Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the origin of specious

Sir Joseph Furphy Larrikin

Many people email me about the important issues I raise on this blog, and not all of them are certifiable, (although Tomas from Sterkstroom you might want to seek professional advice about that matter you brought to my attention - I'm not actually a trained criminal psychologist). Many of you are fascinated by the tales from my new home town of Larrikin's End and I think it's time I addressed the pleadings from you to expand a little on its history and unique social customs. I accept there might be genuine reasons beyond bone-idleness that prevent you from doing your own internet research. Also, I can't think of anything else to write about.

Larrikin's End was founded in 1867 by Sir Joseph Furphy Larrikin, a journeyman poet and former convict from Limerick, Ireland and inventor of the Larrikin's Last Laugh Machine. Sir Joseph was born to a poor family of tinkers in 1835. In 1841, at the age of six, young Joseph was caught carving a smiley face onto the last potato in the county. He had planned to cheer everyone up by stamping smiley faces all over the town. Although there was a dire shortage of food, there was an abundance of printers' ink left over from all the failed rebellions. No one had the energy to get up pamphlets anymore. The potato famine had taken a terrible toll on morale and clearly had done nothing for anyone's sense of humour. In a place like Limerick, renowned for its witty verse, this was a tragedy of enormous proportions. Sadly young Joseph was unable to put this right.

Catching him with the potato, his mother declared in exasperation that she could have kept the whole family of twenty alive for a year on that one spud and promptly keeled over. The rest of the family died during the night. An inconsolable Joseph was discovered near death himself from starvation by the local constable the next day. The constable's wife, who had a broader culinary repertoire than Mrs Larrikin, nursed him back to health with her delicious turnip and shamrock stew. Once we was well again, he was sentenced to hang for murdering his family but a kindly judge commuted the sentence to transportation for life to Victoria, Australia. Young Joseph, in his innocence, responded, 'please sir, I'd rather the gallows.'

Once in Melbourne, Joseph quickly set about making his fortune. He was at least in a place where his smiley faces were appreciated. Potatoes grow well in Victoria and Joseph was soon plastering the walls of government buildings with cheerful smiley face prints and naughty verses, which he dubbed 'limericks' after his home in Ireland. He is credited with founding the perennially popular street-art movement that thrives all over Melbourne today. But the innovation that truly made him a national treasure and brought him both riches and position is the Larrikin's Last Laugh Machine.

Joseph was a regular patron of Melbourne's theatres. In those days, they employed a man to execute that peculiar dying guffaw that always comes at the end of the audiences' spontaneous expression of joy at a well-told joke. The 'last laugh', as it was known, was originally inserted as a cue to comedians that it was time to move on to the next sketch. The trouble was that the last laugher was usually an unreliable ruffian who was more often in the bar at punchline time, leaving the show littered with uncomfortable silences. The last laugh is as important in comic theatre as the first clap is in orchestral music. The first clapper is usually a retired violinist who knows by heart the difference between the end of a movement and a page-turning pause and receives a small stipend for performing this important function. No one likes to pay a lot of money for the privilege of looking foolish.

Larrikin's rather elegant solution to the problem of last laughers was to replace them with a mechanical device. He built a sound cylinder out of an old corned beef tin on which he recorded the sound of a laughing kookaburra. In order to avert any future claims of retrospective plagiarism, he rigged the device so that the recording could be played backwards, which gives it its distinctive character. This device could be operated by the stage manager, usually an altogether more sober type, at the appropriate place in the programme. Some of these machines are still in use today. If you listen closely, you will be able to hear one on Two and a Half Men. You will need to be patient as the jokes are few and far between.

After being knighted in 1865, Larrikin declared himself, 'tired of gaiety'. He longed to recreate the misery of his Irish childhood and went searching for a bleak and distant place in which to live out his days. I can only imagine his joy at landing in this scrubby, windswept place by comparing it with my own. I wonder if he thought, as I did, 'well, at least it's cheap.'

Modern day Larrikin's End is true to its founder's vision that it be 'peopled with folk of dubious character'. Sir Joseph, having risen to the very highest ranks of society, knew that true authenticity is to be found at the runty end of the gene pool. If you visit his grave at the Larrikin's End Inter-denominational Cemetery and Mini-golf Course, you will see that his epitaph echoes his deep love of philosophy,

Once a tinker, always a tinker.

One of the ways in which we ensure that no one will be allowed to rise above the exacting low standards set out by Sir Joseph is to serve the most diabolical takeaway food in the history of tourism. As you probably know, Larrikin's End is a fishing town of some repute, yet we have the worst fried fish on the planet. This is surely an achievement of which we can all be proud but credit must go to Sir Joseph for laying down the guiding principles all those generations ago. His unhappy relationship with the potato has echoed down the decades and, even today, potatoes are banned in Larrikin's End. Instead of fish'n'chips, we have shark'n'neeps.

The 'neep' is a particularly soggy type of local turnip that has a natural resistance to crispness and shark is the only fish we catch that no one else will buy so we have to eat it ourselves. The reason we catch so many sharks is that they are usually chasing the same fish as we are. Because the sharks are faster and smarter, they usually get there first. Our fishermen land the sharks, cut them open and extract the export fish. With any luck, they are still in one piece as sharks are gulpers rather than nibblers. The fishermen then cut the shark up into barbecue-sized chunks for us. We celebrate this tradition at our weekly Shark Tale Poetry Festival. The price of admission is one dodgy limerick and for that, you get all the shark'n'neeps you can eat. Sir Joseph's lasting legacy is that Larrikin's End will never know famine, quite the opposite in fact.

I should mention that The Larrikin's End Regressive Society gives tutorials to communities threatened with gentrification. You may be interested if your town is showing signs of going Gaggia, although I should mention that a by-pass is the kiss of death. Once the heavy transport lorries stop rolling through your town and tables go out on the footpath it's goodbye Boganville, hello Spatown. You'll never be able to get a decent cup of Nescafe again.

So, there you have it - a potted history of Larrikin's End. I'm sure there's a book in it. I am indebted to Convict Creations for its comprehensive and scholarly history and also for the fine portrait of Sir Joseph.

I leave you with a final word of wisdom from our pot-making convict philospher,

'Tink only good torts.'

(From The Prison Diaries of Joseph Furphy Larrikin, 1845-1850)