A Homage to Harmsworth.

The start of Jonathan Parry’s very enlightening LRB review of The Chief: The Life of Lord Northcliffe by Andrew Roberts (1 December 2022; archived):

‘Do dogs commit suicide?’ ‘Can monkeys smoke?’ ‘An electrical flying machine?’ Those who were intrigued by such matters in 1888 sought enlightenment from a new weekly magazine, Answers to Correspondents, which also explained ‘How to Cure Freckles’, ‘Terrors of Top Hats’, and ‘The Destiny of Lost Luggage’. The magazine’s title wasn’t quite accurate, since the answers were rarely definitive and most of the questions actually derived from the fertile brain of the editor, the 22-year-old Alfred Harmsworth. He quickly realised how to generate ‘talking points’ that would boost the paper’s circulation. The third issue addressed the mystery ‘Do Jews ride bicycles?’ with an assurance that the editor, a keen cyclist for many years, had never met a fellow enthusiast ‘of the Hebrew persuasion’. Within weeks he had been refuted by Alfred Cohen, a cycling club treasurer, among other genuine correspondents who produced lists of medal-winning Jewish riders. The paper itself was now a ‘talking point’. Eight years later, Harmsworth imported this technique into his most significant creation, the Daily Mail. In 2012, the journalist John Rentoul produced a satirical essay on the art of the newspaper headline called Questions to Which the Answer Is ‘No!’ It was a homage to Harmsworth, the Mail and their many imitators.

Cf. Betteridge’s law of headlines, which apparently has only been so called since 2009, “although the principle is much older.”


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I misremembered the charismatic Lord Ottercove in Gerhardie’s weird but intermittently brilliant novel Doom as having been modelled on Northcliffe, but is was actually Beaverbrook, on whom at the time Gerhardie seems to have had an Elon-Musk-fanboy-style man-crush. (He got better.)

    It was Northcliffe’s vile younger brother Sidney who was the “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” man. The Daily Mail has never really looked back since.

    The letters under the LRB article are interesting. One is from a denizen of my childhood home, from which I gather that it is now in “Argyll and Bute” (whatever that may be) and the other from Galen Strawson (presumably the Galen Strawson, back from Texas: how many can there be?) betraying a misunderstanding of what the OED does.

  2. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Argyll and Bute is Argyll together with Bute. What else would it be?

    I don’t know why Bute refuses to be considered part of Argyll when the other islands are apparently fine with it, though.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    If Argyll is good enough even for Helensburgh, it’s surely good enough for Bute.

  4. Rothesay is on Bute; perhaps its Duke spoke up.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    How like him.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Argyllshire and Buteshire were different creatures from the 14th century until the 1970’s, when the new Jacobin rulers of the U.K. decided to throw out the map and start anew. Apparently sticking the Isle of Bute proper in with the former Argyllshire into a new “council area” simply named Argyll (the off-Bute bits of Buteshire having been reassigned elsewhere) offended Butish sensibilities. The only part of the British Isles that emerged from the 1970’s with its traditional county boundaries completely intact was the Republic of Ireland. There’s presumably an instructive moral to be drawn from that.

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The Duke of Argyll have always caused trouble too – maybe they wouldn’t have him.

    I didn’t realise the county boundary had shifted as much as it has – Helensburgh maybe belongs on the lowland side, but Arrochar and Ardlui were surely on the wrong side before.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    In Olden Tyme, Helensburgh was in Dunbartonshire (spelling to be clearly distinguished from Dumbarton, but likewise, of course, named for the Brythonic character of the Kingdom of Ystrad Clud, in the Hen Ogledd.)

    The relevant changes seem to be the fault of John Major’s Tories.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I once tried to convince a Welsh colleague that I was really more Welsh than she is – I’m from Gododdin, after all – but I said Hen Ogledd so Scottishly that she didn’t understand me anyway. It is hard to say Welsh names with a Scottish mouth (I was in Wales this weekend…)

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Helensburgh is just on the Lowland side of the Highland Boundary Fault (my wife is from the other end of the fault: our love was evidently foretold in the stars.)

    I bought my first copy of Y Gododdin (lost when we moved to West Africa, alas) actually in Din Eidyn itself. (Or Caeredin, as the young people call it nowadays.) What could be more appropriate?

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Wikipedia indicates that after they smushed things together, the then-living Marquess of Bute got to serve as Lord-Lieutenant of [combined] Argyll and Bute before the then-living Duke of Argyll did. Not sure if that was seen as a snub in Argyllite circles or not.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Mention of Caeredin/Din Eidyn reminds me (obliquely) of the pleasing discovery I made the other day that “Luxor” is etymologically the very same name as “Chester.” Those Romans got everywhere.

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Luxor: place in Egypt, from a misdivision of Arabic al-uqsur, plural of al-qasr, which is from an Arabicized form of Latin castrum “fortified camp” (see castle (n.)). Remains of Roman camps are nearby.


  14. David Marjanović says

    Luxor is the plural of alcazar, then.

    The only part of the British Isles that emerged from the 1970’s with its traditional county boundaries completely intact was the Republic of Ireland. There’s presumably an instructive moral to be drawn from that.

    Lack of counts/earls makes counties more stable? They do look very stable in the US…

  15. On Argyll and Bute being thus named: they probably had to choose this name because the nasty Butish got short with them.

  16. *applause*

  17. The only part of the British Isles that emerged from the 1970’s with its traditional county boundaries completely intact was the Republic of Ireland.

    You have somehow temporarily forgotten the County of Louth and Borough of Drogheda (Boundaries) Provisional Order 1976 which transferred part of Drogheda from Meath to Louth.

    Lack of counts/earls

    There is in fact an Earl of Meath, but apparently he lives in County Wicklow.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    I apologize for the oversight. There is merely (in the vestigial Peerage of Ireland) a Baron Louth, yet there is an Earl of Drogheda. At one point there were Marquesses of Drogheda, but that line died out while there were still some cousins in a different line available to inherit the earldom.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    You want to be careful, calling Irish Peers “vestigial.” They are notoriously quick to take offence.

  20. Jen in Edinburgh says

    They’ll need more than vestigial wings.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    An ill-chosen word. They are no doubt merely biding their time against the Day of Restoration when there shall be a proper King reigning in Dublin. Or on the Hill of Tara, as the case may be.

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