On Finishing University

2

Well yesterday I handed in my final essays: the last pieces of coursework ever in my undergraduate degree. I expected to feel triumphant but instead I felt a little empty and sad and probably nostalgic. After all those years and sleepless nights and thousands of words painstakingly wrought out on laptop screens, it all boils down to two more essays and three exams. And then it’s over.

Photo from Fresher's Week!
Photo from Fresher’s Week!

It’s difficult to know where to begin with reflecting about my university experience. Everything is usually divided between academic and social life. Employers and scholars, politicians and journalists all frequently debate which of the two is most useful for getting a job. Any careers event you attend will churn out the hackneyed refrain that ‘university isn’t just about academia’. They encourage you to get involved in societies, sports clubs, volunteering, student media. And all this is great, but we mustn’t completely neglect the whole reason we’re at university – some of us paying thousands of pounds a year to do so – to learn. And this learning isn’t all about getting a job (not for me at least), but about learning for education’s sake – for widening your perspective on the world.

The first essay I had to write was on Descartes for Level 1 philosophy. I believe the question was something like ‘Should we be worried by Descartes’ scepticism?’. This kind of question was a whole new ball-game for me. I was used to plain old terminology like ‘Discuss’, ‘to what extent’ and ‘examine/evaluate’. Not should we be worried? Should we? Are philosophical thought experiments really that important? Of course, the essay question was roundly subjected to confusion and piss-take amongst my fellow first year students, but I suppose it was a good way into a career in philosophy. You know, it was the kind of question that makes you think, that challenges your assumptions about what an essay should do. It’s easy to say that now, but at the time I was pulling my hair out. I remember maybe the worst library session I’ve ever had was one rainy Saturday afternoon, where I stared at a blank screen for four hours straight, glancing from book to book and desperately Google searching everything I meticulously typed up, in case it was similar to something else that had been written.

First years are constantly subjected to sermons on the sins of plagiarism. Whilst this is of course a vital academic lesson, it also makes essay-writing for the paranoid nigh on impossible. I remember for my English Literature essay, I decided to scour the internet for every form of critical interpretation available on my primary texts, just to check that I wasn’t repeating the same arguments as everyone else. I had still to learn that plagiarism is more about intellectual integrity, about learning to reference properly and using existing sources in an original way, than coming up with something that is wholly unique. One thing you learn from English Literature – in fact, probably any arts subject – is that the notion of pure originality is somewhat a myth. And that’s actually liberating, because it takes away the equation of creative genius; you’re suddenly allowed to see how authors frequently influence/borrow/steal/subvert one another’s ideas, and you no longer have to imagine essay-writing as an outpouring of wonderful, effortless analysis. It’s allowed to be a difficult process, built up from hours of reading, planning and collated note-taking. Not just something you fire out in an hour at the back of a high school English class.

To the eighteen-year-old me, that Saturday in the library, I wasn’t quite acquainted with all this. I was sitting next to a boy who was typing away furiously, producing what looked like three essays in the space of a few hours (the time it took me to write one paragraph that I eventually cut from the essay).

Philosophy, to be fair, is a subject notoriously confusing when it comes to essays. It shouldn’t be; it’s just that a philosophy essay is distinct from other kinds of critical analysis that I was familiar with through my hitherto social-sciency background. That tutorial we had, waiting to get our essays back, was really hellish. Everyone was telling each other how badly their friends in other tutorials had done. How harsh the marking was. Nobody knew what a philosophy essay was meant to be. We all expected D’s.

When my tutor read out my student number and I went up to collect my essay, I have never been so pleasantly surprised at a grade. An A3! I can tell you, that was the first and hardest earned A3 I have ever received at university.

The end of first year
The end of first year

Looking back, I think I probably spent most of my first two years at university in a vague state of panic. The thing is, most of the time you have no idea what you’re doing and what’s expected at you (I still don’t, but that’s now a good thing – again, liberating). There are rarely any rigid guidelines, especially in a subject like English Literature, and initially that seems terrifying. You are suddenly surrounded with all these people who went to better schools, all these people who’ve read The Complete Works of Shakespeare and can quote Byron and Shelley off the top of their heads. I would spend whole days in my little dorm room trying to get my head around basic terminology like iambic pentameter, chiasmus, ode, Ottava Rima, trochees, lyrics. I’m still terrible at counting metre in poetry, even though I have a background in music and am perfectly capable of keeping time when there are notes and staves involved. But I like to think that I’ve finally found some kind of ‘footing’ in the mountainous landscape of centuries of literature that I was first confronted with that sunny September in 2011.

As with anything, a big part of university is trial and error. You are going to do better under the guidance of some tutors more than others. You are going to write essays that you aren’t very sure of, and sometimes this will pay off, and sometimes it won’t. There are essays that you feel genuinely proud of, not even for the grade but because you know that all the research that went into them widened your intellectual horizons, and all that editing really did pay off in terms of style. It’s nice when you can read back an essay and not cringe at your choice of phrasing, or all those hiccups in grammar and punctuation. There are going to be nights in the library where you get the fright of your life from the tannoid telling you the reception desk is closing. There are going to be times when the library makes you sick, stressed, exhausted. Like when I had to sit next to a man who was eating raw, mud-covered mushrooms straight from the punnet and dipping them in hummus; or the time when the only computer I could find was next to someone who was licking and slurping the oily remains of his spaghetti from the bottom of a massive plastic tub. Times when there are tears involved; either yours or someone else’s. Fights witnessed and blows exchanged; where else but in the sleep-deprived environment of a university library would two people start brawling over a grubby old Dell with a greasy keyboard?

But then there are the best times, the late nights and early mornings and holidays when the library is lovely and quiet. You are free to roam the endless shelves and pick the desk on level 11 that looks out over a beautiful city view. When you finish an essay and print it and the paper is still warm in your hands as you leave to hand it in. When you stumble across a book that you weren’t exactly looking for, but it’s on long-term loan and looks very interesting.

I guess the semesters go so quickly that you hardly notice the time slipping. Sometimes, they seem like little footnotes to a long and formidable summer, with nothing to do but work and plough through the reading list and wish you had more money. If I could go back and do one thing I guess it would be making more use of my time. But then, I don’t regret all the evenings I spent immersed in journal articles and books, because that’s what’s shaped my mind. Sure, I might not have a degree with immediate career prospects beyond journalism or teaching, but I wouldn’t swap my education for the world. And I’d recommend Glasgow Uni English Lit to anyone, especially because it’s so steeped in critical perspectives and literature beyond the obvious canon. Where else would you start off a second-year semester reading Martin McDonagh’s gruesome play The Pillowman, or have a fourth-year seminar on Gone Girl and a course on Urban Spaces which divides its programme under mysterious headings like ‘Airport’ and ‘Shopping Mall’ rather than the tired titles you see across typical course Moodles. My degree (well, let’s hope I actually get it!) hasn’t just been about Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen, though they have all quite rightly featured. It’s about expanding the canon, and helping you sharpen as well as complicate and reflexively challenge your critical approach to all literature.

