I used to know a man who, like Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend, could do the Police in different voices. It began as a party trick, for which he always received thunderous rounds of applause, upon which he eventually became dependent. There came a time when he no longer used his normal speaking voice at all. He couched every single utterance in one of his different Police voices, but the novelty wore off, and people no longer clapped, and he grew sour and disillusioned and rancorous, and ended his days drunk to high heaven sprawled on the floor of a hotel lobby at a seaside resort. It is a cautionary tale, then, his life.
But that ruinous end cannot dim the joy of his early forays into doing the Police in different voices. I remember as if it were yesterday the first time I came across him. I was attending a sophisticated cocktail party in a sophisticated house in a sophisticated part of town, and, being myself deeply and ineradicably unsophisticated, was having a rather hard time mingling. I was leaning against a mantelpiece, trying my best to look insouciant, but the only people who deigned to speak to me were those who challenged my very presence, accusing me of being some kind of valet or factotum or, worse, an interloper. I grew increasingly cantankerous, losing any sheen of sophistication I might have hoped to assume. I spat at people and pointedly ground out my cigarette butts on the expensive carpet. Across the room I saw a couple of genuine factotae approaching, huge burly monobrowed fellows, like minatory bears, bent, I supposed, on chucking me out into the street. Before they reached me, however, the hubbub of sophisticated chitchat suddenly ceased, and one voice was ringing out solo.
“On the fifteenth inst at eight forty-six pee em I was proceeding along Letsby Avenue in a northerly direction when I spotted the accused taunting a kitten. I apprehended him in the course of this bestial enormity and – “ and then, without missing a beat, he quoted that twit-and-jug bit from The Waste Land, “ – Twit twit twit, Jug jug jug jug jug jug, So rudely forc’d, Tereu”. Then he continued, in so deep and grave and sonorous a voice we might have been listening to T S Eliot himself, “And I dragged him down to the nick for a mild roughing-up by some of Inspector Cargpan’s boys.” It was marvellous, and we all applauded, and my lack of sophistication was forgotten as all eyes turned to the owner of the voice.
Or, as I learned soon enough, voices. A couple of weeks later I went to another sophisticated cocktail party. This time I took the precaution of wearing spats and a dressing gown, to give myself airs. I was leaning against a mantelpiece when once again, there was a hush a single voice made itself heard:
“On the sixteenth inst at six fourteen pee em I was proceeding along Letsby Avenue in a westerly direction when I spotted the accused engaged in a hate crime against a sparrow. No! Oo-er, missus. Really! Nay, nay and thrice may! Titter ye not! Oo-er. I dragged him down to the nick and handed him over to Inspector Cargpan’s boys for a roughing-up in the basement.”
It was extraordinary. There was no hint of T S Eliot. This time it was is if Frankie Howerd had come back to life. Again there was a round of applause. I left my mantelpiece and made my way across the room to congratulate the speaker personally, but before I could reach him he had flitted away, possibly with some of the silverware tucked in his pocket.
Over the next few years, during my inveterate partygoing, I came upon the fellow, who I had dubbed “Sloppy” after his Dickensian inspiration, on numerous occasions. Every time I heard him he do the Police in different voices. Some of them were recognisable. As with his Eliot and Howerd, he could do pitch perfect impersonations of Enoch Powell and Bernard Levin, both Mike and Bernie Winters, and the Irish one-time hostage Brian Keenan. I even heard him do Yoko Ono. He had other voices which seemed to spring from his repertoire of invented characters, a chuckling Quaker, for example, and a breathless bike wanker. He never repeated himself.
The last time I saw, or rather heard, Sloppy, was at a sophisticated cocktail party at an art gallery private view. I was leaning against a mantelpiece staring vacantly at a splattery daub when a voice rose above the arty babbling. And this time it was not a speaking voice. Sloppy was singing! Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say he was caterwauling, in an ear-splitting high-pitched screech. I recognised that sound immediately, and did not need to wait for the words “Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light” to know he was doing the Police in the voice of Gordon Sumner.
That, at least, was what I thought. But on my way home that night, through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells, I picked up the Evening Rag, and reading it on the unsophisticated top deck of the unsophisticated bus which took me to my unsophisticated home, I read that the man I knew as Sloppy had been buried that day in a seaside resort graveyard, having died drunk to high heaven sprawled on the floor of a hotel lobby earlier in the week. I realised, with a shock, that the screeching caterwauler at the private view must have been Sumner himself, and I wept. I could connect Nothing with nothing. The broken finger-nails of dirty hands. My people humble people who expect Nothing.
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest