Burns Night Reply to the Toast to the Lassies

I’ve done the reply to the toast to the lassies at several Burns nights over the years. The first time I was asked, what followed were several days panic-googling to try to come up with something vaguely original. In the end, I suggested Burns would have been happier as an Australian, thus creating an excuse to read out some really vulgar Aussie poetry from the 1980s. Obviously not a theory that would stand up to any scrutiny, however, swearing and general rudeness do the job at a Burns night if (and only if) much whisky has been consumed.

Any historical errors about Burns are all mine. Goes without saying, the poetry included isn’t representative of the entirety of Australia’s cultural output.

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This is my opportunity on behalf of womenkind to put a different, feminist perspective on the memory of Robbie Burns.

In his day, Robbie Burns was considered a great admirer and supporter of women and held us to be his social and intellectual equals. He is talked about as if he’s some sort of proto-feminist. Indeed, he even wrote a poem called the Rights of Women.

However, from the vantage point of 200 years later, it seems that Robbie Burns wasn’t an innocent lover or advocate of women. He was a straight up shagger in the Russell Brand school of seduction, a total sex addict long before Michael Douglas invented the concept.

The list is impressive:

One of his mother’s servants – pregnant.
Two barmaids – Meg and Ann – both pregnant.
Highland Mary (assume there must have been a Lowland Mary?) – not pregnant, but many a shag until she died of typhus.
Nancy, who was married – not pregnant either, hurrah.
Her servant Jenny Clow on the other hand – pregnant.
Jean – pregnant, who he tried to marry but her parents preferred her to be a single mother than marry Burns.

Let’s run through that one again. In the 1700s, Jean’s parents preferred their darling daughter to be a mother of a child born out of wedlock, rather than marry Robbie Burns. That is a truly awful reputation.

14 kids in total, more than half illegitimate. Two of them born nine days apart by two different women. His three interests if he was doing a Guardian Soulmates profile would be: writing poetry, drinking whisky and fucking.

Despite these impressive achievements, I think that Robbie Burns should never have been born a Scot. He would have got so much further as a rampant womanizer if he had been born an Australian. And not just any Australian, but a stereotypical Aussie bloke.

As a Scot, Robbie Burns had to spout acres of romantic tripe in an attempt to have a go on a woman’s nether regions.

I see her in the dewy flowers
I see her sweet and fair,
I hear her in the tuneful birds
I hear her charm the air.

So much easier if he was an Ocker Aussie bloke. A culture where the greatest compliment you can offer a woman is: “Now, SHE would bang like a dunny door in a gale”.

Short and to the point. And no poncing about so doesn’t run the risk of ever leading people to question your sexuality. You must remember, Australia is a country where some men feel uncomfortable if they are asked to eat quiche rather than flan.

In one of Burns most famous poems, he burbled on and on trying to get a leg over:

O my Love is like a red, red rose;
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Love’s like the melody,
That’s sweetly played in tune

Wouldn’t it have been easier, if he had been an Australian? No bollocks about melodies, instead how about Aussie poet Rodney Rude: “And when she farts, it smells like flowers”.

Back to Burns. In My Highland Lassie O (Mary, typhus), Burns wrote:

She has my heart, she has my hand,
By sacred troth and honor’s band!
Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,
I’m thine, my highland Lassie, O.

Pretty romantic. It would have been significantly more romantic if he hadn’t been shagging several other women at the same time.

If he had been born an Aussie, he never would have had to bother with all the romance nonsense. Compare Burns to the towering Australian poet Kevin Bloody Wilson. Who can fail to appreciate the sentiments in his seminal piece “Kev’s Courting Song”, where his wooing of women involves asking two key questions:

Do you fuck on first dates?
And
Does you Dad own a brewery?

If you aren’t familiar with Kevin Bloody Wilson’s work, I’d heartily recommend it if you feel your chauvinism isn’t quite rampant enough. Amongst his finest works include: Me Dick Just Dialled Your Number, Rooting in the Back of the Ute and that old family favourite, The Pubic Hair Song.

