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.

'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.


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 My subject is my friend of forty years, recently deceased, the prolific and talented and largely unpublished author, Alex Hamilton, aka Sandy Hamilton (to those who knew him from childhood), aka S&eh?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.


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.


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). 



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):



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.


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.


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.


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!”


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. 


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.


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.


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,

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.


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.”


“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.”


“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:


& 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.

DB marx cartoon 2. jpg

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.

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.

 max1 600px

 Maurice Levitas, Irish academic and communist.




Flight and Fall
Friday, 03 November 2017 18:17

Flight and Fall

Published in 1917 Centenary

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.


Profit and Loss: a drawing by Owen McGuigan
Saturday, 28 January 2017 16:55

Profit and Loss: a drawing by Owen McGuigan

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge introduces a drawing from Owen McGuigan which 'takes a line for a walk'; and a song on the same theme of shipbuilding on Clydeside.

Watching Owen McGuigan taking photographs is an eyeopener, especially when he is at work among a crowd at a public event. It is like watching a snooker player lining up a shot, or a footballer, seen in slow motion in a video, moving with expertise to be in the right place for a good kick or header, at the decisive moment. Strangely, Owen manages to do this almost unobtrusively, despite the fact that his shock of white hair acts as a flag. It is a flag of peace, perhaps, signalling a quiet professionalism.

Behind Owen’s skill in taking photographs lies something equally important for understanding his genius, and the genesis of his huge archive of images (including videos) that document the life and soul of his native Clydebank. See www.myclydebankphotos.co.uk. That “something” is a habit of looking at the world and the people in it sympathetically. He looks with a feeling eye, and a democratic one.

Besides photography, Owen works in other media too - fretwork, for example. A piece of his combining several iconic images from the Clydebank Blitz has pride of place in an exhibition in the Town Hall, commemorating that dreadful episode in the town’s history.

Drawing is another outlet for his vision. Sitting with a sheet of paper in front of him early in the New Year (2017), and with a pen in his hand, Owen began to “doodle”, as he puts it. One part of the drawing led to the next, until, by an uncanny process, the drawing reproduced above was completed. Owen calls it “Profit and Loss”. It represents, in a complex and beautifully ordered way, the industry that put Clydebank on the map, shipbuilding.

Paul Klee famously described drawing as taking a line for a walk. Owen’s “Profit and Loss” does something similar. He takes a scene for a walk, or maybe a selection of themes from a scene, namely a composite shipyard, and takes them for a walk; or, viewing the drawing from a different angle, you might say that the drawing takes the observer on a conducted tour of the scene, starting where Owen started, namely at a magnificent great girder at the centre of the page. From there our eye progresses, from detail to detail, following a roundabout route to the drawing’s edges and corners.

You might object that we should start by looking at “Profit and Loss” in the round (or rectangle), as a whole, enjoying the strength and coherence of the overall design first, and only then zooming in on the details - and what details there are, of various sizes, shapes and textures! There is a pint of Guinness on the pub bar, ready poured, waiting for the drinker’s arrival soon from the yard; there are palm trees in a holiday resort that the builders of cruise liners that take folk there will never themselves visit; there is the lovely contour of a ship’s keel driving into waves; there is a man falling; there is blood.

In fact, there is no single way of looking at this, or any drawing. There are several ways, and they are complementary, and different people will see different significances in the selection and combination of pictorial elements. If you know about shipbuilding, you will see more in “Profit and Loss” than most. You will see, for example, references to the deadly phenomenon of asbestos, which has hit Clydebank as badly over the generations as anywhere.

Regarding this killer, Owen has written:

There are several asbestos references in the drawing. Although the shipyards have long gone, we are still living with the legacy of asbestos. Many workers have died as a result of asbestos-related cancers and diseases. Below is a copy of “Profit and Loss” with some reference notes to asbestos.

Profit and loss notes

Here is a bit of info about Marinite board used on the ships: Marinite Insulating Panels are 4-foot by 8-foot sized boards that are currently sold as an asbestos-free product, but that was not always the case. For many years, these panels were made with the naturally occurring mineral, because it can control heat and even help stop the spread of fire. This made it ideal for use in industrial settings, and also for homes, schools, churches and most any other standing structure. Aside from its heat-resistant capabilities, asbestos was also extremely durable, so products made from it can last for decades. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a negative trait. The International Asbestos Memorial is down at the bottom left of the drawing.

