Monthly Archives: March 2013


Early Days of a Better Nation

On the Scottish Parliament’s Canongate Wall, the most paraphrased non-Scottish writer since devolution meets one of the most misspelled Scottish writers of any era. ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’ was included in the 24 original inscriptions chosen for the building because they were ‘of relevance to Scotland and its Parliament’. It was attributed at the time to ‘Alisdair’ Gray.

In fact, Alasdair Gray paraphrased the line from a poem called Civil Elegies by Canadian poet Dennis Lee and has made no secret of that.  In September 2012 Gray’s soon-to-be unveiled mural on the wall of the revamped Hillhead subway station in Glasgow was covered by a large black poster that read ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better world’. Gray explained why he had changed ‘nation’ to ‘world’  and said of the ‘nation’ version that: ‘I have always attributed it to him [Lee] but people started quoting it as if I had invented it’.

The Scottish Parliament was slow to make the correct attribution, but eventually ‘paraphrased from Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies Toronto Anansi 1972’ appeared on its website.  Now the term ‘better nation’ flies off the tongues of politicians of every stripe.  It is the working title for blogs and referenced in innumerable Scottish twitter profiles. But what of the man behind the ‘better nation’ phenomenon? 

Dennis Beynon Lee was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1939. In 1980 he lived in Edin-burgh as a Canada-Scotland exchange poet where he met Alasdair Gray. Lee is relaxed about his latest, unanticipated, Scottish connection: ‘I’m tickled to have those lines written in stone in Scotland. And  I’m even more tickled by how off-centre, in fact downright loopy, the whole shebang is. If someone said they could magically edit the inscription, make  it punctiliously correct, I would cast a ‘Nay’ vote. I like it just the way it is.’

For the sake of punctilious correctness, the original reads, ‘And best of all is finding a place to be/in the early days of a better civilization’. Lee is as sanguine about Gray’s version as he is about the Canongate Wall inscription: ‘How it got slightly scrambled when Alasdair used it… well, probably due to the fact that it was Alasdair who was using it.’

Civil Elegies which provided the original quote was Lee’s second book of poetry and also his third. His first, Kingdom of Absence, was published in 1967 and provided him with a life-long source of reference when explaining to aspiring poets how not to write poetry. In a recent essay called ‘Re-greening the Undermusic’ Lee extracted one of his sonnet variations from the first collection (‘one of those little winners’) and presented it as an example of a poet ‘going nowhere, spinning his wheels’. In 1968 he published a version of Civil Elegies but was unhappy with its ‘big stentorian, public address voice’ and spent the next four years rewriting it. Civil Elegies was republished in 1972 by Anansi, a press that Lee co-founded.

The second version put Dennis Lee on the map. The change in voice between the Civil Elegies of 1968 and that of 1972 provided a foundation stone for his entire career. This transformative period is explained in ‘Re-greening’: ‘I was connecting with the teeming rhythmic energy I’d been tantalized by for so long. If I sat and listened, I could sense a swoop and pummel and glide, a simultaneous whoosh and throb – many vibrations at once. I felt them humming in my body, even though there was no physical source. What was it? I had no idea. Where did it come from? I couldn’t say. But the kin-aesthetic pulsation was unmistakable, and it could govern the way a poem moved. It furnished a kind of undermusic, which the poem sought to track and re-embody. I had no theory to explain this rhythmic cascade. I did give it a name, though; for lack of a better term, I called it cadence. And I conjectured that I’d become open to cadence when I relinquished the colonial ways of framing experience that I’d inherited, and listened to my own here-and-now. But as for what this cadence consisted of, or where it came from, I had no idea.’

This ‘cadence’ eventually provided a ‘calmer meditative progress’ in the second Civil Elegies which explored, in nine long, inter-connected poems, the notion of ‘colonised space’. This conjures up Alasdair Gray for a second time in the form of his recent essay, ‘Settlers and Colonists’, which appeared in Unstated: Writers on Independence (Word Power Books), and the rather unedifying public ‘debate’ that followed it. However, Lee was a lot more comprehensive, uncompromising and (meditative voice notwithstanding) angry.

The narrator of Civil Elegies – commonly assumed in critical discourse to be Lee himself – is positioned in Nathan Phil-lips Square, Toronto’s agora. The city is booming and in flux but he is not impressed. Choked by a ‘noxious cloud’ of pollutants, he contemplates the condition of Toronto and, by extension, Canada. He seems sick in mind, heart and body; his personal sickness echoing in his country’s condition.  The narrative wanders and returns but one theme endures: Canada is colonised by the United States, particularly in its cultural and mental spaces.

The lines that follow the ‘better civilization’ injunction are blunt: ‘For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered/ everything that counts, till we have/nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose’. The lines that Canadian critics invariably cite are even more brutal: ‘But what good is that in a nation of / losers and quislings’.

Lee gave the lie to the benign Canadian, later to become almost a national brand. The sustained raw anger of it all is born in colonised space but it is also stoked by Canadian politicians who supplied Agent Orange for deployment in Vietnam and a compliant Canadian population that allowed that to happen. He displayed, in the words of one critic, ‘A real blood-and-spit kind of anger. And not just personal anger, either, or domestic anger. Instead, a massive, coast-to-coast, national anger. Anger as unifying theme’. In this respect as in others – essays that called for ‘freedom from inhibiting educational institutions’, interviews on the influence of music on his poetry – Lee appears to have more in common with Tom Leonard than Alasdair Gray.

Nevertheless the nation of losers and quislings gave Civil Elegies the Governor General’s Award in 1972, to which Lee responded by switching almost immediately to children’s poetry. He wanted to write for his own children but also needed to make a living and, remarkably for a man who had just received the highest literary award in the land, was ‘very nervous because there were poets my own age who were doing much better work than I was at that point – Atwood and Ondaatje, Gwen MacEwen – so I was fighting for space as an adult poet myself.’ 

However, the shift from adult concerns may not have been as absolute as it first appeared. Lee was bent on ‘reclaiming language and liberating imagination’ in the young and cites the influence of lines from a New Zealand poem that he stumbled across:

In Plimmerton, In Plimmerton,

The little penguins play,

And one dead albatross

Was found at Karehana Bay

The poet – Dennis Glover – was unknown to Lee but he was taken by ways the poem seemed to dance with the penguins and its confident use of local place names which, if replicated in Canada, might form part of a more general reclamation project.

