Origins, Grafts, Whispers

(As will hopefully become apparent over the next few weeks, one of my ‘resolutions’ for January 2017 was to get my act together with the backlog of posts for this and my other blogs. At the end of the month I go off on leave from Newcastle University, stepping down as I do so from the role of subject head which has occupied a certain proportion of my time for several years now (cf when my last entry here was), so clearing the decks is very much how I hope to proceed.

However I have been here before (approximately once every four years, if you want to check the blog’s track record), hence the inverted commas above, and I understand that I have a very xenochronicitous approach to all such notions of orderliness, timeliness, and, especially, the idea that what writers must do is present a coherent face to the world via social and other media, submissions to magazines and competitions, and taking part in public-facing activities via festivals and the like – all the trappings of the dreaded Poebiz which appear to have been swallowed whole by some.

My take is that you actively resist all that even to the detriment of your ‘rep’, undermining all the Biz’s and your pomposities as best you can, and instead concentrate on Doing the Work in both senses of following your nose as a writer, and your conscience as a facilitator – be that tutor, translator, collaborator, editor, judge, or indeed blogger. So it seems somewhat apt to be reviving this blog for the New Year (we’re still in my notion of the extended Daft Days in the sense that a) it’s not Burns Night yet, and b) the inauguration of Trumpo is tomorrow, when we will descend instead into the Dark Days) with a review of a writer who embodies many of those principles: Sarah Maguire.

Her work as a tireless advocate for literary translation of writers from outside the Eurocentric frame goes before her. It expresses for me an issue regarding that frame: that the choice of familiar translatees of a certain assumed stature can take on the function of contextualising a poet-translator as they wish to be seen, rather than, as the Poetry Translation Centre does, providing access to an under-recognised or entirely new-to-‘us’ literature, and sharing the energising poem or poet or poetic. Part then of Doing the Work is being at the service of that poem, poet, or poetic – and trying to learn from it.

Her own poetry has always demonstrated that same quality of conceptual, ideological, and perceptual openness with great verve, and I was very pleased to get the chance to review her in the Summer 2016 issue of Poetry London.)

Sarah Maguire, Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems (Chatto Poetry), 149pp, £15.99

Sarah Maguire’s overlapping roles as poet of frank, brilliant sensuosity, gardener with encyclopaedic knowledge of the aesthetic and healing properties of plants, and traveller/translator and facilitator of translation, primarily in a non-European context, are strikingly reflected in this gathering of her three volumes for Chatto.

The intelligent editorial decision to reorder the poems in Almost the Equinox has had the effect of emphasising a single trajectory if not narrative to the work as a whole. This allows the reader to see, as few selected poems do, the integrity of the life work, and indeed of the life as work. The poems of ‘physic’ – the intimate relation between us and our environment, between our health and the plants we use to heal us – are positioned between two unknowns – those of her origins as an adopted child, and the further worlds her work increasingly opens up to, whether experientially or poetically.

Questions of origin for Maguire always themselves originate in the body, and in placing its vulnerabilities in a specific interior or against a named landscape. As ‘The Hearing Cure’ establishes, even in present misery there is music, ‘Each night/the slow wax silts/into place/coagulating sibilance//muffling susurration…’; and even in childhood pain she finds poise: ‘the football results/came on the radio;//Scottish League Division Two…//a litany//that lulled me’.

The turn in this poem, whereby the comforting adoptive mother cannot, in her old age, be comforted, is characteristic of the unflinching truth-telling behind Maguire’s lyricism. There are fractures in our lives that can only be healed by the imagination, as in the moment of re-encounter: ‘At twenty-one I found the mother I had never known,/much smaller than I’d thought, her hands like mine.’ Ironically, it is their shared love of dance that has left the poet literally in ‘The Fracture Clinic’,  ‘beneath a star-shaped atrium’.

That inherited joyousness and that eye for forms comes together in ‘Hibiscus’, which begins with a declaration of openness:

I have no idea what is coming
as I take the hand of a perfect stranger
as I’m taken through the streets of Marrakech.

