One Hundred McGonagall Stories

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2014, on the 19th day of June at 9:54 pm

A lot of new titles have been added to the online British Newspaper Archive since the last time I spent much time there, meaning that I’ve been able to bring the number of press cuttings about the great man on the Life page up to a hundred.

Amongst the new arrivals are a couple from 1901 which cast some light on the “was he real or was he faking it?” debate. The first condemns the Perth Lyric Club for making fun of a deluded old man. The second defends them saying McGonagall is a paid clown. You’ll still have to make up your own mind though.

Another story solves a long standing mystery (to me, anyway). Why was A Tribute to Henry M. Stanley subtitled “The Prize Poem” on broadsheets and some versions of Poetic Gems? The answer is simple: he won a prize for it, “for originality and other peculiar and obvious qualities.” Never was ten shillings better earned.

But, saving the best till last, the search has unearthed a hitherto unknown McGonagall “gem” that appeared in an 1893 newspaper story. Untitled in the original, I have taken the liberty of calling it “Lines in Praise of the Arbroath Oddfellows.” It’s unspectacular stuff, but if you read it you’ll be one of the first people in 120 years to do so.

The Harrowing Tale of the Edinburgh Trams

Filed under: Readers’ Gems; in the year 2014, on the 26th day of May at 8:00 am

The end of this month will see the long-awaited opening of the Edinburgh tram system. To mark this historic occasion, Stephen Midgley has provided us with a Reader’s Gem of truly epic proportions (on time and under budget, I might add):

The Harrowing Tale of the Edinburgh Trams

I. Heart of a City Filled with Dismay

Sound the trumpets, beat the drums,
For the opening day of our capital’s trams!
Rejoice and sing, ye travellers of Edinboro’,
For ’tis the end of all your misery and sorrow.

At last the work is finished on the new tramline
Which the people have awaited for a very long time;
’Tis an epic tale of hope, folly, chaos and calamity,
A harrowing transport saga which I’ll now relate to ye.

’Twas in the year of 1956, on the 16th day of November,
Which the citizens of Edinburgh would long remember,
That the last of the old trams ran along Princes Street,
And thereafter other modes of transport the people’s needs must meet.

“Fear ye not”, said the leaders of the city’s Corporation,
“For there are buses and other means of transportation;
Besides, many folk now have conveyances of their own
And so there will be no cause for ye to moan.”

But as the years went by the traffic did greatly grow,
And journeys through the city became ever more slow;
And the Council, as by then ’twas called, encountered much opprobrium,
For on the capital’s streets ’twas chaos and pandemonium.

Motorists also were in great dismay and woe
Because where for to park their cars they did not know,
And misery and frustration were plain to see in their faces
Because there were not sufficient parking spaces.

But the council devised many ways their coffers for to fill
From the pockets of the folk who in the capital did dwell,
So the parking office clerks did dance in their glee
As they raked in every meter charge, clamping and recovery fee;

And the hearts of the parking attendants felt light and gay
As they affixed their penalty notices to windscreens without the least delay,
Stating: “A large amount of money you must speedily pay,
Or else your heart will be filled with even more dismay.”

II. The Council’s Magnificent Master Plan

But in the year 2001 the council announced to the Edinburgh folk,
“We intend for to solve all your transport problems at a stroke,
For we have conceived a cunning plan,
Namely, the return of the electric tram.

Like the world’s great cities, we will be as good as the rest,
Such as Moscow, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Budapest,
Or Prague, Milan, Toronto and Amsterdam,
Where the people can travel everywhere by tram.

So we will have tramlines in several directions,
All meeting in the centre, with excellent connections.
Our plans are bold, the lines well placed and long;
What could there possibly be for to go wrong?”

Some brave souls expressed grave reservations
Concerning the council’s costing calculations,
Saying the trams’ revenue would be less and the expense would greatly rise
But alas! the council paid no heed to what the doubters did advise.

Countless meetings and discussions took place,
But the tramlines soon diminished while the cost did rise apace,
Until eventually there would be just one line instead of three
And even this far shorter than ’twas meant to be.

