At the funeral MacCaig, one of MacDiarmid's closest friends during the last decades of his life, delivered a eulogy. "He would walk into my mind as if it were a town and he a torchlight procession of one, lighting up the streets of my mind and some of the nasty little things that were burrowing into the corners."
Afterwards, as Alan Bold, MacDiarmid's biographer, recalled, there was a wake at which Valda, MacDiarmid's second wife, noted how fitting it was that her husband should be buried in the town that took such an ambivalent view of its most famous son. "Those who rejected him," said the flame-haired Cornish woman, "will now have to live with him." Thereafter, as Bold reported, much drink was taken which was followed as night does day with blistering arguments. By all accounts it was a tempestuously Scottish, MacDiarmidian occasion.
In his rumbustious and pugnacious autobiography, Lucky Poet, published in 1943, MacDiarmid had insisted that the legend on his headstone should read: "A disgrace to the community." But he never got his wish. Instead, his family chose a quote from his most famous poem, A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle:
I'll ha'e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet – it's the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o' bein' richt
That damns the vast majority o' men.
One of the few indisputable things about MacDiarmid is that he lived up to that boast to "aye be whaur/extremes meet". For Bold, his intemperate enthusiast, MacDiarmid was one of the titans – if not the titan – of modern world literature, achieving "artistic equality" with poets he rated. "He could be as provocatively paradoxical as Blake," wrote Bold, "as delicately discursive as Wordsworth, as verbally exhilarating as Hopkins, as fanciful as Doughty, as speculative as Rilke, as assertive as Pound. He takes his place as easily with the old masters as with the moderns. Indeed he is one of the immortals of 20th-century poetry, the peer of Pound, Eliot and Neruda."
What was interesting when reading these views at the time – Bold's biography was published in 1988 – is that they seemed in no way outrageous. Nor were they regarded as chauvinistic special pleading. Moreover, in local terms MacDiarmid was a colossus, a man of phenomenal industry, special gifts and explosive passions, credited not only with writing some of the sweetest lyrics and most biting satires in the language but of dragging Scottish literature out of the kailyard and into the 20th century.
Of course, as he was the first to concede, he emitted a lot of rubbish, but is that not often the case? When mining for gold tens of thousands of tons of rock must be reduced to rubble to produce enough of the precious ore to make a wedding ring. It was a similar case with MacDiarmid, who wrote reams and reams of poetry, much of which was not worthy of him. But amid the dross is enough to confirm that he was a poet of the first rank, and in Scottish terms the greatest since Burns.
Given that, you might think we would be fed up hearing about him, that his name would be mentioned, like Yeats's or Joyce's in Ireland, in a reverential whisper. That it is not is one of those mysteries which suggests that his reputation is in need of resuscitation, as a dying fire needs a blast of air from a bellows. In the years that have elapsed since his death, MacDiarmid's reputation and profile are not what they once were and, some would argue, have fallen precipitously.
While this is hard to gauge one suspects it is not without credibility. You hear little mention of him, for example, when talking to younger writers. When asked about him Kathleen Jamie replied: "Drunk? Men? Thistle? What?... No. No, not for me." Meanwhile Liz Lochhead once said, "These great people like MacDiarmid are a bit scary." Others may even subscribe to Irvine Welsh's view that MacDiarmid was "a symbol of all that's perfectly hideous about Scotland" while, in contrast, the beat novelist, Alexander Trocchi, was "a Scottish George Best of literature".
This was not, it should be underlined, an opinion of MacDiarmid that Trocchi held, one of the correspondents featured in Dear Grieve: Letters To Hugh MacDiarmid.
The first thing to say about this 600-page collection is how odd it feels to read more than 500 chronologically arranged letters to someone without having their replies to hand. Throughout this fascinating and at times infuriating book you feel the ghost of MacDiarmid – who was born Christopher Grieve – hovering, wanting to intervene, desperate to have his say.
Manson, who in many respects is a diligent and punctilious editor, does not give any indication of how MacDiarmid responded to correspondents except on occasion to note that he did not bother to reply at all.
Readers who are interested in reading his replies will therefore need to consult The Letters Of Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by Alan Bold, published in 1984, and New Selected Letters, edited by Dorian Grieve, Owen Dudley Edwards and Alan Riach, published in 2001.
Having said all of which, the letters collected in Dear Grieve offer a fascinating portrait of the incorrigible contrarian, for whom tilting at windmills and windbags was in his DNA.
