Old before our time

Perhaps it’s just me – ever since I did a module on sociolinguistics while an undergraduate, I’ve been paying too much attention to the way people speak and why they speak the way they do. But I wonder if anyone else has noticed this strange linguistic trend / phenomenon that is gripping the younger generations, often sweepingly referred to as ‘millennials’ and now even ‘post-millennials’. They seem to speak in a bizarre sort of pensioner patois, far removed from the spiky argot used by the delinquents in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.

Instead of innovating new words, they are choosing to resurrect a sort of ‘roll out the barrel’ Blitz-spirit, quaintly cliché-ridden parlance. It’s best summed up in the sudden ubiquity of this phrase ‘Oh my days!’ as an exclamation, instead of variations such as ‘for fuck’s sake’ or ‘oh my god’. I mean if you want to use dated genteelisms, why not just go all the way back to Shakespeare and say ‘Zounds!’

I am not talking here about ‘elderspeak’ – the means by which younger generations communicate with much older generations. In the past we have shockingly infantilised the old by talking to them in a ridiculous sort of motherese, but now the reverse seems to be happening – the young want to talk like the old amongst themselves and project a ‘mature’ image.

It might have something to do with the intense pressure modern living puts on its young to appear successful, grow up immediately and fit in at all costs. Have you listened to them being interviewed? They come out with things like ‘oh that was before my time’ (meaning ‘I am a solipsist – nothing of any importance happened before my birth’) and ‘I’m 24 today, how did I get so old, I remember when I was young…back in the day’).

They aren’t helped by chart music which is all 25 year olds singing about when they were young too – listen to Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle on the Hill’, he sounds like an old duffer at the end of his life looking back over it all. I understand that when you are younger you want to appear grown up – maybe passing as an adult when you are 17 and want a pint in the pub. But drinking is no longer PC and the younger generations are the first to let you know.

Maybe it all goes hand in hand with the increasing religiosity, prudery and puritanism of society, frowning on smokers, drinkers, drug-takers, swearers etc etc. It seems like a symptom of Tory Britain’s grand decades-long scheme to make everyone homogenously aspirationally middle-class as part of their vendetta campaign against the underclass. Come with us or die, seems to be their unofficial motto.

But then, maybe it’s just me who thinks the young are beginning to ape the behaviour and speech of the old?


The ‘Wainwright’ Prize

Today’s will be a short one. I’ve at last got round to buying a copy of Amy Liptrot’s critically apotheosised first book ‘The Outrun’. I’ve not finished it yet, but I am enjoying it (hard not to enjoy books with Orcadian connections) and I’m not wanting here to add to the tsunami of praise the book has already garnered, just to point out one curious contradiction in the history of the reception of the book. My copy is a reprint paperback and emblazoned on the back cover is this: ‘Shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize 2016’. While my edition of the book was being printed, the text itself must have won this ‘Wainwright Prize’ because there is a stop-gap sticker slapped on the front of the book proclaiming it as the winner.

This perhaps highlights some of my problems with the prize culture in literature, it’s often intesenly capitalist companies trying to launder or clean their profits by channeling a tiny trickle of their dosh into something culturally worthy, like a literature prize. But, to quote Amy Winehouse, ‘what kind of fuckery is this’? This is a searing autobiographical account of a young woman clawing herself back from the brink of alcohol addiction. And what is the ‘Wainwright Prize’? – well, it’s full name is ‘The Wainwright Golden Beer Prize’ – yep, on the front of this book about the harrowing nadirs of alcoholism is an unmissable advert for Wainwright’s Golden Beer. Did it occur to the publisher that in order to crow about the book’s prize success is to also boost the alcohol industry. How twisted is that?




I apologise for writing in a rather woolly way, but I’m keeping the initial details of this blog vague as they refer to something that is still at the planning stage. I was contacted the other day by someone looking to organise a fundraiser (one of a series of such events) to try and raise much needed capital to repair Brownsbank cottage, in Candymill on the outskirts of Biggar. After being unoccupied for nearly a decade, this supremely important building is now in a very shoogly state, made of many ‘eemis stanes’.

