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.

Obey McGonagall

Filed under: Events,News; in the year 2013, on the 8th day of August at 7:58 pm

Now playing at the Cabaret Voltaire in Edinburgh is a one-man show by American comedian Harmon Leon celebrating the career of our favourite bad bard.

Obey McGonagall is on every night between now and 24th August starting at 8:50pm. It’s part of the Free Fringe, which means tickets are free – but you’re invited to make a donation after the show. If you’re lucky enough to be in Edinburgh this month, I hope you’ll give this show your support.

Wimbledon Epilogue

Filed under: Readers’ Gems; in the year 2013, on the 15th day of July at 12:44 am

Stephen Midgley writes with a few lines to bring his previous Lines in Praise of the Wimbledon Championships up to date with recent developments:

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But the poet thought not that they’d soon be outdated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.

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.

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.

On the Memorable Events of Tuesday 26th June 2013

Filed under: Readers’ Gems; in the year 2013, on the 30th day of June at 8:38 pm

Tom Mc Rae, a reader from “down under” with quite a hoard of gems to his name already, writes with a politically inspired one:

This morning I am in deep trouble, you may have heard that Julia Gillard has been deposed as our PM. I had thought I was free of the spirit of World’s best bad poet and poet laureate of the Temperance Movement, William McGonagall but he has just channeled, me from his flying saucer residence on the moon’s dark side. I am commanded to put his commemorative “poem” on record.

On the Memorable Events of Tuesday 26th June 2013

Of glorious joy I do not lack,
For Julia’s gone and Kevin’s back.
Overthrown by 47 votes to 55, nothing sinister,
Kev is now holding the reins again as Australia’s Prime Minister.
In trying the discontent in Labor ranks to halt,
’Twas she who called the ballot so it was her own fault.
That when she had assembled the Labor host,
Kevin won the ballot and Julia Gillard lost.
But courageous Julia did not in despair retreat,
On the contrary she with great honour accepted her defeat.
And without any bitterness or display of frown,
Our first female Prime Minister gracefully stepped down.
Then somewhat later, without any offence,
Kevin Rudd gave his first press conference.
Presented for all to see throughout the nation,
On every Australian TV station.
He praised Julia’s achievements then stated without any cynicism,
That he wanted to save Australia from Tony Abbot’s negativism.
As Julia rides into the sunset,
I can say without regret.
At least now we will not be exposed to cartoons sickening,
That slander her, all drawn by the vile Larry Pickering.
And let us all now hail with joy,
Kevin Rudd, PM, Queensland’s very own Boy.
I pray he will rescue Australia from great furies,
By closing down all pubs, wineries, and breweries
But, remember, there were TWO events I stated,
The other? Let it be related,
That Queensland won two victories bright,
By beating Victoria and New South Wales in a single night.
Both those states were forced to yield,
One at Canberra the other on Lang Park footy field.
So I hail 26th June 2013 as I conclude my rhyme.
A date that will be remembered for a very long time!

Animated McGonagall

Filed under: News; in the year 2013, on the 25th day of June at 12:00 am

While we wait for the McGonagall Movie, reader “Eugene Cheese” has been working on an animated version of the great man. I don’t think Pixar will be quaking in their boots just yet, but feast your eyes on the pixelated poet narrating the opening passage to his autobiography:

Lieder Article

Filed under: Media,News; in the year 2013, on the 24th day of June at 11:53 am

A recording of Robert Zuidam’s McGonagall-Lieder, mentioned on this site a couple of months ago, has received a short review in The Independent. The reviewer is impressed with

the success of his setting of McGonagall’s two signature works, without stooping to ridicule beyond a subtly bathetic momentum of marimba […] The coloratura soprano Katrien Baerts conveys the hysterical jubilation with which the poet first acclaims the new Tay Bridge, then laments its collapse

You can read the full review here.

STOP PRESS: A rather longer review has appeared in The Guardian.

Biker’s Gems

Filed under: Readers’ Gems; in the year 2013, on the 20th day of May at 10:29 pm

Regular contributor Stephen Midgley has taken up his pen once more. This time, perhaps inspired by certain lines in praise of local shopkeepers, he has written a paean to Ducati Glasgow – purveyors of motorbikes to the inhabitants of Scotland’s second grandest city. Whether they choose to reward the poet with an example of their wares remains to be seen…

Lines in Praise of Ducati Glasgow

’Twas in the year 2002, and on June the twenty-nine,
A day which Scotland’s bikers will remember for a very long time,
That Ducati Glasgow opened its doors with great ceremony
To display the finest motorcycles which are made in Italy.

For at that time there was no Ducati dealer in the region,
The city of Glasgow, land of Taggart and of brave John Smeaton,
And fans of the Italian brand were in great dismay and sorrow
Because for their bikes and servicing they must go to Edinboro’.

For Ducatis are fine motorbikes, and beautiful to see,
Oh! so splendid to be ridden and of highest quality;
There are the Hypermotard, the Diavel and the Monster,
And riding the Multistrada will also bring great rapture,
And the Superbikes, eleven-ninety-eight, nine-one-six and seven-four-nine,
And especially the Panigale which is exceeding fine.

So if you are considering to replace your ancient steed
With an Italian two-wheeled motorised velocipede,
Then get thee along without delay to the Great Western Road,
Where you can see all these Ducatis so magnificent to behold.

And if to Ducati Glasgow you should come on a two-wheeler,
You can park it in the street outside the front door of the dealer;
But if instead you come by car, then park it in the alley,
And enter by the back passage for to view the Panigale.

As soon as you go into the shop, you will see straight away
The many awards, such as Dealer of the Year, which are on display,
For customers their praises to the skies have often lauded,
Though, sad to say, some other bike shops long ago their windows boarded.

