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, 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

Welcome!

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 explore – and ‘re-circulate’ – 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 the following titles held in the NLS collection:

Lines Review (1954-98), New Saltire (1961-64),
Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. (1962-68), Akros (1965-83),
Feedback (1966-67), Scottish International (Review) (1968-74),
New Edinburgh Review
(1969-84), Chapman (1970- ),
Scotia
and Scotia Review (1970-99), Calgacus (1975-76),
Q [Question] Magazine (1975-77), Crann-Tàra (1977-81),
Scottish Women’s Liberation Journal
(1977-78), MsPrint (1978-81),
Cencrastus
(1979-2006), Radical Scotland (1982-91), Edinburgh Review (1984- ),
Variant
(1984-94, 1996-2012), Common Sense (1987-99),
West Coast Magazine
(1988-97), Harpies and Quines (1992-94)

Not an exhaustive list!

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