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David Betteridge

David Betteridge

David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.

Resurging
Monday, 16 March 2020 15:16

Resurging

Published in Poetry

David Betteridge presents a major new long poem, a meditation on last December's setback to the socialist Left. Illustrations are by his longtime friend and collaborator, Bob Starrett, official artist at the Upper Clyde Shipyard Work-In in 1972.

RESURGING

In memory of Albert Marsden, Scunthorpe steelworker, trade union official, community activist, WEA committee member and decades-long student of History, Economics, Astronomy, Literature, and other subjects. He inspired many of us on the Left.

R1

I   BURNING BRIGHT

I perceive thou art one of my Subjects, for all that Country is mine; and I am the Prince and God of it...Were it not that I hope thou maiest do me more service, I would strike thee now at one blow to the ground...

                           - John Bunyan

What is that spoor, you ask,
that leads from site to site of wounding,
and of recurrent kills?
What is that pervading smell?
That disquieting sound?
Friend, what you see is the Tiger’s track;
you scent his carcase-reek;
you hear the snarl of his ego-speech.

He is cleverer than us, a certain fact;
he is brutal, and duplicitous.
Observe how he pursues his tyrant will.
Should he see a means whereby to gain his ends,
which are to keep his subalterns
and his expendables in thrall,
straight off he acts.
Nothing is too big to daunt him;
nothing too seeming-trivial or small.

Addict to greed, enough is never enough:
he craves forever more, devouring lands, homes,
assets, futures, lives -
the full contents of every store.

By threat or use of force,
deploying an arsenal that far exceeds our own,
he enters every fight to win.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          He crushes us, or bribes, or dupes,
or blackmails us, while we, his victims,
ditheringly deliberate,
or dissipate our strength in faction fights.

R2 
The desperate-for-change among us
see in him a champion of their hopes;
but they are wrong, absurdly so.
This creature is a Hitler or a Mussolini
for our times, an arch-agent of the Right,
an Apollyon against whom Bunyan warned.
He is root-and-branch a lethal foe.

Populist, he studies us.
He encodes in his pronouncements
our own heart’s wish, echoing the very phrases
we might use, as if his own.
So he wins the trust of gullibles,
breaking their bonds with us,
disuniting us who would oppose.
Then he breaks the promises he has made,
an age-old ruse.

He parades himself as Patriot.
Foreigners he miscalls.
Loudly he bugles “For Britain and Saint George!”
but his Saint Capital trumps all.
The hard borders that he draws
about his State are for others, not for him;
they are cattle-pens for plebs,
to keep some out, and keep some in;
but where the money lies, or goes,
with his burning eyes and appetite,
there he freely goes.

R3

His profit and our loss are his starting point,
and his all-consuming end.
They are his first premise, his lode star,
his main pursuit, his soul’s true friend.

Relentless, he is ever-present
in our bad dreams.
He is not alone,
He has allies everywhere,
advisers, agents, praetorians, clones.

Tiger! Tiger! burning bright,
in the jungle of the Right,
what mortal brain and hand
will drive you from our stolen land? 

II   FROM THE GRASSROOTS OF THE JUNGLE: ADVICES TO THE LEADER

The defenders are not demoralised, nor do they abandon their positions, even among the ruins, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own future...                                                                                                              

                           - Antonio Gramsci

& Where Capital and Labour clash:
there you should be, Dear Leader, leading.
Where the People congregate, addressing
or enjoying things that they think matter:
there should you also be, learning.

& Party / Movement / Class:
their fruitful symbiosis - with roots
and branches interlinked - requires
a leadership more skilled and wise
than any in the past.

& If crowds sing your name and praises,
and yours alone, ask yourself,
What am I doing wrong?
Tell them: Our cause is collective.
Only as one can we fight strong.

& You need far more than policies,
no matter how good, how smoothly honed,
how numerous they are.
You need purposes, and passion, too.
To be convincing, you must be convinced,
feel what you mean, mean what you feel.
More than your rhetoric, you must consider well
how well you lead your life.

& To misspeak, mistake, miscalculate:
these are common faults.
We need a common, quick and kindly way
to cope with them, recoup, redress, re-educate,
and more wisely fight another day.

& The road ahead, out of the wasteland
of our last defeat, out of despond, out of our loss
of confidence, is long; it winds; it is hazardous.
Giants, well known to us, lurk in waiting.
We must fight with them, first
with the Giant Ignorance.

& Taking on the world - which is what
the cause of Labour is - means comprehending it.
It is no task for ignoramuses.
The Arts, Crafts and Sciences, interpreted
through Philosophy - in all of these, collectively,
we must excel, warp and weft.
Nothing that is part of humankind is alien to us -
Marx’s motto, paraphrased - that
should be also ours, collectively;
else History will pass us by, and piss on us,
leaving us outmanoeuvred on the Left.

& For every hour you spend with like minds
in a coterie, spend at least a score with those
who labour in dubiety.
Listen to them before you speak;
then question them,
and let them also question you.
Compare your answers, and the best ones
for our shared futures keep.
Speak and work with us, please,
if you would lead; but never at.
Common praxis is our proper habitat.

R4 

& Do not collude, Dear Leader,
nor emulate, nor vie with the enemy
in his fortressing of our land.
You have no use, surely, for long-range bombs,
no wish to blast or burn or sicken
half (or more) of the world’s others?
We need allies everywhere,
to advance with them across the globe,
in step with all of those whom we can call
our sisters and our brothers.

& Do not give credence or assent
to any measure that, under the waving flag
of Nation, advances Capital at our expense.
That would be to lapse into false consciousness.
Capital, willing us to this folly, banks on it.

& It is not sufficient that we remove the Tiger
from his jungle: we must remove
that very eco-system that he tops.
We need, not a changing of the Guard,
but a different polity,
where the rule of inequality and injustice stops.

& To hell with metaphors!
The enemy we call a “tiger” is a flawed
and mortal man.
We will find his Achilles’ heel,
and bring him down by strategy,
as History confirms we can.

& To win (or waste) the highest power:
that is the question.
Gramsci, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

R5

III   PREFIGURING

Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.

                                                 - Alisdair Gray (after Dennis Lee)

Our future way of life we prefigure now,
and make it real,
enacting it in everything we say and do,
and embedding it in how we feel.
Without prefiguring, our project stalls.
Without hope’s pull, our present standing falls.

Our present vision of a commonweal-to-come
emboldens us, and sets a course for us.
It constitutes a refuge, and a power-house,
an emporium of means, a second home,
perhaps a first; it makes us never lost,
nor ill-equipped; it gives both shape and life
to lives; it ensures that every one of us
feels not alone.

Consider the chrysalis of the Hornet-fly:
so Coleridge, the old Mariner, advised.
It leaves sufficient space in its involucrum
for its antennae, not yet grown,
in potential there to lie; so in the building
of our institutions of the Left,
we too will make provision of the widest scope,
ready for the spreading of our future wings
in future flight.

We need all the gifts that we can lay
our hands and minds on, all the raw material,
the sustenance, the freshets of inspiration
that come our way; especially, we need
the world’s plurality, in its broadest flood,
to flow from past and future, and so to fill
our reservoirs of readiness today.

R6 

Hubs, clubs, unions, co-ops, guilds,
workshops, schools, networks of them:
these we need urgently, essentially.
Where are they, and how numerous?
They are staging posts to our seizing power.
There we can practise skills of fellowship;
establish synapses of new-found thought;
create a culture equal to the task of government;
and educate desire.

Maps drawn in the mind
range beyond the scope of maps
drawn on the ground.
They show a way, out from want,
out from suffering today,
to happier settlements
not-yet-found. 

IV   MUSTERING

The world never stagnates. It’s always stirring, new forms of life always appearing...I love to look back at the past, or forward to the beautiful future that humanity will inhabit.

                            - Alexandra Kollontai

The storm’s wind dies.
The sea, that threatened
to engulf and drown,
subsides.

Voyagers, proceed!
We know where golden landfall
lies.

The sun also rises.

R7 

Our knowledge,
salvaged from experience,
expands;
it yields insights,
depths, directions, plans.

Our alliances extend.
Crossing oceans,
crossing continents,
they grow strong;
they engender trust, hope,
courage, annulling wrongs.

The sun also rises.

Sickle and sword
contend.
The sickle wins,
its green force so hard, so long,
it makes the bloody weapon
bend.

Capital succumbs;
its cash-nexus breaks;
we, the People, organised,
take power.

Kindness, addressing
every common need and want,
awakes; new virtues spread,
and further spread, and flower.

The sun also rises.

Love for love is given,
and gift for gift,
as mutual aid and commonweal,
sea-changed, require.

To old earth,
we give a fresh covenant,
root, bole, and branch,
entire; and to ourselves,
a fresh start.

Billionfold,
our knowledge and alliances
with our hearts conspire.

The sun also rises.

 

Resolutely democratic and socialist: Remembering Bill Sutherland
Friday, 17 January 2020 09:54

Resolutely democratic and socialist: Remembering Bill Sutherland

Published in Cultural Commentary

David Betteridge remembers the poetry of Bill Sutherland. With drawings by Owen McGuigan

1

Readers who are familiar with the lower reaches of the River Clyde will recognise Dumbarton Rock in the drawing shown above. 

We are looking down on the river from a hilly slope, from a position behind a pair of lovers, or so we presume the two figures to be, who are standing in front of us, pressed close. Grass and flowers are at their feet; trees cluster beyond, on both banks of the river. The lovers are so positioned that they might easily and joyfully jump off the hill, and fly like birds or paraglider pilots, and so get a closer look at the scene in front of them. 

The upper half of the drawing is darker than the bottom half. It presents a crowded urban area, overhung by four clouds of smoke, each one hanging heavily over a different part of a town. That town is not Dumbarton exactly, but an artist’s re-imagining of it, as it was in the past, busy with shipbuilding and other industries. If you explore the drawing further, you will see ships on the river, and graves.

The drawing is the work of Owen McGuigan, well known as a photographer and a Clydeside archivist. His website is a magnificent treasure hoard of material relating to Clydebank and its environs, present and past. Never has the term “People’s History” been more apposite than when applied to this Gramscian labour of love that Owen has committed himself to.

Owen’s drawing is his interpretation of a poem by a Dumbarton writer, Bill Sutherland, dead regrettably, at a young age. Once a teacher, and a dedicated one, he was later employed as an oral historian at the Denny Maritime Museum in Dumbarton. He was a member of the Workers' City group of authors. Some of his early poems appeared in their Workers' City anthology of 1988. The poem illustrated here was published shortly afterwards, in a collection called A Clydeside Lad.

2

The poem starts by conjuring up the idyllic scene shown in the bottom half of  our drawing. We hear the voice of a “lad” addressing his “lass”:

Come tae the high fields, love, wae me
faur fae this stoory, summer toon
an there like eagles lookin doon
Ah’ll teach ye aw ma hert cin see.

Fae crags, Ah’ll show ye, lass, the green
o five bright, bonnie Scottish shires,
fae Glesga’s reeky, shimmerin spires
doon tae Loch Lomon’s blinnin sheen.

