Thursday, 28 May 2015

Screw the donah's groinies

It's 1928, and you're a young man from a professional background who has failed at everything. How do you revive your fortune? By telling other people's. A charming book from between the wars 

One day in the early summer of 1928 Philip Allingham, a 21-year-old from a good family, looked out of the window of the room he had rented in an office in London’s Coventry Street, and considered his options. He had failed at school, then failed to get into Oxford; and then, despite being from a family in what we would now call the media, he had failed at every copywriting and publicity job he had tried. He was now freelancing but there was no work, and he was down to his last few shillings. 

He decided, in desperation, to do the one thing he had always been quite good at, though he had never done it in earnest: read palms and tell fortunes. After a trial run in West End pubs (with mixed results), he bought a tent from Gamages for 35/- (£1.75), put on his top hat and tails (the image, don’t you know), and hit the road. Cheapjack, first published in 1934, is his story of his first years on that road.

Not all goes well. At his first pitch two ladies of the night steal his day’s takings. At Southend he has no luck at all, but spies a pleasure cruiser and persuades the crew to let him tell fortunes for the day-trippers at sea. He then becomes the only person on board to be seasick, and vomits over the side while wearing evening dress. But bit by bit he learns his trade, and makes many friends. Cheapjack is a cornucopia of palmists, showmen, Gypsies, conmen, landladies, and general odd characters. There are the travelling boxers. There are the “windbag” workers, who sell people envelopes that might contain a watch, or a cheap trinket, or nothing at all; it is a form of gambling, and of course the odds are loaded. There are the Gypsies, who take a shine to Allingham and prove to be good friends when he is set upon in Newcastle (though he himself, if he is to be believed, could be handy with his fists).

Fairgrounds were raffish places then and no doubt sometimes still are. J.B. Priestley, visiting Nottingham’s famous Goose Fair as part of his English Journey (1934), had a liverish reaction to it, and perhaps he was right (though as the author of The Good Companions, he could perhaps have been more charitable). The ambiguous morality of the showman did not bother Allingham, or perhaps he did not think about it. He does not rush to judgement on the people he met. There are exceptions – for example, a fake “theatrical agent” who trades on dreams and exposes his “clients” to ridicule. In the main, however, Allingham and the other barkers, pitchers and fortune-tellers are simply selling the punters a bit of fun and a dream. Both sides know that and there is no real deception. It’s a point well expressed when Allingham has a confrontation with an unpleasant evangelical preacher on a fairground in the Midlands. “After all,” Allingham tells the crowd, “we both set up as prophets. He tells you what will happen to you after you die, and I tell you what will happen to you in the near future. He advises you, and so do I. ...True, I charge a fee – we all have to live – but I will not be impertinent and inquire into any financial arrangements which our friend may have.” Quite.

Allingham is always entertaining. For a flavour of the book, one may scan the introductory standfirst at the head of each chapter (books still sometimes had these in the 1930s). Thus Chapter 13 is headed:  “I take part in Hull Fair, and meet many strange and interesting people, including Mad Jack, Peter the Whistler, and Madame Sixpence. I am invited to become an orthodox Jew, but decline and leave Hull."

An ad from the Daily Telegraph, June 1934
There is a certain jocularity about these standfirsts, and yet they are quite unselfconscious. And it seems that Allingham himself was. This must have been the key to his success as a palmist and pitcher. It is also the key to the book. Francis Wheen, in his introduction to the new (2010) edition, talks of the young men on the left – including Orwell, Christopher Isherwood and Tom Driberg – who went slumming in the 1930s in an attempt at working-class authenticity. Working people in South Wales and elsewhere suffered a deluge of earnest Fabians anxious to find out what they ate. It was not always well received.  Allingham could not have been more different. He is quite clear with everyone he meets that he is a toff on his uppers, trying to earn a crafty bob. It is clearly true, and he is accepted.

While this is attractive, it does mean this book isn’t a major social document. Allingham didn’t write it for that. Although obviously intelligent, he was not reflective, and had no wish to join the earnest Fabians. He mentions the Depression and the effect it had on business, but does not say much about it; he didn’t need to – his readers were still in the middle of it. The difficult social conditions of the early 1930s do come into focus at one point; Allingham needs a model to demonstrate the hair-wavers he is selling, and finds a certain 14-year-old girl to be very suitable. So he persuades her parents to let her travel with him (it should be remembered that children could then leave school at 14, and often did). His interview with the parents is in the worst kind of slum in the north-east, an area badly hit by the Depression; there are no shoes, no furniture, just bare boards and children. In the main, however, this book isn’t social history.

