Filson Young

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

Table of contents

32. Back to the “Saturday”

Lord Beaverbrook was not the only Canadian of Filson’s generation who came to England to find fame and fortune through owning newspapers. Sir Edward Mackay Edgar (not to be confused with the composer Sir Edward Elgar) had arrived in 1907 and ten years later was appointed chairman of British Consolidated Oilfields. Becoming a baronet in 1920, he decided to buy a weekly paper, partly no doubt as a status symbol and partly as a platform for his Conservative and Empire Loyalist political views. For this the Saturday Review seemed ideal. Its politics were already to the right and though in recent years it had sunk low, it could boast a glorious past. Like other papers it had been dealt a severe blow by the restrictions and changed priorities of wartime, and had not recovered. By the beginning of 1921 it no longer had any distinguished contributors, in fact very few contributors of any kind, its few pages padded out with readers’ letters. At the beginning of June Sir Edward Edgar bought a controlling interest. The first priority was to increase its circulation. The editor, A.A.Baumann, was a Saturday veteran of pre-war vintage who had taken over as editor during the war. (7) Baumann now resigned on grounds of ‘ill-health’ and was replaced by Sydney Brooks, a journalist Grant Richards had begged Filson to look up in New York in 1909 because he ‘never answered letters’. Edgar and Brooks immediately improved the type and layout and the quality of paper it was printed on and brought back signed ‘middle’ articles – Filson’s prewar Saturday speciality – to relieve the grey anonymity associated with Baumann. They also announced in a manifesto that the Saturday Review would now be a patriotic journal ‘independent of all parties’ (it remained solidly Conservative in its sympathies) and against the ‘bureaucratic regimentation of trade’ ( i.e. for free enterprise). The financial section of the paper was increased in size and importance and entrusted to no less a figure than Hartley Withers, editor of the Economist. A search for suitable contributors began and one of the first to be approached was Filson, who reached out to old friends in his first piece, ‘Beginning Again’:

… even if the old readers were all here, intact as I left them in December 1913, we should be conscious, I think, of a certain shyness and awkwardness at meeting again. We were so very intimate in the old days; we have not spoken or seen one another for seven-and-a-half years; and so much has happened to us in the interval. We are not the same people who parted with such regrets, on my side at least. We are older by a tenth part of normal life; in the interval we have lived through the most searching experience that most of us have known; we have all been changed, and in different ways, by different influences. Can we take up the old threads again?

I think we can, and I think we must. Just because the war has been such a tremendous thing in our material lives, we must not exaggerate it, or permit it to have too much effect in our real and inner lives. It was bad enough, in all conscience; but to go on thinking of it and being dominated by it now that it is over is really to be defeated by it. Even the South African War, which was a kind of graduation in life to my generation, hung over us for years afterwards. It still seems like yesterday, and to represent youth and adventure. I was amazed to find, the other day, that it was twenty years since I came back from it; astounded to discover, in the present war, that the South African medals of 1899-1900 were a rather rare decoration; indignant to observe that one was regarded by the new generation much as I had regarded the veterans of the Crimea. To me it was all like yesterday, the ‘real thing’ compared with which any other war would be a kind of imitation, and my companions in it were the true dashing bloods of the world. And all the undeception has done for me is to substitute another great point or period from which everything is to be dated.

One could not recall the pre-war past, and should not want to, but one’s attitudes mustn’t remain dominated by 1914-18 either. This was where the Saturday Review could come in:

The daily press of our time is, with rare and partial exception, a thing purely of commerce, and is dominated by the advertiser. This REVIEW would justify its existence, if for no other reason, solely by virtue of its being a platform from which things can be said that can be said in no newspaper in England; and said for no other reason than that the writer thinks and believes them. I assure you that there is infinite need with us that things should be said for that reason; and the readers of this REVIEW, as well as the writers have a high privilege and responsibility. It is not nearly so much what we say to one another that is going to matter, as the fact that we say merely what we wish to say, representing no group or school or party. To review things is to see them again; to survey or look back on them; and it is that essentially that we are to do here. (8)

