WHAT is that tune? I am humming it with all the absent-mindedness of Winnie the Pooh: catch myself doing it, in fact. ``Pom-p-pom-pom pom PAAAAM POM! . . . '' A neat change of key on that last note -- or at least, since I am not much above the brainless bear in musical know-how, it is what I take to be a key-change. But ignorance of bees has never been a deterrent to the enjoyment of honey -- so, play on!: ``Pa-paaa p-pa pa paaa pa PAR!'' and then repeat. . . .
What is it?
Oh, my goodness. In all its awfulness it suddenly comes flooding back. As the boy-narrator observes in Alexander Cordell's ``Rape of the Fair Country'': ``It is strange that memory will fade on some things and hang like hooks on to others.'' Strange indeed. The memory connected with this tune should probably have been unhooked long ago. And yet I don't know. Perhaps it was one of those salutary experiences that keep you 'umble, and that can't be all bad.
Herrick -- Robert Herrick, that's the man. Not the American author of ``The Common Lot,'' but an English country parson of the time of Charles I, a Caroline poet with a delight in rustic myths and fancies and ballads. Yes, Mr. Herrick, it is you, all unwittingly, of course, that I hold responsible for one of the most embarrassing 10 minutes of my entire -- no, the most embarrassing. Even the time I strongly advised a woman encountered in a bookshop not to order a dozen copies of a certain book -- even that was, on a scale of 1 to 10, fractionally less frightful. (``Why not?'' she asked. ``Unreadable,'' I replied. ``How very interesting,'' she said. ``I'm the author.'')
It was at my boarding, or ``public,'' school, as we enigmatically call it in Britain. The new headmaster, impeccably qualified for the job because of a muscular devotion to Rugby Football and Hymn Practice, instituted a new ``House Competition.'' It was a singing competition -- part-singing. Now you'd think that the powers-that-were, having searched my records for any indication of a musical propensity and having found none, would have hastily withdrawn my name from the list of potential participants. But it seems that 1957 was a bad year, in our house, for tenors. There really is no other explanation for my press-ganging, though the inexperience of the teacher given the task of training us four may also have had a bearing.
The piece chosen was: Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying: And this same flower that smiles to-day To-morrow will be dying.
That was it, and more -- four verses in all. Mr. Herrick wrote the words sometime back in the 17th century. He had no idea what he was letting me in for.
It was a very peculiar choice, now I come to consider the matter, for 16- and 17-year-old-boys to sing; and in front of the whole school as well. Somehow I never got to see the poem's title -- I was probably too distracted by a vain attempt to grasp the apparently important difference between crochets, and semiquavers at the time -- but turning it up now in my ``Oxford Book of English Verse'' I find it is called ``To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.'' Yes, he was a parson, that's right.
We practiced. And we practiced. The tenor part was given particular attention: Ga - ther ye rose buds while yeee m a y Old Time is still a- fly- yi- y i n g. The tenor part needed particular attention. I hadn't a clue.
The dreaded night came. Our house was on third. The first ``team'' produced a mellifluous glee of exquisite delicacy and timing. The second was even better: crisp articulation, extravagantly complex fa-la-falalas, and warp-and-weft of song to make you gasp. Headed for an engagement at the Albert Hall they were, and smug of face to go with it. And then us.
The very words, of course, asked for that initial titter among the front-row juniors. Astoundingly, though, the first line seemed to go all right, and the next line almost gave one a sense of confidence. Perhaps I'm better at this than I thought, I thought. A moment of ambition there: All those years of clandestine singing in the bath had borne fruit after all. . . .
Looking back on it (which I still can't do with total equanimity), I suspect that it was the sin of ambition that undid me. That and the Gap. The Gap was a trial to me. The tenor part stopped at one point while the three others continued upping-and-downing variously. He counts in silence. And then he joins in again. That was the Gap.
It arrived. I counted. And I joined in again. The result was a cacophony terrible to witness. The junior titters spread to the fourth-form thugs halfway back, and even the prefects were beginning to raise amused eyebrows. I stopped. Must have been too soon. Counted a bit more. Blurted in again -- oh! -- worse. Far worse. I took a deep breath then, a long, deep breath. The others were still going manfully -- you would have been proud of them, Mr. Herrick. But for me the room whirled, as they say. Mayhem was breaking out in the audience. Titters had grown to universal chuckling. Once more, I thought (now reduced to nothing but bravery and pinkness) once more into the breach, dear -- wait for it -- NOW!
And this same flower that . . . .
No! Oh, no! The words, for harmony's sake, withered on my lips, once and for all. My career was over. I would never sing in public again, not even alone. The trio kept on as well as they could, tenor-less. At long, long last they reached: For having lost but once your prime, You may forever ta-a-arry.
It was over. The applause was tremendous. We slunk off the platform. The fourth and final House Team came up instead and sang, with unsurpassable musicianship, John Ward's ``Retire, My Troubled Soul.'' Its Jacobean melancholy seemed to me a bitter truth: Retire, my troubled soul, Rest, and behold thy days of dolour, dangers manifold. See, life is but a dream, whose best contenting, Begun with hope, pursued with doubt, enjoyed with fear, Ends in repenting.
Yea, verily. But now I'm with the laughers, really -- and I can comfort myself retrospectively with a little more knowledge of Herrick, who, apart from writing some enchanting words (remember ``Whenas in silks my Julia goes/ Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows/ The liquefaction of her clothes''?), also seems to have been endowed with a good sense of humor. He probably would have enjoyed our performance. After all, it is his marvelous sonnet that is called ``Delight in Disorder.'' There is encouragement, methinks, in that, and I hum him still. Privately.