Richie McCaffery on the most beguiling and enduring poetry magazine of the early 1960s.
Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (1962-7) is one of the pre-eminent international and avant-garde literary magazines of the 1960s. The creation of Scottish concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), its fugitive lifespan belies that fact that it managed to run for 25 issues in just five years, a feat of remarkable creative industry. More than a poetry magazine, POTH was, in Mark Sladen’s words, a ‘cross-pollination of art and literature’. It is now highly collectable, and many important libraries have only incomplete sets. Its great desirability is testament to the continuing relevance of the magazine, its relatively small distribution and its comparative fragility.
Early issues were a single sheet of paper, folded in two to give four pages of poems and illustrations, with later issues being printed on glossy paper and sometimes running to as many as twelve pages. There are no editorials – surprisingly, given the editor’s vociferous letters to friends, foes and the press. Instead, the very aesthetic of the publication and its wide-ranging roster of contributors became the manifesto. Early issues look very similar, spare and elegant, black and white with four pages of poems, later issues being visually more ambitious, the cover art changing each time.
In nearly fifteen years of book collecting, I have managed to assemble a tatty harlequin set of seven numbers of POTH. Inside my copy of issue five is a letter from Jessie McGuffie (co-founder with Finlay of the Wild Hawthorn Press in 1961) to the playwright W. Gordon Smith (1920-1996) saying that the poem ‘Poem’ on page one was ‘sent specially to us by e e cummings just before he died’. That is an amazing coup, to host the last poem published in a major poet’s lifetime. In the poem cummings imagines himself as a young boy looking out of the window at the ‘gold’ of a ‘november sunset’:
(and feeling: that if day
has to become night
this is a beautiful way)
In their study of British Poetry Magazines: 1914-2000, David Miller and Richard Price describe POTH as ‘at turns interested in sound, visual, futurist, objectivist, concrete and minimalist poetry, not to mention art and photography’. Though wholly his creation, Finlay never treated the magazine simply as a platform for his own work. The bold syncretism of POTH must have been a fillip in early 1960s Edinburgh, not to mention an irritant to more narrowly nationalist members of the Hugh MacDiarmid set. It’s clear that Finlay did not actively discriminate against members of the Scottish Renaissance, happily publishing the likes of Helen B. Cruickshank, Hamish Maclaren, George Mackay Brown and his friend Edwin Morgan (through whom Finlay was first introduced to concrete poetry). Indeed, some of his choices are quirkily traditional in such a pioneering magazine (for instance, featuring of poems by the archetypal fin-de-siecle poet Fr. John Gray in issue nine). Edwin Morgan argues that POTH was looking for ‘connections between […] different categories’ as part of a drive to ‘surprise and stimulate’. Others treated POTH as provocation.
Opposition to Finlay and POTH was a minority sport fronted by MacDiarmid and his most fanatical acolytes, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Douglas Young. The main diatribe is MacDiarmid’s own pamphlet The Ugly Birds Without Wings (Allan Donaldson, 1962), published when only a few issues of POTH had appeared. It is a gratuitously mean-spirited attack on a youthful culture trying to do something novel and for themselves, dismissing them as nothing more than ‘teddyboy poetasters’ (an outdated insult even at the time).
Younger Scottish writers are disparaged as ‘the little men, the hopeless mediocrities, ganging up against their betters’ and Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press is deliberately mis-labelled as the ‘Wild Flounder Press’. MacDiarmid denigrates the editor and his followers as ‘jeunes refuses’ (‘recalcitrant youth’), in much the same spirit as he had attacked entrenched attitudes in his own Contemporary Scottish Studies back in 1926. Much of MacDiarmid’s argument gets sucked into irrelevant territory, muddying the waters by comparing young poets to pop singers. In truth the two poets had a good deal in common, and began as friends (MacDiarmid was best man at Finlay’s wedding). Both were fixedly taken up with ‘the global range and multiplicity of [their] own contacts with foreign writers’, in MacDiarmid’s phrase. We might even detect a faint homage to the older poet in POTH. Duncan Glen suggests that Finlay was not after praise or approval but rather wanted to shake things up – we might recall MacDiarmid’s self-description as the ‘cat-fish that vitalises the other torpid denizens of the aquarium’ – and that he ended the magazine when he became disillusioned with mainstream acceptance of concrete poetry.
POTH put out its last issue in 1967, nearly 55 years ago. The last issue was dedicated to ‘one-word poems’ and was a masterclass in how to put emphasis on one word through a clever title:
‘The Man with Seagulls’
‘The Friend of the Dove in the Doorways of Bread’
(both by George Mackay Brown)
During the evanescent course of its life POTH published a wealth of writers of international stature. There is no organ to match it in Scotland other than Alex Neish’s Sidewalk (1960) and Bill McArthur’s Cleft (1963-4) both of which died after two issues (while retailing for much more than the 9d of POTH while still appealing to students). No other journal in Scotland can boast e e cummings, Pablo Neruda, Theodore Enslin, Lorine Niedecker, Ernst Jandl and many more as willing contributors. In Edwin Morgan’s requiem for POTH (published in Wood Notes Wild) he asserted that ‘good or bad, convincing or irritating, it [POTH] will be missed’. The magazine’s title is drawn from Robert Creeley’s 1959 poem ‘Please’, itself a plea for a space for consideration:
This is a poem about a horse that got tired.
Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.
I want to go home.
I want you to go home.
So Finlay’s horse got tired in time, tired of carrying a heavy load of something outré and new. But even Creeley’s poem calls for a homecoming. Isn’t the pull of origins rather odd when you’re trying to blaze a new trail? I don’t think so. Like MacDiarmid before him, Finlay was trying to widen the scope of internationalist writers like himself, to find a home in the wide-open world.
