Angus MacPhail: moved by the majesty of poetic weather

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Excerpt from The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was the night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of Gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that he’d sooner live in hell.

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson Trail.
Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

Perhaps because the work of Robert Service was read to me so frequently –
including the poem above – when I was young, with its linguistic brilliance in evoking scenes of snow and icy cold, I have always yearned to experience that climate.

Some day I will get to the Yukon in the north-west of Canada, where Service
lived for a time and wrote of in his most famous works, but until then I will satisfy my craving for the cold by making the most of these times when snow and ice cover Scotland.

Last week brought an unexpected period of snowy pleasure.

In no way do I make light of the disruption, the danger, the economic impact and the daily hazards and hassles of last week’s weather anomaly named the Beast from the East but, all these real and significant issues aside, I absolutely loved it.

It was like going on holiday to another country without the inconvenience and expense of having to travel.

Going from warm to cold and cold to warm is one of my favourite physical experiences so rolling about in the snow in my swimming trunks – apologies to the neighbours – was a frequent activity last week.

Elsewhere were plenty of signs that folk were making the most of the meteorological novelties. The population of snowmen hit an impressive high on Thursday, and sledging, skiing and snow-surfing became common sights in the most unusual inner city locations.

Apart from the novel range of outside activities, the enforced time spent at home by many not able to get to work, while it can be very disruptive, can also give a delightful bonus of unforeseen leisure time.

On Friday night I was walking through a snow-covered Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow, just a few hundred yards from where Robert Service worked for the Commercial Bank of Scotland on Corunna Street, near where the Ben Nevis Bar is today.

Little did he think when he sat behind his clerk’s desk at the age of 21, frustrated by the confines of his job and envisaging a new life, that his words would have such a long-reaching influence.

He would not have dreamed then that in the year 2018 his future writings composed in a strange country and about a place he hadn’t yet heard of, would be resonating in the head of an accordion player from Tiree who, because of the effect of his poetry, was marvelling at the majesty and
beauty of the icy weather.

The immortality of the writer, the creator, the innovator and the inventor is marked by such occasions.