Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Xmas Number One

Two years ago I posted a Xmas poem on here. And behold... it is now a Xmas song (courtesy of Kinnaber Junction/Gary Anderson). Enjoy. Other song poems here.

Thursday, 22 November 2018


It's not a real leaf.

So much change here... moving home... new places... new job... just too much to compute at times. And no new poems, not since the last post, but a few pics on the old instawhat'sit and other such excitements. 

Also, on a poetry tip as it were, I will be reading/performing poems at an event in Glasgow on 4 December. It is at the Project Cafe from 6.30-8.30 pm and other poets on the night are Hugh McMillan (the Mighty!) and Jim Mackintosh (can't comment... will be meeting/seeing/hearing him for the first time). It is a free event so no excuses... unless of course you live on the other side of the world or something. I am just hoping the train there isn't so crowded that I end up getting off at Perth or Stirling and having to bus/walk/hitch the rest of the way... that is the kind of thing I do... 

More after that event perhaps...

Monday, 20 August 2018

Music and moving - the local folk club edition

Links Hotel, Montrose (the 'suite' where the folk club takes place anyway)

In less than a month we will be moving house (and let that explain the recent lack of blogging and all other forms of modern communication). We are not moving too far (an hour or so away… by car) but it is a big move in lots of ways and I am pretty excited about it. It’s not that I don’t love this area (we are currently just on the edge of Montrose in Angus) but we have lived in the same place for a long time now (14 years in this house, 16 in total in Angus) and I am a moving-about kind of person. It feels so right to me to be finally emptying these cupboards and packing boxes and thinking about change.

Montrose has been an amazing place to be. For a start it has huge (often empty) beaches and long sunny days and amazing skies (ages ago I wrote a very little poem about the latter called Looking up in Montrose – you can find that, along with a few other poems, here). There are various places of interest nearby too if you’re mad for wildlife (St Cyrus, the Basin) and it is a just a very pretty little town (or a ‘bonnie wee toon’ as I find myself saying more and more… and the more I say it the less strange that version feels in my mouth… I’m not doing it on purpose… I am just less English every day). But one of the things I will miss the most when we move on is the local folk club as it has been important to me in so many ways (social life, cultural life, musical life, philosophical life, poetry life...). For all my time here it has been run by the same person and held in the same venue (the Links Hotel), though there have been changes to the hotel over the years. The ‘stage’ for the club, for example, has been in different rooms and different parts of the same room… and you only need to know this to understand what I’m going on about in the poem at the end of this post... if you stay with me that long…

When we moved to Montrose I was 37 and I had never been to a folk (music) club. I didn’t grow up listening to anything that I would have called traditional or folk music though I had, I suppose, gone through phases of listening to some folky artists, like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, but that had mainly been a private kind of listening and I don’t think I ever knew what to call that kind of music (I’m not sure I still do..). In 2004 in particular I was in a period of recovery from listening to far too much house music and so really at that point I was happy to listen to anything that didn’t have an endlessly banging drum machine (and therefore a folk club was the perfect antidote – I think I’ve seen one drummer there in 14 years and only odd flashes of a drum machine…). I have gone to the club more or less regularly for all our time here and it has given me so many great nights of music and taught me so many things. It has been a very good friend.

Ours is the kind of folk club that takes place every fortnight and invites a guest artist or band and gets them to play, on the whole, two sets of 45 minutes or so (many are Scottish but certainly not all... lots also from Ireland, England, the US, Canada, plus an Italian, some Australians, New Zealanders...). There are also support slots now and then and, most weeks, an opportunity for locals to do a song or two in the middle part of the evening (or maybe even a poem – if they're really cheeky…). The quality of the guests’ music is phenomenal – amazing musicianship, often excellent songwriting of their own and, almost always, they tell a good tale too so you get a very broad experience, much more than just a few hours of music. After all these years I have learned to appreciate the stricter traditional instrumental music (though I can’t say I will continue listening to it all that much) but some of the singing (and the songs – both old and new) will definitely come with me (in my memory, in my hard drive…) and will remain an important part of my life. I can’t even start to list some of the great artists I have heard at the club (some of them you might have heard of, many others you won’t) but I suppose I could mention (once again) how without Montrose Folk Club I would never have heard the incomparable Michael Marra. I saw him 3 times in Montrose (and once in Dundee) and I have mentioned before my poem about his performances at the club and local songwriter Gary Anderson’s version of that poem turned into a song.