Richie McCaffery is a poet and critic from Northumberland, who completed a PhD on Scottish poetry of World War Two at the University of Glasgow in 2016. He is the editor of Sydney Goodsir Smith, Poet: Essays on His Life and Work (Brill, 2020).
Richie McCaffery introduces a key editor and poetry magazine of the 1960s-80s.
The magazine and imprint Akros began in late 1965, when the first issue, a small yellow journal, emerged from Bishopbriggs. (Its maker, Duncan Glen, soon left for more congenial work in Preston.) From its inception, Glen as editor, typesetter and designer knew exactly what he wanted his distinctive creation to be. These early issues were hand-stitched by Glen’s wife Margaret at the kitchen table, as were the limited-edition pamphlets Akros also issued, bringing forgotten poems by Hugh MacDiarmid to a new audience. As Akros gained momentum over the years, the visual appeal and ambition of the journal noticeably increased. It’s worth noting that Glen eventually became a professor in Visual Communication at Nottingham Trent University and was an authority on type-setting, fonts and print design. These skills are evident in back issues of Akros with striking covers and sometimes polychromatic pages made up from different coloured sheets of paper (and Glen occasionally used different materials like sugar paper which add something to the haptic experience of reading a magazine).
The contents of Akros issue 1 show an emphasis on Scottish writers, though not exclusively so. There is work from the old guard – Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig and Robert Garioch – as well as up-and-coming Alan Bold, Rory Watson and James Rankin. This was going to be a magazine where writers young and old were welcome. Akros was open to submissions, not a clique, but certainly heavily male-centric. But Glen was not always so: see his continued support of Tessa Ransford, Margaret Gillies Brown or publishing Cheryl Fullon’s first pamphlet.
The first Akros editorial strikes a similar querulous note as Edwin Morgan in his well-known essay ‘The Beatnik in the Kailyard’ (1962, in New Saltire 3), lamenting the lack of support for grass-roots Scottish writers and poets in their own country. In Glen’s words:
Of course the stock answer to suggestions for publishing Scottish poetry is that it does not sell, but it is strange that while the American and English houses that publish Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, W S Graham, Tom Scott, etc, etc. remain healthy the Scottish houses are falling, one by one, to English and American take-over bids.
We’ve heard this fighting rhetoric before, from dozens of flash-in-the-pan little magazines, but what makes Akros remarkable is its longevity. It ran for 51 issues, from 1965 to 1983 and managed to publish myriad poets and writers, often long before they’d made a name for themselves. Surprisingly, some of the younger writers he championed felt an oedipal animus towards the older Glen, as if they had outgrown him and his worth, or Glen had somehow become marginalised and irrelevant. Tom Hubbard recalls: ‘a former protégé told him: “I shall always be grateful to you for printing my early poems but we have to crush you”’.
After winding up Akros in 1984, Glen went on to publish another literary journal, Zed2O from 1991 until 2008, the year of his death. The new title carried on very much like Akros though not quite as impactful and aesthetically not as recognisably sui generis. One of the reasons for the relatively long life of Akros is that, although Glen moved to Preston, he remained devoted to the cause of Scottish writing in all its forms and struck upon the idea of ‘themed’ issues. This strategy has clearly had an influence on successive Scottish magazines, such as Joy Hendry’s Chapman and Gerry Cambridge’s The Dark Horse (1995-present), which is also immaculately designed. I don’t possess a complete run of Akros but from the copies I have, there are special issues dedicated to long poems, Edwin Muir, Sydney Goodsir Smith, MacDiarmid, MacCaig, American Poetry, Gaelic Poetry and, perhaps most desirable of all Glen’s issues, the March 1972 ‘Visual Issue’, focussing on Concrete Poetry and featuring Ian Hamilton Finlay, John Furnival, Edwin Morgan and Herbert Spencer. It’s this eclecticism that helped keep Akros vital and exciting.
We need to remember that Glen’s position as an editor of a poetry journal, a largely Scottish poetry journal, was an inherently embattled one. He is to be praised for his restraint in many debates and allowing the work of others speak for itself, as in the ‘Visual Issue’. However, Glen does sometimes get carried away into garrulity and polemics. For instance, an excerpt from the editorial to issue 3 (April 1967):
We are also pressured into the social use of “proper” language and thus we have the attempted linguistic castration of the vast majority of the Scottish people as they are forced (by communal, social authoritarianism) towards abandoning their virile, natural-to-them Scots and towards attempting proper “received” English.
This drags on for ten pages, and the fiery hectoring tone is straight out of a MacDiarmid essay from the 1920s or 1930s, though this is in 1977 and Glen is most likely preaching to the converted. Glen’s editorials are often entertaining and informative but as the 1970s wore on, he felt that his own writing was being eclipsed. He increasingly gave space in Akros to his own poetry and (laudatory) criticism of it. Like the ‘aggressively minor’ poet and bookman John Gawsworth, his main genius was as an editor, talent-spotter (‘animateur’ in Tom Hubbard’s lexicon), advocate and publisher of the overlooked. Into the 1970s and 1980s, Glen continued to publish and promote his own work and even published a somewhat boastful autobiography, The Autobiography of a Poet (Ramsay Head Press, 1986). Even his friend Alan Bold titled his withering review of the book ‘A Surfeit of Self-Satisfaction’.
