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Roamin' in the Gloamin'
CHAPTER VII - THE LURE OF THE ROAD


SHORTLY after I was married I had seriously to consider the question of my future, whether I was going to remain a miner or take up the stage as a business. Sometimes it happened that I had to leave my work for a few hours or even for a day in order to carry out my professional engagements. As a "local celebrity" I was given quite a lot of latitude by the pit "gaffers" under whom I worked but it was very plain to me that this sort of thing could not go on indefinitely. Nance and I discussed the problem over and over again. So far as she was concerned her last word was always, "Just please yersel', Harry."

I had now got together a fairly extensive repertoire of songs, comic and sentimental, and I felt that if I could only bring myself to take the plunge everything would work out all right. But it was a difficult situation. As a miner I was sure of a good wage; as a comedian my income was by no means certain. I had practically decided to remain in the mines, only accepting an occasional engagement near home, when Fate again took a hand in my destiny.

Resting in front of the fire one evening after a hard day's work at the coal-face, my eye caught an advertisement in the Evening Citizen.. It read—"Comedian wanted for six weeks' Scottish Tour With Concert Party. Apply So-and-So, Glasgow." I pointed out the advertisement to Nance. We looked at each other.

"What about having a cut at it?" I said.

Again the old phrase, "Just please yersel', Harry l" Deciding that no great harm could come of at least finding out the particulars I wrote a letter of application there and then. We forgot all about the matter for a week or so but at the end of that time I received a telegram—the first I had ever received, by the way—asking me to interview The Kennedys at an address in Glasgow. I found them to be a husband and wife who were pretty well known as the organizers of concert tours round the smaller Scottish towns. Their annual summer journey was due to commence in a few days' time. Would I take the place of a comic who had let them down at the last minute? The tour had been planned for fourteen weeks, covering some of the nicest little towns in the prettiest districts of Scotland. The salary offered was thirty-five shillings a week. For this I would be expected to play three turns on the programme every and also act as baggage-man, bill-inspector, stage-carpenter, and also check-taker for the cheaper parts of the house. The Kennedys were careful to point out that this would be a great chance for a young comedian and they urged me to consider the pros and cons. Everything was fixed up there and then.

But my head was in a whirl all the way back to Hamilton. When I told Nance what had happened the tears came into her eyes. I think we both "grat" a bit that night. It was a risk, an adventure, a parting of the ways between the coal- pit and the footlights! For hours after we went to bed Nance and I talked and talked over this sudden and unexpected change that had come into our lives. When she fell asleep, wearied and worried, I continued to con over all the possibilities, whether of success or failure, of the new life that lay before me. After all, I finally decided, my heart was really in my singing rather than in the drab, hardy soul- searing toil and moil of a collier's existence. Besides, if I failed I could always go back to it I But my mind was made up—I would do or die!

The tour was due to start at Beith, in Ayrshire, on the following Monday. I worked right up till mid-day on the Saturday and then staggered the under-manager by informing him I had accepted an attractive professional engagement which would prevent me resuming my duties as a miner. This portentous sentence had occupied my mind for a long time in the concocting and after I had reeled it off I felt very proud and independent. The manager looked at me with a mystified, half-pitying smile.

"Harry, ma lad," he said, "yer a guid miner an' no a bad wee singer. I'm thinkin' ye'll be back in a week or two wi' yer tail atween yer legs!"

But he wished me success all the same, adding, wistfully, that he wished he had the chance himself to see a bit o' God's green country. We shook hands cordially and parted but as the "gaffer" turned away he stopped and cried over his shoul der, "If ye come roond Hamilton way, mind an' send me a free pass for yer concert!"

Nance and I spent all the Sunday together plotting and planning and dreaming. In the evening we wandered out the Lanark Road where we had done our courting. We hated to think of the parting on the morrow and "mony a sigh an' farewell kiss" were exchanged between us. At nine o'clock the following morning I caught the train to Beith where the rest of the concert party were due to arrive later in the day.
The Kennedys were popular entertainers and the tour throughout was quite successful. We went all over Ayrshire and Dumfriesshire to begin with and then gravitated to the Border district and up to the Scottish midlands. I made three appearances on every programme, singing at least six songs a night and frequently more if I "got over" well. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't. At the larger towns, where they had had a chance of hearing other travel ling comedians, I was very successful but at certain small places the people didn't seem to know whether to laugh or cry. So they did neither—just sat still, listened, and looked stupidly at me!

