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Wednesday 4 July 2018

Raymond Postgate (1896-1971)

The  Golden Age
Raymond Postgate (1896-1971)
by Carol Westron

Raymond Postgate was born in Cambridge but he studied at Oxford, although he was ‘sent down’ for a while because he tried to avoid conscription into the army during the First World War. Postgate had sought exemption from military service as a conscientious objector. When he was offered non-combatant service, he refused it and was imprisoned for a few days in Oxford Prison before being found medically unfit for service. While Postgate was in custody, his sister Margaret, campaigned on his behalf. It was through this that Margaret met the socialist writer and economist G.D.H. Cole. When Postgate was discharged from the army, he was still afraid of being conscripted and disappeared from sight for a while, before returning to Oxford to complete his degree and gain First Class Honours.

1918 was the year that saw the end of the First World War but it seems likely that war broke out in the household of John Postgate, Postgate’s Tory father, as Postgate married Daisy Lansbury, the daughter of a Labour politician and journalist and was banned from his father’s house, while in the same year Margaret married the socialist G.D.H. Cole.

From 1918 Postgate worked as a left-wing journalist, first on the socialist newspaper the Daily Herald, edited by his father-in-law, George Lansbury, then, in 1920, on The Communist, the first weekly paper published by the British Communist Party, of which Postgate was a founding member. He left The Communist in 1922 because he disagreed with the policy of British Communists falling in with the dictates of Moscow. However, he remained an influential left-wing journalist. He returned to the Daily Herald and, from 1926-27, worked on his father-in-law’s paper, Lansbury’s Labour Weekly. Postgate also translated and edited various classical works such as Perviglium Veneris (1924.) During the 1920s he also wrote Revolution from 1789 to 1906 (1920) and A Short History of the British Workers (1926),

In 1930 Postgate published the first of his biographies of political rebels, That Devil Wilkes, a biography of John Wilkes. Wilkes was a politician who incensed King George III so much that he referred to him in the phrase that formed the title of the book. Postgate followed this by a biography of Robert Emmet (1931.) Emmet was an Irish nationalist and one of the leaders of a rebellion against the British Government, who was executed for treason. In 1932 Postgate wrote his first novel, No Epitaph. Also in 1932, Postgate visited the Soviet Union as part of a delegation from the Fabian Society and contributed to the collection Twelve Studies in Soviet Russia (1933), which was edited by his sister, Margaret Cole.

Postgate was a shrewd political observer and in How to Make a Revolution (1934) he wrote, “if no action is taken, action of another kind will be taken for us. . . . The continuance of uncertain­ty will mean that the disillusioned will drift steadily across to a Fascist organization. Fascism means war; the character of a Fascist State is fairly well known. Once it is established, those who read, who write, who publish or who print, books like this are likely to be dead or in concentration camps.”

In the 1930s he also worked as an editor for the Encyclopedia Britannia and, in 1938 he co-authored with G.D.H. Cole The Common People, a social history of Britain from the middle of the 18th Century. From 1937-39 he edited the left-wing monthly Fact, for which he wrote a monograph every month. Fact published the work of several left-wing writers, including Ernest Hemingway’s reports on the Spanish Civil War. From 1940-41 Postgate edited the weekly Tribune, ousting the pro-Soviet contributors and condemning the Communist party. During this time of war, under Postgate’s editorship, the Tribune adopted a stance of ‘critical support’ for Churchill’s government.

Although he had been a pacifist in the First World War, Postgate supported the Second World War and joined the Home Guard. In 1942 he became a temporary Civil Servant, controlling rationed supplies, and stayed in the Civil Service until 1950. It is interesting to note that Postgate’s younger son, Oliver Postgate, followed in his father’s First World War footsteps and was a conscientious objector in the Second World War, although after the war he joined the Red Cross to bring aid to war-torn Europe.

During the Second World War, Postgate continued to write left-wing articles and his pamphlet Why You Should Be A Socialist was distributed to members of the military as the war ended. It is believed that this pamphlet made a significant contribution to the land-slide victory gained by the Labour Party in 1945. Postgate remained critical of Stalinist Russia, which he believed had abandoned its socialist ideals.

In 1940, Postgate wrote his first and most famous crime detection novel, Verdict of Twelve. This was followed in 1943 by Somebody at the Door and The Ledger Is Kept (1953.) All of these books set crime and its detection in a social and economic context that is informed by Postgate’s socialist beliefs.

After the Second World War, Postgate continued to work as a journalist, working mainly for Reynolds’ News, the Sunday paper created by the Co-operative movement. He also wrote several historical works, such as The Story of a Year – 1848 (1955), which was the history of a year of revolutions throughout Europe. He also wrote The Life of George Lansbury (1951), a biography of his father-in-law. After the death of H.G. Wells in 1946, Postgate edited some revisions of Wells’ Outline of History, which Wells had first published in 1919-20.  

