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Serious Characters – Scottish Review of Books
by Alan Riach

Serious Characters

October 26, 2009 | by Alan Riach

WHEN I ARRIVED at Browns-bank Cottage, having taken my time driving over the border hills enjoying the afternoon, Valda met me at the door: “You’re late!” she pronounced, and proceeded to bundle me back into the car, to drive her into Biggar to the bank before it closed, to pick up her travellers’ cheques before she left on a package tour to Spain the following morning.

The bank was shut.

There was no hesitation. Straight from the car, up the path, to hammer on the big wooden door till it opened and she was admitted, the cheques handed over, and back to Brownsbank for my appointed conversation with Christopher.

Valda joined us after a couple of hours, interrupting the flow of words and Glenfiddich with, “I can’t talk to you about Victorian epic poetry, but would you like a fried egg or a bacon roll?” Before she could finish the sentence, Chris had interrupted her: “Well, you’ve nothing but laziness and ignorance to conquer!”

Affection was there all right, but stronger was the sense that practice keeps the edges sharp.

She sighed, we agreed about food, and went on.

When one of their dogs, an Irish Wheaten Terrier, approached my right ankle with a cheeky yelp, I reached down tentatively to pat it on the head.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you!” Valda called from the doorway. “That one kills sheep!”

It turned to Chris, sharp teeth and expectancy. His expression was severe as stone. He rolled up a copy of the Morning Star into a stiff bludgeon and held it poised above the little dog. It skulked off.

Stories about their lives together at Brownsbank illustrate similar eccentricities. One evening, Chris working in deep concentration, Valda decides to go to bed and tells him to remember to put out the empty milk bottles. Job completed, Chris can’t remember what she’s told him, but remembers something. Next morning, the milkman finds on the doorstep a glass of water with Chris’s false teeth in it.

The anecdotes diminish, perhaps, but they also illuminate character. It’s revealing to see how the sense of humour works to sustain a relationship, how tolerance, impatience, caustic wit and endurance all have their parts to play. One of the most outrageous moments in these letters asks us to imagine Valda in Cornwall, sending saffron cake to Chris in the Shetland island of Whalsay, and Chris responding by sending bundles of his dirty laundry to Cornwall for Valda to deal with.

But if we’re tempted to read them as the Simpsons, that won’t do. These were exceptional people, both as characters and as creators. The publication of Scarcely Ever Out of My Thoughts: The Letters of Valda Trevlyn Grieve to Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), edited by Beth Junor with a Foreword by Deirdre Grieve, is an important moment in modern Scottish literary studies because it immerses us in an older Scotland and reminds us how different the world we currently inhabit has become. Beth Junor’s introduction itself is an invaluable work of historical contextualisation. In full context, Chris and Valda are deeply humanised characters in an imaginary novel of Tolstoyan scale entitled ‘The Twentieth Century’. The risky diminishment of anecdote is corrected by the sustained respect for their incredibly arduous journey, most of it made in poverty, from 1930s London, to a sunny Cornwall that has to be left behind, to the storm-crossed, treeless Shetland island of Whalsay in the 1930s and 40s, through wartime, via Glasgow to Biggar in 1951. They lived there till they died, Chris in 1978, Valda in 1989. Their story is shocking. It demands the revision of our normal assumptions about what literature and books can do.

In the “odd bits & pieces” collected from a notebook and printed as an appendix, Valda writes: “We both made sacrifices ourselves, Christopher sacrificed himself – for his principles & I sacrificed myself for Christopher”. We have to ask what those principles were and whether Valda’s sacrifice was worth it. It would be a very foolish reader who would cast her in the role of victim or of self-deluded, self-effacing wife. She was neither. So we might begin with her own sense of the worth of her sacrifice as valid. But if we do, her self-judgement is a challenge to many current measures of value.

In 1935, when their son Michael was three years old, MacDiarmid published a poem called ‘The Two Parents’ in the volume Second Hymn to Lenin:

I love my little son, and yet when he was ill,
I could not confine myself to his bedside.

I was impatient of his squalid little needs,
His laboured breathing and the fretful way he cried
And longed for my wide range of interests again, Whereas his mother sank without another care To that dread level of nothing but life itself
And stayed day and night, till he was better, there.

Women may pretend, yet they always dismiss Everything but mere being just like this.