Lee’s career as a children’s poet was remarkably successful. He worked with Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, and influenced the childhood of generations of Canadians. He often spoke of his embarrassment at not being able to find a less clichéd way of describing his children’s poems than that they came from his ‘inner child’. His inner child, however, had a dark side:

Bugs and beetles, don’t be late

Set your feelers nice and straight:

Puke the slimy crud you chewed,

And smear it through the humans’ food.

But he did not abandon writing poems for adults. When he was in Edinburgh in 1980, ‘this really multiple-voiced deluge of  riffs  came through’ often ‘after too much booze’. The love-affair inspired, jazz influenced, quick-fire pieces introduced what one critic called ‘near-sense’ poetry to his repertoire. They are also a nice demonstration of range from the poet who painted the great canvas of Civil Elegies and reclaimed language for the children:

Wal, acey deucey

  trey divide – I`m a guy

  with a fine wide-eyed

lady freckles too &

  squirms when she feels good I feel so

  good just

doin aw


tricks an she`s


As indicated by the two versions of Civil Elegies, Lee is a constant reviser. His latest collection Testament: Poems 2000-2011 contains reworked poems from Un (2004) and Yesno (2007). Both were praised for their musicality just as Riffs (1993) received critical acclaim for its improvisational qualities when it emerged, belatedly, from his Edinburgh days. The aforementioned ‘Re-greening the Undermusic’ revisits many of Lee’s themes: writing in colonised space, cadence, and variations on the environmental concerns raised in Civil Elegies. The essay was first presented as a lecture at Vancouver Island University in October 2012 and trailed as Lee ‘revisiting his 50 year career’. One thing missing from it is any indication of the anger that fired him in 1972, but asked in a different context for his thoughts on Canada’s right-wing Prime Minister, Lee said: ‘apart from his having decided to bite the bullet on allowing gay marriage, I can’t think of anything in his tenure that doesn’t make me gag’. At 73 years of age, the ‘blood-and-spit’ is still there.

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Apocryphal Poems

Gerald Mangan claims to have discovered previously- unknown works by some of Scotland’s favourite poets.  Here we present a selection.


He keeps telling me those stains

on his shirt-front  are ketchup

from the all-night fast-food joint. And I keep saying: Pull the other one, I didn’t come up the Clyde

in a Transylvanian coal-puffer.

I know pizza-sauce when I see it churning around in the soapsuds

all day in the launderette.


But does he listen? Does he hell. He snores in his pit all day, waiting for sunset, and God knows what he does for dinner. I know he likes his meat

very rare, and hates garlic,

but he always eats out. Why

are you shutting me out,

I ask him, keeping all your quality time for yourself?

But all he does is turn over

in his customised box-style

single divan,  muttering:

Don’t forget to feed the bats.

I’ve done the whole crypt over

in Jugular White, Transfusion Red and Scab Violet, his absolute favourites on the colour-chart.

I keep it spick and span.

and I kill ninety-nine per cent

of all known light-sources,

but he never even notices

my racy-lacy chiffon dresses

or my sexy sharkskin basque

or my cobweb-fine black stockings

or my spike-heeled gravedigger-boots or my deadly-nightshade perfume

or my spangly red-claw nail-varnish or my clotted-blood lipstick

or my permanent farewell wave

or the gorgeous wee brass necklace

I picked up at the flea-market

for a chorus, which I wear to hide those funny wee holes in my neck.

I’m dressed to die, some nights.

But he still goes out, hell-bent

on painting the town red.

Is he cheating on me ? Who knows. Sometimes he says I’m dead beautiful. He says he’s mine,

till death do us part.

But something tells me it’s not

a marriage made in heaven.

He takes too much out of me.



Should auld acquaintance be your lot, An’ weel-kent faces a’ ye’ve got

Tae see ye through the year, ye ought

Tae buik a ticket,

An’ tak’ a coach tae somewhaur hot That’s faur frae Ayr or Kirk o’Shotts,

Afore ye kick it.

For pleasures are like roses spread –

Ye cannae smell them when you’re dead. So seize the day, as Horace said,

And cease your toils.

Come, lassies, lowse your maidenheads! They’re guid for nothing when ye’ve shed

Yer mortal coils.

And Faither Time’s a cunnin’ scunner: He doesny steal yer years in wunners. He taks wee bits o’ springs an’ summers,

Imperceptibly –

No’ unlike a sleekit plumber Snafflin’ scraps o’ lead in hunners,




A Suitable Case for Treatment


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Metaphors are among the many things that make me



O mighty Replacement Crossing over the silvery Forth, Where kings and queens have oft been ferried back and forth – How confidently you will stride across from shore to shore

To replace the second Forth Bridge, which isn’t safe any more!

The first Forth Bridge, with its countless girders of iron, Still soars above the Firth as lofty as an ode by Byron, Though it does require a fresh coat of paint ever summer To cover the rust, and the unsightly weldings by plumbers.

The second Forth Bridge, with its mighty hawsers of steel,

Has sailed through many a steely wind on an even keel,

Like our gracious long-lived Queen, at the helm of our great Nation, Who first declared it open to loud cheers of approbation.

But cruel Time has now defeated its makers and its menders, For heavy lorries and coaches have been bursting its suspenders. The suspense has been killing it, while waiting to know its fate. Sunday strollers and cyclists will soon be all it can take.

So let us hail the third Forth Bridge, new gateway to the north – And let us hope we’re still alive to hail the opening of the fourth! Perhaps the firth will see a fifth, but I hope that day comes never. When God said ‘Go Forth, and multiply’, He didn’t mean the river!

