Immortal Memory

Still on the theme of literary firsts, I had been invited to give the Immortal Memory at a Burns’ Supper, organised by F, a friend of mine, to raise money for the Fife branch of the Scottish Green Party. To be honest, although I’ve been to a couple of Burns’ Night celebrations, I wasn’t really sure what the Immortal Memory involved so, in my naivety and because it was for a friend, I agreed. After which, and the key point here is in the word after, I decided perhaps a bit of research would be helpful. So I googled, panicked, asked a few friends and began to hyperventilate. A lot. For quite some time.

indexWords such as big responsibility, key-note address, significant, well-researched, lengthy, humorous, were used. I decided to lie down in a darkened room. For quite some time. And then I remembered one other phrase that cropped up: personal tribute. That, I thought, I can do.

I am, by birth, a Yorkshire lass – born in Barnsley but uprooted at an early stage to the Scottish Highlands, where I was schooled before being let loose on the world at large. Yet, even in my earlier years, I was aware of Scotland’s national bard. My grandfather was a Scot from rural Perthshire on whose bookcase, in the corner of his living room, several books of Burns’ poetry rubbed spines with, amongst others, Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, In Place of Fear by Aneurin Bevan and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Often, before dinner (or tea, as it was in those days) he would recite The Selkirk Grace – or ‘the poem about having meat, grandad’. On other days, for no fathomable reason, he would stand me and my brother and sister up and stack us, oldest to youngest, behind him, whereupon he would march us around the house singing Scots Wha Hae.

Through school, in Yorkshire and Scotland, and university, in Scotland and America, I studied and grew to love and appreciate many of Burns’ poems and ballads. That he wrote more than 550 in his short lifetime, leaves me breathless with awe: as well as the wide range of themes he covered. With so much to choose from, I am sure that anyone willing to delve into his collected works, would find something to suit their tastes and sensibilities.

As for the language; my first experience of reading, as opposed to hearing, Burns was in primary school in Doncaster, where we studied To A Mouse. Did I understand the language? Not a bit but oh how I loved the way the words felt in my mouth, how they rolled off my tongue: sleekit, cowrin, bickering brattle, sleety dribble, cranreuch cald. I may not have understood each word, I didn’t need to, I could feel them. With his description I shrugged off my own skin and slipped inside that of the mouse; felt its heart beat, fast and furious. And isn’t that the genius of any writer, to be able to lure their reader deep into the depths of the story, of the character, to make us believe, to care.

Tam o ShanterFor those of you who love Burns, I’m sure you have a favourite. I have two (because, as we’ve established before, I’m not so good with the definition of the term favourite) – the first is Tam o’ Shanter. In my second year of university, I spent a semester in America and this was one of two Burns poems we studied, the other being To A Louse. Reminiscent of my primary school encounter with Burns, I struggled to get a grip of the language with the rest of my classmates but loved the imagery: ‘Nursing her wrath to keep it warm’; ‘But pleasures are like poppies spread, / You seize the flower, its bloom is shed’; ‘There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast; / A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,’. The rhyme and metre, the change of pace, the tension:

Tam tint his reason ‘ thegither,
And roars out, “Weel done, Cutty-sark!”
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.

                                    From Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns

F pipingThe real appreciation of the poem came much later, performed by F at another Burns’ Night celebration. That’s when I really understood the brilliance of the language. The poem came alive in the telling, not least because F, who comes from the same part of Scotland as Burns, really inhabits each and every line. He was brought up on the bard – his father performed at many a Burns’ Supper, as did his grandfather. By a quirk of fate, his father also died on Burns’ Night, which seems somehow appropriate.

The other favourite of mine is A Man’s a Man for a’ That. It reminds me again of my grandad; of his socialist ideals. It reminds me of the sort of world in which I’d like to live, where riches come not from material possessions but from friends and family, from a sense of community. A more equal world where we all watch out for each other, where we care of for those less fortunate and for our environment. Idealistic, maybe, but isn’t it a world worth hoping for? A world worth working towards?

What though on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;

Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;

A Man’s a Man for a’ that:

For a’ that, and a’ that,

Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,

Is king o’ men for a’ that.

                                         From A Man’s A Man for a’ That by Robert Burns

When my grandad died a few years ago, the family asked that A Man’s A Man be played at his cremation. ‘Reet you are,’ said the Barnsley undertaker, ‘who’s it by?’ On being told, he agreed to sort it out. A couple of days later, my uncle visited the funeral parlour to check on arrangements:

‘There’s been a bit of a problem,’ said the undertaker.