However, a new venture brought him to the attention of members of the public who were not interested in politics or crime fiction. Postgate had always been interested in food and wine and in his regular column in the magazine Lilliput he bemoaned the poor state of British cuisine and asked readers to send him reports on eating places throughout the UK. He received an overwhelming response, which he collated and published. Postgate’s original idea of a ‘Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Food’ developed into a new publication, The Good Food Guide, and the first issue appeared in 1951. Postgate sought to democratise eating out as something the ordinary person could do. He also wished to demystify the exclusiveness surrounding selecting and enjoying wine and his A Plain Man’s Guide to Wine (1951) helped to make wine a much more popular drink in Britain. Postgate’s writing was undoubtedly popular with the British public but much less so with those in the catering and wine trades. In 1965, the manufacturers of Babycham sued Postgate for libel for publishing an article in Holiday magazine that warned people that Babycham was not champagne but was made from pears. The company lost their claim and Postgate was awarded costs.

When Postgate appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1969, it seems appropriate that his selected luxury was claret and his chosen book was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. His favourite piece of music was Jerusalem.

Postgate died in 1971 and his wife, Daisy, committed suicide a month afterwards.

Postgate’s family contained many members who were well known. His sister, Margaret, and her husband had a successful partnership as prolific writers of detective novels. His elder son, John, was a well-known
microbiologist and scientific writer. His younger son, Oliver, is still renowned as a creator of children’s television programmes, including
Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, The Clangers and Bagpuss, which in a BBC poll in 1999 was declared the most popular children’s television programme of all time. Even greater fame was achieved by Postgate’s niece-by-marriage, the much loved actor, Angela Lansbury.

Verdict of Twelve is the most famous of Postgate’s crime novels and the only one to achieve lasting tributes. It was praised by Raymond Chandler in his essay The Simple Art of Murder (1950) and the critic Julian Symons included it in his list of the hundred ‘best’ crime novels, compiled for the Sunday Times in 1957. The premise at the heart of Verdict of Twelve did not originate with Postgate. The idea of following the shifts of a jury during a trial had already been tried out by the ever-inventive George Goodchild in collaboration with C.E. Bechofer Roberts in The Jury Disagrees (1934), and by Richard Hull in Excellent Intentions (1939.)

In Verdict of Twelve a woman is on trial for the murder of her young nephew and the book follows the inner thoughts and previous history of the jury as the case unfolds before them. Each of these jurors is briefly introduced in the thoughts of the Clerk to the Court who is administering the oaths and then their back-story is told in more or less detail. The jury members have a mixture of backgrounds, each bringing their own experiences and prejudices to the trial, including two who have had first hand experience of murder, one who had successfully got away with murder and another who had been widowed by a savage, unprovoked act of violence.

There are two women on the jury and they are very different types. One is ‘a severe looking, very plain middle-aged woman in black, wearing glasses.’ The other ‘stood out like a single yellow flower in a green field among this dingy collection of mostly middle-aged men, with their grey or red faces. She had used scent fairly freely, and that was a better smell than the heavy dusty smell, as of old books, that filled the court.’

The epigraph at the start of Verdict of Twelve is a quotation from Karl Marx and Postgate’s socialist beliefs and his determination to educate his readers in the lives of the different layers of British society are woven throughout the book. Postgate achieves this with great skill and without preaching as he outlines the jurors’ back-stories with understanding but with no sentimentality. I was particularly attracted by Martin Edwards’ suggestion in his prologue to the new British Library publication of Verdict of Twelve that Dr Percival Holmes, a clever and highly educated but humourless and self-centred juror, was inspired by Postgate’s brother-in-law, G.D.H. Cole. (Even more appealing was the suggestion that Oliver Postgate had based Professor Yaffle in Bagpuss on Cole.)

For me, the most fascinating and chilling aspect of the book is the discussion when the jury is trying to reach a verdict and the two women have both decided on the way they are going to vote while many men are still dithering. However, by the end of the debate, they have both been bullied and manipulated by the male jurors to change their decision. Verdict of Twelve is a fascinating look at society and the justice system in the early part of the 20th Century and a very interesting and engaging novel.

Postgate did not repeat the success of his first novel. In his second detective story, Somebody at the Door (1943), he adopts a similar structure as in Verdict of Twelve; Councillor Henry Grayling has travelled home on a crowded train and arrives at his home in a state of collapse, having been poisoned by mustard gas, and dies some hours later. The story focuses on the back-stories of his fellow passengers and their involvement with the victim, for Grayling was not a popular or likeable man. The novel is rich in details of life in wartime Britain and reveals many of Postgate’s beliefs and prejudices, as well as his dislike of those who use their positions of power to make a profit for themselves while depriving other, poorer people. Unfortunately, in Somebody at the Door he cannot resist the temptation to preach and the book does not have the drive and pace of Verdict of Twelve. Postgate wrote only one more crime novel, The Ledger is Kept (1953.) This received some critical praise but did not achieve the heights he had reached in his first book.

When considering Postgate, his main claim to fame has to be his political activities and writing, which flavoured every aspect of his life, including his crime fiction and his determination to make good food and wine accessible to the general public. However, in Verdict of Twelve he wrote one of the most outstanding and innovative crime fiction novels of the late years of the Golden Age.

Verdict of Twelve
Published by the British Library. ISBN: 978-0-71235674-9. ASIN: B01M1NPWB5
Somebody at the Door
Published by the British Library. ISBN: 978-0-71235235-2. ASIN: B075DD3HZV  

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. 
Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. 
The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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