>> William Topaz McGonagall
Ivor Cutler <<
Eccentricity is the link, but skill is the contrast for this week’s pairing of Scottish icons – poets of different ages and of a very different order. Few in Scotland can be unaware of William Topaz McGonagall’s lauding of the Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay! and his clunky lament at its collapse. Born in 1825, he has been cited as the worst poet in British history, though his continued fame comes from the risible effects his poetic shortcomings generate in his work. Despite numerous pleas to Queen Victoria for patronage, he died in poverty in 1902. Similarly eccentric, and individual in his approach to writing, Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) also gained considerable fame during his lifetime, arguably due in no small part to support from the radio DJ John Peel. A poet, songwriter and performer, his harmonium accompanied verses turned the spotlight of his surreal humour on all aspects of the human condition. Once heard, his Life in a Scotch Sitting Room will forever change perceptions of life in this small country. Published in book, record and CD form, his work continues to beguile ten years after his death.
William Topaz McGonagall
by Aonghas Phadraig Caimbeul
It was on the Twentieth of November Two Thousand and Fifteen
That I was asked to write a poem about a poet who’s been
Grossly calumnied on the Scottish literary scene
Despite his masterpiece about the disaster on the Tay
Which would never have happened if the central girders had not given way
On that fateful day when the lives of all the passengers were taken away.
William Topaz McGonagall was his name
And I hardly need say anything about his world-wide fame
For he was known everywhere, not just in Dundee, but also very far away
In the Fair City of Perth and far out west in lovely Stornoway
Where the people speak in such a strange way,
Probably because they don’t live near the beautiful silv’ry Tay.
Now you may sit there and scoff but it takes balls of steel
To rhyme like McGonagall as he sat on Law Hill
Looking down on Lochee sitting bonny and still
And to the north, Broughty Ferry and then Kirrimuir
Where the peewits were singing so bright and so pure
That a man who was deaf would be made well and cured.
Now of Scotland’s great writers I’ll just mention a few:
Dunbar, for example, but most of all Hugh
MacDiarmid, who changed his name from Christopher Murray Grieve
And lived for a while in Montrose, which is just north of Dundee, I believe.
And also Burns who liked to rhyme
Though he died very young and therefore didn’t get much time.
William Topaz McGonagall, I salute your crazy courage.
The hopeless belief that rhyme was all that mattered
That words could be squeezed into shape, battered
Into submission. All praise to your insane scansion and metres,
The mad joy of your verse, with its strange discordant beat:
Great poetry is always made by holy fools whaur extremes meet.
by Stephanie Green
A wee figure spot-lit on a dark stage
intoning like a Jewish cantor on your wheezing harmonium,
wearing Tartan, and a sunflower stuck in your beret.
What if the world was remade in your vision?
Shops are lifted, doctors collect their thoughts
from their surgeries.
A Scottish childhood is no longer gruts for tea.
No one is beaten by the tawse. A screwed-up
childhood may be good for creativity,
but borders, easily bored, we play, just passing
the time, letting our words come out, like jazz,
however they want. Surrealism meets Music Hall.
We all speak quietly. Singers and comedians
are almost inaudible. Chuffed if pauses
are longer than Sam Beckett’s.
We meet applause with fingers in our ears.
The wax model of an ear pinned to our walls,
we are all members of the Noise Abatement Society.
Everyone is addressed by their surname
with courtesy, gentleness. Cups of tea,
you and me – a beautiful cosmos.
Angus Peter Campbell (Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul) is a poet, novelist and actor. He was born and brought up in South Uist and went to Oban High School where his English teacher was Iain Crichton Smith. He currently holds the Dr Gavin Wallace Writing Fellowship at the National Library of Scotland.
Stephanie Green is English/Irish, born in Sussex, and has lived in Edinburgh since 2000. Her pamphlet Flout (HappenStance, 2015) is inspired by Shetland. She has collaborated with several artists and composers, including The Child of Breckon Sands with Marisa Sharon Hartanto and Ayre which inspired a dance piece choreographed by Mathew Hawkins, performed at the Queens’s Hall, Edinburgh, 2015. She has recently completed Berlin Umbrella an ‘aural walk’ with Sound Artiste, Sonja Heyer, to be performed in Berlin. She works part time as a creative writing tutor and Dance and Theatre critic and her website can be viewed here.