At first glance there might not seem to be a lot in common between Scotland’s bard Robert Burns and comedian Russell Brand past the accusations of womanising and a discredited or sadly real problem with addiction respectively (and of course the UNCANNY similarity between their names…).
Burns enjoyed rude songs and smutty poems and The Merry Muses, although not intended for public consumption, since its publication shortly after his death has been difficult for some to reconcile with their perceptions of him and was banned in the UK until 1965. It is no great stretch to see a similarity in Brand’s style of comedy but there is a more interesting connection to consider. It has recently come to light that Russell Brand’s memoir, Booky Wook 2, was banned from an inmate of Guantanamo Bay. Whilst the book itself is not particularly contentious, the reasons for it being banned are entirely relevant to Burns and his relevance to our contemporary world.
Burns was a noted advocate for freedom, although a freedom negotiated within the 18th century mores and societal norms that allowed him to briefly consider becoming a Bookkeeper for a plantation in Jamaica before his circumstances changed for the better. For the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, the censorship of what books they receive and what they are allowed to communicate could be seen as the removal of freedoms Burns felt were paramount.
Here’s freedom to them that wad read,
Here’s freedom to them that wad write,
There’s nane ever fear’d that the truth should be heard,
But they whom the truth would indite.
The prisoners have written their own poetry, some of which is now collected in an anthology Poems from Guantanamo. They are the poems that have made it past strict censorship.
Two years have passed in far-away prisons,
Two years my eyes untouched by kohl.
Two years my heart sending out messages
To the homes where my family dwells,
Where lavender cotton sprouts
For grazing herds that leave well fed.
A comparable project has been undertaken in collaboration between the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and Creative Scotland; with Kevin Williamson leading poetry workshops with some prisoners of HMP Kilmarnock that have also resulted in an anthology of poetry, Independent Minds: Prison, Poems and Politics. Although these are of course different circumstances, the creative freedom of expression that writing poetry has given both these groups of prisoners is something Robert Burns understood and we should not underestimate now.
‘Outside Time’ by Stephen
Vengeance and Incarceration.
Punishment and retribution.
Did I not offend enough.
To be considered with compassion.