So to get to the new poem… quite a few years ago I wrote a poem about the folk club (called, shockingly, Folk club) and you can read it, if you want to, at the end of a long rambling post at the old blog (it’s here – the poem is in my first book More about the song too). That blog post (very long, very full of… something I don’t feel much anymore…is it youth?) also details how and when I started reading poems aloud during the open mic/floor spot part of the evening at the folk club and all that that meant to me (a lot… ). And as I sat in the folk club last week (enjoying a wonderful night of music and raconteuring from Findlay Napier…up from Glasgow, down from Grantown-on-Spey…) I thought maybe I should try to write an updated version of my folk club poem – something to read (as a thank-you) in a couple of weeks’ time when I go down to hear the Delightful Squalor Trio and maybe say a few good-byes (if temporary ones, we’re not moving that far away). And so I wrote another poem and you can read it here. It isn’t fancy – that’s not the folk club way (not in Montrose anyway). Thanks for reading.

Montrose Folk Club (2018)

Well, the hotel has changed
And, of course, so have we –
Our faces, our places,
The way that we see.

The bar’s still expensive
And yet here we are.
We turn to the music,
Our comfort, our star.

We sit (never dance!),
Put our stories on hold
As we laugh, hum and cry
With the new and the old.

It’s all “tell us a good one”
And “play us a tune”.
Because winter is coming.
Yes, even in June.

The quicks and the slows
And the chairs are the same.
We are nothing but folk.
There’s a clue in our name.

It’s a club, but it’s not
And the rules, they are few –
Just listen and drift,
Be a more rounded you.

There is one other note
And again it will rhyme –
You’ve been kind to this rambler,
So thanks for the time.

RF 2018 

Montrose folk club's website is here. There is a facebook page too.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Jo Cox poem, aloud

It's nearly two years since English MP Jo Cox was killed in West Yorkshire. Since then there have been events in her memory and there will be more again this year. They focus on a very positive message (Jo's words: 'We... have far more in common than that which divides us') and I am aware that the poem I wrote just after her death (Turn) does not entirely share that positive tone, but still it is a tribute to her and listeners/readers have always responded well to it (so far). For this reason I have recently recorded it (a rough video to YouTube but the audio is clear) and you should see it at the top of this post. The text of the poem is here (from when I first posted it, just a short while after she died). I am not a Labour supporter these days (and in fact have never been a big fan of political parties, though they have their moments) but her killing was a political act and so this is a political poem. We have to stand up for each other, remember each other, see each other.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

For the birds

For the birds

Attack has all the glory.
Loud solos trilled
From tops of trees.
But defence is all,
Defence is key,
And without it
You’ll see us
Beheaded and bleeding,
Tossed aside on the path,
Just results of a game.

Fledglings learn the deeper drill,
That flight and fight
Can sing aloud
In every voice –
Harsh, pretty, coarse.
Maidens must march,
And soar and score,
And learn the happy truth 
That to protect each other
Is to protect ourselves.

RF 2018

I suppose this poem (new today) reflects recent events (both home and away) - a dawn chorus walk, lots of time outside, a continuing obsession with music, the Irish referendum and even a football match. Our heads are so full... poems are one way to release some pressure (I find).

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Mental Health forever

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week just now (until 20th May) and to be honest I find this a bit depressing (which seems both right and very, very wrong). It seems to me a little baffling that we are not, by this point, at full mental health awareness but still, apparently, we are not. How many more celebrity mental health exposés do we need at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, I wonder, before we finally get it – our minds are precious and they need care, attention and quite a lot of help. It’s more obvious in some of us than others of course but as the numbers of people with some kind of mental health problem/challenge rise, the divide between the mentally healthy and the rest gets smaller and smaller. I know maybe one person in my life who doesn’t have some kind of issues they could usefully work on in therapy. And no, you can’t have him, he’s mine.

