Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Bunch More Stories by Ashley Sterne

My interest in the short comic essays of Ashley Sterne is fast becoming a mania.  Here are more stories filched from the National Library of Australia website.



I had just told the editor a true fishing story about a record winkle weighing 4 1b. (not counting suet) which I once caught in a fishing competition off the end of the pier at Harrogate. He didn't turn a hair. He merely reached for the office revolver, and said; — "Did you read in the news papers about a village where the inhabitants always speak the truth, the whole solicitors, and so forth?"

Why. yes.' I replied. 'But I don't quite see what that's got to do—?"

"I think," continued the editor, "that a day spent in that village would prove helpful and instructive. Suppose you pay it a visit, and record your impressions for the benefit of all other fishermen, golfers, solicitors, and so forth?"

The same afternoon I stepped out of the train on to the platform of the little country station which serves Veracity Village. A cold drizzle was falling. Apparently there was nobody collecting tickets, and as I dislike carrying superfluous cardboard about with me, I approached the only official I could find.

"Good afternoon," I began.

"No, it ain't, it's a rotten afternoon," said the man, gently but firmly.

"Well, good afternoon, such as it is,' I said. ''Can you tell me the way to the village?" I enquired.

"I can," he answered, and went straight off to finish his dinner without another word.
I had obviously struck nothing-but-the-truth in large quantities! However, as there was only one road I decided to follow it.  I hadn't gone far before I overtook a very old man. Remembering my conversation with the porter, I greeted him with:— "A beastly rotten afternoon to you! Is this my road to Veracity Village?"

 'Noa, it dew belong to the Rural District Council," said the ancient, "but you may walk on it."

"I should say," I corrected, "is this the direction in which Veracity Village lies?"

"Dang it!" retorted the old boy. 'Veracity Village doan't lie. We allus speaks the truth. Happen you be one of them journalists coom down to larn how to dew it?"

I nodded.

"And you, I presume, are the Oldest Inhabitant, who has worked for Varmer Tunnutts, man and boy, for nigh on 70 year coom next Michaelmas?"

"Noa, I bean't," he replied. "I've never worked for Varmer Turmutts — never done a honest day's work in my life. I spends all my time poachin' and drinkin' beer when I bean't in gaol. I be the black sheep o' the village, I be. 'A drunken old reprobate,' that's what parson calls I."

As I am rather particular about the company I keep, I bade the honest old rascal a mouldy day, and walked on alone. On entering the village I noticed a house to let. There was the usual estate agent's poster plastered on the fence, and out of curiosity I stopped to read it.

It ran:

This Highly Disreputable Hovel to Let or for Sale. Not worth a row of beans.

Feeling I required a nerve-soother after so much truth, I walked up the main street and entered a tobacconist's shop.

"I want a good cigar,' I said.

"So do I," was the unexpected reply. "All the cigars I've got are about as fragrant as a plumber's smoke rocket. Talk about muck!"

I was frankly astonished. Hitherto I had never encountered so much solid truth outside the witness box of a Police Court. I crossed the road to the grocer's. Outside the shop was a box labelled "eggs."

"Are these eggs fresh?" I asked.

"They're not," said the grocer. "In fact, I'm rather going against my conscience in calling them eggs. They're practically fossils, and only fit for paper weights."

"Have you anything to sell,' I continued, "which you can thoroughly recommend— a lump of Chinese butter or a yard of cambric sausages or something?"

"As a man to man, I haven't," replied the shopkeeper. "See this side of bacon? I pay a boy 6d. a week to come every morning and scrape the mould off. Look at that Stilton over there— no, in the other corner; that's my missus— I've had it since 1910. It bit a little boy yesterday. Only fit for the foundation stone of a fever hospital. Then there's that corned beef, all corns and no beef."

I was greatly impressed. The worthy grocer was as candid as his candied peel.
"How is it," I asked, 'that every one in this village seems to have contracted the habit of speaking the truth so precisely?"

