The 70s and All That

(A short reflection, published in a friend’s blog.)

It was hardly remarkable that the right wing press (and other Unionist commentators) rushed, at the first whiff of industrial action, to drag out comparisons between the present state of the UK and the way things were in the 1970s. At the same time, I could not help but wonder how many of these self appointed guardians of Common Sense and Economic Probity were actually around at the time.

Being suitably long in the tooth, I can remember those days very well. I was a newly qualified teacher. My family struggled to exist on what I was paid, my daughter qualified for free school meals and I had to seek extra sources of income. These varied from private tutoring (despite the fact that it contradicted all my beliefs about education), playing guitar in a pub (only once, not asked back), to working in London as a builder’s labourer during my summer holidays. I left teaching after two years for a job in a voluntary organisation with slightly better pay. Two years later I was back teaching, after the organisation where I worked lost its Urban Aid funding. Inflation reached 30%.

Across the decade, UK politics were in a state of chaos. A surprise Conservative election victory in 1970 installed the Heath government. They were in immediate conflict with strong Trades Unions, mismanaged the disputes and lost power to Labour after two general elections in 1974. The Tories blamed Heath for being ‘defeated’ by striking miners, and Thatcher became party leader in his stead. The so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ and Labour’s Callaghan premiership, savagely attacked across the media, paved the way for the first Thatcher Government in 1979.

I cannot make up my mind whether today’s Tory media are afraid that Unions are regaining strength or are hoping that obvious government ineptitude may lead to the party throwing out Johnson, replacing him with someone even farther to the right. Or perhaps, with talk of ‘Union Barons’ and ‘impossible wage demands’ they are seeking to convince the British public that only the Conservative Party can save them from the ever-worsening economic situation.

What seems clear to me is that neither a continuing Conservative government, nor a victory in the approaching general election for lacklustre Labour, will be able to steer Scotland away from the problems that now confront the UK.

I am reminded of the cry of a former colleague in times of trouble: ‘An Albatross! Cut the rope!’

(First published 30/6/22 at

Family Misfortunes

I have read, and it seems to me highly likely, that ever since human beings first developed the capacity to use language, they have employed it for purposes beyond the merely functional, concerning the daily necessities of naming and explaining,

I believe that from earliest times, humans have also employed language in creative acts: the making of stories and chants, plays and poems, speeches and songs. These things, which I have actually heard dismissed by cynics as ‘mere entertainments’ or ‘irrelevancies’, are so embedded in the nature of being human that they are among the criteria that define our species.

From the most ancient examples of creativity in language, such as myths and legends, right up to television soap operas and novels in the present day, some contexts appear repeatedly, indicating areas of abiding human preoccupation. Among these is The Family.

Most people, when you get to know them, will speak about their families: descriptions of quirky characters, anecdotes about unusual events, humorous or dramatic incidents. When an acquaintance does not discuss their own family, others may well comment on this as something strange.

As someone always on the lookout for material for my writing, I am an avid listener when anyone shares details about their family and its doings. Such details, (suitably adapted of course, in order not to breach confidentiality), may find their way into my attempts to produce readable fiction.

This is the case with my most recently published work. A number of years ago, I was told a reminiscence about the teller’s family which I found very moving. Since then I have attempted a number of times to use the events narrated to me in the form of a short story. Only recently did I manage this to my own satisfaction. It was accepted for online publication by Fairlight Books.

You can read this fiction-based-on-fact at ( https://www.fairlightbooks.co.uk/short_stories/the-birmingham-story/)

Birmingham in the 1930s

Lives and Works

All through my life, from primary school to the present day, I have been drawn to literature, as a source of enjoyment and also as a way of gaining insight into the lives of others. Along the way, many teachers and many critics have offered their advice on how to evaluate the works of writers I had read.

I have often found that background information about writers has been a source of fascination and also of help in understanding fiction and poetry that, on first reading, has seemed challenging or obscure. I can clearly remember encountering poetry by T S Eliot at secondary school, and finding it impenetrable until I was able to find some critical and biographical books in the local library that helped me make some sense of what had at first been an insoluble puzzle.

Later, I came across the work of critics who insisted that such background material, on the lives of writers, should be ignored – readers should give their entire attention to the works themselves, basing their judgements on close textual analysis.

It is certainly true that, in recent times, revelations about the private lives of some writers have resulted in reappraisal of their work, and decline in their reputations. Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes come to mind.

