The debasement of the European mind

A populist US senator meets an Italian organ-grinder in Rome in 1859.

Two young American men are acting as cicerones for two older compatriots in an association they have called The Dodge Club:

Because our principle is to dodge all humbugs and swindles, which make travelling so expensive generally. We have gained much experience already, and hope to gain more. One of my friends is a doctor from Philadelphia, Doctor Snakeroot, and the other is Senator Jones from Massachusetts. Neither the Doctor nor the Senator understand a word of any language but the American.

The Canadian writer, James De Mille, published his The Dodge Club; or Italy in 1859 in Harper’s after the Civil War, when Europe and America’s poor were migrating westwards but the wealthy still took their holidays to the east:

The Senator loved the Pincian Hill, for there he saw what he loved best; more than ruins, more than churches, more than pictures and statues, more than music. He saw man and human nature.
He had a smile for all; of superiority for the bloated aristocrat; of friendliness for the humble, yet perchance worthy mendicant. He longed every day more and more to be able to talk the language of the people.
On one occasion the Club was walking on the Pincian Hill, when suddenly they were arrested by familiar sounds which came from some place not very far away. It was a barrel-organ; a soft and musical organ; but it was playing “Sweet Home.”
“A Yankee tune,” said the Senator. “Let us go and patronize domestic manufacture. That is my idee of political economy.”
Reaching the spot they saw a pale, intellectual-looking Italian working away at his instrument.
“It’s not bad, though that there may not be the highest kind of musical instrument.”
“No,” said Buttons; “but I wonder that you, an elder of a church, can stand here and listen to it.”
“Why, what has the church to do with a barrel-organ?”
“Don’t you believe the Bible?”
“Of course,” said the Senator, looking mystified.
“Don’t you know what it says on the subject?”
“What the Bible says? Why no, of course not. It says nothing.”
“I beg your pardon. It says, ‘The sound of the grinding is low.’ See Ecclesiastes, twelfth, fourth.”
The Senator looked mystified, but said nothing. But suddenly the organ-grinder struck up another tune.
“Well, I do declare,” cried the Senator, delighted, “if it isn’t another domestic melody!”
It was “Independence Day.”
“Why, it warms my heart,” he said, as a flush spread over his fine countenance.
The organ-grinder received any quantity of baiocchi, which so encouraged him that he tried another—“Old Virginny.”
“That’s better yet,” said the Senator. “But how on airth did this man manage to get hold of these tunes?”
Then came others. They were all American: “Old Folks at Home,” “Nelly Bly,” “Suwannee Ribber,” “Jordan,” “Dan Tucker,” “Jim Crow.”
The Senator was certainly most demonstrative, but all the others were equally affected.
Those native airs; the dashing, the reckless, the roaringly-humorous, the obstreperously jolly—they show one part of the many-sided American character.
Not yet has justice been done to the nigger song. It is not a nigger song. It is an American melody. Leaving out those which have been stolen from Italian Operas, how many there are which are truly American in their extravagance, their broad humor, their glorious and uproarious jollity! The words are trash. The melodies are every thing.
These melodies touched the hearts of the listeners. American life rose before them as they listened. American life—free, boundless, exuberant, broadly-developing, self-asserting, gaining its characteristics from the boundless extent of its home – a continental life of limitless variety. As mournful as the Scotch; as reckless as the Irish; as solemnly patriotic as the English.
“Listen!” cried the Senator, in wild excitement.
It was “Hail Columbia.”
“The Pincian Hill,” said the Senator, with deep solemnity, “is glorified from this time forth and for evermore. It has gained a new charm. The Voice of Freedom hath made itself heard!”
The others, though less demonstrative, were no less delighted. Then came another, better yet. “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“There!” cried the Senator, “is our true national anthem—the commemoration of national triumph; the grand upsoaring of the victorious American Eagle as it wings its everlasting flight through the blue empyrean away up to the eternal stars!”
He burst into tears; the others respected his emotion.
Then he wiped his eyes and looked ashamed of himself—quite uselessly—for it is a mistake to suppose that tears are unmanly. Unmanly! The manliest of men may sometimes shed tears out of his very manhood.
At last there arose a magic strain that produced an effect to which the former was nothing. It was “Yankee Doodle!”
The Senator did not speak. He could not find words. He turned his eyes first upon one, and then another of his companions; eyes beaming with joy and triumph—eyes that showed emotion arising straight from a patriot’s heart —eyes which seemed to say: Is there any sound on earth or above the earth that call equal this?
Yankee Doodle has never received justice. It is a tune without words. What are the recognized words? Nonsense unutterable—the sneer of a British officer. But the tune!—ah, that is quite another thing!
The tune was from the very first taken to the national heart, and has never ceased to be cherished there. The Republic has grown to be a very different thing from that weak beginning, but its national air is as popular as ever. The people do not merely love it. They glory in it. And yet apologies are sometimes made for it. By whom? By the soulless dilettante. The people know better:—the farmers, the mechanics, the fishermen, the dry-goods clerks, the news-boys, the railway stokers, the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick-makers, the tinkers, the tailors, the soldiers, the sailors. Why? Because this music has a voice of its own, more expressive than words; the language of the soul, which speaks forth in certain melodies which form an utterance of unutterable passion.
The name was perhaps given in ridicule. It was accepted with pride. The air is rash, reckless, gay, triumphant, noisy, boisterous, careless, heedless, rampant, raging, roaring, rattle-brainish, devil-may-care-ish, plague-take-the-hindmost-ish; but! solemn, stern, hopeful, resolute, fierce, menacing, strong, cantankerous (cantankerous is entirely an American idea), bold, daring—
Words fail.
Yankee Doodle has not yet received its Doo!
The Senator had smiled, laughed, sighed, wept, gone through many variations of feeling. He had thrown baiocchi till his pockets were exhausted, and then handed forth silver. He had shaken hands with all his companions ten times over. They themselves went not quite as far in feeling as he, but yet to a certain extent they went in.
And yet Americans are thought to be practical, and not ideal. Yet here was a true American who was intoxicated—drunk? By what? By sound, notes, harmony. By music.
“Buttons,” said he, as the music ceased and the Italian prepares to make his bow and quit the scene, “I must make that gentleman’s acquaintance.”
Buttons walked up to the organ-grinder.
“Be my interpreter,” said the Senator. “Introduce me.”
“What’s your name?” asked Buttons.
“Maffeo Cloto.”
“From where?”
“Were you ever in America?”
“No, Signore.”
“What does he say?” asked the Senator, impatiently.
“He says his name is Mr. Cloto, and he was never in America.”
“How did you get these tunes?”
“Out of my organ,” said the Italian, grinning.
“Of course; but how did you happen to get an organ with such tunes?”
“I bought it.”
“Oh yes; but how did you happen to buy one with these tunes?”
“For you illustrious American Signore. You all like to hear them.”
“Do you know any thing about the tunes?” “Signore?”
“Do you know what the words are?”
“Oh no. I am an Italian.”
“I suppose you make money out of them.”
“I make more in a day with these than I could in a week with other tunes.”
“You lay up money, I suppose.”
“Oh yes. In two years I will retire and let my younger brother play here.”
“These tunes?”
“Yes, Signore.”
“To Americans?”
“Yes, Signore.”
“What is it all?” asked the Senator.
“He says that he finds he makes money by playing American tunes to Americans.”
“Hm,” said the Senator, with some displeasure; “and he has no soul then to see-the beauty, the sentiment, the grandeur of his vocation!”
“Not a bit-he only goes in for money.”
The Senator turned away in disgust. “Yankee Doodle,” he murmured, “ought of itself to have a refining and converting influence on the European mind; but it is too debased-yes-yes-too debased.”

