I’ll start 2011 with a post on the funniest book I’ve read in at least the last ten years.
I don’t recall how I first came across Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians while browsing through the Internet Archive. I downloaded the text at least two years ago and kept meaning to read it, but it was only when I bought a Nook that I finally did. I have to say that the experience did strain my marriage for a few weeks as my wife had to put up with me bursting out laughing each night as I clicked through the book in bed beside her.
Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is an account of two visits by one Paul Pry, a gentleman resident of London, to the town of Little Pedlington, population 2,972, somewhere around 1835. Pry, who has “been everywhere, seen everything, heard everything, and tasted of everything,” has been wondering where to escape from London’s “unendurable” summer when a parcel of books arrives from his bookseller. Sorting through it, he lays aside “Denham’s Travels in Africa,” Humboldt’s in South America, and ” Parry’s Voyages” to peruse a slender just-published volume, “The Stranger’s Guide through Little Pedlington,” by Felix Hoppy, Esq., M.C..
Although he acknowledges that such guides can be found be every provincial crossroads in England, the hyperbole of Hoppy’s book (“Hail, Pedlingtonia! Hail, thou favoured spot!/What’s good is found in thee; what’s not, is not.”) overwhelms Pry and convinces him that the town must be a “very Paradise.” So off he sets for Little Pedlington.
Or at least he tries to. It turns out there is no direct coach from London, and only a chance of finding a connection by way of Squashmire Gate. But even Squashmire Gate proves inaccessible, as the coachman drops him at an isolated hamlet called Poppleton End. “Poppleton End?” he exclaims. “Yes, sir, and has been since time out of mind,” replies the coachman with a snicker. Stuck there in a poor excuse for an inn, Pry attempts to make the best of things, but he soon finds nothing even remotely passable in the place. The locals argue over how far it is to Squashmire Gate–“thirteen good mile” … but that way is blocked, so it’s seventeen-and-a-half if you go by way of Lob’s Farm. And the only transport available is a one-horse cart–“but our horse died Friday-week, and my good man hasn’t yet been able to suit himself with another.”
Finally, he resigns himself to wait until something better comes along and asks the maid for dinner. What follows is arguably the lost template for Monty Python’s famous spam skit:
“What would you like, sir ?”
“A boiled chicken”
“We have never a chicken, sir, but would you like some eggs and bacon?”
“No. Can I have a lamb-chop?”
“No, sir, but our eggs and bacon is very nice.”
“Or a cutlet — or a steak?”
“No, sir; but we are remarkable here for our eggs and bacon.”
“Have you anything cold in your larder?”
“Not exactly, sir, but I’m sure you will admire our eggs and bacon.”
“Then what have you got?”
“Why, sir, we have got nothing but eggs and bacon.”
“Then have the goodness to give me some eggs and bacon.”
“I was sure you’d choose eggs and bacon, sir. We are so famous for it.”
Despite these obstacles, though, Pry is set on his mission of visiting Little Pedlington, particularly after hearing the maid’s endorsement: “Sir,” she said, ” all the world can’t be Lippleton; if it was, it would be much too fine a place, and too good for us poor sinners to live in.” Eventually, after hours of riding on a rickety coach through drizzle, mud, and detours, he arrives late in the evening at “Scorewell’s hotel, the Green Dragon, in High Street. Forgetting all my bygone troubles, I exultingly exclaimed, ‘And here I am in Little Pedlington!'”
Though he resolves to keep a faithful journal of his visit, within the first minutes of his first morning in town, it becomes apparent that Pry’s expectations are not going to bend to the mediocre reality that is life in Little Pedlington–at least not until he has the chance to look back with some perspective upon his return to London. He has a fine breakfast at Scorewell’s. Excepting the over-cooked egg, which is replaced with an under-cooked one; the “Nanking-coloured” coffee (“One quarter ounce per quart,” the waiter proudly informs him); and the fact that the only London paper–three weeks old–is in the hands of preferred customers (“the family with the fly”). Just before setting out for his first stroll around the town, he arranges for his dinner–which becomes the forerunner of another, lesser-known Python sketch, “The Cheese Shop.”:
“Well, Mr. Scorewell, that will do for the present. I will now, guide-book in hand, pay a visit to the town; at five o’clock I will return; and since (as I perceive by the book) you have a well-supplied market …”
“The best in the whole universe, sir.”
“Well, then, you will let me have a nice little dinner; some flsh and …”
“Fish! To-day is Monday, you know, sir, and Wednesdays and Saturdays are our fish-days. Couldn’t get fish to-day in Lippleton for love or money. But I’ll tell you what, sir ; if Joe Higgins should bring any gudgeons in to-morrow, I’ll take care of ’em for you—unless, indeed, the family with the fly should want ’em.”
