Praise the Titanic

Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria and Spike Milligan as McGonagall in Joe McGrath’s THE GREAT MCGONAGALL, filmed in Glorious Brownoscope.

Marvelous Mary had her annual William Topaz McGonagall anniversary dinner, in honour of Scotland’s great contribution to literature, the world’s worst poet.

That dynamo of dourness, John Laurie, reads a McGonagall “classic”.

For the first time I heard the theory that the Great McGonagall might have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, which I guess would explain why he never quite took in the fact that his poetry wasn’t greatly respected, nor any good. An artist like Modigliani could continue in the face of universal indifference driven by the fact he knew his work was great. The only difference with McGonagall is that his unshakeable self-belief was entirely misplaced. He should have had unshakeable self-disbelief. The only difference between William McGonagall and a genius, in other words, is that William McGonagall was not a genius.

Last year I composed a couplet in the McGonagall style (no scansion or rhythm, with a contrived rhyme at the end) to widespread acclaim at the dinner table. It was on the theme of the sinking of the Titanic, since McGonagall loved to versify about great disasters such as the collapse of the Tay Bridge. This year, since it’s the anniversary of the sinking, it was required of me to write the whole poem, despite the fact that nobody, especially me, could remember the original couplet. This is what I scrawled at dinner, based on the McGonagall principles of humorlessness, lachrymose bathos, fractured sing-song beats, and clunking repetitions —


It was in the year of nineteen hundred and twelve

That the Titanic into the ocean did delve.

She sank like a stone, though of steel she was made

And the passengers on deck were extremely dismayed.

When she set sail from Liverpool dock

The crowds at the harbour did clamour and flock

For none did suspect that this unsinkable boat

Could ever do anything other than float.

But midway across the Atlantic came a voice full of dread

From a desperate lookout who cried “Iceberg! Dead ahead!”

The the ship turned to starboard to avoid the collision

The Fates did not smile but just laughed with derision

And the vessel was ruptured, its hull torn

And started to sink, which the captain did mourn.

To the lifeboats the passengers hurried at speed

But could not all fit in, so some ended up deid.

Including one passenger from the fair town of Dundee

Who could not find a seat and was thus lost at sea.

And many other casualties were the people in steerage.

They would not have been there had they been in Burke’s Peerage

And had the White Star Line sufficient lifeboats provided

All those souls would not have perished when the ship and iceberg collided.

A word of advice — if you have the option, skip the 3D conversion job of James Cameron’s “timeless classic” and see the newly restored A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, scripted by Eric Ambler and directed by Roy Ward Baker, both at the top of their game.

“I’ll see you your Leo DiCaprio, Mr Cameron, and raise you one David McCallum.”

12 Responses to “Praise the Titanic”

  1. Lovely poem, David. Reminds me, a bit, of “Ode to an Expiring Frog” in PICKWICK PAPERS.

  2. I have apparently an inbuilt tendency to write lines of matching length, which makes it very hard to break the pattern and do what McGonagall did so effortlessly.

  3. Joe McGrath’s MASTERPIECE! So much better thanWind From the East (which it resemblein many ways) and ideally shown as a double feature with The Bed-Sitting Room

  4. Just showed The Bed Sitting Room to students — none of them British, so I’m not sure what they made of it. Lines like “We’ve never had it so good” (spoken while eating the prime minister) may not resonate like they used to. But I believe they enjoyed it.

    Since McGrath is (a) Scottish and (b) alive, I really should look him up for a chat.

  5. The poem made the evening thank you for your on the cuff versifying… WTM must look to his laurels…

  6. McGonagall the poet is so awesomely bad that he avoids being dull–a true saving grace. As for the movie, Roger Lewis, in his great, mad biography of Sellers, claims, “If the Great McGonagall (which is virtually unknown) had been made by Czechoslovakians with unspellable names and brought to the West in a badly-dubbed scratched print, it would be regularly listed in the Sight and Sound poll of great films.” That’s going too far in all sorts of directions, but it’s certainly an underrated film. Lewis also quotes Spike Milligan on McGonagall’s premiere: “There was a ghastly silence on the first night. I’ve never heard a silence like it. You’d think we’d made a film about a leper colony.”

  7. It’s a film with enough stupidity to alienate the intellectuals and enough weirdness to alienate everybody else. A triumph, in other words. I particularly like the lunch break, which is funny when described, but also curiously bleak when you see it.

    Thanks, Mary! We’ll have to pick another suitably grim subject for next year’s opus.

  8. McGrath is insanely prolific. Two of his other best: 30 is a Dangerous Age Cynthia with Dudley Moore and Suzy Kendall, and The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom with Shirley Maclaine, Richard Attenborough and James Booth.

    He also did some of the better bits of Casino Royale (1967)

  9. This is wonderful but I feel I have to put forward the competing claims of Ireland’s own Amanda McKittrick Ros, writer of Irene Iddlesleigh, Delina Delaney and Saint Scandalbags, the only woman capable of describing breasts as “lactose engorged orbs of enjoymentastical funliness.”:

  10. Interesting… there’s some actual ability there, though, she merely gets lost on her way to any desirable effect. She’s like Herzog’s depressed penguin, wandering we know not where. McGonagall somehow lets you know what effect he’s going for, but falls grotesquely short, a one legged pole-vaulter with a cement shoe and a pole made of celery.

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