POOR THINGS and the Rich Pickings of Alasdair Gray’s Imagination

Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things catching the eye in Glasgow Central Station

I’m standing in Glasgow Central Station at the New Year and two giant screens are showing the trailer for Poor Things on a loop. This new adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel is setting the heather alight and bringing Gray’s literary pyrotechnics to a global audience three years after it was first announced as being in the works. Poor Things, published in 1992, is a brilliant book, and like all of Alasdair’s fiction it is much more than a novel. On the surface the narrative is a patchwork quilt, riffing on nineteenth-century novels from Frankenstein to The Master of Ballantrae, but deep down it offers a rich exploration of social class, education, empire, equality, feminism and independence, both personal and political, issues that fired Gray’s imagination and remain pressingly relevant. In form it is a gothic time machine, a typographical feast, with its graphic devices, maps and illustrations, clearly a fertile seedbed for a storyboard. Gray’s work with its stunning visual artistry has long been an open invitation to filmmakers. Yet until recently this novel received relatively little critical attention compared to Lanark (1981), Gray’s best-known work. Poor Things is equally remarkable, and its surreal qualities were always likely to lend themselves to the screen. In fact, twenty-odd years ago there was talk of an adaptation based on a script by Gray himself. The major roles were cast, a director was in place, and a date set for production, but that adaptation never materialized. On 21 February 2004 an editorial in The Herald newspaper bemoaned the state of cinema in Scotland and asked about a raft of creative projects that had withered on the vine:
“What happened, for instance, to the Robert Burns biopic that’s been whispered about for years, often in close conjunction with words such as Johnny and Depp? Where’s that long-mooted remake of Greyfriars Bobby? Things have also gone quiet on Craig Ferguson’s proposed ‘‘socialist musical’’ about Clydeside shipbuilders. And what about the film adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel Poor Things, which went so far as declaring principal cast members (Helena Bonham Carter, Robert Carlyle, Jim Broadbent) and a director (Sandy Johnson) before vanishing off the radar? No-one ever rose to the not inconsiderable challenge of putting Gray’s magnum opus Lanark on the big screen, either; and while we’re on the subject of great novels, isn’t it possible that there’s a Confessions of a Justified Sinner-shaped hole in the period-thriller market?”

Now, twenty years later, the challenge has finally been taken up by award-winning Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose experimental style matches Gray’s creative vision. When asked what drew him to Gray’s novel, Lanthimos has said, “I have a Scottish friend who’s a big fan of his, […] so I read quite a bit of his stuff. When I read Poor Things, I was immediately taken by it. I went to Scotland to meet Gray, actually. He was very, very generous and energetic. He showed me all the places in Scotland he imagined the story taking place. When we got back home, he gave me his blessing.” And the rest is cinematic history. Poor Things is now on general release, starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe, in an adaptation that is garnering awards and generating massive critical attention. The reviews have been exceptional.
With its fantastic female figure, a mannequin-turned-independent woman Poor Things is very much of the moment. Gray’s gothic heroine, Bella Baxter, is Barbie meets Barbarella. The story of a woman who refuses to be moulded by her alleged male creator – Godwin “God” Baxter – is a tale for our times. Emma Stone won a Golden Globe for her performance as Bella, and in her acceptance speech she said, “Bella falls in love with life itself”, and that the character “made her look at life differently”. That’s a big statement but entirely understandable given Gray’s imaginative powers and Stone’s performance.
Alasdair may have given his blessing for the film to be made but having showed Lanthimos “all the places in Scotland he imagined the story taking place”, many people feel he would surely have been dismayed at the exclusion of those places from the finished film. The fact that the adaptation has transplanted the beating heart of the novel – Glasgow, Gray’s great civic muse – to London, has not been well received, particularly by Scots. A recent documentary, “Poor Things & Alasdair Gray’s Legacy”, produced by filmmakers Gavin Lundy and Jack O’Neil, responds to these concerns about Scotland’s omission from the film. It stresses Gray’s rootedness in Glasgow, but also acknowledges that his art transcends the city and country of his birth. In his contribution to this documentary Rodge Glass speaks of Gray’s fusion of the local and the universal. You can take Gray out of Glasgow but can you take Glasgow out of Gray? The question persists: why was the film adaptation of Poor Things not set in the city that gave birth to it? Glasgow has after all been used to excellent effect as a film location in recent years. If it was photogenic enough for The Batman and for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny then why not for Poor Things, which has the city hard-wired into its system?

A reflective piece by Elspeth King added weight to the criticisms by pointing out that Gray’s novel was a response to cultural neglect and official disdain for the poor things of the city: “In future, there will be many film productions of Poor Things and other works by Alasdair Gray. Like Robert Burns, Gray was always confident that his work would be appreciated by later generations. Whether that will be in Scotland and by Scots is in doubt, for Gray’s talent has had less than lip-service here. It is no accident that he characterized the city of Glasgow as Unthank in his novel Lanark and twice refused the ‘honour’ of the St. Mungo Prize.”
Alasdair was a passionate advocate of Scottish independence and was always dismayed by the patronizing attitude that refused to see the rich cultural potential of Scotland. From this perspective, he too would have lamented the relocation of this film adaptation. But Gray is a writer of global significance, and if this adaptation brings new readers to his writing and his art, and to the myriad ways in which he represents and celebrates Scotland, it will have been worth it.
I’ve had a strong interest in Poor Things since its publication over thirty years ago. What has struck me whenever I’ve taught the novel or written about it is that Alasdair’s appeal really is universal. His work is eminently adaptable, like that of all great writers. The charge of parochialism sometimes aimed at Scottish writers – a charge that usually masks class snobbery – can never be leveled at the fruits of his capacious imagination. If this film version of Poor Things leads to a dramatic uplift in the novel’s readership and generates the interest in Gray’s creative art that it so richly deserves then it will have done its work, and who knows, perhaps some enterprising production company will see the potential for a serial adaptation.
Poor Things – the novel itself – is certainly worth revisiting. A new edition of the novel bearing the legend “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” is already in bookshops, although it’s bittersweet to see Emma Stone on the cover rather than Alasdair’s own distinctive artwork.

Poor Things – Now a Major Motion Picture

Asked by Mark Axelrod in 1995 what we can expect in the future, Gray answered that he hoped the financing would be secured to make the film version of Lanark. That hope is strengthened by the success of Poor Things and Lanark now awaits its film adaptation. I wonder who’ll play Duncan Thaw …

The Ghost of John Maclean: The story of NO MEAN FIGHTER (1992), a landmark in Scottish political theatre

It all started when a guy called Billy Elliott phoned me out of the blue in January 1991. “When can you get up here?” he asked. I didn’t know who he was or where “here” was. It slowly became clear, while Billy spoke nineteen-to-the-dozen, that he was in prison, doing life: in HMP Barlinnie Special Unit to be precise. We had a mutual friend, Jamie Burns, who had been working with Billy on Glasgow Boy, a play about his life. Jamie had mentioned me as someone Billy might like to know, since my father was from the Calton, my mother from Cowcaddens, and I was from Possilpark, three places Billy knew well. A play I’d co-written with my brother, From the Calton to Catalonia, had been on at the Pearce Institute in Govan in December 1990, and Jamie had been telling Billy about it. Billy was steeped in the Calton – he had been a member of notorious Glasgow gang the Calton Tongs in the 1960s. Something clicked. We were from similar backgrounds, but I was an aspiring academic and Billy was serving a life sentence for murder, as were other inmates of the Special Unit.

John Maclean in Peterhead Prison Tuesday 9th May 1916

I visited the Special Unit the following day, then the following week, then every week for the following year. I was fascinated by Billy’s stories. Looking back now it’s obvious there was a Pip and Magwitch dimension to the relationship, though I didn’t see that at the time: I was too caught up in his endless tales about growing up in Glasgow. I gradually got to know the other inmates and their visitors and learned about the lives of these lifers. Because of my commitment, my education, and my background, the Governor, Dan Gunn, asked if I’d like to act as a writer-in-residence for a few months. The Unit was famous for attracting people from the arts and Dan felt that since I’d been in the Unit so much and knew the “community” – as the inmates plus staff were called – I would be a good person to work with them on developing some writing projects.

My first task was organising an arts festival and exhibition in the Unit in December 1991. Visitors included artists and writers as well as families and friends and at that event I got to know Irvine Allan, a final year drama student at the RSAMD (Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama). I told him about the plan to put a play on at Mayfest, Glasgow’s community arts festival, a prison drama based on discussions I’d had with Billy over the previous months. Irvine came up to the Special Unit in January with a group of drama students keen to collaborate, to listen and to learn. That led to the spark of an idea for a collectively-written musical drama, No Mean Fighter. The drama students in the cast were joined by Special Unit visitor James McHendrie, a talented writer and actor who brought a streetwise directness to the table.

Carol Raffert & Billy Elliott in Barlinnie Special Unit

No Mean Fighter had begun to take shape around conversations with a group of Special Unit inmates who had served time in Peterhead Prison during the riots and dirty protests there in 1987. Billy had heard that John Maclean, the Scottish socialist leader, had been kept in the same cell as him, back in 1916. That was the seed for the play – a latter-day inmate finding a prison diary that linked the past to the present. We wanted to explore the links between a notable political prisoner and historical figure like Maclean and the conditions that persisted in Peterhead into the 1980s. Social class was a factor in the makeup of prisons, so the politics was there to begin with. Maclean, the renowned Red Clydesider, had famously said, “I would rather be immediately put to death than condemned to a life sentence in Peterhead.” His experiences there seemed to echo those I spoke to who had been incarcerated there. We learned that Maclean was kept out of circulation in prison. He complained of his food being tampered with, and of being constantly fed false information by the authorities about his family and friends.

Tony Curran and Stephen McDowall

Peterhead Prison, built in 1888, had its roots in an 1881 report by the Committee on the Employment of Convicts which declared that the “most likely prospect for benefitting the shipping and fishing interests of the country at large and at the same time profitably employing convicts is the construction of a harbour of refuge at Peterhead in Aberdeen shire.” Peterhead was designated a General Convict Prison for male prisoners sentenced to a minimum of 5 years.

The premise of the play is that two prisoners, John Maclean and another, are in solitary confinement in Peterhead in the same cell at different times. Their experiences are told through speeches, poems, songs and voices. We also hear the views of other prisoners, visitors and a prison officer, interwoven with extracts from the fictitious diary of Maclean. One scene early in the play captures the voices of the women who make the journey from Glasgow to Peterhead to visit their menfolk and distils the history of the prison and its location:

Cat A Theatre Company during rehearsals

Scene 4
1st WOMAN: They used to send them to Australia. Had them building roads and railways hell-knows-where.
2nd WOMAN: Now they’ve got them caged at the other end of the country.
3rd WOMAN: Getting there from Glasgow is a nightmare. Travelling all day. And for what? To look at a broken man through a glass partition.
1st WOMAN: A couple of hours once a month. Twelve hours on a bus for that.
2nd WOMAN: They built the prison there so that the prisoners could build the harbour.
3rd WOMAN: Now the harbour’s built, and the quarry’s closed, but the men are still there.
1st WOMAN: Isn’t there something in Glasgow they could build?
2nd WOMAN: Like houses.
3rd WOMAN: They don’t build houses anymore, just jails.
1st WOMAN: They’ve made prisoners of us too.
2nd WOMAN: Breaking up families.
3rd WOMAN: Like stones in a quarry. Smashed to pieces. Good for nothing but breaking glass.
1st WOMAN: Dirty protests.
2nd WOMAN: Hunger strikes.
3rd WOMAN: Solitary confinement.
1st WOMAN: Rooftop protests.
2nd WOMAN: Ugly suicides.
3rd WOMAN: Cries for help we never hear.
1st WOMAN: Voices in the wilderness.
2nd WOMAN: Like a seabird in a storm.
3rd WOMAN: They come out worse than they went in.
1st WOMAN: On an elastic band.
2nd WOMAN: No future.
3rd WOMAN: Shell-shocked.
1st WOMAN: Further away from us than ever.
2nd WOMAN: Pacing up and down.
3rd WOMAN: Turning outside in.
1st WOMAN: They had them making nets. To catch fish.
2nd WOMAN: Cold eyes staring into space.

Gillian Hamilton & Kate Dickie

The writing team included Kate Dickie, Billy Elliott, John Gordon, James McHendrie and myself, with poems by Tommy Campbell and Hugh MacDiarmid. All the songs were written and performed by Derek Lang, with lyrics to “John Maclean” by Billy Elliott, based on a melody by Joe Kidd. I was script editor and contributed the words to the title song. Cast improvisations directed by Irvine also fed into the final script, and there were extracts from printed sources including The Gateway Exchange “Independent Inquiry into the Peterhead Riots”, The 1990 Scottish Prison Service Report, a report from the European Committee for the Prevention Of Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, John Maclean’s “Condemned from the Dock” speech, and James D. Young’s John Maclean: Clydeside Socialist. With so many fragments in front of him, Irvine had to be much more than a director. He proved to be an expert tailor who took the patchwork of speeches and songs given to him and sewed them into a magnificent banner. Irvine reflected on the creative process at the time:

“Some say great plays come through individual genius. The making of No Mean Fighter […] has been a collaboration involving many people in research, writing, improvising and song-writing. It was my job to find a shape for the myriad of ideas, scripts, poems and songs which emerged, and to harness the creative energies of all involved. During this process I have tried to circumvent the strict divisions of labour which normally apply in the creation of a play, by allowing all those who wanted to contribute the chance to do so.”

Irvine Allan directing Derek Munn, Suzie Fannin and Tony Curran

Theatre, like all the arts, is full of egos, but there was something about this play and this project that made a diverse and strong-willed set of individuals want to work together and sink their egos into the collective pool. I mentioned cast improvisations. One cast member, drama student Kate Dickie, contributed to the script at a crucial stage when we were looking for a series of intercut monologues before the big ending. Kate came in with a standout speech that she performed, one that nailed the inside/outside relationships that the play sought to explore:

“WOMAN: You’ve got that look in your eyes again. It’s getting stronger every time I come. What’s this place done to you that you can’t even trust your wife? You keep saying I don’t understand. Of course I don’t. How could I. But I am trying. I am trying to see what they have done to you that’s making you a stranger to me. My eyes are searching yours, looking for some sort of sign, but the shutters are down. I can’t see past the ‘Trust no-one’ signals that are flashing as strong as the love that once used to be there. Of course I long for someone at night, to wake up in the morning and feel wanted instead of lonely, to love and be loved. But you won’t believe me when I tell you again and again it’s only you I yearn for. Have these bastards degraded you so much that you don’t feel human anymore? That you don’t believe I could still love you as wholly and as consuming as before. The mental barriers are closing down slowly, bit by bit until one day I know I will be told to go away. It’s you that’s leaving me not the other way round. I hope those bastards can sleep at night, cos I can’t.”

Kate Dickie delivering her monologue, one of the standout pieces in the play

Because it was a drama and not a policy document we had different voices offering different perspectives. For example, in one scene a prison officer sick of dirty protests and violence among the inmates gets it off his chest:

“PRISON OFFICER: Scumbags the lot of them. No loyalty among thieves. Sell one another for a cigarette. Too many bleeding hearts these days. What about the victims? What about their families? There’s open visits at the cemetery. They do it to their own kind as well. No fucking loyalty. Colleague of mine lost an eye. Some monster with a coat hanger. Can’t trust them with anything. If they’re no wanking and working-out, then they’re up to something. Okay, so I’m bitter. But that disnae mean I’m bad, does it? We’re not all brutes, ye know. We’re not the way we’re made out to be. I take my kids to the pictures. To the park. I prefer the park. I like open spaces. Truth be told, I’m a bit of a fresh air fiend. A bit of a one for the great outdoors. Well, you don’t get much fresh air in the tin pail, do you? Not when there’s people emptying their pisspots o’er you. Kicked a young fella to death, so they did. Nobody lifted a finger. They won’t grass. Grassing’s worse than murder in their book. If they want the prison population reduced and our job made easier, then give the public what they want. Bring back the noose. The only place they bastards should be kicking is at the end of a rope.”

James McHendrie, Stevie Cooper, Tony Curran, Stephen McDowall and Derek Munn during rehearsals

The voices of prisoners are heard too – tender and paranoid in visits, frightened and threatening in solitary, angry and dangerous out of their cells, addressing the audience directly on one occasion:

“PRISONER: You fucking looking at, eh? What are you fucking looking at. What do you know, eh? What do you care? Who the fuck are you? See me. I’ve done more time than Big Ben. I’ve had more porridge than Goldilocks. I’ve done more solitary than Howard Hughes. What do you know about me, eh? Do you want to welcome me back into your community? Oh, welcome home, son. All is forgiven. Well, answer me this. What fucking community? Eh? What fucking community? Community care? Community charge? Community policing? Community service? That’s all that’s left of your fucking community! Reform? Rehabilitation? Resettlement? Care? Who cares? Reform yourself, ya slag! Rehabilitate yourself, ya bastard! Resettle you, ya hopeless case! It’s got to be bad in here. Sure it’s bad in here. It’s got to look bad in here. That way it doesn’t look so bad out there. Am I right? Just tell me! Where do you live? How much freedom have you really got? How much time? How much space? How many visitors? How do you sleep? What’s your number? I don’t envy you. I don’t need your sympathy. The only place I want your bleeding heart is on the end of a fucking skewer. What are you fucking looking at, eh? Don’t look at me. Look at you. There’s your fucking prisoner! You’re doing life, ya mug. You’re doing a seventy stretch, but you don’t even know it! Who rattled your cage?”

