ABOUT FORTY YEARS ago in Ruchill, me and Freddie Anderson and Matt McGinn were waiting for the revolution. It was a favourite pastime of the ‘dissident’ mind. We were young and sincere and we knew the importance of being earnest. Oh God, we knew that alright. Worse than which we wrote it all down. Lenin had called for all youth to sing its way to freedom, so we sang our songs, and brought to the masses our prophecy of the new world to come. Within the tenement closes, most decent working men, weighed down, one could perceive, with the dignity of Labour, came to their doors, eyed us and our fraternal message, and promptly told us to ‘Fuck off’.
This was called ‘serving our time to the revolution’ and it was quite unlikely to do anybody any harm, unless we caught pneumonia. It hadn’t if the truth be known, been doing anybody any harm for years. Well, give or take a few people hanged here or there, who would have been treated so had they never protested.
You don’t believe me? What about the Lad frae Ayr, who instead of wearing the knees out of his breeks, suffered from shabby flies? There was Keir Hardie who took his politics from Scotia to London, and, when he tried to take them back to Scotland, the folk from Cumnock cried, ‘Oh for fuck sake!’, or words to that effect.
And yet London seemed to be the place. Ever since Ramsay MacDonald, the folk in the Labour Party had come to believe that the only socialism for Scotland was the colonial variety. And what with Manny Shinwell and Davey Kirkwood, could you blame them for their views? Well was it said by John Maclean about those two worthies, that they’d be addressed as ‘Sir’ long before they’d be called saint.
The trouble with me and Freddy and Matt was that we were curious about what went on inside the covers of books. There was Charlie Marx on this and Freddie Engels on that and an Indian gentleman from London called R. Palm Dutt was supposed to interpret them for us. Well, I needn’t tell you that we were able to read as well as any other colonial.
That’s what started all the trouble, I think. Me and Freddie and Matt, noticing that the comrades in London had made a mistake in their all embracing philosophies, went to London to put the matter to rights. At King Street we asked to see the leader to point out that the ‘British Road to Socialism’ said nothing about Maclean or self determination. And that grand old Scottish rebel, Peter Kerrigan, who had fought for the Spanish Republic, met us at the door and said ‘Fuck off you chauvinist anti-British bastards!’.
But we were not the first to be treated with such Anglo-Saxon incivilities and chance was that we wouldn’t be the last. The Skirving shoemaker, Thomas Hardy, founded the London Correspondence Society and brought Scottish republicanism to England. Alexander Skirving founded the United Scotsmen and, when arrested with other clergymen, friends, took Scottish republicanism to Australia. Arrested at the same time was the young Scottish barrister, Thomas Muir. When freed from assisted passage to Botany Bay by George Washington and Tom Paine, Muir introduced Scottish republicanism to France.
The only ones, apparently, who didn’t want to know about Scottish republicanism, were the Scots. And the situation hadn’t changed a great deal when, two hundred years later, me and Matt and Freddie, regardless of the danger to our sanity, went on the knocker, preached our message, and enjoyed the fairly unanimous hostility of the masses. And still the revolution never came.
But how the hell could it? Had we not been told by Willie Gallagher that the cause was only for men born sober and stiff? Had Harry McShane not insisted that the only way to unity was through dissent? And did our old friend Norrie Buchan not swear that nationalism was next to nihilism in the eyes of the Third Red International? So meself and Matt and Freddie, realising that since it was the voice of the Holy Trinity in King Street in Triplicate, listened.
I blame all the confusion on misleading metaphors. People had been talking about what they called the ‘broad church politic’. And so we had been reared, you see, not to question the sacred mysteries. Therefore, when somebody like Johnny Gollan told us that the real leader of the Scottish revolutionaries was a Yorkshireman called Harry Pollit who thought that Alba was the north of England, we didn’t, for the sake of unity, question that. The same sacrifice for unity, comrades, has given me a severe pain in the Erse for years. And we only knew one answer. Me and Matt and Freddie went back and knocked a little harder.
Scotland itself was not very encouraging of our efforts. We wanted, like Mayakovsky, to favour the poets, but the poets made it damned difficult. That decent man, Hamish Henderson, was a paid up member of the Italian Communist Party. Dear Morris Blythsman confused the slogan ‘On to the Republic’ with the cry, ‘No Surrender!’. Our great Sidney Goodsir Smith seemed to owe allegiance to William Wallace, which, though highly commendable from an historical point of view, wasn’t very practical when every comrade was needed on the knocker.
Nor should it be thought that sitting around waiting for the revolution was an easy billet in the class war. In those days everything was more expectation and desire than hope. After all, the whole of Alba was the bastion of the Tory Party, and the Scottish Labour M.P.s were as scarce in Westminster as trades unionists in the U.D.M. But, if we did not as yet possess the key, we at least had the knocker - Freddie, and me, and Matt McGinn.
