The King’s Juggler: a fairy story

There was a juggler in the village and her name was An.

Juggling had been her passion from earliest youth. She had seen it done when the players came to the village and she had realised at once that it was the thing she wanted to do. She found in it a kind of freedom; it allowed her to express what was in her in a way that nothing else did.

She decided, having come of age, to make it her profession.

When the players next came to the village, she asked about joining them. The leader of the troupe was too busy to meet her and discuss the matter, naturally, but one of their administrators kindly agreed to do so.

“We’re in no need of jugglers at this time,” the administrator said.

“Oh,” said An.

“But I’ll tell you what. We are very keen to encourage diversity in the arts. It is so important. I hear that the King needs a new juggler. Why don’t you go in for it?”

“Thank you so much,” said An humbly. “How do I apply?”

“Oh, I can’t tell you that. I’m just tipping you the wink, you know.”

“I’m ever so grateful,” said An.

“Don’t mention it. Now, where can a person get a decent cup of coffee round here?”

So An asked around, and the best guess of her friends was that she would probably have to go the Palace where her application would be considered, they imagined.

And so she set out.

At the first village she came to, she sought lodgings at the inn and she told the Landlady about her quest. “Oh, do you juggle?” said the Landlady. “It must be lovely to be creative.”

 “Oh, well, you know,” said An, blushing.

“Tell you what,” said the Landlady. “The Burgher’s always on the lookout for jugglers. Why don’t you try him?”

“Well, I’m off to see the King,” said An doubtfully.

“Yes, but there’s no sense passing up opportunities on the way, is there?”

“No,” said An.

“I mean, no offence but you might not get to be the King’s juggler.”

“No,” said An.

“You’d have to be awfully good and there’s bound to be a lot of competition.”


“And then where would you be?”

“You’re quite right. I should apply to the Burgher.”

So next morning An went round to the Burgher’s house where the Burgher was just finishing his breakfast.

“Excuse me, sir,” said An.

“Well?” said the Burgher.

“I’m sorry to be a nuisance,” said An, “but are you looking for a juggler?”

“Could be,” the Burgher grunted.

“Would you,” said An, “would you consider me?”

He thought for a moment. “What can you do?” he asked.

An took her materials out of her bag and prepared herself. She took up her stand and she started to juggle the three balls. She showed him the basic moves at first, and then, as the rhythm built up, she varied it, one ball going higher than the others, so that the sequences changed and the rhythms altered, then she held a ball back and threw it with the next, then what was the same became different and what was different made its own pattern, and movement became music which swelled and rolled following its own logic, building like a fugue until the balls themselves became an irrelevance, mere markers of the exquisite design she had woven in time and movement and then, without fuss, dismantled once more as the three balls returned to her hands and stayed there.

She bowed and waited for the Burgher’s applause.

His face bore no expression at all, and he had not moved one muscle through the whole performance. Even his unblinking eyes gave no clue to his response. Now it was over, but he did not move for an age, until in a moment he stood up and silently left the room.

An waited, but no one came. She finally turned and left the house, hot and humiliated. Outside, a man was standing, chewing a straw.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “I’m the Burgher’s Secretary.”

 An told him what had happened.

“It’s all quite in order,” said the Burgher’s Secretary. “Naturally you wouldn’t expect an important man like the Burgher to come to a decision just like that. The Burgher has many calls upon his time. Everything has to be done in the proper sequence, you know. You need to wait your turn like everyone else. You can’t think he would make a special case for an ordinary person like you.”

“No,” said An.

“I would give him three months. That’s about the optimum turnaround time. If you are unsuccessful you will not be contacted. No feedback will be given and no correspondence will be entered into. The Burgher’s decision is final. Good day to you.”

“Good day,” said An.

At the next village that An stayed in, things were different. She was heartened to see that the Arts were fully organised there under a man called Gaz. He wore a leather jacket with a white vest and a chain round his neck, and anyone could see from the way he held his body that he was a man to be reckoned with.

Gaz kindly consented to watch An juggle and even to give her some feedback.

Once An had completed her performance which wove for him a symphony in movement, he made a little sound at the back of his throat and smiled.

“First of all,” he said, “that’s really good, for a beginner. Really. I mean it. There were some nice tricks in there. Now. You did want feedback, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said An.

“Not enough balls.”


“You haven’t got anything like enough balls there, love,” said Gaz. “You need at least five or six to keep the audience’s attention. There were bits in the middle I found my attention drifting. You want to be watching that. Or hatchets. I’d watch you juggling hatchets. Your stakes just aren’t high enough. See what I mean?”

An said she saw what he meant.

“Then it’s too short. It’s all right as far as it goes, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nowhere near long enough for a proper performance. Short form’s simply not marketable. Who’s going to turn up just for three minutes? It doesn’t make economic sense.”

“But,” An ventured, “this is all I’ve got.”

“Well, there’s your problem right there, isn’t it? Give us more, darling, more of everything. Longer, bigger, pizzazzier. And above all, loads and loads more balls.”

When An left the village on the following morning, her step was slower and more dragging. The Palace was in her sight, high on the far hill. She would be there before the morning was through. But her heart was heavy. It scarcely seemed worth while continuing. After all, what had she to offer the King? Three minutes of simple juggling with three balls. No one would bother even to glance at such stuff when there were others who could juggle four, five, six balls, or cleavers, or hatchets, and not just for a few minutes but for hours on end. The whole thing was useless.

And yet, despite all this, she continued trudging along the winding road to the Palace, knowing she could not turn back, because underneath all her timidity and unsureness there was an immutable core of her being which could not be destroyed or diverted and which told her to stay firm to her resolve and to continue on her course.

