Filson Young

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

Table of contents

48. Campden Grove

Filson now occupied the middle floors of 2 Campden Grove, just off Kensington Church Street, the tall terraced house he had rented since 1927. The top floor was sublet to his old friend, A.G.B. (Archie) Russell, now Lancaster Herald. The basement was the domain of Filson’s sole remaining servant, his faithful Irish cook-housekeeper Mrs Mayo, whom visitors regarded as a ‘relic of better days’ as she glided about her business in black satin and wig. They also noticed that he treated her abominably but depended on her absolutely, while children loved to bounce on her large feather bed (154). When not in Cornwall, Billy spent his school holidays at Campden Grove and in 1936 was surprised to discover, as he confided in code to his diary on 14 January, that Filson sometimes slept with his former secretary Mary Bates who now ran her own secretarial agency but came round to help when she could.

Depressed and ill, Filson was increasingly difficult to get on with. Visitors were not always welcome, but when he felt like it he could still live up to his reputation as a good host. In February 1935 James Agate enjoyed a champagne dinner at Campden Grove, and stayed till 3am over port, cigars and good talk, though he found Filson had withdrawn into a ‘world of Olympian indifference’ (155). Billy helped by writing letters for his father and taking Filson’s dog Andy for walks – he grumbled to his diary that it seemed to be his fate when staying with father, mother or anyone else to spend much of his time taking dogs for walks. On the whole, he and Filson got on well, though the atmosphere could be tense:

God knows what’s wrong with Daddy. Nothing’s ever right, abuses and is foul to everyone, and if you raise your voice ever to him, he goes off the deep end and then sulks and goes all sloppy about ingratitude, etc. Constant strain and tension trying to keep the bombs from bursting. (156)

Filson might have been surprised to know his apparently bland and easy-going son could think him ‘bloody irritable and childishly peevish’. On the last day of 1936, Filson was driving them back to Carbis Bay after seeing a film in Penzance, when he was dazzled by the headlights of an oncoming car. They were heading for the ditch when Billy had the presence of mind – and temerity – to grab the wheel and save them. Filson was not grateful.

On the whole, though, things were easier in Cornwall, particularly in summer when there was plenty of time to enjoy the company of friends old and new and mess about in cars, boats and planes. When in the mood Filson could still charm. Frank Baker was now sharing a cottage with John Raynor, another musical and penniless young man. Filson, deciding to give them a taste of the good life, took them out to dinner at the hotel with the best food in Penzance. He also insisted on them drinking champagne in what he insisted was the only correct way – by the pint from silver tankards. It was an experience they never forgot. But when an attraction developed between Raynor and Billy, that was another matter. Filson invited Raynor to dinner at Campden Grove, malevolently stage-managing the evening, so Rayner told Baker afterwards, like a cat playing with a mouse. He acted the affable host over an excellent meal till the port was on the table, then suddenly leaned forward and said in an ominous tone, ‘I warn you to be careful with Billy,’ after which he never referred to the matter again (157). This brings to mind the sense of malevolence felt by the Chisholm boys in Cornwall twenty years before when Filson got them drunk on Grand Marnier and, when they complained of feeling strange, taunted them by saying the train was running on square wheels. In adolescence, Billy had the face of a beautiful woman, and Filson wasn’t the only one who detected a latent homosexual attraction between him and John Raynor. As we have seen, Filson himself was often considered bisexual and was perhaps anxious to prevent others having what he could not have himself. He was known to claim that he had had every possible sexual experience. Perhaps he was himself sexually attracted to Raynor. But there were probably not many lavish dinners whether malevolent or benevolent at Campden Grove after he lost half his income in September 1936, especially as by this time he seems to have been buying whisky at the rate of a bottle a day. But he cheered up when Archie Chisholm, newly affluent on becoming editor of the Financial Times, took him out and plied him with good food and wine. On another occasion the artist Gladys Hynes and another woman helped Filson back to Campden Grove after an evening out. Gladys Hynes reported that it had been like helping the classic drunken clubman home, scarf dangling, etc. He pinched her leg on the way, and when they’d got him to the door and rung the bell, his experienced housekeeper took him over competently and without surprise (158).

It would be wrong to paint a picture of unrelieved gloom. There were good times with Billy, his sister Ben at Carbis Bay and old friends and lovers like Dod Procter and Mary Bates. Perhaps best of all, he was growing closer again to Vera who had been separated for some years from the dutiful but dull Clifford Bax. In January 1936 she and Filson organised a family reunion with Billy and Richard. Billy was excited; it was the first time he had seen his brother for four years. He told his diary that Richard was ‘very nice and jolly’ – precisely the words he would use to describe the elderly Admiral Beatty. Soon after this Billy met his mother’s parents for the first time for eleven or twelve years, and Filson and Vera came down to Clifton together to take him out from school for the weekend. Then in June 1937 Vera bought tickets for the opera, to see a production of the work which had been a landmark in Filson’s broadcasting career nearly nine years before when he devised a new way of narrating it for radio. Afterwards he sent her a note:

Vera dear, I want to tell you how very very much I enjoyed your beautiful birthday gift to me of our evening at Pelléas and Mélisande. I have had nothing like it for years, and sharing it with you in our quiet companionship made me feel that something very good had been saved from the wreckage of our life together. It will last a long time in memory and pure enjoyment. Thank you, dear … If you are ever lonely or have a blank evening, remember that I am probably in the same state, and come. (159)


154  FY’s nephew Dr Patrick Matthew (son of his sister Janie) in conversation with SM, 22-24 March 1976.

155  James Agate, Ego 2 (1936), 110.

156  Billy Young’s diary, late Nov 1936 (no specific date).

157  Frank Baker, in conversation with SM, 4 Aug 1976.

158  Sheelah Hynes (15 April 1976)  and Hugh Hynes (4 Aug 1976) in conversation with SM.

159  FY to Vera Bax, 8 June 1937. Filson’s 61st and (as it turned out) last birthday was also the nineteenth anniversary of their wedding.

Be Sociable, Share!