Talking Poetry and Politics in Downing Street
Hugh McMillan was asked to Downing Street to read poetry to Rishi Sunak.
My recent visit to Downing Street has resulted in some (mostly good natured) stick and I thought it might be interesting to give my reflections on my invitation to the centre of the failing British state.
I accepted the invite – to read poetry in three different sessions to people invited to the Prime Minister’s Burns ‘celebrations’ – for two different reasons. Firstly, because it was nice of the Scottish Poetry Library to recommend me to the Prime Minister’s office and secondly because I fancied reading, in Scots and English, my own poetry, much of which is about the marginalisation of Scottish history and its languages and culture to the people currently responsible for it.
You spend so much time as a poet reading and discussing things with folk you know already agree with you. I had no illusions about changing minds but having written for so long on these themes it would be satisfying to deliver what I thought my own material personally between the eyes. Mind you I had no idea who would comprise the audience.
I was asked to submit the poems I was going to read in advance and chose the ones I would have read anyway – a lyrical one about Margaret Stewart married in exchange for a dowry of 10,000 Scottish troops to fight the English; a speculative one about St Columba being strangled by a Pictish princess; one about my dispossessed and scattered Highland ancestors; one called ‘If Britain wis the Richt way Roond’ about how Scottish history has been subsumed by what I call ‘Brenglish’ history and one taking the pish out of the National Trust for Scotland, an English occupying force in my opinion, which contains the line ‘we will wash our swords many times in English blood.’
This set list was approved, or maybe never looked at. One stipulation was that I read a Burns poem at the end of each set, a condition which of course I was more than happy to accept, choosing ‘A Man’s a Man’, which I find a devastatingly effective poem read out loud, more so than when sung.
The event was mostly a trade fair – whisky samples (thank you, you Raasay folk for your steady supply), gin, gaming, fashion. There were two fine musicians from Glasgow (“we’re just here to supply the musack”) but apart from them I was the only performer. I was due to give three readings in the state room with two Turners worth 10 million quid on either side of the mantelpiece. I had a red chair and various settees and chairs were drawn up in a crescent shape around it.
At first the folk milling about were the invitees, mostly folk from Scotland associated with charities or education or whatever but at a certain point all the politicos arrived and the champagne and whisky were broken open. As far as I could see they were all Scottish Tories with a smattering of folk with full military uniforms.
I’m used to having a few beers before readings and don’t have many inhibitions at poetry readings, after all they are my spaces, and my rules apply. No-one seemed inclined to attend the first one so I started shouting at folk to come in.
“Get your arse in here Jack and listen to some of your Galloway poetry” I said. He [Alister Jack] didn’t, but David Mundell and Douglas Ross did along with a dozen others. They all seemed to listen and some bloke in military uniform came up at the end and agreed that the Tudors were homicidal maniacs and it was ridiculous that the flagship of the Royal Navy was named after one.
In the third reading I had got to my second last poem when there was a great stooshie outside and photographers spilled into the room. “Do the Burns, do the Burns” mouthed my charming minder. Rishi Sunak entered. “Where have you been” I said “I’ve done the best anti-English bits already”. I then gave him some Burns. As I said it’s a fantastic poem to deliver. The Prime Minister then left, not chastened of course – just another piece of tokenism for him ticked off.
The boys from Raasay then gave me several more samples and a free bottle of whisky and I retired to the Bayswater Arms.
- Obviously not a single opinion was altered (though I’m sure I said some history of which they were not aware).
- Though I was being used, on balance it was worth it for the trade-off. I’m pleased that I was able to deliver my opinions on our country’s history and languages to a bunch of soldiers and Tories for the first and probably the last time in my life or theirs.
- Our enemies are mostly banal. They have stains in their shirts too. They are folk horribly altered by privilege and entitlement or strange notions.
- Our enemies are very small. The Downing Street cat who greeted me at the door is bigger than Rishi Sunak.
Whit if Britain wis the Richt way Roond?
We’re that used tae lookin at maps
oan the telly whaur Scotland yon miserable
spit o mountains fillt wi alkies
angles aff intae the Noarth Atlantic
whaur it maun deserve tae be,
while the sooth o England,
leish an roon as chicken breest
swims lushly afore oor een,
the source o aw guid things,
prosperity, culture, an heestory.
Yet afore Stonehenge, in a far northern pairt,
sae distant noo they hae tae fit it in a box,
they built Cyclopean waws aligned
tae the threeds an filaments o the cosmos,
a temple complex sae fantouche it beggars belief.
Doon there in the glaur o the Thames, sookin
whelks, the natives could anely dream o
the Ness o Brodgar, yon Luxor o the North,
an wait fur boats o missionaries frae Orkney
tae arrive, lear them hoo tae mak pots,
graw corn, meex paints, hae a bit o perspective.