". . . to hear this entertaining piece": By the Fire with Belloc’s "Matilda"

Well, I’m continuing my week before the wireless, taking in the BBC’s varied fare. It is just the thing to do on a gloomy day like this, especially when there are so many other things to be done. Though I am not literally sitting before an old bakelit set, but by the fireside instead, with the BBC’s digital “Listen Again” page for a dial, I am feeling a certain kinship to the channel hoppers of yore who went in search of sounds to sound off about. I am reminded, in particular, of a reviewer for the American Mercury who kept his post for seventeen hours straight on a wintry Thursday afternoon in early 1932. “O my country, my country, the pains are so great you must be growing up at last!” that worn out tuner-in concluded:

A radio playlet, a love scene in which a young man and a young woman tip over a canoe. “I love you so much, I hate you . . . you, you darling!” . . . Some jokes. “When he sat at the piano somebody had pulled the stool away”. . . Dialogues between a grumpy, nasal Sherlock Holmes and a foreign villainess. “That seals your fate, Madam” . . . A young business-like voice invites those who want to make money in their spare time to “meet with me personally” at 500 Fifth Avenue, room 525, tomorrow morning. . . The Lucky Strike Hour, perhaps the best of all air jazz orchestras, with interpolations by the confidential gutter voice of Walter Winchell. . . .

Indiscriminate listening is likely to trigger similar responses today, even if those dialing or downloading the BBC’s offerings are at least spared the sales talk with which we are being accosted elsewhere. Equipped with a copy of the Radio Times, I listen selectively. As a result, my date with the wireless was like a retreat into a well-stocked library, except that it was a lot noisier.

Tuning in BBC 7, I found myself on the Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, retraced in a four-part dramatization of Smollet’s 1771 novel. Over at BBC 4, I fished for Books at Bedtime, the catch of the day being Augustus Carp, Esq. by Henry Howarth Bashford (1924). Then, catching up with last Sunday’s Adventures in Poetry, I bid farewell to “Matilda—Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death,” and whose epitaph is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Hilaire Belloc’s poem was read by children’s author Michael Morpurgo and commented upon by two pint-sized Matildas whose observations were far more engaging than the choice remarks of their scholarly elders. The girls understood that their namesake was getting burned for trying not to be bored:

For once, towards the close of day,
Matilda, growing tired of play
And finding she was left alone,
Went tiptoe to the telephone
And summoned the immediate aid
Of London’s noble Fire-Brigade.

Now, let’s examine Matilda’s situation from a listener’s perspective. Quite clearly, the girl was sick of listening, probably because she never got to ride the airwaves, where listening is an activity quite distinct from obedience, provided the ear is connected to an open mind. Instead, she insisted on making herself heard. Calling the fire department, she did not simply order the home entertainment that was wanting—she created it. Long before Orson Welles and his team staged “The War of the Worlds” to such startling effect, there was Matilda, getting a show on the road.

Not that her ingenuity was appreciated by her aunt, who was obliged “to pay / To get the men to go away!” Rather more thrilling than picking up theatricals on the electrophone (aforementioned), the dial-a-drama incident resulted in a further curtailing of Matilda’s amusements:

It happened that a few weeks later
Her aunt was off to the Theatre
To see that interesting play
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
She had refused to take her niece
To hear this entertaining piece:
A deprivation just and wise
To punish her for telling lies.

I’m not sure whether Matilda would have found hearing Mrs. Tanqueray nearly as “entertaining” as the issue of her lupine effusions. She was never to experience that middle-class chestnut, which would be warmed up or roasted often enough on US radio, well into the 1930s; but melodrama came home after all, even without access to the wireless:

That night a fire did break out—
You should have heard Matilda shout!
You should have heard her scream and bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To people passing in the street—
(The rapidly increasing heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence)—but all in vain!
For every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”
And therefore when her aunt returned,
Matilda, and the house, were burned.

Matilda just wasn’t cut out to be a newscaster, I guess, even though she had that Hearstian knack for bringing events into being by proclaiming them. Still, if she had been as good a liar as Mr. Belloc made her out or up to be, why did she ever grow “tired of play” in the first place?

What I have gathered from listening to this cautionary tale, however spurious, is this: If you don’t want to get burned and end up paying too dearly for your amusements, give listening another try . . .

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