As you well know I’ve always been sympathetic to the lesser arts. Over the years I’ve helped provide employment for musicians, sculptors and even novelists! Indeed if I can find one, I’ve even been known to introduce Mime Artists into the soirees that I run. Given the audiences I work with, my favourite piece is ‘Mime Artist frantically trying to attract the attention of a gossiping audience.’
But even I, famously liberal and happy to work with anybody in the cause of us all getting three square meals a day, have to draw the line somewhere, and in my case it’s clowns.
Now people say that some things are sanctified because of a long history within our culture. I merely note this argument finds scant support from the judiciary when murderers and arsonists appear before them.
As it happens, within the bounds of Port Naain, clowns do not have a long history. Indeed they appeared only within my life time. Yes I know that other, lesser cities had them but I know places where they paint themselves blue, eat raw meat and sell their wives at public auction. Are we to import these traditions into our city as well?
The first clown in Port Naain was Chucky Tiggle. Chucky was best described as a ne’er to well. No matter what you wanted doing, Chucky would make a total mess of it. Initially he had been a porter on Stonecutter’s wharf. After the first month nobody would hire him, unless they actually wanted their luggage to end up in the river. Even then, if that was the desired outcome he couldn’t even reliably achieve that.
After a comparatively short time, Chucky had to accept he was unemployable. Unless he wanted to starve in a garret, (And he hadn’t got the literary qualities necessary to do even this convincingly) he would have to turn to crime. Even here he had problems. No organisation, no matter how criminal, would let him join. Even those who assess property within the city for municipal taxation refused to let him join their felonious ranks.
Forced back on his own resources, Chucky had to start at the bottom. He was reasonably well built, owned a club and had inherited a set of brass knuckles from a distant aunt, so he decided to try common street robbery. Now at this point I don’t want you to think that Chucky was stupid. I have held conversations with him; he’s actually a person of higher than average intelligence. With a little more education he could have become a philosopher or an economist where his inability to ever get the right answer would have gone unnoticed for years.
In his quiet way Chucky decided he needed a disguise. Now rather than wrapping a scarf round his face, or wearing a hood (both of which can be lost in a struggle, thus revealing the wearers identity), he had the not unreasonable idea of wearing ridiculous amounts of make-up. Ask yourself, how likely is it that one of his victims would just happen to be equipped with a hot towel and a mixture of bees’ wax dissolved in weak spirit?
Thus he applied his make-up and lurked in a back street waiting for a victim. Just what possessed him to tackle a little old lady riding in a sedan chair is beyond me. The chair bearers knocked him unconscious and left him lying there. When he awoke he’d been stripped naked by a more pragmatic thief who’d even shaved Chucky’s head and taken his hair to sell to a wig maker.
But, and here is the lesson Chucky took from the fiasco, nobody had recognised him or penetrated his disguise.
As an aside I can understand this. I have met any number of ladies who apply make-up with all the enthusiasm of a young cannibal buck applying war paint prior to going on a major sortie. It can be quite embarrassing when you fail to recognise the lady when she is wearing her full war paint.
But I digress. Chucky took another lesson from his failed experiment, he needed assistance. Now here he was lucky. No established criminal would have even considered working with Chucky. But crime is a field of endeavour which demands few formal qualifications from new entrants and Chucky managed to gather a few like-minded individuals who were happy to follow his lead.
For the next week there was something of a plague of minor street robberies carried out by Chucky and his clown gang. Thanks to his previous disaster Chucky was forced into wearing a cheap and unconvincing wig along with ridiculous clothes that had been thrown out by their previous owner in a fit of good taste. The fact that the previous owner was twice the man Chucky was, in bulk if not morals, meant things fitted where they touched.
Obviously even in Port Naain the authorities aren’t going to sit around for ever. The watch started to take notice. The problem for Chucky was that he was perfectly correct, under the make-up nobody knew who it was. But there again, Chucky and his band of desperadoes were the only clowns in Port Naain. So it wasn’t as if the watch was bothered with having to sort through an embarrassment of innocent clowns before they could arrest Chucky.
His other problem was that the make-up was apparently a nightmare to remove. So even when not ‘working’ Chucky and his clowns were obviously the clowns the watch were looking for. Even here Chucky had an answer. They would do a really big job, and then they could get the make-up off and live life normally for a year or so, until they needed to do the next job. This had to be better than living furtively in hiding between jobs that barely covered the price of the next meal.
And so to work, they stole a horse and dray, and prepared to rob the premises of Grine Halstrop, Brewer and Dyer. Then in broad daylight they took their dray into the Halstrop yard. Whilst two of them terrified the office staff and made off with the cash box, the rest loaded the dray with a lot of crates of beer.
So far, so good, but this is Chucky Tiggle I’m telling you about. When I say they stole a dray, they stole one that had been abandoned on Stone Cutter’s wharf for a number of years. Even though it was fully loaded, they might still have got away with it, had not Chucky decided to make a dramatic exit by whipping the horses up. The horses accelerated, as did the shafts and the front wheels. Unfortunately the body of the dray didn’t, and the horses disappeared towards the river dragging the front wheels behind them. Chucky, his clowns, and most of the crates were precipitated onto the floor. Around them, brewery workers armed with barrel staves were slowly closing in.
Fortunately for Chucky the watch arrived in time to rescue him and his band. (Indeed the cruel comment was made that Chucky was so incompetent he couldn’t even get beaten up properly.)
They appeared in due course in front of the magistrates who listened to Chucky’s excuse that the whole episode was a piece of performance art that had been misinterpreted by an ignorant and poorly educated audience.
It was perhaps an unfortunate defence, as Chucky and his band were sentenced to give regular public performances for the city’s children. Anybody who has ever read any nursery rhymes or traditional children’s stories knows that the little darlings love dark and gruesome tales, and Chucky’s antics were thought to fall firmly into that niche.
Obviously Chucky has long since paid his debt to society, but stayed on in a salaried capacity. Over the years, if a magistrate felt the recidivist in front of the bench was too cocky by half or just generally needed taking down a peg or two, they would sentence them to perform in Chucky’s circus. There, supervised by a senior watchman wearing formal dress and carrying a whip of obvious utility, they would be put through humiliating pratfalls, soaked by buckets of water, fall in baths of custard or more noxious substances and generally, in the course of a few months, would lose any reputation they once had amongst the criminal classes.
Occasionally somebody does attempt once more to try Chucky’s original idea of using a clown disguise to terrify people, but frankly they’re nothing an elderly lady armed with a wet towel cannot deal with.
For more of life in Port Naain
As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard makes a living as a poet, which is sufficiently remarkable in itself, but in reality he is a ducker and diver at the more genteel end of society in the imaginary town of Port Naiin in Jim Webster’s richly comic and intriguing fictional world. This is my first encounter with Mr. Steelyard in book form but I doubt that it will be my last. His tales are warmly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny but are none the worse for that. Give Tallis a try, you’ll be glad you did.”