20 October 2014

"The Bricklayer's Lament"

The audio of "The Bricklayer's Lament," is from Gerard Hoffnung's 1958 speech to the Oxford Union.
The derivation of the story is confused, but it first arises in the 1930s. It was published in Reader's Digest in 1940 as a letter from a naval officer who had supposedly received it from an enlisted man explaining his late return from leave. Hoffnung first saw the story in The Manchester Guardian in 1957; the version printed there is identical with the text used by Hoffnung, except for the location, which he changed from Barbados to Golder's Green. Hoffnung used the piece to warm up the audience before each recording session of One Minute, Please. In these performances he perfected the timing before the Oxford Union speech. The story was part of his speech in a debate called Life Begins at 38 and was recorded by the BBC. The tale itself was not, Ingrams comments, especially funny, but "[Hoffnung's] manner and delivery reduced his audience to hysterics".
I don't remember how I, as a Minnesota teenager in the 1950s became a fan of Hoffnung, but I was a reader of Punch and a fan of British comedy (Flanders and Swann, St. Trinians, The Goon Show) at the time, and thus had his interplanetary music festival records, which is where I first heard this presentation.

Addendum:  A hat tip to reader Nolandda, who located this extensive history of the story at Snopes.


  1. I get the sense that he influenced Bill Cosby - they have a very similar timing style.

  2. Here's a video of the Clancy Brothers version of "Dear Boss"


  3. I see Anonymous has linked to a performance of the musical version, but it differs from the recordings I'm familiar with in that the artist has named the protagonist Paddy instead of Murphy. I prefer Murphy because of the thematically relevant evocation of Murphy's Law.

    Here's a version starring Murphy:

    And here's one with an unnamed protagonist:

  4. There is a radio station in England, Angel Radio in Havant, which plays a lot of old British comedy, and music from 1900 to 1959. I've heard this story, and a lot of Flanders and Swann, by listening to their internet feed from http://angelradio.co.uk

  5. More on the urban legend from snopes. Barbara claims that the earliest similar story dates to 1895.

    And just for fun, a musical version by the ska / punk band The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.


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