Monday, 16 December 2013

The Clutha crash - and poet John McGarrigle

The Clutha crash
and poet John McGarrigle
Author and journalist Jean Rafferty shares her reflections on the Clutha helicopter crash and the Scottish poet John McGarrigle, one of those who died in the wreckage of the Glasgow pub. Jean's sister manages the Scotia, sister pub to the Clutha.

The picture of Billy Connolly on the front of this week's paper says what most of us in Glasgow feel. There's a heaviness about him, as if grief is a physical presence he carries with him. He flew from New York to be here, wearing a jacket with the American eagle on the front, but his presence at the Clutha said that however far he has gone from his native city, it is always there inside him.
His journey was over 3000 miles and took nearly six and a half hours, and at the end of it he laid some flowers on the ground beside a pub he used to go to and walked away. You wondered had he come straight from the airport he had the weary look of a man who might have done sound where he had bought the flowers, a mixture of white roses, gerbera and unopened lilies, whose scent, so powerful in an enclosed space, would be lost in the open air beside the river, would be lost amongst the thousands of bunches of flowers already there.
 But Billy Connolly's gesture will not be lost.
 On the weekend of the Clutha Vaults helicopter crash a London paper ran several articles criticising the way our media refract tragedy through celebrity, but, as usual, they failed to understand Scottish reality. Both the Clutha and its sister pub, the Scotia, define themselves through their customers and history and Billy Connolly was a huge part of that for both of them. You wouldn't talk about either of them without mentioning Connolly and James Kelman and Gerry Rafferty. It would be perverse not to. Connolly is not really regarded as a celebrity in the normal sense at all here. He's not seen as someone elite and apart; he's seen as one of us.
I vividly remember John McGarrigle, who died in the crash, talking about a short story competition in the Scotia Bar. Billy Connolly had heard some of the heats and had asked, 'Did McGarrigle's story win? It should have.' I don't think it did, but Connolly's endorsement was enough for McGarrigle. It was a token of its authenticity and as such, more valuable than any prize or medal could be.
 I can't claim to have been a very close friend of John McGarrigle but I had a real soft spot for him. Since it happened, his death is with me all the time. I can't stop thinking about his last moments and hoping he died instantly, that he wasn't gasping for breath as he was entombed in dust. I can't stop thinking about his son, who stood outside all night waiting for news that some instinct already told him was the worst.
When the current manager took over the Scotia Bar eight years ago, she revived the famous writers' group, which had finally petered out under the last owner, the legendary Brendan McLaughlin. John was one of the first wave of writers to come to the re-formed group, reading baroque stories of banshees in tower blocks and classical characters in Castlemilk. Apparently he was known originally as a poet, but it was prose he was focusing on then and the prose that I liked, with its surreal fusion of the gritty and the imaginative. So much so that I've become addicted to the banshee as a literary idea and wrote my own banshee story some time later.
 McGarrigle always believed in telling it like it is and I'm going to too. He had sometimes been violent, sometimes caught up in the compelling world of Glasgow's gangsters. No doubt it was something to do with where he lived, something to do with being a man in the west of Scotland, or maybe just a writer sometimes criminals have the best stories. But underneath he was a gentle person who got angry for the right reasons. He cared for his elderly mother and always asked about mine, when she was alive. Once he spent a whole day with a friend of mine who was researching a book, taking her all over the Cathkin Braes to show her a forgotten well. 'I had the best of him,' she said simply. When I wrote a story about someone he knew, a gangster who lived next door to me, it was enough for me that he said I'd got it right. His endorsement was as much an endorsement for me of the authenticity of the story as Billy Connolly's was for him.
 We relate in such profound and unknowable ways to each other as human beings. I will miss John though I didn't see him often. What drew Billy Connolly to travel all those miles for all those hours, bringing him to a pub he probably hadn't been in for years? He hasn't been in the Scotia for years either, the other pub his name is inextricably linked with in this city. Neither pub can ever be to him what it was before the people are different, he is different but in coming, he reminded us of how
 People have been making big claims about how the behaviour of people after the crash said something about the nature of Glaswegians, the nature of Scots. People were trying to return to the pub to help those trapped inside, they were forming a human chain, they were tending as best they could to the wounded before the emergency services got there. Afterwards, a few young lads acted the goat for the television cameras as Labour MP Jim Murphy was talking with quiet dignity about his experiences of the crash, but for the most part people were selfless and self-effacing that night. As ever, the professionals behaved with dogged courage, but it was the ordinary people who didn't have to do any of it who behaved with something more, with grace. Is it really just Glaswegians or Scots who do such things? I preferred the man who said the people behaved with humanity.
 Yet there is no doubt all of us in Glasgow are connected in mourning. Even for those of us who never went to the Clutha, there's something very poignant about this tragedy, that people were out having fun, enjoying themselves, when disaster struck. Strange how little we think of the joy in that everyday word, enjoy. Could there be any more joyous sound than that of a ska band? But joy was taken away that night.
 That night I saw the police helicopter hovering in the sky, as it often did it always seemed to be in the East End though I'm sure people commit crimes in other parts of the city too. I suppose it made a noise, though from my house it was silent, simply a cluster of lights winking in the darkness above the orange glow of the city. I lost track of it after a while, didn't see it tumbling eerily to the ground, didn't hear any loud bang. There was no harbinger of death that night, no banshee predicting the horror that was to come. But if McGarrigle was here, I think he might have written one in.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Home and identity | my far

