David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.
... we have come here in the cause of Labour, in its own defence, to demand its own rights... - Eleanor Marx, speech on the first May Day held in Hyde Park, London, 1890
Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.
Two syllables, thrice. Whoever hears this call understands Distress, and knows that help’s required.
M’aidez! M’aidez! M’aidez!
Wherever in the world a ship or plane goes down, rescuers respond.
Help me! Tell us who you are. Help me! Tell us where you are... Help me! ... and the reason for your call.
Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!
Consider a greater going-down with greater loss of life than any ship or plane, or entire fleets of them.
Consider continents in distress, nations and peoples, host upon host, victims of social murder, war, pestilence, and others’ greed, victims of the wasting of the world’s good, and dominance of class by class.
What then? What source of aid.
May Day: two words, each of one syllable, encode the brief answer to that great question that history has posed.
May Day: more than a day in a calendar, more than a signalling of a solidarity that spans the world, more than a hope made manifest, more than a promise of better things; it is an idea that moves the tectonic plates of ancient thought, and fires the actions of peoples everywhere.
We must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us.
So spoke Marx.
Beyond distress and mutual aid, she looked ahead to defence and rights, and, further yet, to a reconfiguring of Culture’s laws and the principles by which they’re made.
So she spoke, and lived her short life, holding Socialism as our goal stubbornly in sight.
To celebrate his 79th birthday, David Betteridge writes about swords, sickles and class struggle
Have a slow look at the drawing shown above. Is it not an image that captures our eye, engages our intelligence, and feeds our imagination, springing as it does from the artist’s own eye and intelligence and imagination? By means of his long-practised craft, the artist transports us into a Tale of Two Fields, of Two Bladed Implements, of Two Adversaries representing Two Classes, and of Two Ways of Life and Death. We see more than an illustrative drawing. We see an emblem, transcending the historic past in which it is set, and speaking of and to all times. This emblem is, I would claim, a gift to be treasured, likely to stick in our memories. It is beautifully stark in its overall impact, and subtle in its detail. Look, for example, at which blade overlaps which; and look at the two hands holding them. One is gauntleted, implying rank. The other is bare, implying the opposite.
The artist who drew our “Sword & Sickle” emblem above is Bob Starrett, best known as a political cartoonist. He is a latter-day “Eccles” or “Gabriel” of Clydeside and beyond, as readers of his Rattling the Cage know, and readers of the Culture Matters site, as also the many activists who have gone to him asking for campaign designs for leaflets or posters, and invariably got them, sometimes within a turnaround time of a day or a night.
Does it affect your appreciation of Bob’s drawing when I tell you that it accompanies, or might accompany, a poem? It was drawn at my request to accompany a four- line fragment that was written by William Blake in the early 1790s, probably in 1793. This was a time when war with France was looming. England was an armed camp, with troops being recruited and drilled in many places, sometimes disrupting farm-work. There were shortages of grain, occasioning protest and social unrest. Blake’s loyalties in this turmoil of international and class war are clear from this little poem:
The sword sung on the barren heath, The sickle in the fruitful field: The sword he sung a song of death, But could not make the sickle yield.
Compared with associates who were active at the time - Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, et al - Blake was surely the most root-and-branch radical of them all, if that is not a contradiction in terms. To borrow a term from David Erdman’s book about Blake, he was a “Prophet Against Empire”, and the Empire that he stood against had many aspects, all abhorrent to him, all grist to his poetic and artistic mill, and all inter-related. So the Sword represents more than War, as the Sickle represents more than Peace.
Behind the Sword there is a nexus and a history of class rule, that Blake often signified in his poetry and his art by reference to the Crown, legitimised by the Church, and maintained by armies of soldiers, teachers, false prophets, and other agents of the Repressive State Apparatus, as modern parlance has it.
Behind the Sickle there is a nexus and a history of resistance to class rule, of which Blake was a part, both in his support for political action and in his production of literary and artistic works of opposition. These speak with greater reach and resonance today than in his own day. They draw on the earlier tradition of the Diggers and the Levellers (defeated) from the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, and feed into the rising Socialist Movement of the Nineteenth, Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries (still not defeated).
Blake’s “Sword & Sickle” little poem was never published in his lifetime. It was hidden away in a crammed-full notebook, along with screeds of other writings and some drawings, from which Blake excavated the raw material for several of his finest books.
Out of this notebook came, for example, the highly wrought combination of text and design, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. One of the songs in it is the often quoted “London”. Here Blake showed a growing recognition of the growing centrality of Capital, industrial and commercial, in people’s lives. It provides a helpful context for the interpretation of the “Sword & Sickle” poem.
In its first draft, in the scribbled notebook, “London” starts as follows:
I wander thro each dirty street Near where the dirty Thames does flow And see in every face I meet Marks of weakness marks of woe...
When it was printed and published, soon afterwards, the too-obvious adjective “dirty” had been amended to the much more telling “charter’d”, thereby pointing to the growing convergence of Law and the cash nexus that Blake observed all around him, at close hand, and suffered from himself. At the same time, as E.P. Thompson and others have detailed, the English working class was in the process of “making”, or self-making, as more and more folk were thrown on history’s scrap heap or herded into “dark satanic mills”. Blake was firmly in and of and for that class.
In the penultimate verse of “London”, Blake powerfully compressed his chosen images into telling rhymes. In doing so, he demonstrated how inter-related the different forces in his “Empire” were, in an evil hegemony:
How the Chimney-sweepers cry Every blackning Church appalls, And the hapless Soldiers sigh, Runs in blood down Palace walls.
E.P. Thompson, following David Erdman, notes that, in the 1790s, it was common among radicals to “stress the identity of interests of soldiers and the people”; and the chimney sweeps can be taken as representatives of all enforced Labour, and also of stolen childhoods, and hence of ruined, shortened lives.
