Friday, November 30, 2012

Ashley Sterne A Fable

I found this fable by Ashley Sterne in a trade magazine called the Chemist and Druggist, Volume 96, June 24th 1922.  The capitalizing is reminiscent of George Ade's fables.


The King who Put Two, and the Prince who Took One

By Ashley Sterne

THERE once lived a widowed KING – he had lost the QUEEN in a TRAM – who had two DAUGHTERS, one PLAIN, the other COLOURED.  The plain one (Ethel) was so DREADFULLY plain, poor thing, that you might have mistaken her for a VEGETABLE marrow; but the coloured one (GERTIE) was so distractingly beautiful that all the RAILWAY companies used to run SPECIAL Excursion trains three times a week for the folks to come and look at her.

Now the KING was very proud of GERTIE, and was most anxious for her to contract a RICH and NOURISHING MARRIAGE, partly because it's customary for BEAUTY to marry into the SUPER-TAX, and partly because he was deucedly hard up – most of the CROWN JEWELS being at Attenborough's, and the ROYAL PALACE mortgaged up to the last brick.  But he had a horrible grouch on ETHEL, and didn't care a row of beans whether she married or entered a MONASTERY.  He never hoped to get HER married, not even by paying a heavy underwriting commission!

Now it happened that a very WEALTHY (and hence desirable) PRINCE of an adjacent COUNTRY (first country on the left past the BUTCHER'S, to be precise) was looking for someone to do the housekeeping and count the washing, and learning that the KING owned a brace of unclicked daughters he decided to call one day and inspect the GOODS.

But you must know that though GERTIE was so BEAUTIFUL, she was nevertheless very careless about her PERSONAL Appearance.  Frequently she had her JUMPER on back to front, her skirt hitched up with a safety-pin, and a loose tape hanging out of her placket-hole; while sometimes she had LADDERS in both stockings simultaneously.  Therefore, when she heard that the PRINCE had called (object, matrimony) and was waiting to see her in the Throne Room, you will not be surprised that she made no attempt to UPHOLSTER herself more neatly.

"My BEAUTY will be sufficient excitement for him for one afternoon," she quothed.  "It isn't as if I had any COMPETITION to fear from poor, plain Ethel."  And a Hollow Laugh laughed she.

But ETHEL, when she heard of the Prince's arrival, at once put a new PERMANENT WAVE in her hair, ran a PINK ribbon through her CAMISOLE, got into a bobbed skirt which showed her SILK STOCKINGS right up to – well, up to the best advantage, and finally put on one of those MILK-AND-ROSES COMPLEXIONS which you buy by the bottle.

"THESE," said the King, as the two girls entered the room together, are my two DAUGHTERS – not, as you might imagine, one DAUGHTER and one performing MELON.  The beautiful one is GERTIE, the ug– , I mean, the other one, is ETHEL."

The PRINCE bowed low, but it was a long time before he resumed the PERPENDICULAR.  He was admiring Ethel's NATTY shoes, her NICE silk stockings, and her DAINTY bobbed skirt.  When at last he lifted his HEAD, he took but the BRIEFEST GLANCE at GERTIE who was wearing the same JUMPER which she had dropped a poached egg on at breakfast that morning.

"I've chosen, KING," said the PRINCE, promptly.  "I'll have the ATTRACTIVE one!" and he advanced and took ETHEL by the hand.

As for GERTIE, she fell into a SWOON, and the KING fell into the COAL-BOX.



Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ashley Sterne Sam's Sturgeon

Ashley Sterne wrote a poem called Sam's Sturgeon in 1935 for his friend Stanley Holloway, the celebrated actor, comedian, singer, poet, and monologuist.  The poem became one of Holloway's most requested comic monologues.

Sam's Sturgeon

By Ashley Sterne

Sam Small were fishing in canal
'Twixt Manchester and Sale;
He hadn't had a bite all day
And 'nowt' to sup but ale.

Then all at once his fishing line
Went rushing out like mad;
"By gum," cried Sam, "I've got a bite,"
And so by gum he 'ad.

He tugged and tugged and better tugged,
His line it rose and sank;
Then fish gave one last dying gasp,
And flopped stone dead on t'bank.

Just then a policeman bustled up
On feet both large and flat.
'E looked at Sam, 'e looked at fish
And said, "Eee, who done that ?"

"It's just a sort of fish," said Sam,
"I'm taking home to tea."
"Tha's not," said policeman, "that, tha's not,
It don't belong to thee.

"It's what they call a Sturgeon, Sam,
That fish belongs to King,
So take it up to Palace, lad,
As fast as anything."

Sam stooped and picked the Sturgeon up,
Well knowing who was boss;
Then ran to station where he bought
Two tickets for King's Cross.

When Samuel reached London Town
The crowd all raised a cheering cry;
The traffic parted left and right
To let that Sturgeon by.

The Palace Sentry, haughty like
Said, "What might be your wish ?"
But when he saw what Sam had brought
He cried, "Pass, Royal fish."

Sam knocked at door and servant girl
Said, "Step inside the hall,
The King and Queen is out," says she
"But not to thee, Sam Small."

And so with Sturgeon in his arms
Sam tramped up corridor,
He trailed along some passages
And knocked at parlour door.

"Come in," says King, so Sam
Went in with Royal fish and all.
"Why dash me buttons," cries the King,
"If it isn't old Sam Small."

"That's me," said Sam, "and 'ere's a fish
Our policeman said were thine;
A Sturgeon caught in Ship Canal
With rod and hook and line."

"Well, well," said King, "come sit thee down,
Tha' must be fair done up.
We just were going to have us teas,
Tha'll stay and have a sup ?"

"Thanks, King," said Sam, and takes a seat
With fish upon his knee.
"Nay, put that thing on t'sofa, Sam,"
Says King, "and have thy tea."

"Now what about this fish ?" asks Sam.
But King he whispers low,
"I'm going to tell thee something, Sam,
But don't let policeman know.

"I hate to show ingratitude
And please don't think me mean,
But I never did like Sturgeon, Sam,
Nor, come to that, does Queen.

"To eat the stuff we hate so much
Well, Sam, we find it hard;
So we hand 'em to the Chamberlain
Who stacks them in back yard.

"Just thee look out that window, Sam,
And see where t'Sturgeons go."
Sam looked in t'yard and saw 'em all
In thousands in a row.

"It's champion seeing thee again,
But Sam, twixt me and thee
I cannot stand Sturgeons
But I love a kipper to me tea."

"Now fancy that," says Sam, "by gum,
Why them's my favourite fish."
And then the Queen came smiling in,
With kippers on the dish.

"Do you know Sam Small, my dear ?" says King.
Queen says, "Why yes, yes, yes,
Just touch the Bell and tell our James
To bring more watercress."

"Think on," says King when tea were done
And Sam got up to go,
"Kippers is what I like for tea
But don't let policeman know."

