Imperial fiction: Bindle

‘After all, ‘appiness is the thing wot matters. If yer can get it through lookin’ into a gal’s eyes, it’s better’n gettin’ it through lookin’ into a beer-glass. I’d sooner be ‘appy than drunk any day.’
– Herbert Jenkins, Bindle (1916)

If, during the coming winter, you confess ignorance of Bindle, you will be set down as an unfortunate mortal, who has been denied acquaintance with one of the most cheerful of modern creations.
Western Mail (1916)

Joseph Bindle is a furniture-remover in south-west London, a trade that’s precarious at the best of times, and which he treats in such a cavalier fashion that his wife’s first question when he gets home is always: ‘Got a job?’ The answer is by no means always positive.bindle-2

He’s around forty years old, he’s ‘a little man, bald-headed, with a red nose,’ and he always wears a cricket cap, ‘where the four triangles of alternating white and Cambridge blue had lost much of their original delicacy of shade’. But he’s chiefly noted for his completely irrepressible good nature: ‘Two things in life he loved above all others, beer and humour.’

He’s always getting into scrapes, normally of his own devising, but because he’s motivated by mischief rather than malice, he gets away with it most of the time. People rather like Bindle. Unless they’re puritans or foremen, of course: those sort of people tend very much not to like Bindle.

In other words, Herbert Jenkins’s most successful creation isn’t far removed from Barry Pain’s working-class characters, as seen in the likes of Edwards (1915) and Me and Harris (1916). The format, too, is the same: a series of short episodes, with only the loosest of structures.

Bindle’s escapades tend towards the practical joke: he switches the numbers on hotel rooms, for example, or he spikes the drinks at a Temperance Fete, or he decides – when he’s given the wrong key for a removals job – to go ahead with moving out all the furniture from the wrong house, just for fun. It’s mostly good-natured enough, with just one exception: he falls in with some upper-class youths at one point, and assists them in the public humiliation of an Oxford undergraduate, whose primary offence is to be a scholarship boy, and therefore a bit of an oik – it’s an episode that leaves an unpleasant taste.

Apart from that lapse, the main problem is that these jokes can get a little wearing. I mean, not as wearing as they would be in real life, obviously, but even on the page it’s not necessarily the kind of humour that survives too well. In his day job, Jenkins was the publisher who brought us dozens of P.G. Wodehouse’s best and wittiest books (including the mighty Leave It to Psmith), but you’re in no danger of getting the two writers confused.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some good gags. There’s a fine cameo, for example, by a stage hypnotist named Willie Wilkins, or Professor Sylvanus Conti as he’s ‘known at most of the second-rate music halls’. The Professor is obsessed by a competitor, who trades under the plain name of John Gibson:

The barefaced effrontery of the fellow added fuel to the fire of his rival’s anger. To use an English name for a hypnotic turn upon the English music-hall stage! He should have known that hypnotism, like the equestrian and dressmaking arts, is continental, without exception or qualification.

And there are occasionally some very fine lines. Bindle encounters a dog, a mongrel ‘in which the salient points of the mastiff, bull-terrier and French poodle struggled for expression,’ and he concludes: ‘I’d call it a bloomin’ ‘istory o’ dawgs in one volume.’

For me, though, the real appeal of the book – the reason it’s included in this series of pieces – is to be found in the underlying values, the attitude to the world, that are expressed through Bindle.Bindle-6

As a young man, Bindle won a girl from under the nose of a rival, a greengrocer’s assistant named Alfred Hearty. But he paid dearly for his victory. His wife’s younger sister married Hearty instead, and the two couples were bound together forever in unhappy conflict.bindle-5

The Bindles’ marriage proved not to be a union of joy. It didn’t take long before she grew tired of her husband’s irresponsible ways, and she watched on, in envious regret, as Hearty, the man she’d rejected, turned himself into ‘the most successful man she had ever encountered’, owning ‘two flourishing greengrocers’ shops, to say nothing of being regarded as one of Fulham’s most worthy citizens’.

Hearty’s a dust-dry, God-fearing type, a priggish pillar of the Alton Road Chapel. He’s ‘all ’ymns an’ whiskers’, the polar opposite of Bindle, who consequently distrusts him almost as much as Mrs Brindle admires the man. Driven to distraction by her husband, Mrs Bindle took Hearty as her role model, ‘gave up all “carnal” amusements, and began a careful and elaborate preparation for the next world’.

As a man more influenced by the public bar than the pulpit, Bindle doesn’t approve of her turn to religion. And it’s pretty clear that we aren’t supposed to approve either:

Mrs Bindle was obsessed with two ogres: Dirt and the Devil. Her cleanliness was the cleanliness that rendered domestic comfort impossible, just as her godliness was the godliness of suffering in this world and glory in the next.
Her faith was the faith of negation. The happiness to be enjoyed in the next world would be in direct ratio to the sacrifices made in this. Denying herself the things that her ‘carnal nature’ cried out for, she was filled with an intense resentment that anyone else should continue to live in obvious enjoyment of what she had resolutely put from her. Her only consolation was the triumph she was to enjoy in the next world, and she found no little comfort in the story of Dives and Lazarus.

