How its done

I first came upon McGonagall at an SCM retreat in 1961 when my friend John Crawford read Saving a Train to the assembled gathering.  The poem recounts the true story of Carl Springel, a crippled lad who gave his life in order to fulfil the action of the title.  McGonagall was always moved to his best by such tragic and heroic material.  Carl sets out in a storm…

From the handsome little hut in which he dwelt,
With some food to his father, for whom he greatly felt,
Who was watching at the railway bridge,
Which was built upon a perpendicular rocky ridge.

The bridge was composed of iron and wooden blocks,
And crossed o’er the Devil’s Gulch, an immense cleft of rocks,
Two hundred feet wide and one hundred and fifty feet deep,
And enough to make one’s flesh to creep.

How should we respond to work like this?  We could find only one answer. We had to take it seriously.  We had to follow Coleridge’s dictum and willingly suspend our disbelief. 

In the subsequent weeks a number of us acquired copies of McGonagall’s Poetic Gems and warmed to such classics as Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie, Grace Darling or the Wreck of ‘The Forfarshire’ and The Tay Bridge Disaster.  Our enthusiasm gradually hardened into a sense of purpose. We began to feel that this fine poet ought to be brought before a wider audience. Thus it was that the formation of the Friends of McGonagall was announced to the expectant campus of Auckland University.

We were not the only people rushing to this cause.  A McGonagallian revival seemed to be springing up all over the world.  Gerald Hoffnung produced a recording in which Edith Evans read The Famous Tay Whale to a suitable orchestral accompaniment.  George Duckworth & Co published the entire oeuvres in a series of smart, tartan clad volumes.  Even the New Zealand Listener weighed in with a full page piece entitled ‘The Flatulent Muse’ (November 24, 1961), which was devoted largely to McGonagall’s work.  John took the occasion of this last as an opportunity to promote our hero to the rest of the country.  In a letter to the Listener (22 December, 1961) he wrote:

‘I hope you will permit me to bring to the notice of your readers the existence at the University of Auckland of a group known as “The Friends of McGonagall”.  It was formed a few months ago and already has an enthusiastic membership of close on thirty.  Its aims are to promote the recent revival of interest in William McGonagall, to ensure a just appreciation of his poetic achievement, to encourage research into the life of the Scottish poet and tragedian and scholarly criticism of his poetry, and to urge aspiring poets of today to adhere to the eternal values and insights of English poetry which McGonagall embodies in his work with such fidelity and beauty.’

It is perhaps worth noting that the editorial on the same page as this letter dealt with the threat of nuclear war and that two of the other four letters were concerned with the same subject.  I suspect that the popularity of the Goons as well as the McGonagall revival had something to do with the temper of the times.

Two meetings of the Friends were held in 1962.  They included impassioned readings of the poems and scholarly papers, one of which, delivered by Rob Jackson, later of the Department of English at the University of Sydney, offered convincing evidence that McGonagall had actually written the works of Shakespeare and that the secret of the Bard’s tomb, with its inscription ‘Cursed be He that moves my Bones’, is that it conceals the entrance to a tunnel from Stratford-upon-Avon to Dundee.  The second of these meetings, held in September 1962 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the poet’s death was called the Inaugural Meeting.  Ironically and, perhaps, fittingly it was the last.

Prior to this Inaugural Meeting John and I were at pains to find a patron for the society.  We wrote to a number of people we felt worthy of the honour including the Duke of Edinburgh, Jackie Kennedy, Dame Edith Evans and Peter Sellers.  We received replies to all these requests.  Mrs Kennedy (through her Social Secretary, Letitia Baldridge) was ‘most appreciative of [our] thoughtfulness’ but declined with regret.  The reply from the Duke came from the Official Secretary at Government House and contained no words of appreciation or regret – just a very bald No.  The most sympathetic reply, though, was from Peter Sellers.  It consisted of a McGonagallian poem of some seventeen lines, which began:

Dear Mr. John Crawford, B.A., of 31 Wright Road, Auckland
Which as everybody knows is a long way to the west of Falkland
I deem it a great honour to have received your letter,
And, it is my only regret that I cannot answer it any better.

 Clearly, we had struck a chord with a kindred soul.  There was more to come, however.  In July, at around the time we had originally planned our Inaugural Meeting, we received an unsolicited telegram from Great Yarmouth.

‘From Goons to Goons across the Sea, we extend and (sic) old rheumatic knee.  Long live McGoonigal.
Seecombe Sellars and Milligan’

This, I suppose, was about as much closure as one can expect in an absurd world.

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