So Sam went home to Lancashire
And said a silent prayer,
With blessings on the kippered fish
"Long live the Royal Pair."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Ashley Sterne's Techniques for Humor

I found some references to Ashley Sterne in the 1936 book Can You Write Articles? by Kennedy Williamson (1892-1979), who was editor of the Writer magazine from 1929 to 1942 and wrote about the techniques of writing and marketing magazine articles, short stories, and poetry.  I found a copy of the book on AbeBooks for sale by an Irish bookseller, who promptly sent it winging across the Atlantic to me.

I have extracted excerpts dealing specifically with the analysis of Ashley Sterne's writing techniques from Kennedy Williamson's chapter on humorous articles.


Like every other branch of literary endeavour, Humour has a technique.


One of the commonest devices for raising a laugh is that of bringing into close association objects or (in the case of the writer) ideas which are violently incongruous.

This "juxtaposition of the incongruous," as the technical philosophers call it, is one of the fundamental causations of laughter.

Sometimes the parody is not on any specific literary work but upon a general type.  Hence. Ashley Sterne obtains a ludicrous effect when he describes the suburban garden in which flourish cellula pantsia, flannelia vestia and cottonsoxia.  The mechanics of this jest lie in the fact that such unlovely tokens of washing-day as cellular underwear and cotton socks are made to co-exist with a suggestion of the academic seriousness of a text-book on botany.

In the same way Ashley Sterne reduces to absurdity the familiar kind of scenic description for which travellers and explorers have such a penchant when they write their memoirs.  "The great jungle teemed on every side, regardless of expense.  A brace of pemmican twittered on the twig of a chutney tree.  An anxious peccadillo, followed by her brood of young emerged from beneath the shelter of a spinoza bush.  A gizzard flew clucking into the excavated bole of a hollow tree.  A graceful little biltong jumped timidly against the trunk of a pingo tree.  A herd of elephants trumpeted an imposing concerto as they began greedily to ingurgitate a plantation of macaroni.  A school of hypotenuses and rhinocenuses in the river basin chewed their cuds."


Another device for evoking laughter is a minute particularity about details which are irrelevant.

Ashley Sterne described the adventure of a man who, while bathing, had his clothes stolen by thieves.  He was obliged to go home wrapped in the Engineering Supplement of The Times.


A humorous writer to-day should be evoking a laugh every few lines.  Editors have no objection to situational humour per se, but a humorous situation demands as a rule a good deal of treatment.  You cannot be creating a new situation every few lines.  You can, however, bring off a wisecrack, a piquant jugglery with words, every few lines.  So it comes about that, in practice, situational humour is now less common than verbal humour.

One of the best exemplars of successful humorous journalism in our time is Ashley Sterne, and an examination of his work and methods is likely to be of special value. 

Here are four characteristics which are specially prominent.

Characteristic 1

He quite frankly employs the pun.

This, however, is a generic term, and various subdivisions may be recognized.

(a) There is a pun which consists in a play upon two words, having the same sound and the same form, but no etymological connection.  Such words are called homonyms.

"After a short sprint for a bus, my pants are so numerous that I might be a bargain-day at Austin Reed's."  Here Ashley Sterne is playing upon two words which have the same sound and the same spelling but different meanings and different etymologies: pants meaning rapid breathing, and pants meaning a garment for the legs.

A specialized type of this kind of pun is the portmanteau word where the end of one of the component words has the same sound and the same form as the beginning of the other.  An instance is rhubarbitration in the following passage: "This year many rhubarb fanciers have had to persuade their plants to resort to arbitration – one might almost say rhubarbitration – rather  than force, as otherwise they may be ripe for plucking long before the early spring custards are on the market."

(b) There is the pun which consists in a play upon two words, having the same sound but a different form and no etymological connection.  Shakespeare was found of this type.  "All that I live by is with the awl," said the shoe maker in Julius Caesar.  It rarely occurs, however, in the work of Ashley Sterne.

(c) There is the pun which consists in a play upon two words having a similar sound but a different form and no etymological connection.  This type Ashley Sterne exploits to some extent.

Thus in an article dealing with mountaineering he discusses the difficulty of breathing at high altitudes and mentions some of the alleged suggestions which have been made for solving the problem.  "Various devices have been suggested by mountaineering experts from time to time, among which that of providing the climber with a bottle of air-restorer, and that of filling the lungs at the bottom of the mountain and holding the breath while the ascent is made, seem to be most worthy of consideration."  Obviously there is here a play between air and hair.

Sometimes the quip is wrought with proper names.  In an article on bulb-growing he refers to "blooms fit for the Garden of the Hesperides (before the wreck, I mean)..." where the effect is heightened by the author's reticence.  The jest is not explained by any direct allusion to the Hesperus, but obviously depends upon a deliberate confusion between Hesperus and Hesperides.

In the same way he alludes to those resolutely aspirant people who toil ever upwards crying "Excalibur!"

Instead of being upon words, the play may sometimes be upon phrases.  "To some it was merely a hot-air suggestion, and as such scored only a succes d'estime."

All these instances are admittedly of the cruder variety and belong to horse-collar humour.  We must now note a subtler type.

(d) There is the pun which consists in a play upon different usages of the same word.

"I do not know who invented billiards, but I believe it was Cheops who invented pyramids."  Here there is an implied allusion to the pyramids, the monuments and the Egyptian desert, and to pyramids, the game played on a billiard table.

In another article he deals with a patient suffering from a mysterious disease.  "His pulse was 1, his tongue 156, while his temperature fluctuated between par and three-eighths premium.  The doctor decided that Captain Crashford Joystick was suffering from Hall's Distemper."  A bodily illness and the colour-wash used for interior walls are admittedly very different, but the word distemper is in both cases the same.

In divers guises a pun on the word bar reappears from time to time in Sterne's work.  This same Captain Joystick was treated for his malady by a Doctor of Music, who prescribed a supertonic to be taken before meals.  Unfortunately, however, the patient was "brought home a day or so later after a vain attempt to beat two in a bar (Romano's)."  Likewise, in an article giving hints on dancing, Ashley Sterne writes" "The music consists of the simple measure of one in a bar, and – if you are wise – you will be that one."  However wide be the gulf between the bar which marks a division in a score of music, and the bar which separates customers from the servitors in a tavern, the word bar is the identical word in both cases.

Here is a yet subtler instance.  "The lion is called the King of Beasts, but whoever calls him that cannot have seen old Major Paunchford Bulkley at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Pudding Day."  Here the word beast is used first to mean simply a member of the animal kingdom and then to imply a moral criticism.

Similar in its subtlety is the following: "He could no more balance a ball on the tip of his nose, than he could balance his passbook on the spur of the moment."

Another verb which he is found of using in a similar way to balance is shoot.  In one article he describes Major Bloodstone Gore, "who has shot more tigers than the average man has shot rubbish, and in the article to which previous reference has been made he refers to our friend Captain Crashford Joystick, the big-game hunter "who has shot everything shootable, including the rapids of the Zambesi."

"Every man Jekyll of us has his Hyde, and the question for us is: 'Where does that Hyde park?'"  The phrase man Jekyll on the analogy of man Jack is an instance of the (c) type, but the final phrase comes into the category we are now discussing.  The recently invented verb to park is etymologically the same as the noun park, meaning a piece of land enclosed for a special purpose.

