Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ashley Sterne Miscellany Through 1916

Here are the remaining Ashley Sterne articles through 1916 that I found republished in Australian and New Zealand newspapers. These articles resisted being pigeon-holed into common themes. 

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

My Mushstool  [Dec 1915]   (from trove.nla.gov.au)
Little Christmas Worries  [Dec 1915]    (from paperspast.natlib.govt.nz)
The Burden of Riches  [Dec 1915]   (from paperspast.natlib.govt.nz)
My Account-Book  [Jun 1916]   (from trove.nla.gov.au)
Old Masters  [Dec 1916]   (from trove.nla.gov.au)

My Mushstool

By Ashley Sterne

As everybody knows, the speed with which mushrooms grow is proverbial. You may walk one evening through a meadow as devoid of these nutritious and succulent fungi as the ordinary commercial doughnut is of jam; yet the next morning the field will look as if some exceedingly careless giant had upset a box of gargantuan collar-studs all over it. The reason for this excessive rapidity of growth has never been satisfactorily explained by botanists; but the theory most generally accepted is that the mushrooms become fully developed underground, like truffles; and it is the activities of moles and other subterranean animals burrowing about beneath the turf which serve to upheave these otherwise modest and retiring vegetables above the surface, and into the light of day.

In view of this simple explanation it is a little surprising that no enterprising mushroom-monger has yet considered the advisability of hunting for mushrooms with dogs specially trained to sniff out their whereabouts. Large quantities of mushrooms that would otherwise be "born to blush unseen" might then be enticed from the reluctant bowels of the earth.

And therein lies the one supreme drawback to that almost universal esteem in which mushrooms as articles of diet are held. For we can never be absolutely certain that what we take to be an innocuous and appetising edible may not, after all, turn out to be a toadstool of the most virulent and depraved type; and until the fruits of the earth develop the habit of arriving at maturity with their correct names clearly printed upon them (and I offer the suggestion in all good faith to those experimental vegetable-growers who are at present squandering much valuable time in abortive attempts to hybridise the vegetable-marrow [squash] and the artichoke, the rhubarb and the turnip, the cauliflower and the green pea), until such time, I say, there must always remain a certain element of doubt as to the precise identity of the particular fungus we are concerned with.

Many and varied are the tests which have from time to time been advocated for distinguishing between mushrooms and toadstools, but as far as my own experience goes, none of them—with the possible exception of giving the suspected vegetable to a friend and noting carefully the subsequent state of his health—is either reliable or conclusive. I was staying at my country cottage a few days ago and, chancing to rise early one morning—sleep had been rendered impossible by the attentions of a covey of mosquitoes—I was inspired to walk abroad with the idea of observing the phenomenon of the lark leaving its watery nest. In the course of my ramble I found a magnificent specimen of the mushroom as big as a soup-plate. With care I managed to extract it without cracking or chipping it, and placed it in my hat. A little later, meeting a worthy son of the soil on the way to plough his father, I showed him my find, and in response to my question he expressed the unhesitating opinion that it was a mushroom. Shortly after, I met another farm-laborer whose opinion I likewise sought. He was equally emphatic that it was a toadstool. He told me I could prove this for myself by shutting it up in a dark cellar all day, and if at night it was phosphorescent I should know for certain it was a toadstool. Then just as I was about to turn home again I met an old farmer. He, I thought to myself, is sure to be able to tell me definitely; and so once more I exhibited my prize, and craved the favor of his opinion, He examined it closely for some minutes, and then said: "Can't say for sure.  But I tell you what: take it home, put it in a dark place all day, and tonight go and look at it. If it's phosphorescent, it's a mushroom."

Well, the upshot of the matter was that I took my mushstool (or toadroom, if you prefer it) home with the firm determination of posting it off at once to a specialist, and abiding entirely by his verdict. I put it on the kitchen-table while I went to find a box to pack it in, but when I returned it had vanished. What became of it I don't know, but from some remarks dropped by the cook which I overheard I learned that she was unable to account for a novel and most effective kettle-holder which, she said, had mysteriously appeared on the premises. Consequently I have my suspicions.


