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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
though, of their Browning parody? What does it add to my enquiry into the
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,
both my boots and my trousers and all —
to come. After all the galloping, on arrival at Ghent:
. . I had to confess that I’d gone and went
forgotten the news I was bringing to Ghent . . .
(according to the poem’s Envoi):
. . I sprang to a taxi and shouted “To Aix!”
. . blew his horn and threw off his brakes,
the way back till my money was spent
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!
propose to file the case under Unsolved Mysteries, perhaps for my part not
to be revisited, with this response:
is my last chirrup:
neither spring to the stirrup
the risk of being risqué
and Dirk and Jorrocks
three, I say “bollocks!”
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