past
Music Hall logo, see bottom of page for text links.

Gus Elen

In the music-hall hierarchy it is usual to find Albert Chevalier given first place among Cockney performers and to find Alec Hurley and Gus Elen trailing some way behind. In that Chevalier wrote so many of his own songs, justice is done; but in two or three songs at least, Gus Elen had material as good if not better than the very best of Chevalier's, and he had an approach which, although perhaps more restricted than Chevalier's, suited his material to perfection. Macqueen-Pope has suggested that Gus Elen's coster was closer to the Cockney way of life than was the rather more idealized version of Chevalier. Of Elen's other songs, "'Arf a Pint of Ale," "It's a Great Big Shame," and "The Postman's 'Oliday" are as good as anything by Chevalier, and "Down the Road" runs as well as any music-hall song of its kind.

The words of "If It Wasn't for the 'Ouses" were written by Edgar Bateman, who also wrote those for at least two more of Elen's songs: "She's Too Good to Live Is Mrs. Carter" and "The Postman's 'Oliday." The music was written by a man who wrote a vast number of music-hall song accompaniments, including some for Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno, and also for Gus Elen's "It's a Great Big Shame"--George Le Brunn. Chance Newton, who knew him well, records his habit of leaving scores he was working on at the various pubs he visited en route to the particular hall he was travelling to.

"If It Wasn't for the 'Ouses" juxtaposes comedy and pathos to perfection. There is no false pity and no false pride. In addition to the juxtaposed emotional states, the song sets up a tension between daily life in the East End of London and an ideal garden state. What is so remarkable is that tension has the effect of making us laugh, and yet it never permits us to be unaware of the sordidness of the milieu-but it is not at the sordidness that we laugh. The singer does not make the mistake of abandoning himself to the ideal place he conjures up, but is able to return to reality stimulated by his imagination. The song implies the acceptance of the conditions imposed by such an environment, but with full awareness of its shortcomings and with an understanding of something better than this beyond. This is no unthinking, apathetic acceptance (as that which the governess recommends to Moll Flanders), but a lively and informed one.

The fundamental opposition within the song is very simple. The little backyard is hemmed in by row upon row of houses stretching further than the eye can see. The day itself is set in the midst of many long working days stretching before and after. In order to make it less desolate, the yard is decorated--got up--to look like a market garden, using, among many other props, the tops of the vegetables not sold from the coster's barrow during the week. That such an incongruous fight could pass for Kent, the Garden of England, is both comic and pathetic.

The whole song is comic, but the comedy is never completely dominant. We are always made aware of the sordidness, the oppressiveness, and the sense of deprivation implicit in such a life. Despite its provenance, there is something disturbing about such a comic song and this in itself is no mean achievement. Furthermore, unlike so

many music-hall songs, even the better ones, the language has a quality rarely found in this medium. Take, for example, the part-line "such nobby distant views." It is ironic, but also in a particular way, exact. In one sense it suggests a magnificent panoramic view; ironically we realize what stress is placed on "distant" and that the colloquialism, "nobby," instead of being mere local colour, accurately describes the actual view, "nobby" with chimney pots and similar excrescences.

Much of the humour is quiet, deflationary, and, at times, subtle. The incongruities, absurd though they are, are not gross-the dust-cart like harvest home; the pail of beetles as a beehive; the donkey with imitation horns being taught to moo like a cow; and the gas works which, if they do not have the aroma of violets, at least make pretty fair mountains-and the pathos, which the comedy offsets without obscuring, helps prevent the song becoming ridiculous. The dialect is used, as in "The Future Mrs. 'Awkins," not for the sake of its comic incongruity-so that we are invited to laugh at "error"-but because this is the normal and natural form of expression, which furthermore has subtle possibilities not possible in standard English. Thus, the first syllable of "Wembley" is delicately held, and this makes us anticipate some incongruity to match that of "chimbley."

In the chorus, "really is" ironically suggests just the reverse. Several of the places viewed make us wonder if there is any special delight in viewing them at all, although it ought to be pointed out that when the song was written, Wembley was a country village. However, the relative desirability of such a place as Hackney Marshes ironically points up the sordidness of the coster's own environment in the East End. The last line finally deflates the attempt to create an escape world in the imagination and brings a return to reality.

One of the remarkable aspects of this song is its capacity for creating an imaginary world which is never allowed wholly to possess the singer. The comedy and the deflation ensure that this imaginary world is always held at a distance, and that the implications of the real world (which are very important to the song's total effect) are never very far away. Yet, sordid though the reality is, there is about the song an affirmatory cheerfulness. The ability to laugh, not only at the sordid world (itself a quality of no mean order), but also at that desirable dream-world of the imagination, suggests a courage and perception of high distinction.

"The 'Ouses In Between" is one of the best songs of the music hall, and a song worthy of a very high place in the popular tradition. It has that quality, in a modest measure, of those larger and greater works of art which express a feeling for life and an attitude toward it.