Last Saturday the sun came out and I took the bus to Glasgow. A joyous buzz infused the air. Pigeons on the ground, gulls in the sky. Crowds swarmed past Donald Dewar, stolidly costive on his plinth, staring down the canyon of Buchanan Street. The musicians, too, were out. I passed three solo concerts, surrounded by appreciative audiences. The singers' voices resounded over the hubbub. It was an open your heart and sing kind of day.
I was on my way to the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Royal Exchange Square. The occasion, a tentatively entitled literary event ('A Nudge to Joan Ure'), was a celebration of the life and work of the Scottish poet/playwright, born Elizabeth Carswell in 1918. It was organised by Professor Alan Riach of Glasgow University and Alistair Peebles who runs Brae Editions, a small poetry publisher in Orkney. In December last year he brought out a collection of Ure's previously unpublished poems, 'The Tiny Talent'. Three actors, Alison Peebles, Barbara Rafferty and Deirdre Murray, had also been invited to read from Ure's work. The event was held in the colourful studio on the top floor of the gallery, overlooking the city's spires and rooftops. Alasdair Gray was in the audience as well as other people who had known or worked with Ure.
I knew of Joan Ure. I have a copy of a limited edition of five short plays of hers, no. 119 of 350, published by the Scottish Society of Playwrights in 1979, a year after her death. I hadn't looked at it for some time and when I returned to it found a bookmark after just one of the plays. I hadn't really 'got' her. So I was seeking enlightenment.
The event started with readings of her poems, Professor Riach setting them in context and providing a commentary. For me they came across more as feminist cris de coeur than what I would call fully achieved poems, though the best of them expressed a poignancy that was moving. I later discovered she said that she didn't write poems, that her 'poems' were 'pieces for acting'. This made much more sense. They are raw, angry cries from women feeling unheard, sidelined, dismissed, ignored, having to hide their creative talents at a time when keeping a tidy house was considered more important. A huge outpouring of distress and frustration.
Ure suffered much before beginning to make a name for herself in the final years of her life. Obliged to leave school in her mid-teens, when her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she would herself catch the disease and eventually die of it. Her teachers wanted her to stay on and go to university, but her father said no. Alasdair Gray has another terrible story of her, aged seven, showing her mother a story she had written which she was proud of, and her mother burning it when she wanted to punish her for some misdemeanour. Joan had wept. It was hard in mid-20th-century Scotland for a woman to become a playwright.
It was hard enough for a man. Scots were not perceived as bankable. You had to have a steely determination to make your way, and women had even more prejudices to overcome. Ure's plays are short and lack plots. They're about issues, couched in dramatic encounters or monologues, debates 'within a single consciousness'. What Professor Riach calls 'endorsing the ideal while exercising the human'. They remind me somewhat of medieval flytings, like the argumentative poems of Henryson and Dunbar.
'Something in it for Cordelia' has Lear and his daughter at Waverley Station after a performance of Shakespeare's tragedy at the Edinburgh Festival, waiting for a train to take him to a new idyllic life in the Highlands. She'll travel by bike to save on fares. As he whinges in his wheelchair she makes a spirited attempt to manage his ingrained patriarchal attitudes. In contrast, a monologue, called 'The Hard Case', has a man so distressed by the fatalities that followed a crush of fans at the end of a Celtic-Rangers match at Ibrox in 1971, that he smashes a shop window in the centre of Glasgow and is put on trial for it. A single actor plays the man, the policeman who arrests him and the judge who decides his sentence.
But if producers were reluctant, Ure had her admirers: Christopher Small, a former editor of the Glasgow Herald, and Stewart Conn, who produced several of her plays for radio.
Scotland has changed much since and new generations of women playwrights, like Sue Glover and Rona Munro, have become visible and successful. Sometimes writers fall out of favour for a reason. Male writers do too. I applaud this attempt to revive interest in Ure, but I'm not convinced it will capture more than academic interest. That does not mean she should be forgotten. A thoroughly researched literary biography is overdue.
There is wit, empathy and imagination in her writing. She had a sharp ironic intelligence. She was tuned into the 1970s decade of feminism and made her mark, but that context has dated. Her plays are wordy and need explanation. As a woman, however, she is fondly remembered. Deirdre Murray and Barbara Rafferty recall her kindness and elegance. She was complex, enigmatic.
The academic, Jan McDonald, summed this up: 'To friends, colleagues and performers in her plays, she was beautiful if painfully thin, of a charmingly benign appearance, exquisitely if eccentrically dressed, wholly self-absorbed and unfailingly manipulative'. To achieve what she did, given the hurdles she had to overcome, was no mean feat.