Ah see great ships oot on the Clyde
thit ply fae here tae Timbuctoo
an shipyerds glintin in the blue,
Ah see sich beauty an sich pride.

Ah see tae lasses bright is May
and women kinely is the earth
an men whose jokin hides thir worth
an lads is honest is the day.

Suddenly the mood turns dark, as the speaker’s head takes over from his heart. Innocence gives way to Experience, as happens for instance in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and as happens all the time, of course, in real life.

Bit lass, aw lass, ma heid well knows
the truth ma hert fur love denies
this lan’, ma floor o paradise,
is bit a poor an cankert rose.

Fur, lass, Ah look an plain Ah see
men fat upon thir brother’s sweat,
the slums, the warrant-sales, the debt,
oor drunkiniss, oor bigotry.

Sae if up ther ma hert shid sink
fae seein ma lan’ too truthfully,
fae thinkin o it honestly,
then haud me, lass - don’t let me think.

How much meaning has been packed into this poem, showing both political and personal awareness! How well the contrarieties of Innocence and Experience are managed! How beautifully a complex scene is described and dramatised! How skilfully a vernacular Scots is put into stanza form! 

The same qualities are to be found in Bill’s other poems, which he crafted with great care during his short life. There are scores of them, many available only in handwritten or typewritten form. They are archived by the National Library of Scotland. You can access them by citing the reference Acc.14020.

3

Here is another of Bill’s poems from A Clydeside Lad:

Her mooth wis fuul o chuckie stanes -
“God bless this ship and all who sail...” –
an we wir laughin wild is wains
it muck on oor yerd-owner’s tail
fae where he’d slipt on ile an fell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

The botil smashed. There came a hush
sae lang an wide it felt like noise,
sae wee Joe yellt, “It wants a push!”
Then, like it waited fur his voice,
the Giant edged oot fur the swell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

A roar rose up sae strang an fierce,
loud fit tae crack the cranes above,
and many throats choked many tears
bit nane cid hide the powerfa love
thit burnt in aw, is in masel,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

Pride ran sae deep it near wis pain
an me, ma fethir bae ma side,
watched whit oor hauns hid built, oor ain.
The ocean noo take fur its bride,
an take fae us pert o oorself,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

Ther’s men drag coal up oot the mine,
Ther’s men drag rhymes up oot thir soul,
Ther’s men build buildins, taw an fine,
bit in this big, crule, sweaty hole
we bult a beauty oot o Hell,
the day we launched the San Miguel.

 Picture2

 “We built a beauty oot a Hell...” There, in that single little paradox at the end of his short drama-in-verse, Bill gives us a succinct expression of his understanding of the syntax of working-class experience: first, the plural and collective subject “we”; second, the active verb “built”; third, the direct object of that act of building, “a beauty”; and fourth, the adverbial “oot a Hell”, defining the harsh circumstances out if which the “beauty” - a great ship, as ambitious a project as any cathedral - was conjured. The poem, as indeed the whole of A Clydeside Lad, is packed with similarly well-wrought phrases. They are its building blocks, with not a wasted or a clumsy line. Their articulate energy jumps out at us.

As in all his vernacular poems, Bill transcribed his Scots in such a way that we get the very sound of it, just the way he spoke it and heard it. His poems are from and for the spoken word. (Some might argue that all poems worthy of the name should answer this same description.) Eye-reading on its own is not recommended. Get the taste and sound of Bill’s lines on tongue and ear!

4

A Clydeside Lad begins with an in-depth Introduction, the work of the then Literary Editor of the Glasgow Herald, Chris Small, who tutored the Dumbarton Writers Group that Bill Sutherland attended. A key passage made in this Introduction contains the following insight:

Bill Sutherland’s collection of poems belongs firmly to a place, a speech, a community and a way of thinking and living...  He knows the reality behind the “economic terms”, and his knowledge enters his poetry with indignation and compassion... 

Bill’s “way of thinking and living” was resolutely democratic, socialist, and in step with the complex realities of everyday life. He saw things in the round, and with a binocular or 3-D vision, so to speak, of a moral kind, seeing both the good and bad, the light and dark. There is a second key passage from Chris Small’s Introduction that helps us read Bill’s collection of poems as it was intended, that is to say as a whole, with a narrative shape to it:

The scope [of A Clydeside Lad] is wider than a single view.  It extends, with imaginative empathy, into other minds, and it moves backward and forward over more than one generation...

To test this “wider than a single view” point, I made a list of the characters who make an appearance in the course of the book, people with whom the poet empathises, though not necessarily agrees.  They include: his Mother and Father; a big priest; Ann, “aye sae thin, a deid wain o only three”; Miss McLeish, a teacher given to fierce punishing; Kate McGraw, a free-spirited classmate; a posh woman officiating at the launching of a ship, whose voice we have already heard; St Peter, God, and a succession of malodorous politicians, all in the same poem; Pat, a passionate singer, dying of cancer; Mike, a boozer, a boaster, and a bampot; a wife-to-be, who “made me wan wae aw thit aches tae grow”; and a Socialist orator from Glasgow, who made a winter’s night warm, and inspired the young poet:

He curst the chains o ignorance
in whit oor bosses thrust us;
he spoke o human dignity,
o britherhood, o justice...

This cast of characters helps drive forward the plot of A Clydeside Lad, which is the drama of the poet’s growing-up. 

5

Regrettably, Bill and his poems have slipped over the years into a limbo of neglect, remembered by friends and established readers certainly, but making few new contacts along the way. The reason is simple: his works are out of print, and hard to come by, even on the second-hand market. Bill himself had some thoughts on the subject of availability and accessibility.  In an interview that he gave to a local journalist, Rory Murphy, he said:

I’ve had a lot of help from my local councillor, Geoffrey Calvert.  He’s been pushing hard to have my books sold through the local libraries...Wouldn’t it be a good idea [to have] a corner which had all our local authors’ books on view, and for sale? I mean, all of them, not just a chosen few...

It would be like saying to ourselves,“Yes, we are creative people; yes, we should take pride in ourselves; yes, and if these writers can do it, maybe I could do it too.” It would be a great big Yes to ourselves as a community...

Picture3

Bill Sutherland, in his home-town of Dumbarton

Right now on Culture Matters, as a constructive small step, we can give Bill and some of his poems a certain afterlife online; and we can hope that other websites do the same. Maybe, seeing Bill’s work, some publisher will come along and re-issue A Clydeside Lad, and other writings, too. Maybe librarians and booksellers will make shelf-space for them. Maybe some singer-songwriter will add a memorable tune to some of Bill’s already memorable words, and thus give them an added chance of survival, on the folk-club scene. Maybe educators will include a selection of his poems in a school anthology, thereby slipping them into the carrying stream of a common curriculum. 

Such initiatives - and face-to-face workshops, as well, of the Workers City kind, which helped Bill get from writing privately to publishing and performing - contribute to the fleshing out of an essential eco-system of letters. That eco-system, in turn, contributes to the growing of our essential Left counter-culture, without which our political advances falter. 

In the 2019 General Election, the Labour Party went down to a bad defeat, even in its traditional heartlands. The defeat can be explained, I believe, in large measure in cultural terms. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Bill Sutherland knew the truth of this proverb, and his poems embody it, expressing in heartfelt words the heart of the heartless world.

6

A poem may serve as a summary rounding-off, arguing against neglect and oblivion, and in favour of keeping our culture going, fighting across a wide front:

Seedcorn

Seeds For the Planting Shall Not Be Ground Up:
so Käthe Kollwitz called a picture
that she made.

It shows three children hugged within the circle
of their mother’s arms; the mother fiercely
and with vigilance looks round,
their guard.

Such love the wise extend to more than family
and seeds.

Thoughts for our thinking shall not be let
to slide;

values for our saving shall not be lightly held,
nor scorned;

books for our reading shall not be pulped,
nor put in skips, nor left
in dead files or bottom drawers,
nor thrown in furnaces and burned.

kk

Seeds For the Planting Shall Not Be Ground Up, by Käthe Kollwitz, 1942

After the Latest Defeat
Monday, 30 December 2019 22:36

After the Latest Defeat

Published in Poetry

After the Latest Defeat

by David Betteridge

The defenders are not demoralised,
nor do they abandon their positions,
even among the ruins,
nor do they lose faith in their own strength
or their own future.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           - Antonio Gramsci

I

Can wells,
that a long drought made bitter,
self-restore?

Can sparks,
scattered from a beaten fire,
be raked in, and fed,
and made to blaze more brightly
than before?

Can pages,
torn from a precious book,
be chased,
brought back from a high wind,
and then re-bound?

Can there be a spring of good
sufficient to flush clean
the heaped contaminants
that history conveys?

Can we, struggling,
find a countering force
to lead us into wiser ways?

II

We have occupied today’s disaster ground
before.

Time after time, losing advantage
more often than we gain, learning little,
we have fought the same long war,
being punished, time after time,
by defeat’s sharp pain.

Between our failed resurgences
we have conjured up, in manifesto words,
our visioning of a new-style state,
their promises soon rubbished
by the realpolitik of fate;
for words, unless they’re grounded
in a way of feeling and a way of living,
are poor guides, as too often
down the years has been our case.

Too great the gap
between our stated aims
and chosen means,
and between our leaders
and the people they would lead,
a gap that is an open wound
gashed from heart to head,
disfiguring our collective face.

Too great the incoherence
in the syntax of the arguments
that latterly we made,
too weak our storyline.
A rival pack of ideologies proved
more persuasive
than our counter-claims.

We are the many,
while the class that we oppose,
that owns the power and wealth,
they are the few: this truth informs
our moral stand, and fuels
our fight for it;
but this same truth misleads us, too:
we trust our size will guarantee
our victory, as Goliath thought,
the fool, whom little David slew.

Amnesiacs, we scoff at the toffs
who face us.
Memo: winning is what they are born
and trained to do.

How many lives have been destroyed?
How many more are now condemned to go,
suffering, into years or decades
of a bleak parenthesis?

What high price does history demand
we pay?

III

Things change.
We make them change;
and, in doing so,
we ourselves are changed.

We are not the same People as before.
Warnings, precedents, insights,
new alliances, anger, mourning ,
hope: these things that shape us,
focused by our late defeat,
all are more.

There is a way in politics,
akin to Neptune’s Staircase
or the Falkirk Wheel,
that serves a People’s rise
from subaltern to higher state.
This way requires that we deploy the best
of everything that time has given;
annul the worst, especially the worst
within us; and the rest transmute.

Pursuing good ends by wrong means,
or opting for the flawed pragmatics
of the status quo:
neither of these courses
answers our crying need.
No: both are marred, having
at their heart the further ravaging of lives.

Root, stock, and branch,
we have no choice but to supersede
all that, deploying every atom
of intelligence, every syllable of art,
to achieve all that,
restoring to a heartless world
its heart.

Green ribbons of deep song
and deep thought can,
through their strong tug,
engage the furthest folk,
and bring us to the dear place,
in good time,
where we belong.

Cities, wrecked by poverty or strife,
can stand again, as can countries
and whole continents,
proud on their old ground,
sustaining the prerequisites
for a good life.

