Friday, 5 August 2016

The Laughing Sailor

How frightening many 'children's amusements' used to be! This post is - digressions apart - about one kind of jolly amusement that I'd forgotten, but recalled with some personal discomfort recently.


I'd put Fiona into the Volvo dealer's to have her rear suspension bushes replaced. They were a bit knackered after almost 92,000 miles of motoring on the bumpy roads you get in this country. The job entailed a lot of dismantling and then putting things back together again, and would take several hours. So I decided to take the train to Portsmouth, and spend some time there. A return ticket on the local bus from the dealer's to Lancing station was £4.30. A day return rail ticket from Lancing to Portsmouth Harbour was £8.85 with my Senior Railcard discount. Blimey, guvnor, that was £13-odd blown already! But I hadn't visited Pompey for some time, and exploring the old part of it would be interesting. 'Pompey', by the way, is the traditional affectionate name for Portsmouth. Nobody knows for certain how the city ever came to be called that. 'Tis my belief, however, that it must have something to do with the Royal Navy's presence there.

Apart from being England's premier Naval Base, Portsmouth is also a modern ferry port, a top-notch university city, and is a generally buzzy place to be. If you want to get to the Isle of Wight from London or anywhere in South-east England, then you will almost certainly go via Portsmouth. The same is true if you are heading for France, Spain or the Channel Islands. And the Gosport Ferry is the only practical way for people living in the big town of Gosport, just across the harbour, to get to Portsmouth for work and decent shopping.

Portsmouth tightly fills Portsea Island, and apparently it's the most densely-packed city in the country, with some amazing figure of persons-per-square mile. But nevertheless its southern part, known as Southsea, is a spacious resort with lots of continuous green open space behind the beach. Southsea people tend to think of 'their' part of Portsea Island as a distinctly separate town. In truth you can't say where Portsmouth proper ends and Southsea proper begins - they have been joined as one for more than a hundred years. But they do have very different atmospheres. On this visit I wanted to see some history, and sample the busy life of a major port, and not seek out the sunny seaside delights of a beach resort. However, as you will see, this post is based on an exhibition about Southsea in Portsmouth Museum.

Wikipedia have a comprehensive write-up on Portsmouth here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portsmouth.

Portsmouth has two stations, Portsmouth & Southsea, which is right in the city centre (alight for the shops and university) and Portsmouth Harbour (for all the passenger ferries, the Historic Dockyard, the big Gunwharf Quays shopping complex, and the Spinnaker Tower). You'd think that the city centre station would be the main one, but the Harbour station is bigger and busier. Here I am, just arrived:


I didn't really have enough time to hop across to the Isle of Wight, so I chose the obvious second-best, and have a look at Gosport instead. I'd never actually seen its waterfront and High Street. The Ferry was down the side of the Harbour railway station. Crossing the harbour on a boat strongly reminded me of crossing the Mersey from Birkenhead to Liverpool in 2014. Gosport, of course, is no Liverpool. Was it worth the effort? Well, the ferry terminal at Gosport was certainly modern and imposing, and there was a nice little park there with flowers in it, and this mosaic of the Atlantic was rather well-executed, I thought:


The park celebrated not only Gosport's 1944 D-Day role in the Second World War, but its part in the 1982 Falklands Campaign.

Moving away from the waterfront, and up the High Street, I did my best to keep an open mind. But really there wasn't a lot to enthral me. Put it this way: if a good collection of discount shops is your ruling passion in life, then go to Gosport. The place had them all, and they seemed to be thriving. I saw, for instance, Poundland, Poundstretcher and Poundworld all in the space of a few yards. Peacocks and Shoe Zone? Check. Amusement arcade? Check. Betting shops? Check. You get the idea. I looked for Waitrose in vain. This said, the combined Library and Museum was a joy - a vibrant, interactive place to take your kids to, with a friendly café to boot. And I found a gallery, and the Local Records Office, which had a section devoted to the local geology, genuinely worth five minutes of anybody's time.

A noticeboard caught my eye in the curiously-named Nat Gonella Square. It was about the man of that name. Nat Gonella (1908-1998) was a famous trad jazz bandleader, very influential in Britain, and for the last twenty-odd years of his life a resident of Gosport. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nat_Gonella.

