‘Bodkin Visits Blondin’ (7 September, 1861)

The following is one of the many epistles of Tammas Bodkin, the character used by editor William D. Latto to speak frankly (and amusingly) on current affairs. Latto became editor of the people’s journal in December 1860 and used the platform to launch Tammas, bringing himself a fair amount of fame in Victorian Scotland. In this article Tammas describes the performance of the legendary acrobat Charles Blondin, who performed in Dundee as part of his tour of Scotland. The previous year he had become a celebrity following a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls.

Advertisement in the 31/08/1861 edition:

Grand Open-Air Fete

In That Large Double Shipbuilding

Shed, No. 2 Marine Parade,

The World-Renowned M.

Blondin,

The Hero OF Niagara,

Will Exhibit His

Daring Feats And Wonderful Performances,

On Wednesday 4th September.

Maister Editor,—Its mony a year an’ day sin I was wont to look on wi’ wonderment at the antics on ticht raips displayed by the gangerel showfolk that were wont to frequent Dalkeith fair, when I was sairin’ my apprenticeship to Maister Waugh, o’ immortal memory. Some o’ their achievements were really, in my opinion, no to be surpassed. Hooever, this is a go-a-head generation. We’ve made gigantic strides in science, an’ learnin’, an’ politics, an’ religion, an’ even, it wad seem, in dancin’ on a string. In my youthfu’ days, the play-actors never ventured on a raip at a greater elevation than four or five feet frae the grund, nor langer than four or five yards, whereas, noo-a-days, they wad think naething o’ sittin’ stridelegs on the arch o’ a rainbow, an’ balancin’ themselves wi’ ane o’ Jupiter’s thunderbolts. That’ll be the next wonderment, whaever lives to see it. When readin’ the Witch o’ Fife [part of the ‘Queen’s Wake’ by James Hogg], it has been a source o’ nae that little perplexity to me to oonderstand hoo the auld withered hag could keep her seat on a broomstick in the coorse o’ her aerial flicht to Carlisle, but that feat is nae langer a mystery to me, for if Blondin, wha is far frae bein’ a warlock—for there are nae warlocks noo—can preserve his head and his heels in their proper relative situations up in the region o’ the clouds, there is naethin’ to hinder an auld wife, in compact wi’ the foul fiend o’ the bottomless pit, frae scourin’ the regions o’ space, frae the zenith to the nadir, wi’ naething better to support her than a broomstick.

I had seen a gude hantle aboot Maister Blondin in the newspapers, an’ I maun say my curiosity was excited to behold an’ judge for mysel’, whether what the papers had said aboot him was in a’ respeets correct, for I’ve met wi’ sae mony doonricht lees in print in the coorse o’ my experience that I’m no very forward in believein’ a’ that I forgather wi’ in black an’ white, withoot, in the first place, submittin’ it to the process o’ ocular demonstration. But hoo was I to get Tibbie’s consent? That was the subject o’ lang an’ dreich cogitation, but at last an’ lang I fell upon a plan, an’ it was this. Tibbie, I kent, was as sceptical aboot Blondin’s feats as I was, so, after readin’ the adverteesment aboot him comin’ to Dundee, quoth I, “Tibbie, I’m fairly convertit; the papers hae been tellin’ naething but the truth; an’ we maun believe what they say, for ye ken it wad be wrang to steek oor een upon the truth.” “Yea, yea,” quoth Tibbie, “but I’m no convertit though; the days o’ miracles have ceased ye ken, sae I winna believe the blethers aboot Blondlin, an’ I wonder, Tammas, that ye are sae simple as to tak’ up yer head wi’ a curn havers.” “But it’s no havers,” quoth I. “But it is havers,” quoth Tibbie. “It’s no havers,” quoth I. “It is havers,” quoth she; an’ sae on we gaed until I got her corruption fairly waukened up, an’ she was as het i’ the temper as my guse. “Weel, Tibbie,” quoth I, “wad ye believe the testimony o’ yer ain seven senses?” “That wad I,” quoth she. “Then doon you an’ me shall go on Wednesday nicht to the Marine Parade, an’ judge for oorsels,” quoth I. “Seein’s believin’” quoth Tibbie; “an’ gin Blunderin’ does what the papers say he does, I’se eat my mutch.” “That wad be unco teuch chawin’, Tibbie” quoth I, “an’ I wad rather see ye eatin’ a mair nourishin’ diet.” “My certie!” quoth Tibbie, “it wad be easier for me to do that then it wad be for Blondlin to hurle barrows, whummel heels ower head, an’ cook pancakes on a raip, a hunder feet up i’ the air.” “Weel, Tibbie, gin he dinna do thae things that ye say, i’se swallow my nicht-cap, an’ I wadna like to put it to sic a use, considerin’ whaur it cam’ frae.” Tibbie was aye a wee thocht jealous aboot that nicht-cap, an’ sae she fired up like blazes, ten times waur than ever, an’ quoth she, “weel, Tammas, we’ll gang an’ see wha wins the wager.” “A bargain be’t,” quoth I. Sae this was hoo I got Tibbie’s consent to oor visit to Maister Blondin.

