Back in 1997, magician Ricky Jay filmed a HBO special based on his one man show ‘Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants.’ About twenty minutes into the hour of card tricks, card cheating and stories, Jay recites a poem.
It’s a beautiful piece, filled with colourful slang.
“Villon’s Straight Tip to All Cross Coves”
Suppose you screeve? or go cheap-jack? Or fake the broads? or fig a nag? Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack? Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag? Suppose you duff? or nose and lag? 5 Or get the straight, and land your pot? How do you melt the multy swag? Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack; Or moskeneer, or flash the drag; 10 Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack; Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag; Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag; Rattle the tats, or mark the spot; You can not bank a single stag; 15 Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
Suppose you try a different tack, And on the square you flash your flag? At penny-a-lining make your whack, Or with the mummers mug and gag? 20 For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag! At any graft, no matter what, Your merry goblins soon stravag: Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
It’s up the spout and Charley Wag 25 With wipes and tickers and what not. Until the squeezer nips your scrag, Booze and the blowens cop the lot.
The poem is a 19th century translation by William Henly of a 15th century French poem, “De bonne doctrine a ceux de mauvaise vie” or “Good Doctrines for a Bad Life.”
Henly adds a huge amount of slang into the poem, modernising it for his 19th century audience. This poem is Westside Story to the original’s Romeo and Juliet. Or Clueless to the original’s Emma.
Look at the lingo in just the first stanza. Screeving is the work with begging-letters. Faking the broads is to cheat at cards. Knap a yack is watch stealing. Pitching snides is passing fake coins while smashing rags is to do the same with fake notes. Duffing is selling sham goods and to nose and lag is to squeal on your partners in crime.
I have no idea what ‘figging a nag’ is. Something with horses perhaps?
It’s colourful yet melancholy, conjuring up a world of con artists and ne’er-do-wells, all looking for an edge, scrounging for a quick buck only to blow it all on “booze and blowens”
Consider this much preachier translation of the first stanza by Henry de Vere Stacpoole, a hundred years later.
Ye who be smugglers of papal bulls, Or cheaters at dice, whatever be ye — Coiners who risk life and limb like fools, Then boil in hot oil for their felony, Traitors disloyal — ye know who ye be — Stealers of jewels, of perfume and pearls: So where goes it all, that ye get in fee? All to the taverns and to the girls.
Without the slang and the impenetrable turns of phrase, it feels like we’re on the outside, looking down on the criminals.
Henly’s version, using the swindlers own impenetrable lingo, brings us straight into the world of the criminal, making us feel for their struggle and inevitable fact that, no matter what they scheme, they’ll only blow it all. He’s not judging you, he’s just stating a fact.
It’s no wonder Ricky Jay choose to use the Henly translation.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author and collector of scams.