Thursday 23 December 2010

Ding Dong Merrily On High

This is a true story. The names are the same. Only the facts have been changed.

“You’re a miserable old Father Christmas, William Pacey, why don’t you get off your backside and go round cheering people up, like you’re supposed to!” Jane was shaking her rag at him but he looked, disconsolate, into the muddy liquid in his pot.

The publican at the “Golden Eagle”, old John Woods, a former paper-miller, still could not get the wort in his brew right, and it was widely suspected that he tipped in the leftovers and spillage at the end of a night.

He felt like telling Jane Allen, the barmaid, just what it reminded him of, but he had to be careful. For all her shouting and rudeness, the next alehouse was a full mile away, a long road with near half a gallon in the belly, and the beer there was too fresh to the taste. There had been talk of the number of early deaths amongst the daily drinkers, it being muttered that there was arsenic in the malting the brewer used.

“Listen Miss Allen,” a touch of respect might get him full measure for a change, “When I were young we had Father Christmas, and only him, as it always had been, and it came down in my family for the village, generation on generation. Now, what have we got? There’s a Santa Claus, a Saint Nicholas, incomers with nasty foreign notions, and the curate says we have to have a Yule Man, like in the real ancient times.

Then the Philo’ thingamajig Society, what ever they are, say its all a silly superstitious nonsense, and they and the chapel goers have joined together to try to put a stop to the whole thing. You can’t cheer up them who don’t want to be cheered. So if I’m spreading a little misery around, it’s what they wants, and so be it.”

Jane ignored him, finished wiping the tables of the dirt, ashes, and the slops, and wrung the dishcloth tight to get rid of the accumulation of wet dirt. William noticed it was over the ale jug, and looked again into his pot. He was about to say a word or two in protest when Jane resumed with the fullness of spirit she needed to keep her customers cowed.

“Go on, its all the modern thing, a bit of competition won’t do you any harm, might make you work harder, and it’s a change from all the old fashioned bump and waddle. You’ll be going to Church I hope?”

William now let his anger overcome his peasant prudence. “Church, oh yes, I’ll be there, I’ll not be welcome in my old green and brown, and I shan’t be able to give voice either now. We’ve all got to sit and listen.” “It’ll be nice, much more seemly and according to

the way it should be, that’s what the curate says. Your rough old shouting carols sounded like the drunken lot you were; not right for a service. And the scraping and wailing of old fiddles in the gallery put an edge on the teeth, for them that have them.

Now we have a real organ played by the new Schoolmaster and a choir we are a decent church, all polite and proper. The Rector put your nose out of joint, but it’s all for the best.” William was about to spit, but times had changed; an accurate sluice of saliva aimed at his special stone in the wall now drew her full reprimand and not admiration.

The thought of having a red-garbed clerk from a drapers shop or any of the other persons who had sought to supplant him as the image of the festive season, aping foreign imports, made him shake. But it may have been the beer; it was getting worse by the month. Soon the publican, who was losing trade, would have to buy from the brewery in the town to persuade the customers to return.

It was the young again, forsaking the rich full porter for the thin acrid new bitter beers spewed out of vats as big as a house, delivered by train, and served by pump machines from behind a counter. It was a strange world he had lived into, they had been stopped from putting dead dogs into the brew, which took away some of the essences vital to a real country taste.

He had tried some of a new beer in the town. It was a wonder, having a fine white head that stayed as long as there was drink in the glass, and not a pot. Someone he knew that worked in the brewery had told him they had a new ingredient to do it. A dose of cobalt made the head and kept the beer looking clean, it was good for you he was told,

The German chemist they had hired had declared it to be so, and it was the latest thing in America. William was not so sure, as the head went a long way down the glass, the serving was well short of the pint he had paid for, and a bright clean beer did not look right. The headache from five pints was as bad as the one from ten of the old beer. It had taken him several sessions to be sure, but he could be as certain as anyone.

It was time for William to go to The Parish Union Workhouse, where there was still a welcome to be had, but only in the Old Men’s Room. Last year, William Pacey had been forbidden the Old Women’s Room after telling his regular tale about the Countess and the Footman. For thirty years he had told it without a protest, causing the bent old women to cackle and wave their charity mittens with joy.

But now, at the beginning of a new century it was not just wrong, it was said to be lacking in taste by the Board of Guardians, men who never told a joke in their lives. Moreover, he had been warned about some of the traditional jests he told to the Old Men. It was very difficult, they did not like the new ones, with all the words and hints and nods. They wanted them direct and the worse the pun the better.

