Tom Leonard, poet known for writing in Glaswegian dialect

Born: August 22, 1944;

Died: December 21, 2018

Tom Leonard, who has died aged 74, was a Scottish poet, writer and educator whose work, life and personal presence amid Scotland’s literary canon of the late 20th century brought a sense of radical and much-needed working class truth. That he was appointed Professor of Creative Writing alongside James Kelman and Alasdair Gray in 2001 at his alma mater the University of Glasgow says much for his position in the literary life of his country; all three were raised in post-war Scottish tenements and council estates, and their writing achieved acclaim without disregarding the roots of their own vocabulary.

Leonard’s poetry was based upon the Glaswegian Scots dialect in which he was raised, and it championed the articulate complexity of this voice, while railing against the perception that a working class dialect meant the speaker was to be automatically dismissed and not taken seriously. “helluva hard tay read theez init / stull / if yi canny unnirston thim jiss clear aff then,” ran Good Style, one of his Six Glasgow Poems of 1967, which were published in the University of Glasgow’s magazine while he was still a student there.

“I don’t ever claim to represent the excluded, I’m not the Robin Hood of working class language,” said Leonard in an interview with the BBC, but he believed that what drove him “from anger – or humour – into writing” was the pretence of inclusivity where none exists, where middle-class tones are automatically regarded as being an indicator of social and cultural superiority, whether in the media or the workplace.

“If someone’s got high-status language, the truth pours through them like a tap,” is how he elaborated upon this false perception. “Whereas if they’ve got low-status language, the pipe doesn’t run there, sorry.”

Published in 1984 by Galloping Dog Press of Newcastle, Intimate Voices: Selected Works 1965-83 collected poems in Glaswegian Scots and in English, alongside two essays. The book shared the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year Award (with David Daiches’ God and the Poets: The Gifford Lectures) in the year of its release. With dull irony, it was banned from school libraries in the Central region of Scotland in the same year.

For its humour and its graceful tackling of a difficult subject to articulate, but which is integral to Leonard’s perspective, The Six O’Clock News remains his most widely-known and celebrated work. Imagining a newsreader who breaks with the norm of Received Pronunciation to address his audience in working class Glaswegian, it sets up the essential yet unspoken likelihood of that ever happening: “thi reason a talk wia BBC accent iz coz yi widny wahnt mi ti talk aboot thi trooth wia voice lik wanna yoo scruff.”

The Six O’Clock News has been added to the official reading list for GCSE English elsewhere in the United Kingdom – under the heading ‘poems from different cultures’ – alongside writers including Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. Yet Leonard railed against school reading lists for their perceived reliance on poetry written only in “high language”, and their implicit exclusion of anything which might upset the status quo.

Leonard released two further collections of poetry, 2004’s Access to the Silence (covering 1984 to 2003) and 2009’s Outside the Narrative (1965 to 2009), as well as the volumes of essays, prose and other writings Reports from the Present (1982 to 1994) and Definite Articles (1973 to 2012). Places of the Mind, published in 1993, was a biographical novel based on the life of the 19th century Scots poet James Thomson, whose The City of Dreadful night was described by Herman Melville as “a modern Book of Job”.

Working as writer in residence at Renfrew District Libraries, he used his access to the archives to construct the 1990 anthology Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to the First World War, which challenged accepted beliefs that Scotland had no great literary history to speak of. He was also writer in residence at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde and at Bell College of Technology, while he retired from his professorship at Glasgow in 2009.

Born in Glasgow in 1944, both Tom Leonard’s mother and train driver father were originally from Ireland, and he was raised a Catholic until he “gave it up” at the age of 16. While his brothers listened to rock ‘n’ roll music on Radio Luxembourg, a sense of contrariness led Leonard to Radio 3, although he recalls he “didn’t even like the music at first, (although) I grew to love it.” He went to the University of Glasgow in 1967, where he edited the university magazine and was a contemporary of Kelman, Tom McGrath and Philip Hobsbaum, although he left after two years and only completed his degree in the 1970s.

A fan of Celtic FC, Leonard’s political views were as pronounced as the cultural ones expressed in his poetry. Written in 1991, On the Mass Bombing of Iraq and Kuwait, Commonly Known as The Gulf War with Leonard's Shorter Catechism, expressed his deep opposition to the first Gulf War in Iraq, while he lent his support to the cultural boycott of Israel in support of the people of Palestine, adding his voice to those of Gray, Liz Lochhead and others in a 2014 letter to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe which successfully requested that two state-funded productions did not appear.

His views on Scottish independence were complex, although the journal on his website lends an insight; the entry for January 1st in the referendum year of 2014 read simply, “Self-determination in art. Independence of mind. Nationality an irrelevance.”

"Although obviously there is a way in which my work is political, that's because the language itself in Britain is a political issue,” he said on a visit to an American university, the words reprinted in Variant. “It's not that politics is something that I take down from a shelf and do, politics is just part of the process of being. To get through the day is political.”

Leonard’s death at home in Glasgow after a period of illness drew words of recognition from friends including publisher and writer Kevin Williamson, author and rapper Darren McGarvey, author Jenni Fagan and the leader of the Scottish Labour Party Richard Leonard MSP. A father and grandfather, Tom Leonard is survived by his wife Sonya and his family.