John Lucas is entertained by Keith Hutson’s collection of poems about music hall – and by the performers who appear in it

Keith Hutson
Poetry Salzburg Pamphlet Series 
ISBN 978-3-901993-57-2 
40pp     £5.00 

Once upon a time, a time set mainly the 1970s-80s, historians of the left became fascinated by music hall. They were in part prompted by the great E.P. Thompson’s insistence on doing “history from below.” Understanding the past wasn’t merely a matter of coming to terms with Generals and Kings. There was also “the poor stockinger.” Against the sneers of literary critics like F.R. Leavis, whom I once heard announce that there would never be another Dickens, “for this is the age of the telly and Tottenham Hotspur,” there was a growing belief that popular culture, however you defined it, deserved to be not merely celebrated but studied. “Study”, though, suggests something a bit owlish, and although much that was good came out of the work given over to popular culture, you couldn’t always separate it from that besetting English disease, nostalgia, and its more virulent manifestation, condescension.

Music hall was especially vulnerable. Writing about the “consolations” of working-class culture, the socialist historian Gareth Stedman Jones identified music halls as places where people could go to celebrate their lives in song. Good? Well, not really. Because according to Stedman Jones celebration turned out to be for small and on the whole unimportant victories over the drudgery of labour. You could have a laugh over drinking too much (“My Old Man”), or over putting up with cheap food (“Boiled Beef and Carrots”), over near-slum living (“If It Wasn’t for the Houses In Between”), and dead-end jobs (“Any Old Iron”); and you could also laugh at the toffs you couldn’t join (“Knocked ’Em in the Old Kent Road”). As for love: it was all about the progress from youth to old age as tales of grin-and-bear-it monogamous loyalty (“Daisy”, “One of the Ruins that Cromwell Knocked About a Bit”, “My Old Dutch”).

On this reading, Music Hall becomes in fact the expression of a kind of defeat. By the end of the nineteenth century, so the argument runs, the social, political revolution an earlier generation of Marxists had confidently anticipated – News From Nowhere – still hadn’t happened. Working-class people therefore turn from expecting a better life to finding whatever consolation they could in the life they must endure. Boiled beef and carrots becomes a feast fit for a king. The songs that working-class audiences sing endorse the world as it is. Both singers and songs even accept a form of patriotism in which they collude in their own defeat. “We’re Soldiers of the Queen” an 1880s song, performed by the Great MacMurdo, was especially popular at the time of Khartoum, the Zulu Wars, and anything else that threatened the British Empire.

Ho hum. It would be silly not to accept a measure of truth in this argument. But it does rather make the music hall, both those who perform and those who pay to watch, analogous to the religion Marx claimed was the opiate of the people. Music hall therefore anticipates the movies, those “Hollywood dream palaces,” which, so a certain kind of socialist used to proclaim, drugged people into unthinking acquiescence in their lot. Hence Auden in 1932 addressing his “Brothers … By cops directed to the fug/Of talkie-houses for a drug.” In this version of history, the thousands who pay for an evening’s entertainment, whether at the music hall or “talkie-house”, let alone “decadent” dance-halls where – horror of horrors – jazz may be played, are all, to differing degrees, victims of a system they are powerless to oppose.

What’s missing, at least according to this account, is a real, unalienated popular culture – “All them cornfields and ballet in the evening,” as Peter Sellers’ Union official memorably expresses it in I’m Alright, Jack. The culture of music hall, and later the cinema, may be aimed at the popular audience, but it certainly isn’t by them. Or if it is, big brother is watching what they get up to. Again, there’s some truth in this. As music halls turned from being rooms above pubs to glitzy theatres with segregated audiences – stalls for the better-off, balconies for the plebs – so “respectability” – for which read “conformity” – became an issue. Marie Lloyd was famously barred from appearing at the first Royal Variety Command Performance. Her songs were too risqué. Of course, she took precautions. Any night the censor was known to be in – and censors did visit music hall theatres, such was the magistrate-led requirement for respectability – well, then, Marie’s “A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good” was a demure enough number. On other nights her gestures and winks left nobody in any doubt that she was singing a hymn in praise of sex. (In films gestures were unvarying, which made the censor’s job that much easier. One foot touching the floor if two were on a bed, and all that mularkey.)

Stedman Jones’s work stands alongside a sizeable number of books about music-hall history, many of which I have on my shelves. I also possess most of the numerous compilations published in the 1970s and 80s of once popular music-hall songs. Looking through them now, I’m struck by the fact that some have terrific tunes, while others are witty, extremely adroit (outrageous, ingenious rhymes a speciality), and, for all the censorship, wink-and-nudge bawdy. They include the transvestite numbers of Vesta Tilly as well as such perky numbers as “Henry the Eighth” and “Who’s Your Lady Friend.” But what the words on the page can’t of course convey, and what historians who follow Stedman Jones seem to me clueless about, is what Dickens, on a visit to the Britannia at Hoxton, at once recognised and loved – the sheer delight audiences took in the fare they were served up and their eager readiness to be part of the entertainment: roaring catch-phrases back at the comedians, singing the choruses of songs belted out by performers who, without amplification, were usually able to reach all areas of packed and often vast auditoriums.

