The NLS Research Slam

Yesterday, I went to Edinburgh to take part in the NLS’ first research slam. The format was similar to a poetry slam: twelve participants gave a (strictly enforced) two minute overview of their research. A panel of three expert judges scored us on content, performance and audience reaction. The top eight went through to the second round, in which we had two minutes to describe how we worked with NLS collections. From these eight, a final three would be given three minutes each to describe the planned impact of their research.


Accurate description of me (but sadly not my jumper) pre-slam

I’m used to public speaking, but I was nervous. This was down to a combination of the competitive element – I’ve never been someone who seeks out a competition – and doubt that my attempts at humorous verse would go down well with the crowd, or, indeed, the judges. The first round was alphabetical, and I was roughly in the middle of the list, among a fantastic array of subjects, including canal navvies, Scottish gymnastics, and the ethics of child labour. This was what I came out with:

1 – An overview of your research; 2 minutes

Come one, come all, and gather round,
If you listen unto me
I will tell you a tale of Victorian times
And all the Poets o Dundee.

With help from Dundee Central Library
nd Strathclyde University
I map the meanings of song and verse
To Dundee’s past community.

There’s mony who the sands of time
ave buried deep in history
But folk have always wrote and sung
pon the streets of Bonny Dundee

Blind Hughie stood out in his kilt
sang old songs and ballads well
In City Square folk gathered round
o hear how the hoose o Airlie fell

The wild side o auld Dundee
Met at the Poet’s Box in Overgate
If you’d a penny you could get a song
To sing of humour, love or fate

The place where poets’ fame began
as on the pages of the daily press
Many sheaves of verse were sent
To Mr Leng at his bank street address.

Many a factory shift was helped
By song to speed the hours by
In summer the mill’s bards would write
Of trips to glens and mountains high.

Dundee was called a radical toon
And verse on banners oft was seen
As people clamoured for the vote
Alang the streets and Madlin Green.

You see how folk in days gone by
Told the stories of the toon
The people, politics and place
never written doon.

We mind their verse now in Dundee
And write new words to say
The spirit in this town of ours
Is just as strong today.

This is an adapted version of a poem I’ve used before in events. Victorian Dundonians make poetry look like fun, so joining in to spread their fame seemed appropriate. I don’t think I would have got very far in the People’s Journal back in the day with this standard, but I might have made a few pennies shouting at people in pubs. While we waited for the judges to calibrate the scores, host Graeme Hawley (who is no stranger to a poetry slam himself) entertained us with quick-fire volleys through the collections, covering violent imagery on crisp packets and casual sexism in DIY magazines. Having heard my name on the list of those going on, I began doing more deep breathing, and prepared to share more educational doggerel:

2: How your research uses NLS’ collections; 2 minutes


Me reading this very verse (photo by Jennifer Thoms)

Trains aren’t cheap, stipends small, archive boxes heavy
Get your broadsides on a website already…

For the NLS created the Word on the Street
Though in Dundee we’d creh it the word on the pavey
An array of fine broadsides compiled so neat
From Scotland across, scanned and annotated

These lyrical gems from the library’s archive
Which tell of murder and love and of political shade
Sold by hawkers and shops and sung on the streets live
Can be searched by their topic or the time they were made.

One hero of our tale’s bold Harvey of Stirling
Who wrote about broadsides and chapbooks of Scotland
On his death his collections left libraries birling
To preserve and to shelter his Victorian songsheets

Now many lie safe here ‘neath Edinburgh’s streets
Though you can view them from Glasgow or Greenwich or Guam
As long as you can log in on a computer or tablet
So I can work with these broadsides wherever I am

Data’s very important in this modern era
So a spreadsheet I’ve made, tis long and tis wide
With titles from Dundee, NLS and the Mitchell
For to quantify functions of the humble broadside.

I will sort them by date by the address they’ve printed
For the Poet’s Box moved up and down Overgate
And see which songs stayed popular over the decades
And which ones were left to a forgotten fate.

Considering the quality of the other slammers – who included artists, family history researchers and historical tour guides as well as a few other PhD students and academics – I was very surprised to be chosen as one of the final three who got to talk about their plans for impact. The other two were Leonie Dunlop, a toponymist who conjured up the joy of uncovering layers of expanding meaning from a place name; and Maggie Symonds, whose story of tracing a mysterious limpet-eating ancestor lit up hidden histories of social change.

By this point in the composition process, my inner McGonagall was struggling. So (not really expecting to get this far) I’d drafted a freeform meditation on the meaning of impact and why we do it, featuring nods to my two favourite Geddeses (Geddi?), Patrick and James Young. I have never felt that ‘impact’ style activities were an add-on to my research, rather, they are an integral part of what I do as a PhD student (and as a person). So I got up and did this:

3. The impact you hope your research will have; 3 minutes.

I could now cite big plans to fit government metrics,
increasing the value of heritage tourism,
working with stakeholders, I am well versed in buzzwords.
But impact is in the eyes of the impacted,
and to paraphrase a former Dundee botanist:

Our task as academics is not to coerce people
into an approved type of culture
against their associations, wishes and interests
as we often find bad schemes trying to do.

I will run tours of the city through poetry,
proclaiming others’ words to anyone who’ll listen,
hold stalls in shopping centres for craft events, write
new broadsides, sweet-talk local poets
into running workshops, propose
courses for adult education programmes
and all of these are vitally important
and keep me up at night and make me glad to be alive
but they are all only tiny bits of a whole.

What these archives of song and story and place are,
they are the words and the work of centuries of ordinary people.

I am here to remind you not that that it is there
but that it is yours,
to read, rewrite, be inspired by,
rip up and start again, ignore it if you see fit.

