Saturday, 18 September 2010

Lost letters reveal Morgan's muse

The trauma of unrequited love, the pleasure and pain of friendship and the sheer beauty of language emerge powerfully from a collection of “lost” poems and letters written to his student friend and muse by the young Edwin Morgan.

The poems — most unpublished — are revealed for the first time today by The Times and were composed for Vivian Linacre.

Now 82, Mr Linacre was in his early twenties and a final-year student at the University of Edinburgh when he met Morgan, then 29, who had recently been appointed as an assistant lecturer at Glasgow University.

Morgan, Scotland’s Makar (or National Poet), died last month, aged 90. His English counterpart, the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, described him as irreplaceable, “poetry’s true son and blessed by her”.

Morgan had concealed his homosexuality until he was 70, but as a young man, for four years, he maintained an intimate correspondence with Mr Linacre, sometimes barely unable to conceal his longing, but never quite confessing his true desire.

Instead, beginning the summer of 1949, in a succession of literary letters — in which he occasionally wrote in blank verse — Morgan often made main plain his feelings.

For Mr Linacre — addressed as “Vividest Lineament”, “Vivihand” and “Vivid Liniment” by Morgan — these letters were “purely poetic”, the mark only of a strong friendship, ripened by a shared love of language.

“I was very naive at the time,” said Mr Linacre, who is twice married and has eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “Looking back I realise just how intense it was, how emotionally charged. But as far as I was concerned it was a literary thing.

“Like Robert Graves, he always needed a muse, and he had several. I served that purpose, too. He wasn’t interested in me, I think he just needed someone to address.”

One of the poet’s published pieces, A Metre-Reading, was written for Mr Linacre, and is ripe with sexual imagery: “... The groin mine groans with gold,/ Meditation is choked,/ Mine-shaft, granary-wall/Crack gold, spout grain-of-gold/ Swelling by love’s lintel / In lust’s wastrel jostle . . .”

Morgan found life particularly difficult during the 1950s, when he hid his sexuality away for fear of carrying the stigma of being openly homosexual. This week, a biography of the poet, written by James McGonigal, will suggest that Morgan became depressed and even considered committing suicide during this period.

Some of his correspondence to Mr Linacre makes clear Morgan’s discomfort. One of his letters, written in verse, reads: “The patient was a patient/ Even in Edinburgh/ And had no heart to see you/ Being in much pain and so/ Desiring only hiding/ Like the lonely forest things/ Till gaiety should return.”

Looking back, there was no doubt that his friend had suffered from a form of depression, Mr Linacre said. “In the poetry there are lots of references to illness,” he added.

“I suspected at the time that there was nothing wrong medically, but he suffered bouts of the ‘black dog’ and would withdraw himself, though he wouldn’t advertise it. If you read between the lines, you can see that he would look into himself and use all this stuff as material.”

Mr Linacre moved to London in 1953 to pursue a career as a surveyor. He lost touch with Morgan but kept many of the letters and items sent by the poet, over their four-year friendship. These include A Metre Reading and another poem Cheiromantra, apparently unpublished until today — when it is reprinted opposite.

Morgan also sent Mr Linacre copies of his first two published books,A Vision of Cathkin Braes and a translation of Beowulf; copies of then unpublished works, such as the love poem, Benedicite Omnia Opera, and Michelangelo: 4 Sonnets, as well as copies of many works in progress.

The two men first met in July 1949, through a shared interest in the Edinburgh Festival, when Mr Linacre was a month short of his 21st birthday. At the time, he was “half-heartedly reading English” while devoting the rest of his life to debating societies and dissipation.

“In Edinburgh we met in either the Cockburn Hotel or Darlings Hotel,” Mr Linacre said. “Occasionally I made the round trip by train to Glasgow and by tram to Burnside, Rutherglen, for tea with his parents at 12 Albert Drive.

“As a special treat, we would travel as far north as Drymen for a frugal meal at the Buchanan Arms. Our correspondence continued long after he had moved into his modern flat on Great Western Road, though I never visited him there.”

Mr Linacre said that Morgan was essentially a loner. The younger man was conscious both of his literary friend’s strained relationship with his parents, and of the fact that he remained distant from the famous poets of the day, such as Sydney Goodsir Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean and Norman MacCaig.

