Tag Archives: Robert Burns

Happy Robert’s Day!

Robert 3…………25th January – Robert Burns birthday and a special day for Scotland and for those around the world who love Robert’s writing. In the last couple of days I’ve read several articles and tributes and stories in praise of him and his work. It would seem he’s more popular than ever and is truly a worldwide phenomenon. But as I read them I couldn’t help wonder why he is as popular and lauded as he is. Yes he was a great poet, a writer who left a rich legacy of words and songs. But to my mind that isn’t enough to explain why Robert holds such a special place in Scotland’s heart and it would seem in the hearts of countless others around the globe!

There’s something magical about Robert Burns. Something so charismatic and at the same time something so very every-day and grounded. It’s as if he managed to be both the wild, romantic genius we might like ourselves to be in our wildest dreams while at the same time he managed to seem as if he was the same as us! When you read about him it’s uncanny how often people refer to him in the present tense, as if he’s still with us. So, fanciful as it may seem, I think Robert’s become something more than a great poet who lived 250 years ago – I think he’s somehow part of the spirit, the feel of Scotland. And in saying that I fear I have added to the list of things which the great Scots poet Hugh McDiarmid referred to when he said (probably accurately!!!)

“mair nonsense has been uttered in his name than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ!”.

So I’ll pontificate on Rabbie’s legacy nae mair!

On more solid ground therefore, in Dumfries they run an annual “Burns Windows” competition – people write poems on acetates and then display them on the windows of places Burns frequented – I think it’s a great idea – here are a few!

Burns Windows 1Burns Windows 2Burns Windows 3In addition, yesterday there was a great article in the Guardian where my favourite living Scottish poet, Liz Lochead, put forward the case that, in Scotland’s forthcoming referendum on becoming an independent nation, she thinks Robert would have been a man for the “yes” campaign! I tend to agree – I can see how Robert and Alex Salmond might have made a formidable and inspirational pair! The Twa Dugs of Independence!

Burns music was re-worked brilliantly by Eddi Reader a few years ago. Here’s Eddi Reader singing the wonderful Willie Stewart, Burns tribute to his best mate, and my own little tribute to my Dad, the similarly named Willie Stewart! And it all takes place in the world’s greatest city on the banks of the River Clyde!

And lastly here is Liz Lochead reading Burns “To A Mouse” – wherever you are and whatever you’re doing – fit in some haggis and a little bit of the wonderful, fabulous, words of Robert’s!

What have these people got in common with Bono?……………….

Very good Mr Bono Sir! Now Can You Read The Bottom Line With The Other Eye
Very good Mr Bono Sir! Now Can You Read The Bottom Line With The Other Eye

……..I was looking at my “stats” this morning. Now if you are a blogger you’ll know what this is and how it feels. If you’re not, it’s easy to describe – it’s essentially pages and pages of information about your blog which boil down to your blog being in one of two categories – either the whole bookish world hangs on your every word or your readers are hanging on your every word by the 80/10/10 principle – that’s 80% of the readers are your family, 10% are the people you WANT to read your blog (that’s YOU by the way!) and the other 10% are eejits who never meant to end up on your blog in the first place! (In case you weren’t sure, my blog is definitely an 80/10/10 blog!)

And at this point, if you’re not a blogger, you’re wondering how the hell I would know if someone came here by accident? Well that’s the magic of blog stats – they don’t just count how many people came here from search engines – that would be too easy! They also record what they put into their search engine when they did end up here! And that’s what all these people have in common with Bono……………………. they still haven’t found what they’re looking for!!!!!!!!!

And I’m kind of glad they didn’t find what they were looking for! Because some of them are……..well……….judge for yourself! I know a lot of bloggers are writing about their favourite reads of 2013 at the moment – I will too eventually – but in the interim, here are the twenty best searches which led to my blog for 2013! (The little bit in bracketed italics is all the work of my own tiny mind though!) And a note of caution – I’ve quoted these search engine phrases exactly as they were written to find my blog – some of it might be offensive so for that, my apologies Mum!

SEARCH 1. Work Done By Ian Rankin In Tesco Apart From Books!

(Hard times obviously for the great man from Beith. There’s clearly not much money in being probably the best selling crime author in the UK! Either that or we have an early heads up that his next book is about murder among the supermarket checkout operators!)

SEARCH 2. How To Achieve A Dialect Like Judi Dench?