She arrived at the Palace gate and a guard asked her business there.

“I am here to juggle for the King,” she said.

“I don’t know about that,” said the guard, scratching his chin. “No one’s said nothing to me about no jugglers.”

“Well, could you ask?” said An, and she blushed at her boldness.

“All right then,” said the guard. “Stay here.”

There was a long wait before he came back. There was another man with him.

“It seems it’s all right,” said the guard, and the man said, “Come with me.”

“Sorry about that,” said the man, leading her down a wide corridor through the Palace. “I am the King’s Chamberlain. The fact is we haven’t had as much uptake on the juggling opportunity as we expected.”

“Oh dear,” said An. “Where did you advertise?”

“I’m sorry?” said the Chamberlain.

“I mean, who did you tell?”

The Chamberlain looked at her coldly. “One does not tell people about these things. It is their responsibility to find out. Ah, here we are.”

They were standing in front of large, ornate double doors with gold-leaf decorations and shiny handles. An caught her breath and felt suddenly as if there were not enough air.

“Is this…? Is the King…? Is he really…?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” said the Chamberlain. “He’s waiting for you. Well, are you ready?”

An took a moment to check her bag of tricks, then straightened her jacket, smoothed her hair, drew breath, and said quietly, “Yes.”

As if by magic, the doors opened and An stepped through into the large, dreamlike Throne Room, at the end of which sat the King in his full regalia, as he ever was and ever will be. An walked endlessly across the expanse of space. She found herself all at once in front of the throne, the King looking at her incuriously but with a solemn unblinking gaze which she tried to avoid.

An curtsied, then she set down her bag, found the three balls, croaked “If it please your Majesty,” and started to juggle.

She did not know at first what she was doing. Her entire being, except the automatic part which kept the balls in the air, was quite paralysed. Then she came to herself and concentrated. This was her chance. She varied the sequences, changed the rhythms, held and threw, put all she knew into every moment. Something started to emerge like a bloom and she tended it until it flowered in an instant such as she had never known. Even as the balls flew, she smiled and almost laughed. She allowed her movements to become looser and freer, and her sense of enjoyment was visible in her performance. She broke through into a level of perfection that even she had never realised, and held it without fear until, knowing exactly the right moment to end, she ended.

And as she stood there, the performance over, she raised her head and looked at the King, and she saw he was standing and applauding wildly, an ovation all by himself, his eyes gleaming and his face split with a most wide grin. “Yes! Yes!” he cried, “this is she! This is my juggler!”

A moment later, it seemed, she was standing outside in the corridor again, and the Chamberlain was shaking her hand and congratulating her. “Well done!” he said. “Very well done indeed! May I be the first to congratulate the King’s new Juggler?”

“Thank you,” said An, dazed.

The Chamberlain was guiding her away now, and explaining her duties. Banquets, feasts, ceremonial levees, private audiences… all these things, of which he told her in great detail, went over her reeling head.

“Do I, er,” she said at last, “do I live in?”

“Hmm? Oh, no, we are quite a modern set-up here. You will commute in the normal manner.”

“Oh, er, good. So as to the salary?”


“You know, the, er, the money?”


An stopped, embarrassed, as she saw the honest incomprehension in the Chamberlain’s eyes.

“Yes,” she said, summoning that final deep reserve which had brought her this far. “What do I get paid?”

“You’re an artist,” said the Chamberlain. “You do it for the honour and, of course, the exposure. Follow me, I’m sure I’ve seen a cupboard round here that you can change in.” He paused and looked at her. “That is all right, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said An.

Cosima’s Birthday: An Episode in the Life of a Genius

(Inspired by the well-known story of the origins of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.)


WAGNER: My wife, I wish you a very happy birthday.

COSIMA: That was yesterday.

WAGNER: Was it? Ah, what do days matter? Yesterday, today, tomorrow, they are all the same in the great mythic scheme of things.

COSIMA: Whatever.

WAGNER: I have today a delightful surprise for you. You will be enchanted by it.

COSIMA: Is it chocolates?

WAGNER: It is a gift of surpassing beauty and loveliness.

COSIMA: Because you know how I like those pink truffles with the booze in them.

WAGNER: My sweetness, I have not brought you chocolates.

COSIMA: Okay, so not chocolates. Flowers?

WAGNER: Nor have I brought you flowers.

COSIMA: No chocolates, no flowers? Flipping heck, is it too much to ask for you to remember my birthday just this once in your life?

WAGNER: What I have to give is more enchanting than chocolates or flowers.

COSIMA: Want to bet?

WAGNER: What I have brought to you on this Christmas morn is… the gift of music. (CALLS OUT OF WINDOW) Hit it, boys!


COSIMA (AFTER FIVE MINUTES): Well, that was very nice, thank you….

WAGNER: They have not finished.



COSIMA: How long does this go on?

WAGNER: It is a very short piece.

COSIMA: When  you say short….

WAGNER: It is less than twenty-five minutes long.

COSIMA: Okay, wake me up when they’re done.



COSIMA (SLEEPILY): What a delightful birthday present.

WAGNER: It is, isn’t it? It is called….

COSIMA: “Happy Birthday, Cosima”?


COSIMA: “Merry Christmas, Cosima”?


COSIMA: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”?

WAGNER: Now you are guessing. It is called “Triebschen Idyll with Fidi’s Birdsong and the Orange Sunrise”.

COSIMA: Of course it is. It was very nice. Now, where’s breakfast? I’m proper in the mood for a full English, you know, with sausages, bacon, eggs, beans, mushrooms, the full works.

WAGNER: We have muesli.


