Monday, 30 March 2009

26 July 1942

Out from 5.25 to 6.05.  Walk, run round and PE as usual in silence.

Altogether, the show bills specified about 20 items and were rather apt to give the impression that the company consisted of at least as many artists.  But even if we were only six, we certainly did the work of 20!  It was a case of rapid fire and quick change all the time and the whole show went with a swing and tempo which I have seen equalled, but never bettered, since.  Although I may be somewhat biased regarding the quality of our entertainment, the vociferous applause which was invariably our portion (when the audience turned up) would seem to have confirmed my own opinion that it was a rattling good show.  Or it may only have been that the country lads and lasses were easily pleased with anything in the way of novelty, such as we certainly brought to them!

Thelma, the Wonder Child (little Gladys Stratton), assisted by Professor Montague, performed an act of telepathy and clairvoyance.  She sat in the middle of the platform, blindfolded, while Monty went to and fro among the audience selecting a watch here, a brooch or a coin here, and asking Thelma to describe the article, tell the time from the watch or the date of the coin etc.  The whole thing was, of course, based on a system of key words which were contained in the questions which Monty asked.  For instance, ‘What is this?’ would mean signify a ring, while ‘What have I here?’ indicated a watch and so on.  Similarly, with time and dates the numbers were conveyed in questions.  For example, ‘Can’ stood, say, for 10, ‘tell’ for 2 and ‘now’ for 5, so that when the question was put, ‘Can you tell me now what the time is'?’  the answer was, of course, 10.25.  The question sounded quite natural, such as ‘Tell me the time on this watch’; ‘Can you say what time this watch shows?’; ‘What is this?’; ‘Now what have I in my hand?’ and so on, and the effect must certainly have been mystifying and entertaining to the uninitiated audience.  There was nothing very wonderful in the whole business but little Gladys was certainly a wonder child as far as her memory was concerned.  How I have envied that child then and since for her power of memory and never more so than on one occasion when, Gladys being indisposed, Monty in an ill-omened moment, insisted that I should act as her substitute in order to fill the bill.  Ye Gods, how I swotted at the code the whole of that day!  And imagine my feelings when, having been introduced to the audience by Monty as the brother of the famous Thelma and also gifted with clairvoyant powers, I was placed on the chair, blindfolded, and left all on my lonesome in the middle of the stage.  On being blindfolded, not only the lights in the hall were obscured, but every other light, mental or otherwise, deserted me.  I have not been blessed with a good memory and realising that even then, I was in a state of sheer funk as well.  The torture began, but to my shame, but none the less to my devout relief, it did not, could not, last long.  I believe I answered the first two or three questions correctly, simple things such as a ‘ring’, a ‘brooch’, etc.  However, when it came to the date on a coin, the last remnants of reason fled and everything went blank.  And there I sat, bathed in a sort of cold perspiration, dimly aware of Monty’s voice asking the same question two or three times, giving that up and going on to something else in a desperate effort to save the situation.  But all in vain.  There sat the clairvoyant brother of Thelma, a complete dumb dud.  Poor Monty made the best of it but I had let him down badly and he could do no more than return to the stage and lead me away.  Monty was one of the best natured souls alive, but I can find it in my heart to forgive him if he suffered from some slight homicidal tendency that evening.

In this way, Monty was quite a character.  He was, I suppose, about 50 when I knew him and had been, I  believe, connected with the ‘profession’ in a rather third rate capacity, I imagine, most of his life.  He was a fair enough conjurer but confining himself to the stock tricks of the trade and quite a passable ventriloquist, working with the usual dummy.  The only bit of ‘patter’ between Monty and his dummy which I can recall went as follows:

Dummy:  Who was that girl I saw you with last night?
Monty:  That was my fiancĂ©e, George.
Dummy: Oh what a face – what a dial!
Monty: (Slap!) Shut up, you impudent rogue!  Besides, George, you must remember that beauty is only skin deep.
Dummy:  Then, for Heaven’s sake, skin her!

