W.A. Darlington

Darlington_AlfsButtonWilliam Aubrey Cecil Darlington (1890-1979), who hated the “Cecil”, trained his mother not to call him Aubrey, and generally went by William or Bill. He published under his first two initials his reviews, and his fantasies, which have been compared to those of F. Anstey. His most famous is Alf’s Button (1919), derived from a series of sketches written during the Great War, in which an ordinary soldier finds that a button on his uniform is made from Aladdin’s lamp and can summon up a genie. It became a play (Alf’s Button: An Extravaganza in Three Acts, 1925), and then a movie, and there were book sequels too. Alf was revived for the Second World War too, with Alf’s New Button (1940). Soon after the first book, there were two comic fantasies set in a middle-class environment, with which Darlington was more at home: Wishes Limited (1922), in which a man finds that his fairy’s ability to grant his wishes are restricted by Trade Union rules, and Egbert (1924), in which a barrister is turned into a rhinoceros by a wizard. For more detail, see Brian Stableford’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy.

Darlington was born at Taunton in Somerset, the only son of the principal of Queen’s College, Taunton, but he left Taunton when he was three, initially to live in Dulwich, and then to Aberystwyth, when his father became an inspector of schools for Wales. It was a production of the University College dramatic society in Aberystwyth that sparked his fascination for the stage. At fourteen he was sent to Shrewsbury School; he had been assuming he was going to Rugby, but as soon as he heard that Shrewsbury were just as good at cricket, he was happy to go. he was there when he heard the news of his father’s death, which came to him suddenly since his parents had kept him in the dark.

Father had returned from Germany so desperately ill that the doctors had given up all hope of saving his life, and the new treatment in which Mother had put her simple faith had been a last-hour attempt by Christian Science practitioners to succeed where medical science had proved helpless. Fortunately for her, their failure had not affected her faith. She now believed whole-heartedly in the essential non-existence of disease, and was free of a thousand anxieties in consequence (IDWIL 82).

In 1908 he secured a classical scholarship in Cambridge, and in autumn 1909 he went up to his father’s old college, St John’s. In his final year he began to write again (as he had done at school). His only real ambition, certainly his immediate ambition, was to get something into Punch.

Once when I went over to Oxford for a committee meeting of the Cryptics I was taken to a gathering in New College and introduced to a contemporary who was regarded by all as a prodigy because he had got into Punch before taking his degree; and I was duly awed. His name was A.P. Herbert (IDWIL 132).

Darlington loved Gilbert (he later wrote a book on Gilbert and Sullivan), and the comic Kipling, and Anstey, and was an early fan of Milne. In 1912 he met Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (“Q”), who was coming to Cambridge as Professor of English Literature, with the task of establishing a full English degree. Q gave Darlington the useful piece of advice that he would only make money from prose, not verse. When he graduated (he got a third in his finals) he became a teacher for a while, and continued after the War began.

During the war, in October 1918, he married Marjorie Sheppard, whom he had met in 1914.

He had published pieces in Punch during the war, and after the war he became a journalist. The job for which he was best known was serving as drama critic for The Telegraph, which he did for an amazing forty-eight years, from 1920 to 1968. He began his career with reviews of the last plays of John Galsworthy, and according to Harold Hobson, gave up after the opening night of Hair,  at the end of which some of the unclothed members of the cast leapt off the stage and embraced an alarmed Mrs Darlington. He died in Seaford, Sussex, in May 1979.

I have relied largely on Harold Hobson’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, tempered by the remarks of George Simmers in his Great War Fiction blog-post on Alf’s Button. He notes that the theatre critic Hobson has the history of Alf’s Button confused, and recalls Penelope Gilliatt’s comment that “one of the characteristic sounds of the English Sunday is that of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree” (quoted in Colin Wilson’s The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men, London: Robson, 2077: 142). Darlington’s own I Do What I Like (London: Macdonald, 1947) (= IDWIL) is an entertaining account.



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