Home and identity | my far

Nalini Paul, poet and writer - India-born and later brought up in Canada before moving to Scotland twenty years ago - describes her personal journey in which themes of home and identity feature in her writing: poetry, a novel, and work for the stage and film commissions
My writing journey began the moment I first heard people speak. It was already forming in my mind, long before I could read or write.
I was surrounded by at least three different languages, while growing up. I was born in India and my parents spoke Punjabi and Hindi as well as English; and apparently I spoke Hindi while living in India, but I do not remember this. I was only two-and-a-half years old when we moved to Vancouver, Canada. When I first began to speak, apparently, I could switch from Hindi to English; and in Canada, there were still a few residual Hindi words—some of which have stayed with me. They often relate to food, such as cutta, meaning sour or bitter tasting. But it is a particular flavour, for which “bitter” and “sour” do not quite suffice. My paternal grandmother, who lived with us for several years in Vancouver while my two brothers and I were growing up, used old colonial English words that she had brought with her from India; such as “compound” and “frock”. She pronounced “clerk” the English way (“clark”), which—as Canadians—my brothers and I found odd and foreign sounding. I also enjoyed studying French at school for six years, which came in handy as I travelled around Europe for two months at the age of 20, staying in youth hostels and soaking up the atmosphere.
I have lived in Scotland for nearly 20 years, so people no longer mistake me for an American, based on my accent. I have lost a lot of the West-coast Canadian twang that I miss. Flights “home” always remind me of what I’ve lost, as soon as I hear the air stewards’ relaxed, friendly tones.
While in primary school in the 1970s, I wrote countless stories, which the teacher would ask me to read out to the class. But when I got to my teens, I switched to poetry. Despite reading a lot of Shakespeare and poems from anthologies of 20th Century English verse, my poems were quite awful at that stage. I continued writing poetry into my 20s, and slowly, it began to improve. When I started studying Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, I did not write as much, being so absorbed in my studies.
 Poetry Scotland published my first poem, “Street Musician”, in 2000, around the time that I had started the MLitt in Creative Writing at the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow. An extract of my short novel was published in an anthology of new Scottish fiction: Word Jig: New Fiction from Scotland in 2003, while I was studying for my PhD on Jean Rhys at the University of Glasgow. The thesis explored issues of home and identity (I prefer the word “subjectivity”), which fed into my poetry. More of my poems began to get published in various anthologies and magazines, which led to my first pamphlet collection, Skirlags in 2009. The following year, it was shortlisted for the Callum Macdonald Award. At that time I was working in Orkney as the George Mackay Brown Writing Fellow, a life-changing experience. I made many friends and was thrilled to work on various collaborative projects—with the RSPB, World Heritage and Orkney traditional dancers, to name a few. Themes of memory, migration and landscapes started to develop more fully in my writing, feeding into my second poetry pamphlet, Slokt By Sea, published at the end of 2010.

Crow, you were a living shadow
whose darkness made daytime brighter.
Your call was forced
from that black, croaky place
like midnight purpling itself
into dawn
a slow, sad, time-stilling song.
No melody sprung from your throat
just a caw that even the ducks mocked.
But the echo returns
far off and white:
a winter’s full moon
that you broke into stars
the bones of a creature licked clean
a lamb dying under a tree
with marble-black eyes
and a head full of grief.
You wait for the prize
fluttering soot and ashes
and the black-on-white typescript
of words that tried to contain you
the coal-stained sweetness
that will turn up diamonds in time.
As a keen walker and photographer, I enjoy the intensity of being immersed into a natural landscape and the elements, which can really heighten the senses (such as rain and wind, of which there is plenty here!). The physicality of the experience finds its way into my poetry in a very visual and sensory way. This visual element has led to a number of collaborations with artists, including my most recent project with the Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh Printmakers, The Written Word. More than 30 poets have been paired with visual artists to produce pieces for EP’s annual Christmas exhibition. My contribution is a poem I’ve based on a Shetlandic myth about Hrafn Floki, the first Norseman to sail deliberately from Norway to Iceland. The artist Catherine Hiley has made a beautiful limited-edition book out of the poem.
Since 2010, I have written a few pieces for stage. While in Orkney, I was asked to write the script for the annual community-led production, the Johnsmas Foy. The narrative incorporated dance, live music (including fiddle, harp, guitar and bodhran); my own poetry, as well as that of George Mackay Brown; and visual art that formed part of the stage set. It was a very fruitful project that was a pleasure to help develop in collaboration with artists from various practices. Over the last year I have written a couple of pieces for Ankur Productions in Glasgow, working with asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants from the South Asian Diaspora. The Ankur Ha-Ha (Citizens Theatre, 2012) and Jukebox (Tron, 2013) were based on scripts I wrote as narrative poems, using interviews from the participants. These were staged and performed by dancers in 2012 and amateur and professional actors in 2013.

This year also marked my first commission for film. My poem, Seeing in Colour, was made into a short animated film by David Galletly for Glasgow Film’s For All project, which examines the role of cinema in society. The film includes a short extract of the poem, and was shown at the Glasgow Film Theatre for two weeks in August.
I have recently completed material for a full collection of poetry, and look forward to writing more for stage.
I currently teach Creative Writing in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, and run my own business, Write Here, Write Now: A website featuring my writing is currently in progress.