My father often recalls a poem learned in childhood days. It had a sinister, threatening tone, and haunted him as a boy. For as long as I can remember, he has expressed the wish that it had not been taught to him. The poem arose again in conversation, and, unlike the days of decades ago, when its source would have been difficult to identify, typing a few words into Google brought up the lines so often recited:
The poem “Antigonish” was written by William Hughes Mearns, an American writer, in 1899 and subsequently re-published with various revisions:
As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there!
He wasn’t there again today,
Oh how I wish he’d go away!”
When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door…
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away
The likelihood of a wartime London schoolboy encountering the work of a poem written for Harvard seemed slim. The explanation of his remembering the lines probably lies in it having been recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1939, with Tex Beneke singing the lyrics.
In a world where death and destruction were daily realities, haunting songs might have made a deep impression upon a young boy. Perhaps the fear felt at “The little man who wasn’t there” was an encapsulation of the fear of the dark and sinister world that existed beyond the front door of the boy’s home in Chiswick in west London; perhaps it was an expression of the fear that must have filled the boy’s mind when his fireman father returned from firefighting duties and told the adult members of the family of the duties of the grim duties of the previous night.
Perhaps the power of the song lay as much in its associations as in any sinister quality the lyrics possessed. Those living in Northern Ireland a generation ago might have similar feelings about Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a song about a relationship between a father and son that became associated with dark days of sectarianism and paramilitarism. The opening bars are sufficient to bring tearful memories of dark times.