Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. His last poetry collection was ‘Flutterings’ 2016 and his last play produced was ‘Letters from Are C’ directed by Karen Douglas of SpartaKi. Jim also tutors in Scottish Cultural Studies in Edinburgh, organises Literary Walks for groups around the city, and teaches creative writing for people with mental health issues. His new play ‘Rosa’, about the life of Rosa Luxemburg, will be staged at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh in November 2019.
He needed the job because he needed money to pay his bills. It was as simple as that. This interview, if he passed it, could do more. It could enable him to follow his dream of enabling youngsters to dream themselves. Right now people needed to dream again – especially the young and especially here.
He had gone over in his head a thousand times how he would present and project himself. He would explain how literature had saved him from a life of dissolution and aimless indulgence; a life where you constantly rake over the embers of a past to stop you making a new life that could blaze again.
He was as ready as he ever would be. This would be a real job, one with hope and ambition, one with the potential to inspire and be inspired. No more dead-end jobs now.
As he entered the room he saw four faces – two white, two black, two male, two female – appraising him with both courtesy and their clear sense of superiority over him. The Chairperson asked him to sit so that the four faces could scrutinise him further. It was the Chairperson herself who then asked him why he wanted to teach English. He was ready for this and he promptly invoked the names of the writers that had meant so much to him, had helped form the person he now was, and who gave him a particular way to look not just on life but on his nation too.
He spoke of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, how the charged writing and the passion of the words spoke of an America that was full of promise and optimism. He spoke of Emily Dickinson, her long slender poems that seemed to resemble her own physique, and how working out meaning was what we needed to do in poetry just as we need to do it in our own personal lives. He spoke of how he wanted young people to feel the music, the cadences and sounds of Wallace Stevens’ poetry and sense his deeper meanings. And he spoke of the poetry of Mary Oliver which demonstrates the uniquely personal nature of our lives in all that surrounds us and confronts us.
He made a case for F. Scott Fitzgerald by saying that beneath the glamour and glitz of the roaring twenties there was a cry and an ache for simplicity; to show that all that glitters is not gold but rock hard emptiness and loneliness. He said how discovering William Faulkner and his characters who lived in his fictional southern county of Yoknapatawpha made him understand America today and how its sores have never been healed but allowed to fester. Talking about Faulkner in this way enabled him to seamlessly move on to Maya Angelou who had died just four years ago and talking about her led him to refer to Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’, written in the 1950s, though set in the 1930s. Black lives mattered to this black author who made them alive and real for those with eyes and hearts to see.
He spoke passionately on diversity – this was a multicultural High School and he felt he could speak honestly – about the enormous value schools should attach to multiculturalism because it represents how America actually is and has been.
He could tell the members of the panel were impressed with his reading, his understanding and his articulate delivery. He had that sense that it was in the bag. His references were superb – one from his college tutor and one from his parish priest – and his teaching practice had awarded him a Merit for the course.
The Chairperson spoke to him. ’Well, you have made a tremendous case for the study of our nation’s literature and its relevance to the lives of the students in this school. Your passion and sincerity are clearly not in doubt here.’
The three other members of the panel nodded and mumbled in assent. Their faces felt warmly reassuring and supportive. He had a sense that he had impressed them and won them over.
‘However, we have a rather delicate final question to ask you – and I must stress we are asking this of all our applicants – how would you feel about being one of the armed teachers? You will have heard our President comment after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that he believes there should be 20%……’
He sunk into a state of suspended animation. He had not reckoned on such a question ever being posed and his head began to swirl in bouts of incredulity. He was shocked, amazed and terrified. The case he had put for American literature – a case that was designed to cure the nation’s mental health – was possibly irrelevant set against the answer he would give to this question. His parents and grandparents had all abhorred guns. His grandfather had come to America from Scotland in the 1930s and he wanted to scream out that in the land of his grandfather’s birth there had been a shooting at a primary school which resulted in the owning and carrying of guns being made illegal.
He owned no gun himself and had no intention of ever owning one and could not imagine ever using one. The question seemed to negate everything he had said at this interview. He had made a case for America finding its true, multifarious self through an exploration of its literature and guns had no place in this vision.
He recalled his parents once telling him that in this country you have to make compromises with the beast. You have to find ways to survive, they said to him. His parents had been young Civil Rights supporters during the 1960s and they met on a march. They were radical or what America calls liberal and both had done well – by way of teaching high school themselves they both ended up lecturing at University. How would he answer? Would he betray everything he had said earlier? To make compromise with the beast must he compromise himself?
‘Yes, I know about the reaction to that shooting. It was awful, just like all the others before and the others that will inevitably follow. It is not the gun that is to blame. It is the one who uses it that is to blame.’
He could tell by the looks on the faces of the panel that he was moving in the right direction.
‘I also believe that the best antidote to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. While I do not own a gun myself I would be prepared to take training lessons in its use and if required would also be prepared to be part of the 20% of armed teachers our President suggests. I would hope never to use a firearm but if it meant taking out someone who was willing to kill the students in my care – the ones I hope to inspire so that they can find their way in this great country – then so be it.’
He hated himself, loathed the way he had turned upside-down everything he believed in. He was a hypocrite of the highest order. This compromise was utter betrayal and he wondered momentarily whether his parents had betrayed themselves a generation earlier. All thinking people of conscience must betray themselves here. To survive life with the beast that is what you have to do – hate communists and communism without any debate as it was in the eras of his grandparents and parents, hate Islam and Moslems today without any enquiry into our nation’s foreign policy, but love our weapons, the ones that kill abroad and the ones that kill at home.
The home killing now exceeds 30,000 a year, the size of a small town wiped out annually. That figure of 30,000 includes 11,000 who kill themselves each year. What does that say about the state of this nation that would never be mentioned in any State of the Nation address? Yet each day we are programmed to love this nation, love this nation in all its ugliness and ignorance, in its supposed exceptionalism. All this ran through his brain with wave upon wave of understanding and realisation, both of which did not result in any outpouring of loquaciousness but instead resulted in a mute kind of Cistercian silence. He needed the job to pay his bills and he got the job to pay them.
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.’
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 male
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
bump 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…
THE CAPITALIST SENTENCE IS A DEATH SENTENCE
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:
a parasite that survives by defining the host in ways that maintain its own habitat
the institution of the state
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.
Eh? 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.
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!
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