On the other side of the coin, where verifiable biographical details may be lacking, the work of writers from the more distant past may provide opportunities for barely sustainable speculations by critics seeking to impose their own beliefs and values on the existing works. Shakespeare’s plays are regularly cited as supporting contemporary conservatism, imperialism and English exceptionalism.

Recently, while looking through my files for something to send off in response to a call for submissions, I came across two poems that, each in their own way, seemed to be grappling with these two approaches to evaluating writing and writers. They were both accepted for publication.

You can read them below.

The first poem concerns my own changing response to Larkin’s poetry.

Larkin on the Wireless

A half-heard couplet on the radio

has sent me back to his Collected Works.

I prise the volume from the shelf, dust off

the years and hunt the long forgotten lines.

When young and seeking to invent myself,

I read the famous poems, and admired

that cool, morose facility with form.

Critics, advising caution, pointed out

his distaste for the world, his misery.

Youth is judgemental; how could I condone

the sad, crammed cupboards of pornography?

Then prurient obituaries leaked

a drip of details, petty and banal:

a life of sneering from behind closed doors.

He stumbled from my reading list, exiled

with fascists, anti-semites and the like,

my gallery of disenfranchised writers.

But I am older now. Those half-heard lines

were all it took to stop me in my tracks,

and spark, if not forgiveness, then regret,

and pity, tinged with envy for his skill.

Age brings on reappraisal with the dusk.

The second poem came about from involvement in a writing workshop where the task given was to write in the persona of an inanimate object.

Second Best

When first the crowds began to know his name,

and fill the playhouse, he had gold to spend,

(though not as much as he would later have,

when he forsook his dearest love for trade).

Small luxuries at first: a decent wine,

clean rooms, an ornate doublet, laundry done.

(He took great care with comfort, and with rest).

And I moved in, his servant from then on.

But always hidden from the public gaze,

I never stirred beyond the chamber door.

Yet there I heard each line as it was writ,

and every secret confidence: with friends,

with fellows of the company, with Anne

(on her infrequent visits), with young wives

of swollen-bellied burgesses, with blond

and perfumed page boys who had caught his eye,

and even with Southampton, though, God knows,

there was a patronage that cost him dear.

I much preferred the stolen afternoons

with his dark mistress: honeyed tones, sweet deeds

and sunlight, born of words midst winter’s gloom.

But leaving London was like leaving life.

Stratford is quaint, but quiet. Death ensued,

and tears, and testament. You know the rest.

Entailed to Anne! How could he mark me so,

my swan, my poet, burden that I bore,

ten thousand nights? His bed- his second best?

Both poems were first published in The Cannon’s Mouth (Cannon Poets Quarterly) Issue 83, March 2022

Copyright © Gordon Gibson 2022

Young Readers, Old Tales

A couple of years ago, I took a short online course about the origins and first publications of fairytales. When I was a primary school teacher, I was always fascinated by the way the pupils responded with such enthusiasm to these ancient stories, despite the fact that so many of them dealt with dark and frightening topics.

However, over the years, the underlying meanings of many of these tales have come to be seen as deeply problematic in the ways they represent societies, and particularly the roles of women within them.

The short course looked at a number of well-known fairytales and explained how they perpetuated the values current in the communities where they originated. When they moved from oral tradition into the sphere of literature, these values often remained embedded in the stories, even where societal change had taken place.

One of the stories analysed was ‘Blue Beard’. Although I had a rather vague knowledge of the content of this story, I realised that I had never read any version of it. The course directed students to the first publication.

Originally a folktale, the story was written down and published in 1697 by Charles Perrault. This French author, regarded as the father of the fairytale, was the first to record many stories such as Cendrillon (Cinderella) and Le Chat Botte (Puss in Boots). Despite Blue Beard’s grisly plot, the tale has remained hugely popular through the centuries. (You can read a translation of the original at https://sites.pitt.edu/~dash/perrault03.html )

One of the course activities asked students to write an updated version of Blue Beard, presenting its key features in a contemporary context. I tried to present the story as a narrative poem, and kept it on file, although sure in my mind that it would never be suitable for publication.

At the end of last year, to my surprise, I saw on Facebook a call for submissions to a forthcoming anthology ‘of horror poetry’. Although this is not a genre with which I am familiar, I wondered if the ancient tale retold might fit the bill. The poem was accepted and published.

A Fairytale Romance

A widower. She should have known,

or listened to her heart.

Too old to be a lover,

his beard too long, blue-black, unkempt,

his gait ungainly, like an ailing priest.

Her mother praised his patience, his civility, his charm.

His wealth was too conspicuous to mention.

Gifts came to her in downpours,

she visited the best of his estates.

