Monthly Archives: November 2018



In 2009, Carol Ann Duffy was appointed the UK’s Poet Laureate. She was the first woman to be awarded the honour in its 400-year history. Her new book, Sincerity, is her last collection of poems before she steps down from the laureateship in May 2019. It was written over a period of two years and contains the lyrical poignancy, humour and formal diversity we have come to expect from her.

Many of the poems are about a poet exploring her relationship to politics, poetry itself, and family life. Some poems are intensely personal, such as ‘Empty Nest’, about the ‘shy sorrow’ of contemplating a house after the departure of a child. The poem is reminiscent of Larkin’s ‘Home is so sad’. There is also Duffy the wordsmith, in poems like ‘Swearing In’, composed almost entirely of kennings and which explores the hidden meanings of language in the context of a presidential inauguration ceremony. All in all, Sincerity is an artwork of comic excellence and melancholy beauty.

Duffy was born in Lennoxtown, Glasgow, in 1955. Her parents moved to Stafford when she was five-years-old. At eighteen, after she completed her A Levels, she left home and lived in Liverpool. She studied philosophy at the city’s university. She won the National Poetry Competition in 1983. The publication of Duffy’s first collection, Standing Female Nude, two years later announced her as a poet with a clean, sharp style and a remarkable skill for inhabiting different voices. Poems like ‘Comprehensive’ and ‘Education for Leisure’ quickly became part of the school syllabus.

This talent was fine-tuned in her subsequent collections, Selling Manhattan (1987), The Other Country (1990) and Mean Time (1993). After the birth of her daughter in 1995, Duffy also became a prolific writer of books for children. In 1996, she moved to Manchester, where she still lives. As part of her role as Creative Director at Manchester Metropolitan University, she devised the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. Alongside this, she has continued publishing poetry of the highest standard, including the collection Rapture, a sequence of love poems. Indeed, it was poet Sean O’Brien who once wrote, ‘Poetry, like love, depends on a kind of recognition. So often with Duffy does the reader say, “Yes, that’s it exactly.”’

One of Duffy’s particular poetic talents is her ability to enfold the political within the personal without undermining the integrity of her imaginative vision. This is perhaps why she was such an apt choice for poet laureate. As Poet Laureate she has frequently published in newspapers and radio to ensure poetry can still be read and heard in the ‘national babble’ of our times, and also used her position to raise the profile of other poets. Duffy gives regular live readings of her work. She often reads from the 1999 collection, The World’s Wife, which, in poems like ‘Mrs Midas and Mrs Tiresias’, gives voice to fictive and real spouses. It offers a witty unpicking of the relationship between and within the sexes.

Duffy is a vocal supporter of independent bookshops. In recent years, she has teamed up with other poets, including Jackie Kay, Imtiaz Dharker and Gillian Clarke, to set out on reading tours of independent bookshops in the UK. It was only apposite then that when Nick Major met Duffy in her publisher’s office on National Poetry Day in October, she was seated before five or six piles of A4 paper. She was midway through signing a few thousand tip-in sheets, to be inserted in special hard back green cloth editions of Sincerity that will be distributed to independent bookshops across the country. On that same day, a special red post box was revealed in Stafford, her home town, commemorated with lines from Duffy’s poems.

‘I remember the sounds of the ships on the Clyde, I remember big black sooty buildings, and the sound of the cold steps of the tenements.’

Duffy, pen-in-hand, was wearing a black dress and blue earrings. She has dark curly hair and striking amber eyes. She talked in a slow thoughtful voice, occasionally pausing mid-sentence to glance out of the indoor window into the publisher’s office. She has a down-to-earth, practical approach to poetry and spoke in clear and concise sentences about the freedom of poetic form, the hallucinatory nature of childhood, and her habit of every year sending a bottle of sherry to the Queen.

SRB: Can we begin by talking about the time span within which these new poems were written?

Carol Ann Duffy: I would say most of the work was written over a period of two years or so, although there are a couple of revised poems which were written earlier, and which weren’t in previous collections. One in particular, ‘Dark School’, is a memory of a convent school I attended. Later, it was turned from a girls’ school to a care home, and my father actually died in my old classroom. It is a strange poem that came back to me, and I revisited it with that experience, which is very odd, but it felt necessary to include it.

There seems to be a certain flow to the poems in Sincerity. The quieter reflective poems are at the beginning and end; there are some punchier political poems in the middle.

Two things that are exciting about writing poetry are, one, writing a single poem and going into the world of creating that poem, and all the decision and revisions you make. For me, that’s the best part of writing. At some point, you might decide to publish them. In my case, as I’m near the end of this decade as Poet Laureate, I wanted to publish a book. The other excitement comes in where you place the poems in the book. There is a lot of moving them around and seeing how poems lie next to each other and how they might have some kind of conversation or journey. The poems in my books are never published in the order they were written. In Sincerity, I wanted to explore myself. If you define the word sincerity, it means to speak or act out of one’s beliefs, thoughts and feelings. There is also a folk etymology of the word, which means ‘without wax’, probably disputed by the OED. It goes back to the practice of sculptors in Rome or Greece who would use wax to cover up flaws in their sculptures, so it means there’s no artifice or fakery. I wanted to speak as myself both personally and as a citizen. I think the past two years with the twin evils of Brexit and Trump have been very stressful. Politics presses in on the personal, even if you’re not writing political poems.

In your collection The Bees (2011) there is a poem called ‘Poetry’. The first line is, ‘I couldn’t see Guinness and not envisage a nun.’ It suggests that writing a poem begins with an associative act, linking images.

Gosh, there are so many starting points. That is quite light verse, the idea of the nun’s habit looking like a pint of Guinness, and vice versa. Sometimes something you see can trigger a line, like Larkin’s famous poem about the trees ‘coming into leaf/ like something almost being said.’ He sees the budding tree and thinks of the edge of utterance. That image will have prompted his poem, I’m sure. Sometimes it can be a sound, a scrap of language, something one reads, a painting, a memory. It is the aliveness of being human that produces the poetry. I imagine it is the same for composers or painters. Whatever medium you work in, you’ll be drawing from all the senses, and the mental and spiritual. I never think of myself as a poet who has one area where I go to for poetry.

Your work is known for its formal diversity. In this collection, for example, there is even sestina, a kind of poem I always think must be hell to write. Do you ever set out to write in a particular form?

No. That one became a sestina just because of the first two lines, ‘Where do they keep coming from, these arseholes/ who, when we were young, were the gatekeepers?’ I kept thinking about how these politicians, like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, must have been children once. How do they suddenly appear fully formed as the same old bullshitters in suits we remember from Thatcher’s era? I found the litany of abuse I was using fell into a sestina, which is why I called it ‘A Formal Complaint’. Some poems seem to fall naturally into a sonnet form, and that is perhaps because of what they’re about. I think it was Tennyson’s son who called a sonnet ‘a moment’s monument’. There can be moments, an incident or a day that seem to want to be sonnets. The poem itself seems to go to a form like iron filings to a magnet. I will often choose the shape of the poem when I’m a little way into it. I make use of the haiku in two of the poems in Sincerity. One is about needlework, and I think of the haiku as little stitches. Some poems will seemingly have no form apart from following the rhythms of a voice.

Once a poem has found its form, does that aid the writing of it?

Yes, once you’re in a form you have to be more inventive because you are caged in that form. You have to think about what movements and acts of dynamism you can make within that space. Whereas, if you are freer, you can do anything. I find the confinement energizing.

From your earliest publications, through to The World’s Wife and then this one in poems like ‘Scarecrow’ and ‘Clerk of Hearts’, you’ve used the dramatic monologue. Do you know why you are drawn to that form?

I suppose they are monologues, but they are both about the vocation of poetry and being a poet, so I think of those two as masks or versions of myself. The Clerk of Hearts is the shadowy presence of the poet through the human, and The Scarecrow is the mad inventiveness and poverty of the poet. Poetry is the music of being human. When I was young I was very interested in voice, how we reveal and conceal, share and exclude, just in our way of talking, so a lot of my poems were drawn to a particular voice.

Eliot said ‘the music of poetry must be a music latent in the common speech of your time.’ Are you sympathetic to that idea?

Yes, very much. It goes back earlier than that, to Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lyrical Ballads, then to Shakespeare, and earlier again, with that sense of poetry coming out of the oral tradition. When we read poetry, it is not just flat words on the page. There is a voice that we hear in our heads, an internal music. Ordinary speech is one of the colours on the palette. I can’t see why you wouldn’t use it. I wouldn’t know what else to do.

A lot of the poems in Sincerity seem to place the narrator within nature.

I write a lot in the garden, from May through to September. That’s the time of the year when I try to be the least busy. I tend to be most busy between late September and the end of February, and May to September tend to be home-based. I was aware when I looked through the poems that a lot were written in the garden. I think in one of the poems I use the term, ‘think like a garden’. I do feel a closeness to nature and an equivalent anxiety about it. Without choosing it, it is just part of the vibrations on my skin. I try to listen to myself, but go into writing without an agenda; at best one hopes the poems one writes will surprise one.

You live in Manchester and you work at Manchester Metropolitan University. Is that a teaching role?

I teach the poets who are doing creative writing for their MAs, but I also have the role of Creative Director, which is to do with poetry going out of the university. That role involves organizing poetry readings at the Royal Exchange Theatre so that our students get to read with respected published poets. I have just started something new called The People’s Poetry Lectures, where we have a poet lecturing on a poet: Gillian Clarke on Dylan Thomas, Michael Symmons Roberts on Auden, Andrew McMillan on Thom Gunn. We hold these in a hotel opposite the university so that people in the bar or members of the public, as well as academics, can come and hear a very accessible lecture with a glass of wine or a pint. There are a few other things: the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, the Manchester Poetry Prize and the Manchester Fiction Prize.

Does working with new poets enable you to see the direction of contemporary poetry? Recently, Sean O’Brien told me that, among his students, he was seeing ‘a lot of impassioned attitude’, but that poetry as a craft, an ‘accumulating body of skills,’ seemed very unfashionable.

A lot of it is being young. When I was young I wrote impassioned poetry. It probably wasn’t very good, but you have those intense feelings when you’re young. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them coming out in young poets. If they are going to be poets, they will move beyond that and find a way to harness that passion. I think poetry is changing very much. We now have spoken word and Instagram poets who are getting huge audiences. That is going to have an effect on poetry. In my case, I have worked with a poetry business in Sheffield to publish – by next May – twenty-four pamphlets of new poets I’ve come across. They are called the Laureate’s Choice pamphlets. They are all different, but the one thing that is important to me is that the poems work on the page as well as in performance. When I work with my students, I stress the importance of reading. It’s not possible to write without reading, no more than it is possible to play football without watching it. You need to know the rules, the craft, what’s possible and what people have done in the past, before you can break into new kinds of poetry. Call me old-fashioned.

Do you ever write out of a sense of anger or injustice?

I never write when I’m in any kind of mood, when I’m upset or feeling any strong emotions. To take, for instance, ‘Swearing In’. You will have noticed it is constructed of kennings, so obviously I was being very literary when I wrote that. I couldn’t have written that if I was all over the place. It’s the old Wordsworth cliché, emotion recollected in tranquillity. The original emotion has to be there as a homeopathic tincture, but it mustn’t be the whole bottle.

Last year your Christmas poem was called ‘Pablo Picasso’s Noel’. Do you think poetry can, in some sense, keep the European spirit alive at a time when it seems to be on the wane?

I am in agreement with the director Nick Hyntner that Brexit will be catastrophic for the Arts. Already artists and performers are experiencing problems with visas into the UK. As a citizen and as a poet I think of myself as European and British. Many of the poets I know consider themselves to be European Scots or European Welsh, and so on.

Do you remember much about the world into which you were born?

I was born in a place called Lennoxtown Castle. I think it is outside Glasgow. I lived in Glasgow until I was five. I only remember sensory sounds or glimpses. I remember the sounds of the ships on the Clyde. I remember big black sooty buildings, and the sound of the cold steps of the tenements.

Why did your parents move house?

My mum didn’t like living in the city. My father’s job was as a fitter, and he got a job with English Electric, who in those days had a small factory in Stafford. It is a small market town in the Midlands. It had a cattle market on Tuesdays. We used to watch the cows and pigs being auctioned. When I moved, there were three children. Eventually, I had four younger brothers. I write about it in the book, a poem called ‘Junction 13’.

There is also a poem called Frank, about your father singing Sinatra songs after coming in from a night out. Did your dad look like Old Blue Eyes?

He was much better looking than Frank Sinatra, but he fancied himself as a sort of pub singer, so when he’d had a few drinks he’d sing songs like ‘My Way’, which is what that poem is about, and he liked singing Perry Como. He was tall, dark and handsome, and he liked a party. My parents stayed in Stafford, in that same house, until they died.

How early on did you know poetry would be central to your life?

Very early on. By the time I was seven years old I knew I loved reading and that edged into writing. I really started writing poetry properly when I was ten. I know this because my teacher, Mrs Tilscher, whom I’ve written a poem about, typed six of my poems for me when I was in her class. It’s nice to be able to date that.

Did you read much contemporary poetry at school? Ted Hughes and Larkin had both published by then.

As a teenager, Hughes, Larkin and Thom Gunn were set texts in secondary school. Before that, it would have been Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, Keats, Kipling.

