AN online acquaintance posted the following on his Facebook page at the weekend: “I think Burns Night as a marketing exercise to promote all things Scottish is fantastic ... but his poetry is pish.”
“What brought you to that conclusion?” I inquired. “The fact it is actual pish is what made me think it’s actual pish,” he replied, applying a grinning emoji to the end of his sentence.
What I love about Burns is that the starting point for some of his best poetry was the little things right in front of his nose.
It’s a hard, almost impossible case to make that Burns isn’t one of the world’s best poets. But it’s a particularly Scottish kind of criticism. It’s part of our own tragedy that we don’t like to see our own do well. The official name for it is “tall poppy syndrome”. If any one of us elevates him or herself above the rest of us, we take a perverse pleasure in hacking them down. Billy Connolly is a classic example. His praises were sung far and wide when he started out in Scotland. But when he married Pamela Stephenson, took his shows all over the world and began to get cast in Hollywood movies, a faction in Scotland took against him.
“Whenever I open my mouth I get it slapped shut. I’m told to mind my own business,” said Connolly.
I could easily dismiss my online pal’s post as mischievous nonsense but because it’s stung me and because I’m writing this on the anniversary of his birthday with a bellyful of haggis and a glass full of whisky, I’ll spring to the man’s defence. Where to start? Well I’ll start with Bob Dylan. When asked for the source of his greatest inspiration, the world’s greatest songwriter selected My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose as the lyric that had the biggest effect on his life.
What I love about Burns is that the starting point for some of his best poetry was the little things right in front of his nose. Like sitting behind a well-dressed woman in church watching a louse climb up her hair and on to the top of her fancy bonnet. By the end of the poem, this observation has become a scathing critique of social snobbery and the last verse has passed into the English language:
O wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us
An’ e’en devotion.
In other words, have you any idea how daft you look, mate, slagging off Rabbie Burns on Facebook?
It’s Father’s Day for a whole year
Peter Airlie was 14 when his girlfriend texted him to say she was pregnant. “I went into utter shock and I felt my whole body stiffen up and my face drain. I sat for a minute trying to take in the news.” He had no idea what to do so he went to see his mum. She took one look at his face and sussed him out. “Is Leanne pregnant?” He nodded and burst into tears.
Breaking the news to his mum was a relief but it didn’t change the situation. His girlfriend had set her heart on keeping the baby but Peter couldn’t get his head round the idea of becoming a teenage dad.
He broke up with Leanne hoping that might persuade her not to keep it. But he went back round to her house a week later with a present for the baby.
Today Peter and Leanne are 25. They have three children and last Sunday, a decade on, Peter helped to launch The Year Of The Dad at a special event held in Edinburgh Zoo.
Peter believes fatherhood turned out to be the making of him. Personally, I can’t imagine how I would have coped if I’d got a girlfriend pregnant at 14.
The law says you’re not supposed to have sex until you’re 16 in this country or drink till you’re 18. But the law is oblivious to what actually happens in real life. My friends and I, male and female, were all experimenting with drink and drugs and each other. We were keeping as much of that from our parents as possible. It was our teenage secret.
But when one of my own peer group found herself expecting a baby at 15, we talked about nothing else for weeks. I lived at home. I had pimples and a paper round. I had barely started shaving. It says a lot for Peter that he was able to shoulder the responsibility and gradually learn what it meant to be a dad.
“I knew it was going to be a tough road ahead, with sacrifices, but I always knew I wanted to be there for my kids. It’s the small things that matter, whether it’s helping the kids to cook a meal or kicking a ball around the park with them. Whenever people compliment my family I know it’s all been worth it. At the end of the day, it’s a team effort – myself and my wife now have three children.
“Things can be manic but I feel exactly the same as I did when I stood in my mum’s living room ten years ago. I wanted to be part of them growing up and the rewards are there every day as they learn and develop.”
I’m a father of four. My life changed the day my first child was born. There had already been huge cultural shifts by the time I became a dad. I was welcome at the birth, for a start. But there was no doubt in my mind that I would play an equal role in my children’s upbringing, changing their nappies, getting up in the night to feed and comfort them and spending all my spare time taking them on trips, playing with them or reading to them.
There were times when I lost my temper and shouted when I shouldn’t have. But my memory banks are overflowing with the good times. Picnics, holidays at the seaside, birthday parties and Christmasses. There’s nothing bad about being a dad and there’s a whole store of useful stuff for new dads online at www.yearofthedad.org.
Weapons of mess destruction on target
In a bid to persuade more volunteers to keep the streets of Leith free from rubbish, Edinburgh council have offered to give free litter-pickers and gloves to anybody in Leith who signs a pledge promising to “adopt” their street. I’ll be first in the queue. Yesterday my own sturdy litter-picker snapped at the claw, rendering it useless after five years’ solid service. Litter-picking might not sound that sexy a pastime, but I can assure you that the minute you stop moaning about other folks’ mess and start cleaning it up yourself, you begin to look forward to finding the next discarded Greggs bag or National Littery ticket. So go to war. Get your Weapons Of Mess Destruction at Leith Library, Ferry Road.