(I love the idea that someone thought there would be step by step instructions to Judi Denchdom! – By the way I’ve checked this myself – there aren’t! However if you want the run down on the world of the dialect, I found the dialect blog all about accents and dialects – which confirms Dame JD is a master (mistress?) of Received Pronunciation – that’s another word for “posh” – but which also calls calls me a user of “Scottish English”!!!!!!!! I feel an argument coming on!)

SEARCH 3. I’m Off The Telephone

(You have to worry for someone who needs to look this up on Google!)

SEARCH 4. Anger, fear, aggression,the dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny!

(My advice is if you know this person and they invite you round for dinner………………………….don’t go!)

SEARCH 5. Desperate Dan is a dirty old man!

(To be fair, eating cow pie can get messy!)

SEARCH 6. Sex clubs in Vienna!

(Why the hell would you come to my blog looking for this filth?????! Anyway while you’re here, you might want to try Brothel Maxim Wien on Kärntnerstrasse 61 – 1010 Vienna, Austria +43-1-503 16 20. Recently voted one of the best brothels in Vienna. Don’t believe me – it’s all here at the Brothel Vienna blog! – I kid you not!!!!!)

SEARCH 7. Gay Boys Sex Tube!

(You learn so much from the internet – I thought the only thing that came in a tube was Smarties!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

SEARCH 8. Are Fur Coats For Snobs?

(It seems that, after all, people do come to my blog hoping to find answers to the great philosophical questions of our time!)

SEARCH 9. Why Is It Important For A Male To Be Sensible?!

(A vicious smear campaign, led no doubt by the women in my house. We men shall fight this on the beaches – we will never surrender – long live the “men are eejits and we’re glad to be daft!” movement!)

SEARCH 10. What Music Does Jenny Agutter Like?

(I haven’t a clue. Have you?)

SEARCH 11. Ken White ****** The Queen

(Simply unrepeatable!! You’d probably get carted off to the Tower Of London for repeating this – and as for Ken White – clearly a man much dirtier than Desperate Dan!)

SEARCH 12. Mantel and wellies!

Capture(She’s one of the greatest novelists of our time, a veritable genius, Booker prize wins back to back, and even prepared to court controversy and abuse from the Daily Mail Hate! And STILL someone isn’t satisfied – now they want Hilary writing about wellies or writing while wearing wellies. You just can’t please some people! Anyway this is just for you, whoever you are!!!!)

SEARCH 13. Who Hasn’t Won The Booker Prize?

(Well there’s me for a start! Fortunately on this one – I’ve got quite a lot of company! I think his next question would be ‘Which Scottish footballers have never won the World Cup?!)

SEARCH 14. Why Is The Weather So Wet At The Moment?

(Classic example of stereotyping Glaswegians! Even though we grow up in the wettest city in Europe it doesn’t mean that we are all bloody meteorologists!!!

Having said that the main culprit is probably the jet stream making and moving our surface pressure systems and perhaps in accelerating, the jet stream has caused air to rise upwards through the atmosphere and create low pressure centres and therefore a greater likelihood of rain!

………What do you expect from living under rain clouds 24/7?!)

SEARCH 15. Is John Humphries Ill?

(No! John’s always a cantankerous and miserable old git! That’s what we love about him!)

SEARCH 16. Pissed In Your Chips!

(Personally I prefer salt and vinegar!)

SEARCH 17. Affair With Older Woman!

(Think this will be Dustin Hoffman searching my blog again – frequent visitor to my blog is Dustin – no sign of Mrs R though!)

SEARCH 18. Pishwas Sex Fucking!

(I’ve no idea what kind of sex “pishwas” might be – perhaps it is a specialty in Viennese brothels – so this is another one for Brothel Maxim!)

SEARCH 19. Quarter Turn Left Drive Ropes

(Eh?)

SEARCH 20. “Why Does Rabbie Burns In Ayr, From His Domain In Statue Square, Seem To Gaze On Scenes Afar, And Turn His Back On Rabbies Bar!”

(I include this for two reasons – firstly purely because it’s a poem, written on the wall of a pub, and that pub was where I spent 75% of my time as a student! The other 25% was wasted on things like lectures and reading! Rabbie’s Bar in Ayr – I salute you!

Second reason is that I plan to do these reviews of my search items periodically from now on and post them in the category “Road to Nowhere”, after the lyrics in the Talking Heads song – because I think I know where these weirdos are going but I don’t know where they’ve been!!!!!

