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Singing from a Strange Hymn Sheet


Just finished reading Alistair Findlay’s The Love Songs of John Knox, a sophisticated but hugely entertaining collection. It’s not often a book of poems has me chuckling aloud to myself almost every page. Even rarer is the collection I pass round colleagues at my day job to watch them chuckle and giggle aloud.

Findlay takes us for a surreal and manic spin through the Scottish Reformation and 21st century Scotland. In numerous poems, Knox lands in various 21st century settings–appearing on Newsnight (not, you note, Newsnicht) and This is Your Life, watching Celtic play Porto or visiting the seamier side of Livingston. He also writes to various figures (including Calvin, Elizabeth I of England and Lenin) and addresses the poet. Some poems cover the Reformation ground alone, albeit usually with the same revved-up style. And there are plenty other voices besides Knox’s: “the poet”, Knox’s two wives and his daughter, Lenin’s (yes, he writes back), Mary Queen of Scots’ ladies in waiting, even a 16th century police report as well as the various voices of parodies and pastiches.

For the most part, the writing is a very conversational style of free verse, but a few poems (the Eliot and Milton parodies in particular) opt for a more formal tone. The language throughout veers between 16th century Scots, 21st century Scots and standard English not only across poems but within individual pieces, stanzas and even lines. Some phrases and lines come directly from Knox or his contemporaries. Indeed, some of the pieces consist solely of such lines, which feels a bit like channel surfing on a short-wave radio into the past. One poem, “God and Revolution–Knox and Lenin’s Lines to the Faithful” juxtaposes phrases from the two gentlmen named.

It all makes for a wonderfully distruptive linguistic texture. Easily readable for most Scots, I reckon, as Findlay is careful with his archaisms. And not unreflective of how many of us speak, aside from the 16th century rhetoric. If it’s a speech-based poetic, it’s a rich and complex one, capable of subtleties and textures a more resolutely street-based approach might miss.

This book could easily reach out to people who don’t usually read poetry. Sure, they’d miss the smattering of literary jokes, but there’s much else besides to admire and enjoy. It’s also pretty essential reading, given how central to the nature of Scotland are the events, obsessions and figures it deals with.

Knox often gets the blame for just about everything that’s identified as being wrong with the Scottish psyche, particularly the male version. Yes, Scotland has changed immeasurably since Knox (where hasn’t?), but, every now and then, the disturbing sense arises that Knox’s rhetoric is not as alien to today’s Scottish society as it ought to be. Findlay simply lets that sense arise without making too much of it, which is part of the book’s strength.

Nonetheless, don’t think for a minute that Findlay’s Knox is the soor ploom beloved of much Scottish social comment. Findlay is a Marxist, which gives him obvious respect for Knox the revolutionary. That’s crucial to the success of his endeavour, because his Knox emerges as a far more complex character than the dour Calvinist we’re usually subjected to. Neither traditional secular Knox-bashing, hardline Calvinist Knox-worship nor mainstream Protestant Knox-ambivalence could have yeilded the gloriously anarchic reading of Scottish history and society that this collection offers.

If the sequence has a significant weakness, it’s that Findlay slips into summarising Reformation history too much. When he combines this with wit, comedy and surrealism–as he very often does–it’s part of the pleasure. But, in the odd poem where those are lacking, the considerable virr and smeddum that characterise the sequence dissipate and we’re left with rather thin brose. Findlay should have trusted his readers more and left out those pieces. More to the point, his editors should have cut them.

The question some might ask is whether this book will translate to a non-Scottish audience. It probably won’t, which is a shame in that it could be a good one for introducing people to certain aspects of Scottish society and culture. It’s not just a matter of language, because the work assumes a fair amount of background knowledge, as does all good, rooted poetry. But, on the other hand, we need to talk to and about ourselves as much as any nation. It’s a crucial part of understanding ourselves, understanding where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. Whether or not anybody else understands what we’re saying, seldom has it been this much fun.

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