Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.

A Fearless Gaze of Hope: Quines, by Gerda Stevenson
Thursday, 26 March 2020 13:46

A Fearless Gaze of Hope: Quines, by Gerda Stevenson

Published in Poetry

Jim Aitken reviews a book of radical women’s voices: Quines, by Gerda Stevenson. Accompanying illustrations of textiles are by artists from EDGE: Textile Artists Scotland.

The second edition of Gerda Stevenson’s ‘Quines’ came out with some fanfare as it was launched to coincide with International Women’s Day. The launch at the Central Library in Edinburgh was also accompanied by a unique exhibition in honour of some of the poems in the book by EDGE: Textile Artists Scotland.

The new front cover of this second edition arose out of the Scottish artist Helen Flockhart hearing Gerda read the poem ‘The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots’ – a poem in the book – on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour.’ Helen’s painting was part of her own exhibition ‘Linger Awhile’ based on the life of Scotland’s tragic queen in 2018-19. Gerda commended ‘the creative sisterhood’ that came with the launch of the second edition of her poetry collection.

A quine, it should be said, is the Scots word for a girl and it is being used to name all the women featured in the book. The first edition came out in 2018 and was reprinted in 2019. The new second edition of 2020 has four new poems along with a new introduction and is currently being translated into Italian by Laura Maniero with a grant from Publishing Scotland. ‘Quines’ is clearly a major work. It took Stevenson four years of research along with a few chance encounters that had entered her poetic imagination for this book to take shape.

Textile by Moira E. Dickson

The name Frances (Fanny) Wright is certainly one I was not familiar with. She was born in Dundee in 1795 and was very much a product of the Scottish Enlightenment despite that period not being particularly enlightened with regard to women. She was a writer, orator, feminist, abolitionist, champion of the rights of workers, a critic of the banks of her day and a critic of religious institutions. She spoke openly of the pleasures of sexual passion while also seeing marriage as a form of bondage, and campaigned for divorce, for birth control and for property rights for married women. She was also the first woman to edit a newspaper, ‘The Free Enquirer’.

She had gone to America and became hugely respected by Walt Whitman who said ‘she was a brilliant woman…who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good – public good, private good.’ She had also been admired by Mary Shelley and they were close friends. Mary Shelley had died before Fanny Wright and this enabled Stevenson to call her poem ‘Fanny Wright Meditates on Mary Shelley’s Death.’

As she laments her death she recalls her own life and mentions some of the terms that had been labelled against her – she was ‘The Red Harlot of Liberty’ and ‘The High Priestess of Infidelity.’ In her sadness for Mary she reflects on their achievements:

Those I’ve loved are gone, and now you too,
who held your mother’s torch, the flame that grew
with every step we took to forge a world
pledged to the common good…

These touching lines show the debt that women of this era had to the ‘torch’ that was Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley. Her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ appeared in 1792, where Wollstonecraft sought to apply the egalitarian principles of the American and French revolutions to women.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Though the backwoodsman Walpole called her ‘a hyena in petticoats’ many modern feminists have returned to her hugely significant work for inspiration.

Stevenson had first come across Wright in Barbara Taylor’s ‘Eve and the New Jerusalem’ (1983) and in Celia Eckhardt Morris’s biography ‘Fanny Wright: Rebel in America’ (1984). While performing in New York in 2012 Stevenson visited the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic Site at Long Island. On entering the building the first thing she noticed was a portrait of Fanny Wright placed between portraits of Whitman’s parents.

A year later, while working in Shetland, she had gone to Lerwick’s Shetland Museum and saw the reconstructed head of a young woman. There were, she says, ‘five thousand years between us’ in her Prologue poem ‘Reconstructed Head of a Young Woman.’ She begins to imagine what this young woman’s life had been like, as she observed the hair that ‘falls like mine,’ the ‘salt-washed cheeks’ and her ‘fearless gaze of hope.’ By the time Gerda had landed back on the Scottish mainland she had written the poem of her encounter with the young Shetlandic woman.

Scotland's Forgotten Women

We are often what we were before. The young woman in Lerwick Museum and all young women today hold much in common. They have shared hopes and dreams and know acutely what it means to be a woman. Like Fanny Wright the young woman with the reconstructed head had been forgotten about, relegated from history, their existences marginalised.

The encounter through a pane of glass in a museum has much in common with Seamus Heaney’s discovery of P.V. Glob’s ‘The Bog People,’ first published in English in 1969. In this book Heaney discovered that the bodies that had been preserved in the bogs of Jutland and elsewhere in northern Europe gave him a much-needed metaphor to compare what was happening in Northern Ireland during the so-called Troubles.


Ritualised murders and scapegoating had taken place thousands of years ago and this enabled Heaney to relate this to the sectarian and community conflicts being waged in Northern Ireland, as the peaceful civil rights demonstrations began to be attacked and then descended into violence. Also, by referring to those ancient murders Heaney could allow his poetry – particularly his collection ‘North’ (1975) – to rise above any partiality on his part and to universalize the horrors that were playing out in his own North at the time. Similarly, Stevenson could see the affinity she had with the young woman of Shetland in that, like her, she was female and part of what Simone de Beauvoir labelled ‘The Second Sex’ (1949) in her ground-breaking study of women.

Visits to museums can crystallise ideas but what had to be done first was to do the background work, the reading and research into many of Scotland’s forgotten women. That research took four years and it was ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women’ (2006), reprinted in 2018, which Stevenson has said was ‘an invaluable resource.’

‘Quines’ brings together a diverse array of Scottish women – politicians, queens, a salt seller, a half-hanged woman, scientists, writers and artists, singers, a dancer, a fish-gutter and others. They are all remarkably well studied, vital individuals who, like the young woman of Shetland, had fearless gazes of hope for all women and indeed for all. They also had fearless voices and an innate determination to be heard and seen. While not all men have been able to do this in class-ridden societies throughout history, it has been doubly difficult for women. As James Connolly succinctly put it when he first saw the poor women of Dublin, calling them ‘the slaves of slaves.’

Further back, nearly three thousand years ago, Homer told us in ‘The Odyssey’ that various groups of men had arrived at the home of Odysseus to hear if there was any news of his homecoming. His wife Penelope had been waiting for news herself and she is about to talk to the guests when her son Telemachus tells her –

Go back into your quarters and take up your work, on the loom…speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power of this household.

swh members 2

At the outbreak of the First World War the British Government’s War Office had told Elsie Inglis and her Scottish Women’s Hospitals – ‘Good lady, go home and sit down.’ Clearly, there had been no change in attitude to women since the days of Telemachus. Stevenson gives Elsie her voice back in ‘Elsie Inglis Prepares for her Last Journey’ in a sensitively written poem where Inglis, dying from cancer, considers the impact that she and her comrades of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals have made:

my women, saving lives, proved
what’s plain as day: that we are equal
daughters, sons, husbands, wives.

A Fearless Gaze of Hope

Mary Beard tells us in ‘Woman and Power’ (2017) that in classical times women were not allowed to talk in public unless they dealt with their own sectional interests or their victimhood. Yet today when women do talk in public they are viciously abused, with women MPs receiving more vitriolic and obscene abuse than their male counterparts. And as for social media the most common comment directed at women is ‘Shut up, you bitch.’ Stevenson knows all this but both she and her book have simply sailed through these rough seas without even getting wet. Her book of Quines rises above such negativity with ‘a fearless gaze of hope’ and optimism.

This poetry collection also features women who were not born in Scotland but came from other countries to live here. Some of her quines, though Scottish by birth, had emigrated from Scotland. What is significant about this is that her only criteria for women being included in ‘Quines’ is that those who were in Scotland and played their part here can be seen as Scottish, as Scottish as they ever wanted to be.

This chimes particularly well with the recent Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. Eligibility to vote in that referendum was based simply on being in Scotland, living there and working there. This, of course, was in sharp contrast to the Brexit Referendum of 2016 that excluded EU citizens living and working in the UK. Gerda’s generosity with all those included in ‘Quines’ seems to mirror the current mood of openness that is being shown to migrant workers in Scotland, as there is the recognition that the economic contribution they make to Scottish society is extremely valuable.

The three languages of Scotland are all represented, with Stevenson showing that she is as skilled in Scots as she is in English. She also uses Gaelic words and phrases in poems where her women have come from that culture or have been referred to by that culture. She takes a chronological approach to all her women placing them in their own times and in so doing she brings the rich tapestry of Scottish history to life with its incursions from Ireland, from Viking lands like Norway and from elsewhere.

Nessie, the Original Sexy Beast

The collection begins with Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, who is indisputably female. Stevenson does not even mention that according to Adomnan, in his life of St Columba, believed to be written between 697 -700, that it was the saint who was supposed to have tamed the monster. Nessie was clearly not for taming as her ‘fearless gaze’ seems to ‘strike terror in your hearts.’ Yet this monster is much more than a figure of fear. Her ‘paps slope with the grace of Jura.’ Gerda uses the Old Norse word ‘paps’ meaning ‘breasts’ and the Paps of Jura were named by Norse settlers to describe the look of the three mountains on that island. This word, it has to be said, has also been used by many a Scottish schoolboy directed at his female class-mates. Gerda, however, reclaims the word for Nessie and then describes her ‘nipples bright as fresh water pearls, sleek hips fit for tender cargo.’ In this description she cleverly creates for us the original sexy beast.

However, her Nessie, though clearly happy in her own skin, also has a mind ‘broad as your kyles.’ She has been around ‘long before the Romans named the Picts.’ She has seen our entire history and will continue to ‘elude your sonar probes and camera clicks.’ Nessie possesses depth and will only reveal herself when we ‘can see beyond the surface.’ This is a playful poem on one level but deeply serious on another.

EDGEsue fraser

Textile by Sue Fraser

In ‘The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots’ Stevenson informs us in the biographical note between the title and poem – a clever technique she uses throughout the collection – that Mary miscarried twins while imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle in 1567. Mary talks in Scots to her last lady-in-waiting, Mary Seton, who is tearful at her Queen losing her crown:

…..och, Mary, Mary Seton, last
o ma fower leal ladies, dinna waste yer tears
on gien up a bitte gowd an glister, haud ma airm
if it helps, but dinna, dinna greet fur this.

These lines are among the most emotionally charged ones in the collection. Mary is saying that a bit of gold and glitter (‘bitte gowd an glister’) is nothing compared to the lives of the twins she lost. Mary offers Seton her arm – ‘haud ma airm’ – rather than Seton offering Mary comfort. The repetition of ‘dinna’ is written as an exhortation that masks the utter desolation she actually feels. These feelings of sadness and loss, however, are not for the loss of her crown but for the ‘twa bairns….twa scraps o heivin.’

Sugar, slavery and exploitation

The poem ‘Demerara’ introduces us to Eliza Junor who was born in Demerara, now modern day Guyana, to Hugh Junor, a slave owner from the Black Isle, and an unknown mother who would have been a slave. Stevenson tries to imagine Eliza in her new land detecting the strange contradiction of where she now finds herself in ’the Black Isle of white people, where I’m glad no cane grows.’

Eliza had won a prize at Fortrose Academy for penmanship and Gerda cleverly uses the words of the ‘dominie’s wife’ (teacher’s wife) telling Eliza about all the other ‘tawny’ types like her who are appearing in Cromarty, Tain and Inverness. The teacher’s wife was pouring tea and when Eliza declines any sugar the wife exclaims: ‘But it’s Demerara…It’ll make you feel at home.’ Declining sugar is perfectly understandable for Eliza since it conjures up the horrors of the slavery that went into its production. Eliza watches ‘the gold beads…melt in the peat-brown pool’ of the cup.

