Matthew Welsh passed away last October, to the great sadness of both his family & an intimate circle of friends, many of whom had been lifelong companions during his domicile in the Ayrshire village of Mauchline. This wee pretty place, & not incidentally, saw the birth & earliest years of Scotland’s national bard – Rabbie Burns. Now Matthew’s death might have passed us by like countless millions of others in this world, except for one thing, & that is a collection of a couple of hundred poems he’d been working on in the twilight of his life. He had intended to sell this poetry collection locally, to raise money for a local charity. Sadly, he passed away, but his family have distributed his book across Scotland, fanning his first flames of a posthumous fame that are kindling fires of appreciation in those who love both poetry & Scotland.
Live Long & Prosper
A hiv mind when we wis younger men,
We went pub-crawlin’ now an’ then.
Aff tae the dancin’, we wid go,
We wis quite hansome, I’ll huv ye know.
We wis always winchin, a bonny lass,
Dancin’ roon the hall, wi’ a wee bit class.
We’d arrange a date, fur Saturday comin’,
But wance again, we wid get, the blin!
Noo we’re aulder, retired folk,
In a basin, oor feet, we off’in soak,
Then tae a pub, fur a seat an’ a heat,
An’ a blether wi’ mates, we sometimes meet.
O’ times gon past oor memories tell,
Man, auld age disnae come itsel’.
Good lifes tae you, long may you live,
As good a life, as your life can give.
An’ so this poem comes tae an end,
Tae Mauchline folk, awe the best, I send.
An drink wi’ me, tae times gon past,
Us Mauchline folk are here tae last.
So welcome to the Ayrshire poems of Matthew H Welsh, a friendly romp thro’ a man’s life & times, a literary biopic bristling with beauty & intelligence & a massive breath of fresh air in a world of unpoetical poets. Like his illustrious countryman three centuries before him, Matthew chiefly wrote in the galloping & charming dialect of Lowland Scots. The poems he present us are all dated, beginning in June 2012 & the last dated September, 2018. Not all the poems were composed on those days, a good many poems are revisions of older pieces; in total a nice mixture of old & new revised by a mind focuss’d on its literary legacy. Y’see, Matthew was ill, & his poetry reveals as much, & in fact the key beauty of his work is the steady revelation of a dying body – tho’ retaining at all times an eversharp minded. It reminded me briefly of the AIDS poetry I have studied in the past, but these were generally composed in a state of pregrief & pathos, but Matthew takes his ailments on the chin, spinning them with a cheerful resolution to enjoy even the tiniest things in life, like his love for coffees, which get about 3 poems in the collection. The following stanzas are taken from various poems, which show his illness taking hold. To read them invoked Anne Frank & her diary, with her thoughts of Gestapo HQ transmuted into Cumnock Hospital.
Up an doon the stair,
Add tae this the pain am in,
Ma stomach’s awfy sair.
A’ve got tae shift at a meenits notice,
As fast as I can go,
In case a huv an accident,
Coming fae doon below!
A must be getting’ a wee bit senile,
A forget whit am da’in, every once in a while.
I go upstairs, then a come back doon,
Ma heed is burlin’, roon an’ roon.
Aye Dementia is, an awfy thing,
A forget the words, o’ songs that a sing.
Yet a’ve mind o’ things a did, when a wis a we’an,
But yesterdays a no-no, a think am goin’ insane.
A’ve finally done it, a’ve filled in the form,
A’ll send it away when I rise the morn.
Fur a wee’er hoose, wi’ nae upstair,
A canny climb them ony mair.
The W.C. is at the tap o’ the steps,
I trip an’ fa’, hurt ma knees an’ hips..
Am fed up takin’ ma life in ma hon,
Tae a flat or a wee’er hoose am gon.
I’ll Have Tae Pack
The physio’s have goat me, excersizing ma leg,
Tae build up ma muscles ’cause they’re flabby an’ sag.
