Heretical Gun

A Discussion

Ross Wilson

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I meet the poet Gregor Addison in Glasgow where we get the Edinburgh train. We are bound for the legendary Sandy Bells, one time home of the Folk Revival, where we have arranged to meet Craig Gibson, writer and editor of the unique literary broadsheet, The One O’Clock Gun, and collaborative reviver of the literary/folk group The Heretics. We have also vaguely planned a couple of pint-stops en route in the new town pubs, the Abbotsford and Milne’s Bar, one time haunts of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. It could be a bit of a gathering. Several poets and artists have been invited along.

     Both the Revival and the Renaissance were captured by the artist, Alistar Moffat, in rather lurid pictures that, nonetheless, catch a glimpse of two scenes and the people who made them, for posterity. The more famous of the two, Poets Pub, depicts the literary renaissance in Milne’s Bar and is made up exclusively of male poets with Hugh MacDiarmid at the centre.

     The second painting, Scotland’s Voices, is more inclusive, with a broader swathe of society depicting the folk revival. Its central figure, Hamish Henderson who, more than most, straddled the division between the literary and folk spheres and was the principle catalyst of the folk revival. Henderson had his beginnings in what he would call art poetry, winning the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1948 with his collection Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, a suite of poems much admired by T.S. Eliot and Hugh MacDiarmid, though Henderson’s relationship with MacDiarmid would later explode in a very public debate of flyting when the two clashed over the merits of the written word and the oral tradition.

     Art poetry and folk song intersected at the original Heretics gatherings, kick- started in 1970 by the novelist and songwriter Stuart MacGregor, the poet William Neil, singer and actress Dolina Maclennan and novelist John Herdman.In the latest issue of The Gun, Herdman writes about the origins of The Heretics:

     “The basic idea was to provide a cultural nationalist counter-weight to the orthodoxy of the literary establishment represented by the Scottish Arts Council, which was perceived by the founders (with what degree of accuracy may be debateable) as having its centre of allegiance at some point approximately midway between London and New York.”

     Founded thirty four years after The Heretics, The One O’Clock Gun, is also independent of what was then the Arts Council and is now Creative Scotland. The broadsheet has its roots in a university literary society called the Top Slot Club, founded by Gibson to “combat the tedium of academia during my last year at Edinburgh University in 2003.”

     There is a long history of clubs in Edinburgh, from the Bonnet Lairds, whose members wore blue bonnets, the Dirty Club with rules requiring members not wear clean linen, and the Sweating Club who liked to chase and harass members of the public until they broke into a sweat, to give just some examples of groups that met in the taverns in the cramped Old Town during the Enlightenment, before the educated classes decamped to the New Town and the city became more segregated. Some of these clubs printed their own publications.

     The twenty first century Top Slot Club delighted in sending absurd letters to the Edinburgh Evening News, then standing back to laugh at the debates they’d stirred up. There was a mischievous edge to the TSC, a sharp wit inherited by The Gun whose editor, Gibson, “envisaged a free paper that would be distributed around pubs and cafes, in a similar manner to the literature prevalent in coffee houses during the Enlightenment.” To begin with, contributors remained anonymous and no one knew who was behind the mysterious subversive publication.

     When a friend tipped me off about The Gun ten years ago I imagined some guy wandering around Edinburgh distributing some poorly printed beer stained rag stapled together. Who is this guy, I wondered, loving the idea of it, though what I imagined was far from the reality, for there is nothing remotely tacky or amateur in The Gun’s design. Inspired and influenced by the nineteenth century Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, The Gun is a striking black and white double-sided broadsheet of folding columns with an antiquated masthead. And while I imagined issues distributed around pubs like flyers utilized as beer coasters by indifferent bar flies, The Gun has in fact its own personalized paper racks; wooden boxes permanently housed in select establishments to rack The Guns up like loaded firearms in a saloon. In an age where people are shut down and silenced for being offensive, The Gun fires some welcome bullets.

     Craig Gibson: “we were on a mission to return quality literature to the taverns gratis, providing an antidote to what we perceived as a culture of literary apathy stalking the Capital.”

