Very Top Five... Rude Poems of Robert Burns

Monday, 25 January 2010

January 25th is Burns Night, and round the world you'll see great fatty puddings tucking into some haggis. People in Scotland will be reciting Burns’ “Ode To a Haggis,” and others will be celebrating the Diaspora, thinking pleasantly of the country in which their ancestors clearly couldn't stand living, while trying not to wonder too much about what those pink wobbly bits in their haggis are (diced sheeps' lungs, if you’re curious).

Anyway, Burns night is a celebration of the 18th Century poet Robert Burns, also known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s National Bard (or just The Bard) and the Ploughman Poet (and, as Burns might explain; “it’s not fields I’m ploughing! Whoar! Know what I mean, missus? Honk honk. Ooh er.”)

He popularised Auld Lang Syne (A song performed by everyone yearly, leaving just enough time between renditions to make you forget the words but think you can remember them. New years' alcohol doesn't help this.)

Burns was extraordinarily prolific, and wrote hundreds of poems before his death (from heart disease aged 37). He wrote the poem “My love is like a red, red rose,” and “Ae Fond Kiss”, and others which are all very romantic and that’s all good and fine. But he wasn’t called the people’s poet for nothing, and there’s nothing that the proles like more than rude jokes, particularly if it’s a celebrity telling them.

I’ve helpfully translated some of the Scottish words into English as I go along. Just to explain, Scots is a separate language from English, and although modern Scottish people speak English instead of Scots, they still use a large number of Scots words, seemingly designed to irritate everyone who thought that they could understand English, such as foreign tourists, English people, and most other Scots.

All of these words feel immensely solid and satisfying to intone, particularly when spoken in a broad accent. E.g. “Och, git oota ma pus, ya bawbag! Jings!” which literally means “[general exclamation], get out of my face, you testicle! [general exclamation]!” (That’s not a Burns original, I should mention). Of course, Scots sounds very similar to English, but because of those misplaced-sounding vowels and different contractions and words, hearing the Scottish language makes you think the speaker has suffered a devastating stroke, and even seeing it written makes you pity the writer for the terrible, intractable dyslexia which has rendered their words so illegible.)

Anyway, let’s kick aff:

5. Twa wives:
"There was twa wives, and twa witty wives,
As e'er play'd houghmagandie,
And they coost oot, upon a time,
Out o'er a drink o brandy;
Up Maggie rose, and forth she goes,
An she leaves auld Mary flytin,
And she farted by the byre-en'
For she was gaun a shiten.

She farted by the byre-en',
She farted by the stable;
And thick and nimble were her steps
As fast as she was able:
Till at yon dyke-back the hurly brak,
But raxin for some dockins,
The beans and pease cam down her thighs,
And she cackit a' her stockins."

Some of these songs are only rude because the words used in them have gained new meanings between the 16th century and today. Others are genuinely foul-mouthed, written intentionally as such by Burns. Bonus points for guessing which is which.

This one is about two women enjoying an affair (“houghmagandie” means something like hanky panky) possibly with each other, the poem isn’t entirely clear on this, but it seems likely as they then go to sleep together after a drink of brandy.) Maggie then gets up to go to relieve herself, but alas! She has left it too late, and while looking for some dock leaves (rather good for wiping one's bottom) she shits down her legs (“cackit a’ her stockins.”).

4. Reply to a trimming epistle: Robert Burns Answer:

"What ails ye now, ye lousie bitch,
To thresh my back at sic a pitch?
Losh man! hae mercy wi' your natch,
Your bodkin's bauld,
I did na suffer ha’f sae much
Frae Daddie Auld.

What tho' at times when I grow crouse,
I gi’e their wames a random pouse,
Is that enough for you to souse
Your servant sae?
Gae mind your seam, ye prick the louse,
An' jag the flae.

King David o' poetic brief,
Wrocht 'mang the lasses sic mischief
As fill’d his after life wi' grief,
An' bloody rants ,
An' yet he's rank'd amang the chief
O' lang syne saunts .

And maybe, Tam, for a' my cants,
My wicked rhymes, an' drucken rants,
I'll gie auld cloven Clooty's haunts
An unco slip yet,
An' snugly sit amang the saunts
At Davie's hip yet.

But, fegs, the Session says I maun
Gae fa' upo' anither plan,
Than garren lasses cowp the cran
Clean heels owre body ,
An' sairly thole their mither's ban
Afore the howdy.

This leads me on to tell for sport,
How I did wi' the Session sort—
Auld Clinkum at the inner port
Cry’d three times, ‘Robin!’
‘Come hither lad, an’ answer for't,
‘Ye're blam'd for jobbin’.’

Wi' pinch I put a Sunday's face on,
An' snoov'd awa before the Session—
I made an open fair confession;
I scorn't to lie;
An' syne Mess John, beyond expression,
Fell foul o' me.

