Alan Riach introduces a few matters of poetry, publishing and politics and the voices our governing authorities always seem to want to direct us away from...

I WAS writing a few weeks ago about the publishing house Rymour Books, which produces its fair share of poetry collections that remain valuable resources but also do more.

Among the most uniquely worthwhile is No Language! No Nation! The Life and Times of the Honourable Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr by Gerard Cairns.

Erskine of Marr (below) is a character I’d known of for a long time, who always seemed to be on the periphery of the essential stories of John Maclean and Hugh MacDiarmid, but as this book makes clear, he was a vital connector of not only those two individuals but also of Ireland and Scotland.

And for all the liabilities and ambiguities of his own position as an aristocratic – sometimes right-wing, sometimes intensely religious advocate of more than one ideal – he was deeply involved in the creation of a progressive vision for what Scotland might become.

The National:

The independence movement owes more to him than most of us realise, and Cairns’s book for the first time makes this abundantly clear. See

The independence movement itself is earthed and sustained and inspired by such work by individuals as these, and such initiatives in poetry and research, visions and revisions, as small publishers such as Rymour Books produces. That’s why it goes so far beyond the commercialisation of party politics priorities.

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Alongside that, Cairns’s book John Maclean and Scottish Republicanism (Glasgow: Scottish Republican Socialist Movement, 2021), pinpoints a meeting between Erskine and Maclean at Maclean’s home in Auldhouse Road, Pollokshaws, Glasgow, in the summer of 1920, for tea and biscuits.

It appears to have prompted Maclean’s explicit endorsement of Scotland breaking out for independence and republicanism, beyond the communism he had espoused in the context of the developing British socialist and labour movement.

This is perhaps one of the defining moments of the history of the movements, originally intertwined, for both Scottish independence and the progressive ideals of socialism that, once upon a time, Labour used to stand for. Britain and the Union will never deliver them.

The National:

And it was as a British communist that Maclean (above) had been appointed by Lenin as soviet consul in Glasgow in 1918, along with John Reed, author of the classic Ten Days that Shook the World (1919), whom Lenin designated the Bolsheviks’ representative in New York.

Reed’s book was the source for director Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927).

John Dos Passos wrote a biographical sketch of Reed in his epic trilogy of novels U.S.A. (1938) and actor and director Warren Beatty made the film Reds (1981), based on Reed’s life, with Beatty starring as Reed, alongside Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

It won three Academy Awards and was nominated for nine others.

No such international media iconising film treatment or classic novelistic reportage has been accorded to Maclean, or to Erskine, or to MacDiarmid but if you put Maclean’s story into the context of First-World-War Glasgow, the story of working class, socialist ideals, and presented Erskine as he was, one of the key figures mediating between Scotland and Ireland and the growth of the republican ideal, and MacDiarmid, and later, Hamish Henderson and Edwin Morgan and others, drawing on the long legacy of their activities in the 1910s and 1920s, there are all the makings.

That Rymour Books have published Cairns’s biography of Erskine – the first, but not to be the last – is in itself good cause for appreciating the value of this small-press publisher – and for purchasing the book and learning from it!

You’ll get the flavour of the political determination, commitment, and the lasting value at work here from MacDiarmid’s magnificent 1930s poem: “John Maclean (1879-1923)”:

All the buildings in Glasgow are grey

With cruelty and meanness of spirit,

But once in a while one greyer than the rest

A song shall merit

Since a miracle of true courage is seen

For a moment its walls between.

Look at it, you fools, with unseeing eyes

And deny it with lying lips!

But your craven bowels well know what it is

And hasten to eclipse

In a cell, as black as the shut boards of the Book

You lie by, the light no coward can brook.

It is not the blue of heaven that colours

The blue jowls of your thugs of police,

And “justice” may well do its filthy work

Behind walls as filthy as these

And congratulate itself blindly and never know

The prisoner takes the light with him as he goes below.