This poem is incredibly important, because it deals with Scotland’s role in the slave trade. It is only in the last fifteen years that any serious academic research has gone into the role played by Scots in that ghastly trade. In one of Walter Scott’s novels, ‘Rob Roy’ (1817), there is a passage that shows how there was a refusal to adequately admit to that role:

When the cloth was removed, Mr Jarvie compounded with his own hands a very small bowl of brandy-punch, the first which I had ever the fortune to see. ‘The limes,’ he assured us, ‘were from his own little farm yonder-awa’ (indicating the West Indies with a knowing shrug of his shoulders).

What happened ‘yonder awa’ was brutal exploitation, and it should be remembered that Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns had at one time seriously considered becoming ‘a negro driver’ in Jamaica. Stevenson’s poem also mentions several Highland place names – Cromarty, Tain and Inverness – and these places seem at odds with the narrative that Scots have often nurtured about the brutality they suffered during the Highland Clearances when houses were burned and people forced to emigrate in large numbers to make way for the more profitable sheep that came with Union. While that episode can never be ignored, these place names in the poem show that many Scots, as well as being oppressed, were in fact oppressors themselves.

scotland and slavery

In ‘Reconsidering Scotland’s Slavery Past’ (2015) Tom Devine brought together various academics to seriously look at Scotland’s role in the slave trade associated with the Caribbean. Scots had been numerous in Demerara. The slaves, it was said, called prawns ‘Scotsmen’ not because their skin turned pink in the sun but because they all stuck together. Herring caught in the North Sea had been mixed with oats to provide meals for the slaves, and the canvas clothes they wore had also been manufactured in Scotland and sent out to Demerara. Slavery had a massive economic impact beyond institutionalising free labour.

This is uncomfortable history but it is a history that has to be told. David Hayman brought out the TV programmes ‘Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame’ for BBC Scotland in 2018 and these programmes explored those uncomfortable truths particularly well. However, that was what Union was all about. Union with England was an imperial construct whereby Scotland gained access to England’s ‘overseas markets.’ – its colonies. Along with imperialism abroad there was the spin-off from industry at home as goods from those markets came back here to be manufactured.

The arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes summed it up quite aptly when he said: ‘To avoid civil war at home, we must become imperialists abroad.’ He recognised the class divide and saw in Empire, with its crumbs thrown at the working classes, the solution to the maintenance of that divide. Today, however, with empire gone and large-scale industry also gone, the Union is decidedly shaky. All that seems to remain of that imperialist legacy are the awful ditties like ‘Rule Britannia’ (1740) and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (1901). The national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ is also part of this imperialist legacy. These songs seek merely to perpetuate the national notions of former greatness.

So it was ludicrous to listen to Rees-Mogg and Widdicombe saying that they wanted Britain to break free from ‘the imperial yoke of the EU’ as if Britain had become enslaved, when it was Britain that had developed and sustained slavery on an industrial scale.

‘Demerara’ has much in common with Hamish Henderson’s famous song ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ (1960). Henderson’s song not only mentions the republican-socialist John MacLean but is in essence an internationalist song that urges Scotland to have nothing more to do with the British imperial construct that plunders abroad. Stevenson’s sympathies are similarly with Eliza Junor who is equally opposed to the imperial plunder abroad that makes her refuse the sugar in her tea. Her quine Eliza, therefore, has much in common with Henderson’s ‘black boy frae yont Nyanga’ in his stirring song.

Helen Crawfurd and liberation theology

John MacLean – who formed Scotland’s first pro-independence party, the Scottish Workers Republican Party in 1923 – and the Edinburgh-born James Connolly are both mentioned in the ‘Quines’ poem ‘Helen Crawfurd’s Memoirs in Seven Chapters.’ Crawfurd was a suffragette, a Red Clydesider, one of the founders of the Women’s Peace Crusade during World War 1 and a founding member of the CPGB. She had been involved in the window-smashing in one of the suffragette direct actions in London, and also planted a bomb in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. She had also sneaked into Moscow to meet Lenin and Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, after the Russian Revolution. She had become the Secretary of the Workers Relief Organisation, working in the Highlands and in Donegal with Constance Markiewicz as well as supplying relief and support to miners during the General Strike of 1926.


Crawfurd married ‘a man of the cloth, threefold my age’ and as a minister’s wife she would have visited the houses of the impoverished parishioners in the Anderston district of Glasgow, and seen the ‘bow-legged bairns’ in those houses suffering from malnourishment. This experience had radicalised her.

Like a number of Stevenson’s ‘Quines’ Crawfurd had been religious, but like them – particularly Mary Slessor in ‘Mary Slessor Takes St Paul to Task’ – she questioned the prevailing theologies and religious orthodoxies of her time. Crawfurd’s reverend husband had preached ‘care’ while Crawfurd said she took:

…St. John to heart:
may his truth be known that we must love
the brother we have seen as much as
God we have not seen, or else we lie.

Crawfurd’s Christ ‘could be militant…he whipped the moneylenders from the temple.’ Like Slessor before her Crawfurd was a liberation theologian before the advent of liberation theology proper in the second half of the 20th century.

EDGEyvonne tweedie resized

Textile by Yvonne Tweedie

Along with Mary Barbour and her army of women who fought the rogue landlords who increased rents while their men were fighting in the hell of the trenches, Crawfurd had joined the working-class women fighting the bailiffs. They would be pelted with bags of flour and with less savoury substances too. These women also joined ‘forces with MacLean’ in opposing the war. The war broke Keir Hardie’s heart, and Crawfurd castigated Christabel Pankhurst for supporting it: ‘Shame on you, I cry.’

Once dubbed ‘Queen of the Mob’, Miss Pankhurst has ‘changed her tune’ as she is:

...enlisting men, pinning their guilt with white feathers
stolen from our dove, impressing women to munitions,
Britannia’s clarion call stoking Europe’s fire
and denying equal pay…

All the indignation of the working-class women in Glasgow and beyond is found in these lines. Women made placards and placed them on their window sills at home looking out to the streets, reading ‘RENT STRIKE WE ARE NOT REMOVING.’ Like most oppressed people who come together in solidarity to fight injustice, these women won their heroic struggle as the Rent Restriction Act of 1915 made it illegal for landlords to increase rents while this war was being fought.


Lift the Have-Nots From Obscurity

Helen Crawfurd and Mary Barbour had on occasion visited the Fife home of young Jennie Lee to meet with her parents. Lee went on to become a Labour MP and created the Open University which, along with the NHS – valiantly dealing with the coronavirus at present – and the welfare state, were among the best and most progressive achievements of the Labour Party.

In ‘I am Jennie Lee’s Open University’ Stevenson imagines that entity itself speaking in praise of its conception. Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ (1895) was one of Lee’s formative books when she was a student because Jude was denied the opportunity to go to university because of his social class. What Lee sought to do with the ‘wee bastard’ that was the White Paper she brought to the Commons was to:

…..lift the have-nots from obscurity
by releasing knowledge like caged birds into the open air.

Knowledge has always been power, and without it the powerless remain powerless.

Stevenson uses so many ingenious voices for her poems. If the actual character herself is not doing the speaking it is someone else – a couple of times Stevenson herself – or something associated with that character. It is a challenging task to do all the necessary research for ‘Quines’, and another challenge altogether then to write the actual poems. Stevenson’s method, she has said, is in ‘finding a hook’ with which to write the poem. This is where all the invention with voice, with who speaks, comes in. These are the actual hooks for her poems.

So for example, in ‘At Miss Eardley’s’ it is the street children of Glasgow’s Townhead district who give the poem its collective voice. The children would go into ‘the big room at Miss Eardley’s’ where the artist Joan Eardley would paint. She would paint these children or sometimes she would be ‘drawin us wi sticks o chalk on sandpaper.’

11810 3

Street Kids, by Joan Eardley, 1949

Eardley is recognised as one of Scotland’s premier artists and the fact that she was born in West Sussex seems totally irrelevant. She lived and worked in Scotland and Scotland has claimed her as her own. Interestingly, in ‘Catterline in Winter’ Stevenson wrote of Eardley’s painting of that name in her first poetry collection ‘If This Were Real’ (2013). In this poem she writes in English of the area Eardley also lived and worked in on the north-east coast of Scotland. Stevenson observes in Eardley’s painting how:

The homes are sledging
down the hill
in the blind gaze
of a pandrop moon.

This is an image in words every bit as good as the actual painting. The artist and the poet are viewing the same scene and seeing it in complementary ways.

One final poem – there are over 60 in the collection – that again shows Stevenson’s creative resourcefulness with voice is ‘The Living Mountain’ as it ‘Addresses a £5 Banknote.’ Less than half an hour’s journey from Catterline, the writer Nan Shepherd was born in Peterculter in 1893. ‘The Living Mountain’ is in fact the Cairngorms where Shepherd would often walk. She wrote of her walks there in ‘The Living Mountain’ in 1941 although the book was not published until 1977. Shepherd had been environmentally aware long before the rest of us were panicked into concern.

The Cairngorms speak to Shepherd as her image now adorns a Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note brought out in her honour. Like Shepherd the mountain loathes litter:

I dislike litter, especially your kind-polymer particles
that issue in blizzards from careless markets, slip
from pockets, won’t perish in rain or melt with snow.

‘The Living Mountain’ does, however, make an exception in the case of Shepherd because she was:

…the woman who never rushed
to my summits, but walked into me, took time to learn
my every line – schist, gneiss, granite – and heard
my braided voice.

‘Quines’ is a book of voices, a book of radical women’s voices. It is a celebration as much as a tribute to women, achieved by incredible skill and a great deal of hard work.

Gerda Stevenson has brought all her other artistic selves – as singer, songwriter, actor, dramatist, director – to aid her in this collection. The poems all possess an air of theatricality about them, as woman after woman takes to the stage to tell her tale and celebrate her life. ‘Quines’ is a triumph of voice as much as Beckett’s characters keep talking freely because women, denied the chance to speak in public for so long, say whatever they want here. And, of course, they are all well worth listening to and learning from.

Gerda’s language is rich, bold and, at times, playful. Her forms for her poems are inventive – there are haikus and villanelles here – and each poem is thoroughly thought through before it is presented on the page. Her voice demands to be heard, like the voices of the women who have now become part of her. She has much in common with two of these women in particular – Kantha Sari Heirloom and Tessa Ransford – because like them she is also a cultural activist. ‘Quines’ is as much a product of cultural activism as it is the product of an artistic intelligence.

All the women in ‘Quines’ look at us today with their ‘fearless gazes of hope’; their voices demanding better from a world that stupidly thought it could oppress, relegate or distance them from life and from the heady matters of the world. Maya Angelou would have called these ‘Quines’ ‘phenomenal women’ and would have hailed Gerda Stevenson’s achievement too as phenomenal. ‘Quines’ is a radical collection written by the radical poetic intellect that is the bonnie fechter (intrepid fighter) herself, Gerda Stevenson.


The bonnie fechter herself......

Quines: Poems in Tribute to Women of Scotland, by Gerda Stevenson is available from Luath Press at £9.99

Christ is a communist and God is a miner: ‘The Sair Road’ by William Hershaw
Friday, 31 May 2019 16:03

Christ is a communist and God is a miner: ‘The Sair Road’ by William Hershaw

Published in Poetry

Jim Aitken reviews The Sair Road, by Willie Hershaw. The header image and all others in this review are by Les McConnell, the illustrator

Far from creating any ‘gude and godlie’ kingdom in Scotland as a result of the Reformation there in 1560, by the time of Robert Burns (1759-96) Presbyterianism was being openly satirised. Religious hypocrisy was one of Burns’ most constant themes in his poetry. This is no more evident than in ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ where Willie believes that he has become one of the elect by the simple fact of seeing himself chosen by God to be one of the elect. And while he chastises others like Gavin Hamilton because ‘he drinks, an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes (cards)’, Willie exonerates himself for lifting ‘a lawless leg’ upon Meg and for having had sex with ‘Leezie’s lass…three times.’ He should be excused for the latter offence on the grounds that he was ‘fou ‘(drunk). Such transgressions Willie sees as utterly without any theological or moral implication for himself but the same man would condemn others fervently for similar transgressions.

