Haggis for sale at Crombies butchers ahead of Burns night on 22 January 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Crashed and Burnsed

ASH Smyth gives a poetically bad speech at the Galle Literary Festival for the Caledonian Society of Sri Lanka

It’s 2011 – ten years ago, more or less to the day – and I am standing in front of a full-ish dining room at the five-star Jetwing Lighthouse hotel, eyes on the glitterati of the Caledonian Society of Sri Lanka. It is their Burns Night supper, this year held in conjunction with/parallel to/on the fringes of the Galle Literary Festival. And I am what I guess you would have to call the keynote speaker.

Here, on the southwest corner of the island, I know a couple of the people in the room. Everyone has had a jolly good dinner. We’re all in the tropics, sure, and many thousands of miles away from home, but we’re enjoying a night of authorised, communal, old-fashioned nostalgic sentiment. My sexy new girlfriend is present, all dressed up, and sitting at the nearest table. She gives me a conspiratorial wink. I smile, mock-sharkishly, and take a moment’s breath.

I am about to deliver my Uproariously-Funny Burns’ Night After-Dinner Speech.

“Lairds and ladies, lads and lassies [etc., etc. – I nod to the savagely (re-)disembowled remnants of the haggis], we are gatherered here this evening to celebrate the life and works of a titan of the written and the spoken word, an incomparable versifier, a renowned tragedian, a man of the people, the truest of true Scots, and, to this day, one of the nation’s most beloved export-strength exports. I refer, of course, to the one, the only… William McGonagall.”

*record scratch*

The reason I know this speech is funny is because it has already killed. With teenagers. And over-achieving Asian proto-doctor/engineer/accountant/lawyer teenagers, at that!

Even to be the worst poet in Scotland is really saying something

Back up two months, and I am standing in front of a full-ish assembly auditorium, in the school where I work(ed) in Colombo. It is St Andrew’s Day (or the nearest full-school-assembly day to same), and, believe it or not, some teachers – decades experienced or otherwise – do not, in fact, enjoy the prospect of getting up in front of a roomful of kids, and having to work hard to capture and maintain their attention, so I – not for the first time – have been handed a whole fistful of short straws at exceedingly short notice, and – also not for the first time – have responded accordingly.

William McGonagall, I tell the young faces, expecting their weekly dollop of chicken soup for the soul, was famously and in a handy range of objectively-measurable ways, the worst poet ever produced by Scotland.

The Wikipedia short entry, which I now read to them, more or less verbatim, goes thus:

William Topaz McGonagall (March 1825 – 29 September 1902) was a Scottish poet of Irish descent. He won notoriety as an extremely bad poet who exhibited no recognition of, or concern for, his peers’ opinions of his work. He wrote about 200 poems, including ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ and ‘The Famous Tay Whale’, which are widely regarded as some of the worst in English literature.

Lampooned as the worst poet in British history, the chief criticisms of his poetry are that he was deaf to poetic metaphor and unable to scan correctly. The inappropriate rhythms, weak vocabulary, and ill-advised imagery combine to make his work amongst the most amusing dramatic poetry in the English language. His only apparent understanding of poetry was that it needed to rhyme.

In addition to these fairly self-evident failings, McGonagall also seems to have had zero editorial instinct of any kind, and not only apparently published pretty much everything he ever scribbled down, but was not remotely shy about performing the resulting poems publicly (hardly rare in the bardic/balladeer tradition, but the kids don’t know that).

William Topaz McGonagall (March 1825 – 29 September 1902)

Now, as an English teacher (then), I make sure to tell them that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with poetry being funny (most days, my favourite poet is Wendy Cope). Nor do poems have to be about Important Issues or Famous Events (better if they’re not, frankly: see the track record of the recent Laureates…). They can be rude (Wilmot); they can be crazy (Smart, Pound, Clare); they can even be flat-out incomprehensible (Lear, Eliot). In fact, there’s really only one rule when it comes to poetry: it can’t be bad. At least, not bad by accident.

To illustrate the difference, I offer them the limerick about the man from Japan:

Whose poetry never would scan.

When asked why this was

He said, “It’s because

I like to fit as many words into the last line of my poems as I possibly can.”

And, by contrast, William McGonagall’s “Jottings from London”, which includes, in its check-box attitude to the city’s many tourist hotspots:

St. Paul’s Cathedral is the finest building that ever I did see;

There’s nothing can surpass it in the town of Dundee…

and ends:

But during my short stay, and while wandering there,

Mr Spurgeon was the only man I heard speaking proper English I do declare.

