AFTER THE LORD MAYOR'S SHOW
by H. W. Twyman (Formerly Editor, UNION JACK)
I pondered a while as I looked at the byline which I had fitted to this article. It credited me with having been Editor of Union Jack and likewise of its successor and supplanter, Detective Weekly. And the more I pondered that statement, the less I liked it. Union Jack, yes, Detective Weekly — No! Including that last-named was just an unthinking mistake... and I have corrected it.
For I frankly assert that the Weekly was nothing to be proud of, especially towards its end and I'd prefer not to be associated with it lest I lose whatever editorial reputation I may have as sponsor for Sexton Blake.
What the devoted collector values highest in his tireless desire to garner the legendary and fast-vanishing lore of his favourite papers past is accurate fact. Insofar as that byline suggests I was responsible for the complete run of Detective Weekly it is less than half accurate. I wasn't over-agreeable as regards its adoption as a replacement for the good old Union Jack - I wasn't asked.
I now propose to give the facts, never publicly disclosed till now, happy in the knowledge that I can tell the story with all the comforting assurance of a witness in court — a witness on oath. Besides, varying my reason for being in the courtroom, to clear my name.
Oldtime readers of the World's most-written about detective hardly need to be reminded that the transformation of 'Sexton Blake's Own Paper' was a transformation and not the result of a take-over bid by another, more successful journal. Detective Weekly was, in short, merely a voluntary, re-jigged version of its predecessor in that it was to be an improved vehicle for Blake. The same mixture, but in a different bottle. (But not, I may say, voluntary for me; or, in my judgment, an improvement.)
The usurper's career seems to have justified that judgment.
Undeniably UJ's circulation figures had been slipping in a slow, gradual descent which showed on the chart over a span of years as a very slightly tilted, horizontal line. Sometimes the line wavered a little, up or down, but the general trend was down. Something had to be done about it, and many things were, but desperate devices to level it were a bit too rash, I considered, as matters then stood. The best plan seemed to be to take the longer view to increase the attractiveness of the paper's content — story quality, makeup and so forth — and regain lost ground. Ideas would come, as they always had. Ideas like the 'Sexton Blake Dead' yarn, plus its country-wide poster, for instance, that sent the horizontal line rocketing right off the chart. And, incidentally, what a sadly prophetic idea that was! Even then Blake was within sight of dying, had any of us had the hardihood to face the fact. What nobody yet realised was that the man who had thrilled his public for upwards of forty years and had now achieved the pinnacle of his finest hour was doomed, in the inevitable nature of things, to the common consequences of change. Or, as one of our foremost Blake authorities, Walter Webb, puts it with the benefit of a historian's hindsight: "In fictional form he battles against crime; in fact, he fights a desperate battle against the times."
But at that moment way back in 1933 I had no thought of the approaching death of the great man as I had known him, or any notion of his attempted Berkeley Square rejuvenation in the still-distant 50's, a quarter of a century in the unimagined future. Nor had I any suspicion of an impending change-over in the paper itself. It was a shot-in-the-arm expedient dreamed up by Higher Authority at the directorial board table or somewhere. They didn't know much about Sexton Blake or the Sexton Blake public, but were quite knowledgable about production costs and circulation figures. Union Jack was to be abolished, and something bigger and better take its place.
The odd thing was that only a week or two earlier I had been complimented by the Managing Director, Mr. James Brown, on the look of the paper, and especially on the striking covers.
So Detective Weekly was born.
It was a drastic decision. Nothing less as it turned out than a life-and-death gamble on the survival of one of the firm's oldest, biggest assets. To his admirers Blake's name represented no more than a weekly spell of reading enjoyment and thrills, but to the Amalgamated Press it was a copyright of incalculable value. Goodness knows how many thousands of pounds it had yielded the firm's shareholders during the forty years they had been profiting from it.
With well-remembered knowledge of the crisis, I can say I did my utmost to get the changeling off to a good start, all the more earnestly because of my inward doubt that this was indeed going to be the answer to that slow slipping of the circulation figure. A wholesale roundup of my best writers, a new fact-crime article series, and many less important embellishments, all adding up to what I fervently hoped was better value for money for readers... but nothing could atone for the coloured cover's absence, or for the new unwieldy, large-size page.
The customers' reception of Sexton Blake in his new guise ranged from the tepid to the hostile. A thorough-going change of format or makeup is always a tricky operation, leaving faithful old 'regulars' feeling shaken up as if in an earthquake, but not always recruiting newcomers. Periodical-buying is so much a matter of habit. And in this case the queasy, earthquake mood did not gradually pass away with an acceptance of the new habit, as had been gambled on. It persisted and even deepened. In fact it lasted and the change was resented long after the new paper was dead.
