I have chosen self publication of my book as unless one has achieved notoriety either by gigantic national fraud, become a pop idol, or indulged in suicidal one-man glorification attempts etc. it is extremely difficult to interest a publisher.
Thus Edward W. Martell explains in his foreword why he published his book himself. One might also comment that publishers tend to avoid autobiographies which might kindly be described as uneventful. At any rate, he was certainly right in his assessment of the level of interest his work would excite in the hard-nosed world of conventional publishing; we must be glad therefore that he was not deterred from spending his own money to bring us this delightful little book, peppered as it is with instances of Pooterish anti-climax and inconsequentiality.
It is the story of an ordinary man, and how he rose from a menial job at an engineering works to ownership of a removal company and suburban prosperity - which he eventually packed in for the rural life and the hard reality of running a farm. This is the “moving on” of the title, by which he contrasts his far from extraordinary life with that of someone he knew who stayed forty years in the same house. In other words, there is always someone even duller than oneself. In fairness, his story is not entirely free from interest - we learn both how to mate pigs and castrate them - but his unselfconscious habit of recording pointless banalities, such as this description of his early working life, gives it a different value as entertainment to that intended:
One of my first jobs was to take small strips of brass, place each one in a vice, bend over the end with my fingers, take each piece out of the vice, then again squeezing it in the vice. This was a simple enough job except that the quantity required was for one thousand which entailed opening and closing the vice two thousand times. I was not to know that in a few years to come I was to make a press tool obviating these tedious operations.
Future historians hoping to learn more of the young inventor may be frustrated by certain curious omissions:
I cannot remember anything outstanding at my twenty-first birthday party held at number seven.
And, even more tantalising in its hints of darker forces:
I have tried to pinpoint the final break-up of my courtship with Gladys Browning. The last recording in my diary was a social dance at her place of employment, Peter Robinsons, the West End store, on 25th October, 1922.
Fortunately he did keep a record of another, more important occasion; he does not seem to have been an adventurous type, on the whole, but he has this thrilling tale to tell of a voyage on the high seas:
Holidays at this difficult period were not an annual event. I recall an unpleasant experience during a short stay at Eastbourne accompanied by my now regular girl, Ada Abbott. We had become engaged a year or so earlier. I do not have any record of the date of our engagement, our parents could not afford to pay for parties or even announcements in the press. During this holiday we had booked a sea trip from Eastbourne to the Isle of Wight and had risen early in order to obtain a favourable position in the boat. The morning was bright and clear. We were among the first on board and had a feeling of joyful anticipation of a pleasant journey.
The boat or ship, I am not sure when a boat becomes a ship, had pulled into the pier, having come from nearby Hastings. From the first moment that I felt the then slight rise and fall of the boat I was aware that Ada and I had bought and paid for something not so good. I could see evidence of seasickness from the passengers from Hastings not yet cleared up by the stewards. I endeavoured to dismiss my fears and put on a show of nonchalance as also with us were three young girls from our boarding house. The distance from the Eastbourne pier to the lighthouse at Beachy Head was quite short, but long enough for Ada and the girls to show the first signs of seasickness.
By the time the boat had rounded Beachy Head almost all the passengers had their heads over the rail, dignity and breakfast thrown to the wind. The vessel rolled, dipped, rose and fell continuously. I managed, although feeling shaky, to hold out longer than some, but at last was forced to go below. I have been told since that this stretch of water off Beachy Head will even upset many hardened sailors. We knew that this Hell on water that we were in was due to call at Brighton and decided to crawl off there. In our misery we thought that we could see Brighton pier in the distance - the thought of terra firma made us both feel slightly better. But what we thought was Brighton pier, like a mirage in a desert, turned out to be Newhaven. At this disappointment we were both ill again and remained so for the rest of the tortuous journey. We both staggered off the boat on to Brighton pier looking like death warmed up. I am sure that the pier was also in motion. On reaching the beach we flopped down nearly exhausted and even the beach did not seem steady.
After an hour or so, still feeling unwell, we booked a coach back to Eastbourne. I have recorded earlier that I was not a good traveller — to add to our discomfort the coach broke down along the coast road; after what appeared to be our longest day we reached our boarding house. We both went straight to our beds. The landlady, a very homely body, did all she could to bring us back to normal. Ada was unable to rest as she said that the bed had seemed to sway like the boat all through the night. The sea trip certainly spoiled our holiday, the three girls we left on the boat had continued to the Isle of Wight rather than give up a journey that they had paid for. They spent the time on the island recovering and dreading the return journey. From that time no one has been able to sell me the doubtful pleasure of the sea.
