Tuesday 3 November 2009

A Scene from the Early Life of Grimaldi

One of the books my old English master gave me in the course of our 40-year friendship was a copy of the Memoirs of Grimaldi, edited by Boz - an early project of the indefatigable Dickens, who seems to have been called in by the publishers to prune and polish the work of the famous clown and of another editor. The early chapters are, as so often with memoirs, full of interest, with cheerful descriptions of young Joey's barely believable sufferings at the hands of his father - the dancer Joseph 'Iron Legs' Grimaldi - both on and off stage (Grimaldi senior was an enthusiastic flogger). Then there's the extraordinary tale of how the older Joseph, having overheard his young children innocently relishing the prospect of one day inheriting all the plate in the dining room, had himself laid out in the parlour and his two sons informed of his death.

'When Joe was brought into the dark room on so short a notice, his sensations were rather complicated, but they speedily resolved themselves into a firm persuasion that his father was not dead. A variety of causes led him to this conclusion, among which the most prominent were, his having recently seen his father in the best health; and... his observing, by looking closely at the sheet, that his deceased parent still breathed. With very little hesitation the boy perceived what line of conduct he ought to adopt, and at once bursting into a roar of the most distracted grief, flung himself upon the floor, and rolled about in a seeming transport of anguish.
John [Joey's brother], not having seen so much of public life as his brother, was not so cunning, and perceiving in his father's death nothing but a relief from flogging and books (for both of which he had a great dislike), and the immediate possession of all the plate in the dining room, indulging in various snatches of song and snapping his fingers, declared that he was very glad to hear it.
'O! you cruel boy,' said Joe, in a passion of tears, 'hadn't you any love for your dear father? Oh! what would I give to see him alive again!'
'Oh! never mind,' replied the brother; 'don't be such a fool as to cry; we can have the cuckoo-clock all to ourselves now.'
This was more than the deceased could bear. He jumped from the bier, opened the shutters, threw off the sheet, and attacked his younger son most unmercifully...'

So, fathers, if you wish to test the devotion of your children (and you're a sadistic psycho), you know what to do...


  1. I believe there's a new biography out, which was positively reviewed in the Observer last Sunday. It related some more extraordinary anecdotes.

    I used to live around the corner from where he used to live. His blue plaque is to be seen above the shop fronts on the south side of Exmouth Market, a short walk from Saddlers Wells, where he did most of his clowning.

  2. Thanks, Nige, I now know what to do! (But "we can have the cuckoo-clock all to ourselves now..." - I think we can tell it would be the other brother who'd turn out to be the successful one).

  3. I imagine him in full clown dress as he leaps enraged from his 'deathbed'. The horror, the horror...