“Profit and Loss” benefits from repeated looking, I believe; and it makes a good companion to certain poems and songs on the same subject of shipbuilding, considered in the same complex way. One such song is a brilliant and moving piece called “Song o the Yard”, written by the late Leo Coyle, who said of his work:

Much has been written and sung in praise of the Clyde and the great ships built there, but little written or sung are about the hellish conditions endured by the workers who built them. Since I served my time in the shipyards, I lived with the unique humour and tenacity of the Clyde shipyard worker to overcome and survive in spite of so many betrayals. The song is self explanatory and is supported by guitar accompaniment that echoes the tragedy of the loss of a proud industry. 

Here is “Song o the Yard”, performed by Leo’s daughter and son, Leanne and Eddie, followed by the lyrics:

 From Clydeborn, a CD collection of Leo Coyle’s songs, sung by Eddie and Leanne Coyle, available from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Tune: “The Laird o Cockpen” (traditional)

Through the eyes o a young man born on the Clyde,
When the pulse o humanity turned on the tide,
An a nation that depended on ships for its trade,
Turned a blind eye on the price that was paid.

Raw cauld is the mist on the river at dawn,
Wi coat collars up, the men hurry on;
The keel maun be laid ere a new ship is born,
An yae might lose a shift if yer late for the horn.

The frames o the hull in the cauld mists are lost,
A skeleton dressed in a mantle o frost,
A spectre sae drear t’would daunt even the brave,
For there’s nae caulder place tween the womb an the grave.

Wi the reek o steel burnin an the clangin o plates,
The choking on fumes an shoutin o mates,
Wi the din o the caulkers vibratin the shell,
A ship on the stocks is just organised hell.

But there’s aye caustic humour an witty retort.
An endless comment aboot wimen an sport,
For it’s wimen an horses an who scored the goal
That sustain men in life such conditions tae thole.

On Kilbowie Hill the beeches stand tall,
Oer men frae the yards who hae given their all,
One moment alive and the next just a wreck,
Covered oer wi coats on a cauld rusty deck.

They were aye in the news when the critics cried oot,
Just countin up hours that’s lost in dispute;
An I wonder, did they earn their livin as hard
As the men that were buildin the ships in the yard?

Noo, there must be oer many who think they were daft,
Takin pride in oor labour, oor skill an oor craft,
Buildin luxury liners, empresses an queens,
That ever tae sail on was far yond oor dreams

Through the eyes o an auld man, I gaze on the river,
An the young jobless men, wonderin if it’s for ever;
Wi Scotland united, we’ll still turn the tide,
An return tae its glory, the Valley o Clyde.

One last reference cries out to be given, namely a collection of poems springing from a similar experience and culture and ethos as Owen’s and Leo’s, namely Bill Sutherland’s A Clydeside Lad. Three of these poems are included in A Rose Loupt Oot, an anthology published by Smokestack Books of various materials inspired by the great UCS Work-In of 1971-72.

In one of them, the poet characterises a ship under construction as being both a “beast o steel” and a “beauty”, and wonders, in the voice of childhood, “whit god’s, whit divvil’s beast is this?” What contradictions there are here, as in Owen’s “Profit and Loss” and Leo’s “Song o the Yard”!

Maple Leaf
Wednesday, 18 January 2017 09:39

A Coverlet of Green: In Memoriam John Berger

Published in Poetry


by David Betteridge

The bare and barren tree
can be made green again...
- Antonio Gramsci

¶ A boy cried.
His bedside cup,
brimful with milk
before he slept, was empty
now, at morning-time.
Not one drop he'd drunk.
How, then, no milk?

The culprit mouse,
her creamy lips a give-away,
felt sorry for the boy.
And still he cried.

She thought:
I'll get the cattle
to make good his loss.

But no: Today our milk's
dried up.

Field, asked the mouse,
have you some juicy grass
to give?

Sorry, the field explained,
I'm parched.
Will you fetch water
from the well?

Brokenly, the well demurred.
My rim's caved in;
I need repaired.

