Wednesday, 28 February 2018

A Case of You

With all this snow going on in Scotland at the moment, I am minded of a piece of my writing from many years ago. I was working at memorising Schubert's Wintereisse, and decided to have a walking holiday to assist the process. I often use walking for this purpose; sadly, the weather turned more wintry than my mood at the time. It became a rather sad and introcpective journey as I reflected on the sorry state of my life at the time.

I subsequently edited what I wrote, and published it on the Scottish Book Trust competition pages requsting writing on 'Journeys' in an attempt to pass it off as a piece of fiction. But the fact of the matter is that it is in fact a true story. Furthermore, that haunting song-cycle by Schubert is still a part of my life. I may perform some of these sad songs very soon... But first, the sadder story.

When my life collapsed some years ago, I took myself to Western Scotland in search of somewhere in the middle of nowhere to think, write, cry, or walk for miles. I was running away without a plan or a clue about where I would end up.

This failing struck me as I sat stuck on a train on the single-track route to Oban. My mood swung between maintaining my snivelling cold as the reason for my constant nose-blowing and letting my tears make pools in my glasses. I was heading towards the Gateway to the Islands of Mull, Iona, Colonsay, with no ambition to explore them. Just to survive the trip alone.

Yet the journey was sadder still – because I had no-one to share it.

As we set out, in my carriage a couple across from me busily chatted. Behind, two creepy-looking guys were joined by a pair of loud girls; elsewhere two lads were noisily japing around. A girl with chip-pan-crinkly hair and her freckly companion were patiently trying to ignore them.

Of the few lone travellers was an attractive woman with deep brown eyes who I’d seen on the platform at Queen Street. She might have cheered my spirits a little with her ephemeral beauty, though my longing to share the experience with someone was compromised by my emotional state.  

Instead, I stared through the window. The scenery was overwhelming.

A stag bounded across the railway line at the train’s horn, disappearing into the glen. I saw through my tear-smeared spectacles snow-laden Christmas-card trees, frosted bracken, heathery mist across the half-frozen lochs. Colours one assumed were only possible through a lens-filter for the purposes of Scottish calendars and table-mats; purples, lush greens and paprikas, soft granite and water-colour blue through the icing-sugar snow; mist filtering the ice-white winter sun.

Every hue matched the intensity of my loneliness as I thought of what to write.

Our train stopped several stations short of our destination due to an engineering carriage being frozen to the rails down the line. The sunset orange was mixing with the purple granite like a bruise, and the chill entered the train when smokers periodically went out onto the frosted platform. A taxi came for those catching the four o’clock boat to Mull, while everyone else waited for wrong-sized mini-busses.

My sandwich was half-eaten – I couldn’t breathe through my nose and had to hold my breath while chewing. Glad that we, and not the half of the train that split to travel to Mallaig, ended up with the snack- trolley, I took advantage of free coffee and crisps. Drying my eyes, I stood up and let someone pass who flashed a beautiful smile, before I went to collect my coffee.

It was the woman I’d seen at Queen Street. I thought of my Ex’s absurd jealously and yet, her understanding of my need to feel loved, to be smiled at – or to be pitied. My fascination for people, their stories and lives, their shallows and depths, their devils and deeds. I want to be at one with them, to touch their souls: help them discover their 'organismic' selves.

Finally we were stuffed into a mini-bus, people sitting on bags, on friend’s knees; the one with the brown eyes and smile in the front with another passenger who alighted before we reached Oban. I’d nearly sat in the front seat, where I could have heard her story as she answered the taxi-driver’s anodyne chatter.

This is what I do when I can’t cope: I get into people’s lives, soaking them up like a sponge. But my heart was empty. Soon the banter and conversation of the train was reduced to a deathly silence; punctuated only by the driver’s apologetic ‘Ho-ho-ho.’

Feeling drained, I sat in a stupor, as if experiencing the journey from a distance. I was far from home, and the nearer we got to Oban, the more I realised the meaningless of my mission. I’d booked into a cheap and even-less cheerful hotel tucked in a back street behind the empty station, next to a scrubby-looking bowling club.

