……….Unknown and poor – simplicity’s reward / Ae night, within the ancient burgh of Ayr / By whim inspir’d, or haply prest wi’ care, / He left his bed, and took his wayward route, / And down by Simpson’s wheeled the left about:
These are lines from Robert Burns poem “The Brigs Of Ayr” and I start with them for three reasons – I want to write about Robert (and I admit I think of him with that kind of close, almost filial familiarity, that I feel I can call him by his first name only!), secondly I want to write a little about Ayr (Auld Ayr whom ne’er a toon surpasses / for honest men and bonnie lasses) and thirdly no thoughts about Burns would ever be complete with referring to a pub (the ‘Simpsons’ referred to in the poem was a pub by the Auld Brig in Ayr!)
The prompt for writing this post actually came from a recent post I read on Book Snob’s blog in which she shared her unfettered joy at having secured a place to do teacher training and fulfil her ambition of becoming a teacher. It got me thinking about my own teacher training, in the early 1980′s and what drove me to choose to leave home and train at Craigie College in Ayr. My reasons weren’t as laudable as Rachel’s! One reason was predictable – a friend told me Ayr had lots and lots of great pubs! One reason was shameful – the college where I trained had the highest proportion of female students to male students in Scottish further education and I liked girls!
And one reason was fanciful – Ayr was the birthplace and home of Robert Burns, the Bard as we Scots think of him. And I loved Robert, his poetry and everything about him (at that age even Robert’s love of drinking and women suited me to a tee!). So I chose it because I had dreamy notions of walking on the cobbled streets where Robert had been, seeing spires and hills and rivers he’d seen and of course sitting with friends in many, many, taverns where he’d once sat with his cronies! So I lived in Ayr’s pubs, tried to chat up Ayr’s female population and when I ran out of money for the former and was struggling for success with the latter, I retreated to wonderful Alloway, to Burns Cottage where he grew up, and to the surrounding area! Wonderful times!
I got into the poetry of Burns at school, having been first nudged, then pushed, then dragged kicking and screaming towards it by my then English teacher Mrs McFarlane (known affectionately as Ma Biscuit!). I soon fell in love with Robert’s poetry, the stories of his life and of course all the folklore surrounding him. He really did have that rock-star-rebel-lived-hard-died-young sheen to him that was so attractive to me at that age. I eventually borrowed a copy of his poetry from the school library and then promptly “left it on the bus” ahem, ahem! (I didn’t have much money and so ‘acquired’ several books I loved this way! I still have books today with “Greenock Academy” stamped inside them!). And from there I was hooked!
Burns’s poetry has been reviewed and discussed by academics, writers, journalists and politicians over the years and so I won’t be naive enough to attempt to review it here for that’s far too well trodden a path. Instead I’ll simply set out why I like it and what it means to me.
Burns is the ultimate in ‘working-class man’ made good in so many ways. He had that ability to take the peasant culture of songs and tales and turn it into the most beautiful and articulate literature. It was an ability that screamed out genius, and he’s certainly lauded as this now, and was in the later years of his life. But there’s that contrast between the charismatic, witty and clever Burns we celebrate, and his flaws as a man – to say he had a complex love life is putting it mildly! His love poetry is probably the thing for which he is best known but there’s so much more to him. Some of it is the celebration of man’s love for his fellow man, and some of it is in the unambiguous way he wears his political heart very much on his sleeve – and I so admire that. And of course, underpinning all of this, Burns to me epitomises Scotland and the Scottish culture, warts and all, and I think he’s the foundation of much of Scottish writing and song even today. We are, I believe, a nation who collectively and individually have punched above their weight (if you want proof there’s a great little parochial, patriotic book called “How The Scots Invented The Modern World”!) and nobody “punches above their weight” more than Robert does – the son of a ploughman who rose to become the greatest Scottish writer of all time, a worldwide literary phenomenon that has lasted to this day, and someone who is to me and countless others the equal of Shakespeare in many ways.
I’ve recently been fortunate enough to get hold of several biographies and studies of Robert’s life and work and I’m looking forward to reading and then writing about them. But I think two stories captures the magical charisma of Robert perfectly.