Irvine Allan on the phone, beside Gillian Hamilton

We formed a company around the play called Cat. A, named after Category A prisoners, “those that would pose the most threat to the public, the police or national security should they escape”. In other words, the kind of men who ended up in the Special Unit. The cast – Tony Curran, Steve Cooper (aka Stephen Clyde), James McHendrie, Derek Lang, Carol Rafferty, Claire Miller, Suzie Fannin, Kate Dickie, Stephen McDowall, Michael Connolly and Derek Munn – did an outstanding job, putting in performances that lit up the stark set, and we had a hugely supportive crew in Gillian Hamilton, Fraser Kerr, Colin Begg, Gary Brunton, Suzie Fannin, Mark Stevenson, and Jake McIlvenna. Pavla Milcova and Mark Stevenson took some striking photos.
Cat A Theatre Company 1992

The play was performed first at Mayfest in 1992, with a run at the Arches Theatre as well as a community and prison tour. Joyce McMillan’s review in The Guardian on 8th May was the first sign that we had something special on our hands:

“The Category A theatre company’s No Mean Fighter at the Arches Theatre – a devised piece by a team of five writers and a 12-strong cast, including professional performers and people with direct experience of the Scottish prison system – is one of those shows which could have been a self-indulgent shambles. Instead it emerges as a powerful, strikingly well-acted polemic against the regime in Scotland’s top security prison at Peterhead, using the words of the great Glasgow political activist John Maclean – himself a prisoner in Peterhead 70 years ago – to expose the brutalisation and agony the system imposes on prisoners, their families, and prison officers alike.” (1).

No Mean Fighter at The Arches for Mayfest 1992

A review in Scotland on Sunday two weeks later was equally enthusiastic:

“No Mean Fighter has the directedness and strength of a protest song. It is a series of scenes, monologues and ballads about prison life which have been tightly meshed into an emphatic performance by the director, Irvine Allan, a final year student at the RSAMD. […] The issues are familiar enough: the brutality of the system breeding monsters amongst both prisoners and staff; the suffering of wives, mothers and girlfriends torn between two worlds; the inhuman stupidity of society’s sledgehammer solution to crime. The performance rises above the level of documentary, however, creatively channelling its anger into expressive, vehement theatre.” (2)

Edinburgh Fringe Flier for No Mean Fighter 1992

After Mayfest and a tour of community and prison venues the play went to the De Marco Gallery for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The play was extremely well-received in Edinburgh. Flagged as a Critics’ Choice in The Sunday Times on 30th August, it justified its billing, winning a Scotsman Fringe First for Outstanding New Production. I was credited as Project Co-ordinator and got my name on the much sought after Fringe First wee bronze plaque (now lost, but the memories are golden). John Linklater’s review of the play says a great deal both about the production and the background against which it was staged:

No Mean Fighter reverse of Edinburgh Fringe Flier 1992

“Employing an effective spareness of set and lighting, Cat A Theatre Company recreate the degrading world of Peterhead Prison with individual inmates occupying small square pallets spread like rafts around the open stage. There are no iron bars or cages to introduce the false notion that the lives portrayed in this collaborative piece, and the issues raised by it, can be conveniently dubbed up and forgotten. Society imprisons itself if it ignores the inhumanity of its penal system, and you can quote no less a source than Churchill to that effect. […] The impressive thing about Cat A’s treatment is that it focuses strongly on the damaging effects of imprisonment for wives and family, and its emphasis on the men’s responsibilities in this area is just one of the strands which saves the piece from polemic. Neither is the piece blind to the needs of its audience. Songs performed by the ensemble, with Derek Lang on guitar, are of high quality, and there are some splendid theatrical touches. The women confront the audience with their grievances. The men throw theirs down in a game of cards. The riot scene at the end is loud enough to drown out the bulldozers outside on Blackfriars Street, thoughtfully provided yesterday by Lothian Region for road operations in the final week of the Festival.” (3)
Stevie Cooper and Tony Curran getting ready to riot

Reflecting on Festival highlights in a Guardian review a few days later, Joanna Coles applauded “the excellent No Mean Fighter by Category A”. (4) On the same note, Jackie McGlone, writing in The Herald pointed to the play as a dramatic high spot: “It has been a vintage year for high-voltage performance, with the acting honours going to Cat A’s powerful ensemble drama No Mean Fighter”. (5) A further run followed in the spring of 1993, with dates at The Tron Theatre in Glasgow and The Lemon tree in Aberdeen, as well another community venue and prison tour. That tour was accompanied by an exhibition with research by Julia Allan and layout by Celine McIlmunn and Gerry Clark.

No Mean Fighter Tron Theatre, Community and Prison Tour 1993

During the spring 1993 tour of the play Irvine was interviewed by his former mentor George Byatt, known for This Man Craig, The Troubleshooters, and Sutherland’s Law. Irvine told George: “There has got to be something wrong with a society where you can go to prison for months if you strip the lead off a roof but can get a knighthood if you strip the assets of a company.” George thought the play Irvine had woven out of workshops was a form of political theatre that deserved a wider audience and praised the new company for its social awareness and class politics: “No Mean Fighter with its authentic and committed writing, passionate acting and powerful presentation, lives up to the company’s aims as described by Irvine Allan. If any group deserves to inherit the mantle of John McGrath’s 7:84 (Scotland), it is this one.” (6)
One of the most insightful reviews of No Mean Fighter was penned by Stewart Hennessey, who homed in on the play’s movement between political drama, prison drama and domestic drama:

Cat A Theatre Company with the Edinburgh Fringe First Award

“This impressionistic drama, whose seven writing credits include inmates of Barlinnie Special Unit, works as a hard-hitting fast-paced catharsis. However, the in-your-face action and emotional outpourings don’t always square tidily with the wide ranging attitudinising which underpins the play. The unrelenting energy, while pulling the play along at an entertaining rate, is less persuasive and moving than the tragedy implicit in the love-sex dynamics. The first-rate performers (including students from the RSAMD), imbue the visiting scenes with an almost awesome futility. Lonely, impoverished wives waiting years for degraded men, amid stifling suspicion and bitterness, lend eloquence to the play’s one consistent and indisputable contention; isn’t it enough punishment to lose liberty? Aside from gratifying the base urge for revenge, what purpose does it serve to treat men as animals? And why be surprised if they then leave jail ready to commit more crimes?” (7)

Equally insightful and even more incisive was the response of Ajay Close, who went to the heart of the play’s tensions and contradictions in a review as hard-hitting as the drama it described:

“Politics encloses No Mean Fighter like electrified wire, leaving the audience two choices: inside or outside. Only fools and masochists sit on the fence. Cat. A is one of the success stories of the Barlinnie Special Unit, a theatre company whose purpose is to ‘agitate, educate and inform.’ Its current concern is the brutal prison regime which provoked the Peterhead riots, and this stirring piece of theatre certainly makes an unanswerable case for change. But by placing John Maclean, Glasgow’s Bolshevist consul, at the heart of the drama, the argument goes beyond penal reform into social analysis, identifying crime as a product of capitalism and projecting a utopian future where no one need lose their liberty. Sympathisers who wimp out of the complete package are liable to find themselves straddling 1,500 volts. Devised by inmates of the special unit and drama students at the RSAMD, the play is a collage of songs and scenes which betrays its collaborative origins by never quite forming an organic whole. This is both its failure and its strength, allowing the polemic to be subverted by odd moments of raw truthfulness. Tony Curran, all milk white skin and sinew, eyes glittering like some medieval martyr, does his best to bring Maclean’s words to life, but they’re no match for the best of the contemporary dialogue. The most powerful scenes in the play concern the pressure prison places on emotional relationships, the interplay of love and resentment, the longed for visits passed in bickering or silence. Both Stephen Cooper and James McHendrie make uncomfortably plausible hardmen, ‘saft as shite’ with their women until crossed, then petrifying into fist clenching domestic tyrants. Archetypes abound in this production: hardmen with soft centres, feisty, yet self sacrificing wives. It’s easy to dismiss this as crude stereotyping, but it is a cliche of life, not art. For me it provides one of the play’s more interesting insights: the lifeline between myth and powerlessness, the sustaining but ultimately limiting comfort of the old roles. The Glasgow hardman is simultaneously deplored and celebrated, at once the brutalised product of the system and a magnificent challenge to it. Never mind the contradictions: when capitalism crumbles we’ll have a whole new ball game. Which is fine as long as you can wait for the revolution. Director Irvine Allan can afford to ignore such cavils; he knows his audience and, to judge by the foot stomping applause and fulsome tributes at the public discussion afterwards, they loved it although, amid the praise, some questioned the relevance of John Maclean to prison life 70 years after his incarceration. But then, isn’t that that the crux of No Mean Fighter, whether you’re inside or outside the wire: the world has moved on, but the message hasn’t? The play ends with the entire cast belting out a rousing anthem complete with clenched fist salutes and the chorus line ‘Why don’t they get to fuck and leave us all alone?’ Not, I fear, a realistic blueprint for political change.” (8)

During the 1993 run of the play, Loudon Wainwright III visited the Special Unit and performed with the cast, inspiring a wonderful review of the event by Keith Bruce in The Herald:

“The tall American singer-songwriter propped his battered leather guitar case against the treadmill. Over a 20-year career, it was the first time he had ever been asked play in a prison. […] In his rugby shirt, denims and horn-rim glasses, Loudon Wainwright III looks more like a lecturer in film and TV studies. He is best known for singing about dead skunks, golf, and not being Bob Dylan, but for his appearance at Barlinnie’s Special Unit he dredged up an oldie, Samson And The Warden, about the trials of being shaved and shorn for jail. If he forgot the words it didn’t matter — his audience knew them all. Wainwright was between two sell-out performances at the Renfrew Ferry as part of Mayfest. […] He […] lent his guitar to another visitor, Derek Lang, who was joined by members of the Cat A Theatre Company for songs from the play No Mean Fighter, co-written by [Billy] Elliot. […] Over his stay, Wainwright spent more time listening than playing, and his fans were as keen to tell him about their creativity as to compliment him on his. ‘I had trouble understanding what they were saying, but I get the enthusiasm,’ he drawled. ‘It was a powerful experience, but I don’t want to trivialise it with words …’. A song on the next record will do fine, Loudon.” (9)

Loudon Wainwright III’s Johnny Cash moment was just one of many highlights on the road with No Mean Fighter. He had more than one relevant lyric in his locker too. In 1976 he had released a song entitled ‘California Prison Blues’. But perhaps the most significant song was the one he released 20 years after visiting the Special Unit, a cover of “The Prisoner’s Song” by Vernon Dalhart, first recorded in 1924, a year after John Maclean’s death. The closing lines capture something of the spirit of No Mean Fighter:

“Now if I had the wings like an angel
Over these prison walls I would fly
And I’d fly to the arms of my darling
And there I’d be willing to die.”

The story doesn’t end there. No Mean Fighter became the first part of a trilogy that would include Dirt Enters At The Heart (1993) and Doing Bird (1995). Cat A., under the direction of Irvine Allan, went on to do more than a decade’s worth of work with prisoners and young offenders. If they didn’t quite inherit the mantle of 7:84 that was partly because the funding landscape for theatre became bleaker as the 1990s progressed. Times change, but not that much. The ghost of John Maclean invoked in the play, and played beautifully by Tony Curran, was also conjured up in a song by Derek Lang, “The Ghost of John Maclean”, that captured the spirit of the piece:

“I can feel your heartbeat next to mine
Though we live in different times
Oh how times have changed
But in Peterhead, they’re still the same
I can feel your pain
Tell me who you are, John Maclean
John Maclean …
I can feel your anger towards me
Johnny can’t you see
No-one knows like me
What it’s like to be insane.
I can hear you breathing in my sleep
Pacing up and down will you greet
You were just a working man trying to lend a hand
I understand.
There is no answer I can give to you
They lock you up for what we do
Knock you black and blue
Yes that’s what they do, well it’s true.
I can feel your heartbeat next to mine
Though we live in different times
Oh how times have changed
But in Peterhead, they’re still the same.”

No Mean Fighter wasn’t my only involvement in collaborative theatre in 1992. From the Calton to Catalonia, the play that prompted Billy Elliott to call me in the first place, was revived for the Edinburgh Fringe. The Lions of Lisbon, the comedy I co-wrote with Ian Auld about Celtic winning the European Cup in 1967, roared from Mayfest through the Arches and the Tron all the way to the Pavilion in September of that year, playing to 10,000 punters in the process. As well as these three plays I was involved in co-writing, I had another iron in the fire that summer. I was at Glasgow Arts Centre during the 6-week rehearsal period for Rain Dog’s dazzling production of Macbeth, directed by Robert Carlyle, and was credited as “Academic Advisor” in the company’s publicity. But 30 years down the line, No Mean Fighter retains a special place in my heart. It came out of the blue and made a huge impact, on audiences and on all those involved. It was traumatic as well as dramatic. Prison drama presents its own demands, and working with prisoners serving life sentences for serious crimes was something that was new and challenging for all of us, but rewarding too. The play’s the thing, and in the end what was produced was a model of collaborative theatre in action.

Cat A Theatre Company Edinburgh Fringe First Winners 1992

2023 sees the centenary of the death of John Maclean. It will be an opportunity for a timely reassessment of his outstanding contribution to international class struggle. Maclean’s arguments for socialism and revolutionary internationalism remain as relevant as ever. 2023 will also, coincidentally, witness the 50th anniversary of the unique penal experiment that was Barlinnie Special Unit. Who knows, maybe No Mean Fighter, a prison drama that turned political theatre inside out three decades ago will get another outing. (10)

(1) Joyce McMillan, ‘The Evil That Good Men Do’, The Guardian (8 May 1992).
(2) Scotland on Sunday (May 24, 1992).
(3) John Linklater, review of No Mean Fighter at the Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh, The Herald (1 September 1992), p.11.
(4) Joanna Coles, ‘Edinburgh Festival: From the Obscure to the Vicious: The Highs and Lows of the Edinburgh Festival’, The Guardian (September 5, 1992), p.24.
(5) Jackie McGlone, ‘That Was the Fringe That Was’, The Herald (September 5, 1992), p.9
(6) George Byatt, ‘Lean, Mean Theatre from Behind Bars’, The Scotsman (2 April 1993).
(7) Stewart Hennessey, ‘No Holds Barred. Mean Fighter, Tron Theatre, Glasgow’,
The Herald (April 1, 1993), p.14.
(8) Ajay Close, ‘There’s No Room for Indecision on a Visit to Cat. A Theatre’, Scotland on Sunday (April 4, 1993).
(9) Keith Bruce, ‘The Not-Bob-Dylan Show Gets a Special Welcome’, The Herald (May 10, 1993), p.7.
(10) The title of the play is taken from a biography of one John Maclean’s comrades, Harry McShane: No Mean Fighter, by Harry McShane and Joan Smith (London: Pluto Press, 1978). There were also echoes of No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums, by Alexander McArthur and Herbert Kingsley Long (London: Longmans, 1935).

