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  • Writer's pictureCarl Plummer Pelham Hardimann's world. Chapter 11: Dolly Orbs, Polari, Punkah-Wallahs...

Dolly Orbs and Polari

Why the title Dolly Orbs for chapter 11? Well, it’s a touch of Polari, a secret language – and one unknown to Pelham as he is hauled aboard the railway carriage – via the window – by a well-spoken man wielding a cigarette holder the length of a London barge pole.

The term Polari is said to come from the Italian parlare to talk and was a form of cant slang used in Britain by some actors, circus and fairground showmen, professional wrestlers, merchant navy sailors, criminals, sex workers, and the gay subculture. Some scholars have traced it back as far as far as the 16th century, though it seems most popular during the 19th century.

The language – a mixture of back slang, Romani, sailor slang and rhyming slang also brought into its lexicon many Yiddish slang words. It is best known for its use amongst the theatrical fraternity, and the British Merchant Navy – mainly cruise ships and ocean liners where the then gay subculture would employ it as a safe and secure language with which to recognize fellow travellers while avoiding the long arm of the law. Although the wonderfully inventive language began to fall out of use – perhaps owing to the decriminalization of homosexuality under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, it was given another breath of life through the BBC and a marvellous radio (I’m sorely tempted to say wireless) comedy series Round the Horne, starring Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams, with their ever-so-camp characters Julian and Sandy.

As a teenager in the 70s, listening to repeats of the show, I never really understood what Julian and Sandy were saying, but I knew they were being funny – and perhaps best of all, being offensive to the prudes and squares of the day – most of whom missed to exotic vulgarity. And no, you don’t have to be gay to find them funny. Camp, they are very much so, but I think much more elaborate and much cleverer than the in-your-face double entendre of the Carry On, (can a double-entendre be in your ? Ha! See what I did there?) though I must admit – many of them were great fun – cheesy but fun. Yes, Kenneth Williams – he of the famous infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me – from the pens of Frank Muir and Denis Norden. (In those days, some comedians and writers were happy to lend out their jokes). Some of the Julian and Sandy classics are still re-worked. A famous one is the with the gay supermarket workers, one working with vegetables and the other with meat, when asked ‘who’s the butcher?’ – the fantastic reply is ‘ooh, that’ll be me’. Yes, plenty of oohs and aahs in those days – and a bit of ooh-er missus. My favourite joke from Julian and Sandy involves some snippy conversation about a piano during an interview with Kenneth Horne (he of the Horne); one of the chaps eventually recalls some enjoyment on a cottage upright. The audience laughed – it was years before I understood the joke. Naïve me, eh? But hey, it’s still a great joke – up there with Hancock’s ‘Magna Carta, did she die in vain…’

After Julian and Sandy, I suppose the nearest we ever got to that superb and filthily rich humour was with Humphrey Littleton – during the 80s and 90s – introducing the radio (I’m still tempted to say wireless) version of the game Charades – Sound Charades, from I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue as he recalls the supposed goings-on of Lionel Blair – often involving Christopher Biggins.

If you have never heard Julian and Sandy – hunt them down on YouTube and give them a go. Have a bona time, put a smile on your jolly old eek, and revel in some lovely sexual innuendo – with plenty of nods and winks to the in-the-knows.

Irony, I’ll admit, but while we rejoice that such a secret language is no longer necessary – no longer employed to safeguard people from bigotry, prejudice, and the law – it was fun – as I suppose the illicit often is. So it may well be seen as non-PC these days, but give Julian and Sandy a go – it’ll be fun.

The Great Watchmaker

Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle is credited for the term The Great Watchmaker in Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, published in 1686. Yes, it is an analogy. Looking at nature, the world, the planets, and the universe, it could be assumed that there is a design, so there must be a designer. And in the 17th century, perhaps the most complex design one would ever come across was a watch. This idea is important in natural theology where it supports the existence of God and the idea of intelligent design. William Paley (1743 – 1805) explains this in Natural Theology, published in 1802: Anyone finding a pocket watch in a field will recognize that it was designed intelligently; living beings are similarly complex, and must be the work of an intelligent designer. In 1859, Charles Darwin proffered the explanation for this complexity; this complexity is a result of continuing adaptation.