A furnicator lown he call'd me,
An' said my fau’t frae bliss expell'd me;
I own'd the tale was true he tell'd me,
‘But what the matter,’
Quo' I, ‘I fear unless ye geld me,
‘I'll ne'er be better!’

‘Geld you!’ quo' he, ‘an' whatfore no,
If that your right hand, leg or toe,
Should ever prove your sp'ritual foe,
‘You shou’d remember
‘To cut it aff, an' whatfore no,
‘Your dearest member.’

‘Na , na,’ quo' I, ‘I'm no for that,
‘Gelding's nae better than 'tis ca't,
‘I'd rather suffer for my faut,
‘A hearty flewit,
‘As sair owre hip as ye can draw 't!
‘Tho' I should rue it.

‘Or, gin ye like to end the bother,
‘To please us a' – I've just ae ither,
‘When next wi' yon lass I forgather,
‘Whate'er betide it,
‘I'll frankly gie her 't a' thegither,
‘An' let her guide it.’

But, Sir, this pleas'd them warst ava,
An' therefore, Tam, when that I saw,
I said ‘Gude night,’ and cam' awa',
An' left the Session;
I saw they were resolved a'
On my oppression."

This poem was written to a specific recipient, and since the first line is “What is your problem now, you lousy bitch?” you can probably imagine that it isn’t a friendly poem. And no, Burns goes on a massive rant where he mercilessly berates the poor person to whom this is intended. It would clearly take a long time to explain all this; if you're interested, a full English translation is here.

3. Johnie Lad, cock up your beaver:
When first my brave Johnie lad came to this town,
He had a blue bonnet that wanted the crown;
But now he has gotten a hat and a feather,
Hey, brave Johnie lad, cock up your beaver!
Cock up your beaver, and cock it fu' sprush,
We'll over the border, and gie them a brush;
There's somebody there we'll teach better behaviour,
Hey, brave Johnie lad, cock up your beaver!

Disappointingly, “cock” means feather and “beaver” means hat. So the line “cock up your beaver” means a feather in your hat. Aw.

Try saying that to your friends instead of “that's a feather in your hat” and then try explaining to them that actually you are being cultured and using 18th century Scots’ words. I bet they won't believe you.

2. My girl she’s airy:
"My girl she's airy, she's buxom and gay,
Her breath is as sweet as the blossoms in May;
A touch of her lips it ravishes quite.
She's always good natur'd, good humor'd, and free;
She dances, she glances, she smiles with a glee;
Her eyes are the lightenings of joy and delight,
Her slender neck, her handsome waist,
Her hair well buckl’d, her stays well lac’d,
Her taper white leg with an et, and a,c,
For her a, b, e, d, and her c, u, n, t,
And Oh! For the joys of a long winter night!!!"

This one is in English, and also just pure filth. Burns loves that sort of thing. Although he clearly thought that putting commas between the letters makes rude words magically not rude and acceptable in a poem. and three exclamation marks!!! That's very gauche.

Gay means happy in old fashioned English, remember. This isn’t Maggie or Mary from the poem above.

Hey! Try reciting this one to a loved one on Valentine’s Day instead of Red, Red Rose. She’ll love it.

1. Epitaph to Hugh Logan:
"Here lyes Squire Hugh--ye harlot crew,
Come mak your watter on him,
I’m shuir that he weel pleased wad be
To think ye pished upon him."

This one says “Hey everyone, Squire Hugh is buried here, come and piss on him. He’d like it if you pissed on him.”

This is an epitaph. Burns wrote this as a suggestion of what he thought should go on this recently deceased man’s headstone. Burns is a very naughty man.

Very Short Five... Favourite Metaphors

Monday, 18 January 2010
I'm writing an extra-special Burns night spectacular for next Monday (which is Burns night) so this week I thought I would whet your whistle with a collection of my five favourite metaphors (and similes) from my previous articles.

5. “Atheists and Christians both feel that they have made the right choice. This burning passion separates the pure metal of truth from the dross of lies in the great foundry of the soul (or perhaps an analogous, purely psychological alternative to the soul). It also allows you to slag off the alternative views which lie around your adamantine island.”

4. “Acronyms are the LASERS of language, the SWAT teams of succinctness, and the semantic equivalent of filling your SCUBA with TNT instead of O2. OMG, acronyms are amazing.”
3. “I am sans vagin, which may lead you to question my authority when it comes to dispensing womanly advice like some sort of demented agony aunt. But that’s just the point; I’m the man on the other side, as it were. I’m a defected agony aunt, like during the Cold War but without the threat of mutually assured destruction (Or maybe that’s not so far off the truth, fellow relationship cynics? No? Zing!).