Ian Fenwick and Wodehouse

Sometimes, my interests lead me to strange places.

A few weeks ago, I was tweeting about first edition covers to the works of P.G. Wodehouse, as you do, and I wondered if the cover of The Code of the Woosters was by the famous cartoonist Fougasse (Cyril Kenneth Bird).

I don’t want to keep you in unnecessary suspense, so I’ll tell you right now that it isn’t. But you can see why I’d be confused…

The cover of the first UK edition of The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

Above, you can see the cover in question. Here, for purposes of comparison, is one of Fougasse’s very famous “Careless Talk Costs Lives” posters:

“Careless Talk Costs Lives” by Fougasse

He uses the same simplicity of line, reducing human figures and even faces to the minimum, and he gives similar “blocky” outlines to the figures in their coats.

Looking into this vital matter further, I saw that between 1938 and 1940 this artist drew the covers for the UK first editions of, in total, five Wodehouse books: Summer Moonshine, The Code of the Woosters, Uncle Fred in the Springtime, Eggs, Beans and Crumpets and Quick Service. The decision of Herbert Jenkins Ltd to use this artist was a very visible break from their previous style of Wodehouse cover, which was probably getting more than a little old-fashioned. I’ll show you what I mean. The change was from this in 1937….

The UK cover for Lord Emsworth and Others by P.G. Wodehouse (1937)

… to this in 1938:

The UK cover for Summer Moonshine by P.G. Wodehouse (1938)

The artist, while not being Fougasse, was clearly a talented practitioner of the new generation and working in a similar vein. Let the mystery end now. His signature can be seen on many of the covers. I don’t personally own any of these editions so I am reliant on online images, but here is a high definition closeup of the signature of “Fenwick” from Summer Moonshine:


A little searching online brought up some fascinating information about Ian Fenwick and I refer in particular to these links:

Cartoons by Major Ian Fenwick KRRC – The Royal Green Jackets Museum (

Ian Fenwick | ParaData

Ian Fenwick Cartoons | ParaData

The following summary of his life is taken mostly from the above sources.

Born in 1910 the son of a Captain in the 60th Rifles and a “socialite” from Newport, Rhode Island, he was educated at Winchester College and at Pembroke College Cambridge. In the 1930s he was a busy cartoonist, contributing to Punch, Men Only, and London Opinion. The sites I have referred to do not mention his covers for Wodehouse but these must have been prestigious commissions. Who would not be proud of drawing the cover for The Code of the Woosters?

Major Ian Fenwick

He joined the Leicestershire Yeomanry in 1937 and after the outbreak of war was transferred to the Royal Artillery in 1940. He was involved in numerous campaigns including the North African desert campaign and the invasion of Sicily/Italy.

A cartoon about Tactical Exercises Without Troops (TEWTs) by Ian Fenwick taken from

A note by his friend Lt.-Colonel I.G. Collins published in Fenwick’s posthumous cartoon collection Enter Trubshaw (1945) states: “Major Fenwick joined the First Special Air Service [S.A.S.] Regiment in February, 1944. He was in command of an S.A.S. squadron which operated for nearly three months behind the enemy lines, helping to organise and arm the F.F.I. [French Forces of the Interior = French Resistance] and sending back daily important intelligence reports on enemy troop movements…. Ian’s infectious cheerfulness, wit and ability were an inspiration to his men and to the whole regiment.”

Cartoon sketch by Ian Fenwick from

Fenwick died in action on 7 August 1944 in the most courageous manner, aged 34. For full information about his war years, please let me refer you again to his page at

Ian Fenwick | ParaData

The examples I have seen of his joke cartoons suggest that generally speaking their humour does not travel. But his covers for Wodehouse are, in my opinion, amongst the most distinctive and attractive of the first editions designs. Here’s one of my favourites, for the short story collection Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (1940):

Cover design by Ian Fenwick for Eggs, Beans and Crumpets by P.G. Wodehouse (1940)

The Man Who Found a Cat in His Hair

Gerald hadn’t meant his hair to grow so long.

He’d had his chance in the summer when the salons reopened, at just the time when his hair, moving beyond the point of mere shagginess, was starting to become distinctly unusual.

Nevertheless, and despite the regular occasions when he looked in the mirror and thought, “I really must do something about my hair,” the time never seemed to come when that something had to be done right now.

So when the second lockdown came into force, and Gerald’s opportunity passed, he was not really so unhappy about it. He had come to the realisation that, in the grand scheme of life, a haircut was one of those things that didn’t really matter.

And even after the second lockdown had ended and the salons were opening up once more, he still did nothing to rectify the hair situation, even though the matter was reaching, some might have suggested, something of a crisis. Winter had arrived, a bitter North wind blew, and the days were short and dark. He simply he did not want to brave the elements.

What first drew itself to his attention was an intermittent rustling from deep in the undergrowth. He initially thought it was his imagination; but it repeated itself until he was sure it was not.

Then there were the animal noises, not entirely like the cries of parrots, macaws, baboons and chimps, but then again, not completely dissimilar either.

It was on a Tuesday morning that he saw the cat. He had only just got up and he was making his way to the bathroom, glancing blearily in the bedroom mirror as he passed, when he fancied he saw something move in the foliage. He came back to the mirror and looked closer, and it was then that he saw the thing properly.

It was a ginger tom of puzzled aspect, which he had a feeling he might have seen before, round about the neighbourhood, back in the times of normality before all this started. It directed at him an indignant stare before disappearing into the thicket.

This gave him pause for thought.

It was one thing to hear macaws and baboons; that was odd enough, but it could be borne. But this was another matter altogether. If it was true that he now had a cat in his hair, it was certain that he should do something about it. But what?