This journey leads past the intense detail of ‘the indifferent city’, its ‘tagines and harira and brochettes’, and away from ‘that one huge bud of hibiscus -/madder red, almost cerise -/that is, at this moment, coming full into bloom’. It ends in a room in the windowframe of which the poet discovers ‘A bird’s nest woven of a filigree of fine straw/and cardboard’, in which there are two eggs – ‘I watch these eggs until I know them.’

In all this the play of physical detail against metaphoric implication is accomplished with great delicacy: we are aware as readers that this is not merely an encounter with some appropriated notion of the exotic, but a depiction of the otherness that makes up our own inner world of desires and desire for security and pattern, and of how random and rare such insights are, as well as a gentle insistence that sooner or later we must realise, in Auden’s phrase, that ‘Our dream of safety has to disappear.’

The pivotal role of plants in Sarah Maguire’s work, their capacity to poison, delight or heal, and the ambivalence of the gardener, who like the surgeon, must decide how or whether their charges shall live, haunts poem after poem at the heart of this book. ‘My Grafting Knife’ which, to the young gardener, represents ‘A whole week’s wages/balanced on my palm’, is described as so sharp its unlocking ‘[hurts] the air’. At the poem’s conclusion, the description of ‘my right thumb//criss-crossed with hair-scars/tarnished with sap’ rewrites Plath’s ‘Cut’ to bring gardener and garden into a sort of sacrificial communion. In ‘Umbellularia californica’ the headache tree (which is wittily characterised in the notes: ‘opinion is divided as to whether [its] smell actually causes headaches or relieves them’) becomes the poet’s ‘lodestar’, to which, as a sufferer from migraines, she makes pilgrimage ‘not for a cure…but for a witness,/for the process/of a map.’

That process, of mapping out a life, seeing it as a geography as much as a narrative, is enacted by poem after poem in this masterful selection, which feels as subtly open to the poetics of those other landscapes as it is rooted in the London of its title poem, where the poet notes a ginkgo flaring besides St Paul’s, the nave of which is rendered cognate with the Great Mosque in Kabul, while, returned and restored, she remembers

As a child, I climbed all the stairs
to the Whispering Gallery, laid my cheek
against the painted plaster of the dome,
and let those perfected acoustics bear my changed voice
back to myself.

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World Porridge Day Tag Team

As part of my zealous efforts to keep up with the marmalade-packed Poetry Calendar, I have so far failed to observe the fiftieth anniversary of Dundee’s roadbridge ower the Tay, or the 200th anniversary of the local paper, The Courier and Advertiser – though I did mark the fortieth anniversary of the toon’s great second hand record store, Groucho’s, which perhaps tells you where meh priorities leh.

Xenochronicitous works are in progress on both these momentous anniversaries.

In the meantime and by meagre compensation, noting that it is, inexplicably, World Porridge Day, I recall not one but two poems in the habbie form on the matter, one directed at the foodstuff, and first published in Omnesia, the other aimed at the central character of the much-loved 70s sitcom of that name, starring the late Ronnie Barker, and posted on my Tumblr site.

To Porridge

‘Auld claes and parritch…’

Captain of oats, braw brose, fine gruel,
you are thi Scotsman’s constant fuel
fae New Year’s Dey till end o Yule
(we don’t do Simmer):
oan ilka morn ye bring renewal,
thi stammack’s zimmer.

Ye greet us lyk a fu-fissed mune
and guarantee tae fill wir spune
wi fushion – see, ye’re cratert roond
wi seas o bubbles –
tranquillity is aa yir tune,
and ease fae troubles.

Grey revolutionary fur guts,
jump-starter fur thi slo-mo slutz
that sends us loupin fae wir cots
intae wir sarks
(a dram in you gets slob and klutz
back tae thir wark).

When snaa faas owre thi Border’s pale
and Southron bairns can plunk aff skail
then even English journos hail
wir Northern mannah –
are sudden experts oan oatmeal
tapped wi a sultana.

Ye’re like a clood-occludit sun
that casts grey licht oan ivrywun;
thi siller ash on grieshoch; grun
ablow thi slush
that derns oat-germs that sune will wun
thru Winter’s crush.

Tho Doctir Johnson caaed ye food
fur foals – mair fulmar him – ye’ve plooed
thru Scotia’s lard-imprisoned bluid
and freed oor veins:
dae mealie puddins dae us good?
Great Oat, explain!

