With the deaths of Jimmy Reid and Edwin Morgan, August has been a sad month for Scotland.
I was brought up in a Tory household. My father, exiled from Poland because of Communism, saw unions as the greatest threat to freedom and despised the likes of Reid; my eldest brother was in the Young Conservatives. At the age of eleven, I even had a Vote Conservative poster on my wall. So when Reid appeared on the television, the abuse hurled at the screen was predicable. But his rhetoric stunned me: here was a man speaking in the broadest Glaswegian I had ever heard who used words and syntax in a way that was nigh on perfect. I wanted to listen to him, not because of what he said but because of the way he said it, the way he could entrance and persuade and bully with language. And of course, if you listen to the messenger often enough, you listen to the message.
In 1975 I suddenly became left wing in my silly 16-year-old way, and, now that I know what it means, I’ve been an economically left social libertarian ever since: don’t make that face, the wind will change and you’ll stay like that, my mother used to say. I can’t claim that Jimmy Reid made me a communist, but his influence, and growing up in a 1970s Scotland that was on fire with political and nationalist debate involving Reid and Jim Sillars and Margo MacDonald (who attracted particular ire from my family, blousy blonde tart she was) as well as all the great Labour statesmen who argued ideas amongst themselves, just had to have played a huge part in setting me on the right (left) path.
As for Edwin Morgan, no praise is high enough. For fifty years, he’s been the engine of Scottish literary life. I can’t imagine a modern Scottish literature without his influence. We never studied him in school, so I first came across his poetry when I studied at Glasgow University, where he was Professor. Even then, I don’t think I gained a true appreciation of him until I started teaching, and I realised that if I was looking for poetry that was political or playful or romantic or technically brilliant or, especially, humane, Morgan was the man.
I met him on several occasions, and had him out to talk to pupils, who loved him. He was gentle, gracious, generous with his time and attention and charming. He had a ferocious intellect, but I never felt that he would use it as a weapon; once, he visited Gleniffer High School, and I was sitting in the staff room with him over a coffee and a chocolate biscuit. A colleague of mine who shall remain nameless – but an English teacher who should have known better – sat down beside us and, before I could introduce Edwin, put a solicitous hand on his knee and said, “Hello. You must be the supply teacher. What subject are you in for today?” I spluttered my coffee everywhere: Edwin just laughed long and loud.
There are poems of his I can’t do without: “Strawberries” is the one of most beautiful poems of romantic and physical love I’ve ever read; “In The Snack Bar”, wasted on 15-year-olds, is a clarion call of understanding and admiration for the supposedley weak in society; and two very simple lines from “King Billy” sum up his genius with words. Describing a Glasgow knife-fight, he captures all the drama in 13 words, with not a single verb:“The word, the scuffle, the flash, the shout, Bloody crumpling in the close.”
How many pages would a novelist take to do that?
We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone; two hugely influential Scots have been lost this month, and we should honour them.