Nor shall I forget the thrill, perhaps a trifle guilty, with which I discovered, soon after I was sixteen, how to descend from a vehicle in motion without the sacrifice of an erect position. Hitherto, like my father, when travelling by tram or omnibus, I had always insisted upon complete immobility prior both to entrance into and departure from one of these public conveyances; and many a conductor had been reported by us both for failing to secure the requisite lack of motion. Upon my sixteenth birthday, however, perceiving that the omnibus in which I was journeying could not be brought to a standstill at the desired position, I decided to alight from it notwithstanding and boldly descended from its posterior step.
Naturally leaving this at right angles, what was my rather rueful amazement to discover myself, in the next instant, lying upon my side in the roadway. At first I imagined that I must have stepped upon something slippery or that some such article must have been adhering to my footwear. But a minute examination both of this and the roadway failed to reveal any such cause. Completely baffled, I made a second attempt, but with an equally discomforting result, and time after time, in spite of my utmost efforts, I was the victim of a similar loss of equilibrium. Many a less determined and timider lad would indeed have given up the venture, and again I ought to confess, perhaps, in view of municipal regulations, that my pertinacity was not wholly defensible.
Robbed of candour, however, such a record as the present would lose the greater part of its spiritual value; and while I am prepared to admit that, in this particular instance, my youthful conduct may have been open to misjudgement, I cannot concede that it was in any degree incompatible with the highest expression of the Xtian character. Refusing to be cast down, therefore, save in the most literal sense, I continued dauntlessly with my efforts, to be rewarded at last with a final success no less gratifying than entire. Failing to remain upright in departing from the moving vehicle either at right angles to it or with my back towards the driver, I found that by facing in the same direction I could not only descend from it with greater immunity, but that by running after it, as it were, for two or three steps, I could do so with complete integrity. Needless to say, having acquired this knowledge, I only made use of it in an occasional emergency, and for some years now, owing to declining success, I have discontinued the practice altogether.
One can only speculate what led Harley Street physician Henry Howarth Bashford to write Augustus Carp. He appears, by all accounts, to have been a pillar of his profession and community, becoming at one point personal physician to King George VI. Although he published a number of books, both professional and literary, nothing else in his oeuvre suggests its unique genius.
It would be easy to categorise Carp as a parody, but few parodists have ever succeeded in submersing themselves into a character’s voice and viewpoint as Bashford did. Back in the decades when the book was out of print and not available in editions that trumpeted it as a “comic masterpiece” or “the funniest book in the world” right on the front cover, I can imagine an unsuspecting reader thumbing through–perhaps even reading–Carp without once suspecting that it was anything but a stone-serious memoir written by a sober gentleman of strong Christian faith.
What I find marvelous about Carp is how brilliantly the book works on two levels simultaneously. On the one hand, it is solemn, sanctimonious, humorless, and completely lacking in irony. On the other, through nothing more, in most cases, that slipping the right word into a sentence, it’s ridiculous, mocking, riotous, and dripping in irony.
Take this passage as an example:
After every such exhibition of pristine vigour, however, my father experienced an acute reaction, and for many weeks would become a martyr not only to neurasthenic indigestion, but to digestive neurasthenia accompanied by flatulence of the severest order. For months on end, indeed, my mother would be obliged to sit by his bedside in case he should wake up and require abdominal kneading, and few were the nights upon which she had not in addition to go downstairs and make him some cocoa. But he would never allow himself to be daunted. His breakfast the next morning would be as hearty as usual. And he was never deterred by even the most obstinate inflation from the performance of a moral or religious duty.
We hear the voice of Augustus–pained yet proud at his father’s suffering, concerned that we understand in plight in precise detail, insistent as always in noting his father’s dedication to his Christian duties. At the same time, however, we picture the sanctimonious old windbag farting his way through the night, forcing his poor wife to keep a bedside vigil in case he needed help in squeezing out a gust or felt like a nice cup of cocoa. And stuffing himself again in the morning despite the probability of another gas attack.
And why not? As Bashford portrays so effectively, Augustus and his father are devoid of any sense of shame or embarassment. It is not they, but most of the world around them, in fact, that’s in the wrong. Certain he is without sin, Augustus vigorously takes up Jesus’ invitation to cast the first stone. Much of the book deals with his various attempts to correct the ways of the world. Convinced of his just cause of bringing “Xtian” principles to their proper place, Augustus spies, blackmails, cheats, shortchanges, shirks, evades, and undertakes other justified measures to achieve his ends.
Take, as another example, his attempt to save the actress Mary Moonbeam. Augustus barrels full steam into her life:
`I am the Vice-President,’ I said, `of the Anti-Dramatic Union.’
