One of the problems with this time of year (the period between Christmas and Easter) is the lack of festivals, high days and holy days to celebrate. There is Candlemass, which is no longer widely celebrated and, a little later, I suppose, Ash Wednesday which has its own austere beauty but does not lend itself well to theme nights in the local pub (though I’d be interested to see someone try).
The commercial world does its best. According to Cadbury’s (R.I.P.) the creme egg season starts on January 1st and continues until Easter. Valentine’s day is made much of and Shrove Tuesday is a boon to the supermarkets.
One possible opportunity for revelry, though, is Burns night (which is tonight) and I have noticed that – rather in the way that we English have latched on to St Patrick’s day – various pubs and restaurants have started to offer Burns night events which can’t really be aimed primarily at those of Scottish extraction. One of my local pubs, for instance, is offering a Burns night menu at £25.00 for 5 courses. I personally have about enough Scots blood to fill my left calf, but have never really felt entitled to break out the tatties and the neeps and get slaughtered on whisky. But any excuse will do, I suppose, in these dark days.
Burns is a poet I always like when I read him, but I’ve never really got round to reading him properly. I thought I’d offer this, though, in commemoration – it’s a song of his – Such a parcel of rogues in a Nation, sung by the electric folkies Steeleye Span.
The object of Burns’s wrath was the 1707 Treaty of Union (though he wrote it in 1791). It’s hard not to think of P.G. Wodehouse’s observation that “it is never hard to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine”. It could, too, be seen as an early manifestation of that perennial Scots football-related complaint “We wuz robbed”. As a sustained expression of contempt (something the Scots seem particularly good at), though, it’s exemplary and I can feel my left foot tapping resentfully as I listen to it. I also find the phrase “Such a parcel of rogues in a nation” comes to mind quite frequently these days – particularly when watching the news.
Some authorities ( basically me), believe that Parcel of Rogues is a play on words relating to the popular eighteenth century collective noun Parcel of Hogs. Another expression that could come in handy.
This can also stand as a tribute to Tim Hart – a multi-instrumentalist founder of Steeleye Span (and another son of the vicarage) – who died recently. The Spanners (as I’m sure no-one at all called them) could sometimes be twee, clodhopping or gimmicky, but they did also make some truly wonderful recordings of traditional music (usually when the instrumentation was reined in a bit) and I was interested to see the Fleet Foxes citing them as a primary influence, even though, as their singer says “British people think this band is dorky”. Well, I don’t.