Stuart Petre Brodie Mais lived from 1885 to 1975. His wireless broadcasts for the BBC in the 1920s, 1930s and especially the wartime years of the 1940s, made him one of the most famous men in England, his peremptory but mellow, sergeant-majorly voice betraying a mixed heritage. In the same way that J. B. Priestley and Wilfred Pickles became household names, so S. P. B., or "Petre" as he preferred to be called, was, at the height of his broadcasting career, receiving 400-500 letters a day from listeners all over Britain, as his Kitchen Front (which was supported by the Ministry of Food and occasionally featured a promising young cookery writer called Marguerite Patten) and Microphone at Large programmes gained huge audiences in the dark days of the early 1940s, broadcasting from studios in Oxford Street at the height of the Blitz to tell the United States and England's dominions how the mother country was still in the fray and beating Hitler.
As a broadcaster, Mais presented a Letter From America in 1933, a full 13 years before Alistair Cooke thought of the idea. It was not all timber-framed thatched cottages and Merry England, though: he also strayed into the territory of Orwell and Priestley, suggesting practical help for the unemployed in the form of allotments, open air schemes, and free postage for unemployed men writing applications for work. He broadcast and wrote about unemployment from northern England years before Orwell made his epic journey to Wigan. He personally visited England's worst slums and broadcast harrowing programmes about the Depression, to which Queen Mary listened with interest, and the Prince of Wales asked to meet him.
But it was his inspired series on This Unknown Island that introduced the British people to our landscape and led to his being acclaimed "Ambassador of the Countryside".
His wider, multitudinous, talents and eccentricities sometimes elude precise definition. How would you categorise someone who was the only child of an impoverished clergy family with tenuous links to the English aristocracy, who experienced the earthly paradise that was Edwardian Oxford, before becoming one of the most innovative and charismatic teachers of his time, teaching English at the best public schools and writing novels in his spare time; who became a Professor of English in RAF but was sacked from the RAF college at Cranwell, where his verve and passion had offended the authorities; who started a new career at the age of 35, working as a Fleet Street journalist and meeting all the famous and notorious figures of his times, as well as working as BBC presenter; and finally made his mark as the author of some 200 books? His titles encompass travel and history, topography, literary criticism, autobiographies and many wise articles on how England, its countryside, and the English were changing during the tumultuous 20th century. Themes which find many echoes in today's news stories.
In this first-ever biography of "S. P. B.", Maisie Robson explores the uproarious public persona and complicated inner life of an unrepentant Englishman. The book weaves together both his own life and the story of England herself during a period of transition and change. As we face the challenges of the 21st century, this examination of our heritage and our identity could not be more timely: "It is good occasionally to unravel the tangled skein of our origins, to look back at intervals at the rock whence we were hewn." Then there was the cricket, another thread which ran through the rich warp and weft of his story. A staunch supporter of Southwick Cricket Club, he was, unfortunately, in cricketing terms, sometimes a duffer and a rabbit of the first order, who, in a long village cricket career, only scored one century, never got put on to bowl, and was noted for dropping catches. His chief contribution to cricket history was to become embroiled in a bitter struggle with the local council, over the right of the cricket club to play their matches on the village green. Though this led, eventually, to Mais losing his family home, nevertheless the victory was ultimately his, as cricket is still played on that very green today, and you can sit and watch it today. The curious story of how S. P. B. risked prison and even rebuffed Hitler in his devotion to cricket is also told in this engaging book
His "local" connections encompass both Derbyshire (his family home) Devon (where he was largely brought up) Oxford, where the family lived while he worked for the Oxford Times, and Sussex, his home for many years. But scarcely any corner of these Islands escaped being described by his busy pen - even when he was reduced to making it up by referring to large scale Ordnance Survey maps, because his deadlines were too tight to allow him to go there in person! He was capable of describing a bus journey up the A1 as vividly as an agricultural show in the Midlands, or the taste of whortleberries and cream in a Devon teashop.
All his adult life Mais wrote and wrote: by modern standards - especially since he had not the benefit of the modern word processor - he was amazingly prolific, rising in the early hours of the morning and working 'til lunch, then returning to his desk later in the day, he was churning out words by the thousand. Travel books, topography, history, school textbooks, magazine articles, all were grist to his enormously-productive mill.
They were eagerly devoured by the growing numbers of people who set out in the 1930s, marking the first flourishing of the concept of "organised leisure", to explore the British countryside by car, bicycle, or on foot. But despite this popularity, his life was a constant struggle with debt and the need for a writer with a precarious cash-flow to maintain a decent standard of family life. Sadly, fame did not remain with him all through his long life: in 1951, he was artlessly asked by an unaware interviewer, "Mr Mais, have you ever thought of writing a book?" (To his credit, he simply answered "Yes".)
His death in 1975 at the age of almost ninety went almost unnoticed - a mere 300-word obituary in The Times for a man who had written hundreds of books, and who had been a familiar touchstone over several decades for many thousands of listeners and readers.
Three decades after his death, The King's England Press is publishing, on 30 March 2005, An Unrepentant Englishman to mark his passing and to celebrate one of the most gifted, famous and eccentric Englishmen of the twentieth century. It explores Mais's teaching, journalism and broadcasting careers, his contribution to the fledgling conservation movement, his constant love affair with the English countryside, his love for his wife and family, his friendship with Tarka the Otter author Henry Williamson, and his passion for village cricket. There are few, if any, characters as engaging, prolific, individual, eccentric, big-hearted and larger than life as S. P. B. Mais in Britain today. Comparing the achievements of the man with the vacuous nature of modern concepts of "celebrity" only serves to point up both the achievements themselves, and how much we lost with his passing.