Dickens, it hardly needs saying, had a warm regard for the entertainers themselves. The sheer skill required to be a tumbler, an acrobat, a dancer, a comedian, a singer, an impersonator – the Inimitable revered those whose stage craft, honed through long hours of practice, was itself often inimitable, even if few got rich from their prowess. (Though some did.). “This is the age of the telly and Tottenham Hotspur.” I’d bet with borrowed money that Dickens would have preferred watching Jimmy Greaves in action to reading a poem by, say, Ronald Bottrall, whom Leavis held up as a shining light of contemporary poetry. Not that I’m blaming Bottrall for this elevation. He isn’t a bad poet. But Greaves he most certainly isn’t.

The above paragraphs may seem a long route march to get me to the promised land of Routines, but Keith Hutson’s sonnets deserve a build-up because between them they provide loving, uncensorious, non-condescending, wonderfully vivid accounts of the lives and acts of artists whose names, like their performing skills and the halls were they put them into practice, are in danger of being forgotten. Still, in saying this I don’t mean to suggest that Routines is merely a tribute to the fallen. More importantly, it’s a celebration, including a celebration of the craft of poetry. Routines could justifiably carry as sub-title “A House of (sonnet) Varieties”, and one that more than re-pays the price of admission. Hutson displays a limber regard for, among others, the Petrarchan, Elizabethan and Miltonic sonnet forms, and he as adroitly handles the volta whether it occurs after six, eight or twelve lines; he even provides accomplished sonnets in tercets with a concluding couplet.

Routines is also excellent at giving us much about what it’s like to earn a living by entertaining others. “You never know, I might change my mind in mid air,” the great Sid Field said when introducing an impossibly ambitious acrobatic act. (Needless to say, he never got round to performing it.) Field isn’t one of the subjects of Routines, but his spirit of calculated improvisation certainly is, as is that sense of danger which is part of the thrill of live theatre and which can lead to tragic spills.

                   The day the rope snapped at the Aston fete,
                   she and her foetus fell for thirty feet.
                   Bad fortune was blamed, but a panel gave
                   her eldest boy ten guineas for a grave.
                   The priest beside it set the record straight:
                   Selina Hunt had carried too much weight. 

Hutson carries tail-notes for all the artists about whom he writes. The one on Selina Hunt (1827-1863), the subject of the lines quoted above, tells us merely that she was “the first female tightrope artist to become a national star.” The sonnet itself reveals why, heavily pregnant, Hunt accepts that the show must go on. With “six kids to care/for” she has no alternative but “trusting luck/will keep the family afloat.” As for the spectators, they pay to see “someone soon fit to drop fight gravity.” The sardonic edge of that line cuts deep. “fit to drop” – worn out from having to go through with her act, and so near her term that she’s ready to give birth (which is what “drop” also means); fighting gravity in the sense of maintaining a kind of insouciance on the high wire but at the same time knowing herself to be overweight and therefore at risk. “Selina Hunt had carried too much weight.”

This laconic dismissal of a hard life is a riff played over others, including Joseph Grimaldi, one of the greatest of all clowns, who died “the only stranger to his sunny side.” Others, like Dick Emery, who had a difficult time of it, escaped into a riot of over-the-top McGill-like characters – “Hettie and her quest for sex // camp Clarence in his floral pants” (“Night Class”), or, like Little Titch, were simply geniuses: able to handle well anything they turned their hand to. “Soldier, scholar, horseman he.” Or, in Little Titch’s case, able to manage a range of skills, musical, acrobatic, straight-faced comic, with equal aplomb. (Anyone who has seen the early, silent film-clip of him in his long flat boots, slowly listing from side to side with Keaton-like unsmiling solemnity, will know why he could make audiences literally cry with laughter.) Hutson’s fine sonnet bows the knee to this uniquely gifted performer: “And what’s the chance / of mastering ten instruments, be three / times married, mistresses …Reverse this, ask / is anything beyond a great man’s grasp?” (“Immense.”)

In a different vein, “The Proper Poorly Act” evokes the comedian Ken Goodwin (1933-2012), whose longevity may have owed much to a calculated restraint:

          You’ve got to potter onto stage and bleat 
          I’ve not been well. But don’t appear too ill 
         – think more malingerer than terminal – 
          because the specimens who’ve booked a seat 
          to suffer stuff this past-it won’t be far 
          from moribund themselves.