¶ Mason, will you take the job?

I'm short of stone,
the mason said.

¶ Next, to a bleak hill.
I've granite here
enough to build a town,
but not a single sett will go
to humankind.
Aggrieved, the hill refused
the mouse's plea.

Imagine -
mouse to hill -
imagine that you feel
the balm of maple trees
where you are bare.
If you give the mason stone,
the boy whose milk I took
will come to you a man -
you have my word -
and he will work for you
this remedy I plan.

¶ The hill relented;

the mason fixed the well;

water by the bucketful
      was raised;

the pasture greened;

the cattle's udders
    swelled, and cups
         and bellies
             soon were filled.

Strong as a bull,
     the boy grew,
          a farmer-forester.

The mouse, her children,
    and theirs as well,
        in turn, each year
            reminded him:
a promise had been made.

¶ Hectare on hectare now,

gladdening the hill,

a coverlet of green extends

its shade, a living tribute

to the mouse’s will.

A note on its sources, which are a Sardinian folk-tale, Antonio Gramsci, Hamish Henderson, Gordon Brown, and John Berger.

“A Coverlet of Green” is derived from a folk-tale from Sardinia. This folk-tale was written down in the mid-1930s by the Marxist philosopher and political activist, Antonio Gramsci, in a letter to his son. The letter was smuggled out of one of Mussolini’s gaols, where Gramsci had been imprisoned, “to stop his brain from functioning”. (In fact, his brain functioned all the more powerfully.)

Later, during the Second World War, Hamish Henderson, the Scottish poet, singer, folklorist, teacher, and lots of other things, came across Gramsci’s writings, including his prison letters. Henderson was at that time an intelligence officer in the British Army, and one of his duties was to make contact with Italian partisans opposed to Mussolini. One such group called itself the Antonio Gramsci Brigade. It was they who acted as the link between the philosopher’s ideas and the soldier. Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s letters were published two decades later by a students’ printing press at Edinburgh University, edited by a radical (even revolutionary) student leader who went on to pursue a noteworthy career in politics, although rather less radical, one Gordon Brown.

Later still, John Berger discovered Hamish Henderson’s translation of Gramsci’s re-telling of the Sardinain folk-tale. He so liked it that he re-told it himself in an essay about Gramsci called “How to Live with Stones”, published in an essay-collection The Shape of a Pocket. He also re-told the tale in a radio interview on BBC Radio 3. It was this broadcast version that sparked my own attempt at a re-telling, in “A Coverlet of Green”.

John Berger’s death on 2nd January, just two months after his 90th birthday, leaves a great gap in literature and cultural politics. My poem, with Bob Starrett’s lovely green evocation of new growth - maple leaves lit by sunshine - was intended for publication as a birthday greeting, but it missed that deadline. Now it can serve as an In Memoriam.

John Berger: an appreciation
Wednesday, 04 January 2017 17:06

John Berger: an appreciation

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge offers an appreciation of the late, great John Berger.

There are some authors whose way with words not only reflects a way of living, but also excites it. It has a moral force as well as an aesthetic sense. John Berger, who died on 2 January, was an author of this kind.

Year on year, since he began his writing career with art criticism for the New Statesman in the 1950s, an increasingly wide world of readers has been delighted as his latest essay, article, review, novel, memoir, letter, play, film, tale, poem, or whatever was published. I say “whatever” because it is a feature of Berger’s work that it is varied in its scope, and more than that: it is also varied in its mixing of genres within a single text. A novel may contain drawings; an essay may do the same, and then veer into memoir; philosophy and politics crop up everywhere, as do poems, in glorious profusion.

Looking back over Berger’s career, which included such notable achievements as Permanent Red (1960), a collection of the first decade of his art criticism; A Fortunate Man (1967), a study of a country doctor, including photographs by Jean Mohr; Ways of Seeing (1972), a TV series about art history, and also a book, never out of print; G (1972), a novel, winner of that year’s Booker Prize; A Seventh Man (1975), the most mixed of his mixed-genre books, “composed” jointly with Jean Mohr as an investigation into the lives of migrant workers in a Europe that was hungry, and is still hungry, for cheap labour; To the Wedding (1995), a story of multiple loves, lived under a sentence of death from AIDS; and, fast-forwarding to 2016, A Sparrow’s Journey, a study of, and celebration of, and continuation of the storytelling genius of Andrey Platonov - looking back over this career, I am reminded of Coleridge’s wild fig-tree, its old roots deep in a rock, “still starting up anew, with the playfulness of the Boy...”

