This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
“The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him […] A little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now.”— John Buchan, The 39 Steps (1915)
Relax: this is not a piece about antisemitism. Nor, though it certainly qualifies, is it plucked from yesterday’s Twitter. It is about one Jew, myself, aged around 12 (1960) and his encounter, life-saving in the context, with the popular literature of the British 1920s and 30s in a prep school library deep in the Lincolnshire fens. And, in a world of “woke” (that doubtless misapplied but convenient shorthand) and its appetite for a censorship that those of us born in the late ’40s would try hard to overturn, the question of just how much such juvenile reading—approved by the new censors or otherwise—matters.
The school was named for the local saint, “little Saint Hugh” by rote and the source of one of the riper blood libels. Let’s put it this way: there’s the school song; give me a word that rhymes with Hugh. Yes, exactly. Let us say I was … surprised.
Did the school ponder its origins? Perhaps. An enlightened master petitioned and won from Lincoln Cathedral an official denial of the myth. And if there was antisemitism then I didn’t experience it. If I was “different” to the boys whose fathers’ occupations would have had them populating an Agatha Christie plotline, that was fine. If nothing else, it delivered me from the nastier aspects of the food.
It was a bog-standard prep school, less grand than Connolly and Orwell’s St Cyprians of “Such, Such Were the Joys” celebrity, but doubtless made me the man I am. That is, a lifelong, obsessive reader. Books provide joy, they also provide the kind of protective wall of which Trump could only dream. I have yet to pull it down, rather employing a variety of kindly bibliopolists to keep throwing up extra courses.
Everything gets smaller, and a return trip wouldn’t exclude the school library, but what I recall is shelf upon shelf, ripe for exploration. Explore I did and if I want to unearth at least some of the roots of a life in slang, then those shelves must provide them. Wodehouse, Conan Doyle in and out of Baker Street (Professor Challenger, Brigadier Gerard), P.C. Wren of Beau Geste fame (surely not the source, however, of my Francophilia), a touch of Agatha Christie: a cornucopia of the best (worst?) of popular literature.
Popular literature, as it must, reflects popular beliefs. What Kipling had termed “flag-flappers” ruled, and if one loved one’s own, one despised, or at best patronised others. The books I found were keen to toe the line.
The Jews of nearly every popular writer prior to Auschwitz are de facto bad
One might pick nits, such is our lousy world, but whatever gaffes he may have performed under German captivity, Wodehouse manages to circumvent some of the go-to tropes of his fellow best-sellers: the casual racism, the cocky nationalism, and of course the cheerily voiced disdain for the “sheenies”. Even his fascist, Roderick Spode, never ventured there, though the odds are that he topped off his black shorts with a jacket embroidered “Fuhrer”.
Agatha Christie, not so much. In a way reading her is the most insidious encounter. It’s all so … genteel, so taken-as-read, so PLU. Good old British common sense. But while she had blood, there was far less thunder. I looked elsewhere.
“‘What are these two Hebrews? … My friends and I do not like your trade, you swine … Fetch the cat.’ … As his full meaning came home to the two Jews they flung themselves grovelling on the floor, screaming for mercy. ‘The cat for cases of this sort is used legally,’ he remarked. ‘We merely anticipate the law.’ With a fresh outburst of moans the two Jews watched the door open and the inexorable black figure come in, holding in his hand a short stick from which nine lashes hung down … ‘Flog them to within an inch of their lives.’”— Sapper, The Black Gang (1922)
Sapper (properly H. C. McNeile, but serving officers were forbidden from signing their fictions and Lord Northcliffe gifted a pseudonym), whose entry I would eventually write for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, what a card. Nowhere—perhaps in Wodehouse but never so heartily raffish—had I encountered such a vocabulary. A world of cads and bounders, flappers and freaks, bruisers and loonies, of drinkers of gargle and smokers of flor de cabbagio.
And bestride it all, “Bulldog” Drummond, nemesis of alien Huns, Jerries, Japs, coons, niggers, and of course Jews (he was a Hugh too, surely a coincidence). And there I hit a wall. Or should have done. The piece I precis above, and many others in the oeuvre, transcended Christie’s throwaway sneers. This was fascism. And revelling in it. Sapper’s Jews, like Agatha Christie’s Jews and the Jews of nearly every popular writer prior to Auschwitz are de facto bad. Politically bad, economically bad, and—being Britain—socially bad which is perhaps worst of all. Perhaps this was not conscious antisemitism, merely a given in a world in which P.C. referred only to a member of the police.