At least that’s what I think on the one hand. On the other I think – what a load of nonsense, you fool, there is a long way to go to full mental health awareness. After all, I did very little to protect my own mind when it came to the crunch in my teens and twenties (quite the opposite). My Dad may have killed himself (various reasons/diagnoses available, depending who you spoke to in the family…) but I was going to be fine and no I absolutely did not need to talk about it (and pass the drug of choice, please). My Mum’s favoured cause for his 1973 suicide was stress of work/being trapped in someone else’s choice of career so she made sure none of us at the end of the line had those particular stresses – we were to do what we wanted, follow dreams etc. (not that she would ever say anything in that X Factor style but that was the gist of it). And I have tried… but of course there are stresses involved with dreams too (especially when they don’t materialise or succeed in any concrete way). It turns out straggling along in the wake of your failing dreams is not particularly good for the mental health either, and particularly so if it’s possible that quite a lot of the failing is down to laziness, distraction, weakness, possibly even genetic causes etc. But hey, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week! Let’s talk about it. Or not…

Maybe this old subject is also on my mind just now as there was a very public suicide here in Scotland recently (a musician/songwriter/singer/artist, much loved, so a lot of articles, songs posted etc.). One of my favourite pieces prompted by this death was written by Karine Polwart, but then it seems she is just a really good writer whatever the medium (I didn’t know Scott Hutchison’s work but I have been a fan of KP’s since her first solo album). For those of us with a suicide in our past (and that must be quite a lot of us by now) this death was in some ways (sorry for the honesty of this) just another suicide to add to the pile in our heads. Every time someone talks about it (Dawn French about her Dad, another comedian Aisling Bea wrote last year about hers…) I see them, somehow, a stack of frustrated, sad souls, the ones who just couldn’t bear living (not on that particular day anyway). My Mum also put my Dad’s suicide down to the medication prescribed to him (he had stopped taking them suddenly, she said, and crashed, she said it was ‘out of character’ or some such…). It’s impossible for me to know how much of this was accurate information, my Mum wasn’t a huge fan of psychiatric medication, called herself a ‘Freudian’ (though that seems a little old-school now…).

I do know that moving on from that life event was tricky. For a start we all talk about parents and family (or lack of them) a lot and we continually look at our lives through that filter (both in fiction and in the other place). Also our society is fairly obsessed with suicide (nothing that new, I suppose, ‘to be or not to be…’ and all that) and many of us are either drawn to it or terrified by it or a mixture of the two. Having had it as a kind of memory cloud for most of my life I am just tired of it (maybe even bored of it… I know that sounds harsh, inappropriate, childish even). But maybe that’s also influenced by the fact that I am approaching the age my Dad was when he killed himself so I am both thinking about it and really not wanting to think about it at all. A beloved uncle/father figure in my partner’s family just died and how different the feelings for that kind of death (he had a good life, he was loved, he enjoyed his life etc.). I managed to write a little poem for his family and it was so simple and clear (you were loved, we will remember you well). It might not make for a good mini series but how marvellous to just be able to say of someone ‘they lived well, they were a good person’ and not to need the ‘what if’s and the ‘what a shame’s. I did learn to cast off a lot of those thoughts around the picture of my Dad in my head (I think) but it took a while. I still very rarely (if ever) use the phrase ‘what a shame’ (for anything). I don’t like it, don’t really see what it achieves.

