Pies, Poute, and the Poetry Mills of Victorian Dundee

It might make some sense to resume this blog where it left off, with a further reference to the ongoing work on Dundee writing in the 19th century. At the Dundee Literary Festival the other week, Professor Kirstie Blair and Erin Farley did a sort of double act lecture+reading from the excellent Poets of the People’s Journal, published by the ASLS. 

I re-read Professor Blair’s intro the following morning, thinking how extraordinary it still seems that so much engaged, often radical, sometimes experimental, working class Scots verse was overlooked for so long, and reflecting on the causes.

One element was certainly the ephemeral nature of the publication itself. Despite its massive circulation of a quarter of a million at its peak, and taking into account Kirstie Blair’s estimate that every copy sold may have had up to ten readers, and despite the fact that its editor, W.D. Latto, produced the paper on a weekly basis for almost forty years (1860-98), the People’s Journal was still ‘just’ a newspaper, and its grip on the cultural consciousness has faded rapidly since the first part of the 20th century. 

And yet that editorship was radical by conviction, encouraging, as the intro states, ‘working men and women to participate in a topical, politicised, satirical and self-aware literary culture…’ Poems on elections, political reform, local injustices, imperialism, industrialism, sexual mores – the diversity of the material, even in the tiny sample she could anthologise, is remarkable.

There is a possibility, realised here, that the ongoing responsiveness of an ephemeral mode of publication, if aligned to a liberal editorial position, can enable the voices of the otherwise marginalised to be heard, if only within that forum. Then the forum itself can become a way of nurturing community. My first glimpse into this radicalised version of the ephemeral was William Donaldson’s AUP book, Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland (1986), where the voice that leapt off the page for me was Latto’s own, in the guise of Tammas Bodkin, a Dundee tailor who expressed himself in a rich and stylish Scots on an impressive range of subjects.

This relation between public persona and literary mouthpiece – and between Scots and English – is also present in John Wilson’s masterpiece of polyphony from the first half of the 19th century, the Noctes Ambrosianae, in which his voice, in the form of ‘Christopher North’, is pitched against the irresistible if ventriloquised Scots of ‘The Shepherd’ (James Hogg).

There is an interesting parallel here in terms of how we might read two of the poets in the anthology: ‘Poute’ (a pseudonym for Alexander Burgess), and the Great Synecdoche for Dundonian poetry, William McGonagall himself. Poute’s phonetic Scots antipoetry, which was enormously popular when it appeared in the Journal, parodied middle class perceptions of rural and working class verse (and indeed of poetry), and was a sort of Post-Ploughmanism.

This sort of sophisticated ‘bad’ writing that transcends its own in-jokery was only possible within the community of the Journal, where editors and writers alike could reflect wittily on literary tropes, the editorial process, and the economics of publication. But as Kirstie Blair points out, it also intriguingly prefigured McGonagall.

With Poute the remarkable thing is how he manipulates phonetic spelling to communicate his subtext to the reader. The issue with McGonagall, however, is precisely that we can’t determine how far he’s being deliberate in what he’s doing – is he even just copying how to be ‘bad’ because that’s how to get into print? Except, of course, that both on the page and in performance, it works gloriously in terms of pacing and punchline.

It’s important to note both this element of subtle humour and the ambivalence of intent alongside the lively politics of the Journal. (As Erin Farley put it regarding the political slant, ‘I have been looking for several years for poetry from Dundee supportive of the Tory Party – none has been forthcoming’.) ‘Athole’s Pies’, by ‘Factory Muse’ (probably Adam Wilson), not only encapsulates the sly silliness of writers like Poute – and possibly McGonagall – but is probably the maist Dundonian poem ever written.

Those without a funny bone might describe poetry like this as ‘pawky’, and, as with the term ‘whimsical’, this seems almost dismissive: just as we’re not quite sure about its author, so too we don’t know whether this is a genuine poem-as-advert, but there is an exuberance to its language and handling of the totemic Standard Habbie which transcends commercialism. 

I was struck several times during the event by this sense of tonal and formal self-awareness, and thought I saw some parallels with the presentation of poetry in Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s play, The Wipers Times. There it’s mock-dismissed, but many of the same characteristics are manifested: soldiers turned in the trauma of war to poetry, satire, self-referentiality, whimsy – the traits of the ephemeral. It seems reasonable to propose that this happened because, pre-war, they were accustomed to papers like the People’s Journal providing them with just such a playfully subversive platform.

In the period after the First World War, in order to clear his own Modernist space, MacDiarmid drove a nail into the coffin lid of all such poetry by implying it was either endless Kailyaird or McGonagallese, sentiment or dross. And yet, trained as a journalist, he deployed exactly the same tactics himself: founding a newspaper in 1923, The Scottish Nation, creating pseudonyms, and working with traditional forms and orthographic Scots, rather than, as Pound advised with the pentameter, breaking the ballad.

The coffin itself, however, was constructed by the merger in 1905 of Leng & Co, which owned the Journal, with the decidedly conservative firm of Thomson’s. One of the most remarkable aspects of the history of the People’s Journal is how absolutely that culture was coutherised* by D.C. Thomson’s, so that growing up in Dundee through the 1960s, and beginning to write in the 70s and 80s, I’d practically no idea we had that lively political poetic heritage, and none at all that it had ever been manifested in that staidest of manifestations of staidness, the Journal.

In the early nineties, when Richard Price and I were editing Gairfish, inspired by Tom Leonard’s Radical Renfrew, and following a lead given by Edwin Morgan, we published a couple of poems in the Whitmanic mode by the Dundee and Alyth poet, James Young Geddes. He was also the subject of a 1992 essay by Valentina Bold, and formed a third part of a study of late nineteenth century poets from 2004 by Gioia Angeletti, Eccentric Scotland (the others being two long term fascinations of mine, John Davidson and James ‘B.V.’ Thomson). His poem, ‘Died on the Street’, reprinted in Poets of the People’s Journal, is a typically trenchant indictment of the alienation he saw in industrialised Juteopolis.

Andy Jackson and I picked this thread up when editing Whaleback City, an anthology of Dundee poetry, publishing Geddes alongside McGonagall in an effort to broaden our perspective in a manner that The Poets of the People’s Journal deepens and, I hope, confirms. (I’d like to think our subsequent anthology, New Boots and Pantisocracies, based on a daily blog between the 2015 and 2017 General Elections, echoed something of the same radical ephemeralism of our nineteenth century predecessors. But here I’m straying from the ‘Athole’s Pies’ style of advertisement into a more MacDiarmidean approach to PR…)

Gradually, through studies like Bold’s, Angeletti’s, Donaldson’s, and Professor Blair’s, we’re recovering some perspective on the cultural heritage and genuine poetic achievements of the Radical Toun. Lang may its verse mills roll!

*Like ‘catharised’ but, instead of cleansing, removing all traces of the potentially alarming or objectionable, leaving only that which is familiar and comfortable, or ‘couthy’.

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 Pies, Poute, and the Poetry Mills of Victorian Dundee

  1. Pingback: Mourning and Monsters, 2 | gairnet provides: press of blll

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