‘Oh right, what’s wrong?’ asked my uncle.

‘We couldn’t findt Robert Burns version oft song you asked fo so we got this un by Ewan McColl instead. Will that do?’

‘Yes,’ said my uncle with a wry smile, ‘that’ll be great.’

IMG_1321At Saturday’s celebration, F performed Tam o’ Shanter, Mr D played and sang A Man’s a Man for A’ That and I gave the Immortal Memory.

We ate haggis, drank whisky and had fun. It was, I think, a fitting tribute to our National Bard and a good way to remember two other Scotsmen no longer with us.

Hope Over Fear

Yesterday, Thursday 18 September, I put a cross in a box and walked out into the autumn sunshine full of hope. Hope that my country would be allowed to regain control of its own affairs. Hope that each time I cast a vote, there would be a real chance it would have an impact. Hope that, together with my fellow countrymen and women, we would be able to contribute to building a more just society: a society where no-one would have to rely on food banks; where healthcare would be freely available to everyone; where people would take precedence over big business and bankers would be held to account. Hope that the divide between rich and poor would lessen not widen. Hope that never again would the needs of the many be marginalised in favour of the wants of an elite few.

Today, Friday 19 September, my hope diminished and the sun ducked behind a cloud.

I’ve always believed in hope over fear. I was brought up to be brave and aspire but not at the cost of other people. My late granddad was a great man and an ardent socialist (as are most of my family). He lived in a council house and would never see someone in need, even though he had little himself. He worked hard all his life, owed no money and lived simply. The small amount of money he ‘put by’ for his family was taken from him in his late eighties by a government who cared not a jot about the fact that bad advice and an administrative error had meant my granddad had been overpaid on his benefits. Even then my granddad didn’t complain, he took it in his stride and blamed no-one. He had moved to Yorkshire as a young man, fresh from the war, to marry my grandma but never forgot his beloved country. His political hero was Nye Bevan. My granddad never saw this day, and for once I was glad he’s no longer around. He’d already had to witness the death of socialism in England; this would have been too much for him.

At the announcement of the results this morning (45% in favour of independence, 55% against), the hearts of almost half the voting population of Scotland were broken. Too stunned to speak, Mr D walked around in a daze and I stood in the kitchen crying and hugging C, one of my closest friends. What now? we asked. What now?

We were dejected. We were emotionally exhausted. We felt defeated. But here’s the thing about hope, it never gives up.

The Yes Scotland campaign was positive and respectful. It rallied people together, encouraged creativity and when it was let down by a biased media it took the message to the streets. In the end, the referendum wasn’t lost by the Yes campaign, it was ‘won’ by deceitful politicians who operated a campaign of fear, in cahoots with a, for the most part, disgraceful mainstream media – in particular the BBC who seemed to have forgotten that it is a broadcast medium for Britain and, as such, its position should have been to represent all sides of the argument; after all, Scotland was (and unfortunately still is) part of Britain, a fact the BBC conveniently ignored in favour of kow-towing to the Westminster establishment. And as someone who once believed our media to be amongst the best in the world, this is not written lightly.

Yes Scotland rallyBut as I said, I believe in hope over fear and there were other things to take heart from.

For the first time in recent history, the whole country engaged in the debate. An unprecedented 86% of people exercised their right to vote. Young people were encouraged to participate and share their views. Yes campaign groups popped up in all areas: the National Collective with members from the arts; Business for Scotland; Labour for Independence; the Green Party for Yes; LGBT for Yes. Others such as Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia and the Common Weal, disseminated the message via social media. All of them worked together on a single objective, to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands in the pursuit of social justice.

Volunteers manned stalls, signed up voters and answered questions. Flash mobs formed in city centres, coming together to share information, sing and celebrate the possibility of change. Westminster politics was shaken to the core. The political landscape has shifted as a result, not just in Scotland but in the rest of the UK. People have found their voice and are not afraid to use it.

‘That’s the thing,’ C said. ‘In situations like these you need to rise or roll, and I can tell you now, I’m not for rolling.’ And as the three of us sat around our kitchen table drinking tea, we were joined by our friends and family via texts, phone and social media, all saying the same thing.

Throughout the UK – in areas of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as a direct result of what’s happened in Scotland, people are starting to talk about change. Groups are forming. The energy of the Scottish referendum is galvanising people everywhere.

This is just the beginning. In the words of another friend, time will tell if we lost a campaign or if we exported it!