Archive | April 2017

The Sentry’s Song: Politics are Crazy!

Gilbert’s drawing of a singing soldier – probably Private Willis

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 hit Iolanthe, a troupe of flighty, gauzy fairies go toe-to-toe with Britain’s venerable House of Lords. Guess who wins?

(Spoiler alert: They both do.)

Act II of this charming opera begins with a quiet interlude as Private Willis stands on sentry duty. He is dressed as a soldier (although it seems  that is an inaccuracy, for the Houses of Parliament are actually guarded by police officers and not the army).

We meet him as he’s standing at the door in Palace Yard, at the eastern (or Whitehall) end of Sir Charles Barry’s great neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament – which was only completed five years before Iolanthe was written.  He sings:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.

 

So the poor fellow, while on his solitary sentry duty, has nothing to do but think – and he assures us that he does have a brain to think with:

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.

 

Although the best education may be reserved for the children of the wealthy, that doesn’t prevent a person from developing actual wisdom. So here are the fruits of Private Willis’ mental labors:

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!

 

Gilbert, with his love of wordplay, indulges himself “a little” here – using little in the sense of “small,” and also in the sense of “slightly.” This makes me happy.

When Gilbert wrote these lyrics circa 1882, the British parliament had a strong two-party system—Liberals and Conservatives. Nowadays, the Labour Party occupies the liberal end of the spectrum. Annotator Ian Bradley, in The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, commented that “[s]ubstitution of ‘a little Socialist’ for ‘a little Liberal’ would have provided a more accurate description of the prevailing political climate for most of the twentieth century, although in our present era of mould-breaking goodness knows what a modern Private Willis should sing. Perhaps it is best, after all, to leave him in those happy days when there were just Liberals and Conservatives.’

However, this has not been the case in some productions of Iolanthe – for example, this performance in Southampton Operatic Society’s 2005 production of Iolanthe changes the word “liberal” to “Labourite.”  From the comments, you can observe that some people objected to this change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B55YgD1gr0c

However, he continues:

When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

 

This is a practice that many Americans may not be familiar with: the Division of the Assembly. Here’s an explanation from the UK Parliament’s official website :

Members of both Houses register their vote for or against issues by physically going into two different areas either side of their debating chambers. This is known as ‘dividing the House’, while the areas concerned are ‘division lobbies’. Therefore, a vote is called a ‘division’.

 

According to Wikipedia,  this is  a more accurate way of counting a vote than a voice vote. Typically, a division is taken when the result of a voice vote is challenged or when a two-thirds vote is required. Moving on:

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

 

This passage above is a cynical Gilbertian comment – although it’s bad that Members of Parliament should be required to stop thinking and vote as their party leaders tell them to, it would be much worse to let all those mentally dull MPs think for themselves! Nobody could face such an alarming prospect with equanimity (i.e., calmly).

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!

Therefore, it’s a good thing that the system is the way it is, because it works out for the best in the end.

 

What do you think? Should our elected representatives follow their leaders or follow their consciences? It certainly does sound like a choice between order and chaos.

 

Sir Harry Flashman: Fictional Victorian Anti-Hero

My favorite fictional anti-hero is Sir Harry Flashman, Victorian war hero and quintessential rogue. He was created by George Macdonald Fraser in the 1970s, so there may be readers today who have not had the pleasure of reading the Flashman Papers, as the stories are known.

Let Harry introduce himself:

“I’ve been a Danish prince, a Texas slave-dealer, an Arab sheik, a Cheyenne Dog Soldier, and a Yankee navy lieutenant in my time, among other things, and none of ’em was as hard to sustain as my lifetime’s impersonation of a British officer and gentleman.”

― George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman in the Great Game

Fraser was inspired by a character in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, written by Thomas Hughes in 1857. The young hero of that book was bullied by a Harry Flashman who is later kicked out of the Rugby school for drunkenness. Fraser decided to have that character grow up into an illustrious Victorian soldier who, despite being a scoundrel, a toady and a coward, somehow manages to emerge from each adventure looking like a hero.

In Fraser’s stories, Flashman fights in many of the Victorian era’s most well-known battles, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the first Anglo-Afghan War, and the Battle of Little Bighorn as well as getting himself mixed up in political situations in the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Abyssinia, to name just a few locations. Married to a beautiful ninny named Elspeth, he also beds thousands of women, famous, infamous, and unknown, all around the world. His lovers, who include Lola Montez, Lillie Langtry, and the Empress Dowager Cixi, are all willing bed-mates (if untrustworthy schemers in their own right).  Harry’s attitude toward women is definitely politically incorrect, so sensitive persons should beware.

There have been 12 historical fiction novels detailing Flashy’s disreputable adventures, as well as Royal Flash, a movie that came out in 1975 starring Malcolm MacDowell. According to IMDB reviews, the movie pleased some and disappointed others – and I have to admit that in my mind, Oliver Reed would have been the perfect Flashman. I can’t understand why he would play Otto von Bismark instead, and let Malcolm (who doesn’t physically resemble the strapping Flashman) play the title role.

I also own a couple of audiobook versions on CD, Flash for Freedom, read by Rupert Penry-Jones (detailing how Flashy unwillingly got involved in the Triangle Trade and later helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad), and Flashman on the March (about his mission to rescue Britons held hostage by the mad emperor of Abyssinia) read by Toby Stephens. Both are excellent.

