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Concertinas In Literature

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Just the one word, but a valid literary reference for all that. Quite early on in Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood when Captain Cat is dreaming of the past and 'the long drowned nuzzle up to him' their questions run 'How's it above?' 'Is there rum and lavabread?' 'Bosoms and Robins?' 'Concertinas? ' 'Ebenezer's bell?'......


And let's not forget the opening of Kipling's 'Cells': I've a head like a concertina.... Now just what does that really mean? A hangover certainly, but why a concertina? Who admits to extensive experience of crapulence? Enlighten us!

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And let's not forget the opening of Kipling's 'Cells': I've a head like a concertina....  Now just what does that really mean? A hangover certainly, but why a concertina? Who admits to extensive experience of crapulence? Enlighten us!

The thought that occurs to me is that he feels as if his head has been pulled on both sides (by the ears?) then squashed flat :D


Best wishes,



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I ran across a few gems recently. This from something pithily entitled Old London Street Cries and the cries of to-day with Heaps of Quaint Cuts including Hand-coloured Frontispiece : by ANDREW W. TUER, Author of "Bartolozzi and his Works," &c. 1885. The following text is on page 51:

Our streets are now paraded by companies of boys or half-grown men who delight in punishing us by means of that blatant and horribly noisy instrument of dissonant, unchangeable chords, the German concertina.

And here's another flattering remark, from a website called The Victorian Dictionary. An excerpt from The Wild Tribes of London, by Watts Phillips, 1855, Chapter VIII:

We make an effort to proceed, when our path is blocked up by a Hebrew youth, who, bowing gracefully, produces a dilapidated concertina, and fills the air with such horrid and discordant sounds that we hurriedly become its purchaser, as the speediest and safest means of escaping the annoyance.

To end on a happy note, from the same site: Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867, Chapter XIX:

...about twelve o'clock there struck up some music close at hand. I don't know what else there was, but I could make out a cornopean, and a flute, and a concertina. It was the "waits." Now, everybody knows how beautifully the Christmas-story writers write about the waits, and their enchanting music. The musicians were just far enough away to make their performance pleasant and soothing to any one pleasantly half-asleep. I could make it out to be " The Last Rose of Summer " they were playing, and they played it so nicely that I was quite sorry when they had finished.
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  • 1 month later...

My wife was, yesterday, enjoying Stephen Leacock’s ‘Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town’ (1912). She was particularly delighted by the opening paragraphs of Sketch 9, ‘The Mariposa Bank Mystery’.


“Suicide is a thing that ought not to be committed without very careful thought. It often involves serious consequences,and in some cases brings pain to others than oneself.

I don’t say that there is no justification for it. There often is. Anybody who has listened to certain kinds of music, or read certain kinds of poetry, or heard certain kinds of performances upon the concertina, will admit that there are some lives that ought not to be continued, and that even suicide has its brighter aspects.”


As Leacock left England at the age of 6 or 7 I absolve all of us on our UK side of the Atlantic for creating this attitude!!! Of course Leacock was at McGill. How long has your family been in Montreal, Paul?

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  • 2 months later...

I have just found a reference in Peter Hoeg's (my font doesn't allow me to put the / through the 'o' in his name) 'Miss Smilla's feeling for snow'. The Captain is being over-nostalgic about the different conditions that prevailed at sea only a few years previously and Miss Smilla, to deflate him, asks 'Did they have clogging and concertinas too?' Clearly 'clogging and concertinas' conveys a feeling of mawkish sentimentality, a little bit like the use by Dylan Thomas that I cited earlier in this thread.

I am close to the end of the book and have not yet found the word 'mallemaroking', reputedly the least used word in the English language! Surely, if was ever to be used, it would be in this ice-bound novel.

Incidentally, I thought 'Accordian Crimes' was a great read, though I know my friend (and meldeon player) Dan Quinn gave up on it.

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Funnily enough I found a mention of the word in relation to Morris just yesterday, a side from somewhere called Chinewrde has named itself the "Mallemarokers".


The word is not just rarely heard, I think the Chambers Dictionary was the only one that recorded it. And it is not in their most recent edition. I'd love to hear it used in its proper context, buckleys chance around here. Middle of winter and it was 21° today.





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Cross-topic post:

Anybody who has listened to certain kinds of music, or read certain kinds of poetry, or heard certain kinds of performances upon the concertina, will admit that there are some lives that ought not to be continued, and that even suicide has its brighter aspects.

Does anybody know whether he had a concertina-playing spouse? B)

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  • 3 weeks later...

