‘The glasses and mugs are filled, and then the fugleman strikes up …which is the first song in the School House , and all the seventy voices join in, not mindful of harmony, but bent on noise, which they attain decidedly, but the general effect isn’t bad.’
‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’, Chapter VI ‘After the match’
What ever became of the ‘Fugleman’, and the ‘Mayor of Bayswater’s daughter’ for that matter, or plunge baths? And did the ‘Oozelum bird’ really fly in ever decreasing circles – and can you play the muffin man?
Following a quick straw poll, it seems today that the trend is away from the traditional team songs and clubhouse carousing. The amateur game now is more family orientated. Many clubs host Mini rugby (invented as new image rugby in England during the 1970’s) together with the advent of women’s XV’s – both of which has effected social change in the clubhouse.
There was a time when largely male dominated clubhouses sang traditional folk songs like ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht’at” the famous Yorkshire folk song about a courting couple. Perhaps the Irish ‘Molly Malone’, (In Dublin’s fair city, Where the girls are so pretty), or Welsh hymns such as ‘Cwm Rhondda’ (The unofficial Welsh National Anthem), ‘Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim through this barren land’, ending with, ‘Feed me till I want no more’, sung in close harmony.
These and many other popular drinking songs had been passed down over the years, with adaptations over two world wars, and even more changes of lyrics with the passing of time and custom. Many amateur teams had eloquent and entertaining raconteurs with a fund of amusing ‘Limericks’ –such as ‘There was a young maid from Devizes, who had…’ Some had been in the armed forces where it was often customary in messes and wardrooms to ‘sing for one’s supper’, -in other words entertain. Players would sing together in clubhouse bars with opponents trading verse for verse.
Some rugby song lyrics are completely unprintable, involving singing about lavatories, such as ‘A Frenchman went to the’…and…’three old ladies got locked in the’… (as a reminder, they were of course the Misses Carter, Pomphrey and Porter), …and sadly ‘nobody knew they were there’, yes really, apparently from Monday to Saturday! These ditties covered such diverse subjects as the ‘Sexual Life of a Camel’, the ballad of ‘Eskimo Nell and Dead-Eye Dick’, the goings on at the court of ‘Old King Cole’ and the exploits of the bold Russian, ‘Ivan Petrovski Skivar’.
The evergreen ‘If I was the marrying kind’ with verses about every position –in rugby that is. The Scots sang about the dysfunctional guests at the ‘Ball of Kirriemuir’, and the Navy XV’s recounted the homecoming of Barnacle Bill the Sailor, and alternative lyrics to the tune of the Sailor’s Hornpipe, opening with a series of very intimate recruitment questions. Army sides often sung about their preference for all types of girls, using lyrics to the tune of the ‘British Grenadiers’ (18th century marching song), that ‘Tom Brown’ would have known -but perhaps not the lyrics! Medical schools loved parodying the song These Foolish Things, (classic 1930’s Mayfair song by Eric Maschwitz -one time Head of Variety at the BBC).These lyrics often started with ‘A cigarette that bears a lipstick traces’…with endless verses (nearly always about diseases) ending with ‘…remind me of you’.
Then in 1963 an awful thing happened. The first rugby LP, ‘Why Was He Born So Beautiful’ appeared in record shops appropriately sung by the ‘Jock Strapp Ensemble’. It was dreadful –a complete amateur production, -but perhaps that was the point? It was the beginning of the end.
Until then, lyrics had not been written down as it was part of an oral tradition, it had to be memorised. It was particularly important to ‘out sing’ any opponents, and particularly for the loosing team – as part compensation. The effect on vocal chords of this strenuous amateur effort – mixed with beer and tobacco would produce an extremely hoarse voice, several octaves lower –particularly on Sunday mornings, which found many players repeating the mantra of the self-inflicted ‘never again’.
‘Ik bin der Musikmeister,…Oh no he isn’t…Oh yes he is!’
There is barely a rugby club in the land that doesn’t have some players who will cross-dress for occasions without batting an eyelid, and without an inward look at their deeper motivation (for example some songs demand a female response). The English particularly have had a long and unique tradition of amateur female impersonation, dressing up in frocks, and wearing make-up passed down through Pantomime.
Think of the Gibraltar forces song lyric, ‘Funny little fellow –wears his sister’s clothes…’and the comedians Les Dawson, Dick Emery, the Two Ronnie’s, David Walliams and Matt Lucas. It seems a bizarrely and specifically British activity. You only have to glance at some the supporters at the Six Nations Internationals or in festival mood at the Hong Kong Sevens; it’s opaquely weird and embarrassing to the rest of the world.
They are so at ease looking ridiculous, so accepting of the ridicule and the utter un-sexiness of drag, that they are happily to accept its camp implications and enter into the high jinks with gusto. Even Lawrence Dallaglio the ex-England International in his 2010 charity bike ride Rome to Edinburgh managed to dress up for at least one sector.
Rugby clubs continues to embrace pantomime with gusto. Bath RFC for example in 2009 was involved with their first production of ‘Aladdin’, and continued in recent years with ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’ –lots of dressing up and ugly sisters. So what could be more appropriate than hearing the audience participation, shouting the old West country exclamation’, ‘come on my lovers’… reality turned into high camp!
And whilst on the subject we read that Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas (the first Welshman to win 100 caps in Rugby Union), will tackle a new challenge this Christmas (2014) as he stars in a pantomime of ‘Cinderella’ at Cardiff’s New Theatre – ‘He’s behind you’…
Whatever became of those clubhouse plunge baths? I’m told they have gone in the way of progress “…‘ealth & safety mate, …it’s all that blood and mud, …it’s EU regulations, (isn’t it always?)“
Nonsense, bathing with Wright’s Coal Tar Soap did it for us, and our father’s before us”!
Because one of the greatest pleasures of playing rugby was the prospect at the end of the game of a steaming hot plunge bath, to soak away those aching muscles, replay the game with team mates, and perhaps enjoy a pre-carousing aperitif of a beer on the side, whilst attempting to keep a cigarette dry.
On that note, I recall reading a request notice on one clubhouse lavatory wall saying,
“would visitors please refrain from dropping cigarette butts in the urinals,
as it makes them very difficult to light”
Rugby clubhouse drinking 1960’s: https://www.thegreatbritishbookshop.co.uk/book/john-dann/thomas-cooks-rugby-club
New York times 2009: ‘A little rugby with your cross-dressing’, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/world/asia/30iht-sevens.html?
CNN Travel, Hong Kong Sevens survival tips 2014: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/26/travel/hk7s-survival-tips/
1939 advertisement Wright’s Coal Tar soap: http://www.magnoliabox.com/tag/Wright’s%20coal%20tar%20soap