Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Alexander Scott

This is one of the funniest things I've ever read.

This set of philosophical musings on the Scottish psyche by Alexander Scott is called Scotched.

Kent his


Barely a

Through a gless



I telt ye
I telt ye.

Alexander Scott (1920 - 1989)

Bellow on American writing

I've been writing about Scots poetry a lot recently, so here's a different thought. This is Saul Bellow on modern American writing:

We have developed in American fiction a strange combination of extreme naivete in the characters and of profundity implicit in the writing, in the techniques themselves and in the language, but the language of thought itself is banned, it is considered dangerous and destructive.

By way of evidence he cites Hemingway's "Old man and the sea" where the reader is offered:

a sort of Christian endurance... the attempt to represent ideas while sternly forbidding thought begins to look like a curious and highly sophisticated game. It shows a great skepticism of the strength of art.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I was reading some Hugh MacDiarmid earlier, one of his best-known poems, The Watergaw. The opening line is:

Ae weet forenicht i' the yow-trummle

99.99% of you won't know what that means. I didn't know what it meant. MacDiarmid used a synthetic Scots language, taking words and phrases from all over Scotland, from his own Borders tongue and from the Doric in the north-east and from everywhere in between, to create a patchwork vocabulary which no-one has ever spoken and no-one really understands. But anyway, that's not the point. The line means:

One wet-dusk in the ewe-tremble.

Okay, you ask, so what's a ewe-tremble? It's apparently a Scots expression, at one time well-known, which means a cold spell in summer after sheep shearing.

Only the Scots could ever have decided there was the need for a word which means a cold spell after the sheep shearing...

If you're interested in the whole poem, here it is:

The Watergaw by Hugh MacDiarmid

Ae weet forenicht i' the yow-trummle
I saw yon antrin thing,
A watergaw wi its chitterin licht
ayont the on-ding;
An I thocht o the last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!

There was nae reek i' the laverock's hoose
That nicht - an' nane i' mine;
But I hae thocht o' that foolish licht
Ever sin' syne;
An' I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hamish Henderson - So long

To the war in Africa that's over - goodnight.
To thousands of assorted vehicles, in every stage of decomposition
littering the desert from here to Tunis - goodnight.

To thousands of guns and armoured fighting vehicles
brewed up, blackened and charred
from Alamein to here, from here to Tunis - goodnight.

To thousands of crosses of every shape and pattern,
alone or in little huddles, under which the
unlucky bastards lie - goodnight.

Horse-shoe curve of the bay
clean razor-edge of the escarpment.
Tonight it's the sunset only that's blooding you.

Halfaya and Sollum: I think that at last
we can promise you a little quiet.
So long. I hope I won't be seeing you.

To the sodding desert - you know what you can do with yourself.
To the African deadland - God help you - and goodnight.

There is a recording of Dr Fred Freeman reciting this poem on A' the bairns o Adam, a fine tribute album to Hamish Henderson.

The first time I listened to it, it almost made me cry, and I couldn't quite work out why. There was something about it which hit me, but I didn't know what. Reading Fred Freeman's comments in the accompanying booklet made it clear:

Out of this strange melange of bawdry and bloodshed [the Second World War] would emerge Hamish's irrepressible blend of folk humour: a lifeline in the midst of the inferno. He would use it to create human touches few poets ever achieve. Certainly one would have to look to Henryson and the medieval makars for such fluid movement between the commonplace and colloquial, the abstract and universal. The effects, as with the makars, is to cut everything down to human scale; to make it all, if not acceptable, at least humanly comprehensible.

And that's it entirely. This is such a warm poem, the constant 'goodnights' sounding at once honest, heartfelt and weary. The understatement of 'we can promise you a little quiet' says more than a thousand lines of florid descriptions of the hell of war.

I guess the danger is, when moving 'between the commonplace and colloquial, the abstract and universal' is that it could easily descend into bathos. This poem, so quietly restrained, with a torrent of emotion hidden beneath its charming civility, avoids that and becomes an extremely moving piece.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A drunk man looks at the thistle

A little excert from Macdiarmid's poem, another one which throws a light on the Scots character.

The language that but sparely flooers
And maistly gangs to weed;
The thocht o' Christ and Calvary
Aye liddenin' in my heid;
And a' the dour provincial thocht
That merks the Scottish breed
- These are the thistle's characters,
To argie there's nae need.
Hoo weel my verse embodies
The thistle you can read!
- But will a Scotsman never
Frae this vile growth be freed?...