IV

Driven, drawn, again, towards,
together, commonweal, beyond:
seven words that comprise an epic
of the shortest form, signalling
the direction we will take
towards our goal.

Examples from our forebears’ struggles
burn in us, reproachfully,
like sulphur flames.
We cannot shame them, or ourselves,
by lumbering, our children haplessly in tow,
into no-man’s-land again.

Where dilemmas show their sharp horns,
and debate quickens;
where division drives in its hateful wedge,
and solidarity is cracked, breached,
threatened, whether by gender, race,
or faith: there must we be,
fostering unity.

When battles are engaged,
and lost or won, and battle-plans require
to be appraised; wherever and whenever
struggle is, there and then is our place
and time, learning, leading,
learning to lead, constantly.

Building and rebuilding,
over and over where unmaking reigns,
always from love, for love,
how we must labour
to remake the ravelled world a home;
and how we must relearn,
always and again from scratch,
the need to work as one,
as home and world that we build up
repeatedly are smashed!

Let our emblem be the Red Rose -
yes! - a bonny flower, and traditional,
and with a defensive stem;
but let our rose be intertwined
with the rhizome Marram Grass,
firm-rooted, as we ourselves must be,
always advancing by a horizontal spread,
closer than close to the lowest ground,
venturing even into stoniness,
mis-titled dead.

Driven, drawn, again, towards,
together, commonweal, beyond.

V

Great reasoners, great justicers,
whether your names are known or not,
workers, warriors, activists, come all ye!
Your qualities are needed,
now as never, to address our country’s
and the world’s rot.

We are burning in perennial wars,
and wasting, day on day, in famine,
drought, and flood, occasioned or made worse
by our idolatries and bad faith,
deep-drenched in the People’s blood.

Come all ye,
those who know the places
where true wisdom lies, and can pass
that wisdom clearly on, and learn
with others how to chart the forward path
that we should tread!

Along the way, for sure,
as in past stages of our Long March,
we will find high vantage points,
identified for us by some who,
seeing further, ran ahead.
From there, long vistas open up
that bring to mind both our aching wish
for what is kinder and the more just,
and our deep debt to those who also stood,
and looked, and wished.

VI

Wells,
that a long drought made bitter,
self-restore.

Sparks,
scattered from a beaten fire,
are raked in, and fed,
and made to blaze more brightly
than before.

Pages,
torn from a precious book,
are chased,
brought back from a high wind,
and then re-bound.

Springs of good
flush clean
the heaped contaminants
that history conveys.

We, struggling,
find a countering force
to lead us into wiser ways.

Three Doves

These five elegies have been extracted and updated from Flight & Fall by David Betteridge (2017). Images by Bob Starrett from Slave Songs and Symphonies by David Betteridge and Bob Starrett (2017) 

No More War!
Sunday, 10 November 2019 14:53

No More War!

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge notes how Remembrance Sunday at least marks the huge cost paid by the enforced many, not the few

Watching the ceremony from The Cenotaph on TV this morning was an experience of mixed thoughts and mixed emotions. The huge scale of warfare in present and past times, and on a global scale, was well highlighted by the programme, and the huge cost, paid by the enforced many, not the few. Also highlighted was the central role played by, and given honour to, royal and political elites. There they were at The Cenotaph, some in military uniform, some guilty of, or complicit in, or condoning of war crimes, their faces standing properly to attention.

Sadness was there, of course, especially among veterans, remembering and honouring the dead and the ruined and the bereaved, who, of course, include millions of those on the “enemy side” and in “civvy street”. After the two minutes silence, and the wreath-laying, we were treated to the spectacle of the march past and the taking of the salute. Flags and red poppies were to the fore, in profusion, dominating the scene!

How I wanted to see or hear the voice of “No More War”, or at least some hint that the next war was not being legitimised or consoled beforehand. Some of us on the Left may be pacifists, some may see a justification for armed self-defence, or for wars of liberation, but few of us want, I guess, the sort of ceremony that we see each year from The Cenotaph: homogenised and packaged in such a way that it seems as much a glorying in military power and presumed “national unity” as a questioning.

White poppies, of course, have stood as a symbol for the sort of thinking and feeling I am trying to express here, ever since the Co-operative Women’s Guild first produced and sold them in 1933. Similar thinking and feeling is to be found in a red poppy mosaic by the Clydebank photographer and archivist artist, Owen McGuigan. See “The Pity of War” on this website, where that mosaic and the process of making it are examined in depth. Under Owen’s hands, the red poppy of Armistice Day is deconstructed into the blood and dirt and grief and waste and futility that is essential to all wars. He called his mosaic “100 Years”.

As a footnote to that article, “The Pity of War”, I would like readers of Culture Matters to see the mock-up that Owen made for “100 Years”. He wanted to test how well he could stick the pieces of the mosaic down on a board, and how long they would be sure to stay in place.

See below, where the basic design elements of the larger mosaic are experimented with. To me, this mock-up is a very fine little work of art in its own right.

DB1

Note by the artist, Owen McGuigan:

While I was working on the “100 Years” mosaic, it occurred to me that I should make a test piece, because, thinking ahead, I knew that the mosaic would be grouted with light grey floor tile grout when it was finished. I wasn’t sure how the grout would react with the plywood shapes, and I didn’t want to ruin the mosaic after all the time and effort I had put into it. Hence, the creation of “Blood, Tears, Death & a Broken Heart” (shown above), which incorporates the main elements of the large piece, mounted in a birch plywood frame.

I finished this piece seven months before grouting the “100 Years” mosaic, and displayed it at an art exhibition, and in a craft shop, to see how it would react to different environments. Fortunately, it was very stable with no reaction.

The election: Ask this, how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, the poor?
Wednesday, 06 November 2019 18:18

The election: Ask this, how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, the poor?

Published in Cultural Commentary

David Betteridge responds to our call-out for material relevant to the election with a few words based on the Peking Opera

Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (continued)

by David Betteridge, illustrated by Bob Starrett

We all know who the Tiger is. We all know where its well-armed stronghold lies. We all know why our taking of it cannot be deferred, too many years and generations having died, whether lost in mistaken sorties, or stuck in camp. We all know how fertile the wide fields are, that open up beyond the Tiger’s rule.

So far, we are agreed; but opinion differs over the strategy to adopt. I propose that the taking of Tiger Mountain might be achieved by several strategies combined.

Some of us will advance from the North, some from the West, East, or South. Some will be organised in big battalions, some in guerrilla bands under various flags, but all united behind the one big cause that we embrace, and that embraces us. To defeat the Tiger in its burning arrogance and power, we with our several strategies will need the qualities of many opposing creatures, an entire rainbow of talents, a spectrum of troops.

How will we tell true allies from tigerish false friends? By their fruits, as an ancient poet warned. Study, not so much their immediate small steps from where currently they stand, but the direction of their travel, and the good they do, or fail to do, along the way. Study, not their past slogans, but their present poems, songs and laws. Ask this: how do they treat the vulnerable, the stranger, and the poor?

The Cave of Gold
Monday, 26 August 2019 13:35

The Cave of Gold

Published in Fiction

 David Betteridge re-tells an old tale, inspired by John Berger, Timothy Neat, and Margaret Bennett, with drawings by Bob Starrett

The Cave of Gold

by David Betteridge

On 23rd February, 2017, in Edinburgh, an event was held by the Royal Scottish Academy, in commemoration of an honorary member who had died a few weeks earlier, on 2nd January, in Paris. That member was John Berger, the Marxist critic, writer, and artist, who was not only honorary, but honoured, and also greatly loved. You only need to read a few of the obituaries that were published at the time to get a feeling for the fact that here was a friend to many, a giver and receiver of goodwill, as well as an artist, critic, story-teller, essayist, poet, dramatist, film-maker, etc. of international reach.

Ali Smith’s obituary, written for “The Guardian” on 6th January, provides a good example. She concluded that, “A reader coming anywhere near his work encounters life-force, thought-force – and the force, too, of the love all through it.” Then there is Jacob Brogan’s obituary, written for “The New Yorker” on 9th January. “It was hope,” he wrote, “that allowed Berger to write so beautifully... Hope names a commitment to change the world.” And there is Yasmin Gunaratnam’s obituary, written for “Red Pepper”, on 19th January. “Immersed in his story-telling and stories about him,” she explained, “I saw up-close what he meant by a story-teller’s hospitality, how language and writing can offer a sense of community.”

You will also find voices raised in hostility to John Berger’s memory – as in Michael Henderson’s obituary, for example, in “The Spectator” on 4th January – because, being anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist and fiercely combative all his life, in fact being “Permanent Red”, to quote the title of an early collection of his essays, Berger quite properly made enemies as well as friends.

The Edinburgh event served as the best of obituaries, a multi-disciplinary and multi-genre affair, attended by a multiplicity of friends, including some who had never met the man, or corresponded directly with him, but who felt they knew him through the comradeship of his works, as Gunaratnam described.

One contributor to the event was Timothy Neat (artist, photographer, biographer, poet, historian, teacher, and expert in mushrooms and honey), who screened a film that he had made in 1989, “Play Me Something”. In this film, John Berger plays a leading role, that of a story-telling Stranger. The story that he tells is one of his own, the last in his “Once in Europa” collection, about a chance meeting of two lovers-to-be at a Festa de l’Unita on the Venetian island of Giudecca, one of the couple being a cattle farmer from inland, the other a shopworker from the city.

As well as being narrated in Berger’s voice-over, this story is partly dramatised in the film, and is embedded in a second film-drama about strangers meeting on the Hebridean island of Barra. As they sit waiting at the tiny airport for a delayed flight to Glasgow, they get drawn into the Stranger’s story-telling, and, in the process discover unexpected affinities. This latter drama, the Barra one, is acted by a motley selection of players, including the cultural earthquake, Hamish Henderson, and the great folklorist and singer and teacher and publisher, Margaret Bennett. She rounds off the film with a singing of the magnificent Gaelic song, “Uamh an Oir” (“The Cave of Gold”).

At our event on 23rd February, again Margaret Bennett sang this song, and explained to us its significance in Gaelic culture, conveying as it does truths about gifts and debts, beauty and horror, tradition and hope, all in a few minutes of compressed beauty.

What, you may wonder, has such an ancient song, from Scotland’s cold Atlantic seaboard, got to do with Berger’s modern story about a workers’ rally on a warm island in a Mediterranean lagoon? Is it not a strange film that sets out to make a unity of such opposites, including such disparate characters? The answer lies in the relevance of the story to our political imaginations. Neat’s film and Berger’s story inside it express an age-old longing for a future that transcends the past, and gives us a pre-echo of dreams come true, even when we know such a thing will be difficult to achieve. “Play Me Something” celebrates love, hope, and the need to change the world politically to achieve a fully human community : the very values highlighted in the Berger obituaries quoted above.

Berger’s friend and mentor, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Fischer, made a convincing case for such “heart of the heartless world” creations as “Play Me Something”. He saw them as a necessary complement to cultural creations of the “tell it like it is” sort. He argued for a both-and culture, without which we cannot see the world, and time, and ourselves as we really are, in the round:

... the function of art is to re-create as every individual’s experience the fullness of all that he is not, the fullness of humanity at large. And it is the magic of art that, by this process of re-creation, it shows that reality can be transformed, mastered, turned into play.

