Friday, December 21, 2012

Ashley Sterne Catering for Christmas

Here are some short excerpts from an Ashley Sterne article of middling interest published in the magazine Country Life, Volume 53 (1927).

Catering for Christmas

By Ashley Sterne

Why catering for Christmas day should present any more harassing a problem to the average goodwife than catering for any other day in the calendar is a matter which annually causes me intense amusement.  The fact nevertheless remains that it does.  Ask your married sister, or preferably somebody else's married sister, to do a lunch and a matinee with you ten days before Christmas, and her reply will be:

"My dear! but how can I possibly come with all the Christmas shopping to do?"

And by "shopping" I don't mean selecting and buying presents.  I mean food-shopping.  Why should Christmas catering require ten days when that for an ordinary routine-day requires only ten minutes, or even less if the shopper is an expert at counting her change (which she never is)?  Of course, I quite appreciate that folks eat more on Christmas Day than on any other day of the year; say fifty per cent. more.  But then it's just as easy to order a pound-and-a-half of a thing as to order a pound.

Again, I am fully aware that it is customary to provide for Christmas Day a greater variety of comestibles than ordinary.  But is it any harder to order mixed biscuits than to order plain lunch?


Mincemeat should be liberally tasted before being finally selected, as there are so many different flavors stocked nowadays – fish-glue, turpentine, boot-blacking, copying-ink, and so forth – and for this purpose the housewife would be well advised to bring with her a few empty mince-pie cases, with lids.  Some prefer mincemeat that really has been minced, while others, again, prefer the unminced variety so that they can see what it's made of.  I strongly advise the latter, as in the unminced state it is nearly always possible to pick out the boot-buttons from the currants and the glove-buttons from the sultanas, whereas in the minced state they are as inseparable as the Siamese Twins.  The freshness of bought mincemeat may be tested by inserting in it a strip of blue litmus paper – but I regret to say I cannot remember the answer.

Christmas cakes are of varying degrees of richness and ornateness, but the main thing to remember when purchasing one is not to pounce on a dummy out of the window.  It is made of cardboard and plaster-of-Paris, and, as such, is frightfully indigestible.  I am all in favor of choosing one off the counter, however thumb-marked it may be.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ashley Sterne Superfluous Hints

Fresh from the digitized newspaper website of the National Library of Australia is a short Ashley Sterne article from the Northern Star (Lismore, NSW), republished 4 April 1925.

Superfluous Hints

By Ashley Sterne

Perhaps I am captious, but I feel that life is far too fleeting to enable one to listen in patience to the exponent of the obvious.  When a man stops me in the street to inform me with all the earnestness of an archbishop expounding the Thirty-Nine Articles that it is a fine day, I possess only one desire: to cleave him from the chin to the brisket and so dispose of the two portions that never the twain shall meet..

Thus, when "Famous Physician" warns us "never to enter the water on a full stomach," I feel as if I want to knock him over the head with his own panel.  It's the sort of thing one avoids doing by instinct.

True, I did once inadvertently enter the sea on a full stomach, but when that full stomach (which belonged to a well-known company promoter in the act of flotation) had finished lodging its eloquent protest, I registered a vow that I would never again quit a bathing machine without my pince nez.

Similarly, when he cautions me not bathe in the early morning before my circulation has got into its stride, I just want to tell him that it is only the mentally deficient who seek a watery nest at 5 a.m., and that it is a fallacy to assume that every man who appears at the breakfast-table with seaweed in his ears and a starfish clinging to his chin has already been down to the Great White Mother, closed with her, kissed her, and mixed with her.

Then we are strongly urged to refrain from bathing when we are over-fatigued – advice which appears to me to be about as needful as to warn a seasick voyager not of over-eat himself, and to go easy with the streaky bacon.

If, for example, we have become thoroughly fagged out by the strain of listening to the band of the St. Mudguards waging an unequal contest with an all-Wagner programme, or by the no less exhausting process of striving to avoid listening to it, who will hear the wild, clear call of the running tide and feel that he positively must go down to the seas again?

Rather I fancy will instinct guide us as to what a well-known writer (me, as a matter of fact) has described as one of those convenient institutions, which minister to those who go down to the sea in charabancs, and which do business in strong waters.

As a final word of warning, "Famous Physician" cautions against stopping too long in the water.  "When you begin to feel chill and numb," he says, "come out.  Don't stop to write your reminiscences or grow a beard; just come out."