Maybe we are doomed, maybe we aren’t, and the oligarchy’s bots will get us anyway. I fear that my monkey is not of flesh and blood.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, founded on piracy, is in it’s way almost as enjoyable on the American West as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rio Bravo, which we of course watched over Christmas. Check out Over the Plains to Colorado from the same year, 1867, as de Mille’s piece.

Transvestite barrel organ dancers in 1930s Whitechapel and the 1860s London West End

With acrobats, clowns, and Doris and Thisbe, goddesses of wind.

Dora Lee (1921-), who perhaps wasn’t a Holocaust survivor, 1 talking about life as a young girl in London’s East End:

And then we used to have these buskers. They used to come with a barrel organ. They must have been what we call today transvestites and they would play this barrel organ and dance and do acrobats and things like that, dressed up in the oldest and the shabbiest type of dresses and things like that. The man that played the organ was never dressed … he was dressed in trousers, but the others were all … well, we knew they were men by the look of them and if they saw the police coming they would scoot away, but you gave them a ha’penny and they made quite a collection.

Anyone got a photo of such a troupe? Perhaps more entertaining than Barcelona’s Moorish tumblers:

The police may still have cared about public morality when Dora Lee was young, but this was also the age of Douglas Byng, the great pantomime dame, who appeared on a trapeze singing “I’m Doris the goddess of wind,” and who here sings a little song of spring:

It was also an age before competition from television caused the infantilisation of circus audiences and of white clowns, whose white makeup and black melancholy had given them something of the air of the female impersonators. Here’s Fellini’s white clown saying goodbye to his augusto, accompanied by some rather splendid music and horsing around:

And such shows involving barrel organs were not new. Here’s a back-to-front example from the 1861 diary of Arthur Munby, establishment fetishist of working women:

Home to the Temple at 6 and to [Mudie’s Lending Library]. Coming thence along Oxford Street, I saw before me, striding along in company with an Italian organ-grinder, a tall young man in full Highland costume; wearing a Glengarry bonnet, a scarlet jacket, a sporran and a tartan kilt and stockings, his legs bare from the knee to the calf. It was not a man – it was Madeleine Sinclair the street dancer, whom I used to see in a similar dress a year ago. She and her companion turned into a quiet street, and she danced a Highland fling to his music, in the midst of a curious crowd.

For no one could make out whether she was a man or a woman. Her hair and the set of her hips indeed were feminine; but her hard weather-stained face, her large bony hands, and her tall strong figure, became her male dress so well that opinions about equally divided as to her sex. “It’s a man!” said one, confidently: “I believe that it’s a woman”, another doubtfully replied. One man boldly exclaimed “Of course it’s a man; anybody can see that!” I gave her a sixpence when she came round with her tambourine; and she told me she had been in Paris for five months for pleasure, and was now living on Saffron Hill [i.e. amidst Italian immigrants], and dancing in the streets every day, always wearing her male clothes.

The excerpt is from the most enjoyable A London Year: 365 Days of City Life in Diaries, Journals and Letters.

And then there’s Old Bess, who has probably been banned from Morris dancing along with blackface, and Thisbe aka Flute the Bellows-Mender – pretty close to an organ:

Not to mention the mock queens and virgins of older festivals.

In gathering material about the world of the organ grinder, I’ve certainly been neglecting some non-simian sidekicks. More suggestions most welcome, as always.

I dread to think what would happen to you (m) nowadays if you dressed up as a woman and danced round a barrel organ in the back streets of Whitechapel.


  1. I’m afraid the British Library seems to have made a bit of a mess of the metadata for its sound collection. Another entry has an interesting abstract:

    Fanny Lander talks about her background and family; her father (bricklayer); the buildings he worked on; the school she went to; memories of Scan and Will Tester playing for dances; working in service for an Irish family; dancing at the Servants Ball in the Coach and Horses, Chelwood Gate; changes in the village (Chelwood Gate); farming; memories of organ-player and monkey; local gypsies; Linfield Fair; Brighton man who used to sing outside the post office; Maggie Ridley (school friend); East Grinstead band; Danehill bell ringers; Albert and Walter Lucas; hand bell ringers in Coach and Horses on Boxing Day; how she and her husband housed two evacuee children from Bermondsey during the war; East Grinstead at start of World War 1; more about being in service; closeness between servants and family; songs sung at home; dancing [at this point Reg Hall plays melodeon – see Item Notes]. Will Marten and his sister Mary then join conversation and they all discuss Scan Tester’s family; pub songs; poverty being reflected in the music; Ashdown Forest; changes in farming; comparisons of town and country; moving sheep from Romney Marsh; increase in local traffic; anecdotes about local policeman and cars, 1920s/1930s; anecdote about San Tester’s brother Trayton.

