Hansel and Gretel – Simon Armitage

This was not the book I expected to be writing about at the beginning of June as the publication date is not until the 24th of this month, but on the 31st May a wonderful package arrived and I couldn’t help abandoning what I had been reading and starting on this beautiful volume straight away.

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Simon Armitage has just been made the Poet Laureate for the next ten years and this is therefore his first newly published work since that honour. The poem originally appeared as a ‘libretto’ to a puppet production designed and directed by Clive Hicks-Jenkins which toured England between July and November 2018 but this is its first book publication.

You can see the entire production with the darkly appropriate music by Matthew Kaner, performed by the Goldfield Ensemble here

Clive Hicks-Jenkins has produced a wonderful series of illustrations for this book published by Design For Today. These are clearly based on the theatre production without being limited by his original work.

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The subtitle of the poem is ‘A Nightmare in Eight Scenes’ as the Hansel and Gretel story has been re-interpreted as a modern tale of refugees from a war zone. Without giving too much away the family are starving as the bombs rain amongst them at the start of the book and the parents decide to at least get the children away from there to somewhere where they stand more chance of survival. Hansel and Gretel though mishear their parents planning and think they are simply to be abandoned. This is not the only time that mishearing becomes a plot device in the poem.

As in the original Brothers Grimm tale there is a ‘witch’ and a gingerbread cottage, a trail of stones, a trail of breadcrumbs and abandonment to avoid famine followed by a return only this time without the treasure that would lead to a happy ending. In the modern world of war meted out against helpless civilians there is rarely a happy ending…

The illustrations fit the text so well and the design of the book is beautifully done. I particularly like the colour coding of the words so that you know who is speaking, each character has their own colour as specified in the cast list at the start.

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Oddly I’d never read any Simon Armitage before this but I will definitely be seeking out more of his work. According to his website there are a lot of books to check out

The total production run of this book is two thousand copies, of which one hundred form a further limited edition signed by Simon Armitage and Clive Hicks-Jenkins and which include two extra art prints. Mine is copy number twenty two.

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Summoned by Bells – John Betjeman

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This autobiography in verse covers Betjeman’s early life from his Edwardian childhood (he was born in 1906) to his university days at Magdalen College in Oxford where he was taught by C.S. Lewis. The book was first printed in 1960 just as Betjeman was getting serious recognition as a poet with a dozen volumes published before this and it is also the year he received The Queen’s Medal for Poetry and was made a CBE. The verse has his characteristic humour but also darker times like describing being bullied at school. It is uncharacteristic also in being, for the most part, blank verse, though he can’t stop himself at times, from adding in some parts in rhymes. The book is split into nine chapters as we follow him growing up.

We start in Highgate where the family had moved when he was three years old, they were clearly relatively well to do as they owned a four wheeled carriage and regularly holidayed in Cornwall. Apart from Maud, his overbearing nurse, who seemed to delight in punishing him for slight misdemeanors he appears to have had a happy childhood up until he went to school. Apart from one traumatic incident that clearly haunted him right up to his fifties when he wrote the lines on just the second page of Summoned by Bells.

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world
When firelight shone on green linoleum;
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky,
Deep beyond deep, like never ending stars,
And turned to Archibald, my safe old bear,
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidence,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down,
I used to wait for hours to see him move,
Convinced that he could breathe. One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

His father was the third generation owner of a silversmith and cabinet making business and was very disappointed in John because he refused to carry on the firm and all this is covered in the second chapter of the book. In this edition each of the chapters has a small line drawing by Michael Tree and a brief summary of what will be covered. The description of the workshops for the business in this section and the hours that John spent clearly enjoying himself with the craftsmen employed there made it all the more galling for his father when he later expressed no interest in continuing it

To all my father’s hopes. In later years,
Now old and ill, he asked me once again
To carry on the firm, I still refused.
And now when I behold, fresh-published, new,
A further volume of my verse, I see
His kind grey eyes look woundedly at mine,
I see his workmen seeking other jobs,
And that red granite obelisk that marks
The family grave in Highgate cemetery
Points an accusing finger to the sky.