"I've heard say," said the grocer, "that the original settlers in Veracity Village came over from America with George Washington in the Mayfly. But I'm inclined to think we've got a special gift for it. Oh, we're that conscientious you wouldn't hardly believe. At the golf course, for instance, when your ball falls plumb on the fairway, you don't speak of a good 'lie.' We never speak of our houses as having two or more 'storeys.' The old chap in the big house at the end of the village who coaches young fellows for the army is never called a 'crammer.' If you walk into the church and take a look at the stained-glass windows, you won't find a single angel playing the lyre — only flutes and trombones and things. We aren't even allowed to sink a well in the village."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because truth lies at the bottom of a well," said my informant. "But I must get back to my counter. That old bird who just hopped in is Miss Anna Niae, the village gossip. Maybe she'll buy some thing if I don't stop her."

I travelled back to town that evening with such a nice young fellow. He wore a pair of baggy breeches, and carried a bag of golf-labourer's tools over his shoulder. He told me how he'd been round in 20 under bogey, and I told him all about my 4 1b. winkle.



By Ashley Sterne

"Never the time and the place and the loved one all together!" sang Browning, in one of those exquisite love-lyrics which most of us read, a few of us learn and none of us ever thoroughly digests. And it cannot be denied that the poet is ninety per cent. right, and the remainder, the customary ten per cent. allowed on a poetical licence. Take a case in point. The hour is midnight, and we are fortunate enough to find the dimly-lit conservatory untenanted; but the loved one, more often than not, is probably consuming large masses of rainbow hued ice-cream in the supper-room with her last partner.  Or, when we have secured the loved one, with her craving for ice-cream temporarily satiated, and the dimly-lit conservatory all to ourselves, she remembers that the hired vehicle which is to bear her away has already been waiting twenty minutes, and if she does not leave immediately she will not be home till after twelve—when the charges are doubled. Again, it may happen that we have captured the loved one at an opportune moment of the evening—before the band has arrived, or the ice-cream been unpacked—only to find that a couple of grossly selfish chaperons, who, strictly speaking, ought to be playing progressive whist in an ante-room for a bottle of scent or a hand-embroidered blotting book, are already occupying the only aloof corner in the whole of the premises.

But in other circumstances it is quite possible to achieve a simultaneous combination of time, place and loved one. It depends entirely on the type of one's bien-aimee. With most men the term means some species of girl, but with me it means tobacco; and the ideal time and place for the full enjoyment of a cigarette is undoubtedly about 10 a.m., after breakfast in bed. Owing to a constitutional disability I am unable to participate with so many of my fellows in that gloriously exhilarating pastime known as early. rising. The joys of bounding from my couch at the sound of the milkman leaving his watery nest, cracking the ice in the bath, and shaving in cold water are denied me; as also is the pleasure to be derived from pottering about the house, waiting for the news paper boy, or from taking a brisk early-morning walk preparatory to the deglutition of a seven o'clock breakfast. However much I may mentally desire to get up, I am prevented by a kind of paralysing physical inertia from doing aught else but pull the bed clothes more tightly around me, and resume that condition of enervating lethargy which is so sore a handicap to me, until my breakfast tray arrives a few hours later. Need I add that I endeavor to bear this.grievous calamity with exemplary fortitude?

Now, I do not necessarily hold that bed is the ideal place in which to breakfast. Accidents will occur on the best regulated bed-spreads. While I am helping myself, the poached eggs often show a tendency to slide off the bacon-dish and fall on the carpet, where, by some occult means, they remain undiscovered until I jump out of bed to look for them, when I invariably tread on them, and render them unfit for any purpose save, perhaps, scrambling. Then, too, if I successfully manage their transit from the dish to the plate upon my knees, they frequently succeed in evading the prongs of the impaling fork, and make a sudden dive into the bed, where, though "lost to sight," they are nevertheless "to memory dear"—as our obituary notices so eloquently put it.

But breakfast once disposed of, there comes that supreme moment when I take up my post-prandial cigarette and my lips encircle its delicate cork-tip. The first whiff inhaled deep into one's work, and producing that sensation peculiar to first whiffs which makes the floor appear to take one colossal leap upwards in a passionate attempt to kiss the mantelpiece, punctuates the golden moment of the day. Then to lie back upon the pillow, to gaze up at the pure whiteness of the virgin ceiling, unsullied save where the servant who occupies the room above had the misfortune to drop the water-jug, and to ponder over some of the graver social problems of life—such as the dignity of labor or the wicked waste of the priceless gift of time—is to experience that state of delight of idleness which, to my mind is far preferable to even the most expensive sort of Paradise.


