Many scientists are illiterate and I am sure this is a result of their education. In my case bullying was an important factor. By the age of 13 I had been to six different school and had been bullied at three of them for a total of about six years. Much fiction concentrates on personal relationships and ends up happily ever after and I knew life was not really like that. Bullying meant my view of life as a young child was of misery was piled onto misery, apparently without end. Apart from some science fiction (mainly Azimov) and The Lord of the Rings, I don't think I have read a work of fiction in the last 60 years. This approach has also affected my choice of TV watching – and I avoid soaps and plays because they are a “waste of time”. As a result I have very little knowledge of the classical literature or modern fiction.
My attitude to poetry was undoubtedly influence by an incident when I was 8. During the winter of 1946/7 there was heavy snow in Devon and I was confined to bed with some childhood illness. So I started to write a poem – “I wish I'd seen the snow fall” which was terrible doggerel – with dozens of rhyming couplets interspersed with the theme line repeated again and again. I was caught writing an extra verse during school prayers by the headmaster and ridiculed in front of the class (which of course included the regular bullies). Clearly writing poetry was not a clever thing to do.
Two schools later a trainee teacher got into trouble. He had tried to get us to learn Wordsworth's “Daffodils” and had been singularly unsuccessful – at least with most of the boys in the class. So the next poem he set us to learn was Harry Graham's poem which starts “Broad is the gate, and wide the path, that lead man to his daily bath”. We all learnt it, clearly demonstrating that our problem was motivation and not stupidity. Of course the headmaster received a number of complaints from prim and proper parents who thought that their children should not be exposed to such unsuitable nonsense - so classes returned to uninspiring conventionality..
However in 1952 I moved to Dartington Hall School where things were very different. In particular Raymond O'Malley inspired me to think creatively about language but failed miserably in trying to get me to improve my dreadful handwriting. Chaucer's Prologue intrigued me and helped me to understand how language developed with time while an in-depth study of T. S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi and The Wasteland made me realise how powerful language could be if creatively used. I was also encouraged to write a limerick involving word play, triggered by Flaunder's and Swann's The Gnu Song and my amateur effort was published in the School's magazine, Chanticleer.
There was a young man at the zoo,
Who allowed penny rides on his gnu,
But the gnu was too old,
And at last caught a cold ,
And a new gnu was needed, he knew.
Needless to say I haven't written any more poetry since then, until a couple of week's ago. But over the intervening years O'Malley's inspired teaching has stood me in good stead. My first job was as an information scientist writing managerial research and development reports. Later I wrote various pieces for the New Scientist, such as Why Gebius is nipped in the bud. What I had learnt forty years early greatly helped when I came to write “The London Gunners come to Town.” The unusual structure of this book, in three parts telling the story from three different points of views, was probably inspired by my refusal to accept to establishment norms, an approach which I picked up at Dartington.
So why have I returned to writing limericks after so many years? I am currently trying to teach myself Windows 8 and I started to set up a diary for 2014 – and made a silly mistake. A few days later the computer reminded me to go to the Archaeology group meeting of our local U3A group and, because it was the wrong day, I walked into the Poetry group by mistake and decided to stay. Not only did I enjoy it but I discovered there was a limerick writing competition and decided to have a go.
Memories of how to do it came flooding back. I not only needed to get the verse structure right. My limerick would need to tell a topically interesting story, and end with a suitable punch line. I also felt that if it was to be read out the way it was presented could convey added meaning without the need for extra words. The first line was given so I had a mere 28 syllables to play with. I was used to writing to a target – although with the New Scientist this was usually 400 or 1000 words – so it was going to be a challenge. The following was the result
"Dedicated to the losers in this limerick competition"
Narrator: Normal voice
||A member of Tring U3A
Expected to win here today
|Poet: Excitedly with pride
and flamboyant gestures expecting to win
“With a limerick fine
The prize should be mine.
|Poet: Descent into bathos on discovering he had not won.||But the judge must have thrown it away”|
In planning this I decided to look online to see what I could find about writing limericks. After looking at two or three sites I decided that writing limericks should be fun and while the pages I saw included examples of interesting and amusing limericks the connecting text was boring. Perhaps there are better sites – but I decided that what was needed was a limerick to tell you how to write limericks – and this is the result:-
A limerick's distinctive metre
Means you do have to know where the feet are
And of course the fourth line
With the third line must rhyme
While the last line can be a repeater.
I feel I ought to have been able to come up with a better last line – but of course Edward Lear's limericks, and others in the same style, do use repetition. Of course some purists will complain that I have added an unstressed syllable at the end of lines 1, 2 and 5, and that “line” and “rhyme” don't rhyme. But many poets, and anyone who has benefited from a Dartington education, knows that the appropriate breaking down of establishment boundaries is a very effective tool in getting a message across.