Now what sensible person, I ask, when feeling chill and numb, wants to stop in?  It has been proved time and again that to try and attain a state of perspiration or put your temperature up a couple of therms, while immersed in the sea, is simply wasting time.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ashley Sterne 1915 Punch Articles Part 3

Here is Ashley Sterne's final Punch article from 1915. 

Jones – Super-Patriot

By Ashley Sterne

Jones (I'm very sorry, but his name is really Jones) is a true patriot, every inch of him; but unfortunately he hasn't many inches. Nevertheless, the War wasn't a week old before Jones placed all sixty-one of them at the disposal of the nation. And they threw him out because sixty-one was not enough. Later, when the official altitude-scale was reduced, he offered them again; but on this occasion they threw him out because his teeth came from Weibeck Street. And when subsequently the War Office decided that false teeth were not necessarily a barrier to a military career; were, in fact, a valuable asset in connection with bully-beef, they threw him out because he saw nineteen spots on a card that only possessed seven. And then, when the authorities at last came to look upon pince-nez with a more benignant eye, they threw him out because, while they had been busy rejecting him for paucity of inches, falsity of teeth, and debility of eyes, Jones had passed the age limit; and when he wanted to argue the point with the Recruiting Officer they threw him out once more for luck.

Then he tried for the Special Constabulary, and the first night he was on duty he contracted pneumonia, bronchitis, influenza and laryngitis. And they threw him out of that because they wanted Special Constables and not collectors of germs. When he got better – and his convalescence was a long business notwithstanding that his sentences ran concurrently – he applied to join the A.A.C. and would have got in if the Medical Officer had not rung him up on the stethoscope in order to hear his wheels go round. As it was, the M.O. informed Jones that he couldn't pass him into the A.A.C; but if he was really anxious to "serve" he might try and get taken on at an A. B. C.; and it finally took a retired Rear-Admiral, a Chief Petty Officer, a Sergeant of Marines and an Elder Brother of Trinity House to throw him out on that occasion.

Disappointed but undaunted Jones next attempted to qualify as a stretcher bearer in the Home Service Branch of the Red Cross. There, at any rate, they didn't seem so particular whether his lungs squeaked or not. But even they threw him out when they found that Jones's end of the stretcher was always six inches nearer to the ground than the opposite end.

In desperation he tried to join his local Defence Corps, but they wouldn't have him there because, they said, he completely spoilt the look of their parade.  And when Jones expostulated, and urged that the question of appearance was a matter of individual taste, and that for his part he would be ashamed to be found dead wearing a face like that of the Commander of X Company, they fell upon him with eager hands and drill-toughened feet, and threw him out yet once again.

Then, having done his best, Jones went back to business.  A few years ago I met him and he related the foregoing experience to me.  "But I've found a way to help, he concluded, "and it's a help which they can't refuse however overaged, undersized, weak-eyed and false-toothed I may be."

"Taking a course of elementary surgery at one of the hospitals?" I asked.


"Making recruiting speeches?


"Putting in overtime and Sundays at the Arsenal?"


"What then?"

"Something I've never done before," said Jones, a little shamefacedly.  "I– I– I'm returning my Income Tax Form to the Assessors with the correct amount of my Income filled in."

Other patriots please copy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ashley Sterne 1915 Punch Articles Part 2

Here are another two 1915 articles by Ashley Sterne from Punch, Volume 148.  The first story "Renaming A Rose" was published on April 21st and provides a comic look at anti-German fervor.  The second story "The Special Detective," published on May 5th, is a burlesque on the popular fascination with detective fiction.

Renaming A Rose

By Ashley Sterne

I forget when we – that is, our local choral society – first began to practice Acis and Galatea. I know it was long before the start of Lent. Anyway, a few weeks ago we decided that we knew enough about it to risk our annual public performance, and the posters were about to be issued. Then one evening the blow fell at a committee meeting. We were busily discussing the all-important point of the colour of the paper for the programmes when Appleby (our only tenor who can take a top G without causing grievous bodily harm to himself and those in his immediate proximity) rushed into the room in a state of uncontrolled emotion. It had got about, he told us, that the composer was a German, and the tickets in consequence were going as flat as our choir when they sing an unaccompanied glee. "Old Mr. Clivers," said Appleby, "has been tackling me about it. He says it's a shame to perform the work of a German composer when now is the time to support our home products."

Then a long altercation ensued as to whether Handel was or was not to be considered a German.

"But surely he became naturalised," said Miss Mallows, appealing to Mr. Bowles, our conductor, "after spending all those years in England, paying English rates and English taxes and–"

"And writing Italian operas," added Appleby.

