On The Great Panjandrum

Panjandrum, The Great. The term applied to a country worthy who fills every public office available in a village. It was a word invented by Samuel Foote in a string of rigmarole as a test for the memory of Macklin, the actor. Macklin had boasted that he could remember anything he had read once. Foote wrote this:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf to make an apple pie, and at the same time a great she-bear came running up the street and popped its head into the shop. ‘What! No soup?’ So he died, and she – very imprudently – married the barber. And there were present the Picninnies, the Joblilies, the Guryulies, and the Great Panjandrum himself, with the little Red Button a’top and they all fell to playing the game of catch-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out of the heels of their boots.”

Macklin, in a fury, refused to repeat a word of it.

- from Encyclopaedia Of Phrases And Origins by Edwin Radford, Editor, “Live Letters” of the Daily Mirror , Eighth & Cheap Impression, 1950.

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Frankly, it is difficult to see what Macklin, the actor, was getting in a tizzy about. Perhaps he was just having a thespian moment. He was, after all, a tempestuous character who killed a fellow actor, Thomas Hallam, by thrusting a cane through his eye during an argument about a wig. The cane went straight though Hallam’s eye into his brain. Accused of murder, Macklin defended himself at his trial and was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, for which he ought to have had his hand branded with the letter ‘M’, though it is unclear if the penalty was carried out. When he died at the age of 98 in 1797, his memorial tablet in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, included a relief of a dagger piercing the eye of a theatrical mask. Next time you are in London, you might want to dress up as the Great Panjandrum, with the little Red Button a’top, and go and take a look at it. I have not paid such a visit myself, partly because I do not think ill-tempered roister-doister Irish thespians ought to be encouraged. Lord knows there are enough of them, from Macklin in the eighteenth century to such as Richard Harris in the twentieth.

Had I been presented with Foote’s rigmarole, I would not have fallen into a fury, nor been tempted to pierce his brain with a cane through the eye. Instead, I would have questioned him closely about the sources of his story. You see, having done a certain amount of research into this kind of rigmarole, I think Foote was actually reporting a real historical episode.

The difficulty lies in pinning down the identities of the unnamed “she”, the fleeting, fugitive “he” who dies, and of course the Picninnies, the Joblilies, and the Guryulies. The Great Panjandrum, we can assume, is Celtic hothead Macklin. As for the barber, I have cobbled together a theory that this was one Punchkin Lampwick, a murderous barber, well-known to members of the eighteenth century theatrical profession, whose locks he chopped, and who was the real life model for that Victorian bogeyman barber Sweeney Todd.

Unfortunately for us, Lampwick appears to have been bigamous as well as murderous. He had several wives and more than several paramours, thus making identification of the “she” who – very imprudently – married him a matter of conjecture. Could we trace all those three hundred-year-old women, and say with certainty which one used a cabbage leaf in their apple pie recipe, we would be on firmer ground. It may be, of course, that a cabbage leaf was an essential ingredient in one particular type of eighteenth century apple pie, in which case that firm ground would crumble beneath us, leaving us dangling over a precipice. Such are the risks of historical research.

Further and more intractable problems occur when we try to work out who in heaven’s name Foote was talking about when he refers to the Picninnies, the Joblilies, and the Guryulies. Picninny – more commonly given as Picaninny – is a word one deploys at one’s peril these days, as Boris Johnson found to his cost. Although a plain reading of his original text makes clear that the object of his amused scorn was Tony Blair, nobody actually bothers with plain readings of original texts when certain hand-grenade words are used. There will probably be some righteous airheads who would prefer that I rendered it as P********, or as ‘the P-word’. In whatever form we put it, we are unclear to whom precisely Foote was referring.

At least that word, with its added ‘a’, has survived, along with Panjandrum. The same cannot be said for either Joblilies or Guryulies, neither of which I have come across before. They would seem to have been born and died with Samuel Foote and his rigmarole, no doubt leading to the misunderstanding that he was writing nonsense. Of course, the idea of writing deliberate nonsense simply to irritate an Irish thespian is an appealing one. Clearly it has inspired those charged with writing scripts to be performed by Liam Neeson, for example.

So I am afraid my theory regarding the factual basis of Foote’s rigmarole is but a fledgling. There is as yet so much I don’t know. I don’t know who these characters are. I don’t know what they want. If they are looking for fictional immortality, I can tell them I don’t have that gift. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for characters like them. If they let me cease this prattling now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not go on about them, I will not pursue my theory. But if they don’t, I will look for them, I will find them, and I will kill them.

NOTE : The photograph of Macklin’s memorial is by Kieran Smith, via findagrave.

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