Hoo dae we luve ye? Some wi cream,
wi hinny, spice or jeely reamed,
while Calvin’s crew hae sauty dreams
o fare of auld,
powred in a draaer fur bothy teams
tae slice oot cauld.

‘Auld claes an parritch’ gaes thi creh
wance we hae drunk thi Daft Deys dreh
and neath a sober, saft grey skeh
we view thi year –
we’re nae whit bettir, but we’ll treh
wi sic guid gear!

Stammack—stomach; fushion—wholesomeness, strength; slutz—a leap in skating; sark—shirt; grieshoch—red-hot embers; dern–hide.

To Norman Stanley Fletcher

(for Susie Maguire and Richard Ashcroft)

Habitually criminal,
contrary tae oor Lordships’ will
wha caucht yir fingers in thir till,
you did yir time –
an innocence in daein ill
yir actual crime.

The laws of property serve those
wha serve themselves. Anither dose
o prison proved hoo you oppose
the pooers that bay
you still were free tae thumb yir nose
tho locked away.

Let Groutie gloat an Godber moan:
nor Barraclough, that streak o strone,
nor mim Mackay by drill or drone
brocht you tae heel,
though croodit roond, you crawed alone,
and wouldna kneel.

Altho a Fletcher – ane o thi best –
ye failed tae feathir your ain nest,
instead sent arras forth tae test
thae slammin doors:
yir keyhole wit aye hit thir breasts
thru loopholes galore!

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Awa the Messages (for National Poetry Day 2016)

I was prompted to post this piece for National Poetry Day by a comment made on Facebook by the poet Mandy Maxwell, who pointed out that the theme for this year’s NPD has a double meaning for a Scottish (or Irish) reader: ‘messages’ do not just suggest communication to us – ‘the messages’ are also ‘the shopping’. The conjectured meaning is that the written list we may use contains messages (to ourselves) regarding those things we want to buy.

This reminded me that I’d written a poem focussed on this double meaning for a piece of  public art in Dundee by the sculptor David Annand, which sits outside Tesco’s in Lochee (South Road branch), neatly wedged in between two angles of the ascending path.


So this post is a rewrite of an original piece on my Dundee Makar’s Tumblr site here, to add in the text (reproduced in 2013’s Omnesia) – see below.

David’s design is a brilliant, burnished coil of boxes – the packages in which ‘goods’ or ‘the messages’ arrive. And the text attempts to explore what exactly is good about goods, and what really is the message that the messages convey?

Of course, the same question could be addressed to the piece itself: what is the message that it and by extension such sculptures, delivered into the people’s midst, is trying to communicate? What can be established that we, the people, are ordained to do in response?

In a way the answer is: anything. We can look or look away, read or not read, ignore or even protest its presence. What did that cost? (No much.) Why weren’t we consulted? (We probably were, mind.)

A piece of public art, like a poem in the consciousness, is simply there, alongside the railings, the lampposts, the street ‘furniture’, as they call it. Of course it wants to be seen and considered as art; thought about, discussed, even cherished, however gradually or grudgingly. But it, like the poem, can’t insist on the fact.

Ideally, it wants everything in the public space to be similarly thought about, discussed, cherished or condemned – but considered. In a way it’s there to contribute towards a discussion about how we feel about our city and our homes. That discussion can be aesthetic, sentimental, pragmatic. It can even be a debate, should we want one.

It – the discussion, as much as the art – would fundamentally be about messages. What kinds of signals are we sending each other (the public, our representatives, businesses) as we co-exist? How many of these messages are only types of commodity?

One of the weird effects of Scots pronunciation, suggested by the ambivalence of ‘the messages’ is the way little unconscious puns crop up as we speak: South Road becomes Sooth Road becomes – just for a second – Truth Road (remember the soothsayer and his ‘ides of March’?).

In other words, we hear something in both Scots and English that the English do not – points of social bilingualism. Every time I hear the place name, Kent, for instance, I think – for a second – of the Scots past tense of ‘know’: ’kent’, as in the classic reductive remark made of those who, like poets, get a bit above themselves: ‘kent his faither.’