There is a companion piece of verse that underlines the “cash nexus” idea that is part of the web of meanings implicit in both “London” and “Sword & Sickle”. It is the following quatrain, also to be found in Blake’s notebook:
There souls of men are bought & sold And milk fed infancy for gold And youth to slaughter houses led And beauty for a bit of bread.
So, in interpreting both Bob Starrett’s emblem and William Blake’s poem that inspired it, we see more than a pacifist plea, or an anti-war protest. We see a root-and-branch opposition to class society, expressed elliptically in the languages of image and word respectively, and hinting, through reference to the Sickle, at its future undoing.
If Blake can be called a Prophet Against Empire, is it too fanciful also to call him a Prophet for Communism, or at least for those early defining decrees that Lenin wrote for the young Soviet Union, namely the Decree on Peace and the Decree on Land. These were passed on 26 October, 1917 by the Second Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. A fortnight later they were followed by a Decree on Abolishing Classes and Civil Ranks.
To echo and adapt Wordsworth remark on Milton, we might wish that Blake, thou shouldst have been living at that time!
What interests me about the existence of archives is that you enter the past which is as it were in the present tense. And so it’s another way of people who lived in the past who perhaps are still living or perhaps are dead; a way of them being present.... - JOHN BERGER
“History” is a poem which packs a lot of meaning into its eight lines:
by John Berger
The pulse of the dead as interminably constant as the silence which pockets the thrush.
The eyes of the dead inscribed on our palms as we walk on this earth which pockets the thrush.
Let us start with Berger’s cunningly chosen title, which points, or seems to point, to the poem’s content, or maybe to the way by which we might approach reading it. “History”, he announces. Why History, we wonder, and what aspect of History? So we read on, to find out what references there are to the Past, because History is about the Past, isn’t it?
Oddly, only Berger’s “the dead”, in both verses, seems to belong to the Past, until we consider that “the silence” is similarly devoid of life, and that “the earth” is a place where graves are dug. And, again oddly, all the verbs in the poem are in the Present tense, not the expected Past, namely “pockets” (twice) and “walk” (once). The poem seems to imply that the dead are alive, making their presence felt in the here-and-now. They are described as having a “pulse” that is “interminably constant”, and as having eyes that are “inscribed on our palms / as we walk on this earth”. (How like a painting by Dali this surreal image is!)
What of the living in this poem? Where are they? Who are they? As well as us, who walk about, looking and seeing and listening and thinking, Berger cites the thrush. He is thinking, perhaps, of the songthrush, that sings its song twice over, as is well known; or, if he is not, we, his readers, are free to conjure up that response if we wish, sharing as we do the wealth of the English language with the poet. Layers and webs and wisps of inter-textualities are all about, ready to pop into our minds as we read, bestowing an aura of extra meaning to a given text, while not contradicting it.
What presence does our thrush, full of song, have in the poem? The second half of each of the two verses tells us: first the thrush is “pocketed” by “silence”, and then it is pocketed by “this earth”, that is to say it is seized by death, or snaffled, or taken into possession, just like that. So the poem demonstrates both life-in-death and death-in-life. That is Berger’s History; or maybe it is Natural History, more like, to use an old-fashioned term. That is the constant dual reality in which we all have our being. That is the “mystery” of Berger’s little gem of a poem.
There is an alternative way of appreciating the poem, it occurs to me, looking at it again, starting not with the title and with times Past and Present, but starting with the poem’s references to Life and Death. Let us see how these twins relate, using italics and bold to distinguish them.
The pulse of the dead as interminably constant as the silence which pocketsthe thrush.
The eyes of the dead inscribed on our palms as we walk on this earth which pocketsthe thrush.
The poem makes these images of life and death work together – indeed walk together – very well. Line by line, we are made to see how Life and Death co-exist and interpenetrate, and do so “interminably”, being “constant” in their togethering. Significantly, the term “earth” belongs equally in both categories, as my bold italics is intended to show, earth being both the habitat of the living, and, jointly with silence, their “pocketer”.
So, as before in our first reading, we come to the same realisation of the poem’s “both-and” wisdom. Let us now explore the context – other times and places – in which Berger considered the poem’s themes. Here we can draw on the inspired scholarship of Tom Overton, Berger’s archivist; and what a voluminous archive it is that Tom has worked on, a whole vanload of boxes of decades of work driven from Berger’s house in the Haute-Savoie by Jamie Andrews of the British Library to its place of safe keeping and public access, in London.
Thanks for writing... It looks like the section you quote comes from p16 of And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos. But as so often with JB, he’s revisiting and rephrasing an older thought in a newer context: in this case a section of a longer poem collected in Andy Croft’s edition of JB’s Collected Poems on p 43, and annotated “Jura, 1973”. JB was often hazy on remembering the dates of his writings in general, but here I think the voice and thought sounds very much of that place and period...
Happy writing — please do send me what you make of it!
V best Tom
Straightaway, following Tom’s advice, I went to Berger’s marvellously mixed reflection on Time and Space, and Death and Life, and, cross-cutting all, the power of Poetry, namely And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos, published by Writers and Readers in 1984. I say “mixed”, because, like many of Berger’s books, it is a many-genred work, shifting rapidly and repeatedly between prose and poem, essay and memoir, fact and fiction, narrative and description.
Here is what I found on p 16: a passage in prose, prefacing the poem that we have been gnawing like a bone. In it, Berger notes the death of one of his friends, and then comments on it, and on all deaths. Key to that passage is the following thought:
Tony is no longer within the nexus of time as lived by those who, until recently, were his contemporaries. He is on the circumference of that nexus.... Yet he is also within that nexus as are all the dead...