A Very Mixed Bathe

By Ashley Sterne

I had not been away, for a summer holiday, in spite of the fact that I had written to several people who used to call me comrade and friend, and extend the right hand of Bolshevism to me, suggesting that a visit from me would greatly add to their enjoyment.

Therefore, I was not a little glad when Archie Paggs wrote to me from Dazzleton-on-Sea asking me to spend a week or two with him and his sister Gladys; though had I.known that he really wanted me to look after Miss Paggs while he endeavored to "click" with a damsel he had encountered on the pier with red hair, green stockings, and a face like a melon with freckles—I am describing the damsel, you understand; not the pier—wild tanks would not have dragged me there.

However, down I went, and spent the first four days playing fox-and-geese with Miss Paggs. It rained incessantly, not only cats and dogs, but giraffes and crocodiles in fact, a whole Jamrachfull of animals.

Archie and the Freckled Melon sat in the picture palace from morning to night, holding one another's thumbs and chewing spearmint.

On the fifth day it cleared up. The sun, came out and shone ferociously, so I got out my yachting cap and asked Miss Paggs to come for a stroll on the parade.

She looked somewhat askance at my yachting cap (which, I admit, was not a perfect fit, resembling as it sat on my skull an inverted tea-cup on a Dutch cheese), but after cramming her hand kerchief into her mouth—I suppose she couldn't find her pocket—she gurgled that she'd just love to.

We got very hot walking, so we stopped at a small refreshment kiosk at one end of the parade, and I asked her if she were thirsty.

"Dreadfully," she gasped, and sank down upon. seat while I went to the kiosk. I ate a couple of strawberry ices and a peach, and then asked the man to give me a glass of water, which I carried to Miss Paggs.

She murmured something which sounded like "Stamboul" as I handed it to her, but I suppose she was only trying to thank me, and I did not like to ask her to say it again, because I hate being thanked more than once for a simple act of kindness.

The sun was hotter than ever now, and when I suggested a mixed bathe—Dazzleton is quite commonsense in the matter, and even allows mixed shrimping—Miss Paggs jumped at the idea. So we went to the bathing-place, and were very soon in the water.

Unfortunately, after I have been in the sea a few minutes I usually turn a delicate art-shade of blue (if I am not seized with cramp before then), rind on this. occasion I dad to come out almost as soon as I got in.

"Try a dive off there," I cried, indicating one of the diving-boards. "The water there's lovely—warm as toast."

Nothing loth, Miss Paggs mounted the board and took a graceful header. But no sooner had her head appeared above the surface again than she uttered a scream like a ship's siren, sending the wild echoes flying and waking up all the poor invalids dozing in the shelters on the pier.

"What's the matter?" I shouted, as I hastily put on my yachting cap, wondering if I ought to run home for my water-wings.

"You're a horrid pig!" angrily called back Miss Paggs. "The water's simply alive with—ouch! —jelly-fish, and they are—ouch! ouch! —stinging me all over."

It was true. Miss.Paggs had evidently dived into a school of submerged jelly fish and brought up most of the fifth and sixth forms with her.  I rushed to the diving board and, leaning over, I beat off several of the more infuriated ones with one hand—it was purely an accident that I slapped Miss Paggs' ear in the confusion—while with the other I collected Miss Paggs, and dragged her to a jellyfish-proof part of the platform.

And she wouldn't even speak to me; not even when I volunteered to go and fetch her another glass of water.



By Ashley Sterne.

He first entered my household as a young and innocent egg. Of course, he had no name then . He was just an anonymous egg, and it seemed stupid to call a mere egg anything; though, upon occasion, I had previously called our breakfast eggs by profane titles. His name was given him the day be was born. This happened quite unexpectedly. I left the egg as usual one night, safely reposing upon a piece of blotting paper in a match box. The next morning it had hatched and my one ewe-silkworm was crawling about the box raising frantic cries for nourishment.

