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This report is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

An Englishman in Search of Robert Burns Adrian May
England, famous for self-hatred, has an uneasy relationship with its Celtic neighbours, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. In fact, it has been said that England, language aside, is just as Celtic as elsewhere in these islands. The original Celts were European, so we might have even used this reason to stay in the EU, as many Scots voted to do. I have always liked the way the Scots were able to be themselves defiantly, in a way that seems out of reach for the English. Burns is surely part of this defiance, for a start. Burns has a night, while Shakespeare only has a day and, although shared with St George, we do not celebrate it much. It is not a night, or a Bank Holiday.

For an Englishman in the contemporary world, approaching Burns is difficult. John Cooper Clarke complains of having to share a birthday with ‘that fookin’ Jock’ and yet is not Burns the father of all traditionalists? Is he not the first real ‘peasant-poet’, a songwriter, a collector of old songs and a hero to the likes of Bob Dylan, Keats and maybe all folkies and would-be popular poets? What is hidden behind the plastic Jockery and the heritage industry, the reputations, poetic and personal?

Part of the reason he is hard to approach is his ubiquity, which has rendered him somehow invisible. Scots singer Eddi Reader says ‘We are all Robert’s babies’, in the sleeve notes to her album, The Songs of Robert Burns (2008) and it was hearing the delicacy and tender quality ...


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