I have a hand-written poem dedicated to me … well, that’s an exaggeration. It is actually autographed to me, though written on the spot; others may also possess the same honour. The poet whose name I did not know until he put it on paper was invited to my guardian’s flat [an apartment to my American readers] to talk about Scottish literature, an interview of sorts. She told me he was famous.
A child, I had never read a word of his work. I did not know then he was a founder of the independence movement, a gatherer of the Scots tongue, and a rebel. He said, “Yes, I am also a communist. I wear the red so that when people see me coming they know what I stand for.” A nationalist and a communist. So much for the oft heard gibe ‘Tartan Tories’.
My guardian told me not to disturb him and her other guests while they were in conference. I was given a book to read, told to wait until the meeting was over.
When he entered the flat he was ushered hastily into an anti-room almost unseen. From my position at the end of the hall I caught sight of a shock of white hair, and a long black coat as he moved a short step from outer to inner door and the anti-room.
I was barely of an age to tie my shoelaces and he, it seemed to me from that momentary glimpse, was very old.
Why had a poet come to our house? Had he not students to teach, a publisher to meet, an ode to compose? Should he not be striding over the stony crest of a scree-sided, ridge back, craggy Munro somewhere, rain lashing his face, he unperturbed jotting down giblets of verse, shouting it to noisy crows to check if it scanned?
Curiosity didn’t kill the cat
Curiosity got the better of me. I had to know.
Adult counsel is of little value to children who are able to think for themselves. I ignored my guardian’s good advice and, holding aloft pencil and a scrap of school lined paper, I rushed through the linoleum clad lobby in my stocking feet to the door at the far end, supposedly barred to my entrance. I entered behind a timid tap, tap on the old four-panel, varnish crackled, brass handled door.
The elderly man stood back-lit against the tall Victorian lace windows. He stood motionless, taken aback at my unexpected appearance while he was in mid-speech.
Silence. The people in the room waited as adults might a naughty child to stop talking. My guardian gave me a scowl. Down below, on the railway line than ran along the length of the Edinburgh tenement, a goods engine shuffled and puffed, stiffly, slowly, wagons heavy with coal taken from Niddrie coal yards to somewhere. In Pavlovian response the old man took a puff at his pipe. The smoke idled up to the rose on the ceiling.
His narrow shouldered frame was drowned in a long dark, serge blue, big buttoned overcoat that reached to his ankles, as if he was a municipal statue about to be revealed. The hair on his head was thick, unruly and impenetrable, a gorse bush swept back by gales not comb. It hovered suspended in the mid-air. He seemed to grow down from it until his feet touched the ground in shoes old and cracked. That head needed no hat nor cap to stave off Edinburgh’s cold winds. In contrast, his moustache was scraggy, immature, attached to a short lip and stained from years of tobacco smoke. His eyebrows, in line with the explosion of head hair, took the form of twin briar patches, his eyes lined and pouched, panda black. Tufts of hair grew out of his ears, and his lower lip that held the stem of his pipe, generous and distended, as if a roll of lava defying gravity.
I did not know then, not until years later, that he was the uncompromising architect of Scotland’s literary renaissance, the man who wrote in broad Scots and not plain English to bamboozle Anglophiles and colonials, a co-founder of the National Party of Scotland.
For a very long minute we studied each other. I held up my stumpy pencil and paper.
He removed the pipe from his pursed lips and spoke down to me.
“Ah dinnae dae autographs, son.”
Crushed like apple pulp
Crushed. Humiliated. Spurned. What an anti-climax. To screw up courage told no thanks, go away. In my head that’s what I heard though he never spoke those words. What kind of person refuses the flattery of a request for their signature?
George Bernard Shaw refused to give donations to worthy causes. Instead he signed postcards and told the lucky recipient to sell it – it was “very definitely worth a pound or two to a collector”. The man in front of me had no care for the conventions of fame.
I said nothing, but my face must have said it all. He saw the hurt, the crumpled gait, for he stopped me as I reached the door.
“Ah tell yi what, son. Ah’ll write yi a wee poem.”
It took him a few minutes to complete. “Whit’s yer name?” I gave it. He signed his barely legible scribble and dated the poem.
The Little White Rose
The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.
It is signed – Hugh MacDiarmid. I have it to this day, a little worn at the edges.
Later in life I saw him interviewed by a group of faithful fans, mostly writers, draped around his feet in his Langholm house chatting away for a television documentary of the couthy type BBC Scotland used to offer viewers north of the border as a cultural sop to the natives – rarely transmitted down south for the London glitterati to appreciate.
Those folk ‘down south’ got cathedral loving Betjeman, Stephen Spender, and the drab library assistant, Philip Larkin, who, come to think of it, we were given too, just to remind us there existed poets of a greater stature, or so we were expected to assume by the attention they got compared to MacDiarmid or McCaig, or any of the other Scottish poetic dominies.
The image of MacDiarmid grated, framed in a large wing-backed chair, that pipe still lodged in his mouth now between stumpy worn teeth, half-smiling, smug as potentate with three wives and a dozen concubines, sage, heroic poet surrounded by drippy acolytes. It seemed uncomfortably over-the-top. I think it embarrassing still; far too reverential. It differed from my brief youthful meeting with him, when he espoused school master firm, a strict Presbyterian attitude to shallow celebrity.
Had MacDiarmid gone soft? Did he enjoy fawning respect in his old age? Or was he as curmudgeonly about fickle fans and phoneys as he was all his life?
Perhaps I shouldn’t begrudge an old man acknowledgement that among the knowing he was still relevant. But I do know I must be one the few with that world-famous poem written in his own hand that some say was never his to write.