I wondered if there had ever been any other famous Gosport residents, but I didn't come across them. So having seen all of this, I next decided to tear myself away and recross the harbour on the ferry. It was time to forsake Gosport and really get to grips with historic Portsmouth! I have to say, the views from the ferry were abundantly worth the £2.30 return fare (that's £2,30 with a Senior Concession, mind you: young whippersnappers pay rather more).


My new objective was Portsmouth Museum. From experience, I knew that I would find loos there, and something inexpensive to eat for lunch. But first, a walk around Old Portsmouth. My route took me to an area known as The Point, which was where the jack tars of old used to do their drinking and whoring, but which is now a characterful residential area - though not overly expensive, I thought. It was full of old Citadel walls and gates and turrets, with Things Nautical at every turn, and everywhere references to Admiral Lord Nelson, the same National Naval Hero I encountered up in Norfolk only a month ago.


There was a stout stone harbour wall to repel invaders, with a shingle beach below. The harbour and, out to sea a bit, Spithead, were thronged with boats of all kinds, including the Isle of Wight ferries. I really must plan a day visit to the Island before the year is out.


At last, the Museum. I had a toasted cheese and ham sandwich that must have used up all the spare cheese in the city, so smothered in cheddar was it. Tasty, though. A good pot of tea washed it all down. I then had a look at the exhibits. They made much of the Famous Persons connected with Portsmouth and Southsea. Apart from Nelson, there was for instance Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes books), H G Wells, and many others including several well-known bands and artistes in the music business. When District Inspector of Portsmouth 4 Tax Office around 1971, I remember my Dad saying that working at his office as a lowly Tax Officer was an ex-bandmember of Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, which had a big pop hit called Kites in 1967. I imagine he was one of the musicians that the three Shulman brothers, who headed the band, got rid of for not playing well enough for their liking. Clearly, if you were not a top chart success, or had been sacked from a band, then you needed a daytime job to get by! Actually, being a TO wasn't at all a bad job to get, as office jobs go, but I imagine it was unbelievably humdrum for the chappie, because later on Dad mentioned that he'd left.


There was a big exhibition about Sherlock Holmes, but the section of the Museum that most got my attention was the one to do with Southsea.


All kinds of traditonal seaside things were on display, some of them with a funfare flavour. And I found myself confronted with this. The Laughing Sailor, although here called Jolly Jack.


Oh dear. Anything but jolly to me. I instantly remembered being frightened to death by this kind of laughing dummy when I was a child. When you inserted a coin - it might have been 1d (one old penny) in those days - this rather grotesque figure would move backwards and forwards, emitting a strange kind of recorded noise, meant to be uncontrolled and infectious laughter - though to me it sounded more like a malevolent snarl. I found it nightmarish. The movements were stiff and unnatural, and of course the facial expression didn't change, so the snarling laugh seemed weirdly disembodied and creepy. As if an animated corpse were cavorting about while someone else 'laughed' at you through a hidden loudspeaker.

I can't understand how this was ever thought suitable for children. I remember being wary and jittery with real-life 'characters' one met on quaysides. This horrible dummy was even worse. I can only think that once upon a time humour was cruder, and kids had so little in the way of diversions that even this could be found entertaining.

Then again, I have never liked anything resembling a ventriloquist's dummy. As an older child, I saw Dead of Night, a film made in 1945 - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_of_Night - which I mentioned in my post Dreams that might come true on 2 November 2011. The film is about an architect who has a recurring and very vivid dream in which he visits a house and meets a certain set of people. Through repetition, he gets to know who they are. They always do and say the same things. The dream has direction, too, drawing him towards some horrific ending, although he never gets to that ending, and wakes up before it - whatever it is - actually happens.

The film has him waking up, having breakfast, saying goodbye to his wife, and setting forth to visit the home of a new client. A perfectly normal day. He is no more than thoughtful as he arrives, astonished to find that it is the house in his dream.


