Past Hopelessness

02/04/2011 § 1 Comment

Do you fancy despairing at the vast indifference of time and history? Neither do I, but I find it hard to avoid when I hear old music hall songs. Listen to the following from c.1910:

(With apologies for the format)

Keep listening. Don’t stop when you get bored or when the music starts to grate or when you lose all hope of understanding what the hell it is he’s singing about. Personally, I get lost about the point where he starts talking about his Derby Kell.

Why should you force yourself to do this? You’ll probably agree with me that this is to all intents and purposes incomprehensible at the first pass. Listen again, you’d pick out more of the words. After a few attempts you could transcribe most of it. Try to capture some of the bits you don’t get using phonetics, so you can cross reference them with a dictionary of slang. Before you know it, you’ll have a fairly clear idea of what he’s saying.

Not that this will help. So you figure out that the singer has been given a watch and chain, and that this provokes ridicule from multiple sources – gangs of children, the Lord Mayor of London, the congregation at his own wedding. This is clearly meant to be humorous, but how much? The idea of a hijacked church choir turning on the groom – the joke there is fairly clear. But should we be expected to laugh at a group of children insulting his pocket watch? Or does the humour there only come from the refrain ‘any old iron’? What does that mean, anyway?

After further research you find out this is a street cry associated with scrap merchants in 19th and 20th century Britain. You search Wikipedia again, and find that these were a kind of proto-recycler. So presumably the watch is sufficiently battered to be worth considering only for scrap value. This might have been funny.

After several hours work, you might be able to get to a position where you feel pretty confident you know what the singer is saying, where he expects to get a laugh. This won’t make it funny, it won’t stop the singing sounding loud and nasal. The music will still sound like an orchestra being sawn in half. Nevertheless, you’ll feel you’ve achieved quite a feat of comprehension.

But for the whole audience the night that song was recorded, there was never a need for analysis. They wouldn’t have thought; they’d have just laughed. As they left the music hall, they’d have whistled the tune. A week later, stumbling home from the pub, they could take a deep breath and bellow upward into the fogged night ‘Any any any old iron!”

And the thing is, this isn’t complicated stuff. This is not the Bloomsbury set, this is not Freud, this is not Wittgenstein. This is tiddly-pom music for proletarians who left school at 11. The educated would have looked down on it as being cheap, nasty, shallow; empty nonsense for dull people. But for something that contained nothing, a hundred years later we seem to have great trouble understanding any of it.

I called this depressing, rather than perplexing. Does it matter that you can’t understand a song from a century ago? Not really; but it does bother me that a century hence everything we do and say will be equally perplexing to our successors. Our everyday will become every bit as alien. Worse, our entire world will be so perfectly preserved in digital aspic that we wont be able to say that knowledge has been lost, or that understanding is impossible. It will simply be that it has ceased to matter; that there will be no reason why anyone would want to laugh with us, rather than at us.


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