This morning I received a card from Hamish in which he reminisces about Sponge Austin’s Latin classes at school, in particular the memorable proverb “Malo malo malo malo” which translates rather neatly into English as “I would rather be / In an apple tree (locative) / Than a naughty boy / In adversity,” further evidence (if it were needed) of the sparkling brilliance, economy, and homonymic brinkmanship of Classical Latin, and, incidentally, the resourcefulness of Myfanwy Piper in raiding a Latin grammar that apparently once belonged to her spinster aunt, and then splicing the text into Miles’s song for Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw (1954). The original designs for that year’s premiere at La Fenice were created by her husband the artist John Piper.
A flashy development of the original is “Malo malo malo malo malo malo malo, quam dente vento occurrere,” which means approximately “I would rather meet with a bad apple, with a bad tooth, than a bad mast with [i.e. in] a bad wind.”
I haven’t located Miss Playll’s Latin grammar, nor any evidence of ancient provenance—nice try, Wikipedia, but it is certainly not from Cicero—so “Malo malo malo malo” and “Malo malo malo malo malo malo malo, etc.” may well have been the inventions of some schoolroom wag, or an undergraduate with time on his hands.
Robert Reid remembered “Malo malo malo malo” having being used as an exercise at Glasgow Grammar School (Old Glasgow and Its Environs: Historical and Topographical, Glasgow: D. Robertson, 1864, p. 284, actually an addendum reprinted from one of his articles in the Glasgow Herald), and it was certainly also known to Alfred Henderson (Latin Proverbs and Quotations, London: Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, 1869) as well as to the Hon. Hugh Rowley (Gamosagammon; or, Hints on Hymen, for the Use of Parties About to Connubialize, London: John Camden Hotten, 1870).
Incidentally, I am rather tickled by the especially turgid German rendering of “Malo malo malo malo,” namely “Ich möchte lieber in einem Apfelbaum sein als ein schlechter Mann im Unglück,” which proves that strict case structure of a language does not necessarily guarantee anything remotely like concision.
Anyhow, the news from South Gippsland is encouraging: Mungo’s broken arm is mending well and apparently does not interfere with “his saxomaphone practice.” Roy played in the Inverloch/Kongwak school soccer side last Friday week in the lightning premierships (“against glamour teams from Foster, Kurrumburra, Leongatha, and Mirboo North,” but evidently not from Poowong East or Fish Creek). He even won a thrilling penalty shootout “Grand Final.”
I already knew about Mungo’s arm. He informed me about his excellent progress in a meticulously ciphered message that came by email last week. Poozles, meanwhile, seems destined to emulate his father’s fine record of sustained accomplishment on the school playing fields of Victoria.