These points are part of the imaginative freedom every piece of art – poem, sculpture, story, song – offers to its audience. As such, they’re not a bad message to share on National Poetry Day with all users of English, bilingual or other.

A second may be all the time we have to give to a piece of public art or a poem, but that doesn’t mean it or our time is wasted. The truth is, a second can be more than enough for a message to be delivered. Or a discussion to begin.


The Messages

‘Established words also have their after-ripening.’


When Ally Bally Bee
fell doon the treacle well
he took a wee bawbee
to see what they would sell

soda farls for workin carles
pigs’ lugs for their nurses
OVD for thee and me
GBH for purses

falafels for beginners
polystyrene stovies
goudie cheese for dinner
(Eh could eat a pair of rovies)

black puddin white puddin
puddin heid and red
a samplin of dumplin
beh a bigger bed.


The messages were written doon
in cuneiform on clay
back when Ur wiz hauf a toon
we aa began tae pay

Sumeria soon consumed mair
Salonika had sales
there’s omega 3 in Linear B
and two for one on Wales

thae Ides were gey untidy
back when Caesar took a faa
saying, ‘Brutus, see’s twa bridies
and an ingin ane an aa.’

hauf a peh fae Santa
nae caviar for Lent
there’s the maik Eh’m aain ya
and noo meh loot is spent.


The message is that sassidges
are definitely the boys
while ham and eggs and wooden pegs
should not be used as toys

gae mental wi lentils
scell the frozen peas
there’s mammon in salmon
and pints of ankle grease

there’s sannies for trannies
grannies for sookers
there’s chewny for loonies
and toes for veruccas

be human as the bakéd bean
and mad as six bananas
we still have jam for wir yestreens
and spam for wir mañanas.


The messages keep comin in
like dandruff fae the stars
the messages are drummin in
fae souks and fae pazaars

aa the fruits of progress
pantsuits for the ogress
DVDs of Dangerman
cardboard bottles plastic cans

everything organic
fresh fae the Titanic
there’s nae praans in a Cullen Skink
nae calories in haen a think

Ally Bally all at sea
seekin oot his mammy’s knee
hush noo bairnie dinna fret
ye can’t aye waant the thing ye get.

The messages – shopping; bawbee – haepenny; pigs’ lugs – pastries; stovies – potatoes stewed with gravy; rovies – jute slippers; beh – buy; gey – very; faa – fall; see’s – fetch me; bridies – shortcrust pasty filled with mince; ingin and – bridie filled with mince and onion; maik – haepenny; aain – owing; scell – spill; sannies – sand-shoes, gym-shoes; ‘grannies for sookers’ – Granny-sookers are a boiled mint sweet; chewny – chewing gum; yestreen – last night; praans – prawns; Cullen Skink – a smoked haddock soup; haen – having.

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Quick notes on editing ‘New Boots’

(Eek, it’s been a while since I posted here! Still struggling with the unresolvable first section of my Mexican post, with the actual intro for New Boots and Pantisocracies just gone to the publisher, this is a few notes I made to myself to sharpen the wits on the way down to the Poetry Book Fair last Saturday. I was on a panel with Choman Hardi, Ron Villanueva, and Sophie Mayer, hosted by Fiona Moore, discussing political poetry and poetry politics.

Appropriately on the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, there’s a whole further note to be finished about my ongoing problem with Coleridge’s attitude toward Fancy, and how the Biographia seems to hint this was a problem for him too, rather than a clarifying model for the Romantic Imagination. But there’s that small matter of the impending semester to deal with first…)

The crisis you encounter as an editor of a daily blog of political poetry is the same as the one you face as a writer of poetry at all: how do you escape the confirmation bias of preaching to the converted, what Facebook has conveniently identified as your circle? How do you burst the poetry bubble of people who already do that sort of thing?

Most of us – poets especially – find ourselves irresistible. Our ego loves our beliefs, and thinks them all both reasonable and good. Some of us have Opinions About Things – in which case we should remember Wilde’s remark ‘Most people are other people’, ie are you sure that opinion is actually yours? Some of us have marvellous systems which answer all our questions for us while allowing us to display our knowledge of said system – mansplainers, Londonsplainers, Marxsplainers, alike, all have answers a-go-go, usually to a different question from the one you asked.