`And Saltatory,’ she said. `Don’t forget the Saltatory part.’
`Would that it were possible,’ I replied. `But it isn’t.’
She gave a little sigh.
`No, I suppose not,’ she said, `not with all us girls earning our living by it.’
‘ And hurling others,’ I said, `to their deaths.’
`Oh, no,’ she said, `not really?’
`Every night,’ I replied, `in thousands and thousands.’
`Oh, good gracious,’ she said, `not every night?’
I nodded gravely.
`Every night,’ I said, `in thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands.’
`But goodness me,’ she cried, `that’s more than ever.’
`It’s more and more,’ I said, `every night.’
`Well, I never,’ she said. `What a fearful mortality.’
`Fearful indeed,’ I replied, `and you are responsible.’
Invited by Mary to instruct her in the proper Xtian ways, Augustus gladly accepts, eager to take the opportunity to lecture Mary and her party on the error of their ways, fueled by great quaffs of a beneficent beverage, “Portugalade”:
I was gratified to observe that, apart from water, the only other beverage was Portugalade. It was again, to my annoyance, however, served in wine glasses, although Miss Moonbeam immediately apologized, pouring out a tumblerful for me with her own hand, just as I was beginning my second partridge. Nor did I find it any less agreeable than upon my first acquaintance with it at the theatre, and indeed I had seldom experienced such a sense of warmth and comfort as it very quickly began to endow me with. Peculiarly attractive to the nostril, it was no less grateful to the tongue, while upon its downward passage, it lent an extraordinary balm to a naturally irritable digestive system.
Nay, it did more, for as it enriched the blood mounting to an always responsive brain, I found myself the vehicle of a delightful flow of new and most valuable ideas. I say valuable, and this was indeed the case, but many of them were also outstandingly humorous, and time after time I was obliged to call for silence so that none of those present might fail to hear them.
(Augustus inherits his father’s bowels as well as temperament). Augustus proceeds to get roaring drunk, and feeling himself quite full of the spirit(s), is disappointed to find the party has abandoned him just as he’s ready to deliver an address on the evils of the theatre. He carries on, however, more convinced than ever in his mission: “Such was the cross that had suddenly been imposed upon me–a cross so gigantic and of such a character that only the most prolonged and assiduous training could have enabled me to bear it.”
Bashford insisted on Carp being published anonymously in 1924, perhaps sensitive to the risk that some readers might object to his characterisation of members of the High Church middle-class, and for many years after that, it was only word of mouth that kept the book’s reputation alive. Somewhere along the way, Anthony Burgess came across a copy and became the book’s champion, eventually convincing Heinemann to reissue the book in 1966 and writing an introduction for this edition. Carp was subsequently issued in paperback by Penguin in the mid-1980s and by the now-defunct Prion Books in 2000. Fortunately, all of these editions include the wonderful original illustrations by “Royal,” pen-name of Punch artist Marjorie Blood.
- · Thomas Jones in London Review of Books, 16 November 2000
- “The spoof memoirAugustus Carp, Esq. by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man was first published anonymously in 1924. Carp is a pious, hypocritical, gluttonous, not very bright and, yes, carping resident of Camberwell, and the narrator of what Anthony Burgess called ‘one of the great comic novels of the 20th century’. He begins one recollection of his childhood with a description of how he was ‘happily employed combing a grey rabbit, to which I was deeply attached, and which I had named, but a day or two previously, after the major prophet Isaiah.’ That use of ‘major’ speaks volumes.”
- · Michael Dirda in The Washington Post, 20 September 1998
- “Augustus Carp, Esq appeared in 1924 anonymously but is now known to be the work of a distinguished physician named Henry Howarth Bashford. Anthony Burgess considered it “one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century,” as will anybody else who finds and reads the book. Like other classics of English humor (Vice Versa, The Diary of a Nobody), Augustus Carp is the tale of a father and son. The two Carps are models of unconscious hypocrisy; that is, each imagines he behaves as a perfect Xtian (always so spelled) even while exploiting loved ones, blackmailing teachers, bringing suit for minor infractions, and wrecking lives. In particular, young Augustus’s narrative voice is a masterpiece of controlled irony. One revels in every word and turn of his elegant syntax:
“From the time of his marriage to the day of my birth, and as soon thereafter as the doctor had permitted her to rise, my father had been in the habit of enabling my mother to provide him with an early cup of tea. And this he had done by waking her regularly a few minutes before six o’clock. . .”
Note that devastating use of “enabling”–sheer genius.
Find Out More
- The full text of Augustus Carp, Esq. can be found online at http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/carp/
- Wikipedia entries on Augustus Carp, Esq. and Henry Howarth Bashford