“Beatrice Webb refused to be a deb” – and other centenary clerihews

The satirist Craig Brown’s first published article appeared in the <em>New Statesman</em> in 1978. He fetes our centenary with choice clerihews praising everyone from Jemima Khan to Malcolm Muggeridge.

  1. Beatrice Webb
    Refused to be a deb.
    She thought life much lusher
    In Soviet Russia.
     
  2. The reputation of Sidney Webb
    Continues to ebb
    As they look through his files
    Under “Stalin’s show trials”.
     
  3. A C Grayling
    Has only one failing:
    Given the green light he
    Holds forth like God Almighty.
     
  4. David Hare
    Takes special care
    To ensure his plays don’t lack
    A very long speech about the
    State of England delivered by
    a disillusioned character,
    preferably dressed in a mac.
     
  5. Hugh Grant
    Said “Shan’t!”
    When told to shut up:
    Naughty pup.
     
  6. Malcolm Muggeridge
    Gave a thug a fridge;
    He was naturally contrarian
    When confronting the barbarian.
     
  7. Harold Pinter,
    Outraged the Statesman wouldn’t print a
    Poem called “Fucking Yankee Shit Wank Jerk”,
    Yells: “But it’s a hugely important work!”
     
  8. John Maynard Keynes
    Helped workers lose their chains
    And, by way of relaxation,
    Wrote The Inflation of Currency
    As a Method of Taxation.
     
  9. Jemima Khan
    Coos: “Wow, it’s so much fahn
    “Associate-editing the Staggers,
    “One of my absolute fave glossy maggers!”
     
  10. Alastair Campbell
    Took a gamble
    On WMDs; and lost,
    To our cost.
     
  11. Eric Hobsbawm
    Considered obeying orders the norm
    And so didn’t react
    To the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
     
  12. John Major
    Went into rage a
    Day after the Statesman laid bare
    The (wrong) affair.
     
  13. Martin Amis
    Wasn’t cast in Les Miz
    Though they should have found room: he
    Is sufficiently gloomy.
     
  14. Richard Dawkins
    Favours radio talk-ins.
    “Prof, we’re putting you through
    “To God on line 2.”
  15. J B Priestley
    Was rarely beastly.
    He preferred to sit on the fence
    Of plain common sense.
     
  16. Cyril Connolly
    Would eat and drink bonnily,
    >Causing him to shout,
    “In every fat man a thin one is
    wildly signalling to be let out.”
     
  17. Julian Assange Says: “Le patron mange
    “Ici, because I’m now the chief member, see,
    “Of the Ecuadorean embassy.”
     
  18. Denis Healey
    >Has gone all touchy-feely,
    Recently paying hommage
    To Nigel Farage.
     
  19. Bruce Page
    Had a talent to enrage,
    Declaring: “Evelyn Waugh
    “Is a writer we deplore!”
     
  20. Arthur Marshall
    Proved too partial
    To darling Mrs T.
    (Oh deary, deary me!)
     
  21. George Orwell
    Didn’t tour well;
    He could be heard to murmur
    Rude remarks about Burma.
     
  22. Kingsley Martin
    Took no part in
    God Save the King:
    It wasn’t his thing.

1 & 2 With only modest reservations, the founders of the New Statesman, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, supported Stalin through the Great Purge.

3 One of A C Grayling’s pieces for the NS began: “What religious people mean by ‘god’ means nothing to me beyond an incoherent cluster of concepts . . . ”

4 The playwright David Hare still contributes to the NS.

5 Despite heavy criticism, the actor Hugh Grant is resolute in his campaign to curb press freedom.

6 In 1955, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a pioneering article for the NS against the “tedious adulation” of the royal family.

7 Harold Pinter would be sent into a fury whenever a publication turned down the opportunity to publish one of his poems.

8 John Maynard Keynes was the chairman of the Nation when it merged with the NS in 1931, and remained a guiding force.

9 Jemima Khan is the NS’s associate editor.

10 Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, guest-edited the magazine in 2009.

11 The late historian Eric Hobsbawm remained a dutiful member of the Communist Party even beyond the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

12 While still prime minister, John Major sued the NS after it printed rumours of an extramarital affair (though not the affair he had earlier enjoyed with Edwina Currie).

13 Martin Amis was the literary editor of the NS from 1977-80.

14 Richard Dawkins guest-edited the Christmas edition of the NS in 2011.

15 J B Priestley was a regular contributor; an article by him led to the founding of CND.

16 Cyril Connolly (pictured right) was a regular contributor to the NS in the 1930s.

17 Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is now residing at the Ecuadorean embassy in Hans Crescent, London SW1.

18 In an interview with the NS last month, the nonagenarian Denis Healey spoke fondly of Margaret Thatcher, Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Nigel Farage.

19 & 20 When he was the editor of the NS, the Australian Bruce Page declared Evelyn Waugh his least favourite author; he also fired his columnist Arthur Marshall, allegedly for saying “Cooee! Isn’t Mrs Thatcher doing well?” while visiting the NS offices.

21 & 22 George Orwell, the author of Burmese Days, fell out with the NS editor Kingsley Martin. In 1962, Martin wrote The Crown and the Establishment, an argument in favour of British republicanism.

Craig Brown’s first published article ran in the NS in 1978

Beatrice Webb, presumably refusing to be a deb. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

A still from Genius
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Thomas Wolfe biopic Genius is a hackneyed portrait of the great white male

Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically reproducing the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays.

You can learn everything you need to know about the film Genius, starring Jude Law as the volatile novelist Thomas Wolfe and Colin Firth as his weary editor, Maxwell Perkins, from its opening five minutes.

