Robert Lynd

5 May 2017

Robert Wilson lynd [pic] Born in Belfast and educated at R. B. A. I. and the then Queen’s College, where he studied classics. He worked briefly for The Northern Whig before moving to Manchester and then to London as a free-lance Journalist. In the capital he shared a flat with the artist Paul Henry (q. v. ), with whom he had graduated. Lynd became a staff writer for the Daily News (later the News Chronicle) and from 1912 to 1947 was its literary editor. He also wrote for the Nation, and – under the pseudonym of Y. Y. contributed, from 1913 to 1945, a weekly literary essay to the New Statesman. In politics he was a socialist and adherent of Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League; he also edited some of the works of James Connolly. He is remembered today for the remarkable sequence of essays he wrote over a period of more than forty years.

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They never fall below a high level of elegance and fluency, and while some are too self-consciously literary for today’s taste, the best of them – such as The Herring Fleet, inspired by his memories of Ardglass – have become twentieth century classics.

Essayist Although Robert Lynd was born into an upper-middle-class Ulster Protestant amily and was sent to university, at a time when very few people could afford to give their children a university education, his early life in London was a hard struggle. Desmond McCarthy wrote that: ‘for several years Lynd knew what it was to live undernourished and on the edge of poverty. ‘ He was glad to accept shelter in the studio of his friend Paul Henry, the Belfast-born artist and a radical like Lynd himself.

It was as an essayist that Robert Lynd achieved international fame. But he also wrote politics and put the case for Irish Nationalism in Ireland a Nation which was published in 1919. In the autumn of 1916 the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union asked him to write the Introduction to the first published edition of James Connolly’s Labour in Ireland. Connolly, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, had been executed on 12 May 1916.

In that introduction Lynd said he had first heard of James Connolly when, as a student at Queen’s University, he had Joined a ‘small socialist society’ which met ‘in a dusty upper room’ somewhere in the centre of Belfast[middle dot] One of the other members of the socialist group would bring the latest issue of James Connolly’s newspaper The Workers’ Republic to sell at the eetings. Robert Lynd’s Introduction to Labour in Ireland is itself an interesting approach to revolutionary politics in Ireland though different in tone and style from the literary essays for which he became famous.

Lynd was perhaps more sympathetic than objective in his analysis of Connolly’s reasons for taking part in what was, after little, indeed nothing, to gain. Nonetheless he saw Connolly as: ‘Ireland’s first Socialist martyr a hard-working propagandist the most vital democratic mind in the Ireland of his day. ‘ When he first arrived in London Lynd earned some money writing for The Daily Despatch, and also for Today, the weekly magazine edited by Jerome K Jerome, author of the celebrated Three Men in a Boat.

In 1908 he got his first permanent Job, literary editor of The Daily News, which, he must have been pleased to remember, had once been edited by Charles Dickens[middle dot] The Daily News later became The News Chronicle. In those times, before there was either radio or television to provide the light entertainment that is so popular today, the literary essay was probably more appreciated by the readers of newspapers and magazines than it would be nowadays. Robert Lynd became one of the most widely read essayists.

For more than forty years he continued to write on almost every conceivable topic for The Daily News, The News Chronicle, The New Statesman, and John O’London’s Weekly. He became noted for his quiet, friendly and reflective style, earning his living, as one critic put it: ‘by supplying what might be called a point of rest in the newspapers to which he contributed’. Robert Lynd’s essays have been published in many collections and have been listed reading for students of English in universities and colleges all over the world.

Some years ago The Belfast Telegraph noted with some little pride that one ollection, The Blue Lion and other Essays, had been published in Japan, with an introduction in Japanese, for inclusion in the English courses in the Japanese universities. If Lynd had been alive then he might have written an essay with a title such as On Being Published in Japan or something like that. Like Samuel Johnson, who was his favourite writer, he had always something to say, whatever the subject.

Of all the essays written by Robert Lynd it would be difficult to chose one more than another. Every reader would have his or her favourites. One of the best is perhaps an essay entitled Un-English. This is about two Dutch seamen who went shore when their ship was berthed in Belfast and got into a fght with some of the locals in a dance hall. They were arrested and charged with disorderly behaviour. ‘Their disorderly behaviour’, wrote Lynd, ‘took the form not only of fghting with people but also of biting them. Next morning, when the captain of the Dutch ship appeared in court to plead for his men and to translate their evidence, the magistrate, who was a most grave person, said he would like to impress upon the captain and upon his men that it was ‘very un-English’ to go around biting people, whereupon the captain replied: ‘It is very un-Dutch too, your worship’. And that, said Robert Lynd, is ‘one of the great retorts of history’. Incidents like that lead the essayist to say what he wants to say and to ask what classified as un-English?

Why are some of these unpleasant things not un-Scotch or un-lrish? Could perhaps some of the activities of the palefaces on the American prairies be described as un-lndian? ‘ Lynd goes on to observe that apparently everything that is nasty is un-English, though when Americans describe something as un-American they are talking politics. They are not expressing the national snobbery that is so evident in those who use the erm ‘un-English’ every, time something unpleasant occurs. The Man for Thurles is another lovely essay.

It is about an old tramp whom the author meets in Kilkenny, who is heart-afraid of the police and who is convinced there is a big difference between the generous and open-handed people of Thurles and the misers of Kilkenny who would prosecute a man if he asked them for as much as a cup of water. The literary essay is not now as popular a form of writing as it once was but Lynd’s collections should be in most public libraries. They should be worth delving into if only in memory of the author who died fifty years ago.

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