Raymond Mortimer, on his his first stint as a judge – far from the last, not least because he was to be made Literary Editor of New Statesman within the year, a post he maintained for twelve years – begins with some agreeable self-congratulation: ‘I sincerely congratulate myself on having set this competition, for the entries have been many and in my opinion brilliant. Indeed, I fancy I may have invented a new paper-game.’
Competitions like this – requiring short bursts of wit, and encouraging a mass response – are always good news for a reader. This is perhaps the first successful one in the competition’s history, barring the first clerihew competition in The Week-end Review (34B). It asks for the best suggested last words for any three of the following: Columbus, Pope Alexander VI, Marlowe, Sir Thomas Browne, Bishop Berkeley, Gibbon, Boswell, Catherine The Great, Horace Walpole, Jane Austen, The Duke of Wellington, Karl Marx, Macaulay, Ruskin, Dr. Bowdler, Mrs Eddy [Mary Baker Eddy], Napoleon III, W.G.Grace, Queen Victoria, Cezanne, Mr. Balfour, Proust, Freud, Al Capone, Einstein, Rockefeller, Hitler and Mae West.
Proust and Balfour (a rare instance of a prime minister who subsequently becomes foreign secretary, the other being Alec Douglas-Home – Balfour was held the post in World War One, although his remit did not cover the war) had died in the previous decade – Proust in 1922, Balfour in 1930. Freud, Capone, Einstein, Walpole, Rockefeller, Hitler and West were all living. John D(avison) Rockefeller died in 1937 a few weeks shy of his 98th birthday, at which point his worth was over 1.5% of American GDP – a fortune which dwarfs all contemporary fortunes.
John D. Rockefeller
Capone (only 33 in 1934) was two-and-a-half years into his spell in Alcatraz for tax evasion – he had five years to go. Freud lived until 1939. Walpole died in 1941 (in 1934, he had finished the film adaptation for David Copperfield, a film in which he appears as the tedious sermoniser, the Vicar of Blundlestone). Only Mae West (1980) and Albert Einstein (1970) survived the following decade. West was four years younger than Hitler, and eleven years older than Einstein. The inclusion of Cezanne is a nod towards Mortimer’s taste in painters.
Alexander IV was pope from 1492 to 1509 – he was Rodrigo Borcia, the father (by the second of his three wives) of Lucrezia. Napoleon III was Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, and was both President and Emperor (after a coup d’etat) of France. His widow Eugenie was a friend of Queen Victoria’s; she is to be found (as ‘Ex-empress’) at Windsor in the 1881 census. Perhaps, of all these individuals, Napoleon III is the most lost to history.
It becomes clear from the report that Mortimer will be taking this slightly more seriously than (say) Julian Barnes or Francis Wheen in the late 1970s incarnations of the competition. Entrants are rebuked (gently) for forgetting that Jane Austen was a religious woman, for forgetting that Rockefeller was a strict Baptist (besides, Mortimer does not like the entries on Rockefeller or Marx, though we are not told what went wrong with the latter). Macaulay and Gibbon and Cezanne attract almost no entries. The popular ones are, in order, West, Hitler, Grace, Queen Victoria, Bowdler.
The entries aren’t all chucklers! And you can see how stern Mortimer is in his rejoinder to “Magdalen Fillgrave” about Mary Baker Eddy.
The competition brings a number of no-longer-seen WR entrants out of the woods, like Eremita (carefully decribed as a woman, three times) and old lag contestants like James Hall, Alice Herbert, L.V. Upward and E.W. Fordham. There are several fresh names. (These are not ‘winners’ but authors’ entries that are printed.) The first example of a joint entry (well, a printed one) is from G. Mann and T. H. Somervell. G. Mann was a Kent-born, London-based accountant, Gerald Corry Mann, and he is featured here together with his brother-in-law, (Theodore) Howard Somervell (1890-1975). Somervell is actually not the first Olympian to have an entry a WR/NS competition printed (see W.E.B.Henderson), but he is the first gold medallist – for mountaineering! He was awarded this by Coubertin in 1924 after being part of the nearly successful 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions (there is some possibility that he may have climbed higher than George Mallory, who was his particular friend). He was a remarkable man, a medical man who had served on the Somme in one of the Casualty Clearing Stations, and who later used his money to set up a hospital in India, which is where he was at this stage of his career. Perhaps he was home (Windermere) on holiday. His book After Everest came out in 1936, and was well-received. But here I am celebrating his 50% stake in a non-winning three-word entry …
1922 Everest expedition. Somervell is third from right (back row). Mallory is front, row, far left.
W.P. Barrett may be William Phillips Barrett, the engraver of bookplates, but this an insecure identification. More likely is that the Michael Holland who is eventually picked as runner-up (twice over) – and who has won before, but not since 1932, is (Major) Michael (James) Holland, who was keen on light verse and the like and had a volume privately published. There is a photograph on the web here of him as a child which I reproduce here:
Born in 1870s, he died in 1956, gaining an MC during World War One in the campaign in Africa.
Now for the scoring. Mortimer decides he wants three good ones, entered in one trio (Bliss, as you will see, is much quoted, but from a number of different entries.) After much toing and froing, H.C. Riddell gets the guinea, and the second prize is divided between Michael Holland – and Michael Holland. I imagine Mortimer being pleased with this complicated little judgment.
Is it me, or are these attempts at French and German just not funny at all?