What’s Brownsbank? you might ask. Well, from an architectural point of view there is very little to recommend it. It is simply a 19th century, vernacular stone-built two-room cottage – known in Scotland as a ‘but-and-ben’. It would have originally been used by a farm labourer and indeed, until it was handed over to the Biggar Museum Trust in the early 1990s, it was in the possession of the local farming clan, the Tweedies. Over the years a porch has been added as well as a tiny bath room and miniscule kitchen, in the form of one lean-to extension added to the building in (I think) the early 1960s. The funds for this were raised by the Communist-leaning actor Alex McCrindle and the labour was done by a student Communist society, who also helped to install electricity and water to the cottage.

Why did, and does, the cottage need to be helped? The answer to this also answers the question of the importance of the building. It was home, from 1951, to the poets Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) and Valda Trevlyn. The then patriarch of the Tweedie family, Thomas, agreed (after the intervention of MacDiarmid’s publisher, William MacLellan) that the MacDiarmids could live there rent-free for the rest of their lives and it was there that they managed to live an extremely ascetic and quiet life. By 1951, MacDiarmid’s health was largely undermined by a life of grinding poverty, of trying to live via his writing projects and poetry. Anyone wanting to gain an insight into the abject indigence MacDiarmid and Trevlyn lived in (and managed to raise their son Michael) during the 1930s and 1940s, needs to read Beth Junor’s Scarcely Ever Out of My Thoughts: The Letters of Valda Trevlyn Grieve to Christopher Murray Grieve or Laurence Graham and Brian Smith’s MacDiarmid in Shetland.

Also, by 1951, MacDiarmid was a largely spent-force as a poet, having written manically in the 1930s in an attempt to get his work out into the wider world and make the barest pittance in order to get by. However, he had nearly three more decades of life ahead of him and with the constant help of Valda, they managed to have a life worth living in Brownsbank, much of MacDiarmid’s time taken up with letter-writing and reading pot-boiler detective novels! After MacDiarmid’s death in 1978 from bowel cancer, Valda lived on at the cottage alone (although with a series of wheaten terriers) until her own death over a decade later in 1989. In the early 1990s there was a local movement to see the building preserved as a monument to their lives and achievements. It was decided that the best way of keeping the building alive and in good order was to have someone living in it year-round. Thus, the Trust landed upon the idea of having writers in residence. Throughout the 1990s the cottage hosted a gaggle of writers (for one to two years at a time) such as Linda Cracknell, James Robertson and Gerry Cambridge, who has written widely about his experiences there, saying that it was his first time in a house after more than twenty years living in a caravan. See: Cambridge’s The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine.

We now need to fast forward to the early 2010s for my part of the story. In (I think) early 2012 I saw an advert somewhere for month-long Brownsbank writing retreats. By this time I had already read MacDiarmid’s work fairly widely (I was even in the early stages of a PhD at Glasgow University on the Scottish Renaissance) and had already wanted to make the pilgrimage to the house, even just to peer in through the window. The Trust had decided that since Brownsbank had sat idle for a number of years, it was beginning to fall victim to damp and who knows what else, and it was time to have the cottage occupied again. A grant allowed writers to visit the cottage for a month with a (to me, then and now) extremely generous living stipend to get by (I ended up spending a lot of mine on getting coal sent up to the cottage). I applied via the then very affable custodian and caretaker of the cottage, Andrew McCallum and was amazed when my application was successful. More or less everything in my life I have applied for to do with creative writing (poetry) has seen me rejected, but not the Brownsbank writing retreat.

I have a feeling it was autumn by the time I got into the cottage (which is why I needed a lot of coal). I replaced Catherine Sadler and my successor after my month was up was the poet Andrew Sclater. The conditions of the retreat were pretty simple – you were free to use the cottage and stay there and write whatever you fancied but at some point you had to branch out into the local community and do some sort of outreach work – be this a workshop, a session in a school or something else to do with writing outside the cottage. I recall that Catherine organised a wonderful afternoon of poetry readings in the back garden of Brownsbank (the last hurrah of the summer that year, I seem to recall). Lacking the confidence (knowledge, track record, experience etc) back then to do a writing workshop I also plumped for an afternoon of readings (I’ll come back to this).