His parent simply didn’t understand him and that made him very unhappy,” Mr Linacre said.

Though he destroyed some of the correspondence, Mr Linacre kept the letters and poems which he considered most important. The first item is dated August 23, 1949, and followed an Edinburgh production of T.S. Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party, one of the highlights of that year’s festival.

Morgan attended the play, while Linacre enjoyed a drink at Darling’s Hotel, in Waterloo Place, a favoured haunt of the Edinburgh arts crowd.

The letter begins: “A little document, my dear Linacre,/ To express my resentment at the wretched angustity/ Of fate and time which tormented my feet/And hindered my dating you at Darling’s Hotel/ At the hour hoped-for: for he (Eliot)/ Kept us in the Lyceum later than cued, And cars were full, and fretting keenly/ Took me no earlier than twenty to eleven/ To the vacated rendezvous; you must recently have vanished.”

A letter of November 4, 1949 again is written in verse, and charmingly recounts the humdrum details of Morgan’s everyday life.

“My friend Sydney Graham is/ In hospital in Truro,/ Another poetry-shard/ Another crock of a Jock,/ And I worry about him/ Since he is too drugged to write . . . I am reading Gormenghast/ And the Seven Cantos;/ Saw an aquarium fish/ Exhibition yesterday;/ And have put on a yellow/ Pullover to knit up care/A little with its brilliant/ Ravelment; such my poor news. Haut les coeurs, kingfisher cries,/ ... Haut les coeurs, O haut les coeurs!” The poem is signed “Endgloom Mornagain!”

Morgan, who announced he was gay on his 70th birthday — he said “as a present” to himself — had endured agonies and anxiety for periods of his life. Homosexuality remained a criminal offence in Scotland until 1980, and his public position called for discretion.

The 1950s had been particularly difficult, Hamish Whyte, a long-standing friend of the poet, said. He had difficulties writing and suffered from the buttoned up sexual mores of the day.

“Eddie felt the muse had deserted him, so he poured himself into his translation of Beowulf. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he had depression with a capital ‘D’, but he was probably confused. It was a very repressive time for him until the Sixties exploded.”

Morgan met John Scott in 1963, though the two never lived together, this finally, was the defining relationship in the poet’s life, until Scott’s death in 1978.

Professor McGonigal said that he had been aware of Mr Linacre from Morgan’s correspondence, which the poet kept, and from their conversations, but he doubted that Mr Linacre had been the poet’s muse.

“It would be difficult to judge the relationship from the correspondence Eddie kept,” he added. “Eddie was interested in lively people and good company, and Vivian Linacre perhaps fitted the bill. I got the impression he was bright and interesting. There was a correspondence between them, but I didn’t form the impression that it was hugely important. I could be wrong.”

Costume drama warning: Thou shalt not covert thy neighbour's hat

It was not just the Pope who claimed the streets of Edinburgh yesterday. Ninian, a fourth century Scottish bishop, ran him a close second. On T-shirts, placards and balloons, the name was everywhere, as the grand parade in the saint’s honour formed up, in the shadow of Calton Hill.

At nine o’clock, lines of obedient schoolchildren were first to arrive at the head of the march, ready to squeak their excitement. Orderly adults followed on, dignified bandsmen who joined the 1,000 pipers who made up the procession, and bashful blokes in fancy dress, kitted out as St Andrew, Robert Burns and Ninian himself.

Next up were the Knights of Malta, the oldest Christian charity in the world, all grand in their ceremonial robes and carrying flags. “It is a big day out,” said Nick Crean, the Chancellor of the Knights. “This parade demonstrates that the Catholic Church is a force for good. This parade is a tremendous symbol of its worth.”

This being secular, 21st century Scotland, not everyone agreed. In 1982, when John Paul II came to Edinburgh, the streets were jammed. This time, even the Catholic Church had to admit that only 60,000 turned out to form a thin line of well-wishers along the mile-long route down Princes Street.

Much has changed in three decades. Now there is a parliament building in the city, Scottish football is even worse, church attendances are down in the depths — but the Rev Ian Paisley, now Lord Bannside, remains immovable. For his last fixture with the Vatican on Scottish soil, Lord Bannside trekked from Co Antrim to the Mass given by John Paul II in Glasgow, where he hurled sectarian abuse at the prelate known in Paisleyite circles as “the Antichrist”.

