ePub The Barber of Putney ePub

by J.B. Morton

John Cameron Andrieu Bingham Michael Morton, CBE, who is best known by his preferred abbreviation J.B. Morton, was the only child of Edward Morton (Author of San Toy) and Rosamond (daughter of Captain Devereux Bingham of Wartnaby Hall, Leicestershire).

He went to Harrow School, and later remarked "What on God's earth do people mean by 'the Public School Type'? Why, in one House we had Field Marshal Alexander, Pandit Nehru and me." Harrow later provided the inspiration for the fictional Narkover, a somewhat unorthodox establishment, full of card-playing, bribery, corruption and horse-racing, under the supervision of its dubious headmaster, Dr. Smart-Allick.

Morton spent one not very successful year at Worcester College, Oxford, and when World War I broke out, he promptly enlisted, serving first as a Private in the Royal Fusiliers in France. He was later commissioned in the Suffolk Regiment, blown up on the Somme, and in 1917 (after suffering shell-shock) he was transferred to MI(7b). He spoke of his work in Intelligence as "a fate which may befall the best of us".

After the war he wrote prose and poetry, and joined the Sunday Express, transferring to the Daily Express in 1922, but by his own admission was a "howling failure" as a reporter. However, he found the ideal medium for self-expression when he took over regular authorship of the 'By The Way' column, succeeding his friend D.B. Wyndham-Lewis as 'Beachcomber' in 1924.

His contributions consisted of brief commentary on items of current interest, occasional verse, bits of pseudo-news, instalments of long-running fantasy sagas, introducing a cast of recurring eccentric characters include Dr. Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht, Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, Captain Foulenough, Lady Cabstanleigh, Dingipoos, Mrs Wretch, and Prodnose - a character who represented the general public - a pedantic oaf who interrupted Beachcomber and had to be booted out.

J.B. Morton was 'Beachcomber' for more than half a century, writing the 'By The Way' column in the Daily Express from 1924 to 1975, and for most of that time producing it six days of the week. Remarkably, the quality of the writing remained constantly high throughout, and 'Beachcomer' became a byword for absurdity: "It was like something out of Beachcomber" is a phrase still used to describe a situation in which ridiculous things multiply themselves, or in which the convoluted dialogue of some pompous official carries him into incoherent fantasy. Ironically, the proprietor of Express newspapers, Lord Beaverbrook, who never understood Beachcomber's humour, made several attempts to sack Morton, but was always restrained by his advisors who assured him that it was funny.

Morton was a lifelong devotee of walking, and undertook extensive walks in the Pyrenees, in Poland, Norway, Italy and Ireland; but he was probably happiest on his beloved Sussex Downs, near to where he made his home after marrying Dr. Mary O'Leary of Cappoquin, County Wexford, in 1927.

Morton was attracted to France and spent much time there, walking and absorbing the ambience of the places he visited, delighting to sing on the march, occasionally swigging from a bottle of wine, and walking all day with no food but a crust of bread. During his times in France, his interest in History found expression through many of the books he wrote about subjects such as the fall of the Bastille, Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis XVII, Camille Desmoulins, and other studies of the French Revolution.

In later years, Morton became a walking anachronism. When television arrived he rarely watched it, and in a world becoming increasingly obsessed with electrical and electronic gadgetry, Morton wrote every word of his vast literary output with a fountain pen. He never rode a bicycle, and only once attempted to drive a car, but this ended when he crashed it into a tree in a London park.

Sometimes Morton's gusto could be overpowering, whether he was defending his

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PublisherPenguin Books
Pages count214
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