In Whitley Bay, there was once an eccentric Trinity House brother. On his day off from St. Mary's Lighthouse, he was in the habit of visiting the Marine Museum to sing sea songs to his friend the curator, followed by muffins. The curator, who was colour-blind, would say, 'All cats are grey to a colour-blind horse.' The eccentric brother would ask, 'What's that got to do with it?' not realising that the curator was resorting to hybrid apothegms to disguise the fact that he didn't like being sung to.
'You'll have to tell him some day,' his wife would say, but the curator hesitated to rebuff a man in a peaked cap.
Death intervened on afternoon, however, halfway through the third verse of Tom Bowling, the Darling of our Crew, and afterwards the curator remarked, 'Ah, well, he's gone on the viewless wing of poesy to Arthur's bosom.'
'Don't try your hybrids on me,' his wife rejoined. 'Another thing, you're sitting on my wireless.' She was trying to catch some esoterica on Radio 3, not an easy exercise with sea songs and apothegms all round.
There was life outside the Marine Museum, including E.S. Appleyard on his bicycle. Appleyard was a frustrated dramatist. He was a good-natured man with well-assembled elbows, but his tragedy was that he wrote plays that had been written before.
It was after the failure of his masterpiece, Lance-Corporal Barbara, that he sadly forsook drama and resorted instead to riding a bicycle through Whitley Bay. This was a dispiriting transmutation, as the only aesthetic satisfaction it left him was the contemplation of his well-assembled elbows, and even this vanity cost him dear. Polishing his glasses one day as he was pedalling along, so that he might see his elbows the more clearly, he crashed thunderously into St Mary's Lighthouse.
When he came round, a lovely girl in a peaked cap was bending over him applying sticking plaster to his glasses. 'Who am I?' he moaned. 'How is my bicycle? What time is it in Alberta?'
'Hush!' I am the lighthouse-keeper,' the girl murmured. 'Totter over my threshold and sample my Yorkshire pudding.' And taking his elbow, she helped him inside, where she told him, over her Yorkshire pudding, of how she had been left the lighthouse in the will of an eccentric Trinity House brother, after transcribing the third verse of Tom Bowling for him, unsuccessfully.
'For my part,' Appleyard volunteered, 'I have these well-assembled elbows, in case you missed the exposition, but am a good-natured man.'
'I've heard of you,' the girl responded. 'You were written by Oliver Goldsmith.'
'Merciful heaven!' said Appleyard. 'You're invading my tragedy!'
'There, there!' the girl said, which he was in no shape to deny.
For our first allusive glimpse of the eccentric Trinity House brother's great-great-grandmother, we must go back to 1874 and Ursula's Horn-Rimmed Glasses. This was an unknown opera by unknown composer, Vladek Hojid, which leaves little to be said about it, except by a diligent liar.
It was the only opera finished by Hojid, because his wife kept mislaying the piano in the course of moving house.
'I don't understand why we have to move house so much,' he protested one day when he was thirty-one.
'Have you seen the colander?' she asked. She usually mislaid the colander as well.
He was forty-one when Smetana gave him a spare piano for his birthday with the admonition to keep one foot on it whenever his wife showed signs of removing. 'I don't know what you want with two pianos,' his wife said. 'What we need is a spare colander to drain this cabbage.'
She had an addiction to draining cabbage, her mother having been a Slovene, as handsome a non-sequitur as we're likely to come across.
In any case, Hojid's musical verve was beginning to wane by then, owing to political pressure. He had just been elected to the Chamber of Deputies as an anarchist, on a programme of abolishing the Chamber of Deputies, to which he never went on principle.
'I wish you'd finish Ursula's Horn-Rimmed Glasses,' Smetana said to him one morning.
'Finish what?' said Hojid, because he hadn't started it.
'I must be thinking of Die Fledermaus,' said Smetana.
'I thought you wrote that,' said Hojid.
'I will, Oscar, I will,' said Smetana.
'My name's Vladek,' said Hojid.
'If it comes to that, you're thinking of Strauss,' said Smetana.
'Anyway, I have to go and get a colander,' said Hojid. 'We've just moved house again.'
It was as a result of this conversation that Hojid sent in his resignation to the Chamber of Deputies. 'Who?' said the Speaker.
Bedevilled as he was by anarchism and cabbage, it came as a shattering coup de grace to Hojid when his wife moved house again, mislaying both pianos and his metronome. In the event, she was only one jump ahead of the ruling Moravian Repressive Party, who came for him that night, and he spent the next three years under forced labour in the Wenceslas Christmas cracker factory. How the opera came to be finished is also unknown.
E.S. Appleyard's history is less obscure. Shortly after his contretemps alongside St Mary's, he married the loveliest lighthouse-keeper in Whitley Bay, and they settled down in the lighthouse with the bicycle and a Labrador dog that had been left in Trinity House brother's codicil. Appleyard had never intended to get married, but had formed an addiction to Yorkshire pudding on less than Mrs Hojid's to draining cabbage. Thus does life entrap the artist.
Meanwhile, in the Marine Museum, the curator had taken to re-transcribing the third verse of Tom Bowling for the sake of his departed friend and was singing it daily to the fish.
'The thing is,' he said to his wife, 'if music be the food of love, unarm, Eros!'
'What with you singing sea songs,' his wife complained, 'I've missed some more esoterica.' She had followed Radio 3 since its inception and had in consequence become an authority in Whitley Bay on unknown works of art, whenever she could get away from muffins.
In the lighthouse the months went by. Day after day, Appleyard learnt over the rail, salt spray on his glasses, growing fat, when all the while he might have been writing Richard the Fourth or The Agitated Duck. Life was comfortable and yet something constantly gnawed away inside him, apart from Yorkshire pudding. The dog lay at his heels, also bathed in dejection, pining for his old master's sea songs.
