Close, 1

(When I went off to Crete for 10 days over Paskha, I had a cunning plan. Knowing that I had large projects of scary creative work to do in the realms of both poetry and prose, I set myself two ‘safe’ tasks – things I thought I knew how to manage in each field – so that I could sneak up on the hard stuff while getting fighting fit. Naturally, it didn’t work out that way. 

I actually found it easier to get on with the difficult writing – editing and ordering poems for my next still untitled collection, and fine-tuning the synopsis of, while pushing on into the writing of, my McGonagall novel. The displacement activities – lineating and beginning a commentary on the great sixteenth century Scots prose work, The Complaynt of Scotlande (or rather one chapter from it, the magnificent if somewhat ‘prolixt’ Monolog Recreativ), and working on a blog posting about living in a close – turned out to be larger and stranger than I had anticipated.

I’ll monologue more about the Monolog elsewhere, but suffice to say the matter of the Scottish tenement led into a more complicated discussion of the social role of the writer than I’d initially supposed. This, then, is the first of three drafted posts, with at least one other sketched out. More on this breaking story tomorrow.)

While my decision in 2013 to come and live half the week in Dundee for six months wasn’t exactly a Gauguin-like escape to the South Seas to bide with Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny in absolute creative freedom with hints of amoral concupiscence, it did cause more serious ructions in my family than I had anticipated. 

Especially as I took up the Dundee Makarship at the end of that period, and entered into a longer term stay of long weekends and occasional weeks and fortnights which may well last till 2018.

The cost of the flat had to be debated with my parents – the money being a dummy for the actual issue of why couldn’t I just come and stay with them? And my partner and daughter had to reassure themselves that this was like Debbie’s trips to Crete to write, and that it certainly did not mean that I cared any the less about my family – there was a particularly painful after-breakfast walk in Tayport one Saturday where the delight of seeing wild dolphins close to shore, which we did, was overshadowed by our discussion of the possibility that I might need to spend time with my father that I should otherwise have spent with my daughter. 

It was already becoming evident within that initial six months that my father’s health was beginning to fail, and, while we had no sense he would die as suddenly as he did – in March 2014, less than a year in – there was a dawning need to articulate that my proximity might be a good thing.

Much of this turned like a newel in a stairwell around the differing opinions in the family about my flat. As soon as I saw the ‘For Rent’ sign in the bay window of a first floor flat looking out on the Tay from Beach Crescent, I’d been in no doubt I wanted it. But this conviction had to ride roughshod over my father’s teeth-sucking over the amount, Debbie’s shudders at the decor, and both my mother’s and Izzie’s dislike of the stairwell – who was going to repair that crack? Were those stairs concrete or granite?

Whereas, for me, the symbology of the close harked back to childhood – to the first close I could remember in Peddie Street, and the one I counted as home from home, indeed the one which implanted in me the concept that home could be plural: my grandparents’ (latterly my gran’s) in Corso Street. Street Street. 

Where everyone saw difficulty, then, I saw DNA in the warm awkward spiral of the wooden banister rail, and catching up the dust from its untouched turns on the palm of my hand was for me a dichting and renewing of the covenant of the close: that we live together, that we are close. 

That closeness, ironically, I could only enact by establishing a certain distance from each part of the quartet of my close family. Into the gaps thus opened up, a further definition of ‘us’ could then be admitted: as doubled communities and cities – Dundee and Newcastle, Broughty Ferry and North Shields; and as complementary regions: the North-Easts.

A close, any close, be it grand or grimy, consists of three parts, each negotiating the matter of proximity, in which our understanding of contiguity and cohabitation can confront or accommodate our awareness of personal space and relative privacy. So there is the close itself, the land (or landing), and the lobby. 

These three features of tenement living each carries a symbolic resonance: the close as a vernacular architecture of intimacy; the land, with its pairing and sometimes more of doors, almost becomes a synecdoche for the land, each one a separate country in the composite state of the close; while the lobby, continuing the land up to the privacy of our rooms, extends the notion of the liminal. 

The close, then, is almost as close to us as our bodies: the stairwell newel like a gyring of nervous messages around a spine, each land like our hips, stacked as though on a totem pole of the living, and each lobby like as many ribs. The close was once open as a stoma to the street or shared or claimed or assigned garden, but each is now sealed off with a door like the plate on a whulk, and, sometimes, individualising (atomising) buzzers.

When I went to Brasenose College, I stayed on a mazy stairwell outrageously, with that lazy unconsidered symbolism of Oxford, called the Arab Quarter, as though we were somehow in the Old City in Jerusalem.

As with those moments learning Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, where I understood my Scots was closer to this supposedly dead and studied thing than my fellow students’ invariably properer English, so this ‘Quarter’ connected oddly with my original tenement on Peddie Street via a five year old’s impressionistic memories of two room flats, a pulley for washing glimpsed out of a back window, gaslights on the stairs, and the outside loos between the lands. 

These were echoed in college in an arrangement whereby my narrow bedroom was on the top floor, while my ridiculously spacious study downstairs looked out on the High (all such windowsills acting as coolers for milk and butter during the winter in those fridgeless times), and the basement held rows of baths and toilets.

This linkage of working class tenement and upper class college rooms in turn suggested the closeness of the classes in the historic Edinburgh tenements and stairs of the Royal Mile. 

Closeness in the close is evinced through sound as much as encounter: the alarm in another flat that wakes you; next door’s music coming through the fireplace like Magritte’s miniature puffing train; the small hours pop that’s actually a forgotten bottle of stout bursting in your own freezer. 

The synecdoche of the land is suggested by childhood’s miniatures and models: my remembered games of toy soldiers with Michael Hammill on a demolished top land in Annfield Row; or by how, in my grandmother’s close, the Sturrocks (a tipsy divorcee and her spinster sister) lived on the top floor, while the relentlessly labouring Jacks were occasionally at home on the first, and the urbane-seeming Eric and fur-wearing Chrissie Fleming resided on the ground – together seeming somehow to represent the world or at least a worldview in some Geddesian sense, as though every close was a take on his Outlook Tower.

(Of course this ignored two entire flats, whose inhabitants were either more temporary or, in some other way, other enough not to be within my grandparents’ purview – the close of course also kept its others close across political and religious divides.)

The liminality of the lobby was hinted at in the sangs and rhymes of the close – the bairn rhymes and merry muses’ cramboclink that only needed to be alluded to, and rarely or never completed: ‘There’s a boabby in yir loabby, Mary Ann…’ hinted at some transgression requiring the presence of the police that would presumably already be known to those informing Mary Ann about what was happening inside her own home, possibly something along the lines of Aunty Mary’s never-revealed motivation for having a canary ‘up the leg o her draaers’

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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1 Response to Close, 1

  1. Pingback: The Three Polis: Scots and Intralingual Translation | gairnet provides: press of blll

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