I have to confess that I find the passage hard to understand. It appears to be self-contradictory; but then comes the poem, and in its eight lovely lines the contradiction is resolved, clearly and elegantly. A remark of David Constantine’s is proved correct, that:
Berger’s whole oeuvre – poetry, fiction, political and literary essays – is of a piece. Some poems... appear there not as lyrical interludes but as further condensations of accounts, events, characters, in the prose... - Preface to The Long White Thread of Words: Poems for John Berger, Smokestack Books, 2016)
Chasing up Tom’s second reference, I turned to p 43 of Berger’s Collected Poems (Smokestack Books, 2014), and had a look at the poem printed there, also called “History”. Here, through the poet’s eyes, we gaze on a blue sky (not, as before, on the earth), and on buzzards (not on a thrush); but we have the same collapsing of Past and Present into a sort of Present Habitual, “regular as the sun / millennia powdered into blue /sky of all moments lived...” and we have the same sense of the presence of Death, co-habiting with Life: “the intent head / the yellow beak / the gut demanding food / talons that grip...”
These two poems by Berger both called “History” show him in a characteristic role, that of Death’s Secretary, to borrow one of his self-descriptions. “You see,” he said to an interviewer not long before his own death:
I think that the dead are with us…they are a presence. What you think you’re looking at on that long road to the past is actually beside you where you stand... - The New Statesman, June, 2015
Reading around, as we have been doing, looking for leads in and out of other texts, and seeking confirmations from other contexts, is akin, is it not, to Berger’s own practice as a writer, and his own practice as an artist and art-critic, too? Consider this observation from his Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books, 1972):
We are never just looking at one thing, we are always looking at the relationship between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, continually holding things in a circle around itself, constituting what is present to us as we are.
Having done all this looking – looking at, and behind, and beyond, and between the eight lines of Berger’s “History” – how do we regard the poem when we return to it, as we are bound to be drawn to do, there being so much meat on its bone? There is still a “mystery” here, but one in which we can feel entirely at home.
by John Berger
The pulse of the dead as interminably constant as the silence which pockets the thrush.
The eyes of the dead inscribed on our palms as we walk on this earth which pockets the thrush.
David Betteridge writes critically and creatively about the artwork above, Nature writing, Bertolt Brecht, and eco-communism.
The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history - Raymond Williams
What you see above is a lino print called “Leaf of Tree”, by Owen McGuigan.
It hangs on the wall above my computer at home, is mounted on white card, and is surrounded by a broad hardwood frame. It measures five inches across by seven inches tall. Looking at it, as I often do - it draws my attention to it, inspiringly - I find that it invites two kinds of looking: one from above, so to speak, as if I was a bird gliding over a fertile landscape, and the other slower, more detailed, as if I was an insect prospecting this way and that way at close quarters. How does this “Leaf of Tree” image strike you, I wonder?
For most people, probably, the thoughts and feelings that the print arouses will be pleasant ones, and for three reasons. The first reason is physiological: the highest-density part of our eyes’ retina is most sensitive to green, so responds to that colour with greatest acuity. The second reason is aesthetic: the placing of one larger leaf, stylised, within a pattern of smaller leaves is very skilfully handled; we look, and we recognise beauty. The third reason is associative: the image triggers memories in us of previous leafy encounters, whether in the real world, or mediated through art or literature.
Those 35 square inches of art might stand for three or five or 35 acres of green growth, or more, or for the whole world if you think so; or they might stand for some smaller singular Dear Green Place, dear only to you. For me, the fresh green of “Leaf of Tree” conjures up a summer’s day in a wood in Argyll. I hear the waves slapping on Loch Etive, not far from where I stand. The sun is shining directly on, and through, a panoply of sessile oak leaves, highlighting their veins in all their intricacy. I am also reminded of William Morris’s lovely plant designs, particularly “Acanthus”, “Orchard” and “Willow Bough”.
Building on these or similar associations, we might even go on to interpret the colour green and the idea of “green” in a symbolic way, seeing in growing things the very principle of life, as Walt Whitman did when he wrote his Leaves of Grass:
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven... I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic... Growing among black folk as among white... I give them the same, I receive them the same... All goes onward and outward... and nothing collapses...
Having images such as “Leaf of Tree” on display at home, or stored electronically, is pretty commonplace. Looking at them, we can readily feed our senses and our imaginations, for the reasons given above. It is also commonplace to want to read and be reminded of green things, especially in dark times such as we live in now - and when are times ever not dark? Books about Nature are consistently in lists of best-sellers.
During the recent Covid-19 lockdown, my “Leaf of Green” took on especial significance for me. It inspired me to wrestle some green thoughts into a chapbook of poems, including the one given below:
While the pot boils
(Looking out of my kitchen window during the Covid-19 pandemic)
Even in these dark days, the world does not forget to green and grow.
My neighbour’s apple-tree progresses well, no longer bare twigs, but leaves and flowers.
With fruit to come, it gives sanctuary to a pair of nesting wrens, who get on busily with everything that their lives demand, heedless of what we humans know, or do not know.
The tree waves and bends in the frequent wind. I note it does not break. Like the wrens, it is industrious.
How readily Earth’s habitats renew, recycle, and remake!
A critic of puritanical bent might argue that such “nature worship” or “nature wallowing” as is found in the above poem - and in Nature writing generally, perhaps - is a deplorably “escapist” habit, a turning away from the “real” business of dealing with the world. George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers) was an early example of this stern and restrictive school of criticism. In 1670, or thereabouts, he wrote to his followers as follows:
And therefore, all friends and people, pluck down your images; I say, pluck them out of your houses, walls, and signs, or other places, that none of you be found imitators of his Creator, whom you should serve and worship; and not observe the idle lazy mind…
Later, and famously, from a secular, communist standpoint, Bertolt Brecht wrote as follows, apparently as puritanically as Fox, but significantly not quite:
To those born later
Truly, I live in dark times! The guileless word is folly.
A smooth forehead Suggests insensitivity.
The man who laughs Has simply not yet had The terrible news.
What kind of times are they, when To talk about trees is almost a crime Because it implies silence about so many horrors? That man there calmly crossing the street Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends Who are in need?