In Ae Fond Kiss, Burns talks about his beloved Nancy, one of his many many many women.

But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love forever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted—
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.

In comparison, in the Aussie movie Idiot Box the lead character wrote a poem as an ode to his wife: “Tracy. You are an idiot, you are a bitch. You shit me to tears, I’m going down the pub.”

Maybe all this vulgarity and barbarity might have offended Burns’ romantic sensibilities? After all he did think of himself as a lover and not demeaner of women.

However, he wasn’t completely lily-livered. He wrote poems including ‘Nine Inches Will Please a Lady’ and the imaginatively titled ‘The Fornicator’. No one ever mentions these poetic works. Ald Lang Syne? Yes. The Fornicator? Not so much.

But considering he died in penury aged just 37, the scourge of many an angry father or husband, perhaps he should have considered emigrating south to the new colonies? Hop on a boat, hop off at Bris-vegas.

To demonstrate that Burns’ romantic efforts might have found some companionship in Australia, I’ll leave you with A Love Poem, whose author sadly remains anonymous:

Of course I love ya darlin
You’re a bloody top-notch bird
And when I say you’re gorgeous
I mean every single word

So ya bum is on the big side
I don’t mind a bit of flab
It means that when I’m ready
There’s somethin there to grab

So your belly isn’t flat no more
I tell ya, I don’t care
So long as when I cuddle ya
I can get my arms round there

No sheila who is your age
Has nice round perky breasts
They just gave in to gravity
But I know ya did ya best

I’m tellin’ ya the truth now
I never tell ya lies
I think its very sexy
That you’ve got dimples on ya thighs

I swear on me nanna’s grave now
The moment that we met
I thought you was as good as
I was ever gonna get

No matter what u look like
I’ll always love ya dear
Now shut up while the footy’s on
And fetch another beer.

Now I will ask you to raise your glasses, as a toast to all of Burns’ long suffering women.

Biggles the Cocker Spaniel

We have a cocker spaniel called Biggles, who is a bit of a show stopper. I’ve been asked more times than I’ve had hot dinners where we got him, so this is a post to explain how we went about procuring the cutest dog in the world. Please note, your experiences may differ.

Biggles after two weeks in Somerset. The pool preferable to muddy hikes in the quantocks. #londondandy

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Biggles is an English Show Cocker Spaniel. This is a different type to a working cocker spaniel with their wider faces, less pronounced features, and requirement of much more exercise. I’m no dog breed expert, but working cockers are bred to be on farms or gun dogs, while show cockers seem to better for cities. Biggles likes a hike, but is happiest cruising down Broadway Market, checking out the other dogs, poncing about and generally looking lovely. Although that may be specific to him and his owners, rather than the breed.

We knew before we got Biggles that we wanted this type of dog. It may sound a little Single White Female, but my best mate has one: Beardsley, aka the Best Dog in the World ™. If you don’t have experience of a breed, I’d thoroughly recommend spending time with one and doing your research into temperament and exercise needs, as there would be nothing worse than getting a dog that needs several hours walking a day and you only have 45 minutes and no garden. In general, any breed that is meant to be outdoors probably isn’t right for a city. Farm dogs would really struggle not being out in a field all day, and a city park just isn’t a replacement.

Biggles at 4 months

Biggles at 4 months

The way we found our puppy was really simple.

When my husband finally suggested we could get a dog, I was on this website within four minutes, selected Cocker Spaniel from the drop down, and in the keyword box typed “show”, which then narrowed it down to be this specific breed. Obviously, I had done this many times before.

Biggles cost £895 (cue my mother rolling her Presbyterian eyes, but to my mind worth every penny!), and for that price what you are buying is: a) a great breeding pedigree b) free of the two main genetic diseases c) kennel club registration d) not from a puppy farm e) sold by a kennel club registered breeder. Together, you’ve got to hope that makes for an awesome dog.

