Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ashley Sterne Punch 1915 The Country Cotters

Hathi Trust has recently added Google digitized copies of early 20th-century volumes of Punch magazine.  I was happy to find some articles by Ashley Sterne in Punch, Volume 149, 1915.  Here are the first three, a set of linked articles in the form of letters written by Oswald to his friend Peter.  Peter loans his cottage to Oswald and his wife Joan to permit them to enjoy an inexpensive vacation in the country. 

The Country Cotters I  p. 86   July 28, 1915
The Country Cotters II  p. 116  August 4, 1915
The Country Cotters III  p. 128  August 11, 1915

Some details from these three articles were recycled five years later in Ashley Sterne's wonderful article in Pan magazine called "The Weekenders" (posted as a blog entry last year), which also used a country cottage as its setting.  

[Note: The word "cotter" is an old-fashioned British word for cottager or farm tenant.  The term "screw-day" is British slang from the early 20th century referring to payday at the end of the month.  The word "charing" means a domestic chore.]



Thank you for your magnanimous offer to lend me one-and-sevenpence till next screw-day, but you have entirely misinterpreted my letter.  You forgot to read between the lines.  What I intended to convey to you was that Joan and I are much too hard up this year to afford a holiday on our usual scale of princely munificence.  What we are accustomed to is an "excellent cuisine under the immediate supervision of a professional, choice wines from our own wood, separate knives and forks for each course, separate serviettes," the type of accommodation with which the Railway Guides have doubtless made you familiar.

But I see no prospect of our being able to afford these extravagances unless we make some more money.  This we could possibly do by Joan's accepting a little plain charing and by my taking pupils for fretwork and the mandoline courses which, I need scarcely say, we are very loath to adopt, as the families of both of us date back to Queen Victoria, a fact of which we are naturally proud, though jealous young Edwardians might possibly call it swank.

Things being so, you may imagine how anxious I am to solve the problem of our annual holiday satisfactorily.  A few days ago I thought I had done so.  I came across an advertisement in one of the papers which suggested to me a method whereby we could secure, with a little adroitness and savoir faire, a holiday of the kind to which we have been brought up, at only half the usual price.  The advertisement concluded — "Terms from 7s. 6d. a day . . . Days of arrival and departure reckoned as one day."  Now can you see my idea?  If we started off in the sidecar one morning at about 5.30 we could Lumpton-super-Mare in time for the "full meat breakfast" at 8.30, and need not leave until we had had "coffee in the Lounge" after dinner on the following day.  This accommodation would undoubtedly be cheap at 15s. for the two of us.  We should then leave the Hotel at 11.55 and return at a few minutes after midnight, and ask for rooms again.  And so on, day after day, until we had spent all our money, or were forcibly escorted beyond the frontier by a posse of Boy Scouts.

I laid the idea before Joan, but she says there must be a flaw in my argument somewhere, or else why hasn't the idea been worked before ?  My answer to that was that other people haven't got my brains. Nevertheless, Joan refuses to attempt the scheme unless I first consult Perkins about it.  But that, I consider, would be sheer waste of money, because I shall have to pay Perkins 6s. 8d. for his opinion in any case, and then, if his opinion should coincide with my own, I shall have absolutely squandered eight-ninths of a Lumpton-super-Mare full meat breakfast, eight-ninths of a Lumpton lunch (with choice of hot and cold dishes), eight-ninths of a Lumpton afternoon tea (including cake or biscuits), eight-ninths of a Lumpton 18-hole table d'hote dinner, eight-ninths of a Lumpton coffee in the lounge, to say nothing of eight-ninths of bed, free boots, lights and attendance.

With some reluctance therefore, I finally abandoned the idea at 2.47 a.m. next morning, but I rejoice to say that a brand-new brain-wave arrive to-day immediately after reading your generous letter.  Now, Peter, you own a country cottage, "The Yews" (or is it "The Ewes"?), at Windleton, Sussex, which you never use except as an address from which to write letters to The Daily Mail, possibly with the notion that the opinions of Peter Travers, of Windleton, in the County of Sussex, Gentleman, will have greater weight with the Editor than those of Peter Travers, of Thornton Heath, in the County of — is it in a county ? — average adjuster.  What do you say to letting it to me for three weeks come next Tuesday?  I should be willing to pay you any sum in reason, say threepence a week, for the use of it.  I would take great care of it, and always bring it in at night . . . No, no, my dear Peter, we simply couldn't. We may be poor, but (as I have already told you) we are proud.  I insist on putting the matter on a regular business footing.  Many thanks all the same, in which my wife joins me. . . .

