Filson Young

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

Table of contents

34. Running a weekly

Filson continued gradually to remodel the Saturday Review, and to keep it in the public eye by plunging into controversy as often as possible. Two events in 1922 touched his heart: Covent Garden staged Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger, and the Admiralty announced that H.M.S.Lion would be scrapped. Die Meistersinger was, for Filson, ‘the greatest work of music and drama which any of us will ever see’ and he claimed to know it inside out and to have a better understanding than most opera-goers of the problems that it caused producers, designers, conductors and performers; he particularly admired Sir Thomas Beecham’s interpretation of it. The Covent Garden performances by the British National Opera Company under the Australian conductor Aylmer Buesst were not bad, but the production suffered from the puritanical English tradition that ‘if artistic entertainment is shabby it must be good, and that if it is good it ought to be shabby’. He found fault with the lighting and said he knew this could easily be improved, since he had operated the Covent Garden lights himself during a rehearsal and knew what they were capable of. He threatened to go again after a week or so, to see whether any of his recommendations had been adopted; he duly went and reported to his readers that they had.

The Lion was not only now obsolete (she was originally completed in 1912 though later improved in various ways), but was threatened by the naval restrictions of the 1922 Washington Arms Limitation Treaty, which required Britain to scrap more than twenty post-Dreadnought capital ships. Ironically, Britain’s chief negotiator in Washington was the Lion‘s wartime captain, now Rear-Admiral Chatfield, while Beatty was in Fisher’s old position as First Sea Lord. In September 1922 Filson launched a campaign in the Saturday Review to save his old ship which, he argued, had the same symbolic importance in the recent war as the Victory for the age of Nelson. Letters poured in from readers, some pressing the claims of other ships and some arguing that Jellicoe had done more than Beatty to win the war at sea. But most supported Filson and discussed how the ship might be preserved so as not to contravene the terms of the Arms Limitation agreement or cost the nation too much. In October Filson returned to the attack; surely, he argued, the treaty signatories could not object to a ‘stuffed’ Lion without guns or engines. The Admiralty took note of the pressure of public opinion that Filson was building up, and a week later defused it by taking Lion‘s name off the list of condemned ships. Sadly, this proved to be no more than a stay of execution, and in January 1924 she was sold and broken up at Jarrow, narrowly escaping what, after her war record, would have been a fate worse than death – being scrapped in Germany. So, as one of his readers pointed out, Filson had failed this time where in 1913 he had succeeded, when he had campaigned to save the birthplace of his early hero Carlyle for the nation.

The second half of 1922 started with a bold ‘credo’ on the back page of the paper:

The SATURDAY stands for an enlightened conservatism, the protection of English prestige and traditions, closer union and co-operation with our partners in the Empire, the ruthless stamping out of anarchy and Bolshevism, the restriction of the state machinery to its proper function, and freedom for the individual in his commercial and social existence.

Indeed, though the paper’s cultural and social side was always closest to its editor’s heart, he had become a genuinely enthusiastic Conservative and the Saturday always carried plenty of political comment (29). In July 1922 he introduced several new regular features: a weekly short story, a series of full-page caricatures of public figures, and a racing column. Among those who contributed stories were W. Somerset Maugham, A. E. Coppard, L. P. Hartley, Violet Hunt, Louis Golding, H. de Vere Stacpoole, John Galsworthy and Filson’s old Manchester Guardian colleague in South Africa, J. B. Atkins. The new cartoonist was ‘Quiz’, real name Powys Evans, only 24 years old, a discovery of Filson’s for whom a bright future was predicted (29a). His work was praised by Max Beerbohm, and while it doesn’t reach Beerbohm’s level, ‘Quiz’ remains one of the best British political cartoonists of the twenties [who said so?]. Filson also tried to improve the quality of poetry published in the Saturday, and secured contributions from, among others, Thomas Hardy, Robert Graves, Richard Church, Nancy Cunard, Laurence Housman, Laurence Binyon, W. H. Davies, Iris Tree and Humbert Wolfe.