The cheaper the price, the more you can assume the show cocker spaniel puppy is missing something from the list above. So a £400 puppy probably doesn’t have a great pedigree or hasn’t been tested for genetic diseases. A good pedigree in itself doesn’t translate into being a great dog, however I used it as a guide that he wasn’t inbred and was from a breeder who cared about her dogs.

The other things I looked for were indicators that showed the puppy was born into a family home and not a puppy farm, from a breeder who really knows what they are doing. You have to be a bit Inspector Clouseau at this point, as often the photos of the puppies look shit (I guess they are dog breeders not photographers!). I looked for photos that looked like homes rather than sheds, and any mentions of the puppies being born/looked after in a family home. You want a puppy where the breeder has started the socialisation process that you will continue: so being picked up, touched, used to noises of a kitchen and home, soft mouthing and being discouraged from nipping, the beginnings of house training etc.

I’d also suggest you should be willing to travel for the right puppy. We live in London and got ours in Retford near Sheffield. The breeder we got Biggles from was brilliant. She played the tuba, and when she practiced the puppies lined up in front of her and howled along.

A big thing is to go with an open mind. What counts is the dog’s personality and nature, and not just looks. We actually were going for a different dog (it was a red sable puppy we were going to look at), but the breeder, after she listened to what we were looking for, recommended we take Biggles instead as his personality was much more in keeping with what we wanted. It was great advice – if we’d stuck with the red sable we’d still have a beautiful dog, but its personality wouldn’t have suited us and that is what counts in the long term.

Biggles’ coat is sable. It is very unusual (so much so, we think we should change his name to Unusual, as that is what people say when they see him: “What an unusual colour!”), and means it changes colour as it grows. More blond at the roots, darker when longer on his back, while retaining his funky blond pantaloon legs. His name comes from the patterns on his face making him look a fighter pilot. If we ever get another dog, they’ll have to be called Ginger or Algy.

You can also browse through the kennel club’s own website. The only reason we went with the Pets4Homes website is it is easier to use and has photos, which the KC doesn’t. However, do buy from a breeder that is KC registered.

The other tip I was given is never leave the breeder’s house with a promise that paperwork will follow – that means KC registration, any genetic testing paperwork, insurance, certificates etc. You need to leave with everything in place otherwise don’t take the dog.

Obviously, we didn’t go down the route of a rescue dog, but you could do – sadly a lot of breeds including spaniels end up in rescue homes, so worth exploring.

So that’s it. From the moment my husband said “perhaps we could have a dog” to Biggles being in our house was less than four weeks with Christmas and family gatherings in between. Biggles wasn’t supposed to be our dog. He was the pick of the litter but the woman who had bought him had sadly suffered a bereavement a few days before she was due to pick him up. So by chance he had become available. If he wasn’t, it would have taken us longer to find the right dog for us.

Breeding and pedigree only count for so much, and what’s made Biggles who he is is acres of socialisation when he was a puppy, training every day, puppy classes with Darling Dogs, great day care when I’m at work (Dogvillas in Hackney) and lots of exercise and games.

Defunct

Considering I’ve not posted since 2008, it is safe to say this blog is defunct. I’m not deleting it yet, as I keep thinking I might want to return to it at some point in the future.

I am currently using Posterous as a random place to publish images and whatnot. Aside from that, Twitter is my other outlet, follow me @toppage.

Obama and the identity box

Barack Obama

The Obama victory is such a wonderful event. I think Maya Angelou sums up best why it is so special. (Dare you to watch Maya speak so eloquently and passionately, and not be in tears by the time she reads her poem “I Rise”.)

It isn’t just that he is a democrat and doesn’t come from the white wealthy establishment. It isn’t just what he symbolises. Nor that he is smart (please tell me that the word intellectual is going to stop being a term of abuse).

But because he has in bucket loads that under-rated and sadly rare value of common sense. It is inevitable he’ll disappoint, make decisions people don’t agree with, or are just plain wrong. But by using common sense to come to conclusions, there is a greater chance that his decisions will be well thought out. And he has the leadership skills and charisma to get people to follow him, even if they don’t always agree with him. Now that’s a special talent.