Not only with nouns and verbs, but with adjectives also, does Ashley Sterne work this type of pun. 

For instance, he attributes the authorship of a phrase, "to rare Ben Jonson or perhaps the comparatively frequent Beaumont and Fletcher", where the pun lies in the literal and figurative use of the word rare, to mean both infrequent and of fine quality.

In discussing the possibilities of Guy Fawkes as a theme for pantomime he remarks: "Guy would have to be supplied with the conventional comic widowed mother, who, however, need not be historical – at least not more so than widows so frequently are."  Obviously the adjective historical here is used in a double signification: meaning, first, having actually lived, not fictitious; and, secondly, addicted to reminiscence.

The portmanteau word may occur under this type also.  "The books of these classics are not made of the Peter Pantomime material which will stand the test of annual revival throughout all time."  The last syllable of Peter Pan and the first syllable of pantomime are etymologically the same, being the Greek word for everything.

I am perfectly ready to hear that many readers will cry out upon this process of analysing humour and cataloguing its types.  Almost certainly someone will use the analogy of the entomological specimen that is pinned, classified, and neatly docketed, the thrust of the analogy lying in the suggestion that the subject of this treatment has first had all the life taken out of it.  Many readers will no doubt testify that they do not find at all funny the instances which have here been adduced, and that any attempt to codify an art is inherently futile.

This kind of objection is very old and very stupid.

Stevenson tried to meet it at the beginning of his essay On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature.  He writes: "There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanisms of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys."  Further on he says: "These disclosures which seem fatal the dignity of art seem so perhaps only in the proportion of our ignorance; and those conscious or unconscious artifices which it seems unworthy of the serious artist to employ, were yet, if we had the power to trace them to their springs, indications of a delicacy of the sense finer than we conceive."  He states that amateurs "will always grudgingly receive details of method" and that "many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in the ardour of their pleasure".

Certainly it would be a needlessly disenchanting act to offer to the layman an analysis of this kind.  His sole function in relation to humour is to enjoy it, without necessarily understanding how his laughs have been engineered.  There is no need to take the playgoer behind the scenes; he is far better kept on the auditorium side of the footlights.  But just as the man who wishes to be a playwright must familiarize himself with the unromantic details of stage mechanisms, so must the would-be writer of humour understand the devices by which effects can be achieved.  By penetrating to the elementals of a jest he may find it possible to use these same elementals for the creation of a fresh one.

Characteristic 2

Another device of which Ashley Sterne is specially fond is the catalogue of incongruous items.  This invariably opens with items which are normal and reasonable, thus accentuating the incongruity of those that follow.  For example, in an article on a lonely island he mentions that occasionally a vessel calls there for water, letters, old iron, cast-off clothing, disused false teeth, and empty bottles.

Similarly, he once produced this exquisite list of Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Haggai, Zambuk, Haggis, Micah and Talc.

The same device may be traced in his delicious list of birds.  He states that "the lawn is simply littered with all sorts of birds – the throstel, the mistral, the kestrel, the wassail, the wastrel, the stormy petrel, the corrosive sublimate, the blue tit and the red litmus".  Here genuine birds occur at the first, third, sixth and eighth items, and the intervening names, though referring to things not at all ornithological, have a curious resemblance to the bona-fide names.

Sometimes this device of protective colouring for the incongruous items is omitted, and we get merely a rollickingly joyous combination of incongruities, as in the following directions purporting to be a lesson in dancing:  "Engaging her in a half-nelson, a clove-hitch, a catch-as-catch-can, or other suitable embrace, release the clutch, put her into third speed, execute three twinkle-toes, a Jazz roll, a Swiss roll, and a brace of shimmy-shakes, and in this manner propel her boisterously down the room to the strains of the band."

Characteristic 3

Another devices which may be distinguished in Ashley Sterne's work is that of making a ridiculous embroidery on a well-known phrase.  In one article, for example, he says: "I give my opinion for what it is worth; indeed, I will take less than it is worth for prompt cash."

Take also the sentence from a pseudo-scientific description of the animal life in a forest at night.  "A laughing hyena laughed so heartily that he went into hysterics." 

Similarly, when lamenting the fact that his clothes are so given to gaping, he remarks that his tailor works on the principle that a stitch in nine saves time.  When making a plea for the giraffe as the true king of beasts, he describes it as every yard a king.  He refers to a theatrical manager as complete with vast fur collar trimmed with coat.  He describes the music-hall artist during the period of General Tom Thumb all trying to capture "that shrinking feeling".  In a list of alleged crimes he includes contempt of Hampton Court; breaking into a perspiration in enclosed premises; and being in possession of a dog licence while having no dog.  In an article on "The Slump in the Ghost Business" he says that some ghosts have lived to rue the day, and then he amends lived to have remained dead.  A man emerging from a Turkish bath is said to have been so clean that he would not recognize his own mother.  He promises to eat a whole cloak-room of hats if so-and-so is not the case.

Characteristic 4

Something similar to this device, but distinguishable from it, is his trick of using an unexpected word.  "Time was when I could not see my feet because they moved so quickly; now I can't see them because my lunch sticks out."  Here the grotesque use of the word lunch (a figure of speech which grammarians call metonymy) causes the springs of mirth to be touched.

Sometimes a long and familiar phrase is employed so that, when he begins, the reader is lulled into temporary inattention because he thinks he knows so well what is coming.  In that mental condition the sudden emergence of an unlooked-for word stabs the spirit into startled interest.  The reaction to this stimulus is laughter.  A good example is another of Ashley Sterne's spoof crimes: loitering with intent to commit a bigamy.  The ear accommodates itself in expectation of the word felony and then is piquantly disappointed.

Proper names can be a fruitful field for humour.

Ashley Sterne once wrote of a Russian author named Nokisblokoff.

In the same way, spoof place-names can be a source of mirth. 

In an article on a polar expedition Ashley Sterne describes his settlement at a place with the gorgeous name of Stikdjor.

The names of houses may be treated similarly, for Ashley Sterne has written of Moldeigh Manor belonging to the Mildew family.

Ashley Sterne and Chess

I found a fragment of an Ashley Sterne article in the daily chess column of The Adelaide Chronicle (Adelaide, SA), 23 August 1924.  The chess editor had included it for comic relief in the News and Notes section 

News and Notes

My readers will be forever grateful to Mr. Ashley Sterne, of the English "Passing Show," for the advice he gives upon "how to make chess a really popular game." For example: —

Why we should all feel so desperate an urge to attend cup finals is, to me, a psychological subtlety incapable of solution. I can only wish that, for the sake of sport in general, the same stimulus would impel us to witness the finals of other forms of manly recreation. It would be all to the good of the game. Take the recent chess tournament in America. From all accounts it was a slow affair—one game alone taking 6.5 hours to decide—yet I cannot help thinking that, if only there had been a Wembley crowd present, their attendance would have inspired the players to invest the proceedings with a little more pep. Naturally, when there is no cheering, no booing, no maiming, no lynching of the referee, the contestants can hardly be expected to brisk up and chivvy their pieces round the board on third gear. I feel perfectly certain that if the players were from time to time encouraged with stentorian shouts of— "Good old Bogoljubow! Now you've got him— give him check with your rook! Good old Bogoljubow! Come on, Capablanca! Pull up your rooks! Centre with your queen's bishop! . . . .Oh, good move, sir! Absolutely stymied him! .... Pinch his blinking knight!  . . . Well played, Tartakower! .... Now's your chance, Lasker! Collar him en passant .... Durn it, why don't you castle, you boob .... Oh, jolly fine push, Maroczy! Ra! Ra! Ra! . . ."— I feel certain, I say, that such exclamations would put the players on their mettle, and stimulate them to do something a little more exciting and spectacular.

