Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sir Philip Gibbs

"If I have learned anything it is that pity is more intelligent than hatred, that mercy is better than justice, that if one walks around the world with friendly eyes one makes good friends."

You may already be familiar with the name of Philip Gibbs, but until I started working with secondhand books, I had never heard of him. That isn't unusual. Every day I handle hundreds of titles by authors whose names have disappeared from the collective memory of readers, but Gibbs wasn't just any writer.

It is hard to convey how famous Philip Gibbs was. To call him the David Frost of his day would be an insult, as Gibbs comes across as a far greater man, whose integrity wasn't compromised by ambition or success. But like Frost he was one of the most famous journalists of his day, confided in by presidents, prime ministers and monarchs.

It is difficult to write even a very potted biography of Philip Gibbs, as he led such a long and eventful life, spanning a period that began with George Eliot publishing Daniel Deronda and ended a few months before the Beatles' first No.1 hit. However, here is a brief outline:

Born in 1877, to a family that he later described as belonging to the "shabby genteel middle class", Gibbs grew up in south London with his four brothers and two sisters. The children were all educated at home, partly for financial reasons, but also because Gibbs' father regarded public schools as "Horrible dens of bullying and brutality."

By the time he had reached adolescence, Gibbs knew that he wanted to earn his living from writing. At 16, he had his first article published, in the Daily Chronicle. At 18, he got his first job, working for the publisher Cassell. He was just an office boy, but a chance encounter with the managing director H. O. Arnold-Foster led to a commission for what would become Gibbs' first book, Founders of the Empire.

At 21, Gibbs was married and keen to pursue a career in journalism. A stint at the Bolton Evening News soon opened the door to Fleet Street and his reputation slowly began to grow. But it was one story in particular which sealed Gibbs' reputation, when he exposed the American explorer Dr Frederick Cook's claim to have reached the North Pole as fraudulent.

During the First World War, Philip Gibbs was one of only five official war correspondents and his work during this period earned him a knighthood. It was a life-changing experience. Gibbs was appalled by the incompetence of the military and waste of human life. After listening to Gibbs describe the situation at the Front, Prime Minister Lloyd George remarked that "if people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow."

But people didn't know. The official censors made sure that Gibbs' dispatches were heavily edited and the reading public were protected from the full horrors of trench warfare and the largely futile attempts to break the military stalemate. After the First World War, Gibbs had his revenge. In Now It Can Be Told, Gibbs launched a blistering attack on the military and made a plea for diplomacy to replace warfare, with all disputes mediated by the League of nations.

A liberal by nature who, in addition to his anti-war views, had also been a keen supporter of the suffragettes, Philip Gibbs was a controversial figure at times. But his prominence opened many doors and in the 1920s, he became the first journalist to interview the Pope (Gibbs was a Catholic, which must have helped).

By the time of his death in 1962, Philip Gibbs was one of the most well-known writers of his day. He left a huge body of work, consisting of over 40 novels and around a dozen non-fiction books, which in their day were bestsellers. So why has his name been forgotten?

It could be argued that Gibbs' obscurity says more about the ephemeral nature of journalism than his gifts as a writer. But George Orwell didn't suffer the same fate, so perhaps Gibbs' books just weren't that good.

During the last few months I've read two works by Philip Gibbs: a novel called Blood Relations and an autobiography called The Pageant of the Years. Both books were flawed, but highly enjoyable reads. Neither book deserves to be out of print.

Blood Relations is a story of love and war. The novel begins in Oxford, shortly before the First World War, and introduces a German aristocrat - Count Paul von Arnsberg - who has just graduated from Heidelberg and wishes to continue his education in Britain. At first, the English students are amused by his stolid, Teutonic manners and relentlessly earnest approach to life, but gradually they warm to Count Paul and when the term ends, he is invited to stay in rural Surrey (not an oxymoron in those days) with the family of a friend, Edward Middleton.

During the visit, von Arnsberg falls in love with Edward's sister Audrey and a few months later they marry. Their honeymoon is spent touring Europe and everything appears idyllic, but when Gibbs ends a chapter with the sentence, "It was very gay in Vienna in May of 1914", we know where the narrative is heading.

At this point, the novel really takes off. Audrey is trapped in Germany, living with Paul's family, while her husband is at the front fighting the very men who were, only a year earlier, his friends. It is a compelling story and, although it could be argued that the characters are rather stereotyped, Gibbs' even-handed approach to the combatants and his vivid descriptions of the reality of modern warfare make a refreshing change to the jingoistic, bellicose works of some of his contemporaries.