Being a great poet, and a man fully alive, Brecht carefully avoided the extremism that was found in Fox, who went so far as to prefer grey to all other colours. “Almost a crime,” Brecht declared; therefore not a crime, although some on the Left might still think it is, trapped in the notion that tree-talk can only be a turning aside from the realities of the class struggle, and therefore a holiday from the building of socialism. No, Brecht was careful to keep for himself a certain licence to talk about trees, and write about them, and delight in them. These things he did throughout the years of the Second World War and Cold War, up to his swan-song Buckow Elegies. Consistently, he used trees as an emblem for pleasure, well-being, and for continuity across generations.
“Lovely trees,” he exclaimed in “Finnish Landscape”, and “Such scents of berries and of birches there!” He saw no need to repress his delight in Nature. It resurged again and again, gaining expression in other poems that he went on to write, often about gardens, including, most luxuriously of all, his friend Charles Laughton’s garden on the Pacific coast near Los Angeles. Brecht singled out the fuchsias for praise: “Amazing themselves with many a daring red”.
Always the dialectician, Brecht contrived to plant negatives among his positives, creating a complex context for his celebration of green beauty. So, in “Finnish Landscape”, written in 1940, with war spreading from country to country and across continents, he wrote:
Dizzy with sight and sound and thought and smell The refugee beneath the alders turns To his laborious job... [He] sees who’s short of milk and corn... And sees a people silent in two tongues.
And in the Californian “Garden in Progress” (1944), he added to his picture the fact that there was “crumbling rock” destabilising the garden. Even as the gardeners worked to finish their planting, “Landslides / Drag parts of it into the depths without warning.” Meanwhile, the poet was aware of the gunfire of warships exercising off the coast, and thought of “a number of civilisations” ready to collapse.
The same delight in the things of Nature as Brecht’s, again voiced in communist terms, and again set in a complex context, is found by the wagon-load in William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890). Near the end of this imagined visit to a future commonwealth, Morris’s alter ego William Guest is told by his guide, Ellen, that:
O me! O me! How I love the earth, and the seasons, and weather, and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it...
Here Morris’s green utopia is used as a method of criticising capitalism, of opposing it, and of rejecting it, while at the same time re-imagining how a society might better function in future. His utopia is as much a dramatising of a communist “structure of feeling”, as defined by Raymond Williams, as it is an outlining of a political programme. It is an early example of eco-communism, where Green and Red go hand in hand, albeit simply.
There is an eloquent passage in Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art where he quoted Brecht regarding the same critical use of utopia as Morris deployed:
Dreams and the golden “if” Conjure the promised sea Of ripe corn growing...
To Brecht’s “Dreams and the golden ‘if’” we might add our own corollary: “Hope and the green leaf”.
So far, we have looked at the “Leaf of Tree” image as a finished product, its only context being provided from our own store of memories of similar green things, and images of things, and writings about them. Your store will be different from mine, of course, although I guess - I hope - that there will be enough commonality between them for us to agree that “Leaf of Tree” is well worth looking at, and looking at many times, and that doing so is a rewarding experience: in a nutshell, that it is life-affirming.
Now it is time, in the second half of the essay, to show the process by which “Leaf of Tree” came into being, and to put it in its full context - a context that includes its artist, its time and place of production, and the culture out of which it came and into which it feeds. Knowing these extra things about the image is unlikely to change our first opinion of it, but may give depth and confirmation to that opinion, and increase the range of associations that the image prompts in us. “Oh no,” a formalist critic might protest, narrowly, “we should only be concerned with what lies within the frame.” We, preferring a cultural materialist perspective, will not be deterred. As when we get to know anything or anyone new, so with “Leaf of Tree”: we want to ask of it, Where are you from?
Here is where “Leaf of Tree” is from: namely a garden shed on the very boundary of Glasgow and Clydebank. The artist is Owen McGuigan, a former shop-fitter, now retired. He is well known in Clydebank and beyond as Clydebank’s best archivist and celebrator. His principal medium is photograph and video, although latterly he has also used drawing, print-making, jig-saw and wood panel burning as media for his vision. Visit his website here, and be bowled over by its very great volume, beauty and range of reference. All in all, there are sufficient images archived on Owen’s website to satisfy legions of social historians and Bankies wanting a visual record of their hometown, legions of art-lovers, and to inspire legions of poets.
I have picked out a few examples of Owen’s work below, to keep his “Leaf of Tree” company: -
Trees in winter, Dalmuir Park
A garden game, devised for grandchildren during the Covid-19 lockdown
Cleaning up the Forth & Clyde Canal: a recent photo
The Clydebank blitz: a jigsaw composition
Elegy for Glasgow School of Art: aftermath of its second fire, June, 2018
Profit & Loss: Ship-building anatomised
Dogwood and spider
Even these few examples give a good impression of Owen’s range of styles and subject matter. What unites them is a strong shape, a clear content, and skill. They are all labours of love, produced in Owen’s leisure time. This fact gives them a special significance, rescuing them, and rescuing Owen, from any nexus of commodities and marketplaces. In Raymond Williams’s words:
The real dividing line between things we call work and the things we call leisure is that in leisure... we make our own choices and our own decisions. We feel for the time being that our life is our own.
The garden shed that is pictured above is only one of Owen’s favoured workshops. That is where he works when he works alone. On other occasions, when he works with others, sometimes as a tutor, sometimes as a learner, always collaboratively, then he has two other places to go to, both close to home. One of them is an arts centre in Dalmuir Park, in an old park superintendent’s house; the other, rejoicing in the name “The Awestruck Academy”, is in a defunct snooker hall in Clydebank’s pedestrianised town centre.
Ten thousand such cultural hubs across the land, for community use, sited wherever “To Let” signs are commonest, would serve the people there in the way rising sap serves a tree. Ten thousand such hubs devoted specifically to socialist and trade union work would specifically serve the labour movement. There are several pieces on the Culture Matters website exploring this notion, notably Rebecca Hillman’s “Rebuilding Culture in the Labour Movement” (27 November, 2017), Mike Quille’s “Culture for the Many, Not the Few” (13 December, 2018), and Chris Guiton’s “Profound New Visions of a Better World” (10 June, 2019). They underpin the argument being advanced here.