And so this is a great place to finish because if you are ever really on the road to nowhere, then where better to stop than a pub!)

So there we have it – the best of my blog searches in 2013. There are clearly some weirdos out there if their searches are anything to go by! Then again those weirdos and their searches led to me – which probably says as much about me as it does about them – still at least I will have company in the queue for the therapists couch!

Braveheart

No Sign Of Mel Gibson!!………Ten Books That Represent My Country

………….. I first read of this idea of choosing books that represent your country on Savidge Reads and subsequently on Annabel’s House Of Books. I liked the idea of it from the start. Both of their lists were fascinating and ranged to every part of the British Isles. But doing it myself for the UK was never an option for me – partly because they’d both done it better than I could have but mainly because I think of Scotland, rather than the UK, as my country – even though I’ve not lived there for over 30 years! This isn’t a tub-thumping, Scottish Nationalist thing,  for I’ve been an exile for far too long to have any right of opinion on the politics of independence. It’s just how it is – I’ve lived more of my life out of Scotland than in it, but it’s still my home, my country. So the notion of a Tartan Ten, was already in my head when Annabel mentioned it in her comments to me – after that I began making up a short list almost instantly!

The parameters set by Simon originally were

1. Books set in your home country (I think I’ve followed that rule if you allow me a bit of poetic license here and there!)

2. Books by authors from your home country ( I think I’ve followed that rule).

3. Books that represent your country geographically ( I’ve followed that rule sometimes but where it didn’t suit me I ignored it!)

4. Books written post World War 2 (I’ve ignored that too!)

5. There should be ten. ( I didn’t exactly ignore that rule but I may have miscounted!!)

So two out of five isn’t bad – though admittedly it might only be one cos I’ve no idea if I followed Rule 2! So in the list below the caveat is I think they were born in Scotland, but if they weren’t I’ve decided to unilaterally adopt them into the race known to one and all ( well mainly known to ourselves) as Gods Chosen People – the Scots!

And I managed to avoid one rule that I set for myself – no mention of the greatest film of all time – Braveheart (unless you count that one just there!).

My Ten (or so) Books To Represent Scotland

Lanark by A Gray

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

If there is such a thing as the great Scottish contemporary novel, then I think this might well be it. It tells the story of Lanark and Duncan Thaw, moving between Glasgow of the 40′s and 50′s and the hell-like other-world of Unthank. At the time I read it, in the early 1980′s, with Scotland in the vice-like grip of Thatcher, the novel was just stunning to read. What fascinated me at the time was the contrast – and at times lack of contrast, between Glasgow life and Unthank life. I remember wondering if Unthank was a kind of vision of Glasgow and Scotland’s future during and post-Thatcher. I don’t think the collapse of morality and decency at the hands of capitalism that I’d imagined at the time came to fruition, though the banking crisis of recent years is a pretty sobering lesson! But outside of that, Lanark is a wonderful read,. It was called “the best book in 20th Century Scottish literature” by Iain Banks – and I’d wholeheartedly agree!

black-blue_rankinBlack and Blue by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin’s creation, Detective John Rebus is so much a wonderful depiction of the Scottish psyche for me. He’s a kind of William Wallace for today in my eyes, albeit without the kilt, the saltire war paint and perhaps carrying a bit more weight than Wallace did!! And of course his books are a wonderful tourist guide to Glasgow’s posh neighbour over the road – the good city of Edinburgh (although in fairness as a tourist guide it won’t necessarily show you much tartan or shortbread or castles in this tour!)

Rebus does represent so much of the Scottish character for me – on the surface he’s all sharp edges, curmudgeonly, argumentative, cynical – what we in Scotland call “thrawn!”. But underneath he’s absolutely human – there’s his generosity of spirit, the kick back at authority and posturing, his down to earthness and above all his appreciation of a decent pub! I love every Rebus story and there are many to choose from but I’ve gone with “Black and Blue” because it wonderfully weaves together a fictional story and a true life unsolved mystery – the “Bible John” murders in Glasgow in the 60′s. It’s simply Rebus and Rankin at their very very best!

