Eddie Linden and Aquarius

James Campbell recalls a vital Scottish presence in the London poetry scene.

My first sight of the poetry magazine Aquarius was in Dillons the Bookstore, hard by the London University buildings in Gower Street. It was the size of a sturdy American poetry paperback, pleasing to the hand. The olive-green cover displayed an ink drawing by the Irish artist and sculptor John Behan. Birds – songbirds, presumably – appear to fly from the mouth of a laurelled youth. It wasn’t merely folded and stapled, as some little magazines were: it had a spine, indicator of a certain status. Along the spine was printed “AQUARIUS . Number 9 . 1977”.

The green issue was the first Aquarius to boast this backbone, and a well-printed interior, as opposed to typewritten script. Thanks to a Glasgow friend, Gerald Mangan – in his mid-twenties, like me, and already a regularly published poet – I recognized the name of the magazine and its editor, Eddie S. Linden. I was not yet familiar with the hobbled, hurting, sometimes humorous legends he carried as baggage everywhere he went, ancient and modern, lugged from place to place, sharing space in the plastic bag in which he brought copies of Aquarius to the gatherings he attended. His name was printed on the title page, as if illuminated. It had top billing, above the line “Assistant Editor: John Heath-Stubbs”.

On the last page, there was a plain print advertisement headed “Magazines from Scotland”, with the names and addresses of various journals: the Glasgow-based Scottish Review, Akros – Scottish in all particulars except its address in Preston, Lancashire –  Chapman, Lines Review and others, all identified as “poetry magazines”. The Scottish Arts Council had paid for the advertisement. Most of those journals aspired to some sort of schedule, even if they sometimes failed to achieve quarterly publication. Aquarius, however, was more likely to appear annually, at best. Numbers 6 to 9, for example, spanned four years.

I turned the neat green journal over in my hands. The back cover promised poems by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. There was a strong Scottish contingent, with Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, Alexander Scott, Tom Leonard and my friend Mangan in attendance. Two poems in the list of contents were by the editor himself, an act of opportunism customarily frowned on. One was dedicated “to my Father”, a miner in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, where Eddie grew up:

Your face has never
moved, it still contains
the marks of toil, deep in
blue. These slag heaps
now in green have
flowers instead of dust …

*            *           *

I was in Dillons during a stopover on the way from Edinburgh to Cambridge to attend the 1977 Poetry Festival, taking place between April 14 and 20. A number of writers associated with Black Mountain College were billed to take part, including Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan.

It was during Creeley’s reading at the Festival on Saturday evening that I got my first glimpses of the editor of the magazine I had been studying a few days earlier. Glimpses cut-off at the corners: a rightful first impression of this unique literary figure. Everything in his life – seen from both his own perspective and that of others – was jagged and torn.

The event was staged in the Student Union. Half the audience was positioned at floor level before the poet, with the remainder in the quadrangular balcony. Creeley was informal, somewhat hurried. It was ten o’clock at night, he pointed out. He read from his book Words, starting with “The Rhythm”. As a prologue he stated the title, then, without pause, breathed straight into the lines in his idiosyncratic, staccato style –

it is all           a rhythm          from the shutting        door, to the window            opening

It was mesmerising in its way: Creeley, tall and well-made, turned fifty, just going grey, with a patch over one eye socket, focused on the lines before him.

Out of the blue, a voice spoke. It came from the row in front in the balcony, yards to the left of where I sat – a voice that would have struck the right note at Ibrox or Parkhead. It was, I was to discover, invariable, unaltered by years, maturing into decades, during which its owner lived incongruously among the London literati.

Creeley had come to the end of his second poem, “Something”, and was talking about a Malaysian friend whom he was “delighted to have with us” in the audience.

From the blue: “You’re wakin’ up these young Cambridge poets. They don’t seem to know what poetry’s all about.”

Creeley sounded amused. “Well. I hope I can keep it together.”

The quip brought laughter and “Shhhhh!”

The poet leaned into another poem, “Anger” (not directed at any member of  the audience).

a horrible place         for self-          satisfaction     I rage. I rage

From the blue: “Show these bloody Cambridge poets. They don’t seem to know what emotion’s all about.”

Creeley: “Well. They’ll find out!”

More laughter. And this time a scolding voice: “Eddie!”

“Aye, go on, John, you’re a good poet.”

John? After a few further cadences and another “Shhh”, the voice shrank back under the reflux of its own rejection. Creeley observed that it was after 10.30 and that he wanted “to let you all go home”.

A short time later, in a new book by Creeley – called, as it happens, Later – I came across a poem with the title “Thanks”:

Here’s to Eddie –
not unsteady
when drunk,
just thoughtful.

