Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ashley Sterne Miscellany From 1919 On

Here are the remaining Ashley Sterne articles from 1919 on that were republished in Australian newspapers and recently made available through the National Library of Australia newspaper archives. 

As before, the dates shown below are the earliest republishing dates found in Australian newspapers and lag the original London publishing dates by indeterminate intervals.

Treasured Trade Secrets: Biscuit-Punchers and Corkscrew-Twisters  [Aug 1919]
A Test Match  [Feb 1921]
Manners While You Wait  [Mar 1922]
Listen to the Band [Jan 1930]

[NOTE: In the following article, the "No Treating Order" refers to a 1915 law prohibiting people from buying alcoholic drinks for other people. The "Shell Scandal" was a 1915 crisis arising from the shortage of artillery shells.]

Treasured Trade Secrets: Biscuit-Punchers and Corkscrew-Twisters

By Ashley Sterne

It has been truly remarked that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives—though which half is the ignorant half is not clearly stated.

Be that as it may, there are nevertheless many industries of which the general public knows nothing, and it is the object of these brief notes, culled absolutely regardless of expense, and in direct defiance of the No Treating Order from the lips of the actual workers themselves, to bring them into the prominence they so richly deserve.

The Strength of a Samson.

The reader has no doubt noticed when consuming biscuits that each biscuit is punctured with a number of little, empty, hollow holes, whose function it is, by permitting the free circulation of a current of air, to ventilate the biscuit.

But little does he suspect that each of these diminutive orifices has been patiently excavated with a pin by one of the community of biscuit-punchers. As may be readily imagined, this is a task demanding the the greatest precision of hand and eye, and in the case of some species of biscuit—notably the army biscuit, which contains, apparently, a large proportion of rock-asphalt —Herculean bodily strength as well. Yet there are a number of families employed exclusively in this fascinating industry, who bore biscuits all day and each other all the evening.

Who of you who ply the corkscrew—whether to open a bottle of choice old Highland usquebaugh (which both cheers and inebriates) or a bottle of Government ale (which in its present anaemic condition does neither)—is aware that its tortuous blade is the work of highly-skilled artisans, known as "corkscrew-twisters"?

From their earliest days these men are trained to "think spirally" instead of imperially, and even as babies they are taught slowly to gyrate in their cradles as preliminary preparation for the life-work that lies before them.

From Dizzy Heights

Without this early training the corkscrew-twister would undoubtedly be subject to vertigo, pimento, and other afflictions of a giddy nature, thus making the proper carrying out of his work a matter of impossibility and causing a corkscrew shortage (except in a few ancient Scottish families who would possess them as heirlooms) second only in national importance to the Shell Scandal.

A no less dizzy occupation is carried out by those daring men who daily carry their lives in their hands in the manufacture of that succulent confection known as the acid-drop.

 The intelligent observer crossing Vauxhill Bridge cannot fail to notice on the Surrey bank of the river a lofty tower, but he will probably be surprised to learn that the summit of this tower is occupied by a number of ex-steeplejacks, all employed in dropping semi-molten blobs of acidulated sugar into a large tank at the bottom of the tower, whence they are retrieved by retired goldfish-breeders armed with small landing-nets.

Flower Pot Perforators

Lack of space (I'm only allowed this column) and time (I have to have a singing lesson directly) only permit me to refer very briefly to other alluring occupations, amongst which I should like to mention the whitebait-bleachers at Bletchingley, whose task it is to pass discolored whitebait through the refining and blanchescent atmosphere of chlorine gas; the flower pot perforators of Petersham, who cut out by means of a fret-saw circular discs in the bottom of flower pots, thus enabling seeds that have been inadvertently planted upside down to get on with their good work; and last, but by no means least, the sandwich-tougheners, who save our railway companies such huge sums annually by subjecting the refreshment room sandwiches to an improved process, the secret of which is so jealously guarded by dogs. I can only vaguely hint at it by stating that, on the occasion of my visit in the factory, several truckloads Portland cement were to be seen.


A Test Match

By Ashley Sterne

Whatever the crisis, there is certainly one section of the community that can be relied upon not to strike, and that is the matches.

One day during the railway strike I had seven and a half hours to wait for a train.

