Filson Young

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

Table of contents

35. “The New York Times”

He started in October 1923, and his brief was to chat about the London book scene in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. He had no great opinion of most of the fiction and biography being produced in Britain at the time. To a man whose literary tastes had been formed in the 1890s, too many of the new post-war novelists underestimated the importance of style and form:

Numberless cultured young man and women ‘took up’ writing [after the 1914-18 war] with the idea that anyone can write who wants to; that anything like formal laws, or principles of style, or rules governing form and proportion was all nonsense. The great thing was to be free and untrammelled, and to put down the ideas that came into your head in the order in which they came, to begin anywhere except at the beginning and to end anywhere except at the end: this was the way to be ‘modern’ and to attract the public. The public, restless and anxious for something modern, has been taking this kind of thing in default of anything better … we have a whole school of young English novelists whose work from a literary point of view is negligible, but who have been so boomed and advertised that the public takes them for granted as representative men of letters. Worst of all, they take themselves seriously. [They are] foolish enough to believe that writing is a thing that comes by instinct; whereas the fact [is] that nothing in art of any kind has any permanent merit that has not been wrought and fashioned laboriously. And it remains forever true that what is easy writing makes hard reading, and that if the author is to spare his reader trouble, he must take trouble himself. (38)

Unfortunately he gave no examples of these deplorable new novels, except Norman Davey’s Good Hunting, which has certainly not stood the test of time (‘it deals in a somewhat elderly and time-worn way with the conditions of modern marriage … a clever and superficial book, entirely in the modern strain’). One novel by a new writer that he did like was Liam O’Flaherty’s first, His Neighbour’s Wife, while Arnold Bennett, who had seemed to have become a war casualty as a writer, found his best form again in Riceyman Steps: ‘To read a book like this by an author who has meant so much to one in the past is like welcoming an old friend who has come back from the dead’. Among the non-fiction he praised new biographies of Carlyle (by D.A.Wilson) and Burns (by A.Dakers), the second volume of Winston Churchill’s war memoirs and a book of essays by James Agate. On the other hand:

There was never a time within my recollection when so many books, and of so low an average in quality, were being produced. The disease of memoir writing, stimulated actively by the publishers, is spreading in the most alarming way, and there is not a week but sees the appearance of three or four volumes of, on the whole, badly written and badly arranged autobiography and biography. Every nonentity whose relatives can afford it is celebrated by a ponderous tome or two. The fact that these volumes quickly disappear and go back to the pulping machine does not compensate one for the loss to letters that the employment of space, capital and labor entails, to the disadvantage of work having at least some faint connection with literature. (39)

The sudden retirement of Mr Justice Darling gave Filson a chance to praise in the Saturday Review this famous criminal judge, whom he had known and admired for some fourteen years. He had kept up his interest in the major criminal cases and watched Darling preside over ‘dozens’ of trials. One Darling had not been responsible for was the 1922 trial for murder of Frederick Bywaters and Edith Thompson, and one new book in the autumn of 1923 that Filson didn’t mention in either the Saturday Review or the New York Times was his own edition of the trial for Hodge’s ‘Notable Trials’ series. He had been present throughout the trial and felt strong sympathy for Thompson, accused of inciting her lover Bywaters to murder her husband. Filson blamed the judge for letting his distaste for extra-marital sexual relationships (which he preached about in court, especially when Thompson’s letters to Bywaters were read out) cloud the point at issue. In fact Thompson seems to have played a game in her letters of pretending to her lover that she was gradually poisoning her husband, because (in the words of Filson’s Introduction) ‘she wished Bywaters to believe that there was nothing she would stop at, although she had no intention of running the risks such attempts would have involved’. When Bywaters, driven on by these letters, stabbed her husband to death she was horrified. There were many who thought that, compared to others tried for murder at about the same time, Edith Thompson had been treated harshly and punished as much for immorality as for murder. Filson defended her in the introduction to his edition of the trial proceedings with a passion that recalled his empathy with the demi-mondaines in The Sands of Pleasure nearly twenty years before, when he had expressed the belief that all human experience has value. For Filson, Thompson’s love for Bywaters, so cruelly exploited when her love-letters were coldly read out in court, was no exception to this rule. In any case, his view – which he repeated many times – was that Thompson was technically not guilty of murder, and

therefore should not have been executed. His book ran into trouble early in 1924 when the proprietors of the Daily Express and Sunday Express brought an action to stop it being printed and sold and demanded damages from Filson and the publisher. This was because the book contained some letters from Edith Thompson not read out at the trial and Express Newspapers now held the copyright in those letters. Eventually the newspapers agreed to accept nominal damages plus the insertion of a slip in the book

acknowledging their copyright. It was an unedifying spectacle: publicists squabbling over profits and rights in love-letters that had taken an unfortunate woman to the gallows.