I’ve missed awe ma pals an’ the barmaids but a ken,
Determined I’ll walk, tae the pubs once again.
I think I am shrinkin’, am awe limp an’ bent,
Ma get up an’ go, has got up an’ went!
I’m findin’ it hard, tae walk a few yairds,
Ma young days returnin’, isnae oan, the cairds.
Its difficult even, tae cut up ma dinner,
I’ll hufty eat soup, tae stop getting’ thinner.
A canny even chew, weel cooked roast beef,
It’s a long time since, a hud ma ain teef!
I’ve Seen Healthier Looking Shadows
So, in 2014 Welsh moves to Ellisland Court in his immortal Mauchline for a Keatsean domicile, overlooking from his bungalow window his own version of the Spanish Steps. I’m sure he woudl have enjoy’d the fact the Ellisland Farm near Dumfries was teh cooking pot for many of Rabbie Burn’s finest verses, including Tam O Shanter. The poetry slows now as his illness debilitates deeper, but he’s still happy & healthy enough to enjoy his 70th birthday as presented in the collection’s penultimate poem.
Thank you tae ma two lassies, Trudy and Ter, who put on quite a show,
When a celebrated my three score years and ten, thats 70 yes I know.
They held it in the bowlin’ green, where the staff wis awfy guid,
Wee Stevie played guitar, moothie, banjo an’ saxaphone, among ither things, so he did.
Wee Arlene, a northern Irish Lass, she made chuck fur every wan,
We ate away tae oor hearts content, whie Stevie sung anither song.
Half wi through a wee surprise, Jim Cartner played the pipes,
Wi’ stampin’ feet an a yooch or two, the place wis fu o’ hype!
Tommy Mulgrew, wis on the ball, singing fur awe his worth,
A great wee nicht hud wan an awe, a great way tae celebrate ma birth.
Trudy and Teri gave us a song tae gie Stevie a well earned break,
They soonded awfy guid tae me or mibbes the alcahol in ma drink.
Last but not least ma guests who came, maist o’ them invited they surely filled the club,
A hope they awe enjoyed themselves an’ hud a celidh, It wis like a great big pub!
I thank you all, ma family and freens fur awe the cairds an’ such,
An’ fur awe the lovely presents and gifts, I thank you ver much.
A near forgot ma birthday cake, it really wis a stoater,
Wi’ ma poems written awe ower it, anither present fae ma daughter,
A hope ma visitors awe goat a piece o’ ma cake tae try,
Cause fur masel, again a got fur diabetes, two pork pies
A great nicht!
Of Welsh’s other species of poem there are two main types. His set-piece odes reflecting the main national & international events of his times are the weakest, I’m afraid. But no poet is perfect, & this set does help to place the early Welsh in his proper time frame. We hear of the Falklands, Chernobyl, the Miner’s Strike, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Poll Tax, the Gulf War, & the final theme, the Scottish Referendum of 2014 after which Welsh writes (from ‘Paradise’);
There’s a place on this earth, that’s a pleasure tae be,
Its a place where my chest, rises up like the sea.
Filled with pride my heart thumps and it courses with blood,
This lands built with well-being, a present from God.
From the highlands up north, to the lowlands down south,
From mountain tops, rivers flow, to the sea at its mouth.
We have Bens and their Glens and we’ve Lochs by the score,
In this place that’s called Scotland we couldn’t have more.
We have oil, we have gas, we have plenty to eat,
Seas teaming with fish oor haggis is a treat.
He’s given us everything, God couldn’t do more,
Except for our neighbours, the English, next door.
They’ve stolen oor gas and they’ve stolen oor oil,
They’ve moved up to Scotland and stolen oor soil…
…This land that’s called Scotland, that’s heaven on earth,
Will belong once again, tae folk Scottish at birth.
When ye go tae the polls in September this year,
An you cast your vote for independence its clear.
A ‘Yes’ is for freedom tae do as we please,
Nae pleadin’ Westminster on oor bended knees!
