Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Style in the While of S J Perelman

Hack To The Future
(Being A Piece Written In The Style of S J Perelman)


As is my wont, the other morning I unfolded my copy of The Melbourne Age, a paper which I never buy but always read, as was the style at the time that the style at the time was considered stylish. Turning to the third page, my undiscerning eye immediately undiscerned the following sepulchral lines:

"Our Prime Minister, John Howard, is taking the country back to the 1950s."

I looked up briefly in what was supposed to be a glance of horror, but instead, I found myself gazing out the window. Outside, the world was quietly slipping out of the present day, and spinning, like a fanatic whirligig, forward into the previous years that had made up 2005, 2004, and 2003. There was a dull sonic boom as it slipped past the end of the preceding millenium. So it was true! Frantic now, with the 1980s and 70s whipping past me like fantastic phantoms of futurity, (or whatever it was that Shelley was on about), I immediately flipped to the following page of The Age, and found the columnist bemoaning in moribund tones,

"John Howard has taken this country back to the 1950s."

A mortuary hush and funereal gloom descended over the world as it locked into its position, some 50 years prior to the present date. Colour, light, and life were steadily ebbing away from the world; the noirish black-and-white tones of the '50s held the entirety of existence in its fatal grip. Beeping like a wabe (I have no idea what wabes are, but evidently they beep), I flicked to page 7 and immediately began weeping like a baby. Another of the regular hierophants for The Age informed us, despairingly, in the leaden tones of truth, that

"John Howard has turned Australia into 1950s America."

I did not doubt the factual accuracy of The Age anymore - that is, any more than I would doubt the actual vacuity of The Herald Sun. (But that, of course, is another story (to be told on page 32 of The Age.)) I immediately besuited myself in a hat and rushed outside, forgetting for the time being to besuit myself in anything else.


To the east, the spectre of Communism lurked ominously; to the west, the shadow of Mcarthyism irked luminously. Then Mrs Mcarthy told Mr Mcarthy to turn the lights off and come to bed, and the spectre of communism stomped off to get some tea.
Somewhere, in the obscure cinemas of the north, came the sound of Greta Garboing and Humphrey doing his Bogart. A producer preached the Marilyn Monroe doctrine to hushed audiences, and in the wastes of San Francisco, a lone, loincloth-clad hierophant brandished his Brando. I hurried onwards, looking around me, gathering my bearings. My unerring instinct to become lost immediately told me that I was in New York. New York, New York, such a wonderful place - and I didn't even have to shell out for plane tickets!
A gleam came to my eye as I formed a plan: since I had arrived, thanks to the wiles of Australia's current Prime Minister, in the glory that was 1950's New York, what better thing to do than to pay a visit to S J Perelman, famed theatrical scribe for The New Yorker, then at the height of his powers, at the apex of his fame, at the cusp of his crux? It was an excellent suggestion, even if I did say so myself. I turned a few alleys, and eventually came to Perelman's house, a modest cabin on a little known state-line held between the state of New York and the state California. There sat Perelman, singing a Broadway tune softly to himself, caressing a delicate comic feuilleton about a little known journal, the 'Vacuum Cleaners of Pennsylvania Quarterly', out of his typewriter . "Sidney, old friend," I sang out, in the cheerful tones of recognition I reserve only for old friends who I have never met or heard of before or avouched enemies, "How goes it with you?"
Turning to me then, he roared out, "Ah, Groucho - is that you? It has been so long since we met so very little time ago!"
He left me to nut that one out, and turning back to his typewriter, he stroked out a short volume of songs for an Opera Buffa he was planning to appear in Broadway, or simply to appear in (whichever came first).
"But Sidney!" I cried. "Don't you remember me? I've read all of your odes, and even more of your plays!"
"It ain't me you're looking for, sweetie," he sang out with carefree abandon, "I think you'll find that Ingmar has the ham rolls, and Laurence has the martinis!"
Our friendship firmly cemented now, Perelman flicked off a final few tomes of travel memoirs to various unlikely locations from his typewriter, and scattering the volumes with a careless swoop of his hand, he turned and invited me to repair to a absinthe-and-asbestos bar in the east of the city. "Me, Jimmy Thurber, and Melvin Brooks, see, we've got a little soiree arranged," he cried, "And you seem like just the man of discernement to make up the quartet. They say that duo is company and trio is a crowd; well, boyo, with a few violins and a cello, our quartet could conquer the world!"
I agreed to this suggestion forthwith, and thus we two sauntered forth into the streets of Manhattan, which happen to have located themselves very conveniently for such sauntering (I shall never forget that one dreadful time in Morocco when this was not the case.)


Many minutes and even more hours passed, wafted on zephyrs of song and absinthe. Recitations were recited, and Thurber regaled us with worldly wisdom he had gleaned from his beagles. I shall never forget the moment when Perelman turned to me, eyes shining, grasped my hands and clasped his own hands together, and cried, "My boy - you are a true artist! You will go far!"
"You really think so?" I queried.
"Yes - as far as the bar. It's your turn to buy the drinks," he said. "And don't forget to lay on the asbestos - my drink has to have that zest, that zip, that zounds!"
"Zertainly," I replied, and staggered from my bar stool to the floor, located, quite conveniently, right next to my face. At one point, I seem to recall (or at least the absinthe seems to recall, the memories for me are a little more hazy) Perelman, Thurber and I paused for a photographer: Perelman struck a pose, Thurber stuck a posey of prose in his pockets, and I struck a nearby rose (that no-good flowernik had been leering at me all night).
But why dwell on the details? Nine absinthes later, I glanced at my watch (which has ceased to work since an unfortunate incident involving a camel in Shanghai in the 1980s), and deduced that it was time to leave. Bidding my farewells, I quit the bar, leaving Thurber and Perelman still at it; minutes later, I was back in my house. And not a moment too late, as it seemed our PM, John Howard, had already begun to take us back to the present day, and I had to scrabble to catch up.


The following morning I again took up a copy of The Melbourne Age, which happened to be so inconveniently close at hand, hoping to be taken on another vacation, this time, perhaps, to be swilling gin with Chesterton in late-19th century Essex, or sharing a tipple or ten of ale with the Ettrick Shepherd in Scotland, or similar. Unfortunately, my eye immediately fell upon these lines:

"John Howard is turning this country into a slag heap."

Ten hours later, I had swum up to the point of the slag heap; indeed, it took me several days to get the last of the slag out of my fingernails. That's the last time I'll ever trust a politician or a journalist - next time, I'm sticking with the more conventional forms of fiction, like the Oxford English Dictionary or similar; much safer.


jgm said...

Melvin Brooks, indeed.

TimT said...

Good to see at least one reader read closely ...

Seriously, that's got to be his name, right?

Email: timhtrain - at -

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