It is a touching, generous poem, composed of nine four-line stanzas, with sharp perceptions dotted throughout, of “this dear man” who “takes on / the burden of your own confessions”. Eddie had evidently recited from memory one of his poems to Creeley, who in turn refers to the befuddled mind which “can remember / in the blur / his own forgotten line”. Creeley’s poem continues:

He told me later,
“I’m Catholic,
I’m queer,
I’m a poet.”

And I have no doubt at all that he told him he was the editor of a poetry magazine. Creeley would have left Cambridge with a copy of Aquarius 9, in its olive-green cover, in his luggage. [Note]

Aquarius is one of the most unusual poetry magazines ever to have been published. Not in the sense of being aesthetically strange: it wasn’t in the least avant-garde; nor was it overwrought in design, as some are. The earliest issues were quite primitive, the later ones tidy and orthodox. It was not particularly out of the ordinary to look at, but if you knew even a little of the story behind it, its very existence might strike you as beyond comprehension.

What follows may help to illustrate what I mean.

A copy of the green issue, No 9, finally came into my possession in March 2011, thirty-four years after I had handled it in Dillons. I can be specific about it, because a note from Eddie himself is tucked into its pages, dated February 28 of that year. It is written in Biro in a shaky hand, on a fragment of an old Electoral Register envelope, a mix of capitals and lower-case letters, some joined up, others standing apart from their rightful neighbours. The transcription is as accurate as I can manage:

Dear Jim. – Hear I s a copy of the 9th issue of AquARIUS. I shall be taking iT to IRISH BookFair on SAT – 5/3/2011 IN Hammersmith – Some one Look iT up iN iNTerneT – iTs being Sold in Dublin at £15 pound. It was only 60 p when I First Brought ouT. I think you were in Scotland  Gerry is in iT.

The note was typical of Eddie’s style of writing for letters and prose in general. It reflected the level of his reading. If he rang me up to ask for somebody’s address, which he did quite often, it was no good dictating the name and street number over the telephone. It had to be jotted down on a postcard and sent to his flat in Sutherland Avenue, Maida Vale. Nowadays, his disability might be classified as dyslexia; but really it was just a curtailment of basic literacy, for reasons that are both simple and complex.

In 2006, I wrote a profile about Eddie for the Guardian, based on an interview I did with him at home. The introduction does not strike me now as any kind of overstatement (Eddie often claimed he was born in Northern Ireland, but after his death it emerged he was born in Motherwell):

As a tale of abandonment, rejection and plain bad luck, the record of Eddie Linden’s early years could bear little embellishment. He was born illegitimate in Northern Ireland in 1935, and was immediately smuggled out to Scotland to be kept by relatives. His foster mother died when he was ten, and when the man whom he calls “the Dad” remarried, Eddie was ejected from the family home and left on his birth mother’s doorstep in Glasgow. She would not accept him either – until then he had regarded her as an aunt – and after being shuttled from place to place he was “incarcerated”, as he puts it, in an orphanage.

When he tells these stories, which he does reluctantly, readmitting memories of “the big black car that came to take me away”, the man who recently celebrated his seventieth birthday becomes a desolate ten-year-old. Few people have had to put up with what Eddie Linden has. Few who have could emerge with his peculiar innocence and total lack of what in the West of Scotland is called “badness”.

The first issue of the magazine was published in 1969, which may be regarded as Eddie’s own Age of Aquarius. Two eminent poets of the 1940s and 50s, John Heath-Stubbs and George Barker, were involved from the start. But the proprietorial boast never changed:

“Editor: Eddie S. Linden.”

Aquarius No 1 contained poems by Barker, Heath-Stubbs, Stevie Smith and Kathleen Raine. An editorial claimed that the magazine “comes into being in response to the new wave of poetry readings” breaking over the nation’s poetry coastline in the late 1960s. George Barker remained involved. He drew the curly-topped unicorn on the front of No 8, a Welsh issue.

Sebastian Barker, George’s son and a poet in his own right, produced a book about Eddie, a ghosted autobiography that Eddie never stopped complaining about, with the title Who Is Eddie Linden. Discussion continued down the years over the absence of a question mark: an error on the part of the publisher, or a subtle device of style?

Question mark or not, “Who Is Eddie Linden” is just another framing of that universal demand, “Who am I? What am I doing here?” There were times when Eddie himself got within a yard or two of settling the matter, and those times came round whenever a new issue of Aquarius had rolled off the press and the copies were piled high in cardboard boxes in the communal hallway at 116 Sutherland Avenue. Then he knew who Eddie Linden was, and knew that the world would know: he was the man God had placed on earth to start a poetry magazine.