What most of us share is a passive relationship to an active if frequently unarticulated ideology. Poetry is one of the ways we wake up to that.

When I was speed re-reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria for my intro to New Boots, one sentence from his discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’ caught and held my attention: ‘The reader is forced into too much action to sympathise with the merely passive.’

Coleridge is making a point about how a good poet dramatises the act of reading poetry, so that it’s not just hard work, but engaging and energising as much as it is immersive and persuasive. He’s opposing this to just that opinionising or systematist aspect of the self, if not also to a consumerist, ‘entertain us’ attitude in the reader. This rang a loud familiar bell for me.

The lyric poem like the song from which it derives, often seems inadequate to the demands of the political because it encourages precisely that passivity, the act of overhearing something perhaps a little too familiar – yeah, yeah, you love/hate him/her/it. We know. Its mode, if not always its content, discourages us from independent thought, as though it were the PowerPoint of poetic discourses.

What we found we were opposing to this still dominant mode in poetry in English was a kind of editorial polystylism, an acceptance of a whole series of rhetorical tactics that, collectively, dramatised the act of reading the blog.

One day might be a found poem based on the Smith Commission’s report on Scottish independence, another might be a pastiche of a Poundian economic canto, another might be – yes – a lyric poem. Every day became a way of considering Hugh MacDiarmid’s interesting assertion ‘…all poetry that is not pure/propaganda, is impure propaganda for sure’.

Elegy, squib, ephemera, parable – we were assembling a set of rhetorical categories that could be political. Now, the idea that this expanded taxonomy might replace the consensus that a poem is a lyrical, personal, anecdotal, epiphanic event might be pretty pantisocratic, but at least it gave us something to build on from day to day.

Poetry, we realised we were asserting, is a way of, first, wakening up to and, second, resisting your own inherent and inevitable ideological standpoint.

Why? Because of its intense focus on words themselves, their opacity in terms of rhythmic, musical, imagistic texture, their etymologies, their cultural and historical and political specificity. The act of moving back and forth from this microcosm to a macrocosm, looking across a range of poetic modes, causes writer, editor, and – possibly – reader, to reconsider in political as well as cultural terms the key question asked by the Scottish poet W.S. Graham: ‘What is the language using us for?’

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Stop! in the Name of the New Unsettlement

4 (of 4)

So the public art proposals I’ve been posting on Strawberry Duck on Tumblr for the last few years aren’t exactly that; they are partly simple enough ideas which could actually be done (and at relatively little expense, I should add!) and partly things which could and perhaps should never be done – impractical proposals, the very impossibility of which is part of their purpose. This second category constitutes the public art of a virtual Dundee, then, and it is largely up to the reader which proposal belongs to which category.

When I was making stuff like this up before, I ascribed it to an arts collective that didn’t exist – the conceptual art wing of Informationism, if you like. They were the Institute for Incremental Anarchy, or the IIA.

Of course the border between the invented and the fictional is incredibly thin (and certainly a lot more porous than that between art forms, so that the literary and the art world rarely align). One might say that the difference between the two is that invention is an event, whereas the fictional is a narrative composed of a succession of events – and it is the element of necessity in that succession which turns any narrative into an actual plot. The IIA, though they were cast as a conspiracy, never really had a plot – indeed I rather lost their plot in the intervening years, along with those of various other projects. 

But time has a way of impelling us to impose our own narrative interpretations on events, as Brian Wilson was eventually able to do with Smile – although, as the musician and writer David Toop has suggested, perhaps being never-realised was actually its most appropriate form, conjuring labyrinthine alternative histories of late twentieth century music while not actually possessing its own definitive form. 

Perhaps the most influential form of Smile, then, is that almost-absence which compels us to create our own versions, just as the demolished buildings of Dundee force us to create our own virtual Dundees. 

It therefore seems reasonable to assert that the following seven proposals constitute the latter-day activities of the Institute for Incremental Anarchy in a Virtual Dundee which, as we can see via such phenomenon as the Cardboard Arch, really does touch on the real Dundee at certain key points. 

