Thursday, 28 May 2015

Screw the donah's groinies

It's 1928, and you're a young man from a professional background who has failed at everything. How do you revive your fortune? By telling other people's. A charming book from between the wars 

One day in the early summer of 1928 Philip Allingham, a 21-year-old from a good family, looked out of the window of the room he had rented in an office in London’s Coventry Street, and considered his options. He had failed at school, then failed to get into Oxford; and then, despite being from a family in what we would now call the media, he had failed at every copywriting and publicity job he had tried. He was now freelancing but there was no work, and he was down to his last few shillings. 

He decided, in desperation, to do the one thing he had always been quite good at, though he had never done it in earnest: read palms and tell fortunes. After a trial run in West End pubs (with mixed results), he bought a tent from Gamages for 35/- (£1.75), put on his top hat and tails (the image, don’t you know), and hit the road. Cheapjack, first published in 1934, is his story of his first years on that road.

Not all goes well. At his first pitch two ladies of the night steal his day’s takings. At Southend he has no luck at all, but spies a pleasure cruiser and persuades the crew to let him tell fortunes for the day-trippers at sea. He then becomes the only person on board to be seasick, and vomits over the side while wearing evening dress. But bit by bit he learns his trade, and makes many friends. Cheapjack is a cornucopia of palmists, showmen, Gypsies, conmen, landladies, and general odd characters. There are the travelling boxers. There are the “windbag” workers, who sell people envelopes that might contain a watch, or a cheap trinket, or nothing at all; it is a form of gambling, and of course the odds are loaded. There are the Gypsies, who take a shine to Allingham and prove to be good friends when he is set upon in Newcastle (though he himself, if he is to be believed, could be handy with his fists).

Fairgrounds were raffish places then and no doubt sometimes still are. J.B. Priestley, visiting Nottingham’s famous Goose Fair as part of his English Journey (1934), had a liverish reaction to it, and perhaps he was right (though as the author of The Good Companions, he could perhaps have been more charitable). The ambiguous morality of the showman did not bother Allingham, or perhaps he did not think about it. He does not rush to judgement on the people he met. There are exceptions – for example, a fake “theatrical agent” who trades on dreams and exposes his “clients” to ridicule. In the main, however, Allingham and the other barkers, pitchers and fortune-tellers are simply selling the punters a bit of fun and a dream. Both sides know that and there is no real deception. It’s a point well expressed when Allingham has a confrontation with an unpleasant evangelical preacher on a fairground in the Midlands. “After all,” Allingham tells the crowd, “we both set up as prophets. He tells you what will happen to you after you die, and I tell you what will happen to you in the near future. He advises you, and so do I. ...True, I charge a fee – we all have to live – but I will not be impertinent and inquire into any financial arrangements which our friend may have.” Quite.

Allingham is always entertaining. For a flavour of the book, one may scan the introductory standfirst at the head of each chapter (books still sometimes had these in the 1930s). Thus Chapter 13 is headed:  “I take part in Hull Fair, and meet many strange and interesting people, including Mad Jack, Peter the Whistler, and Madame Sixpence. I am invited to become an orthodox Jew, but decline and leave Hull."

An ad from the Daily Telegraph, June 1934
There is a certain jocularity about these standfirsts, and yet they are quite unselfconscious. And it seems that Allingham himself was. This must have been the key to his success as a palmist and pitcher. It is also the key to the book. Francis Wheen, in his introduction to the new (2010) edition, talks of the young men on the left – including Orwell, Christopher Isherwood and Tom Driberg – who went slumming in the 1930s in an attempt at working-class authenticity. Working people in South Wales and elsewhere suffered a deluge of earnest Fabians anxious to find out what they ate. It was not always well received.  Allingham could not have been more different. He is quite clear with everyone he meets that he is a toff on his uppers, trying to earn a crafty bob. It is clearly true, and he is accepted.

While this is attractive, it does mean this book isn’t a major social document. Allingham didn’t write it for that. Although obviously intelligent, he was not reflective, and had no wish to join the earnest Fabians. He mentions the Depression and the effect it had on business, but does not say much about it; he didn’t need to – his readers were still in the middle of it. The difficult social conditions of the early 1930s do come into focus at one point; Allingham needs a model to demonstrate the hair-wavers he is selling, and finds a certain 14-year-old girl to be very suitable. So he persuades her parents to let her travel with him (it should be remembered that children could then leave school at 14, and often did). His interview with the parents is in the worst kind of slum in the north-east, an area badly hit by the Depression; there are no shoes, no furniture, just bare boards and children. In the main, however, this book isn’t social history.

What it did do, though, is make its mark on the English language. Fairground people, grafters, call them what you will, had an argot of their own. Gypsies especially did, as Romany had only just slipped out of common use as a language, and was still occasionally spoken.  This argot was a mixture of English and Cockney rhyming slang and Yiddish, as well as Romany. Allingham provides a glossary; some of these words (“bevvy” for a drink – Allingham and his friends have quite a few of these; “rozzer” for a policeman) found their way into the language as a result, and the book has been so credited by the Oxford English Dictionary. Allingham finds it is as well to know this argot. One day he is in a train with other palmists, including a Gypsy who is wearing many fine rings on her fingers.  There are several toughs in the compartment, and one tells the others to “Take sights. Screw the donah’s groinies”. “We knew at once,” writes Allingham, “that he had suggested to his friends that they should watch the lady’s rings.” They change compartments at the next station.

The book was a success in 1934, and was widely reviewed. But it was then out of print for many years. Allingham was unable to get it republished postwar. He died in 1969, and although there seems to have been one edition in the 1990s, the book was mostly out of print until 2010. It was then republished by a small company, Golden Duck, owned by Wheen and his partner, Julia Jones. The latter is an expert on the Allingham family and the book was published with the support and encouragement of the Margery Allingham Society (the famous crime novelist was Philip’s older sister, and helped edit the original book). The new edition reproduces the letterpress text of the original, but also includes some splendid contemporary photographs – including a number of Allingham at work, most of which were likely taken as publicity shots for the original 1934 Heinemann edition.

We should thank Jones and Wheen for reprinting this. Cheapjack may not be, or have been meant as, history – yet it is redolent of its era; and it is also great fun. Allingham was no philosopher. But it is clear that he was the most likeable, unhypocritical and generous of men. To travel with him through the fairgrounds and pubs of England and Wales was a pleasure. And should I hear a fellow-passenger mention screwing a donah’s groinies, I shall ask the cabin crew for an upgrade to business class at once.

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Mike Robbins’s latest book, Three Seasons: Three Stories of England in the Eighties, is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Scribd and other online retailers, and can also be ordered from your local bookshop. Requests for review copies should be sent to thirdrailbooks (at), via NetGalley, or to the author.

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