Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ashley Sterne I Hear You Calling Me

This humorous sketch was transcribed from a blurry eBay advertisement for The Passing Show Christmas Number 1925.  I could decipher about 85% of the text and made educated guesses at the rest.  Any oddness or flat spots in the text are undoubtedly errors that I have inadvertently introduced.


The eureker was one Beasley Tosher, a somewhat morbid-looking individual with a complexion like bread sauce, eyes like bottled gooseberries, and a receding chin which ran straight into his Adam’s apple without breaking the journey anywhere.  The eureker’s a Poet.


It was the only Greek word he knew by heart; so, like Mr. Browning’s wise thrush, he sang it twice over.  And the reason for his eureking was the letter he held in his hand — a dainty missive redolent of beer, garlic, Hamburg cigars, and other odours of Eden — which ran as follows —

Baconpool Repertory Theatre
1st April, 19—

“My Dear Mr. Beasley Tosher,

I hasten to inform you that on receiving your Poetical Drama, ‘From Pigsty to Palace,’ I was remarkably struck with it.  My secretary has a poor aim, and it struck me just where the whale got Jonah.

The subsequent reading of your play confirmed my first impression.  It is all that a Poetic Drama should be.  It seems to combine the mysticism of Sir Rabindranath Tagore with the craftsmanship of Noel Coward, while in certain passages — notably the great love potion scene for the Pump Room of the Epsom Salts refinery in Act II — the exquisite cadence of your verse is reminiscent of Martin Topper at his best.

I did not delay in reading the play to my permanent Company and the effect produced on one and all was nothing short of electrical.  Miss Flora Flatfoot, my leading lady, was so affected that she threw two fits and an inkpot before regaining her usual composure.

Mr. Raveling Ranter, the juvenile lead, came out in goose pimples all over, and had to be restored my vibro-massage.  Indeed, everyone was agreed that for perfection, poetry, plot, passion, pathos, pregnancy, punch and pep, your play should be as impossible to beat as a hard-boiled egg.

I have already put it in rehearsal and as our preparation for its production are so well advanced, I propose to withdraw Mr. Shaughnard Burne’s screaming bedroom farce, ‘The Sewing Up of Pasno’s Blanket,’ after next Saturday night’s performance and to present ‘From Pigsty to Palace’ on the following Monday evening.

It will afford me great pleasure if you can be present on that occasion and take the author’s call.  I know the psychology of our audiences pretty well, and I can confidently predict that, if you are a vegetarian and/or a collector of defunct felines, you will experience a very profitable evening,

Yours most sincerely,
Barnham Stormont”

Yes, in direct defiance of his doctor’s orders and the earnest entreaties of his comrades, cronies and creditors, Beasley Tosher had deliberately written a play.  Not, mark you, an ordinary commonplace in which bathrooms, underwear, and French maids figure so prominently; but a blank-verse tragedy of the most highbrow type, whose characters bore each lovely, lingering, luscious names as Derwoerdre, Phthygawain, and Fleowulf the Fowler.

The writing of the play had taken six months, six cases of Scotch, and six boxes of J nibs.  Beasley Tosher had put into it all he knew (besides a lot he didn’t know), and while he pursued his work and punished the whisky he cut himself aloof from everybody; and his friends waxed wroth.

To have their prayers and wishes ignored like a collecting box at the hospital was bad enough. To have him shut up alone with all that whisky was unendurable, and they sent a deputation round to protest.

But Beasley Tosher simply wiped the floor with the deputation.  Had he dallied, he would have probably wiped his entire premises with them.  So he turned on them a deaf ear and a large dog and the deputation withdrew hurriedly and thirsty.

Today, however, Beasley Tosher had vindicated his attitude.  After six months of toil and six cases of whisky, the play had been accepted, and within a week it would be loosed off at a benign and unsuspecting British audience.