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Chapter three has him at school and being bullied at both his junior schools, he seems unclear why at the first one but at the second his apparently German surname in 1913/4, spelt then Betjemann, led to him being picked on by gangs and having to come up with various routes home to avoid them. Ironically the family was actually originally Dutch and the additional ‘n’ was added when they came to the UK over a century earlier but soon Britain was at war with the Netherlands, so they wanted to appear German. During WWI the second ‘n’ was quietly dropped again. Chapter four and the family is on holiday in Cornwall leading to the start of the young Betjeman’s love affair with railways and the English countryside.

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Chapters five and seven describe his private education, first at Dragon preparatory school in Oxfordshire and then Marlborough college in Wiltshire. His time at Dragon appears to have been pretty happy and exploring by bicycle leads him to churches and that other great love of his throughout his life, architecture. Marlborough however was a more difficult time, there are stories of beatings and the prefects birching the boys and terrorising them as a group known to the younger boys as “Big Fire” because of where they sat in the evenings. A boy who had transgressed would be called to “Big Fire” for a beating or sometimes worse. I skipped chapter six which covers being back in London during holidays exploring the London Underground and buying books, the family had moved to Chelsea and the bookshops abounded

Untidy bookshops gave me such delight,
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire

I’m with Betjeman all the way with those sentiments.

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The summary above of chapter eight pretty well covers it, his father is even more dominating than before but now John is big enough to escape and does so on long cycle rides round the area discovering yet more churches.

The final section deals with his years at Oxford, a place he freely admits to doing little or no work at and certainly not studying for his degree. Instead he builds a wide social network which become extremely useful to him in later years

No wonder, looking back, I never worked.
Too pleased with life, swept in the social round,
I soon left Old Marlburians behind.
(As one more solemn of our number said:
“Spiritually I was at Eton, John”)
I cut tutorials with wild excuse,
For life was luncheons, luncheons all the way-
And evening dining with the Georgeoisie

How much of this lack of drive towards his degree was down to the mutual dislike between himself and C S Lewis it is difficult to tell, it’s quite possible that even with a more sympathetic tutor who may have got more out of him he would still have left without a degree. In the poem he blames a failure of the compulsory divinity course but in reality he really put so little effort into his studies that he was never going to pass.

The book is a fun read and so unusual in the use of verse throughout. I first read it many years ago and had forgotten how much I enjoyed it.

 

It’s been a year

I have kept this weekly blog now for just over a year and I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at the entries and see if it can give me some ideas as to which books to talk about next. To my surprise the top five liked entries as I write this are all related to Scotland

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William McGonagall wrote excruciatingly bad verse about Scotland and the people there and was a proud resident of Dundee, eventually Dundee has become proud of him as well. Iain Banks was another Scotsman through and through and the book I reviewed was his homage to the land of his birth. Shaun Bythell’s book was one of the first things I wrote about so his diary of keeping a Scottish bookshop going has had a whole year to accumulate its tally of likes whilst I only wrote about Elizabeth Cummings book about Scottish artist Sir Robin Philipson a couple of weeks ago and it has already made it to number five. You may have noticed I skipped Robert Service, he was also Scottish although found fame as a poet in Canada however I left him to last as he highlights another trend in popular posts here and that is poetry.

This is even more obvious when I look at the next five entries…

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The Frogs is a classical Greek play in verse, Persian Poets is clearly about poetry and Under Milk Wood is a poetic masterpiece by Dylan Thomas, this makes half of the top ten liked entries are about poetry although there is nowhere near that percentage represented in the total number of essays I have produced so far.

The remaining two are interesting. The Royal Tour is a beautifully illustrated diary of a cruise around a lot of the then British Empire and Uncle Jim is a bit of a sleeper as it deals with the early output of fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett but without mentioning him in the title so you had to read the article to find out.

There are other statistics available that don’t display on the front page so aren’t visible to readers of the blog and from those I can see that Deep in the Forest – Estonian Folk Tales is looked at more often than any other entry and it is viewed from all over the world, as opposed to my other Estonian review of the Apothacary Melchior books which also gets quite a few readers but 90% of these are in Estonia or Finland. Only one entry has not been read by anybody according to the statistics available and that is The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Sorry Will although I have all your plays several times I don’t think you are going to be featured here again.

So what does all this tell me? Well poetry is definitely popular here and that’s good as I also like poetry and have quite a few more poets to write about, one of which will probably be in the next four weeks. Bearing in mind the Scottish bias as well I suppose I had better get the volume of Robert Burns I have from 1946 out and reread that soon.

