Sheena Blackhall on Angus Calder

Sheena_Blackhall
Sheena Blackhall

Chapman  magazine has produced a commemorative issue celebrating the life of Angus Calder (1942-2008) – number 110, if you wish to seek it out. I have discussed Angus a wee bit previously in my piece on Byron and Scotch Reviewers, and I give him a substantial entry in the book. It is quite amazing to think that it is nearly ten years since he passed away. I have many thoughts about how he was treated by certain people later in life,  especially certain academics, which are not fit to repeat… however, Joy Hendry, who edits Chapman certainly never fell into that category, and I witnessed her myself visiting him right up until the end.

 

Angus Calder

It is very difficult to pigeonhole Angus Calder. He was a poet to some people, a literary critic to others, a historian to yet other people, and an Edinburgh character to others. You find him in many places – he wrote an episode of The World at War; he was instrumental in helping modern East African literature emerge; he wrote on Byron, and he was also an erstwhile political campaigner. He could sometimes be mercurial and controversial, other times friendly, sometimes highbrow, and sometimes his common touch belied his background and career. His knowledge of sport was also frighteningly detailed.

As I say, there isn’t really enough space here to discuss him fully.

Sheena Blackhall

Ms Blackhall is probably the most notable living poet from the north east, and often writes in a very natural form of Doric. I was interested to see her poem Woodland Burial: Angus Calder 1942-2008 was included in Chapman, as I happened to be at the funeral at Corstorphine Hill Cemetery myself. It captures much of the atmosphere of Angus’ burial, his family members, his ex’s, and the songs and poetry.  She says, “You lie near a row of Polish generals” – these are very much visible as you enter the woodland burial section of the graveyard. One or two details have been excluded from the poem – the man who asked Angus’ son Gideon to “speak up” is mercifully missing.

Picture Credits

Sheena Blackhall  / CC BY-SA 2.0

The picture of Elizabeth Gaskell originates on Wikipedia, and falls under the creative commons licence. The picture was uploaded by the subject herself.

External links

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John Herdman and the zoos of Edinburgh

In this piece, I discuss John Herdman who has featured Edinburgh Zoo in his work on a number of occasions… which leads me onto another Edinburgh zoo of a slightly different nature.

Introducing John Herdman

Pagan’s Pilgrimage (1978) was my first exposure to John Herdsman’s work, back in the nineties. Back then I used to go on holiday in Pitlochry in Perthshire, and would often go on short trips to the surrounding towns and villages. John and his wife Mary used to run a second-hand bookshop in a converted petrol station in Blair Atholl, which was the next stop up the line.

Many years later, and John & Mary both moved to Edinburgh, where they became involved in the revival of The Heretics, which I discussed earlier on this blog. This is how I came to know him, and I am also immensely grateful to him for contributing a foreword to the book of Literary Corstorphine.

Herdman’s works are more firmly rooted in Scottish literary tradition than many contemporary writers, who seem to have forgotten about it entirely. Herdman’s works has a kind of magical realist, or even Gothic. quality about them – the settings are often mundane enough, but the plot elements and characters are not.

Memoirs of my Aunt Minnie (1974)

In Memoirs of my Aunt Minnie we meet Mr. Crum:

“Mr. Crum was older than Mr. Clinkscales and had not always been a waiter. For many years he had held the post of keeoer in the Reptile House at the Zoological Park, Edinburgh, and during this period seemed to have taken upon himself something of the reptilian nature, for he had the hooded lids of a snake and experienced no greater delight than spitting venom from a lipless mouth. He had the tensed, seeking nostrils of an animal and his blood heat was the subject of persistent though unconfirmed rumours. This was the depraved and malicious man with whom Aunt Minnie was now to fall in love.”

Ghostwriting (1995)

Ghostwriting is something of an eschatological horror. At one point the two main characters, Torquil Tod and Leonard Balmain, decide to meet each other in “the lounge bar of a hotel in Murrayfield… He specified a table in the corner beside the French windows.

Later in the novel, Torquil has a horrific nightmare vision of Edinburgh Zoo in which the animals are fighting each other and under the shadow of some kind of deadly plague.

