28 April 2007

Warning: Schoolboy Humour

So, last night, over a quiet pint or too (many), well before sashaying towards town for a bus home, and for no obvious reason, memorable moments from our schooldays came up. In particular we reminisced over embarassing moments reading aloud passages from books that seemed hilarious when we were fourteen. The Ueberpunster was in his element as he recalled and merrily paraphrased the following delightful passage from Moby Dick, all about the abundance of sperm to be found on the unfortunately named Bachelor:

Sideways lashed in each of her three basketed tops were two barrels of sperm; above which, in her top-mast cross-trees, you saw slender breakers of the same precious fluid; and nailed to her main truck was a brazen lamp.

As was afterwards learned, the Bachelor had met with the most surprising success; all the more wonderful, for that while cruising in the same seas numerous other vessels had gone entire months without securing a single fish. Not only had barrels of beef and bread been given away to make room for the far more valuable sperm, but additional supplemental casks had been bartered for, from the ships she had met; and these were stowed along the deck, and in the captain's and officers' state-rooms. Even the cabin table itself had been knocked into kindling-wood; and the cabin mess dined off the broad head of an oil-butt, lashed down to the floor for a centerpiece. In the forecastle, the sailors had actually caulked and pitched their chests, and filled them; it was humorously added, that the cook had clapped a head on his largest boiler, and filled it; that the steward had plugged his spare coffee-pot and filled it; that the harpooneers had headed the sockets of their irons and filled them; that indeed everything was filled with sperm, except the captain's pantaloons pockets, and those he reserved to thrust his hands into, in self-complacent testimony of his entire satisfaction.

Hilarious, eh? Dearie me. That's chapter 115, if you're interested, which happens to be one of an alarmingly high number of dubiously titled chapters from that Great American Novel. Me, I didn't do quite so well, I'm afraid, in dredging my memory for schoolboy passages that seemed hilarious at the time, but which look rather less innuendo-laden now. And having checked, the passage I remembered thoroughly embarassing myself over, from Maurice Walsh's Sixteenth Century swashbuckler Blackcock's Feather, really has me scratching my head. Did it really seem so funny?

Look, you can judge for yourself. Just to put it in context, the novel's set during the Nine Years' War, that remarkable period in the Elizabethan period when the Irish had the Virgin Queen's forces whupped until they foolishly decided to abandon their native tactics for something rather more conventional at Kinsale; our tactical ineptitude was such that we got walloped despite having the English surrounded. Not our finest moment.

Anyway, the novel tells the story of one David Gordon, a 'citizen of no nation' who joins the forces of the O'Neill and buckles his swash all over Ulster and Connaught, being assisted in his remarkably contrived adventures by a Friar Tuck-like character by the name of Father Senan. We join our two heroes in a boat on Lough Corrib, having 'rescued' one Eithne O'Flaherty, the heroine of the tale, from the savage clutches of one Captain Sir William Cosby, a rogue if ever their was one...

I sat in the stern and looked at the priest pulling, and he looked at me, some trouble in his eye. He had no word to say for a long time.
"Tell me, son,' he questioned suddenly, "why were you so eager to kill that man, then?"
"He is Cosby - the slayer of Colum O'More."
He knew that part of my story, and at once brightened. "Mhuire! If I knew! Surely you pricked him."
"He wears steel."
The friar was a good oarsman, but his wet clothes hindered him. Moreover, his cheeks above beard were strangely pale and his breath blew through his lips. So I slipped off my cloak, and placed my hands over his, stopped the sway of his body. We changed places. As I sidled by him in that swaying little craft I glanced at the maid, who was now sitting up in the bow. She had uttered no word yet, and now she did not even glance at me. Her eyes were across the water to the group on the shore, a frown of some perplexity was on her brow, and a soft dark curl, darker than the frown, was on her brow too. I had to dispose of my long scabbard by her side, and she quickly moved her dress aside out of the way.
I was not so deft with my oars as Father Senan, but I had strength and again my wind, and I lifted the boat through the water at a fine surge direct for the Connemara shore. The sooner we got there the better, though our pursuers had a twenty-mile circuit to reach us.
The old man made himself comfortable in the stern, eased his heart with two or three deep breaths, and bethought himself of his calling. He looked up at the sun-full sky. "Glory to God and His Blessed Mother, and all the Saints," he gave thanks, "that saved our lives this day!"
"And a saint or two with us for a small while yet," I added prudently.
He smiled at me, his eyes wet. "And a small meed of thanks to one David Gordon too." He pulled off his close-fitting morion, and rubbed his hand over his steaming tonsure.
And at last the maid behind me spoke. "Why!" she cried in some surprise; "you are a priest, after all."

I know. Side-splitting stuff. I wonder was the school's edition I had back in my glory days edited to be rather more punchy. Whether it was or not I disgraced myself that day, as indeed the whole class, to be fair. Sniggering, guffaws, giggling, you name it. Look, we didn't know what a morion was, let alone a tonsure and why it might be steaming! And I had the misfortune to have to read this whole shebang out to the lads, barely able to get the words out as the tears rolled down my laughter-reddened cheeks, with our poor English teacher up the top sternly asking me what the problem was. As if he didn't know.

And who'd have thought that a few years later I'd be taking students of my own to task for sniggering at Odysseus's constant quest for booty.

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