“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

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism