A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To The Twenty-First Century

by John M. Joyce (Oct. 2008)

Oh, don’t get me wrong – as centuries go the twenty-first is not too bad, so far; I’ve known worse, but I’ve also known better. Take the nineteenth one, for example. Now that was a good century. Hoi polloi knew their place and even the street urchins touched their forelocks as I walked past (well, in some cases they touched where they fondly imagined their forelocks to be). Respect was solid coin back then, something to be earned, not enforced by a sharp knife. A man knew where he stood and what he stood for – and, frequently, what he stood in, but the urchins would be soundly thrashed until they lay down and let gentlemen such as me have something clean, well cleaner, to walk on. Being as how they were proper English urchins I am sure that they enjoyed it – well, the thrashing, at any rate.


It’s not just proper respect that we have lost on our journey into this century; it’s also something more rare and precious. We have lost skilled craftsmen. We have lost those indispensable and highly skilled workers of the rare and precious materials. We have lost those who could take the mundane materials and turn them into the rare and precious object, also. Gone are their journeymen and their apprentices, as well. Gone, too, are their guilds and their specialist jargons, much of which still enriches our great language, but now floats free therein, disconnected from its roots. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the mis-spelling of ‘tenterhook’ as ‘tenderhook’ which has gradually crept into even our most illustrious publications.


I felt that loss most keenly this very morn. My valet had just drawn my bath and made his way into my dressing room to lay out my clothes for the morning when I heard him utter such a wail as to strike fear into my heart. Imagining dead bodies spread-eagled and bleeding over my tweeds, or scorch marks on my linen for which I would have to beat the lithesome, young laundry-maid, again, I leapt, like a high jumper, from my bed sending my grand bol of scalding hot chocolate with which I customarily start my day, spinning across the room in the process.


Do not worry, dear reader, the exceedingly heavy antique bone-china dish landed safely and unbroken in the crotch of the chimney-sweep’s climbing boy who was, most fortuitously, crouched in the hearth applying goose-grease to his grazes and burns – a most reprehensible practice, as I’ve oft told him: he should let the wounds callous naturally if he wishes to become really proficient at his craft, but the young never listen. I hurried towards my dressing room, observing as I went that the boy was dancing around in the hearth with a look of rapture on his face as he sucked the steaming hot chocolate out of his threadbare work-clothes. It is, as my Chaplain, the Reverend Porteous Hallowfood, always reminds me, good to give to the poor.


So, I entered my dressing room with trepidation, but also with a virtuous glow from my inadvertent charity and with the ecstatic moans of the chimney sweep’s boy still ringing in my ears. The sight which confronted me, however, froze the very blood in my veins. There upon its shelf stood my last remaining pierced alabaster singlet cracked from the right shoulder diagonally down to the fine fretwork hip-frieze.


I shuddered, I gasped, I may even have moaned – but in, as you would expect, a very refined way. I turned to my tearful valet hoping against hope for some comfort in my distress.


“It will have to be the soapstone, sir,” he said, with a sob in every word.


“But why did you not order more alabaster singlets from Littlefrock, Sparsatin, Windblower and Jones?” I asked in some confusion, “You know that I can’t wear that cheap Chinese soapstone – it brings me out in a rash. Besides, those mass produced things aren’t finished properly – they’re prickly!”


“Littlefrock, Sparsatin, Windblower and Jones went out of business shortly after they carved your last order back in ’65, sir,” he replied.


Writ true across his face was the same distress which I now felt.


“Out of business!” I gasped.


“Indeed, sir,” he stated, “It seems that the demand for decent hand-carved underwear dried up very quickly as we gave the Empire away. Craftsmanship, it seems, simply isn’t appreciated in this modern world, I’m afraid, sir!”


I gazed at him with my brain a-whirl. I could see in his features that he remembered, as I did, that lovely day back in 1965 when we were given a tour of the Littlefrock, Sparsatin, Windblower and Jones production floor. We saw, and admired together, the sheer skill of the master-craftsmen splitting off from the great blocks the wafer-thin sheets of alabaster which would later form the firm, pierced panels of my hand-carved undergarments. We wondered together at the marvellous skill and precision of the journeymen as they precisely drilled the thousands of string-holes into the sheets and the young, oh so very young, apprentices smoothing off the burrs and drill-tailings around the multitude of holes using nothing more than their bare index fingers as files, and their own spit as lubricant. Their tears of joy as they accomplished such fine and skilled work is one of my abiding and happy memories of that day.


Alas, no more! It seemed that I was to be reduced to cheap cotton and that most awful of necessary garments for a gentleman with a very, very, very, very slight corporation – a girdle. One does not need a girdle when one wears a proper hand-carved singlet. I needed, obviously, to take a decision: was it to be horrid cotton, or equally as horrid cheap Chinese soapstone?


Ah, now I knew first hand how Mrs. Arvina, my amply endowed housekeeper, must really have felt on that day seven years ago when she had been found desolate and inconsolably weeping over her broken, maiden-smoothed, best Pennine Millstone Grit brassiere, manufactured, if I recall correctly (and I probably do for I have a certain reputation not unconnected with brassieres), by that now defunct great northern firm of Japhet Gremium and Sons Ltd.