This time out, his protest was hidden away deep in the bowels of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and, mercifully, far quieter. Indeed for an hour or more, it was entirely private, while Lord Bannside communed with 50 grim-faced clergy from the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster inside the tiny Magdalen Chapel.

The setting was suitably historic. The chapel was built by Catholics in 1541, but occupied by John Knox for the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. As the clock ticked on, the question arose, what on Earth was Lord Bannside doing in there? Knocking out the stained glass windows, manufactured by papist craftsmen?

He probably was, because when he finally emerged he was in high spirits. Sporting a nifty black fedora and a broad smile he stepped into the sun. Would he answer a flippant question — where did he get that great big beautiful hat? “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s hat!” boomed the voice that rattled a thousand pews. And could Lord Bannside spare a message for the Pope? “Go. Back. Home.”

That was more or less that. A quick chorus of The Lord’s My Shepherd at the nearby Covenanters’ monument, and Lord Bannside was off.

The Pope, by now ensconced in his Popemobile, and trundling through the nearby city-centre streets, was not free of his tormenters yet. By the Usher Hall, the staunch gentlemen of the Orange Order had gathered to register their silent protest at the papal visit. Across the street, a noisier faction of sceptics, humanists, gay and women’s rights campaigners had assembled to shout out their individual grievances.

For once, as the demonstrators surged, the crowd along the route swelled to four or five deep. But then, just as a frisson of opposition could be felt, the moment was gone and the Popemobile drove back into the real, and sometimes raucous, Edinburgh.

Now the crowds were different. Sikh waiters in turbans throwing curious looks from a restaurant doorway; office workers, leaning against the barrier to stare at the man in white and his tartan scarf. Even the girls at the Ambassador Sauna had time to get to their window, above the Bottoms Up Show Bar, to wave down at the Pope as he trucked past. And he was gone. In the office, the restaurant, the sauna and the show bar, it was back to business as usual — in 21st century, secular Scotland.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Postcards from the edge of darkness

David Shrigley plants his cup of tea on a Nottingham Forest FC coaster and with a smile of satisfaction opens that proof copy of What The Hell Are You Doing?  lying on his  kitchen table. He has published 30 books, but few had occasioned  such anxiety as this anthology. Taking delivery last Monday was a huge relief.

 “It was like wow,”  he says, sticking his nose between the covers.  “You open  it up and you start looking at it and going through the pages one by one: good, good, good.  It isn’t always right, you know ... ”

Shrigley, depending on your point of view,  is variously cartoonist, musician, sculptor, filmmaker, humorist, and centre half, though for himself, he thinks it best just to stick with artist, “it is a good catch-all”.  

His new collection of greatest hits spans 19 years and opens with a cartoon of two rabbits.  Says one: “There is a land not far from here where rabbits live in harmony with all other creatures.” The other retorts: “That’s a complete load of shit and you know it.”  
Over the following 300 pages, he mines a mordant seam, conjuring up the same dark tradition of British humour that threw up Tony Hancock and Chris Morris. One cartoon features an executioner who beheads a prisoner, carries his axe on to a bus, then leaves it at home while he walks the dog. Another picture shows a squirrel with its  severed head between its paws. A third is a photo of a child holding up a board of magnetic letters. They spell: “i have swallowed a piece of lego”.

Nothing about Shrigley’s demeanour suggests a weird interior world, but a few minutes in his company reveals that this is a very paradoxical fellow.  Take his voice. At 41, Shrigley has lived more than half his life in Glasgow, since he arrived as a student at its art school, but he still speaks with the clipped vowels of the English Midlands.

Factor in his appearance. Tall and fastidiously well-scrubbed he cuts a prim figure, but every other weekend he dons a replica football top and drives to Nottingham to watch his team play, and to hurl abuse at match officials.  He usually goes alone to these games.

Finally there is his attitude to his fans, whose adoration he cannot begin to fathom. “You get emails about an image you made one day and these people say ‘That’s amazing - it just sums something up for me!’ What on earth do they mean?” he wonders.

