The simple life of a happy man
It was, so I am told, a curious and delightful experience. A crocodile of schoolchildren wending its way over the fields; a clown and his dog gambolling in the damp grass; and the strident notes of “Rule Britannia” echoing from a loudspeaker hanging from a tree. All this on a water meadow beside the Bure at Burgh-next-Aylsham.
But delightful things like this have a habit of happening at Burgh-next-Aylsham nowadays because the community has in its midst a totally happy man; the clown, a man who cannot stop laughing and who does not mind if others laugh at him or with him. So long as they laugh.
I met him, and his dog, and he took me to see his latest project, a 200-yard drainage trench in a field near the Bure, which he dug by hand in a fortnight. Was it hard?
“Yes, but I turned it into a game,” he said. “If you do that, hard work becomes enjoyable.”
He explained: “You see, my friend Roma once told me that when you become a clown you become a happy man. In 1962, I became a clown and since then everything has been very, very wonderful for me. I have everything. I have my pipe, I have food, I have the most wonderful plays and music on the radio, and I have four amazing works of art. Come and see them.”
We walked back across the field, over the road, and on to the meadow. Marcus La Touche lives with his dog, Boby, in a tiny, 30-year-old caravan, 9ft by 5ft, a couple of paces from the water’s edge. He has been there for nine months and sees no reason to move. He has a bunk, a table, a radio, and a few mementoes.
And the works of art? The views from his windows, of course. Views of the river and the fields, the meadow and the trees, of the birds and flowers and the sky. What else, he asked, did he need? What indeed.
If you feel he is a remarkable man, you should understand also that he comes from a remarkable background.
Marcus La Touche is related to Sir Edward Buck, of Norwich, who established the first agricultural department in India; to Dr Henry Buck, once of Sheringham; to the Rev George Buck, late rector of Belaugh and Alderford; and to Miss Katherine Buck, who liv3d for 15 years at the Mill House, Burgh, and who, in 1928, published “The Wayland-Dietrich Saga” which runs to eight volumes and is one of the longest poems in the world.
His father, descended from the Huguenots, disappeared while serving in France during the first world war; his mother was Nellie Buck, the actress. Marcus himself was born at East Cheam in 1909. He was soon versed in the art of entertainment. In 1913, before his fifth birthday, he played the gamekeeper’s son in one of the first six-reel films, Ben Webster’s “The House of Temperley”.
During the war, however, and with the theatres closing, they moved to Watton. For a time, he attended Watton school and worked in the market out of school hours, and when the war was over, they returned to London. When Marcus was 10, Albert Sandler, the great violinist, came to tea.
“He asked me if I could sit still for several hours. I said I could. He wanted to see if his flowers would react to his music. So I sat quietly in the garden beside the flower bed and he went inside and played his violin through the open window. I saw the flowers move. He played for about 2½ to three hours and some of them slowly turned their heads from the sun and faced towards the window,” he told me.
The incident remains fresh in his mind as does the period which followed when his mother was seriously ill and when they lived on the breadline. He skipped school and found a job chopping and selling kindling, and when his mother recovered, they moved to the country and worked together on a farm. Then the uncles stepped in. They decided Marcus needed a proper education and thus he was packed of to Swaffham Grammar School.
“I was very crude and very rough. I had difficulty with my eyesight,” he recalled. “I was caned and the boys called me ‘pauper’.”
The break finally came when Roma’s Hungarian Circus came to Swaffham. A school party was allowed to attend and Marcus went into the ring. Clown Roma gave him £1 and the school gave him another caning. So he walked out and joined the circus. He was then 13½. Roma took him under his wing and taught him all he knew. Marcus slept in the horses’’ tent and later shared a caravan with an acrobat; he trained a lame lion to dance; and finally became ringmaster.
At the age of 18, however, events gathered pace. His fiancée, a girl from the circus, died at his feet when her trapeze collapsed. Roma forced him back into the ring to complete the performance. “Clowns are philosophers, you know,” he mused. “I believe she and I will meet again in another life.”
Then, during a thunderstorm, the king pole fell and Marcus broke his back. He was advised to take a sea voyage to recuperate, so he joined a cattle boat sailing from Liverpool to Buenos Aires, in charge of 200 head of Herefords.
He stayed two months in South America and then wandered into the States. For a time, he joined a travelling vaudeville troupe and, at the age of 23, penniless and a hobo, he arrived in Hollywood. “It was not like it is now,” he said. “There were lots of small film companies all rushing about, people making films all over the place.”
His circus experience, however, held him in good stead. He became an animal director with a small company and made dozens of films, many of them two-reelers. He also played cricket for Ronald Coleman’s English team, and was a friend of Sir Aubrey Smith.
“Then I met Frank Buck – no relation – the producer of African wildlife films. I invested my money and we went to Africa with a German camera crew.” For nine months, they worked in the bush but the project was a disaster. Three of the crew disappeared and the film collapsed, and in 1933, Marcus returned to London, penniless.
It was then he bought a black puppy. He called it Viscount and, with his knack with animals – “you watch what they do and develop it, and then they enjoy it – led him to teach Viscount tricks. Among other things, he taught him to count, Viscount barking his replies; a trick which, later that same year, enabled Viscount to become the first dog ever to broadcast.
Viscount became nationally known and his popularity continued throughout the war years. He made hundreds of stage appearances, appeared before Winston Churchill at Blenheim Palace, and made his final appearance at Collins Music Hall when Viscount bowed on stage and led on his understudy, Goldie. When Viscount died, at the age of 18, he was buried in a private garden at Shropham.
Marcus continued to work with his dogs, but disaster struck again when his caravan caught fire at Baldock, and Goldie and Viscount II died in the flames. He started once more, this time with a dog called Bingo, and throughout the 1950s they toured the small towns and villages. In 1962, however, he launched his final career.
“I noticed that children came to see the dog. So I started a one-man dog show. I became a clown and Roma gave me permission to adopt his name,” Marcus explained.
Marcus is now in semi-retirement, living alone in his tiny caravan, but he still does occasional shows for local or handicapped children, or for the elderly.
“Boby is not a good performer; he is not perfection. But he is my friend,” he said. He handed me a bag of chocolate drops and asked me to take a handful. I took out seven and laid them in a row on the table. Boby licked his lips, wagged his tail, growled and barked seven times.
That’s show business, I thought, as the three of us walked in the dark across the meadow and back to my car. Marcus’s torch picked out the way ahead and Boby scuttled round his legs.
“Isn’t it cold and lonely in the caravan during the winter?” I asked. “Have you ever thought of living in a bungalow?”
There was a moment’s silence. Then he said: “It is beautiful here in winter and I don’t need a bungalow. I have anything I need.” He began to roar with laughter again, and his laughter echoed through the darkness as I said goodbye.
From Clement Court, Eastern Daily Press, 15 March 1976
Viscount the dog helps out on Marcus La Touche’s farm and joins in a show.
‘Viscount – Top Dog’ on the British Pathé website.
Viscount the Labrador solves arithmetic problems with help of trainer Marcus Latouche.
‘Viscount – Calling All Stars’ on the British Pathé website
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