Hail to thee blithe Ken
Laurie Taylor on the delight of being (mostly) right
At the suburban drama school I attended in the early sixties there was a compulsory second year course called Verse Speaking. In line with contemporary pedagogic practice I should perhaps give an extended account of its principal goals and strategic objectives but for the life of me I can't remember it involving anything much more than alphabetically sorted students learning a poem by heart, reciting it in front of the class, and then sitting back and waiting to receive critical comments from Mr AG Tugson, the course tutor. There are certain objective criteria that can be brought to bear upon public verse speaking. No one could possibly object, for example, if marks were deducted for failing to remember the poem, or for muddling up the verses, or for serious errors of pronunciation. (I vividly
remember the day when my fellow student, Iris Lowles, was docked a whole ten marks for calling Shelley's skylark a BLITH rather than a BLITHE spirit). But if a speaker failed to commit any such objective errors then their mark depended entirely upon Mr Tugson's subjective assessment of the reciter's capture of what he called the 'spirit of the poet'. This was invariably negative. Speakers who had given a word perfect rendition of 'Sonnet upon Westminster Bridge', would be told that their efforts were all in vain because they were 'not really Wordsworth'.
Tugson had, it seemed, a pretty direct line to most poets' true voices. Over time we learned that to be 'really Shelley' it was necessary to convey a sense of breathless urgency: "Hail-to-thee-blithe-spirit-Bird-thou-never-wert", while 'really Keats' required all the words to be rolled around in the mouth as though they were particularly delicious chocolates: "Sheason of mishts and meyellow froootfullnesss".
Even though at the time I had a mild suspicion that Tugson was a fat charlatan, I found myself trying to succeed where all others had failed by sticking to the letter of his requirements. So when the day came for my rendition of TS Eliot's 'Rhapsody on a Windy Night', I was not only word perfect but also took great care to make the poem 'really Eliot' by imbuing it with the 'unemotional intellectualism' that Tugson had previously declared to be Eliot's distinctive spirit.
By the time I'd reached the end of the poem "The last twist of the knife" I could sense that he had, despite himself, been thoroughly impressed. All the words had been fully present and correctly pronounced; all the line-end pauses and caesuras had been properly respected. And not once had I sounded anything other than 'unemotional' and 'intellectual'.
He was initially at a loss for words. His persistent determination to find fault had suddenly run into the buffers. After a moment's musing, he finally came up with his considered judgement. "Mostly right, Taylor", he said, "Mostly right".
That little phrase has retained a place in the back of my mind as the highest form of approbation that anyone could ever receive. For over 40 years I've gone on wanting to be 'mostly right': mostly right about my chosen career, mostly right about my political views, my choice of partner, my selection of holiday destinations.
Last week the phrase suddenly re-surfaced during one of my routine arguments with a taxi driver about the London congestion charges. Ever since these charges were introduced I've been conducting my own private opinion polls about their relative success from the back of every cab I use. At the beginning every cabbie I talked to was fiercely opposed. They were as impervious to claims of reduced pollution and journey times in central London as Mr Tugson had been to pleas from students for any kind of approval. They brushed aside my stories about how politicians from all over the world were beating a path to Ken Livingstone's door so that they could learn how to follow his example. They were singularly unimpressed by my wider philosophical argument that here at last was an example of a political leader who was prepared in the face of massive public and media hostility to push through a rational solution to what had always before seemed like an intractable problem.
But gradually, as the weeks have gone by, they've begun to concede. The congestion charges, I was told, were 'not bad' for some people. They were working 'better than expected'. And then, last week, during a mid-afternoon journey from Victoria Station to Russell Square came the moment of truth. I was no more than three-quarters of my way through my usual paean of praise to Ken and all his traffic works, when the cabbie loudly interrupted me on the intercom. "No need to bang on, governor," he said. "I reckon that the mayor has got it mostly right."
Next time I run into Mr Livingstone I will make a point of telling him that there really could be no higher praise.