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Saturday, 7 April 2012


Charlie Masterman was a grandson of my 3x great uncle Thomas Gurney. A biography of him by Eric Hopkins published in 1999 is subtitled The Splendid Failure, which is a bit harsh! If he didn’t fulfill all of his huge potential as a politician and author, he certainly accomplished more than most men.

Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman (1873-1927)

I wouldn’t dream of attempting to cover his whole life in a single post here, or even just the achievements of his political or journalistic careers. He was an occasional MP from 1906, in and out of Parliament and even Government on a regular basis only because he was unable to find a safe Liberal seat. (There were still such things before the First World War, before the foundation of the Labour Party.)

At the outbreak of the war he was serving as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, but with a background in journalism he was appointed as head of the new War Propaganda Bureau. One of his successes there was the introduction of the concept of the War Artist. In the last two years of the war he sent more than ninety artists to make a visual record of events in Europe. Although there were limitations on what they could exhibit during the war, they were given a fairly free hand in what and where they could paint. The long term legacy of the artists, who included Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Augustus John, is an important one.

We Are Making A New World (1918)
Paul Nash’s ironic title for a painting of No Man’s Land

Charlie’s first move at the Bureau was to recruit Britain’s most talented writers to the cause, among them H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and John Buchan (coincidentally a distant relative by marriage). Again, they were given pretty free rein in their written discourses on the war. Masterman took the view that as long as their facts were accurate, the facts spoke for themselves and that the public would be able to make up its own mind. Other disagreed, arguing that (as one writer put it), “the allied case should be as vociferously and as duplicitously made as the German [one].”

Under Masterman’s direction, “over two million books in seventeen languages were published in the first two years of the war, almost entirely without the readers’ knowledge that these were sponsored by the British government.”

Charles Masterman himself had literary aspirations. He had been editor of the literary review Granta while at Cambridge in the 1890s; in the early 20th century he was the literary editor of the Daily News; and before entering politics he had published several impassioned books about the social state of the country notably 1909’s Condition of England. Many of the writers whom her recruited for propaganda purposes were already acquaintances or even friends.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1836)
photographed in 1905 by Alvin Langdon Coburn

G.K. Chesterton was one such. Perhaps it was Masterman’s 1909 book which brought the two liberal thinkers together although it feels as if they were older friends than that. In 1910, Chesterton dedicated his new book What’s Wrong With The World to his friend with a lengthy and humorous introduction “to C.F.G. Masterman, M.P. – My Dear Charles.”

It’s a delightful few hundred words, packed with the Chesterton wit. It begins with smut: “I originally called this book What Is Wrong [and a] number of social misunderstandings arose from the use of the title. Many a mild lady visitor opened her eyes when I remarked casually, “I have been doing What Is Wrong all this morning.” And one minister of religion moved quite sharply when I told him … that I had to run upstairs and do what was wrong, but should be down again in a minute.”

Chesterton goes on to praise the writing of Masterman, “one who has recorded two or three of the really impressive visions of the moving millions of England, You are the only man alive who can make the map of England crawl with life.” In addressing the reason for dedicating the book to Charlie, he writes, “I do it because I think you politicians are none the worse for a few inconvenient ideals; but more because you will recognise the many arguments we have had. And perhaps you will agree that the thread of comradeship and conversation must be protected because it is so frivolous. It is exactly because argument is idle that men must take it seriously; for when  shall we have so delightful a difference again? But most of all I offer it to you because there exists not only comradeship, but a very different thing, called friendship; an agreement under all the arguments and a thread which, please God, will never break.”

Dust jacket for Walter S. Masterman’s The Wrong Letter
the US edition published by Dutton in 1926

That bond of friendship was strong enough for Chesterton to write another preface 20 years later, for the first pulp fiction novel by Charlie’s brother Walter S. Masterman. Chesterton, who as author of the Father Brown mysteries was no mean crimewriter himself, is again lavish in his admiration, finding (if I’m honest) far more than I did to praise about the new novelist’s first faltering steps in fiction. Walter definitely got better with practice!

I had the very great pleasure of speaking to Charlie’s son last year, and of sending him a copy of the Chesterton dedication to his father which he had never seen. Were Charlie my own father, I would be as proud as anything for him to have such a friendship as Chesterton’s.

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