By Kenneth Roy
Near where I live in Burns’s Ayrshire, there is the ruin of a tiny church whose roof was blown off in a famous gale 253 years ago today. Early this morning, as I write this, there is only a stiff breeze, not loud enough to drown out the rhetoric of politicians who have chosen this day to sing the latest verses of their big new number or the chatter of their fawning media chorus.
Children died of dreadful diseases 253 years ago; the stories behind the inscriptions on some of the gravestones around the ruined kirk scarcely bear thinking about. Today, most of us live long enough to experience the peculiar depression induced by too much noise in the background, while others have their lives abruptly cut short by an alternative form of madness on the roads. There was another pile-up on the approach to the dual carriageway last night, the second of the day, and not two miles from the ruined kirk. It looked like a three-ambulance job. I haven’t inquired.
Well, Robert. Although he was preoccupied by morbid thoughts of death much of the time, he did live a bit. As a young man, for example, he made the 10-mile journey from Tarbolton to Irvine to work in a heckling shop. I may talk about that journey of his, and what it means to modern Scotland, when I make the rather longer journey to Perth at the weekend. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the results of the opinion poll. Aren’t we all?
They spent quite a lot of money – I don’t how much – commissioning YouGov (the acronym itself symbolising our populist little age) to ask 1,000 Scots, including the official state-appointed makar, to name their favourite poem for Burns Night. Just in case most of these 1,000 Scots, with the obvious exception of the state-appointed makar, couldn’t actually think of any Burns poems, because you can take nothing for granted these days, they had helpfully provided a list of ‘options’ from which the respondents were invited to tick the poem of their choice. It couldn’t have been a terribly long list – there is a limit to how long people will stand in the street answering silly questions about poetry when they really want to be in Marks and Spencer raiding the shelves for the latest dine-in for two for a tenner offer.
The winner – the poem whose box attracted the most ticks – was Tam O Shanter. Good choice. Not mine. But good. A narrative masterpiece touching beautifully on the fleeting nature of pleasure.
Creative Scotland then sent out a press release. I’m guessing here, but since the BBC and some of the newspapers used the same description or a variation of it, I’m guessing that Creative Scotland sent out a press release in which it was stated that Tam O Shanter was ‘the tale of a man who stays too long at a pub and witnesses a disturbing vision of witches and warlocks’. (This was BBC Scotland’s exact version).
Who writes this material for Fiona Hyslop? I mean, knowing as she did that 1,000 Scots had been asked to name their favourite poem for Burns Night from a list of options, what else did the culture secretary think the results would show?
The tale of a man who stays too long at a pub…We’ve all met that man…Some of us have been that man. Let me then give you, in the same happy vein, ‘Sunset Song’, the tale of a young girl who grows up on a farm; ‘The Crucible’, the tale of young girls who get carried away; ‘The Outsider’, the tale of a young man who can’t quite remember when his mother died, although it was only last week; and ‘Remembrance of Times Past’, a series of tales of a man who spent too long in his bed reminiscing.
Please – do send in your own potted summaries, suitably bleached and sanitised, of world masterpieces, suitable for use on BBC Scotland news bulletins. There will be a Scottish Review pen for the best submission.
The culture secretary Fiona Hyslop, who will be in charge of whatever is left of the arts in Scotland once Creative Scotland has finished with them, issued a statement saying that the poll showed ‘that our national Bard still holds a special place in the nation’s heart’. Who writes this material for Fiona Hyslop? I mean, knowing as she did that 1,000 Scots had been asked to name their favourite poem for Burns Night from a list of options, what else did the culture secretary think the results would show? What would it have taken for Fiona Hyslop to believe the impossible: that our national Bard doesn’t hold a special place in the nation’s heart; that, on the contrary, the thankless nation couldn’t give a stuff for the national Bard?
Your guess is as good as mine; I suggest therefore that you proceed to tick the appropriate box. We shall have to get into training for ticking boxes so that, when our date with destiny arrives, we will be able to name our favourite constitutional settlement for Referendum Night.
I wonder – when I’m not looking at the planes outside my window – about a country on the edge of independence (or not as the case may be – I’m easy either way) which is so insecure about itself that it feels the need to explain to its citizens the content of its best-known poem; which then pitches it at the level of the averagely bright two-year-old; and which then persuades someone called a culture secretary to utter banalities about the significance of it all. How intellectually low must we stoop before we succeed in negotiating Scotland’s place in the semi-final of the Eurovision Song Contest?
It would be interesting to know how much this opinion poll cost. I suggest that, whatever it cost, the money would have been better spent on some promising poet, keeping her (or him) in groceries, anaesthetics or strong drink until the pain eases. As for myself. Before the next smash on the dual carriageway, I propose to become a man who stays too long at a pub (wine bar, as they insist on calling them now) and to return in the late afternoon to witness a disturbing vision of Alex Salmond and his sinister new friend, Devo Max.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review