Modern history

Chapter 10

The McGonagall Effect

The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877. During the Dundee holiday week, in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, while lonely and sad in my room, I sat thinking about the thousands of people who were away by rail and steamboat, perhaps to the land of Burns, or poor ill-treated Tannahill, or to gaze upon the Trossachs in Rob Roy’s country, or elsewhere wherever their minds led them. While pondering so, I seemed to feel, as it were, a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and I remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt so happy, so happy, that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, ‘Write! Write!’

William McGonagall

A Brief Autobiography, 1890

In the five and a half years between the most startling incident in William McGonagall’s life and the Famous Tay Whale’s arrival on his doorstep, he had become famous, a figure of fun and occasionally ridicule and the butt of academic jokes to be sure, but he had also travelled far on his way to becoming the most popular poet after Burns that Scotland had ever known. When his Poetic Gems was first published as two volumes in 1890 by Dundee publishers David Winter (who had also printed the original broadsheets for McGonagall himself), it was the beginning of a publishing phenomenon. It was followed in due course by More Poetic Gems. My crumbling 1966 paperback edition of Poetic Gems, also published by Winter, was the fourteenth impression and I shudder to think of the royalties it must have heaped up since then. In 2007, a new Collected Poems was published. The fame of John Woods more or less died with him in 1895; McGonagall died in 1902 and more than 100 years later the elusive appeal of his poetry is undiminished, and his star has never burned brighter.

Billy Connolly famously read him on TV and in a ferocious blizzard while standing on the top of the Law, Dundee’s old volcanic centrepiece. Spike Milligan made a more or less hysterical programme about him. Scots academics have raged against him for over a century. But the most ferocious assault on him was by Kurt Wittig, a German critic whose 1958 book, The Scottish Tradition in Literature, is something of a bible among students of Scottish literary criticism:

The Poetic Gems of The Great William McGonagall, poet and tragedian [which is how McGonagall fondly styled himself], and shabbiest of public house rhymesters, are still reprinted almost every year; and their continuing popularity would indeed be an interesting problem for a psychiatrist to study. It is not rock-bottom that we touch here, that would suggest something solid; with him, poetry is irretrievably sunk in mire.

Professor Douglas Gifford of Glasgow University was infinitely more tolerant and thoughtful in his The History of Scottish Literature:

It is usually assumed that McGonagall is enjoyed because he is unintentionally amusing and everyone likes a good laugh. True, if dubiously defensible. But we know from tested public performance, that an actor with a good voice can read the best of McGonagall (e.g. ‘The Little Match Girl’) quite straight and with some pathos . . . If voice seems to be the key, we perhaps direct ourselves to Hamish Henderson’s argument that the clumsy ametricality of the lines (on the page) can be related to McGonagall’s Irish family background of ‘come-all-ye’ folk song, the value of his poems being no more than that of their originality in uniquely and consistently forming their style out of the detritus of folk poetry. Perhaps anything carried to an extreme is attractive, as Blake claimed . . . The obvious ‘badness’ of McGonagall also does not cancel the genuine popular appeal of someone who, unlike many of his contemporaries, gave himself the function of commenting on the noted public events of the time.

And what events! The first railway bridge across the Tay, the Tay Bridge disaster and the new railway bridge across the Tay were all commemorated by McGonagall. All three had the same first line – ‘Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!’, except that in the third poem the word ‘new’ was inserted between ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Railway’, and his relaxed attitude to metre allowed him to get away with it. That relaxed attitude allied to a sly sense of humour allowed him to slip his funniest couplet into ‘An Ode to the Queen on Her Jubilee Year’:

Oh! try and make her happy in country and town,

And not with Shakespeare say, ‘uneasy lies the

head that wears a crown’.

Shakespeare was McGonagall’s inspiration. He learned huge chunks of Macbeth and Hamlet and Richard III when he was little more than a child, and performed them as a young man whenever and wherever he could find or improvise a stage. He was a hand-loom weaver by trade but he was an actor at heart, and that passion determined the kind of poet he became. Mostly, he did not write poetry, but rather scripts to perform. He was, as Professor Gifford pointed out, a performance poet, and his sense of theatre was as important to his work as the words on the page. The recurring, predictable rhyming words and phrases that are everywhere through the poems were what his audiences expected, and where they joined in, much like a chorus in a folk song.

Whenever he performed in the pubs and the halls of Dundee, Angus, Perth and Fife, there were always raucous demands for his greatest hits – the three Tay Bridge poems, a song called ‘The Rattling Boy from Dublin’, his battle poems to Bannockburn, Flodden, Sheriffmuir and Culloden, anything involving Queen Victoria, for whom he had an almost obsessively patriotic affection, and inevitably, ‘The Famous Tay Whale’. So it was no surprise to find him among the invited guests at Greasy Johnny’s embalming shindig with copies of a new poem for sale. Theatre was in the blood of both men, and it would have both suited and flattered the ego of Greasy Johnny to spring McGonagall on his guests with a Tay Whale poem that casually name-dropped John Woods as the man who ‘has brought it to Dundee all safe and all sound’, and possibly McGonagall alone among the invited guests did not have to pay the half-crown admittance.