England offered equal opportunity contempt. In his taxonomy of alien stereotypes in “Boys’ Weeklies” Orwell does not mention what such writers sneeringly referred to as “the chosen people” (Billy Bunter met the sons of rajahs but not of rabbis) but they are of the breed. As my only acknowledged hero, Lenny Bruce, would put it later: “A Jew, in the dictionary, is one who is descended from the ancient tribes of Judea … but you and I know what a Jew is: One Who Killed Our Lord.”
Still, Sapper took it up a level. Or down. Nor was he alone. There was a smoother version.
“Cruel, humourless, hard, utterly wanting in sense of proportion, but often full of a perverted poetry and drunk with rhetoric—a hideous, untamable breed had been engendered. You found it among the young Bolshevik Jews, among the young entry of the wilder Communist sects, and very notably among the sullen murderous hobbledehoys in Ireland. ‘Poor devils,’ Macgillivray repeated. ‘It is for their Maker to judge them, but we who are trying to patch up civilisation have to see that they are cleared out of the world.’”— John Buchan, Three Hostages (1924)
“Cleared out of the world.” Gotcha. But then what else can you do with what Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, termed “seedy little gangs of communist Jews” and Bulldog Drummond a “clique of homicidal alien Jews”. “Smooth” is not a hard or fast assessment.
Buchan, the grown-ups’ Sapper, although equally consumed by the young, was another glorious discovery. I would choose his Greenmantle, with the Lawrentian (T.E. not D.H.) Sandy Arbuthnot, and its wholly coincident foretaste of Islamic militancy, as a school prize.
Though Sandy worried Buchan’s white-bread heroes: “He’s too infernally un-English … there seems to be a touch of the shrill Levantine in him. Compare him with those fellows to-night. Even the Frenchmen—even Victor, though he’s an American and a Jew—are more our own way of thinking.” Worse than an American Jew! No worries, Sandy was only faking it to throw off some Huns.
So here I am, ten, twelve years old, utterly enwrapped. The pot is boiling, the pages turning, the cat beating out its purgative rhythms. And my feelings? By modern standards, proclaimed by the pure in ideology and thrust upon their juniors, I should have been shocked. Horrified. Reaching for the matches so as to create my own fiery Säuberung, or failing that on my way to “Sir” with a complaint, even a petition, albeit with but a single signature. But of course I wasn’t. My complaint, if any, was that Sapper or Buchan or whoever it was had meanly died and wrote no more.
It was not that I hadn’t noticed Sapper’s take on Jews but if I should have been affronted, I wasn’t. If anything, I laughed.
Segregated from Sapper, banned from Buchan, would I have been a better person?
Like much true belief, it was all absurd and my focus was deciphering all that beery bonhomie, the languages of the trenches, of the Edwardian “johnnie”, of the 1920s flapper, of the chirpy Cockney sparrer, even of America, at least as drawled by certain villains. And falling in love with Drummond’s nemesis, the sinuous, sinful Irma (“deadlier than the male”), though never with his vapid home counties wife, Mary.
Try as I might, I still cannot persuade myself that such books, having snuck onto the shelves, should, then or now, be rooted out. No hectoring, however sanctimonious, however condescending to those it affects to save, alters that. Segregated from Sapper, banned from Buchan, would I have been a better person, or a different one? I am not (I would like to see this as a given, but learned long ago that it is not) a Jew hater. As the French crime writer Pierre Lemaitre puts it, “if reading made readers, I ought to be racist, sexist, xenophobe, simplistic, moralistic and hyperactive.” The reading? what France calls Le Club des Cinq, aka The Famous Five.
Am I naïve? Did my youthful brain, calculatedly softened up by mass culture melodramatics, absorb the vileness? Should I perhaps, have been protected from myself? Has forty years of slang destroyed my finer faculties? The modern ideologues, wading through all varieties of foulness so best to excoriate it, echo every censor’s cry: it won’t harm us, but heaven help you, and, failing heaven, you have us. Everybody, to requote Lenny Bruce, wants what should be. And answered himself: but there is no “should be”, only “what is”.
Slang, my arena, reiterates that lesson every day. If the opposite of woke is wide awake, then slang never nods. It is us at our most human, our most clear-eyed and honest. You could purge every entry in my dictionary, it would not make an iota of difference to that humanity. Except for one: burn books today? Burn people tomorrow.
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