selected letters 1995

Thursday January 26th 1995

Dear N

The proposition you make that I sleep on the train going down and have a rest at your place between meeting 15 people to do this "workshop", is out of the question. I made it absolutely clear from the very outset that I was not interested in doing a workshop, but you quite frankly kept blustering on that this would be good for other people, of course I could do it etc etc etc. Had you mentioned 15 people paying £5 (in your latest letter you say you hope "at least" 15) I would long ago have told you quite simply to forget all about it. Your own way of simply going on about an idea without wanting to hear a negative, can make it difficult to stop you in midflow. You simply let a silence pass then suggest it another way.

The fact is that I do have considerable experience of chairing writers' groups. In these I receive material, from two participants at a time, one week in advance. We read the texts and try to work out a democratic and systematic way of making a positive response. Often in the past very considerable progress has been made: often too one meets resistance from those who see the chair as an authority figure whose job is to issue art templates. It has nothing whatever to do with turning up to meet 15 strangers who are looking for "individual attention". Fifteen would constitute for me a pretty ideal writers' group size, ideal that is to give us enough material comfortably to foresee weekly meetings for the next two months without running out of material.

There are those for whom "workshops" are ways of working with other people in language-games, or having participants write to a given theme which they wander round to see how they're getting on, or for impromptu sound-sessions to do with performance/ sound work, where the poetry is nearest to impromptu vocalisation. That is the way certainly of some of the people whom you had in mind to do workshops this year. It has nothing to do with my own philosophy of art, and I am personally not interested in it.

The abominable word that it is, "workshops", is popular with community arts officers and the like, who think that it is a way of providing funding for the arts whilst making sure that the word "work" is involved and none of this nancy-boy ivory-towered sweating over individual texts etc. It is a kind of cheery canonical penance offered poets who can descend from said ivory towers to Do Their Bit For the Community and so on. Fuck them all.I'm not doing my Community Service stretch: give me the jail guv and let's be honest with each other.

All this, quite irrelevant to the fact that I am going to be working like hell to have a properly organised gathering for a huge crowd of folk on the Friday night, to celebrate, unashamedly, thirty-odd years of work. I hope to have friends there who have been friends at all times and some for most of those years. Were it not for your own event it would have been great to have yourself. I will come down, to do a reading, for which if it is going to screw you up so much what I am doing, I will pay my own train fare and will not receive a fee. If you want me to "meet the community" get the community into a boozer - after the reading - and I will be glad to talk literature, poetry, theirs, my own and anybody else's, all night if need be. That's what I'm offering: but this workshop, people turning up having paid £5 etc - sorry, no, absolutely not. That's the way it has to be.


Saturday February 4th 1995

Dear S

I am still working at Bell College of Technology in Hamilton where I managed to get a writer in residence job for a couple of years. It is not awfully exciting but the money was much needed. The students don't seem to be particularly interested in my being there, potential clients seemed to melt away when word broke that I was not an aspiring writers' Plot Advisor. But there are some interesting things happening, and I was so determined to get out and about away from the place this year that I let schools know I would visit them if they wanted me to talk to fifth and sixth years. So that has been quite interesting, I always get on well with the pupils and have worked out a way of talking about high and low status language, and things like traditions of poetry other than the one that is the sole staple of their school exams: the poem as moral philosophical crossword puzzle whose subtext, the answer to Six Across etc, is known by the teacher and the examining board, etc. They are interested in such matters as I reveal to them, and it is just a case of whether the teacher is interested in their hearing it too. Once or twice the teachers have got in the way, and even been quite patronising and so forth to muck like me, but generally I am having a good time with the visits. For years I wouldn't go to schools because of their ridiculous censorship that they wouldn't even recognise as censorship, but this way I am at least I think getting quite important ideas over that they need to hear, and poems too, and how we all own language, it doesn't exist in dictionaries but in our mouths in the present, we are not born guilty hoping eventually to aspire to innocence. And so on and so forth-and-multiply.




 Friday February 10th1995

Dear Alan

I've meant to write to you ages ago, and in the light of your last excellent letter I meant to write to you a decent long bit of script. But bugger it, after a bout of flu and continually putting things off I'll just send you a note even if just to indicate I'm not a total ignoramus and to say a couple of things that won't get said otherwise.

Firstly I enjoyed your novel tremendously - I think it's terrific, I'm really glad you gave me a copy, and I've been recommending it strongly to other people. It's a real place of language you've built in that person, that's what I remember feeling early as I read it - and you construct so clearly such places around her. Anyway I'm not going to go into some systematic analysis stuff, sufficient I hope for me to say that I think it's a very distinct achievement and I look forward very much to what you're going to produce in the future. It's also funny, thank goodness: whaur's yer Alain Robbe-Grillet noo (I can't remember if we talked about him in the Vicky, I've a feeling I asked you if you'd read Jealousy or The Voyeur).

As for other things, thanks for what you write in the letter. I think I have in the best of my work if not a single evident style, then a distinct linguistic position across a coherent spectrum. If that's been of use to anyone at all I should be grateful and stop talcuming my own dick, as I have already I fear too much in this regard, in our conversation.