Any female poets?

Elizabeth Bishop, maybe, but I really started to read women poets when I was at university. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Plath, and then poets closer to home like Anne Stevenson, Fleur Adcock and a bit later Liz Lochhead, who was doing poetry readings that were very popular in the 1970s.

Why did you choose to study philosophy at university?

I can’t remember. I think I thought it was something else. I should have done English Literature. I enjoyed philosophy as I got to the end of it, but eighteen-years-old is probably a bit young to start engaging with Kant and Wittgenstein. I wish I had done English Literature because I have had to spend the rest of my life filling in the gaps I would have had filled in at university, particularly with novels.

After university, did you have any sense that you could make a semblance of a living from being a poet?

I applied for a writer-in-residency, which I got, which was under a thing called a C. Day Lewis fellowship, which put young writers in schools to do workshops. I got an Eric Gregory Award for poets under thirty to do some readings. I did what young poets still do now. It was a kind of hand-to-mouth existence.

In Sincerity, there is a poem called ‘Empty Nest’, about a child leaving home. How has having a child affected your life, both personally and as writer?

Having a child transformed my life. I’d always wanted to have a child. Being a mother has been the most joyful, wonderful part of my life. Once I was a mother, it opened up a whole new way of writing. It made me start writing for children, and I think I’ve now written more for children than I have for adults. Because of that lovely ritual of reading to your child at bedtime, I thought, I should write Ella a book. I was already making up stories for her anyway. The first book was a picture book called Underwater Farmyard. Then I wrote one called Moon Zoo. I started writing poems for her. Then I wrote more picture books, and fairy tales and so on and so forth. I also worked with Tim Supple on a theatre production of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Having a child reminds you of your own childhood. You see it from the other side. It brings so much back. Everything is new to them. I remember going into the garden to look for ladybirds and caterpillars. I couldn’t see any, but Ella could see dozens because her senses weren’t knackered. Childhood is so hallucinatory, and long.

Why do you think fairy tales have endured, especially for children?

They are our first stories – a kind of safe danger. Harry Potter is rooted in fairy tale.

You have been Poet Laureate since 2009. Does the post come with any formal expectations
or obligations?

The only formal duty for the Poet Laureate is to chair the committee that awards the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry. That medal was set up by the then Poet Laureate John Masefield with the Queen’s father George VI. It’s the most royal connection left. It’s an honour, it’s not a job. I think the understanding is that the Poet Laureate should interpret the role in their own way. Sometimes I have felt the voice of poetry is needed, so, for example, I wrote a poem about the Hillsborough verdict. I thought that was important. There have been poems I have written where I have thought, I should share that. There is no requirement to write anything. That came from when Wordsworth was appointed. He asked that if he were Laureate that it would be agreed he wouldn’t have to write any poems.

One of the perks is that you get a healthy amount of sherry, is that right?

Yes, sherry from Jerez in Spain. It’s a convoluted story. It used to come from the king or queen directly to the poet. It stopped hundred years ago, but when Ted Hughes became Laureate the people who made sherry in Jerez revived the tradition. They give it directly to the poet, so I now send the Queen sherry every Christmas rather than the other way around.

In Sincerity, there is a funny poem called ‘The Monkey’. It describes the role as having the potential of being a burden but becoming a catalyst for ideas?

Oh yeah, that is a true story. It isn’t about being Laureate as such, though I make a joke at the end. I wandered into an evil part of Marrakech that is full of snake charmers. This man rushed up, put a monkey on me and wanted money, but I liked the monkey. That’s how the poem came about. It was just a humorous thought. I thought, I could never go back and just live in Marrakech with my monkey. I’m taking the piss out of myself with that one. I say my next book’s going to be The World’s Woof. I wrote it in a rooftop in Marrakech over a period of four days.

Your time in office, as it were, ends in May 2019. Who actually decides on the next Laureate?

I think there are soundings made. I think various organizations, community organizations, and arts bodies, like the Poetry Society, are consulted, but the final approval is with the Queen because the Laureate is a member of the royal household, one of the oldest roles. I think it’s nice that it goes back so far and it is in the fabric [of the country]. Other countries, like America, now have poet laureates too.

Will you be sad to leave the post?

No. I have absolutely loved doing it, particularly being able to represent poets and encourage other poets, and put poetry’s voice into the national babble, but I will be happy to do new things and perhaps be a bit more selfish.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



In the years leading up to the 2008 financial crash, an influential sub-section of the American political class became convinced that a major economic crisis was on its way. Serious Washington players like Robert Rubin, who served as head of Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council from 1993 to 1995, Peter Orszag, another heavyweight Clintonite economist, and Larry Summers, who completed a brief stint as Treasury Secretary between 1999 and 2001, all raised the alarm.

The crisis would have two causes, they claimed: the federal government’s mounting budget shortfall (the Bush administration was pouring billions of tax dollars into the War on Terror at the time) and America’s trade imbalance with China, which had grown exponentially over the past decade or so. These ‘twin deficits’, Rubin and Orszag argued in a 2004 paper, had the potential to trigger a ‘fundamental shift in market expectations and a related loss of confidence both at home and abroad’. If they weren’t addressed soon, ideally through a combination of spending cuts and reduced domestic demand for cheap Chinese goods and money, the world’s largest economy was destined for ‘fiscal or financial disarray’.

In the broadest sense possible, of course, this pessimistic analysis was ultimately vindicated. On 15 September 2008, Lehman Brothers – the fourth largest investment bank in the United States – filed for bank-ruptcy. After that, America spiralled into a deep and punishing recession, dragging the rest of the world along in its wake. But on the specifics, the experts were wrong: it wasn’t government indebtedness or Chinese trade policy that initiated the collapse. It was Wall Street. In fact, it was the vast network of North Atlantic finance that a generation of elite US policymakers – Rubin, Orszag and Summers included – had aggressively lobbied to deregulate since at least the mid-1980s.

This strange and depressing parable is relayed by the British academic Adam Tooze in his superb and wide-ranging new history of the period, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Before 2008, the economic consensus in Western countries was so overwhelming that our political leaders were simply incapable of perceiving its flaws. As a result, when the warning signs of a real crash began to emerge – in the form of skyrocketing house prices, rising levels of private debt, flatlining wages, and a dangerously inflated banking sector – they went blissfully unseen.

If anything, the myopia was more acute in Britain than in the States. ‘All told, the City of London was home to 250 foreign banks and bank branches, twice as many as operated out of New York,’ Tooze writes. ‘Of an annual turnover in interest rate derivatives in excess of $600 trillion, London claimed 43 per cent to New York’s 24 per cent.’ Tooze traces the origins of the 2008 crisis back to the rise of the US sub-prime mortgage industry in the 1970s, the emergence of the Anglo-American financial nexus in the 1980s, and the open door policy that successive governments in London and Washington extended to the banking sector throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

The bond between Wall Street and the top of the Democratic Party was particularly tight. Before joining the Clinton administration, Robert Rubin was co-chair of Goldman Sachs. After completing his controversial tenure as Treasury Secretary under Barack Obama, Timothy Geithner became president of the private equity firm Warburg Pincus. Geithner’s successor, Jack Lew, was the chief operating officer at Citigroup from 2006 to 2008. And Larry Summers is now a managing partner at a New York hedge fund. But Tooze doesn’t blame any single administration for the ‘40-year deregulatory push’ that made the catastrophe possible. Instead, he holds the entire transatlantic political establishment to account. ‘By the early ’80s both Britain and the US had abolished all restrictions on capital movements and this was followed in October 1986 by Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ deregulation. The UK’s liberalisation not only freed up UK markets but acted as a crowbar to dislodge regulations worldwide.’

One of the central themes of Crashed is the increasingly strained relationship between the structures of Western democracy and the demands of the free market. Tooze believes this relationship reached breaking-point in Europe in the years after the crash. The meltdown may have originated in London and New York, but the integrated nature of the global financial system (coupled with Europe’s own ‘deregulatory push’) ensured that large European institutions like Deutsche Bank and Allied Irish were every bit as exposed as their British and American counterparts. So when these banks began to reel, so too did the European economy.

The key difference, however, is that while Britain and America reacted to the crisis with comprehensive, coordinated stimulus packages, the European response was hesitant and incoherent. The Germans, especially, were reluctant to mutualize eurozone debt and insisted instead that individual member states confront the deficit crisis on their own terms, with round after round of lacerating fiscal cutbacks. Any government that resisted Berlin’s austerity diktats was either sanctioned and brought to heel, like SYRIZA in Greece, or replaced, like the Berlusconi administration in Italy, with a more compliant and technocratic alternative. ‘We do regime change better than the Americans,’ one German official is quoted as saying. The result, inevitably, was deepening public hostility towards an international political and economic order that seemed utterly indifferent to basic democratic norms.

Tooze is not optimistic about how the stand-off between global capital and national sovereignty is likely to end. Traditionally, the role of mainstream political parties has been to mediate between the two. But in the age of populist extremes, the ideological centre ground is weak and the electorate’s appetite for compromise has all but vanished. This, Tooze says, raises some menacing historic parallels: ‘There is a striking similarity between the questions we ask about 1914 and 2008. How does a great moderation end? Did we sleepwalk into crisis, or were there dark forces pushing? How do the passions of popular politics shape elite decision making? These are the questions that haunt the great crises of modernity.’

As it happens, these were also the questions that haunted the great crises of pre-capitalist modernity. In Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why It Matters, the Conservative MP and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport Jesse Norman draws a detailed and engaging profile of the Scottish philosopher’s life and intellectual legacy. Norman is keen to dispel the image of Smith as the high-priest of neoliberal capitalism – a caricature he attributes to the overzealous disciples of free-market economics that emerged out of Chicago University in the 1940s and ’50s and went on to shape American monetary policy at the highest levels of government.

Ironically, in 2005, Gordon Brown invited Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the US Federal Reserve, to deliver a lecture on Smith in Kirkcaldy. Greenspan didn’t study in Chicago but was a dedicated acolyte of the Chicago School and rigorously applied its libertarian nostrums throughout his 18-year tenure at the Fed. In late 2008, as the American financial system was imploding, Greenspan admitted that he had been ‘partially wrong’ about his economic doctrine. ‘I have found a flaw,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.’

According to Norman, Smith is best understood as a profoundly moral thinker who believed that free trade and open markets were the key to shared prosperity and social cohesion. Smith’s Presbyterian sensibilities, Norman argues, would not have sat well with the turbocharged individualism of neoclassical economics or bonus-driven excesses of the modern financial sector. Norman points out that Smith’s approach to economic development was shaped by another large-scale financial disaster. In 1772, Douglas, Heron, & Co. – or Ayr Bank, as it was more widely known – collapsed when the Scottish economy entered a sharp recession. In the preceding years, the firm had over-expanded by providing cheap lines of credit to Scotland’s growing agricultural sector and other ‘favoured clients’. When the downturn hit, liquidity dried up and Ayr was left with £660,000 worth of debt – a massive sum in those days. In total, just four Scottish private banks survived the slump, leaving the nascent Scottish financial industry in a broken state.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith – whose friend and former pupil the Duke of Buccleuch was a partner in Ayr Bank – identifies the dangers of allowing finance to assume too prominent a role in the economy, particularly at the expense of more tangible forms of growth and production: ‘The commerce and industry of the country cannot be altogether so secure, when they are thus… suspended upon the Daedalian wings of paper money, as when they travel upon the solid ground of gold and silver.’

For Norman, this is evidence that Smith viewed the ‘Ayr Bank debacle’ as indicative of the risks associated with speculative lending and a hyper-competitive banking industry. Even at such an early stage of capitalist development, Smith grasped the ‘economic logic of a financial bubble of the way in which social and political factors can quickly turn a smaller problem into a larger one, and, when the money ran out, of [the bubble’s] ultimately disastrous consequences.’

It’s tempting to conclude from Norman’s account that Smith would have advocated tighter supervision of global market forces than our current political leadership seems willing to accept. And no doubt he would have been appalled by the catastrophic laissez-faire approach to international finance that prevailed among North Atlantic policy elites prior to the 2008 crash. But he might have been less inclined to agree that capitalism itself had the potential radically to undermine our collective democratic interests. Yet a decade on from the financial crisis, that is exactly what has happened. Under Donald Trump, the modest set of regulations imposed on Wall Street by Barack Obama have been cast aside. Many of the banks implicated in the 2008 crash are bigger today than they were ten years ago. House prices remain prohibitively high. Rates of consumer debt have breached their pre-crisis levels. And a growing number of economists expect another financial crisis to materialize at some point very soon. When it does, at least we can all be absolutely sure of one thing: the technocrats are not going to save us. They won’t even see it coming.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



Every year the Scottish Association of Literary Studies publishes an anthology of new writing: a gamut of stories, essays, poems and novel extracts. Readers aren’t given a context for any of the pieces, which is good. It means we have fewer expectations and the writing has to work on its own merits.

In the introduction to last year’s anthology, Diana Hendry pointed out that the editors of New Writing 2 (1984) sought to remind readers that NWS was a ‘vehicle for new writing rather than new writers’. It should, then, be a place where the best of Scotland’s scribblers, known and unknown, can be read and enjoyed. To its credit, NWS also pays writers for their contributions (with real money, not just free issues of their magazine).

