Shrink a library #2 (Filson Young)

This post attempts to put the books of Filson Young (1876-1938) my grandmother’s second husband) into some sort of context. FY (as he was widely and familiarly known during his mostly very successful life as a writer) is the subject of a fine biography (available on this site). I aim to get rid of most of his books, because they are available online as full texts or facsimiles.

Early DRAFT: this is a work in progress. I am very open to comment and correction.

It is typical of FY’s life and work that his last book, Growing Wings (1936), about his learning to fly at the age of 58,  should show him at the forefront of modernity. Within a couple of years, he was dead, and it is as well that, oddly, his experiences as a tyro pilot led  him, just in time, at last to reveal a great deal of his inner self, and it wasn’t quite what one might have expected. But yes, he was a feeling and expressive as well as a sharp modern and always had been. His second to last book was Shall I listen?: Studies in the adventure of broadcasting, 1933, which showed a good deal of bright thinking about the new phenomenon of mass communications. Indeed, most of his career had shown an interest in technology. As a young writer he did well with books in motoring, beginning with efforts in 1905. But FY was anything but a futurist mechanic.

Before he wrote for a living, he trained as a musician, mostly in the organ loft of Manchester Cathedral. He revered Bach but was keen too on English romantic music.

His first book had been A Psychic Vigil, under a pseudonym, published in 1896, when he was 20. It seems ambivalent about spiritualism: it inconclusively addresses whether communication with the dead was a survival of old superstition or might one day be scientifically endorsed. FY could hardly have predicted that he would soon energetically confront Conan Doyle about spiritualist fakery, though he had previously admired the creator of Holmes. Still less could he have foreseen the course of the 1939-45 war that would kill his two sons, who had become pilots, or how their deaths would fuel their mother, his second wife, in her intermittent and mildly sceptical hopes for spirit communication.

It may be that the idea of FY as a cool, sensible modern does not survive one’s discovery of his interest in Carlyle and Wagner.  But would the charge be quite fair? Carlyle’s romantic conception of heroism blended old tropes of knightly devotion and mythic power with modern German philosophy. His thinking was forged in the aftermath of the French Revolution.  He saw the force of the “will to power” but did not foresee the ghastliness of 20th century revolutionary and despotic calamities. Napoleon sprang from an Enlightenment revolutionism but then became a despotic fake royalist. In FY’s lifetime, but long after Carlyle’s, it was Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler who understood how to bend society to one’s will. They weaponised Hegel and Nietzsche and there is no sign that FY was modernist enough to read or write that narrative, which was, in fact, right under his aquiline nose, as it was, by the early 1930s, hidden in plain sight for many and perhaps most people to under-estimate.

FY was stuck in a failure to reconcile proof-hungry modernism with deeply-felt habits of romanticism. As heirs to the Enlightenment, and inclined to admire those thorough-going modern Continentals in disquieted fin de siècle Vienna, we have found the going tough, not least because the modern world has continued to produce both bleakness and atrocity. Despots of every stamp knew, and know, for instance how to play to, even how to industrialise, ancient prejudices and superstitions.

It was not surprising that FY did not see or bother about tendencies which had not fully revealed themselves in his time. For most conservative Europeans of FY’s day, Lenin was a socialist and therefore A Bad Thing. Mussolini was, for them, a fairly decent bet for unruly Italy. Franco, Stalin and Hitler became more obviously awful only a little later.

FY was not, despite wondering about spiritualism, any sort of mystic, at least in the sense that Clifford Bax was, with his interest in most forms of trendy mysticism and the emerging psychological theories of Freud and is followers.

FY was certainly some sort of conservative and no sort of socialist. He was a  snob (and insecure  about his own relatively humble origins), a name-dropper and an arbiter (at least in his own mind) of civilised taste in everything from music’s to wine. The urban working class were not his ticket, though rural  folk and especially Cornish fishermen, were admirable. Those were views which had many exponents in European  creative bohemia, and were more widely seductive for most of the last century. In this 21st Century, we see how anything “artisanal” is worshipped but anything Chav (or “White Van Man” and authentically working class in its ignorance and uncouthness) is deeply scorned. FY was complicated: as the editor of a stick-in-the-mud highbrow weekly he was happy to publish James Agate when he invented the genre of British film criticism in 1921; appoint a go-ahead socialist to the team; and support the angry, cross-threaded  Scottish poet, John Davidson. He was happy with his tastes and prejudices, without much discussing his  inner conflicts: we don’t see them addressed in his own voice either poetically or philosophically, except perhaps in Growing Wings.

