of glory, as each morning during its first fortnight it was able to announce a few more results in the great Liberal landslide victory in the general election of that month (in those days election results took very much longer to come in than they do now). The Tribune commissioned Filson to start a weekly column, to be called ‘Motors and Motormen’, from the end of February. Here, for the next six months, he ranged freely over such topics as ‘The Misdeeds of the Motorbus’, ‘Other People’s Driving’, ‘Animals on the Road’, ‘The Ugly Motor Car’ (an attack on those who washed their cars once a week rather than every day), ‘The Motorwoman’ (a subject he tackled more than once), ‘Motoring in the Underground’ (the electrification of the London underground railway) and ‘Mediterranean Tadpoles’ (motor-boats at Monte Carlo).

The day after his first piece appeared in the Tribune, he wrote to Garvin to ask if his invitation to write for the Outlook again still stood, declaring disingenuously:

I don’t propose to go in for journalism again, but I want to write one page a week, for some sympathetic editor who will let me say and do more or less what I like – ideal conditions in fact! I would like to range about, and discuss the conduct of life, and generally enjoy myself. (140)

Terms were discussed, and Filson was anxious to start as soon as possible because it had ‘unfortunately become very necessary’ for him to have the five guineas a week the Outlook would pay him. In any case, there was no escaping the fact he was a journalist at heart. Even while turning down Garvin’s first offer of work two months before, he had been unable to resist writing him a long letter about the sort of weekly journalism with which first he and now Garvin had been so closely involved:

Your own work on the Outlook fills me with admiration, as it has always done: much else too in the paper I admire and appreciate, knowing the difficulties. It is just where I miss your hand in it that I find it weak – the literary side, and so on; but when I see the amount of work you get through I marvel, not that the paper isn’t better, but that it is so strikingly good – far the best, in my opinion, of the weekly reviews. I have thought a great deal of this particular problem in journalism, and studied its conditions somewhat elaborately; and in my opinion it cannot be done on the lines you are trying or that I intended to try. I am journalist enough to see that the Outlook isn’t being run on ‘economic’ lines – can’t be; that the drain of money is not building up a property for which there could ever be an adequate commercial return; and that some of the work and energy you are putting into it is being, to some extent, wasted. It is partly a problem of type and form – much more, a problem of editing; and the departmental idea, as we all agreed, was the right one – although we disagreed as to how it should be put in practice. I still insist that a weekly review like the Outlook will stand or fall commercially by its literature, and not by its politics although the politics must be better than in any other paper; and the day when you find a genius, shovel the whole of the paper except the first ten pages over to him – and make him editor of the Outlook! – will be the day when the paper will be a bigger success than anything of the kind has ever been in England, and when your work will reach an audience something like worthy of it. I hate to see the good wine of your work put into so old a bottle as this obsolete form of paper. (141)

It is interesting that Filson took a dim view of Garvin’s literary pages, when we remember that Garvin had thought the literary pages under Filson too ‘full of dandy phrases and all the cheap coxcombery of the self-conscious epithet’ as he put it, using a dandy phrase himself. And Filson was right about the Outlook not being the ideal medium for Garvin, who was soon to enter on his life’s main work as editor of the Observer. For the moment, though, it was the Outlook that mattered, and as he prepared to begin writing again for the paper he had once edited, Filson went out of his way to assure Garvin of his support:

There is no other weekly paper – politics apart – that I feel has behind it a mind with which I am so much in sympathy as I am with the mind behind the Outlook; and therefore I wish to put all small matters aside to give you every help that I personally can to make your fight a success. The only way that I can think of is to try to secure for you the services of any of my old contributors that will be influenced by any request or advice of mine. (142)

He made it quite clear he was offering to do this for Garvin and not for Goldmann (now spelt ‘Goldman’), ‘a man who in his relationship with me failed at a critical moment to come up to the standard which I require from people whom I can respect.’ We don’t know whether Garvin accepted his offer but, considering their differing views on what the literary pages ought to be like, he may not have. Short of cash though he was, Filson was anxious to get his status as a specially favoured contributor properly established before he started writing in the Outlook again:

I want you to understand quite clearly that I am not coming in as an ordinary contributor, to write in one place one week and in another another. I know perfectly well that that is the way in which one can be most useful to one’s editor, but it is not the way in which I can do my best work, and do it most happily … (143)

He wanted a page a week to write whatever he liked, assisted by suggestions from Garvin, plus a six-monthly agreement ‘for private reasons with which I need not bother you’. He had already sent in his first contribution and had it back in proof, but he suggested it would be better if Garvin didn’t use it unless he could meet Filson’s ‘few but definite’ terms. They were stiff terms, but Garvin accepted them, and Filson’s first piece – reflections about Parliament prompted by taking dinner at the House of Commons with one of the many new MPs – duly appeared in print three days later, on March 17.

