Books: Even As We Speak — Beachcomber’s Stuff |
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Beachcomber’s Stuff

Beachcomber: The Works of J. B. Morton edited by Richard Ingrams, Muller

To introduce and edit this hilarious selection from Beachcomber’s outpourings has so obviously been a labour of love that it would be churlish to blame Richard Ingrams for the glaring fault of subtitling the book ‘The Works of J. B. Morton’. In fact the volume is the merest chrestomathy, like Michael Frayn’s pioneering effort ten years ago, although rather bigger and suitably adorned with some of the original illustrations by Nicolas Bentley. To capture the living heritage of Beachcomber’s Daily Express column in a single book is an achievement not given to man, since an extraordinary proportion of the reams he wrote is still funny. There is no substitute for owning the original collections. By the Way, for example, contains the bulk of the column for the year 1930. There are more than 380 pages of text, with a laugh on almost every page. And By the Way is only one of many such compilations. Ingrams’s book has a much larger format than those early — and much handier — volumes, but it doesn’t begin to get it all together. Nevertheless it easily qualifies for the coveted spot alongside Frayn’s The Best of Beachcomber, abiding the day when the maestro’s own anthologies are reprinted as minor classics.

It is gratifying to see that the notoriously slapdash editor of Private Eye can concentrate when the occasion demands. His historical introduction — lavishly quoting Morton himself — is a searching effort, full of revealing things. Important to know, for instance, that Morton’s conversion to Catholicism in 1922 took place in the aftermath of a war during which he saw far more than his share of the trenches and from which he was sent home shell-shocked. (He subsequently served in an Intelligence department called M.I.7b, which, as Frayn has noted, sounds exactly as if Beachcomber invented it.) Morton’s aggressive, wine-worshipping religiosity — an obsession he shared with D. B. Wyndham Lewis, his close associate and similarly a disciple of Belloc — gains in interest when seen against a picture of European disintegration. It is a truism, but still true, that humour arises from pain.

The glories of the text defeat the designer’s windy lay-out. Here are Mr Thake’s Letters and the devastating poetic tribute to A. A. Milne, ‘When We Were Very Silly’; ‘Cads and Swine’ and the adventures of Dr Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht; ‘Big White Carstairs and the M’Babwa of M’Gonkawiwi’ (but not the greatest of Carstairs’s exploits, ‘Trousers Over Africa’ — which however you can get in Frayn’s book); Thunderbolt Footle (the doomed pugilist managed by Scrubby Botulos) and half a dozen cases tried before Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, including the Case of the 12 Red-Bearded Dwarfs and several legal brushes with the Filthistan Trio; two stiff doses of Captain Foulenough and a long sample of ‘Life at Boulton Wynfevers’; and, the pearl of the collection, the whole of ‘Tibetan Moonflower’, starring that Turandot-like oriental temptress, Dingi-Poos.

Let’s see, what have I forgotten? Oh yes, ‘The Saga of the Saucy Mrs Flobster’ is here too — one of his maddest things. And there is a killing parody of John Buchan called ‘The Queen of Minikoi’. And there are all the walk-on characters who turned up in story after story, like the singer Emilia Rustiguzzi and the chatelaine Stultitia, Lady Cabstanleigh: that airy profusion of magic names which came bubbling up inexhaustibly from Morton’s slightly psycho talent. Evelyn Waugh spoke nothing but the truth when he said Beachcomber had ‘the greatest comic fertility of any Englishman’.

Well, all that marvellous ‘stuff’ (Ingrams says that Morton calls his stuff ‘stuff’) is here, alive and kicking. Yet so much is missing. When I take the aforementioned By the Way down from the shelf (and I could just as easily take Gallimaufry or any of several others) I find Beachcomber’s protean multiplicity made assimilable in a way no latter-day selection is ever likely to match. There are learned notes on setting Ronsard and Leconte de Lisle to music (did any other writer for the Daily Express ever allude to the Song of Roland or quote in Latin?) coupled with a typical counterfeit sea-shanty conveying his distaste for that tedious branch of folk art (‘Blow the Man Up’). And here are Madame Sapphira’ Sixty Superlative Mannequins, making, so far as I know, their one and only appearance. But the bright young thing Boubou Flaring was always coming back, as were the ballet-dancers Tumbleova and Trouserin. Here is the sole mention of ‘Fluffy’ Whackabath. And here, in all its ga-ga splendour, is If So Be That, one of Beachcomber’s miniature serialized novels — a form conspicuously absent from Ingram’s book.

