OM95 - The Ballads of Ossian

John taking his daughter out of school for trips (OM95)

John is a person in the show-business and he will pull his kid out of school unexcused to traipse around the world with her. There are green rooms to haunt and there is make-up to put on. John is often hitchhiking across wastelands, covered in grease-paint.

Going hither and fro, Ken's hair (OM95)

John has been hither and fro in Scotland, but not yon because he turned and went fro instead. Sometimes when Ken is in some place with really moist air and he doesn’t have conditioner with him, he will go fro as well. John does not have that problem because his hair is straight as a board, no matter the environmental conditions, but Ken's blond hair does have an Anchorman’s wave and if he goes to the beach it will turn into an 1980s yearbook-prom-queen wave. It is quite soft, but it is Celtic peasant hair.

John is of Welsh descend, not Scottish (OM95)

John’s grandfather's parents are from Wales and the family moved to Central Ohio around 1900 while the coal-mining was still rocking because that was what they knew how to do. Their boy, John’s grandfather, went to the college of Wooster, a Scottish presbyterian college, as a wet-behind-the-ears local boy and he fell in love with the football prowess. All of the high-achievers there were Scotts, the Scotts were the athletic people and, at least at this college, they were the aristocracy.

John's grandfather went to fight in WWI and somewhere in France or Belgium he changed his backstory: Subsequently he posed as a Scotsman and John’s family was now descendent from the great bruises of Scotland. John’s dad and his siblings believed that story their whole lives and when John was born, he was told that they were descended from a long line of English-defeating caber-tossing kilt-wearing Highlanders.

Every time John’s dad would go to Europe, he would come back with tin figurines of great Scottish Ronin going into battle, like Pokémon, but with hand-painted lead-figures. John was just old enough when this was still a gift that people thought you could buy a child. Now this is a niche thing that only 70 year old men enjoy. This was even before John’s D&D-playing childhood when he was surrounded by lead-figurines at all times.

In the 1980s John’s father went back to Scotland with his brother and sister, looking for their family lands. This was at a time when there was no way to do genealogical research outside the libraries of the region. They learned that Roderick only was a first name in Scotland and they quickly returned to London with some clues, they continued their research there and they were directed out to Wales. None of them had even considered that and as they eventually went to Wales they found their whole extant clan there.

John was 15 at the time and he was following all this via postcard when his dad would write him and say ”Turns out…” Ken finds John to be very nostalgic about his spiritual bond being ripped from him at the age of 15 in a Postcard. ”Dear John, hope you are enjoying school! The weather here is fine. You are Welsh!”

John visiting Balmoral Castle (OM95)

John once stood at the gates of Balmoral Castle, but he was not trick-or-treating. You could look up the driveway, but it was not clear how far up you were allowed to go. It didn’t feel like Belfast in 1979, there were no guys with tall furry hats and no machine guns out there, but if you went through the gate somebody surely would have stepped out of the bushes and said ”Halt!” John wasn’t quite bold enough to take a left and to head up Balmoral drive to see how many Corgis he could get before he got tackled. Corgi-grabbing is another Scottish sport.

Having your biographer with you (OM95)

If an Englishman went on a walking-tour in the 18th century, they would bring their James Boswell with them to write about their adventures because every rich Englishman had a Boswell back then who was writing behind them with a pen scratching. John wishes that Ken was his Boswell because his life would be so much better if Ken was actually interested enough in him to be writing about him instead of just coming over. John is really curious about Ken’s diaries and he hopes he makes regular appearances. John feels like he is Ken’s Boswell, at least his podcasting Boswell, because Ken wouldn’t have had a podcast if John wouldn’t have hammered him for several years.

Scottish culture (OM95)

Scottish culture is a good one to borrow from because it seems so rich to us now: There are pipes, drums, tartans, undefeated stoic stalwart, and Highland chieftains tossing 20-foot poles (6 m) around, which is really their only sport. It is lumberjack-derived and a guy with a phone pole was just throwing it across a field. They also chase rabbits, they have rock-throwing contests, they watch the clouds go across the sky, there isn’t anything that a Scotsman can’t make competitive.

They have Tug of War, but because they can’t afford rope they grab a rabbit on either side and pull and the winner is the one with the largest portion of rabbit. Scotland having a rich, vibrant culture is a revisionist thing that no Englishmen would have recognized for centuries. They hated the Scotts and they really thought they were sub-human and vice versa. They were wild, lawless, un-Christian people, which goes back to early visitors, like St Jerome writing down that the Scotts were all cannibals.

