Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Finger in the Filing Cabinet by Leonard Barras

The Finger in the Filing Cabinet
As far as I know, the last time there was dancing in the streets of Wallsend was when the relief of Haltwhistle was announced during the Boer War.  There were cries of 'Haltwhistle is relieved!' and the acting Town Clerk led off The Grand Old Duke of York from the steps of the Roman pump.  It had to be either The Grand Old Duke of York or the schottische, as these were the only two dances he knew, owing to his inadequate schooling.
'Why are they shouting "Haltwhistle is relieved"? asked his partner, a widow from the Rates Department named Mrs Watkin.
'Because it has,' he replied.
'Has what?' she inquired.
'Haltwhistle,' he said. 'Baden Powell had been relieved there.'
'On my memo it says Mafeking,' said Mrs Watkins.
'Another thing - why are you dancing The Grand Old Duke of York when everybody else is dancing the schottische?'  Her schooling had been adequate and she could recite Browning's Pippa Passes.

It Turned out that the acting Town Clerk had mixed up the Mafeking memo with one about the annual bowls match between Wallsend and Haltwhistle, Northumberland, and had made the wrong announcement from the steps of the Roman pump in the absence of the deputy mayor, who had got his finger caught in a Town Hall filing cabinet.  The mayor and the Town Clerk were in North Shields at the time, opening a rhododendron show and had missed the last tram after the mayor had gone down with a touch of bud blast.  It was what might be called a chapter of accidents.  It was called a chapter of accidents by the Wallsend Weekly Buffoon, in the space of for late news, upside down.

This may explain why dancing in the streets has not caught on in Wallsend, which is a pity, because I have always felt that if there is anything our Northern industrial towns need it is dancing in the streets.  They have got arts centres and poss tub museums, and admittedly Wallsend Amneisa Football eleven won the Aged Miners' Charity Shield in 1922 and left it in the gents' in the Dun Cow, but there has been hardly any dancing in the streets.  Of course, they built the good ship Mauretania in Wallsend, but against that you have to set the fact that in Haltwhistle they're still waiting for the Wallsend bowls team to turn up.
The acting Town Clerk is long gone, mind you, and the Roman pump fell down during the economic crisis in 1931, but because of these ancient events there is one distinction Wallsend can claim: it added a word to the region's vocabulary.  Unbridled patriotic celebration may be 'mafficking' in other parts of these islands, but in Wallsend it's 'haltwhistling'.

Times have changed. The Mauretania is long gone too, although faint fragments of her saga keep surfacing in reports in the Wallsend Weekly Buffoon about elderly women who still make clippy mats with proggers fashioned from the old ship's scrapped brass scupper gratings.  And there is also the plaque above the deputy mayor's filing cabinet, commemorating his finger.  Ho, times have changed, as I remarked to a man in Wallsend last Tuesday, but he didn't catch what I said and disappeared into the Poss Tub Museum, fingering his purple corduroy tie.

Mrs Watkin fell down during the heat wave of 1919, outside the Dun Cow, after seeing the bowls team off on their annual tour of Mafeking to which the transposed memo seems to have committed them.  The deputy mayor never got over his resentment, especially as his injured finger prevented him from leading off the dancing with Mrs Watkin, because he had long admired her svelte hips.  'I felt a fool with a finger in that filing cabinet,' he told her afterwards.
'You'd have felt a bigger fool announcing "Haltwhistle is relieved",' she responded, adding, 'The lark's on the wing; the snail's on the thorn.'  She was born before her time and would have been at home in the Arts Centre or the Earth Closet and Flat Iron Repository.  She was a beautiful woman and everybody wanted to dance with her, and the bowls team frequently did, although it was seeing her home afterwards that did their game no good at all.

When the mayor and the Town Clerk got back on the first tram next morning, they roused the janitor and asked if he had anything for bud blast, but he said he had used the last of his three-in-one oil on the filing cabinet.
'What's all this, then?' the mayor asked, and the whole story came out, except that they hushed up Mrs Watkins svelte hips.
Herbert Mangle, the Wallsend poet, mentioned these matters in his jottings, in between playing goalkeeper for Wallsend Amnesia, but it's fair to admit that the editor of the Wallsend Weekly Buffoon dismissed him as a trumpery fabricator.
'Factually fictitious my jottings may be,' Mangle riposted, 'but they are artistically true.'  The editor pretended to sneer at this palpable oxymoron, but he worked it into the next week' badminton results.
Another of Mangle's artistic truths was embodied in his lines:

Wallsend! - of all Tyne towns thou art the best!
From thee, the Roman Wall lurched proudly west;
Though be it said thou pinn'dst thy latter hopes 
On Swan and Hunter and on Haggie's Ropes.

There were thirty-one more verses, but they got possed in the tub one week with his goalkeeper's jersey.
Times have changed all right, and if you are wondering what clippy mats are, or proggers, or poss tubs, why not approach the Wallsend Weekly Buffoon, where they won't be very pleased to hear from you?

Well, you can take all this as a plea for more dancing in the streets of Wallsend, or more earth closets.  It's not a happy history, except perhaps for elderly clippy mat makers, but at least there is that plaque to the deputy mayor's mishap, or would be if it hadn't fallen down during the fuel crisis of 1947.
But spare a thought for the acting Town Clerk.  He had, after all, an inadequate schooling and became a self-made acting Town Clerk by dint of stern Victorian effort, learning The Grand Old Duke of York by correspondence course.  It couldn't happen now, is what I'm trying to suggest, but I daresay the day will come when they'll say the same about purple corduroy ties.