Monday, November 3, 2008

Next month marks the centenary of the birth (20 December) of a man to whom I owe much of my journalism and my faith. He was to me the living example of the power of God to transform even the most unlikely person. He was an inspiration to thousands of young people, particularly in the United States. This is an article I wrote about him in The Washington Times series ‘The Lost Word’on 14 February 1999. It was headed ‘An event-filled life marked by a dramatic conversion’.

Peter Howard was in his day one of the highest paid columnists in Britain, a world bobsled champion and a best-selling author. At his death in 1965, 17 heads of state and prime ministers sent condolences and House Speaker John McCormack compared him to the Marquis de Lafayette in services rendered to America.

A novelist who created a character like Howard would find readers incredulous. Born with a foot and knee joined – he wore leg irons as a boy and was forbidden contact sports – Howard went on to become the youngest captain of England’s rugby team. A writer who mocked religion (he once wrote that he ‘found it repulsive to see anyone reading a Bible in a railway carriage’), Howard penned 30 books and plays designed to encourage faith. He married Doris Metaxa, the Wimbledon women’s doubles champion in 1932 (with Josane Sigart).

At Oxford, Howard studied little but wrote and spoke much. This was his first contribution to the university paper Isis:

‘Oh, there are many ways, grotesque, bizarre – let us be even more frank and say funny – by which we may come to our deaths, and I expect even in the present whirl of mechanism and immaturity, of laughter and caprice, above all of eating and drinking, there are not a few who give an occasional thought to the end of the story, and discuss with themselves in their leisure moments their inevitable and ultimate duty of dying. If only God had been sufficiently kind to a man that he could die with laughter at the sight of his own face in a mirror. But, alas, I am not unhandsome.’

Curiously, the day Howard died at the age of 56 in Peru, of viral pneumonia, the script of his last play arrived in London. He had entitled it, Happy Deathday.

A writer in the ‘Oxford Mail’, profiling Howard in 1929, wrote, ‘I have heard it said in dark and obscure corners that he has written poetry, but that’s not the sort of thing one likes to hear about big men; but then we all have our enemies.’ He had, indeed, written poetry and continued to do so throughout his life; a collection was published under the title Above the Smoke and Stir.

Howard got his start in national journalism in 1934 when Lord Beaverbrook heard him speak and asked him to write for his newspaper. Harold Begbie, a well known writer had written a book about politics, Gentleman with a Duster. Howard characterized his writing as ‘Gentleman with a Knuckleduster’.‘My whole temperament was tuned to attack,’ he said of himself at the time. He described himself as ‘a materialist, handicapped by an annoying streak of affection in my nature which in tough moments I derided to myself as sentimentality.’

On Friday, May 31, 1940, as British troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk, Howard and two other English journalists decided to write a book pillorying the negligence of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his colleagues. By Monday each had written eight chapters. They used the pseudonym ‘Cato’, after the man who had cleaned out the sewers in Rome. By Wednesday, the finished book was accepted for publication by Victor Gollancz with the title Guilty Men.

The first edition was published in July. Booksellers W.H.Smith and Wymans refused to stock the book as it was regarded as unpatriotic to attack British leadership in wartime. So the authors hired a man to wheel copies of the book up and down Fleet Street, the heart of the newspaper world. Within months 200,000 copies were in print.

One of the book’s authors, Michael Foot, future British opposition leader, reviewed the book in the ‘Evening Standard’: ‘Guilty Men, written by a mysterious and bashful “Cato” promises to become the most sensational political publication of the war.’ Another, Frank Owen, later a national editor on the ‘Evening Standard’, wrote similarly. Peter Howard praised the book in the ‘Daily Express’, ‘I cannot do more than pay tribute to the powerfulness of the indictment brought by “Cato”, the mysterious author of Guilty Men.’ There was wide speculation about the authorship. No one realized that ‘Cato’ was Foot, Owen and Howard put together.

Because of Guilty Men and the fact that Beaverbrook had joined the government, the ‘Daily Express’ forbad Howard to write about politics. Casting around for some juicy story he lit on a religious movement, Moral Re-Armament (MRA), which was under attack. After investigating its work, Howard did not write the story but rather, as he said, became the story. The ‘Daily Telegraph’ wrote later, ‘There seems to have been few more remarkable conversions since Paul of Tarsus set of for Damascus.’ His dramatic change of lifestyle sent shock waves through Fleet Street. ‘Who will be next?’ worried Percy Cudlipp, then editor of the ‘Daily Herald’.

Howard decided to write a book about the men and women he had met in MRA. He called it Innocent Men and soon thereafter he was fired from his newspaper job. He felt that justice to them was more important than the fate of one journalist. He was not to know that after the death of Frank Buchman, the initiator of MRA, he would find himself its recognized leader around the world.

For Howard’s writing, this development meant a change of subject matter but not a change of style. He brought to his work his knowledge of the ways of the world tempered with experience of the ways of the spirit. In the next 20 years his books sold millions in English and were translated into many languages. He also wrote more than a dozen plays, some of them filmed. As a Christian his charter in life had become ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven, not as a pious drone but as a passionate commitment.’

Today, his writing reflects the period in which he lived, the 1960s assault on morals and faith and the militancy with which he sought to combat it. Some, like Mr Brown Comes Down the Hil’, his play about how Christ would be treated if he came down to earth, and The Ladder, about an individual’s struggle between a life of faith and the steps of ambition, are as current as today’s headlines. His children’s fable, Give a Dog a Bone, which ran for ten years in the West End of London, had a new production last year in Arizona.

In many ways the most revealing examples of his writing are in Peter Howard, Life and Letters, by his daughter, Anne Wolrige Gordon, since little in it was originally written for publication.

Howard’s writing is unfashionably passionate. In a preface to one play he said that he wrote to give people a purpose: ‘The purpose is clear. The aim is simple. It is to encourage men to accept the growth in character that is essential if civilization is to survive. It is to help all who want peace in the world to be ready to pay the price of peace in their own personalities.’

I recently discovered at Powell’s bookstore, in Portland, Ore, a 1940 American edition of Guilty Men. I wrote Howard’s widow, the former Wimbledon champion. She never knew there had been an American edition, she replied, and added, very practically, ‘I wonder who got the royalties.’