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by Bamber Gascoigne

Raymond (William) Postgate (1896-1971)


English social historian and mystery writer, whose best-known crime novel is Verdict of Twelve (1940). In the story a murder trial is followed through different jurors and their reactions. Raymond Postgate's sister was Margaret Isabel Cole (1893-1980), who wrote with her husband G.D.H. Cole (1889-1959) several mystery novels. Postgate was a devoted socialist and he became later an authority on gastronomy. He also published translations from Greek, Latin, and French.

"What knowledge have you of murder? How do you know' (his voice rose into a high key) 'what would drive a woman to kill, and what would hold her back from that awful crime? Answer me that!'" (from Vedict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate)

Raymond Postagate was born in Cambridge, the eldest son of Professor John Percival Postgate, a classical scholar, and Edith Allen. He was educated at the Perse School, Liverpool College, and St. John's College, Oxford; from where he pressured to withdraw due to his anti-war views. While in Liverpool, Postgate radicalized; especially the strikes of August 1911 had a profound effect on his social conscience.

During the World War I Postgate was a conscientious objector. Without a religious reason for his refusal to fight, he was first sent to prison in 1916 and then taken to Cowley Barracks where he slept naked rather than under army blankets. A doctor found him physically unfit for military service. In the 1930s Postgate revised his pacifist position. When Britain entered into war with Hitler's Germany, he joined a Home Guard unit. His Socialist weekly magazine promoted the Home Guard idea.

The father of Postgate's wife, Daisy Lansbury, was the famous pacifist and leader of the Labour Party, George Lansbury. He was grandfather to Angela Lansbury, who played J.B. Fletcher in the CBS series Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996) and Miss Marple in Guy Hamilton's film The Mirror Crack'd (1980), based on Agatha Christie's novel. Postgate's sister Margaret  married the Socialist economist and historian G.D.H. Cole. The Coles also published mystery novels, starting with The Brooklyn Murders (1923), the only one G.D.H. Cole wrote alone. The "Brooklyn" of the title does not refer to New York City, but, rather, to an English family. Later Postgate collaborated with Cole on The Common People 1746-1938 (1938)."an 

Before joining the Labour Party, Postgate was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. For a period Postgate served as editor for its journal The Communist; he was successful in increasing its circulation to 60,000. Basically an individualist, he soon lost his faith in the CPGB. Moreover, he did not want to take orders from Moscow. As a journalist Postgate had started his career in 1918, working on the Daily Herald, Lansbury's Weekly, and as a department editor for Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1927 to 1928. He was an European representative for Alfred A. Knopf publishers (1929-49), and edited Tribune, to which George Orwell contributed, from 1940-42. At that time the newspaper was in difficulties and Orwell was not paid for his contributions. From 1942 to 1949 Postgate worked at the Board of Trade and Ministry of Supply.

Verdict of Twelve (1940) is an application of Karl Marx's famous thesis that a man's social position determines his consciousness. Rosalie van Beer, a middle-aged widow with a fondness for wine, is on trial for poisoning her 11-year-old nephew Philip Arkwright. In the first half of the story, the author studies the minds of twelve members of a jury, who hold in their hands the power of life and death. Postgate suggests that their background and their pasts made the verdict inevitable. "She thought to herself, in a manner as near to humour as any thoughts of hers could be, that it wouldn't half be queer if she had to be juror in a murder case. Somebody who did know how, judging somebody that didn't. For she never attempted to forget that she had killed her aunt, and she never had the least regret. She was rather proud of it, though she remembered having several bad scares and was certain she'd never do such a thing again." Postagate's other two novels, Somebody at the Door (1943), which gets into the background of the murder suspects, and The Ledger Is Kept (1953), which focused on the life of the victim, placed much emphasis on the circumstances which led to the crime.

Both stories featured Inspector Holly, "a tall, thin man with iron-grey hair." He is a dutiful civil servant and by his personality a direct opposite of the eccentric and more famous detectives of the Golden Age of the mystery novel. Somebody at the Door was set in 1942, and reflected the wartime atmosphere: one of the characters is a corporal in the Home Guard,  bombers fly in the sky, and  there is a distant sound of the firing of the guns. "A big flash momentarily showed up, black against itself, two jutting barrels; the violence of the noise caused both men to plunge backwards. "Blast it, they're getting near," said Fremont." I hate that bloody gun going off. I never get used to it.""

Every Man Is God (1959) told the history of a family and a house, beginning in 1883 and running though the following decades. The reader is transported into a vanished life – the old British army, the underworld of Victorian vice, the peace of Edwardian country life. At the same time Postgate draws a picture of quiet married love, peace and hope with nostalgic charm. "There are short 'dead patches' in history just as there are insensitive areas on the human thigh. They are the times when one period has ended and another has not yet begun, when for a brief while men can only see a blank before them. What is past has gone; something else will come, but what it will be nobody knows; nothing has yet happened, but soon it will. Meanwhile there is an uncoloured flatness around; with nothing but the ordinary daily routine of duties to relieve it." (from Every Man is God)

Among Postgate's other works are a novel, No Epitaph (1932), short stories, histories, and popular biographies. Although in 1930s he believed in the proletarian dictatorship, in How to Make a Revolution (1934) he rejected adventurist policies: "No politician, Fascist or Communist or any other, can with any hope of success announce to his followers and to the general public: "Follow me in this path of revolution. The chances are two to one against us, but maybe it's worth gambling on them." His army will dissolve."Postgate's official life of his father-in-law, George Lansbury, came out in 1951. The source Postgate used was the main Landsbury archive and his memoirs, but he also drew on personal knowledge and family recollections. Some thirty boxes of papers, which he had handed over to the government authorities, were lost during World War II.