There’s a whiff of Archie Rice here: an acceptance of decrepitude that belongs as much to audience as performer. Too much of this, and we will be into the killing fields of nostalgia.

That we aren’t is because of Hutson’s relish for those, like Reg Gardiner, whose act consisted in its entirety of making the sound of different steam engines, and who “Uncoupled from the poverty of posh /… travelled to Variety, first class.” (“Raising Steam”.) Good for him, though, “the pant of a leviathon at rest” (my italics) – of a dawdling engine, which Reg made – would more appropriately be a juggernaut. (Leviathon is a sea-creature, a juggernaut has wheels.) And I’m sorry Hutson couldn’t find room for the remark with which Gardiner apparently always closed his act: “Oh, well, that’s it, back to the Asylum.”

More typically, though, Hutson packs in an enormous amount of detail. “Slave Song,“ the poem about Leslie Hutchinson “Hutch”, even includes the information that

          Lady Mountbatten so adored your dick 
          she got a jewel-encrusted cast of it 
          from Cartier…

though we are also told

                  …when the facts 
          about how in demand you were came out, 
          Lord Louis sued the press and swore in court, 

          No nigger fucks my wife. Cut down, voice gone, 
          you died selling yourself in Paddington.

Small consolation, I guess, to poor Hutch to hear stories that Lady Mountbatten was by then being fucked by Nehru, though at least her choice of lovers was one in the eye for her husband’s foul racism.

“Slave Song” is one of at least a dozen poems in Routines I wouldn’t be without. Among them is the sonnet devoted to those ever-hopefuls whose dream of stardom is always scuppered by the lack of what sports scientists call “skill levels.” The great Nancy Banks Smith, who once wrote in ecstatic wonderment about a flawlessly incompetent ventriloquist – his speciality was talking to a kipper – would love “Bad Impresario i.m. William Paul, 1820-1882)”. Paul took it upon himself to find acts which despite being “utter tripe” would be accepted somewhere as “culture at its height.” Chief perhaps of the unlikely acts he recruited were “Lady Clock Eye, Baldwin’s Catholic Geese,/The Human Mop, Frank and His Dancing Teeth”, and according to Hutson, “from Cumbria to Cornwall no one asked / them back, except the Palace, Halifax.”

For all I know, the Palace which, so Hutson says, “in its heyday hosted four houses a night”, was the theatre that in 1936 played host to the first BBC Saturday Evening outside broadcast from theatre-land – it was certainly a theatre in Halifax. Unfortunately, nobody at the BBC had checked up on the acts due to be performed during the allotted half-hour of that break-through Saturday, as a result of which those who gathered round their radios found they had tuned into a mime act followed by a silent dance routine and then, as a grand finale, someone tearing a telephone directory in two. It must have made for compulsive listening.

Was the last act, I wonder, performed by Joan Rhodes, the subject of “Coming on Strong”? Hutson thinks not and I’m inclined to agree. Despite music halls and theatres of variety featuring “Infant Prodigies” aplenty, (I assume it was Dickens who coined the phrase in Nicholas Nickleby), Rhodes, born in 1921, would have been too young. Like quite a few of those Hutson writes so well about, she had a hard life.

	        Three and in the workhouse, ten when you ran,
		missing till twenty then, lean as luck,
		in fishnets at the fair, you tore a phone book
		up, bent iron bars, took four men

		on at tug-of-war and won ….

The line-breaks here are properly functional, an instance of Hutson’s skill in making us realise just how tough Rhodes’s young life was, how tough she was, this woman who “refused King Farouk, who wanted you // to wreck his best four-poster bed with him/still in it.” Even in old age, Joan, by now retired to a care home, when “greeting the manager” apparently “broke his hand.”

Routines ends, fittingly, with “That’s Your Lot”, a poem about the comedian Tubby Turner (1882-1947). Turner’s great trick was to make endless attempts to erect a deckchair, and having failed miserably, eventually give up and chuck the contraption into the wings. From there it would reappear, “fit for sitting in”, and prompting Tubby to amble over as though to “park himself, but then/just bow.” I loathe the customary use of “just”. It’s nearly always a filler, a lazy refusal to find the needed word. But here it’s spot on. The rest of the (closing) couplet runs “A big name like him knew, with fare / this poor, you’ve got to leave ’em wanting more!” Good, that Hutson doesn’t jockey the syntax in order to produce the full rhyme of poor/more. It could have been easily enough done, but the jarring fare/more is entirely appropriate, as is the apparently casual but in fact dextrously handled in-and-out rhyming of the sonnet as a whole. “That’s Your Lot” typifies the panache that makes this collection so rewarding.

You want more? Then buy Routines.