The Christian virtue of ‘judge not lest you be judged’ has no reference point in Willie’s religious view. The obsession with the sins of others created the dialectic of the self-righteous and the damned. With so much to be frowned upon it is fair to say that Scottish culture suffered from such a censorious atmosphere. Righteousness, after all, meant always being right.

It is therefore understandable that in James Hogg’s ‘The Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)’ that it would be the Devil that made an appearance. In this incredible novel a fanatically self-righteous Robert Wringhim is encouraged to kill his more rounded and sporty brother, George. The figure of Gil-Martin as Devil incarnate utilises the religious fanaticism of Robert to commit fratricide.

The novel is set in the turbulent times of the 17th century when Scotland was waging religious war both at home and abroad during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Hogg has two narratives in this book, one by an Editor and the other by Robert himself. The Editor is a smug man of the Enlightenment who believes that civilisation and progress are both constant and linear. He looks back on the fanaticism of a previous era with horror, viewing the excesses of such times as primitive and barbaric. What makes this novel so modern is our clear understanding today that such excesses are always with us – when we think of the two World Wars of the 20th century, of the Iraq war, the rise of Daesh, the rise of the far right, national populism and the threat of environmental catastrophe in our short century so far.

Hogg’s masterpiece raises such important notions of duality and without it we would not have had Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ or ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’ by James Robertson.

It was not until 1860 that Christ made his most significant appearance in Scottish culture. It was in a painting by William Dyce (1806-64) of Aberdeen called ‘The Man of Sorrows.’ Dyce was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and played a part in their early popularity. It was in fact Dyce who introduced Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais to John Ruskin and the spirituality in some of Dyce’s painting owes much to the Pre-Raphaelites.

Victorian Britain was a brutal place, with imperialism abroad and servitude at home, and the Pre-Raphaelites sought to go back in time to a more romanticised world, often inspired by the poetry of Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson. While they did create an artistic renewal and expressed a mission of moral reform revealing piety, they also showed the struggle of purity against corruption. Ruskin particularly approved of their detailed treatment of nature. However, their canvases largely featured much earlier historical eras, while the social reality around them was ghastly. In this they were not entirely different to Prince Charles, with his horror of so much of modern architecture, or to John Major and his reverie for an England where you came out from Evensong and headed for a warm beer on the village green, watching cricket.

What made Dyce’s painting so memorable – at least for Scots – was that the figure of Christ was sitting on a Scottish Highland hillside. Dyce, of course, would have been intimate with such locations himself and that is probably why he chose such a setting. However, the implication of such a setting was considerable. There is plenty of space for Christ to contemplate in such a wilderness because a few decades earlier the Highlanders had been cleared from the land to make way for sheep. ‘The Man of Sorrows’ can be seen to be at one with the men and women who were so brutally evicted from their lands. Such an interpretation –possibly unintended by Dyce – would nonetheless be made by many Scots. The sorrows felt by Christ were also the sorrows of those who once lived in this wilderness. Furthermore, the sorrowful Christ of the Highland hillside would clearly have known that the church in Scotland did little to prevent such suffering, by siding instead with the landowners and the gentry.

Though we live in a largely secular era today (though not so secular in the land of Mammon, the USA), the figure of Christ, as expressed in the Gospels, can still inspire. What churches have done – or not done – in his name cannot be attributable to him. He was and remains a radical and a revolutionary figure who sought nothing more than peace, love and sharing based on communal values.

Christ is a communist and God is a miner

Call that rebirth and resurrection if you like. He was on the side of the poor, the victimised, the marginalised and the oppressed. His ministry was itself ‘good news for the poor.’ It is inconceivable in a world where the poor and oppressed are still with us that he cannot be seen as relevant. George Bernard Shaw, in his Preface – a work far more interesting than the play it introduces – to ‘Androcles and the Lion (1916)’ called Christ ‘a communist.’

His story inspired an array of different people and groups as diverse as the Levellers of the 17th century, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Keir Hardie, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, along with untold billions over the last two millennia.

Jesus 1

Love richt and heeze the ferlous gift o grace!

So for Jesus to turn up in the Fife coalfield of the 20th century seems perfectly in keeping with his historical influence at other times. The versatile William Hershaw, who is not just a poet but also a dramatist, folk musician and Scots language activist, tells us in his introduction to ‘The Sair Road (2018)’ that ‘the Thatcher years ‘were ‘the most significant period’ in his life. At the time of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 he ‘was a young teacher in Fife’ working not so much at the chalk face but at the coal face, where many of the students he taught would have been the sons and daughters of miners.

The idea behind ‘The Sair Road’ must have formed in an earlier poem he wrote called ‘God the Miner’. The words of this poem are inscribed on a sculpture by David Annand called ‘The Prop’ and installed in 2007 in Lochgelly. It was in fact part of the Lochgelly Regeneration Project brought about after the death of a once proud industry. The words from the poem seem entirely apt because, as God creates, so too does the miner. They are indistinguishable:

God is a miner,
For aye is his shift,
Heezan his graith he howks in the lift.

Always working (aye is his shift) God lifts (heezan) his tools (graith) and digs (howks) in the sky (lift). In the second verse we read:

God is a miner,
Thrang at his work,
Stars are the aizles he caws in the mirk.

Here we are told that God is constantly busy (thrang) and that the stars are the sparks (aizles) he strikes (caws) in the dark (mirk). These lines not only offer a poetic response to the work of creation but to work generally because labour can – and should – be afforded dignity because it is labour itself that is the source of all that is created.

The Fife coalfield was ravaged during the Thatcher years and neglected during the years of Blair and Brown. With the death of an industry came the death also of the NUM and, saddest of all, the death of that precious experience of community. From ‘God the Miner’ in 2007 Hershaw must have been howking away inside his poetic imagination to have come up with ‘The Sair Road.’

A Christian is a Socialist or nocht

This collection is also written in Scots, which is fitting because the Fife tongue still uses a great many Scots words and miners would certainly have used many of these words. The miners were a special workforce, and no more so than in the Fife coalfield. While the term ‘Red Clydeside’ is well known, ‘Red Fife’ could easily have challenged Clydeside for radical politics. In 1935 it was the Red Clydesider William Gallacher who became Communist MP for West Fife until 1950. And though our media loves to peddle the idea that to be a Communist you had to have attended Cambridge University and become a spy, the reality was that Cowdenbeath had the largest Communist Party Branch of anywhere in the UK, and members there were almost entirely miners. The socialist credentials of Fife are second to none.

‘The Sair Road’ is structured to parallel the Stations of the Cross. Hershaw, however, has adapted them to form what he calls ‘The Lochgelly Stations.’ There is also an introductory poem before the Stations called ‘Apocrypha 1: Airly Doors’ and after the Station sequence there is ‘Apocrypha 2: Efter Hours’ along with three further poems that seek to sum up not only what has gone before but what could come after.

There is, Hershaw tells us again in his Introduction, ‘no theological consistency or orthodoxy in ‘The Sair Road’ and Jesus the Miner ‘has little time for organised religion.’ In the poem ‘The Lord Lous (loves) a Sinner’ the following lines confirm this sense of an independent mind:

The Kirk needs the pious
Tae fill up her pews
But the Lord recruits sinners
For guid men are few.

The action flits through the 1920s, when there was a lockout of miners in 1921, and moves on to the General Strike of 1926, when there was another lockout after that strike. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 is implied in all the action and invoked cleverly after Jesus the Miner is ‘liftit’ for preaching his gospel of love:

The neist day he was bound tae staund in coort
Condemned by the Sanhedrin, Daily Mail,
Thatcher and McGregor, the BBC,
Chairged wi riot, unlawful assembly,
The braggarts feart he micht owercoup their world
And like mad dugs settled tae bring him doun.

As he sat in the Gethsemane Plots thinking on his struggle ahead he was told – ‘You’re liftit Trotsky…Judas turned a scab.’ The archetypal name for a rebel – Trotsky – is applied to suggest how dangerous Jesus’ words have been to the status quo. And Judas – just as before – is the archetypal name for a traitor.

The names of the Apostles have a Scots twist to them. Jesus calls them his ‘feirs’ (friends) and they are named as Jamie, Mattie, Si, Wee Jock, Andrae, Tam and Big Pete. They are also his boozing buddies as they often hang out in the local Goth Bar. In no way could Jesus the Miner be set apart from others in this community. His spirituality and conviction may make him seem ‘other’ but he is very much a part of the mining community in all other respects.


Support the striking miners? Never, naa,/I winnae lift a haund, I'll see it faa.

The Lochgelly Stations mirror well the original story, and are also well applied to the mining community Jesus the Miner finds himself in. One good example of this is replacing Pilate with Ramsay MacDonald. He washes his hands of the whole sorrowful business at the end of the General Strike, just as Pilate did in the New Testament. Hershaw uses a particularly descriptive Scots word to suggest how the Labour leader feels about it all – ‘MacDonald girnt.’ Girning in Scots means not just moaning but doing so with lathers of self-pity. In his speech MacDonald ‘girns’ about his lot. He tells Jesus the Miner, ‘Socialism, Labour are juist bit words.’ Though progress is slow, he says, it will come ‘through the ballot box, no blackmail.’

These words could so easily have been spoken by Neil Kinnock when he was leader of the Labour Party during the strike of 1984-5. The South Wales miners dubbed him Ramsay McKinnock for not supporting them. Kinnock, of course, went on to become an unelected EU Commissioner, and he now sits in the unelected House of Lords. The same man complained – as the Tory press of his day told him to – that the miners should have had a ballot, which seems rather ridiculous today as the former son of a miner now sits with what Burns called ‘cuifs’ (fools) clad in ermine, in the House of Lords.

There is one key idea in ‘The Sair Road’ and that comes at Jesus’ trial. He is charged with the ‘wittin (knowledge) that he brocht: A Christian is a Socialist or nocht.’

How can it be that the rich and exploiter class are often the ones who attend church on a regular basis and claim to be Christian? How is it that the hapless Mrs May went to church, when as Home Secretary she made vans run around London with the words ‘Go Home’ printed on their side? These vans were directed at people of colour who had lived here for 50 years. How can she profess her Christianity while apparently holding others in such disfavour? How could she have led a political party of the rich for the rich, while overseeing Victorian levels of inequality and maintain she is a Christian?

The answer, of course, is the same as it has always been – easily. Her Prime Ministerial resignation speech showed how delusional she had been politically – so why should delusion not be part of religious faith either?

The Letter of St. James tells us ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ And ‘works’ meant good works like helping the poor and not adding to their number. To be Christian, at least according to its founder, you have to ‘do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you.’ Without active concern for the poor, the victimised and marginalised, your professed faith is rather empty. Burns railed against religious hypocrisy in his day and Hershaw is simply saying the same today. What is different though is that Hershaw’s Jesus himself rails against such rank religious hypocrisy.

When Mrs Thatcher came and addressed the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988 she told them, ‘Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform.’ Jesus the Miner would no doubt reply to this ‘you cannot have one without the other.’ Jesus of the New Testament would similarly agree, especially when we recall his words in Matthew 19:24, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.’ It is the multi-millionaires and billionaires who should be afraid because of what they have done and what they continue to do.

