Filson Young

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

Table of contents

38. Music and broadcasting

Following the trouble over Filson’s rejected Radio Times articles in the spring of 1925 his relations with Reith temporarily cooled and he contributed nothing more to the paper for some time. But on July 18 he made his first broadcast, a fifteen minute talk on ‘The Scottish Border Country’; he had gone to investigate the system of state-owned pubs in the Carlisle area for the Morning Post. In radio he had found a new medium for the personal essays which were the literary form he was most at home with, and half a dozen more talks followed in the next six months. The scripts of a number of these survive, and I will quote at length from one, ‘On Keeping Diaries’ (broadcast 4 January 1926) both to give an idea of his broadcasting manner and because he reveals a good deal of himself in it. Already he shows himself sensitive to the difference between written and spoken media, and in reading it one should remember that he may often have said e.g. ‘I’ve’ where he has written ‘I have’, and ‘that’s’ for ‘that is’, etc. The short forms were freely spoken but not so commonly written down then as they are now, so that the solitary ‘it’s’ in the first line looks almost like a typing error, though the repeated ‘Don’t do it’ at the end of the first paragraph is clearly very deliberate indeed:


Another thing about this kind of introspective diary is that it’s too often a matter of posturing and humbug. Now I believe that it does not matter nearly so much that one should sometimes humbug other people as that one should deceive oneself; it is a terribly serious thing to humbug oneself. That is the real danger. The moment you do that you get off the track of life; and there is nothing that will help you to do it quite so easily as the habit of writing about your own feelings in a diary. So let me warn you against this form of diary keeping. Don’t do it. You will be merely wasting a certain amount of perfectly good time every day, and accumulating a certain amount of rubbish. Don’t do it.


Now that does not mean that I think you should not keep a diary at all. I think it is a very useful thing to do. I have myself been through all forms of diary keeping except, I am glad to say, the introspective and sentimental type. I have kept diaries that lasted for a week. I have kept some that lasted for a month; I have kept some that had whole gaps of important years that had no entry at all; but for the last ten years I have got more fairly into the habit, and shall probably continue to keep a diary of some sort until there is nothing more to record, and some kindly hand, that is only a little hand now, that can only print large straggling letters, will write fluently and easily a closing entry. But my advice, based on this experience, is that if you keep a diary you should keep it in the briefest possible terms. Do not set out at a pace that you will not be able to keep up …


It is astonishing how we tend to put down the trivial, and how the little events of our daily routine – what is ordinary in our day rather than what is remarkable – are what we tend to record. I look back for pages of my diary and see a record of who I lunched with and who I dined with. A being from another planet reading this book might suppose that the main objects of my life for years and years have been comprised in these two little operations of lunching and dining. And yet these two little land marks of the day tell me quite a lot about the life I was living and the work I was doing and the company I saw. After all, our meals are things we have (or hope to have) every day, and the history of a man’s meals would be the clue to the history of his life; and really these brief entries are like a thread that leads us back through the years. Whether I have been living in the house of a Duke or dining on a sandwich by the roadside, the record stands, and the faithful thread leads me back to the company of vanishing faces or the enjoyment of departed scenes. Not that I look back through my old diaries too much, or would advise you to. I think my old diaries will be of most interest to other people, if anyone cares to trace back the thread of my life when I myself shall have concluded it. [...]


Perhaps those diarists who are listening to me, and have kept their patience so far will humour me in a little request – to put down in your diaries tonight the entry – ‘Filson Young broadcast a talk on Diaries’. If you like to add the words ‘very dull and tiresome’ I shall not blame you. But remember, if it’s a bore to you, it has not been dull asnd tiresome to me. I love my wireless audience, because I know that however small or large it is, nobody is compelled to listen who does not want to. For that reason I regard the microphone as an entirely friendly and agreeable companion, who represents, I know, many kind and friendly souls, whose unspoken message of understanding and goodwill reaches me as surely as my voice reaches them.


And now go and write up your diaries. Good night.


Perhaps not everyone will agree with me (so much else survives), but being one who has cared to trace back the thread of Filson’s life after he has gone, I see the loss of all his diaries as a tragedy. They eventually came into Vera’s hands, and she destroyed them, keeping only his published books, musical compositions and a cache of letters from prominent people to Filson together with a few written by Filson to herself. By that time not only Filson was dead, but also the ‘kindly hand that is only a little hand now’ of their son Billy, and their younger son Richard too.