But this isn't just a war novel. In some ways, the most interesting part of the narrative is the latter part, which describes what happened to Germany after the Treaty of Versailles. Gibbs isn't subtle. He clearly (and prophetically) feels that the financial penalties placed on Germany can only lead to ruin. In this sense Blood Relations is more of a polemic than a completely successful work of fiction.

However, the author's intimate knowledge of trench warfare and 1920s Germany make this a compelling read and the narrative moves along at a good pace. I particularly liked the way the that Gibbs enables the reader to view the First World War through German eyes.

Overall, I loved Blood Relations and I'm sure that, in the right hands, this novel would make a fantastic film.

As for Gibbs' autobiography, it is a highly enjoyable read, but lacks the necessary combination of confessional introspection and shameless bitchiness of the greatest memoirs. Reading The Pageant of the Years is like meeting a very amiable gentleman who regales you with a succession of amusing anecdotes, but afterwards you realise that he has told you very little about himself. The nearest Gibbs comes to dishing the dirt is a subtle insinuation that Marie Corelli pinched his sandwiches at the coronation of George V.

Nevertheless, for all its shortcomings as a memoir, it is a highly entertaining read and I would recommend The Pageant of the Years to anyone who is interested in 20th-century history. Alongside his recollections of life as a correspondent in both wars, I was particularly fascinated by Gibbs' eyewitness account of the terrible famine in Russia, during the early days of the Soviet Union:

"In one village I remember we had as our guide a tall, middle-aged peasant. When he spoke of the famine in all those villages he struck his breast and tears came into his eyes. He led us into timbered houses where Russian families were hibernating and waiting for death. There was one family I saw who left an indelible mark on my mind. The father and mother were lying on the floor when we entered and were almost too weak to rise. Some young children were on a bed above a stove, dying of hunger. A boy of eighteen lay back in a wooden settle against the window sill in a kind of coma. These people had nothing to eat - nothing at all."

I was also touched by this recollection of a meeting with Ramsay MacDonald, when he was Prime Minister:

"One day after another lunch...he drove me back in his car to the House of Commons. There was a detective sitting in front with the driver but we had a glass screen between us and could talk privately.

'My dear Philip,' he said suddenly, 'I am a broken man. I can't put two sentences together, and I can't put two ideas together. I am blind, and old, and useless.'

He grasped my hand and clung to it, like a small boy needing comfort and my heart was filled with pity for him, and I was stirred by the poignancy of this tragedy. But when I left him I was disturbed by the thought that a man in this state of mind and body should be Prime Minister at such a time in our history."

Gibbs was no Orwell, but he was a good journalist who lived a remarkable life and the best of his writing - the earlier novels like the semi-autobiographical Street of Adventure (which used to be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in journalism) and his works of non-fiction - deserve to survive.

What I find most surprising is that nobody has written a biography of Philip Gibbs. From a biographer's point of view, the raw materials of Gibbs' life offer an embarrassment of riches. Here is a man who was born in the middle of the Victorian age, in a world without cars, telephones or cinema. When Gibbs died, the Space Age had already begun.

Sir Philip Gibbs travelled extensively, witnessing some of the most momentous events of the 20th century at first hand and meeting many of the people who were responsible for them. In his writing, he always comes across as a man who is seeking to understand and convey the whole picture, rather than reinforce any preconceived ideas.

Once a household name, today Philip Gibbs is largely forgotten. This is a great pity, as everything I've read by and about him suggests that Gibbs was a remarkable individual, whose compassion and loyalty earned him many friends. As far as his work is concerned, perhaps the sum is greater than its parts - he didn't seal his reputation with a masterpiece - but it more than deserves a new generation of readers.

20 comments:

The Poet Laura-eate said...

What an extraordinary man. Thank you for bringing him to our attention Steerforth. I will tip off my eminent biographer friend!

Lucille said...

You should write it.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Lucille. I'd love to write it, although I think that Gibbs deserves a proper biographer. Also, I don't know how I'd manage to find the time to research it - I work 40 plus hours a week and can't live on what I'm paid now.

I can't see Mrs Steerforth giving the idea the thumbs-up!

Martin H. said...

Wonderful writing, Steerforth. Philip Gibbs is a new name to me. After reading this post, I'm wondering how on earth that could be.

Thanks for flagging up the autobiography. I'll keep an eye open for it.

