Gubby Plenderleith, our Literary Editor, reports on a find which has rocked Scotland’s literary world.
The Scottish literary establishment is charged with anticipation over the announcement this week that a number of previously unknown poems by Scobie McSporran, ‘The Bard of Balmaha’ are to be published next month.
I spoke with Torquil Abercromby, a senior researcher at Freuchie University, who was approached last year by a woman claiming to be McSporran’s great-granddaughter.
He told me:
“She telephoned me completely out of the blue and said that she had a number of the poet’s unpublished works which the family had kept in storage since his death. She wondered whether the University would be interested in reading them.
“To be honest I was a bit sceptical at first. Here was someone saying they had unpublished works by one of my favourite Scottish poets and asking me whether I’d like to read them. It was all pretty unreal at the time and I wondered if it was one of my students playing some kind of practical joke.”
Happily, Abercromby put aside his initial dubiety and met with the woman who had contacted him. She wishes to remain anonymous. He was, he told me, bowled over by what she showed him. He was also fearful that unless he acted quickly, she might take these literary jewels elsewhere, and so he lost no time in contacting the University authorities who fortunately were able to make sufficient funding available for the publication of a slim volume.
The resultant book, although limited in size, also contains some notes on McSporran the man, tracing his journey from apprentice shoemaker to running the family business himself, before handing it on to his two sons in order that he could become a full time writer.
This new publication also details some of McSporran’s travels round Scotland, and documents the way in which he summoned up the spirit of the simple man, choosing to write about everyday subjects rather than the more grandiose themes chosen by some of his contemporaries. His method of achieving this was to take to the road, living the life of a vagabond – a period of his life which, in his later years, McSporran looked back on with great fondness.
Speaking in 1928, a few months before his death, he told the writer Rudyard McGillicuddy that the day he gave up control of the family business for life as a vagrant was the happiest of his life.
As McGillicuddy recorded:
“Scobie was a free spirit who wished to be bound by no man, creed, or obligation. As for the family business, he told me that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been shoemakers before him and as he himself remarked,’yon’s a lot o’ cobblers.’”
Abercromby is keenly protective of the publication of these works, which he sees as a landmark in the country’s literary landscape. He is extremely reticent to give away too many details of its contents. Aberdeen Voice is, therefore, exceptionally privileged to have exclusive permission to print two poems which elegantly demonstrate McSporran’s fascination with the everyday topics of the weather, and unrequited love.
IT’S DINGIN’ DOON IN DINGWALL
It’s dingin’ doon in Dingwall
An’ it’s snawin’ up in Skye,
There’s hailstones o’er in Helensbru’
An’ a snell north wind forbye,
But we’re snuggled warm an’ toastie
In oor wee bit heilan’ hame,
So the warld can pass ootside oor door
An’ lea’ us a’ alane!
Oh dearest Jean, my cushie-doo,
I crave your tender bosy
An’ a kiss frae aff your tender lips,
So warm an’ saft an’ rosy.
I saw you first in Januar,
When the snaw wis oan the dyke –
You were lying at the roadside,
Havin’ fa’en aff yer bike.
But I stopped and helped you oan again
An’ waved a fond goodbye,
As you pedalled aff tae Cowdenbeath,
Your messages to buy.
But that was ower a year ago
An’ I’ve no’ seen you syne,
So maybe it’s a portent,
That you never will be mine.
‘The Sabbath, Sin and Stovies’, a collection of poems by Scobie McSporran, is published by Wanchancy Press on 20th August.
Last week’s Voice featured Aberdeen entertainment iconSid Ozalid, his life, his act, his impact, the release of his new book, and news of ‘not to be missed’ performances in the city. Well, If you did happen to miss out on catching Sid live on Friday and Saturday, then fash yersel not – this week we present a brief account of the missed mayhem, and a poem from ‘Mr Elastic Brain’.
Sid Ozalid jetted in from Sunny Amsterdam last Friday for a whistle stop tour of Aberdeen to promote his fab new book ‘Mr Elastic Brain – The Life and Poems of Sid Ozalid’.
The previous week he had done three gigs in London and the week before that three gigs in Holland, so he was keen to make it a hat trick and do three gigs in Aberdeen.
This meant two gigs on Friday night and a book signing/performance at 1UP on the Sat afternoon.
Below – Sid Ozalid performs ‘Tartan Underpants’ accompanied by Dave McLeod.
Lots of people made one gig, a few brave people made it along to two gigs, but apart from Sid and his lovely wife only one person made it to all three: a Mr Colin MacLean who had driven up from the Kingdom of Fife to see Sid after an absence of 26 years.
Colin and Sid had performed together in 1977 in one of Aberdeen’s first punk bands, ‘The Enormous Snakes,’ and Colin had gone on to work with Sid as one of his All-Stars over a number of years, taking in the Edinburgh Festival and supporting The Clash at Inverness Ice Rink.