Maybe his first novel should be taken as providing insight into his heart and mind. The Sands of Pleasure (1905, and many reprints) piqued the interest of Jean Rhys, a fine and enduring writer and she remembered it well in 1979. It concerns a man whose work is technological (in the forefront of lighthouse engineering, including optics) but who becomes dangerously romantic in scandalous Paris. The writing hovered at the cusp of modernism and the author’s pleasure in upsetting bourgeois coyness tallied with commercial opportunism (a temptation for novelists since the invention of the form). Virginia Woolf was surely more “advanced” in To the Lighthouse (1927) than FY had been in his lighthouse novel. But FY was part of the Ruskinite romantic-cum-realist legacy, just as Woolf or EM Forster were. (But he was an early approver of James Joyce, unlike Woolf.) It may be that The Sands of Pleasure shows us a highly  functional scientific understanding wrestling with a heartfelt sensation of a romantic comprehension. It’s a struggle which we are no better at handling than he and his generation were. Indeed, we avoid it, which is cowardly. It is worth noting that as editor of The Saturday Review in the early 1920s, FY employed the feminist and socialist, Gerald Gould as fiction editor (the appointment touched on above). Gould had admired The Sands of Pleasure and in his 1924 The English Novel of Today discussed it in these romantic/realist terms.

We don’t talk much about Romanticism now, except as a quaint throwback weirdly inhabited by the billion toddlers bewitched by Disney and by teenage Goth girls,or as a background to the sex lives of the Pre-Raphaelites. But the inadequacies of Freud and Foucault remind us that there is no hiding place: one can explain romanticism away, but it answers a call which doesn’t disappear.

It interests me greatly that one modernist thread in FY’s work is clear throughout. Almost all his factual reporting showed him interested in technological advance. What’s more, many of his books were at least partially about communication. FY didn’t have Marshall McLuan’s handy “The medium is the message” mantra to taunt, tease and lead him. But FY was never very far from the money when it came to discussing  the point of technology: how human  minds and hearts are changed by and utilise scientific advance. With his The Complete Motorist (1904) he was celebrating the automobile and the promise of individual mobility, not least because he loved driving, just as before he had loved sailing and horse-riding. He would, it is true, soon come to mourn the passing of the privilege of empty roads. And Growing Wings is scathing about the ribbon development motoring had helped facilitate, seen most clearly from 3000 feet. But none of us is much good at reconciling our own giddy freedom with the mass consumption of which it is an inalienable part. (Isn’t it true that only exigency is both aristocratic and available to the masses, though spurned by both parties?)

Wireless came into FY’s early reckoning as he noted the role of radio in capturing Crippen in 1910 and in rescuing Titanic’s survivors in April 1912. (Less than two months after the catastrophic, iconic and epic sinking,  his “instant” book on the disaster shows him capable  of a thoroughly  modern awarenss of technology, class-consciouseness, communications, industrial hubris,febrile populism and moral panic.) In July 1912 he was one of the journalists onboard warships for the Spithead Review: the event was billed as a celebration of the Royal Navy’s war-readiness, but FY’s account in his slim With the Fleet (1913) dared in passing to imagine both the promise and problems of wireless communications in war. Indeed he stated baldly that technical parity made it likely that it was men not machines which would determine battle outcomes. In 1914  he observed the Battle of Dogger Bank from HMS Lion and was tartly accurate when analysing the mismatch between technological advance and RN staff work in With the Battle Cruisers (1924).

FY was also keen to be across modern media culture. From his earliest days as a colleague of his publisher, Grant Richards, he had enjoyed spotting and “puffing” the next big thing in authorship, including James Joyce’s The Dubliners. It was FY’s editorship of the High Culture and Big “C” conservative Saturday Review that saw James Agate’s piece on Charlie Chaplin’s films: proudly believed by its author to be the first time cinema was addressed in the tone of voice heretofore reserved for theatre.