(It further seems reasonable to say that if anyone should wish to join the Institute of Incremental Anarchy (Virtual Dundee Chapter), I would be very curious to see how that could actually happen…)

1. Winterlightbridges

From St Andrews Day to Burns Night, searchlights placed in Broughty Ferry, Tayport, Dundee, and Newport at the points of embarkation for the Fifies will be switched on each evening (river traffic permitting), creating bridges of light across the River Tay.

2. Storm Fiend Stylites

Statues of eminent Dundonians, including William Wallace, Robert Wedderburn, Grizell Jaffray, Bonny Dundee, Frances Wright, William McGonagall, Mary Brooksbank, and Billy Mackenzie, will be placed on the stumps of the old rail bridge. 

These will be carved from limestone so that they erode over time under the effects of weather, but exact replicas will be kept in a nearby railway shed.

3. McGonagall Mural

A prominent feature of the new railway station greeting new arrivals to the city will be a mosaic of ‘The Poet McGonagal Presenting His Poetic Gems to the City of Dundee’. This will follow the design of Domenico di Michelino’s ‘La commedia illumina Firenze’ but be executed in a Byzantine/Socialist Realist style like the work of Soviet artists in the Moscow Metro.

(At the opening, an elaborate hoax will be played on the assembled dignitaries in which a grisaille version – actually an exact scale print – will be unveiled by Muriel Gray. As their faces fall, she will then unveil the actual mosaic in all its technicolor splendour. 

The print will then be torn up along predesigned perforations, and shared out among the attendees.)

4. There, There, All Better Now

This project consists of making and applying giant elastoplasts for and to stone and bronze. Placed initially on the knees, elbows, and bridges of noses of public statues, the sticking plasters will grow larger until they begin to ‘heal’ monuments and buildings across the city and, in the wake of elections and referenda, the country or countries.

5. Solar Alphabet Walk

Little solar panel footlights along the esplanade in Broughty Ferry and in other sites throughout the city will be redesigned to form letters of the alphabet. 

After an initial stage with just the Roman alphabet, this will be extended to include the Greek, the Arabic abjad, then Georgian, Hindi, key characters in Chinese, and the Kanji syllabary, etc. 

It will eventually be possible symbolically to walk the world from the Stannergate to the Rail Bridge.

6. Hungry Mary’s Food Art

An ongoing series beginning with the Moc Gonagall Chop – a metal mould enabling Dundee’s chip shops to produce mock chops in the shape of McGonagall’s profile.

Also available for the Land o’ Cakes are cupcakes with a single letter on each spelling out the utopian sentiment CAKE IS OUR FRIEND, to be displayed in key bakers, and replenished throughout the day as each cupcake is sold.

(To accompany the Solar Alphabet Walk, tinned Greek Alphabet Fish Soup, Hebrew Chicken Soup and Chinese Character Hot and Sour Broth will be produced and sold in a single resurrected branch of Willie Low’s.)

7. Anne Stevenson Tayport micro-residency

A writer will be rowed out to the Old Pile Light each morning, deposited safely, and retrieved again at night (tides- and weather-permitting).

Each writer remains there until they complete a piece of work which can be published in an ensuing anthology, so the residency takes on the air simultaneously of a retreat and a custodial sentence. 

(Will require the interior to be made weather- and wifi-proof.)

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Dial the New Unsettlement!


It is as an opposition to this mindset that I welcome, rejoice in, and kick myself for missing, the construction and demolition of the cardboard Royal Arch by Claire Dow and Olivier Grossetete. Such fond, culturally-informed and – yes – absurdist approaches attempt to dismantle simplistic and parochial definitions by evoking the pleasure principle.

There is a formula in this that I recognise myself groping toward over the addled decades: a type of unsettlement practised by artists and writers as diverse as George Wyllie, Leonora Carrington, Ivor Cutler, and, latterly, Grayson Perry or Mark Waldron, that appears to be comic but cannot be entirely defined – and thus, for many people, dismissed – as such. It works by blending continental confrontation (épater le bourgeois, Dadaism, Situationism) with disarming Britishness (nonsense and whimsy, Carroll and Python).

Similar to the workings of stiob, it requires an active engagement from us – positive or negative – to make sense of it at all. Confronted by the unsettling we find ourselves asking ‘Is this a real thing? Are they serious? What am I supposed to do? Is this still funny? Who allowed this to happen?’

