Colonel Blimps' England
by Prof. Peter Mellini
1. Small non-rigid airship.
2. Colonel Blimp, character invented by the cartoonist David Low (b. 1891) representing a pompous, obese, elderly figure popularly interpreted as a type of diehard or reactionary. Hence Blimpery or Blimpishness.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964
Almost 70 years ago, David Low introduced Colonel Blimp to readers of Beaverbrook's Evening Standard. Blimp's career, in Low's cartoons and elsewhere, is a window into an era crucial to Britain's fortunes in the world, on the evolution of her national symbols, and on the impact of editorial cartooning. By the end of 1934, Blimp's opinions were savoured widely. Blimps soon became a class, and 'Blimpish' a synonym for military or administrative incompetence and heartfelt, unthinking patriotism. This plump, choleric, walrus-moustached, towel-clad habitué of a West End Turkish bath replaced John Bull, Britannia and the Lion as the epitome of Britain. Blimp so aptly represented and reflected the 1.930s that he became public property, endowed with the virtues and prejudices of the viewer. Tories claimed Blimp for themselves. 'It may well be,' C.S. Lewis observed in Time and Tide in September, 1944, 'that the future historian, asked to point to the most characteristic _expression of the English temper in the period between the two wars will reply without hesitation, "Colonel Blimp".' After the war, Low used the Colonel less frequently in his cartoons for the Evening Standard, the Daily Herald and the Manchester Guardian. Low felt Blimp was pass , over-identified with the pre-war and war years and his military legend.
Yet more than a few insist that a slimmed-down Blimp still flourishes, his opinions polished by a public relations hack. In 1969 a Low disciple, Abu (Abu Abraham, then an Observer cartoonist) complained, in Twentieth Century, that Blimp had won:
Nowadays the Blimps march in their thousands to demand war, to protest against the blacks. So common are they in the clubs, in parliament, in business houses, in universities, and in the dockyards that they have ceased to be 'types' and are virtually uncartoonable. Unlike the blunt bounder draped in his Turkish towels, the modern Blimps are impeccably dressed, soft-spoken, highly educated. Last year, John Jensen, an Australian cartoonist working in England, sighted some at the TUC annual conference. 'There were, up on stage, Blimps with cloth caps on.' This spring, an Observer columnist identified 'the Young Fogies,' who sound suspiciously like Blimp descendants.
In August 1942, in Strand Magazine, Low wrote, a bit prematurely, of the death of. Low, the Cartoonist: 'His best known invention was Colonel Blimp. Low thought he had created in Blimp merely a comic figure typifying stupidity, but public opinion decided he was a symbol of profound meaning.' In his Autobiography late in the 1950s Low observed that the rotund Colonel was 'an object lesson in what can happen to a symbol.
Early in 1934, Percy Cudlipp, the Evening Standard's editor, gave Low a cartoonist's dream an entire page each Saturday for a panorama of small local cartoons. For continuity in Low's Topical Budget, he needed a few regular features. 'I decided to invent a "character",' he recalled, 'typifying the current disposition to mixed-up thinking, to having it both ways, to dogmatic doubleness, to paradox and plain self-contradiction.' Doubletalk, doublethink and diehards appalled Low. Abroad, Goebbels was spreading confusion 'softening up the democracies by changing the labels on the bottles.' Public discourse in Britain was discordant. Of the 1930s, A.J.P. Taylor in English History, 1914-1945 observed, 'Public affairs were harsh and intense; private lives were increasingly agreeable... the two sides did not join up. The public men themselves had the air of appearing in a charade," In 1932 Winston Churchill agreed; 'I cannot recall any time when the gap between the kind of words statesmen used and what was actually happening was so great as it is now' ('Arms and the Covenant).
