The news landscape of my life in the lead up to Christmas 2018 was dominated by the announcement of the death of poet Tom Leonard on 21st December. He had always struck me as being a walking contradiction – so clearly physically frail and sickly (his last appearances saw him accompanied with an oxygen mask) and yet so fired up and indomitable (and not to mention bellicose, as I was to find out later). But it’s not my intention here to add to the general tidal wave of encomia. He was certainly a hero of sorts for me, but as the old adage goes: perhaps ‘you shouldn’t meet your heroes’.
My first encounter with Leonard was, predictably, in print in an AQA GCSE English Literature anthology when I was 15/16, his much anthologised and exhaustively discussed poem ‘Six o’clock news’, poem ‘3’ from his ‘Unrelated Incidents’ sequence. To be confronted with an almost phonetic transcription of what seemed to me then like a real or at least vividly present vernacular Glaswegian voice, was definitely exciting. And this clearly working class voice had the temerity to attack the status quo and pillory the bastion of the BBC! Most of the other poetry I was studying seemed so rarefied and aesthetic, so dusty and dead and dare I say irrelevant to me. I come from the North East of England, so I was used to using a demotic form and accent which was thought of, in terms of the linguistic hierarchy, as decidedly non-prestigious and non-U. So I felt that in Leonard and his poetry, I had found a champion. Over the years I have been aware how people who speak with a ‘voice of natural command’ struggle to reconcile my accent with any highbrow discussion of literature – as if a Geordie twang can not possibly utter anything of any critical perspicacity about writing. Leonard really hits the nail on the head in this interview where he says we equate high status language with objectivity and authority (see 6:15 mins. in):
My second encounter with Leonard was in the flesh, at a poetry reading at Stirling University in (I think) 2006. I had never before seen a man so patently racked with illness – he was in the grips of a chest infection and hacking his lungs out between lines of his poems. But he was the first poet I had been to see who I had heard of before, and admired. Despite all this, he was actually in good form in terms of his mood. That was, until questions were taken at the end, and someone asked him a question about his use of ‘Glaswegian patois’ in distinctly academe terms. I didn’t really know then that Leonard was an avowed enemy of university English departments, so his answer was prickly and defensive. The atmosphere of the room changed completely and then, to my horror, I found myself putting my hand up to get his attention. ‘Would you mind reading one of my favourite poems of yours “Eclipse”?’ For a moment Leonard was thrown, and then he regained his composure. ‘I think you mean the poem “Storm Damage”, yes I’m happy to read that, don’t get asked to read it much’. So he reads the poem and it closes the reading and Leonard goes ‘home to [his] children’, as in his poem ‘Fathers and Sons’:
“Don’t you find
the use of phonetic urban dialect
asks a member of the audience.
The poetry reading is over.
I will go home to my children.
Over a decade passes. I hear many stories about Leonard, I only once see him in the street in Glasgow, hirpling along the road on a walking stick, clearly struggling. I toy with the idea of greeting him, but don’t know what to say as an opening gambit, so I let the moment and the famous poet pass me by. Besides, in that decade since I’d last seen him I’d gone from being a laical, non-combatant consumer of poetry, to trying to be an academic or scholar of poetry, and I know that Leonard would not like such a Quisling act. This becomes apparent in my last two meetings with him.
