Saturday, 28 April 2018

Raising a Smile - Keith Hutson's "Troupers"

Some of my fondest memories of my dad are of the stories he would tell about old-time comic and Music Hall turns who, back in the days of Vaudeville and variety, would "tread the boards" up and down the country, from the West End to the theatres of provincial seaside towns.  One-line gag specialists, oddball virtuosos, contortionists, clowns, some of them famously terrible, others who would go on to become household names.  Some he had seen, some he had met, many he had simply heard about, as the routines of these heroes and heroines of the stage became the stuff of legend. A galaxy of stars like Jimmy Clitheroe, Frankie Howerd, Hylda Baker - all three of whom are celebrated in Keith Hutson's latest collection Troupers (Smith/Doorstep 2018), his second foray into the wonderful world of Music Hall and more.

Like the funniest of men, he had that look: begins the opening poem, Revival, chosen as a Poem of the Week by Yorkshire Times, bad health crossed with indestructibility. Right away, then, we know that we are in the reading presence of somebody who has seen it all - observed the best in the business and knows by instinct who and what to watch out for.  Indeed, Keith Hutson has a rich and varied background in the world of performance and comedy, having worked not only as a script writer for Coronation Street,  but also as a joke writer for many famous comics, including Les Dawson.  The book is actually prefaced with a joke from Dawson:

We were so poor, my dad couldn't afford homing pigeons
- he had a budgie on elastic. 

The poet's professional history is brought to the fore in the poem Street Cred, in memory of Coronation Street creator Tony Warren, who died in 2016.  We read of how the scriptwriter's first ventures into television met with little acclaim:

Future? Fallow at first. Children's Hour, a script
for Biggles and, expelled from acting class,
a spot of choreography in strip
cubs - hardly Moulin Rouge, but ready cash.   

but of how, Later, sleeping on a slow train home from / Thanks, but no in London, you awoke - and how!  I'll write about Florizel Street!

And so, the street's name inspired by a painting featuring the mythical Prince Florizel, reflecting on his own youth in the Salford town of Pendelbury, the lippy, witty, out-and-proud before / it was allowed Warren drew on his past to create character chiselled from the wartime tough backstreets in which he had grown up:

Mams, aunties, grans, the famin' neighbours - 
warriors with nowt, who'd never ration
what they were: gossip, stoic, glamour puss;

grafter, scrubber, put-upon.

We learn how Warren was dissuaded by a a tv tea lady from his original choice of name, and so Florizel (Sounds like a disinfectant, son) became Coronation Street, and history was made.


There is room, in this vividly biographical poem, for some mentions of actual Corrie characters, as Warren begins to take / those matriarchs and make them Elsie, Ena, / Annie ...

and also:

Ken?  Wrong gender, kid, but maybe
he was you: bright boy, back-alley dreamer.
Light of Manchester.

But another strength in this collection stems, as with its author's debut effort on the same subject, Routines (Poetry Salzburg 2017), from more than a professional interest or insider observation. It stems from the love of a genuine fan of comedy and its performers, from the wide-eyed joy of Beyond Belief (i.m. Sid Field 1904-50):

He talked a goood trapeze act - in his tights,
hands white with chalk - the best we never saw:
I might even change my mind, mid-air!
Sid had us gazing at those dizzy heights,
and he was there, all swing and sweep, above us,
never mind he hadn't even climbed
the pole, set foot inside a circus
or off terra-firma, ever.

- to the wide-eared innocence of The Call of the Wild, which commemorates animal impersonator Percy Edwards, and the radio shows, films and records in which he carried off the voices of dogs, pigs and lions - or the gentler example of this lovely memory:

I recall his coos, plump as a dove's,
on David Nixon's Magic Box; and um's LP
played as she helped me shepherd plastic sheep
across the rug.

Elsewhere, the human voice and the powers of impersonation are again revered, as the talents of Ephraim Barraclough (1853-1906) are described:

Tell him three traits, and he'd impersonate 
your dad.  This chip off everyone's old block
possessed, let's say, a patriarchal knack
to take a parent's essence, flesh it out
- the full Monty, Tom, Albert, Harry, Dick.

The emotional power of this act is hinted at, as:

offspring whose hurt returned took flight in tears;
beloveds got a flash of hero back.
 ...and in the bizarre The Man With The Xylophone Skull, we are presented with a prematurely bald headmaster who, in the early 20th Century, could play music by hitting his head with a brass handle.  This improbable routine is not recommended - for as the poem recounts, the unfortunate musician went on tour, / six years - concussion, mild first, getting worse, till / memory went with his pension

But perhaps it is mainly, then, in the area of sound, of artistes as famous for their vocal skills and words as their physical stage presences, that Troupers most differs from its predecessor.  Certainly, this book follows on from Routines in the generality of its subject matter, and the quality of the writing is on a par with that fantastic tribute to the stars of yesteryear, but Troupers is a noisier affair - from the the mournful music of radio show Sing Something Simple:

Sunday afternoons gave up the ghost
to this: a lone accordion
held little comfort as the theme tune
faded into half an hour of shadow

and Songs of Praise:

the tender preface could have been
Why not lie back
and ponder ways to end
it all without alarming others.

to the beauty of brass bands - Seconds into Sailing I'm in tears.  This poem, one of Hutson's finest, is simply entitled Brass Band, and I remember him delivering it at readings to an almost reverential atmosphere:

Two bars, as a rule, before
the waters break and all my sorrows
drown into church hall, 
assembly room.  

I don't care, he explains, if you hit me with The Stripper or Hey Jude / who else takes air to make compassion / hospitals have targets for?

