Who Started It?
By A. P. HERBERT
THE 'satire' slanging-match is suspended—not ended. The BBC, no doubt, are already planning ahead; and as one who helped to start Radio Rudeness (a better name) I feel it my duty to offer a veteran's advice.
Listen to this rough nonsense:
'You want to have brains in politics—but you don't want to let anybody know you've got 'em. That's fatal. Look at Winston Churchill. Every- body thinks: "Here, this bloke's too clever for us —let's knock him on the head." But look at old Baldwin. He's as clever as a bag of monkeys —but he never lets on, you see. He keeps on laying down and smoking his old pipe, and all the stiffs think he's half-asleep, or soft on the top. Then suddenly he jumps up and swipes the lot of 'em.'
I say! What things to say about our statesmen *—about the Prime Minister! And on the air'!
`What's the matter with the House of Com- mons?'
'I'll tell you. For one thing, they don't do enough work. They went off for the summer holidays end of July. They're coming back from the Christmas holidays end of Linuary. Six months. Well, d'you know how m:ny days' work they done in the six months? Thirty-one.
. Everything else in the country's bringing itself up to date. New machinery. New ideas. The only thing that don't seem to be improving itself is the House of Commons, which thinks it's the most important of the lot. They've got the same old out-of-date machinery they've had for hundreds of years. They start work at four in the afternoon and on Fridays they break off at five. And then they say they've got no lime for anything!'
'Sounds like a good life.'
'Yes, and the bar's open all the time.'
Really! Is nothing sacred? When were these terrible things said? In 1934. By the BBC. Under the good Sir John Reith, first general manager, and my respected friend. There is worse: 'I don't know where all this sex is going on. I never come across any sex at the works, nor the pub neither. And yet, to look at the pictures, you'd think nobody was thinking about any- thing else.
'What's all the hurry, anyway? If you ask me, all this speed is nothing but a luxury of the rich. Only they try to kid you it's for the good of everybody. Same as they go fox- bunting for the sake of the poor farmer.'
'A good driver doing fifty, Dad, may be safer than a bad driver doing ten.'
'Yes, till he hits something. There was 200,000 accidents last year, Rosie, 7,000 killed, nineteen a day—and I suppose all of them was good drivers. And they was all crawling along at ten miles an hour, waving a red flag, blowing their horns—and knocked over by care- less pedestrians?'
'Here, look at this! It says they've found a Royal Commission half-dead in a back room— it says they're going to appoint a Royal Com- mission on Royal Commissions—to find out where they all are, and why they haven't reported.
(Yes. I started that ancient jeer—in 1934.) One point will be plain. In 1934, nearly thirty years before the late, and by many lamented, TW etc., sharp things, sensible or silly, were freely said 'on the wireless' about all persons, things and sundry.
Mr. Pewter Works It Out was a Saturday- nighter, too, performed by professional actors, and written by this rash person.
The Pewters, I claim, were the First of the Families. But, unlike the Dales and Co., they were expected to tackle the topics of the day, however prickly.
It was a jeopardous job. I shall not say I did it well, but I did it with a will. The Pewters feared nothing. They abused the Government, great Parliament, too. They tore up the Locarno Treaty (twice), and had the gravest doubts about
our foreign policy. They were disrespectful to foreign powers (e.g., Hitler and Mussolini), to Royal Commissions, flight, films, crooners and even cricket. They blasphemed against speed, and asked for local speed-limits (which did not then exist). They advised Ministers to receive the Jarrow 'hunger-marchers' more warmly.than they did; passed judgment on such perilous themes as Empire settlement, unemployment and dis- armament; demanded a betting tax and divorce law reform; and, in short, invited trouble from north, south, east and west.
For nine weeks there was very little. I thought: 'They don't mind—or they don't listen.' But in the tenth week Mr. Pewter mentioned milk.
He was annoyed because Rosie (like Lady Astor and others) described his beer as 'intoxi- cating liquor.' Anyone,' he said, 'can give a dog 'a' bad name! '; and he read a letter to the press by four distinguished doctors. 'Every year,' he read, 'about 2,000 persons, many of them children, die of bovine tuberculosis. . . . There are also other diseases spread by milk, septic sore throat, and undulant fever. . . . How d'you like it, Rosie, if I called milk a tuberculous beverage, or Fred's car a homicidal vehicle?'
Uproar. National. Before he had finished the wires were hot, the bells were jangling in Lang- ham Place. Every branch of the Milk Marketing Board, Agriculture Unanimous, were in tele- communication.
Who would have guessed that the good Sir John Reith would ever anger the Milk Marketing Board, or infuriate the entire fraternity of farmers?
We had a friendly talk. He told me that he had been cogitating such a series for many years, and (fasten your seat-belts!) had imagined the conversations taking place at an inn. He was unabashed by the tumult, and supported the Pewters still.
So that was not the end : we survived as planned. But it was, 1 thought, the dominant chord. The milk row was the start of the summing-up. The `satirise—or natterist—must expect brief life on the air.
The reason is simple. Dr. Johnson said : 'The Irish are a very fair people. They never speak well of one another.' But the English do. They like a kind word now and then. Also, if you throw stones at plate-glass windows they want to know why—and, unlike the Irish, may ask you what you would like there instead.
The essential art of public utterance is to mix the bowling—as Chekhov and Churchill knew so well. That is why a certain humorous weekly has survived for 120 years, and so many 'biting' new rivals have quickly bitten the dust. Punch has thrown many a sharp stone : but it mixes the throwing.
I did my best to make Mr. Pewter construc- tive and fair. If he stood up for the pedestrian, his daughter defended the driver. But the general effect was bound to be annoyance; for nobody could answer back.
That was TW's trouble. I did not see their Kennedy tribute: but I was not surprised by the praise. It was about the first time they had said a kind word, and I believe they took the chance nobly. It was like the sudden cessation of an electric drill.
A book, a small revue, yes: but in that enor- mous area, the air, the British will never stand continual stone-throwing. So they .stoned these boys back a bit. But the big stone should go to the BBC who gave them a doomed, impossible job.
However, they enjoyed it, and were richly re- warded. I don't think I was.