Hewing to McGonagall’s theme of casual generalisations, I point out that to have been the worst British poet ever of course means also to have been the worst Scottish poet ever, which in turn means, it surely goes without saying, to have been the worst poet in the entire history of the world. (Here I am principally trolling the Principal, who I happen to know hails from a small town outside Inverness.)

But even to be the worst poet in Scotland is really saying something, when you consider that this is a nation whose all-time chart-toppers include “Auld lang syne” (which basically just repeats the same words about 400 times), poems about vermin, and the “Address to the haggis” (which as everybody knows is a wild Highland animal and therefore wouldn’t understand you if you spoke to it in English, anyway). This last is, I clarify, purely for childish amusement (mine and theirs), a solemn apostrophe to a sheep’s stomach, which is recited just before dinner, discusses tripe and intestines while affecting to be rude about foreign cuisine, and then goes on to rhyme the words “ragout” and “spew”. (On cue, great choruses of “Ewwww…!”)

As I mentioned, many of these children may have had life-paths rather firmly laid out for them already at this tender age, and I consider it my very real duty to expose them to as many weird and wonderful cultural alternatives as may not otherwise be introduced to their thirsty minds. But, I also have to tell them, pace the supposed example of McGonagall’s fellow Scot, Robert (the) Bruce, try-try-trying again just isn’t always going to close the gap between success and failure. (A few months later, I will lecture them on Florence Foster Jenkins.) Ofttimes, if people tell you you’re not great at something, it will be – grimly, painfully – true.

And so I offer them some highlights from William McGonagall’s relatively-long and almost-totally-depressing life.

For one thing, he was probably born in Ireland (not that the Irish want to claim him), and was wont to knock five years off his age, as well as change his place of birth to Edinburgh. He followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a weaver in Dundee in the mid-nineteenth century, just in time for the industrial revolution to steadily destroy what was left of that trade.

The Book of Heroic Failures credits McGonagall with being the Worst British Poet

Probably largely self-taught, at least beyond about 10, he got his literary education from reading “Shakespeare’s penny plays”, and took it upon himself to recite entire scenes from same, to all his workmates. So entertained (“…”) were they by this, that McGonagall decided to approach the local theatrical impressario, one Mr Giles, to let him play the lead role in Macbeth. Giles very sensibly told him he could, if – and this is from McG’s own “Autobiography” – McGonagall paid him one pound cash up front (“which I considered rather hard”) to offset the anticipated fiasco. His weaving colleagues “heartily” whipped up the money. The playbill for the agreed performance (or another, under very similar circumstances!) states it will be of “the 4th and 5th Acts” only, and promises that McGonagall’s involvement will be “positively for this night only”.

The theatre was, inevitably, packed – and though it would be fun (if obvious) to say Macbeth was not the only one who died on stage that night… it isn’t true. When it came down to the final fight scene, McGonagall, convinced the actor playing Macduff was attempting to upstage him, refused to be put out of his (and everybody else’s?) misery. For this, The Book of Heroic Failures credits him with being not only the Worst British Poet but also the Worst Macbeth – another field in which it could be said there is some quite stiff competition.

Presumably, a profitable sideline in the histrionic art did not ensue, and by the 1870s McGonagall and his family – seven kids, plus grandchildren, not all of them legitimate – were struggling. And then, at the age of 52, disaster really struck.

The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877. During the Dundee holiday week, in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, while lonely and sad in my room, I sat thinking about the thousands of people who were away by rail and steamboat, perhaps to the land of Burns, or poor ill-treated Tannahill, or to gaze upon the Trossachs in Rob Roy’s country, or elsewhere wherever their minds led them. Well, while pondering so, I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt so happy, so happy, that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, “Write! Write!”

This is, alas, a quite exemplary intro to everything that followed. The dysfunctional segues, the misfiring metaphors, the constant repetitions, the terrible smuggling of rhymes into prose sentences; the lack of self-awareness, the tempting of fate, the mawkish Scotchness, the ill-judged and entirely-unsubtle comparisons of himself to masters of his chosen art.

“I know nothing of poetry,” he reflected, momentarily. But nonetheless, he promptly sat down and wrote four stanzas about his friend, the Rev. George Gilfillan. Gilfallan himself summarised the debut, accurately: “Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.” And the Dundee Weekly News – maliciously or otherwise – saw fit to publish it.