Little Christmas Worries

By Ashley Sterne

On first reading the above title you will probably think it's a misprint; for you will say to yourself that Christmas hasn't got any little worries; that it's all peace, and goodwill, and sausages, and mistletoe; and that the man who argues that the festive season has its anxieties must be one of those impossible misanthropes who, when (if ever) he gets to Paradise, will complain that the harps are out of tune, or that his halo is not a perfect fit.


But if you pour a little cold, strong tea upon your head, a few moments' reflection should serve to demonstrate to you that there is a thorn in every ointment, a fly in every rose; and that even Christmas, with all its joys and gaieties, is not entirely devoid of those petty annoyances that have been known to reduce strong men to the verge of tears, and to drive weak men to the brink of drink. Take, for example, the fact that Christmas Day is also Quarter Day. I don't know what playful satirist was responsible for this sorry and unseemly booby-trap. I wish I did. I would inveigh him with all the recognised curses known to the world's most fluent bargees [bargemen], so that he would not merely turn in his grave, but positively gyrate. For when I require money to spend on presents for my near and dear ones, it seems to me to be the height of irony that a prior lien upon my resources is already legally established in favour of my landlord, who (fortunately) is not near, though (unfortunately) he is abominably dear.

The direct result of this tactless and heartless arrangement is that for at least a week before Christmas I have to exercise the most rigid economy—only two glasses of port after dinner, the Daily Mail instead of The Times, and nothing in the collection on Sunday—in order that I may be able to afford to send my annual sixpenny' packet of milk' chocolate to my aunt Louisa, a sixpenny Keats calendar to my Uncle Jasper, and a couple of sixpenny pocket-diaries (containing valuable accident-insurance coupons, enabling the holder to lose one or more limbs in several attractive ways entirely free of expense) to my two cousins, Mildred and Grace.

On more than one occasion a financial panic has only been averted by my utilising for my own ends Christmas cards of the previous year upon which the senders had happily omitted to write their names. You, gentle reader, with your fifty or sixty thousand a year, who send your cheque for seven pounds ten to your landlord punctually every quarter with no more concern than if you sent him a doughnut or a banana, can afford to cavil with me, and accuse me of attempting to make a mountain out of a sow's ear; but I assure you (with my hand on Webster's Condensed Dictionary, which happens to be the most solemn tome within easy reach) that the coincidence of Christmas Day with Quarter Day completely transforms—in my own case, at least —what is glibly termed "the festive season" into what may be aptly termed "the restive season."


Another thing for which I shall always hold Christmas in disfavour is the unsolicited al fresco choral performances to which one is compelled to listen. Now, I am very fond of vocal music. I have listened for hours to Pavlova [Anna Pavlova, Russian ballerina] on the gramophone, and for the last ten years I have regularly attended a famous songstress's annual Farewell Concert solely to hear her sing that delightful old ballad, "Here a sheer hulk lies poor Tom howling." And I am equally fond of music when circumstances permit of, and are suitable to, its being performed in the open air. I remember one evening at Venice lying in a gondola on the Grand Canal gazing into the deep blue of the Italian sky (a hue which Mrs. Elinor Glyn has so successfully incorporated into the modern novel, and Mr. Reckitt into the modern wash-tub [Reckitt's fabric bluing]), and being moved to a state of lachrymose rapture by the rendering of "Hitchy Koo" by a party of American tourists from Honk (Pa.) , who were undergoing one of those ten-day trips through the Sunny South that have inspired so many transpontine literary masterpieces on the subject of the Italian Renaissance by such able and illuminating writers as Mungo T. Bilge (of Piffleville, Pa.), Sadie Q. Figmush (of Mulgiddersprat, Ma.), and Drquhart J. Doddle (of Bosh, Ba). Under these conditions you will readily imagine the added enchantment which was lent to the scene by the rhapsody and threnody of these subtle (though perhaps somewhat nasal) harmonies; and as I rose from my horizontal position to assume the perpendicular one in which I invariably walk, and ascended the steps of the quay preparatory to entering my hotel to dress for dinner, I could not help thinking of Shakespeare's beautiful words—

"If music be the love of food, feed on, Macduff."