    But, as another part of the metadata indicates, the recording is actually of Bates, Charlie, 1909- (speaker, male), and Wood, Bert, 1890- (speaker, male) talking about something completely different, and Ms Lander is nowhere else to be found.

[:en]An organ-grinder at Archway[:]

[:en]Pleasures and treasures of the Edwardian street, by a descendant of Scottish banditti.[:]

[:en]Market man, Mohammed S., is one of the most interesting people I’ve met since coming to London. He’s a fan of the organ act, which for him recalls the Parisian component of a Franco-Algerian childhood, but I think I’m right in saying that his true love is the old-style general-purpose street market, for which love he appears to have spent time in limbo.

I hope that that kind of market will survive the tsunami of fast food stalls for the asset-owning classes 1, and I think from Doris Neish’s splendid memoir of life at Archway around the time of the First World War – excerpt below – that she would also have been a fan of markets that were all things to all poissons.

Doris was born in 1908, the eleventh child of the London-Scottish part-time poet, William Neish, and his wife, Mary Ann McBeath. A collection of William’s work was published posthumously as Where the Apple-Ringie Grows. I haven’t managed to obtain a copy, but I suspect it will be cautious in approach and melancholy in tone. William Anderson, The Scottish Nation: Or the Surnames, Families, Literature, Honours, and Biographical History of the People of Scotland (1867):

[The MacNabs] carried on a deadly feud with the Neishes or McIlduys (?), a tribe which possessed the upper parts of Strathearn, and inhabited an island in the lower part of Loch Earn, called from them Neish island. Many battles were fought between them, with various success. The last was at Glenboultachan, about two miles north of Loch Earn foot, in which the Macnabs were victorious, and the Neishes cut off almost to a man. A small remnant of them, however, still lived in the island referred to, the head of which was an old man, who subsisted by plundering the people in the neighbourhood. One Christmas, the chief of the Macnabs had sent his servant to Crieff for provisions, but, on his return, he was waylaid, and robbed of all his purchases. He went home, therefore, empty-handed, and told his tale to the laird. Mscnab had twelve sons, all men of great strength, but one in particular exceedingly athletic, who was called for a byname, Iain mion Mac an Appa, or “Smooth John Macnab.” In the evening, these men were gloomily meditating some signal revenge on their old enemies, when their father entered, and said in Gaelic, “The night is the night, if the lads were but lads!” Each man instantly started to his feet, and belted on his dirk, his claymore, and his pistols. Led by their brother John, they set out, taking a fishing-boat on their shoulders from Loch Tay, carrying it over the mountains and glens till they reached Loch Earn, where they launched it, and passed over to the island. All was silent in the habitation of Neish. Having all the boats at the island secured, they had gone to sleep without fear of surprise. Smooth John, with his foot dashed open the door of Neish’s house; and the party, rushing in, attacked the unfortunate family, every one of whom was put to the sword, with the exception of one man and a boy, who concealed themselves under a bed. Carrying off the heads of the Neishes, and any plunder they could secure, the youths presented themselves to their father, while the piper struck up the pibroch of victory.

Stirling and Kenney, The Scottish tourist, and itinerary: or, A guide to the scenery and antiquities of Scotland and the western islands. With a description of the principal steam-boat tours (1830) adds an indispensable detail:

In commemoration of this event, the Macnabs have a Neish’s head for the family crest, with the motto Dread Nought.

It is a great shame that, following the success of his Irish Gaelic parodies, Flann O’Brien didn’t spend time in Scotland.

Doris lived in Harberton Road from 1914 until her death in 1993 and wrote up her memories for the Islington Gazette in the late 1960s. This excerpt is reproduced with the kind permission of Kristina Kashvili, who transcribed them, and with thanks to intermediary MM:

Remembering back over the years everything has altered but with change there was an often better substitute. But – there is a gap. Never replaced were the “Voices of the Streets”. Every trader from the errand boys whistling, to the street singers, could by sound identify themselves. “Coal, coal” – “Sweep”. There he would be with rods and brushes perched on his shoulder and his face still sooty from his previous jobs. “Any old rags, any old bones, any old iron”! Also the man with his tray of freshly backed muffins on his head – ringing a bell. They come no more. The old [but presumably pretty strong] lady who would drag a barrel organ up the Archway Road to give us music – the flute player and the couple whose soprano and tenor voices harmonized in “Love’s Old Sweet Song”. Bells used to ring, large clocks would chime. It is over 50 years since I last saw the lady with a basket on her arm and heard her singing

Won’t you buy my sweet Lavender
Sixteen bunches for one penny
You buy it once – you buy it twice
It makes your clothes smell fresh and nice

Only the memory, like the scent from lavender lingers.

Someone special was a man who would come sometimes near the close of a warm day and play a harp. He would sit on a stool while people gathered near. Into his cap would drop not only pennies but silver threepenny pieces. In the gathering dusk his beautiful music would fill the air and fill us with happiness.

So long ago these simple pleasures
Through memory’s door – return as treasures

In 1913 Alfred Noyes wrote a premonitory ballad:

There’s a barrel-organ carolling across a golden street
In the City as the sun sinks low;
Though the music’s only Verdi there’s a world to make it sweet
Just as yonder yellow sunset where the earth and heaven meet
Mellows all the sooty City! Hark, a hundred thousand feet
Are marching on to glory through the poppies and the wheat
In the land where the dead dreams go.