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The Traverse at Fifty

When in 1887 Lady Gregory and W B Yeats sent out a letter seeking backing for the theatre that would become The Abbey, they stated clearly that the aim was to encourage plays ‘written with high ambition and so build up a Celtic and Irish school of dramatic literature.’ When in post-war Italy, Paolo Grassi and Giorgio Strehler drew up a manifesto for Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, they outlined their vision of theatre as a social service, as necessary to society as education or health. When in 1965, the free-wheeling Mickery Theatre was established in Amster-dam, its founder Ritsaert Ten Cate declared he was out to provide a venue dedicated to experimental, avant-garde ventures. And when the political climate created by the demonstrations and occupations in 1968 gave birth to a new style of theatre company, ranging from Dario Fo’s Nuova Scena to Peter Stein’s Schaubuhne in Berlin, they each issued high-minded manifestos proclaiming the new troupes to be socialist cooperatives committed to producing popular, mostly political, theatre and attracting ‘alternative’ (defining word of the Sixties) audiences.

So where is the comparable statement for the Traverse? What was it for? It came into being in 1963, and its history is garlanded with statements describing it as the most important theatre in, variously, Scotland, Britain, Europe, the World, and as having an unrivalled reputation for nurturing new writing. It is agreed on all sides that the Traverse matters, so why is it so hard to establish the initial driving force? Successive scandals, as well as directorial or committee disputes, have been discussed in anxious editorials in terms more suited to the Sarajevo assassination, sometimes leaving the impression that theatre-goers should tread carefully on the way to the auditorium so as to avoid pools of blood. There was no founding manifesto, no ringing declamation, indeed no programme at all. If the other theatres mentioned strode confidently into public life bolstered by conviction or credo, the Traverse seems to have peeped out like a mole emerging blinking into daylight, somewhat surprised at the hill it created as it burrowed to the surface. Maybe that is the Scottish way. Maybe David Hume has left a legacy of distrust of grand principles and an inchoate belief that it is better just to get on with the job, whatever that job is.

But that is not satisfactory either. If there were, in Hamish Henderson’s words on another age, ‘no gods and previous few heroes’, there were dreamers, aspirers and even visionaries. The problem is that the early members who are still around disagree over what their hopes were then. It is not even clear that the Traverse was to be a theatre. Perhaps it was to be a meeting place, a forum where like-minded people could meet and exchange ideas. Jim Haynes ran the legendary Paperback Bookshop in Edinburgh which was a proto-theatre and was certainly a place for debate. George Rosie, later journalist and playwright, frequented it and remembers the lively arguments but, with the scoffing scepticism of his teenage years, was decidedly underwhelmed by the level of the quasi-philosophical discussion. Maybe that too is the Humean outlook. Others were more impressed. It might even be that some deep symbolism should be attached to the assertion made by Joyce McMillan in her stimulating, insightful 1988 history of the Traverse, that the very name was a misunderstanding. The first artistic director, Terry Lane believed that traverse was the name for the design and shape of a theatrical space like the Traverse’s first home on the Lawn-market. Later he discovered that the correct term was ‘transverse,’ but by then the name had gathered the mystical qualities it would never shed. 

The impression is that the Traverse was the product of enthusiasm, energy, creativity and, above all, dissatisfaction, all bonded by the coming together in the one place of a group of people who were frustrated by the cultural and artistic status quo of an Edinburgh still weighed down by an eternal Calvinism of the spirit and by the heavy dullness of the post-war era. The past is not a different country, but its landscape has subtly different contours. The dominant cultural force then as now was the Festival, although for many its real excitement was located in the Fringe. In 1963, the City Council still viewed the Festival as a foreign and largely unwelcome implant which disturbed the digestive system of the douce body politic. Censorship was still in force nationwide,  and could only be circumvented in the way it had been when Ibsen was introduced to Britain, by the establishment of a private club, which the Traverse became. Sexual intercourse, as Philip Larkin intimated, may have been invented in 1963, and there were certainly people, males especially, who were prepared to risk volunteering for that apparently untested experience. And while the ‘Sixties’ may have been slow to arrive in Scotland there were rumours of changes in the offing and of sightings of something called the Permissive Society, but elsewhere. On the other hand, in many aspects decline has subsequently occurred. The role of the Welfare State in providing for people’s needs was unchallenged, standards of living were rising, students had no debt and thus spare cash for cultural activities, and Aids was unknown. Maybe living was for now. In 1963, the sense that Edinburgh was a cultural desert for most of the year but an oasis of culture for three weeks was strong, so a driving ambition was to create some centre which could be all-year round Fringe. The critic Michael Coveney wrote that the Traverse was Britain’s ‘first fringe theatre.’ There were other clubs elsewhere, but the adjective ‘first’ sits well with the Traverse. 

Some of the early Traverse members are, with hindsight, wholly unexpected. Who can match the Nicky Fairbairn who was on the board of the Traverse with the man who later became the censorious, gruff Tory MP? The names of Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco, founders both, have maintained their allure. The history of the Traverse can be written in many ways, and since it has risen to the status of institution it is tempting to write that history as a struggle between Prussians and Bohemians, between the indispensable, not always grey, people who form committees and negotiate with ministries and local authorities, and the anarchic, open-eyed, devil-may-care, free-wheelers endowed with a mentality it is pleasant to tag ‘artistic.’ The deficiency of the artistic mentality is that it rarely actually produces art, although it may make its production possible. Demarco and Haynes were and are romantics, animated by vision, optimism, energy, enthusiasm and intelligence, all marred by a certain existential carelessness. Demarco is an altruistic egoist, once described by John Byrne as a ‘secular saint,’ but saints are exasperating people. He was ousted in the early days by a committee which did not understand his passion for art or the demons which drove him. There is a fire in him which can mean that conversations are liable to be interrupted by cries of ‘Look, look!’ perhaps at something no more remarkable than a sunset but a sight he is desperate to have appreciated.

So the Traverse happened, but the question of what it was and is remains open. When I met Orla O’Loughlin, the current artistic director, I wondered what had drawn her to this particular theatre. ‘The Traverse is a legend,’ she replied thoughtfully and might have gone on even more thoughtfully had I not interrupted her rudely at the mention of the word ‘legend’, which has attached itself to the Traverse as an adornment, a challenge, an obstacle or an invitation. With the Citizens in the days of glorious epoch of Havergal-MacDonald-Prowse, the comparable word was ‘style.’ The term irritated all three of them, who disbelieved in a single Citizens style and asserted that each of the three had a style of his own. In the Traverse, every director has to live with the legend but has the chance to reshape it. For the impressively astute Ms O’Loughlin, the Traverse is essentially a writer’s theatre, and so it has been for some time. Playwright Peter Arnott speaks gratefully of a meeting with directors Peter Lichtenfels and Jenny Killick when all he had done was some student work, which Killick had seen and enjoyed. They told him to write a big play for three actors. Being temporarily, and untypically, bereft of ideas, Arnott went to the library, found a book on Soviet women pilots in World War II and produced White Rose. O’Loughlin today speaks joyfully of her pleasure at working with contemporary playwrights such as David Greig, Donald Maxwell and Peter Arnott. On appointment, she promised to make time for any playwright who wished to come and talk to her, and last year launched an ambitious venture when aspiring writers were invited to submit 500 word scripts, and she is continuing to develop many of these.