Last year’s exam revision
If anything, I've learned to keep a slightly tidier desk.
If anything, I’ve learned to keep a slightly tidier desk.

On Tuesday morning, it was spring all of a sudden. I walked to campus feeling warm and happy, remembering the first spring I spent in the city. All those daffodils and the cherry blossoms around Hillhead, and the cheerful experience of the semester ending, everyone gathering for picnics at Botanic Gardens. Optimistically sleeveless, I sat on a stone by the Kelvin River reading Keats, feeling like this is what university is best at. The kind of magical experience unfortunately made cliché by campus films. When you’re in the sunshine reading poetry and you’re about to go in for one of your last tutorials. Sure, I still have three nasty exams to get through, but once they’re over, I’ll hopefully come out a little bit smarter, a little bit happier and a tad more employable. University, both at the academic, social and creative level, has definitely been the best experience of my life. I swear I won’t get sentimental; I’ll come back and do a Masters instead. (Let’s hope; if only).

Inspirational Finnieston Pipe (!)
Inspirational Finnieston Pipe (!)

All the Love for Little Comets

Paddington coats are just wonderful, you know?
Paddington coats are just wonderful, you know?

I first saw them at Wickerman Festival, god knows how many years ago now, and we went to see them on recommendation of my brother. It was probably raining a bit but maybe there was sunshine coming out there from behind us as we stood at the stage. I think they were on before or after Fenech Soler, who you should check out if you like electropop, Friendly Fires, White Lies and all things with synths. Anyway, the band in question who we were watching are called Little Comets, and they play what can only really be described with any accuracy as ‘kitchen sink indie’. I’ve seen them so many times since – basically any time they come to Scotland, which is usually twice a year.

A cold windy Glasgow Monday and I’m sitting in Slouch on Bath Street, watching the snow fall down behind a window of fairylights. We’re discussing what songs they might play. We’re reminiscing about old festivals and terrible and great music from the past. The walk to King Tuts is short from here.

I’ve been to King Tuts many a time before. Embarrassing to admit though it is, the first gig I saw there was You Me At Six. There’s an energy to the place that seems to billow about like the dust off the walls. It’s a wonderfully tiny basement venue with clean toilets and a decent bar and lots of posters from bands that have played there before. There’s Belle & Sebastian and The White Stripes and Pulp on the wall. We go down the stairs and the air is close and thick and hot. We watch two support acts, one of which was the Dundee band Model Aeroplanes, who have a nice amount of energy and lots of lovely, floppy, sweaty hair and bouncy guitar riffs. Oh, and we sussed that the bassist looks kind of like Adam Driver from Girls. 

Reasons why I love Little Comets: 

  • They sing about so many different subjects, from adultery to love to fatherhood to sadness and hope and sorrow and domestic violence and corrupt politicians and poverty and girls named Joanna, Matilda and Jennifer.
  • They tour the U.K all the time and always come to Scotland.
  • They write lovely little blog posts about their lyrics.
  • They seem to genuinely care about the music over everything else and even founded their own record label to avoid being sucked into corporate pressures.
  • There are little snippets of poetry which adorn their songs: ‘tension in the twisted silence of our sheets’ (Isles). They like to talk about metaphors and similes and often their songs tell stories.
  • After gigs they sometimes give out cards for fans and they write nice silver messages on EPs when you order them.
  • They sound so tight live, with amazing harmonies and clear, bouncy percussion.
  • ‘Dancing Song’ is just the best thing ever to jump around too, even if it means you’ll get trodden on and elbowed in the ribs by teenage boys.
  • They write political lyrics without being remotely sanctimonious about their status as musicians writing about politics.
  • Their artwork is really cool and they do it themselves.
  • They are maybe the best male feminists in the music industry of this period, at least as far as lyrical content goes. I don’t know, show me anyone better.

LC_bigcartel_sanguine_EP

Well last night they opened with a track off their new album, ‘The Gift of Sound’, which in a corny kind of way was appropriate because that’s what musicians do, give us the gift of sound. They moved through a few new songs off of Hope is Just a State of Mind and also I was pleased to hear them play ‘Isles’ off the first album because it’s been a while since I’ve heard it. The gig was over-14s and standing there behind rows of fourteen-year-old girls and far-too-tall fourteen-year-old guys, listening to those opening lines ‘Economic downturn you can get a job | Apologetic parents you can get a job’ and I’m thinking god I’m so old that when the economic downturn was happening back in 2008 I was about fourteen and probably discovering Little Comets for the first time.

The last couple of Scotland gigs have been in Edinburgh and you could definitely tell that this was a Glasgow crowd. There were a bunch of lads around us who were giving it the ‘oggy-oggy’ football-match style chanting in imitation of the songs which was actually quite sweet (and funny and annoying) and the band looked sort of bemused and taken-aback; Rob at one point finished the song (can’t remember exactly but I think it was ‘Little Italy’) then said in wonder, “nobody’s ever done that before”. I spent half the gig sort of laughing at the absurdity and magic of it all, that strange reaction people have. I mean, it’s amazing to listen to ‘burly’ (haha) young (and middle-aged) guys with tribal tattoos shout out lyrics like: ‘And like for every victim | It seems the pain will not subtract or even calm | All this protracted by a state | In which the poor conviction rate for rape | Can often leave a woman feeling | More at blame than able’. And even if it’s just words being thrown out, at least they’re being thrown out into a room full of likeminded people who believe in the words that the band are singing; even if just for the melodies being woven, even if just because it plants that tiny seed of thought in their heads. It feels empowering, somehow.

Well they fired into well-loved tracks like Joanna and Dancing Song which got everyone jumping about like crazy. One of my favourite things about Little Comets gigs is that you get gorgeous ballads and also songs you can jump about and dance to. I saved my Converses from being pulled off, survived a mosh pit and did my fair share of hair swooshing. It wasn’t all that pleasant being flung against guys who stank of sweat and cheap aftershave and hair that reeked of Chilli Heatwave Doritos, but that’s just a gig curse and the music makes it worth all the stitches.

