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Alfred McLelland Burrage was born in Hillingdon, Middlesex on July 1st, 1889, to Alfred Sherrington Burrage and Mary E. Burrage. Both his father and uncle, Edwin Harcourt Burrage, were writers of boys’ magazine fiction, though Edwin Harcourt was better celebrated and remembered. According to census information from 1891, the family lived at Uxbridge Common in Hillingdon. Alfred S. is listed as 40 years old, Mary E. as 36 years old and Alfred M. as 1 year old. However, the 1901 census indicates a change of location to 1 Park Villa, Newbury, and mentions only Alfred S. and Mary E. Not only is there no sign of the young Alfred, his father seems to have aged 17 years within the space of ten and his mother a mere 6 within the same.
Although there is little information about Alfred’s childhood, we can understand a little of the family’s fortunes by looking again at the census information. According to the 1901 census, A. S. Burrage’s Newbury neighbours were variously a tailor’s journeyman, a corn porter, a lodging-house keeper and a grocer’s assistant, indicating a working-class upbringing. Alfred Sherrington wrote for The Boy’s World, Our Boys’ Paper, The Boys of England, and various others. Interestingly, there is evidence that under the pseudonym Philander Jackson he also edited The Boys’ Standard and that one of his more celebrated pieces, a retelling of the story of Sweeney Todd entitled “The String of Peals; or, Passages from the Life of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber”, was written while he held the position of editor there.
Alfred Sherrington Burrage died in 1906. Little is publicly known of the nature of his death, or of its financial effect on his family. There is, however, a biographical note in Lloyd’s Magazine, from 1921, which suggests that Alfred McLelland was studying at St. Augustine’s, the Catholic Foundation School in Ramsgate, and so it is likely that he was away from home at the time. The sixteen-year-old Burrage had his first story published the same year in the prestigious boys’ paper, Chums. That his first publication came so soon after his father’s death gives some indication of the nature of his writing; while the majority of literary history’s young published writers became so out of passion and creativity, it is conceivable that, as the new head of the family, the young Burrage became so out of necessity. He had become financially responsible for his mother, his aunt and his sister, and magazine fiction was his family’s blood and business. And for A. M. Burrage, business was good. He had already established himself as a competent and creative writer by the time he reached his modest majority, and as a professional he was busy, writing stories and articles on a weekly basis for publications such as Boys’ Friend Weekly, Boys’ Herald, Comic Life, Vanguard, Dreadnought, Triumph Library Cheer Boys Cheer, and Gem, under the pseudonym ‘Cooee’.
However, unlike his father and uncle who had remained firmly and easily categorised as boys’ writers, he had his sights set on the higher regarded, more lucrative, adult market. Burrage was aided in his early years as a professional writer by Isobel Thorne of the off-Fleet Street publishing firm Shurey’s. Her publications have been characterised as “low in price, modest in payments, but whose readers were avid for romance, thrills, sensation, strong characterisation and neat plotting”, and this estimation of her publications serves as a fine description of Burrage’s own writing at that time. For a young writer this sort of readership was vital, and the modest wages he received were bolstered by the exposure the publications brought him. Burrage was certainly helped by Thorne’s beneficence towards young writers.
At the time Burrage was beginning to really establish himself as a writer, the entire magazine fiction scene was burgeoning, benefitting from new printing techniques, more disposable income in the readership and a deficiency in other media which meant it failed to attract interest away from the written word. The market was lively and commercial, and the readership interested, excitable and willing to pay. P. G. Wodehouse, famous for his Jeeves stories, recalls these years and their bounteousness:
We might get turned down by the Strand, but there was always the hope of landing with Nash’s, the Story-teller, the London, the Royal, the Red, the Yellow, Cassell’s, the New, the Novel, the Grand, the Pall Mall, and the Windsor, not to mention Blackwood’s, Cornhill, Chambers’s and probably about a dozen more I’ve forgotten.
By the start of World War I in 1914 Burrage had firmly established himself as a magazine writer, securing publication in London Magazine and The Storyteller, both prestigious publications, along with plenty of appearances in slightly less illustrious publications like Short Stories Illustrated. The twenty-four-year-old Burrage was eligible for the Armed Services, and so in December 1915 he attested under the Derby scheme, meaning that he confirmed his availability for enlisted service should he be called upon. Though conscription followed soon thereafter, in a somewhat preemptive move Burrage had already voluntarily enrolled in the Artists Rifles. Perhaps, foreseeing the inevitability of conscription he elected to enlist preemptively.