The first two gigs sizzled with professionalism, wit and dancing. The 24 year-old MC at Geesalaff Comedy Night, Miss Anna Devitt said:
“I was exhausted just watching; he was non-stop, how can someone this old have so much energy? My mum is a big fan and told me to get one of his books, the book truly is amazing, so I told mum to get her own copy.”
The third gig at 1UP, the sole suppliers of Sid’s book in Aberdeen, was the most surreal by far.
Sid performed ‘Salvador Dali’s Hat’, ‘Three Fat Ladies at the Bingo Hall,’ and thrashed himself with a daisy — but nothing had prepared him for two drunk shoppers and a man in an electric wheel chair.
The drunk shoppers really giggled at Sid’s antics, but thought nothing of standing next to him flicking through CD’s and asking his opinion on Hip Hop and Jazz classics.
Sid took all of this in his stride and was set the extra challenge of being nimble on his feet when the electric wheelchair man was so taken by the performance he decided to join in, whizzing to the stage and joining Sid on the first electric wheelchair elastic brain dance routine ever seen in Aberdeen. Sid may well have been the dance teacher to the Queen at one time in his life, but nothing had prepared him for this!!
Some nice people had ordered Sid’s book from Amazon and brought it along to be signed, and other nice people bought copies of the book at 1UP, and there then followed a good half hour of chatting and book signing.
A special mention must go to Fred Craig of 1UP who had brought along one of Sid’s original book/records from 1982 ‘Songs and Stories from a Suitcase Extravaganza.’ Fred wanted this signed, and in return Sid was rewarded with a well deserved cup of tea.
The year is 1979. I am at Aberdeen’s 62 Club to watch a selection of local punk bands, and my attention is drawn to an unfamiliar name on the bill.
Sid Ozalid? A band? A guy? Pretty punk if slightly strange kind of a name though, which for an 18 y.o. punk diehard was somehow reassuring.
On stage appeared a tall, skinny, slightly weird-looking guy with no guitar. Not punk – not punk at all, which in the circumstances was all the more intriguing.
What happened next was somewhere between seeing the light and being scarred for life.
Out of a sudden discharge of nervous energy came an onslaught of surreal, silly verse spliced seamlessly with a bunch of broken anecdotes delivered at a pace leaving no pause for appraisal; accompanied by incongruous, disjointed, directionless dance moves which somehow worked – they must have worked, as somehow, he stayed on his feet.
Then it was over. I had not moved. I was still staring at the empty stage, and I remember thinking: “I hope no-one asks me what I made of Sid Ozalid.” Devoid of reference points, my thoughts were a long time coming. Yes, I found it funny, and yes I was immensely entertained – I just didn’t know why! Neither punk nor Python, neither Cutler, Cooper nor Cooper-Clarke, Sid Ozalid certainly breathed the same air, but did not walk on the same planet.
Would I perhaps find a clue to understanding what made Sid tick from his publicity around at the time? –
“Legend has it that Sid Ozalid was born sometime during an eruption of earwigs.
“Sid arrived on earth from the planet OZ in the year 1898. His spaceship was disguised as an old brown suitcase that was full of inflatable toys.
“During this period he specialised in walking backwards into hat stands.
“Six years later he split from Flying Ozalids to form Sid and Sam the Ozalid Twins. This dynamic duo thrilled audiences with their routine entitled ‘The First pickled Onion in Orbit’, but alas this too came to an abrupt end due to lack of cupboard space”
– Alas, No.
Fast-forward to the following evening.
Three troublesome fat ladies, a conductor named Russ and a womanising fire raising tortoise had taken up permanent residence in my consciousness, and it seemed that the only way to exorcise these delightful demons, and at the same time come to terms with the experience was via demonstration to the uninitiated.
And so there I was outside with my brothers and sister and a few chums, recounting those fragments of verse I could recall whilst attempting in vain to recreate those unique ‘dance’ moves.
Perhaps an observer of the ‘lite’ version would be better placed to help me understand what it was about Sid that had so affected me. No chance. They stood – as I had stood, and stared – as I had stared, and laughed. That evening, each time another chum arrived in our company came the call:
” Hey Fred, go dae yer Sid Ozalid, watch ess, it’s really funny “
The previous evening Sid had performed for around 15 minutes. Twenty four hours later, I must have performed twice as long armed with only about 30 seconds of Sid’s material. More than once, passers-by stopped on the other side of the road … then moved on when they ascertained I was not in need of medical assistance.
As I look back I realise this was a solid indication that Sid Ozalid would be around for some time to come, and would become, if not a legend, definitely an icon of the Aberdeen Entertainment scene.
