Humouristic Writings for Elderly Scottish Owls

Here’s a positively ancient review I just uncovered for Hoots! an Anthology of Scottish Comic Writing edited by Susie Maguire and David Jackson Young (Polygon, 1997) . Well, I suppose they had to call it something.

Scottish humour seems to take two principle forms: the absurd and the abusive. The absurd mode stems from our inability to take ourselves seriously, as in James Meek’s ‘Something to be Proud Of’, in which the Clackmannan Regiment disdain the use of aircraft and nosedive in formation off Edinburgh Castle. The abusive mode is a near-psychotic refusal to allow anyone else to take themselves seriously either, and finds its native home in the flyting, a rhetorical machine for flinging insults at people, AKA Rab C. In its purest form, however, our humour unites both absurdities and abuse into Caledonian Deadpan (or in the case of Chic Murray, deadpan loaf). Its effect is like being sliced in two by a samurai sword: only when you attempt to move do you fall apart. It can be several years after an evening in the company of such masters as Tom Leonard or James Kelman that you realise how much fun you actually had. We are a nation currently pretending that England is the straight man in a joke that has waited three hundred years for its punchline.

Hoots! makes a reasonable stab at encompassing these modes, and it contains something of that bloodthirsty relish for language that marks the genuine article. And that’s the good news. It isn’t all the good news, but when reviewing any anthology you must include a whingey bit so the editors can tut and mutter “The calibre of reporting!” So here we go.

Given the steepness of the price, more than a few pieces feel as though they were written to ease a columnist’s cashflow rather than with the terrible compulsion that drives a comedian to climb on a stage or a page and expose themselves and us. Too many sections are not hearty but arch, and  have recourse to that journalistic equivalent to canned laughter, the faxed eyebrow. Given the amount of journalese, why is there none of MacDiarmid’s (‘Dour Drinkers’ or ‘The Last Great Burns Discovery’ lurch to mind)? Where is Tom Leonard’s levitational Mr Chesty? And if they’re going to count their Chic Murrays, why no Bruce Morton? No Connolly? Does no-one transcribe the deranged prophecies of Phil Kay? And when it came to bagging the Muriels, what a pity they should go for Gray instead of hunting the Spark.

The good news is Muriel’s less hirsute twin Alasdair Gray has contributed his addition to the dafter monologues of dentistry, ‘The Trendelenburg Position’, whilst Irvine Welsh’s ‘Where the Debris Meets the Sea’ is equally braw:  Hollywood starlets salivating in patent Welshian argot over assorted ex-Casuals. There’s a brilliant, somewhat egg-bound story by Elspeth Davies, and David Deans’s informative article on the aeronautic capacities of sheep comes with a label marked ‘Mind-warped in Scotia’. Ian Crichton Smith’s Murdo piece is as fine if not quite as unhinged as some of the tales of that Hebridean Outsider, while his comrade in Ian-ness, Mr Pattison, famously recovered something in ‘Rab’s First Rant’ from a dank and ancient anthology of the National Psyche at considerable risk to his fingers. The older contributions stand up well even lacking the hilarious modern resource of sweary words: Neil Munro and Grassic Gibbon, Galt and Ferrier, all seem part of one timeless endeavour to remove any shred of human dignity attached to the carcass of  Scottishness.

And now back to the bad news (just when it was going so well). Poetry is definitely the poor cousin here: with no Dunbar or Burns or (again) MacDiarmid: are we protecting the punters from all that difficult vocabulary? Then there’s the single word ‘McGonagall’ on the back cover, like a brand name of What’s Bad. A bit patronising that, as though only what we can mock is permitted to survive, while the stuff that might seem pretentious is out. Though Edwin Morgan and Robert Crawford offer partial redemption. And there’s a certain editorial nonchalance in the decision to include birthdates for some authors, to merely query them in the case of Kate Atkinson, and to leave them out altogether for others. Maybe such Platonic ideals of comedy were never born, but have existed throughout eternity, or maybe Hoots! could have been better proofed.

Last joke is on me: I was scowling at the contents page muttering in the way of all authors “Why am Eh no included?” when I turned the page and Hey McPresto I was! No permissions, no fee, no warning, no complaints: that’s my kind of punchline.

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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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