Casting around for a patron in this new and mostly-unremunerative career, McGonagall went all out and wrote to Queen Victoria. Unsurprisingly, he received a pro-forma rejection letter, “signed on behalf of”, and thanking him for his interest. More surprisingly (perhaps, but a pattern emerges), rather than be deterred, he contrived to take the presence of the royal seal as a vote of basic confidence in his poetic abilities, and decided that his status in the eyes of the Empress of India would only be improved if she could have the privilege of a live show.

So, in 1878 he set off from Dundee to Balmoral on foot, a distance of about 60 miles over mountainous terrain and through a violent thunderstorm, confidently “expecting to see Her Majesty, and to be permitted to give an entertainment before her in the Castle from my own works and from the works of Shakespeare.”

When he arrived at the lodge, he informed the constable that “I was the Poet McGonagall, and how I had been patronised by Her Majesty.” The guard dismissed his letter as a forgery (contents notwithstanding), and asked McGonagall to give a demonstration of his talents. McGonagall retorted that he was “not a strolling mountebank” who would perform for “a few coppers” (the money, presumably, not the constabulary). He then showed the guard a “twopence edition” of his poems, which said on the front cover “Poet to Her Majesty”. The guard curtly informed him, “You’re not the Queen’s poet! Tennyson is the Queen’s poet!” (which shows, amongst other things, that servicemen were considerably better read in the Victorian period), and then paid him the 2d for his book just to get him to bugger off.

The journey was got wind of by the Dundee papers, and thus began a certain fame for the aspiring poet. But the reason for said fame was always obvious – at least, to everyone except McGonagall. Nor was this for the want of gentle hints.

McGonagall’s attempts to break New York, or even London, resulted in his not making a single penny

The Weekly News laughed at his “Bonnie Dundee in 1878” (which they still printed) on the grounds that “it is not even amusing” (which didn’t give McG pause); one night, after charging the impoverished ploughmen of Fowlis to hear his recitations, he was set upon by three men who were, one might reasonably surmise, probably only trying to get their money back; and his attempts to break New York, or even London, resulted in his not making a single penny. At Irving’s Lyceum, and at every other theatre and music hall in the capital, he was told to make himself scarce. And in New York he could not sell a single pamphlet (although of course he claimed this was just anti-British sentiment). Flat broke, on the boat home, he piously refused to perform at a benefit organised for him, because it was to take place on a Sunday.

He was also the subject of various piss-takes and practical jokes, the most notorious of which was the letter from “C. Macdonald, Poet Laureate to King Theebaw Min of Burmah and the Andaman Islands”, who wrote to say that “upon representation… by your fellow countrymen out here” he had been appointed a “Grand Knight of the Holy Order of the White Elephant” (position unpaid). McGonagall did not take up the invitation to voyage to the islands for his installation (perhaps mindful of the occasion on which he had travelled to dine with a much-lauded Irish poet, who had turned out merely to be a waggish imposter); but this did not stop him from using the honorific “Topaz” for the rest of his days.

And even though the Chief Templar of his own temperance movement had been one of the first to inform him straight out that his poetry was bad, he spent much of his life travelling around Scotland, appearing in suspiciously-crowded pubs to hold forth (in verse?) on the evils of “strong drink” – for which selfless labour he was routinely given short shrift by the publicans, and on one occasion pelted with peas.

A neat triangulation of these things was eventually arrived at, when he was hired, for fifteen shillings a night, to recite his poetry in the local circus, while crowds threw bread, eggs, flour and herrings at him. Unfortunately, what the McGonagall Online archive calls the “near riotous disorder” that routinely followed got so out of hand that magistrates were forced to shut these events down – thus making him, perhaps, the first poet to be literally outlawed as a direct result of the poor quality of his work.

McGonagall was predictably outraged (and out of pocket) and wrote – of course – a poem in response, entitled “Lines in Protest to the Dundee Magistrates”.

Fellow citizens of Bonnie Dundee,

Are ye aware how the magistrates have treated me?

Nay, do not stare or make a fuss

When I tell ye they have boycotted me from appearing in Royal Circus,

Which in my opinion is a great shame,

And a dishonour to the city’s name (&c.)