Regarding the two cultural hubs in Clydebank that Owen favours, and is fostered by, he mentions them in a contribution he has written for this essay, giving the “Leaf of Tree” back-story. From it, you will realise that the image that is at the heart of this essay is unique: it is the first, and so far the only print made from Owen’s linocut:
I have had a fascination about trees since I was a boy, from climbing them in Whitecrook Park with my two sisters in the 50s, and our mum taking us berrypicking at Blairgowrie during the school holidays, where on our day off my two sisters and I would go to the forest around the loch and light camp fires. I can still smell that. Later in life, my nephew David and I did a lot of hill walking. We walked the West Highland Way together, and I loved walking inside a silent forest. The family and I even built a cabin up at Carbeth, in the hills, which we had for twelve years before vandals set fire to it.
So, over the years, trees have been a recurring theme in my work. More so when I joined the Dalmuir Park Art Class in 2013. We did a lot of nature-themed projects. Last year we all did a big tree mural, and over the year we added various elements to it reflecting the seasons. I made a video of this project:
Usually, when I sat down at the art class to start a lino- cut, I never planned what I was going to do. An idea of a tree inside a leaf popped into my head. The final title was a play on the words “Tree of Life”, an image that has always fascinated me. I made some Christmas decorations of it, although it was a lot of work, as they were handmade.
The first linocut that David saw was at the Awestruck Academy in Clydebank, on a board that someone had set up with several linoprints. David was taken by the image, and I said I would print one for him. I looked through all my linocuts, and, as usual, it was the one that was missing! Then I remembered that Sandra Anton, the Community Ranger that runs our art class, liked the linocut herself and wanted to display it at home, so I let her take it. I asked her, but she had been decorating and stored it somewhere, and couldn’t find it. I then did a new linocut especially for David and printed it for him. This was the inspiration for David to create his latest poetry book.
Looking again at Owen’s “Leaf of Tree”, taking into account both the context and the process of its making, we can agree that the image suggests much more than a bit of green growth. We can agree, in reality and metaphorically, that a leaf - any leaf, anywhere and everywhere - is sustained by a twig, and the twig is sustained by a branch, and the branch by a tree’s bole, and the bole by a system of roots, and the roots by the soil into which they dig down and spread. And we can agree that the tree - any tree - might well not stand alone, but is part of a greater habitat.
So Owen, by analogy, is a vigorous part of a pretty extensive living, growing and interdependent People’s culture, rooted in Clydebank, but reaching further by means of the internet. The culture that he and his co-producers spring from, and feed back into, is a foreshadowing of the greater culture to which Socialism will lead; but it is not only a foreshadowing. It is also a preparation for that greater culture, sharing good practice and educating desire now.
Brecht, as we have noted, kept an appreciative eye open for trees wherever he went. He was speaking equivocally when he commented that, during political crises, “To talk about trees is almost a crime.” No! On the evidence of Owen’s image of a green leaf, and all the associations it carries for us when considered in context, as in this essay, we can state, unequivocally, that not to talk about trees is almost a crime.
The green leaf delights the eye, and leads the mind to a hundred habitats where it may either rest or roam.
Hope and the green leaf inspire the wish that such green habitats - where humankind keeps step with Nature’s ways - might be for all of us our proper home.
Labour and hope, if only shared world-wide, and people-wide, will make at last that vision real, bringing to detailed life the concepts of our commonweal.
In the year of the CPB centenary, David Betteridge remembers Maurice Levitas, stalwart of the CPGB and a veteran of Cable St. and the Spanish Civil War
You have made me build upon reality as upon a rock... You have made me see the logic of the world and the possibility of happiness...
- from Canto General by Pablo Neruda
Picture two young men playing chess. Both are intently studying the board, considering their moves; but one is even more intent than the other, straining muscle and nerve, heron-like. He is the embodiment of focus. Then he swiftly reaches out a hand, lifts the crucial piece, makes his move, and sits back. The game has not been won, but neither has it been lost. La lucha continua.
On reflection, the image of a heron is inadequate. That fish-spearing bird with its keen yellow eyes is necessarily an opportunist. It has only one strategy, which is to find a time and a place that maximises the chance of a fish swimming within range of its beak. A chess player, however, must deploy many strategies, chess being a drawn-out complex of possibilities and unpredictabilities, constraints and openings.
A better image for our intently studious young man would be that of a military commander. Imagine (say) a latter-day George Washington or General Giap sitting alone in his tent, in a dangerous place, part-way through a long campaign. He is interpreting his maps, analysing from every angle the order that he will give to his troops the following morning. Aristotle, who thought a lot about such matters, called this highest order of decision-making phronesis, sometimes translated as practical judgement; and he cited military commanders along with ships’ captains as being arch-exponents of it.
Zoom in now, like a film-maker, and picture in close-up the chess pieces that our two young men are playing with. These pieces are ill-shapen, hard to recognise as kings, queens, knights, etc., having been improvised from well-chewed crusts of bread, tweaked and squeezed while still mushy between finger and thumb, and then baked hard in the sun. The board is also improvised, from a grubby scrap of cardboard. The black squares, like the black pieces, are made dark with mud and cigarette stubs, and the white squares, which are far from white, are represented by the dun colour of the cardboard that lies between the shaded squares.
The young hands which fashioned these chess pieces and this board, and the guiding eyes and brains behind the hands, are more used to handling weapons than bread-paste; and in the case of the super-intent man, more used in previous years to handling the curved needle of an upholsterer, the pick and shovel of a labourer, and the blowlamp of a plumber. (I can tell you this, from knowledge that I gained later.)