"I really don't know for certain," said our harassed conductor, who always received ten per cent, of the gate-money as remuneration for his services. "I–  I think so."

"But he ought to know for certain," whispered Miss Parmenter to me. "It's his business. If he doesn't know, what's he doing with all those letters after his name, F.R.C.O., L.R.A.M., Mus.Bac., F.T.C.L., A.G.S.M.?"

"At all events," announced Miss Mallows solemnly, " I feel it my duty as a patriot to decline, under these doubtful circumstances, to assist at the concert."

Miss Mallows' powers of musical assistance are, I am afraid, long past their zenith, but her ability to dispose of tickets still remains undiminished. Hence her decision came rather in the nature of a Zeppelin.

"Handel must be interned," I said, "and we must revive an old favourite. As Mr. Chivers hinted, it's a fitting opportunity to perform a native work."

Mr. Bowles, who had just completed an oratorio on the subject of Og, King of Bashan, enthusiastically agreed.

But it must be something we know pretty well, remarked Miss Parmenter.  "What about The May Queen?  We know that backwards."

"The point is," I observed, "do we know it forwards?"

"Then there's The Lost Chord," suggested Miss Mallow quite seriously..

"And Eric; or, Little by Little," put in the irrepressible Appleby.

"The Lost Chord," I kindly explained, "is not, strictly speaking, a cantata.  It is more usually performed as a cornet solo.  Occasionally one hears of its being given as a song with harmonium accompaniment."

"I didn't mean The Lost Chord," Miss Mallows corrected.  "I meant The Ancient Mariner."

"Why not try high and do The Dream of Gerontius?" said Appleby.  "There's a fine chorus of Demons in it which would bring the house down."

"Don't you think," asked Miss Parmenter, "that we had better do something to keep it up?  Besides, two rehearsal are not sufficient.  We should have to call it The Nightmare of ––"

"Stay!" cried our conductor.  "why not change the title of Acis and Galatea and the name of its composer?"

"Splendid!" I said.  "But won't the words give us away?"

"Not they!" exclaimed Appleby.  "Everyone always says that the words we sing are absolutely unintelligible."

*          *          *          *          *

I only remains to add that we drew a bumper house for our "performance in concert form of Dido and Aeneas, the operatic masterpiece of England's greatest musical genius, Henry Purcell."


The Special Detective

By Ashley Sterne

I am a Special Detective. It came about in this way. When the Special Constables were being enrolled I offered my services for duty on Saturday afternoons from 4:30 to 5, so as to allow the regular policeman to go off for afternoon tea. I couldn't volunteer to serve any longer as I had to have a singing lesson at 5:15. However, they refused my offer, and as I still wanted to help I appointed myself an unofficial Special Detective – the only one.

I don't suppose you would ever guess what I was if you saw me in the street, because I always go about disguised when on duty. When I am disguised I can detect things which I should never dream of detecting in propria persona. For instance, were I just wearing my usual clothes and my ordinary face, I should not attempt to interfere with an armed burglar in the execution of what, rightly or wrongly, he conceives to be his duty. I should go home. If the occasion demanded it, I should even go to the length of remaining at home until I had grown a moustache, or a beard, or a whisker or perhaps the complete set, according to the requirements of the character I proposed to assume.

I remember once detecting a desperate villain in the act of emptying a perambulator full of practically new children into the canal at Basingstoke. As I happened at the moment to be disguised in the totally unsuitable garb of a member of the Junior Athenaeum Club I refrained from interfering. I contented myself with tapping him on the shoulder (I forget which), explaining my difficulty to him, advising him that I should return in due course and severely arrest him, and finally warning him that anything he might say in the meantime would be taken down, suitably edited, and used in evidence against him.

I then returned to town and commenced at once to grow a luxuriant vegetation of whiskers. You see, it was my intention to disguise myself as an Anabaptist, and then go back to Basingstoke and seize my man, if possible, red-handed; if not, whatever colour his hand happened to be. However, hair-raising is not so easy as it looks, for although I read all the ghost stories I could lay my hand on, and actually spent several hours a day under the forcing-pot in the company of the rhubarb, it was a long time before my whiskers were long enough to infuriate Mr. Frank Richardson.