Incidentally, in case you can’t immediately bring it to mind, the story of Dives and Lazarus is one of Jesus’ parables, which concerns a diseased pauper (Lazarus) who begs at the gate of a rich man (Dives). There is no interaction between the two men, but they happen to die at the same time, and as Dives is being tormented in the fires of hell, he sees – far, far away – Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham:

And he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’
But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.’

Over the centuries, there’s been much debate over how this should be interpreted – whether it is intended as a literal description of physical torment in hell, whether it is even a parable at all – but for many believers it’s simply one of the most reassuring parts of the Gospels. Dives is punished in the afterlife not because he was directly cruel to Lazarus, but simply because he has received ‘good things’ in this world: ‘the last shall be first, and the first last,’ as Jesus says elsewhere. That’s certainly how Bella Bathgate sees it in O. Douglas’s Penny Plain (1920):

‘I’m nae Socialist masel’. There maun aye be rich and poor, Dives in the big hoose and Lazarus at the gate. But so long as we’re sure that Dives’ll catch it in the end, and Lazarus lie soft in Abraham’s bosom, we can pit up wi’ the unfairness here.’

There’s also – while I’m on a diversion – an old folk song, ‘Come All You Worthy People’, that’s slightly less focussed on the punitive element of the tale:

Come all you worthy people that are so very poor,
Remember how Lazarus laid at the rich man’s door,
A-begging of those crumbs of bread which from the table fell.
The Scriptures do inform us he now in Heav’n doth dwell.

Anyway, my point is that I don’t think the parable looms as large in the popular consciousness today as it used to, but for the poor and the wretched through the ages, it’s been a message of comfort and hope.

In the case of Mrs Bindle, however, her husband isn’t convinced that her faith is bringing her much pleasure. ‘The idea of goin’ to ‘eaven seems to make her low-spirited,’ he reflects. Nor is he entirely sure that the relationship between his Missus and her Maker is doing ‘Im Upstairs any favours either: ‘I wonder if Gawd really likes that sort?’

In short, he feels that, even if one wants to go in for religion, there are limits: ‘No man didn’t ought to be religious all the week. It ain’t natural.’bindle-3

Bindle’s disagreements with Alfred Hearty often revolve around Hearty’s teenage daughter, Millie. She chafes against her father’s moralizing, and looks to Bindle as an ally in the fight against the good fight. He rather enjoys the role. ‘Yer want to shove Gawd down ‘er throat all the time,’ he reprimands his brother-in-law, ‘and it ain’t the real Gawd ‘oo was kind to children.’

Anyway, he points out in a big show-down between the two men, Millie’s in love, and all Hearty’s admonitions are bound to be futile: ‘Yer can’t stop a runaway ‘orse with a notice-board.’

As these comments suggest, the reprobate Bindle has a heart of gold. He’s full of charity and decency and sentimentality, so that, although he has no time for church, we understand that he’s the true Christian here. He may enjoy a joke, and frequent pubs, cinemas and music halls, but he’ll always help out a pal, or even a stranger, without any thought of thanks, let alone reward. It’s just what a chap does. And what he doesn’t talk about.

He has a strong moral code with very definite rules of behaviour:

Bindle himself was far from being pugnacious; but his conception of manhood was that it should be ready to hit any head that wanted hitting. He had been known to fight men much bigger than himself, not because he personally had any dispute to settle with them, but rather from an abstract sense of the fitness of things. Once when a man was mercilessly beating a horse Bindle intervened, and a fight had ensued, which had ended only when both parties were too exhausted to continue.

The disapproval of cruelty to animals is integral to the British self-image, particularly when it comes to horses, and it turns up repeatedly in fiction. One of the most vicious passages in the pages of Dornford Yates – it’s in his novel Jonah and Co. (1922) –  comes when Jonah sees a Spaniard flogging a broken-down horse, and gives the man a serious beating, making sure not to deliver a knock-out blow so he can keep hitting him, right up to the point ‘when it had become obvious that the blessed gifts of sight, smell and hearing had been almost wholly withdrawn from the gentleman, when, in fact, he had practically ceased attempting to defend himself’.

As far as Bindle is concerned, this code extends to violence towards women:

He had been known to fight and beat a bigger man than himself to save a woman from a thrashing, and when Mrs Bindle had poured down reproaches upon his head on account of his battered appearance, he had silently gone to bed and simulated sleep, although every inch of his body ached.

As he explains to one of his friends: ‘I draws the line there; I don’t ‘old with ‘ammerin’ women. Yer can’t ‘ammer somethink wot can’t ‘ammer back, Ginger; that’s for furriners.’

The distrust of foreigners is part of the point, of course. Bindle is a thoroughly English character: he sees life as being inherently funny; he will always champion the underdog’s cause; and he regards any display of emotion, devotion or intellect as being inherently suspect.

