“ . . [he is a] self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are; how egotistical, insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?” – Virginia Woolf on James Joyce.
“But I cannot deny my past to which my self is wed/The woven figure cannot undo its thread.” – Louis MacNeice.
When asked about my poetry career I once replied the only career I ever had was careering from one dead end job to another. I’ve been writing now for over twenty years, a period that could be divided into a decade of prose, a decade of poetry.
I was eighteen when my short story Deid was accepted for New Writing Scotland. Deid was about a drunk young man who hits his head on a kerb on the way home from the pub. He ‘wakes up’ in the mortuary to discover he is deid though his mind (to him if no one else) is very much alive. The story was written in my local West Fife dialect and it lay in a drawer for almost two years. Unsure of myself or my writing, this acceptance from people I didn’t know (but who knew their stuff) and who owed me nothing, was a major boost.
My experience of primary school was a colour coded hierarchy with the brightest kids in the red group and the dullest kids in the blue group. As one of the blue group I more or less sleepwalked through High School, obsessed with boxing and with a desire to write, but no confidence in my ability. I didn’t really wake up and get going as a writer until I left formal education behind.
Lillian King, a local writer and tutor of a WEA writers group (the only writers group I ever attended, back in the late 1990s) was a support early on as were a wee group of older men I got together to discuss art and literature and philosophy. My mum was also very supportive. But for the most part my teachers accumulated on shelves built up over the years. My one rule, early on, was to read at least two or three books by other writers in between books by one I really admired, to avoid being overly influenced by any one person. By seventeen I’d stopped browsing my local library to order books at the desk.
In my early twenties I created a cover for a submissions folder keeping track of where my stories and novel excerpts were sent with the famous Beckett words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” alongside some less well known words by Homer (Simpson, that is, not the Ancient Greek) “Trying is the first step to failure.” I couldn’t type so hand wrote my first novel roughly before re-writing it neatly, as we used to do in Primary School, then painstakingly typed it up, one slow clumsy finger at a time, teaching myself to touch-type in the process.
In the early days I took more heart from Van Gogh’s view of an artist’s growth as “slowly ripening corn” than the precocity of a Rimbaud who claimed he went to sleep a block of wood and awoke a violin. With the likes of Van Gogh and John Steinbeck art was something they had to overcome. It didn’t come easily. In my second attempt at a novel a one time boxing champion has no opponent in life but himself. At one point only a door stands between him and what he wants: “this door with his reflection in it like a bouncer guarding the entry to a club.”
Learning to draw, Van Gogh wrote, was like working through an invisible wall between what he felt and what he could do. Van Gogh, like Robert Burns, was no “heaven taught” prodigy, but he was a ploughman of sorts, in the groundwork he had to do in preparation for his art. In his letters “work” is repeated time and time again. He writes about being so absorbed in his work he doesn’t think, but acts. He can’t explain, he writes, but he can feel how things should go. This made a lot of sense to me at the time.
At one point I had a job as a pleater in a factory, working material into a pattern. As my fingers fixed the fabric into pleats another part of me felt the factory surroundings into my imagination, absorbing rather than observing, not always conscious of the material at my fingertips, the fabric I might later fix into stories or poems. Once a pleater has worked the material into a pattern he rolls and ties it with a rag and bakes it in an autoclave steam box for approximately twenty minutes. If the material hasn’t been sufficiently worked into the pattern the garment is a “reject.” As a young writer I quickly learned all about rejects (publishers’ and agents’ rejection of my work, but also my rejection of my own work.) A writer needs an inbuilt “shit detector,” Hemingway once said. My detector has done a lot of bleeping over the years.
“I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability,” John Steinbeck recorded in his journal while working on The Grapes of Wrath. “Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain . . . if I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time.” Steinbeck enrolled in writing classes but dropped out, without any qualifications, to live in a shed he called “The Sphincter.” At one point I was living in the basement of a fleapit hotel. A few years later, and many years after reading about Steinbeck’s writing shed, I met Scottish poet Gerry Cambridge. Frequently asked what university he went to Gerry would reply “the university of Cunninghamhead,” referring to the caravan he lived in for twenty years. My own stock answer to the “uni assumption” in poetry circles has long been “oh, the only time Ah went tae a uni the alarm went aff.” A true story, as it happens. Invited to read at a bookshop in Edinburgh a few years ago, I was asked by a rather posh chap “did you go to Edinburgh?” (meaning Edinburgh uni.) “Go? Ah jist goat here aff the train,” I replied. Assumptions would be made about the nature of my “career” as well. Once, after reading a poem about boxing (or, that is, a poem using boxing to write about other things) a member of the audience, perhaps intoxicated by the testosterone emanating from my subject matter, assumed I worked on a building site. I was in fact a dinnerlady (or Dinner Laddie) in a High School at the time.