The consequence was that when I eventually returned to the scene of the crime I found that the villain had completed his thankless task and had in all probability gone home to a guilty meal.  The indifference displayed by the criminal classes to their impending fate is proverbial.  Yet how this heartless desperado ever summoned up the effrontery to clear off after I had expressly informed him that I was coming back to arrest him passes my comprehension.  Anyhow, I examined the surface of the canal thoroughly, but as it was quite smooth, without a hole in it anywhere, it is just possible that I was mistaken, and that the miscreant was only intending to wash his offspring.  Or, again, they may not have been children at all, but merely turnips or cauliflowers.  Personally, I am often unable to distinguish between a very new child and a turnip.  I once mentioned this failing to a friend.  He was a family man, and simply said, "Ah, wait till you have a baby of your own," which was a singularly fatuous remark to make, because, as it happens, I have a baby of my own, though only a very small one.  What I don't possess is a turnip of my own.

Then, too, there is the important matter of clues.  How often one reads in the newspapers that detectives are handicapped for want of clues!  From the very outset of my career I determined that I would never be handicapped in this manner, and therefore I have my own set of clues which I always carry about with me.  I have got a very good footprint from which I expect great results, a blood-stain, several different kinds of tobacco-ash and a button.  Buttons, I have observed, nearly always turn out to be clues, from which I gather that the majority of criminals are bachelors.

The science of deductive reasoning naturally plays an important part in my work and often – just to see the look of amazement on their faces – I amuse myself with a little practical demonstration at the expense of my friends.  I well remember how I surprised Uncle Jasper by asking after his cold before he had even mentioned a word about it to me.  All he had said was, "Well, by boy, what a log tibe it is sidce I've seed you."

And I have had some exciting experiences.  Once I stopped a runaway bath-chair at the risk of the occupant's life.  I gave myself a medal for that.  On another occasion I stopped a cheque just in the nick of time.  For this I presented myself with an illuminated address and only by the exercise of great self-control refrained from awarding myself the freedom of my native town.  On yet a third occasion I successfully traced a German spy to his lair.  I heard him talking German as he passed me (I was disguised at the time I remember as a Writer to the Signet), and never shall I forget the look of utter despair he gave when I forced him to disclose his real name, which was Gwddylch Apgwchllydd.  Next time I bring off a coup – as we call it – I have marked myself down for promotion.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ashley Sterne 1915 Punch Articles Part 1

Here are the first two of the five Ashley Sterne articles published in 1915 by the magazine Punch, or the London Charivari.  By the way, I found "charivari" to be an interesting word.  Wikipedia says:

"Charivari (or shivaree or chivaree, also called "rough music") is the term for a French folk custom in which the community gave a noisy, discordant mock serenade, also pounding on pots and pans, at the home of newlyweds. The loud, public ritual evolved to a form of social coercion, for instance, to force an as-yet-unmarried couple to wed. This type of social custom arose independently in many rural village societies, for instance also in England, Italy, Wales or Germany, where it was part of the web of social practices by which the small communities enforced their standards.

The community used noisemaking and parades to demonstrate disapproval, most commonly of "unnatural" marriages and remarriages, such as a union between an older widower and much younger woman, or the too early re-marriage by a widow or widower. Villages also used charivari in cases of adulterous relationships, wife beaters, and unwed mothers."

Ashley Sterne's article "A Forced March" was published on January 20, 1915.  It is a comic look at the practice of walking for the sake of exercise, and could easily be updated and applied to our present era.

The article "Raising the Wind" was published on March 24, 1915 and takes as its setting the recruiting of British soldiers for the Great War.  Hints of seriousness and urgency underlie the article's light tone.

A Forced March

By Ashley Sterne

Petherby recommended route-marching; said he used to suffer from sensations of repletion after heavy meals, just as I did, but, after a series of Saturday afternoons spent in route-marching through our picturesque hill country (Herne, Brixton, Denmark and so forth), the distressing symptoms completely vanished, and he now felt as right as a trivet.

I hadn't a ghost of a notion what a trivet was, nor yet what degree of rectitude was expected of it; but I nevertheless determined to try the route-march cure. Bismuth and pepsin should henceforth be drugs in the market as far is I was concerned. The only doubt in my mind was whether, technically speaking, I could perform a route-march all by myself. Somehow I thought etiquette demanded the presence of a band, or at any rate a drum and fife obbligato. But Petherby thought not, and declared it would prove just as effective rendered as a solo. " Besides," he added, "if you want music to invigorate you, you can whistle or hum. Moreover, you can switch the music on or off at will."

I resolved to start the treatment the following Saturday afternoon, and certainly should have done so but for the weather, which was very moist. If there 's one thing I hate more than dyspepsia it's rheumatism. The next Saturday was fine – fine for a Saturday, that is; but a well meant gift of tickets for a matinee, which it would have been churlish of me to refuse, robbed me of my prospective enjoyment. However, Saturday of the week after was also fine.  Nothing stood in the way of my pleasurable tramp, and I determined to route-march home from the City.