And then it happened. Almost as MacDiarmid said it would, ‘by stealth’. Nothing had been changed quite utterly. No terrible beauty yet. But, as soon as we could find enough elected socialists to get out from under the remains of the empire. Overnight, almost, there weren’t enough parliamentary Tories to fill a decent sized polling booth. Tartania was suddenly the tip of an isthmus, and the gang of four had become the ‘Sloane Ranger’. Although I never noticed it until quite recently, a revolution has taken place, comrades. It must have been while me and Freddie and Matt were on the knocker.
As to poetry. I have earned my living as a professional and full-time writer for close on forty years. My influences are from the dialectical poets of Ireland and Scotland, mainly MacNeice, MacDiarmid, Hamish Henderson and Sydney Goodsir Smith. But I do not stem, as it were, from that tradition. One look at my work will show you that, like an anarchist with rules, I accept what suits me from conventionality and reject the rest.
I am not particularly interested in the length of a poem. Be it as short or as long as it will; I accept Ben Johnson’s criterion:
Even one alone verse sometimes makes a perfect poem.
I am from the working class, but I am not a ‘working-class’ writer. I have never met one, no more than I have met a ‘middle-class’ writer or an ‘upper-class’ writer. Naturally enough I understand the condition of the working class, and if I didn’t want to do something about changing it there would be something greatly lacking in me.
I like certain poets and dislike others. Mostly I dislike those who exhibit a preference for establishment values and betray an ignorance of society as it is constituted. I have a particular dislike for the so-called poets of the obscure since I fail to see why, if the first job of the writer is to communicate, anybody should ever indulge in symbols other than the characters of words - letters.
‘Babylon’ just illustrates the luxurious childhood I enjoyed amidst the tenements.
Kitty Collins lost her drawers,
Won’t you kindly lend her yours.
Two long men, four long feet
Walking down Cathedral Street.
Swiftly, on a young man’s song
Came the road to Babylon,
Finding fairy fields more wide
Than those in which old minds abide.
Richer far in memory
Than youth ever seemed to be.
So the song that nature meant
By laughing long in tenements.
Would you like to follow me
Through a slum’s eternity,
Stair by stair and floor by floor,
Swiftly by each hungry door?
The smell is what one must expect
When humankind is tightly packed
Into such beleagured truth
That passes for my erstwhile youth.
Was it here my childish sobs
When Little Neil was snatched by God?
While hating Scrooge for Tiny Tim,
I should have prayed to be like him.
Prayers were few and seldom told,
‘Sweet God, it’s warm’, or ‘Christ it’s cold!’
Relentlessly the Rosary
Reminder that mortality
Though kept at bay by talk of Lourdes,
Was most unlikely to be cured.
No bread from fishes here, you’ll find.
The blind that are around stay blind.
And even mangy Lazarus
Would be the man of most of us
Poverty is not at all
The stuff of which a miracle.
‘Suffer them to come to me’
Was but for death in infancy.
A mournful crime when children die
A druids stand to sanctify.
But what festive turn it takes
At yours, or someone else’s wake?
Like Maggie Carr when she lay dead
And Mary Reilly’s maidenhead
Was taken in this very house
By Mrs Carr’s lamenting spouse.
They held poor Mary all to blame
And wept for he whose kingdom came.
From that sad landing window wide
Leapt Mrs Duffy’s suicide.
She flew a moment e’er she fell
To where the priest decided, ‘hell’.
I watched and wept, quite openly,
The neighbours sought to comfort me,
And swore I was the nicest boy
Who could for Mrs Duffy cry.
But grown-ups never know what fears
Give rise to childhood’s bitter tears,
When that old Biddy failed to float,
She landed on my paper boat.
‘Oh gentle Jesus, meek and mild
Come to me a little child’,
Was but one prayer we children said
When kneeling by untidy beds.
In that room there, that two-per front,
Through fingered eyes the stars I’d count.
Then shameful of such reverie
I’d beg Our Lord to come to me.
And, more in horror than in prayer,
I’d peek to see if He was there!
Oh frightening Jesus, in the dark,
And in your hand that bleeding heart!
On that top lobby, by that door,
I lay quite naked on the floor
With Rita Reilly in her skin.
The two of us did dirty things
I mind that assignation fine
For she was eight and I was nine.
From down below a latin chant
Sweet inungere sacrament
Went out to God to spare a boy
Who might from meningitis die.
The praying must have done the trick,
He lived, a raving lunatic.
Did I say prayers were seldom said?
Just shows what stays within the head.
O Salutaris Hostia, the word of God. Apocrypha
That passes for philosophy
In men of simple piety.
But, how could we endure the slum
Without the tender opium?
Ubi bene, Gloria,
Uni tres nos qui Domino!
And, armed with phrases such as these
We rose, triumphant, to our knees.
This house has mansions by the score,
In each one bides the noble poor
Who hide in hollow ornaments
The signs of paupered violence,
Provvy checks and pawnshop chits,
Marriage lines and bailiff’s writs!
And brave they lie for clergy lied
That poverty’s a badge of pride!
Do they allow such ‘dignity’
To bide within the presbytery?
Was this your meaning when you slung
The bankers all to Kingdom Come?
Do poor men in your House belong
Or is it all a holy con?
How many ways to liberty?
Christ, when will end eternity?
Sweet simple Jesus, hear my song.
How many miles to Babylon?