Bagpipe Music

In a recent post regarding the passing of my friend & pipe major Ian McMaster and the enormity of his person, I ended my reflections with Auden’s Funeral Blues/Stop all the clocks in dedication to him. I also mentioned that, due to my probable laziness and lack of planning, I would likely ask that very same poem to be read at my own funeral, should I ever be aware of my own impending end.

But, that wasn’t right at all. I would never ask for that poem to be read at my own funeral. That’s rather like buying a Father of the Year T-shirt for yourself. Only a true wanker, proud beyond comprehension, would actually ask for someone to read that poem at their own funeral. I know I’m bad, but hopefully not that bad…right?

Besides, I had forgotten that I already had picked out something for a reading, should there ever be a need. About 7 years ago I came upon Louis MacNeice while thumbing through my Oxford Book of English Verse, and in the few pages they gave him (a shade less than 5, plus his Epilogue gets the final say of the entire volume after they close with Dylan Thomas), I came across Bagpipe Music. Since I had been involved with the piping world for a year or so by that point (tip of the hat to the Atlanta Pipe Band), the title alone was enough to make me dive in.

Bagpipe Music
by Louis MacNeice

It’s no go the merrygoround, it’s no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crêpe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.

It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It’s no go your maidenheads, it’s no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tyre and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o’ Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife ‘Take it away; I’m through with overproduction’.

It’s no go the gossip column, it’s no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother’s help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn’t count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It’s no go the Herring Board, it’s no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It’s no go the picture palace, it’s no go the stadium,
It’s no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It’s no go the Government grants, it’s no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It’s no go my honey love, it’s no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.


I came up gasping for air after that. Such a beautiful, sprawling, poem, and I have treasured it ever since. It is not a colossus of a poem, but it does have something that resonates within, and that is enough. My favourite line, of course, is “All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi”, and not because it implies sex, but because that implication, whatever that might mean to you or I, is so muted. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for outdated ways of saying things, but “a bit of skirt” sounds so off-hand and nonchalant it makes me wish that people still spoke like that. I think of post-youth, stilted conversation, unsure, shaking with anticipation, without confidence, awkward but determined, and above all, humorous in their amorousness. I mean, Jesus, how hard is it to kiss a girl? Well, quite tricky, if you set your mind to it.

I have never read any analysis or criticism of this poem, or any other by MacNeice, and there is a very large part of me that doesn’t want to. I know a passing amount about his life, but I have no desire to know what he meant. This poem’s meaning is utterly my own. I found it by chance and I interpret by gut, and that is all I desire. The imagery in this poem is a collision of the modern world with familiar Scottish vernacular, and the sheer volume of those images and the pace they create is probably it’s most intoxicating attribute.

I have pondered the title of Bagpipe Music many times, but I have never settled on any one thing. I think of the way bagpipes themselves are utterly ostracized from the rest of the instruments in the music family, essentially playing forgotten tunes on a forgotten instrument. There is something archaic about the whole endeavor, not the least being that those playing bagpipes tend to do so alone. If there is a crowd, it will scatter quickly, unless it’s St. Patrick’s Day and everyone is hammered drunk. But, these outdated overtones, the whirl of it all, still makes it’s own frenzied sense. What is modern today will be ancient tomorrow, like it has always been. Scattered to the wind, playing a frantic jig all the while.

I was going to finish things with some footage of the Hastings District Pipe Band playing our drum salute, but the footage is on facebook, not YouTube, and the only way to see it would be a long arduous journey that is probably not worth your time anyway. Although we play together quite well, it is far from being “clean”, and you may or may not have to be a drummer to understand just exactly what that means. In any case, I am immensely proud of all my charges, because they are so young and have been it for such a short period of time. What they have managed to wring from their hands is certainly impressive.

Play on, until next time….

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One Response to “Bagpipe Music”

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