An Elegy to the English Music Hall

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This is a quietly-spoken collection which feels as though it could have playing behind it as you read the fading sound of an audience’s laughter or the floating echo of their dying applause. With Troupers (smith|doorstop), Keith Hutson has written a lovely, reserved but confident, and also witty, pamphlet of poems which pay tribute to a world which can now be fairly said no longer to exist. The collection could itself be labelled in memoriam (as are the majority of the poems in it): the English Music Hall Tradition 1803 – 2016. The first date is the birth of Harris ‘Wonder Horse’ Fitzpatrick, “born to play the front end” of a pantomime horse, and the second the death of Tony Warren, the creator of Coronation Street (for which Hutson has written in the past) and, while not a music hall performer himself, a symbol of the working-class culture that the music hall came out of and helped shape.

Many of the poems in this collection are synopses of and brief meditations on the lives of characters (such as Sid Field and Ronnie Ronalde) who are already forgotten by all but those who, like Hutson, choose to keep them alive because of the by-gone era they represent. The poet writes, in a voice I take to be his own, at the end of the first poem, ‘Revival’, “…it’s only right/to raise another smile, to bring them back”; but if that were all the poems did they would probably run the risk of being rather weepy, treacly affairs. Actually, the strength of this collection is that it does not simply memorialise or lament, and neither does it turn hagiography; rather it uses the characters as sketched examples of human foibles, strengths, prides, and conceits. So, although the tone remains elegiac throughout, there is never a sense of easy wistful nostalgia or inverted snobbery.

The elegies are interspersed with and leavened by poems which are not dedicated to an individual but to a type, like the ‘Straight Man’ or to a caricature like Geoffrey in ‘Hostess Trolley’ or to a place – perhaps the spirit within a place – like ‘Glasgow Empire’ and ‘Civic Theatre’. These poems are often the funniest; sometimes in such an obvious way as to be reminiscent of slapstick comedy (“Essential to the town’s supply of ham” – ‘Civic Theatre’), sometimes appropriately farcical (“where he went, it went” – ‘Hostess Trolley) and sometimes much subtler (“Be subliminal lit by a bank of lights” – ‘Straight Man’). And it is worth noting that there is a more structural comedy at work throughout the collection, which comes through in line breaks, as in “A Funny Thing Happened…”: “Triumphs? Frankie Howerd Meets the Bee Gees/wasn’t one.”, and in the use of the repetitive villanelle structure of “Civic Theatre” to extend and emphasise the main joke – in these examples and others Hutson shows his great skill for comic timing.

But the comedy is more than offset by tragedy, and while the pamphlet as a whole focuses on the death of a very English culture, the individual poems themselves are often preoccupied with the actual deaths of the characters who represent that culture. Whether by suicide or natural causes, the demise of these performers is generally dealt with in abrupt, perfunctory terms: “he…blew his brains out in a Glasgow park” (‘Tiddly Om Pom Pom’), “and then she died, demented, // utterly alone – unmourned / by impresarios and sisterhoods alike” (‘Hylda’). The effect of this rather cold, almost unfeeling representation of death is to emphasise the tragedy over the actuality, in other words it fronts the poetic ‘shock’ effect and reduces the potentially soupy note of ‘loss’ that can ruin elegies. The individual deaths become less significant than the loss to English culture of the music hall tradition.

The first person is most often used to create characters, as an actor might put on a costume; but in a few poems (‘The Call of the Wild’, ‘Brass Band’, and ‘Lament’) it appears to be a genuine authorial voice that we are hearing as the poet recalls listening to Percy Edwards’s animal impressions, his love of brass band music and the theme tune to Radio Two’s ‘Sing Something Simple’. It is in these poems that Hutson gets most perilously close to becoming misty-eyed, but in a pamphlet of thirty-six poems they are a small minority and their effect on the collection as a whole is to soften the hard tone mentioned above; what remains is a thoughtful, entertaining, and sometimes moving little collection which may well send you to Google to find out more about the characters of a music hall culture which spanned the 19th and 20th centuries; but which now, in the age of the internet and 24-hour entertainment, seems long gone.

You can buy Troupers from smith|doorstop, here.

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