Burns is 'king of sentimental doggerel', says Paxman

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The Independent Culture

Jeremy Paxman may have wept on television when he discovered his poverty-stricken roots in a Glasgow tenement block, but if the Scots thought this would spare them the famous snarling disdain of the BBC's grand inquisitor-in-chief, they were in for a rude awakening.

The Newsnight presenter appears to have outraged half of Scotland with comments dismissing the national poet Robert Burns as "no more than a king of sentimental doggerel".

Gerard Carruthers, a Burns scholar at Glasgow University, said the journalist's remarks, made in the introduction to a new edition of Chambers Dictionary, were "absolute nonsense".

He added: "Originally, the term sentimental was used to describe poets who engage with feelings as well as the mind, and if that is the way it is being used, then yes, Burns was sentimental. But in the modern sense it means treacly or sugary – and that is not the real Burns at all... I think [Paxman] is trying to trade off his image as a grumpy middle-aged man. It is very strange he is saying this. It's the equivalent of poking a stick in Jocks' ribs, which is fine, if he really wants to do that."

On the website of the Glasgow Herald, some railed against Paxman's "well-documented aversion to all things Scottish".

In the past he has locked horns with former cabinet minister John Reid over Reid's Glasgow accent, and has accused those north of the border of having a "chip on their shoulder" despite holding all the top jobs in Westminster – a situation he compared with the British Raj.

Other attacks on Paxman were more personal. "Who cares what he thinks of Burns? Paxman is a short man with a long face," wrote one outraged fan, presumably clutching a well-thumbed copy of the famous Burns poem Tam O' Shanter.

Mary O'Neill, Chambers' editor- in- chief, defended the BBC man's comments and said it was not her place to "censor" his controversial views.

"I am very sure that he knows he is being controversial," she said.

"We knew he would say something interesting and it will certainly get people talking."

But whatever his overall view of the poet, Paxman seems to have a grudging respect for Burns' idiosyncratic vocabulary. Acknowledging such linguistic gems as "forswunk", he wrote: "It's not exactly a word one hears every day, but, as a term to describe dog-tiredness it has a pleasing euphony." He proceeded to undo his good work, adding: "Although I'm afraid I find the Scottish national poet no more than a king of sentimental doggerel, one might as well have used his 'ramfeezled' to describe our state." It was unclear whether Paxman was contrite yesterday. In the Herald's discussion forum a correspondent calling himself "Weepaxman" wrote: "I'm controversial in a thoroughly establishment kind of tradition. Sorry, I can't help it. I'm the establishment's anti-establishment."

'To a Haggis', Robert Burns, 1786

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o' the Puddin-race!

Aboon them a' yet tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy o'a grace

As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,

Your hurdies like a distant hill, Your pin was help to mend a mill

In time o' need,

While thro' your pores the dews distil

Like amber bead.

His knife see Rustic-labour dight

An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like onie ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin', rich!

Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:

Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,

Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve

Are bent like drums

Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,

Bethankit! hums.