While surfing, I came across this recording of the poem. Absolutely fascinating to listen to.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Edwin Morgan - the Makar

With these Scots poets I've been featuring of late, I'm a bit remiss in missing out our Makar, Edwin Morgan. Here he is, and again this speaks so eloquently of Scotland and the Scots:

The Flowers of Scotland

Yes, it is too cold in Scotland for flower people; in any case who would be handed a thistle?
What are our flowers? Locked swings and private rivers -
and the island of Staff for sale in the open market, which no one questions or thinks strange -
and lads o' pairts that run to London and Buffalo without a backward look while their elders say Who'd blame them -
and bonny fechters kneedeep in dead ducks with all the thrawn intentness of the incorrigible professional Scot -
and a Kirk Assembly that excels itself in the bad old rhetoric and tries to stamp out every glow of charity and change, most wrong when it thinks most loudly it is right -
and a Scottish National Party that refuses to discuss Vietnam and is even applauded for doing so, do they think no lesson is to be learned from what is going on there? -
and the unholy power of the Grouse-moor and Broad-acres to prevent the smoke of useful industry from sullying Invergordon or setting up linear cities among the whaups -
and the banning of Beardsley and Joyce but not of course of 'Monster on the Campus' or 'Curse of the Undead' - those who think the former are more degrading, what are their values? -
and the steady creep of the preservationist societies, wearing their pens out for slums with good leaded lights - if they could buy all the amber in the Baltic and melt it over Edinburgh would they be happy then? - the skeleton is well-proportioned -
and by contrast the massive indifference to the slow death of the Clyde estuary, decline of resorts, loss of steamers, anaemia of yachting, cancer of monstrous installations of a foreign power and an acquiescent government - what is the smell of death on a child's spade, any more than rats to leaded lights? -
and dissidence crying in the wilderness to a moor of boulders and two ospreys -
these are the flowers of Scotland

This was written in 1969 and, while some of the specifics are dated, it is remarkable (and deflating) how strongly the general points sustain. I think this is a fine poem. Its structure is almost that of prose poem and it is very verbal, even verbose; and yet there are some beautiful poetic phrases in there. Anyone could (many did) write polemics such as this, but they generally end up as diatribes, they become too ferocious in their indignation and slip sadly into stereotypical Scots' hectoring. This poem avoids that and makes the reader think all the more deeply for doing so.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Karen Armstrong - A short history of myth

I'm currently reading Karen Armstrong: A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005. 1841957038

Karen Armstrong asks 'what is myth?' and looks, as a starting point, at Neanderthal graves. There are, she says, five things about myths that these Neanderthal graves can tell us:

1. '[Myth] is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction.'

Well, it hardly takes a genius to work out the first part of that and the second is a logical consequence, so I'll go along with it.

2. 'The animal bones indicate that the burial was accompanied by a sacrifice. Mythology is usually inseperable from ritual.'

Not as inseperable, it seems to me as archaeologists and ritual. Might the bones have simply been food? Still a ritual, perhaps, but not a sacrifice. Something more prosaic.

3. 'The Neanderthal myth was in some way recalled beside a grave, at the limit of human life. The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience.'

No problems with the latter point, but how can she possibly extrapolate this from the evidence of Neanderthal graves? How can she know this?

4. 'Myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave.'

Again, no argument with the latter sentiment, but how can she possibly reach that conclusion from Neanderthal graves? Fine, there were many grave goods in them, but how can she possibly link those goods to specific myths, and how can she divine any message from those myths?

5. 'All mythology speaks of another plane that exists alongside our own world, and that in some sense supports it. Belief in this invisible but more powerful reality, sometimes called the world of the gods, is a basic theme of mythology.'

And yet again, it seems to me that this is to ascribe something to Neanderthal graves that is unknowable. For this to therefore be the basis of a thesis about the nature of myth is surely an uncertain foundation.

This put me in mind of the Nietzsche quote I posted a while back:

It is the fate of every myth to creep by degrees into the narrow limits of some alleged historical reality, and to be treated by some later generation as a unique fact with historical claims.

It seems to me, in this work, it's not only history that myth is being turned into. What we have here is the development of metamyths - myths about myths.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Richard Dawkins - The God delusion

I'm currently reading this, although preaching to the converted doesn't do it justice in my case.

Anyway, Dawkins quotes a Cambridge theologian who, on hearing from an anthroplogist of some primitive belief system, remarks that it is amazing how people can believe such nonsense. Dawkins continues:

Assuming that the Cambridge theologian was a mainstream Christian, he probably believed some combination of the following:

* In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.

* The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus promptly came back to life.

* The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.

* Forty days later, the fatherless man went up to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily into the sky.

* If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.

* If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.

* The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but was 'assumed' bodily into heaven.

* Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

What would an objective anthropologist, coming fresh to this set of beliefs while on fieldwork in Cambridge, make of them?