This piece, with its disingenuous claim that the Saturday Review would speak for ‘no school or group or party’, conveys such authority that I suspect Filson had been made assistant editor – not a glorious position on a weekly with a small staff, but quite likely a tribute to the fact that he had edited the conservative and pro-Empire weekly The Outlook as long ago as 1904. For the rest of the summer he contributed an essay a week in his old Saturday manner. He wondered why holiday makers always rushed for the seaside like Gadarene swine, and noted that luggage manufacturers were creating an artificial demand for ever bigger and more complicated suitcases and accessories. He discussed organ playing (abandoning the Presbyterianism of his childhood, he had taken to attending Sunday Vespers at the Roman Catholic Brompton Oratory), and he chatted about personal anniversaries and Hadrian’s Wall. Reviewing a book about Lord Kitchener, whom he had met twenty years before in South Africa, he remarked: ‘The tragedy of Lord Kitchener is the recurring tragedy of England; the tragedy of strength of arm and heart without adequate strength of head to govern it’.

Then suddenly, after only two months as editor, Sydney Brooks was gone and Filson had taken his place. Exactly how this came about is not clear, but the different attitudes of Baumann, Brooks and Filson to their readers and contributors may be judged from the editorial notice on the front page:

Baumann (June 1921): The Editor cannot undertake to return rejected Communications. He must also decline to enter into correspondence with writers of MSS sent in and not acknowledged. It is preferred that MSS should be typewritten.

Brooks (July-September): The Editor will be glad to consider every contribution submitted to him, but cannot undertake to return rejected communications unless accompanied by a stamped and addressed envelope. It is preferred that MSS should be typewritten.

Filson (from September 10): Contributions are not invited, but will be considered provided a stamped addressed envelope is enclosed for their return if unsuitable. They should be typewritten.

Baumann, clearly, had little money to spend on contributions. Brooks and Filson (thanks to Edgar) did have money but while Brooks was open to suggestions, Filson knew exactly what he wanted. In 1904 he had tried to model the Outlook on the lines of the famous Saturday Review of the 1850s, concentrating on fewer and better contributors and sharpening the paper’s focus. Now, his mandate was to turn the paper into a status symbol that would reflect glory on its owner. So he gathered round himself a select band of able writers. The financial section remained in the capable hands of Hartley Withers, a friend who knew Filson well enough to have been one of the few guests at his wedding in 1918. Before the end of 1921 Filson had solicited contributions from two former editors of the Saturday: Harold Hodge, who had given him his first chance on the paper in 1908, and Hodge’s predecessor Frank Harris, an old acquaintance. Arthur Symons, Filson’s predecessor as music critic in 1908, also wrote for him now, as did Sir William Beach Thomas, an old associate from his Pilot and Outlook days whose place he had briefly taken as an official correspondent on the Western Front in 1916-17. The literary side included the Manchester novelist Louis Golding and the young Richard Church. By the end of October regular critics for music, art and the theatre had been found. Music went to E.A.Baughan, who as editor of the Musical Standard in 1897 had been the first to publisher the [?21-year-old] Filson’s work regularly. Francis Toye, later known as an expert on Verdi, deputized from time to time. For art Filson secured the services of D.S.McColl, another colleague on the pre-war Saturday and perhaps the outstanding art critic of his time. (9) McColl was assisted by Tancred Borenius, a Finn shortly to become Professor of the History of Art at London University. But Filson’s greatest coup was to bring in the middle-aged and little-known James Agate, thus giving him the London opening he needed to develop into the most influential theatre critic of the day.

Agate, like Filson, had grown up in Manchester, where for many years he struggled to combine a business career by day with working as a dramatic critic for the Manchester Guardian by night. After the war he had moved to London, where he steadily lost money running a small general store in Lambeth while writing in a room over the shop. When Agate heard the Saturday Review wanted a theatre critic, he asked a better-known critic in the same line to introduce him to Filson hoping that, as an old friend and colleague of Filson’s brother Tom on the Guardian, he might have a chance of being considered for the job. The well-known critic couldn’t or wouldn’t help, but Tom Young had a word with Filson on Agate’s behalf.

There were two of us in the running. Filson Young … showed me my rival’s initial effort. It ended, ‘Oh Max, what a wag you are!’ Filson said, ‘I will not have English of this sort in my paper. Max is a very great wit. He was never anything so vulgar as a wag.’ (10)

Max Beerbohm, incidentally, had been the Saturday‘s drama critic during Filson’s days as a contributor before the war. In an earlier volume of memoirs Agate recalled another part of his interview with Filson:

F.Y. Yes, Tom has told me about your work on the M.G. Will you do me a sample article?