“A veal cutlet then, and …”
“Veal! We only kill veal in Lippleton, sir, once a week, and that’s o’ Tuesdays, But if you’d please to leave it to my cook, sir, she’ll send you up as nice a little dinner as you’d wish to sit down to.”
In the course of the next week or so, Pry meets all the illuminati of Little Pedlington. His self-appointed guide is one Jack Hobbleday, a gossiping cheapskate busybody windbag bore–although Poore manages to make this clear without ever putting it into such direct terms:
Obligingly communicated to me the fact, that he took three thick slices of bread-and-butter, one egg, and two cups of tea; adding to the interest of the information, by a minute detail of the price he paid for the several commodities, the quantities of tea and sugar he used, the time he allowed his egg to boil, and his tea to draw; and also, bv a particular description of the form and size of his teapot. Though early in the day, I experienced sensation of drowsiness, for which (having slept well at night) I could not account.
It turns out that most of the inhabitants of Little Pedlington share the same affliction. There is Major Boreall, “who, for instance, is a longer time in telling you of his ordering a dinner than it would take you to eat it.” Or Rummins, the town antiquarian, whose “pro-nun-ci-a-ti-on precise accurate even to inaccuracy, and so distinct as to be almost unintelligible — at least, to one accustomed, as I had hitherto been, to the conversation of ordinary people, who utter their words in an everyday sort of manner.” Or Colonel Dominant (an escapee from Bob and Ray’s “Webley Webster Playhouse”), who screams, “D__n your arrogance!” at virtually every syllable his meek companion Mr. Truckle utters.
Little Pedlingtonians find virtue in the utter lack of privacy in their town. When Pry informs Yawkins, the town bookseller, that London is such a big and anonymous place that half the city’s residents wouldn’t even take notice if the other half decided to shave the hair off all the dogs in town, Yawkins replies, “Then blessed be Little Pedlington!–where everybody is acquainted with everybody else’s affairs, at least as well as with his own!”
The highlight of Pry’s first visit is a soiree hosted by Rummins, during which each of the town’s intellectual elite shows off his or her best talents. The evening culminates in a song recital by Miss Cripps, Little Pedlington’s resident coloratura, Pry records in careful detail one of her songs:
Thanks to the lady’s method of singing-— a method which, I am informed, is commonly taught in Little Pedlington — I can answer for it that the following copy of her “exact and exquisite little effusion” is literally correct:
“Se turn sn en sm se,
Me o sn tarn se oo.
To nm te a te me
Pe tam ta o te poo.”
And these words, running through five verses, she articulated with as much distinctness as if she had been regularly educated as a singer for the English Opera.
If this review is beginning to seem like a bit too much of a good thing, you’ll have caught on to what is the one big drawback to Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians. The book was first published in 1836 as Paul Pry’s Journal of a Residence at Little Pedlington. Poole then reissued the book in 1839 as Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, expanding its length from just over 200 pages to over 500. The second half describes a second and last visit and includes a scene-by-scene account of the theatrical spectacle, “The Hatchet of Horror, or The Massacred Milkmaid,” as well as lengthy excerpts from the “Life and Letters of Captain Nix,” a recently-deceased resident. These include such fascinating items from Nix’s diary as:
Sept. 26.— Rose at 8— shaved— 9, brekd.” [For breakfasted.] 3, Biled beaf for dinr. and carets hot. [It adds considerably to the interest of the work that, in all cases where Nix’s MS. are consulted, his own system of orthography is adhered to. The same may be said of his peculiar mode of pronunciation whenever he is made to appear as the narrator or interlocutor. Of these the dramatic effect is thereby considerably heightened.] 6, Walkd. to Vale of Health — 10, Supper. Welsh rabbet, gin and water, then to bed.
Sept. 27.— Rose 8— -shaved— 9, brekd.— 3, biled beaf for dinr., cold — 6, walkd. to V. of H. — 10, supp., Welsh r., gin and water — 11, bed.
In many ways, Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is in a class with Mark Twain’s travel books, particularly The Innocents Abroad, which are studded with wonderful comic set-pieces and pastiches but begin to bog down from sheer length after page 400. Still, the quality and wealth of the set-pieces and pastiches in Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is astonishing and kept me richly amused for over two weeks.
During his life, John Poole was best known as a comic dramatist–experience that certainly informs his account of “The Hatchet of Horror.” Although Little Pedlington was well known enough in its time to earn an entry (“The village of quackery and cant, humbug, and egotism, wherever that locality is.”) in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Poole himself fell on hard times in his later years, and was supported financially by Charles Dickens, who considered him an inspiration.
Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is in print from a number of publishers specializing in reprinting open source texts, skip the middlemen and get the text yourself, either from the Internet Archive (Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians) or Google Books (Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians). Just make sure to give fair warning to whoever you’ll be reading in bed with.