The significance of Burrage’s decision to join the Artists Rifles is made clear by the nature of the unit itself. They formed in the middle of the nineteenth century, a group of volunteer artists comprising musicians, writers, painters and engravers; as such, Minerva and Mars were their patrons, one of wisdom, arts, and defence, the other of war. The unit boasted several significant figures as ex-servicemen, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Wilfred Owen, Algernon Swinburne and William Morris. It was a popular unit with students and recent postgraduates, and the training was considered and extensive. In Burrage’s vivid, celebrated account of World War I entitled War is War, he insists that he was a volunteer and not a conscript, though as has already been noted, it is quite possible that his election to join such a respected territorial until may have been a concerted effort to secure himself a more congenial army posting; had he waited for conscription, he would have had little choice over those with whom he was posted. Unlike Owen, Burrage did not achieve a commission, and he suggests in War is War that this may be a result of his extremely unmilitary personality and his shortcomings as a soldier. The precarious position he left them in was made all the more obvious following the death of Edwin Harcourt Burrage in 1916, which left Alfred’s family in an even more exposed position, depending upon him as the sole writer in the family. Perhaps this is why he continued to write during wartime.
Though Burrage experimented with various genres, the one in which he excelled and which proved most lucrative for him was undoubtably the light romance, in which a male character invariably meets a female character, there is an obstruction to their relationship, they overcome it and they live happily ever after. Burrage’s talent for this formula was such that he could work seemingly endless minor variations from the same basic storyline and so he was able to keep writing a steady body of easy work. He gives a fascinating account of the practicalities of writing such fiction during wartime in War is War, in which he remarks on the difficulties of censorship: “the problem of censorship was an acute one to me. It was well enough to write a story, but the difficulty was to get it censored. Officers were shy of tackling five thousand words or so, written in indelible pencil...” After some time he managed to find a chaplain who was willing to undertake the censorship. However, in order to secure this chaplain’s favour and thus his services he was obliged to appear to be holy. Though he did so in earnest while he was with the chaplain, his efforts were dashed when the chaplain found him, sprawled on top of a young girl, and realised Burrage’s piety to be a fraudulent con. As Burrage had anticipated, the reality of his behaviour ensured that this particular opportunity was swiftly ended. Resourceful to the last, though, he writes of his solution: “there were ‘green envelopes’ which could be sent away sealed and were liable only to censorship at the base, but these were only sparingly issued… I met an A.S.C. lorry driver who had stolen enough green envelopes to last me for the rest of the war; and since he only wanted two francs for them I was free of the censorship from that day forward.”
Although we know that Burrage had his family to support at home as an incentive to keep writing, at times in War is War he reveals a more intimate aspect of his relationship with his work.
It was a great relief to me to write when it was at all possible – to sit down and lose myself in that pleasant old world I used to know and pretend to myself that there never had been a war. Some of my editors seemed of the opinion that we were not suffering from one now. One… used to write to me saying “Couldn’t you let me have one of your light, charming love stories of country house life by next Thursday.” I would get these letters in the trenches during the usual ‘morning hate’ when my fingers were too numb to hold a pencil, when I was worn out with work and sleeplessness, and when I was extremely doubtful if there ever would be another Thursday.
This passage indicates how Burrage used writing as a sort of therapy and escapism, a means of returning to home and safety, even if only mentally and for a brief period. The misery and harsh conditions he experienced during the war continued until, after having partaken in the retreat of 1918, Burrage was eventually invalided and so he returned to England.
One of the best insights we have as to the character which Burrage presented on his return from the war is to be found in Lloyd’s’s 1920 publication of Captain Dorry, one of Burrage’s story series. In that publication there was included a brief sketch of Burrage, describing his personality.
A.M. BURRAGE is the type of young man who might very well walk out of one of his own stories. He commenced yarn-spinning as a boy of fifteen at St Augustine’s, Ramsgate, writing stories of school life to provide himself with pocket-money. Since then he has won his spurs as one of the most popular of magazine writers. Everything he does has charm and reflects his own romantic spirit – for he is incurably romantic and hopelessly lazy. It is his misfortune, although he would not admit it, that his work finds a too ready market. Nevertheless, his friends hope that one day he will wake up and do justice to himself. Otherwise he may end up as a “best-seller”, a fate which doubtless he contemplates with equanimity.