The analogy of The Great Watchmaker is deemed insufficient in three ways:

1. Complexity does not necessarily require a designer; it can also come from mindless natural processes. David Hume gives the examples of a snowflake, and of the generation of crystals. These are mentioned in his works Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Other people have mentioned the Infinite monkey theorem.

2. The watch is a bad analogy.

3. The watchmaker is more complex than the watch. If complexity proves intelligent design, then the question arises who designed such a complex watchmaker.

With Copernicus proposing the heliocentrism of the solar system, Johannes Kepler's (1571–1630) three laws of planetary motion, and Isaac Newton's (1642–1727) law of universal gravitation—laws of gravitation and of motion, and notions of absolute space and time, the regularity of heavenly and earthly bodies was established. With this design in mind deists suggested the watchmaker analogy: just as watches are set in motion by watchmakers, the world begun by the God as creator, after which it and all its parts have operated according to their pre-established natural laws. Newton also upheld the idea that like a watchmaker, God was forced to intervene in the universe and tinker with the mechanism from time to time to ensure that it continued operating in good working order. René Descartes shared the view: the cosmos as a great time machine operating according to fixed laws, a watch created and wound up by the great watchmaker.

Sobranie Turkish

When I was a teenager – in the 70s – Sobranie Turkish were the poshest fags you could buy. They also had a cocktail selection – blacks, yellows, and pinks if I recall. Yes, they were expensive. I was a pipe smoker in my early smoking days – and I stuffed my Falcon bowl with Sobranie’s finest shag.

One of the oldest cigarette brands in the world, Sobranie of London was established in 1879 by the Redstone family, when cigarettes had just become fashionable in Europe – taking over from pipes. The original cigarettes, the blend being a secret formula, were handmade in the Russian tradition and Sobranie was the supplier of the Imperial Court of Russia, and most of the royal courts of Europe. Although now owned by Japan Tobacco Company, the House of Sobranie still offers a range of luxury cigarettes. The variety remains:

Sobranie Cocktail and Sobranie Black Russian, the multicoloured sticks and black paper, respectively, with a gold foil filter end. Sobranie Cocktail, Black Russian and White Russian variants are emblazoned with the Russian imperial eagle. Luxury indeed, but I’ll stick with my favourites – Pall Mall, thank you very much.

Cigarette Holders

The cigarette holder was (still is for some – including your favourite author: me) more than a fashion accessory. It also served some practical purpose.

Cigarette holders can be simple and boring or incredibly ornate with fancy inlays of metal and gemstones. Many were made of enamel, with older ones often produced from horn, tortoiseshell, or more precious materials such as amber and ivory – no longer, thank goodness.

A similar holder made of wood, meerschaum or Bakelite and with an amber mouthpiece was used for cigars and was a popular accessory for men from the Edwardian period until the 1920s.

Some women’s cigarette holders – especially the fancy cocktail ones – can be up to 16 inches in length, while the chaps never go beyond a more modest four inches.

The primary use was to keep falling ash off a woman's clothes, especially since women didn't wear smoking jackets. This is the reason for the long length, and for why the holders were longer for more formal occasions (which usually had more elaborate dress). Kept snaking smoke further from the smokers' eyes and out from under the ladies' hat (which often had wider brims than men's hats). Helped prevent nicotine staining of the fingers and gloves (especially women wearing those elbow-length cocktail gloves; think Holly Golightly). Reduced staining of the teeth, and the finger. Kept the thin cigarette paper from sticking to, and tearing on, the smokers' lips. To cool mellow the smoke. Holders sometimes encased a filter for taste and, later, for health reasons (my main reason for using them). Before the advent of filtered cigarettes in the 1960s, the holder also helped keep tobacco flakes out of the smokers' mouth. And, of course, some people think they look cool. Check out the famous photograph – often used on back covers and used on Andrew Lycett’s biography – of Ian Fleming. (Lycett’s book is, I think, the best read if you are interested in the life of Ian Fleming).

