7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 24

Music Hall


Benny Green

Matilda Alice Victoria Wood, alias Marie Lloyd, died fifty years ago this weekend, and the most impressive of all the testimonies to her greatness is that todaY nobody will need to be told who she was or what she did for a living. Multi-coloured garlands from impeccable intellectual sources have been floating down on her reputation since early in the century, but sadly, as her genius was to a large extent musical, and most of the literary florists altogether unmusical, it hardly needs to be said that their tributes have tended to be

either pretentious or nonsensical or both.

James Agate, for instance finds it impossible to discuss her without invoking Sans-Gene, Flaubert, Maurice Baring, Duse, Tom Jones and Adam Bede, and predictably ends his paean with a glorification of Sarah Bernhardt; perhaps we can take Agate's measure by observing that while he gets all those difficult names right, he manages to get Marie's early stage name, Bella Delmore, wrong. But at least Agate conveys the impression of a man with a grasp, of salient facts. T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, appeared to have taken leave of his senses, a condition not altogether unfamiliar to him, in asserting that " I have never known Marie Lloyd to be confronted by hostility; in any case, the feeling of the vast majority of the audience was so manifestly on her side, that no objector would have dared lift his voice." There were, on the contrary, one or two nights, especially in London's East End, when Marie, having miscalculated the required degree of vulgarity, was given the bird, and I cannot resist the temptation to describe this attempt by a sentimental poet to whitewash Marie's reputation as an unfortunate example of emulsion recollected in tranquillity. Beerbohm's Music Hall of My Youth most ungraciously snubs her with "I should like also to have said a great deal about Marie Lloyd, whose funeral was less impressive only than the great Duke of Wellington's." More to the Point, if only because it was written long before either the critic or his subject had the slightest suspicion that the beady eye of posterity was upon them, is Bernard Shaw's observation in the World, October 19, 1892: She has an exceptionally quick ear for both Pitch and rhythm. Her intonation and the lilt of her songs are alike perfect. Her stepdancing is pretty; and her command of costergirls' patois is complete.

nut Shaw goes on to ruin his case by arguing that if Marie knows what is good for her she will invite "Messrs Anstey, Rudyard Kipling and W. S. Gilbert to write comic songs for her." The mind boggles.

The anniversary of her death happens to have more than a mere nostalgic Significance, for it revives the old issues of censorship and the nature of what is thought by some people to be good, for Others. The great debate which centres to this day around Marie Lloyd concerns Vulgarity, although to a slightly baffled Posterity the dispute seems utterly sPurious. To argue whether she was vulgar, to ponder in learned terms whether her material had sexual overtones, to take a vote on whether her innuendos were Rabelaisian, is about as sensible as holding a referendum in Manchester on whether the rain falls down. Not only was Marie Lloyd vulgar, as so many song-and-dance gods are, but she was intentionally vulgar, as so many song-and-dance gods are not; Moreover she was a great artist, so that her propaganda in the cause of fleshy delights must have been doubly effective. What is shameful is that anyone should have found her candour unacceptable. The scandal of the 1912 Royal Command Performance, from which she was excluded because of her bawdiness, is Usually blamed on some conveniently

anonymous Court official, but no doubt the decision reflected the sensibilities of the King, or at least of Queen Mary, who once actually averted her gaze from the corrupting spectacle of Vesta Tilley in trousers. In spite of this kind of trashy pseudo-morality, Marie struck what was probably the first really effective blow of this century against the naïve idea that theatre censorship, if desirable, is therefore practicable. Summoned to perform before a committee investigating smut in the Music Hall, she sang "A Little Bit of What You Fancy" in tones so chaste and with postures so demure that her inquisitors wondered why she had been called at all. She then rendered " Come Into the Garden Maud," inserting pauses and gestures which transformed the song into a riotous hymn to prurience.

There seems no doubt that the earthy realism she purveyed is at least as valid and as enlightening a comment on humanity as the evasions of some of her more exalted contemporaries and their closed artistic worlds: Henry James's, for instance, so sexually evasive, or Conrad's so totally devoid of humour. Only the fatuous class schism which has detached the popular arts in Britain from their esoteric, intellectually more respectable counterparts has obscured the fact that an artist like, say, Max Miller, was an infinitely more perceptive analyst of the working classes than George Orwell, and that in the same way, when it comes to cockney girls and their harridan mothers, Marie is a far more trustworthy guide than a gossip like George Moore. One writer who does understand Marie's type is Sir Compton Mackenzie, who, in My Life and Times, looked back over half a century at the splendid recollection of Marie's underwear, recalling it in such loving detail as to render it whole to the reader... " . a great display of amber silk petticoats and long amber silk drawers frilled below the knees."

As to Marie's musical technique, in "When I take My Morning Promenade," where she asks:

Do you think my dress is a little bit, Just a little bit — not too much of it?

it is interesting how each " bit " is taken on a rising inflection, while the "not so much of it" drops abruptly to become the most worldly of admonishments. I should have loved to hear her sing:

She arrived at Euston by the midnight train, But when she got to the wicket There was someone wanted to punch her ticket, The guards and the porters came round her by the score, And she told them all that she'd never had her ticket punched before.