*            *           *

Aquarius often had a scattering of Scottish poets, and two issues were devoted to Scottish writing. The first, No 6, 1973, was guest-edited by Tom Buchan, later the bringer of doom to Scottish International (all issues of Aquarius were stewarded by someone other than Eddie, though he was invariably billed as editor, and offered suggestions). It stretches to 140 pages and hosts an impressive assembly, with many now-familiar names, and one or two that raise the question, “Whatever happened to . . . ?” There are ten poems by Jean Milton, for example, more than by anyone else. Once a regular presence in magazines, she seems to have vanished. Four Toms are there – Leonard, McGrath, Scott, in addition to Buchan. It also has Alan Spence’s short story “Blue”.

In 1979, Aquarius 11 (“In Honour of Hugh MacDiarmid”) offered a similary rich gathering. There was nothing by MacDiarmid himself, who had died the year before. Surprisingly, there is not a single Tom. Sydney Goodsir Smith, well represented in 1973, had died in the interim, but most other poets you might expect to find at the time are there, as well as new voices, such as the first appearance in print by the teenage Kathleen Jamie. The guest editor on this occasion was Douglas Dunn. There is also a symposium on the subject, “What it feels like to be a Scottish poet”, with Dunn, Alan Bold, Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan and others.

Gerald Mangan is present in Aquarius 11, with a poem called “Death of an Islandman”, about an émigré from the Hebrides to Glasgow, the sound in his ears of the “skirl of the pipes” replaced at the last by “noise of bottles breaking on the street”. An artist and musician as well as a writer, Mangan chronicled Eddie’s career of tragi-comic mishaps in a series of cartoons. One shows the timid editor standing at the Pearly Gates with the cherished plastic bag in hand, a beseeching look in his eye. St Peter whispers into the ear of the Almighty: “He says he’s a manic-depressive alcoholic lapsed-Catholic homosexual Irish working-class communist-pacifist bastard from Glasgow. And would you like to subscribe to a poetry magazine?”

A photograph of Gerry Mangan, Eddie Linden and James Campbell in a Soho pub, dated June 1985.
Photograph by Constance Short

Aquarius survived in haphazard fashion until 2002. Eddie Linden died in November 2023, at the age of eighty-eight.

[Note] I discovered that a recording of this reading exists and is available for listening at the British Library. One day in February 2023 I found myself in a carrel, present again at an event I had first attended forty-six years earlier. And sure enough the voice was heard, only a poem or two in, not quite as I had remembered it, less evidently drunk, referring to “Cambridge poets”, not “students”, as I had thought. Creeley’s spontaneous good humour came as a pleasant surprise. And the funniest part to me: it wasn’t “Gawn, Bob” but “Aye, gawn John” – more than once. When I got to know Eddie, he called me Gerry from time to time, while referring to our mutual friend Gerald Mangan as Jim.

James Campbell was born in Glasgow. Between 1978 and 1982 he was editor of The New Edinburgh Review. Among his books are Paris Interzone: Richard Wright, Lolita, Boris Vian and others on the Left Bank, and This Is the Beat Generation. As ‘J.C.’, he wrote the NB column on the back page of the Times Literary Supplement from 1997 until 2020. His critically acclaimed biography of James Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, was reissued by Polygon in February 2021, and Just Go Down to the Road, a ‘memoir of trouble and travel’, followed in 2022.

Making it New Edinburgh Review

James Campbell recalls the perennial re-making of New Edinburgh Review

The post of editor of the New Edinburgh Review was advertised in the weekly university newspaper, The Student, in May 1978. The NER, a journal of quarterly publication, could be seen as The Student in grown-up form. The two publications shared the offices of Edinburgh University Student Publications Board (EUSPB) but lived separate lives. Although published and administered by EUSPB, the NER occupied a territory bounded on the one side by the London weeklies, such as the New Statesman, and on the other by quasi-academic periodicals like Critical Quarterly, with an outlook on sociology and what would soon be known as cultural studies. Contributors to the early issues wrote for little or no payment. Some were based in university departments and the specialist coloration they lent to the journal was apt to depend on who was in charge of the NER at the time.

Feb/Mar 1971

The editor of the NER for the past several numbers had been Owen Dudley Edwards, an unavoidable presence around the campus, possessed of formidable erudition and a fluent way of expounding it in an Irish accent. Although a tenured employee of the History department, he was an influential member of the Student Publications Board, which did not insist that its members be students.

NER was based at No 1 Buccleuch Place, just along the street from No 18, where the original Edinburgh Review had been founded in 1802 by Francis Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, Francis Horner and Henry Brougham. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, it was the most influential journal of literary criticism, political opinion, philosophy and scientific discovery in Britain. Street association apart, however, the inferred relationship between the two magazines was dubious, to say the least. Nos 1 and 18 Buccleuch Place were separated by 150 yards of granite cobblestones and 150 years of intellectual thought. Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review was in part the inspiration for Byron’s satirical poem “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”, and the most severe of those disdained and feared reviewers was Jeffrey himself, at whose hands Byron had lately suffered. Jeffrey retired in 1829.