So far, so good. It was a little disheartening then to read in the introduction to NWS 36 that Susie Maguire, one of this year’s ‘so-called Editors’ (her words), tells us that not one word is changed in any accepted submissions. The editors ‘don’t do any copy-editing – we can’t write to you and say, there’s a little problem with para 1 on page 3, if you could alter that phrasing we’d like the story better – nope. Can’t do that. This is often the reason why things that are in fact exciting, promising… startling or ingenious in concept, may not make the final list.’ I couldn’t help but think of that old proverb: for want of an editor, a story died. There are countless examples of writers who might still be unknowns if not for the behind-the-scenes work of a judicious editor. After all, what would T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land look like without Ezra Pound? At the extreme end, one thinks of Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver. Would the latter be so highly regarded now without the editorial interventions of the former? Still, the NWS approach – which is more like judging a prize – does mean that, if writers want to make the final cut, they have to be at the top of their game.

Of those writers who are playing serious ball here, there is Julie Rea, an unknown to me. Her story, ‘Shark’s Tooth’, has real energy and vigour. The narrator is a teenage girl growing up in a tenement block that, by the end of the story, is bulldozed to the ground. Her life is full of violence, abuse and despair, alleviated only by a friendship and the lines of a poem that lodges itself in her head. Like many of the writers here, Rea tends to milk the pathos, but there is a fine strand of humour too, such as when the narrator remembers her grandmother teaching her a prayer. ‘You’d lie on your pull-down sofa, listening, and she’d say something about heaven, something about bread every day, and there something about no being cunts to each other… and in the prayer, there was a bit about how God was gonnae deliver us from evil, and you think, Well could you hurry the fuck up then.’

On the whole, there is very little joie de vivre in NWS 36. The title of Lynsey May’s dystopian story sums it up: ‘Scars on their Knuckles’. I scoured the pages for laughs, but, alas, there were slim pickings. If I was hunting for tears, I could have wept for hours. It is the poets who inject most of the humour, and the poetry in general is more varied in tone than the prose, which is not surprising, given the sheer number of poets in Scotland at present. The contributions from Donald S. Murray and Juliet Anthill both take a witty look at infidelity. Anthill’s
‘A Night in Fermanagh’ describes a pair of lovers shacking up in a Catholic bed and breakfast and taking joy both in how they ‘rattled the Virgin Mary’ who watches over them at night, and in the proprietor’s air of reproach as she serves up their eggs and bacon in the morning. Murray’s ‘How the Loch Ness Monster Stole My Husband’ blends a wife’s suspicions about her husband’s night time movements with that universal sense we all have that some phenomena must exist, even if there is little evidence to prove it.

As one expects, there are quite a few pieces from tyro writers, which might explain the gloom. Writers still finding their way often fall back on sob-filled melodrama. They also tend to overwrite, stretch their extended metaphors to breaking point, pen wooden characters, and struggle with voice. All that is in evidence. Nevertheless, and regardless of quality, what one hopes from an anthology like this is a glimpse of The Way We Live Now. In this regard, Harry Giles’ prose poem ‘The Worker’ does a fair job. It is about a rather soppy, angst ridden millennial whose ‘busy life consists mostly of emails… the worker, in between emails, checks Twitter…’ It’s a poem trying to be too clever, mixing political theory and psychological self-counselling. Nevertheless, Giles seems to understand the narcissistic impoverishment of the Facebook generation. Other than this contribution, there seems to be a deficit of stories and poems that feature mobile phones or screens of any kind – this, by the way, is a common trait of most contemporary literature, which generally seems to ignore the Twittering classes. I was under the impression that most people spent their waking hours not gallivanting around in boring old reality, but on social media – trolling, sharing, commenting, and the like. Perhaps it’s all too strange for fiction.

There are countless examples of writers who might still be unknowns if not for the behind-thescenes work of a judicious editor.

If there is a lack of digital verisimilitude, there are plenty of stories that embrace a different kind of realism: the working-class experience. All in all, it seems a deeply unhappy one. Apart from Julie Rea’s story, the two pieces that stand out are Becky Carnaffin’s ‘My Sister Lives in a Council Flat’ and Douglas Bruton’s ‘Walk Don’t Run’. Bruton’s story has a teenager revealing her life-pains to her grandmother, who appears to be in a semi-vegetative state. Due to the older woman’s disability, the young girl thinks she can be open about her problems without fear of judgement or recriminations. The conception is excellent. Bruton shows a deft understanding that some stories can only be told under certain conditions – and he has a poet’s talent for creating stark imagery. The denouement, however, is too contrived to ring true.

Bruton’s piece is not about a writer per se, but stories about writers and artists do abound. Brian Hamill’s ‘Thinking These Thoughts’ is about a woman trying to write a story, but too caught up in the need for drama to get started on it. Hamill has a fine way of excavating the lineaments of consciousness; he shows that a story need not be a slave to narrative. Kevin MacNeil’s rather trite ‘Makar’, set in Borges’ Argentina, melds the idea of authorial effacement – ‘only narratives remain’ – with the Zen Buddhist approach to selfhood; Kirsten McQuarrie’s ‘MMM’ fictionalizes an ageing Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and writes her back into Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s life story; and Ian Madden’s ‘Cracks in the Edificeof Sheer Reason’ examines an older writer teetering on the edge of memory. Even the poets are in the market for metafiction. Mark Russell’s poem ‘Drama’ ends in a group of schoolchildren deciding to make a play out of their rumbustious discussion.

Some might think that all this writing about writing is a result of too many authors being churned through the processing plant of creative writing classes – these production line scribes lack the experience of other worlds or simply write to textbook formulae, or so the argument goes. There’s some truth to it. Nevertheless, metafiction is in the bedrock of Scottish fiction. One only need to think of our finest: James Hogg, Muriel Spark, Alasdair Gray, Kirsty Gunn. In Scotland, there is a long tradition of fiction about the art of creation, and the struggle this entails, whether that be economic, political, creative or all three. The conundrum for new writers taking forward this tradition is how they use it to produce work that is original and daring.

Here we come to the central disappoint-ment of this year’s New Writing Scotland. At best, when opening an anthology of this sort, one hopes to find work that astonishes, that uses language in an unexpected and bracing way, or that at least makes you see the world afresh. Julie Rea – and to an extent Brian Hamill – seem the only writers on the right track. Rea certainly is a writer for the future. As for much of the rest, they pass the competence test, but not what could be called the Ezra Pound test: to make it new. Moreover, one can’t help but think there must be something ‘startling’ or ‘ingenious’ out there, but that, for some inexplicable reason, it didn’t make the cut.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



According  to Chambers Dictionary – perhaps the only book on our shelves that earns its daily keep – the word ‘maverick means ‘a person who does not conform, a determined individualist’. True mavericks are few. One such was John Calder who died in August in the midst of the Edinburgh Festival at the age of 91.

In appearance he did not look like a maverick. On the contrary, he could have been a fully paid up member of the establishment. He wore a dark suit and black shoes and was never seen without a shirt and tie. This is not normally the garb of bohemians. He also preferred stuffy clubs, such as the Scottish Arts Club, and what used to be called ‘fancy’ restaurants, such as Brasserie Lipp in Paris, where he had an apartment, and Edinburgh’s Cafe Royal. Few were the days when Calder did not enjoy a good meal washed down with a glass or three of wine. Though he often complained – he was among other things a professional curmudgeon – that as a publisher he was never far from the breadline the evidence appeared to suggest otherwise. Opera was one of his many enthusiasms and he would fly from one side of the globe to the other to see a new production. The ‘new’ was another of his compulsions. He seemed constantly to be on the move, eager to bait the complacent or shock the easily shocked. It did not endear him to the real establishment.

His record as a publisher is unlikely ever to be trumped. From 1949 he published eighteen Nobel Prize winners and around 1500 books. Were it not for Calder many French and European writers would never have been introduced to English-speaking readers. In 1962, in concert with Jim Haynes and Sonia Orwell, he organized the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference which was attended by many of the best writers of their time, including Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Marguerite Duras, Muriel Spark, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller. Among the indigenous brigade were Hugh MacDiarmid and Alexander Trocchi who gave their international colleagues a memorable example of the ancient Scottish tradition of flyting. Headlines duly ensued, guaranteeing that the event would become part of literary lore.

This, of course, was to Calder’s delight. He was never happier than when in the eye of a publicity storm. For him, culture was too important to be left to government agencies and civic panjandrums. In that regard he was the opposite of those Edinburgh grandees who believed that the festival simply offered a venue for licentious behaviour. For once in their sanctimonious lives they were right. Calder never tired of recalling the second night of the Traverse, in whose opening he was also instrumental, when an actress was accidentally stabbed during a performance of Sartre’s Huis Clos. While some ran to call an ambulance Calder was more interested in alerting the press, knowing full well that such publicity was gold dust.

Calder’s restlessness drove him to open bookshops, stand for parliament – what an adornment he would have been at Holyrood – run an arts festival and write a number of books, including his racy autobiography, Pursuit, and, as recently as 2013, The Garden of Eros which he subtitled ‘The Story of the Paris Expatriates and the Post-War Literary Scene’. Calder himself was part of the story. If Scotland was the place to which he was tied by genes and history – though born in Montreal he was the scion of an Alloa brewing family – Paris was his spiritual home. Even forty years on from the age of Hemingway and Fitzgerald its allure was seductive. As Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast, ‘When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.’ In Paris, Calder met many fellow mavericks, such as the publishers Maurice Girodais and Barney Rosset, and the writer with whom he formed a personal and professional bond, Samuel Beckett. Beckett, he recalled, ‘had a perfectly clear vision of what life is about, and saw it as an unfortunate accident, a tragedy, both because mankind has very little natural kindness, and man mistreats his fellow humans out of some innate cruel instinct….’ It may be that this was Calder’s vision too. Certainly, he viewed with some amusement what Balzac, the great chronicler of nineteenth-century Paris, called ‘La Comédie humaine’.

Among the many writers Calder published one of the most significant was the aforementioned Trocchi who is featured in this issue of the SRB. Unlike his publisher, Trocchi did look and behave like a bohemian, as described by James Campbell, who was one of first people to interview him. Calder published Glasgow-born Trocchi’s two novels, Young Adam and Cain’s Book. Addicted to drugs, which incredibly he was able to acquire through the National Health Service, Trocchi died in 1984 aged 59. On the jacket of Cain’s Book, its author had this to say: ‘This work is an act, an exercise in phenomenology, a planting of flags, a moment to moment chart of my own processes in extremity. The identity of the “junkie”…was consciously chosen. The resulting experience is by definition that of an alien in a society of conformers, a personal cosmology of inner space.’

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



In June of 1972, I hitchhiked from Glasgow to Istanbul, via Bulgaria, then down to the Aegean island of Spetses, where I spent the summer leading tourists from coast to coast on horseback. The autumn changeover swept me to Israel, Kibbutz Mishmarot, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. I arrived back in Glasgow in November, with the pages of a novel stowed in the bag, so far untitled.

The model for the work was Cain’s Book. Alexander Trocchi’s best-known novel – though it was only barely a novel – was originally published in New York in 1960. When a friend gave it to me to read before my departure, I was electrified. Even the title had something extra, some glow, that the titles of other books didn’t possess. “Cain’s Book”: the book left out of the Bible. The book of the Pariah dog, the un-Chosen. Trocchi lived on the extreme margin of society, and would have liked to go farther out than that. For me, the book itself became a kind of Bible. Other novels were measured against it, and found lacking. The author’s hollow-cheeked face stared at you from beneath bushy brows on the cover of John Calder’s Jupiter Books edition: an inverted prophet, a Glasgow hard man in revolt against social constraints not of his making; wise, tough, against. I continued with my earnest pastiche:

‘The hangman is mocking me again…. My head is lowered to the ground. I know I can rise and walk away, but only when the hangman’s smile is removed will I be able to stare into his eyes. That is the condition of my release. To leave now, while he still laughs, I would have to rearrange my terms. And that I refuse to do.’

The editor of Glasgow University Magazine, known as GUM, heard through mutual friends that I had this and other writings, and we arranged to meet. By the age of twenty-one, Jack Haggerty had a developed literary taste and a sense of style far in advance of his contemporaries. While others tricked themselves out in Goulimine beads and amulets and embroidered tunics, Jack preferred to dress in a sober suit, sometimes with that truly exotic accessory, a tie. Everyone grew their hair long and parted it in the middle, while Jack’s was tidy and properly cut.

Every Friday he bought a new novel in hardback from John Smith’s Bookshop in St Vincent Street, frequently by an unfashionable author – he recommended the English provincial novelist Stanley Middleton, for example – while the rest of us surfed over the Hip Bibliography (anything by Hermann Hesse or Albert Camus, bits of Rimbaud, the Black Mountain poets), trusting in paperbacks, sometimes borrowed or stolen. Jack read with attention to nuance and style. Short sentences create one mood; long, unbroken paragraphs something different. Adjectives and, particularly, adverbs – here he might invoke Graham Greene, his ultimate arbiter – should be handled with care. The backbone of every sentence is the verb, therefore it must be made as strong as possible. Tone is all.

