McGonagall’s Chronicles (which will be remembered for a very long time)

Play at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 5 – 15 December 2018. Written and performed by Gary McNair with Simon Liddell (Composer / Musician) and Brian James O’Sullivan (musician / Chorus. Directed by Joe Douglas and co-directed by Tomaz Krajnc. 

Writer and performer Gary McNair couldn’t believe his ears when his friend introduced him to the poetry of William Topaz McGonagall. He found the work ‘so terribly bad’ that he was drawn to examine why McGonagall is well known 125 years later. ‘Who was this guy?’, he asked, ‘Was he meant to be this bad?’ This way the show McGonagall’s Chronicles was born.

McNair has taken a poet who is pilloried and vilified and written a script using the same declamatory, clunky and ‘abominable’ style but in a more adroit and knowingly comical way. With awards tucked into his belt (Fringe First 2018), and together with Simon Liddell (Composer / Musician) and principal on-stage side-kick Brian James O’Sullivan, musician and Chorus, he has created a one hour touring show which tells the story of McGonagall’s life in often ridiculous rhyming verse. We learn about the very tough trajectory of this self-made man who had endless determination and apparently unwavering self-belief. Somehow McNair manages to elicit sympathy for this most hard-skinned of men.

Using a form which would be recognised in the 19th century theatre of McGonagal”s day, there is a tight structure. He remains true to the metre and doggerell of McGonagall, and performs in a flamboyant style which is thirds panto, music hall and stand-up. The text contains references to the nursery rhymes of the times: ‘bonnie and gay’, ‘nimble and quick’, but there are also contemporary metaphors, ‘He was bound to be as popular as Game of Thrones’. It is not pure drama – there are songs and letters, a judge’s sentence and newspaper cuttings amongst the dialogue.  

It is tight and prodigiously paced at the start – the two performers slickly alternating and interrupting each other. However, around the time that the timbre is turned up to a shout, things start to go wrong. It is an unfortunate irony that in the pre-show announcement O’Sullivan declares, ‘You might want to take this chance to head for the exit’, because when a gentleman does just that, McNair loses his place. He responds in style and heckles, initially incorporating it smoothly so that those of us who didn’t know it was happening are surprised. It puts him off his stride. With many a ‘f… it’, he struggles manfully to retrieve his place, but the show barely recovers and when, five minutes to the end, his costume proves to be more of a straight-jacket than a smock, he must have wanted to just sit down and cry. Even the script seemed considerably weaker at the end and the final line of the ‘Life After Dundee’ section was a flop.

It is unlikely that this is normal, after all McNair has a great reputation and over half the show was excellent. McGonagall’s Chronicles will surely continue to entertain those who enjoy a good play on words in a historical context.

Further Reading

19th century theatre

Mary Brennan’s review of the same show in the Glasgow herald. 5 stars.

Heroines From Abroad – poetry review

Heroines From Abroad by Christine Marendon translated from the German by Ken Cockburn

Scottish launch 13.7.18

Heroines From Abroad is Christine Marendon’s first collection, and published by Carcanet Press, it is half-and-half English/German, translated by Edinburgh based poet Ken Cockburn. Launched at Lighthouse, Edinburgh’s Radical Bookshop (formerly Word Power Books) in the capital’s Causewayside area, the pair were introduced by Annie Rutherford who leads the Women in Translation fiction reading group there. Alternating, Christine and Ken read the poems in both languages and an illuminating Q & A followed.

Marendon was raised in Bavaria and currently lives in Hamburg. She has a personal and individual approach: “I meditate and try to think of nothing. I don’t read other poets when I am writing. In this act of forgetting, you find things you usually do not find, hear something you otherwise won’t hear.” With a distinctively female voice, there is indeed a dreamy, Dali-esque quality, where apparently unconnected images circle around each other and leave the reader to make connections, to recognise something deep inside themselves. “I am only following my own logic”, Marendon intertwines her hands delicately, “not to hold, grasp it, but watch it and surround it with my words”.

Cockburn initially translated six of Marendon’s poems 13 years ago, saying it was the “wonderful coming together of images” which attracted him. “It was intriguing rather than frustrating that there were aspects which I didn’t get the gist of, that the poems created their own worlds with a kind of dream logic to them.” As if, on waking, there is a tumble of words related to half-remembered visions, or middle-of-the-night thoughts, all co-existing, some of which are too painful to bear scrutiny in the cold light of day, but these Marendon has committed to paper. “we snarl and dig our bared teeth into each / others’ flesh…torn skins hang / sideways to the floor,” (from Fifty Ways).