I spent two hours in ill-concealed impatience – the marker told me he had never seen me put up such a poor game – waiting to see if the weather would change.  But as at the expiration of that time it had apparently got stuck I decided to risk it.

Softly humming to myself, "Here we are again," I route-marched out of the hotel into Bishopsgate in fine style, and got on to a bus bound for the Bank (I did this to save time).  Arrived at the Bank I took another bus to Blackfriars (I did this to save more time.  I thought it would be nice to commence the march from the Embankment).  When I reached Blackfriars I remembered that all the big walks started from the political end, so as I did not wish to assume any superiority which I did not strictly possess I took the tram to Westminster.  There I alighted and was about to set off over Westminster Bridge when it occurred to me that I hadn't had any tea.  To route-march on an empty stomach was, I felt sure, the height of folly.  I therefore repaired to a tea-shop in the vicinity, where I encountered young Pilkington.  We discussed Kitchener and crumpets, training and tea, the Kaiser and cake, and with a little adroitness I managed to bring in the subject of the medicinal value of route-marching.  When I rose to go Pilkington inquired my destination.

"Norbury," I told him.

"That's lucky," he said; "I shall be able to give you a lift in a taxi as far as Kennington."

In vain I expostulated with him, and urged that I was route-marching, not route-cabbing.  But he wouldn't listen.

"Anyhow," he concluded, "it's most dangerous to march just after a crumpet tea.  Haven't you read your 'Infantry Training'?"

The upshot of the matter was that we taxied to Kennington, where at last I managed to leave him.  And then I began to feel tired.  True, I hadn't done any marching, but it was none the less true that I felt as tired as if I had.  However, I succeeded in struggling on for about fifty yards (to the tune of Handel's Largo), and then I boarded a tram.  It had only proceeded a quarter-of-a-mile or so when the current failed and we all had to get out.  I waited for half-an-hour for a fresh batch of current to arrive, but none came, and I realised that my best course would be to walk to Brixton Station and procure a cab.

Accordingly, to the melody of "I don't expect to do it again for months and months and months," I put my best foot forward.  It was a moot point which of my two feet merited this distinction; they both felt deplorably senile.  Then it began to rain – no mere niggardly sprinkling, but a lavish week-end cataclysm.  I reached the station in the condition known to chemists as a saturated solution, only to find that there was not a cab on the rank.  I was therefore compelled to adopt the only means of transport left to me – to route-march home....

I ultimately staggered in at my gate at an advanced hour of the evening to the strains of the opening bars of Tschaikowski's Pathetic Symphony, whistling mentally.  I was far beyond making the actual physical effort.

That night I wrote a postcard to Petherby.  It ran as follows:–  "Have just completed your course of treatment.  Am cured."

*          *          *

Raising the Wind

By Ashley Sterne

There is little doubt that our Recruiting Band has done yeoman service at our Thursday evening Recruiting Campaigns, and it would do even better if it only possessed a bass tuba. We have lots of bandsmen who play top and middle music, but only one (a euphonium) who plays ground-floor music. This is scarcely surprising when you come to think that low notes are much more expensive to produce than high ones. You can buy a very good cornet for two pounds, but in order to produce exactly the same notes as the cornet a few feet lower you have to invest in a bass tuba that may cost you six times as much.

All this was admirably explained by Mr. Fogge (the bandmaster), who one evening, when the Overture to William Tell had been rendered without any bass at all (owing to the indisposition of the euphonium), mounted the plinth of the drinking-fountain round which our campaign rages, and asked " our public-spirited fellow-townsmen " for more practical support for the band. In a powerful peroration he pointed out the increasing need for a bass tuba, and pleaded with a possible philanthropist in the crowd to earn his country's undying gratitude by supplying the deficiency.

Unfortunately, in the report of the proceedings which appeared in The Poppleton Argus, "tuba" was spelt "tuber," with the result that the Vicar, who goes in for market-gardening on an extended scale, sent to the band's headquarters the largest potato he could find.

This was literally the only fruit of Mr. Fogge's stirring appeal,-and finally it devolved on me (I am only the hon. treasurer of the band, not an executant) to devise some other means of obtaining the money. To accept the offer of our senior curate to lecture on John Bunyan would, I felt sure, merely defeat my object. Happily I saw in The Times what I considered to be a highly novel and ingenious method of making an appeal for charity. I therefore despatched to the office of The Argus the following paragraph: "Will every 'Huggins' in Poppleton join together to provide an urgently required instrument for our Recruiting Band?  Write, etc., etc."