We should, of course, expect nothing in return for airing the beds, ventilating the premises or feeding the ewes (or is it "yews" ?).  But I should like to know

(a) What rent will you allow me to pay?

(b) Is the cottage on the electrophone ?

(c) Is there a bath-room?  Failing that, a ducking-stool at the village pond?

(d) A skating-rink?

(e) A presbytery?

(f) Do we have to take our own linen, glass, cutlery and chaplain?

Let me have a reply at once, there 's a good Peter, for which I enclose — at least, I think I enclose ; yes, I do enclose a penny stamp.

What about references'?  My bankers will, I am sure, be pleased to certify that my overdraft is no more that usual, and our family doctor would not have any objection to testifying that I always discard from weakness.  Or, let me see, isn't it you who ought to give me references?  I will ask Perkins (not, if I can avoid it, in a professional way, but in the course of general conversation), and if he says Yes, I shall require references from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mr. Gordon Selfridge and the Spanish Ambassador.

Your loving little friend (though it sounds more like a biscuit),



Taking it all round we like your country cottage immensely.  The Crystal Palace is, perhaps, a trifle roomier, airier and better lighted, but then of course we could not have got the Crystal Palace for a pound — or did you say a shilling? — a week; and, besides, the Crystal Palace has no wild roses climbing up the porch and no pump in the scullery.  True, your ceilings are a bit low; but then one always stoops when one is shaving, and one usually sits down at meal-times, and one has to lie down in bed, and one never wants to dawdle about on a staircase, anyhow.  At the same time I wonder if you would have any objection to my sawing a small piece out of. the Jacobean rafter in the sitting-room — just sufficient to admit of my rising from the breakfast-table without incurring daily concussion of the brain?  I got up from the table this morning quite forgetting about the Jacobean rafter, with the result that the knob which I now wear on the top of my head makes the sitting-room fit me worse than ever.

Then there's the pump in the scullery. Now don't misunderstand me and imagine that I am wilfully finding fault.  Pumps, spinning-wheels, sun-dials, Jacobean rafters, inaccessibility of doctor and post-office, bats, oldest inhabitant (if any), children biting the hems of their pinafores all these, my dear Peter, combine to bring the scent of the hay over the .footlights, as it were.  I love them all.  But I do expect a pump to have a sense of duty and convey water.  What actually happened the first day we arrived, with our tongues lolling out for a cup of tea, was this.  After Joan and I had in turn worked the pump-handle some five thousand times each, we merely succeeded in pumping out a spider, followed a quarter of an hour later by about an egg-cupful of a dark and sinister-looking fluid strongly impregnated with rust.  This would have been acceptable if we had brought the canary with us. It has recently moulted rather severely, and has used up our entire stock of rusty nails.  But as a basis for tea it was impossible, and Joan went away to find a quiet corner in which to die.  I wasn't surprised.  A day at your pump, Peter, would make even the health of emperors ridiculous.

However, your handy man,Wrighton, of whom you told me, opportunely looked in to see if he were wanted.  He was.  I explained our trouble to him, and he at once examined the pump with the eye of an expert — I suppose there are pump experts?  He said the leather of the plunger had perished, and he would fit another piece.  Meanwhile he would fetch us some water from his private well.

Now, Peter, why don't you get a well? It would be quite in keeping with the rest of life in a country cottage, and oughtn't to cost very much. After all, a well is only a hole, and goodness knows holes are cheap enough. Get an estimate from a well-sinker, anyway.

