G. Gregory Smith’s Gargoyle, or, Several Scottish Voices Gathered Together in Pittenweem and Grooving with Robert Wyatt


– I love this outburst of Greenockian absurdism, particularly the moment where Chic claims he’s gone wrong, so runs through the whole poem again, again emphasising both its almost complete lack of sense and its entirely coherent structure. It’s an interesting moment to reflect upon this parody of the incomprehensibility of Scots in the light of the current renewal of debate about Scottish independence, a circumstance that led Sky News reporter Adam Boulton to ask the novelist Val McDermid, ‘…would you like to see an independent Scotland abandon speaking the sort of English we’re speaking now?’ When Val replies first in English then in Scots, there is a moment of stunned silence, before he misses her point about functional bi-(if not tri-)lingualism.

Thinking about how this idea of incomprehensibility is symbolised by the Lallans-heavy Scottish poem – indeed how perfectly it marries two assumed obscurities: that of the language with that of the poem – I was reminded once more of the strange contiguity of Chic’s family home, on the steepness of Bank Street, Greenock, to 1, Hope Street of that parish, the almost optimistic birthplace of W.S Graham, key Scottish poet of the outer limits as well as of the limitations of language.

This closeness of the closies almost embodies G. Gregory Smith’s famous definition of the Caledonian Antiszyzygy: ‘…the absolute propriety of a gargoyle’s grinning at the elbow of a kneeling saint…’ except we are of course aware that, however grotesque the Tall Droll’s self-portrait, Sydney ‘Try to be better’ Graham was no saint.

But this marvellous play on a poem, which meanders back and forth over the border between sound and sense, tongue-twisting Scots and consonantal nonsense, is as knowing as Graham’s own dismissal of the ‘Plastic’ (no doubt pronounced ‘Plestic’) Scots of his day – claiming to have heard an argument among the followers of Hugh MacDiarmid for the word ‘telephone’ to be be replaced with the echt Lallans-esque ‘Farspeak’. Both are, satirically, part of the internal Scots debate over how Scots are Scots allowed to be? Both remind me of two irruptions of the Scottish voice into another contiguous, equally whimsical world: Prog.

The first of these was the delight of an old friend of mine, the poet Helen Kidd, who died a few years ago. It had previously been linked for teenage me with Dark Age Pictland, a period of great fascination to my history-loving grandfather, who died when I was 12. The title: ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict’.

I just assumed the cave was not only Pictish but Platonic, and nearby – most likely Pittenweem, ‘Cave of the Picts’ – and that the many squeaking and chirruping craiturs ran the gamut from houlets, hares, martens, mice, budgies, platypuses, and capybaras (the latter a particular favourite of Helen’s) to the lemmings of prog doomsters Van der Graaf Generator. (And indeed those ghosts that, as Horatio notes, like to squeak and gibber, more of whom seem to have gathered in the cave’s shadows since I first listened out for them.)

I also thought the poem recited by Roger Waters at the end in a deliberately terrible Scots accent was akin to Spike Milligan’s affectionate renditions of McGonagall. In fact the poem sounded like it could have been a McGonagallian recitation, perhaps while refusing to die in The Scottish Play: ‘I snatched fer the blade/O my claymore/cut and thrust/and I fell doon before him/round his feet…Aye!’

It took a few years for it to dawn on me that, while Waters’ ridiculous Pict wasn’t in the same category as Boulton’s strangely leading question, its slight element of slighting wasn’t exactly the same as Chic’s or indeed Sydney’s either. While we understand Waters means no harm, it’s just about evident there is a distinction, not so much between parody and self-parody, as between what you can do with parody and with self-parody. While Waters is playing at the role of freaky cave-dweller, Chic Murray, a little like Syd Barratt, uses drollness to get out of his cave altogether. That distinction perhaps becomes clearer when we listen to the second voice – that of Ivor Cutler in two tracks on Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, both called ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road’.

As a teenager, I found the story behind this album – that it was recorded after Wyatt had broken his back, and that it conveyed the conditions of his hospitalisation as well as his coming to terms with this extreme trauma – deeply affecting. I didn’t know then that it had mostly already been written, nor that this had taken place in Venice because his partner, the artist Alfreda Benge, was working on the film Don’t Look Now, which famously features both what seems like a Red Riding Hood-like character and a horrifying twist. Imprint the legend, you might say.

But I was enormously moved and influenced by Wyatt’s use of nonsense words to convey what appeared to be deeply internal states of mind, and by the appearance of Ivor Cutler – to the strains of Fred Frith’s viola as though in some sort of Carrollian rewrite of ‘Venus in Furs’ – to intone a poem of absurd breakdown and, simultaneously, resistance, in which various modern devices, a phone, a television, other people’s car tyres, are attacked, while the protagonist aligns himself with another small (spiky) mammal. – Now that I think about it, one of my favourite Chic Murray jokes is the one about his difficult relationship with his talking dog.

Again, it took me a while to notice that Govan-born Cutler is not quite speaking in his own voice – while critical descriptions focus on his obvious Scottishness, he in fact affects a ‘foreign’ voice, enunciating very deliberately words like ‘the’, as though to emphasise the absolutely otherness of his character’s state of mind. This reminds me, firstly, of Cutler’s early claim that he really came from the utopian Island of Y’Hup, and, secondly, of one of Chic Murray’s great punning gags, the one about the pole vaulter, which also plays on foreignness and (mis)pronunciation. Βut perhaps it’s an illogical extension of the very particular delivery both Cutler and Murray favour, an arch take on posh Scots English, or Pan Loaf. They use this to foreignise themselves, positioning their personae just beyond the traditional shared space of performer and audience, which they then elliptically arrive within and exit at will. Both push themselves into a linguistic and therefore perceptual otherness which feels a little like W.S. Graham’s fixation on the uncanny nature of the space between writer and reader, and between the speaker and the word: ‘What is the language using us for?’

There’s a famous scene in Gregory’s Girl where the headmaster, played of course by Chic Murray, sits at the school piano and rattles out a little tune, apparently oblivious to the world around him. When the world, in the form of a couple of pupils, notices him, he pauses, declares, ‘Off you go, small boys,’ then carries on playing. It demarks precisely a certain angle to things, both to who we appear to be and to how we relate to the world, which appears to be exactly the angle of both Graham and Cutler, the one aspired to by Waters in a manner which, arguably, reflects the way he continually aspires to and yet fears to assume the mantle dropped by Syd Barratt. (Does he get there, in his mammal-crammed cave? I’d like to think so, if only for Helen’s sake.)

The tune is, apparently, Chic’s own composition (or, possibly, improvisation), and, when I listen again to the maniacal cackle Cutler emits at the end of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (after a day spent with a hedgehog ‘bursting thee tyres’, and having reflected on ‘thee life of thee highwayman, yum yum’), I realise this voice too is, exactly and accidentally, positioned on the corner of Bank and Hope Streets, Greenock.

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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