A highlight was everyone singing along to ‘Coalition of One’, which is probably my favourite track off their last couple of EPs. It’s a song that opens with the lines: ‘food banks spring open | like jaws dropping in time | the weight of man is measured | by the depths of a carrier bag’. It’s simple and powerful and it hits you and makes you think how wrong everything is in the world right now; specifically in Britain. In comparison to the heartbreak-heavy lyrics of other ‘indie’ bands, Little Comets are genius. In fact, you get the sense that people can’t believe they’re singing along to it. It’s almost like a surrealist image, dragging up some common found object and assigning a kind of tragic beauty to it, and then getting such a mix of people to sing it back to you, to throw it out into the air like a lost plastic bag drifting in the wind. There’s a frailty to many of Little Comets’ images: you only have to look at songs like ‘Waiting in the Shadows in the Dead of Night’ (It’s like barbed wire, this crucial touch | That holds me here, expects so much) and ‘Early Retirement’ (‘the promises you sew are | shallow footsteps in the snow | that you cover up’) to feel their concern with the beautiful ephemerality of experience, the soft alliteration that slips between their words. Watching Rob, lead singer and guitarist, standing over his keyboard, drenched in stage smoke and blue light, singing ‘The Blur, the Line, and the Thickest of Onions’, is enchanting and inspiring. I don’t mind throwing those cosy words around because these guys deserve it, they’re so dedicated and passionate. What other band has the guts to take on Robin Thicke-style sexism in the industry with lyrics like this:

But this filth stands on a quicker sand

Next to cold hard fear and the deeds of man

The abuse of body image as a form of control

And the typical portrayal of the feminine role

I have never been more appalled.

Pick me up with rhythms and waveform

That can symbolise a culture lost

Sing about the future like you mean to

I’m never going to count costs

Question the agenda of an industry

That only can objectify

You write about a non-existent blurred line

But not about abortion rights.

OK, so this might not be Mary Wollstonecraft or Virginia Woolf, but for an all-male band to write these lyrics and perform them gig after gig with heartfelt expression is a victory for any kind of feminism in the modern age. It’s questioning an industry from within and writing about issues that are hugely important to women and men – abortion, media objectification and so on – without framing them in a kind of gratuitous ‘pity’ narrative or ignoring them altogether. Music can be political without a band having to tie politics to their t-shirts, and Little Comets demonstrate this perfectly.

Indeed, the feminist content of their lyrics is also evident in ‘Violent Out Tonight’, which I would argue is a masterpiece of a song. With elegant, soaring harmonies (performed so well onstage too), a thumping, emphatic heartbeat of a drum rhythm, and haunting sliding guitar, it conjures a dark story that follows a brutal encounter between a man and a woman on a lonely street. It’s filled with poetry that shifts between the subtle and stark and by the end we too are left bruised and battered by the sad narrative it tells:

As they step into the dark

Only moonlight hides his treason

And the shadows skip like sharks

Through the gasps of air between them

She says: ‘Becalm your hands boy I thought

restraint was now your sentiment of choice?’

But as his fingers strike her blouse

All the words that he espoused

Lie deftly scattered on the ground amidst

the buttons he’s torn open

When sung aloud, the rhyming works here in a really interesting, disturbing and dissonant way. It’s a song that can silence a rowdy crowd into awed absorption. You let the sounds slide through you and you listen, as Rob’s voice ranges from painful constraint to effortless flowing notes. There is a tension and a release. You feel this release with more uplifting songs like the opening track from Hope is Just a State of Mind, ‘My Boy William’, which Rob describes on the Little Comets blog  as ‘really the most emotionally honest song that I’ve ever written, and also one of the simplest – it is just a message to my little boy William: my hopes for him’. You could tell the crowd loved every minute of the gig from all the clapping and shouting and singing along and jumping (might I remind you how rare it is to see people actually dancing at all at an ‘indie’ gig), but especially with these numbers you could tell how much everyone really respected these songs for what they were and the sort of joyful simplicity of innocence they evoke. It’s all fuzzy and you get that great feeling when you’re in a crowd and lots of other people are experiencing similar things to you and even though you might not be a father or mother yourself, you still feel that raw sort of love shine through, in a way that feels uniquely authentic rather than cheesy or sentimental. As the hard-looking bald guy with the tattoos chanted at the end of ‘My Boy William’: ‘he’s going to be a superstar when he grows up, just like you Rob!’. And well, if that’s not cute I don’t know what is.

One of my favourite parts of the night was when they were chatting between songs and Rob said that Matt (the bassist) had just noticed some wires on a bar above the stage which were still there from years ago when they last played. The band used to bring an assortment of pots and pans with them which they hung above the stage and used with their percussion, which I suppose justified the ‘kitchen sink indie’ label in addition to the soap-like drama and domesticity of songs like ‘Adultery’ and ‘One Night in October’ (I’m never going to get over the lines: ‘So I sit her down | And say this must stop | ’Cause all we do | Is argue and shop | She goes to Boots | I go to Argos | Complete with deceit | We stalk each aisle’). Well I thought it was very sweet that this little mark of days gone past was still there, even though King Tuts (mostly the bar) has undergone some renovation since. I remember that gig very vividly; I was in second year at uni and had just finished my horrible essay on The Tempest and Heart of Darkness and I was drinking Jack Daniels alone in my room and doing cartwheels I was so excited. My favourite album so far is the second one, Life is Elsewhere. I think it works best as an album (I need to give the new one some more listening to judge though) and the lyrics are sweetly dark and just the right level of mournful, joyful and sentimental. And I like the line: ‘I’d rather starve than become a member of your old boys’ club’ in a dig at Oxbridge culture which permeates the top levels of governance in Britain. All these songs have a double layered nostalgic quality for me now, reminding me of feeling a bit more lost and hopeful and innocent as I stumbled through my first years at uni. Now I’m coming to the end it feels right that there should be more songs to form associations with. It’s actually pretty weird because they tend to release a new EP with every semester, so it’s almost like a kind of diary where I remember things through Little Comets releases. Oh well, if you’re going to support your memory with techne then maybe it’s better that it’s music from one of your favourite bands rather than just shallow social media statuses…oh well, just my two cents to future generations… (and I should stop trying to understand Heidegger).

It’s also fitting that before their last song (well, I think it was their last song unless there was an encore – which they usually resist doing due to the arrogance and cheesiness of encores – we had to leave early so the troops could get the last train home), Rob was telling the audience that he likes this song because it reminds him of their early days of playing. ‘In Blue Music We Trust’ is one of my favourites off Life is Elsewhere: again it has that haunting, nostalgic quality that builds and swells as the song progresses and proves the perfect ending to an awesome gig. How magical too that it was so cold and crisp outside, and that I walked home through Finnieston in a snow storm with all those swirling flakes glowing orange under the lamplight, and feeling so calm and serene and dreamy because it’s rare that things in life can make you so happy, but I guess good music can, and feeling fresh and freezing after a steaming hot gig.

‘I suppose the thing I am proud of with our music is the fact that we’ve always followed our hearts and stayed true – we do what we love, and we work very hard but we’ve never compromised ourselves for it. If I could pass one message onto my little boy, other than how much we love him, is just to be true to himself and keep an open mind – there’s always more to learn…’ (Little Comets blog).