Much, too, might be done by revising the existing chess rules, and by introducing a football atmosphere into the game. For example, I would like to see the player who has had the misfortune to lose his queen become entitled to take a free kick at his adversary, partly to compensate him for the loss of this valuable piece, and partly because it is a clear case of lese majeste to put a queen out of action when she's having a good time. I would like, also, a player threatened with imminent checkmate to be empowered to drop a new King on to the board over his shoulder.

I am further of opinion that it would be a vast improvement if, when a knight is in the act of jumping over an intervening piece, the opposing player be allowed to rush in and "head" the knight.  Captured pieces, too, might be thrown on the board again from the touch-lines by the referee; and I am all in favor of "huffing" in chess, as is the custom in draughts. [In informal English checkers, a player who failed to make a capturing move when one was available was penalized by having the piece that could have performed the capture huffed, i.e. removed from the board.]

And lastly, I would like to see the rule about moving in turn scrapped, and the players be permitted to hustle their men along with all possible energy. There seems to me to be something radically wrong about a game where you have to wait for your opponent to hit you.

Ashley Sterne I Remember I Remember

The Christmas season was always a bountiful source of ideas for Ashley Sterne.  He had great fun with the topics of Christmas puddings, Good King Wenceslas, and Father Christmas.

Yesterday, the newspaper digitizing crew at the National Library of Australia tipped me off to his newly posted Christmas article that was republished in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA) on December 18th 1920.  The article deals, in burlesque fashion, with the making of Christmas pudding and the other family Christmas customs celebrated in Victorian England.

I Remember  I Remember

By Ashley Sterne

Christmas is essentially a children's festival; for though we, as adults, are frequently able to participate in the revels of Yuletide, so far as a shattered digestion and a big toe swathed in a complicated surgical bandage will permit, we can never entirely forget that by a strange irony Christmas Day happens to be Quarter Day, too. [when quarterly rents are due]

Hence we realise the truth of the poet's assertion that "all our joy is touched with pain" — a point that even the youngest child, rendered thoughtful by four consecutive helpings of Christmas pudding, can not fail fully to appreciate.

The words "Christmas pudding" call up some of my earliest and tenderest memories. The making of this substance was, in our household, not so much a culinary operation as a solemn and hallowed rite, and when I say that it invariably caused something of a stir in the house I speak quite literally. I recall one memorable occasion with extraordinary vividness.

The various ingredients of the pudding had been duly assembled and deftly mingled by the cook in a large basin the size of a bath tub, when we were all paraded in the kitchen for the ceremony of stirring. My father, who in his younger days had been a noted oarsman, stirred first, and his prowess with the sculls was eloquently demonstrated by the manner in which he manipulated the pudding spoon. I can still see my mother and the housemaids flying round the kitchen with such receptacles as they could lay their hands on, retrieving from distant corners masses of pudding which my energetic sire dissipated with the vigor of his stirring.

My little brother Herbert, aged one, was the last to stir, and for this purpose had been lifted on to the table, when he unfortunately over-balanced and fell into the mixture which at once engulfed him. Frantically we rushed to the basin, and with spoons, forks, and ladles began hastily to ransack the pudding. But nowhere could we find Herbert. We began to fear at last that we should have to leave him in instead of putting in a lucky sixpence.

"Be patient," observed my father, hopefully. '''Herbert is bound to come up three times before he finally sinks. Let us wait."

But almost as he spoke, the cook, seizing what she imagined to be a piece of unchopped candied peel, discovered that she had grasped Herbert's ear, and my unhappy brother was speedily extricated, dried, scraped, and returned to the nursery little the worse for his immersion.

Another feature of our Christmas puddings was the lucky sixpence (referred to above), which was always put in the very last thing before the pudding-cloth was finally tied up. At our Christmas dinner, competition was always keen to secure this coveted trophy. One year, however, the whole family was prostrated with dyspepsia for a fortnight, consequently upon our united efforts to eat our way to a sixpence which the cook, in a moment of absentmindedness, had placed in her missionary box instead of in the pudding.

On yet another occasion, this search for hidden wealth ended almost disastrously for my poor Uncle Peter, who had the misfortune to swallow the coin before he could remove it from his mouth. What might otherwise have been a festive evening was rendered a night of gloom, for a number of eminent surgeons who had been hastily summoned spent several anxious hours ransacking Uncle Peter's works, and it was not until they were going through him for the eighth time that the sixpence was found adhering to his right lung.

I gratefully recall, too, how the gloom of that evening was partially relieved by the efforts of the village choir, who, during a critical moment of the operation, rendered a tasteful and pleasing selection of Christmas carols, which enabled us to bear Uncle Peter's sufferings with a patience for fortitude which, I fear, had hitherto been lacking.

Yet another eagerly-anticipated Christmas [... custom?] was the distribution of presents from a Christmas tree. Regularly each Christmas Eve, Wilcox, the gardener, might be seen staggering into the house beneath the weight of a colossal Christmas tree. The tree was then taken in hand by my mother, who, with the aid of a step-ladder, Providence, and several panting domestics to hold her ankles, decorated it with candles and crackers, and loaded its branches with fair gifts all neatly labelled with the name of the designed recipient.

The distribution of the presents from the tree on Christmas night was attended by everyone in the house, servants and all. The candles having been lit, we were all permitted to walk round the tree and admire it, while my father laboriously rendered upon a piano a one-finger version of "Here we go round the mulberry bush."

I remember one occasion, when my grandfather, who was very old and nearsighted, got rather too close to the illuminations. We were all excitedly admiring the tree, when a faintly pungent odor began to assail our nostrils, and a soft, sizzling sound caught our ears. We turned to find that the poor old gentleman, absorbed in examining a jewelled cracker, had inadvertently caught fire. .Already half his beard and one complete whisker had perished in the flames, while his left ear was well ablaze and burning lustily. We, of course, blew him out at once, and drew his attention to the risk he had run, whereupon he thanked us all most warmly for our prompt action, and tipped us youngsters with more than his customary generosity.

It was on another occasion that an error in labelling the presents caused a slight contretemps, of which Uncle Peter was again the victim. My mother (who, I might add, always selected the presents herself, and made a point of making those to the adults articles of strict utility) was poised upon the step-ladder cutting on the presents with the garden scissors, and handed one parcel to Honoria, the under-housemaid, with a few kindly words, and another similarly to Uncle Peter.  As it was a point of honor amongst us to unwrap a present immediately upon receipt of it, we children hovered round Uncle Peter, who, with commendable eagerness, stripped off the paper wrapping, to find himself the embarrassed possessor of a piece of intimate lingerie which one usually only alludes to in whispers. At the same time a piercing shriek from Honoria drew our attention to her, to find that she had become the scared and bewildered recipient of a complete set of false teeth for the upper jaw.