Contrast this with the sensations you experience on a cold December night, when, having just snuggled down into the comfortable depths of a well-feathered bed, you are promptly assaulted by the harsh, half-broken voices of the local butcher boy, the newspaper boy, the milk boy, and half a dozen other confederates, acquainting you with the fact that the good (and apparently draught-proof) King Wenceslas once had the temerity "to look out" ("of a window," I take it) "on the feast of Stephen" (which—presumably—was held in the garden immediately beneath the window out of which King Wenceslas looked; otherwise, the words are pointless.)


Then, when they've croaked their cacophonous way through what seems to your tortured ears to be about forty-seven verses concerning the subsequent adventures of this inquisitive monarch, they have the impertinence to ring a triple bob-major, a straight flush, and a jackpot upon your front door bell, and continue to peal until you get out of your warm bed, don your chilly slippers and dressing-gown, descend the frozen staircase, and shout through the icy letterbox all the bitterest anathema and most trenchant sarcasms you can think of. At this game, however, you probably find that the butcher boy and his disreputable colleagues can more than hold their own; so, after consigning them, their heirs, executors, and assigns, collectively and individually, to a variety of hideous dooms long since regarded as relics of paganism, you return, to your  room with the words of the Village Blacksmith running in your head: —

"Something attempted, nothing done,   
To earn a night's repose."

[Longfellow's poem the Village Blacksmith actually goes "Something attempted, something done, Has earned a night's repose."]

This will be more fully impressed on you as the night wears on, and further parties of vocalists turn up at intervals of a few minutes to haunt you with relays of carols, and drive you demented with assorted soli upon your bell. The climax is eventually reached when the local Brass Band arrives about 2 a.m., and launches a selection of ear-splitting melodies full at your bedroom window. Goaded by desperation to your last extremity, you once more bound out of bed and hastily searching your trouser-pocket for the morrow's lunch money, you fling open the window and hurl the extorted bullion at the head of the ruffian who is putting about 75 h.p. down the business end of a bass trombone.

You finally tumble into bed in the firm conviction that if the pandemonium you have endured at intervals during the last three hours is to be taken as an expression of the goodwill towards men with which Yuletide is popularly supposed to be saturated, the sooner a competent chartered accountant is called in and his opinion taken as to the advisability of writing off that same goodwill as a doubtful asset, the better it will be for a tolerant and long-suffering humanity.


Lastly, let us briefly consider the extraordinary and inexplicable custom of making and consuming that highly injurious form of pabulum known as Christmas pudding. Everyone admits that Christmas is not Christmas unless the dyspeptic compound forms the piece de resistance at the festive board. But where, I ask, is the authority for including it in an already overcrowded and super-indigestible menu? I have turned the usually well-informed Mrs. Beeton inside out—I speak figuratively, of course—in my endeavour to solve the problem, but she maintains an obstinate silence on this important point. (She seems to have completely exhausted her investigatory resources in that absorbing and powerful essay entitled " Observations on the Common Hog").

Other, culinary authors, too, are as mute as dumb-bells upon this momentous question, with the result that the origin of Christmas pudding is swathed in several thicknesses of mystery, albeit some investigators hold that the first appearance of Christmas pudding coincided with the discovery of Portland cement.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that we annually turn out—and subsequently turn in—several thousand tons of this deleterious mixture, and thus help to keep ninety-nine per cent. of the medical profession from swelling the ranks of the unemployed. It is no exaggeration to say that in the majority of households the whole domestic machinery for weeks before Christmas suffers severe dislocation on account of the services of every servant, and all the available cooking utensils being co-opted for the purpose of manufacturing these pernicious puddings. For the average housewife is not content with making one solitary specimen; she must make, not a single spy, but a whole battalion, and this passion for pudding-production has on more than one occasion been the cause of bitter friction arising in hitherto happy and flourishing homes. I know of one unfortunate man who lived for an entire fortnight on a precarious diet of sardines and grape-nuts, owing to the cook's whole time being absorbed by pudding manufacture. The direct result was that on Christmas Day, when, by all the laws of justice and equity, he should have been permitted to reap the reward of his endurance by an unlimited debauch of pudding, his digestive faculties were so undermined from his subsisting so long on a restricted dietary that he was compelled to remain in bed, nourished at rare intervals with a rusk and a glass of hot water, whilst a solicitous mother-in-law regaled him intellectually with selections from the "Anatomy of Melancholy," "Paradise Lost," and "Foxes Book of Martyrs."