Doon I goes i’ the gloamin’ an’ procures twa tickets for the grand stand, ane for me an’ ane for Tibbie. Willie Clippins was unco curious to be there also, an’ sae I coft anither ticket for him, at the ransom o’ a shillin’, for young folk are a’ the better o’ a little encouragement occasionally; it gars them lay their shoothers to their wark, when hard words and rough treatment wad only hae the opposite effeck. Willie was as windy aboot his bit ticket as if he had been made the laird o’ a’ Dundee, an’ held the needle gaen wi’ sic vigour that the teuchest thread in a’ my aucht wad hardly haud again to the touk o’ his needlehand, an’ for needles! if he brak ane that day, I’se be bound he brak a bawbee’s worth. But dog on it! the ploy cost me seven shillin’s, an’ that’s rather mair than Willie an’ me will mak’ by a hard day’s wark.

Weel, ye see, Wednesday nicht comes, an’ sae, after tea time, I arrays mysel’ in my pepper-an’-saut suit (I had sewed up the screed my coat got at the hands o’ the pokepicket), an’ Tibbie she puts on her very best, as it was but reason she should ,when she was to appear on the grand stand, an’ awa’ we goes doon to the scene o’ action. So we showed oor tickets, an’ made oor way to the grand stand, as they ca’d it, though it wad hae required mar penetration than I can pretend to see wherein its grandeur consistit—a wheen coorse, oonshaven deals put thegither by rule o’ thoom. But that’s neither here nor there—it was the grandest stand on the premises, an’ a’ the nabs were there wi’ their keekin’ glasses an’ a’ the rest o’t. Then cam Blondin in a cab, an’, my word, cabby was lookin’ big, for he had had the honour o’ drivin’ a man o’ mark—a crooned head wad be naething till him—an’ hoo he will stumpt aboot it amang the assembled jarviehood at the Pillars. Tibbie, she thocht they were gaen to hand the poor man, for they had a raip wi’ a kinch at the end o’t danglin’ doon frae the roof o’ the shed, an’ aye they held oot the string an’ aye the culprit mintit to come oot o’ the veehikle, an’ aye he drew back again, as if he hadna juist made up his mind to the hangin’ point, but at last an’ lang he did come oct, cuist his leg instead o’ his neck into the noose, an’ up he gaed like ane o’ the monkeys we saw at the fair. A strappin’, swank, souple, weel-faured chield he was. “Puir man,” quoth Tibbie, “he’s somebody’s body na, but I sidna wish a freend o’ mine to earn his bread at the risk o’ his neck. Wow, there’s folk cut oot for onything ye like to name—even to be sweeps and hangmen; but for my part, I wad rather assist anither to dance in widdie, than dance on’t mysel’.” That was Tibbie’s observe, an’ Tibbie never opens her mooth withoot sayin’ something sensible, an’ strickly to the point. But I maun gie ye a skrift o’ how Blondin’ got on. First an’ foremost he armed himsel’ wi’ a pole, an’ then he strappit bauldly upo’ othe raip, an’ awa he gaed as souple as an eel. Never ance did he cast an e’e upon the string, but held on his way wi’ as muckle confidence, as if he had been walkin’ on the grund, aye, an’ even garred his feet keep hime to the music. Guid guide us a’! he actually laid himself oot a’ his length on the string, stood upon the croon o’ his head, an’ daudit his pumps thegither i’ the air, whummelt the catmay, suspendit himsel’ by the heels, an’ a world o’ ither monkey tricks he gaed through that were perfectly wonderfu’ to behold, an’ fearsome to look at. Then he tied a cloot roond his een, as if he were gaun to play Belly-blindie, an’ drew a pock ower his haffets, the better to steek up his peepers, an’ awa’ he gaed, slowly at first, as if he werena a’thegither certain aboot the gate, his knees knockin’ against ane anither as if he had been in an eerie swither, an’ sometimes missin’ a fit, as if he wad bee doon, bag an’ baggage o’m, to the grund, in the name o’ nae time; an’ had he dune sae, an unco sair clout he wad hae got—but aha! Maister Blondin kent a trick worth twa o’ that,—it was a’ a piece o’ roguery—doonricht shammin’. The feint ane o’ him was the least fleyed o’ fa’n. But ye’ll no hinder Tibbie, an’ twa or three mair, to tak’ it into their heads that he wad come doon an’ brain himsel’, an’ so, when he pretendit to be fearie on the feet, they got up a skreigh amang them, an’ Tibbie actually steekit her een no to be the witness o’ the man’s latter-end—his death, to wut. So when the folk began to clap their hands an’ mak’ a noise, Tibbie peeps oot at the wick o’ her left e’e, an’ whispered into my lug, “Eh, Tammas, the man’s no dead, is he?” “Dead!” quoth I, “there’s no a dead bane in a’ his bouk; see at ‘im, Tibbie, hoo he’s marchin’ alang like a lamp-lichter.” So Tibbie pluckit up a speerit, an’ opened her een, as it was only by doin’ sae that she could get the worth o’ her bawbees, for, as I telled her, we hadna paid for the privilege o’ winkin’i oor een, for we could hae done that for naething at our ain fireside, but for the purpose o’ seein’ what we could see. The next pairt o’ the show was carryin’ a chield alang the raip on his back, an’ I maun needs say the man was welcome to his ride for me. Hoosomdever, the business was successfully accomplished, withoot either o’ them gettin’ his back-breed on the grund, an’ that was mair than Tibbie expeckit. This was the conlusion o’ the performace, an’ Blondin cam’ doon the string like a cat, an’ jamp into his cab, amid a general clappin’ o’ hands, hurrayin’, an’ lichtin o’ cutty pipes and cigars. Of coorse, the nabs on the grand stand indulged themsel’s wi’ the real Havanas; an’ dog on it! there was ae chield sittin’ ahent me wha had the impudence, when lichtin’ his roll o’ cabbage blades at my lug, to set fire to ane o’ my whiskers an’ afore steps could be ta’en to arrest the progress o’ the devoorin’ element, the braid side o’ my head was as innocent o’ hair as the palm o’ my hand. I dinna like to be quarrelsome, but I did think it necessary to inquire at the pairty what he meant by settin’ fire to my whiskers? “Ou,” quoth he, as cool as a cucumber, “do ye not know, Sir, that sheep’s heads require to be singed before they are used, Sir?” An’ so there got up a general horse laugh at my expense; “but,” quoth I, “d’ye no ken my man that laddies sometimes hae bubbly noses, Sir, an’ that they require to be dichtit afore presentin’ themsel’s in respectable society, Sir?” An’ wi’ that I claught my lad by the snotter-box, an’ gae it sic a fleze roond that he’ll feel the frost o’t for twa days to come, or it cheats me. That was evidently mair than he bargained for, hooever, for he looked oonutterable things; but probably his courage had oozed oot at the neb o’ his nose, alang wi’ the bubbles, an’ sae he dived into the crood, there to hide his diminished head, while Tibbie an’ me tane the gate to oor ain hoose at hame.

