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Robert W Service

Robert W Service in his 30'sThink of an Ayrshire poet named Robert who has a global following and whose fame has survived his death. Think of a poet whose fans hold a celebratory dinner each year to enjoy his life and work, and one name Burns springs to mind. However the Alloway born Rabbie died penniless in his mid 30s, while another Ayrshire poet was a multi millionaire living in the south of France when he passed away aged 84 years old. What is more, he wrote the biggest selling poem in history - yet in his home town, he is virtually unknown. His name was Robert W Service, and his life and work is finally getting the recognition it deserves later this year when the people of Kilwinning host a lavish dinner in his name.

While Scots around the globe celebrate with a Burns Supper at the end of January each year, in the wild west of Canada the people of Whitehorse gather for a dinner to honour a man they call the Bard of the Yukon. But he was no "cannuck" – for Robert W Service was born in Preston, Lancashire on January 16th 1874. His father, also called Robert, was from the town of Kilwinning where he has a bank clerk and had been posted south to cover the Preston bank when his son was born. For generations the Service family had lived in Kilwinning and when Robert senior moved north to work in Glasgow, he sent the future poet, and his brother John, to be raised by their grandparents in the Ayrshire town.

Robert began school in the town and clearly was born to be a poet because on the occasion of his 6th birthday he asked if he might say grace he came up with his first known work :

God bless the cakes and bless the jam;
Bless the cheese and the cold boiled ham:
Bless the scones Aunt Jeannie makes,
And saves us all from bellyaches. Amen

A few years later, Robert moved to Glasgow to be with his parents, and followed his father by taking a career in banking at the age of 15 (he joined the Commercial Bank of Scotland which today is the Royal Bank of Scotland). The work bored him and when a younger brother inspired him with the idea of becoming a ranch hand in Canada, his sense of adventure took him across the Atlantic in 1896.

However, it was not the romantic Cowboy lifestyle he wanted and Robert worked in tough labouring jobs for 18 months in the wilds of British Columbia. Soon his sense of adventure took him south to the warmth of California before he decided to try his old Banking skills once again and in 1902 he got a job with the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Vancouver, British Columbia. Although the great Goldrush was a thing of the past, the names of Dawson and Whitehorse stirred the blood of young Robert and he secured a posting to the latter in 1904 and to the former in 1908. When not dealing with bank matters he wandered the trails and explored the rugged countryside, finding poetry in its wilderness.

At social events, Robert was known to recite other poets work but after the Whitehorse Star had published a few of his own works, it’s editor asked Service for something local. "Give us something about our own bit of earth" he said. "There’s a rich paystreak waiting for someone to work.." Robert thought for a moment. "It was a Saturday night, and from the various bars I heard sounds of revelry" so the thought came into his mind … A bunch of Boys were whooping it up … and he was on his way. He rushed back to his bank desk to write his words down but startled a sleeping colleague who fired a shot at the intruder ! Had he not been such a poor shot, the Shooting of Dan McGrew might never have been written.

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was hi light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.
When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave, and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger’s face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was dangerous Dan McGrew.

This poem was to go on to earn Robert Service half a million pounds on its own!

Many more poems followed and by publishing them he was able to earn enough money to quit the bank and move to a log cabin in the hillside. "Behind it was a mountain; below, the valley of the Yukon. The view was inspiring, the isolation all I could have wished. But what attracted me was a pair of moose horns that branched above the door. They seemed a symbol of success, like the Winged victory."

Service used his earnings to travel around Europe, writing occasional newspaper articles, and enjoyed the bohemian life of the Latin Quarter in Paris where he met and married his wife Germaine in 1913. He was 41 years old when the First World War broke out and was refused enlistment due to varicose veins. Instead he became a war correspondent and served for 2 years as an ambulance driver on the front lines, inspiring him to write more powerful poetry than ever before.