Monty also had another act which he called ‘Papergraphy’.  This was carried out with nothing else than a fairly big piece of wrapping paper, folded somewhat after the fashion of a Venetian blind, which by manipulations was made to represent a chair, a basket, a fan, etc.  Rather clever and entertaining, too.  Monty was  fairly heavily built man and somehow gave the impression that his legs were somewhat of inadequate strength to carry the upper structure.  he did not exactly walk – he stumped.  His shoulders were slightly bent as though he carried a load – which I have no doubt he did, poor old chap.  Failure was written all over him and even his face had a battered look about it which reminded one of an ex prize fighter run to seed.  He always smoked Woodbines but, strangely enough, I cannot remember ever having seen Monty with a whole, or even a half cigarette, in his mouth.  It was always a stump of about half an inch long in the corner of his mouth, the smoke from which crept continually past his nose into his left eye, which was always half closed and tearful in consequence.  That cigarette stump has always puzzled me because Monty smoked 50 to 60 Woodbines a day and the whole cigarette must have existed.  But, as I have said, I never saw one.  Monty was clean shaven and used a good old ‘cut throat’ razor.  The sight of Monty shaving was one which filled me not only with respect (I myself had nothing to shave at that time) but with a feeling akin to awe.  He never used a mirror and used to wander all over the place scraping away the perpetual cigarette stump in the corner of his mouth and his face all screwed up from the combined effects of the smoke and the operation.  He was one of the kindest hearted men, easy going, taking the bad with the good in an admirable philosophical spirit – a regular old trouper of the best kind, and a very real asset in a small ensemble such as ours.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

25 July 1942

Received a wonderful parcel from Ineke yesterday, my birthday, containing two pillow cases, writing pad and pencils, the pocket Bible and the pocket Testament which Dad carried with him in the last war, playing cards, needle, thread and wool, a tin of home made Swiss milk toffee, condensed milk, cigarettes and cigarette papers.  I feel like a millionaire.  The pad and pencils are a godsend.  Out 5.30 to 6.15.  The tough guys are on duty, W and W, Looney, Pokerface etc.

Yesterday, I celebrated my 39th birthday in a prison cell.  And, just half an hour ago, still in the cell, I celebrated the first day of my fortieth year by sitting down on a plateful of soft boiled rice!  My cell is 2.5 x 1.5 meters (8 feet x 5 feet) and the furnishing is scanty.  A small oblong table, a three legged stool, a bed which folds up against the wall when not in use, and a small cupboard hanging on the wall above the bed  is the inventory, if one excepts the very respectable WC pot with a zinc basin above it in the corner apposite bed and door.  In removing anything from the cupboard, therefore – and I had just taken my writing pad from under the plate of rice – there are only the table and chair to put it on.  The table being otherwise engaged at the moment, I placed the plate of rice on the stool, took out the pad, closed the cupboard, turned round and sat down.  The immediate sensation was a surprising one – a soft yielding combined with a concave resistance, which at last suddenly gave way with a mild crack as the plate broke under me in three pieces.  Realisation came with a crack, but even then a moment’s cogitation was necessary to determine how the act of rising could be accomplished with a minimum of further disaster.  Taking off my shorts was a delicate operation as was the messy job of scraping the seat with my spoon.  Soft boiled rice also all over the stool and floor – but all is cleaned up now and order restored, my shorts hanging on the window with the damaged portion exposed to the evening breeze.  No supper tonight, though.

But to get back to this prison business.  The nearest I have ever been to prison in my life before was away back in 1919.  I had given up a promising position in the Aberdeen Public Library (13/6 per week which equates to, in today’s money, 67.5 pence or 94 US cents, with the prospect of becoming perhaps a junior librarian in 20 years’ time) to join with a travelling concert party, The Balmorals, which was just commencing a winter tour of practically every town and village from Aberdeen West and Northwards.  I joined as  vocalist, at fifteen and a half years of age, and was provided with a second hand dinner suite (30/- from one or other old clothes’ store) with a salary of 30/- per week all found or, again in today’s money, £1.50 or just over US$2.  The Balmorals party was run by Gus Stratton and James Montague (Monty) and consisted of Stratton and his wife and child, Monty, a young/old lady, whose name I forget as pianist and myself.  As I have said, I joined the party as vocalist but my duties as a member of The Balmorals were manifold, not only during the performance but also during the rest of my waking hours as no doubt with a view to economy, no extra help was engaged at any point.  We played only one night in each place and travelled, sometimes by rail or car and sometimes even on shanks’ mare if the distance was not too great, from point to point.  Monty’s son, Jimmie (poor lad) was our advance agent and his duties were to precede us by about a week to ten days, on a bicycle, pasting bills advertising the show wherever possible in, and in the vicinity of, the villages to be visited, hiring a hall for the performance and arranging for the hire of a piano if there was none in the hall.  When the party arrived the first thing to be done was the distribution of handbills along the streets and outside the schools and the arranging of the seating accommodation and placing of the piano by the male members, while the ladies occupied themselves in setting things to rights ‘back stage’.  I also sat at the receipt of customs, in the ticket box, when the doors opened and as soon as everybody was inside, I would close the door and dash round to the back of the stage to be ready for the ‘come on’ with the others.  The program lasted about 2.5 hours altogether, commencing usually at 8pm with an interval of 15 minutes.  During the first half the ‘sit around’ method was adopted as in a Pierrot show on the sands with all members of the party seated in a half circle on the stage, Gus and Monty acting as ‘corner men’, and each member rising and coming forward to do his or her turn in succession.  I usually sang a couple of songs, Mrs Stratton and Gus a semi humorous duet or two, Thelma Stratton sang and danced, while Monty and Gus kept the patter and announcements going from their respective corners.  The second half was another pair of shoes, consisting of individual turns and finishing up with a hilarious sketch.  The items, as billed, included ‘Thelma the Wonder Child’, ‘The Strattons, Scotch Character Duo’, ‘Professor Montague, Conjurer and Illusionist’ (Monty), ‘Maximillian Sylvester, Ventriloquist’ (Monty again) and ‘Donald Munro’ (myself) tenor vocalist.