This is where Jesus the Miner and Jesus of the New Testament have such a powerful message. Both preach love for all, including your enemies. All will be forgiven and all it takes to be forgiven is a change of heart. This is the essence of the Christian message. This is the great magnanimity of that message; this is the theological simplicity of it all. As with most theories, however, there is often the problem with praxis. Because the rich are so powerful they want to maintain their position of supremacy over others by keeping their riches – and continually adding to them – by keeping others down.

When Jesus the Miner is ‘flung in their jyle’ (jail) he is also scourged by ‘the Polis’. He is ‘punched and kicked’ as ‘Centurions waved tenners in his face.’ They called him ‘commie scum’ and said, ‘This kicking’s juist the stert o mair tae come.’

That kicking of anyone who stands up to the rich has been taking place for a long time now. The early Christians were persecuted for their belief, yet it was their persistence with that belief that ended slavery in the ancient world. The Hebrew word ‘anawim’ describes the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth and it was these people who became the first followers of this new faith. Once an idea takes hold, Lenin said, it can become a material force. That was certainly true of Christianity, and like socialism it has never been properly practised internationally because the rich and powerful have never allowed either to be properly practised.

It has been suggested that when the Emperor Constantine de-criminalised Christianity in 313 and converted to it on his deathbed, and later in 380 when the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, that the faith became compromised. The rich and powerful could use it for their own purposes. After this, of course, the Church split in two between a Catholic west and an Orthodox east, and then during the Reformation there came into being countless new Protestant churches. Jesus the Miner speaks for no church and only speaks for himself and what he says is remarkably like the original Jesus.

Although the original Christian message may have been compromised there have been many followers in all traditions who have stayed true to that message. It was the former Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in north-eastern Brazil, Dom Helder Camara, who famously said, ‘When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.’

There were many priests and theologians in Latin America who developed what was known as liberation theology. Two of the most famous texts were ‘A Theology of Liberation’ (1971) by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez and ‘Jesus Christ Liberator’ (1972) by Leonardo Boff OFM. Liberation theology was all about bringing ‘good news to the poor’ again, as Jesus had originally intended. Jesus the Miner would surely approve of them.

With the arrival of Pope John Paul II, such theologies and practices were frowned upon. Under the tutelage of Cardinal Ratzinger from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an Instruction went out against the practise of liberation theology called ‘Libertatis Nuntius’ in 1984. This was followed up by a Papal visit to parts of Latin America and a finger-waving Pontiff was shown on the BBC news telling off Boff in Brazil, and the poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal who had joined the first Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The reason this was shown was because this was a Pope fiercely opposed to socialism and maybe this was why the media seemed to warm to him.

After the death of John Paul II the new Pope was Benedict XVI – the former Cardinal Ratzinger. He has since resigned, and it was widely believed that he did so because he could not deal with the corruption inside the Curia, along with all the extensive cover-ups of clerical abuse now being exposed internationally. It has been left to Francis I to deal with this.

Capitalism is the dung of the Devil

Pope Francis would have personally known of liberation priests who were murdered in Argentina by the junta there, for serving the poor. He may well have met Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by El Salvadorean death squads in their fight against leftists in 1980. While Romero was not a liberation theologian, he was on the side of the poor, and he spoke out against their poverty and social injustice. Pope Francis has called capitalism ‘the dung of the Devil.’ He wants bridges rather than walls built between peoples, and wishes migrants fleeing poverty and war to be treated with love and compassion. Jesus the Miner would like the sound of that.

What he may not like the sound of is the new theology that has spread into Latin America from the United States. The gap opened up by Libertatis Nuntius has enabled Protestant Evangelicals proclaiming what is known as ‘prosperity theology’ to make inroads in a continent that was once largely Catholic. Their Christian fundamentalist influence has helped secure the Presidency of Bolsonaro in Brazil.

According to Mary Fitzgerald’s recent article in ‘openDemocracy’ (24 May 2019) over $50 million in ‘dark money’ has come into Europe from American religious conservative groups associated with Trump in the last decade. This money has funded campaigns that are dear to the far right, such as ending LGBTI rights, and ending the reproductive rights of women, as well as securing Europe from ‘Muslim invaders.’

This rhetoric has also railed against EU elites and has led to a fair crop of far-right representation at the recent EU elections. Steve Bannon, in his base at the Certosa di Trissulti monastery – a two hour drive south-east of Rome – has declared that Pope Francis is the enemy because of his mission for the poor and for his support of migrants. Religion has always been disfigured by the rich, powerful and unaccountable, with agendas that use religion for their own self-aggrandising political and economic ends. And any national populist turn in Britain or in Europe as a whole will simply continue that age-old exploitation.

King Coal scourges Jesus 2

He pushed brillo pads doun Grandi's lungs

In Station 5 of Hershaw’s poem, we hear about the terrible things done to miners and their families by King Coal. We are told he was a ‘spine-snapper, baa (testicle) – squeezer…..bairn-beater…..compensation-refuser..…match-fixer..…inquest-wrangler…..sulfur-choker…..telegram-bringer.’ In a grim reminder of what the miner’s life was like, we are told King Coal ‘pushed brillo pads doun Grandi’s lungs.’ All the horrible respiratory diseases are contained in this image. King Coal ‘mashed up our ambitions intae potted hough…he’d hypnotised us no tae believe in futures.’

These are real sentiments that must have been held by many a miner down the years but what did hold them together was their solidarity with one another. To survive down in the bowels of the earth you needed that solidarity with your fellow workers. It got you through your shift, and when you came up to the surface that solidarity was still there. This solidarity was also supported and strengthened by the National Union of Miners.

In 1973 the NUM paid for a bus of Chilean refugees fleeing from the scourges of Pinochet’s regime, a regime supported by the US to try out the new shock therapy of monetarist economics. The bus travelled from London to Cowdenbeath where the refugees would be housed. Thousands of miles from their homeland, the Chileans saw and heard the pipers playing and marching them to their new homes. Their homes had toys for the children, blankets on their beds and warm coal fires burning as they entered their new houses.

Here was room at the inn, true Christian charity of the most generous: here was international working-class solidarity at its finest. And this charity, this solidarity was delivered by a group of workers who, like the ‘anawim’ of the ancient world, were looked down upon and reviled by the rich for challenging their rule.

Today, this inspiring recollection is all the more sad, because last year in Cowdenbeath where King Coal is now absent, a Boyne ‘celebration’ was held by the Orange Order, addressed by Arlene Foster of the DUP. This event was the antithesis of what this area once represented. The CP within the NUM had successfully challenged the blight of sectarianism that seeks to divide workers. While our environmental consciousness today would not condone coal mining, the great loss of working-class solidarity is still something to be lamented.

The solidarity of all who are oppressed

Unlawfully jailed, victimised and blacklisted it is ‘The Wummen o the Soup Kitchen’ (Station 8) who ‘kept saul and body thegither’ for Jesus the Miner. By mentioning these women Hershaw does not merely conjure up the followers in the Gospel accounts who were women – his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute, being among his most faithful followers – he also helps us to recall the incredible contribution miners’ wives made during the 84-85 strike. Their activism and sacrifice was phenomenal. And just as those with power and wealth seek to divide worker from worker so they also try to do the same between men and women. It is the solidarity of all those who are oppressed that they fear most and that is why they must be divided.

womens support

The wummen o the soup kitchen kept saul/And body thegither syne

‘The Wummen o the Soup Kitchen’ were the heroines who had ‘smiles and faith/ And breid (bread) and soup they biggit (built-up) better men.’ Jesus the Miner had sought their help after he was ‘blacklistit fae ilka (every) pit in Fife.’ This was because, after the Great War, he had said in 1921,’This is nae land for heroes comin hame.’ He had told the ‘dochters (daughters) o the coalfield ‘greet nae for me’ (don’t cry for me) but ‘mourn for yersels, and for yer stervan bairns’ (starving children). Here he aligns himself with the poor and this was natural for him because he too is poor and made poor by those in power.

The painful route Christ took walking the Via Doloroso is cleverly paralleled as Jesus the Miner seeks to come to the aid of his fellow miners trapped down in a mine shaft. While he manages to ‘bring thaim tae the surface’ he found there was ‘nae hamewird passage up’ for himself. He writes a last message with a piece of chalk onto a wall of coal, and it is written for ‘wee Jockie.’ He asks him ‘tae tak care o ma Mither’ and ‘to luik out for our dear comrades’ and to ‘screive (write) doun our gospel tale.’

The use of the word ‘comrades’ here is interesting. The word is usually used on the left to suggest not just friendship but a brotherly or sisterly recognition that both parties are engaged in the greatest challenge of all and that is the liberation of mankind. The spiritual struggle and the political one are inexorably linked here as Jesus the Miner writes this word on the wall.

the good thief

You are fogien. This Setturday nicht, I trow/You'll dance wi your Jean upby in the Goth

By way of re-assuring ‘The Guid Thief o the Lindsay Pit’ (Station 11) that, despite his foolishness in lighting up a ‘sleekit (sly) Woodbine’ that ‘blew aa Kelty up’ and killed and maimed many miners, Jesus tells him, ‘You’ll dance wi your Jean upby in the Goth …this Satturday nicht.’ However, this hope seems dashed as the pit props were made of cheap timber and ‘the ruif (roof) came doun on tap o Jesus back.’

And remarkably, echoing the historical crucifixion of Christ, Jesus the Miner trapped underneath timber, pit props and stones ‘lay there greetan (crying) in the daurk/Whiles bluid and watter skailt (spilled) fae out his side.’ And he said seven words – ‘Oh faither, why has thou forsaken me?’

Many miners have died this way, but Jesus the Miner is clearly no ordinary miner. He represents all miners, he represents the NUM and he represents the broader working class itself. The destruction of this industry, prepared well in advance by Ridley and Thatcher, was designed to smash not just an industry and an irritant union, but to put the working class back in their place. This brutal event has given the ruling class the rotten fruits of foodbanks, zero-hours contracts, non-unionised workplaces, Universal Credit, rising homelessness and a hundred other rotten fruits besides. It could be said that the Crucifixion of Jesus the Miner is in fact the Crucifixion of the working class.

laid in the tomb

The Inquiry found 'mistakes had been made'......The Pit was closed in 1910.

As Jesus languishes at the bottom of a shaft this becomes his tomb. Station 13 ‘Laid in a Tomb’ is the only poem throughout the sequence that is written in English. The expressive and effusive use of Scots is banished in favour of the colder and more callous use of English that can hide its deeds behind the words it uses. All the governmental buzzwords are here in this short poem – ‘mistakes had been made’……‘further recommendations’……‘future improvements’……‘no individual was deemed to blame for the accident’……‘due to the financial outlay’……‘geological difficulties’……‘too dangerous to reclaim the body.’

Thousands of miners’ wives have read such letters after fatal accidents concerning their husbands. The language used here from the inquiry is the language of power. It is a language that anaesthetises thought for a while, as the bureaucratic register deliberately obfuscates where culpability really lies. It brings to mind Hillsborough, the Bogside and Grenfell.

Blessit are thaim wi a drouth for richt

In ‘The Ballant o the Miner Christ’ (Station 14) Jesus has now become Christ because he has ‘maistered Daith.’ Hershaw tells us here, ‘This tale’s a baur (joke), a comedy.’ There is no need for tears. Instead, because Jesus mastered death ‘Let fowk (folk) get fou (drunk), let aa rejoice.’

