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100 Favourite Scottish Football Poems

02/03/2008

One of the questions that one always faces with an anthology is what is its rationale, its purpose and aim? Like its team mates 100 Favourite Scottish Poems and 100 Favourite Scottish Poems to Read Aloud, 100 Favourite Scottish Football Poems, edited by Alistair Findlay, hints at a kind of democratising of the canon in its title and cover design, which is reminiscent of the earlier edition of The Nation’s Favourite Poems in typeface and layout. However, although the 20 of the 100 Favourite Scottish Poems (which, presumably, nobody would ever dream of reading aloud) were chosen through a Radio Scotland listener poll, the other 200 are, as far as I can tell, chosen by single editors.

So, if we don’t have a popular poll, what do we have? One man’s take on how poetry has addressed an endlessly popular subject, perhaps. Findlay instinctively sides with the crowd, which, he says is “really only another name for ‘the people’.” Perhaps it was an awareness of the disjunct between his role as sole arbiter of what’s in and what’s out and the requirements of his Marxism that led him to the rather odd decision to number not the pages but only the poems and state that they are “in an order of reading proposed by the editor”, which is to state the obvious, really.

But what you really want to know about is the poems. Readers of this blog will know that I’m no football fanatic, though I confess I’m not entirely averse to watching the odd Aberdeen or Scotland game and have been known to kick a ball about. All of which makes me pretty reasonably well-placed to judge the book as an anthology of poems without becoming misty-eyed about the footballing aspect or writing it off in anti-football disgust.

If you’re looking for a golden treasury, go to Palgrave. For my taste, there are a few too many paeans to great footballers and I find many of them dull poems. One notable exception in that genre is Matthew Fitt’s wonderful “Jim Leighton”, a poem that, certainly read aloud (as it is on The Jewel Box), would curely make the hardest footiephobe concede that there must be beauty and heroism in the game.

But don’t just turn over to the black and white film on the other channel. There is a lot more to this book than the footballing hall of fame in verse. If it contains a good handful of poems that will interest only the enthusiast, it also contains at least as much that’s well worth the general reader’s attention. Football runs deep, deep in the Scottish psyche and male Scottish society, and the real strength of Findlay’s anthology is that it presents us with a portrait of that deep place in a more profound and, certainly, more entertaining way than any academic study could.

Every aspect of football’s appeal is here: the highs and lows, the tribalism and sectarianism, the communal experience and the shared memories, the inextricable link between the sport and Scottish tribal identities. The book shows how far back this goes: the earliest poem is a quatrain from 1580, and one of the most pleasurable discoveries for me–there were plenty, I assure you–was the exerpt from “The Christmass Bawing of Monimusk, 1739”, proof that the divines of Scotland have never been Calvinist dourness through and through.

Sectarianism, is of course, unavoidable. Findlay does an admirable job in this regard. “The Fields of Athenry” and “The Sash My Father Wore” sit side by side in the book–could you do otherwise?–and there’s plenty sharp, funny and poignant commentary on the sectarian question from several of the poets. Dennis O’Donnell captures so much of the ambivalence, threat and fear in his “Fid. Def.” (another poem that stood out for me), while Robert Crawford’s “Identity League” sums up the nation’s carnaptious obsessions with typical Crawfordian wit and invention.

It’s interesting that, although the book includes a good deal by many of our leading poets, it’s often far from their best work and that many of the most interesting and effective poems in Findlay’s choice are not those by the biggest names. Perhaps there’s something in football that raises the game of the lesser writers and maybe the bulk of the greats, MacDiarmid not least, have missed what’s most poetic about it. There are also a few odd choices in Findlays list, poems that are shoehorned into either the rubric of “Scottish” or “football”, but he does a good job of defending them in his spiky introduction.

Despite this, depsite its slight uncertainties about canon building and democracy, and despite overdoing the eulogies from a general reader’s point of view, this book is a lively, entertaining and emotionally informative anthology of poetry. If you want to understand Scotland today, you need to read this kind of stuff, not just the academic and semi-academic analyses of where we are and how we got here. Findlay has done us a service in collecting it between these covers.

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