By the year 2006 with the contractors ’twas agreed
That the project without further delay would proceed,
With one line from the airport to Leith, via Princes Street,
And in the year 2011 the work would be complete.

But the laying of the tramlines saw great trouble and delay
Which filled the people’s hearts with dismay,
And the closures and chaos in the streets of Edinboro’
Did cause many a citizen’s brow deeply for to furrow.

For some streets were dug up and closed for several years,
Reducing traders and shoppers alike to tears,
And businesses protested with all their might
At the terrible effects of planning blight.

The streets were forever full of cages, and men in yellow jackets,
Their machinery all the while making a fearful racket.
And the slow progress of the project caused great despair,
Especially when Princes Street was dug up for a second time, I do declare!

By now ’twas far behind schedule and well over budget,
But the council continued to try for to fudge it,
Because unfortunately the thought had not entered their minds
To agree upon the cost ere the contract was signed.

One option they faced, which I must not fail to mention,
Was the embarrassing prospect of complete cancellation,
But the councillors could not bear with shame for to blush
If down the lavatorium their entire tram project they would flush.

After many more months of dispute and delay
The contractors unto the city council did say:
“Tell you what we’ll do for you, squire,
If to have your new tramline you still do desire,

You can have half the line for double the cost.”
To the council this seemed too good a bargain to be lost,
For ‘twas said that in arithmetic they were none too bright
And that some were scarce able for to read and write.

So they replied: “Your generous offer is just what we need”,
And so without dismay ’twas agreed,
At St Andrew Square the line would now stop short
Instead of continuing as far as Leith port.

III. The Battle of Haymarket

Then came a great battle, fierce and notorious,
Fought ‘twixt the councillors in a manner most furious
In the year of 2011, on August the 25th day,
Which will long be remember’d with horror and dismay.

For now ’twas proposed to shorten the line even more,
To avoid further rising costs which would cause distress most sore.
So there would be no trams along Princes Street after all,
Although the tracks had already been laid and were plain to be seen by all!
But instead the line from the airport would finish at Haymarket,
And if people wanted to go any further they would have to take a bus or walk it.

The Haymarket battalions faced the St Andrew Square brigade
Who were for keeping the line into the city as already agreed.
Oh! what savage slaughter was seen on that day
As both armies with the bayonet did charge without dismay.

This way and that the bloody battle swayed
As both sides their arguments vehemently made;
And many councillors on the floor dead or wounded did lay,
But when at last the fight was o’er, ’twas the Haymarket hordes had won the day!

The calamitous decision was announced without delay;
Oh, heaven! how the people’s hearts were filled with dismay,
Because all sensible men and women confesses
That the city council must have taken leave of their senses.

“I don’t believe it!” people in the streets did say,
And the Scottish press did have a field day;
The Evening News at the councillors much ridicule did poke
With its front page headline exclaiming “WHAT A JOKE!”
Depicting them as clowns, each one with a red nose,
And inviting voters the silly elves to depose
As soon as the next opportunity arose.

But worse was yet to come, for the very next day,
To the councillors’ horror and great dismay,
The Scottish Finance Secretary, John Swinney,
Did heap upon them still further ignominy
By issuing a statement without delay
In which to the foolish council he did say:

“When the government agreed to chip in with a few bob
’Twas on the assumption you were going for to do a decent job,
But you’ll not be getting a penny more from us
If you expect travellers to get off the tram at Haymarket and wait for a bus.

So your government grant you can now forget,
For the remaining millions you will no longer get,
And any further subsidy we will only pay
If you see to it that your tramline goes all the way.”

And so, after all the fearful carnage and slaughter,
The Haymarket plan was now dead in the water.
Then the council yet again met for further discussion
And agreed to revert to the St Andrew Square option.

So the outcome of the Battle of Haymarket was reversed,
And the foolish proposal would forever be cursed;
So let us be thankful its proponents were unhorsed,
For of all possible choices ’twas by far the worst.