I think Doris has aged better, and wish I could trace that couplet. (Perhaps it is a Neish-ism.) Here though is John McCormack in 1927 singing Love’s Old Sweet Song (Just a Song at Twilight):



  1. But then with the addition of the itinerant boxers I met in the Rif, and the great piles of junk scattered over the grounds of the old Encants in Barcelona. Speaking as an amateur cook, at the moment my absolute favourite markets in East London are probably the wholesalers:

    1. New Spitalfields in Leyton – open after the pub, but less confusing after a few hours sleep for purchasers of wedding flowers, or of the “Fruits and Vegetables … which could be cost effictive, qualitative and quantitative and fresh too” of these Punjabi lions‘; it’s also convenient for Lea duck and Eurostar Engineering;
    2. Billingsgate – Spanish with rucksacks full of cheap octopus, again best before dawn.

    But the greater your distance from the money, the better the knife stalls.

[:en]Hackney Brook restoration scheme[:]

[:en]Iain Sinclair wrote of when “global warming rolls a warm sea [up] the course of the old Hackney Brook.” The flow’s going to be the other way. Let me explain.[:]

[:en]Olympic creativity didn’t extend to watercourses west of the Lea Navigation, 1 and Hackney Brook – still submerged and redirected – continues to mole along more or less as shown in the cover art of Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: at the end of Morning Lane it diverges from its natural course down Wick Road and travels under the higher ground of Kenton Road and Gascoyne Road past the People’s Park Tavern into Victoria Park, where, still heading roughly southeast, it follows the path past the tennis courts, exits by Montessori on the Park at St. Mark’s Gate, traverses Cadogan Terrace, and drains into the Hertford Union Canal just below Old Ford Middle Lock, which flows slowly northeast to join the Navigation just south of the German Deli and Crate Brewery.

Things weren’t ever so. Diamond Geezer accompanies his posts on Hackney Brook with a handy map of its original course:

What once was cannot be again, but (with apologies to Baron Haussmann) if as well as a Hackney agrandie and a Hackney assainie you want to see a Hackney embellie, then the vertebra provided by a revived Hackney Brook might help dispel the impression that Hackney Council’s urban strategy consists solely in facilitating the construction of investment objects.

So here’s my seven-point guide to restoring the course downstream from the Mare Street/Amhurst Road/Bohemia Place/Narroway junction to the River Lea Navigation, adding a tentacle to the Hackney Council octopus as well as encouraging citizens to stroll down from Hackney-on-High to Hackney-on-Sea on a Sunday morning:

  1. Wage war on Islington to recover our stolen water
  2. Run the brook between a new bus station and Bohemia Place
  3. Kayak to the Paradise Garden: Mehetabel Road and the Chesham Arms
  4. Simpsonlandia: Cardinal Pole School and Flanders Way
  5. Well Street: regenerated market framed by Jack Cohen memorial & hydraulic organ
  6. Wick Road: sea battles and scampi
  7. Hackney Wick: the delta

Wage war on Islington to recover our stolen water

The mighty torrent with bridge and St. Augustine’s tower in 1791, viewed from the site of the subsequent railway bridge on Mare Street:

… and the pathetic present-day piddle into the Hertford Union, even during the monsoon:

Apologists mutter about storm drains and managed outflow, but the truth is that Islington is stealing our brook at source in Holloway, and probably shipping it to the United Arab Emirates. And look at how they’re benefitting: apart from house prices that are even more absurd than ours, they have Arsenal, while we no longer even have Clapton FC, who play in Forest Gate because Hackney is too arid for grass.

This is bigger than the Netherlands vs Germany re traffic and flood management on the Rhine 2, this is bitchier than the squabbling sons of Shem, and we of Hackney have more guns than them. So let’s annex Holloway with the calming promise of free boat trips to Westfield, thus safeguarding our water supply, and then one evening I’ll be able to present a second plan for the restoration of the brook from its source in Holloway, via Clissold Park, Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington Common and Hackney Downs to Mare Street.

Run the brook between a new bus station and Bohemia Place

The St. John-at-Hackney conservation and management plan says that the brook currently runs in a drain under Arriva’s Clapton bus garage (allocation: 100 buses), so having the brook flow along Bohemia Place is the simple option. We suspect, however, that Hackney Council, TfL and St John-at-Hackney will prefer to redevelop the bus station, and it is the counsel of our lords that will stand. Given that, we will build a smaller garage on the north side of the site using some simple variant of VW Wolfsburg’s vertical stacking:

The brook will flow between Bohemia Place and the new bus station, which will be skinned as the back of a bus, from the exhaust pipe of which the brook will emerge.

Proximity to St. Augustine’s tower will be to our intellectual and moral advantage. Like the barrel organ’s conversion of boundless sound into a revolving mess of pins, Augustine’s Confessions are a meditation on infinity where time is short – in Flann O’Brien’s Dalkey Archive, the best commentary on the Confessions, time being represented by aqualungs in a subaqueous cavern:

Then Mick saw a figure, a spectre, far away from him. It looked seated and slightly luminescent. Gradually it got rather clearer in definition but remained unutterably distant, and what he had taken for a very long chin in profile was almost certainly a beard. A gown of some dark material clothed the apparition. It is strange to say that the manifestation did not frighten him but he was flabbergasted when he heard De Selby’s familiar tones almost booming out beside him.
– I must thank you for coming. I have two students with me.
The voice that came back was low, from far away but perfectly clear. The Dublin accent was unmistakable. The extraordinary utterance can here be distinguished only typographically.
Ah not at all, man.
– You’re feeling well, as usual, I suppose?
Nothing to complain of, thank God. How are you feeling yourself, or how do you think you’re feeling?
– Tolerably, but age is creeping in.
Ha-ha. That makes me laugh.
– Why?
Your sort of time is merely a confusing index of decomposition.

The barrel organ has one of its roots in the kind of simple automated clock (said to be late 16th or early 17th century) found in St. Augustine’s tower. Though Flann’s Augustine claims that “Book Two of my Confessions is all shocking exaggeration,” he might have appreciated the early use in Dutch brothels in the 1680s of mechanical organs, mechanical musical instruments like carillons having been driven out of the churches by the Calvinists, who made the grievous error of introducing religion in their place.

This section’s water music from the Singing Organ-Grinder is therefore Cool Water, which seems to have been inspired by Psalms 42:1 (As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God):

Dan’s feet are sore, he’s yearning for
Just one thing more than water,
Cool water.
Like me, I guess, he’d like to rest
Where there’s no quest for water,
Cool, clear water.