This rather damning character-sketch seems concerned with his contentment at writing for a “too ready market”, observing an absence of motivation to write anything other than that which his audience demanded. The evident scorn it harbours for the romantic genre and its writers seems to have clouded the sketcher’s judgement, though, for “hopelessly lazy” seems hardly fitting for a writer of such consistency and regularity. Indeed, it certainly does not befit a man who continued to write while in the trenches in order that he may afford his family financial support. Despite the sketch’s fairly accurate summation of Burrage’s literary output up to that point, following his return from the war some of his stories seem to exhibit a desire to write about more than just his usual romantic plots. The most immediate change of this nature is to be found in his decision to bring some of his wartime experience into his work, despite being perfectly aware that such writing was not at all what his editors desired, for they feared it would upset and intimidate their readership.
An example of this can be found in “A Town of Memories”, published in 1919 in Grand Magazine, in which he uses his typical romantic genre with a slight shift of emphasis to explore his own return from the war and the general reception which soldiers received on their return. Following a young officer as he returns to the town in which he grew up, Burrage portrays an almost hostile environment into which he returns; he is unrecognised, and nobody pays any interest, respect or attention to him or his stories of the war, nor even to his reception of the Distinguished Service Order. Instead, the people of the town have their own interests and priorities with which to concern themselves. Though this contentious portrayal of post-war society certainly marks a slight turning-point in Burrage’s writing, he returns to the romantic convention expected of him by reuniting the officer with a beautiful girl who had admired him throughout school.
Another of Burrage’s alternative directions is to be found in “The Recurring Tragedy”, a melodramatic story about a General whose war tactics of attrition had been to the cost of his soldiers, and he comes to re-imagine his own past as a Judas figure in a terrible vision. The Strange Career of Captain Dorry became a series for Lloyd’s Magazine in 1920 about a gentleman crook and an ex-officer with a Military Cross who, idle in peacetime, meets a mysterious man called Fewgin whose business is in stolen goods and mind reading. Fewgin realises Dorry is a suitable candidate for recruitment into his gang of like-minded ex-military thieves, stealing only from “certain vampires who made money out of the war, and, by keeping up prices, are continuing to make money out of the peace”. Again, in this motive, we see a glimpse of Burrage’s own feelings on the war, as there is undoubtedly a bitterness towards those profiting from the suffering of others in such a manner. Fewgin justifies himself, saying -
“I help brave men who cannot help themselves. I give them a chance to get back a little of their own from the men who battened and fattened on them, who helped to starve their dependents while they were fighting, who smoked fat cigars in the haunts of their betters, and hoped the war might never end.”
Burrage began to see slightly more success in the 1920s, achieving a couple of hard covers with the titles Some Ghost Stories and Poor Dear Esme. The latter, a comedy, concerns a boy who, for various and complicated reasons, is forced to disguise himself as a girl. Though these hard cover publications were a notable achievement, and one of which he was proud, the fact was that there was less money in it than in the magazines. In his history of the Strand Magazine, Reginald Pound portrays Burrage around this time, likening him to his equally prolific contemporary Herbert Shaw, considering them “two Bohemian temperaments that suffused and at times confused gifts from which more was expected than come forth. They had a precise knowledge of the popular short story as the product of calculated design. Both privately despised it, though it was their living.”
The 1920s, which saw a huge boom in prosperity, hope and happiness, brought with them an increase in demand for war stories. Rather than preferring to ignore the atrocities of the war, which had seemed the general attitude in the immediate post-war years, society became more interested and concerned with the manner in which the war was fought, and the greed and political battles which had necessitated such bloodshed. Burrage answered this demand in 1930 with his own epochal piece, War Is War. He published under the pseudonym ‘Ex-Private X’, saying “were it otherwise I could not tell the truth about myself and otherwise”, though its publisher, Victor Gollancz, “who published the book and greatly admired it, had to point out that the critics would hardly take the book seriously if it became known that the author earned his living producing two or three slushy love stories a week”.