He wrote a song about one of his drinking friends, Willie Stewart, and as I’ve written before that’s my Dad’s name so it has an extra resonance for me! The lyrics were then adapted by Eddi Reader and Molly Rankin and in one wonderful verse in particular the song is provocative, very funny, and very Robert. It describes the all-wonderful Willie Stewart:
“A flower, it grows, it fades, it falls / And nature cannot renew it / But worth and truth, eternal youth / We’ll gie to Willie Stewart / And may she whose arms / will enfold thy charms / posses a loyal and true heart / To her be given, tae ken’ the heaven / She holds in Willie Stewart!”
The second story is, to me, the most romantic of tales.
A young woman in Edinburgh, Agnes McLehose, fell head over heels in love with Robert when she saw him perform in Edinburgh. Burns was equally in love with Agnes and they conducted a passionate love affair through letters and snatched meetings (to disguise their identities he was known as Sylvander and she was known as Clarinda). But Agnes had married young and though essentially abandoned by her husband (who’d gone off to make his fortune in the slave trade) the conventions of the time meant that they could not be together and she remained living with and dependent upon her middle class family. But she never fell out of love with the ploughman’s son. At the time Agnes was in her late twenties and Robert was in his mid-thirties. They split up – in no small part due to Robert’s other sexual conquests – and they last saw each other on December 6th 1792. Not long after they last saw one another, Robert died aged only 36, in Dumfries. Agnes lived on for many years in Edinburgh, till well into her eighties. After she died, her family found the diary she’d kept for around sixty years. And in it, every single year on December 6th, she wrote “Today was the last time I saw Robert!”
And that’s the essence of what Robert means to me – romantic notion that it is, he’s just so unique and special that whatever mistakes he made in his life, you can’t help but love him, his work and everything about him!
If you’re interested you can learn more about Robert Burns at a great BBC site, which includes a number of archived readings of his poetry, there’s a National Trust site about his birthplace which is of course a fabulous museum, and there’s a kind of cornucopia of everything Burns at the Robert Burns Country site.
………..These words of Alfred Schopenhauer certainly rang true for me over the weekend as I unpacked several packages of books which were delivered or collected at the end of last week! I had that gloriously familiar yet scary feeling of excitement at the thought of reading to come, mixed in with getting my fix from the smell, and shape and feel of books to which I think I’m addicted, and topped off with a slight panic at the thought of “when the hell will I find the time to read all these!?”
The first bundle of joy brought the books I need for The Readers Summer Book Club. I had three of the eight titles already but now I have them all, I’m really looking forward to both reading each of them and to reading what other people think of each of them. By definition reading is a pretty solitary past time and so something like the Summer Book Club gives me the sense of being connected through the book I read to others, doing the same solitary thing, at broadly the same time, and for exactly the same purpose, that I am. It all kicks off with Glen Duncan’s ‘The Last Werewolf’ on May 28th.
The second delivery was a few books that I’d got on the basis of recommendations from elsewhere. Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture The Castle’ had been reviewed so positively on several of the blogs I read, that I almost felt I’d be missing out if I didn’t read it! Similarly I’ve read positive reviews on other blogs of Jeffrey Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’, and Anne Enwright’s ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ which was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize. One night driving home I flicked through radio stations and found Simon Mayo on Radio 2 waxing lyrical about Chad Harbach’s ‘The Art Of Fielding’. At that point it was the first time I’d heard of it, but of course since then I couldn’t fail to spot that it’s everywhere. I think it was advertised in virtually every tube station I was in over the weekend! The package was a bit of a mix for it also included John Lawton’s ‘A Lily Of The Field’. He’s new to me as a writer but it was recommended by a friend who’s read all of the Inspector Troy series (I think the one I’ve just collected is about the seventh or eighth!) so I’m both looking forward to it and also hoping I’ll have found a new detective so that I can then go back and read through all the other Troy books!
On Friday I picked up my copy of HhhH by Laurent Binet, which I’d first heard of being recommended on CathyReadsBooks (though I can’t remember if it was in her actual blog or through her Twitter feed). It tells the story of the mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia in 1942. Since that initial but overwhelmingly positive recommendation, I’ve read of several others who essentially all said, in metaphorical twenty-foot high capital letters BUY IT AND READ IT! I generally love fiction set around WW2 and that along with the many enthusiastic reviews was more than enough to convince me so I did buy it and I’m about to start it later today!
