Basil Ratburn

Back at the end of January I noted briefly on Facebook that the January 25th coincidence of Robert Burns’s birthday with the new lunar year — the Year of the Rat, specifically — meant that this year 1/25 was the celebratory day of Basil Ratburn. Crossed swords and groans.


(#1) Basil Rathbone (on the left) as villain — rat — crossing swords with Errol Flynn in the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood (you are allowed an adolescent snicker on crossing swords — and in fact those snickers have a basis in reality, in the term swordplay referring to body practices between men; see the Swordplay Bonus below)

Robert Burns’s birthday. From Wikipedia:

A Burns supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796), the author of many Scots poems. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet’s birthday, 25 January, occasionally known as Robert Burns Day (or Rabbie Burns Day) but more commonly known as Burns Night (Scots: Burns Nicht).


(#2) A traditional meal of haggis, neeps and tatties at Dundee Burns Club’s 160th annual Burns supper on Saturday 25 January 2020. (Wikipedia photo by Connor Beaton)

… At the end of the [Burns] poem [“Address to a Haggis”], a whisky toast will be proposed to the haggis, and the company will sit down to the meal. The haggis is traditionally served with mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed swede [rutabaga] (neeps).

Haggis is a classic poverty food (similar in spirit to the scrapple of the Pennsylvania Dutch), using materials that either are cheap and abundant or would otherwise be thrown away. From NOAD:

noun haggis: a Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s or calf’s offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasoning and boiled in a bag, traditionally one made from the animal’s stomach.

The Year  of the Rat. 1/25/20 – 2/11/21 is the Year of the Metal Rat in the Chinese zodiac. Brief Wikipedia note:


(#3) A new year graphic on the Pixabay site, with 2020 made from rat’s bodies and tails

The Zodiacal Rat is the first of the repeating 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac, constituting part of the Chinese calendar system (with similar systems in use elsewhere).

If we’re now in the Year of the Rat, it follows that body-proud guys working out are in the Year of the Gym Rat, and can celebrate their pecs, abs, and rock-hard glutes. A few notes on gym rats, especially the gay ones, in the Gym Rat Bonus below.

Basil. Put the zodiacal rat together with the Scots poet Burns, and you get that clever Scots rodent Ratburn, who took up acting and went on stage under the elegant English name Basil Rathbone, armed with a villainous disposition and the skill of a swordsman.

Well, with Basil Ratburn / Rathbone, we get the name Basil as a third element, and the swords just come along with the rest.

(Another digression held off for later: Fawlty Towers and the episode “Basil the Rat”. In the Basil Fawlty Bonus below.)

Basil Rathbone. The actual man. From Wikipedia:

Philip St. John Basil Rathbone MC (13 June 1892 – 21 July 1967) was an English actor [born in South Africa]. He rose to prominence in the United Kingdom as a Shakespearean stage actor and went on to appear in more than 70 films, primarily costume dramas, swashbucklers and, occasionally, horror films.


(#3) From the Stuff  Nobody Cares About site “Classic Hollywood #39”: This very appealing photograph was taken in 1954 and shows Basil Rathbone and Angela Lansbury eating lunch at the Paramount studio commissary. Rathbone and Lansbury are  in costume for the filming of The Court Jester (1955) which they starred in along with Danny Kaye.

Rathbone frequently portrayed suave villains or morally ambiguous characters, such as Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield (1935) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). His most famous role was that of Sherlock Holmes in fourteen Hollywood films made between 1939 and 1946 and in a radio series.

… He was admired for his athletic cinema swordsmanship (he listed fencing among his favourite recreations). He fought and lost to Errol Flynn in a duel on the beach in Captain Blood and in an elaborate fight sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood [AZ: a masterpiece of the swordplay genre, in my opinion]. He was also involved in noteworthy sword fights in Tower of London, The Mark of Zorro, and The Court Jester (1956). Despite his real life skill, Rathbone won only twice on screen, against John Barrymore in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and against Eugene Pallette in The Mark of Zorro (1940).

Swordplay Bonus. (Note: sexual content in this section, not to everyone’s taste.) From my 9/6/11 posting “Penis-to-penis”:

Probably not everyone knows that one way two men can interact with one another is through their penises — actually two ways, in mock play (referred to metaphorically as swordplay or a swordfight, with the figure of penis as sword) or amiably (in what I’ll call cockversation).

Swordplay/swordfights can be primarily contests (using dicks as if they were weapons) or primarily sexual (rubbing or striking dicks together as a sex act, aimed at ejaculation for both men), though the line between the two types of interactions can easily be crossed.

Gym Rat Bonus. (Note: sexual content in this section, not to everyone’s taste.) The lexical item, from GDoS:

noun gym rat: 1 (US) (also gym bunny) a sports enthusiast; usu. one who frequents gyms and training grounds; often used of young gay men obsessed with body building. [1st cite 1978 in the Washington Post; 2005 Edmund White cites about the gay type; the compound has the head noun rat ‘enthusiast’, which appears also in surf rat, roughly ‘surfer dude’]

Now, the complexity of the social meanings associated with male bodybuilding. For many American men, at least, bodybuilding is one piece of the construction of masculinity in male groups: the participants are competitors, seeking to reach displays of bodily power and male muscularity that will make them more valued in the eyes of other men (and also will drive other competitors to reach higher levels of success; every man makes his brothers better, while simultaneously trying to top them in performance).

