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October 16, 2006

The Ploughman's Canapés: A. G. Gardiner's Many Furrows

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Many Furrows
by Alpha of the Plough (A. G. Gardiner)
Pp. 275. Dent, 1925

In far off South Island someone is giving a paper on "E. V. Lucas, A. G. Gardiner and the Fate of the English Essay". In India one journalist accuses another from a rival paper of wanting to be like A. G. Gardiner, but without the talent. From Amazon you can buy Stephen Koss's 1973 book Fleet Street Radical: A. G. Gardiner and The Daily News. In History Today from the year 2000 you can read Edward Pearce's article comparing Gardiner with J. L. Garvin as powerful Edwardian editors. Various older English language readers include a Gardiner essay for students to read.

But these are relatively thin pickings on the internet for an editor who was once powerful and an essayist who had many fans. Gardiner was a career journalist born in Essex in 1865 who left school at the minimum age and rose to become editor of The Daily News, a position he held for the first fifteen years of the twentieth century. His demise came about due to a feud with Lloyd George; the Cadbury family, who owned the paper, stayed loyal to LG rather than to their editor.

Thereafter, he pursued a much gentler course, writing essays under the pen name "Alpha of the Plough", mainly for The Star. One of his many admirers was my father who used to dive into second-hand bookshops in strange towns when we were on holiday in the 1950s to see if they had any of his books. He ended up with at least one copy of everything except, so far as I know, the biography of Sir William Harcourt. For sheer lack of anything else to do (a good condition in late childhood) I also read them. I can't remember much about them, but I think that a certain proportion of my idea of what it is to be a "writer" was formed by Gardiner.

Many Furrows consists of 56 essays written when the author was in his late fifties. There is no indication that the author is A. G. Gardiner, but nor was it any kind of secret. There is little overlap between these essays and Gardiner's more political writings such as the profiles of his contemporaries collected as Prophets, Priests and Kings. But, if you know the background, it is impossible to ignore (say) this comment, from an essay "On Smiles" (p. 193):

In an estimate of the qualities that have contributed to Mr Lloyd George's amazing success a high place would have to be given to the twinkling smile, so merry and mischievous, so engagingly frank and yet so essentially secret and calculating, with which, by the help of the photographer, he has irradiated his generation. If Mr Asquith had learned how to smile for public consumption, the history of English politics, and even of the world, would have been vastly different . . .
And in "On People with One Idea" he remembers leaving the House of Commons on August 3rd 1914, having heard Sir Edward Grey announce the ultimatum to Germany, and sharing a cab with an acquaintance who railed on about vivisection. One-track-mindedness was a particular phobia of Gardiner's though few people could illustrate it as he could with a personal reminiscence about one of the great moments of history.

In general these essays are the musings of a middle-aged man who accepts that he is in the autumn of his life. He often reflects on age and ageing. He remarks that, when fully employed, he never looked in a shop window, but now he admires them and defers to the extraordinary range of skills which women bring to the art of shopping. He defends November against its detractors and the claims of rival months. He compares the aloof crowd at Lord's with the more robust atmosphere of the Oval. He much prefers the English habit of calling men by their initials to the American enthusiasm for Christian names (and was secretive about his own names which were actually the commonplace Alfred George).

He reflects on the handshake as the accepted English form of bodily contact and extols the pleasures of watching the moon in the country, unavailable to Londoners because of what we would now call light pollution. His enthusiasms are gardening, the countryside (especially the Chilterns), cricket and his wife, Jane.

Reading 56 essays of this kind, all close to four and a half pages in length, is the equivalent to making a meal out of canapés. The charm of the genre is the sense of freedom and the unexpected: you don't have to plough through too much on the same subject. Unlike academic writing it requires no definition of "field" and unlike most journalism it requires neither specialisation nor topicality. It is a form of writing which has almost entirely disappeared from our newspapers: if A. G. were to offer his services now he would surely be required to write shorter pieces and to "pin" them onto news or celebrity stories. Or he would end up as a gardening or countryside correspondent. I know of one national newspaper editor in the 21st century who announced his intention to purge his paper of anything "reflective" and Gardiner was nothing if not reflective.

At first, then, Many Furrows seems to consist of pure whimsy: observations and remarks, gently mixed with opinions on subjects about which most people don't bother to have opinions. It is the English essay as practised by William Hazlitt, to whom Gardiner often refers, and Robert Lynd, who was a personal friend, rather than the driven, challenging form of essay produced by Hume or Orwell. Where is the passionate, liberal polemicist in all this?

Very slowly and subtly he comes into focus. There is a clear post-career scepticism about the public realm and those who inhabit it. Also a scepticism about big ideas and enthusiasm. In "On Living Forever" he gently but firmly demolishes not only his initial target, a visiting American speaker called Rutherford who is promising us much longer lives, but also the idea of eternity, with a cricketer's philosophical take that unless we are sooner or later "out" nothing has any meaning. He extols the small and private: the habits and tolerances of marriage, the products of the kitchen garden, the lonely November walk across the hills. He is often on the bus, starting his essays with observations made and conversations heard there. He sees morality as almost entirely convention, albeit necessary or useful convention and is scornful of those who would expect much scruple from human beings in their commercial activities.

Regrettably the endemic anti-Semitism of the times also emerges. In "Ourselves and Others" he half commends, half criticises Americans for being able to pursue their own interests without worrying too much about rival considerations and then adds (p. 172):

They are inferior, of course, to the Jews, whose insensibility to the feelings of others sometimes passes belief. It is the heritage no doubt of two thousand years of buffetings by a hostile world, and it enables them to support their superior qualities of brain to the maximum. But they are trying and often offensive, even to those of us who loathe the gospel according to Mr Belloc.
And an essay called "An Offer of £10,000" starts with his receiving a letter from a Mr Rosen offering to lend him money (yes, even eighty years ago!). It is very sarcastic and accompanied by a couple of sketches in the "eternal Jew" tradition.

Looking back, I regard my father's (mild) obsession with AGG as odd. He wasn't remotely like the man, though perhaps he wanted to be. I, on the other hand, feel the bond of strong similarities, particularly reading him now when I am the age he was when he wrote. We have many of the same interests and opinions. Like him I think that my natural form of expression is the essay. He is unable to resist announcing that he has, at the age of 58, "troubled the scorers" in a cricket match more than anyone else in the match. And I cannot resist adding that last year, also at the age of 58, so did I. If I believed in that sort of thing I might be drawn into the remark that Gardiner died in 1946, very shortly before I was born . . . .

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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Can you tell me whether Gardiner wrote an essay entitled, "On The Rule of the Road" ? I remember the contents of this essay but I am not sure who the author is - Gardiner or Stephen Leacock? It was in my school English reader - 25 years ago!

Posted by: Chris at April 21, 2007 04:16 AM

In our text book of English in school, we had an essay by A G Gardiner,named "On reading books". Could you help me to find this essay?

Posted by: Gupte Sateesh R at January 20, 2008 01:08 PM
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