Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

A radio programme I listen to regularly is BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read”, it’s a book programme with a difference as rather than focusing on new works the presenter and her two guests each choose a book they like; they then read all three and finally meet up in the studio to discuss them. The last episode in June had novelist Nicci Gerrard pick an odd sounding book, but the title seemed familiar to me and sure enough it is on my shelves. Now from the discussion I have a slight idea as to what happens and it sounds intriguing, from the summary on the radio shows website we get.

Nicci’s favourite is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel which takes a surprising turn halfway through and provokes a debate about the merits of sleeping in ditches

What’s not to like with a precis like that so here I go. My copy is the 1937 first Penguin Books edition, the first ever edition was by Chatto and Windus in 1926. It’s still in print although now as a Virago Modern Classic.

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The book tells the story of Laura Willowes, known to her nieces and nephews as Aunt Lolly and starts with the death of her father leading her to move in with one of her brothers and his wife in London. We then take a step back and learn about her childhood growing up in Somerset; her mother had died when she was in her teens and by the time her father died she was twenty eight, still a spinster and showing no signs of being interested in marriage. The Somerset family home would go to her other brother, James, and his wife and Lolly looks to settle into the role of the maiden aunt to both couples children. Life in the London home of Henry, Caroline and their two girls was undoubtedly respectable as befitting the late Victorian period, but also full of dull routine. So it continued for many years, through the Edwardian period and up to the First World War with even that failing to disturb Lolly’s routine much.

All begins to change in the winter of 1921 when Lolly whilst out shopping has ‘a revelation’, she is now forty seven and she needs a complete change out of London and back to the countryside. She buys a guidebook and map and announces that evening at a family get together that as the children are all grown up, she isn’t needed any more so she is moving to Great Mop in the Chilterns. Upon this apparently random decision the book pivots.

There are hints soon after she arrives about what is going on in the village, groups of villagers standing around in groups late in the evening, the fact that the place is strangely quiet after that. But she soon fits in to village life however without feeling that she is fully accepted. The arrival of her, now grown up, nephew further upsets her hopes of fitting in by his decision to also move to Great Mop.  But one evening Lolly finds a kitten in her room at her lodgings and suddenly her landlady wants to go for a walk late that evening and takes her to a remote field where most of the rest of the villagers can be found dancing and enjoying a witches sabbath.

Lolly realises that she also is a witch and that must have been what drew her to the village with the help of Satan who appears to her in the guise of a gamekeeper and also a gardener during the rest of the book. Now you can read the book as a mystical adventure but it really is a feminist novel about a woman finding herself and escaping her fusty background. She gets her independence from the family to whom she will always be just dependable old Aunt Lolly and realises just what she can become. In the last twenty or so pages where she is discussing this with Satan you could, apart from the setting obviously, be reading from works by the great feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’ll finish with an extract where Lolly is describing the position of women at the time which gives a good example of the quality of the writing as well.

women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. I see them wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members and blacksmiths. and small farmers and puritans…
Well there they are, there they are, child rearing, home-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking in the way men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing that all women hate is to be thought dull. And on Sundays they put on plain stuff gowns and starched white coverings on their heads and necks – the Puritan ones did – and walked across the fields to chapel. and listened to the sermon. Sin and Grace and God and the – (she stopped herself just in time) and St Paul. All men’s things like politics and mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair. And on the way back they listened to more talk. Talk about the sermon, or war, or cock-fighting; and when they got back there were the potatoes to be cooked for dinner. It sounds very petty to complain about, but I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

As I post every Tuesday and 25th December 2018 is a Tuesday then there seems only one book that could be covered for the post going live that day. It’s become an annual tradition for me, I read A Christmas Carol every December and usually watch the 1951 Alistair Sim film Scrooge as well, which for my taste captures the flavour of the book best, it is also the most copied sometimes shot for shot in subsequent adaptations. If you want to see it you may need to buy the DVD as they are pretty good at taking down versions on youtube but at the time of writing this was working. It is particularly good at visualising the original John Leech illustrations, each of which are seen within the film. Now it does take several liberties with the original including inventing a character and moving another from one position to another but it does it without messing with the moral of the tale and it can be excused for adding back story to what is actually barely a novella at 28,857 words or just seventy five pages in the classic Nonsuch Press edition in order to make a film.

