Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ashley Sterne The Spelling Beehive

I offered up an excerpt of the following Ashley Sterne piece some weeks ago.  This was before I decided to devote many blogging hours to posting all readily available parts of Mr. Sterne's scattered oeurve for the enjoyment of the general public.  Here is the entire piece.  (The numbers at the bottom are meant to represent a miniature crossword puzzle, with a dangling black square at the lower right.)

The Spelling Beehive  (The Passing Show, 24 January 1925)

By Ashley Sterne

Pottleby , my next-door neighbor, is one of those peculiarly constructed individuals who are never happy unless they have a grievance. If for the time being he hasn't got one of his own — not counting Mrs. Pottleby — he'll borrow one, or make one, or adopt one. At the moment, however, the particular bee in his bowler is all his very own. I happened to meet him at his gate yesterday, and remembering that the Pottleby's once had a governess who was betrothed to the treasurer of a Slate Club who had found it wise to emigrate to Buenos Aires suddenly one Christmas Eve, I asked him if he could tell me, since he had a sort of secondhand interest in the country, the name of a South American lizard the thirteenth letter of which was probably ' q ' but might be anything except a diphthong.

Pottleby was quite terse about it; refused to help me with my lizard, and volunteered instead to give me a very apt name for a feeble-minded, British journalist, the first letter of which was 'd' and the seventh 'f.'

'Statistics of the future,' he went on, brandishing his umbrella and rolling his eyes as if enacting a dumb charade to which the answer was the Communist Party, 'will undoubtedly afford evidence to prove that more homes have been broken up, more folks driven to drink, more crimes committed, through the introduction of the Crossword Puzzle into our daily lives than through any of the catastrophes which punctuate the poignant pages of "The Martyrdom of Man." Look around, and what do you see?' he bellowed, prodding me in the lunch with a huge forefinger.

I looked around, and saw a dastardly rate-collector thrusting a Final Demand into my letter-box—a form of cross-word puzzle whose intricate beauties I fail wholly to appreciate. Pottleby, however, went on at full cock.

'Why, instead of attending to their business, City men slink into quiet teashops and concentrate all their energies upon discovering the name of an Abyssinian grasshopper whose final letter is "j" or a species of Bessarabian hummingbird whose initial is "x"!

'Housewives, when they ought to be busy counting the laundry or assembling the potato pie, shut themselves up behind locked doors and drawn blinds and rack their brains to find synonyms for such expressions as " a lover of wardrobes," "disused dromedaries," "pink string," and so forth; while the lives of the children are rendered unbearable by their being set to wade through atlases and gazetteers in order to identify Chinese volcanoes and obscure tributaries of the Amazon.'

Here Pottleby boiled over, and blew up in a cloud of steam; and here I returned to my little back-room (which, by virtue of the fact that it contains a Whitaker for 1903, a Bradshaw for 1896, a catalogue of last year's Royal Academy, Hymns Ancient and Modern, and other handy works of reference, I call my study), there to take up the cudgels on behalf of the crossword puzzle.

For there is much to be said in its favor in spite of Pottleby's jaundiced disclaimer.

For instance, women are learning to spell correctly such words as 'parallelogram' and 'ipecacuanha' without referring the matter to their menfolk; while we, in our turn, have been made familiar with the meaning of such hitherto mysterious terms as 'morocain,' which, personally, I always thought was an anaesthetic; and 'nainsook,' which I had imagined to be a sort of secret religion.

Both sexes, too, through delving into the dark recesses of Webster and Chambers (whose royalties must lately have been making Ethel M. Dell's seem, by comparison, like a mere tip to a barber),  have gleaned much .enlightenment in the General Information department, and are going about with knobs of knowledge sticking out on their foreheads like the buffers on a railway engine.

Who of us three months ago was aware that the technical term for a burnisher of goldfish is a 'stimpter,' that the man who paints the eyebrows on dolls' faces is known as a 'gorpler,' that the instrument used for hollowing out thimbles is a 'squirk,' and that in the Rutlandshire dialect a Neo-Hellenist is called a 'gawpie'?

Again, this gathering of much out-of-the-way information has added quite a new zest to the more humdrum functions of social life. Clergymen expounding the singular saline properties possessed by Lot's wife commence with a brief reference to svjongulite—a polymorphous mineral salt, dear brethren, found in the dried-up beds of Norwegian sardine-streams.

Writers of the approved pattern of vocal fox-trots are no longer considering it essential to make their singers yearn for Kentucky and Arizona. Instead, they are biffing them back to unpronounceable islands in the Malay Archipelago and villages in Czechoslovakia with names which sound like the gasp of exhausted soda-water siphons.

Even magistrates dealing with drunk-and-disorderlies draw mordant similes between the prisoner in the dock and the 'pku'—a species of Madagascar crocodile which possesses double vision, sings falsetto, and walks backward.

I cannot conclude these few remarks more fittingly, I think, than by setting my readers a little crossword puzzle of my own. I may add that the little black square at the side may be disregarded, as it has only been inserted to make it look harder. Solutions must be written in yellow ink on the back of the paper only, and must be accompanied by birth certificate, wireless licence, and copies of three recent testimonials.

To the sender of the first correct solution opened I shall award a superb hand-sewn pork-pie for life.

1 2
3 4 [-]

HORIZONTALS. — 1.  Two consonants.
3.  Two more (Greek alphabet).
VERTICALS. — 1.  A Zulu interjection denoting excessive boredom.
2.  Noise made by ptarmigans when drinking ginger-beer.

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