Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Lionel Birch by Robert J Kirkpatrick

Lionel Birch (christened as Jack Ernest Lionel Birch) was born in Chelsea on 11 April 1910. His father was John Somerville Birch (1861-1913), a highly-regarded diplomat in Egypt; his mother was Ethel Margaret Hanson – born in Turkey, she had married Maurizio de Bosdari, an Italian banker, in 1890, with whom she had three sons, after which the marriage broke up (a consequence of financial disasters which had affected both Ethel’s and her husband’s families). She subsequently married John Somerville Birch, with Lionel being their only child. He was educated at Shrewsbury, where he became a skilled cricketer and school prefect. He left in 1929 and went to Clare College Cambridge, where he studied under F.R. Leavis, and graduated with a first-class degree in English. 

Whilst a student, he published a slim book of verse, Between Sunset and Dawn (Corydon Press, Cambridge, 1929), much of which focused on idealized schoolboy friendship. He followed this with the first of his two novels, Pyramid (Philip Allan, 1931). This was a rather coy (at the time understandably-so) portrayal of schoolboy romance, in which the hero, Tony Roreton, rises from new boy to House Captain, while vainly searching for the “Ideal of the One Perfect Friend.” The novel is careful to contrast the ideal of romantic friendship with what Roreton sees as the immorality of homosexual lust, epitomized by Oscar Wilde. This point was emphasized by a review in the Belfast News-Letter, which remarked that “…..if the reader is inclined to lift a questioning eyebrow betimes, he must remember that romantic friendships between schoolboys are not necessarily immoral attachments.” Perhaps rather presciently, the Aberdeen Press and Journal stated that “Tony is at best a queer fellow and his passionate admiration of a fellow schoolboy leads him into queer trouble.” While Shrewsbury was not identified in the novel (the school was given the name of Towers Hill) the school authorities banned it, with any pupil caught reading it liable to be beaten.

Birch followed this with a second school novel, The System (Philip Allan, 1932) – the title was from a poem by C. Day Lewis, which suggested that a schoolmaster’s role was simply to “justify the system.” As with its predecessor, the novel explored the issue of schoolboy friendship and homosexuality, linking this with its hero’s home life, and also bringing in the issue of lesbianism in the hero’s sisters’ school. The Leeds Mercury suggested that “Old-fashioned people will be rather shocked by [Birch’s] bluntness, but he tackled his problem of youthful waywardness quite honestly.”  Underlying both novels was a quiet condemnation of the monotony of public school life, even though, in the second novel, the hero is a successful pupil, becoming Rugby Captain, but still finding school boring.

In 1934, living in Liss, Hampshire, Birch became active in the Petersfield Labour Party, becoming its Honorary Secretary, and in November of that year he was selected as the party’s candidate for the next general election. A year later, having been appointed Economic Intelligence Officer to the League of Nations Union he resigned, although he offered to stand again if the constituency party could not find another  candidate. He was quoted in the Portsmouth Evening News (30 September 1935) as saying “ I am leaving the district…..because I have found it not possible to live indefinitely by writing books which nobody wants to publish, or by writing articles which nobody wants to read.” This suggests that his two novels had sold poorly (which probably explains their scarcity today) and that he had written one or more other books which had failed to find a publisher. This was not, strictly-speaking, the case, as W. Heffer & Sons had published, in 1933, his plea for a new economic system, The Waggoner on the Footplate, which he had begun writing when he was still at Cambridge, and which drew on his experiences as a voluntary worker for the National Social Credit Association of Great Britain.

His political career was briefly resurrected in October 1935, when he was re-adopted as the Petersfield Labour Party candidate, but in the following month’s general election he lost to Major Reginald Hugh Dorman-Smith, the Conservative candidate, by 22,877 votes to 6,061    although at the time that was the largest vote ever received by Labour in that constituency, and represented an 8.9% swing to the party.

In 1936, he published The Demand for Colonies: Territorial Expansion, Over-population and Raw Materials (League of Nations Union), which warned that Italy, Germany and Japan were intent on territorial expansion; and a year later he published Why They Join the Fascists (People’s Press), which suggested that the popularity of the British fascist movement was due in part to Oswald Mosley’s good looks and sexual charisma: “For some people,” wrote Birch, “his appearance resembles that of a traditional cavalry officer, for others that of a traditional gigolo.”

