July 16, 1918. I was looking in a hurry for something to read. One magazine on the bookstall told me it was exactly what I wanted for a railway journey. It had a picture of a large gun to make its cover attractive. The next advertised its claims in another way. A girl's face was the decorative feature of its wrapper, and you could not imagine eyes and a simper more likely to make a man feel holier than Bernard of Cluny till your gaze wandered to the face of the girl smirking from the magazine beyond. Is it possible that nobody reads current English literature, as the magazines give it, except the sort of men who collect golf balls and eat green gooseberries? It seems like it. One wonders what the editors of those magazines read when they are on a railway journey. For it would be interesting to know whether this sort of thing is done purposely, like glass beads for Africa, or whether it is the gift of heaven, natural and unconscious, like chickweed.
One would be grateful for direction in this. The matter is of some importance, because either the producers or the readers are in a bad way; and it would be disheartening to suppose it is the readers, for probably there are more readers than editors, and so less chance of a cure. I do not want to believe it is the readers. It is more comforting to suppose those poor people must put up with what they can get in a hurry ten minutes before the train starts, only to find, as they might have guessed, that vacuity is behind the smirk of a girl with a face like that. They are forced to stuff their literature behind them, so that ownership of it shall not openly shame them before their fellow-passengers.
With several exceptions, the mass of English magazines and reviews may be dismissed in a few seconds. The exceptions usually are not out yet, or one has seen them. It used not to be so, and that is what makes me think it is the producers, and not the readers, who require skilled attention. It is startling to turn to the magazines of twenty or thirty years ago, and to compare them with what is thought good enough for us. I was looking through such a magazine recently, and found a poem by Swinburne, a prose-romance by William Morris, and much more work of a quality you would no more expect to find in a current magazine than you would palm trees in Whitechapel.
Of all the periodicals which reach the British front, the two for which there is most competition in any officers' mess are La Vie Parisienne and New York Life. The impudent periodical from Paris is universal on our front. The work of its artists decorates every dug-out. I should say almost every mess subscribes for it. It is true it is usual to account for this as being naughty chance. Youth has been separated from the sober influence of its English home, is away from the mild and tranquil light of Oxford Street feminity, is given to death, and therefore snatches in abandon at amusement which otherwise would not amuse. Do not believe it. La Vie Parisienne, it is true, is certainly not a paper for the English family. I should be embarrassed if my respected aunts found it on my table, pointed to its drawings, and asked me what I saw in them. What makes it popular with young Englishmen in France is not the audacity of its abbreviated underclothing, for there are English prints which specialize in those in a more leering way, and they are not widely popular like the French print. But La Vie is produced by intelligent men. It is not a heavy lump of stupid or snobbish photographs. It does not leer. There is nothing clownish and furtive about it. It is the gay and frank expression of artists whose humour is too broad for the general; but, as a rule, there is no doubt about the fine quality of their drawings and the deftness of their wit. That is what makes the French print so liked by our men.
New York Life proves that, it seems to me. The American periodical is very popular in France, and the demand for it has now reached London. The chemise is not its oriflamme. It properly recognizes much else in life. But its usual survey of the world's affairs has a merry expansiveness which would make the conventional editorial mind as giddy as grandma in an aeroplane. It is not written in a walled enclosure of ideas. It is not darkened and circumscribed by the dusty notions of the clubs. It does not draw poor people as sub-species of the human. It does not recognize class distinctions at all, except for comic purposes. It is brighter, better-informed, bolder, and more humane than anything on this side, and our men in France find its spirit in accord with theirs. One of the results of the War will be that they will want something like it when they come back, though I don't see how they are to get it unless it is imported, or unless they emigrate to a country where to feel that way about things is normal and not peculiar.