The poems in this portfolio are taken from Blokelore and Blokesongs, by one Fred Faraday (1917–1979), forthcoming later this year from Waywiser Press. Faraday’s blokeish rhymes come to us indirectly, “as recited to”—we are told on the book’s title page—the poet and historian Robert Conquest.
Readers will be forgiven for divining a greater involvement on Conquest’s part than mere amanuensis. Conquest has worn such masks before. In Kingsley Amis’s New Oxford Book of Light Verse (1978), Conquest’s poems appear under four names: his own, as well as the pseudonyms Ted Pauker, Victor Gray, and Stuart Howard-Jones. To these we must add the limerick writer Jeff Chaucer, whose Garden of Erses (2010) includes poems attributed elsewhere to some of these other fellows.
Old Fred, which is Faraday’s pseudonym de plume, may be Conquest’s liveliest poetic invention to date. Fred is a philosopher—of life, to be sure, but with a particular interest in the progress of the battle of the sexes. His “blokesongs” are seasoned dispatches from behind the lines, where Fred has frequently scouted (with copies of Ovid and Juvenal in his rucksack). Kingsley Amis’s Welsh traveling salesman Dai Evans—another glorious bloke—would have enjoyed lifting a few pints with Fred, his elder and worldlier comrade-in-arms.
The poems here include echoes of some of Conquest’s (and Pauker et al.’s) earlier poems. One cannot read “Fred on Fascism” without recalling Conquest’s great limerick on Communism called “Progress,” which John Gross included in his Oxford Book of Comic Verse (1994):
There was a great Marxist named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
—That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.
As in “Progress,” the speaker of “Fred on Fascism” is not amused by anyone who would blur the failings of these murderous systems, and Fred dishes up a special portion of scorn for academics in this regard.
The Dunmow Flitch prize, which Fred mentions in “Fred Gives Up,” dates back at least as far as Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” and refers to the competition in England that awards “a flitch of bacon to married couples from anywhere in the world, if they can satisfy the Judge and Jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors that in “twelvemonth and a day,” they have “not wisht themselves unmarried again.” This prize recalls the awarding of the Krafft-Ebing trophy (given presumably for signal examples of sexual pathology) to the man who first went to bed with Brigid Brophy, in the limerick to her memory.
Finally, “Fred Gets It Wrong” shows Fred’s more vulnerable side. Much like Conquest’s earlier poem about romantic and sexual nostalgia, “On the Veranda,” which appeared first in these pages in March 2009, chinks of doubt and regret may be seen in Fred’s armor.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 7, on page 29
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