Keep a-movin’, Dan, don’t you listen to him, Dan,
He’s a devil not a man
And he spreads the burning sand with water,
Cool water.
Dan, can you see that big green tree
Where the water’s running free
And it’s waiting there for me
And you?

Kayak to the Paradise Garden: Mehetabel Road and the Chesham Arms

The fashion hub under the railway arches on Morning Lane has no space for a brook or the watercress beds of old:

… and so the next section depends on the residents of the south side of Mehetabel Road being prepared to trade the damp end of their garden, up against the railway wall, for a (generally non-navigable) stream. Were they to say yay, then an annual performance could be held of Delius’ A village Romeo and Juliet:

At a local fair [Narroway], Sali and Vreli buy rings. Sali mentions an inn, the Paradise Garden, where they can dance all night, and they go there. The Dark Fiddler and some vagrants are drinking there. He greets the lovers, and suggests they join him to share a vagabond life in the mountains. Instead, Sali and Vreli decide that they cannot live such an existence, and they resolve to die together, uncompromising in their love for each other. They leave the inn and find a hay barge, which they release from the dock to begin to float down the river. As the Dark Fiddler observes them, Sali removes the plug from the bottom of the boat, and Sali and Vreli sink with the boat.

The Singing Organ-Grinder has made a version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for barrel organ, so Delius should also be feasible.

Singing Organ-Grinder water music? Let us recall the words of an Irish friend at the Eagle, on being asked at which track the horses on which he was betting were racing: “I haven’t got a facking clue.”

Simpsonlandia: Cardinal Pole School and Flanders Way

Between Link Street and Ponsford Street the brook stays north of the railway, passing south of the estate, and then crosses the railway at the bridge, perhaps flowing along the railway through the grounds of Cardinal Pole School and then entering Flanders Way.

Flanders Way is the southern outpost of Simpsonlandia – Springfield Park, Homer-town, the parish (church) of St. Bart and Lisa Star Nails on Stamford Hill, St. Maggie’s at St. Saviour’s… Here the brook will host a population of three-eyed fish in tribute to Blinky:

Well Street: regenerated market framed by Jack Cohen memorial & hydraulic organ

Well Street needs a well again in some shape or form, partly to provide a focus for a regenerated market. We’d like this to be between Tesco and the excellent butcher. We’d like a smaller version of Barcelona’s Agbar tower, which was built by the local water company without the functionality attributed to it in (gay) urban legend – a spout of water emerging from the top:

Image: Axelv

Our version will include this functionality, and will be cut in such a way as to evoke Jack Cohen, who started his Tesco empire on this spot.

Reduced traffic flow will enable Well Street to extend beyond its current junction to meet the clump of trees on the corner of Flanders Way, and a small circular polyphonic hydraulic organ, driven by the brook, supplemented by the small stream flowing down Well Street, will terminate the market:

Water music from the Singing Organ-Grinder: Little Boy Billy, a maritime take on Sweeney Todd:

Wick Road: sea battles and scampi

Traffic. You only need a tiny fraction of today’s cars when they can drive themselves and be waiting for you within 5 mins of booking, and that’s just round the corner. For now Wick Road can manage with a single calmed motor transport lane alongside a brook taking up equivalent space. Most traffic currently using that route can be taken up Kenworthy Road, and Homerton High Street can be made essentially one-way westward for the extremely dangerous stretch between Kenworthy Road and Ponsford Street (contraflow for public transport and bicycles), complementing and forming a ring with the one-way eastward traffic on Cassland Road on the other bank of the brook.

This space lends itself to theatrics. In an annual event commemorating a mashup of Battle of Lepanto and the Spanish Armada and Tromp and De Ruyter, or some such, the children of St. Dominic’s Catholic Primary will row up the brook and engage in battle the ferocious meat cleaver wielders in the excellent Kuzu shish bar and others along Well Street, with fearful and quite unpredictable consequences. For such events, seafood and other kiosks will line the tall blocks along the increasingly estuarine promenade that is Wick Road – like Venice, before Venice became a rancid tourist hellhole.

Water music from the Singing Organ-Grinder: a censored version of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, sung by the Caribbean pirates at the Prince Edward:

Hackney Wick: the delta

From the Tiger on the corner of Kenworthy Road we’d take the brook down the middle of Wick Road, with a simple bridge at the junction with the A12, and then down the southern side of Chapman Road. From this point, given sufficient current we’d like to split the brook into several less strictly defined courses draining via rice paddies (more Lower Lea Flood Plan washland…) into the navigation respectively north and south of the railway. But we now must depart to watch and eat bangers, and cannot elaborate this eminently sensible proposal any further.

Water music from the Singing Organ-Grinder: the German beach classic, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Honolulu Strand Bikini:

Ah, rainy Saturdays.[:]


  1. Doc dump: GLA Olympic Legacy doc; Mayor’s Olympic Waterways Strategy; 2009 LRAP Plan; last Thames Rivers Trust news update is from 2013 & their link to the River Restoration Centre leads to an estate agent of the same acronym – but no doubt all Olympic money was well spent.
  2. Alex van Heezik, Battle over the rivers. Two hundred years of river policy in the Netherlands is good, full Dutch version (Strijd om de rivieren) is very good.

[:en]Some migration songs[:]

[:en]With an introduction by St. Spike in the Moon.[:]

[:en]Something in Stafford on the Saturday evening, and on the Sunday morning we walked out across the fields to have a look at St. Lawrence’s at Gnosall, where Pevsner observed “some of the most exciting Norman work in the county,” and where he became so excited by the inner transformations that he didn’t mention the splendid though eroded beasties outside. Unfortunately:

  • on the way there was a rather long conversation with a milking herd – there’s a lovely little children’s song by Janáček, “Hó, hó, krávy dó”, which I think exists in imaginative translation as “Moo, moo, two by two” in Harewood & Duncan’s Classical songs for children:


  • Holy Communion was at 07:45 rather than the optimistically anticipated 08:00, and
  • there were no bells to hurry us along – what is Chird of England doctrine on Sunday morning lie-ins?