Some of the constant heckling must occasionally have hit home, and by 1893 things had got bad enough that McGonagall wrote the angry “A New Year’s Resolution to Leave Dundee”, complaining that he was being shouted at in the street, and called “Mad McGonagall”. His bluff was duly called, and when a rival rhymester suggested he be on his way, he scrawled the furious “Lines in Reply to the Beautiful Poet who Welcomed News of McGonagall’s Departure from Dundee”, directly addressing “Johnny”, the editor of the Weekly News:

Therefore I laugh at such bosh that appears in print.

So I hope from me you’ll take the hint,

And never publish such bosh of poetry again,

Or else you’ll get the famous Weekly News a bad name.

He died, penniless, eight years later, in Edinburgh, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Alas, any criticisms of McGonagall’s life are only truer of his ouevre.

What really propelled McG into the historical big-time was not his simple awfulness as a wordsmith, but his catastrophically poor judgement (I’m sure there’s a gag to be had here about “strophes”, but McGonagall could never have made it) and nigh-on inconceivably bad taste: hallmarks of every self-regarding, humourless nincompoop.

To take a few of just his titles at random: “The Destroying Angel, Or The Poet’s Dream” (a fictional narrative in which an angel burns down all of the public houses in Dundee, thereby bringing temperance); “The Horrors of Majuba” (and a whole host of other battles he’d never seen in countries he’d never visited); “The Albion Battleship Calamity” (and another dozen or so about shipwrecks, including “The Kessack Ferry-Boat Fatality”).

If you’re a glutton for punishment you can have one of his poems sent to your inbox every morning

Then there are the self-aggrandizing, like the “Address to Shakspeare”, and “The Crucifixion of Christ”; the hackish (“Lines in Praise of Sunlight Soap”); the crawling (“Song Dedicated to Mr Barry Sullivan, Tragedian, without Permission (A Fragment)”); the boring (“Lines in Memoriam regarding the Entertainment I Gave on the 31 March, 1893, in Reform Street Hall, Dundee” – plus at least another twenty poems beginning with the words beautiful or bonnie); the plain ridiculous (“Captain Teach, alias ‘Black Beard’”, which ends “Black Beard derived his name from his long black beard, / Which terrified America more than any comet that had ever appeared…”); and my favourite: “Calamity in London: Family of ten burned to death”.

His undisputed masterpiece, however, is “The Tay Bridge Disaster”, perhaps especially because it deals with the spectacular failure of something wrongly avowed to be a work of genius, and is therefore a decent metaphor for McGonagall’s own infamy. And also because it shows that he knew even less about engineering than he did about verse.

But in December 1879 – approximately halfway, in the great list of Imperial oopsies, between the charge of the Light Brigade and the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic, right around the time that thousands of British soldiers were being hacked to death at Isandhlwana – high winds and flawed engineering conspired to cause the then longest bridge in the world to collapse just as the train from Edinburgh was going over it. All lives were lost… and this is what McGonagall had to say about it:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay!

Alas! I am very sorry to say

That ninety lives have been taken away

On the last sabbath day of 1879,

Which shall be remembered for a very long time.

Not before time, the last verse concludes:

Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv’ry Tay,

I now must conclude my lay

By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,

That your central girders would not have given way,

At least many sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses build,

The less chance we have of being killed.

It is unfortunate that the disaster – one of Britain’s worst railway accidents to date – has been remembered almost solely for its starring role in one of McGonagall’s most ham-fisted, distasteful, and not even factually-accurate poems.

It is even more unfortunate that only the previous year McGonagall had been singing the praises of the newly-opened “Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay”.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!

With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array,

And your central girders, which seem to the eye

To be almost towering to the sky.

And it is doubly, triply, unfortunate – nay, bordering on the homicidal, even – that McGonagall felt moved to immortalise the replacement bridge once it too had been thrown up.

Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,

With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,

And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye

Strong enough all windy storms to defy.

Some of the eager faces now have tears on them, not least from my increasingly hapless attempts to pronounce the word “girders” in a Scottish accent. (There are, of course, many and various Scottish accents. I invite non-Scots to try saying “girders” convincingly in any of them). I feel that they ought to hear a proper Scotsman read a bit of it, and so we wind up with a video clip from some Billy Connolly documentary, which does a very good job of showing the kind of weather that did for the Tay Bridge, as well as – I realise, to my horror – making McGonagall’s sententious rubbish seem half-way decent.