Someone had been creeping to the curate for a few pence from the poor box, and had told him the one about the chambermaid, the vicar, and the upstairs bucket. Despite the instruction, he would try to slip it in again, if only for Old Benjamin’s sake, he had been laughing at that one for all his eighty years, and he deserved it for the seventy years he worked in the fields before his legs went.

The door opened, and a man entered, someone neither William nor any of the others ever expected to see in a public alehouse. It was Sidney Webb from the big house by Passfield Common. “Ah, William, I have been looking for you all over, I need to have a word, if you don’t mind.” William could not mind, as a seller of fish, amongst other things, he could not afford to upset those who paid in cash.

“There has been a meeting amongst the educated persons of the parish about the festive season, and we have come to an agreement, at last.” William did not like the sound of this at all, the educated persons usually behaved like rats in a sack at any meeting that was called. “There is a lot of unnecessary expense, and things which should be put to one side,”

“That means me,” thought William, “and confusion. We have decided to apply the essential principles of economy, social behaviour, and rationalisation to the communal purpose and true principles of Christmas.” “Yes,” said William for the want of anything better. “It is felt by the majority, although there is a minority whose views I entirely respect,”

“Pigging liar,” thought William, “that we should bring together the high European tradition of the season with our own ruder and less adequate habits, with deference to the ancient folk traditions of the Continent which came with our noble Saxon forebears, but were reduced during the long ages of Norman oppression.”

“Oh, bloody get on with it,” muttered William, who had learned a great deal about practical oppression from the Rector, the Webb’s, and the local chapel. Beatrice Webb had a talent for telling people what she thought they ought to be doing. Sidney Webb droned on, he was writing a learned article on the subject, which he was rehearsing in his mind as he spoke to William.

“So we are bringing together your Father Christmas, Mr. Woodger’s Santa Claus, our Rector, the Reverend Sneyd’s St. Nicholas, and the curates, the Reverend Wetenhall, his ancient Yule Swain into one. I am glad to say that this will be the Schoolmaster who has volunteered to give up his family Christmas to help us after the School Managing Body put it the matter to him. He will lend a little dignity and learning, which is as it should be in our local social commonwealth, and it will put an end to the confusion, and the several and various unsuitable persons who have claimed to be in the tradition of the past.”

“When does this start?” asked William who was feeling fuddled in the head. It was not the beer; there had not been enough of that to turn it yet. “Deeply sorry to spring it on you, but actually yesterday, and the Schoolmaster is now at the Workhouse. He will be reciting great poetry, and demonstrating some of the curates newly discovered ancient peoples dances, as well as leading songs, written by my dear wife, based on the improving texts published by Mr. Winskill of Toxteth Park, in his songs for the Temperance Lifeboat Societies; after all it is drink that have taken so many to the Workhouse.

Tomorrow he will be at the local Asylum helping the poor afflicted.” “Yes, Mr. Webb, thank you for troubling to tell me I be not wanted.” said William. Webb caught the suppressed note of hatred in the voice, grimaced a little, wondered about shaking William’s hand but thought better of it, and then hurried out.

No sooner had Webb gone out, than two other men came in, clearly of the gentle classes, and asked at the bar for best porter. To William’s surprise they were given it, but then Jane had asked them for four pence more than the usual price. “Bar maid’s bonus,” she called it, paid by any traveller who she thought worth taking money from.

They had a short conversation with Jane who pointed to William in his Christmas finery. One of them gave her a bright new half crown, and William wondered what was up, Jane would do most things for a shilling, especially if it was good coin, never mind more than a florin. A table was brought, and William was asked if he was hungry.

He said that he was, it had been five hours now since his last meal, and pushing a fish barrow about the parish sharpened the appetite. Bread, good cheese and onions were brought, and he was given a quart pot, it tasted excellent.

The men sat down with William and produced notebooks, and sheets on which to copy music. “I’m Ralph”, said one, “And I’m Percy”, said the other and they began to ask him questions, gently and with a respect in their voices that William appreciated.

William told them the tales he felt able to tell, and those family stories that were more respectable than the truth, and then they asked him to sing. They wanted old songs and tunes, and he had a great fund of them, but William was not saying how he came to know them beyond that he learned them as a boy, they might not give him so much money, and the supply of best porter might dry up.