I have a clear memory of her tear-filled eyes as she looked up at me and said, her voice broken by sobs, “My last one, Sir, and Gremium’s out of business. Whatever will I do now, Sir?”


“Do?” I had asked, just a little flummoxed by what had appeared to be a non sequitur.


“To stop the jiggling, Sir,” she had replied, “Don’t you recall, Sir, that I ordered Gremium brassieres for all the female servants. It would not be seemly to have jiggling in the house of a respectable, single gentleman such as you, Sir.”


I had so recalled. I had not particularly minded the jiggling, in fact I had quite liked it, but against one of Mrs. Arvina’s somewhat odd moral injunctions even I had had no defence. I had tried to keep the costs down, as I remember, by suggesting much cheaper Dahat Teak brassieres from Burma for the lower servants, but Mrs. Arvina had insisted that all the girls must be comfortable in proper, English, maiden-smoothed millstone brassieres from Gremium’s works in Bradford.


She had been leaving the room when she had clinched the argument by blushing furiously and reminding me, in her Sunday best, ‘proper’ voice, of another tenet of her moral world. “Trees are so manly, I always think, so upstanding, if you catch my drift, Sir. It certainly would not be right to encase any part of my young girls in such a masculine material, Sir.”


Truly, it had been a Parthian shot in the finest tradition of that ancient people. I had been naught but a Ralpho to her Hudibras. So Gremium’s finest had been ordered and thenceforward there was no jiggling in my house. Such respectability!


I remember, as well, that on that day when she had been found weeping over her shattered Gremium nether garment, that I had placed my hand on her shoulder and had squeezed it lightly in a manly gesture of sympathy. She had returned my gesture with a little hiccough and a tremulous, and oddly attractive, smile.


It is, however, that which I had said next, which that morn, as I surveyed my cracked and ruined singlet, made me ashamed of myself. I had had the temerity to suggest the solution, similar to the one which my valet had offered to me, that imported Chinese soapstone, machine carved brassieres were an acceptable substitute, and I recall her words of rebuttal well.


“Oh, Sir!” she had exclaimed, “No, no! They are so unfinished and scratchy. Besides, they’re foreign. We might catch something dreadful. What if we all caught Confucianism and turned into Analects, and wandered around saying ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’ all day. Oh, oh, I couldn’t bear it, Sir! It’s all so unfair, Sir! Think of all those young maidens who broke-in and smoothed the edges of those wonderful Gremium millstone brassieres throughout the ages, just so that we poor women would not jiggle about as we moved and provoke good gentlemen such as you to Unnatural Passions. Many a young Northern lass has gotten a fine start in life as a breaking-in outworker for Gremiums. What happened to them, Sir, when Gremiums went down? Oh, oh, I couldn’t betray them by wearing mucky foreign stone – or asking our girls to wear it, either, Sir.”


“Calm yourself, Mrs. Arvina,” I remember telling her, “Most of those buxom young maidens got employment at Curate Legweek Armoured Undergarments Development Enterprises Ltd. over in B—-shire.”


Right there and then, as I recall, I knew that I had found the solution to that particular domestic crisis.


“But of course,” I remember exclaiming to her – I may even have struck my forehead with the heel of my palm in a mock Gallic gesture, for I am prone to such theatricality when under pressure, “That’s the answer, my dear Mrs. Arvina. It’s second best, I know, but perhaps the Premium range of reinforced, armour-plated, industrial strength brassieres manufactured by CLAUDE Ltd. – and you must know that they are guaranteed jiggle suppressant under all normal, and many extraordinary, working conditions – might fit the bill.”


Well, the look of gratitude and relief which swept across her visage was a sight which I will take with me to my grave. I had, in my usual penetrating way, turned one woman’s disaster into a triumph.


“Oh, Sir,” I recall she said, breathily, her tears drying almost instantly on her healthy, country-woman, rubicund cheeks, “That would do nicely! But doesn’t all their production go to the Ministry of Defence. Do you think that they will supply us?”


“I am sure of it,” I remember replying, “I do have some little influence at the Ministry, you know.”


I have never told her, nor will I ever tell her, that I am a major shareholder in Curate Legweek Armoured Undergarments Development Enterprises Ltd. I will also, most certainly, never tell her that I, and my best friend Professor Sir Tittius Handfall, jointly hold the patents on the anti-jiggle, suppressant shock absorbers which are built into every CLAUDE Ltd. industrial strength armour plated brassiere.


My own distress upon finding that awful crack in my last remaining hand-carved, alabaster undergarment had triggered the memory of poor Mrs. Arvina’s distress: it is so true, as I now saw, that one has to be driven a mile in the other fellow’s Rolls-Royce before one truly understands.


That aside, however, as I stood there in my dressing room I still had a decision to take – rubbishy cotton or mass-produced soapstone? I glanced at my valet.


“This a real problem,” I said to him, “Which can only be lived with one day at a time. What is on my agenda for today?”