'Have I betrayed my destiny?' Appleyard asked himself. 'Is my muse in perpetual slumber? What time is it in Alberta?'
In Whitley Bay, it was Christmas time. Dinner was over in the lighthouse. The surf boomed and the gulls ululated in a sullen sky, inserting the mandatory onomatopoeia. 'And now for the crackers!' cried Appleyard's lovely wife, as she joyfully dispensed rhubarb wine.
When Vladek Hojid, back in 1877, smuggled a dozen crackers out of the Wenceslas cracker factory, his wife took them, concealed in her stocking tops, to the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, to implore clemency.
'Is there no justice in this land?' she demanded.
'I don't know about that,' said the Speaker. 'I've been laid up with my breathing.'
As luck would have it, the Speaker was unseated the very next week, when the Moravian Repressives were ousted by the Feudal Oligarchists. Forced to flee the country, he prevailed on Mrs Hojid to accompany him. 'Our shared love of cabbage-draining captivated me,' he explained.
'I thought it was my stocking tops,' she said demurely.
After certain vicissitudes, they settled in North East England, for the sake of his breathing, and there they founded a colander industry, for which they were granted a charter by the burgesses.
'It'll keep you stocking tops up,' said the Speaker. He thought the burgesses had said 'garter'.
The Feudal Oligarchists were swiftly overturned by the Agrarian Separatists, and Hojid found himself released from his forced labour. 'This is on the understanding that you renounce anarchism,' the commandant told him, offering him a second-hand metronome to start a new life.
'Mind you, I renounced it before I went in,' said Hojid.
'I wish you'd said,' said the commandant.
Arriving at his back door, Hojid was met by Smetana, who said anxiously, 'Your wife had fled, Johann.'
'Thank God for that, although my name's Vladek,' said Hojid. 'Now I can marry my mistress, the Princess Caroline zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.'
'I thought that was Liszt,' said Smetana.
'We're not going into all that again,' said Hojid.
But we left Mrs Appleyard dispensing rhubarb wine.
'These crackers,' she intimated, heaping coincidence on exposition, 'were brought here in 1877, when the late Trinity House brother's great-great-grandmother arrived on these shores, seeking sanctuary from non-sequiturs and worse.'
So the crackers were pulled and the mottoes read amid the usual dismal scenes of Yuletide rejoicing. Mrs Appleyard's motto read, in Slovene: 'You are loveable to a fault.' The dog's read: 'So are you.' Appleyard's read: 'Help!' I need a librettist for my opera, Ursula's Horn-Rimmed Glasses.'
On the instant, Appleyard's muse was re-aroused. He leapt on his bicycle and pedalled away and out of his lovely wife's life forever, with no thought even for the assemblage of his elbows. The Labrador dog was hard behind him.
Appleyard's libretto for Ursula's Horn-Rimmed Glasses tells the story of the land of Tantobia under threat of war and a rather severe snowstorm. Ursula, the wife of Xenophulos, the queen's chamberlain, is a bad-tempered woman with horn-rimmed glasses. Most mornings at breakfast, she kicks his leg under the table, pretending it is an accident.
Claudio, the next-door neighbour, had been condemned to die for speaking ill of the queen's basset-hound. He protests his innocence, but cannot explain away the basset-hound bites on his left calf. The cleaning lady, Yvette Lafiche, comes in and sings the aria, 'By Gum, The Bus Was Crowded This Morning'.
Xenophulos runs away to take refuge in a convent. 'You can't come in here; this is a convent,' the abbess tells him. He pleads short-sightedness, although, as we know, it is his wife who wears glasses.
The invasion force of Moors and Tartars has now been sighted and the queen put aside her basset-hound, saying, 'We'll have to look into this.' She sends for Xenophulos, not knowing that he is in a rough alehouse, which is where he ran to after the convent.
Claudio arrives, disguised as an evil washerwoman, and says she (that is, he) will lift the curse which he (meaning she) has put on the land if the queen will pardon Claudio. 'Who's he again?' asks the queen. Claudio sings the aria, 'Did You Know There's A Smut on Your Nose?' because he no longer cares.
Act Four begins with Ursula in a bad temper again, because the snow is on her glasses and she hasn't even been out of the kitchen yet. The invasion force is drawing ever nearer and the queen is reduced to praying for wind. Claudio meets Xenophulos in the rough alehouse. 'You've got a deep voice for a washerwoman,' Xenophulos says. 'It's me, you fool,' says Claudio. They compare the bruises on their legs and decide they are one and the same person.
There is a chorus of 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-di-ay', because by general consent it seems a pretty rotten idea.
The wind does not change. The invasion force lands, but having seen the queen, decides not to abduct her after all. Ursula runs after her husband, but is misdirected by the abbess and comes on Claudio, who is in any case one and the same person, so she kicks his leg with impunity.
As the cleaning lady, Yvette Lafiche, is the queen's long-lost disguised uncle, there is a total amnesty and the basset-hound is pardoned. Amid merry cries of 'See you at Easter, then,' the invasion force pushes off. Ursula finds her glasses, although most of us didn't know they were lost, and sings, rather touchingly, the aria, 'Have You Seen Mrs Wilkinson Lately?'. The opera ends.
The libretto had been written before, in 1882, by Arrigo Boito, but Appleyard had recognised that it was his destiny to write other people's plays. The artist had sprung the trap.
What of the lovely lighthouse-keeper? Forlorn amid the ululations, she wondered endlessly what time it was in Alberta. Along the road, the Labrador dog waited patiently outside the Marine Museum. If fish could be sung to, he reasoned, why not Labrador dogs?
The curator peered out. 'Is that a grey cat?' he asked his wife.
But she was listening to Ursula's Horn-Rimmed Glasses on Radio 3.