You are old, Father Malcolm …

I’d expect that headline needs an explanation.

When I we’re but a lad, every school English course came via an anthology. We didn’t get far without Robert Southey’s The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them:

“You are old, father William,” the young man cried,
“The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, father William, a hearty old man;
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”

That’s from 1799; and by mid-Victorian times (1865 to be precise) an Oxford don felt it ripe for parody:

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

Which I’d guess is the version better known — if recognised at all — today.

All of which is provoked by:


And I’m shouting: why — for Heaven’s sake — not?

I still have the tools my father made as an apprentice locomotive fitter at LMS Sheffield Brightside. A ball-pein hammer is a hammer. A spanner (albeit imperial, not metric) is a spanner.

My English-Greek Lexicon, by Charles Duke Yonge, although now reduced to very infrequent use, is a battered first edition from 1849. In these degenil_570xN.690137132_gz2jerate modern times it is available on-line. My English-Latin dictionary, by Smith and Hall, is the 1870 edition — and it’s still in print.

When I was teaching a Shakespeare text, I always found the khaki-green (or failing that, the red reprinted) Warwick editions as good a vade-mecum as any. And they go back to the turn of the Nineteenth Century.

Apple_MacSE_System_s2I’m preparing this post on a 2011 Mac: my grandsons regard it as antique. Young fools! They forget the anecdote of the Mac SE from the late 1980s, which a Cambridge lab had been recycling as a door-stop. Then someone, out of interest, plugged it in, switched it on … and bong!

Similarly, when we moved house three years ago, I had to clear the attic. The BBC Micro B (circa 1982) would still play Snapper and Hopper on the metal-box of a 12-inch monitor — so well that it took me three days to switch it off. That is, once I had found an equally-obsolete tape deck from which to load the games. The pizza-box  LCII from 1992, with a 68030 chip and a massive 4MB RAM, went on-line, no bother. But s-l-o-w.

A couple of weekends ago, I was at MOSI, Manchester’s Museum of Science and Technology. When the Apocalypse comes, we’ll be heading there for durable, low-tech equipment to re-start our society.

So, in these parts, we don’t go along with Ecclesiastes 12:1-6:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

No: because I know Dear Old Dad’s battered hammer, with its chipped hickory handle, nails a wheel broken at the cistern as well as any.


1 Comment

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One response to “You are old, Father Malcolm …

  1. terence patrick hewett

    You are Old Father William of course comes from that great work “Alice in Underland” For those who are not familiar with the work, here is a brief précis.

    Alice’s Adventures in Underland is a cautionary Realist novel written by the English author and mathematician Ludwig C Dodge under the pseudonym Carol Lewis. It is generally considered to be the pinnacle of the literary Purification Movement which typically offsets virtuous working-class Victorian society against their dim-witted, upper middle class counterparts through a series of unsavoury and unhygienic encounters and in the process exposing their ungodly ways.

    Lewis’ tale, which has set the blueprint for the genre; tells the timeless tale of a young girl named Alice who by a horrific accident of fate wakes up in an abandoned wine-bar in Islington; a macabre world populated by grotesque, anthropomorphic creatures of ambivalent sexuality. The remainder of the novel recounts the heroine’s courageous attempts to escape this metrosexual hell-hole without being talked to, touched, or breathed upon by any of its hideous inhabitants.

    Alice was written in 1879, the year metrosexual men were granted the same civil rights as the other great apes. Outraged by this development, Lewis resolved to write a work of fiction to show the creatures as they really were and began a tour of what he called “Britannia Inferior” in order to carry out research for this lofty task.

    Part of the author’s travels included sailing up the river Thames to Westminster in a boat accompanied by three young girls whom he described as “friends of the family” The locals took a liking to the girls, especially little Alice;

    As Lewis recalls:

    Alice being the silly and carefree child she is, thought it would be a good idea to dangerously engage one of these creatures in banter: imagine her shock when one of them yelled back telling her to “keep her hand on her ha’penny” She was shocked and confused and I was naturally appalled. However it was a moment of inspiration and the idea of the novel was born.

    Following this incident the author created the fictitious world of Underland; taking inspiration from his nightmare travels through Hampstead and Clapham Common. He began writing that very night and had already decided to dedicate the book to the real-life Alice who had died of shock on the way home.


    A precocious young girl who tires of her loving working class family life in Clacton and follows a white ferret through a tunnel to another world, only to realise she was better off where she started. Alice finds Underland a nonsensical place and cannot understand its inhabitants’ seemingly made-up language; or their love of guacamole.

    The White Ferret:
    Malodorous and flea-ridden, the Ferret carries a smartphone at all times. Alice was initially under the impression that the ferret could talk but soon remembered that not even the locals are capable of verbal communication never mind the animals. Whatever the case, the White Ferret was apparently late for a very important date. What this “date” was for is never discussed, although Alice hopes that it will involve some kind of treatment for rabies.

    The Mad Harriet:
    Alice stumbles upon The Mad Harriet having a tea party which upsets Alice greatly as it is not officially tea time according to GMT. This matters not however because when the Harriet hands her the supposed “tea” it turns out to be an advertisement for some sort of information exchange. The Harriet is truly mad and imagines her guests to be a dormouse and a March Hare when in fact they are the mangled cadavers of two members from Fathers 4 Justice.

    The Cheshire Man:
    The Cheshire Man is one of the most iconic characters from the novel. He appears before Alice clutching a Rosary and the only visible part of him is his pearly grin. Alice remarks at this point that she’s seen a man without a smile, but never a smile without a man and speculates that he must be very rich indeed to be able to afford such a smile. He replies with an engaging laugh “charity, my dear, begins at home: after all, everything is fair in love and war” They later share the memorable exchange:

    Alice: “I loathe this place. Everything here is so phony”
    Cheshire Man: “Why yes, everyone here is phony”
    Alice: “Well I’m not”
    Cheshire Man: “But of course you are or why else would you be here”

    Critical Reception:
    Although the novel has gained legendary status; in recent years the book has come under some scrutiny for its unsubtle anti-middle class leanings. Several detractors have pointed out that the novel unfairly portrays people from the upper middle class as stupid, lazy, ugly, inbred and destined to be parasites throughout their lives. It is generally accepted today that if any of them could read they would be deeply offended by it.

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