Some of the tunes came from the new ditties his father had heard in the back rooms of taverns in the local towns many years before direct from the London theatres, some from the songs on sheets and those of the soldiers his great grandfather brought back from London when he came back from the Wars against Napoleon.

Others were older, from a long way back in time. A forebear long past had been a maid-servant at a great house in London and had told of a child piano player from Austria who could write his own pieces, and strewed sheets of music about the floor with a wanton disregard for expense.

She had wrapped all her little keepsakes and treasures in the some of sheets of music to keep them clean, and when she had come back to the village, had married his great great grandfather who had been able to use the tunes.

Some were even older, and one or two said to be from the time when a Mr. Handel, a travelling man from Hanover, was kept at the local inn for days during a snowstorm and amused the locals to pass the time. All that William sang kept both Ralph and Percy occupied whilst they took increasingly smaller sips from their pot. But, they were happy; they kept the porter flowing for William, and food for the table.

The night ended badly for William. He was put on his fish barrow to be taken home, but the man paid to push him was almost as drunk as William, and pitched them both into a fence, William finishing with a bloodied head, covered in filth, and smelling more strongly of old fish than ever. It was unlucky that the house the fence protected had just had a new tenant, one who did not know William, or the village.

But he was a good man and having his own pony and trap, took William into Liphook immediately to see a doctor. Looking at William’s strange form of dress, smelling him, and after listening to his ramblings, the sound and respected doctor, a most responsible and concerned man, had William committed immediately to the County Asylum for his safety and urgent treatment.

Four weeks later, Ralph and Percy were looking at their notes and deciding what to make of it all. Their ideas were different, but they worked well together in the cause of English Folk Music. “What will you want, and what do you think Ralph?” asked Percy. “Well, the best will make an interesting selection of songs, perhaps a Choral Fantasia, even a symphony might be made of some of this, and you?”

“Indeed, a number of songs, perhaps a cantata, certainly varied concert pieces.” They paused for a moment, and Percy turned to Ralph, “And all true English Folk Music from the times long past?”

Ralph thought for a moment. “Indeed, although some are sadly corrupted by modern coarseness. Look at this one, a wonderful tune, but the lyric is quite dreadfully treated. He is a carter, she is a village tart who offers him her red cherry, they couple on the back of a cart, he on top of her, he farts, she laughs, the horse starts, they fall off, and he breaks a leg.

Obviously, the original would have been along the lines that he drove a cart, is offered a cherry tart by a sweet village maiden, he falls in love with a start, but sadly she breaks his heart. This would be much closer to the original.”

The Boxing Day of the following year saw William, with two attendants close behind him, sat in front of the Superintendent of the Asylum, Dr. William Palmer, and Dr. William Rivers, his deputy. “And you were doing so well,” said the Superintendent, “the smell had gone, you were sober and industrious again, and then this happened. Why did you throw the chair at the Schoolmaster; when he was only trying to amuse you for Christmas Day?”

William tried to explain, the man was wearing red which was silly, his dances came from the curate’s holiday in Wales from some local clerks and shopkeepers who dressed up and pretended they were Druids, his jokes from old editions of “Punch”, and the songs, they were all terribly wrong.

The Superintendent asked him to explain, but as he did so William became angry again, and made the mistake of giving his own versions. Also, in the Asylum he had become unused to the ordinary daily courtesies of verbal communication, and was verbose, confused and too forthright in trying to explain himself.

After a while the doctors looked at each other, it was a bad business; it was a large chair that William had thrown. “I think he needs a few months under restraint, again”, said Dr. Rivers, who liked to give the impression of being firm. The attendants dragged William away, and as he was taken through the door he began to sing his song about the carter, and the doctors winced.

“Appearances can be very deceptive, we have to be so careful” said the Superintendent. “Oh by the way, are you going to the concert at the Town Hall tonight? There is a new piece being tried by the Choral Society, a collection of Old English Folk Songs collected by Percy Grainger and Ralph Vaughan Williams. “Songs of a Hampshire Wayfarer”. It will be good to hear something that is true and good for the nobility of mind.”

Rivers nodded his agreement, “Oh indeed I will! Very promising, I’m told, and the essence of the best of English tradition.” As he pushed William’s file into the back of the cupboard he added an afterthought, “It is a pity that the Schoolmaster won’t be there, but it’s an ill wind that blows no good, he almost the worst tenor I’ve ever heard, but a shame that Pacey can’t take his place, he has a good ear for a tune and a natural voice.”

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