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Filson Young: Why he means something to me

by RDN

The letters...
For getting on for thirty years I have been the rather casual custodian of several attache cases of the kind which went out with traveling salesmen. They contain the medals, diaries, telegrams, cigarette cases and silver-plated propelling pencils that make up the memorabilia of any family.

I was snobbishly drawn to one fat bundle in particular: letters from literary, political and military celebrities of the first third of this century, and it was a blow to need to sell some of them a year or so back to raise money. Doing so felt both philistine and weak.

At least, this being the age of the colour photocopier, I shall always have crisp, near-perfect facsimiles of the thoughts and signatures of Churchill, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling and the rest.

My grandmother Vera's second husband was a talented, arrogant journalist, Filson Young, to whom many luminaries addressed themselves.

He died just before the war, drinking heavily, already all but forgotten. He had had a good deal published in durable hardcovers, far more than most journalists, but his style had dated, and his insights had never been sufficiently original, self-revealing, or shocking, to ensure that they would be re-read for long.

The "modern" journalist
But that is to ignore the impact he made for much of his life. And it ignores the way he personified the changes which were happening to his ancient profession as is turned from journalism into the "media". Filson had been the first journalist into Mafeking in May 1900 with a flying column of horse, a sort of Max Hastings of his day: that was all Victorian. He had became editor of the Saturday Review, wrote mildly scandalous novels, sailed huge yachts with the King of Spain: all of that is Edwardian. But he lived to have a very early television installed in his house by the BBC, and learned to fly at 58 (in 1936): these are surely very "modern" things to have done.

He had always been up-to-date. Filson in early life was a bit of a Jeremy Clarkson. His "The Joys of Motoring" was a big 1902 success. More remarkable still, in 1912, his "Titanic" was published three weeks after the ship went down, and was perhaps the first instant book (it's good, all about the horizontal layers of society suddenly up-ended into the sea).

Filson was fond (too fond, the family gossiped) of Admiral (later, Lord) Beatty, whose shipmate and chronicler he briefly was in the run-up to the Battle of the Dogger Bank (1915), and during it. They had previously a tricky time patching over a misunderstanding when Filson rushed to print about the Admiral in a flattering but too personal way ("That is the worst of journalistic friends and scribblers. They think only of good copy and that's all I am fit for", Beatty wrote to his wife.) Filson's spell as privileged guest on the great man's flagship, HMS Lion, had been arranged for Filson by "Jackie" Fisher, the First Sea Lord. (Fisher wrote to Filson: "In my seven appointments I had the seven jobs of Hercules and the 3 Rs saw me through. I was Relentless, Ruthless and Remorseless! You've got to get hated in such cases!")

The new biography
Many of the details of Filson's life were pieced together twenty years ago by Silvester Mazzarella, an Englishman, and a translator of Swedish and Italian. Mazzarella is now at work preparing the story for publication. A relative of Filson (and by blood, not as I am, merely by aspiration), Silvester's unpublished biography already displays a quixotic devotion to his project which never slops into hagiographical devotion to its subject. It reminds one of the way A J A Symons put together his own study of a rather different sort of neglect. Symons' "The Quest For Corvo", about Frederick William Rolfe, the shadowy author of "Hadrian the Seventh" (the novel made a great play recently).

Because we don't have his out-going mail, or any diaries, we know much less about Filson, and that often from Silvester's conversations with people tracked down in the 1970s and 1980s and now mostly dead, or from the published work (which amounts, oddly, to a kind of carapace). We get a portrait of a prickly, pompous man of great and usually quite well-disguised sensitivity. Filson was good with machines but wrote songs. He over-stretched himself, taking on new genres and new subjects, and that's always admirable. He was a big-spender, a thing I increasingly approve of.

Many of the best writers, like the best people, are indigent and extravagant by turns. In the British Library, letters from Filson (annotated brusquely by Personal Assistants) nestle in the collection of Lord Northcliffe's correspondence, from the latter's period running The Times. Humiliatingly, the exchanges are mostly devoted to Filson's exorbitant demands for money. One struck the paper as especially egregious. It was met, but prompted a note to his solicitor from The Times' accountant: "This is final settlement in more ways than one". Oops: Filson had over-reached himself for the last time.

It was odd having grand literary letters around. For several years when I left school in the 1960s I was what was then called a drop-out, mostly getting my living by working in shops or driving vans, and even a ferry. It was so clear to me that I was destined to be a writer that the actual business of picking up a pen seemed something which could be put off, like giving up smoking.

Having the letters addressed to Filson by Henry James and Max Beerbohm and Kipling and many others not only made me dangerously superior about the need to work, but also hopelessly posy about the manner of any writing one might do.
I dreamed of a style rich in the exotic adjective, the stream of exhilarated clauses, that was in some of the letters to Filson. This is not surprising considering my template was, say, Max Beerbohm's note on headed paper from "Le Grand Hotel, Venise", written in 1911, a couple of years after Rolfe had died there as a squalidly impoverished part-time gondolier. Describing his pleasure at a profile piece by Filson in the "Saturday", which Max had just read in Florian's café, by St Mark's: "…the crimson velvet of the settees seemed almost pale in comparison with the flush of gratification in my cheeks, and the pigeons in the square did not soar more lightly than did my soul". How camp is that, even as a self-parody?

My photocopies will be a practical and robust remembrance (there's the James influence again) of the auctioned correspondence, but they won't carry the real creases, smudges and stains or the imagined impress of fingers known and unknown, alive and dead.

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