Monday, 29 September 2014

If you want to know the time, ask a policeman by Susan Price

This is a lovely post from one of our History Girl Reserves, Susan Price, about a once well-known Music Hall song...

If you want to know the time, ask a policeman. 
The proper Greenwich time, ask a policeman, 
Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course, 
If you want to know the time, ask a policeman!

My childhood was haunted by snatches of music-hall song and jokes. My Grandfather Price, I'm told, was a great fan of the music-hall, especially the high-kicking dancing girls. (And I heard, passed down from him, tales of the dreaded 'peaky-blinders' long before they became a TV series.)

They don't do repairs in mid-ocean. 
They don't do repairs on the deck. 
So for two blessed years, me trousers was hung 
From a wart on the back of me neck!- boom-boom!

To this day, I've no idea what this is about. I didn't understand these half-remembered bits of verse. As with nursery rhymes, I learned them by their rythmns, without knowing or much caring what they meant.

She looked at me coy, 
She said, 'You're not a boy. 
Get off! You're a dirty old man!' - boom-boom!

That star of children's TV, the puppet fox, Basil Brush, used to end all his jokes with 'boom-boom!' too. But long before Basil came along, I knew that was how you ended a joke. I asked my Dad why, and he said it was because, in music-hall, there was a live orchestra in the pit, and at the end of every punch-line, the drummer would give two thumps on the bass-drum. Later, the comics added it themselves.

I'm one of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit... (Often said in reference to Dudley castle.)

My old man said 'Follow the van...'

'You don't know Nellie like I do,' said the bird on Nellie's hat...

'Here's a joke worth eighteenpence...'
'On the day I was born, my father threw a party in the yard.
The party was my mother.

'My parents were in the iron and steel business.
My mother ironed and my father did the stealing.'

'My father died as he was addressing a public meeting.
The platform collapsed and he broke his neck.'

But I was talking about 'Ask A Policeman.'

The only bit of this song I learned as a child was the chorus quoted at the top of this blog. I had a vague idea that it was a song in praise of fine, upstanding British Bobbies, who would always greet you with a smile and give you the time of day. I once asked my Dad (that fount of all knowledge) about it, and he more or less confirmed this. Perhaps he was protecting me from the hard and cynical world, but I have the impression that he'd never given much thought to the song himself (he was more of a Duke Ellington man.)

My researches reveal that 'Ask a Policeman' was written by Augustus Durandeau (music) and E. W Rogers (lyrics,) and first performed by James Fawn in the 1890s. The first verse and chorus go:

The police force is a noble band, that safely guard our streets.  
Their valor is unquestion'd, and they're noted for their 'feats,'  
If anything you wish to know, they'll tell you with a grin,  
In fact, each one of them is a complete "Enquire Within."


If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.  
The proper Greenwich time, ask a policeman,  
Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course,  
If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.

But that idea that the song is one of love for our cheery, helpful policemen? Those last lines from the chorus - 'Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course,' - was sung with a knowing nod and wink to the audience. It was a reference to a well-know urban tale of the time. Everybody knew that when policemen - who were usually working class - came across a well oiled gentleman, the policemen not only gleefully took advantage of their office to arrest the gentleman for being 'drunk and disorderly' when he was only a little high-spirited, but also stole the gentleman's pocket-watch.

A gentleman's expensive pocket-watch, a little miracle of clockwork engineering, accurately counting off the seconds and minutes, was the coveted gadget, the iPad of its day. A police constable couldn't afford one. Yet they always had one! - Because they stole them from their betters.

I suppose there's never been a time when the Police Force has been surrounded by the warm glow of love and approval from the public it serves - despite the necessity of having some such institution. But when the Force first came into being, it was hated not only by the criminal classes (both rich and poor), but by everyone. And especially by those who considered themselves respectable and rather above the common herd.

The Police were, in the main, lower-class men, granted the power to enter the houses of their betters, to ask impertinently about their whereabouts on the night in question, and even to arrest them on suspicion of crimes. Before the establishment of the Force, justice had been in the hands of the local gentry, as was proper. Fellow gentlefolk could be counted on to understand the difficulties a gentleman might find himself in.

And so arose the story of the thieving policeman who - instead of arresting real criminals - targeted the squiffy toff, just so he could pinch his watch. And what if the toff had smashed a few shop-keepers' windows, or broken some street-lamps? - It was only high-spirits, and outrageous to call it 'criminal damage' as if it had been done by some rowdy costermonger or navvy.

If you stay out late at night and pass through regions queer
Thanks to those noble guardians of foes you have no fear.
If drink you want and 'pubs' are shut go to the man in blue,
Say you're thirsty and good-natured, and he'll show you what to do.


If you want to get a drink, ask a p'liceman.
He'll manage it I think, will a p'liceman.
He'll produce the flowing pot, if the 'pubs' are shut or not,
He could open all the lot, ask a p'liceman.

If your servant suddenly should leave her cosy place,
Don't get out an advertisement her whereabouts to trace.
You're told it was a soldier who removed her box of clothes -
Don't take the information in, but ask the man who knows.


