Mourning and Monsters, 2

(In which we perhaps learn more about the monsters, and the Makarship, than the mourning…)

At the end of the short filmed interview he conducted with me after my gaining the Dundee Makarship in 2013, the late Jim Stewart was kind enough to say, with some relish for the years ahead, ‘such energy!’ He was, I think, talking as much about himself as me – he had certainly been Dundee’s unofficial Makar for the preceding decade at least, as the many heartfelt tributes to his poetry and selfless work as a teacher established after his death.

Indeed my ‘interview’ had been more of a dialogue as he quizzed me in the true Socratic manner about what I really meant and indeed stood for. I felt like I’d passed – just – the exam/audition for the post. Even more, I felt that he was an important friend and ally I could count on to define the job.

At my initial appearance as Makar, in the City Square, as part of the delivery of the (ultimately unsuccessful) bid to be City of Culture, where I recited a collaged poem made up of the aspirations of hundreds of Dundonians (plus some of my own – or ‘lies’, as I called them), my father was an enthusiastic member of the crowd. In the photo reproduced in The Courier, he can be seen amid the folk on the front steps of the Caird Hall – my uncle’s response to him elbowing into the shot was, ‘Typical!’

At that moment, I was mostly proud of gaining the Makarship for my father and for my family. I felt it was a sort of acknowledgement for the support he and they had always given me in my somewhat eccentric career path, which had taken me farther from home than he would’ve liked, and yet here I was, taking up a new job in my old town.

Within six months, in early 2014, my father had died, and early in 2016 Jim was gone too. Between their deaths, that sense of energy had undergone a redirection and a transmutation.

I was doing as much as usual: giving talks and readings and chairing events and going into schools and judging competitions. I was Scots Language Ambassador in my old school, the Grove; I was judge, alongside Andy Jackson, for several years of the Rotary Club writing competition, culminating in a student winning the national leg for her age group. With Andy, too, I was editing New Boots and Pantisocracies, a daily poetry blog that responded to the political upheavals between the 2015 and 2017 general elections.

I mentored, I workshopped, I wrote; I visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Mexico City, Shanghai, Tianjin, Beijing, Hargeysa. Whether I was giving a talk on Roman love poetry at the McManus Galleries, setting up a panel about the role of the Makar with the new head of the Scottish Poetry Library, Asif Khan, for the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, or writing a poem about the medieval Dundee guilds and the refugee crisis for the Bristol Festival of Ideas, my Makar duties spilled over into my research ones, and both were reflected in what I vaguely characterise as my ‘freelance’ writerly work.

But, after the initial rush of project work associated with Dundee’s City of Culture bid, this Makarish activity gradually died away. After a year or so, more or less in parallel with the process of grieving described above, I realised fewer projects and opportunities were presenting themselves once the bid failed, so – in addition to the programme outlined above – I found myself wanting to turn inward, in search of a different mode of engagement – as with the grieving, so with the scrieving.

I focused on social media in order to explore these roles at an angle that might reflect back on both my own earlier practice as a writer and an editor in the nineties, and that of the nineteenth century newspaper poets of W.D. Latto’s People’s Journal. Just as they had built up a textual community of shared interests, referencing poetry, politics, language and locality, so I wondered if I could construct a virtual community that drew on the experiments with poetic and other discourses – science, history, theory, media-speak, Scots – that had marked the work of myself and my fellow Informationists from the early nineties. I began to construct an alternative or Virtual Dundee from these tropes, just as we had attempted to do for Scotland as a whole in the final few issues of Gairfish.

The hope was that all these endeavours were the same. As I’ve found myself arguing previously on this blog, the whimsical can be as meaningful a response to trauma as procrastination is to creative crisis. Indeed, as I thought I was learning from my engagement with Leonora Carrington’s work, it can be as direct a route to the issues and crises of the unconscious as more overtly confessional modes.

What seems silly or trivial to us may only be so because we are so keen to retain control we become dismissive of all but the serious, the appropriate. We long for simple answers, especially to our most troubling questions, and so the complex becomes characterised as the overly complicated, the playful as merely childish. We forget that the original meaning of weird is ‘fate’, and how it is related to the Anglo-Saxon ‘weorthen’, meaning to become, to be part of a process.