It is late in 2017, perhaps October? I’m in the CCA in Glasgow to hear Leonard read. It’s pretty much a full house – lots of familiar faces I know personally and some I recognise from TV, like Tam Dean Burn. Leonard’s canister of oxygen and mask is sitting in a corner for him should he need it. He reads sitting down, and despite his bodily fragility, his reading is a roaring success, full of gusto and polemical pep. This time I don’t ask him a question, but I decide to ask him to sign a few of his pamphlets that I’ve collected over the years. The rarest one I have is his second publication A Priest Came on a Merkland Street (1970) which was published by Tom McGrath’s Midnight Press. This is not a wise move. There are people in front with his most recent book, which he signs fulsomely. But the moment Leonard sees my pamphlets and hears me asking him to sign them, he goes into curmudgeon mode, the mode many people have warned me about but I’d hitherto not experienced first-hand myself:
I haven’t even got a fucking copy of that! And besides, I won’t sign them. There’s people come to my readings to get me to sign things so they can sell them on Ebay…
I’m floored by this – not so much his exasperation as the accusation that I am an imposter, that attendees of poetry readings are to be assessed on their purity of intention, which must be a deeply non-Tom-Leonard thing to do. Surely if I was a bottom-feeding autograph hound, I’d be at a J.K. Rowling signing? I can’t say this to a man I admire, so I waffle awkwardly a little, not sure how to salvage the situation. I try to assure him that I’ve read his work since I encountered it as a teenager, that I can quote snippets of it etc. Then I have an idea, I tell him that it is a sorry state of affairs when an author does not have a copy of a book he’s published, so I’d like to present my copy of A Priest Came on at Merkland Street to him as a gift. He refuses, but says that I am a gentleman to offer. He takes the pamphlets and signs them all. I thank him and run away – my face bright red with chagrin.
That night I write Leonard an email to try and explain myself and reassure him I’m kosher, and the next day back comes this magnanimous response:
I felt very wrong when you said you liked my work and this was nothing to do with that; wrong because someone saying your work is something they like is not to be messed about with, it is to be open that one says something like that. I apologised sincerely at the time and meant it, as I do now.
Again, I do apologise for an insensitive response. It was me who should feel ashamed between the two of us, and I hope you will accept a Brecht copy as genuine thanks for your interest and hoping it will give you something else you like.
Over the following days, I ponder on how I’ve felt recurrently like I’m being punished for loving poetry, for devoting my life to it when we live in a time that urges us to chase a piece of paper with some pound signs on it. I’ve had not a greatly dissimilar experience as Leonard did with Glasgow University – he wrote a thesis on James BV Thomson which was later adapted into his brilliant book Places of the Mind. But the powers that be at the time at the university failed Leonard, despite the quality of his work, and the depth of his research and knowledge. I suspect it was an ideological thing – a clash of values and cultures, the very stuff of Leonard’s poetry. I also had worked incredibly hard on my PhD thesis and was so passionate about it, yet in my viva it was clear that I was clashing with an examiner who thought his take on things was the ‘ex cathedra’ voice of God pronouncement on the matter. I did eventually get my PhD but it was something I had to fight and sweat blood for, and to this day I feel a sense of injustice about it, which has nothing to do with entitlement and everything to do with being misunderstood, misrepresented and with academics marking their territory and not allowing any alternative viewpoints. This all means that I am at best ambivalent about academia, yet I still want to write about, as well as write, poetry.
My final rencontre with Leonard was via email, some weeks after my first email exchange with him. I’d been tasked with writing small 500-word biographical entries for a large book on Scottish writers, and Tom Leonard was one of the names on my list. With some trepidation I wrote to him to ask him for some basic facts. I was doing quite well until I mentioned Philip Hobsbaum’s legendary writing group. This incurred the Leonard ire very quickly – the idea that these writers, like Kelman, Lochhead and himself were all gathered in the same room helping each other to write was ‘pernicious nonsense’. Leonard was of course right – he owed more to Tom McGrath than anyone from the quasi-mythological ‘Hobsbaum group’. But finally I’d marked myself out to Leonard as the enemy – as a lazy, myth-spreading, muck-raking academic who was determined to skewer his work and its meaning into manifest untruth. I did not respond to his email, but this curse of loving poetry and being attacked on all sides for loving it still haunts me. You just can’t win. I am not allowed access into either the academic or creative camps, so must hover here in a literary limbo, flitting between the borders of both.
I’m not presuming to say this is how Leonard felt himself, but despite his gruffness to me over the years, I rate his work extremely highly and feel his death has left the world I value somehow diminished.