Friday, 8 March 2013

Potterism by Rose Macaulay

I'm indebted to Kate Macdonald's podcast on this book for reminding me I had it and that I really ought to read it.  Potterism the concept derives its name from Mr Potter, a newspaper magnate, whose vast press empire promotes vague, opinionated, palatable reading material for a conservative and rather dim public who do not want their preconceptions challenged.  This has, unsurprisingly, made him very rich indeed and sees him elevated to the peerage.  His wife writes Potterist fiction under the name of Leila Yorke, turning out novel after novel of a similarly bland and palatable character: 

They were pleasant to many, readable by more, and quite unmarred by any spark of cleverness, flash of wit, or morbid taint of philosophy. Gently and unsurprisingly she wrote of life and love as she believed these two things to be, and found a home in the hearts of many fellow-believers. She bored no one who read her, because she could be relied on to give them what they hoped to find—and of how few of us, alas, can this be said!

The Potters are arch-materialists: Leila's refrain is "whatever life brings we can use", and this tendency has passed itself on to their children.  The Potter twins, Jane and Johnny, are just as much materialists as their parents, but have ranged themselves, after an Oxford education, with the Anti-Potter-League, a loose association of young people who are committed to defeating the deadening influence of the Potter press.  This association centres on Arthur Gideon, a charismatic idealist who is in love with Jane, although he rather despises her.  Jane is a fairly monstrous character, frankly out for what she can get, and what plot there is in the novel focuses around her relationship with Arthur and the consequences of her impetuous marriage to a beautiful young man who her sister loves.

The narrative of the book switches between a rather arch third-person narrator and three of the central characters: Leila Yorke, Arthur Gideon and the more marginal Katherine Varick, a rigorously objective scientist and Anti-Potterite.  These narratives are very well achieved: Arthur Gideon manages to keep up his earnest idealism without being dull, while Leila Yorke's section shows what an awful writer she is but still manages to be funny.  Here is the opening of her section:

Love and truth are the only things that count. I have often thought that they are like two rafts on the stormy sea of life, which otherwise would swamp and drown us struggling human beings. If we follow these two stars patiently, they will guide us at last into port. Love—the love of our kind—the undying love of a mother for her children—the love, so
gloriously exhibited lately, of a soldier for his country—the eternal love between a man and a woman, which counts the world well lost—these are the clues through the wilderness. And Truth, the Truth which cries in the market-place with a loud voice and will not be hid, the Truth which sacrifices comfort, joy, even life itself, for the sake of a clear vision, the Truth which is far stranger than fiction—this is Love's very twin.
Macaulay keeps this up beautifully throughout Leila's narration and it is all highly amusing, particularly Leila's descriptions of her Spiritualist enthusiasms.  But while this is a sharp and funny book, it is also a sad and tragic one; it doesn't have quite the sudden gear change that marks The Towers of Trebizond, however, probably because its view of life in general and journalism in particular is so satirical.  The novel also gives a fascinating  portrait of London society just after the First World War; the consequences of the war sometimes emerge sharply, but can be quickly effaced.  Arthur Gideon has lost a foot during the conflict, but this is dealt with in two paragraphs and barely mentioned again; Jane recognises how she has profited from the war, gaining advantage through the work she undertakes that will help her career afterwards.  The book is also a fascinating insight into contemporary attitudes to cultural values and what would later be called the battle of the brows, being highly critical of populist, commercial literature and journalism, while recognising its ascendancy.

Potterism seems to be out of print, although there are some print-on-demand editions around; you can also get an electronic copy from Project Gutenberg.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Elsie and Mairi Go to War by Diane Atkinson

Despite reading endless books about women workers during the First World War, I'd never heard of Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, household names in their day and the most photographed women of the War.  This is probably because their story is so exceptional.  Elsie, a trained nurse and midwife, and eighteen-year-old Mairi, formed part of an ambulance corps which went out to Belgium in the early days of the war; they became the only women to work permanently within shouting distance of the front line at their first aid post in the little Belgian town of Pervyse.  Working independently, outside military organisations, their experience of the war was probably unique among women.

Elsie and Mairi had met before the war through their shared passion for motorcycling, and it was Mairi's ability on her bike that brought her to the attention of Dr Hector Munro when he was selecting members of his ambulance corps.  Mairi recommended Elsie to him, and the two women would work together for the rest of the war.  Elsie is an impressive character: she divorced her first husband for his violence and infidelity - no mean thing in Edwardian England - and trained as a midwife in the East End of London.  A strong-minded and determined woman, she helped develop medical understanding of how to treat war casualties, insisting that they be given proper rest and first aid before they were transported to a hospital, saving many lives and giving great comfort to those who would not have survived the journey.  She also brooked no suggestion that the Belgian front line was no place for a couple of women to work, either defying or ignoring orders to leave that came from various military authorities.

Mairi is no less impressive, a young woman dealing stoutly with scenes of death and devastation from her first days in Belgium, and enduring the privations of war service from their first aid post, a series of cellars in the bombed-out houses of Pervyse.  She had defied her mother to come to Belgium, although her father had encouraged her and for a short while joined the women, taking on the job of servicing their ambulances.  Both women made regular fund-raising trips back to Britain, speaking to large audiences and appearing alongside the music-hall stars of the day; Mairi's old school was very proud of their alumna and raised a great deal of money to support the women's work, which was entirely dependent on donations.  As well as caring for the wounded and joshing with the German troops dug in only a hundred yards or so from their post, the two women formed a little social centre for Belgian and British soldiers; Elsie eventually married a Belgian officer, changing her name from the memorable Knocker to the impressive if awkward Baroness de T'Serclaes. 

Diane Atkinson's book brings their remarkable story to light, giving a vivid impression of the hardship and effort they endured in Pervyse, and finishes the story by telling of their later lives.  Both women also entered war service during the Second World War and both were repeatedly honoured for their work.  As well as writing their story, Diane Atkinson is also campaigning for a statue of Elsie and Mairi to be erected in London.