‘The Traverse Theatre is Scotland’s new writing theatre,’ it says on its website, and this dedication to new writing is now inscribed into the Traverse’s DNA, but it was not always. Some past directors have chafed at the constriction of working only with new writers, and have been unhappy at being unable to stage new interpretations of classical or at least established work. In the 1980s, Lichtenfels was happier with innovative, translated work. O’Loughlin says she is glad she has the opportunity to work elsewhere on more familiar, perhaps classic, plays, but that the Traverse will remain the shrine of innovative, unperformed work. In its early days, the main impulse seems to have been to let in some air from Europe, so works by Arrabal, Sartre, Brecht and Betti featured. George Rosie saw an early production of Ubu Roi, but his clearest recollection was of amazement at hearing swear words on stage. It was a liberation of a sort. So too were the scandals provoked by early work, such as Balls which consisted of two tennis balls swinging in the void, or other works involving nudity, obscenity, blasphemy all leading to media denunciation and to debates in the City Chambers, with the late Councillor Kidd prominent among the scourges of licentiousness. We live in tamer days.

The website’s slogan also underlines the theatre’s Scottishness, and here lies another source of recurring strife, although less so in recent years. The issue of the obligations of theatres and galleries in Scotland to foster native talent has always been a thorny one, made more prickly by the fear that focus on local ability would in some way expose the institution in question to the dire charge of provincialism, the sin against the Holy Ghost. There is something in the Scottish psyche which whispers that too much self analysis is harmful, that real political or aesthetic depth is attained only when the gaze is turned outward. Conversely, the Citizens was always open to the charge that its self-view as a classical theatre meant that it disregarded current conditions, Scottish writing and Scottish traditions, a charge now raised in some quarters against the National Theatre of Scotland. In an odd way, the Citizens and the Traverse tacitly helped each other out. The Citizens were able to point to the Traverse, the Tron and later the Arches, as complementary places which cultivated contemporary talent, leaving them free to stage re-evaluations of classical theatre. The Traverse became at ease with its part in this divide of responsibilities. Perhaps this tacit collaboration reached its peak when John Byrne took The Slab Boys trilogy to Giles Havergal, who recognised its worth but felt it was not right for his company. He suggested to Byrne that he offer his play to the Traverse, where under David Hayman’s assured direction it became one of the company’s most successful productions. The ‘Scottish question’ in its widest sense is now, in the lead-up to the referendum, more urgent than ever. Playwrights like Greig and Arnott in particular have puzzled over dilemmas of identity for years, sometimes, especially in the case of Greig, in plays set in foreign borderlands or in those no-man’s-lands which are airport lounges. O’Loughlin, who took Alasdair Gray’s recent remarks on ‘settlers and colonialists’ more personally than the genial Gray could have intended, says she is on the lookout for the play which will dramatise tellingly the predicament of the state of the Union, but has not so far found it.

It is, by the way, puzzling that at a time when Scotland has produced more playwrights and actors of international quality than at any point in history, no really top quality director has so far emerged, so the  task of nurturing Scottish playwriting talent at the Traverse has been left to some English directors who happily took on the task. Chris Parr in the 1970s was especially active and successful on this front, as was Jenny Killick in the 80s. The contribution of the Traverse in recent decades to Scottish playwriting cannot be underestimated, but often this is expressed according to a very Scottish habit of mind which decrees that every achievement will be met and resisted by an equal and opposite force of patrician or sniggering disparagement. Peter Arnott suggested that the centrality of the Traverse could be seen both in what it had done and in what had been done in opposition to it, by rival cliques who loathed what it came to stand for. At one point, the Edinburgh Playwrights’ Workshop and the Traverse, now viewed as the establishment venue, were two sides in a civil war, but each galvanised the other.

The history of the Traverse could be written from many angles, for instance in terms of the three buildings it has occupied – an ex-brothel in the Lawnmarket, a building up a close on the Grassmarket which gave a frisson of historical as much as contemporary excitement each time it was entered, and the current modern building in Cambridge Street. The space as much as authorial imagination, directorial initiative or actorial flair determines the nature of what can be done.

For individual theatre-goers, its history will be recalled in terms of memorable experiences. Simon Callow has written in Being an Actor of his delight in playing in 1974 in C. P. Taylor’s adaptation of Schippel, a work I remember as one of the most deftly and amusingly staged comedies I have ever seen. Jo (then John) Clifford’s Losing Venice in 1985 is another that merits a place in the same most treasured category. Seemingly, Clifford and director Jenny Killick were convinced during rehearsals that they had a flop on their hands, but the whimsical, probing work featuring the Spanish poet Quevedo and an ageing Doge whose concern is not with the threat from Spain but with the inadequacies of his dinner exploded into riotous life on stage. It received then, and still requires, delicate handling. A Los Angeles production, where the director had one of the Spanish soldiers wearing a Nazi helmet, crushed its delicate magic. 

But most effectively, the history should be written in terms of the writers who have worked there, but here too a distinction has to be made between excellent playwrights who have had work performed there, such as Byrne and Liz Lochhead, and others who can be viewed as Traverse playwrights. Of the latter, the pre-eminent are surely C P Taylor and Stanley Eveling. The philosophical probing which underlay much of Eveling’s delicate, unconventional dramatic structures delighted a generation of theatregoers, which makes it all the sadder that his final dissociation from the Traverse was so painful. They are both dead and in history, but they helped nurture that most timid of flora, the Scottish theatre tradition. Others carry on in their own way. The Traverse has been fertile ground for that delicate, but now thriving, flower. 

