1949: "THE CALL OF THE WILD" - (a chapter from "Rock Odyssey" by Ian Whitcomb)
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com
It was a typically gray day in the summer of 1949 and I was sitting on the lavatory. We were on our holidays in the South Coast resort of Felpham and I was eight years old. ("But he acts like he's five," my aunt liked to say.)
Lunch in the boardinghouse was over and the afternoon's activities had not yet begun. A delicious pause in the race of life. So I sat on the lavatory with my books and comics and I became whomever I liked and went wherever I wanted to go. . . .
If I cast my fate to the tide and just lay back in a war-surplus rubber dinghy, I might well be swept away from Unjolly Old England and, many moons later, might break through swirling sea mist to suddenly chance upon the Blue Lagoon in the flesh! Then it would be off with the sticky flannel trousers and into the luscious jungle to run free with my dingle-dangle squashed between my fat thighs.
But in reality the rubber dinghy was punctured, the sea was green and ended in France, and I was feeling poorly. My stomach was gurgling, due perhaps to the rhubarb tart and custard served up at lunch. Why couldn't they serve treacle tart? Lack of treacle and sweet things in general, I supposed. Britain still at attention, in a state-of-war economy. Before the war, they most likely had treacle tarts falling out of their ears.
I closed The Blue Lagoon and picked up a comic book annual, The Knockout Fun Book. Slap-bang on the cover was Billy Bunter, the fat owl schoolboy of Greyfriars, gorging himself on custard pies, macaroons, and indeterminate yellow cakes with snow-white icing and red cherries. Thumbing through the dog-eared pages, we find Our Ernie, silly little plum pudding from the dreary North of England, capturing crooks by rolling them into a snowball. He's rewarded, in the final frame, with a slap-up supper of mashed potato mountain stuck with plump pork sausages.
Why didn't they write songs about food these days, when food--especially sweet food--was what the country wanted? I remembered the chocolate bars the GIs used to give us during the war. They'd drop them into my baby carriage. Ile GIs were big, lusty brutes with chiseled faces and precision-drawn builds-like the heroes in the comic books. American comic books were so much more . . . filling. British ones were OK for a laugh, but why was everything over here just OK for a laugh?
I put down The Knockout Fun Book and picked up The Rio Kid, an American comic. Then I heard my aunt calling me through the lavatory keyhole to remind me about the revue we were going to see that night: "Follow the Fun" at the end of Felpham Pier. But the Rio Kid! He's been outlawed for a crime he ain't done--which is a very tingly sensation. To be abused and cursed and then found innocent and to have everyone tell you how sorry they are! Stupendously exciting! After an hour or so, I felt I'd gotten enough satisfaction in the lavatory. It was time to get going down to the seaside. Today, unbeknown to my uncle and aunt, I was going to attempt to escape from this postwar concentration camp called Britain.
Let us examine this "prison" more closely. The second half of the century was almost rolling and should have been motored by new drive, new energy, and progressiveness, And yet--World War II was still lowering about, drizzling and dripping and leaving rust marks all over the Isles. Rust, for example, on Felpham Pleasure Pier (built 1886): splotches, stains, and streaks on the chunky pig-iron slot machines that had cranked out chocolate bars before the days of Hitler & Company; rust on the mechanical Al Jolson puppet who, for a consideration, would blubber out a scratchy "Mammy"; rust on the Mutoscope peep show featuring torn and creased silent cowboys and keyholing Edwardian butlers; rust on the wheels and hinges of disused bathing machines beneath the pier, those closed chariots in which stout ladies had been rushed pell-mell toward the ocean by excited donkeys before the war. Before the war! When, as the grown-ups kept telling us, things were better, brighter, and more typically English. Before the war, the British may very well have looked like those strapping lads and lassies with healthy legs a-working as they hiked happily down the Ovaltine Highway toward a radiant horizon--as depicted on the mural on the crumbling wall of Felpham's Moo-Cow Milk Bar, closed indefinitely.
No--on the eve of the New Elizabethan Era, the Britishers looked poorly. They were tired and badly fed and their clothes knew nothing of Technicolor. They were worlds away from the all-American glamour folk decorating the pinball machines down at the amusement arcade near the pier. Here were incendiary blondes, milk-fed and honey-smooth, squired by rough guys (not mere blokes) wearing gangster suits and T-shirts shaped by their muscle bulges. Both guys and gals displayed gleaming rows of even teeth. Exactly even, not like British teeth, which were raggedly serrated and rotten, too. "I've said it all my life and I'll say it again," opined my Uncle Jeremy. "Teeth are at the root of life's problems-have 'em removed and get false ones." He was careful to refer to "false teeth" and not "dentures"; Uncle Jeremy was a stickler for correct King's English because the family was keenly aware of being upper-middle-class.