I do remember the frisson of excitement and fear when I first moved into Brownsbank. Catherine had left me a really nice note and (I think) some sort of house-warming gift. I soon discovered that the cottage is effectively two bedrooms, plus the tiny lean-to I mentioned earlier. If you go straight through the front door, ahead of you is a small storage cupboard, to your right is Valda’s room, still adorned with all her knick-knackery, pictures, furnishings and books. Back in 2012, this room was already very damp and fusty – as I admired Valda’ D. H. Lawrence collection, I noticed that the books there were already spotted with mould, but they also had such touching inscriptions from ‘Chris’ (Hugh MacDiarmid). The reason, I think, for this room’s poor condition was that the original open-fire had been blocked up and replaced by a rickety old gas fire that I never even dared to use while I was there. Although I never met Valda (I was probably only 2 going on 3 when she died) I had a strong impression of her character, her bright-red henna-ed hair. And her room had oodles of personality to match, you might even say a presence to it (if you believe in the paranormal). I’d heard many ghost stories about Valda’s room, but I never experienced anything untoward other than occasional things falling off shelves. Gerry Cambridge, when I told him this, quipped that Valda’s ghost was probably going easy on me because I was a nice young man…

Ceci est MacDiarmid’s pipe

However, if Brownsbank hosts Valda’s ghost then I did my best not to upset it. There was an oil painting of Valda (I’m guessing from the 1930s, because it was heavily stylised and rather Art-Deco looking) which was propped up against the bookshelf, its back facing outwards, with a large gash in the canvas. I knew, having read a story by Linda Cracknell, that Cracknell had found this painting in the shed and thought it a great shame that such a nice artwork was relegated there, and she brought it in and hung it on the wall in Valda’s room. Within a few minutes Cracknell dashed back to the room to find the painting had flung itself across the room and managed to impale itself on something sharp. I’m guessing that Valda put the painting out in the shed because she hated it? I know that she once put a curse on the painter R H Westwater because she hated his painting of her husband so much. He was dead within a week.

I would like to know if anyone who ever stayed at Brownsbank ever slept in Valda’s room. I certainly didn’t – even when I had my mother over for a visit for a few days. On the first night, I woke after about an hour or so to see that the lights were still blazing in Valda’s room. I went in there to find my mother in the bed, rigid with fear, her eyes glaring. My mother is far more receptive to these things and I should have known. I let her have MacDiarmid’s camp bed and I slept on the floor (even then I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in Valda’s room…).

This is strange because MacDiarmid liked to speak of his own bedroom cum study as a ‘growing shrine to my vanity’. It is true that even in 2012 when I was there, the walls were festooned with his likeness in photographic and artistic forms, but somehow the room lacked the clear personality and presence of Valda’s – it felt more welcoming, or at least neutral. It was very brown, walled with books and the mantelpiece hosted a little collection of MacDiarmidian artefacts, such as his pipes (about thirty of them, all chewed with deep cogitation!). I was surprised at how much it looked like Margaret Tait’s 1964 filmic portrait of MacDiarmid. There was the red Parker-Knoll high-backed armchair by the fire, and behind it the pigeon-holes all stuffed with papers and ephemera. There were the empty bottles of whiskey (Glenfiddich) and ink (Quink), there was an old local farm-supplier’s promotional calendar from (I think) the year of MacDiarmid’s death. It was a cosy and ambient room, if and only if, you had the open-fire full of glowing coals. The fire place was the soul of the cottage and I tried to keep it going constantly while I was there (which was a full time job because I was always out in the little copse of trees beside the house looking for windfall branches and twigs to get the fire started in the morning).

