In the midst of a recent cold snap am off to Glasgow to speak at a dinner for the Brewers’ Benevolent Society. Super Shuttle involves free drinks but climbing in and out of buses. I tread warily and impede those innocents who believe the vehicle will take off when they climb aboard. Seasoned travellers realise that a degree of discomfort and indeed overcrowding must first prevail. Domestic flights are the Cinderellas, Birmingham is not Capri: calm down and walk.
Lunch at the hotel: would there be haggis? Happily there was, but not entirely frozen out. Apologies and a free dram while I waited. Free chocolates in the bedroom but only a limited supply of hot water. The management apologised again and gave another thousand to the dinner fund. The first thing I look for in a pub these days is the Gents. But then I am getting on. Afterwards it’s either a cheery wave and back to the motor or a small gin and tonic if I think I may have been recognised.
Whatever else I do in the morning I must inspect the Burrell Collection. Brand-new and some miles away in a park. ‘Get as near as possible,’ I told the taxi driver: ‘I always fall down in snow.’ We parked on concrete and instantly a young man hurried from the massive doorway. ‘Good,’ I told myself, ‘I am expected.’ But he was only alarmed at our proximity. ‘Not here,’ he chided, ‘you mustn’t park here.’ Attendance wasn’t brisk, but then Sir William Burrell insisted the location should be remote, as far as possible from pollution. A resourceful magpie of a ship-owner who disposed of his fleet at the outbreak of World War One and took to collecting everything from Chinese pottery through armour to French Impressionists. There were reproductions of his library, dining-room and lounge. ‘Lounge’ is perhaps not quite the right word: upright uncomfortable chairs, hideous panelling, deep gloom and an ill-stuffed armchair with a clip-on reading lamp. Some of the older staff remembered the old gentleman. He was a strict employer, they told me, and so it seemed. Portraits of the couple convey a chilling disdain. I expect they were as jolly as crickets.
Home to more serious business. Three large envelopes boldly stamped in red. ‘Dated material enclosed. Open Immediately.’ How I dislike such mail. When my younger son is home from the Antipodes it usually means he has persistently parked outside Buckingham Palace, using my motor-car. However, I am learning to live with it – largely on account of the ever-increasing correspondence with Reader’s Digest. A scheme is afoot to present me some time this year with nine hundred thousand pounds and as a preliminary I constantly receive packages containing six magic numbers and envelopes in which to post them back to headquarters without delay. I have of course complied on every occasion and now it’s just a question of attending in Berkeley Square when I imagine Ronnie Barker will hand over the prize.
Trusting that a similar scheme was now envisaged by the Bradford Exchange to whose London office in Wembley my three similar missives were to be returned in the event of non-delivery, I opened one cautiously and prepared to set to work tearing off the adhesive strips or bringing the numbers to light with the aid of a coin edge. No such task presented itself. Instead a 4000-word letter from Mr John MacArthur introduced me to the world of plate-collecting. Eight million platers can’t be wrong and 450,000 joined the ranks in 1983 alone. Many of them bought heavily into Rockwell. The new offer ‘A Young Girl’s Dream’ is now available at £12.45 and Mr MacArthur apologises for the one-plate limit placed on my order. Obviously I can’t go overboard right away. However, if I complete this order I am promised that in future I shall be entitled to receive plates on the same basis as his regular clients. A letter from Mr Rockwell Jr, who deplores that others have rushed into the marketplace with collectibles of all kinds (many unfortunately of dubious authenticity and inferior quality), points out there can be no question that the Rockwell Society has helped to restore his father’s work to its deserved public prominence. ‘We have therefore decided,’ he writes, ‘to work with them to share our own vision of our Father’s artistry through a carefully-selected series of limited-edition plates.’ Perhaps the most alluring of all the advice is the guarantee that after you have munched off it for a year or so you can send the plate back and have your money returned. The young girl’s bags are packed and she is waiting for the next train. Where is she going? What destiny awaits her? Only one thing is sure: her future is full of possibilities and she is on her way to find them. Two things actually. I do not want her on a plate.
