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Seven sonnets.



i.m. Gerald Butterworth 1857-1919

In boots, long socks with garters, khaki shorts,
he’d bellow songs about the Great Outdoors
and, yes, though tubby and by no means tall,
the strapping voice and big hat made us all
think Here’s a giant of a man, for whom
those cardboard hills on stage, fake thunder from
the wings, buckets of rainfall, posed no threat:
he laughed at them, we laughed with him, yet

we alone continued laughing after
Baden-Powell invited him to take
some Cub Scouts (briskly, mind) up Langdale Pike,
and Gerald’s legs gave way, requiring four
small boys, first-aiders, one for each limb,
to ferry him, dead silent, down again.

And They’re Off!
i.m. Willy Netta’s Singing Jockeys c.1912

Sir Laverock in Le Morte d’Arthur asked,
What is a man but when he’s on horseback?

But what of those who tried and failed to ride
a winner? Stable lads who never made

it past first post, put out to grass, their short
careers reined in. Enter Willy, ticket tout,

barred from the Sport of Kings. Due for some luck,
and musical, our try-again tycoon took

three non-starters – tenor, bass, baritone –
provided silks, caps, britches, billed them

as Barber Shop Meets Becher’s Brook! They
sang close harmony, while toffs would pay

to piggyback them up and down the theatre
aisles. Bets were placed. Willy’s wife sold water.

Confidence Trick
i.m. Felicitous Bob Franklin 1831-1878

All Bob could do was brag. Songs, handsprings, gags,
a basic jig – beyond him. Proper acts,
proud to dress difficult as easy, spat
his name. But in the gods we couldn’t get
enough of this enigma, trousers
ragged as those hanging from the worst of us:
Despite my great success, I won’t lord it,
he crowed, over you less fortunate.

Bollocks, of course. Deep down we must have known
he didn’t own a racehorse, let alone
Grange-over-Sands, but his gift was to make
us wish he did, and when he said good luck
may never come our way, we’d smile, he’s right,
until we hit the street, then fights broke out.

The Man Who Killed Houdini
i.m. J. Gordon Whitehead 1895-1954

I was thirty. Still a student. Immature.
The only chains I’d wrestled with were
theoretical. And what a lark to lie
my way into his dressing room. To see
him semi-naked, dabbing pancake
on his face. Average, unshackled – no great
shakes. Like me. But foolish – happy to be
hit: Hard as you can, boy. Boy? Just give me
time to brace myself. Like hell! Four
punches to the stomach, he was on the floor,
doubled-up and writhing. Not an act.
Ruptured appendix – boy – get out of that!
His tomb’s impressive, but my pauper’s grave
attracts the masses. People are depraved.

i.m. Harris ‘Wonder Horse’ Fitzpatrick 1803-1847

Born to play the front end, under hessian
and felt, Harris expressed such human-equine
feelings, every toss, nod, shake, incline

said more than Hamlet at his most verbose
because, once Harris was immersed in horse,
the stammer didn’t matter, for his voice

was body-language – nuzzle, jerk and butt –
a dumb-show of stubborn, affectionate,
skittish, morose. But when he’d got the bit

between his teeth, what started as a hobby
took the reins till, out of season, he
would shy away from words, and nobody

could coax him back: always a danger when
someone feels ill at ease in their own skin.

Here’s Looking At You
i.m. Alice Wolfenden 1861-1913

Chaplin called movement liberated thought.
No words required. Action is all. But what
if you distil a lifetime’s liveliness –
the ducks and dives, embraces, feints; compress
every advance, retreat, escape, into
one concentrated stare, directed through
the theatre’s gloom; let your eyes only tell
a tale of non-stop doings – heaven, hell?

Alice mastered this. Completely still, she’d throw
her gaze across the footlights. Those who
held it were transported – felt again
all that had lifted, stirred or broken them.
Hers was the first act women came in groups
to watch, and sob. We men studied our boots.

Memory Man
i.m. Herbert Fernandez 1813-1898

We all recalled his glory days, before
grey whiskers: Ask me anything! Facts filled
Hull Hippodrome, staccato-sharp and sure –
no doubt about the data he revealed;
his mind as rich as any bank – robust
beyond belief. But why, in later life, when
age ate his reserves and he stood at a loss,
did no one treasure Herbert less, or blame
him playing to our faith instead of trust?
Why weren’t his nightly clangers billed, at best,
as laughable: what makes ovation last?
Let’s call it love, and hope, when we become
befuddled by our audience, uncertain,
our performance isn’t mocked, but smiled upon.

A former Coronation Street and comedy writer, Keith Hutson’s debut poetry pamphlet, Routines (Poetry Salzburg) was published in 2016. He is a Laureate’s Choice poet for 2018, and a further pamphlet, Troupers, is forthcoming from smith|doorstop. Keith is a co-editor at Poetry Salzburg, and he delivers poetry and performance workshops in schools for the Prince’s Trust. He recently read, as Carol Ann Duffy’s guest, at the R.S.L T.S. Eliot Memorial event at the British Library. He lives in Halifax, West Yorkshire.


Dun Roamin’: It is rumoured that Jimmy Perry and David Croft based their Dad’s Army character Captain Mainwaring on Gerald Butterworth, but I have not been able to verify this.

And They’re Off!: The great comedian Jimmy James began his showbiz career as one of Willy Netta’s Singing Jockeys.

Confidence Trick: When Bob Franklin was asked why he was so proud of being talentless, he replied enigmatically ‘you don’t have a dog and bark yourself’.

The Man Who Killed Houdini: J Gordon Whitehead was never convicted of causing Houdini’s death. He led a troubled life and died a loner and a hoarder.

Saddled: Harris Fitzpatrick was not the first panto horse, but he was the first to gain serious recognition. He coined the phrase You can take a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.

Here’s Looking At You: When a reporter from the Illustrated London News asked Alice if she used hypnotism in her act, she simply stared at him. He had to leave the room.

Memory Man: Another music hall ‘memory man’ was William Bottle aka Datas. In the film The 39 Steps Wylie Watson played a character based on him.

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