is right that a reassessment of Hugh MacDiarmid is not only timely but underway. As Andrew notes, I was fortunate enough to live for two years in Brownsbank Cottage, the poet's former home, in the early 1990s, but I had been deeply affected and influenced by his writing from the moment I started reading him after his death in 1978.
By all accounts, his public persona as 'Hugh MacDiarmid' (combative, fierce) was quite different to that of the private Chris Grieve (friendly, gentle). It is often not a good idea to meet your heroes, and I am quite glad I did not know him, but his and his wife Valda's presence in that wee hoose was tangible. Work to restore and preserve Brownsbank for the future should be beginning imminently.
Enough time has now gone by for us to see MacDiarmid's literary brilliance standing clear from some of his posturing (although he is often magnificently entertaining when he vents his spleen in essays, articles, letters and speeches, and it is not that simple to separate the ferocity of his attacks from their acute perception).
We can also see some of the fruits of the cultural revolution he initiated in the first half of the 20th century bearing fruit. For example, Andrew notes his flyting with Hamish Henderson regarding high art versus folk art. There is some evidence that, away from the letters pages of The Scotsman
, they did not disagree as much as they claimed to, and it is clear now that there is a natural and rich seam of interaction between the folk and classical traditions in Scotland's music and indeed its literature.
His early books (Sangschaw
, Penny Wheep
and A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
) will soon be 100 years old – a suitable moment to take a fresh look at them. And a new biography has been commissioned by the family, more than 30 years after Alan Bold's excellent but now somewhat dated MacDiarmid
I was a bookseller in Edinburgh when that volume was launched. Norman MacCaig once wrote a poem entitled After His Death
, published several years before his friend actually died, in which he wrote:
The government decree that
on the anniversary of his birth
the people should observe
two minutes pandemonium.
I can testify that that riotous launch was a good three hours of unrelenting pandemonium. Valda, who by then had less than a year left to live, was there, and so too, unquestionably, was the spirit of MacDiarmid.
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to email@example.com