In ‘Apocrypha 2: Efter Hours’ it is fitting that Jesus should turn up in the Goth and meet with Tam. Jesus tells him it is ‘Nae miracle – ye hinnae seen a ghaist.’ Cleverly too Hershaw has Jesus tell Tam that he is not in any hereafter but in ‘the here and nou (now).’ And what needs to be done ‘here and nou’ is what should always have been done before – ‘Let our leid (language) aye be love.’ Again, Hershaw has taken us to the essence of the Christian message in all its utter simplicity.

In ‘Spare me nae Beatitudes’ there are two lines that seem to represent what is at the heart of ‘The Sair Road’ – ‘Blessit are thaim wi a drouth (thirst) for richt: They will get unco fou.’ The demand for ‘richt’ is not really a demand for right and certainly not a demand for righteousness but a demand for justice, for social justice.

As a result of the demise of the mining industry and the subsequent attacks on the working class as a whole, former mining areas – like many other de-industrialised areas – are now full of ‘smack-heids’, ‘junkies,’ ‘drunkarts,’ ‘jaikies,’ ‘hameless,’ and ‘gangrels’ (beggars). They have all fallen through the pit shafts of social and personal disintegration.

But this ‘sair road’ that all the casualties have to follow – and because of our existential condition as social beings, we are all casualties – will find justice and redemption one day. Effectively, the resurrection of Jesus the Miner is the hoped-for resurrection of the working classes. They have been, and still are, walking ‘the sair road’ but there is no reason to say that they will keep walking this road. They may see the light and climb the mountain to their eventual redemption. It should be ‘here and nou’ but it will come nonetheless. Many genuine socialists and true Christians believe this.

Or to put it another way it is similar to Antonio Gramsci’s formulation of ‘The pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.’ Beckett’s work illustrates how we all walk the same ‘sair road,’ the same existential road, aimlessly groping our way in the dark. Unlike George Osborne’s ‘we are all in this together’ when he can protect himself with his wealth from life’s adversities, ‘the sair road’ offers no protection for those with money. Along ‘the sair road’ we truly are in this all together. Or as the old adage has it – you can’t take it with you.

In the final poem ‘Isaiah 2:2-6’ there is the hope and the promise of ‘paice for ivirmair’ (peace for evermore) when our guns will be ‘wrocht (turned) intil ploushares.’ This is a fitting conclusion to ‘The Sair Road.’

Love, death, religion and revolution

The collection raises many issues and implications. It was a brave decision by Hershaw to write it and to write it in Scots. The use of Scots actually makes the poem all the more credible because to write on a subject like this in English would be to draw forth issues concerning the words Jesus the Miner uses. Would he have to talk as he does in the Gospels? How would he sound among Fife miners if he spoke English? What kind of accent would he have? The use of Scots makes Jesus the Miner exactly like everyone else. There is no difference in accent and therefore no class division either. Hershaw chose Scots well in ‘The Sair Road.’

If Hershaw’s choice of Scots was a good one then his decision to show that Jesus the Miner ‘has little time for organised religion’ was an even better one. The most obvious point here is that organised religion – especially in the West (though not the USA) is in decline. There is also a widespread revulsion against the growing number of cases coming to light of clerical sexual abuse. This is particularly true of the Catholic Church. By keeping Jesus the Miner away from any notional sense of church involvement, Hershaw avoids any taint of denominational preference or having to defend such a preference.

‘The Sair Road’, however, raises many issues that have had a past debate and continue to be discussed today. It was Dostoyevsky in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ (1879-80) who has Ivan Karamazov tell the tale of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Christ returned to earth, he says, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in Seville. The local people recognised him and gather round Seville Cathedral to welcome him. Inquisitors eventually arrest him and Christ is told by the Grand Inquisitor that the church has no need of him today. Christ is to be burned at the stake but during the night before this is to take place, the Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell. Christ listens to him without speaking himself. The Grand Inquisitor then decides to allow Christ to leave ‘into the dark alleys of the city.’

Christ had been condemned by the Inquisition for giving us all the freedom to walk ‘the sair road’ with all that implies for us. The Church, maintained the Grand Inquisitor, kept everyone happy by taking away their freedom. Jesus the Miner, like all miners and all workers, chooses ‘the sair road’ which ultimately brings resurrection and redemption. And just as the ordinary people in Seville recognised and loved Christ, so too the ordinary miners and their families have taken Jesus the Miner to their hearts.

There is also a well-known sketch by the Irish comedian, Dave Allen, that similarly deals with this conflict between Christ and the Church that claims to carry his message. As reverential music is being played while the Three Wise Men look down upon the baby Jesus in his crib, a rush of fervent Irish nuns appear and take hold of the child saying, ‘Well now, we will just be making sure that he is brought up the right way.’

In one of Terry Eagleton’s recent books ‘Radical Sacrifice’ (2018) we can find something akin to the idea inherent in ‘The Sair Road’. Eagleton’s work over many decades has been inspired by Marxism in his work on literary criticism and cultural theory, yet his Marxism also shows a debt to his earlier Catholicism. Thomas Docherty in his ‘Literature and Capital’ (2018) talks of Eagleton’s ‘quasi- religious turn’ and it could be that such a ‘turn’ maybe only became apparent after the publication of ‘After Theory’ (2003). This study sought to re-invigorate the left by saying that the age of theory is surely over now. In attacking the postmodernists who claimed that the era of what they called ‘meta-narratives’ was over – ie religious systems, philosophical systems and political ones like communism – Eagleton claimed that they made little mention of the most dangerous ‘meta-narrative’ of all that is capitalism.

He argued that it was time to cast aside the empty relativism of the postmodernists and to re-engage with the big issues all over again. He could well have been saying that ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ For him the big issues meant love, evil, death, morality, metaphysics, religion and revolution. Marx, it should be remembered, said something similar – ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.’ Eagleton would support this comment, but would add a caustic comment of his own saying that the postmodernists have not really interpreted very much.

‘Radical Sacrifice’ looks at the role of the ‘scapegoat’ in both primitive and modern societies. Jesus was a scapegoat in his time as were his followers. Creating scapegoats enables the status quo to remain the status quo. The miners in 84-85 were the scapegoats and today it is Muslims and migrants. Both ‘Radical Sacrifice’ and ‘The Sair Road’ seek to re-engage with issues of love, death, religion and revolution.

Similarly, some of the recent work by Marxists who profess their atheism nonetheless offer penetrating insights into the revolutionary potential of early religion. Alain Badiou in 1997 brought out ‘Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism’. Badiou considers St Paul to have been a profoundly original thinker who still has the revolutionary potential to inspire in the 21st century. It should be remembered that Paul was the one who took the message of Christ across the ancient world and helped set up the first Christian communities. He lived an impoverished life himself. He was Christianity’s first theologian if you like.

One of his deepest insights was to say in Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Here is the principle of Christian egalitarianism which ended slavery in the ancient world. It did so through love, through the unconditional love of others. Such a principle is not a million miles away from ‘The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. Workers of the world unite.’ That unity is required more now than ever before.

Slavoj Žižek has engaged in recent years in dialogues on faith in ‘The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?’ (2009) with John Milbank and in ‘God in Pain’ (2012) with Boris Gunjevic. Both texts discuss faith in the 21st century and dissect its revolutionary potential. This places ‘The Sair Road’ in extremely good company. The ongoing catastrophe that is capitalism should make us think deeper than ever before. To go forward you must always check the past by digging deeper into it than ever before also.

the sodgers played at pitch and toss 2

The sodgers played at pitch and toss,
Hey caw through, though doul the daw,
Wi Jesus nailed attour the Cross.
His love rules aa!

The final word on this remarkable book should go not to Hershaw but to his wonderful illustrator Les McConnell. His drawings do more than illustrate the meanings of the poem, they extend and enhance them, providing a fine accompaniment to the fine ‘The Sair Road.’ His drawings that accompany the text are sensitively rendered and enhance the poem tremendously well. They bring out both the detailed particularity of the scenes depicted, and the more abstract connections being imagined in the poem between Jesus’ revolutionary message and the struggle of the miners and the working class as a whole for economic, political and spiritual liberation – the communist dream of a society where 'love rules aa!'


The Sair Road by William Hershaw, illustrated by Les McConnell, is published by Grace Note Publications, price £20.

Ach well, all livin language is sacred: the Glasgow voice of Tom Leonard
Thursday, 10 January 2019 21:42

Ach well, all livin language is sacred: the Glasgow voice of Tom Leonard

Published in Poetry

Jim Aitken presents an appreciation of the language, politics and class anger of Tom Leonard, and Peter Clive has contributed a poem about him, placed at the end of Jim's essay.

Today we think of literature as providing inexhaustible forms and of language as being incredibly versatile and varied – as multi-layered and as multi-faceted as any other art form. To try and impose any literary prescription today to the novel, to poetry or to drama would not be to incur wrath but nothing more than a passing sense of incredulity and then dismissal. That is how far we have travelled. Yet this was not always the case. Literary prescription had been real and had to be faced down. The revolt came from below, from voices previously considered unworthy at best and as uncouth at their worst.

These new voices though were not actually new – they just hadn’t been widely heard before. They were voices that had always existed but had been marginalised and considered amusing, like in Stanley Baxter’s ‘Parliamo Glasgow.’

It was the inventiveness with form that blew off the dust that had settled on what Tom Leonard called ‘the canon’ of English and Scottish literature. This was the literature deemed worthy by a ruling class that liked to read stories and poems and watch plays that seemed to elevate the status they felt they had. This attitude has not gone away if we consider how works like ‘Downton Abbey’ by Julian Fellowes have managed to resurrect that sense of the classes who knew their place and knew why those with wealth were better than they were. It was not just wealth that divided people though, it was also about the possession of the dominant register, the correct pronunciation, the better diction and therefore the much better accent of mind.

What Tom Leonard sought to do was to extend the range of literature that was available by adding ignored voices and new forms for those voices to be heard. His voice and his accent of mind was rooted in the Glasgow where he was born in 1944. He was also born into the immigrant Irish community that had settled in Glasgow and throughout the Central Belt of Scotland in large numbers after the Famine of the 1840s.

Usually this aspect of Tom’s life is passed over. It is noted but not addressed in any depth, despite the fact that a fifth of Scotland’s population is descended from Irish immigrants. It is in fact Scotland’s largest minority group and the one that has produced the comedians Billy Connolly and Frankie Boyle, the writers Arthur Conan Doyle, William McIlvanney and Andrew O’Hagan, the actor Sean Connery, musicians and singers like Gerry Rafferty, Claire Grogan, Maggie Reilly and Eddi Reader, the artist John Byrne and so many more besides.

This immigrant community has also provided countless doctors, lawyers and teachers as well as MSPs and MPs and the country’s leading historian, Tom Devine, who also doubles up as the nation’s foremost public intellectual. However, although there are these undoubted successes there remain a disproportionate number of people from this community who are in jail and who are homeless or living in poverty. This is rarely said.

Tom’s father had come from Dublin to Glasgow in 1916, the year in which James Connolly (from Edinburgh) played the leading role in the Easter Rising in Dublin’s GPO. Being from an Irish Catholic background in a Scotland that had rejected Catholicism nearly 400 years earlier was not an easy place in which to practise that faith. Scotland had adopted a muscular form of Presbyterianism that was fiercely anti-Catholic. It was also under the impression that the Irish Catholics landing in Scotland were somehow racially inferior to themselves, the native Scottish Protestants. Ridiculous as this may seem, given that the Scots came from Ireland in the 6th century and Scotland was a mongrel nation descended from Romans, Vikings and Normans along with Celts like the Picts, Scots and Brythonic Welsh, this view was supported by the Church of Scotland at the time. In a report to their General Assembly in 1923 – for which they have since apologised – they claimed that the Irish were both ‘alien’ and a ‘menace.’