To while away the hours I read all the advertisements of the beautiful seaside resorts, which, I imagined, nobody except the inhabitants and stranded holiday-makers would ever see again. I dwelt longingly before the figure of a small boy immersed up to his neck in the very best ultramarine ocean, and wondered whether I should ever again chase the agile prawn, the supple jelly fish, or the elusive winkle.

It was in this morose condition that I bought, at the station kiosk, a penny box of matches for twopence. The label on the box said "This box contains about fifty matches," but as I am always sceptical about the veracity of labels, I emptied the contents and counted them. There were thirty-four.

Now, when I say there were thirty-four matches in the box, you must not take me too literally. Strictly speaking, there were thirty-four little wooden sticks. The most hopeless optimist could not have called them matches unless he were under the rosy influence of pre-war whisky. Many of the little sticks were nothing more, like Peter Bell's primrose; only, of course, Peter Bell's primrose was not a match-stick and nothing more, but a simple primrose and nothing more.

On the other hand, a few of the sticks possessed heads, which certainly gave them a curious resemblance to the matches we used to use. But there the resemblance ended. When you began to "'rub lightly on the prepared surface," a number of unexpected phenomena took place.

In the first place, a large strip of the "prepared surface" came away on the end of the match. That was possibly why it was called a "prepared surface." It was prepared to come off at the slightest provocation. Secondly, the head of the match split into a number of tiny pieces and fell heavily to the ground. Occasionally a small fragment would partially ignite, fizz, turn red hot, and either soar into your eye or run up your sleeve. But it never burst into a flame; no fear—not at twopence per penny box! Thirdly, the act of rubbing the stick against the prepared surface stuff invariably caused it to break in halves. I know now why there were so many half-sticks in the box. It was to spare one the trouble of going through the breaking ceremony on the prepared surface.

I had more or less exciting experiences with thirty-three out of my thirty four matches, and then I had only one left. I also had only one cigarette left, which I badly needed as a nerve-sedative after the excitement I had gone through. I examined my last match thoroughly. It looked perfectly good. It smelt quite sweet. I could detect no trace of forgery about it. It had no trap-doors or other conjuror's devices that I could find. I struck it carefully on the remnant of the prepared surface. Nothing happened. I struck the match again, and once more nothing happened.

Then I got mad and struck wildly all over the box, inside and out. I struck it on my boot, on my chin, on the platform, on the youth in the ocean. But my efforts were abortive. The match remained unexploded. Its head was not even scratched. In a choking rage I held it up in front of me and addressed it. I called it all the names I could think of. Finally I shouted out a string of invective I had once heard a sergeant-major use. My match blushed. It grew hot all over! It glowed! It burst into a raging flame!! It—where the dickens was my last cigarette? Ah, there it was—floating in a beautiful prismatic pool of train-oil between the railway lines.


Manners While You Wait

By Ashley Sterne

"Manners makyth man," says the old proverb (which appears to be a trifle shaky in its spelling), and, though man had first to makyth the manners, so that they could makyth him afterwards, it is none the less true.

I've just been reading a new book on the most expensive, hand-sewn, dairy-fed etiquette (Cassell's "Book of Etiquette"), and so absorbing did I find it that I sat up all night, with my head wrapped up in cold tea and with a bottle of midnight oil (30 u.p.) at my elbow, in order to finish it.

What that book didn't tell me about the proper way to behave could all be written on the back of a postage stamp.

Its great feature is its up-to-dateness. For instance, under the heading "Marriage" I learn that the old custom of throwing rice at the bride's face as she leaves the church is no longer permissible—not even if you throw it in the form of a rice pudding and prunes or a ground-rice "shape." Nor are you allowed to substitute tomatoes, butter-beans, coco-nuts or quicklime.

Visiting-cards have always been a sore trial to those uninitiated in correct social behavior. Few know how many cards to leave, and where to leave them; but this invaluable book tells you all about it. "A lady leaves her own and two of her husband's." On no account must she leave six of one and half-a-dozen of the other. They must be correctly-sized and shaped visiting-cards, too. She must not in any circumstances deposit the joker and a couple of small clubs in the card-tray.

