Bathsheba Gubbins, thou art so fair!
With your crochet hooks and your basilisk stare.
Come away with me to the Land of Trolls
Where we’ll live underground like a pair of moles.
Bathsheba Gubbins! I know I’m a chump
But meet me tonight at the village pump.
Let the villagers mock, let the villagers gawp.
I am Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp
And I shall love you till the cows come home
They’re coming home now, o’er the rain-soaked loam.
Which of us has not, when in mawkish or maudlin mood, sung those words, with tears rolling down our cheeks? Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp’s song of love to his inamorata is both cloyingly sentimental and, in its last line, not sentimental at all. Perhaps it is this duality of affect that has made it a verse adored, memorised, and recited – while weeping – by the entire nation.
Curiously, however, the nation in question is neither the country of Ah-Fang nor of Mrs Gubbins, but the distant, possibly legendary, land of Tantarabim, in which neither of them ever set foot. How The Love Song Of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp became so dementedly popular in that faraway land is an instructive tale, and it begins with cows, as so many things do.
Some years ago, a wandering minstrel of Tantarabim wandered so far, so very far, that he found himself in Jaywick, the jewel of the Essex coast. Plopping himself on a bench outside the Never Say Die tavern, he took his piccolo from its cotton pochette and prepared to play and sing. Before he could begin, however, out of the mist emerged several cows. As luck would have it, the minstrel had arrived in Jaywick on the Sunday morning of what is still commemorated, at least in Jaywick, as “the day the cows came visiting”. Entranced – as who would not be? – the minstrel slipped his piccolo back in its pochette and followed the cows in their cowy progress around the town. Being a minstrel, he composed a ditty about the experience, which he added to his repertoire.
It was some years later, outside another tavern in another town, still far from his homeland, that the minstrel was interrupted in a performance of his ditty.
Oh I have travelled through many lands
But none so fair as Jaywick Sands
was as far as he got before an unkempt dishevelled hairy sallow pockmarked greasy infected dippy doo-dah person, with a glass eye and a pair of worm-eaten crutches, loomed in front of him, blocking out the sun, and boomed “Is this going to be a song about cows?”
“Why yes, it is indeed!” said the minstrel.
“I know a better one,” said the unkempt dishevelled hairy sallow pockmarked greasy infected dippy doo-dah person, plucking out his glass eye and polishing it with a filthy rag, then leaning his crutches against the tavern wall and slumping to the ground. And then, in a baritone so gorgeous it was barely conceivable that its possessor was one so unkempt and dishevelled and hairy and sallow and pockmarked and greasy and infected and dippy doo-dah, the stranger sang The Love Song Of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp. As he held the final note, protracting the word “loam” to wrench from it more heartbreak than is present even in the closing scene of Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942), the minstrel burst into tears. He continued to weep as he travelled far and wide, was weeping still when eventually he puttered into the harbour at Tantarabim aboard a packet steamer, many many moons later.
Now it must be understood that they are a cold-hearted lot, the indigenous Tantarabimers. They snarl and growl and grunt, but rarely sob. At screenings of Random Harvest, they are infamous for their mockery and chortling and fruit-chucking. Yet now a miracle occurred. The minstrel, returned to his homeland, perched on a harbourside crate and slipped his piccolo from its cotton pochette and tootled the yearning melody of The Love Song Of Ah-Fang Van Der Houygendorp. And then, he began to sing the words. Frankly, his baritone was weedy and reedy in comparison to that of the unkempt dishevelled hairy sallow pockmarked greasy infected dippy doo-dah person, but that mattered not a jot here in faraway Tantarabim. Those loitering at the harbour were soon weeping, and as he was cajoled to sing the song again and again, so Tantarabimers came scurrying from their hovels and caves and country estates, thronging the harbour so densely that many were shoved into the sea. Those who could, trod water, weeping still. Others drowned. And on and on the minstrel sang, until even the thickest and most stupid of Tantarabim fatheads could remember the words, and all took up the song, and they sing it still, morning, noon, and night, weeping, weeping, in that distant, possibly legendary, land.