A couple of weeks ago I was invited to give the reply to the toast to the lassies at the College Burns' Night that was held this week. Robert (or Rabbie) Burns, born 250 years ago, is a Scottish, Romantic poet and lyricist and national treasure, celebrated not least for being the "Ploughman Poet" and a womaniser. You might know him from the NYE song, Auld Lang Syne, but he also wrote some cracking poems, like A Man's A Man for A' That, Tam O'Shanter and Ae Fond kiss.
At the time I wasn't feeling too inspired by the idea, but I felt obliged to accept in part because my College paid for my trip to visit my mother in hospital late last year. Plus I figured I would probably like the attention when it came to it. The aim of the reply is to present in a playful, bawdy way some of the shortcomings of men using evidence from Burns' life and one's own experiences (and in response to the equally cheeky toast to the lassies).
I put the task aside until a couple of days before, but again, I wasn't feeling especially witty. So I emailed some of my family and friends to help me out. One of my sisters pointed out how men think that simply acknowledging that they are the father counts as sufficient contribution to the marathon that is parenthood. Another brother mentioned how one of our cousins uses the promise of ocean views to attract women to his apartment (it faces Redfern).
Apart from their substantive help (much of which made it in), it was the the accompanying e-chat that sparked me up, and in the process reminded me that coming from a big family and community has its massive ups. One of my brothers was mildly irritated by another whom he called a "tool" for not "replying all" with his suggestions as he had done. Then that brother emailed me to say that he would understand if I used another brother's suggestions verbatim "as pay back for [undergrad] University" (when I regularly assisted him with his essays and exam preparation). And then, in reference to the programme of the evening, there was a whole litany of remarks about how on earth I tolerate living in such a nerdy environment. One of my friends said, "We never had anything like this at North Sydney TAFE."
In the end, the 200+person supper was grand- the Scots language address to and frenzied knifing up of the haggis by a (Scottish) senior fellow was a highlight - and the toasts went down well. There was ceilidh afterwards - Celtic group dances (four couples in squares, or bigger groups in lines or rings) to a band and caller. This (shameful, but great) activity truly does make you feel as though you could end up engaged to someone on the basis that he or she can step, turn and swivel in time to a fiddle. I ended up with a bloody lip rather than a proposal - this guy in front of me in the tightly-packed ring dance (I am not sure those words should go together...) turned his partner the wrong way, that is, backwards and into my oncoming face.
Here is the final version of my toast: (Thanks team!)
Toast to Lassies - Reply
Good evening Ladies and Gentleman and thank you for allowing me to exercise the right of reply on behalf of the Lassies.
Robert Burns knew what every woman wants at the end of a hard day - a rollicking poem, some scotchy breath and most importantly, a firm ....caber.
A [College] man, like most men, is only capable of one of these things at a time. And by far and away most often, it's a scotchy breath.
Robbie knew this and therefore was not writing the Selkirk Grace for the Earl of Selkirk, but rather for the women in the room at the time. And for women down the ages.
I tried to imagine Rabbie as a [College] student today and I must say I can barely picture it. As a more senior lady, I have noticed over the years that [College] men tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between:
Evil Genius Nerd who wouldn’t know how to flirt if it stole the spokey dokes of his favourite bike AND
Smart but simple Jock who wouldn’t know a poem if it stood up and slapped him on the arse with an oar.
From personal experience the evil genius nerd knows poetry, but his idea of flirting consists of shoulder charging you in the breast on the way to the bar, making a noise like “DER” at your failure to kick the hacky sack, or saying something offensive about your clothes or make-up, such as “you look like you’ve been punched in the eyes.”
The smart but simple jock will have flirted before, but his idea of poetry is sitting in the Common Room in a shiny tracksuit with his legs far open without any awareness of how startlingly unattractive it is or cultivating a form of facial hair that only two or three people on the planet can pull off and these include Wolverine, and Tom Selleck.
Perpendicular...or possibly parallel to this spectrum, leaning against the wall outside the Bar having a smoke is another set of men who can effectively combine poetry and flirting, but who toss their cabers to the other end of the field.
The other reason I became a little perplexed thinking about Rabbie or Robbo as he would be known in Straya, in [College] was that I figured he would probably be the only man actually having sex in [College] besides of course the one man who we know is having sex and in great detail courtesy of his lady friend.
So I did some further thinking about Robbo. I wondered what he would have done at the Freshers’ Fair. Certainly, despite his weakened constitution, aka man cold, he would have homed in on a few young beauties and here he had an ingenious card up his sleeve: bestowing the honour of muse.
Male artists, like Robbie, love talking about the importance of a muse, but, let’s face it once the seduction is done, the creative process actually happens at their desks leaning back on achair.
Indeed, Robbo said that he worked [Scottish accent] “in the solitary fireside of his study.”
You never hear about women and their muses, really, do you?
So basically, men don’t need a muse to do their art – some basic warmth, a chair and desk are fine. Essentially, I’ve figured out that the whole muse thing is a brilliant cover to have additional sex with young, beautiful women.
And you can just imagine the Jerry Maguire scene in the Haldane Room, the young woman, body a'trembling, saying to Robbie, you had me at [Scottish accent]:
The snowdrop and primrose.... our woodlands adorn,
and violets bath in the wet o’ the morn.
In any case, Robbo had a back-up plan: if you can’t get the beauty, go for the servant or less attractive friend.
Once the muse was selected, Robbo would have certainly bipassed the condoms on the Student Welfare desk. Much like the men of today Robbie considered contraception a woman’s issue, and in the era when the prophylactic earned its modern name, he clearly was not a fan of the animal tissue sheaths preferring instead to leave bulging bellies in his lusty wake.
If he were alive today, I’ve got to say with his enviable levels of fertility he could supplement his Arts and Humanities Research Council grants and modest royalties as a regular donor at fertility clinics.
But, be sure, [College] men, there is much to be learned from Robbo. The use of song and verse to seduce women, for instance. Despite our differences, we women are all after the same thing: a funny, sensitive, articulate man who’s great in bed.
Two hundred and fifty years ago it was our mate Robbie.
And, despite what I have said about [College] men, and about Rabbie….. we women certainly don’t want our men to be exactly the same as us.
We don’t want a man whose idea of flirting or poetry is brain dumping his daily struggles and childhood traumas to us over Facebook chat.
We want the Evil Genius Nerd and the Smart but Simple Jock. We even want the gay guys, they just don't want us. We want a man who could write the following:
Henpecked Husband by Robert Burns
Curs'd be the man, the poorest wretch in life,
The crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!
Who has no will but by her high permission,
Who has not sixpence but in her possession,
Who must to her his dear friend's secrets tell,
Who dreads a curtain lecture worse than hell.
Were such the wife had fallen to my part,
I'd break her spirit or I'd break her heart;
I'd charm her with the magic of a switch,
I'd kiss her maids, and kick the perverse bitch.
* * *
So for that we cheers the men of [College], we thank Rabbie Burns, and we give three cheers: to verse! to scotch! and to firm cabers!
To the lads!