Being a poet as well as a philosopher, Fischer underscored his case in verse, in an elegy:

Deep in the dreams of the world’s morning
may the future’s face be mirrored,
and may legend become the goal
of a mature people...

(See Fischer’s “The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach”, translated by Anna Bostock, 1963, slightly edited above.)

With these ideas buzzing in my head, I decided to delve into the history of the song that Margaret Bennett sang. There I discovered a Gaelic ur-story, of deep resonance, from which the “Uamh an Oir” song sprang, a story which I already knew (in part) under the title of “The Silver Chanter”, but which I had not realised was kith and kin with the song. It is one of the great stories of the world, from the same deep source as Orpheus.

Inspired by its magic, I decided to try my hand at re-telling it. Here is that re-telling:-

“WE HAVE WORDS...”

We have words; we have tunes. Having them, we have wings. We can be eagles, or wrens, or swallows, or snow geese, or golden orioles, or any kind of bird we like. Fly with me now. We have a cloudless sky, or can imagine one. Look, below us, there! lying off Scotland’s Atlantic coast, do you see a mountainous island shaped like a riding-boot that has come apart at the top? Zoom in close now! Do you see a high cliff facing West, and at its foot the entrance to a sea-cave? The cave is called Uamh an Oir, the Cave of Gold.

DB2

I can tell you four things about this cave. One: it is very deep. Some say it extends as far as Fairyland; others say it extends as far as Hell. Two: somewhere in the cave there is a hoard of gold; or maybe it is the glow of the setting sun falling on the rocks at the cave’s entrance that makes it seem a Cave of Gold. Three: the cave is guarded by a ferocious Green Dog. It hides in the dark, always ready to kill. Four: no-one who has gone into the cave has ever come out.

One day, centuries ago, a piper stood on the cliff-top, in a grassy hollow, out of the wind. He was a tall young man, as strong as a bull leaping. At his feet lay a little grey dog, his constant companion. The young man’s pipes were in his hands, but he was not playing. He was groaning and sighing, despairing of ever mastering the instrument. How he longed to play the music that was in his heart and head, but not yet in his fingers!

A woman appeared at his side, so quickly he didn’t see her coming. “I have watched you,” she said, “over many days and many years. I have seen, and heard, your devotion to the pipes. You deserve to succeed; and you deserve to be helped.”

She was slender, like a birch tree. She wore a velvet cloak the colour of moss. She had bare feet. The young man realised that this woman speaking to him was one of the Fairy Folk.

“Answer me this question,” said the fairy woman. “Think hard: would you rather be a famous piper, with wealth and honours, but without much skill; or would you rather be a skilful player, the world’s best, but without fame?”

The young man’s answer came swift and sure: “I would rather be skilful,” he said.

“In that case,” said the fairy, “you will be rewarded not only with skill, but also with fame. Your answer proves that you are worthy of both.”

The fairy then pulled a strand of hair from her head, and took the young man’s pipes from his hands into her own. She wrapped the strand of hair round and round the pipes’ chanter, tying the circlet with a tight knot.

“As long as that hair remains in place on the chanter,” she said, “your playing will have in it all the beauty that your heart and head long for; but there is one condition that you must accept: a year and a day from now you must stand before me, in Fairyland, which you will enter through the Cave of Gold, and there you must play for me.”

The young man accepted the condition. Then, as quickly as the fairy had appeared, she disappeared.

For the next year and a day, the young man travelled among his clans-people. He travelled far and near, high and low, playing for them, his little grey dog always with him. Like spring rain and summer sun, the magic of his music refreshed all who heard it. They were happy as never before. They felt vigour and health rise up in them. They made peace with their neighbours, wherever there was conflict. They saw their cattle and their crops grow fat. It was a golden age, still remembered, still spoken of; and the echo of the young man’s playing is still heard in the best of today’s piping.

On the 366th day, the time came for the young man to keep his promise. As the sun began to set over the sea, he went down from the cliff-top by way of a zig-zag path, down to the Cave of Gold, his dog trotting after him.

DB3

 A great number of his clans-people went with him, to wish him well. They were afraid for him, knowing that the cave was a great swallower of lives; but “No,” the young man reassured them, “I will be back soon, believe me. The power of my music will tame the Green Dog, and any other beast or fairy or person who might wish me harm.”

The piper went into the cave, his dog too. All the while, the piper played; and, as he played, his clans-people plotted his progress, step by step, even after he had disappeared into the dark. You see, there is a kind of speech woven into pipe music. If you listen with understanding, the pattern of the music’s notes and grace-notes speaks to you, and you know all that the piper intends you to know.

After a few minutes, the piper sent this coded message: I’ll be back with you, out of this cave, with a tale to tell, maybe good news. I’ll be back in less time than it takes a singer to start and finish her song.

On he went, further and deeper. The sound of his playing grew fainter. Then he sent this second message: I’ll be back with you, out of this cave, in less time than it takes a calf to grow to a heifer, and give birth to her own calf.

On and on he went, towards his meeting with the fairy woman, until the sound of his playing was so faint it could hardly be heard. Then he sent this third message: I’ll be back with you, out of this cave, in no less time than it takes an infant boy at the breast to train as a warrior, and become the chieftain of his clan.

DB4

It was nearly nightfall now. The setting sun showed only its topmost rim over the sea’s horizon. Its golden glow on the rocks at the cave’s mouth was darkening to grey.

Suddenly, there was the sound of a scrabbling of claws on these rocks, and the piper’s dog hurtled out of the cave, its eyes wide with a great fear. All of its grey hairs had been shed. Naked, it trembled in the gloom.

The clans-people standing there strained to hear what next the piper might communicate.

Oh, that I had three hands came the young man’s utterance, only just audible, from far underground, maybe from Fairyland, maybe from Hell. Oh, that I had three hands - two hands for the pipes and one for my drawn sword!

After that, there was only silence.

DB5

                                                  ******************

To hear Margaret Bennett’s beautiful and compelling singing for yourself, see here.....

......Or get a copy of the CD produced by her son Martyn in 2002, “Glen Lyon”. It is a notable recording, full of imaginative musical effects and sound effects, and includes “The Cave of Gold”, sung by Margaret Bennett, as one of its tracks.  

I started with John Berger. I want to round off with a poem inspired by remarks of his about the power of song, remarks contained in a late compilation of his writings, “Confabulations”. He wrote: “A song narrates a past experience… it fills the present… it leans forward…” None better than “Uamh an Oir”.

Songlines

by David Betteridge

Imagine a song so crammed with gold
it rings like a giant gong
or the Big Bang
conveying memories and desires,
facts and dreams,
traversing time.

As one voice in tradition’s relay dies,
another joins, keeping the beat,
keeping the tune,
chasing forever each next year’s Spring,
each next sunrise.

Imagine!
Sing!

Our song bestows on future folk
the world’s past,
for the world’s gain.

DB6

 

 

 

 

'So now yir tellt!': the life and work of Alex Hamilton
Friday, 01 March 2019 09:39

'So now yir tellt!': the life and work of Alex Hamilton

Published in Cultural Commentary

David Betteridge discusses the life and work of Alex Hamilton, 1949-2018. It is a companion piece to Jim Aitken's essay-obituary of Tom Leonard.

I

This is not a proper obituary, although it started out as such. It is more a “thinking-through-writing” kind of thing, trying to wrestle a meaning out of some confusion. My subject is my friend of forty years, recently deceased, the prolific and talented and largely unpublished author, Alex Hamilton, aka Sandy Hamilton (to those who knew him from childhood), aka S&eh? (to those with whom he exchanged emails, who shared his love of puzzles), aka Alex. Hamilton (with a precise or pedantic dot after the first name, as he sometimes signed himself), aka Alexander P. Hamilton (as inscribed on the brass plate screwed to his coffin, which, following his own instructions, was lowered into the ground without a word being spoken), aka Django Ross or Cordelia d’Amfreville (pen-names that he adopted, the first mainly for works where he explored the punning possibilities of several languages, the second mainly for erotica).

As an author, Alex is remembered, if at all, for being one of the contributors to a handsome paperback collection of prose and verse published in 1976 by Molendinar Press, Three Glasgow Writers. The other two contributors were Tom Leonard and James Kelman, whose careers as authors, and later as professors of literature, rose and rose, while Alex’s flat-lined, then declined. I have been trying to understand why the two succeeded, by all measures, while the other, my friend, failed.

ah1

Alex reading at the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, in 1976, at the launching - jointly with Tom Leonard and James Kelman - of Three Glasgow Writers, published by Molendinar Press. This still is taken from a video recording of the occasion, reproduced here by permission of the Contemporary Centre for Arts, Glasgow. (Ref. TE3/1976/117)

You can read Tom Leonard’s works and you can read works about him quite readily, whether in book form or online, as in Jim Aitken’s superb essay in Culture Matters, written a few weeks after Tom’s death, which came a few weeks after Alex’s. Even more readily, you can read James Kelman’s works and works about him, and you can go on reading them, as he is still alive, happily, and still producing noteworthy literature - witness his recent novel, Dirt Road. Alex’s works, by contrast, are hard to find, either because they were never published, or because they are tucked away in magazines e.g. Gutter, or are long out of print. It was not always so, however.

In 1981, three of us, Ian Murray, Adam Currie and myself, all friends of Alex’s, persuaded him to let us publish a selection of his short fiction, under our Ferret Press banner. With support from the Scottish Arts Council, this collection came out the following year, with the title Gallus, Did You Say? and Other Stories. In putting this selection together, we were able to draw on a pretty wide range of previously printed and/or broadcast outings. Ian Murray’s Introduction to Gallus lists some of these sources:

Alex. Hamilton was born in Glasgow in 1949 and still lives there, as he has done for most of his life. He is known best for the stories in this collection, which have been published and broadcast both in Britain and the United States. His work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including the Times Educational Supplement, Akros, and Transatlantic Review, and in the book Three Glasgow Writers (Molendinar Press, 1976). Some of his stories have been broadcast on BBC television and radio and Radio Clyde. The author’s reputation as a reader of his own work makes him a frequent visitor to schools and colleges, where he was invited to give over 20 readings last year, and he has read from his more adult fiction at the Kelso and Frayed Edge Festivals, the Third Eye Centre, and the University of Glasgow.

Alex. Hamilton was awarded Scottish Arts Council writer’s bursaries in 1974 and 1979.

II

What went wrong - if indeed it is fair to call failing to get published necessarily wrong - after the initial interest in his work? Part of the answer, it may be argued, was Alex’s retreat, after Gallus, from writing in a fluent and readable and refreshing mixture of vernaculars, with some Scottish Standard English spliced in whenever he judged that a character’s speech-style demanded it. Alex himself did not regard it as a retreat, but rather as an advance, a striking-out into new literary territories, with new language uses to suit. If readers did not see fit to advance with him, he reckoned that that was their loss. In an email sent to me in 2016, he wrote this, referring to himself, oddly, in the third person:

He's long since given up writing for the (etymologically & demotically) ignorant. He - I - write(s) for a player-audience of two. If you exit before I do, there'll be a player-audience of one. If I exit before you: "CURTAIN!".