I have been reading some books of essays recently (I’ve been fighting a bit with fiction on paper, hate poetry again, and so on). Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (2014) is brilliant and Zadie Smith’s Feel Free (2018) likewise. This morning (at silly o’clock – a lot of loud dawn chorus round here) I found myself crying to Smith’s piece ‘The Bathroom’ in Feel Free. She writes about her Dad with a love that just hauls the tears out of my eyes (she writes about all her family with some love but the rest are still living and we write differently about the dead). Crying is good (within reason) so I don’t mind that and I definitely don’t mind the joy that experiencing good writing can bring. Another thing about growing up around the word ‘depression’, I think, is that you try to grab as much joy* as you can, whenever you can (see earlier paragraph for associated problems with that…). The issue is learning about a little thing called balance…

Anyway, this ramble has probably gone on as long as it needs to.  No poem today. And as the Jamie Lee Curtis character in Freaky Friday (2003) says ‘Make good choices!’ If you can.

* (added later) After writing this I finished reading Zadie Smith's Feel Free and so got to the final piece that is, suitably for this post, titled Joy. She calls joy a difficult emotion to manage” (though manage can have different meanings...and I'm not sure which she means, maybe both), declares it such a human madness and argues (I think) in favour of the more manageable pleasure. I'm not sure the line between the two is completely rigid (or even identifiable) but she is, without question, better with these word things than me so I thought I would add this for your consideration. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

How special are you?

Angus somewhere, April 2018

I've been listening to lots of radio programmes of late. Now we can choose specific programmes (using the BBC i-player mostly in my case) it is possible to fill your mind, if you need or want to, with a pretty much non-stop flow of ideas via sensible people talking about interesting things on the radio. Just today (no paid work having come knocking on my email door... ) I have listened to Chris Wood on music, church and bodily functions, nearly all the 5 parts of Benjamin Zephaniah's autobiography 'The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah' and a 'Point of View' by Tom Shakespeare on disabled sexuality. I've also read a great piece of writing by Zadie Smith in her book 'Feel Free' ('On Optimism and Despair - you can read it here) so it's been a quiet day on the one hand... but a full one too. And thank goodness for other people's ideas because I have been in a bit of a poetry rut of late too... a run of knock-backs and a decent helping of 'why am I still doing this at all?' Self-pity is always so attractive... let's say no more on that.

Anyway, the Tom Shakespeare 'Point of View' started off with a look at the use of the term 'special needs'. "Disabled people don't have special needs," he says, "we're not aliens, we have ordinary needs... We want education and employment and a place to live and access to healthcare and all the other taken for granted things of life." I like this clear kind of talking and thinking and it reminds me that some time ago I wrote a poem looking at special needs in a similar way (if from the opposite starting point... that in fact all our needs are special in some way or other... which does make them ordinary). If I remember rightly it was the now very out of favour Germaine Greer who, at least in part, prompted the writing of the poem (she was on Question Time, was asked about disability and said she considered people with no sense of humour the most disabled of all... or something like that...). I can't find the quote because all you can find about her online now is trans-related. I wonder if she still has a sense of humour... 

Anyway (again), here is the old poem (from 2007 or so - back in the days when I rhymed a lot more and was allergic to end-of-line punctuation). 

Pay heed to the special need

Personally I need a lot of help with moving
I need public transport, I need constant soothing
I need my hand holding and I need some quiet time
These needs are special and these needs are mine

You might need a teacher, you might need a school
You might need some help with obeying a rule
You might have a thing about folding and drawers
Those needs are special and those needs are yours

I can’t do sitting in well-behaved rows
Snobbery and claptrap get right up my nose
I’m not very good at just following a line
So many needs out there but these ones are mine

You might be allergic, you might be alone
You might need assistance from more than a phone
You might need a moment, a break, just a pause
Because all needs are special, especially yours

RF 2007

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Music and gods

A little while ago I told you about an old friend and musician (Ana Laan) who was crowdfunding her new project. The funding was a success and the music for that project (an EP called 'Camino del Agua') is now available. You can buy it here and I have seen it on the other site as well (the big one... that many of us use.... even if we maybe shouldn't... the Coca Cola of shopping sites...). If you want an actual CD to hold in your hand you can contact Ana at analaan@analaan.com to arrange that (she is based in Spain so postage costs from there I imagine). The artwork (by Jesús Placencia) on the CD is lovely and the music... my favourite track changes all the time but at the moment it is 'Dionysus' (and funnily enough there was a documentary about Bacchus/Dionysus on the BBC just recently... and an interview with the historian on my favourite radio show). Being whatever the opposite of a classicist is I have to look up the names of Greek/Roman gods over and over again (they refuse to stay in my brain). I might manage to remember this one now though! 