In 1938 Birch joined the fledgling Picture Post, founded by Stefan Lorant (who had launched Lilliput the previous year) and published by Edward G. Hulton. Shortly after Lorant was replaced as editor by Tom Hopkinson in 1940, Birch (who had become known as “Bobby Birch”) joined the Officer Cadet Training Unit, and was subsequently, in February 1941, made a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery Regiment. By the end of the war, he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

He returned to Picture Post, although along with several other writers he resigned in protest after the sacking of Hopkinson in 1950. The following year, he was appointed Editor in Chief of the Exhibition Captions accompanying Festival of Britain. By 1952 he had returned to Picture Post, eventually becoming Executive Editor. After Picture Post closed down in 1957 it appears he joined an advertising agency, and in 1961 he joined the newly-launched Sunday Telegraph, for which he founded and edited the Mandrake column for 20 years.

As a writer for Picture Post, he was responsible for numerous features, with a particular focus on political and social comment.  In August 1949, he wrote a lengthy article arguing for a union of European countries: 

“…..Not simply a continuance of the present loose co-operation in economic affairs, in which the sovereign States need only co-operate while it suits them. But a real political Union, leading to a real European Government, to which all states would surrender some of their sovereign rights.”

Birch’s main worry was that Germany could be a stumbling block, although he concluded 

“…..the true political Union of Europe does seem to be the one great beneficent and magnetic counterattraction capable of drawing a sufficient number of Germans away from the malign magnet of a resurgent Nationalist Germany.”

Amongst Birch’s books and pamphlets were Something Done: British Achievement 1945-47 (HMSO, 1948), which detailed the country’s economic recovery from the war; Germany and Western Union (Bureau of Current Affairs, 1950); The Story of Beer (Newman Neame, 1951 – issued on behalf of the brewery of Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co., 1951); Air Guide to Europe (Newman Neame, 1953 – revised and reprinted as Europe for the Air Traveller); The Advertising We Deserve: An Assessment (Vista Books, 1962 – based on his experiences in advertising); Into Europe: The Story of the Crusade for European Unity (Hulton, 1967);  The History of the T.U.C. 1868-1968 (Trades Union Congress, 1968); and The Writer’s Approach to Newspaper Writing (Harrap, 1976). He also contributed several short stories and articles to the magazine Lilliput between 1940 and 1950.

Birch was also a playwright, with his first play, The Orator, being staged in April 1944 at the Chanticleer Theatre Club (a small 130-seat theatre in Clareville Street, London, usually a private theatre attached to the Webber-Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art, but rented out on a non-profit-making basis during the war). This was an examination of political motives and politicians’ methods, contrasting the ideals of a socialist politician seeking to win a by-election in 1937 with those of his self-seeking wife. Two years later, in conjunction with Hans Rehfisch, he wrote Brides at Sea, a comedy about ten British G.I. brides crossing the Atlantic during a storm, which was performed at the Granville Theatre, Fulham. In his role as a Picture Post writer, Birch had earlier sailed on the first G.I. bride ship to leave England for America in January 1946.

Two years later, the Boltons Theatre in South Kensington staged two one-act plays by Birch, The House of Tolerance and Buy Me the Spanish Steps – both were set around the war, the first concerning the trial in France in 1944 of a brothel-keeper charged with collaboration with the Germans, and the second showing the reunion of two lovers who first meet as children in 1932 and are re-united in 1948. His last play, The Compelled People, set against the Berlin air-lift, was written in conjunction with his first wife, Lorna M. Hay, and premiered at the New Lindsay Theatre, Notting Hill, in 1949. A year later, it was adapted for radio and then television.

Birch had married Lorna Hay, a staff writer on Picture Post, in Westminster in the spring of 1947. They had one child, Imogen. This was the first of several marriages – sources differ as the exact number, variously quoted as five, six or seven, and it is only possible (via online genealogy records) to verify five. His second marriage was to Ingeborg Morath (born in Austria in 1923) in Kensington in the spring of 1951.  Morath was, at that time, working for the Magnum photographic agency in Paris, and she later joined Picture Post as a secretary before becoming a photographer. She later moved to America, where she married the playwright Arthur Miller in 1962, and where her reputation as a brilliant photographer was cemented.

In 1954 Birch had a child with Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, although they never married. The child, Henrietta, later became a “psychic astrologer.” Birch’s third wife was another Picture Post staffer, Lyndall Hopkinson (the daughter of Tom Hopkinson and the writer Antonia White), whom he married in Kensington in May 1955. Again, as with all of his marriages except his last, the union was very short-lived. 