But of course the eternal problem was money. As he proudly announced at the end of 1921, Filson had quadrupled the amount the paper spent on book reviewing and doubled the number of books reviewed. But publishers seemed increasingly unwilling to buy advertising space. In June 1922 Filson asked Grant Richards if he would consider advertising more in the Saturday. Richards gave thought to his old friend’s difficulties:

I suppose that if you dropped reviews a serious proportion of your readers, even if they did not read the reviews themselves, would resent their absence and drop the paper … I don’t know. I do know, however, that it is obvious that if publishers do not advertise there cannot be as much money for reviewers and that you won’t be able to keep up the standard that the Saturday has kept up since you took over. That you have to hammer into them …

And as far as I am concerned, I will not forget the Saturday and I will be taking space directly. (30)

In fact Filson had already taken steps to deal with the problem by concentrating the fiction reviewing in the competent and energetic hands of Gerald Gould (31), who for the rest of Filson’s time as editor (nearly two years) dealt with from three to five novels every week; his first piece appeared three days after Richards wrote his letter.

In August Northcliffe died. Filson recalled his old chief in a memoir which was extensively quoted by Northcliffe’s own Daily Mail, on which of course Filson himself had worked at various times since 1903. It was only a short time since Filson had last seen him:

He was full of kindly interest in the Saturday Review, and in its future under its new ownership and direction … He never gave praise in matters connected with his own profession without meaning it, and my readers will like to know that it was not withheld on this occasion, and even given beyond our deserts. But he was practical too. He asked endless questions of detail, realizing the difficulties, in these days, of increasing circulation and revenue. ‘Let me see,’ he said, ‘how old are you?’ And when I reminded him [Filson was 46] he said, ‘You will do it.’ That was virtually his farewell to me … (32)

Other old journalist colleagues were also in his mind about this time. H.W.Massingham, editor of the Saturday‘s Liberal rival the Nation, retired a few months after Northcliffe’s death. Filson respected him as a fellow missionary in the cause of keeping alive the humanities ‘amid the tumult and overflow of the banalities’. He took the opportunity to say nice things about two other old associates, Lathbury and Garvin. Lathbury, who gave him his first London job on the Pilot at the beginning of the century, had recently died aged over ninety; he had been ‘the most perfect of editors’. As for Garvin, still fully active:

[he] is probably the greatest journalistic figure of our time. It pleases me to remember that he came to weekly journalism first as my colleague when I was Editor of the Outlook; and that when he succeeded me in that post we changed positions and I bacame his contributor; and that when he took over the Pall Mall we together devised the daily series of miniature essays called ‘The Things That Matter’ that were such fun to write – just because one could say things there that one could say nowhere else, and that, I hope, contributed something to that lively and sparkling epoch in evening journalism which came to an end with the crash of war. After that Mr Garvin found his true pulpit – for that is the word – in the Observer; and although he is necessarily unequal, as anyone must be whose work is done at the pressure and with the passion that he puts into it, there can be no question that he is one of the few who have made political writing almost lyrical, while at the same time bringing to it a width of knowledge, a depth of study, an intensity, and, shall we say? vivacity of conviction that are without rival in our time. (33)

This piece on contemporary editors was the first of another new regular feature, a weekly signed article (or collection of shorter notes) by Filson himself under the heading ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’. He explained that he could not say all that he had to say in anonymous editorial paragraphs, and that there was a need for readers and writers to come closer together, as they had been before the war:

Much as I love the tradition of the Saturday, and greatly as I desire to preserve it scrupulously, there are many things that I personally have to say that I would not allow the Saturday Review to say: more intimate, more individual – let us say more fallible – things than can be expected from the corporate voice of the paper. It is for that reason that I propose to resume under this heading a weekly commentary on events as they pass before one living and working in the world today; and if I sign my name to them it is chiefly because I hope to resume that intimate sense of community with the readers of the Saturday that I enjoyed when I first began to write signed articles in it fifteen years ago. That sense of community was the best thing that my writing life has brought me, and when it was broken off in 1913, the loss to me I believe was more than the loss even to those many kindly readers who spoke and wrote to me about it. For the readers of this Review are all educated people. They are not a mob or multitude, but a group; and although they may differ widely on the questions of the day, they are united in a common attitude of serious and intelligent appreciation and criticism of life. And my object of writing in this column will be to re-establish if I can that connexion between the readers and writers of the Review that is so valuable to both, and to bring the readers, although silently, into closer collaboration with those who write. (34)

To begin with ‘A Pilgim’s Progress’ occupied a commanding place at the beginning of the paper between the anonymous ‘Notes of the Week’ and the leaders. On one occasion Filson had the temerity to disagree in print with his proprietor, Sir Edward Edgar, who had written optimistically about the economic state of the country. ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ was immediately demoted to a humbler position in the middle of the paper.

