Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Holy Willie's Prayer : Robert Burns defines "the unreflective."

In writing Holy Willie's Prayer Robert Burns created an insightful and entertaining satire about the hypocrisy of the self-righteous. The poem is the prayer of a person who  - convinced of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination which declares that from birth only a chosen few are elected by God to go to heaven while the greater multitude is eternally damned -  assures himself that he is one of the elected heavenbound minority.

In relation to the religious bigotry we experience in the world today the barbs of Holy Willie's Prayer still hit home. The poem also retains immediate interest for the hypocrisy portrayed in the prayer is evident in so many of the actions of this century's "democratically elected" political leaders.

Holy Willie is no fictional character. He was Willie Fisher, an elder of the Kirk in the parish of Mauchline, Ayshire  who, on observing what he considered the misdemeanours of his fellow parishioners, would report, at great length, to the minister on their misdeeds while making insistent proclamation of his own righteousness. In Scottish language and culture a "Holy Willie" has come to represent a hypocrite who lives a life free of self-reflection and humour. I wonder which of the world's political leaders he brings to mind?

A manuscript of the poem, handwritten by Burns may be read here on the National Library of Scotland's website.


Holy Willie was a rather oldish bachelor elder, in the parish of  Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering, which ends in tippling orthodoxy, and for that spiritualized bawdry which refines to liquorish devotion. In a sessional process with a gentleman in Mauchline-a Mr.Gavin Hamilton-Holy Willie and his priest, Father Auld, after full hearing in the presbytery of Ayr, came off but second best; owing partly to the oratorical powers of Mr. Robert Aiken, Mr. Hamilton's counsel; but chiefly to Mr. Hamilton's being one of the most irreproachable and truly respectable characters in the county. On losing the process, the muse overheard him [Holy Willie] at his devotions, as follows:- 

Holy Willie's Prayer

O Thou that in the Heavens does dwell!
Wha, as it pleases best thysel,
Sends ane to Heaven and ten to Hell,
  A’ for Thy glory!
And no for ony gude or ill
  They’ve done before Thee.—

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou has left in night,
That I here before Thy sight,
  For gifts and grace,
A burning and a shining light
  To a’ this place.—

What was I, or my generation,
That I should get such exaltation?
I, wha deserv’d most just damnation,
  For broken laws
Sax thousand years ere my creation,
  Thro’ Adam’s cause!

When from my mother’s womb I fell,
Thou might hae plunged me deep in hell,
To gnash my gooms, and weep, and wail,
  In burning lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell
  Chain’d to their stakes.—

Yet I am here, a chosen sample,
To shew Thy grace is great and ample:
I’m here, a pillar o’ Thy temple
  Strong as a rock,
A guide, a ruler and example
  To a’ Thy flock.—

[O Lord thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, and swearers swear,
And singin’ there, and dancin’ here,
  Wi’ great an’ sma’;
For I am keepet by the fear,
  Free frae them a’.—]

But yet—O Lord—confess I must—
At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust;
And sometimes too, in wardly trust
  Vile Self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
  Defil’d wi’ sin.—

O Lord—yestreen—thou kens—wi’ Meg—
Thy pardon I sincerely beg!
O may ’t ne’er be a living plague,
  To my dishonor!
And I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg
  Again upon her.—

Besides, I farther maun avow,
Wi’ Leezie’s lass, three times—I trow—
But L—d, that friday I was fou
  When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, thy servant true
  Wad never steer her.—

Maybe Thou lets this fleshy thorn
Buffet Thy servant e’en and morn,
Lest he o’er proud and high should turn,
  That he’s sae gifted;
If sae, thy hand maun e’en be borne
  Untill Thou lift it.—

Lord bless Thy Chosen in this place,
For here Thou has a chosen race:
But God, confound their stubborn face,
  And blast their name,
Wha bring thy rulers to disgrace
  And open shame.—

Lord mind Gaun Hamilton’s deserts!
He drinks, and swears, and plays at cartes,
Yet has sae mony taking arts
  Wi’ Great and Sma’,
Frae God’s ain priest the people’s hearts
  He steals awa.—

And when we chasten’d him therefore,
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,
And set the warld in a roar
  O’ laughin at us:
Curse Thou his basket and his store,
  Kail and potatoes.—

Lord hear my earnest cry and prayer
Against that Presbytry of Ayr!
Thy strong right hand, Lord, mak it bare
  Upon their heads!
Lord visit them, and dinna spare,
  For their misdeeds!

O Lord my God, that glib-tongu’d Aiken!
My very heart and flesh are quaking
To think how I sat, sweating and shaking,
  An' pish’d wi’ dread,
While Auld wi’ hingin lip gaed sneaking
  And hid his head!

Lord, in thy day o’ vengeance try him!
Lord visit him that did employ him!
And pass not in thy mercy by them,
  Nor hear their prayer;
But for thy people’s sake destroy them,
  An' dinna spare!

But Lord, remember me and mine
Wi’ mercies temporal and divine!
That I for grace and gear may shine,
  Excell’d by nane!
And a’ the glory shall be thine!
  Amen! Amen!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Graham Taylor, a good football manager and a special man

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I played rugby for Old Merchant Taylors whose ground and clubhouse was at Durrants, Croxley Green, near Watford and on Thursday nights after training I’d occasionally see a man sitting quietly at the club bar drinking a half pint of beer in the company of one acquaintance or another. It was Graham Taylor, the manager of Watford Football Club. At the time I imagined that Durrants was a place where he could escape the glare of the football world.

Taylor's first reign as manager of Watford FC was glorious. In what seemed next to no time the club climbed from the fourth division of English football up to the first division (now the premier league), finished runners up in the latter, reached the FA cup final and qualified to play in Europe. During the time Graham Taylor was manager of Watford, I watched one of the finest football matches I’ve ever seen. It was an FA cup tie in that famous run to the cup final; a midweek replay in January at Vicarage Road played against Watford’s great rivals at the time, Luton Town, was then managed by the future Spurs manager and now radio pundit, David Pleat. The result was 4-3 in Watford’s favour. Paul Walsh, Luton’s great striker scored that night, but John Barnes, who was soon to move to Liverpool, scored a magnificent winner with a powerful, low, 20 yards shot.

Graham Taylor had attributes other than his football expertise - indeed though it proved so successful, he was often criticised for his long ball style of football -  and these spoke of him not just as a man of football, but also of his stature as a man. I would mention but two of these special characteristics here. Firstly, family was important to him and I think this quality was evident in the way he turned Watford Football Club into a community resource, a football club where families could feel comfortable. Secondly, he had dignity and courage. He showed this in the face of despicable press coverage during and at the end of his period of managing England. It was all you could expect of a good man. Good men are rare. 

On reading what I've written here, I realise that as much as I am acknowledging the loss of a good man in Graham Taylor, I am also grieving for that time in my life, for how things were as I recall times of happiness with family and friends and times of regret. For better or for worse the past cannot be changed and the best we can hope for is acceptance and understanding.