On Words, Romanticism, Ramblings and Meanderings

I am coming to the end of the Glasgow Uni Creative Writing Society’s ‘Flash Fiction February’ Challenge. The aim is to write one piece of flash fiction a day, following prompts that are posted on the blog. The best thing I have probably achieved since I wrote my 10,000 word ‘The Quest’ story (complete with self-made Photoshop image and realistic fire effects) aged eleven is successfully averaging at least 700 words a day for a whole month (some days writing 700, other days moving upwards of 1300…). The reward is not just having a little portfolio of stories to go back and edit in the summer, but the habit of discipline that’s been earned. I have learned that I need the motivation of ‘completing something’, and that sharing one’s work and discussing it with others helps to feel better about writing. There is also the satisfaction of word count. If I averaged at least 700 a day, then that’s at least 19,600 for all of February. If I doubled my word count and did that for two months, I’d have a respectable 80,000 word novel. It’s an encouraging fact. Even if the content is sometimes pretty crap, I have something to work with! I just have to keep up the daily habit. It’s a bit like crack, only not so addictive, and cheaper. And, well, you have to work for its effects.

One of my fascinations is with the daily routines of successful writers. Not necessarily just literary authors, but philosophers, artists, journalists – even mathematicians. Anyone who gives up a significant chunk of their day to solitary writing, creating or just working. There is a fabulous blog called ‘Daily Routines’ which is the ultimate procrastination: putting off work by reading about how others work. It’s refreshing to see that not everyone needs a wee dram or French cocktail to get the imagination flowing, though it seems to be a recurring theme. As well as the time of day and the choice of stimulant, I’m a little bit obsessed with peoples’ medium: the effects of the pen, pencil or keyboard; how one’s writing implement impacts upon their style, speed and even argument.

Susan Sontag. Source: nymag.com
Susan Sontag. Source: nymag.com

For instance, Susan Sontag on her writing routine:

I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

[…]

I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

One day I want to write a big essay looking at how writing style changes according to how you get the words on the page (I even bought a beautiful typewriter to test that out). I love the idea that Sontag uses layers and layers in her writing and editing: the process of writing on top of writing, of scrawling and scoring out like the palimpsest diary Cathy in Wuthering Heights creates on the margins of a bible. Like Heidegger with his under-erasure being.

I also find it fascinating how people can study and write with music playing around them. I used to be a lover of total silence: a pure space in which I find the need to fill up the void with words. Now I can sometimes do with a bit of ambient sound: coffee shop clattering, birdsong, falling rain and so on. It makes a difference whether you are in the actual space (writing in a real garden or a coffee shop, for instance) or in the hyperreal zone of generated sounds (there are excellent Youtube sources of ambient sound, from whale-song to fire crackling in a grate). One will distract me to write about immediate details, the other soothes you into a weird creative ‘roll’ where you can pour out your words or nonsense like code streaming out in hyperspace. OK, I’m being self-indulgent.

And indeed, there is a self-indulgent aestheticisim to all of this: the endless procrastination involved in selecting the correct font for a piece, the need to rearrange one’s desk or shuffle books or change your pen or whatever it is. Yet there is something more important here that relates to publishing itself and the way literature often gets sucked into a commercial vacuum (think of the likes of the Brownings’ letters or Shakespeare’s sonnets which get beautifully repackaged in time for Valentine’s Day) . The original text is beautified by the paratext, and what is left is perhaps more of a consumer object than a discourse of words and sentences. There is an emphasis on white space, the chic luxury of thick paper and the gaps between printed letters. James Fenton said that, ‘what happened to poetry in the twentieth century was that it began to be written for the page’. But what is this page? Is it the sublime landscape of print paper stretching out its possibilities of unblemished whiteness? Or perhaps the virtual page: the ever-changing Internet archive that risks the dreaded 404, this page is missing; that risks alteration and collaboration and manipulation – and is this not a good thing? It is poetry changing, in transition; undergoing the morphological process of the human into cyborg. An automated computer voice reading aloud, staggering over the dashes and tildas and sharps, the onomatopoeia and enjambment like a child having a crack at reading Derrida. Il n’ya pas hors text: there is nothing outside the text/there is no outside-text (he writes in Of Grammatology).  When somebody reads aloud I imagine the words before me, drawing out of the page like butterflies coming to life; I can’t help it, it’s the way I learned to play with poetry. The world I like is the enclosed, shy space between the black ink and the reader’s eyes, the moving lips so silent.

The Mariner's ship and the Albatross. Source: thestage.co.uk
The Mariner’s ship and the Albatross. Source: thestage.co.uk

Like the ‘fluttering stranger’ that Coleridge observes as a child at school in ‘Frost at Midnight’, words in poetry become strange: there is an uneasiness to them that we cannot quite place. Verbs, adjectives and nouns are not what our teachers told us. You cannot fix them to a blackboard, and anyway chalk crumbles. While butterflies might be pinned down and classified by their colours, words are dependent on each other for meaning. So signification sifts in swirls of dreamy reading, and the mind makes connections. The imagination stirs and sometimes forgets them. Footnotes adorn the margins and confuse us, as they perhaps do in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where we are driven into warmer but often more perplexing territory, as Coleridge’s gloss is less an academic explanation, and more a multiplicity of voices. At once, he joins in the action, ‘Like vessel, like crew!’ – yes, ‘her skin was white as leprosy’ – and we too catch this virus, moving between microbes of words that open and mutate through the strangest imagery. We shift between and through things with Coleridge’s metonymy, as in the gloss: ‘[a]nd its ribs are seen as bars on the face of the setting sun’. What are we to make of this being, ‘a Death’: an embodied spirit whose translucency both stirs and disturbs and amuses us, all at once? Aesthetics and meaning all blur into one.

Mount Snowdon. Photo by by Scott Wylie. https://www.flickr.com/photos/scotbot
Mount Snowdon. Photo by by Scott Wylie. https://www.flickr.com/photos/scotbot

With Romanticism what we often get is the journey, the progression through space, selves and substance, and through visual experiences: the sublime, picturesque and the beautiful. Not to mention the ugliness of Frankenstein’s monster, mirrored in Mary Shelley’s own monstrously patchworked collation of tropes and terrors and texts (imagine being raised on Milton but growing up like Rousseau  – being both Satan and a noble savage – now that is Otherness embodied, surely?). We follow Wordsworth up Snowdon and along the Alps in his glorious Prelude, with the seamless switch between interior musings and the expansive, golden panoramic shot that reveals the gaping ice and mountains, the tracks the subject’s wandering thinness:

The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light,
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.

(Wordsworth, Book VI of The Thirteen-book Prelude, lines 566-572).

