Daily Express, Friday, December 18, 1903
AWARDS IN THE GREAT
If the tail-feathers of all the parrots present in the French Saloon of the St. James’ Restaurant yesterday afternoon could be placed end to end they would reach part of the way to the North Pole.
Parrot is a very general term, covering an infinite number of families, and representatives of most of those families were there. A yellow-and-blue South American macaw—a very fine bird, though taciturn; a lemon-crested cockatoo, who described himself as “Our Joey”; and a Corilla cockatoo of a more venerable aspect than any bird ever seen, and answering to the name of “Father Christmas,” caught the eye in particular.
Of the others, the majority were grey African birds, but the eye of the expert also detected blue-fronted Amazons, salmon-crested Malacca cockatoos, and green hill parrots.
There can be no doubt that the absurdity of the phrase which they were set to learn had a depressing effect on the spirits of the birds. They were evidently bored; and no wonder! Most of them had been practising without a break for a month.
A few wore a hard-bitten, worried look, which spoke eloquently of phonographs and dark rooms. One hill parrot, the tiniest bird in the room, had trained for the contest in a lighthouse, and its owner, an earnest-looking man, coached it up to the very last moment through a hole in the cloth covering of its cage.
“He says it remarkable plain,” declared the man of the lighthouse, “but I have only got him to say it twice in here, and it’s a million to one against him saying it again in the judges’ room, as they only give him six minutes.”
According to the owners, most of the birds, when in the home circle, confined their conversation exclusively to the fatal phrase; never stopped saying it; laughed loudly after each repetition of it; roused the family with it at daybreak; charmed them with it at breakfast; kept the table in a roar with it at lunch; and served up variations on the original theme at dinner.
But as soon as the moment arrived when it behoved all good parrots to speak up stoutly for their masters they were mute. ’Twas ever thus!
A KNOWING BIRD.
The lighthouse bird looked sideways at his master when the latter coached him in the phrase, winked knowingly, and rolled with loud laughter like a clown. Another bird answered, “You’re a liar,” and asked for his poll to be scratched.
“My bird is quite a private bird,” said one lady, and the words sum up the causes of the silence that reigned in the judges’ room. Most of the parrots had never seen so many of their species before in their lives, and were obviously wondering whether this was a hideous dream.
When they arrived before the seats of judgment and saw the cold, critical faces of the experts who were assembled to weigh their words and pronounce a verdict on them, they prepared for death, and hoped that it would come painlessly.
The consequence was that most of the competitors left the judgment-room with “their music still in them,” having uttered no single word of the phrase from beginning to end of the six minutes allotted to them for the speaking of their part.
Some of them looked very shamefaced, as though burdened with the memory of past recklessness. One bird, after repeated coaxing, plaintively started out on the absurdity and delivered himself of “Your food will cost you”—, when reason got the better of him, and he hid his head under one wing, refusing to commit himself to any degree of comparison.
Various owners had various methods of encouraging their parrots to attempt the fatal phrase. “Say something, you silly old idiot,” implored one. Another attempted light badinage. “Go on, old boy,” quoth he, in conversational tones, as of equal to equal. “What ho, she bumps!” Then, irrelevantly, “Can’t you give us change for a ten-pound note?” Morose silence from the bird.
“There’s Uncle Tom,” murmured another through the bars. The bird opened an eye languidly, but refused to comment on the alleged presence of the relative in question.
“CAN’T I SAY IT FOR HIM?”
There was one parrot which, to judge by the printed bills dealing with his exploits—these were handed round freely by his owner, a little German barber—should have walked away with the prize. In private life, it appeared, the talented fowl could not only say “Your food will cost you more,” but make long speeches and sing snatches of song. Yet in the hour of need not a syllable proceeded from its beak.
“Pretty Polly,” shouted its owner, hitting it on the nose to quicken its wits. “Marie Louise, I love thee. My name is Polly Sceptre Cwibel. Fiscal policy! Fiscal pol-icy! (irritably). I’ll twist your neck! Shut up!” An unnecessary exhortation, this last one. “Can’t I say it for him?” asked the German pathetically, as he carried the dumb bird out. The judges thought not.
One owner struck a sinister note. “You can bet your food will cost you more,” said he grimly to his speechless pet as he took it back to the ante-room.
It was interesting to make a tour of the ante-room, and speculate on the probable manner in which the various parrots would say the phrase, if they ever did say it. Near the window was a dull-green bird, with a sarcastic eye. He would say it cynically. The macaw next to him would put a bored melancholy into it.