If you don't know where she is, ask a p'liceman
For he's 'in the know' he is, ask a p'liceman.
Though they say with 'red ' she flew yet its ten to one on 'blue,'
For he mashes just a few. Ask a p'liceman.

Who guards the guardians? Those set to prevent you buying drink at certain hours, will also see there's a profit to be made in supplying it. And another persistent tale about the early policemen was that they spent most of their time, when they were supposed to be on duty, sitting in some comfortably-off man's kitchen, eating his food and flirting with his cook and maids.

Given that there is so much unspoken meaning behind the words, I'm puzzled to guess how much should be read into the verse about the maid. The master's concern to trace the missing maid could be nothing more than kindly concern - but would the original audience have heard more than that? And why has the policeman lured her away? 'A Masher' was the current term for a strutting young man, but here it seems to have a more sexual meaning. Are we meant to understand that the servant ran away because she was pregnant by the policeman? - Or ran away to live with him? Is there even a hint that police-officers were involved in prostitution? Or am I reading altogether too much into it?

(It’s also interesting to see that ‘pub’ is given in inverted commas, as a piece of exciting new slang.)

The Policeman's villainy comes even nearer home in the next verse:-

Or if you're called away from home, and leave your wife behind
You say, 'Oh would that I a friend to guard the house could find,
And keep my love in safety,' - but let your troubles cease!
You'll find the longed-for keeper in a member of the p'lice.


If your wife should want a friend, ask a p'liceman,
Who a watchful eye will lend, ask a p'liceman
Truth and honour you can trace, written on his manly face -
When you're gone he'll mind your place, ask a p'liceman.

My favourite verse is the last. I enjoy the neatness of the rhyming. It also reminds us that an obsession with losing weight is not such a modern thing as we think.

And if you're getting very stout your friends say in a trice
'Consult a good physician, and he'll give you this advice:
Go in for running all you can no matter when or how
And if you'll have a trainer, watch a bobby in a row.


If you want to learn to run, ask a p'liceman.
How to fly, though twenty 'stun', ask a p'liceman.
Watch a bobby in a fight - in a tick he's out of sight!
For advice on rapid flight, ask a p'liceman.

So, in addition to being a thief, a seller of illicit drink, a lurer away of servant girls and a seducer of wives, that nasty lower-class plod is a coward too!

That was 1890. By 1919, Marie Lloyd was singing,

"But you can't trust a special like an old time copper 
When you can't find your way 'ome!" 

Marie Lloyd

Thirty years had passed. The Police Force had become an accepted fact of life - and it was the new idea of 'specials' that was attracting suspicion.

Susan Price is an award winning writer for children. She is now self-publishing and is a founding member of the Authors Electric blog.


Elizabeth Hopkinson said...

I just found out that the song my mum used to sing to us as babies (You can come and see the baby) was by a Scottish music hall star called Will Fyffe. We were born in the 70s and 80s, and the chap died in the 40s...

Susan Price said...

Yes, they hang on, these old songs!

Joan Lennon said...

That was a treat - thanks!

Becca McCallum said...

'a piece of exciting new slang'...ooh, very daring of them! :)

Diane Hewson said...

I always enjoy reading your blog, thank you everyone. Not sure if you are into awards however, I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award, apologies if you have already been nominated.

carol drinkwater said...

What a fun post, Susan. I grew up in the world of 'light entertainment' as it was called. All these songs and the 'halls' were the world of my grandparents and great aunts. Even my father and uncle, both musicians and entertainers, talked of them and sung them endlessly. However, I had not known about the stealing of the pocket watches from the 'toffs'. I am singing those old tunes in my head now myself! Thank you.

Celia Rees said...

So Plebgate has a long history! So wish you'd write a post on the Peaky Blinder, Sue...

Celia Rees said...

Meant Peaky BlinderS, of course. How exciting for us to be nominated for One Lovely Blog Award, too. Thank you Diane.

Susan Price said...

I don't actually know much about the Peaky Blinders - they were foreigners from Brum, where they had strange ways.
It was just passed down to me that there was a special thrill in going all the way to Brum (12 miles) for my Grandad and his friends because of 'a gang there who had razor blades in the peaks of their caps, and would take their caps off and slash your face with them.' I got the impression that the Peaky Blinders just got their fun by roaming about the city looking for people to slash - rather than their being an organised criminal outfit.

Mary Hoffman said...

Thanks very much, Diane, for the nomination. And to Sue for the lovely blogpost.

Leslie Wilson said...

I never knew that, and there is a reference, spiteful, to it in 'Busman's Honeymoon' where the character who dislikes the village bobby says it, surely meaning all the things you have told us about, Sue!

Mary Hoffman said...

I love Busman's Honeymoon!

Catherine Johnson said...

Just caught up with this! I was a child of immigrants but my best friends' Granny was a fount of all this stuff! It's deep deep under my skin. Thaks so much for this x

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