Books of 1939 (2): Appeasement, by George A. Birmingham.

(See other blogs in this category – Fiction of 1939).

‘Appeasement’ was written by George A. Birmingham, the pseudonym of James Owen Hannay (1865-1950) a clergyman and prolific writer of comic tales. At the time of writing he was vicar of  Holy Trinity Church, Kensington. He refused to celebrate the Munich Agreement with a service of thanksgiving at his church (1). His book is a general mockery of the panic that ensued during the Munich Crisis in London and elsewhere. Hannay’s comic detachment may be the result of his origins. He was the son of a Belfast clergyman and considered himself first and foremost an Irishman, although he settled in England from 1924.(2)

I had not come across the author before and found this a throroughly enjoyable and funny read. Hannay writes somewhat in the style of an Ealing Comedy with a light touch, poking fun at the ways and maners of the English, often acutely, always wryly observed, with a mild strain of anti-establishmentism. As a man of the cloth he is very funny on the Church of England and fellow clergyman. You could easily imagine him writing the script for the Boulting Brothers comedy, Heaven’s Above! starring Peter Sellers as the hapless vicar. Here is an author who sees the absurdity and folly of human life, applying it in ‘Appeasement’ to the great air raid scare which accompanied the Czech crisis of September 1938.

The story is set in the fictional village of Champflower Canonicorum, in the heart of deepest Somerset, far from the railway line or major trunk roads. The first part of the story concerns the attempts by the new squire to introduce progressive changes into village life and the stubborn resistance he is met with by the local population. In one sense it is the villagers’ resistance which has to be appeased; in another it is the attempts of the squire to make changes that are appeased by the local rector, who is on the side of the villagers, seeking only a quiet life himself, and attempts to put off the Squire by stategems of delay, diversion and obfuscation.

Thus: ‘No Prime Minister or Dictator in the whole world was more earnest in his efforts to secure and preserve the peace than Anthony Ponsonby, rector of Champflower Canonicorum. The parish for which he worked is indeed smaller than the smallest European state, but war, even blooodless war, is just as undesirable there as anywhere else’. (p.25).

A school strike by parents who refuse to send their children to a ‘better’ school’ in a nearby town is only resolved by the crisis of September 1938, when out of a sense of patriotic duty and the need to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ they agree to send their children to the new school.

Birmingham writes:  ‘It is not likely that Herr Hitler or any other European statesman will be much blessed in England whilst the memory of the autumn of 1938  remains fresh in their minds. But there is one village in England which owes a debt of gratitude to the German Fuerher, the Czecholslovakians, the Prime Minister, Mussolini, Stalin or whoever is ultimately held responsible for the scare which set the nerves of decent people ajar.’ The settling of the school dispute ‘might have dragged on for years if Herr Hitler and the Czechs and other people concerned had behaved differently,'(p.48-9)

The squire then gets caught up in the sense of panic and the need to be ‘doing something’ brought about by the threat of war and the great air raid scare which convulsed the land at the time – represented by the motto ‘Keep Calm and Dig’. Again he is met by resistance from the villagers who see no reason in digging up the cricket pitch to provide bomb shelters etc. The comic high point of part one is a village meeting organised to consider what to be done in the crisis, which descends into high farce and disorder with nothing achieved.

In part two, which forms a short middle section of the story, the scene shifts to St Sophie’s, a boarding school for girls in London run by the rector’s cousin, Miss Barrington. She like Anthony Ponsonby is of Irish blood and, both having been educated at Trinity College, Dublin, she shares his  ‘detached scepticism’ about ’causes’ and other people’s ‘enthusiasms’.

In London Miss Barrington, a model of common sense, is driven to distraction by the panic; in particular the voluminous, contradictory and frankly absurd advice being given by the authorities on the steps to be taken with regard to air raid precautions.

‘She had formed the opinion that England would not fight to preserve the Sudenten Germans from the fate they appeared to desire. She felt tolerably certain that Herr Hitler had no intention of attacking England until he became both stronger and richer than he was. It seemed certain therefore that London would not be bombed immediately and that the fuss that everyone was making was entirely unnecessary’. (p.104)

Seeking escape from the general madness she makes a telephone call to her cousin to ask if she can ‘evacuate’ the school to Champflower Canonicorum.  The vicar is only too happy to agree, seeing the arrival of 40 school girls as a useful diversion to keep the squire busy and prevent further unecessary strife with the villagers.

In part three the scene shifts back to Champflower Canonicoram following the girls’ arrival. Much fun is had sorting out the domestic details of their accomodation, which drives the squire to distraction.

Of the end of the September Crisis, Birmingham writes:

‘…the village people were in no mood for rejoicing. They remained  calm, in striking contrast to the temper of the more excitable people of London. There joy was unrestrained. The members of the House of Commons, without distinction of party, burst into cheers as had never before beat upon the walls of their chamber. Old ladies, in semi-fashionable  parts of London, dressed in their best clothes, and meeting each other in streets and parks, thanked God for the existence of Mr Chamberlain.’

It will be remembered that Hannay the clergyman had refused to have the bells wrung in his church as an act of public thanksgiving. We see in the following passage a sense of comic incredulity and poignant irony….

‘Peace had been plucked out of danger and it was to be an enduring peace, for out time, according to the highest authority. No war, or threat of war, would again disturb the comfortable calm of English life. And best of all – though this was an afterthought – it was peace with honour.’ More tellingly he adds, ‘…The whole world recognized with awe the inviobility of England’s plighted word, quailed before her courage and cheered her virtue. What could any patriot ask more?’

By the following March Hitler had occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain had offered the Poles a guarantee. War now loomed on the horizon.

The girls’ return to London is delayed by an outbreak of mumps, which leads the squire to revive his idea of introducing drainage and running water to the village. For the rector this spells distaster. Modern conveniences will lead to an influx of outsiders; weekenders looking for a rural retreat, buying up the local housing;  a tidal wave of widows who will build bungalows, destroying the character of the last true village in England. To meet this threat Ponsonby engages in some succesful matchmaking between his cousin and the squire, safe in the knowledge that she will deflect him from the path of restless improvement. And so the book ends with the wedding.

And what of the village?  ‘It has, so far, gone on in the sober joy of peace restored, ancient ways preserved and hateful modernism driven far away. So doubtless, if only statesmen are as wise as the Reverend Anthony Ponsonby life will go on in this happy village.’ (p.258)

During the Blitz Hannay stayed in London with his parishioners. He wrote several wartime novels including ‘Over the Border’ (1942) about Irish neutrality; ‘Poor Sir Edward’ (1942) and ‘Lieutenant Commander’ (1944) about the idiocies of war time bureaucracy.

The only other humourous treatment of the Munich Crisis/War scare or September 1938 I have come across is ‘There Needs No Ghost’ by Ruth Adam, descibed by the reviewer in The Listener as ‘A wity, cool description of how the September crisis affected a little town in the South of England, unpretentious and amusing,’ (16/2/1939, p.385). I am still looking for a copy of this book, now out of print. Searches of internet websites has thrown up no trace – but I am still searching!

Endnotes:

1. See Brian Taylor, ‘The Life and Writings of James Owen Hannay (George A. Birmingham) 1865-1950,’ 1995.

2. See also the entry for Hannay at p.78 of The Reader’s Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, Edited by Peter Parker, 1995.

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About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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