For a brief period, like most of those in our circle – I was an exception – Jack was a student at the university, but after a year he quit his courses in order to pursue a career as a journalist on a local newspaper. Nevertheless, he continued to act as editor of the university magazine. No one needed to know that he was no longer a student. Those who did know didn’t seem to care. He was divided into two: Dr Jack and Mr Haggerty. During the day, he worked as a reporter in Clydebank, near Glasgow, a town that had gone into decline with the shipbuilding industry it had existed to serve. The opening of a new hospital, a school’s annual sports day, a grandmother who gave chase to a thief while wielding her frying pan; Jack was there, notebook in hand. By night, he returned to the pubs and cafés of Byres Road, in the university district, and assumed the role of literary editor. His parents lived in a modest council flat on a housing estate on the Western outskirts of Glasgow, and Jack continued to stay there, unlike most people we knew, who lived in a bedsit or a head pad (not a ‘hippie flat’) shared with others.

He had grand plans for the student journal. Jack was a devoted reader of the New Statesman, Encounter, the TLS. He would put on an amiably sceptical expression when I mentioned International Times or Rolling Stone. If someone was going to be in London, Jack would ask to be brought back Esquire – ‘Esquire magazine’, he would say – or Harper’s, with specific instructions as to where it could be bought on Charing Cross Road. When we arranged to meet in a café or one of the restaurants he liked to frequent, I might arrive to find him already at the table, pencil in hand, marking some well-turned phrase in a review, or underlining a word that was new to him. He would later slip those words into conversation. Epicene, he muttered once; Brando was epicene. Diaphanous – referring to the light blue blouse on the pretty girl at the party. A decorous unbuttoning gesture. ‘Wouldn’t it be marvellous to be the one…?’

Physically, he could be seen walking through Glasgow or standing at the bar in the Horsehoe in Drury Street with me at six o’clock, beginning a conversation that would last until midnight. In his imagination, we were in New York, where he occupied the skin of Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal, writers who held the place in his esteem that folk or rock musicians did in that of others. It was he who introduced me to the works of James Baldwin, a man who came to figure importantly in my life; and to books by Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others. To judge solely by his first-name conversation – ‘and you remember what Truman replied when Norman said…’ – you might have thought they were intimate friends. Neither of us had ever been to America. Jack had never travelled outside Britain, except to go to Dublin for a wedding.

He was capable of quoting long passages of prose, verbatim, as others could reel off poetry, and he recounted anecdotes about modern writers as if he had heard them from someone who was there when the action took place. He was there, in every sense – in every sense but the real one – and there was a good place to be with Jack. To grant Vidal or Mailer a continuous speaking part in his imagination was to lend a glow to the dank West End night in 1973: a glow of words, the right words in the right order, one of Jack’s maxims. All the while, he was keeping up with English authors, who offered a more naturalistic reflection of his own experience, and whom he esteemed equally. Baldwin occupied no greater place in his pantheon than Stan Barstow. Styron was not a grander figure than David Storey. Mailer was a prince, but there was an honourable place at the Court of King Jack for modest Stanley Middleton.

Jack read a sheaf of my stories – I held back my Cain’s Book meanderings which, now that I was removed from sun and sea and sky, seemed to have lost course – and printed one of them in GUM, with an illustration. I began to assume the role of assistant editor. We had the right to use a small room in a university building on Gilmorehill, but Jack preferred to do most of the magazine business from a little café-restaurant next to Hillhead Subway station in the dead centre of Byres Road. He ate there most evenings, the only person of my acquaintance who never hesitated to dine out, and who knew how to conduct himself when he did so. My introduction to the look and taste of spaghetti carbonara, even the sound of the words, took place in this café. The sumptuous plate was followed by Black Forest gateau and then ‘un espresso’– splendours suggestive of the other world from which I had lately returned, the one beyond dark-at-4pm, drookit Glasgow.

All the waitresses knew him, and he always left tips. Jack was a figment of Jack’s imagination, with the leading role in a movie called Jack, directed not by Jack himself but by his brother. George Haggerty really was in that glamorous American world, though in his case it was Hollywood, where he was learning to be a film director.

One evening, Jack summoned me to his office – that is to say, the café next to the station. He finished his carbonara, lit a Gitane and hooked an arm over the back of his chair. He said that the editor of Cosmopolitan had once gathered all the staff together in the boardroom and announced that he wanted them to come up with feature ideas for a new magazine which the company was about to launch. Brilliant suggestions poured in, whereupon the boss revealed that there was no new magazine. So, he wanted to know, why had those ideas not been put forward for Cosmopolitan?

After that, Jack began to speak about his latest plans for GUM. First and most important, we had to find a new design and a new title. GUM? Bubble gum? There was a huge department store in Moscow called GUM. Did we want to be identified with that? What would Norman say if asked to write for a magazine with a name like GUM? Never mind the news about student associations, charity drives and so forth, which we also ought to get rid of.

For a title we settled on the Moving Review. I was the one who came up with the name, though it wasn’t entirely original. There was an underground magazine run by Jeff Nuttall in the north of England called Moving Times. Trocchi was associated with it, and William Burroughs was a contributor. I had never seen a copy, but the name had stuck with me. Jack thought about it for a few seconds, then murmured: ‘I like it… yes, I like it, my friend.’ At these moments, you were expected to feel proud, and you did. There was an assistant editor called Brian, a student – so much the better – who had another idea for the title. I forget what it was. Brian felt that I had usurped the place in Jack’s kitchen cabinet that he had occupied himself. With good reason. He was the link to the university. Jack chose my title anyway, and Brian was made to feel that he was part of the old regime.

Jack had the idea of placing at the centre of the Moving Review interviews with celebrated writers, in this way satisfying his desire for big names. He would telephone somebody out of the blue – John Braine, for example, or Alan Sillitoe, two of his Angry Young Men idols – and would hold them in conversation for an hour or more. He had the knack of keeping up a pertinent line of questioning, at the same time sounding intimate, without being intrusive. The writers must have been flattered by his familiarity with their work, by his curiosity, his strange air of worldliness despite being so young. Some kind of future rendezvous would be provisionally agreed.

One Saturday afternoon, as we were coming out of a café of the superior kind in Buchanan Street, where I had chosen the cheapest thing on the menu and Jack the most expensive, he crooked his arm and looked at his wristwatch. ‘Oh dear. Three o’clock. I was supposed to be meeting Alan Sillitoe in London….’


‘Right now… at his house in Ladbroke something.’ It was the first time he had mentioned it.

Jack wanted those good ideas. In the café next to the Subway station I proposed an article on the subject of Trocchi. Why wasn’t he talked about in the pubs and lecture theatres, or written about on the literary pages of the heavy Sundays or in Encounter? The novel was in a dire condition in Britain, yet Cain’s Book, a masterpiece, a mastercrime, was never mentioned. And he was Scottish. So much of contemporary Scottish writing was ‘stale porridge’, Trocchi had once pronounced at an event in Edinburgh, at which Hugh MacDiarmid and others were present. ‘Of what is interesting in Scottish literature of the past twenty years, I myself have written it all.’

In their ignorance, journalists, critics, the reading public, dismissed this majestic declaration. In my ignorance, I embraced it. Jack stroked his chin without at first giving a response. He had heard of Trocchi only from me, had never read his infamous book, which was not his kind of thing. Cain’s Book was a minority taste – ‘a cult’, and I was the most enthusiastic cultist of all. I knew of few others.

Not only did Trocchi live outside society; he lived outside the law. He was a drug addict. He had devoted his life to the habit, in a literary fashion, in the tradition of Baudelaire and Cocteau. Opium was not necessarily a prison. On the contrary, with heroin in his veins he was free – super-free. ‘I would recommend that heroin be placed with lucid literature pertaining to use on the counters of all chemists (to think that a man should be allowed a gun and not a drug!) and sold openly to anyone over twenty-one.’

Cain’s Book revelled in the kind of literary tricks that excited me. For example, the anti-hero, Joe Necchi – Trocchi himself, in every relevant particular – is in the middle of writing a novel, and the title of the novel is Cain’s Book. One evening, after having shot up heroin in a New York pad with some derelict cronies, he reads aloud a passage from the work-in-progress by firelight. But the section in question does not exist elsewhere in Cain’s Book – that is to say, in the novel you are holding in your hand. The reader is steered towards the proposition that there is another book of the same title, existing in an alternative zone – a hidden book, of which we are granted only a glimpse: a pair of hooves beneath the hem of the curtain. It was as if an actor in a film had halted the projector and stepped out of the screen to stand before the spectator. A film by Cocteau, the great modernist conjuror, in my eyes, from the fantasy country of France before and after the war. Trocchi was from Glasgow, not a fantasy land at all; it was the land in which I had first read his book.

Trocchi described with precision and some beauty the effects of narcotic drugs. I didn’t feel the desire to emulate the author or his character. I was, rather, intoxicated by the effects of this writing, a species of magic, even when I could not fully understand it, as any form of magic remains at best partly understood. I carried Cain’s Book with me to the pubs of Glasgow, the souks of Turkey, the ports of Greece… and preached its gospel like a downy, adolescent priest.

As I approached the landing where he stood, he said: ‘I was just about to give myself a fix. Can you wait?’

* * *

Finally, the editor showed his approval. But not a literary essay, please. He preferred the big projects. ‘Why not an interview? Do it long. We’ll rediscover him.’

I wouldn’t have known how to go about finding the man whose face I had gazed at so often on the cover of the John Calder paperback. How to start, even? Jack had no such hesitation. The next day he called the publisher in London and asked for the author’s telephone number, explaining what it was we hoped to do. With his mysterious power of authority, he got straight through to Calder himself – like us, like Trocchi, a Scot, which might have helped – all done from the telephone box on the street outside our ‘office’. Calder gave him the number and promised to send a copy of Trocchi’s latest publication, Man at Leisure, a collection of poems. Jack then rang Trocchi and they talked for a quarter of an hour, as Jack pressed coins into the slot. The great man was flattered by the proposal. He was himself a former student of Glasgow University, news which surprised and pleased Jack. He would welcome the reporter from GUM (we hadn’t changed the title yet) whom Jack recommended, and asked that he – me – call to make arrangements.

How did Jack learn to do all this – to ring publishers and request review copies and telephone numbers with complete confidence? He had met few people of serious literary accomplishment, probably only one or two who had actually written a book.

‘If he invites me to shoot up heroin with him,’ I asked, ‘what then?’ Jack didn’t hesitate. ‘You must accept. Go ahead. It’ll look great in the piece.’

I took the night train to London – the cheapest – and arrived at Trocchi’s place one wintry Sunday at noon. He lived with his wife and two young sons in a top-floor apartment at 4 Observatory Gardens, between Notting Hill Gate and High Street Kensington, in those days still a dowdy district. I can picture myself from outside my body, as if in yet another film, ringing the doorbell – the clench on the heart, the halt on the voice. Trocchi proved himself to be not just a tough face on the cover of a Jupiter Book by responding on the intercom, the first of its kind I had ever encountered.

‘Ah. It’s you.’ The door opened with a metallic click and I began climbing the stairs to his apartment. He was waiting on the landing at the top floor, looking down at the figure below, a man of enormous frame in a black t-shirt, with a protruding stomach and a nose like the inverted horn of a rhino – a nose so large it was impossible not to focus on it. He smiled when he saw the long-haired emissary from his home town. I wrote: ‘One is immediately struck by his sallow complexion and the scars on his arms which are white like snow.’

As I approached the landing where he stood, he said: ‘I was just about to give myself a fix. Can you wait?’

I had walked through the mirror, like an actor in a film by Cocteau, and entered into the pages of Cain’s Book.

* * *

My girlfriend of the time was with me when I pressed that first intercom buzzer. Trocchi invited us to sit down in the living room and served tea together with muffins hot from the oven, which he recommended with a bafflingly un-outlaw-like enthusiasm. ‘Danish, I think they are.’ We met his wife Lyn, shielding herself on the sofa behind dark glasses, though it was December, and two boys, one of whom obeyed a gentle command to lower the volume on the television. It all seemed disquietingly normal. He had the decorators in, and suggested that I return the next day, when he would be better organized and we would have more time in which to do ‘this thing’, our interview. Do it properly, he said.

I loved the sound of it. His voice was still strongly Scottish, and I was already planning to re-read Cain’s Book through the filter of our native accent. In the meantime, he gave me a copy of Helen and Desire, the most mainstream of his six erotic novels written in Paris in the 1950s and published by the Olympia Press, and an American journal with an essay about him by the Black Mountain poet Edward Dorn. I suppose he hoped it might lend some seriousness to the article I was proposing to write.

The next day I returned alone and we settled ourselves – on the floor, of course – in his wide attic studio. There were books everywhere, as well as loose-leaf binders, a typewriter and letters unfolded from their nearby envelopes. A ‘comfortable shambles’, I called it in the article. ‘Like are you just going to fire questions at me?’ His sentences were dependent on that word ‘like’, the peculiar Scottishness of which has been overlooked. He apologized for the mess. ‘Like that’s one thing about drugs. They certainly make you disorganized.’ Then the wide Trocchi grin, with its invitation to complicity.

The subject was not slow to arise. In Cain’s Book, and in anything about him I laid my hands on to read, which wasn’t much, Trocchi played the evangelist in promoting the salvational effects of heroin. It was one of his gimmicks, like asking you to wait while he gave himself a fix, a part of his grand outlaw persona. Drugs removed him from the mundane despond. Though I didn’t want to share in it, the drug-taking nevertheless had an outsider gleam, and any hint of outsiderism was sure to appeal to me.