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Fire Island

In the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Frank Fraser Darling moved to the tiny Scottish island of Tanera Mor. He came as a naturalist, intending to study seals and birds, and stayed on, for several hard-bitten years, to transform a ramshackle ruin into a thriving and productive farm. His was an urgent, sinewy, masculine enterprise, dependent, as so often, on the (largely) unsung labour of his devoted wife. But held in the daily mesh of action and practicality was another catch entirely: quiet epiphanies of looking and deep listening, the fruit less of mindfulness than of what some have called ‘placefulness’ – the blue-grey/blue-green wisdom given by Tanera itself.

Here, for example, in his memoir, Island Farm, he describes his pleasure in the evening milking:

I loved drawing milk through my fingers and hearing the sound of it piercing the mounting foam in crock or pail…There was the distant calling of the barnacle geese newly come to this green point, there were the near sounds of rough tongues licking backs on which the hair was growing long for the winter, of diligent muzzles plucking the grass, and if they were not grazing I would hear the soft rhythmic cudding of the cattle, together with the comfortable rumblings of their vast bellies.

At such times, he said, ‘with the sea plashing on either side and the mountains darkening into the night, milking the little black cow was a moment of joy in [the] day and war was forgotten.’ He was entirely given over to the immediate task, and at the same time, entirely focused – listening out – delicately appreciative of each island sound.

If you were to look for Tanera Mor on the map, you’d find it on the north-west coast, not far from Ullapool. It is the largest of the so-called Summer Isles, originally used by mainland crofters as summer grazing for their cattle, and later as winter grazing for their lambs. It is composed of red Torridonian sandstone, with a thin covering of peat: some 770 acres of tussocky hillside, birch and alder woods, high cliffs, and bright-eyed lochans. I came there first in 2010, and have returned several times since, teaching a series of workshops with the local artist Jan Kilpatrick. Whether or not it is true that, as  the sociologists like to say, ‘cognition is place specific’—meaning that certain thoughts are only possible in certain places – there’s no doubt that Tanera has had a powerful effect on my own internal weather.

For years now, I have lived in the United States – first in Berkeley, California, then in New York City, most recently in a little college town in Massachusetts. Returning to Scotland after so long away has, at times, an aching potency, which Tanera makes only more acute. When I first arrive, I like to take things slowly: looking, listening, pausing, breathing in. I take a long meandering walk, resting for twenty minutes on a sun-warmed rock, looking out across the body of the island. I glance down at the tough grass, seeded with brilliant wildflowers: the white and lavender and egg-yolk yellow of the little flower called eyebright, the creamy fronds of meadowsweet, the concentrated purple of knapweed or thistle, the varied yellows of coltsfoot, dandelion and tormentil, the soft puffs of white and crimson that mean clover.

Each visit fills me with the same impossible impulse – the desire to count and catalogue these island beauties, to accumulate not stones or shells or pressed dried flowers, but memories, noticings. And yet that small-scale focus is constantly being disrupted, my eye moving out from Tanera itself to the tremendous frieze of mountains on the Scottish mainland, now radiantly visible, now obscured. Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag, Cul Mor; Ben Mor Coigeach; the Fiddler: one looks like a shifting family of mastodons (hence the official adjective, ‘pachydermatous’); another like a plum-pudding; the third is as sharply symmetrical as a child’s toy triangle. 

Like the Summer Isles, these mountains are composed of mixed Torridonian sandstone, set on a bed of gray Lewisian gneiss: at three billion years, among the oldest rocks on earth. Each has been submerged deep underwater; buried under layers of miles-deep sandstone; buffed and scored by glaciers. Each has its own inimitable character, its own compacted history. One of the joys of Tanera is the sheer astonishment of that geology, the marvel of its daily company.  ‘What do I know when I am in this place,’ asks Robert Macfarlane in his book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, ‘that I know  nowhere else?’ What calls to me? Where do I pay attention? On Tanera, there are days when time itself seems visible, from those ancient blue-grey presences across the water to the shrill green of a single fallen leaf.

Meanwhile, I continue to explore the island, tramping up the steep track from the harbour, snuffing on the wind that raw, sweet scent: heather and honeysuckle and bog-myrtle, coffee and engine oil, the acrid tang of someone’s cigarette. I notice the smooth green pelt of the hillside, the splotches of rusty lichen, the clouds shifting to a wide fan overhead. I feel the squelch of peaty water through the straps of my sandals, the sudden flutter of a meadow-pippet as she springs up underfoot. I go swimming at Mol Mor, the largest beach on the island, where the rocks are big and round and sleek with emerald weed, and the water is pure Aegean turquoise (though searingly, bitingly, breathlessly cold).

Another day, I go swimming off the pier, edging down the rusty barnacled steps into the dark water, afraid of that cold, afraid of cramp, afraid for a while that I won’t make it back, repeating like a mantra with each stroke, ‘Swimming to Scotland, swimming back to Scotland – ’ I ‘taste’ Scotland in that icy water, in the leafy dulse growing wild along the shore, and in every mouthful of salt sea wind. I taste it too each evening, as we settle down to dinner – haggis and venison from the mainland, fresh berries and courgettes and onions from a Tanera garden – the spirit of the land becoming energy and sustenance, taking on, however briefly, my own corporeal form. Between times, I listen out in ever-widening circles, starting with the soft whoosh of my own breath, and the shuffle of wind in the tall clumps of fern, noticing how differently it moves through the rowans and the aspen trees, the flapping plastic bin-bags, or my own unbuttoned mackintosh. In his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, the Irish writer John O’Donohue wrote that landscape ‘is always in conversation with itself.’ Walking by the shore, I hear that muffled monologue in the low flop of the waves, the grind of stones on the shingle, the white gulls swooping and squabbling overhead.

The ancient Mesopotamians saw birds as sacred because their footprints so resembled their own cuneiform script. More recently, ‘the language of the birds’ has been seen by alchemists as the gateway to all mystery, all hidden wisdom. What Fraser Darling would have made of this, I’ve no idea. He was of course a professional ornithologist, alert to the ‘seething toiling birdlife’ on the island. Clearly he had an excellent ear, well able to distinguish the ‘loud song of the island wrens, the thin pi-i-i-i of tysties, the skirl of a guillemot, the cooing of eiders, and the purity of a thrush’s song.’ He remarked too, with his own brand of wry amusement, on the young gulls whose ‘unmusical voice’ was ‘like an un-oiled door-hinge.’