Espedair StreetEspedair Street by Iain Banks

Iain Banks is simply my favourite Scottish author. From the first novel to the last I loved his books. His death in June of this year was a tragic loss to Scottish writing but he left a wonderful legacy. So I can’t envisage my country in books without an Iain Banks novel. I picked Espedair Street for three reasons – firstly Daniel Weir the main character is the most fantastic of anti-heroes, secondly it’s a brilliant tale of sex, drugs, rock and roll so what’s not to love about it and thirdly I used to live near  Espedair Street in Paisley!! We have a word in Glasgow for something that’s wonderous in every way – we call it “gallus”. However, being Glaswegians, we can add to that to make it EVEN MORE wonderous in every way – because in the way the rest of the world uses “very”, in Glasgow we use “fuckin”! Iain Banks and all his books, but especially Espedair Street, are fuckin gallus!

Cutting RoomThe Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

There are lots of shades to Glasgow like all cities – this novel includes what I think of as the dark heart of the city and the slightly more upmarket part of Glasgow – or what my mother might call the “all fur coat and no knickers” part of the city! It tells the wonderfully black tale of Rilke – he’s an “auctioneer” – which sounds dreadfully “Home Counties and BBC” – but in Glasgow “auctioneer” is simply a posh word for someone who clears crap from other people’s houses. He’s employed by the wonderfully named Miss McKindless to clear the house of her dead brother. Rilke starts by thinking he’s found a treasure trove including some lovely old porn novels in the old man’s study – however hidden in among them is a brown envelope stuffed with photographs of a woman being sexually tortured and murdered. From there on, as Rilke turns into a sort of amateur sleuth, you journey with him through a Glasgow awash with bent coppers, transvestites who’d fancy their changes of beating the shit out of Mike Tyson and a kind of inner sanctum of pornographers! It’s a wonderful portrayal of the Glasgow that all the stone-blasting of buildings, all the city regeneration schemes and all the investment in being European City of Culture and the like never had a chance of washing away!!

swing-hammer_torrington

Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington

This is another tour of Glasgow in some ways – but this one is of the city working class in the 60′s, the bars they frequent and their love lives. Thomas Clay is a failed novelist/artist/philosopher – but then everybody in Glasgow is a failed novelist/artist/philosopher – even the ones who are a success at something are usually tormented by the novel that got away! Clay is being tracked by a sinister presence so he tries to stay one step ahead of whatever it is that’s coming his way. His wife Rhona is pregnant, his bit on the side, Becky McQuade is a form of sex-on-tap and much of Glasgow is waiting on something better – it’s just not sure what! In some respects there isn’t really a plot to Swing Hammer Swing – it’s more a diatribe of every thing Thomas thinks, says, hears and does. It’s shot through with Glasgow dialect – Christ knows how anybody from anywhere outside of the M8 motorway is able to read it. At one part of the novel Thomas predicts that someday, bingo will be on offer in public libraries! I loved the idea then and still love it. I work in local government – if there’s ever a brainstorming session about the future of our public libraries I won’t be able to resist chucking this in!

Not Not While The GiroNot Not While The Giro by James Kelman

This collection of stories focuses on the working class communities, people who are socially very much on the periphery of life. They are mainly about young men who are rootless, directionless and lost and they are all in some way or other waiting for something – usually for a pint in a pub, or their turn at a snooker table or for their “dole money” in the post. I chose this because above all it reminds me of my home town in Greenock. As a young man in the early eighties I was unemployed at a time when much of Scotland was in the same boat! There has always been a debate about whether or not Kelman’s books are literature at all never mind whether or not they are good! Even when he won the Booker, his book was famously counted as having used the word “Fuck” 4000 times throughout it’s pages and one of the judges described it as “crap really!” But there is  no debate for me – these stories are part of my growing up and I adored them!

Para handyPara Handy Tales by Neil Munro

We are not all gritty kitchen sink social realism in Scotland! Neil Munro’s tales of the crew of the ‘on-its-last-legs’ boat “The Vital Spark” sees Para Handy, the skipper, (if I remember rightly ‘Para Handy’ is the Gaelic name for the skipper, Peter) and his crew of Dougie the first mate (a man who puts the super into superstitious”!), Dan McPhail the engineer and Sunny Jim the deck hand, who lives up to his name in name only! The Vital Spark plies its trade (barely) on the River Clyde, and up and down the West Coast of Scotland. It visits all the Firth of Clyde places of my childhood – Dunoon, Rothesay, Inellan, Millport etc. !! The desperate barely seaworthy state of the boat is pretty much matched by their sea-skills! But much as the chaotic and shambolic situations they get themselves into are hilarious, what is really special about the stories are the characters themselves from the tight-as-a-duck’s-arse, crafty, Para Handy to the slightly camp, slightly effeminate engineer Dan, with his mutual love of engines and bodice-ripper paperback stories!! They made it into a television series in Scotland and the Para Handy role was played by a masterful Scottish actor called Roddy McMillan. When I re-read the books after the TV series all I could see and hear in my head was the indignation on the face and in the tone of the voice of McMillan at the latest scandalous remark from the hapless Dan McPhail!