But there was also this: McGonagall alone was not named in the Advertiser’s account of the proceedings. He was merely referred to as that ‘amusing diversion caused by a long-haired gentleman in a black surtout and slouched hat calling the attention of the spectators to a poem, a propos of the whale, of which he proclaimed himself the author, and which he proceeded to recite with much gusto. He afterwards announced that the poem could be obtained on payment of the sum of one penny, and condescendingly sold a few copies at that figure. There was a good deal of “Silvery Tay” in the poem . . .’

So the journalist knew well enough who he was writing about (McGonagall rarely wrote the word ‘Tay’ without writing the word ‘silvery’ first; it was one of his many signature traits), but there was something in his work and the way he conducted himself that was as offensive to some of his contemporaries as the smell of decaying whale flesh. Yet he knew his market, he wrote accessibly, and because he mostly wrote of the events and personalities of the day, and of the events of Scottish and British history, he was relevant to his audience. He took his work out into their midst and he performed it ‘with much gusto’. Today he is probably more widely read than ever, there are McGonagall Suppers wherever there are Scots in the world, he has celebrity endorsements, and his royalties would keep him infinitely more comfortably today than they did in his lifetime. His poem ‘An Address to the New Tay Bridge’ has been carved into the pavement near the bridge, so you can walk along by the river, reading it as you go, and do try to turn a blind eye to the engraver’s misspellings. It is a unique honour, nevertheless.

And it is fair to say that his is the popular voice of the Tay Whale, not just because of the many thousands of copies of Poetic Gems that are in the world, but it is also prominently featured alongside the skeleton in the museum’s whaling display, and in tourist information panels and other publicity. Strange how such an event from the heyday of the Victorians’ lust for killing wildlife and the city’s old addiction to the obnoxious trade of whaling can be rendered down through the passage of time into the stuff of twenty-first-century tourism fodder, simply because the only account of it with which anyone is familiar was written by a poet whose work tends to make us smile.

No other single whale among the many thousands that died at the hands of the Dundee whalers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries emerges from that bloodied horde as a recognisable individual. (Between 1865 and 1883, for example, the Dundee whaling fleet alone killed over 1,400 whales.) No other account of its death kept its story alive: the rest were newspaper reports which have been more or less silent and unconsulted these last 125 years, and they vary wildly in both accuracy and detail. McGonagall alone is responsible for enshrining the events of that winter of the whale in an enduring form (not that he was particularly accurate either, but then perhaps it is not a poet’s job to be accurate, but rather to take risks with language that non-poet writers would not dare to attempt, and no one can deny that McGonagall did that). I have no doubt at all that when this book is dust, McGonagall’s poem will still be read often enough to keep the whale’s memory alive. Even now, there is hardly a Dundee native anywhere in the world who does not think of the Tay as silvery. He put his own poetry into the language of the people and there are few enough poets who achieve that: Shakespeare and Burns, of course, but not many more.

And I concede that his poem dragged the Tay Whale from the back of my mind (where it had been stashed away since childhood) to the front. He had cropped up, inevitably, in a book I wrote a dozen years ago, The Road and the Miles, which had the sub-title of A Homage to Dundee. But even then I was receiving his take on the Tay Whale in the spirit in which it was offered. The whale was ‘resolved to have some sport and play’; the whalers were ‘resolved to capture the whale and have some fun’ and they ‘laughed and grinned just like wild baboons’ (a line contrived purely to create a rhyme for ‘harpoons’, and just possibly, to soften the blow and dull the pain of the harpoons). His poem omits to mention that the whale died. One minute the whale is lashing the water with its tail, the next it is harpooned, it speeds off to Stonehaven, where it lies placidly on the water and the Gourdon boys slip a noose round its tail. He never says that it is a dead tail. There are no wounds, no blood, there has been no ordeal. Then hurrah for the mighty monster whale . . .

Hurrah!? He wants us to cheer!

And do you know what? We did! We cheered the boats into Stonehaven harbour. We cheered the whale when it was towed out of Stonehaven harbour. We cheered its arrival in Dundee at midnight, and again when it was raised up out of the water by the crane (the cheers turning to gasps when its tongue fell out into the water). It was cheered every step of the way as it toured the country on a railway wagon, and it was cheered when it came home again and the great charade was over. Somehow, McGonagall disarms us, renders our anger impotent. We shake our heads at the way he tells a story, but the smiles on our faces betray his place in our affections. William Topaz McGonagall gave the story of The Famous Tay Whale to the world, but the truth is that there was little enough to smile about.

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