A good deal of Filson’s writing at this time dealt with politics and was impersonal in manner. One of his favourite topics was the responsibility facing the first Conservative government for seventeen years as it clung precariously to power first under the ailing Bonar Law, then under the undramatic Baldwin; Lloyd George’s wartime coalition had finally collapsed in October 1922. Another favourite topic with Filson was Ireland. The creation in 1922 of the Irish Free State had resulted from an agreement between moderate Irish Republican leaders and the British Government. Dissatisfied extremists continued to terrorize and loot the countryside. The homes of the affluent were favourite targets, and Filson commiserated with two acquaintances whose homes were burnt, the novelist George Moore and the agrarian reformer Sir Horace Plunkett. Six Ulster counties had seceded to form Northern Ireland under a Unionist government led by Sir James Craig. Filson, himself an Ulster Protestant, went at Easter 1923 to see for himself and liked what he saw. There might be rioting and violence in the Free State but in the loyal North all was peace and prosperity; it was a model for others to admire and imitate.

But it was a relief to turn to a new book by a favourite author, like H.G.Wells’ Men Like Gods:

It is well occasionally to remember that the creation of a work of art, or the utterance of really living thought in a new book, is of infinitely greater importance than the results of elections, or the progress of Bills in the House of Commons. (35)

In April 1923, when he went to Ireland, he ran out of steam as far as ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ was concerned, producing practically no new writing under this heading for three months. Instead he reprinted without comment three old essays from the Saturday of 1913 (all to be found in his 1915 collection New Leaves), without even troubling to update them. For instance, in 1913 one could still choose between a motor-taxi and a horse-drawn hansom cab – was this still true in 1923?

In other respects he was not idle. In May he gave a big dinner party at his club – clearly a public relations exercise since a list of the principal guests was later inserted in the Times ‘Court Circular’. Among those present were Sir Gervase Beckett, Edmund Gosse, the famous criminal judge Mr Justice Darling, the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, the establishment sculptor John Tweed (creator of public statues of such figures as Queen Victoria, Kitchener, Cecil Rhodes, Joseph Chamberlain, Curzon and Captain Cook), the Marquess of Linlithgow (Civil Lord of the Admiralty and later Viceroy of India) and Lord Queenborough (a businessman active in the Conservative party). Among these mandarins the painter Walter Sickert, not to mention Filson himself, must have seemed a little out of place. One wonders what they all talked about.

He had more new ideas for the Saturday Review. By now there was a regular women’s column by ‘Yoï’. This was Yoï Maraini, formerly Pawlowska (and at one point Mrs Buckley), a woman of Polish or Hungarian origin who wrote novels in English and had now married an Italian sculptor and settled in Tuscany. Filson had written admiringly about one of her books in the Saturday as long ago as 1911, and she now contributed gossipy notes about her family and their daily life in Italy. The ‘Saturday Dinners’ feature was still going strong at the rate of about a dinner a month, and when Filson and his fellow-eaters had tried all the best West End restaurants they started a ‘second series’ of humbler ones as far from Mayfair and Soho as, for example, Kensington. In June 1923 he started applying the same technique to another aspect of London life that particularly interested him – the Christian religion. Beginning fashionably with Dick Sheppard and St Martin-in-the-Fields, Sunday by Sunday he and his fellow-critics visited London churches of all denominations, reporting on the sermons they heard and trying to ‘apply to the service and spiritual message of the Church the same standards of criticism as are applied by the Saturday Review to matters of politics, literature and art’.