Glen’s major achievement will always be Akros. It is without doubt one of the major Scottish magazines of its time, and really gained momentum in the 1970s. Glen’s winning formula was to opt for special issues and themes, promoting young but promising writers but also putting equal value on a culture of criticism. Even a quick glance at the reviews section of the magazine is not for the faint-hearted – this is not the sort of tepid, anodyne criticism we’re used to today, but rigorous and at times scathing peer feedback. Here, for instance, is Tom Scott on the Scottish poetry scene of the early 1970s:
[…] Let us turn instead to what we have. Well, we have talent: it’s not the lack of talent that’s wrong with the present scene, but some ghastly spiritual malaise; lack of enterprise, daring, passion, the ardour of youth’s mad assault on the absolute, the aspiring eye and vigilant heart of the poetic pioneers who face the vast forests of the inarticulate not with scalpels and penknives but with two-headed axes, two-man saws, climbing-irons and bulldozers. Instead of lumberjacks we have sparetime wood-carvers, knick-knackers, hobbyists, Sunday-afternoon pastimers, the foreign-office-by-day-holy-office-by-nighters, the craze-starters, fashion-mongers, would-be gauleiters, doodlers, the poetastinacademics, the wide boys, the Establishment bum-suckers, and all the rest of them. (Akros 16 / April 1971, p. 52)
His work on the reappraisal of MacDiarmid is naturally one of the lodestars of Akros but as much as Glen had one foot in the past, and was reverential about his elders, his work significantly contributed to the efflorescence of print and literary culture in Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s.
In a 2006 interview with Walter Perrie and John Herdman (both writers published early on by Akros), Glen expressed frustration that academics and careerists overshadow the tradition of criticism and publishing in Scotland by acting as arbiters of taste and gatekeepers. For Glen, editorial opinions are important and need to be more inclusive and idealist, rather than following brute market trends of what sells and what doesn’t. His triumph as an editor was to put aside his own ideology – that of Scottish nationalism – and publish writers, such as Alan Jackson, who had opposing views to his own. There is an all-embracing magnanimity to Glen’s role as an editor at Akros and this deserves to be mentioned more often and remembered. He also deserves praise as one of the most active champions of MacDiarmid’s work when it was in the doldrums; the 1960s saw a new flourishing of interest in his poetry, a much-needed rediscovery and recalibration. To finish, I’ll quote Glen quoting in turn the Irish poet John Hewitt: ‘if you cannot get a civilisation which is rooted in the local and in the parochial, you don’t have a civilisation’. With Akros Glen added hugely to Scottish culture.
Richie McCaffery is a poet and critic from Northumberland, who completed a PhD on Scottish poetry of World War Two at the University of Glasgow in 2016. He is the editor of Sydney Goodsir Smith, Poet: Essays on His Life and Work (Brill, 2020).
Rory Scothorne explores a path-breaking radical magazine of the 1970s, a Highland ‘vehicle for a revolutionary Scottish Gramscianism’
“Vietnam: Victory to the NLF”, proclaimed the second issue of Calgacus magazine, published in Summer 1975 shortly after the Viet Cong’s capture of Saigon. Page 48 was surprisingly low billing, however, for the long-awaited conclusion of the Vietnamese liberation struggle that had animated and helped to transform radical politics across the western world. Calgacus reflected that transformation, albeit in a uniquely Scottish form.
The magazine’s editor, helming a rather prestigious editorial committee, was the 29-year-old teacher and journalist Ray Burnett, who produced the three issues of Calgacus – two in 1975, one in early 1976 – from his home in Wester Ross before the magazine fizzled out of existence. Burnett had spent the late 1960s on a Forrest Gump-like tour of radical flashpoints. Not only had been on the frontline of the famous anti-Vietnam War demonstration in London in March 1968, when 246 protesters were arrested amidst clashes with police, he was also present at the Battle of the Bogside in Derry the following year, when fighting between unionist marchers and predominantly Catholic locals led to days of police violence followed by British Army intervention.
These were battles between great powers and plucky underdogs, and Calgacus sought to articulate a distinctive Scottish radicalism within that global tradition of resistance. It was named after the first-century Caledonian chieftain who challenged Roman invasion, to whom Tacitus attributed the famous anti-imperialist speech that was quoted in each issue of the magazine:
We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by the very remoteness and seclusion for which we are famed. We have enjoyed the impressiveness of the unknown. But today our boundary is exposed; beyond us lies no nation, nothing but waves and rocks and the Romans. Brigands of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea. They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealth. Robbery, butcher, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.
Such overtly left-nationalist symbolism was intended as a provocation, reflecting Burnett’s growing frustration with what he saw as the British left’s neglect of Scottish questions. Until the early 1970s, Burnett had been an active member of the International Socialists, a precursor of the Socialist Workers’ Party. British Trotskyism was highly London-centric, and while the SNP’s rise since the late 1960s had not been lost on Trotskyist intellectuals, their responses had largely dismissed the idea that this reflected a distinctive Scottish polity worth engaging with more positively.
Burnett disagreed. “The present crisis of capitalism,” he wrote in Calgacus’ first editorial, “is neither a particularly Scottish problem nor even particularly British: it is an economic trough of global dimensions.” However, “when such a universal phenomena is related to a specific reality then that juncture is in our case an economic, political and social prism both definable and recognisable as Scotland.” The magazine’s identity was thus not just self-consciously Scottish but defiantly so: “Calgacus is guilty of that most heinous sin in the catalogues of the British Left – we admit that Scotland exists.”
Burnett had laid out this position in more detail three years earlier, in an essay for Scottish International titled ‘Scotland and Antonio Gramsci’. Alongside a panoramic critique of what he saw as the prevailing left-wing approaches to the national question in Scotland, Burnett offered his own pioneering analysis, drawing on Gramsci’s distinction between “political” and “civil” society (and later quoted prominently in Tom Nairn’s 1977 Break-up of Britain): “While we have a homogenous British state,” he argued, “the organisations and institutions in civil society which comprise its bulwarks and defences have an azoic complexity, the most significant feature of which for us is that civil society in Scotland is fundamentally different from that in England.” Thus Scottish culture and its distinctive institutions mattered profoundly to socialists seeking to counter bourgeois ideology: “Much of our shared ‘British’ ideology as it manifests itself in Scotland, draws its vigour and strength from a specifically Scottish heritage of myths, prejudices and illusions.”