IV. Tramway to Paradise

Now that the project no longer was doomed,
The work on the tramlines once more was resumed;
And at long last, on the 31st day of May in the year 2014,
The tramcars are here, and most handsome to be seen.

So finally they’re running, although several years late,
And let us all pray ’twas worth the wait,
But after all the havoc, the trials and tribulations,
’Tis now the time for joyful celebrations.

So, proud citizens of Edinburgh, hold your heads up high
As the trams along their new lines speedily do fly,
For a splendid conveyance is the electric tram
And to gainsay it there’s few people can.

Let us hope those one billion pounds have been well spent
And that the service will be extremely efficient,
And may the twelve new bridges be well built and strong
To defy the Storm Fiend as the trams roll along.

But, citizens, I warn ye to beware of the tramcar’s dangers,
Especially if to this mode of transport ye be strangers:
Pedestrians, pay heed to its stealthy approach
And take care upon its path not to encroach.

Ye car drivers, watch and listen for the trams, and to them give way
Or else your hearts will soon be filled with dismay,
For if to obstruct the tram’s progress ye durst
Your car will undoubtedly come off the worst;

And never park your vehicle on or near the line,
For ’twill quickly be removed and you’ll pay a large fine.
Ye cyclists, be warned to cross the tramlines at right angles
Or else you’ll be unseated, and your front wheel mangled.

Tram passengers, heed my advice and do not dare
To board the tramcar without paying your fare,
Though if to observe this rule ye should fail
At least you’ll not have very far to trail,
For the tram stops at Saughton, close by the jail.

But now at last I must conclude my muse
By urging the people their new tram service to use,
For ‘twould be a great pity, and by no means funny,
If it all turned out to be a ridiculous waste of money.

So, ye travellers of Edinburgh, be advised by me
And step aboard your new tramcars with joyful alacrity,
For the tram doth bring an end to all your misery and woe
Provided ’tis to the airport ye wish for to go.

Stephen Midgley, with acknowledgments to William McGonagall

With additional, grateful acknowledgments to: Edinburgh Evening News, The Scotsman, Edinburgh Council, Edinburgh Trams, Scott Griffith, Chris Hunt at McGonagall Online, Pete Gregson at Kids Not Suits, Aldo Broon at Edinburgh Trambles, and the makers of the Hitler Downfall parody video Edinburgh Trams Fiasco.

McGonagall on Independence

Filed under: Media,Readers’ Gems,Web Links; in the year 2014, on the 24th day of May at 6:34 pm

Readers’ Gems have been appearing in The Spectator today, in response to their weekly writing competition. Asked to “give William Topaz McGonagall a chance to comment on Scottish independence,” the competitors responded with some excellent (if that’s the right term) efforts:

Bounteous Heavens, let us all rejoice!
For the People of Scotland have been given a Choice
And there is to be a National Referendum
For which we must thank the Scottish Nationalists and London.
But how many will vote No and how many will vote Yes
Only God knows though other clever People may guess
And I think a terrible Excitement will have mounted
Until all the Votes of the People have been carefully counted.

The article also sported a neat summary of the Poet and Tragedian for those poor benighted souls as yet unacquainted with him:

The deluded handloom weaver from Dundee built his reputation on appalling yet beguiling works of inadvertent comic genius. Unhampered by self-awareness, and buoyed up by uncrushable self-belief, he forged ahead with his art in the face of universal mockery and derision. Here is a particularly awful line from his most famous poem, ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’ of 1880:

‘And the cry rang out all o’er the town, Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down.’

McGonagall has had the last laugh, though: while most of his Victorian contemporaries have slid into oblivion, the Tayside Tragedian still has devoted fans more than a century after his death and several volumes of his work remain resolutely in print.

If anybody feels the urge to make their own entry to the independence debate, you know where to send it…

McGonagall Talk in Kirriemuir

Filed under: Events; in the year 2014, on the 27th day of February at 10:20 am

Inhabitants of Kirriemuir are to be treated to a talk on the life and times of William McGonagall next week, given by creative writing teacher Edward Small. The talk is presented by the Kirriemuir Heritage Trust and will take place in the Old Parish Church Hall starting at 7:30pm on Wednesday 5th March.