I enclose as promised Three Glasgow Writers, containing Young Cecil, wot I privately think of as Jim's first great story. Honest is here as you can see: it had first appeared in Akros, when I can't remember, then was reprinted in an American magazine of reprints ( and I was eventually twice approached at readings by someone over from America, Alabama, who had been totally blown away by it, not I think seeing anything ironic, and who I really had to sort of say thanks a lot and that but I'm a married man and so forth, my first Absolute Groupie). Thinking carefully when I wrote it it was not 1970 as I said it was more precisely the spring-summer of 1971, when I was unemployed, not knowing where the hell I was going, again - and just before I met Sonya and soon fucked off to London. Be nice if we could make it to either of our launches: if not still keep in touch, and definitely give me a buzz if you're in Glasgow. Congratulations again on your book.  

[The book was Alan Warner's  – Morven Caller]



 Tuesday February 14th 1995

Dear Philip

Thanks for your letter and the obituary. I'm glad you like having the "causeries" in one volume; it was a difficult matter of balance getting those few informal chat things - like "How I Became a Sound Poet" - etc in the same volume with the poetry sequences, the articles of close cultural criticism, and the political satire and analysis. I thought at first Cape were wrong in wanting the Antidotes Anecdotes etc bound in with the Reports; but I think the layout brings it off. I was afraid some of it might divert attention from the seriousness of the Iraq analyses, the cultural-educational analysis, and poems like nora, which latter is the sequence I most like to read in public - and which continues to get very strong response from women at readings (I've had to send copies to Switzerland and Beirut!).

The whole development of my analysis and stance on culture and education, from "The Proof of the Mince Pie" in 1973, I am very happy to see continue through the first three essays in the new book. Again it's from letters and conversation that I've been getting very strong response, which perhaps the books now being out together (Intimate Voices is being coincidentally republished by Vintage) will perhaps at last tempt some serious response into print, other than the defensive (perhaps understandably) and rather misrepresentational responses I have seen so far in print, especially from the educational clerisy.

The whole association there, stemming from the poetry, between the nature of language-status and the possibility or otherwise of true democracy and dialogue, is something inevitably leading into the politics and the satires that are really expositions of the current political state. All this surprise-surprise shite about "sleaze", meaning corruption, and the managerial corporate takeover of Labour - it pleases me to see that stuff of mine in print, laying the fucking thing out a decade and more ago. Nice that it got to be printed in London eventually.Anyway. Mr McCulloch I seem to remember as a very young and talented man indeed with whom I discussed the sacramentalist nature of his metaphor…

Hope to see you on the 24th.


 Saturday February 18th 1995

Dear Sir or Madam

I have received once again your brochure and application forms for the courses in creative writing at Madingley Hall summer school. I seem to have received these regularly in recent years: why I am not sure, perhaps it is somehow connected with the tutors in these courses and the fact that three years ago I was invited to read my poetry at Anglia Polytechnic University - and have been invited back to read later this year again. Presumably that I am invited back means that it is not suggested my work would benefit from creative writing tuition. Actually I teach it myself in my own writers' residency in Bell College, Hamilton.

What I am writing about though, other than to suggest I be removed from the mailing list on which my name and address evidently appears, is the application form itself. I have to say that even if I was a budding writer looking for tuition, as distinct from a writer twice invited to read at the college in which some of your tutors teach, I would not consider filling in the application form sent me. I refer - of course - to the "ethnic origin" section. That it should be considered appropriate to list Bangladeshi, Black African, Black Carribean, Black Other, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Other, Prefer Not to Say, and "White" - seems to me in the compiler (and in those who acquiesce in its being sent out) to display the poetic sensitivity of a saracen tank.

If one is really to be so skindeeply "precise", does it not then matter whether the "white" person is American or Australian, Scottish Irish or Welsh, whose first language is English, Gaelic or Afrikaans? This no doubt is the byproduct of some performance-indicator "equal opportunity" well-intentioned but wrongheaded instruction from administration. It reminds me of the "Strathclyde Region, a nuclear-free zone" caption on Strathclyde Region notepaper: every month Trident missile warheads are ferried at night through the centre of Glasgow by lorry to Coulport base. But the slogan sounds nice, and it's awfully reassuring.

Anyway, thanks for sending the stuff but please remove my name from your mailing list.



 Sunday April 2nd 1995


The book I recommend strongly, The Malta Language Question: A Case Study in Cultural Imperialism (Geoffrey Hull) is published by Said International Ltd, 43 Zachary Street, Valetta. The publication date is listed as 1993, though it was March 1994 when it was being reviewed (very inadequately) in the Malta Times, the month I bought it in Sliema. ISBN 99909 43 08 7. I don’t have the exact price, I think it was the equivalent of about £20 I paid for it. Well worth it, a superb piece of scholarship, clearly laid out with lots of photographs, 10” x 6”, over 400 pages.

