The bleak midwinter. Actually, since I wallowed in curmudgeonly complaints about dreich days, everything has improved. Clear blue skies, pleasing sunsets: perfect shooting weather. It is cold, admittedly, but that holds no terrors for those of us well insulated. The rest can wrap up. At least pro tem, we have moved to midwinter spring.
In that spirit, over a pre-Burns supper, a few merry gentlemen were discussing humorous verse. Which is the funniest poem in English? A million years ago, when I was slogging through ‘The Knight’s Tale’, a school-fellow alerted the class to ‘The Miller’s Tale’, which follows on (not to be confused with English batsmen). Chaucer obviously felt his readers deserved light relief, and provided it.
Decades later, I listened while some actors talked about their craft. One had trod the boards in northern working men’s clubs, which he insisted were the most demanding audiences north of La Scala. But, he said, there was a way out. Just say the word ‘bum’. Then everyone would cackle, including blue-rinsed wives — or perhaps especially them.
‘The Miller’s Tale’ began a long and vulgar tradition in English comedy, running through Ben Jonson, Tom Jones, Donald McGill, Benny Hill, et al. One might term it brawling English bawdry. Like the clowns in Shakespeare, it is an antiphon to the grander aspects of the English character.
Burns was no foe to bawdry, either in words or deeds. But it does not appear in his candidate for humour’s laurel leaves, ‘Tam O’Shanter’. Those roistering verses begin with a paean to drunken fellowship. Tam is in an ale-house with his closest companion, Souter Johnie: ‘they had been fou [drunk] for weeks thegither.’ Outside, the elements are doing their worst. ‘That night, a child might understand/ The Deil had business on his hand.’ At home, Mrs Tam, ‘nursing her wrath to keep it warm’, was ready to remind her husband that he was ‘a skellum,/ A bletherin, blusterin, drunken blellum.’ But Tam set off, fearing neither weather nor wife. Adventures ensued.
A text of ‘Tam’ was to hand. The reading delighted those who knew it already, and a couple of Sassenachs who conceded that Scotland had a literature beyond provincial products puffed up by Scot Nats. Poor Burns. Few men have ever had a greater capacity for joie de vivre, yet he often had to wrest his pleasures from adversity: ‘But pleasures are like poppies spread/ You seize the flower, its bloom is spread... Or like the rainbow’s lovely form/ Evanishing amid the storm.’ Burns knew whereof he wrote.
My pleasure moved on to a Scottish pleasure-dome in no danger of evanishing: the Canary Wharf Boisdale restaurant run by Ranald Macdonald, often praised in this column. The fare was seasonal and its winter heartiness was equally appropriate for the approach of Burns Night. Haggis was followed by Buccleuch beef. If there is a finer meat in the United Kingdom — which God preserve — I have yet to find it. It was accompanied by a Reuilly from Denis Jamain, whose vineyards are near Bourges. The Christian name is appropriate, for at the dawn of French history, King Dagobert gave the surrounding territory to the Abbey of Saint-Denis.
For centuries, the wines of the Loire were praised and exported. There was then a period of decline, while Bordeaux and Burgundy grew in prestige and the Loire, at least in viniculture, seemed to have diminished. Since the 1980s, that has been changing, but there are still good wines available at competitive prices.
That is not a way to describe the 40-year-old Aberfeldy, a magnificent malt to round off the evening. After his ordeal, Tam O’Shanter deserved a glass. After his ordeals, Burns deserved a bottle. It was a worthy way to salute his shade.