The New Edinburgh Review first appeared 140 years later, in February 1969, and settled into quarterly publication. The editor was David Cubitt. For the third issue, November 1969, readers paid two shillings, with an apology for the rise from one and sixpence for the previous issue. A post-graduate student at the university, Cubitt was unable to resist the editor’s perennial temptation to print a few of his own poems. The November 1969 editorial made a reasonable plea for good, clear style: “Scottish writers sometimes betray a tendency to look more at themselves writing Scottishly than at themselves writing properly, and decline into a species of high-class provincial tartanry.” Twenty or more years on, that “properly”, opposed as it is to “Scottishly”, would curdle any attempt at reasonable debate.

No 31 (February 1976), edited by H. M. Drucker and R. A. McAllister

The editorship changed so frequently that the calendar year bridging November 1969 and November 1970 saw three: Cubitt, Julian Pollock and Brian Torode, not to mention an editorial consultant, two editorial advisors, a poetry editor, an editorial board of seven, and a design team of three. The main drawback to this fast-changing cast and catalogue of contents was that the average reader had no idea what the magazine stood for. But by 1975 the NER had taken a stance, and it was nothing if not determined. The sitting editor, C.K. Maisels, had few reservations about presenting himself as a political extremist who had got his hands on a ream of paper, a printer and a bunch of useful idiots.

In his “Working Class Consciousness and Culture” issue, which by deduction we can identify as the last of 1974 (Maisels did away with issue numbers, dates, detailed tables of contents and contributor information, as if holdovers from a decadent era), he printed the lyrics to four songs composed by himself, complete with sheet music. “Meunier” is addressed to the Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier, whose bronze statuette, “Woodcutter”, illustrated one of the songs:

True worker Constantin, my comrade in arms
you have shown us the workers just as they are
and you’ve looked right into them and better by far
you have seen in their minds just what could be . . . .

No art for pure art’s sake in factory and mine . . .
art for the workers is what art’s for.

In applying for the editorship, I wrote a short outline of my aims, should I be appointed. My membership of EUSPB, 1976-78, had hardly been illustrious, but it had given me familiarity with the inside of 1 Buccleuch Place, including the table at which I would be interviewed, and with some of the people who would be asking the questions. My slim literary portfolio, consisting largely of reviews of art exhibitions for The Student and my profile of Alexander Trocchi for Glasgow University Magazine (GUM), had recently been abetted by a first-person “casual” published in the New Statesman, involving modern art and an imaginary identification with Norman Mailer; by a lengthy Paris Review-style interview with the novelist John Fowles; and by some poems in decent Scottish magazines.

On the afternoon of June 16, I took my turn at being questioned by the panel. What would I do with the New Edinburgh Review, if successful in gaining the editorship? Well, first, ditch the thematic programme, based largely on left-wing ideology. It curtailed the general interest of the magazine; it gave the contents an off-puttingly academic character. The three issues published previous to “Working Class Consciousness and Culture” had been devoted to the letters of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and had gained more attention than other issues of the magazine. Such concerns were beyond my purview, though worthy in themselves and clearly of interest to a niche readership. I nevertheless held to the belief that it was the wrong direction for a magazine like the New Edinburgh Review to take. Clichés such as “fallen into the clutches of” are best avoided by writers committed to “writing properly”, to borrow the phrase from that early editorial. But it was obvious to an impartial reader of back issues in bulk that since the early Cubbitt–Pollock–Torode productions – concerned largely with the social sciences but eager to give space to the arts as well – the NER had been directed by one set of ideologues after another. Wasn’t the NER sheltering under the Arts Council’s literary magazine budget?

I would introduce fiction into the NER, and bring back poetry which had been there at the start but had been dispensed of by the Maisels faction, with its banalities such as “art for the workers is what art’s for”. The magazine had at different times boasted the services of two distinguished poets as poetry editors, Robin Fulton and Robert Garioch. Some issues had one or other listed on the masthead, but no poems. Prolific writers of short stories were all around us – George Mackay Brown, Ron Butlin, Iain Crichton Smith, Alan Spence, James Kelman – and they would surely be willing to take advantage of this new outlet, once made aware of it (they were). The same went for poets. As for general features, while I intended to pay attention to Scottish affairs and to the unavoidable question of independence from Westminster, I saw no sense in the editor’s outlook meeting a portcullis at Carlisle. Scottish authors within reach of Buccleuch Place were capable of writing about a variety of subjects, were they not? If one wished to claim collegiateship with Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review, then this was the area in which to attempt it. The interview over, I returned to my flat in Forrest Road. Before the afternoon was out, I answered a knock at the door from one of the interviewers. The job was mine.

