Humour from Home

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Blighty was a compilation magazine enterprisingly put together in 1916 and 1917 and delivered free to BEF soldiers and members of the Royal Navy. It was subsidised by corporate and private sponsors and carried cartoons from Punch, Bystander and national newspapers, and was published by the mysterious-sounding ‘The Committee of “Blighty”’. Its masthead showed a drawing of the dome of St Pauls Cathedral and a country cottage in front of a village church, a proclamation of the ideal, the nostalgic, and the church-as-state, behind the title and subtitle, ‘a budget of humour from home’. Affirming the idea of home that the forces were defending, this magazine was proposed as a reaching out of home humour, though often drawing from the experience of the troops, even at the Front; its humour was self-feeding and circular.

 

Humour based on words featured heavily, as might be expected. We offer here three examples from a fragile copy of issue No 2, 7 June 1916.

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The first is from The Bystander, an excruciating page of examples of how metaphors look when taken literally. Schoolboy humour, but as has been said so often, many of the readers were little more than schoolboys; the much referred to Comic Cuts contains very similar wordplay, as do a lot of the trench journals. The combination of the naivety of this material and the circumstances that it was read in is difficult to grasp. Perhaps the extremity of terror, even though rarely experienced, and the constant anxiety provoked a retreat into childhood: Michael Roper in The Secret Battle (2009) states that in Kleinian terms here ‘what extreme anxiety did to these young men was to throw them back to the position of the small child’.

 

The second is a good example of irony, a wry look at the cliché of the Bible/pack of letters/lighter/cigarette case/diary/penny that saved a soldier’s life. The same cartoon would have remained relevant, though mostly with pennies being shot at, for long after the war, if ebay is anything to go by. Again, it is about the mind seeking refuge.

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Countering these examples of the fragility of the human mental frame is the image of the flapper. Partridge recorded subalterns being called ‘the flapper’s delight’, though sexual relations were a refuge in themselves – see the scene towards the end of Helen Z Smith’s Not So Quiet.

Here ‘Efemera’ a regular columnist in The Bystander in 1916 describes the rise of the flapper. The term ‘flapper’, for a young woman or teenager, usually with immoral connotations, dates from the 1880s, about the same time as the German term ‘backfisch’ (a fish for baking), which was introduced into English as ‘backfish’ in the early 1890s, when The Pall-Mall Gazette described the backfish as ‘[one who] ranges from fifteen to eighteen years of age, keeps a diary, climbs trees secretly, blushes on the smallest provocation, and has no conversation’.

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Noteworthy is ‘Efemera’s interpretation of the German term as passive, compared to the active Anglo-Saxon flapper, a kind of folk etymology. Further exploration, into the OED particularly, muddies the water: in the definition of ‘flapper’, the word ‘backfisch’ is ‘perch, fish for frying’, while the earliest citation for ‘flapper’ gives an alternative, ‘flipper’.

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Before the war flappers were supposed generally to wear their hair in pigtails. Eric Partridge (above), always good for obscure usages and enlightening details, offers the idea that between 1905 and the end of the war the meaning became established that a flapper was ‘any young girl with her hair not yet put up (or, in the late 1920’s and the 30’s, not yet cut short).’ Many would take issue with this, though ‘Efemera’s flappers do have long hair (but hardly look Anglo-Saxon).

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