Uncle Jeremy and Auntie Iris were hosting me on this seaside holiday. They would have preferred to stay at the Old Ship Hotel in Brighton (four stars), but their money these days wouldn't stretch to it. Before the war--that was a different story: that was when the family had Rolls-Royces and chauffeurs and silver tea sets and a hunting lodge in Scotland. But now in the Age of Austerity and in the wake of a rather stiff family business setback, they were living in reduced circumstances. In short, they were distressed gentlefolk--and there is no minority in this world with greater bile and venom and unadulterated fury than distressed gentlefolk. It's shocking to find yourself sliding backward when the whole world and its politicians and news editors talk constantly about marching forward. But Uncle Jeremy and his people clung to their old ways, attaching enormous importance to the details of life. "Once our lingo goes, we're done for--poof!" Uncle Jeremy liked to say as he stirred his cup of hot water in the darkest days of the war, when even tea was beyond his means. Still, in those days, one was doing it for the sake of Great Britain and the War. Nowadays, the war was between the classes and Uncle Jeremy wasn't going to let his little details go: the family still had values and good manners, never saying "toilet" or "pardon" and always giving up their seats to women on crowded trains or buses. The class war continued at Mrs. Moore's SeaView Family Hotel (read "boardinghouse"), where Uncle J. had selected a table in the southwest comer, as far away as possible from the common herd. From here he could comment on the other guests, how they held their knives and forks like pens, how they ate their peas off knives smeared with honey--and how the devil did they manage to afford honey anyway, not to mention that spotted bow-tie man with his endless supply of thick, nonstreaky bacon and real butter? The man was probably in scrap metal or war surplus or American nylons. Never trust a prematurely bald man, by the way, especially when he wears tartan socks, corresponding two-tone shoes, and nonmatching tweeds. "You see," said Uncle J. to Auntie Iris and me, "no matter how much money they spend on their clothes, even if they dress up to the nines, you can always tell the lower breeds by the shape of the nose, the setting of the eyes, and the overall blotchiness; of the complexion."
But at lunch on this particular day, Uncle J.'s bile bad settled down. He'd actually nodded and smiled to the melancholy little man in the gray cardigan who, like Uncle J., sat apart from the rest of Mrs. Moore's holidaymakers. The little man always ate alone, slowly and thoughtfully, often gazing through the other guests and often interrupting his meal to write in a notebook. "That's a fellow called Charlie Danvers. Common but nice. Amusing," said Uncle J. as he spread a dab of margarine on a comer of his bread, being careful not to coat the whole slice in the vulgar manner. "Danvers asked me for a round of golf today, so of course I asked him what school he'd attended, and when I found out it was the 'School of Life,' I offered him nine holes."
On the golf links that morning, Uncle J. had discovered that Danvers was, of all things, a theatrical--a comedian. Odd, because he seemed so sober and civilized. "Yes, but you ought to see me in my music-ball gear," said Danvers. "Why, my checked jacket shrieks so loudly I had to force the salesman to sell it me." A buxom woman sporting twin tremblers had passed them on the fourth tee: "I'd like to climb her north face," said Danvers matter-of-factly, adding, "Course, I'm a free man, being a bachelor. Know what a bachelor is? He's a man who has no children--to speak of." His timing was impeccable, which was why it had taken him and Uncle J. a long time to play their nine holes. Uncle J. had regretted that he hadn't invited Danvers to play eighteen. The fellow was damned amusing. At the eighth green, Danvers had told him about a tart he'd met up in London who'd said she was doing so well she only wished she had another pair of legs so she could open a branch in Manchester.
Uncle J. roared so loudly at the table that some of the other lunchers looked around in shock. "The idea!" said one woman. Then Danvers had wandered over from his far corner and, removing his napkin from under his chin, had invited Uncle J. and family to see him that night in the pier revue, "Follow the Fun." With a wink he'd added, "Try and show some respect for my jokes--they're older than any of the audience." He'd fished a porkpie hat from his pocket, plunked it on his head, and said, "Well, toodle-oo! All right behind?" "All right behind!" replied Uncle J., entering into the straight-man spirit. "Then off we jolly well go, TTFN [Ta-ta for now] and Abyssinia, and I leave you with this riddle: if a fly going east passes a flea going west, what time is it in Hong Kong?" "Give up!" shouted Uncle J., as Auntie Iris looked deep into her custard. "Fly past flea!"--and Danvers had exited swiftly, stage left. 'The idea!" had said the fat woman again. "Telling jokes at dinnertime." Uncle J. had faced her and said proudly, "Lunchtime, madam. For us--lunchtime!" It was now two-thirty and, having finished my ablutions, I was ready to set off on my date with destiny. Charlie Danvers, with his sudden show of dining room cheek, had spurred me on. I was determined to have a go, if only because success might remove me from the prison of middle-class life. I mean, upper-middle-class life. An entertainer, like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson--or Charlie Danvers! I might join the ranks of the roving vagabonds!
