Mal Ashworth was one of the best of the very fine group of English humorists of the early and mid-1950's which also included Vin¢ Clarke, Chuch Harris, Ken Bulmer, Paul Enever, and Ken & Irene Potter, to name just a few. Ashworth first appeared on the fan scene early in 1954 coediting with Tom White a fanzine called BEM, which looked like a crudzine but read like an uninhibited Hyphen. He contributed wit and whimsy to virtually all the major English fanzines for the next few years, but gradually lapsed into fafia under the increasing responsibilities of marriage and jobs. His nomination for TAFF in 1960 resulted in a fannish Indian summer during which he wrote a number of fine funny articles like his Legends of Lancaster Layabouts series in Cry and the following piece which appeared in the Potters' fanzine Brennschluss (which looked like a crudzine and read like an uninhibited BEM).
I used to envy Ken and Irene their Lupin Man.
This was when they had a flat in Lancaster; they had the ground floor, on the floor above lived a scoutmaster, and on the floor above him (or "the attic," as it was quaintly called) lived "The Lupin Man". We never saw him except from a distance, but it struck us, as Ken and Irene talked about him, that it must be a fascinating existence living in such close proximity to such a colorful character. The last time we were there he had gone out floating on the nearby canal, and had already been gone three weeks. It isn't difficult to imagine how envy might creep in under such circumstances.
The other night, however, Sheila and I took stock of our own current collection of characters, and we suddenly realized that our envy was misplaced: we were in fact the fortunate ones. How could a solitary Lupin Man, no matter how bouyant he might be on canals, compare with a list like ours, which included such prize specimens as "Sloshing Socrates," "The Dripping Milk Man," "The Smiling Lady," "Horseface Anna," and the ubiquitous "Buggerlugs"? Not to mention "The Man With The Slipped Face".
Those of course are only the most obvious examples, the ones which sprang first to mind; a little judicious casting around soon swells the collection. There are "Big Momma" and "Big Daddy," who live next door to us, their daughter "Mad Aggie" who lives across the street with her husband, "Big Bopper," and next to them "Johnny Guitar" and his Woman. Then somewhere along the end of the street, or round the back of the street, or in the nearby allotments, or in an adjacent dustbin shed, or somewhere on that way, lives "The Burning Grass Man". (How delectably Bradburyish that looks in cold print!) These, unlike the previous set of Characters, are local residents, and can be ignored for the moment (a system which works admirably well the majority of the time; oh, we are very social minded citizens!), as this is mainly intended as a brief survey of Characters who momentarily Cross Our Path, and as soon are gone. In this category are included "Old Herbert," "The Little Gas Man," "The Mining Engineer," and "Noddy"; and it would never do to leave out such stalwarts as "Jabberwocky," "Gunk Johnnie" and "Holy Mary". Among those who have now happily faded from the scene, one thinks immediately of "Quasimodo," of "Whistler and His Mother," and of "The Laughing Man," and I am quite sure there are many others hiding somewhere below the surface if I cared to search for them and drag them out into the daylight.
Once again, compared to Ken and Irene's uncomplicated relationship with their Lupin Man, our own delicately interwoven associations with these various characters seem vastly complex. Their only contact with the Lupin Man would be when he bobbed his head round their kitchen door and said to Irene, "I've brought you some lupins, love." This he did, I understand, about seven humdred and thirty times the first week he moved in, and I suppose it must have been around this time that he was christened; after that he began to feel rather more at home, and Irene's weekly supply of lupins began to dwindle somewhat. But even after the supply had slackened off to a mere 50 or so bunches per week, the name somehow stuck. And, of course, when he went off on prolonged canal floating expeditions they would not see him for weeks at a time, and the house gradually became lupinless.
Now compare this simple, idyllic state of affairs to our contact with, say, Sloshing Socrates. (I have never been completely happy about this appelation for this particular mountainous, shambling hunk of semi-humanity. The truth of the matter is that the real Socrates rated very near top place in my All Time Admiration List, and to have his name attached to this snuffling caviller, however ironically, makes me rather uneasy at times.) We are not overly keen on Slashing Socrates; perhaps no one thing that I can put my finger on altogether accounts for this, unless it is the fact that we hate his very guts. But there are a number of small points which when added together may help to explain our aversion. Sloshing Socrates travels on the same bus as we do in an evening. He sniffles his way upstairs, snuffles all the way up the aisle at the side of the bus, opening every window he passes, and sits, quite often, on the very front seat. Now these busses have been specially constructed by congenital imbeciles for cretinous morons, and this suits Sloshing Socrates to a T; the fact of the matter is, in addition to all the side windows, they also have windows at the front which open, and Sloshing Socrates apparently feels divinely impelled to make use of this function quite without regard for such irrelevant matters as exterior circumstances. Hail, rain, snow, fog, or sub-zero temperatures, he opens these windows too. Completion of stage one. Then, having made himself comfortable (which consists of settling down into his seat to an almost unbelievable extent, by virtue of long and intense shufflings and bouncings), and everyone else distinctly uncomfortable, he takes out his matches and lights his pipe. If you imagine flushing an ancient toilet at dead of night in a corrugated iron hotel, you are beginning to approach the reality of the sound effects accompanying this; it must have been some similar function, I feel sure, which inspired Handel's "Water Music". Two minutes later, he takes out his matches again, and again lights his pipe, fortissimo. One minute and thirty seconds later, he does the same again, FORTE. One minute later, he repeats the operation, CRESCENDO. It is a forty minute journey. Completion of stage two. Then, as the bus fills up, somebody inevitably ends up sitting next to him; in between puffs, and sloshes, and the striking of matches, he immediately starts up a conversation which is not so much a matter of verbal intercourse as of Sloshing Socrates addressing the whole top deck of the bus on his view on This, That, and, without fail, the Other. This he does in a high nasal, complaining whine. Completion of stage three. It may be, of course, that he has been specifically sent down from Heaven to Earth as a Light and a Savior unto the modern generation, but that is not the way we see him.