    The Gun and Heretics came together, when Gibson and novelist Peter Burnett approached John Herdman with the idea of carrying The Heretics on in the spirit of Henderson’s carrying stream/living tradition. For Henderson, folk culture was all about new generations finding value in past culture and breathing new life into it. Coincidentally, Dolina Maclennan had already arranged a reunion to celebrate forty five years since the founding of The Heretics. Original Heretics like McLennan and Herdman, and Joy Hendry, the founding editor of the long running Chapman literary magazine, joined a younger generation to revitalize the group. This wasn’t a new group, members insisted, but a continuation after a thirty year rest. A baton, to be handed on, was produced at Heretics events like a branch fallen into the carrying stream.

     The Abbotsford is quiet when Gregor and I arrive, much quieter than it would have been a couple of weeks ago, when the festival was in full swing. What would the poets be paying for a drink here in the 1950s, we wonder. Or 1973, even, when Norman MacCaig brought Seamus Heaney here and taught him how to pronounce Glenmorangie. A few nights ago, in a Glasgow pub, Gregor corrected me when I pronounced Mao as if the communist dictator was something I dipped my chips in and not closer to something a coo in a field might say, if the coo had a speech impediment. The problem with an autodidact education, I said, was seeing words in print and not hearing them aloud. I once ended up talking to someone about Chaucer when I offered them Chicken Chasseur for dinner.

     The conversation turns to a literacy project Gregor has embarked upon as a teacher, and he speaks with passion about installing in his students the importance of literacy, not just as a means of communication and finding work but as a means of expressing how you might feel and articulating what you think. We discuss how empowering literacy is and end up talking about the history of grassroots movements, like the mutual improvement societies, a working class initiative which established a foundation for the Labour movement.

     Grassroots, the word jolts us back to the Heretics and The Gun and the festival, for it was Henderson who founded The Edinburgh People’s Festival, a forerunner to the Fringe. Influenced by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Henderson said, “the aim was to present a more democratic art – for the people by the people – a new art that would reveal itself capable of great things.”

     The People’s Festival, like The Heretics, would be inclusive in spirit as the larger festival felt exclusive in practice.

     For Henderson the Folk Revival was an extension of the Literary Renaissance, though MacDiarmid saw the oral tradition as inferior to the written word. Henderson wanted the two to come together, for people to come together through a communal art.  “Poetry becomes people,” was how Duncan Glen described Henderson’s ideas. Like Robert Burns, Henderson’s writing life moved from art poetry to song, from the ivory tower to the howf, whereas MacDiarmid preferred to play the Übermensch, overseeing the culture from his garret. While the great Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, felt the older MacDiarmid lacked warmth, MacDiarmid felt Burns and Henderson wasted their talents on song, abandoning the head for the heart.

     The auld MacDiarmid might have sneered at the Folk Revival but I suspect the young MacDiarmid would have approved of The Gun; his piss take of Burns Suppers in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle would have made a fine Gun feature!

     In some ways the clash between the Folk Revival and the Renaissance is reflected today in debates between stage and page poetry, though quite often the gap between spoken word artists and literary artists is more one of ignorance, on both sides, at times, than one of understanding. Henderson, as I said, approached folk culture from a literary background whereas MacDiarmid was influenced by folk song in his earlier work. For all their flyting, both men knew what they were flyting about and fighting for; and while today there are examples of writers who are also performers there can often be a tension between the two. Once, after a reading I attended, a poet complained to a table full of poets, “oh, please God! Don’t tell me you’re going to discuss poetry!” On another occasion a self proclaimed poet told me reading was “elitist.”

     With The Gun and The Heretics we have a combination of page and stage poets, prose writers and performers, bringing together the ivory tower satirist ripping the pish out of the Edinburgh literati with a traditional communal sharing of work in a pub atmosphere. At times, The Gun’s scathing pieces on the literary goings on of Edinburgh can sound like Rimbaud shouting MERDE! at pompous Parisian poets. But in merging with the Heretics, another spirit is invoked, one that’s less confrontational, less abrasive, more open and giving.

