E. S. Turner

'Punch' writer lured by the off-beat
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Ernest Sackville Turner, journalist and writer: born Liverpool 17 November 1909; OBE 1953; married 1937 Helen Martin (died 1968; two daughters), 1971 Roberta Hewitt; died Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 6 July 2006.

E. S. Turner has died at the age of 96, thus adding weight to the theory that if you wrote for Punch you were likely to live longer if you wrote under your initials, not your name. (H.F. Ellis, B.A. Young and A.P. Herbert all survived for a long time, though Basil Boothroyd confused the bookies by changing his chosen name from J.B. Boothroyd to Basil Boothroyd halfway through his writing life.)

The odd thing was that, although associated with Punch for most of his life, Ernest Sackville Turner was not by training or even perhaps by inclination a humorous writer. His background was as a journalist in Scotland, far from his native Midlands, where he worked as reporter for the Glasgow Evening Times and Scottish Daily Express. By the time he joined the Royal Artillery in 1941 he had already started freelancing for Punch, and established the field in which he was to be pre-eminent, if not unique; that of taking an unexamined topic or area and mastering it so thoroughly as it make it his.

In his first book, Boys Will Be Boys (1948), he did the trick for boys' comics, and he did it again and again for such things as courting, spas, dukes, advertising, social reform and ambassadors. A critic once referred to the process as "Turnerisation", a softening technique like the tenderisation of steak, but it was not the urge to make everything easy and accessible that distinguished Turner; it was the fascination for the oddities in life, and the lure of the off-beat. You cannot dip into an E.S. Turner book for long without starting to collect fascinating trivia.

Dear Old Blighty (1980) is typical. The subject matter was unusual (civilian life in Britain during the Great War) and, no matter where you open a page, you learn something you feel you should have known. It was not just people with German names who changed them to something more English, it was hotels too - that was when the Coburg Hotel became the Connaught. The Gotha was the name of the bomber plane developed to bomb London by the Germans. It killed 3,000 people in the whole war, one-fifteenth of the number who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Opera productions were not halted by the bombing raid; Thomas Beecham would look up from his podium during a performance, to see the police clearing people from the upper circle, and know there was a raid on . . .

Ernest Turner was a tall, quiet, caustic and sardonic presence at Monday-morning meetings at Punch, and turned his copy in earlier than almost everyone. He was happily right-wing by nature, so he must have been puzzled that Tony Benn was always quoting from his 1950 book Roads to Ruin, a history of opposition to social reform. He had a gift for Betjeman pastiches, such as the one he wrote to greet the wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, which ends like this . . .

Round the Palace in their thousands, writhing like a bag of eels,

Surge the mums from Penge and Merton, fugitives from Meals on Wheels,

Tugging at the sacred railings, trampling over helpless Japs . . .

Come on Snowdon, Beaton, Lichfield, hurry up and take your snaps!

Here they come . . . the shining sports girl, firm of seat and tart of tongue.

She will do her captain's bidding. Would that I were rich and young!

Now beside its Slumbereezees kneels a nation linked in prayer,

And a star shines over Sandhurst, God knows what it's doing there.

He was still writing regularly in his nineties for The Oldie and the London Review of Books, in which Andrew O'Hagan wrote a good profile of him in 1998, from which I would quote liberally if I had a copy. And he was still writing well. Here is the opening of a review of Miranda Seymour's The Bugatti Queen in June 2004:

The Paris-Madrid road race of 1903 was a wonderfully disgraceful affair. Three hundred cars set out, conferring death and dismemberment along the dust-choked roads south. Six of the drivers were killed outright and nearly twice as many gravely injured. The hospitals were stuffed with mangled sightseers. By the time the surviving drivers reached Bordeaux the race was called off, and in Madrid the garlanded welcome arches were quietly dismantled . . .

Who would not want to write like that at 94 and still have such a relish in human folly?

Miles Kington