selected letters 1999 - 2005

January 22nd 1999

Dear Lee [Harwood]

Great to hear from you. You saying you’d like to be in Glasgow makes me very much like to be in Brighton just now to meet. The light has got to be better down there. Been a few miraculously clear days here, but mostly the Windsor Brown soup with grey cream that you get up here for weeks on end. You could hold the sky up with a clothes pole. Relation between that and T.B. - and millenialism of course. I think myself you’re going to be tripping over the buggers all over the place with the Magic Number coming up next year.

Thomson was a very traditional formalist who loved Spenser and Shelley on whom both he leant for so much of his own style (and Dante). But he loathed most of the insularity going on in Britain. Apart from Heine and Leopardi it was the continental prose he hitched into most of his time, though he did read Baudelaire (passing reference somewhere) and Gautier he translated. So he wasn’t so head in the formal sand. I just love the existentialism of him, straight on a path that has Hogg of the Justified Sinner (whom Gide rightly picked up) Lermontov, Kierkegaard, Barbusse, Sartre of Nausea, all in there with Thomson. And that directness of address - to whomever you are: an address to everyman from someone who says you probably won’t know what I’m talking about, and if you do, you know already anyway. That opening proem seized me by the throat, when I first read it in the seventies and I still remember finally finding the grave twenty years later, book completed, feeling that the points had finally joined up in between.

...You have your own way and angles with language, so sharp and delicate, it was great seeing you reading as if you were placing each word like birds on wires, carefully, speedily and dexterously, enjoying your placing as you went. Like watching a first class musician in flow. Hope that’s not patronising to try to say.

There’s always a spare bed up here for you if you ever want to see Glasgow. You will be given a key and you can come and go as you please.




Thursday November 18th 1999

Dear Eck (Finlay)


What you say about your little hare called Cowper reminds me that I was recently thinking of Stonypath when reading this excerpt from Cowper’s long poem “The Task”:

cowper 1

He goes on to compare it with distant floods, and fountains, concluding

cowper 2

 It brought me back to standing under the tree at Stonypath with the sea inscription.



[From a letter to Alec Finlay. His father Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden at Stonypath has a tree with the inscription "Mastrum Nore" on it. I had found the poem realised once when looking to the hills beyond the tree standing with the wind waving the leaves overhead]




Thursday September 13th 2001

In February 1991 I wrote in a published pamphlet against the bombing of Iraq, "One would have thought that it might at least have occurred to people that there will be Iraqi survivors, or their descendants, who will feel that if there is any justice in the world, the cities of Britain and America will one day get at least a little of what their citizens were apparently so indifferent to inflicting on the towns and cities of Iraq."

What has happened in America now is not justice: there is no justice in murder, in or out of uniform, no justice in killing thousands of people just getting on with their work, and the people who went to try and save them. There is certainly no justice, but there was certainly an inevitability that action would one day be taken against America, albeit no-one could have predicted that it would be on such a massive catastrophic scale.

Ten years after that bombing of Iraq and that little pamphlet of mine, with another 500,000 Iraqi children dead because of sanctions, according to official figures a couple of years back, where now. More of the same, apparently. Mr Blair, the evangelist who varies between crackdowns and crusades, has found a cause to combine both. No historical context of course, it is to be against "evil". And though it may be a crusade, we should not give the word a capital letter. People might get the wrong idea. After all, as he said in a speech today "The vast majority of Muslims are decent people." That’s alright then.

No-one in government, here or across the Atlantic, will link the week’s events with the recent further 2 billion dollar sale of attack jets to Israel. After all, as Mr Netenyahu said in a press conference on Wednesday, we must all unite against “terrorist states like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian entity”. And where did he give this press conference? The King David Hotel, Jerusalem.

The ironies of history continue.


[[Published Glasgow Herald letters page four days after 9/11 attacks. The bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 by the Irgun cost 91 lives.]




Wednesday September 8th ’04

To: The Royal Literary Fund


Tom McGrath has phoned me to say it would be appropriate for me to send you a letter on his behalf regarding his application for Royal Literary Society funds.

Like many a writer in Scotland I owe a significant amount to Tom McGrath and welcome the opportunity to acknowledge this.

When he came to Glasgow from London in the late 1960’s, he galvanised the incipient writing situation that he found there.......For writers like myself, Alan Spence and others, he simply had the most exciting grasp and infectious enthusiasm for current poetry developments in America, Europe and elsewhere that more conservative circles simply shunned. His house became a place where poets and other writers were always welcome, where they could drop in any day of the week, be ushered into the kitchen and as likely as not into as wideranging and challenging a discussion about poetry and literature as was to be found anywhere in the city. I do not mean to be anti-academic, but simply state what I experienced, when I say that though i was a student at Glasgow University, it was to Tom McGrath’s house that I and others went to further our understanding of and excitement in poetry.