J.A. No, by gad!

F.Y. Why not?

J.A. Because out of sheer nerves I should put into it every damned silly thing of which I’m capable.

F.Y. What do you suggest, then?

J.A. I will become your dramatic critic now, and you can sack me the moment I am not the best dramatic critic in England bar Montague. (11)

F.Y. Right. Let me have your first article the day after tomorrow.

He had it next day and said, ‘That’s the stuff!’ … Filson was not altogether easy; you never knew whether he was going to receive you with more charm and fascination than any other human being ever possessed, or was in the mood represented by the following true story. One day when I called, the office boy said the Editor was too busy to see me. I insisted, and the boy clinched the matter: ‘Cutting yer froat may get yer into the presence o’ Gawd a’mighty. But it won’t get yer ter see ahr Editor.’ I hope nobody will think I do not like Filson. I like him very much, and I sometimes think he likes me. But we are both conscious that we are acquired tastes, and that a little of us at a time is as much as anybody can be expected to stand. Filson is a first-class writer and journalist, and I learned a lot from him.

To this day I follow his advice, which was that when I had finished an article I should go back to the beginning, cut out the first paragraph, and start with the second. At last I had found my real job in life. (12)

In only his second contribution Agate broke new ground. Covent Garden Opera House had lately been used for boxing matches, and then for film shows, and it was here that Agate saw Charlie Chaplin in The Kid. With Filson’s ‘sanction and encouragement’ he wrote a long review praising Chaplin as a serious artist, and The Kid as his best film to date:

I do not laugh at Charlie till I cry. I laugh lest I cry, which is a very different matter. (13)

This review, Agate would claim in a speech to J.Arthur Rank and assembled guests at a Gaumont-British press luncheon in 1945, was ‘the first criticism of the film as a serious art and the film actor as a serious artist to appear in the press of this country’ (14). If so, Filson must take some of the credit for encouraging Agate to write it. He himself had moved from his pre-war view that contemporary cinema was merely a waste of great potential, and was now convinced that a new art form was developing. Films were of course still silent. Filson’s favourite director was D.W.Griffith, of whose Way Down East starring Lilian Gish he wrote:

In my own view that film was as epoch-making a thing in the craft of the moving picture as Meistersinger was in the art of music … I should like to see [it] at intervals for the rest of my life. (15)

As editor, Filson still contributed signed articles from time to time, even on one occasion a poem. He enjoyed battling to start campaigns to right what he saw as injustices or wrong policies, such as the scrapping of some projected new battle cruisers and the slimming down of the post-war Navy. A leader entitled ‘Without the Battle Cruisers’ (26 Nov 1921) is clearly by him and had the unexpected result of inspiring the art critic D.S.McColl to write a poem on the subject and dedicate it to Filson (10 Dec). A novelty Filson introduced in December was ‘Saturday Dinners’, in which members of the Saturday‘s staff treated themselves to luxury meals at London’s best restaurants (the restaurant’s management was allowed to choose the menu) and food and drink was appraised with the same serious critical attention as art, music, books and plays. In the first six months they dined at the Café Royal, the Carlton, Romano’s, the Ambassadeurs, the Ritz, the Savoy and Verrey’s.

Towards the end of October Filson used the whole back page to reproduce the manifesto from the first number of the Saturday Review (3 November 1855) and to claim that the paper’s aims were the same now as they had been then. This manifesto is the source of Filson’s belief that the paper should be written by a small select group:

Its writers, most of whom are known to each other, and none of whom are unpractised in periodical literature, have been thrown together by affinities naturally arising from common habits of thought, education, reflection and social views. Yet they all claim independence of judgment, and in the SATURDAY REVIEW they hope to find an opportunity, within certain limits, for its exercise and expression. They will consequently address themselves to the educated mind of the country, and to serious, thoughtful men of all schools, classes and principles, not so much in the spirit of party, as in the more philosophic attitude of mutual counsel and friendly conflict of opinions.

