One Million Seconds in Wigtown, Part 2

There’s a patina of mist over the town this morning, and it’s no overstatement to say Wigtown’s looking idyllic. Yesterday I chaired John Lanchester, whose book Whoops! is by far the best account of the credit crunch. At points, the absurdity of it all is giddying (especially the so-called 25 Sigma event: an event so unlikely that were the entire history of the Universe run one billion times it should only occur once – and yet they were happening daily). Lanchester also gave me my Fact of the Festival, namely, that Ayn Rand liked Charlie’s Angels (“It’s the only romantic television show today. It’s not realistic. It’s not about the gutter, it’s not about the half-wit retarded children and all the other kind of shows today. It’s about three attractive girls doing impossible things, and because they’re impossible that’s what makes them interesting.”)

The immensely sane Ayn Rand

Best of all, the entire event was sponsored by the Baillie Gifford Investment Trust. No irony there.

I also chaired two historical events – Tim Clarkson on the Brythonic peoples of south Scotland and then David S Ross on Sir George Mackenzie (“Bluidy Mackenzie” may be Scotland’s first novelist, although not its first good novelist).  This weekend we have Candia McWilliam, John Byrne, Iain M Banks, Kei Miller and Sally Magnusson as well as more 15 minute Inspirations. This week’s review was of a new biography of William McGonagall, which spun out into a news story as well…


Norman Watson

Birlinn, £20

IT SEEMS remarkable that this is the first proper biography of the national treasure – or national embarrassment – that is William McGonagall. Norman Watson’s thoroughly researched and pacily written study of the “Bard of the silv’ry Tay” certainly sheds new light on aspects of McGonagall’s career. But it fails to answer the central question: did McGonagall take himself seriously or was he a carefully constructed persona, a leg-pulling masquerade?

Watson puts McGonagall back into the context of 19th century Dundee, and this is revealing. His conversion to the Muse in 1877 came after his participation in Dundee’s thriving amateur dramatic scene, and came at the time of severe recession within the linen-weaving trade. McGonagall diversified: where others sank into quiet desperation and alcoholism, he sank into flamboyance and teetotalism. He was evidently no fool – along with his own poems, he performed scenes from Shakespeare, and work by the then-popular Mrs Hemans and Thomas Campbell (but not, oddly, either Burns or Scott).

Watson seems uncertain of how to evaluate McGonagall’s idiosyncratic verse. He predictably calls it “inept”, “mutilated” and “mawkish”, but tries to rehabilitate him as a “performance poet”. This seems to me to be an anachronistic sleight-of-hand – he is not a precursor to John Cooper Clarke and Marshall Mathers. But it is important to realise that poetic recitation was a very different phenomenon 100 years ago. Recordings of Tennyson and even T S Eliot show a far more histrionic and over-the-top style than the soulful mumblings on Poetry Please.

My overwhelming reaction to McGonagall’s life, however, was one of terrible sadness. The physical, verbal and mental abuse that was poured on him makes the grooming and crushing of dreams on The X Factor seem positively tame; the baiting of SuBo is joshing in comparison. His own “noises in the head” and his equally pitiable penury and optimism make uncomfortable reading. An unspoken undercurrent in Watson’s book is the importance of class. McGonagall was a man adrift: his autodidact learning raised him out of one class and prevented his entry into another. Only a slightly different set of circumstances would have made McGonagall an eccentric dominie, not the whipping-boy for Scotland’s self-harming combination of cultural cringe and “wha’s like us?”


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