As I opened the front door of the SeaView, I was assaulted by a delicious, enticing smell that even whisked from my nostrils the boardinghouse smell of overboiled vegetables. This new smell was the smell of oil: oil from eating shops where cooks suffering from batterer's elbow and fryer's eye stirred deep-sea vats crammed with rock salmon, plaice, cod, sausages, and chips; oil from the great clanging, hissing, chugging fun machinery that worked the Dodg.'em cars, ghost trains, switchback roller coasters, and all the other marvelous mechanical entertainments of the modern seaside.
Stomach now rumbling, I huffed and puffed down the steep street that our boardinghouse topped, down, down, down to the excitement zone--to the Shangri-La Amusement Park and its annex, the Super-American Fun Palace. As fast as my flat feet would allow, I passed the grim terraces of the sturdy red houses, all individually named ("Mon Repos," "Bill-Beth," "Dun-Rovin") and yet all identical. I ignored the glares of beet-faced retired officers and the moony looks of ex-shopkeepers and the moving curtains operated by ancient spinsters who now dreamed of long-dead matinee idols and Rupert Brooke. Around the comer at the bottom of the hill and soon I was rushing along the seafront, past rows of once-grand hotels now tear-streaked by the revolting weather and a changing world--expensive five-star hotels that had seen better days before that last long, lazy afternoon in August 1914 when bees droned on the idle slopes of the South Downs just behind, while in front, on the sands, the hot and shiny pierrots beat their way through ragtime songs about grizzly bears and Alexander. By 1918, most of the pierrots had been smashed to smithereens by Boche shells while entertaining the troops in Flanders fields.
At last, I came to a halt in the Modern Age: 1949. Boing, boing, clung! went the fleet of pinball machines in the Super-American Fun Palace. Then TILT, TILT! And boing, boing! I passed the newsstand where they were doing a brisk trade in real American Action Comics-thick and glassy and smelling of wood pulp. The ink came off in your hands. "68 Big Pages--Don't Take Less!" Then more oil--this time from a vast metal vat where floated real American doughnut rings, not to be confused with those stodgy suet balls the British called doughnuts. Should be "donut"--that's the way it's spelled in the comics.
And as I stopped for a donut, I drank in the wonders of the nearby Dodg.'em car rink. Beneath a firmament of electric sparks, laughing, giggling, screaming girls (in headscarves mostly) were being poked and banged and mauled by local Burt Lancasters in bumper cars. And all the while, grimy kid employees hopped from car to car collecting fares, chewing gum, and combing their hair, all so nonchalantly and gracefully. Greasy gazelles. From a Tannoy system high above--four big bullhorns-crashed a barrage of inspirational pop music: "Chattanoogie Choo Choo," "On a Slow Boat to China," "Enjoy Yourself, It's Later Than You Think."
I knew all the words to all these songs and lots more besides. I could take you to the land of "Cuanto le Gusta" or any Deep South state. But today, at 3 P.M., I was going to sing of domestic life. I had entered the Merrymakers Concert Party Amateur Talent Contest--to be held on Felpham sands (weather permitting)--and I was going to offer the judges my version of the Phil Harris recording of "Never Trust a Woman."
As I left the snug and oily amusement area and headed for the yellow sands, I grew stronger and I grew wings and pretty soon I was soaring high above the gray sky, even over the British Isles, the World, the Universe. . . .
Only a wooden stage on the rippled sand. Only a small audience of holidaymakers, chilled but friendly. Only a bunch of kids conducted by an uncle type in a red blazer and straw hat. He introduces a pimply girl who taps badly, then a boy who gets his conjuring tricks wrong and exits--presto--and a weedy youth who dries up in the middle of his Kipling recitation and blubs loudly.
Only a free show, a kiddie amateur hour--but the stage is now a world for me. Legs strutting, arms flaying, voice piercing like a demented magpie, I bash and biff the song home without any accompaniment.
I was truly transported. The audience was transported. The strawhatted uncle type awarded me first prize: a record of "Twelfth Street Rag" by Pee Wee Hunt and his band. JWIWI! (Just what I wanted!) But in the mad dash to tell everyone about my success, about how I hadn't stumbled over one word, about the shouts and cheers--I tore too hard at the ribbon around the record and I busted that 78. (They busted so easily.) Hot tears followed. From a terrace house, a curtain moved ever so gently. Blast it! Now I hadn't any proof of my seaside victory over shyness, fatness, and a mild stutter.
But the gods were looking down at Felpham--and they nodded. I was to be given another chance. At Charlie Danvers' "Follow the Fun" revue.
