The mask remover

<strong>Taken from The <em>New Statesman</em> 31 May 1968</strong>

The novelist Graham Greene was an occasional book reviewer for the New Statesman. In this review of The Years of The Week, by Patricia Cockburn, he fondly remembers her husband, Claud, whose scurrilous and subversive exposure sheet, The Week, so infuriated Britain's ruling Establishment in the 1930s by ridiculing their mendacity. Greene also describes The Week as the intellectual inspiration for Private Eye magazine, newly launched at that time.

Selected by Robert Taylor

The frontispiece to Mrs Cockburn’s study,* obsessively readable, of her husband Claud Cockburn and his hand grenade, The Week, shows this subversive figure (at once proprietor, editor and usually sole contributor) muffled up to the eyes walking beside John Strachey in the park and listening to secret histories while a policeman peers around a tree to observe the two hunched furtive figures. The only thing wrong about James Fitton’s admirable cartoon is that Cockburn would never have disguised himself even with a muffler, and that he shows unmistakable signs of fear — an emotion not easily associated with Cockburn. My memory has to go back some forty-five years to recall a Claud frightened and a Claud disguised.

We were, for obscure reasons which had nothing to do with politics, or even espionage, pushing a barrel organ across Hertfordshire dressed as tramps. The first night we spent in a half-built house in a field outside Boxmoor — a drear December lodging, with a wind biting at us through the empty window spaces, so that we rose while it was still dark to escape the cold and found ourselves pursued the length of a long hedge by an invisible figure who coughed at us from the black field. Then — I can swear it — Claud as well as myself experienced fear until he realised that it was a cow which coughed. As for the disguise, while we passed through the town of Berkhamsted, where we were both known, we thought it better to wear Christmas masks, and these masks brought the tour to a premature close, each of us became so enraged by the other’s false face. I know nothing of how I looked, but Claud’s long lantern face was hidden under the swollen pink cheeks of Billy Bunter. The mask wore a perpetual toffee-fed grin, so that Claud’s serious running commentary on his life and times irritated me profoundly. Billy Bunter had no business to hold views about Stresemann’s darker side, and I began to contradict every one of them behind my equally misleading mask, so that we would almost certainly have come to blows if we had not slipped in time behind a hedge at the entrance of Tring, taken off our false faces and changed our clothes. Then we abandoned the organ and parted, not quite such good friends for a while as we had been.

I like to imagine that it was on that occasion Claud learnt the danger of masks adopted even in play. Certainly The Week, those ugly cyclostyled sheets which have become a symbol of resistance in the Thirties, did much in removing them — occasionally perhaps, for Claud Cockburn is a romantic, it came near to inventing a mask in order to remove it. Cockburn would often favour an interesting or amusing interpretation of events, being unwilling to accept the usual boring springs of political action. I notice in Mrs Cockburn’s account no reference to that strange Affair of a Press Lord’s Love Letters. Was this an occasion when Cockburn, the romantic, went astray?

The Week began with only seven subscribers; it became obligatory reading when an enraged Ramsay MacDonald attacked it at a special press conference to an audience which hadn’t even known of the paper’s existence; it died with the war — first suppressed as communist and then revived for a few months, when the Soviet Union became our ally, in an unsuitable printed form, a premature resurrection which failed. Its ghost, of course, still lingers in certain pages of Private Eye, but while The Week survived without libel actions because there were no printers to prosecute and nothing to seize against the costs of an action but a secondhand shoelace, Private Eye, by becoming a valuable property, has made libel actions worth while. Behind The Week was one enthusiastic truth-diviner at the service of increasingly communist beliefs. When Cockburn wrote that the king had no clothes, his opinion had to be treated with respect: one felt sure that more often than

not he had good evidence for the king’s nudity. But the comic pages of Private Eye clash with the inside news — Lord Gnome is necessarily a figure we cannot trust, and the statement in his pages that the king is naked may be only another Spike Milliganism. One doubts whether Private Eye could have so nearly played an important part in the Abdication crisis or been able to hound Howeson, the Tin King, into the Old Bailey dock (the editor of The Week was a little incongruously the European correspondent of Luce’s Fortune). I have an uneasy feeling that under the same circumstances a small notice might have appeared in Private Eye regretting some minor inaccuracy in its report on the Tin King. I don’t think The Week ever apologised to anyone. Success in journalism can be a form of failure. Freedom comes from lack of possessions. A truth-divulging paper must imitate the tramp and sleep under a hedge.

Serious though The Week was — sometimes a little too serious for one flippant reader, who would gladly skip a great deal of useful stodgy information about the TUC and related initials for the news it gave of King Carol’s shy masseur forced to parade with crowned heads behind the hearse of King George V — no one will find a dull page in Mrs Cockburn’s account of it. I find particularly exhilarating Cockburn’s account of Ramsay MacDonald’s ‘invisible lack of health'.

On the occasion of his last big speech in the House on unemployment, he spoke disjointedly, kept peering over his shoulder while speaking. He stated afterwards to a member of the Cabinet that the strain of the circumstances had somehow translated itself into a curious impression that there was a man in the gallery aiming to shoot him in the back.

Was The Week worth all the effort, Mrs Cockburn asks, and most of us would echo her conclusion that ‘to tell the truth, or what one passionately believes to be the truth, must always be worthwhile’. Could The Week be revived in the conditions of the Sixties? Perhaps there is more sincerity about today and society wears fewer masks, but a government which can solemnly appoint a Minister of Disarmament while it continues to import Polaris missiles has not altogether discarded their use. I once dis cussed with a former member of the French secret service the possibility — with the help of an old boys’ network — of creating an international secret service which would publish all the information it obtained indiscriminately to all subscribers everywhere. Unfortunately my friend was murdered in mysterious circumstances in Morocco, so that our project never got off Fouquet's floor, but if fantasy had become fact, our journal would certainly have borne a family resemblance to The Week. The Week used an old boys’ network of foreign correspondents, as ours was to have used ex-spies, and perhaps the only complaint I have against The Week is that it was never prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act.

A last memorial thought about the Thirties: how odd that England in that decade contained two genuinely revolutionary figures who, not knowing each other, fought on the same side with methods wholly contradictory — Claud Cockburn, the mask remover, and Kim Philby, the mask wearer.

* The Years of The Week, by Patricia Cockburn

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back