Friday, April 1, 2016

Ashley Sterne Mermaid Mystery

This little trifle was published in The Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld.) on 6 June 1925.  Ashley Sterne apparently needed to provide a light article on the spur of the moment.

(Note: a few terms below need explanation.  "Brixham" is a fishing village.  "Brixton" is a district in London.  "Pukkah" is a slang term for genuine.  "Southsea" is a seaside resort.   "Battersea" is a residential district in south London.  These explanations may aid the reader's understanding, but they won't make Sterne's references particularly funny.)

Mermaid Mystery by Ashley Sterne

Nature has compensated me for the absence of Norman blood in my veins by endowing me with a double allowance of simple faith.  I unhesitatingly believe, for example, everything I read in the newspapers — including the weather forecasts.  When the day is predicted to be hot and sunny, I religiously leave my goloshes at home and sally forth with my thinnest and coolest walking-stick.  The fact that I return later with double pneumonia, a chill on the liver, and three different sorts of catarrh doesn’t shake my faith in the least.  I feel that, anyway, the meteorologist did his best.

Similarly, when I read that there’s secondary depression and an anti-thingummyjig developing on the N.W. coast of Labrador, I take my daily walk as far away from Labrador as possible.  Yet I am not a jot disillusioned to find the secondary depression and the anti-thingummyjig waiting for me in the line behind the steam laundry.  I merely conclude that the hydrometer in the Weather Bureau has got the moth in it, or that the office wind-gauge needs recalibrating.  It never occurs to me to doubt the bona fides of my newspaper.

However, a certain phenomenon has, without actually dislocating my faith, nevertheless caused it to wobble in its socket.  As the observant reader is aware, the seaside season offers boundless scope to the various illustrated papers and scarcely a day during the summer months without one’s eyes being allured by snapshots of seaside life at our most popular health resorts.  We are all familiar with such fascinating pictures as that of the smiling, chubby youngster grasping a mangled crab in one hand, and in the other a couple of yards of that interesting seaweed which resembles a mixture of bootlaces and linoleum bearing the caption, “Baby likes Brixham better than Brixton,” — or words to that effect.

Equally familiar is the picture of the two little girls placing a moribund jelly fish in father’s hat, entitled “They’re afraid it will melt!” — as also is that of a small boy holding a lease expire shell to his ear, usually known as “What are the wild whelks saying?”  But no snapshot is quite so persistently recurrent as that of the devastatingly beautiful damsels, who clad in ravishing comic-opera costumes and wearing smiles like a tooth-paste advertisement, are generally “snapped” sitting on weed-girt, cockle studded rocks, dabbling their toes in the water.  The picture has several titles, of which I may mention “Merry Mermaids at Mudthorpe,” “Lovely Loreleis at Limpetmouth,” and “Winsome Water-Witches at Winklehaven.”

But — and this is what bothers me — neither I, nor any of my friends to my knowledge, has ever seen one of these entrancing maidens in the flesh.  Who are they?  Where do they come from?  Where do they hide themselves when they’re not being photographed?  Somehow I cannot believe they are genuine mermaids.  For I feel sure no self-respecting merdamsel would ever consent to have her tail split and the two ends thrust into a pair of stockings criss-crossed with chocolate-box ribbon.  Nor can they conceivably be pukkah loreleis, for loreleis sing while basking on the rocks, and comb out their long golden tresses; yet these maidens all have their heads tied up like pudding basins, and are far too busy showing their crown and bridgework to sing.

The question, then, is: How does the photographer manage to locate them?  I know, of course, that he has been specially trained as a spotter, yet here have I — formerly observation officer to the R.A.S.C. (Camel Transport) — formerly concentrating for many years on spotting one for myself, and I haven’t even spotted anything as much like a mermaid as a mackerel.  A solution of the mystery does occur to me, but I mention it with no little hesitation since I earnestly wish to preserve inviolate my faith in our newspapers.

I still possess a photograph of myself taken at the age of four announcing “H.M.S Pantechnicon.”  I am standing beside a curious looking craft, a cross between a hip-bath and a catamaran.  Over one arm a coil of rope is slung.  Under the other I carry a half-ton anchor.  In the background a fierce storm calculated to put the wind up the Ancient Mariner himself is raging.  The waves on the foreshore are standing up on their hind legs, foaming at the mouth.  Yet this marvelous picture was not secured at Southsea but at Battersea, and hence I am driven to speculate whether our annual crop of mermaids…

But no.  The thought is an unworthy one.  Let me sit on its head.

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