The most important event in British public life during the autumn of 1923 was the general election in December. By reversing the late Bonar Law’s policy of not introducing fiscal protection, his successor as Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, had alienated many of his own party, forcing him to go to the country in search of a mandate. Week after week, during the election campaign, Filson did his best to present the Conservative case in the Saturday Review and did it ably. In a rousing call for Conservative unity he praised Baldwin and criticized such party elders as Balfour for offering him no more than qualified support. His final advice to the electors no doubt represents his own political views at the time:

If [the bewildered voter] wants honest government he had better not record his vote in favour of the strange combination of the Liberal leadership that is being offered to the country. If he wants Socialism, the confiscation of his earnings with the idea of a large and rather disagreeable Utopia being built and furnished with them, if he desires to see all the great industries of the country misconducted as only state-ownership knows how to misconduct them, then he should support the Labour candidate. But if the voter desires to give the crippled life of the country a chance to recover, and the stability of our foreign relations to be maintained and improved; above all, if he still believes in individual freedom, then he has no choice but to support the Conservative candidate. (40)

At the same time he grumbled to his New York readers that the election was smothering everything:

It is a curious instance of the power of suggestion that an election is supposed to interfere with business of all kinds, and therefore does – although there is no reason why it should … I do not read less or eat less or wear less or become less interested in pictures or theatres because I happen to be going to vote next week. (41)

The election gave none of the three parties an overall majority. Baldwin continued to head a minority government until he was (predictably) defeated in the Commons on 21 January 1924. Next day Ramsay Macdonald formed the first Labour government in British history. Filson, bored with most of the books the New York Times expected him to read and review, now in his next piece for them dropped into the intimate essay style that suited him best, and indeed echoed a piece he had written for the Outlook some seventeen or eighteen years before when he was living in Cornwall and struggling with Christopher Columbus:

I am sitting by the fireside now, on a typical English gray February morning, with the beginning or end of a gale banking up the heavy clouds, and my black Scotch terrier with his nose on his paws in front of the fire, listening to that other mysterious dog whose voice rumbles in the chimney and makes the embers glow. I am, you see, playing truant from my office, because a great deal of editorial work can be done wherever you and your secretary happen to be, and because I have to pack a good deal into a few hours between two events which would interest you, my American readers, if you were here. One was the great [Conservative] reception at Londonderry House last night on the eve of the opening of Parliament; the other is Parliament itself this afternoon, when at 3 o’clock, for the first time in history, a Labor government takes its seat on the historic front bench. (42)

This is Alistair Cooke in reverse long before his time, and it reveals the latent broadcaster in Filson. The new Labour government, being another minority administration could not hope to achieve very much or survive very long, but in the Saturday it dominated Filson’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ column. Describing himself as a ‘hopeless Tory’, he saw it as his duty to rally the Conservatives to face the struggle ahead and to help preserve their sense of identity and purpose in their unaccustomed role as opposition to a Socialist government:

The highest conception of the Conservative faith is the guardianship of tradition, and the true conservation and use of that which the forces of progress may win. It and Labour, or Socialism – call it what you will – are not two separate things in modern England, but the two halves of one whole; at their best, the soul of our time; at their worst, singularly alike in their precocious futility. (43)

Less seriously, he took the Socialist politicians to task for inverted snobbery in deliberately wearing shabby clothes, and contrasted two receptions held before the opening of Parliament. At Londonderry House he moved among diamonds and champagne with the Conservatives. Simultaneously, at the Hyde Park Hotel, Labour was all tweeds and cocoa – or so he supposed, not being able to see for himself since he hadn’t been invited. Perhaps he was wrong. In March the Labour government allowed cars and taxis to drive in Hyde Park for the first time. Filson was quick to point out that, so far from being a blow at privilege as it purported to be, this was in fact an infringement of the liberty of the humblest of ordinary people – those who had no cars and didn’t use taxis but went into the park for a little peace and quiet:

Liberty is not merely freedom from chains and confinement; it means freedom to live, freedom to be quiet, freedom to be alone, freedom not to be subject to all the abominable noises and commotions that are called prosperity. It does not appear as though our Socialist Government had very much respect for that kind of freedom. (44)

The government was soon afflicted by strikes for higher pay just as its Conservative predecessor had been. The only solution, Filson thought, was a greater sense of responsibility in both employers and workers, and co-operation between Conservatives and moderate Socialists, whom he considered more worthy of respect than the Liberals.

