Sunday, 17 April 2016

'Deep joy' - Stanley Unwin

Are you all sitty comftybold two-square on your botty? Then I'll begin.

Stanley Unwin,  of course. Who else?

He was an intermittent feature of my childhood, on the radio and on television, and appearing briefly as Gert Frobe's Chancellor in the rather overblown film version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. 'Professor' Stanley Unwin (his stage name - he was unencumbered with kosher academic titles) devised a fluent gobbledygook he called 'Unwinese'.

He deployed a modest range of tropes to render plain speech engagingly semi-comprehensible: by using the suffixes '-lode' and '-bold' for instance, often inserting variants on words such as 'folly' and 'joy'. Syntax wasn't much disrupted and there was no daunting theoretical substructure - he simply wanted to amuse and delight audiences, and did. Unwinese was wonderfully imitable but very hard to do well, and to be able to do so off-the-cuff (as he did) was wonderful. He was an heir to Edward Lear and the verbal equivalent of the great cartoonist and kinetic sculptor Rowland Emmett.

Listen to this recording of Unwin delivering his version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Here's a transcript of the opening:

Now, once a-polly tito. You may think that doesn't sound quite right. But believe me, once a-polly tito it is, and in this case it was Goldyloppers.

Goldyloppers trittly-how in the early mordy, and she falolloped down the steps. Oh unfortunade for crackening of the eggers and the sheebs and the buttery full-falollop and graze the knee-clappers. So she had a vaselubrious, rub it on and a quick healy huff and that was that. So off she went, and  she went trittly-how down the garbage path, and at the left right-hand-side goal she passed a [sniff] poo-pom, it was hillows a humus heapy in the garbage!

His approach is so close to that of Joyce's in Finnegans Wake that I find it hard to believe that Unwin (born in 1911) was unaware - or unwinaware, or unawarewinbold - of that book, published as a single volume on 4th May 1939 but circulating in little magazines for many years before that. I did some research and was delighted to find that Unwin was a devout Joycean.

He told his close friend, the writer and broadcaster Michael Pointon, that Joyce's phrase a 'troutlling stream' opened the door to a new way of language. This comes in the following passage in the Wake:

Yes may we not see still the brontoicthyian form outlined, even in our own nighttime by the sedge of the troutling stream that Bronto loves and Brunto has a lean on. Hiccubat edilis. Apud libertinam parvulam. Whatif she be in flags or flitters, reekierags or sundychosies, with a mint of mines or beggar a pinnyweight.

Further research confirmed that Unwin was introduced to Joyce's work while working in the Features Unit at the BBC during the war. He had previously been a wireless operator in the Royal Navy, was discharged due to chronic sea-sickness and, on joining the BBC as a sound engineer, was assigned to war broadcasts in various parts of the globe. To keep spirits up in perilous 'bangy-bangy, boomy-boomy' situations he entertained members of the Unit with improvised 'performages' featuring such favourite phrases as 'Oh, folly, folly! and ''deep joy'. (Many of the phrases came from the way his mother told him bedtime stories, a telling detail which I find almost overwhelmingly moving.)

Compare 'Godlyloppers' with this section of The Mookse and the Gripes, Joyce's re-telling  in the Wake of Aesop's fable The Fox and the Grapes.

Gentes and laitymen, fullstoppers and semicolonials, hybreds and lubberds!

Eins within a space and a wearywide space it wast ere wohned a Mookse. The onesomeness wast alltolonely, archunsitslike, broady oval, and a Mookse he would a walking go (My hood! cries Antony Romeo), so one grandsumer evening, after a great morning and his good supper of gammon and spittish, having flabelled his eyes, pilleoled his nostrils, vacticanated his ears and palliumed his throats, he put on his impermeable, seized his impugnable, harped on his crown and stepped out of his immobile De Rure Albo (socolled becauld it was chalkfull of masterplasters and had borgeously letout gardens strown with cascadas, pintacostecas, horthoducts and currycombs and set off from Ludstown a spasso to see how badness was badness in the weirdest of all pensible ways.

Joyce's dense multi-lingual punning, his maniac erudition and his complacent belief that readers would contentedly spend a lifetime deciphering his work all contrast with Stanley Unwin's gentle, unpretentious and humane whimsy. Both men rely, in the examples given above, on an underlying fairy tale narrative familiar (one assumes) to their respective audiences. Joyce's 'Gentes and laity men' reminds me of the children's' poem beginning 'Ladles and jellyspoons', although the latter requires no exegesis by tenured academics. Nor, come to that, does Unwinese.

Unwin's frequent use of 'childers' as a plural of children is an echo of Joyce's Chaepelizod pub landlord H. C. E. Earwicker's initials standing for (among other things) 'Haveth  Childers Everywhere'. On those odd occasions that I dip into the Wake I imagine Unwin's light, affable mellifluous voice, and the gentle clack of his ill-fitting dentures. It helps. 

Unwin was always in demand with producers and advertising agencies and parlayed his charmingly eccentric party piece into a long career. The market for whimsical verbal dexterity seems to have shrunk now - could he make a living today? I doubt it - rowdier tastes prevail, alas.

He has a further claim to cultural significance as the narrator on what is now regarded as the first-ever 'concept album'. Released in 1968, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake by Small Faces is a pop-culture artefact as noteworthy as The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Unwin tells the story of Happiness Stan who goes in search of a half moon, the opening lines of which I used at the start of this blog. It is entirely beguiling, has a timeless charm, and you can listen to the full version here.

Unwin lived for more than sixty years in the Northamptonshire village of Long Buckby. He is buried in the churchyard there alongside his wife Frances, who pre-deceased him. Their gravestone bears the epitaph:

                                         Reunitey in the heavenly-bode -- Deep Joy.

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