I HAVE, people say, a splendid
baritone voice. It’s a pity I spoil it, they add, by singing. But I often
warble my native woodnotes wild in my bath while plying the loofah, at the
car wheel, perhaps in a sunburst of joy at finding a parking space in
Edinburgh and, sometimes, to add a crackling, catarrhal accompaniment to
some oleaginous operatic tenor on radio or TV.
may not be able to hold a note longer than the Royal Bank of Scotland, I
have had a lifetime of song. It included my primary school days when the
class belted out, "Jesus loves me, yes I know", and heard the words, "so
does Rag-time Cowboy Joe" added by a little, bullet-headed bruiser who was
teacher-led by the neck scruff to the headmaster to hear his disapproving
descant. At secondary school, the class’s barrage of 'Hey Johnnie Cope are
ye waukin’ yet?' made window panes rattle, chalk dust dance and the music
teacher bury her face in her hands and mutter something pious.
repertoire was also enriched in Army days when we recruits sang while
marching and at troop concerts. The songs were mainly of a brisk and manly
nature, often crudely comical, certainly, in today’s terms,
non-politically correct but as Kipling nearly observed: "Singing men in
barracks don’t grow into plaster saints."
My mother, a keen Scottish
variety theatregoer, created a corpus of music hall choruses of a
spirited, hilarious or sentimental nature that she passed on to me. My
wife’s mother had a similar collection and revealed them to her daughter
as something every young girl should know, especially in the Scottish
domestic scene, like, 'Two Lovely Black Eyes', 'Won’t You Come Home Bill
Bailey?' and 'The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life'.
songs were on everybody’s lips and the errand boy’s whistle. Are there any
message lads about and in these Walkman days, do they whistle 'Down at the
old Bull and Bush' and 'On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep'? I suspect little is
known about the zestful 'Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze', or the
melodic majesty of 'Will Ye Stop Yer Ticklin’ Jock'? The fizzy gaiety of
'Champagne Charlie', that jaunty anthem of the jilted, 'There Was I
Waiting At The Church', and countless other blithe-spirited gems have
largely vanished from the national song psyche. The chief characteristic
of most of these songs - apart from the saccharinely sentimental 'Bird in
a Gilded Cage" variety - was an air of breezy, bouncy, Edwardian
insouciance interwoven with irrepressible humour and unflagging
patriotism, the last exampled by the blatantly chauvinistic, 'Sons of the
Sea', "all British-born, sailing every ocean, laughing foes to scorn",
often delivered on stage by someone with a Dr Crippen collar and
spectacles and hair parted down the middle, and followed by something
like, "Oh, Engerland is England still./ It always has and always will./
Though foreign foes may brag,/ we love our dear old flag./ And Engerland
is England still." If he had dared to sing before stern and wild
Caledonians, he would have been wise to have retreated before boos and -
in rowdier Victorian times - a variety of vegetables were flung at him in
BRITAIN then was in tune with growing prosperity
and power, and atlases revealed much of the world coloured British
imperial red. The Bible and battle fleet helped to maintain Pax
Britannica, and even if the rich man was in his castle gunroom and the
poor man slumped alcoholically at the gate, the country was, from the
1880s to the First World War, still the world’s workshop and the songs
reflected our global dominance.
Our songs today, I submit,
reflect national moral and morale dysfunction and are often barely
singable. We are a country fearful of many things, from harmful hospital
bacteria, food and terrorists to the prospect of being taxed into
bankruptcy or poverty, and there is no modern morale-rousing equivalent
of, "Are we downhearted? - No!"
All may not be lost for
cheering choruses. Plans are being made to revive Britain’s long tradition
of music hall by forming a National Theatre of Variety at Blackpool’s
Grand Theatre. An Equity task-force planning the venture, to be launched
next year, envisages a return to the classic form of variety with
ventriloquists, tap-dancers, burlesque, magicians and, of course,
vocalists with songs that will, I hope, tune-up a grateful nation.
City Varieties Music Hall, once the home of the BBC’s The Good Old Days,
has long and expertly maintained the character and casting of such
entertainment. If the Blackpool plan succeeds, perhaps modern music halls,
rafters-ringing with popular songs, would appear across Britain,
especially, in my essentially-biased hope, in Glasgow, regarded in
Victorian days as the home of variety. I would splash out for a booking.
In my bath, that’s something to sing about.