pax scotorum

(During the Dark Night of the Newsland Doldrums in August 2008, Guardian Blogs phoned me up on holiday in Crete to ask me for a response to Jeremy ‘I’m Scottish?’ Paxman’s assertion that Burns was ‘nothing more than a king of sentimental doggerel.’ They gave me four hours, then published an edited version here. Compare and contrast with the following.)

There’s a marvellous illusion that there are four countries (or three and part of a country) that make up something called the United Kingdom. That each of these has its own significant cultural contribution which interacts in a magical synergy with the others and produces something that even politicians can read if not appreciate or fund adequately.

Even the journalists, according to this tale, ought to be able to read literature — those who snatch at the tails of politicians in the way the witch Cutty Sark caught at the tail of Tam o’ Shanter’s mare. Doesn’t that Jim Naughtie know all about classical music as well as the long-running opera featuring Westminster’s soapy boy sopranos and bumbling, rumbling basses?

Of course the truth is that, for journalists of a political persuasion, there is only one country in the United Kingdom, and that it consists of one city and, conveniently situated in the heart of that, one village. There are always rumours that, somewhere beyond the nations known as Washington and Tuscany, perhaps even north of the fabled Isle of Man Chester, there might be another village called Scotland, from which many centuries ago, the ruling caste of New Labour descended, like a parcel of rogues in search of English gold, conquering the City and making us all wear ghastly smiles instead of just having a conscience as we were used to.

This village, it is believed, did indeed have a local Bard like to our one (for, as even the Scottish philosopher Christopher Lambert admitted, ‘there can only be one’), called Burns. And if politicians can travel all that distance, it follows that journalists, like a pox, could accompany them. But surely they’d want to keep very quiet about this fact.

Except journalists are not paid to keep quiet, they are paid to declare things very simply and very loudly, so that other journalists have something to talk about, and politicians can get on with whatever it is they really do in secret.

Journalists, traditionally, dislike poets, rather as dogs dislike cats, or hypocrites like Holy Willie hate honest fornicators like Robert Burns. Poets use language to declare beautiful, astounding statements about what it is to be human. They announce that empathic ability ‘to see ourselves as ithers see us’ that sages from Confucius to Christ considered vital. They grasp transience, the abruptness of life that ‘like the snow falls in the river,/A moment white–then melts forever.’ They disdain the authority journalists crave, ‘The rank is but the guinea stamp,/The man’s the gowd for a’ that.’ They employ alliteration, rhythm, rhyme and imagery to lodge nuggets of lines inside our minds for centuries, whereas journalists haven’t got much past alliteration, and rely on others to supply their images.

Journalists, especially, like buzz-words, but have little capacity with which to retain them, so that when literary critics call an entire literary era ‘Sentimental,’ a highly complex term that draws on writers as diverse as Laurence Sterne and Henry MacKenzie, they are apt to use the term without checking it out.

Above all, they like to believe they are of the people, speaking on behalf of the people, and as the people authentically speak. When an author spends the last decade of his life researching folk songs, gathering and adapting lyrics together with traditional tunes, and does so for almost no money despite his own poverty, journalists tend to get confused.

What should they call it when a poet uses a genuine poetry of the people as a springboard for their own work, which ranges from sentiment to passion, from vulgarity to the final gestures of grief, from Duncan Macleerie’s fiddle, (‘It’s a’ strung wi hair, an a hole in the middle/An ay when he plays on’t, his wife leuks sae cheary,’) to the turning from all lovers: ‘Ye are na Mary Morrison.’ Ah yes. Sentiment.

It’s a pity they don’t allow themselves better acquaintance with a writer with the range of sensibility of Burns, in whose work they might find a pax scotorum from all the petty spites, insecurities of origin and intellectual impatience of their trade. As Burns says, ‘it wad frae mony a blunder free [them]/ And foolish notion.’

(Later that same day, Newsnight phoned me up in an anthropophagous delirium — ie reporting on news that their own news-team was generating — asking me to produce a poem in response to the Great Jeremy to be broadcast that evening.

I was being massaged at the time by a Chinese gentleman with very powerful digits (highly recommended for the holidaymaker since one tends to be lying on a sunlounger anyway), but I bent my brows to the task and completed the following just in time to discover that some actual news had apparently occurred somewhere in the cosmos. Naturally this meant my work was no longer required.

As it is very unlikely to appear anywhere again in all eternity, here it is.)

A pox on Paxman, rot his socks,

and micht his Markies’ pants faa doon,

wha wad wi Burns attempt tae box

as tho he werr some rhymin Broon.


Thae wha tae politicians hark

hae lugs bunged up wi lies or lang:

they’d tak a Tory poodle’s bark

fur oor rebellious lintie’s sang.


Thi sentiment that damns aa kirks

nor gees a fig fur ony judges

is shairper nor thi critic’s dirk

this eedjit jabs in Labour’s drudges.


Let Paxo girn in London gravy

and beat up sic a freith o blethers

he’d tak a manhole fur a mavie –

Burns kent his unca-guid forefaithers…

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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1 Response to pax scotorum

  1. stovepipe studbagel says:

    waxing righteous Bill!!…..ah remember well huffing n puffing indignantly when the Poxman aired his ridiculous opinions….obviously ahm a wee bitty behind the times noo in gettin back tae yi….but ah enjoyed yir piece nane the leass for the passing o some years in the meanwhile. And, of course, what better medium furra wee bitty flyting than oor guid broad Scots!! Cheers Bill……ahv, just noticed yir link tae Johnny Keats…ah’ll awa’ n check it oot………

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