FY’s second-to-last book was about broadcasting and was part and parcel of his involvement in the 1920s and 1930s with the BBC’s top management as a semi-detached and sometimes unruly adviser. He was not merely a commentator with a Radio Times column: he was in at the institutional and technological building of broadcasting. He was a hands-on producer of early complex live outside broadcasts, not least midwifing the Reverend Bernard Walke’s Christmas service-cum-performances from his beloved Cornwall which ran annually from 1926 until his last year. They strongly featured locals as performers, in a manner common in community pageants then. In Shall I Listen? (1933) he only briefly mentions television and sees it as a medium which will be most useful in up-dating the manner of the silent movie. But that year also saw him writing a Radio Times column predicting that within a very few years people might be using television to see great national sporting events for themselves. The BBC management thought he would be useful as they sought to understand what to do with the upstart technology and were about to build a TV set into his house when he died.

FY had no premonition of the digital age. But he  had reckoned with  some  of its dilemmas. He discussed what he didn’t call the consumption of broadcasts. For instance, was a family brought together by gathering round the wireless? Or did such gatherings merely reveal that there was an issue as to who should control its dials? The essay also noted that it mattered who decided what should be broadcast. Ninety years later, we agonise over the young and their addiction to solitary media consumption, whilst who controls content has become an intense concern. FY seems to accept the Reithian doctrine that Aunty BBC was the best guarantor of quality, if only elites held their nerve and commercialism could be kept at bay. He could not have foreseen that until streaming and the tablet and laptop came along, for fifty years and more the TV set in the sitting room was a household tyrant. Even less would he spot that the state-mandated broadcasting elite would transmogrify into a Woke blob, not properly committed to high or low tastes, but to their own survival. The shade of the Saturday Review would be spinning in its grave.

Growing Wings finds him broadcasting on the wireless a blow-by-blow account of himself, now clearly self-revealed as a very particular middle-aged man who had helmed racing yachts (with Spanish royalty), driven fast cars (with the joy of Toad), ridden horses (reporting the Boer War), wielded a smuggled camera and telephoto lens from a battle cruiser’s foretop (at the Battle of Dogger Bank) and played the organ (revelling in the maths in Bach). He finds all these to be grist to piloting a plane. He seems more personally attractive than he usually bothered to be. He reveals himself alternately cocky, apprehensive, fearful, elevated, obsessive, rude, grateful and wayward in his responses to the authority of his instructors and his own failures and successes in learning from them. He is also unwittingly touching. He describes a pair of heart conditions. One (diagnosed not least by a “complementary medicine”  masseuse) makes him fearful of left-handed aerial spins. The other is his low blood pressure. This last suits his flying. Indeed, in the air  he becomes exhilarated. He presumes that he is experiencing something which luckier types can feel with both feet on the ground.

Within two years of his writing Growing Wings, his heart conditions had killed him. He was already a rather lonely and bitter man and often ill. He was appreciated, as a person or a writer, by rather few. His second and last wife, Vera (Minka to her family) saw him sometimes towards the end, and declared that of her three husbands he was the best (though they had a bitter divorce and she went on to remarry).

Because of Silvester Mazzarella’s biography, FY is future-proofed. Silvester researched much of it in the 1970s, when people who knew FY were still around to answer questions.  Thus, we have an account of his life written by a young man, at ease with post-Beatle sensibilities but painstaking about understanding FY’s milieu and in touch with FY’s surviving contemporaries. It may become a classic in the manner of A J A Symonds’ The Quest for Corvo. It might have consoled FY somewhat that in 1986 the USNI brought out an appreciative edition of his 1921 With the Battle Cruisers. Anyway, the original books are mostly  available quite cheaply on Abebooks, while internet archives ensure that most of FY’s writing is preserved. People can choose the hardcopy or the digital route to FY.

Will FY ever be more than an arcane curiosity for a few? Now that the digital age is well underway, and the Post Modern has seemed to junk modernism, FY’s  mastery of analogue and hardcopy communication may seem almost quaint. Moreover, his attitudes may seem out-dated. Indeed, they can be seen as supreme example of everything wrong with Day Before Yesterday. In a 1920s essay on the West Indies he is robustly disobliging about the African-Caribbean population. Even here, though, he is served quite well: that grumpy and picky anti-racist, V S Naipaul, wrote almost admiringly about a man who could write what he felt and do so with scant regard for what others thought about it.

Go FY! A writer isn’t worth much if he doesn’t sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. I like and admire FY most because he isn’t comfortable, not within himself or to behold from the outside. I think he was cross-grained and any really useful human being is. I write this little essay because I am about to give most of my copies of FY’s books to charity bookshops. I have found myself spending more time within them than I ever did over the nearly eight decades during which they were the cultural wallpaper of my childhood and adult homes.

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Publication date

11 May 2022