Filson Young

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

Table of contents

18. Garvin again

1912 was a busy year. Filson wrote about fifty pieces for the Saturday Review, all of a general nature. (50) Additional regular work came his way in January, when J.L.Garvin, who had been unable to offer Filson work on the Observer, now took over concurrently the editorship of the Conservative London evening daily the Pall Mall Gazette and commissioned Filson to write a regular short column of comment on topical matters. This short column (perhaps ‘paragraph’ would be a more accurate description) was printed in italics every day on one of the centre pages under the title ‘The Things That Matter’. It ran from the end of January 1912 till Filson left for France on the outbreak of war in August 1914. In ‘The Things That Matter’, he would often plead for some cause – better relations between coal-minersand their employers, more bus shelters in London, a better Underground service for rush-hour commuters. Or he would describe some little experience of the day and perhaps draw a moral from it. Soon letters of support and criticism began pouring in from readers, who also suggested matters they thought he should address, so that his column began to have the quality of a modern phone-in or five-minute radio talk of the ‘Thought for the Day’ genre. Garvin had detected a hitherto unknown quality in Filson, the ability to relate to ordinary people no less than to culture-vultures, the essential point being that by keeping Filson’s daily column so short, Garvin prevented purple prose and ensured good succinct writing. I can imagine Filson being pleasantly surprised to find that this took pressure off himself – no need to feel obliged (as he must often have done when writing full-length articles) to devise and build up the elaborate and elegant prose patterns that his more highbrow readers had come to expect of him. At all events, ‘The Things That Matter’ was clearly a great success. Here is a complete example:

I am always interested in new advertisements, and especially in that kind which consists of a picture, and a little essay explaining the picture.

I saw one the other day which struck a note of admirable simplicity. It was illustrative of the charms of the fireside, and especially of the gas fireside, ‘with such comforts as one appreciates ready to hand.’ There was a picture of the comforts; they consisted of a chair, a book, a tobacco jar, a cigarette box, a gas fire, a pair of carpet slippers, and a cat.

The cat was depicted regarding the gas fire with doubt and suspicion. The chair was

empty. (51)

A not entirely new interest (he had toured prisons for the Daily Mail in 1903) that Filson now developed was criminology. In 1910 Britain had beenfascinated and horrified by the case of Dr Crippen, the mild-mannered London doctor who dismembered his wife and tried to escape to the United States, accompanied by his young mistress dressed as a boy. The only piece Filson had contributed to the Saturday Review that summer (52) was a stinging attack on the callous methods used by the captain of the ship on which Crippen and his mistress tried to cross the Atlantic – for nine days the two had no idea that their disguises had been penetrated, while the captain reported back regularly to the Daily Mail by wireless telegraph. Filson blamed his old employer Alfred Harmsworth (now Lord Northcliffe) for what he saw as tasteless and cruel sensationalism, but at the same time was fascinated by the possibilities of wireless telegraphy, here used in criminal detection for the first time. Crippen was hanged on November 23, and in December the writer A.C.Benson sent the Times a long letter against capital punishment. Joining the correspondence, Filson recalled his 1903 investigations for the Daily Mail:

I have given some study to the conditions of prisons and punishment in this country; I have studied the whole business and routine and apparatus of executions; and I can assure Mr Benson that the reality is incredibly more brutal, sordid and barbarous than anything that can be imagined from mere description or sketches.

Capital punishment, he argued, might be justified as protection for the community or as a means of disposing of a person better dead, but it could not be justified as a punishment, since the purpose of punishment should be to ‘protect the misdoer’. The criminal was a product of his environment; a different environment produced ‘nice’ people. Filson’s letter was full of feeling for the horrible situation of the condemned man. Wouldn’t it be more humane to allow him to commit suicide? Like Christ, of whom he is reminded by the parson as he stands on the trap, he dies for others, ‘but there is no honour or crown of glory for him’(53).