Not perhaps the most succinct statement of intent ever written, but clear enough. On other occasions Filson used the whole back page to advertise With the Battle Cruisers, quoting extensively from fifteen friendly reviews. And on the last day of 1921 he announced on the back page that in the three months since he had become editor the sales of the Saturday Review had doubled. Yet how much had its circulation increased in real terms? As others have pointed out, there is a difference between doubling sales from, say, three thousand to six thousand and doubling sales from fifty to a hundred. (16)

Filson and Vera now had two sons and the younger, Richard, was christened in July 1921, on his brother’s second birthday. Again the ceremony was conducted by the Rev Dick Sheppard at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and again it was announced in the Times ‘Court Circular’ and presented as a society event. This time the fashionable sponsors were the Duke of Westminster, A.G.B.(Archie) Russell and Lady Marjorie Beckett. Regarded by many as a snob, Filson in fact suffered all his life from an acute sense of social insecurity. Most of his friends came from more privileged backgrounds than his own, and no amount of success and fame could make him happy unless members of the social establishment accepted him. As the son of an immigrant non-conformist minister, he had had to leave grammar school at fifteen to make a living. He had chosen two wives from socially acceptable army backgrounds. Among his close friends, Archie Russell, whom Filson had met when he was acting Third Secretary at the British Embassy in Madrid in 1919, was a career herald with artistic and literary interests who eventually reached the rank of Clarenceux King of Arms, had been a Scholar of both Eton and Christ Church, Oxford (there is a press photograph of him in full regalia announcing the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952). Sir Percy Loraine, 12th and last holder of a baronetcy dating back to 1664, was a career diplomat also educated at Eton and Oxford. Eric Maclagan was the son of an Archbishop of York and, on his mother’s side, the grandson of a Viscount, and educated at Winchester and Oxford. Even Grant Richards, who like Filson left school early, was the son of a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford. Lady Marjorie Beckett, daughter of one Earl and widow of another, was now married to Filson’s old motoring associate Sir Gervase Beckett, an old Etonian baronet, Conservative MP and former proprietor of the Saturday Review.

Filson now planned a trip to Oxford, alma mater of so many of his friends, and where his brother Tom’s daughter Annis and his cousin Hugh Chisholm’s sons Henry and

Archie, were all now undergraduates. He knew exactly what he wanted:

My dear Annis, I am coming to Oxford on Dec 3, and I want you to give a luncheon party on that day for me. Ask Henry and Archie, and bring some fair friend of your own, and order the necessary luncheon (Henry will assist you!) at whatever is the most chic hotel or restaurant of the moment. Do not be hampered unduly by bare considerations of cost! I’ll let you know what train I am coming by. I hope your friend will be pretty! (17)

In the event the party was held at the Roebuck a week earlier. Writing to tell Annis about the change of date Filson remarked that Vera was coming too – no more mention of ‘fair friends’.


7 Arthur Anthony Baumann (1856-1936) was a barrister, later active in the City, and in the 1880s briefly a Conservative MP. After editing the Saturday Review 1917-21 he published several books, including The Last Victorians (1927) and Personalities (1936).

8 Saturday Review, 23 July 1921.

9 Tall and lean, long-legged and small-headed, hook-nosed, with small, wise eyes, calling to mind a stork, as the novelist George Moore would describe McColl in his memoir Conversations in Ebury Street (1924), a book in which Moore’s acquaintance and sometime Ebury Street neighbour Filson is not mentioned at all.

10 James Agate, Ego 6 (1944), 294-5.

11 C.E.Montague (1867-1928), novelist and critic, for 35 years a staff writer on the Manchester Guardian, now perhaps best remembered for his posthumously published A Writer’s Notes on His Trade (1930).

12 James Agate, Ego 1 (1935), 92-3.

13 Saturday Review 1 Oct 1921.

14 James Agate, Ego 8 (1946), 260.

15 Saturday Review, 1 April 1922; Filson was reviewing Griffith’s latest film Orphans of the Storm, which he didn’t like.

16. Archibald Chisholm (who later was to edit the Financial Times) claimed that though it is possible that Filson did double the readership of the Saturday Review, it can only have been from something like 100 to 200, and that it remained a hopelessly insolvent paper (Archibald Chisholm in conversation with SM, 4 May 1976).

17. FY to Annis Young, 25 Oct 1921.

Be Sociable, Share!