On the other hand, a character such as The Dripping Milk Man is quite harmless and inoffensive, and even, in his own retiring fashion, likeable. He is a Morning Bus Character, and stands quietly at the stop holding a mysterious brown bag, too small for a briefcase and yet too large to hold just a toothpick. The day he stood there unaware, though, while his mysterious bag dribbled large blobs of milk int o a white pool at his feet, the mystery was, in a sense, solved. Since that morning, however, he has never dribbled milk again, and for all we know he may be carrying cocoa in his bag now, or even moonshine whiskey, but he doesn't really look the type. In all other respects, except one, he is quite unremarkable; the one is his absence. On the rare occasions when he is not standing at the bus stop, his place is occupied by two other people -- a little curly black grandmother and a pale, bespectacled, spotty-faced boy. They stand side by side, never speaking to one another; when the bus arrives, they sit side by side never speaking to one another, and they get off at The Dripping Milk Man's stop, still never speaking to one another. What sort of occupation is his, we sometimes wonder, which can be carried out equally well by one small, silent curly black grandmother and one equally small, equally silent, neurotic looking young boy, who may even be perfect strangers to each other? Perhaps we shall never know.
In between the extremes represented by Sloshing Socrates and The Dripping Milk Man come such people as The Smiling Lady, who Sheila insists, smiles at her every time she sees her, since the day Sheila saw her sitting up in bed; The Man With The Slipped Face, a Morning Bus Character who would probably have lived out his life in anonymous obscurity except for the fact that one day when he caught the bus we noticed that his face had all fallen away to one corner (thus giving rise to our modernized version of the old Fats Waller number "I Don't Like You Cause Your Face Falls Out"), and Noddy, who amuses us almost every morning of the year (ungrateful wretches that we are, we might at least have sent him a Christmas Card in recognition of his efforts!) by his frantic noddings and bobbings and gyrations in the roadway to try and induce the already overflowing bus to stop and pick him up. Buggerlugs, too, might be describes as a middle of the road sort of character, since all he did to earn recognition and identification was to take to sitting on our favorite seat on the bus (a distinction shared with The Mining Engineer); and Holy Mary is another of the grey ghostly crew of half-anonymous characters, though I seem to recall hearing her name mentioned in connection with a pretty important position of some kind.
I will pass over most of the others, each with his or her own little something, and conclude with the colorful couple who are perhaps my favorites, Horseface Anna and Old Herbert, and their delightful little morning drama. Old Herbert is already on the bus when it arrives at our stop; he has boarded it somewhere further back along the route. Or perhaps he has come from the depot with the bus; perhaps when they trundle all the buses out in a morning they trundle Old Herbert out too; maybe he sleeps on the bus, or even lives his whole life on the bus shuttling backwards and forwards and never leaving it, I couldn't say for sure. But certainly every time we see him there he is sitting on the bus, upstairs, second seat from the front. Horseface Anna gets on at our stop; she is the sort of "young lady" in her late thirties who calls herself a "young lady" and all her male acquaintances "gentlemen friends". Old Herbert is the sort of faded small businessman who calls himself "businessman" and Horseface Anna a "young lady". They get on famously together. So ... the stage is set. Horseface Anna steps on the bus before us, minces up the stairs and along the aisle and stands quietly just to windward of Old Herbert's shoulder. Pause; the climax. A few seconds elapse. (Us standing breathless behind.) Then -- rapid denouement -- Old Herbert looks up, face registers profound surprise. "Good morning!" he gasps. Then he climbs laboriously down from his seat, she minces along to sit down on the inside, he climbs laboriously back again, and we breathe ahain and sit down to recover from the excitement. For two years we have been catching this bus, and every morning for two years we have been watching this little drama, and every morning for two years Old Herbert has been astounded beyond words to find Horseface Anna standing at his shoulder, and I'm afraid I just couldn't bear it if he ever got used to the idea of her being there and started taking her for granted. All the same, I must admit to an occasional vague longing in the murkiest depths of my unexplored subconscious to borrow a gorilla from some sympathetic zoo and, just for one morning, let it take Horseface Anna's place in the bus queue and go through her routine to stand, finally, just behind Old Herbert's shoulder. But this is mere fantasy.
So on the whole, we feel that Ken and Irene are entitled to their Lupin Man.
(data entered by Judy Bemis)
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