Saturday, 24 November 2012

Clackmannan and Alloa

Clack log

Went to Alloa in Clackmannanshire on November 2nd to visit the Poetry Jamboree and to read a paper on Joseph Macleod. Had a really good time. Because I couldn't get time off work I couldn't spend extra days in Scotland and had to be there just for the weekend. Long hours on the train from Nottingham.

We were all put in the same hotel - Broomhall Castle - so that you could get in two hours of intense poetic conversation before 10 o’clock. I asked about the campaign building up to the referendum on independence in 2015 and found that the information I collected in June (while in Edinburgh on holiday) was out of date - the support for a yes vote has gone up from 30 to 38%. This suggests that the vote will reach a still higher peak as Salmond gets into his swing. I find victory hard to think about.

I found it easier working with etymology. I looked the name up in Ifor Williams’ edition of the Gododdin when I got home. It seems very likely that the Manau Gododdin from which the Brythonic army sets out in the poem is Clackmannanshire. The isle of Man is Manau in Welsh and Mannan in Gaelic. So Manau corresponds to Mannan in Gaelic. Evidently Gaelic speakers came to the Forth Valley and changed the name from Manau to Mannan. ‘Manau Gododdin’ is so named to distinguish it from the Isle of Man. Clackmannan means ’stone of Mannan’ and still exists - I found a photo of it on the Internet. I was within two miles of it but didn’t get to see it due to urgent poetic business. I guess there was some ‘*Clog manau’ which was renamed Clach Mannan in Gaelic.

I delivered the talk on Macleod because it was the launch of the second volume of selection from his poems which Waterloo have just brought out. I hadn’t seen the book before but when I got to the Tower in Alloa - there it was. Hurrah!

The mansion next to the tower was owned by the Earl of Mar, who after leading the disastrous Jacobite uprising of 1715 spent the rest of his life in exile, drawing plans for rebuilding the mansion and redesigning the gardens. There is in the Tower a model of the design - with a large fishpond on the roof. So practical. The mansion burnt down in 1800 so that only the mediaeval tower still stands. If there had been a real fish-pond on the roof the mansion might not have burnt down! Thought of a theory that unrecognized political losers had, in centuries before the twentieth, developed interesting forms of art because they were excluded from political effort and were unwilling to use the forms and symbolism of the dominant group. That is, they were in the dominant group, had wealth to spend, but were of the defeated fraction. Is this a good theory? I think it only holds true for a few cases. Bizarreries and extreme stylisations mostly are unrelated to politics, being driven by fashion and thriving among clients who are in no way opposed to the ruling political group. I am trying to remember what I know about William Habington (1605-52), who wrote in a retarded imitation of Spenser and was a Catholic. His cultivation of mediaeval or quasi-mediaeval vocabulary is said to have been an expression of his resistance to the Reformation. But is this the true interpretation? I have looked at two of his poems on the Internet - only two. But they weren’t Spenserian at all, they were in the Metaphysical style common to many English poets in the early 17th century. So the whole thing may be a canard.

There is a building called Lyveden New Beald near the small town in Northamptonshire where I went to school, which I used to visit at weekends. It is built to embody a complex symbolism, and at the will of a Catholic landowner who used a scheme which was greatly unlike other Catholic architecture of the time and which experts today find it hard to interpret. It is distinctive if not necessarily also beautiful. It is an admirable thing, but I don't think we can find a whole class of such works. If we skip a century or so and get to Blake, it is undeniable that he was part of the ‘faction out of power’ and that his art has everything to do with heresy, sects, artisan resentment of the education of the wealthy. With the political energy of people who would never be allowed to vote. But that is not the same as development of an ‘oppositional’ style of art by the wealthy, which is what I am pondering just now. It would be nice if Mar had also developed some deviations of form which expressed his resentment and revolt at the exiled state, capturing a will to power which would have swept away the economic order associated with the Hanoverians and the Protestant interest. I did not see that in the model, which looked rather conventional, if grand and spacious.

Mar was hopeless as a leader of revolts. Can we see a continuity of Loserness and Wishfulness between Jacobite Scots after 1715 and Scottish Nationalists in the 1940s and later decades before modern triumphs? I hope not.

With the ‘underground’ poetry of the Seventies, the oppositional style clearly has a political meaning invested in the smallest cells of its structure. The problem is now whether there is also an audience which is able or even willing to retrieve that meaning.

A few miles away from Alloa is a castle known sometimes as Castle Gloom. This may connect with glom, Gaelic for chasm. Certainly there is a very chastic chasm opening beneath the castle. I found it disturbing to think of Gaelic being spoken here in the East Central Belt. I don’t know why I find it disturbing, perhaps because contemplating the ruin of another Celtic speech-community arouses certain emotions linked with death and dissolution in me. At a more superficial level of experience, I find it also confusing. Presumably the Central Belt in late mediaeval times was a speckled mixture of different languages, which eventually resolved into a uniformly Scots-speaking outcome. But there must have been Gaelic-speaking families in the Forth Valley at one time. There is a tendency among some recent Scottish scholars to describe Scotland as having been completely Gaelic-speaking at one time. This would certainly raise the question of where the Scots language comes from. It seems to disqualify it as a national language, if it is just an overflow from England in the 16th century or sometime. But it is also a completely wrong theory, I think. Upscale Loserness and Wishfulness. Admittedly there is almost no linguistic evidence for Scotland prior to 1000 AD, hardly anything in Scots before 1200 AD. Hardly anything in Gaelic before 1500. The kingdom of Northumbria included all of Lothian, and Edinburgh. It seems very likely that Anglian was the spoken language already in the 7th century in Lothian and most of the Borders, and that it has continued to be spoken there ever since. The place-name evidence differentiates sharply between areas with almost all Gaelic names, areas with almost none, and areas with none at all. The latter two, where they are very full of Anglian names of villages, fields, and so on are likely never to have been Gaelic-speaking. A few Gaelic names south of Edinburgh (Balerno, Dalry) are possibly relics of estates being bestowed on Gaelic-speaking nobles even though the peasants did not cease to speak Anglian, i.e. Scots. (Dalry means ‘share (i.e. of land) of the king’.) The idea of an all-Gaelic Scotland is a nationalist phantom.
There is another name, Slamannan, the ‘moor of Mannan’. The first part is the word sliabh, usually meaning ‘mountain’ but in this case a moor, a wet peaty place as Scottish uplands generally are. The form is interesting, presumably this was a dialect area where the word was pronounced ‘slew’ and so assimilated into the ‘mannan’ part.

Over breakfast, Peter Manson was talking about research he is doing into the Forties poet Dorian Cooke, and how many of Cooke’s poems he has found. If not yet the typescript of a book which Cooke was trying to get published in the later Forties. Cooke’s letters to JF Hendry are in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. (is that right? Was it the university library?)

Heard readings by formalist poets nick-e-melville and Dorothy Alexander, new names working in the wider world of forms that opens once domestic anecdote is put out by the back door. Failed to buy copies of their works to bring home. Reflected how I haven’t done any delving into Scottish poetry in the last 15 years.

I travelled during Friday evening and missed the readings on that evening. My colleague had a birthday on Thursday and reflected that she wouldn’t then want to go to work on the Friday. Hence I couldn’t take the day as leave. A birthday is a birthday. I was freezing on the platform at Larbert while Frank Kuppner was reading in Alloa. Such is the cultured life.

1 comment:

  1. Standing on a freezing train platform gets to the root of Scottish culture - poetry is a high-end extra...

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