The following six articles all have something to do with things that Ashley wore or, in the case of the umbrella, carried. Such topics would not seem to be the most promising material for literary hijinks—rather, they might seem more like topics seized upon by a panicky humorist as a newspaper deadline loomed. Nevertheless, the resourceful Mr. Sterne manages to bring energy and brio to these little treats. (The last two have glimmers of the mad comedy perfected decades later by the Monty Python troupe.)
A Pocket Burrow [Aug 1916]
Neckties as Birthday Presents [Dec 1916]
Man and His Buttons [Nov 1917]
My Prize Umbrella [Mar 1920]
A Song of a Shirt [Jun 1920]
A Tile Loose [Jun 1921]
A Pocket Burrow
By Ashley Sterne
It was a sudden impulse that made me turn out the pockets of my jacket. I suffer occasionally from sudden impulses. The previous one had made me buy a bronchitis kettle; and the one before that had sent me off to Swindon to see a relative who (I remembered when my non-stop train was dashing through Reading at seventy miles an hour) had moved to Felixstowe the preceding week.
Well, having contracted another bad attack of sudden impulse, I began to go through my pockets. I went slap through the first one and out the other side, because it had a hole in it. I don't know how the hole got in; I swear I never put it there. These are the uselessest things imaginable. Even "Nature abhors a vacuum" (which is a special kind of empty hole). The only people who ever have any specific use for vacuums are Gruyere cheese-makers. However, there was the hole; so I inserted my finger to see where it led to. It led to the charred stump of a cigar. That, too, was a.mystery, for I never put lighted cigars in my pocket; and since I have singed both my ears rather badly I have taken to throwing them over my shoulder (I only smoke cigars when I am writing), and at least twenty per cent. of the ends go into the fireplace. (The inspector who came down from the fire insurance company when we had our last fire can confirm this estimate.)
The other things I found in that pocket—though perhaps I had better say "that hole," since, like Euclid's specimen, the hole was greater than the other part—comprised a disused jujube, a rolled-up postage-stamp, and a pin. Not an ordinary pin, mind you. Men don't, as a rule, carry ordinary pins about with them unless they are consumed with an inordinate passion for winkles. This was a safety-pin, and I drew it from my pocket with the point firmly embedded in my finger-tip. That's a safety-pin all over. I think they must be called safety-pins because you are safe to prick yourself with them. Any way, I drew blood, and had to unroll the postage-stamp to use as sticking plaster.
Then I began on another pocket, and unearthed a piece of black billiard-chalk, a black cigarette, a black jury summons, a black railway season-ticket (expired—which perhaps accounted for its attempt to go into mourning), and a "guaranteed unleakable" fountain-pen. The hard black deposit at the bottom of the pocket was the desiccated fountain. I also extracted another pin (also of the brunette tint), which came out on the back of my hand. As I couldn't find another stamp I had to stifle the wound with a piece of the jury summons.
After that I turned my attention to the inside pockets, and I venture to say that no pioneer exploring virgin country ever experienced so many excitements. The number of pins, all points upward, which I excavated you would scarcely believe. I could only conclude that when the tailor was making the suit he left in all the pins with which he is in the habit of puncturing my body while he is "trying on." And shirt-buttons! There were simply galores of them. I could not account for this at all because there were only five buttons missing—all, in fact—from the shirt I was wearing, and I happened to know that my other shirt had them all on except four. Where the other forty seven came from I am at a loss to say. I can only suppose that shirt buttons, once they have come off, have the power of secretly multiplying, just to taunt you. Inversely, collar-studs, when once they break away from their moorings, vanish utterly.
I turned out a miscellany of other things, amongst them an acid-drop, a dog-licence, half a thin captain's biscuit, a local railway time-table for 1878, and a packet of beetle-powder. The very last article of all was a completely forgotten and hitherto unopened letter from my Aunt Louisa, dated December 14, asking me on no account to fail to meet her at Victoria Station on the 16th, as she wished me to accompany her on her Christmas shopping expedition. This stopped my excavations for the day, for without waiting to put on this sartorial museum, I hurriedly donned my overcoat, rushed down to the post office, and sent Aunt Louisa a telegram dated December 15 to say I couldn't come on the 16th as I had to have a singing-lesson. She would probably put the somewhat overdue delivery down to the war.
When I got back I found that my landlady during my absence had taken upon herself to barter my coat with an itinerant flower-seller. "Look!" she cried, proudly, throwing open the door of my sitting-room. I looked. "Butchered to make a Roman hyacinth!" I exclaimed, as I burst into tears and out of the room simultaneously.