The Beatles and Bloody Sunday

The Beatles knew a thing or two about being banned. “A Day in the Life”, one of their finest songs, and the highlight of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was banned by the BBC in May 1967, and their last Number One, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, was banned by many radio stations in the United States two years later. Drugs and religion were taboo subjects. (1) “A Day in the Life” was banned because the BBC was all ears when it came to any references to drugs that might be getting sneaked onto the radio under the radar: “The BBC rationalized the ban in part on how they read the song’s verbal text: references to smoking, dreams, and turning on all sent warning signals to people who were not exactly sure what was being said.” (2) The BBC was tuning into subtext having reached the conclusion that references to drugs and sex were hiding in plain sight in contemporary music, and John Lennon might be turning on more than the radio as Paul McCartney went into his daydream: “At the BBC, a committee reached its own interpretations after […] listening to ‘A Day in the Life’. They concluded that they would not broadcast a recording that alluded to drug use, even if the reference proved relatively obscure to the vast majority of their listeners.” (3) The Beatles heard the news just as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was being launched. The best track on the latest album by the world’s greatest band was greeted with a ban: “That evening (Friday 19 May) at manager Brian Epstein’s flat in Belgravia, the Beatles learned of the ban at the album’s press release party.” (4) As Gordon Thompson remarks: “The banning of ‘A Day in the Life’ was a remarkable event, not only because it was the first Beatles recording to receive such treatment in Britain, but also because that decision came in the context of the social and political events of those momentous months of the summer of 1967, the so-called ‘Summer of Love’.” (5)

John and Yoko: Some Time in Derry City
Fifty years ago, John Lennon wrestled with his conscience as a pacifist and as a person of Irish descent distressed by the news from Ireland. He spoke at a rally in New York six days after Bloody Sunday, on Saturday 5th February 1972, where he gave his name and said “you know the rest”. His genealogy, his family history, was its own explanation of affiliation. Names can tell people who you are, and where you’re coming from. Clearly more comfortable with Civil Rights than armed struggle, speaking of nationalist and republican resistance, Lennon remarked: “I understand why they’re doing it, and if it’s a choice between the IRA and the British army, I’m with the IRA. But if it’s a choice between violence and nonviolence, I’m with nonviolence. So it’s a very delicate line […] Our backing of the Irish people is really done through the Irish Civil Rights, which is not the IRA. […] I’m always getting accused of hopping from subject to subject – ‘one minute he’s on meditation, the next he’s on peace’ … Well, the Irish thing isn’t new for me. I was always on the Irish thing’”. (6) In 1972, Lennon (with Yoko Ono) released his third post-Beatles album, Some Time in New York City (Apple/EMI). John Weiner calls both the Irish songs on that album, “Luck of the Irish” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “failures”, and says of Lennon’s brief involvement with Irish politics: “He should have done more.” (7)
Weiner quotes American feminist Kate Millett, a friend and supporter of John and Yoko – she wrote a letter opposing their proposed deportation – who said of Lennon’s Irish songs: “It takes being there a while – and with political people – before you can claim this cause which has been creeping up on you forever. He must have felt a certain foolishness: ‘Liverpool Irish, what’s that?’” (8) As well as sounding patronising – as if the “Liverpool Irish” weren’t as valid a diaspora as any other, especially given that many of them are in Liverpool because of the Famine and British imperialism – it implies that there are “political people” who matter more than politically-minded and motivated working-class songwriters. Ironically, one of John and Yoko’s statements after Bloody Sunday was: “We ask for the American Irish to wake up to their responsibility in the same way the Jewish people respond to the problems of Israel”. (9) Nobody said: “American Irish, what’s that?”, though they might have said, “Do you mean Irish American?”
Speaking of the song “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Lennon said: “Most other people express themselves by shouting or playing football at the weekend […] But me, here I am in New York and I hear about the thirteen people shot dead in Ireland, and I react immediately. And being what I am, I react in four-to-the-bar with a guitar break in the middle. I don’t say ‘My God what’s happening … we should do something’.” (10)
Lennon “reacted immediately”, as an activist and an artist with an Irish connection:
“Well it was Sunday Bloody Sunday
When they shot the people there
The cries of thirteen martyrs
Filled the Free Derry air
Is there any one amongst you
Dare to blame it on the kids?
Not a soldier boy was bleeding
When they nailed the coffin lids.”
John Lennon/Yoko Ono, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, Sometime in New York City, Apple/EMI, 1972.
Lennon never lived to see the tenth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, never mind the fiftieth. He never lived to see peace being given a chance in Ireland. He’d have been on the march and in the news.

McCartney and the New McCarthyism
John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been together in New York the day before Bloody Sunday. As McCartney recalled: “It was a meeting at which we more or less agreed to stop sniping at each other”. If Lennon answered the call for action and solidarity, or at least for artistic reflection and understanding, then Paul McCartney, waiting in the wings, got in on the act too with the song “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”, co-written with Linda-McCartney. Released on 25 February 1972, it spent eight weeks in the British charts despite being banned by the BBC:
“Give Ireland back to the Irish
Don’t make them have to take it away
Give Ireland back to the Irish
Make Ireland Irish today.”
Paul McCartney/Wings, ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’, EMI, 1972.
McCartney appears to have enacted a self-censorship of sorts in 2001 when “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” was not included in a double CD retrospective, Wingspan (2001), despite being a top twenty hit on its initial release.
Roger Friedman, reviewing the release of the double CD Wingspan in 2001, gloated over the omission of McCartney’s Irish song: “Also gone, obliterated now from Wings history, is McCartney’s one attempt at a protest song, ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish,’ from 1972. It was after John Lennon eviscerated McCartney on his Imagine album with the song “How Do You Sleep At Night?’ that McCartney hit back with this political number. ‘Give Ireland back to the Irish,’ he sang, ‘Don’t make them have to take it away/Give Ireland Back to the Irish/Make Ireland Irish today.’ Of course, in 2001, Paul McCartney is a prominent member of the British upper class. He’s been knighted and fêted. ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish,’ which actually charted all the way up to the top 20 in 1972, would not be so amusing now. Another verse goes: ‘Tell me how would you like it/If on your way to work/You were stopped by Irish soldiers/Would you lie down do nothing/Would you give in, or go berserk?’ The single is a collector’s item, although it was included on a rare import version of the Wings Wild Life album.” (11)
According to Marilyn Flood: “the BBC banned political songs, including ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ by Paul McCartney and Wings, because the mention of the title implied the station had a political position on Northern Ireland […] The banning meant that the name of the song, which occupied a high position on a weekly list of best-selling songs, had to be omitted by any disc jockey. He or she would merely state that position ‘x’ on the list was occupied by an unspecified Paul McCartney song”. (12) Occupied indeed. Martin Cloonan alludes to “the ban on the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ in the context of the drug scare of 1967”, and adds: “But while some bans seem inane years later, bans on such records as ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ […] can become more pertinent when seen in the light of moves such as the British government’s 1988 ban on the broadcast of statements by ‘terrorists’”. (13)

Banned on the Run?: Wings Over Ireland

Recalling the controversy, McCartney remarked: “‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ was written after Bloody Sunday. British soldiers had fired at a crowd of demonstrators and there were deaths. From our point of view, looking at it on the TV news, it was the first time people questioned what we were doing in Ireland. It was so shocking. I wasn’t really into protest songs – John had done that – but this time I felt that I had to write something, to use my art to protest. I wrote ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’, we recorded it and I was promptly phoned by the chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, explaining that they wouldn’t release it. He thought it was too inflammatory. I told him that I felt strongly about it and that they had to release it, and he said, ‘Well, it’ll be banned’. And of course it was – the BBC could not play it. But it was number one in Ireland, and in Spain for some reason. It was just one of those things you have to do in life because you believe in the cause. And protest was in the context of the times. I knew ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ wasn’t an easy route, but it just seemed to me to be the time. I had to say something. All of us in Wings felt the same about it. But Henry McCullough’s brother, who lived in Northern Ireland, was beaten up because of it. The thugs found out that Henry was in Wings.” (14)
Despite its initial reception, McCartney hasn’t disowned the song. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” is in the news again, and The Beatles are back on the front page. Watching Peter Jackson’s monumental documentary about The Beatles makes you realise how recent and alive the past is a half-century on, and how memorable the dead can be, how vivid and vibrant they are when restored to brilliant colour. We saw “Get Back”, the title track, being plucked like magic from the air, starting out as a protest song about immigration and morphing into something else entirely.
The release of Peter Jackson’s documentary coincided with the publication of Paul McCartney’s two-volume magnum opus The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, produced in conversation with celebrated Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who has cast an arched eyebrow over Irish history and the poets who attempt to engage with it, often awkwardly. Like the Get Back documentary, The Lyrics is a hugely ambitious project, revisiting McCartney’s output over a 65-year period, a lifetime’s achievement in lyrics. The epigraph is from Shakespeare – “To thine own self be true”, the advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes in the tragedy of Hamlet shortly before they both die. Beyond the epigraph there are many Shakespearean echoes – “Let It Be” has the ring of “To be or not to be” about it – and McCartney’s claim to be a kind of modern Shakespeare is borne out by the sheer range and quality of the poetry on show here. If McCartney is Shakespeare maybe John Lennon was an early collaborator, like Christopher Marlowe. Six pages of McCartney’s The Lyrics are devoted to “Give Ireland Back to the Irish”, in striking text and images. (15) The song still stands as testimony to a moment in time when one of the world’s foremost songwriters and artists responded to an event that shook the world. McCartney speaks of his own Irish heritage: “My mother’s father, Owen Mohan, was from Tullynamalra in County Monaghan. At some point he moved to Liverpool, where he worked as a coalman. I’m not quite sure precisely where my paternal grandfather was born in Ireland but I do know his family were Protestants. My brother and I were baptised Roman Catholic at the insistence of my mother, but we were raised nondenominationally. So, our household represented in microcosm the Irish political and religious divide”. (16)
McCartney’s song was treated harshly on its release. The record company didn’t like it. The BBC banned it. The critics tried to bury it, and later claimed it was an embarrassment omitted from a back catalogue so vast it could let such a damp squib quietly drop. But songs have wings and since the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016 there is arguably a more open and honest re-examination of the past. One of the most insidious aspects of censorship is not the harm it does at the time to an individual work or artist, or the deadening impact on public discourse and debate, but the cumulative effect it has on the tendency to self-censor. Artists and audiences internalise bans and it’s the censor in the head that proves to be the state’s most effective filter. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” is back in the news again. Lennon’s on sale and onside again. The old story that claimed McCartney was just a copycat trying to compete with his former songwriting partner by writing a protest song doesn’t hold up. The art of the protest song has changed in the transition from folk to rock to pop to punk to rap. John Lennon was certainly steeped in movement politics before the Beatles broke up, drawn to causes, particularly peace movements. But Paul wasn’t hanging on to his old pal’s coattails by recording a protest song. Two Liverpool Irish lads with so much in common – like mothers lost at an early age – continued to find common cause after they separated as a team. They may have rushed their paces, but they picked up their guitars while others picked up guns, or carried the dead and wounded off the streets. The Beatles, in Peter Jackson’s mesmerising restoration of their January 1969 rehearsals, are almost psychedelic in their rejuvenated brilliance, brought back to life in loving detail, there in the room with you, lucid on the screen like diamonds as they craft the songs that would make their way onto Abbey Road and Let It Be. By contrast the black and white footage of Bloody Sunday shot three years later is otherworldly in a different way. A priest waving a white handkerchief. “Father McKenzie/Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave/No one was saved”.(17)

(1) See Martha Bari, ‘Taking It to the Streets: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 War Is Over! Campaign’, in Eric J. Schruers and Kristina Olson (eds.), Social Practice Art in Turbulent Times: The Revolution Will Be Live (New York: Routledge, 2019), 33-44. See also Nathan Timmons, ‘John, Paul, Jorge, and Ringo: Borges, Beatles, and the Metaphor of Celebrity Crucifixion’, The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 23, 3 (2011): 382-396.
(2) Gordon R. Thompson, ‘Banning the Beatles: “A Day in the Life” at the BBC and the Creation of Radio 1’, Popular Music History 11, 2 (2016): 107-120, at 109. For an example of how a day’s news might impact on the world in different ways see Miguel De Larrinaga, ‘“A Day in the Life’: A Tomogram of Global Governmentality in Relation to the “War on Terror” on November 20th, 2003’, Geopolitics 16, 2 (2011): 306-328.
(3) Thompson, ‘Banning the Beatles’, 113.
(4) Thompson, ‘Banning the Beatles’, 114.
(5) Thompson, ‘Banning the Beatles’, 118.
(6) Cited in Jon Wiener, Come Together: John Lennon in His Time (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991; first published New York: Random House, 1984), 210. Weiner, Come Together, 210.
(7) Wiener, Come Together, 211.
(8) Kate Millett, cited in Weiner, Come Together, 211.
(9) Weiner, Come Together, 210.
(10) John Blaney, John Lennon: Listen To This Book (Guildford: Paper Jukebox, 2005), 114.
(11) Roger Friedman, ‘Sir Paul McCartney omits Ireland protest song from new CD’, https://www.foxnews.com/story/sir-paul-mccartney-omits-ireland-protest-song-from-new-cd.
(12) Marilyn J. Flood, ‘Lyrics and the Law: Censorship of Rock-and-Roll in the United States and Great Britain’, New York Law School Journal of International and Comparative Law 12, 3 (1991): 399-445, at 439, and note 428.
(13) Martin Cloonan, ‘Popular Music and Censorship in Britain: An Overview’, Popular Music & Society 19, 3 (1995): 75-104, at 100.
(14) Mark Lewisohn (ed.), Wingspan: Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run (London: Little Brown, 2002).
(15) Paul McCartney, “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”, in The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, edited by Paul Muldoon (London: Penguin, 2021), Volume 1, 216-221.
(16) McCartney, The Lyrics, 217.
(17) Just over a decade after the events of 30 January 1972, when U2 released “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on the album War (1983), it was easier to take a step back, even when your back was against the wall. Like Lennon in “Revolution 1”, and unlike the later Lennon of “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Bono refused to be drawn into the conflict, taking stock rather than taking sides:
“Broken bottles under children’s feet
Bodies strewn across the dead-end street.
But I won’t heed the battle call
It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall”.
U2, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, War, Island Records, 1983.
Writing shortly after the release of U2’s take on Bloody Sunday, Julian Vignoles compared Bono’s stadium rock anthem unfavourably with the honesty, urgency and immediacy of John and Yoko’s earlier protest song: “‘War’, the title and theme of their third album is vague, as is the only song that refers to a tangible event. ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is always introduced by Bono as ‘not a rebel song’. In John Lennon’s angry song of the same title, there’s a line: ‘Not a soldier boy was bleeding when they nailed the coffin lids …’ But U2’s message, ten years later, is more like detached frustration: “I can’t believe the news today/I can’t close my eyes and make it go away/how long, how long must we sing this song.’ The sentiments in the U2 song are commercial, mainly because they’re simple and the fact that they mention something emotive, war and conflict, without having a very definite view about it.” (Julian Vignoles, ‘What Is Irish Popular Music?’, The Crane Bag 8, 2 (1984): 70-72, at 72.) U2’s song is subtle too, because ‘”I can’t believe the news today” contains an echo of the opening line of “A Day in the Life”: “I read the news today, oh boy.”
Other critics at the time were equally scathing about Bono’s revisionist response to the events of Bloody Sunday: “In fact, far from appearing as a slogan […] the words ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ are presented through the I of an individual who has disengaged himself in space (the distance from Derry to Dublin) and time (more than ten years) from the mass emotions aroused by the event named. When sung by Bono in 1983, these words are, of course, quotation of an Irish republican catchphrase. But U2 are not the first band to quote it. John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote and recorded a song of the same title in New York in March 1972: it was released while the memory of the event itself was still vivid. It opens with an account of the shooting of ‘thirteen martyrs’, and asks, ‘Is there anyone amongst you, Dare to blame it on the kids?’ and concludes, ‘Repatriate to Britain, All of you who call it home, Leave Ireland to the Irish, Not for London or for Rome!’” (Barbara Bradby and Brian Torode, ‘To Whom Do U2 Appeal?’, The Crane Bag 8, 2 (1984): 73-78, at 75.) The conclusion these critics reach is that U2’s version of events replaces one pious discourse with another: “While the equation of Ireland with Christianity is hardly new […] U2 substitute for this feminine spirituality a militantly masculine image. Clearly their ‘ecumenical’ call is limited to the Christian population. The new meaning of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ turns out to be as exclusive as the old one, though now on a world, rather than a local, sectarian scale”. (Bradby and Brian Torode, ‘To Whom Do U2 Appeal?’, 77).

Burns and the Spanish Civil War

Robert Burns took a great interest in world affairs. In his “Elegy on the Year 1788” he notes that “The Spanish empire’s tint a head”, an allusion to the death of King Charles III of Spain on 13 December that year. Spain had fought with France against Britain, and in 1763 had swapped Florida for Havana in an imperial peace deal with Britain. This was at the end of the Seven Years War, also known as the French and Indian War. Charles had brough back the Inquisition, which nobody expected. The Spanish Empire, founded on 17 April 1492, soldiered on for another 200 years after it lost its head in 1788, suffering a major loss in Spanish Morocco on 2 March 1956, finally dying with another despot, Franco, on 20 November 1975, although others say it ended on 12 October 1968 with the declaration of Spanish Guinea as an independent republic renamed Equatorial Guinea. But as Burns well knew, “rank is but the guinea’s stamp”, and class and colonialism are closely connected. If the seeds of fascism in Spain were planted in Morocco in the 1920s with the formation of the Spanish Legion and the Army of Africa, then they sprouted on Spanish soil in the 1930s. (1) Empire was, as Paul Preston has shown, a major driver of fascism. The Spanish Civil War was a colonial war: “the right coped with the loss of a ‘real’ overseas empire by internalizing the empire … by regarding metropolitan Spain as the empire and the proletariat as the subject colonial race”. (2) The British Empire and the Spanish Empire were both virulently anti-communist. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the British imperial monarchy viewed Franco as the lesser of two evils. Gibraltar was a bargaining counter for Franco’s fascist state. (3) Don’t touch the rock and your system’s safe with us. (4) As well as Gibraltar, Spain also had the Canaries up the leg of its drawers. (5) It was from his outpost in Tenerife on the Canary Islands that Franco made his way to Las Palmas de Gran Canarias to board the plane on 15 July 1936 that would take him to Tetuán in Spanish Morocco in advance of the military rising against the democratically elected government of Spain on 18 July. A secret meeting of the British Cabinet at the end of 1936 discussed “The Situation in Spain” and noted that: “If General Franco had won the war earlier, no great difficulties would have arisen”. (6)

The influence of Robert Burns was felt across the Spanish-speaking world. Burns made his way to Spain through the book trade from an early date. As John Stone notes, “in the 1780s, maritime trade with Scotland could keep John Hunter abreast of William Creech’s edition of Robert Burns’s poems, to which he and two other Cádiz Anglophones subscribed. Cádiz- and nearby sherry-merchants continue to appear on British subscribers’ lists well into the nineteenth century; and sons were regularly schooled in British Catholic institutions”. (7) But the link appears tenuous at times. Nigel Leask examines the evidence for one suggested source: “During the U.S. invasion of Mexico from 1846 to 1848 (itself prompted by the U.S. annexation of the newly independent republic of Texas in 1845) a favorite marching song for the U.S. troops was Robert Burns’s “Green Grow the Rashes O” – hostile Mexicans quickly dubbed the invaders “Gringos,” parroting the opening words of their marching song. There may be some truth in this – the OED records its first usage in 1849, on the U.S./Mexican border – and the Mexicans certainly had good reason to be bitter, given that fifty-five percent of their sovereign territory was ceded to the U.S. government at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. But if the story is true, it is ironic that Burns’s tender love lyric in praise of the female sex should have been converted into a marching song, and then provided ammunition for Mexican resentment of their northern neighbours”. (8)
This threadbare etymology was unpicked some time ago by Father Charles Ronan, an expert on the colonial period of Latin American history: “While the story of the song-singing and the name-calling may be true, the etymological explanation is incorrect. The word was in use at least a century before the outbreak of the conflict of 1846. The word gringo was mentioned in Spanish literature as early as the eighteenth century. In his famous Diccionario compiled before 1750, Esteban Terreros y Pando, a Spanish Jesuit states that gringo was a nickname given to foreigners in Málaga and Madrid who spoke Spanish with an accent, and that in Madrid the term had special reference to the Irish. The pertinent passage in the Diccionario reads (in translation): ‘Gringo – in Málaga, what they call foreigners who have a certain kind of accent which prevents their speaking Spanish with ease and spontaneity; and in Madrid the case is the same, and for the same reason, with respect to the Irish’”. (9) Ronan acknowledges that the origins of “gringo” have been kicked into the long grass: “Scholars are not in agreement about the correct etymology of the word. According to one opinion, gringo is a corrupted form of griego, as used in the ancient Spanish expression hablar en griego – that is, to speak an unintelligible language, or to speak ‘in Greek’”. (10)
There are certainly ties between Burns and Mexico in the nineteenth century. That country’s national poet of the time, Guillermo Prieto (1818-1897) was lauded as a Burnsian Bard: “The most popular poet in the republic is the venerable Guillermo Prieto, who […] has […] been called the Robert Burns of the republic, and, like the Scottish poet, he sings the songs of the people. Identifying himself with them in feeling, he is able to express their every emotion, and in their own tongue.” (11) By the end of the nineteenth century Burns was becoming a byword for popular poetry, poetry of resistance, radicalism, and republicanism.

Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet killed by Franco’s forces in 1936, has been compared with Burns on several occasions and has been translated into English with Burns in mind: “For Philip Cummings, author of the first English version of Canciones, Lorca’s status as an Andalusian Robert Burns complicates the translation of his poems: ‘Just as Robert Burns needs interpretation for the non-Celt, so does Lorca require much explanation to the reader … The innate pattern of a people can only be fully comprehended by that folk [and] this is usually disaster for the translator’”. (12) Another translator of Lorca, the Hemingwayesque pro-Franco, anti-communist catholic convert and all-round eccentric Roy Campbell also invoked Burns: “We are reminded, in Lorca’s American venture, of Burns when he went into high society at Edinburgh and started to write like a courtier and gentleman of the world. It was a fiasco. Lorca’s talent is not cosmopolitan, and it did not flourish far from the scent of the orange groves of the South”. (13) Going back to “gringo” for a moment, influenced by Burns, a later translator of Lorca’s “Gypsy Ballads” renders “Verde que te quiero verde” as “Green grows my love, my love grows green”. (14) The translator concedes that he has “scoured the English tradition of Robert Burns” for suitable analogues for Lorca’s verse. (15)

Burns, as the people’s poet, has been associated with communism and socialism for a long time. Marx was a great admirer: “Dante and Robert Burns ranked among his favourite poets and he would listen with great pleasure to his daughters reciting or singing the Scottish poet’s satires or ballads”. (16) If the French Revolution had made its mark on Burns then the Russian Revolution impacted on his twentieth-century admirers: “Robert Burns in the highly esteemed translations by Samuil Marshak became ‘a Russian’ […] According to the catch phrase by Aleksandr Tvardovskii ‘On sdelal Bernsa russkim, ostaviv ego shotlandtsem’ [He made Burns a Russian while keeping him a Scot]”. (17) From 1917 onwards the Scottish socialist reception of Burns was picking up steam. (18) In 1930 a pamphlet appeared from the Scottish Office of the Communist Party in Glasgow, entitled Burns Belongs to the People. This short booklet, just 24 pages, covers a lot of ground, part biography, part history, part criticism. It claims Burns as an internationalist: “Burns is much more than a National Poet. He is international in his appeal, and one of the greatest Lyric Poets of all time. To-day, in Russia, he ranks next to Shakespeare among foreign poets, and that must be very pleasing to Robert if his Shade has been watching what has happened in that great country since the Revolution”. (19) Interestingly, the pamphlet makes no claims for Burns as a socialist, seeing this as out of step with the period in which he lives and wrote: “The question, ‘Was Burns a Socialist’, has been asked ever since there has been an active Socialist Movement , and there have always been foolhardy propagandists prepared to answer it in the affirmative. Naturally much of Burns’ work contains angry protests against the social injustices of his day […] But protests against the inequalities and injustices of a class society have been common in all ages and do not add up to Socialism. Burns was a radical democrat, living in the era of the American and the French Revolutions, who used his poetry as a vehicle for his progressive opinions”. (20) The pamphlet concludes with a vision of a future that places the specific national predicament of Scotland in an international frame: “There cannot, of course, be a flourishing Scotland in the midst of an oppressed and disintegrating world; that is why Burns was interested in the great international events of his day – the American and French Revolutions. But that ought not to mean that we are not to tackle any Scots problems until the world has been finally put right. Because of the character of its industries, Scotland will face a more difficult transitional period than many other countries, and its workers must begin now to demand from the Government a policy that will prevent the country going down in a welter of mass unemployment”. (21) And the booklet ends with a verse of Burns’ chosen for its rousing finale: “Scotland’s working-class representatives must be foremost in the fight against those who would prevent Scotland from taking her true place in the new world order of peace and brotherhood –
‘Now, for my friends’ and brethren’s sakes,
And for my dear loved Land-o’-Cakes,
I pray with holy fire,
Lord, send a rough-shod troop o’ hell,
O’er a’ wad Scotland buy, or sell,
To grind them in the mire’.” (22)
This closing call to arms sums up a certain view of the poetry of Burns as a rallying cry for popular protest.
Scottish anarchist Stuart Christie was certainly radicalised at school by Burns: “To me, Burns expressed, in its most succinct form, the ideal and the essence of socialism – which had to do with justice, liberty and the overthrow of tyranny […] nothing […] could match Burns’ spine tingling call to liberty and resistance to oppression in Bruce’s Address to his army at Bannockburn. Equally, who could grow up to be anything but a class war socialist on reading Burns’ clarion call to egalitarianism in A Man’s A Man For A’ That”. (23) Christie was arrested in Madrid in August 1964, aged eighteen, and charged with being part of a plot to blow up Franco at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium during the final of the Generalissimo’s Cup. The penalty, had it been carried out, was death by garrotte, which involved slow strangulation by an iron collar, topped off by a bolt through the back of the neck. But not all readers of Burns grow up to be class war socialists.
Leading Burns scholar Murray Pittock takes a dim view of the communist version of Burns: “The intensity of sentiment and dislike of repression evident to many in Burns’s poetry did not prevent him from being used as an instrument of Communist repression, however, in a Russia familiar with Burns translations since 1800. The Communist Party office in Scotland issued Burns Belongs to the People in 1930, and it is perhaps a moot point whether this text was influential on the rapid development of the poet’s popularity in the Soviet Union, where Samuel Marshak’s translations (published 353 times between 1938 and 2006) became dominant. They portrayed a poet who was indeed the voice of the people, and was indeed a political poet: but his voice was that of the proletariat devoted to Marxist-Leninist ideology. […] For a poet used as a tool of Soviet ascendancy, the successor states of the USSR and the freed countries of Eastern Europe continue to be home to many published translations of Burns, with sixty-nine appearing in these countries since the fall of Communism, despite the official Russian view apparently remaining that Burns was a ‘socialist poet.’ Burns’s association with Stalinist propaganda has not damaged his standing as a writer linked with the national independence of former Communist bloc countries, a collection of his poetry in translation being published early in the days of in an independent Croatia.” (24)
This triumphalist tone is not merely the dying embers of Cold War rhetoric. In the 1930s, many Catholics in Scotland – and in Ireland – supported Franco, with fascism viewed as preferable to communism by the Catholic church, pulpit and press. Calling something “Soviet” or “Stalinist” may be a convenient shorthand, even for an academic, but those terms are no more straightforward than, say, “Scottish”, which covers a multitude of sins and sinners, or “Burnsian”, which might embrace the most egalitarian republican and the most conservative nationalist, or even “Catholic”, which can embrace imperial monarchists and socialist republicans. The complexity of taking sides on the Spanish Civil War as a catholic can be captured by the fact that radical Roscommon priest Father Michael O’Flanagan was a vigorous opponent of fascism, while Brendan Kielty from Belfast, a veteran of the Irish Republican movement, signed up with the Blueshirts and went off to fight for Franco, rejoining the IRA on his return. Nothing is black and white when it’s blue and green and red. (25)
Transnational Francoism was certainly a notable phenomenon, with the Friends of National Spain (FNS) formed in London in October 1937, quickly followed by a matching outfit north of the border: “Less than six months after the FNS was officially established in England, a Scottish branch was inaugurated in Glasgow under the gaze of General Franco’s portrait. An Edinburgh branch followed in June 1938. Echoing the objects of the London-based FNS, the Scottish branch explained that the society aimed at spreading the ‘true facts about the present conflict in Spain and thereby defend the Christian religion against the attack of the anti-God campaign’”. (26) Despite the best efforts of Scottish socialists like John Wheatley in the 1920s to characterise Catholicism as “the church of the proletariat”, the hierarchy in Scotland and in Ireland consistently came out against the radical left. (27) Tom Gallagher noted that “By the end of the 1920s, it was becoming apparent that in Scotland the new atheistic and marxist CPGB was gaining many of its recruits from among Catholic workers”. Gallagher, ‘Scottish Catholics and the British Left, 1918-1939’, 34. Gallagher says of the fight against Franco: “While it lasted, the Spanish civil war had a destructive effect on the fabric of politics in the west of Scotland. It divided Catholic families in a city which gave more recruits to the pro-republican International Brigade than any other in these islands. More importantly it produced disillusionment with the aims of socialism, the triumph of authoritarianism in 1939 being only the latest in a series of body-blows which had included the 1926 general strike and Macdonald’s betrayal of the 1931 Labour government. But a severance of the relationship between Catholic voters and the Labour party was avoided after 1936 because those disaffected with the left over Spain had nowhere else to go”. (28) The British Catholic press – The Catholic Herald, The Month, The Tablet, The Universe – had come out in support of Franco, but that did not stop Scottish catholic socialists, republicans, and internationalists from going to fight the fascism that the leaders of their faith were backing. (29)
Douglas Woodruff, editor of The Tablet, declared on 11th February 1939 that “no sane and instructed man would hesitate to prefer Fascism to Communism […] and it is the plain duty of the Catholics, for the sanity of their fellow-countrymen, not to join or encourage this antiFascist crusade”. In Britain as a whole it’s been claimed that fascism drew its strongest support from Catholics, reflected in membership of the Blackshirts: “The closest to a concrete estimate of the number of Catholics in the movement comes from a Blackshirt article in May 1935 which claims that they made up 12 per cent of the leadership”. (30) And then there were the Blueshirts. Christy Moore’s great song about the International Brigades nails beautifully the effects of reactionary right-wing religious indoctrination: “Many Irishmen heard the call of Franco/ Joined Hitler and Mussolini too/ Propaganda from the pulpit and newspapers/ Helped O’Duffy to enlist his crew/ The word came from Maynooth: ‘Support the Fascists.’/ The men of cloth failed yet again/ When the bishops blessed the blueshirts in Dun Laoghaire/ As they sailed beneath the swastika to Spain.”
In Scotland, Willie Gallacher, Communist MP for West Fife, was heckled at meetings in his constituencies by Catholic supporters of Franco. (31) A very vocal Scottish Friends of National Spain organisation held a banquet at the Grosvenor Restaurant in Glasgow on 2 February 1939 to celebrate the fall of Barcelona to Franco. Charles Sarolea, Belgian-born Professor of French at the University of Edinburgh, and voluble anti-Communist was guest of honour. (32) Elsewhere, International Brigader and ILP member David Murray warned that with Franco’s victory: “Spain would be pushed back to the time of Columbus […] Spain under clerical-fascist domination […] will be a mass cemetery”. (33) But despite the propaganda from the pulpit very many working-class radicals brought up in the faith defied the church to fight for the Spanish Republic. International Brigaders from Ireland and Scots from Irish-Catholic backgrounds fought for the British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade. My father, James Maley, was among them, and although I was brought up outside of the church he always said to me when I told him everyone assumed I was a Catholic: “Just let them stew in their own juices”.
Personally, I prefer the image of a radical Burns as envisaged by Robert Crawford, who writes of Burns with a poet’s sensitivity as well as with a mind open to European and wider democratic movements: “We should see Burns as part of the mind of Europe not least for his incipient republicanism”. (34) According to Crawford, “Being bardic meant being bolshie”, and Burns produced work with “a bolshie political edge”. (35) Crawford insists on seeing Burns as a poet of radicalism and resistance: “Burns’s glory as a political poet lies in a democratic impulse subtly inflected in ways that are republican and Scottish nationalist. This makes him awkward for a British establishment which has constantly tried to tame him”. (36) The kind of poet Crawford imagines Burns to be is quite in keeping with the impact he had on Scottish socialists in the 1930s and after: “Relishing a sense of his rebellious past, Burns’s conversation moved readily from Jacobite convictions to Jacobin, republican ones”. (37) For Burns, “the Scottish muses were all Jacobites”, and as Crawford says, “Jacobites were generally opposed to the 1707 political Union between Scotland and England”. Crawford, The Bard, 26. Crawford remarks that “It takes a tin ear and narrow mind to miss the sense of conviction and protested radical idealism in” Burns’ poetry. (38) But tin ears and tinfoil hats abound in Burns studies.

Alec Piper spoke of the entertainment the International Brigades enjoyed at Madrigueras on the eve of Jarama: “The Popular Front authorities of the village have provided every facility for our training and recreation; they have lent the cinema for the concerts which we put on for our members. These are always very successful and have revealed a lot of talent among the lads, such as the Scottish comrades who celebrated their Hogmanay and Burns nights with traditional parties”. (39) The Burns Supper at the “Republican Café” in Madrigueras had songs and speeches, including a recitation of “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” by Peter Kerrigan: “The greatest social evening ever celebrated by the volunteers in Madrigueras was on January 25th, the night dedicated by all Scotsmen to Robert Burns, the people’s poet […] But next day nearly everyone had dysentery, and the English and Irish blamed it on to Burns”. (40) The supper may have been an issue, or maybe it was the drink that took its toll. The local vino was a new beverage to many of the men, and my father, James Maley, who was at Madrigueras at the time and was a teetotaller recalled having to carry some comrades wounded by the wine.
James Hopkins, in his excellent study of the Spanish Civil War, Into the Heart of the Fire (1998), remarks on the significance of the Burns Supper before the Battle of Jarama that would prove to be a last supper for many of the men who celebrated the bard that evening: “The large number of Scottish volunteers in the battalion ensured that the anniversary of Robert Burns’ birthday on January 25, 1937, would be celebrated with special exuberance, and with as much wine as could be obtained. […] Typically, there is a special meal, a Burns Supper, consisting of haggis, turnips, and potatoes. In the absence of these ingredients, the boisterous volunteers ate sardines with their bayonets. On this night, which would be the last such celebration for many Scots in the battalion, Peter Kerrigan remembered that Burns’ ‘lovely haunting love songs and folk ballads were sung. We even permitted the English, Welsh, and Irish to make their contributions, and right well they did’. Several Scottish brigaders actually wore kilts, much to the consternation of the Spaniards. The gravest difficulty arose, however, when no copies of Burns’ poems could be found. Nevertheless, some of the men remembered the words to his poems. And none of the more than 100 Scots celebrating the evening would have forgotten Burns’ poem, ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That.’ Certainly not on this night […] To quote from and speak on Robert Burns was much more than an evening of cultural reminiscence. Burns was the poet laureate of Scotland’s poor, as well as any other reader who believed in the artificiality of Britain’s class distinctions and could agree with Burns that, ultimately, ‘rank is but the guinea’s stamp.’ Consequently, no one had to be prompted to emphasize the political importance of Burns to the volunteers. Victor Kiernan points out that in contrast to the English workers many volunteers from Scotland possessed an instinctive rather than an intellectual internationalism, attributing it to Scotland’s historically greater openness to continental influences and interests. But the Burns’ Night celebrated in Spain suggests that their poet spoke to his fellow countrymen of a world that was one because all men were brothers, a concept that was equally powerful to militants on both sides of the Tweed.” (41)
This claim for the comradeship and internationalism invoked by Burns is borne out by the correspondence of one English brigader: “David Crook wrote to friends in England of this January night in 1937. There were ‘excellent talks’ on Burns ‘as a poet of the poverty-stricken Scottish peasantry.’ Crook said that his comrades spoke powerfully on Burns’ ‘revolutionary equalitarianism, his support of the French Revolution and international outlook.’ With an astonished pleasure as he remembered those gathered for the occasion, Crook wrote, ‘All are honest to God British proletarian types.’ When Crook said, ‘Never has there been such a Burns night’, surely he was correct. Facing battle, could British soldiers previously assembled from different classes, ethnic backgrounds, and ways of life agree: ‘That man to man, the warld o’er / Shall brithers be for a’ that’? In less than three weeks many of those who attended this most extraordinary of Burns’ Nights would be lying dead or wounded a few miles away on their first and final battlefield.” (42) The influence of Robert Burns was felt in a whole Scottish radical tradition, one that saw the fight for the Spanish Republic as a key moment in the history of the Left. (43)

