Posts Tagged ‘Ian McMaster’

Bagpipe Music

June 18, 2011

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….

Fare Thee Well, part 1

June 3, 2011

It is dreary days here in Port Macquarie. Probably for all or most of Australia as well, but I couldn’t say for sure. The Mid-North Coast of Oz certainly sat up and begged for praise when my parents were here a few months ago, giving them its best and brightest, making it now seem that it was saving this stretch of misery for when they were gone and had no one to impress. The locals of nearly any paradise on earth always look a little weary and nonplussed for a reason, namely because they live there year-round and have grown accustomed to times such as these.

Even last week I noted that there were a few moments that looked and felt decidedly English, and I mean that as no insult to either the UK or Australia. As we were pulling away from the Newcastle airport there was a striking resemblance to a neglected RAF base amongst the fog, drizzle, and rusting architecture of the industrial age. You could say that Newcastle always seems like that, but even Port Macquarie has managed to reveal its own patches of soft decay. With the cloudy skies and days that end in their infancy I don’t think it’s a stretch, but maybe it’s just me.

It was on another morning of this same bleak weather when I noticed a missed call on my mobile phone yesterday. Immediately my heart sank. It was not just any missed call mind you, for there are plenty of those during the long stretches of teaching, but because I recognized the number and what that might mean. The call came from the president of our local pipe band, the Hastings District Pipes & Drums, and indeed the news was bad.

Ian McMaster, our esteemed & respected pipe major, local pipe tutor, and all-around pillar of the community, had passed away during the night. All I could think was, Bugger.

The news, while deeply sad, was not unexpected. He had been fighting brain cancer for well over a year, and, like many whom cancer strikes, had seen a promising remission reverse with a swift and unflinching vengeance. The entire pipe band had been braced these past few weeks, knowing that he had been sent home from the hospital. What no one ever finishes is the last part of that sentence–to finish out his days at home. Although is was distressing news to both his friends, family, & students, the last time I spoke to him (at the annual pipe band Christmas dinner) even then he had begun to say his goodbyes while still in his full capacity. He spoke then, as always, with his usual combination of frank honesty and gentle humour. A rare enough feat for anyone, but that was his genuine nature.

I have always had a slant for all things Celtic, be they Scottish or Irish, even English, when it comes right down to it. It is through a long and curious series of events that my path should have ever crossed that of Ian, but I am, and have always been, glad that it did.

There is so much to say about this man, but it is hard to write without turning the reflection inwards, which rather misses the point. Since I began writing this (NOTE: I began this post on Wednesday and finshed & posted it on Friday), I have searched for the most simple way of expressing my admiration and deep respect for him without resorting to sentimentality, fabrication, or some other corruption of praise. The simplest way I can say it is that Ian McMaster was a Man Of God.

There is a certain rare nobility in that phrase, and I use it sparingly, this being the first time in fact. Even as an agnostic using this phrase (or am I borrowing it?), it rings with a certain right-ness, like finding the right word for a song or poem and feeling the calm restored. It has nothing to do with God, per se, but everything to do with the Man.

He was a kind soul to the core, and the term “gentle nature” only begins to paint the picture. In essence, there was a very real depth to the man, one that made people happier to be around him without bringing out their envy. In short, he simply was. He had a calm that seemed to hum in the air that surrounded him, and he inspired those around him to achieve the greatness within themselves, while feeling no threat when their achievements might outstrip his own. That is the mark of a true teacher, of music or any other discipline, but most importantly of life itself.

We attended his funeral today (Friday), and the attendance was staggering. We should all be so lucky to be loved and remembered by such a large and diverse flock. (I’ll stick with the biblical phrasing, now that I have opened it). He planned his own service, being the sort of person who would do such a sensible thing. There were many tears, moving moments, laughter, and much reflection. One of his daughters took the podium for a bible reading, and I paid close attention. He chose Philippians 4:6-8.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

As a rare bible reader (translation: never), it struck me as the choice of a very wise person. Absent of judgement and soft in tone, with the last sentence the advice that someone who has lived fully and enjoyed the beauty of life is passing on to those whom he wished might find the same. All that is good in humanity can be found in that sentence, and it struck me as no surprise at all that he would choose such a muted and philosophical message to be remembered by. That he chose the word of God to say it, rather than come up with his own version of the same advice, is again no surprise. Above all things, he was humble.

I was very proud today to be a member of the Hastings District Pipes & Drums, and proud of all the young drummers who have come through the ranks in recent years who hardly knew Ian but knew how important he was to our small band and showed up to pay their respects. We formed an honour guard for the casket as he was brought both in & out of the church, and lastly as he was driven away. It is with no stretch of the imagination that I say that the honour today was that which he bestowed upon me.

Rest In Peace, Ian McMaster. Fare Thee Well….

I shall close today’s sermon (for that is what this has become, has it not?), with a final, overly-famous poem. It has been read at countless funerals since it was written, and no doubt will be read at countless more. In fact, there is a very real chance I will choose this for my own funeral, quite possibly because I will be too lazy to think of or find anything else. Also, it’s hard to top this, it being so bloody good. In honour of Pipe Major Ian McMaster, I thought that Auden’s Funeral Blues/Stop All The Clocks a fitting sendoff to the Isles.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.