Book review by George S: Skylighters is a light comedy about a trio of swindlers who reckon they can make money by starting a new religion. It is by J.B. Morton, who had in 1919 published The Barber of Putney, one of the better early novels about the Great War. By 1934 he was already becoming known as ‘Beachcomber’, who provided surreal comedy in a regular column in the Daily Express.
It begins in a traffic jam outside Crawley. Two cars are stationary next to one another. In one car, huge, new and yellow, is Sir George Barlow, a millionaire businessman who ‘that morning […] had gone to Brighton on business, and had failed to double-cross one of his oldest associates’. Pulled up next to him is a much older and smaller car, which is ‘battered and wheezy’. It contains a pair of crooks, Ephraim Clutch and Buster Honey. Clutch looks up and recognises the man in the big car as the man whom he had known as George Pugh when they were in prison together in Australia.
Clutch puts pressure on Sir George to finance his new money-making scheme – ‘Skylighters’. here’s how he describes the project:
This is a religion for the modern age. It is a religion without churches or dogma, and without rules and regulations. It will succeed because it is quite content-free.
We exhort the young to be cheerful and hopeful. Happiness, that’s the keynote. We pass round the plate after our meetings. And so on. Our gospel is the twentieth-century gospel of optimism.
The book is the story of how Clutch launches the religion – mostly by creating incidents that get reported in the press, so that the public become intrigued.
The religion draws some odd adherents, who each in their various ways fill the emptiness of Skylighters their own dreams and concerns. Miss Maritana Moon is a spinster given to good works; she decides that Skylighters is the perfect outlet for her efforts. The Rev. Hoey-Stoker is a vicar who is impatient with the failure of the Church to inspire the modern age. He wants to latch on to Skylighters and its appeal to the young, to bring them back to church. Laura, Sir George Barlow’s very beautiful but very stupid daughter, loves Skylighters because she sees in it in idealism that is the opposite of her father’s money-grubbing. The fashionable set take it up because it is new and different. Various rich men invest in the religion because they think it will pay.
I think the book is essentially a satire on what was known as the Oxford Group, a movement founded in the twenties by Frank Buchman, an American protestant evangelist. Like Skylighters, this was a movement without churches or fixed doctrines. Like Clutch in the novel (only more honestly, presumably) Buchman was an expert at gaining publicity and getting celebrities involved. (The Oxford Group would later in the thirties become known as the Moral Rearmament movement. There was a movement to re-arm Britain in preparation for war, but Buchman said that what was needed was not weapons, but a change of heart. The ultimate aim of moral rearmament was to convert Hitler to sweetness and decency. I don’t think that plan went too well.)
Tom Driberg, who was Morton’s colleague on the Daily Express had in 1928 published an exposé of the movement as a “strange new sect” which involved members holding hands in a circle and publicly confessing their sins.
Morton was a Catholic, and it from this viewpoint that he is satirising the easy customer-friendly religion of the Skylighters as an extreme and vacuous extension of protestantism. Once or twice he reminds us that while Anglican churches are empty, catholic churches are full, and there is a brief cameo appearance of a serious and useful Catholic priest in sharp contrast to the crooks of Skylighters.
The book is entertaining, with plenty of grotesque characters. My favourite is Crouch’s sidekick, Buster Honey, a wonderfully sordid character who is always chasing barmaids, and showing them tricks with matchsticks. There is a love-plot of sorts, with three suitors competing for the hand of the beautiful Laura, and there are some good twists and turns in the narrative. The best of these is when Sir George Barlow, even though he is actually financing the scam, gets so affected by Crouch’s rhetoric that he undergoes a religious conversion, giving away all his wealth and going in for a Buchman-style public confession. (Other millionaires think he must be doing it for some obscure financial reason, sop start imitating him.
The tone of the book is one of cheeky irreverence. For example, when the Skylighters are planning a big march through London, we are told that:
The Government, if I may use such a term to describe a stinking heap of decayed fish, had been considerably worried for some time by processions of the unemployed.
I think that may be the most enjoyable sentence I’ve read this year.
Skylighters is one of those books that gets its zing from an ambiguity in the author’s feelings. His comic instincts are on the side of the anarchic swindlers, while his mind is critical of what they are doing.
This is not a deep novel, and some of its satire has dated. On the other hand, the way that Clutch manipulates the media still strikes a chord, and as I read about celebrities rushing to back the easy religion of Skylighters, I was often reminded of modern interviews with stars who go on about their Buddhism-lite, or about Mindfulness, or some other faith according to which the cosmos gives them full endorsement for mostly thinking about and highly valuing themselves.
Tom Driberg – as well as being famously gay – was a High Church Anglican, so may have been close to Morton theologically.
There’s a similar religious revival movement in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published few years before, except that the leader is female and while the religious conversion comes close to succeeding it fails when a Duchess expresses her contempt for the movement and its members.