Postgate had always been interested in food and wine, and he decided to make an effort to raise standards by editing the reports of a band of volunteers on their visits to British hotels and restaurants. The highly influential Good Food Club was born as a result of the idea. Postgate wrote books about choosing and serving wine, and edited The Good Food Guide to Britain, which was published biennially. In 1962 the publication was taken over by the Consumers' Association. Raymond Postgate died of cancer on March 29, 1971. Four weeks later his wife Daisy committed suicide. Oliver Postgate (1925-2008), their son, became a filmmaker and writer. In 1973 he made with Peter Firmin for the BBC a film series, which was voted in 1999 'The Best Ever BBC Children's Programme.'

For further reading: Growing Up Into Revolution by M. Cole (1949); Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, ed. by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976); 'Postgate, Raymond (William)' by Jeanne F. Bedell, in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, ed. by J.M. Reilly (1985); The Life of Raymond Postgate by J. Postagte and M.A. Stomach (1994); A Stomach for Dissent: The Life of Raymond Postgate: 1896-1971 by John and Mary Postgate (1994); 'How to Make a Revolution: The Historical and Political Writings of Raymond Postgate' by Marc Mulholland, Socialist History, Volume 49 (2016); 'Introduction' by Martin Edwards, in Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate (2017). Note:  The Coles' mystery writing career began with The Brooklyn Murders (1923), which was written by Douglas Cole alone. A full length biography of him by Margaret I. Cole was published in 1972.

Selected works:

  • The International (Socialist Bureau) During the War, 1918
  • Doubts Concerning a League of Nations, 1919
  • The Bolshevik Theory, 1920
  • Revolution from 1789-1906: Documents Selected and Edited with Notes and Introductions, 1920 (ed.)
  • The Workers' International, 1920
  • Chartism and the "Trades Union", 1922
  • Out of the Past: Some Revolutionary Sketches, 1922
  • Revolutionary Biographies, 1922
  • The Builders' History, 1923
  • Pervigilium Venus: The Eve of Venus, 1924 (ed. and tr.)
  • Murder, Piracy and Treason: A Selection of Notable English Trials, 1925 (ed.)
  • A Short History of the British Workers, 1926
  • A Workers' History of the Great Strike, 1927
  • "That Devil Wilkes", 1928
  • The Conversations of Dr. Johnson / James Boswll, 1930 (ed.)
  • Robert Emmet, 1931 (US title: Dear Robert Emmet, 1932)
  • No Epitaph: A Novel, 1932 (US title: Felix and Anne, 1933)
  • Karl Marx, 1933
  • Radio, Press and Publishing [in Soviet Russia], 1933
  • How to Make a Revolution, 1934
  • What to Do with the B.B.C., 1935
  • A Pocket History of the British Workers to 1919, 1937
  • Those Foreigners: The English People's Opinions on Foreign Affairs as Reflected in Their Newspapers since Waterloo, 1937 (with Aylmer Vallance; US title: England Goes to Press, 1937)
  • The Common People 1746-1938, 1938 (with G.D.H. Cole; US title: The British Common People, 1939; rev. ed. The British People, 1947)
  • Verdict of Twelve, 1940
    - Valamiesten tuomio (suom. Paavo Soukka, 1958)
    - TV film: Verdict of Three (1958), in Playhouse 90, dir. by Buzz Kulik, adaptation by James P. Cavanagh, starring Gladys Cooper, Angela Lansbury, Rod Taylor, Michael Wilding, Carmen Mathews, Cecil Kellaway, Yvonne DeCarlo
  • Detective Stories of Today, 1940 (ed.)
  • Let's Talk It Over: An Argument about Socialism, 1942
  • Somebody at the Door, 1943
  • The Outline of History / H.G. Wells, 1949 (ed.)
  • "By Me...": A Report upon the Apparent Discovery of Some Working Notes by William Shakespeare / Moray MacLaren, 1949 (ed.)
  • The Plain Man's Guide to Wine, 1951 (revised edition, 1957, 1965)
  • The Good Food Guide 1951-52, 1951 (ed., also later editions)
  • The Life of George Lansbury, 1951
  • Mitsou / Colette, 1951 (translation)
  • The Ledger is Kept, 1953
  • An Alphabet of Choosing and Serving Wine, 1955
  • Story of a Year: 1848, 1955
  • That devil Wilkes, 1956
  • Every Man is God, 1959
  • The Home Wine Cellar, 1960
  • Story of a Year: 1798, 1969
  • Portuguese Wine, 1969
  • The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, 1969 (edited by Raymond Postgate, with an introduction, a commentary and a translation into modern English prose)
  • "That devil Wilkes," 2001 (rev. ed.;
  • Verdict of Twelve, 2017 (with an introduction by Martin Edwards)

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