IT is sometimes difficult to be precise when defining a moment when one’s life changes. It can, on occasion, be crudely specific.

The latter instances can carry the whiff of the slick marketing of the flimsy self-help book. In my case, one chapter would be entitled: how I learned to love Burns in the jump seat of a hearse.

The impending annual celebration of the birth of oor Rabbie promises to be the most unusual in recent memory. Conviviality is the most conspicuous victim of the Zoom call. These will be further, inevitable effects following the suspension of the traditional Burns Supper.

That singularly unprotected species – the haggis – will not have its numbers severely reduced, the hangover industry will go into recession and the market for lame jokes and practised one-liners will be severely limited.

There is a more profound effect, of course. The occasions will simply be missed by many, particularly those who seek to promote the art of Burns. I am now a humble lay member of that faith.

My life can be apportioned in chunks denoting my relationship with Burns. There was first the schoolboy years (mine, not Rabbie’s) when I was taught him by rote and several lines or even verses stuck in my mind despite my best efforts to fill up all my intellectual space with the best football XI comprised of players whose names started and ended with a vowel or the most creative way to add distinction to one's wallpaper-covered jotter.

There was then the second phase. As a literary editor, I came to appreciate Burns, not just in his art but in his influence. At this time of the year, I would devote a page – and sometimes more – to the latest books about the poet. It was never a struggle to find works to review. The Burns industry has been consistently resilient. There was, though, a sort of coldness to my approach. It was business, not personal.

This changed in the jump seat of a hearse. This was and is my third and most significant era in relation to Burns. It was December 2013. My father had died in Ayr and was to be buried in his beloved Islay. With a wisdom that was as unaccustomed, I decided to hitch a lift in the hearse. Faither, I intuitively realised, should be accompanied by a MacDonald on his last journey.

This small remnant of the MacDonald clan was joined by Bobby and Brian, the undertakers. The journey became roughly a 10-hour return trip in hearse and ferry.

There are those who maintain I talk more than a well-oiled police informer who is being paid in used currency by the word. But Bobby has had no strongly expressed desire nor personal propensity to pursue a career in a Trappist monastery.

We talked. Bobby said he listened. He maintains I had all the unrelenting loquaciousness of a senator delivering a filibuster. I protest that it was Bobby who did most of the talking. I insist, too, that somewhere around Inveraray on the road to the ferry at Kennacraig, I placed my head in my hands and blurted out: “I think I’ve gone deaf.”

“Naw,” said Brian. “Bobby is just filling the hearse up with diesel.”

This may have happened. But what is undeniably true, what is backed by the reliable witness of personal experience, is that a love of Burns was gently passed on by Bobby. He is a passionate and persuasive devotee. It was an extraordinarily apt transmission.

My father loved Burns. One of my more unusual tasks in life had been to sue the Ayatollah Khomeini for the return of my father’s copy of the Collected Poems of Robert Burns that had been left behind when auld Shug made a belated but necessarily swift exit from a Tehran consumed by revolution.

It may even have been a recollection of this episode that sparked the conversation in the hearse. The impact continues to this day. I wondered then at the passion that Bobby and my father shared for a long-lost poet. I wonder less now.

There have been many great books written by many great minds on the importance of art. They have considerable worth. But there is nothing more powerful than the personal experience.

The door from that hearse opened on to the serious but proper formality of laying a person to rest. It also whispered of a subtle change to the living occupiers of that vehicle. Brian, Bobby and myself are friends.

Bobby, sometimes consciously but often unwittingly, has become a mentor in an appreciation of the works of Burns. This has proved to be a robust exercise for my sluggish brain but it has enhanced my existence. It has led to me to the door of the Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton where I have witnessed a soulful, spiritual and energising celebration of Burns. Incidentally, I have done this twice in express contradiction to the words of my father who regularly opined: “You can invite any one of my family anywhere twice. The second time to apologise.”

But Burns, perhaps more importantly, has been a wonderful consolation in private moments. This can come suddenly as on a reading of Epistle to Davie, a title pressed on me by such fervour by Bobby that I believed it was an absolute certainty for the 3.30 at Wincanton.

Burns, though, has a cumulative effect, at least on me. His genius certainly lies brazenly on the page. However, it bristles in his life and his philosophy. There is his fecklessness, his infidelity and his debilitating frailty. The most cursory examination of his life lay bare a profound turmoil that was both mental and physical. Holding his work up to that mirror, examining it in the light of his short, sometimes brutal life, adds to the wondrous power of an already bewitching art.

It is not that I or Bobby or the wee guy doing this year’s Immortal Memory by Zoom can identify with genius. But we can feel it. We can appreciate that Burns can speak to the realities of our lives.

And that is a lesson I hope to carry until my next trip in a hearse.

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