She married him. She should have known.

Their main home was his mansion.

Redecoration, left to her choosing

kept her occupied. He ran his businesses,

the honeymoon could wait. At his suggestion,

her family and former friends were asked to dine

to witness the extent of her good fortune.

Out of the blue, an unexpected text

called him away – a meeting in the south.

Before he left he issued his instructions, and his keys.

There was, he said, one confidential storeroom

she should not enter when he was not present,

the room beneath the stairs, the smallest key.

He made her promise, and she gave her word.

She should have known.

Her fingers itched to try the lock.

He left, her guests arrived, she played the hostess,

but still the mystery preyed on her mind.

The guests departed (all but her younger sister),

she could deny herself no longer.

The horror, the despair!

Beneath the stairs, the carnage that she found:

the slaughtered wives, a floor awash with blood.

She fled, locking the door behind her,

hands and dress, even the key

all stained with gore.

No matter how she scrubbed,

the bloodstained key would not be clean.

And then his voice, calling from the hall:

‘The meeting’s cancelled, sweetest love, I’m home.’

His anger was insane.

Her broken promise sentenced her to death.

She begged for pity, and he gave her leave to pray.

Her sister overheard, and called her brothers,

Invited, late, but surely on their way.

Her vile husband, out of patience,

clutching a cruel blade,

would have dispatched her

had the tardy brothers not arrived

and put an end to him, once and for all.

She has another lover now, and all the wealth,

and has rewarded those who saved her life,

and now warns every maiden she encounters

never to wed

regardless of all pleasantries or riches.

Copyright © Gordon Gibson 2022

First published in:

O. Hasanov (ed.) Hidden Realms, A World Anthology of Dark Poetry, Horrorscope Press 2022.

James Joyce and Urban Camping in the ‘ 60s

As a teenager, in the mid-1960s, I was obsessed with folk music. I was trying to teach myself to play five string banjo, mandolin and guitar, listening to everything I could discover that was being marketed as ‘Folk’ and considering myself to be an authoritative judge of what was ‘authentic’. Such is the naivete of youth!

Even more naïvely, when my best friend and I decided that Dublin was the place to spend our summer holiday, on account of it being where we could find especially authentic folk music, we planned our accommodation by borrowing an ancient, two-man tent. Travel would be easy: we would hitch-hike.

A train to Stranraer, a ferry to Larne and the pilgrimage began. Surprisingly, it rained. The drivers of Ulster did not seem inclined to take pity on two sodden adolescents. The tent leaked. It took two full days to reach the border, but at least by that time we had become more in touch with reality: stand where the drivers can get a good look at you, and can stop without causing an accident; don’t even try to find a camping space in the middle of a town; never turn down the opportunity for a wash. When we eventually made it all the way to Dublin, we thought of ourselves as characters straight out of Kerouac – cool, wise beyond our years, Bohemian.

After spending the day of our arrival sightseeing, at dusk we took a local train out of the city, choosing Sandycove as a destination (‘We’ll camp on the beach’). It was dark by the time we got there, but we found the beach and pitched the tent.

In morning sunlight we discovered that we were camped beneath the walls of a small tower. After a breakfast of singed bacon, we went to have a look. An unobtrusive signboard informed us that this was the Martello Tower which provided James Joyce with the setting for the opening of his novel Ulysses.

As bookish youths, we had both heard of Joyce, but knew only that he was the disgraceful author of books that our local library would not allow us to borrow. However, that brief moment in the Dublin sunshine was enough to awaken a lifelong interest in the man, the novel and the city.

In the next couple of years I read what I could find of Joyce’s fiction, and found the early work enthralling, but couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the novel with which I now felt some kind of personal link.

In 1967, with the same friend, and much the same naivete, we took the tent to London. Lifts were easier to come by, and by a further stroke of luck, we discovered a campsite near Denham Village, a short train ride north of the city. For a fortnight, we posed as hippies, commuting from the green belt into the West End, visiting folk clubs and familiarising ourselves with English beer.

One afternoon, passing a cinema in Tottenham Court Road, we saw a poster advertising the newly-released film of Ulysses, starring Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom. Recalling our tenuous link with the Dublin saga, we went in to see the movie.

Having no knowledge of what the novel was about, nor of its modernist construction, we were amazed and excited by the film version. Even better, when in 1968 Penguin Books published a paperback edition, and I was at last able to read the book with a prior grasp of its narrative shape, I did not find it quite so daunting as it had been for many readers who came to it without advanced assistance. That is not to say it was an easy read! But it has repaid regular revisiting over the more than 50 years during which it has adorned my bookshelves.

