During the summer of 2007 Basingstoke (Civic motto ”Art for Arts Sake”) fought off spirited challenges from both Andover and Havant to become “Hampshire’s Cultural Glory 2008”. Local Authority Chief Executive Paul Poltroon gave an emotional and highly personal speech at a rally at the Civic Hall attended by close members of his family, the Brighton Hill Brownies and a Mrs Chalker, who had actually come to check out the venue for her daughter’s wedding reception. “My heart is full, “said Poltroon, “my heart overflows with pride on this the day that we bring home the County’s top artistic prize” At this point the Brownies started to become restive but they were quietened by Brown Owl’s cunning promise that they would all be awarded their ‘Listening to Pompous Grown-Ups Badge’ if they sat still and shut up.
“I was brought up”, continued Poltroon, “in a house where only the whippet could read, where music was for foreigners and painting was something that Uncle Leslie did if he was in work and today I stand shoulder to shoulder with my colleagues in Liverpool, Barcelona & Berlin as one of the helmsmen of European culture”.
Observers in the know felt that Basingstoke’s cause was helped by Havant putting up ‘Batik Through the Ages’ as their main event, which was felt by the judges to be too radical. Andover’s clumsy attempt to bribe those same judges with a freebie at the Little Chef (junction of the A303 & B2478) was probably misguided.
Poltroon’s greatest coup in securing the ‘Cultural Glory’ award for the town was the snatching of the flagship exhibition ‘A Hundred years of the Sooty Show’ from under the very nose of Guggenheim Gateshead. The reader may be surprised to learn that Sooty has been around that long. His story starts in the early 1900s in the cottage of a humble Jewish woodman, Mattheus Korbatovich, deep in the gloomy Latvian forests east of Riga, then a part of the Russian Empire. Mattheus invented the character of Sooty, the naughty golden bear, in order to comfort his son Mikhail who had a tree phobia. In those grim years father and son scraped an existence from the forest, living only off moss and vagrants occasionally returning to the family hovel where Mikhail’s mother earned a decent living entertaining passing infantry regiments. Eventually the stories weren’t enough for Mikhail and at his insistence Mattheus made the very first Sooty glove puppet out of a wolf’s bladder and two acorns. Tragically Mattheus died of TB in 1910 and Mikhail and his mother moved to Konigsberg in East Prussia where Mrs Korbatov’s sound business sense and loose morals combined to give them a measure of financial security. As Russian nationals they were briefly interned in 1914 but the German authorities quickly realised that Mrs Korbatov’s talents were vital to their war effort and they were released. In 1920 Mikhail found work in a local coal mine, where he could be sure of not encountering any trees, but he never forgot the early days in the forest and kept his Sooty glove puppet with him at all times. Soon he met and married a local girl, Gudrun, and in 1924 she gave birth to their son Heinrich. Throughout their marriage Mikhail kept his Jewish origins a secret from Gudrun until one day in early 1939 she asked “Mikhail why do you always wear that funny little skull cap?” He was forced to flee with his son to Sweden and there, with only the clothes they stood up in and the Sooty glove puppet, they boarded a ship for New York and a new life. Unfortunately Mikhail made the mistake of ordering the prawns off the Steerage class menu and died of ptomaine poisoning before the ship had reached the North Sea, more unfortunately and unknown to them, the ship was only bound for Harwich.
So the fifteen year old Heinrich Korbatov, rechristened Henry Corbett by a deaf and incompetent immigration officer, found himself alone in Suffolk. He roamed the streets of Harwich for two days looking for the Empire State Building until a kindly policeman put him straight. At this, his lowest ebb, Harry, as he became known, pulled the glove puppet from his pocket and as he did so a group of passing children stopped to watch and in a moment Harry had them entranced. He immediately realised that the bladder and acorn puppet, which had become quite smelly by then, could be his meal ticket. He worked the East coast resorts until his call up in 1943 when he was sent to entertain destroyer crews on the Murmansk run. After the war Harry added Sweep, based on his shrewish first wife Vera, and Soo, based on his mistress Suzy Lamarr, an exotic dancer that he met in Torquay, to the show. In 1952 he appeared on an early BBC talent show and the rest is history. The original puppet (on loan from the Gulbenkian Museum of Glove Puppets in Bratislava) takes pride of place but there are other gems like an almost priceless “Sooty Show Summer Season – Rhyl 1965” poster with Susan Maugham and Norman Vaughan lower down the bill.
Other events that Paul Poltroon has organised for 2008 include the exhibition “Bide Awhile – With Brush & Pen through Basingstoke’s Retail Parks” by the local artist Enid Beesley, a series of Literary Lunches at the Harvester on the Memorial Park roundabout (celebrity guests booked so far include Eric Haynes, publisher of the well known auto maintenance manuals, Joachim Gotzeller, author of “Glove Puppets and Their Influence on the Reformation” and Dermot O’Dainty who will talk about his autobiography “I’m Just Doing My Job!” and his forthcoming musical “Maintenance!”), a talk by Waldemar Januszczak entitled “Basingstoke and it’s Influence on the Bauhaus” and a new production of Hector Berlioz’s titanic opera “The Trojans” at the Brimshott Rd Scout Hut.
Long summer days full of promise lie ahead for all of us in Basingstoke.