Alongside this need for a more thorough socialist critique of Scottish identity, Burnett also emphasised the importance of defending its liberating and collectivist features. “The left must uphold and expound the merits of past achievements and the richness of our inheritance,” he wrote: “we must cherish the diverse contributions of the flowering Makar and the rantin’ ploughboy, the radical weaver, the passionate Gael, and the rovin’ tinker. If we do not, then what price ‘the revolution’?”
This position also reflected the influence of the folklorist, poet and Communist fellow-traveller Hamish Henderson, whose 1940s translations of Gramsci’s prison letters were first published in the New Edinburgh Review between 1973 and 1974. Henderson was central to Calgacus’ conceptualisation, though ultimately not formative. In an interview, Burnett told me that Henderson suggested the name Mac-Talla (after a successful Gaelic periodical based in Nova Scotia between 1892 and 1904), which Burnett rejected due to the limited Gaelic audience. Henderson also proposed Christopher Grieve (aka Hugh MacDiarmid) for the editorial board, but Burnett rejected this, too – MacDiarmid had alienated much of the Scottish new left with his support for the Soviet repression of Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 respectively. Calgacus was thus intended as a vehicle for a revolutionary Scottish Gramscianism, staking a socialist claim on Scotland’s “national-popular” that placed the rights – and radicalism – of minority identities at its heart.
For this reason as well as its location, Calgacus stood out amongst the largely Edinburgh-centric national periodicals of the 1970s due to its focus on the Highlands and Islands. Burnett had previously written for the West Highland Free Press based at Kyleakin on Skye, which had been established in 1972 by a group of Dundee University students, and the newspaper’s publishing arm also produced Calgacus. This ensured a distinctive interpenetration of regional and national questions, and issue 2 foregrounded the Gaelic slogan Tir is Teanga (“land and language”) on its front cover.
This was accompanied by articles about the land reformer and newspaper editor John Murdoch and excerpts from his work; maps of land ownership on the Argyll Islands; an essay by the Gaelic scholar John MacInnes on Sorley Maclean’s Hallaig, and an essay by the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger on “A Theory of Tourism”. Other issues also paid close attention to the region: Issue 1 featured an essay from Sorley Maclean on Gaelic poetry as well as detailed coverage of the North Sea Oil industry and its workforce, while Issue 3 included an article by James Hunter on nineteenth century land struggles and an essay on the land question by the SNP activist Frank Thompson.
While there was a clear rural and ethnic minoritarianism to much of this coverage, Calgacus also reflected the politics of a largely Anglophone, urban and university-educated intelligentsia that was looking to Scottish nationalism as a source of authenticity and self-legitimation. On the opposite page from “Victory to the Viet Cong” was an enthusiastic review of the Red Paper on Scotland, a major mid-70s statement of self-confidence from Scotland’s up-and-coming left intelligentsia edited by Gordon Brown in Edinburgh. The vague, radical-reformist and cerebral constitutional politics of the Red Paper – clearly pro-devolution, but also toying with independence in some places – jarred with another item on the same page: a folksy, populist protest lyric in favour of Scottish independence and opposed to the European Economic Community. Burnett’s own position, however, was closer to the politics of Tom Nairn and Scottish International’s editor Bob Tait, who pioneered the ‘Independence in Europe’ argument in the 1970s that would eventually be adopted by the once-Eurosceptic SNP. Calgacus’ nationalism was aware of its own potential pitfalls, pitching a cosmopolitan, outward-facing vision of cultural and political revival against the insular, homogenising state-nationalism of the UK.
Calgacus’s distinctive vision of cosmopolitan nationalism conceived of European minority-nationalism as a general rather than uniquely Scottish phenomenon, and a fundamental rather than marginal question for socialists. The composition of the (advisory) editorial board was itself a statement of intent, with a geographical spread significant enough to ensure that it never actually met. Alongside Burnett and Hamish Henderson were Tom Nairn and the Red Clydeside veteran Harry McShane; these Scots were augmented by Ned Thomas from Wales and Brian Trench from Ireland, key figures in Planet and Hibernia respectively – both vital, ground-breaking magazines in their own nations. They were joined by the Mersey-born Irish Catholic John McGrath, the author of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, on which Burnett had worked as a researcher.
The magazine’s content expanded this cosmopolitanism beyond Britain and Ireland, countering the left’s sceptical vision of a corporate, capitalist Europe with a distinctive vision of “Europe’s forgotten minorities”. This was focused not just on “the Europe of the Celtic periphery” but also “the Europe of Occitania, Galicia, Friesland, the Basques, Catalonia, Corsica, and a myriad of linguistic minorities,” reproducing translations of left-wing minority-nationalist literature from across the continent. This was justified by a particularly cultural – we might even say ethnic – idea of socialism, focused on “the salvation of humanity, the celebration of man’s achievement’s, not the annihilation of his rich diversity [italics added]”. Calgacus’s socialist, cosmopolitan nationalism can thus be understood as an attempt to redeem the idea of Europe, as a “carrying stream” of myriad precious and intertwined traditions, from the homogenising pressures of capitalist modernisation. This could be stretched to especially controversial lengths: in its third and final issue, Calgacus published Tom Nairn’s essay – later updated for The Break-up of Britain – arguing that the Irish question could be resolved by an independent Ulster.
