Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Liz Lochhead is new Makar, National Poet for Scotland

Congratulations to Liz Lochhead on becoming the new Makar. It couldn't be anyone else. She is so obviously the right choice: witty, feisty, a wicked but humane eye for character both in her poetry and plays and an ear for lively, playful speech, particularly her use of Glasgwegian demotic.

On a personal note, I have been a fan of Liz's work since 1972 when her first pamphlet 'A Memo for Spring' came out. I was working (on a temporary basis during my holidays as a teacher) at the famous Turret Bookshop in Holland Walk, Kensington owned by Bernard Stone. Frequently poets would come in for a glass of wine and many of the books had red rings on the covers: Brian Patten, Derek Mahon and Gerald Scarfe (the cartoonist, not poet) amongst them. Not Liz, at least when I was there. But I discovered her pamphlet and was electrified. A very soulful photo of her sitting on a hill with one of Edinburgh's mountains, Arthur's Seat in the background was the cover. She later told me that was the photographer's idea and never a true depiction of her character. The poems made a witty play with cliche, in the language of now, and made me realize that the lives of women could be poetry. Women could be poets too.

Many years later, I came up to the Edinburgh Festival in the late 1980s (probably 1987 or 1988?) and was thrilled to have front row seats at a cabaret-stye poetry performance by Liz. There was no stage, just a darkened room with Liz spot-lit, standing only yards from where I was sitting. I don't remember the venue - possibly the old Traverse site in the Grassmarket? nor the exact poems but they were feminist, hard-hitting, funny and I totally identified with them.

Scroll on a few years, when my husband and I unexpectedly moved to Edinburgh (for job reasons), and when I was accepted on the MPhil at Glasgow University Creative Writing programme, I was thrilled to have Liz as my tutor. Very privileged since she only stayed a year before pressure of play commissions etc meant she was forced to resign as university tutor. The first day I met her I gushed praises for her work and how much it meant to me and she quickly turned the subject. Liz does not court praise.

Liz said today at the National Library of Scotland where she was announced the Makar, shown on TV, that she wants kids to 'enjoy poetry not see it as a penance'. She wants to encourage 'the speaking of it and learning of it by heart as well as reading and writing it.'

Great. Poetry as fun. Not a hated, academic exercize of identifying and ticking off tropes as my son had to do at school. (Rather like identifying all the ingredients of a cake but never making it or eating it, I've always thought.)

Snow-capped Suilven, up in Assynt again, Jan 2011

A last minute vacancy and invitation to go on a writing retreat up in Glencanisp Lodge was too good to miss. Though it meant a leap of faith to get there. Icy roads, fog/mist/more snow forecast in the Grampians meant I did not dare take my car as usual but took the train from Edinburgh to Inverness (blissfully relaxing, and allowing reading, writing and snoozing in the warmth looking out smugly at icy rivers and snow-bound roads, tho traffic seemed to be moving on the main roads, if not the minor ones. The bus from Inverness to Ullapool was fine.

The trouble started when I had to change to another bus from Ullapool to Lochinver -by this time it was dark, swirls of snow, icy roads, bus wheels sliding from under us but all hail to the intrepid driver. The only passengers were myself and a mother and small boy. The mother was listening to her small boy reading a graphic novel (wot I used to call a comic?) of some monster and superhero's exploits, she and I exchanging worried glances every time a clunk came from below the bus as if some vital crank shaft or something was about to fall off. The reading was a welcome distraction. I hope Traveline buses have repaired it now?!

Still, a welcome deep, hot Victorian bath was awaiting me and the convivial company of others on 'creative retreat': some writers and some photographers. Each morning, Mandy Haggith provided creative warm-up writing sessions for those who wanted them. Others preferred to hole up in their rooms and GET DOWN TO IT- the great novel of the 21st c, a short story, a play or in my case a new project of linked poems - having finished a novel, it's great to turn to something else. And being the start of a new year, what better than something completely new (and I hope, different, at least for me).

Mandy left a list in the kitchen for requests from the 'kitchen fairy'. One guest asked for a dog to take for a walk and M duly managed to find a friend to provide one for her. As a break from the grind of one's project, Mandy would ask 'What is your creative treat for today?' I took up the offer of a few hours' art lesson given by local artist Mary in pastels. I don't know if it fed into my poetry but I'm sure it did, if only to give renewed energy. (A way of legitimizing displacement activity? Hmm.)

Walks in the snow up the glen were also a great way to get thoughts about possible poems or ideas going. Three of us went as far as a bothy below Canisp and Suilven - a great base camp in bad weather or to stay overnight if stranded. Everyone leaves something - candles, coal or beer. Best not to leave biscuits because of the mice I was told. There is a coal/wood shed and two inhabitable rooms with raised wooden shelves to sleep on (out of the way of any mice), and fireplaces. Apparently it is the same bothy Griff Rhys Jones visited on one of his TV programmes. We had a cup of tea, our sandwiches then left as sitting still (and not having lit a fire) we were getting cold. Best to warm up again with a march back to Glencanisp Lodge and the Victorian baths.

We did not see much of the photographers as they got up before dawn, returned briefly in the afternoons for Adobe Photoshop sessions then set off again for sunset : their subjects were, of course, mountain scapes of Stac Polly, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beg, and isolated beaches of Achnaheard and Achmelvich. Suilven right outside our front door. If you're into photography, or if you just want to see some beautiful photos, have a look at the group leaders' work onand see what other courses visiting the beauty spots of the world he offers. With the proviso, you do have to not mind getting up at dawn. (Only 7.30 start for 8 am in January.) Not so relaxed in summer.

A great week, writing, thinking, walking, eating and chatting in eves and occasional forays to kitchen for a coffee with like-minded people. Some passable drafts for poems and lots of notes for future ones.
No food shopping, cooking, laundry, mobile phones. Bliss. Back to real life now.

For Gloencanisp retreats see

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