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.

Gem Outage Resolved Poetically

Filed under: Readers’ Gems,Site News; in the year 2013, on the 4th day of November at 9:04 am

On Friday, I made a quick change to the site to redirect visitors to the non-existent /gems/ directory to somewhere more useful. I checked it was working, and went off to enjoy my weekend; not (alas) in the “bonnie highlands floral”, but in the not quite so salubrious surroundings of Milton Keynes. Imagine my dismay as I returned to this email from alert reader Simon Levene:

Dear Mr Hunt, I see with no delight
That a celebrated McGonagall ballad has vanished from your site;
When I click on the link to find the “Fall of Coomassie”
I find that your webmaster must have fatally damaged his chassis,
Because although links to this poem are scattered thickly on the ground
A cruel error message says bluntly “Page not Found.”
Unless you can help me, the outcome of this situation will be far from funny –
I shall have to go and buy my own copy of the Great Man’s ballads, with my own money.

In fact, not only had my “fix” blocked access to the Fall of Coomassie, but to all the other gems as well! Fortunately, I immediately realised where I had gone wrong, and was soon able to put things right. A reply was sent to Mr Levene:

It’s worse than that! I know you will be shocked
To learn that access to each of the poetic gems was blocked.
It was due to my own hasty actions that the site was accidentally nixed
But thanks to your tip-off it has now all been fixed.
May your weekend continue happy and serene,
And without having to part with any notes bearing the image of Her Majesty the Queen.

An acknowlegement followed soon after:

Dear Mr Hunt, before you can say “Michael Finnegan”
The works of the Great Tragedian are filling up my screen again,
And this is a matter of great rejoicing down south, as you know
Because we have been having to make do with the works of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot and Co.
So although such laborious work must have interfered with your enjoyment of the Sabbath day
The Great Man’s followers all send you a heartfelt “Hooray!”

So the moral of this story, for me, is not to make major changes to the site on a Friday afternoon without properly testing the results. My thanks to Simon for pointing out the problem so promptly (and wittily). If you spot any issues on the site, please don’t hesitate to get in touch, whether or not you do so in verse!

Two Early Articles

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2013, on the 22nd day of August at 8:36 pm

For the quarter-century following the arrival of the “gift of poetry”, William McGonagall was probably the world’s best documented unemployed hand loom weaver. His exploits were a regular feature in the local newspapers, giving a vivid picture of his career as a would-be poet.

But before 1877, his life is shrouded in a darkness pierced only by the odd official document, a couple of press mentions, and McGonagall’s own unreliable autobiographies. So anything that casts light on any part of the “McGonagall Dark Ages” is to be welcomed – and I’m glad to be able to light a couple of candles to that affect today.

Professor Kirstie Blair of Stirling University is a well-known scholar in the field of Victorian poetry with particular interests in working-class poets. She’s currently engaged in research for a project on Victorian Scottish poets,particularly the poetry columns in the newspapers. That means poring through mountains of old newspapers – 20 years worth of the People’s Journal, for example – in the course of which she has uncovered a couple of hitherto undiscovered mentions (one possible, one definite) of our favourite bard. As a result, she’s kindly contributed two articles to the site:

My thanks go to Kirstie for taking the time and trouble to share her discoveries like this.

Lamentations Online

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2013, on the 2nd day of July at 1:12 pm

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.

In The News Today

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2012, on the 11th day of April at 11:26 am

Thanks mainly to the impressive  British Newspaper Archive, I’ve been able to considerably expand the collection of newspaper stories on the Life page in recent weeks. These stories chart our hero’s misadventures through the words of newspaper reporters both locally and as far away as Manchester or Yorkshire.

In an effort to draw people to this section of the site, I’ve changed the way the top right panel on the home page works. Previously, if today’s date is the same as a date given in one of the poems, you get a link to that poem as an “on this day” link. Otherwise you’d get a random couplet of the day.

