I am starting to get to the age where my years are being bookended by the deaths of people from the poetry world, sometimes people I knew well, other times simply someone whose body of work resonated with and meant something to me. Last year, just after Christmas, my good friend the Anglo-Brugean poet Marcus Cumberlege died at 80, and just before him, Tom Leonard, a poet who, although I had prickly encounters with him, I never really knew personally but a poet with an oeuvre that meant more than diamonds and rubies to me.
This year (or rather at the end of the last) it was Alasdair Gray. Again, a man I’d only met a handful of times, but one whom I venerated as a writer and artist, and a generous soul who gave a feisty foreword to a book I’d edited (on Joan Ure) for nothing. His death was made more poignant for me by the fact that his sister is our neighbour, and we’ve often spoken about him and his work together. And now the news is coming through that Roddy Lumsden has died, at the rather poor innings of 53. Lumsden, like Leonard, had been hanging on from a shoogly nail for a while, so it wasn’t unexpected, but shocking nonetheless. I’ve no doubt he was a great aider and abettor of younger poets, but I never knew him. I saw him once, across a crowded pub in London – that’s it. Had I been a bit more outgoing and metropolitan, I might well have met him, or at least introduced myself. The extent of my contact with him is the few volumes of his I have on my shelves – I admired his almost Urquhartian logodaedaly – his playful dance in the company of exotic and abstruse words.
But what all this has brought out is this – when the news of the demise of someone culturally significant drops, why is there suddenly this frantic race to be the first to offer some sort of encomium? Alasdair Gray’s death generated a supra-tsunami of tweets and obituaries and tributes. You go on YouTube and like a rash, every video featuring the deceased is peppered with ‘RIP’ bromides. I remember as a child my father getting almost giddily excited when someone majorly famous died and being the first to announce it to us. I’m as guilty as anyone else – I mean, I wrote memorial blogs of a sort after the deaths of Marcus and Tom Leonard. But in most instances I managed to say to the face of the person / poet what their work meant to me (as if it ever mattered what I thought) while they still walked the earth. Even with George Ramsden, the antiquarian bookseller, on my last visit to his shop barely a month before he took his life, I told him that York for me was almost a bibliographic desert with the saving grace of his shop.
Death will, and always has, put a much higher value on the work of an artist, particularly a tragically premature death – the way signed copies of Seamus Heaney’s poetry collections skyrocketed in value when he died, because there won’t be any more (although the fraudsters on eBay might see to it that there are…).
But I’m also nagged by the vague memory of reading an account of a trip by Dylan Thomas to Edinburgh. At the time (I think the late 1930s, maybe early 40s), Hugh MacDiarmid was a desperately poor and increasingly marginalised figure in Scottish letters and Dylan Thomas gets up to address an audience and says something along the lines of: ‘this great man is suffering now, he needs your money and support now, don’t wait until he’s dead and pour money into erecting a statue to his memory…’. And when Thomas died young at the age of 39, MacDiarmid fulminated against all the elegists, opportunists and vultures profiting off their (often negligible) associations with the Welsh bard – they could say anything they wanted because he was ‘safely dead’ and now a prime target for being embraced into the canon and becoming a fetish of the tourism board. Again, I paraphrase from memory – I’ve not been able to find the source since, but am confident I haven’t imagined it.
But why do we wait? The day before Alasdair Gray’s death it was his birthday. How many wished him a happy birthday who also went on a day later to regurgitate tired truisms about his genius?