Lastly I picked up the last of a set of books about or by my national poet, the genius that was Robert Burns. My parents had kindly given me money to buy whatever books about him I could find for my 50th birthday and having spent some time looking I finally ordered them recently, some new to me and others replacing second-hand dog-eared copies of books I’ve had for donkeys years!. So, probably over the summer itself, I’m looking forward to spending time with Robert, his Merry Muses of Caledonia and his Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect, with side orders of biographies and studies of the Scottish Bard by Robert Crawford, Donald Smith and Patrick Scott Hogg!
And as I read all things Robert, I’ll be listening to Eddie Reader sing the “Songs of Robert Burns Live” in the background! And when it gets to the song ‘Willie Stewart’ I’ll stop reading and sing along at the top of my voice!!! (partly because it’s a wonderful bawdy celebration of male friendship and partly because Willie Stewart is my Dad’s name!)
And I might wash down all that patriotism with another wallow in watching ‘Braveheart’! (though at this point my family may well leave me for this is where common sense departs and rabid Scottish mutterings about the “Daughters of Longshanks” begin!)
……… In the world of AA Milne, incessant rain and flooding was transformed into an adventure for Christopher Robin, it made a hero out of Winnie The Pooh and it had Piglet playing the part of a Shakespearean – like heroine, trapped high above a raging torrent and waiting on rescue! If you’ve never read Winnie The Pooh as an adult, and especially In Which Piglet Is Entirely Surrounded By Water, then you should, because I think you’ll discover one of the funniest stories you’ll ever read.
I never read Pooh as a child. I “discovered” Pooh, and this story, in particular, when I was a student and training to be a teacher (in between the pub, playing sport and watching punk rock!). We had to learn a children’s story off by heart and then re-tell it as part of a Drama assignment. I had a part-time job in a local pub and one of the bar staff recommended Pooh as she read it to her kids – I bought it and never looked back. I still recall to this day, sitting getting absolutely plastered and reading this to learn it in Rabbie’s Bar in Ayr (on the wall were various bits of “ham” poetry in honour of Ayr’s first son Robert Burns – one went “Why does Rabbie Burns in Ayr, From his domain in Statue Square, Seem to gaze on scenes afar, And turn his back on Rabbie’s Bar!” – mind you when you know the rhymes on the wall of a pub off by heart thirty years later I guess it tells you how much time I spent drinking there – I think my drinking habits in those days would have kept Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnnie company!)
But, even though I first read Pooh through the glazed lens of several pints of McEwans 80 Shilling, I still recall that first read. I giggled for hours – and on ”Entirely Surrounded By Water” my giggling became uncontrollable and almost painful.
He splashed to the door and looked out…..
‘This is Serious’ said Pooh. ‘I must have an Escape’. So he took his largest pot of honey and escaped with it to a broad branch of his tree, well above the water, and then he climbed down again and escaped with another pot…and when the whole Escape was finished, there was Pooh sitting on his branch, dangling his legs, and there, beside him, were ten pots of honey…
Two days later, there was Pooh, sitting on his branch, dangling his legs, and there beside him, were four pots of honey…
Three days later, there was Pooh, sitting on his branch, dangling his legs, and there beside him, was one pot of honey…
Four days later there was Pooh…
As you can see though, that McEwans-tinted first reading was not my only dip into the world of Pooh over the years – my copies are yellowed and battered and been repaired with tape and at one time, when a school I taught in had a pretty poor selection of books for the kids in my class to read, I took all my own second-hand books into the class and added them to the class-library – hence my copies of both Pooh and House at Pooh Corner have got their very own home-made library tickets!
And the reason I’m writing about Piglet being surrounded by water, is it’s pretty much how the dog and I are at the moment! (Well that’s exaggerated slightly but you get the idea!)
The rain of biblical proportions in the South East over the last few weeks has finally defeated the drainage around our house and garden, and so in many places we are entirely surrounded by water – still it gives us more time to read! So every silver lining has a cloud, as Pooh might have said….!