The other week, I was visiting the sundial in the Geddes Quad of Dundee University, enjoying the intermittent sunlight that passes for early summer in these parts, when I realised I’d made a mistake which, in a small, incremental way, encapsulates this unsettlement.

The quad itself is easily accessible just off the Perth Road, just before Airlie Place. The sundial provides a faceted point of focus to an enclosed space of small lawns, flowerbeds and hedges – exactly the sort of shrubbery that McGonagall and generations of municipal postcard photographers got off on – and buildings which carry significant traces of their history in incised text, commemorative plaque, or technical signage.

I’d been told about the sundial perhaps back in those same nineties, and I’d misheard its title. It is, technically, an analemmic sundial, meaning its construction relates to the variable position of the sun in the sky relative to a stationary observer. At some point, however, I’d confused the terms ‘analemmic’ and ‘analeptic’. Despite my ongoing self-proclaimed curiosity about Greek, I hadn’t even checked what ‘analeptic’ meant (it means ‘restoring’).

Back then I’d vaguely thought the viewer was, if they positioned themselves correctly, the gnomon, as is sometimes the case with an analemmic sundial, but no. Of course, not knowing what ‘analeptic’ meant, I hadn’t had to think how being the gnomon to a sundial could possibly be restorative. (Exposure to vitamin D?) So the visit was not just to the actual sundial, but to the folly of my imagined sundial – it was an encounter which unsettled that certainty.

As I stood waiting for the clouds to permit the sunlight to fall upon the brass curve of the actual dial (when it did, I saw that, analemmatically speaking, it was an hour slow), the invented term ‘analeptic gnomon’ began to take on a new interpretation. If I was the gnomon, and my own daftness the clouds, then the correcting light which fell had indeed had some clarifying, healing function.

Something in that moment of meaningful misreading would seem to suit the anthropocentric holistic thinking of Patrick Geddes, who wrote in Cities in Evolution (1915) ‘“Local character” is …no mere accidental old-world quaintness… It is attained only in course of adequate grasp and treatment of the whole environment, and in active sympathy with the essential and characteristic life of the place concerned’.

He was also opposed to the concept of urban clearance which Dundee, ironically, as a place which hosts a Geddes Institute, has particularly suffered from, not least in the loss of the Royal Arch, describing it not only as ‘unsparing to the old homes and to…neighbourhood life’ creating ‘worst congestion in other quarters’ (translation: demolish the Overgate and build Whitfield), but as conceptually ‘conventional’, i.e. intellectually provincial in its failure to solve problems, opting rather to reproduce solutions from elsewhere.

(In this context, however, we shouldn’t forget how a disgruntled Dundee student characterised his teaching: ‘Forget the silly notion that I’m here to teach you botany/ and never come to me for facts because I haven’t got any.’*)

*I am indebted to Erin Catriona Farley for sourcing this couplet.

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Stiob! It’s the New Unsettlement

(I’ll try to post this four part piece daily across this week.)


One social phenomenon which illustrates this neatly is the late Soviet satiric mode of stiob*. According to Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak, who produced a study comparing stiob to more contemporary satiric programmes in the US like ‘The Colbert Report’, it was ‘a particular mode of parody…that imitated and inhabited the formal features of authoritative discourse to such an extent that it was often difficult to tell whether it was a form of sincere support, subtle ridicule, or a peculiar mixture of the two…’

(Illustration by Andrew Gardner)

The UK had its versions of this in, famously, ‘The Day Today’, and, in a similar way, in the use of documentary techniques in ‘The Office’ – and indeed in the unsettling edge introduced to his actual documentaries by Louis Theroux. Sacha Baron Cohen and Charlie Brooker have also developed techniques we could compare to stiob. In such cases it is as though our culture has been so suffused with irony, that it is not until some party – be it a participant or a viewer – is in actual doubt or is unable to establish the veracity of what is being presented, that irony can be said to be operating at all.

In a sense, this aspect of engagement and personal agency relates to the new political dispensation we see in post-Labour Scotland, and indeed in the turmoil of the EU referendum and the US presidential campaigns. Just as a rejection of mainstream and establishment political certainties means we are either controlled by ridiculous demagogues, or we turn to more idealistic (and more idealised) dark horses of the left, so too we are in the position of actually having to make our minds up about culture.