Where nature itself merges into one terrifying being, where opposites uncannily forgo their differences to become ‘features | of the same face’ and still the sweet ‘blossoms upon one tree’, we are in a sublime landscape, and then in the pastoral garden. The subject stamps himself upon the mountains, as the mountains are stamped upon him; we recall, with the help of the OED, the varied meanings of the term ‘character’: as both noun (a literary figure of self/person; a sign or symbol used in writing, print, computing; a code; the properties of a substance) and verb (‘to distinguish by particular marks, signs, or features’). Wordsworth’s figure is the self encoded in the text, the lonesome Romantic imprinted in his white sublime of Snowdon, going deep into the very properties of the rock itself. All is viscous, melting subject into object. All is, as Timothy Morton so aptly puts it, a mesh: where there can be nothing ‘out there’, as we are all a set of strangenesses, part of an existence that is always coexistence; and yet we are not simply part of a holistic collective, but connected in our differences, in our mutations that separate, stick and undo us. There are those clouds which seem ‘unfettered’ and yet even they cannot rise above the poet’s vision, the tacky link of aesthetic projection that takes nature from unified cliché  to a space of wilderness in which things move between abstraction and reification, and humans move with them in the ambiguous space between – like those viruses that multiply and mutate, ‘first, and last, and midst, and without end’.

This dangerous, homogenised idea of ‘landscape’ can be undone by thinking of it textually: as a palimpsest too of sorts, where human language adds layers to our understanding, alters our relationship with nonhuman things of the living and non-living. In writing and reading ‘nature poetry’, we are reconfiguring our place in the mesh; just as a drop of colour upon a single Paint pixel shifts the impression of the whole picture.

While Romanticism takes us on these messy forays into psyches and space, in the twentieth century we have, as Fenton has suggested, the poem as object: the poem as visual play on the page. The attempt to make the poem an object, to get to the very basics of objects. Think of Ezra Pound’s Imagism: ‘The apparition of these faces in a crowd; | Petals on a wet, black bough’ (‘In a Station of the Metro’). Think of William Carlos Williams’s notorious modernist poem, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, in which Williams’s poetics bring the object into stark and colourful being, like an object being rendered on some kind of graphic design program. Assonance coats our visual impressions so that we can almost taste what we see, the wheelbarrow ‘glazed with rain’. On the page, the poem too is a spilling of rain, of long lines dripping into single words, of basic objects hardening, forming. The ‘red wheel | barrow’; the ‘white | chickens’.

The Yellow Book. Source: http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/tag/fin-de-siecle/
The Yellow Book. Source: http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/tag/fin-de-siecle/

There is also the lovely aestheticism of the fin de siècle: the beautiful margins and separation of art and text in the The Yellow Book, and of course Husymans’s jewel-encrusted tortoise, which eventually dies from the weight of its ridiculous embellishments. Does a text too collapse under the weight of its stylistic ornamentation? The fashion for minimalism perhaps gives way to this assumption, and yet what about the explosive textuality of Finnegans Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow; anything by Henry James, or for that matter, Angela Carter? Art for art’s sake is not a dip into vacuity, but is necessarily a political statement, a textual position, after all. An attempt to escape the shading blinds of ideology. You might write a dissertation on the politics of purple prose; you might float buoyantly along the clear river of Wikipedia readings.

And now I have lost my place in the forest and cannot find the light again. Birds tweet shrilly and their song is like stars tinkling and various shades of darkness hang in blue drapes from the bowers of pine trees. If I look around I see the jewel of every dew drop glisten and I know that it is twilight. I am looking for something particular: that silent speck of a presence; that which evades me every time I turn over each new leaf. Only I know that I cannot see, cannot see the gathering of these particles; the light is fading and soon the day will close its drapes.

These are just words after all, and who would cling to them?

Some further words:

Derrida, Jacques, 1967. Of Grammatology.

Edgar, Simon, ‘Landscape as Story’, Available at: http://www.lucentgroup.co.uk/the-landscape-as-story.html

Morton, Timothy, 2010. The Ecological Thought.

Huysmans, J. K. 1884. À rebours.

On Brutalism

Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux
Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux

One of the first things you notice when you come to university in Glasgow is the building that passed you by on the open days: Boyd Orr. Orr…ore…or? With such connotations of alchemy, alternation and mechanical process – the extraction of mineral from rock – you’d be forgiven for thinking this building might have that rare quality of metallic extraction. The glint of some loveliness got from the mined core of the earth – or at least some relic of its crust. Boyd Orr himself, as Wikipedia tells me, was a Scottish teacher, doctor, biologist and politician, who also bagged himself the Nobel Peace Prize for work relating to wartime nutrition. Fitting, perhaps, that this man who dabbled in the arts of healthy eating would give his name to a building that some have found physically repulsive and ugly – if anything, unhealthy.

Still, nutrition involves mining particles of food for their usefulness. Finding all the vitamins as a geologist might take ore from a rock. There is something abject about all this: wrenching nature inside out, textually taking apart her insides with the bland incisiveness of a knife (the linguistic thrills of science course-books). The molten loveliness of erosion, rocks, temporal process – we can reduce them to names and building blocks.  And so we have Boyd Orr, that building of much usefulness and much disgust. The beast of a building that somehow you find yourself in, day after day, traipsing up the stairs for lectures, waiting for someone to give you their jewels of information. You came here thinking you’d be living the Harry Potter high-life in the extravagantly gothic main building, chased by ghosts and granted with turret views. Instead, you end up four floors up in a building that sends its gross sneer across the otherwise lovely architectural landscape of the West End.

Source: theglasgowstory.com
Source: theglasgowstory.com

Whatever you might say about Boyd Orr – with its dirty-white panels, greying windows and greyer walls, with the greenish mould that creeps up its underside like seaweed on a rock and the ugly stark jut of its body against the surrounding skyline – you must say that it is a fine example of Brutalist architecture. The heyday of Brutalism was the period between 1950 to the mid-1970s, a reaction to the modernism of the early twentieth-century. Most examples of Brutalism tend to be found in governmental or institutional buildings (university libraries, shopping malls, high-rise housing), whilst corporate buildings have always favoured a more glassy, futurist chic. The thing that strikes you first about a Brutalist building is its sheer expression of, well, concrete. It hits you with the blunt materiality of a prison or fortress, and you know, it does take a while to get used to going inside. Sometimes it seems impossible that such a monolithic block is carved out inside with such things as canteens and toilets and classrooms. Part of its statuesque aura relates to its positioning: right on the corner of University Avenue and Byres Road, where the surrounding buildings are much smaller or indeed older (and prettier for that matter). There’s no getting away from this eyesore, this monument to an industrial modernity that seems now to be receding in the mise-en-abyme of contemporary metallic panelling, plexi-glass and plastic coating.