To give you an idea of the books, let me share some of my favorite quotes from the Flashman Papers. The following are from Goodreads and from the blog Flashman’s Retreat, a compendium of some of Flashman’s best quotes.

On bravery:

This myth called bravery, which is half panic, half lunacy (in my case, all panic), pays for all; in England you can’t be a hero and bad. There’s practically a law against it.

Flashman

On the Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mind you. I’m harmless, by comparison – I don’t send ’em off, stuffed with lies and rubbish, to get killed or maimed for nothing except a politician’s vanity or a manufacturer’s profit. Oh, I’ll sham it with the best in public, and sport my tinware, but I know what I am, and there’s no room for honest pride in me, you see. But if there was – just a little bit, along with the disgust and hatred and selfishness – I’d keep it for them, those seven hundred British sabres.

Flashman at the Charge

On diplomatic trips to Paris:

My advice to young chaps is to never mind the Moulin Rouge and Pigalle, but make for some diplomatic mêlée on the Rue de Lisbonne, catch the eye of a well-fleshed countess, and ere the night’s out you’ll have learned something you won’t want to tell your grandchildren.

Flashman and the Tiger

On statesmanship:

There’s a point, you know, where treachery is so complete and unashamed that it becomes statesmanship.

Flashman and the Mountain of Light

On royalty:

You never know what to expect on encountering royalty. I’ve seen ’em stark naked except for wings of peacock feathers (Empress of China), giggling drunk in the embrace of a wrestler (Maharani of the Punjab), voluptuously wrapped in wet silk (Queen of Madagascar), wafting to and fro on a swing (Rani of Jhansi), and tramping along looking like an out-of-work charwoman (our own gracious monarch).

Flashman on the March

Do you think Flashman sounds like a fun character to read? I think he’s one of the best!

 

Stack of Flashman novels

 

 

 

Cover image:  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3163609

Stack of books: By SchroCat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24424576

Gilbert at Law

W. S. Gilbert

The first complete Gilbert and Sullivan work that we have today is Trial by Jury, a one-act comic opera that takes place in a courtroom – a venue that Gilbert knew well.

Although Gilbert had been writing plays since he was a boy (the earliest ones were performed by his mother and two younger sisters, who were all interested in amateur dramatics), as a young man he didn’t see play-writing as a career option.

But what was he to do? He got a job as an assistant clerk in the newly-formed Education Department, but loathed every minute of “the detestable thralldom of this baleful office,” as he put it.

As an antidote to the boredom, he joined a volunteer militia, first as an Ensign with the Fifth West Yorkshire Militia, and then switched to the Civil Service Rifle Volunteers where he soon rose to become Lieutenant of the Second Company.

But then in 1861, he received a legacy of £300 from his great-aunt and godmother, Mary Schwenk. It changed his life.

Gilbert wrote: “On the happiest day of my life I sent in my resignation. With £100 I paid my call to the Bar (I had previously entered myself as a student at the Inner Temple), with another £100 I obtained access to a conveyancer’s chambers, and with the third £100 I furnished a set of chambers of my own, and began life afresh as a barrister-at-law.”

But life as a brand-new barrister-at-law proved difficult. His few clients included a number of entertaining characters.

His first appearance as a barrister was at Liverpool, where he had to deal with an Irish woman who was charged with stealing a coat. According to Gilbert, the moment he rose to his feet the woman began to yell.

“Ah, ye devil, sit down!” she shouted. “Don’t listen to him, yer honner! He’s known in all the slums of Liverpool! Sit down, ye spalpeen! He’s as drunk as a lord, yer honner, begging yer lordship’s pardon!”

Every time Gilbert tried to speak, she drowned him out with her insults. The Recorder of the court was laughing too hard to stop her.

Another client was an excitable Frenchman who, when Gilbert won his case for him, embraced him in open court and kissed him on both cheeks.

It was with a third client that Gilbert learned the danger of assuming too much about the person one is defending. This client was a very religious woman on her way to a prayer meeting, when she was accused of pickpocketing by a fellow traveler. Sure enough, the traveler’s purse was found in her pocket. The woman told Gilbert that she always carried her hymn-book in that pocket, so she didn’t realize anything else had been put in there.  As a result, Gilbert assumed the purse was planted on this poor devout woman by some evildoer.

Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, reported that the young barrister cross-examined the arresting policeman as follows:

“You say you found the purse in her pocket, my man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you find anything else?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What?”

“Two other purses, a watch with the bow broken, three handkerchiefs, two silver pencil-cases, and a hymn-book.”

The items in question were produced as exhibits amid roars of laughter.

Then, when Gilbert called the witnesses he’d asked to appear in court to testify to his client’s good character, exactly none of them were present.

When the judge handed down a sentence of 18 months’ hard labor, the woman pulled off one of her heavy boots and threw it at Gilbert’s head. He ducked. The boot missed him, and hit a reporter in a sensitive spot, which may have been the reason for the tone of the news report that appeared the next day, criticizing Gilbert’s handling of the case.

But on a brighter note, Gilbert’s experience in the courts of law helped him create Trial by Jury, one of the funniest and most original comic operas ever to be set in a courtroom.

Performances of Trial by Jury may be viewed on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UuPwTdRLLLY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vq4ftBaRuwY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRYuNIlB7yI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbIncUh9IF8

 

Enjoy!