Sunday, 1 April 2018


Garden sun, last week

Poems are often a big part of special occasions and, as I am sure most of us know, they are a popular choice for weddings and funerals in particular. I had a message just last week about someone wanting to use one of my poems for their wedding and this happens quite a lot (interestingly, for someone who is not a big marriage or weddings fan, I am 'recommended poet' on a weddings website or two...). It's nice to get messages like that though - I'm all for love and if that's the way people choose to celebrate love then hooray for that and for them. Today's poem, however, is probably more funeral than wedding (but also about love...).


Now you’re gone for good, 
Nobody anybody knows.
And we won’t see your face
In the papers, on TV,
For who knows your name
To say it but me?

You were fort and fire,
Arms for comfort, eyes for warmth,
So much strength in every sense,
Not the usual push and pull.
Now all the rooms are empty
Even when they’re full.

Poems pour down hard,
Sinks are blocked, dust wins.
Simply nothing adds up
Now your time is done.
My days are lost completely
To a dying sun.

RF 2018

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Waiting rooms (2)


Now it's all quiet rooms,
Soft shoes, semi-smiles.
Mouths are up, eyes down.

Lamps are dimmed to half-light
And car parks like hearts
Are full to bursting.

The flashy camera sees all,
Grabs a stitch in time.
You catch your breath.

RF 2018

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Waiting rooms

Sentinel by Steph Masterson

In the last post I said I would write something about the documentary film Unrest (2017) so…

Unrest was made by Jennifer Brea about the illness ME (also sometimes known as CFS). One of my closest friends has had ME for over 16 years so I was very interested to see this film (it is available now in various ways – showing at some cinemas but also available on most streaming services). There have been various programmes and features about ME on TV and radio over the years but this one is different for several reasons – it was directed by someone with the illness, it is a feature film (and a quality piece of work) and it really does seem to be making some waves about its subject. I found it really compelling (and emotional) and would totally recommend it as a fascinating, moving, very stirring piece of art and life. It tackles many of the myths about ME (as every piece about ME seems to have to do) but it does a lot of its work by just showing the everyday lives and challenges of Brea and a selection of other people who suffer from ME (and the suffering comes over loud and clear in this film). In fact one of the reasons many people don’t like the use of CFS, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, as a name for the illness is its implication that fatigue is the main problem for people with ME, when sufferers will tell you it is pain (relentless, extreme pain), amongst other things, that is a much bigger issue. The film does have medical content (experts and so on – not that there are many ME experts – and the film looks at that issue too) but what it has, almost most of all, is enough anger and determination to present its evidence in a way that makes it hard for viewers to look away. Unrest is part (a big part) of a growing campaign to get more research into ME, to try to finally offer people with the illness some hopes for cure and recovery (you might have heard recovery stories already but there are many more people who are not recovering and who are getting virtually no solutions from medical sources). It is hard for many people with ME (and their carers and friends and family) to be involved in campaigning because of the nature of the illness but Unrest is a big step on their behalf. A related campaign is MillionsMissing (part of ME Action, one of several ME-related groups) – the ‘millions’ referring to the number of people who have the illness (worldwide cases can only be estimated at this stage but all the ones I found online started with figures like 17 million and, within that, 4 times as many women as men).