Personally, I never touch Christmas pudding as a comestible. I have occasionally used one as a jack at bowls, and another small one (possessed of enormous specific gravity and a pachydermatous rind that has blunted more cutlery than the most slovenly knife-boy) reposes on my writing-table, where it fulfills the useful function of a paper-weight. Its beauties as a food are absolutely wasted on me; and if ever I feel as if a little illness would be beneficial to my health I go about and catch a thoroughly respectable disease that I am not ashamed to exhibit to the family doctor


The Burden of Riches

By Ashley Sterne

There is no one, I suppose, of small or moderate means who has not, at one time or another, speculated as to what he would do if he had sufficient worldly wealth to enable him to pay,his rent, rates, and taxes without feeling the difference; or to indulge in asparagus, orchids, caviare, and an expensive motor-car where other lesser mortals have to put up with turnip-tops, Michaelmas daisies, potted bloater, and a second-class season ticket. Moreover, I further suppose that all of us who were not fortunate enough to be born with silver, gold, or radium spoons in our mouths, or who have not amassed riches in our businesses or professions, are still striving to attain that state of affluence which, millionaires inform us, is fraught with constant worry and anxiety, but from which they (the millionaires) seem so loth to free themselves.

Personally, I receive the statements of men like Mr. Rockebilt or Mr. Carnefeller, to the effect that they were never happier than when they were in receipt of half-a-crown a week, for which they had to work eighteen hours a day, not merely with a grain of salt, but with a whole cruetful of condiments. Life on an income of a million a year may indeed be an anxious and worrying one, but at the same time one must not lose sight of the fact that to be anxious and worried as to how to find an outlet for an income one already possesses is a vastly different kind of distraction from that which arises from life on an empty stomach, with clothes only fit for pen-wipers, children crying for buns, and rent so far in arrears that, from the landlord's point of view, it may well be described as "lost, but not forgotten."

Yet, up to a certain point, I feel I can sympathise with the millionaire over what he facetiously calls his "troubles." It must be infinitely galling to his highly sensitive millionaire nature to feel that, though he has the means, he lacks the anatomical accommodation to carry more than four heavy and luxurious meals a day; that social etiquette prohibits his decorating his person with more than a limited quantity of gold and jewels; that the wearing of more than one fur-lined overcoat. simultaneously is irksome; that he can only be seasick in one palatial yacht at a time; and that; in spite of his wealth, his frail body is still liable to be attacked by the same cheap and vulgar brand of microbes which invade the system of the poorest and humblest Labor member.

The truth of the matter is that very few rich men are able to differentiate between luxury and comfort. Now, were I rich I should not fall into this error. There are two things, and two things only in which I should indulge myself, and these are not luxuries, but simple, lowly creature-comforts. The rest of my money I should devote towards establishing a Home of Rest for the Private Secretaries of Millionaires."

Firstly, then I would keep a box of, say, a thousand collar-studs upon my dressing-table, so that I should no longer have my daily humiliating experience of grovelling on the floor and under my bed, and reducing my head to a state of pulp against the projections of excessively hard wood which furniture-makers (I believe, vengefully and purposely) use for the manufacture of bedroom furniture. Nor should I have to emerge from my room with one pin perforating the nape of my. neck and another puncturing my larynx—tortures which I normally have to endure until I can seek relief at the nearest haberdasher's.

Secondly, I would keep a box of matches chained and padlocked to every mantelpiece in the house.  Only the habitual smoker can thoroughly appreciate the comfort to be derived from this plan. The sole person in my own home who ever seems to have any matches is the housemaid, who goes about the place with every hole and cranny of her costume distended with match-boxes. But if ever I have the temerity to ask her if she can oblige me with a match, she never produces one from her person, but cheerfully runs down three flights of stairs to the kitchen, and fetches me a full, new box. I strike one, and place the remainder on a chair or a table; but when, a few minutes later, I require them again, they have vanished—gone, of course, to swell the secret hoard which (I can only think) the girl is accumulating against the day when she espouses the milkman. Happy milkman! There will be no stint of matches for some years in his household. Nor, now I come to think of it, will he ever know the lack of a collar-stud; for I never subsequently set eyes again upon the two I lose every morning, and since the housemaid "does" my room, does not herself wear collars, and has, moreover, been with me for seven years, it is clear that she has amassed a dowry of 5110 best mixed studs. May Mr. Chalkley Waters live up to them!

