Awa the Messages (for National Poetry Day 2016)

I was prompted to post this piece for National Poetry Day by a comment made on Facebook by the poet Mandy Maxwell, who pointed out that the theme for this year’s NPD has a double meaning for a Scottish (or Irish) reader: ‘messages’ do not just suggest communication to us – ‘the messages’ are also ‘the shopping’. The conjectured meaning is that the written list we may use contains messages (to ourselves) regarding those things we want to buy.

This reminded me that I’d written a poem focussed on this double meaning for a piece of  public art in Dundee by the sculptor David Annand, which sits outside Tesco’s in Lochee (South Road branch), neatly wedged in between two angles of the ascending path.


So this post is a rewrite of an original piece on my Dundee Makar’s Tumblr site here, to add in the text (reproduced in 2013’s Omnesia) – see below.

David’s design is a brilliant, burnished coil of boxes – the packages in which ‘goods’ or ‘the messages’ arrive. And the text attempts to explore what exactly is good about goods, and what really is the message that the messages convey?

Of course, the same question could be addressed to the piece itself: what is the message that it and by extension such sculptures, delivered into the people’s midst, is trying to communicate? What can be established that we, the people, are ordained to do in response?

In a way the answer is: anything. We can look or look away, read or not read, ignore or even protest its presence. What did that cost? (No much.) Why weren’t we consulted? (We probably were, mind.)

A piece of public art, like a poem in the consciousness, is simply there, alongside the railings, the lampposts, the street ‘furniture’, as they call it. Of course it wants to be seen and considered as art; thought about, discussed, even cherished, however gradually or grudgingly. But it, like the poem, can’t insist on the fact.

Ideally, it wants everything in the public space to be similarly thought about, discussed, cherished or condemned – but considered. In a way it’s there to contribute towards a discussion about how we feel about our city and our homes. That discussion can be aesthetic, sentimental, pragmatic. It can even be a debate, should we want one.

It – the discussion, as much as the art – would fundamentally be about messages. What kinds of signals are we sending each other (the public, our representatives, businesses) as we co-exist? How many of these messages are only types of commodity?

One of the weird effects of Scots pronunciation, suggested by the ambivalence of ‘the messages’ is the way little unconscious puns crop up as we speak: South Road becomes Sooth Road becomes – just for a second – Truth Road (remember the soothsayer and his ‘ides of March’?).

In other words, we hear something in both Scots and English that the English do not – points of social bilingualism. Every time I hear the place name, Kent, for instance, I think – for a second – of the Scots past tense of ‘know’: ’kent’, as in the classic reductive remark made of those who, like poets, get a bit above themselves: ‘kent his faither.’

These points are part of the imaginative freedom every piece of art – poem, sculpture, story, song – offers to its audience. As such, they’re not a bad message to share on National Poetry Day with all users of English, bilingual or other.

A second may be all the time we have to give to a piece of public art or a poem, but that doesn’t mean it or our time is wasted. The truth is, a second can be more than enough for a message to be delivered. Or a discussion to begin.


The Messages

‘Established words also have their after-ripening.’


When Ally Bally Bee
fell doon the treacle well
he took a wee bawbee
to see what they would sell

soda farls for workin carles
pigs’ lugs for their nurses
OVD for thee and me
GBH for purses

falafels for beginners
polystyrene stovies
goudie cheese for dinner
(Eh could eat a pair of rovies)

black puddin white puddin
puddin heid and red
a samplin of dumplin
beh a bigger bed.


The messages were written doon
in cuneiform on clay
back when Ur wiz hauf a toon
we aa began tae pay

Sumeria soon consumed mair
Salonika had sales
there’s omega 3 in Linear B
and two for one on Wales

thae Ides were gey untidy
back when Caesar took a faa
saying, ‘Brutus, see’s twa bridies
and an ingin ane an aa.’

hauf a peh fae Santa
nae caviar for Lent
there’s the maik Eh’m aain ya
and noo meh loot is spent.


The message is that sassidges
are definitely the boys
while ham and eggs and wooden pegs
should not be used as toys

gae mental wi lentils
scell the frozen peas
there’s mammon in salmon
and pints of ankle grease

there’s sannies for trannies
grannies for sookers
there’s chewny for loonies
and toes for veruccas

be human as the bakéd bean
and mad as six bananas
we still have jam for wir yestreens
and spam for wir mañanas.


The messages keep comin in
like dandruff fae the stars
the messages are drummin in
fae souks and fae pazaars

aa the fruits of progress
pantsuits for the ogress
DVDs of Dangerman
cardboard bottles plastic cans

everything organic
fresh fae the Titanic
there’s nae praans in a Cullen Skink
nae calories in haen a think

Ally Bally all at sea
seekin oot his mammy’s knee
hush noo bairnie dinna fret
ye can’t aye waant the thing ye get.

The messages – shopping; bawbee – haepenny; pigs’ lugs – pastries; stovies – potatoes stewed with gravy; rovies – jute slippers; beh – buy; gey – very; faa – fall; see’s – fetch me; bridies – shortcrust pasty filled with mince; ingin and – bridie filled with mince and onion; maik – haepenny; aain – owing; scell – spill; sannies – sand-shoes, gym-shoes; ‘grannies for sookers’ – Granny-sookers are a boiled mint sweet; chewny – chewing gum; yestreen – last night; praans – prawns; Cullen Skink – a smoked haddock soup; haen – having.

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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