Now, if no “on this day” poem is found, a second check is made to see if any McGonagall newspaper stories were published on this date. If they were, a link is given to the “In the news today in 18-whatever” page instead of a random couplet. So, for example, today there’s a link to a story published on 11th April 1893. Once you’ve read the story, you can use the next/previous buttons to explore the others.

Keep reading, and if anyone out there finds a newspaper cutting that I’ve missed, I’ll be happy to add it.

In His Own Words

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2011, on the 14th day of November at 7:11 pm

One of the advantages of the new site is that I now effectively have all McGonagall’s published works in a database. Leveraging that with the skills acquired in my day job, means I’ve been able to do a little statistical analysis. Add in some help from the rather brilliant Tagxedo and I’ve been able to produce some art too:

This image was created by counting all the words used in all the gems on this site, discarding words like “the” and “a”, and displaying the next 600 most popular words in proportion to how often they appear. Thus the most commonly used words are “beautiful”, “hearts”, “days” and “british” all the way down to “end”, “fro”, “led” and “sin”. Personally, I think it’s rather touching that the so-called disaster poet’s favourite word was “beautiful” rather than anything more bloodthirsty.

If you like this image, you can buy it on a T-shirt in the McGonagalia shop.

Five “New” Gems

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2011, on the 3rd day of November at 12:45 pm

I’ve just acquired a copy of McGonagall and Tommy Atkins, a book published in the early seventies that focuses on his military works.

The author, David Phillips, had just completed his biography of McGonagall – No Poet’s Corner at the Abbey – and had obviously spent time browsing through Dundee Library’s collection of original manuscripts and broadsheets, because five previously unpublished poems appeared in the book. I’ve now transcribed them onto the site.

So, for the first time in nearly forty years, feast your eyes on…

Dates and Stats

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2011, on the 25th day of October at 11:23 am

I’ve added two new features to the site today.

The first is a listing of all the poems on the site by date of composition. This is something I’ve wanted to have for ages, but is only possible through the scholarship of Norman Watson in his book Poet McGonagall. His list of 270 McGonagall poems by date has allowed me to add this feature, as well as identifying plenty of “new” gems for me to track down and add to the site!

The second feature is a page of statistical analysis of McGonagall’s output. At the moment it’s a pretty simplistic charting of subject and composition dates, but I’m open to suggestions on other analyses that could be performed.

Welcome, Thrice Welcome

Filed under: Site News; in the year 2011, on the 18th day of October at 2:30 pm

’Twas in the year 2011, and of October the 18th Day,
That the appearance of McGonagall Online was changed in a dramatic way…

Today is an important one in the history of McGonagall Online – after two months of development, a complete redesign of the site has gone live. The new look makes use of a lot of 21st century features, whilst retaining a resolutely 19th century appearance.

The site now sits on a heavily customised install of WordPress, which allows me to include this blog, commenting on individual pages & poems, more sophisticated linking between pages and many other features.

I hope you’ll like the new look. It’s intended to have the impression of an upmarket Victorian book, and uses many design elements drawn from a genuine typefounder’s catalogue published in 1897. The marbled background is a heavily transformed section of this image.

Most of the page addresses have changed as a result of this redesign. If you had any links and/or bookmarks pointing to pages on the old site, they should continue to work as they get redirected to the equivalent page of the new site. Please let me know if this doesn’t happen for you.

The only element of the old site that has been broken is the “Gem of the Day” mailing list. If you signed up in the past to get each day’s gem emailed to you, you’ll need to register as a user of the new site to continue to get them sent to you. Once you’ve got a user account, you can log in to your profile to adjust the frequency of deliveries. Logging on as a user also makes it a bit quicker to post comments too.

A new feature of the site is the shop, where as well as a range of McGonagall books (via your local version of Amazon), you can buy T-shirts and other McGonagalia. Keep an eye on this page, as new products will be appearing there soon!

Another new feature is the “Readers’ Gems” category of this blog. If you feel moved to write your own gem in McGonagallesque vein, on any subject, feel free to send it in and I’ll post it up here.

I hope you like the new design, use the comments below to tell me what you think.