     As Gregor gets the drinks in, I reach for my phone, finger tap Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait, by Margaret Tait, into Youtube, and an eight minute black and white documentary, made in 1964, pops up on the small screen in my palm. I scroll with my finger, pushing minutes forward like the hand of a clock, until we see MacDiarmid standing at this very bar fifty three years ago, the screen in my hand a window framing another time, a long gone moment from the very space we stand in now.

     What would he say to us if he was here? Would we get Greive or MacDiarmid? There are many accounts of Grieve the man being soft spoken and friendly compared to MacDiarmid the poet being loud and authoritarian. But then there are many accounts of the Scottish antisysygy, something The Gun took to task when they devoted an entire issue to taking the pish out of this national obsession with duality among our more famous writers, with Peter Burnett’s hilarious take on it titled, Stop This Shit Now!

     If you throw a stone from The Abbotsford up Rose Street you could hit Milne’s Bar, which is where we head next, avoiding the door into the upstairs bar for the stairs down into the basement which is where the Rose Street Poets met in what was called the Little Kremlin, due to the political leanings of many in that group. There is a large plaque on the wall as you descend the stairs informing visitors of the writers who met and drank here. Inside the bar, there are various paintings and caricatures depicting the likes of MacDiarmid and MacCaig in conversation.

     We take our pints into the room that was the Little Kremlin and sit across from a large family who take up two tables. Once again I reach for my phone, this time finger tapping No Fellow Travellers into the Scottish Screen Archive for a longer documentary about MacDiarmid made in 1972. This one opens with an in colour glimpse at where we are now, six years before I was born. The same room is packed with poets seated around the walls like a football team being lectured to at half time; a not too healthy looking football team, to judge by the drams on the tables and wreaths of smoke in the air.

     We leave the New Town for the Old Town, traipsing across Princess Street onto Lothian Road and down Kings Stables Road into the Grassmarket, then up Forrest Road and into the legendary Sandy Bells.

     The late Angus Calder, a supporter and contributor to The Gun, once wrote about a “distinguished academic” lecturing him for spending too much time “talking to little poets in Sandy Bells.” Calder’s response: “Oh but, there are big poets in Sandy Bells.”

     The Heretics were never interested in big or little poets. Big names like Sorley Maclean and Billy Connolly attended their early events and shared the same stage as many poets and musicians few would remember today, but there was always a democratic outsider spirit about the group.

     Sandy Bells feels more like a museum than either Milne’s or the Abbotsford, with tourists stepping in to take photo souvenirs without staying to buy a drink. The musicians regularly playing in the corner are not museum pieces, however, and neither are the poets I meet here today, or The One O’Clock Guns, hot off the press.

     When we arrive Craig Gibson is waiting by the bar with his partner, Cathy, and grassroots publisher Ray Bell, editor of Bleeding Ink. Craig has a rucksack full of the latest issue of The Gun. More Guns are already in position, in their box on the wall beside a framed photo of Heretics founder, Stuart MacGregor; a copy of MacGregor’s song, The Sandy Bells Man, shadows his image behind the glass case. A bust of Henderson looks down on us from above the bar. I suggest it would be better placed down here, among us, which is where I imagine his spirit would be. MacDiarmid’s, I suggest, was more of an above the gantry man. At least, his persona was.

     Before long Christie Williamson, the Shetlandic poet, arrives and in the next hour we are joined by Spike Munro, and Kerry McDonald and Gerry Hillman, who in addition to being members of The Range of the Awful Hand musical group, also contribute to The Heretics and The Gun (Kerry administering The Heretics while Gerry designs The Gun.)

     The hours scroll by like the minutes in the documentary we skimmed through earlier, and before we know it Gregor and I are heading for the train home. I suggest a literary pub crawl in Glasgow some time. Do you know much about The Clyde Group poets? Maybe we can find out, over a few drinks?

     Aye, maybe we could . . .

The One O’Clock Gun Anthology is available from Leamington Books.

For more about the flyting of MacDiarmid and Henderson, read The Armstrong Nose, Selected Letters of Hamish Henderson (Polygon,) edited with an extensive essay by Alec Finlay.

Ross Wilson’s first full collection of poetry will be published by Smokestack Books in December 2018.