This is Spain that we are picturing, towards the end of the Civil War. Our young men are members of the International Brigade, captured some months earlier on the Aragon Front, battling against the Fascists. Now they are interned in a prison camp at San Pedro de Cardena. Every day, there is the chance of a beating, or a ritual humiliation, or a putting to death. The man I am singling out for your attention will go on after release – as part of a prisoner exchange – to become, eventually, a teacher and a teacher-trainer, and the author of a book on education, Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education. He will also become the first person to translate all of Pablo Neruda’s book-length Canto General from its original Spanish into English. The copy that I have, from which I have taken my motto text (above), was photocopied for me from the original by the young man’s future daughter Ruth, some years after her father’s death at the age of 84 in 2001.
I am referring to Maurice Levitas, a stalwart of the CPGB, a veteran of Cable Street as of the Spanish Civil War, and a great influence for the good over many decades, in several countries and in various contexts. Some of you reading this will have known him through his political work. I knew him through his teaching, being a student of his at Neville’s Cross College in the late 60s, although I realise, as soon as writing these words, that the distinction between “political work” and “teaching” is one of convenience only. Morry, both in his theory and his practice, approached both occupations with the same devotion to the same concepts, skills and attitudes.
It is these concepts, skills and attitudes that I want to review in this memoir, to see how they might feed into our continuing struggle for revolutionary socialism, leading to communism, as they fed into Morry’s. I reckon that we can find all we need for this review in our picture of the young chess player in Spain, in the same way as a tissue sample holds and reveals a person’s DNA.
First, and most obviously, just being there, a combatant in Spain, proved Morry’s understanding of internationalist and anti-fascist politics, and proved his courage to translate that understanding into action. Lying behind his internationalism were the virtues of solidarity with and openness to others, and lying behind his anti-fascism were the virtues of hunger for justice and anger at its denial.
Consider Morry’s ability to turn the focus of his mind to playing chess with a fellow prisoner-of-war, even in the context of constant deprivation and threat: there we find evidence of a great intellectual vigour, I think, allied to a resilience of spirit.
Looking ahead, in a flash-forward of history, we know that the first thing Morry did on being released from the camp was to start campaigning for the release of another prisoner, Frank Ryan, leader of the Irish Republican Congress, who was still interned. A sense of loyalty was strong in Morry all his life, not only loyalty to comrades joined in struggle along the way, but also loyalty to his guiding principles. It is sometimes hard to reconcile the two. So it was that at certain turning points, notably 1968 and 1989, Morry’s independence of judgement led him to diverge from others on the Left, including me, but he never wanted that to disrupt or divide.
When I consider what features might be desirable in a political party, as I increasingly do, I suppose I am looking for the same virtues that I found in my mentor Morry, only writ large, that is to say written into the political party’s collective body and soul, and passed on through collective action and education and, crucially, by example, from generation to generation.
I mentioned Pablo Neruda’s Canto General earlier, and Morry’s labour of love in translating it, not that it was ever read by more than a few friends and family members, which is a pity. Here we have a Communist epic of world importance, a book-length sequence of poems that narrates the history of the Americas, that celebrates the continent’s beauties and riches, that celebrates the labour of its people, transforming Nature into Culture, that identifies with the poor and oppressed in their fight-back against exploiters and tyrants, that looks to a Communist future. Here we have a Nobel Prize-winning poet, Neruda, at the height of his creativity, tested and confirmed in his politics by the Spanish Civil War, as was Morry, albeit in different ways. Here we have a Chilean Walt Whitman combining the “we” of a whole class, indeed of a whole world, and the “I” of an author who sees his task as being our representative voice. No wonder Morry was drawn to this work, and devoted himself to translating it.
There is a section of Canto General that is highly relevant to our consideration of Morry’s political virtues, and how these might be writ large in a political party. It is the second-to-last section of the last part of Canto General, the part called “I Am”, where Neruda takes stock of things. He addresses his peroration “To My Party”, that is to say the Chilean Communist Party. I have already quoted from this Section XXVII of “I Am” at the beginning of this piece, as a motto text. Here are some more lines from it:
You have gathered in me the force of all those who live...
You have made me indestructible because with you I do not end in myself...
You have given me the liberty which the isolate does not possess...
You taught me the unity of mankind and the differences among them...
In these terms and for the reasons given, Neruda praised his party. In similar terms, with some poetic licence, a student (myself) praises his old teacher (Morry). Practising the same virtues that Neruda identified and Morry embodied, parties of the Left today will succeed in the continuing struggle, finding a way forward out of our present entrapment in defeat - or seeming entrapment - and make our next necessary move.
You have made me an adversary of the wicked and a wall against frenzy...
You told me of the rectitude that the tree requires... You taught me to set bondage alight like a fire.
My eyes are dim, I cannot see. Come wife, come child, and drive with me!
To drive at speed on public roads may remedy my sight. If not, and we get mangled in a crash, it proves my first assessment right.
I cannot see how anyone can think my judgement or my actions wrong; but if you do, heigh ho! I do not care. I carry on, and on, for you are weak, and I - prepared to boldly, blindly drive, unstoppably - am strong.
David Betteridge takes us along Glasgow’s Byres Road, enjoying several works of public art by the late Alasdair Gray, who died on 29 December, 2019, the day after his 85th birthday
Perhaps the best thing I could do is write a story in which adjectives like commonplace and ordinary have the significance which glorious and divine carried in earlier comedies. What do you think? - Alisdair Gray, Lanark
This is a stub. Many more hands and minds besides my own would have to be set to work, to write a piece giving proper value to Alasdair Gray’s achievements. Like his admired William Blake, he was an artist as well as a writer, a lover of both the epic and the miniature, a deviser of both encyclopedias and minute particulars. He ranged over many genres, deploying details from his own life (a long one) and his own city (Glasgow), but at the same time he regarded the whole world with its many cultures and many histories as his oyster (not forgetting the cosmos in which the world has its unique place). He was, as Ali Smith wrote in an eloquent short obituary, “a renaissance man”. He was, she judged, the very heart of that revival in Scottish life to which he contributed, and from which he drew strength.