Brief Encounter

Yes, I am sure – I certainly hope – that many of you, dear readers, will notice my sneaky re-write of a famous scene from Brief Encounter. I swap the roles while trying to keep dear Dolly Messiter and Laura, bringing Noel Coward into the scene. It is a good scene, I feel. A kindly form of subversion, a kindly pastiche – perhaps a homage to one of Britain’s greatest films.

The 1945 film is based on Noël Coward's one-act play Still Life (1936), one of ten short plays in the cycle Tonight at 8.30, designed for Gertrude Lawrence and Coward. All scenes in Still Life are set in the refreshment room of a railway station (the fictional Milford Junction).

Early 1945, a few months before the end of war, Britain was bankrupt, exhausted – on its knees, and owned by the USA. It is the beginning of the end of Empire (which most sane people will deem a good thing) and the new Labour Government has brought in the idea of managed decline.

The film stars Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey. The screenplay is by Noël Coward, based on his 1936 one-act play Still Life. The soundtrack is wonderful – terar-jerking to the extreme – featuring Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, with Eileen Joyce on piano.

Brief Encounter was met with critical acclaim and is still considered to be among David Lean's finest works. In 1999, the British Film Institute voted Brief Encounter the second greatest British film of all time. Laura Jesson, a respectable middle-class British woman in an affectionate but rather dull marriage, tells her story while sitting at home with her husband, imagining that she is confessing her affair to him. The voice-over throughout the film is in the form of an unspoken confession. Laura, like many women of her class at the time, goes to a nearby town every Thursday for shopping and to the cinema for a matinée. Returning from one such trip to Milford, while waiting in the railway station's refreshment room, she is helped by another passenger, who removes a piece of grit from her eye. (This is where the Pelham/Laura/Dolly/ and the unknown gentle stranger come into play in Chapter 11. We learn later that it was Noel Coward – as Pelham gives his version of the event to hammer). Alec Harvey, an idealistic doctor, works one day a week at the local hospital. Both protagonists are in their late thirties or early forties, married and with children (although Alec's wife Madeleine and their two sons are unseen). It is a study of domestic life – the boredom, the lack of passion, so straight-laced, conforming – with two strangers sorely tempted to break the rules and let love reign over middle-class pretensions.

The film ends with the world going back to normal – perhaps only for a while, as Laura’s husband notices his wife has been ‘away’ in another, more exciting and passionate world. (Yes, time for the feminists to ring out the ‘patriarchal society’ tropes).

· Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson

· Trevor Howard as Dr Alec Harvey

· Stanley Holloway as Albert Godby, the ticket inspector

· Joyce Carey as Myrtle Bagot, the cafe owner

· Cyril Raymond as Fred Jesson

· Everley Gregg as Dolly Messiter

· Noël Coward (uncredited) as the train station announcer

· Valentine Dyall (uncredited) as Stephen Lynn, Alec's friend. A strange scene here, perhaps, as Stephen Lynn suspects Alec of using their shared flat (apartment) as a love-nest – and certainly hints of Lynn being gay – another taboo of the times but already being chipped at.

· Richard Thomas (uncredited) as Bobby Jesson, Fred and Laura's son, and Henrietta Vincent (uncredited) as Margaret Jesson, Fred and Laura's daughter. (Sugary, ghastly – horribly perfect kids).

Carnforth railway station in Lancashire, a junction on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway was used because it was far enough away from major cities to avoid the blackout for film purposes, shooting taking place in early 1945 before the Second World War had finished. The station refreshment room was a studio recreation. Carnforth Station still retains many of the period features present at the time of filming and is a place of pilgrimage for fans of the film. Some of the urban scenes were shot in London or at Denham or Beaconsfield near Denham Studios where the film was made.

I may be way off the mark here, but I think this tear-jerker of a romantic film works along the same lines of later British comedy – especially TV kitchen sink comedies – the likes of Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, even Blackadder. It is a tale of people being trapped by society and the rules of that class-ridden society, dreaming of escape to a happier world – escaping the mundane that is strangling their potential.

