Plan me a city where politicians and poets can talk dangerously The passing of a poet, and the crucible of our ideas

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The Independent Online
NORMAN MacCaig, the poet, died last week. The discourtesy is unlike him. There was an unspoken hope around that he had given way to entreaties and - after a long, ironic gaze at the petitioners - agreed to live for ever.

His conversation was of the best Edinburgh kind: dangerous. That does not mean that he was rude, but that a remark to him was treated as the advancing point of a foil. His own weapon sometimes had a button on its tip, but not always. In this exhilarating style, still practised, it is assumed that there is no such thing as a casual remark.

When I first met him, I was a young reporter on some flakey story about "the new Scottish poets". I took out my notebook, while he eyed me in silence, andplunged in: "You write in English, but isn't the way you use the language Scottish in its choice of words and rhythms?"

In reply, he handed me a book. "Show me one single line where I use English in a Scottish manner."

I turned a few pages, knowing I was kebabbed. Why had I asked such a fatuous question? How could the interview, punctured so instantly, be reflated again? I put the notebook back in my pocket and heard myself say: "There's a Marx Brothers film at the Cameo. Why don't we go to that instead?"

"A good thought," said MacCaig, who had inserted it into my head by telepathy. He took his raincoat and scarf off the hook, and we left.

In the years afterwards, I saw him regularly, and mostly in a pub. Milnes Bar had already been abandoned by the poets who had moved to the Abbotsford, a few minutes' head-down march against the east wind along Rose Street from Milnes. Here MacCaig and his friends passed evenings in their own special corner, drinking Glen Grant, laughing, baiting one another or talking to the ring of admirers around them. The mighty Hugh MacDiarmid was often there, a volcano emitting, as he said of himself, "some fire and a great deal of rubbish". Robert Garioch and Sydney Goodsir Smith were part of that circle, and Hector MacIver, head of English at the Royal High School and tutor to young poets.

Norman MacCaig, especially as he grew older, became the most beautiful human being in Edinburgh: the lean frame, the huge grey eyes gazing inwards at his own thoughts, the cheekbones. He seemed not to notice the young women who could not take their own eyes off him; he was classical and elegant, and had no need for groupies. His friendship with MacDiarmid, an entirely different sort of writer and type of man, mattered very much. MacCaig recorded many interviews with him, and the best of them - MacDiarmid reading his own work and his friend commenting - ends in a pause before MacCaig's precise Edinburgh voice completes it with two charged words: "No more".

That Milnes and Abbotsford time was in the Fifties and Sixties. When I returned to Edinburgh in 1975, it had almost ceased; there was no "poets' pub" any more. MacIver and Sydney Smith had died, MacDiarmid was very old and mostly confined to his cottage near Biggar, and MacCaig - now courted as a lecturer by several universities - had less time to spare. But the pattern of the city's intellectual and political life still held.

Different sets inhabited different pubs or hotel lounge bars, and went to them most nights. People were findable. This gang sat in the Southsider, that one in Scotts or Bennets or Mathers, the hooray Henries in the New Edinburgh Wine Bar, Gordon Brown and the clever young Labour bunch in the Abbotsford. Only in the Eighties did this way of life begin to dissolve.

It was a form of cafe society, much like its equivalents in Cracow or Berlin, Paris or Budapest. There were many associated vices: its addicts no doubt drank and smoked much more than was good for them, but its fatal flaw was maleness. While the talented fellow unpacked his ideas at leisure to his pals over the pints of heavy, a woman was at home getting the children to bed and wondering when the hell the great man was going to roll home - and with whom and in what condition. The spread of car ownership, with its attendant threat of the breathalyser, played a part in the decline of the pub habit, and so perhaps did the coming of more and better television. But the new confidence of women, no longer resigned to solitary house arrest every evening, has been the big force for change.

The justice of that rebellion can't be talked away. A social institution made possible by such discrimination is not defensible. And yet an urban society which does not allow for the regular gathering of friends to talk and celebrate, in which men and women finish work and then at once head home, is urban only in name. A city is unlike the countryside because thousands of human beings, from dozens of national and religious and political backgrounds, are in close proximity and have the possibility to mingle and exchange energy. For the young and unattached, prepared to travel to their pleasures, the disco and the rave can be sited almost anywhere. The problem starts with the next age-cohort upwards.

These are the people who have ideas but not yet power. Their meetings and talk should imagine the next culture and the next city, and as they grow older their clamour for change should begin to influence the bureaucrats and gerontocrats in charge. But how and where will they now gather and mingle, so that they can use the city's enormous human library of experiences to develop their imaginings into something more than chatter? Those with young families will no longer come to the meeting-place if their partners are excluded. Those who live in residential suburbs or periphery tower- blocks cannot drop in when the children are safely asleep, even if they can find a sitter.

Leopold Kohr, the high priest of smallness, wanted to break conurbations down into dozens of self-governing micro-states; the citizens of each community would live within walking distance of its cultural and political centre. To every urban village its own MacCaig and Gordon Brown, holding court in its own Milnes and Abbotsford.

In theory, most planners would love to achieve that. Political decentralisation would go with the shift of housing back from the suburbs, so that a town hall or a bank or a college would be surrounded by human beings by night as well as day. High life and low life, pub society and cafe society, could survive; even now central Edinburgh retains a little of that quality, while the renewal of Glasgow has tried to bring families back to the city's heart. But the obstacles are great.

Class zoning is the worst of them. Many of a modern city's professionals commute from distant villages; they create the city's problems but leave the solutions to others. Most of the poor have been evicted from the centre and dumped over the horizon into concrete slums; unemployment and inadequate public transport mean that they too are excluded from the city's life.

We hear a lot, in departments of cultural studies, about how the centre raps its baton and conducts the waiting periphery. But what happens when silence and indifference seep inwards from periphery to centre, until nothing new is said in the pub and there is nobody left to say it?

How long until the child in the streets asks her father: "When were cities?"

MacCaig wrote: "I hate a man who calls his country his." His country called him hers, all the same. It is hard that Norman MacCaig has left life. But the life in which he flourished best, composed out of one city's special harmony of people and places, had already left him.