If anybody is able to attend this event and cares to provide a review, ode, or some other commemoration, I’d be happy to publish it on this site.

Hat tip: Kirriemuir Herald

Lights! Camera! McGonagall!

Filed under: News; in the year 2014, on the 26th day of February at 12:40 am

It’s been over a year since I mentioned the plan to make a McGonagall movie. Well, not only has the project not been forgotten, but I’m going to be in it!

This weekend, Erin and Scott – the creative team behind the venture – made the long drive down from Scotland to McGonagall Online’s headquarters in Leicester to record an interview with yours truly.

The end result will form part of a short film used to pitch the idea of making a full-length documentary to the likes of BBC Scotland. If that doesn’t come off, they’ll look for funding to make the film themselves. You can see some of Scott’s previous films via his website.

We had a great time talking about the Poet & Tragedian, and I look forward to further involvement with the project. I’ll be sure to keep readers of this site up-to-date with any developments. You can also keep an eye on their Facebook page.

Tay Bridge Disaster Remembered

Filed under: News; in the year 2013, on the 29th day of December at 10:32 am

Here’s a good story for the last Sabbath day of 2013 – BBC News reports that yesterday two granite memorials were unveiled to remember the victims of the Tay bridge disaster. The memorials stand close to the bridge on either side of the river, and are inscribed with the names of the 59 people known to have been killed.

Whatever the comic overtones of McGonagall’s poem, it’s important to remember the terrible tragedy that occurred to those people, their friends and relatives. I’m glad something has been done to preserve their memory – probably for a very long tine…

William McGonagall Rapping Masterclass

Filed under: Media,Music,News; in the year 2013, on the 17th day of December at 7:50 pm

At a time of year when we’re generally occupied with wrapping of a different sort, reader Tom Taylor writes with a little history and some exciting news:

What ho! fellow McGonagall fans of high and low degree

On the 3rd of April 1997, a number of journals including The Times and the Scottish Herald picked up a story from Associated Press that claimed “dim-witted” American rappers on the Santaphobia label had a huge hit rapping William McGonagall poems. While there is a grain of truth here, the piece had nevertheless been heavily salted with lazy journalism and urban myth. I can now reveal the naked truth as one of the dim wits who dared to tread on the memory of McGonagall.

The story starts in 1993 at the birth of the All New Lucky Boys, a musical collective that a few friends and I started in Huddersfield (the heart of hand loom weaving in England), bringing together members of several ‘bedroom’ or ‘doss’ bands. During one of the early recording sessions, we were at a loss for lyrical inspiration until salvation presented itself in the form of a semi-randomly chosen book; The Folio Society’s Poetic Gems. In William McGonagall we instantly recognised a fellow ‘unwitting’ genius and rapidly recorded The Tay Bridge Disaster and Oban. Completely untutored in the arts of rap and hip hop, it was a mistake to think that they would be anything other than a dog’s breakfast, but we lived in a throwaway culture and this was reflected in our DIY, ‘do it and ditch it’ ethos.

The notoriety of what became known as The William McGonagall Rapping Masterclass was thanks to the blossoming internet career of one of our number. He created a personal website which told of our bedroom recording projects and the Santaphobia “label” under which we made them available, and offered Rapping Masterclass free to anyone willing to send a blank tape and a return envelope. No one ever did that, but in 1997 the website was used as the basis of the mangled story that Associated Press put on the wires. The Times picked it up and additionally contacted an English professor at Chicago North Park University for comment. Other journalists contacted The WTMcG Appreciation Society who also seemed nonplussed but rather pleased and so the mythmaking continued. What is plain through all of this is that no one, not the AP, the various journalists or academics had ever heard any of the All New Lucky Boys music.

It has always been in the back of my mind to do more McGonagall raps and after 20 years, I’ve found the bottle to try it all again. Radio Bingo vs Mile High Henry presents their new collection “McGonagall: Poeticrap” free to anyone willing to send a return envelope. Poems include Sunlight Soap, A Tale of the Sea, The Famous Tay Whale, Saved by Music and others. Listen and discover the truth for yourselves.