[NOTE: The next story has some period references that bear explaining:
Brock's Benefit: a spectacular display of pyrotechnics, from the name of the public fireworks display held annually at the Crystal Palace, London, from 1865 to 1936, from C. T. Brock, firework manufacturer.
Lady Warwick and Robert Blanchford: two notable Socialists of the period. The reference to "Ash" was unknown to me and appeared to require more investigation than I deemed convenient.]
Neckties as Birthday Presents
By Ashley Sterne
I have recently celebrated my (censored)-tieth birthday, an occasion which has left me with the ardent hope that my relatives will, for the future, endeavor to curb their passion for presenting me with neckties. There are so many things I really do want. My watch badly needs a new gold case and some new gold ball-bearings. My diamond studs could easily do with some new diamonds. My grand piano is practically played out. My banking account is worn to a shadow, while my Sunday suit, in which I interview editors, has become as shiny as a shaving mirror.
There are all these things, I say, which are deserving of support, and yet my well-meaning but misguided relatives all sent me neckties. Either they imagined I had forsworn conventional raiment and adopted a costume consisting exclusively of neckties, or else that I had suddenly decided to become a giraffe. Not that I should have minded a whole galaxy of ties it I had only been allowed to select them myself. My chin is so often sunk on my chest—wrapped, as I am, for the most part in fits of deep and wistful pensiveness, which some folk attribute to introspection and others to beer—that I wear out a good many in the course of the year. But my ideas and my relatives' on the question of color don't seem to coincide.
For instance, my Aunt Louisa sent me a tie the rich variety of whose tints reminded me of a Scotch tartan, a Neapolitan ice, a hummingbird, Joseph's coat, the solar spectrum, and a sunrise on the Alps all mixed up together. When I first took it out of its box the merest glimpse of it so strained my sight that I was compelled to thrust it into the coal-cellar, bury it beneath the lumps of slate, and rush off to the oculist's to have my eyes put straight. Even then I could only bear to look at it through at piece of smoked glass, and as for wearing it in public, I had no desire to inspire the wits of the neighborhood to ribald allusions to Brock's Benefit and the Aurora Borealis.
Then there was the one my Uncle Samuel sent me, a vivid red thing that might conceivably be of some use to me if I were studying to be a fire-alarm or a railway-signal, but which was absolutely impossible for the purpose Uncle Sam intended it. You see, my uncle is a Socialist, and doubtless hoped that the possession of a red tie would make me aspire to be a Socialist, too. But, candidly, I don't care about the uniform. I have no uncontrollable yearning to swank about in a squash hat which a seaside photographer would blush to be seen in, grey flannel shirts that button at the wrist, trousers hitched up below the knee with string, and to have Lady Warwick and Robert Blatchford call me "Ash."
All the same, I have worn Uncle Samuel's tie twice. The first occasion was in my native High street. A gentleman who was shovelling mud out of the gutter into a cart spotted me, stepped on to the pavement, wrung me warmly by the hand, and called me "comrade." This so unnerved me that I fled precipitately into the nearest shop, an undertaker's, where decency compelled me to order a coffin.
The second occasion was in the country. I was walking along a lonely lane, admiring Nature, and wondering what it felt like to be a bluebell, when I suddenly met a bull being taken out for a walk by its keeper. I saw it gaze long and earnestly at my red tie, and then I knew it had marked me down as a Socialist. My first inclination was to advance, wring it warmly by the horn, and call it "comrade." But on second thoughts, inspired by the fact that the comrade had got its head down and was snorting and pawing the ground in its earnestness to greet me, I decided I would playfully toss it instead. I therefore waited until the bull had got its horns between my legs, and then I heaved with all my might. I tossed it about twenty yards in the direction from which I had just come; but so great was the force I exerted that the recoil sent me over a hedge into a field of the toughest beetroot I have ever fallen on.
My sister likewise sent me a necktie, which was as green as Uncle Samuel's was red. It was one of those flabby, slippery, knitted silk things which will not tie into a proper knot and will not make a proper bow. I experimented with it one day for over an hour, trying to make it look like what it was intended to be instead of like a game of cat's-cradle, but after nearly garrotting myself, and reducing seven collars to the semblance of badly-pinked pie-frills, a warm glow of charity suffused my soul, and I sent it, together with Aunt Louisa's and Uncle Samuel's ill-chosen gifts, to a rummage sale, where, I subsequently learned, they were purchased en bloc for two pence by a needy and deserving Dutch cheese-stainer who had lost his job through developing color blindness.
