by George

Res Ipsa Loquitur:
Why I Wrote
‘by George’

I should admit that ventriloquism runs in my family.

I never met my grandfather, Cliff Townson—he died when my mother was 12—but I knew his dummy. George (his name, by no coincidence) was a constant feature of my childhood, often perched on my grandmother’s knee. He now sits on the piano in my front room in Brooklyn. I thought my baby daughter would be scared of him—his glazed eyes, his lead paint skin, his frightwig—but quite the opposite: she seemed to spot a kindred spirit, or at least someone her own size.

Between then and now, however, George went missing. My grandfather’s magical effects were scattered among the family, a rather complicated family it turned out, and so I started writing letters. It was during my search that I came up with the story for By George. What if, when I found him, George had something to tell me: about my family, its history, its secrets and lies? What if, basically, he could talk? And if he had a story to tell, who’d be doing the talking? Would it be a magical realist world where wood talks—anything is possible in fiction—or would someone else be speaking for him? And, in a family, who ever speaks for himself?

Of course, the truth was all rather mundane: he turned up, money changed hands, and now he’s propped on my piano, a conversation (or apology) waiting to happen. But he rarely goes unmentioned. “I hadn’t noticed that dummy till this morning,” read an email from a houseguest who was staying in our absence: “and if you say, “What dummy?” you’ll really freak me out.”

• • •

Why, besides nostalgia, was I looking for George in the first place?

I read a review—a famous review, endlessly quoted—of Peter Carey’s novel “The True Story of The Kelly Gang” describing it as “a dazzling act of literary ventriloquism”. The phrase stuck: it was such a good way to think of writing. If all novels are ventriloquism, Dickens was clearly the greatest ventriloquist of all: you never see his lips moving.

But where therefore was the novel that took the metaphor at face value? Nothing sprang to mind—surprising for such fertile subject matter. (In fact, the very first novel written by a professional American writer, Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown (1798), hinges on the unlikely talents of the sinister Carwin, even though Brown himself didn’t quite seem to understand what ventriloquism was, let alone explain how it was done. But he had other fish to fry: the novel, with is companion piece Carwin The Biloquist, asks the very novel-ish question: “Where does the authorial voice come from, and whence does it derive its authority?” It was described by Steven Connor, in his excellent ventriloquistry Dumbstruck as “the first and last examples of this minority genre.” No longer the last…)

I started learning about ventriloquism’s origins in religious mystery, in the divination of communication with the dead; and the Pythian Oracle at Delphi who, amidst a lot of smoke and mirrors, uttered the God’s words in an incomprehensible frenzy—she wasn’t a very good ventriloquist. These necromancers, Edgar Bergens before Charlie MacCarthy, were called Engastrimyths—literally, in-belly-speakers: the only way to explain the voice that seemed not to come from the mouth. Over the years, the meaning of ventriloquism changed from “the state of being possessed by a voice”, to “the production of a voice that is ‘thrown’ elsewhere”. In the mid 19th Century, the art was at its zenith, its powerful, anarchic best, a huge crowd-puller: with only the power of his voice, a Ventriloquist had dominion over unbounded space.

And then came the dummy: the perfect portable visual aid. The character of the boy captured the ventriloquist’s voice and the audience’s attention. Ventriloquism became a slick portable double act, the drama of which depended on the ventriloquist’s natural voice versus his assumed voice, and the psychological interplay between the two. As the prop took over, the ventriloquist became the straight man: the boy killed his father.

So recently a crowd pleaser—think of Bergen’s fame on the radio in America, Charlie’s verbal sparring with W.C.Fields, Great Britain’s own Archie Andrews, voted the Top Radio personality of 1959: and think about that for a second—ventriloquism’s stock is now at an all-time low, a quaint, even slightly seedy, parlour trick, in constant need of a reinvention that no-one can quite pull off.

Freud’s to blame. Ventriloquism was damaged irreparably by the arrival of the evil dummy. My interest lay beyond this cliché, popularized by the movies, of the ventriloquist’s id,: Hugo (Dead of Night), Fats (Magic), Billy (the recent Dead Silence) and Chucky (Child’s Play 1,2,3,etc, not to mention Bride, and then, Seed of Chucky…)

• • •

The themes and structure of a novel were clear enough—there was even a murder (though I didn’t go there)—but I had no characters; nothing that makes a novel worth reading or writing.

And that’s when I decided to track down the family heirloom, my old friend George. If he was sitting in the room, encouraging me with his antique, scruffy, roguish charm, he might inspire the novel where ventriloquism got to speak for itself. All I needed was the quest to find him. By the time he made his belated appearance, I had the plot and its people—a family spanning one hundred years of entertainment via vaudeville, music hall, ENSA in World War Two, summer seasons, pantomime, the birth of television, and the death of the variety. It’s a family of constant chatter and song, where silence is interpreted as unhappiness, where the women rule and the men are boys, just like George himself.

And so By George, written by two Georges, each trying to be heard above the din of their family: one a very chatty dummy in the 1930s—he could only ever be called George—recounting the ups and downs of his career, from papier mache mix to unlikely war hero; the other, a withdrawn and eccentric schoolboy in the 1970s who, in the search for a voice of his own, finds a paper trail leading straight to the dummy, now on mute display in a dusty museum, still holding the key to the family secrets, just waiting to be asked.

• • •

Variety is making an unlikely comeback in the guise of the Pop Idol Reality show. And who knows, maybe Ventriloquism will be part of the package. But somehow I doubt it, not at least with a naughty schoolboy. By George is an obituary for the art of a more innocent age.

That George the dummy will speak again, however, goes without saying—he’s coming to the readings.