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[“An Introduction to Exploring Fred Urquhart’s Short Stories.”]

Fred Urquhart’s short stories “Gentlemen, the Queen” and “Provide For Your Poor Sisters” were both collected in his 1967 volume The Dying Stallion. They were both written in the early nineteen sixties and they generally feel more fully and skilfully developed than the accompanying pieces from the thirties and forties. These stories can be loosely identified as companions because each is set in a pub and each observes the confusion of a visitor within this setting.

Each pub is in effect the possession of a particular social class or group, with the mission for the outsider being to successfully blend in. Each visitor had assumed that the pub was simply a place where they could get a drink, but these drinks will become more like their entry tickets to a new world.

“Gentlemen, the Queen” was first written for BBC radio and it was broadcast as the Light Programme’s Morning Story on 24th May 1961. It was read by the actor Colin Gordon. The whole story is set over a couple of hours when Mr Ron Bradley – “flashily-dressed,” nouveau-riche and presumably a businessman – pulls up conspicuously in his Ford Zodiac at “an inn on the outskirts of a village.” He drinks two pints of “mild ‘n’ bitter,” observes various improbably aristocratic characters coming and going, listens to them chatting, goes to the toilet and then leaves. Plotwise, this is it.  

As a Morning Story, “Gentlemen, the Queen” had been broadcast at 11am and perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, it is also set at around this time. The listener who had tuned in to hear it would have thus felt synonymous with Bradley, during his own stopover at the pub.

There is clearly a joke in the murkiness at the bottom of this story and the listener, and latterly the reader, is assigned the task of flushing it out. For one thing, this joke could be at the expense of the BBC. Bradley is almost like a cartoonish version of the BBC’s idea of its own listeners – crass and philistine – and in this story he finds himself listening passively to the “cultivated voices” of a self-proclaimed elite. Except that it is repeatedly mentioned that Bradley has got all of his ideas on the aristocracy from his television. He is amazed that the locals “didn’t talk or behave like toffs in the plays on the telly at all.” The joke is now conceivably at the expense of television broadcasting and it is correspondingly asserting the radio’s accuracy. The real ruling class are, it seems, more like the shabby folk overheard in this bar than the glorious beings that can be viewed on the box.

This is the only story in The Dying Stallion in which no Scottish characters appear at all. There is also a significant absence of working-class characters, or at least of characters who would agree that they are working class. This might caricature some faraway Scottish political perspective – one that is very familiar within Scottish culture today – in which England is meant to be peopled exclusively by toffs and Tories, with any working class as an incidental feature. Hence this pub in which there are no working-class people and everybody gets the barman to “chalk up” their drinks (i.e. get them for free) due to their posh titles.

Even so, it is unsatisfactory to stop here because such a reading does not account for Bradley’s place in the story. Why is he the only character who ever pays for his drinks? Is it that the middle class in England are put upon and so they always have to pay for everything? Or is there some strange game underway in this pub, in which a village’s ragtag and bobtail are whimsically role-playing at being aristocrats? At the very end of the story, when Mrs Groom, nominally the “Queen Mother” of the piece, deigns to speak with Bradley, she seems to confer the exploratory titles of “Captain” and “Colonel” on him, as if trying to induct him into the game:

‘What’s all the ‘urry, Colonel?’ the old woman said. ‘It catches up with you whether you run away from it or not. It’ll tap you on the shoulder one of them days. Better to meet it with a nice glass in your ‘and.’

But Mr Ron Bradley did not take the hint…

Behind this genteel begging for booze tinkles a small moment of solemnity. With Mrs Groom’s use of the word “you” rather than “us,” we might vaguely fancy this to be a ghost’s advice to a person who is still living. Are these aristocrats therefore really ghosts that are not letting on?

Within Urquhart’s fiction, ghosts and aristocrats appear to be effectively interchangeable anyway. The locals’ interest in moving old Mrs Groom to a Council house, and the likelihood that she “wouldn’t have a Council house as a gift,” certainly recalls the dismay of the dead at these buildings marching across the landscape in Urquhart’s ghost story, “Weep No More, My Lady” (1966). With the locals’ drinks being chalked up, it could be that this is Heaven and that the barman, a “Mr Crossman,” is God. But one of the locals drives a car and another smokes Woodbines and the practicality of them being ghosts is always too much of a tangle.

Somebody of my age will feel increasingly lost when reading this story, because there is no immediate way of measuring the characters’ alcohol intake that can adjust it to today’s terms. A four-dimensional breathalyser, if you will, with the fourth dimension being a reading on the socio-historical spectrum. The characters are putting away a drink or else drinks before lunch – did this not rock any boats back in the late fifties or early sixties, when the story is set? The pub is being treated as a motorist’s inn, which is no longer available as an option today. In 1967 Labour’s Minister for Transport, Barbara Castle, would severely limit the amount of alcohol that a driver could legally carry along in their own tank. But was the pre-road drinking in this story normal prior to Castle’s crackdown?

