Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Foul Play at Vitai Lampada

Foul Play

Roger Woddis

There’s a whiff of blood in the Close tonight –
Half the team in a haze of gin –
An umpire bribed and a dirty fight,
And hell to pay if we fail to win.
And it’s not just a matter of skill or pluck,
Or done in a spirit of wat’s-a-name,
But his Captain’s fist on his jawbone struck –
“I’ll duff you up, if we lose the game!”

This is the rule we hold most dear,
Whether we score in war or net:
Decent standards we all revere
Haven’t won any medals yet.
This we all with a joyful heart
Bear in mind as we mark or maim:
Just for the sake of taking part
Is a pretty dumb way to play the game.

This poem by Roger Woddis delineates for me an unlikely circle, neither vicious nor virtuous but merely circular, tying together two schools in which I spent many of the key years of my life, and which granted me an outlet, however uncomfortable, for that far corner of this foreign soul which is forever, haplessly and hopelessly, forever England: Merchant Taylors, where I was a pupil, and Clifton College, where I taught. 

Woddis was at Merchant Taylors a half a century before me, so I have no recollection of him personally. One day, unworking but compulsorily present in the library – living the future memory that would engender the tale "The Other" and a comic scene in "The Flaming Sword" – some of the boys were giggling over a copy of that week's "New Statesman", a subversive rag which had to be smuggled in clandestinely, and which contained a newly-forged Woddis poem about the green slime of mould on a schoolmaster's gown, along with other satirical metaphors intended to deride that octogenarian institution "the English Public School". It was all terribly subterfuginous and hush-hush, because the poet whose work this was had recently revisited our invenerable place of learning as an alumnus, and it took a very rotten egg to go ra-ra in this manner on his esteemed peers and pals eh-what! Very sadly, I do not possess a copy of that poem, though no doubt an assiduous researcher could easily look it up.

"Foul Play" appeared in Punch in March 1980, but it was 1995 before I first encountered it, given to me by the 6th former who was editing the Clifton students' own satirical rag.

The original, the subject of Woddis' satire, came from the pen of Sir Henry Newbolt, one of the great Cliftonians – great enough that an entire chamber of polished mahogany and sultry lights had been dedicated to him, its centrepiece a portrait (a monoptych, dare I neologise?), a most ghastly painting of him looking like George Melly in a 50's jazz suit and what could well be dying cricketers, scrambling through a sea of mustard-gas, crossing the Close towards the Pavilion where Newbolt stands in his pomp and circumstance, and with his back turned. Turned, significantly, away from them, towards the ego-focused light that denotes his sainthood in white Saville Row. Astonishing!

In the even more dreadful 1995 film about Clifton by another old boy, Dominic Gover, the then Head Girl – a delightful girl named Gillian Staveley who really did not deserve this torture – recites Newbolt's famous ode to the dulce et decorum of war, whose "old lie" he had evidently failed to learn, and which the school's combined cadet force continues to this day to march up and down the parapet of the Close like Hitler Youth. 

But then, Clifton also alma matered Douglas Haig, who is enstatued on the parapet above the Close, an easy rifle-shot away from the memorial in his name to those Cliftonians he sent for butchery. I have no time for Haig or Newbolt. I was only sorry that the boy who republished "Foul Play" in the student rag was instructed to withdraw the magazine; and that the three boys who got expelled (sorry, I meant withdrawn voluntarily by their parents) for day-glo painting Haig's statue, failed to go the whole hog and get expelled for blowing it up with dynamite. It would have been a fitting end, where day-glo was barely satire. Perhaps they had been too deeply inculcated with the Newbolt motto: blowing up the statue would not have fitted the call to "play up, play up and play the game" which Woddis' poem ridicules, quite rightly, and which I, mercifully, have never learned to do. How, after all, does one differentiate the Newbolt motto from the act of collaborating in one's own victimhood and "only obeying orders"?

I have included the Newbolt original, below, for two reasons. First, because the Woddis cannot be fully appreciated without the original. Secondly because a comparison of the two would make for an excellent classroom activity, though I appreciate that it will take a particularly open-minded school to allow it.

Vitai Lampada

Henry Newbolt

("They Pass On The Torch of Life")

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night -
Ten to make and the match to win -
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote -
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

The sand of the desert is sodden red -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke -
The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind -
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

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