An overly desaturated shot of Twenties New York reveals a hoard of hardworking men trudging solidly through the ratrace of city life. But what’s this? One man is set apart, lingering on a street corner and staring up at the words “Charles Scribner’s Sons” on the building across the street. He smokes and stares, so we know he is like other men – yet different, more thoughtful.

Meanwhile, alone in an office, another man is reading Hemingway. He is interrupted by an enormous pile of papers that lands with a thud on his desk. This manuscript has been rejected by every other editor in the city (a sign of true, misunderstood literary genius). Is it any good, the reading man asks Manuscript Delivery Man? “Good? No! But it’s unique.”

Our reading man opens page one of the manuscript. “… A stone, a leaf, an unfound door…” His interest is piqued – here is a man who knows the earthy prose of a true male genius. We are treated to cinema's most captivating delight: a reading montage. The reading man barely glances up from his paper as he jumps aboard a leaving steam train. “… Of a stone, a leaf, a door…” The train races through the countryside. “And of all the forgotten faces…” The reading man trudges up a country path, still engrossed.

“Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?” The reading man enters his home. He spares a fleeting glance for a woman (His wife? It is hardly relevant) in a sitting room surrounded by pieces of womanly fabric and several other ladies. Nameless girls (His daughters? They are beside the point) run delicately from room to room, giggling. Over dinner, he looks up at them occasionally to smile blandly at their delightful artlessness, but he cannot enter into trivial conversation – immersed as he is in the world of the story. “Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?”

Our reader reads overnight, down the country path, on the same train in the morning light. “He stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch,” he reads. “He was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left.” He finishes the manuscript and sighs with the deep satisfaction of a man who is, finally, understood.

Cut to black. The word “GENIUS” appears on screen.

As an exploration of our problematic understanding of the word, Genius the movie is more revealing than any satire. It’s a script that could have been written by Mallory Ortberg. But its conception of genius as white, male, American, self-absorbed, indulgent, obsessed with its own individuality, and unable to comprehend its mediocrity, is presented without irony or self-awareness.

The movie continues in this general vein: Perkins and Wolfe strike up a friendship as well as a professional relationship and spend long hours together drinking whiskey, talking with what they consider to be great wisdom about how love is a lighting bolt!! and repeatedly crossing out words (as cinematically thrilling as you might expect). We meet other “geniuses” aside from Perkins and Wolfe: Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We ponder upon the real nature of genius – is it writing “wrenched from the gut”? Temperate editing? Or the genius of knowing your fellow man? There are writing montages, editing montages, and lots of close-ups of typewriting, crumpled papers, and streaks of red pencil. Hold on to your hats, kids, cause this is going to be a wild ride!

Women, black people, and the homeless are all used as vague backdrops onto which these conversations play out – but never fully considered as real, human people, people who Wolfe might find worthy for his next book, an investigation into America – all of it! In one scene, Wolfe and Perkins walk past a queue for a soup kitchen, prompting Wolfe to launch into a rant about the state of the country. “My work is frivolous!” he cries on a rooftop. But Perkins assures him of his enormous emotional contribution to society, and Wolfe soon seems to forget the men named on IMDB only as “Dock Worker / Homeless Man”. They stand arm-in-arm, smiling sagely out over a struggling city neither seem to know very well. Strings swell approvingly.

In another, we head to a jazz club with Wolfe and Perkins, so Perkins can experience the musical inspiration behind Wolfe’s experimental prose. The writers decide to best depict this with Wolfe throwing around words like “savage” while badly explaining the concept of jazz to anyone who’ll listen, before making grim sexual advances towards three women simultaneously: “Jazz Club Woman 1”, “Jazz Dancer” and “Jazz Club Customer”. It is not deemed necessary to give anyone other than Wolfe and Perkins any dialogue.

The film makes a less than half-hearted attempt to engage with the question of female creativity through Wolfe and Perkins’ partners. Wolfe’s girlfriend, the married Alice Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) is portrayed as Wolfe’s earliest and most steadfast champion: financially, emotionally and creatively supporting his literary endeavours. She is a set designer, and after Wolfe finds fame, he refuses to recognise her job as a creative or necessary pursuit, refusing to come to her plays.

As Wolfe becomes disinterested in her, Bernstein’s character changes at lightning speed scene to scene, one minute vindictively pointing a gun at her replacement, Perkins, the next swallowing handfuls of pills, supposedly as an act of attention-seeking, the next vowing she feels nothing for Wolfe at all. By the end of the film, she is reduced to muttering trite statements about how Wolfe was the sole thing that made her feel truly alive. We meet Zelda Fitzgerald, but only after she has been all but overcome by mental illness: she, too, is a hysterical prop used to warn the central men of the dangers of their obsession with their work.

Perkins’ wife is also a female artist side-lined. In one strange scene, we see her describe her playwriting, only to be talked over by Wolfe, who declares drama an “anaemic form” and returns to the topic of his novel, while Perkins’ daughters giggle at him in awe. We never hear of Louise’s work (or, indeed, anything about her that is not related to her husband and children) again. Perkins’ children, too, are only seen as interesting when they’re talking about their father or Wolfe.

These vague diversions do little to actually analyse the discriminatory way in which genius is conceived, be it in the Thirties or 2016. Here, genius is something white men do as their wives and daughters grow increasingly bitter. The homeless man standing out in the cold, or the black sex worker in a jazz club could have nothing of interest to add. In only allowing Wolfe and Perkins (and Hemingway and Fitzgerald) to speak for themselves, Genius ends up being terrifically boring, while enthusiastically perpetuating the creative hierarchies of the time it portrays. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.