He considered the problem carefully while brushing his teeth, and it occurred to him that the most urgent thing was to buy some cat food. He did not like venturing out of the house in these times. But it had to be done, so he did.

It was a wild January day. Before he had even got as far as the garden gate, his hair was waving and rippling in the harsh wind.

All at once he was convinced that he was making a mistake. But even then it was too late.

He heard the whoops and cries again, and the long locks that flowed from his scalp rustled and flapped, and suddenly the air was full of feathers as the exotic birds fled into the cloud-ripped skies, and then the monkeys and the sloths and the cats and dogs and squirrels and ring-tailed lemurs were flying about him quite startled, and now he was laughing long and loud, for he realised his head was light and he was free.

The cars in the street swerved to avoid the stampede, and the headlines in the next day’s papers were something to be seen, but it was not these things that were the most important. For there had been another change too, perhaps the most remarkable of all.

Gerald was happy.

Blott in the Age of Brexit

I’ve always said that the history of Brexit is being written by Tom Sharpe, that writer of brutal farces in which the most awful events escalate without mercy, British society is shown to be rotten through and through, and civilised values are not upheld with anything except the most perfunctory lip service.

I have been reading, after a gap of many years, his 1975 novel Blott on the Landscape, and it has only confirmed my suspicions.

Paul Sample’s classic cover for the 1977 edition of Tom Sharpe’s Blott on the Landscape

The plot concerns the poisonous marriage of Sir Giles Lynchwood, MP for South Worfordshire, with Lady Maud Lynchwood. Lady Maud is the aristocratic owner of Handyman Hall in Cleene Gorge. Sir Giles plots to divorce his wife and to gain financially from the process, via a complicated scheme to get a new motorway built right through Handyman Hall.

What follows is an increasingly manic tale of sexual blackmail and destructive violence, catalysed by the appointment of the fanatical and incompetent civil servant named Dundridge (I don’t think we ever learn his first name) to the role of “troubleshooter” to ensure the motorway gets built as planned.

I talked with Suzanne about the book and its parallels with Brexit, and she said at once that Dundridge was Dominic Cummings. She is of course exactly right. Dundridge’s obsession with military terminology in the inappropriate setting of roadbuilding (he puts together a “task force” of bulldozers to execute unexpected “sorties” in the Gorge), his lunatic scheme for an alternative route for the motorway through a tunnel under the Cleene Hills, above all his zealot’s conviction of perpetual rightness, all fit perfectly. Today, he would undoubtedly be writing massive obsessional blogs setting the world to rights. Then, he was confined to useless feasibility studies and fantasies of military cunning.

Sir Giles Lynchwood MP lives for only two things: money, and being tied up and whipped. Lady Maud lives only for the protection of her name and of Handyman Hall. Her gardener, the German/Italian ex-Prisoner of War Blott, loves Lady Maud and executes a ruthless plan to protect the Hall entailing getting a demolition man blind drunk and encouraging him in a drunken rampage which virtually destroys a nearby village and kills one of its leading citizens. Lady Maud, in a separate plan to ensure the Hall is not destroyed, converts it into a wildlife park (banking on the British love of animals), as a result of which Sir Giles, sneaking back to the Hall to burn it down, is devoured by lions instead. I don’t think any of this can be considered a spoiler; much of it can be guessed from the cover illustration.

I confess I do not find the book especially funny. The characters are too horrible for me, the jokes are too crude. There is more than a whiff of misogyny about the whole business. But all the same, there is something in the book that is undeniably compelling. Sharpe’s blithe cruelty to all his characters makes a genuine commentary on English society, then and now.

It was one of the maxims of Georges Feydeau, that master of French farce, that whenever there are two characters who must not on any account meet, they should be brought together at the earliest opportunity. Tom Sharpe took this a step further. In his books, he appeared to consider what would be the worst possible thing to happen at any given moment and ensure it then occurred as soon as possible.

When I think of the trail of destruction that has followed in the wake of the Brexit vote, four long years ago, it seems almost incredible. Political parties transformed into extreme caricatures of themselves; economic disaster portrayed as triumph; obvious lies proclaimed as religious beliefs which it is heresy to deny; xenophobia become the orthodoxy; corruption standing in plain view. A drunken demolition man in charge of a wrecking ball is a fair symbol of what has happened, though the ruin wrought has been much greater.

Tom Sharpe died in 2013 at the age of 85. If he had lived just a few years longer, how he would have relished these mad times! I would love to read his Brexit novel.

A Year of Creating

Looking back over the past 12 months, the thought comes to me: How very odd it’s all been; and still is. “Odd” is too small a word, but it will have to do. This time last year, my big anxiety was Brexit. Now, Brexit is still on the radar, but it has to compete against That Other Thing.

It was at the start of April this year that the Covid-19 situation really came home to me, so to speak. I had been working from home for a few days, in accordance with the Government advice, when I got a call from my boss to let me know I was being put on furlough – extended leave on a generous proportion of full pay.

I am one of the very fortunate ones, and I know it. There have been so many this year who have borne the brunt: NHS workers, refuse collectors, delivery people, cashiers, lorry drivers, everyone who not through choice found themselves bearing the load for the rest of us. Like so many, I feel guilt at being safe when others have not been. I feel anger that some, like those in care homes, were not kept safe when they, if anyone, should have been. Incompetence and corruption, those evil twins, have walked hand in hand. Those who have really saved us in these months will not be rewarded. To be truthful I will not be too surprised if they are punished.

But I have kept myself safe. Lucky me.

