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Norman MacCaig was a man of many words

Alan Taylor salutes the Scottish poet on the centenary of his birth.

With some people you can remember exactly when and where you first met them. For me, one such person was Norman MacCaig. It was 1982 and it was a winter’s night similar to that on which Macbeth encountered the three witches.

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The occasion was the inaugural meeting in Edinburgh of the Scottish Poetry Library at which MacCaig, its first honorary president, was the guest lecturer. Afterwards there was a reception. “Who’re you?” asked MacCaig when I entered his orbit. “Who’re you?” I replied. He sniggered. He was, among many other things, a champion sniggerer. Later, accompanied by a few others, we adjourned to the North British Hotel, now known as the Balmoral. MacCaig held a bottle of malt whisky which he’d been given for his troubles. The NB, he said, would be as good a place as any to drink it. While he settled himself down I was told to go to the bar and fetch some glasses, which I did.

But just as MacCaig began to pour the hotel manager appeared. The thunderous look on his face suggested this was a man suffering from profound discontentment with his lot. Had we purchased the whisky in the hotel or had we imported it? MacCaig told him cheerily that we had imported it, his tone suggesting we were doing the hotel a huge favour by choosing it among other candidates. And the glasses, asked the manager, were they the hotel’s? Indeed, they were, said MacCaig, draining his.

He was beginning to enjoy the exchange. “Are any of you guests in the hotel?” asked the manager. MacCaig looked at him as if he were mad. “Why would we be guests in a hotel in Edinburgh,” he said, “when we all live here?” Shortly thereafter we found ourselves on the street, MacCaig, etched by Alasdair Gray in Lanark as “looking like a tall sarcastic lizard”, muttering darkly over the inhospitality of hoteliers. With no pubs open at that hour – it was the dark ages when they closed at 10pm – we jumped in a cab and went to his flat in Leamington Terrace, where over the years until his death in 1996, at the age of 85, I visited him often.

This year marks the centenary of MacCaig’s birth. The exact date is November 14, around which time many toasts will be raised in his honour. In Assynt, MacCaig’s second home, a festival is being held. In Edinburgh, his first home, poets will read and Polygon is bringing out The Many Days, his selected poems, which has been edited by Rory Watson, his friend and erstwhile colleague at the University of Stirling. BBC Scotland, meanwhile, will broadcast a documentary featuring several MacCaig devotees, including Billy Connolly, Aly Bain and Andrew Greig, whose most recent book, At the Loch of the Green Corrie, is an homage to his former mentor.

In 1982 MacCaig had reached that point in his career at which the flow of poems, if not quite drying up, had turned from a gush to a steady trickle. Having said that, his collected poems contains more than 150 works which he wrote during his last 15 years. Many of these are as good as those that appeared in earlier volumes, their titles offering a short cut into MacCaig’s parallel worlds: Highland Barbecue, On the Pier at Kinlochbervie, On a Croft by Kirkaig, Assynt and Edinburgh, In an Edinburgh Pub, Five Minutes at the Window (“The pear tree across the road shivers/in a maidenly breeze. I know/Blackford Pond will be/a candelabra of light”). Clarity is perhaps the best word to describe his raison d’etre. He was on what he said was “the long haul to lucidity”. Of course his poems need to be read carefully but their meaning is never obscure or difficult to grasp.

Like Simenon, he used everyday words which are understood without recourse to a dictionary. Similarly, the situations are familiar and the opposite of arcane or esoteric. There is nothing showy or artificial about a MacCaig poem. Rather he is concerned to present himself as a man like any other engaged in the business of living. What is remarkable, though, is that while his day job was that of a teacher – eventually he was appointed headmaster of Inch Primary School in Edinburgh – this is rarely, if ever, reflected in his work. Thus there are few poems about the pupils he taught or his fellow teachers. One wonders why.

In contrast, he was endlessly fascinated by life in the north-east from where his Gaelic forebears had hailed. He always thought of himself as “a three-quarter Gael”, because three out of his four grandparents were from the Western Isles. Every summer MacCaig, his wife Isabel and son and daughter would decamp to Lochinver where he would walk and fish, immerse himself in the community, watch and wonder, as he wrote in An Ordinary Day: “I took my mind a walk/or my mind took me a walk –/whichever was the truth of it.”

The surface simplicity of MacCaig’s poetry is deceptive. What concerns him, it seems, is how a man relates to the world around him and how he makes sense of what he sees and who he is and what is his place in the universe. The poems are personal, as all poetry intrinsically is, but they are not confessional or sentimental or narcissistic. They are his response to whatever impresses itself upon him. Later, however, as various friends died, he could not resist the urge to memorialise them or to articulate his hatred of death. Of Hugh MacDiarmid, who died in 1978, he said he was “a torchlight procession of one”. He devoted a suite of poems to AK MacLeod, his best friend in Assynt, including Dead Friend: “How do I meet/a man who’s no longer there?/How can I lament the loss/of a man who won’t go away?” Finally, there was in 1990 the death of Isabel, which he marked with three poems which were published posthumously: “When she was alive/I had no need of hope,/When she was dying/hope never visited us.”

Not everyone, of course, was a MacCaig fan. Among those who were antipathetic was Philip Larkin who had to have his arm twisted to include him in the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse. Nor was it because of hair-splitting over the word English. In a recently published collection of Larkin letters he refers derisively to MacCaig’s poem Dying Landscape which is ostensibly about Stac Poly. “He’s all at sea, isn’t he?” Larkin commented. It’s a glib reaction, like that of someone who seasons food without tasting it. Larkin, one feels, just doesn’t hear MacCaig’s voice, with its lengthened vowels and geological timeframe. He’s on another wavelength entirely. For MacCaig, time was both a consolation and a curse. When he wanted it to pass quickly – when giving a reading, say, or a lecture, or collared by a bore – it moved like a steamroller; then, when he’d rather it stood still, it insisted on revving up. How its nature seemed to differ while remaining the same was an inexhaustible source of amusement and bemusement.

I was abroad when MacCaig died. I can still remember exactly where and when and the empty feeling that I had. Not only had Scotland lost a great poet, it had lost one of its tartest wits. One of the first pieces of journalism I wrote was a profile of him which was timed to appear when I knew he’d be on holiday and unlikely to be reading a newspaper. Several months after it appeared I summoned up the courage to ask him what he thought of it. He took a drag of a fag followed by a sip of whisky, which was his definition of perfect balance. “Alright, I suppose,” he said at last, “as far as it goes.”

The Many Days: Selected Poems of Norman MacCaig, edited by Rory Watson, is published by Polygon

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