I ventured out into the frozen night for fish and chips and beer. As I settled into greasy nylon sheets, I wished I’d arrived in time to buy a bottle of the local Malt at the off-licence. The lack of anaesthetic and irritating tickle in my throat made sleep a vacant hope.

Such was the story of my sojourn. I didn’t make it to the countryside to scream my head off as intended. Nor did I get on a boat and visit the multi-coloured, mono-religious lands of the Western Isles. As I passed like a ghost in and out of the streets, all I could feel was the intoxicating presence of.. the person I was trying to shake off. I walked into a shop and the radio was playing Joni Mitchell.

My ears barely pricked up: the music was already in my head.

I walked up to McCaig’s Tower where the low sun left long, haunting shadows; to Pulpit Hill where nobody ever preached; then the distillery where I forwent the hour-long tour and my ‘free’ glass of Malt. That evening I sat in a spit-and-sawdust Inn on the North pier, ear-wigging on the alien-sounding West Coast accents, feeling like a foreigner.

I had to get back.

On the return journey, opposite me a jolly man who was drinking from a bottle of Casillero del Diablo tried to make conversation. Am I drawn to those who aren’t afraid? Is the only person I’m afraid of myself. Or the one who was in my blood like holy wine: I could drink a case, and still be on my feet. She was as far from me as I was from home. Whatever I had lost, I still had myself. So I thought.

My companion raised his glass of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Cellar of the Devil.

I declined his cheer, and took out my pen.


Wednesday, 31 January 2018

In Ignoble Poverty

If I were to answer the question, ‘Why haven’t I managed a monthly blog-post until the last day of January?’ the answer might be familiar to all self-employed freelancers. The dreaded Tax Return. However, after the usual procrastination, I logged into my account only to find I didn’t need to.

It seems that, after years of existing below the threshold, the Tax Office has finally got bored with my paltry finances. While this is a relief in many ways, since trawling through a thousand unanswerable questions was pretty tiresome, it is strange to admit that I’m officially an impoverished artist.
It’s also rather liberating. I live within my means, with few frivolous expenses, and I do enough ‘extra’ work to allow the odd luxury while keeping those extra hours for my creativity. Sure, it would be good to be able to earn more from my creative endeavours, but that’s not the reason that I do what I do.
Creativity is a compulsion. I can't imagine how I would be able to make sense of this complicated world if I wasn’t an artist. Creativity is good for one’s health, for society’s health, and for the planet. Why do we have artwork along hospital corridors?

Because art makes people better. Yet it does cost money. As Joni Mitchel says, ‘Artists in noble poverty go like virgins to the grave.’ (Meanwhile, on the same album, she was ‘stoking up the star-maker machinery behind the popular song!’)
For all my ‘noble poverty’ I appreciate that art is not separate from the systems that, sadly, make the world go round. When creative projects are stripped of funds – as has happened to many organisations in Scotland recently – people have to be doubly creative in order simply to finance their practice.

My good friends at the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust are in this position.

A Unique City
To have the unique status of being the first ever UNESCO-designated City of Literature is something Edinburgh should be proud of. Our main train station is named after a novel, and throughout the station there are quotes of Sir Walter Scott (thanks to the City of Lit.) At the top of The Mound is a quaint little close where Scott, along with our National Bard, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson are celebrated in a turreted museum dedicated to them.

 On the pavement there are quotes from Scottish poets ranging over hundreds of years, and signs advertising Literary Walking Tours. But you don’t even need a tour-guide.

Amble down the Royal Mile to the Canongate and there are light-boxes installed in the windows of pubs and shops and cafés, each with a quote from a writer connected in some way to Edinburgh’s rich publishing history; an illuminated trail to inspire and light up the night during the long winter months.

