27th January, 2013
If you live in the Rocky Mountains, as I do, and you wake up to sunlight fingering branches heavy with new snow, you should be true to the ethos of the place you live, reach for your skis and be out on the slippery slopes, not at a desk composing a blog about literature. I have in my time been an avid skier, but this year I didn't even buy a ski pass. I am slowly coming round to Dave Barry's opinion about this winter sport that "Skiing combines outdoor fun with knocking down trees with your face."
The year before last, I tried knocking down a tree with my head and ended up in the ER. Last year, I merely broke my shoulder, but it all amounts to me thinking that maybe my days of flying down the slopes are coming to an end. And this, despite the fact that I just took out a fifteen year mortgage on a new pair of ski boots. They hurt, those boots, like a vise, cutting off feeling to my toes and pressing in on sensitive parts of my feet I never knew I had. "Melted bowling balls," Dave Barry calls ski boots, and he's not far wrong, no matter how much faux fur they pack around the top. But I might just be too clumsy for skiing these days.
Back to things literary: Friday 25th of January was Burns Night. I don't expect anyone not of Scottish heritage to have any idea who Robert Burns was, although his song "Auld Lang Syne," is sung with abandon on New Year's Eve throughout the world without anyone having the foggiest notion what it's about.
He is our most celebrated Scottish bard, born in 1759, well known for his literary acuity, his astounding fertility and his love of a good dram (shall we say.) He influenced Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, and Dickens brings him up frequently in his works. For some reason, he is wildly popular in Russia. But no wonder, because Robert Burns was very good poet and wrote some touching verses to the many ladies he loved, some of which you can hear put to music on my website (clairemcdougall.com)
But Robert Burns also had his political agenda and was an unabashed nationalist. Though the son of a mere farmer, with very little formal education, he turned his nose up at the Edinburgh elites. He was known to shoot his mouth off, and was constantly being hushed by people who thought his opinions were not in the best interest of his career.
I would quote a poem here called "A Man's a Man For A' That," but it's as unfathomable as "Auld Lang Syne" to the untrained ear. In paraphrase, it says: the authentic person, though poor and disregarded by the mighty, is twice the person of stature than those folks of fashion and wealth who take the stage and laud their position over others.
Och, hell, I'll quote a verse of the poem, because it is so good (and change words and put explanations in paranthesis.)
"Ye see yon birkie (fellow) called a lord,
Who struts and stares and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif (fool) for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribband star, and all that.
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that."
The Edinburgh elite thought Burns quaint, for all that, and made of him a kind of mascot. They liked his farmer's work clothes, unpowdered hair and common speech, just as long as they could stand him in a corner of their parlours and not think too much about what he stood for. The powers that be like originality, just as long as it doesn't try to rub noses with them. They like it where it can be sanctioned and packaged.
So my hommage to Robert Burns today is to disregard the ribband star of the fashionable, the monied custodian few, especially in the arts. You don't have to like to drink as much as Burns did, and you don't have to go about increasing the population at the rate he did, but you do have to look and laugh at all that. Right, Rabbie?