In March 1912 an insurance official called F.H.Seddon and his wife were tried for the murder of their lodger, a Miss Barrow. Filson was in court every day as two great barristers, Rufus Isaacs (Prosecution) and Marshall Hall (Defence) joined battle. Seddon was found guilty and sentenced to death but his wife was acquitted. For the Pall Mall Gazette, Filson wrote a long, moving account of the final day of the trial, in which the judge was far more distressed than the stony, cocksure man that he sentenced to hang. (54) Filson wasn’t the only one who felt that Seddon had been convicted on insufficient evidence, and that judge and jury had allowed his unattractive cold personality to tip the scales against him. He was in court again when Seddon’s appeal was dismissed on April 2. After this he did his best to stir up public opinion against the conviction, discussing the case at length in the Saturday Review and appealing in ‘The Things That Matter’ for people to sign a petition for Seddon’s reprieve:

I know it is very unpleasant to occupy oneself with murders or murderers. But suppose there was no murder? Consider, in that case, how very unpleasant it must be to be hanged. (55)

It may have been Filson himself who persuaded Seddon’s solicitor, J.Walter Saint, to organize the petition. At all events Saint later gave Filson a note written by Seddon at the Court of Criminal Appeal during the luncheon interval just before his appeal was dismissed, in which, in a vigorous hand and with much underlining, Seddon attempted to prove that he could have had no financial motive to commit murder (56). But there was to be no reprieve for the condemned man, and as the date fixed for his execution (April 18) drew near the public forgot him, suddenly distracted by an infinitely greater drama: in the early hours of April 15, the largest ship in the world, the White Star liner Titanic, struck an iceberg at full speed and sank in the Atlantic on her maiden voyage with the loss of more than 1500 lives. Filson was far from the only one to have a lot to say about this. But, while he commented in ‘The Things That Matter’ on April 17 that even the most highly developed civilisation would never be able to make humanity entirely safe from natural disasters, he asked his readers to spare a thought for the unfortunate man who, perhaps unjustly sentenced, was waiting in his cell at Pentonville to meet his ‘sordid doom’ the following morning. But, as conflicting reports about the fate of the Titanic and those on board her continued to pour into the press, Seddon’s execution passed almost unnoticed.

Another perhaps not entirely unrelated subject which occupied Filson’s mind a good deal during this period was the ‘ancient virtues’. As he watched flying at Hendon aerodrome he reflected that even if the social scheme of things was in a state of collapse, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with man so long as the ‘old clean job of invention and risk and adventure’ went on. The Royal Navy was a ‘sanctuary of the cleaner virtues’, and cricket (which he did not play) was ‘one of the cleanest and finest sports of the English open air’. On the other hand he ridiculed a bishop who advised people to stay away from concerts conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham on the grounds that Beecham had recently been divorced: what about the morals of composers like Wagner and Chopin whose music the bishop would presumably appreciate happily under a more moral baton?

By now what Filson was writing in the Saturday Review and Pall Mall Gazette was making more impression on even the mandarins of the literary establishment than his books. In February Edmund Gosse thanked him for a ‘brilliant article’ in which he had supported Gosse in a stand against literary censorship. In May Filson heard the novelist Henry James speak at a meeting to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the poet Robert Browning. James, an old man whose most important work was done,

got up and began at once, in his mellow conversational voice, to read the most impossibly constructed, the most involved and entangled, the most fearful and wonderful address that I have ever listened to. (57)

James was sufficiently flattered by Filson’s detailed praise of his speech to send reports of it back to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was interested in Filson, too. Two letters written by James to Filson shortly after the Browning celebration survive; in one James invites Filson to dinner and in the other he accepts a return invitation. They too are written in the tortuous prose characteristic of James’s later years:

16 May 1912[check style]

Wouldn’t it facilitate converse for you [to] give me the pleasure of dining with me here one of these next evenings if you are free or can face the rigours of finding me alone? I am making in these days so few night engagements that I am very considerably free, and put it to you that either this next Saturday or Sunday or Monday, or even Tuesday or Wednesday, in other words any evening between the 18th and the 22d inclusive would be right for me, at 8 o’clk., if you will signify your selection to yours very truly Henry James.

30 May 1912[check style]

This is very handsome of you – though any plunge into rosecolour [spelling?] is credible, I suppose, of a man auspiciously engaged. To lose the chance of congratulating you – and as I infer another happy person – on[one?] that adds to the rueful aspect of my reply to you about the 14th. Let me therefore say, in return for your new liberality, that I shall rejoice to suppose myself able to come on that day at 8 o’clock if no bedevilment prevents; and that I shall arrive at confidence on the matter by the 11th or 12th certainly. Then I shall write you, or wire you, another word; and I shall do all in my power to make it a veraciously good account of yours all faithfully Henry James.

