As will become increasingly obvious as this blog continues, I'm not really a 'poet' as such, but more of an entertainer. I hope so, at least. I've always been a fan of old-fashioned comedy monologues and songs, performed by such luminaries as Arthur Askey, Tommy Trinder, Stanley Holloway and many others. One particular favourite is the Liverpool comedian and monologuist Robb Wilton, who is probably most famous for The Day War Broke Out (which I performed at the launch of Middlewich Town Council's War At Home CD, a collection of wartime memories and music which I compiled and edited for their War At Home project). Robb Wilton specialised in a kind of bumbling, incompetent-sounding delivery which served to hide his superb timing and razor sharp delivery.
For many years I've been performing his Back Answers monologue (which, intriguingly, he used to refer to as 'a song'):
A sail on the sea is a thing that suits me, and I've done some sailing it's true.
I've been at my wit's end when sailing from Lands End
And one night (when I'd had one or two)
The captain came out on the bridge and said 'Lads,
'We're doomed - the old tub's going down;
To the boats every man - except you,' I said, 'me?'
He said, 'yes, there's no room, you must drown'.
I said, 'drown?', he said, 'drown - the ship's going down-
Don't stand arguing there.
'I've just told you straight, there's no room for you mate,
'In the boats or, in fact, anywhere.
'I know it's upsetting, but what's the use fretting?
'We might have lost all of the crew.
But now, as I say, we can all get away,
'And only lose one. And that's you.'
('Back Answers' [excerpt]. Written and performed by Robb Wilton)
'Eh?' (pronounced to rhyme with 'say') is an attempt at writing a Robb Wilton style piece, dating back to 1985. It should be delivered at a fairly fast pace, but in a laid-back sort of style.
And it's based on a true story. One day in the 1970s a gentleman came walking in to the Kings Arms in Middlewich with a black labrador and, whenever anyone asked the dog's name he would simply reply, 'Eh?'
From such trivial incidents are great masterpieces composed. And this silly poem, too.
'Eh?' was broadcast, like many of my other poems, on BBC Radio Stoke's Homeground programme, produced and presented by the late and much-missed Arthur Wood. Nerve-rackingly , for me, on the day he decided to broadcast it, Arthur had the distinguished poet Roy Fisher as his guest and asked his opinion of it.
Mercifully, Roy thought it was 'wonderful'.
A couple of notes: The Lion & Railway Hotel crops up from time to time in this collection of poems and is just a handy pub name which sounds great in verse. It has a nice, melodious ring to it. The only real Lion & Railway I know of is in Northwich. It closed down years ago and has been boarded up ever since.
The line '...and he told me about his new garden' in verse ten is just a ghost of an idea for another poem about George's garden being destroyed in some unspecified manner and his taking over the Vicar's neglected garden in order to grow some highly suspect plants in it. This poem never got written, so the line is just lying there enigmatically, inviting speculation.
The final line, I then made my excuses and left harks back to the halcyon days of the News Of The World in the 1950s and 1960s when reporters from that now disgraced and, indeed, non-existent Sunday paper would set unsuspecting people up in highly compromising situations in order to obtain lurid and sensational stories. Just as the story started to get interesting it would always end abruptly with ...I made my excuses and left. Who could have guessed, when the poem was written in 1985, that the reference would become out-dated in such an astonishing way?
Finally, a word or two about the black labrador in the title photo. She's called Bella and lives in Glaslough, Co. Monaghan, Ireland. When we stayed in a holiday cottage there in August this year she would call around most evenings to share our food and lie in front of the fire, something she obviously did whoever was staying there. She's a happy and contented dog who's able to wander around and go where she pleases. Lucky her. Her only problem seems to be the rather puzzling fact that the people in 'her' cottage seem to be different every week or so.
But now I notice that, as is traditional, the intro is already longer than the actual poem, so let's get on with it.
by Dave Roberts
In the bar of the Lion & Railway Hotel
I was drinking with Old George one day
And, asleep on the floor, lay his black labrador
So I asked the dog's name. George said, 'Eh?'
I repeated my question. he shrugged and said, 'Eh?'
Which suggested to me that his brain
Had gone on the blink through a surfeit of drink.
He grinned and said 'Eh?' once again.
I said, what's the dog's name? he said, 'Eh?' I said, 'George,
'Please forgive me for being so dense,
'But I'm just asking for the dog's nomenclature
'And you're not making very much sense -
'Does he answer to Rover, or Fido, or Fang?
'Tell me please, or we'll be here all day;
'Have you christened him Bimbo, or Jumbo, or Jimbo...?'
He lit up his pipe and said, 'Eh?'
I said, 'look - I'm just asking the name of this dog,
'And your attitude's odd, I must say.
'Now, the dog's name is what?' He said, 'oh no it's not',
I said, 'what is it, then?' He said, 'Eh?'
And then a thought struck me: the dog in dispute
Had a disc on the chain round its neck
And the elusive name would be engraved on same,
I could learn what it was in a sec.
So I went to the dog, and I patted his head,
And he growled ina threatening way,
And (not without risk) I looked at the disc
And on it was scratched the word 'Eh?'
I said, 'Eh?' George said, 'aye' and he knocked out his pipe,
And I felt a dull ache in my head.
'So, the dog's name is "Eh?" Well, why didn't you say?'
'I told you six times,' Old George said.
'But I'll tell you right no, I've been pulling your leg,
'I'm a humorous sort of a bloke;
'And, needless to say, the dog's real name's not "Eh?" -
I just had that disc made as a joke'
So we had a good laugh, and we had a few drinks,
And he told me about his new garden,
Then just like a clown, I let the side down
And said, 'what's the dog's name?' He said, 'Pardon?'
I leapt off my stool crying, 'Oh no you don't!
'If this goes on, you'll drive me bereft,
'And I've had quite enough of this humorous stuff'.
I then made my excuses, and left.
© Dave Roberts/Salt Town Productions 2011
Originally published on THE ODD EXCEPTION 10th September 2011