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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On viola jokes and the eating of dogs,
with classical music's agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH


I came upon a site with viola jokes on it, and I am mypht. The jokes portray the instrument like a dumb founded sort with no tune value at all. Why could thi be?

ex. A violist and a cellist were standing on a sinking ship. 'Help!' cried the cellist, 'I can't swim!'

'Don't worry,' said the violist, 'just fake it.'


And also:

How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune?
The bow is moving.


How was the canon invented?
Two violists were trying to play the same passage together ...

that was too well? I dont see why. please help a violists dawter.

Dear violist's daughter,

I wish some of my youthful correspondents would be good enough to remember that I am over forty. What the hell does mypht mean?? My yearning parent has trouble (with understanding this)? My yoghurt-loving pater hesitates timorously? My yo-yo perhaps has tapeworms?

Whatever you actually mean, I seem to gather that you are concerned about your father being held up to worldwide ridicule simply because of his choice of instrument, and wish to assure you that the jokes you mention will not do this. This is because they are (a) uniformly offensive to all right-thinking musicians, (b) seriously politically incorrect and (c) as old as the hills. (The correct answer is C, well done!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Violists have been ridiculed as long as the instrument has been in existence. This is not because it is easy (clarinet is easy) or funny-looking (bassoons are funny-looking) or people look funny playing it (the oboe, for example). Instead the buffoonery of the viola is rooted in history so deep that your A-level course will certainly not cover it, back when violas were born (hey, that one's too small to hold like a cello! Let's cripple ourselves and stick a chin-rest on it!!) because the viola parts back then were (and I know this sounds incredible) even easier than second violin parts!!!!!!!!!! They were really third violin parts!!! So they shoved the beginners, the ones who had trouble with first position, let alone third position, onto the viola, where they were (and a good thing too) never heard again. On the other hand, if the violist was exceptionally brilliant, and could hold the bow as well, he -- and it always was a he, back then -- was generally promoted to the second violins, or even the rampant heights of the firsts. It was from this period that viola jokes were born. Indeed, my husband Simon, Prof of Music at Goldsmiths College, believes he has uncovered the very first viola joke, and it was bang in the middle of his period (1700s). Apparently some famous violinist whose name escapes me wrote to his son (a violist): 'You must practise with great assiduousness, since you do not wish to remain a violist for the whole of your life.' (LOLARAOTFBCAG, or, to translate from the earliest known emailese: lots of laughs rolling about on the floor busting corsets and girdles.)

In other words, I'll bet your father (in these days when viola parts are bloody difficult and playing the monster no easier than it ever was) laughs as heartily as anyone at these silly viola-joke sites. I'll bet he even makes viola jokes (most violists do, in self-defence). And I'll bet you're glad he's a violist because these make famously great dads, not so irritable as oboes or bolshy as double basses or pernickety as first violins. I'll bet, he takes you kite-flying and helps you with your calculus. More than that, I'll bet, if you ask your dad really nicely, he'll stop making that racket on the viola and teach you some punctuation, because frankly otherwise kid it is curtains at A-level ...


PS Speaking of LOL, did anyone else besides me hear the hilarious BBC Radio 4 programme about heroes 30 April 2004, post-concert, maybe 10.30 or 11pm [BST]????

If so, did anyone else have to pull over on the M4, helpless with laughter?? Can I really be the only Radio 4 listener to have had a near-death experience at the unwitting hands of the crassly self-satisfied, self-styled 'explorer' Benedict Allen and his espousal of Horatio Nelson?? (Note: this was the 'heroes' series on Radio 4, where someone passionate about his self-image -- oops I mean hero -- comes on to wax lyrical about same, and is gently corrected by a biographer of the hero in question.)

Well, well, perhaps I'm biassed. I am, after all, famous for withering observations about people who make their loved ones lives a misery trekking to the pole with fewer sleds than the previous fellow, or who sail in gale force winds (causing saner earthlings to risk life and limb in order to rescue them), or who choose to climb mountains in howling snow (ditto) and so on. My reaction is always amazement, first, that anyone should sponsor such nerds and second, that the nerd should think the game worth the candle. Get a life, is my reaction, to someone who evidently feels that life as it is for most of us (filled with children who 'need' to play computer games but who should be doing Kumon, friends suffering mid-life crises, etc) is simply too dull to bear without the effort of charging off to some Amazonian jungle or Nepalese wilderness, there to do God knows what, but generally involving some anorak-inspired attempt at the fastest midnight trek from X to Y (at least until next year, when Z is bound to better it).

But really, this Benedict Allen fellow was a gift. First he gave us to understand that he empathized with Nelson, in that 'having to lead men' vaguely excused such minor misdemeanors as Nelson's renowned flogging of a third of his ship's crew for gathering in the sail too slowly or allowing the murder of prisoners of war. Nor was young Benedict bothered by Nelson's flagrant neglect of his wife Fanny, or by the nauseating flattery dealt out to him by his mistress Lady Hamilton. No, sirree, Allen's view was that -- if Nelson had impressed his, meaning Benedict's, grandmother, who thought him good-looking -- he impressed young Benedict, and, after all, Nelson had always Done His Duty and was a Hero. (As only a similar sort of hero, naming no names but sitting not unadjacent to the Radio 4 studio in question, could hope to understand).

But the funniest bit of all was when, having told us that he had been in extremis somewhere or other (don't ask, it'll only encourage them) Allen had been obliged to eat his dog. No, I kid you not, in a choice between dog and self (I for one would have voted for the dog) Benedict Allen had found it his duty to kill and eat his dog.

And that wasn't all. No, a truly immortal exchange took place, late in the programme, while Allen was waxing eloquent about his innate understanding of Nelson's Duty to his Country. After all, he told us, when he had gone trekking to the Arctic or the Antartic or Stevenage or some such, with a gang of dogs, he had felt a terrible responsibility to get each and every dog safely back. It had weighed on his conscience, he gave us to understand, night after night, this responsibility, causing a lack of brightness in the Allen cheeks and a heavy weight upon the Allen shoulders.

There was a deafening silence, into which the Nelson biographer (very good, very clever, but I sadly forget his name) interposed, 'Well, that makes a change, doesn't it, I mean, you ate your previous dog,' which left Benedict Allen waffling in desperation and Yours always chooffing and chortling helplessly on the hard shoulder of the M4, surrounded by whizzing lorries and tearing sports cars, all of whom (having been listening to programmes that go 'bang bang bang' or 'Doo-whaddy-doo') couldn't have had a clue why I was writhing in helpless mirth.

Agony Aunt Detector Van photo

As I departed the hard shoulder, I reflected that it's moments like that that make the license fee worthwhile. Moments like that (almost) reconcile me to the existence of these 'explorers'. As for the rest of you, I urge you -- I cannot say how strongly -- to write to Radio 4 in hopes that Benedict Allen will be given his own chat show, preferably at an hour when most people will not be driving on the M4 in case of accidents.


Copyright © 7 May 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK






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