The word 'blimp' fitted Low's notion of his character, especially its association with spluttering and bureaucratic blundering. Blimp meant a gas bag and an experimental non-rigid aircraft. In 1930, one of these, the R101, after much official fanfare, crashed in France on its maiden voyage. One morning, still pondering to what profession Blimp belonged, he chanced to read a Colonel's letter to the newspapers, protesting the mechanisation of the cavalry, yet insisting they must wear spurs in their tanks. Later that day Low enjoyed a Turkish bath in the West End with 'Terry,' the reporter Horace Thorogood. Since 1932, this pair had entertained Evening Standard readers with a series, Low and Terry, on the byways and rituals of London life. Low, hot and bathered through the mist, overheard 'two pink sweating drops of military bearing' gurgling that what Japan did in the Pacific was no business of Britain's. 'Hah, I thought, the attitude of mind! The perfect chiaroscuro! Colonel Blimp of course!'
The public met Blimp on April 21st, 1934 in a corner of the first Topical Budget:
It began almost as a formula: Colonel Blimp and I at the Turkish bath performing our ablutions or exercising, he uttering to me a blatantly self-contradictory aphorism. It continued in that form with a few exceptions until a war shortage of paper ended my topical budget six years later.
Quickly, Blimp and his relatives were ubiquitous. By the end of 1934, he, or they, attended a meeting of the Cabinet, the League of Nations at Geneva, the motor show at Earl's Court, inspected the Waterloo Bridge, and assisted Lord Beaverbrook with his fire escape design. The latter's butler apologised to Lord Robert Cecil and Gilbert Murray of the League of Nations Fire Brigade. 'Sorry, my man, His Lordship and Colonel Blimp are too busy inventing their own fire escape to subscribe to the Fire Brigade' (Low Cartoon, November 1.6th, 1934). Beaverbrook immediately telegrammed Low: 'My God if only Colonel Blimp and you would change sides. My butler is going to bring a libel action.'
Objections and commendations alike on Blimp poured into Low and the Evening Standard. Some perceived the Colonel as subversive, almost seditious. Harold Nicolson thought Blimp 'a vast excuse for deriding authority and justifying disobedience.' To Arnold Lunn the Colonel was an assault on 'England's feudal and aristocratic tradition.' Others accused him of siding with crime and anarchy; part of a press plot to foment international disorder, Some Blimp cartoons elicited vicious threats, including savage anti-Semitic diatribes, against Low and his family. Balanced against these were many who appreciated Blimp. 'Until I read the letters concerning Low I had not realised how many Colonel Blimps there are in real life.' (Michael Stewart, London, July 27th, 1936). 'Sir: Colonel Blimp is an immortal creation positively Shakespearean.' (A Low Brow, London, March 21st, 1935.) 'Sir Apparently the Blimps are raising their unctuous hands in protest... I buy your otherwise but by no means exceptionally mediocre paper because of Low.' (G.N. Marshall, London, March 21st, 1935.) 'Long may Low and Colonel Blimp flourish to pour satire on injustice and tyranny.' (V.G. Williams, Blackheath, July 27th, 1936.)
And flourish he did. A.P. Herbert sang: 'To be colonel after all is not exclusive evidence that one's a blot.' Earlier, in the November 1934 Independent, Basil H. Tripp stoutly denied that the modern British officer bore any resemblance to Low's mythical colonel. Low agreed, and pointed out that Blimp's comments were almost exclusively political. An old fogey or two threatened to sue Low unless Low ceased lampooning him as Colonel Blimp. A number of people provided information on Blimp and his relatives. In 1938 Low amplified Blimp's family tree:
Never have I met a man with more numerous and more powerful relations. A family tree that boasts of Mr. Neville Blimp, the prime minister, Mr. Herbert Blimp, the Labour leader, Sir John Blimp of the BBC, Mr. Beverley Blimp, the writer on daffodils, Lord Blimp, the celebrated economist, Baron Blimp, the newspaper magnate, and George Blimp, the celebrated comedian, have no fear for the survival of its reputation. Does Blimp exist? Blimp is immortal.
Early in the war, Low buried Blimp, which stimulated Robert Graves to explain 'Colonel Blimp's Ancestors'.