Me in MacDiarmid’s Parker Knoll, 2012

For all of the cottage’s rudimentariness, there was something very luxurious about sitting in MacDiarmid’s chair, by the fire, with a good book and perhaps a dram, that it is possible to live in the mind very well with only the barest concessions to comfort, or that we as people don’t really need that much to be happy. I am not a fastidious person when it comes to these things, so I adapted to Brownsbank (materially speaking) quite easily. I don’t recall much bother from mice, although I clearly shared the place with them. The water, from a nearby burn, was sometimes a bit rusty and turbid, so I did cop-out there and buy in big bottles of water to drink. I think I liked Brownsbank so much because I am drawn to domestic modesty. At Brownsbank, this clearly contrasted quite touchingly with MacDiarmid’s own egocentric view of himself as a great artist. When I think of my favourite castle in the UK, I often say Lindisfarne, because it was re-designed by Lutyens as a home for a family, and is on a much more domestic scale that most of the ostentatious castles and mansions we have. I find nothing more boring than a house that tries too hard to impress me with power and status and I can’t stand TV shows where people visit stately homes and instantly begin tugging the forelock by saying how amazed they are by them, usually to the owners themselves. So that’s one of the reasons why I love Brownsbank – it’s a marvel and a triumph against the odds and it needs to be saved for the nation.

I recall writing a fair bit while I was at Brownsbank, some poetry and some research on my thesis at the time. I don’t think I wrote any poetry that survived at all – it was all pretty stillborn, but that was more because I was just enjoying living in the place. It was certainly very lonely at times and I did have a run-in with a local that knocked my confidence a bit. I was coming up the track to Brownsbank off the bus and opened the gate when a little ankle-biter dog jumped out at me and began barking. Not being a fan of dogs, particularly aggressive dogs, I told it rather loudly to ‘F*ck off!’ but its owner heard me and came hobbling down the track, and a scene ensued. Even now I feel aggrieved by it because I still feel I was right – it was on the property where I was staying and not on a lead (as it should have been) but there is no reasoning with the dog-owning majority.

My stay at the cottage culminated with my special community event – a free poetry reading. In my over-enthusiasm, I invited a number of poets because I felt that some of them would inevitably drop out or say no. I even summoned the courage to ask some eminent names such as Douglas Dunn, Vicki Feaver, Helena Nelson and John Glenday. I couldn’t offer them anything by way of payment or even meet their transport costs, but for some reason they all agreed. What ensued was a marathon poetry reading in the Corn Exchange in Biggar – it must have lasted two hours (maybe even more!). It was well advertised and drew a pretty good crowd – I recall one couple coming in and then leaving rather loudly (I think in frustration) as I got up to introduce yet another poet. But this poet was my headliner – Douglas Dunn – and this couple were nearly at the door to leave when I said ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Douglas Dunn’ – and they did an abrupt U-turn and sat back down…

I had been so carried away with putting on this event that I completely forgot to plan for what might happen afterwards. Luckily, Helena Nelson had thought of this and phoned the restaurant across the street to book a large table for us all, I was very grateful she had done so. Just yet another example of Nell’s quiet, understated care and kindness for others in the poetry community. The reading – which I called (rather uninspired-ly) ‘the Clanjamfray’ – was I think a success and left me with very fond memories of Brownsbank, even if I never wrote anything worth a penny while I was there.

I hope that if a fundraising campaign can be got off the ground for Brownsbank that people see its tremendous cultural importance and contribute generously.

Rebel, Rebel

I instinctively baulk at the term ‘rebel’ – anyone can be one, it’s just lazy shorthand for defying any sort of prevailing code, mode, more etc. It’s not necessarily a thing to be (ala John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’) because while ‘rebel’ usually means something cool and rather left-wing, it is also used to apply to Tory politicians who are so reactionary, they no longer fit in the ideological stance (whatever that may be!) of their party. I also dislike that ‘rebel’ is usually a self-appointed thing – ‘oh, I’m such a rebel, look at me’. And ‘rebel’ has also been usurped by the greedheads to show that people like Steve Jobs, in devoting themselves heart and soul to making money, were better (ruthless) leaders for being ‘rebels’.