Screen Shot 2018 01 14 at 091808

The 1920s and 30s – the era immediately preceding Tom Leonard’s birth – was a time in Glasgow of razor gangs like the Billy Boys of Bridgeton, led by their racist and fascist General Strike strike-breaker Billy Fullerton, the most notorious. The novel ‘No Mean City’ (1935) by MacArthur and Long recalls the brutality of these times. Sadly, to this day fans of Rangers still sing about the Billy Boys ‘up to our knees in Fenian blood’ showing that, although Scotland is largely a secular society today, there remain undercurrents of deep-seated bigotry.

In 1920, co-incidentally the same year in which the CPGB had formed with a large number of recruits from both side of the religious divide, with Arthur McManus being the first Chairman of the party, a Greenock man and former seminarian, the Scottish Protestant League was formed in Glasgow. In Edinburgh, 40 miles along the M8, the Protestant Action Society was formed in 1933. Both these groups stood at council elections and had members elected. The members of these groups along with the Orange Order were the real ‘menace’ to the impecunious Irish immigrants.

The interwar years show a deeply intolerant Scottish society that also had a strong trade union and Labour movement. It was a nation at pains to redefine itself after the First World War and the mass emigration of so many of its people. From 1920-9 some 363,000 Scots left for Canada and the US. In 1923 John MacLean formed the Scottish Workers Republican Party, Scotland’s first pro-independence and pro-republican party. The National Party of Scotland was formed in 1928, and later merged with the Scottish Party (1932), a group of disaffected Tories and Unionists who sought for Scotland to seek dominion status in the empire, in 1934.

This was the political culture Tom’s parents lived through before his birth. Their community had found themselves in what the writer Patrick McGill called ‘the black country with the cold heart.’ It was this immigrant community who would provide the muscle of the industrial revolution. Tom Leonard’s father was a train driver and his mother had worked at the Nobel dynamite factory in Ardeer. He was born into a country still at war overseas, and still at war with itself at home.

Long before Bill Clinton and Tony Blair believed that they had thought up the concept of ’triangulation,’ the Scottish Catholic Church had been practising this ever since the Scottish Education Act of 1918 had granted the Catholic Church control of its own state-funded schools. This form of triangulation was based on the home, the church and the school. This was seen as the solution to the hostile environment they found themselves in.

The Catholic Church was now largely made up of Irish immigrants and their descendants, though there was a Scottish-Italian community and a Polish and Lithuanian community. There were also pockets of Scottish Catholics from areas of the Highlands and Islands the Reformation had failed to reach. Many of these people came south to find work in Glasgow and to this day Glasgow remains the highest Gaelic-speaking area outside of Ireland.

Tom would recall his father saying his prayers in the kitchen before he set off to start his shift. This devotional piety his father had inherited from the influence left by Ireland’s first Cardinal, Cardinal Cullen, who had died in 1878, the same year that saw the Scottish Catholic hierarchy restored. Cullen viewed the Scottish Church as an Irish outpost and sent over Irish priests to administer there. And it was not until the Second Vatican Council of 1965 that the Mass changed from Latin into vernacular tongues, and the priest face his congregation. All this is important to stress because it sets the scene of what it was like to be born into an Irish-Catholic family in 1944. This was their dominant culture and it co-existed alongside a Scottish Protestantism that saw itself as superior to the backward beliefs of the Irish immigrants.


The key literary figure of the years before – and for several decades after – Leonard’s birth, was Hugh MacDiarmid. He was the champion of the Scottish literary renaissance and he hoped to do for Scotland what Yeats had done for Ireland. Yeats, an Anglo-Irishman, helped to ignite a national consciousness in Ireland by writing about long-neglected Irish themes from its mythological canon of the past. He also founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1899 and this would enable a whole new generation of writers to stage plays on Irish themes and issues. This literary revival fed into a political consciousness that led directly to the Easter Rising, and eventual Irish independence. MacDiarmid hoped that his literary revival would sever the terms of the Union of 1707.

MacDiarmid had renounced any religious belief and embraced instead both nationalism and communism. In this he was following in the traditions of James Connolly and John MacLean who had found their nationalism complemented by their socialism. MacDiarmid believed that Scotland had become a laughing-stock nation with cultural icons like Harry Lauder and the Sunday Post, along with the Kailyard School of writing and a general cringe within the people as a whole. While England may have been happy with this, MacDiarmid believed that it was the influence of union with England that had created this.

In contrast to George Malcolm Fraser, one of Scotland’s leading journalists and writers at the time, saying that the Irish presence would destroy Scotland from within and lead her back to Rome, MacDiarmid welcomed Irish immigration into Scotland. For him the Irish presence in Scotland was welcome precisely because it was Catholic. Culture had flourished in pre-Reformation Scotland and would do so again.

In the poem ‘A Vision of Scotland’ in his 1967 collection ‘A Lap of Honour’ MacDiarmid is perfectly at ease with what has emerged in Scotland and what will further emerge:

Even in the streets of Glasgow or Dundee,
She throws her head-square off and a mass
Of authentic flaxen hair is revealed,
Fine-spun as newly-retted fibres
On a sunlit Irish bleaching field.

These conflicting narratives are the ones young Tom encountered. Added to this, Scotland was also part of a Britannia that was still ruling the waves. He would have realised rather quickly what being Catholic with an Irish background was like. It was a hostile environment for his kind. However, he would have found a celebration of his cultural background attending Parkhead to watch Celtic, who were formed in 1888 after playing a charity match with Hibernian, Scotland’s first Irish club, to raise funds for the poor of the East End.

At about the age of 12 or 13, Tom was sexually attacked by a 30 year old man on his way to Calderpark zoo. This event is pivotal because it not only traumatised the young boy, it estranged him from the church into which he had been born. This has all been written about by Leonard himself in ‘A Taboo Too Far’, written for the magazine ‘Conscience’ in 2005 and published again in his ‘Definite Articles’ in 2013.

The incident must have happened around 1956-7 and Leonard recalled how he asked his perpetrator – who claimed also to have been Catholic – that he should promise to go to confession that night, go to communion the following day, and never attack anyone ever again. He would do the same himself. Tom’s innocent faith had shown responsibility towards his abuser but when he went to confession the priest had asked him, ‘Did you let him?’ Leonard recalls replying with a confused ‘yes.’ When asked by his parish priest if he had told the police about this, Leonard had said he had not. Tom was given ‘a bigger penance than I had ever received in my life before.’

In ‘A Taboo Too Far’ Tom had explored the Church’s veneration of sexual purity throughout its history as emblematic of its failure to address such cases of abuse. It is also an interesting fact that Cardinal Cullen himself had taken part in the theological debates that eventually produced the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

Tom never told his parents what had happened to him and they both died not knowing. The authority of the church in his life was blown asunder and any authority of any kind would now be viewed with deep suspicion. In a matter of a few years after this event Tom had left the Church for good, failed by an authority he had held dear but that had failed him utterly. His world had been turned upside down, and in the poem ‘Remembrance Day’, first published in ‘Being a Human Being’ in 2006, Tom recalls what happened to him almost ‘fifty years ago’:

I know what it is
to be powerless

I know what it is
to be made to lie low

while the unknown enemy
invades you…..

how I hate

fucking violence.

While individuals can and do overcome terrible experiences, those experiences always remain part of their life’s story. It was the solace of listening to classical music on Radio 3 that gave him a space for reflection, and this too was outside the narrative of most working-class lives. Around ‘about 16’ a friend showed him an ‘external exam for entrance to somewhere or other.’ On it was Stephen Spender’s poem ‘The Express’ which began:

After the first powerful plain manifesto,
the black statement of pistons,
without more fuss, but gliding like a queen.

This was a poem about a steam engine leaving the station and Leonard became ‘hooked on the music of it’ to such an extent ‘it was to be poetry that I wanted to write.’ He recalls this in a prose piece from ‘Definite Articles’ writing about his father.

In 1967 Leonard attended Glasgow University to study for a degree in English and Scottish literature. He left after two years and this is where his poem ‘The Dropout’ must date from:

well jist take a lookit yirsell
naithur wurk nur wahnt
aw aye

yir clivir
dam clivir
but yi huvny a clue whatyir dayn

He returned to complete his degree in the 1970s. The figure of Philip Hobsbaum, a lecturer there, seems highly significant. He came from a Polish-Jewish background in London and was an outsider like Leonard himself. Previously he had been at Queen’s University in Belfast and presided over what came to be known as the Belfast Group of writers, which included the emerging talents of Seamus Heaney, John Bond, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Bernard MacLaverty.

In Glasgow Hobsbaum created a Glasgow Group that included Tom, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, Jeff Torrington, Aonghas MacNeacail and Jim Kelman. When you consider the diversity of literary material all these writers went on to produce you have to ask what it was that Hobsbaum said to them all. I can only imagine that it must have been something like ‘Find your voice and find forms and styles that suit it.’

This was an era when experimentation was very much in vogue and notions of ‘high art’ were being challenged in all the arts. Leonard had read ‘The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (1940)’ edited by Hugh MacDiarmid, and found MacDiarmid’s early lyrics a source of great interest. However, his use of Lallans or synthetic Scots was not the voice Leonard heard inside himself. His voice was the voice of Glasgow, the voice of the people he grew up with and lived with still. The voices he heard, with their distinctive vowel sounds and the patterns of words that seemed to fuse into one another, were not the voices of any art. Was what he heard badly spoken English? Surely not, was his inner reply.

In a class-ridden society like Britain you are defined by a whole host of things – the school you attended, where you live, your parental lineage, your occupation, the way you speak and the sound of your voice. There can be nothing more political than language, and it would be through the medium of language, his language, that he would challenge the very nature of the state itself. He was keenly aware of how this would collide with the literary authorities and establishments in both Scotland and England. His poems would take such authorities on.

David Pollock, in his Obituary of Tom on 27 December 2018 in ‘The Herald’, said that the poem ‘The Six o’clock News’ was ‘his most widely known and celebrated work’ and most commentators seem to agree with this assessment. It is certainly important but there are many other poems that are equally celebrated, and it is his work as a whole that should be celebrated. Too many critics accept ‘The Six o’clock News’ as a poem that is safe to talk about now because it seems to have come into its own, and praise this poem while ignoring the issues he raises in so many others.

In the poem Leonard imagines a BBC newsreader about to use his customary Received Pronunciation to deliver the news, but who breaks with the established norm to speak instead in Glasgow dialect:

thi reson
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff, if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo

You are how you sound, and how you sound too often means how you find your place in society. David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson – Etonians all of them – speak the language of power, the language of social superiority and the language that is their entitlement to rule. That alone is their ‘trooth’ according to Leonard and by giving voice to a marginalised dialect he challenges this state of unequal affairs.

In one of his ‘Ghostie Men’ poems he broods again on this familiar theme:

right inuff
ma language is disgraceful

ma maw tellt mi
ma teacher tellt mi
thi doactir tellt mi
thi priest telly mi

jist aboot ivry book ah oapnd tellt mi
even the introduction tay thi Scottish National Dictionary tellt mi

ach well
all livin language is sacred
fuck the lohta thim

This is not just the voice of the voiceless in a class- divided society, it is a cry of defiance against the stupidity that denigrates the sacred nature of all language wherever it is spoken. The last line of the poem seems to confirm exactly what he thinks of all linguistic authority.