The presents had, of course, become reversed. The denture, I should explain, was a tactful thought of my mother's, prompted by the fact that a few days previously Uncle Peter's only set of teeth had become transfixed in the rind of a slice of melon which he was consuming. All efforts to dislodge the teeth had failed, and Uncle Peter had reluctantly to part with them as an alternative to passing the remainder of his life gagged with melon-rind.

Of the games we used to play when the presents had all been distributed I have many pleasant recollections, and I regret that space does not permit my mentioning more than one of them. This consisted of a number of us sitting on either side of a table, placing a feather in the centre, and, by means of violent exhalations, endeavoring to blow it over the heads of those seated opposite, thereby scoring a goal. This game was exceedingly popular with us; we found it renewed our waning appetites.

Frequently, too, the grown-ups joined in, especially Aunt Louisa, who was a very keen player, and was the first to denude her bolster when a feather was required. By assiduous practice at the game Aunt Louisa had developed a marvellous strength of lung, which once enabled her {when trying her skill upon one of those fascinating blowing machines on the pier at Blackpool) to procure the return of her penny.

One Christmas, however, an unfortunate mishap occurred. She was seated on one side of the table and my father on the other. The latter, by masterly strategy had succeeded in getting the feather within a few inches of Aunt Louisa's face. Aunt Louisa, realising the danger that threatened her side, opened her mouth to its widest capacity, with the object of ejecting a forceful defensive puff, when, at that instant, my father blew again — with the result that he blew the feather straight down Aunt Louisa's throat.

Poor Aunt Louisa choked and coughed violently; but though we all slapped her back, and took turns in attempting to retrieve the feather with a pair of glove-stretchers, we dismally failed to recapture it.

I am happy to record that Aunt Louisa suffered from no alarming after-effects, though we noticed that for a few days after the catastrophe, whenever she attempted to speak, she made a queer-clucking noise somewhat reminiscent of a hen.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ashley Sterne Beauty and Barberism

Today the National Library of Australia graciously sent me an email message informing me that a new article by Ashley Sterne had been added to their digitized newspaper archive.  This short article was originally republished in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA) on December 13th 1919.

Beauty and Barberism

By Ashley Sterne

I was leaning over the garden gate to see if there was a Punch-and-Judy show, or a dancing bear, or even the village idiot to amuse me.

To tell the truth, I was feeling awfully bored. Nobody loved me. Mrs. D., my housekeeper, declined to pay nuts-in-May with me. ["Nuts in May", a nursery rhyme similar to "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush", was often sung as a game with the aim of pairing a boy and girl from within the singers.]  The cat wouldn't purr to me. The canary couldn't sing to me. It had been inside the cat since the previous day.

Then an errand boy passed. He looked up at me and remarked, "Get your 'air out!"

I gave a shriek of joy. 

"Bright youth!" I exclaimed. "Take this well-filled purse."

But before I had time to give it to him I was down the street and entering the hair-wrencher's. There were no customers in the shop — only a beauteous damsel fixing a fringe on a wax lady.

"Is the hair-cutting cutter-man in?" I asked politely.

"No," said she. "The management changed hands this morning. I am the barberess. Do you want a hair cut?"

"I'm not particular," I said.

"Hair cut, wet shampoo, dry shampoo," she began, reading from a list on the wall.

"Good enough,' I interrupted, getting into the chair. "I'll take the table d'hote. Hair-cut, soup, shampoo, fish, singe, joint with two veg., shave, and savoury."

Then she helped me into a fair linen surplice, stuffed a pound and a half of thermogene down my neck, stuck a serviette under my chin, and put a clean antimacassar on the head-rest. All this was most delightful.

My boredom was vanishing. I saw myself joining the emporium's toilet club (book of twelve tickets six-and-ninepence, including amusement tax), and coming to have a hair-cut two or three times a week. In fact, before she'd cut half-way through the first hair I found that not only had I joined the toilet club, but that she had sold me a bottle of hair-tonic guaranteed to grow a new hide on a French poodle in two days, and a bottle of lotion for sticking prominent ears to the side of the head.

She really was an exceedingly attractive damsel, and we got on very well together. I never knew hair-cutting could, with a little artifice, be made as enjoyable as eight-hours-at-the-seaside. But then the old barber man never sat on my knee when he cut my fringe. I'd have pushed him off if he had, thickened his ears, flattened his eyes, and squashed his nose. But Phyllis was different (we called one another by our Christian names).

It took us three hours to finish the programme, and, as I pressed my bag of money into her hand a wave of sadness swept over me. I left the shop thinking of my lonely hearth with only Bartholomew, the black beetle, and Clarence, the cricket, to keep me company.

I retraced my steps and entered the shop. Phyllis was fitting some piebald whiskers {showing "before" and "after") on to a wax gentleman, who had been beheaded through the chest.

''Good evening,' I said, handing her my book of toilet club tickets. "I want a hair-cut, a shampoo, a singe, a shave, a bottle of —"

"No, you don't," Phyllis broke in. "The management has again changed hands. Uncle Esau returned from the conference of the Brilliantine Boilers' Union two minutes ago."

I was feeling most awfully bored with myself. I re-retraced my steps, and looked vainly for the village idiot.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ashley Sterne and Helen's Booby

The mail has just brought me Ashley Sterne's 1927 book Helen's Booby from a book store in the faraway isle of New Zealand.

I had originally hoped that the book was a novel; I was curious to see how a master of short-form humor would adapt his techniques to a longer form.  However, I discovered that the book is mostly a collection of Ashley Sterne's previously published articles dealing in humorous fashion with his domestic life, specifically his courtship of Miss Helen Winlow and the early years of their marriage.

Ashley Sterne (pen name of Ernest Halsey) often based his humor on his life experiences and then modified or exaggerated the details for comic effect.  This is confirmed in the book's preface, which he called the Overture.


The incidents described in the ensuing pages all occurred during our brief courtship and the early stages of our married life, and, so far as the first three or four chapters are concerned, require (says Helen), a few preliminary remarks by way of explanation.

A quicker and possibly less tedious method would be to omit them altogether, and yet I venture to assert that no record, however brief (and, by virtue of necessity, somewhat desultory, I fear), of the joint career of Helen and myself would be complete without offering my readers (if any) a glimpse of us as we were before we took each other for better or for worse.

Let me say, then, that I first met Helen in the early spring of 1918, when, as so many have reason to remember, every man who was in the least degree fit – to say nothing of quite a lot who weren't – was being drafted into the Army in preparation for the Great Push.