So when we got there, things were already winding down. But people were incredibly welcoming, pointing out glorious detail we would otherwise have missed, and it was only out of the corner of a sleepy eye that I saw A Children’s Treasury of Milligan lurking on a pew.

George Szirtes writes:

I now think of Spike as more spirit than man. An imp, a boggart, a demon, a spectre, a poltergeist, a hobbledehoy. And yet a human being, who is all those things at once.

Perhaps, then, those good people of Gnosall find in him flashes of the character of their Saviour. That is what I hope, though I accept that it may take a while before the Anglican communion is enlivened and enriched by St. Spike. I also agree with George’s view of the censors. At various times of my life I have been attacked by complete strangers, inter alia for being perceived as:

  • Irish (small boys at an English school, a long time ago),
  • German (West Friesian Vikings at a rough-and-tumble gig in North Holland, impeded by rough netting separating stage from bearpit),
  • Dutch (Bosnians, from behind, in Enschede), and
  • human (drunks on tractor vs hippy on grandad bike, near Eisenhüttenstadt, shortly after German reunification).

But because Spike’s work so utterly transcends normal human frailties I can watch without the slightest discomfort his Irish astronauts:

… and the Pakistani Daleks:

I suppose some might mistake for apism the escapism in the frequent references to monkeys (bear with me, primatologists) in the Children’s Treasury, but my monkey has been listening to “Tales of Men’s Shirts” from the Goon Show for years without any obvious ill effects:

Seagoon: My next impression will be of Spike Milligan saying “Thynne”.
Milligan: Thynne!
Orchestra and Omnes: Thynne!
Milligan: Thyyyynne!
Orchestra and Omnes: Thyyyynne!
Milligan: ThyyyyYYYYyyyynne!
Orchestra and Omnes: ThyyyyYYYYyyyynne!
Seagoon: That’s Thynne enough! Thank you, thank you. Remember, folks, saying “Thynne” cures you of monkeys on the knees.
Sellers: Yes, if you’ve got monkeys on the knees, just say:
Milligan: Thynne!
Sellers: And they are only three and six a box.
Milligan: Yes, I swear by Thynne. One morning I woke up and there they were monkeys on the knees!
Grams: [Monkeys in a temper]
Milligan: Then I said the cure word, Thynne!
Grams: [Speed up and fade record of the monkeys at high speed]
Milligan: And away they went!
Greenslade: Ta. The monkeys were played by professional apes.
Seagoon: That was Wallace Greenslade saying words.

I was singing somewhere else the other day when an Italian gent, whose daughter had been jigging around to some Spanish stuff, came up and suggested

  1. that I sing a particular Italian number. Unfortunately I have forgotten it (and so had he), but if he gets in touch I’ll have a bash.
  2. that for marketing purposes I group my various songs about movement. I already have a list of Milliganish migrations, but here are some of the more obviously geographical ones, and you may have more candidates.


[:en]The Singing Organ-Grinder’s top 10 pig songs[:]

[:en]Sincerity meets spam.[:]

[:en]Pork brings out the best in people (even in the Philippines), and I’m farming out most of this to Rol@My Top Ten. Normally I find his selections absolutely fascinating but alarmingly modern, but you have to admit the genius of Green Jelly’s “Three little pigs”:

Check out the rest. I’d get rid of the Beatles (who made this one mistake), Elvis Costello and Morrissey (who can’t do anything right, ever). In their place I’d like to suggest a couple of things I’ve sung at least once:

  • Even the wicked wolf agrees that “Los tres cochinitos,” the three little piggies, from the Mexican series Cri-Cri is adorable (starts ca. 01:50):

  • “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.” It’s called a hog here, which is a misprint. Etymology:

    p – 1 = o
    i – 1 = h
    g – 1 = f

    So, “I’ll hof, and I’ll pof, and I’ll blow your house down.” Pof comes from qog, a misspelling of cog in the sense of a small Scots barrel used for milking ewes and cows, as in “Gin ye, fan the cow flings, the cog cast awa’” from “The rock and the wee pickle tow,” a Scots spinning song by Alexander Ross, schoolmaster at Lochlee.

    Why a wolf would be using such devices and secret code is unclear.

  • A number whose name I dare not print, which I wrote in Low Saxon dialect with KV at a time when rural isolation and suicide was in the news. It’s about a farmer who eschews towns and travels for the company of his own fat pig. Despite painting a positive picture of home entertainment -Britain is not the only nation of animal-lovers- it was banned by The Man.
  • An instrumental number, based on a transcription of the panpipe playing of an itinerant French castrator and tinker (you used roughly the same tools to redo pans as to undo pigs) in rural Galicia in the early 20th century. It will sound familiar (though infinitely more sophisticated) to anyone who has heard the pipes of the few remaining ambulant knife-grinders in Barcelona and other Spanish cities, their wheel driven by a belt run off their moped.
  • “I love little pussy” is not obviously about a pig, but it reminds me of the time in Hungary when I saw a large sow corner and eat a cat. I have often told my good friend Victor Orbán that he should welcome Muslims because they will drive down labour costs without increasing pork prices, but he will keep going on about Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683. We Ulstermen would never hold a grudge like that.

  • Here, here, here is pig and pork,” a vicious late 17th century Irish sectarian ballad, doesn’t really count, but who’s counting? Everyone knows Swift, but there’s lots of other fine and/or lively post-Restoration Dublin- and Belfast-based satire. One extraordinary example I’ve found is particularly apposite to my trade – a parody of an anti-revolutionary libel trial, of which more anon. Here’s a straightforward vocal recording, but my version is closer to some vile porcine Detroit hiphop I found in a remainder bin in a Paris record store, once upon a time.