At the war’s end, Robert returned to his life of travel and returned in 1930 to Kilwinning in Scotland to erect a monument to his family at the town’s cemetery. His travels had taken him to Poland when the Second World war broke out, managing to escape back to France, writing of his experiences:

I was in Warsaw when the first bomb fell;
I was in Warsaw when the terror came
Havoc and horror, famine, fear and flame,
Blasting from loveliness a living hell’.

Robert moved his family to the safety of America’s West Coast during the war years and Hollywood had him join with other celebrities in helping the morale of troops – visiting US Army camps to recite his poems. He was also asked to play himself in the movie … The Spoilers, working alongside Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne. At the war’s end he returned to France and took up residence in Monte Carlo where he enjoyed the friendship of the rich and famous. On the marriage of the Hollywood actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco, Service wrote a special poem for the couple as his wedding gift.

However, throughout the world, it was the average man on the street that read and related with the poet’s work. Prof J McKay, the chief biographer of Robert Service notes that "no other poet, save Burns, has enjoyed such wide appeal with the common man". Indeed, he may well have been the most widely read poet of the century – Charles Linburgh allowed himself a book of one of Service’s poems as luggage on his epic flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St Louis, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother is known to be a fan of his work. Certainly much of his work has the common touch and makes for entertaining reading :

Though Virtue hurt you, vice is nice; Aye, Parson says it’s wrong.
Yet for my pleasure I’ll suffice with Woman, Wine and Song.
But though it be with jocund glee my tavern voice is ringing,
Had I to chuck one of the three, By Gad ! I’d give up singing.

In the Autumn of 1958 while staying at his villa in Brittany, Robert Service contracted flu which stressed his "weak heart" and he passed away at the age of 84. His beloved wife survived him until 1989 when she died aged 102.

ROBERT SERVICE enjoying his retirement in France.With the arrival of the new Millennium, the community of Kilwinning will finally recognise the life of Robert Service in style. The town’s Millennium Committee have organised a special Dinner on September 1st on the lawn of the town’s stately Montgreenan Mansion House Hotel where an audience of up to 400 will be able to enjoy the sort of gathering that the Canadians have been hosting for years. Indeed a party of Canucks will be travelling from the Yukon to enjoy the fellowship of the people of Service’s "home town" of Kilwinning. The official Vietnam War Veterans Association have also indicated an intention to participate as veterans were given Service’s war poetry to read as part of their therapy as it’s honesty and humanity were thought to help them come to terms with their experiences.

Robert Service’s daughter Iris, who still lives in France and is in her 84th year, has indicated her pleasure that the town she last visited in 1976, to unveil a commemorative plaque where her father once lived, is recognizing him in this way. But perhaps the greatest honour was bestowed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (in this her Centennial Year) who has graciously agreed to be Patron of the evening. She is, herself, a fan of Robert Service’s work and has given the event her Royal blessing, showing once again how the Kilwinning Poet has reached into the very highest strata of society around the world.

With all of this activity, the town of Kilwinning is waking up to the importance of Robert Service in the world of poetry, and will be using the dinner as a first step towards closer community links with Whitehorse.

It certainly looks like being a gala occasion – one befitting the world’s most commercially successful poet – Robert Service – the other Ayrshire Bard!

Here is one poem for you to read but more can be read from the links below...

The Ballad of How MacPherson Held the Floor

Said President MacConnachie to Treasurer MacCall:
"We ought to have a piper for our next Saint Andrew's Ball.
Yon squakin' saxophone gives me the syncopated gripes.
I'm sick of jazz, I want to hear the skirling of the pipes."
"Alas! it's true," said Tam MacCall. "The young folk of to-day
Are fox-trot mad and dinna ken a reel from Strathspey.
Now, what we want's a kiltie lad, primed up wi' mountain dew,
To strut the floor at supper time, and play a lilt or two.
In all the North there's only one; of him I've heard them speak:
His name is Jock MacPherson, and he lives on Boulder Creek;
An old-time hard-rock miner, and a wild and wastrel loon,
Who spends his nights in glory, playing pibrochs to the moon.
I'll seek him out; beyond a doubt on next Saint Andrew's night
We'll proudly hear the pipes to cheer and charm our appetite.