Edinburgh's Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/

Like the rest of Glasgow’s culture, its architecture is a tale of two cities. There’s the legacy of our colonial history, with flourishes of opulence on every corner; but there’s also the leftovers of 1970s ‘slum’ housing, the crumbling tenements where once upon a time (and, unfortunately, perhaps still today) a whole family would share a bedroom and washing was done at the ‘steamie’. In one street you might have a bizarre Art Deco number next to some crumbling sandstone tenements, or a gleaming new-build sprung up alongside Victorian houses with massive (single-glazed and listed) bay windows. There’s the black-and-white nostalgia of the Gorbals and then there’s the grandiose Park Circus, sat atop Kelvingrove Park looking out with picturesque views over the city. There’s the famous Carpet Factory, the Rennie Mackintosh Art School, the various churches, mosques and synagogues with their unique homage to Roman and Eastern styles. There’s the uncomfortable fact that much of Glasgow’s beautiful marmoreal and sandstone glory is built on the slave trade. We also have the bug-like SECC resting next to the Clyde as if we were in Sydney, the Royal Concert Hall that crowns the top of Buchanan Street, the new Hydro that more than anything resembles a UFO. It’s definitely a city of eclectic architecture. While we might not have the equivalent architectural (and indeed financial) notoriety of Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament building (which in my family alone has been called ‘horrible’, ‘interesting’, ‘a waste of money’, ‘too modern’ and ‘more of an art gallery than a parliament’), we were in 1999 designated the UK City of Architecture and Design, beating the likes of London, Liverpool and of course, Edinburgh. You only have to reflect on the response to last year’s Art School fire to recognise how seriously we take our physical landscape and architectural heritage (even if it is often covered with ad posters and graffiti).

Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/
The Gorbals, 1968. Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/

Anyway, back to Brutalism. The key word related to its style, aside from concrete, is perhaps ‘function’. Stripped to its core elements, Brutalist architecture involves repeated ‘modular elements’ which are grouped together to form the whole. This is the raw fragmentation of modernism, here transformed into something with instrumental purpose, something solid that seeks to counteract the airy dissolution of modernity. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, Marx said. With Brutalism, the response is to make things as solid as possible. How ironic that Marx predicted a revolutionary dissolution of oppressive social structures, whilst the ‘proletariat’ in question remain literally trapped inside buildings which encase them in a physical manifestation of the very (metaphoric) solidity which binds them socially – the hard class structure, the poverty cycle and so on. And perhaps also ironic that some of these buildings were erected at a time when industrial labour was entering its decline in Britain and elsewhere, especially in Glasgow towards the end of the 1970s, as Thatcher came to power and that mineral source of wealth and opportunity (going back to ore of course) – mining – was dissolved from the national economy.

There is also the uncanniness of paradox attached to the fact that when one observes a Brutalist building, it is often difficult to discern its function due to the sheer vastness of its functionality. This relates back to what Edmund Burke in 1757 defined as ‘the sublime’:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature […] is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Burke was talking about the sublime as it was caused by scenes of nature: mountains, chasms, forests that seem to stretch on forever. However, as urban landscapes increasingly eat into our countryside, it seems fitting that we might consider the vastness of their proportions – or indeed, their ugliness – a kind of sublime in themselves. What else do we feel than a kind of passionate ‘horror’ as we find ourselves faced for the first time with buildings like London’s Trellick Tower and Barbican Centre or India’s Palace of Assembly? All those pattern-like repetition of squares resembling a Kantian ‘mathematical sublime’, whereby an overflow of signifiers stretching out into tedious infinity bears the threat of all meanings, distinctions and associations collapsing into one long metonymic chain leading to nothing but more signifiers. It’s enough to give you a headache, and quite ironic that Boyd Orr is next to the equally hideous though somewhat-smaller Mathematics Building.

Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/
Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/

Central to Burke’s idea of the sublime is the notion of the pleasure associated with terror: as we gaze at something which overwhelms us, we find ourselves staring into the abyss of meaninglessness, on the sheer precipice where representation itself collapses. St. Augustine suggested that the ugly was that which embodied formlessness in its lack of beauty. This aesthetics of excess or hideous terror appears curiously inappropriate for a style of building whose very purpose was built on form as function. We might think of Frankenstein’s monster, whose ugliness stems not only from the fact that he is composed of the flesh of dead cadavers, but also his sheer pointlessness – the fact that he is a ‘blot upon the Earth’, as Mary Shelley has him lament. Might we consider the likes of Boyd Orr a horrible, monstrous ‘blot’ upon our sacred streets? Or is this more than a question of mere aesthetics?

As Romantic poets readdressed the Neoclassical distaste for the gross pointlessness mountains (favouring, as Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest perhaps best exemplifies, a view of nature as ordered and harmonious) by fetishising the psychologically disruptive experience of the sublime (in the way that Coleridge, de Quincey et al also favoured the psychologically disruptive experiences of opium), today’s generation are raising Brutalism to idolised status rather than rejecting it as a mere eyesore. Sure, you will have the many students who moan about Boyd Orr’s appearance on their campus, but you will have an equal number of enthusiasts on the likes of Tumblr posting Brutalist architecture onto their blogroll, alongside your Banksys and softcore erotica and fan-fiction all that other Tumblr jazz. Stark black and white photographs record an almost antiquarian fascination with the aesthetics of these buildings and their value as some relic of a solid past we can’t quite get back to in our shiny era of crazy postmodern architecture.

Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/
Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/

But is there an ethical problem underlying this fetishising of some Brutalist buildings? They are, after all, often the homes of many people living in relative poverty. Sometimes, these buildings are just down the road from areas of affluence and architectural extravagance. I don’t need to mention specific areas for you to think of places in Glasgow, because there are certainly many. It’s a problem related to the way that urban decay is appropriated as a kind of dark backdrop upon which a white, middle-class guy sorts his life out. There’s always been the ethnographer’s dilemma of how ethical it is making a living out of describing poor conditions without doing anything about it politically or practically. I suppose what I’m getting at though is that there’s something a bit more uncomfortable about using these buildings as ‘cool’ aestheticism, a mere viewing-spot on the blasé scroll of online photography. Still, I don’t think there are clear answers to this; and maybe it’s good to share images, because sharing raises awareness.  You just have to keep in mind the whole problem of ‘poverty porn’, and the notion that by glorifying certain buildings you are also glorifying a particular experience of poverty, however unintentional your actions.