But there was something of the dreamer and the mystic to him too, and the notion of a deeper knowing, a deeper kind of listening, would, I think, have puzzled and intrigued him. He was fascinated by the island: not just its natural history and geology, but its (far more hidden) human story too. Who used to live here? What had their lives been like? And the lives of their ancestors? During his years on Tanera, he conducted unofficial oral histories, recording local legends and etymologies, along with a smattering of history and archaeology, in an effort to  reconstruct a living narrative.

Without that work, it would be difficult to interpret Tanera’s human past, at least beyond the most immediate impressions. On my first visit, I saw ruined crofts still standing on the ridge above the pier, their rubbly walls lost in a tangle of ferns and nettles and wild iris. Young trees were sprouting from the space beside the hearth, and moss grew soft over the fallen stones. I took photographs of those crofts, and of the herring-curing station, further down the coast at Tigh an Quay. Tall and lean, it is an imposing edifice even now, its walls harled white with shell-sand and lime mortar, its empty windows cutting out clear rectangles of blue or cloudy sky. An old phone-booth stands to one side, its red paint long since faded, its door tied shut with a piece of turquoise twine. I took pictures of that too, and of the ‘new’ quay built by the Fraser Darlings in the long summers of the war, its red and grey and sandy-coloured rocks blotched bright with orange lichen.

By then I already knew some of the more recent history: herring, emigration, sheep, the Highland Clearances. But I had no idea how to make sense of what I saw. It took several readings of Island Farm, and some further research too, before I began to understand just how long – and how completely – Tanera had been inhabited. It is a tiny piece of territory, not more than a mile and a half in length. But reaching back across the years, I saw it thronged with invisible human presences.

Not much is known of Tanera’s ancient past, of the people who first lived there, or precisely when. Standing on the hillside, looking out, I imagine small bands of fisher-gatherers, searching for fish and shellfish along the shore, raiding the cliffs for prized sea-gulls’ eggs, and hunting seals and otters for their meat and skins. I picture the early Neolithic farmers, and later still, the Celts and then the Picts, sowing the machair with barley and wild oats, and grazing their cattle on the rugged pastures. By the time the Vikings arrived, towards the end of the eighth century, it seems likely that it already possessed a considerable year-round settlement. Hawrarymoir, those old marauders called it, ‘the island of the haven,’ in honour of its magnificent horse-shoe-shaped Anchorage.

Frank Fraser Darling preferred to believe that the name had an earlier (Celtic) derivation, and meant ‘island of fire.’ He noticed that much of the peat had been scraped from the top of Meall Mor, its highest point, which may well have served as a beacon up and down the coast. Certainly such a beacon would have had its uses on those long dark winter nights, when the Vikings sped across the Sound in their narrow longboats, burning and pillaging and taking hostages. On the island of Eigg, not far to the south, the Norsemen took over the farmland, and reduced the local population to slaves: a practice that may also have been replicated on Tanera. The earliest human record is a tombstone, dated 1193, when the Norse were still ensconced. ‘I do not wish to suggest the place is miserable,’ wrote Fraser Darling. ‘[But] at the back of everything I get a sense of great age, dark things done, and secrets held.’

In the centuries that followed, Tanera’s population shrank and swelled with the seasons. Crofters brought their cattle there for summer grazing, and returned them to the mainland for the winter. The soil, though poor, was not uncultivated. Traces of lazy-beds have been found on the lower slopes of the island, and some may have been worked until quite recent times. The Reverend Roderick MacNab, who wrote up the Parish of Lochbroom (and hence the Summer Isles) for the Statistical Accounts of Scotland described the use of ‘sea-ware’ as fertilizer, along with ‘compound dung-hills and shelly sand,’ claiming they could produce ‘exuberant crops’ from land that was ‘formerly thought good-for-nothing.’

But for all their hard work, the people were, in his opinion, ‘rather poor,’ living mainly on fish and potatoes, supplemented with oysters, cockles and other shellfish. Rents were high, and ‘the engrossing of farms for sheep walks’ forced many to emigrate to America. Whole districts were already depopulated, and where hundreds of people had once lived, ‘no human faces are now to be met with, except a shepherd attended by his dog.’

If there was one tremendous consolation to be found at that time, it was in the bounty of the local herring-fishery. Great shimmering shoals migrated south between Tanera and the mainland, then back around the smaller islands to the open sea, in an abundance many thought would last forever. The keeper of the Statistical Accounts for 1834-35, a Reverend Thomas Ross, remembered that ‘prodigious shoals’ would appear off the coast of Loch Broom, often as early as the month of May, though most of the catch was taken between September and February:

When the herrings set fairly in… the benefit is very great. The herrings of this coast are of the very best kind – the people are instantly afloat, with every species of seaworthy craft … sloops, schooners, wherries, boats of all sizes… constantly flying on the wings of the wind, from creek to creek, and from loch to loch… Hundreds of boats are seen to start at day-set for the watery field, then silently shoot their nets, lie out at the end of their train, all night, and return in the morning full of life and spirit, to sell or cure their cargoes.

Several herring-curing stations were established locally; including the one on Tanera, at Tigh an Quay. The smoked fish (or ‘red herring’) were transported as far as the West Indies to feed slaves on the plantations. Some were also exported to Ireland, and Irish soil bought back as ballast in their place, hence an especially verdant field called ‘Little Irish Park.’ Fraser Darling was especially drawn to such etymologies, and the way they functioned as a mini-history. Not far from his house there was a little hill, called in Gaelic Cnoc Ghlas, or the ‘green knoll.’ Its name too was a compacted anecdote. For many years, the fishermen had spread their nets out there to clean and dry, and the dried sea slime had acted as a kind of fertilizer, endowing it with a cap of bright green grass.

