The acme of ethnographic authority

If it’s proper language you’ll be wanting, by blessed chance I’ve just come across “The trade”, an early (1940) essay on pubs by Myles na gCopaleen that has found a respectable home in the fine anthology Great Irish reportage.

This is the ultimate insider’s account. Pubs were Myles’s office and his home—seldom can ethnographers have had such an in-depth knowledge of their chosen fieldsite. He shows great sensitivity to change in attire and interior design:

The result is a combination of utility (functional something-or-other architects call it), comfort and restraint—but no pints.

His poignant account manages to be both engaged and dispassionate. Just the opening paragraph is a too, er, deaf ‘orse—sorry, I mean tour de force (blame Keats and Chapman):

In the last ten years there has been a marked change in the decor of boozing in Dublin. The old-time pub was something in the nature of the Augean stable (it is true that Pegasus was often tethered there) with liberal lashings of sawdust and mopping-rags to prevent customers from perishing in their own spillings and spewing. No genuine Irishman could relax and feel at home in a pub unless he was sitting in deep gloom on a hard seat with a a very sad expression on his face, listening to the drone of bluebottle squadrons carrying out a raid on the yellow sandwich cheese. In those days a genuine social stigma attached to drinking. It was exclusively a male occupation and on that account (and apart from anything temperance advocates had to say) it could not be regarded as respectable by any reasonable woman. Demon rum was a pal of the kind one is ashamed to be seen with. Even moderate drinkers accepted themselves as genteel degenerates and could slink into a pub with as much feline hug-the-wall as any cirrhotic whiskey-addict, there to hide even from each other in dim secret snugs. A pub without a side-door up a lane would have been as well off as one with no door at all.

This calls for a song, or two

I don’t mean to go too far down the route of silly puns—there’s a wealth of other sites for that—but in the spirit of Keats and Chapman:

There’s this Englishman sharing a train compartment with two young guys from Sweden—Sven, and his friend Olf, who’s dressed in drainpipe trousers and brothel creepers.

After spitting on the floor and sneering at the English guy, Olf goes off to the buffet car to get a can of beer. After one swig he spews it up all over the compartment and lets out a torrent of foul abuse.
“What’s up with him?”, the Englishman asks Sven.
Sven bursts into song:

Rude Olf the Ted loathes train beer.

Oh well, I guess I have to do the old Mary Poppins one too:

Gandhi, with his hunched gait, walked barefoot, so that the soles of his feet became hard. With his frail form, he led a spiritual life, but his diet gave him bad breath. All of which made him (altogether now) a

Stoopy calloused fragile mystic vexed by halitosis.

This week’s dinner party

Guests for my fantasy dinner party this week (Friday to Monday):

Jaroslav Hašek, Stella Gibbons, Flann O’Brien, Harpo Marx, Keith Richards, Viv Albertine, Zoe Williams, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Caitlin Moran, Diane Morgan [far-fetched stage name of Philomena Cunk—Ed.], and Bridget Christie.

Dress optional. 1859 for 1900. That gives them 41 years.

It might be churlish of me to worry that Hašek and Myles might not shine in a large mixed group. But hey, it’s a fantasy.

Kangaroo

By contrast with many stories being published today, here’s an apparently genuine story of the choir of King’s College Cambridge on a tour of Australia, probably in 1980:

On a free day, a few of the more enterprising undergraduate choristers, all dressed up in their fancy Chetwynd society blazers, hired a car and drove off into the outback. Suddenly a kangaroo leapt out in the road in front of them, and they couldn’t help hitting it. Stopping to assess the damage they found that the kangaroo, though unscathed, was dead. With typical Cambridge drôlerie, one of them took off his blazer and put it on the kangaroo so they could take a photo.

At this point, it transpired that the kangaroo wasn’t dead at all, but merely stunned [Altogether now, the parrot sketch—Ed.]. Coming round, it hopped off at high speed into the distance—with blazer, passport, and chequebook, making excellent its escape (in the words of Flann O’Brien).

It was never seen again—though one imagines it telling the tale as it sips cocktails on a Spanish beach…

If anyone can confirm or refine this story, please do!

A major contribution to civilization

It seems that, like the Bolton Choral Society in their own chosen métier, my goal of Encapsulating the Intricacies of the oeuvre of Flann O’Brien recedes ever further.

Ian Sansom reflected on his mixed success:

Imagine: you’re better than James Joyce; you end up like Miles Kington.

I take the point, but for many fellow-Flanneurs it may seem beside the point. His oeuvre is Sue E. Generis (if Myles didn’t say that, then it must have been me), self-standing—which, allegedly, is more than he was.

How can I have been so remiss as to neglect Timothy O’Keefe’s edited volume Myles: Portraits of Brian O’Nolan (1973)? Fortunately, my old friend Rod (himself an honorable, nay upstanding, member of the Royal Society of Flannologists) has stepped into the unsavoury breach of my Stygian ignorance [Hope we wiped his feet afterwards—Ed.], drawing my attention to a fine reminiscence therein by Niall Sheridan:

His interest soon shifted to a suggestion of mine—the All-Purpose Opening Speech. This was to be one endless sentence, grammatically correct, and so devoid of meaning that it could be used on any conceivable occasion: inaugurating a President, consecrating a Cathedral, laying a foundation-stone, presenting an inscribed watch to a long-standing employee. This notion delighted him, and he decided it must be given to the world, translated into every known language. If nation could speak fluently to nation, without any risk of communicating anything, international tension would decline. The Speech would be a major contribution to civilization, enabling any inarticulate lout who might lever himself into power to emerge (after a brief rehearsal) as a new Demosthenes.

I was to make the original draft in English. Denis Devlin was to undertake the translation in French and Brian himself would do the Irish and German versions.

I can remember only the opening portions of the Speech, which ran (still incomplete) to some 850 words:

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, and reluctant as I am to parade my inability before such a critical and distinguished gathering, comprising—need I say—all that is best in the social, political, and intellectual life of our country, a country, I may add, which has played no inconsiderable part in the furthering of learning and culture, not to speak of religion, throughout all the lands of the known globe, where, although the principles inculcated in that learning and that culture have now become temporarily obfuscated in the pursuit of values as meretricious in seeming as they must prove inadequate in realisation, nevertheless, having regard to the ethnical and moral implications of the contemporary situation, etc, etc, etc.”

When the translations had been completed we had a reading in Devlin’s home. Any rubbish can be made to sound impressive in French, and Denis had produced a superb version, rhythmic, mellifluous and authoritative. It conveyed (to our delight and amazement) even less meaning than the original.

Brian (who delighted in the simplest sleight-of-hand) whipped a walrus moustache from his pocket, fixed it under his nose and read his Irish version, in a wickedly accurate impersonation of our Professor of Irish, Dr Douglas Hyde, later the first President of Ireland.

“What do you think of that?” he asked, looking from one to the other.

Denis told him that he admired his brio but deplored his occasional slurring of consonants. I told him that listening to his delivery was like wading through warm stirabout at one’s feet.

Undeterred by this mixed reception, Brian quickly replaced the walrus moustache with a toothbrush affair and poured out his German translation in imitation of Hitler at a Nuremberg rally. As he ground out the Teutonic gutturals, spitting and snarling in comic menace, he knew that he had made the hit of the evening.

Actually, if the speech wasn’t already in use then, it has since become entirely standard.

Talking of inarticulate louts levering themselves into power, this seems all the more necessary in our own fractured age.

And vis-à-vis my own Catechism of Chinese Cliché, must I now gird my loins for a Chinese version of their fine creation?