Jack was more pragmatic and mature. Before I left Glasgow, he had insisted that I read to Trocchi a few lines from an article by Cyril Connolly which had recently appeared in the Sunday Times: ‘A striking observation is the anti-intellectual climate that prevails in the networks. All who have known someone addicted to drugs… will have remarked on the increasing indifference to reality,
whether to the time of day… or reading, or any of the pleasures and passions, food,
drink, love, sex, places of art or the acquisition of knowledge, which make life worth living, friendship a joy or conversation a pleasure.”

As soon as I read this aloud, I knew that it described better the sphere in which I aspired to live than the scenes of junkies hungrily seeking an uptown fix in Cain’s Book, or in anything written by Burroughs or one of the other underground authors handily passed around. I didn’t even smoke dope. Yet I continued with my romance, for I enjoyed it. It was exactly that: a romance. It consoled me and provided a temporary rescue from my state of under-development. It occupied the place in my imagination that the works of Tolkien did in that of others. They didn’t really think they were going to enter Middle Earth and meet the wizard Gandalf, but the fantasy consoled them.

Trocchi treated Connolly’s eloquent objection seriously. In my 4,000 word profile which appeared in GUM several weeks later, in February 1973 – the longest piece about Trocchi to have been published to date – I wrote: ‘Trocchi looked at me a little sadly. “What is one going to say about that?”’ He answered with reference to some great literary figures of the past. Here is what he said, transcribed from the recording I made of the interview on a borrowed tape machine the size of a small suitcase: ‘I suppose up to a point it’s true. But it’s referring to a particular group of people who, whether they used drugs or not, would not be involved in this or that intellectual pursuit, would not be interested in reading. I think it’s true that many people who use drugs do use them as armour against experience but I don’t think that could have been said about Coleridge, for example, or de Quincey, who if nothing else were intellectuals.’

He didn’t wish to suggest that it was necessary for everyone, or anyone, to turn on to heroin. From the tape again: ‘I think that for me at a certain time it was necessary to take up this attitude and go far out – but it’s something that can either enrich your experience or destroy you. It can destroy you very easily if you give way to all the social fictions about it. People tend to become what society believes they are.’

What undermined and ultimately ridiculed the outsider stance was the difficulty of obtaining the drugs he wanted, and the penalties attached to doing so. One of the reasons Trocchi had returned to Britain from the United States was to be eligible for the prescription of narcotics on the National Health. In short, the great outlaw became more dependent than most others on the rules established by the society he wanted his readers and literary peers to think he was plotting to overthrow. Who ever heard of a state-subsidized outlaw? He had walked into a trap outlined in a passage in Cain’s Book which had always delighted me:

‘For centuries we in the West have been dominated by the Aristotelian impulse to classify. It is no doubt because conventional classifications became part of the prevailing economic structure that all real revolt is hastily fixed like a bright butterfly on a classificatory pin; the anti-play, Godot, being from one point of view unanswerable, is with all speed acclaimed “best play of the year”; anti-literature is rendered innocuous by granting it a place in conventional histories of literature.’

While I was thrilled at having laid eyes on my hero, my girlfriend Pamela, when she saw him that first day and sat on the sofa sipping tea next to dark-eyed Lyn, said she could ‘smell evil about his person’. I was too much in awe for any such perception, but it chimed with the opening poem in Man at Leisure, which had arrived from Calder just in time for me to read it on the journey to London: ‘Where to begin / which sin / under what sun…?’

Where to begin with sin? And where to end? It is well established now, though I was ignorant of it then, that Lyn had been forced into prostitution in the US by Trocchi, in order to raise money for drugs. She was a junkie herself, and died not long after our encounter in Observatory Gardens. Another of his gimmicks was to say things like, ‘I’ve no objection, if I myself am incapable for one reason or another, to finding some young bull for my wife…’. I didn’t put that into the piece.

It was the flipside of the charm, though charm there still was. And there was another sort of charm for me in hearing the names of Robert Creeley, R. D. Laing, William Burroughs and others, let fall elegantly, without name-dropping clumsiness. Norman Mailer had referred to Trocchi as ‘the most brilliant man I’ve met’. Creeley had written a gnomic preface to a 1967 reissue of one of his pornographic novels. ‘In Thongs, as in other novels he has written in this genre, Trocchi defines the isolation of persons in sexual rapport….’ With Pamela beside me on the train, reading Helen and Desire, I conveyed the tape like contraband home to Glasgow, a blend of callowness and diligence. In my bedsit, I wrote a report of the adventure in longhand and gave it to Jack, who printed it in GUM, without benefit of editing.

Among the material I had brought back was a short article in typescript by Burroughs, ‘M.O.B.’, which in the Burroughs lexicon stood for ‘My Own Business’. I had asked Trocchi for a piece of writing of his own for GUM, and he regretted not being able to offer something. But he held out ‘M.O.B.’ with an easy smile and said, ‘Why not publish this?’ It consisted of three pages, in Gestetner duplicator form. ‘Just phone up Bill and say I suggested it.’

He wrote down Burroughs’s Mayfair telephone number: 01 839 5259. And when I returned to Glasgow I dialled the number, Jack-style, and sure enough Burroughs picked up the phone, listened to my stammered explanation and answered my polite inquiries.

Answered in his fashion, that is. To everything I said – everything – Burroughs replied, ‘Shu-ah’, in an elasticated drawl. Or ‘Yea-ah!’ So, permission given? ‘Yea-ah!’ William Burroughs could from then on be named among the contributors to our magazine. Money wasn’t mentioned (there was no such thing anyway). He became expansive only when I asked for his address, to which would be sent a copy of the Moving Review (as it was by the time his piece appeared in December 1973): ‘8 Dook Street Saint James’, and put down the phone.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



In August, Edinburgh’s City Art Centre opened its doors for a surprising exhibition: a major retrospective by an artist no one had heard of. Edwin G. Lucas lived and worked in Edinburgh all his life, and produced an extraordinary body of modern painting but, when he died in 1990, was entirely unknown in the art world.

The work on show is a rich and confident oeuvre exploring many of the facets of modern painting including cubism, surrealism and abstraction. At a time when much of the Scottish art establishment was still suspicious of modernity, and most artists with an experimental bent were heading for the continent, Lucas created these paintings without leaving either Edinburgh or his full-time job in the civil service.

The story of how he did it is told in the accompanying book by City Art Centre curator Helen E. Scott. It is a reminder that talent alone is no guarantee of recognition or success, and that an artist who emerges in the wrong place, without the right connections, might find it difficult to attain his or her moment in the sun. But it is also a reminder that public or critical recognition is only one part – perhaps a lesser part – of what making art is about.

Edwin G Lucas was born in Leith in 1911 and grew up in Juniper Green; the landscapes of the Pentlands and the Water of Leith feature again and again in his work. At George Heriot’s, he showed aptitude for art, but his family stopped him applying for art school, determined that he would not suffer the fate of his artist uncle, George Handel Lucas, who had struggled financially. We don’t know the extent to which Lucas tried to appeal this decision. However, when he left school in 1929, he took a job in the Estate Duty Office, which enabled him to study for a degree in Law, and continued to paint. At first, he painted landscapes in watercolour in his spare time, submitting them to artists’ exhibiting societies. He might have continued like this, a civil servant with a weekend painting hobby, but he took a very different path. Scott’s piecing together of how this came about is a matter of deduction and guesswork, but goes something like this.

Through his tennis club, Lucas met Anne McDonald Smith, a student at Edinburgh College of Art. They became good friends, and Lucas was drawn into a circle of young artists studying at ECA in the 1930s, including William Gear and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. On at least one occasion, they holidayed together at Carradale, Argyll. A photograph from the time shows Barns-Graham painting Lucas’ portrait – he is perched on the back of an armchair wearing what appears to be a wool sweater, a jacket and a pair of shorts. It’s the briefest window into a time of easy camaraderie of which other records – including the painting – are now lost.

While he might have felt that he was done with surrealism, it was not done with him.

It must be remembered that Edinburgh in the 1930s was a fertile place for the avant-garde. The research done by Alice Strang at the National Galleries of Scotland for the exhibition A New Era: Modern Scottish Art 1900-1950 reveals how artists’ societies in the city were exhibiting work from Europe. The Society of Scottish Artists, for example, of which Lucas was a member, showed work by Klee, Braque, Picasso, Dali and de Chirico in the 1930s. Hubert Wellington, the principal of Edinburgh College of Art, had turned the college into one of the most progressive in the UK, while Stanley Cursiter, at the National Galleries of Scotland, was hatching an ambitious plan for a gallery dedicated to modern and contemporary art in a new Bauhaus-influenced building off Queen Street. Margaret Mellis, another member of Barns-Graham’s circle, who moved to London in 1937, proclaimed it rather dull by comparison.

In 1939, the New Era Group – five young artists, including Gear and Tom Pow (father of the writer of the same name) – held their first (and only) exhibition in the city. Their work was ambitious and colourful, responding directly to developments in European painting, and to the growing interest in psychology and the unconscious. All this must have rubbed off on Lucas who, in 1939, began a productive period of painting engaging with similar ideas.

He began working in oils in the mid 1930s and, when Barns-Graham left Edinburgh in 1939, started to sublet her studio in Alva Street. A slew of ambitious paintings followed: ‘The Shape of the Night’, one of his earliest works inspired by surrealism, which is now in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland; ‘Moonlit Walk’, with its Van Gogh-like sky; the densely patterned semi-abstract ‘The Outpost’ and ‘A Light on the Styx’, placing geometric shapes within a landscape, in a way reminiscent of Paul Nash. Lucas would describe this period later as ‘a brief flirtation with surrealism’, which he believed ended in August 1940 when he painted ‘The Schism – Final Diagnosis’, also called ‘A Farewell to Surrealism’. But, while he might have felt he was done with surrealism, it was not done with him. Its influence can be seen in many of his works for the next decade.

As a conscientious objector during World War II, Lucas was assigned to hospital work in Stirling and then Inverness. However, in 1944, he was back in Edinburgh, renting the studio in Alva Street under his own name, and painting as productively as ever. By this point, he regarded his watercolour landscapes as ‘divertimenti’ – light diversions from the main purpose. His focus was his oil painting, which he pursued as determinedly as ever.

Although the only formal training he had was at evening glasses at ECA, Lucas lacked neither ambition nor confidence. Breaking with traditional, representational forms of art takes courage – it is not unusual to see artists in this period, Paul Nash among them, struggling to make that break, trying out a range of approaches to the problem. Lucas seemed to apply himself to this with vigour, combining representative elements (he was a very fine draughtsman) with pattern, shape, symbolism and colour. All of his paintings are colourful. A visit to his studio on a dreich Edinburgh day must have been like walking into a paintbox. In this, too, he bucks the trends commonly associated with Scottish art.

Helen Scott describes his approach as follows: ‘Using surrealism as the starting point for his mission, he cultivated an original and highly imaginative manner of painting according to his own idiosyncratic vision of the world. He referenced wider modernist approaches, but ultimately his work was unique.’ Lucas did not pin his colours to any ‘school’ or movement. He might have suffered for it; galleries prefer artists to inhabit the pigeon-holes of recognizable styles. But, like Burns’ ‘man o’ independent mind’ he seems to have been quietly proud of his stance.

His independence of mind also mani-fested itself in his use of strikingly diverse styles. He wrote little about his own art, but in one autobiographical note in the 1980s, he wrote that ‘the purpose of art was the enlargement of experience and, in painting, that meant continual innovation and the refusal to create a personal style by self-repetition’. This, too, he stuck to, faithfully. In the City Art Centre, his strange and threatening domestic scene, ‘Together’ (later renamed ‘Terrorism’) hangs near ‘Girl on the Bus’, colourful and cubist, and ‘The Human Situation’, symbolist and reminiscent of Dali or Yves Tanguy. Each could be the work of a different artist, though confident draughtsmanship and a love of colour runs through all.

By 1950, Lucas clearly felt it was time to set out his stall and get his work noticed. He held an exhibition in the New Gallery, Shandwick Place – very likely renting the space himself – and showed 94 works, oils, watercolours and drawings. If this was to be his big introduction to the art world, he was to be disappointed. The Scotsman critic sounds a little nonplussed by what he saw: ‘This is an idiosyncratic show in which nature is generally seen in a bizarre, patterned and highly coloured way.’ He praised Lucas’ ‘excellent qualities of draughtsmanship’ but concluded: ‘In some of the portraits, as in most of the landscapes, the work is individual in the wrong way.’

Lucas tried again the next year with a second show, at least half of which was new work. It took place during the festival, and – perhaps swamped by the number of events happening elsewhere in the city – got fewer notices than the previous show. Less than a year later after that, he stopped painting, and did not paint again in oils for thirty years.

In 1952 Lucas stopped painting, and did not paint in oils again for thirty years.


This was no fit of pique. Lucas’ sons describe him as a mild-mannered and modest man who now had other priorities in his life. In 1952, at the age of 41, he married Marjorie McCulloch, a fellow law graduate, and the births of Frank and Alan followed. In an autobiographical note written in 1989 (as always, in the third person) he wrote that ‘in the atmosphere of domestic and family responsibilities the conditions in which he had formerly worked no longer existed’.