Other books on Malta I bought to cross into the Hull were Religion and Politics in a Crown Colony: the Gozo-Malta Story 1798-1864 (Joseph Bezzina) Bugelli Publications 50 St Lucia St Valetta, 1985 £5.50, paper. I’ ve only read bits of that, a history from a Catholic perspective. Also bits of Party Politics in a Fortress Colony: The Maltese Experience (Henry Frendo) Midsea Books 3A Main Street Valetta, 2nd edition 1991 £7 paper, now out of print I think. That was recommended by a bookseller as the best account of political party development though I tired of it a bit. The book apart from Hull’s that I enjoyed the most was Saints and Fireworks: Religion and Politics in Rural Malta (Jeremy Boissevan) Progress Press Co Ltd 341 St Paul Street Valetta, I paid I think £3 Maltese for it. It’s very funny (in a nonpatronising way) as well as very detailed about the social structures of rural life and the part played by church in relation to religious festivals, rival town bands and politics. It’s a book well worth having if you haven’t come on it. ISBN 99909 3 000 7.

I was fighting a virus at the weekend and had to go home during the day on Saturday and go to bed until Sunday. I’m sorry I missed the reading on Saturday night. All the best.


 Friday May 5th ‘95

Dear M

Thought it about time I said hello again, goodness knows when was the last time you had a letter from me. In fact I think there’s another one on my disk somewhere, just begun then I went out somewhere. Anyway: this one to the closing curtain.

It is a new computer, an Apple bought with the loot from my writing residency at Bell College in Hamilton, which has six months left to run. Bell has been ok, a bit too businesslike in some ways the place, I suppose all public services have gone that way, certainly in this part of the world. Sonya was telling me recently that principal teachers are no longer called principal teachers, but Cost Centre Operators, which I thought was a nice little piece of getting the priorities right. Britain is awash with that managerialist shite just now, change the language change the culture. I sometimes think that no-one is doing anything else at Bell but teaching people something called Interview Skills, so that when the five thousand go after the one job, 4,999 can realise they haven’t quite acquired the “interview skill” yet.

I can’t remember if I told you but the first time I went for interview to the college I was required to do a ten-minute flip-chart presentation, which was how I first got to know what a flipchart is. I wasn’t going to go along as one read of their letter told me that they used language in a way I’ve fought all my life and will fight till I drop, but I was advised rightly that maybe somewhere inside the Machine there was someone actually wanting me to apply so that some breathable air could be imported, if only for nostalgic purposes. So it proved, though there has been a bit of tension, not all of it creative. On being asked at the outside to establish my “targets” I pointed out that I always thought a target was somebody’s finger in my back, though I did happen to be reading a book called The Destruction of Dresden at the time, which certainly showed how to establish one’s targets and achieve them. Target markers first, then high explosives to take out the windows and roofs, then blanket incendiaries for furnishings etc towards the firestorms; couple of hours pause for the surrounding regional helpforces to reach the city, in again with another wave of bombers. One thing about Harris - he knew his Cost Centre Operators.

I will add another recent poem to fill it up: a party-piece of one-liners, consequent on a debate over the years with Jim Kelman about the way poetry gets more status than prose. Quod Leonard etc. In fact it’s too big - I’ll print it on the back.

100 differences

Sunday May 28th ‘95

Dear T

Got down to it at last, here’s the copy of the book I promised. Hope to see yourself and Val in the coming weeks, please let me know when you’re likely to be around so that I can make sure to keep that time free.

The book reviewed at last in the Glasgow Herald yesterday. Headline, PRICKLY POET WHO THINKS STRAIGHT. Apparently I am a prickly and thrawn poet, which perhaps accurately describes my relationships with Glasgow Herald journalists over this past decade though is maybe not a useful description of the book. I was going to send a card to the bloke who wrote the review - it’s honest and decent enough by his own lights - saying I’d rather be prickly than phallocentric. Maybe he wouldn’t have got the irony though as a friendly gesture.

 I have got so far as to acquire the heavy cream paper I’ll be doing a run of silkscreen prints on perhaps at the end of the week, or rather my friend Euan Sutherland will be doing them for me. So I would hope to be able to give you one when you’re up, if I don’t send it by post.

Thanks again to yourself and Val for making worthwhile what was otherwise an extremely dreich affair that I couldn’t really be bothered with. I was really exhausted by the time I got home on Saturday, more or less just crawled into my bed. I’m very pushed in Bell just now getting ready various things for a local radio station I probably mentioned to you. We’ve the long weekend here and Sonya’s over in Dublin visiting her mother, I’d hoped to get a lot of work done but not much so far. Yesterday centred round watching Celtic on telly in an Irish pub down the city centre. What an abysmal game, Celtic’s manager Burns thinks flair is something you walk on. One nothing up against Airdrie and he “puts the damper on”, as the commentator put it. You’d think it was Inter Milan they were playing against.

Have got via someone who used to work in the South Bank and is now up here working on a Helpline project I think it’s called, the complete Paul Blackburn out the poetry library. I think Blackburn’s prosody is masterly, would like to set about writing something about it, which I think I will do in the next few weeks. He’s the guy for me who really picked up on Williams’s punctuation, at any rate I really very much admire what he does on the page, and think I’d like to write about that, for my own sake as much as anything else. See you soon I hope.


 Tuesday July 18th 1995

Dear H

I am over in Antrim at the beginning of next week to read at the John Hewitt summer school. I see Patrick Crotty is on the bill too. All part of the peace process!

Enclosed is one of my feeble linguistic satires. Actually I’ve been writing a deal of poems recently which Lines will be bringing out. And my friend’s small stained glass panel - the representation of “all livin language is sacred” based on maritime flags, was finally hung before my south-facing study window yesterday afternoon. It’s more muted than expected, but it’s got a fine presence. You must come up and see my stained glass sometime - as the bishop said to the actress.

Sonya and myself took an impromptu three-day break in Pitlochry last week on the impulse of fine weather being reported up there. Good walking, though the town itself markets an awful sonsiness. We had a day at Blair Atholl, sunbathing in the grounds that is, having decided not to give the bastard five pounds each to look at his antique dinner sets. The highlight of the day if not the break was the small bookshop at Blair Atholl railway station - a converted petrol station, open noon till 8, and well worth a visit, usually tea or coffee and a blether being also available we were foretold. I restricted myself to a copy of Hogg’s The Poetic Mirror , one of a print of 700 from 1921, the Scholastic Press, a refugee from Darlington Library - I love that book, I think it shows what a great critic Hogg was, in those parodies; also a small book Plays of the People by TM Watson, of whom I’d never heard, three one-acters first performed in 1928/29 by the Labour College Players in Keir Hardie House, Glasgow; and an 1896 The Songs and Life of Lady Nairne.

It being 1896, there’s nothing but approval for her supposed lifelong work in “purifying the national minstrelsy” - though unfortunately the attempt “to publish a purified edition of Burns’s songs” did not succeed - and how it all really got under way after her footman handed her a small collection of ballads “many of which were ill-suited for the hands of youth”. It can be easy to send up this sort of thing and belittle her achievements, but nonetheless it’s so important all this it seems to me. I know Willie Donaldson has done something on it, but really the effect of this takeover and bourgeousification of the Scottish culture by this salon class has not been given nearly enough attention. So much still seems to be taken as the legacy rather than the reinvention.

What did further interest me in the biographical bit was how after her husband’s death she went over to where he was born in Kingstown as then was. In 1831 “she left Kingstown and established her residence in Enniskerry, county Wicklow, a locality not only well adapted for Lord Nairne (her son)’s health, but calculated to evoke her own poetical inspiration. Lady Nairne was favourable impressed with the warm-hearted character of the Irish peasantry; but she deeply lamented to find a generous people crushed under the iron heel of a selfish priesthood. The song, “Wake, Irishmen, wake”, composed at this time, is sufficiently expressive of those sentiements, and of her earnest wishes for the dawn of spiritual life among the sons of Erin. She admired the songs and music of Ireland. She read the poetry of Moore, but lamented that he, like Burns, had not always been careful to consecrate his verses to the cause of virtue.”

This is from “Wake, Irishmen, Wake”:

lady nairne

She must have been a welcome sight “in her pony carriage when she visited the dwellings of the poor.” She was there for two years until 1833, apparently a familiar face at Powerscourt, where she became really pally with the Viscountess, and where she met “many gifted clergymen form England, Scotland, and the Continent, who rejoiced to assemble there for friendly discussion and social fellowship. From the pastoral gatherings at Powerscourt one was seldom absent whose deep spirituality and simple earnestness attracted and charmed even those who most deplored his errors; this was Edward Irving, then on the verge of a great future. “ The baroness “doubtless lamented his painful delusions.”
Who knows in her wanderings thereabouts what the Wogans or the Leonards of yore have done to influence the Purified Scottish Minstrelsy. Let the work continue!

 Monday July 31st ‘95

Dear Joy

Sub enclosed, sorry for usual tardiness. Also a belated apology for not being able to come round to the Scotia umpteen weeks ago when you hailed me from a car en route to same in Argyle Street. I’d have loved to have come round, of course, but duty in the form of a writer coming in from Uddingston to see me at Bell College at 2pm that day, meant I had to get on the red bus.

One other thing: I have an article that I wrote about Sonya’s father’s poetry - “The Moment of Innocence and the Moment of Experience: The Poetry of Thomas O’Brien” - that I would like to see published. It was written for inclusion in a book of essays about him, and including a selection of his poems, that the O’Brien Press in Dublin have recently published. He founded the Press shortly before his death twenty years ago, and the book itself arose partly as memorial, partly because his work had been taken up by the East German (as was) literary historian Gustav Klaus, author of several books on working class British Literature. Sonya’s father faught in the Spanish Civil War, he was active in Left and amateur theatre politics in Dublin in the forties, and his life is an interesting one.

I like his poetry, at least some of it, very much. My essay was partly the settling at last of a debt owed since he published, as a wedding present, my collection Poems of 1973. Unfortunately I was a bit late getting the essay in, you will be unsurprised to hear, but more importantly it very much does not follow the marxist-historical line that Klaus - though a brilliant researcher - tends rather drily to bring to his prose, and to the book itself. So the book was published without my contribution. In fact in working out an appreciation of Thomas O’Brien’s poetry I found myself continuing in the analysis about Being and the moment that has been edging around my criticism over the years. Perhaps because we shared the same kind of former Catholic, Left and never-able-to-get-over-the-simple-fact-of-existence way of looking at things, I think I managed to get really close to his mind in the work, and further developed my own thinking.