It is when he writes about his family, pets & friends that he transforms his muse into a raging queen of musical wordplay, quality phrases, & elegant rhythms & rhymes. He manages to turn Mauchline into a Broonsean pantheon of pubs, pals, gals & laughter. The opening poem of the collection, Mauchline Holy Fair 2012, is a classic example, transporting us into a Tam O Shanter display of fairyfed revelry.
Mauchline Holy Fair
I went tae Mauchline holy fair, wi’ oor Teri, David an’ Donna,
The screamin’ preachers they wis there, fu’ o’ their ain persona.
We donnered roon aboot the stalls, o’ which there wis a wheen,
There wis plenty fur the we’ans tae see, the likes they’ve never seen.
There wis pipe bands here and brass bands there, the music wisnae rationed,
Awe the folk enjoyed themsel’s, as if goin’ oot o’ fashion.
In the kirk a choir wis singin’, like angels way up a height,
If Rabbie wis there tae hear the sound, mair poems he wid write.
In the bleachin’ green, big ba’s wis rollin’, wi’ wee boys bouncin’ inside,
There wis pigs on spits, hot dogs an’ burgers, an’ plenty mair besides,
Plenty tae eat and loads tae drink, an’ the sun began tae shine,
Yes everywan enjoyed themselves, that day had turned oot fine.
Kirk James he sang some Scottish songs, he set your feet a tappin’,
Wi’ the Glee club music, jugglers an’ clowns, everyone wis laughin’.
Twas there we met oor Jean an’ Sam, queuin’ up fur chuck,
We met again in Poosie nansies, got seats, we were in luck.
Then ma faither an’ oor Jim came in, an’ big Rab started playin’,
The pub wis really busy then, when wee Stan started singin’.
Yes everyone enjoyed themselves, at Mauchline’s holy fair,
A canny wait till next year comes, tae enjoy it awe wance mair.
Just when a thought awe the fun wis bye, as a donnered up the scheme,
Then a landed in an auld pals hoose, fur a few drams it would seem.
Oor Thorie,Morag an big Tam wis there, along wi’ Marlene an Griff,
Morag never laughed as much that day, though she wis a wee bit rough.
We had some laughs, we had some fun, that day we will remember,
The second o’ June, 2012, at Mauchline’s Holy Fair.
When thousands o’ visitors came tae oor Toon, just tae pass some time,
They’ll be welcome back again next year, fur the sake o’ auld lang syne
For Matthew, the Mauchline muse, that world of ‘weans & women & men,’ involves either him nipping to the pub for a drink, an epistle to a friend or the convocation of a happy childhood thro’ misty & appreciative eyes. The following stanza gives a brief taste of the flavour of this lyrical stew.
There were forty-four we’ans, awe in wan class,
Every wan o’ us noo, has a Scottish bus pass,
Big Harry an Mo’, Tommy an’ Gal,
Just some o’ the boys, an’ we are still pals.
The lasses were lovely an’ still are I know,
Helen, Heather, Christina an Maggie are braw.
Its amazin tae think, after all of the years,
We still stay in Mauchline, maist o’ us dears.
Matthew adds something different to his canvas, concluding his poems with a brief ‘Authors Note’ which sheds a little extra gloss, revealing his emotional tenderness & snappy sense of humour. Such a spirit is there at all times in his poetry, & tho’ his body may be resting the eternal sleep, that spirit he poured into his verses shall remain forever. And verses they are, true verses, steep’d in a native tradition, for Welsh is a poet unadulterated by the fashions of modernist verse libre & slams, & for that reason his poetry shall remain an island of long-loved lyricism off the coast of Ayrshire, while so many other oeuvres are wash’d away by time’s flood, realising the ambition of Welsh’s shortest pieces, ‘A Poem.’
I wish I could write a poem, that people would read and read well,
I wish I could write a poem, that people could tell and retell.
Someday I will write a poem, recited again and again,
Someday I will write a poem, recited by women and men.