A gothick tragedy of moors, mores and morons
GENTLEMEN ARE EXHORTED TO ENSURE THAT THIS ESSAY DOES NOT FALL INTO THE HANDS OF WIVES DAUGHTERS OR DOMESTIC SERVANTS
It was asking for trouble, allowing this series of essays to be placed online. My daughter-in-law originally said that she would get them published “when you kick the bucket”. By “publication” I visualised a Christmas book of improving short essays of just the right length to accompany unhurried visits to the toilet. They had not been online for more than a day or two when I received some anxious impassioned communications imploring me to tell the true story of Julian's Teeth. Very well, I shall do so. But since this story contains not a smidgeon of wisdom whatever, readers are advised to place imaginary brackets round it and consider it an outlier to my serious purpose of imparting the “Wisdom of the Aged” to the younger generations.
Before we start, it is necessary to make one thing very clear. Julian, in this narrative, would appear to be a hopeless drunk. Please note that at the same age as I was when I was a poisonous adolescent, Julian was working for the Friends' Ambulance Service in the Spanish Civil War. He was the only native English speaker I ever met whose second language was Catalan. He became the leading expert on clog dancing and the North-Western Morris. He could make his own musical instruments. Half way through his working career he changed course and, funded by a Trades Union grant, he obtained an Oxford diploma in teaching. Do not underrate morris dancers. The last person I ever saw paralytic (I mean literally, having all the muscles attached to the skeleton totally rigid) became a full professor (Head of Faculty) at one of our most prestigious universities.
It started when Dave R ferried three of us, himself, JD, and myself, from Oxford to Nelson in order to join a trans-Pennine contingent and assist Colne Royal Morris Men, of whom Julian was Squire, in a tour of local towns. The date was the early Seventies. The occasion I have forgotten, if I ever knew. Non-dancers should be aware that Cotswold (that is, Southern) morris men dance when the pubs are open. Lancashire dancers dance when the pubs are shut. Amalgamating the two traditions required us to undertake the chore of “offy-hunting”, which meant tracking down off-licences that could furnish sufficient crates of Guinness to keep men refreshed during the afternoon hours. Thus we spent a whole day drinking. Nothing unusual about that, you may well think. What made the difference was that when the Oxford party returned to Julian's house, his wife Lilian offered us home-made wine of her own manufacture. For that reason I am inclined to blame Lilian for everything that followed. We sat up the whole night drinking various combinations of fire-water and, according to custom, assassinating the characters of morris men not of our immediate group. As soon as the pubs opened the next day, we found one from which Julian had not yet been banned and carried on where we left off. In due course Dave R drove us to the Sun, about two miles outside Nelson, in time for evening opening. Then we got down to some Serious Drinking.
Later in the evening, the landlord said: “I have seen Mr P in a pretty bad state on numerous occasions, but I have never seen him as bad as that.”
“We have”, said JD, laughingly. “Often.”
But it was no laughing matter, as it proved. At closing time (actual, as opposed to legal), as soon as we got Julian outside we found that he was totally legless, his eyes were glazed, and his chin lolled on his chest. We could not drive home because Dave R confessed that not only could he not see his car in the car park, he could not see the car park. There was no alternative to walking back home carrying Julian. At this point JD, the Rat, the Levite, skipped on ahead and said he would see us back at the house. All this proves is that JD could handle his liquor better than most people, which is a well documented fact. So Dave R took Julian under the right shoulder, and I took him under the left shoulder. In my left hand I clutched Julian's cor anglais case.
Why did Julian bring a cor anglais on a Serious Drinking session? Why indeed! There is history here. When Julian received his first ever pay cheque as a schoolteacher, on the way home he passed a music shop that happened to have an oboe in the window. So he spent his entire salary on the oboe. Much to Lilian's displeasure: she was looking forward to buying food. Soon afterwards Julian learned that one of the other Colne men actually played the oboe. So, in fit of one-upmanship he traded in his own instrument for the cor anglais that I was looking after that night.
In case readers have failed to get the message that all common sense had gone out of the window, Dave and I actually followed Julian's advice when he lifted his head and said:
“Ffff. I know a ffshort cut.”
That was our undoing. We turned off the main road. To reconstruct: we must have gone up somebody's driveway, blundered through their back garden, smashed down their boundary fence, staggered through the neighbour's back garden, demolished their clothes line, broken down their garden fence, and found ourselves on the open moor. At least it wasn't raining. Well, we staggered across the moor for a while until we came to a ditch, which of course we fell in. Dave and I recovered our footing, and were in the process of dragging Julian up the opposite bank, when we became aware of a blue light flashing in the distance and two rapidly approaching torch beams. It was a sergeant and a constable.