By 1976, financial problems at the West Highland Free Press exacerbated tensions between Burnett and the WHFP’s fiercely anti-nationalist editor Brian Wilson, leading to the magazine’s demise. Calgacus was unable to find an alternative to WHFP’s already fragile access to both production and Scotland’s fraught apparatus of print-media distribution, and bad-tempered disputes on the letters pages of other magazines ensued. A fourth issue had been promised on “the place of women in Scottish society”, and its absence only amplifies the silence of women in the pages of Scottish political and cultural magazines during this period. Calgacus’ business manager Catherine MacFarlane, who married Burnett in 1967, was the sole woman involved in the magazine’s production.
Reflecting on a decade of the “revolutionary left in Scotland” in 1978, the Trotskyist intellectual Neil Williamson – who died tragically young in a car accident that year – remembered Calgacus as “almost an object lesson in irrelevance.” Any clear political impact is undoubtedly hard to find in the subsequent decades: the devolutionary form of Scottish nationalism which prevailed was far more reformist and institutionalised, deploying the majoritarian ethnic symbolism of twentieth-century Clydeside far more than the Celticist minoritarianism of Tir is Teanga. Yet class was also a vital part of Calgacus’ politics, reflecting the “land and labour” combination advocated by the Irish revolutionary James Connolly – a profound influence on Burnett, who grew up in the same Edinburgh Cowgate community as Connolly had.
While Calgacus tended to overstate – as many have – the revolutionary potential of ‘Red Clydeside’, many of Burnett’s political instincts have been vindicated, albeit without much political success to show for it. SNP activists like Frank Thompson and Rob Gibson were welcome in Calgacus’ pages, despite widespread left scepticism towards the party at the time, and this openness became common sense with the rise of the ‘79 Group. The magazine’s effort to generate a radical, multinational vision of Europe, resistant to the homogenising pressures of the EEC, is now sorely lacking from Scottish politics after Brexit.
Most importantly, Calgacus’ explicit effort to generate a “Scottish left” out of the implicitly British or de-nationalised “left in Scotland” (which was Williamson’s formulation) outlined a collective project that would animate the Scottish intelligentsia for the subsequent two decades. Just six years after Calgacus finished, the editorial collective of the left-nationalist magazine Crann-Tàra would repeat Burnett’s decision to dismiss a Gaelic title in favour of a more popular one, renaming themselves Radical Scotland to attract a broader, less fundamentalist audience.
Though it was short-lived, Calgacus was an inventive attempt to reformulate Scottish radicalism for a political world that had been transformed by the rise of the SNP. The magazine’s chosen priorities and themes can be traced through political projects from Jim Sillars’ “breakaway” Scottish Labour Party (of which Burnett was a member) to the Scottish Socialist Party, the Radical Independence Campaign and the Scottish Greens, as well as media outlets like Bella Caledonia.
Rory Scothorne is a writer and historian who recently completed a PhD on ‘The Radical Left and the Scottish Nation Print-Cultures of Left-Wing Nationalism, 1967-1983’. He writes on Scottish and British politics for the New Statesman.
Magazines are for making enemies as well as friends. Richie McCaffery revisits the pugnacious Sidewalk via the furious pencil-marks of one of its targets.
One of the most important Scottish literary magazines of the 1960s was also one of the shortest lived. Sidewalk (which ran for two issues in 1960) was formed when the then editor of Jabberwock (an Edinburgh University student publication) splintered away from what he saw as an increasingly cronyist and reactionary editorial outlook, supporting older Scottish nationalist poets and very little else. In his final ‘American’ issue of Jabberwock, Alex Neish, now a local historian and pewter-ware expert, printed the opening chapter of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch much to the excitement of his readers, but to the consternation of the press and Burroughs himself, who had no knowledge that Allen Ginsberg had submitted it for publication.
With Sidewalk Neish was free to pursue his own vision, one that was transatlantic and syncretic, not merely a grandstand for the political bloviations of the older kenspeckle Scottish bards. In his valedictory editorial for Jabberwock in 1959 Neish made his thoughts swingeingly unambiguous, saying that he wished to jettison ‘that inferior romantic drivel of misdirected Nationalism which for too long has been a millstone around the necks of younger Scottish writers’. By the time Sidewalk 1 appeared, Neish’s stance had clearly not in any way mellowed, drawing very firm battle-lines in his editorial, guaranteed to antagonise older Scottish writers: ‘Lallans today […] has an academic insular artificiality which is inherent in the work of those who use it. The more Lallans poetry that appears, the more reasonable becomes the tenet that in the 1960s literary pastiche is being created by poetical eunuchs’ (p. 11). Curiously enough, ‘eunuchs’ was one of the favourite insults MacDiarmid liked to throw at writers he regarded as enemies.
Putting his firebrand rhetoric into action, Neish printed between 500-750 copies of each issue of Sidewalk and the magazine was aimed at an audience most likely to be ‘open-minded’ – university students. The magazine introduced its readers to the likes of Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder and William Burroughs. This small Scottish periodical was not just tokenistically international, but vitally eclectic, embracing French and British writing, Black Mountain Poetry and Beatnik literature. Let’s just compare the dramatis personae of that line-up with a 1960 copy of Lines Review (a major organ of the Scottish Renaissance). Lines Review 16 has on its cover a reproduction of a woodcut by Moira Crichton depicting Sydney Goodsir Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig all enjoying a guid-willie-waught in The Abbotsford Pub (Rose Street, Edinburgh). The contents are predictable: MacDiarmid, MacCaig, Garioch, Crichton Smith et al. (It’s interesting to note that Lines Review retailed at 1 shilling and sixpence whereas Sidewalk was 2 shillings, at a time when a student grant was perhaps 140 shillings (£7) a week). This is no slight aimed at Lines Review – one of the literary backbones of Scotland for decades – but to show that youth culture and other strands of avant-garde culture needed a room (or magazine) of their own.
