Saturday, November 10, 2012

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."

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