Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hats at war

George Orwell, as previously mentioned here, made the threat of the reappearance of the top hat -- portending the reappearance also of pre-war snobbery, Tory government and mass unemployment -- a running joke in his "As I Please" columns. Max Beerbohm, over in England from Rapello for the duration of the conflict, turns out to have had the equal and opposite thought. Here is Orwell, responding in October 1944 to a rote expression of conservatism in a writers' correspondence course:

I had the same feeling that the pre-war world is back upon us as I had a little while ago when, through the window of some chambers in the Temple, I watched somebody -- with great care and evident pleasure in the process -- polishing a top hat.

And here is Beerbohm, in 1940, mourning for an earlier lost world -- the London before 1910, when Piccadilly was crowded with fascinating horse-drawn carriages, rather than terrifying motor cars, and the artistic rebels in Chelsea had a proper respect for medieval precedent, and his crustiness was only a young man's act:

Perhaps after the present war the top hat will never reappear at any function whatsoever, even on the head of the oldest man. Perhaps it will be used as a flower-pot in the home, filled with earth and nourishing the bulb of a hyacinth or other domestic flower. I hope, in the goodness of my heart, the housemaid will not handle it untenderly, and will brush it the right way. For it is very sensitive. Its sensibility was one of its great charms. It alone among hats had a sort of soul. If one treated it well, one wasn't sure that it didn't love one. It wasn't as expressive as one's dog, yet it had an air of quiet devotion and humble comradeship. It had also, like one's cat, a great dignity of its own. And it was a creature of many moods. On dull cloudy days itself was dull, but when the sun was brightly shining, it became radiant. If it was out in a downpour of rain, without an umbrella, it suffered greatly: it was afflicted with a sort of black and blue rash, most distressing to behold, and had to be nursed back to health with tender and unremitting care. Nature herself was the best nurse, however, during the early stages of the malady. The patient was best left to grow quite dry by action of the air, before being ever so gently brushed with the softest of brushes. Gradually it became convalescent, and seemed to smile up at you while it was rubbed slowly with a piece of silk. And anon it was well enough to be ironed...

I don't say the man at the Temple had been out in the rain. But I'd like to think that's what he was thinking.

[Mainly on the Air, by Max Beerbohm, 1946. The once-famous war broadcasts, with a once-famous note apologising for the infelicities of his spoken style: "I would therefore take the liberty of advising you to read these broadcasts aloud to yourself -- or to ask some friend to read them aloud to you." Imagining his toying with the radio audience ("I am, in fact, a genuine Cockney (as you will already have guessed from my accent)") turns out to be one of the big pleasures of the book; by the later talks he is taking off announcers' quirks, and gesturing sarcastically towards the next programme as if he were John Peel on Home Truths. The ironic humour of his grumpy-old-man schtick is sometimes strained by the completeness of his grumpiness, but the context must have been transforming. John Updike, in Assorted Prose, talks of the broadcasts as a symbol of blitz stoicism. Max could moan about about "ferro-concrete" buildings without so much as acknowledging they were at that moment being bombed into ferro-concrete dust.]

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