Oh lads were neat and lassies sweet who graced Saint Andrew's Ball;
But there was none so full of fun as Treasurer MacCall.
And as Maloney's rag-time bank struck up the newest hit,
He smiled a smile behind his hand, and chuckled: "Wait a bit."
And so with many a Celtic snort, with malice in his eye,
He watched the merry crowd cavort, till supper time drew nigh.
Then gleefully he seemed to steal, and sought the Nugget Bar,
Wherein there sat a tartaned chiel, as lonely as a star;
A huge and hairy Highlandman as hearty as a breeze,
A glass of whisky in his hand, his bag-pipes on his knees.
"Drink down your doch and doris, Jock," cried Treasurer MacCall;
"The time is ripe to up and pipe; they wait you in the hall.
Gird up your loins and grit  your teeth, and here's a pint of hooch
To mind you of your native heath - jist pit it in your pooch.
Play on and on for all you're worth; you'll shame us if you stop.
Remember you're of Scottish birth - keep piping till you drop.
Aye, though a bunch of Willie boys should bluster and implore,
For the glory of the Highlands, lad, you've got to hold the floor."
The dancers were at supper, and the tables groaned with cheer,
When President MacConnachie exclaimed: "What do I hear?
Methinks it's like a chanter, and its coming from the hall."
"It's Jock MacPherson tuning up," cried Treasurer MacCall.
So up they jumped with shouts of glee, and gaily hurried forth.
Said they: "We never thought to see a piper in the North."
Aye, all the lads and lassies braw went buzzing out like bees,
And Jock MacPherson there they saw, with red and rugged knees.
Full six foot four he strode the floor, a grizzled son of Skye,
With glory in his whiskers and with whisky in his eye.
With skelping stride and Scottish pride he towered above them all:
"And is he no' a bonny sight?" said Treasurer MacCall.
While President MacConnachie was fairly daft with glee,
And there was jubilation in the Scottish Commy-tee.
But the dancers seemed uncertain, and they signified their doubt,
By dashing back to eat as fast as they had darted out.
And someone raised the question 'twixt the coffee and the cakes:
"Does the Piper walk to get away from all the noise he makes?"
Then reinforced with fancy food they slowly trickled forth,
And watching in patronizing mood the Piper of the North.

Proud, proud was Jock MacPherson, as he made his bag-pipes skirl,
And he set his sporran swinging, and he gave his kilts a whirl.
And President MacConnachie was jumping like a flea,
And there was joy and rapture in the Scottish Commy-tee.
"Jist let them have their saxophones wi' constipated squall;
We're having Heaven's music now," said Treasurer MacCall.
But the dancers waxed impatient, and they rather seemed to fret
For Maloney and the jazz of his Hibernian Quartette.
Yet little recked the Piper, as he swung with head on high,
Lamenting with MacCrimmon on the heather hill of Skye.
With Highland passion in his heart he held the centre floor;
Aye, Jock MacPherson played as he had never played before.

Maloney's Irish melodists were sitting in their place,
And as Maloney waited, there was wonder in his face.
'Twas sure the gorgeous music - Golly! wouldn't it be grand
If he could get MacPherson as a member of his band?
But the dancers moped and mumbled, as around the room they sat:
"We paid to dance," they grumbled; "But we cannot dance to that.
Of course we're not denying that it's really splendid stuff;
But it's mighty satisfying - don't you think we've had enough?"
"You've raised a pretty problem," answered Treasurer MacCall;
"For on Saint Andrew's Night, ye ken, the Piper rules the Ball."
Said President MacConnachie: "You've said a solemn thing.
Tradition holds him sacred, and he's got to have his fling.
But soon, no doubt, he'll weary out. Have patience; bide a wee."
"That's right. Respect the Piper," said the Scottish Commy-tee.