I think where the waters have been muddied is in the distinction between ‘rebel’ and that truly, scarily decadent thing, an ‘individualist’, or (heaven forfend!) an ‘eccentric’. My aversion to ‘rebels’ began at school when I found myself ostracised by the general student (popular) population. In looking for somewhere to belong, I rather awkwardly and uncomfortably tried to make bedfellows with the soi disant rebels. These were people who dyed their hair, had piercings, wore nail varnish (male), dressed in black, didn’t listen to chart music etc. But the really curious thing I discovered is that a ‘rebel’ is essentially someone who seeks a different form of conformity, and it is often a much more inflexible and extreme form of conformity. They are people seeking a different context in which to flourish, and are prone to inverted snobbery. I remember meeting these people outside of school or on non-school-uniform days, and the first thing they would do would be to check the band t-shirt you were wearing was acceptable. Nirvana was in, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers definitely was not (much to my frustration, but not chagrin). Everything seemed equally consumerist – it was about buying things to prove membership – and rather superficial – all that mattered was an outward display of defiance of whatever was the norm. But the sadness of this was that these people were just deciding upon another norm to replace the norm they disliked.

Ahh, but maybe this hits on a deeper ontological point – that to want to belong is to desire in some way to conform or compromise. But what’s the alternative – pariahdom?

Naturally, I don’t expect people to agree, but I’m very wary of anyone who identifies, or is described, as a ‘rebel’.




My blogs are barely read, other than the times when I talk about two things: failure and death. Rejection, in a way, is both things. There is an awful lot of propaganda about that says that rejection is a wholesome par-for-the-course thing, that we learn from our mistakes. But I find myself viscerally baulking whenever anyone is lazy enough to quote that fatuous Beckett line about ‘failing better’: ‘Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better’. Why is it always Nobel Laureates who are telling us about their failure rates? The horrid truth is that rejection is no growth experience at all, it actively diminishes us, contrary to what most people put about. It’s the ‘smile-though-your-heart-is breaking’ lobby that hate to have to deal with someone passionate, honest and spontaneous. So much is about trying to make an untenable situation (that’s Life) seem tolerable – what exactly is it that compels people to their place of work each morning other than the financial incentive? We are sold fictions about life that make it seem worth living, when often these fictions are sheer propaganda, but for what or whom?

Rejection has been a steadfast ally of mine (or rather Svengalian shadow) as long as I’ve been writing poetry and trying to get it out there. When I was younger and wrote poems that were full of ambition but essentially gibberish, I found I had a fairly good time getting published. But when I aged and decided to take my ‘craft’ seriously, that’s when the knives came out. See, what happens as a poet starting out is that you create a little buzz then you find your poems getting into magazines. But as soon as that buzz dies away, if you fail to cement your achievement in terms of extra-poetic things like prizes and awards (Eric Gregory etc), those who published your early work begin to feel betrayed and wonder why they published you at all. I’ve been in this position with a number of hail-fellow-well-met, fair-weather-friend magazines that published my early work fulsomely but refused to publish anything thereafter. My favourite rejection slip came from the now defunct The Bow-Wow Shop which had previously published quite a few juvenile poems of mine: it was all of two words, no address or sign-off, simply ‘No thanks’… I treat call-centre pests on the phone with much more courtesy than that!

You can tell a well-intentioned rejection from a bad one miles off – a good rejection tends to be supportive, handwritten and perhaps the editor sticks their neck out and says what they liked and didn’t like so much, perhaps they urge you to submit again. I’ve been in the position of motoring through a blizzard of rejections to eventually secure an acceptance. And perhaps it’s arrogant to assume that your work deserves or merits this sort of attention, but if you are an active reader, buyer and writer of poetry then I think that this is exactly the sort of treatment that’s called for.

The added problem is that we are not supposed to talk about these things now, about being rejected. We live in an age that exudes apodictic certitude – that’s why no politician will say that Brexit is just sheer self-destructive lunacy, because we can’t admit that we’re wrong and we can’t ever accept that we’ve failed. But what if you’re a sincere poet that has tried and tried and failed, where does that leave you? If you’ve no obvious school to attach yourself to, what happens? Chances are your work will be rejected. Of course there’s an art in reading and subscribing to magazines that might like your voice, but the magazines of integrity (as in the mags that simply publish what they like with no agenda) are rare. Why publish a good poem by an unknown when you could publish a shopping list by the latest Eric Gregory recipient? And of course this is bitterness, but it’s also a fact about how magazines operate, they need to sell copies and the known quantity is always preferable to the unknown.

