BACK in the autumn of 2019, in what seems another world, a long time ago, Alistair Peebles discussed in The National shifting relations between Hugh MacDiarmid and Ian Hamilton Finlay (‘To Ian Finlay, with love from the author’ and ‘The best of enemies’ October 14 and 21, 2019). Here, Alan Riach concludes his conversation with Ian’s son Alec Finlay, talking about his childhood in Little Sparta, his father, and his mother Sue. Alec is recognised as a significant poet and artist in his own right, and has been recovering from Covid-19, so attention to his own upbringing also addresses the key question at the heart of the present crisis: regeneration.

Alan Riach: Your childhood and youth were spent at Stonypath, Little Sparta, in Lanarkshire, and your father, Ian Hamilton Finlay (IHF), was a formidable public figure in modern Scotland’s cultural world. What was it like, growing up with him?

Alec Finlay: Stonypath was a wonderful blend of ordinary and imaginary, nettles and temples. It was sometimes a shepherd’s cottage, sometimes a guerrilla HQ, or field hospital. IHF, and my mother, Sue, made a healing landscape, but he needed the thrill of “wars” and so it acquired an atmosphere of tragic conflict. I know poetry really can change the world – the garden was a work of imagination that could be made to happen anywhere.

AR: It’s always seemed to me that the purpose of the arts is to help people to live. That “help” is really not about making others suffer, although it might mean certain things have to be resisted, fiercely. How did these ideas extend into the social world you grew up in?

AF: I’m grateful for free school meals, a free education, and funding that allowed me to give something back, like the pocketbooks series.

AR: Those little anthologies, published in or around 2000, covered a lot of territory and are still treasures in my library: Without Day was a collection of imaginary proposals for a new Scottish parliament; Atoms of Delight collected Scottish haiku and short poems; Love for Love gathered love poems, past and present; The Way to Cold Mountain was a mountaineering and nature collection; Justified Sinners was “an archaeology of Scottish culture, 1960-2000”; and there were others.

AF: Times are hard and the work I’m doing on disabled access and rewilding has been turned down by Creative Scotland four times. Freelancers are the green bottles that accidentally fall. Whether responding to the virus, climate breakdown, or cultural provision, I believe what we now need is a fair distribution of limit.

Lockdown shows what’s possible. Being hardly able to walk due to coronavirus is a reminder that poetry is a travel pass to a transformed world, and the imagination is a way to share healing. I’ve no time for anger because of the harm it does, including to those I love. Better the compassionate witness of poetry.

I’ve never felt as sure of the value of the poem which lets me be within someone’s experience, reading the Swiss-French Blaise Cendrars, the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun, the Uruguayan novelist and poet Cristina Peri Rossi, or the American poet Joshua Beckman in my lockdown back garden, reminds me of that, and I love it.

AR: So the lockdown has brought some benefits of understanding?

AF: Yes, it addressed a question we’ve not yet grasped: climate breakdown, showing it’s possible to share limit fairly.

AR: It’s almost as if there’s the virus and another disease we find even more difficult to eradicate, a murderous hostility to creative thinking. Imagination, the hard work of artistic creation, and putting that to use in the social world might not seem the priority amongst our politicians. Should it be? How could it be?

AF: Posh politicians and puerile anger make good death-wish idols! We’re ruled by boys who belong in Melanie Klein’s hut in Pitlochry, getting therapy. These viruses – poverty, illness, trauma, anger – mean we have to re-imagine how to heal. In my work with disability access, I found that introducing “vulnerable bodies into vulnerable ecologies” changed people’s perceptions. All those hill tracks that are never used for disabled access – what does that say? The precariousness of jobs, ecology, invisible illnesses – they all require a culture of recuperation, which is why I believe in “parley”.

AR: By which, I guess you mean what we could call “the virtue of the artful conversation”?

AF: It all comes back to the challenge of adapting to limit in an equitable way, through creativity – and creativity isn’t just making pretty things, Grayson Perryism, or even authoring poems, the poetic imagination is also Maggie’s Centres and rewilded pinewoods. Poetry connects the complexity of our experiences and that can allow healing. When experiences are believed it changes everything.

AR: I imagine that was also part of what Little Sparta was all about. Thinking of the sheer self-determination in your father’s work – and, for that matter, in the work of Hugh MacDiarmid – it seems to me they were both committed to oppose the limitations being forced upon them, the enemies being philistinism, narrowness, foreclosure, or to be blunt, any person, group or system that assumes superiority by virtue of imperial strength and domination, and boasts of its “stability” when essentially it’s an imposition of power and an exploitation of the world’s wealth, as opposed to an engagement with all its living cultures and languages. Isn’t that still the case? Or in fact, always the case?

AF: Gifted, tender men, with lyrical imaginations, but drawn to anomie. MacDiarmid’s poem “On a Raised Beach” is a marvel, and, in places, a bitter read, where stones mean more than people. Tough lives, strong wives. I can’t refer to IHF separately from Sue, and their model of art as an endeavour of love and struggle.

Their relationship made it easier to ignore the myth of the “great man” and is one reason I often collaborate. What inspires me nowadays are people who use their imagination to change the world, one patch at a time.

In my work on rewilding, renewable energy, cancer-care, hutopianism, or disabled access, I meet people whose imagination is poetic, even if they never lift a pen.

AR: We all need folk like that, more than we might think.