So, as with almost everything in male groups, the audience for the performances is, at least initially, other men (other competitors, buddies, coaches, fathers, and so on). The male groups of boyhood, into young adulthood, are fiercely anti-feminine, rejecting all qualities associated with women, as partners (except for providing sexual services), or as authority figures (in particular, mothers as guardians of civility, politeness, order, cleanliness, and the like).

This cannot last. Straight guys need to find ways to attract women as partners, short-term or long-term, so they have to figure out What Women Want. There’s a lot of guylore about this, much of it projected from what straight guys value in one another. So we get straight guys whose first instinct is to go for driving a cool car, displaying their dicks (because dicks are symbols of male power among American men), and, yes, bodybuilding. For every such strategy, there are of course, at least some women who respond to the display, but most of these strategies aren’t attractive to women in large numbers and are easily overdone. Bigger is by no means always better.

I believe (from talking to women about these matters — gay men and straight women do often talk to one another about these things frankly, because we both have to Deal With Men) that a cute smile and fit (but not ripped) shoulders, torso, and butt work much better for short-term attraction, while assessments of character and personality predominate for long-term partnerships. This news has not reached some straight guys.

In any case, from all of this you get gym rats in three broad flavors: straight guys performing for other straight guys (heavy reliance on sheer size and muscularity); straight guys performing to hook up with women; and gay gym rats performing to hook up with men (which tends to make preferences swing back to sheer size and muscularity, since gay men are inclined to seek out symbolic masculinity).

Searching on “gay gym rats” on the net brings up a lot of anxiety from guys worried whether they can make themselves big enough and hard enough to succeed in the gay sexual marketplace, but also some oddities (incredibly ripped twinks posing in haughty faggy presentations) and some playfulness, as in this image of two gay gym rats (so billed) goofing off sexually with one another at the gym, on the Shangay site about gay “types” (in Spanish):


(#4) (ultimate source of this photo not identified)

Returning to the heteronormative world, I offer you the song “Gym Rat”, from the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies (yes, their name is studiedly offensive) most recent album Bigger Life:


(#5) You can watch the official YouTube video here (#6)

From the lyrics:

To be a 5 star baddie
You got to keep your carbohydrates down
To be a 5 star baddie
You got to beat the other clowns

I work with pain like a chisel
GYM RAT
Clipboard, visor and whistle
GYM RAT
Squeezing up a last repetition
I need it proud, devout and salty

Competition with other men dominates the lyrics, but competition for women dominates the visuals. They’re linked.

From Wikipedia on the Daddies and this album:

Bigger Life is the ninth studio album and eleventh album overall by American ska-swing band the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, independently released on Space Age Bachelor Pad Records on June 14, 2019.

Following three successive swing and jazz albums released throughout the 2010s, Bigger Life heralded a return to the punk rock influences which defined the Daddies’ earliest albums, featuring a dominant musical focus on ska, ska punk and psychobilly as well as lyrical content both critically and satirically addressing contemporary American politics.

… In a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post, singer-songwriter Steve Perry mentioned beginning work on new, non-swing original material, describing his ambitions of making a politically-oriented “psychobilly/Zappa/American Idiot/R. Crumb-type record” and emphasizing an interest in utilizing rockabilly and psychobilly.

… On May 8, 2018, Perry announced on Twitter that mixing had begun on Bigger Life. The album was finally and formally announced on March 12, 2019 with the release of the album’s first single and music video, the ska punk song “Gym Rat”, along with a confirmed release date of June 14.

Basil Fawlty Bonus. (No sex in this section.) From Wikipedia, about “Basil the Rat”, S2 E6 (first aired 10/25/79) of the BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers, the twelfth and final episode of the program, with the set-up:


(#7) Manuel, Basil, and the “Siberian hamster”

When Basil [Fawlty] is alerting [the Spanish waiter] Manuel [about a health inspection], he notices that he is keeping a pet rat, having been conned into thinking that it’s a Siberian hamster. Basil, afraid that the health inspector will take issue with it, removes it. Infuriated, Manuel threatens to resign, and it is debated what to do with it.

Manifold complications ensue.

Summary. The basic ingredients are three: Burns, rat, and Basil. Swordplay and men’s gyms on the side. Somewhat surprisingly, the herb basil (genus Ocimum) hasn’t figured in this at all.

2 Responses to “Basil Ratburn”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Somewhat surprisingly, the herb basil (genus Ocimum) hasn’t figured in this at all.

    Well, it does figure, somewhat indirectly, in the Fawlty Towers episode. As implied by the episode’s title, Manuel has in fact named his rat after his employer, and at some point while the whole staff is seeking the escaped rat, Polly the waitress tries to cover what they’re doing and saying by explaining that the chef “calls his ratatouille ‘Basil’ because he puts a lot of basil in it”. which upsets Manuel, because he takes it literally and thinks the chef has actually cooked his pet.

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