The Sinister Cabaret (2001)

This book also mentions the zoo, albeit more fleetingly. Like Ghostwriting, there is a mention of bears, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a reference to Wojtek the fighting bear who ended up in the zoo in his “retirement”.

Another Edinburgh Zoo

And now to that other “zoo”…

During the 1908 Exhibition, Saughton Park hosted a “Senegalese village”, and actual Africans were included. I must admit I know little about this episode. Were they paid at all? Did they come over voluntarily? Either way, the Edinburgh climate must have been “Baltic” for them, considering they had to wear clothing better suited to the tropics, and presumably slept in the huts too.

Some “Irish cottages” were also included in the exhibition, although you would have to be an expert to notice much of a difference from certain Scottish ones of the time. Whether Irish people were included, I don’t know. Needless to say, there were plenty of Irish in Edinburgh at the time, and precious few people from Senegal, so they would have been far less of a novelty.

The term often used for these exhibits was “human zoos”. It seems to me though that there is a fine line between such things and some of the heritage villages that can be found around these islands. A modern commentator would probably claim the Irish cottages fell into the latter category, and the African village into the former.

External Links

Roull’s Town?

1280px-Ravelston_Garden.JPG
Posh flats in Ravelston, more from the era of Hercule Poirot than Roull of Corstorphine

I have written previously about the mediaeval poet Roull of Corstorphine here.

He is best known to most people, if at all from William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars (c. 1500):

“He hes tane Roull of Abirdene,
And gentill Roull of Corstorphine;
Two bettir fallowis did no man ſé:
Timor Mortis conturbat me”

Ravelston = Roull’s Town?

The Roull family’s links were not just to Corstorphine but to Cramond. But Ravelston named after the Roulls? I’ll put this one down to a mere phonetic similarity, but it is tempting, very tempting.

The surname Ralston, currently borne by a BBC weather presenter, appears to come from a place near Paisley not Ravelston.

The Cursing

We may have at least one piece by Roull of Corstorphine; this is known as The Cursing and it is attributed to one Sir John Roull. The Cursing is directed at some poultry thieves, and falls under the genre of flyting (no pun intended). According to Janet Hadley Williams in her paper Humorous Poetry in Late Medieval Scots and Latin (c. 1450-1550), published in the European Journal of Humour Research (1(1) 61- 66):

With all the power of the ecclesiastical authorities behind him, Roull denounces the sinners, revealing the terrible sin they have committed, the stealing of five fat geese, ‘With caponis, henis and othir fowlis’. The bathetic revelation provides a humorous aspect to the threats, reducing the speaker’s authority; nonetheless the poem is an uncomfortably dark attack, closely parodying the real-life prose excommunication in the structure of the curse, the specialized language (the many references, for instance, to horrific diseases), and in the terrors of its imagery of hell’s serpents, adders, and devils with whips and clubs

Picture credits

  • The image was taken from Wikipedia, and is the work of Jonathan Oldenbuck. Permission is granted under the GNU Free Documentation licence.

Apologies

My apologies to anyone who is an email subscriber, and has received multiple notifications. I have been trying to improve the “plumbing” (for want of a better word) of this blog i.e. the tags, categories etc. I know unfortunately that WordPress sometimes sends out a new notification when a post is altered, so if this has happened… well it wasn’t meant to!

One casualty of this work has been the post on Wilfred Owen which got mysteriously replaced by the post on Cammo. I hope to restore the Wilfred Owen post and fix some other errors in the next few days.

To borrow a phrase from our local workmen – sorry for the inconvenience. Business as usual.

Murrayfield Comprehensive, Maeve Binchy etc

Tynecastle_High_School
The new Murrayfield Comprehensive building?

In Ian Rankin’s A Good Hanging (1992) we read about a sleazy character called McKenzie, who was caught loitering around:

“Murrayfield Comprehensive. He wasn’t charged, but it’s on record that he was taken to Murrayfield Police Station and questioned.”

The eagle-eyed will spot three things amiss here:

  • Scotland doesn’t have comprehensive schools (as far as I know).
  • There is no secondary school in Murrayfield.
  • There isn’t a police station either.