That night, the curtains opened to a line of high-kicking chorus girls singing 'We're in Favour of Friendship." Uncle J. leaned forward keenly, Auntie Iris said something to the effect that this was "romance," but I was fascinated by the backdrop painting. For Felpham sands--that gray and dismal stretch--had been transformed. Certainly the scene was of Felpham, but this was another Felpham, an ethereal watering spot of blue skies, silver sands, gleaming pier, and dreaming tall hotels. A happy ship snaked off toward the horizon. A moment of bliss captured for all time. Life as it ought to be. . . .
But now a disembodied voice, amplified and tinny, was announcing: "Make welcome your host for the evening, that cheery chap himself-O. Stoppit!" And onto the stage strode Charlie Danvers! He was transformed, too. I turned to my aunt. "It's romance, dear, romance." Danvers was wearing a screaming plaid jacket that drooped to below his knees, plus a homburg bat that reached for the stars.
"You like the outfit? Got it for free. Came home the other night and found it draped over the wife's side of the bed--and I've been wearing it ever since." Hoots of laughter and Charlie/Stoppit stepped right to the front of the stage, put one foot forward onto the apron, craned his neck out into the audience, and, after glancing into both wings, tattled on in a loud and lecherous whisper:
"Course, my wife does take pains to look attractive--she puts so much cream on her that when I gave her a squeeze the other night she shot out the ruddy window. So she went to the doctor and he asks, 'Have you had a checkup lately?' And she replies, 'No, but I had a couple of Hungarians."' Uproarious laughter. Auntie Iris fiddled with her bag. Uncle J. said, "Vulgar but good," and the stream of comic postcard humor flowed on like a beggar's opera, reaching a climax with:
"Nice spot, this town--I was sunning meself on the seafront just before the show. I was next to a vicar fellow and we got talking. Turned out he was here on his honeymoon. I said, 'Pleasant little spot, isn't it?' He replied, 'Yes--and how cunningly concealed.' I've been asked to do a request, but the mike's the wrong shape, so I'll give you a British number--Brighton 2386. No, seriously, here's an old song called 'You Made Me Love You--You Woke Me Up to Do It.' What a job for a grown man, eh? If my mother knew what I was doing, she'd be ashamed--she thinks I'm in prison. No no, but seriously--and settle down now--I'd like to leave you with this poem. . ." And with a nod to the band, O. Stoppit went into a lovely song, whose lyrics seemed to sum up the very essence of the show-business life and whose pop tune seemed to echo every haunting phrase hewn by pop songwriters since the business had begun at the end of the last century. Then Stoppit bowed and went off to thunderous applause. Just as he was about to vanish into the wings, he found a coat hanger in his jacket and he waved it to one and all.
I was in a transport of delight. I didn't pay any attention to the following act and I was startled when Uncle J. nudged me in the ribs and ordered, "Go on up--they want volunteers from the audience. Go on and show 'em, but remember the old school." Aunt Iris didn't really approve, I could tell. But I didn't need much encouragement now to get onstage and in a flash I was next to the trampoline act and the acrobat was still saying, "Come one, come all, and have a bash on the old tramp. Enjoy yourself--it's later than you think!" Maybe they thought I'd make a fool of myself, but I don't think I did. I felt that elation again, like on the sands. And soon I was bouncing, high and funny, and the audience was roaring with me, not at me. It was ecstasy. Next thing I knew, I was telling jokes as I bounced and then I caught a glimpse of O. Stoppit winking at me from the wings and giving me the thumbs-up. So I bounced higher and higher and finally I launched into a current song, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts."
Suddenly, I was aware of the acrobat near me, very near. He was hissing harshly: "You'll have a loverly bunch of coconuts soon, my lad, if you don't get off my stage!" Your stage indeed! My stage now! I could feel the warm waves of one-sided, irresponsible love splashing all over me and I drenched myself in this perfumed water where Jolson, Crosby, Garland, Hope, Frankie Howerd, Tommy Trinder, Vera Lynn, Frank Randle, and O. Stoppit had all bathed. I had found my calling and I was only eight years old. So into the fifties I stepped, secure in my world of pop. Soon I was making my own music at prep school. Amusing the boys, keeping bullies at bay. The prize record had been busted, but there would be others. And anyway, I'd make up my own songs and jokes, based on the dream of America and its call of the wild.
And when the outside world--that dull and flat and sensible thing--got rough or went wrong, I'd lull myself into a better one with O. Stoppit's song, that hymn he'd ended his show with those years ago on the pier:
"Goodnight to you and see you soon again,
I hope that you will miss me now and then.
I know the glow of your applause will burn,
But I hope that you got something in return.
Goodnight to you-God bless you, one and all,
You make, my life worthwhile.
And when the shadows turn to endless night,
I'll live forever after in your laughter and smiles.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer,
composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and
Songbooks by clicking here,
or by going to ianwhitcomb.com