More animal songs here.[:]

[:en]Two versions of Flann O’Brien’s “The workman’s friend”[:]

[:en]With some relevant chunks of Henry Fielding.[:]

[:en]I’ve started doing a bit of Brian O’Nolan, rather nervously: I was immensely impressed as a child by a collection of his Irish Times pieces, and he’s still one of my favourite writers. Eamon Morrissey makes a fine job of his porter:

Then there’s this guy:

Institutional Gaelic mawkishness seems also to be enveloping Ivor Cutler, who fled to London, like Joyce to Paris, but could not escape in the end:

This weakness reminds me of the bit in the preface to Henry Fielding‘s The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great:

It hath, among other languages, been translated into Dutch, and celebrated with great applause at Amsterdam (where burlesque never came) by the title of Mynheer Vander Thumb, the burgomasters receiving it with that reverent and silent attention which becometh an audience at a deep tragedy.

And almost 300 years later, though the Slovak embassy’s canapés are delicious:

Small build, big courage.

Such was Tom Thumb, son of poor parents, who ventured on his trip into the world in search of experience and earnings. Thanks to his confidence and belief in his own abilities he won not only respect and recognition, but also the king’s throne and the hand of a princess in marriage.

Fielding addresses this political drudgery in his prologue to The author’s farce, to which his original Tom Thumb was coupled:

Too long the Tragick Muse hath aw’d the stage,
And frighten’d wives and children with her rage,
Too long Drawcansir roars, Parthenope weeps,
While ev’ry lady cries, and critick sleeps
With ghosts, rapes, murders, tender hearts they wound,
Or else, like thunder, terrify with sound
When the skill’d actress to her weeping eyes,
With artful sigh, the handkerchief applies,
How griev’d each sympathizing nymph appears!
And box and gallery both melt in tears
Or when, in armour of Corinthian brass,
Heroick actor stares you in the face,
And cries aloud, with emphasis that’s fit, on
Liberty, freedom, liberty and Briton!
While frowning, gaping for applause he stands,
What generous Briton can refuse his hands?
Like the tame animals design’d for show,
You have your cues to clap, as they to bow,
Taught to commend, your judgments have no share,
By chance you guess aright, by chance you err.

The tragedy of tragedies, once you learn how to evade the footnotes in the fre-ebook or use this version, is wonderful – there’s nothing in Voltaire (who is quite restrained) or Rabelais (who is quite mad) to equal it:

One globe alone on Atlas’ shoulders rests,
Two globes are less than Huncamunca’s breasts;
The milky way is not so white, that’s flat,
And sure thy breasts are full as large as that.
Hunc. Oh, sir, so strong your eloquence I find,
It is impossible to be unkind.


Par. Happy’s the wooing that’s not long a doing; For, if I guess right, Tom Thumb this night Shall give a being to a new Tom Thumb.
Thumb. It shall be my endeavour so to do.
Hunc. Oh! fie upon you, sir, you make me blush.
Thumb. It is the virgin’s sign, and suits you well


riding on a cat, from high I’ll fall,
And squirt down royal vengeance on you all.


Transports, like lightning, dart along thy soul,
As small-shot through a hedge.


What can I gather hence? Why dost thou speak
Like men who carry rareeshows about?
“Now you shall see, gentlemen, what you shall see.”
O, tell me more, or thou hast told too much.


Merlin. Hear, then, the mystick getting of Tom Thumb.
His father was a ploughman plain,
His mother milk’d the cow;
And yet the way to get a son
This couple knew not how,
Until such time the good old man
To learned Merlin goes,
And there to him, in great distress,
In secret manner shows
How in his heart he wish’d to have
A child, in time to come,
To be his heir, though it may be
No bigger than his thumb:
Of which old Merlin was foretold
That he his wish should have;
And so a son of stature small
The charmer to him gave.


Rebellion’s dead, and now I’ll go to Breakfast.

The king, terminating the marvellous final massacre:

So when the child, whom nurse from danger guards,
Sends Jack for mustard with a pack of cards,
Kings, queens, and knaves, throw one another down,
Till the whole pack lies scatter’d and o’erthrown;
So all our pack upon the floor is cast,
And all I boast is—that I fall the last.

Laetitia Pilkington‘s Memoirs, vol 1.:

[Jonathan Swift] told me, he did remember that he had not laugh’d above twice in his Life; once at some Trick a Mountebank’s Merry-Andrew play’d; and the other time was at the Circumstance of Tom Thumb’s killing the Ghost

I think she means his killing of Grizzle, who threatens with his own ghost.

Splendid stuff, but can any of it be sung, with a street organ? Would current politico-artistic convention allow an appropriately freakshow production? (What was the original production like?)[:]

[:en]Noisy buskers used to drown out the sounds of murder[:]

[:en]But were organ-grinders really complicit in the 1817 killing at Rodez of the French politician Fualdès, as the translation suggests, or were the vielles hurdy-gurdies, as you’d expect?[:]

[:en]I’m quietly looking out historical examples of street organs in society, but Fualdès was a serendipity. North/Nord, 1944, and Céline, wife Lili, cat Bébert and an actor are escaping into Germany to avoid retribution:

In La Rochelle I had to resist the French Army that wanted to buy my ambulance! It wasn’t mine! me, the soul of honesty, nobody can buy anything from me! the ambulance belonged to my dispensary in Sartrouville … you can imagine … I took the lousy bus back where it came from! and the two grandmothers, my passengers, with their bottles of wine, and three newborn babies … the whole shebang in perfect condition! Did anybody show me the slightest gratitude? Hell no! Abominations, that’s all I got … enough to fill a penitentiary! Twenty Landrus, Petiots, and Fualdèses!

Hmm, don’t know those names. Translator Ralph Manheim’s note:

FUALDÈS (1751-1817). French magistrate assassinated in 1817. An accomplice of the assassins played the barrel organ outside the ill-famed hotel to which he had been lured, in order to drown out his cries. The incident was the theme of a popular song.

The Wikipedia article on the affaire Fualdès identifies the instrument as a Barbary organ:

Au matin du 20 mars 1817, le corps d’Antoine Bernardin Fualdès, ancien procureur impérial du département de l’Aveyron, est découvert, flottant dans l’Aveyron, la gorge ouverte. Il a été sauvagement assassiné dans la nuit, à l’autre bout de la ville, au son d’un orgue de Barbarie destiné à couvrir ses cris.