Twenty years after the publication of his book Ireland at the Cross Roads he felt Ireland was still at the crossroads, and was losing by now any faith he had had in the continued effectiveness of the governments of either north or south. As ‘an Irishman and a lover of my country’, he insisted that the Irish were only happy when they stood undecided at crossroads, because as a race they had more imagination than willpower As for England, he found unexpected comfort in a visit to Wembley, where an enormous and ambitious British Empire Exhibition was being prepared:

To me the really interesting thing about a visit like this is that it shows England at work in a kind of eager, passionate, tearing way, that, alas, can be seen nowhere else in our day except at some such enterprise as this. 45

March 1924 brought a scoop when his correspondent in Italy Yoï Maraini managed to secure an exclusive interview with Mussolini, who at this time was still respected by many for having brought his country strong and effective government. Even so, the gushing Yoï almost fell over backwards in her determination to take him at face value. No doubt having been briefed that she was interested in the arts, Mussolini presented himself as a sensitive artist:

As he spoke of Shelley he took up a book and held it in his hands looking down at it.

‘Shelley is music.’

I must say here, what few people know, that Mussolini plays the violin well and that, among the English poets, Shelley is the one that appeals to the mystic in him. (46)

And so on ad nauseam. The interview took place just before the infamous election of April 1924 when the Fascist militia terrorized the populace, a prelude to the murder in June of the Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti who had demanded in the Italian parliament that the election be declared invalid. (47)

Something in Yoï appealed to Filson. When she came to London that autumn to look for a publisher for a collection of stories she had written ‘all about the midinettes of Florence and their strange, unsatisfactory love affairs’ (Filson’s description), he advised her to change the title from Little Dressmakers in Love to Nothing Wrong, the title of one of the stories. She agreed and found a publisher, but the publisher preferred Little Dressmakers in Love.

On 16 January 1924 A small announcement in the Times informed those who noticed it that Filson’s ‘controlling interest’ in the Saturday Review had been acquired by a certain George Pinckard, but that Filson would continue as editor and there would be no change in the policy of the paper. But people I talked to in the nineteen-seventies who had known Filson in the twenties all agreed that he could never have had the money to own a controlling interest. And even if he had, at what point would he have bought out Sir Edward Edgar? Edgar certainly had financial problems and was apparently regarded by some in the City as little short of a crook. When he died in 1934 the Times, referring to a period just after the end of Filson’s editorship, pronounced magisterially: ‘In 1925 Sir Edward’s affairs became involved, but in January 1926 a receiving order which had been made against him was rescinded, all creditors having been paid in full’ (48). At all events Pinckard, the new owner, was already known to Filson; he owned the Yachting Monthly which was published from the same address in King Street, Covent Garden, as the Saturday Review, and Filson had placed advertisements for With the Battle Cruisers in Pinckard’s yachting magazine [when?]. Moreover, during 1923 Pinckard seems to have introduced Filson to exclusive yachting circles. Apart from his interest in yachts, Pinckard was a lawyer by qualification and a farmer by inclination, a mild man nervous of the alternately charming and crotchety editor of the new paper he had bought. Filson was a little too cavalier with him. The Saturday’s young theatre critic Ivor Brown tells the story:

[Filson] was polite to my nervous self while far less than courteous to his equally nervous proprietor whom, in my presence, he ordered out of the room, tersely observing that an owner’s only function was to sign the cheques. The latter, probably pressed by his wife, soon became so audacious as to sign not only the cheques but an order to quit. (49)

He’d been a good editor, perhaps even a brilliant one, if never an easy man to get on with.