Voice is a signifier of class. And how you talk – or should talk – is not just reinforced by the BBC newsreader and in the media more generally, it is also rammed home in the school. This is a particularly tetchy subject for Scots. In the late 18th century the two most popular books among the Edinburgh literati at one time were Burns’ poems and a book on English elocution. This is another aspect of Scotland’s split identity. Union with England meant the primacy of English, and the use of Scots gradually became associated with the language spoken by the uncouth working classes. It is not so long ago that Scottish school children could be belted by their teacher for using words like ‘aye’ or ‘naw.’ It is, Leonard perceives, the education system itself that is responsible for imposing what he calls ‘a hierarchical diction’ and the English lesson would seem to be where this is most prevalent.

In another poem from ‘Ghostie Men’ he imagines a writer having to appear in court:

would thi prisoner
in thi bar
please stand

fur the aforesaid crime
uv writin anuthir poem

This poet though is to be tried by Leonard himself because the anonymous poem by the anonymous poet was –

awarded thi certificate of safety
by thi Scottish education department

fit tay be used in schools
huvn no bad language
sex subversion or antireligion

This is Leonard showing his displeasure at the increasing level of prescription that came into teaching in general and in the teaching of English more particularly. He would have been fully versed on this by his wife Sonya, who taught English in a secondary school in Glasgow, and by his own children too. Standard Grade English, later replaced by National Levels of Qualification and Higher English all had set authors with set poems handed down to the schools from the Scottish Qualifications Authority. This poem satirises such an authority for its intellectual cowardice and conformity. Any poem deemed worthy by such an authority or any poet considered acceptable to that authority should be tried in court:

I hereby sentence you
tay six months hard labour
doon thi poetry section
uv yir local library
coontn thi fuckin metaphors

The sentence he hands down here is for the utterly sterile way that poetry is taught in school. Leonard sought consistently to free the teaching of poetry from the straitjacket of analysis – an analysis to be recalled for the purpose of passing an examination. He wrote at length on this subject in his introduction to ‘Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to the First World War,’ published in 1990. In it he points out that ‘the connection between poetry and school has been the problem.’ He goes on then to state the elements responsible –

1. A real poem is one that an English teacher would approve for use in an English class
2. A real poem requires some explanation and guidance as to the interpretation, by an English teacher
3. The best poems are set in exams.

While there is much truth in what he says here, I feel he is also being a bit tough on English teachers like Sonya – and many others – who would regularly introduce other materials of a less conformist nature including some of his own poems for use in class. Nevertheless, this would be for the odd period here and there and not for preparation for the ultimately more ‘important’ exam.

If Glasgow dialect is ‘the langwij a thi guhtr’ by implication the regional dialects of Newcastle, Sheffield and Liverpool are also languages ‘a thi guhtr.’ Leonard’s campaigning Glasgow dialect poetry assumes that all regional dialects deserve equal status because, as he says in ‘Unrelated Incident 1’ – ‘the langwij a thi intellects Inglish.’ This is partly what made the Irish neglect their own culture and the same has been true of Scotland.

MacDiarmid may have brought about a literary revival in Scotland by challenging this attitude, but many would agree that he did this best in his earlier poetry. His later poetry was essentially prosody and encyclopaedic prosody at that. And MacDiarmid was the leading authority on its merits and you had to agree with him because he knew much more than you did. In some respects his own work was to be seen as a literary canon in its own right – especially by him. This was a form of elitism screaming out to be taken on and Leonard did just that, criticising ‘the culturally elitist attitudes of his work.’

This needed to be said because MacDiarmid, although his significance cannot be overestimated, had become ‘the’ literary authority to be knocked down. In an essay on ‘Edwin Muir’, Leonard noted ‘MacDiarmid’s sometime insistently hectoring sense of his own colonising importance.’ Language should be used to challenge what is around us but it is there for all to use, however they may express themselves. It must not be fitted into whatever grand scheme there is that comes along to lie like the dead stones MacDiarmid wrote about on a raised beach off Shetland. Language must have room to breathe and to be able to freely express itself. That is why spelling and grammar can also constrict expression. Such things as literary authorities, qualification authorities and the rules that abound in the English language itself should be seen as disempowering the many while at the same time entrenching the power of the few, the elites who enforce the rules, linguistic or otherwise.

Language is a political business and Leonard made it his business to not only begin debate around this, but to give voice to the marginalised Glaswegians he lived among. They would be heard as he would himself. Their humanity would shine through their many difficulties. And they would shine through with their distinctive humour. The poem ‘The Voyeur’ captures this humour in the way that most Scots use the word ‘wee.’ Leonard invites his countrymen and women to laugh at themselves:

what’s your favourite word dearie
is it wee
I hope it’s wee
wee’s such a nice wee word
like a wee hairy dog
with two wee eyes….
a great wee word
and Scottish
it makes you proud

Humour and irony combine well here and a poem like this one does as much as the lexicography of MacDiarmid’s later writing to keep us on guard against the kitsch renderings of Scottishness that had been so damaging in the past. Leonard seems to share the same sense of humour here as others from his community. I think of people like Matt McGinn and his song ‘The Big Effen Bee’, of Billy Connolly and Frankie Boyle who all share in the love of the absurd, the ridiculous and the irreverent. A nation that can laugh at itself is usually a healthy one.

Leonard also undertook the writing of a partly fictionalised biography of the Scottish writer James Thomson. Thomson had taken the pseudonym ‘BV’ which stood for Bysshe Vanolis, the Bysshe being Shelley’s middle name and Vanolis an anagram of the German Romantic poet Novalis. Leonard described his book as ‘a shape, containing a biography, made slowly in response to the shape of the art of another.’

Tom had first read selections from Thomson’s famous poem ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ (1880) in ‘The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry’ and then read the poem with Edwin Morgan, his tutor at Glasgow University. Tom spent some sixteen years researching his subject. A section of Thomson’s famous poem had also been included in ‘Radical Renfrew’, which was an anthology of poets who had lived in Renfrewshire at some time or another, and Thomson was born in Port Glasgow in 1834. The title he gave to his years of research was ‘Places of the Mind’ and it was published in 1993.

What may have struck a chord with Leonard was that Thomson was very much outside the narrative during his era. His mother had been an admirer of the millenialist Edward Irving and when his merchant seaman father died the family moved to London. Within two years Thomson’s mother had died and he was sent to the Royal Caledonian Asylum for the children of indigent Scottish servicemen. He was educated there and at the Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea, and went on to join the army and to become a teacher. When he was posted to Ireland he met Charles Bradlaugh, a secular follower of the social reforms advocated by Robert Owen. Bradlaugh published Thomson’s poetry in his ‘National Reformer’ magazine.

Thomson’s ‘City of Dreadful Night’ was described by Herman Melville as ‘a modern Book of Job’ and its deep mood of pessimism pervades the poem throughout. Sometimes a writer can simply be compelled to go places he or she has to go, and while ‘Places of the Mind’ is a brilliant tour-de-force in biographical writing, the life and work of James Thomson must have struck Tom as deeply depressing – he died a lonely alcoholic in London in 1882. His great poem confronted the possibility that the universe is utterly indifferent to all our cares and emotions. It is a poem of deep-seated alienation and isolation; a poem of melancholy permeated with dark images and spiritual despair.

There are numerous Scots wandering aimlessly around London just now who feel exactly as Thomson did then. Leonard, at least, gave Thomson back his voice and his being in his book on him.
There was nothing new about being down and out in London. That has always been the case. Blake’s poem of the city a hundred years earlier than when Tomson was there spoke of seeing ‘in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe.’ What Leonard maybe had to go through himself in writing this book was to explore the places of his own mind and Thomson maybe enabled that for him.

Interestingly, there was another Thomson, one who spelled his surname with a p, who also lived rough on London’s streets in the 1880s. This was the Mancunian poet Francis Thompson who had become addicted to opium. He, however, was a Catholic and the similar horrors he encountered in London just like his Scottish counterpart at the time, had him being pursued by ‘The Hound of Heaven’. This poem, as disturbing like ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, is in certain respects the Catholic version of James Thomson’s poem. Many a Catholic who despairs or lapses in belief will forever be pursued by the hound of heaven while the non-Catholic in ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ may hear no such voice or senses no such presence.

I think Tom Leonard, who had left the Catholic Church, had to pursue other areas of illumination outside the usual narratives. Thomson was part of this, as was his fondness for the writings of the Danish theologian and philosopher Kierkegaard, who is today considered one of the father figures of existentialist thought. He too found himself outside the narrative of his own Danish Church and once came to the conclusion ‘I want to believe that I believe.’ In a short poem called ‘Kierkegaard’ Leonard acknowledges the influence of the Great Dane:

true to the place
of doubt

necessary: integrity
of purpose before all

Leonard had left the Church and while you can find religion being used subversively or ironically in his poetry, it could never be said that his poetry is anti-religious. A hound of heaven must have pursued him after he left the Church and I feel that this hound was tamed by him, held on a tight leash and told never to bark at him. One of his early Glasgow dialect poems called ‘The Good Thief’ is also known as ‘The Glasgow Crucifixion’ and, although it is subversive, it is certainly not anti-religious.

In it Leonard imagines Christ on the cross being spoken to by the Good Thief in a Glasgow voice. Christ is called Jimmy as is the habit of most people throughout central Scotland who ask someone they don’t know a question:

heh jimmy
yawright ih
stull wayiz urryi

hey jimmy
ma right insane yirra pape
ma right insane yirwanny us jimmy
see it nyir eyes
wanny uz

The Good Thief is being compared to a modern-day Celtic supporter on his way to Parkhead or to Paradise as it is nicknamed by the fans. Christ was, of course, heading to Paradise as well – ‘this day thou shalt be with me in paradise’ – but before he heads there he is considered ‘a pape.’

Leonard shows the utter stupidity that divides his fellow Glaswegians along sectarian lines. The construction of the word ‘insane’ for ‘in saying’ is repeated to expose how insane bigotry actually is.
As three o’clock nears – the time Christ was supposed to have died and the time of kick-off – it is getting dark:

dork init
good jobe they’ve gote thi lights

And the lights refer both to the stadium lights at Celtic Park and to the Resurrection. The poem, though irreverent, is certainly not ant-religious and there is reason enough to believe that it was written with the hound of heaven on a tight leash by his side.

When Leonard wrote about Celtic more generally his tone can go from the rapturous as in ‘Fireworks’:

up cumzthi wee man
beats three men
slingzowra cracker
an Lennox
aw yi wahntia seenim
cooliza queue cumbir

rightinthi riggin
poastij stamp

Here he is admiring something of great artistic beauty and all football fans everywhere will recognise this. The construction of ‘aw yi wahntia seenim’ stresses the extent of the appreciation for what Lennox has done and this is where Glasgow dialect can have a rhythm that is certainly engaging and distinctive.

In another poem ‘Yon Night’ this highly distinctive rhythm of sheer joy and emotion is found again. The poet has been watching Celtic play Leeds at the original Hampden where ‘a hunnerin thirty four thousan’ turned up to watch the game that Celtic won on the night. While the poet is loving what he is watching he is also saddened by a rejection earlier that day by a ‘wee burdma work’ and these conflicting emotions come together:

well there wuzza stonnin
ana wuz thaht happy
ana wuz thaht fed up
hoffa mi wuz greetnaboot Celtic
an hoffa mi wuz greetnaboot hur

There is an energetic rhythm to the language here. And it is achieved by the repetition of ‘ana wuz thaht,’ and ‘hoffa mi wuz greetnaboot.’ The fusing of the words ‘and I was that’ and ‘half of me was’ help to create this rhythm that simply would not work in conventional English. It is ridiculous to suggest that such a dialect is culturally inferior when it can create such an elevated pitch of emotion.