During furlough, I turned my attention to writing – something which has always been my spare-time obsession, to the extent that I had already started writing a novel, at the rate of a few lines a day in the evenings. I was now able to devote myself to it entirely. I completed a full draft in a matter of weeks – not because I am an especially prolific writer, but because the book is, as it was always planned to be, what they call a “novella” – a novel that happens to be short.

On this subject, I just want to say one thing. It is perhaps only when you try to write a novel yourself that you realise how much has to go into it. Characters, themes and subplots; dozens and dozens of scenes; many thousands of sentences, each and every one of them meant to be interesting. And you have to make all this up out of your own stupid brain.

While you are engaged in putting these things together in some sort of order, it seems an insanely complex operation; and then you finish, and you stand back, and you see that what you have written is absurdly tiny, ridiculously simple, a mere anecdote; a “novella.”

But you have to hold on to that other side of it too, its bigger inside, because after all, that is its essential truth.

I do not know how writers are able to write “real” novels, which are twice, three times, five times the length of mine. I doff my cap to them, truly. I can only say that the little anecdote I have written is the best I can do, very possibly the best I will ever do.

Having finished my book and tightened up its bolts as far as I was able, I sent it off to a number of agents. Most agents, I realised quite quickly from scanning the listings in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, do not want to see “science fiction”. I do not know what repulsive filth they conceive it to be, but so it goes. The book I have written happens to have a science fiction element, so these fastidious agents eliminated themselves from my list of choices until I had half a dozen possibles, and I wrote to them.

Weeks and months passed, and only one of them even deigned to respond (with a “no”, obviously). It was only by other means, a chance reference found through a Google search, that I learned that agents generally speaking are not interested in “novellas”. Apparently novellas make an agent’s gorge rise even more than science fiction – so much so that they dare not even mention the distasteful matter at all in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. I suppose it is just one of those things that the “right sort” is supposed to know by instinct, like the correct knife to use with fish.

Further investigation has revealed that there are some publishers who, brave souls, are indeed willing to publish novellas (in a plain wrapper, one assumes). Small, independent concerns outside London, for the most part. I was able to submit a proposal to one of them this August, and I am awaiting their response. Patience is one of the essential virtues of a writer; or, rather, the après-writer.

Well, I mustn’t get too bitter. I know the pressures that publishers and agents must be under at this time, and, after all, why should they care about one probably not very good writer that they have never heard of? It would be nice if they were able to communicate with writers to a greater extent, because silence is such a deadly sound, but I know there must be good logistical reasons why they can’t.

I have been writing this year, not only the novel but also short stories. These, too, have not been accepted anywhere. But after all, that is not really the point. The point is that these things are written, and that I, if no one else, find them to be pleasing in shape and texture and meaning. They did not exist before, but they do now. What is creativity if not this?

Trumpets and Miracles: Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle”

Anyone Can Whistle: old and new

There are artists (usually writers) whose works I enjoy immensely while at the same time feeling an undercurrent of irritation at them. Stephen Sondheim is one of those artists.

There is a fastidious rightness in his best work that I love, exemplified in the lines from A Little Night Music‘s “The Sun Won’t Set”, a song all about an uncanny feeling of time standing still: “Perpetual sunset/Is rather an unset-/Tling thing.” The snap of the perfect rhyme which exactly matches the sense that is wanted takes the breath away.

But at the same time I wince, and rather enjoy, when he overreaches himself, as when in the same show he makes a tremendous effort to drag in “raisins” as a sort-of rhyme to “liaisons.”

This double attitude of mine may not be unrelated to his much-voiced disdain for the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert: “sometimes clever and inventive, they have energy and charm, and they bore me to distraction.” Ah, but they don’t bore me.

Nevertheless, many of Sondheim’s shows fill me with excitement and admiration; and not necessarily the obvious ones. I love A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Assassins, The Frogs… and Anyone Can Whistle.

This 1964 “musical fable”, with a book by Arthur Laurents (who also wrote the books of West Side Story, Gypsy, and others), is a powderkeg of mocking satire against much (though not everything) that was stale and established. It lasted on Broadway for 12 previews and 9 performances, followed by an incomplete and raw but treasurable original cast recording.

Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim at the original recording sessions for Anyone Can Whistle

Starring Angela Lansbury as the corrupt and self-serving mayoress of a typical mid-American town, it tells of a fake Miracle which saves the town from bankruptcy, the arrival of inmates from the local Sanitarium for the Socially Pressured (aka the Cookie Jar), the mingling of the Cookies amongst Pilgrims come to take the waters, and the further arrival of a mysterious disruptor called Hapgood (Harry Guardino) who guides the town into anarchy and chaos and truth.

Anyone Can Whistle takes shots at all kinds of targets… the Mayoress, Cora Hoover Hooper, has strange parallels with Donald Trump, including a penchant for crying: “Lock ’em up!”… but it does not always hit its target, and some of its Sixties attitudes have not worn well.

“Lock ’em up! Into the cage!”: Angela Lansbury (at back) with others in Anyone Can Whistle

Nevertheless, it is the music that really shines: bold, wild, mocking; Sondheim at his best. The piece is innovative but it also looks back at an older tradition: satirical Gershwin shows like Strike Up the Band or Let ‘Em Eat Cake; Marx Brothers movies like Duck Soup; even Bugs Bunny cartoons.

The score begins with a high-octane Prelude which perhaps echoes the cartoon music of Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley. That wildness goes all through, alongside song pastiches such as “I’ve Got You To Lean On”, a more satirical echo of Cole Porter’s “Friendship”: “When everything’s hollow and black,/You’ll always find us at your back./No matter how hollow,/We’ll follow/Your lead.”