The ox-headed Saxon strain has always been dominant in the Blimp family. Qualities of shrewdness, wit, humanity, logic, resourcefulness, that intermarriage with more gifted neighbour races has grafted on our brutish Germanic stock have never been noted in a Blimp... A word about the old man who has just died... He was David Low's Colonel Blimp... His son but his son is still alive and, I regret to say, still on the active list.
Four years in the public eye gave Blimp more confidence. The activity seemed to keep him trimmer. In December 1938, he was only momentarily embarrassed by the sudden appearance of one of his relatives, his long-lost brother PMILB. He was a true Blimp with leftish views, who habitually stood on his head. 'Gracious ma'am, Lord Dither is right. Pacificism even unto the annihilation of Peace' (Evening Standard, December 17th, 1938). He vanished shortly, along with such sentiments. Foreign Blimps surfaced periodically in France, Russia, and, after the war, in America.
The appendix of the 1937 edition of the Universal English Dictionary recognised the Colonel: 'a figure in cartoons by Low, caricaturing an extreme die-hard type of outlook.' Bathroom tiles and ashtrays with Blimp in action were offered for sale. 'Nine Sharp,' a 1938 Herbert Farjeon review at the Little Theatre included a skit, 'The Great By-Gadder.' J.F. Horrabin, the radical cartoonist, wrote to Low in May that the revue was 'easily the most intelligent show now on. It's a good scene and goodish Blimps.' Low evidently approved too, since he granted the promoters ex post facto permission to use the Colonel.
Blimp's influence was noted in the House of Commons. 'It is a complete misrepresentation and a mistake to suppose that I am associated with a number of respectable, shall I say, Colonel Blimps,' huffed the Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence, Sir Thomas Inskip, in February 1937. The War Minister, Sir Leslie Hore-Belisha in May 1939 assured the House he had buried Blimp long ago. Low wondered if Hore-Belisha really existed? In January 1940, Blimp and his relations toasted Hore-Belisha's dismissal: 'Gad gentlemen, Here's to our greatest victory of the War.' (Low cartoon, Evening Standard)
As noted earlier, Low buried Blimp in 1942 and then resurrected him. That provoked 'Disgusted' to accuse Low of demeaning religion and Blimp in the Evening Standard (July 2nd, 1943):
I was taught never speak ill or make fun of the dead... It's neither witty nor funny but sheer bad taste... I'm beginning to think his name suits him. Low by name, Low by nature.
P.S. I know Colonel Blimp is a myth, but that does not alter the fact they are still having a rub at religion.
In 1942 Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell dazzled Low into lending the Colonel's name for their satirical film, 'The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'. Churchill was not amused and demanded it be stopped. In 'Blimp, Churchill and the State' Ian Christie suggests that Churchill and the officials at the Ministry of Information thought this film undermined their notions of propaganda and the morale of the officer corps. It threatened Churchill's intense, even mystical identification with the war effort. Blimp and Churchill were, moreover, too much alike for Winston's comfort, as Christie wryly observes. Between the wars Low's cartoons often ridiculed Churchill's pretences and posturing. When the public is ready to tolerate a 'warts and all' picture of the great war leader, Low's cartoons will be a revealing source. Meanwhile, despite bureaucratic obstruction and inept bullying by Churchill and his Government, the film was made, shown in England, and then censored before being allowed to be seen abroad. Low enjoyed the brouhaha and the film. He considered that it sentimentalised the old fool so much that many viewers missed the message about Blimp on which Low had insisted: 'if Britain followed his out-of-date ideas in modern war, we should all be blown to blazes.'
By the middle of the war, many others had revalued Blimp, especially the Tories. When Blimp refused a room in the British Empire Hotel to Learie Constantine, the West Indian cricketer, a Conservative MP, Sir Herbert G. Williams protested that the Colonel Blimp he knew would do no such thing:
Dear Low, I always enjoy your cartoons, though I do not always approve of them, hut I think your 'Blimp' one today is rather deplorable. Perhaps I can say the more freely as I am asking, as you know, a Question about the deplorable case of Constantine.