ME is one of those subjects that a lot of people think they know something about but in reality very few do (both in the medical world and elsewhere). You may have a heard a scrap of a story about someone who was off work for a couple of months and ‘people said they had ME’ and ‘they didn’t seem ill to me’ but it’s most likely that these bits of stories are not about ME at all (and a lot of them are very old bits of stories and, often, told with malice for reasons I won't get into here...). This film, by concentrating on individuals who are far more typical of ME cases, draws attention to the pain and the suffering and the long-term problems that ME can and does cause. Thinking about it I kept coming back to the idea of waiting rooms. I think that lots of us feel like we spend too much time in waiting rooms (literally and figuratively). Sometimes it can feel like we are always waiting around for things to happen, either waiting to see a doctor of some kind (if that's what we need) or waiting for something or someone to fix things in other parts of our lives (and sometimes that person is us). We are dissatisfied so often and everything seems to take so long (and sometimes we are right to be dissatisfied, but other times much less so). But for people with ME (and those who love them), especially those who have had it for a very long time, they are both in a waiting room (this being a room in their home usually, for years and years in some cases) and yet, at the same time, they aren’t in a waiting room at all (because there just isn’t one – there is no doctor to see them in many cases, no cure, no hopes offered). These people are told, aloud and by actions (and inaction), that they are not important and that is a hard situation to deal with, whenever or however it occurs (and especially when you are in pretty constant pain). In some instances (see the Unrest section on Denmark) people with ME are even punished.

Other thoughts I had recently (partly to do with this film, partly to do with other things) were about strength and weakness. Around International Women’s Day last week I saw so many posts about ‘strong’ women and, whilst I understand the sentiment and the desire to stand up in the face of oppression, the repetition of this word ‘strong’ unsettled me a little (more and more every time I saw it...). I feel that if women (and I include here anyone who wants to use that word) become too fixated on the strong we are all too likely to repeat mistakes that have already been made by men (many, many men...). It would be so easy to end up taking ourselves down the cul-de-sac that some men find themselves in today, a place where ‘strength’ and ‘power’ are cages that don’t let anything else in or out (‘don’t show weakness’, ‘don’t admit defeat’). Unrest is something else entirely and I feel that by making this film Brea has shown both extreme strength and extreme weakness and that is another reason I found it so effective and impressive and whole. We can all be strong, yes, but we can be so much more besides.

Find Unrest here.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Writing about writing about writing

Messing about with art, Dundee

Last week I came second in a writing competition. It wasn't a huge affair (it was organised by the brilliant local theatre Dundee Rep as part of the promotion for their production of Deathtrap) but it was still nice to be able to say to myself 'maybe you aren't completely crap then'. The brief was to write a piece/story about writing (500 words max.) and it was my kind of competition in that you had to work quickly, you didn't have to pay to enter and they chose the winners pretty quickly too. You can see a photo of a few of us 'prize winners' here. My piece is more monologue than story and I will paste it below. It is fiction, for the most part. I'll be back in a couple of days to tell you how brilliant the film/documentary Unrest is (and if you haven't seen it, seek it out).


Someone on Twitter has won a prize. Well, that almost never happens.

Someone else on Twitter has won a prize. I’m thrilled for them both.

I eat a bag of Aldi crisps, switch to sweet (cooking chocolate), have a cup of tea.

I do some editing and while I’m doing it I notice links between some of the words in the piece that I’ve never noticed before. I think that maybe the words know what they are doing and this is a relief. Maybe they could just get an agent on their own and miss me out of the process altogether. Maybe that could be the plot of an independent film and I could write it. Or maybe that film already exists. It’s probably not my kind of thing.

I flick online to tread some time. Someone I once met at a festival has just been mentioned online by someone else who is quite famous. The someone I once met at a festival (a poet) might sell some books now so that is good for them and I am pleased. That someone was friendly and they work hard and deserve success. I think all this but I don’t really feel it. Only the dog knows the truth.

The dog looks at me with hungry eyes. Sometimes she wonders what is so special about the clicking machine but if I take her out for a walk she forgets about it soon enough. I take her out for a morning stretch and the great outdoors is full of inspiration and stories. I’m quite glad to get back home to be honest. It’s all a bit overwhelmingly real out there.
Someone on Instagram has also been outside. I see their photograph of the sunrise earlier today. It is amazing.