In an important article on Spanish translations of Burns, or their relative absence com pared to other writers, even allowing for censorship under Franco, Andrew Monnickendam remarks: “There are four […] reasons that might explain Burns’s low profile. First, and most obviously, is the problem of language. This initially seems the most convincing and material argument of all. Spanish readers found him difficult to read in the original. In addition, the lack of any translation until 1940, with the exception of individual poems, meant that Burns was inaccessible. […] However, if language was a barrier, there were translations in French. […] So Burns was available both in original editions and translations. Second is the question of periodization. Burns is applauded for his contribution to Romanticism, yet this is not necessarily commendable. […] Burns’s and Blake’s fates shows that Spanish culture, perhaps more than most, depends heavily on categorization, as no author, composer or artist, it would seem, can exist outside a period or movement. So, however great Burns is, he is always going to be located at the margins; or, to be able to fit in somewhere, the new category of pre-Romanticism has to be concocted. […] Third is the matter of canonicity. [The] Romantic, nineteenth-century canon is the standard one of English poetry. It is completely masculine and deeply conservative […] Within this intellectual framework, Burns has no place. Finally, there is the counterproductive influence of Scott. Burns would seem to be an ideal model for Spanish romanticism: both for national romanticism – Spain as a whole — or for its diverse autonomous regions. There are many reasons for this, but I will restrict myself to two, both related to language. With an emerging interest and respect for cultural difference, Burns would seem to fit the bill better than Scott. In addition, within Spain, there is also a tradition of collecting and publishing songs and ballads, or imitating them […] Although Burns would seem to be an equally relevant reference, Scott’s fame makes him unrivalled; there seems to be no room for any other Scot.” (44)
Sergi Mainer has written of the challenges facing those who sought to publish Burns in Spanish in Franco’s Spain, beginning with the pioneering translation of 1940: “Even more than other writers from the British Isles, Burns’s political, religious and personal views were the antithesis of Spain’s reinvention of itself as an authoritarian Catholic dictatorship. Politically, Burns was a fervent admirer of the American Revolution, an early sympathizer with the French Revolution and a later supporter of Republicanism […] Added to this, his language of expression, Scots, and culture were at odds with Franco’s unifying conception of the nation, in which minority cultures and languages were to be suppressed. Finally, Burns was a Calvinist who hated religious bigotry whereas the Spanish state defined itself as Catholic and acted according to a very conservative, narrow understanding of religion.” (45)
Mainer argues that the Spanish translation was an intervention into history, reframing Burns as a poet of minority voices and marginalised people: “In the 1940s publication of his poems by Yunque, Robert Burns is transculturalized and assimilated into the aftermath of the Civil War. His universal themes of freedom, human suffering and vindication of one’s culture are temporally and spatially recontextualized, potentially giving a voice to social, political and cultural minorities. In 1940 Spain, when Franco’s repression of dissident ideologies was at its peak, Burns’s poems challenge the official discourse by putting forward an alternative vision of war. Instead of celebrating the Nationalists’ victory and heroism, it contemplates a much more tragic perspective in which the horrors of war and the consequences of exile are expounded”. (46)

I began with Robert Burns, and I’ll end with another Burns, two in fact, a journalist and author by the name of Jimmy Burns, and his father, Tom Burns, a leading Catholic publisher and later editor of The Tablet (1967-82), who served the British government in Spain during World War Two. Jimmy is the author of splendid book entitled La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football. Like all the best books about football, La Roja offers a rich cultural and political history. Burns discusses the Spanish Civil War and the vicious nature of the fascist dictator who emerged victorious: “Franco was brutal on and off the pitch”. Born in Madrid in 1953, Jimmy Burns grew up with football and Franco: “During Franco’s dictatorship between 1939 and 1975, football was a pastime that was actively encouraged by the State – that is as long as it was not exploited by the enemy. And the enemy ranged from communists, Freemasons and freethinkers to Catalan and Basque nationalists, most of them decent human beings whose clubs were rooted in local cultural identities. It gave Spanish football, when I was growing up, its political edge, it separated us football lovers into democrats and fascists”. (47)
Jimmy Burns has a close connection to Franco. His father, Thomas Ferrier Burns (1906-1995), was educated at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit boarding school in Clitheroe, Lancashire in the 1920s. One of Tom’s classmates was Pablo Merry Del Val, later Chief Liaison Officer for the foreign press under Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and later still Cultural Relations Consul of the Spanish Embassy in Washington, tasked with selling Franco to the Americans after the war, and afterwards Spanish ambassador to the United States. (48) The Merry del Vals were a fascinating family. The man who interrogated James Maley was one of the sons of Alfonso Merry Del Val, the former Spanish ambassador to Britain. Pablo Merry Del Val, educated at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit boarding school in Clitheroe, Lancashire, was part of a prominent lineage of clerics and diplomats of Irish descent – ‘Wild Geese’ from Waterford. His brother Alfonso, also educated at Stonyhurst, was Franco’s unofficial representative in England at the time. Jimmy Burns wrote a memoir of his father. (49) Jimmy recounts the visit of Tom Burns to Guernica in the company of his former classmate: “Franco’s chief liaison officer with the foreign press, Merry del Val, offered Burns a tour of Gernika as part of the extended propaganda battle fought in print and on the wireless following the Basque town’s bombing. The two had been contemporaries at Stonyhurst, when Del Val’s father was Spanish ambassador in London. Del Val appears to have harboured few doubts that Burns, by now a director of the rabidly pro-Franco Tablet, would be receptive to whatever propaganda was laid before him”. Jimmy Burns quotes his father’s own words: “Pablo (Merry del Val) took us to Gernika and patiently explained that the extensive destruction of the main streets had been the work of the retreating Reds. Dynamite, not bombs of the German Condor Legion, was responsible”. The ploy didn’t work. Tom Burns was smart enough to see through the claims. The child of a Scottish businessman, David Burns, and Clara, a Chilean mother of English and Basque descent, he was an influential publisher who mentored great writers like Graham Greene. Tom’s Scottish Uncle Willie was a poor man and a poet. (50)
I have a sense of six degrees of separation with Tom Burns, and not just because we were both the seventh of nine children. You see, Tom Burns was a classmate – in every sense – of the man who interrogated my father at the Model Prison in Salamanca in April 1937. When Pablo Merry Del Val asked my father what religion he was, James Maley answered: “I’m a Catholic”, and recited a couple of Hail Marys, or as he put it in an interview, “Hail Maleys”: “I just said Catholic. I’m a Catholic. So he asked me to say […] one or two of the Hail Maleys and that you, I done that. I could say them. So that satisfied him.” Pressed on his attitude to religion in a later interview with Conrad Wood of the Imperial War Museum, my father said: “I wasn’t opposed to the Catholic church, well I mean I never mentioned religion, if people want to go, go, but I mean […] see when I was at school I realised that I was asked to become a priest a lot of times at school but I realised to become a priest well it wasn’t an easy job to become or do, I mean if you believed in religion then it was something you’d have to… be different from other people. I mean you’d have to be, live different from the ordinary person, whereas at the present time if I stood at the corner, I realised if I stood at the corner and watched people passing by, even where I lived I couldn’t say that’s a Catholic, that’s a Protestant. I mean there was nothing to define them, they all just lived the same. But to be a priest you’d have to live different. And that’s something, well, I wasn’t prepared to do.”
Like Tom Burns, James Maley was a cradle catholic, and in his working life he was often on the receiving end of anti-Catholic, anti-communist, and anti-Irish sentiment. Like Robert Burns, James Maley was an internationalist who spoke up for the downtrodden and dispossessed. My father went to Spain to fight for a socialist republic, not an imperial monarchy. Sadly, neither Spain nor Britain went down the road of socialism in his lifetime, but he never stopped believing that the cause of the Left was right road, and that he was in the right company: No. 2 Machine Gun Company, to be precise. As Dolores Ibárruri, “La Pasionaria”, said on the departure of the International Brigades from Spain: “Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Republicans – men of different colours, differing ideology, antagonistic religions – yet all profoundly loving liberty and justice, they came and offered themselves to us unconditionally.”
No Pasaran!

(1) See José E. Alvarez, The Betrothed of Death: The Spanish Foreign Legion During the Rif Rebellion, 1920-1927 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing, 2001). See also See Don Alfonso Merry del Val, ‘The Spanish Zones in Morocco’, The Geographical Journal 55, 5 (1920): 329-349; & 55, 6 (1920): 409-419, and Arthur Hardinge and Alfonso Merry del Val, ‘The Spanish Zones in Morocco: Discussion’, The Geographical Journal 55, 6 (1920): 419-422.
(2) Paul Preston, ‘The Answer Lies in the Sewers: Captain Aguilera and the Mentality of the Francoist Officer Corps’, Science and Society 68, 3 (2004): 277-312, at 281.
(3) See Norman J. W. Goda, ‘The Riddle of the Rock: A Reassessment of German Motives for the Capture of Gibraltar in the Second World War’, Journal of Contemporary History 28, 2 (1993): 297-314; Norman W. J. Goda, ‘Franco’s Bid for Empire: Spain, Germany, and the Western Mediterranean in World War II’, Mediterranean Historical Review 13, 1-2 (1998): 168-194.
(4) See Nick Sharman, ‘The Second World War: Revival and Demise of Britain’s Informal Empire in Spain’, in Britain’s Informal Empire in Spain, 1830-1950: Free Trade, Protectionism and Military Power (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 121-145. For a more recent view, see Maria Mut Bosque, ‘Brexit and the Commonwealth: New Challenges for Gibraltar’, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 106, 4 (2017): 483-485. For the background see George Hills, Rock of Contention: A History of Gibraltar (London: Hale, 1974). See also Ian Jack, ‘Gibraltar’, Granta 25 (1988): 13-85. British Parliamentary Papers for 1856 include a reference to a “Report on the past and present state of Her Majesty’s colonial possessions at Gibraltar” and information on “1. State of the Colony; 2. Convict Establishment; 3. Trade and Shipping”. There is useful information too on the “Quantities of foreign and colonial merchandise exported to Gibraltar, 1851-1855”. For an excellent Scottish dramatic depiction of growing up in Gibraltar at the time of the Malvinas crisis see Gregory Burke, The Straits (London: Faber and Faber, 2003).
(5) See Marta García Cabrera, ‘British Geographic Intelligence during the Second World War: A Case Study of the Canary Islands’, Intelligence and National Security (2021): DOI: 10.1080/02684527.2021.2002208. See also Teresa Ruel, ‘Mapping the Cases: The Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands’, in Political Alternation in the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 35-67. For a deeper historical perspective, see Mohamed Adhikari, ‘Raiders, Slavers, Conquistadors, Settlers: Civilian-driven Violence in the Extermination of Aboriginal Canary Islanders’, in Mohamed Adhikari (ed.), Civilian-Driven Violence and the Genocide of Indigenous Peoples in Settler Societies (London: Routledge, 2019), 31-60.
(6) Meeting of the British Cabinet held at 11am on Wednesday 16th December 1936, Cabinet 75 (36), 241.
(7) John Stone, ‘The Earliest Spanish Dickens? The 1844 Alborada Translation of Pickwick’s Madman’s Manuscript’, Dickens Quarterly 38, 2 (2021): 140-162, at 142. For connections between the book trade and the slave trade see Sean D. Moore, Slavery and the Making of Early American Libraries: British Literature, Political Thought, and the Transatlantic Book Trade, 1731-1814 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
(8) Nigel Leask, ‘Robert Burns and Latin America’, in Murray Pittock (ed.), Robert Burns in Global Culture (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 149-164, at 134.
(9) Charles E. Ronan, ‘Observations on the Word Gringo’, Arizona and the West 6, 1 (1964): 23-29, at 23-4. For the original Spanish article, see Charles E. Ronan, ¿Qué significa gringo?, Historia Mexicana 8, 4 (1959): 549- 556.
(10) Ronan, ‘Observations on the Word Gringo’, 25.
(11) Fanny Chambers Gooch, Face to Face with the Mexicans: The Domestic Life, Educational, Social, and Business Ways Statesmanship and Literature, Legendary and General History of the Mexican People, As Seen and Studied by an American Woman During Seven Years of Intercourse With Them (London: Sampson Low & Co, 1890), 384-5. On Prieto as historian as well as popular poet see Malcolm D. McLean, ‘Guillermo Prieto (1818-1897), a Forgotten Historian of Mexico’, The Americas 10, 1 (1953): 79-88.
(12) Christopher Maurer, ‘Lorca, From Country to City: Three Versions of Poet in New York’, in Regina Galasso and Evelyn Scaramella (eds.), Avenues of Translation: The City in Iberian and Latin American Writing (Ithaca, NY: Bucknell University Press, 2019), 32-51, n.27, citing Philip Cummings, trans., Lorca: Songs, ed, Daniel Eisenberg (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1976), 171.
(13) Maurer, ‘Lorca, From Country to City’, n.27, citing Roy Campbell, Lorca: An Appreciation of His Poetry (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1952), 95. Campbell had apparently planned to write a book on Burns but it was never published. See Peter Alexander, review of Roy Campbell by John Povey, Research in African Literatures 9, 1 (1978): 129-134, at 134.
(14) Carl W. Cobb, Lorca’s Romancero Gitano: A Ballad Translation and Critical Study (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983), 7.
(15) Cobb, Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, 70.
(16) Paul Lafargue, ‘Reminiscences of Marx’ (September 1890), cited in Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski (eds.), Karl Marx, Frederick Engels on Literature and Art: A Selection of Writings (St Louis/Milwaukee: Telos Press, 1974), 152.
(17) Nataliia Rudnytska, ‘Translation and the Formation of the Soviet Canon of World Literature’, in Christopher Rundle, Anne Lange and Daniele Monticelli (eds.), Translation Under Communism (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), 39-71, at 39-40, and 65 n1, citing Aleksandr Tvardovskii, ‘Robert Berns v perevodakh S. Marshaka’, Novyi Mir 4 (1951): 225-229, at 227.
(18) See Paul Malgrati, ‘MacDiarmid’s Burns: The Political Context, 1917-1928’, Scottish Literary Review 11, 1 (2019): 47-66. For a different perspective see Antony Howe, ‘Red History Wars? Communist Propaganda and the Manipulation of Celtic History in the Thirties’, Journal of the Sydney Society for Scottish History 13 (2010): 68-93.
(19) Burns Belongs to the People (Glasgow: Scottish Office of Communist Party, 1930), 5. University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections Broady A83. I am grateful to my colleague Dr Bob MacLean for helping me to access this work. For a later example of the Scottish Communist Party line on Burns see John Ross Campbell, Robert Burns the Democrat (London: Communist Party of Britain, 1991; first published by the Scottish Committee of the Communist Party in 1945).
(20) Burns Belongs to the People, 21.
(21) Burns Belongs to the People, 23.
(22) Burns Belongs to the People, 24.
(23) Stuart Christie, My Granny Made Me an Anarchist (Hastings, East Sussex: Christie Books, 2002), 85.
(24) Murray Pittock, “‘A Long Farewell to All My Greatness”: The History of the Reputation of Robert Burns’, in Murray Pittock (ed.), Robert Burns in Global Culture (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 25-46, at 38.
(25) See J. Bowyer Bell, ‘Ireland and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939’, Studia Hibernica 9 (1969): 137-163, at 148, n.27. I discuss Catholic support for fascism in ‘They Stood Beside the Spanish People’, The Irish Voice 18 (January 2015), 8-9. For an early discussion of Scottish Catholic support for fascism, see John McGovern, Why Bishops Back Franco: Report of Visit of Investigation to Spain (London: Independent Labour Party, 1936). For Irish responses see M. Le S. Kitchin and Fulton J. Sheen, ‘Storm over Communism’, The Irish Monthly 65, 766 (1937): 219-232, and Hispanista, ‘Should Irish Labour Favour Franco?’, The Irish Monthly 65, 767 (1937): 310-319. For an interesting perspective on one particular institution see Regina Whelan Richardson, ‘The Irish in Asturias: The Footprint of the Irish College, Salamanca, 1913-1950’, Archivium Hibernicum 65, (2012): 273-290. For modern criticism see David Convery, ‘Ireland and the Fall of the Second Republic in Spain’, Bulletin of Spanish Studies 89, 7-8 (2012): 215-225; Fearghal McGarry, ‘Irish Newspapers and the Spanish Civil War’, Irish Historical Studies 33, 129 (2002): 68-90; Fearghal McGarry, Eoin O’Duffy: A Self-Made Hero (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and John Newsinger, ‘Blackshirts, Blueshirts, and the Spanish Civil War’, The Historical Journal 44, 3 (2001): 825-844. See more recently John Rodden and John Rossi, ‘Ireland’s Quixotic Cruzada: The Irish and the Spanish Civil War’, Society 58 (2021): 95-103.
(26) Bàrbara Molas, ‘Transnational Francoism: The British and the Canadian Friends of National Spain (1930s–1950s)’, Contemporary British History 35, 2 (2021): 165-186, at 168-69. If communism gave the catholic Church a fright, at least in Europe, then fascism gave it a fillip and a focus.
(27) Cited in Tom Gallagher, ‘Scottish Catholics and the British Left, 1918-1939’, The Innes Review 34, 1 (1983): 17-42, at 29. See also W. W. Knox, ‘Religion and the Scottish Labour Movement c.1900-39’, Journal of Contemporary History 23, 4 (1988): 609-630.
(28) Gallagher, ‘Scottish Catholics and the British Left, 1918-1939’, The Innes Review 34, 1 (1983): 17-42, at 37.
(29) See Tom Villis, British Catholics and Fascism: Religious Identity and Political Extremism Between the Wars (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 41-76. For an example of the kind of propaganda that Franco’s spokespersons had a platform for in England see Alfonso Merry del Val, The Conflict in Spain: Communistic Misstatements Refuted (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1937).
(30) Villis, British Catholics and Fascism, 27.
(31) Daniel Gray, Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2008), 132.
(32) Gray, Homage to Caledonia, 139.
(33) Cited in Gray, Homage to Caledonia, 152.
(34) Robert Crawford, ‘Robert Burns and the Mind of Europe’, in Murray Pittock (ed.), Robert Burns in Global Culture (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 47-62, at 53.
(35) Robert Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography (London: Random House, 2011; first published by Jonathan Cape, 2009), 155, 354.
(36) Crawford, The Bard, 406.
(37) Crawford, The Bard, 396.
(38) Crawford, The Bard, 383.
(39) Frank Graham, The Battle of Jarama 1937: The Story of the British Battalion of the International Brigade’s Baptism of Fire in the Spanish War (Newcastle: Howe Brothers Ltd, 1987), 8.
(40) William Rust, Britons in Spain: The History of the British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1939), 35-6.
(41) James K. Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 183-4, citing Victor Kiernan, ‘Labour and the War in Spain’, Scottish Labour History Society Journal 11 (1977): 4-16, at 10.
(42) Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire, 184.
(43) Tom Britton, ‘Faur distant: Burns, MacColl & the Spanish Civil War’, https://singout.org/burns-maccoll-spanish-civil-war/, accessed 22 January 2022.
(44) Andrew Monnickendam, ‘Robert Burns and Spanish Letters’, in Murray Pittock (ed.), The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 143-153, at 152-3.
(45) Sergi Mainer, ‘Translation and Censorship: Robert Burns in Post-Civil War Spain’, Translation Studies 4, 1 (2011): 72-86, at 75. See Isabel Abelló and Tomás Lamarca, Robert Burns: Poesía (Barcelona: Editorial Yunque, 1940).
(46) Mainer, ‘Translation and Censorship’, 84.
(47) Jimmy Burns, La Roja: A Journey Through Spanish Football (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 1.
(48) See Neal M. Rosendorf, Franco Sells Spain to America: Hollywood, Tourism and Public Relations as Postwar Spanish Soft Power (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 14.
(49) Jimmy Burns, Papa Spy: A True Story of Love, Wartime Espionage in Madrid, and the Treachery of the Cambridge Spies (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).
(50) Tom Burns, The Use of Memory: Publishing and Further Pursuits (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 1993), 2.