My pride got a nasty blow one evening in a village near Berwick-on-Tweed. I was leaving the hail after the shOw and was feeling rather sad because I had not had, to say the least of it, nearly so good a reception as a third-rate juggler who was one of the artistes. Standing at the foot of the lane leading up to the rear entrance of the hail was a group of "locals" discussing the quality of the entertainment they had just listened to. I heard my name mentioned. Pulling my cap down over my eyes I slowed up my pace anxious to hear what the "fans" were saying about me.

"He's a droll wee deevil that Hairry Lauder craitur—the comic chap that cam' oot sae often," one of the men was saying.

"Tuts, man," sneered a companion, "he's no a real comic at a'—he's the bill-inspector an' he's only thrown into the programme to idli the time! He was in my shop this mornin' beggin' me to show a bill! The wife turned to me when he gaes oot an' says she, 'What's that half-wittit "under-sized" nyacket onywey, Dauvit?" I didn't wait to hear any more. The tears came into my eyes.

All the same that first concert trip was really an unending joy to me. We covered hundreds and hundreds of miles of Scottish territory which would otherwise have remained a sealed book so far as I was concerned. My passion for my native land was whetted more than ever. I revelled in its scenery, in its people, its customs and traditions. At every new place we pitched our nightly tent, so to speak, I made it my task to inquire into the local history and what great men or women the town or village had produced. I had every opportunity for doing this sort of thing because, as I have already told you, I had to act in the capacities of a veritable Poo Bah—baggage-man, bill-inspector and distributor, stage-carpenter and front-of-the-house man while the people were assembling for the concert.

Immediately on arriving in a new village I had to see the "props" removed to the concert-hall. After that I set out for a tour of the main streets carrying with me a huge pile of leaflets which I distributed to everybody who would accept one. I had to call on the local billposter who had done our advertising a few days before, pay his account, and go round with him handing out free passes for the entertainment to such shopkeepers who had been kind enough to display our placards in their windows. After dinner I adjourned to the hail and superintended the stage fit-up ready for the evening. Often I had to tackle the whole job myself when no assistance was available. Then home to my lodgings, a cup of tea, and back to the hail in time for the "early doors." This was my daily programme. As often as not the company were up at six o'clock in the morning if the "jump," was a long one. Apart from travelling and their actual work on the stage none of the others did anything—all details and odd jobs were left to the "wee comic" who found himself hard at it from early morning till late at night, a fourteen or sixteen-hour day, and all for thirty-five shillings a week!

But I loved every minute of it. Compared with my old life as a miner I felt like a bird suddenly liberated from its cage. It seemed as though some good fairy had waved her wand over me and had changed all the drabness of life, the colourlessness of my former existence, into the romance of travel, the glory of fresh air, sunlight, freedom!

How did I manage on thirty-five shillings a week, you may ask. Splendidly is my reply. Every week I sent Nance a postal order for a pound. This left inc fifteen shillings for my own personal expenses. It was more than ample! While the more prominent "stars" on the programme generally put up at the local hotels the lesser fry scouted round the town for cheap lodgings the moment they arrived. In these days the local stationmaster in most of the Scottish towns and villages kept a list of householders who were not above taking a nightly boarder. If the stationmaster was not immediately available there was always the local policeman willing to oblige with a list of likely domiciles. My plan was to let all the others have "first cut" at this list; whatever was left I calculated would be cheapest! And during all the fourteen weeks of that early tour I seldom paid more than a shilling for my bed. Occasionally I had to go the length of eighteen- pence but against this extravagance I frequently got shelter for ninepence and sometimes as low as sixpence. All meals were, of course, extra. But after a week or two on the road I discovered that it was a paying plan to make a bargain for bed and breakfast inclusive. I didn't mind, I would explain to the lady of the house, paying as much as i/6d for a good bed and a decent breakfast! Sometimes the door was shut in my face. As often as not I screwed the landlady down to a shilling or one and threepence—all in!