Scots QuairA Scot’s Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I’m cheating just a little here by including this in my ten as it is actually three books, Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite, that tell the story of Chris Guthrie, a young woman in the North East of Scotland, moving from the hard, rural life of her adolescence to adulthood and marriage. It’s a wonderful depiction of rural Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century and describes the development of the working class of Scotland up to, through and beyond the horrors of the 14-18 War. There’s such a strong socialist feel to much of the books and this is hardly surprising for Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was a committed Marxist. But for all the politics and social commentary in the books, Chris is simply a wonderful heroine. I read her first as a young man, not long after I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I loved. For me Chris Guthrie was, and remains in my head, the Scottish Tess! Although she’s not as lost or as vulnerable as Tess she still made me feel that all I’d want to do would be to wrap her up and protect her! Generally the first book, Sunset Song, has long been regarded as a classic of Scottish literature but for me Cloud Howe was the best of the three – and together they are wonderous!

Rapture by Carol Ann DuffyRapture by Carol Ann Duffy

In the same way that I couldn’t even begin to contemplate listing 10 books that represent my country without Iain Banks and Ian Rankin, equally I couldn’t envisage it without Carol Ann Duffy. Although she spent much of her life in England she was born in Glasgow so I’m happy to claim her as one of our own! Rapture isn’t about any part of Scotland, but it is about love – especially the twists and turns of it and the highs and lows of it. We do that as well as anybody else – and from the days of Robert Burns we’ve been bloody good as a nation at writing about love. Rapture is a collection that seems to capture love at every turn and in every facet – it goes from the longing to the downright creepy in places! As she writes “Falling in love is glamorous hell!”. It certainly is – maybe that’s what we love about it more than anything else!

A Choosing by Liz LochheadA Choosing by Liz Lochhead

For all that Carol Ann Duffy is the best loved and the best known of Scottish poets, she’s not for me as naturally and wholly Scottish as Liz Lochhead is. Perhaps that difference between them isn’t so surprising when you think that Duffy is the poet laureate for the UK whereas Lochhead is the Makar, Scotland’s National poet. I first came across Liz Lochheads work as a student more than 30 years ago when I read two of her poems “An Inventory” and “The Choosing” – I loved them back then and I love them still – and I’ve loved everything she’s done in between. And besides, anybody with a double “h” in their name is properly cool in my book! There is always something intimate and up close in Liz Lochhhead’s poetry – she seems to me to get under the skin of people and their thoughts, motivations, hopes, frustrations. She’s a sharp and wry observer of the world, but in particular she sees people, especially women, with such insight. She often takes up a cause in her work, be it the rights of working class girls in Glasgow to the rights of the Scottish dialect itself. But she never gets sucked into soap-boxing – everything she writes always seem to me to have such an easy, chatty, conversational, feel to it. And perhaps ultimately that’s why I chose her – we Scots have a love of chat and conversation!

Burns 9Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect – The Kilmarnock Edition by Robert Burns

Having been round some of our geography, and some of our history and even perhaps parts of our psyche in the books which I’ve chosen to represent my country so far, it’s right and appropriate that I end in Ayrshire with Robert.

Burns is so ingrained in Scotland’s past and present, and no doubt future, that he is everywhere. His poetry is the soul of much of our subsequent literary heritage. He captures the essence of the “lad o’ pairts” – the working class boy made good. He represents the origin of the Scottish working class for me – I romantically think that Robert symbolises Scotland punching above its weight in the modern world for here is the ploughman’s son who conquers the world!! But underneath all that, Roberts work is wonderful and the “Kilmarnock edition” encapsulates his genius. When it was first published in 1786 it sold out in a month! A first edition back then would have set you back about 15 pence. Today first editions of the Kilmarnock Edition will set you back £40,000! Above all though Robert just gets us, he gets the Scots and he captures us wonderfully. My Dad’s name is Willie Stewart. Burns wrote a song for one of his best mates – who was called Willie Stewart. In one verse he wrote “And may she whose arms shall enfold thy charms, posses a loyal and true hairt,for to her be given, tae ken the heaven, she holds in Willie Stewart!!” My mother might not agree but I think my Dad would! And that’s what is special about Robert – he writes a love song to a male friend and it’s beautiful and effusive and charming! And so I think anybody and everybody in Scotland can find their own little bit of Robert that means something to them – he’s in all of us so of course he represents my country and he does it wonderfully!

