22 April, 2006


Today I've been reading about the old WW1 satirical journal, The Wipers Times, published on a press salvaged at Ypres by one 'Sherwood Foresters'. It's great stuff, naturally, with a sardonic British humour, full of in-jokes, military slang, parodies of famous poems like Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat and Gray's Elegy, and fully suffused with the miseries of trench life. The poetry is popular and un-'poetic', as I suspect poetry should be; it recalls to me the jaunty high-life of A. P. Herbert's She-Shanties (1926), as well as the violent 1640s doggerel of the Rump collection. Here's Gilbert Frankau:
Those dreams are dead: now in my Wiper's dug-out,
I only dream of Kirchner's naughtiest chromo;
The brasier smokes; no window lets the fug out;
And the Bosche shells; and 'Q' still issues bromo.
Kirchner's 'chromo', here, is a pornographic picture, and the 'bromo' is the bromide with which troops' tea was allegedly spiked to quell their libido. The verse is real verse, raw and staccato, clever unexpectedly in the rhyme of dug-out with fug out, and in its palsied metre. The last four commata, yanked together with semicolons, and then, miserably, with 'ands', are perfect. Best of all, while shells by comparison to smokes and lets is a verb, the word works equally as a noun, making 'the Bosche shells' merely an item in a dreary list. The Wipers texts, both prose and verse, are full of slang still vibrant and uncontained; one example is na poo or narpoo, from the French 'il n'y a plus', meaning 'there's none left', or more generally, 'no good'. Hence:
The privit to the sergeant said
"I wants my blooming rum."
"Na poo," the sergeant curtly said,
And sucked his jammy thumb.
Narpoo indeed. An example of a word dragging meaning into itself like a vortex, the finest moments of a popular vocabulary; compare 'fuck' now, or 'quoz' in the 1840s (for which see Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions, chapter 13).

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