Let me admit right off that I slept in some quaint houses and many queer beds. Only a few weeks ago when I was playing at the Victoria Palace, London, I got a letter from a young man now an officer in the Royal Navy asking me, among other things, if I remembered the night I slept with his father in Troon, Ayrshire. For a long while I couldn't make out what the letter referred to but the strings of memory gradually loosened and I began to remember the incident which the writer recalled. Thirty-five years ago I had gone to his mother and asked for a night's lodging. She explained that her house was full of Glasgow holidaymakers and that there wasn't a spare bed in the place. But if I cared to sleep with her husband while she "crept in aside the twa weans," I could do so and welcome. Of course I did, The boy who wrote me the letter was not then born but the fact that Harry Lauder had spent a night in their house had become a family tradition. The sailor son was home from, Australia and, hearing me sing at the Victoria Palace, he had written asking if I cold verify the story. I wrote tack and assured him that I had had an excellent sleefi with his good father in Troon, but that he snored dreadfully!

Once I had to sleep with a dog! It was at a village in Stirlingshire. There were very few houses in which boarders could be accommodated and at the very last house on the list I was told that it was quite impossible to put me up. I said I would gladly sleep on the floor rather than walk the streets all night. The occupants of the house were a miner and his wife. I told them I was an old miner myself and that I was now a comedian touring with a concert party.

This information caused them to relent a bit and the upshot was that I was shown into a small room and told that I could sleep on the floor with a pillow and a couple of blankets which they would provide. To my astonishment there was quite a nice bed in the corner of the room and on the bed was lying, curled up but with a suspicious glint in its eyes, a lurcher dog. I asked whose bed that was.

"Oh," said the miner, "that's Jock's bed!"

"An' wha's Jock, may I ask?" said I.

"That's him!" was the reply, pointing to the dog. The wife explained that the lurcher was the apple of her hus band's eye. He was being trained for a race due to come off in a week or two. He always slept in this bed. But he was a quiet dog and wouldn't disturb me if I didn't disturb him! I felt inclined to suggest that Jock should be made to sleep on the floor and that I should have his bed but the night was cold and wet outside and I deemed it better to cause no un necessary complications. So my "shake-down" was duly prepared and we all wished each other good-night.

An hour or two later I was startled out of my sleep by Jock licking my face. I was very cold and uncomfortable, But the lurcher was evidently quite friendly inclined. Stretching out my, hands I happened to touch his bed. How cozy and warm it felt! So I just slipped into the dog's bed. He jumped in beside me and together we fell sound asleep. When the landlady came into the room to waken me in the morning she expressed great astonishment at seeing me in the dog's bed and coolly added that Jock was a "funny brute, sair gone in the temper and awfu' gien to bitin' folk, especially strangers!" I was glad to get away from the house without doing anything to spoil "Jock's" good impres sion of me—his recent bedfellow.

On another occasion I had agreed to pay a shilling for my bed to an old widow woman in a village in Galloway. Before going off to the concert about seven o'clock in the evening she told me that she would just leave the outside door on the latch and that I would find the kettle on the hob if I wanted to make myself a cup of tea after the show. In the course of the concert one of the other artistes told me that he had not yet fixed up any place to sleep in. So I told him he could come with me if he promised to pay ninepence for his share of the accommodation. He readily agreed. My intention was to pay the old lady eighteenpence for the two of us and thus reduce my own personal liability in the matter by threepence!

The two of us went home and made ourselves some tea, both drinking out of the same cup, and eating the remains of a packet of biscuits which I had got from a grocer when I handed him his free pass for the show. Soon we went to bed but were wakened about three o'clock in the morning by a noise as of someone suffocating. After lying in bed for a few minutes debating in low and anxious tones what we should do and advancing all sorts of explanations for the weird sounds from accident to murder I crept out from between the blankets and lighted a stump of candle the while my companion sat up in bed with his hair actually standing on end with terror. It did not take me long to trace the groans and gnrglings to a press in the corner of the room.

Darting back to the bedside I said, "My God, Jamie, but there's some dirty work been done here this nicht! We've got mixed up in something dreadful and we'll baith be for it wi' the police in the mornin'."

Meantime the sounds continued worse than ever. At last we decided to investigate further. Taking our courage in both hands we advanced again to the press door and listened carefully. All at once it opened of its own accord and a woman's body rolled on to the floor of the room at our feet. My trembling chum, who was now holding the candle stump, let the flame touch a tender portion of my anatomy. I shrieked; he did the same and so did the "body." The candle fell and went out. I tripped over a chair and went smash full length on the floor, roaring like a bull. The uproar brought several neighbours to the house in their night attire. The explanation of the "mystery" was very simple. The poor old body had only one room and as she did not see why she should lose the shilling I offered for the night's lodgings she had crept into the press intending to doze there for the night and get up silently in the early morning before her lodger was awake. When the press door gave way and she was suddenly thrown into the room, finding two men instead of one, she "kink her senses athegither" and started to shriek the place down!

