Stephen Potter’s Relaxmanship (1965)

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Steohen Potter. From the National Portrait Gallery (many thanks)

Books sponsored by companies, particularly drug companies, were more common in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, than they are now. A few years ago we featured one sponsor –a manufacturer of a tonic for those lacking energy—on Jot 101. The book they sponsored was a self-help treatise aimed at those high-fliers whose jobs overloaded them with work to the detriment of their health. We were reminded of this when, while   looking at a pile of books at Jot 101 HQ the other day, we found a rare example of a mid-twentieth book sponsored by another drug company, in this case Roche, a multinational  concern. By putting their name to Stephen Potter’s relaxmanship (1965) the company hoped to sell bucket loads of Libraxin, a drug sold to alleviate the symptoms of ‘ nervous dyspepsia ‘—a digestive condition brought about by stress and anxiety.

But let the advertising executives acting for Roche ( or even Potter himself) tell you about the benefits of Libraxin:

‘You may regard relaxation as an art. Not all of us, perhaps, are able to cultivate it to meet Mr Potter’s high requirements. But if properly approached , the holiday season can provide a real opportunity to unwind and to forget day-to-day worries for a short time.

Clearly this is excellent therapy for the nervous dyspeptic; his lack of anxiety reduces his dyspepsia. Sooner or later, however, he will have to return to work and to all his old problems and anxieties. This is the time when Libraxin  can be of particular value. Libraxin, which combines the anti-anxiety properties of Librium with the anti-secretory properties of clidinium, is most effective on the treatment of nervous dyspepsia.

It is possible that Potter’s booklet was aimed at GPs or psychiatrists rather than members of the public, for printed on the back flap were the following words:

Basic NHS cost 25 tablets: 

3/10 ½  (500 rate)

4/8d. (100 rate)

5/4d.(25 rate)

Potter is an interesting writer. Born in London on 1 February 1900, just a week after the death of Queen Victoria, he also missed action in the First World War, it having ended while he was training to be an officer. He then went on to study English at Oxford. On graduating he was offered a job as a Talks Producer for the fledgling BBC, but turned it down because it was based in Birmingham, where he didn’t want to live. Instead he established himself as an elocution teacher in London, advertising ‘Cockney accents cured ‘. He was then a tutor and schoolmaster before becoming private secretary to the playwright Henry Arthur Jones.

In 1926 he began lecturing in English at Birkbeck College, and while there published his first novel, The Young Man(1929), an autobiographical work which was well received. D. H. Lawrence: a first study, appeared just a few days after the death of the writer. The book become notorious for a misprint, where Sea and Sardinia became Sex and Sardinia. There followed four books on S. T. Coleridge. Potter’s first genuinely humorous book, however, was The Muse in Chains (1937), which was a satire on the way English Literature was taught in universities. It is not known how well this was received at Birkbeck, but in any case Potter resigned his post here on the grounds that he was not earning enough as an academic to support his family. In the following year he joined the BBC as a writer/producer in the Features department, where some of his most popular productions included the ‘ How to…’ series of humorous features with Joyce Grenfell.

The book that made his name, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, and incidentally introduced this word into the English language, appeared in 1947, and was a best-seller. Potter admitted that the idea of manipulating your opponent to your advantage , came from the philosopher, radio personality  and fare-dodger C. E. M. Joad ( see previous Jot) during a tennis match played against two fit students, which the older men won. Potter followed up the success of Gamesmanship with the equally popular Lifemanship, which itself was followed by Woomanship ( on the art of courting), Writermanship ( on how to get on in Literature) and Conversationship. In Dailymirrorship Potter advised middlebrow and highbrow journalists to affect an enthusiasm for tremendously ordinary and homely things like Danny Kaye, mid and bitter, the Daily Mirror, the Bertram Mills Circus and Rita Hayworth. Today, of course, Sun journalists with an Oxbridge education do the same with Ant and Dec, Made in Essex, Carling Black Label and Katie Price. His notes on Donmanship refer to the ‘ art of criticising without actually listening ‘. Again, things haven’t changed much.

Potter and his wife, Mary Potter, the well-known painter, divorced in 1955. Having lived at the Red House, Aldeburgh, for a while, where they entertained Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears , the couple swapped their large house for two separate homes, Britten and Pears taking the Red House over from them.

In 1965 Potter, sponsored by Roche, brought out three separate booklets under the heading relaxmanship. The one we have at Jot HQ is subtitled ‘How to be a Top Passenger without actually being a VIP ‘. Potter’s main focus is on air travel, which was only just becoming very popular among holidaymakers who were turning away from vacations in Cornwall and Blackpool towards Spain and Italy. But Potter, it would seem, is mainly concerned with male business passengers who aim to be seen by other travellers as well-informed or blasé about air travel. For instance at the moment the plan stops on landing and most passengers form ‘ a thick wedge down the centre aisle ‘, the Top Passenger remains seated  and ‘ opens his book to read a page of ‘Pascal’.

R. M. Healey

One thought on “Stephen Potter’s Relaxmanship (1965)

  1. J Hirschhorn-Smith

    One of my very favourite films, ‘School for Scoundrels’ (1960) is based upon Potters ‘Lifemanship’ books.

    It stars Ian Carmichael as the hapless sap losing his girl to the bounder Terry-Thomas that is until he goes to a certain school for a course in lifemanship run by Alastair Sim. Peter Jones, John Le Mesurier, Irene Handl, Hattie Jacques and Hugh Paddick also appear. What’s not to like!

    One of its best lines, “he who is not one-up is one down” is a phrase often used in this house…


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