Ulysses by James Joyce was first published 100 years ago this week. Happy birthday.

Radio Realities

Despite the incredible speed of development in information technology, I find myself still a devoted fan of radio. I attribute this to early childhood experiences when we did not have a television and the radio played in the background for most of every day.

I can still recall the programs: Mrs Dale’s Diary, Housewives’ Choice, Listen With Mother, The McFlannels, Forces Favourites, Take It From Here and many others. Snippets from these still sometimes turn up from BBC archives, the sounds of a distant, departed world.

Through teenage years, radio provided an alternative diet to available television: chaotic comedy from The Goon Show to I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, and the inevitable pop music from pirate broadcasters and eventually Radio One.

Advancing age meant that my tastes in music were better satisfied by Radio Two or Radio Three, and now I find myself, almost shamefacedly, a regular listener to Radio Four. Although this can often be infuriatingly conservative (not always with a small C), it can also be a provider of ideas sufficiently challenging to prod me out of over-rigid patterns of thought, and force me to acknowledge the necessity of trying to keep up with the times.

The week just past came up with a number of such examples. On Monday, Start The Week explored the potential (for good and ill) of Virtual Reality, asking whether the computer-generated world of The Matrix might already exist, or in the future might offer greater happiness for humans than the reality that we currently accept.

Later in the week, one of this year’s Reith Lectures continued to outline the progress in development of artificial intelligence, and to assert the need for control of how it is used in production of weapons of war.

Both of these programs pushed me beyond my own comfort zone, requiring more reflection than my standard response of ‘Rubbish!’ and alerting me to my own ignorance of the topics.

Thank goodness that, each day throughout the week, in Book of the Week there were also excerpts from a new critical biography of Seamus Heaney, examining the Nobel Laureate’s life and work, and reminding me of how his poetry illuminated and examined many aspects of the reality that we so often take for granted. Not always comfortable to hear, but grounded in the more familiar features of the human condition.

All of these programs may still be available on the BBC i – player.

Image from Wikepedia.

Another Bugle Call

When I began this blog back in October 2018, I was encouraged to pick a name other than simply calling it after myself, and I eventually chose one that emerged from reflection on the much quoted phrase from Yeats: ‘The foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’ I wrote in the blog about the reason for my choice at the time. [Why The Rag Man?]

This set me rummaging in my own memories of the rag and bone men who were frequent visitors to the tenement streets of my childhood, and inevitably it started me writing. A short poem finally took shape, and I was pleased when it was accepted for publication in this year’s anthology of writing by members of the Federation of Writers (Scotland): Sea Change, New Voices Press, 2021.

The Rag Man’s Bugle

The slightest hint of love

brings us running, breathless,

as once the children came

at the call of the rag man’s bugle,

drawn from their preoccupations

into the dusty street,

arms full of tattered garments

to barter for a cheap balloon,

a windmill on a stick.

Again and again we come,

faces aflame with hope,

expectant of gifts and wonders,

forgetful of disappointments,

forgiving of all past deceits.

Copyright © Gordon Gibson

mural by Banksie

Short But Satisfying

Bernard MacLaverty

It seems that publishers are very wary about investing their cash in volumes of short stories. I’m sure they have very good reason for this reluctance. Almost certainly, it has to do with low sales figures (and consequently little profit).

Common exceptions are found when someone with an already-formed reputation, either as a successful writer in some other genre or as a personality in the media, produces a collection and is considered to be likely to attract high sales on the strength of existing fame.

There are of course other exceptions: talented writers who have built a reputation from the outset on the strength of their short fiction. Sometimes they then move on to the writing of novels, or in some cases they continue to focus on the form that brought them their first success.

I have always enjoyed short stories. Even as a child, my favourite reading was the ‘Just William’ stories of Richmal Crompton, and the discovery of Hemingway in my teens confirmed my taste for smaller scale works, with the craft and precision that the best of them displayed.

It was therefore a real treat to receive as a birthday gift the most recent work by Bernard MacLaverty: ‘Blank Pages and other stories,’ his first collection for some time. He hails from Northern Ireland, but has for many years chosen to live in Scotland. His reputation was first built upon his short stories (although he is also a fine novelist) and his new publication maintains his previous excellent quality.

The stories cover a remarkable range of settings, from Vienna during the influenza pandemic that followed World War I to contemporary Scotland, and they explore young and old characters, detailing episodes of enormous significance in apparently ordinary lives.