Moreover, when she leaves cards for her husband, she must no longer leave them, as formerly, in the drawing room (where they would probably get mixed up with the illuminated mottoes, pawn-tickets, and other bric-a-brac), but upon the hall table—not, mark you, on the door-mat, or in the dog's drinking-trough.

There is, again, a chapter most help fully devoted to funerals and the correct behavior to adopt thereat. It even offers a few suggestions as to appropriate designs for wreaths, such as a floral harp with a broken string for a defunct musician. I would amplify this with one or two suggestions of my own: a floral banjo with two broken strings for a deceased nigger-minstrel; a floral boot with a broken bootlace for a deceased cobbler; and a floral cistern with a burst pipe for a deceased plumber.

Many valuable hints are also given on letter-writing.

When writing to the King, for example, requesting him to open the annual rummage sale, or to commute your death-sentence to penal servitude for life, you don't begin "Dear King George V.," you commence "Sir—To the King's Most Excellent Majesty."

Similarly, in writing to a Bishop, you don't address him as "Dear Bish," or "Sacred Sir," but as "My Lord Bishop—The Right Rev. the Bishop of (e.g.) Swears and Wells." I would, however, add on my own responsibility that if you were once in the same house with him at Eton it is still permissible to address him as "My Dear Tadpole" or "Dear Old Tin-Whiskers," or such other pet name as he may formerly have borne.

To conclude, this admirable volume advises on practically every social function, from christenings to presentations at Court (I mean the Royal sort, not the Police), from cremation to croquet parties.

In fact, the only omissions from the book which I have noted are the points of etiquette to be observed when your partner calls "No trumps" on thirteen hearts, when walking the greasy pole, and when you suddenly find yourself threatened by the income-tax people.


1) In the following article, Mr. Stern happily confounds a musical run of notes with the game of cricket's runs, byes, and overthrows. 
2) The term "playing honey pots" is a reference to English children's game.  From an article by Beth Buchanan in the Billings Gazette (June 25,1933) entitled Games for Stay-at-Homes: "One player is chosen for the farmer, another for the buyer.  All others are honey pots, stooping to the ground with their hands clasped tightly under their knees.  No one must smile during the game.  The buyer approaches, asking the farmer if he has any honey for sale.  When the farmer points to his wares, the buyer skeptically pokes a honey pot here and there, complaining that it doesn't look very good, that the flavor is poor, and so forth.  How much does this one weigh, he asks.  The farmer suggest that they test it.  Thereupon, standing on either side of a stooping player, they pick him up by the arms and swing him back and forth, counting each swing as a pound.  Any laughs eliminate a player."  Truly an interesting and formative game for developing the particularly English traits of keeping a stiff upper-lip and of expressing ridicule with great ingenuity! 
3) "Nuts-in-May" is a dancing game related to "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."
4) "Catherine wheel" is a reference to a kind of pinwheel firework.]

Listen to the Band: An Amusing Sketch

By Ashley Sterne

In a cleverly written and entertaining article in "London Opinion" Ashley Sterne holds forth thus on the band: —

In these days, when players upon the cymbal, the timbrel, the psaltery, the sackbut, the halibut, and other instruments of ten strings are urgently needed to fill the hearts of our young recruits with martial ardor, it is safe to assume that there are many men with all the potentialities of able-bodied bandsmen who are bursting to shoulder—say the bassoon—for their King and country, but who hesitate to do so from ignorance of which end to place in the mouth., It shall be the object, therefore, of these brief notes roughly to describe a few of the most popular ingredients of a military band, thus encouraging those of you who have hitherto held back to step forward and become instrumental, so to speak, in contributing a blow, as you might say, for the common cause.

Taking the instruments in order of shrillity, let us first ponder o'er the piccolo. It is distinguished from a stick of liquorice by the ventilation holes bored in it. When it is in action these holes are covered by the piccolo-player who exposes one or other of the holes to the fury of the elements as the exigencies of the music demand. The piccolo is played sideways; that means that the performer holds it horizontally before his mouth as if he were going to bite it and blows across an orifice located at one end of it. To this instrument is assigned the imitation of nightingales, engine whistles and.other piercing noises that play so prominent a part in those choice compositions known as "descriptive fantasies."

The flute is merely a piccolo that has been allowed to grow up, and is played in a similar manner. Owing to its longer length, however, care must be taken when on the march that the protruding end does not lodge in the ear of the gentleman marching next to you, or he may turn round and slap you.

Next in order comes the oboe—an instrument of penetrating tone, somewhat reminiscent of the cry of a peevish ouzel [thrush] robbed of her young. It is held perpendicularly, and is played by inserting the pointed end into the mouth and puffing through a small projection which looks like a split toothpick. This is called a reed, and vibrates against the roof of the mouth, causing a tickling sensation, which often makes the neophyte give vent to hysterical giggles when he ought to be sustaining dotted minims. [dotted half notes]

Then there is the clarinet, an instrument resembling a rolled-up umbrella smothered with threepenny bits and salt spoons. It is worked by placing the thinner end in the mouth and wriggling the threepenny bits and salt spoons about with the fingers. The clarinet has two distinct varieties of tone—the low notes sounding like the bleat of a goat, and the high notes like an agonised cockatoo. It is a very agile instrument, and to it is allotted in the military band all the runs, byes and overthrows usually executed in an orchestra by the violins.

The last of what are known as "wood-wind" instruments is the bassoon, which may be recognised by its likeness to a very attenuated and elongated drainpipe. It has a kind of hat-peg arrangement sticking out of its side about half-way up or half-way down, according to the point of view from which you are regarding it, by which air is projected into it to make it work. It has a very large compass—not prismatic, but chromatic—extending to three octaves; but is possible, by standing on tip toes or by crouching down as if playing honey pots, to extract a note or two more out of it. Like the clarinet, it has a dual tone—the top notes making a noise like tearing calico, and the low notes like a rhinoceros snoring.

Then there are the brass instruments, the best-known among which is the cornet. It makes a bright mellow sound with which renderings of "The Lost Land" and "The Better Chord" have probably made you familiar. It is blown through a cup-shaped mouthpiece fitted to a spout, but—unlike the wooden instruments—the cup is not thrust into the mouth. It is pressed against the lips as if you were going to salute it with a rosy and rapturous kiss. It is also fitted with three little squirts or syringes, and by moving these syringes (or squirts) up and down something happens inside the works which causes the wind you are puffing into it to turn round corners or down side streets, a diversion which alters the pitch of the note you are blowing. If it wasn't for these little squirts (or syringes) you would only be able to produce a very limited number of notes; but, by pumping the syringes (or squirts) with intelligence and discretion, you can ensure an issue of a greater variety of notes than even the Bank of England can. You can, in fact, play anything on the cornet except polo, auction bridge, nuts-in-May, and a few others.

Then there is the French horn, which is rather like a large brass Catherine wheel, or an anatomical chart of your inside. It is also operated via the spout, and produces, when blown gently, a sound like the coo of a pigeon. One of the peculiarities attaching to the horn is that the hand of the hornster has to be inserted in the "bell" of the instrument. This modulates the timbre, or tone-quality, a fact which you can prove for yourself by getting a friend to sing a loud note, and then, when his mouth is wide open, placing a doughnut or Norfolk dumpling therein. You will notice a difference in timbre... [as he sputters-?]

There is, too, another kind of horn: a much bigger affair, which is notable for the fact that the player, instead of cuddling it in his arms, puts his head through it and drapes it in graceful festoons upon his body.  I can't tell you what sort of a noise it makes, as, whenever I have got near enough to a performer to hear, he always has about 487 bars' rest.  It seems, however, to be a peaceful, sinecure kind of instrument to play.

Finally, a word about the trombone—an instrument which owes much of its popularity to the "Have a Banana" phrase assigned to it in that masterly symphonic rhapsody, "Let's All Go Down the Strand," and is absolutely unique by reason of the hither-and-thither method employed in playing it. When you desire to produce a high note you pull the slide towards you; when you want a very low, bass note you thrust the slide away from you hits the man in front of you a resounding blow in the back. This will cause a sound of the lowest and basest description. From the constant exercise the arm thus obtains, you will readily. understand that a long-distance trombonist can always be picked out of a group of other instrumentalists because of the congested appearance of his right coat-sleeve.

Now then, bandsmen, roll up. "Thrice armed is he who gets his 'blow' in first."

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