Berger achieved his evergreen feat “amid the profoundest and most condensed constructions of hardest Thinking.” And not just thinking: feeling, too. Both are in constant play in his writing, each animating the other. There are times when his prose has the articulate energy and sensuous beauty of poetry. Take this little extract (slightly edited), for example, from his story “The Accordion Player”, from Once in Europa (1983), which is the second of his Into Their Labours trilogy, set in the mountains of Haute-Savoie where Berger spent much of the second part of his life:

The milking finished, he entered the kitchen. He had closed the shutters... to keep the room cool. Light from the sunset filtered between their slats. On the window sill was the bunch of flowers he had picked. On seeing them he stopped in mid-stride. He stared at them as if they were a ghost... He pulled a chair from under the table, he sat down and he wept... Odd how sounds of distress are recognised by animals. The dog approached the man’s back and, getting up on its hind legs, rested its front paws on his shoulder blades. He wept for all that would no longer happen...

Berger said of himself, in a recent interview with Kate Kellaway (Guardian, 30 October, 2016), that “If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen”. Yes, he listened; and, just as importantly, he looked. He looked as intently as a field naturalist, or an artist - which Berger was, all his days – drawing someone’s portrait, or his favourite philosopher, Spinoza, practising his trade as a lens-grinder, or “la vigie - the lookout guy on a boat”, as he told Kate Kellaway. He looked, and he saw more than most of us.

The very titles of some of Berger’s books confirm this commitment to closely examining things in all their minute particulars. There is The Look of Things (1972), About Looking (1980), The Sense of Sight (1993), as well as the already mentioned Ways of Seeing.

If you have watched Berger on TV and heard him speak, you will have detected the way that so long an immersion in his Haute-Savoie neighbours’ French had inflected his native English voice. More significantly, if you have read the many poems that he translated from other languages, you will understand the way that a wide world of inspiration had inflected his thought. Aime Cesaire, Bertolt Brecht, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, and others: the labour of wrestling their meaning into alternative expression served to broaden Berger’s already broad internationalism. He was the least insular of Englishmen, the least Eurocentric of Europeans. He was a world-citizen, viewing as he did the pages of literature “as if it were a place, an assembly point”: a sort of convivial commons.

All of the titles that I have listed above, plus the many more that I have omitted that I might equally well have listed, are open doors to such places. It is sad to think that their maker and sharer has written his last.

Slave Songs & Symphonies
Thursday, 22 December 2016 13:47

Slave Songs and Symphonies

Published in Books

Poems by David Betteridge
Drawings by Bob Starrett

£5.99 (plus £1.50 p&p) 48 pp ISBN 978 1907 464164


Slave Songs and Symphonies is an ambitious, beautifully crafted collection of poems, images and epigraphs. It's about human history, progressive art and music, campaigns for political freedom, social justice and peace. Above all it's about the class and cultural struggle of workers 'by hand and by brain’ to regain control and ownership of the fruits of their labour.

David Betteridge’s poems are leftist, lyrical, and learned, infused with sadness and compassion for the sufferings of our class, the working class. They are also inspired by visionary hope, and a strong belief that our class-divided society and culture can be transformed by radical politics and good art – and by radical art and good politics.

Bob Starrett’s drawings are much more than illustrations. They dance with the poems, commenting on them as well as illustrating them. They are like Goya’s drawings in their dark, ink-black truthfulness and their intimate knowledge of suffering and Blake’s 'mental fight'. Like the poems, they express and resolve the struggles they depict.

Slave Songs and Symphonies tells the story of how slave songs become symphonies – and helps makes it happen. It is not just about class and cultural struggle – it is class and cultural struggle.

A Comedy of Ideas: The Cartoons of Bob Starrett
Wednesday, 27 January 2016 13:40

A Comedy of Ideas: The Cartoons of Bob Starrett

Published in Visual Arts

David Betteridge introduces some of the cartoons of Bob Starrett, the official cartoonist of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in of 1971-2.