Its source is a 1922 article by the critic Camille Pitolet in the Mercure de France, which cites memoirs of Rodez to the effect that several organ grinders played all evening, covering the cries of the victim:

Des joueurs d’orgue, qui “disparurent”, avaient joué toute la soirée dans la rue des Hebdomadiers pour qu’on n’entendit pas les cris de la victimes.

But Pitolet doesn’t add “de Barbarie”, and the idea that a couple of proper street organs -expensive technology at the time- would have been playing in the red light district of a country town like Rodez is too good to be true.

Fortunately the French had by this stage already got sensational but high-quality court reporting down to a fine art, and we can turn to the Histoire complète du procès instruit devant la cour d’assises de l’Aveyron, relatif à l’assassinat du Sr. Fualdès; Avec des Notices historiques sur les principaux personnages qui ont figuré dans cette cause célèbre, in which it turns out that the instrument in question is the loud and loathsome, but comparatively cheap and indestructible, vielle, the hurdy-gurdy:

Des joueurs de vielle y étaient aussi placés, et firent entendre pendant environ une heure le son de leurs instrumens, et disparurent le lendemain de grand matin.


Brast, tailleur: Un joueur de vielle joua sans discontinuer, près de la maison Bancal, depuis huit heures du soir jusqu’à neuf, le 19 de mars. Vers les huit heures et un quart, il entendit marcher dans la rue plusieurs personnes qui paraissaient porter un paquet ou balle; elles s’arrètèrent devant la maison Bancal. Une porte s’ouvrit et se ferma, mais le son de la vielle l’empècha de distinguer si c’était celle de Bancal.


Ces joueurs de vielle qui disparurent le lendemain de l’assassinat reparaîtront un jour, et avec eux ou sans eux apparaîtra la vérité.

The 1818 Complainte de Fualdès is one of the finest examples of a genre which we call ballads but which the French have never really managed to name – see Robert Paquin “Ballad: Ballade, Complainte, Chanson Tragique, Chanson Lyrico-Épique ou Chanson Narrative?” Credited to the limonadier, which is to say publican, M.J. of Toulouse, but said to be by a Occitan dentist called Moreau et Catalan, the Véritable Complainte, arrivée de Toulouse, au sujet du crime affreux, commis à Rodez, sur la personne de l’infortuné Fualdès, par Bastide, Jausion et complices, available from “all the sellers of ballads of Paris and abroad”, still has hurdy-gurdy men grinding away:

Et des vieilleurs insolens
Assourdissent les passans.

So that’s that. Or perhaps vielle and orgue were interchangeable at at some point in (pre-)revolutionary rural France – I have found no evidence. I think it more likely that modern and metropolitan writers used the expression orgue (de Barbarie) as a comprehensible functional equivalent for the moribund and marginal vielle. Fualdès, a five-acter supposedly by Messrs. Dupeuty and Grangé premiered in Paris in 1848, has one André driven to organ-grinding, with an orgue, by rural landlessness. And a rather more tenuous link is established in a tremendous bucolic 1833 Lucrezia Borgia parody, Tigresse Mort-aux-Rats, allegedly by Messrs. Dupin and Jules, in which an orgue de Barbarie is heard off-stage playing the Fualdès ballad.

I have started singing the plaint as part of my forays into the genre. With lines like the following, there is no way I could have remained indifferent:

Écoutez, peuple de France,
Du royaume de Chili;
peuple de Russie aussi,
Du cap de Bonne Espérance,
Le mémorable accident
D’un crime très conséquent.

However, I am quite sure that no one will want to listen to even a comparatively short example like this, let alone a full programme. Tom Lehrer hits the bull’s-eye in his Irish ballad:

My tragic tale I won’t prolong,
My tragic tale I won’t prolong,
And if you do not enjoy my song,
You’ve yourselves to blame if it’s too long,
You should never have let me begin, begin,
You should never have let me begin.

There is a lesson in all this: if we wish to prevent a return to the law of the jungle, then amplified or naturally noisy buskers need to be hounded mercilessly. Hmmm. I don’t feel particularly comfortable reading Céline in the same week as the mob attack on the Stamford Hill synagogue, but Mort à crédit / Death on the installment plan is required reading for those who hope for a future in organ-grinding:

After his terrible accident Courtial had taken a solemn vow that he’d never again, at any price, take the wheel in a race … That was all over … finished … He’d kept his promise … And even now, twenty years later, he had to be begged before he’d drive on some quiet excursion, or in an occasional harmless demonstration. He felt much safer out in the wind in his balloon …

His studies of mechanics were all contained in his books … Year in year out he published two treatises (with diagrams) on the development of motors and two handbooks with plates.

One of these little works had stirred up bitter controversies and even a certain amount of scandal. Actually it wasn’t even his fault … It was all on account of some low-down sharpers who travestied his ideas in an idiotic money-making scheme … It wasn’t at all in his style. Anyway here’s the title:

An Automobile Made to Order for 322 Francs 25. Complete instructions for home manufacture. Four permanent seats, two folding seats, wicker body, 12 m.p.h., 7 speeds, 2 reverse gears. Done entirely with spare parts that could be picked up anywhere! assembled to the customer’s taste … to suit his personality! according to the style and the season of the year! This little book was all the rage … from 1902 to 1905 … It contained … which was a step forward … not only diagrams, but actual blueprints on a scale of one to two hundred thousand. Photographs, cross-references, cross sections … all flawless and guaranteed.

His idea was to combat the rising peril of mass production … There wasn’t a moment to be lost … Despite his resolute belief in progress, des Pereires had always detested standardization … From the very start he was bitterly opposed to it … He foresaw that the death of craftsmanship would inevitably shrink the human personality …


Armin Raso-Katz takes his organ on a tour of Northern Ireland

Nice little video here from this sparsely documented international artist:

I don’t know what its specification is, and I don’t know the Kassel maker, but this is probably the kind of thing I’m interested in. The mini-pram-type carriage is interesting, but a trike will give me speed and flexibility.