Stand close, stand close, and block out the light

As long as you can, you ministers and lawyers,

Hulking brutes of police, fat bourgeoisie,

Sleek derma for congested guts – its fires

Will leap through yet; already it is clear

Of all Maclean’s foes not one was his peer.

As Pilate and the Roman soldiers to Christ

Were Law and Order to the finest Scot of his day,

One of the few true men in our sordid breed,

A flash of sun in a country all prison-grey.

Speak to others of Christian charity; I cry again

For vengeance on the murderers of John Maclean.

Let the light of truth in on the base pretence

Of justice that sentenced him behind these grey walls.

All law is the contemptible fraud he declared it.

Like a lightning-bolt at last the workers’ wrath falls

On all such castles of cowards whether they be

Uniformed in ermine, or blue, or khaki.

Royal honours for murderers and fools!

The ‘fount of honour’

Is poisoned and spreads its corruption all through,

But Scotland will think yet of the broken body

And unbreakable spirit, Maclean, of you,

And know you were indeed the true tower of its strength,

As your prison of its foul stupidity, at length.

MacDiarmid’s passion is immediately recognisable but Edwin Morgan, an altogether more even-tempered and generally reasonably-toned poet, was just as committed to Maclean’s legacy.

His poem “On John Maclean”, quotes the man’s repudiation of Lenin’s authority over Scotland: “I am not prepared to let Moscow dictate to Glasgow.”

Morgan comments, reasonably: “it is the firmness / of what he wanted and did not want / that raises eyebrows” and notes that Maclean evidently wanted “to let them know that Scotland was not Britain” before acknowledging his defeat in a regime of merciless establishment propaganda and force, but then, finally, gathering emotional force all the stronger for the preceding understatement, rising to a resounding, reflective and lasting affirmation of what Maclean and Erskine and MacDiarmid all really stand for:

Well, nothing’s permanent. It’s true he lost

 a voice silenced in November fog. Party

is where he failed, for he believed in people,

not in partiinost’ that as everyone knows

delivers the goods. Does it? Of course.

And if they’re damaged in transit you make do?

You do – and don’t be so naïve about this world!

Maclean was not naïve, but “We are out

for life and all that life can give us”

was what he said, that’s what he said.

Henry Bell’s recent biography John Maclean: Hero of Red Clydeside (London: Pluto Press, 2018) should be read alongside these, and – if you can get hold of a copy – the primary texts, Maclean’s own writings, In the Rapids of Revolution, edited by Nan Milton (London: Allison & Busby, 1978). And then go further.

Rymour Books also publish Ian Spring’s valuable critical appreciation of Hamish Henderson, whose song “The John Maclean March” is still regularly heard in the same repertoire as the “Freedom Come-All-Ye” along with “The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily” – all of them works that have passed into the popularity of anonymity.

These songs and poems are in the same line of political dissent from an establishment that allows, and a media that encourages, the verbal, moral and visual atrocities enacted on the screens and in the radio broadcasts from the recent UK Conservative Party annual conference, and the multi-party, deeply layered inadequacies (to be polite) on show in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.

These literary works have permanent value.

They are not nostalgic reminiscences of failures of yesterday’s idealists but necessary living incitements, dissensions and encouragements. The alternative is a horrifying zombie mentality.

Rymour Books also publishes the Collected Poems and Prose of Freddy Anderson as well as the Scots vernacular poems of Mary Symon and Sheena Blackhall, Crombie Saunders, and the collection Norland Lichts, which we’ve noted before.

And there’s Tom Hubbard’s collection of essays Invitation to the Voyage: Scotland, Europe and Literature.

It couldn’t be more pertinent, with fresh readings of classic authors (Henryson, Scott, Carlyle, Margaret Oliphant, George Bruce and Hamish Henderson) but also revaluations of Byron, Cunninghame Graham, Joe Corrie, MacDiarmid, and forgotten or neglected figures brought back into the light or treated to original considerations and new perspectives – Turgenev in Scotland, Lillias Scott Forbes, Scotland and Poland, the great modernist Scottish composer Erik Chisholm “among the Czechs” and what Scottish writers have to say about the French and the Russians.

