Saturday, 24 January 2009

Burns Night

Re Burns Night being tomorrow, yesterday's Times had a nice compilation feature by Alexandra Blair To see ourselves as others see us ("Looking forward to Burns Night on Sunday, to mark the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth British writers celebrate his work"). It includes interesting poetic ripostes: Liz Lochhead's From a mouse, Ian McMillan's The Bard of the Button Tin, Pam Ayres' On Comparing My Husband with Robbie Burns, and W.N.Herbert's Rabbie, Rabbie, Burning Bright. There's a deal of preciousness surrounding Burns, exemplified by this ghastly RP reading of My Heart's in the Highlands by the Prince of Wales; it's often forgotten that Burns, as Michael Rosen reminds us in the Times piece, was also a filthy little blighter who wrote vigorous but rather naff erotic poetry, mainly by putting rude words to existing folk songs. It'd be amusing to hear Prince Charles reading from Burns Merry Muses of Caledonia, whose existence is currently notably absent from the archive of works at the BBC Robert Burns site.

Burns' poetry puts in an appearance in Ronald Wright's excellent A Scientific Romance - see After London - whose hero, David Lambert, finds himself in a future where the only surviving people in 2500AD Britain, feudal and devoutly religious black Scots in a settlement called Nessie, have a mystery play that conflates Christ's Passion with Scottish tradition. Their religious iconography also includes a blond white Jesus; and the time traveller Lambert, as the only white person, finds himself conscripted into the ritual to play Jesus, when he finds an unusual object in the Last Supper.

On stage was a table spread with bread, jugs of palm toddy (a new one on me; antique Scotch wasn't the only tipple), and a central plate containing a dark trussed object like a Christmas pudding in bondage. The crowd swarmed at the edge of the platform: wild, eager, fanatical faces, a dark flood from the streets.

In my nervousness, suppressed but not banished by draughts of usquebaugh, my lines deserted me. My eyes flew around in panic, alighted on the crowning ornament of the board. Not a Christmas pud. Nor, exactly, a paschal lamb. It was a haggis - the first - the first I'd seen in Nessie - and Burns came to my rescue. I got to my feet, beamed on the crowd with what I hoped was an expression of
Christly gem├╝tlichkeit, summoned the best stage Scots I could, and stretched out my hand to the blob of dubious meat:

Fair fa' your honest sonsie face,
Great Chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak' your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

Related at least by scenario - a post-apocalyptic Scotland - I keep meaning to read Matthew Fitt's But n Ben A-Go-Go 1, a cyberpunk novel written in Scots (i.e. Lallans). This article - Literary Language and Scottish Identity, introducing the The Association for Scottish Literary Studies 2000 conference of the same name, has a brief excerpt in which the hero, Paolo, visits his comatose partner (who is infected with an HIV-like virus called Senga 2) in a high-security hospital:

Paolo’s ile-stoor resistant bitts squealed on the ceramic flair as he stepped back an glowered west alang Gallery 1083. It wis a summer Sunday forenoon the clatty end o January an the mile lang visitors’ corridor wis toom. A singil lawyer an her lycra-leggit secretary intromittit the silence, shooglin past on a courtesy electric caur. An indie-pouered germsooker jinked inconspicuously in and oot o Paolo’s personal space, dichtin up microscopic clart as it drapped aff his body.

A quarter mile doon, the wersh blinterin sun forced itsel in throu the UV filter gless at the corridor heid, illuminatin the faces an keek panels o the first fifty Omegas. An as he skellied intae the white bleeze, a troop o droid surveillance puggies advanced in heelstergowdie formation alang the corridor roof, skited by owre his heid an wi a clatter o mettalic cleuks, skittered awa eastwards doon the shadowy vennel. The toomness o the visitors’ corridor offered Paolo nae bield fae the buildin’s oorie atmosphere; Gallery 1083 wis an eerie airt wi or wioot passengers.

See the British Council / Scotland bio for Matthew Fitt; he's a strong proponent of the Scots language. His poem Scottish National Diction celebrates in dictionary format its diverse origins (English translations of some verses here). Fitt is one member of the partnership Itchy Coo ("Braw Books for Bairns o Aw Ages") which specialises in publishing Scots language books for children and young people. It includes Rabbie's Rhymes - Robert Burns for Wee Folk.

Children will love lifting the flaps to find out
—where the wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous moose is hiding
—what the haggis is wearing on his heid
—what happens to Charlie’s kilt when the wind blows

Hmmm. Presumably it's all in working order.

1. A "but 'n' ben" is a small two-room cottage, typically in the context of a holiday residence for urban Scots. Followers of Dudley Watkins' The Broons will recall their regular visits to one.
2. "Senga" is a Scottish female personal name - "Agnes" spelt backwards - of fairly low prestige, having become the term for a female "ned" (the Scottish equivalent of "chav"): see Urban Dictionary.

- Ray

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