From The Archive: ‘Potter’s Pigeon Problem’

 

Our exploration of the Inner London Education Authority’s archive as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project continues apace this week with a rather feisty little offering inspired by the city’s Caribbean diaspora. Mango Spice is a collection of songs recorded for distribution to London schools in the early 1980s as a double cassette and song-book, complete with liner notes, musical scores and amusing illustrations by Maggie Ling. There are over forty of them to choose from, but the current favourite in the UOSH office is this performance of the traditional Jamaican number ‘Good Morning Missa Potter’, sung here by Chris Cameron, Vallin Miller and a spirited chorus of ILEA schoolchildren. It’s something of an ear-worm and you’ll surely find yourself singing along in no time, even if the lyrics might initially seem a little impenetrable to those of us unfamiliar with Creole-based dialects. It goes:

Good Morning, Missa Pottter,
good morning to yu, sah.
Come to lodge a complaint to yu now, sah,
Plant a piece a red peas a red Sally land,
Mary Jane an pigeon come eat it out, sah.
Come out a me yahd, me neva call yu yah,
Come out a me yahd, me neva call yu yah,
For yu house rent money no done pay fah,
Yu house rent money no done pay fah.

You’ll be humming it for the rest of the day, trust me. A potted translation (pun intended) of the above can be found in the pages of the Mango Spice book, along with the clarification that this is being sung by a landlady to her tenant (despite being helmed here by two chaps and some children) as she gives voice to her grievances vis-a-vis his recent conduct. Don’t let the melodious nature of the tune or the cordial tone of the opening lines fool you; she is in a quite steaming rage and clearly on the verge of ‘shaking him warmly by the throat’, as your Dad might put it. The charges she brings against Potter are two-fold: on the one hand, he hasn’t paid his rent, which is never a smart move if you’re hoping to avoid a song-based altercation with whoever owns the roof that keeps the rain off. But even worse, this redoubtable woman whose palm Potter is contractually obliged to be crossing claims that his daughter Mary Jane and some pigeon accomplices have dug up and eaten all the kidney beans she planted in the vegetable patch, rendering hours of back-breaking labour null and void in one greedy feathered swoop. In other words, she’s certainly not belting out Mr. Potter’s Greatest Hits…

As an aside, it must be said that all this does make for a far more entertaining method of tackling tenancy disputes than the curt official letter or aggrieved voicemail that such transgressions more traditionally incur. Thinking back over my own years spent renting in the capital, besides a handful of delayed monthly payments I’ve also been found guilty on occasion of playing loud jungle music in the kitchen, using the butter knife to spread something other than butter and that time I accidentally flooded out my ground floor neighbours (those poncey, futuristic taps might look very fancy, but anything over a trickle and the water misses the bathtub completely). The closest anyone got to breaking into song during these conflicts was the downstairs occupant at the moment when her ceiling fell in, but while the sudden burst of anguished soprano could almost certainly have been heard as far as the Caribbean, her actual complaint pursued the usual formal channels. Yawn.

Anyway, back to Mr. Potter: what has this most hapless of tenants to offer in his defence? Very little, it would seem – perhaps wisely, because hell hath no fury like a wronged proprietress with an axe to grind and the power of song. Though who knows, maybe this traditional ballad did once contain other lyrics, now lost to history? Perhaps even whole other stanzas existed, in which Mr. Potter haughtily returned the serenade, assuring his accuser in a rich basso profundo that Mary Jane had actually been in her bedroom miming showtunes into a hairbrush at the time of the alleged incident, and then going on to enquire as to whether the landlady had any children herself and if so had she ever actually managed to convince one to eat anything remotely as healthy as a kidney bean; even when washed, cooked and served as a side-dish, let alone pulled cold and hard from the bare earth? Pausing to regain his composure after this outburst, Potter might then have sworn that the direct debit had definitely gone from his account as usual, definitely, unless the pigeons had somehow stolen that as well. And finally, casting an aggrieved eye upon these feathered felons, he might have rounded things off by proposing an admirable solution to all of their problems: the sudden abundance of well-sated and newly-plump game-birds waddling sluggishly around the yard in a contented, post-bean-feast stupor. Everybody wins – dinner is served, Potter is exonerated and we now have enough material for two weeks at the Palladium: Red Sally, The Musical!

Sadly, until these extra verses are discovered (or until Tim Rice finally accepts the reverse charges), we will have to assume that the tenant simply declined to counter the accusations and dined instead on a large helping of humble pie. While one must of course never automatically assume a man’s guilt just because of his silence, it is true that the vehemence with which the landlady holds Mr. Potter responsible does suggest some kind of lapse on his part. The most likely scenario is that he was the owner of the birds and that his negligence that had caused them to stray towards the forbidden delights of the vegetable patch; another is that Mr. Potter was in fact supposed to be actively guarding the bean patch himself in his capacity as a scarecrow. Either way, guilty as charged.

But it’s rarely ever as cut and dry as all that, is it? Is there really anybody with experience of renting in London or anywhere else who couldn’t trade a few horror stories regarding their accommodation tribulations over the years? How many stories have ever ended with the landlady/lord or letting agent as the noble hero? Not Red Sally, The Musical, that’s for sure! And so, in solidarity with all of the Potters (and some of the pigeons) of this world, I would like to hereby propose a riposte in the form of ‘My Landlady’, a calypso classic by Trinidadian icon and former resident of the capital, Lord Kitchener.

This song is one of many treats from London Is The Place For Me, that much-loved compilation of Trinidadian Calypso songs from 1950-56 that beautifully capture the joys and sorrows experienced by these first members of the Windrush generation. Indeed, ‘Kitch’ himself was on board that very ship and famously sang the album’s title cut accapella for the waiting Pathé news cameras upon arrival at Tilbury docks:

Full of characteristic warmth and wit, these recordings are an integral part of London’s rich sonic history, and tell tales that still ring true six decades later – Kitchener’s amusing misadventures on the Underground, for example, never fails to raise a smile. And while the nine million people who call London their home these days should hardly be in need of it, recordings such as this and Mango Spice are a perfect reminder of just how rich a cultural stew is forever bubbling away in this city of ours. Just as well it’s a metaphorical stew, because we’re all out of beans…

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