Goodbye to a Scots Makar

I was very sad today to hear from Ian Rankin’s Twitter that the man who had been my favourite living Scots poet, Edwin Morgan, had passed away at the age of 90. He was writing to the end, a new collection published just this year to mark his 90th birthday, a bard who could shape verse in diverse ways and style, across many different subjects from everyday life to love to the creation of the universe, that important kiss, science fiction and of course his beloved Glasgow and Scotland. Poet Laureate of Glasgow then the first National Makar of Scotland, respected in dozens of countries and translated into many languages, one of the great figures of 20th century Scottish writing.

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells, Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen

Probably the best known of the poets of the Great War, Owen was treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart, just a few moments from where I live in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (events fictionalised in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration and the film adaptation of the book). Owen was killed on November 4th, 1918, just a week before the Armistice. He was 25 years old; much of his poetry was published posthumously.


(the eternal flame and the tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe; the legend reads “ici repose un soldat Francais, mort pour la patrie, 1914-1918. It stands in stark contrast to the more bombastic militarism of the Arc de Triomphe above it and the triumphant, processional way of the Champs Elyssee in front of it; the larger version is on my Flickr)

Happy Saint Andrew’s Day

Patron saint of Scotland, depiste never actually having been in Caledonia in his lifetime. Home-grown talent from these islands, such as Columba, must have thought they were a shoe-in for the top job but lost out to Andy – today politicians looking for easy popularity with the unthinking masses would no doubt make a song and dance about bloody immigrants taking our jobs…

Saint Andrew’s Day is now marked by the First Minister of the Scottish parliament who rides a giant haggis down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, throwing greasy Scotch pies and bottles of Irn Bru to the crowds. Tradition has it that if you are fortunate enough to catch some of this largesse you should take it home and, in the ancient Scottish manner, deep fry them and eat them. You should then experience a vision of Saint Coronary, another important Scots saint. The former head of the Scottish Conservatives was supposed to follow on another haggis, but he was forced to resign after attempting to claim travel by haggis as parliamentary expenses when using it for his own purposes (sorry, that won’t mean a thing to anyone who hasn’t been following Scottish politics).

And to mark Saint Andrew’s Day I visited the very nifty Poetry Archive and had a listen to my favourite living Scottish poet, the wonderful Edwin Morgan (the first National Makar – that’s Poet Laureate to non Scots). It’s a lovely site with a very good range of wordspinners on it. I like good poetry; I love prose but there are some ideas, feelings and events which poetry can suggest in a way prose cannot (although sometimes very moving prose becomes almost like poetry). Poetry is to literature as jazz is to music; it can be fast or slow, playful or mournful, reflective or full of light but always different. And the best way to hear it is from the lips of the bard – as you can do on the Poetry Archive.

Mad, bad…

… And dangerous to know. Nope, not my fellow clansman Byron, but an earlier bard who enjoy more than his share of drink and women, the Restoration Rake, John Wilmot, better known as the second Earl Rochester. Caught the Libertine the other night, with Johnny Depp and his cheekbones as Rochester, Rosamunde Pike as his wife and the wonderfully pixie-like beauty of Samantha Morton. It was a very odd film, detailing a chunk of Rochester’s brief life (ending with a painful, syphilitic condition at the age of 33) and the Restoration court of Charles II (played by the always wonderful John Malkovich in a clear nod to his earlier film Dangerous Liasons). I’ve always found Rochester to be a fascinating character, so although the film wasn’t brilliant I enjoyed it.

He’s one of those figures who can be both inspiring and damned annoying, moving from elegant poetry showcasing his wit and intellect to a vulgar pornographic (but fun) output and a love of self-destruction. All in all he’d have made a fabulous rock star; goes to show there really isn’t anything new under the sun and the excess of Ozzy or Motley Crue on the road has all be done before. Mel hated the film though – even Johnny’s cheekbones weren’t enough to rescue it for her. There’s a good website on Rochester here.

All my past life is mine no more,The flying hours are gone,Like transitory dreams given o'er,Whose images are kept in storeBy memory alone.

What ever is to come is not,How can it then be mine?The present moment's all my lot,And that as fast as it is got,Phyllis, is wholly thine.

Then talk not of inconstancy,False hearts, and broken vows,Ii, by miracle, can be,This live-long minute true to thee,'Tis all that heaven allows. 

All My Past Life, Lord Rochester.

Drink and the poet

A very beautiful and sunny day off for me today. The spring sunshine bathed Edinburgh in a warm glow, flowers burst into bloom in Princes Street Gardens and women are wearing more revealing tops. Ah yes, spring is in the air. In this spirit I decided to leave aside the cares of the modern world for one day and embarked upon an ancient Celtic tradition, a pagan ritual the Celtic people have followed faithfully since long before the Romans came to Caledonia. A life-affirming celebration of the end of the long, dark winter and the rebirth of the Earth goddess in the form of spring. Yes, in other words I had my first outdoor beer of the year :-)

Don’t mock – for those of us who live in the ancient lands of Scotland the first outdoor drinking session of the spring is a very important ritual, which must be solemnly observed on the first reasonably warm and sunny afternoon. The ritual demands several local ales to be imbibed and for small delicacies to be served to honour the Goddess (crisps will do). Dear chums, I hold my Celtic heritage very dear and sacred to my heart and so I did my best to carry out this ancient ceremony to the best of my ability, onerous though that burden may be.Suitably enough for someone who works in the book trade this al-fresco imbibing took place outside of Milne’s Bar in Rose Street. For those who don’t know Edinburgh, Milne’s was the home away from home for a large number of Scottish poets in the post-war period. A composite portrait of our drunken bards in this historic tavern hangs in the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street. One of the pluses about living in Edinburgh is that even the pubs are historic landmarks to be visited. So you can go pub crawling and still call it a tour, wonderful. Never trust a poet who doesn’t indulge. Come to think of it, never buy a pair of used roller blades from one either, especialyl if he’s been drinking.