The Act One finale, a complex sequence lasting over ten minutes called “Simple”, ruthlessly demolishes all sacred precepts and assumptions, disrupts all distinctions between “sanity” and “madness”, and ends on a genuinely frightening note of savage mockery.

In some of the show’s later developments it becomes disappointingly almost-conventional, even ending with a romantic reconciliation; Hapgood starts as Groucho but by the end he is more like Zeppo. But all the same, the music is box of rich treats, with perhaps only one dud, an embarrassing ditty called “Come Play Wiz Me”.

The original cast album had the main musical items, with only one or two significant omissions; but it was far from perfect as a performance. Angela Lansbury has talked about some of the reasons here:

Angela Lansbury – on Anyone Can Whistle – YouTube

Her description of the musical director Herb Green’s extraordinary way with inexperienced singers suggests extremely unprofessional conduct and she says it was “very bad” for both her and her co-star Lee Remick; I believe her. To listen to the recording in the light of what she says explains some of the sense of strain in the voices. Another factor, mentioned by Angela Lansbury, is the fact that the recording was made immediately after the show closed, with all the emotional strain that implies.

There’s another previous recording of the show out there: a live performance from 1995 as a benefit for Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Though it has its points, it is also fairly flawed, with the stumbles and glitches of a live event.

But now there is a new recording (recorded in 1997 and 2013 but only just released), by far the best we have had: it boasts that it is the first complete recording, and it includes music I have never heard before, most notably a ballet sequence nine minutes long called the Don’t Ballet which is full of modernistic touches, and more than slightly West Side Story-ish. I thoroughly recommend this new recording from Jay Records, which you can buy here:

Jay Records – Anyone Can Whistle

Starring Julia McKenzie, Maria Friedman and John Barrowman, with a narration recorded by Arthur Laurents himself, and all conducted by the wonderful John Owen Edwards, it is simply gorgeous. The voices are better than we have heard before, there are no stumbles (!), and the listener gets a fuller picture than ever before of what Laurents and Sondheim were trying to say in this crazy, sprawling three-act musical. (Sondheim thinks it was the last three-act musical, and no wonder.)

Just one more thing and I’m done. Sondheim is on record as being pretty critical of Anyone Can Whistle, calling it too “clever” (in a bad way) and condescending to the audience. But he also has a great deal of fondness for it, and has bracketed it with Gilbert and Sullivan (not in a bad way):

“The most attractive thing about Gilbert and Sullivan is their energy, the energy of extremely sophisticated schoolboys making fun of authority, something I can identify with (it describes Anyone Can Whistle).”

I’ll take that.

Barry Pain and the old “new humour”

When I’m interested in something, I always try to find out everything about that thing. When I first realised I liked P.G. Wodehouse, in my early teens, I sought out everything he wrote. And when I had practically exhausted that, I tried to find out about the writers who had inspired him. That’s one of the reasons I started reading the works of W.S. Gilbert. It’s also why I read some of the works of other late Victorian and early 20th century humorists, especially F. Anstey and Barry Pain.

Barry Pain, from a photograph in the 1930 collection of his Humorous Stories.

I don’t have most of those old books any more, barring Anstey’s masterpiece the body-swapping comedy Vice Versa, and a thick volume of Barry Pain’s Humorous Stories. I was thinking recently about the things Wodehouse learned from that generation of humorous writers, proponents (along with Jerome K. Jerome) of what was known in the 1890s as the New Humour.

I think the main thing Wodehouse got from them is the importance of tone of voice. He read F. Anstey’s Baboo Jabberjee B.A., which, if you have read your Richard Usborne, you will know as a source for Psmith’s baroque way with language. The book is a mocking depiction of an Indian student with a vocabulary that is larger than his understanding of it, and I do not recommend it.

N.T.P. Murphy has elsewhere mentioned Barry Pain’s Confessions of Alphonse as a source for Wodehouse’s French chef with the approximate command of English, Anatole: “My friends, listen. Make attention a little. I am a man that knows on which side is the buttered toast.”

The point of these stories is not so much the funny incidents that are related as the voice in which they are told. It’s pure ventriloquism: imagining yourself into a completely other person and speaking in that other’s voice. Usually there’s a good deal of mockery in the impersonation (other races, other classes), but there’s usually sympathy too – as is inevitable if you spend any length of time looking from another’s point of view.

Looking through this book of Barry Pain’s humour again after so many years, I notice Mrs Murphy, stories told by a cleaning lady; Edwards, the stories of a jobbing gardener; The Diary of a Baby, which speaks for itself; and Tamplin’s Tales of his Family, which are not as near to the Mr Mulliner stories as you might expect, but have a Wodehouse tinge to them nonetheless. The Edwards stories, which tell of his tricks to keep one-up on his employers, have a certain kinship with the Jeeves stories, especially the early ones.

This ventriloquism comes through strongest in Wodehouse in, of course, the Jeeves stories through the narration of Bertie Wooster. Wodehouse immerses himself completely in this naive, silly, credulous and charming persona; you can never feel him breaking character. It is a truly amazing feat over so many stories and novels.

Barry Pain is hardly known today at all, but if one had to name any of his works that are known at all today one would have to mention his Eliza stories, which were republished in the 1980s by Black Swan, with an Introduction by Terry Jones. They were even adapted for TV in 1992, starring the late lamented John Sessions and Sue Roderick.

The Eliza stories: a TV tie-in edition for the BBC2 series starring John Sessions

It’s many years since I last read these, but I remember gently humorous tales told by a stuffy husband of family life, in which he is always in the wrong and his wife is always right, though he never notices it.

(There’s an odd kind of kinship between a lot of Pain’s works, which are really humorous monologues in written form, and comedy shows of the 1990s like Harry Enfield and The Fast Show. Edwards could be a Fast Show character.)