Little wonder that his word “Eureka!” which he continued to utter at frequent intervals during the eventful morning monopolized the vast echoing facilities of the R— welkin, greatly to the annoyance of a number of skylarks which were up there practising their scales.

At noon, however, he had at last regained his wonted composure to sally forth with the intention of making his acceptance of Barnham Stormont’s invitation.  On the way to the post-office he encountered several members of the recent deputation.

To each and all he announced the forthcoming production of his play and each and all, mad with jealousy, promptly made for the nearest tavern.

On reaching the post-office, Beasley Tosher at once wired to Barnham Stormont —

“Shall arrive Monday in time for performance.  Am prepared to make speech before curtain with anecdotes of Beerbohm Tree, the Six Brothers Lusk, and Lockhart’s Elephants.  Please lubricate Press liberally at my expense — Tosher.”

Then he went home — to count the hours that must elapse ere the great moment of his life should arrive.  Upon investigation he found there were just 127 of them.

The following Monday afternoon found Beasley Tosher on the 3 p.m. express for Baconpool.  But the hour struck and the train did not budge an inch.  He wondered if the railway had struck too, for the famous “Flying Tortoise” was noted for its punctuality.

He enquired the reason for the delay of a porter doing milk can drill, to learn that the engine had been mislaid, and that a boy had been sent to the works to fetch the other one.  But nearly an hour passed before the train started and our hero’s impatience subsided.

But he was not fated to be left unharassed for long.  Barely had the journey begun before the train pulled up with a violent jerk which threw it up on its hind wheels.  Another tedious wait ensued, and meanwhile disturbing rumours filtered down the corridors.

Some said the engine had run into a lamp-post; some that a stray goat had charged it and got mixed up with the steering gear; others, again, whispered that a lightning strike had been declared.

Then came the report that the rear guard had suddenly gone mad, eaten his flag, swallowed his whistle, and under the delusion that he was an organ-grinder had attempted to play “Eat More Fruit” on his hand-brake.  Hence the stoppage.

Bealey Tosher was not unnaturally in a state of uncontrollable agitation at the delay.  Unless Baconpool had moved south overnight, it was not impossible for him to arrive in time for the rise of the curtain.

In impotent rage he gnashed his crown and bridge work and bit off all his nails.  Yet another hour expired ere the true cause of the breakdown was discovered — a nest of mice in the safety-valve — and the journey resumed.

But it never rains cats but it pours dogs.  Twice the engine-driver, who was deeply engrossed reading the Passing Show instead of watching the sign posts, took the wrong turning, and had to turn around and retrace his rails.

More than once they were held up at level crossings by the policeman on point duty in order to let an oldest inhabitant or a broody cow go by.  And then, when within a few miles of their destination, they ran short of coal, and were forced to  crawl the rest of the way on improvised oil fuel extracted from the cruets in the restaurant car.  It was half-past ten when the train limped painfully into Baconpool.

Anger, disappointment, perspiration, grime, grease and grief were all registered on Beasley Tosher’s face as he sprang from the carriage and leapt for one of the waiting taxis.  There might yet be time for him to witness the final scene of his play — his greatest scene, where Derwoerdre poisons the dastardly Machiavellian schemer, Fleowulf the Fowler, by putting a powdered flowerpot in his potato pie, and Phthygawain, fooled and trapped, cuts off her big toe in the bath and bleeds to death.  At all events he would surely reach the theatre in time to appear before the curtain.

“The Repertory Theatre!” he cried as he jumped in.  “A pound if you make it in ten minutes.”

The driver whirled out of the station and drew up next door.  “Time: ten seconds.”  A resplendent official — a composite between a full-dress field marshal and a Cook’s interpreter — assisted him to alight, and Beasley Tosher, giving the driver a one-pound note and a look of intense hatred turned to enter the theatre.

But he was too late.

The audience was beginning to pour out; yet not with the expression upon their faces that he had so confidently expected to find there.  There features were contorted with laughter.  Some were doubled up with hilarity.  A few were even folded in four.