Mr Beckett is having a birthday, his 80th, in Reading – not that he is likely to show. My own feelings about him are best expressed in a favourite observation of my mother’s: she didn’t make friends readily and frequently observed of those she encountered that she feared their matches would never strike on her box. My dear old friend Peter Bull, much-missed these days, once had me watching him in Waiting for Godot. I left at half-time under the impression that he didn’t speak in Act Two. ‘What made you think that?’ he demanded when next we met. ‘I thought that was what you said.’ ‘Not dumb, blind. At least my mother stuck it out,’ he chided. ‘She went with Jessie, her maid and companion for many years. They didn’t come round but mother rang up next morning. “I thought you’d want to know,” she told her child, “that Jessie thought the brass rail in front of the orchestra pit was quite beautifully polished.” ’ One shouldn’t perhaps dismiss a man for wearing polo necks but I have never seen Beckett wearing a collar and tie or read a word of his plays and poems that didn’t depress. However, an old and valued friend and colleague is to read him aloud on his natal day. I somehow can’t see him toasting himself in champagne and munching cake, but if he does I’ll bet the icing is for real.
Which reminds me (I’m fairly often reminded as a matter of fact) that I will soon be 80 myself. What have I done to achieve longevity? Woken up each morning and tried to remember not to wear my hearing-aid in the bath. It doesn’t seem quite enough, but I am blessed with an outer frame which doesn’t like exercise, tolerates rich food and alcohol and which I rest as often as possible. I remember during adolescence (mine, not his) my father wrote the only poem of his life. He had some sort of fixation about violets: his poem concerned a corsage worn by a bride at her wedding and subsequently discarded on her coffin. She dies in childbirth, though how the bouquet survived was not explained. Father advertised that printed copies were available by applying to a box number in the Times and enclosing a postal order for one shilling. ‘Is there an After-Life? Read Major Morley’ certainly caught the eye, but there were few takers. Very few people, my parent mused regretfully, appear interested in the next world. I fear I am not one of them. I used to think it barely, but only barely possible that I might be bidden to God’s perpetual shindig, but as one ages the number of people with whom one wouldn’t wish to share Heaven increases alarmingly.
How often do I consult a dictionary? Not often enough. Increasingly I leave to others the task of correcting my spelling. My excuse is that nowadays I find the Random House cumbersome. ‘Let’s chance it,’ I tell myself and press on. I have never been a crossword fan, though I have friends who drive cars with reference libraries on the back seat and ponder all day how to solve ten across: ‘Saracen ditched at the outskirts to Babylon.’ I neither seek the answer nor have patience with those who do. Finding a crossword half-finished and temporarily discarded by a colleague, I have been known to fill the blank squares with meaningless graffiti. I have no patience with them or with those who knit while waiting to pick up their cue – or for that matter with those attired in jogging gear who briefly appear at the car window. I am an intemperate fellow, but my eyes fill with tears when I think of men who translate the Bible into Urdu, construct models of the Vatican with matchsticks or compile a dictionary. Bibles must eventually yield up the last revelation, the matchsticks may crumble but can be replaced with care and glue: a dictionary presents the never-ending problem of shifting sands. See, for instance, the reference to ‘Nigger Heaven’ in the new International Dictionary of Theatre Language: the words were once employed to indicate the uppermost gallery in a theatre – now they’re obsolete, even offensive.[*]
In my own early times on the studio floor I once heard an electrician demand of his colleague, ‘Give me a Basher to travel,’ and this, I told myself, must one day be the title of my autobiography. To my intense disappointment, the term, which simply refers to a spotlight mounted on a stand with castors, has not been included in this dictionary.
Who now knows that a ‘hoosier’ is an out-of-town theatre patron or that the ‘crotch row’ is the second row of seats in a burlesque theatre (behind the ‘bald-headed row’) and so named because the spectator’s eye level was even with the performer’s crotch? (Tickets for this row were marked ‘CRO’.) ‘Mr Griffin’ is a cheap theatre patron, from the phrase ‘Mr Griffin he’s stiffin.’ ‘Brady’ is a theatre seat for a friend of the management, named after William Brady, a US theatre manager in the early 20th century, while ‘Brodie’, which denotes theatrical failure, was named after Steve Brodie who jumped off Brooklyn Bridge on 23 July 1886 – hence ‘to do’ or ‘take a Brodie’. Further down the same page we learn that a ‘bronze powder’ is a metallic make-up, used by some performers to give the effect of auburn-coloured hair. The compiler notes that non-metallic make-up that looks metallic is safer. A ‘codpiece’, worn in the 15th century as a sign of virility, was also often used as a purse for bonbons, while a ‘merken’ is a material which looks like fuzz and is used under a g-string by a stripper to create the effect of pubic hair.
A hint as to the state of the industry is alas conveyed in the definition of a ‘rush seat’, which in bygone times was a seat near the centre of the front row favoured by young women, who rushed to get one to watch their favourite matinée idol. Nowadays it is a seat made available at a reduced price shortly before curtain time. The term ‘first of May’ is applied to amateur performers – the hidden meaning is ‘sap’. What, you may be wondering, is a ‘wiggle stick’? It is a lever placed next to a theatre seat for the purpose of determining a playgoer’s response to a play. Unfortunately playgoers become so absorbed in stage goings-on they forget to move the lever.
