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Living in Dunedin, it's easy to forget the culture that founded and surrounds us. Driving past the railway station, who hasn't snorted at the tourists taking pictures, familiarity breeding contempt, writes Lisa Scott.
For the same reason, the statue of Robbie Burns in the Octagon often seems a seagull seat and nothing more, the poet meaning little to me until I was asked to speak at this year's Burns Supper, a worldwide event when his life and work is celebrated over neeps and tatties on January 25, his birthday. The night's theme was "Burns on the rights of man (and woman)''. Quite frankly, using Robert Burns and "rights of woman'' in a sentence is a bit of a feckin' stretch. Using them together in the same month in the same country is probably some sort of crime against feminism.
Reading up on the pioneer of the romantic movement, as far as I could tell, Burns considered women had the right to be wooed, winkled and abandoned. When he wasn't addressing the haggis he was molesting Agnes, and her servant at the same time, who he got pregnant. Nothing wrong with his swimmers. He was an equal-opportunity rooting machine, a bandy-legged ploughman, poor, proud, arrogant and literate at a time when Scots licked window panes for fun, dunked whores and believed in fairies; a century away from the great diaspora that would eventually see statues of Burns erected as far away as Tallinn, Estonia, and Dunedin, New Zealand. Burns, also known as Rabbie Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire and various other names (might I suggest Mr Sluttypants) after his death became a source of inspiration to the founders of liberalism and socialism, a cult figure in Scotland and around the world, voted greatest Scot in 2009. The man couldn't use a water closet without bonking someone on the way back (reminding me of an usher I knew at the Fortune Theatre who'd take advantage of the tight spiral staircase to the toilets - he might have been a retired pervert, but he liked to keep his hand in). Why then, is he so beloved?
Burns was notoriously untidy, he could never find anything, and he certainly misplaced a few children. A fornicator's punishment was being made to sit on a special seat in church three Sundays in a row (perhaps the origin of the phrase "Getting off Scot free''?) and pay a fine. Red red roses and auld acquaintances never forgot, Burns suffered from his heart, a weakness which killed him in the end, it is believed. He fell for the daughter of the Armours and got her pregnant (of course), her father fainting dead away when he learnt of his daughter's condition. They eventually got married and she gave birth to nine children, three survived infancy.
It was a time of short, hard lives, of terrible hunger. Of love and longing, heart-wrung tears, sighs and groans. Burns was full noise. If he were alive today he'd drive a matt black Holden Kingswood, have been the guy rogering that woman over the sheep statue beside State Highway 1. If Burns were alive today, he'd work in the boning room of the freezing works, hating every minute. He'd be the vegan son of dairy farmers, weeping over the fate of calves. Burns escaped his fate, became Scotland's national poet. Good thing too, he was a hopeless farmer, yet possessed a plainness akin to many a Southern Man: where it's either a cheese roll or it's not.
Burns loved like a 13-year-old girl, lived with "the full violence of living'' as the biographer Catherine Carswell wrote. He loved like a Molly Ringwald movie. Moped like Judd Neilson in The Breakfast Club. His habits of intemperance and political radicalism, his wine, women and song made him Bob Dylan's inspiration, Holden Caulfield's misremembered "body coming through the rye'', Steinbeck's mice and men. He is behind our ideas of romance, our fond kisses.
Burns might have been the archetypal bad boy (and you can bet your bottom dollar I would have fallen for him, he sounds just my type, a scoundrel), but anyone who stops in a field, devastated to discover his plough has turned up a field mouse's nest, is a sentimental sook worth knowing. He knew how to woo, was a voracious lover, had a nice pair of shoulders and realised "the best laid schemes of mice and men gang oft agley and leave us naught but grief and pain'', that there is no preparing for an uncertain future, that we should love hard, blindly, leave a messy trail, an echo of songs sung loud because we're only going this way once - and there's no point in going quietly.