BOOKS / Great Scot] A Red Baird: Hugh MacDiarmid, radical, prickly and one of Scotland's best poets, was born 100 years ago this week. But his country seems in no mood to celebrate

Chris Maclean
Saturday 08 August 1992 23:02

The rose of all the world is not for me.

I want for my part

Only the little white rose of Scotland

That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart.

PERHAPS it's because the little red rose of Labour wilted in April that the little white rose of Scotland is doing so little to honour Hugh MacDiarmid in this, the centenary of his birth. A master of literary and political controversy - born Christopher Grieve in the conservative Border town of Langholm on 11 August 1892 - he is the country's greatest poet, give or take Robert Burns, and has done more than anyone to put 20th- century Scotland on Europe's literary map. But he also combined a rampant nationalism with Marxist idealism, and look at what's been happening to those articles of faith.

Norman McCaig, the country's finest poet writing in English, said at MacDiarmid's funeral in 1978 that, on the anniversaries of his death, Scotland should declare three minutes' pandemonium. On this anniversary, mere ripples of appreciation are evident: the Scottish National Party's trews are in a twist; the Labour Party is licking its wounds; the Conservatives couldn't care less; and the arts establishment, in the form of the Edinburgh Festival, dithered for months before settling for a one- night (3 September), non-stop recitation by Tom Fleming of the poet's magnum opus, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

A few other tributes are, dutifully, being made: Border Television produced a recollection in the spring; STV has one in the making; the National Library and Glasgow Art Gallery have held exhibitions; one or two literary magazines are assembling special issues; and a couple of books and tapes are being republished. But it is, ironically, an English publisher who is ensuring that the 21st century will see all MacDiarmid's works assembled for the first time, in a series of 12 volumes edited by Alan Riach and Michael Grieve; Carcanet Press issues the first two this month - Selected Poetry and Selected Prose - with the rest to follow between now and 1999. And it is in London that one of his greatest lyric poems, 'The Bonnie Broukit Bairn', has been whizzing round on the Circle Line for the past two months, one of London Transport's Poems on the Underground:

Mars is braw in crammasy,

Venus in a green silk goun,

The auld mune shak's her gowden feathers,

Their starry talk's a wheen o' blethers,

Nane for thee a thochtie sparin',

Earth, thou bonny broukit bairn]

But greet, an' in your tears ye'll droun

The haill clanjamfrie]

Despite the difficulty of this Braid (Broad) Scots for all Southerners and many Scots (the London Transport poster provides a crib to explain that crammasy = crimson, wheen o' blethers = pack of nonsense, broukit = neglected, greet = weep), T S Eliot once wrote: 'It will eventually be admitted that MacDiarmid has done more also for English poetry . . . than if he had decided to write in the southern dialect.' In fact, much of MacDiarmid's later epic poetry was written in English, though that is one language into which his best works - the lyric Braid Scots poems, composed before he was 35 - have not been translated. His affinity with Russian literature, admiration for Lenin and the popularity of Burns in the Soviet Union ensured that many of his poems were translated into Russian; his work also appears in other eastern European tongues, and in Swedish, Norwegian, German, Italian, French and Japanese.

All this is evidence of MacDiarmid's international reputation. But where's the pandemonium in Scotland? Professor Catherine Kerrigan, who teaches Scottish literature at Guelph University, Ontario, and has organised a celebratory one-day conference there, is 'terribly disappointed at how little is going on'. It is not only Scottish but also British culture that is being devalued, she says. For poet and dramatist Liz Lochhead, the answer is that MacDiarmid is not as great an influence as he was between the Thirties and Fifties. 'He was the Grand Old Man, mischievous, always playing the devil's advocate. Very male, very Scottish, and pretty patronising to women.' But 'more than anyone else he made Scots a tongue that could deal with the world's philosophical ideas. He united the earthiness of Burns with modernist influences.'

But for some even the Burns analogy will not stand up. In a vitriolic Glasgow Herald column in February, Jack McLean described MacDiarmid as 'everything that Burns was not, and the reverse holds true as well . . . Burns was a man . . . MacDiarmid was a thief, a liar, a plagiarist, a coward, a wimp . . . a snob, scarce a man at all'. A diatribe hardly worth acknowledging, perhaps, but of a type that the poet dismissed more than 60 years ago when he wrote 'The Two Bruces': 'There were twa Bruces. / Ane edited the Glasgow Herald. / The ither focht for Scotland / When it was less imperilled.'

Pat Kane, lead singer and song-writer with the rock group Hue and Cry, who prefaced the title track of his last-but-one album, Stars Crash Down, with a verse from A Drunk Man, deeply resents the failure to make more of a fuss about the centenary. 'The truth is that Scotland is embarrassed by MacDiarmid,' he says. 'He shows up the mediocrity of our literature in the 20th century. He was a modernist, and the Scots can't cope with that.'

Sorley MacLean, the Grand Old Man of Gaelic poetry, knows a thing or two about translation problems: in the Thirties he let MacDiarmid set some of his poems in Braid Scots, but the Border reiver published them without his approval. 'I never thought his political judgement was sound,' he says, 'and I cannot be fund-a-ment-ally anti-English, as he was. But I'd forgive him anything for the lyric poetry in Sangschaw, Penny Wheep and A Drunk Man. He is a v-e-r-y great poet, and I liked him immensely.'

A prime example of the lyric poetry MacLean delights in is 'Empty Vessel' ('a' thing' means 'everything'):

I met ayont the cairney

A lass wi' tousie hair

Singin' till a bairnie

That was nae langer there.

