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The Samizdat Laureate

In advance of his Edinburgh Festival show Robert Burns: Not In My Name, Darran Anderson interviews Kevin Williamson.


3:AM: Aside from exploring the poet’s life and works, Robert Burns: Not In My Name seems designed to counter the myths that have grown up around Burns (the noble savage/ploughman poet, the drink-sodden ladies-man, the embalmed heritage figure), to reveal a much more complex figure. Was that your intention and what prompted the project?

Kevin Williamson: Like many Scots I love Robert Burns but I can’t quite relate to the popular image of him. The couthy tourist Burns that has been packaged and sold for over two centuries, the one you describe, is well enough known, but essentially it’s a false construct. Wrapping Burns up in tartan and slapping his face on tea towels and shortbread tins, to my mind, is akin to the Irish dressing James Connolly in a wee green leprechaun suit and dangling him from a key fob. It’s more than a little insulting. The Burns that I love, and have chosen to present in this show, was a bit more complex and troublesome than the popular mythology suggests.

I’m not trying to rewrite history though. Burns’s famous love poems – such as ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ or ‘Red, Red Rose’ – are as beautiful, heartbreaking and tender as they come. His charisma and sociability was legendary. And he died at the tragically young age of just 37. These are integral aspects of the Burns story. However, with this project I dont feel the need to retread familiar ground.

What has been marginalised is the fact that Burns was an important 18thC political radical and thinker, a seditious revolutionary and a staunch republican. In the last four years of his life he came within a baw hair of being jailed or deported for anti-government activities. Therein lies a tale.

I’ve chosen to tell the story of Burns through twelve radical poems and songs. The common thread is that Burns considered it too risky to put his name to any of them during his lifetime. Hence the show’s title, Robert Burns: Not In My Name. I’ll perform the 12 pieces chronologically, in the order they were written, to give a sense of narrative structure, and to show that Burns’s radical edge wasn’t blunted by fame nor by the forces of government repression.

3:AM: You’ve spoken before about how dangerous Burns’ writing was, bearing in mind the French Revolution had just broken out and considering how some of his peers (Tom Paine for example) were treated. I’d no idea previously of this whole uncover side to Burns and the revolutionary verse he wrote anonymously. Do you think this work casts a different light on his more acceptable published works? And how much danger was Burns in by displaying his radical sympathies?

KW: That’s a difficult question. It’s a bit like asking if there is a relationship between the personal and the political songs of say Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Bob Marley or The Proclaimers. I think there is. I see a continuity between philosophical introspection, the ability to love, freely and honestly, and telling truth to power. I’m sceptical about political songwriters who can’t or don’t find it natural to express heartfelt sentiments of love and loss. So yes, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ and ‘A Man’s A Man’ are hewn from the same rockface.

Burnsian scholars – and there are many – are shedding new light on Burns’s political activities. For instance Robert Crawford recently published extracts from the diary of someone who spent an evening with Burns just seven weeks before his death in 1796. This ecclesiastical visitor described the convivial but dying poet as “a staunch republican”. These were not the sort of sentiments that could be expressed in public. But this sort of research does shed light on some of the poet’s later verse, such as ‘Ode (for General Washington’s Birthday)’, ‘Tree of Liberty’, and ‘A Man’s A Man’.

Burns’s revolutionary anthem ‘Scot’s Wha Hae’ – written in 1793 in response to the trial of the radical young lawyer Thomas Muir – is often dismissed as mere nationalist sentiment. It’s proper title is ‘Robert Bruce’s March To Bannockburn’. But we now know that the last line of the song – “Let us Do or Die!” – was in fact the tennis court oath of the French revolutionaries. In a private letter, Burns explicitly states the song deals with the ancient battle for Scottish independence, of course, but also “struggles not so ancient.”

Thomas Muir was tried in Edinburgh and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment and deportation to Botany Bay. Yet every charge he was indicted with – promoting the works of Thomas Paine, singing ‘Ca Ira’ in public, inciting anti-government feelings – Burns was equally guilty of.