Charles Dickens and the Ghost of Possil Past

“Even Dickens […] cannot draw the dreams of the […] Glasgow boy beyond the purlieus of his own city”. (1)

This is a ghost story, a story of hard times. It’s a tale of two cities, one inhabited by the privileged, another by the poor. It’s an old story that touches on industrialization, urbanization, the French Revolution, prisons, slavery, literature, capital punishment, public executions, theatre, medicine, the Glasgow Athenæum, and the University of Glasgow. This is not so much a blog as a series of sketches, character sketches and scene-setting, work-in-progress for a future drama. It’s a long read for a winter’s night, but for anyone interested in Possilpark, Glasgow, or Charles Dickens who has a year to spare there will be something here to ponder.

Charles Dickens, from desk till dawn

Some time in the late 1960s when I was around eight or nine my mother gave me her adult ticket for Possilpark Library and asked me to get her Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens. I was fascinated by the title. It sounded like mother and son. It made me think of Steptoe and Son, my favourite thing on the telly at the time, and of “Matthew and Son”, a song by Cat Stevens I’d heard on the radio. Years later I found out that Dickens had visited my housing estate in the north of Glasgow in December 1847, when it was the site of a mansion house a couple of hundred yards from the public library from which I borrowed Dombey and Son. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Possil was always a bit Dickensian. You were more likely to meet Bill Sikes than Eric Sykes.

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1848)

Walking home with that book in my hands, I wondered what it was about. “Dealings with the firm of Dombey and Son, wholesale, retail and for exportation” didn’t sound like much fun. I didn’t know that Dombey and Son was the book that Dickens had been working on at the time of his visit to Possil, or that the mansion he had stayed in had given its name to Mansion Street, where Granny Watt, my mother’s mother lived, a street I’d passed a hundred times without thinking about its name. Nor did I know that Possil House was a House of Books as well as a House of Pain, a house with an extensive library that was owned by a man whose family made their money from slavery and the sugar trade, or that its occupant, Dickens’s host, was also a leading advocate of slavery, a man who supported slavery in the West Indies and went on to back the Confederacy in the American Civil War. This was all in the future, as well as far in the past.

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son (1848)

Dombey and Son is a book about many things, full of rich pickings like all Dickens’s books, especially in terms of class and education, two issues that would preoccupy me in later life, when I would encounter more than a few patronising characters like Mr Dombey:

“‘I am far from being friendly,’ pursued Mr. Dombey, ‘to what is called by persons of levelling sentiments, general education. But it is necessary that the inferior classes should continue to be taught to know their position, and to conduct themselves properly. So far I approve of schools. Having the power of nominating a child on the foundation of an ancient establishment, called (from a worshipful company) the Charitable Grinders; where not only is a wholesome education bestowed upon the scholars, but where a dress and badge is likewise provided for them; I have […] nominated your eldest son to an existing vacancy; and he has this day, I am informed, assumed the habit. The number of her son, I believe,’ said Mr. Dombey, turning to his sister and speaking of the child as if he were a hackney-coach, ‘is one hundred and forty-seven’”. (2)

Possil House was the address of Sir Archibald Alison (1792-1867), Sheriff of Lanarkshire and historian of the French Revolution. Charles Dickens visited Possil House and stayed there for two days during a trip to Glasgow to preside over the opening of a new Workingmens’ College, the Glasgow Athenæum, on Tuesday 28 December 1847. Dickens had visited Scotland before, but his visit in 1847 would be his first public appearance as a famous writer. (3) Dickens was by this time the celebrated author of Pickwick Papers (1837), Oliver Twist (1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1839), and A Christmas Carol (1843). He had been in Glasgow before, and would be back again, both as a novelist giving public readings, and as an amateur playing his part in a Shakespeare play. In visiting Possil House, the country estate on which the housing scheme was later built, Dickens was a guest of Sheriff Alison, a notable expert on penal affairs, an outspoken advocate of slavery, a celebrated historian of the French Revolution, a champion of free trade, and later Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow (1850-52), after which he was made a Baronet. (4) Alison and Dickens had overlapping interests even if they disagreed on some fundamentals. Dickens had emerged as a writer under the pseudonym “Boz”, publishing Sketches by Boz in 1836, and using the name again for the serialisation of Pickwick Papers. Boz was not a name that would go down well in the Possil in later years. Alison was author of several works on the criminal justice system in Scotland, including Principles of the Criminal Law of Scotland (1832), and Practice of the Criminal Law of Scotland (1833), so Boz was in safe hands.

Possil House pictured by Thomas Annan

The actual owner of Possil House was Colonel Alexander Campbell of Possil, who had purchased the Possil estate in 1808, the year of his father’s death, and enlarged it with the neighbouring property of Keppoch in 1838. Campbell was the eldest son of slaveowner John Campbell, and inherited his father’s sugar estates. (5)

Portrait of Colonel Alexander Campbell of Possil by Henry Raeburn.

Archibald Alison had moved into the property on 12 February 1835, finding it ‘unoccupied and to let furnished in the middle of winter’. (6) Alison was renting Possil House from Campbell. Alison’s own description of the property in his autobiography suggest that it was a creative hub rich in literary resources:

“Situated in a park of thirty acres studded with noble trees, some of which are elms of huge dimensions two centuries old, it had the advantage of fine gardens and perfect retirement, and was yet at a distance of only three miles from Glasgow. To walk in and out of town daily, was, to a person of my strength and active habits, no more than agreeable and healthful exercise; and ere long I discovered that the hour and a half spent daily in this occupation was most valuable, because it afforded time for solitary thought. The house consisted of an old mansion of a hundred and fifty years’ standing, and a modern addition containing public rooms, forming together a commodious house. The principal drawing-room opened into Mrs Alison’s boudoir, which soon became the habitual home scene, and it again led to the library – the dining-room of the old part of the mansion – which was ere long overloaded with books, and where the last eight volumes of my History were written. The rapid increase of volumes, in consequence of the extensive purchases rendered necessary by the progress of my work, soon outgrew its ample shelves; the bookcases in the boudoir were soon filled; and before many years had elapsed, we found it necessary to fit up, in addition, the entrance-hall as a library, where the books least in immediate request, or most ornamental in their binding, were placed”. (7)

Canal Bridge at Possil Road by David Small 1879.

A description of Possil House from the point of view of a passer-by is provided by Hugh MacDonald in his Rambles Round Glasgow (1860):

“After a few minutes’ walk, we find ourselves passing Port-Dundas, ‘the harbour on the hill,’ and emerging to the northward from the urban labyrinth by the Possil Road. The morning air is clear and cool, but the cloudless sky above gives abundant indication that a melting day is before us. A gentle breeze, however, is playing over the spiky fields of wheat, and rustling with a whisper sweeter even than that of lovers on a moonlit bank, among the graceful pannicles of the oat and the silky awns of the bearded bere. The walk from the city in this direction is exceedingly pleasant. About a mile out we pass Possil House, the residence of our respected Sheriff, Sir Archibald Alison, Bart., the learned historian of Europe, and the accomplished essayist and critic of Blackwood. The house is a large and substantial but withal plain edifice, and is surrounded by finely timbered policies of considerable extent. The locality, although within such a short distance of the city, has a quiet and retired aspect, and seems peculiarly adapted for the indulgence of those literary tastes in which the worthy Baronet finds his principal solace during the intervals of professional business.” (8)

Port Dundas 1868 by David Small

Dickens was thirty-five at the time of his visit to Possil, and about to embark on David Copperfield, his most autobiographical book, and his own personal favourite, young Copperfield’s initials mirroring his own. In the 1869 preface to that novel Dickens wrote: “Of all my books, I like this best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD”.

How did Dickens, an abolitionist, get on with his slavery-supporting host in that book-lined mansion? Did their drawing-room discussions cover prisons, a topic which fascinated Dickens and about which Alison knew a great deal? Did they talk about the French Revolution, Alison’s area of expertise, which Dickens would treat ten years later in one of his finest novels, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)? (9) Thomas Carlyle said of Alison: “He is an Ultra Tory […] and therefore cannot understand the French Revolution”. (10) But reactionaries are often those afforded the time and space to write the version of history most acceptable to the ruling class. Dickens was not the only distinguished guest to be entertained at Possil House in 1847. As Alison recalled in his autobiography: “During the autumn of 1847 we had the honour of receiving at Possil Prince Waldemar of Prussia […] who remained with us two days, which were most delightfully spent”. (11)

For Dickens, Sheriff Archibald Alison offered access to prison visits that would help him with his research. Dickens paid a visit to the notorious North Prison in Duke Street with Sheriff Alison on December 29th, calling it “a truly damnable jail”. Dickens was fascinated by prisons. His life as a writer really began when his father was jailed as a debtor when Charles was twelve. The boy was sent to the workhouse, where he witnessed the tyranny of those in authority and the resourcefulness of the poor. The twin terrors of jail and debt loom large in his diction and fiction. His earliest piece on prisons, A Visit to Newgate (1836), one of the Sketches by Boz, looks inside Newgate Prison, and Dickens went on to explore prison life further in Little Dorrit (1857) and Great Expectations (1861). Dickens was also interested in the ways in which the shadow cast by the prison walls fell across other kinds of confinement and entrapment. In Dombey and Son he describes an apartment in a dilapidated mansion in terms that echo the captivity of inmates:

“The walls and ceilings were gilded and painted; the floors were waxed and polished; crimson drapery hung in festoons from window, door, and mirror; and candelabra, gnarled and intertwisted like the branches of trees, or horns of animals, stuck out from the panels of the wall. But in the day-time, when the lattice blinds (now closely shut) were opened, and the light let in, traces were discernible among this finery, of wear and tear and dust, of sun and damp and smoke, and lengthened intervals of want of use and habitation, when such shows and toys of life seem sensitive like life, and waste as men shut up in prison do.” (12)

Dickens wrote from Edinburgh on 30 December 1847: “We came over this afternoon, leaving Glasgow at one o’clock. Alison lives in style in a handsome country house out of Glasgow, and is a capital fellow, with an agreeable wife, nice little daughter, cheerful niece, all things pleasant in his household.” If Dickens was impressed with Glasgow then he was less taken by the monument to Sir Walter Scott recently erected in Edinburgh: “I am sorry to report the Scott monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.” (13)

Possil House as pictured in Archibald Alison’s autobiography.

At the time of his visit to Possil, there was, as Dickens put it, “tremendous distress at Glasgow”, which would later lead to riots in March 1848. Dickens wrote: “We lived with very hospitable people in a very splendid house near Glasgow, and were perfectly comfortable”. It’s ironic that Dickens found relief in Possil from a general bleakness of Glasgow. Dickens’s conversations with the proprietor of Possil House would have been particularly timely given the fact that at the time of his visit Dickens was putting the final touches to his seventh novel, Dombey and Son. The novel was being serialized from 1846, and Dickens had just finished the sixteenth number on 23 December 1847. It would be published in book form the following April, with a preface dated 24 March 1848. Dombey and Son was influenced by Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave (1845). (14) As an advocate of slavery Alison would go on to back the South in the American Civil War. His support of slavery and his class prejudice make him a particularly unpleasant character:

“Archibald Alison (1792-1867), the lawyer and historian, was yet another enlisted in the West Indian cause. His 1832 introduction to ‘’he West India question’, employed by Gambles as further evidence of conservative historicism, is more striking for its condemnation of anti-slavery campaigning. ‘The great danger which has excited such extraordinary terror through all the West India Islands’, he wrote, ‘is the incessant efforts of Government, and ignorant individuals and societies, to interfere with the management of the slaves, with a view to their immediate or early emancipation.’ West Indian slavery, he argued, was ‘not only not an evil, but a positive advantage’ to the Africans in their civilizational progress. That Alison was pro-slavery in principle is clear.” (15)

Thomas Annan photo of portrait of Sir Archibald Alison by Sir John Watson Gordon (Mitchell Library)

Although Dickens’s own racial prejudices have been the subject of critical scrutiny he would have found Alison’s extreme opinions unpalatable. (16) In Dombey and Son, Dickens painted the city of London in its darkest shades, as a hungry beast that consumes its inhabitants: “Swallowed up in one phase or other of its immensity, towards which they seemed impelled by a desperate fascination, they never returned. Food for the hospitals, the churchyards, the prisons, the river, fever, madness, vice and death – they passed on to the monster, roaring in the distance, and were lost”. (17) Although “Dickensian” has become a byword for poverty of a particularly characterful and colourful kind, associated with Victorian kitsch, in his attitudes to class, language and the city, Dickens is the father of modern urban fiction, the literary great-grandfather of writers like James Kelman, who are profoundly influenced by novels such as Hard Times.

If Dickens was about to give birth to a new novel, his wife had a more important conception to manage. Kate Dickens was pregnant on the long journey north to Possil on the incomplete East Coast Line. She miscarried between Edinburgh and Glasgow on 28 December 1847. Fiction and fact combined in a tragic fashion:

“Charles and Kate spent what remained of the night of December 27 at the Royal Hotel in Edinburgh and next day caught a train to Glasgow. Some of the most popular music hall jokes then in circulation suggested that females in an interesting condition might precipitate labour by being jolted about on the railway. Dickens himself had thought the idea funny enough to rough out a sketch featuring Mrs Gamp in a train, on the look out for business. Between Edinburgh and Glasgow it ceased to be funny: poor Kate started a miscarriage. Fortunately, their sympathetic Glasgow hosts lived in a warm and comfortable house and Kate was put to bed and cossetted. Dickens went off to be acclaimed at the Athenæum.” (18)

Kate was later examined by the revered Scottish obstetrician Professor James Simpson, an advocate of pain-free childbirth, who argued for the use of chloroform for mothers, an argument he won when Queen Victoria had her eighth child on 7th April 1853 with the successful use of chloroform.