But he did not forget about painting. A room in the family home in Ann Street was always known as ‘the studio’. In 1980, after he had retired and his sons had left home, he returned to painting, looking back at the canvases he had stored and, by his own admission, finding them ‘quite impressive’. The paintings produced during the next few years, though relatively small in number, seem to flow seamlessly from those he made in the 1950s, working with the same ideas and moving them forward. For perhaps the first time, he worked with pure abstraction.

However, if he had hoped for a late flourishing, it was cut short by problems with his sight. In 1986, he wrote, poignantly, in his diary: ‘Farewell dreams of doing anything significant in the painting line. I shall still paint, but for my own amusement.’ In 1990, the year he died, he donated ‘Caley Station, Edinburgh’, one of his most striking paintings, to the City Art Centre collection, making it the first of his works to enter a public collection.

It is possible to understand the story of Edwin G Lucas as a series of missed opportunities: if only his family had allowed him to go to art school; if only his experimental work had been picked up and encouraged; if only he had worked in a signature style. Yet, he seems not to have been disappointed. His last self portrait, painted in 1986, is the work of a man who has the measure of himself, taking a calm, clear-sighted look at his life without regret. Scott writes: ‘More important to Lucas [than recognition] was his fidelity to his personal creative vision, his restless search for an expression of artistic truth that was unfettered by establishment conventions or popular trends.’

It’s possible that the Scottish art world in the 1950s was not ready for Lucas’ extraordinary work. The majority of Scottish artists at the time working with the avant-garde succeeded outside Scotland. He lacked a strong connection with an art school, or with an established group or movement, which might have offered connections and support. Yet, recognition can be a double-edged sword. Commercial success brings its own pressures, to conform to fashion, or continue producing work in a style which has been successful rather than experimenting with new ideas. Lucas was in a situation some artists might envy: financially secure, and free to do exactly what he liked.

And he did. The lack of attention his work received seemed, chiefly, to give him greater freedom. Every painting was a fresh experiment. It is one of the things which gives his work its uniqueness. It is not without irony that he is finding a new audience today, in an art world which seems to value uniqueness above all. Those who champion his work today can do so secure in the knowledge that there is no such thing as being ‘individual in the wrong way’.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



History, Gore Vidal believed, was too important to be left to historians. He was particularly exercised by American academic historians whom he invariably prefaced with the word ‘fucking’. In Vidal’s opinion they had ruined history and turned readers off it by making it indigestible. Like Sir Walter Scott, with whom he had more in common than one might think, he tried to recreate the past in a manner that would encourage anyone interested in it to find out more.

His aim was to stick as close to the facts as possible. His jousts with academic historians were many and bloody. Vidal did not suffer those he regarded as fools gladly and rejoiced in correcting their errors and highlighting howlers. History, as T.M. Devine often delights in asserting, may be the ‘queen of all disciplines’ but it is not a science, such as mathematics, whose practitioners were the first to claim that sobriquet. It is subjective and selective and as open to the winds of fashion as are writers of fiction. Moreover, the story of eras lost in the mists of time is elusive and dependant on the available sources. Meanwhile, most if not all the witnesses are dead and those who left a record must be treated with caution. The past is not so much a foreign country as a planet on which we have yet to set foot. Going there is an act of daring and fraught with potential hazard. Who among us can imagine what it was truly like to live at a time when the appliances and utilities of the modern age were non-existent?

In relative terms the Scottish Clearances happened not so long ago but they remain fraught with contention and controversy. As Devine acknowledges at the outset of what he has said is his ‘most ambitious and challenging project to date’, a key text is John Prebble’s bestseller, The Highland Clearances. In academe’s glittering towers, Prebble’s name has always been uttered with a mixture of contempt, anger and envy. When Scottish history was an afterthought in our schools – Devine himself preferred to study geography rather than history when told he had to make a choice between the two – Prebble, who was English born and spent six formative years in Canada – produced a series of badly-needed books about this disputatious nation’s unsteady growth. First came Culloden, which appeared in 1961. Two years later he produced The Highland Clearances and in 1966 Glencoe. Whatever else might be said about the ‘Fire and Sword’ trilogy, it has remained remarkably popular. The same cannot be said of the books of many of its detractors. As Devine reminded us in an article earlier this year in the Scotsman, it was the then Historiographer Royal, Gordon Donaldson, ‘who bitterly denounced Prebble’s work on the Highlands as “complete rubbish”.’ Well, were Prebble alive today he would be laughing all the way to the bank while Donaldson’s shade must rely on the dusty shelves of libraries to keep his flame alive.

Quite why publicly-remunerated his-torians were so antipathetical towards Prebble is perplexing. There is no doubt, however, that at least some of them felt that their patch had been invaded by someone apparently unqualified to inhabit it. While the study of Scottish history in our schools and universities was in the doldrums, it took an outsider to boldly go where others feared – or had no inclination or imagination – to tread. It is a terrible indictment of the academy that it took so long to emerge from its Rip van Winkle-like dwam. Indeed, one could argue that were it not for Prebble the present cadre of energetic and enlightened Scottish historians would not have existed. As Prebble was well aware, the subjects he chose to write about were emotive and ripe for commercial exploitation. In the case of The Highland Clearances, he told a black and white narrative in which there was little room for nuance. Its greatest popularity, Devine has suggested, was achieved during the late 1960s and 1970s, ‘when the country first began to experience the early stages of deindustrialisation and rising levels of unemployment as the postwar boom petered out and the old imperial connections which had sustained the great heavy industries faded into the past’. On top of which, there was Winnie Ewing’s famous by-election victory for the SNP in the Hamilton by-election in 1967 and the subsequent furore over independence. In short, The Highland Clearance was very much in tune with the zeitgeist. As Devine notes in the introduction to The Scottish Clearances: ‘Nationalism, clearances and victimhood soon became intimately linked by some polemicists, a tendency which has continued to the present day through the proliferation of social media. The contentions were that the historic tragedy of the Gaels had taken place during the Union and some-times also, against all the evidence, that English landowners and sheep farmers were mainly responsible for the draconian acts
of eviction.’

History, like everything else, must be seen in context. Though gallons of ink has been spilled since Prebble’s pomp, the much-derided story he spun has barely changed in the public’s perception. This is surprising given the scale of change in general. The arrival of devolution in 1997, the first SNP government in charge at Holyrood in 2007, the independence referendum of 2014 and the decision in 2016 that Britain must leave the European Union next March, have impacted on many aspects of Scottish society, not the least of which is the growth of interest in its own past. For this T.D. Devine, who was knighted in 2014 ‘for services to the study of Scottish history’, must take huge credit. Like Prebble – if not quite on the same scale – his books The Scottish Nation, Scotland’s Empire, To the Ends of the Earth and Independence or Union have all been bestsellers. Like a journalist, he is a master synthesizer, expert in moulding the morass of new historiographic material into a digestible whole. He writes with admirable clarity, sticking closely to verifiable information – Vidal would have approved – and always with his eye on two markets, the one of his peers in universities, the other the reading public. Even Devine, however, has his blind spots. He has acknowledged, for example, in his early work on the tobacco barons, that he overlooked the impact of the slave trade and the involvement in it of Scots of every stripe. Now in his eighth decade he feels he has acquired the necessary knowledge to approach an equally contentious topic.

It was not until the second half of the twentieth century, we lay readers learn, that an academic historian felt able to tackle the history of clearance. The exception to the rule was The Highland Economy 1750-1850 by Malcolm Gray, Devine’s dedicatee. It was another quarter of a century, however, before a comprehensive study materialized: Eric Richard’s A History of the Highland Clearances. But whatever impact these made in academia, they did little to alter the view of the Clearances as described Prebble. I certainly did not read either of these books but I did read, albeit in the 1970s, Ian Grimble’s The Trial of Patrick Sellar, published in 1962, and most of the novels of Neil Gunn, several of which had as their backdrop the Clearances. The story that emerged was one in which the lives of people – poor people, people without influence or a vote, people whose livelihoods were often determined by remote or absent or cruel landowners – were felt to be worth less than those of sheep. The sheep in question were Cheviots, hence the mention of them in John McGrath’s play, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil. It was the Cheviot breed that was imported into the north-west of Scotland in the eighteenth century and which led to the displacement of much of the population. But as Devine demonstrates, the evictions did not happen suddenly nor were they often provoked by outsiders. On the contrary the absentee landlords were invariably clan chiefs who, in order to afford luxury lifestyles in Edinburgh and London imposed ever-increasing rents on their miserable kinsfolk. ‘One laird, Archibald Campbell of Knockbuy in Argyll, for instance’, writes Devine, ‘raised his rental fourfold between 1728 and the 1780s…’ Throughout the eighteenth century, leases were offered to the highest bidder. Increasingly, there was little place for sentiment or clan loyalty. The portrait that emerges of the Highlands is not one of cohesion and cooperation, of a top-down community in which the poor were looked after by their wealthy leaders, but of change and circumstance and commercial imperatives impacting on those least able to cope with the consequences. Far from demonizing landowners and lairds, however, Devine is careful to weigh up the constraints facing them. Having said that, the hardships with which they were confronted were on a different level to those eking an existence out of an unforgiving patch of land. ‘Most of the Highland gentry,’ writes Devine, ‘began to live outside the region from the later eighteenth century, and in their search for gentlemanly status among their peers in the south soon fell into what has been termed “the luxury trap”.’

Despicable as such behaviour was, it was also ever thus. But as the decades slipped by the nature of clearance changed. Where, formerly, people had moved because of economic necessity, the policy changed in the nineteenth century to one where expulsion was forced upon them. This was the aspect on which John Prebble dwelt. One revelatory and horrifying aspect of the process was the role of the Church, which apparently managed to make the victims feel they were guilty. ‘This,’ notes Devine, ‘was the reaction…of the people of Glencalvie in Strathconan who were obliged to seek refuge in the church at Croick in 1845 after being evicted from their lands. They scrawled a message on the windowsill of the kirk where they sought shelter that their plight was a dreadful punishment for sin. Also, the mighty who had inflicted pain would not go unpunished. But retribution belonged to God, not man; in one sermon the Rev. John Sinclair, minister of Bruan in Caithness, made the point explicitly: “It is true that we often see the wicked enjoy much comfort and worldly ease, and the Godly chastened every morning; but this is a dreadful rest to the former and a blessed chastisement to the latter.” The doctrines of Calvinism therefore gave spiritual certainty during the transition from clanship to clearance as the evangelicals concentrated the minds and the emotions of the people on a highly personal struggle for grace and election. The miseries of this life were not simply to be endured but were in themselves a necessary agony for those who wished to attain eternal salvation in the next.’

Such interventions, argues Devine, may help explain why Highlanders’ resistance to the Clearances was relatively feeble. Nor, it seems, could they expect much help from elsewhere. While their Bards bemoaned the plight of a persecuted people, the press, for example, in the guise of the Scotsman in 1851, advocated the removal in mass of ‘a diseased and damaged part of our population’, adding: ‘It is a relief to the rest of the population to be rid of this part’. Two public officials, Sir John Trevelyan and Sir John McNeil, played significant parts in promoting this brutal policy. It would have been good to have been told a little more about these individuals who, in contrast to Patrick Sellar, the Countess of Sutherland’s hated factor, have by and large escaped public opprobrium. It was Trevelyan, for instance, who wanted to remove charity and relief from indigent highlanders, thirty to fourty thousand of whom he sought to ‘emigrate’ because they would never go ‘while they are supported at other people’s expense’.

Eventually, the people who clung on to their crofts could tolerate no longer the impositions placed on them and engaged in a series of rent strikes. But this was destined only to postpone the inevitable. The Industrial Revolution was infinitely more effective in clearing land than ever the likes of Patrick Sellar managed. As Glasgow’s population grew exponentially, the straths and glens fell silent and the smell of peat smoke became a memory. The truth is that there are many ways to make people leave a place where they are no longer wanted or needed. Law enforcement is one, economic hardship another, but equally effective is the grail of greater opportunity and prosperity. The lure of the city was magnetic.The seductiveness of a more comfortable life far from where you and your forebears were born and bred is undeniable and understandable.

Devine’s ‘dispossessed’ are a nationwide phenomenon. The tale of what befell the highlands and islands may have added to the romantic allure of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the failed rebellions of 1715 and ’45 but it also overshadowed what happened in the rest of the country. The Scottish Clearances is a belated and welcome attempt to redress the balance. Long before moves were made to ‘clear’ the Highlands, the Borders suffered its own serious depletion of population. As Devine acknowledges, two generations before the fabled Highland Clearances many tenants and cottars in the Borders were removed from their birthplace. Sheep were the ‘proximate’ cause. Flocks, many thousand strong, were given licence to roam long before it was awarded to ramblers. What initially inhibited their proliferation on an industrial scale were the reivers who plundered at will and the armies marching from the south to quell their noisy northern neighbours. With peace, however, came stability and the opportunity to reduce the population – so necessary in times of conflict – and replace them with animals, cattle as well as sheep, whose mutton and wool was needed to satisfy burgeoning demand in England. As early as 1700, long before it was a significant factor in the Highlands, sheep farming was synonymous with the Borders. Thus tenant farmers were edged out and replaced by a few shepherds who tended flocks which grazed over considerable acreage. The best chroniclers of this altered landscape were the local ministers who in the 1790s described for the Old Statistical Account (OSA) what was happening in their parishes. Their tone, says Devine, is elegiac, and reminiscent of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, ‘The Deserted Village’, published in 1770, which drew on his experience of growing up in rural Ireland:

Even now the devastation is begun,
And half the business of destruction done;
Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,
I see the rural virtues leave the land.