What it did do, though, is make its mark on the English language. Fairground people, grafters, call them what you will, had an argot of their own. Gypsies especially did, as Romany had only just slipped out of common use as a language, and was still occasionally spoken.  This argot was a mixture of English and Cockney rhyming slang and Yiddish, as well as Romany. Allingham provides a glossary; some of these words (“bevvy” for a drink – Allingham and his friends have quite a few of these; “rozzer” for a policeman) found their way into the language as a result, and the book has been so credited by the Oxford English Dictionary. Allingham finds it is as well to know this argot. One day he is in a train with other palmists, including a Gypsy who is wearing many fine rings on her fingers.  There are several toughs in the compartment, and one tells the others to “Take sights. Screw the donah’s groinies”. “We knew at once,” writes Allingham, “that he had suggested to his friends that they should watch the lady’s rings.” They change compartments at the next station.

The book was a success in 1934, and was widely reviewed. But it was then out of print for many years. Allingham was unable to get it republished postwar. He died in 1969, and although there seems to have been one edition in the 1990s, the book was mostly out of print until 2010. It was then republished by a small company, Golden Duck, owned by Wheen and his partner, Julia Jones. The latter is an expert on the Allingham family and the book was published with the support and encouragement of the Margery Allingham Society (the famous crime novelist was Philip’s older sister, and helped edit the original book). The new edition reproduces the letterpress text of the original, but also includes some splendid contemporary photographs – including a number of Allingham at work, most of which were likely taken as publicity shots for the original 1934 Heinemann edition.

We should thank Jones and Wheen for reprinting this. Cheapjack may not be, or have been meant as, history – yet it is redolent of its era; and it is also great fun. Allingham was no philosopher. But it is clear that he was the most likeable, unhypocritical and generous of men. To travel with him through the fairgrounds and pubs of England and Wales was a pleasure. And should I hear a fellow-passenger mention screwing a donah’s groinies, I shall ask the cabin crew for an upgrade to business class at once.

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), via NetGalley, or to the author.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Cameron’s next five years: A rubbish prospect - for Cameron?

Thursday’s British election results are a genuine achievement for British Prime Minister David Cameron. Expected to lose, or at best be forced into a coalition, he has instead won a small but workable majority. But he may yet regret it.  Here are my cut-out-and-keep predictions for the next five years. Look at them in 2020 and see if they’ve come true

On April 8 1992, I sat in a friend’s Volkswagen Golf, touring through the streets of London’s Lambeth. We’d chosen it because it had a sunroof; if it was open, you could clip a loudspeaker to its edge, if it wasn’t raining (it wasn’t; it was a delightful spring evening). We toured the estates south of Vauxhall Cross and The Oval, pouring out our message. My friend was driving; as a former traffic broadcaster with a very deep voice, I had the mike. I can’t remember exactly what I was saying. But I do remember cruising down the South Lambeth Road on the way home and emitting some banal remark or other along the lines of “Vote Labour”. As we approached the Stockwell Clock Tower, someone on the pavement yelled back: “Vote Labour, pay later, you arseholes”, or something similar – ah, the language of Shakespeare, Mill and Milton. We pulled into my friend’s street, one of those to the south of Clapham High Street where nice terrace houses were just starting to fetch a fortune. As I walked through his hall with an armful of PA equipment, I noticed his wife was watching that night’s feature film BBC1; Scandal, about the 1963 Profumo affair (about which more in a moment).

I didn’t take an active part in last night’s election, as I’m abroad (though I did vote). But I see striking parallels between last night’s events and those of April 1992.

One is the victory of a Tory leader who was expected to lose by a country mile. In 1992 John Major fought an unexpectedly vigorous campaign and earned my reluctant, but real, respect. He was always far too easy to dismiss. The son of a music-hall performer, he went into banking (someone once called him “the only man ever to run away from the circus to become an accountant”).  In office he was to give an impression of pragmatism and decency at the head of the Tory Party; a genial baboon attempting to save a shrill troupe of hyenas from self-destruction. Cameron isn’t quite the same. He is from a background of privilege, and embodies a sense of entitlement to leadership that Major never claimed for himself, or would have accepted in others. The parallels are strong nonetheless.