One personal memoir by Filson from this period that does survive is ‘Music in a Life’, a series of twelve articles amounting to some 24,000 words in all, published in the new periodical Apollo: a Journal of the Arts from July 1925 to [?months 1926 ?1927]. In these articles, starting with a discussion of Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger, the single work which for thirty years had meant more to him than any other, and tracing his own musical development at home and at music college in the Manchester of his childhood and youth, he also looked at topical subjects of the moment: the opportunities and limitations of music on early radio, the decline of the piano as a means of making music at home and the English tradition of church organ-building, the parlous state of opera in England and, perhaps most personal of all, his love of cadences in music, which he illustrated with examples from Mendelssohn, Handel, Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov and Bach:


In putting these examples together I feel that I have set my readers a puzzle rather than expounded a theory. Clearly it would seem that the endings of things interest me more than the beginnings, or (shall we say?) impress me more. I can imagine many musical minds being haunted by openings, by episodes or modulations. My mind definitely inclines to endings; and in music, the ending is always lovely and satisfying. It may be sad or solemn, as all endings are; it is the death of a phrase or idea, but in music the death or cadence is never an outrage or violence. It is inevitable, natural, like the end of a life that has been fully lived, where all has been experienced and achieved, and nothing remains to be wished for or bewailed. (71) 


The BBC had started life in 1922 as a private company with a broadcasting monopoly that was scheduled to expire at the end of 1926; it was then either to turn into an independent public corporation, or submit to greater government control. Reith was determined to preserve the BBC’s independence at all costs and managed to secure the formation of an official committee to consider the future of broadcasting in Britain. Known as the Crawford Committee, this listened to an enormous amount of evidence from all kinds of people interested in one way or another in broadcasting. Filson was summoned to appear before it at the House of Lords on 21 January 1926. He told the Committee that he thought the structure of the BBC ideal as it was, except that the board of directors was made up of people with commercial interests in the various activities broadcasting touched (music, theatres, wireless instruments, etc); this board should be replaced by a new one without commercial interests in these things. Also, people in the world of the arts should have more say in policy-making, and much more should be done to explore the potentialities of radio – as things were, broadcasting was being conducted too much on the lines of imitation journalism. In the words of Reith’s biographer Andrew Boyle:


Perhaps the most incisively perceptive critic of all [among those who gave evidence to the Crawford Committee] was not a delegate expounding a case on behalf of one or other of the many vested interests called in evidence, but an individual with an eye for the structural weaknesses as well as the strengths of the Reithian foundation. … [Filson Young's] praise for what the BBC had achieved in the broad content and standards of its programmes was warm. Yet he did not shrink from uttering a timely warning. Artistic policy was too precious a thing to be left to the policy makers. This deserved to be controlled more by artists and less by boards and committees.


‘It was a criticism’, Asa Briggs has stressed, ‘which was echoed later on by [presumably Roger] Eckersley, and it clearly contained a substantial amount of truth. The bigger the BBC grew, the greater this danger became. (74)


Later that year Reith gave Filson a chance to have more say in the running of the BBC by appointing him an official programmes adviser.


Round about this time Filson also published a number of books, though on nothing like the scale of twenty years before. His Morning Post articlesabout the state-owned pubs of the Carlisle area (75) reappeared as Public and Unpublic Houses, a short book published in February 1926 by the Fellowship of Freedom and Reform, an organization dedicated to saving Britain’s pubs by making them more pleasant. At this time a great deal of concern was felt about the ‘sordid drinking dens’ in industrial slums, where people swallowed as much alcohol as they could as quickly as possible in an atmosphere of hard benches, sawdust and spittoons; the licensing laws made it difficult for landlords to make their premises more attractive. The prohibitionists were in favour of this state of affairs so as to be able to say ‘Can you in all honesty advocate the continuance of that?’ and get the pubs abolished altogether. The Fellowship for Freedom and Reform, on the contrary, thought the key to reducing consumption was to make drinking a more sociable activity by opening pubs of a new type with gardens and even tennis-courts, where drinkers could enjoy snacks, listen to concerts and join in dancing and sing-songs – so karaoke is not such a new idea after all. The third alternative was state ownership and control, and there was one part of Britain where the state had taken over the pubs and also brewed all the draught beer sold in them; this was centred on Carlisle and stretched from Workington in the south over the Scottish border to Ecclefechan in the north. This state of affairs, which continued till the early 1970s, dated from 1916 when the wartime government feared disorder in the area after an influx of 50,000 munitions workers, who were mostly billeted in private houses and thus had plenty of money to spend, and nowhere but the pubs to spend it between the end of the working day and bedtime. Filson’s conclusion was unremarkable; the state pubs in all their variety seemed to him little better or worse than those in private hands elsewhere, but he may not have been the ideal man to make comparisons since by his own admission he was not a natural frequenter of pubs and did not like draught beer.


