Magazine article The Spectator

Making the Angels Weep

Magazine article The Spectator

Making the Angels Weep

Article excerpt

UNHOLY PURSUITS:

THE WAYWARD PARSONS OF GRUB STREET

by E. S. Turner

The Book Guild, 15.95, pp. 224

E. S. Turner likes to be known by these initials, though in this age of instant informality they strike one as rather quaint. They seem to recall the likes of T. S. Eliot and H. G. Wells and roll-calls of boys in sepia-tinted photographs peering out from a dusty cricket pavilion. The Richmond and Twickenham Times modestly expanded that 'E' to 'Ernest' in a recent puff for this book, but in doing so committed a solecism that called forth a modest rebuke. `The first-naming of all and sundry is the curse of the age,' commented E. S. Turner in a letter that went on to wonder if the proprietor (Mr Dimbleby, no less) would care to be known as 'Dave'.

Manners may have altered, but nothing changes E. S. Turner who, in his 89th year, is publishing his 19th book. He has thereby beaten his publisher who, after 18 books, decided enough was enough. Nothing daunted, Mr Turner has launched this book himself, with the wistful thought that the 18th-century poet Charles Churchill, when likewise forced to publish The Rosciad unaided, went on to clear 1,000 in only two months. Ah, those were the days! Dreams of wealth may not be within E. S. Turner's mind, but he has given it his best shot. The book is crammed with unholy incidents and spicy details of clerical life in the second half of the 18th century, written in a dry, matter-of-fact style, as if anxious not to be mistaken for making anything up.

His hero is the mettlesome figure of the Rev. Henry Bate, parson, journalist, dramatist, sportsman, rake and, incidentally, editor of the Morning Post. In 1773 Bate makes his first appearance, protecting the honour of a fine-looking woman, Mrs Hartley, from a group of impudent oglers in the sylvan shades of Vauxhall Gardens. He first asks them to desist, and when met only by taunts of `soul-driver' and their threats to pull his nose, spit in his face etc, he challenges them to give him satisfaction at the Spread Eagle tavern. At the time appointed, one `Captain Miles' (whom he does not recognise to be one of the offenders) appears; but, nothing daunted, the two of them square up. After a 20-minute bout of fisticuffs, the 'Captain' cries off, his face 'a perfect jelly', while for himself, Bate declared, he `never received one blow '.

In 1780, afflicted by various disasters, Bate is similarly laying down the law for the survival of his newspaper, much to the displeasure of members of the board. …

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