Tuesday, January 29, 2008


A phrase I used in my last post - Death is the ruffian on the stair - is my favourite metaphor for death. It comes from a verse by W.E. Henley:

Madame Life's a piece in bloom,
Death goes dogging everywhere:
She's the tenant of the room,
He's the ruffian on the stair.

It's a verse that sends my mind racing in many different directions, like a puppy released for the first time into a meadow.

The first line uses the archaic 'piece' as a term for a woman. It's similar to 'sort', as used by Del in Only Fools and Horses. I first heard 'piece' used in this way as a child from one of those 'uncles' who wasn't actually an uncle. He said a friend of his was seeing "that blonde piece who works in the pub." It's a rather insulting, misogynistic way of talking about women but I was very amused by it at the time and used it at every opportunity for a week or two.

'Death goes dogging everywhere': clearly the older sense of 'dogging' meaning to hunt like a dog but the recent usage (nocturnal sex with strangers in public places) gives the line a new, contemporary feel and makes you sit up.

'Ruffian on the Stair' is also the title of a play by Joe Orton, first produced in 1967, which was also the year of his untimely death. I assume he took the title from this poem.
Joe Orton, of course, was no stranger to dogging - dogging his way through the public toilets of north London and, for a change of scene, across North Africa, much of it chronicled in more detail than one might wish in his diaries.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone with a predilection for rough sex with rough trade it wasn't a ruffian on the stair that did for him. It was his fellow 'tenant of the room', his partner Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned him to death.

But for many gay men, particularly in the past when risk-taking was unavoidable, death really did come in the form of a ruffian on the stair. But I think the metaphor goes much wider than sexuality. For anyone who belongs to a minority group or who is not a fully paid-up member of society, the ruffian on the stair is only a small political shift away from reality: "In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist............" Martin Niemoller's famous lines are perhaps too well-known to need quoting in their entirety. But the point about the ruffian on the stair is that he can be wearing the well-polished brogues of the bureaucrat as easily as the jackboot of the neo-nazi or the Nike trainers of the psychotic criminal.

'She's the tenant of the room': we tend to live life as though we were freeholders but life is only ever leasehold. It has all the security of a short-term leasehold tenancy from Nicholas van Hoogstraten. You can pay the bills, sing loud hymns of praise to the landlord and put double locks on the doors but all to no avail. When you hear those floorboards creek on the stairs, you'd better hope it's just your neighbour going out for some milk.

And on that cheerful note, I wish you a very happy Tuesday.


At 12:00 PM, Blogger Tony said...

A 'piece' in Scotland is a sandwich, so presumably a 'piece in bloom' would have quite a growth of mould on it.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Good to hear from you, Tony.
Although often confused on visits to Scotland by the different use of English, I don't remember coming across that one.
The worst is 'stay' for 'live' rather than to mean temporary stay as in an hotel. I've had some very confused conversations over that one.


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