SCOTTISH by formation, Mick Imlah was an Oxbridge critic and poet and a member of the London literary establishment. With his twin sister Fiona, he was born in Aberdeen in 1956. The Imlahs lived in Milngavie for ten years until his father, who worked in insurance, moved the family to Kent in 1966. Imlah attended Dulwich College — alma mater of PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler and, ahem, Nigel Farage — and won a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught as a Junior Fellow. Imlah also attempted a PhD, on Arthurian influences in Victorian poetry, but abandoned it. Thereafter, he was an editor, first at Oxford Poetry and later as Andrew Motion’s successor at Chatto & Windus. From 1993 onwards he was a critic at the Times Literary Supplement where most of these essays first appeared.
Imlah’s poetry is humorous, darkly brooding and provocative, and was on occasion influenced by his criticism. One can see a relationship, for instance, between his review of Walter Scott’s novels and his verse biography ‘Diehard’ or his review of Tom Leonard’s biography of James Thomson and the gloomy elegy ‘B.V’. In his early years, Imlah may have been overly meticulous with his poetry and admits, ‘… I revise, much too much. In the quest for polish or evenness you can rewrite the life out of a thing’. He produced just two collections twenty years apart; Birthmarks appeared in 1988 and The Lost Leader in 2008, after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and which won the Forward Prize. He died the following year.
Prefaced by his close friend Mark Ford, the essays here indicate that Imlah’s criticism and poetry are grounded in literary history and context. It is often the writer’s background that informs his opinions and leads him later to produce a stanza on their imagined histories. The editors of this volume are themselves poets and critics: André Naffis-Sahely is a translator and editor of a book of essays on Michael Hofmann and Robert Selby wrote a PhD on Imlah. Having picked the cream of Imlah’s prose, they present a triptych of his critical voice: a series of literary musings, followed by essays on rugby and cricket and ending with the poet’s own gently self-deprecating remarks in a brief interview with Oxford Poetry.
The most interesting section of the volume are the essays and reviews, selected over a ten-year period and compiled under the heading ‘On Writers’. Two dominant characteristics emerge. The first is Imlah’s revisiting of canonical figures such as Tennyson, Scott and Larkin; the second gives due praise to writers often of Scottish extraction such as Douglas Dunn, S.R. Crockett, Edwin Muir and J.M. Barrie. In these essays he explores the tensions in his own Scottish identity, describing his enthusiasm for Scots language and modernist literature while dismissing urban, working-class writing. It must also be said that each piece features a male writer; women are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps this is an example of the ‘fraternal tenderness’ that’s mentioned in the preface.
A ‘traditional, conservative poet’ himself, Imlah admired verse which had a strong lyrical style. He remarks: ‘I’ve always liked Tennyson more than most people seem to. I don’t write like him though’. In his essay on him, he provides personal and evocative details such as Tennyson wrote ‘Crossing the Bar’ in twenty minutes as he sailed across the Solent and found landscapes ‘glimmering’ because his eyesight was so poor. Imlah points out the contrast between Tennyson’s depressive temperament and his eventual fame, adding: ‘Tennyson’s problem in presenting poems to the public was that his deepest experience was unsocial, painful, and shaming to a degree; this was no ordinary reticence.’
Imlah reviewed with kindness and flair when he fond poetry that excited him. Considering Douglas Dunn’s Dante’s Drum-Kit, for instance, he points out that the poet ‘likens his craft to gardening’. Meanwhile, in a review of Christopher Reid’s The Echoey Tunnel, he states: ‘Tidy, subtle, faintly surreal poems of a domestic character have established Christopher Reid as a master and advocate of the diminutive’. Imlah wrote extravagantly when he felt he had unearthed literary treasure. His essay on S.R. Crockett, the prolific novelist of the Kailyard school, for instance, feels unnecessarily crammed with facts about Dumfries and Galloway. ‘Not every schoolboy knows, even today, that Galloway is the long-standing name for the south-west corner of Scotland… With a coastline of smugglers’ caves, saltmarshes and mudflats fringing the Solway Firth…‘ He speaks openly of his roots and partially submerged Scottishness: ‘My family moved south from Glasgow when I was ten, so the most important part of my upbringing was English; I developed an inconspicuous accent quite quickly, though I still have the other one up my sleeve like a dirk for tight comers. I suppose I only feel Scots on major sporting occasions now. It’s not something I’d write about.’
But Imlah does write passionately about Scottishness, albeit from an expatriate perspective. In his essay ‘Auld Acquaintances’, he says: ‘It must be a healthy nationalism that can produce a volume as big-hearted as Angela Cran and James Robertson’s A Dictionary of Scottish Quotations’. However, he chides the editors for omitting what he called ‘most potent sentence of the Scottish History’ as delivered by Bonnie Prince Charlie to his forces at Ruthven after Culloden: ‘Let everyone seek his own safety the best way he can’. This could have been Imlah’s mantra. He has little patience with contemporary Scottish literature’s obsession with subculture, specifically the ramblings of marginalised males. Reviewing James Kelman’s short story collection The Good Times, he seems baffled as to why Kelman would want to write about men whiling away time in the pub: ‘His politics now seem to require that his stories should deliver the least remarkable hours of these unregarded lives’. Irvine Welsh, however, gets the sharpest slap as Imlah sees only selfishness and depravity in Ecstasy: ‘Until Irvine Welsh can extricate himself from this community and apply himself more generously to the task, his reader will feel at once put upon and excluded.’
The book closes with a brief interview. Conducted in 1983 when Imlah was twenty-eight, it reveals a clever, sometimes defensive young man offering his opinions on poetry. When asked about styles in contemporary poetry, he replies: ‘Today’s poet is a bit like a Victorian architect; there’s no single staple native style available (as, say, the heroic couplet was for Pope) so he has to choose a model for each piece of work: Middle Pointed Gothic, neo-Egyptian, blank verse, this or that kind of stanza, silly one-word lines, whatever’. If posed the same question today, perhaps he would express a different opinion. Sadly, we will never know.
Mick Imlah: Selected Prose
Edited by André Naffis-Sahely
and Robert Selby
Peter Lang, £25