In the Saddle Again
[ Issue 23 ]

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Bikwil is pleased to present In the Saddle Again

In the Saddle Again

"Found it and lost it."

Bet Briggs resumes her sleuthing into Browning's How They Brought the Good News, and turns up some good news of her own.

Day after day I stalked the library shelves, feverishly checking poetry anthologies red, black or whatever, any that seemed remotely promising

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In the Saddle Again:
Postscript to My Good News Week
— Bet Briggs

Copyright


It’s no surprise to this long-in-the-tooth literary sleuth that I am reopening an enquiry I thought was concluded. Early in my career I learned there’s no certainty a case is ended and its file closed. So often, sometimes by persistent probing of evidence, alone or with a colleague, I’d acquire fresh insight, sometimes by chance find another tantalising reference urging me to further research.

Chance has prevailed in the case of Robert Browning’s How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, reported in Bikwil No. 19 (May 2000). Just when I thought I’d stabled the last galloper I stumbled on a piece of chaff which compelled me to continue the investigation into the “good news”.

One July morning while browsing without intent in Lane Cove Library I found a parody of Browning’s poem. Found it and lost it. For, in a sudden lapse I became obtuse, too casual. I registered the parody with no more than a glance and made the mistake no seasoned, self-respecting sleuth should ever make. I didn’t note the reference. Thinking I’d return that afternoon I trusted my memory; I relied on an image of a red book so generous in proportion it took up several centimetres of shelf space in the English Poetry anthologies section. I knew exactly where to put my hands on it.

My next mistake was that I didn’t return that day. A week later I went straight to the spot but there was no big red book. Regret, dismay and doubt took me over, momentarily. I cursed that cursory look and thought, as well as being careless, now I’m colour blind! Yet I did see a book and a poem. But what detail did I see? In truth, not much: a long title echoing Browning’s and two names as authors. Nebulous and flimsy details but clues nevertheless to be followed up.

So, still angry with myself over my earlier slackness I pursued the investigation like someone possessed. Day after day I stalked the library shelves, feverishly checking poetry anthologies red, black or whatever, any that seemed remotely promising.

When I’d almost exhausted the search and myself I dipped into Parlour Poetry: 101 Improving Gems, a 1967 collection edited by Michael J. Turner. Robert Browning’s poem was one of the gems. A footnote to it was a gem of information for me. It referred to a well-known parody: How I Brought the Good News from Aix to Ghent (or Vice Versa) by Robert J. Yeatman and Walter Carruthers Sellar. This had to be it: echo of Browning’s title, two authors, this surely was what I’d seen in that damned elusive book!

Catching the scent of the chase I took off in hot pursuit, back in the saddle, galloping on good old Omnibus along the library trail. First stop at Stanton in North Sydney I consulted Grainger’s Index to Poetry. The 8th edition (1986) revealed gems of information. Like Browning’s poem the Yeatman and Sellar parody was often anthologised and Grainger listed six titles ranging in publication from 1945 to 1984. One only was held at Lane Cove Library, so I hastened back there that same day to look for The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry (ed. William Cole, 1959). Its Dewey number placed it in that spot on the shelf I’d remembered.

But the book still wasn’t there. A quick check revealed it was on loan and not due back for a couple of weeks. For those two weeks, right up until the due date, I haunted the library, daily, and waited, chafing at the bit, to get my hands on that book.

On its return I recognised it at once; big, but not over large, red after all, definitely the book. Making no mistake this time I took note of the source and a photocopy of the poem. I looked up Yeatman and Sellar, too, for I confess their names hadn’t rung the bell of recognition. I was tickled to learn they were responsible for that famous parody of history 1066 and All That, published in 1930 and still in print!

What now, though, of their Browning parody? What does it add to my enquiry into the good news?

Let’s examine the evidence. In reverse to Browning, Yeatman and Sellar’s journey, as their title indicates, is from Aix to Ghent. As in Browning, there’s a lot of galloping too! And here “I” the narrator even “. . . ungalloped a bit” and undressed, for at one stage:

. . . I cast off my bluff-coat, let my bowler hat fall,
Took off both my boots and my trousers and all —

Worse was to come. After all the galloping, on arrival at Ghent:

. . . I had to confess that I’d gone and went
and forgotten the news I was bringing to Ghent . . .

Consequently (according to the poem’s Envoi):

. . . I sprang to a taxi and shouted “To Aix!”

whereupon the driver:

. . . blew his horn and threw off his brakes,
And all the way back till my money was spent
We rattled and rattled . . .

and they (“I” and the cabbie) rattled over and over many times back to Aix where “I” “. . . eventually sent a telegram.”!

As to its contents not a hint, for there the parody ends. Once more, after all that galloping and rattling, we, I the sleuth, you the readers, are no wiser as to what the news good and forgotten is!

Now I propose to file the case under Unsolved Mysteries, perhaps for my part not to be revisited, with this response:

This is my last chirrup:
I’ll neither spring to the stirrup
Nor to the rollocks
And at the risk of being risqué
To Joris and Dirk and Jorrocks
All three, I say “bollocks!”

Putting pique aside, in truth I have to say the ride was fun and the Good News Enquiry has served to remind me of an abiding pleasure, that one learned early, my good news confirmed: the discovery that there’s no end to discovering.

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