This, I thought, would be sure to attract the necessary money, as Huggins is the name in Poppleton, just as Rees or Jenkins is in Swansea.  Judge, then, of my annoyance when, on opening the paper, I found that the wretched printer had made my advertisement read, "Will every Juggins, etc., etc."  I need scarcely say that the result was nil; though one dear old lady (who apologised for her name being Brigginshaw and not Juggins), having misinterpreted my appeal, forwarded me a Surgical Aid letter.  My failure was all the more galling since there was a similar notice in the paper asking all the "Jemimas" of the neighbourhood to subscribe towards the purchase of cigars for all our Tommies who didn't like cigarettes.  The notion was obviously not so novel as I had imagined it.  Anyhow, I subsequently learned that the "Jemima" money subscribed would have been sufficient to buy a bass tuba, a tenor trombone, and the best part of a French horn.  I wanted to try again by addressing my appeal to all the "Williams" and "Johns," but Mr. Fogged said, No; all the Williams and Johns had already been bled for Christmas crackers for the Canadians.  He said we didn't want a bass tuba as badly as all that.

Then one day a bright idea struck me.  I devised another appeal, and took it down by hand myself to the office of The Argus.  To ensure its being correctly printed I offered them double rates to be allowed to see a proof of it.  They told me such a course was not usual.  I told them that their mistakes were also somewhat out of the ordinary, and I eventually got my way.  The appeal was worded: –

"Will all our townsfolk who are relatives (however distant) of, or connected by marriage (however remotely) with, persons of rank or title, contribute to a fund now being raised to provide our Recruiting Band with a much-needed bass tuba?  A list of all subscribers, together with the names of their relatives or connections, will be duly published in these columns.  Write, etc., etc."

The success of my appeal was instantaneous.  We could have bought a large proportion of the London Symphony Orchestra with the proceeds.  Not only did we purchase the biggest, bassest, most sonorous tuba that money could command, but we had sufficient funds in hand to engage the services of a tubaist to play it – a desideratum that had previously been overlooked.  We are now doing great business with our band, and I do not hesitate to say that if Lord Kitchener succeeds in getting all the recruits he wants it will be largely due to the generosity of 89 of his second-cousins thrice removed, 57 connexions-by-marriage of Sir John French, and 142 step-nephews-in-law of His local Grace the Duke of Podmore and Lumpton.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ashley Sterne Midsummer Musings

In July 1914, Ashley Sterne's comic article "Midsummer Musings" was published in The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 53, pp. 942-944.  As far as I am currently able to determine, this article was his first to be published with a by-line in a prominent London magazine.  The article uses many of the comic devices (e.g., comic lists, digressions, extravaganzas of misfiring erudition) that he would use with finer control and greater humorous effect in later writings.  Still, it's a delight to be carried along with the gaudy linguistic swirls and splashes of Ashley Sterne's early exuberance.

Midsummer Musings

By Ashley Sterne

By a curious coincidence, which I cannot possibly attempt to explain without the assistance of a theodolite, a troglodyte, an artificial horizon and a long-distance logarithm, the twenty-fourth day of June this year falls upon Midsummer Day, just as it did last year.

Pondering over this phenomenal, er – phenomenon, with my head in a bandage of cold tea, and my feet in a bath of mustard and cress – thinking, too, that the almanacksters had possibly worked it out in their heads, and got it all wrong – I took the trouble to tintinnabulate the business end of Woolwich Arsenal (where, I understand, they keep a fully-licensed astronomer doing practically nothing else all day but fixing the dates for the Boat Race, the anniversary of Waterloo, New Year's day, Trinity Law Sittings, the expiration of Fire Insurance, Kent v. Surrey, and other events of an absorbing nature), and to ask if it was all O.K. – which is the Esperanto signal for "mother and child both doing well," – or whether the astronomer person had omitted to carry one from the pence column. I forget the exact answer which I received, but I remember that it was laconic, and contained a reference to Adam.

Anyhow, I have since ascertained that Midsummer Day will be quite en regie – an Italian expression which is perhaps best interpreted by its Ju-jitsu equivalent, kakwx telenta [Greek letters in the original], of which I much regret I am unable to tell you the meaning – and that when it arrives it will be found to have been executed in due form of law, and that the sun will open at 3.37 a.m. to bona-fide travellers, shut at 8.29 p.m., notwithstanding the Early Closing Act, and that high water at London Bridge may be had for the asking at 10.59 a.m. as per advert.