I was not the only one for whom Sid Ozalid presented an enigma:
” he auditioned and was invited to perform on two different talent shows. Once again the producers liked what Sid was doing but did not know how to describe him. They settled for ‘eccentric’. ” – Douglas John Mclean Cairns
Thirty two years on, having enjoyed many more of Sid’s performances, yet being no closer to understanding exactly how to explain what it is about Sid Ozalid’s act that entertains, amuses and excites me, I find myself charged with the task of reviewing his brand new book:
“Mr Elastic Brain – The Life And Poems Of Sid Ozalid”.
Having just finished reading it, I find myself desperate to tell everyone to go get themselves a copy as soon as possible, but as with my impression of that first performance, I struggle to articulate why it will be worth more to you than a tenner. But I will try.
These days, I know Sid Ozalid by his not so ‘pretty punk, and kinda reassuringly strange’ name Douglas Cairns …. which is actually more reassuring.
So, where to start?
This is an autobiographical book in four parts, about Sid Ozalid, written by Douglas John McLean Cairns. Or is it? As with all things Sid Ozalid, it is the equivalent of an ‘any-way-up’ cup as the first part of the book demonstrates.
Even to someone as familiar with the writer as I am, It startles me to discover that the madness which fuelled the performances of Sid Ozalid and brought so much pleasure to many also had an alter ego in the shape of a mental illness which had a devastating effect on Douglas Cairns for a period in 2001 – and as a consequence, all but put an end to Sid.
“People had always told Sid he was mad. He thought they were joking until the dawning of the new millennium, suddenly he had a doctor’s certificate to prove what people had been telling him for years.” – Douglas John Mclean Cairns.
Here it is we find – in between some hilarious stories of Sid’s outrageous antics and adventures – an honest account of the extent of Douglas’ illness, punctuated by humour of a nature that can only be explained in terms of Douglas’ story being written by Sid.
It is difficult to pinpoint where ownership of the pen changed, but what results is uniquely unsettling, and simultaneously entertaining. For Sid to joke about Douglas’ dark and desperate situation is surely to run the risk being regarded as sick … but then, at the pertinent time, they are both sick aren’t they?
I don’t have the recipe, but I am pretty sure the main ingredient is his ability to appeal to our inner child.
However, at no point does the humour mask the pain, the lighter asides serving only reinforce the severity of the debilitating condition by way of contrast. It is a brave piece of writing, sandwiched between hilarious tales of the more familiar and wonderful madness of The Artist Formerly Known As Sid Ozalid.
The major portion of the book’s contents is a collection of Sid’s wonderfully bizarre and humorous poems and songs which were the mainstay of his act from 1977 to the present day. Similarities with this material and that of Spike Milligan are impossible to ignore. However, to leave it at that would be to compare a wedding cake with a rowie on account of their flour content.
So am I any closer to putting into words what is the magical appeal of Sid Ozalid?
Well I don’t have the recipe, but I am pretty sure the main ingredient is his ability to appeal to our inner child.
Didn’t we all spontaneously giggle and cackle as babes in response to the simplest and the silliest of things? A pulled face? A silly noise? The poking out of a tongue? A sudden unexpected movement or gesture? Anything at all unusual yet unthreatening? When did we stop being so spontaneously and so thoroughly amused? Did we stop giggling, or did our adult entertainers decide our needs for entertainment lay elsewhere?
If nothing else, Sid Ozalid demonstrates that our inner child is still with us and desperate for a giggle, and the mere fact he knows our tickly spot is enough to make us all the more tickly.
If there should ever be an Aberdeen Entertainers Hall of Fame, Sid Ozalid will be there. He will be neither a statue in the foyer, a framed picture on a wall, or a prized prop or instrument in a glass case. The broom cupboard will be as good a place as any to start your search, but when you track him down he will be possibly be represented by that item described within the spontaneous lyrics of a similarly strange and hilarious Scots band.
” I’ll perhaps take a piece of white bread and I’ll paint it brown so you think it is brown but when you toast it it’s actually white for the paint falls off “( from the album Hairy Scalloween by The Pendulums. )
Mr Elastic Brain – The Life And Poems Of Sid Ozalid by Douglas John McLean Cairns is published by Chipmunka Publishingwhich specialises in giving a voice to people with mental health and other issues.
The profits from sales of Mr Elastic Brain are being donated to MIND – a leading mental health charity.
“We campaign vigorously to create a society that promotes and protects good mental health for all – a society where people with experience of mental distress are treated fairly, positively and with respect.” – http://www.mind.org.uk/
Aberdeen Voice will present a sample of Sid’s poetry in the coming weeks – if that’s OK with Sid, or Douglas, or both – so you can judge for yourselves should you miss all three performances in town this weekend.
Geesalaff Comedy Night Friday, May 27 at 8:00pm
Cellar 35, Rosemount Viaduct ( Sid onstage around 21.00pm )