A note by Pat O’Neill about ‘The Concert Party’:

The concert party was usually composed of a group of singers, much like a small choir who performed popular songs as well as art songs. The concert party format was very popular at the time and still exists in various areas of the UK.

Although the music hall tradition continues today, during the beginning of 1900, music halls dominated the musical scene and virtually every town and village boasted music hall activities.

A very famous artist called Sir Harry Lauder was to become The World's Most Beloved Musical Humorist.  Follow the link and you will get an insight to not only Sir Harry but also to the idea of a concert party.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Here we go again!

Can it really be 3 months since I posted here?  What has been happening during that time?  Christmas was the biggy with family coming over to enjoy the fruits of my cooking in my old kitchen for the last Christmas before a total refurbishment.  But that is another story!  Various family birthdays; a new addition to our family of a boy to continue our family dynasty (can you hear the chords of Dynasty?) and so life goes on.

I promised to continue my Dad’s manuscript, the one I began transposing here below.  front of manuscript another In the posts below he describes how the Japanese came to invade Java, Indonesia and how he and my mother became involved in some years of separate internments.  Now is the time to continue showing you his manuscript in which he describes briefly his experiences in prison as a prisoner of war during WWII.  Although they had hard times I do believe they were a lot more lucky than so many.  At least they came through it with their tale to tell unlike many of their dear friends.

One of the ways my Dad, who was ever resourceful, tried to keep his sanity during the long hours of inactivity was to cast his mind back to his youth to describe instances he could remember.  This actually gives a wonderful insight to life in Aberdeen in the period of 1919 onwards.  Please remember these are my Dad’s words as he wrote them.  There won’t be many, if any, pictures but his graphic way with words allows the reader to use their imagination to create real pictures in their minds as they follow his words.  All his words were written down by hand using any scrap of paper and a pencil that became a very small stump!  He found ways to hide all this but mostly the memories were kept in his mind to be written/typed at a later date.  beginning of a chapter These will be the words you will be reading.

There may be some foreign  words from the Dutch language since Java was part of the Dutch East Indies and my mother was Dutch herself.  English became very much the ‘indoors’ language or for English friends whilst the majority of the time Dutch was the main language.  Of course, having lived in this part of the world for some time local words from the Malaysian language or Japanese would also infiltrate at times.  Wherever possible I will try to translate!

And so, my friends, expect to find many chapters over a prolonged period of time.  Also, please remember these words are not for copying or publishing in any other format anywhere without the express permission of the author of this blog.  As the sub heading of this blog explains, ‘Many of us have precious thoughts within us and very precious memories. Unless, we explain or write about them they will remain within us and not be shared with the wider world.’  It is for this reason I felt duty bound to share my Dad’s memories to give a better insight to events of the time.  Otherwise, all would have been in vain and lost to the next generation had these memories not been passed down.

I will alert readers to new posts as they are completed but the easiest way of keeping up is to click the follow button, if you haven’t already, and in this way you will be able to keep up to date.

All I have left to say, is please sit back, grab a coffee or something stronger, and drift off to another era.  Do feel free to leave a comment but most of all, I urge you to enjoy the experience!

Thank you!