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A Dreary Kind of Talent – Scottish Review of Books
by Gordon Wright

A Dreary Kind of Talent

November 26, 2013 | by Gordon Wright

12 July, 1968

I arranged to photograph Hugh MacDiarmid at his home on 11 August 1968, his seventy-sixth birthday. I mentioned this to Marian McNeill [the folklorist] who said he was an old friend and hoped to visit him at Brownsbank before she was too old. I phoned MacDiarmid and asked him if I could bring Marian with me and he said he would be delighted to see her.

11 August, 1968

I drove Marian down to Brownsbank today and we were made very welcome. MacDiarmid was looking extremely well on his birthday and full of jokes, threatening to advertise Valda [his wife] for sale in the Scotsman.

As we walked up the path outside his cottage I admitted I knew very little about poetry and asked him where I should start. MacDiarmid suggested I read the book of Proverbs in the Bible.


24 January, 1969

I attended the 200 Burns Club supper at the Adelphi Hotel in Cockburn Street, Edinburgh. I was seated next to Al Strachan, chairman of the Dunedin Weightlifting Club, who was a great Burns enthusiast. We were seated near the top table and when Hugh MacDiarmid arrived and took his seat, Al leaned over and said to me, ‘See that man there, that’s Hugh MacDiarmid, Scotland’s greatest living poet.’ MacDiarmid looked over, waved a hand and said: ‘Hello Gordon.’


7 May, 1970

The first meeting of The Heretics was held tonight in the New Town Hotel when the Gaelic poet Derick Thomson was the main guest supported by Willie Neill and Stuart MacGregor. Stuart also acted as fear an tigh, master of ceremonies, for the evening. The event was a big success.


26 June, 1970

Willie, Stuart and George [Campbell Hay] submitted their poems promptly but Sorley [MacLean] had not confirmed if he would participate or not. I phoned several times explaining I hoped to publish before the end of the year, but he kept asking which year the book was to be published. Meanwhile, we discussed a possible title and Willie’s lady friend, Dodo Gilmour, suggested Four Points of a Saltire. We all agreed this would be ideal. There was also the question of an introduction and Willie suggested the poet Tom Scott, who was happy to oblige.


2 November, 1970

A brief letter from Sorley MacLean, Schoolhouse, Plockton, submitting his selection of poems for Four Points of a Saltire. ‘I hope they are legible. In a great hurry. Sam MacLean.’

Now all the material has been submitted I can send it to Econoprint for typesetting. I knew nothing about the functions of the Scottish Arts Council at this time and when someone said I should approach them for a grant I phoned the literature department and spoke to Douglas Eadie, who explained that an application had to be made before the book went into production. Considering the dearth of publishers in Scotland at this time, one might have expected the SAC to bend the rules. When Tom Scott heard this he suggested I print a note in the prelims: ‘Published in spite of the Scottish Arts Council.’

When the galley proofs for Four Points of a Saltire came back from the authors I was horrified to find they were thick with corrections. Stuart had even rewritten some of his poems. The poems in Gaelic were covered with accents, and it looked as if the whole thing needed resetting from scratch. I remonstrated with Stuart who was the worst offender and he eventually accepted that most of his poems should stand as originally submitted.

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22 February, 1971

Four Points of a s Saltire was published today [by Reprographia] at £2.00 for the cloth edition and £7.00 for the leather bound signed edition. A bookseller friend pointed out that the spine was reading upside down on the book jacket. When a book is laid flat on a table, face up, the spine should be easily read. This rule also allows anyone scanning a bookshelf to avoid tilting their head back and forward. I checked the shelves in Thin’s bookshop and found M Macdonald – who published Carotid Cornucopius [by Sydney Goodsir Smith] – were one of the very few publishers who printed the spines of their book jackets reading upwards.

To celebrate publication I arranged to take the authors out to dinner. Sorley was unable to join us but the other three were agreeable and I booked a table at the Howgate Inn. I collected Willie first and then Stuart before we called at George’s house in Maxwell Street. I drove an old Hillman Minx, a big roomy car on its last legs, and when I opened the door for George he stepped straight on to the back seat and crouched there beside Stuart. I explained that his feet should be on the floor, but he just stared blankly at me. With a bit of good-natured banter from Stuart we managed to straighten him out and got him properly seated. This was my first experience of George’s mental problems.

