Friday, 6 July 2012

Who was Vernon Fork?

I love when pieces of paper fall out of old books. It feels like you've just won a FREE PRIZE. Here's one of the more interesting pieces I've had fall out. Four small typewritten sheets from an Oxford Don (or pseuDONymous undergraduate?) about the use of idiom in the contemporary novel of the time (late nineteen-forties?). So I guess this is my first guest written (or ghost written) post. If anyone is able to tell me anything about 'Vernon Fork' I would appreciate it. Curiosity may have killed the cat but it wasn't satisfied with that.

A Sense of Idiom
I have been reading some novels by contemporary writers which describe the mind and speech of the younger men, those who have been in the services before and after the war. These writers seem to belong to a school which could be described as hard, or perhaps I might even use the word, tough. The young men of today, as described by them, are not rebels or idealists; they have a cynicism and indifference to ideal values and, surprising in young people, an entire absence of naiveté. But what impresses me most is their language, the use of coarse words to describe all incidents and ideas, coupled with the use of sacred words in a profane sense, what we used to call (I suppose it was rather prudish) swearing. And this mode of speech, I understand from the novelist, is not confined to those who have lacked advantages of breeding and education but is universal; staff officers and sergeant-majors and barges, if that is still the term for employees of the transport board engaged in inland navigation, all talk alike. So the novelists say and, as the reviewers are unanimous in testifying to their realism and their sincerity, one must believe them, for, if a man writes sincerely about what he knows to be real, what he writes must be true.
What puzzles me is that our undergraduates must all be of this modern school and yet I do not hear the kind of language referred to above. I suppose there is absolutely nothing in life that a don is not ignorant of. Doubtless my younger colleagues hear them speak like this. To me they still speak in the old mandarin English with phrases like "Thank you, Sir", "I should be grateful if", and so on. But then I must remember that I am now pretty venerable and some dictate of prudence or humanity may induce them to temper the wind. I never hear undergraduates talking freely to each other. But from my reading of fiction I can easily imagine how it goes. A freshman out of the forces is visited by the Captain of Boats to see if he will row; the dialogue must go something like this:-
"Come in, who the hell are you?"
"About the boat club; do you want to row?"
"O my God, another of you bleeding fools. Row? Why the hell should I row? Haven't I had enough of that bloody rot? Where do you think we are? The fifth form at St Dominic's? Can't you see, damn your eyes, that I've come here to have a bit of peace. Who the hell wants to become a galley slave after two years peeling potatoes and physical jerks? I tell you I'm through and you can put that in your bloody pipe and smoke it".
To which we may imagine the Captain of boats replying:-
"Now look here you stinking, little, neurotic twerp. Listen. If you think I've come here to bleat about the dear old College or the honour of the sided or any of that bloody rot, you're damn well mistaken. I know all that you are going to say. You've been in the army; right, you're browned off; very well. You're fed up; well, so what? Aren't we all? So don't start talking up your backside about your own filthy little grouches and take me for one of your maiden aunts. We're here at Oxford, aren't we? Why? Because this damn fool government pays us to come here. Waifs of the welfare state. Very well then. Here we are and here we are to stay. But when you have had as much of this bloody Oxford climate as I have you will know what it is to have a liver. The honour of the dear old College, my foot! But we've got to have a digestion to deal with the sickening muck the bursar serves us here. We've got to keep alive, haven't we? Don't ask me why. Some blasted biological urge. But believe me, if you don't take some sort of exercise in this hole you'll be turning on that gas fire without lighting it, not that I care, except that the pressure would go down and some poor devil like myself would have to take you to hospital. See?"
"Oh, all right then. If that's how you put it".
"Good, I thought you'd come round, if I put it in the right way. Come out and have a drink".
"I thought there was a rule against going to pubs".
"There was; been lifted. The bloody proctors say they can trust us now, damn their eyes. Experienced and disciplined men of the world; graduates of the great University of Life. You know the sort of stuff. Caw, it makes me sick. Come on".