2. [Advice for attracting a man]: “Old fashioned muskets were notoriously inaccurate, and useless at ranges of over 50 yards or so. However, aiming at waist height would increase the chances of a hit, and when a whole battalion of soldiers fired in a concerted effort, some of the shots were bound to strike. Same advice goes for you: Get together with your friends, go out in large groups, aim low, specifically at the groin, and take them by surprise.”

1. “Interviews are the crusts on the toast of society. Nobody likes them, but you have to bite through them before you reach the moist goal of buttery employment.”

Very Top Five... Real-life knights who’d save you from a dragon

Monday, 11 January 2010
Back in the day, if you got kidnapped by a dragon, you couldn’t move for knights charging in to slay the evil fire lizard and rescue yo' ass. These days you might be concerned about the conspicuous lack of dudes in armour, but there are knights even now; every year, the Queen elevates a few worthy chaps to the rank of Knight of the British Empire.

Which is just as well, because we’ll need someone to save you from that dragon. Such as…

5. Sir Chris Hoy

Chris Hoy was knighted in 2009 for winning three gold medals at the 2008 Olympic games, so he’s just the sort of all-round action hero type you’d want to come to wrest you from the dragon’s grasp.

He’s a cyclist, so although knights of yore would have horses to tank around on (big destriers that breathe in corn and breathe out steam) Chris Hoy would have a bike instead (which is pretty much just as good as a horse except he can also do wheelies, which are rad.)

However, despite these plus points, those heavy gold medals would weigh Sir Chris down and, even worse, dragons are able to smell gold, so it would know he was coming. Then, before you could say, “Quick! Strangle it with your inner tube, Chris!” he’d have been disappointingly disembowelled and his medals chucked onto the horde (because all self-respecting dragons have a horde.)

4. Sir David Attenborough

David Attenborough, the 83 year old doyen of nature programme narration, might not seem an obvious choice for the sort of chap to save you from a dragon, but that’s because you’ve failed to consider Sir David’s animal powers.

He could call his animal buddies to help rescue you, but to be honest there’s no other creature that could go one-on-one with a dragon. Maybe a troop of baboons or something could distract it while Sir David snuck in round the back and climbed into the tower on a rope (you’re being held in a tower, obviously). But he’s an old man, so there’s not much chance of that sort of rescue attempt.

Alternatively, David Attenborough would probably empathise with the dragon using his great natural charisma, meaning he could convince it to calm down and let you escape. Unfortunately, he might appreciate the dragon’s need to take prisoners as part of its natural behaviour and leave you to be eaten. Sorry, that’s just how nature works.

3. Sir Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson, billionaire owner of Virgin, certainly has the cash necessary to tool himself up in preparation for his scrap with the dragon. And he likes challenges, if his extreme sailing jaunts are anything to go by.

Also, he has a spaceship, Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship One. I’m not sure how this helps fight the dragon, but perhaps if they got involved in some sort of high altitude dogfight it would come in useful?

However, despite these plus points, Sir Richard Branson loses kudos for his repeated previous failures to tackle another fire breathing monster; the hot air balloon. He tried and failed to circumnavigate the globe several times in the 90s.

You’d want someone with a spotless record in this area before you were totally comfortable with them riding to your rescue, spaceship or not.

2. Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim invented the internet, putting him in a prime position to fight that dragon. He could look up Wikipedia to find out all about different types of dragon; or go on Ebay to stock up on dragon lances and fire-retardant underwear; or log onto Facebook to ask for dragon-fighting advice.

He could organise a flash-mob to save you with his internet buddies. All these things are no problem for sir Tim, after all, he invented the interwebz with his l33t skillz, lol. That dragon’s going to be pwned. All your base are belong to Tim. Etc.

1. Sir Patrick Stewart

Need rescued? Sir Patrick Stewart will… make it so.

Cue Star Trek Music!

While it’s true that Richard Branson has a spaceship, it can barely make it out of orbit. Patrick Stewart has the USS Enterprise, a Galaxy-Class ship with phasers AND photon torpedoes. Hell yeah! Any dragon tries to fight him; he’ll just photon torpedo it in the face. Maybe all the dragons in the galaxy have turned up? He’ll just set phasers to kerblam! and lay waste, Captain Jean Luc Picard style. Yeah!

And he’s Professor Charles Xavier as well, so he’d just use his mind powers to airlift you to safety from the tower.

Alternatively, he could just impress the dragon with his marvellous acting. It would be so enraptured by his commanding stage presence and rich, mellifluous tones that it would gladly acquiesce to his demands to release you, in between the calls for encores and rapturous applause.

Very Top Five... materials for religious buildings

Sunday, 3 January 2010
Throughout all of prehistory and right up until the 1880s the tallest buildings in the world were religious ones; first the pyramids and then cathedrals and steeples and whatnot.