Photo by  https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/
The Red Road flats. Photo by <p&p> https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/

Indeed, this perhaps is what made me so uncomfortable about last year’s plans to demolish the iconic Red Road tower blocks and transmit the demolition live as part of the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. While it is of course good that the Games involved building new, much more accommodating and safer houses to replace these crumbling relics of Glasgow’s past, I don’t agree that it should’ve been broadcast to add a ‘bang’ to the Opening Ceremony. London gets magnificent fireworks for the Olympics, we get…glorified demolition? Destroying a symbol of poverty doesn’t destroy poverty itself, however easy it makes it look. Luckily, these controversial plans were scrapped in the end after much public opposition (which just shows again how much Glaswegians care about their physical environment and the social consciousness within it). Regeneration is underway with the Games’ legacy and of course it is a great thing, but there is no need to sanctimoniously erase history in front of the world to show that you’re doing it.

jg-ballard-high-rise

This points to the whole issue of Brutalism’s somewhat brutal decline since the 1980s, especially in Britain. Vocalised distaste from public figures, the association with urban decay, problems with graffiti, cramped living conditions and its starkly cold, almost totalitarian appearance, all contributed to this decline. Another contribution to this decline perhaps came from British Literature’s concrete guru, J. G. Ballard, as his novel High Rise (1975) documents a dystopian, Lord of the Flies situation where the closed conditions of a high-rise building lead to a swift degeneration of the residents lives. The enclosed spatiality of place itself gives rise to a carnival of savagery and violence, where primitive desires are unleashed in this isolated environment. The opening line perhaps gives you a good indication of where Ballard is going with this novel: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ There is a strain of dark humour running through the text, as well as the shock value of its exposure of human nature placed in its urban limits. You get the sense that Ballard secretly revels in both the sheer surreal ugly inhumanity of it all, whilst critiquing the politics of urban planning that might one day lead to such a scenario.

Overall, I’m not sure where my position on Boyd Orr lies. There are days where I’m walking to uni along Highburgh Road and when Boyd Orr looms out of a cloudy winter sky my spirits sink like a puddle of snow slush. But there are times when you can’t help but notice the strange beauty of copper-coloured sunlight flashing upon its windows at dusk, as if a thousand eyes were staring out of those cold, impersonal walls. I think there’s value in preserving these buildings, not just because they possess a kind of chic urban sublime, but because they remind us of the ideals our society once held, even if they were misguided, flawed or impossible. I suppose I’d rather stare at the stark reality of an ugly monster, a decrepit Boyd Orr, than lose myself in the illusory surfaces of the glassy Wolfson Medical School, or the kitsch blue and green panels of the neo-Brutalist Fraser Building. I’d rather a chunk of dull glowing ore than a perfect rhinestone…

fraser_building_030411_aw
The Fraser Building opposite Glasgow Uni Library

Flash Fiction February

So just thought I’d explain why I’ve not posted a single thing here in a few weeks – I’ve been working hard with uni projects but also the Creative Writing society that I’m part of runs an event in February where you work towards writing a daily flash fiction piece. So all my energy has been taken up with writing a new piece daily, and so far I’ve managed to meet the target. If you want to check out any of mine or the other members’ work it’s at http://gucreativewriting.wordpress.com – just keep scrolling down as there’s quite a few to look at!

Will be back to the blogging here in March hopefully!

x

Cumbrae: A Fragment

Source: openroadscotland.com
Source: openroadscotland.com

I have this memory of being nestled in the cleft of a rock on the isle of Cumbrae, my bike propped up beside me as I sit watching the sea and eating fizzy laces (they were cola-flavoured, or maybe strawberry). I’m on the rugged side of the island, where yellow eyes and strange animal faces are painted onto cliff walls and sometimes if you stare hard enough at the ocean you can see seals. On the other side of the island, you have the little town of Millport, with all the white and pastel-coloured houses looking out onto the harbour. Everything is still, soft, crisp – the texture of sorbet – so that the only sounds you can hear are the steady lap of the waves sloshing against rocks, and the occasional cry of a wandering cormorant. The island to me is like the shyest of kisses: the kind that taste of rain and raise your spirits. Yes, I’m eleven years old and I feel invincible.

You see, I’m on a bike ride, travelling twelve miles right round the island. I’m wearing jeans with the bottoms rolled up and spattered with black oil from the chain; I’m gripping the handlebars so tight I can feel the blood burn and tingle in the tips of my fingers. I’m pedalling even faster than my sporty brother and my father and I know I’m going somewhere because the landscape changes the faster I go. Life rushes by like a montage peeling back luscious scenery. I pass other families on their bikes but they don’t see me; I’m caught on the drift of the wind that they’re battling and I’m going faster than they could imagine. The sun is on my back and I’m flushed and my hair tangles around me, caught in the straps of my rucksack. I want to get there first; I want to be the first one to reach the secret beach.

You can stand there in your bare feet and I remember the cockle-shell rocks, greenish with sea leeches and weeds. Nearer the sea the sand is velvety thick and oozes up between your toes. My child’s eye spots the starfish and sea anemones, and I wish I had a jar to take some home. I’m teasing my brother about something and he throws a stone into the ocean, watching it bounce five times over the waves. Sullenly I watch it. Then in my head I tell everyone I’m a mermaid and paddle in the shallows, looking out for the shoals of fish that swim by in miniature shimmers. We’d wander back up to the rocks and pick our seat; and that’s where I’m sitting, now, in this moment, looking out to the mainland without worrying about a thing. I’m just admiring the craggy shapes of the distant cliffs and the way the cloud looks like billows of cigarette smoke coating the landscape.

The worries would come later, in the dreamy space that opens before sleep. I’m trying to get at the dregs of this memory. The exact details of colour and light, the way that the April air felt and the shapes of circling time. You go right round the island and come back to the start. You paint the strokes of the green hilltops and the silver belt of the road. It’s nearing summer so the day drifts endlessly through night; it doesn’t get dark properly here, not really. Not until the depths of winter. A shower of rain that’s a spray of glitter. Maybe there’s a lighthouse shooting beams of white across the bay. Ships passing ghostlike in the night and you wouldn’t even know. I remember the cold blasts of wind you get on the ferry, with the horn of other boats and the marvelled awe of other children looking out towards the harbour. I call up all these things and wish for more.

Source: openroadscotland.com
Source: openroadscotland.com

Maybe all that remains of this memory are the sea-smoothed shards collected in a jar that sits on the sill of some window in my mind. You can remove the lid and pick the best colours, turn them over separately in your palm, but you can’t make them real again. Time has softened the sharpness of their edges, added layers of distortion to their rays of shifting colour. Hold one up to the light and you will see the bubbles that mark each year that’s passed, arranged in no order other than chaos.

Somewhere, there is the shimmering bleep of slot machines from the cheap casino room of a ferry. A man asking for tickets and a car stuck on the gangway. The taste of peanut butter sarnies gritted with sand, the crispness of silver foil in my hand. If I close my eyes, dizzy and thirsty, I am back there, my body nauseous with the pull of the sea, the boat rocking to and fro with the turn of the words that mutter on my tongue. My hair whips over my face and it smells of salt and seaweed and I can feel the island growing ever so closer to me as the ocean moves towards the setting sun. It’s not that I’m eleven again – nothing is the same twice over – but it’s the feeling of a memory that you can hold up to the light, watch it distorted, watch it glimmering bright.

