Fifty Years In The Fiction Factory: The Working Life Of Herbert Allingham by Julia Jones
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|Fifty Years In The Fiction Factory: The Working Life Of Herbert Allingham by Julia Jones|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: An examination of the life and work of Herbert Allingham, a prolific writer for the halfpenny comics a hundred years ago, based on family archives, diaries, and account books.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 388||Date: September 2012|
|Publisher: Golden Duck|
|External links: Author's website|
Herbert Allingham was one of the most prolific authors of his time. Between 1886 and his death in 1936 he was a busy writer of melodramatic serial stories in the mass-market halfpenny papers which flourished at the turn of the century. Yet nothing he wrote was ever published in book form with his name to it, and the magazine proprietors made fortunes while their authors were the unsung heroes of the trade.
In writing this biography, Julia Jones has made extensive use of his archive of stories, diaries, account books and letters which she acquired from Herbert’s daughter Joyce, his younger daughter and sister of Margery, well-known as a writer of detective fiction. By the way, it was to Joyce that he made his observation that ‘you cannot call yourself an author until you have been published in hard covers’.
Herbert was educated at home, but went to Cambridge University as a non-collegiate student at the age of fifteen. His first published writings were short sentimental serials which appeared in the journal ‘Amateur Scraps’. It was however in 1886 that his career really began when he published ‘Barrington’s Fag’, described as ‘a true tale of school life’ under the pseudonym Herbert St Clair, in ‘The New Boys’ Paper’. He became an increasingly prolific wordsmith, writing mainly boys’ adventure serials and romances for a number of often shortlived journals. Part of his success was owed to F.C. Cordwell, who was a major influence in the development of British comic papers. In the early years of the twentieth century he established several titles, using the ever-reliable Allingham as his lead writer and main attraction. The popularity of one of his romantic serials led to commissions from women’s magazines as well.
Maybe it was too good to last, and the First World War had a major impact on his career. With the blockade of Britain by German submarines in 1917 raw supplies including paper were rationed, and casualties decimated the magazines’ readership. At the time Allingham was earning two guineas per thousand words, a rate of pay which proved unsustainable in harder times, and his serials were gradually becoming less popular, with new editors wanting shorter, more warlike writing, aimed at younger readers. It is interesting to note that the halfpenny comics for which he was writing were less bellicose than other publications owned by the Harmsworth group, notably the ‘Daily Mail’. Allingham’s stories personified the fair-minded Englishman. When in one story some German tradesmen are duped into possible sedition, a London policeman merely takes their names and addresses and lets them go with a caution – a far cry from incitement from certain sections of the media which led to outbreaks of mob violence against German shopkeepers.
The immediate post-war years remained difficult for Allingham and his trade with paper costs remaining high, budgets increasingly tight, and managements demanding improved rates of profitability from individual editorial groups. Although his rate of pay had not risen since 1912, by 1924 he was coming under increasing pressure to cut his prices or simply lose the work. By the following year he was £250 in debt. It was some consolation to him that Margery’s career as a writer was taking off, but his best years were behind him. He continued to write but with diminishing success until he became ill in November 1935 and died two months later. He had recently applied for a loan, the terms of which involved reprinting some of his earlier work, which therefore continued to appear until 1937. Ironically, though, none of the papers for which he had written mentioned his death, and it is a measure of his anonymity that he had never really existed for his readers, he could never really die.
Lives of the well-known novelists from this period are not hard to find, so by way of contrast it is interesting to read a life of a writer who was equally industrious yet received little acclaim or recognition, beyond that of earning a reasonable living, for so long. The comics for which he wrote were very much a sign of their times, as a prevailing indicator of the tastes in their days when they were one of the primary sources of entertainment, and it has shed a worthy light on one of the unsung heroes of the profession.
If this book appeals then you might like to try Coroner's Pidgin by Margery Allingham.
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