“Funniest play I’ve ever seen!”

“Haven’t laughed so much since the wife had mumps!”

“Do you think the author really meant it to be so ludicrous?”

Such were the first remarks he heard.  But the unhappy and disillusioned poet did not wait to hear more. 

He hurriedly turned away and ran back to the railway station.

“Got a train going anywhere soon?” he demanded, breathlessly.

“One past 11 start for Newington.”

“Sacks, Detta, or Caseway?”

“Newington flat — no surname.  Next station down the line.”

“Have you nothing further away?”

“About how far away did you want?”

“About eight thousand miles.”

“There’s a boat leaving the docks at midnight for Honolulu.  How would that suit you?”

“Honolulu’ll do!” cried Beasley Tosher.

“You needn’t crow about it,” remarked the booking-clerk.  “You’ve just got time to secure your passage if you hurry.”

      *     *     *

Twenty-four hours later the wireless of the good steamship Deparameria was tuned in to Baconpool.  Beasley Tosher and a few other the musick-proof passengers were listening in, when suddenly came the announcement —

“We are now switching over to the Repertory Theatre” — followed by a murmur of innumerable bees punctuated with rifle practice.  Then the stratospherics cleared and some stentorian shouts were heard.

“Author!  author!” came over the cry, followed by surging cheers and a confused hum which might have been anything from a dog-fight to a Handel Festival.  Then the hubbub died down and a voice was heard saying —

“…from the bottom of my heart.  As you have doubtless learnt from the papers, Miss Flora Flatfoot developed painter’s colic at the first rehearsal Wednesday afternoon, and as her understudy was not then perfect in the exhausting part of Derwoerdre I was forced at the last moment to substitute an extra performance of Mr. Shaughnard Burne’s scintillating farce in place of the masterly poetic drama, ‘From Pigsty to Palace,’ which I have been privileged to present to you tonight.  The talented young author, Mr. Beasley Tosher, is not, I regret to say, here tonight to receive your applause in person, but I…”

Nevertheless, Beasley Tosher rose from his chair in the salon of the Deparameria and with an easy grace, suggesting long practice in private before his vestibule mirror, bowed to the loudspeaker.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Innocents Abroad

I just finished reading Mark Twain's famous travel book, Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims' Progress (1869), a lively and descriptive account of an 1867 pleasure cruise from France to the Holy Land.  William Dean Howells bestowed a favorable review on the book in the Atlantic Monthly (although he botched Samuel L. Clemons's name):

"Under his nom de plume of Mark Twain, Mr. Clements is well known to the very large world of newspaper-readers; and this book ought to secure him something better than the uncertain standing of a popular favorite  It is no business of ours to fix his rank among the humorists California has given us, but we think he is, in an entirely different way from all the others, quite worthy of the company of the best."

The book's final chapter had some words that spoke directly to my situation:  "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

I should get out and travel more in the coming years.

I read a short biography of Mark Twain and learned that he received very little formal schooling.  He educated himself by serious and persistent reading in public libraries, which must have been furnished with heartier literature than can be found in today's suburban libraries.  A modern-day Mark Twain would find little more than trashy detective books and dreary feminist novels on the shelves.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Warning from the Past

I recently read a cautionary alternate history novel by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro) called When William Came, published in 1913.  The William of the title is Kaiser Wilhelm.  The premise is that the Germans have launched a sudden attack and conquered the British Isles.

In the passage below, the novel's main character, an Englishman named Yeovil, is returning from a long business trip in Russia to find his country overrun with German soldiers and sausage-eating German bureaucrats.  Traveling by train to his home in the country, Yeovil strikes up a conversation with a fellow-traveler.


Yeovil watched the passing landscape with the intent hungry eyes of a man who revisits a scene that holds high place in his affections.  His imagination raced even quicker than the train, following winding roads and twisting valleys into unseen distances, picturing farms and hamlets, hills and hollows, clattering inn yards and sleepy woodlands.