Accepted as a Hawthornden Fellow while working as a part time dishwasher in a noodle bar, I recall sending a postcard home from the castle where I got to live and write for a month, joking that I was suffering from Post Traumatic Culture Shock Disorder. Yet by my mid twenties I was as at home among books and writers as among people who would have felt out of place in that context. For many years I felt like a rope in a cultural tug-of-war. Gradually that rope felt less like a tension between two worlds and more like a connection.
That honest Ulsterman, Louis MacNeice, has been a favourite poet of mine for many years now but I could only ignore our class differences by ignoring my roots, and my gut instinct, like MacNeice’s, was to confront, not ignore. In his excellent memoir, The Strings Are False, MacNeice writes:
“it was this summer of 1926 that the General Strike occurred and was broken. The most publicised blacklegs were the undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge who regarded the strike as an occasion for a spree; a comic phenomenon due to the Lower Classes; a comet that came from nowhere and dissolved in rubble and presaged nothing to come.”
In 2011, while working as a Kitchen Assistant in an old Folks home, I got involved as a writer and actor in a feature film about the 1926 General Strike. There’s a comic scene in The Happy Lands which reverses MacNeice’s “comic phenomenon of the lower classes” when a St Andrews student (the Scottish Oxbridge) filling in for a train driver is chased by striking miners. Comic phenomenon indeed!
The former mining region I come from in West Fife used to be a communist hotbed, with one wee village called Little Moscow. As a younger man I was wary of politics. Anger, bitterness and self righteousness didn’t strike me as a very healthy or balanced world view. “Yir no a Socialist?” A friend asked around this time, looking at me as if I was a blasphemer. “What ir ye then?” “A human being.” It was a smart arse answer, but one I stand by today. And yet I was recently asked “Ye still writin yir Socialist rubbish?” Honest would probably be a more apt label for me. If my poems confront social issues they also look inward. Still, Rubbish would definitely be an appropriate tag to a lot of what I’ve written over the years
I was in my thirties before I read Yeats but his famous line “out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry” would have appealed to my younger self. In my early twenties I was reading about and listening to Bob Dylan and how contrary he was. Blake’s “without contraries is no progression” caught my attention, as did Keats’s Negative Capability – the ability to hold opposite, contradictory thoughts. More recently Pasolini’s Gramsci’s Ashes, (“the scandal of self contradiction - of being with you and against you; with you in my heart, in the light, against you in the dark of my gut.”) And then I identified with MacNeice’s own personal tug-of-war between England and Ulster and how he had one foot in with the left wing writers of his time and one sceptical eyebrow raised above their idealism.
When, in his Nobel lecture, Seamus Heaney speaks of Northern Ireland as a place unlike any other for keeping aspiration in check, he could also have been writing about Scotland. “Ye mustny be very guid” I was told when I lost my first boxing match. “Yir spellin’s atrocious” I heard repeatedly. “That’ll gan err your heid,” a colleague told me when I was seventeen, dangling a novel over my head, the book pinched between his forefinger and thumb as if it was vermin.
The book dangling lesson happened to be in Dunfermline where I was a Youth Trainee with the local council. The council depot happened to be a short walk from the Abbey grounds where medieval makar Robert Henryson is thought to have lived. Among Heaney’s last books is a translation of Henryson’s Old Scots fables. Here’s some of Henryson’s words trickling down the centuries through Heaney’s pen:
“This cock, so obsessed with ordinary corn/He scorned a jasper, may in his ignorance/Be likened to a fool, who will scoff and scorn/At learning; impervious, thick, a dunce . . . Ignoramuses are the enemy/of knowledge and learning.”