While Wrighton had gone for the water I went to look for Joan. I found her lying down on the sofa in the sitting-room, in a state of utter collapse.  The poor girl bad had to break into the emergency ration of chocolate-cream which she had fortunately brought with her, and was endeavouring to restore her shattered faculties by reading a copy of Country Life for December, 1911.  (Your library is sadly out of date).  I said, " The leather of the plunger has perished." : To which Joan merely remarked : "But the silk stockings of the liftman's little neighbour (feminine) have been saved.  To-morrow we will conjugate savoir and connaitre." This will show you the state to which your pump has reduced us.  But we are getting slowly better. The oxygen cylinder has gone back to town and we no longer need to take nourishment during the night.

You will be flattered to learn that we followed your advice and took a cold chicken down with us in the side-car.  It was thoughtful of you to mention that Tuesday was early closing day in Windleton, and that we should have difficulty in getting in provisions.  As a matter of fact we did.  The cold chicken left us without giving notice somewhere between Horley and Horsham.  If you should happen to know anyone who lives between these two places you might ask him to keep an eye open (or, if he 's not very busy, both eyes open) for a cold — No, never mind.  It's no good counting on spilt chickens. Besides, it 's probably curdled by now.

When I can spare the time I'm going to devote a little attention to taming your wild roses.  One scratched me this morning as I was going into the garden; not spitefully, mind you, but (I believe) playfully.  Or perhaps you wilfully keep them in this fierce condition to scare away tramps, just as other people keep a watch-dog?  If so, watch-roses are indeed a novelty, and I feel it incumbent upon me to stick up a notice — "Beware of the wild roses."

Talking of wild things, Joan wants to start a goat.  Wrighton, it appears, has a spare one which he can't use.  It is too young to go as a regimental mascot, and he has offered it to her for the sake of getting it a comfortable home.  Joan has already commenced to babble about growing our own gorgonzola for the mouse-trap, but a goat in the Sussex jungle and a goat in a suburban garden are two totally different propositions, Peter.  Supposing it went mad .and tossed the postman?  Besides, I happen to know it 's a buck, and no good for anything except to draw a goat-chaise or to be converted into pemmican, for neither of which we have any pressing need.  I therefore propose, before the plot thickens any farther, to offer Wrighton half-a-crown not to give us the animal, but to do as he originally intended and send it to the next village rummage sale to be raffled.

Windleton is very charitably disposed just now, and we have lately had a perfect orgy of frivolities in the shape of sales and fetes on behalf of the various War funds.  Last Saturday there was An Evening with Keats in the village schoolroom, given by Miss Mullens, one of the teachers.  A numerous and costly audience, I understand, stayed at home.  Then on Tuesday a Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Show was held, to which we should certainly have sent a very fine growth which we discovered in your paddock if we had been conscientiously able to enter it as a mushroom.  But unfortunately our joint botany broke down at the test, and there was no class for mushstools.  To-morrow there is a Lawn Tennis Tournament in the Vicarage garden, for which Joan and I have entered, as we find that your effects here do not include either electro-plated asparagus-servers or cut-glass scent-bottles.

By-the-by, the Vicar has called twice (we were out on each occasion), and we are filled with trepidation, as we are not au courant with the customs of country clergymen.  Will he ask us what we are?  (Please wire reply).  If he does, I shall say we are Bi-metallists, but that we hold very conservative views with regard to contributing to funds for restoring the old Norman weather-cock or for adding a vox populi stop to the organ.

Your affectionate tenant,



Why on earth didn't you tell me you kept wasps down here?  I had no idea you went in for such a hobby.  But why is your vespiary at the bole of the apple-tree immediately outside the sitting-room window?  Have you any specific objection to my drugging it and removing it to a nice empty hole at the back of the wood-shed?  I will then revive it with sal-volatile; and inform the neighbours that the change of premises does not mean any suspension of the regular business; and that they may be stung from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. as heretofore.

I am emboldened to suggest this alteration because yesterday morning at breakfast, the window being open to admit a balmy Sussex draught, one of your wasps wanted the honey at the same moment that I did.  Joan, who is no vespiphile, flicked her table-napkin and said, "Shoo!"  The wasp must have misunderstood her, for it immediately settled on the back of my hand and sat down on its pointed end.  The result was that I said "Help!" though Joan makes out that I muted the final letter.