At the time of our first meeting Helen was employed in frying sausages and poaching eggs in one of the numerous Canteens with which the metropolis was punctuated, while I was working, as a civilian, in the War Office at clerical duty – compiling and consolidating masterly and imaginative "returns" of rabbit-skins, empty jam-pots, and other refuse of national importance.  It is only fair to state at this juncture, however, that I had previously been rejected for the Army on no fewer than fifteen separate occasions.  I had, in fact, persistently attempted to enlist, at regular intervals of three months, ever since August, 1914; but owing partly to abnormally defective vision and partly to the faulty mechanism of my heart, which could only beat in jazz rhythm, I was turned down with a regularity and obstinacy which became excessively monotonous.

Yet – mirabile dictu – soon after I had come to know Helen really well – when, in other words, I was suffered without protest to hold her hand for just a second or so longer than the strict etiquette of meeting and parting prescribed – my heart contracted an entirely new though unoriginal species of affection which had a most remedial effect upon the old one.  At any rate, when I made a last desperate endeavour to join up, the venerable M.O. who listened-in to my works didn't seem to regard the behaviour of that hitherto jazz-afflicted organ quite so pessimistically as his predecessors had done, with the result that he passed me as fit for nothing more strenuous than Foreign Garrison duty.  This was most encouraging, as the previous verdicts of the fifteen M.O's who had had the privilege of examining me all tended to inspire me with the belief that I already had one foot in the crematorium.

I broke the glad tidings to my chief at the War Office who, however, was not nearly so enthusiastic about the pending severance of our four-year-old association as I was.  He was afraid (I feel sure) that he himself would, for the future, be compelled to consolidate the rabbit-skins and jam-pot returns, and he freely admitted that higher mathematics was never his strong suit.  Moreover, he expressed himself firmly convinced that the War could manage to get along quite comfortably without my assistance as a combatant, though both Helen and I were of the indignant opinion that it could do nothing of the kind.  It's just men of my calibre, we agreed, that make our Foreign Garrisons what they are. 

Nevertheless, the dear old boy busied himself on my behalf to the extent that I was admitted straight into an Artillery Cadet School, most fortuitously situated in Central London, with the prospect of a commission should my progress at the end of my course be deemed satisfactory.  This arrangement was, of course, very convenient, as it enabled me to see Helen a great deal more frequently than would have been the case had I been drafted straight into the ranks.

I did a month's intensive training as a cadet, at the expiration of which I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself gazetted as a second-lieutenant.  It was on the strength of this speedy promotion that I seized the earliest opportunity of proposing to Helen, as will later appear; and as shortly afterwards I got posted to a job in which there was very little likelihood of my being sent abroad (my late chief presumably having used his influence to keep me handy in case he got into a mess with his rabbit-skins and jam-pots). we decided to get married at once.  As, on being commissioned, I had applied for and been granted ten days' leave wherein to purchase my pips (two, one for each sleeve), spurs (two, one for each heel), and other necessary kit – a job which occupied me precisely five hours – the opportunity seemed too good to be lost, and I consequently spent the remainder of the time in getting married and enjoying a crescent-honeymoon.

It was a very quiet wedding, though I am glad to be able to record that the service was fully choral, and that the presents were numerous and costly, albeit, following Army precedent, many were, unfortunately, rendered in duplicate and triplicate, even, in one instance (asparagus tongs), quadruplicate.

Thereafter, I was lucky enough to get possession of a small but comfortable flat situated quite close to the seat of my military labours, and therein I established Helen with a somewhat dour, but very trustworthy and capable "general" of uncertain age, named Baxter.  I easily obtained authority to "live in," and hence my short period of active service was served under the most congenial and happy conditions.

Early in 1919 I was "demobbed," after assisting His Majesty's Forces for eight months, and soon after we were able to move to a locality which just missed being a suburb by something under a mile.  There I resumed my former occupation of writing entirely unsolicited articles for the Press, varied by occasional journeys to town to attend the board-meetings of a small, private, "family" company, of which, in a weak moment, I had been persuaded to become a director – of that singularly capable and efficient genus technically known as "guinea-pig."  There, after nearly eight years, Helen and I remain.

I don't think there is anything more to add by way of preamble, though I should like to take this opportunity of sincerely thanking Helen for marrying me.  It was really most awfully nice and sporting of her, for I have to admit that I am not a very easy person to live with.  Being of a somewhat careless, irresponsible, and Bohemian disposition (the latter popularly but erroneously supposed to cover a multitude of sins), I am afraid that at times I am a source of great anxiety to her.  But I think she knows I mean well, for I am always raising her dress-allowance of my own free will.

It was Helen, by the by, who chose the title for this book.  For my part, I wanted to call it "Helen of My Heart," or something of a similar touching and affectionate nature, but Helen seemed to think that her selection fitted the contents of this volume far more appositely.  In the circumstances, I apparently have no alternative but to bow to the inevitable with as good a grace as I can summon.

All the same, I scarcely think that the term "booby" does me justice.  Helen, on the other hand, stoutly asserts that it shows me mercy.


The chapters in Helen's Booby have the form of reminiscences concerning courtship and subsequent domestic life.  The writing here is characterized by warmth rather than the zaniness or extravagance found in some of Ashley Sterne's other comic inventions.  The first chapter is especially charming as it portrays, in a light and humorous way, how a man and a woman might respond to their mutual attraction within the formal English conventions of romance at the time of the Great War.

Chapter IThe Forfeit

We had arrived at the dessert, and I was busily engaged cracking almonds for my partner, Miss Helen Winlow, while she was removing the silver foil from some chocolate creams for me.  It must have been a pretty sight for the rest of the company to see how cheerfully, not to say playfully, we were bearing one another's burdens.

"Look here," I said, as I cracked the twenty-eighth almond, "there will be another Shell Scandal directly.  Observe this heap of debris on my plate.  I hope everybody understands they are for you....Hallo!  Here's a subpoena – I mean a philistine – no, that's not the word.  What d'you call it when you get two kernels in the same battalion – I should say the same shell?"

"You mean a philopena," explained Helen Winlow.

"Of course!" I said.  "I have such an appalling memory.  Do you know, I can never remember the Russian for hot-cross-bun, or the Sanskrit for rocking-horse.  Now," I continued, retrieving the twin kernels from a dish of crystallized cherries wherein they had bounded when the shell exploded, "don't we do a trick with these?  Link our little fingers, throw the almonds over our left shoulders, curtsy to the new moon through glass, each name our favourite poet, and then wish hard with both hands?"

"No, no!" my partner corrected.  "You've got it all wrong.  What happens is simply this: I eat one almond, you eat the other.  Then the next time we meet the one who first says 'Philopena' to the other is entitled to claim a forfeit."

"It sounds ridiculously simple," I remarked.  "I can see myself shortly swanking in a real dress-shirt instead of a flannel thing concealed by a dicky and detachable cuffs.  Choose your weapon.  This is Romulus and this is Uncle Remus.  Which will you have?"

"You are quite sure they are real twins, and not impostors?" asked Miss Winlow.

"Guaranteed solid Siamese throughout," I affirmed.

"Then you may give me Romulus."

I handed him over, and in a few moments the mysteries had been duly celebrated.

Our conversation then drifted into other channels, and shortly afterwards the ladies rose.