This is strong and pithy. I sometimes wonder if my generation were not too mealy-mouthed. Perhaps I should adopt it for my tutorials. One should not try to instruct in an outworn idiom. How would it go? Something like this perhaps:-
"So that's your idea of the doctrine of sovereignty, is it? Caw, it makes me sick. So you're browned off with Austin, are you/ Very well. Be browned off. Austin was a bloody old dogmatic, utilitarian rationalistic fool, was he? Right. What if he was? It doesn't let you out. At least he said something somehow. As for your stuff, 'reactionary, nationalistic, outmoded, unsociological, irrealistic, quasi-judicial abstractions.' God help us all; you must have combed through half the garbage bins of Bloomsbury to pick that up. That essay of yours showed as much knowledge as a newt and as much logic as a louse. Now look here, you bloody little pseudo-marxian, para-syndicalist neo-socialist hyper-liberal young swine, I am not going to stand much more of this. You will put whatever little guts you may have into using whatever little wits you may have and doing whatever little scrap of work your rotten little mind is capable of. Take this book. Yes, it's Burke's Reflections. Never heard of them? What the hell do I care? He'd never heard of you. Now take it, and don't spill your beer over it, but learn by heart the passages marked and by next week you will bloody know them and recite them to me and if you get a single word wrong I'll wring your rotten little neck. See?"

It might be quite effective, but I doubt if I can keep it up. Perhaps after all it would be better to stick to the older style. "I think you have rather overstated, etc." Yes, yes. Stare super antiques bias. But there I go, quoting Latin. I am an old fogey.

Vernon Fork


  1. Who was Vernon Fork; your question answered.
    I recently came across this which is fascinating and can answer your question about Vernon Fork as he was my father.
    You are correct in surmising that this is a pseudonym. He was R. B. McCallum (1898 - 1973) and was a Fellow and latterly Master of Pembroke College, Oxford (1925 - 1967) where he taught modern history. Throughout his career he was also a regular contributor to and sometime editor of the Oxford Magazine which was (and still is) published weekly in term time for academic staff independently of the University authorities. My father often used to contribute pieces under his pseudonym, usually the more light-hearted items such as satire, sketches, verse etc. Some issues of the magazine in which he wrote have survived in the family including several Vernon Fork pieces but not this. He has a brief entry on wikipedia. His academic research interests lay in 19th & 20th century political history, especially the history of the Liberal Party and also the study of elections for which he coined the word psephology.
    As the piece you have is typed on sheets of paper it occurs to me that possibly it was not published, hence stuffed into a book. I'd be fascinated to know, if by any chance, you can remember which book you found it in and where you got that book?
    I hope this information has satisfied your curiosity.
    Best wishes,
    Andrew McCallum
    email: thamesvalley@railfuture.org.uk

  2. Hi Andrew - thanks for satisfying my curiosity! Especially nice to have a connection to Tolkien - I note that your father was an infrequent Inkling.
    The sheets were found in a book which came from the collection of historian RK Gilkes, a fellow Oxonian and published author - http://www.amazon.com/Tudor-Parliament-London-Historical-Studies/dp/0340080728 I bought the books in an auction.
    I will try to search out the pages and will be more than happy to reunite them with a McCallum, if you so wish.
    Thank you again,

    Seamus Duggan

    1. Séamus,
      It is kind of you to offer to send the pages but having checked with my brother & sister we all feel you should keep them; they belong with you and the book. After all, you have published it online and I have printed off a copy to file with our surviving copies of the Oxford Magazine. It will remain a mystery as to how the pages came to be in a book published about 20 years or so after my father typed it! I dont recall the book but it could have been his.
      The present editor of The Oxford Magazine is hoping to soon embark on making all back copies available online as a research resource as they provide such a rich insight into change, or lack of, at Oxford University over the 20th century in which case all "Vernon Fork's" and R B McCallum's published writings will be available.
      Regarding Tolkien, they became friends when Tolkien was appointed to a Fellowship at Pembroke College by the University (as opposed to being elected by the Fellows as were most fellows including my father). The other fellows were somewhat resentful of appointed fellows and older than Tolkien so he was naturally drawn to my father who was 6 years younger. (See "JRR Tolkien" by Humphrey Carpenter, (Unwin 1977) p. 125.)
      Best wishes,
      Andrew McCallum

    2. Hi Andrew,

      I only meant that the book belonged to the author/historian RK Gilkes - I can't actually remember which book it was in but the collection included a lot of history books from the 1930's onwards.
      The digitising of the magazine sounds like a really interesting resource as I am sure there are many who went on to greater things who took their first steps in it.