Unfortunately we had brought no ammonia with us.  The nearest approach to that useful alkali that we possessed was a bottle of ammoniated quinine, some of which I applied faute de mieux.  I can't tell whether it did any good or not, because I don't know what would have happened if I had not applied it.  Joan thinks the wound would have "gathered," but I imagine she is confusing a needlework term.

Now you know why I want to move your wasps, Peter. The alternative is to eat our honey elsewhere. But bread and honey is so essentially a parlour dish (has it not as such long since received the cachet of royal example?) that to eat it in the scullery, say, or in one of the bedrooms, seems to me seriously malapropos.

You may be interested to know that our honey was a local industry.  None of your New Zealand frozen honey for us, my boy!  We bought it in the village, at a most unpretentious little shop.  Its one window contained a cucumber, the butt-end of which was immersed in a jam-pot of water, and four round glass jars containing respectively bulls'-eyes, Pontefract cakes (which badly needed repolishing), nothing, and "Windleton Mixture."  There was also a card displayed bearing the legend —


"I should like some of that honey," I remarked to Joan one day as we were passing the shop. " But what does 'run or comb' mean?  Is there a distinction in honey as there is in butter – fresh or smoked?"  Joan explained.  "Anyhow, we'll have it in the comb," she said; "then if we find we don't like it in that form we can run it.  Whereas if we buy run honey and find that, after all, we want it in the comb —"

Now, Peter, an idea has occurred to me.  Do wasps make anything?  I can't recall any mention of it in Lord Avebury, but I have a sort of notion that they make frumenty.  (Joan says that frumenty is a disinfectant.)  At any rate there is the idea in my mind, and what possible object should I have in imagining that wasps make frumenty if they don't ?  What I wish to do, then, is to have a card printed to hang in the sitting-room window : —


Meanwhile, let me know if I can send you some, at the same time not forgetting to cut hole in card in order to indicate size of mouth.

I much regret to say we were unsuccessful in our attempt to procure you the asparagus-servers and the scent-bottles offered in the Lawn Tennis Tournament.  Joan attributes our failure to the fact that whenever it was my service I played the Ruy Lopez gambit (six balls in the net and two in the Vicar's orchard) ; while I put it down chiefly to Joan's persistently playing the "nullo" game.  Even so, this is hardly sufficient to account for our being defeated six-love in two consecutive sets by a brace of sheer rabbits.  The truth is that our opponents' strong point was their appalling feebleness, and I tell you without shame, Peter, that to be served soft under-hand lobs without a soupcon of 'googly' about them by a left-handed auctioneer clad in a pink shirt, grey flannel trousers, plimsolls, and a straw hat with a hat-guard, absolutely demoralised us, who have spoken to Gore and Ritchie ("Oh, good return, sir!" from the covered stand).  The auctioneer's partner was of that neophytic type, that "also serve," but chiefly "stand and wait"; but I am told that she does a great amount of good amongst the poor in the village.

And now I regret (yet also rejoice) to say something else: I am obliged to bring my tenancy of " The Yews " to a premature close to-morrow, Friday.  I quite forgot to tell you, when I entered into treaty with you for the occupation of these premises, that I had previously offered to give Lloyd George a hand with the munitions, and attend the Arsenal over the week-ends — just to keep an eye on the other fellows, and see that they only went out to lunch a reasonable number of times.  Well, while I have been writing this letter to you an urgent message has come inviting me to present myself at the Arsenal on Saturday afternoon next.  Joan is certain that if I fail to appear I shall be shot at daybreak, and my funeral, she says, would just now cause a great deal of unnecessary inconvenience; and I am inclined to agree with her.  Under these circumstances,
Peter, I am sure you will not insist on my completing my sentence, and I have therefore calculated that I owe you for ten days' accommodation (reckoning day of arrival and day of departure as one day), which, at the rate of a pound a week, works out at ₤1 8s. 6 6/7d.  I accordingly enclose my cheque for ₤1 8s. 6d. together with a bun (we bought seven for sixpence this morning), which is the only way I can think of to settle this vulgar and objectionable fraction.

Trusting that my cheque will be honoured with all that old-world courtesy for which the Bank of England is noted,

I am, Ever your grateful ex-tenant,

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