Man and His Buttons
By Ashley Sterne
In the course of nearly every man's career there comes a time when, if not his very life, then at least a highly strategic button hangs upon a thread. It is then that a man wishes he were a girl, and had received an education that included instruction in practical buttonry, instead of being stuffed up with a lot of nonsense about square roots and watersheds and the ablative absolute and the Gulf Stream and the Habeas Corpus Act, and isosceles triangles, and the tributaries of the Murrumbidgee. Every man, as soon as he is short coated, should be taught the elementary principles of affixing buttons. In fact, it is much more important that a man should possess this knowledge than girl, because a girl consists principally of pins and little bows of tape. She is rarely perplexed and harassed by buttons as a man so often is; and if she ever is, she knows at once where to put her hand on a button that is similar to the one that is missing, and knows, moreover, how to sew it on without denuding herself of the particular garment from which it has become detached, and spreading it out flat on the floor.
Now I forget exactly how many buttons there are on me when I am fully dressed—a hundred and something, I believe, not counting the purely decorative ones; and when I pause to think that any day one of these hundred odd buttons may break loose, and carry on a kind of guerrilla warfare in the space between my underwear and my skin, it gives me the cold shudders. Indeed, I have no doubt that I often shudder buttons off which, with reasonable care, might otherwise stop on a day or two longer, or, at all events, until the laundry folk get a chance to have another go at them.
Here, of course, is the source of all button trouble. It is not everyone who knows that in all laundries there is a special department for loosening and maiming buttons. Here shirts and tennis flannels and vests and things are taken immediately on arrival, and if the laundress discovers a button that is sewn on so that it will not fall off when the garment is shaken, she gets a special kind of laundress' wrench, which is made for the purpose, and heaves away until her object is achieved. Or, if she finds a buttons that has escaped being doubled up, broken in halves, or reduced to little splinters of bone in previous washes, she soon puts that matter right with the help of a hydraulic press and a steam-hammer.
The reason for this is that laundry proprietors have a secret agreement with buttonmakers, and receive a large commission on all buttons which they can succeed in making unfit for active service. It is, therefore, scarcely surprising that so much of the sin, misery, want and bad language in this world is directly attributable to the instability of buttons. But it is a matter for wonder that not one man in a thousand is capable of readjusting or replacing even the very smallest button without outside assistance. In the course of an average lifetime a man suffers on at least 100,000 occasions from the button affliction; and yet he takes no steps to place himself in possession of such knowledge and skill as would enable him to become independent of female ministration. He will spend months in acquiring a knowledge of fretwork in order that he may excavate weird and tortuous photograph-frames and pipe-racks which nobody has ever yet discovered any use for, and which nobody will even take as a gift, except the organisers of the lowest and most disreputable kind of jumble sales. He will spend some of the best years of his life in cultivating an alleged tenor voice, which sounds at its best moments like a goat mourning for its young and at its worst like tearing calico. He will devote all his leisure hours, day after day, to working at his carpenter's bench in order to produce some household knick-knack that can usually be procured better and cheaper, to say nothing of quicker, at a Penny Bazaar. But he never troubles to acquire even a kindergarten sort of knowledge of buttons. How aptly has that great philosopher whose name is a household word from pole to pole, rod to rod, perch to perch (and which I regret to say I cannot call to mind), commented on this fact—in those memorable, enduring, and never-to-be-forgotten words—which I am sorry to have to admit I don't remember!
My Prize Umbrella
By Ashley Sterne
It was a very good umbrella when first got it. I won it as a booby prize at a whist drive, and very proud of it I was.
I broke the first prize—solid glass pickle-jars—with it while I was exhibiting it to envious and unsuccessful opponents. However, I hadn't owned it more than half an hour when I left it in a taxi on my way home, and I had to go to Scotland Yard the next day with my bag of money and pay quite a lot away before they would let me have it back.
To make sure that I shouldn't leave it in a taxi again I went home by bus, and after I had stuck the point into an old gentleman's eye, jabbed it half way down a baby's throat, and entangled the crooked handle in the placket-hole of a lady's skirt, nearly denuding her of that garment in my efforts to free it, I laid my prize on the floor of the bus, where some clumsy idiot, who ought never to have been trusted with feet, trod on it and snapped off the ferrule-end.
We had quite a heated argument as to whether it was his fault or mine, and if in the excitement of the moment I had not trodden on it myself and smashed the handle off, I feel I should have ended by convincing him that he was in the wrong.
After that quite a lot of people walked on my umbrella, one enthusiast getting so mixed up with it that he tripped and fell out of the bus slap into the middle of the road. As he wanted to get out in any case, and as he was saved the bother of pulling the bell cord, I really don't see what he had to grumble at.
