St Thomas’s Church is an attractive focal point of the hilltop settlement of Penkhull – and a place of worship that has known several colourful incumbents over the years.
The Reverend Vernon Gladstone Aston – often referred to as “VG” – was Penkhull’s vicar between 1931 and 1956 and a man who expressed many intriguing opinions in his parish magazines.
“English as she is spoken” came under the Aston microscope in 1935, and he questioned how many variations of King’s English were then current, citing dialectal expressions, business-speak and what he called Policeman’s English, along the lines of: “I removed him to his home in a state of intoxication.”
Why can’t the copper say, “I took him home drunk”, spluttered VG.
Suggesting our lovely English prose should not be ‘prostituted’, he nevertheless admitted to having a soft spot for dialect, quoting the amusing expressions of Cockneys and Lancashire folk, and the Potteries girl who says she is ‘sneaped’.
He was venomous, however, about Americanese and the influence Hollywood films had had on younger people – expressions such as ‘it sure is’, and ‘gee, you’ve gorrit bad’.
Working up a head of steam, VG went on to describe business-speak as ‘trash’.
“Try to live up to your principle of saving time by saying what you mean in as few words as possible, instead of ‘assuring me of serving my best interests at all times,’” thundered the vicar.
At one club meeting in 1935, VG tackled the subject of the growth of mechanisation. He opined it would have been a grand thing for the world if the internal combustion engine and the motor car had never been invented.
Science, he asserted, was undoing everything man had to live for and was taking away his individuality, freedom and liberty by offering him canned music, canned drama and canned food.
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And as today’s debate about VAR in football rumbles on, it is amusing to consider Aston’s fondness for the so-called beautiful game: “It was one of the few games that could never be mechanised,” he told a gathering of footy referees, adding that ‘the game depended entirely on the player himself, and football was providing an antitoxin to the progress of a world that would mechanise everything’.
He also expressed his fears that mechanical power might at some day be put into the hands of a fool in charge of a trigger.
But it was Aston’s caustic views on the subject of jazz music that really ruffled feathers in 1938. His opinions, expressed in his parish magazine, attracted the interest of the local press, prompting a heated debate.
“Oftentimes have I expressed the feeling that there is more harm in jazz than in many of the things that count for sins in this generation,” declared VG, whose ruminations were simply too much for the band leader at the Majestic Ballroom in Hanley, who responded that the vicar’s statements sounded like the meanderings of a pre-adolescent mind.
Len Prince, leader of the Castle Hotel Orchestra in Newcastle, questioned VG’s definitions of popular music and suggested he was ‘talking through his clerical headgear’.
In his letter to a local newspaper, Prince guaranteed to put up a better show with a Sunday sermon that VG could produce with a trumpet.
Another band leader, Manny Durber, offered a balanced view:
“The Vicar has the wrong outlook entirely because he condemns everything as jazz. I confess that some of it gives me the pip – but other numbers are delightful.”
Some of Aston’s critics drew attention to the vicar’s own musical involvement and his promotion of a popular revue show, Penkhull Belles.
A newspaper correspondent calling himself Collegian, declared rather tartly that the show “could hardly be described as a session of straight music, nor does it glorify Mendelssohn’s ‘Spring Song.’
“I am of the opinion that the Reverend Aston’s article is not that of one desirous of making helpful and constructive criticism, but rather intent on ridicule.”
However VG’s public outbursts may have been taken by the public, his own contribution to the local arts scene was highly impressive, as the originator and producer of the Penkhull Belles revues.
They effectively gave local people a taste for performing while raising thousands of pounds for St Thomas’s church and cementing VG’s reputation as a respected community leader.