Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Ballad of William Bloat - by Raymond Calvert of Helen's Bay (1906-1959)

This famous and brutal old black comedy murder ballad is very well known, but its origin less so. It was written by Helen's Bay man Raymond Calvert, who lived at Banchory House and went to Bangor Grammar. He was a student at Queen's University where he was in the Dramatic Society.

In December 1926 they had just been to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where 20 year old Raymond recited it for the first time at an after-party. He went on to become a stockbroker as a director of Belfast firm Taylor, Calvert and Cox. His wife Irene became an independent MP. Irene later said that "it was conceived as a piece of fun with no political significance whatsoever ... the ballad has passed into the folk memory of Ulster people at home and abroad".

It is thought to have been first printed in the 1950 miscellany Brave Crack, An Anthology of Ulster Wit and Humour, (an interesting and cross-community collection from 30 writers including Marshall, Hayward and Bell) and is set on the 'Shankill Road' (the shocking and comedic cultural reference to 'solemnly cursed the Pope' just belongs in a mythical Shankill setting). The defective razor blade was 'German made' whilst the indestructible sheet was 'Irish linen'.

But when Raymond Calvert died, on 11 July 1959, the Belfast Telegraph reprinted the lyrics a few days later but they oddly say 'Newry Road' rather than 'Shankill Road'.

The 1982 Blackstaff Press edition shown here (illustrated by Hector McDonnell) has the more familiar 'Shankill Road' but this time the razor is more benignly 'foreign made' and again 'Irish linen'. I have, as you might imagine, heard the combination of 'Dublin made' and 'Belfast linen'. Wendy Dunbar won an Irish Book Design Award in 1983 for her work on the Blackstaff edition.

I've no idea who it was who first set it to the melody The Dawning of the Day but it fits perfectly –

Tommy Makem's recording here has the razor blade 'British made' but the rope 'Belfast linen'. The Phil Coulter recitation below has 'Free State Made' and 'Ulster Linen'. A Clancy Brothers version has 'English made' and 'Irish linen'. Just insert your own prejudice!

David Hammond referred to it in his 1978 Songs of Belfast. As an outstanding achievement it was also selected to appear in Kingsley Amis' New Oxford Book of Light Verse in 1979 due to a persistent campaign of persuasion by Gregg Coulson, a retired press officer with the Post Office in Northern Ireland. I wonder what its genteel readership made of it!

However... if I was a Shankill person I might not feel as relaxed about it. Yes it is humourous, but when a drama student from swanky Helen's Bay reinforces a whole panoply of stereotypes - social poverty, nagging wives, domestic violence, religious bigotry – it's worth pausing for thought.

In a mean abode on the Shankill Road

Lived a man named William Bloat;
He had a wife, the curse of his life,
Who continually got his goat.
So one day at dawn, with her nightdress on
He cut her bloody throat.

With a razor gash he settled her hash
Oh never was crime so quick

But the drip drip drip on the pillowslip
Of her lifeblood made him sick.

And the pool of gore on the bedroom floor

Grew clotted and cold and thick.

And yet he was glad he had done what he had

When she lay there stiff and still

But a sudden awe of the angry law

Struck his heart with an icy chill.

So to finish the fun so well begun

He resolved himself to kill.

He took the sheet from the wife’s coul’ feet

And twisted it into a rope

And he hanged himself from the pantry shelf,

‘Twas an easy end, let’s hope.

In the face of death with his latest breath

He solemnly cursed the Pope.

But the strangest turn to the whole concern
Is only just beginning.

He went to Hell but his wife got well

And she’s still alive and sinning.

For the razor blade was German made

But the sheet was Belfast linen.