It’s good of people to keep you down to earth, I once told a friend, but don’t let them bury you in it. Roots are nourishing, roots haud ye back is a paradox at the heart of my writing. I always liked the sound of William Carlos Williams “The local is the only universal,” and took great pleasure and comfort from Patrick Kavanagh’s defence of parochialism, where he says “the parochial never doubts the social and artistic validity of his parish, whereas the provincial doesn’t trust his own mind until he has heard what the metropolis has to say.” I was absorbing this stuff at the same time as listening to an artist pal, visiting from London, who would start whistling the duelling banjo tune from the film Deliverance when in the company of what he called “peasants.” I once recalled a scene to him from the Tony Hancock movie The Rebel in which a bunch of artists sit in a circle, dressed exactly the same and announcing, in unison, how they are all individuals.
At some point it dawned on me that sometimes, ironically, even the educated can be the enemy of knowledge and learning when education becomes indoctrination to ideology and clever people are corralled by fashion (authenticity might be said to be out of fashion, post modern irony in, for example, though fashions change quickly and autodidacts aren’t the best at keeping up.) In his fascinating book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose draws attention to the “ideological socialism” of students: “though they styled themselves members of the radical left, they could be outrageously arrogant toward the people who had to clean up after them.” When I read this I was reminded of a few lines from Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward in which “The Rusanov’s loved the People” but weren’t very tolerant of actual human beings. It’s hard to think straight when you’re high on the moral high ground. I like sobriety in writing, a warts and all honesty, balancing the genuine affection I have for most people with a brutal honesty regarding humanity and a distrust of utopianism. If I find idealism hard to embrace whole, I find misanthropy easy to reject.
When I turned to poetry I discovered another tug-of-war going on in my writing between the colloquial and poetic, the day to day and history, “tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness,” as Heaney might say. I found myself tackling complexity with a deceptive simplicity. It would not have crossed my mind to abandon metaphor or the “myth kitty” or any literary devices that might come in handy out of some misplaced inverted snobbery but, likewise, I’d no intention of abandoning where “Ah come fae” either out of pretension or plain old fashioned snobbery. “Write what you know,” people say. I didn’t know much about buttercups or butterflies, but I knew my way around factories and boxing rings. I don’t mean to talk exclusively about subject matter here, but about the language and attitudes of those environments as well and how I felt them into the patterns of my poems.
“A poem is made of words,” W.S. Graham wrote but he also wrote “language is where the people are.” Graham was obsessed with language and the difficulties of communication but in his later poems he also increasingly reflected upon his working class childhood in Greenock. When Norman MacCaig described his own poetic journey as a long haul to lucidity, he could have been talking about Graham emerging from the obscurity of his early work into the clarity of his late style. A poem is made of words, aye, but language is where the people are too! In his great poem, The Constructed Space, Graham writes how “something may move across/The caught habits of language to you and me.” For me, early on, I was only interested in words moving from page to eye. Only in recent years have I become interested in words flowing from stage to ear.
As a younger writer I only ever read, when asked to do so, a couple of times in my twenties and was a rabbit in a very bright headlight when invited to open for established poets Alan Gillis and John Glenday at Shore Poets in Edinburgh back in 2010. Consciousness is a disease, Dostoyevsky wrote. I used to paraphrase him, self consciousness is a disease. It almost stopped me boxing: the thought of people watching me was scarier than someone punching me. It’s taken me well into my thirties to feel comfortable on stage and to develop my own reading style, which I guess is laid-back as opposed to dramatic; a man talking to you while leaning against the fireplace as opposed to a preacher ranting at you through a megaphone.
As for my “careers” I stopped careering from dead end job to job a few years ago and today have a rewarding job in healthcare. As for the poetry “career” my first pamphlet, The Heavy Bag, was well received when it was published by Calder Wood Press in 2011, and has long sold out. My first full collection is due out from Smokestack Books in 2018. Some have said the poems might be out of date by then. I doubt it. The collection draws largely (though not exclusively) on my experiences as a low paid worker in a time of austerity and on my memories as a schoolboy boxing champion.
“A grown man/Is the walking grave of boy after boy,” Norman MacCaig wrote in his poem So Many Make One. I will be forty years old by the time my collection appears and many days and pages removed from the insecure sixteen year old boy who wrote Deid. A wee bit closer to being deid, mind you, but life begins at forty, they say.
Photo by Billy George.