In a book on sex and travel (no, honestly) I found the following quote from Rupert Brooke in a letter to Cathleen Nesbitt in 1914, when he was staying in Tahiti:

"Tonight we will put scarlet flowers in our hair and sing strange slumberous South Sea songs to the concertina and drink French red wine and dance obscure native dances and bathe in a soft lagoon by moonlight". Sounds like fun to me!


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Bashful plays the concertina. I was amused to see this when reading Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to my younger daughter the other night. He is in the foreground of the picture while Happy is in the background on piano. Dopey gets to dance with Snow.


Also last night while watching Miss Marple, The Mirror Cracked (on Sky channetl 146) they showed the village fete with Morris Dancers and concertina player. Is it mentioned in the original book? Who were the Morris Dancers & player or were they just extras?



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By the way, the Klingon for concertina is apparently 'may'ron' (and they use the same word for accordion).

I always suspected that Klingons were barbaric. The fact that they don't distinguish between concertinas and accordions proves it beyond all reasonable doubt!

Edited by gcaplan
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As other posters have already pointed out, the great Wilkie Collins probably played the English and featured it in "The Woman in White".


I am currently reading another of his "Big 4" novels, "Armadale", and there is an extended passage featuring the concertina that is so delightful I can't resist quoting it at length. Apart from being a great read, it also throws light on the social context of the concertina in Victorian society.


Some background: "Aramadale" was written in the 1860s and set in the early 1850s. The action takes place on a pleasure trip to the Norfolk Broads (at that time, the back of beyond).


I have copied the text from the online edition published by the University of Adelaide.




The last mellow hours of the day and the first cool breezes of the long summer evening had met before the dishes were all laid waste, and the bottles as empty as bottles should be. This point in the proceedings attained, the picnic party looked lazily at Pedgift Junior to know what was to be done next. That inexhaustible functionary was equal as ever to all the calls on him. He had a new amusement ready before the quickest of the company could so much as ask him what that amusement was to be.


“Fond of music on the water, Miss Milroy?” he asked, in his airiest and pleasantest manner.


Miss Milroy adored music, both on the water and the land—always excepting the one case when she was practicing the art herself on the piano at home.


“We’ll get out of the reeds first,” said young Pedgift. He gave his orders to the boatmen, dived briskly into the little cabin, and reappeared with a concertina in his hand. “Neat, Miss Milroy, isn’t it?” he observed, pointing to his initials, inlaid on the instrument in mother-of-pearl. “My name’s Augustus, like my father’s. Some of my friends knock off the ‘A,’ and call me ‘Gustus Junior.’ A small joke goes a long way among friends, doesn’t it, Mr. Armadale? I sing a little to my own accompaniment, ladies and gentlemen; and, if quite agreeable, I shall be proud and happy to do my best.”


“Stop!” cried Mrs. Pentecost; “I dote on music.”


With this formidable announcement, the old lady opened a prodigious leather bag, from which she never parted night or day, and took out an ear-trumpet of the old-fashioned kind—something between a key-bugle and a French horn. “I don’t care to use the thing generally,” explained Mrs. Pentecost, “because I’m afraid of its making me deafer than ever. But I can’t and won’t miss the music. I dote on music. If you’ll hold the other end, Sammy, I’ll stick it in my ear. Neelie, my dear, tell him to begin.”


Young Pedgift was troubled with no nervous hesitation. He began at once, not with songs of the light and modern kind, such as might have been expected from an amateur of his age and character, but with declamatory and patriotic bursts of poetry, set to the bold and blatant music which the people of England loved dearly at the earlier part of the present century, and which, whenever they can get it, they love dearly still. “The Death of Marmion,” “The Battle of the Baltic,” “The Bay of Biscay,” “Nelson,” under various vocal aspects, as exhibited by the late Braham—these were the songs in which the roaring concertina and strident tenor of Gustus Junior exulted together. “Tell me when you’re tired, ladies and gentlemen,” said the minstrel solicitor. “There’s no conceit about me. Will you have a little sentiment by way of variety? Shall I wind up with ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ and ‘Poor Mary Anne’?”


Having favored his audience with those two cheerful melodies, young Pedgift respectfully requested the rest of the company to follow his vocal example in turn, offering, in every case, to play “a running accompaniment” impromptu, if the singer would only be so obliging as to favor him with the key-note.


“Go on, somebody!” cried Mrs. Pentecost, eagerly. “I tell you again, I dote on music. We haven’t had half enough yet, have we, Sammy?”


The Reverend Samuel made no reply. The unhappy man had reasons of his own—not exactly in his bosom, but a little lower—for remaining silent, in the midst of the general hilarity and the general applause. Alas for humanity! Even maternal love is alloyed with mortal fallibility. Owing much already to his excellent mother, the Reverend Samuel was now additionally indebted to her for a smart indigestion.