First of all, post-Gallus, Alex began to experiment with very short texts in a most elegant style of English, almost Augustan. One such piece, I recall, was called “Abdul, the Tobacco Curer”. He duplicated and spiral-bound a few copies for giving to friends, and for submitting (unsuccessfully) to publishers. Its content was slight, I have to say. Then he went on to elaborate that style in other texts, playing with words at every twist and turn, and wangling in allusions, drawn from various sources, print and otherwise. Thereafter, other languages besides English were plundered and bent to the same purposes, including French, Greek, Latin, Russian, and especially Scots. An interest in typographical high jinks followed, and photo-montage. Joyce’s portmanteau coinages and Mallarme’s calligrams were among his inspirations. As the form that he used became increasingly witty, and increasingly condensed, to the point of extreme brevity, his content became decreasingly significant, I thought. Often, the whole point of a text was a single pun, or a paradox.

When we discussed his writing over too much beer, or, in later years, over coffee or wine, and I questioned the form-over-content imbalance, Alex replied that he had no interest in putting across messages of any kind. He would leave such sententious and tendentious stuff to those authors with axes to grind. He held especial scorn, for example, for Susan Sontag and such engaged essays of hers as Regarding the Pain of Others.

Once, he went so far as to say that he no longer held any belief in any grand narratives or big themes, his early commitment to Socialism and membership of the Labour Party having lapsed, as also his optimism regarding the possibility of any substantial social or political progress. Too many years working as a project manager on various EEC- and EU-sponsored public-private enterprises on brown-field sites - a job he entered after leaving the teaching profession - had tired him, and jaundiced him. He grew to distrust the political and business elites whom he was hired to serve, as also the popular and populist movements that gained support in the Nineties and Noughties across much of Europe.

Technological progress was a different matter: he embraced it happily, notably in connection with computing, hi-fi, and medicine; and for a while he engaged full-heartedly and doggedly in certain discrete issues that impinged on his life, as he listed in an email to me dated 2010:

Yup, sir: the enlightenment continueth. Wickedness encroacheth, or attempts to.

I've played my little part agin: the poll tax; the identity card scheme; the proposed closure of the FM network; & the environment on various fronts (& backs). 

Persistence. 

III

So that you can see and judge for yourselves, what I mean about Alex’s “retreat” - or his “advance” as he regarded it - let me juxtapose an early bit of text (published) against several later ones (unpublished):

From Our Merry (1976):

See, she had this wee kitten in her hands, and it was that toty you’d have thought it shouldn’t have been away from its mother....

“Heh, that sa a wee stoatir,” says Andy, and bends down to get a stroke at it.

“Lee it alane, you!” goes Merry, just as sudden as that, screaming and cuddling it real tight the way she does with her dolls. “Yir no tae touch it, awright? Awright? ... Kiz it’s mines!”

“Heh, wait a minnit, Merry,” I goes. “Whitdji mean, it’s yours? It’s probbli jiss ta stray ur that an that mean zit’s naebdi’s... relse if it sno a stray, it’s sumdi else’s.”

Compare the above with the following typical mini-text emailed to me in 2010. Note his copyrighting:

I think that I mentioned that I'm re-reading - and re-enjoying - Ellman's Joyce.

The attached occurred yestreen.

            PRODDY GÆL SUN

Anglophile Ἴκαρος was a dead loss to his patter.

                                               © DJANGO ROSS

Or this (2017):

As you know, I've been immersed in færie tales for the past couple of years, including Joseph's (translated) versions of a wheen of Celtic wans. Like you and Berger and the tellers of yore, my attitude is that a story's only a story, for if the hearers' interest wanes, you don't get your dram...

Currently reading thro - one per eve, of course - the latest (Penguin) translation of 1,001 Nights, which attempts to give all the stories, y compris the centuries' accretions. They haven't succeeded, but - kiz they hivnae nklewdit mines.

Which allows me to tell you of which, videlicet:

Sharazad's One Thousand and Second Tale

Woman, saith the Caliph. These three years, these thousand and one nights, thou hast succeeded in pleasing thy Lord. Thus, woman, I'm raisin thee to the status of my currant Sultana.

Or this, with graphics and a touch of colour, called The Retiree (2015):

ah2

IV

The last time I saw Alex was at a screening of The Sense of an Ending at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Afterwards, he praised the film, and said even better things about Julian Barnes’s novel, of the same title, on which the film is based. I was surprised to hear Alex speak well of these two contemporary works, as he usually saved his plaudits for the past, notably for works from the eighteenth century. He especially liked Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he read and re-read several times over, in its complete six-volume edition; and, from the first half of the twentieth century, he especially liked James Joyce’s exuberant and encyclopedic two novels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, complemented or contradicted by Samuel Beckett’s increasingly condensed late plays and novellas. Julian Barnes and the film-makers did well, I thought, to break into this company of merit.

Looking back, from after Alex’s death, I begin to see the deep relevance that The Sense of an Ending had for my friend, especially when considered in light of the essay in literary criticism, by Frank Kermode, that lay behind the novel and the film, that Alex knew from his student days.

I have a hunch that Alex consciously shaped the way he lived and worked during the last decades of his life, with especial urgency in the last few years, by when I suspect he was beginning to have intimations of mortality. He shaped it so that the resulting narrative would made sense to him, even though the wider world’s narrative did not. In so doing, he was exercising the same set of skills that Kermode reckoned a novelist exercised in writing fiction, and we exercise in reading it.

Alex’s narrative prompted him systematically to edit loose ends from his life, cutting them out abruptly if that proved the neatest thing to do. Friends and family alike got this treatment. What is more, he increasingly ordered his life along almost monastic lines, governed by a sort of home-made liturgy of the hours. He set aside time each day for reading, and for writing; for listening to BBC Radio 3; for walking to the library to consult the only journal he had any regard for, The Economist; and for calling in at a shop where he could buy past-their-date foodstuffs cheaply, including not-quite-stale bread. Twice a week, he walked to a branch of Tesco about a mile from his house, sometimes on the way to a free concert or lecture in the University or Art Galleries; there he bought items that were discounted. Once, I recall, when I met him there by chance, he pounced on a tin of sardines, at 39p. “This is enough,” he told me, “for three meals, with a bit of bread.”

When at last his doctor told him how little time remained to him, without fuss Alex engaged the services of a lawyer, and gave his final instructions. (I know about this from a phone conversation I had with Alex’s former wife, after the event; she in turn had learned the details from the lawyer.)

Alex wanted to be interred with no ceremony in a plot in the same graveyard as his parents. He wanted the money that he had saved from his frugal living to be spent on two things: the printing of a collection of his writings, the details of which I have not yet been able to discover, and the performance of a cello concerto, in memory of his father, who had been a skilled worker in the shipyards, as well as a skilled amateur cellist. (This concerto he had already commissioned, from Edward McGuire.)

Eddie was one of the last people to see Alex. He visited him a couple of times at his flat. This is how he describes their meetings:

I had not been in touch with him for a few months and thought it was time to update him on progress in my composing the cello concerto that he had commissioned the year before. So, on October 4th 2018, I brought him a bound copy of the draft version of the piece, and pointed out where music had to be completed in each of the 3 movements. I was able to say the soloist - Robert Irvine - was hoping to premiere it in the Spring of 2019. It was not until about 2 hours into our conversation that he told me about his terminal cancer diagnosis. So I said I'd keep in regular touch. My next and final visit was nearly 3 weeks later on October 24th, again at his flat. He was much weaker then but was optimistic about attending the concerto premiere in the Spring. So I was surprised to learn that he had died a week or two after that - I had planned a third visit in November. I hadn't heard about him going into the hospice.

There was one matter that took Alex and Eddie a while to agree on: how to phrase the concerto’s dedication. Alex did not want his own name to appear on the score, only his father’s and the composer’s. After some discussion, they agreed to add the words “Commissioned anonymously”. My own suggestion to Eddie was that, when he publishes the work, he changes the dedication to, “Commissioned anonymously by his son”. Why edit oneself out, and become a ghost? That is one of the questions about Alex that I am puzzling over.

V

Alex’s burial did not go the way his sense of an ending had prescribed. To start with, there were more people at the graveside than he wanted, ten in all, if you count the undertakers and the gravediggers, plus a Golden Labrador called Hector, who seemed to enjoy the outing, to judge from a photograph taken by an old school-friend, who decided to invite himself along. The dog is straining at his lead, eager to be off sniffing. The photograph also shows another eager soul, quite unmourning because of her young age, namely Alex’s infant grand-daughter, whom he never knew he had. There were also more words spoken in that country churchyard than Alex had bargained for, not at the moment of interment, but immediately afterwards, when half an hour of animated conversation burst out. Some of it sprang from the mourners’ pent-up anger or sadness or bewilderment at the way Alex had lived his life, and treated them; some of it sprang from shared memories, or from shared curiosity about the others.

While there was no ceremony or service or religious observation, there was one little gesture of traditional leave-taking from one of the ten. The old school-friend took a handful of soil from the box offered by the undertakers. He went to the grave’s edge, and threw it on top of the coffin with its bright new brass name-plate. He didn’t want to not do anything after all the years he had known Alex - or Sandy, as he called him - and enjoyed his company.

ah3

Email attachment received from Alex in 2015

I have a sense of an ending of my own, different from Alex’s, and better than the one that actually happened. I have only belatedly arrived at it, some months after Alex’s grave was filled in, and the mourners went home, and the JCB mini-diggers that did the digging were taken to other jobs.

First, I would have been there at the graveside, along with many, many others - we should have invited ourselves. His old pals, James Kelman and Tom Leonard, would have been there, Tom Leonard restored to health, without any need of his walking-stick and a tube up his nose. Second, a cellist would have played the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite Number 3, just as a colleague of my sister’s had done at her funeral some years earlier. Alex was there, and expressed great pleasure at hearing that noble music. Third, a jazz guitarist would have played another piece of music that Alex liked, Django Reinhardt's Nuages. When he was young, Alex played the guitar quite well, and till the end kept his instrument out of its case in his living room; but latterly he was unable even to hold it properly, let alone play it, as a disabling disease turned first one hand, then the other, into crab-like claws. Django famously lacked the use of two fingers, after being burned in a fire; Alex lacked the use of any. Fourth, every one of us there would have thrown our handful of earth into the grave, and either recited something or sung something, con brio. Fifth, we would all have gone to a pub somewhere afterwards, and held a riotous wake. Sixth, every one of us would have received a fat package through the post a few weeks later, from Alex’s lawyer. In it would have been a volume of Alex’s best writing, handsomely printed, and a CD of Eddie McGuire’s Cello Concerto. Seventh, we would have learned that we had been misinformed, and that Alex’s life never had taken a wrong turning.

This is me writing fiction, of a consoling kind.