On April 5 he dropped everything to go with the racing driver Charles Jarrott to Monte Carlo in a 40 hp Crossley. This was a publicity stunt (before the days of the Monte Carlo Rally) and no doubt Filson’s idea. Jarrott had planned a holiday in Monte Carlo, while Filson wanted to go to Genoa to research on Columbus, and so much the better if he could also see Monte Carlo on the way, a place Richards and Elisina knew and loved. The trip was no doubt sponsored by the Crossley company who would get publicity out of it, and Filson would get copy for his Tribune motoring column. He and Jarrott set off early in the morning from the Automobile Club in Piccadilly, and reached Boulogne, including the Channel crossing, in 8½ hours. At Boulogne Jarrott restarted his engine and kept it going till they reached Monte Carlo 29 hours later. Filson, sitting beside him, hopped out at each brief halt to send a progress report by telegram to the Tribune, while a mechanic and a not altogether reliable guide shared the back seat. Later Filson described the drive in greater detail for his readers:

Our road lay now due south through Melun and the town and forest of Fontainebleau.

Darkness deepened; the night came cold and black, with a stinging dash of rain and sleet in our faces; the lamps were lit; everything in the way of macintoshes and protection against the weather that could be devised was put on; and over the long dark road we sped away at a pace of fifty miles an hour, and settled down to face the night and the miles. We hardly spoke from Melun, which we left at half-past nine, until we arrived at Sens at 11.40, only twenty minutes now behind our time table. The cold rain slashed into our faces like sharp knives; the road lay empty before us in the glimmer, a vanishing ribbon of yellow; that was our night … (144)

The car ran beautifully, which will have pleased the Crossley company, though driving at night was difficult if only because they often had to stop to read unlit signposts. In fact, they lost their way several times, but eventually arrived safely if a little behind schedule. Filson wrote to Richards from Monte Carlo:

We have made a sensation here. Northcliffe asked me to lunch at Ciro’s today. I understand the fascination of this place, but I would like you and Elisina to be here to show it to me. I feel as if everyone else were an impostor, and didn’t really understand it! It is lovely weather. I am dining on Lipton’s yacht tomorrow and with John Montagu [editor of The Car] Monday. I will probably go to see the Schiffs on Monday.

I was very tired last night, and went to sleep in my bath, and woke up an hour and a half afterwards to find it cold! It was rather a shock. I ate cutlets and chocolate and bread and lubricating oil and coffee beans on the road. It was a bitterly cold, wet night on Thursday and it seemed very long from darkness to dawn. We ran through Melun in the dusk – with strange sensations on my part. I shall never forget the road from Avignon to Monte Carlo. It was midnight, and indescribably beautiful. (145)

Filson’s descriptions of the journey in the Tribune excited so much interest that the Hon C.S.Rolls, not wanting Crossley to get away with all the publicity, set out six weeks later in a Rolls-Royce in an attempt to break Jarrott’s record. He claimed in the press that he had succeeded, but Filson disputed this in a spirited defence of Jarrott and the Crossley in the Tribune

After one week in Genoa researching Columbus, Filson returned to London at the end of April and was issued with his driving licence (no. 1486); at this time licences weren’t compulsory but were awarded to those who passed a voluntary test devised and administered by the Automobile Club (now the RAC) in the interests of road safety. From London he went to Ruan to catch up on his Outlook articles and start serious work on Columbus. Richards sent him a secretary, since, Columbus apart, he had to write weekly articles for two papers, read boxloads of MSS for Richards and write frequent letters since there was clearly no telephone.


138 FY to Grant Richards, 8 0r 9 Jan 1906.

139 FY to Grant Richards, 11 jan 1906.

140 FY to J.L.Garvin, 1 March 1906.

141 FY to J.L.Garvin, 28 Dec 1905.

James Louis Garvin (1868-1947) is principally remembered as editor of the Observer from 1908 to 1942. He also edited The Outlook 1905-6 and the daily London evening paper The Pall Mall Gazette (1912-15), and followed in Filson’s cousin Hugh Chisholm’s footsteps as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1926-29). His three-volume Life of Joseph Chamberlain appeared between 1932 and 1934.

142 FY to J.L.Garvin, undated, probably first ten days of March 1906.

143 FY to J.L.Garvin, 14 March 1906.

144 The Tribune, 13 April 1906.

145 FY to Grant Richards, 7 April 1906. In The Sands of Pleasure Richard begins his affair with Toni during the idyllic and beautifully described excursion via Melun to the forest of Fontainebleau  with Lauder and two of Toni’s women friends [pp]. Perhaps the intensity of the description in the novel derives from a real excursion Filson may have made with Toni’s prototype – whoever she may have been – in the summer of 1905.

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