There is no bunch of handy statistics online about drinking habits in this period. It is generally the case that people drank less than today – as a nation, about half as much – but that they were more relaxed about when to do so. In 1967, two days before the Road Safety Act became law, ITV’s current affairs programme World In Action had sprung breathalyser tests on drinkers climbing into their cars outside the Green Dragon at Shenfield. The indignation of the tipsy drivers appears quite comical today and you might be startled by how innocent or un-sinister it initially sounds. It is clearly a far cry from how things are done now.

Bradley’s hands are steadied on his own steering wheel by two pints of “mild ‘n’ bitter.” This is half a pint of regular ale with half of a milder one, with an alcohol content of around 3%, added to weaken it as lemonade will a shandy. The bitter supplies the flavour or even the suggestion of a presence, rather as an aristocratic title can personalise a translucent ghost. This is a light drink and Bradley, and all people like him, would have probably regarded it as being suitable to drive under.

If there is nothing consciously guilty about Bradley’s drink-driving in 1961, the morning drinking sounds somewhat more decadent. It is a workday during this story, or at least it is implied that Bradley must be far from home and crossing the countryside for work reasons. The foremost example of morning drinking that I can find from this period is supplied by the then Queen Mother. She would regale herself with a glass of the heavygoing cocktail Dubonnet and gin before lunch, a detail that is chronicled in the historian Adrian Tinniswood’s Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the Royal Household (2018). The magnitude of her daughter’s drinking routine is contradicted by different leakings from the palace, but no account has her getting to work on this in the morning.

The pub in this story is nameless and it could be any old pub in the south of England. The story’s title is a toast and one that had once rung out in regimental dinners up and down the country. Yet there is a gulf here between the public Englishness that is stamped on the story and the strangely private and mysterious culture inside its pub. The world within is as complete and as self-contained as fairyland. If you go far enough back in folklore, ghosts and fairies are effectively interchangeable anyway. The traditional human visitor to fairyland will always retain an awareness of the outside world, up until they dip into the fairies’ spread, whereupon the connection is severed for good. A little of this symbolism is fluttering when Bradley refuses to drink with Mrs Groom and he bolts for safety.                      

Corbie’s Hole, the Rose Street pub in “Provide for your Poor Sisters,” also increasingly assumes the qualities of fairyland, in being a complete and self-contained world that the visitor, Miss Bridie Macmillan, almost gets lost in forever. One might suppose a “corbie’s hole” to be a crows’ nest but the name (the pub is apparently fictional) instead denotes a foxhole and it features in the children’s rhyme that the story references. Typically, the listener is invited to “pit yir finger in o’ the corbie’s hole,” with the destiny of slow fingers being to get pinched. One doesn’t have to stretch very far to locate some innuendo here as well. “Corbie’s at the back of the door,/Eatin’ a marrow bone.”

Being “away with the fairies,” the point when their hospitality rolls into eternal imprisonment, is a fate that has befallen a long line of victims, from the Reverend Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle to Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks.  Perhaps the most famous fairies in Edinburgh are those who dance and feast “under” Calton Hill in the story about “the fairy boy of Leith.” In Urquhart’s tale, though, the uneasy magic-making of fairyland finds an unexpected, real-life correspondence in the do-gooding of prostitutes.

Miss Macmillan is a “big, stout, genteel spinster in her early fifties” from Edinburgh’s “Coatbridge Gardens.” Edinburgh possesses no street of this name but it does command a Coltbridge Gardens, with Victorian terraced houses that will conform to how many readers are likely to picture Miss Macmillan’s home. Scraping about at the bottom of her loneliness, Miss Macmillan accidentally befriends Nellie and Agnes, a pair of prostitutes. She had been hunting for a cup of tea after her Princes Street shop and despite having “never been in a pub in her life,” she had ventured into Corbie’s Hole out of “curiosity.” This one act of adventure proves life-changing.

Miss Macmillan’s innocence might initially resemble the battleship that never lets in a drop of water. She visits the hole without ever going inside it, or rather she makes Corbie’s Hole her home without ever inhabiting its reality:

Her friendship with the two tarts did not impair Miss Macmillan’s innocence. Six months later she still had no inkling of her friends’ real calling; she accepted their face-value stories that they were employed as office cleaners… She heard no evil in the talk bandied between the men and the tarts; she didn’t know what many words and phrases meant…

The reader is being egged on with the notion that this could function as a romantic comedy. That Nellie and Agnes might set up Miss Macmillan with her life partner and that she might twirl up the wedding aisle completely oblivious to how those engineering her fate – as helpful fairies would have once done in magical stories – were really sex workers. But this would be a utopian resolution to the story.