Here’s what the minister for the parish of Tweedsmuir in Peebleshire had to say in the OSA: ‘The population of this parish has decreased considerably. About 70 years ago, the lands were occupied by 26 tenants, but the farms since that period have been gradually enlarged in extent, and of course diminished in number; even of the 15 to which they are now reduced, so many are engrossed in the hands of the same persons, and those often settled in other parishes, that there are now only 3 farmers at present resident in the whole parish.’

The similarity with what was to happen later in the Highlands is striking. Elsewhere in the Borders, in Galloway, for instance, armed groups of tenants and cottars fought back when families were evicted. There, the opposition of the ‘Levellers’ was to large-scale enclosing of cattle parks and the effect this had on the common grazing ground and arable lands of tenants. As ever, the Kirk and the press stood on the side of the landed élite. In the long march towards ‘progress’ this was merely another incidental protest that had little ultimate effect. At least one landlord, however, deserves mention for his humane approach. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Duke of Buccleuch was determined to avoid the dispossession of tenants. In this, remarks Devine, he was ‘unusually magnanimous… perhaps because his great wealth allowed him more scope to provide for them in a more benevolent fashion than was the case among more impecunious lairds’.

Be that as it may, the southern clearances have never had anything like the emotional heft of those in the Highlands and Islands. The reasons for this are complex. In comparison to Highlanders, dispossessed Borderers were often able to find alternative employment not so far from where they were originally situated, especially in the woollen mills of which, by the 1870s, there were some 250. Borderers did not need to emigrate to survive though the tribal nature of the region might suggest otherwise: even now a native of Hawick needs a good reason to go and work in Galashiels and vice versa. Devine’s book should be in every Scottish library, private as well as public. It shows that human history is one of flux in which there are always losers and winners, the former invariably being the poor and the latter the privileged. Those who are deemed to stand in the way of progress are its collateral damage, as expendable as the slaves who picked the cotton and cut sugar cane. It’s not personal, just business. In many respects the Scottish Clearances are no different from other such clearances around the globe. If you’re a Native American, an Aborigine or a member of an Amazonian tribe your tenancy is forever subject to review.

In the Borders, where my mother lived and where I now live, sheep still cling to the hillsides. But sheep are now under threat from those who can make more profit from forestry. What goes around comes around.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories



As a child I thought little about history and politics; astronauts took up all my time. But after the wave of assassinations in the 1960s, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Watergate, and Iran/Contra, I decided that all the patriotic, narcissistic, self-ennobling rhetoric in my fifth-grade history book had been crap. I have been living in Scotland since 1980. Just a glance at the front page of the New York Times makes me feel sick every morning. But I need to keep an eye on the auld countrie.

What my pale blue fifth-grade history book never said was that it was only a matter of time before the stupidest person in the world became President of the United States. The political system is slanted to guarantee that the least qualified people rise to the top, and it’s hard to see how we are ever going to get out from under this mess. The United States is quite likely finished as a nation. But the problem is not only that Trump is stupid – he is a child.

What’s hard to understand is how this toxic cloud of flabby, grey-haired, pink males can have settled over the government and the nation so quickly and so permanently. The answer, of course, is that the US was like that all along and the Democrats were hiding it from us, presiding, as the Republicans have always said, over the decline of the country. The Democrats constantly try to kick the reality of America under the rug, while becoming more and more corrupt, conservative, in fact Republican, themselves. What is so nauseating is how many rapacious, idiotic people attached themselves to Trump, and how many more of them were suctioned to his underbelly when he finally lazily swam into the White House.

Bob Woodward’s Fear is a sort of ‘police procedural’ of the first two years of Trump’s presidency. It’s the story of how the ever-changing staff has had to learn to deal with their big baby – by figuring out when he is most likely to have a tantrum, by going to great lengths to fool him, even by surreptitiously snatching terrifying legislation from off his desk, something that Gary Cohn, Trump’s Chief Economic Adviser, and White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (who emerge here as heroes of a kind) began to do regularly, even religiously:

‘It was Groundhog Day on trade again. Same arguments, same points, same certainty—on both sides…

“We’ve got to distract him from KORUS,” Porter said to Cohn. “We’ve got to distract him from NAFTA.” Cohn agreed.

At least twice, Porter had the order drafted as the president had directed. And at least twice Cohn or Porter took it from his desk. Other times, they just delayed.

Trump seemed not to remember his own decision because he did not ask about it. He had no list—in his mind or anywhere else—of tasks to complete.’

There have been several concerted staff attempts to get Trump away from Twitter, which he uses not only to insult everybody in the world, but also to announce firings, hirings and, unbelievably, policy he hasn’t run past his staff. Because it’s the middle of the night and he’s in a rage about something. Getting him off social media is about as easy as switching from heroin to methadone, and a lot less fun. One of the great days in his presidency was when Twitter announced it was increasing the characters in a tweet from 140 to 280. Trump told Porter he thought the change was a good one, because now he could ‘flesh out his thoughts and add more depth’.

As Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury showed, Trump is frightened of many things. Particularly of anyone looking into his own finances. In the same way, perhaps, that Nixon may have become president so that he could be alone, it’s possible that Trump wanted to be president so that no one could go through his accounts. A so-called businessman, he constantly undermines the systems and bodies put in place to aid the US by screaming that the Treasury has to foot the bill for them; it’s just as screwy as his insistence that Mexicans pay for the wall that’s supposed to keep themselves out. Washington really is topsy-turvy, WS Gilbert stuff now. Like the Mikado, Trump refers to himself in the third person quite a lot of the time. Nixon did that. He was insane.

According to Woodward, there is not a single person in the White House who has any political experience. None of them knows how to broker a deal or get any legislation passed; they’re each in a little cubbyhole practising demagoguery. Reince Priebus, formerly Chief of Staff, described this collection of vicious incompetents as predators. ‘When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody.’

It’s unsettling to discover the manpower contributed to the Trump administration by the merchant bank Goldman Sachs, and by the Ivy League, particularly Harvard and Yale. It’s reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, when Detective Mulligan is taunting the bootlegger Spats Colombo about going to jail, and suggests Spats call his lawyer. A pug-faced, cauliflower-eared group of henchmen rises solemnly as one. ‘These are my lawyers,’ says Spats. ‘All Harvard men.’

Since this book is a major political title, there are photographs – otherwise Americans would never buy it. Let’s take a look. Trump hired Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State because he ‘looked the part’ of a diplomat on the world stage. He fired him this year, shortly after Tillerson called him a moron. Tillerson looks like he ought to be hanging on the wall of a bank. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the Marlboro Man – how do you convince people to listen to you when your army fatigues make you look like a chef’s salad? Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems a thousand years old. A thousand years, and not much to show for it. Donald McGahn, current White House counsel, has the head of a pumpkin a month after Hallowe’en. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-lawl. is a fish, or someone you hated in high school, and his wife Ivanka Trump has the friendly, open aspect of a lawnmower. Only two other women figure in this go-getting group: Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser, sports that TV Beverly Hills look, which is probably why Trump hired her, and erstwhile White House Communications Director Hope Hicks (really, an incredible name for someone in this government) suggests Christopher Reeve in drag. Robert Mueller, Director of the FBI, has something of Cary Grant about him, or at least of George Clooney. That will be a help, no doubt. And Mike Pence, the Vice President, is straight out of Thunderbirds, or more accurately, Fireball XL-5.

Is this all terribly unfair? Consider what they’re doing to you.

Trump continually talks about strength, and weakness. This is possibly the only dichotomy he can embrace, or use. When he’s going off someone he previously thought was ‘great’, he calls them ‘weak’ – ‘You’re weak.’ Impotence preys on his mind. Obama was a ‘weak dick’. (There is another, parallel, damning story in this book, and that is the curious ineffectiveness of Barack Obama as president and as a politician. It’s like reading the faded carbon of an old credit card slip.)

But Trump’s administration must be the weakest U.S. government in a century, perhaps since the founding of the republic.

There has recently been new interest in Sinclair Lewis’s strikingly prescient novel of 1935, It Can’t Happen Here, which predicted the attainment of presidential power by a gross, indifferent slob, and the quick, irrevocable melting down of every structure of democracy. Woodward’s Fear reads like the crib notes for that scary tale. And if this kind of thing entertains you, you might also like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s play The Vegetable, about a simple government worker who becomes president for a spell. One of the veritable Trumpian things he does is to put his name up in lights… on top of the White House.

Woodward gives many examples of how the current West Wing crowd conducts itself. But to get the level of discourse our betters are using, here is an account of the day that Gary Cohn was attempting to leave the government. Trump didn’t want him to resign before coming up with a tax reform plan, and cruelly, noisily berated him him in front of his colleagues. ‘On the way out of the Oval Office, General Kelly, who had heard it all, pulled Cohn into the Cabinet Room. According to notes that Cohn
made afterward, Kelly said, “That was the greatest show of self-control I have ever seen. If that was me, I would have taken that resignation letter and shoved it up his ass six different times”.’

So there you have it, the genuine, subtle, nuanced rhetoric of democracy today. The ‘democracy’ that holds the future of life on earth in its gilded, perfumed paws. The callousness, the ignorance, the stupidity and the obscenity of the men and women running the White House, and Congress, are stupefying. Nothing matters to them. Nothing is real, except the latest tawdry political target. And more money for their friends.

Woodward takes his title from something Trump says a lot – real power is fear. You need to invoke fear, in dealing with opponents, and especially with women. But from across the room, the spine of this book reads FEAR BOB WOODWARD. Here’s hoping.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Name Dropping

In Against Oblivion, poet and critic Ian Hamilton posited only four twentieth-century English-language poets had a chance of achieving something like literary immortality: Hardy, Yeats, Eliot and Auden. The rest? Sooner or later time would Tippex out their names – even ones as familiar and diverse as Dylan Thomas, Hugh MacDiarmid, Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound and John Berryman, all of whom, coincidentally, were, to greater and lesser degrees of intimacy, acquaintances of Ruthven Todd.

A poet himself, Todd doesn’t rate a mention in Against Oblivion, but his poems appear in anthologies of Scottish verse edited by Douglas Dunn, Alexander McCall Smith, Maurice Lindsay, Antonia Fraser, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah. His poetry is good, good enough to be published in The New Yorker. His poetry, novels, illustrations and Blake scholarship earned him entrée into the company of many of the leading literary and artistic figures of the last mid-century, but wasn’t in the end substantial enough to escape the pall of obscurity, which descended upon him even before his death in a Spanish village in 1978. Today not one of the twenty-plus books he wrote remains in print, excepting a pair of recently re-published detective novels and a series of books written for children in the 1950s, Space Cat.

A fat new volume by Peter Main, A Fervent Mind, disinters Todd. Might it not be overdoing it to lavish nearly 500 pages on a poet largely forgotten? I have single-volume biographies of Lou Reed, Pablo Picasso and Orson Welles whose page-counts come in under Main’s. True, the dramatis personae is epic and Todd zig-zagged across the Atlantic, living in London in the 1930s, the US in the 1940s and Spain in the 1950s. Nevertheless, A Fervent Mind could have lost 150 pages without compromising Todd’s story. Even with the fat untrimmed, however, it’s rarely a dull read. Todd is a drily witty, not to mention unreliable, narrator, having left behind numerous unfinished attempts to write his memoirs for his biographer to quote from.

Ruthven (pronounced ‘riven’) Todd was born in 1914 ‘in Edinburgh’s prosperous New Town’. His father Walker was an architect while his mother had notable ancestry: her grandfather was Moderator of the Church of Scotland. Todd was educated at Fettes, which the nascent bohemian ‘loathed’. After several incidents, he was asked to leave in 1931. Thereafter he enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art, where his drinking spiralled, so much so his parents exiled him to Mull for two years, where he worked as a farm labourer.

He returned to Edinburgh in a somewhat steadier state than he left, although drink was to remain a presence in his life and reliable thwarter of ambition: ‘I had, rather happily, taken to drink…. I believed then that all good artists drank to excess, and I remembered Blake’s praises of excess… and so far as my limited means would allow, I pursued my fantasy and fallacy with all possible vigour.’ Todd was also powerfully addicted to tobacco, which, in the end, was what did for him more than the drink. ‘I found,’ he wrote, ‘I could live without eating, but not without smoking.’

He didn’t linger in his hometown, relocating to London in 1935 to become a writer and artist. He rarely returned to Scotland after leaving. He was to adopt the lofty tone of one who believes himself to have shaken off a parochial nook to mount a larger stage more befitting their talent. ‘I never considered myself a particularly local figure…. Chance and volition have made me a citizen of a rather larger world than that into which I was born.’