The God delusion pp 207-208 (pbk edition)

And another Scottish poem

Sorley Maclean


My eye is not on Calvary
nor on Bethlehem the Blessed,
but on a foul-smelling backland in Glasgow,
where life rots as it grows;
and on a room in Edinburgh,
a room of poverty and pain,
where the diseased infant
writhes and wallows till death.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Scotland by Alastair Reid

A fine poem, it captures my country and my people:


It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. 'What a day it is!'
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'


Friday, August 17, 2007

Planet Earth - bonnie bairn

I can't be doing with all these 'climate protesters' and soi-disant activists who presume, like the clergy before them, to tell us puir bloody squaddies what to think and why, but if they ever wanted an anthem for their futile movement, this poem by Hugh MacDiarmid would surely be the one:

The bonnie broukit bairn

Mars is braw in crammasy,
Venus in a green silk goun,
The auld mune shak's her gowden feathers,
Their starry talk's a wheen o' blethers,
Nane for thee a thochtie sparin',
Earth, thou bonnie broukit bairn!
- But greet, an' in your tears you'll droun
The haill clanjamfrie!

Hugh MacDiarmid 1892-1978

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The preachers of death


There are preachers of death: and the earth is full of those to whom
desistance from life must be preached.

Full is the earth of the superfluous; marred is life by the many-too-many.
May they be decoyed out of this life by the "life eternal"!

"The yellow ones": so are called the preachers of death, or "the black
ones." But I will show them unto you in other colours besides.

There are the terrible ones who carry about in themselves the beast of
prey, and have no choice except lusts or self-laceration. And even their
lusts are self-laceration.

They have not yet become men, those terrible ones: may they preach
desistance from life, and pass away themselves!

There are the spiritually consumptive ones: hardly are they born when they
begin to die, and long for doctrines of lassitude and renunciation.

They would fain be dead, and we should approve of their wish! Let us
beware of awakening those dead ones, and of damaging those living coffins!

Thus spake Zarathustra

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hamish Henderson

I was surfing for info on Hamish Henderson tonight, specifically his poetry, when I came across this in an obituary:

He believed in the constantly regenerative power of our heritage, ever giving birth to new creation and modes of expression, as he said himself in "Under the earth I go:"

Then tomorrow, songs
Will flow free again, and new voices
Be borne on the carrying stream.

You see, I think that's a wonderful antidote to nihilism.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

And on the subject of governments


Whatever the state saith is a lie; whatever it hath is a theft: all is counterfeit in it, the gnawing, sanguinary, insatiate monster.

Thus spake Zarathustra

Monday, August 13, 2007

Euripides - The Bacchae

It's one of those curiosities of timing that at the very time I read Euripides' The Bacchae it is revived at the Edinburgh Festival, with Alan Cumming in the role of Dionysus.

I rather like this speech by Tiresias:

'Tis easy to be eloquent, for him
That's skilled in speech, and hath a stirring theme.
Thous hast the flowing tongue as of a wise man,
But there's no wisdom in thy fluent words;
For the bold demagogue, powerful in speech,
Is but a dangerous citizen lacking sense.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Nietzsche on myth

Something that Norman Cohn or Thomas Jefferson or even Steve Coleman (see entries below) would recognise is the following quote from Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy:

It is the fate of every myth to creep by degrees into the narrow limits of some alleged historical reality, and to be treated by some later generation as a unique fact with historical claims.

Thus it is that religions are created.

Norman Cohn 1915 - 2007

I was sorry to read the obituary of Norman Cohn today.

Norman Cohn was a very fine historian who wrote a superb book, one of my favourites, The Pursuit of the millennium, in 1957. This chronicled the various millennium cults which sprung up in the middle ages and particularly around the quattrocento, and the medieval heresies and revolutionary movements which found favour in such febrile times.

The Guardian obituary notes:

As Cohn himself pointed out, all his work was fundamentally concerned with the study of the same phenomenon: "the urge to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil".

We seem to have learned so little since the medieval times of which Cohn wrote. The obituary also quotes him:

"There are times," Cohn wrote, "when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history."

Somehow, one wouldn't be surprised to be told that such a time was approaching.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Tao of mad phat

By way of research (ie an excuse not to be writing) I've been listening to Steve Coleman's Tao of mad phat (link will open up your media player) again tonight. Haven't listened to it in a while. It's an amazing piece, totally improvised. Coleman's an interesting character: he sees music as a means of communicating ideas and points to the long musical traditions to be found in ancient cultures as proof that music has always been a primary means of creativity. He sees in those musical cultures a way of understanding music which is very different from our own western understanding, based as it is on structures and time signatures and so on. His work tries to extemporise and, by so doing, create musical vocabularies with which we can communicate more effectively.

I wrote a flash ages ago while listening to Tao, in which I tried to mimic the free-flowing extemporisation. It kind of worked and it has an energy to it that I like. It got published at Canopic Jar and can be read here.