A walk of a few hundred yards along Byres Road, in Glasgow’s West End, affords a good introduction to the man and his work.
On the corner overlooking the Botanic Gardens, there is a former church, now converted to a bar, restaurant and performance area called the Oran Mor, which in Gaelic means “big song” or even, some would have it, “great melody of life”. That epithet describes Gray pretty well.
As you enter the Oran Mor from Byres Road, look down at the white and grey marble floor of the porch. There, carved into the tiles, you will see “WELCOME”, in 32 languages. Gray took great care with the lettering of this message, as with every aspect of every part of his quite substantial contribution to the Oran Mor’s conversion. For all those words of greeting that were in the Roman alphabet, he designed his own lettering, using sans serif block capitals that slightly taper away from you as you read them. This lettering he called Oran Mor Monumental.
Go to the third floor. There, extending across the breadth and length of the ceiling, you will see one of Gray’s largest and most ambitious works: a painting that combines myth and legend, Biblical reference and astronomical lore. “It’s a song of praise to the colour blue,” wrote Figgy Guyver, after a visit she paid to view it, and also “a heartfelt, humanist plea for people to come together for a better future.” This plea is directly expressed in words, as well as art. In gold lettering, across the roof beams, we read: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” This motto, borrowed from the Canadian author Dennis Lee, has been widely adopted as a motto for modern progressive Scottish politics, thanks to Gray’s use of it.
Looking up, you will see a cross-section of Creation boldly and beautifully represented. As in Gauguin’s famous Tahitian triptych, big questions are asked: “Where are we from? What are we? Where are we going?” and answers are given, if we search for them. The planets and the Milky Way give us a sense of Time and Space. The Tree of Life drives its roots into fossils and skeletons. A varied fauna and flora inhabit land, sea and air. A naked Adam and Eve kneel, entwined in one another’s arms. A phoenix rises.
The present day and the present city are not forgotten, either. Contemporary citizens, including folk who worked on, and work in, the Oran Mor have their likenesses portrayed here, honouring their labour. Gray’s is a democratic intellect, and a democratic aesthetic, and a democratic structure of feeling.
As you leave, as a companion piece to the “WELCOME” on the way in, you will see, and walk on, a set of 32 carved tiles bidding you “GOODBYE”. Many of Gray’s books end on a similarly friendly note, from his early masterpiece Lanark onwards, as if he wanted you to feel that reading the books was akin to visiting him, maybe at home, maybe in a shared public space, and he was your host. “Goodbye,” he says, as you turn the last page. I see him as a latter-day Interpreter, as in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In his House, we are shown “excellent things, such as would be helpful to [us]”.
In fact, the more you immerse yourself in the print-world of Gray’s published works, the more parallels you discover between them and buildings. As you make your way through them, the books seem to have doors and windows, and rooms and corridors, and stairs and landings, with good labelling and sign-posting so you do not get lost, all in Gray’s distinctively bold, clear style.
Gray was fortunate in having Canongate as his publisher for Lanark, as for many subsequent books, as its owner Stephanie Wolfe-Murray gave him creative control over all aspects of its look, from the grand plan of the art-work to the details of line-spacing and indentation. Like William Blake or William Morris before him, Gray was enabled to work in the combined roles of artist, artisan and author.
After leaving the Oran Mor, turn left along Byres Road, and very soon you come to Hillhead Public Library. It was much used by Gray in the second half of his life, when he lived at various addresses in the West End, just as, in his earlier years in the East End, Riddrie Public Library had been a favourite haunt, being almost a home from home for the inveterate bibliophile.
In his retrospective memoir, A Life in Pictures, Gray tells of an occasion when one of his teachers at Whitehill Senior Secondary School invited him to give a lecture to the school’s Literary and Debating Society. This he did, with specially drawn illustrations projected on an epidiascope. These illustrations are recognisably by the same hand, and from the same mind, as all his later art-work, including the Oran Mor ceiling. Gray appears to have developed his skill and found his genius very young. His chosen subject for the lecture was “A Personal View of History”, no less, typically encyclopaedic. He started with The Ice Age and The Stone Age, and ended with The Industrial City and The Triumph of Socialism.
Along this onward march, full of epic horrors, two sunnier episodes are celebrated. Babylonian priests are pictured “recording an eclipse, having devised an alphabet and calendar that made writing history possible”. Later, the schoolboy lecturer showed his audience The Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus tells the people of the slave-based empires of the world that “every human soul was equally valued by God”. Regrettably, his art-work for that episode was mislaid, as he explains in A Life in Pictures.
For the end-point of History, The Triumph of Socialism, he chose as example and symbol the nearby Riddrie Public Library. “I thought,” he tells us, “this well-planned, well-stocked public library was a triumphant example of local egalitarian democracy.” Here we find the bedrock of Gray’s later more developed politics. He never lost his youthful Spirit of Forty-Five. Again, as with The Sermon on the Mount, we only have his word for it, as, for some reason, the drawing of the Library “was to be”, but was in fact never actually drawn.
I started writing this short guide to Gray’s visible legacy in Glasgow’s West End shortly after his death at the very end of 2019. For inspiration, and for refreshing my memory, I followed the route that I am here recommending. Arriving at the wide inviting entrance of Hillhead Public Library, I found that I could not pass it without going in.
There, next to the librarians’ issue desk, was a display of all Gray’s books that they had in stock, and a table set aside where his fellow-readers were invited to sign a book - not so much a Book of Condolences, more a Book of Celebrations. Already, after only a few days of the library and the book being open after the New Year holiday, page upon page of entries had been written. As I read through them, I became aware that “Alasdair” had been well-loved as a local worthy, a kindly man, and a great conversationalist, as interested in his interlocutors as in himself; but, at the same time, “Gray” was well-regarded as an important author-cum-artist, who had put his native Glasgow and Scotland on a world map, and also brought the world to the very streets of this city. This “fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian”, as he once described himself, had made his mark, a large and indelible one.