Issue 40-41 (Spring/Summer 1978), the final number edited by Owen Dudley Edwards and Rory Knight Bruce prior to Campbell’s tenure

Remuneration for the post as editor of the New Edinburgh Review came in the form of a stipend of £250 per quarterly issue, not much on which to support a restless nature. I took a job as a driver for Edinburgh Social Services, Transport Department. It was varied and enjoyable work, reasonably paid, with overtime possibilities. Specific driving duties changed from day to day, but the irregular structure meant that I was usually able to call at Buccleuch Place during a convenient interval, to see if the in-tray contained any responses to letters of solicitation, or to place others hastily written the night before in the out-tray. One day, the reply from Rome to a polite request to Muriel Spark for a short story, the next from George Mackay Brown in Orkney, in search of a story or poem. Spark: “If I have something in the way of a story in the future, I’ll remember you.” Alas, she never did have anything to spare. Mackay Brown: “I am glad you are to publish stories. There is too much lit. crit. and dissecting of books in so many of our magazines. Stories, if they’re good enough, go on for ever. I enclose ORPHEUS WITH HIS LUTE. I hope it will be suitable.”  It was, and it went into my second issue (Winter 1978). Mackay Brown proved to be an unfailingly generous contributor, never omitting to append a kindly note in his attractive hand to each submission (“Have a good Christmas and a prosperous New Year”). Douglas Dunn and Iain Crichton Smith were willing supporters, too. Crichton Smith’s poems arrived on scraps of paper torn from larger sheets. Some were called just “Poem” or “Old Woman”. He also took on book reviews, in the course of writing which his shaky typewriter keys sent red letters shooting into the otherwise black type, at times below and at others above the level. Occasionally the letters of a word, or a whole line, ran down in a slope towards the right-hand margin. A flurry of Biro marks would be added later by hand. Norman MacCaig sent a sheaf of poems accompanied not by the traditional stamped addressed envelope but a handwritten note: “Here are some poems. If they are any good, print them. If not, put them in the bin.”

Neal Ascherson, Allan Massie, Naomi Mitchison, Edwin Morgan and Peter Porter all contributed willingly and often. The Daiches family did, too: David Daiches, his daughter Jenni Calder and her husband Angus. I received a letter from Kathleen Jamie – “I am a sixteen-year-old poet” – and published one of her earliest poems. All were Scottish writers or had a base in Scotland (Porter was a popular writer-in-residence at the university at the time). Within days of succeeding to the editorship, I wrote to Hugh MacDiarmid and received a charming reply, dated July 9, 1978. He had been in and out of hospital, was “still very ill and unlikely to improve … But while I cannot send you a poem / poems as you so kindly invite, I’ll send you something as soon as I can and have anything I think worthwhile to send. With best wishes for the NER and hopes for good results from opening its pages to poetry.” The open-handedness of these eminent figures – partly in reaction to the opening up of a new literary platform which showed signs of seriousness; partly, no doubt, in response to ingenuous youth – was a lesson in literary community that was worth cherishing and preserving.

Requests for contributions were not restricted to Scottish-based writers. My magazine was to be un magasin, a shop, offering as wide a variety of goods as economically feasible to interested customers. The model I had outlined to the interview panel was something like that of the New Statesman of the time: general articles on a variety of political and cultural affairs in the front half – with an emphasis on the latter – followed by book reviews of a comparable range at the rear. Art and performance reviews were excluded only because quarterly publication would render them out of date before they appeared. One feature of the design arrangement of the NER was to have a single-page piece at the back to close the issue – a “casual”, distinct in tone from most of what had preceded it. When the Summer 1979 number was approaching a state of readiness, I still lacked something for this spot. The lead article was a post-mortem analysis of the failure of the nationalist movement to gain a sufficient majority in favour of Scottish devolution in the referendum of March that year. The author was Tom Nairn, whose sole issue as editor of the magazine, “The English Nation”, I had used while sitting before the interviewing panel as an example of precisely what I did not want for the future. But I had thrilled to Nairn’s acute and occasionally acerbic writing at other times, and was pleased when he rang up to offer “After the Referendum”. The piece was too long, as he acknowledged, and when I asked him to make it shorter, he smiled shyly and said he preferred to leave that job to me. “Editors are usually better at cutting the fat from writers’ pieces than the writers themselves.”

Nairn was a legendary figure in the left-wing intellectual sphere of the day, and I was glad to have “Tom Nairn: After the Referendum” on the cover in the wake of the event itself. From the opposite bank of the red and blue river running through the nation – a far less fashionable place to be among the country’s intelligentsia – Allan Massie wrote about John Buchan’s “other hero”, Richard Hannay, concentrating on the third of the five Hannay novels, Mr Standfast. There is a reference to red Clydeside in the story, but presented here with the distinctly un-Nairnian suggestion that “there’s a wholesome dampness about the tinder on Clydeside”. We had a short story by Iain Crichton Smith, “The Snow”, and a pair of articles about the respective southsides of Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the review section, Edwin Morgan wrote about Douglas Dunn’s prosodic virtues and sentimental vices (“‘Grudge’ is a recurring word”), and the filmmaker Murray Grigor – another one-time-only NER editor – discussed the pioneer of Scottish documentary film, John Grierson.

But I still had nothing for that back page. Then I dipped into an old bag of tricks and came up with a surprise. The piece was called “M.O.B.”, and the latest contributor to the NER was William Burroughs, the author of the novels Junkie and Naked Lunch, and co-inventor of the cut-up technique. It had been published before – but published by me, in Glasgow University Magazine, or GUM, in which I had had a hand in the early 70s, even though not a student at the university. The photostatted typescript had been given to me in London by Burroughs’s old sidekick, Alexander Trocchi, when I had interviewed him at home for GUM. The encounter had resulted in my first proper publication, and the longest piece written about Trocchi to date (GUM, February 1973). When I asked if he had something he could let me have for our magazine, he regretted having to say no. Instead, he handed over this short piece by Burroughs, with his big, confiding smile, and the simplest of instructions: “Ring Bill. Tell him I said to call. He’ll say yes.” He gave me the telephone number of Burroughs’s apartment in Duke Street St James, near Piccadilly. I did call and he did say yes. Now “M.O.B.” was making the 45-mile journey from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

I resigned from the New Edinburgh Review in 1982, having produced fifteen issues and, I’m confident in saying, having been the first editor in its twenty-three years of publication to date to try to give the job the commitment it deserved. The last of my productions, Winter 1982, contains articles by Douglas Dunn (on a reissue of Edwin Muir’s book Scott and Scotland), Edwin Morgan on the poetry of Peter Porter, Jenni Calder on setting up the Royal Scottish Museum, and Aiden Higgins (“Meeting Mr Beckett”). Among the reviewers were Stewart Conn and Gerald Mangan. Correspondence with those writers and others – Ascherson, James Baldwin, Angus Calder, Donald Campbell, Giles Gordon, Naomi Mitchison, Alan Spence, Ted Whitehead (the playwright E. A. Whitehead) – was tidied away in folders in a cupboard at Buccleuch Place. Most of the letters, naturally, were addressed to the editor. I would like to have tidied them away in a cupboard in my flat in Forrest Road but was informed that they did not belong to me. They were the property of the NER or, more broadly, EUSPB.

This was correct procedure. I nevertheless kept back some typescripts, such as James Baldwin’s of his essay “Of the Sorrow Songs”, together with a few brief notes he had sent me regarding it. The two handwritten letters from MacDiarmid I had taken home and saw little point in restoring to the official folders, wherever they were. Recently, I came across a typescript of George Mackay Brown’s story “The Day of the Ox”, which I had tucked into a book and forgotten about. Douglas Dunn usually wrote to my home address, mixing magazine business with personal news and comment. Did his letters belong to EUSPB? I had little trouble deciding they did not. There are other scraps of correspondence and manuscript, including – literally a scrap – a poem by Crichton Smith. They are kept in my desk in a torn A4 envelope with “NER stuff” pencilled on the front.

It is not much of an archive, but it is now all that exists. Some years after leaving I asked about acquiring a few copies of the Autumn 1979 issue, with Baldwin’s essay, and was told that almost everything had “gone missing” during a move in the mid-80s. By then, EUSPB had become Polygon, soon to be expanded to embrace Birlinn. The New Edinburgh Review of No 1 Buccleuch Place had reverted to calling itself Edinburgh Review, and was now housed at No 48 The Pleasance. “And how is Lord Jeffrey?” Gore Vidal had teasingly asked me in the Assembly Rooms at the 1980 Edinburgh Writers’ Conference. I was no longer the one to say.

James Campbell was born in Glasgow. Between 1978 and 1982 he was editor of The New Edinburgh Review. Among his books are Paris Interzone: Richard Wright, Lolita, Boris Vian and others on the Left Bank, and This Is the Beat Generation. As ‘J.C.’, he wrote the NB column on the back page of the Times Literary Supplement from 1997 until 2020. His critically acclaimed biography of James Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, was reissued by Polygon in February 2021, and Just Go Down to the Road, a ‘memoir of trouble and travel’, followed in 2022.

Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.

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’

     –     Ploughman

‘The Friend of the Dove in the Doorways of Bread’

     –     Child

(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).

Duncan Glen and Akros

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).

Sydney Goodsir Smith and Sidewalk

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’.[1]

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.

[1] Poetry Information 17 (1977), pp. 46-48.

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).

Strange fealties: the online literary magazine

Where does the magazine – and its forms, codes, public intimacies – fit into online literary culture?  Ian Macartney investigates via nine magazines

The online literary magazine ecosystem is a sort of arena where there are very strict adherences to rules and etiquette, but also a performed candidness which I believe conceals certain social economics. Strange fealties emerge via social media interactions: the power dynamics between contributor/editor, submitter/guidelines, the follower/following-back. These are potent, and unresolved, situations. There is an aura which makes said fealties seem unplaceable, limits I could not express prosaically. It was only through nine magazines that I could reveal there was, indeed, something very calcified about how we interact with literary magazines online, and how they operate. A quality of the seeming-infinite; an inevitable power not only synonymous to the internet, but also microcosms of the internet.

nine magazines is, as its name suggests, a website which hosts nine ‘themes’, each of which takes the form of a mini-magazine. Each theme is an archetype of a literary magazine I have seen during my time as a writer. Some are directly inspired by specific publications I admire (analogica, the moon ( is SPAM; Direct Contrast is PN Review) while others are situated around internet subcultures, or the internet’s propensity to foster their growth. HELLSURFACE, for example, takes inspiration from the word-spaghetti of the reactionary  ‘Dark Enlightenment’, popularised by Nick Land, while The Uddington Review is totemic for any local-interest or parochial magazines that more traditional poets have set up online. UNFURL YR WORDS is essentially the entire spoken-word/slam scene. amethyst & magnets represents the type of magazines a lot of young people have set up during lockdown, particularly in North America, and a newer shell mirrors what I perceive as popular journals which publish metropolitan poetics, ‘lowercase’ in temperament, like The Poetry Review or Ambit. ecoVox was not inspired by poetry magazines, per se, but rather the rising (necessary) prominence of ecology in contemporary writing – but also where it fails (i.e. the conflation of political change with cultural response).

In this ‘meta-magazine’ I traded the sanctity often reserved for literature with a deranged internet logic which, as a writer in my early 20s, I find inescapable – and in doing so, intend to ask what it even means for literature to exist in the infinite textual sprawl that is the internet, i.e. our current cultural lives.

I found several ways to do this. First, half the contributors are me. nine magazines gave me the opportunity to self-present in new and colourful ways, but with a distance. The project is a kind of  digital pamphlet – through my gang of pseudonyms I reverse the egalitarian pretences of the magazine, the idea that finely attuned work has been filtered through with no room for bias, allowing me to reframe my work. ‘Olaf Skyler’, for example, is the name given to nature poems I wrote when I was fifteen. Although I believe the poems hold up to scrutiny I am also very aware of their wide-eyed neo-romanticism which, on the one hand, I want to champion beyond dismissals of ‘juvenilia’, but on the other hand, I admit the limits of this worldview. In putting sincere poems on an absurd parodic platform, I wanted to ask: does the work become negated, here, or does it double in meaning? Which implies a wider question: is the act of putting a poem on the internet inherently absurd? Are we to really expect a poem can pause the infinite scroll?

Secondly, I accepted every submission sent my way. Being selected for publication often feels like the acquisition of medals, titles which will garner author bios to prove the legitimacy of an artist. These mythologies of literary success, the ceaseless need to have ‘made it’, negate the ideal state of the literary magazine as a community-creating force. With nine magazines I wanted to feel out the limits of this competitiveness, but also express gratitude for the communal aspects of literary magazines, and therefore diminish the curational edge at play otherwise.

After all, now the mechanics of publishing are accessible to everyone with an internet connection, quality is no longer the defining characteristic of a publication. This begs the question: if publishing is no longer an intrinsic determiner of value, where is that value? Does it still exist? By accepting every submission I replaced competitive impulses with a pivot to project-specific aesthetics. The surprise, the value, is not in my ability to curate or find “the finest” work (which is already a fallacious category), but rather dependent on presentation – meaningful surfaces. The masthead, for example, are all fictitious creations. Their photos were generated by AI. Dupont, editor of a newer shell, who is bitter enough to mention in her bios that “although she did not win” a non-existent poetry prize, she did receive a completely unrelated “William J. Buutsur Bursary”. The Uddington Review’s Doris McSwitch only loves “most” of her grandchildren, while Direct Contrast’s Mercy Conguisse (“one of the greatest poets of the 21st century”) had an affair with “his former farmhand, Gustav”. Author bios are usually a type of prose fiction – the fiction of the ‘successful author’, of an author’s personality and/or achievements – which permeate the online literary magazine, and a major engine of literary competitiveness, but here it becomes farcical melodrama.