Maybe that’s overstating it, but it’s been read with a very gratifying response by a number of people, and I know Philip Hobsbaum for instance sent it on to Heaney. If you’re interested I will send it, having added the little personal intro and concluding couple of sentences it presently lacks. Perhaps it might make amends for certain occasions when I have been unable to meet your requests for other critical prose.

 Thursday August 10th ‘95

 Dear Philip

Thanks for the card. We had a good time in Antrim for our few days, Sonya and I, really stimulating experience. I found it very refreshing being with people in conversation with whom there were very distinct disagreements but with distinct areas of mutual respect. Also Sonya was much taken by finding amongst the public in attendance, two former acquaintances of her father in his political days - including a neighbour in Dublin who confided that his close friendship with Tom O’Brien had never been replaced. Plenty of animated political talk there, and I was somewhat moved to see Sonya’s father’s friends going home with some of my own books, twenty years on. A strange feeling.

What a beautiful part of the world: Bernard MacLaverty and Madeleine happened to be staying on holiday not far away, and drove us around Cushendall, Cushendun and thereabouts.

Enough chatter. Enclosed are a few more new things, From the Insitution is what I reckon they are part of as a kind of sequence. Don’t bother to reply if you’re up to the eyes in it. The “Firmly” one lay in my bottom drawer for a couple of months, then when Sonya was describing her headmaster’s conversation with her when Bellarmine wanted to cover up the fact that she had had money stolen in the classroom - I realised that it was eerily close to the words of the poem I had written.

I’m looking forward to your new book on verse.



Friday August 25th ‘95

Dear R

Came on the card you gave me at the Radical Book Fair while looking for my specs there, and it reminded me that E said a couple of days ago you would be over in October. It prompted me to think I’d say hello, so here you are. Actually I thought I’d send you one of the poems I’ve been doing recently, am glad to say I’ve been writing some poems again. Lines Review asked me if I would give them some poems when I had some, and this is one of the ones they will be printing in the next issue.

It’s actually based on lying listening to a discussion on Radio Five, at any rate that’s what prompted me to begin writing it. Late night “discussion” mainly shrieking on about the Serbs. After the latest Krajina business I saw an American senator on telly saying it had “made the Croats very popular over here”. Once again glimmerings of another viewpoint occasionally on RTE - who unlike the BBC have reported the Helsinki Watch report on Croatian systematic village destruction, four mass graves apparently round Knin, and “disinformation” as they call it about casualties. It’s horrible if predictable the way the media phrase “ethnic cleansing” suddenly became taboo at the moment when more people were being driven out of their homes than at any other time in the preceding years: the Guardian and Independent continue to be as appalling as Michael Foot, the insufferable Clare Short et al; the letters page of the Scotsman, dense with that Canongate - connected mob ranting on about the Serbs in the most violently racist manner, needless to say momentarily cleared. The Scotsman has actually been better sometimes than the others though there’s some Kurt something or other now ferrying the one-viewpoint shite fairly regularly into the paper. Channel Four News of all places has been the worst, some guy Gabo I think his name, during the Krajina expulsions he managed to find a destroyed Croatian house to talk about - and end his report “from liberated Croatia”.

That American-German-Croat axis. (“Castlemilk - on the up and up”). At least the bastards found something to do with the East German weapons. Anything in the way of where to get reports I can’t get here - I wish I spoke Greek to hear eg Radio Greece - I’d appreciate. Hope all is well with you.



Friday August 25th ‘95

Dear R

The writers’ workshop I’d been asked to do in Dublin has fallen through: I hadn’t really had much hope of it from the beginning, in that it was to be part of the Dublin Theatre Festival and I’m not a dramatist; also the money side had not been made too clear other than paying my fares and lodging, so I think when I got a bit concrete on that score they found that certain sponsors had ufortunately not come good etc etc. Anyway though I would have liked a visit to Dublin again and, I would have hoped, to see yourselves, I’m not too bothered as the “workshop” concept is one that never excites me in the first place, nor indeed that I ever really understand. I think too often it’s a way that committees agree to put up a small amount of dough for writers on the basis that something called a “workshop” means that at least they won’t be in their ivory elitist tower and so on, but they will be doing some “work in the community” - like community service instead of jail. Of course the events can be useful, and I’m a strong believer in local writers’ groups for getting people to recognise they have as much right to be creative as anyone else, and they’re not isolated freaks behind their domestic curtains. I’ve chaired hundreds of those, without calling them workshops.

I enjoyed Antrim very much. The whole of this “revisionist history” angle was something I hadn’t got in touch with before. It was exciting to be conversing with people with whom one had distinct disagreements on certain matters but with mutual and genuine respect for the integrity and intelligence of the other. I have found Edna Longley’s The Living Stream very challenging and clear, albeit I have had a good argument with it in places in the margin.

If you are in Scotland I hope of course that you will come and visit us.



 Monday September 4th ‘95

Dear S

Thanks for the poem. It looks fine and reads very well - though in fact looking at it, and having your reading of it on tape in my head, I wonder if single column and increasing the spacing between the lines might be an idea: the phrases themselves carry weight, and the pauses you gave it might well be unashamedly given more weight themselves. I don’t know - please let me consider that anyway when typing it up for this hoped-for mag: I might feel once done that it would be better as you sent it, but perhaps not.