The herring-fishery flourished for more than 400 years. But by the middle of the nineteenth century the shoals had begun to diminish, and with them Tanera’s prosperity and independence. In 1881, there had been 118 crofters on the island: fifty years later, every one of them had left. The Great Depression tolled the death knell for the islanders. When Frank Fraser Darling arrived in 1938, he and his wife Bobbie were the only inhabitants. The herring factory was in ruins, as was the original quay, plundered for its cut and finished stone. The crofts stood roofless and empty. The schoolhouse, built in 1870, had  not served as a school since before the First World War. Already the island was returning to legend, dateless and inexact.

Hungry for information, Fraser Darling befriended Murdo Macleod, the last crofter-fisherman to leave Tanera, and later wrote up many of his stories. There was the cargo of rum buried somewhere down near Tigh an Quay, ‘a legend known as far away as Orkney.’ There were the strange old coins Macleod had dug up as a boy, ‘silver coins, about the size of a shilling.’ There was the ancient graveyard next to Little Irish Park, with its rough unlettered graves, and crumbly fragments of human bone. And always there was Tanera itself, with its wild red cliffs and rowan trees and ‘festoons of fragrant honeysuckle,’ its sandstone rock ‘dotted with tiny cornelians.’

Frank Fraser Darling left Tanera towards the end of World War Two, and died in 1979, with a long list of books and honours to his name, among them his 1969 Reith Lectures, appropriately entitled Wilderness and Plenty. Island Farm was recently reissued, with Bobbie’s smiling picture on the cover. Reading it, I realized they too had joined the legends. Frank was playing carols on his mouth-organ, while Bobbie sang, celebrating the first Christmas of the war. He was lying in the schoolhouse with a broken leg, while Bobbie brought him cups of strong hot tea. He was writing, writing, writing; they were working on the quay. He was planting a sixpenny packet of sweet peas down by the shore, enjoying their ‘tiny world of fragrance and peace.’

After the Fraser Darlings left, Tanera was uninhabited for several decades. In 1965, it was bought by the Summer Isles Estates,  which restored several of the ruined crofts, and let them as holiday accommodation. A salmon fish farm was established on the island, along with a café, a post office and a small sailing school. At time of writing, the Wilder family, who own the island, and have lived there for almost two decades, were trying to negotiate a local community buy-out. They have since decided to put the place on the open market, starting in April, through C.K.D. Galbraith in Inverness. No one knows quite what will happen next. But for friends of the island – and indeed, for the most casual visitor – the hope is that not too much will change, that in a world of distraction and overwhelm, Tanera will continue to be the haven it has been since Viking times, a source of wisdom, concentrated beauty, and yes, ‘placefulness.’ Nietzsche once wrote that the lakes were the eyes of the mountain, reflecting back the true light of the sky. On Tanera, one of the lochans holds its own small island, looking out across the heathery slopes with its own velvety green iris, its own keen, uncompromising gaze.

I thought of that last summer, as I stood with my friends outside the old schoolhouse, where the Fraser Darlings had lived for much of their first year. We were staring back towards the far south-east, now lit up in delicate beige and gold, almond and lavender. The scene was being transformed even as we watched: Stac Pollaidh and its attendant mountains deepening from maroon to purple to blaeberry as the sunlight fled; the moon slipping out, deft as a tongue: a plain round face, long nose, and dark smudged eyes, a wide and doubting mouth. We watched it rise over the hills, white, then pure bone ivory, its long track  lengthening across the bay. 

Meanwhile the sun was setting on the other side of the island, a rampage of fiery orange and charcoal grey. ‘Tiger clouds,’ someone called them, their edges gleaming gold. It was a marvellous thing to stand there on the crest between: gazing first at the small round moon and quiet hills, and then back to the far west with its roaring angelic golden pyre – looking, listening, listening out.

LITTLE TOLLER BOOKS, 309 PP, £10, ISBN: 978 1 908213 01 3

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Event Review: Poetry Centre Stage StAnza 2013


Robin Robertson, StAnza 2013


Poetry Centre Stage: Paula Meehan and Robin Robertson

The final event of StAnza united the reflections of an Irish Catholic upbringing and the memories of a Scottish son of the manse. Playwright and poet Paula Meehan and Aberdeen-bred Robin Robertson both gave sombre readings uplifted by touches of humour, and their postures suited the day’s intermittent snow. Meehan was first to read and her silver hair glowed in the blue-lit auditorium. Starting off rather shyly in front of an attentive audience, she gradually opened up about her underprivileged childhood, being raised by her grandparents and learning to have a relationship with her father. She prefaced the poem ‘Would you jump into my grave as quick’ by saying that this poem features on GCSE exams and students have expressed their appreciation of the work. Initially flattered, Meehan later figured out it was because ‘it’s only eight lines’. Her poem about quitting drinking was incredibly poignant, especially the lines: ‘You’re a warder in your own ward’. As she selected poems that were mostly about her family, Meehan’s reading flowered in depth and left the audience moved by her openness and sincerity.  

Recovering from a flu caught in Sweden, a visibly strained Robin Robertson took the stage in slim trousers and a dark jacket. After slipping on rather hipster specs, he spoke in an uncharacteristic hoarse voice which seemed appropriate for his dark poems. This was something Robertson was aware of, as he said gruffly ‘It has been pointed out to me that all my poems have sex, death and drinking.’ Gulping water frequently, Robertson didn’t look up from his work very much but managed a captivating presence. He read from a selection of his books, including his latest collection Hill of Doors. Perhaps due to Robertson’s ailing state, it was the poems about sickness that seemed to resonate the most, especially the one about Robinson’s own heart surgery ‘The Halving’. He closed with ‘Crimond’, a poem about Jessie Spencer Irvine who wrote the music for the 23rd Psalm, and who once lived in the same manse as Robertson. This was a nice touch, since though we couldn’t hear the music, its suggestion acted as a coda to a sensitive event and a smoothly run festival.



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Event Notice: SPL and Aye Write present John Gray as well as ‘Best Scottish Poems 2012’


Scottish Poetry Library and Aye Write! join forces

SPL brings controversial thinker to Scotland and announces best poems of the year

Do you have the time to read a poem? Do you have a year to spare? How about a lifetime? The Scottish Poetry Library is pleased to announce its involvement in two events at the Aye Write literary festival: the first involves two novelists judging a whole year’s worth of Scottish poetry; and for the other, one of Britain’s greatest living thinkers reveals the poems that have shaped his life.

