Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Great Hat Race

Here, as promised yesterday, is Chapter 5 of my novel The Suppression of Vice (written under the pen-name Patrick Read).

The principal character in the novel is the real-life nineteenth-century poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne. He was, again as mentioned yesterday, a member of the Arts Club, though his drinking and other habits severely tested the patience of the members. In Chapter 5 of The Suppression of Vice I have dramatised once such incident which very nearly resulted in Algernon's expulsion: the Great Hat Race of 1867.

If, after reading this taster, you decide that you would like to read the whole novel, you may be able to find a copy in your local library (though this is most unlikely outside the UK). If all else fails you may have to buy one. Links are provided at the end.

Chapter 5

Reginald Arthur Simpson and Algernon Charles Swinburne had both taken full advantage of the generosity of Lord Bannerdown’s sister. Champagne on arrival at the house in South Audley Street had been followed by a splendid selection of white and red wines with the buffet meal. Subsequently, large brandies had been taken as a very natural way of settling one’s stomach. Now they began to drink without accompanying food.

They were on their way, of course, to Mrs Pearson’s house in Meard Street. And whether they ever got there it is hard to say; afterwards, neither man could remember. What is certain is that by 11 p.m. they were both very drunk indeed, and one or other of them must have suggested rounding the evening off at the Arts Club. Perhaps they ran out of cash and decided that they would continue taking refreshment at an establishment which would allow them credit. In any event, it is known that they arrived at the Arts Club at approximately 11.05.

There were three eye-witnesses to what followed. One, a fourteen-year-old boy called Jimmy, was present throughout the entire incident. Another, a club servant named Jackson, saw the arrival of the two men. And the club secretary, Mr Marsden, was brought down to bear witness to the consequences of the two men’s folly.

Jackson and the boy Jimmy were on duty in the entrance hall of the Arts Club late on that June evening.

Jackson was a ex-soldier who had been in the service of the club for over twenty years. He was well known to most members, and he prided himself on knowing all their names in return, even those country members who seldom set foot in the place.

At 11.05 p.m., Jackson was behind the reception desk. Through the open front door (it was still quite warm outside), he caught sight of a cab drawing up in the street. From within the darkened cab there came a maniacal laugh, a sound with which Jackson was eminently familiar.

‘I knew at once it was Mr Swinburne,’ Jackson later told the club’s management committee. ‘I’d know that laugh anywhere. Very loud it is, full of fun. Sounds like a naughty schoolboy. Likes a good laugh, does Mr Swinburne. And whatever anyone may say about him – er, about his drinking and that – I would have to say that Mr Swinburne has always behaved like a perfect gent to me.’

Those present say that the committee was not over-impressed by this character reference.

According to Jackson’s account, the door of the cab was then opened from within, and Algernon, who was seated nearest the pavement, moved to step out.

Unfortunately, Algernon’s condition was such that, when he put out his foot to place it on the metal step below the door of the cab, he missed completely and fell headlong into the gutter.

‘He went down with quite a whack,’ said Jackson. ‘I saw him go. Arse over tip, he went. Whop! Right into the gutter. I would have run out and picked him up, but I didn’t like to desert my station. And besides, I heard him laughing again. There he was, crawling about under the cab, roaring his head off. Thought it was very funny, you see, missing his step like that. Found it a big joke. And what with him being, erm, well, comfortably lubricated so to speak, he managed to fall all loose and floppy, and didn’t hurt himself. You and me, if we’d done it, we’d have broken our leg or our neck. But Mr Swinburne, see, he was all kind of relaxed like, and he didn’t come to no harm at all.’

The committee members translated the double negative and drew their own conclusions.

Eventually (according to Jackson), Algernon managed to make his way between the horse’s hooves and out on to the pavement. Then, while he was cackling ‘Hee hee hee hee hee!’, he crawled on his hands and knees to the foot of the steps leading up to the club door. There he managed to pull himself upright on the balustrade.

In answer to a question, Jackson reported that no, Mr Swinburne was not wearing a hat at the time. He was in evening dress, very much dishevelled, his collar well askew, but his hat had been left elsewhere.

‘And then,’ said Jackson, ‘I saw Mr Simpson step down from the cab too. I realised pretty quick that he was drunk an’ all. But he was careful, sober drunk, if you know what I mean. Mr Simpson is one of them gentleman what knows when they’ve had too much, and instead of becoming very silly, like Mr Swinburne, they becomes very careful indeed and moves rather slow. And that was what Mr Simpson did, see. He stepped down from the cab, making quite sure that he had his foot on the step before he let go of the door. And then he held on to the cab with one hand while he felt in his pocket for a coin to pay the cabby. And he waited for the change, and then he made for the steps as well. Weaved I bit, I recall, but he managed to reach ’em without falling over.’

At this point, Jackson reported, he called out to attract young Jimmy’s attention. The boy Jimmy had been in the employment of the club for only a few days and was being taught the ropes.

‘I knew it was important to make sure that young Jimmy got to know the members,’ said Jackson, ‘and I knew he was in the cloakroom, cleaning the basins, so I went across, opened the door, and called him out.

‘By that time Mr Swinburne was climbing the steps. Going very slow, mind you, because he had to hang on to the side, but he was very nearly at the front door. I pointed him out to Jimmy. There you are my lad, I said. That’s Mr Swinburne. Mr Swinburne is one of the most famous poets in the land. And he’s one of our most distinguished members. Young Jimmy took a look at him, and he said, But he’s drunk, Mr Jackson. Ah yes, I said. He often is.’

Jimmy confessed later that he had been surprised by how small Mr Swinburne was. ‘His hair is the biggest part of him,’ he commented.

‘Once Mr Swinburne got inside the club,’ said Jackson, ‘I could see he was bent upon mischief. He had that glint in his eye – looked like a naughty schoolboy – and he was peering around, looking for something to make mischief with. I decided to go upstairs and alert Mr Marsden.’ (Mr Marsden, a retired army officer who had served in India, was the club secretary.)

Leaving young Jimmy in the reception hall, Jackson made his way upstairs. He went into the library, which was where he had last seen the secretary. But unfortunately Marsden was no longer there. If he had been – who knows – The Great Hat Race might never have taken place.

Downstairs, Jimmy was the sole witness to what transpired.

Jimmy was an observant lad. He had a weak constitution – inclined to be chesty, his Mum said – and he had spent a lot of time indoors, looking out of the window and watching the world go by. He now took careful note of what the strange gentleman with the red hair was up to.

According to the boy’s account, Mr Swinburne and the other gentleman – whom he now knew to be Mr Simpson – went into the cloakroom. Both men were staggering and weaving, having difficulty in remaining upright. Jimmy was familiar with the problem. Even at the age of fourteen he had seen enough drunk men to recognise the condition.

The cloakroom was long and narrow. On either side of it there were rows of pegs for the members’ hats and coats. (Lavatory facilities were in an ante-room.) That particular night, there were only about sixteen members present, but this meant, naturally, since they were all gentlemen, that there were sixteen hats hanging on the various pegs. Plus one or two which had been left there by forgetful members in the past.

Algernon and Simpson wandered like lost souls up and down the cloakroom for a moment or two, until eventually Algernon pointed at Simpson’s top hat, which he was still wearing, and said solemnly, ‘Take hats off indoors.’

Simpson at once acknowledged this important point of etiquette. He reached up, removed his hat, and hung it on a peg. Not without difficulty, it must be stated. Three attempts were necessary before hat connected to peg.

Then Algernon proceeded to take his own hat off. Which was impossible, because he wasn’t wearing one. Nevertheless, the task was attempted several times, resulting only in making his long red hair look even wilder and longer than ever.

When, eventually, Algernon realised that he had lost his hat, the discovery became a source of great amusement.

‘Lost me hat!’ he declared, slapping Simpson on the back with great good humour. ‘Hee hee hee hee hee! Lost me hat!’

Simpson, however, was still in that unamused and unamusable state of a very drunk man who is wondering whether he can avoid being sick, and he did not respond. Algernon laughed sufficiently for the two of them, wheezing and hee-hee-heeing fit to bust, having to support himself on Simpson’s shoulder.

Young Jimmy watched all this, totally bemused.

And then, Mr Swinburne – it was definitely Mr Swinburne, Jimmy said – Mr Swinburne said to Mr Simpson, ‘I know! Let’s have a hat race!’

Algernon looked eagerly around at all the hats, nearly twenty in all, including Simpson’s, and saw in their presence the resources for a most hilarious way to end the evening.