Reflecting on the adulation that Dickens received at the Glasgow Athenæum while his wife was recovering from a miscarriage in Possil House, Peter Ackroyd writes:

“Dickens went with Catherine to Scotland, the scene of his first public triumph, in order to attend a soirée for the Glasgow Athenæum. They travelled to Edinburgh, and then from Edinburgh to Glasgow; but on this later ride Catherine was suddenly taken ill and suffered a miscarriage on the train. She was put to bed and was compelled to remain there has her husband experienced ‘unbounded hospitality and enthoozymoozy”. He goes on, ‘… I have never been more heartily received anywhere, or enjoyed myself more completely’. Even though his wife was forced to remain in bed after her miscarriage. Is there not in the contrast between these two scenes of domestic life some warning for the future? They returned to London on the third day of the new year, 1848, a date which began the succession of what in his biography [John] Forster called Dickens’s ‘happiest years’. He was now wealthy enough no longer to need to worry about money, he was very famous and very well loved. The enthusiasm at Glasgow had been enormous”. (19)

Given the reason for his wife being unable to attend the opening of the Athenæum, Dickens’s letter to her sister, his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth (‘Georgy’), strikes an odd note, leaving aside the fact that Dickens liked to refer to himself in the third person as “the inimitable”:

“The meeting was the most stupendous thing as to numbers, and the most beautiful as to colours and decorations I ever saw. The inimitable did wonders. His grace, elegance, and eloquence, enchanted all beholders. Kate didn’t go! having been taken ill on the railroad between here and Glasgow.
It has been snowing, sleeting, thawing, and freezing, sometimes by turns and sometimes all together, since the night before last. Lord Jeffrey’s household are in town here, not at Craigcrook, and jogging on in a cosy, old-fashioned, comfortable sort of way. We have some idea of going to York on Sunday, passing that night at Alfreds, and coming home on Monday; but of this, Kate will advise you when she writes, which she will do to-morrow, after l shall have seen the list of railway trains. She sends her best love. She is a little poorly still, but nothing to speak of. She is frightfully anxious that her not having been to the great demonstration should be kept a secret. But I say that, like murder, it will out, and that to hope to veil such a tremendous disgrace from the general intelligence is out of the question. In one of the Glasgow papers she is elaborately described. I rather think Miss Alison, who is seventeen, was taken for her, and sat for the portrait.” (20)

Audience for Dickes’s speech at The Glasgow Athenaeum 28 December 1847

One of those present when Dickens addressed the Glasgow audience at the Athenæum was the distinguished Scottish Physician John Brown, who, using Dickens’s nickname ‘Boz’, spoke patronisingly of him in a letter even as he praised his performance:

“‘Boz’ is doing no good – bodily & mentally he is going wrong – getting rotten. – & yet a fine, genial wonderful creature – but after all there is a want of reflectiveness of depth – of seriousness. He is a true cockney – an inspired cockney. A very different man from the one who made the best – the cleverest – the most telling speech at the Glasgow meeting.” (21)

Whatever his own physical or mental health, Dickens liked to keep the company of doctors, and not just to get from them descriptions of medical conditions for his characters:

“Dickens’ interest in social reform, children’s health and education, phrenology, water-cure, and mesmerism/ hypnotism, made him in close acquaintance with doctors and especially the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London. His own early adulthood had been miserable and impoverished, he was outraged at the conditions of the urban working classes, to which many of his readers were oblivious.” (22)

We get some insight into Dickens’s character and the event at the Athenæum in a later account by James Kilpatrick, published in 1898. Kilpatrick is citing The Life of Charles Dickens (1872) by John Forster, Dickens’s first biographer:

“Sir Archibald was then Sheriff of Lanarkshire, and his love of literature, art, and the drama made him an excellent host when celebrities in these spheres of action visited Glasgow. Miss Helen Faucit , the great actress, had been his frequent guest , and he was now delighted to show his unbounded hospitality to Charles Dickens. At Possil House, indeed, Dickens was banqueted right royally, and at the great social gathering in the City Hall in connection with the opening of the Athenæum, they sat together on the platform. Dickens, who presided, was in excellent spirits. He was delighted with the idea of the Ladies’ Bazaar, which was being got up, under the patronage of the Queen, for the purpose of augmenting the library of the
Athenæum, and the romantic associations which the books would always have with their fair donors suggested to him some sprightly remarks.
‘I can imagine’, he said, ‘how, in fact, from these fanciful associations, some fair Glasgow widow may be taken for the remoter one whom Sir Roger de Coverley could not forget: I can imagine how Sophia’s muff may be seen and loved, but not by Tom Jones, going down the High Street on any winter day; or I can imagine the student finding in every fair form the exact counterpart of the Glasgow Athenæum, and taking into consideration the history of Europe without the consent of Sheriff Alison.’
At this sly reference to the historian, Forster tells us, no one laughed so loudly and heartily as the Sheriff himself, and, as they drove out to Possil House that evening, they chuckled over the incident again and again. It was a pleasant time for Dickens, and the Sheriff’s cordiality and homeliness delighted him.
‘Alison lives in style,’ he wrote to Forster, ‘in a handsome country house out of Glasgow, and is a capital fellow, with an agreeable wife, nice little daughter, cheerful niece, all things pleasant in his household. I went over the prison and lunatic asylum with him yesterday [December 29]; at the Lord Provost’s had gorgeous State lunch with the Town Council; and was entertained at a great dinner-party at night. Unbounded hospitality and enthoozymoozy the order of the day, and I have never been more heartily received anywhere, or enjoyed myself more completely.’” (23)

Programme for First Soiree at the Glasgow Athenaeum 1847.

A history of the Glasgow Athenaeum describes its transformation from the Assembly Rooms with its dances and games into a place of learning for “busy commercial men” that opened its doors to members in its new guise on 13 October 1847:

“Thus the beautiful Assembly Rooms, which had been the scene of many a gay gathering, and which had often been thronged with airy and sylph-like forms, had, by one of those strange freaks of fortune which sometimes occur in the history of places as well as of individuals, been converted into a place of learning and a resort of busy commercial men. The quadrille and the minuet had been banished to make room for the paths of learning. The supper-rooms had become a storehouse of literature, and the card-rooms were transformed into lecture theatres and academic halls.” (24)

Old Glasgow Athenaeum at Ingram Street.


On Monday 27 December 1847 the Glasgow Herald carried two notices about the next day’s event at the Athenæum with Charles Dickens, which appeared among many other items of news and announcements, from reports on the Glasgow Sugar Trade to an advertisement for “Bear Grease”, a product for the hair that based its authenticity on the fact that the Ojibbeway Indians of Upper Canada had tested it and declared it genuine. The notices about the Dickens event offer fascinating glimpses into civic culture:

“Athenæum Soirée. – The preparations for this interesting literary meeting are proceeding rapidly towards completion. The new gallery was inspected on Saturday last, by Mr. Carrick, Superintendent of Buildings who addressed a letter to the Directors of the Athenæum, of which the following is a copy:-
‘Gentlemen – I beg to certify, that I have this day carefully examined the gallery erected in the City Hall, and I am of opinion that it is perfectly safe for the purposes intended. I am, &c. (Signed) JOHN CARRICK.’
Decorators of various kinds are busily engaged in embellishing the Hall; and the arrangements for the reception of the vast concourse of visitors expected, are judicious and complete. To meet the wishes of several ladies and friends from a distance, the Directors have ordered that the principal departments in the Athenæum should be thrown open from the close of the proceedings in the City Hall until twelve o’clock. The list of speakers will include Charles Dickens, Esq., the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir John Maxwell, Bart., Sir John M’Neill, the Lord Provost of Glasgow, the Lord Rector of the University, George Combe, Esq., Professor Aytoun, Professor Gregory, Sheriff Alison, &c., &c. Mrs. Charles Dickens, accompanied by several distinguished ladies, will also honour the meeting with their presence. We may inform our fair friends that ladies will not be specially required to appear in evening dress; they still be at full liberty to consult their own taste and the weather in the selection of their costume.
Bust of the Lord Provost. – On Saturday last, we had In the pleasure of inspecting the bust of our respected Provost and Representative in Parliament, which has just been placed in the hall of the Athenæum. Mr. Mossman, the sculptor, who modelled this bust, has, we believe, presented the Institution with this portrait of its president. The likeness is exceedingly happy; and, moreover, it is pronounced by good judges to be an excellent work of art. Through the kindness of a friend of the Institution, an original bust of Mr. Dickens, modelled by Mr. Park, is also about to be placed for a short time in the Athenæum. We understand that Mr. Park, and Mr. Ritchie have severally signified their intention of presenting the Institution with an original statue, so as to lay the foundation of a sculpture gallery.”

THE DOORS of the CITY HALL will be OPENED at SIX O’CLOCK precisely. The Entrance to the Platform, Reserved Seats, Sections D and E, and the East Gallery, is from Albion Street. The Entrance to Sections A, B, and C, the New and West Galleries, from Candleriggs Street.
The Chair will be taken by CHARLES DICKENS, Esq., at Seven o’clock.
At the close of the proceedings Refreshments may be purchased in the Side Hall; and in order to allow Ladies and Strangers from a distance to see the ATHENÆUM, the principal Apartments, News Room, Reading Room, Coffee Room and Library, will be opened from 10 until 12 o’clock.
In reply to several inquiries, the Directors beg it to be distinctly understood that Gentlemen will not be admitted on presenting Ladies’ Tickets.
J. W. Hudson, Sec.”

Audience for Dickes’s speech at The Glasgow Athenaeum 28 December 1847


The tail-end of the year is meant to be a time of celebration and joy, but for the poor it can be a time of debt and desolation. While Dickens was staying at Possil House and putting the finishing touches to his speech for the Athenæum a Christmas story of a different kind was being played out in another part of the city. Two reports under the heading “Suicide” in the Glasgow Herald on Monday 27 December 1847, on the same page as the announcements about Dickens’s visit, tell a tale of city life a far cry from the bright lights of the literary world and the big houses of the well-heeled. First, this account of a Gorbals woman who killed herself on Christmas Eve:

“On the evening of Friday last an elderly woman, named Burns, residing in Chapel Closs, Main Street, Gorbals, committed suicide in her own house, by hanging herself from a nail or spike in the wall, with several hanks of unwound yarn. She was first discovered by her husband, who is a weaver, on his going home at eight o’clock. He found her lying on the floor, upon which she had fallen, the yarn having broken with her weight, with part of the yarn round her neck and the corresponding part remaining on the nail. It was at first supposed that deceased had met with foul play; but, upon investigation, it appeared that the act was a premeditated one, the unfortunate woman having been heard to say that she would ‘make away with herself.’”

And in the same issue of the newspaper.

“On Saturday se’nnight, a young man residing at Howwood, attached to the Ayrshire Railway, committed suicide by drowning himself. He had been married on the Monday previous, and on the Saturday morning following word was brought to the house that something was wrong with the rails. He went out hurriedly, as if to ascertain what was wrong, but never returned. Search was made round the locality, and on Monday the body was found in Cartside Dam.”


Sheriff Alison recalled the scene when Dickens addressed the Athenæum audience in Glasgow:

“It was held in the City Hall of Glasgow, the largest room in Scotland, recently constructed by the magistrates for public meetings, and which, with the aid of a temporary cross gallery, erected for the occasion, held 4000 persons, all seated at tea-tables. The sight of so many human beings assembled together, and all animated with one common feeling of enthusiasm, was very striking.” (25)

Alison, who gave the vote of thanks after Dickens’s speech, was a dyed-in-the-wool right-wing historian. He was not a fan of fiction in general, nor was he familiar with Dickens’s work, which dwelt on the social classes that the Sheriff was used to rounding up or baton-charging, as he openly admitted in his autobiography. Alison preferred to write about kings and queens and emperors and aristocrats:

“I never had any taste for those novels the chief object of which is to paint the manners or foibles of middle or low life. We are unhappily too familiar with them : if you wish to see them you have only to go into the second class of a railway train, or the cabin of a steamboat. Romance, to be durably interesting or useful, must be probable but elevating; drawn from the observation of nature, but interspersed with traits of the ideal.” (26)

It’s amusing now to read Alison’s inflated account of his own life and poor judgment of Dickens’s strengths as a writer:

“Dickens, with his wife, had the kindness to be our guests for two days at Possil, on which occasion I had a large party to meet them, who were charmed with the suavity of his manners and the variety and brilliancy of his conversation. Indeed the flow of his ideas was so rapid, and his powers of observation and description were so great, that it appeared to me that his writings, celebrated as they were, gave no adequate idea of his talents ; and I could not help regretting that accident, or the necessities of his situation, had thrown him into a line of composition not altogether worthy of his powers, and for which I could not anticipate durable fame.” (27)

Sir Archibald liked the sound of his own voice in print and in person. Benjamin Disraeli dubbed him “Mr Wordy”. (28)

The Glasgow Athenæum in Ingram Street, later demolished to make way for an extension of the General Post Office, was a gathering point for the great and the expectant. It was there that Dickens met Edinburgh lawyer George Combe, an advocate of the controversial pseudo-science of craniology or phrenology, where the shape of the skull was used to judge character and mental capacity: “Combe’s first essay on phrenology was published in 1817 in The Scots Magazine; in 1828 he published The Constitution of Man, in which he popularized phrenology by making it applicable to personal philosophies as well as science.” (29)

Dickens’s speech was reprinted as part of the Athenaeum’s 50th anniversary celebrations, and given that his wife had just lost a child his choice of metaphor was interesting:

“Dickens addressed the company in a felicitous speech, in the course of which he said – ‘It is a great satisfaction to me to occupy the place I do in behalf of an infant Institution: a remarkable fine child enough, of a vigorous constitution, but an infant still. I esteem myself singularly fortunate in knowing it before its prime, in the hope that I may have the pleasure of remembering in its prime, and when it has attained to its lusty maturity, that I was a friend of its youth. It has already passed through some of the disorders to which children are liable; it succeeded to an elder brother of a very meritorious character, but of rather a weak constitution, and which expired when about twelve months old from, it is said, a destructive habit of getting up early in the morning; it succeeded this elder brother, and has fought manfully through a sea of troubles. Its friends have often been much concerned for it; its pulse has been exceedingly low, being only 1250 when it was expected to have been 10,000; several relations and friends have even gone so far as to walk off once or twice in the melancholy belief that it was dead. Through all that, assisted by the indomitable energy of one or two nurses, to whom it can never be sufficiently grateful, it came triumphantly; and now, of all the youthful members of its family I ever saw, it has the strongest attitude, the healthiest look, the brightest and most cheerful air. I find the Institution nobly lodged; I find it with a reading-room, a coffee-room, and a news-room; I find it with lectures given and in progress, in sound, useful, and well-selected subjects; I find it with morning and evening classes for Mathematics, Logic, Grammar, Music, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, attended by upwards of five hundred persons; but, best and first of all, and what is to me more satisfactory than anything else in the history of the Institution, I find that all this has been mainly achieved by the young men of Glasgow themselves, with very little assistance. And, ladies and gentlemen, as the axiom, ‘Heaven helps those who help themselves,’ is truer in no case than it is in this, I look to the young men of Glasgow, from such a past and such a present, to a noble future. Everything that has been done in any other Athenaeum, I confidently expect to see done here; and when that shall be the case, and when there shall be great cheap schools in connection with the Institution, and when it has bound together forever all its friends, and brought over to itself all those who look upon it as an objectionable Institution – then, and not till then, I hope the young men of Glasgow will rest from their labours and think their study done […] In this case the books will not only possess all the attractions of their own friendships and charms, but also the manifold – I had almost said the womanfold – associations connected with their donors. I can imagine how, in fact, from these fanciful associations, some fair Glasgow widow may be taken for the remoter one whom Sir Roger de Coverley could not forget; I can imagine how Sophia’s muff may be seen and loved, but not by “Tom Jones,” going down the High Street on any winter’s day; or I can imagine the student finding in every fair form the exact counterpart of the Glasgow Athenaeum, and taking into consideration the History of Europe without the consent of Sheriff Alison. I can imagine, in short, how, through all the facts and fictions of this library, these ladies will be always active, and that
‘Age will not wither them, nor custom stale
Their infinite variety.’
I am surrounded by gentlemen to whom I will soon give place, being at least as curious to hear them as you yourselves undoubtedly are; but before I sit down, allow me to observe that it seems to me a most delightful and happy chance that this meeting should be held at this genial season of the year, when a new time is, as it were, opening before us, and we celebrate the birth of that Divine Teacher who took the highest knowledge into the humblest places, and whose great system comprehended all mankind. I hail it as a most auspicious omen, at this time of the year, when many scattered friends and families are re-assembled together, that we should be called upon to meet here to promote a great purpose, with a view to the general good and a view to the general improvement. I believe that such designs are worthy of the faith we hold, and I do believe that they are practical remembrances of the sacred words, ‘On earth peace and goodwill toward men.’” (30)

After accepting Alison’s vote of thanks, Dickens declare: “I am no stranger – and I say it with the deepest gratitude – to the warmth of Scottish hearts”. (31) The day after his Athenæum speech, on 29 December 1847, Dickens visited the Glasgow Royal Lunatic Asylum at Gartnavel and Duke Street Prison in the company of Archibald Alison. Dickens then had lunch with the Lord Provost, Alexander Hastie, a noted opponent of slavery and a member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society.