In 1958 Birch married yet another Picture Post writer, Venetia Pauline Murray, with whom he had co-written a novel, It’s All Yours, which had been published by Arthur Barker the previous year under the pen-name of Francis Flight. Venetia was the daughter of Basil Murray, the Spanish war correspondent, and she later became a journalist on the Daily Express and the Sunday Telegraph, and a writer of novels and social histories. She had one child with Birch, Rupert, before their divorce and a subsequent two further marriages.

Birch’s last marriage was to Susan M. Stocken (born in 1935), in Kensington in the autumn of 1962. They had one daughter. The remained together until his death, after several years of ill health, which occurred on 18 February 1982 at 15 Defoe Avenue, Kew, Surrey. He left an estate worth around £25,000 (£70,000 in today’s terms).

Lionel Birch is now a forgotten figure, but in his time he was a well-regarded left-wing writer, and a notorious womanizer.  Two stories illustrate the latter side of his personality.  In 1932, immediately after leaving Cambridge    a tall, slim, debonair, witty and attractive young man   he was a member of acting troupe that descended on Bedales, a co-educational boarding school in Petersfield, Hampshire, in order to perform in the annual summer play put on by Lord Thomas Horder at his nearby mansion at Ashford Chace. Bedale allowed some of the visiting actors to camp in its grounds, but Birch’s tent proved to be such an irresistible draw for the older female pupils (and some of the female members of staff) that he was asked to leave by the Bursar, and warned never to come back. He got his revenge when, as the Labour candidate for the 1935 general election, he held a meeting in the Bedales grounds, using the then-law that an educational establishment could not deny a candidate the right to hold a meeting on its property.  (See John Dodd, “Bobby Dazzler” at http://www.gentlemenranters.com/november_2010_275.html).

His later propensity for short-lived marriages was illustrated by the author Jane Dunn in her book Antonia White: A Life (published by Jonathan Cape in 1998). She described how Lyndall Hopkinson, Antonia’s daughter,

“…..had fallen in love, quite suddenly, instantaneously, with a man she had known on and off since she was a girl. Lionel Birch, known as Bobby, was a charming journalist…..Married and divorced four times he had proposed to Lyndall on the spur of the moment on a visit to Rome. She had accepted, and then both embarked on a whirlwind love-affair. Unbeknownst to Lyndall he had then proposed to his previous wife, the photographer Inge Morath. At forty-six Bobby was exactly twice as old as Lyndall, and only four years younger than her father. There was another more worrying connection: his charm, his labile emotions and even his kind of looks were too familiar for comfort.”

Antonia had reservations about the affair (she herself had been married three times) and was also somewhat envious, of both Birch, “who, with such a catalogue of emotional disasters behind him and middle-age beckoning, could still start again with a beautiful young woman…..”, and Lyndall. Her reservations were justified:

“Too soon, Lyndall awoke from her midsummer night’s dream to see poor Bobby for what he was, rather sad and growing old; a pale reflection of the man she thought she had loved. A temporarily grief-stricken Bobby told Antonia that the marriage had lasted eight days.”

Birch should also be remembered for his two novels. They cannot be said to be great literature, but they were amongst the first serious attempts to bring the issue of schoolboy homosexuality to a wider audience. They are now, like Birch himself, more or less forgotten. Given Birch’s journalistic career and his complicated personal life, this neglect is, perhaps, not surprising. The novels are rarely mentioned in either histories of the school novel or in surveys of gay literature, an oversight which is sadly undeserved.

Robert J Kirkpatrick is well known as the world's leading expert on British school fiction, as a bookdealer his specialist catalogues have appeared on Front Free Endpaper before. He is the author of numerous books including the standard work on Victorian boys' periodicals From the Penny Dreadful to the Ha'penny Dreadfuller. More recently he has penned and published Pennies, Profit and Poverty: A Biographical Directory of Wealth and Want in Bohemian Fleet Street and Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby and the Yorkshire Schools: Fact v Fiction. (Other bookselling sites are available!) Thank you to Robert for making this piece available through Front Free Endpaper and for picking up on our past interest in the man and his books.


Aymery said...

Fascinating! There is something unexpected about a chronicler of schoolboy romance becoming a notorious womanizer and Labour Party candidate. Thank you for this Callum.

Callum said...

No thanks to me... all credit to the great investigative skills of Mr Kirkpatrick on this occasion!

Apuleius said...

Most informative--many thanks to Mr. Kirkpatrick and to Mr. James for hosting his article. Though long out of print, Pyramid can be downloaded from the internet archive: https://archive.org/details/Pyramid_201401

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