“I believe, Sir, that you were going to supervise the outside servants in the construction of the new high-speed, revolving, pagoda-style orangery. I distinctly recall that, for you were kind enough to explain to me in some detail about the difficulties of using the hemp bricks in the building process – that they tended to unravel if not handled correctly.”


“Ah yes, you’re quite right. I was indeed going to do just that. That nice Mr. Mohammed Yousef delivered the bricks yesterday. They were very expensive indeed, so I don’t want any wastage if it can be helped. I shall wear my heavy-duty under-wired silk shirt with the lumberjack style of patterning, together with a belcher neckcloth and my hand carved mahogany gardening trousers – you know, the Italian pair from Mano ed Intagliato. The Italians really understand clothes, you know, and they will be most suitable for a day of hard, outdoor, supervisory work.”


Sometime later, after a small breakfast (nine courses only, for it is so difficult to work on an overfull stomach), I made my way across the South lawn to the site where my new orangery was to be built. The sun was shining, with just a zephyr of a breeze to temper the warmth, and there was a satisfying tap, snap, crack from my well lubricated trouser-hinges as I walked. I started my arduous day of supervision by directing my footmen to place my portable desk and its chair at some little distance from the actual site in the shade of an ancient tree. After all, it would never do to let the bright sunlight bleach the fine walnut veneers. The boot-boy, strong and willing little chap that he is, staggered up and placed my favourite eighteenth century side table at the right hand side of my chair and my butler promptly placed upon it a silver salver upon which were a dozen or so Cornish pasties (I understand it is traditional to eat Cornish pasties when one is labouring in the fresh air) and a couple of plates of macaroons. My cook is so thoughtful and she must have known instinctively that after such a light breakfast I might need a little sustenance before lunch. My under-butler carefully placed a spirit stove and tea-making paraphernalia upon the side table, also. I am blessed with such wonderful servants and really they don’t cost very much at all. I do wonder, sometimes, why everyone doesn’t have servants.


It was then that I finally had the leisure to cast my eyes over the site and noticed what appeared, at that distance, to be a smouldering small heap of hemp bricks at the far side, around which were gathered all my outside servants. I beckoned Mr. Everhard Cripplebag, my Head Gardener, to come across and join me at my desk. Grinning hugely (isn’t it nice when one’s servants are so pleased to see one) he duly did so.


“Mr. Cripplebag,” I said, with a warm smile, “I know that hemp bricks can be tricky. Do we have a case of spontaneous combustion over there?”


“Aarrr, well Sorr, youm could say thaht, in a sorrt of way of saying, thaht is,” his honest country accent was most pronounced, “Thee ignition hahd a cerrtayne spontaneity aboon it, Sorr, aye, moost cerrtaynly.”


I would have inspected the conflagration at that point were it not for the fact that my right trouser leg suddenly fell off! I looked down aghast. The upper thigh-hinge had completely disintegrated and its parts lay, together with the squisito mahogany panelling, upon the grass. That, however, was not the worst of it. Trouser-hinge by trouser-hinge my wonderful hand-carved Mano ed Intagliato mahogany work-trousers disintegrated and fell onto the lawn. I was left standing naked in front of my servants with my modesty saved only by my high tensile, Bengali jute underpants (from the Tache and Marwaris company – the ones with the stained, Venetian glass side panels, tricky to wear, but generally one gets the hang of it by the fifth or sixth pair; or one bleeds to death in the trying, of course, but high fashion has always had its penalties, as we all know).


Quick as a flash Mr. Ripsnoddle, my butler, whipped his jacket off and wrapped it around my exposed nether regions. My servants, what can I say? Later on I tipped him a whole penny, for I was truly grateful for his prompt action. At that moment, as I tied the sleeves of his jacket tightly behind me, the light summer breeze veered slightly and a great gust of smoke from the smouldering bricks was blown over us. Taken unawares I inhaled deeply. Suddenly, nothing mattered. I felt a curious, carefree lightness steal over me. I grinned; I may even have giggled, in a gentlemanly way, of course. I breathed in again and the feeling intensified. After several more smoke-filled breaths I felt exceeding hungry and blessed cook’s forethought in her providing of pasties and macaroons.


I don’t remember much more, but I do remember coming to on the chaise longue in my study some several hours later. Needless to say, I immediately put a stop on the cheque which I had written to that nice Mr. Mohammed Yousef. I had ordered the most expensive hemp bricks which I could find in my effort to be green and friendly to the planet. I simply never expected that my simple desire to be ecologically sound would lead me into such a parlous situation. Honestly, if one can’t trust a Muslim, whom can one trust? Would you expect a believer in Islam to be a drug dealer? Well, I’ve certainly learnt my lesson and I’ll never trust another one of them! Of course, it does explain why the hemp bricks were so expensive in the first place!


That terrible day doesn’t end there, however. The only company which has the capability to manufacture replacement trouser-hinges today, Scold, Brackett, Popout and Upholder Ltd., turned out to be under exclusive contract to Curate Legweek Armoured Undergarments Development Enterprises Ltd. and to have turned over their entire production line to the manufacture of Elasticised Emergency Relief Hinges for industrial strength, armour plated, jiggle resistant brassieres.


I am hoist by my own petard, it seems.

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