One day in the London of the 1930s a short, ruddy-faced young man carrying a thick blackthorn staff was to be seen talking earnestly into the mouth of a red pillar box in the street. Passers-by who gathered to see what it was all about could hear him say: “Don’t worry, my little lad, we’ll soon get you out of here.” He then turned to the growing crowd of onlookers: “It’s disgraceful: the postman has trapped this little boy inside.” By the time one of the onlookers had summoned the fire brigade the red-faced man had slipped away.
His name was JB Morton, better known to readers of the Daily Express by his pseudonym of Beachcomber, whose satirical column appeared in the paper and was to do so for more than 50 years.
Yet today none of his work, a small portion of which was reprinted in several books, remains in print. Sacked by the Express, he died in 1974, aged 85, leaving no heirs. Following his death, his little house in Ferring, a suburb of Worthing, was demolished and all his papers destroyed.
Beachcomber’s influence on journalism was profound. He was the first man to write a column that parodied the style of the newspaper it appeared in. It was a formula copied by the Irishman Myles na Gopaleen (aka Flann O’Brien), Michael Frayn in the Guardian and Michael Wharton (Peter Simple) of the Daily Telegraph.
I can vouch for the fact that at least three members of the old Private Eye gang – myself, Willie Rushton and Barry Fantoni – were devoted Beachcomber fans. Not surprisingly we relished in particular his many legal marathons, presided over by Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, who lived on in the pages of the Eye.
Morton, the son of a playwright, had been freelancing in Fleet Street when war broke out in 1914. He fought in the trenches but was invalided out suffering from shell shock. Like many survivors of the 1914-18 slaughter, he reacted with wild behaviour, drinking and practical jokes in the years that followed. But in 1927 he married his Irish wife and settled on the south coast, much to the distress of his drinking companions who saw little of him thereafter.
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