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It’s not unreasonable to describe Dickens as the father of the modern Christmas, in his five Christmas books if he didn’t actually invent ‘traditions’ he did at least popularise family gatherings with turkey or goose and revived the moribund celebrations that had come to exemplify his time as people moved to the cities and families spread out losing contact. The Christmas tree was introduced to the UK from Germany by Prince Albert but it was Dickens referring to it in one of his other Christmas books and Leech’s etchings of fir branches decorating the house for the Ghost of Christmas Present that really spread the idea. The hale and hearty feast, the family gathering and the spirit of Christmas (dressed in green as this is before Coca Cola turned things red) a roaring fire and welcome to all, this is what Dickens has given us.

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This isn’t an attempt to review the book, pretty well everyone knows the story and if you don’t you can read it for free on Project Gutenberg. The tale of a miser who comes to understand what Christmas is all about with the assistance of the ghost of his business partner and three spirits representing the past, present and future is the quintessential story for this time of year. The tale of why those that can help others should help others, especially at this time of year is one that bears regular retelling. I have two copies, one is the King Penguin edition which makes a good attempt to look like the original edition and I also have the Duckworth Press volume of all five Christmas Stories.

The original book was published 175 years ago today as I write this, coming out on 19th December 1843 and had sold out by Christmas Eve, it went on to be published in ever increasing numbers but Dickens never made much money from the printed editions. The printing cost was too high for the retail price that Dickens himself insisted on for him to make anything much. It was only when he took it to theatres and read the book as a performance that he started to cover the costs and actually profit from his work.

There is no better way to finish than as Dickens himself ended A Christmas Carol

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

The Girl’s Own Paper

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Last week I wrote about The Boy’s Own Paper with it’s mix of tales about adventurers, swimming The Channel with Captain Webb, foreign countries and peoples, sport and other outdoors pursuits. All in all an exciting read for Victorian boys.  Well a year after it started the same publisher came up with The Girl’s Own Paper and the content was very different, reflecting the still held view that girls were effectively in training to be home-makers and certainly didn’t need, or want, tales of adventure. I don’t have as many copies of The Girl’s Own Paper but I can do the same as I did last week and look through the first ever issue from January 3rd 1880.

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The front cover looks similar to the boy’s version only the masthead is somewhat less interesting, The drawing is based on the relief sculpture “The Spirit of Love and Truth” by Joseph Edwards and as such is entirely in tune with the Victorian attitude to girls. The story on the front is a long running part work, you can follow Zara for months as the magazine comes out each week. This is presumably because the serialised stories proved so popular in the boy’s version, this contrasts with the one off tale that appeared in their first edition but this was soon changed to serials in future examples. This opening section of the tale is a full four pages long.

Instead of tales of daring do with the dashing Captain Webb girls have the life of the young Princess Victoria which is altogether more refined and ladylike and also runs to almost three full pages. It is clearly intended to be an example of moral rectitude to inspire the readers and is pure hagiography as would be only expected really. The balance of the seventh page of the paper is occupied with The Girls Own Alphabet which is frankly dire and ends:

Woman is formed from girlhoods first plan –
Xantippe or Claudia, Queen Mary or Anne
Young friends to be happy, now learn to be wise
Zeal without knowledge is a head without eyes

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After the first seven pages consisting of the story plus Princess Victoria and the poem, an article on fashion though the ages was pretty well compulsory. A girl is naturally interested in dress styles and outfits so the next double page spread is concerned with this. The hat on the lady for 1787 on the far right of the second page is described as ‘more dressy’ it makes you wonder just how over the top an outfit had to be before it was queried.

and logically following on from that are long sections on needlework and of course cookery. As I said at the beginning the target audience are home-makers in preparation, if a woman of the time did work she would be a domestic servant or nanny if she was lucky and not forced into the extremely hard work of the mills or markets, the poorest though would not be frittering their money on something as ephemeral as this magazine, the readership could be relied upon to be at least middle class so housewife was the aim for almost all. The cookery class in this edition is about roasting and apart from the fact that it assumes you would be doing so over a fire rather than in an oven a lot of the advice would not be out of place in a modern cookery book. There then follows a couple of shorter stories before we reach..

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The Useful Hints sound initially as if they are envisaging a poorer reader and the chilblains remedy sounds positively dangerous, but soon normal service is resumed with hints for reviving gilt frames and renovating silk dresses. Now this is still a make do and mend mentality there is none of the waste of throwing away perfectly serviceable items so prevalent today, girls would be expected to have the skills needed to fix things regardless of their social standing, needlework was an expected ability and it would be surprisingly advanced.

Like last week I have looked forward to edition three of the Girls Own Paper to see what they are expected to be able to make; and again what would today be seen as an astonishing amount of craft is regarded as normal.