Despite this ill-fated sea journey Ada marries him, in what he calls “our dry wedding” - not a reference to the threatening waters of the Channel but to the absence of alcohol, he having become a teetotaller after an unfortunate faux pas occasioned by a glass of port.
Some years pass, and Martell starts his removals firm. One night another chance of adventure occurs when he encounters a young woman in distress:
In the beam of my headlights I could also see a woman half under the car struggling to fix a car jack in order to replace a wheel with a flat tyre. I stopped and offered assistance. The young woman was nearly in tears as she said that she had been in that predicament for a considerable time, many cars and vans passing without concern; she could have been there all night as the jack was inadequate for the job, also the wheel nuts were rusty and required force to remove them. The assistance delayed my progress for a time. Having completed the wheel change, the young lady gratefully suggested that I should return to her flat in Croydon for coffee. I was not a coffee drinker — my one object was to reach home — I thanked her for the invitation which I declined. At the next road telephone I informed Ada that I was then near Epsom; the next three-quarters of an hour saw the end of that eventful day as I crawled into bed near midnight wondering at what time this operation would have taken place had I accepted the grateful young lady's invitation.
Some bods would have moved in. Sex (other than the mating habits of pigs) may not play much part in his tale, but death has its share, especially when in the space of one chapter he turns from the terrible impact of the V2 rockets on London to his own personal slaughter:
I had acquired a considerable experience [of poultry] — around Christmas-time I would offer to visit backyard poultry keepers and undertake to kill stock as I was aware of the many gruesome efforts of dispatch, including death by strangulation, decapitation, bludgeoning, throat cutting, etc. I had learned the professional method of neck dislocation, death being instant and painless, also free from the usual bloody mess accompanying the non-professional methods.
Jarringly, this description is followed by his recording the news of the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan. More frightfulness is in store, though:
Around this time we were having some trouble with a neighbour. With the immediate post-war relaxation of social activities their teenage daughter was making a habit of returning home from dances in the early hours of the morning. On Saturday nights particularly Ada and I would be in bed after a busy day, just getting into a nice sleep when the returning daughter, whose bedroom was adjacent to our own, would commence the noisy ritual of preparing for bed. When I say that this performance occupied some two or more hours, it would be no overstatement. With the accompaniment of a blasting radio she at times appeared to be shifting the bed and all the furniture; shoes would drop off one at a time on to an obviously lino-covered floor, the succession of noises kept us in a sleepless state waiting for the next article to drop; we would knock on the parting wall in protest, which only produced either the radio turned up still louder or heavier noises.
Martell calls on the mother to ask that she curb her daughter but is rebuffed. He then turns to the local residents' association but gets no help there either. Finally, after taking the advice of a local MP, he writes a letter containing a vague hint of a threat:
By return of post came a stiff reply from Mrs. X, Mr. X refraining from any action, leaving such matters to his more dominant partner. The reply avoided any reference to the cause of my complaint, informing me that as my letter contained a threat she intended to consult a solicitor and also that “Mr. X was shortly to be called to the colours.” This latter phrase will give readers an indication as to her superior up-in-the-air affectation, as all lesser mortals would be merely “called up.” Strangely, in spite of her bluster, she was well aware that I was prepared to put my threat of retaliation into realistic execution. The long-suffered nightly noises abruptly ceased. Once again I felt that the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” philosophy had much to commend it.
I bet Martell's family and friends had to suffer the retelling of that little gem more than once. Presumably in the hope of getting such anecdotes a larger audience, he printed 1,000 copies of his book, though his motive was doubtless not entirely egocentric, as 25p from the sale of each went to charity. I sincerely hope he sold the lot and that every copy is duly treasured. There is certainly more to enjoy in it than the memoirs of many a fraud or pop idol. As he might have put the matter if his literary forefather, Charles Pooter, had not said it first:
I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see - because I do not happen to be a 'Somebody' - why my diary should not be interesting.
Update: this book can now be read in its entirety online. Thanks to my correspondent Brian Connors for this vital link, and to Ms J M Kelly for letting me know its current home.
Update: corrected the link above to one provided by the Wayback machine as the old one is now dead.
Scribbled by Alfred Armstrong 11 years 1 month ago