At the other side of the room stood the cage containing the one veteran competitor, a bird of forty years’ experience of the world and its ways. He would speak crustily.
Only one parrot worked off its phrase in the allotted six minutes. That was No. 21, which received the first prize of £10.
£25 PRIZE DIVIDED.
The judges, who had the entire competition in their hands, decided that the small room in which the judging was held did not give fair play to the birds. No. 21 received extra marks, and was conveyed back to its place. And then, the spectators being for the time excluded, the judges perambulated the big room in silence.
The result was excellent. Bird after bird repeated the parrot-phrase with various degrees of accuracy. No. 9 actually let loose the sentence ten times in succession; but when he caught the cold eye of a judge he quickly commenced eating, as one who should say, “Please sir, it wasn’t me.” There was something withering in the sneering emphasis it put on “Y’r ferd wull c’st y’ MORE!” Many of the others rivalled this performance, so that the judges finally decided to divide the £25 prize.
One of the features of the exhibition was the delightful wooden parrot lent by Mr. W. Lowe, of West Croydon. It was modelled on the cartoon of the Free Food parrot in the “Express,” and fashioned out of the lid of a soap-box. Its colouring—yellow, green, red, and blue—was very lifelike. Some fine birds were exhibited by Mr. Cecil Isaacs, notably two very handsome grey parrots from the South and the West Coast of Africa.
At 3.30 Mr. Ratcliffe Cousins, in a humorous speech to the great crowd assembled in the concert-room, introduced the spokesman for the judges, Mr. Beaufoy Moore, who then distributed the prizes, amid cheers, to the winners standing in line with their pets in their cages.
The winners were:—
1. Mrs. Luscombe, 55, Haydons Park-road, Wimbledon—£10.
2. Mr. D. S. H. Kitchen, 6, West Kensington-terrace, W.— £3.
3. Mr. H. Brach, Market-square, Crewkerne—£2.
4. Mr. W. Marlow, 11, Gosberton-road, Balham, S.W.— £1.
5. Miss Smith, 205, Acton-lane, Chiswick—£1.
6. Mr. J. M. Preshaw, royal yacht Victoria and Albert—10s.
Ten shillings each was given to seventeen other exhibitors.
There was no mistaking the popularity of the parrots’ fiscal debate. The French Saloon, where the birds were exhibited, and the Central Saloon, where a magnificent variety programme was successfully carried through for the delectation of the parrot owners and visitors, were crowded out all the afternoon.
The St. James’ Restaurant management arranged everything to a nicety, and the artists, who all gave their services, were in far finer form than the parrots.
Among the performers and artists were the Vale-lane orchestra, Miss Kate Cohen, Mr. Harold Payne, Miss Ivy Dawn, Mr. Edward Crosland, Miss Beatrice Hume, Messrs. Frank Boor and Mervyn Dene (who sang duets), Miss Winifred Moore, and Miss Marion Broom.
Mr. Linden Wyatt’s imitations in his piano entertainment were excellent, and Mr. George Fuller Golden’s humorous American stories kept the saloon in a perfect roar of laughter, very tantalising for those who could not gain admittance. Mr. Frank Lincoln’s “Parrot Stories” made another very popular item, and Mr. John Shine’s “Irish Stories” were no less warmly received.
No vocal effort was more heartily applauded than “The John Bull Store,” sung by Mr. George Whitehead. The entertainment concluded with a splendid series of animated pictures shown with the Edisonograph.
Flags and other decorations were kindly lent by Messrs. J. Unite, of Edgware-road, and palms by Messrs. Dickson, of Covent Garden. Mr. Benbrick Blanchard and Mr. George Ashton generously provided several of the artists who took part in the programme.
Printed unsigned in newspaper; entered by Wodehouse in Money Received for Literary Work. For more about the catchphrase “Your food will cost you more” see the introduction to the Parrot poems and the notes appended to each of the poems.
Wodehouse’s tone in this piece is light enough that one might wonder whether the competition was just a figment of his imagination, but it was a real one, although not so much a talent show about parrots as a publicity stunt to reinforce the newspaper’s message (as expressed in the series of “Parrot” poems) that its political opponents were merely parroting an unsupported assertion about the rise in food prices claimed to result from protective tariffs. For scans of two front-page notices of the upcoming competition, click here and here.