But quite apart from these extraordinary circumstances,Midsummer Day and the season to which it forms such an admirable hors d'oeuvre have interests of their own. The long summer evenings, the beauties of which cause poets to break out into all sorts of freewheel rhapsodies; artists to wallow in a gluttonous debauch of boiled turps and raw sienna; and susceptible youths to forego their suppers, and wander around the more secluded parts of the scenery with their arms full of rapturous maiden, are now at their zenith.

Here, again, is a scientific problem which is not thoroughly comprehended by the man-in-the-street – an individual who, by the by, is paradoxically enough never to be found in the street, but usually in the nearest house of refreshment. But the explanation is very simple, and I can soon make it clear to you. (I only wish I could give you a diagram, lettered A, B, C, and so forth; but a diagram would be totally beyond the scope of the compositor, and – moreover – I am not quite sure how it should be drawn.)

Now, during the sun's journey round the earth (or the earth's journey round the sun, whichever it may be) the sun (or the earth) does not describe a perfectly circular circle round the earth (or the sun), but describes another sort of figure whose name I do not remember. Possibly it is an oblate spheroid. Neither can I tell you why the sun (or the earth) behaves in this undisciplined manner; but such eminent observers as Coperliles, Garibaldi and others are all agreed that it does, so you can just take it from me that the statement is thoroughly justified. Well, while the sun (or the earth) is describing this orbit arrangement, it – whichever it is – keeps getting farther and farther away from each other, with the result that the light from the sun has got a greater distance to go. In other words, the light – notwithstanding that it travels faster than a Yankee "doing" Westminster Abbey or the British Museum – has to work overtime in order to get here before night, and the day has to be longer in consequence.

Having thus explained what was doubtless a mystery to you before, I have very kindly arranged to revert to the original subject under discussion, which, reference to my notes informs me, is Cucumber Peelings. [No, it isn't. Can't you read your own writing? "Midsummer Musings" is the somewhat irritating alliterative title you have chosen. Ed.]

True. I was talking about the long evenings, one of the chief attractions of which is undoubtedly the luscious sunsets which we are permitted to enjoy without paying a shilling to go in. No man has ever yet gazed upon a shot-silk sunset without promptly bursting to commemorate it in some way, either in a poem, or in a picture, or in a statue,or in a letter to one or other of the daily papers that encourages its readers to write on such widely-diversified topics as "Who killed cock robin?" or "What are the wild waves saying?" – thus obtaining gratis a large amount of material they would have to pay an expensive and highly-trained journalist to fill.

To test the truth of this assertion for yourself you have only to visit some locality specially noted for the superbity of its sunscapes. On the top story of Edinburgh Rock you may see Mr. John Masefield or Mr. Laurence Housman dictating iambics to his typist, and walking up and down in a frenzied fever of many degrees best Fahrenheit in a fruitless endeavour to find a legitimate rhyme to "purple." Reclining on a bonny, bonny bank of Ben Lomond you may see Sir Edward Elgar rapidly recording his impressions in the shape of a duo concertante for two vermicelli, entitled Chanson de Crepuscule.  Or, perched on the topmost rung of some highly-pinnacled Alp you may observe Mr. Waterhouse slapping on to canvas trowelfuls of ultramarine, gamboge, tapiochre, and other expensive pigments, which will ultimately be exhibited at the Royal Academy under the title of "The lowing chamois winds slowly home to tea."

And here I would point out the great advantage which the artist possesses over the poet and the musician in depicting sunsets; for if, as a sunset, it does not meet with the success which he anticipated, the artist still has another chance of saving it from the fate of becoming a wedding-present, since he has only to turn the picture upside down, when, ipso facto, it represents a sunrise.  But the poet or the musician cannot achieve a similar result by standing his work on its head, or by rendering it backwards; for such is the nature of modern poetry and modern music that it makes little or no difference which way up it is, or in which direction it is interpreted.

But in addition to the source of inspiration which these elongated evenings afford to the rhymesmith, the tunester and the paintmonger, they throw a romantic glamour over the common incidents of everyday life. Imogen and Algernon, for instance, sitting in the former's father's garden with their thumbs interlocked; watching the last lark leave its watery lodgings for a final flutter before spending the night standing on one leg; gazing with rapt rapture at a ubiquitous bat that is pursuing an abortive search for worms – or whatever it may be upon which bats feed; following with eager attention a clanging crow clinking its clamorous course to the confines of some cacophonous crowery; Imogen and Algernon – I repeat, in case you have forgotten of whom I am speaking – reveal hitherto unsuspected beauties of feature and nobilities of character in one another which are not visible in the incandescent-mantled towers of the former's father's residence.

