Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Decimal Point

Norman Rowland Gale

When first sent to school (now the Station was Rugby)
I fancied my masters and took to the boys;
I thought to myself - - here ’tis plain I shall snug be
Revolving at last in an orbit of joys:
The Alphabet Grecian I quickly could stammer,
Nor ran any risk of a jaw out of joint;
I walked sedately through fatherland Grammar,
But own I was floored by the Decimal Point!

“Le Roi Des Montagnes” was my Gallic translation,
And soon I was praised by my Master, who said: -
“I certainly deem that, with good education,
A Scholarship laurel should circle your head!”
I revelled in idioms; I thrilled at the phrases;
I knew how to render “avaunt” and “aroint”;
But own that I shed many tears on the daisies
Of Rugby when stumped by the Decimal Point!

I mastered the building procedures of Balbus,
And rarely omitted a requisite “cum”;
I never remarked that an “equa” was “albus”,
And deftly supplied the subjunctive with “quum”!
No “canis” to me was a dog in the manger -
A classic by Fate I was clearly anoint!
I own, though, I ran into desperate danger
When fogged and be-fooled by the Decimal Point!

The act of writing is implicitly bound up in the act of wrestling with one's angels, and of hoping they will not turn out to be daemons, and perhaps this is why I am drawn, whenever I come across good poems on the subject, to satires in verse upon that ancient fudge the British Public School. 

Roger Woddis' lambaste of two of my Alma Maters (Alma Matri?), Merchant Taylors and Clifton College, is already cited in these pages (click here), but how can I resist Norman Rowland Gale's splendid parody, which takes me back directly to the attic at St John's School, Pinner (long ago torn down for profit and replaced by neo-Georgian domiciles), in which the balding Mr Wooley, cane perpetually in hand, would deride all stupid schoolboys for precisely their incapacity to subjunctify with quum; though I imagine that, today, less out of a desire to educate than a wish to keep his job, he would subject us instead to tedious etymological explanations of the roots of such constructs as dyslexia and dispraxia, complete with complex exegeses of the difference between a "dys" and a "dis" - the one being, I take it, Latin, and the other Greek. 

Mr Wooley was the sort of teacher who liked to show us by analogy that life was unfairly brutal, and success only achievable by consequence of pain; so I imagine he would complete such an exercise by requiring all the dyslectics in the class to write that word down for a test, but without reminding them that "x" changes to "ct" in the accusative; while the dispractics would work, not at their desks, but throwing a little paper ball on which the word dispraxia was written, and anyone who dropped it, like the dyslectics who failed to write their syndrome down correctly, were liable to be slippered (or should that be slipered, because in correct English grammar the second "p" is dropped?). There was always a point, Mr Wooley never tired of telling us; but to this day I have not been able to figure out what that point was, decimal or otherwise.

To add a couple of notes for students (I shall not be testing you); I do think the application of an exclamation mark on each occasion after the eponym (observe how my vocabulary in this short monograph is as deliberately precious, pretentious and anachronistic as Gale's) is a missed opportunity, since the full-stop, had he used it, would itself have suggested visually a Decimal Point.

No one can truthfully claim to have studied the whole of the English canon, until they have been fogged and be-fooled by the mysteries of doggerel. It is a typically English genre, and it is highly doubtful whether it can be ranked as literature, but it is there, and like cricket, Coronation Street and the weather, it is unavoidable.

Courtesy of Leo Cullum
Dictionary definitions tend to emphasise the crudeness of doggerel, and expect it to be irregularly fashioned; the evidence at doggerel bank is quite the contrary: versifiers will spend considerable time and effort removing all crudities even unto the point of over-sophistication, and though the final result may well be irregular, it is craftedly irregular; which is to say, it is irregular because the poet has ingeniously worked it that way, and not because that was how it happened to come out and who really cares. 

Take the Norman Rowland Gale. It is ungrammatical, and yet it tells us continually that the poet has mastered grammar in at least three languages – so the failures here are those of a parent at the fathers and sons tournament, who deliberately plays badly, to make sure the boys' team wins, but who does it in such a graceful and elegant manner that the boys genuinely believe they won (winned?) on merit. So many anachronisms - - the double-hyphen; the prolix use of the semi-colon; the ridiculous (!) number of exclamation-marks! - - but this is a satire on Rugby school, on Victorian education, so perhaps the anachronisms are self-conscious too.

And then, forget the Decimal Point – what, pray, is the poem's actual point? Quite likely there is none, unless the orbit of joys a poet can navigate into (sorry: into which a poet may navigate), by forcing rhymes where rhymes have never gone before, by coercing grammar into a kennel far too small and narrow, just for the burlesque of it, just for the pleasure of barking the doggerel.

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