VI

Looking back, summing up, it is clear that Alex was for a while a significant figure in an informal movement combining authors and publishers and broadcasters and readers and teachers, especially secondary school teachers such as Alex himself was at that time. Collectively, they shifted the centre of gravity of Scottish Literature further towards the vernacular, or vernaculars (plural) rather. Others continued that movement, with increasing success, while Alex chose to follow his other path, pursuing other projects. Tom Leonard and James Kelman, his former book-mates in the Molendinar Press volume, went on to become international faces and voices of the movement, each in his own distinctive way, and many others joined them, one of my favourites being Anne Donovan. Her story Hieroglyphics (2001) says a lot about vernacular and standard forms of a language, and says it in a vernacular so precise that it is an idiolect. Reading it sheds light on Alex’s early work.

The story describes a child’s struggles to decipher print, coming to Standard English texts from a Glasgow vernacular starting place. One word that gives her especial difficulty is her own forename: MARY. “That's ma name. Merry. But that wus spelt different fae merry christmas that you wrote in the cards you made oot a folded up bits a cardboard an yon glittery stuff that comes in thae wee tubes...” Here we find a lovely echo of lines written by Alex a generation earlier.

He similarly transliterated that girl’s forename as “Merry”, in his own story “Our Merry”, from Three Glasgow Writers.  I remember querying Alex’s use of “Our” in his title, at the time we were getting Gallus ready for the press. I asked him if “Oor” was not the form he needed. Quickly and correctly, he pounced on my levelling, flattening, ignorant tin-ear. “It might be ‘Oor Wullie’,” he said, referring to D.C. Thompson’s cartoon character, “but in the North part of Glasgow, where my character comes from, and where I come from, it’s just as I wrote it: ‘Our Merry’.” There we see the same precision that made him place a dot after his own forename. “Alex. is an abbreviation,” he insisted. “It’s an abbreviation of Alexander, cutting the word short; hence the dot. So now yir tellt!”

VII

It would be a mistake for me to try to draw too large a conclusion about literary careers from considering Alex’s particular example. There is no compelling reason why writers should confine themselves to using vernaculars, there being plenty of good poems, short stories, novels, plays, etc. written in varieties of Standard English. There is no compelling reason, either, why they should desist from word-play and allusion and experimentation with layouts and fonts. If overly “realist” and “anti-formalist” assumptions were allowed to govern which works are deemed good, and therefore published, and which are deemed not good, and therefore not published, literature would be impoverished. Had such criteria been applied in the past, we would have lost access to a great deal of Hugh MacDiarmid’s polymath and polyglot output, to take one mighty example.

Other writers, too, would have remained in a limbo of unpublishability. Scotland’s first modern Makar, Edwin Morgan, would have suffered; or, at least, his concrete poetry inventions would have failed to make it into print. Similarly, some of Alastair Gray’s most typographically adventurous pages. And where would Hope Mirrlees’ s Paris be?

My comradely disagreement with Alex about the later direction of his writing did not relate to its form, considered on its own, nor to the demands it makes on us as readers to raise our game, but to its diminution of content. That is to say, my disagreement related to his conscious avoidance of engagement with the world, and the peoples in it, and their unavoidable concerns with big issues. In fact, I enjoyed Alex’s textual extravaganzas, as did a friend in London, the composer and poet David Johnson, to whom I showed some of Alex’s later work. “It is the sort of experimentation that excites by sound and rhythm more than sense,” he wrote, “as if he was writing in a language invented on the spot, or from a sort of speaking in tongues. Is it visionary? Mad? These questions alone spark an interest in me...” No, I just wanted Alex’s adventures in form to serve something bigger; and so, I suppose, did all those publishers who so often sent him rejection slips, or plain ignored his submissions.

Ernst Fischer considered this diminution of content phenomenon, across all the arts in his far-ranging study, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach. He saw it as a problem intrinsic to late capitalism, affecting creative individuals who were, or who became, detached from the realities of society, or indeed from their own true natures; in other words, as in Marx’s classic definition, individuals who were alienated. Fischer wrote:

The de-socialisation of art and literature produces the recurring motif of flight: the motif of deserting a society which is felt to be catastrophic.....

Alex’s flight became the dominating feature of his life and his work alike. How I wish he had chosen - had been willing and able to choose - to stay in touch with more things, more people, more issues, while still playing as he wished with form and language. How I wish he could have made Joan Miro’s manifesto-motto his own. In a 1948 interview, Miro, speaking of his own work, said, “Plant your feet firmly on the ground if you want to be able to jump up in the air.”

Suddenly, having pursued my argument thus far, I am aware of a certain rather large anomaly, namely a work-in-progress of Alex’s called The Reinhardt Variations, which I have only just remembered. It recounts the tale of a young technocrat’s journeys across several nations of Eastern Europe. Here, Alex avoided the form-over-content imbalance. He rendered chunks of real life, experienced at first hand, taken from a time and from places undergoing epochal change. Sure, the language may have been difficult in places, compressed, over-written perhaps, full of parodies of different kinds of writing, from newspaper journalism, to company report, to political polemic, to letter, to diary entry; but it was about something significant. Unfortunately, he never finished the novel, or even, latterly, spoke of it. It sank. I am left wondering if anything of it survives, maybe on a memory-stick or disk. I hope so, as it would show that Alex’s “retreat” (or “advance”) in his writing was not in a straight line, not 100 percent consistent. 

VIII

There was a conference on brownfield site development in Moscow some years before Alex retired, that he attended. He was called to speak about his own work on such projects, being at the time employed by the European Commission in a variety of countries. He prefaced his remarks by quoting, in Russian, the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The same holds true, he told his fellow-attendees, even more so, of countries. As his life wore on, and the world’s politics got ever more dysfunctional, as it seemed to him, and as his own affairs went the same way, he became an expert in unhappiness; but it was his genius to carry on nonetheless, to hold fast, with a wry smile on his haggard face, and a bon mot forming in his mind, to be saved in his computer file.

Although, as I have shown, he favoured playfulness over seriousness in his writing, and in his public persona, I sensed a deep seriousness inside him, that darkened and hardened and shrank as the years went by, ending up as a nihilism similar to - and maybe even modelled on - Samuel Beckett’s, but without the Irishman’s great concern for the “still, sad music of humanity”, achieved through plain speech beautifully handled. A passage in Beckett’s Molloy expresses this nihilism perfectly. Alex read the novel both in its original French and in its later English translation, and sometimes quoted from it:

All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead. And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing...

Clearly it did matter, however, at least some of the time. Alex’s dying instruction to his lawyer to arrange for a selection of his writings to be published was proof of that.

IX

There is much more that I could say about Alex’s life, and the way he chose to live it and to end it, yoking on as he did of a sort of Stoicism, if that is not too grand a term for his self-directedness, and his matter-of-fact acceptance of all the losses he suffered, and in some cases brought on himself; or should he be termed a Cynic, rather; or just a plain old misanthropic bastard? Maybe I have already said too much, divulging private matters about my friend. My intention is not to speak ill of him, but to recognise and try to understand his pursuance of his chosen craft, and to mourn the things that went wrong.

I am left with the questions I started with. The biggest one is this: how could a man who knew so much about other people’s lives choose so narrow and austere a narrative for himself? Here was a man who was deeply read in such deep studies of life as King Lear - to the extent that he sometimes adopted the mad king’s estranged and then reconciled daughter’s name, Cordelia, as a pen-name - and yet, looking back with selective fondness to his long-dead father, he chose to elevate his role as a son over all his other dealings with people, including his own daughters? And how could he lavish so much care on his complex weaving of witticisms and word-play - much ado about little - while neglecting so much else? It was as if, to reverse the idea contained in a line spoken by Cordelia in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Alex wanted his epitaph to be: “My tongue's more richer than my love.”

Ernst Fischer’s analysis of the de-socialisation of literature puts Alex in his historical context, but I am still left wondering why. Why, in this particular case, yet not in others, do we see a recurrence of Fischer’s motif of flight? To take two obvious counter-examples, Tom Leonard and James Kelman, both of whom came from similar class origins to Alex’s, and pursued similar destinations: they signally stayed grounded, never ballooning away into the least hint of alienation. Why the difference? Clearly, there is no simple iron law or hidden societal hand requiring de-socialising and flight. There must be other factors at work also.

Reading a life is the hardest thing.

X

While struggling to put this piece together, I found that a verse-elegy began to form in my mind. It went through about a dozen drafts, before the following text emerged. Alex would have thoroughly disapproved both of its form and of its content.

Dead Letters

by David Betteridge

Friend, I let you down;
and you let me go.
In doing so, you let me down;
and we let the silence that ensued
between us grow and grow.
We both were wrong,
needing as we did -
and still do - the other there,
in touch, if not in step or tune,
aware.

Disuse, the destroyer,
eroded friendship’s base;
and then, not telling anyone,
you went to a private place,
and straightway died;
you died with unanswered letters
left, and no good-byes.
I am not the only one estranged.
Year on year, you cut adrift
alike your family and your friends,
you hurting man.

Young, you kept your ear
close to the People’s complex voice;
you wrote their lives;
and your voice was heard.
Then, by cold degrees,
you privileged your own small take
and slant on things,
and your own sharp wit.
These led you to your solitude,
and turned the key on it.

Too soon you settled
into garret-ways, ensconced
in the clean order of your top-floor flat,
with the storm-doors shut.

Sitting there,
you pleasured in thesauruses,
and in the alphabet.
You had software that provided
every font of every type.
You wove them closely
into ever-dwindling texts,
with an ever-dwindling sense of right.

Your favourite letter
of the twenty-six was “O”.
You wrote the “O” that gives expression
to surprise; the “O” of salutation, too;
and the “O” of moans and groans,
extending once, in a tale of yours,
to twenty pages, then in colours
fifty more, some garish red, some blue.
You wrote the Venn diagram’s encircling “O”,
that separates one thing from the rest,
including (and excluding) self;
also the “O” that signifies an open wound,
or eye, or grave; and, finally, the “O”
that is the empty “O” of nothing, of which
no thing will come, as Lear observed;
and so it proved,
as your life’s course attests.

You found delight in Joyce,
striving to out-fun in print
that magic-making Irishman.
Now and then, in miniscule,
you ran him close,
but quite forgot to keep
your soul and heart engaged,
as he did his, and your feet
earth-pressed, like Antaeus.

Words, old friend, lost friend:
they were your true companions.
You kept faith with them,
cherishing them till death,
punning cleverly all the way
to the grave full-stop of your last breath.

Why did you not keep faith
with more?

Why did you turn
from the prime substantial world?
Why did you favour emptied signs
and metaphors?

Too late now to redraft
your life’s plot,
to redirect the great talent
that you had,
that it might serve a better end!
What’s done is done.
We must let it be.

Oh, that you’d kept in touch
with wider themes,
and with wiser friends than me!

Further reading: Caroline McAfee’s contribution, called “Glasgow”, which is part of Varieties of English Around the World, published by John Benjamins, Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1983, available online. It contains extracts from Alex’s short stories, and from an early novel, Stretch Marks.

 

The Pity of War
Monday, 23 July 2018 15:22

The Pity of War

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge visits an arts hub in Clydebank, where he views and reviews a beautiful and disturbing mosaic by Owen McGuigan.