RF 2018

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Tick Tock


There is so much blah
gif, banter, gif
And the clock is getting ruder
tick, Tick, TICK

No, not that clock
Fuck that forever
Heaped pressures of the pack
That game is crap

On a bloody drum
This clock beats days
It counts us down
To the final gun

RF 2018

Here's a poem, a new poem. It has a swear word in it for which I make no apology. I don't use swear words in poems very much but that is probably mostly due to the fact that I have been raising a child for the past 17 or so years and most of us use fewer swear words around children (and when you do that those words sort of drop out of your vocabulary for a while). But that child is very nearly 18... so the language is relaxing a little more every day. And sometimes a swear word is just the one you are looking for.

I have also been using more punctuation in poems in the past few years but I often find it infuriating so I was glad to ditch it (or take a holiday from it anyway) for this poem. I make no apology for that either. 

Monday, 29 January 2018

Sucked in...

Local tree, just before Xmas.

Having words

Here we go again,
Let us please lock keys,
Let us curtly tell each other
To get back down on our knees.

Let us bark out orders,
That seems totally fine:
Wear this, eat this, write this, suck this,
There is one way, and it’s mine.

You are wrong, wrong, wrong,
I am right, right, right.
Take your dirty little secrets,
Hide them tightly out of sight.

Don’t make us all look bad
With your artless whine,
Only some of us are winners,
Did you miss my special sign?

Don’t be spitting here,
Or playing children’s games,
There’s one pretty road to heaven
And one tidy list of names.

Messy people, silly scribbles,
Turn the stomach green.
This is how we do it –
Keep the front step clean.

RF 2018

or if you'd rather listen than read off the page try this:

I'm not a big one for literary criticism (shocker, I know), partly because when I read some of it it makes me feel like I need to have a long hot bath to get clean again. I particularly dislike writers being lumped together into groups to make a weak point (as happened in a recent article that you may or may not be aware of and, if not, be glad!). 

Instead listen to this week's edition of 'Poetry Please' , co-hosted by Hollie McNish. It features a particularly powerful poem called 'An Abortion' by the illustrious Liz Lochhead (who was mentioned in last week's post on the Marra book) and 'April Sunshine' by Scotland's fabulous current Makar, Jackie Kay.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Take time


Since Boxing Day I have been reading one of my Xmas presents – ‘Michael Marra - Arrest This Moment’ by James Robertson (Big Sky, 2017). As a huge fan of the Dundee* songwriter (and singer, musician, artist and actor) I knew I would love this book and I wasn’t mistaken. In fact I purposefully didn’t get it when it came out in October but waited to receive it as a Xmas present. I wanted it to feel special, to look forward to it, and these feelings are less and less common, I think. So often now we want something and we just get it, right then and there, ‘order today to arrive by 9am tomorrow’, but Marra’s work was so brilliant that I didn’t want to rush reading this book about him. It arrived slowly and I read it slowly. I cried quite a bit (Marra died in 2012 – a fairly early death by today’s standards) but there was much joy too, especially in returning to his music with cleaned-out ears and a lighter head. James Robertson is a successful Scottish novelist but for this task, most importantly, he was also a friend and neighbour to Marra and so ‘Arrest’ feels serious but also personal and that is just as it should be. Marra was a huge talent but he chose to stay close to his roots, to write in the language he grew up in, to work with the people who meant something to him (you can learn all the details of this in ‘Arrest’, his move to London, his return and so much more). The book took me about a month to read but I may just read it all over again in February. I guess I am a fan (but I knew that already). Pretty much everyone who saw him perform or heard his music, or even just met him, was a Michael Marra fan of some kind. For me he was a voice of reason, a voice that joined depth and humour in just the right places, a voice I could listen to all day. And I loved his piano playing too.

