Expanding my cultural horizons – Burns Night

Choose University. Choose meeting new people. Choose learning new information. Choose experiencing different cultures. Choose topical Trainspotting references and clichés. With three years of undergraduate life and two years of work under my belt, I thought by and large, I’d done my fair share of cultural embracing.

However, University, like life, always provides new opportunities to broaden your horizons and embrace other cultures. From the culinary, like being offered chicken’s feet by a Chinese flatmate (I politely turned them down), to the literary; when I was asked to deliver the ‘Immortal Address’ at a Burns’ Night supper hosted by a Scottish friend.

My knowledge of Burns Night is much like my knowledge of the night’s protagonist Robert Burn: a little sketchy. I knew it took place once a year, but past that, I couldn’t tell you much.

The night itself is based around the traditional Scots supper of Haggis, ‘Neeps and Tatties (swede and mashed spuds to you and I), but has a formal structure, including the opening Address to the Haggis, Toast to the Lads/Lassies and the keynote speech on the life of Robert Burns, the Immortal Address.

After some initial research, as a welcome tonic to the endless fog of law revision, I found it needed to amusing and informative, and at more formal events can last for 25 minutes. Amongst friends, it could naturally be truncated. On top of this, it was taking place the day after my last exam. No real time to prepare in advance.

Now, I’ve delivered speeches before, but as with anything in life, if I’m going to do it, I want to do it well. Certainly no copying and pasting. It had to be original and well researched. Two problems arose immediately.

I had to write jokes, I had to script humour. Anyone who knows me is aware I’m a purveyor of terrible wit. Any opportunity to seize upon a play-on-words, or a pun, is grasped as if I’ll get no other. No job too big nor small, or rather no joke too bad. Planning it in advance, and knowing that me tittering away at myself wouldn’t suffice was an issue. This was all before I confronted the problem of not knowing anything about Robert Burns.

Thus, the day after the last of my four exams, I got up and went to the library. For the past month it had served as a self-imposed open prison, where I could occasionally leave to sample the expensive delights of Sainsbury’s Local. This time I was raiding their literature section’s stocks on Robert Burns. Then, off home for two hours of reading with only a pot of Earl Grey and a tranche of Rich Tea biscuits for company.

It turns out Robert Burns, in his 37 years achieved more than most do in 80 today. He was a man full of contradictions, who supported the republican French Revolution, but also wanted the Scots Jacobean Monarchy restored. The poems and songs he wrote reflects the political and social mood in Scotland at the time, and some are still used regularly today. What is New Year without his words to ‘Auld Lang Syne’?

He was a Scot through and through, and while many of his literary countryman shunned their own Scots dialect for writing, he embraced it. Today, read any of his work and you can’t help but slip into a slight Scottish burr. For Scotland, he’s their Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas.

The sad thing is, I enjoyed the process of it all. There was no academic deadline, no marks to bear in mind nor credits to be careful of. For sheer intellectual curiosity with a purpose. Learning something from scratch, with no background about one of Britain’s most influential and significant literary figures. Then simmering it all down, reducing it into a concentrated pulp for a speech. It’s not something you often do, if ever again in someone’s lifetime. It’s something for a particular time and place, but you’ve got to be open to it, new ideas, and new experiences.

In the end, the address went down well, and as for the jokes, I’m told they were passable. I certainly couldn’t resist chucking away at them, and that’s the best measure of whether your jokes are funny, isn’t it?

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