It’s perfectly possible to read this as male-dominant arrogance. Vacuous pretension attaches to “my wide range of interests” perhaps, and there’s a supercilious tone that doesn’t even bother to state what they are or why they’re important, or to measure them against the wide range of interests the mother might have, or might have been allowed to have had she had the opportunity and time. The final couplet is surely uttermost pompous pontification, a ridiculous generalisation. And yet, that reading doesn’t entirely convince. Something else is happening here. You might accept that reading and say that the poem is a naked exposition of a socially-constructed relation between the sexes that the conventions of a specific society endorses and that it is changeable. But that doesn’t quite satisfy either. The problem is that the poem is in praise of the mother. The tone is not one of self-promotion but of wonder. The father’s manger-faith and sense of respect, amazement and surrender to the authority of the mother’s role here needs to be read as tenderly as the inferred frustrations the mother might feel in the grip of her urge to self-sacrifice. And if this capacity to sink “to that dread level of nothing but life itself” is evoked accurately in the poem, perhaps there is already a sense of the fatuity of ‘a wide range of interests’ in the face of the facts of mortality. And if that is so, the capacity the poet ascribes to women generally is both a narrowing and an immense strength. To see both these qualities at the same time is the poem’s challenge. Ranging takes you places, but sinking gives you profundity. Profundity might not get you anywhere, but it’s worth knowing about when you find it.

So there is enormous risk involved in the kind of poetic enquiry to which MacDiarmid was dedicated – and, in prevailing conditions of poverty, it’s difficult to argue that he sold out at any time. Iain Crichton Smith once rather longingly remarked that Chris was not a bourgeois, with property to protect and proprieties to observe. He had nothing to lose, in that material sense that defines the middle class, and so he could say anything he liked. Yet the repercussions in personal, social and economic terms were severe, and this is where Valda’s enormous resources of strength, commitment and determination came into their own. Having made her decision – there was no accident, she declared, about becoming pregnant with Michael – she would stand by her husband and son, whatever conditions were heaped upon them. And the example of the pain caused to Chris by Peggy’s choice of her own comfort and seeming security for their children must have been an emblem of the kind of surrender Valda herself would always refuse.

All these considerations suggest an unusual balance between the intimacy of married life and the public sense of civic or declared responsibility. In his introduction to Margaret Morris’s biography of the artist J.D. Fergusson, MacDiarmid said that although he had been on excellent terms with Fergus-son and called him – and many others – a friend, nevertheless, they “were never on intimate terms. Intimacy is something I have always instinctively avoided.”

So what sort of marriage was this?

Chris and Valda enjoyed an intimacy that was founded, I think, on affection and respect, jousting humour and dedication to political ideals, a shared history of loneliness, solitude, cold and pain. They supported and protected each other. They did not compete.

There is a famous – or notorious – letter by Gustav Mahler to his wife Alma in which he defends his primacy as the artist-creator in their relationship. He asks her to imagine their lives if they were both dedicated to composing: “Have you any idea how ridiculous and, in time, how degrading for both of us such a peculiarly competitive relationship would inevitably become?”

Valda sketched and drew pictures and wrote a small number of poems which are worth having and re-reading, but it was her own recognition that Chris was the poet with a potential far beyond the scope of most of his contemporaries that led her to work to help realise that potential. It was not something she wished to compete against. This is what she means, I think, when she says she sacrificed herself for him – with sorrow, perhaps, but not with resentment. They had been through too much together to be distracted by the ethos of competition that was degrading the western world. As aggressive political idealists, their assertion of the rights of socialist self-determination in Scotland and Cornwall was an outright opposition to an English ethos of imperial domination and, latterly, opposition to the American authority of globalised power. The value of independent, self-legislating nationhood was, for them both, a way of guarding the variety and differences of cultural expression against growing pressures to conform. In New Zealand, I once heard Noam Chomsky say the same thing.

What was their story?

In 1931, in London, at the age of 25, Valda had been taken to Hennekey’s Bar, High Hol-born, by a boyfriend of the time who promised her “a literary soiree”. She thought that meant “a church meeting or something” but found herself sitting next to Chris Grieve, poet, who was consuming alcohol with an appetite and lighting her cigarettes every time she pulled one out. One imagines the bar, high-ceilinged, full of gold light, shadows and smoke, and their sizing each other up from their own points of view. Chris phoned Valda soon afterwards and she went out with him again, back to Hennekey’s and to the Plough. He was drinking heavily. Valda said her heart went out to him when she saw him wandering blindly to the ladies’ toilets. He must have been in a terribly vulnerable state.