I have published two pamphlets and collections of my work. This does not mean that I’m an old hand (or should that be ‘hat’?) but it does mean that I expect to be taken seriously when I submit to a magazine and a recent postal submission I made to Poetry London resulted in my poems being returned with no slip at all, no idea as to what the editor made of them. Somehow I think not hearing back from the magazine is less of a slight than this. Of course, this could be an innocuous administrative error, but I’ve been in this position too many times to think so and give the benefit of the doubt.

We are encouraged to be graceful in accepting rejection, and rejection is an inevitable part of writing, but I think that over recent years editors have felt that it is acceptable to treat submitters with something much less than grace. But I’m an extremist, there’s absolutely nothing that will deter me from trying to get my work out there. No amount of rough treatment will put me off, because I know that I want to reside in the realm of poetry. The price you need to pay for that if you’re not fashionable is often an editorial brick-wall, but so be it. Some brick walls have cracks.

The death of the bargain

Recently I found myself queuing up, alongside about 500 other people, for the first day of the annual bibliophilic feeding frenzy cum rugby scrum that is Edinburgh’s Christian Aid Book Sale. If you ever want to see un-Christian behaviour, go there!

But in all seriousness, the event is something of a high point for the book collector. On previous years I have come away with some impressive finds and often not for that much money. It depends what you are looking for, I collect Scottish literary rarities of the 20th century, so my competition is not that great. However, this year, the finds were decidedly thin on the ground and what was there was often bullishly priced. Feeling deflated, I went around all the bookshops of Edinburgh and found even less than nothing. Then I looked forward to a trip to London for a day where I could also take in some of my favourite bookshops. The day came, I walked about 25000 steps going from bookshop to bookshop, and came away with more or less nothing – a few back issues of old literary magazines, a couple of Mohamed Mrabet first editions (a Moroccan writer I like to collect) and a signed copy of a collection of poems by the Dutch artist / poet (and member of Cobra) Lucebert.

Compared to previous hauls, it was a very poor show. As far as book collectors go, I’m really a bottom feeder, I want something good on the cheap but sometimes in desperation settle for mediocre stuff. But even mediocre stuff seems to be getting scarce. I know that recently I was boasting about finding the George Ogilvie annotated copy of MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle and while that was a great bargain, it was also still a lot of money. Perhaps all this discussion of money cheapens the books in question, but how else am I to get them, to have them, to read them (yes, I read my books)?

When I was growing up and regularly visiting charity shops, I don’t think it’s nostalgia speaking when I say that they were filled with interesting things often going for a song, but charity shops (and car boot sales for that matter) had a certain stigma attached to them that they’ve since lost. This is strange and ironic considering that charity shops now hardly ever have anything worth having in them and are so expensive it’s often nearly the same price to buy the item new, and everyone seems to want to be in them, you cannot budge for all the ‘bargain’ hunters they attract. But what’s happened to the bargains, where did they go? The internet has given everyone a shot of the most superficial knowledge and we all think we’re experts – everything is researchable and hardly anything misses the eyes of others now.

Being a book collector, a quasi-mythic figure from the past who is often in my thoughts while I’m out hunting for bargains is Martin Stone, a much feted, if rather louche, pioneering rock guitarist cum book scout who, like John Gawsworth before him, was rumoured to have ‘magnetic’ or magic figures that attached themselves to the most amazing books. I never did meet Stone, who died of a rare form of cancer in France in 2016, but I read of his piratical, goliardic, Villonesque exploits in accounts by bookseller/writers like Iain Sinclair who fictionalises Stone in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. He also features prominently in this extremely rare, and oft-though lost, film by Chris Petit called ‘The Cardinal and the Corpse’. (If you’ve never seen this film, I really urge you to follow the link to watch it on Youtube while it’s still available – I wish I’d never seen it so I could see it all over again). This film is about subterranean or long neglected writers of London who are not remembered in traditional, canonical accounts of the literature of the city and it is largely framed within the wheeling and dealing of itinerant booksellers and scouts as they trawl off-beat London for treasures to flog.