This was pretty much until the commercial buildings of the 20th century displaced them. “Ah ha,” you might postulate, “but didn’t commerce effectively replace religion in terms of unparalleled societal grandeur and hence one could suggest the tallest buildings of any epoch are a sure indicator of the main driving factor of a civilisation?” Quite possibly. That’s a wee sideline of anthropological analysis for you there.

So anyway, back in the day, getting the building materials right for your religious buildings was pretty much top of your list of priorities and, generally speaking, stone is pretty good stuff for building with; it’s hardwearing, abundant, weatherproof and strong. Just ask any engineer, and he’ll tell you. (Actually he’ll probably say “How do you know I’m an engineer? And who the hell are you? How did you get into my house? Get out! Argh!”)

But sometimes God demands specific materials. So when some sweaty prophet staggers from his manky shack and starts gibbering about towers of stacked horse livers then suddenly the construction logistics have gone right over the engineers’ heads.

Then if the engineers moan about it you can quite justifiably set fire to them and hire newer, more suitably religious ones who trust God’s dictats more than they trust the so-called laws of physics. God built the world out of nothing but honest hard work. Explain that, physics.

5. Rongbuk Monastery, Stone (Tibet)

Let’s start off with stone. As I said, one of the main reasons for its use is its abundance. The chaps who built Rongbuk Monastery made a savvy choice in picking the part of the world with more rock than anywhere else; the Himalaya mountains.

This is a fantastically religious site, as there is little else to do apart from sit around, look at the great big silent mountains and compare yourself to them in a vaguely spiritual manner. Ta-dah, instant religiousness, plus it would feel like penitence to just reach the place, since at 17,000 feet it's the highest temple in the world. Surely any religion would be proud to have it as one of its temples.

As it happens, it’s Buddhists who are fortunate enough to own the place. Buddhists are excellent religionists in that they are dead keen on the praying and dedication aspects of religion, although they lose points because they hardly ever have holy wars, and how can someone be serious about their religion if they aren’t willing to stab someone in the face to establish their brand of peace and tolerance?

Ha! That was irony.

4. Tōdai-ji, Wood (Japan)

Buddhists again, having a go with another building material that’s as common as trees in a forest; wood.

Wood compares unfavourably to stone in one aspect, in that it is infinitely more flammable. The temple has burned down twice, although that’s not bad considering it’s over a thousand years old. There have been hundreds of earthquakes in that time, and stone is not famed for its ability to bend and sway. So I feel that wood was a good choice.

The Great Hall of the Tōdai-ji is the biggest wooden building in the world; good going for a building which was built in 1709 (After one o’ them naughty fires destroyed the old one.) But if you think it's impressive that the largest wooden building is over 300 years old, wrap your mind around this next factsicle; the old temple was 30% larger than the modern one.

3. Harmandir Sahib, Gold (India)

“Right, this temple is to be the spiritual centre of Sikhism,” the designers were clearly told. “Bear in mind the following two points; 1. Build the place out of a material that looks really, really impressive, and 2. Money’s no object.”

So they built it out of gold. Nice one. Makes the marble and paint of St. Peter’s Basilica looks like balsa wood held together with chewing gum.

I remember once hearing that the Harmandir Sahib, if melted down, would have a massive effect on the international gold market, but I can’t find the statistic, so I am increasingly certain that whatever I heard either A.) was made up or B.) I dreamt it. But there is an awful lot of gold there.

2. Sedlec Ossuary, bones (Czech Republic)

Stone; it’s hardwearing and easy to find. It’s just lying around. However, you need a lot, and while not everyone will know where to find the nearest quarry anyone you ask will know where you can get your hands on a few bones. Every little helps, and if it’s in the name of God you don’t even have to ask them at all, brilliant!

Actually, what happened was the abbot at Sedlec sprinkled some particularly holy soil in the graveyard, and suddenly Sedlec was the “it” graveyard. Anyone who was anyone wanted to be buried there, and soon the place was full.

Then a dude called Frantisek Rint had a marvellous idea. Why not dig up the skeletons and use them to make chandeliers, coats of arms, and garlands of skulls? The answer would probably be “Because that’s an insane idea, Mr Rint, you crazy madman,” but no-one was around to offer this counter-opinion, so that’s what happened.

The ossuary contains the skeletons of 70,000 people. Makes that box you keep your baby teeth in look pretty sub-par.

1. Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, Mud (Ghana)

Well, mud is not as tough as stone, and it’s not as impressive as gold (or even bone), and it’s not as flexible as wood. But something has to be said for using what you have. And Ghana has a lot of mud and even more sunshine, which dries the mud into a quite-tough, almost-weatherproof covering. Good enough, nuff said.