Till A’ The Seas Gang Dry…………Why I Love Robert’s Day – and Robert!

Burns 4………….I would expect that for those of us who love books, we’ll all have writers who are favourites, who we tend to favour, and who we tend to laud over others. But for me, and I think for most Scottish people, we’ll have something in common in the writer we celebrate more than any other, and it is of course Robert Burns. (I know the standard way to refer to him is ‘Burns’ but for me this isn’t right – to me he’s ‘Robert’!)
First and foremost, in my view, Robert was a great writer. For that alone he deserves to be fondly remembered and much loved! But Robert was so much more than that in so many ways! He is every inch the iconic man of literature, perhaps bettered in the UK and across the globe, only by Shakespeare (though not in my eyes!)  There are so many things about Robert’s life that go towards this iconic status. He was the archetypal working class man rising miles beyond his social status to become during his lifetime the star of the Scottish literary scene. Since then his reputation has grown , to such an extent of course that to this day thousands celebrate on January 25th, the day of Robert’s birth. He was a seriously handsome bloke, and serially addicted to women! There won’t be many men, even today, who fell in love as often as Robert did as a young man. He liked pubs, loved drinking with his mates, lived life very much to the full and died tragically young. In essence Robert was for me the first to lead that rock star life, rise like a shooting star, dazzling all before him, before going too soon, leaving the world to wonder what else he might have done, how much more he might have achieved!!!!
I could fill paragraph upon paragraph with favourite poems, favourite songs. But instead there’s one story that I think captures what’s Burns 8so special about Robert. His love of women is well documented – and they worshiped him in return. As his fame spread he attracted the attention of a young women, Agnes McLehose, who lived in Edinburgh. She was young, pretty, vivacious, but had married the wrong man, who treated her appallingly and ditched her for a dodgy life in the Indies. Agnes went to see Robert perform in Edinburgh and fell instantly in love. The feeling was mutual. Robert pursued her and they conducted an exchange of letters, using the pseudonyms of Clarinda and Lysander for fear of being discovered. The conventions of the day prevented Agnes from transferring that affair from the written page – she was a married woman, dependent on her family having been all but abandoned! She was deeply conscious of social conventions of the day – Robert tended not to give a damn about these things!! All the evidence to date suggests she resisted Roberts advances but so clearly loved him. Robert being Robert, couldn’t maintain any semblance of faithfulness to Agnes, despite his protestations. By this time he already had Jean Armour pregnant again and was conducting an affair in Edinburgh with another woman – that would have been bad enough, but her name was Jenny Clow – and she was Agnes’ maid! Realising the hopelessness of their position Agnes broke off with Robert in early December 1791. Only a couple of years later Robert died in Dumfries, a young man of 37.
But Agnes never forgot him. She lived on in Edinburgh, well into her eighties.  After she died her family found the diaries she’d been keeping throughout her life. For the 6th December 1791 she wrote “Today was the last time I saw Robert”. And year after year, on the same date in December, or on so many other dates that marked the anniversary of anything connected to Robert she wrote them down and headed them “Things I can never forget!”. She outlived Robert by 45 years – but clearly never forgot him.
That’s what was special about Robert. For all the trappings that go with Burns Night tonight, and I’m not knocking them ( I love haggis. I love Whisky!) I hope people don’t ever lose sight of the most important thing – its about Robert, a great poet, a great Scotsman, and for all his flaws, a great man!
Slainte Robert!

’Twas in that season, when a simple Bard……….

……….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.


‘Buying Books Would Be A Good Thing If One Could Also Buy The Time To Read Them In!’………

………..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 Which The Dog And The Old Bloke Are Entirely Surrounded By Water, a la Piglet and Pooh….

……… 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!!

Coronation St

Joining the dots from Coronation Street to Elbow to great Edinburgh pubs…..

……………………..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!