"A beautiful country," said his only fellow-traveller, who was also gazing at the fleeting landscape; "surely a country worth fighting for."

He spoke in fairly correct English, but he was unmistakably a foreigner; one could have allotted him with some certainty to the Eastern half of Europe.

"A beautiful country, as you say," replied Yeovil; then he added the question, "Are you German?"

"No, Hungarian," said the other, "and you, you are English?" he asked.

"I have been much in England, but I am from Russia," said Yeovil, purposely misleading his companion on the subject of his nationality in order to induce him to talk with greater freedom on a delicate topic.  While living among foreigners in a foreign land he had shrunk from hearing his country's disaster discussed, or even alluded to; now he was anxious to learn what unprejudiced foreigners thought of the catastrophe and the causes which had led up to it.

"It is a strange spectacle, a wonder, is it not so?" resumed the other, "a great nation such as this was, one of the greatest nations in modern times, or of any time, carrying its flag and its language into all parts of the world, and now, after one short campaign, it is --"

And he shrugged his shoulders many times and made clucking noises at the roof of his voice, like a hen calling to a brood of roving chickens.

"They grew soft," he resumed; "great world-commerce brings great luxury, and luxury brings softness.  They had everything to warn them, things happening in their own time and before their eyes, and they would not be warned.  They had seen, in one generation, the rise of the military and naval power of the Japanese, a brown-skinned race living in some island rice-fields in a tropical sea, a people one thought of in connexion with paper fans and flowers and pretty tea-gardens, who suddenly marched and sailed into the world's gaze as a Great Power; they had seen, too, the rise of the Bulgars, a poor herd of zaptieh-ridden peasants, with a few students scattered in exile in Bucharest and Odessa, who shot up in one generation to be an armed and aggressive nation with history in its hands.  The English saw these things happening around them, and with a war-cloud growing blacker and bigger and always more threatening on their own threshold they sat down to grow soft and peaceful.  They grew soft and accommodating in all things; in religion --"

"In religion?" said Yeovil.

"In religion, yes," said his companion emphatically; "they had come to look on the Christ as a sort of amiable elder Brother, whose letters from abroad were worth reading.  Then, when they had emptied all the divine mystery and wonder out of their faith naturally they grew tired of it, oh, but dreadfully tired of it.  I know many English of the country parts, and always they tell me they go to church once in each week to set the good example to the servants.  They were tired of their faith, but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a soft form of Socialism which made for the greatest dulness of the greatest number.  You will find plenty of them still if you go into what remains of social London."

Yeovil gave a grunt of acquiescence.

"They grew soft in their political ideas," continued the unsparing critic; "for the old insular belief that all foreigners were devils and rogues they substituted another belief, equally grounded on insular lack of knowledge, that most foreigners were amiable, food fellows, who only needed to be talked to and patted on the back to become your friends and benefactors.  They began to believe that a foreign Minister would relinquish long-cherished schemes of national policy and hostile expansion if he came over on a holiday and was asked down to country-houses and shown the tennis court and the rock-garden and the younger children.  Listen.  I once heard it solemnly stated at an after-dinner debate in some literary club that a certain very prominent German statesman had a daughter at school in England, and that future friendly relations between the two countries were improved in prospect, if not assured, by that circumstance.  You think I am laughing; I am recording a fact, and the men present were politicians and statesmen as well as literary dilettanti.  It was insular lack of insight that worked the mischief.  We, in Hungary, we live too much cheek by jowl with our racial neighbours to have many illusions about them.  Austrians, Roumanians, Serbs, Italians, Czechs, we know what to think of them, we know what we want in the world, and we know what they want; that knowledge does not send us flying at each other's throats, but it does keep us from growing soft.  Ah, the British lion was in a hurry to inaugurate the Millennium and to lie down gracefully with the lamb.  He made two mistakes, only two, but they were very bad ones; the Millennium hadn't arrived, and it was not a lamb that he was lying down with."