If So Be That, by Helpa Kitchen, is a romance of the Spanish-American War, which is why its opening chapter is set in Arabia and features the Sheik El Blista. A later chapter start Okuno Pigiyama, Japanese Plenipotentiary Extraordinary with or without portfolio at the Court of Athens. (‘But on the footplate of the Silver Monster, all unheeding, Ingeborg Maelstrom, the first Norwegian woman renegade politician to cross the Rockies, is braising carrots.’) Frayn included If So Be That in his book, which is probably why Ingrams left it out, but how could that extraordinary tale Hark Backward! be ignored by both? Nowhere in all Beachcomber is there a mightier battle than the one fought out for the hand of Petunia Pewce between Captain ‘Nark’ Fiendish (a clear precursor of Foulenough) and the radiant and well-groomed Nigel Barriscale (triple blue and fourth in Archaeology), an Etonian dullard who converses entirely in permutations and combinations of ‘Oh, I say’ and ‘Oh, I say, what?’ (But he finally wins Petunia by donning skates and inscribing ‘Play Up, You Fellows’ on the ice in ancient Aramaic.)

Nigel Barriscale (whose epic climbing-party from Niederschwein to the peak of the Bumbelhorn included the mysterious Vivacity Dumpling) was merely the earliest of Beachcomber’s researches into the psychology of the Upper-Class Twit. (He preceded Monty Python both in this and in his use of very long, extremely silly names — vide the full title of the Viscomte de Malsain-les-Odeurs-Subterrannées du Brebingotte Nonsanfichtre, which goes on for half a page — but then, he preceded everybody in everything.) His arch-conservatism was humanized by an irrepressible taste for anarchy, and indeed he was apt to rhapsodize seriously about the French revolutionary heroes. A nose for aristocratic cretinism led him onwards to invent one of his greatest characters, Big White Carstairs, but not even that ramrod-backed blockhead was his final word on the subject. The figure of the well-bred dumb-bell recrudesced to haunt his delicious fiction of World War II, Geraldine Brazier, Belle of the Southern Command — which is not in Frayn of Ingrams anywhere I know of except an obscure anthology called The Phoenix Book of Wit and Humour, edited by Michael Barsley and published in 1949.

Geraldine Brazier (the loveliest WOOF in the British Army) is a German spy, but she is so beautiful that none of the male officers believe it, even when they catch her going through the safe. Neither Captain Roy Batter-Pudden nor Colonel Fritter can bring himself to condemn her, mainly because they are extremely stupid:

‘That was not your mother,’ said Colonel Fritter haughtily to Geraldine Brazier, as Captain Batter-Pudden and several officers dashed in pursuit of Ludwig von Rümpelgutz. But the girl was no whit abashed. ‘Nein,’ she said savagely, ‘and I his daughter am not.’

Awkwardness with women is the norm in Beachcomber’s ruling class. Awkwardness, and an utter deficiency of brains.

The old Beachcomber anthologies are getting harder and harder to find second-hand, and new readers have to start somewhere. Between this book and Frayn’s they will get a good part of the message. No student of humour can do without a working knowledge of Beachcomber, but studiousness need not — and in this case could not — drive out enjoyment. Beachcomber hated (hates — he is still alive) the modern world, and there is about his work something of the frantic music of a death-dance buoyed up by the mutter of only half-forgotten guns. Wild liberty is the mark of his humour; not careless but carefree; as if the whole of his creative life had been a stolen evening. ‘Ne vois tu que le jour se passe?’ writes Ronsard in one of Morton’s favourite poems. ‘Je ne vy point au lendemain.’ Believing that, Beachcomber could have done nothing. Instead, he did his ‘stuff’.

(New Statesman, 20 December, 1974)