10 April, 2015

"Three Ha'Pence a Foot"

A couple of weeks ago we sat and watched a TV version of the Biblical story of Noah and the building of the Ark. It was light, watchable and, I suppose, made good TV rather than promulgating any great religious doctrines or making any profound statements of faith . It had a strange combination: the essence of the Biblical tale, set in Biblical times but with the actors seeming (to me at least) to be speaking and acting in a very modern way – phrases and concepts that I am sure would not have appertained in quite the same way several thousand years ago when the story was originally set. For example, at one stage one of the actors used the phrase “No way” at another the scenes in the city near to where Noah lived were depicted rather like a Friday night in any big UK city today with youngsters enjoying themselves, smoking drugs, dancing and the like in a very 21st century manner. They didn't exactly say “cool man” – but it was pretty close! But, this didn't detract from the essential story and the whole made a not unpleasant 90 minutes viewing. What God (if there be one) made of it, however, is another story!
Noah and his wife build the ark in the TV film

On the following day I read the Guardian review of the film. It largely made the same points that I did in a more effective way. It noted that the actors (all well known names) spoke largely with Lancashire accents – I suppose to make them appear ordinary  working folk – and  it commented on the modern slant given to the story despite the trappings of Biblical costumes and set. It did however, go one stage further – suggesting that the film could just as easily have worked (and might have carried a stronger message) had it been set in the present day. The Guardian suggested modern day Manchester would have been a good place to set a modern Noah since the accents used would have been typical and Manchester is well known in the UK as allegedly being a very wet place where long periods of rain are said to be typical. And finally, it was noted the scenes of sinning and loose living that so annoyed God would have fitted very well in the night life of a big city like Manchester. Although these comments were made largely in jest I was of the view that they held a good deal of truth – the play might well have worked better set in modern day Britain.

These, however, are not the real focus of this blog. As I watched the play and, on the following day read the Guardian’s comments something else ran through my mind and raised a smile to my lips. Noah, the Ark, Manchester, rain, floods.......................Sam Oswaldthwaite, Bury, Blackpool Tower,  the river Irwell.........Stanley Holloway!
Stanley Holloway

For those unfamiliar with the name Stanley Holloway, he was a comedian, singer, poet and monologist who was at the height of his fame in the 1930s to the 1960s. He performed in the West End and in many films but he will always be remembered for his monologues, more often than not performed with a strong Lancashire accent. Holloway himself was not a Lancashire lad – he was born in Essex and often played Cockney characters - but a long association with the comedian, poet and scriptwriter Marriott Edgar ensured that he developed this side of his acting. Edgar wrote a series of humorous  monologues, many of them based in Lancashire and Holloway was the perfect performer for them with his droll, down beat voice and perfect Lancashire accent. I only have to read Marriot’s words or hear Holloway’s rendition of one of the many monologues such as The Magna Carta or the Battle of Hastings  or most famously “Albert and the Lion” (see blog “Nowt So Queer as Folk”:  Feb 2013) to not only be reduced to tears of laughter but to be taken back to the place of my birth, Lancashire. 

Edgar and Holloway’s classic retelling of the story of Noah is wonderful: matter of fact, full of dry Lancashire humour, clever, modern in an old fashioned way and, I think, not too disrespectful. It is called “Three Ha’Pence a Foot” (in “old money” that is one and a half pennies!) - and for those uninitiated with Lancashire humour the phrase “long bacon*” means that Noah put his thumb to his nose and wiggled the rest of his fingers at Sam in a derisory manner. Marriott's monologue catches perfectly the simple, honest humour of Lancashire in the  early to mid 20th century and updates the Noah story perfectly to that time and place.  I like to think that if God has ever listened to it he might just have  raised a smile and been encouraged to think kindly on its honesty, its sentiment and its basis in the wisdom and joy of simple folk. For, certainly, its two "heroes", Sam and Noah, are simple honest tradesmen, as were Noah and his family to whom - God entrusted His great task - the saving of mankind!

Stanley Holloway's rendition of "Three'Ha'pence a Foot"

Three Ha'Pence a Foot

I'll tell you an old-fashioned story
That grandfather used to relate,
Of a builder and joining contractor
Who's name it were Sam Oswaldthwaite.

In a shop on the banks of the Irwell
There Sam used to follow his trade,
In a place you'll have heard of called Bury
You know, where black puddings is made.

One day Sam were filling a knot hole
With putty when in through the door,
Came an old man fair reeked i'whiskers
An th'old man said “Good morning, I'm Noah”.

Sam asked Noah what were his business
And t'old chap went on to remark,
That not liking the look of the weather
He was thinking of building an ark.

He'd got all the wood for the bulwarks
And all t'other shipbuilding junk,
Now he wanted some nice birds-eye maple
To panel the sides of his bunk.

Now maple were Sam’s monopoly
That means it were all his to cut,
And nobody else hadn't got none
So he asked Noah three ha'pence a foot.

“A ha'penny’s too much” replied Noah
“Penny a foots more the mark,
A penny a foot and when rain comes
I'll give you a ride in my ark”.

But neither would budge in the bargain
The whole thing were kind of a jam,
So Sam put his tongue out at Noah
And Noah made long bacon* at Sam.

In wrath and ill-feeling they parted
Not knowing when they'd meet again,
And Sam 'ad forgot all about it
'Til one day it started to rain.

It rained and it rained for a fortnight
It flooded the whole countryside,
It rained and it still kept on raining
'Til th'Irwell were fifty miles wide.

The houses were soon under water
And folks to the roof had to climb,
They said t'was the rottenest summer
As Bury had had for some time.

The rain showed no sign of abating
And water rose hour by hour,
'Til th'only dry land were at Blackpool
and that were on top of the tower.

So Sam started swimming for Blackpool
It took him best part of a week,
His clothes were wet through when he got there
And his boots were beginning to leak.

He stood to his watch-chain in water
On tower-top just before dark,
When who should come sailing towards him
But old Noah steering his ark.

They stared at each other in silence
'Til ark were alongside all but,
Then Noah said “What price yon maple?”
Sam answered “Three ha'pence a foot”.

Noah said “Nay, I'll make thee an offer
Same as I did t'other day,
A penny a foot and a free ride
Now come on lad, what does thee say?”

“Three ha'pence a foot” came the answer
So Noah his sail had to hoist,
And sail off again in a dudgeon
While Sam stood determined, but moist.

So Noah cruised around flying his pigeons
'Til fortieth day of the wet,
And on his way home passing Blackpool
He saw old Sam standing there yet.

His chin just stuck out of the water
A comical figure he cut,
Noah said “Now what’s the price of yon maple?”
And Sam answered “Three ha'pence a foot”.

Said Noah “You'd best take my offer
It's the last time I'll be hereabouts,
And if water comes half an inch higher
I'll happen get maple for nowt”.

“Three ha'pence a foot it'll cost you
And as for me” Sam says “Don't thee fret,
Sky’s took a turn since this morning
I think it'll brighten up yet”.

Absolutely priceless! 

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