He set to work founding the Midnight Press in Glasgow that first published my Six Glasgow Poems which made something for a name for me, my first publication. The press published a string of other poets, the excellent Ann Thomson, and of course Edwin Morgan. When Tom became director of the new arts venue the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, the city became a hub for exciting poetry and drama events. Tom himself was not simply a producer or activateur in this. He wrote and recited his own poetry, publishing I remember the booklet “The Bhudda Poems”, though he never put his own work to the fore. Then he took the Third Eye Centre into publishing. More work by myself and others there first came into print. I find it ironic that thirty years later work of mine that Bloodaxe and Carcanet have offered to publish, work that has been set now as GCSE English poetry texts, the only person who would publish it at the outset of my career was Tom McGrath.

After I married and moved to London, Tom moved further into drama, his plays The Hard Man and Laurel and Hardy, both notable successes, I remember as very enjoyable and intelligent theatre events. I understand that Tom has asked someone closer to his continuing drama work in Edinburgh to comment on this for you. It is common knowledge though that for years there he worked crucially as a significant promoter of new dramatic talent, taking sundry new writers scripts from editing to stage production.

I find it quite simply heart-rending to see him in his present post-stroke condition, his partner working as nanny for a local couple’s child in an attempt to make ends meet. Tom has been such a force for the advancement of literature in Scotland, if the nation had any way to acknowledge such a force, it should surely make such acknowledgment. I actually don’t know, to be truthful, how he fits into the categories that the committee have for applicants. I can only say that I admire his achievements as a writer, and I am one of many writers and others in Scotland who owe him a debt of thanks. I do sincerely hope something can be done for him.




March 16th 2005

Hi R--

My own position re the uni, to get it out of the way here, is really simple. When I was writer in residence at Bell College between 1993 and 1995 I saw very clearly what my wife and friends had then been complaining about in public education, and why people were becoming very low of morale, or retiring – in those days often with a “package” aged about fifty. At least I got some poems out of it as well as a wage for a while: the poem “opting for early retirement” in access to the silence refers.

As I see it the history is not awfully complex. The Second World War, as evinced by such as the conclusions to some of the Sherlock Holmes films made then [see letter of Sep 7th 1998 ] posited the notion of a classless united Britain, a notion necessary to fight the war and counter German propaganda. Hence the reforming Labour Government of 1945, the National Health Service, council housing driven forward in the next two decades, new schools for all. Then Wilson in 1967 elected, and right away complaining of “the gnomes of Zurich” as the press derided his complaints, ie that banking institutions were threatening to withhold funds if he continued with public spending plans. 1976 was the real clincher: when Labour Chancellor Dennis Healey introduced the concept of “rate-capping”, “fining” many thousands of pounds local authorities who “overspent” their centrally allocated funding allocation. This became the driving force of Thatcherite monetarism, multiplied in quantity by Blair. Though Blair like the American Democrats favoured liberal social policies, but ever more rightwing monetarist economic policies.

So from the late eighties the government policy of a target-driven culture of public services: targets of performance indicators, which must go up: targets of cost, which must go down. The one multiplied by the other was supposed to be a measure of “efficiency”. Never was the word efficiency taken to mean the quality of service offered. So in Bell College, one of thousands of public instutitions, there was the concomitant obsession with press publicity as an indication of performance, marketing logos, the ubiquitous mission statements. A bastardisation of language. All to do with the denial of the value of a human being as being itself. Central again, the structure of the line management, each layer bearing down on the one below in term of “yield”. Co-operating with management, competing with colleagues. Demoralised teachers had been in at the start of Bell College in the early seventies when it helped working class local kids make up highers in English etc to get to college. Now English had gone, leaving journalistic studies and media studies or “communications”. A whole library of literature gathered by good staff was totally idle. Trade Union studies began to disappear, Business Studies everywhere.

...The battle in all this I see in my own quiet in fact non-Marxist way as simply Being versus Having. That’s the way I’ve seen it all my life, and the way I’ll see it till I die. I’m a being man meself. You rightly point out that the scrapping of part-time students would effectively pull the rug away from all local opportunity for people to work their way through. Well, go where the money is, - just like the Scottish Premier League, the tendering of public services, the cutting of cleaning staff and increase in the hospital bug, and so on and on you know the story at least as well as I do.

............ In the nature of this freemarket stuff staff are of course expected to feel guilty. There is always someone who apparently works even more than everyone else, and just like the school league tables, the message is not to congratulate the greatest yielder, but to berate the rest for not “achieving” the same. So if I and other part-timers hold to perimeters of duty, we can be exposed to the “guilt” of letting extra work heap on the already besieged fulltimers. Again it is absolutely standard this shit, right across target-driven public services. I say, let the fulltime staff draw up their own fair perimeters – and insist on holding to them.

This is the rant you will not be getting in Beanscene should we ever meet there.... Fuck all this, I am happy, I am writing, I am happy working with the students, so long as I get peace just to get on with the patient job in my own way. But I don’t have a huge number of years left, I’m not going to, or am going to try not to, get too worked up over the simple brutal operation of market forces which I have seen and got to know back to front ages ago. If we are driven, out of this supposedly “anonymous” transparency review, to the competitive humiliation of totting up supposed hours spent individually and measuring these against results per person etc, which seems to be the next inexorable stage, ach fuck it, I either go or I don’t. I’m not thinking beyond the near future, let me stay happy in the present.




Saturday August 27th ’05

Dear Tom [McGrath]

I have been out of touch for so long. I have had your letter sitting on my desk in a wee tray thing for ages. It was good to get it. About your play My Old Man we will definitely go to see that in the Tron, during the second week, we are, thank fuck, going to Portugal for the best part of a fortnight, coming back on the 22nd. I want to do nothing and be a thousand miles from the university spire and Blair’s Britain. Though I will bring my laptop. Saw a travel programme years ago about the Algarve and sardines getting grilled in the open just off the boat. I’ve wanted ever since to be in the queue.

It was great seeing the reviews of your Laurel and Hardy. Sorry you weren’t well enough to get the best of it. Tom Logan, Liz Lochhead’s man, he said it was the best night he had had in the theatre for years. I hope you make it to Dublin.

My wee run of poems seems to be over for another spell, though I do still spend the odd dawn out hoeing on the Parnassian slopes. But nay blooms for sale yet. Just rows of wee pots with things sticking out them. You were saying though you were glad of my slant on the Middle East business, well I did do an article, a preface for this guy Mahmood Jamal’s poems that WordPower bookshop are bringing out. I dragged my feet for ages over it .....ended up writing what is more a political take on the current situation than anything to do with Mahmood’s poems. I’ll bung it in for your perhaps interest.

I’ve done that and another article for this Catholic magazine called Conscience .... actually an American thing run by an organisation called Catholics for a Free Choice – in other words a pro-abortion group that also in its mag keeps running its finger over Catholic attempts at censorship and Vatican political influence at the United Nations etc. The only Catholic publication I know with a sane attitude to sexuality. Anyway after an article by one of its editors bemoaning that you seemed to need to get raped or something to become a female saint I ended up, after correspondence, being invited to do an article. I wanted to write on the way women who died resisting rape were promulgated as “martyrs to purity” – though resisting rape has got nothing to do with staying “pure” in the first place. It was hard work, reading and comparing papal encyclicals etc online, and three months with my head jammed reading sundry books on the Cult of the Virgin and the history of Marianism etc, from Catholic, feminist and Protestant viewpoints. I hadn’t realised the extent to which the difference between the Catholic and Protestant viewpoints is not exclusively the business of transubstantiation but an attitude to prayer and the Virgin Mary. Prods improvise prayers to Jesus, Papes hardly pray directly to Christ at all.

Anyway I got the fucker finished, but have now run into one of those editors who has informed me that he wants to change just the odd thing as “I am an editor and I edit”. I have informed him in turn that I am a writer and I write. I don’t send off things as an opening gambit, I put gambits in the drawer or sell them to the National Library of Scotland. He is off on holiday. I have told him to accept it entire – he did say he thought it “great” – or ask me to consider my changing just the odd word myself if it really strikes him that way, or just forget about the thing altogether. I won’t be too upset if it comes to that, it was a necessary albeit tortuous thing to write. I was ultimately relating the Church’s inability to deal properly with its own cases of internal rape and abuse, with the cult not of the Virgin, but of virginity ...

I was 61 last Monday so I am sitting typing this with Maria Callas pouring notes all over me from the fancy Mac speakers Sonya got me that connect to the computer. Terrific sound. And Michael got me a boxed recording of Wagner’s ring that I wanted. Trouble with the Ring as a story though is it’s such anti-humanist science fiction. I hate this Struggle Between Universal Ideas stuff, at the expense of the human. No wonder Adolf had the autographed Siegfried and Die Walkure in his possession, that were never found after his death. Still there’s great music in it which is why I wanted it.

Will let you know how we enjoyed your play. Sorry I never made it up during the summer after all.


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