2 September 2009

E. Phillips Oppenheim and, er, Lionel Britton

The combination of E. Phillips Oppenheim and Lionel Britton seems a very odd one indeed – the former a highly successful writer of thrillers and romantic novels who lived in this luxurious house, which now a pub – The Cedars in Evington, Leicestershire – and Lionel Britton, who lived in and wrote about squalor. But Britton's protagonist Arthur Phelps reads him – not for the story, of course, but to pick up tips on how to attract girls. It's also, inevitably, a great excuse for the narrator to have a rant:

‘Love had something to do with it. It was also considerably furthered by Mr. Phillips Oppenheim. Love, however, came first.

‘Novels are not much use to you. The convention is that they’re amusing, and you can’t afford to refuse to try anything at all that promises to make life a little lighter, so you’d had various goes at them. I suppose they satisfy prime ministers; I suppose they satisfy archbishops, ministers of education, - that sort of person; newspaper critics; anything seemed to do for them; lord mayors. It’s all very depressing. But sometimes you may find you like a novel for reasons which have nothing whatever to do with what the critics tell you you ought to like it for. Mr. Oppenheim’s thrilling and stirring stories and all that - I doubt very much whether you ever really troubled yourself much about them: you know, saving the heroine, and all that. But there was something, I remember it very well, which interested you, and that was Mr. Oppenheim’s interest in clothes; I think it must have interested him too. There comes a time, I suppose, when young men do begin to get interested in clothes, like cock birds in their plumage; and old Oppenheim notices the scurf on the shoulder, and the suit that was cut in the East End by a Socialist friend; all that sort of thing; and you begin to imagine yourself learning points and getting on in the world. Appearances count for so much; if you could find out how to do it. And there was, of course, the love of women. Cockadoodledoo!

‘Well, one has the form of the species; primary and secondary sex characters, endocrine glands, and all that; one lives in a civilisation made by publicans, lawyers, greengrocers and so on, and one keeps one’s sex characters what they call decently covered up, and one what they call decently interferes with the proper working of the endocrine glands, - exocrine, too, for that matter. And in the resulting bodily discomfort and soul atmosphere of veiled suggestion and nasty suppression they offer us religion, morality and romance as a substitute for the joy of life; black fog and dustbins, instead of the sun and the hills. Would you like a little light reading, now, to pass the time? Soon be dead.

‘God, according to the archbishop, gave you your body; and the archbishop, having a superior sense do decency, has ordered the job to be covered up. Prime ministers being in charge of our civilisations, if you want to succeed you must have a good clothes appearance - what’s inside them doesn’t matter much, because prime ministers don’t know what the human is. A syphilitic penis or vagina doesn’t matter to them so long as it’s covered up. Love being one of the most glorious of the emotions of mankind you must provide yourself with a dirty mind when you think of your sex organs - the pastor will see to that - and make your appeal for feminine favour by covering up what looks human about you with a bit of rag. That is how, Arthur my boy, you and I are going to get on in the world: to find a high place to help in its work: to feel the glory and delight of the sweet sex interchange of love. The butcher and the publican have seen to that. Pastors and masters. House of Lords.

‘Well, as I say, your gonadic maturity and Mr. Phillips Oppenheim between them, aided by the underground influence of all the other blighters, turned your attention to clothes; Love, - you know; and getting on in the world. Not that I suppose it would have made much difference but for that couple of bob. Two bob a week is a big material difference in the substratum of reality, and all these other things are merely an appearance or reflection on the top: love, and romance, and success in life. The two bob vanished so fast you might have supposed, as soon as you got used to it, that there was no more there than there was before. It was like the square of the odd bit of calculus: you could pretend it wasn’t there, and it didn’t make any difference. Or so you might think. But it was there, all the same. And it did make all the differnece.

‘Romance and love - many a soul has starved upon them; while a pail of horse-dung would have kept them alive. You can stand behind a shop’s counter and grab profit for the shopkeeper who owns you, while love and beauty and romance pass you by, but at least you will keep your cells together, and dream: if you feel so inclined. The earth is yours…to dream about …so long as you keep your cells together. If They don’t find you out.

‘Two bob, then, was the material basis; and over above it was the dream. Having the material basis you began to take a practical interest in Mr. Phillips Oppenheim, 3d. apiece, Foyle’s, 2d. on return; how so-and-so pinched a look at the inside collar of the shabby but distinguished-looking overcoat of a certain valet, arguing that it was too distinguished to have been made for the valet. And having got the name of the big pot’s tailor (it being easy to get done in the eye if you went by the outside appearance of a tailor’s shop) and of the tailor’s customer (since you would get no attention without a recommendation), you just strolled in and ordered a few hundred poundworth of clothes - lounge suits and hunting suits and dinner suits and fishing suits or whatever it is they wear, and don’t look at these things I’ve got on; Sir So-and-So, you know, the big pot, and all that. Ah, ba gum lad, and he was a big pot too. And the shopkeeper, or whatever they call themselves in these big establishments, impressed partly by the magnitude of the order - one never asks the price, you know - and awed by the name of the big pot, saw about it, and very nearly said Sir, and let on to being a tailor although there was no trade on the brass plate.

‘So that - that was how it was done. You’re underdog. All these people had the advantage of you right away. They put on their distinguished appearance in the morning and took it off again at night to prevent it from being creased. You can see at a glance they’re superior: lord! look at our trousers….If now, you had somebody to press your trousers and keep them dry-cleaned for you, and could afford good cloth and a swanky tailor with no trade on the brass plate, and professors at the university pumping understanding into you whether you liked it or not - where’d be the difference? They didn’t even have the trouble of wanting to be human. The valets and professors did it all for them. Name on headstone when they’re dead. Here was a man? They’re your masters.

‘But as for you - tuck you shirt in, for God’s sake! - you do want to be human. You don’t know what it means, any more than they do; but the desire is in you blood. For all you know these people may be human. Whether it’s because they look better in a nice suit of clothes or whether their appearance has helped them to more human environment and given them a chance, and whether it’s the shabbiness of your clothes that keeps you down or just the natural manginess of your soul, you don’t know. But they may be human, for all you know: though sometimes you have doubts. Surely,- they can’t have any hand in keeping you down? Look at the slums, my boy: the human race…

‘So you read your Phillips Oppenheim. And you scouted round the various tailor’s shops, evading the touts as well as you could, comparing models and prices. Some of them were as much as three guineas [£3.15]. But they were your rulers. There was that chap who was the only man in the street who had ever earned £12 a week as foreman cutter. Blimey, some of ’em were as much as £5 apiece. But that was quite out of it’ - Hunger and Love, pp. 128-31.

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