Lorraine Wilson

THE sympathetic pairing of author and subject is essential to the success of any biography. Those who have met James Robertson and who encountered the late Michael Marra might immediately consider the differences between the men. Closer examination, however, reveals greater similarities. The ability to tackle universal subject matters at the most human and local level; distilling those expansive elements down to gracefully executed and concise ideas; and a deep fascination with Scotland’s beauty and flaws.

Robertson’s canon is populated with fictional characters rooted in reality, from Andrew Carlin in The Fanatic, through Gideon Mack, to Mungo Forth Mungo, the talking toad in last year’s To Be Continued…

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With Michael Marra: Arrest This Moment, his protagonist was certainly rooted in reality, but widely loved for splendid flights into fiction. And when a subject is, in equal measure, Scottish national treasure and much-missed friend, the pressure is that much greater.

“Michael was constantly on my shoulder through the entire process,” says James Robertson. “One thing was clear from the beginning, however. This could not be a straight biography.”

Robertson recalls that the suggestion of a book about Michael was raised not long after his death by Bryan Beattie of Blue Sky Publishing. It remained at idea level until the subject was later raised with Michael’s wife Peggy. Initially there was reluctance from the family, particularly to the idea of what Robertson refers to as calls a “straight A to Z biography”.

“Being totally honest, we all thought Michael would have resisted the idea of any book being written about him. So, when he was sitting on my shoulder, he was asking me: ‘What do you have to do this for – and if you do have to do it, get it right.’ It kept me on my toes.”

The resulting book, Michael Marra: Arrest This Moment, is far from the dreaded conventional biography. It manages to combine all the demands of a life story with direct input from the man himself in the shape of illustrations, his own prose, and a treasure chest of photography and memorabilia.

Robertson first met Marra when he and his wife moved to the Angus village of Newtyle in 2003. His wife had known the Marras since the early 1970s, but the three had been out of touch for a while.

“I obviously knew his music but the only previous connection I had was in 1996, when I co-compiled a dictionary of Scottish quotations, and we thought we should have some Michael Marra quotes in there. When I contacted him, the correspondence was, as always, carried out by Peggy.

“Being honest, we had almost forgotten that was where they lived. It was delightful to get to know them and a privilege to become a friend of Michael’s over the last nine years of his life.”

A meeting of minds led to many hours talking around the Robertson kitchen table – but more of that later. The great attraction of Michael as a man was “his lack of artifice”. Robertson admits that when he first came across Marra’s work in the 1980s, it didn’t click with him immediately. “It was only in the 1990s that I began to listen to him seriously. What became apparent was there was nobody else doing this – not that I knew of anyway. Nobody fitting music and lyrics together in quite the way he was doing it."

Having heard the man speaking on radio and TV as well as the live album Pax Vobiscum, there were no great surprises when they met. “There was an absolute lack of pretence – what you saw was what you got. The quality about him that I really liked on a private level was that he was always observing – and then he would say what he thought. That was always interesting as well.”

With the agreement to proceed with the book and Michael taking up residence on his shoulder it was time to find a way into this non-biography biography.

“Away from our friendship, I think there are a couple of things in my favour when it came to write the book. One is that I’m not part of the music world and the other is that I’m not Dundonian. I think these helped to maintain that little bit of appropriate distance.”

With the assistance of Michael’s immediate family along with his closest collaborators and friends, he marked the milestones of a 60-year journey from Lochee to Newtyle via a childhood as one of five, a complicated relationship with mainstream education, music, theatre, visual arts, a happy marriage, two children, and a lot of laughs.

“The artwork, the prose, the introductions to the songs are all important as well as being hugely illuminating about him. There was a lot of stuff already out there from previous interviews, but Peggy was clear that this shouldn’t simply be a recycling job. If we were going to do it, it should show him in a different way.”

Away from his artistic life the family have allowed a rare peek behind the front door with family photographs and correspondence. As Robertson says, even though Marra was constantly creative, the reason he could lose himself in that artistic life was the foundation created by family.

“He combined an artistic life, in a completely non-pretentious way, with being completely rooted in his family and his place.

“There’s a lovely letter he wrote to his brother Nicky when he was working in South Uist, where he says that the people are lovely and they’re treating him really well but if, ‘I didn’t think I’d see Peg and the bairns next week I would go insane’. Just beautiful.”

Talking to collaborators such as Liz Lochhead, it became clear that many people felt the same way as Robertson. When they came to make decisions, they would stop and say – what would Michael think?

That gave Robertson an entrance into the sections of the book named Kitchen Conversations. These carry on from the chats that the men had chez Robertson.

“I find I continue to have the same conversations that we did when he was alive. Here I could formally do that on paper. I was nervous that the family wouldn’t like it, but they said go for it which was entrusting me with Michael’s story. I have used things that he said to me and that he said elsewhere, but reimagined it. I went with the flow, thinking if this was a conversation we had, where would it go?"

It will be five years on October 23 since the man left us, and with so many legacy projects ongoing, Robertson believes the book might be the chance to “get him into a little bit of perspective perhaps. For a year or two after he died I found it difficult to listen to his music, but in the last year I’ve been listening to him all the time. I’m confident in saying that I don’t think genius is overstating it.”

That might be another description that man would balk at but Robertson believes that Michael wouldn’t be look at him too askance for it.

“Early in the book I refer to him as ‘considering and considerate’. He was aware that too many people judge too quickly and he was careful to consider things from every possible angle. I’m sure he would do that with the book.”

Michael Marra. Arrest This Moment, is available to order from bookshops or from www.bigsky.scot. £16.99 paperback, £24.99 hardback.

The book will launch the Dundee Literary Festival next Friday at the Bonar Hall. www.literarydundee.co.uk

Arrest This Moment, the title taken from the lyric of Constable Le Clock, provides a comprehensive review of what has happened since Michael passed in 2012, from tribute programmes on TV and radio, to concerts, to Hermless ale, named after one of his most famous songs and one that many would like to see as an alternative Scottish national anthem.

This year has seen a flurry of significant activity. In February, Michael’s entire catalogue became available on digital download for the first time, including two new releases. High Sobriety is a double live album from Dundee in 2000 and Dubiety, which should have been his second album, but disagreements with Polydor on the direction his songwriting should take led to shelving of the recordings.

On the same day Alice Marra released Chain Up The Swings, an album of her father’s songs. In July, Calum Colvin’s portrait of Michael, the cover of the book, was unveiled at the McManus in Dundee as part of his exhibition Museography. There is also a temporary exhibition of Michael’s belongings, including his ironing board keyboard stand and beret, which runs until October 29.

Earlier this month saw the launch of the Big Noise Douglas Orchestra. This followed almost five years of fundraising and campaigning by Optimistic Sound – Michael Marra Music Trust For The Young People Of Dundee. It was established by his family shortly after his death, with the aim of bringing the Sistema Project, which Michael was a huge admirer of, to his beloved Dundee.