Sunday 22 March 2020

From Good Whisky to the Ancient M

A few days ago, Partick Kurp came across the word 'scunner' for the first time – 'scunner' used as a noun. By chance, just now I came across the same word used as a verb, in the Envoi to Norman MacCaig's 'Ballade of Good Whisky'. This is a poetical toast to his friend and fellow boozer Hugh MacDiarmid (English name Christopher Grieve) and celebrates, in no uncertain terms, the pleasures of whisky.
Here is the Envoi

'Chris! (whether perpendicular or flat
Or moving rather horribly aslant)
Here is a toast that you won't scunner at –
Glenfiddich, Bruichladdich and Glengrant!'

And here is the first stanza (of three, all on the same simple theme)  –

'You, whose ambition is to swim the Minch
Or write a drum concerto in B flat
Or run like Bannister or box like Lynch
Or find the Ark wrecked on Mt Ararat –
No special training's needed: thin or fat,
You'll do it if you never once supplant
As basis of your commissariat
Glenfiddich, Bruichladdich and Glengrant.'

Well, it's certainly energetic, and uses the ballade stanza well – and those of us who love whisky would heartily endorse the sentiment, especially (in my case) after 9 at night.
MacCaig's ballade seems to be a response to another poem on a similar theme – The Impossible Ballade of Whisky and Soda by one H.S. Mackintosh:

'Sublime beverage, supreme tipple,
The slick nectar (but the Haig's slicker!)
Which gods drew from a divine nipple
And thick nights became a lot thicker.
I'm Pict-Scot, which means a good picker,
I thus drank, and through my veins flowed a
Benign magic, yes, the true ichor
A large whisky and a small soda.

A full double, or perhaps triple,
Descends slowly - feel the sparks flicker
('Twould cure wholly a complete cripple)
And warm the cockles of the tired 'ticker'.
The world's sick and will be still sicker
Of Krupp, Vickers and the Czech, Skoda,
So serve quickly, lest the thugs bicker,
A large whisky and a small soda.

In dark Russia, by the Don's ripple
They like vodka - the effect's quicker
But bring Walker and a wee sip'll
Convert Malenkov, that dull sticker,
And dour Molotov, his side-kicker;
From Kamchatka to the wide Oder,
O let's wish them, with a slight snicker,
A large whisky and a small soda.


Beware, Lady, of the dear Vicar,
He's just waiting for the rhyme's coda,
He likes ladies and he loves liquor -
A large whisky and a small soda.

Note how Mackintosh manages to get through the whole thing without a single male line ending.
Here is another specimen of his comic verse – this one written as a monologue. It's called 'The Busy Man's Ancient Mariner' –

'It is the Ancient Mariner, he stoppeth one of three . . .
A devastating 'Raconteur' and Travel-Bore was he;
His victim was a Wedding-Guest who listened while he told
A story that went on for hours and never did unfold.
The A.M.'s tale described a trip around Cape Horn and back:
He worked aboard a sailing ship (I think he got the sack);
With nothing but a crossbow-shaft he killed an albatross,
His shipmates did not praise this feat, but were extremely cross;
They hung the bird around his neck (which must have been unpleasant,
For when an albatross gets 'high' it's not like grouse or pheasant).
The Ancient M. went off his head, had sunstroke or D.T.s,
A guilt-complex afflicted him which nothing could appease,
He saw the sun and moon behave most oddly in the sky,
He thought he saw the ship break up and all his shipmates die;
Thirst, heat and cold, dead men and ghosts beset the luckless ship
And every kind of contretemps combined to spoil the trip.
How he got home he can't recall (on foot? by boat? by carriage?).
The Wedding-Guest who heard all this was stunned and missed the marriage.

Don't let yourself be buttonholed when you have got a date;
Don't travel in a sailing ship (they're nearly always late);
Avoid Old Salts, especially those who have a glittering eye;
Above all don't shoot albatross (or is it albatri?).

(The 'Ancient M' is far too good for usages so vile,
And if you read the whole damn thing
You'll find it well worth while.)'

It's probably best after a few whiskies.

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