25 Sep 2012

Here Comes Langholm: Birthplace of Hugh MacDiarmid: An Introduction by Alan Riach

Here Comes Langholm: Birthplace of Hugh MacDiarmid: An Introduction
by Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow

When Scotland becomes an independent nation once again, our best poets and artists will surely come into their own. Generations have passed knowing nothing of them, our education has neglected their value, our institutions have dismissed their significance.
 
It is time to change this.
 
The prospect of political change, real educational and cultural vitality, has taken a century to be brought to the present stage, where we do have a choice about what might be done next, and one man was more of a catalyst for this than any other: Hugh MacDiarmid.
 
He was born Christopher Murray Grieve in 1892 in Langholm, a small town just north of the Scottish border with England. His father was the local postman, his mother's people lived in neighbouring towns and villages. As a boy, he roamed the nearby hills and forests and read all the books in the public library housed above the family home. In later essays he recollected the loveliness of the country around him and claimed to be able to identify his location by the sound alone of the three rivers that run into a confluence in Langholm: the Wauchope, the Esk and the Ewes. But the early years of the twentieth century were full of war and revolution. He joined the British army for the First World War but he was deeply affected by the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916: a Celtic nation violently asserting independence from the authority of British imperialism; and by the Russian Revolution in 1917: a socialist ideal, a Communist revolution, an act of defiance towards the class system, social hierarchy, economic discrimination. Later, he joined the Communist Party, believing in the ideal of international socialism, and he was a founder-member of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, believing in the cultural difference and value of Scotland, as opposed to the British imperial ethos.
 
All the arts are ways of exploring the world, of representing reality, of criticising what is taken for granted. When he began to explore it seriously, he found that his own national cultural identity included different languages: Gaelic, Scots and English, different geographical terrains: borderlands, industrial cities, fertile heartlands, stretching Highland moors and mountains, island archipelagoes, landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes: this variety was not compatible with a single London-centred British state.
 
So he had a vision. What was required now, after he was demobilized and returned to Scotland, was a strategy.
 
He went to the north-east seaside town of Montrose, became a journalist on the local newspaper, a socialist Justice of the Peace. He started writing in Scots, using words and phrases he knew from boyhood in Langholm and acquired from reading in dictionaries and works of Scottish literature from earlier eras. His poems were shocking, adult, wry, difficult, piercingly sweet, unsentimental and sometimes brutal. They established a new dispensation for Scottish and modern literature, alongside James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens and Paul Valéry. MacDiarmid is of their company. He argued for plurality, the specifics of multiple strands of history, the coherence that might be found in the diversity of Scotland and in the international world at large.
 
He travelled: to Shetland, the furthest archipelago in the North Sea, where he suffered physical and mental breakdown after a period of intense isolation, introspection and psychological anxiety. Yet his greatest poems of the 1930s delivered a way through the crises. 'Lament for the Great Music' reconnects with deeper traditions, the classical music of the Highland bagpipe and all that signifies for a multi-layered, complex, tragic, defiant, strengthening, persistent national character. 'On a Raised Beach' begins with the poet utterly alone but it ends with the understanding that life is an act of participation in a way the lonely observer could not comprehend. The later work, In Memoriam James Joyce (1955) and The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961) extend this comprehensive vision. These poems attempt to accommodate as many of all the languages and art-forms of the world, gathering information about subjects you would never encounter anywhere else, turning from Finnish dialect to Fred Astaire, from Shakespeare to Tarzan. And yet, his favoured place remained Langholm.
 
After the Second World War, a new generation of great Scottish poets, writers and thinkers grew up around him, lyrical, intellectual, sharply perceptive, passionately commmitted, and each with their own favoured place: Sorley MacLean from Raasay and Skye, Norman MacCaig from Edinburgh but also from Lochinver in the far north west of Scotland, Robert Garioch from Edinburgh, George Mackay Brown from the Orkney achipelago, Iain Crichton Smith from Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Edwin Morgan from Glasgow, Sydney Goodsir Smith born in New Zealand, but adopted by Edinburgh, the philosopher George Elder Davie, proposing the ideal of the 'Democratic Intellect' – the idea that intellectual distinction was to be prized but must always be open to all – Ronald Stevenson, foremost Scottish composer, Alan Bold, poet, polemicist and MacDiarmid's biographer, Tom Fleming, one of Scotland's finest actors, and Neal Ascherson, political thinker and journalist, whose recent reports on the political state of our country show clearly how far MacDiarmid was right in his visionary hope and strategic work for a new, artistically regenerated Scotland.
 
When Scotland becomes an independent nation once again, MacDiarmid, the company he kept, and the values he learned as a boy in Langholm, will remain vital co-ordinate points, as this splendid exhibition of marvellous portraits by Alexander Moffat reminds us.

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