Tom tells me he’s also setting up a more 21st century approach to sharing the fruits of his labours than sending cassette tapes through the mail. When I have more information, I’ll be sure to pass it on.

McGonagall and other Bad Poets

Filed under: Web Links; in the year 2013, on the 4th day of December at 8:09 pm

Professor Kirstie Blair, a contributor of content to this site, has written an article entitled McGonagall, ‘Poute’, and the Bad Poets of Victorian Dundee for the latest edition of The Bottle Imp – a journal published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

In it, she describes the “lively culture of bad poetry” that was fostered by the Dundee newspapers in the years running up to the start of McGonagall’s poetic career, particularly the works of “Poute” who satirised the efforts of working class poets with his deliberately bad efforts. To quote from the article:

Reading through the newspaper poems of these years makes it evident that far from being ‘in a special category’, McGonagall was contributing to a pre-existing poetic culture that hovered between the satirical and the serious, and that caused difficulties for editors faced with deciding which was which.

This throws a new light on the question of whether McGonagall was “for real”, or whether he was writing bad verse on purpose. Personally, I remain in the former camp – but the Professor’s article offers considerable food for thought.

A Gem of the People, by the People, for the People

Filed under: Readers’ Gems; in the year 2013, on the 19th day of November at 8:00 am

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the giving of the Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln. These few words that Lincoln said “the world will little note, nor long remember” have become perhaps the best-known speech in American history. Is there any more that can be learned about this famous oration? Well, apparently there is!

By an astonishing coincidence, regular contributor Stephen Midgley has unearthed a document that casts the President’s words in a whole new light…

McGonagall at Gettysburg
or
Guidance for Mr. Lincoln, from a Scots Poetic Genius, on how to make a Good Speech

’Twas in the year of 1776, and on July the 4th day
That our people declared independence without dismay,
For on that date a new nation was founded,
Which upon certain noble principles was grounded.

Those principles were liberty and equality;
And oh! how the people did dance in their glee,
For they would no longer pay taxes to far-away kings
And they could buy their goods with dollars instead of shillings.

Now, eighty-seven years later, we are engaged in a war
For to test whether such a nation can long endure,
And because the backs of the slaves in the South are sore,
For of cruel abuse and punishment they can take no more.

Here on this field was fought a great battle,
Of which the world for a very long time will prattle;
Our Union troops were led by General Meade,
And to a man they all fought very bravely indeed.

But alas! I am very sorry to say
That many thousands of lives were lost that day,
And on the two days that preceded it;
But ’twas a victory and, by God, we needed it.

For in the end the rebel hordes were made for to flee,
Even though they were commanded by Robert E. Lee,
And in spite of that general’s undoubted charisma
Our forces defeated him without any stigma.

The world will not for very long remember
What we say here on this 19th day of November,
But ’tis rather those who fought here who’ll be remember’d
Because many of them were killed, or at least dismember’d.

Now ’tis for the rest of us to finish the task they began,
And to gainsay it there’s very few people can.
So let us ensure these men died not in vain,
And that in future no one will have cause for to complain.

Therefore, fellow citizens, be advised by me,
Whether ye be of high or low degree,
That the hearts of the people will be filled with elation
If a new birth of freedom be had by this nation.

And our final resolution is really quite simple:
That government of the people, by the people, for the people,
For which there’s a demand in every clime,
Shall not perish from the earth for a very long time.

Footnote

The above poetic gem, unmistakably the work of William McGonagall, was recently discovered among the Lincoln family’s private papers. In addition to its content, its very existence is interesting for two reasons: firstly, it indicates that McGonagall was already practising the art of poetry some years earlier than had hitherto been supposed; and, secondly, it could shed an entirely new light on the poet’s relationship with other great figures of the age. It is possible that, after Mr. Lincoln had given his Address and it had received widespread international coverage, McGonagall felt convinced that he could improve upon it and, somewhat in the manner of the renaissance parody Mass, decided to fashion an altogether grander and more memorable work based upon the original material. In a spirit of helpfulness, the poet would naturally have sent the President a copy of the resulting lay.