Little wonder. He was 39 years old, fourteen years Valda’s senior, but boyish somehow still. His first marriage had just broken up and his wife Peggy had left him for a well-off coal merchant, taking their two children with her. She promised him access but broke that promise and he was not to see them again for decades. At this time of his life, his drinking was born of despair.

Born in 1892, Chris had come out of the nineteenth century in more than the literal way. Just as his Irish contemporary W.B. Yeats idolised Maud Gonne, he had set Peggy on the pedestal that modernity had smashed.

She’d wanted a more comfortable life than the one he was giving her and her striking out for her own independence forced him to reassess his whole attitude to women. The counterpoint figures of ‘silken lady’ versus ‘domestic wife’ was a dichotomy that could not be maintained. But if the superiority of the male gaze was an exploded myth, there was to be no simple redress. The complexity of feelings about his own masculinity, the relationship between men and women, the tensions and agonies about what men and women are – these are subjects MacDiarmid explores ruthlessly and self-laceratingly in poems such as ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ and ‘Ode to All Rebels’. No modern poet – not Yeats, certainly not Eliot or Pound, not even Lowell – is so searching as MacDiarmid in his relentless exposure of the dark corners and ugly aspects of male sexuality. Yet there is no gainsaying a complete charm and tenderness in many of his love poems, such as ‘Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton’ which, one legend tells, was written on a scrap of toilet-paper taken by Valda from a Cornish pub. And this charm is often combined with a hard recognition of the facts of sexuality and affection we seldom dwell on in our own over-glamorised era, as in ‘Scunner’ where the aftermath of copulation – the messy, animal, scunnersome fact of physical intimacy – gives it biological reality and usefully punctures the balloon of romantic idealism, making capital-L ‘Love’ a more human, more lovable thing.

Valda had her own self-determination. Born in 1906, in Bude, Cornwall, she came from poor people who looked after each other in frugal conditions and she was restless, to take risks, to move on. At 17, she left school to work locally, setting out two years later for London, getting as far only as Bristol, where she worked as a shop assistant. In 1927 she finally reached London and found more work of a similar kind. She seems to have been flamboyant, recklessly outspoken, bright and pretty and engaging, quick to charm and unafraid of giving offence. What lay behind her compassionate response to Chris’s vulnerability?

Maybe the sense of caring and giving which was bestowed upon her by her mother and aunts in Cornwall, and which she returned when she went back to Cornwall and looked after them as they approached death. Maybe the sense that the drinking signalled some deep self-questioning Chris was going through helplessly. Boyish he might have been but there was adult weight upon his shoulders. He was a man who had grown up in a socially conservative Border town, who had experienced the dying of large numbers of men during the First World War when he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Europe, a man whose commitment to his children and the proprieties of his first marriage was a counterpoint to his radical tendency to leap into the fray of cultural controversy and lead the debate in politics, culture, literature and the arts, in the Scottish social and educational front throughout the 1920s, a man committed to poetry and what poetry might do.

Valda said that it didn’t matter to her at first, the ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’ poetry business. All that was pretentious arty stuff. She loved the man and continued in that love till she died. Yet there was a recognition of the principles that underlay the production of the poetry. No-one but MacDiarmid could ask us to keep our gaze steady on the things our culture was increasingly trying to persuade us to look away from: ‘There are buildings in ilka toon where daily / Unthinkable horrors tak’ place. / I am the woman in cancer’s toils, / The man withoot a face.’

You may thank God for good health

And be proud to be pure
In body and mind – unlike some.

I am not so sure.

You may feel certain that God

Is on the side of the sane
And prefers your condition to syphilis.

I am not so sure.

Congratulate yourselves you’re spared

The ghastly ills others endure. God’s with the majority surely.

I am not so sure…

Poetry like this comes at a cost. This is what Valda means, I think, when she says that Chris sacrificed himself for his principles. He knew he was capable of writing what he did. He was committed to it, despite the best advice of literary fashion and society’s priorities. When he submitted his great late poem ‘In Memoriam James Joyce’ to Faber, T.S. Eliot held onto it for years, effectively delaying publication. Was he scared of it? He should have been.

Valda valued the principles that kept Chris writing. Talking to her in the late 1970s and 80s, she told me once her favourite of all MacDiarmid’s poems was ‘Old Wife in High Spirits’ – the one about the woman who comes into an Edinburgh pub and through the happy administration of numerous whiskies, has her spirit lifted to the point where her unstoppable laughter turns to rage and ricochets round the bar like forked lightning – but surely better that way, the poem concludes, than an old done body like a bat

tered Bible in a book-barrow’s second-hand tray.

She needed all the strengths the poem evokes.

In a letter dated 8 July 1934, she writes from Cornwall as follows:

Of course my people think it very queer you do not write. You make it hard for me with them & seeing that you are not sending me any money. You could try & make it easier for me. I’m fed up to the teeth with everything. Life isn’t worth living in my opinion – if only I had the pluck – suicide would be an easy way out – just swim out & out – beautiful blue sea – the sun shining – can go no further – arms up – a few gurgles – & all is over – it sounds so easy

but –
Pause on the space on the page between “it sounds so easy” and the reassertion of the tenacity of her hold on life that comes in with the monosyllable ‘but’ and the long dash that follows it. That’s Valda.

From their first encounter and rapid commitment in London, there was an uncertain period with Chris in Edinburgh and Valda and young Michael in Cornwall. Chris was still in desperate mental turmoil about his relationship with Peggy and his commitment to Valda. In 1933, with the help of Robert Gar-ioch, they found a cottage in Shetland, on the dry island of Whalsay. Chris took the ferry from Leith and arrived in May, Valda and Michael joining him in June, after a month in Cornwall. A hopeful new start seemed possible and the geology, landscape and air of their new home invigorated the poet. The central masterpiece of his writing career, ‘On a Raised Beach’ was written here, on a diet of mackerel and potatoes, while Valda was knitting pullovers, making furniture out of tea chests, and Michael hunting for eggs on the cliffs.

In some respects, this must have been a world like that of Valda’s childhood – poor in material luxuries, rich in support and friendliness. However, a gulf opened up between Chris and local people. Folk couldn’t understand why a man so well-educated was so poor, refusing employment in any conventional sense, dedicating himself to writing which seemed to bring in next to no money at all. I heard one story that, dry as the island was normally, one Hogmanay Chris turned up at a neighbour’s house, drink taken. The neighbours’ wee boy hopped onto his knee and Chris took a silver coin from his pocket and handed it over as a gift. Then he nodded off, slept for a while, woke up, and did the same again. This was repeated a number of times. The wee boy was pleased as punch when he’d amassed a small pile of silver coins, his mother keeping one eye on them all the time. When Valda arrived, the mother lifted the column of coins, put one on the mantelpiece – “That’ll be for the laddie,” she said, “but the rest you must keep, Mrs Grieve – it’s too much to give away like that.”

Another story tells of Valda’s first arrival in Shetland – her bright-red painted toenails astonishing onlookers: “We thought she was bleeding from her toes! Aye, aye… When Valda arrived, that wis the stert of the emancipation of the weemun of Whalsa!”

Although they were based in Shetland, there was a fair amount of travel, and putting together Beth Junor’s edition of Valda’s letters with the Carcanet edition of the New Selected Letters of MacDiarmid, it’s an exhilarating exercise to read the correspondence as it was happening, with Chris travelling to Barra or the Faroes or giving a reading in Edinburgh, Valda with Michael back in Corn-wall, looking after her ageing mother and aunts, both coming and going, back and forth, to the Shetland base.

But the crux of this period comes with Chris’s physical and mental breakdown in 1935, his hospitalisation near Perth, and his recovery through treatment for syphilis, exhaustion and depression. His obsessive return to imagining what life might have been like with his first wife, and then his violent rejection of her and what he called his purging of his own desires for her, to realign his life with Valda and Michael as key coordinates, is as frightening and astonishing a story as any in modern literature. It is frightening in the intensity of tortured feeling Chris went through and sometimes inflicted on others; it is astonishing in the complex way it tells of survival and triumph over adversities few in Britain would encounter, let alone embrace, today. Valda’s commitment to him, her sense of the liability as well as the value of his friendships, is overwhelmingly assuring here. She chastises him when he exhausts himself walking into Perth from the hospital to have an afternoon’s plot-filled conversation with the bed-ridden poet William Soutar. But she clearly sees the worth and integrity in the sustained friendship and support he was receiving from his old school teacher, the composer Francis George Scott.

In a late interview, Valda recollected that their time in Shetland was immensely productive for Chris’s writing and she wished a good publisher had taken a chance to help channel and direct the MacDiarmid literary industry to a broader readership it might have enjoyed. But material pressures were never far away. In 1941, Chris was conscripted for national service and by 1942, Valda had joined him in Glasgow.

She had not become mellow.

They were required to leave one boarding house because, having taken their dog for a walk, she’d been criticised by the owner’s wife as the bitch had been on heat and was followed by a number of dogs sniffing and randy. “How many children have you had?’”asked Valda. “You know what it’s all about, then – and it’s perfectly natural!”

In 1951 they found the cottage near Biggar where they would live the rest of their lives. The small building is now a museum, much as they left it, the two main rooms still redolent of each of their presences: hers with shelves of Cornish books and D.H. Lawrence, his with rows of detective fiction and editions of his own work. It is also now home to a writer-in-residence appointed by the Biggar Museums Trust and subsidised by the Scottish Arts Council. The legacy is curiously secure in the reminder the cottage affords, of solitude, cold, warmth centred round the hearth-fire, the priorities of the written word, languages and international communication.

When they arrived, there was no indoor toilet or running hot and cold water. A group of students from Edinburgh University and members of the Young Communist League, led by a young man named Alex McCrindle, came down and dug the necessary ditches. The ironies are rich. McCrindle was to become an actor, later seen by millions as grey-bearded General Dodonna in the first of the Star Wars films, first man to utter the words, “May the Force be with you!”

Brownsbank was where Allen Ginsberg and Yevgeny Yevtushenko came to visit; it was the base from which Chris took off on his ambassadorial journeys to Eastern Bloc countries in the 1950s and 60s, to Soviet Russia and China, where he met Chairman Mao. This was where Valda set out from for holidays and visits to family and friends.

What characterises their marriage and their lives most essentially?

They were forthright and robust in good health, bristling with irony, good humour language, tender to the young, the old and the infirm, always asking questions based on their imagining of a different political world from that which surrounded them. They were contemptuous of the securities of the quasi-police state Britain was to become under Margaret Thatcher, elected the year after Chris’s death. And in their championship of Cornwall and Scotland, they lived in opposition to “the English ethos” – the slave-mentality of conservative surrender to the status quo. In this they were exemplary. In her poem, ‘Challenge of the Tors’, she wrote: “Cornwall’s hidden past may yet / Break England’s claim / For Cornwall is not England…” And in ‘A Sea-Girl’s Cry’ she evokes her adult recognition of childhood exhilaration brilliantly:

Coast-wise the gay little boats (I’m thinking of Mevagissey),

Painted in senna, blue, gree and red,
The Liza Jane bold in black and white, the hussy,

Riding the harbour’s swell.

When I think of the North – Bude, my home town –

It’s the waves rolling and folding in, The breakers we call them

Then roughing up and battering

Against the breakwater.

Sharp-toothed rocks, blue with mussels, limpet-


The Whale’s Back and Compass point I scrambled about as a young girl

Crying to the wind – there was always a wind,

How I loved that Cornish wind!

What makes their story so moving is the pathos of the epic effort to which they were both committed. What makes it so cheerful is the sense of humour that helps sustain such commitment. In later years, Valda had hoped to produce a cook-book from her Cornwall childhood. She told me once that the recipe for eel pie would be difficult to describe for non-Cornish readers, though. She remembered the eels were always that much richer, fatter, more nourishing, if you caught them soon after a shipwreck.

She told me that when she was a wee girl, she’d been instructed never to visit an old woman down the road who was a witch, so of course she went to visit the old woman, who told her an ancient Cornish curse and made her promise never to repeat it. She told me she’d used it twice. Once it was used on the painter R.H. Westwater, whose famous portrait of MacDiarmid was on the cover of the early Penguin editions of MacDiarmid’s poems, but which Valda detested as she seemed to detest the man.

“What happened?” I asked.

She looked at me and said, “Two weeks

later, he died.”

I cautiously asked her, “And the second time?”

“Maurice Lindsay,” she said.
“But Valda, he’s still with us.”
“Yes,” she said, “but the night I cursed him,

a storm blew up and the roof of his house

blew off!”

She was a serious character.

SCARCELY EVER OUT OF MY THOUGHTS: THE LETTERS OF VALDA TREVLYN GRIEVE TO CHRISTOPHER MURRAY GRIEVE (Hugh MacDiarmid), edited with an introduction by Beth Junor; Foreword by Deirdre Grieve (Edinburgh:Word Power Books £20. 00).
pp 278 ISBN: 0954918541

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