In the numb-to-irony position we occupy ‘post’-postmodernism, if we aren’t challenged into having to determine whether and how something is parodic or sincere, then we could argue that the satiric event can no be longer be said to have taken place. We are all, therefore, critics or dupes. (In this respect, supporters of Trump have taken the old cliché about Americans’ blindness to irony to terrifying new depths.)

Moreover, this may mean our approach to parody, pastiche, and imitation, in short, to the copy as version as opposed to replica – a little like our response to translation – is now the marker of our engagement with the arts in general. If we are not thrown into a similar type of crisis of interpretation, our responses may only be stock, pre-theorised for us as part of the universal commodification of late Capitalism, which naturally includes theories about late Capitalism.

Under such a dispensation, as ‘Nathan Barley’ prophesied, those who suppose that by presenting themselves as ironic they can be seen as hip, self-identify as the new dunces.

One could argue, now the nerd and the geek are allegedly cool, that the last bastions of dysfunctionality and loser-dom are becoming commodified too. But is it only by being too weird for fish that anything can get done? To be outside without zealously striving to be an outsider sounds too Zen a discipline for most of us to attempt, so must we be content with simply failing to fail better?

One of the defining characteristics of Informationism, the pretend literary movement I pretended to be part of back in the 90s when my interest in the virtuality of Dundee began, was its engagement with undermined discourse. We were as interested in the vainglorious discourse of the manifesto and late Modernism as we were in the controlling discourses of the media, of the cultural historian and the literary theorist. But, much as it sounds like it ought to be, this wasn’t a simplistic postmodern flattening of affect.

Then as now the struggle was to get complex, to preserve a Scottish literary genealogy and cultural history we saw as overlooked, misread and underrepresented in mainstream accounts. It was because, despite this effort, we ourselves had significant issues with that alternative, discontinuous, post-MacDiarmid tradition, that our approach was ironised, not because we thought certain types of literary discrimination no longer mattered.

This could be read as an example of Isaiah Berlin’s analogy of the Fox and the Hedgehog as a description of how we frame concepts. Borrowing from the decidedly spiky but also rather cunning Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin famously characterises the Fox as taking many approaches; while the Hedgehog sees only one way to go.

Our concern was we saw a homogenising notion of Scottish writing as fitting neatly within the narratives of Northern Ireland and Northern England – the Harrison-Heaney-Hughes triangle that nets Dunn, but leaves MacDiarmid (and Bunting) cast adrift. Faced with the Hedgehog of Anglo-Irish Poetic Hegemony, we favoured a Fantastic Mr Fox-like diversification of approaches and provocations, all tunnels and channelings. That worked out great for us.

In general, the sort of group thinking which governs reviewing, awards, and festival bookings, tends to favour the hedgehog over the fox. Bureaucratic structures often struggle with complex models, let alone with communicating them, and people confronted with areas in which they lack expertise will find a simpler breakdown however distorted more acceptable. (As Berlin admitted, the clear binary of the fox and the hedgehog was itself one such simplification: it might be more accurate to say we may consider issues as foxes, but we tend to draw our conclusions as hedgehogs.)

What is at stake here is a reversion to essentialisms of aesthetics commensurate with the essentialism of identities we see on the political stage – a new provincialism which rediscovers old bureaucratic mindsets, or a new philistinism seeking old ways of controlling culture by cronyism and naysaying.

Provincialism may seem an odd term to use. What does it really mean to be provincial in an era where everywhere is (sort of) connected to everywhere else, where the most extreme periphery can be accessed almost as easily as the metropolis?

But might provincialism be, wherever you are, not to attempt to assess the value of your culture, except as commodity, fashion accessory, status symbol? Might it be not to synthesise or even syncretise – thinking across fields of production, across geographies, across eras – but rather to lord it over your patch, your lustrum, your ‘thing’? Might it be not to be unsettled: in short, to think stolidly of culture for what it gives to you, rather than what you give to it?

*I’m indebted to Kate Fox for pointing me in the direction of this abstract.

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