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.

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