The rest of the night we spent in a bed provided by one of the sympathetic neighbours and in the morning the old woman got her eighteenpence all the same. Many and many a time have I laughed over the incident of the landlady who tried to sleep in the kitchen press!

It was on this first tour that I had the opportunity of visiting Robert Burns's birthplace at Alloway and also the house wherein he died at Dumfries, Afterwards, in the old bookshop in the square at Dumfries I purchased for ten pence a second-hand volume of his poems and songs. Every minute I had to spare in each busy day I poured over this treasure; the book was my constant companion and my joy. I learned all Rabbie's songs by heart. My favourites were "O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast," "Mary Morrison," "0 A' the Airts the Wind Can Blaw," "Come under My Pladie," "Corn Rigs," "Bonnie Wee Thing," and "My Nannie's Awa." But, indeed, every song of Burns which dealt with love and the lasses, oh, appealed to me tremendously and I remember, in those weeks of my first rapture for the great bard of Scotland, telling myself over and over again that some day I would compose a song or two which would also exalt and glorify the charms of some unknown Mary or Jeannie, or Nell, or Annie. Yes, a Harry Lauder love-song that would be sung all over the world!

As luck would have it the tour also brought me to the birthplace of men like Tannahill, the Paisley Poet, and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. These men I worshipped second only to the Immortal Robert himself and I possessed myself of copies of their books and of every book or pamphlet that had ever been written about them. They were my Heroes of Scottish Song. I was only a poor, uneducated miner but with what entrancement did I read, over and over again, the Supreme Wish of Robert Burns-

-A wish (I mind its power)
A wish that to my latest hour
Will strongly heave my breast -
That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake
Some useful plan or book could make
Or sing a sang at least.

At that time and for years afterwards I frequently felt that the stuff I was singing was poor and tawdry and unworthy, but the determination to write a good love-song some day never quite forsook me. Whether, even yet, I have succeeded is not for me to say but I would express the wish that if I am remembered for any of my songs it will be for such lyrics as "Roamin' in The Gloamin'," "I Love A Lassie," "Over the Hills to Ardentinny," or my latest and greatest song, "My Heather Belle."

All too soon for me the Kennedys' tour came to an end and I found myself back at Hamilton again, I was now in my own estimation at least, a fully fledged professional comedian and I never doubted that the engagements would roll in for the illustrious Harry Lauder. As a matter of fact two "inquiries" were waiting for me on my return and as they were both "guinea-and-a-halfers" I felt that the world was really a very cheerful place to live in after all. Nance had actually saved nearly ten pounds from the pound a week I had been sending her.

How she achieved this wonderful record I did not inquire too closely; I suspected that she had spent most of the time with the auld folks, who were only too glad to have her assistance in looking after the children of whom by this time there must have been eight or ten. Altogether the Vallances had fourteen, several of them coming on the scene long after we were married and had a boy of our own, John.

My return to Hamilton was a great event among our family circles and my own pals and admirers. I was regarded as a prodigy; the astrachan coat was worn every day and for a week or two I strolled about the town with a lordly air, thoroughly enjoying the envious looks of my old cronies as they went to and from the pits in their greasy clothes.

Alas, my state of independence was not fated to last long. After I had fulfilled the two engagements which were waiting me the postman religiously passed our door. Nobody seemed to want the services of Harry Lauder, comedian. The money my wife had saved was slowly dwindling away: I was eating the bread of idleness—a terrible thought! At last my mind was made up. I would go back to the pit and give up all hope of ever making a living on the stage. Only too well did I know what such a decision meant in the way of jeers and sneers from the comrades I had left in the mine less than six months ago. But the situation was desperate. There were only two things I could do—sing or cut coal. Evidently nobody wanted to hear me sing. Getting a job at the coal-face presented no difficulty whatever, so I "signed on" with the under-manager who had prophesied so accurately that I would be back with my tail between my legs. He was a kindly man and he, at least, did not rub in the fact that I was a "stickit comic." I cannot say as much for some of the men, and weeks elapsed before they allowed me to for- get the fact. There was nothing really bitter about their chaff but it galled me dreadfully. I think I must have expended my rage and mortification on the coal-face for I worked like a galley-slave and made splendid wages-much more, I can assure you, than the fellows who were inclined to laugh at me.


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