Nobody, however, noticed as yet the signs and tokens of internal revolution in the curate’s face. Everybody was occupied in entreating everybody else to sing. Miss Milroy appealed to the founder of the feast. “Do sing something, Mr. Armadale,” she said; “I should so like to hear you!”


“If you once begin, sir,” added the cheerful Pedgift, “you’ll find it get uncommonly easy as you go on. Music is a science which requires to be taken by the throat at starting.”


“With all my heart,” said Allan, in his good-humored way. “I know lots of tunes, but the worst of it is, the words escape me. I wonder if I can remember one of Moore’s Melodies? My poor mother used to be fond of teaching me Moore’s Melodies when I was a boy.”


“Whose melodies?” asked Mrs. Pentecost. “Moore’s? Aha! I know Tom Moore by heart.”


“Perhaps in that case you will he good enough to help me, ma’am, if my memory breaks down,” rejoined Allan. “I’ll take the easiest melody in the whole collection, if you’ll allow me. Everybody knows it—‘Eveleen’s Bower.’ ”


“I’m familiar, in a general sort of way, with the national melodies of England, Scotland, and Ireland,” said Pedgift Junior. “I’ll accompany you, sir, with the greatest pleasure. This is the sort of thing, I think.” He seated himself cross-legged on the roof of the cabin, and burst into a complicated musical improvisation wonderful to hear—a mixture of instrumental flourishes and groans; a jig corrected by a dirge, and a dirge enlivened by a jig. “That’s the sort of thing,” said young Pedgift, with his smile of supreme confidence. “Fire away, sir!”


Mrs. Pentecost elevated her trumpet, and Allan elevated his voice. “Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen’s Bower—” He stopped; the accompaniment stopped; the audience waited. “It’s a most extraordinary thing,” said Allan; “I thought I had the next line on the tip of my tongue, and it seems to have escaped me. I’ll begin again, if you have no objection. ‘Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen’s Bower—’ ”


“‘The lord of the valley with false vows came,’” said Mrs. Pentecost.


“Thank you, ma’am,” said Allan. “Now I shall get on smoothly. ‘Oh, weep for the hour when to Eveleen’s Bower, the lord of the valley with false vows came. The moon was shining bright—’”


“No!” said Mrs. Pentecost.


“I beg your pardon, ma’am,” remonstrated Allan. “‘The moon was shining bright—’ ”


“The moon wasn’t doing anything of the kind,” said Mrs. Pentecost.


Pedgift Junior, foreseeing a dispute, persevered sotto voce with the accompaniment, in the interests of harmony.


“Moore’s own words, ma’am,” said Allan, “in my mother’s copy of the Melodies.”


“Your mother’s copy was wrong,” retorted Mrs. Pentecost. “Didn’t I tell you just now that I knew Tom Moore by heart?”


Pedgift Junior’s peace-making concertina still flourished and groaned in the minor key.


“Well, what did the moon do?” asked Allan, in despair.


“What the moon ought to have done, sir, or Tom Moore wouldn’t have written it so,” rejoined Mrs. Pentecost. “‘The moon hid her light from the heaven that night, and wept behind her clouds o’er the maiden’s shame!’ I wish that young man would leave off playing,” added Mrs. Pentecost, venting her rising irritation on Gustus Junior. “I’ve had enough of him—he tickles my ears.”


“Proud, I’m sure, ma’am,” said the unblushing Pedgift. “The whole science of music consists in tickling the ears.”


“We seem to be drifting into a sort of argument,” remarked Major Milroy, placidly. “Wouldn’t it be better if Mr. Armadale went on with his song?”


“Do go on, Mr. Armadale!” added the major’s daughter. “Do go on, Mr. Pedgift!”


“One of them doesn’t know the words, and the other doesn’t know the music,” said Mrs. Pentecost. “Let them go on if they can!”


“Sorry to disappoint you, ma’am,” said Pedgift Junior; “I’m ready to go on myself to any extent. Now, Mr. Armadale!”


Allan opened his lips to take up the unfinished melody where he had last left it. Before he could utter a note, the curate suddenly rose, with a ghastly face, and a hand pressed convulsively over the middle region of his waistcoat.


“What’s the matter?” cried the whole boating party in chorus.


“I am exceedingly unwell,” said the Reverend Samuel Pentecost. The boat was instantly in a state of confusion. “Eveleen’s Bower” expired on Allan’s lips, and even the irrepressible concertina of Pedgift was silenced at last. The alarm proved to be quite needless. Mrs. Pentecost’s son possessed a mother, and that mother had a bag. In two seconds the art of medicine occupied the place left vacant in the attention of the company by the art of music.



Edited by gcaplan
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