Some of the longer-established regular features needed attention. In November 1922 Dynely Hussey took Baughan’s place as music critic. D.S.MacColl left in March 1923 and W.G.Constable joined Tancred Borenius in writing about art. But hardest of all to replace was James Agate, who in June 1923 was seduced by the Sunday Times, which became his platform for the immensely influential next twenty-five years of his career as a drama critic.

When I told Filson Young that I was leaving the Saturday Review and joining the Sunday Times he said, ‘These Sunday papers will cut your stuff to hell! The only thing to do is to send them yards and yards of it and not care a damn what happens.’

Never did anybody utter a truer prophecy. (36)

It took Filson a couple of months to replace Agate, but eventually his choice fell on yet another Guardian writer – Ivor Brown, the young dramatic critic at the London end of that paper:

My new editor was Filson Young. I had known his work as a novelist while I was at school at Cheltenham. A story of his called The Sands of Pleasure was there passed over to me for covert reading with the recommendation that its tale of English innocence lost in Paris was ‘hot stuff’. It was well written and not flashily sensational, but it was not of a kind then acceptable to pastors, masters and respectable librarians. The young of today would think it tepid and even Aunt Edna might find it unlikely to corrupt. Filson, encountered in his office, seemed to me a formidable personage, but he was polite to my nervous self … (37)

Then something unexpected happened: Filson began writing regularly for the New York Times, continuing to edit the Saturday at the same time.


29  And on 7 Feb 1923 he made a speech (later printed) on ‘Conservatism as a Living Faith’ at the Junior Constitutional Club in Piccadilly. He approached the task with some trepidation: I feel very much in the position of a fourth form schoolboy who has to give a lecture to a Board of Examiners as to how to educate the rest of the school, because probably all of you are much more experienced in the practical application of politics in Constituencies, and in influencing the votes of the electors, than I am. My part is one of those silent parts which are very much easier, bcause one does not have to stand up and be heckled; and I assure you that I am very much terrified in standing before you tonight … He saw Labour, rather than the Liberals, as the Conservatives’ natural ally: It is not true that Conservatism and Labour are enemies. They are the oldest traditional friends. They were friends long before there was a Liberal Party, and I hope they will be friends long afterwards. His point was that capital and the workforce need to work together. He had come a long way from his ‘alma mater’, the turn-of-the-century Manchester Guardian. As for his own position: I happen to conduct anewspaper which has nothing to do with the Conservative Party, but stands for Conservatism. Although I happen to be a very warm supporter of the Conservative Party, at present, if the Conservative Party does something I do not approve of, I say so. But the Press is in a very different position from the ordinary individual. It is the business of the Press to criticise its own friends, if it thinks they need it, and it is a very necessary and healthy thing that it should do so.

29a ‘Quiz’ (Powys Evans, 1899-1981 or -1982) studied at the Slade School of Art. Attracted by a 1922 set of caricatures of Lovat Fraser’s designs for The Beggar’s Opera, Filson made him house caricaturist of the Saturday Review. In the preface to his solo show at the Leicester Galleries in 1924, Filson’s old associate Max Beerbohm acclaimed Quiz as an heir. He later contributed to many periodicals and held several more solo shows up to 1932, after which he published and exhibited no more until a retrospective at the Langton Gallery in 1975, which inspired him to return to his first love, painting. NB Quiz’s cartoon in SR showing Churchill and With the Battle Cruisers.

30  Grant Richards to FY, 28 June 1922. For a number of years various agents had shown ‘vague expressions of interest’ in the film rights for The Sands of Pleasure, but nothing definite ever came of this; see for example Grant Richards to FY, 12 Aug 1922.

31  The career of Gerald Gould (1885-1936) spanned two worlds; academe up to the First World War (Fellow of Merton College Oxford and Quain Student of University College London) and, after the war, journalism. From 1919-22 he was Associate Editor of the Daily Herald, and thereafter concentrated mainly on writing and reviewing fiction.

32  Saturday Review 19 Aug 1922.

33  Saturday Review 20 Jan 1923.

34  Saturday Review 20 Jan 1923.

35  Saturday Review 10 March 1923.

36  James Agate, Ego 1, 83.

37  Ivor Brown, Old and Young (1971), 134-5.

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