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What the Butler Saw - A 'Y' Shaped Coffin

By Ashleylister @ashleylister
What the Butler Saw  -  A 'Y' Shaped Coffin
When I was a child I remember my father having a novelty pen. From behind clear plastic, a picture of a young, attractive lady smiled. She was fully clothed, but a twist of the pen and she was just in a bathing suit. The pen would have been quite a popular thing at the time. Blackpool promenade gift shops would have been full of them – perhaps they still are, I wouldn’t know, but I hope not. At the time, early to mid ‘60s, they were harmless fun and not intended to degrade women any more than ‘What the Butler Saw’ machines in the amusement arcades or live striptease shows. Dad always told me that she, the model in the pen, wasn’t a patch on my beautiful mother. And of course, she wasn’t. Nobody was.

I laughed at something being hilariously funny before I was old enough to understand what it was really about and got seriously told off by my mother who was horrified at my amusement. I ended up in tears. I hated being trouble and I didn’t know why she was so cross with me. It was to do with a woman being born with her legs apart and would need a ‘Y’ shaped coffin when she died. I know now that what I probably overheard was likely to be something to do with Joe Orton’s play ‘What the Butler Saw’ which was new and considered risqué, though I didn’t know anything about that at the time. I was thirteen and a naïve thirteen by modern day standards. My mirth was completely innocent. Had I known then what I know now, I certainly wouldn’t have shared it with my mother. This was the lady who wouldn’t let me watch ‘A Taste of Honey’ on television, around the same time, I think. I’d just got into it when she shooed me off to bed. She went downstairs to help in our pub and I crept back to our lounge, watching the film from the doorway but listening for her coming back. At the time, things in ‘A Taste of Honey’ went way over my head, probably the things my mother wanted to shield me from. During the last fifty-odd years, I’ve seen the film many times, I have the DVD and I’ve read the play. Shelagh Delaney, pure perfection.

The ‘Y’ shaped coffin comes from a famous quote from Joe Orton’s ‘What the Butler Saw’. When I was old enough to understand why my mother must have been so mad at me, she was no longer there, I couldn’t explain. She passed away later that year and I had to grow up without her and learn to steer myself through the abyss of life. I hope she wouldn’t be too dismayed at what I’ve read, studied, written and achieved.

At the age of thirteen, the names Shelagh Delaney and Joe Orton wouldn’t have meant anything to me but their written work was there, waiting for an older me and I have devoured every word, over again.

Joe Orton was before his time, lived his own life, took chances and packed a great deal into his thirty-four years before his partner murdered him and committed suicide.

Read at Joe Orton’s funeral:
Hilarium Memoriam J. O.
Some met together when he died
Not in the name of any God
But in his name
Whom they lost to the coffin,
The box which caused him endless mirth.
His lesson – which he would not read again.
Hilarity in death.
And now his censored spirit
In oblivion – free.
Perhaps it’s hard to see that
He’d have thought it funny – mad.
They will not weep for him.
They know that if they did
He’d think they’d missed the joke.
The joke that some would say
Was ‘in bad taste’,
And others who are calmer
‘Just a waste.’                                         Josephine Crombie

Thanks for reading, Pam x

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