The compilers have a wistful innocence which manifests itself occasionally in descriptions of such delights as the polka piquée: ‘A high-kicking polka performed by chorus girls and much appreciated by male audiences especially when the dancers wore no knickers.’ Poses plastiques: a traditional form of British music hall entertainment. Here a male artist coated in a kind of plaster of Paris, and usually accompanied by two or three female assistants similarly got up and sometimes by a white-washed stallion, adopted various at times slightly erotic positions reminiscent of well-known pieces of sculpture. The principal exponents of this art often topped the bill as ‘The Act Superb’. The curious are invited to look up tableau vivant, a reference to a form of entertainment in which the figures moved: had The Act Superb so indulged themselves they would probably, as the law then stood, have been prosecuted. The horse, as far as I can remember, never even flicked an ear.
‘Synchoregia’ was the service rendered by Greek citizens in backing theatrical productions – a temporary expedient caused by the financial distress of the Peloponnesian War. In recent times such backers are more usually referred to as ‘angels’ or ‘butter and egg men’. With any luck they can still be located in a ‘nut foundry’, a place of entertainment used to get backers for a show to provide the nut. The ‘nut’, of course, is the operating expenses. A show making a profit is said to be ‘off the nut’, though others define ‘off the nut’ as breaking even. If money set aside for overheads is drawn upon, the show is operating ‘on the nut’. ‘Playing ’em out’ was a practice introduced by Martin Beck on the Orpheum Vaudeville circuit to close a performance. After the stereopticon slide picturing a child dressed in a nightgown and holding a candle with the caption ‘Good Night’ was shown, the orchestra played an exit march. ‘The ghost walks’ in a theatre on Friday nights, when actors draw their salaries. If the ghost doesn’t walk they are in trouble. I never used to understand what everyone was talking about. The term comes, and I should surely have been able to work this out for myself, from an early performance of Hamlet when the actor playing the ghost said he would not walk until he was paid.
‘A vegetable actor’ was a performer acting behind a net so that the audience could throw eggs and other perishables if they wished. As early as 1870 some Shakespearean actors worked behind such screens and prospered. The audience enjoyed the throwing and might still do so today if an enterprising manager gave them the chance. A ‘blacksmith’ (village) is or was an actor who seldom got long engagements – a failure. ‘George Spelvin’, like Harry Selby and Walter Plinge, is the fictitious name used in the cast-list for an actor who has already appeared in another part. If the character dies in the course of the play ‘George X. Spelvin’ is used. The female equivalent is ‘Georgia’ or ‘Georgina Spelvin’. So now you know what to expect – or what not to expect.
This is the Year of the Tiger, in Soho and China at any rate. I can’t pretend I am one who shares the average nobleman’s enthusiasm for preserving the breed. In any case, I have it on no less authority than that of Mr Chipperfield that there is a lot of nonsense talked on the subject of Save That Tiger. ‘If you need a tiger I can get you any amount,’ he informed me. Indeed the honest fellow bred them himself. ‘The only thing you have to be careful about is never to sell a cub to a circus unless you are absolutely sure it is not the product of incestuous mating. You can’t trust them not to attack from behind. Your true-bred animal always waits till you turn round and face him.’ ‘If I were to meet one on a dark night in the jungle how would I know?’ ‘No problem if he’s jungle-bred. No such thing as incest in the wild.’ Once in Rome on a Biblical epic the script called for presence of a tiger and a gazelle. ‘I can’t possibly be on hand,’ I told them. ‘Nervous?’ I assured them such was the case. Only recently I had been conned into setting my palace on fire: there had been far too much petrol on hand and I had only just missed third-degree burns. When they came to shoot the scene I was AWOL, the gazelle was a stuffed one and the tiger swallowed quite a large spring and demanded an even larger dose of cod liver oil daily for at least a week.
The Times announces through the Meterological Office that the cold will last at least a month and publishes a picture on the front page of Mark Phillips exercising a racehorse in the snow. The message seems to be get off your backside or at least put it in the saddle. Meanwhile Mr Murdoch, more in the saddle than ever, prints the customary panegyric from one of his loyal journalists attacking the other Brenda, who sadly failed to realise that it is not enough just to be another woman to tackle Mrs Thatcher.
[*] An International Dictionary of Theatre Language, edited by Joel Trapido (Greenwood, 1032 pp., £95, October 1985, 0 313 22980 5).