Thursday, July 3, 2008
Nonsense 101: A Comprehensive History of Incompetance
Welcome to the first in my series of lectures on the WORLD'S GREATEST FUCK-UPS.
When I call them the world's greatest fuck-ups, I mean no disrespect -- well, not much disrespect. Most of us are just regular stumble bums. The best of us are given to the occasional social faux pas.
Some of us have too much credit card debt. Some of us couldn't get laid in Reno with an 8-ball and a Gold Card. Some of us (ahem) are inconsequential poseurs with drinking problems.
It takes not only a complete lack of talent, luck or charm to be a world class sad-sack.
It takes intestinal fortitude. It takes perseverance. It takes testicles the size of bowling balls.
This month: WILLIAM MCGONAGALL
William Topaz McGonagall was a hand loom operator in 19th Century Scotland. Had he been born in 20th Century North America, I'm pretty sure his middle name would have doomed him to life as a stripper.
He may have been one hell of a weaver. Sadly, we will never know as none of his fabrics have survived.
He may have been one hell of a dancer. One erotic etching allegedly survived, but remains in the hands of a wealthy collector who wants to "maintain McGonagall's dignity".
What did survive was some of the worst poetry ever committed to print.
Academics rarely agree on much. The general consensus is, however, that McGonagall (Douglas Adams opinions notwithstanding) was 'THE WORST POET IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE'.
After finding his voice in 1877, McGonagall fired off his first poem in praise of a local vicar to the Dundee Weekly News. A sample - best read aloud in a thick Scottish burr:
"Rev George Gilfillan of Dundee, I must conclude my muse,
And to write in praise of thee my pen does not refuse,
Nor does it give me pain to tell the world fearlessly, that when
You are dead they shall not look upon your like again."
The editor smirkingly printed it with sarcastic 'praise' underneath. But, as many a journalist has learned the hard way -- there is no such font as Times New Ironic.
The encouraged McGonagall, tired of weaving tartan, set off on a twenty-five year bender of really crappy verse. Calling himself "Her Majesty's Poet" McGonagall would often write about the news of the day. His shining moment came when the Tay Bridge collapsed, plunging a train carrying 75 passengers to their death. It remains one of the worst railway disasters in British history. McGonagall was moved to write this memorial, if inaccurate, prose:
"Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time."
Six (sort of) stanzas later, full of the bizarre rhyme schemes, disregard for metaphor and the lack of poetic metre that characterized his work, he concludes:
"Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed."
He was also a Temperance advocate -- with good reason. Wife-beating, burglary and general naughtiness aside, a bartender was "the first man to throw peas at" McGonagall while reading his poems to a pub's clientele, according to his self-published autobiography.
McGonagall would have his revenge on the tipplers with immortal lines like:
"Then the Angel cried, "Thank God, Christ's Kingdom's near at hand,
And there will soon be peace and plenty throughout the land,
And the ravages of the demon Drink no more will be seen."
But, alas, I started up in bed, and behold it was a dream!"
In the wake of this poem, thousands of Scots stopped buying strong drink.
Oh, they kept right on drinking. They just stopped buying.
Some claim McGonagall was a pioneer in performance art; writing bad poems to get any reaction from his audience. Most say he was just completely oblivious. But despite a willingness to be pelted with eggs and vegetables for five pence, McGonagall died penniless in 1902.
In 2008, a book of 35 McGonagall poems, signed by the author, sold for $15,000 at an auction house in Edinburgh.
at 9:19 p.m.