'Colonel Blimp' as far as I know him, is a decent English squire in uniform. He has frequently been a Colonel in the Indian Army, or a District Commissioner in Nigeria, and, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred secures the devoted respect of the coloured men whom he commands or rules. It would never be 'Colonel Blimp' who would treat the black man as Constantine was treated at the Imperial Hotel the other day.
Low replied: '... Had I drawn the "decent English squire" you describe, I agree the cartoon would have been rather deplorable. But your conception of Colonel Blimp is your own and not mine.'
Low's protest was too late. Blimp escaped his control years earlier. An American in London, General Raymond E. Lee, observed in 1940:
Lady Astor was bound to acknowledge that England was now being saved by its Blimps and its Blimpish character. I did not get far enough to say what I really think, which is that Churchill's strength and the reason he refuses to give ground is because he himself is a Blimpish character who has a very high intelligence and knowledge of history on top of it.
Even Low's victims insisted on their version of Blimp and his beliefs. One example among many must suffice. David Margesson, former Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, and now the War Minister, was the object of 'Blimp's War for Democracy' in January 1941. Low was sent a copy of Margesson's August 1941 letter to Alfred Douglas, a long-time Low hater:
It was most kind of you to send your sonnet, 'The old soldier!' I liked it a lot. It's hill of sadness and truth. Looking back on things it would have been better if we had paid more heed all of us to Colonel Blimp. If only we hadn't disarmed.
Low was reproached regularly for ridiculing Blimp and men like him, 'without whose steadfast courage we should never have won war.' The Conservative Party claimed Blimp fox their own and, in 1943, compiled a dossier and an exhibit designed to show that Blimp was right and Low wrong.
By the end of the war Low was bored with Blimp. He told Basil Taylor of the BBC in May 1946: 'I have talked of Colonel Blimp on the air four times. So far as I am concerned, it is now old stuff anyway.' Blimp appeared infrequently in his cartoons, and Low left the Colonel to look after himself alongside John Bull, Britannia, Ally Sloper, Old Bill and Strube's Little Man. He did, however, strongly protest when Sir Arthur Bryant published 'In defence of Blimp' in The New York Herald Tribune in 1951. Low told that paper's editor:
Mr. Bryant's theme is that Colonel Blimp was a derisory and contemptuous symbol used against the loyalty and patriotism of British public servants... I must emphatically deny that Colonel Blimp was ever used by me or any one else so far as I am aware...
In this letter he specified Blimp's origins:
Colonel Blimp was created in the thirties to symbolise the stupidity and confusion then prevalent in ruling political circles concerning the threat of Hitler. It was directed particularly against those who thought it wise to ditch the League of Nations and. Collective Security and make a private deal with Nazi Germany. Ever since then those who backed the wrong horse have been trying to distort his meaning into some.
What made Blimp so popular? A rotund chameleon whose colours came to symbolise Britain of the thirties? First, Blimp embodied that generation's physical version of the elderly respectable man. Low had finely focused his eye for stereotypes of all kinds, and his Blimp encapsulated a type everyone recognised. During the inter-war years most knew a plump personage with a walrus moustache. Photographs and group portraits, election leaflets, cartoons and newspaper advertisements often included a Blimp. Some were military; many were not. Sir Frederick Wall, Secretary of the Football Association and General Lord Plumer are representative. The latter, however was intelligent and humane; qualities not evident in Blimp, who understood only half of Mrs Simpson's adage: 'You can never be too thin or too rich.'
Before the 1914-18 War, Will Dyson in the Daily Herald drew a fat, spluttering Colonel Corpuscle, outraged over his club staff, who threatened to deny him dinner by striking. Between 1910 and 1925 H.M. Bateman evolved a stock Colonel, an active volcano ever ready to erupt. Blimp himself, unlabelled, turned up in Low's cartoons in the 1920s.
