AUGUSTUS Carp is possibly the most loathsome hero in literature. He is priggish, pompous, hypocritical, a blackmailer, a sneak and a glutton, and has no empathy whatsoever with his fellow man. He is also utterly hilarious.
Carp’s supposed autobiography, published in 1924, has been described as ‘the funniest unknown book in the world’. Read it, and you’ll see why.
It begins with Carp stating his mission ‘to place some higher example before the world’, adding: ‘On every ground I am an unflinching opponent of sin. I have continually rebuked it in others. I have strictly refrained from it in myself. And for that reason alone I have deemed it incumbent upon me to issue this volume.’
He introduces his father, also Augustus, as a ‘civic official in a responsible position’, a ‘sidesman of the Church of St James-the-Less in Camberwell, and the tenant of Mon Repos, Angela Gardens’. He adds: ‘It must not be assumed that this nomenclature in any way met with my father’s approval . . . such was his distrust of French morality that he always insisted, both for himself and others, upon a strictly English pronunciation.’ In his ‘massive ears, with their boldly outstanding rims, resided the rare faculty of independent motion’.
On the occasion of his son’s home birth on a February morning, announced by his wife’s aunt Mrs Emily Smith to the assembled family, Carp senior declared: ‘I shall call him Augustus, after myself.’
‘Or tin?’ suggested my mother’s mother (Augustus junior writes). ‘What about calling him tin, after the saint?’
‘How do you mean – tin?’ said my father.
‘Augus-tin’ said Mrs Emily Smith.
But my father shook his head.
‘No, it shall be tus,’ he said. ‘Tus is better than tin.’
Carp senior announces that he will give the vicar the first opportunity of being the boy’s godfather. Written invitations to be a second godfather are courteously declined by the Dean of St Paul’s, the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury. ‘Neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary saw fit to reply at all, while the President of the Board of Trade merely expressed a formal regret.’ The answer to Carp’s quest for a candidate of sufficient dignity comes when he catches sight of himself in a cheesemonger’s window. ‘Involuntarily, he raised his hat. He himself was the man.’
Following an unfortunate incident at the christening, Carp senior makes himself a sidesman at St James-the-Lesser-Still, Peckham Rye. And after a distressing episode with a cleaning lady, Mrs O’Flaherty, he is installed as ‘one of the foremost sidesmen at St James-the-Least-of-All, Kennington Oval’.
As a boy, the young Augustus becomes friendly with fellow ‘Xtians’ Simeon and Silas, sons of another sidesman, Mr Balfour Whey.
‘Of about my own age, and each with an impediment in his speech, both were destined on this account for eventual ordination in the Church of England.’ He also becomes friendly with Ezekiel Stool, heir to a gripe-water fortune and possessor of five sisters, Faith, Hope, Charity, Tact and Understanding, each of whom he offers to the reluctant Carp in marriage.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of all comes when the young Augustus, in his capacity as a member of the Kennington Division of the Society for the Prohibition of the Strong Drink Traffic, and the Anti-Dramatic and Saltatory Union, finds himself trying to save the soul of Miss Mary Moonbeam, a music hall actress. She causes him to become intoxicated with vintage port, which she tells him is a non-alcoholic beverage named Portugalade, with catastrophic and very public consequences, one of which is that he is forced for economic reasons to wed Miss Tact Stool.
Of course, Augustus Carp Esq. blames everyone but himself for his downfall. And in that lies the heroism of the character – a stout fellow ‘in the very prime of his southern Metropolitan Xtian manhood’.
I could quote almost every paragraph of this satirical masterpiece, whose author remained anonymous until after his death in 1961, when he was revealed as the eminent physician Sir Henry Howarth Bashford, honorary physician to King George VI. Sadly for us, it was his only comic novel.