A Wee Note for Burns Night

source: prweb.com
source: prweb.com

Growing up in Ayrshire – in fact, pretty much anywhere in Scotland – you will find that the poetry of Robert Burns is ingrained in your mind from a young age. A chance to make children reflect on both their literary heritage and the Scots language (that nowadays they often find themselves alienated from amidst the overwhelming discursive presence of Standard English), learning Burns’s poems is, I suppose, a great activity for a primary school child. But what about the likes of myself, Hertfordshire-born but Ayrshire-bred? As I grew up in a school just a few miles from Burns’s birthplace, I found myself trying to wrench and drill my sullen Southern accent into a lively Scottish dialect that just wouldn’t fit.

At primary school, I used to dread the month of January because it meant Burns recitals for our annual assembly. Each class would be given a poem to learn off by heart. Sure, there would be explanatory footnotes, but I still struggled over every syllable, my normally sharp reading abilities dulled against the quick wit of Burns’s verse. Every year my mum used to make me practice reading the poem aloud at home and every year I found my tongue tangled over the abrasive turns of impossible pronunciations. I can’t roll my r’s and I can’t make that rasping in my throat that seems to adorn every gruff recital of a Burns poem. I would watch the more dazzling of my classmates stand up and confidently perform the chosen poem, their voices catching all the jokes and lively intonations, and I would feel very stupid. I guess I just didn’t get it.

Until one year, when for no particular reason, it clicked. Oh, I’m sure my accent really was terrible (in fact, I cringe inside thinking of it now), but I decided that year to give as good as I could get. I think the poem we had been set was ‘The Sair Finger’, a relatively easy one, with the kind of rhymes that make sense and dialect words like ‘skelf’ (splinter) with which I was actually familiar. I practiced it over and over, determined not to suffer the humiliation of previous years when I was forced to stand up and read it out in class. Every year, the teacher had to pick someone to read their class’s poem aloud in our Burns Assembly. In our class, it was always the same two boys who were chosen every year (and deservedly to them too), but this year something was awry as the teacher quietly offered it to me. Probably, I think she only offered it to boost my confidence, but even if she genuinely was impressed by the improvement on my Scotticisms, I had to turn it down. The thought of standing up in front of my whole school in my mum’s ill-fitting tartan skirt, shakily twisting my vowels, was just too much.

I guess, in that sense, Burns and I didn’t get off on the best foot. But although I struggled with the linguistic detail of his poems, there was something about the mythology of ‘Tam o’Shanter’ that I’ve always been drawn to. The strange tale about Tam and his horse Maggie and the orgiastic goings-on in the old Alloway Kirk is a gorgeous example of Burns’s mastery of the interplay between dialect and Standard English. In a way, the chief pleasure of ‘’Tam o’Shanter’’ is in the mode of storytelling itself. We get the intimacy of the narrator’s shared perspective with Tam – his empathetic appreciation of Tam’s drunken debauchery – alongside incisive lines in Standard English which both emulate and mock the antiquarian tradition of collecting folktales. Burns’s attention to local detail really put Ayrshire on the literary map – even Wordsworth and Keats made a pilgrimage to so-called Burns Country to pay their respects to the influential poet. I should add here that my flatmate and I have a longstanding rivalry about what exactly constitutes ‘Burns Country’. My flatmate’s from Dumfries, and both Dumfries and Ayr like to milk the Burns Factor when it comes to upping their tourist game. Nobody really knows who has true claim to the title. Also, I should add that the Tam o’Shanter Experience in Ayr (the one before it got renovated) used to be the site of a lovely afternoon hot chocolate on Sundays after a stroll around Rozelle.

Anyway, another interesting point about ‘Tam o’Shanter’ is its weird ending. It isn’t Tam whose punished for voyeuristically dropping in on the Satanic revelries in the old kirk, but his poor horse, Maggie. While watching the dancing witches, Tam (in the only speech he has in the poem) cries out excitedly, “Weel done, Cutty Sark!”, which translates roughly to “Well done, mini skirt!” in modern day parlance. Tam finds himself chased by the vengeful witches over the bridge, but, as servants of the devil, they cannot pass the running water. So Cutty-Sark reaches out for Tam and instead grabs his horse’s tail, pulling it clean off to reveal a bloody stump. The narrator ends the tale (tail) with the strange moral:

No, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,

Ilk man and mother’s son take heed;

Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,

Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,

Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear -

Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

So next time you decide to be a lecherous male, spying your pervy eye on a coven of witches, remember that your horse might lose its tail. I guess there’s phallic implications there, what can I say?

Painting of Tam o'Shanter by Alexander Goudie, source: south-ayrshire.gov.uk
Painting of Tam o’Shanter by Alexander Goudie, source: south-ayrshire.gov.uk

But ‘Tam o’Shanter’ isn’t just a poem of comic revelry and uncomfortable sexual punishment; it also contains some beautiful picturesque passages that establish their author as a definite early Romanticist, who went on to inspire the likes of the great Romantic Celebrities (Wordsworth and Keats being key players here):

But pleasures are like poppies spread,

You sieze the flower, its bloom is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white–then melts for ever;

Or like the borealis race,

That flit ere you can point their place;

Or like the rainbow’s lovely form

Evanishing amid the storm.–

Here Burns blends his beautiful floral metaphors with the quiet violence of time’s transience, captured in the image of the fleeting rainbow. There is a simple spirituality here that connects the human world of consciousness and experience to that of the cosmic and natural worlds, and all condensed into a handful of lines. Although Burns, like William Blake, has often been left out of narratives of the Romantic movement – his work and style, laced as it is with literary and political ambiguities and tensions – I think it’s important to reclaim Burns within our conceptions of this exciting cultural period. While the likes of Wordsworth were in awe over the rugged sublimity of Scotland’s impressive landscapes, Burns was busy recording the authentic idiosyncrasies of its culture, humour and people. These days, when questions of what it means to be Scottish loom large over the rarely dull political skies, Burns remains as important as ever. While Sir Walter Scott (I’m sorry for making the sort of sweeping statements that rile the marker’s red pen in essays) added to the mythology of Scotland as a place of both legal, political, social and supernatural intrigue, Burns chipped in a great deal by immortalising Scots in the kind of deceptively simple but actually complex poetry that warrants his frequent comparisons to Blake.

So in a way, I’ve come full circle towards Burns appreciation. These days, I’m almost always wearing some kind of tartan (largely unconsciously, unlike the obligatory tartan headband I used to wear to school on the day of Burns Night), I work in a restaurant adorned with beautiful paintings of Burns and his myriad lovers, and I’ll be studying his work along with other Scottish Romanticists (indeed, the likes of Walter Scott) for my Romantic Lit course later this semester. Although today, on Burns Night, I forgot to buy whisky, and had toast instead of haggis for tea, I like to think this little article is a tribute of sorts from me.

Find out more!

http://www.rampantscotland.com/visit/bldev_visit_burns.htm

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/burns-night-2015-what-is-it-and-how-is-it-celebrated-in-scotland-and-around-the-world-10001133.html

http://www.visitscotland.com/about/robert-burns/