In the film (from 1992), which boasts a whole cast of amazing monsters like Derek Raymond, Martin Stone comes across as very jaded with the whole art of bookselling and collecting. He says, towards the end in a show-down with disgraced book-scout Drifield, that he is no longer interested in anything that isn’t utterly unique and one-off. He claims that all the rare books have dried up and there’s hardly anything left to uncover or discover. It’s a glum note at odds with the general ethos of the rest of the film, but if he was saying this in 1992, then what are our chances now? There must surely be nothing left to find?

Fast forward to sometime in the 2000s and we find Martin Stone living in France and featuring in this documentary on bibliomania and the rare book trade of Paris. He’s still very much an active bookscout and seems to have rediscovered his love for the calling. He claims that what he is doing is a service for culture – he is helping, book by book, to safeguard literary heritage, because ‘If I make you pay 300 euros for a book, chances are you’re going to look after it’. He considers an expensive book, once bought by the collector, to be ‘protected’ for all time. This is an admirable, if quixotic view.

I was recently in touch with a retired bookseller, talking about my lack of finds at the Christian Aid Booksale, and I said that one of the things I was glad to buy was a nice copy of Abraham Adams’ rather scarce Another Little Drink with a letter from the author tipped in. (Abraham Adams was the pseudonym of librarian, writer and bookseller John Broom and this book is one of the most fascinating accounts of alcoholism and the drinking culture of literary Edinburgh during the Scottish renaissance). We both agreed that so few people would even recognise the book (let alone read it), and my retired bookseller friend claimed that for every copy of the book he’d sold in his long career (a handful), he had to explain at length to the buyer the importance of the book he was proposing they should invest in. Booksellers are not always just out to turn a quick buck, but are like Martin Stone in his later years, performing an important function as a cultural broker. Pricing an obscure book is a political statement, it’s about putting across your opinion, you are saying this book is rare and fascinating and as such deserves to be valuable, or at least more highly valued.

I’ll keep looking, but it’s getting harder and harder to find that bargain amongst all the pulp.



Les Murray: A Memory

My blog today will be brief, because I’m recovering from a lengthy house move (including shifting many tonnes of printed matter). And because I’ve moved house, I’ve been starved of the internet now for a week or so, so I missed the sad annoucement of Australian poet Les Murray‘s death at age 80. I’ve no interest here in passing judgment on his skills as a poet or even mentioning his oeuvre, but I do want to share with you one little memory of the only time I bumped into him.

It must have been summer 2006 or 2007, not sure which, and I was an undergraduate English student at Stirling University. The English department had some extremely strong links to towering literary names like Chinua Achebe, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich and Les Murray through friendships with faculty members like Professors Angela Smith, Rory Watson and Alasdair Macrae. I was friendly with all three of these professors, although by the time I was at the university, Macrae had retired. So it was either Rory Watson or Angela Smith who encouraged me to go along and see Les Murray (on one of his many UK tours) read in one of the lesser lecture rooms of the Pathfoot building.

It’s strange that I was given at least two opportunities while at Stirling to hear Famous Seamus Heaney read there, and I let both of them pass me by (much to my regret). But I felt almost possessed to go and hear Les Murray. This is additionally strange because I had no idea what he looked like (remember, this was just before the internet really became the most ubiquitous force on earth) and I’d maybe only read a dozen or so of his poems. On the day of Murray’s reading I was late getting there and I dashed to the venue. Before going in I realised that I had to go to the loo first, so I ran into the nearest toilet. Throwing the door open I almost instantly collided with what seemed like a bouncy castle clad in a stripey jumper. As I went ricochetting backwards, I felt too embarrassed to look the large gentleman I’d just bumped into in the eye and muttered my flurry of apologies while staggering to the nearest urinal.

After relieving and composing myself, I was ready to go in and take my seat. My fears that there wouldn’t be any left were unfounded – in fact the room didn’t seem full at all (in stark contrast with any reading Heaney ever gave). Luckily as I went in, someone was just beginning to introduce their illustrious guest and speaker, Les Murray. I sat there wondering which person in the room he might be, but then at the very moment he was due to appear, a door opened and out came the very person (who seemed like ‘sprawl’ incarnate) I’d just barged into five minutes beforehand.

I wish I could say that I remembered every poem he read and his entertaining delivery of each one, but I was glowing red with embarrassment the whole time I sat there, the only time I heard Les Murray read in corpore.