It is no Rom-Com, but I must admit here that even I – cynic that I am – shed a tear or two as I watch it. (The music helps open the ducts). Not so much because it is about lost romance, but because it is about lost hopes and dreams. I am not sure how it would be viewed today: perhaps the feminists would be wanting Laura to succeed and escape, while condemning Alec for being tempted to abandon his own wife and children. It would be interesting to see.


In Urdu, wallah refers to a person or thing – usually a person – with a distinct purpose – a specific job. In my school days we had, history wallahs, rugby wallahs, cricket wallahs. The armed services would have laundry wallahs (dhobi-wallahs), kitchen wallahs.

A punka-wallah – the chap pulling the string or raising and lowering the stick to move the fan, to move the air, to create a breeze.

Fair enough, any author prepared to go into the simile affray eventually comes up against the master – P.G. Wodehouse. Yes, it is from him I gained or perhaps discovered my love of similes. Rex Stout and Leslie Charteris are runners-up. So, forgive me my plethora of similes, some of which I am proud, for some of which I hang my head in shame. Only a fool goes into this battle.

Why punka-wallah? I recall hearing the word wallah many a time in my school days – a term oft employed by masters boasting to be alumni of great universities or just wishing to be alumni of great universities – with that tinge of British colonialism burning at the frayed edges of their gowns.

That was in the 70s, and these teachers are long gone, along with their language and cultural views, and the language associated with those 20th century decades. Would they be using wallah now? No, at least, I would hope not. Too many colonial overtones. As for Pelham hardimann, well, he is a man of his time – we are all of our times – apart from Jacob Rees-Mogg, naturally. He is a man of his own special time – bless him.

A punkah, also pankha (Hindi pangkhā), is a type of fan used since the early 6th century BC. The word pankha originated from pankh, the wings of a bird which produce a draft when flapped.

In its original sense in South Asia, punkah typically describes a handheld fan made from a single frond of palm or a woven square of bamboo strips, rattan or other plant fibre, that can be rotated or fanned. These are called punkah in Hindustani. These small handheld devices are still used by millions when ceiling fans stop working during frequent power outages. In the colonial age, the word came to be used in British India and elsewhere in the tropical and subtropical world for a large swinging fan, fixed to the ceiling, and pulled by a coolie, called the punkah wallah in India, during hot weather. To cover a larger area, such as in an office or a courthouse, a number of punkahs could be connected together by strings so that they would swing in unison. The material used could range from utilitarian rattan to expensive fabrics. The date of this invention is not known, but it was familiar to the Arabs as early as the 8th century. It was not commonly used in India before the end of the 18th century.

It Ain't Half Hot, Mum.

The electric fan largely supplanted it in barracks and other large buildings at the beginning of the 20th century. British readers – of the older variety – may well remember the mouthy and loveable punka-wallah in It Ain’t Half Hot , Mum. No electric fan there – just (non-pc now, of course). A poorly paid, and bullied, Indian servant wafted the breeze into the officers’ HQ with elbow grease.

The term was carried over to punkah louvre, to refer to the outlet for cool air in aircraft, particularly those over the passenger seats. So, my dreadful simile? Laura, the beautiful stranger on the train, had huge eyelashes – as huge as fans worked by a punka-wallah. Not the best simile – but not that bad, surely.

The WI

The Women's Institute (WI) is a community-based organization for women in the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand based on the British concept of Women's Guilds, created by Rev Archibald Charteris in 1887 and originally confined to the Church of Scotland. Many WIs belong to the Associated Country Women of the World organization.

You may think it British, but beware; the WI movement began at Stoney Creek, Ontario in Canada in 1897 when Adelaide Hoodless addressed a meeting for the wives of members of the Farmers' Institute. WIs quickly spread throughout Ontario and Canada, with 130 branches launched by 1905 in Ontario alone, and the groups flourish in their home province today. As of 2013, the Federated Women's Institutes of Ontario (FWIO) had more than 300 branches with more than 4,500 members.