 “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” Wilfred Owen wrote these often quoted words in a preface intended for his one and only collection of poems, a collection that he never saw in print. It was published in 1920, some two years after his death in a volley of machine-gun fire in one of the last attacks made by the British Army against German lines in World War One. This attack, and this death - one of an estimated 18 million deaths occasioned by this “war to end all wars” - happened on 4 November, 1918, at the Sambre Canal, near Ors in northern France, just a week before the Armistice.

Wilfred Owen’s preface also contains a disclaimer that is worth quoting, a corollary to his point about pity: he declares that his poetry is not “about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.”

We need only change the word “poetry” to “art”, and we have the perfect motto-text for a remarkable mosaic recently completed by the Clydebank photographer, video-maker, archivist and artist, Owen McGuigan.

This mosaic is currently (Summer, 2018) on show in Clydebank’s Awestruck Academy, a former snooker hall converted into an arts hub. As well as creating a space where artists can exhibit their work, and exchange ideas with others, the Academy puts on free arts tuition for young people. Its prime mover and guiding spirit is Allan Rutherford, a photographer and musician and local community councillor. In an interview with the Clydebank Post on 26th March, he said: “A lot of artists that come through here have never had the confidence to go to art galleries before. It’s just giving them a wee bit of belief in themselves and the chance to meet other like-minded people.”

Owen McGuigan, hugely experienced himself, is one of these like-minded people helping nurture younger talent. Here he is (below) standing beside his mosaic, which he calls “100 Years”.

Owens work 003 CROPPED

Owen McGuigan standing next to the "100 Years" mosaic

You will see, at first glance, loud and clear, a representation of the Remembrance Day red poppy badge, as made and sold by the British Legion in England. The Scottish version of the poppy has the same red petals, but lacks the English green leaf. Owen chose the green leaf version for his design for reasons of colour variety. You may notice that the leaf’s tip is angled towards the position that would be occupied by 11 o’clock, supposing his mosaic was a clock-face. Directly opposite, just above the bottom part of the surrounding oak frame, in minuscule grey, black and red rectangles, Owen has placed three elevens, reminding us of the exact time and date in 1918 when hostilities were decreed to be over, namely the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The more we look, the more we will find similar details of design, both in the poppy itself and in its highly complex grey and black background. All in all, there are 1077 plywood pieces, each one hand cut, then sandpapered, then painted, then stuck in place, then varnished: a labour of love that took several months, on and off.

There is one detail ahead of all the others that may well stand out for you if you let your looking continue for a while. It certainly did for me when I visited the Awestruck Academy, with the artist as my guide. A white tear a bit to the left of the poppy’s black centre quickly made its presence felt, and then drew my attention to three other emblems, arranged vertically below it: there, combining to form a sort of index to the whole mosaic, I noted a heart, a cemetery cross, and a flowing of blood, just as Owen intended.

In time, with more scanning and zooming in, you will locate nine other examples of each of these four emblems, totalling a tear, a heart, a cross and a bleeding for each decade since 1918. From these common elements, Owen has fashioned an uncommonly beautiful work of art, which also carries a heartfelt political meaning.

Remembering his own grandfathers, both of whom served in the trenches and one of whom was killed there, and thinking of the unceasing tally of war casualties staining the world since 1918, Owen felt moved to record and mourn all the blood spilled, the graves filled, the hearts broken, and the tears shed.

Like the bodies of War’s victims, and the lands that are their graveyards, the mosaic is by its very nature fractured, fragmented, and deconstructed. Because of this, and the warning that it gives, it seems closer in spirit to the white poppy symbol, first sold as a lapel badge by the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1933 and subsequently by the Peace Pledge Union, than to the British Legion’s red poppy. “100 Years” is unequivocally anti-War and pro-Peace.

Owen came to this political and moral standpoint quite early in his life, partly from thinking about his dead grandfather, partly from exposure to images of slaughter and its bulling-up in films. Seeing yet another on-screen victim “bite the dust”, hacked by steel, or plugged by lead, or otherwise slain, he recoiled, he told me, horrified that that victim was someone like himself, someone like everyone, one of Jock Tamson’s bairns.

Reading over what I have written so far, I realise that I have allowed an error to creep in, an error of misrepresentation. Because I was looking at the mosaic as a finished product, I made it sound as if Owen worked on an already mature idea. No, the idea - or plural ideas, rather - that are embedded in the mosaic only came to Owen as he considered how he might use a clutter of plywood off-cuts left over from several previous jobs. The ideas came to him almost of their own accord, entering his consciousness from his well-stocked visual imagination. First the idea of a flower suggested itself; then of a poppy; then of a remembrance poppy; then of a poppy in a landscape blown to grey and black smithereens; then of ten decades of continuing slaughter. As the thought- and work-process went on, Owen had to cut more and more extra pieces especially to fit, complementing the original off-cuts.

DB2 WORKSHOP 2017 

Owen McGuigan at work in his garden shed. "The shed became a small workshop several years ago when my grandchildren started coming along, and I began making Memory Boxes for them, which in turn ignited my love of fretworking again."

100 years an early stage in making the mosaic

“100 Years”: an early stage in making the mosaic, using a basic outline of a poppy, and developing ideas as it progressed. “I reckon I spent more hours thinking about the piece than it actually took to create, and that in itself was a lot of hours, over several months.”

 05 FINISHED PARTS AUG 2017

“100 Years”: cutting and painting parts for the mosaic.“As it progressed in my mind, I decided on tears, broken hearts, crosses and blood, and ten of each to represent ten decades.”

DB5 17 FRAMED AND READY FOR THE GALLERY

“100 Years”: finished and framed

In this latest work of his, as in earlier ones, Owen shows himself to be a creative soul at the opposite end of humanity’s spectrum from the sort of “dullard” decried by Wilfred Owen in his poem “Insensibility”: the dullard “whom no cannon stuns... mean with paucity... by choice immune to pity and whatever moans in man.” He is alive to, and in tune with his fellow citizens “the world o’er”.

Have a look, for example, at Owen’s video (2010) celebrating shipbuilding on the Clyde, devised as a visual commentary on Leo Coyle’s elegiac “Song o’ the Yard” (see Owen’s “My Clydebank Photos” website, or see “Profit and Loss”, on the “Culture Matters” website); or have a look at his mosaic (2016) capturing the horror of the Clydebank Blitz and the human response to it (see photo below); or have a look at his watercolour and ink picture (2018) called “Melted Rose” (also below), lamenting the recent second fire at the Glasgow School of Art, when so much beauty and usefulness was destroyed; or, if you want cheering up, have a look at his joyous video (2010) showing festivities in Dalmuir Park (see his YouTube called “Dalmuir Park Illuminations”).

You will see in these works listed above, as indeed elsewhere in Owen’s long back-catalogue, the same quality that Geoff Dyer singles out for praise in John Berger’s writings, attentiveness. This quality complements the political, moral and artistic mind-set already described. Attentiveness requires the exercise of all one’s faculties. Dyer makes his point by quoting from a poem, “Thought”, by D.H. Lawrence:

Thought is gazing on to the face of life,
and reading what can be read.
Thought is pondering over experience,
and coming to a conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or a set of dodges.
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.

What Dyer says of Berger can be said of Owen, too. See Dyer’s Introduction to Berger’s Understanding a Photograph (Penguin Books, 2013).

The Clydebank Blitz 

“Blitz Remembered”: fretwork piece (96cm x 41cm) created in 2016 for the 75th Anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz. “I cut the piece from one sheet of plywood. There are 128 individual parts, hand painted with Art Enamels, and several coats of brushing wax to finish it off. It is made up of five iconic images taken from photographs from 1941. My mum and three sisters survived the Blitz.”

The Melted Rose Water colour painting 

“The Melted Rose”: watercolour and ink painting on cardboard . “I was moved to create this at my local Dalmuir Park Art Class shortly after the second devastating fire of the Glasgow School of Art on 15th June. It depicts the lead melting into tears.”

There is an interesting article in the June/July issue of the Clydesider, where Owen answered a question put to him by the magazine’s editor. “Who or what inspires your work?” she asked. In his answer he gave pride of place to Charles Rennie Macintosh. “I just love everything the man did. It would be a joy to sit down with him and talk shop.” In a virtual sense, Owen has done just that. He has studied CRM’s architecture and designs and paintings with avid attention, interrogating them with his own creative intelligence, starting when Glasgow became European Capital of Culture in 1990. CRM and his works gained widespread international acclaim then, wider than before, notably his Glasgow School of Art, with enhanced local interest as well, including Owen’s.

We can see something of CRM’s inspiration in “100 Years”. It is nothing so obvious as to be termed a style, still less a copying. It is rather a shared passion for combining elements of design that are often regarded as being at odds. There are curvy or “organic” elements in “100 Years” cheek by jowl with geometric ones, especially rectangles, just as there are in CRM’s work; there are mixings of large and small, of bold outline and fine detail, and of vivid colours and duller shades; there are verticals contrasting with horizontals, leading the eye airily up; and there is an overall sense of balance that has nothing to do with strict symmetry, or, come to think of it, any kind of symmetry. As well as CRM’s inspiration, I detect a similar input from his great collaborator, Margaret Macdonald. Her highly wrought backgrounds to such works as “Willowwood” find an echo in “100 Years”.

There is one more source of inspiration that deserves mention, Owen’s father. It was he who introduced his son to handicrafts, notably fretwork, and it is his fretsaw, “older than I am”, that Owen still uses. The magazine that McGuigan Senior began learning from in the 1930s, Hobbies Weekly, acted as a conduit, for both men, for two kinds of skills: practitioner skills, and design skills. The latter included some derived from the gorgeously sinuous pattern-making of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

 Owens Dads fretsaw older than I am

Owen’s dad’s fretsaw,“older than I am. When I was a young boy, my dad showed me the basics of using it. This was over fifty-five years ago. I have had to make some small repairs to the fretsaw over the years. This particular model cannot be purchased now, but fortunately I can still obtain blades for it on the internet.”

I cannot finish this review without mentioning a topic that Owen and I touched on during our conversation at the Awestruck Academy, namely the second fire that devastated the School of Art only four years after a first one had left the building (plus its priceless contents) in need of major reconstruction or replacement. This process was well under way when the hand of fate, or criminal negligence, or something still to be determined, struck. Images of the School’s blackened walls, looming as if from a war-zone over Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, have a sad impact analogous to Owen’s “100 Years”, although set in a different context, and on a different scale. Our response is similar: how can we make good this loss, if ever, or at least mitigate it; and how can we guard against other such losses in future?

Glasgow School of Art Aftermath of its second fire

Glasgow School of Art: aftermath of its second fire, June 2018

 Glasgow School of Art Its finial intact

Glasgow School of Art, with its ironwork finial intact

Rennie Mackintosh’s design features a bird flying free above a thicket of foliage. It is derived from Glasgow’s coat-of-arms.

