Makaroni Peh

(Here’s a splicing together of the short statement I sent out to The Courier and the text of the even shorter speech I gave by way of intro to the first commissioned poem as Dundee’s Makar, or laureate. That was read out in the City Square as part of the submission of the bid for City of Culture 2017, and you can see a snippet of it filmed here. Links to the poem itself appear below.)

I’m deeply honoured to be appointed Dundee’s first Makar: the city has been a major subject in my work for over thirty years. (My first book, Dundee Doldrums, was published in 1991 for the Octocentennial, but mostly written in the early 80s.) I’ve long been obsessed with Dundee’s history, its language, its cityscape, its poetry and its people, both living and dead.

Dundee is particularly a city of poets, from the Wedderburns in the Reformation to renowned contemporary writers like Don Paterson, John Glenday and Tracy Herd. (And, yes, I would very much include McGonagall in that list!) It’s also a place where the Scots language has been celebrated, in the work of Ellie McDonald, Matthew Fitt, and the late Harvey Holton.

In fact, I think the first, unofficial, act of my makar-ship was probably the co-editing, with Andy Jackson, of Whaleback City, an anthology of Dundee’s poets – incidentally, the last publication from Dundee University Press.

So I’m delighted to be called upon as my first official duty to write something to mark Dundee’s bid for City of Culture – culture being something we have a remarkably deep and diverse source of in the literary and visual arts, as well as in drama, dance, the crafts and across the sciences into new technologies.

My remit in this first year will be focussed on the digital, and, fittingly, my first poem, ‘ Dundee Dreaming‘, is drawn from the thousands of suggestions submitted online to WeDundee.

What people hope for in relation to their city gives us an insight into what their hopes and dreams are for their own lives – what means most to them. I’ve done my best to convey that message of optimism and aspiration in that first poem and in this new post – as the first, I hope, of many Dundee Makars to come.

So what does ‘Makar’ mean? Is it, as some claim, a vital ingredient in macaroni pehs? Is it, as others assert, simply a very big mackerel? (Yes, that’s right, you’re going to hear some very bad puns over the next few years.)

In fact, the term ‘makarship’ is used by the St Andrews-based Anglo-Saxon scholar and translator Michael Alexander to convey a term for ‘poet’, ‘scop’, from the 10th century Exeter Book. In his translation of ‘Deor’, Alexander has the eponymous author say

Of myself in this regard I shall say this only:
that in the hall of the Heodenings I held long the makarship…

But I don’t need to tell a town that took to heart Mary Brooksbank’s line ‘They fairly mak ye work/for your ten and nine’ what a Makar is. I mak things, yes – poems, hopefully – but there’s also a sense of obligation in the word: they mak ye work. Who do? You do.

Over and above the wee poems for special occasions which I will take great delight in making, there is a sense of duty, of obligation to the city, which I’m very happy to fulfil. I think the Makar’s real job is this: to reflect Dundee back to itself, to Scotland, and to the current UK as a whole.

At a time when the Scots’ ongoing debate about their own identity is finding UK-wide resonance in the referendum on independence, that seems a very worthwhile duty.

So: to reflect that warmth, that kindness, certainly, but also that keenness of eye, that clarity of wit: Dundee sees through folly and pretention to what matters – community, family, responsibility – caring for others, for our history and for our future. It is in that sense that I am proud to be Dundee’s first Makar.

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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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