[He] had an uphill task in his editorial capacity …, but he did not render it easier by his prodigious capacity for arguing. He would talk with Macaulayan verbosity for half an hour about something in an article he had already decided to reject, while if you led him on to the subject of Mr Neaman’s fine biography of Bach he would hold forth on that great composer until hoofed out of the house in the small hours. He preferred music to literature, and had the reputation of being more than a passable organist. In youth he was reputed to have been author of a novel signed by someone else which was a book of its year, but he would never deny or assent to the implication.50

Among those sorry to see Filson go was the literary critic Edmund Gosse:

Your news gravely concerns me. For two years and a half, if I reckon correctly, you have kept up a magnificent struggle against circumstances. You have galvanised, by dint of a splendid cleverness and resource, a dying concern, which now dies, by no sort of fault of yours. Your editorship of the S.R. has been brilliant, worthy of its very best days in the past: I cannot think that any other hand will sustain it. 51

In fact another hand did sustain it for some years, and again Filson must take some of the credit, for it was he who had appointed the young and unknown Gerald Barry as assistant editor. Barry now stepped up to take Filson’s place, and in James Agate’s opinion it was he who crowned Filson’s good work by finally bringing the Saturday Review back to a level of excellence worthy of its greatest days. Many of Barry’s contributors had originally been discovered and recruited by Filson. But in 1930 Barry resigned when Pinckard demanded a leader expressing political views exactly opposite to those in a leader Barry had published the week before. Like Filson leaving the Outlook in January 1905, Barry took his best men away with him, all writers who had first written for the paper in Filson’s day: Earle Welby, Gerald Gould, Ivor Brown, Dyneley Hussey and L.P.Hartley. Pinckard then tried to edit the paper himself, but within a fortnight Barry had found the financial backing to launch a rival, the Week-end Review, which ran for three years assisted by most of the old Saturday writers before being forced to merge with the New Statesman for the usual reason – lack of money. (52) The once proud Saturday struggled on through the 1930s, adopting a more popular tone in a desperate attempt to attract more readers. It had four

editors in eight years, including (1934-6) its then proprietor, the rich right-wing eccentric Dame Fanny Lucy Houston (53). By 1938, the year of Filson’s death (an event it didn’t record), the Saturday was on its last legs, reduced to reprinting articles from the turn of the century and even earlier by the likes of Max Beerbohm and Bernard Shaw.

The four pages of its final number, on 23 July 1938, offered nothing but ‘Notes of the Week’, ‘Round the Empire’, ‘Books of the Day’ (one book), two readers’ letters and a few advertisements, but no open admission of its imminent end. Mercifully Filson didn’t quite live to see this.

But to return to May 1924. Filson was now nearly 48 and out of a job, apart from his connection with the New York Times. He received gratifying letters of sympathy and appreciation, but no one offered him work. Even his political efforts on the Saturday had made an impression, acknowledged in a letter from the former England cricket captain Colonel the Hon F.S. (later Sir Stanley) Jackson MP, chairman of the Conservative and Unionist Party. Jackson made sure the essence of his letter was printed in the Times:

In these days, and with the present vast electorate, the tendency is to concentrate entirely upon the political education of the working classes, and to forget that the higher grades of society are equally in need of a sound lead in such matters. It is in this connexion that your work on the Saturday Review has been of such great value to the Conservative cause, and I know that I speak for the party as a whole when I thank you for all that you have done and when I voice the hope that the present interruption of your valuable support may be soon ended. (54)

Filson’s column in the New York Times continued on its leisurely way. Often he chatted about people and places associated with himself; for instance, E.K.Chambers, his dramatic critic on the Outlook in 1904, had published a monumental four-volume work on The Elizabethan Stage, and the recently retired Lord Justice Darling had written a small volume of verse and epigrams. His indefatigable Saturday fiction reviewer, Gerald Gould, now also wrote for the Observer, and Filson greeted a collection of his reviews entitled The English Novel of Today as ‘probably the best criticism of the kind that has appeared in a generation’. Reviewing Leonard Huxley’s edition of the letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, he included a puff for the Carlyle house museum in Chelsea, of which he was a trustee. In reviewing books about music he twice mentioned his own early Mastersingers, apparently still selling after nearly a quarter of a century. Like the fisherman whose fish gets bigger every time he tells how he caught it, Filson informed his American readers in March that he’d written it at twenty, and in September that he’d written it at nineteen. The cold facts are that the essays in the book were, with one exception, first published in the Musical Standard when he was 22, and didn’t appear in book form till he was 25 (of course he may have drafted them much earlier).