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The bed satchel prize competition is for Crewel Work, a type of embroidery which uses wool, competitors had three months to complete the item, the winner to get two guineas and a second prize of one guinea. These are substantial prizes, the equivalent of almost £240 for the winner in today’s money. The work was to be 19¼ inches by 13 inches and use the pattern illustrated, it also had to be all the girls own work and this had to be stated in an accompanying letter written by a minister, teacher or parent. Colours are suggested in the hints section and the flowers named so that the correct shades would be used. No entrant would get their work back as

It is intended to present the well-worked satchels to the various hospitals and other charitable institutions for the use of poor patients, who will find them most handy for holding their nightdresses, pocket handkerchiefs, scent bottles, scissors etc.

The Boy’s Own Paper

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The Boys Own Paper started on Saturday January 18th 1879 and I have lots of early editions which have been bound into annual volumes and then after those a few examples of Boys Own Annual where the publisher reprinted the previous years editions in book form. The magazine was printed weekly and was full of exciting stories both fact and fiction, sports advice (later editions had articles on how to play cricket by WG Grace) along with things to do, most of which would be well beyond the target age group nowadays. The masthead reproduced above hinted at the wonders that would be found inside.

In exploring The Boys Own Paper I thought about taking my collection as a whole but decided that a more representative idea as to what a boy of 1879 would get from such a paper would be to just look at the very first issue which cost 1 penny back then which according to the Bank of England inflation calculator would be 50p nowadays so a very reasonable price as any equivalent today would be significantly more expensive.

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The front cover looks very promising but the game, described as football, is clearly what we would now call rugby. Indeed rugby football was commonly played in schools from the 1850’s following its creation at Rugby School in the 1830’s, Association Football (what we now think of as football) only had it’s rules set in 1863 and wasn’t as popular in schools even by 1879. The story concerns a boy, who picked for the team for the first time gets involved in a very close match which they only win right at the end, very much the sort of thing to catch the readers attention to the publication. The paper is 16 pages long and this tale takes up the initial 2½ pages. It was followed by a short poem and then the first part of what was to become a long running serial “Out with a Jack-Knife” and a much shorter series (just three parts) by Captain Webb, the first person to swim The English Channel.

The natural history column Out with a Jack-Knife proved especially popular and ran for a long time, in this first example it is 1½ pages long and describes finding various worms, centipedes and even glow-worms in a small overgrown garden area after first explaining that what you need is a proper British made jack-knife not one of those inferior foreign knives that include useless corkscrews, saws, things for getting stones out of horses hooves etc. British is best is a long running assumption in these magazines and this wouldn’t change right through until the magazine finally folded in 1967 after 2,511 issues, initially weekly and then monthly after WWI.

Captain Webb’s tale as to how he came to swim The Channel is full of self-deprecation as is appropriate for a Victorian gentleman. The final paragraph of the section reproduced above even says how difficult it is for him to write the piece because it is about himself but he did manage a page. Between the two sections came another page long article entitled “An Afghan Robber” which despite the unpromising title turns out to be a remarkably balanced piece of writing, especially for the time, which is actually quite complementary regarding the Koran and the Muslim faith in general.

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There then followed a series of stories, the most significant of which was “From Powder Monkey to Admiral”, this became a major storyline in future issues and by part four it was the front page tale. Subtitled “Or, the Stirring Days of the Royal Navy” this had it all for the boy looking for action and adventure in his reading and it would continue to be the front page story for most of the rest of the year and was always at least two pages in length, a significant proportion of  16 page publication.

Two shorter articles towards the end of the magazine are intriguing, I’m not sure if having read the piece about monkeys I was therefore expected to have one or more as a pet although it did lead me into that interpretation but I was more interested in the first column on Outdoor Pursuits entitled “Skating and Scuttling”. Skating I can understand, but deliberate sinking of ships as a pastime is definitely rather advanced for boys to be getting up to. It turns out that a ‘Scuttler’ is somebody who frankly is a nuisance out on the ice, dashing about without regard for other users and even worse can gather with others of their type to form conga lines spinning across the surface. The publication then has shorter and shorter articles until there is finally an essay writing competition based on a drawing with no caption.

I do want to include one item from issue three of The Boys Own Paper which gives some idea as to how advanced in skills boys were expected to be.

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This is regarded as a project that “any lads with fair mechanical aptitude’ can make what is clearly a quite advanced craft. This isn’t a simple coracle or lash up raft, what we are looking at is a serious rowing boat and you are going to learn how to do it from your weekly boys magazine. I cannot imagine any publication aimed at this age group suggesting such a thing in the present day.

Well that was issue one of The Boys Own Paper in next weeks blog I’m going to look at issue one of The Girls Own Paper which came out a year later and what a contrast it is…

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