Downloading Rab - or - yet another post about Jean Armour!

I'm reblogging this from my recent Authors Electric contribution since I got a kick from writing it - and I hope you might enjoy reading it.

I wrote this play about Burns for Glasgow's Oran Mor venue
As everyone who knows me, and quite a few people who don’t, will know by now, I’m working on a novel about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour. Never heard of her, somebody said to me only the other day. Which is one of the reasons why I’m writing it. Even when I wrote my play Burns on the Solway for one of the Play, a Pie and a Pint lunchtime seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor, I found myself writing about Jean as much as Rab.

Anyway, as usual in mid-project, especially mid historical project, I’m doing a lot of research. Some of it is necessary but some of it is just for fun, meandering down some strange highways and byways of history and occasionally (like last week) coming up with one or two electrifying possibilities about certain – I hesitate to use the words ‘sacred cows’ but they just popped into my head – of Burns lore.

Also popping into my head in the early hours of the morning with uncomfortable regularity is the desperate need to look something or other up just to see if it fits with my far-fetched but fascinating thesis about somebody who isn’t central to the story – but the theory is perfectly possible and much too good, not to say controversial, to leave out.

Anyway, there I was, all cosied up in bed on a wild, wet and windy morning, 5 am and I was wondering if I could really be bothered to get out of bed before the central heating had come on and pad through to the study and rummage through my great heap of research books old and new until I found the poem I was looking for to see if it really did seem to say what I thought it said, and if it really did seem to date from when I thought it did.
Jean, in her late forties, John Moir, courtesy of South Ayrshire Council


No, I couldn’t, was the answer to that one.

Then I noticed that my Kindle was lying beside the bed. It’s a Paperwhite, so I didn’t even need to switch it on. I just opened up its girly pink cover and woke it up. Unlike my husband, it never seems to object. It had just occurred to me that although I have many volumes of Burns’s poetry and letters, some of them quite old and rare, I don’t have any of his poems on my Kindle. I touched the shopping cart symbol, put Robert Burns into the search box, and up popped lots of available editions including one that had everything, and I mean everything, with all kinds of interesting old annotations and notes. 99p. I gently touched Buy It Now and within about three seconds it was on my Kindle, and I was reading it. Some blessed soul has digitised this out of the goodness of his or her heart, and although the formatting isn’t perfect (Well have you ever tried formatting poetry or even plays for an eBook?) the readability is spot on and the notes are fascinating.

I spent the next couple of hours until I could justifiably get up and make the tea, reading through a series of poems written particularly at the time I had been speculating about. Another thing struck me forcibly. I found it easier, much, much easier, to read the longer poems on the Kindle than on the pages of a book. I have no idea why that should be, but it was true. I’ve ploughed my way through The Holy Fair before today and found it difficult, even with a good working knowledge of the Scots language of Burns’s time. No longer. It was like a lightbulb coming on in my head. The Holy Fair, if you don’t know it, is a blissfully satirical account of one of the huge festivals of preaching, prayers and communion held in late eighteenth century Scotland. 

Fabulous old photo of Mauchline's Cowgate,
courtesy of http://www.ayrshirehistory.com/mauchline.html
This one was in Mauchline about a mile away from Rab’s farm at Mossgiel. But the fact of the matter was that they were also festivals of eating, drinking (lots of drinking) and subsequent fornication. Even those who disapproved of the raw satire couldn’t actually say that the poet was lying or even exaggerating. In fact the Holy Fair seems to have borne a strong resemblance to those days of misrule you find in Mediaeval times when all the gravity of the church would be turned topsy turvy and I suspect the origins of them are pretty much the same – a sort of communal letting off steam. 

Reading it on my Kindle, I find myself appreciating the poem from the ‘batch o’ wabster lads, blackguarding frae Kilmarnock ...’ (Kilmarnock weaver lads coming into town – probably with money burning a hole in their pockets - and definitely up to no good, certainly nothing holy) to the lovely lines: Oh happy is the man and blest, nae wonder that it pride him, whas ain dear lass that he likes best, comes clinkin’ down beside him. Wi’ arm reposed on the chair back, he sweetly does compose him, which by degrees slips round her neck and’s loof upon her bosom, unkenn’d that day. I do like the idea of the happy man copping a wee feel of his ain dear lass’s ‘bosom’ while the oblivious minister is preaching hell fire and damnation. You get the feeling that the poet is writing what he knows all about, don’t you? 

The last lines of the poems are probably the best known:

There’s some are fu’ of love divine
And some are fu’ of brandy
And many jobs this day begun
Will end in houghmagandie
Some ither day. 


Houghmagandie. If you don’t know what it is – I’ll bet you can guess.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean
Anyway. Amid all this, it struck me how very privileged I am to be able to access this with so much ease. The ancient volumes in my possession are engaging and - yes – they smell good to me. I quite like that old, dusty, library smell. But on a wild, wet and very cold March night give me a warm bed and a Kindle. And for most other practical purposes too, if I'm honest.

The internet has revolutionised this kind of research. Too much, sometimes. The temptation to pursue white rabbits (or sacred cows) down enticing holes in the fabric of the world wide web is overwhelming and the research can expand to ridiculous proportions. On the other hand, there’s something extraordinarily satisfying in piecing together a complicated tissue of known facts, rampant speculation and distinct possibilities based on a hundred subtle hints. It’s one of the things I love about writing historical fiction: that combination of the actual and the possible facilitated by the countless pieces of the puzzle that are now available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen. 

The Holy Fair - Robert Bryden

Making sense - or credible fiction - of them all is where the fun starts.

www.wordarts.co.uk

Comments