Second, Blimp's world view captured the well-meaning patriotism and reactionary muddle-headedness of so many public figures in the twenty years between the wars. Looking back Law recalled:
In the thirties, however, the most notable feature of what remained of the privileged classes was certainly neither culture, art nor philosophy. Here and there I encountered the survival of an arrogance which was almost ferocious. I understood why Britain had lost the American colonies. I understood for the first time why so many of my own grandparents generation had chosen to pack up and go to live somewhere else. Looking at and conversing amiably with some of these respected relics I felt that not very far under their skins was the brutal stupidity that, even in 1930, could regard human beings as property and quite naturally identified the public interest with the sanctity of their purely private interests those disagreeing being, prima facie, treasonable dogs.
Public life teemed with Blimps, obsessed with good form, taste, patriotism and a return to the pre-war verities. The New Statesman produced anthologies of their notions, This England. Dame Lucy Houston (1857-1936) demonstrated that Blimpishness was not exclusively male. Her memorialist in the Dictionary of National Biography characterised her as:
... a keen Suffragist... philanthropist and eccentric... a warm-hearted woman who would brook no contradiction, and demanded implicit obedience from those who served her. To the general public she was a strident, perhaps sincere, patriot, who painted her rooms in red, white and blue her racing colours.
She named her yacht Liberty. In 1932, convinced that war was inevitable, she offered the London County Council £200,000 for air defence of the metropolis. It was politely refused.
Lucy Houston appreciated her picture in the papers. When Low obliged she sent him poetry, in mauve ink, and cigars. Her inclusion in 'Signor Mussolini's language class' alongside other 'black shirts' Jack Squire, Leo Amery, James Maxton and Stafford Cripps prompted notes to the Standard editor and Low:
I have only just seen Low's cartoon. I am still a freelance. I belong to no man, but if I did change my colours I would rather wear a black shirt than a dirty one stained with the blood of Englishmen.
Dear Mr Low,
Someone's been pulling your leg, I trou For I must let you known I was quite de trop Sitting in a row with men I don't know. So here and now I deny in toto Changing my shirt or my love for Low.
In another letter she gushed to Low:
When I say I admire you l mean it. You are brilliant but you do not understand my politics. Very briefly I work and live to help our dear country back to the days when we were honoured and respected by the whole world! And you do the same I feel sure. So why go for me?
Your true admirer.
When she died in 1936, Low lost one of his favourite victims. The New Statesman mourned her thus:
We sincerely regret the passing of Lady Houston. She rivalled Low in her power of making detestable opinions appear ridiculous, and was herself an incarnate argument against the inheritance of wealth.
She died intestate. No heirs were found and the state received about two and a half million pounds.
The officer corps had its full quota of Blimps, hostile to change, obsessed with horses, sport and their regiment, at home mainly in the Empire, which meant India. B.H. Liddell Hart, in his Memoirs, contended: 'the cavaliers of the twentieth century jeopardised their country under the influence of their preference for the horse and the prejudice against the machine.' When Duff Cooper, then War Minister, introduced the 1936-7 Army Estimates to the House, he apologised for the mechanisation of the cavalry. 'It is like asking a great musical performer to throw away his violin and devote himself to the gramophone.'
Blimp lived; Low provided him with a regular public platform, his cartoons. The Topical Budget, a weekly comic commentary ran for almost six years, from April 21st, 1934 to March 16th, 1940. Low, a self-described 'nuisance dedicated to sanity,' organised an entire page using single gags based on timely events and gossip, strip cartoons and, invariably, an exhortation from Colonel Blimp. In the 1930s, many people appear to have learned more about prominent personalities and events from the Topical Budget than from newspaper prose. A Standard critic lamented:
The review is a living art in France, but in England, where the Lord Chamberlain won't let you lampoon Sir Oswald Mosley in a theatre, it's a dead art. Low's Topical Budget represents the field of modern satire. Yet 75% of Low's targets would be ruled off the stage.
