Today’s post is about conservation in a literary sense and a broader sense. I got thinking about how we look after things but not necessarily people (and quite often neither!) a couple of weeks ago when someone close to me was made redundant after years of exemplary hard work. This person’s job was as a ‘buildings conservator’ for a city council – they were utterly incorruptible and were motivated only by one thing: protecting historical buildings and monuments from philistine property developers and sometimes owners who genuinely didn’t know better. This often meant protecting old Georgian sash windows against the march of PVC and occasionally it meant litigation against someone who had stripped the character from an historic property – the court would often rule that the damage had to be reversed, and features reinstated exactly as they were. One notorious case this person had to deal with was that of an old school-house which was noted for being one of the first Gothic-revival buildings in the North of England. The owner had bought the building for the large plot of land it was built on and simply wanted to tear it down. The buildings conservator stepped in to put a stop to the greedy property developer and amazingly the buildings conservator won the court ruling and listed building status was placed on the old schoolhouse. That night the property mysteriously burned down and had to be demolished.
I think it sounds like a noble job not for the faint of heart – protecting the architectural texture of an area from people who would see it forgotten or swept away. But it is also a minority job, a beleaguered job from the very start – you have to fight against bigger forces all your life. Not only that, but this particular buildings conservator nearly died of cancer, yet against the odds they pulled through, convalesced and returned to the work that, a few years on, would make them redundant. Should they look for work now, their medical history will surely militate against them (almost as if survival is something to be punished for!). It does not surprise me that such an important job would be unvalued nowadays at a time of unprecedented retrenchment in employment – when everyone seems to be an amorphous managerial type who stands for very little apart from themselves. The buildings conservator is a walking reminder to me that there are higher things to life than profit and financial gain, that wealth is not (in my mind at least) measured in fiscal terms.
It reminds me of one of those phrases like ‘who’s policing the police?’ – we try to look after old things some of us value but few of us seem to be inclined to look after those doing the looking after in the first place. You might be thinking what’s this all got to do with literary conservation? Well, I was recently tasked by the Scottish Poetry Library with writing short (1000-1500 word) biographical and critical articles on various poets they felt had been under-represented on their website. Some of these poets might be nearly forgotten by most people now, but they are all very important poets and some were well-known in their time, others had the misfortune of being very good but always neglected. This work brings me back to their poems and lives and puts me in touch sometimes with their living relatives or friends who are largely very supportive. So far I’ve written pieces on Ian Abbot, Andrew Young, Alasdair MacLean and Alexander Scott. I’ve still got a few more to do, too.
Dylan Thomas, in a speech he gave in the late 1940s in Edinburgh, urged people not to wait for Hugh MacDiarmid to die in order to start celebrating his work – that the money they might spend on a memorial might be better given to the living, impoverished poet. The arts have a strange thanatic death-cult surrounding them – I was in Amsterdam the other day and passed the Van Gogh museum on the tram. He’s a classic example of posthumous discovery and celebration, but total squalid neglect in life. Like I’ve said – some of these poets require more resurrecting than others and I sometimes think of the people who might read these short articles for the Scottish Poetry Library. I am sure there might not be many people but what really matters most for me is: there they are, the poets, available for access at any time. It feels a bit like detective work and conservation and despite the limited audience, I think it is extremely important. At the risk of putting too worthy or preachy a spin on this blog, I believe this all has to do with accepting that there are bigger and more important things than ourselves. It is hard to do that when most of our technology and some of our values lead us generally to self-absorption and self-interest. Poetry too is about as solipsistic a pursuit as you can get. There are other people than ourselves, there are structures that will outlive us that need protecting from people who want to make slash and burn profits in their own lifetimes. The challenge is to conserve and look after the stuff around us without being reactionary, and to add something new and of ourselves into the mix at the same time.