Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 12: Angry Penguins

Sitting at their shared table at Big Lou’s wedding reception, Angus and Matthew had in their conversation touched on exceptionalism, truth, art, and spirituality. Now they came back to Ern Malley, one of the great modernist poets of twentieth century Australia – although, unfortunately, he had not actually existed.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

Angus was thinking of Australia, and what it had been like when Ern had lived, or not lived, to be precise. “Now,” he said, “I suspect, we look back on those times with a certain nostalgia – an age of innocence, perhaps. Pre-guilt; pre-regret; pre-cynicism.” He suddenly looked wistful. “I rather think I would have liked to live in Australia then – before people doubted themselves.”

Matthew looked thoughtful. “It would depend who you were,” he said.

“Maybe,” said Angus. “I suppose it wasn’t all that easy being a woman, with all that unchallenged masculinity about. Or gay. Or to be a different colour from the majority. All of that.”

“Same as just about everywhere in those days,” said Matthew. “We’re lucky, aren’t we, to live in an era of antibiotics and relative tolerance?”

Angus smiled. “Both of those are under threat, don’t you think? Antibiotics through overuse and resistance, and tolerance . . . Well, the threat to that is human nature and the desire that people have to silence others. There’s an unbroken line between the persecutions of the past – in which Scotland joined in enthusiastically, let us remind ourselves – and the online mob of the present. Unbroken. It’s the same moral energy finding expression in each case – only the nature of the victims has changed.”

Matthew was thinking of the editors of Angry Penguins. “They were quite brave, actually – Harris and his friends. They knew that they were considered pretentious. They knew that there were plenty of people to whom they were – well, an affront, I suppose. People who challenge an existing view of things are often very much resented.”

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Angus sighed again. “Which is what happens to traditionalists today, don’t you think?”

Matthew looked thoughtful. “You mean that traditionalists are cold-shouldered?”

“Yes,” said Angus. “There comes a point, you see, where positions that were once seen as radical or revolutionary become the new norm. The consensus shifts. And then those who were outside, so to speak, but who are now inside, treat the former insiders as outsiders. A new establishment comes into existence. It’s an old story. Those who were oppressed don’t take long to become oppressors themselves.”

Matthew said, “Harris and his friends were ridiculed by people I suppose one might call hearties – rugby-playing types.”

This amused Angus. “Rugby players are not necessarily . . . how shall I put it – anti-intellectual?”

Matthew raised an eyebrow. He remembered his contemporaries at school who made it into the First XV. Hamilton, a winger, known as the Armpit; Grieve, a stalwart of the scrum, built like a fridge and with cauliflower ears; Maclean, a Borderer with a broken nose and so tone deaf that he could not even manage a recognisable rendition of Flower of Scotland – none of them struck him as being interested in the arts. Hamilton became a potato farmer in East Lothian; Grieve ended up running a car hire business; Maclean joined the army, became a helicopter pilot, and was a major now. None of them, he imagined, were particularly sympathetic to modernist poetry.

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“They threatened to throw Harris into the river,” Matthew continued. “It was their idea of an intelligent response to his poetry.”

“And did they?”

“Yes, they did. Muscular philistinism, one might call it.”

“I suppose it’s ever thus,” said Angus.

“Yes, I’m afraid it is,” said Matthew. “But to get back to Malley: there were a couple of people who decided to be a bit more subtle in registering their opposition to modernism. And this is where the letter from Ethel Malley came in. She wrote to Harris to tell him that she had found a manuscript when sorting out the possessions of her late brother, Ern, who had died of Grave’s Disease. The manuscript consisted of a series of poems. She said that she had not known that her brother had written poetry – he had latterly been an insurance salesman, after working for a time as a mechanic.

“Harris read the poems,” Matthew continued, “and he was pretty impressed with them. He showed them to a colleague, who was of the same view. They decided that they had discovered a major new poetic talent.”

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“Who was, nonetheless, dead?”

Matthew nodded. “Dying is a good career move for any young poet,” he said. “You can’t go wrong by dying. Byron. Rupert Brooke. Dylan Thomas. The list is quite a long one. Thomas made it to thirty-nine, I think.” He remembered something. “I think they’re now saying he died of pneumonia rather than drink. Drink is often part of the poetic legend. I don’t think it was alcohol that did Brooke in, though. He was bitten by a mosquito, and the bite became infected. Septicaemia.”

Angus brought up the question of Hugh MacDiarmid. “He lived to a ripe old age, didn’t he – and yet he enjoyed his whisky. Glenfiddich, I think.”

“The point about rules,” said Matthew, “is that the exceptions outnumber them. And Byron.”

“Malaria, wasn’t it? Another mosquito. Mosquitoes: the enemies of poetry.”

The band had started to play, although nobody was dancing yet. Big Lou and Fat Bob were standing by another table, shaking hands with their guests. They looked so happy, Angus thought, and he smiled to himself with pleasure: if anybody deserved happiness now, it was Big Lou, that hard-working, good woman who represented all the old values of Scotland’s farming community. The world, he felt, had become a cold and casual place; Big Lou, with her warmth and the couthy qualities instilled in her during her girlhood at Snell Mains near Arbroath, was the very opposite of that.

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“They published the poetry,” Matthew went on, “in a special issue of Angry Penguins. They described it as the work of a major new Australian poet – although it consisted of cobbled- together nonsense, including sections of a military manual on mosquito control.”

Angus let out a delighted laugh. “Wonderful,” he said.

“And then the papers managed to find out who had written it. Two young men from Melbourne. They had composed the whole oeuvre in an afternoon.”

Angry Penguins was not amused?”

“No,” said Matthew.

Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna had been listening closely. Now, she observed, “Exposure of falseness can never be false. Nor, for that matter, can the false be true.”

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Angus and Matthew exchanged glances. “That might require some reflection,” said Angus.

“Identifying that which requires reflection is itself a matter of reflection,” said Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna.

Antonia wrinkled her nose. “Sparkling wine makes me want to sneeze,” she said. Then, turning to Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, she added, “And don’t turn that into an aphorism, carissima. Basta, dear floral one.”

Angus looked away awkwardly. A wedding reception was no place for a lovers’ tiff, but, he went on to say to himself, that was exactly the sort of occasion where tiffs were most likely to occur. Like all things that were ever thus, this then, thus, was thus.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99