The really interesting stuff is still being unearthed. Patrick Scott Hogg‘s recent research suggests that Burns was an active member of the Dumfries branch of The Friends of the People. Formed in 1792, this was the first organisation in Scottish history to openly call for universal suffrage for all men, rich or poor. To think that Burns himself may have been a key activist is quite mindblowing. Operating in much more difficult political terrain, inside the very heart of the most powerful Empire in the world, this puts Burns on a par with Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin in my book. Not quite a combatant, but putting his pen at the service of liberty.

This early proto-democracy movement never really had mass support in Scotland, and was crushed by government forces by 1794, but Burns was right there among them. Letters survive describing his relationship, as a writer, with key radical journals and thinkers. Not long after his death, one of his closest friends told of how Burns was in correspondence with early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights of Women. Unfortunately none of that correspondence has survived. If it had, it may have painted a more complex picture of Burns’ attitudes towards women.

3:AM: Your past readings and performances of Burns’ verse have broken away from the traditional, or what we’re led to believe is the traditional Burns Supper interpretations, in contrast they’ve been stirring, lyrical, explicit, frequently hilarious and above all feel contemporary, which particular poems of his are you drawn to and which do you see as his poetic and polemic high points?

KW: It struck me that although most Scots think they are familiar with Burns’s poetry, it’s only really a few that get regularly performed, such as ‘Tam O’Shanter’, ‘To A Mouse’, and ‘Address To A Haggis’. These are all works I enjoy, and I can perform a suitably over the top interpretation of ‘Address To A Haggis’ when presented with a tumbler of whisky and said beast on a plate.

But the poetry that is rarely heard or performed in public, are the more seditious works, like ‘Address of Beelzebub’, ‘I Murder Hate’ or ‘Tree of Liberty’. The first of these, for my money, is one of the most brilliant and vicious satires written by any poet of the 18thC. Virulently anti-aristocratic yet a sophisticated poem nevertheless, with a clever rhetorical device at its heart. Instead of wading into the landlords for abusing the poor, Burns has the poem’s narrator, Auld Nick, patting them on the back, to begin with, but goes on to suggest they brutalise their tenants even more.

“And they, be Damned, what right hae they
To meat or sleep or light of day
Far less to riches, power or freedom
But what your Lordships like tae gie them.”

‘I Murder Hate’ is a subtle anti-war poem – with an ultra-modern title – and has the deliciously erotic underlying message of Make Love Not War. This is pre-Sixties stuff.

“The Deities that I adore
Are Social Peace and Plenty,
I’m better pleased to make one more
Than be the death of twenty.”

Interpreting Burns’s poetry, and making it sound both contemporary and authentic, is a challenge, which I think most sensible poets would back away from, but the verse lends itself to perfomance so the bulk of the work is done for me. I’ve tried to interpret these poems they way I believe Burns MAY have performed them if he was alive today. Burns was so streetwise I’m pretty sure he’d try and make his radical verse pack an explosive punch. More John Lydon than Harry Lauder.

3:AM: In terms of Burns, the accolade of Scottish national poet gives great stature to the man obviously but it comes perhaps at a price in terms of people not recognising him as a great, and possibly the sharpest, Romantic poet in the way they would say Coleridge, Wordsworth or even a fellow Scot like Byron. There seems to be a risk in putting writers on a pedestal to sort of get them out of the way and cleanse them of their more unsavoury (and thus interesting) human aspects. Do you think there’s been this risk with Burns?

KW: Perhaps, to an extent. Oxford and Cambridge have essentially written Burns out of the Romantic canon despite his glaringly obvious credentials as the father of the whole Romantic movement. While modern academics may overlook Burns, Wordsworth and Keats in particular were quick to acknowledge their debt to him. I enjoy reading all of the so-called Big Six of the English Romantic movement, but Burns was a more sophisticated and more powerful poet than all of them. But, alas, he was from the lower orders, was Scottish, and didn’t abandon his radical views. Therefore he is hastily dismissed, in Jeremy Paxman’s words, as a writer of “sentimental doggerel”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The trouble with Burns is that he isn’t easy to pigeon-hole. For instance, he was the first major European poet to write sympathetically with the ideals and the heroes of the American Revolution. Yet this isn’t the first thing about him that comes to mind. He’s often pigeon-holed as a poet of nature and the simple farming life, which is over-simplification, for he was familiar with the Classics, with 18thC literature, with the philosophers of the Enlightenment, as well as the latest developments in technology and science, and, perhaps surprising to some, he was a news junkie who devoured information on political events all over Europe and the Americas. All of this feeds into his work.