And so MacPherson stalked the floor, and fast the moments flew,
Till half an hour went past, as irritation grew and grew.
The dancers held a council, and with faces fiercely set,
They hailed Maloney, heading his Hibernian Quartette:
"It's long enough, we've waited. Come on, Mike, play up the Blues."
And Maloney hesitated, but he didn't dare refuse.
So banjo and piano, and guitar and saxophone
Contended with the shrilling of the chanter and the drone;
And the women's ears were muffled, so infernal was the din,
But MacPherson was unruffled, for he knew that he would win.
Then two bright boys jazzed round him, and they sought to play the clown,
But MacPherson jolted sideways, and the Sassenachs went down.
And as if it was a signal, with a wild and angry roar,
The gates of wrath were riven - yet MacPherson held the floor.

Aye, amid the rising tumult, still he strode with head on high,
With ribbands gaily streaming, yet with battle in his eye.
Amid the storm that gathered, still he stalked with Highland pride,
While President and Treasurer sprang bravely to his side.
And with ire and indignation that was glorious to see,
Around him in a body ringed the Scottish Commy-tee.
Their teeth were clenched with fury; their eyes with anger blazed:
"Ye manna touch the Piper," was the slogan that they raised.
Then blows were struck, and men went down; yet 'mid the rising fray
MacPherson towered in triumph -  and  he never ceased to play.

Alas! his faithful followers were but a gallant few,
And faced defeat, although they fought with all the skill they knew.
For President MacConnachie was seen to slip and fall,
And o'er his prostrate body stumbled Treasurer MacCall.
And as their foes with triumph roared, and leagured them about,
It looked as if their little band would soon be counted out.
For eyes were black and noses red, yet on that field of gore,
As resolute as Highland rock - MacPherson held the floor.

Maloney watched the battle, and his brows were bleakly set,
While with him paused and panted his Hibernian Quartette.
For sure it is an evil spite, and breaking to the heart,
For Irishman to watch a fight and not be taking part.
Then suddenly on high he soared, and tightened up his belt:
"And shall we see them crush," he roared, "a brother and a Celt?
A fellow artiste needs our aid. Come on, boys, take a hand."
Then down into the mle dashed Maloney and his band.

Now though it was Saint Andrew's Ball, yet men of every race,
That bow before the Great God Jazz were gathered in that place.
Yea, there were those who grunt: "Ya! Ya!" and those who squeak: "We! We!"
Likewise Dutch, Dago, Swede and Finn, Polack and Portugee.
Yet like ripe grain before the gale that national hotch-potch
Went down before the fury of the Irish and the Scotch.
Aye, though they closed their gaping ranks and rallied to the fray,
To the Shamrock and the Thistle went the glory of the day.

You should have seen the carnage in the drooling light of dawn,
Yet 'mid the scene of slaughter Jock MacPherson playing on.
Though all lay low about him, yet he held his head on high,
And piped ass if he stood upon the caller crags of Skye.
His face was grim as granite, and no favour did he ask,
Though weary were his mighty lungs and empty was his flask.
And when a fallen foe wailed out: "Say! when will you have done?"
MacPherson grinned and answered: "Hoots! She'll only haf' begun."
Aye, though his hands were bloody, and his knees were gay with gore,
A Grampian of Highland pride - MacPherson held the floor.

And still in Yukon valleys where the silent peaks look down,
They tell of how the Piper was invited up to town,
And he went in kilted glory, and he piped before them all,
But wouldn't stop his piping till busted up the Ball.
Of that Homeric scrap they speak, and how the fight went on,
With sally and with rally till the breaking of the dawn.
And how the Piper towered like a rock amid the fray,
And the battle surged about him, but he never ceased to play.
Aye, by the lonely camp-fires, still they tell the story o'er-
How the Sassenach was vanquished and - MacPherson held the floor.

Songs of a Sourdough
By Robert W. Service (1910) (pdf)

E-Texts of the Poems of Robert Service

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