By Norman Douglas
Introduction by Stephen Fry
Atlas Press, October 2009
This is, as far as one can tell, a faithful reissue of a book of quite obscene limericks that was first published by Norman Douglas, privately, in 1928.
There have been several pirated editions since then, but none has been as scrupulously faithful to the original as this one. The reason for my slight doubt as to the complete accuracy of this edition (the ‘as far as one can tell’ above) is that there appear to be a further two typos on pages 73 and 80, this in addition to the two deliberate typos noted by the publisher on page 107. One of the latter, ‘to the pure all things are puer’, gives a strong indication of Douglas’ primary peccadillo, which it is not necessary to go into at this point. Suffice it to say that it got him into hot water on more than one occasion.
In his introduction and commentary to the limericks, Douglas strikes a certain kind of pose: magisterial and magnanimous, mock-authoritative and understanding, bullet-proof as far as being shocked or outraged is concerned. It is a stance that gives rise to a definite and delightful frisson when set beside limericks that are salacious, scatological and blasphemous – or all three together, a rare treat. Douglas’ Geographical Index is a helpful pointer toward his choicest and wittiest remarks, for example: ‘Manchester, waggishness of mill-hands near’.
The author makes one or two serious points. He writes, for example, that limericks are in essence a folk creation: very few can be said to have a specific author. Even the inventor of the form is unclear, though Edward Lear has been mooted as a possible candidate. Douglas puts forward the interesting theory that obscene limericks in particular are a reaction to Puritanism, claiming also that they reached their zenith during Queen Victoria’s age. They are, consequently, ‘as English as roast beef’ though other Britons, and Americans too for that matter, have undoubtedly played a part in their development. In American culture, too, Puritanism has taken root. Douglas’ remarks lead one to question whether limericks can survive in a permissive age.
Stephen Fry’s introductory remarks are appreciative of both the author and the subject of his study, so no great worries there. And on a personal note: I’ve read a version of the limerick on page 90 with the line ‘long-standing fallacies’, rather than ‘old-fashioned fallacies’ as here, and believe the former to be better. Simply because you are given two or three puns (long-standing fallacies & long, standing phalluses) rather than one (fallacies & phalluses).
All right-thinking people, whether roast beef-eating Englishmen and women or not, should read Some Limericks at some point in their lives. Surely this is as good a time as any?