“Or more worryingly, someone contacts you and says: ‘I’d suffered from clinical depression for years and your book really helped me.’ I’m like: Great – but how? They don’t realise you just make the drawing and then go off and watch CSI.”

For all his self deprecation, Shrigley is a serious artist.  His breakthrough came when he drew the cover piece in 1995 for Frieze, an influential art magazine, which  appeared  alongside an admiring essay by Michael Bracewell. Today he is  represented by six galleries around the world, and his work hangs in The Tate and in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

He keeps good company too. Shrigley plays football in the same team as Richard Wright.  His mates include Douglas Gordon and Martin Creed. Even that little girl in the photo, holding the  magnetic letters, turns out to be the daughter of Christine Borland. 

All of these friends are Turner Prize winners or nominees. but he seems to harbour no such expectations. The current issue of a Scottish listings magazine may feature his art on its cover, but  Shrigley is  stunned to have been granted even that level of public recognition.  “When I saw that I thought, why would they do that?” he says. “I am surprised these images have any currency.”

Shrigley was born in Macclesfield and  moved to Leicester when he was two.  His upbringing, he says, was utterly normal, and left little mark on him, save for  a respect for his father’s evangelical religious views.

“If I am remarkable, it’s because I am so ordinary,” he says. “I grew up the same as everyone else, on a redbrick estate that could have been anywhere in the UK. My dad drove a second hand, Mark 2 Ford Escort,  which I learned to drive around the redbrick estate. I’m not sure it had any influence on me, except to want to leave and never go back. I’m like everyone else.  The only difference I suppose is the tenor of my graphic work - which isn’t so different either.

“I dunno,” he concludes diffidently. “It all happened by accident anyway.” 

These days,  all remains convincingly normal. Shrigley practices yoga, drinks goats milk, monitors his caffeine intake and works a regular eight hour day.  He married Kim, his long-time girlfriend in the local church this summer, but beyond the facade of the Victorian house  the couple occupy,  his weirder world intrudes. 

At one end of a living room wall is a sign he has copied from a travel agent, offering 7 nights in Zante for £199.  At the other is a picture showing a big black blob filling a square; its message urges “Enjoy quantum physics”. On the table  between them,  a book of matches warns: “DON’T SAY THE WORD SHIT”. 

Here in the kitchen, his own work may be absent, but on the table  is a video and a book  sent to him by Banksy, the street  artist, and one of his friends. Shrigley is delighted. “I like  graffiti,” he says.  “It’s transient, guerrilla, unsanctioned, uncensored.”

By contrast, he hates public art. A picture in his anthology shows people admiring a giant-sized sculpture entitled ‘CRAP’.  “It’s brilliant,” opines a stick-person critic. The truth, for Shrigley is that  all spontaneity has been knocked out of public art, through  an endless process of negotiation.  Inevitably, the end product is dull.

Like Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North? “Yes,” he says.  “It becomes a landmark. People don’t think of it as an artwork any more. When you think about that thing (the Angel), it’s not really that nice is it? There’s nothing very interesting about it, if you looked at it as a sculpture in context. Public art is like town planning. It’s boring.  They will never do anything interesting - and if they do it will be by accident.”    

His own output  relies on intuition and his first thought on graduating was to become a cartoonist. Then, as now, he works quickly.  For a show next week in Leuven, Belgium Shrigley will frame 30 pieces from 300 he made over a matter of weeks. He might save another 70.  The remainder go in the bin.

“There is a moment when the project is finished,” he says. “I just allot a certain amount of time and resources and whatever happens in that space ends up being the project.  That’s the strategy – a journey between A and B rather than arrival at B.”

The artist himself gives every impression of being settled in the city he arrived in 21 years ago. He says:  “I have civic responsibility here, because it is my home. That implies a certain commitment to the art scene in Scotland and Glasgow specifically.  That  is where my loyalties lie.”

But lest any passing nationalist should feel a warm glow of pride at that pronouncement,  Shrigley’s Scotland, like the rest of his world, turns out to be a very contrary place.   

“I am culturally Scottish,”  he declares, in the restrained voice of middle England,  “but I hate Robert Burns. I hate the Scottish football team, I hate Rangers and I hate Celtic.  I hate thistles. And I hate whisky.”

Photos by James Glossop