Not all Celtic matches, however, create this mood because in some matches there are referees to contend with who may be biased against Celtic, a long-held suspicion by Celtic fans. The poem ’Crack’ is a case in point. In this poem ‘a right big animull’ fouls ‘Dalgleesh’ and no penalty is awarded. When the Celtic captain McNeill complains to the referee ‘ootcumzthi book’ and McNeill is booked for his efforts. This is ‘tipicl’ for Leonard but not only is this unfairness at Celtic’s expense, it is also in essence ‘wan mair upfurthi luj’, the Orange or masonic variety that exists still to keep taigs like him – and by implication Celtic – in their place.

When Joyce was once asked if he left the Catholic Church to consider becoming a Protestant, he replied that he had not abandoned a logical absurdity in order to embrace an illogical one. Leonard similarly retains an outlook that is Joycean while still belonging to his band of Celtic supporters – be they believers or not.

It would be acceptable for Leonard to be considered a man of the Left. Politically he was never on the Right but he would still insist on eluding any political categorisation further than that. Certainly his collection of prose ‘Satires and Profanities’ (1984) had been sponsored by the STUC and the proceeds from the sale went to support a miners’ strike fund of the time. He also campaigned with activists around the time when Glasgow was made European City of Culture in 1990 against an area of the city centre being turned into the Merchants' City. Leonard and others, including James Kelman, formed ‘Workers' City’ in opposition to this. The idea that these merchants had somehow created wealth out of thin air and not on the backs of African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean simply had to be countered. Not to take a stand against this rebranding would not only be tantamount to eradicating the history of that horrific trade in slavery, it would also make it doubly difficult for workers in Glasgow to realise their historic link with those slaves and with their oppression.

In the poem ‘the case for the lower case’ Tom builds up a clever case against capitalism. Initially he says:

lower case is presence
lower case is company…

lower case listens to the voice of the people
lower case is not an Edict
lower case is the kinesis of democracy

After these qualities are celebrated Leonard then goes on to give his verdict on capitals:

CAPITAL is stasis
CAPITAL is the closure of the business in hand…
CAPITAL has no being at its centre

And from these musings he then goes on to address the CAPITALIST SENTENCE:

the CAPITALIST SENTENCE begins by setting out its stall
the CAPITALIST SENTENCE has the subject as line-manager of the verb…


He finishes off with a final flourish extolling the lower case:

the lower case gives you space to live…
lower case does not hide behind the toga of the Roman Empire…

always here
as natural as breathing

The language we use in speech and on the page invariably determines the politics we espouse. And language itself is formed in that special place of the mind that has to be constantly kept in check, nurtured and fed by all that is around us. Failure to do this is to end up saying nothing of any importance and that way lies blandness, posturing and pomposity. Worse still that way lies an inauthentic existence. He or she who has not thought deeply about language has not thought deeply about politics either. This is the sum of what Leonard is himself working at in much of his poetry.
He was also a supporter of Palestine and the poem ‘The Proxy Badge of Victimhood’ was used by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign on their website when it was first written. Without mentioning either Israel or Palestine in the poem he makes it clear where his support lies:

when the possession of nationality
is a foot landing on an airport tarmac
and the dispossessed fester
in the camps of the dispossessed

His support could never be for an oppressor – be it the authority of a church, the authority of a violent adult or the authority of an imperial power. In this poem he manages to blend his preoccupation with the voice sound made by ordinary people as against the voice sound made by an imperial power:

and the natives are hopeless spokespersons
who speak in heavily accented English
who don’t sound American
because they are not American

they are foreigners
on their native soil

Be it Glasgow dialect or the Arabic voice deemed ‘foreign’ to imperial powers, he was fully on the side of the oppressed and marginalised. In a poem called ‘The Evidence’, he wrote about the attack by police on the prominent Human Rights lawyer Aamer Anwar when he was a student putting up posters in Glasgow. He uses the exact words that were used by the police that day when beating up the young student:

This is what happens to black boys with big mouths.

Police authority is simply another authority among many that often lack the necessary democratic accountability and is forever misused and misapplied. State authority is an extension of all other authorities and in a poster poem Leonard gives his view on the state:

parasite that
survives by
defining the host
in ways that
maintain its own

of the

This reads and sounds remarkably like anarchism and that is exactly what it is. In another poem called ‘Flag’ he suggests this again:

The state gang’s signatory graffito on cloth …
To the infant the sucking blanket.
To the adult the flag.


So while it can be said that Tom was a man of the Left, he was well outside the narrative of any political parties of the Left. Toeing any party line would have been an impossibility for Tom. He chose to be free to challenge injustice of all kinds wherever he saw it. With the changing political landscape in Scotland, largely brought on by the legacy left by Blair and Brown’s Labour, the rise of the SNP and the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 had the country engaged in a whirlwind of political debate. I recall corresponding with Tom at this time and his response to my comments was to send me via email a photographed ballot paper with the word ‘Scotland’ scored out and the word ‘Palestine’ inserted instead with a tick at the ‘Yes’ box. While I am relaxed about saying I voted for Scottish independence it was also ironic that the Palestinians I know in Scotland all voted ‘Yes.’

The same man, however, had once in a section of a poem called ‘situations theoretical and contemporary’ written:

Scotland has become an independent socialist republic.
At last.

You pinch yourself.
Jesus Christ. You’ve slept in again.

Whatever his position is here – playful or ironic? – Tom’s political positions were held with honest conviction and integrity. He openly admitted in the poem ‘rearguard’ that he was prone to ‘losing the rag’ – but who doesn’t when you view the horrors of this world? His output was as much a personal journey as it was his own unique contribution to literature. He said as much in his last poetry collection, appropriately enough called ‘Outside the Narrative’ (2009) when he came to the conclusion in another poster poem – ‘that each one be the subject of their own narration.’ He had travelled far in places of his own mind and reached some conclusions about himself. In the poem ‘A humanist’ he writes reflectively:

This sense of the universal human is the home of all those who have won through to become themselves.

And in the final poem of ‘Outside the Narrative’ called ‘A Life’ he reflects on what he has achieved. He does so with the typical dichotomy of a writer who realises he has said something to an audience that has been listening to him. Like Borges in ‘Borges and I’ and Norman MacCaig in ‘A Man in my Position’ before him, he considers his public persona set against the personal sense he has of himself:

And though he had never been a storyteller, he saw that he had been telling a story all his life. It became important to him that somebody heard the story, now that he realised he had been telling it.

His story was not only his own, it was the story of Scotland and the story of Glasgow. The last word should go to Glasgow in two poems that sum up much about the man and much about his great city. In a poem from ‘Intimate Voices’ (1984), a poetry collection that won him the Saltire Book of the Year, he writes of ‘Glasgow’:

‘This is Tom Leonard,’ my friend said to his companion. ‘He writes poetry.’
‘If you think I’m impressed you’ve another think coming,’ said his companion – and
punched me on the jaw.

In Glasgow in particular, though in other parts of Scotland too, the best bet is never to get above yourself. In Glasgow you can always be brought back down to earth. That is another feature of his work that is admirable – it contains the absolute absence of any pretentiousness. Glasgow made him that way and he manifested this to great effect on the part of his own people and their living conditions. His poem ‘Liaison Co-ordinator’ was used by Darren McGarvey to introduce his prize-winning book ‘Poverty Safari’ (2017) which dealt at length with those conditions that both he and Tom had encountered in Glasgow:

a sayzty thi bloke
n whut izzit yi caw
yir joab jimmy

am a liaison co-ordinator
hi says oh good ah says
a liaison co-ordinator

jist whut this erria needs
what way aw thi unemployment
inaw thi bevvyin
nthi boayz runnin amok
nthi hoosyz fawnty bits
nthi wummin n tranquilisers
at least thiv sent uz
a liaison co-ordinator

This captures what Tom felt about deprivation and those who created it and those sent to toy with it. Tom had genuine class anger and would express this with brilliant panache at times. Moreover, he articulated this class anger for over fifty years. There was never any doubt whose side he was on. And in international terms as he says in ‘A humanist’ he was ‘an outsider’ himself ‘who felt at home with the art and culture of other outsiders.’ We need more artists like Tom Leonard today.

I shall miss his wry humour, his friendship and, above all, his Glasgow voice.


by Peter Clive

Everything lies in ruins. This Glasgow
is an ancient ruined city by the Euphrates
after some rival, or barbarian invasion,
or simply the passage of time has had its way,
gap sites where ziggurats once stood, shards
scattered across the brownfield yesteryear
whose damp tubercular breath
condenses on the back of my neck,

but this is the Clyde, not the Euphrates.
This shattered and scattered clay
whose pieces you pick up and hold
is not some Mesopotamian jigsaw
of the sort archaeologists like to solve.
These marks are not cuneiform pressed
upon the cold hard fragments in your hand
that you try to fit together and decipher.

It is you. It is your own living tongue
after it has been turned to stone,
and after the sledge hammer and wrecking ball
have had their way, and broken you,
and dumped all your words in a midden
and left you able to meet your mute self
only behind glass, in a glass case, in a museum,
reading how others have captioned you in labels:
their interpretations, educated guesswork,
accidental errors, deliberate falsehoods, lies,

in some nostalgia palace
where the passage of time is frozen
to hold the living captive,
saying, "this is how things were
so this is how they will always be.
This is all in the past. It cannot save you.
You are only what we say you are now."
The word "no" lies untranslated
on a cuneiform tablet out of reach, hidden
behind something lurid and embarrassing,

but there was a man who turned it back
and raised your words from bones and ash,
lifted them from this disintegrating clay,
breathing life into them with poetry,
restoring their voice and making them laugh,
and bulldozing museums with basic facts.

Though all that's left of any life, once gone,
is an unfinished jigsaw, its missing pieces
now forever lost, we'll fill the gaps
with pieces of our own rescued from obscurity
and the impertinence of casual oppression.

TL image

Tom Leonard, 1944-2018

Diptych of Drones: a Brechtian poem
Tuesday, 07 June 2016 21:32

Diptych of Drones: a Brechtian poem

Published in Poetry

Diptych of Drones

1. Convenience Killing

Over eight thousand miles away
from where the devastation was
a zap-happy, kapow-cowboy
yeehah'd from his computer screen.

A funeral party had died
in the same way as the deceased
they were assembled to honour –
zapped at the press of a button.

Pacman and Super Mario
and later Sonic, the Hedgehog
may have been the apprenticeships
for today’s Killer Drone cowboys

Who sit, as they have always sat
when playing games on their consoles,
enamoured by technology
and lost to life’s great mystery.

They sit somewhere in Nevada,
yeehahdists killing jihadists,
the new dialectic of rage
that fails to think of consequence.

2. New Medal

They award medals now for remote-controlled
killing. This has nothing to do with gaming
consoles and their stages or levels reached.
It is much cruder than that. Much cruder.

The Distinguished Warfare Medal for button-pressed
killing, thousands of miles away from the carnage
created by the pressed button, honours ‘the extraordinary
actions that make a true difference in combat operations.’

But there are no medals for the burnt funeral parties,
none for the burnt children – all are collateral damage.

Calgacus, referring to the Romans, said they created
a desert and called it peace. Now they seem to create
a high-tech hell and they call it freedom. Freedom!

Neptune's Staff
Thursday, 25 February 2016 17:44

Neptune's Staff

Published in Poetry

Many-headed monster
encased in thick dark metal
as it sails the silent seas
its existence an outrage
a deep immorality
fathomless in ignorance
and the thought of replacing
this monster with another
more gruesome than ever
as the oceans rise
and refugees flee
and hungry children cry out
seems to stink to high heaven
that can only rebuke us
and say it may cost us
the earth.


            Stop Trident March and Rally 12 noon, Saturday 27 February, London, see www.cnduk.org

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