Imagining North

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CHRIS POWICI

Poet, editor and Stirling Creative Writing tutor Chris Powici on the ‘sometimes confusing, sometimes beautiful, and always tangible and relevant sense of the North’ that permeates Northwords Now.

A couple of years back I had a bit of fun on the census form when I described myself as a ‘semi-Rumanian Anglo Scot’. It was of course an answer so tongue-in-cheek as to verge on daftness. It was also as accurate as these things can be. I was born in the wilds of Surrey to an English mother and a Rumanian father, moved to Scotland in 1994 and now find myself editing a literary magazine that focuses on writing from the Highlands and Islands. Somehow this all seems quite normal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from editing Northwords Now is that who or what is counts as Scottish, and sometimes even where Scotland is, are wonderfully moot points.

Take Graham Fulton’s poem from Issue 25 of Northwords Now, ‘Set the Controls For the Heart of The Club Bar in Paisley’. Like a lot of Graham’s poems it combines craft and insight in generous measures and explores its subject in easy-to-swallow doses of laugh-out-loud comedy – in this case a poem about why Scotland, specifically Paisley, suddenly doesn’t feel like Scotland. Not only have Scotland just beaten Croatia 1-0, and not only has the barman offered a choice of lemon or lime in the speaker’s G&T, but the pub is blasting out Pink Floyd songs until

…we’re huddling in here like apes feeling
uncomfortably dumb
and wondering if
we imagined it all or someone put something
psychedelic in our drinks
as Roger philosophically winds things up
with
all that is gone             all that’s to come ….
which is probably
a 0-0 draw with San Marino.

Throwing the lyric from ‘Eclipse’ (from Floyd’s Dark side of the Moon album) into the mix is painfully apt – so much history, all those dreams of a glittering future, only to end up in squalid disappointment. To claim there is something particularly Scottish about imagining a cosmic space-ride only to arrive in the same old place is to overstate the Celtic taste for a pint of pessimism and a self-deprecation chaser (though this doesn’t seem to stop Frankie Boyle form earning his crust). All the same, I like Graham’s poem not just for its deflationary rhetoric, but because it’s an entertaining reminder that trying to work out a sense of Scottishness, or maybe any national identity, is like trying to find a true reflection in a hall of mirrors. In this case the reflective surfaces are pubs, progressive rock, madness and, of course, football.

Mind you Paisley is a long way – well maybe twenty miles – from the Highland & Islands whose readers and writers Northwords Now is pledged to serve. And I use the word ‘pledge’ in all seriousness. Our latest funding application to Creative Scotland includes this passage: Northwords Now Magazine’s blend of fiction, poetry, essays, articles and reviews make it a vibrant arena for the many distinctive and passionate voices of the Highlands and Islands. I stand by these words. The trouble is that what these words mean – who or what counts as the Highlands, what counts as North – are open questions. Who gets priority: writers born and living in the North? Writers who’ve moved to or from the North?  Doesn’t a local crofter’s experience of the landscape of Skye count for more than a tourist’s glimpse? The answer to these competing questions is, of course, an unequivocal Yes (and sometimes No and sometimes Maybe). The point I’m trying to make here is that while I may have a loose notion of the geographical North in mind, I don’t start with a set presumption of what this means, and who’s entitled to voice that meaning. The North is what emerges from the imagination and memories of writers and artists and, yes indeed, the so-called ‘ordinary’ reader. Of course history and a sense of ‘embedded’ experience counts for a lot, but still a sense of the North shape-shifts and goes fuzzy at the edges and hovers and coalesces and dissolves and gets misty and, like dust that will not settle,  refuses to stay in one place. But it is real and it is potent all the same.

Determining where the Highlands, let alone the North, begin is a fraught question. I stay in Dunblane, a mere six miles from Stirling, but ask a born and bred local if they live in the Central Belt and you’re likely to meet with a pretty terse reply. This is Perthshire, even if those in charge of local government reorganisation make the heinous error of calling it Stirlingshire. For me, the start of the Highlands is a very tangible section of country road about twenty minutes away by bike. If I pedal my way across the flat farmlands of the Carse of Lecropt, just north of Bridge of Allan, I come to the lung-busting, knee-buckling Hill of Row (aptly pronounced Hill of Rue). Splutter and gasp your way to the top of that unforgiving incline and you’re pretty sure the ground beneath your wheels has changed dramatically.

Perhaps no Scottish writer better exemplifies the fruitful tension between the urban centre and ‘wild’ periphery than Norman MacCaig. In one of my first issues as editor of Northwords Now, I featured a Gaelic translation by Pàdraig MacAoidh of a section from MacCaig’s superb mediation on place and identify ‘A Man in Assynt’. The decision was, I suppose, more instinctual than worked out;  it seemed somehow  ’natural’ to have an Assynt man speaking in an Assynt – i.e. Gaelic – voice, so supported by the magazine’s Gaelic editor Roddy Gorman, we persuaded Pàdraig this would be fine thing to do. Here’s a section from MacCaig’s poem and the corresponding passage, for those who have some Gaelic, from Pàdraig’s translation:

Ten yards from the sea’s surge
they sing to Him beautiful praises
that surge like the sea,
in a bare stone box built
for the worship of the Creator
of all colours and between-colours, and of
all shapes, and of the holiness
of identity and of the purifying light-stream
of reason. The sound of that praise
escapes from the stone box
and takes its place in the ordinary communion
of all sounds, that are
Being expressing itself – as it does in its continuous,
its never-ending creation of leaves,
birds, waves, stone boxes – and beliefs,
the true and the false.

Deich slatan bho ataireachd na mara
seinnidh iad Ris luaidhean eireachdail
a bhios ag at mar a’ mhuir,
ann am bogsa bàn air a thogail de chloich
gus adhradh a thoirt do dh’Ùghdar
gach datha ’s eadar-dhatha ’s
crutha, agus naomhachd dearbh-aithne
agus sruth-sholais iom-ghlanadh cèille.
Tha fuaim na luaidh’ ud
a’ teicheadh on bhogsa-chloiche
gus àite ghabail ann an Òrdugh cumanta
gach fuaim. ’S e th’ annta
Bith ga foillseachadh fhèin – mar a bhios ann an cruthachadh
leantainneach, gun chrìoch, de dhuilleagan,
de dh’ eòin, tuinn, bhogsaichean-chloiche – agus de chreideamhan,
den fhìrinn, den bhreug.

It is perhaps all too tempting, and too easy, to describe MacCaig and his poetry as the coming together of the Romantic Celt and the Edinburgh Enlightenment mind, but there’s more than a speck of truth in such a description. When the land speaks it’s not just in the language of geology (the Edinburgh accent of James Hutton maybe?), nor even the heady biblical tones of west coast religion. Instead it’s a place where the human and the nonhuman, memory, history, nature, intermingle and make themselves visible to MacCaig’s ‘visiting eye’. That this makes MacCaig into ‘something between them’ is important. As an ‘in between’ presence maybe MacCaig cannot fully partake of the ‘holiness of identity’,  but standing a little apart from the God-given word isn’t a bad spot for a poet to occupy.

To be between is not to be stranded but to be in touch with different faces of place and history, of self and other – ‘the ordinary communion/of all sounds, that are/Being expressing itself’ as MacCaig puts it. What I love about the poem is how it affirms and celebrates the land as a ‘peopled’ place. This doesn’t mean that he’s numb to what tourist boards and BBC wildlife programme makers like to describe as its ‘wild beauty’ – far from it. The birds and seals, even the very rocks and grass, are part of the warp and weft of community, of a precarious sense of belonging. MacCaig’s is a poetry alert to every nuance of language and thought, every curlew cry and raincloud, that gets us thinking about a sense of the North and what it means.

A heartfelt and mindful exploration of the local, of a feeling of belonging and habitation, and, come to that, exile and loss, still fuels much writing about the Highlands & Islands. Indeed, Northwords Now couldn’t live up to its name if it didn’t seek out and publish new writing and new writers. In Issue 25 we published a selection of poems, in Shetlandic and English from the young Shetland poet Roseanne Watt. Here’s one of her Shetlandic poems:

Saat i da Blöd

Lass, du’s parched dy tongue
o dy ain land, knappit
dy wirds sae dry dey sift
atween dy teeth lik sand
sprittin doon an ooer-glass.
I gied dee a langwich, wan
dat cud captir da percussion
o waves apo its consonants,
unravel da condeeshuns
o da sowl wi a single wird;
shoormal, mareel, bonhoga;
a gift dat du’s left oot
tae mulder i da gales.

Lit me start ower:
Lass, du dösna hae da wirds
tae haad me on da page
an du’ll nivir fin me dere
until du understands:
da saat dat courses trowe
dy veins is da lifeblöd
o an aulder converseeshun
wan dat ebbs and flöds
joost as da tide. Dese wirds
ir my hansel tae dee.
Tak dem; gie dem
                                  a pulse.

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Roseanne Watt

This is a marvellously tender and moving poem about language and identity which treats these themes not as abstract political concepts but as personal and familial touchstones, as felt realities. There’s no awkwardness or artifice of feeling in how the poet finds herself joined to ‘da lifeblöd o an aulder converseeshun/wan dat ebbs and flöds/joost as da tide’. I find myself drawn and moved by how Roseanne views identity not as a fixed point to which the poet must tie their colours. Instead she’s concerned with an unfolding, a discovery of self and world. Language and being take shape only as they move and flow – like blood or the sea. After all, what poet worth their salt (or ‘saat’) would wrap their tongue in chains? Thanks to the clarity of Roseanne’s voice, and the closeness of Shetlandic and English, this is a poem that lends itself wonderfully to what one might call ‘reader translation’. Read it aloud and have a go, though I confess there’s no substitute for hearing the poet herself. (Which you can do, thanks to the miracle of the internet, by clicking here.)

In the end we need writers (and artists and thinkers and readers) if we’re going to imagine the land in a meaningful way – a way that is open to swirls and eddies of modern life rather than fixated on received wisdom and myth. We need to understand history, not live in thrall to it and for that I’m grateful to all the writers whose varying visions have, over the years, helped to create that sometimes confusing, sometimes beautiful, and always tangible and relevant sense of the North that permeates the pages of Northwords Now. With that thought in mind, let’s leave the last word (for now) to Norman MacCaig:

My only country
is six feet high
and whether I love it or not
I’ll die
for its independence.

Chris Powici is a poet, teacher of creative writing at the University of Stirling and The Open University, and editor of Northwords Now magazine.