But that is anticipating a little. Meanwhile time passed and cause-and-effect phenomena were operating. After a while the Weekly's story-quality began to show evident signs of degeneration having set in. The great detective did not seem so great; he seemed unfamiliar and uncomfortable in his new rigout just as he was in the resplendent dressing gown Mrs. Bardell gave him one Christmas and which he never wore, except when he felt she might catch sight of him in the old, acid-stained one.
Then the Editor — not I, by that time — tried to revivify him by the deplorable device of reprinting Blake stories from the happier, reader-responsive past. Next, he threw him overboard altogether by using alien stories from The Thriller, in which he did not usually appear at all. Finally the yellow-covered offshoot of the lively, lamented Union Jack scraped the bottom of the barrel and came up with ancient yarns that had been published in its forebear as far back as nearly thirty years earlier. Blake was Blake, and they had to have him back even on archaic reprint terms.
It couldn't go on! By now too many Blake lovers had given up in despair, and the almost-level line was nose-diving to death. It hit bottom with issue No. 50.
In case all this should seem to be the jaundiced testimony of a prejudiced witness, let us venture a quote from an impeccable source:
"Yes, to me at that time (from midway through the 1900s when authors' names were first published — HWT), the old UJ was at its zenith. But apparently the people at the helm did not think so, for soon the old flag, which had flown at the masthead for generations, was to be hauled down. In its place we got the Detective Weekly. Instead of the striking coloured covers we got a permanent, bilious-looking yellow.
"True, several of the authors and Eric R. Parker carried on, but somehow the spirit of the clear old Union Jack did not live on. Why, in its new form they even evicted Sexton Blake for a time!
"Surely the editor who used to meet us at the Round Table was not responsible for that?"
And who whose are those words? They were penned, in 1952, by none other than the late, great Herbert Leckenby (No.66, Collector's Digest, p.191). It was thirteen years after the yellow changeling had 'limped to its inglorious and unlamented, demise' — as another Sexton Blake mourner put it.
How right Herbert was! I heard of him only in after-years, but he had known Blake far longer than I, so was even better qualified to pass his judgment. As an onlooker he saw more of the game. as every reader does; for an editor, focussing on a mass of detail ranging from libel risks to misplaced commas, cannot have the broad, detached sweep of perception that the carefree customer commands.
But there are two sides to a question, so I have been at pains to make a search through the Digest in an effort to get evidence on both.
I cannot find a solitary instance of anyone disagreeing with Herbert!
Conversely, leading authorities on the Blake tradition, of the stature of Vernon Lay and Walter Webb, come down on Herbert's side with emphasis and vigour. Of these two the more specific is Lay. Says he:
"For a time at least the new venture was a marvellous success, sales of the early numbers climbing to record heights — only to fall back later when the early promise was not maintained. And in spite of various attempts from time to time to give it new life finally limped to its inglorious and unlamented demise in 1939.
"The decision to dispense with coloured covers is hard to understand, and although the larger size gave the artists more scope... the horrible drab cover gave the magazine a most unprepossessing appearance. Owing to the later policy of reprinting earlier stories... only the first 60 or 70 numbers are regarded as of interest in the Blake saga... "
So Detective Weekly died, aged 50 weeks. I have tried to convey what part I personally had in its short but un-gay life, and will now lift a corner of the veil as to why I withdrew from it, and why such a solidly established journalistic property as Union Jack was jettisoned in the first place.
The notion was the brainchild of a certain member of the A.P.'s business side who was apparently an expert on statistics or something of the sort but certainly no journalist. He believed, and proclaimed, that the Union Jack was disastrously named. He noted that its circulation in Ireland was distressingly low and said any kind of a union jack was a red rag to a John Bull-hating Irishman who naturally associated our paper with the English oppressors and consequently shunned it in droves.
Of course, it could have been objected that 'Sexton Blake's Own Paper' — perfectly non-political — had been running for forty years, Irish or no Irish and that they were no great supporters of popular literature anyway, even innocent of politics. But the thing didn't seem valid enough for long argument.
However, that was his theory, right or wrong, and he concealed it from nobody. The seed was sown, and the germination began; so that, when in due time something had to be done, word came down from above and our Union Jack came fluttering down from the masthead.