However, if I was David Cameron, I’d be wishing to God that I had not won this election. And not just because of the parallels with Major; there is more, much more. Here are six reasons why the next five years will be hell for the Tory party and why Cameron may eventually wish he’d been defeated.

II: Europe
The 1970 Conservative government took Britain into Europe without a referendum, which it had promised not to do. This undermined the project from the start. When Labour finally held one in 1975, British electors (including myself) voted yes to what we thought was a free-trade zone, little more. Since then there have been significant treaty revisions, yet our last chance to vote on the issue was so long ago that most of those who voted are dead. So there is an argument for this referendum. But it will be very dangerous for Britain. For Cameron, the referendum, and Europe in general, may prove lethal.

First, the failure of UKIP in the election means that a major outlet for anti-EU feeling on the Right has been removed. It will now be bottled up in the Tory party again. More than ever now, it will be torn apart by vicious internal arguments over Europe, just as it was under Major. This will lead to defections and backbench rebellions that a man with a small majority can’t afford. As Ken Clarke, one of the Tory party’s biggest Big Beasts, pointed out the  morning after the election, this was a small majority and could be whittled away. “It’s a great victory,” he said, but added: “It is tempting for factions to hold you to ransom. That is what happened to John Major.” 

The decision to hold a vote means it will be even worse for Cameron. There will be fractious, dangerous negotiations with Europe, and the Tory party will then divide on their results, with a large minority arguing that Cameron has brought too little back from Brussels. There will then be a referendum that results in the UK staying in the EU anyway but being far less influential in it than it was before. Its influence is already slipping away; it has taken little part in talks over Ukraine. In fact, this referendum is not so much Britain shooting itself in the foot, as blasting it with a howitzer. It will also seem perverse to our partners. Issues that need pan-European attention over the next five years will include a rising tide of desperate migrants, insecurity on Europe’s Eastern border, and periodic financial instability in the Eurozone. In this context, a  British attempt at renegotiation, and uncertainty over its membership, will be most unhelpful to everyone else. It’s likely they will tell us that, not politely.

III: Scotland
This election has demonstrated that partial federalisation doesn’t work, so Cameron will be the last PM of Britain as it is now; it will be dissolved on his watch, maybe altogether. 

The unexpected Tory majority means the Scottish question isn’t immediate.  In a hung parliament, the SNP would have had an effective veto over legislation that applied to the English and Welsh but not to its own electors (the so-called West Lothian question). This would have angered other British people and would have forced a constitutional response. The SNP won’t have this veto for now, and there are almost no other Scottish MPs; so for the moment, this question has been de-fanged. In fact the SNP members may be a positive presence at Westminster, bringing a fresh view to select and standing committees, and subjecting the government to lively scrutiny.

But if we go on with a Scotland that is partly devolved but still represented at Westminster, the West Lothian question will be back, and it’s not clear how it can be solved. Cameron promised “English votes for English people”; he will be held to this, and will find that he does not really know how to do it.  As long as Scotland stays in the UK, it is entitled to be represented in parliament. How, actually, do you decide what Scots MPs should and shouldn’t vote on, and who has the right to keep them out of the lobbies?  More immediately, the EU referendum in 2017 is not likely to take us out of Europe. But it might – a decision the Scots would not endorse. This could force a very sudden and messy separation.  

Even if this does not happen, Cameron’s government will face the growing desire of all people, including the English, for a clear identity in an era of globalisation. There is no sign that it has the imagination to see this. Yet it will be forced to confront it at some point in its term of office.

IV: A serious scandal
The Elm Guest House allegations have not yet been fully worked through, and there are serious allegations against a very senior former Tory cabinet minister. They have not been proved in court, and his friends strongly refute them.  Nonetheless, some of the rumours concerning both Elm House, and alleged sex parties and even killing connected with Dolphin Square, are very distressing. The smell of past sexual misconduct by senior figures is not going to go away.

For the moment, this is mostly rumour and allegation. But if it proves to be something more, it could undermine an administration already struggling with internal divisions over Europe and devolution. It would be seen by many as proof that Britain is run by a closed and corrupt clique.  