Now, I’m presuming that Rankin didn’t want the character or the setting to be associated with any real location, which is something he does in many of his novels. But let’s assume for a moment there actually was a Murrayfield Comprehensive… where would it be?

  • Tynecastle High School (pictured) is not far from Roseburn, and is the best candidate. It would have been in the old building back in 1992, across the road.
  • Two girls’ schools – Mary Erskine’s and St George’s. Probably not, since they’re private.
  • Royal High School – too far away. More like Davidson’s Mains.

As for the local cop shop – there doesn’t seem to be one for miles!

Tynecastle High School, by the way, has a much more significant literary connection, as I stated in a previous article. Murrayfield/Roseburn also has connections to John Lennon and Quintin Jardine.

Maeve Binchy

murrayfieldspate

I’ve never been a great fan of Maeve Binchy, to be honest, but I suspect her books were never directed at someone like me. She does seem to have a big fan base though, so who am I to judge?

Her book, A Few of the Girls also mentions Murrayfield, this time as a byname for rugby:

“Murrayfield was a great outing, Michael said. They always loved the year when Ireland played in Cardiff Arms Park and Murrayfield. Two great weekends – win, lose or draw.”

Binchy died back in 2012, and the book is dated 2015, so I’ve no idea whether this is a posthumous book, or a newer edition.

When it comes to Murrayfield Stadium – and indeed Tynecastle nearby – there are so many non-fiction books that mention them, that I have lost count. So, I have tended to concentrate on creative writing instead.

Andy Jackson’s poem about Murrayfield is featured in Umbrellas of Edinburgh (2016), which I discussed earlier this year.

Picture Credits
Tynecastle High School. Original uploader was Warburton1368 at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

External Links

 

Wendy Wood

David_Foggie01

Wendy Wood (1892 – 1981) is a controversial figure within Scottish life. Wood is best known as a Scottish Nationalist, one who was perhaps a lot more “hands on” than many of the current careerist crop, but she was also a poet, a memoirist and an illustrator… and a reader on Jackanory of all things.

While she is not as well remembered as she should be, there are many, particularly the Andrew Marrs of the world, who would rather she was forgotten altogether. Many Scottish feminists seem completely unaware of her as well, at a time when the memory of figures such as Nan Shepherd and Ethel Moorhead is being revived. A shame really, since although her radical Scottish nationalism may not sit well with our Guardian-reading middle class, she was also a notable campaigner for Indian independence and was involved in campaigning against the British Union of Fascists when it tried to set up in Edinburgh.

Writings

Her autobiography Yours Sincerely for Scotland (1970) details many of her views. Most histories of the Scottish independence movement have tended to be written either by the SNP mainstream or by its opponents. Yours Sincerely is a rare example of a detailed work by someone who fits into neither category.

Astronauts and Tinkers (1985) is a collection of her poetry, along with a number of her own line illustrations. I was lucky enough to get hold of a copy, but it seems to be extremely hard to come by.

She also wrote extensively on the crofting life, and produced a number of retellings of folk tales.

Compton MacKenzie’s book Moral Courage is dedicated to her.

Local connections

Wikipedia has the following to say:

From 1956 [Wood] shared an artist’s studio and house with her partner, Florence St John Cadell at Whinmill Brae in Edinburgh.[5] The house is now split in two and addressed as 17 and 18 Coltbridge Gardens. Wood’s portrait by Florence St John Cadell is held by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

 

There is a bit of ambiguity in the wording here – was Wood lesbian or bisexual? Or is this just an artistic partnership? I have no idea. This is the first time I have seen her sexuality discussed, although I know she died unmarried.

The house is still there, although there is nothing to mention the cultural connections as far as I know.

External links

Unfortunately very little of the content online specifically deals with Wood’s writing or art.

Picture Credits

The portrait was by David Foggie is from Wikipedia.

Non-free use rationale:

  • Article will be greatly improved by the addition of this image
  • Copyright holder unknown
  • Low resolution image will not harm the copyright holder’s commercial potential
  • Both subject and artist are long deceased