The poem, for one defined by its championing of sound, has a wonderfully visual quality, as the author recalls the many places he has watched brass bands:

I've seen you seated, standing, on the march:
in junior schools fresh and lamentable;
as engineers all male and overweight; Welsh Asians
adding spice to Bread of Heaven - and always
I'm delivered back, a boy of four, found on the prom
in Bridlington

Elsewhere, it is not so much sound as its opposite that is greeted with awe.  In The World's Greatest Whistler (i.m. Ronnie Ronalde 1923-2015) we read of how:

this man sent shivers down 
Sinatra's spine. Marilyn Monroe
spoke of a state of grace.

while the majestic Here's Looking At You pays homage to an artist I had never heard of, Alice Wolfenden (1861-1913) who, in her silent stage routines, could: 

distil a lifetime's liveliness - 
the ducks and dives, embraces, feints; compress
every advance, retreat, escape,into
one concentrated stare directed through
the theatre's gloom

Completely still, she'd throw
her gaze across the footlights. Those who 
held it were transported - felt again
all that had lifted, stirred or broken them.

Similarly, the story of Hylda Baker (1905-86) is recorded, in Hylda, where the fortunes of this Lancashire lass are compared and contrasted with those of many of her mill-working contemporaries:

Nine was the age when the likes of her learnt
how to lip-read at the mill;
to flap their silent mouths in turn. 

But Hylda found her voice inside this act,
talent that kept her in pink gins for years

We read of her troubled personal life, her struggles with drink, and her lonely death, in a poem woven with wordplay and associations, a fitting tribute to a complex, brilliant, sad figure.

 Troupers certainly addresses the darker, bleaker side of the performing life. The hardships, the knock-backs, the failures. Romantic only in its unabashed adulation for the stalwarts of the stage, it paints a picture of survival rather than glamour, of trials more than thrills and spills.  Even the well loved, if unlikely, Macauley's Leaping Infants, who graced the stage between 1856 and 1866, are depicted as a troupe who struggled to make ends meet.  Devised by Lance Corporal Macauley - Alive, but both legs left at Balaclava - this acrobatic company were recruited by virtue of infirmity:

His plan 
was martial: muster local urchins lame
from twisted, short or withered limb, club foot,

as the battle-scarred Lance Corporal, determined to avoid starvation or the penury of begging, took his infant retinue, like Fagin with his squadron of street kids, on the road:

The Times claimed it could never last,
yet England's Most Unlikely Acrobats
toured ten years without praise: laughter, instead,
kept both Macauley and his army fed.

Less successful is the pantomime dame depicted in Widow Twankey a profoundly funny, painful poem, perfectly evoking an image of the down-at-heel has-been, hungover mornings on the promenades of decaying coastal towns, and of pathetic, faded glory:

Daybreak kills the lights along the pier.
Mist at the deep end lifts
and there the Playhouse hangs - that wreck
where last night was the deadest yet: a dozen
plus a seagull on the follow-spot
that took a dislike to his wig,
drawing blood for a finale.

The poem reads almost like a story, as Hutson brings into focus the inward despair of the defeated performer, the blunt brutality of matter-of-fact authority, and the harsh reality of thwarted ambition:

Sea weeps into the dame-shaped crater
made when he lost consciousness,
sometimes after they'd paid him off
and said they'll not be wanting him next winter
'cos you're shit, love.  Had he thought it might be time
to hang his frock up? B&Q take people on
who haven't got a pension.


As a counterweight, consider the example of JD Plummer (1846-1901), whose one-man success story came about entirely by accident, and serves as a triumphant riposte to misfortune, and an inspirational example to any of us - within or without performance and the Arts - what can be done / by one who stands, delivers, falls, alone.

The poem's explosive opening asks

Do your colleagues call you a control freak?
Fuck 'em.  

and proceeds to detail how:
Abandoned on the first night
by his cast, JD played every character
himself: Dick Turpin, victims, inkeeper
and black-eyed daughter Bess Dick's worn-out horse
also called Bess, and black (this did cause 
confusion), Tom the Ostler who betrayed them,
weeping Widow Shelley, Tyburn hangman.

 It is a fabulous, stirring story, told in the rhythmic musicality of Hutson's typically tight-packed stanzas, which reminds me of one of the first shows I ever saw, taken by my father at the age of six to watch not a one-man but a one-woman performance of Jack and the Beanstalk, delivered in a church hall in suburban Leeds, but magical in it transportation to another reality.  The dogged persistence of Plummer, his absolute refusal to admit defeat, is a perfect testament to that tenacity and fortitude that typifies so much of the theatrical spirit.  It is a spirit evoked beautifully in the poem I quoted from at the start of this piece, Revival, whose heroic protagonist, having weathered several heart attacks, assures us that Treading boards is my best exercise! , a personification of "the show must go on."  The poem is a loving, respectful, unsentimental ode, to a particular time in British cultural history, a class of person, and a way of life:

And people like him, whose fathers

died in harness, whose mothers bore silent,
determined lives, they never bow out barely used.
One way or another they sweat buckets,
under stress, and make that state hilarious.

That's why we wet ourselves when they collapse
at the Palladium.  And why its only right
to raise another smile, to bring them back.

And this is exactly what Keith Hutson has done with this memorable book. He has brought back to life a cast of characters whose unusual, crazy ways of making a living have seen them play a part, however minor or major, in the tapestry of theatre, comedy and music, brightened up dark wartime years, and cheered up a nation.  And with his wry, tenderly comedic, acutely human poetry, Keith has pulled off the same kind of effect. I came across his book when I badly needed a lift in spirits. And I'm very glad I did so.  Because it raised a smile.

By Troupers:

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