Sidewalk might have been a flash-in-the-pan in terms of its lifespan, but it sent intellectual and aesthetic shockwaves through both young and older writers. In 1963, Bill MacArthur, a university student who had acted as an illustrator for Sidewalk, established his own magazine Cleft (which, like Sidewalk, only ran for two issues). Cleft is a seminal small magazine because it not only carried on Sidewalk’s transatlantic and European scope but also introduced concrete poetry and was more tolerant of the veterans of the Scottish Renaissance, like Hugh MacDiarmid and Robert Garioch, both of whom appeared in its pages. This fracturing of an old vanguard and an emergent youth culture is a crucial turning point in the history of the Scottish Renaissance. Jim Burns, in his 1977 article on Sidewalk points out that Alex Neish’s promotion of American writing was not unique in 1960 in a UK-wide context but that it certainly was significant in breaking up the provincialism or favouritism of the Scottish scene: ‘Neish obviously kept his finger on the contemporary pulse’.
This brings us round to Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975), a New-Zealand born poet who converted to writing poetry in Scots in the late 1930s and remained in Edinburgh until his relatively early death. One of Alex Neish’s particular bêtes noires was what he termed the ‘bombastic lackeys of the Nationalist movement’ and he could well have intended this damning phrase for Goodsir Smith who was a fervent disciple of Hugh MacDiarmid’s Scottish nationalist programme for the arts. In 2004, nearly three decades after the death of her husband Sydney Goodsir Smith, Hazel Williamson died and the contents of the New Town flat they shared were sent to auction, including Goodsir Smith’s extensive library which had remained untouched since his death. This meant that for a few years books heavily annotated by the poet would appear all over Edinburgh, in second-hand bookshops and charity shops. It was in the now defunct ‘Old Town Bookshop’ that I bought for £2 Goodsir Smith’s pungently annotated personal copy of Sidewalk . It’s a fascinating time capsule of the clash of values between younger writers like Alex Neish and older Scots stalwarts like Goodsir Smith.
The first thing to note is that he kept this magazine, so he realised it was of importance even if it was offensive to his own tastes. Many of his pencilled comments in the margins are funny but also slightly reactionary. On the contents page he calculates the nationalities of the contributors – four French, at least one English, seven Americans and seven Scots. Many of the pieces are dismissed as ‘Dada’ or ‘transition Dada’ (proving that there is nothing ‘new under the sun’), Ian Hamilton Finlay’s piece is ‘joky’ and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s is ‘dull, windy, vague’ but crucially Alex Neish is deemed ‘a didactic type’. There is also a pencilled remark guiding us to p. 81 where we can find a ‘comment on the whole thing’: ‘But remember, things have been moving so fast in the States that by and large it’s already dated’. There is also an editorial attack on poets who write in Lallans on page 11: ‘The real point surely is this: that Lallans is neither a national language nor a genuine one’ to which Goodsir Smith’s pencil riposte is: ‘Whereas Ginsberg’s is?’
Many of the pieces have comments showing Goodsir Smith’s frustration and bafflement at what he considers the ‘emperor’s new clothing’ of contemporary writing. His umbrage may have also been directed at the magazine because issue 1 carries a particularly wounding review of Goodsir Smith’s latest poetry collection Figs and Thistles by George Todd: ‘This book is aptly named. But there are damned few figs and too many thistles […] this collection bears all the marks of scraping the barrel’. The coup-de-grâce of the review is this observation: ‘One wonders how seriously Sydney Smith takes it. Does he see himself in there lowsing the bands of an oppressed people? It would be better if he showed us he still has his tongue firmly in his cheek and was not squandering his talents on behalf of the parochial, pettifogging fashions which he can be so skilful at knocking’.
Perhaps as a placatory offering, Sidewalk 2 carried a full-page advertisement for Goodsir Smith’s books still in print and a review, again by George Todd, of his play The Wallace. Not quite as acerbic as his review of Figs and Thistles Todd nonetheless dismisses Smith’s play as two-dimensional and simplistic, essentially a ‘good Western’ where the ‘goody’ and the ‘baddy’ are clearly delineated. Sidewalk in this respect is a symptomatic text of its time, giving a clear indication of the fissiparousness of Scottish letters and culture in the 1960s, where a generation that had previously held sway was being challenged younger aspirants and upstarts. Todd, in his review of The Wallace notes that Scottish nationalists will draw parallels from the play to a contemporary Scotland ‘still beset by internal back-biting and schisms of one kind or another’. Sidewalk gave younger writers a platform and the opportunity to discover writing which wasn’t first and foremost Scottish nationalist or Scottish Renaissance-related, and in this sense it broadened aesthetic horizons. However, by attacking the older nabobs of the Scottish Renaissance, like Goodsir Smith, it could be argued that the magazine was merely adding another level of factionalism to the story. Every literary magazine that has a clear identity and outlook also, no matter how much the editors deny it, has a clique, or rather a circle of writers that it is sympathetically disposed towards. By 1960 it was high time someone stuck their neck out to challenge the dominance of ‘The Poets’ Pub’ generation and through the pioneering efforts of magazines like Sidewalk many now essential younger Scottish writers began to break through in the 1960s and 1970s.
Richie McCaffery is a poet and critic from Northumberland, who completed a PhD on Scottish poetry of World War Two at the University of Glasgow in 2016. He is the editor of Sydney Goodsir Smith, Poet: Essays on His Life and Work (Brill, 2020).
I became a Scottish nationalist while an undergraduate at Cambridge from 1960-63. I can identify three strands in this conversion: firstly the discovery that I had a different kind of cultural identity from my new friends and acquaintances; secondly, my enthusiasm for Irish literature (particularly Yeats, Joyce and Beckett), and the sense that this felt much closer to me than did English literature; finally my discovery (initially in an anthology edited by Moray McLaren, The Wisdom of the Scots) of the poetry and ideas of Hugh MacDiarmid, of which I had been wholly ignorant. Between 1963 and 1966 I was variously in Edinburgh, Cambridge and Europe, but very much in touch with the cultural developments that were taking place in Scotland in those years: Jim Haynes’s Paperback Bookshop, of which I was a habitué, the Traverse Theatre Club which was a huge source of stimulation, and the International Writers’ Conference of August 1962 and Drama Conference the following year.
During 1966-67 I was a research student at Cambridge studying James Hogg. When I finally returned to Edinburgh in 1967 it was to a consciousness that there was a new element of life in the city, a cosmopolitanism and an innovative spirit in the arts which stood over against the very traditional middle-class world in which I had grown up, and that this was making for a far more complex interaction of different cultural and political forces than had existed hitherto. It was against this background that Winifred Ewing’s by-election victory for the SNP at Hamilton in November 1967 brought about a change in the political and cultural face of Scotland that was to prove permanent. It meant that an aspiration which had seemed little more than an unattainable pipe-dream began suddenly to appear a realistically possible, if still very distant, political goal. It was a heady time; all at once every other person in the street seemed to be sporting an SNP badge. There was of course a substantial element of fashion in this. Personally, I became quickly disillusioned by the philistinism and tokenism of the SNP’s cultural policies, and with its excessive preoccupation with economics to the detriment of the issues that seemed most important to me; and I had hoped for a far more determined and militant follow-up.
It was in 1968-9 that I began to write for Scottish periodicals, first for Catalyst of which I was briefly editor in 1970, then for Akros. Within the next few years I contributed to most of the magazines then publishing. They provided an enviable critical culture in which the new creative work of Scottish writers both established and emerging was received and evaluated, and ensured that new work was noticed even when ignored by the press; although newspapers too were mostly assiduous in reviewing new Scottish work. (To give a personal example, my second novel, Pagan’s Pilgrimage, received nine reviews when it appeared in 1978.) Another very important function performed by the literary journals lay in providing work and activity – reviewing and the writing of longer critical articles on contemporary Scottish writing – for writers like myself. Financial rewards may have been small, but one felt part of a literary community, and the interactions involved gave rise to many friendships and the formation of wide circles of acquaintance. Though some of the connections made may have been confrontational, the magazines as scenes of literary and cultural debate were educational. Writers quickly came to learn who represented what sets of attitudes, but over the literary community as a whole there was a sense of overall cohesiveness which made the atmosphere very different from that of the more fragmented and perhaps individualistic scene of today. Also very important were the book publishing arms of several of the magazines which gave many young writers, including myself, the chance of publication which they were unlikely to receive from the large metropolitan publishers.
The most obvious ideological division among poets was that between the advocates of Scots or Lallans, and the considerably larger number, never really constituting a coherent grouping, who for one reason or another chose to write in English. This debate originated in Hugh MacDiarmid’s espousal of the Scots tongue (although most of his own later work was in English), and the association of that choice with Scottish patriotism and nationalism. Within this group, however, there were infinite gradations and inflections, both in ideas relating to what sort of Scots was employed (a “synthetic” diction combining contemporary speech with a drawing on the heritage of the makars, a stronger emphasis on the contemporary, or simply “the Scots I hear in my head” as Duncan Glen, the editor of Akros, used to say); and in how all this correlated with an overt political stance. Among the “second generation” Scottish Renaissance poets the most militantly patriotic was probably Tom Scott, followed by Sydney Goodsir Smith and Alexander Scott (the two Scotts hated each other). Robert Garioch was less overtly political; Duncan Glen was younger than this group, militant culturally but tended not to make political statements.
Of course the linguistic question was all-important for Gaels: Sorley MacLean, though never describing himself as a nationalist, supported independence and was never shy of identifying himself as both a Scottish and a Gaelic patriot; Derick Thomson, much more the official face of Gaeldom, was a straightforward SNP man. Almost all of these writers were also socialists, but here again the differences of nuance were considerable. The “Renaissance” men, often taking a John Maclean line, were socialists of a quite different kind from the younger writers who gravitated around Scottish International, the new journal launched in 1968 with very substantial backing from the Scottish Arts Council, and who were much more oriented towards an “internationalist” outlook. The principal of these was Bob Tait, SI’s managing editor who was supported on the editorial board by Edwin Morgan and (as a mere makeweight in MacDiarmid’s view) Robert Garioch. MacDiarmid and Tom Scott regarded all this grouping as toadies of the establishment, and despised the cultural interests of at least some of them – the Beat poets, Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi, concrete poetry. (MacDiarmid and his followers would have regarded themselves as definitely internationalist in outlook, but not as cosmopolitan – a very significant distinction.) Meanwhile Norman MacCaig, the leading Scottish poet writing in English and MacDiarmid’s close friend, remained politically au dessus de la mêlée; while Robin Fulton, a long-time editor of Lines Review around the middle of this period, was notably hostile to nationalism, both political and cultural, without showing any other overt political leaning. There can be little doubt that the main impetus for the remarkable explosion of magazine activity in these years was the slow awakening of national consciousness in Scotland exemplified by the influence of Hugh MacDiarmid but mediated by a host of less readily definable historical and social developments.
On the question of all this activity bringing together nationalists and socialists, in the shorter term it may have reinforced differences, but over time the effect was different. The approach of Scottish International was broadly sociological; the stance it took on Scottish issues could be described as anti-centralist, perhaps devolutionist from a socialist perspective. Many of those who took this line and started off very distrustful of “bourgeois nationalism” and identity politics in general, became in the course of the 1970s increasingly conscious of the national dimension, and progressively gravitated towards a more pro-independence position. Bob Tait himself was to join Jim Sillars’s breakaway Scottish Labour Party, and eventually the SNP. The political and social commentary in SI, especially after it changed from quarterly to monthly publication, probably encouraged the emergence of the incisive and influential political commentators on Scottish society such as Tom Nairn and Neal Ascherson who began to be prominent towards the end of the ‘70s. A lasting impression of these years is the sheer profusion of cultural activities and events which they spawned – poetry festivals, innumerable readings, book launches, film showings, theatrical events and “happenings” of all kinds – and the remarkable phenomenon of the folk music scene, which tended to bring together artists of many different shades and temperaments and of varied political and other persuasions.
Bob Tait, as editor of SI, planned the “What Kind of Scotland?” Conference of April 1973 with the controlling idea of showing that it was insufficient to argue for independence for Scotland without a clear idea of what kind of society was envisaged for that independent entity. He invited two nationalists (Stephen Maxwell and myself) to join the organising committee. The conference was successful, I think, particularly in encouraging the development of the movement of informed and committed political and social commentary alluded to above. But the undoubted and quite unexpected highlight proved to be the originally unplanned rehearsed reading of John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil – the first airing by the 7:84 Company of the explosive work that was to take audiences throughout Scotland by storm on its first tour, which immediately followed this occasion. This play brought into focus the whole question of the degree to which socialist and nationalist objectives, and interpretations of history, might differ or coincide. The 7:84 Company insisted that its message was entirely socialist, yet again and again its audiences interpreted the story it had to tell as a nationalist object lesson. This was a tension which would have a long history and would not easily disappear.
The pub life of the Edinburgh cultural world of these years had two main foci – the Rose Street pubs where the older poets of the “second wave” Renaissance were accustomed to meet, drink, laugh and argue: Milne’s Bar, the Abbotsford and Paddy’s Bar were the most frequented. The atmosphere around the bards could be jovial but it could also be argumentative, given to “flyting”, even at odd moments violent. This was against the background of a normal Edinburgh pub atmosphere in which people from widely differing social backgrounds mingled easily. The second focus was Sandy Bell’s Bar in Forrest Road, which had a clientele of which the core consisted of “folkies” (it was and still is the main Edinburgh folk music pub) and students, at that time predominantly medical students, and was favoured by intellectuals of all sorts, by poets, writers and artists. As it is a very small, narrow pub (and in those days very smoky) the boisterous crowding was considerable and very much part of its charm. One of its many fixtures was the great folklorist Hamish Henderson, who united socialism and nationalism in his extraordinary person.
A story told me by a friend who often visits Turkey says a lot about the Sandy Bell’s of those days. In Istanbul a young Turk was showing an assembled company photos of his visit to Edinburgh. Coming to one photo he said, “And this is the School of Scottish Studies.” “No, no,” said my friend, “that’s Sandy Bell’s Bar.” “No, no, School of Scottish Studies!” He couldn’t be convinced otherwise; and it’s perhaps not difficult to imagine how the confusion might have arisen. This was still to a large extent a man’s world, but women writers were becoming rather more visible by the end of the ‘70s. Among the female poets who were emerging in those years the most prominent was Liz Lochhead; others of note were Val Simmonds, later Gillies; Tessa Ransford, later founder of the Scottish Poetry Library; and Catherine Lucy Czerkawska. An outstanding editor was Joy Hendry, who after co-editing Chapman for some years with her then husband Walter Perrie, continued for very many years as an enormously hard-working sole editor. The most memorable and protracted debate which took place in the magazines of those years was the one which arose from the cleverly provocative attack on nationalist writers by the poet Alan Jackson in the pages of Lines Review in 1971. In the special supplement which followed, some of the writers attacked, and several others, had a chance to air and express their personal positions in a way which allowed them to dissent from being assimilated to any stereotyped view.
As F.R. Leavis used to say, “Minorities can be disproportionately influential”, and this is doubtless true of those who wrote in these Scottish magazines in the years under discussion, though the reach of their impact is impossible to estimate, far less quantify. What is certain is that these publications performed a most valuable cultural function in the discussion of Scottish writing and politics at a time of great intellectual ferment, and that they contain still great resources for the study of twentieth century Scottish writing within its wider context.
John Herdman was born in Edinburgh, and educated there and at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he read English and later took his PhD. He is a novelist, short story writer and literary critic, whose most recent story collection is My Wife’s Lovers (2007). As a critic he has published a study of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, Voice Without Restraint (1982), and The Double in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1990), as well as much work on modern Scottish literature. Another Country (2013) is a memoir of literary-political life in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s.
A lively exploration of the cultural and political changes we can trace through small Scottish magazines of the 1960s and 70s, from Lines Review to Akros, Chapman and beyond.
The first issue of Scottish International went to press only a few weeks after the SNP’s breakthrough in the Hamilton by-election of 2 November 1967. But there was no easy correspondence between literary and political movements of the time, as the second wave of MacDiarmid’s Scottish Renaissance bristled against the ‘internationalism’ of 60s counterculture, and a young editor, Bob Tait, asked ‘What Kind of Scotland?’ the intelligentsia really wanted. John Herdman is the ideal guide to this terrain. Our conversation builds on his memoir Another Country: An Era in Scottish Politics and Letters, and traces these developments into the 1980s and beyond.
Interviewers: Rory Scothorne and Scott Hames. The introduction draws on Rory’s PhD research and on Eleanor Bell’s article ‘Rejecting the Knitted Claymore: the challenge to cultural nationalism in Scottish literary magazines of the 1960s and 1970s’, which you can access via the network’s informal bibliography. Edinburgh University library has an excellent resource on Scottish International, and Richard Crockatt has an evocative essay on Bob Tait and his world, published by Sceptical Scot.