But he is bemused, and then increasingly worried, when he begins to experience the events of the dream, replicated in almost every detail - and this time for real. The people he encounters are equally bemused, and think it can all be explained quite naturally. This leads on to their telling various stories, one by one, about odd or disturbing things they have experienced, that must have been mere imaginings, even if at the time there was a strong flavour of the supernatural. They all mean to reassure the architect, but as time passes the horror steadily grows.


The stories are various. One of them is a whimsical tale of two golfers who love the same woman, and who flip a coin to see who will push off to leave the field clear, and who will stick around and profess his love. The honourable loser - I think he loses through an underhand trick - heads towards a water hazard and drowns himself, but afterwards returns to haunt the winning contender. The teller of that one admits he has made it up.

But most of the stories are not so light-hearted, and are 'true'. Such as the one related by a man who'd had, while ill and feverish, a very odd 'waking dream' that gave him warning of death. In the dream he finds himself staring at a hearse, and an undertaker saying to him, 'Room for one inside, sir.' Then, once well again, he is routinely waiting at a bus stop. A bus comes along, almost full up. And the conductor, who looks exactly like the undertaker in the dream, says, 'Room for one inside, sir.' Startled, he hesitates, then refuses to get on board - which saves his life. Soon after moving off, the bus gets out of control and there is a dreadful crash with many killed. One of the dead would have been him.

Or a newly-married couple's story, about the purchase of an antique mirror that at night reflected not the modern room it had been hung up in, but a sinister fire-lit bed-chamber of long ago.


At first only the husband sees that chamber, not his wife. Even if she is standing next to him as he looks at the mirror, and holding him lovingly, he still sees only himself reflected. And he is standing in a room full of foreboding and menace. This fills him with horror. He tries to fight the awful vision, and at first can banish it, but soon he can't, and it starts to affect him. His personality changes, and he begins to become nervy, harsh, and then cruel. In a final scene he and his wife - by now she has suspicions about this mirror - fight each other in front of it as, in his uncontrolled anger, he starts to strangle her.


As he does so, she sees - for the first time - the evil fire-lit bed-chamber, now with both of them in it. She manages to grab a brass candlestick, and smash it against the glass, which thankfully breaks the spell. The husband instantly returns to his normal self, and they destroy the mirror, learning afterwards that it came from the house of a man who murdered his wife in that fire-lit room a hundred years before.

Creepy enough. But the story that really frightened me concerned a man who begins as a skilled stage and private-party ventriloquist with a promising career. But the dummy tends to get out of control during the act, and makes inappropriate remarks to the audience, which both amuse and shock them.


It seems the dummy has a mind of his own. When they are alone, the ventriloquist speaks to the dummy as if he were an actual person, getting nasty remarks in reply. In fact the dummy has notions that he is much the better half of their act, and taunts his owner with a sneering voice. In one scene, the ventriloquist tries to shut the dummy up, pressing his fingers against the dummy's mouth to muffle him. But the dummy bites his fingers, and draws blood.


And so on. Clearly the man has schizophrenia, and is projecting more than just his voice onto the dummy. He is imagining the dummy to be alive, and a rival. He goes mad. In the asylum, the schizophrenia rapidly escalates, with the dummy eventually taking over. That's not the end of it, though, because the dummy is part of the architect's ultimate nightmarish fate.


While the story progresses, we see the dummy starting to do and say things by himself - like sitting up, and turning his head - even when not being held by the ventriloquist. And all the time, the dummy is speaking vindictively in that odd voice that stage dummies have, and mocking its owner in a laugh just like a Laughing Sailor's - or Jolly Jack's. Visually, it's hard to tell them apart.


So I hope you can see how unhappy I was to discover this exhibit. The bad feeling I have about things like this has never got less. Of course, I was morbidly fascinated enough to take some shots with my camera; but I didn't pop in the 20p required to make Jolly Jack heave about with mirth, and laugh his head off. I didn't want to hear that well-remembered noise.

I am sure that my aversion towards Laughing Sailors or Policeman or whatever is not unique. I rather think that most people find animated dummies creepy and highly disturbing.

Here's a thought: when domestic robots or androids become commonplace, as they may do within twenty years, let's earnestly hope they are not like this. Imagine: the Laughing Android...presumably having the last laugh of all.

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