When we look at Starrett’s cartoons, we may sometimes laugh Ha! ha! ha! in amusement at his portrayal of some silliness of human behaviour. We may sometimes laugh Ha! ha! in agreement with his satirical view of some political enemy. Most often, however, we laugh Ha! in delighted recognition of his skewering of some error, his highlighting of some truth, his scoring of some point. Such cartoons derive less from a comedy of manners, and rely less on caricature, than they express a comedy of ideas. To put it another way: in Starrett’s cartoons, we find less of the “good-tempered pencil” of a Fougasse, less of the personalised loathing of a Scarfe, and more of a focused analysis of the ways in which political wrongs operate. William Blake said that “a tear is an intellectual thing”. Starrett shows that a laugh can be an intellectual thing, too.


As well as attacking the functions and dysfunctions of Capital, Starrett also aims his fire at those aspects of everyday life that disfigure and divide the cause of Labour. Racism, sectarianism, and xenophobia are frequent targets of his. Like Brecht, Starrett “takes a bold sweep, never letting inessential detail or decoration distract from the statement, which is an artistic and intellectual one” (Brecht, Stage Design for the Epic Theatre, 1951); or, as Starrett himself once said, emphatically, in conversation, “No rococo.”

In the lines that Starrett draws, in the captions that he writes, and in the angles and points of view that he puts across, he is informed by a wide web of creative influences. Jimmy Airley, Jimmy Reid, Mick McGahey, Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour, Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, John Maclean, John Berger, Robert Burns, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Lindy Hemming, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Joan Littlewood, Bud Neill, Brendan Behan, Robert Noonan, Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, and, most important of all, because they came first in Starrett’s education, Dunky Lamont and “all the guys in shipyards and on building sites who have given me ideas, themes and arguments” - they, and a long list of other thinkers, activists, artists, and writers stand behind him. Like them, and like the people for whom he draws his cartoons, Starrett looks with a sharp eye at the real world, engages with it, and shakes it until its contradictions rattle and its bubbles of absurdity go Pop!

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Starrett learned the essentials of visualising and drawing by copying other people’s work, and by taking advice. He quickly progressed to producing work of his own, in a style of his own, readily identifiable as “Starrett”; but his individuality has always been a reflection of, and a reflection on, topics of popular and political concern, notably the class struggle of Labour against Capital. His cartoons have been gifts, freely given to that struggle, being grounded in it, usually drawn to order, under pressure of time. He was a founder member of the Glasgow Trade Union Centre Poster Group, a spin-off of the historic UCS Work-in of 1971-72.


















Films - watching them, and working in them, initially with Bill Forsyth - are an important part of Starrett’s life. A favourite screen experience of his is re-visiting Charlie Chaplin’s great legacy, going back to the early days of cinema. (He has a boxed set of Chaplin’s films at home.) It is not surprising, then, that a recurring character in Starrett’s cartoons, The Worker, has certain similarities to Chaplin’s The Tramp. Both are resilient, resourceful, humane, strong, and clever. Both are constantly up against Wealth, Power, and Injustice, never weakening in their struggle to survive, and if possible prevail. There is, however, a significant difference: The Tramp is a marginalised individual, whereas The Worker is a member of that class in history that is not only the most exploited, but also the most creative. It is interesting to note that, according to the composer Hanns Eisler, Chaplin was a great teacher of Brecht’s. So Starrett and Brecht have that in common, as much else.







As well as being a cartoonist, Starrett is an author. A collection of his writings, The Way I See It, was published in 2013, by Fair Pley. These writings combine memoir, joke, description, and short story, sometimes with a dash of comment. Especially where his setting is the shipyards, Starrett employs (and quotes) a clear and flexible kind of language that Brecht would have called “gestic”: that is to say, a kind of language that embodies both thought and attitude in the very shape of a sentence: a kind of language in which gist and gesture work as one, with “no messing”. (This clarity and flexibility informed the great debates of the UCS Work-in that Starrett’s cartoons helped to commemorate, and fed into the epoch-making oratory of its leaders.) There is an affinity between the punchlines that come thick and fast in Starrett’s writings and the outlines of his cartoons.