"Every copy we can sell in Ireland is that much extra in the kitty. New circulation! Abolish the title and cash in!" was the reasoning of the profit and loss specialists. Alas! It didn't work out that way, and the unimpressed Irish refrained from surging forward in droves to buy the bilious-yellow Detective Weekly. It was Sexton Blake who was abolished, and even his British and overseas admirers found a distaste for him in his new presentation. Within a comparatively little time he was dead so far as weekly appearances were concerned. What life still lingered in him survived monthly in the SB Library until the awful day came when he was evicted from cosy Baker Street and shifted to what's technically known as 'alternative accommodation' and an alternative personality — in Berkeley Square.
It was the final blow to the Blake we knew. He about whom had been written so many millions of words — so many more than about any other detective whatsoever — was really dead at last.
As to my own part in the period of his exile and banishment in the unfamiliar wilderness, or in his sufferings from the starvation of too much reprinting, dear Herbert Leckenby correctly surmised: I was indeed not responsible; Blake was in other hands, passed from one custodian to another like an old, unwanted dog.
When the moment of his ultimate dissolution was approaching, and by the time I had got out the first score or so of the Weekly's first issues, I was assigned to design and produce a new paper of a different kind and class — no fiction, no detectives. I began work on it — market studies, source-material supplies, the search for books and authors, for designers and illustrators. It was a long job. The new publication was to be superlative and the preparations for it on a no limit expenses basis. My task was to fabricate a tangible, hand-made prototype of the projected magazine, a preview 'dummy'.
I soon found all this was a full-time undertaking. I could no longer handle also the routine, time-consuming work of running the weekly rebirth of Sexton Blake in a fresh adventure, so after a while relinquished him to my second-in-command colleague Leonard A. Berry. As events turned out, he was the first of many, for Berry eventually left the firm and got his foot on the first rung of a ladder which led him to New York and to becoming one of the chief public relations officers of the United Nations.
But that is by the way, and the story of my new assignment is another story too.
All that need be said here is that I was done with Sexton Blake of Baker Street.
For nearly twelve hectic, happy years I had been privileged to be his editor, and daily had I had the pleasant exhilaration of associating with a group of gifted and interesting men — and Blake was the most gifted and interesting of them all. We were beings of flesh and blood; he the unsubstantial figment of our fancy. But, despite fashion's whims and the dictates of chequered change, he will outlive us all.
For the benefit of those readers who may have been unduly mystified by the title of this story, the author obligingly offers this enlightenment. "It is a remark" (he says) "which is part of a saying, probably more often heard in England than in the more farther-flung countries of the Commonwealth. The complete observation is: 'After the Lord Mayor's coach comes the dust cart', and its meaning is of course obvious enough, especially in the light of the uncomplimentary comparison to which the speaker draws attention.
"I have seen," (continues Mr. Twyman) "a fair number of Lord Mayors' Shows in my time, but though I have not invariably used the opportunity to verify the literal truth or otherwise of the allegation or should I call it a proverb? — I can confidently say there was at least one occasion when I did.
"The answer is that at that Show no dustcart was featured in the procession.
"As to the origin of this somewhat cynical crack, one cannot but fall back on pure speculation in the absence of social historians specialising in obscure or picturesque folkways and quaint manners and customs. Even as far away from the City of London as Australia it may be known that the Lord Mayor's Show, or more properly Procession, is part of an ancient ceremonial held on the 9th November each year, when the incoming Lord Mayor takes office. It is a day of pomp and circumstance when all commonplace commercial traffic through the venerable City is rerouted and the glittering, spectacular Show takes over military magnificence and civic splendour, climaxed by the Coach itself, the new Lord Mayor being its cargo.
"It is a wonderful coach that the pavement-packed thousands cheer; very old, very cumbersome, drawn by its team of sturdy matched horses (lent by a firm of brewers and normally accustomed to pulling beer drays around these same streets). The coach is covered with gold leaf where it is not decorated by the oil paintings of some famous old-time artist or other. On the box, majestic and awesome, with his red face and white horsehair wig under his cocked hat, is the almost as famous Lord Mayor's Coachman.
"And finally, if this proverb is to be believed, comes the dustcart — doubtless a more useful vehicle, but not so magnificent. Whether it actually acts as rearguard to the Lord Mayor, or whether it doesn't, is of little moment. But there must be some substratum of historical fact in such a saying. My own theory is that its former usefulness has been superseded by the invention of the internal combustion engine.
"In the old days the greater part of the Show was composed of cavalry detachments — horses. In these sad mechanical times almost everything in the procession is petrol-driven, floats, cars and so forth; the cavalry has vanished. One can easily realise how necessary and desirable it was in those tranquil times to have a dustcart stationed in its logical place in the procession; and to imagine its outriders, as it were, dashing hither and thither, pan-and-brush equipped, under the attentive eye of the Lord Mayor's Dustman.
"Times change, but ideas remain. The horses may be gone but people still remember."