In writing to Dorothy Sayer, a contemporary writer, Burrage bemoans how War is War “promised to be a great success, but was only a moderate one”. The book itself was received variously by critics. Cyril Fall’s War Books, a survey of post-war writing published in 1930, gives a clear indication as to why the critics were so mixed in reception of the book. He writes -
This book is extremely uneven in quality. The account of the attack at paschendaele and of conditions at Cambrai after the great german counter-attack are very good indeed; in fact among the best of their kind. But the rest is disfigured by an unreasoned and unpleasant vituperation of superiors and all troops other than those of the front line, which is all the more astonishing because the author is inclined to harp upon his social position as compared with that of many of the officers with whom he came in contact. He does not use as much bad language as many writers on the War, but his methods of abuse will leave on some of his readers at least a worse impression than the most highly-spiced language.
The previously mentioned letter to Sayers belongs to a correspondence between them concerning the anthologies of ghost and horror stories which Sayers edited for Gollancz, some of which included stories by Burrage. She says in one of her letters of Burrage’s story The Waxwork, a piece beyond the nerves of the editors, “what you say about “The Waxwork” sounds very exciting, just the sort of thing I want. Our nerves are stronger than those of the editors of periodicals, and we will publish anything, so long as it does not bring us into conflict with the Home Secretary”. Though their correspondence began as strictly business, Burrage’s acquaintance with Atherton Fleming, Sayers’s husband, allowed their interactions to become less formal and more friendly. Burrage wrote of Fleming “I hope to encounter [him] soon in one of the Fleet Street tea-shops”. ‘Tea-shop’ was a popular euphemism for the pub, where both Burrage and Fleming could frequently be found, though their alcohol consumption came to damage both their health and their professions, though Burrage seems to have suffered far more.
Happily for Burrage, as a result of being featured in one of Sayers’s anthologies, The Waxwork became one of his best-known stories and it would garner the attention of the burgeoning media of film, boasting several film interpretations. The most notable of these interpretations is its use as the foundation of an episode in the television series ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. The developing friendship between Burrage and Sayers enabled him to reveal more details of his personal life, admitting to her his “neuritis at both ends (legs and eyes)”, and hinting at his troubles with alcohol: “Fleet Street is not a good place for a man who delights in succumbing to temptation, and whose doctor says that even small doses of alcohol are poison to him”. Sayer sympathises, replying that Fleming “agrees with you entirely about the temptations of Fleet Street; he has, however, succeeded, through sheer strength of character, in being able to drink soda-water in the face of all his fellow journalists”.
In another of Burrage’s letters, he apologises for a delay in sending proofs of one of his stories, writing in detail - "I have had a pretty thin time lately through illness and anxiety. And for days on end haven’t had the energy in my to write a letter [sic] , and when I had the energy to send a complete set of proofs to you I found I hadn’t the postage money (This is when you take out your handkerchief and start sobbing). I owed my late agent over £1000, so I got practically nothing out of War is War. He stuck to it. Well, he is paid off now, and so are my arrears of income tax. All this took a toll of my very small earning capacity, and I have been sold up. This on top of something which promised to be a great success and was only a moderate one, was a bit too much for me. Still, in spite of sickness I am resilient and shall float again. “You can’t keep a good man down,” as the whale said about Jonah.
For a man who had so many stories in so many magazines, and was gaining pace in Sayers’s anthologies as a talented writer of horror stories, his income will have been significantly higher than the average wage, and yet as he details, he finds himself short of money. Several questions are left unanswered about his personal life. It is unclear whether he was still supporting family, or whether he spent the majority of his money on alcohol, or whether he chose to conceal his true fortunes from those around him. Perhaps most incongruous is the apparent absence of a wife; though his death certificate indicates that he had one, listed as H.A. Burrage, he seems never to mention her to Sayers.
He was around forty-two when he wrote that apology letter to Sayers, though in tone and circumstance one would assume it to be from a man in a far later stage of his life for its despondency. Burrage continued writing until his death in 1956, and continued to be published until then also. Indeed, the Evening News along published some forty of his stories between 1950-56. His death is recorded at Edgware General Hospital on 18th December, and the causes of his death are recorded as congestive cardiac failure, arterisclerosis and chronic bronchitis. He was sixty-seven years old, and his last address is listed as 105 Vaughan Road, Harrow. Though his name is not often remembered in lists of prominent writers of his time, or even his genres, his ghost stories are highly regarded by critics and fans alike, while his life story tells us much about the trials and stresses placed on authors during and after the war, and on soldiers returning from that war. His reluctant acceptance that the money was in the magazines while the esteem was in the poorly-paying hard covers, and his persistence as a writer, speak of a determined man, doomed to circumstance yet living as best he could.