A poem, inspired by Adrienne Rich’s “Natural Resources”, sums up the mood in which Owen and I finished our conversation:

SPIDERLIKE

& building & rebuilding,
over & over where unmaking reigns,
always from love, for love,
how we labour
to remake the ravelled world a home;
& how in anger we relearn,
always & again from scratch,
the need for love
as home & world that we build up
repeatedly are smashed
                                    &&&

"100 Years" is on show for the duration of the summer (2018) at Awestruck Academy, 36 Sylvania Way South, Clydebank, www.awestruck-academy.co.uk

Reading Marx
Saturday, 31 March 2018 13:52

Reading Marx

Published in Cultural Commentary

David Betteridge gives a personal account of reading Marx, with drawings by Bob Starrett.

Fifty years ago, when I was training to be a teacher at Neville’s Cross College of Education in Durham, I had the good fortune to be tutored in Sociology and supervised on school practice by Maurice Levitas (or, to give him his Hebrew patronymic, which he sometimes used, Moishe ben Hillel). Here was a veteran of Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War, a stalwart of the CPGB and the Connolly Column of the International Brigade, a former furniture-polisher and upholsterer, a plumber, a latrine-digger (with the Royal Army Medical Corps in India and Burma), a teacher of English (with plenty of Drama, in secondary schools in London and Louth), and now, in his middle age, a teacher-trainer appointed to the staff of the college where I was a student! He was just what we needed.

Seeing how green I was, with my head full of Red, Black, and Green ideas, and also some plain daft ones, loosely cobbled together, if cobbled at all, Morry (as he was widely nick-named) felt moved to educate me, and to educate me in more than Education.

He told me, I remember, in one of our tutorials, to question the Registrar-General’s designation of some workers - those in Social Class V - as “unskilled”. No, said Morry, all Labour requires skill, including mental skill. Try using a pick without knowing what you’re about, or a scythe! He himself had an impressively wide skill-set, acquired in his wide experience of work. He took pride in all of it, keeping into old age, for example, his curved needles (some semi-circular) from his time as an upholsterer, and losing none of his ability in sewing.

He told me also to be wary of the claims of psychometrics. Certain forms of it, he argued, were based on bad science, and served bad politics. Labelling some people sheep and others goats on the evidence of spurious tests was pernicious. He spoke with a mix of academic rigour and passionate engagement, referring me, I recall, to Brian Simon’s critique of Cyril Burt’s famous (or infamous) work on Intelligence, while at the same time citing personal experience. As a prisoner-of war in Spain, in one of Franco’s camps, Morry had been subjected to batteries of tests by visiting Nazis, keen to use him (and others) to further their racist, specifically anti-Semitic anthropology.

Educational failure was another topic that Morry opened up for discussion. When pupils fail an exam, he asked, is it their own failure alone? Could it also be the failure of hostile teachers, or careless schools, or impoverished homes, or an unjust society dedicated to maintaining its class distinctions?

I did not know then that Morry was busy putting his insights and knowledge and combative spirit into a book. This was published in 1974, with the title Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education.

Supplementary to my college curriculum, and just as important, were the demos that Morry took me on, and the lists of public meetings that he said I must attend, and the books on political theory that I must read (and read systematically), starting with Marx’s early MSS dating from 1844 (The Paris Notebooks) and his Theses on Feuerbach from the following year. He thought it best that I start my journey-of-ideas there, where Marx started his.

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See how the young humanist stood Hegel’s idealist philosophy on its head, making it materialist, Morry explained; see how he went beyond Feuerbach, committing himself to changing the world, not just interpreting it; see how he identified the deep structures and movements of history, class against class; see how he laid bare the alienation that workers experience under Capitalism, as they lose control of the products of their labour, and even lose contact with their own true selves.

This programme of accelerated learning that Morry set in train coincided with the crisis days of 1968, when the “evenements” in Paris (and beyond) shook Capitalism, and shook Socialism, too. Morry was charged with a great energy by these events, as if they spoke directly to him. He saw in the students’ movement a proto-revolutionary situation that cried out to be joined, and widened, especially through working class solidarity. I heard him argue this case again and again wherever people would listen, cheerfully rebutting the charge made by others in the CP that he was suffering from a rush of ultra-Leftism to the head. He was mistaking Paris for Barcelona, they said, and 1968 for 1936. Unabashed, he himself looked further back, to 1848, and directed me to read The Communist Manifesto and Marx’s other writings from and about that year of revolutions. Reading them was a revelation.

It was as if I had been given a three-dimensional model showing the layers of rock lying beneath a large and complex landscape, and giving it its shape. How swiftly the Manifesto opened up new understandings for me, and established new connections between things I had previously only half-known! How gleefully I embraced its use of strong metaphors, from a “spectre haunting Europe” early on in the book (that is to say, Communism), through “heavy artillery” (commodities being traded overseas), “fetters” (the constraints of the Feudal System), a “robe of cobwebs” (false consciousness), ending with “grave-diggers” (the forces of organised Labour burying Capitalism at some future date).

Before I left college, I was inspired to have a go at crystallising what I had learned so far from Marx and Morry, in the form of a short poem. I did not have the confidence to show it to my tutor, but here it is (below) for Culture Matters readers. Note: the “old mole” motto-text was added later:

Open Sesame

Well grubbed, old mole!

- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Under the furrows of old Europe lay
the ruin and the saving
of its steady, backward way: coal,
coal upon coal.

In banks’ vaults,
as if an ocean underground,
full-fed by trade and the world’s toil,
a second Flood backed up, and broke,
of brutal gold.

Empowered,
the anarch Progress forced its change,
all-consumingly on every land
and every suffering folk
that came within the rampage
of its rule of smoke.

Breaching all norms and bonds,
the iron masters and their human tools
exhausted Europe,
then went on to wreak their marvel
on the other continents of plundered Earth.

Their legacy to us:
they redefined and laid to rest
the past that they inherited,
and brought our doomed dystopia
to the titan fury of its birth.

Getting to grips with Marx’s later works took me longer. I approached them by a zig-zagging route of theory and practice, practice and theory, over a period of several years.

DB marx cartoon

In the case of Capital, I made the initial mistake of trying to speed things up by reading other people’s summaries of Marx’s conclusions, without working through the real-life evidence and explanations and interpretations that Marx himself required, and provided in great quantity in his book. Only after campaigning on issues of economic justice in Scunthorpe, where I went to teach, and helping to organise a cross-party, cross-union Left Action Group, only then did I begin to build up the key-concepts and, just as importantly, the structures of feeling that Capital demanded.

A crucial stage in that process of building-up was attending a WEA class organised by John Grayson, and tutored by Michael Barratt Brown. Michael adopted a quite brilliant teaching strategy. He asked the steelworker members of our class to provide him with information relating to a pay claim then being negotiated with the employers. He showed exactly how certain costs and profits that were essential to a full social and economic audit never found their way into any published annual report. The employers’ so-called “balance sheets” were not balanced. Michael’s book What Economics Is About served as a primer for our class-work. Here was Economics, not as a ”dismal science”, as Thomas Carlyle called it - he should have known better, given the great contemporaries of his who were working in that field - but as a weapon in the struggle.

What a broth of a book Capital proved to be, when I came at last to immerse myself in its heights and depths and great length i.e. the teeming volume of Volume One. I found that it was, in some places, to some extent, exactly as Francis Wheen described it in his celebratory Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. It was “a vast Gothic novel... a Victorian melodrama... a black farce... a Greek tragedy... [and] a satirical utopia”. These ingredients were mixed together in profusion, and richly interspersed with hundreds of quotations from (and allusions to) works of World Literature, factory inspectors’ reports, trade statistics, etc. How many square miles of printed matter did Marx have to scan, how many years of sitting and making notes did he have to put in, how many headaches and heartaches did he have to go through, before this epic and epoch-making piece of “congealed labour” was ready for publication?

Wheen reminds us that Marx was a failed poet, a failed dramatist, and a failed novelist, all these failures being accomplished before the end of his student years at Berlin University. “All my creations crumbled into nothing,” Marx wrote; but his literary ambitions did not crumble. He redirected them. The work in which they came to most vigorous life was Capital.

A good example of Marx in novelistic mode is his deployment in Capital of a large and varied cast of characters, reminiscent of Dickens. Here is one, a juvenile worker in the Potteries:

J. Murray, 12 years of age, says: “I turn jigger, and run moulds. I come at 6. Sometimes I come at 4. I worked all night last night, till 6 o’clock this morning. I have not been in bed since the night before last. There were eight or nine other boys working last night. All but one have come this morning. I get 3 shillings and sixpence. I do not get any more for working at night. I worked two nights last week.”

Regarding this wretched way of life and place of work, a local doctor, quoted by Marx, observed: “Each successive generation of potters is more dwarfed and less robust than the preceding one.”

Turning to Marx in dramatic mode, we can cite his use of a device similar to that deployed by Dante in his Purgatorio.

Let us leave the noisy region of the market, Marx wrote, casting himself in the same role as Vergil in Canto 5 of Dante’s epic. We shall follow the owner of the money and the owner of labour-power into the hidden foci of production... Here we shall discover, not only how Capital produces, but also how it is itself produced. We shall at last discover the secret of making surplus value.

Just as Dante did before him, Marx summoned up a succession of witnesses, in his case witnesses for the prosecution, from these “hidden foci of production”. His guiding principle was borrowed from Dante: Let the people speak. And speak they did, as in the case of J. Murray (above) and many more. (What a good template we have here, by the way, for readers of Culture Matters to use, by which to present your own present-day selection of witnesses for new prosecutions.)

And what of Marx’s exercise of his poet’s craft in the writing of Capital? We find no shortage of examples of metaphors here, and other forms of poetic imagery. Metaphysical poets of any era would be proud to have used them so creatively. Here is one: vampires. Marx wrote: Capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.

It does not matter if the vampires, imagined or real, feed on others’ blood or others’ labour, the phenomenon is the same: it is a ceaseless and exponential series of acts of taking, of expropriation, and sometimes of killing cruelty. We see it in the busts and booms of the markets, in the losses that many suffer that others might profit, in the recurrent immiseration of whole sections of a country’s population, sometimes of whole populations, while the elites and their darlings flourish, and we see it bloodiest of all in the almost permanent state of war that so unstable an economic order (or disorder, rather) gives rise to. Marx’s metaphor is precise and complete. It conveys the essential motive force that rages at the heart of Capital.

To sum up: Marx and Morry: two warriors, both engaged in their own times, but aware of all times, past and future; both embattled thinkers as well as thoughtful activists; both possessing a warm-heartedness as well as a hard-headed realism; both exponents of an integrative vision, in which no aspect of human enquiry or interest is deemed alien; internationalists; dialecticians; passionate wordsmiths... Getting to know the former warrior through the good offices of the latter was the best part of my student years.

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 Maurice Levitas, Irish academic and communist.

 

 

 

Flight and Fall
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:33

Flight and Fall

Published in Poetry

David Betteridge has written a commemorative work of prose and poetry especially for this Russian Revolution section of Culture Matters. An extract from the poetry is given in ebook format here, along with some illustrations by Bob Starrett.

Flight and Fall looks back at the events of 1917 from the standpoint of Glasgow in 2017.

 

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