Settled in Fitzrovia, Todd spent the second half of the Thirties drinking and, sometimes, writing. Then as now verse didn’t pay the rent, so he had other jobs. Cecil Day-Lewis recommended writing detective fiction to supplement his income, which he did under the pseudonym RT Campbell. ‘I don’t see why one should not write bilge under a nom de guerre to keep one going financially.’ Throughout his career, Todd moved between passion projects, chiefly his poetry and Blake scholarship, which earned little, and rent-payers: whodunits and children’s books, where his talent as an illustrator and author combined. His great success was his Space Cat series of books, the first volume of which sold over 50,000 copies in the US in its first three years after publication in 1952 and proved a steady earner. Ever afterwards, when Todd was collared by an appreciative reader, it was likelier than not that admiration was expressed for Space Cat, rather than his poetry. In 1958, David Pleydell-Bouverie, a rich architect, invited Todd to his estate to speak to a well-heeled audience about the painter John Martin, several of whose works he owned. Todd was recognized but not as he would have wished. ‘So far as [actor] Joseph Cotton’s wife and the other ladies were concerned, I was the author of Space Cat. Just how ambivalent can my reputation get?’

Whatever his talents as a writer, artist or scholar, it pales in comparison to his ability to bump into people of note. His friend the poet Julian Symons wrote: ‘Ruthven knew everybody. It might be said that knowing people was his occupation.’ As one reads A Fervent Mind, Todd emerges as a real-life version of Anthony Burgess’ Kenneth Toomey or William Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart. It would be simpler to list who he didn’t know than who he did. He started young. Within the space of one page, the 17-year-old Todd first meets T.S. Eliot in his office at Faber and then is introduced to D.H. Lawrence by Catherine Carswell. Eliot, to whom Todd handed over a sheaf of his poems, ‘carried the air of the banker with him… [and] gave me the impression that he was peeking into my intellectual overdraft’.

Given the way Peter Main chooses to shape his material, Todd sometimes meets more legends in a sentence than most of us do in a lifetime. For example, he accompanied his friend the poet David Gascoyne to Paris for the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition, where he introduced him to the movement’s leading figures. ‘Among them were Andre Breton, Paul Éluard, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, as well as Joan Miro.’

As I read, I noted where and when Todd made contacts.

In London: WH Auden, Louis MacNiece, Wyndham Lewis, Cyril Connolly (Todd worked for a short time at Horizon), Stephen Spender (Todd lodged in a room in Spender’s apartment), Kathleen Raine, George Barker, Elizabeth Smart, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, Laura Riding, film producers Alexander and Zoltan Korda, future Joy of Sex author Alex Comfort, Charles Laughton (regular Sunday lunchtime drinking com-panion), Sir Kenneth Clark (wrote Todd several grant recommendations), Lucian Freud, Roland Penrose, Norman Cameron and Julian McLaren-Ross (who died owing Todd £200).

‘When we go on the wagon in Scotland, we mean we give up whisky and other hard liquor. Wine and beer don’t count.’

After moving to the United States: Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, John Cage (whom he bonded with over mushrooms; Cage was to co-found the New York Mycological Society in 1962), James Agee, Raymond Chandler (who paid Todd’s membership fees for the Mystery Writers of America until his death in 1959), John Berryman, Marianne Moore, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammet.

In Spain: Robert Graves, Colin Wilson, Anthony Burgess and Galway Kinnell.

He was networking right up until the end; the night before his death, he had dinner with neighbours who introduced him to the Israeli author Amos Oz.

It’s surprising, then, that he didn’t try to monetize his memories. Many a scribe with a less stellar address book has churned out volumes of reminiscences. The closest Todd came to cashing in came in 1959 when he was invited by the Trustees of Dylan Thomas’s estate to write the Welshman’s first official biography. Thomas and Todd were proper friends, or perhaps, given their kamikaze pub crawls, we should call them mutual enablers. They knew each other in London and, after Todd moved to New York, he was on hand to witness Thomas’ growing success in the States. He visited Thomas on his death bed and helped with funeral arrangements. When Thomas’s widow Caitlin, wild with grief, was admitted to a psychiatric clinic, Todd accompanied her in the ambulance; for his pains he was caricatured in Caitlin’s memoirs as ‘a good example of the nervous, gutter-combing Scotsman… with the sly man’s too hysterical cackling laughter’. The Thomas biography was a fantastic opportunity for the perennially broke Todd to make money and raise his profile. And yet in 1962 he dropped out of the project, with Trustees and publisher waving breached contracts.

The list of books Todd received advances for or took grants to complete but never did is as long as his actual bibliography. His lack of care for his writing and bank account is baffling. In 1947, the publisher Phoenix House sent him the galley proofs for correction of a book he’d written about Blake aimed at a popular readership. Todd didn’t correct or return the proofs. Unable to contact the author, the publisher cancelled the book. Later that same year, he received a £500 grant to research Blake’s paintings in the US. He had a three-month visa but never returned to live in the UK again. Nor did he finish the research. He took much the same attitude to his family, bailing out of three marriages and not providing his son Christopher with an enduring presence. The drink didn’t help. His friend Bob DeMarin reported: ‘We urged Ruthven to get on the wagon. He agreed, but the next day we saw him in the living room reading with a gallon of red wine by one foot and a gallon of white wine by the other foot. When I scolded him, he said, “When we go on the wagon in Scotland, we mean we give up whisky and other hard liquor. Wine and beer don’t count”.’

Still, other writers have completed great work while struggling with dipsomania and, latterly for Todd, with poor health (he suffered recurring bouts of pleurisy, bronco-pneumonia, chronic bronchitis and knee problems). In the last seventeen years of his life he published just one book, a rehash of work he’d done on Blake, although he took advances for several titles that never left his notebooks. A former lover sums up Todd harshly but perhaps fairly: ‘Poor Ruthven, he had not got what it takes to be a successful author, or even a successful man.’

In a move one might describe as characteristically cockeyed, Todd both became an American citizen in 1959 and left the US for good, settling in Mallorca instead. His former mentee Alastair Reid invited Todd to visit and meet his successor as a teacher, Robert Graves; Todd and Graves bonded over mushrooms. Spain was cheap: ‘Spanish brandy cost almost nothing.’ Shortly after arrival, Todd fell seriously ill, the medical bills swallowing up his latest advance and a National Institute of Arts and Letters award. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t leave.

Some two decades of inactivity and self-sabotage later, on 11 October 1978, Todd died of emphysema. Symons wrote afterwards, ‘In his last twenty years Ruthven must have been much haunted about the waste of his talent.’ Here was a man who nailed himself to the cross of poetry, and who, when offered the chance to descend and do something less excruciating, declined. Given his talent for rooting out rare books, he’d have made an excellent antiquarian. Or art dealer, gifted as he was at cultivating artists and recognizing significant new work. In his last decades, he discovered, first in Iowa, then Mallorca, that he was a talented and popular teacher. But, no. He was as addicted to the idea of being a writer (if not writing itself) as he was to cigarettes and alcohol.

And what of that writing? Main includes a poem by Todd at the end of each chapter, which, given Todd’s collections are out of print, is a useful innovation. He once wrote in a letter that he was ‘a good clear poet’, a fair assessment. His poetry is of its time, Audenesque with sprightly rhythms and rhymes often humorously at odds with an unillusioned view of man. From 1947’s ‘For a Nickel’:

For a nickel still each of us can get
The cheapest sort of candy or some gum,
A wad of printed paper to help us forget
That people starve, are vicious or are glum.

Could Todd yet emerge from oblivion? Main’s biography marks a decent start for his rehabilitation, although a more svelte volume would’ve made the case more nimbly. A new sensitively edited edition of Todd’s Selected Poems would be a volume worth investigating. It’s not inconceivable that some modish literary figure in the future might take up his cause. For all the squandering of his talent, Todd is a sympathetic character, or at least recognizable, for aren’t many of us destined not to be remembered for what we thought we should be, but instead for our Space Cat?

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories




Judy Brown

I strung my noticing eyes on a rosary,
and clicked and confided.

On the island I stuck to the facts;
they were slippery and touchable as blood.

The crater’s lava groaned and sighed
folding itself over itself, like laborious student soup.

The goat died, the cat lived;
the moon had a pulling power I’d never felt at home.

Three gashes, like fish gills, in an old jacket
were a red herring, but I never forgave their extravagance.

The blood was feint, the lurid mustard field
was food only for the eyes.

The blue-green lake had me under surveillance
so I folded my hands in my frosty lap.

I practised being inside the others’ faces,
code-switching my mouth to let them speak.

I kept my eyes peeled. I lived like sea-glass,
hard, clean and opaque.

Sounds grated mildly on my ears.
Most days I was disinclined to be kind.



Sean O’Brien

The old, since they are mad, think all the others mad
And all a good deal older than themselves, though this
Is relative, and most of them are relatives somehow.
Among these old and mad is one convinced by rage
That money knows no owner but herself, and thus
Is in the wrong hands certainly, and must be as it were
Retrieved, with blackmail as the righteous instrument,
According to her old mad lights. Meanwhile

In old mad Hampstead houses and in basement flats
Among the old mad Chelsea bombsites, life goes on
Signifying death in general, while the telephone
Provides a personal inflection when a voice
Adapted for each doomed recipient remarks
Politely: ‘Now remember you must die.’ Can these
Be human voices that awake the old and mad?
The great detective with his weakened heart thinks not.

To say ‘Remember you must die,’ and then ring off
Is not the kind of thing the well-heeled old and mad
Immured in their brown studies at their time of life
Prefer to hear, when there’s still sex or money
To be dwelt on, and a child may visit on his makers
Complex economic loathing, and where all this weighs
Like bags of useless gold upon their injured hearts.
There is a private madhouse where an Irish lawyer

Called O’Brien thinks he’s God, and sees
His starry fields Blaze cold against the velvet black of noon.
So he’s all right. But up in town the slow disintegrating minds
Grind on like almost-immortality, and lights
Switch on and off in random circuits like the stars
Of a capricious heaven, as the servant plots her way
To minted doom, and time is money. Meanwhile death
Is all there is and more. This is a comedy.

Memento Mori


Jeanette Lynes

A lawyer’s wig. Lipstick. A dressing gown.
The thin man twitching, roped to a chair –
He wrote this in a state of deepest trance.
And what else? Much foaming at the mouth
And all the little beasties floating out
There. Vocation? Excel at what clutches
Your throat, the unseen hand that won’t
Release. Be good at graphology or seizures
Or whatever propels you forth from your bedsit.
Seizure the day! Swearing you penned it entranced
Will crawl along only so far with a jury
Especially the blonde. Marry? Rather creep!

The Bachelors


Andy Jackson

‘What is personality but the effect one has on others?’
– The Public Image

Some have method. Some are blessed
by the god of mirrors. You just exist
while the lens accommodates, records
your only talent; to be unlike the rest,
yet the same. I never listen to the words
that you say, although I get the gist
a few scenes in; no need for a script
when all I want to see is the twist.

You cultivate the tiger in your eyes,
encourage the paradox of abandon
and fidelity, often in a single glance,
recognising that in art there are no lies,
only misinterpretations. You’re branded
like an upscale scent, Essence of Pretence,
distinctive, even through the idiot’s lantern;
the smell of creation, grand finale, goodbye.

Late last night your lawyer served
a superinjunction on this poem,
a writ that can’t be overturned
without revealing what you’re made of,
the untruths you would see preserved.
Meanwhile, on the marciapedi of Rome,
motherland of sensation, they love
your work and will not be deterred.

What you wanted was never made clear,
but maybe this: steadfast husband, child,
extensions of your marque, to illustrate
the way you juggle stage and kitchenette.
Flashbulbs crackle as you step outside
the shuttered appartamento, free to celebrate
yourself at last, conspicuous in an age
where only the famous can truly disappear.

The Public Image


James Sheard

It’s a happy thought, of sorts –
that we are the dead
who do not know we are dead.

It makes some sense of those times
we stand at one of those points –
high up, it must be high –

and feel that the loops of time and place
are meeting, there, beneath our feet.
Or when we look out through the glass

at the boiling world,
or the settled dark,
at that projection of ourselves.

And we know it’s all snatches
of a songline. We know the one
who stands beside us is both solid flesh

and a summoning, brought into being
by hope and desire. We know
what things are shifting uneasily

in the folds and declivities, ready
to hatch in the heat. Because long ago,
when we were strong and bright,

we gathered them up in a fist
and flung them forward into this,
our middle and later lives. They seethe

in a room where the heating is jammed on,
where the sunlight is melting the windows
and our shadows are falling gladly towards it.

The Hothouse by the East River


Gerry Loose

all characters in God’s dreams
direct our perceptions and dreams

nothing matters but dreams
he wouldn’t dream of; he did dream

all characters in God’s dreams
are real and not real

dreams are insubstantial dreams of God
his own dreams are shadows

he longed in his wish-dream
for dreams, real, frighteningly real

real between dreams and reality
resentful of that dream partly dreamed

the reality from which dream emerged
dream haunts his dreams lost in dreams

that world of dreams and reality
types and shadows, facts and illusions

real, back to reality
I had a dream; I forget my dreams

and Caesar’s wife had dreams
she isn’t real, no, she’s not real

I dreamt in your dream, more of your dream
where dreams are reality and reality is dreams

everything starts from dream
reality and dream

Reality and Dreams
(this poem contains every mention of the words ‘reality’ and ‘dreams’ in the novel.)


All poems are from the anthology Spark: an Anthology of Poetry and Art Inspired by the Novels of Muriel Spark, edited by Rob A. Mackenzie and Louise Peterkin, © Blue Diode Press 2018,

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories