At heart she possesses a sliver of iceIce Maiden
It’s a warm night but the windows must be closed to keep out traffic rumblings and sudden sirens in the street below. Blackwells is full to bursting for a book launch and the audience wants to hear the poet speak.
Edinburgh, as Stewart Conn detects, might well have a sliver of ice at her heart, but Auld Reekie warms to her poets at any time of year. Coming to Edinburgh from Glasgow, he found it hard at first to adjust to the very different culture of the capital city, he writes in the introduction to Aspects of Edinburgh (published by Scotland Street Press).
He began to feel less of an interloper when he discovered his grandfather had a licensed grocer’s shop in the High Street, “at the heart of the Old Town – where he’d leave a dram on the window-ledge for the beat constable coming off duty next morning.”
By the time he became Edinburgh’s inaugural Makar in 2002, Stewart Conn had developed a fondness for the city he describes with unsentimental and often unsettling clarity. Aspects of Edinburgh – beautifully illustrated with the drawings of his friend and neighbour, architect and draughtsman John Knight – come in many shades of grey. And occasional bursts of colour. The poet might thrill to the dramatic skyline, but from Arthur’s Seat he sees a timeless truth:
Often when happiest
we are most conscious
No whiff of Parnassus
Edinburgh was not the first city to create the post honouring the craft of ‘making’ with words. Glasgow had led the way, three years previously, by making Edwin Morgan the city’s laureate in 1999 – three years before he was appointed as Scotland’s first Makar (in modern times), the post now occupied by Jackie Kay.
Perhaps the Unesco City of Literature, takes the appointment particularly seriously. (While Glasgow’s current and third Makar is Jim Carruth – he followed Liz Lochhead in 2014 – Alan Spence, another Glaswegian, is now Edinburgh’s fifth Makar.) Each time, the poet, who receives a small honorarium, is selected by representatives of the Scottish Poetry Library, Scottish PEN, The Saltire Society, Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and the Council.
Makar: Stewart Conn prefers “that term’s more egalitarian ring than ‘laureate’, with its whiff of Parnassus.” Down on the ground, a poet among people not stuck up, high on the Mountain of Muses. Egalitarian? It’s a good provocative word in our time of increasing inequality when culture seems ever more the property of the middle class. And it adds provocative responsibility to the role of city Makar. That’s a topic worthy of further, deeper exploration but here it stirs curiosity about Scotland’s other Makars. We might go to Glasgow, Aberdeen or Stirling.
Why pick on Dundee?
In Dundee, the outgoing Makar Bill Herbert, wrote and performed an uncompromising official tribute to the new V&A which embodies concerns expressed by Chris Silver in his essay published recently on Sceptical Scot. [City or Symbol? Dundee and perils of regeneration]. And the Makar added to that when he emailed permission to quote from his Address to the Dundee V n A in this poetry blogpost.
“My poem is very much concerned with the issues [Chris Silver] raises,” he writes, “and I suppose my tenure as Dundee makar has made me reflect on what a city’s culture can be – can it really be a willed thing as either a matter of policy or of expression?”
The first verse sets forth
Bilbao, Paree, That London, thon Hull –
o aa the braa toons that tourists could visit
why pick on Dundee? It’s duller than Mull
and the hame o the Broons – plus, whaur the hell is it?
Pit a daud o V n A in wir DNA
and let’s see whit Dundee can dae.
(And gee the Laa Hull monument a Prince Albert beh the way.)Address to the Dundee V n A
WN Herbert was appointed as Dundee’s first Makar in 2013 to coincide with the city’s bid for European Capital of Culture status. “I think the Makar’s real job is this” he wrote on his blog, “to reflect Dundee back to itself, to Scotland, and to the current UK as a whole.”
His poetry is shaped by the ‘unlikeliest juxtapositions’, according to the Scottish Poetry Library, “His twin pole-stars, are Hugh MacDiarmid and William Topaz McGonagall, the intellectual and the clown… both committed to challenging the Scotland of their time”. More often than not, Professor Bill Herbert, professor of poetry and creative writing at Newcastle University, chooses to do that in Scots.
Wir not a singul naishun and therr’s not a singul tongue:Can’t spell won’t spell
we talk wan wey gin wir aalder and anither if wir young;
we talk diffrent in thi Borders than we dae up in thi Broch;
wir meenisters talk funny when they skate oan frozen lochs.
His reflex reaction to the Kengo Kuma building jutting into the River Tay was to call it a silver bridie. “When it first came along I was like most Dundonians – I was a cynic,” he told STV in September last year “I wrote about the silver bridie and how much it would cost. As we’ve grown to live with it, we grew to love it.”
Nothing but the poem…and the truth
But this love is not blind. In the video performance broadcast on STV, the final verse is delivered with powerful emphasise on the word witness.
Gee us a museum that’s no jist a mirror but a witness
tae the toun o whale ile, liberty, and sweetness,
tae uts lairdies and uts cairdies that noo are wede away,
let the canny and uncanny deid speak within oor V n A.Address to the Dundee V n A
During his three-year tenure, as SPL records, Stewart Conn set about raising poetry throughout the capital, organising public competitions, introducing poems on city buses. Now, in the sensitively drawn Aspects of Edinburgh – a complementary collaboration between poet and draughtsman in a ‘city of landscapes’ – he contemplates familiar landmarks of Old and New Town with affectionate candour. In Close Names, he teases out a lingering ‘undertow’ of loss and deprivation: the city’s “division into haves and have-nots/never more discordant than today.”
Not just a mirror, but a witness. The essential role of each distinctly different Makar in each distinctly different city.
Ironically, although Aspects of Edinburgh was launched on a warm summer night, the city of RLS emerges most revealingly in winter. It’s a rewarding and richly nuanced book with personal insight that traces an illuminating path through the streets.
In Winter she really
comes into her own,
the New Town grey
under a watery sun,
its whinstone setts
and sedan chairs, silk
the Old Town, once
haunt of cut-purses
and men of letters;
and west-endy than ever.
Formerly prim spinster,
then dowdy dowager,
now part princess,
part hen party hostess,
at heart she possesses
a sliver of ice…
Featured image: Edinburgh from Inverleith by John Knight, former architect with Historic Environment Scotland