Time, I think, for another excerpt from Lionel, Lord Tennyson’s second autobiography ‘Sticky Wickets‘.
For those who aren’t familiar with this Tennyson, he captained (‘Happy’) Hampshire between 1919 and 1932 and played nine times for England (three times as Captain). He is probably best remembered for taking on the fearsome Gregory and MacDonald (literally) single-handedly at Headingley in 1921
(scoring 63 and 36) and the match against Warwickshire in 1922 when Hampshire were bowled out for 15 in the first innings but went on to win by 155 runs (thus winning a £10 bet he’d made with the Warwickshire skipper Freddie Calthorpe).
He was also the Grandson of the great Victorian Laureate. This was both a source of pride (he once bet the fellows in his club that his Grandfather had written Hiawatha) and something of a burden. Although in other respects they were quite unalike, like Lytton Strachey he chafed at the bonds of Victorian respectability. In ‘Sticky Wickets’ he describes the atmosphere in which he was brought up by his own Father, Hallam, and how he, at a very early age, first managed to land himself in the soup.
“It was an atmosphere of veneration, indeed, that was almost religious, and anything that tended even in the slightest degree to impair it he visited with the severest disfavour. His observations frequently began with the words “My father said” or “My father thought”. In fact, he seemed to refer all questions of importance to that past oracle, so mighty in its own day, and may be said never to have wholly emerged from the Victorian age.
Such devotion, like all things on earth, had its opposite and inconvenient side. My father never realized, I feel sure, that it was impossible for the Farringford tradition to be preserved for ever without change, or that, so far from exercising much restraining influence on myself, it rather tended, by the law of contrariety, to emphasize my natural aversion to a highly solemn view of life.
My grandfather, however much I may sometimes have suffered on his account, was a great Englishman, and not altogether so solemn, I fancy, as some people believe. Certainly he could crack a bottle, and tell a good story after dinner almost to the last day of his life.
Only one incident of my association with him survives the passage of years, and that one an occasion on which, regrettably enough, I disgraced myself.
At that time the phonograph, an early form of the gramophone, had just been invented by Mr Edison, the great American. who died in 1931, and he had sent, as a present, one of the instruments to Farringford. On receipt of this gift, and for the interest and edification of posterity, the Laureate was persuaded to make some records by reciting a few of his poems.
One must reconstruct the scene more or less from imagination – the family circle gathered in the room where the experiment was to take place – my father, grave, filial and attentive – my mother, bright, eager, active and anxious to help the old poet in every way, for she was a great favourite of his – my grandmother assisted thither from her invalid couch – and lastly myself, aged about two years. For – and this was the reason for my presence – it was thought only right that I should be there, if only to be able to say in after years, whether the experience stuck in my mind or not, that I had been one of that select audience which heard the great poet declaim for the benefit of future ages.
Everyone in the room (one must suppose) stood hushed to attention, and then after the necessary interval of preparations came the poet’s great voice booming and rolling sonorously forth the majestic harmonies of his verse to be recorded for ever on the sensitive wax. But even as the listeners waited entranced, and his organ voice went rolling on, suddenly the whole thing was brought to a disastrous close – by me.
I had emitted some infantile noise that entirely ruined the record.
Though I have not actually heard it myself, I believe this record is now in the British Museum, and that my ill-timed interruption is faithfully reproduced. Owing to some lack of care in preserving the wax-cylinders from damp, however, I am informed that both this and the other records made at the time are lamentably indistinct.”
Tennyson recorded eight poems in all, so it’s not clear which one it was that Lionel ruined. The most famous, and the only one I can find on the internet, is this recording of The Charge of the Light Brigade. The BBC’s Poetry: Out Loud site has this to say about the recording : ‘The knocking halfway through remains a mystery. Perhaps Tennyson was providing his own sound effects.’
Well, perhaps. Or perhaps what we can hear is the sound of the infant Lionel knocking his tiny bat in.