The Frogs by Aristophanes was a surprise hit, to me at least, so we will see how next weeks entry, which is also classical Greek, goes down. I have a lot of ‘the Classics’ and am also planning a review of a book dealing with the subject of what makes a classic in the next month or so. Art and Design has also been popular and again this is something I have a lot about in my library so expect more of those subjects in the coming year.

But is there anything you would like me to write about? Not specific books, as according to the rules I set myself I have to own the title to write about it so you would have to be really lucky to hit one of the 6,500 titles on my shelves, but general subjects. I haven’t done much on Travel and Exploration but what has been done has been generally well received, should I do more? Any suggestions would be good either as a comment below or as a message through the site.

The Best of Robert Service

THE SPELL OF THE YUKON

I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
   I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
   I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
   Came out with a fortune last fall,—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
   And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
   It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
   To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
   Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
   For no land on earth—and I’m one.

So begins the opening poem of this selection; I fell in love with Service’s verses and the land that inspired them at the same time over twenty years ago. Robert Service was an English born poet and novelist who emigrated to Canada at the age of twenty one and ended up in Whitehorse, Yukon nine years later in 1904 working as a bank clerk. Although he had been writing verse since before he left England it was the environs of Whitehorse and the gold prospectors that he would meet there that inspired him to write his most famous works and it was these that first introduced me to Service. Although “The Best of Robert Service” includes works from several of his books I want to concentrate on the ones that were taken from his first book “Songs of a Sourdough”, this is for two reasons, firstly I bought the book in Whitehorse before setting off to kayak down the Yukon river in 1995 following the trail of the gold prospectors from Service’s day and secondly I want to cover another of his books in a later blog as it has an interesting structure.

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So why write about this book now? Well this is the 50th essay I have written for this blog so that brought the subject of gold to mind and frankly I’ve been meaning to write about it for some time. Songs of a Sourdough was an immediate hit, Service had intended it to be a small privately printed volume which he was going to give to friends and family but the printers that it was sent to loved it so much that they wanted to publish it properly and it went to numerous editions within the first year. He would eventually make over one hundred thousand dollars (more then two and a half million today) just from his first book and he became one of the richest authors of his day. Service can justifiably be compared to Rudyard Kipling, like him he was enormously popular but the critics of the day were rather sniffy about his work as they regarded his verse as little more than doggerel.  His most famous work is probably

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

After three years in Whitehorse, he was transferred to the bigger branch in Dawson City which had been the centre of the gold rush, here he got to know more of the veteran prospectors and gained more tales to feed into his poetry. The Cremation of Sam McGee was based on a real incident that he heard about and apparently he composed the work that night. After a year the bank wanted him to move back to Whitehorse as manager of the branch but by now he was earning a good living as a poet so quit and became a full time writer from that point on. Service was not only a poet, he wrote several novels and lived most of his life in France after moving there as a journalist in 1913. After the war he enjoyed the high life as a wealthy author around Paris The book that features in this essay was published in Canada by McGraw-Hill Ryerson who sound like a character from one of his works and there are 101 poems featured giving a good overview of his output.

Sadly Robert Service seems to have slipped from the public conciousness nowadays, certainly I had never heard of him before picking the book up as something to read around the camp fire on the trip Dave and I made all those years ago, so just to give a feel of the beauty of the place where we went several days without seeing another human I’ll finish with some of the photos we took starting with me paddling at the front of the kayak. You can see why the place inspired Robert Service.

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On the shore of Lake Labarge

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More Lake Lebarge (it’s a very big lake)

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Bald Eagle by the Thirty Mile River

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Trappers hut at Hootalinqua

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Cyr’s dredge, an abandoned gold dredging machine, when it broke it was just too expensive to fix or take back from the river so it has sat there for decades.

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The Frogs – Aristophanes

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For November I’ve decided to read a selection of plays and the first one is The Frogs by Aristophanes. Normally I’m not a great fan of Ancient Greek dramas as you need a lot of knowledge of the gods and other characters involved but this translation is so readable I found myself laughing along as I read it. It was written in 405 BC and can be dated so precisely because it was created for drama competition as part of a festival honouring the god Dionysus in Athens where it took first place. Dionysus is one of the Greek gods with lots of jobs, according to the Wikipedia entry he is the god of the grape-harvest, wine making and wine, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theatre and it is in the latter one of these roles that a drama competition in his name becomes obvious.

The play tells the story of Dionysus deciding to travel to the underworld to bring back the playwright Euripedes who had died the previous year in order to rescue the arts in Athens back from the doldrums that he perceives it to be in. The first act sees Dionysus and his slave Xanthias on their journey, initially they visit Dionysus’s half brother Heracles for advice which causes him to collapse with laughter as Dionysus has decided to dress like Heracles with the lion head cloak and club but he really doesn’t have the build to carry off the look. Eventually they persuade Heracles to explain the route he used when he went to get the three headed dog Cerebus and they duly set off. When they meet Charon, the ferryman of the dead he agrees to take Dionysus and this is when he encounters the frog chorus who sing during the crossing. Despite the play being called The Frogs this is the only time they appear in it. After various encounters with people who think Dionysus is Heracles and either hate him for taking Cerebus or love him for it they finally reach the home of Pluto ruler of the Hades.

Act two takes place entirely at the Pluto’s house where they find Euripedes and also another dramatist Aeschylus who had died about 50 years earlier. These two had been arguing for the last year about which was the better writer and should therefore sit with Pluto for meals. Dionysus takes it onto himself to judge a contest between them and they take it in turns to be rude about the others works with the chorus commenting as though it was a fight with each man landing viscous blows on the other. This gives Aristophenes a chance to parody each of the two dramatists styles and throw in his own critical comments on both of them. Eventually Pluto gets fed up and decides to determine the winner via a special set of scales which can measure the weight of an argument. Each man gets to speak one line into the baskets on the scale and they are marked against one another with the scale, to Euripedes’s annoyance Aeschylus wins both attempts by mentioning heavier objects. In the end Dionysus decides to simply ask the two dramatists for advice to save Athens, Euripedes has lots of fine words but Aeschylus has more practical suggestions so instead of having Euripedes brought back to life he decides on Aeschylus. A final parting shot from Aeschylus is to insist that Sophocles should have the seat as the finest dramatist rather than Euripedes.

Translations of ancient Greek and Latin have become far ‘less stuffy’ over the last few decades and this can largely be thanks to Penguin Books who started their series of Penguin Classics in 1946 with the express intent of making the classics more approachable. Compare this extract from the Harvard Classics edition of 1909 which is available on Project Gutenberg, which deals with the god Dionysus rowing across the Styx with Charon and encountering the Frog chorus.  The specific translator is not given for this edition on the site as this was a massive group exercise resulting in 51 volumes of a wide selection of classic works.

FROG CHORUS
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   We children of the fountain and the lake
   Let us wake
   Our full choir-shout, as the flutes are ringing out,
   Our symphony of clear-voiced song.
   The song we used to love in the Marshland up above,
   In praise of Dionysus to produce,
   Of Nysaean Dionysus, son of Zeus,
   When the revel-tipsy throng, all crapulous and gay,
   To our precinct reeled along on the holy
   Pitcher day.
   Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax.

 DIONYSUS. O, dear! O dear! now I declare I've got a bump upon my rump.

The same passage from the 1964 translation by David Barrett printed by Penguin and reprinted in the edition I have been reading.

FROGS
   Brekeke-kex, ko-ax, ko-ax,
   Ko-ax, ko-ax, ko-ax!
   Oh we are the musical Frogs!
   We live in the marshes and bogs!
   Sweet, sweet is the hymn,
   That we sing as we swim,
   And our voices are known.
   For their beautiful tone,
   when on festival days
   We sing to the praise
   Of the genial god -
   And we don't think it odd
   When the worshipping throng,
   To the sound of our song,
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.
   Brekekex!
   Rolls home through the marshes and bogs.

 DIONYSUS. I don't want to row any more.

 FROGS. Brekekex!

 DIONYSUS. For my bottom is getting so sore.

As you can see the Penguin edition is considerable more ‘lively’ and the translator has almost turned to the poetic structure of the limerick in order to emphasise the comic nature of the play. This is a form that he will return to several times during the translation in some places using the limerick itself. The play is only 110 short pages so I read it in two sittings, the edition is from the Little Black Classics series by Penguin and is one of the most expensive of these books at £2. I’m looking forward to reading more from this series of titles in the coming months.