Although the whores bestow the merry nickname of “Toddle Bonnie” upon Miss Macmillan, Miss Macmillan remains ineradicable underneath. Her innocence has no value, comedic or otherwise, because she is never meaningfully innocent. However vividly she might evoke Charles Pooter, that archetype of the cosily self-important petit-bourgeoisie, in this she is always sailing under false colours. Her personality, made brittle by the loneliness and friendlessness of Coatbridge Gardens, is perilously exposed before the relief of alcohol. In this beautifully structured sentence, her genteel sensibility seems to slump cannily into the gutter:

She was not, she told herself at that time, a ‘secret drinker’; she was perfectly open about it, although, of course, she would never have mentioned it to anybody – not that there was anybody to mention it to.

Even so, the choice that she is given is ultimately a political one. She has to choose between the respectability of Coatbridge Gardens, which is entirely spectral, or the mess of the altogether more genuine community at Corbie’s Hole.

We are likely to forget these days that the pub, with its public armchairs and preponderance of varnished wood, was once meant to provide more of a home than working-class people could ever get in their own houses. In return for the grandeur of this bourgeois interior, however, the entrant generally lost the control, privacy and sense of self-certainty that the bourgeoisie were themselves able to maintain at home. Pubs were social areas and often far more social than the predictable and disciplined spaces that people worked in. They could be, in fact, a bottomless “hole” of surprises:

She did not like this man. There was something about him, something she could not place her finger on. He was good-looking, affable and tremendously good company, but… there was something uncanny.

As a result of Nellie and Agnes’ inept attempt to set her up, Miss Macmillan is accompanied back to Coatbridge Gardens by a pervert, who invades her own home whilst mistakenly cheering on her physical heft as a prostitute. The story’s ending might remind us of some saucy seaside postcard from the 1950s, with Miss Macmillan’s respectability being suitably outraged. The pervert’s cry that “I love masterful women… the bigger and more masterful the better” certainly recalls this seaside imagery (where the women are usually greatly vaster than the men). Yet the shock is not that Miss Macmillan learns about new and unimagined sexual realities so much as she awakens and remembers her place in the class system. With this, she has made her choice. She has also made her bed.

Confounding that timeless symbolism in which Edinburgh is carved up between the light and the dark, the story has met Dr Jekyll in Mr Hyde or it has walked through the Cowgate in the New Town. Miss Macmillan could go to Corbie’s Hole but Toddle Bonnie could never come back to Coatbridge Gardens. She wages that “the two tarts who had seemed such friends had betrayed her,” but during this whole story she was never any true friend of theirs.

This is the question. Could Miss Macmillan and the prostitutes have ever broken through a barrier of complacent, noncommittal pleasantries and achieved open communication? Following Miss Macmillan’s enlightenment, the prostitutes do not even know where she lives or how to contact her again, leaving her lost in a cosmic isolation in which an otherwise trivial sexual encounter amounts to an existential calamity. “Months later,” she has drunk herself to death.

There is a strangely predestined quality to Miss Macmillan’s downfall. Or rather, the prostitutes probably know that she is always, beneath her genial drunkenness, on a hair trigger. At any time, she could recognise her friends’ “real calling” and then flounce off forever, to the awaiting hell at Coatbridge Gardens where she will die alone and insane. Urquhart’s omniscience as a narrator indeed creates an impression that he patrols Edinburgh as freely as the Devil and that he is in on its every secret. Like the Devil, he has pocketed Miss Macmillan and in this story he is randomly showing off what he has acquired.

It might seem retrospectively that Urquhart had been always intending to give Miss Macmillan a kicking, to punish her for her snobbery, as well as to show the superior hold on reality inside the working-class pub. Miss Macmillan’s snobbery certainly becomes an implement of torture that hurts the most when it is turned back on herself. Just as a “large Victorian chamber pot, covered with pink roses” becomes the incongruous key to lovemaking in the estimation of the story’s pervert, Coatbridge Gardens – something of a beautified chamber pot in itself – grows weirdly vicious and inhuman.

Had Mr Ron Bradley remained at the pub in “Gentlemen, the Queen” then the story that we have would have been the mere prelude to a novel. Bradley would have explored all the ins and outs of this aristocratic community. But this would have been nothing compared to the adventures piled upon adventures that Miss Macmillan would have experienced had the carapace of her snobbery been cracked in Corbie’s Hole. Turning Rabbie Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter” clean upside down, Miss Macmillan would have learned about the true mysteries of the universe had she stayed at the pub.

[Previously on Tychy: “The Fairy Boy of Leith.”]