Monday, 18 February 2013
I recently gave the Immortal Memory at The Durham Caledonian Society Burns Supper. I’ve attended quite a few Burns Suppers, some of which I’ve recited poetry or given the Toast To The Lassies, but this was my first Immortal Memory. Poetry you can read, a toast to the lassies you make up, but this, you have to do a bit of homework. That’s not a problem - I love a Burns Supper and to be invited as a guest speaker is a huge honour for a lad from Ayr (wham ne’er a toon surpasses, for honest men and bonny lassies.)
I did a fair bit of reading and researching, looking for an angle. The Burns supper had been rescheduled due to heavy snow so “Best laid schemes o’ mice an men” had to get a mention. I quickly realised that Burns was literally everywhere, and that was is immortal memory. I began with some history:
“In 1801, a group of friends of the late Robert Burns gathered in Alloway on the 5th anniversary of his death to celebrate the life, the work and the immortal memory of the bard and this established the tradition of the Burns Supper.
Of course Burns in his own lifetime had a a fair degree of fame and reputation for his literary works, the catalyst being a review of Burns’ first published works which coincided with his arrival in Edinburgh. This was by the writer and novelist, Hendry MacKenzie who wrote of Burns,
“Though I am far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems, will percive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this Heaven-taught ploughman, from his humble and unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners.”
Although the idea of Burns being an unlettered ploughman was more a myth than reality (he was a farmer, and his father had insisted on him getting a good education as a boy) However it established his presence within the literati of Scotland’s capital.
Before that, poverty and responsibility for at least three children had taken him to a low point in his life and even considered leaving Scotland forever to become a slave driver in Jamaica - a somewhat contradictory notion for a man who wrote passionately about the common man, justice and equality, however he had a change of heart and decided to publish a volume of his works under the title “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”
And so his fame spread and continues to this day…
Since his death in 1796 an average of four books a year as Burns life and work as their subject have been published. He’s been described variously as our greatest poet, greatest songwriter and wisest sage. His appeal was his tremendous insight into the human condition. He wrote with great wisdom, some say beyond his years - let’s remember he penned these lines at the tender age of fifteen.
“Once I lov’d a bonie lass,
Ay, and I love her still
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I’ll love my handsome Nell”
For me, his appeal was summed up wonderfully by a gentleman called Henry Vollam Morton, a Lancastrian journalist and travel writer wrote of him in 1929, “a warm living force; he is part of the daily life. I think of him whenever I see a kettle steaming gently against a Scottish fireside; he has sung his way into all the lovely common things of life.”
We get a measure of just how far into the public conscience Burns is etched with the numerous quotes that have become everyday usage. From To A louse we get “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as ithers see us”
From Man Was Made To Mourn we have “Man’s inhumanity to man make countless thousands mourn.”
How many times, the world over have been sung the words “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind”
“Oh best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley” From To A Mouse; the poem which gave Steinbeck the title for that great American classic Of Mice And Men
And from what is arguably his most ambitious work, the epic Tam O Shanter we get “No man can tether time nor tide”
Now there’s a great poem. That’s a poem that I’ve on many occasions tried to learn off by heart. What a great party piece that would be. I’ve recited poems at Burns suppers but never been asked do that one - I’ve even been asked not to do it as it’s so long, and an English audience would struggle to follow the language. I once knew a gentleman who drank in my local who claimed he could do it at one time, but probably not any more and I had no reason to doubt. He advised me just to have the book in front of me and learn one verse at a time while the tatties were boiling, maybe I didn’t eat enough tatties for I never learned it.
Coming from Ayr, it’s a story that’s hard to avoid; the landmarks of that famous journey are still there - Inn where the poem begins is now aptly named the Tam O Shanter, the haunting ruin of the Auld Kirk at Alloway in now lit up in an eerie blue and green glow and finally, the Brig O’ Doon which will have been backdrop to countless thousands of wedding photos over the years and even has its own Hollywood fame with Gene Kelly
And of course, in Scotland in the weeks preceding Burns Night , and many of you who went to school in Scotland will remember that at this time of year, children are rehearsing their lines for the annual Burns competition where you would recite a poem or sing a song. I entered the poetry recital every year. One year I took my chances with the singing and had followed my dad’s advice; I went up to the teacher at the piano and sang Rantin Rovin Robin with as much gusto as I could muster. I didn’t get to the end of the first verse when the teacher stopped me, saying,
“Well, you’ve got the words right. I’m not sure what Robert Burns would think of you making up your own tune though.” and there, in that classroom, at the age of ten, my singing career began and ended.
