Lincoln Allison on Belloc and the lost art of declamation

Looking for something else entirely, I come across this piece from 2005 on the Social Affairs Unit Blog by Lincoln Allison on Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses. Allison begins with a reminiscence which put me in mind of Kingsley Amis’ Popular Reciter:

In the 1980s one of the minor substantial pleasures of my life was to return home from work, choose something to sip and then to declaim comic verse to such of my sons as I could assemble. The frequency of my performance of this duty/pleasure went up markedly when I was instructed that the family had reached its target size. Now or never: concentrates the mind. Sometimes the audience was swelled by guest faces, intrigued and a little intimidated by the unfamiliar ritual of declamation, though I was much pleased when a woman stopped me in the street and told me how much her son was looking forward to coming round and having the experience again.

Roald Dahl featured prominently, of course, and A. A. Milne. Tennyson, Wordsworth, Southey and Sir Henry Newbolt made occasional appearances. Burns was not a success: Daddy’s Scottish voice and those dialect words were just too weird, taken together. The Great McGonagle is excellent for declaiming to a group of inebriated adults, but the ironies are lost on children who can’t see what is so funny about a railway disaster which took place on:

. . the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

The second favourite was Marriott Edgar, a much less well known name, but he did write “The Lion and Albert” which was mainly famous as a recording by Stanley Holloway (who himself wrote “Old Sam” about the dropping and picking up of a musket). The Edgar-Holloway combination produced many narrative verses, mainly rather repetitive sequels, but there are also some good ones on episodes from English history which acted out well.

The winner, though, by a small but clear margin, was the French-born former Liberal MP for Salford with his Cautionary Verses, originally a satire on Victorian morality tales, but long outlasting both the original genre and the author’s 150 or so other works.

Allison goes on to consider Belloc in more detail. I read a couple of collections of his journalism and would generally concur with Allison’s rather mixed judgment (perhaps I should read more of him, but unlike unlike Chesterton whose oft-maddening style masks observations of real substance I can’t find much to lure me in) :

For Belloc is very susceptible to the accusation that he is primarily a poseur. I recall with some incredulity a passage in his best-known travel book, The Path to Rome (1902), in which he appears to be claiming that he can tell whether wine was made by catholics or not by drinking it. In 2003 a dryly scathing attack on Belloc appeared in The Tablet written by Fr. Ian Boyd, President of the Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture. One of the accusations was that Belloc (unlike Chesterton), given that he was a highly intelligent man who claimed to go to mass every day, showed a remarkable lack of interest in religious doctrine, blithely remarking that if the Mother Church instructed him that the communion wafer turned into an elephant, then he would be quite happy to believe that. This sounds more like a wind-up for fellow intellectuals than a serious interest in religion and seems to go with a rapidly waning enthusiasm for French national service. There is some evidence, also, that not all of his famous walks (including the one to Rome) were actually walked.

There are intriguing questions about all the great successful children’s writers concerning how one should relate their appeal to what is, in most cases, considerable achievement in other fields and dissident views on many matters. I think there is a general pattern: it is that such writers dislike industry, “modernity”, capitalism and the “hurly burly of everyday life” ( as Jonathan Miller’s Beyond the Fringe vicar has it, in imitation of Dean Inge) and offer us something more “spiritual”, usually either religion or rural nostalgia or both. This is true even when they happen to be Governor of the Bank of England as Kenneth Grahame was, though I have never gone through Tarka the Otter or Salar the Salmon to see if you can tell whether Henry Williamson was a Nazi. (There are no doubts if you read his adult novels.)

I have read Tarka, and can vouch there is no trace of Nazism.

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