I decided to call him Sidney. I don't exactly know why I chose the name of Sidney; probably for the sake of euphony. Then, the christening over, I at once went out and bought him a lettuce. I also contemplated buying him a silver christening mug since he was my god-silkworm, but I fortunately remembered that Sidney's life must perforce be a drinkless one, that to offer him liquid refreshment would be tantamount to committing vermicide; that, were he given moist food even, he would swell up and burst, and his career in the textile industry be ruined.

When I reached home I found Sidney simply ravenous. He had eaten his egg-shell and a large piece of his blotting paper and was just about to start on that part of the label of the box that implores us to support home industries. So I quickly thrust a lettuce-leaf between  his jaws, and thus averted a crisis.

At his birth Sidney was not quite an eighth of an inch long, and weighed—well; I didn't know whether silkworms were avoirdupois or troy, so I hesitated to weigh him by any of the recognised standards; but he just balanced against a cigarette paper. However, by sedulously plying him with lettuce I managed in a very short time materially to increase his size, so that I soon found that when I wanted to look at him it was no longer necessary to close the door and the window, and shut the register in the chimney. And as Sidney grew so did my expectations; and I got to regard him first as potential dress-socks, then as a potential neck-tie, and finally as potential pyjamas.

Then one day I was called away from home on urgent business, and I had to leave Sidney for twenty-four hours in the care of my cook-general. I carefully explained to her that Sidney was not to be stinted in the matter of meals. The more food he ate (I pointed out), the more silk he would yield. (I don't know whether this is in strict accord with fact.  I know it isn't my own case, because the more food I eat the less inclined I am to toil; and nothing whatever would induce me to spin). I knew it would be useless to tell her to give Sidney his lettuce dry, because her instincts as cook would impel her to soak it in water without question.  I therefore hit upon the idea of giving Sidney mulberry leaves during my absence. No cook-general, I argued, would ever dream of washing mulberry leaves. I had no tree of my own, but my neighbor next door had one, and so I instructed the girl to go and give my compliments to him, say I was in no hurry for the return of my lawn mower, and could he oblige me with a few mulberry leaves?  I then left Sidney with a light heart and a heavy suitcase.

When I returned the following afternoon I found my cook-general in tears. Between her sobs she managed to stammer out that Sidney had turned black and burst.

"Did you soak his mulberry leaves in water?" I .asked sternly.

"N-no," sobbed the girl. "Should I have ought to?"

I overlooked her grammar, and bade her tell me what had happened.

"When I came down this morning," she began, "I saw that Master Sidney had nearly finished 'is lettuce, so after breakfast, as soon as ever it stopped rainin', I—

"I didn't wait to hear any more. Thirty seconds later poor Sidney's remains were fertilising the soil in my back garden.



By Ashley Sterne

I have just been reading an absorbing little book which tells you how to grow money, written by a party what has grown some.

As for the last twenty years I've been trying to grow money, and have only succeeded in growing older, a weedy moustache and a few anaemic tomatoes, the volume has come into my life at an opportune moment.

"It is never too late to start" is the comforting assurance we are given, and on the strength of that I'm out to make a fortune as per instructions.

And here let me say at once that the book doesn't deal with such things as addressing envelopes at a shilling a thousand in your spare time, or knitting jumpers on commission during the long winter evenings. It just contains some sound, commonsense business hints.

The first chapter is entitled "Beginning Small," and its very first words are "Once I was dining with a very wealthy man."

That's the kind of "beginning small'' for my money!  I feel as if I could easily acquire the habit of beginning small in that fashion about seven times a week.

The point, however, is that the millionaire "started literally from nothing. Time was when he had dined often enough off a twopenny pork pie." Anyway, I'm on the right tack! Time was when I dined off the aroma from a ham and beef shop. The moral is that a little saved, however small, is the cornerstone of the millionaire business. My only trouble is that if the millionaire started literally from nothing, how he ever saved anything.