Enclosed is the anthology of which you should have received a copy but didn’t. Also a flyer I received this morning for a reading next week in the Clutha. I doubt if I’ll be there but it might be a way for you to pick Bobby Christie or Jim Ferguson’s brains as to where poetry of your formal area and politics might safely be sent just now. The truth is that I don’t know myself, I had thought to find lists at the back of one of the previous Out from Beneath the Boot anthologies, but didn’t find any. You could also write to Jim Ferguson - again. Also I enclose a spare Out From Beneath the Boot: this last issue was not as interesting I don’t think as some previous.

Regarding the reading by the way, Sandra Craigie is worth hearing, a good ordinary working class poet from Edinburgh, her stuff’s strong and verbally interesting, and she’s not a self-publicist either. A book from her is overdue: she told me at the Stephen Lawrence benefit I read with her at recently, that she’s publishing the book herself. Which is a damned disgrace but tells you maybe what you (don’t) want to know about the wonderful open vibrant etc etc publishing/poetry scene in this Sceptred Isle, this jewel set in a silver sea.


Saturday September 15th ‘95

Dear Philip

Thanks very much for the Arthur Jacobs. He has his own place, when he comes through, doesn’t he - if “having his own place” isn’t too ironic a paradox given his content. I share that sense of being very specifically touched, in a queerly unsettling way. “A Jew in Glasgow” could obviously be set beside Cernuda’s “The Cemetery”. And I like very much the ending of “Hampstead Heath” - though I wish he had more successfully concluded “Lost in the Sea”, which I think very fine and striking until the closing lines, which muddy it a bit for me. “For the Makers” naturally makes me wish we had spoken together - or perhaps even we did, who knows.

I suppose you saw Patrick Crotty’s sallying forth upon me in last week’s TLS. I have to say I wonder if he knows I was in for the Scottish chair. Not unlikely - Riach was off to South Wales for a sojourn trying to track down Welsh MacDiarmid material after we met in early June (I hoped to phone him before he left with the name of the librarian of the now dissolved South Wales Miners’ Library, which I visited in 1984, but couldn’t find the name in time). Anyway it doesn’t matter and I don’t suppose it would have made any difference to Crotty’s rather condescending stance: but I may ask the man himself when I see him. We’re both down to attend a John Hewitt summer school in Antrim in a couple of weeks.

The Antrim school looks a wee bit dreich, though I think the titling of lectures, with ponderous subtitle, is a genre as peculiar in its own way as the names of houses, and horses. Perhaps some of the lectures might be better called “Eventide” or “Hillfoot”, whilst many a home might be better described as “Pandora’s Box: Conflict and Irresolution in Scottish Gender Discourses”. Ach well, as my family motto reads, All metaphor and no metonymy makes Jacques a dull boy.

Rosemary may have mentioned, Sonya and I are just back from a few days break in Pitlochry, where walks were walked, and air deeply inhaled. The town itself is a little unrelenting in its genteel sonsiness, perhaps all it lacks is a permanent staging of John Cairney in There was a Man. The boys are somewhere in Europe on an international railway card: they’re away for a month. When they return in 10 days Michael will be preparing to start work in the Royal at the beginning of August. We’re proud as can be about him. They didn’t tell me I might be fathering doctors when I went to Our Lady of Lourdes in Cardonald.

I hope you and Rosemary find the Galapagos tortoises up to scratch. Enclosed is a copy of a poem Alasdair sent, cheering me up considerably, after he got news that his reference would not be required.


Wednesday October 18th ‘95

Dear M

Thanks for your last. Lines has just published “proem” with some of the other things I’ve written this past six months. I suppose you get Lines sent to the department, if you don’t I’ll send a spare.

This is really just a note though to forward the enclosed. I held back on it after I found it on a machine in Bell (which I’ve now left) a couple of weeks ago. Bell is connected to Internet so where it’s from originally I have no idea. Maybe you wrote it yourself?

I wasn’t sure whether to send it, but thought you might as well be warned that this character, if real, has evidently got wind, and is on the loose. I thought when you mentioned on the phone that most of the women in your book “tend to have moustaches on them”, that you might be expecting some of this stuff chucked at you. It’s a bit of a shock to see it though, and the book not even out yet.


September 27th 1995

Dear P

It has come to my attention that you are presently engaged in the task of traducing a new His-story of Scottish Literature, to be published in 1996 by the publishers Routledge of London in England. I want to register here as fully and as unambiguously as possible, my total and wholehearted opposition to this yet-more insult of innuendo and omission, this only-too-predictable chapter in our long history of silencing, of mutilation, of casting the fragilely human into the darkness of Other. You smug patriarchal bastard.

As usual, I understand, that priapic, mysoginistic old fartbag, author of “A Drunk Man Eulogises His Own Dick”, is to be given a whole chapter to himself, yet again. What about Valda? Is she once more to be cold shouldered by you pub-lads and Scot-Lit cronies, all you “experts” in malt whisky and the male so-called Scottish Renaissance? Every essay, every lecture, every CRITICAL BOOK, every poem, if you write poems - can be measured against your wives’ ironing, that historic, heroic silence of the accusing Anima. That not essay, not lecture, not critical book, not poem. And so with Valda. But she wasn’t silenced. No. And what if she was Cornish? Pedant. I say to you, academic pedant that you are. You will never understand the true, the whole, the holistic. You are one of these people who can never open a window in the morning, and breathe deep, of the Earth.