MacDiarmid, unlike many of our lickspittle contemporaries, did not have a diplomatic bone in his body. He was unpredictable, dangerous, mischievous, sincere, angry, impatient, frustrated. Banished both by the Nationalists and Communists, he was congenitally unable to tow a party line. His honesty meant that he was unable to praise a book if he felt it did not deserve it, even if it meant losing a friend, which he did often, most famously Edwin Muir. For him, Scotland was by and large a country inhabited by philistines with their heads stuck in a cabbage patch.
It was his self-appointed mission in life to change this. "The poetry I want," he wrote in Lucky Poet which was, in effect, his personal manifesto, "turns its back contemptuously on all the cowardly and brainless staples of Anglo-Scottish literature – the whole base business of people who do not act but are merely acted upon – people whose 'unexamined lives' are indeed 'not worth having', though they include every irresponsible who occupies a 'responsible position' in Scotland today, practically all our Professors, all our M.P.s, and certainly all our 'Divines', all our peers and great landlords and big business men, the teaching profession almost without exception, almost all our writers – 'half glow-worms and half newts'."
MacDiarmid's willingness to cause offence and his patent disregard for the consequences it may have for his own career is a constant theme throughout Dear Grieve. Here was a man at war with his own country which, it's easy to forget, was as recently as the 1920s about as culturally advanced as Tasmania. Writing in 1925 with regard to the inception of Scottish Pen, HJC Grierson, professor of English at the University of Edinburgh, tells MacDiarmid that except for him and Neil Munro of Para Handy fame, he does not know of any other writers living in Scotland. "The Scottish authors of the creative kind – novelists, poets – tend to drift to London."
Another theme of the book is MacDiarmid's personal life. First married to Peggy Skinner, who left him, after having two children, for a coal factor, he took up with Valda Trevlyn whom he met in 1931 and married three years later. The couple had a son, Michael, and moved frequently. There are a number of letters here from both women, including one from Peggy on the subject of Valda, in which she tells her former husband, to whom she was still sending money, "you'd be better off with a housekeeper except for one thing".
Among the Scottish writers who corresponded with MacDiarmid were Neil Gunn, Sorley Maclean, Norman MacCaig, George Campbell Hay, Hamish Henderson, Stuart Hood, William Soutar, Edwin Morgan and many others. Lewis Grassic Gibbon was another. The pen-name of James Leslie Mitchell, Grassic Gibbon, had he lived, might have done for the novel in Scots what MacDiarmid did for poetry. As it was, Grassic Gibbon died in 1935 when he was just 34. Manson includes a letter written by him on January 30, 1935, which he signed off saying, "Now I must do some work." Eight days later he was dead. A few months thereafter his wife wrote to MacDiarmid in which she described her money worries and the dire forecast of her husband's publisher that his work would not last. "I don't see why that should be," Rhea Mitchell wrote, "for Galsworthy [who died in 1933] still sells & I'm sure the Scots Quair is as important – to Scotland at least – as The Forsythe [sic] Saga. Maybe I'm wrong." She was not.
At the heart of Dear Grieve is MacDiarmid's feud – war might be a better word – with Edwin Muir over the vexed question of the Scots language. Formerly friends and to an extent fellow travellers in their attitude to politics and literature, they fell out spectacularly over the publication of Muir's Scott And Scotland. For his part, MacDiarmid felt betrayed and belittled, believing, according to Alan Bold, that "Muir was the Judas who had betrayed the poetic saviour of Scotland". Asserting that "Scotsmen feel in one language and think in another", Muir argued that Scots could not be a literary language and dismissed as anachronistic attempts by those such as MacDiarmid to revive it.
Where Muir's thesis disintegrated, however, was in the fact that MacDiarmid's own poetry in Scots demonstrated that it was possible to produce work of an extraordinarily high standard in a language that his adversary felt was fit only for expressing cheesy sentiment. At the height of their dispute, MacDiarmid was at his most verbally vicious. While some of his friends, such as composer Francis George Scott, the dedicatee of A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle, tried to mediate, others, such as the philosopher George Elder Davie, went further even than MacDiarmid in his denunciation of Muir. "For my part," wrote Davie, the author of The Democratic Intellect, "I regard Edwin as deserving only assassination."
Such schisms were common in the Scottish literary world in the last century. On one level, the degree of personal animosity engendered appears childish. But on another, it is clear that these were febrile times and that what was at stake mattered. Scotland, without a parliament, was – in Muir's opinion – "neither a nation nor a province, but had, instead of a centre, a blank, an Edinburgh, in the middle of it". Muir felt that the only route for a Scottish writer to take was the high road leading to England where writing in English was the only option. For MacDiarmid, however, that was far too craven a position to accept. Without its own language, Scotland was indeed condemned to be an annexe of imperialism, a non-nation, a place inhabited by "hollow men with headpieces stuffed with straw". Saying so did not make him popular – as if he cared – but it had to be said.