These are dark days indeed, even if January has basked in two full moons, as the City of Literature Trust’s effort to light up our city’s life with a bright ring of words has been snubbed by a major funder. Outside the Canongate Kirk, a statue of Robert Fergusson attempts to stride down to the Parliament building at the bottom of the hill. His words, incised in concrete around his feet, declare:

          Auld reekie wale o ilka toun
          that scotland kens beneath the moon
And on the Parliament too, carved into a slab of Argyle marble, we read the words of Mary Brooksbank:
          Oh, dear me, the warld’s ill-divided,
          Them that work the hardest are aye wi’ least provided.
...which calls to mind the truth that, during the Festival Fringe, the folk who make the most money are the big businesses who benefit from the boost of creativity and culture. The artists who provide it do so at a huge personal cost.
Art is important, and literature tells far more than just the story of a city: it is the city. But it costs money, and the funding cuts people have suffered will leave Edinburgh impoverished in more ways than one.

Generating money for the already-wealthy is a poor show, and I can only hope that someday, somehow, someone will re-elevate the turret-dwellers to their rightful, illuminated place.
Follow the Stars and Stories here – or come to visit Edinburgh and soak up the literature that makes our city so special.


Saturday, 30 December 2017


Sometimes I wonder how many writers stay in on a Friday night to listen to BBC Radio 3’s programme, The Verb? In the case of performance poets, probably as few as the singers who listen to Sunday afternoon programmes of Choral music! I’m not going to start questioning Radio 3 schedules, and as for presenters – ach! At least Aled Jones no longer presents The Choir (now sensibly re-named, Choir & Organ.)
But The Verb has always been high quality, and now that the host, Ian McMillan, features a focus on Spoken Word he has a regular guest: the wonderful Hollie McNish. Some years back I took part in a poetry slam – a rare thing for me. I performed my ‘Anti-Slam’ poem, in which I ‘slam’ – or, I would prefer to say, satirise – the poetry scene; in particular, the student slam-scene and the ‘slam voice’. I won’t print it here, for obvious reasons, except this bit:
            The poetry slam, the poetry slam –
            for the feisty young woman,
            and the angry young man.
The feature poet on this occasion was the afore-mentioned Hollie McNish who, after hearing my poem, changed her set in case she came across as a feisty young woman. Horrified at the thought of criticising someone I admired, I was also, secretly pleased that she’d taken in my words – if a little too to heart. I apologised after, and found her to be a warm-hearted and lovely person.

I was delighted to learn that she was now on my favourite wordy programme.
Friday nights are a funny time for Spoken Word events. I often used to find myself thinking, ‘why am I listening to The Verb on the radio when I could be hearing words performed live?’ The fact is, there aren’t so many of these gigs on Fridays in Edinburgh, especially now Rally & Broad are no more. And on Saturdays, fewer still (unless I’m missing a bunch of stuff?)
Keeping myself off the beaten track, and trying to squeeze poetry into unusual places, this year found me doing a regular slot at a certain Edinburgh Jazz Bar. Three singer/songwriter friends once had a Saturday tea-time acoustic slot, and I was invited to do some pop-up poetry between sets. It was a tricky gig, since the audience was never the same, and I could never be sure how well my poetry would go down. On the whole, the reception was good.
Sadly, that tea-time acoustic slot has been moved to Friday where the post-office crowd are less responsive. Which is ironic since Friday, for office-workers, is POETS-day:
So instead, I stay in and listen to The Verb which, in November, celebrated 35 years of Spoken Word. It seems that this novel phenomenon isn’t that new! As someone said, either on The Verb or The Essay, on Radio 3: “It’s been the same old shit since Shakespeare!”
I get irritated when some younger performers claim that they’ve rejuvenated poetry. If they ask a classroom of kids, “Who thinks poetry’s boring?” they’ll get a cheerful ‘Yeah!’ since it is a leading question anyway. But to perform what they think is ‘better’ poetry is arrogant... especially if it is their own.

