Tuesday 8 January 2008

Funny business in Victorian Germany

Reading extracts from E.F.Knight's description of his 1887 cruise "The Falcon on the Baltic" on Gavin Atkin's blog inspired me to buy it, and last night I came across this remarkable passage. The Falcon has arrived at Kiel via the River Eider and the old Schleswig-Holstein canal (the Keil ship canal was not yet complete), and Knight raves about the lovely lakes called brednings, what we would call broads. However, Knight is surprised at the lack of boating activity on what he describes as 'the most glorious facilities for yachting'. However, moored up in Kiel Fiord:
"On the morning after our arrival I was reading an English paper in the cabin, when I was startled by a sound that was very familiar, but the last I should have expected to hear in Kiel Fiord. Had I been dreaming, or was I still lying off the Doves at Hammersmith? It was a human voice screaming and cursing in the purest Thames tow-path dialect, reckless of aspirates, rich in horrible invective. It was a Cockney addressing men whom he called respectively Five, Four, Three and so on as if they were so many convicts. He was urging them in impassioned language not to feather under water, to keep their something eyes in the boat, not to sugar, and to do or avoid doing several other things. How often I had been bullied in a similar fashion by a similar tyrant on the Cam! I leapt on deck and lo! There was a genuine racing four pulling by! There were several other fours and funnies on the bay, and it was evident that the “Wasser-sport” was much patronized at Kiel.
I afterwards learnt that the rowing regatta was soon coming off, so all the rowing men were in training, and this particular crew of young Germans had imported a professional coach from the Thames to teach them how to row. They were very enthusiastic and plodding, but the coach with all his skill and blasphemy could not drive any real style into them. It seems strange that the North Germans, well set-up as they are physically, can never approach the English in any athletic sport.
“It’s all that d----d lager they drink,” said a professional oarsman, who had been to Hamburg, to me; “it swells them out till they’re all wool and flabbiness.”
The Kiel rowing men made a good deal of their tutor, admired him greatly, and bore his fearful language with patience. They wanted to row at any cost, and they had been led to understand that it was quite impossible to become a true English wassersportsman unless one has been well cursed through one’s apprenticeship."
The Germans have certainly caught up with the English in sports since then, and over the same period the English have taken up lager. Coincidence? I think not.
I was struck by the use of the term 'funny' for a double scull or pair, which I haven't heard used since I was a kid. Funnies were usually clinker built, so I suppose the word died when shells came in for racing boats and fibreglass displaced wood for leisure boats. I think this charming nomenclature should be revived instantly.
Here is a modern funny featured in Wikipedia, being rowed on the Amstel. The picture was taken by Paul Vlaar.


Baddaddy said...

Have you been well cursed, old chap?


Chris Partridge said...

I was taught by my mother and Uncle Tim, both of whom never let slip a curse in my hearing. I love that phrase "reckless of aspirates, rich in horrible invective".
Reminds me of the story of Sir Stafford Cripps and Herbert Morrison. Morrison rushed in late to a Cabinet meeting, saying "I've got an 'orrible 'eadache".
Quick as a flash, Cripps said "Why don't you take a couple of aspirates?"