I say to you now that I have not read your book, no, I am not even sure that you have written this book yet, but your name, if you put your name on the cover of this “critical work” - your name will be MUD. Do you not even now hear the cry from intelligent reviewers, from people maybe looking at you in a coffee bar and just walking out, with just a hint of grimness in their face, from your students, from your female partner, God help her, if you have a female partner - Where are the wheelchairs? Is being condemned to live in a wheelchair not enough? Does the Scottish writer in a wheelchair, or the tragic, blocked writer, unable to write, perhaps, who knows, quadraplegic, my God, maybe even in a wheelbarrow, or condemned to lie all their life on a slab, drip fed, maybe unable to speak, or hear, or see, or move - God knows, maybe not even part of your fascistic sexual cosmogony, your screwing and fucking your way round the world, throughout time, standing there with your weapons like cocks, hellbent on destroying this poor, tender, open FEMALE world, - is s/he, maybe lying there unable to communicate their deep, proud desires in the dark - are they to endure all this and to have you spit on their hapless trunk, to carve OTHER on their chests, to lock the door marked SCOTTISH LITERATURE and stand there before them, smirking, keys in hand? You bastard. You heartless, evil bastard.

But yes. I pity you. I am not personally to be corroded by your cowardly, institution-besotted hatred of all that is true, and authentic, and warm and unspoken, all that does not conform to your defunct, inch-narrow, long-discredited mores. Go ahead, publish. Publish - and be damned.

For I am capable of love.

But remember. Remember in the darkness of the night, when you wake up and look into the silence of the ceiling above your bed in your nice, warm comfortable flat - listen to that silence. That is the silence that will never go away. WE ARE THAT SILENCE. And mine is the loudest voice.






Monday October 30th ‘95

Dear N

Here’s the silkscreen belatedly but as promised. I’m afraid as you can see there is a watermark top left: but I just don’t have one without it now.

Congratulations on your organising of the weekend. Quite a feat. It was good to hear Creeley after all these years: a very genial laid back, almost avuncular kind of guy. Not, in fact, the persona of the earlier poetry that meant so much to me once many years ago (much more angular and less narrative-sequential then) but his new stuff I still like, on the page. If I met him again I would certainly be less nervous than I was last week. Am glad also to have met Douglas Oliver and Alice Notley, both of whose books I bought.

Am also at last getting reward from Sean Rafferty. I just hadn’t been positioned right mentally for receiving before, whatever I mean by that. That’s a beautiful poem he has dedicated to you - you must be very proud of that. For no particular reason, here’s a poem by the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who was killed at Ypres in 1918.

ledwidge a fear

Tuesday November 8th ‘95

Dear Hayden

Rereading Bermuda Triangles. I like very much the sense of juxtaposition and collocation of places of language and history, and image: also a real sense of shifting rhythm, in a way that had the word “swell” in my head, before I came to it. It’s great yourself and Peter meeting up: a really significant coming together.

Am just back from Aldeburgh, or Radio Three Land, as the voices mostly told me. Queer that the first thing that went through my head looking at the sea on the shore, was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. It’s a very distinctive place, the sea is so present, so near and totally to the horizon, which itself seems quite high somehow. Shades of greyness. I read with Lauris Edmond, whose work I didn’t know but the compassion and directness of which I like very much. We got on extremely well, like meeting an old auntie, sharp as nails, who recognises you as that cousin of Bella’s she’d heard about. Shared irony in writers goes an awful long way. I hope I meet her again, we had a good walk and talk.

Enclosed is the latest offering from my Muse a week or so back, offered en passant when my teeth just happened to be against the wall. Like a Quaker prayer a bit, though Paul Blackburn whom I have been reading is maybe next door. In a month I might ditch it, though I like it for the way it came to my rescue, and I read it to Sonya.

Keep in touch.

Wednesday November 9th ‘95

Dear M

Thanks for your letter. I owe a lot to George Bruce, from a specific kindness and act of unselfishness that I will not forget.

I left Glasgow University in 1969, having had a good time over 2 years, edited Gum, met a lot of friends like Tom McGrath, Philip Hobsbaum, Aonghas MacNeacail and Alan Spence, and having done a power of drinking and talking with same. The only snag was the lectures, which I found a bit of an irritant, and tended to avoid them. At any rate I left University after two years.

After I got married and moved to London in 1971 I found myself with a new baby and a landlord who wasn’t too fond of tenants who had babies, as these were inclined to be more difficult to move. My wife Sonya and I turned our thoughts to returning to Glasgow. Going back to University - we had gone to London when she had also an unfinished, though finishable, degree - seemed the best option.

I can’t remember when I had first met George Bruce. I think it was when we met up in a BBC Radio Scotland Studio appearing on the same programme to read our poetry. At any rate George was now the first Writer in Residence at Glasgow University. Getting back into Glasgow University would be very difficult for me: I would need to get “an extension on my class ticket” to use the jargon, to resit second-year English; and even then the only viable option I could see would be to re-sit second year taking the new Scottish Literature course as a double towards a possible honours with English. But how could I persuade the university I was prepared to work this time?