"One moment!" I said.  "You'll scarcely credit it, but I've already forgotten the formula.  On the other hand, the Russian for hot-cross-bun and the Sanskrit for rocking-horse are beginning vaguely to materialize in the recesses of my mind.  Would it be troubling you too much to – "

"Philopena," interjected Miss Winlow, "and mind, I shan't tell you again.  It wouldn't be fair.  And you're not to write it down on your detachable cuffs," she added.  "It's against the rules."

"Right-o!  Thanks awfully," I said.  "Philopena!  What a sweet name!  But I wish it was Helen.  I should never forget Helen.  It's – I say, look here!  You mustn't hit me on the head with your dinner-napkin, really you mustn't!  I assure you it's not being done this season.  I have only to report the matter to Mrs. Briggs, and you'll never be asked here again."

Here I may interpolate that the Briggses were mutual friends of both Helen and myself.  It was, in fact, Mrs. Briggs who first introduced us.  I cannot remember precisely the reason why they gave the dinner-party.  I fancy it was either their silver wedding or the anniversary of Mr. Briggs entering his second childhood.  However, it is immaterial.  The chief thing is they invited me – and Miss Winlow.  But to resume.

When we joined the ladies twenty minutes later, the magic word had once again succeeded in escaping my memory.  As we entered the drawing-room, Helen, by a strange stroke of fate, had just commenced to sing Goring Thomas's "A Summer Night."

"Have you forgotten, love, so soon?" warbled Miss Winlow.


I could only infer that, under the stress of deep emotion evoked by Helen's dulcet notes, I involuntarily and unconsciously uttered the word aloud, for several people stopped their muttered conversation to cry "Sh!" while the lady was sawing out an obligato on a large inverted fiddle became so unnerved that she lost her place, and had to take seventeen bars' rest which weren't in the part.

"My song was completely spoilt," said Miss Winlow severely, when, as she was leaving, I sought her out and offered to see her music-case home for her.  "Mrs. Pilkington was simply furious!"

"Mrs. Pilk–  ah! the lady who did the White-Eyed Kaffir stunt," I remarked.  "I am not surprised.  She did make a horrid noise, didn't she – like cats and emery-paper?  She ought to have some lessons before she obligatoes again."

"You know perfectly well it was your behaviour I was alluding to," said Miss Winlow.  "Fancy your having the effrontery to make that remark out loud!"

"But you called me 'love' out loud,"  I protested.  "No wonder I lost my head."

"That was only in the song," retorted Miss Winlow indignantly.  "I've a good mind never to speak to you again – except, of course, to say phi–"

She stopped abruptly.

"Yes?" I said, encouragingly.  "Go on.  What were you going to say?"

"Except when next we meet, to mention the word which will mulct you in the heaviest damages I can think of."

Nevertheless, she allowed me to see her music-case home.

*          *         *

Nearly a week passed, and amid the pressure of urgent work at the War Office, the whole incident faded from my mind.  Then one day I saw her coming down Whitehall.  This recalled the Brigg's dinner-party to my memory – almonds, chocolate creams, the execrable 'cellist, everything, in fact, except the one elusive but crucial word.  However, I had seen her first, and determined to make the most of my advantage.  Perhaps the word would come automatically to my lips when I addressed her.  Anyhow, I decided to risk it.

"Good morning, Miss Winlow," I said, raising my hat.  "Er–er– (with a sudden inspiration), 'Excelsior!'"

"Oh, how do you do?  What did you say?" she asked, regarding me with arched eyebrows.

"I said 'Excelsior!'" I replied, "but on second thoughts I find that what I really meant to say was er–er– (with another inspiration) 'Hallelujah!'"

"Whatever for?" she inquired.  "Really, your conversation is very cryptic."  Then she suddenly burst out laughing.  "Oh, I see!" she cried.  You're trying to remember 'Philopena.'  Thank you so much for reminding me.  I had quite forgotten about it.  You note, of course, that I have said it first?"

I took my defeat gracefully, and plunged my hand into my pocket, wondering whether my finances would stand the strain of gloves or chocolates at War prices.

"And the forfeit?" I asked boldly, as I located a Treasury note.

"The forfeit," replied Miss Winlow, "shall be, as I said, the most expensive I can think of."

I hurriedly felt in all my other pockets.

"Let me see," she affected to consider.  "You shall buy me my flag on every subsequent Flag Day we have!"

I clutched at the nearest lamp-post.

"Ruined!" I gasped.  "Oh, have a little pity,  Hel– Miss Winlow.  Take a blank cheque – a pound of loaf sugar – anything in reason – but do not beggar me utterly!  Think of my white-haired, orphanless old mother, and my baldheaded, widowless old father, driven into the streets to sing Mendelssohn's duets in order to earn my living for me!"

But Miss Winlow was inexorable, and for the time being there certainly seemed nothing between me and the Official Receiver, unless I could find a fitting opportunity to tell Helen how much I–

But no matter.  I couldn't tell her in Whitehall, anyway.

Ashley Sterne and The Comic History of the Co-Optimists

I was fortunate to recently acquire a copy of The Comic History of the Co-Optimists by Ashley Sterne and Archibald De Bear.  Written in 1926, this humorous book is a collection of mock biographical sketches of players in an entertainment troupe called the Co-Optimists.

The prologue, written in the form of a play, explains the meaning of the term "Co-Optimists." Here is the relevant excerpt from the prologue.

*          *          *


Scene:  The business premises (fully licensed) of Archibald de Bear and Ashley Sterne.  The principals are seated either side of a flat-top desk.  From the number of smouldering cigarette ends which lie in picturesque profusion upon the more-heavily insured articles of furniture, the array of empty tumblers exuding faint odours of practically every stimulant known to alcohology, and the patches of ink on their hair, it is obvious that they are labouring authors.  The somewhat pale ascetic-looking young man – a mixture between Schiller and Charlie Chaplin – who is busily engaged examining the carburettor of his self-leaking fountain pen is Archie.  He resembles the Wodehouse type of Archie about as much as a giraffe resembles a pancake.  The other, boasting a profile similar to that of the less intelligent type of performing seal, is Ashley.  He looks rather worried – as Ivanhoe might have looked if he had been canned up in his armour with a mad bee.  A faint creaking noise is heard intermittently.  They are racking their brains.

Ashley:  Er–er –

Archie:  Yes?  What?  Errare est humanum, you know.  Go on.

Ashley:  About this book we're writing.  I know nothing about the subject.

Archie:  That's all right.  You're not creating a precedent.

Ashley:  Yes, but when writing history it is as well for one to know a little of one's subject.

Archie:  Not necessarily, when one is two.

Ashley:  Then perhaps you could offer a suggestion?

Archie:  Oh, quate!  My suggestion is that I write historically, and you hysterically.

Ashley:  But you might tell me who and what these Co-Optimists are.

Archie:  My dear chap, don't ask me!  I only do the publicity.

Ashley:  "Co-Optimists" – what does the word mean?  It sound to me like the name of a Stores or a new religious sect.

Archie:  Well, let's approach the matter analytically.  We both know what "Co" is, eh?

Ashley (sadly):  Many's the time we've backed his finals.