Madge Watt, a founder member of the first WI in British Columbia, organised the first WI meeting in Great Britain, which took place on 16 September 1915 at Llanfairpwll on Anglesey, Wales. The organisation had two aims: to revitalise rural communities and to encourage women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. Today, it is believed to be the largest women's voluntary organisation in the UK. Today it plays a unique role in enabling women to gain new skills, take part in wide-ranging activities, and campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities. The WI is a diverse organisation open to all women, and there are now WIs in towns and cities as well as villages.

After the end of the First World War, the Board of Agriculture withdrew its sponsorship, although the Development Commission financially supported the work of the forming of new WIs and gave core funding to the National Federation until it could become financially independent. By 1926 the Women's Institutes were fully independent and rapidly became an essential part of rural life.

One of their features was an independence from political parties or institutions, or church or chapel, which encouraged activism by non-establishment women, which helps to explain why the WI has been extremely reluctant to support anything that can be construed as war work, despite their wartime formation. During the Second World War, they limited their contribution to such activities as looking after evacuees, and running the Government-sponsored Preservation Centres where volunteers canned or made jam of excess produce; all this produce was sent to depots to be added to the rations.

More than Jam and Jerusalem.

The WI campaigns on a wide range of issues affecting women, based on resolutions agreed at each year's national Annual Meeting. Its first resolution, passed in 1918, called for sufficient supply of convenient and sanitary houses, being of vital importance to women in the country. In 1943 they called for "Equal Pay for Equal Work" and continued to argue for this until the Equal Pay Act 1970 was passed. 1954's resolution to preserve the countryside against desecration by litter lead to the formation of the Keep Britain Tidy group, which became a registered charity in 1960. In 2018 the WI agreed to Make Time for Mental Health, calling on members to take action to make it as acceptable to talk about mental health as it is about physical health.

Every individual WI meets at least once a month and there is usually a speaker, demonstration or activity at every meeting for members to learn and develop a range of different skills. Craft has always played an important role in the WI and thousands of members are involved in a range of different crafts. The Women's Institute is often associated with food, cooking and healthy eating, and food and cooking form an important part of the WI's history. Queen Elizabeth II has been a member since 1943, and is President of Sandringham WI. Her mother Queen Elizabeth was also a member, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Anne, Princess Royal are all members.

A favourite WI moment: giving Tony Blair a good slap!

Heckled, jeered, booed - Blair bombs at the WI

John Carvel, social affairs editor The Guardian.

The audience of 10,000 women representing the backbone of Britain responded first with sporadic heckling, then slow handclapping and finally undisguised jeering from sections of the hall. If it had not been for an appeal for politeness from the chair, the prime minister might not have been able to scamper through to the end of an ill-advised speech that later drew taunts in the Commons from William Hague. "It is the mark of an out of touch prime minister that you don't know why you're out of touch," the Tory leader said. Mr. Blair's mistake was to use the fiercely non-party-political WI as the backdrop for making political points that might have appeared almost bland in another setting.

Ha ha! Excellent stuff. Don’t mess with the WI. And a warning to our hero Pelham Hardimann: do not mess with Mrs. Messiter.

Eric Blair

Our hero Pelham Hardimann is a lover of the timely quote, even though, owing to the laxity of your author at times, the timely quote may be anachronistic.

We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us."

Alternative: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

Alternative: "We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."

Commonly misattributed to George Orwell, sometimes also misattributed to Winston Churchill without citation.

Eric Blair/George Orwell

The earliest known appearance is in a 1993 Washington Times essay by Richard Grenier: "As George Orwell pointed out, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." The absence of quotation marks indicates that Grenier was using his own words to convey his interpretation of Orwell's opinion, as seen in citations below.

In his 1945 "Notes on Nationalism", Orwell wrote that pacifists cannot accept the statement Those who 'abjure' violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf, despite it being grossly obvious. From: Notes on Nationalism.

Rudyard Kipling

In an essay on Rudyard Kipling, Orwell cited Kipling's phrase "making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep" (Kipling, Tommy), and further noted that Kipling's "grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can be highly civilized only while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them." (1942)

Similar phrase: "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it." – Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men)

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