My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall, by John Major, Harper Press RRP£20, 363 pages
The fact that John Major’s father had been the principal in a music hall duo known as Drum & Major (he danced, sang and joked with his first wife Kitty) seemed to call for a whole new theory of genetics. How could this apparently pedantic, clerkly man have had such a firecracker of a parent? John Major does actually begin this book by stating, “Whatever gifts my parents passed on to their children, the talent to entertain was not one of them”, which is a bold admission to make at the outset of 350-odd pages.
But the chief characteristic of Sir John Major KG, CH, PC, etc is that he is a dark horse, and in My Old Man he does deliver the goods, even if he is still prone to those strained sonorities (“Music hall was born of no fixed abode”) and genteel circumlocutions for which he was known as prime minister: this is an author who takes imaginative leaps only when he finds it “reasonable to speculate”.
The book begins and ends with accounts of Major’s father Tom, who was 64 when John was born, and entering a long hangover of poor health and poverty after his glory years (1900-30) as a peripatetic music hall artist. As Tom lay dying in the family’s two rented rooms in Brixton, the 19-year-old John answered the door to a succession of shabby eccentrics. They were other Micawber-ish relics of music hall, coming to say goodbye to Tom and drinking whisky at his bedside, singing and yarning.
In between these rather stilted evocations (“tears of mirth rolled down their and my father’s cheeks”), we have a well-organised history of an entertainment that started as “tavern-based”. As disposable income and leisure time increased, it progressed to larger venues that were partly pubs, and ended up in the plush custom-built halls of the 1890s, whose bars were entirely separate from the auditoriums, and whose proprietors demonstrated their modernity by showing short films between the turns, thus unwittingly launching the medium that would kill their main business.
That John Major is thoroughly at home with this story is shown by the density of well-chosen detail. We learn that stage magician John Nevil Maskelyne invented the penny-in-the-slot lavatory; that when Frankie Howerd urged the audience to “Desist! Desist!”, appealing for order amid the ribaldry he’d created, he was only copying the red-nosed (yet hard-headed) “Prime Minister of Mirth”, George Robey. We learn that Harry Relph – who was deformed in several ways, yet would be admired by Nijinsky for his dancing – was compared as a youth to “the famous and portly claimant to the Tichborne baronetcy”, so he began to call himself Little Tich, hence the word “tich” to mean small.
As his narrative progresses, Major relaxes into a gentle and kindly humour. In a digression about the sort of leisure pursuits that competed with music hall, he mentions cycling, and one club with a “very catchy” name: the New Swindon Street Congregational Church Young Man’s Bible Class Amateur Cycling Club. (Another was called the Up-to-Date Female’s Emancipation Society Cycling Club.) Describing the brilliantly funny yet melancholic comedian Dan Leno, Major mentions the fact that Leno started out as a practitioner of that northern mill town speciality, clog dancing, winning the title “Champion Clog Dancer of the World” – albeit, as Major notes, a “rather small world”.
Major’s own working-class Toryism is subtly illuminated in his sympathetic depiction of the “coster”: the boisterous sole trader in cap and flared trousers who patronised those mid-19th-century forerunners of music halls, the penny gaffs. In the heyday of music hall, many performers had the coster persona: street-smart rough diamonds. They were usually male, but Major puts goofy, vivacious Marie Lloyd in this bracket.
A more leftwing author might at this juncture have noted the masochistic streak in music hall, its cheerful acceptance of the indignities of working- class life. The author and broadcaster Robert Robinson once wrote that the song “Any Old Iron” was “the sound of a man singing with his teeth chattering”. But Major contents himself with comparing the coster to the competing persona of the “swell”, the Champagne Charlie.
The archetypal swell song was “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”, sung by Charles Coborn. It was probably inspired by the exploits of Charles Wells, who in 1891 won 23 times out of 30 spins of the roulette wheel at the Café de Paris in Monte Carlo. Major informs us that it may have been “based on one Joseph Jagger, apparently a distant relation of Mick Jagger, who after careful scrutiny of the Café de Paris roulette wheel noticed a bias in one”. (He won £75,000, about £4m in today’s money.)
The music hall swells were parodists and satirists. In modern Britain, we have had a surfeit of real ones, breaking banks closer to home. Major emerges to advantage by his association with this demotic art form. It is hard to imagine Downing Street’s current residents mixing it with “Felix, The Mind-Reading Duck”, or “Miss Nellie Gertine, the Lady Baritone”, or Joe Lawrence, who sang while standing on his head.
Major writes that his acquaintance with music hall has given him a “tolerance of odd behaviour”. It seems “reasonable to speculate” that this alludes to the Conservative backwoodsmen who patronised and thwarted him during his seven years as prime minister, but My Old Man reveals an author too graceful to say so directly.
Andrew Martin’s latest novel is ‘The Baghdad Railway Club’ (Faber)