Epilogue to Lines in Praise of Wimbledon
The foregoing words were penned by McGonagall
In the year 2012, and in good faith all,
But the poet thought not that they’d soon be outdated
By an event that the British had for so long awaited.
For the very next summer, as if in reply,
Did Scot Andy Murray, in the month of July,
Win the men’s tournament with brilliant play
And in heroic manner, which no one dare gainsay.
For in the final he played against Djokovic, the Serb,
Who in vain tried the Scotsman’s great skills for to curb,
And when Andy hit the winning shot with his racket
The hearts of the British onlookers were ecstatic.
Then the crowds acclaimed loudly his triumph most brave
While fans and politicians their flags high did wave,
And so the new champion won glory and fame
Which were richly deserved by the man from Dunblane.
In 1885, a 16-page booklet appeared for sale in the streets of Dundee entitled The Book of the Lamentations of Poet Macgonagall. This slim volume, “dedicated to himself knowing none greater,” told – in his own words – of the poet’s struggles to achieve the fame he felt he deserved.
It was a complete hoax.
The true author was a man called John Willock, local agent for Levers Soap and Vice-President of the Dundee Burns Society. Taking an interest in the rather lower reaches of the poetic food chain, he printed 300 copies of his McGonagall “autobiography” and sold them for sixpence a copy.
If Willocks may have hoped that his orotund Latin-studded hatchet job would go over the head of an uneducated handloom weaver, so he’d be unaware of the calumnies that were being heaped upon him. If so, he had badly underestimated his man. McGonagall realised exactly what was going on, and was furious about it. A solicitor’s letter was sent threatening legal action – and Willocks swiftly withdrew the booklet from sale and penned this letter of apology:
So why have I published the Lamentations in the Life section of this website?
Well, if you ignore the gratuitous insults to the poet’s parents (probably motivated by the widespread and casual prejudice against Irish immigrants), and dial back the self-regarding bombast just a little, what you’re left with is not all that far from one of McGonagall’s genuine autobiographies.
The coming of the gift of poetry and the trips to Balmoral and London are described broadly in line with McGonagall’s own later accounts. The unsuccessful concert in the Thistle Hall (paired, incidentally, with a brilliant parody of The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna) is in line with a contemporary press report of the event. I’ve yet to track down any corroborating account of the second concert at Lochee, but it sounds entirely plausible.
Much of this information could probably have been gleaned by a careful combing of the Dundee newspaper archives, but why would a man who was quite prepared to lie about his subject go to all the bother of doing so?
Surely it’s more likely that such a detailed knowledge of the poet’s life and career originated from the man himself. Willocks interviewed McGonagall about his life, either with a hidden objective or with a view to producing an “autobiography” as a joint venture (modern celebrities aren’t alone in engaging ghost writers!). Only after McGonagall had seen the end result did the two men fall out.
For that reason, there’s something for the student of McGonagalia to learn from the Lamentations, and that’s why it’s filed alongside the genuine autobiographies.
John Willocks retained an ambivalent attitude to McGonagall. On the one hand, he must have been involved in comissioning him to write about Sunlight Soap; on the other, once William was safely in his grave, he re-published an expanded and even more insulting version of Lamentations. Whether I publish that version remains to be seen.
My thanks to reader Duncan Soutar for scanning and sending me a copy of Lamentations and the above letter from Willocks.