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These are neither academic, hidebound, jargon-led, over-annotated scholarly articles, nor are they pitched for a merely superficial reading. They excite deep and wide-ranging curiosity as much as they explore unfamiliar territories. They repay our close attention with more than information. They repay it with new openings and necessary affirmations.

But we’re talking here about a generally unreported world.

The independence march in Ayr in August or the pro-Europe, anti-isolationist march in London in last month and so many others go largely without media impact, or reported in an established context of media bias against full discussion and fair representation of any alternatives to Unionist class hierarchy.

Accordingly, we live in an established national condition where the works of people whose arts and minds can help to keep other people really alive is reported in what the American critic Guy Davenport once called “a dangerously denatured trickle of news”.

Or not at all. And when they are, most often in an implied or explicit tone of denigration, condescension or platitudinous contempt.

My entire argument here is an utter repudiation of the idea that the arts are to be understood and accepted merely as entertainments, what you do in your leisure time, if you can afford to. No. They are the most essential places and practices in which and by which you can find reliable truths.

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You can read things in poems, see how language works, read about people in relationships in novels, see them interacting in plays on stage, you can hear what goes on in a symphony or a string quartet, an opera or a cantata or a mass or a passion, or see what’s really there in a painting, or a sculpture, and you can find something about which you’ll say, “That’s it! That’s true! That’s what it’s like! Exactly!”

And there might be no way of explaining it other than that. There is no paraphrase, no other way of saying it.

If you’re fortunate, you might find people, some people, on whom you can rely for demonstrable truths. Those you like most might become friends, for a long time, maybe for all of your life. Those you really like the most of the most might become a husband or wife or partner, one way or another.

But in a world so deeply immersed in lies, pervaded by misdirection, marinaded in confusion and fogginess and fuzziness, inimical woolliness, murderous incompetence, in the world where we find ourselves right now, discovering places or people you can trust to give you truths becomes a rarity.

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Reading the news is an act of literary criticism. Reading against the grain is what we learn to do as adults. We ask questions and find answers that go beyond the propaganda which now seems to operate with such unshakeable belief in itself that we might at times feel reasonably exhausted by it.

We shouldn’t be.

It’s an old story, escalated by present conditions. But the value of what we have is irreplaceable. A vast legacy to draw on, if we can find out about it.

After the fall of the French monarchy on August 10, 1792, The Times recorded 11,000 persons massacred in Paris, and from September 4-6 a further 12,000 “trunkless heads and mangled bodies carried about the streets on pikes”.

These were exaggerated reports, certainly, but among the newspaper-reading people, believed to be true. The newspaper press then as now was a principle means of conveying to the public the dangers of reform and of the anarchy and bloodshed that resulted when conservative authority was challenged and usurped.

This is true of newspapers then as now but also today of mass media. And the consequent conditions of assumption that inform educational priorities, which are inevitably geared towards financial reward, not ecological sustainability.

In post-French Revolution England, information was requested on anyone reported as having to do with the publication or distribution of seditious material. The poet William Blake was a hunted man, and the bell was ringing the end of freedom of expression.

When Blake started writing his first major work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in 1790, he had no need to conceal his authorship. The editor of the Oxford edition of this work, Michael Phillips, tells us that by 1793, “he was living in fear of his life”. On the opening plate, there is no author’s name.

What Jacob Bronowski says about Blake applies here most acutely: “What makes great writers one is not dissent looking forward, but dissent itself, in the widest meaning.

This is why the designers of Utopias, of whatever kind, have feared their cast of mind more than their writings.

“If you want to run a state for ever without trouble, says Plato, says Hitler, get rid of those whose make-up is odd, questioning, dissenting. Get rid of truth, get rid of literature, because their common interest is dissent.”

Bronowski wrote that in 1944.