When I was looking for ideas of what to talk about tonight, I had a look on Twitter to see what was being said about Burns. It became apparent that all over the world, people of all colours and creeds were preparing for their own Burns Suppers.
Many questions were being asked;
“What should I wear?”
“What poem should I read?”
“I don’t know what all the words mean?”
“Should I attempt it in a Scottish accent?
“What is haggis made of?” (There’s a cue for a horse meat joke for anyone who wants to heckle)
Many differing styles of Burns Nights were being planned, from the traditional, to the multicultural.
A Mexican themed bar in Edinburgh was advertising Chilli Haggis Nachos; A Thai Restaurant in London boasted Green Haggis Thai Curry.
Another measure of Burns’ enduring popularity is all the merchandise now available to the discerning consumer; We’ve all seen the Burns shortbread, the Burns oatcakes, the Burns tablecloths and the Burns tea towels. Burns aprons, Burns Pillows. Burns car stickers, mugs, Fridge magnets, Mouse mats.
In time for this years Burns celebrations, The Arran distillery are re-releasing their Burns Single Malt; The Bellhaven Brewery are releasing a Robert Burns Ale.
You can also get Man’s Inhumanity Tee Shirts, Burns Gifie Gie Us Onsies, Robert Burns Pet food bowls for erudite dogs and cats.
For the gentlemen, Burns Morality Boxer-shorts, and for the ladies, Burns Critic’s Classic Thongs. (who knows, maybe some are being worn this very evening.)
Smartphone users have a variety of Robert Burns Apps available to download - There‘s one titled “An app’s an app for a’ that.” With its handy guide on how to plan your Burns Supper, it boasts;
“This app uses the very latest technology to bring Burns firmly into the 21st century, with his enduring messages of human equality and international brotherhood now available to iPhone users the world over.”
iPipes; hear any Burns tune played on the bagpipes, get haggis recipes and my favourite; The Burns Compass, a compass needle that always points at Alloway and gives you the distance from anywhere in the world. Indispensable.
Robert Burns still makes news headlines these days. A couple of recent stories which caught my attention;
There has been much excitement recently about the lost manuscripts - found in 2010 are now in the news as the research finding have reached their conclusion and will be discussed at a conference in Glasgow. There are 7 manuscripts including one letter from Burns' 'Clarinda' to his friend and physician, Dr William Maxwell.
Clarinda was in fact a pen name used by Agnes Nancy McLehose with whom he conducted a passionate love affair and gave rise to a famous series of letters.
This is the subject of Clarinda The Musical which had its North American debut at the Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre, courtesy of St Andrews Society of Jacksonville, Florida.
As Fiona (my girlfriend) says, we bloody Scots get everywhere.
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is now in possession of the last album of songs recorded by Michael Jackson, who collaborated with David Gest to record an album containing around 10 Burns poems and put them to contemporary music, including, apparently A Red Red Rose, Ae Fond Kiss and Tam O’ Shanter… that’s bound to be a Thriller and I’d love to hear it. I’ve read the museum is hoping to release a CD of the recordings as a fundraiser. If they do, I’ll be adding it to my collection. How could you resist?
So with that, I would like to conclude that the enduring immortal memory of Robert Burns and his works is alive and well the world over.
And on a footnote;
For my birthday last years, I received from my parents a book of Tam O Shanter with the incredible illustrations by the celebrated Scottish painter, Alexander Goudie. This renewed my interest in the poem. A week later, Fiona and I were at Witton Castle at a motorbike rally and as with any occasion involving beer and music and large gathering of people I ended up cracking on with a fellow Scot, coincidentally named Rob, and the conversation inevitably got to Burns. I mentioned the wonderful book I’d received the week earlier and my failed attempts at Tam O Shanter.
“ Do ye want Tam O Shanter?” he asked, and there, in a beer tent surrounded by motorbikes, beer and rock’n’roll music, Rob entertained Fiona, myself and the company to the best recital of Tam O Shanter I’d heard. Rousing, animated and word perfect. I bought Rob a pint. We last saw Rob heading north on his immaculate Harley Davidson and like to I imagine that over the last weeks, Rob will be plying his talents at a Burns Supper as good as this.”
And with that, happy (relieved actually) that the audience didn’t fall asleep and even laughed in the right places, I invited them to join me in a toast, “To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.”
After all that talking, I had quite a thirst, and as good whisky was flowing freely, I felt it would be rude not to. It was a wonderful night.