Shortly after that episode, I, too, left the vehicle by general request, as two more passengers, the conductor and a ticket inspector had all got entangled with my umbrella, and I felt that I was rapidly getting unpopular.
The problem I then had to solve was, Should I have a new stick and frame fitted to the broken ferrule-end and handle, or should I have a new ferrule end and handle fitted to the original stick and frame? So absorbed was I in this problem that I walked straight into a nearly-new policeman who was standing on the kerb doing nothing but stand on the kerb and get in my way, and when I had explained to his complete dissatisfaction how I came to be there, I found that I had only the handle of the umbrella left. That, of course, made the problem quite easy.
I decided to buy another umbrella with an ordinary handle, remove the latter, and have my prize-handle fitted in its place. I was unsuccessful in buying what I wanted at the first shop I entered, possibly because it was a greengrocer's. What I had taken with my short sight to be umbrellas turned out to be celery. The shopkeeper was quite rude when I said I wanted to buy an umbrella; and suggested that a pint of monkey-nuts would be a more suitable purchase.
However, at the next shop I tried, I managed to get what I wanted. The shop wasn't an umbrella-monger's; it was a tobacconist's, where one can usually buy a walking-stick or umbrella, but as they didn't do repairs or alterations, I had, of course, to take my purchase away with me.
After that I got into another bus, and had gone about four miles when I remembered I had left the handle of my prize umbrella in the tobacconist's. So I promptly hopped off the bus and entered a tram that was going in the direction I had come from. And then I couldn't find the tobacconist's. I went into several shops; but everybody was so rude to me when I started to explain that I was looking for an umbrella handle without an umbrella attached to it that I got thoroughly discouraged. And, perhaps, this was just as well, for after I had been thrown out of the seventh shop I suddenly found I was without my new umbrella. I had left it in the tram, of course.
The next day I got out my bag of money and once more set out for Scotland Yard. They were quite pleased to see me again, and asked me whether I had called about a grand piano left in a cab the previous day. I explained that I had again lost an umbrella, and after I had paid away a lot more money they found it and returned it to me.
This time I would run no risks. I decided to walk home with it. Though, of course, my new umbrella had no thing to do with my booby-prize, still it was associated with it, and as such I treasured it. Just as I reached Westminster Bridge it began to rain heavily, so I unrolled my umbrella and put it up. At that same moment a fierce gust of wind that had been hiding behind the Houses of Parliament on purpose to waylay me sprang out. Before I could call a policeman my umbrella was torn from my grasp, and was rapidly being wafted heavenwards. I watched it disappear in the clouds.
If any airman should by chance come across it blowing about up there, would he kindly smash it effectively and permanently to smithereens? I never want to see it again. I have given up wearing umbrellas, and carry instead a waterproof walking-stick.
[NOTE: The song "Noses in Piccadilly" mentioned toward the end of the next article should probably be "Roses in Piccadilly," as Ashley Sterne did not apply comic distortions to either of the two other songs mentioned in the article. The colonial newspapers tended to propagate any errors in the master copy sent from London.]
A Song of a Shirt
By Ashley Sterne
I was needing some warm winter shirts very badly, and seeing some in a shop window at bargain prices I drew a few thousand pounds out of the bank and called on the hosier, he was in—right in, shut up behind the counter with the portcullis down, playing Mendelssohn's "Spring Song" on the cash register.
"Shirts?" he repeated, when I had made my inquiry. "Yes, I've shirts of all shapes and sizes. Winter shirts, too; lowest possible temperatures, highest possible prices. All fast colors. Some of the colors are so fast that they are out of sight before you can say Knife, Jack Robinson, Rudyard Kipling, any other popular expletive."
"These," he continued, pulling down an entire covey from a brass rail over his head, "are the shirts."
I was glad he stated that. I might have mistaken them for top hats or gum balls.
"Wool," he remarked. "Solid wool fleeced from the solid lamb. No mint sauce or other alternative substance used in their manufacture. Take this one in your hand and stroke it."
I felt it. It was solid lamb right enough. I pinched it. It baa'd. "It. seems a trifle thin for winter wear," I suggested. "have you the same thing, only heavier?"
"Don't you worry about that," said the hosier-man. "If it isn't heavy enough, sew the kitchen weights in the sleeves. Worn with some good thick collar studs, it'll be as warm as an orchid house. Or," he added, his fingers playing upon his chin, and making a sound like a Jew's-harp, "perhaps you'd like a shirt made of muffins, or a Thermos vacuum shirt? No? Well, if you take my advice you'll take that shirt, and if you're not satisfied, you'll be dainty man to please, and can take a pair of sparkling eyes instead."