On the other hand, many a blemish which in the garish glare of day would be quite visible at Greenwich passes unheeded in the softly twiling twilight, or is merely issued to the public in a much bowdlerised edition. Thus the touch of Algernon's moustache, as he breathes passionate extensions of the predicate into Imogen's yearning ear, does not seem so tooth-brushy amid the mellow red and gold of a June evening as it does amid the harsh bric-a-brac of an august morning-room. Similarly, the quaint poker-work texture of Imogen's complexion, with its rich hoard of russet freckles, loses nothing by being viewed in a half-light; and what in the lurid lustre of high noon is unmistakably a mole of great intensity becomes transformed under the benign glow of a subsiding sun, kindly assisted by a few of the more punctual planets,into an alluring dimple.

And lastly, there is the enthralling entertainment afforded by that tiresome nocturnal fowl, the nightingale. Whether this is one of the attractions, or one of the repulsions, of a midsummer night's dream must be left to the decision of those who have suffered stiff neck and quinzy through hanging out of window half the night listening to it. My own experience is that a little nightingale, like a little knowledge, goes a long way; and that to be kept awake from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. by a surfeit of them indulging in complicated Handel Festivals is to court early and urgent admission to a sound-proof asylum for those of tender ears.  Were I given the choice, I would sooner endure being deprived of rest by a gale in the night than by the nightingale, for Philomel is a burdensome bird, I wot.  Eh, what?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Ashley Sterne and Teeth

Here is a short excerpt of an Ashley Sterne article that I found in the Western Dental Bulletin, Volume 9 (1929):


Ashley Sterne, whose wit and humour have beguiled many an idle moment for numbers of our readers, is in his happiest mood in a recent issue of London Opinion.  We would like to quote the article in extenso, but space forbids; we extract one or two tit-bits:

“Since the days of Ovid right away through the centuries haven’t the great love-poets always emphasized the attraction of the female eye to the exclusion of all else?  Well, apparently they’re all of them wrong, for at a recent meeting of the British Dental Association a lady dentist informed a newspaper representative that ‘sparkling teeth have captured more hearts than sparkling eyes.’

“Now, if this is true (and it’s rude to contradict a lady), I can see that, for accuracy’s sake, a good deal of poetry and modern fiction will shortly have to be re-written.  We shall have to make Ben Johnson say, ‘Drink to me only with thine eye-tooth,’ and Sir William Gilbert, “Take a row of sparkling fangs,’ if we do not wish posterity to gain the impression that our finest lover-lyrics are, so to speak, ‘all my eye.’

“Similarly, such passages in novels as, ‘Harold’s heart thrilled as he gazed into the liquid depths of Hilda’s clear hazel eyes,’ will have to be amended to read, ‘Harold’s heart thrilled as he gazed into the cavities of Hilda’s pure white bicuspids,’ while the title of a certain great classic romance will, in future editions, most assuredly have to be altered to ‘A Pair of White Molars, and the well-known colloquialism about ‘the glad eye’ changed to ‘the glad incisor.’

“All the same, I am sorry to have my own belief in the lure of the eye turned to eye-wash, as it were, for several reasons.  In the first place, should I ever feel inspired in the future to plunge into amateur verse, I shall find it rather a difficult job for ‘teeth’ is a very much harder word to find rhymes for than ‘eyes.’  Supposing I felt the urge to write something along the lines of that delightful little song of Macdowell’s –

‘Thy beaming eyes
Are Paradise’ –

well, you see the horrible difficulty which at once arises in preserving the metaphor.  There is no word rhyming with ‘teeth’ which in the least suggests Paradise, or its synonym, Eden, and the nearest approach I can get to the idea is –

‘Thy gleaming plate
Is Eden-tate’ –

which, however, is far from having any paradisaic significance, because I find on looking up ‘edentate’ in the dictionary that it means ‘lacking front teeth.’


Here is a brief but insightful biographical note about Ashley Sterne from The Strand Magazine, Volume 75 (1928):

"Take, first of all, the humorous writer, Ashley Sterne. I think he must be the world's champion mixer. He could adorn a ducal dinner table one night and hobnob with the toughs of Charley Brown's public-house down Limehouse way the next."