By 1912, prompted perhaps by Garvin and stimulated by long talks with Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) and Admirals Fisher (no longer First Sea Lord) and Beatty, Filson was beginning to take a serious interest in naval affairs as the naval arms race between Britain and Germany intensified. The civil servant Edward Marsh (editor of several volumes of ‘Georgian Poetry’) knew Filson well, and served as a link for him between the naval and literary worlds [why? Did Marsh work at the Admiralty?]. In October 1912 Marsh persuaded Filson to use ‘The Things That Matter’ to support the literary journal Rhythm, whose owners and editors John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield had lost all their money to a dishonest publisher. A year’s subscription to Rhythm, Filson urged his readers, would help keep their cockleshell afloat. ‘We think it awfully sweet of him,’ Murry told Marsh.

In August 1913 Harold Hodge (58) resigned as editor of the Saturday Review and was succeeded by one of his contributors, his exact contemporary as an undergraduate at Pembroke College, Oxford, George A.B.Dewar. We may suspect that getting rid of Filson was one of Dewar’s first priorities as he set out to stamp his own personality on the paper; perhaps it was as much a case of saving money as anything else. Between March 1911 and the end of 1913 Filson contributed upwards of 150 general articles, developing his talent as an essayist to a high level and winning many admirers, but the very individuality of his work and his strong opinions no doubt made Dewar, who seems to have been a more cautious editor than Hodge and less friendly to the arts, decide it was time for a change. At all events Filson was informed that his contribution to the number of 27 December 1913 would be his last. He thought it only courteous to take a proper leave of his readers. So in his final piece he told them:

To these articles … I have now to write finis … My wish is not for immortality, but for a suitably graduated oblivion; that anything in what I have written which has amused, comforted, informed, pleased, animated, awakened, enlarged, sobered or quickened, be remembered with kindness, and that all else be speedily forgotten. (59)

One who remembered with kindness was the publisher Martin Secker, who in 1914 persuaded Filson to let him publish a volume of his later Saturday Review essays (60). Dewar may have preferred them speedily forgotten, because when the collection came out under the title New Leaves in April 1915, the Saturday did not review it.

Still Filson worked hard at his little Pall Mall Gazette column, writing six days a week till March 1913 and thereafter five. He saw little of Garvin and was put out when in November 1912 Garvin objected to some derogatory remarks he had made about the restaurant car service of the London and North Western Railway. He needed to feel that he had Garvin’s support and appreciation:

I love working with you – but only if I am sure you also are with me; if you aren’t, say so frankly. I know how busy you are, and so don’t bother you; but an occasional quarter of an hour’s consultation couldn’t fail to benefit what is, after all, a daily feature of your paper. (61)

They remained on good terms and the column continued, with short breaks, until Filson left for the war in France in August 1914. Not long after that Garvin gave up the editorship of the Pall Mall Gazette, which was to be sold by its proprietors.


50  Including a memorable two-part memoir of childhood summer holidays at Portaferry, ‘Going Away’ and ‘Arriving’, first published in the Saturday Review on August 24 and 31 1912, and reprinted later the same year in Letters from Solitude.

51  ‘The Things That Matter’, Pall Mall Gazette, 11 Oct 1912, p 5.

52  6 August 1910.

53  FY letter to the Times, 8 Dec 1910.

54  Pall Mall Gazette, 15 March 1912.

55  Pall Mall Gazette, 10 Apri; 1912.

56  There is a photograph of this note in Trial of the Seddons (ed. with an introduction by Filson Young, 1912), facing p 380.

57  Saturday Review, 11 May 1912.

58  Harold Hodge (1862-1937) edited the Saturday Review for fifteen years. After reading Classics at Oxford he did social work in the East End of London, with a special interest in housing problems, while reading for the Bar. He then practised as a barrister before succeeding the writer Frank Harris as editor of the Saturday in 1898. After the First World War he worked for the Ministry of Reconstruction. An amateur entomologist, he had a special passion for dragonflies.

59  Saturday Review, 27 Dec 1913.

60  Martin Secker in conversation with SM, 13 July 1977.

61  FY to J.L.Garvin, 7 Nov 1912.

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