Spurious histories were written about these colorful savage people and as late as the 17th or 18th centuries the English would very seriously compare the Scotts to the savages of Madagascar. The only people they could think of that were as barbarian as the Scotts would be the South Sea islanders with all their fiendish pagan rituals, even though the Scotts lived only 100 miles away. It is basically how Americans think of Canada. The Canadians are the Sentinelese of the United States. The Scotts for sure remained largely unconquered in their heart, even when they were conquered.

When Scotts-Irish emigrated to the United States, they retained a very separatist culture and set up their own colleges in Central Ohio. The people of Appalachia that we in American terms describe as backward, as the Hillbilly and the Hatfields & McCoys are all Scotts-Irish. This got even worse in the 16th and 17th centuries when there actually was a Scottish Boogeyman. During Jacobite uprisings and rebellions, the Scotts really did want to put their own Catholic king back on the thrown, which is also true of Canada who are plotting to overthrow the United States.

John has a thing for Pierre Trudeau’s wife Margaret Trudeau. The Northern halves of both Canada of Scotland feel impenetrable from the South, like invading Russia in the winter. It is not a question of getting to the cities, because they can always run North and disappear into the Glen.

The idea we have of Scotland as an ancient and vibrant Gaelic culture does not exist, not even in any kind of ministerial form or caricatured form. Walter Scott was just a twinkle in Mr and Mrs Scott’s eyes at this point, Robert Burns had not yet been born, there was no Scottish art and hardly any Scottish legends and lore. Ireland: Maybe. Scotland: Nothing.

To this day we think of the Tartan as something that goes back in Scotland 1000 years to denote the different clans, but in fact the tartan did not distinguish itself in Scotland until the 17th century and even then different tartans weren’t clearly connected to clans until the 18th century. The whole idea we have of the Highlander culture taking place in 1100 AD is entirely as revisionist as Prince Valiant Sunday strip.

The Lowlands and the Highlands (OM95)

As late as the 18th century there were effectively two Scotlands: If you were an Englishman wandering in the Scottish Lowlands you would not find it too different from the cottages and fields of home. You might as well be in Surrey and you would find educated protestant people with a thrifty, merchant class that was socio-economically the same as England. You could spend your coin there although Scotland mints their own coins and their own banknotes.

But the Highlands were, and to some degree still are, a different story: As late as the 17th and 18th century they were not ruled by any elected officials, but by actual clans. What some chieftain said would go! Most people would not have spoken English and if you didn’t speak Gaelic you could have gone all day without finding anyone to talk to, and you probably would have had to watch your back because robbery was a typical and even honorable profession. These are John’s people, although apparently not literally his people.

John being mistaken as a Jew (OM95)

In New York John is often mistaken for a Jewish boy because of his beard and underbite. When he walks through Williamsburg, especially 10 years ago when it was really popular for Orthodox men to stand on street corners and grab every guy they thought was Jewish and say ”Are you Jewish? What are you doing with your life?”, he would get grabbed by the lapel all the time. John doesn’t look Jewish enough to Ken to be grabbed by the lapel, but he does look pretty goyish, like Robert Redford in The Way We Were, compared to most Jewish people. There are a lot of blond jews from Poland and Russia and so forth.

John’s friend’s brother becoming a rabbi (OM95)

John's friend's younger brother was a shiftless person who was wandering the Earth while listening to the Grateful Dead and smoking pot. He was Jewish and didn’t know what to do with himself, so he went to Israel and became religious-ified on his trip, that is how they get you, like the Mormons who stand out in front of the Tabernacle and say ”Are you Mormon?” The Mormons would offer everybody a free trip to Utah and say ”Do you know you could be a pioneer, too? Now!”

As John’s friend’s brother came back, he decided to become a rabbi because this was his calling now. He had not excelled in school and he had not felt the calling to become a rabbi from a young age, he was not a scholar and so he became a rabbi, but not a scholarly one. There is this idea that rabbis are always very scholarly and their culture is very intellectual, they have long discussions on details and fine-points of the Torah, but in all religions there needs to be quite a few rabbis who just administer last rights, like all the rabbis in the army who are just there to do the job. John’s friend’s brother is now the in-house rabbi at a Jewish retirement community and he has a 9-5 job as a man of the cloth.