My Life In Poetry: John Gray

John Gray, the controversial philosopher, will explore his ‘life in poetry’ with SPL director Robyn Marsack. In his time, he has travelled from Thatcherite champion to an opponent of market fundamentalism while developinga thrillingly pessimistic view of mankind.

The poems he has treasured over a lifetime of mould-breakingthinkingform a sometimes familiar, sometimes surprising collection. This session shines an unexpected light on philosophy, poetry and the formative events of John Gray’s life.

Gray joins a distinguished selection of writers who have taken part in the SPL’s ‘My Life in Poetry’ series; other participants have included Janice Galloway, Alexander McCall Smith, Louis de Bernière and Jackie Kay.

Date: Saturday, 13 April, 12.00pm
Place: Mitchell Library, Glasgow

Best Scottish Poetry 2012

Novelists Zoe Strachan and Louise Welsh have had a year of reading Scottish poetry. From collections put out by major publishers to pamphlets produced by shoestring productions, Strachan and Welsh have hunted down the very best Scottish poetry has to offer in the past year, a titanic task.

At their Aye Write! event, they will exclusively reveal their choice of poems as the ‘Best Scottish Poems 2012’, as well as the identity of next year’s collection, when BSP marks its 10th anniversary. Emerging talent appears alongside established favourites in a selectionthat is becoming established as the annual assessment of the health of Scotland’s poetry scene. The final selection is being kept secret until the night of the event, when a number of the poets featured will read at the event.

Zoe Strachan says: ‘We hope to showcase different voices and languages, established poets and those newer to the scene, but most of all we want to choose poems that we love and would revisit time and time again. Lucky for me, at Aye Write I’ll be listening to some of our choices straight from the poet’s mouth, and hearing about the inspirations and processes that shaped them.’

Date: Sunday, 14 April, 4.30pm
Place: Mitchell Library, Glasgow


John Gray:
regular contributor to The Guardian and New Statesman, author of much praised Straw Dogs: Thoughts in Humans and Other Animals (2002), The Immortalisation Commission (2011) and The Silence of Animals (2013).

Zoe Strachan: won a Betty Trask Award for her first novel Negative Space (2002); latest novel is Ever Fallen in Love (2011); teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow.

Louise Welsh: author of five novels, the most recent of which is The Girl on the Stairs (Hodder & Stoughton); her 2002 debut The Cutting Room was nominated for the Orange Prize and won the Crime Writers’ Association Creasey Dagger.

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Book Review: Jenn Ashworth ‘The Friday Gospels’ (Sceptre)

The Friday Gospels, Jenn Ashworth. Sceptre: £17.99

It seems to be that the bigger the family, the less that gets said between them. Such is the dilemma of Jenn Ashworth’s ambitious third novel, The Friday Gospels. Meet the Leekes, an aptly named Lancashire family aspiring to grow in their Mormon faith, but who privately struggle to meet the religion’s expectations. On a Friday in August, middle son Gary returns home from a two-year mission in Utah.  His homecoming is the tipping domino in a line of plot twists, which eventually sees all the family secrets come spilling out. Told in the family’s five voices or ‘gospels’, this novel explores the shame and guilt that can arise in tight religious communities.

Chosen by BBC’s The Culture Show as one of Britain’s twelve Best New British Novelists, Ashworth was born in Preston in 1982 and raised as a Mormon herself. The novel begins with the family up at dawn on the morning of Gary’s homecoming. Wheelchair-bound matriarch Pauline chirps at the rest of the family that tonight will be a ‘special dinner, us all here’. Oldest son Julian complains he has too much to do at the garage where he works. Youngest daughter Jeannie insists she has hockey after school. And father Martin reassures Pauline that all will be fine before driving Jeannie to her morning Mormon classes which start at the dedicated hour of seven am.

Each member of the Leeke family is unhappy in their own way. Sewn up improperly from a difficult birth and refusing to see a doctor about her incontinence and mobility troubles, Pauline endures a humiliating experience at the supermarket. Julian hasn’t been to church in ten years and is plotting an elaborate escape from the community. Fourteen-year-old Jeannie has been hiding her pregnancy for four months. Martin becomes besotted with Nina, a fellow dog-owner whom Martin sees daily while walking his dog Bovril.  And stuttering Gary, home from his mission, must admit that he didn’t manage to convert a single person in Utah.  Some of these problems are clichéd – teen pregnancy, an older man fancying a younger woman. But the presence of these issues invites the Mormon view, an area where Ashworth illuminates her audience.

In fact, it is Ashworth’s portrayal of Mormon traditions and beliefs which gives the novel an intuitive and humorous edge. Some scenes are memorable for their ironic or embarrassing content. The Mormon emphasis on chastity before marriage sees an uncomfortable Jeannie at her religion classes being presented with a prettily iced cupcake as metaphor of her virtue. As part of a lesson on today’s casual attitude towards sex, she is told by Brother Fletcher to give the cupcake to a boy in her class. The church leader encourages the boy to eat the cake:  ‘Have the cherry as well. Why not?’ On the plane back to England, Gary makes a last-ditch attempt to convert the man sitting next to him: ‘I wanted to bear my testimony to you, s-sir. I wanted to tell you that I know, without one shad-shad-shadow of a doubt, that what I’m about to tell you is true’. Though laced with stumbles, Gary’s plucky entreaty illustrates the significances of conversions in Mormon culture.

It is hard enough writing a novel in one point of view, not to mention five. Here Ashworth stretches herself a little. There’s not much difference in the style of voices, so the bold and capitalised names announcing each family member’s narrative is a helpful touch. Generally Ashworth employs a similarly anguished, fragmented and near stream-of-consciousness style for each of them. Of the five narratives, Pauline’s bossy but pleading voice and Gary’s humble and desperate tones seem to be the most defined; the personalities of Jeannie, Martin and Julian are less explored by comparison. 

However, by the conclusion the Leeke family is firmly united.  Perhaps it’s ironic that in a novel about religious practices, a violent episode brings the family together and allows them to be emotionally honest with themselves. Burdened by the weight of their secret, one of the Leekes finally snaps. And as Ashworth clearly points out, it is not faith but family that has the power to save.

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