The staff of this emporium are as welcoming as can be,
And they soon will make you feel at home with a cup of good coffee;
Martin Rees is the man in charge, and the chief salesman is Blair,
And they are both very helpful and most expert, I do declare,
For whether you are young or old, skinny or a fatty
They will soon find the right bike for you, preferably a red Ducati.

But if you are no millionaire by some sad mischance,
To ride the Ducati of your dreams you may well need finance,
So you should have a chat about this with business manager Kerrie,
And after that your heart will soon be cheerful, gay and merry,
For not only is the fair Kerrie most beautiful to be seen
But she can arrange easy payments for you, even if you’re very mean.

And then there are the workshop boys, George and Craig and Charlie,
Who’ll do a great job on your bike, even if ’twas running poorly,
And Harry is the parts manager, who’ll obtain without dismay
Anything you need, whether ’tis a fairing or can of spray.

Indeed they are good people all, such as service driver Robin,
And I must mention Mrs Rees, who keeps the place so clean,
Which you will notice the minute that you step in through the door,
For you could gladly eat your luncheon off the showroom floor.
And then there’s Vincent the “Ducati dog”, a boxer is his breed,
Who is so gentle and friendly that he doesn’t need to be on a lead.

But I pray ye riders, once you have your bike, be advised by me,
Take care when you open the throttle of your nice new Ducati,
For you would be most sensible to be extremely wary
Lest your collar soon be felt by the Strathclyde constabulary,
Who care not whether you are on a moped or a Panigale.

So when you ride off up the A-eighty-two on your Ducati
Heading for a day out amid Scotland’s splendid scenery,
Of Strathclyde’s eagle-eyed finest you must take especial heed
Lest you travel the Queen’s highway at an excessive speed;

Or else you could get points upon your licence and a fine,
Which will be remember’d by your insurers for a very long time.
So, ye bikers, do not think for to exceed the ton,
At least until you’re well and truly clear of Dumbarton.

Take Me To Your Lieder

Filed under: Events,Music; in the year 2013, on the 22nd day of April at 11:57 pm

McGonagall fans living in Holland1 may be interested in an event happening in Amsterdam this week:

Challenge Classics and music publisher Deuss Music would like to invite you to the release of the new album of Robert Zuidam: McGonagall-Lieder, on April 24th at the ‘Muziekgebouw aan het IJ’!

McGonagall-Lieder is a song cycle composed by Robert Zuidam with lyrics of the legendary William McGonagall. It is conducted by Oliver Knussen and performed by Katrien Baerts, Pianoduo Post&Mulder and Asko|Schönberg. The work highlights the theatrical sound that Zuidam is known for and has a unique composition of instruments: soprano, four celli, double bass, percussion and the special role for two piano’s.

The texts of this work are from William McGonagall, a poet from Dundee in Schotland who was a weaver with an unshakeable faith in his poetic genius. The Times Literary Supplement once wrote about this legendary writer: “A real genius, for he is the only memorable bad poet in our language”. Robert Zuidam ads: “Bad poetry can be an excellent source of inspiration for a composer. Dante, Virgil, Goethe all evoke reverence and awe, and reluctance to open all portholes in the battleship of the imagination. And not without reason: after all, good poetry is already music in itself, and fares well without support. When Oliver Knussen, composer, conductor, and connaisseur of Scottish paraphernalia, gave me The Complete McGonagall as a Christmas present in 1992, I immediately sensed the musical potential of this remarkable poetry.”

Robert Zuidam, studied composition at the Conservatory of Rotterdam. He was awarded the Koussevitzky Composition Prize for Fishbone, a work for wind instruments and piano, and a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship enabled him to return to Tanglewood as a student. In 2010, Zuidam taught and lectured at Harvard University as Erasmus Professor, and was awarded the Kees van Baaren-Prize in The Hague, for his opera Rage d’amours. The core of Zuidam’s compositional activities lies in the field of vocal music, particularly that of the music theatre.

McGonagall-Lieder will be released on April 24th in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ during the world premiere of Robert Zuidam’s String Quartet (2013) performed by DoelenKwartet.

I must confess, I’d not heard of Robert Zuidam or his work before despite the McGonagall-Lieder having been completed back in 2001. Clearly a fan of the poet’s work, this excerpt from his website shows he’s little more hazy on the details of his life:

McGonagall recited his poetry at tea circles and soirées at the homes of the upper social strata, or after he had starred, with his wavy locks, on the stage of the Theatre Royal, Dundee, as Richard III, Othello, or Hamlet, amidst a crowd in the foyer surrounding him in adoration.

A version of the man’s career drawn solely from his own imagination, I fear – but then Mr Zuidam didn’t have this website available to him to tell him the truth!

Thanks to serial gem contributor Stephen Midgley for drawing this event to my attention.


  1. The Gem of the Day Statistics currently show one recipient in Belgium and none at all in Holland, so they probably won’t be overwhelmed with McGonagall fans on Wednesday! []

Exhibition Marks 200th Anniversary of McGonagall Disaster

Filed under: News; in the year 2013, on the 12th day of April at 12:01 pm

’Twas on the 1st of April, and in the year of Eighteen thirteen,
That the whaler “Oscar” was wrecked not far from Aberdeen;
’Twas all on a sudden the wind arose, and a terrific blast it blew,
And the “Oscar” was lost, and forty-two of a gallant crew.

So begins The Wreck of the Whaler Oscar, a typical McGonagall gem commemorating this maritime disaster. Now, Aberdeen Maritime Museum has opened a new exhibition to mark the 200th anniversary of the event .

The whaling industry was no stranger to casualties at sea, but this particular wreck happened so close inshore as to be visible to many of the unfortunate sailors’ friends and relatives. It had a huge impact locally and led to the construction of a local lighthouse.  And to a rotten poem, of course.

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