"But will it wear?" I inquired.
"Of course it will," said the hosier-man, testily. "That's what shirts are for—to wear. They're not used as pen wipers."
"I mean, will it wear well?" I ventured.
"That shirt," said the man, thumping the counter as if I were a public meeting, "that shirt'll do nothing but wear. It'll get up early and wear before breakfast. It'll sit up late and wear just for the sheer pleasure of wearing."
"I'll take it. How much?" I asked, extracting the last autograph Mr. Bradbury contributed to the Treasury from my bag of money.
"Ten-and-six,"' he said, "which includes the slit in the neck-band for your collar-stud, and the hollow parts by the sleeves to put your arms through." He played the "Moonlight Sonata" on the cash register, and handed me eight shillings.
"But you said ten-and-six," I began.
"Eighteen pence amusement tax," he rejoined. "Good morning. Alphonse."—this to his assistant who was dressing the window with tie-clips. "Push this gentleman into the street."
And as I passed out I heard the shop man playing "Noses in Piccadilly" on the cash register.
* * *
My shirt has now been to the steam laundry three times. It has worn very well. In fact, it's so worn that it's hard to tell whether I'm putting on the part that's worn off or the remains of the actual shirt. The first time it went in the laundry it returned looking like the tail of a kite. After its second wash one of the arms was worn away, there was a gap in the back the size of a horse-collar, and the front only hung together by capillary attraction.
And after its third visit it was clear that it had succeeded in performing the King John and the Crown Jewels trick, for, except for a souvenir or two, my shirt had worn itself to a shadow wearing itself out. I am now donning every morning two button holes in the neck band, one cuff kept in place by an elastic band, one shirt tail affixed by a porous plaster, and on my chest the tab bearing the legend "all wool."
A TILE LOOSE
By Ashley Sterne
"Uneasy lies the hat that's got no crown," sang the Swan of Avon; and uneasier still lies the head that's got no hat, sang I—words and music six pence net.
My lovely little pre-war bowler had blown over London Bridge, and was sailing o'er the boundless main. Women stood on the parapet and waved their petticoats at it. Constables threw bits of bread and biscuit at it.
But all to no avail. My hat continued its headlong flight regardless of expense. It rushed full tilt into one of the stone piles of the Tower Bridge and dislodged a brace of winkles and a pound and a half of seaweed. Finally it disappeared from view in the Pool below, where it was subsequently retrieved by a river-policeman, who, after administering artificial respiration without success, carried it home and planted a fern in it.
I walked rapidly into the City and at once sought the hosier-man from whom (you may remember) I recently bought a shirt.
"A hat?" he remarked. "Certainly. I'll send downstairs for the Hat Department." He played "Sing, Sweet Bird," on the speaking tube, and in a moment the Hat Department came up in its shirt sleeves.
"I require a hat," I said. "A head hat with a big hole at the bottom to put my head in, and a little one at the top to let the hot air out."
"Precisely," said the Hat Department. "Your head must generate a lot of hot air in one way and another. What hat would you like?"
"I'd like that one hanging up there," I replied.
"Ah," observed the Hat Department, thoughtfully. "I'm afraid you can't have that one. That belongs to the boss, and he's got his dinner inside it in a bottle. But here's a very pretty hat with quite a lot of holes in it. It got the moth very badly in the winter of '14. It may be used as a cinder-sifter if you don't like it as a hat."
"Is it felt?" I asked.
"Felt?" echoed the Hat Department. "Why, that hat's felt more than any other in the shop. People come in just for the pleasure of feeling it. Have a feel yourself."
I felt it. It felt felt. Either that or blotting-paper. I put the hat on. My ears stopped it from coming over my mouth.
"Allow me," said the Hat Department, and he put my ears inside with a shoe-horn. I suffered a total eclipse. The hat reposed jauntily on my shoulders.
"Allow me." said the Hat Department once again, and he put my shoulders inside with a hand-spike. The hat sank to my waist and my head came out of a moth-hole in the crown.
"That's a good fit," remarked the Hat Department appreciatively.
"Quite," I agreed. "Almost good enough to be an epileptic one. But have you something that doesn't wander aimlessly about the body like a lost soul in Hampton Court maze?"
He produced one and I put it on.
"A trifle small, perhaps," commented the Hat Department, critically. "I'll stretch it."
"Oh, don't bother," I said. "I'll compress my head."
But he was already busy with rack and thumbscrew.
"Try that," he cried. "Beautiful! A trifle too long, perhaps, but I'll drive a couple of wedges in at the back and front. That, sir, is some hat."
"All right—I won't tell anybody." I observed, as I paid up and went out.