In March 1926 he published (through Mills and Boon) another short book, Cornwall and a Light Car, in which he described the performance of an AC car on his now frequent journeys between London and western Cornwall. The book is thus in effect an advertisement for that type of car, as it was intended to be. We have seen that by about 1914 Filson’s early passion for cars and everything to do with them had died completely. Now in his Preface Filson explains that it was the advent of the light car in the twenties that revived his interest in motoring. The ‘AC’ was produced by the Auto Carrier company, owned at this time by Filson’s old acquaintance, the racing driver S.F.Edge. The AC is said to have been years ahead of its time in design and performance, and the car which is the subject of the book was given to Filson by Edge on permanent loan as a factory guinea-pig. Filson became so fond of the car, which he named ‘Prudence’, that he bought it when a few years later the AC company went into liquidation, and kept it for the rest of his life. In November 1928 Filson and Edge went on the air together in a broadcast discussion of ‘The Road – Yesterday and Today’ – both drunk, according to one not unfriendly listener (76).


Filson also wrote advertising copy for Rolls Royce at this time, and sometimes drove down to Cornwall in one of the company’s cars; they also lent him a mechanic to go with it. On one occasion a friend saw them arriving, the mechanic white with terror presumably from the way Filson had been driving. Whatever the cause, neither mechanic nor car were seen again. Similarly, a series of articles on road manners he was writing for a Sunday paper ended abruptly when he was convicted of careless driving at Bodmin in November 1927 (77). Five years later he claimed in the course of a radio talk that he’d been convicted on thin evidence – just one old man and a policeman. Bodmin took offence at this ‘slur on the capabilities of the members of the Bench’ and the Town Clerk was ordered to write to the BBC and make clear to them, among other things, that the ‘old man’ in question had been only about fifty. In October 1927, Filson himself was fifty-one.


In November 1926 Martin Secker brought out a cheap edition of New Leaves, which thus became the only one of Filson’s collections of general essays to reach a second edition – a pity, since they contain some of his most attractive writing. Two essays from these volumes were reprinted in American anthologies during the twenties. February 1927 saw the appearance of The Trial of H.R.Armstrong, Filson’s fourth and last contribution to the Notable Trials series, and in 1928 he wrote an introduction to a limited edition of Thomas Walker’s Art of Dining, a collection of early nineteenth-century essays. This was for Grant Richards – their last collaboration, a quarter of a century after their first. Following a second bankruptcy, Richards had severed his connection with the Richards Press, which retained its interest in the books Filson had written for Richards before the war. As late as September 1927 The Wagner Stories was still in print, twenty years after its first appearance, and the new director who took over the following month, a Mr C.H.Daniels, informed Filson via the faithful Wiggins (office manager since the days when the books had been written), that he had decided to reprint Mastersingers, More Mastersingers and Opera Stories for the firm’s 1928 Spring List. In the event these books were not reprinted and no more was heard of the matter.



73  ‘Music in a Life VIII – Cadences’  Apollo: A Journal of the Arts, [date?]


74  Andrew Boyle  Only the Wind Will Listen: Reith of the BBC  (1972) [?p 189]


75  He may originally have meant this material for the Saturday Review, since he was in Carlisle in May 1924, the month he was sacked as editor.


76  Conversation with Dr Hugh Hynes, 4 Aug 1976.


77 Both these stories from Hugh Hynes, in conversation with SM, 4 Aug 1976.

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