More of Bob Starrett's cartoons are here.


Tam O'Shanter and Souter Johnny at Kirkton Jean's
Saturday, 23 January 2016 09:12

An Alternative Burns Supper

Published in Poetry

David Betteridge presents two poems to help you enjoy an alternative Burns supper.


At An Alternative Burns Supper

His short life and his fertility
lift his perfection to the rank of the phenomenal...
- Aphorisms on Mozart, by Ferruccio Busoni


Here’s tae the man’s life -
its drivin root, its rise, its faur reach –
and tae the great hairst he gather’d in!

Here’s tae the wark -
the high skill, the luve, the daurk hours -
that he pit in!

Here’s tae the words that he gar’d flow -
a muckle stream -
frae his hert’s ferment and his mind’s still!

Here’s tae the faur-travellin o’ that stream!
Here’s tae its carried gowd!
Here’s tae the lang and future legacy
ane sma’ life endow’d!

                                                                         Idealist without losing touch
                                                                         with the earth, realist without ugliness...


... I would winnow the man
from the chaff of his myth;
the works from the man;
and the best of the works
from the run of the mill.

Winnow, I say, then winnow more;
then, at the last, distil!

I would sweep aside the cotter’s
and the hoghmagandie nights,
the barley-rigs and -bree;

likewise the chameleon roles
of ploughman-penman-citizen,
of ranting dog, of Jacobite, and Jacobin,
and keeper of crapulous company.

Winnow, and distil!

                                                                                      His resources are extraordinarily abundant,
                                                                                      but he never uses them all...

What’s left of worth -
epistles, satires, songs, a handful’s few -
has high cask-strength: here
is the bard’s best, and the world’s best, too...


“The bard’s best, and the world’s best, too.”
Best: how Ah hate thi term!
Wurld’s best is wurse, excrementil,
thru-n-thru. As fur thi shit wurd the - euch! -
it’s faur-n-awey thi wurst o aw thi terms
in Abstractionism’s buik.
It’s purest extramentil, n that is definit.

                                                                                   He disposes of light and shadow, but his light
                                                                                   does not pain, and his darkness still shows
                                                                                   clear outlines...

Tak thi man-n-his stuff intire!
Nae finicky-pickity pluckin o plooms!
Burns wis complexit wi his place-n-times,
n he writ wi his haill sel fired.
Read it thi same: leeve in it, imbrace it,
breathe it, crap bits-n-aw: like it’s a freend:
jist as it is: baggy, raw.

Gie us this dey ur poems incarnate!
Onythin less is Plato’s pish,
n that is definate.


... He was amphibian.
Languages, genres, points of view, and styles -
he moved between them easily.
Fast-travelling, he seldom stayed in any one
for long, until, towards his early end,
he made landfall in an archipelago of song.
It was for him, and for posterity,
his Fortunate Isles.
There, to every Muse
containable in verse, he gave the blessing
of his voice, a blessing that, in reading
and in singing, we can never lose...

                                                                                     He is young as a boy,
                                                                                     and wise as an old man -
                                                                                     never old-fashioned and never modern...


If Life’s nae a jig in July weather,
but a gallop insteid, hell for leather,
wi’ nocht at the end save a tightenin’ tether,
wi’ dark beyond,
best we a’ gang our gate thegither,
in Freenship’s bond.

                                                                                ...carried to the grave
                                                                                and always alive...

May SANG sustain us on our way,
remind us whaur we first saw day,
an’ prime us for the waitin’ clay,
whan a’ are cow’d.
Until that time, may LUVE haud sway,
an’ LIFE ride proud.


Against the Elites

We are the nothings you walk past.
Your lowest and least,
we live in the margins of your power.

we fight your many wars.
Your triumphs we pay for,
but have none.

Unheeded and unnamed,
we make your schemes come true.

Every ton and inch and cubic yard and chisel-cut
of every building you command,
is ours.

Every furrow ploughed and filled with seed
is ours.

Your wealth-producing factories;
your cities -

Day in, day out, we do your work and will.
We pipe the water that you need from reservoir to tap;
we stitch the clothes that cover up your nakedness;
we bake the bread (and cake) you eat.

We are your numerous and essential kin.


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