Princes and lords are but the breath of kings
An honest man’s the noble work of God
– Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night
A night club in Glasgow. A group of visitors to the city, at the bar. A young Glaswegian comes up to one of the them
Where are you from? he asks.
We are from Russia. Moscow, comes the reply, a faltering accent.
But no need for English. The Glasgow youth switches to competent Russian: Moscow. Fantastic! Pushkin was from Moscow!
Yes, he was, but…
Pushkin! He’s my favourite poet, continues the local enthusiastically, still in Russian. Without pause he begins to recite, in the original, verses, which the visitor recognises as Pushkin’s poetry.
Bright-eyed and animated, the young man talks about his love for Russia’s great poet, his works, all they mean to the world – and to him.
That never happened.
But this did: In 1992 I went, as part of a visit to look at post-communist arts training, to Moscow. Boris Yeltsin was president. Gangster capitalism. It was wild. Everywhere people were begging. Some were desperately selling useless items: a mug with no handle, a single shoe. Often, the only way to travel anywhere was to flag down a private car and hope for the best.
Though this was – in more ways than one – an educational trip, we somehow ended up, one evening, in a night club. The place was full of heavy-set men, jackets bulging. One glared at me. Yes, it was a gun and no, he wasn’t pleased to see me.
We found a table and a young man came and sat with us, asking, in English, where we were from. As soon as I replied, Scotland, he launched into a eulogy of Robert Burns, quoting verse after verse of the Bard’s works, some of which I’d never heard. He told us how much he loved Burns’s poems and songs, how they spoke to Russia, here and now.
So Long, My Son is a 2019 Chinese film, an exquisitely sad story of two families whose lives are blighted by the accidental drowning of an 8-year-old son. Set at a time when you were only allowed one child, it follows the parents through every stage of their unbearable loss. The one redeeming refrain throughout the film is Auld Lang Syne – they play it, sing it, and are comforted by it.
Robert Burns is my biggest inspiration – Bob Dylan
For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that
Those last lines of A Man’s a Man were the first Burns I heard. I cried.
What is it about Scotland’s bard that affects so many different people so deeply? Why does he remain a powerful voice, still able to move the soul?
Does Burns represent a kind of security, an expression of kinship and humanity that people, the world over, are desperate to hold on to? Is he an enigma – feminist womaniser, rebel tax-collector, patriotic internationalist, cultivated peasant and traditional revolutionary – who can be all things to all men and women?
Is it the rhythmical verse, the lyrics? The ideas, the humanity, the politics?
Or is it the music which gets to us? A magpie for a good tune, Burns – I am a patriot for the music of my country – grew fascinated with folk melodies. The words came second. His starting point was often an anonymous song, handed down by oral tradition, known to farmers, working women and tradesmen.
Burns had an instinctive feel for the rhythms that touch us deeply. He’s the original public poet, a tradition still extant in Scotland in the role of Makar. Contemporary Makars like Jackie Kay, and before her, Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan, are out there, their work known and loved by lots of people.
Jackie Kay’s work – poems, books and plays – invite you to share her experiences and feelings. She has splendidly mythologised her own fascinating life, born to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father (her reunion with him beautifully told in Red Dust Road) and adopted by a most generous and politically committed couple, Helen and John Kay.
Public ideas and feelings expressed in verse are also found beyond poets and poetry in Scotland. The breathtaking painted ceiling of Oran Mor, a converted church, will surely stand as Alasdair Gray’s masterpiece alongside his novel, Lanark.
Amidst the sumptuous blues, golds and reds of the mural, the beams are picked out with lines like:
We are animals who want more than we need
Our seed returns to death’s republic
And the phrase that has – recently – acquired as much resonance as any of Burns’s:
Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation
The Proclaimers are another example of popular shared lyrics. Several of their songs are anthems at every sporting or large crowd event in Scotland. Epics like Letter from America, Sunshine on Leith, I’m on My Way and I’m Gonna Be (500 miles). They take on a greater meaning precisely because they are shared by large numbers of people, in the same place and at the same time.
Though, perhaps, for Scotland right now, the most telling words are found in another Charlie & Craig song:
But I can’t understand why we let someone else rule our land,
Cap in hand.
by Paul Bassett, Glasgow, January 2020.
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