Robert Garioch remembered

April 28, 2011

Robin Fulton Macpherson remembers Robert Garioch in the 30th anniversary of his death.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s I met Garioch quite often and it was very clear to me that behind his courteous, quiet-voiced and sometimes hesitant manner there was a sharp mind very well stocked with knowledge of all sorts. He knew his Latin and his history, but he was also street-wise and knew the value of humble things like pieces of string. He was well-versed in tolerating awkward circumstances, like the irksomeness of trying to combine school-teaching with writing and the more serious tribulations of getting through his years as a P.O.W. He seemed to have learned not to kick against the pricks.

His humility on occasion attracted the attention of bullies. “Literary” life in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s had its less enlightened side: there were not a few loud voices and deaf ears and too often argument aimed at putting down others took the place of open-minded discussion. Some of the minnows in the pond imagined they were piranhas. It was no surprise that MacDiarmid chose to be supercilious: “he has no elevation and is… not only dull but vulgar in the worst sense.” I suppose the Great Man was aware how Garioch had little patience with his windy self-promotion (and with what he saw as MacDiarmid’s political naivety).) Nearer home, I heard unkind and unjust comments from people who ought to have known better. On the other hand, those who actually knew him and read his work without preconceptions held him in great esteem and affection.

My own part in editing Garioch came about through my work with Callum Macdonald. I edited 37 issues of Lines Review  and Callum and I printed as much as we could by Garioch; we also brought out his collection Doktor Faust in Rose Street (1973). When Garioch died Callum asked me to write something for Lines Review  but I felt a bit tongue-tied about that and suggested we could do a decent collected edition, which we did, and that was Complete Poetical Works (1983). We followed that with A Garioch Miscellany  (1986 ), which included, among other things, samples of his letters, of his book-reviews, and of his way of working on the Belli translations with Antonia Stott. When Callum retired The Saltire Society took over his stock but in due course it became clear that they were about to let Garioch simply go out of print. That’s where Birlinn came in, and the current edition appeared in 2004 with the Polygon imprint, now called Collected Poems, with Garioch’s ordering of the poems restored and a new introduction.

It was heartening to come across Seán Haldane’s piece on Garioch in The Dark Horse (21), an example of how Garioch´s work deserves to be approached. He sees Garioch as in the “first three” along with Maclean and MacDiarmid, and concludes that “Taking Garioch seriously means reading his poems not only with a mind open to his wit and intellect but with a heart open to the intensity of his feeling.” I still feel angry when I see how old misleading labels, once stuck, seem to resist being unstuck. Sometime, somewhere, someone who had done no homework decided that Garioch could adequately be described along the lines of “a Scottish poet who wrote comic verse” (e.g. about a hen). Once started, the belittlement continued as others thoughtlessly stuck on the same label, passing off someone else’s ignorance as their own wisdom. It surely can’t be difficult to see that Garioch was the supreme verse-caftsman of his generation, and that the whole weight of his life is behind all of his work  –  his knowledge of Edinburgh, his understanding of Scottish history and literature, and his experience of twentieth century Europe.

–  Robin Fulton Macpherson

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