George went to it on my behalf - I think I must initially have written to him then spoke to him - and did a lot of work persuading people that I should be given the chance. He was total in his commitment to getting it done for me, and completely self-effacing about it, as I say I will not forget that kindness, and the attitude he showed in doing it.

I worked very hard that summer, got back in, eventually got my degree. The postgraduate work on Thomson that I did eventually in turn led to my Thomson book. Without George’s help none of this would have come about.

I’ll always feel grateful for that.

Tuesday November 21st ‘95

Dear M

I’m glad if some improvement is discernible in the health position, especially if it does not require surgery in the end. Over here I am becoming familiar with friends’ sagas of gallstones and internal workings ( it must be the age we’re all arriving at), of trying to get quick NHS treatment without having to jump the queue by going private. On the good side there does seem to be so many things now that new drugs or microsurgery can deal with very efficiently, without massive incursions. I wish you well.


I .... felt you would not be unwelcoming to a satire on an exaggerated type of selfrighteous mindset, for which a chance phrase had been taken as occasion by me; one of those “editor’s finds” genre things (like those listed in “The Present Tense”) that I thought you would just take as part of the joke. I did not at all think you might think it was “real”, I am not such a bastard and hope I never will be. Given what you’ve said I can see very clearly though how it could set alarm bells ringing. I just wish I hadn’t sent it, that’s all really I can say.

At least it’s forced me in some ways to try to see some of my own muddled perspectives, more clearly. The women’s poetry festival I organised at Bell College, for instance, centred on Kathy Galloway, Gerrie Fellowes, Margaret Cook, Ann Tall, Kathleen Jamie. It presented a spectrum of writing (most of the poetry writing in Scotland that interests me among the younger set is as it happens by women just now) going from a kind of depiction of victim of violence (Margaret Cook has some terrific stuff here, genuine and moving in the language, not “adopting a current theme”) to people in their different ways making maps of a self-in-the world that really goes way beyond both victim and gender sets. I really love Kathleen Jamie’s new Queen of Sheba - I was tutoring an Arvon Week course with her when I first read it - and Kathy Galloway, who came to a Maryhill Writers’ Group I chaired for a while, gave me there a terrific sequence Stations of the Cross . Kathy’s work presents by times her postition as a kind of Kierkegaardian, erotic, feminist theologian Church of Scotland minister. Cop that. A very sensitive writer, former warden of the Iona Community. Work like Kathy’s exploration of consciousness is what excites me (and what was meant to be one of the ingredients of Places of the Mind ) and what disgusts me in relation to the kind of anti-existential off-the-peg hysteria I was having a go at.

Enough, enough. Some sunshine. I read at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival a couple of weeks back with Lauris Edmond. We got on great together, and I really like the directness and compassion in her work. She said she hopes I make it to New Zealand. If I ever do, that will be someone else I would definitely be looking forward to seeing. We had a really enjoyable walk along the shore the morning after the reading before I went for my train. It goes a long way when you find you share the same irony with someone else. Nor did she sound like an announcer for Radio Three, which nearly everyone else down there did.

Also. I forgot to tell you. John Purser and I bumped into each other again … He gave me a cassette of his new radio play Apes and Parrots, about Ruskin and the Irish sculptors at work on the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. A really engrossing and well constructed piece of work, lasting exactly, as I told him later, the time it takes for an intercity train to travel from Stirling to Inverness. Fine dialogue - and beautiful scenery.

I have been dabbling in the Glasgow lied again . Results overleaf.

 Wednesday December 27th ‘95

Dear Suzanne Mason

Thanks for your letter of December 5th, which finally reached me about a week before Christmas. Unfortunately its arrival coincided with the arrival of the flu virus in my house, but I now have enough energy back to reply.

I’m glad that you enjoyed the poem, and that you took the trouble to write. I enclose a copy: it appeared amongst a number of my new poems in issue 134 of the Edinburgh Poetry Magazine Lines Review, which can be bought from Lines Review Edgefield Road, Midlothian EH20 9SY, price £2 plus 36p postage. I’ll list my books in print at the foot of this letter in case that interests you.

I had been travelling since 7 am from Glasgow via several train changes to the Aldeburgh Festival the day of the broadcast, and was obliged to fall into the Kaleidoscope reading immediately on arrival. An ex further-education college early-retired person like yourself came up to me after the reading, and was keen to tell me that the poem had articulated what he himself felt about things, so that was good to hear too. There’s a lot of awareness, quite sorely too, about what’s going on, but not enough articulation of it. For myself I loathe the culture/language change that has quietly and ubiquitously taken place within this past few years, dressed everywhere in “targets”, “performance indicators” “mission statements” “value for money” etc etc and all the rest of the accompanying cost-functionalist jargon. It’s anti-human, and anti-existence. Till-centred, not person-centred.

Anyway that’s my opinion. Good luck in your own retirement: if you like my poem it probably means unfortunately that you’re well out of it.

opting for early retirement


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