The poems make new associations, fresh meanings emerge from juxtapositions of words you previously thought you could rely on. Cockburn quotes from Rotunda and Breath, “Your warm handshake has you kneeling / to the saints of motorway slip-roads and service-stations..” and, “My dearest is a / missing feather, a snapped-off star”. (The latter referring to the automotive emblem of a Mercedes which a friend stole.)

Christine Marendon
Christine Marendon, poet.

There are many recurring natural images – water, air, wind and stone for example. In Bahamut, “I am the fish who, coming for air / kisses the water’s surface: / you see the disturbance, the circles it creates, but, me, the fish, / you don’t see.” Memory features strongly: “My memory is a darkroom / into which only blood-red light is admitted.” (from Negative). However when asked, Marendon stated, “I wrote these at different times of my life, they stand alone. But I am almost the same person so there might be connections.”

The book title Heroines From Abroad is a phrase from Rotunda referring to her family matriachs. She explains, “Men are responsible for most translocations and women have to solve the problems and hold the family together when they get there.”

On the page the poems often have the appearance of prose with short, succinct phrases of 2 or 3 words. “The day, / forgotten. There at the edge. Where the darkness / lives.” The first few silent readings in your own head do not reveal a recognisable tempo, but hearing them aloud made more metrical sense. Cockburn stated, “there was a rhythm I was trying to recreate in English.”

Letting her ‘found’ voice be concretised was brave, and ultimately successful. This is an intrinsically creative first poetry collection, and I am guessing that you will find that wisps of fascinating thoughts will be ribboning through your mind long after reading it.

The Guardian’s Poem of the Week

Christine Marendon, No Man’s Land

New Books in German

Info about Christine Marendon in German

They say that the readership for poetry is really low, especially in translation. Do you think that’s right? Leave me a comment and we’ll do our own poll!

Audacious Women Festival – Celebrating Audacity, Spoken Word and Music

The by-line of the Audacious Women Festival, now in its 3rd year, is ‘Do what you always wished you dared.’ Sally Wainwright, one of the organisers, introduces this theme by telling us about a singing workshop for those who believe they cannot sing but who managed a 4-part harmony after 2 hours; and a beginners song-writing workshop whose participants were so keen they continued to read out their work in the street afterwards.

The performers and event alike operate in an identifiably female way with pre-planned efficiency, open friendliness, and an intensely supportive atmosphere where intimate confessions are interspersed with poetry, discussion and music. The Festival website states that it is “a chance to break personal, political, institutional barriers”, and the frank language and direct approach of most of the women is refreshing and challenging on all those levels.

The compere, Agnes Török, herself an experienced spoken word artist with a new book out entitled We Need To Talk, solidarity and survivorship starts by encouraging us to whoop and applaud, for all the world like a TV show about to go on air, in order to encourage and appreciate those who will declare. A Swede by birth, Agnes’ English is perfect and she speaks and declaims assertively on behalf of those who are being or have been abused, focusing on the Me Too campaign, and reiterating she is only with us herself because of Women’s Aid.

In terms of material, Emily Still’s Don’t Stand So Close about a female robot wired to be hyper-clever and made by men who want to have their way with her in the lab of an evening, conveys a creepy, inadvertently-cross-my-legs-on-hearing-it reaction. Her wry Fat Poet is also original, in which we can picture her without judgment and see how she is discriminated against by others. Lore, an amusing prose piece about her one-legged great granny falling into the toilet is partly verbalised in her local Leith dialect.

The second half contains a panel conversation lead by Török with Edinburgh Women’s Aid CEO Linda Rodgers and Edinburgh Rape Crisis Sexual Violence Prevention Worker Nadine (celebrating, respectively, their 45th and 40th anniversaries). All 3 women are eloquent, informative, highly informed and sparky. The questions are excellent: looking at the shape of a world without violence against women, recent breakthroughs in legislation, and what each one of us can do to help the cause – listen and always believe women who tell you they have been abused.

Audacious Women Festival website

Mon 26 Feb 2018