It’s interesting to be writing this today because tomorrow is the day, here and elsewhere, when one of Scotland’s other famous writing laddies gets his annual celebrations. Both Burns and Marra were experts with words and lived for the tunes and one of Marra’s most well-known performances, perhaps, is his version of Burns’ ‘Green Grow the Rashes’ (I just caught it again as part of a Liz Lochhead feature/interview on Radio Scotland). It’s an immaculate version and, much as I like and admire Lochhead, I always find it difficult not to envy the long working relationship she had with Marra (though I work hard to send that envy on its way because it is a silly reaction and no good to anyone!). The best foil for a poet is often a really great musician of some kind and Lochhead and Marra struck gold with each other I think. I never saw one of their joint performances (though I saw Marra live 3 or 4 times on his own) but Lochhead is one of the many people who is interviewed about Michael Marra in ‘Arrest This Moment’. He was loved, admired and respected by most, if not all, of the writers and musicians who have become huge favourites in this house since we moved to Scotland (Rab Noakes and Karine Polwart, for example) and many of them feature in this unashamed tribute of a book. Marra's name may not be that well-known outside Scotland but this is everyone else’s loss – he was, for me undoubtedly, a mostly 20th century great along the lines of David Bowie and Nina Simone (in Marra’s case, he was a great songwriter, a great performer, a trailblazer, an artist, a collaborator and an unforgettable and unique singer). We don’t need to decide who was the greatest of the greats I don’t think – we can just be glad we had them all in our lives (and ignore any that weren’t personal favourites, there’s no need to fight about it – god knows, we fight about enough already).

I didn’t know Marra personally at all (and that's probably why I refer to him as Marra and not Michael). We exchanged a few words once in Dundee, in 2009, when I was lucky enough to be on the same bill at a benefit night, but in ‘Arrest’, and the words of those who knew him well, he is very much Michael. Unlike so many heroes (and I am aware he wasn’t someone who wanted to be a hero necessarily but I’m afraid that ship has sailed…) it seems clear that Marra was a good man too (brother, husband, father, friend). As someone who hardly knew their father, I enjoyed some of the details about his relationship with his children but I'd be lying if I didn't admit they prompted a good share of tears as well (this time it wasn't envy that needed chasing away but some old sadness and longing that's mostly dealt with, I promise…). What a father to have had (and both children, Matthew and Alice, are now musicians and involved in music in all kinds of ways). Alice Marra put out an album of her father’s songs last year (‘Chain up the Swings’). They are carrying on the best work in the best ways. 

To finish I should say that I am aware this is not a book review (I am not a huge fan of many book reviews anyway so I don’t really mind). I did write reviews regularly years ago (of books and other things) but the whole business of bashing through a book at 100mph so you can then rave or bash (or a combination of the two…) – it wasn’t really for me. These days I just write about a book when it moves me (and this one definitely did that). But it was songs that were Michael Marra’s bread, butter and jam so I think I need to end this with one of those. I don’t have a favourite of his songs (so many excellent ones) but as Dundee is much on my mind just now (we’re hoping to move that way this year… ) I’ll choose this one (MM is minus the trademark beret but the sound is good on this video). And I would suggest you all share some Michael Marra with someone some time soon – it's never a mistake.

*I always thought Marra was known as the Bard of Lochee (the part of Dundee where he lived as a child) but I have also seen him referred to as the Bard of Dundee... anyone know anything about this (which came first, which is most common, whether he hated the very notion...)? Thanks.

p.s. I have written about Marra on this and my previous blog many times… my little poetic tribute to him from 2008, for example, is here (and local songwriter Gary Anderson’s version of that poem in a song is here).

p.p.s. I got a bit excited writing this piece (haven't written much over Xmas etc.) and so left lots out that I should have mentioned. For example, I had somehow never heard about Marra's song about footballer Gil Heron (Gil Scott Heron's father). I'm not sure how I managed to avoid knowing about that as I am a huge GSH fan too (evidence in poem form here)? Anyway, in the 'football' chapter there are details about this song and about Gerry Hassan taking a demo of it to GSH in New York. Gerry Hassan has a good piece reviewing 'Arrest This Moment' at his blog here.