STELLA Cartwright and I formed a kind of platonic friendship. We had met in Paddy’s Bar, introduced by Bill Scott the sculptor. She at once asked me if I’d read Crime and Punishment and when I shook my head and admitted I could hardly spell the author’s name, I was peremptorily told to repair this deficiency in my education without delay. “It is an experience,” she stressed, looking solemn and meaningful. And, I should add, as lovely and adorable as if she had just stepped out of a canvas by Botticelli, all ovals and curves, honey-coloured tresses loosely restrained by a gauzy snood, framing a face to haunt a poet’s dreams. Which, as it happened, proved to be the case only too often in the years to come.
She asked if she could read my poems, of which she’d heard good reports on the Lines Review grapevine. So off we went to my pigsty of a bed-sit near the art college. Stella had recently left her school (for young ladies). Her handsome father was an architect and artist who was pally with Norman MacCaig and his circle. Her laughter was spontaneous and musical, and I cancelled my initial impression that she was a bluestocking. Meanwhile it was late, the last tram-run had rattled off to the depot and I couldn’t afford a taxi to her home at Juniper Green. The problem didn’t arise. “If you’ve no objection, I might as well sleep here,” she said, and my heart leapt. “If you promise to keep to your side of the bed, that’s to say. I haven’t taken the plunge yet, you see. Sorry. I’m supposed to be staying with a school friend, so she’ll cover for me.” We undressed shyly without a word and lay in bed about a foot apart. A brief kiss was exchanged then she turned away and fell asleep. I did my best to comply with her proviso as wintry rain lashed the window-panes for hours.
STELLA and I met intermittently after that night of bridled passion on my part, lighthearted bohemianism on hers. Yet a bond had been established based on trust and mutual affection, which suited us both. It is perhaps unnecessary to say that, being used to the company of brilliant and talented older men, Stella formed few friendships of any depth with those of her own age, though some were devoted to her and loyal to the end. Stella was more sinned against than sinning. But all that lay ahead, beyond imagining. The austerity years were over and the city smiled, especially during the Festivals. Couples with books sauntered through Princes Street Gardens making plans.
ONE evening Stella and I had gone up to Norman’s flat in Leamington Terrace to attend, as she put it, “a minor hoolie”, though the purpose of the party escapes me. Isabel MacCaig, the poet’s wife, greeted us and seemed pleased to see us together. We were ushered into the lounge where there were about a dozen people. The walls, apart from some landscapes of the Highlands, were covered with portraits of Norman’s literary friends, a few of whom were present, George Mackay Brown, Robert Garioch and Sorley MacLean, to name but three. There were sketches of MacDiarmid and a self-portrait of Sydney Goodsir Smith, who was expected later, but none of Tom Scott (and never would be) although he himself was very much in evidence by the fireside, seated opposite his host. Isabel accepted my bottle of Entredeux-mers (all I could afford) and told us to help ourselves from the drinks table.
To judge from Norman’s taut expression and his proximity to Tom, it was likely they had been arguing again. In that assembly of outstanding personalities argument was frequent and sometimes heated, but always conducted in a spirit of healthy debate. With the two men by the fire, deeper and more complex discordances separated them, which I later realised was their shared interest in Stella.
As if to heal a social wound the guests had split into groups and were conversing in murmurs when the dormant enmity flared up anew. This time it was more like a personal quarrel with the two adversaries on their feet trading barbed insults as if it were a duel, Norman’s brilliant rapier flashes parrying Tom’s claymore-like swipes. It was only a question of time before they came to blows and we feared the outcome, for Tom could be violent when roused whereas Norman was a pacifist, in principle and practice.
Just at that moment when the contest had reached a climax of invective, the door opened and, with Isabel behind him, in walked Sydney. He paused in the middle of the room, a man of medium height, his hooded eyes and acute sensitivity aware of the angry tension simmering between two of his closest friends. He began to breathe heavily with sharp, sobbing gasps and collapsed full-length on the sofa, his hand tugging at his pocket until he located an inhaler. With an effort he lay on his back and proceeded to pump its contents into his sucking mouth, like a calf at its dam’s teats. Awed and alarmed we gathered round the stricken figure who seemed to be at death’s door. But with the duel effectively terminated he soon recovered his genial spirits, and everyone relaxed.
IT is generally agreed that one of the few advantages of being a writer is that, in the guise of fiction, you can set down in black and white the complexities of traumas sustained by yourself or acquaintances, and sometimes get paid for it. A case in point is with three of George Mackay Brown’s short tales which the BBC filmed in Orkney, the last of which concerned a young alcoholic female. There was little action, the drama such as it was, consisting of the woman confiding the career of her addiction to a sympathetic Church of Scotland minister. His role was that of father confessor, for all he had to do was nod at intervals and look grave. It was more or less a monologue, and since my hearing is faulty, I can’t remember much of what was said: but the lingering impression of the play was the gentle and compassionate manner in which the woman’s downhill slide into debt and dependency was gradually realised, with all its pathos and dull, inescapable tragedy. All I can recall of the story’s title is that it was a girl’s name, but though that too eludes me, there’s not much doubt that George had Stella in mind when writing it. They were the closest of friends, corresponded regularly and knew each other’s secrets. The tale was also a kind of rueful homage to John Barleycorn whose temptations and perils endangered them both. George, as a compulsive and successful writer with an international reputation, learned to curb his drinking, keeping it within manageable limits, an exercise in self-discipline for which Stella had neither incentive or temperament.
BILL Scott and myself were recruited as witnesses in the divorce of Tom and Elizabeth, Stella being cited as co-respondent. It was a dismal business, and though the lawyers explained that it was in the best interests of all concerned, Bill and I still felt guilty about testifying against a dear friend in a public court. Stella seemed quite composed; but perhaps she wasn’t fully aware there would be a stain on her character on the record for all time. I think she was emotionally exhausted yet glad that she’d soon be free of Tom.
As for Tom, though he rarely referred to Stella, it was as if he were in mourning, except that, in time, one can usually recover from bereavement. The pain can be assuaged by laying flowers on the grave of a loved one, or in the case of a poet, by writing elegies in their memory. But Stella was very much alive, and all too visible in the social areas of town where they once met. And rumour had it that she didn’t waste much time before finding a replacement, someone who would be no younger, if less intense, but probably married, for that was to be almost the unvarying pattern.
Tom, but for a few loyal friends, led a fairly reclusive life at this period. If he were not at the university or his flat, he was to be found at Paddy’s Bar, always standing at the same spot, aloof and saturnine, deep in thought, and according to some wags, contemplating the extent of his posthumous fame. In reality he was more likely to be brooding on Stella. His profound commitment to her had been a kind of psychological investment, and now it seemed, there were to be no dividends. A measure of his elevated devotion can be judged from his Pascal Candle, a long poem in the Lallans of William Dunbar, broadcast by the BBC Third Programme in the mid-50s, but otherwise unavailable in print.
THAT sometimes Stella’s affairs overlapped is quite certain, given her inadequate self-knowledge and, later, the growing conviction that her lovers were merely on loan, pending discovery by outraged wives. Having an alternative shoulder to weep on was a defence against eventual desertion, which she would regard as betrayal. Stella often spent the night at the MacCaigs’, whom she had known since childhood. But with her metamorphosis into a lovely nubile female, Isabel’s welcome was tinged with caution. Alone among the poets’ wives, Isabel had positively encouraged the romance between she and Tom Scott, and before the split with Norman, after a late party she would invite the couple to sleep on the living-room couch. With Tom out of the running, Stella’s solo visits were now fraught with tension, for her girlhood ’crush’ on Norman, once a matter of amused tolerance, had flowered into infatuation.
MacCaig, well used to puppy love from girls at his school, tried to allay his wife’s anxiety and behaved with impeccable tact towards Stella, going so far as to write a quatrain to her, explaining his position. She showed it to me a long time ago, and it went roughly as follows: “You placed me on a pedestal, according to my lights. But what you didn’t know, my dear, is I have no head for heights.” It was hand-written on a card she kept in her handbag.
TIME as a phenomenon has perplexed me for decades. A story from The Arabian Nights tells of an ageing sultan who summons his wisest vizier and asks him: “What is the strangest thing in the world?” The vizier, unable to reply, is commanded to consult all the sages of the kingdom until he has found the answer to this most important of questions. He returns an old man, when the sultan is on his death-bed. “Sire,” he says, “The strangest thing in the world is this. Everyone knows they are going to die, yet each morning they rise, thinking they will live forever…”
Scheherazade, of course, eked out the tale for several pages, for her life was at stake; that was her long-term strategy. But Stella’s only real aim was to earn a living. Now she worked at this, then worked at that, with no other goal in mind than the next party or reception. In the blank areas of her diary there were always the Rose Street pubs to go to, where she was sure to meet friends, to chat and laugh the night away.
But what has this to do with the elusive mystery of time? Simply that while the clientele of the various haunts changed from untidy students to well-groomed graduates with careers, from wild-eyed versifiers to established poets with growing reputations, Stella herself remained in a timeless zone. The decor of Milne’s, her usual howff, didn’t change much either, nor the staff who served her, and this tended to sustain the illusion. The old regulars were still there, but they were often joined by their sons; and a new batch of students had replaced the ones she used to know. Draft-dodgers from the Vietnam war mingled with a new crowd, but Nor-man and Sydney’s visits were less frequent, George rarely came down from Orkney and Tom Scott was permanently barred. When Sydney died things were never the same again, and the years kept slipping away.
Dante had his Beatrice, Petrarch his Laura, whereas Stella was the lodestar of not one but several infatuated rhymsters, who, like the feminine ideals worshipped by the Renaissance poets, were married and safely out of reach. And curious to relate neither the Florentine nor the Edinburgh poets attended the funeral of their beloved. But Stella’s younger admirers were there, mostly in tears.
A Clamjamfray of Poets: A Tale of Literary Edinburgh
Stanley Roger Green
Saltire Society, £7.99 ISBN: 978 085411 0988