As word got round, Four Points of a Saltire started to sell quite well and I hurried home at lunchtime each day to see how many orders were in the post. Then the phone would ring. It was Stuart, asking for the day’s sales figures. He did this every day and became a bit of a nuisance but I could never ignore his call and had to make a dive for the phone before my mother picked it up as he always enquired, ‘How’s your cock, Repro?’ before I could say a word. ‘Repro’ was his abbreviation of Reprographia.


11 March, 1971

Stuart McGregor hosted a meeting of The Heretics at the New Town hotel tonight. After announcing a short interval he said: ‘And now Gordon Wright, the wealthy publisher, will buy us all a drink.’ Although a tongue in cheek remark, there were many times in the years to come that it was taken for granted that, being a publisher, I must be extremely wealthy. It was hardly the case.


12 March, 1971

I went to photograph Norman MacCaig at his home in Leamington Terrace today. We had our usual dram and chat before I shot a roll of film. When I returned home and made enlargements I noticed there was one shot in particular which stood out from the rest. It was something about the eyes. When I delivered prints to Norman this was the print that caught his attention and he delivered the memorable line: ‘You seem to have a dreary kind of talent for this sort of thing.’


17 March, 1971

I met Stuart MacGregor and Morag Park [a member of The Heretics] in Milne’s Bar this evening and Stuart invited us back to his house in Morningside. En route we stopped at the local chippie and bought suppers. After we had opened a bottle of wine and settled down to eat, Morag unwrapped her supper and eyed the white pudding. ‘They’re bigger than that in Kirkcaldy,’ she remarked disappointedly.


9 December, 1971

A brash young American woman approached me at a meeting of The Heretics tonight and said she had several volumes of poetry published in the US and wanted to know if I would publish her work in the UK. She then quickly pointed out that she was a lesbian and wouldn’t be able to sleep with me. I felt like saying, ‘Thank goodness for that.’


31 December, 1971

Hogmanay and I had invitations to a party at Stuart and Jane MacGregor’s house in Morningside. I bought two boxes of Black Magic chocolates and a bottle of malt whisky to toast the New Year and set off for the MacGregor’s house at 11.30 p,m. Stuart met me at the door and immediately grabbed the bottle of whisky. By the time I had greeted Jane, Stuart had topped up all the whisky glasses of the assembled guests and returned the bottle to me containing half an inch of whisky in the bottom. When it came time for me to move on to the next party, I had little to contribute to the drinks table.


26 February, 1972

John Schofield, an Edinburgh University graduate, masterminded a poetry festival called Poem ’72 at the Hume Tower in George Square. The size of the gathering and the variety of the performers was very impressive. I accepted the invitation to take a stall in the basement along with other publishers to sell books But I also managed to attend a few of the performances. When I heard Liz Lochhead read I immediately knew I could sell a book of her poems. I approached her and said I would like to publish her. I gave her my card and she agreed to consider my offer.

David Morrison, the librarian from Caithness, talked about the new binding process ‘perfect binding’, where folded sheets are trimmed at the spine and dipped in an adhesive before the cover is applied. When the adhesive dries the spine remains flexible. He then attempted to prove his point by holding a sample by the covers ad shaking it vigorously. Several pages fluttered to the floor.

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3 March, 1972

Dear Gordon Wright

Herein the promised copy of my poems. Hope you get the chance to read them anyway. Do please have me come through to read at The Heretics (wasn’t that the name of the monthly readings poetry club you were telling me about?) any time there is a gap to be filled. Thanks for the interest you showed in my poems – it was really very heartening.

Best wishes, Liz Lochhead.


14 April, 1972

The Heretics performed at the Pool Theatre in Hanover Street. Someone booked a folksinger who was also a bit of a comedian. Willie Neill sat in the front row facing him throughout without a flicker of a smile. It must have been quite unnerving. I was in Sandy Bell’s bar later speaking to Bobby Eaglesham [the folksinger] when Billy Connolly appeared and came over to join us. Two young girls dressed entirely in black appeared and stood next to us, staring at Billy and hanging on to everything he said. Suddenly Billy noticed them and enquired, ‘Does the Mother Superior ken ye’re oot?’