Archie:  I mean the prefix "co" – as in correspondent, cocoon, Copenhagen – short for the Latin con.

Ashley:  What does that mean?

Archie:  Con means together, with.  Don't you remember your Cicero?

Ashley:  Am I?  Well, what about "optimist?"  What's an optimist?

Archie:  An optimist is what an author tries to define when he wants to perpetrate an epigram.  An optimist is a man who would start an ice-cream barrow in Hell; who would go out in a Ford without a spanner; who would leave his umbrella at home on the strength of a weather report; who would enter a jumping bean for the Grand National –

Ashley:  Co-Optimists, then, might be roughly described as a band of people who always look on the bright side of things?

Archie:  That's the idea – folks who can always discern a silver lining beneath the camel's hump.

*          *          *

Here is a representative example from the biographical sketches.  The subject is Melville Gideon, the Co-Optimists' Chief Musician.


He the sweetest of all singers,
And the best of all musicians...
Sang in accents sweet and tender,
Sang in tones of deep emotion,
Songs of love and songs of longing;
Sang he softly, sang in this wise:
"I'm tickled to death I'm single."

Thus in an extraordinarily prophetic manner did Harry W. Longfellow (Portland, Maine) make reference to Melville Gideon, the Co-Optimist's Chief Musician, and scion of one of the oldest Scottish races in existence.  So far back as 1340 B.C. (as recorded on the family plate) a Gideon was established as a farmer in Palestine, but it was not until modern times that the family, having come over with Solly Joel, established themselves in what is now the ancestral home at Gidea Park.

One of his ancestors, however, seems at one time to have practised American dentistry, so he may justly be said to be partially of American extraction.

At a very early age Melville exhibited such remarkable nimbleness with his fingers that it was hoped he would eventually become a prosperous pickpocket.  But his musical bent would out, as was evidenced one day by his seizing the Spanish comb from his mother's hair and improvising a remarkably difficult tarantula upon it.  So struck were his parents by this demonstration of precocity that they lost no time in placing the infant prodigy under proper tuition, with the result that ere he was short-coated Melville was studying the seaside harmonium under the skilled guidance of the late Uncle Bones, of Margate.  Such rapid progress did he make, however, that his parents very wisely decided to add to his musical curriculum by placing him for the study of the Jew's harp in the care of Mr. Beresford-Montague, of Jermyn Street, who, in view of the boy's outstanding genius, generously waived his objection to doing business with minors.

It was at this early period of his career that Melville first exhibited that aptitude for composition which he has since developed in so pronounced a degree.  He was not ten when he electrified the whole musical world with his first song – "Does a sausage lose its figure on the hat-peg over-night?" – a work which drew from no less eminent a musician than the late G.H. Chirgwin the comment that he had never in all his life heard anything like it, and didn't want to.

The immediate result of this was that Melville was set to studying composition under the Compositors' Union, decomposition under the Kensal Green Cemetery Co., Ltd., and instrumentation under the Surgical Aid Society, while his voice, which had now broken, fortunately without compound fracture, was sent for repair to that world-famous exponent of the bel canto, Signorina Phyllis Monkman.

Thus in playing, song-writing and singing, Melville soon developed a facility and proficiency which left his teachers aghast.  The Compositors' Union wrote to his parents: "We can teach him nothing more.  He can compose in any key known to acoustics, as well as in a lot only known to locksmiths."  The Kensal Green Cemetery Co., Ltd., wrote: "Your son knows more than we do.  His 'Funeral March on the Death of a Pet Haggis' is the last word in decomposition."  The Surgical Aid Society similarly testified to his abilities, while Phyllis Monkman gave voice to the most pathetic testimonial ever rendered by one great artiste to another, when she wrote: "Your son sings better than I do."  What finer tribute could man have?

Thus equipped with the finest technique which money could buy, it was not long ere the young musician began to make a mark on the musical world.  Many of these marks, chiefly on the backs of cheques, are preserved to-day in the principal musical museums of England, America, and the Continent.  He rapidly became the vogue.  Wherever he appeared it was to have hours showered upon him.  The Conservatoires of Paris, Liege, Brussels and Leipzig so loaded him with degrees that at one time he seriously considered becoming a naturalised thermometer, while various Societies vied with one another in the bestowal of favours.  The Tonic Solfa Association made him a life-member honoris causa.  The Ancient Order of Night Tipplers of Jerusalem conferred upon him the coveted rank of Grand Artichoke.  The Directors of the Handel Festival unanimously elected him to a seat on the Board.  The Royal Academy of Music made him Professor Emeritus of fugue, plain-song, and invertible counterpoint. 

Yet amid this wild, almost fanatical, acclamation, Melville remained the same ingenuous, unsophisticated, simple-minded young man he had always been.  Popularity did not turn his head.  He remained a giddy 'un in naught but name.

Of his advent into the ranks of the Co-Optimists a word must needs be said, for the occasion was one of the most romantic that has ever figured in the pages of musical history.  Melville was one day giving one of his celebrated midday pianoforte recitals to a large and fashionable audience outside the jug-and-bottle entrance of the "Nag's Head."  By a curious coincidence the song he chanced to be singing at the moment of the great climacteric was "Steed, elevate your caudula!"  He was midway through the chorus when Davy Burnaby emerged from the swing-doors carrying his lunch in a large stone demijohn.  Ever quick to recognise talent in others, of whatever degree, Davy Burnaby at once approached the barrow on which the singer was seated at his portable piano. 

"Excuse me, but you have some very fine top notes," he began.

"Yes," agreed Melville modestly, "the highest ones have snow on them all the year round."

So delighted was Davy at this witty reply that then and there he offered Melville the post of principal tunesmith in the little band of bright young things he was engaged in organising at a salary so high that it would require a hydraulic lift to draw it.  Melville hesitated.  He was at the cross-roads.  The die had to be cast.  He was on the horns of two stools.  Now or never he must take the bit between his teeth.  Davy noticed his hesitation.

"That includes boots, lights and attendance," he added.

That decided it.  It was the last straw to the drowning camel.  Sweeping the contents of his hat into his purse, Melville rose from his gingerbeer crate, presented piano, barrow and donkey to a trustee of the British Museum who chanced to be passing at the moment, and, grasping Davy firmly by the demijohn, "Put it there!" he said.  Thus is history made.

In his home life Melville, for a musician, is singularly methodical.  Every morning sees him at the same hour wending his way with a sack over his shoulder to his music-publishers', there to draw his royalties.  Every noon sees him returning to his home – he lives in A flat, as befits the true musician – with his sack full of notes – as again befits the true musician.

"Orpheus with his loot," we might say.

Each day, too, sees an hour or two devoted to composition and oiling his voice, as also to practising on one of the nine pianos he possesses.  There is even a piano in the bathroom, upon which, when nude, he is accustomed to evolve glad "rags."  But he does not sing in his bath.  He finds it chips the enamel.

Recreation he has no time for, which is not surprising when one remembers that his work is playing.  His one diversion, if it may be so termed, is the selecting and assimilating of a recherche little supper, which no doubt explains the quotation frescoed on his dining-room wall: 

"If music be the love of food, play on."