The writer then goes on to explain that capital does not mean merely cash capital; it means also "personal capital in training, skill, knowledge, wealth and character." There again I'm with him, three bags full. It's no good having one-and-sixpence on deposit at the Bank of England if you don't know the difference between double entry and singlestick are liable to influenza twice daily, and have a character which a Bolshevic wouldn't look at.

This personal capital, he says, can be profitably brought into play by specialising. Shake, ho'! That's the goods. Specialise on something, and stick to It!  Specialise on spearmint, fish-glue, seccotine, fluxite, anything you like, but stick to it!

Another chapter in entitled. "The Best Method in Stocks and Shares" and here again I want to stand its author a cocktail.

"If you follow the rule," he says, "of buying on a flat or stagnant market and selling on a rising market you will make money."

That's as plain as a pikestaff—only my own difficulty is to know when a market is thoroughly flat and stagnant. I once bought an oil share which was as flat and stagnant as last Shrove Tuesday's pancake.  But no sooner had I bought it than it got flatter and stagnanter than ever before, and eventually it flatly stagnated in a hopeless, heartless, flat, stagnant liquidation.

Then there is a chapter devoted to "Hints on Inventions."

"In any rational or reasonable social system," says the author, "the inventor, before all men, ought to be sure of his reward." Quite so. I have often felt that if I could only invent a marketable five-pound note, and do my own printing, all I need do for the future is to sit in a comfortable chair and count the reward into a stocking. Unfortunately, however, it appears that there are a lot of despicable brigands about, always on the qui vive to "do" the inventor out of his legitimate recompense by cribbing his ideas.

For example, you invent and patent a new collar-stud which, whenever it falls on the floor, calls out, "Here I am!" until it is picked up and restored to your collar-band. Some jealous rival promptly copies your idea in principle, and places on the market a collar-stud which sings "Give me a little cosy corner" until retrieved.



By Ashley Sterne

According to a famous mental specialist, everybody is more or less mad.

"The nagging wife, the husband full of unreasonable complaints, and the spendthrift," he says, "are none of them sane from the medical point of view."

Since this sweeping assertion sweeps up nearly everybody, it is pretty evident that those vagaries which we have hitherto attributed to the presence of bees in people's bonnets are really caused by bats in their belfries.

This comfortable theory now makes clear many things which have hitherto been obscure. Previously I had imagined that only folks were mad who stuck hay in their hair, or puttered about carrying the skulls of defunct humorists in their hands. Now I know that their heads need be embellished with nothing more startling than brilliantine, and that they need carry in their hands nothing more bizarre than an umbrella.

For instance, the other day I met my tailor in the street—or, rather, he met me. He suggested that the time was ripe for me to pay him a trifle on account. "Who on earth would dream of paying a tailor's bill at this season of the year?" I remarked. "The fellow must be mad!"

I spoke heatedly, I admit. But now I see I was right. A tailor can be every bit as mad as a hatter.

Then, again, a week or so ago I ordered a ton of coal from my coalmonger. It arrived by return of post, and in accordance with my invariable custom I always follow, Mrs. Benton's advice and weigh everything I buy, from a postage-stamp to a hair-cut.  I weighed it. It weighed exactly a ton!  I threw a lump on the fire. It actually burst into flame!  I was so surprised you could have knocked me down with a steam-roller. Why, the last ton I bought only weighed a couple of hundredweight, including wrapper and string, and wouldn't burn at all.

Then I remembered what the specialist had said, and I realised that none but the coalmonger who was also lately cokey on his cranium would fulfill an order for a whole ton of real coal by delivering a whole ton of real coal. There is, however, another type of madness which is far more subtle. I refer to the kind which all geniuses are supposed to have in large quantities. Occasionally one sees a person meandering along the street with long, unkempt hair and a pathetic, far-away look in his eyes, like a halibut breathing its last In Billingsgate fish market. But it is not safe at once to assume that it's his "afternoon off." He is, perhaps, a highly-fashionable and expensive musician. Or he may be one of our great modern poets whose verses consist entirely of adverbs and asterisks. Or he may be a celebrated Futurist painter who paints pictures resembling a lot of trigonometry upset into a dish of fried eggs.