There are echoes of the  Profumo affair, which effectively brought down Tory PM Harold Macmillan in 1963, and helped cause his party’s defeat in the election of the following year.  It’s not quite the same, of course. Profumo had involved serious errors of judgement by a serving minister; the current allegations are historic, and do not involve Cameron’s own government in any way. On the other hand, the Profumo affair did not involve the alleged rape and possibly murder of children and its cover-up by the establishment.

V: The voting system
The Green Party got 400,000 more votes than the Scottish Nationalists on Thursday, but got one seat against the SNP’s 56. Put another way, the SNP got one seat per 26,000 votes, the Conservatives one per 34,500 votes, Labour one per 40,500 seats, the Liberal Democrats one per 295,000 votes, the Greens one seat for 1.1 million votes and UKIP one seat for 3.8 million votes. How can this possibly confer legitimacy upon the elected government?

To be sure, it's hard to say what the results would have been under PR. It depends on the type of PR system used; besides, the existence of such a system would itself change voting behaviour. However, the Mirror did a back-of-a-fag-packet estimate based on Thursday’s results and the outcome was a Tory-UKIP coalition, perhaps with the DUP. So be careful what you wish for.  Still, the current system is unjust, the question won’t go away in the next five years, and there will be great pressure for change.

VI: The excluded
I was in London through the London riots of 1981 and 1985, and was shocked by the riots of 2011. People heave bricks through windows when they feel they have no voice. (Also sometimes because they’re little sods who want new trainers; but they’re opportunists, not the people who start the trouble.)

There have been rumours for some weeks about a new tranche of welfare cuts that would have a direct impact on the poorest. According to the Guardian (May 5 2015), threats include increasing the bedroom tax, ending maternity benefit and even stricter tests for the unemployed sick before they can get benefits.  The latter will be especially controversial, given the number of alleged injustices that already take place. Everyone has heard the “dead man told to find work” stories; in 2013 the Public Accounts Committee reported that  38% - over a third –  of fitness-for-work decisions were being overturned on appeal, which strongly suggests that some of those stories are true.

Some of those hit by new cuts are unlikely to fight back, or at least to riot (carers, the disabled). Others will. The Guardian claims one of the proposals is to deny under-25s incapacity benefit or housing benefit. It’s not hard to imagine a more and more frustrated layer of young people forced to stay with families who no longer want them and cannot support them. This won’t be the proximate cause of disorder – it wasn’t in 2011, or 1985 – but it will pave the way. Prepare for bricks.

VI: A succession crisis?
No-one seems to have thought of this – after 63 years as head of state, the Queen may pass away during this parliament. That isn’t inevitable; she is 89 – her mother made 101. If it does happen, however, she will leave a huge vacuum, a succession crisis and constitutional turmoil.  Prince Charles is not disliked the way he was, and will probably succeed to the throne. But he will be less able to provide national cohesion than his remarkable mother. Moreover the passing of the Queen may show us the extent to which her personal popularity has protected an institution that is no longer as widely accepted as it was.  There will be a bitter, long-suppressed debate on the monarchy, its cost and its role, if any, in modern Britain.

It’s quite a list. Six potential nightmares: Europe, Scotland, historic sex abuse, a dysfunctional voting system, riots, and a sudden challenge to the monarchy. The first two of these are simply not avoidable. The next three probably aren’t, and the sixth is completely unpredictable.  

It would be wrong to say that I welcomed the Tory majority on Friday morning. I did not; it represented a dreadful lack of imagination and courage by the electorate. But maybe, just maybe, it’s Cameron who should regret this victory. After five years he will be left with a divided party, and a weakened and maybe truncated country that has little influence in Europe (or with the US, whose interests increasingly lie elsewhere). Meanwhile, those cheated by the electoral system will turn to forms of politics that lie outside it. Some of them will be negative and destructive. But others will not; watch the Greens. 

The Right did not, in the end, win last Thursday. What really happened was that the Ancien Regime missed its last chance to reform itself from within. The next five years are not going to be fun. What lies ahead is (to misquote W.G. Sebald) the creative history of destruction. What emerges from it will be a new and very different country, rediscovering its pre-imperial identity and finding a place for itself in a complex and changing world. But Cameron will be at best a deflated figure, rather as Major was in 1997. At worst, he will be reviled as a failure on the scale of Chamberlain and Lord North, and his party will be out of office for a generation.

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. 
Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), via NetGalley, or to the author.