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The Australian Limerick Book

by Jim Fitzpatrick




Australian Consolidated Press, 1987

Out of print.

An Australian botanist named Lutz
accepted no ifs, ands, or buts.
    When asked if that he oak
    just might be a she oak,
said, 'No. I've just checked the nuts.'

He came to King's Cross, did Mike,
and found things not to his like.
    His pleasures, ya sees,
    cost him a disease,
when run over by the town bike.

The only two limericks I have written, and completely unintelligible to non-Australians.


No one is quite sure who invented the limerick, or when, or where. But the greatest populariser was Edward Lear, via his Book of Nonsense, published in 1846, in London.


The limerick achieved its greatest vogue probably in 1907-1908, when a number of publications in England ran 'last line' contests. Readers were presented with the first four lines, and had to sup­ply the fifth. The winners variously sailed off on round-the-world cruises, rode away in carriages, or moved into new houses.


The newspaper and magazines profited in the process. Each en­trant had to submit a sixpenny money order, and one contest attracted nearly three quarters of a million entries. In one half-year period the monthly sales of sixpenny money orders jumped from 700 000 to a staggering 11 400 000. Among those who re­fused to have anything to do with the contests was the editor of the Limerick Times in Ireland.


The limerick's career had two distinct paths for many decades — one public and one private. The public one was clean, because:


     Said a printer well known for his wit,

     There are certain bad words we omit.

                It would sully our art

                to print the word f—,

      And we never, no never, use s— .'


For decades several literary eminences, including George Bernard Shaw, lamented the fact that many great, but risque, limericks had to be passed on orally and surreptitiously.


But a publishing breakthrough came in 1953. From Paris emanat­ed Gershon Legman's collection of 1 700 limericks, no holds barred. Absolutely none. A third were from some 20 printed sources (be­tween 1870 and 1952), and the remainder from oral collections in America, held essentially at academic institutions.


The limericks were dated, variants traced, and adorned with foot­notes, appendices, and so on. But no amount of scholasticism could hide the fact that many were obscene, frequently almost unbearably so. As Legman noted, 'expurgatives have been spelled out, and...the prejudices, cruelty, and humourless quality of many... are regretted'. But he pulled no punches. And the book was banned for many years, in many countries.


There are undoubted benefits from such libertarian publishing freedoms. But at a price. One suspects that many of the limericks were 'good' only because they had to be deciphered under the blanket, by torchlight, muffling the laughter and snickers from parents, or read through the crumpled patterns made on pages by the bedsprings, when the book was hidden under the mattress.


If you are interested in learning more about the history of limer­icks, and reading some excellent collections, you might try the following. In particular, the late Professor Ray Allen Billington, the noted historian of the American west, produced Limericks Historical and Hysterical; there is no better. It is, in his subtitle's own words, a collection of limericks 'plagiarized, arranged, anno­tated and some written by' himself.


Isaac Asimov, the Harvard University biochemist and novelist (among many other things), has included two books of original limericks, Lecherous Limericks and Limericks: Too Gross, among his more than 500 books (yes, you read that correctly!).

Legman's original Paris work is still the limericist's bible. A new testament was produced in 1977, The New Limerick, with another 2,750 limericks.


The only Australian Limerick book published prior to this one, by Cyril Pearl, prided itself on having no rude limericks. In my view, and that of many friends, by definition it was not a limerick book.

Not being a limerick writer, I conceived the idea of a national contest to bring in some really good Australian limericks. Being the pre-internet era, and to reach the masses, I approached the late Arnold Earnshaw at The Australian newspaper, who thought it a good idea.

I wrote a 1500 word history on the Limerick, Arnold came up with a beautiful glass bowl as reward for the winner, and a contest was announced in The Weekend Australian.

A couple weeks later an Australia Post van dropped off three massive canvas bags at my house, stuffed with several thousand entries. My heart sunk, as I was the sole judge, jury and executioner.

Astoundingly, they proved to be very fast to sort out. When I read the entries they tended to be either brilliant or terrible. Surprisingly few fell into the interim category. I assembled a collection sufficient to fill a 64 page paperback, which was published by Kerry Packer’s Consolidated Press and released in late 1987.

It sold enough copies to more or less pay for my time (less, actually), and faded into history.

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