A Pearly Remembrance
When novelist Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit, interviewed the Pearly Kings & Queens for Spitalfields Life last month, they extended the honour of an invitation to their memorial service for Larry Barnes, the former Pearly King of Thornton Heath. Naturally, this was an opportunity not to be missed and Sarah went along with Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven to send this report from the Pearly Kingdom.
Larry Barnes, it seems, could do most things – including conjuring up a rare sunny day for his Memorial Service, in a month that so far had delivered only rain and gloom. He was born at a time dominated by Variety & Music Hall acts, taken along by his father who proudly declared to his son that he would one day be able to say that he had seen the great Gus Elen perform. For he had. And little did the young Larry Barnes know how that moment would stay with him, influence him, inspire him, until the day he too stepped onto the stage, “The Viceroy of Versatility” - singer, magician, paper tearer, balloon sculptor, escapologist, Pearly King of Thornton Heath. Larry Barnes did it all.
And on the 16th May, his birthday, they came from near and far. Family and friends, magicians, actors, entertainers, associates from the Players Theatre and of course the Pearly Kings & Queens all called by the bells of St Paul’s Covent Garden, to remember one of their own, to give thanks for a life that had given so much pleasure, so much love. His was a celebration of life in song. There was sadness, moments to reflect, naturally – but there was also music, applause even, and a sing-along: “Old Father Thames,” “London Pride,” “If it wasn’t for the Houses in Between,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Lambeth Walk.” And of course, “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner?” Because that’s what we all were that day, what we all became, in a moment of rare togetherness.
Five abreast they were, walking from the church to the pub. Across their backs: Finsbury, Welwyn Garden City, Islington, Highgate, Redbridge, Upton Park, Upminster, Crystal Palace, Bow Bells, Newham, Norbury: An unusual gathering of so many Pearly Kings 7 Queens, tourists and passersby drawing breath and delight, cameras pointing at the glorious shimmering sight that is forever London. “How many buttons on your suit, Harry?” I ask the Pearly King of Bow Bells & Blackfriars. “Seven thousand,” Harry says, “My suit was made for the Golden Jubilee. I don’t wear it often. I wore it for the Queen, I’m wearing it for Larry.”
And on we walked.
I am putting together a composite, like a beachcomber I suppose, collecting fragments of china in the hope of piecing together a vase, a plate – a life – something beautiful, something tangible. For I never met Larry Barnes.
“I drank pints, Larry drank red wine,” said George Davison, the Pearly King of Newham. “I did shows with Larry, and always at the end he used to hand me his prop bag because he needed his hands free for his pipe and cane. Funny thing is, I’m always looking around for his bag.”
“I’d be walking along talking to him,” said Pat Jolly, Pearly King of Crystal Palace, “and I’d turn to him and realise he wasn’t there. He was twenty yards away, entertaining kids. He left such an impression on people. His photo’s always in my wallet. He’s up there with the great Pearly Kings.”
“He was like a brother,” said Arthur Rackley, Pearly King of Upminster. “He’d always do his best whatever it was. Sometimes he’d start an event not knowing anyone in the room, by the end he knew everyone.”
“He was a generous teacher,” said Lola McDowell, Pearly Queen of Norbury. “He thought enough of me to give me encouragement and ideas. He asked me to do a double act with him and it was an honour. He brought me into the Pearly family.”
“He was a modern day PT Barnum!” declared a voice from behind. “I’m Dean Nicholas and I’m a magician. I do magic for the Crystal Palace family. I met Larry when I was ten years old and he taught me every week,” and, with that introduction, Dean immediately demonstrated the first routine Larry taught him – coins jumping from hand to hand. I was transfixed.
We all hope to leave a legacy, something unique that will live on in others, a marker of our time spent here, and hopefully of time spent well. As I watched Dean perform another one of Larry’s tricks – The Houdini Six Second Escape – and, as my eyes became those of a child again, it struck me that the gift Larry Barnes gave to the world was quite possibly the gift of wonder.
In those theatres and schools, in hospitals and care homes, he gave momentary respite from responsibility, illness and worry. When even the most tired of eyes could become young again, in unquestioning belief in the unexplained and the world of magic – a world where torn newspapers become ladders, houses and flowers, where balloons can be sculpted into dogs and hats, a world where a coin in one hand becomes four in another, and a world where a pack of cards and an order ‘to pick one’ holds the fervent anticipation of a Christmas morning.
Peggy Scott, Pearly Queen of Highgate (at right) -“He knew how to make you laugh and listened to your problems.”
John Scott, Pearly King of Highgate - “A perfect gentleman.”
Doreen Golding, Pearly Queen of Bow Bells and Old Kent Rd - “Marvellous entertainer. Part of an old tradition that we’ll never see again.”
John Walters, Pearly King of Finsbury - “Such a lovely man, Larry was.”
Nicola Marshall, Pearly Queen of Welwyn Garden City - “Nice bloke.”
Angela Davison, Pearly Queen of Newham - “Oh, he was a wonderful friend. I just miss him so much.”
Carole Jolly, Pearly Queen of Crystal Palace.
Henry Mayhead, Pearly King of Bow Bells.
Phyllis Broadbent, Pearly Queen of Islington -“I loved Larry. He was so loyal to The Pearlies. Such a great Music Hall act.”
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
Learn more about the Pearlies at www.pearlysociety.co.uk
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