 

The Complete McGonagall – the worlds worst poet

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William McGonagall has gone down in history as the worst poet in the world and this book is a collection of almost every poem that can be reliably attributed to him. These have been published in various collections, but Duckworth have produced the most complete versions admittedly by creating extra volumes by merely selecting from the few books and pamphlets printed in the 1800’s along with some previously unpublished works. This book appears to combine an existing seven volumes into one but only two volumes were produced in McGonagall’s lifetime along with lots of single sheet poems sold as he was going along. In reality four of the listed volumes were created by Duckworth in the 1980’s and the three others were considerably shortened by them at the same time in order to provide works for the extra books.

I think we need an example from his first collection printed in 1890 just so that the uninitiated can get the measure of the man’s genius, this was his first poem, dated 1877 and is entitled “An Address to the Rev. George Gilfillan”

All hail to the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee,
He is the greatest preacher I did ever hear or see.
He is a man of genius bright,
And in him his congregation does delight,
Because they find him to be honest and plain,
Affable in temper, and seldom known to complain.
He preaches in a plain straightforward way,
The people flock to hear him night and day,
And hundreds from the doors are often turn’d away,
Because he is the greatest preacher of the present day.
He has written the life of Sir Walter Scott,
And while he lives he will never be forgot,
Nor when he is dead,
Because by his admirers it will be often read;
And fill their minds with wonder and delight,
And wile away the tedious hours on a cold winter’s night.
He has also written about the Bards of the Bible,
Which occupied nearly three years in which he was not idle,
Because when he sits down to write he does it with might and main,
And to get an interview with him it would be almost vain,
And in that he is always right,
For the Bible tells us whatever your hands findeth to do,
Do it with all your might.
Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen does not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again.

Gilfillan when hearing of the poem is reported to have said

“Shakespeare never wrote anything like this.”

which McGonagall took to be a compliment. This was the also the first example of what could be called the curse of being celebrated by McGonagall as a year later in 1878 he had cause to write two more poems about Gilfillan, entitled “Lines in Memoriam of the Late Rev. George Gilfillan” and “The Burial of the Reverend George Gilfillan”. He famously wrote in praise about the Bridge over the Silvery Tay only to subsequently write less that 2½ years later about “The Tay Bridge Disaster” This latter work is a good example of the unintended humorous nature of his works by forcing lots of facts into the poem without worrying if it then made any sense whatsoever and destroying any rhythm that may have been wanted. His need in poetry was to make it rhyme not scan and as long as a tenuous rhyme was achieved he appeared to be happy.

William McGonagall was born in 1825 in Ireland but came with his parents to Scotland as a very young child, indeed he claimed for a long time to have born in Edinburgh but the family soon settled in Dundee which he where he grew up. For the first fifty two years of his life he sometimes dabbled in acting but was by profession a weaver like his father until in 1877 the poetic urge struck him

I remember how I felt when I received the spirit of poetry. It was in the year of 1877, and in the month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom. Well, it being the holiday week in Dundee, I was sitting in my back room in Paton’s Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn’t get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears-
“WRITE! WRITE”
I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself– “I know nothing about poetry.” But still the voice kept ringing in my ears – “Write, write,” until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a poem.

That he knew nothing about poetry was proved by the poem above, but whilst a poet can have a bad day, especially with their earliest works, McGonagall was if anything to get worse. There is a beauty in the total awfulness of his works that sucks the reader in, the Complete Works includes 247 poems and I have read it cover to cover several times. You just can’t believe what it is you are reading. The photo on the cover of the edition I have is of Spike Milligan as McGonagall and Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria as Milligan in particular popularised ‘The Great McGonagall’ from the 1960’s onwards and ensured that his body of work did not get neglected.

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His works have been in constant print for many decades, above is the 1966 edition of More Poetic Gems published by David Winter and Sons in Dundee (who were his original publishers) and Gerald Duckworth and Co Ltd as a joint venture. Although appreciated now McGonagall died in poverty in 1902. He had eked out a living more as a sideshow than a poet from 1877 although it is clear that he regarded himself as a much put upon performer who was delivering great work to people who didn’t appreciate his ability. It was quite common for an audience to throw rotten fruit and vegetables and sometimes even fish at him whilst he was reciting, indeed the opening paragraph to the preface of his first published work ‘Poetic Gems’ includes the line

the first person to throw a dish of peas at me was a publican

It isn’t so much the fact that somebody threw a dish of peas at him as that this was just the first time…

Because he had no money when he died he was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriers kirkyard in Edinburgh, his grave received a nearby marker in 1999.