Or again:

For when looking at the clock, I received a dreadful shock, On discov'ring that the sun had gone and set.

So a telegram I wrote, "Dear Mama, I've missed the boat," But I haven't lost my last train yet.

While I was copying these lyrics from Peter Davison's admirable The British Music Hall, my small son glanced over my shoulder, studied Marie's photograph and exclaimed, "What a cheeky face! " Let that stand as the verdict of posterity.

certain adjustments, but as the example of many student couples shows, it can be done. One might have to change landladies, one has to save for the period the wife cannot work, run into debt or do extra work weekends, perhaps one has to do without the car and continental holidays for the year or eighteen months the wife is not working, but one can manage, even if both husband and wife are bookshop assistants.

The more children the less likely that such a life can be lived. A bedsitter is substandard already for two children, a mother of three small ones or four or five of school age could not possibly work even if her own mother lived next door. It takes a good middle-class income to finance accommodation adequate for a family with three or more children.

Take even those whose housing is subsidised out of public funds or earlier savings or an inheritance, those in other words who have to pay no more than a council house rent, or rates and the cost of repairs, what sort of income will even such a person need to pay for an adequate diet for his growing family, to clothe them in a manner that will not give them a sense of deprivation in the company of their schoolfellows, and to provide outings and holidays that slum schoolteachers, provided they have no children of their own, consider the bare minimum? Not to mention that his wife needs outside help and/or a fairly high standard of domestic equipment if she is to provide even minimum services without seriously damaging her own health.

What then are these low wages that are the cause of poverty? It is quite clear that only a surtax income provides adequate accommodation for a large family that is altogether unsubsidised by public funds, inheritance or very sub stantial earlier savings, i.e. the house would have to be completely paid off before the fifth child is born, or the older ones have teenage clothing or pocket money demands. And it is also clear that, even if the accommodation problem is 'solved,' quite a substantial middle-class income is needed to ensure a standard of living to a family of five children which a childless couple on supplementary benefits can manage easily.

Social service statistics obviously do not and cannot reflect the true position. They take no account of subsidisation by family or friends, presents and hand-medowns, they do not ask whether the five children are adequately supplied with proteins, the presumption is that the only deprivation felt and suffered is that shown in health and delinquency figures.

Nor do statistics take proper account of the inadequacies of society, and of individuals which are not really of an economic nature. A professional woman can pay someone to look after her child, a shop-assistant cannot afford to, hence supplementary benefits may be needed and Frank Field blames low wages, when in truth it is the absence of both traditional and modern facilities that will not allow a mother of one child to carry out an economic function she could otherwise manage quite well. Grandmothers and aunts used to look after a child while a mother worked in the fields, day-nurseries should do so in an impersonal urban mass environment. Though, as I said earlier, it is quite true that a high income can cushion the ill effects of inadequacies, a pop singer can afford to smash his furniture, spend time in a mental hospital and pay fines for the possession of drugs, a postman cannot, it would be illogical to argue that it is the low wages of a frequently unemployed alcoholic labourer that turns his wife into a nervous wreck, unable to work herself, and hence forced to apply for supplementary benefits.

Forgive me, sir, for prolonging an already too long letter. The proper discriminations have to be made when it come to the subject of poverty, and not for purely academic reasons. God forbid that anyone imagine that I belong to the 'they keep the coal in the bath' school of thought. Low wages are of course a serious problem, it is a grievous moral wrong that men should do hard and/or responsible work and earn barely more or not quite as much as their supplementary benefits entitlement would be. It is not right that a man should be paid so little for stoking a furnace when he clearly does better and shows himself to be a more adequate breadwinner if he collects supplementary benefits and digs a garden and mows a lawn a couple of mornings a week. But that is another issue.

A childless couple cannot be called poor in the British context, however low their wages, unless either, or both, are seriously socially and personally inadequate. You will not cure their alcoholic violence, their gambling habits or deliquency, or their mental illness by paying them 20 per cent or even 50 per cent more. The way of dealing with the financial problems of a family with one child over two is to make is possible for the mother to go to work.

Large families are poor, unless they are very rich, and nothing much can be done about it. Even serious attempts to alleviate their condition, such as really substantial child allowances would only skim the surface of the problem besides being undesirable in terms of a modern population policy, since they might encourage large families, particularly amongst low income earners, where they are most out of place.

Large families simply do not fit into a world where housing is a luxury, where teenage consumption casts as much as, if not more than, that of adults, and the press, commercial television, the whole advertising industry, the clothing industry, etc, can only exist by systematically encouraging it, where what is more even the consumption pattern of small families increasingly demands two incomes. The people who genuinely help poor large families are those who propagate the wearing of patched jeans and hitch-hiking holidays, who urge compost heaps and the growing of one's own vegetables, who point out that sleeping together in an old shed is much more fun than going to an expensive night-club or holding hands in the pictures. But that of• course is not the business of us squares.

What we can do though is to recognise that members of large families tend to be deprived, underprivileged, poor in plain language, in our society, and by the standards of our society, even if the parents are sober, hardworking, skilled and well-educated, and paid salaries that are twice as high as, if not more than, the wages of most unskilled labourers.

Rudolf Fischer Budapest IX, Borzsony utca 1