The world's best bad poet
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time.
SO WROTE one of Scotland's great eccentrics, Sir William Topaz McGonagall, self-styled poet and tragedian, proud owner of the spoof title "Knight of the White Elephant, Burmah" and better known as the "World's Best Bad Poet". Many feel that to give him the title of poet is an overstatement of his work, which - even his admirers concede - was nothing if not ridiculous.
Even in his lifetime McGonagall was a figure of ridicule. He was pelted with fruit and rotten eggs when he read his poetical offerings in pubs and music halls. He was turned away from the gates of Balmoral Castle on a mission to persuade Queen Victoria that he should become "Poet to Her Majesty". And he failed miserably in his bid to "conquer New York", a place he described as "this second Babylon".
McGonagall, in truth, was more circus act than poet.
For all his failings, McGonagall was a character and the Scottish psyche reserves a deep fondness and admiration for such people. The knowledge that he was indisputably worse than any other writer who put pen to paper can inspire as much national pride as the notion that Robert Burns was greater than William Shakespeare. The opening lines of McGonagall's obituary in the People's Journal, just after his death in September 1902, neatly summed up the feeling of the nation.
Poor old McGonagall has gone the way of all flesh, and the world is certainly the poorer in some respects. Whatever might be thought of his 'poetry', there never was any difference of opinion as to the amusement it afforded; and if the world did not always take him at his own valuation, it could never be disputed that he believed in himself, and sincerity is the first requisite in men, even if 'poets'. More than a century later the strong self-belief that McGonagall possessed has proved well-founded. His derided poetry is more popular today than ever, and it has been translated into several languages – Russian, Thai and Bulgarian to name a few. In 1974 Spike Milligan played the role of the poet in the film The Great McGonagall, which also starred Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria. And a thriving McGonagall Appreciation Society helps to promote McGonagall Night, a celebration on 12 June when McGonagall Suppers are held in the "great man's" memory. There is no explanation for the date of the event, as it was neither his birthday nor the date of his death.
McGonagall nights are - like the man himself - fairly ridiculous affairs. They start at the end, usually with coffee and mints, and work backwards, through a succession of speakers, and finish with the company being served soup or starters.Alex Gouick, chairman of the Dundee-based McGonagall Appreciation Society, said: "I was at one supper which had a stripper who put her clothes on. When McGonagall's name was mentioned everyone jumped up and said 'Knight of the White Elephant, Burmah'. They are quite irreverent, but really just a wee bit of fun."
Dundee was McGonagall's home from the age of 11 and the city often features in supper menus. Clepington consomm, Tay Whale cutlets, Dudhope Diane and Broughty Ferry tea have all been served to guests.
McGonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1825. His father was a hand-loom weaver and he spent his early childhood on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney, before moving to Dundee. It was not until 1877 when he claims to have heard a voice calling to him to "write, write". Over the next 25 years he produced more than 200 poems, outstanding for their awfulness. He died in his birth city in 1902 and was buried in a pauper's grave at Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Bob Watt, who campaigned for a plaque to be erected in Greyfriars, is a great admirer. "People can say what they like about McGonagall but you must remember he hardly had any education and yet his work has never been out of print. Doesn't that make him a 'real poet'?
"You can say he is a clown, but at least he had a go. In that sense he is like a doorway to poetry, that's how I see him."
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