John went to Jesuit school (OM95)

The accepted convention at John's Jesuit school (Gonzaga University) was that there were three kinds of Jesuits, the intellectual Catholics, the rabbis of the Catholic world: 60% of the Jesuits were gay, which was just accepted within the school and you understood that this was where the gay intellectual Catholics found a home. 80% of the Jesuits had to be smart and curious to be a Jesuit, but there were 20-25% of the Jesuits that went there on basketball scholarships. They were not smart, and this was also where the failed Jocks went.

If you had been a Catholic Jock at some school and decided that you wanted to have a lifetime appointment, you would go into the Jesuits and just sit and polish your football trophies. They were the hail and hearty ones who ended up getting leadership positions in administration. John had a priest at Gonzaga who was the best-dressed person he had ever seen. He obviously came from a rich family because his clothes were all perfectly tailored and everything was made of cashmere. He was so GQ!

John is the last dying gasp of Romanticism (OM95)

Brute-y melancholy is exactly the core of Romanticism. As an Indie Rock musician, John is the last dying gasp of Romanticism, John in particular. John thinks Ossian’s prose is turgid, but it was the style of the time. Colin Meloy could write something like that For Schissel, it is EMO A.F. and it plays into the Romantic idea of the natural man who is untarnished by modernity and machines.

If you didn’t live in this city and had this factory job, moss would be your pillow and you would have all the swooning maidens you wanted, life would be real to you and the weather would mean things to you. The worst side of Romanticism imparts a nobility to the savage and their clothing is also pretty awful. Why are they always wearing velvet jackets at parties? Maybe they have their buckskin loincloth underneath their garments, like those people who go to parties with diapers on. Have a secret at a party! Wear jute underwear, it will chafe in all the wrong places. Dear Dan Savage, I wear my girlfriend’s underwear to work.

John went to a swap meet in Hungary (OM95)

A long time ago John went to a swap meet in Hungary (which was not a key party) that was also a renaissance fair and as part of it they enacted a whole Hungarian foundation myth drama with people on horseback who fought off the Huns and pushed back the Ottomans while a guy read a Hungarian epic poem into a microphone. It was Magyar propaganda day!

James Macpherson and the Ossian ballads (OM95)

James Macpherson was born as a poor farmer’s son from a poor part of Scotland. He was a bright enough child that it seemed like he could have a future in some kind of actual profession. He was sent off to the University of Edinburgh but dropped out quickly. He talked a lot about becoming a clergyman, which back then was a thing that a bright lad could do. It was not even a matter of calling or religious devotion, but it was just a safe middle-class career, the thing that the second son who doesn’t inherit decided to do. The oldest brother inherits the family money, the second brother goes into the army and the third brother becomes a minister.

That was the way aristocratic families did it. Depending on whether or not the second brother was homosexual you could also flip it around. They would have some caber tossing and find out who was more apt for the clergy and who was more apt for the army. Today that kind of respectable middle-class place where you could go and somewhat automatically have a lifetime of work no longer exists. You got a little house, people probably brought you ginger-schnapps, and on Christmas you went around to every house in the village and blessed the babies. Macpherson was always just an aspiring Clergyman. He never took the orders, but he became mostly a tutor of rich aristocratic guys and awful sons.

Macpherson always loved Celtic lore and Scottish legends and one time he showed some fragments to a fellow writer that he allegedly had translated from traditional Scottish stories in Gaelic. The guy told him that they were very good and he should take them to Edinburgh. He did and they became a success! He returned to the Highlands and came back again with an epic poem by an ancient blind bart named Ossian, which was a big deal at the time, because there was no record of written Gaelic poetry from the dark ages. Macpherson was like the Alan Lomax of Scotland.

Those poems remind us of Tolkien and his pastiche of ancient sagas and Celtic epics. There is a whole aisle of the bookstore with his descendants, the aisle you never really go down. Did John ever go to the end of it where they have the D&D books? There were always kids in John’s school who wanted him to read Elfquest. They tended to be a certain kind of girl in a sweater who had migrated over to Elfquest, but John always thought they were a little porn-y, close to Omaha the Sex Cat (John first said Dakota the Sex Cat).