I have no grand conclusion to all this. Barry Pain died in 1928 at the age of 63. From photographs and portraits, he seems to have been a rather serious man; he also wrote creepy tales of the supernatural and other “serious” works. He wrote something called Graeme and Cyril which Wodehouse said was a big influence on his school stories. Maybe I need to hunt that down.

But sometimes, it’s enough to draw attention to a person’s memory, I think.

A portrait of Barry Pain by Rudolf Lehmann, reproduced in The Sketch, 1 Sept 1897.

The Seized Moment: a story by Andrew Crowther

“Jake! Aren’t you ready yet? We’re going!”

Jake called down from his room: “In a moment!”


Jake did not really want to go on the demonstration. Fourteen years of age, he had better things to do with his time on a Saturday morning. However, he knew he ought to show willing. After all, as Jake’s mum said, “You want to be able to say you were part of the resistance.”

“Do I?” said Jake, but only to himself.              

Before they left the house, Jake was able to slip a bottle of hand sanitiser into a coat pocket and a battered copy of Young Men in Spats into another.

He got in the car. He had to hunch himself in the corner of the back seat to leave room for the placards.

“Where are we going?” he asked once they had set off.

“Jake!” said Jake’s dad. “We’ve told you a thousand times.”

It turned out that the demonstration was in Eckersdyke Market Square, twenty miles away. The demonstration had been announced on Facebook last night by a Dark Resistance group. Jake’s dad had been all over it at once. “This is our chance to make a difference!” he had said.

It was a sunny but blustery morning. Jake watched the empty streets as they rolled by.

“That’s one good thing about the Fake Virus,” Jake’s dad said. “No traffic to speak of. We should have a clear run all the way there.”

Jake’s dad drove on a little while, then he said: “Sheep.”

“Where?” said Jake’s mum.

“I mean people,” said Jake’s dad. “Locking themselves up in their homes on a lovely day like this, just because they’ve been told to. Sheep.”

“Oh, yes,” said Jake’s mum.

Jake watched the clouds as they sped across the blueness above. The trees were full and shaking. A bird, he did not know its name, swept across his line of sight in an impossible arc.

“Oh,” said Jake’s mum. “There’s a mast over there.”

“Yes,” said Jake’s dad.

“Be careful,” said Jake’s mum.

“Poor bastards, mind my French,” said Jake’s dad. “I mean the folks who have to live round here, with that thing stuck up their nose without a by-your-leave. Everyone knows what masts do to your electrons, but no one will stand up and say it. But don’t worry, we’ll be fine. It’s only a few seconds. There, we’re past it already.”

 “Are you sure?” said Jake’s mum.

 “We’re fine,” said Jake’s dad.

 They arrived in Eckersdyke shortly before the demonstration. They found a parking space a little way from the market square.

Jake’s dad unloaded the placards from the back of the car, and they took one each. Jake’s dad had “DON’T LIE! WE WON’T DIE!” which was a reference to the Fake Virus, and Jake’s mum was reusing an old one saying “GIVE US A SOVEREIGN!”,  an allusion to national sovereignty which no one, as far as Jake could tell, had ever understood without it being explained to them in some detail. Jake’s sign said “I WANT A FUTURE” without an exclamation mark. His parents considered it rather a vague request in comparison to their own and lacking in punch, but perhaps for that reason they passed it for his use.

They put on their masks before walking to the square. There was some debate about this. Jake’s dad said they shouldn’t wear masks, because masks were a symbol of the Deep State Conspiracy to suppress the People. Jake’s mum said, yes, that was true, but on the other hand wearing a mask would make it more difficult for the Deep State Conspiracy to track them down if they happened to be watching. There followed a number of statements, all starting with “Yes, but.” In the end, it was Jake’s mum’s view that prevailed, to Jake’s relief.

Others joined them as they walked down the street. Some were wearing masks, some not. No one took any great care to keep socially distant. These people seemed to conform to a definite type: the same type as Jake’s parents. First they were few; then they numbered dozens, and more appeared from side streets as they went, walking close. Jake felt himself tensing. It had been a long time since he had stood alongside so many people.

And then they were standing at the mouth of a short street leading down an incline into the square. The square was a sea of pink faces. The air was filled with the low growl of their talk.

The moment hit Jake like a blow. He had intended to maintain a detached attitude throughout but now he saw he could not. He stopped in his tracks and he could not move. His parents not noticing him walked straight into the sea. The alarms in his head which he had shut out and ignored rang loud and brazen and beat him down. His mouth was dry and he could not swallow and he forgot to breathe and his heart raced and he felt both flushed and pale and he wondered if he was going to vomit and he shut his eyes and the sounds roared and he wanted to turn and run and he was afraid the crowd would trample him over and he staggered to the side of the street and no one could see him and he gasped for breath as the world buzzed.

Slowly, he returned to himself.

His parents had disappeared. That made his next move easier. He turned back and walked away from the square. There were more pouring down the street, but he almost pressed himself against the wall and he was able to maintain a distance.

Without making any decision, he was heading back to the car. He found himself observing his own actions with a kind of unconcerned curiosity. The world around him was remote but vivid: the buildings seemed harder and solider than before, the breeze breezier, the trees more treelike.

He was back at the car now. It was locked, of course. He saw a green bench a short way further down the street, and he made his way towards it. He was about to sit down when a thought occurred to him and he paused. Was it safe? He hesitated, but he felt strangely tired and the bench did not seem to be much used, and he sat carefully, not touching it with his hands. He propped his placard against the side of the bench. It was a quiet spot a little way from the square. There was a tree just behind him which leant out over the railing of a small park and extended a shivering canopy of leaves over him.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. He ignored it.