“What do you lot think you're doing?”
“We just slipped out for a quick half, ossifer, and we must have missed our turning.”
They examined us in detail by the light of their torches. They looked disapproving.
“What's in that case?”
“It's a cor anglais.”
“Open it up!”
“You see, this is the angled mouthpiece from which the instrument is believed to derive its name it makes it easier to hold when you play it and this is the bulb at the end that gives it its charac charac er tone that you might be famimb fabim fabimilar with from the second movement of Dervish er Dogtrack um Duckquack...”
“That's enough! You are all under arrest for Drunk and Disorderly.”
The constable whispered something to the sergeant.
“Where do you come from?”
“Cambridge” [An automatic reply. St Catherine's Oxford students used to say this when confronted by Authority in the expectation that bills for damage would be passed on to St Catharine's College, Cambridge. I don't know how long it was before they twigged.]
“Yes, that's right, Oxford”
“Both from Oxford, Officer.” (Well done, Dave! Still some brain cells functioning.)
“And where do you live?”
“I live in a fookin houthpf. Uuurgh!”
“Twenty-six Railway Street, Nelson.” (Dave, you're a marvel.)
“And what do you do for a living?”
“Local Government Officer.”
“And what do you do for a living?”
“I'm a fookin thcool-math-pup Uuurgh!”
“A schoolmaster! Look at you, you're an absolute disgrace!” (The entire front of Julian, and a great deal of the rest of him, was covered with mud and green slime cemented to his body with vomit.) “What would your pupils say if they saw you in that condition?”
“They shay I'm a fookin good ffthcoo-blurp.”
“We're not having you in our nice clean car. If we ever see you again we'll run you in.”
We returned to the road by aiming towards where the police car had been. It turned out that Julian's short cut had brought us back to the road not far from where we left it. When we finally staggered back to Railway Street, we propped Julian against the front door while we searched for the bell. So when Lilian opened it, Julian fell flat on his face on the hall rug. JD ruined everything.
“Rah Hah, Lilian, your husband's pissed!”
Just for that Lilian co-opted JD into helping her strip her husband naked and hose him down in the bath. It was then that she must have noticed that he had lost his teeth.
At the crack of dawn Lilian got us all out of bed (except Julian) and sent us to recover Julian's teeth. One would have thought that would have been an impossible task, finding a set of teeth on open moorland. But our nocturnal route soon became obvious. Two parallel sets of deeply imprinted footprints with what looked like ski tracks in between. Our adventure in the ditch could be reconstructed from the visible evidence. It was JD who found the missing teeth embedded in a pile of vomit.
To the best of my knowledge, that is the last time that Lilian ever allowed morris dancers to stay overnight in Railway Street.
...and this is the last time that I will ever agree to “set the record straight” about any morris dancing adventures from ancient history. No doubt elderly dancers still tell each other stories of Julian. Nostalgia for the good old days when a man could drink all day, pee all night, and be up and ready to repeat the process when the first blackbird started singing.
And yes, I can keep a secret. I am the only person outside Australia who could identify the men who performed the Dance of the Flaming A's in front of the Governor-General after he had controversially sacked the Labor government. Six men, naked except for plimsolls, with rolled-up newspapers on fire thrust up their rectums, did a dance on the red carpet. Some of the dignity of the performance was lost by the fact that they had to adopt a semi-crouching position to avoid internal scorching. Apart from the six participants and the van driver who spirited them away, nobody knew who the perpetrators were except me. The police made voluminous enquiries, but naked men are surprisingly anonymous. Some of the men may now be persons of distinction. Hint: I like Australian red wine.
NOTE: Do not try this at home.
The Rev Doctor F wishes it to be made clear that he was the Fourth Man in the Oxford contingent. I am sure he is right: the carload comprised four melodeon players. He also claims that he ran back to Railway Street with JD instead of helping Dave R and myself with our burden. That makes him also a Rat and a Levite. Since the Rev F would habitually fade out after a mere sixteen pints, while Julian would start to dominate proceedings after twenty, there must have been special circumstances that night that I have forgotten.
The oboist mentioned above was William. I had thought so, but, not trusting my memory, I chose not to mention this. Apologies.
South Africa has claimed the credit for inventing the Flaming A's. Its first recorded manifestation was in Durban Cathedral. Perhaps, though, it was an angel that people saw. I suggest that religious buildings along with the homes of the devout should display pictures of Flaming A's beside their Calvaries and Last Suppers. Pieces of charred newspaper might be preserved as holy relics and brought out on special occasions with appropriate ceremonial.
Whatever the case, it fell to our Australian friends to develop the phenomenon into an art form, and nobody can take away from them the glamour and the kudos.