Obama inspires so much debate about race and identity. Is he black? White? Bi-racial? Post-racial? Not “proper” African American because he is the son of an African and an American, but doesn’t have a slave history? A new type of American as he is the son of an immigrant?

While Obama’s existence and and experience is causing this particular debate around race and ethnicity to move on and progress, I don’t really share the need that some people feel to put labels onto others. Surely it is up to the person to decide what, if any, label or identity they wish to choose? When done by others, there seems to be an expectation that this identity explains everything about someone. By doing so, leads people to ignore the parts of someone which don’t conform to that identity, or inflate the parts of someone’s behaviour which re-inforce the stereotype.

I wrote a very rushed colour piece on Englishness and identity years ago when I worked at the BBC (the page has now been deleted, but I found a version on a forum). It wasn’t a  particularly good or amusing article. It was intended to be satirical, but I think in parts it reinforced rather than confounded national stereotypes and certainly was a little immature in places! However, despite this, elements of the piece still sum up my views on my own identity.

A Gaelic-speaking mother, Welsh-speaking father, born in England, raised in Australia, lived in the UK for over a decade. I don’t know what that makes me, but I know it doesn’t make me any one singular thing: a Scot, or Welsh, or English, or British, or Australian (despite my accent). 

I’m really quite comfortable with not having a clear sense of what identity box I go into, no matter how many times people try to say that I am one of these things. I’m quite happy being just Jen.

Goats, marketing and motivation

Last week, a bunch of us from Channel 4 and OMD (not Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark but our media agency) had a session to discuss how we promote the new version of channel4.com that will be launching towards the end of the year. The new site will be all about Channel 4 TV shows, the linear TX and watching video. It will build on the developments we’ve made in recent years: free Catch Up of TV shows you’ve missed; tonnes of video clips from shows on TV now as well as classic programmes from the past 26 years; lots of programme support pages to extend users’ engagement with their favourite TV. All very exciting, necessary, and exactly what Channel 4’s main website should be about. 

Not to get all Carrie Bradshaw, but it got me thinking how different it is to promote a brand new, game-changing product, compared with something that is making incremental innovations. 

It made me come back to one of the theories from my MBA which is pretty well known but very useful – Herzberg’s theory on motivation-hygiene factors. The logic is that there are things that can de-motivate you at work: a broken chair, your computer not working, feeling that you aren’t paid what you should be. However, when these things are fixed (your chair is comfortable, you computer works like a dream, you feel you are being paid roughly what is fair for the job you are doing) then you aren’t motivated to work harder (“wow, this chair is so comfy I’m going to try especially hard today!”). Instead, the things that motivate you are often more intangible, and are factors such as recognition, growth, responsibility – being appreciated, I guess.

Although Herzberg was talking specifically about motivation at work, you could twist it to be about the marketing of existing products which are incrementally improving. Promoting something as new that people assume you are doing already is a bit like the broken chair. Yes, it is right to launch a new version of your product that consolidates all your activities (fixing the chair), but people aren’t going to necessarily see it as new and shiny. Rather, they’ll see it as more (and hopefully better) of what you’ve been doing for years. 

As an aside, if you want to become hugely well-off, one way is to come up with a management theory and get it included in MBA material. You are then quids in each time it is published by the hundreds of business schools round the world. Charles Handy, Porter’s five forces, Mintzberg’s organisational configurations. The list is endless.

My management model would be the goat fucker theory, based on the old joke: A man discovers the cure for cancer, do they call him cancer curer? No. He saves children from a burning building. Do they call him child saver? No. But he fucks one goat… 

Really, it is a (cruder) version of Herzberg. You can (and should) spend a lot of time making sure that your products are what people expect them to be, people’s desks are fixed, computers work, etc., however you shouldn’t expect extra recognition or a big medal for doing so. Rather, if you mess these up (and worse, don’t also offer the factors that encourage and inspire), then people rightly get de-motivated. And you run the risk of being considered the Goat Worrier.