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Grandad, who was dead, changed his mind, got up instead: Northern Nonsense in the music hall

June 20, 2008

I’m especially fond of this rewriting of My Grandfather’s Clock by George Formby Senior (father of the more famous ukulele-playing George Formby Junior). In this version the wooden sentimentality of the original is mistranslated into a Lancastrian picaresque tale, told in a mode that we could call Northern Nonsense. The lyrics are reproduced below.

There’s a theory that the most wonderfully weird cultural products of the 1960s were a knowing synthesis of two strands of modernism: continental Surrealism and English music hall. You’ll find the same basic mix (parts measured differently according to taste) in The Bonzo Dog Band, The Beatles (when at play), Ivor Cutler, Syd Barrett, the first David Bowie album. What this idea misses, though, is the fact that music hall songs in the modernist era were easily as detached from conventional logic as anything coming from Surrealism or other avant-garde quarters.

Formby Senior’s retelling of My Grandfather’s Clock begins in the manner of a logical narrative, making an appeal to sincerity through the convention of the preface:

This is a song about me grandfather, and them that doesn’t want to listen, get out of t’room, please, because it’s only annoyance to me…

which is as good an introduction to a song that you’re likely to hear.

Formby goes on:

My grandfather’s clock was a Waterbury watch
It could live ninety days without food.
With a silk hat on its head and me father’s McIntosh,
It was dressed up like a Picadilly dude.

Note that this is the only known example of an acceptible used of the word “dude” by an Englishman.

Unlike the grandfather in the original version of the song who simply dies, as required, right on time with the clock’s failure, the grandad here is having none of it. He defies the law of mortality, and the common sense of clockwork; the clock itself gets silly from moonlighting as a coat and hat-stand, a pram, a larder and a coal cupboard. I suppose this secret life of objects — things taking on an existence unimagined in their practical construction — is exactly the type of business that would set thing theorists like Bill Brown analytical with excitement; but that’s another story.

My Grandfather’s Clock (George Formby Senior)

My Grandfather’s Clock was a Waterbury Watch,
It could live 90 days without food.
With a silk ‘at on its ‘ead and my father’s MecUntosh,
It was dressed up like a Picadilly Dude.
It was kept in the hall,
‘Till the cup-board got t’ small,
And we had no place the food, for to stock.
So the butter and the heggs,
And the little mutton legs:
We kept them in me Grandfather’s Clock.

And the works of the clock,
Through the butter meltin’ in it,
Sent the fingers flyin’ round,
At a ‘undred miles a minute,
And Grandad, with a sigh, said
“I haven’t time to die,
So I’ll put it off until the clock’s repuured.”

My Grandfather’s Clock was me Mother’s P’rambulator,
‘Round the park in it we used to ride.
There was me, and Treacle Tummy,
Liza Ant, and Justice ‘Awkins,
Screamin’ “Jimmy,” and the twins all stuck inside.
So Grandad, ‘oo was dead,
Changed his mind, got up instead,
And the sight that he saw give ‘im a shock,
For the man ‘oo brough the coal,
Couldn’t get it down the ‘ole,
So, ‘ee slung it in me Grandfather’s Clock.

And we didn’t need a shovel,
As the pendulum swung ‘igher.
For ev’ry time it swung,
It knocked some coal into the fire!
And at nine o’clock, the crank, used to
Chime a Dubble Blank,
So Grandad had to knock ‘ee wouldn’t go!

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2009 7:46 pm

    My dad was born in Beckford, England (near Cheltam Spa) in 1897.

    When we were kids, he used to sing the Grandfather’s Clock parody verses to us, but could not remember the last half of the ‘perambulator’ verse.

    I was in London in 1977 and 1997 and each time I tried to find anything that would give me that last half so I could sing both verses to my grand daughters .. no luck.

    With the advent of the computer, I searched everywhere, but without success.

    However, two days ago, my youngest son found the listed website, and VOILA, there it was. I now can learn the rest. I am now a ‘happy camper.’ THANK YOU !!

    Gene Clements

  2. January 3, 2009 8:52 pm

    So pleased to have been at least slightly useful!

  3. Chris Clements permalink
    January 4, 2009 12:22 am

    Gene Clements is my dad. He and his father, Fred C. Clements, used to sing this song to my brother and I when we were small. I just recieved an e-mail from dad concerning the song. As dad said, it was my younger brother Kevin who found it on your website. We just played the song and I don’t think I’d heard it in over 35years!

    Thank you very much for this little piece of musical history. It brought back many memories of “Gramps”!

    Chris Clements

  4. Deborah Weatherhogg permalink
    June 10, 2010 8:00 am

    When I was 9 one Boxing Day one of my grandfathers started singing this … joined by the other one (who was a semi-vegetable and this was the only thing I ever remember him responding to)

    Couldn’t remember much about it – just that one memory … the only good one I have of him, although I was 14 when he died.

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