These poems became a voice of nationalism throughout Europe. The French, the Hungarian, even Napoleon went into battle with a copy of Ossian and Napoleon got Antoine-Jean Gros, Jacques-Louis David and his painters to paint scenes from the Ossianic ballads for his palates. Also Thomas Jefferson loved it and even wrote a fan letter to Macpherson, complementing him on this rude bard of the North, the greatest poet that had ever existed. Robert Burns was writing poetry that he thought was inspired by the ancient epic soul of his people. It was like the Harry Potter of the 18th century, there were paintings and operas and it became a tourist attraction.

Very early in the story of these works of lore and legend there were skeptics who wondered why nobody had ever seen a Scottish epic while this guy all of a sudden had three of them. It started to seem very unlikely very early. Unlike with Allan Lomax, they were not on tape. The chronology seemed to be off and it seemed to be borrowed from Irish legends.

One of the leading men of letters of the day was Dr. Samuel Johnson. He was also one of the leading A-holes, he suffered no fools, he hated the Scotts and he was a huge bigot. He gained his original fame by compiling a dictionary and someone asked him ”40 Frenchmen had been working for 40 years compiling a dictionary of this scope. How do you imagine that you are going to be able to pull this off in 8 years with 3 people?” and he said ”The proportion of three Englishmen to 40 Frenchmen times 40 years is about right” It was one of the great disses on the French! People were asking him about the Ossian ballads ”Could a modern man really have written this?” and Johnson said ”Yes sir, many men, many women and many children!”, another great diss!

Johnson never finished college, but he dropped out of Oxford and he was inhibited throughout his career, which was true of Macpherson too, which made Johnson more inclined to point out Macpherson as a charlatan because he could see something of himself in him. John can feel that jealousy and drop-out competition acutely for all those Harvard-dingelings who went on to become billionaires. ”I dropped out of college, too!”

Johnson was no fan boy and he specifically decided very early on that Macpherson was a fraud. He wanted to see the Gaelic originals and at some point a patriotic Highlander living abroad offered Macpherson £1000 to show them the beautiful Gaelic works so they can stand behind the voice of their people, but Macphersson could never produce any documents that would prove he had not just patched something together from a bunch of Irish legends.

Macpherson became a member of parliament for the rest of his life which made him very rich, although there is no record of him actually doing anything. He bought an estate in Inverness-Shire and became a Scottish man of property.

Napoleon installed prince Oscar on the Swedish throne (OM95)

On the island of Staffa there are caves called Fingal’s Cave and Ossian’s Cave which are re-brandings from the 18th century to get people to go to Staffa and buy their barley bread. Mendelssohn was so inspired by the works of Ossian that he wrote a whole Hebrides overture called Fingal’s Cave. When Napoleon installed his God-son Joseph Bernadotte on the Swedish throne in 1844, he needed to give him a new regnal name, something that sounded vaguely Northern and he chose Oscar after a character in the Ossianic ballads called Asgar‚ meaning spear of God. Oscar was not a name that existed up until that point, but thanks to Prince Oscar it became a super-popular Scandinavian name to this day. John has a Scandinavian friend who named his son Oscar. It is all made up and borrowed from Scotland!

John’s book of Tweets Electric Aphorisms (OM95)

John was a Twitter OG and loved it there until the most recent election turned everything to sour apples and John had to take a big step out of Twitter. People can still go back and read the beginnings, the good times. John had a book published at the time, called Electric Aphorisms which is now very difficult to find (it can be purchased here), a collection of the tweets he wrote during his first year on Twitter.

John thought in the beginning that all tweets had to be exactly 140 characters, but Ken doesn’t understand how John could possibly have believed this. After a while John understood that this wasn’t true, but he continued with the conceit because it was a fun literary device and an artificial constraint. He could publish his tweets in graph paper and put each letter in a box and they would each right-justify perfectly.

John was approached by Sasquatch Books to have his book re-published plus a subsequent volume. He met with the publisher in his office, who was not a Sasquatch, and he said that he loved Johns book and wanted to know where John came up with these incredible aphorisms. Could he just do this all the time? John said that he had three of these books because they are just his tweets, which the publisher hadn't realized.

John could watch his face fall and he was no longer interested in their conversation. After a polite amount of time talking, he stood up and shook John’s hand and John could tell that the book deal was done and gone and he was scrambling, like ”Yes, they are tweets, but they are still very good aphorisms, amirite?” but from that point on he never got another email and they wouldn’t reply to him and they went on to publish other books.

Outro (OM95)

John encourages the listeners to send him their portfolio or their collection of prison polaroids that they have compiled over the years (reference to RL228 and RW81).

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