He proceeded to rush up and down the line of pegs, throwing the members’ hats on to the floor. There were top hats, silk hats, bowler hats, stovepipe hats, chimney-pot hats – oh, and a couple of servants’ caps. All were thrown on to the floor. Then – and it was surprising really that the little fellow didn’t fall over while doing it – he kicked the hats into position until they were in two lines in the centre of the room, running from the door at one end to the wall at the other.

Algernon next positioned his silent friend Simpson at the end of one of the lines of hats, and himself at the end of the other.

‘Now!’ said Algernon triumphantly. ‘What you do is – ’ And he proceeded to demonstrate.

It emerged that, to conduct a hat race, one gentleman had to stand at the end of each line, and then both gentlemen proceeded to bend their left leg, hold their left foot in the left hand, and then hop down the line of hats.

It was essential, of course, that with each hop the gentleman’s foot should land on the very top of a hat, thus pancaking said head-wear it into a state of oblivion.

Young Jimmy watched, fascinated. Hat-racing was a pastime previously unknown to him.

Upstairs, meanwhile, the club’s longest-serving servant had at last succeeded in locating Mr Marsden in his private room on the third floor. Jackson had not appreciated having to climb so many stairs as it made his old war-wound ache: he had once broken his leg when he fell downstairs at the barracks in Shaftesbury. Tripped on a loose step, he said.

Jackson knocked quietly on the door of Mr Marsden’s quarters, and, when the secretary appeared, he coughed discreetly and said: ‘Ahem – Mr Swinburne’s downstairs, sir.’

Marsden, who was evidently about to retire to bed, sighed heavily. ‘Drunk, is he?’

‘I’m afraid so, sir.’

Marsden sighed again. It was a sigh redolent of impatience, regret, and irritation. ‘Very well. I’ll come down.’

Marsden later told the management committee that as he and Jackson descended the stairs, they heard from below a hideous screaming sound which at first alarmed them greatly.

‘It sounded like an animal in pain,’ said Marsden. ‘But then, as we approached the cloakroom, we both realised that it was just the sound of Mr Swinburne, screeching with laughter.’

During Jackson’s search for the club’s chief executive, Algernon and Simpson had completed the first heat of The Great Hat Race. They had each hopped, unsteadily but successfully, from one end of the lines of hats to the other. As they went, each had counted aloud to record a foot hitting the target: ‘One, two, three, four!’ Et cetera. A good deal of uproar had been generated. At the far end of the room they had collapsed in a noisy heap, Algernon bellowing and shrieking with laughter, Simpson rather less loud but still noisy by the staid standards of a gentleman’s club.

Once they had pulled themselves to their feet, however, there had been an argument about who had come first.

‘I won, I won, I won!’ Algernon had vigorously asserted.

‘No, no,’ Simpson had insisted, quietly but firmly. ‘I won.’

Algernon had flapped away at his friend’s chest with both hands, like a very small boy objecting to being told that he had not got his sums right.

‘No, I won, I won, I won!’ he had shrieked.

The dispute had led to a re-run of the race, this time from the far end of the room to the door. And it was the uproar which occurred both during and after this second heat which Marsden and Jackson heard on their way down the stairs.

Heat two concluded with both Algernon and Simpson lying in a helpless heap by the door. Behind them lay the wreckage of sixteen members’ hats and a couple of caps, plus Simpson’s own hat; all of these were damaged past all hope of repair. It was a scene of carnage which would have shocked even the most battle-hardened old soldier, and Mr Marsden could scarcely believe his eyes.

Algernon continued to howl with hysterical laughter, while Simpson loudly protested that he had been the victim of foul play.

‘Cheat, cheat, cheat!’ cried Simpson. ‘You pushed me over, you damned cheating bastard!’

‘Lies, lies, lies!’ yelled Algernon. ‘I won, won, I won, ha ha ha ha ha!’

It was, Mr Marsden told the committee, a sight which left him deeply dismayed.

After a few moments, Algernon rolled over on to his stomach and found himself gazing at the black boots of authority. He looked up, and saw the stern, fierce face of the club secretary staring down at him. But not even this sight could sober Algernon Swinburne.

‘Hee hee hee hee hee!’ he howled.

Ready to buy? I'm sure you are. Copies are available at bargain prices from either or; or, theoretically, from any other decent bookshop.

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