My final tactic was the visual identity of nine magazines itself. I aimed to go for a ‘semiotic barrage’, a sensory assault emblematic of the internet. This strategy originates in webcomic artist Scott McCloud’s concept of the ‘infinite canvas’. For McCloud the internet unlocks a limitless space for artists to express themselves. The page no longer has a physical limit; a drawing can be as large as a webpage needs to be. In nine magazines I utilise the infinite canvas for the use of text. Lines and stanzas stretch way farther than a marginated page would allow, spilling over on to other pieces; some poems are presented lopsided or upside-down; poems arrive in gaudy fonts and colours and highlights or as screenshots, hyper-filtered. It is through the infinite canvas that the ‘real’ internet breaks through the veneer and shells of the competitive online literary magazine, a ‘real’ rendering what we often ask of poetics (i.e. the sacredness of text) futile.

This is how literature becomes freed from certain responsibilities. In my discussion with Rishi Dastidar for the Spoke in Mirrors interview series, we discussed how “skimming” text has become the standard mode of reading, especially online – the relegation of text as surface-rich, not because literacy has decreased. but because of the exact opposite. After all, my generation is the most literate yet – our primary mode of communication is epistolary, via corporate platforms such as Messenger, Snapchat or Instagram/Twitter DMs. It is not that text or literature has become irrelevant online, it just performs differently. It is not that digital life is meaningless, it is just too meaningful. Too many interpretations and opinions are presented at once; it is the cultural singularity, digital hyperstimulation, the overwhelm, multitasking as an ontological state.

I wanted to reveal this meme logic in something as sanctified as the poem, and the poem’s home of the literary magazine. This was not to diminish literature, per se, but rather to reveal where poetics survive. Because ultimately, nine magazines is an attempt at nascence: taking a form more codified than assumed – the online literary magazine – and revealing where the limits encroach, and where we could go next. It’s a ‘meta-magazine’ in the sense of meta as metaxis – inbetweenness. In the space between outright parody and emulation, something exciting can thrive.

Read nine magazines at ninemagazines.com.

Ian Macartney is a writer. He can be found at ianmacartney.scot

Introducing the Scottish Magazines Network


This introductory blog is really an expansion of the ‘About’ section, fleshing out some of the project’s aims, contexts and questions. It lacks the polemical verve of a first-issue editorial you might read in one of our magazines, but I hope it conveys the interest of Scotland’s periodical culture of the 1960s-90s. (by Scott Hames)

Small independent magazines played a major creative role in Scottish literature, culture and politics right across the 1960s-90s. Many featured poetry and short fiction (funded by the Scottish Arts Council) and were a key space in which writers, journalists and campaigners developed a shared national agenda centred on Scottish cultural difference, literary revival and democratic dissent.

Working in partnership with the National Library of Scotland, this AHRC Research Network brings together scholars of Scottish literature, history, politics and publishing to study this independent periodical culture. We have a wide range of titles in mind, from poetry journals to political magazines and cultural reviews, and several combining elements of each. We’re especially interested in connections between and across these organs, including a wide range of titles  held in the NLS collection.

If an earlier process of ‘cultural devolution’ paved the way for the new Scottish parliament in 1999, it can be directly witnessed in the writing and artwork of these magazines, and in the communities and alliances formed around and through them. These titles were also sites of literary innovation, featuring poems and stories by almost every major and emerging Scottish writer of the period.

The same titles featured key essays and critical interventions by thinkers such as Tom Nairn, Isobel Lindsay and George E. Davie, influential debates on the marginalisation of women’s writing, and were a key venue for the reassertion of Scottish folk traditions and the importance of Gaelic and Scots. Constant crossover between literary, cultural and electoral debate – from page to page and within the same article – is central to their interest and their influence.

Aiming to put these magazines back on the map – both for scholars and the wider public – the network will consider questions including:

      • What prompted and enabled this Scottish periodical culture, supported by what institutions?
      • What was its (short- and long-term) impact on Scottish literary and cultural production?
      • Through what groupings and networks did these magazines circulate?
      • To what extent did they shape or ‘constitute’ the Scottish political field to which they were addressed?
      • What continuities can we see with today’s Scottish literary politics, media and activism?

We hope to expand and refine these questions via our activity and discussions – including regular blog posts – and will eventually seek to answer some of them in a volume of commissioned essays.

Many thanks for your interest in the project, and please don’t hesitate to be in touch – if you’d like news of SMN events, please contact scott.hames@stir.ac.uk