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Oh Georgie! (A digressive essay on folk embarrassment)

September 2, 2007

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A song that I’m listening to a lot at the moment is a music hall number performed by Randolph Sutton, called Oh Georgie! What a Fine How Do You Do. It can be found on Tipping the Velvet — a compilation which as far as I can tell is nothing to do with the period-lesbian novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, and is subtitled “Camp Music Hall 1915-1938.” Randolph Sutton’s delivery is indeed as camp as you could hope for, but crucially, the content of the song is a reminder that we’re in the realm of a very nuanced kind of camp. Sutton sings about a courting couple:

One evening as they sat there in the dark,
What Georgie said caused Mabel to remark:
Oh Georgie! What a fine how do you do!
Oh Georgie! I am surprised at you.
Each evening in your arms I’ve let you hold me.
It never would have happened if you’d told me.

There’s something captivating about the showy melodrama of Sutton’s delivery (trying on a voice somewhere between Noel Coward and Kenneth Williams) and the shyness with which the song approaches Georgie’s unnamed misdemeanour. As in many music hall-era songs, this is a kind of camp that’s based as much on embarrassed knowingness as it is on performativity; which is somehow much more than simply a performance of shyness, more interesting than a mere send-up.
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The idea that shyness and showiness can coexist in this way intrigues me, but it’s telling that the example I gave came from the inter-war period. Shyness and embarrassment probably aren’t dealt with often enough in post-war music, and I blame rock ‘n’ roll.

There’s certainly a rich tradition of a literature of embarrassment, going right back to the Old Testament. Here’s the somewhat shadowy passage from Genesis 9 in which an unnamed offence is committed against a drunken Noah by his son Ham:

20 And Noah began to be an husband-man, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.
24 And Noah awoke from his win, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaa; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
(Genesis 9)

What did Ham do to Noah? Some have suggested sodomy. Whatever, I’m sure it was a fine how do you do. Noah’s “fall” here is an echo of the original fall of Adam and Eve, which was also a fall into embarrassment, causing the paradisal family to be newly aware of their own nakedness. Noah’s story turns up as one of the more dominant of the hundreds of threads that make up Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in which the protagonist HCE, also drunk, has committed a shameful act (again, unknown) in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, making him the subject of gossip by washerwomen on the banks of the River Liffey. Joyce, master synthesizer that he was, conflates Noah’s fall with the “great fall” of Humpty Dumpty, on the safe Bergsonian assumption that the act of falling will always provide comedy, via embarrassment.

By the time Genesis self-generates into Finnegans Wake, it has already been filtered inevitably through one of Joyce’s favourite novels, Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s great novel is really just the narrator’s deftly digressive navigation around all manner of social and bodily embarrassment, not least regarding his own mutilated penis that connects him emotionally to his Uncle Toby, a benevolent man whose soldiering career ended when he took a mortar shell to the groin at the Siege of Namur. When asked by the Widow Wadman to show where exactly he received the wound, Toby dutifully leads her out to his perfectly scaled replica of the battlefield — a replica painstakingly constructed to the minutest detail, including miniature canon-balls made from lead window-weights, the removal of which from the actual window leads to the loss of the infant Tristram’s penis when the window through which he urinates slams shut.
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Of course, seeing Steve Coogan play Tristram in Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, we’re reminded that embarrassment (if not shyness) has been the dominant principle in television comedy for well over a decade, from Alan Partridge to The Office. “Social embarrassment” is the term that’s normally used here, but I find that replacing this with “folk embarrassment” raises the stakes a little. Embarrassment has been taken up by comics and as well as comedy: Chris Ware’s book Jimmy Corrigan is a study of shyness played more for sympathy than for laughs. Chris Ware’s take on public speaking, by the way, is even more compellingly awkward than his book.

So if there is such a thing as an embarrassed aesthetic, then why is it so rarely found in music? Since rock ‘n’ roll popularised the macho posturing that’s still the default setting of singers today, shyness has been more or less crushed. The accepted alternative to bravado is sensitivity, whatever that means, but the deliberately “sensitive” in music tend to be especially unwilling to compromise dignity, and so never hit the sweet spot where shyness crosses over into embarrassment. It takes someone like Morrissey, who tends to be interested in art that happened before rock ‘n’ roll came and bludgeoned everything, to address genuine shyness. Think Girl Afraid, think Ask, then think “I’d like to drop my trousers to the world, I am a man of means, of slender means” to see embarrassment blossoming into exhibitionism. And then just as Billy MacKenzie intones the word “embarrassed!” on Skipping by the Associates, he is taken with an android detachment. To meet and greet the king of performed shyness, though, we still have to go back to before pop, before rock. Step forward bashfully, George Formby!

Now, George Formby is chiefly a jester, a performer happiest when playing the fool, so there is necessarily an extrovert nature to his timidity. Even so, his apparent compulsion to make an art based on blushing and bodily embarrassment is extraordinary. (He’s certainly not alone in this, but he stands as an excellent individual example.) The typical Formby song finds him, the picaresque hero, in a mutual game of peek-a-boo with the world at large: most famously pretending coyness as the voyeur in When I’m Cleaning Windows, but more often naively accepting invitations to join nudist colonies, being laughed at by a ladies’ water polo team, or emerging from bathing, undressed, to be encountered by girls taking snapshots of his family crest. Which is to say nothing of all the repressed-exhibitionstic waving about (a little stick of Blackpool rock) or pulling out (his grandad’s flannelette shirt) of items that Formby does.

More than his ukulele, more than his Wigan accent, Formby’s trademark is the half-amused, half-embarrassed laugh that accompanies at least half of his lines, when he’s on form. I’ve been thinking hard about performers laughing at their own lines. It’s generally accepted that comedians aren’t supposed to do it, but what about singers? I admit that there are a few recordings where I laugh during my own vocal takes, but it’s nothing to do with my lines — there was probably something funny on the telly at the time. Anyway, listening to those recordings now, I do wonder whether there’s something a bit gauche about trying to be your audience… but something about the dual-role of Formby’s persona as a watcher and watched means that it’s natural for George to act in this way.

It’s probably of some fairly obvious psychonalytic interest that most of the examples of embarrassed art that I gave — Genesis, Joyce, Sterne, Jimmy Corrigan — are specifically about strained or strange father-son relationships. But like the ashamed Mabel in Oh Georgie! What a Fine How Do You Do, who asks “what’ll I say to ma?”, Formby is more often, when at his most embarrassed, thinking of his mother. Oh Dear Mother is a supremely disturbed song in which George, “in such a plight” with his best girl sitting on his knee, turns his mother for advice: “Oh dear mother, I didn’t know what to do!”. I’ll skip over a Freudian reading, though, and suggest that all these examples of embarrassed connections to mothers and fathers is really just about a more general connection with one’s people: which is when individual shyness becomes folk embarrassment.

George is always just being born, always newly aware of his nakedness, performing a very human, folk generosity that you’d be unlikely to find in narcissistic rock performance.

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