After a while, he stopped staring across the street at an empty shop, which was what he discovered he was doing. He used the bottle of gel to sanitise his hands, then he reached into his pocket and took out his book. Soon he was reading.

His phone buzzed again, but it stopped after a while.

He did not know how long it was before his parents came back. It may have been an hour.         


 Jake looked up.

“Hello,” he said.

 “Where have you been!” Jake’s mum said. Jake did not think this required an answer, and she continued: “We’ve been worried sick! We rang you!”

“You missed a treat,” said Jake’s dad. “Timmy Tomkins was there and he gave a speech. It was very inspiring. He made everything clear.”

They got in the car.

On the way back, his parents told him all about the demonstration. They had been able to trade ideas with like-minded fellows about phone masts, Fake News, biased journalism, metropolitan elites, the Woke Brigade, Remoaners, Lib Dems, Guardian readers, Muslims, Illegals, the BBC, Channel 4, the NHS, and so on and so forth. They had had such a good time that they even forgave Jake for sneaking off.

“It’s your loss,” said Jake’s dad. “When you look back, you’ll see. You could have made a difference. You can’t be a sheep all your life, Jake. You’ve got to seize the moment. You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in.”

“Yes, dad,” said Jake.

“Jill the Reckless” at 100

According to Wikipedia, today (8 October 2020) is the 100th anniversary of the book publication in the United States of P.G. Wodehouse’s novel The Little Warrior, subsequently published in the UK as Jill the Reckless. As the Wikipedia entry quotes the definitive Wodehouse bibliography in support of its claim, I assume it is correct.

I’m going to refer to the book as Jill the Reckless, because that’s the title I have always known it by, and I also think it a much better, and less patronising, title than The Little Warrior (which is the description repeatedly used to describe Jill Mariner throughout the text because of her refusal to admit defeat in life).

My edition of Jill the Reckless (Vintage, 1993)

It isn’t a “classic” Wodehouse title – I doubt if it is anyone’s absolute favourite – but it’s a lovely book in its own right, romantic, funny, and a little deeper than usual, emotionally speaking. It is quite unlike the later Wodehouse novels; it feels more meant.

I think I’ve written about it before. If I mistake not, I contributed an article about it to one of the Wodehouse societies in the mid-1990s, my first incursion into print (if you set aside the fact that the editor, disliking my style, recast every sentence so as to the give the impression of something hastily translated from the Serbo-Croat). But I can’t remember what I wrote, and don’t intend to try and find out.

Jill is first seen by us as the fiancée of the handsome-but-conventional Sir Derek Underhill, an ambitious young politician with an Aunt-Agatha-like mother. Jill makes a bad impression on the mother, leading to further mishaps including Jill’s arrest for brawling in the street (protecting an escaped parrot from the attacks of two blokes), and thence to Sir Derek’s decision to break the engagement. She goes over to America and joins the chorus of a new “musical fantasy” called The Rose of America, written in imitation of Gilbert and Sullivan. It is this which dominates the rest of the book.

Jill meets Mr Pilkington, librettist of The Rose of America: illustration by C.W. Jefferys for the serialisation of The Little Warrior in Maclean’s (1 August 1920)

Wodehouse knew the Broadway stage, having been the lyricist for many hit shows including a series with Jerome Kern, and he has a lot of fun at the expense of dilettante writers trying to revive comic opera in a culture entirely unsuited to it. (Wodehouse loved Gilbert and Sullivan, but he recognised that the Jazz Era was not the time to think of imitating them.)

Of course, there must a hero, and in this case he is a large, untidy writer, much given to Swedish exercises, called Wally Mason: “He reminded her of one of those large, loose, shaggy dogs that break things in drawing-rooms but make admirable companions for the open road” – an obvious idealised version of Wodehouse himself. (Wodehouse heroes are usually called things like Bill or Sam or Mike; it takes time to adjust to one called Wally.)

Interestingly, the thing that keeps Jill and Wally apart through most of the novel is not the usual farcical misunderstanding (mistaking a business lunch with an actress for a romantic assignation, etc.), nor even his or her mistaken belief of being in love with someone else, but something subtler. Jill knows she does not love Sir Derek Underhill any more, but nevertheless he’s still in her heart, cluttering it up:

“Suppose you had a room, and it was full – of things. Furniture. And there wasn’t any space left. You – you couldn’t put anything else in till you had taken all that out, could you? It might not be worth anything, but it would still be there, taking up all the room…. My heart’s full, Wally dear. I know it’s just lumber that’s choking it up, but it’s difficult to get it out.” It is only in the last few pages that the old bore is finally removed from the lumber-room.

Jill and Wally: another illustration by C.W. Jefferys for The Little Warrior, from Maclean’s (15 September 1920)

So we have romance, and a backstage story of Broadway (Wally Mason is the play doctor who manages to fix The Rose of America and turn it into a hit); then there is Freddie Rooke, an excellent early-Wodehouse knut, more kind than clever, and even half a chapter written from the perspective of Bill the Parrot.

Jill reminds Freddie Rooke of an episode he would rather forget: Maclean’s (1 May 1920)

The book is slow to start: if Wodehouse had written it even five years later, he would have taken greater care to keep the reader’s interest high during the slightly under-powered Act 1. But once it is properly going, it is irresistible. Perhaps it is Jill the Reckless herself who “makes” the book, with her fearlessness and her occasional berserk moods. Having been recently reading a little bit about Wodehouse’s wife Ethel, I wonder if she was at least partly a model for the character….

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