Monday, August 04, 2008

Poetry makes nothing happen

R was a Greek scholar and poet who was also a pyromaniac who'd set fires that endangered those around him. My dad met him through another poet and began to visit him where he was incarcerated, in the notorious Carstairs State Prison. Later, he was deemed less dangerous and was transferred to "the Royal Ed" - which was sited during that time at Craiglockhart, where Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met. We had boxes of his books at home for safe keeping - hundreds of volumes of Penguin Modern Classics, dusty and frayed, which I spent hours going through.

In the late 1970s R was allowed weekend release and used to come to our house and sit in the same chair, by the fireplace; when it was my job to light the fire, braving the night with my torch to bring the wicker basket full of logs from the woodshed out the back and crumpling newspaper to lay it, I felt incredibly self-conscious as he watched me in silence: he the expert and me the amateur.

He was, my dad told me, "institutionalised": this meant that he was silent or mumbling, a brooding presence in the corner; jowly, like Ted Hughes, wearing an ancient frayed Argyle sweater, fumbling with his roll-ups and his pipe. I was terrified of him.

in the mid-1980s, on a long weekend visit to my Dad's house in East Linton, he was left alone in the house for a few hours. When my dad returned he discovered that R had set small inept fires everywhere and stuck his head in the oven. Domestic gas was detoxified in 1973, and it's not been possible to kill yourself with gas poisoning alone since then; if you seal the doors and wait long enough, it might work, but the ancient chaotic cottage was quite unsuitably draughty so he was lying there for a few hours.

This bathetic episode was the end of his freedom; he never got day release again and he died in hospital a couple of years later.

He wrote poetry about the mountains and Scottish iconography and published a book of poetry in 1978. I can hardly reconcile the monosyllabic, haunted figure of my childhood with someone of such imagination, now apparently regarded as "cruelly underrated"; but these poems were written while he was in hospital.

I kept some of his books - long since "mine"; and still have some of them with me.

14 comments:

Claire said...

Do you remember wanting to go to Carstairs with our dad when he went to visit R? I think the mystery of Carstairs - and it is a really weird, austere, soulless-looking place, if you've ever passed it on the train - intrigued me. More than those boxes of books, but that says a lot about me! There must have been some (perfectly sensible) rule that children couldn't visit state hospitals, or I'm sure I would have gone.

Claire said...

BTW, I look forward to reading about M (he of the beard, caravan and Bob Dylan records) some day. And D (terror couple kill student). Ah, the colourful array of people who passed through our house when we were kids. And the storytellers...Doody Martin (went on to write for Emmerdale), Bobdid (just about invented MRI), DH (amazing songwriter), MB (er, the Marianne Faithful story from before he went bonkers?).

LottieP said...

All in the fullness of time - as I systematically exploit our childhood (with my flawed, fragmented memories) for the sake of a good story...

Mummy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mummy said...

During my many hours spent doing work for the Glasgow drugs Action Team in my pre-corporate devil days, I had the privilege/misfortune to end up at Barlinnie. It was a strange place but also rather compelling in the same way a horror movie is. My high school was next to Wormwood Scrubs prison in London too.

LottieP said...

I went to visit the cells under Glasgow Sheriff Court when I was at uni - I can have been no more than 19. The policeman in charge showed me round proudly and said, embarrassingly, "Are ye enjoying yerself?" as we passed a group of prisoners in a holding cell. I said tentatively "Er, yes". "Aye, I bet ye fuc*ing are" one of them muttered.

Grande Poobah said...

ooooo.....

love this post. I worked in a number of old loony bins in a previous pre consultancy life. They all had the most amazing libraries, museums and galleries of work that the inmates had produced - some, to be fair, that you wouldn't stick on your fridge as decoration, others totally absorbing nad fascinating.

As yet no time spent in jail in any capacity though.

Mancsoulsister said...

A few years back I was doing some work with some washed up 80s pop stars.

One of these old stars was someone who teenage MSS had considered to be one of the most beautiful men of the 80s and who I had been extremely excited about meeting. I was totally shocked by his appearance. He looked more like the debauched portrait in the attic rather than the beautiful Dorian he had once been. The drugs and drink had mushed his mind so much that he was barely able to function.

It broke my heart to see the shell that I had once idolised so much.

Claire said...

Was it Adam Ant, mancsoulsister? He was incredibly lovely, with or without makeup.

Charlotte said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LottieP said...

My money's on Adam Ant, though sadly there are a few contenders. I saw Marilyn ("Calling Your Name")on a "where are they 1980s now" type show a few years ago and I was shocked by how debauched he (she?) looked.

Claire - Doody Martin wrote (still writes) for Corrie. See post in due course...

Mancsoulsister said...

I wasn't going to let on but as lottie has (inadvertently) got it. It was Marilyn - so beautiful in the 80s - I really adored him!

I agree that Adam Ant was a very beautiful man as well - altho unlike Marilyn his problems stem from his bi-polar disorder rather than long term addiction to class As

LottieP said...

I think people like Steve Strange hit the gak as well - in fact it would be amazing if any of the New Romantics survived the 1980s without doing serious damage to themselves.

I bet Howard Jones never touched it, though.

Mancsoulsister said...

Yeah I saw Steve Strange on a come back tour on TV in Germany about 3 or 4 years ago. They did an interview with him and he had what I call the Ozzy slur - brain so mushed that you can't speak properly.