So when we got hame, I speered at Tibbie if she was convinced noo. “Weel,” quoth she, “i’m a kind o’ half-convinced.” “Weel,” quoth I, “ye maun eat the half o’ yer mutch.” “Ay, ay, Tammas” quoth she, “but Blondel didna hurl a barrow, now cook a pancake on the raip, an’ sae ye maun eat the half o’ yer nicht-cap.” “Na, na, Tibbie,” quoth I, “gin ye winna eat a’ yer mutch, I sanna eat ony o’ my nicht-cap, an’ sae ye can set doon the supper, an’ let us try hoo it wid craw in oor crap.”

Afore gaen to bed, I brocht inbye the lookin’-glass, sharpened my razor, and shove aff my remainin’ whisker, for the sake o’ uniformity; an’ if ye were to foregather wi’ me noo, wi’ my bare chafts, I’m certain sure ye wad neer tak me to be yer auld freend,

Tammas Bodkin.

Extract from a review in the 07/09/1861 edition:

The Pecuniary Results.

While as a performance the exhibition may be considered a success, as a pecuniary speculation we are afraid it must be reckoned a comparative failure. Rumours the most vague and extravagant were in circulation as to M. Blondin’s compensation for his daring exhibitions; but we believe we are correct in stating that Mr Morrison Kyle, of Glasgow—to whose unceasing enterprise, already so well known in the musical line, Scotland is indebted for the visit of this celebrity—has engaged with M. Blondin’s English entrepreneur, Mr Russell, to pay him £160 for each “mount,”and that the contract is for six times in this country—two at Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively, and one at Dundee and Aberdeen. Mr Russell again, we hear, remunerates the performer at the rate of £100 for each “mount”—certainly a most liberal scale of payment for half-an-hour’s-exertion, even though that exertion is of an extremely dangerous kind.

 

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