3:AM: I understand you’ve been working on film sections in the show, can you give us some indication of the multimedia aspect to Not In My Name?

KW: Preceding each of the performed pieces there are twelve short films, scripted by myself, to provide context and narrative to the verse that come after them. They help build a sense of story. The films were all shot and edited by award-winning film-maker, Alastair Cook who is not only a fan of Burns, and understands his radical 18thC perspective, but also shares my love of cinematic auteurs like Bresson and Tarkovski. I don’t want to say too much about the films in advance, except to say they’re visually stunning. Alastair worked with composer Luca Nascuiti – who created twelve wonderfully idiosyncratic evocative soundtracks. They’re maybe not quite what is normally associated with Burns but I love them. They’re exactly what I was hoping for when I first approached Alastair.

3:AM: On the subject of Scottish literature and the myths that have clung to it, I remember talking to you before about the famous schism that took place when Hugh MacDiarmid attacked Alex Trocchi calling him and Burroughs “cosmopolitan scum” at the Edinburgh Festival in the Sixties. I always had this archetypal image in my head, like a punk thing; the grumpy old patriarch and the young drug-addled beatnik confronting each other but from what you were saying this is a false dichotomy, in Scottish literature things were more complicated than that and remain so?

KW: What’s less commented upon about that famous meeting was that Trocchi and MacDiarmid got on well after that infamous clash. They both understood the need to create a stooshie in order to involve others in debate and thinking. Man, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall to their conversations. They were two of our intellectual giants, bona fide subversives, and non-conformists. In the tradition of Burns himself.

3:AM: Your work at the helm of the hugely influential Rebel Inc went a great way to turning a generation onto great literature, pioneering new writers at the time like Laura Hird, Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner and resurrecting cult books that had fallen through the cracks and which
are now widely regarded as masterpieces (Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Fante’s Ask The Dust, Brautigan’s A Confederate General Of Big Sur), what are your highlights of your time with Rebel Inc?

KW: The drugs.

3:AM: You’ve continued the spirit of Rebel Inc in your monthly Edinburgh night Neu! Reekie! (alongside the poet Michael Pedersen), showcasing new literary and musical talent and screening animations, was there a deliberate decision to avoid the conventional approach to readings and performances in the night?

KW: Poetry and short avante garde animation films are two of my great loves. They’re the runts of the artistic litter. Very little money changes hands and there’s only a small but discerning audience for both. Creatively they tend to depart from the great narrative and allow us to step inside an emotions.al landscape. Which is why I think they work so well together. We keep the poetry to a minimum. Just two readers at each event, doing about 10 mins on average. I select about half a dozen short animations for each event, from all over the world. Michael books the poets. And we throw in the occasional performace art grenade to keep our audience on its toes. It’s a nice wee monthly event. Our “house band” each month is called Emelle. They round things off but they’re so fucking good we won’t be able to afford them pretty soon.

3:AM: There seems to be a palpable sense of something exciting happening in Scottish literature at the moment with the emergence of events and publishers like Neu Reekie, Unbound, Gutter Magazine, Cargo and writers like Ewan Morrison, Sophie Cooke and Alan Bissett, are you optimistic for contemporary literature here and elsewhere?

KW: Like Cargo, Gutter and Unbound, Rebel Inc. was launched (in April 1992) when there was a convergence of a hostile social context, a democratic deficit, and a supportive creative environment. I guess a similar alignment of these constellations has come together once more. The writers you mention are all extremely talented novelists, this is one side of the equation, but they’re operating in a volatile economic, national and international context, they’ve got stuff to say, and they’re mutually supportive of one another. That’s the key.

Kevin Williamson is the author of the poetry collection In A Room Darkened (Two Ravens Press), co-editor of the Bella Caledonia project, and was the founder of Rebel Inc.

His show Robert Burns: Not In My Name will be running at the National Library of Scotland from the 4th of August until the 28th with tickets available from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe website and box office. Further updates can be found via the show’s blog and twitter @robertburnsbard.

Robert Burns image courtesy of Alastair Cook.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 16th, 2011.