There is a point of correction to be made regarding Gray’s self-description as a “pedestrian”. For his final few years, after a fall that nearly killed him, he was a wheelchair user. Undaunted, after seven months in hospital, he was to be seen again, visiting his favourite places, going about his many ploys, and continuing his last great project, his re-telling of Dante’s Divine Comedy. How like Blake, who also immersed himself in the old Tuscan’s Hell, Purgatory and Paradise!
After Hillhead Library, proceed further along Byres Road to another place where Gray’s presence is felt, namely Hillhead Subway Station.
Look across the entrance hall, beyond the turnstiles that lead to the platforms and trains. There, confronting you, is Gray’s final work of public art, a mural made of ceramic tiles, two metres high and twelve metres wide. “All Kinds of Folk” it is called, and so it is identified in elegant lettering to the left. Alternatively, it is called “Folk of All Kinds”, to the right. In the middle is a panoramic view of the streets and buildings of Hillhead, the busiest part of the West End. The panorama is so boldly three-dimensional that you can imagine yourself walking there. It is flanked on both sides by panels of equally bold drawings of the very kinds of folk whom Gray imagined using the subway.
He gives us Lucky Dogs and Financial Wizards, Hard Workers and Brain Babies, Lovely Mums and Bonny Fechters, Lassies and Lads, Cocky Chaps, and others. A|few beasts and fairy-tale figures are thrown in for good measure, including Urban Foxes, Fiery Dragons, Birds of Paradise, and Unicorns. The effect is to make you smile, and that was Gray’s intention, as he indicates in a bit of verse inscribed on the wall:
Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing To earn what you need to keep going Prevent what you once felt when wee Hopeful and free.
Now look below the station’s “Exit” sign. There, in black block capitals, you will read that same motto that you saw in gold on the Oran Mor ceiling, regarding early days, a better nation, and working. Those block capitals, by the way, like all the lettering here, were specially designed for this project. They are based on Gray’s own handwritten letterforms, for that reason being known as Gray Display.
I had got this far into writing my piece, when Covid-19 closed down everyday life as we are used to living it. The three places that I have described above - the Oran Mor, the Library, and the Station - are now in lockdown, as is a fourth place that I would have directed you to, namely a restaurant and bar in a lane off Byres Road, the Ubiquitous Chip, the decor of which, on a lavish scale, was Gray’s work. (He was paid for doing it, it is said, by the promise of free dinners for ever.)
It was my intention to illustrate my conducted tour with photographs taken specially for it, but that cannot now be done until Glasgow and the world return to the old normal, for good and ill, supposing that is possible. What with “self-isolating” and “social-distancing”, and shutters being up, it is as if we are suddenly inhabiting a nightmarish or dystopian or purgatorial or infernal scene of a kind that Gray might have included in the “Unthank” chapters of Lanark. You can, however, find plenty of already existing photographs online, and so compose your own visual commentary for the itinerary. You might well begin here and then progress to Gray’s official website, and then delve into his publisher’s website.
My thanks are due to Canongate for giving me permission to enliven my text (above and below) with illustrative material from their files. Maybe, post-Covid-lockdown, I will be able to return to my tour of Gray venues and take photos of my own, for splicing in.
How, then, are we to leave this inconclusive ramble? There is no better way than in Gray’s own words. In an interview that he gave in the year before he died, to Gutter magazine (Spring, 2018), he remarked on the pleasure he took from being able to work and create, even in old age and ill health; in fact, especially in old age and ill health. At the time, he was putting the finishing touches to the “Heaven” part of his Divine Comedy, “Englished in prosaic verse”, as he put it, after Dante. In words that reveal a great deal about himself, Gray concluded the interview as follows:
Everyone who makes something that survives them has overcome death to that extent: especially if it is another human being. It may also be a well-built wall or other work of art.
ENOUGH TO LIFT MY EYES TO
An imagined meeting with Alasdair Gray, in a Glasgow street
“There’s not a street in Glasgow, Anyplace, or Purgatory that I don’t know. I’ve sojourned here for all my years, studying the root and consequence of the world’s good and the world’s ill, watching both succeed, pondering how the one can let the other grow.” Looking up intently from his wheelchair, like a tree’s last stubborn leaf lit by a late sun, in a winter’s wind, not torn, not shaken even, he held my attention as he spoke. I thought of the Ancient Mariner, as for a long moment he had me in his close focus there. We were like two islands in a flow and counter-flow of passing folk.
“For self-protection,” he explained, “or, if hurt, self-heal, I carry with me images and words that speak truths, some from the past, some being formed. Reviewing them can feed them present life, and make them for a moment real. “Whoever harrows any kind of Hell must do the same. But…” - he cautioned with a work-worn hand - “know this: there is no certain Paradise at journey’s end, perhaps no journey’s end; but I have seen, for sure, occasional glimpses of a far-off hill, part-grey, part-green, chequered bright.
“It is not the steep slope that Dante wrote of in his Purgatorio. Rather, it is some high point, beyond our city’s boundary, that catches now and then whatever rays there are of the day’s light. It is enough for me to lift my eyes to.” Then, "Look!" he cried, and gave a sudden whoop of joy, pointing across the street to where, in a park, a chestnut tree stood tall. “Imagine,” he said, “imagine playing there, swinging on a knotted rope, collecting conkers, being Tarzan, being a dryad, trying not to fall.” Studying that tree, we saw - he made me see - a rain of golden orioles. As if so many falling meteors, as if directed by a hidden hand, in a swoop, they cascaded to the tips of the bare boughs. There they perched for a short while, overlooking the neighbouring ground. Talismans, they flashed forth against the evening’s blue. I see them now, transfiguring the landscape of my mind’s-eye view.