T said...

There are so many people in the world who do extraordinary things - only have them forgotten when they have gone. As a writer, I find this to be a most terrible end.

Tim Footman said...

A greater man than David Frost? Faint praise...

Steerforth said...

I know. I can't imagine Gibbs doing "Through the Keyhole".

Steerforth said...

After reading Martin's comment, I should mention that Gibbs wrote two other volumes of memoirs: Crowded Company and Life's Adventure.

Anonymous said...

I think Lucille is right -- you'd be a wonderful biographer, not just for Gibbs but for Derek as well.

Don't you just hate it when realities (like food and rent) intrude???

Canadian Chickadee

Thomas at My Porch said...

Blood Relations sounds very interesting. I wonder what my chances are of finding any of Gibbs' books here in the US. Will be fun to keep an eye out for him while out book hunting.

Brett said...

An excellent post, Steerforth. I had never heard of him.

Reminds me of another forgotten Catholic Englishman, Maurice Baring.

Shelley said...

My story is about our country between the wars, but as I read about Gibbs' writing, it occurred to me that an Iraq vet would probably get more out of this book than any of us could.

As he says, if anybody knew what it was like....

And some do.

Sam Jordison said...

I'd never heard of Gibbs either. How cruel time can be. Fantastic Ramsay McDonald story...

Between Channels said...

I could say this about any number of your posts regarding literature, but thank you for bringing this fascinating writer to my attention; the feelers are out and I will scour my local second hand bookshops.

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Ah, thanks so much for this. Just stumbled in via Google ... Philip Gibbs is one of my heroes and it's great to see him getting such a nice write-up. Perhaps he was no Orwell when it came to fiction but his first world war reminiscences are truly stunning, mindblowing and beautifully written. I have one of his called "Realities of War", published in 1920 when everyone was sick of reading about it, and it's the most vivid account of life in the front line that I've ever seen. Maybe he needed the horror of the trenches to bring out the best in him.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Rebsie. It's so nice to come across someone who has actually heard of Gibbs!

the 29th Earl said...

Like you i too had never heard of Philip Gibbs till i looked up "The Deathless Story of the Titanic" and found him referred to on a BBC site on Wallace Hartley (the famed Titanic bandleader). There the authorship of that publication is attributed to Gibbs, though there is no mention of any author anywhere within the publication itself. In lists of Gibbs works (through which route i found your splendid tribute) i find no reference to it either. Do you know if that contemporary report on the sinking of the Titanic was indeed authored by this quite likely journalist?

Steerforth said...

It's quite possible, but I would have expected a reference to it in Gibbs' autobiography. As far as I can remember, he doesn't mention the Titanic.

the 29th Earl said...

My apologies for asking about Gibbs' authorship of "The Deathless Story of the Titanic". Having now looked again at the first page, it quite clearly states under the title headline: "By PHILIP GIBBS".
May i assume this is the same Philip Gibbs as your Philip Gibbs? It seems a little strange that this little newsprint publication issued by "Lloyd's Weekly News"[sic], admittedly only for 2d, does not get a mention among his other publications and journalism. It is a very thorough coverage of the event, published, it is claimed on the same BBC website, two weeks after the event, though i think it may have been a little longer than that.

Brenda Teese, Quakertown Pennsylvania said...

coming in late on this discussion. Like some of the other commenters I ran across your blog while doing a Google search on Philip Gibbs.

Thank you for this excellent write-up on Gibbs. There isn't much out there from what I can gather. Like some of the other commenters, I think you would be a worthy biographer. But like you, I think you would lose your shirt if you put the time and energy into it. To my mind, Gibbs is something of a revisionist historian of WW1. He can't stand up to the mythology surrounding it, even though he is one of the few who gives an honest and comprehensive account of the war.

I ran across Gibbs while reading Paul Fussell's "The Great War and Modern Memory" (1975, republished 2000) Fussell is an American, you may not be familiar with him. His account of the Western Front trench warfare is a bit revisionist in that he tells the complete story, which no one much really wants to know about. But he is a great read, and a great admirer of Gibbs, he quoted so much from "Now It Can Be Told" (1920) that I got hooked.

I agree with "Shelly" -- an Iraq War vet would get a lot out of reading Gibbs. It is interesting to read some of Fussell's reaction to the events of the Iraq War, Fussell being a WW2 infantry combat vet. It's like the same screenplay, just a few modifications to accomodate the latest technology of war.