Offer school students Chaucer, Catullus, Shakespeare, Byron, or Larkin at their sauciest and these young people will never say poetry’s boring again.
What’s important here is, whether you write on the page or for the stage (and this heated debate will rage ’til old age) what cannot be compromised is craft. As John Agard – a doyen of the early Spoken Word scene – said on that episode of The Verb in November, when talking about the early days of the scene:
Something interesting was happening. It wasn’t a ‘dismissing’ of literary poetry, because I’m a firm believer – no matter how stylish you are on stage; no matter how much charisma you have physically – if you don’t apply craftsmanship and let your words resonate, it will be a fleeting, momentary experience.
Every so often in the spoken word community in Scotland, a discussion occurs debating the various habits and traits among performers. The one that most riles me is when a poet steps up on stage announcing, “Here’s one I wrote on the bus this afternoon,” or something similar. Every performance – whether of a single poem, a five-minute open-mic slot, a full feature-set or a seemingly impromptu recital – should be crafted as carefully as possible.
Perhaps that’s just me and my classical background. You wouldn’t see a singer or actor stand on stage and say, “Oh: what shall I do now. Oh yes, that one about the...” and then trot out a performance that they cobbled together earlier in the afternoon.
On that same programme, John Agard said, “It’s very crucial – in this celebration of ‘the word’ as utterance, and as spoken, and performed: we don’t forget that Shakespeare is a performance poet.”  Not the ‘same old shit’ then. To perform poetry that aspires to Shakespeare, just as all art should aspire to the condition of music, is no bad thing to aim for.
I’m not saying I’m immune to the foibles and failures of poetry performance. Besides my penchant for props, pictures, playing a recorder and occasionally bursting into song, I am also prone (apparently) to over-long introductions. From time to time I turn this into a feature; other times, I just launch in. But the important thing in this is learning to read the room.
That said, a poem should be able to speak for itself, so my long introduction to the poems in this post has already shot itself in the foot. Yet sometimes it’s good to have a bit of background. There may be references to learn, unusual words to gloss, or an amusing back-story to bring to the fore – these may illuminate the poem if performed live, off-page.
Here, then, are some more of my poems from the sequence written for my good friend and muse; 26 sestudes on doors, friendship, and journeys between the two.
26 Doors Between My House and Yours...
The first requires more than a few musical references, so I will post the poem first and then, in a retro-introduction, gloss all the pieces of music with the help of Youtube!
Gymnasium, Pleasance Courtyard

Kate Bush had doors opened that
she thought were shut for good…
Peter Gabriel walked through the
FRONT DOOR of his Big Heaven…
Bob Dylan kept knock-knocking.
Schubert shut the door and, like
Vaughan Williams’ vagabond, he
wrote ‘gute nacht’ upon the gate.
While Howell’s Little Door beheld
the gift of Life and Death: eternity.
Lift up the latch to this epiphany.

Gymnasium, Pleasance Courtyard

Kate Bush had doors opened that
she thought were shut for good…
Peter Gabriel walked through the
FRONT DOOR of his Big Heaven…
Bob Dylan kept knock-knocking.
Schubert shut the door and, like
Vaughan Williams’ vagabond,

he wrote ‘gute nacht’ upon the gate.
While Howell’s Little Door beheld
the gift of Life and Death: eternity.
Lift up the latch to this epiphany.
The second poem needs less introduction or explanation: it’s all in the poem. My only addition is to mention that, not only was my father born 81 years ago, on December 24th he entered his eighty-second year – and is still going strong!
Substation, Carnegie Street
You have to love this city!
It’s crammed with hyperbole;
much of it a front, or folly.
Take this substation for example:
a grand façade for something
so perfunctory, to gauge electricity.
Even the warning, ‘Danger of Death,’
seems to over-state it’s claim.
Only the date above the door
says something more – to me.
It is the year my father was born.
And the last of my doors for this year has a valedictory tone. While these poems (and photos) celebrate a particular friendship as well as the symbolism of doors, this poem – I feel – has a universality about it which – hopefully – speaks to anyone who reads this ranty, grumpy blog. The sign above this door, translated from the Latin, reads ‘May you enter in peace, and exit in Health.’
84, Canongate
We enter and we exit.
Sometimes we hide
behind closed doors
for fear of what’s outside;
othertimes, for reasons
much the same,
we venture far too far
beyond the frame,
eager to learn more.
Sometimes the door
is locked within;
othertimes, outwith.
So be it. Amen, I say.
I wish you peace, health,
but above, far, far above,
I wish you love.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, I wish you a peaceful and healthy New Year.