[Obscure punch line.  However, I found a joke published in 1896:  "Mr Chalkley Waters, the retired milkman, reminds me of the whale that swallowed Jonah." "How's that?" "Because he got a profit out of the water."]


My Account-book

By Ashley Sterne

As the anniversary of my birthday comes around with painful regularity I make a whole list of noble resolutions. No meeting of stop-the-war cranks is half so full of resolutions as I am. I resolve to give up drink, food, clothes, sharing, work, tobacco—in short, all the vices and luxuries you can imagine—and to lead the simple, blameless life of an anchorite, a meteorite, a theodolite, or what ever sect it is that behaves in this manner. This year I have made a determination to keep an account-book. It came about in the following way:—

A few weeks ago the editor of one of the papers I toll for grew careless and sent me a cheque. I at once set about cashing it, and went up to town to the bank where I keep my over draft. "Got any money to-day?" I said to the cashier.

"Depends on how much you want," he observed.

"Four-and-six," I said, "and I cannot accept stamps."

"I think we can just manage it," he remarked. "Anyway, give me the cheque and I'll run down to the strong-room and see what I can do for you. How would you like it?"

"Seven threepenny-bits, three farthings, a, postal order for four pence-ha'penny, one-and-fivepence in gold, and the rest in Maunday money [special coinage given to the poor on Maunday Thursday]," I answered. I forget exactly what he gave me, but I know it made a fine noise when I mixed it up with my latch-key and two shirt-buttons and rattled it about.

This sudden accession to wealth not unnaturally went straight to my head. I grew wantonly extravagant. I flung my money away in handfuls. I flung a penny in handfuls to the bus-conductor. I flung a ha'penny in handfuls to a newsboy. I flung four pence in handfuls to the booking clerk at the railway station; and then finding myself with twenty minutes to spare I weighed myself lavishly. I bought some senile pre-moratorium chocolate at an automatic machine. Out of another I got some powerful Araby Elixir—the machine said it was scent—squirted on to my handkerchief; and I was just on the point of disappearing into the underground barber's and ordering a subterranean hair-cut when the engine driver of my train came up and said that if it were quite convenient he would like to make a start.

I eventually reached home with threepence and two trading-stamps, though with the exception of the items I have already mentioned I couldn't, for the life of me, account for the rest of my money. I tried algebra, conic sections, trigonometry, bigonometry, polygonometry, but all to no avail. Finally, after a week of acute mental unrest, I went and called upon a friend who is a chartered accountant, to see if he could help me. "I want your professional advice," I began.

"Put out your pulse and let me look at it," he said, in his best chartered manner.

I did so, and then told him my trouble.

"You must keep an account-book," he said, when I had finished; "just a small pocket affair, which you can carry about with you, you know. Then you must put down on the off-side the amount of money you had when you started, and note on the leg-side the various sums you expend."

"I know!" I interposed, eagerly. "Then I double it, add the first number I can think of to it and the answer's a melon."

"You can if you like," observed my friend. "England's a free country. But the process won't help you much." Then he explained to me how to strike a balance; and when I left him I counted up my money and went straight off and bought an account-book.

That night I tried to balance, as my friend had suggested, but try as I would I was always sixpence too light. I took off all my clothes and shook them, but still I couldn't find that sixpence. Eventually I had to go to bed with my poor little six pence homeless, destitute, and possibly starving. I determined that the first thing I would do in the morning would be to go down to the police station and ask if a friendless six pence had been run in overnight for being without visible means of support. And then, after I had lain awake for some hours cudgeling my brains, I suddenly remembered that I had counted my money before I had bought my account-book, and had omitted to put down the cost of the book itself, which was, of course, sixpence.

But I am getting on very well with my accounts now. In order to lessen the chance of my forgetting an item again, I put down everything I spend twice; and I am happy to say that for the last few weeks my account book has shown a substantial working profit.


Old Masters

By Ashley Sterne

I have been dining with a very rich man. He's so rich that he can afford to carry a whole box of matches about with him, and eat the very best margarine. His hobby is Art, and he has one of the fittest collections of Old Masters to be seen this side of Chicago. He collects Old Masters just as you and I would collect cigarette-pictures or tram-tickets. Where we should place on the piano in the drawing-room a family photograph tastefully framed in acorns or limpet shells, he displays a portrait by Gainsborough worth its weight in radium. Where we should hang on the wall a red plush-framed mirror decorated with a humming-bird carrying a water-lily in its beak, he just planks on a Velasquez worth twenty million pounds.

Unhappily for me, I have no eye for Old Masters. It's all I can do to appreciate the oleograph on the calendar which our grocer sends us every Christmas. Consequently, when, at my host's request, I arrived early in order to look at his pictures before the evening twilight began to twile, I knew beforehand that Charlie Chaplin would be much better fun.

"This," said Sir Balaam Sass, indicating with a diamond-shod hand a portrait of a Dutch gentleman drinking cocoa, "is a genuine Van Houten. Observe with what consummate skill the artist has depicted the characteristically Dutch face."

"And that characteristically Dutch cheese on the chair at his side," I added, trying to work up a little enthusiasm.

"That is not a cheese," said my host, frigidly. "That is his infant son."

"Ah, of course!" I said, hastily, stepping up to the picture and reading the title from the label on the frame, "Schiedam Schnapps and his son." I ought to have done that before; but really, you know, babies are so ridiculously like Dutch. cheeses, especially when they' e got measles—the babies, I mean, not the cheeses—that my mistake was not inexcusable.

"Here," continued Sir Balaam, "is a beautiful example from the brush of the great Russian Master, Ivan Nastikoff. A portrait of Peter the Great."

"Picking a peck of pickled caviare? Ah, superb! Magnifique! Vodka! Cesarevitch! Tchaikowski!" I cried, wondering how long it would be before dinner was announced.

"And this," said my host, taking two paces to the left with his left foot, chest thrown slightly forward, and thumbs touching the seams of his trousers, "is a typical specimen of the work of the great animal painter, Sir Edwin Landslip. 'Lady With Poodle.' A charming picture."

"And what a characteristically Dutch—I mean, what a wonderful dash of color that scarlet bow at her throat makes," I put in. "I can't altogether say I admire the style of hair-dressing in these days, but—"

"You're looking at the poodle," said Sir Balaam, a trifle pained. "Come over here where the light's better."

I did so. The light was so good—Sir Balaam was rich enough to afford the best—that I could easily distinguish the lady from the poodle. I wouldn't like to say that I could have as easily distinguished the poodle from the lady. But at any rate I spotted the lady at once. She had ginger hair. No poodles have ginger hair. I know a man who paints the kennels at the Kennel Club, and he told me so.

After that we moved to another side of the room. "Ah!" I exclaimed, with rapture, pointing to the wall. "What a gem! What a perfect masterpiece! There you have, Sir Balaam, what in my humble opinion is, as Abraham Lincoln said, 'some' picture. A picture that you can look at every day without wearying of it, but finding some new beauty in it every time. Whose work is it, may I ask?"

Sir Balsam put on the pained expression I alluded to before. "Merryweather," he said, shortly; or, rather, as shortly as it is possible to say "Merryweather" before dinner.

"I don't remember the name amongst those of the Old Masters," I remarked.

"Possibly not," said Sir Balaam, dryly. (Anybody can say that dryly before dinner.) "He makes fire-engines. The picture you have been admiring is the fire-hydrant in the wall."

I forget exactly what I was going to say, but I know it was awfully smart. However, I never got it out, for at that moment a gold-mounted footman with fatted calves like the Prodigal Son's stepped into the salon.

"Dinner is served, Sir Balaam," he announced; and off Sir Balaam went to see if it served him right.

It was only when we reached the Waterloo port and Crimea gorgonzola stage that I eventually got hold of two Old Masters that I thoroughly understood.

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