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Morton, J B

Entry updated 22 May 2020. Tagged: Author.

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(1893-1979) UK author active from before World War One, then in active service 1914-1916, his war experiences being reflected in his first (untypical) novel, The Barber of Putney (1919; rev 1934); his second book, Gorgeous Poetry: 1911-1920: First Series (coll 1920 chap) as by J B M, containing travesties of unnamed poets he contemned as Modernists, established his lasting tone of voice, which soon found full expression in his work as by Beachcomber, a House Name created by a London Daily Express editor for the newspaper's By the Way column. The column title and byline had been used earlier for society gossip 1917-1919 and for humour by D B Wyndham Lewis 1919-1924; Morton took the name over in 1924, and was its sole proprietor for more than half a century, until he was forcibly retired in 1975. His defining version of this column – which still appears in different form, written by others – featured whimsies, Parodies (including much joke Advertising of a universal panacea most often called Snibbo) and long, serialized, fantastical spoof narratives – some technically fantasy or even sf – whose protagonists were themselves hyperbolic comic types. The most famous of these include Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, who presides over ludicrous court cases frequently involving twelve red-bearded dwarfs; the scrounging rogue Captain Foulenough; Prodnose, a querulous Reasonable Man who perpetually criticizes the Beachcomber persona's excesses; Dr Smart-Allick, crooked headmaster of Narkover public school; Dr Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht, a gentle Mad Scientist specializing in ludicrous Inventions; the incompetent civil servant Charlie Suet; and the Pooter-like Mr Thake. Cocklecarrot in particular has outlived his creator and still appears regularly in Private Eye magazine's topical Satires of the UK legal system. The World of Beachcomber, a BBC Television adaptation fronted by Spike Milligan in the role of Dr Strabismus and interrupted by cod ads for Snibbo and other products, ran for 19 episodes in 1968-1969; sadly, the BBC wiped the entire series, though much of the audio has survived.

The By the Way column appeared daily until it went weekly in 1965; only a fraction of this body of work is reprinted in the twenty-one Beachcomber collections beginning with Mr Thake (coll 1929) and ending with Beachcomber: The Works of J.B. Morton (coll 1974; vt The Bumper Beachcomber 1991) edited by Richard Ingrams. A posthumous title, Cram Me With Eels: The Best of Beachcomber's Unpublished Humour (coll 1994) edited by Mike Barfield, assembles further, previously uncollected, Beachcomber material from 1958-1975 columns. Mostly in his work as Beachcomber, Morton had a profound though not fully recognized impact on British humour, despite the misogyny he increasingly expressed, and a persistent vein of Anti-Intellectualism. His influence is clear on such writers as Michael Frayn and William Rushton; on actor/writer Spike Milligan [see above]; on the array of creative figures (including Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle) involved in Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974) and subsequent Python enterprises; on the earlier Discworld comedies of Terry Pratchett. His influence, so pervasive it now seems communal, surfaces in the work of a more recent author like Rhys Hughes.

After some uncomfortable 1920s novels, Morton's later fiction under his own name includes a tale of sf interest, Drink Up, Gentlemen (1930), a Satire on English mores set in a slightly though garishly modified Near Future, composed in the rancorously anti-"progress" anti-Modernist fashion of his mentor Hilaire Belloc, a linkage he honoured in his Hilaire Belloc: A Memoir (1955). The plot and venue, though not the invariable outrage, are specifically reminiscent of G K Chesterton's The Flying Inn (1914). 1933 and Still Going Wrong! (coll 1932 chap) assembles verse satires about the then very Near Future, Satire and nonsense being the intimately intertwined primary modes of his Poetry; Who's Who in the Zoo (coll 1933) is a spoof bestiary in verse; The Death of the Dragon: New Fairy Tales (coll 1934) assembles fantasies; the borderline Skylighters (1934) mocks a new Religion. [JC/DRL]

John Cameron Andrieu Bingham Michael Morton

born London: 7 June 1893

died Worthing, West Sussex: 10 May 1979

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