Indeed, I am inclined to think that we eccentric-looking men of genius are really the only thoroughly sane people. The shaggy old philosopher Diogenes was generally thought by the short-sighted folks of his time to be potty because he lived in a tub, but to my mind this betokened most extraordinary sanity. Nowadays, when whole families are living in inverted flower-pots, disused bee-hives, dogs' kennels, and hen-roosts, the man who has managed to secure a water-butt all to himself is not considered mad or eccentric—only phenomenally lucky.



By Ashley Sterne

In the course of my remarks recently I had occasion to mention the distressing crimes upon the violin perpetrated by the damsel next door; and this has inspired me to make a few general observations upon music in the home, a subject in which I am particularly well versed, as in my own home we all contracted the music complaint pretty badly, besides all the other popular domestic diseases to which the young are prone.

The reason why music claims more incompetent devotees than any other pursuit is probably because it is so easy to acquire a superficial knowledge of it for a very moderate outlay; and fond parents, I regret to say, take full advantage of these facilities. No sooner does a child commence— out of sheer curiosity—to pummel the keys of a piano with its sticky fists, than they imagine that they possess in their offspring a second Mozart, and music-lessons promptly begin. Not only is the unhappy victim kept at the piano most of the day, but one frequently hears of children being pulled out of bed at dead of night, and dumped down on a crudely inartistic sateen piano-stool (decorated with hand-painted humming-birds and unripe fruit), there to practise until the grey dawn appears.

The direct outcome of this treatment is that the child generally be comes imbued with a. permanent dislike for music, which is only equalled by its inborn hatred of having its face washed; while the ambitious parents are for ever after a broken man and a disillusioned woman, with no interests in life beyond—respectively— the local bowling club and the suffrage movement.  Occasionally, however, a child survives this ordeal of its youth and eventually becomes, not a virtuoso, but that blackest of betes noires —the young person who plays (or, it may be, sings) "a little." When I was a youth in velveteen knickerbockers —to mention only a portion of my unsightly and exceedingly uncomfortable garb—l was frequently requested by my people to "let Mr. and Mrs. Snooks hear you play 'The Merry Peasant.'" This, of course, was very silly of my people, for, though I could play the piano "a little," I knew quite a lot of Euclid. But do you think they ever said to me: "Ashley, just demonstrate to Mr. and Mrs Snooks that delightful little peculiarity about the square on the hypotenuse?" Not they! (My piano-lessons, I might add, cost three guineas a term, while Euclid was included amongst the rest of my education fees.)

Candidly, the young person who "'plays a little" is a nuisance. I remember one evening visiting some friends for "a little music." Someone had already made a noise on the violin reminiscent of souls in purgatory (which I subsequently learned was an attempt upon Raff's "Cavatina"); someone else —an aggressively throaty tenor —had bleated "The Devout Lover" in manner calculated to turn the hair of Maude Valerie white; and we were all longing for the refreshments which we could hear being prepared in the next room, when Mabel, the daughter of the house, was persuaded—by her parents, of course —to play a harp solo. I never knew before what a lot of people it takes to play a harp solo.   Two youths dragged the instrument out of a corner into the middle of the room, while a third ransacked the room for a vacant chair. A fourth struggled with a collapsible music stand, and Mabel herself produced a corkscrew and proceeded to screw up (or down —whichever it is you have to do) the strings of her instrument.  These preliminaries over, she sat down. Then she at once got up. The seat was too low. So they got her a cushion; and then the seat was too high. When eventually the seat was adjusted to her satisfaction, the collapsible music stand justified its name; and when that had been fixed up again, she couldn't find her music (which was not surprising, as she was sitting on it).  Finally, twenty minutes after she had been asked to play, she got to business, greatly to the relief of her hunger-stricken audience. 'She practically did every thing with that harp that was humanly possible. She stroked it; she slapped it; she picked pieces out of it: she kicked it; she hit it hard blows when it wasn't looking; in fact, the only thing she omitted to do to it was to extract any music out of it. I am not of a vindictive nature, but I earnestly hope that if ever I meet Mabel in Paradise I shall not find that she has been entrusted with a harp. A triangle is the utmost limit of her capabilities.

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