Friday, August 28, 2009

Wee, sleekit, cowerin', timorous beastie

I went to a book launch yesterday; not a common experience for me. The book, called “Addressing the Bard”, is an anthology to celebrate the 250th birthday of Robert Burns. Twelve of Scotland’s best-known poets were asked to write a poem inspired by one of his poems.

The launch was held in the National Trust headquarters in Charlotte Square in the elegant and leafy New Town. (“New” as in built between 1792 and 1820.) I was given the invitation to this event because I’m in charge of our Higher English programme; however, when I got there it was clear that the majority of those attending were bigwigs. I was very conscious of the smallness of my wig, but stood around leaning on an antique sideboardy thing (I have a bad back) talking to a nice lady who’s the head of something important as we drank our wine or juice and waited for something to happen. After a while, though, I had to go and sit down on a chair at the side of the room. I can’t stand for more than a few minutes (though I can walk perfectly well). Chaps in suits stood in front of me, with their backs to me, so I had ample time to admire the intricate plasterwork on the ceiling.
Then there were two speeches, but since the chaps in suits didn’t move, I just had to listen without being able to see the speakers. There was a bit of a gap between them so that I had a good view, side on, of an oldish lady who looked a bit familiar. Scotland is a small country – 5 million people – and Edinburgh is a small city – half a million. Though half a million sounds like quite a lot, I’m likely to come across a much smaller number than that: teachers, people who go to bookshops or walk in the Botanic Gardens, students at the college and so on. So by the time I’ve got to my age, 59, many people I see look vaguely familiar - if rather older than I feel they used to look.

Then I realised that she was Liz Lochhead, one of the poets. I did once see her at a poetry reading in the days when she looked like this

rather than this. (She's shrunk, clearly.) And of course I’ve seen photos of her since. Still, I was surprised to see her looking as if she was in her 60s. But then, as I later reflected, she’s older than I am, so…

Since my view was so limited, I studied her. It’s not often that I get a chance to really stare at a poet. She was about two yards in front of me but she was looking forward at the speakers while I was looking at her sideways. She was wearing jeans, a fawn baggy blouse and silver trainers. (It was the silver trainers which first caught my attention.) She occasionally tugged the blouse down over her bottom; it’s nice to know that even poets worry about their bottoms. Throughout the speeches, she was obviously listening carefully because she smiled and nodded and at one point, when a speaker complimented his assistant for liaising so well with the poets, she murmured, “Hear, hear.” Neither speaker mentioned her, which I thought they should have since she’s arguably Scotland’s premier living poet (and playwright) and as far as I could see – though of course that wasn’t far - she was the only one of the twelve poets present, apart from one who read his poem, invisibly to me, after the speeches. But she just continued to nod and smile. I thought she looked like a really nice person.

Liz Lochhead’s poem is inspired by Burns’s “To a Mouse”. I have no idea if this poem is well-known outside Scotland, but it’s very famous here. Burns was a ploughman (at one point) and one day he ploughed up a mouse’s nest by mistake. The poem addresses the mouse and apologises to it.

Her poem starts:

It’s me. The eponymous “the moose”.

We’re having eleven people to lunch tomorrow – all family – to celebrate our boy’s 25th birthday, and I’ve been making food so I must now go and tidy the kitchen.

Daughter 2 has just emailed me from her bedroom a few yards away. “Watch this. It’s cool.”

It certainly is.


  1. To a Mouse has got to be well known. I'm an utter uncouth lout about poetry, and I know it.

  2. I've also heard of the timorous beastie!
    That sand animation u-tube was amazing! Thank you Daughter 2!

  3. My goodness - that is amazing, but I wonder how often her parents told her to stop fiddling about with sand and do something useful?

  4. Great you are having the family around this weekend to celebrate! Happy Birthday to your boy! And wow, that sand animation was stunning!

  5. But, most importantly, were there canapes?????

    Thank Daughter 2 for that - quite amazing. Ukraine certainly seems to have more interesting talent than we do!

  6. Your people watching skills had me smiling on this cold morning!

    Thank your daughter for the link, it moved me to tears.

  7. Ha ha!! I love the way you describe yourself and people around you! "Conscious of the smallness of my wig"...LOL!
    Oh, I know what it feels like to have to sit down after standing for a while. Last week I stood in line for 10 minutes at the Centrelink office (Government office), and when my back told me enough was enough, I sat down cross legged on the floor. Within minutes a sympathetic staffer came over and ushered me into an interview cubicle, in front of the people who were before me in the queue! I didn't mean for that to happen, but maybe I'll try it again anyway!

  8. You have the best way of telling a story -- and you're SO funny! And thanks to DD2 -- a very cool video!

  9. What an odd and haunting story about the poet.

  10. I love your writing.
    Men in suits can be quite rude.
    And that video is amazing!!!!
    Yes, Daughter 2, very cool. Thank you.