Devil’s Advocate is a regular column adopting an alternate viewpoint on a topical subject of the week.
Burns Night for some reason seems the de facto day for celebrating all things Scottish, given that nobody’s yet had the guts to make a proper fist of St Andrew’s Day. So instead of a properly fun knees-up, our nation’s great and good are instead supposed to gather together to host their own version of the most boring dinner party imaginable.
Say what you want about the exploitation of Saint Patrick’s Day until it has become nothing more than a glorified piss-up, helping to stereotype an entire nation in the process, but at least it’s a bit of a laugh, and is completely unpretentious in its execution.
Instead we appear so desperate for something to celebrate that we make a massive deal out Robert Burns, a bit of a bounder who wrote a few poems in between making a boatload of morally dubious decisions (such as knocking up an unmarried woman, shirking his responsibilities and agreeing to set ship for foreign shores to help manage a slave plantation). What a guy for our kids to look up to! Given his shining example, the reasons why Tommy Sheridan was this week nominated for Scot of the Year become a bit more apparent…
But the main problem is that, as it stands, the Burns supper is a pitiful spectacle. Us Scots are supposed to know how to party, there’s few things we’re better known for, yet we actively and willingly align ourselves with an event of such pointless and outdated tradition that fox-hunting appears humane by comparison. Somehow over the course of a single evening we manage to cram in all of the most appalling aspects of Scottishness for a never-ending calamity of absolute awfulness, and in doing so make our country look even more backward than already appeared to be the case.
I mean, haggis, really? In the 21st century we’re still serving this up? And then – here’s the kicker – willingly devouring it? Its grotesque ingredient list appears dreamt up purely to try and explain to the outside world why we’ve recently resorted to deep-frying Mars bars instead as a comparatively more appetising alternative. Let’s face it, haggis is the sort of dish that would put us in breach of Geneva Convention were we to try and serve it up to enemy combatants.
But somehow we go about even making a big deal of its entrance, throwing in the maddening skirl of the bagpipes to compound the utter misery of what lies ahead. Let us not forget that this abomination of atonal bluster was actually classified as an instrument of war, but we still allow it on our streets, and in our homes and halls. Bagpipes don’t kill people: instead they just leave them feeling wholly depressed without even having the decency to finish them off for good. No wonder Scottish armies were feared as the stuff of nightmares, with their capability to induce a state worse than death itself.
Sorry, back onto the subject in hand! Once that racket’s been hushed, it’s time for a first proper dose of the utterly dreary poetry of Robert Burns, just to remind us what a sham the entire evening is, like having to sit through an entire tribute night to Lenny Henry or Timmy Mallet because your husband or wife runs their fan club or something. Address To a Haggis has become a prime point for talentless show-offs to try and humiliate themselves in the most public manner possible, over-acting their way through the almost indecipherable and completely insufferable "party piece" as though the sheer awfulness of their performance will somehow make the whole fiasco acceptable. It’s the equivalent of Katie Price being chosen to star a new adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and deciding to do the full role in a "comedy" Jamaican accent to account for the face she can’t act a jot. Yes, we get the reasons, but, in an ideal world, no, we ought never to forgive you for your choice.
Hmm, getting on a bit here, best keep details of the rest of the evening brief so that this article isn’t as long and tedious as an actual Burns supper. There’s also whisky on the go, that most undrinkable yet strangely covetable of spirits, which is consumed as ever to much wincing as participants woefully try to pretend they actually enjoy the vile concoction.
A guest remembers fondly some aspect of Burns' life or poetry, most likely ignoring anything that doesn’t portray him in a positive light (because we wouldn’t want the brutal truth getting in the way of things, would we?). There’s a bit of casual sexism with the Toast to the Lassies, which nowadays comes embellished with pathetic attempts to make it seems as though we’re all being a bit ironic with this element of proceedings, despite the fact many Burns Suppers up and down the country will be male-dominated (the fat-bellied cretins clinging onto any tatters of domestic dominance that they have left). After that is some more of Burns’s unbearably smug musings, culminating in a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, which at least lends a sense of euphoria, since everyone knows they’re about to be allowed to bugger off home.
If it all sounds miserable, that’s because it is. The only thing to commend about it is the company, but it could easily be done better on any random night of the year. Or just host your alternate improved Burns supper this Tuesday. Get some friends, order in a pizza, put on the greatest hits of Britney Spears – who’s already provided about 10 times the amount of memorable songs and lyrics that Burns has – and tan a few bottles of Lambrini each. You’re guaranteed to have a far more fun night and there’s no chance of you feeling like a smug, knowingly pretentious idiot in the process.
But, of course, that’s pretty much exactly what Burns supper is about, when it comes down to it. It’s about snobbery: trying to outdo your peers or neighbours’ own efforts, attempting to make yourself feel superior to those who don’t bother with the tedious tradition, trying to increase your social standing through pointless knowledge of some pathetically obsolete poems. It’s aspirational claptrap, the Emperor's New Clothes of the social calendar sucking in only the most airheaded wannabe patriots. Ironically for someone who so cherished being Scottish, Burns has become a figurehead for those at odds with what is great about our countrymen: the ability to have a whale of a time despite the fact that we live in a land that for the most part is a cold, desolate dump of a place. Given what we already have to put up with Burns suppers are the final kick in the teeth, and the taste in our mouths afterwards really isn’t that pleasant: time to put an end to them. Piper, play us out!
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