It is equally plausible, however, that the poem may have been the result of Mr. Lincoln’s approaching the Scots poet and tragedian for advice and suggestions in advance of his forthcoming address at Gettysburg. If so, this would explain why the President, having made liberal use of the poet’s ideas in his speech, would have chosen to keep McGonagall’s document private – being understandably reluctant to reveal that most of what became known as “his” Gettysburg Address, and the ideas expressed therein, were in fact largely the work of another.

Either way, admirers of William McGonagall – and indeed of Abraham Lincoln – will wish to compare the two versions and judge their respective merits for themselves.

— Stephen Midgley, with acknowledgments to William McGonagall and Abraham Lincoln

A Tribute from Germany

Filed under: Readers’ Gems; in the year 2013, on the 10th day of November at 1:33 am

Esther D. writes from Germany with this tribute to the bard’s historical output:

W. T. McGonagall – The world’s worst poet or a great local historian

We must ask ourselves: Was he the worst poet, or a great historian?!

His unique ability to give accounts of his days was absolutely remarkable.
Only a few of the so-called Oxbridgian poets give such a well-detailed (and for everyman`s understanding)account of their days without going overboard with negative personal judgements.
Of their accounts I can only say: hardly dependable!
W. T. McGonagall spoke of real events that occurred during his life time giving us, if you will, an eye-witness report and yet he is mocked – just because he did not first consult with Shakespearean scholars.
Well, BOO you! And I mean you, you and Shakespeare, too, not forgetting also you Lars.

It is most funny how apparently intelligent folks read the works of a nation’s (I understand also the world´s) worst poet and yet these very intelligent folks do not understand that what he created were not simply works of poetry but grand historical manuscripts.
So, who is the worst, the poet or the reader?!
Hmm, I wonder!
And I am not even in Scotland standing in my shoes.
But in Deutschland sitting on my couch writing this but with no one to schmooze.

I guess ye much prefer the cock and bull-shit accounts given by imaginative modern-day wanna-be historians.
The great scholars who produce books filled with “what I think happened” AKA fanciful truths.
W. T. McGonagall accounts may be mostly about his local surroundings, but should nonetheless be treated as useful historical accounts just as those from other great historians.
Not even Shakespeare was able to give a poetic account of his day without spicing it up with fiction, and lots of it.
Mr McGonagall´s works should not be compared with Mr Shakespeare´s – no artist should be compared with the other as the creativity, and indeed the beauty of art is in the eye of the beholder.
See splashing a bucket of paint on to a canvas and calling it art…no comment – I leave you to it.

His poems were, in my humble opinion, well written just with weak rhyming – So what?!
Should they not be seen as his own literal creations just as Shakespeare created his own world of writing??!
Has any of you who mock him ever heard of literal creativity??!! It seems NOT!
To me, his idea of literal creativity is much inviting.

Sir W. T. McGonagall was in every way literature is to be understood – a genius!
For someone with little or no education to come up with what he came up with – his writing, his determination to pursue his dreams, his idea of self-marketing…is bloody well impressive!
Even those J.K. Rowling loving twats will agree with this.
It just comes to prove that even in those days no one needed Oxbridge and co to produce a work of genius.
So, aloud I say to all ye naysayers read his works with understanding and stop being repulsive.

Mr W.T. McGonagall was just a poor man trying to make ends meet and darn he did!
He made two contrasting ends called the queen´s gate, and a poor man´s weary legs meet.
Pompous Victoria jealous that this she couldn’t accomplish, she hid.
A good thing England did not make him king as he would have missed the ship to New York´s tea and bread, and bread and meat.

A Scotsgirl I am not– just someone who tries to encourage the different faces of creativity, and one who recognises a good history book.
I endeavoured to change your perception about one of the world’s great historians, this I hope I have archived, and now I must go cook.

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