I was hoping by this route to, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’. I was also hoping to bring my innermost workings into line with my external affairs, in effect to realign, even ‘heal’, myself.


Following my engagement with Leonora Carrington and Mexico City, I wanted to create an alphabetic bestiary of Dundonian alebrijes, monsters, and chimeras, of the sort that Dundee had attracted and engendered, whether in the shapes of elephants and whales – Florentina, the Indian elephant who died on the Broughty Ferry Road in 1706, and was dissected by Dr Patrick Blair; or the famous Tay Whale, whose bones now hang in the McManus gallery, prefiguring the hanging of Hope, the blue whale skeleton, in the Natural History Museum – or in the imagination of Mary Shelley, whose dream of the new Prometheus, or Frankenstein, began in South Baffin Street.

These would include the strange caricature McGonagall made of himself, by contemplating the anti-poetry of the suicidal Poute; and, indeed, the corpse of the Tay Whale, mouth propped open, so, for a sixpence, you could walk inside. And there would also be room for the broken back of the railbridge (thinking of D’Arcy Thompson’s comparison between the Forth rail ridge and the vertebrae of dinosaurs and other quadrupeds); and the Storm Fiend itself, which haunted the verses of several Dundonians in 1879 (‘which will be remembered for a very long time’).

I thought, if not the graphic novel, then at least the cartoonish text was an appropriate literary mode for the city which created Oor Wullie, Desperate Dan and the Broons, which kept reconfiguring itself as Beanotown, Auchenshoogle, Cactusville. I thought the virtual, the informational, were appropriate modes for the city that first demolishes then miniaturises its principal landmarks, for the home of Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto, for the birthplace of Hector Boece and Robert Wedderburn, whose Scots prose works were a sort of rhetorical wunderkammer of mythopoeic chronicles and bizarre lists.

I had already imagined a new monster years before, in the cover star of Strawberry Duck, the magazine I’d helped produce as a teenager in the late 70s. Half ‘underground’ comic, half punkzine, all not very good (at least the bits I wrote), it had played around with notions of couthiness as a stultifying type of control I would try to develop later in the Dundee Doldrums, and the energy of this piece of juvenilia re-manifested thirty-odd years later in the giant duck I pictured making its way up the Tay like the whale before it – except I then encountered an actual giant duck, albeit an inflatable one, created by a hotel in the city docks. Dundee seems a place where the real and the imaginary coexist in puzzling proximity.

I began to rebuild the demolished parts of the city in my head; to construct a Virtual Dundee of simultaneously existing simulacra of its vanished buildings; to imagine the Land O’ Cakes being haunted by giant pastries, pehs and bridies as sculptural or architectural features; to reanimate those symbolic dead creatures as mammoth and Monstro; to look for chimeras which gave me the same charge of irrational, absurd disquiet as the alebrijes I had seen in Mexico City had done. In short, I tried to find the Dundonian unheimlich, or, rather, the Uncouthy.

These creatures were for me at once ridiculous and repositories of grief and disquiet – in just the way that, with McGonagall, there is a sort of aporia, in that we can’t know to what extent what he writes and how he performs reflects his ‘real’ intentions. We are thrown back on our own interpretations, and whether we accept him for what he seems to be, or we question our own judgements, and with them our own private, inner absurdity, is up to us. So too a Dundonian alebrije should be as sad as it is childish, as strange as it is stupid. On a personal level, this enabled me to begin exteriorising aspects of the self I’d felt contorted into by the strange doldrums of loss.

I was seeking a meeting point between what I’ve been thinking of as dark whimsy and my official oeuvre of published works, a point which several of my books have aimed for in the past (and missed), and one at which, symbolically, a draft of the next one – nameless as yet, half-formed, still in those grief-filled shadows – could be finished. As with the grieving process itself, which cannot ever, will never quite, be done, it’s not actually completed. And yet I now know the book can – at least to the point of abandonment – be written.

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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