The Tay bridge, which had been opened in the summer of the previous year, collapsed in a storm on the night of 28 December 1879, killing the entire crew and all the passengers of a train that was crossing at the time. (Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Of course, even accidentally-bad poetry can still be very funny (Stephen Pile – he of Heroic Failures – writes that McGonagall was “so giftedly bad that he backed unwittingly into genius”), and for those of a certain ostensibly-British sense of humour, it is, of course, tempting to believe (or at any rate hope) that McGonagall was in fact just committing to some kind of semi-profitable ironic life-role – like that Chinese bloke in The Prestige who walks around for years with [SPOILER ALERT] a goldfish bowl between his legs.

Sure enough, in his own time many people seem to have thought that he was kidding, “appreciating McGonagall’s skill as a comic music hall character”. And his Autobiography, especially, and letters (often rhyming) are so close to the dramatic irony of well-known Victorian satires like Three Men in a Boat that at least one scholar has put forward an argument that McG was indeed a deliberate parodist.

But so obviously, genuinely embarrassing a poet was he, that later generations of artists, writers and comedians have incorporated his mortifying example into their own work. The Goons had William McGoonagall (“poet, tragedian and twit”). The Muppets had a version of him, played by Connolly. Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men has a warrior poet who is so bad that the enemy runs away rather than listen to him. Monty Python had a character called Ewan McTeagle, whose poetry turned out to be just McTeagle asking for money. Scots Asterix substitutes “Magonaglix” for “Cacophonix”. And a real piece of music was once set to yet another McGonagall poem about the River Tay: “The Famous Tay Whale”. The music calls for “full orchestra, a fog horn, and an espresso machine” – and since it was for the Hoffnung Music Festival, I think we can assume that one was also a joke.

True, there’s one biography titled The Comic Legend of William McGonagall, and some witty record label has released a CD of his poetry in their Great Poets series. But then there’s also a selection of his poetry, “with an appreciation by James O. Jackson”, more simply called The World’s Worst Poet. His designated tribute website says, “if you’re a real glutton for punishment” you can have one of his poems sent to your inbox every morning. And in his adopted hometown of Dundee, there is now a McGonagall Square: it is a dead end – and not even square.

As school assemblies go, all told, this one brought the house down. And afterwards, in one of life’s too-neat coincidences, Andrew, the Principal, comes over to share the piquant bit of family history that his great-great-grandfather, John Fowler, an engineer, had served on the Commission of Inquiry into the Tay Bridge disaster, which heavily criticised designer/chief engineer Sir Thomas Bouch, and promptly stripped him of the forthcoming contract to bridge the Forth (of constant-painting fame). Bouch died soon afterwards, a ruined man, and the Forth job went instead to… John Fowler. He duly built the bridge (which stayed up) and was later made Sir John by Queen Victoria.

Flash forward again, and, after Christmas, I was gearing up to make my literary pilgrimage to Galle (speakers that year included Jay McInerney, Jung Chang, Tash Aw, Roger McGough, Bridget Kendall, Mohsin Hamid, Robert McCrum, Daljit Nagra, Candace Bushnell, Philip Hoare, Jancis Robinson, Guy Delisle) when I noticed that among the associated events there was to be a Burns’ Night supper. I wrote to the Secretary of the Society, a former teaching colleague from a different school, and suggested that perhaps they might like something… still literary… but slightly different.

I note from my e-mails (with slight relief) that I actually received a cheery “official” request for my “willing(?) participation”. Though the line about “your rendition of whatever” might perhaps have set the teensiest alarm-bell ringing. Then there was a slight awkwardness over arriving with my +1, for whom I was expecting to pay but for whom there was no table setting.

The whole thing went down like a stone-cold cup of cock-a-leekie

But anyway, we’re there now, I’m on “between the haggis and the trifle”, and thanks to the members of the Caledonian Society hierarchy (by not much of a coincidence, the Scots Kirk minister, a lovely man called John, is also the President of the society, and the Chieftain for the evening’s entertainments), the attendant Scottish (and Scott-ish) revellers have already been treated to bagpipes, graces, and poetry – delivered full-bore with the strongest and purest accents in all the land (stronger than the Tay Bridge, certainly: am I right?) – as well as mournful singing from a red-headed lady of quite joyless mien whom I had once heard rhyming “visa” and “please(-ah)” at some godawful poetry slam event, back in Colombo. At one point, if I recall, there was even a sword.

But now I’m standing at the podium, draped louchely in a red tartan table-runner.

“Lairds and ladies, lads and lassies…”

And the whole thing goes down like a stone-cold cup of cock-a-leekie.