Wunds wi' warlds to swing

Dinna sing sae sweet,

The licht that

Bends owre a' thing

Is less ta'en up wi't.

It was in the early Twenties that MacDiarmid began to employ devil's advocacy to create literary uproar. One of his first sallies was to call Burns 'a poet of the past', and to accuse contemporary Scottish writers of reducing his language to the 'kailyard' (cabbage-patch). But in 1926 he wrote of the Burns supper syndrome:

Rabbie, wad'st thou wert here - the warld hath need,

And Scotland mair sae, o' the likes o' thee]

The whisky that aince moved your lyre's become

A laxative for a' loquacity.

After flirting with fascism - as did Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Wyndham Lewis - in 1928 MacDiarmid joined 'King' John MacCormick in founding the National Party of Scotland, forerunner of the SNP. Five years later, however, he was expelled for what MacCormick described as extreme Anglophobia, love of bitter controversy, and a woolly conflation of Marxism and Social Credit economics. Inspired by the Glaswegian Marxist John Maclean's idea of a Scottish workers' republic, MacDiarmid was embarking on his life-long love-hate relationship with nationalism and communism.

MacCormick's son Neil, the SNP's constitutional adviser, is perhaps understating the case when he says his father thought MacDiarmid 'erred on the extreme side, when you wanted to get the great body of opinion going along with you', and he believes the poet would still have been dismissing the SNP as a bourgeois party today. Magnanimously, MacCormick concedes that MacDiarmid 'played a part in transforming the Scottish sensibility', but adds: 'Norman MacCaig and Sorley MacLean are much more focal for me. MacDiarmid's a bit like Milton - as Eliot said: 'He's marvellous but not an example.' '

Pat Kane, who campaigned for the Nationalists, is not impressed. 'The SNP indulges in acts of embroidery around our greatest poets,' he says. 'Puts them on lace doilies.'

The SNP split between old left and new extremism-of-the- centre is something Donald Dewar, former shadow Scottish Secretary, revels in. 'It's not a party MacDiarmid would have enjoyed being in,' he chortles. 'Jim Sillars and Alex Salmond have both said it's social democratic. Yes, the centenary celebrations are going off half-cock, but I suspect few modern Scots know much about MacDiarmid's political past. He had the socialist ideals and his poetry was magnificent, but I never could take his politics.'

'Wrang-heidit?' runs a line of MacDiarmid's 'Mm. But heidit] That's the thing]' Yevgeny Yevtushenko is 'heidit', too. Thirty years ago the Russian poet visited the ageing bard at his farm-cottage. Both were admirers of Lenin and Marxism; MacDiarmid even had his three 'Hymns to Lenin' broadcast from Moscow. And as Yevtushenko says today, they were as one in being 'romantic revolutionaries'. But their dissidence sprang from different founts: the Scot was a paid-up Communist; the Siberian never joined the Soviet ruling party.

Recalling their conversation, Yevtushenko says: 'He was very open, very kind. I told him he looked like a Siberian carpenter. He was terribly pleased.' But he was also 'an armchair- ologist. There were many of them outside the Soviet Union: Orwell, Greene . . . It was a terrible shock for me when we found out that in 1918 Lenin had agreed to the setting-up of a concentration camp. Happily for MacDiarmid, he died before he knew the truth.'

But Alex Clark, who was the poet's election agent in 1964 when he stood as a Communist against the then prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home (MacDiarmid 127, Sir Alec 16,659), says: 'The collapse of Communism would not have changed MacDiarmid's basic political ideas.'

The town officials of stand-on-your-own-two-feet Langholm refused to attend the poet's funeral in 1978. They are rumoured to have been mortally affronted by a reference in MacDiarmid's autobiography, Lucky Poet, published in 1972, to local sexual encounters in 1904 between two pupils over a desk and two teachers on Whita Hill. In the Sixties the town refused to make him a freeman, and chose, instead, Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon. ('The Bonnie Broukit Bairn' might have been written for the occasion.)

As the poet was being buried in Langholm cemetery, his wife, Valda, said: 'They'll have to live with him now.' Sir Hector Munro, the local MP, claims that they are. Indeed, one of the more touching centennial occasions will be a lunch in the town next month at which the winners of MacDiarmid awards for poetry and literature will be announced. 'Time has healed the antagonism,' Sir Hector says. 'We already have a memorial to him on Whita Hill, and birthplace signs are being placed at each end of the town.' Surely they're not trying to attract tourists? 'I can't imagine any tourists visiting Langholm on MacDiarmid's account.' (Sir Hector is in a genial mood.) And what about the poet's politics? 'Well, he blew two causes before he died. If he were still alive, I suppose he'd be blowing a third.'

Undoubtedly he was intellectually arrogant, and (pace Jack McLean) like many highly productive poets, guilty of plagiarism; as an impractical, Sisyphean politician he could be economical with the truth. His philosophical aim was to reconcile opposites, to square the circle, or as he entitled one of his epic poems, To Circumjack Cencrastus ('Deep suroondin' darkness/Is aye the price o' licht'). He saw no contradiction in being, all at the same time, a nationalist and internationalist, romantic and realist, elitist and populist. He was the embodiment of paradoxes that induce anxiety in more pedestrian minds. Surely we can all, whatever language we speak, remember with gratitude the man who encapsulated the eternal political paradox in A Drunk Man:

I'll hae nae haufway hoose, but aye be whaur

Extremes meet - it's the only way I ken

To dodge the curst conceit o' bein' richt

That damns the vast majority of men.

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