Alex Neish, Sydney Goodsir Smith and ‘Sidewalk’

I’ve been pondering recently about what to write a blog on and then yesterday, three things related to the Scottish poet Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975) happened. Firstly, I sent off a book proposal for an edited collection of essays on his work – the first of its kind, if it gets the green light. Secondly, the poet Harry Giles began to sing the praises on Facebook of Goodsir Smith’s word-play tour-de-force only novel Carotid Cornucopius – a mock-Joycean cum Rabelaisian caper where every word you read is Smith’s own coinage – it makes narrative sense, but the words are also redolent of other things, often innuendos – it takes a good few pages to get used to the style, but once you have it, it’s readable believe it or not. Finally, I read a fascinating interview with Alex Neish, by Graham Rae at ‘Reality Studio’. Neish was one of the student editors of the Edinburgh University literary magazine Jabberwock which ran from the 1940s through to the late 1950s and published a great name names from the Scottish Literary Renaissance.

When this publication wound up, Neish, disillusioned with what he saw as an increasingly outdated and cliquish Scottish literary scene, started Sidewalk which promoted writing from younger Scottish and UK writers / poets as well as leaning strongly towards Beatnik and Black Mountain Poets coming from America. Its big buzz-word was ‘anti-parochialism’ and it was opposed to the Hugh MacDiarmid cult. The magazine lasted only two issues, when Neish left Scotland to pursue his fortune in the South American business world. Sidewalk published work by writers such as William Burroughs, Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg and its, perhaps less nationalist and more internationalist outlook, served as a precursor for the divisive Scottish International which ran until the early 1970s.

I thought it might be interesting to show you now an item from my Scottish Literature / Sydney Goodsir Smith collection – Goodsir Smith’s personal, annotated copy of Sidewalk 1 which I found in a bookshop in Edinburgh many moons ago:



What I have been unable to ascertain is whether Goodsir Smith annotated this copy in his own leisure or if this was done for the sake of a review somewhere – it would be fascinating to know for sure. However, you can be sure if a review did appear, it was scathing, judging by the tone of Goodsir Smith’s marginalia. The picture below shows the contents page, covered in pencil scrawl. I’m not sure about Goodsir Smith’s secret code running down the left-hand side, but what can clearly be seen is his comments on the pieces involved. For instance, Ian Hamilton Finlay, who contributes a poem called ‘Orkney Interior’, is dismissed as a ‘jokey surrealist’ (see picture below).


Now, ‘jokey surrealist’ might be a positive appellation, but I doubt it – Allen Ginsberg’s work is written off as ‘Dada’ and Charles Olson’s as ‘transition Dada’. Goodsir Smith seems to be insinuating that, for him, this work is not challenging and new, but slightly derivative of a literary movement of three decades beforehand. He also adds that the overall ethos of the magazine is captured on page 81. If you turn to that page you find a little pencil squiggle by this line: ‘But remember, things have been moving so fast in the States that by and large it’s already dated’. The only poets / writers who come off lightly are the Scottish poets of around Smith’s generation, such as Morley Jamieson and Iain Crichton Smith (although ten years younger than Smith, identified roughly as part of Smith’s circle). And this picture below shows the extent of Goodsir Smith’s frustration with the writing in the magazine.


I’m fully aware numerous doctoral theses could be written about the clash of cultures and values in Scottish writing at this time and I don’t really want to get into that here in any length. When Sidewalk first appeared, the first round of ‘folksong flytings’ had appeared in the pages of the Scotsman and the disastrous, or resoundingly successful (depending on how you see it) 1962 International Writers Conference was just around the corner. The usual attitude people take away from this time is one of two diametrically opposed camps – the old guard, Scottish Literary Renaissance poets, like Goodsir Smith and MacDiarmid, who gathered every Saturday in the Abbotsford and went on a pub crawl down Rose Street and the newer, more experimental, more outward-looking (or more explicitly folk culture identifying) writers who often took their ques from literatures outside of Scotland, or overlooked aspects of Scottish culture, such as the poet and folk-song scholar Hamish Henderson.

This is all symbolically typified in the spat, at the 1962 conference, between Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid, where MacDiarmid was dismissed as a dinosaur and Trocchi as ‘cosmopolitan scum’. These camps still seem to remain in academic discussion and criticism – the concrete poets vs. the Rose Street bunch, but I’m more with Hamish Henderson, who, while being involved in these arguments, said it was fundamentally a ‘false antithesis’ – that both camps were often drawing from very similar places or influences (Edwin Morgan was a good lynchpin in this regard). It is certainly true that the ‘old guard’ were a bit of a boozy gentleman’s club and they were, and felt, more entitled and the younger poets, like Ian Hamilton Finlay, were fighting for a platform for their work. But isn’t that exactly the same today, with the exception that the third wave writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance included figures like Liz Lochhead, whose work in turn paved way for more women poets.

Where does Goodsir Smith’s copy of Sidewalk fit into all this? Well, it certainly shows that cavalier and entitled attitude that I’ve been talking about. But, then again, does it really? I look at Goodsir Smith’s annotations and see a man who felt insecure about his non-Scottish upbringing (he was born in New Zealand) and very defensive of the Scottish Literary Renaissance – it had provided him with a voice and a clear identity and he wasn’t about to betray that with what he saw as a diversion of focus away from Scottish writing to the more attention grabbing Beatnik writers from America. It’s well known that most Scottish writers of this period were not at each other’s throats, unless in public or in print (such as the 1962 conference) where any attention was good if it lead to exposure for the writers involved. For instance, the obloquious exchange between MacDiarmid and Trocchi was effectively stage managed – there are very friendly letters that exist from both that show their fight was really a bit of theatre to hijack attention from more famous writers from across the world who were attending the conference. Of course, with all of these things, it is always a matter of who is telling the story – it was a fascinating, turbulent era in Scottish literature.

Speaking of which, I would just like to quickly draw attention to one glaring fallacy in Alex Neish’s interview I began by talking about – he states that Sorley MacLean was ‘not recognised in Scottish Renaissance circles which just about sums up their vision’. I take great exception to this – when Douglas Young (a major Scottish Renaissance figure in his lifetime) was imprisoned during WW2 for refusing military and industrial conscription, he devoted his energies to translating into Scots and ensuring the publication of Dain Du Eimhir by MacLean. If you have ever seen a copy of the original 1943 edition of this book you will know that MacLean’s Gaelic takes centre stage and Young’s Scots translations lurk at the back of the book, the book (decorated by George Bain) being one of publisher William MacLellan’s finest, with perhaps the exception of MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce (decorated by J. D. Fergusson). Also, I think with the exception of Robert Garioch, MacLean was one of the first younger poets to meet and get to know Hugh MacDiarmid – MacLean visited MacDiarmid on Whalsay shortly before MacDiarmid’s mental breakdown in the mid-1930s and he often saw MacLean as his equal, but writing in Gaelic and acting as his Gaelic correspondent and translator, providing English cribs for MacDiarmid’s translation of The Birlinn of Clanranald.

As I’ve already said, all of this is a question of interpretation, but I know what I believe.

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