I’m not insane, of course. I’ve removed the swipes at “Auld lang syne” and the haggis poem. I’ve rephrased the relationship between bad Scottish poets in particular and the international ranking system more generally. And, after my experience with the girders, I’ve accepted that it is probably best if I just deadpan the readings, in my own voice, in case the audience think I’m taking the mickey out of them, per se, rather than merely mangling the accent(s) at my own expense. (In retrospect, it would have been a smart move to enspan John and the other CSSL office-holders as Guest Stars, making the readings fun as well as funny, and providing useful top cover for what unfolded. But for some reason – too busy enjoying the rest of the festival, no doubt – I hadn’t thought of that.)

When I drop the name McGonagall, there are a couple of laughs. But a) they’re rather hollow, and b) I get the impression a lot of the room just doesn’t know who I am talking about. This was… unexpected. They’re either Scots or such proud Scots that they are flat-out in denial. Alternatively, perhaps they are assuming this is all just an elaborate introduction to what they had been expecting – though as the minutes tick by (10-15, I had been instructed), you’d think the penny would, slowly, begin to drop.

There’s no great chortling through McG’s tragicomic life-story; and hardly that much more during the poetry section. (Oh god, I think: they’re all Dundonians! Were all their loved ones on the Tay Bridge train?!) But no. The impression simply, steadily forms that some of them are just not… getting it.

It can’t be that irreverence is “not done” in a Burns Night speech, can it? And can it really be that they don’t find this dreadful poetry to be that funny? Have modern poetic tastes become so warped by all the relentless inspiration and devastating sincerity of Instapoets? Surely… surely… they cannot think this stuff is good?

Perhaps they should have drunk more. Perhaps I should. Is it too late to insert a string of toasts?

To shift the tone a little, and/or make it seem like I am taking my subject a bit more seriously, I ad lib into fractionally more-grown-up territory. I remark how McG had died completely skint, but hell, couldn’t that be said of almost every poet? I note that, McGonagallingly, his work is still in print and his name resounds “long after many of his more skilful contemporaries have been consigned to history”. I wonder if he actually had suffered some kind of catastrophic breakdown in 1877, or if he was just so financially desperate that he was reduced to knowingly abasing himself for pennies (whether he was conscious or not of his limitations, he was certainly aware that people thought him very limited)? I also mention the suggestion by more than one biographer or critic that he might have been somewhere on the spectrum.

By way of steering the negative focus away from the Scots (or, by this point, their negative focus away from me), I say it would be lovely to think that somewhere in the world there are translations of McGonagall – into Tagalog, say, or Malayalam – taken entirely seriously. (Is there an island somewhere where they worship him, à la Prince Philip?) And I consider mentioning that Sri Lanka still has a vigorous tradition of sending one’s bad poetry to the newspapers (successfully), though I think better of that, on the off chance that any such poets should be among the audience tonight.

But, plainly, the natives are getting restless, and so I paraphrase the latter sections, and leave the podium to a quite notably-polite ovation. I think I’d have preferred it if they’d thrown some herrings.

McGonagall writes of one of his own guest speaker experiences, in Inverness:

When the banquet was finished the fun began;
And I was requested to give a poetic entertainment,
Which I gave, and which pleased them to their hearts’ content.

I can’t even claim that.

Instead, I’ve ended up basically methoding one of his more-disastrous performances, simultaneously depantsed by the vengeful spirit of William McGonagall while (and for?) using his own undying words to demonstrate what an abysmal public speaker he was. It only occurs to me now that I could probably have re-framed this train-wreck as a bit of meta-humour; but I can’t say I would set much store by that solution. It would be a brave and high-wire act to do this well, given the source materials.

Offering cheerful homages to a great Scots poet is, however, sometimes part of the Burns Night festivities. In a break before the coffee, my girlfriend nips to the loo, and returns with some unflattering reviews heard through the stall doors. Apparently, the whole night was supposed to have been about some bloke called Robert Burns. Who knew?

Browsing the web for what else a proper Burns Night might entail, I also note the food is plainly viewed as more important than the speechifiers. Years later, minister John will appear in a BBC Scotland documentary called “The Commonwealth of Burns”, discussing, among other things, “the difficulties of sourcing [in Sri Lanka] haggis and bagpipers”. He has the great good grace to make no mention of the keynote speaker.

The evening over, the guests stand up and sing their way, unceremoniously, through Auld Lang Syne. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot…?” Well yes, I thought: on this occasion, probably best.

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