William McGonagall
Poet and Tragedian
“I am your gracious Majesty
ever faithful to Thee,
William McGonagall, the Poor Poet,
That lives in Dundee.”

I shall include one final poem and it’s one of the less well known ones “The Death of Captain Webb”. Webb was the first person to swim the English Channel (22 miles at its shortest point). He is something of a local hero here in Shropshire as he was born less than 5 miles from where I am sitting but died in a somewhat foolhardy attempt to swim across the rapids below Niagara Falls. The poem shows McGonagall at his prime, it was written in 1883 and has all his stylistic failings…

Alas brave Captain Webb has acted the part of a fool
By attempting to swim the mighty Niagara whirlpool,
Which I am sorry to say and to relate,
Has brought him to an untimely fate.

’Twas in the year Eighteen hundred and eighty-three,
With the people of America he did agree,
For $10,000, to swim through that yawning whirlpool;
But alas! He failed in doing so — the self-conceited fool.

Captain Webb, he courted danger for the sake of worldly gain
And the thought of gaining for himself — world wide fame;
And although many people warned him not to throw his life away,
He rushed madly to his fate without the least dismay.

Which clearly proves he was a mad conceited fool,
For to try to swim o’er that fearful whirlpool,
When he knew so many people had perished there,
And when the people told him so, he didn’t seem to care.

Had it not been for the money that lured him on
To the mighty falls of Niagara, he never would have gone
To sacrifice his precious life in such a dangerous way;
But I hope it will be a warning to others for many a long day.

On Tuesday the 24th of July, Webb arrived at the falls,
And as I view the scene in my mind’s eye, my heart it appalls
To think that any man could be such a great fool,
Without the help of God, to think to swim that great whirlpool;

Whereas, if he had put his trust in God before he came there,
God would have opened his blinded eyes and told him to beware;
But being too conceited in his own strength, the devil blinded his eyes,
And all thought of God and the people’s advice he therefore did despise.

But the man the forgets God, God will forget him;
Because to be too conceited in your own strength before God it is a sin;
And the devil will whisper in your ear — there’s no danger in the way,
And make you rush madly on to destruction, without the least dismay.

At half-past three o’clock Webb started for the river,
Which caus’d many of the spectators with fear to shiver,
As they wondered in their hearts if he would be such a fool
As to dare to swim through that hell — whirlpool.

Webb was received by the people with loud and hearty cheers;
And many a heart that day was full of doubts and fears;
A many a one present did venture to say –
“He only came here to throw his life away.”

The Webb entered a boat, in waiting, and was rowed by the ferry-man;
And many of the spectators seem’d to turn pale and wan;
And when asked by the boatman how much he’d made by the channel swim,
He replied $25,000 complete every dim.

Have you spent it all? Was the next question McCloy put to him,
No, answered Webb, I have yet $15,000 left, every dim;
“Then” replied McCloy, “You’d better spend it before you try this swim;”
Then the captain laugh’d heartily but didn’t answer him.

When the boat arrived at point opposite the “Maid of the Mist”
The captain stripped, retaining only a pair of red drawers of the smallest grist;
And at two minutes past four o’clock Webb dived from the boat;
While the shouts and applause of the crowd on the air seem’d to float.

Oh, Heaven! it must have been an awe inspiring sight,
To see him battling among that hell of waters with all his might,
And seemingly swimming with ease and great confidence;
While the spectators held their breath in suspense.

At one moment he was lifted high on the crest of a wave;
But he battled most manfully his life to save;
But alas! all his struggling prov’d in vain,
Because he drown’d in that merciless whirlpool God did so ordain.

He was swept into the neck of that hell — whirlpool,
And was whirl’d about in it just like a light cotton spool;
While the water fiend laughingly cried ”Ha! ha! you poor silly fool,
You have lost your life, for the sake of gain, in that hell — whirlpool

I hope the Lord will be a father to his family in their distress,
For they ought to be pitied, I really must confess;
And I hope the subscribers of the money, that lured Webb to his fate,
Will give the money to Mrs. Webb, her husband’s loss to compensate.