Low learned to structure an entire page for comic and satirical effect in the Antipodes, especially at the Sydney Bulletin. Throughout his career he lobbied incessantly for more room for his cartoons. 'Space was one of my father's manias,' his daughter Rachael told me. Another was the freedom to attack or tease whomever he wanted. He ensured his independence from censorship in his employment contracts, and by selling newspapers with his cartoons.
Examine Low's Topical Budget for February 26th, 1938. The ways in which Low manipulated ideas, visual and verbal, caricature, both shape and pose, and space, dark and light, all become apparent. A bagged-up Low (A visual pun on the woolsack or woolgathering?) is his sign of the pressure which the Establishment brought to force him to tone down his one-man campaign against Hitler and Mussolini and Chamberlain's appeasement policy. He then caricatures Chamberlain and Mussolini in a parody of the 'England is proud of her sons' genre. The ridiculous figures patently undermine the wishful thinking of the appeasers on The Times. Low's dog, little Mussolini, completes the process of exploding the pretences of appeasement.
The two gags in the centre of the Budget illustrate a technique Low developed to bring a subject alive. He experimented with poses awkward to draw, rather than relying on the conventional repertoire of stock figures. The result, as here shown, is that both jokes move, through we may not realise why. Tom Driberg, at one time a colleague of Low's on the Standard, observed: 'David Low is a glutton for difficulties and rarely refuses an artistic challenge.' Low's affinity for puns is demonstrated by the two leaners, Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick, and the double perhaps triple? meaning of 'stagger.'
Low sometimes included strip cartoons within the Topical Budget. 'Muzzler' was another part of Low's response to the direct pleas coming from the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, to tone down his personal attack on Hitler and Mussolini. Last, but not least, on the right is TRIUMPH OF BLIMP. Many Standard readers had seen the Nazi propaganda film, The Triumph of the Will. This use of the Colonel exposed its pretences. Vladimir Poliakoff was an informant who leaked Low tidbits on the miasma of self-deception that so polluted the high politics of the Chamberlain era. Blimp and Low salute each other with a crossed Heil. Is not one message a double cross?
Throughout his professional life Low was absorbed by the impact of visual symbols. Cartoonists improvise them to personify the impersonal. The staying power of obsolete symbols, such as John Bull, Britannia or the Lion worried him: 'Symbols have a way of obscuring reality,' he wrote in 1936 (in his introduction to Low's Political Parade) 'and living long after their reason for their invention is dead; and there is nothing so dangerous as the living symbol of a dead idea.' Years before he discovered Blimp, Low sought to revitalise and modernise these outmoded figures. In the 1920s he introduced Joan Bull, a slim flapper, as a more topical combination of old John and Britannia, Punch's female tank. Joan Bull never captured the public's fancy as a contemporary symbol of Britain. Neither did his post-war common man. Blimp did because his looks were typical, and his opinions captured the well-meaning, yet muddled mood of the 1930s.
Low was a fertile creator of symbols. There are glimpses of several in the cartoons used to illustrate this article. Others had to be ignored, notably the gentle TUC carthorse, the two-headed ass (the Lloyd George Coalition Government), and the Shiver Sisters (the Cliveden Set). His facility and imagination in using these images is a key to Blimp's staying power and Low's accomplishment. He manipulated his characters and meshed ideas, symbols and words so effectively, that years later, when we look at his cartoons and his caricatures, we laugh and comprehend, even if the references are obscure.
From 1934 on, the British public adopted Blimp as theirs. In 1942, after Low resurrected Blimp, Alfred Lambert wrote how glad he was to see 'dear old Blimp again':
In this crazy world he brings a little brightness into my life. I am very old and have known many Blimps: few families have been without them and your genius has crystalised the type. I should be so proud of having added a word to the English dictionary. Three cheers for the Antipodes! When I read of Blimp I think of Low. When I eat a peach (rarely alas) I think of Melba.
Blimp existed; it took Low to personify him for the public.