He spared no effort to drag in references to well-known people he knew only slightly if at all. When H.G.Wells’ The Dream came out he wrote ‘There is something about the appearance of a new book by a contemporary with whom one has walked side by side along the road that excites more than ordinary interest’. When he went to the private view at the Royal Academy in May (‘the first social function of the year in London’) he admired Charles Sims’ portrait of King George V because ‘those who have been in his personal presence realize, as I did, that it is an extremely able study of an extremely interesting face and personality’. He had a good deal to say about the London social world in what he called ‘the gossip of these weekly letters’, and he enjoyed boasting about his privileged knowledge of wine:

Mr Allen … writes well about wine. Here and there he makes a slip … But if he had been as fortunate as I in being acquainted, and even familiar, with what was probably the grandest and most perfect wine that it was possible to taste in our time – the Château d’Yquem of 1857 … But the people in this world can be divided into two classes – those few who have tasted that vintage of Château d’Yquem and the others. I am sorry for Mr Warner Allen’s sake that he is one of the others, for he deserves to have been one of the few. (55)

But if arrogant he was also fair: he didn’t let personal dislike of Bernard Shaw blind him to the qualities of St Joan. Nevertheless, the New York Times clearly had reservations about him as a book reviewer; when they wanted a full-length piece on E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India, they asked someone else to do it.

The trouble was that his personality always loomed large between the book he was discussing and the reader, and he didn’t cover the British book scene adequately with his elitist clubman attitude and his violent prejudice against the work of most of the younger writers. There was also racism. He admired the Americans and said so, but could not stop himself writing supremacist tosh about the British:

… the wonderful strain of sweetness in the English character that so often preserves it from infection, and brings it, not unscathed perhaps, but undestroyed and unspoiled, through tests that would and do prove fatal to men of other races. (56)

A week or two more and the New York Times had had enough, and Filson found himself out of a job for the second time in six months. It was a blow financially, but there was one advantage: he was now free to concentrate on a new interest – broadcasting.


38  ‘Amateur Writers in London’, New York Times Book Review 7 Oct 1923.

39  New York Times Book Review 2 Dec 1923.

40  Saturday Review 1 Dec 1923.

41  New York Times Book Review 16 Dec 1923.

42  New York Times Book Review 9 March 1924.

43  Saturday Review 26 Jan 1924.

44  Saturday Review 15 March 1924.

45  Saturday Review 27 March 1924.

46  Saturday Review 5 April 1924.

47  [Matteotti's] murder showed Fascism for what it was, subjection to a man who condoned the use of violence against political enemies and at the same time lied the use of violence away. Elizabeth Wiskemann Fascism in Italy: its Development and Influence (1969), 16.

48  The Times, 9 Oct 1934.

49  Ivor Brown Old and Young, 134-5.

50  Liverpool ?Evening ?Post, ?date in 1938. The name ‘Mr Neaman’ probably refers to Ernest Newman’s translation of a book on Bach by Albert Schweitzer. And in 1907 a rumour went the rounds that Filson Young and Guy Thorne (alias Ranger Gull), author of the bestselling novel When it Was Dark, were one and the same person.

51  Edmund Gosse to FY, 21 May 1924.

52 James Agate Ego 1,  322-3. Gerald Barry (1898-1968), who had entered journalism as Filson’s assistant on the Saturday Review, went on to edit the daily News Chronicle (1936-47), and from 1948 served as Director General of the ‘Festival of Britain’ (1951), the success of which earned him a knighthood. He was later connected with radio and Tv programming for BBC and LTA, and was an executive of Granada television.

53  Made DBE in 1917 for her work in creating a rest home for nurses who had served at the front. Becoming increasingly eccentric, she transformed the Saturday Review into a ‘mouthpiece of high tory chauvinism’, in the words of her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), vol 28 299-300. During the 1936 abdication crisis, ‘Screw-loosey’ Houston used the Saturday Review to urge King Edward VIII to dismiss Baldwin and his government and proclaim himself Dictator in the style of Hitler and Mussolini. Heart-broken when he surrendered the throne, she stopped eating and died.

54  The Times, [date].

55  ‘Books on the Art of Wine-Drinking’ , New York Times Book Review, 14 Sept 1924.

56  ‘Some Follies of the Great’, New York Times Book Review, 5 Oct 1924.

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