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Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Arthur E Copping, novelist

A couple of summers ago, I was browsing through the novels at Foyles here in London when I came across a little stand displaying a few books from their secondhand department. There was a small red Nelson Library hardback among them. These little books, published early in the twentieth century, always catch my eye, and I picked it up. It was Gotty and the Guv'nor by Arthur E. Copping.

I bought it and read it almost immediately. It's a lovely little book: funny, cheerful and mildly adventurous, the story of a man of modest private means, a fisherman - Gotty - from the Thames estuary and their ill-advised jaunt along the south coast of England in a small sailing boat. Published in 1907, it's of the same time and chraracter as W.W.Jacobs and perhaps George Birmingham's Spanish Gold. I suppose it is the charm of it that stayed with me, and so I recently tried to find out more about this writer of light comedy.

Arthur Edward Copping was born in Middlesex in 1865, the son of Rosa and Edward Copping, a journalist and author. They were, it seems, well-to-do but not rich. Sadly, Rosa died by the time Arthur was 15. There were five children of the marriage, and they lived - along with two unmarried sisters of Rosa's and a single servant - at 18 Lady Somerset Road, Camden. One of Arthur's brothers, Harold, was to become a book illustrator and he was later to provide pictures for several of Arthur's books, though not for Gotty and The Guv'nor, Arthur's first book. Gotty in Furrin Parts followed in 1908, but is now much harder to come by.

Arthur Copping's next book in 1910, Jolly in Germany, was in a similar vein, a light-hearted tale of an Englishman's holiday in Germany. However, before he began his (short) career as a comic novelist, Copping had already established himself as a journalist writing on social issues and poverty in London for the Daily News. In 1910, he set off for Canada to explore the social conditions there. Three books followed, The Golden Land: the true story and experiences of settlers in Canada (1911), Canada: today and tomorrow (1911) and Smithers: a true story of private imperialism (1913). The last of these described the experience of a Barnado's boy who emigrated to Canada.

Copping's view of the British Empire may seem rather unquestioning now, but his interest - as the last book illustrates - is on the endeavour and suffering of the little man, not the arrogance and exploitation of the great imperialists. In fact, Copping was deeply religious and it was through the practical, non-conformist Christianity of the Salvation Army that he saw the world. In 1911, the Religious Tract Society published his book, A Journalist in the Holy Land: Glimpses of Egypt and Palestine, this time illustrated by his brother, Harold.

"The Salvationist's accustomed daily tasks," wrote Arthur Copping, "lie largely among the fallen, the criminal, the suffering and the wretched, whom he or she succors in a spirit of compassionate love." In his view, the success of the Salvation Army lay in "the simple, thorough-going, uncompromising, seven-days-a-week character of its Christianity."

When the First World War started, Arthur Copping - now 49 years old - put his Salvationist principles into practice. With the support of the Salvation Army's General Booth and the War Office, Copping worked along side ordinary British soldiers. During the war, he was attached to several battalions as a non-combatant Salvation Army officer and witnessed at first hand the suffering and the bloodshed in the front line. He described his experiences in Souls in Khaki: being a personal investigation into the spiritual experiences and sources of heroism (Hodder and Stoughton, 1917).

The year in which this book published was also the year of revolution in Russia. From 1918 to 1920, Arthur Copping (now well into his fifties) was the Russia correspondent for the London Daily Chronicle, the first British journalist to report from the new Soviet Union. Some of these stories, which were syndicated around the world, can still be read in the New York Times archive. His opinions may now seem naive, but there was a resloute optimism to Copping, however you may interpret that cast of mind.

During the twenties and thirties, Copping produced two more books on a Salvationist theme, Stories of Army Trophies (stories of Salvation Army conversions) and Banners in Africa. You can no doubt guess the theme of this last title; a review of the Salvation Army's activities in the continent. But this was not done from the comfort of his armchair. Now in his sixties, Copping toured Africa, visiting what was then called the Gold Coast, Rhodesia, Portuguese East Africa, the Zambesi and the Congo. Needless to say, this was before the comforts of air-conditioning and jet aircraft.

Arthur Copping married Annie Knaggs, born in the same year as him and also from Camden, in 1889 at St Paul's Chapel, Kentish Town. Sadly, she was to die aged 38 in 1903. Arthur's brother Harold died in 1932. Arthur died in Salisbury in the summer of 1941, aged 75.

His religious views may not be very fashionable now, and Gotty describes a very different class-divided society than our own. But it seems to me that middle-class Arthur Copping was gentle-hearted and benevolent rather than - terrible contemporary sin - patronising. Nor was he afraid to experience some of the worst things of his age. If you come across a copy of Gotty and the Guv'nor, I would encourage you to pick it up and take a short holiday on the Thames estuary circa 1907.

1 comment:

  1. An interesing post.Thanks Nick.

    I first heard of Arthur Copping ten years ago when I read a reference to him and the Gotty books in Archie White's book Tideways and Byways in Essex and Suffolk which I had found in a second hand book shop in Aldborough, Suffolk. My interest was aroused sufficiently for me to purchase a Nelson edition, Gotty and The Gov'nor via the website. I found it to be a charming read. Of course I then had to obtain a copy of Gotty in Furrin' Parts. This proved far more problematic and took me 8 years of searching until I eventually found a copy in a second hand book shop 200 miles North of Sydney, Australia. "Furrin Parts" continues the adventures of Gotty, this time across the North Sea in territory not far from that Erskine Childers describes in The Riddle of The Sands and is as equally enjoyable and to be recommended as is Gotty and The Guv'nor.