Miles Kington: Nichols, Winn and the fine art of 1930s news reporting

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The Independent Online

Browsing through Malcolm Muggeridge's book The Thirties yesterday, I was brought up short when I read this, on news reporting: "The distant past is like a strange land whose characteristics are at once noticeable, whereas yesterday is still familiar and therefore difficult to explore..."

Hold on! Doesn't that sound familiar? Well, yes, it does, because someone once also wrote that the past is another country, they do things differently there, and it was L P Hartley, but he didn't write it until l953.

Muggeridge also comments, from his vantage point in 1940, that it was quite common in the Thirties for a name of a town, a person, a general or a murderer, to be suddenly plucked out and given its brief season in the sunshine of celebrity, before vanishing again. He almost, but doesn't quite, say that everyone will be famous for a quarter of an hour. What he says is:

"A name becomes momentarily prominent, a face picked out from among innumerable other faces, as when a searchlight plays on a crowd, catching one face, white, staring, and then passing on to another – Miss Amy Johnson, who flew solo from England to Australia in 20 days, tumultuously welcomed on her return... Lord Kylsant sentenced to a year's imprisonment in the second division... Texas Guinan refused permission to land at Marseilles when she arrived there with a 'party of lovely kids'."

Hey, wait a minute! Who are all these people? Amy Johnson we still remember, but... Well, it turns out that Lord Kylsant was a huge shipping magnate who deceived his shareholders to keep the money coming in, and Texas Guinan, apparently, was the proprietress of a New York speakeasy who was made rich by Prohibition and then made poor by the end of it...

It is only when Muggeridge gets on to the names of contemporary journalists of the 1930s that faint bells of direct memory begin to be ring with me. Godfrey Winn... Beverley Nichols... even when I was a kid, these two were still famous for peddling a kind of twee writing about gardens and cottages and pet dogs and cats. Beverley Nichols, says Muggeridge, was peculiarly clever at catching the changing public mood...

"In 1930, he was still praising the delights of rural retirement; in 1934 turned his attention to the iniquity of war and of armament manufacturers, many who had previously scoffed at him becoming respectful; in 1936 God was his preoccupation, and in 1938, England. There for the time being he has come to rest, his cottage sold, after probably the most profitable occupancy of a rural property on record, the local village shop selling picture postcards, for instance, of Mr Nichols's dog, inscribed: 'I just want him to be his own woolly self'."

Nowadays, we can think of columnists who bang the drum about arms sales or God or England or their little place in the country, but to have occupied all those soap boxes in succession – that's quite an achievement. The only function of his which goes unfilled these days, I think, is that of the twee, twittering, camp columnist, going all weak-kneed about his dog or cat, unless I have been lucky enough to miss it.

Oddly enough, I once had an exchange of letters with Beverley Nichols. In his last years, he sent a piece to Punch about how he had been arrested after some driving incident, and deprived of his driving licence, and he had been most barbarously treated by the police, and we should at once publish his revelations of their brutality.

I wrote back to him, gently pointing out that, in fact, he had been quite routinely dealt with, and the whole piece gave off a whiff of self-pity. Would it not be more interesting to write a piece about, well, what it was like to have to do without a car after 50 years of happy motoring? To do the old boy justice, he wrote back agreeing completely, enclosing a new piece along those lines, and thanking me for stopping him making a fool of himself. Alas, I think I may have been many years too late for that.

Tomorrow I go 15 rounds with Ernest Hemingway and drink Scott Fitzgerald under the table.