If, like me, you are a fan, you have probably already obtained and read the collection. If not, I heartily recommend it to you

Mastering Scottish Miserabilism?

During my stay-at-home summer, I tried to avoid the allure of Euro-soccer and Olympic Games in order to catch up with my reading of novels that I felt I ought to have read, but hadn’t got round to yet.

High on my list were two of the most successful Scottish novels of recent years: the Booker Prize winner, ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart and the highly-praised ‘The Young Team’ by Graeme Armstrong.

In ‘The Glass Half Full,’ (Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2014), authors David Manderson and Eleanor Yule presented a study of the incidence and significance in Scottish literature, cinema and television of what has come to be called ‘Scottish Miserabilism’. They defined this as ‘. . . a tendency in film, literature, and other cultural output to portray the negative aspects of Scottish life.’

At first sight, these novels might be taken as representing the apotheosis of this tendency. Stuart examines in almost forensic detail the growing up of a gay boy within a dysfunctional Glasgow family, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Armstrong’s narrator gives his account of life as a member of a gang in Airdrie, from his early teens into his 20s.

Both novels make use of the language of everyday urban Scots, making no concessions to the over-sensitive reader. Both describe characters caught up in lives where they have to cope with problems that blight today’s Scotland: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, violence, crime, urban decay and fragile mental health.

However, despite the bleakness of the subject matter, the main protagonists in each novel eventually overcome the misery of their circumstances, and are able to find ways of escaping from the ties that bind them to their pasts.

Powerful fictions that I recommend to anyone interested in contemporary Scottish culture.

A Head Full Of Ideas

What is now known as ‘The Folk Revival’ began in Britain at the tail end of the 1950s. The likes of Lonnie Donegan emerged from the world of traditional jazz to record versions of American folk songs, and performers such as Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor appeared on TV’s Tonight programme with songs from the UK, arranged in a style that drew on instrumental techniques from The States.

As a schoolboy, just entering my teens, I was fascinated. Here were songs that depicted the past of working people and their real lives, but also songs of contemporary protest – CND had a particularly rich supply that could be guaranteed to infuriate parents and relatives for whom The War was still a live issue.

Friends at school started to buy guitars and lead impromptu performances of currently popular recordings in the genre: ‘Hang down your head, Tom Dooley’ and ‘Jailer, bring me water’ come to mind, songs you could belt out on a bus run.

In the middle years at secondary, I began to think of myself as a folk fan, and in the way of teenagers the world over, I associated with others sharing my tastes. I began to act out the self-image that I believed was appropriate, sharing records, endlessly discussing the meanings of songs, buying the right kind of denims and woollen sweaters, and eventually obtaining, and teaching myself to play, a ramshackle five string banjo

By this time, with the intolerance of youth, I had decided that ‘proper’ folk music should be confined to the songs of Scotland, Ireland and (occasionally) England. In this I was heavily influenced by the work of Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, and The Clancy Brothers.

My closest friend, Jim, who was the best guitarist I knew, was transatlantic in his taste, being into Ragtime, Blues and Woody Guthrie. We argued incessantly about what was appropriate for Motherwell folksingers to perform. (At this time I was much taken up with authenticity. This tendency later came to be known as ‘Folk Fascism’.)

Jim had an older brother with a pal who made frequent visits to the USA, and brought back records not obtainable in this country. Jim was always going on about one particular LP. He said it was the most wonderful thing he had ever heard, and I said it was probably a load of commercialised American rubbish. He said that the performer wrote his own songs, and they were terrific. I said that if he wrote his own songs, it wasn’t proper folk music. He kept offering to let me hear this fabulous record, but I, in my purity, refused even to listen to such degraded material, lest I be infected by it.

Then, one night on TV, there was a folk music program. Ready to be destructively critical, I settled down to watch it. A woman sang a song that powerfully affected me. It was a not-quite-love song, touching just those nerves that reduce hormone-packed adolescents to mush. When I told Jim about it next day, he asked the title.

‘Something about not thinking twice,’ I said.

‘That’s the first track on that LP you’ve never lowered yourself to experience,’ Jim said.

Jim loaned me his copy of ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’, and my life changed. I became an obsessional fan.

Over the years, Dylan has continually surprised his audiences by changing and developing his work. The folk singer became a protest singer, and then an introspective balladeer. He shocked listeners by moving into electric pop, experimented in country music and, no matter the popular genre he used, has consistently demonstrated incredible songwriting talent.

On May 24 this year, Bob Dylan reaches the age of 80 and is still creating and performing. I can only hope he goes on for many more years. He has been an enduring and illuminating presence in my life.