In the Tiffany Aching young adult series of books by Terry Pratchett the Pictsies or ‘Nac Mac Feegle’ are a race of 6 inch high beings that are more Scottish than it is probably possible to be. They have as their most feared tactic on the battlefield their Gonnagale who at times of greatest danger recites strange and terrible poetry which has the effect of reducing all that hear it to gibbering wrecks. The poems, and his title, are clearly based on the works of William McGonagall and are a tribute to the man whose writings approach genius by being so atrocious they reach round the spectrum of quality and get there from the other side.

Read him and weep

from laughter

Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas

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Yesterday was International Dylan Thomas day and marked the anniversary of the first ever performance of the great Welsh poet’s final work; Under Milk Wood. This show on 14th May 1953 was also the only time Thomas was recorded on stage giving any sort of performance of the work and sadly he was to die before the classic BBC recording starring Richard Burton was broadcast on the 25th January 1954. I have the vinyl recording of that original performance and it is playing now as I type this with Thomas’s distinctive voice taking four parts, that of 1st voice, Reverend Eli Jenkins, 2nd drowned and 5th drowned. The rest of the cast are Dion Allen, Allen F Collins, Roy Poole, Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire and between them they play the remaining 50 parts.

The recording was more accidental than intentional, there was a recording scheduled for 1954 with Caedmon but Thomas’s death prevented that happening. However somebody left a tape recorder at the front of the stage with the microphone probably nearer to Thomas than the other cast members mainly for their own use to record the first performance. As a single microphone on a device intended for amateur recordings it does remarkably well in picking up not only all the actors but also the audience and has left us with  a remarkable historical record. Caedmon therefore used this for their release of Under Milk Wood. The New York audience clearly didn’t know what to expect from this Welsh poet and you can hear them gradually realise that it is intentionally funny and the way the actors bounce partial sentences between themselves gives a delightful rhythm to the blank verse.

Under Milkwood is subtitled ‘A Play for Voices’ which sounds an odd description until you realise that it was intended to be a radio play for the BBC so there are no stage directions, it was always intended to be read by the cast not acted.

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My printed copy is the 1972 Folio Society first edition of the work and, as usual for Folio, it is a lovely edition. It restores the text back to the original broadcast script with some extra lines which he left out originally, probably due to running time, added as an appendix. Although Thomas did deliver the script to the BBC he was still fiddling with it up to his death as he gave various readings in an attempt to earn enough money to pay off his debts, specifically a large back payment owed for income tax. So the typescripts are full of corrections and amendments and he never did come to what he regarded as a satisfactory conclusion to the piece, which had always been rushed as he only finished the ending included on the album minutes before they started the performance and kept changing this at subsequent performances.  As Douglas Cleverdon (the BBC producer of the 1954 broadcast version) notes in his introduction to the Folio edition.

Two stage readings of Under Milk Wood were scheduled for 24 and 25 October at the Kaufmann Auditorium, New York. Under a mixture of alcohol, sleeping pills and cortisone drugs, Dylan was already in a near state of collapse. He managed to write another page for the closing sequence of the script; to take part on the two readings, and to edit a shortened version for publication in the American magazine Mademoiselle. On 5 November he was taken to hospital in a coma, and died four days later.

If he had survived the play would undoubtedly have been further amended, on the back of one page of the manuscript is a section entitled “More Stuff for Actors to Say” and there are parts of the Caedmon recording that were subsequently removed so it was definitely still a work in progress at least as far as Thomas was concerned even after he had submitted the ‘final version’ to the BBC.

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One final thing that should be mentioned is the setting of the play in a small Welsh village of Llareggub. This has the advantage of looking like a Welsh place name without being one, you don’t get a double g in Welsh. However anyone looking closely at the name and especially if you spell it backwards will see that here is another joke by Dylan Thomas. For this reason early editions of the script spell the village differently and even the Caedmon recording uses Lareggub when referring to the place in the notes. The fantasy author Terry Pratchett paid homage to Dylan Thomas when he named the equivalent of Wales on the Discworld Llamedos.

You can hear the first part of the performance I’m listening to on youtube here  It starts with Thomas as First Voice setting the scene.