15 May, 1972

Publication of Liz Lochhead’s first collection of poems, Memo for Spring. Liz was dubious about signing a contract and it took the reassurance of Trevor Royle, the Scottish Arts Council’s Literature Director, before she would sign. She had obviously heard stories about unscrupulous publishers.

There was the also the question of the title I suggested which I had taken from her poem ‘Memo to Myself for Spring’. Liz didn’t know if Memo for Spring was right but during a visit to Norman MacCaig’s house Norman came to my aid and convinced her it was a good title.

Since Liz wrote in English I felt she had the benefit of a wider market so I decided to have her book saddle-stitched – which was cheaper to produce than a square back with a title on the spine – and print 1,500 copies retailing at 75p. When production was well under way, Liz phoned, sounding quite agitated and said she wanted a titled spine. I told her it was too late to make any production changes and tried to convince her that the option I had chosen would work to her benefit – at least I hoped it would.

The first print run sold out within a few months and I immediately ordered a 3,500 preprint. Liz kept me informed whenever she was booked to read in public and I would arrive and set up shop. It was not uncommon to sell 30-40 copies, making it a bit of a phenomenon. This was an important lesson for me. Strike while the iron’s hot after the author has given a reading. I still believe my decision to issue a modestly priced edition helped to launch Liz’s writing career.


June, 1972

Trevor Royle commissioned me to photograph Joan Lingard, Robert Garioch, Ronald Johnstone and Alan Jackson for a Scottish Arts Council poster. When I visited Garioch it was a fine day and he was in good spirits so I decided to take him into the gardens at Abercromby Place. He was wearing a brand new tweed hat and I asked him what had become of the famous hat that he had worn for years. He said, ‘I was walking along Princes Street when a band o’ keelies ran past and one of them grabbed it off my head.’ I got him seated on a bench, but before I could get my first shot , he noticed a large branch which had been ripped from a tree. He became very concerned, blaming local youths. He kept saying, ‘I’m awfy vexed to see the likes o’ that,’ and it was impossible to get him back into a good frame of mind.


24 June, 1972

I set off for two weeks in Jamaica as the guest of Stuart and Jane MacGregor. The family met me at the airport in Kingston and we set off back to their house, Stuart driving along the narrow causeway, which connected the airport to the island, at high speed. I remember noticing Stuart’s hand, which had been injured many years before, pressed open palm against the steering wheel and wondering if he had full control of the car. I was relieved when he reached the house safely.

The story of Stuart’s hand changed regularly. He told me he was repairing his car when a gasket exploded. He told someone else he lacerated his hand while fooling around with a bayonet during his National Service and he told someone else he was trying to open a window when his hand slipped and went through glass.

One evening I went with Stuart and Jane to have dinner with two of their friends in a very nice restaurant. Two gay men were dining at a table opposite and it was difficult to ignore the seduction process that was taking place. Later on they disappeared and when Stuart returned from a visit to the toilet he said he had seen them and, ‘they must be very drunk as they are holding on to each other.’


26 January, 1973

I was enjoying a drink with friends in Milne’s Bar when Doli MacLennan [actress and singer] appeared in front me, white-faced. She gripped me tightly by the elbows, said she had bad news and told me Stuart MacGregor had been killed in a car crash in Jamaica the previous day. I was stunned. I could imagine him driving with his bad hand flat against the steering wheel not fully in control.


2 February, 1973

Stuart MacGregor’s body was flown home from Jamaica and a funeral held in the University Chaplaincy Centre in Forrest Road, a short distance from his beloved Sandy Bell’s bar. I sat with Sorley MacLean and his daughter Catriona. There was a terrible sadness for a man who had always been so full of good humour. We then went over to Morningside Cemetery where he was buried as piper Hamish MacLeod played ‘The Flooers o the Forest’. I didn’t send flowers. I decided I would have one of my photographs professionally framed along with the lyrics of his song ‘Sandy Bell’s Man’ and present it to Sandy Bell’s bar.


A Great Idea at the Time by Gordon Wright is published as an ebook for iPads at £7.99

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