It’s a familiar set of characteristics, but it takes on an added significance here. Because this was written, and is set, during the First World War. And in the final stages of the book, having shown us our comic hero in domesticity and employment, Jenkins turns his attention to the conflict.

Bindle, of course, wants to be part of it. He lies about his age in order to join up, but is rejected on medical grounds (he suffers from ‘various veins’), and has to settle instead for serving his country as a special constable.

His instinctive patriotism, however, isn’t shared by all his acquaintances. ‘It ain’t our scrap,’ argues one of his drinking companions, as they discuss the war, ‘an’ we been let in for it by a lot o’ stutterin’ toffs wot us workin’-men sends to Parliament. It makes me fair sick.’

Bindle’s response is to return to his core English values:

‘Supposin’ I see a couple of big chaps a-‘ammerin’ your missis an’ kickin’ yer kids about, an’ I says, “It ain’t nothink to do wi’ me,” an’ takes no notice. Would any of yer ever want to speak to me again?
‘Well, that’s wot Germany’s done to Belgium an’ the other place, an’ that’s why we chipped in. Look ‘ere, mates, if any of yer thinks yer can live thinkin’ only o’ yerselves, yer mistaken. We got a fine ole country and a good king, an’ we can tell a archbishop to go to ‘ell if we want to wi’out gettin’ pinched for it; an’ when yer got all them things – an’ there ain’t no other country wot ‘as – then it’s worth ‘avin’ a scrap now an’ then to keep ’em.’

It’s not the most sophisticated analysis of the causes of the Great War, but perhaps the psychology has a certain truth.


Herbert Jenkins writes in his introduction that Bindle’s first adventure appeared ‘some years ago’ in Blackwood’s Magazine, but that appears to have been a one-off; the clear implication is that the stories in the book are new and written for publication only in this form.

It was well received by the press. ‘Much knowledge of human nature goes to the writing of such a work,’ said one review. ‘Everything about Bindle is delightfully amusing,’ said another. And a third pointed out that this kind of light reading might prove popular with wounded soldiers in need of a lift: ‘There are smiles and laughter on every page; Bindle, indeed, is a “jewel” that the men in hospital will assuredly prize.’

It was also well received by the public. My copy is undated, but I’d guess it’s circa 1930, and it says it’s the ‘twenty-sixth printing, completing 383,711 copies’. Further volumes followed: The Adventures of Bindle (1919), Mrs Bindle (1924) and Bindles on the Rocks (1924), the latter two published posthumously. I haven’t read any of them, and to be honest, I’m unlikely so to do. Bindle’s a charming enough character, but I doubt he really has the legs for a series.

Perhaps that’s why he’s never done much business in other media, though there were a couple of short movies in the silent days – Bindle’s Cocktail and Bindle, Millionaire (both 1926), starring Tom Reynolds – and there was a feature-film adaptation in 1931 with Patrick Aherne (who had earlier played John Heritage in the Harry Lauder version of Huntingtower).

The big moment should have come when a production company, Tannsfeld Films, announced in late 1965 that it had commissioned a 13-part television series starring Alfie Bass in the title role, with plans for a second series to follow. Only one episode was ever filmed, however, and I don’t think it was ever broadcast; it later turned up in cinemas as a second-feature in 1972 under the title One of Them Days. Had the series happened, perhaps Bindle would be remembered a little better than he is. If, that is, the show had been any good – and the scriptwriter, Glyn Idris Jones, suggests that it wasn’t; in his autobiography, he blamed Bass, who would ‘drop lines and make up his own as he went along, which he fondly thought were witty, and a weak director [Peter Saunders] who did nothing to put a stop to it’.

Slightly more successful were radio incarnations: Bindle’s Nocturnal Adventure (1941), a 30-minute radio play for the Home Service, and – much later – a couple of adaptations on Radio 4, The Adventures of Bindle (1973), and The Bindles Take a Holiday (1975). I know none of these versions, so cannot recommend them or otherwise.

As a footnote, apropos of nothing at all, this is from a newspaper obituary in 1923:

Herbert Jenkins, publisher and author of Bindle, at the age of 47, killed himself by hard work. Every morning, nine o’clock found him seated at his office desk, and there he sat till seven o’clock at night, when he snatched a brief hour for dinner. His lunch usually consisted of a cup of tea and some fruit. If strawberries were in season he would have them. Then a Turkish cigarette would finish this snack. When tea-time came around he would just have a cup of tea. Then, after his dinner, he would go back again to his office and work till ten and sometimes eleven o’clock at night.
He was a bachelor; his mother was his great love, and he dedicated Bindle to her. ‘Women is all right, if yer can keep ’em from marrying yer,’ is a phrase which occurs in one of his Bindle books. He lived up to it.

see also:

Alf’s Button
Mr Clutterbuck’s Election
Stalky & Co.
Penny Plain


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