by Ray Burnett

Man of the Folk

October 21, 2009 | by Ray Burnett

THIS IS A SINGULARLY apt moment for Hamish Henderson’s life to be told. In Westminster, Gordon Brown is a Prime Minister committed to the continuing deployment of weapons of mass destruction in Scotland, Scottish troops deployed in an unpopular illegal war and a foreign policy that buttresses American economic and military power across the globe. In Holyrood, Alec Salmond is a First Minister leading the first ever Scottish Government elected on a programme to remove WMD from Scotland, withdraw from foreign wars and to re-establish Scottish independence.

Both are tied together in the warp and woof of the life of Hamish Henderson – Brown from his Edinburgh University student days, Salmond from his time in the SNP’s rebel ’79 Group’. As Brown urges us to celebrate our fading ‘Britishness’, Salmond exhorts us to seize the moment so that ‘Scotland will rise again’. Brown sings ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and loyally supports ‘our England’ in the sporting arena. Salmond announces a winter festival to celebrate Scottish music, song and culture across St Andrew’s Night and Hogmanay to Burns’ Night. Both profess an admiration of Henderson. Reading this biography it is not difficult to determine who is closer to the latter’s limitless vision of Scotland’s place in the world, his irreducible faith in the human spirit, his awareness of the politics of culture, the power of poetry and song.

To the end, even with those who knew him best, Henderson was elusively elliptic on many aspects of his remarkable life. He disseminated the facts and the memories that he selected, allowed intrigue to surround some – most notably the mist of speculation that swirled around his paternity – and remained quietly non-responsive on others. Over time, in a mélange of output, the facts accumulated. A selection of his letters, another of his essays, some autobiographical accounts of particular moments and episodes appeared.

Yet approaches for a biography were always resisted and no autobiography was contemplated. Despite awareness of his significance in academic, literary and political circles there still remains no authoritative listing of his voluminous output of publications and recordings. Now, with this first volume of the first biography, Tim Neat, his close friend and collaborator over many years, has added the first truly substantial stone on the cairn of modestly accumulated tributes and obituaries.

Digging out articles in long-forgotten journals, sifting through published correspondence, essays and recollections, above all, drawing on Henderson’s long and prolific output of poetry and song, Neat has assembled a framework through which to tell the story of Henderson’s personal, poetic, political and cultural career from his Perthshire childhood to his final post-war ensconcement in Edin-burgh. As those who knew him over the years were aware, behind the generous outpouring of creativity and knowledge, there was what he unnervingly describes as a “magnificent compost heap of an archive”. Privileged and entrusted to fork it over, Neat spreads his finds across the years to give “autobiographical vividness” to his story. In large measure he succeeds and the cultural soil of Scotland is all the richer for it.

What, therefore, does this biography add to what is known already? What new insights, illuminating background, fresh context to poems, songs and political views are given? What ambiguities are clarified? Quite a lot as it turns out. One hoary old chestnut resolved early is the speculation over Henderson’s paternity. A convincing case is made for James Scott, a wayward engineer from Glasgow. Married but separated from his wife and children in Inverness at the time he met Janet Henderson he was never to know his son, registered as James Scott Henderson but raised from infancy as Hamish. And there the matter should rest.

The important person is not the father but the mother. Henderson recalled with warmth and pride the deep love she instilled in him for the songs and the people of Scotland from Glenshee to their shared exile in England. He was less forthcoming on the background of “my blue-blooded and black-hearted family” who had ostracised his mother. Their solid, respectable standing in the unco guid of Dundee is now exposed. It adds much to our understanding of Henderson’s utter disdain for bourgeois hypocrisy and his enduring identification with the suffering of others.

In outlining Henderson’s public school and university years in England, Neat vividly brings out how much he benefited from and enthusiastically responded to his privileged education. How this was done while living as a boarder at an Anglican boy’s home – something Henderson himself always kept buried – is a revelation. What is most illuminating, however, particularly in the context of Hen-derson’s later absorption of the ideas of Gram-sci on cultural hegemony and subalternity, is Henderson’s own prescient observation on the insidious way in which the process worked. Emerging from Dulwich College a proud Old Alleynian and an outstanding scholar, the resilient Scot was all too aware that the selfsame education was also an acculturation process whereby a Scottish identity could be all too easily subordinated and inferiorised.

It is precisely this intellectual awareness of how culture and politics were inextricably linked that guided Henderson throughout his war years in the desert and in Italy. The primacy of the moment was the utter necessity to defeat fascism. But in this struggle of total war, a profound sense of the human had to be retained if humanity itself was not to be consumed by it. Not least there was a need to retain an enduring commitment to the removal of want, injustice and inequality as the prize they were fighting for. All of this, through Henderson’s actions, poetry, songs, exhortations and analysis from Alamein to Anzio and beyond was a personal encapsulation of the old libertarian left slogan: “Be a realist – demand the impossible!”

It was a vision Henderson had also set out for himself when he had completed his Military Intelligence training in England and faced imminent shipping out to the North African theatre. In his notebook, as Neat fascinatingly reveals, he had privately listed the things he now required of himself. The first of these, “Maintain ideals and get facts/ Remain a Scot”, were to remain the benchmarks against which Henderson fought his war. He was not to be found wanting.

For Henderson, the realist romantic, the Desert and the Italian Campaigns were theatres of war for a bard now in battle. From ‘The Highlanders at Alamein’ to the Liberation of Rome with his Beachhead Pipe Band, his unstinting support for Scottish Renaissance back home and the ‘Red Revolution’ of the Italian Risorgimento, a broad range of sources are drawn on vividly to illuminate the extent to which Henderson viewed the struggle through a Scottish prism.

From his entrapment on the Anzio beach head, awaiting the imminent breakout and the entry of Rome with the massed pipes and drums, Henderson had outlined his thoughts on the course of the war and his own situation to his old Cambridge communist friend, Michael Clark. The “first essential in the fight against Fascism” was to smash German military power and annihilate the Prussian military machine “as a cadre for future armies.” But there was another, equally demanding compulsion that drove him along, that of remaining a Scot.

If Henderson had a very particular notion of the role of the poet, he also had a clear view of the duty of Scottish nationalists, of which he was most certainly, at this critical juncture. While in the desert a friend had written to tell him of the split in the SNP after Douglas Young had been elected leader on the stance of having nothing to do with “Eng-land’s War”, a position that would soon land the latter in jail. Henderson replied that as a revolutionary his first obligation was to be in the field, “actually combating the most reactionary force in the world today”. Writing only a few months after El Alamein, Henderson added that: “As far as Scottish Nationalism is concerned, I think the men of our Highland Div. are doing more to solve Scotland’s problems (social-economic-political) than Douglas languishing in clink…”

The politics surrounding the Italian partisans that Neat later goes on to elaborate in relation to Henderson’s involvement are, of course, vitally important for our understanding of the man, not least how he went on to see Scotland through a Gramscian prism. But it is not unfamiliar terrain. Much more intriguing is the light Neat sheds through Henderson’s unpublished letters, not just on how he saw the men of the Highland Division and their role, but how, it would appear, they saw themselves.

One of the most striking observations in the whole book is a passage from a hitherto unpublished letter of Henderson to his fellow Scot, John Speirs, in 1943. Writing from Sicily where he was witnessing the Sicilian response to the fall of Mussolini, he wrote of the liberating politics of the moment and its wider potential. He was with the 51st Highland Division, or rather the “Scottish National Army” as he terms them, one that was evidently familiar within the ranks themselves: “There is a strong rumour in the division that when this lot is over, our general will make the pipes sound against the Sax-ons and write his operation order for the march on London. For the moment, however, our bayonets are reserved for German and Italian Fascists. The English can wait….”

Henderson celebrated the 1945 Labour victory in Rome confident that they would address the “Scottish Problem”. The reality of the postwar Scotland he returned to was somewhat different. The strands of these Henderson years are already known. Socialist vision reduced to supine Labourism, revolutionary boldness muted by respectability and obedience to “the line”. Nationalist sentiment stalled and reduced to factional aimlessness. Swimming against the tide was a Henderson of no fixed abode, seeking work and shelter from Cambridge to Fort William, Edinburgh to Belfast. Closure on his war years was found with the Gaelic bardachd and song of South Uist. Inspiration and guidance to the new front that lay ahead in Scotland came from Italy and Gramsci.

The two key moments in this intense period of engagement, Neat suggests, were 1948 and 1954. At the 1948 St Andrew’s Night Glasgow rally to commemorate the legendary Scottish revolutionary John MacLean, Scotland’s oral folk tradition gained parity with the literary. In 1954 Henderson’s hugely significant Edinburgh People’s Festival was finally wound up by shameful establishment ostracism, not least from the new establishment of Scottish Labourism. Henceforth there would be a parting of the ways between the art poets of the literati and the poets, singers and musicians of the folk scene. Neat identifies the polarity in the capital – the Abbotsford and Sandy Bell’s – but it was a polarity that could be mapped out across the cities and cultural landscape of Scotland.

The broad outline of these seminal years, including the foundation of the School of Scottish Studies, Henderson’s new secure base in the University of Edinburgh and his endless forays to the “living stream” has been too often written up in forgetful terms. What Neat does is to remind us of the real opposition, often vindictive, frequently vicious and invariably personal, that Henderson and his associates faced in their challenge to the established cultural and political order. More than that, he extends his coverage to reveal the extent of Henderson’s involvement in the forgotten underground world of direct action protest around the 1953 Coronation and the installation of ‘ERII’ insignia in Scotland.

Most historians dismiss these affairs as irrelevant antics of a lunatic fringe. Neat is different. It is not just that he confirms the identity of Henderson as “Sky-High Joe”, the legendary figure who actually blew up the offending Edinburgh pillar box, revealing enough though this revelation is. More importantly he brings out of the shadow into the open the marvellously subversive, often humorous and totally Scottish repertoire of songs with which these partisans in a passive revolution marched into battle. This was the self-proclaimed SRA, the Scottish Republican Army, whose weapons were no more than a song, their bombs no more than ideas.

In 1983 Henderson wrote of those years to an old wartime Intelligence comrade in Leeds. Asked by some young activists to knock their rough verses on the theme of ‘ERII is no for me’, into a song to the same tune as ‘The Barnyards of Delgaty’, Henderson duly obliged.

Another Henderson composition, ‘The Ballad of the Inch’, an entertaining account of his exploits as ‘Sky-High Joe’, was a popular number on the emergent Edinburgh folk scene of the early 1960s. It inspired a youthful Roy Williamson to make his own contribution to the nationalist repertoire – ‘Flower of Scotland’. Not quite the ultimate national anthem it provides nonetheless an apt moment to pause and reflect on the life of this most remarkable man. For wherever Scotland comes together in music and song, Henderson is there. At the opening of Holy-rood to Sheena Wellington’s’ memorable rendition ‘A Man’s A Man for a’ That’ the spirit and the ‘voice’ of Henderson was there alongside Burns. At every gathering against wars, injustice and inequality, every celebration of Scotland’s national culture, the songs he composed, the old songs he recovered and the new songs he inspired can always be heard. They will be sung again at this coming ‘winter festival’.


HAMISH HENDERSON, A BIOGRAPHY, VOLUME I: THE MAKING OF THE POET
BY Timothy Neat
Polygon, £25
ISBN: 13: 978 1 904598 47 3

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