The only meaningful impact cannot be measured
By counting boxes ticked at the end of an event.
Diagnosis before treatment: one plan will not fit all
The parish is the cosmos, so start small,
and listen.

People sang Dundee into being when it was cotton and jute
Which wove old streets into strange landscapes
Reinvention is nothing new to this city
And neither, dear old town, is revolution.

I can’t save the world alone with history
But we could together if you’re all with me.

Dramatic, moi? As the judges discussed the final scores, Graeme performed a piece he often does for poetry slams, dedicated to the non-successful participants. “Our fireworks went off in daylight.”

He was clearly used to building suspense – calling for another round of applause for judges or audience when we thought we were going to hear the winner’s name. When I heard mine, followed by applause, I nearly fell off my chair, but managed to get up again to say some very incoherent thank yous to the room.

The prize is a slot in the NLS events programme -likely to be in the autumn at some point. I’m not sure what we are allowed to do with this slot, but I have several ideas – have you ever wondered how the National Library would be as a music hall? Watch this space – I promise not to write any more poetry…


Street singers in song

Street singers in song: Blind Hughie and Blind Mattie

Dundee’s history echoes with the sound of song and music. It was common for people to buy song sheets and chapbooks from ‘hawkers,’ who would advertise their wares by performing: singing, or with humorous, spontaneous patter. (In Dundee, the public appetite for song led to a dedicated song shop, The Poet’s Box – more on which later.) There were also singers, poets and musicians who used the streets as a stage and sought audiences in the folk passing by or standing discussing the issues of the day. Two of the most famous of Dundee’s street singers – coincidentally both known not only by their songs but by their blindness – inspired their contemporaries to commemorate them in verse. (The role of singer or musician was, in practical terms, one of a few open to blind people in the 19th century, and the blind street performer was a familiar figure on the streets of many Victorian cities.)

Hugh Lennox moved from Kirriemuir to Dundee in the mid-19th century after his first wife died, where he became better known as Blind Hughie, the singer. He was often to be heard singing on Reform Street, but would also travel, particularly to markets or fairs around Dundee and Angus where he would be sure of a crowd. Hughie sang mostly in Scots, and his performances were a mixture of comic music hall songs and traditional folk songs. After his death in 1889, the Poet’s Box began selling a broadside which commemorated Hughie as the “last wandering minstrel o Scottish sang-lore.”


Blind Hughie: Poet’s Box broadside (A.C. Lamb collection, box 421)

Hughie is so associated with the landscape that he almost becomes part of it – with his ‘hairst heather’ face and intense sense of direction. He almost certainly did have extremely good knowledge of the roads he walked, and ways of sensing place that may have looked mysterious to sighted onlookers. But the focus on certain aspects of his repertoire associates Hughie with a particular image of the Highlands, and the idea that the Scottish song tradition was dying in the wake of industrial modernity (this very song’s existence being part of the vast body of proof that it wasn’t.) Perhaps people thought of Fingal, Ossian’s blind bardic narrator, when they heard this song.

There are a few parallels between Hughie’s life and legacy and those of Martha Wallace (1875 or 6 – 1962). Martha was born blind, the daughter of a Dundee cobbler. After a short attendance at Dundee’s School for the Blind, she put her musical talent to work as a street singer and melodeon player. She became known as Blind Mattie, and grew to be extremely well-known and liked by the people of Dundee. In later life, she was invited to perform at the Caird Hall. When she had a lucky escape from a bus accident in 1949, but her melodeon did not survive, people donated money to a fund advertised in the Courier to buy her a new one. Mattie lived with Maggie Nicol, a friend or partner, for most of their lives, eventually retiring to a care home together when Maggie also became blind. After her death, Stewart Brown of the Dundee band Lowland Folk composed a song which, like the broadside about Hughie, celebrates the street singer as hardy in the face of a hostile outdoor landscape – though Mattie’s is urban, a Dundee of “markets and fairs, and roond the back stairs” which in the 1960s was being reshaped through the construction of high rise flats and new housing developments:

Squeeze the old box an’ rattle the can

Never mindin’ the wind or the rain

Though the nichts are drawin’ in

An’ the blood’s gettin’ thin

It’s time to be singin’ again.

(The lyrics to this song are published in Nigel Gatherer’s fantastic “Songs and Ballads of Dundee.” ) Mattie’s signature song was  ‘My Ain Folk’ – a sentimental song on the theme of immigration and exile, which was popular in Dundee in broadside versions during the 19th century. She is also invoked in Michael Marra’s “The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke,” about exile and emigration in and out of Dundee based on Marra’s family history.

The Dundee left behind in the song seems to be mid-twentieth century at the latest. Francis, an Irish-Dundonian shipwright, has died in the Yukon shunned by all of his family except the narrator:

Who among us would still say

I’ll not forgive until my dying day

Between the earth and the sky above

There must be a twinkling seam of love

I’ll summon up the drums of the Blackness Foundry

Blind Mattie, the Mackay twins too

We’ll sing it up from the Overgate to Anchorage

And place a coal upon the fire for you

We’ll place a precious coal upon the fire for you.

This is one of my favourite songs (and, as I write this, the radio warns of cold winds from Arctic Canada which may be bringing snow to Dundee). These two Dundee street singers were remembered as being so connected to their place, they almost transcend the passing of time. We remember best of all the songs they sang those which speak of something we can’t return to: a destroyed clan system or a family overseas. Whether or not those things were ever real for us is not the point. Their memory is comfort to those of us who feel exiled in our own homes. The street singer, to their audience, is always on a journey: the listener encounters them on their own walk through the town, never quite sure when they will next be seen. Perhaps an air of unsettlement, of impermanence, around the way they and their songs are remembered is inevitable.