………………..This Is May, In Our Garden, In The Garden Of England, In A Drought!!
……………………..it’s quite logical really!!
My family was watching Coronation Street the other night (they have a soap opera routine which flits from Emmerdale to Corrie to East Enders and then back to one or the other – from night to night the order might change but the purgatory of this stuff is relentless!!!!) and I guess I was half listening and half tuned in when, as part of the story line, I heard one of the characters explain that he had managed to get two tickets for an Elbow gig in Manchester!!!! I should be clear from the outset that rather than it being a compliment for Elbow being name checked on Corrie, in my opinion the compliment is the other way round – Coronation Street finally gets some credibility by linking itself with Elbow!
Now for me there is good music – stuff like Coldplay and Radiohead and Arcade Fire and Arctic Monkeys – and then there’s music I adore – stuff like Two Door Cinema Club and Doves and I Am Kloot and Guillemots – and then “aboon them a’ (as the wonderful Robert Burns lauded the haggis!) for me come Elbow!! Guy Garvey – or as he’s referred to in our house – Sir Guy of Garvey (somehow I think he needs a name or title to raise him above that of any other artist/musician!) – is for me the most talented individual in music today - lyrically I think his work is wonderful (in evidence I offer a line from the beautiful song “Starlings” – “You are the only thing in any room you are ever in” – the work of a genius!) – in addition their melodies and harmonies are great, the production is always breathtaking and when you see them live they are simply better than anyone else I have ever seen!
Now all this may sound utter hyperbole – it probably is utter hyperbole – but to me it’s as true as the three other deeply personal facts that I hold to be absolutely true – firstly that brown Smarties are the best, secondly that Scotland as a country invented the modern world (and there is a great little book bearing broadly that title which is proof enough for me!) and thirdly that my partner is the most beautiful woman ever. And I hold these are absolutely correct – I now have Elbow being referenced on Coronation Street to prove they are as good as I think they are – the book I referred to can prove the second of my facts – I’m currently looking for the evidence to prove the first personal fact and frankly I don’t need any proof on the third personal fact!
This referencing of popular music in a mainstream soap opera watched by millions every week got me musing about popular music being referenced in books – either playing in the background or linked into the personal tastes of book characters – and that led me to conclude that I think the books which do that most in my experience are the wonderful Detective Inspector Rebus books by Ian Rankin. I love the books, I love the way they are written, I love the setting (Edinburgh is a great city) and of course I like Rebus’s taste in music! (I think Rebus does reference Elbow in one of the books but I can’t remember and when I skimmed through them I couldn’t find it – if someone knows the answer put me out of my misery!)
And that led me to also reflect that perhaps more than even his taste in music, I love his taste in Edinburgh pubs! The main drinking establishment referred to in Rebus is of course the Ox – and I’ve been to the Oxford Bar – indeed I think it’s so closely linked with the books that it is oft referred to as Rebus’s bar! But to be honest it isn’t my favourite – for me the best pub in Edinburgh is a tie between “Mathers” and the “Athletic Arms”! I used to love Mathers openness and atmosphere, sitting or standing by the bar in Mathers is a joy – and as it was in a great location at one end of Princes Street it was a common haunt for me in my student and post-student days. The Athletic Arms is known to all and sundry as Diggers – obvious enough when you know it’s placed in between two large cemeteries! It’s a great traditional pub – back when I frequented it mind you, there was little chance of sitting at the bar as the place was always rammed. But it sold great beer – McEwans 80 Shilling was the beer of choice then – and the barmen wore these old style maroon coloured jackets and had a caustic line in wit for anyone unfortunate enough to be ordering something they didn’t approve of (I remember one mate getting a tongue lashing for having the temerity / stupidity to ask for whisky – with coke in it!!!! Sacrilege!)
So in going from Coronation Street to Elbow to Edinburgh pubs, the moral and message of this ramble is simple.
If you get a chance to hear Elbow – take it! - If you are ever in Edinburgh and get the chance to drink in Diggers or Mathers – take it! – And if you are ever in Edinburgh and ever hear of Guy Garvey drinking in, or Elbow playing in, either Mathers or Diggers - then let me know of this chance……………..and I’ll take it!