In his memoir, Alison boasted of the fact that the troops he commanded as Sheriff of Lanarkshire kept striking miners in check. When Scotland faced a ‘universal strike’ in the West of Scotland in 1842-43, what Alison calls ‘The Great Strike’, he was determined to crush the workers:

“About 20,000 working men, involving with their families at least 70,000 souls, were engaged in this formidable conspiracy against property, which was the more to be dreaded that there was no police whatever in Lanarkshire, and the regiment of cavalry which usually lay at Glasgow happened at that very time to have been sent to Perthshire, to escort the Queen in going from Dundee to Blair Atholl for her autumn residence. Five dismounted invalids alone were left at the cavalry barracks, to guard the two guns which were stationed in Glasgow, and the chief depot of ammunition for the west of Scotland.”

Alison put in place a series of measures aimed at demoralising the strikers:

“I issued two proclamations – one to the miners, warning them of their illegal conduct, and the measures adopted to resist them; and another to the proprietors and justices of peace in the county, calling on them to raise the posse comitatus, or constabulary force of the county, for the support of the civil power and the maintenance of the public peace.” (32)

After six weeks of nocturnal rides along the Clyde while based at Airdrie and Hamilton, Alison came home to Possil to find all was well in the house that sugar and slaves built:

“The colliers around Possil, who were all out on the strike, not only, much to their credit, made no attempt on the house, but sent notice to Mrs Alison that she need be under no alarm; that they knew I was only doing my duty; and that she might rely upon it that I was the last man in the country to whom any violence would be offered. They were as good as their word; for although, during the six weeks I was out with the troops, I almost every day rode out in the forenoon, generally alone, and often passed through large bodies of the combined workmen, to whom I was well known, I not only never was exposed to any attack, but never once met with the slightest insult.” (33)

Smasher of strikes and supporter of slavery that he was, backer of the South in the American Civil War, not to mention writer of reactionary histories, inveterate gladhander and obdurate arse-licker, an anonymous review of Alison’s autobiography claimed for him the capacity to warm the cockles of the hearts of the downtrodden that he had trodden underfoot – “thank ‘e very kindly sir”, said his forelock-tugging underlings, apparently:

“He, the most uncompromising Tory, was followed everywhere with the applause of the Glasgow Radicals; and at his death the whole of the road between Possil House and Glasgow was lined with the poorest of the population, ‘all the mill-hands in the neighbourhood sacrificing half a day’s earnings to come and pay, with quiet respectful demeanour, the last tribute to the old Tory sheriff so well known to them for thirty-three years’.” (34)

The words quoted at the end of this passage are lifted from Jane Alison’s preface to her father-in-law’s autobiography. (35) Rose-tinted glasses may have been worn on that occasion. This same reviewer comments on Alison’s “efforts to ameliorate the artisans, who in those days spent some 70 per cent. of their wages in drink”. (36) The drinking habits of the poor were always a preoccupation of the ruling classes, often discussed over a good vintage from their wine cellars after a hearty meal.

The reviewer draws attention to a particular passage in Alison’s Autobiography: “the account […] of the execution of Doolan and Redding at Bishopbriggs is a grand piece of sustained description”. (37) This passage is of particular interest to me because I wrote a play called Gallowglass with my brother John in 1991 about the trial and execution of Irish railway workers Dennis Doolan and Patrick Redding in 1841, for the killing of English ganger John Green, the last scene-of-crime execution carried out in Scotland, and I did a podcast about it as part of Janice Forsyth’s ‘Unspeakable Scotland’ in January 2021. (38)

In his autobiography, Alison insists that Doolan and Redding, “sentenced to be executed on the spot where the murder was committed”, were “Ribbonmen” and that the murder they committed was racially aggravated by the fact that the “United Hibernian Labourers” objected to the appointment of an English overseer when they “insisted on one of their own countrymen holding the situation”. (39) In his account of the event Alison emphasizes the Catholicism and Irishness of the perpetrators. The public execution of Doolan and Redding on 14 May 1841 is worth dwelling on because it dovetails with Dickens’s later experience of another double hanging in London eight years later.


“The sentence to be hung on the spot where the crime had been committed, was pronounced by the judges rather in conformity with the feelings of indignation excited by the details of a cold-blooded combination murder, as unfolded at the trial, than from a calm consideration of how such a sentence was to be carried into execution. The difficulties and risk attending it soon proved to be great. The united labourers on the railway line, ten thousand in number, made no secret of their intention to strike work the day before, and rescue the prisoners before they reached the place of execution; and the Irish Roman Catholics of Glasgow and its vicinity, above sixty thousand in number, strongly sympathised with these sentiments. On the other hand, the Scotchmen and Englishmen in the same neighbourhood were much excited against the murderers, and loudly called for an example which might check the lawless spirit spreading into Scotland from the sister isle. Under these circumstances there was little difficulty in finding a majority inclined to support the sentence; the great danger was that that majority would come to blows with the minority, who were not less resolute to prevent it. The national animosity of Great Britain and Ireland, of Catholic and Protestant, was here mixed up with the passions, already sufficiently fierce, of trades-unions against all who resisted their mandates. The great object was to carry the law into execution, and at the same time preserve the peace; and these ends could only be secured by an imposing display of military force. Government, now seriously alarmed, liberally placed the requisite means at my disposal. In addition to the regiments of infantry and cavalry stationed in Lanarkshire, with the artillery at Glasgow, the depot of another regiment was ordered up from Paisley, and six troops of horse were brought from Edinburgh. Altogether 1800 men were assembled in the neighbourhood – of whom 600 were horse – with two guns, in the evening preceding the execution, which was to take place at eight in the morning of the 14th May. The scaffold, an awful pile, was sent out overnight, under a strong guard, from Glasgow, amidst an immense crowd of spectators, and protected during the night by a company of infantry.
At seven on the following morning I went on horseback, with a troop of cavalry and two companies of infantry, to the jail of Glasgow to accompany the prisoners to the place of execution. The whole neighbourhood of the prison was filled by a sea of heads, awaiting in breathless expectation the appearance of the unhappy prisoners. So dense was the throng, that it was with difficulty even the cavalry could make its way through to reach the prison-gates. At half-past seven they were brought out, calm but deadly pale, and seated in the open carriage in which they were to be conveyed. By an involuntary impulse the whole multitude uncovered when they appeared, and the procession set out through the centre of the city for the place of execution. So deep was the feeling of all present, that, though at least 200,000 persons thronged the streets, windows, and roofs through which the procession passed, not a whisper was heard along their whole extent; and the only sound which met the ear amidst such a prodigious concourse of human beings, was the clang of the horses’ feet on the pavement. It reminded me of the descriptions of the French army entering Moscow. When we emerged from the city beyond the High Church, and began to defile through the fields, the scene was not less striking. The immense throng could not he contained on the road, which was in great part occupied by the carriages in the procession and the troops who accompanied it; and in consequence they spread over the fields to the distance of a quarter of a mile on either side, and advanced abreast of the carriages – an immense black close column, sweeping the ground like a huge rolling stone as it advanced.
At length we reached the fatal spot, where the ground was kept by the cavalry which had come up from Edinburgh and the infantry previously sent out. At least 150,000 persons were present, all in the highest state of excitement; but so strong was the military force that no attempt at a rescue was made. Doolan mounted with a firm step, though deadly pale; Redding with a little run, as if under the influence of nervous excitement. When the bolts were withdrawn, which they were with a loud noise, a universal shudder ran through the crowd: my horse, which was directly in front of the scaffold, started, as if conscious of the dreadful drama which was in the act of execution. Then, and not till then, I averted my eye from the terrible spectacle. My duty was done; all felt there was a Government in the country. Redding never moved – he had fainted, I think, before being thrown off; but Doolan struggled painfully for a minute or two. We returned with the dead bodies in the same imposing order in which we had gone out, and amidst the same prodigious concourse of people. But the din was now as loud as the silence had before been awful: emotion long pent up found vent, and so stunning was the roar, that in going down the High Street I could not by any exertion of my voice make the officer in command hear, who rode close at my right hand.
If the appearance and emotion of the people on this occasion demonstrated the vast effect of a public execution, when conducted with solemnity, and for a crime which had aroused the feelings of the community, in producing profound moral impressions on the people, the behaviour of the persons engaged with me in superintending it was not less characteristic of the weakness of human nature, amid the difficulties by which in critical times those intrusted with the administration of affairs are surrounded. The warrant for the execution was addressed to the Sheriff of Lanarkshire and Magistrates of Glasgow, the latter of whom, as magistrates of the city and ex officio justices of peace for the county, had jurisdiction both where the prisoners were detained and where they were to be executed. No sooner did the rumour spread as to the probability of a riot and attempt at rescue on the occasion, than they began on various pretences to excuse themselves from attending; and when I requested a meeting of them to concert measures for carrying the sentence into execution, I found that they had had a previous meeting by themselves, and they came prepared with a minute setting forth that, as magistrates of Glasgow, their duty was to preserve the peace of the burgh, and that they would best discharge this by taking post in the courtyard of the jail when the execution was going forward. There accordingly they were during the whole time, with the Lord Provost at their head: none of them could be prevailed on to accompany the procession even to the limits of the burgh, with the exception of one whom shame prevented from remaining back with his brethren. No sooner was the execution over, than the usual disputes began as to who was to bear its expense. The total cost was £250; of this the Crown would only pay one-half – alleging that the other half was a charge against, not the Government, but the county. This the latter resisted, maintaining that the Executive having ordered the execution, the whole expense should be borne by the Exchequer. In the meantime the persons employed on the occasion sent in their accounts to me, as the person who had given the orders. These I was obliged to pay; and I only got back the half from the county, after a considerable time and no small trouble, through the personal regard for myself of the committee to whom it was referred, at which the Commissioners of Supply expressed themselves most indignant at their next annual meeting. I made a narrow escape from losing £130 by being charged with the execution of a most disagreeable and responsible duty.
This painful event opened my eyes to the real cause which impels such multitudes to similar scenes, and the impossibility of hoping that in the most atrocious cases capital punishment can be completely dispensed with. It is terror of death which sends such multitudes in every age to see men die. As every one knows that he must depart this world himself, and every one has a secret awe, more or less strong, at its contemplation, all are desirous of seeing how in the last extremity the trial can be borne. Hence it is that two-thirds of the spectators at all executions are women; and that of men the most timid are most desirous to witness them. It is the same feeling which in former days led the Roman ladies in such crowds to the fights of gladiators, in the feudal ages to the tournaments of knights, and now impels the Spanish dames in anxious throngs to the excitement of bull-fights at Seville, or the English to Blondin’s perilous exhibition at the Crystal Palace. This passion does not diminish with the progress of civilisation and the humanising of manners; on the contrary it rather increases, because such changes render these exhibitions more rare, and excite the mind more powerfully, from its having become more open to vivid emotions, and from the thirst for passionate excitement being increased. If the laws would permit it, the same crowds in London or Paris would rush to see gladiators slaughter each other, as they ever did in imperial Rome; and the same disappointment would be evinced by the ladies, if the knights rung with the wooden end of the spear instead of the sharp, as was shown in the days of the Plantagenets or the Tudors.
As the mournful exhibition of death in its awful form approaching a human being is thus the most powerful of all spectacles to move the human mind, so it is one which can never to all appearance be dispensed with to check the great crimes which originate in as powerful desires. As revenge, jealousy, lust, the thirst for gain, are the strongest impulses which tend to the commission of great crimes, so it will always be found impossible to coerce them but by equally powerful restraining motives on the other side. Of these the terror of death is by much the most efficacious; secondary punishments are of service only by getting quit for a time, or in extreme cases permanently, of the criminal: as examples to deter others they have no effect whatever. No one either inquires or cares what comes of a robber or housebreaker after he has received sentence of penal servitude; and in most cases, from the impossibility of finding room for him in the crowded receptacles for criminals, he is soon found back in his old haunts and at his old practices, improved in skill and increased in audacity. Sentence of death should be confined to cases of the most serious crimes, and never carried into execution unless under circumstances in which the general opinion of mankind goes along with its infliction. When it is carried out, it should be with the utmost solemnity, and in the most public manner. Private execution in prison is pure judicial murder; for it is unattended with the only circumstance which can justify the taking away of life – the exhibition of an example which may deter others. I had already had experience of these truths: the cotton-spinners’ trial produced a prodigious sensation and stopped the dangerous conspiracy which it revealed; but the punishment inflicted, speedily remitted by Lord Normanby, had a directly opposite effect. But no words can describe the sensation and lasting effect which the execution of Dennis Doolan and his associate produced.” (40)

How would Dickens have viewed the public execution presided over by his host? Unlike Alison, Dickens was an opponent of public executions and we have evidence of his reaction to one that he witnessed in London a short time after his stay at Possil House. Dickens was present the execution of the Mannings, Frederick and Maria, husband and wife, on 13 November 1849. The Mannings were convicted for the so-called ‘Bermondsey Murder’, when the body of an Irishman, Patrick O’Connor, was discovered under the flagstones of their kitchen in a hole filled with quicklime. Dickens was so incensed by what he saw that he immediately wrote a letter to The Times urging Sir George Grey, the Home Secretary, to put an end to public executions. The letter was published in several other newspapers including The Scotsman, which reprinted it on 17 November, a few days after the event:

“Sir, – I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.
I do not address you on the subject with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment, or any of the advocates of its opponents or advocates. I simply wish to turn this dreadful experience to some account for the general good, by taking the readiest and most public means of adverting to an intimation given by Sir G. Grey in the last session of Parliament that the Government might be induced to give its support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should satisfy the public at large), and of most earnestly beseeching Sir G. Grey, as a solemn duty which he cannot ever put away, to originate such a legislative change himself.
I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of ‘Mrs Manning’ for ‘Susannah,’ and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly – as it did – it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.
I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralisation as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger Lane Jail is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten. And when, in our prayers, and thanksgivings for the season, we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether is not a time to think of this one, and root it out.
I am, Sir, your faithful servant,
Devonshire Terrace, Tuesday Nov. 13.” (41)


Dickens was an actor as well as an author: “It has been admitted by many who were in a position to judge that Dickens was one of the best amateur actors that ever lived”. (42) He has been credited with the invention of the modern stage ghost, such dramatic apparitions being a feature of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. (43) It has also been noted that his experience as a stage performer and his knowledge of the theatre made him a brilliant public speaker and reader of his own work. (44) Dickens was a great admirer of Shakespeare to the point of obsession and was soon regarded by some critics as being as accomplished and engaging a writer as Shakespeare, as universally celebrated and as popular. (45) Dickens was back in Glasgow for a touring production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor from 18-20 July 1848. The Glasgow Herald of Monday 26 June 1848 announced the news of Dickens’s planned dramatic entrance:

We feel the utmost pleasure in being able to state that everything is going swimmingly forward for the Grand Amateur Performance at the Theatre Royal here, with Mr. Dickens and his friends, in aid of the fund for the endowment of our old, warm-hearted, and much esteemed friend, Mr. Sheridan Knowles, as perpetual Curator of Shakespeare’s House.”

The two roles taken by Dickens were that of Slender, cousin to Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the Doctor in Animal Magnetism, for which Dickens also acted as stage manager. As stage manager Dickens was very hands-on. He drew up a set of instructions for the 1848 summer tour that included the Glasgow dates:

“Remembering the very imperfect condition of all our plays at present, the general expectation in reference to them, the kind of audience before which they will be presented, and the near approach of the nights of performance, I hope everybody concerned will abide by the following regulations, and will aid in strictly carrying them out […] Silence, on the stage and in the theatre, to be faithfully observed, the lobbies, &c., being always available for conversation. No book to be referred to on the stage; but those who are imperfect to take their words from the prompter. Everyone to act, as nearly as possible, as on the night of performance; everyone to speak out, so as to be audible through the house . And every mistake of exit, entrance, or situation to be corrected three times successively […] All who were concerned in the first getting up of ‘Every Man in his Humour,’ and who remember how carefully the stage was always kept then, and who have been engaged in the late rehearsals of the ‘Merry Wives,’, and have experienced the difficulty of getting on or off, of being heard, or of hearing anybody else, will, I am sure, acknowledge the indispensable necessity of these regulations.” (46)

Dickens usually played Shallow, but for this particular tour he took the part Slender. On Friday 30 June 1848 the Glasgow Herald reported that Dickens was coming to the city to perform a role quite different from the one he had fulfilled in opening the Athenæum, and he was coming to another Glasgow institution, the Theatre Royal, to act in two plays, a familiar one by Shakespeare and a popular farce by Elizabeth Inchbald:

“On TUESDAY EVENING, July 18, 1848,
Will be presented Shakspere’s Comedy of

Dickens also played the part of Sir Charles Coldstream in Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1844 farce, Used Up, at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow on 20 July 1848. (47)

After Dickens issued a statement to The Times in June 1858 on the end of his 22-year marriage to Kate, the Scottish press went to town on him in advance of his visit there in the autumn as part of public speaking tour. (48) Dickens was nominated for the Lord Rectorship of the University of Glasgow and on the 15th of November 1858 the election took place. Dickens got 69 votes, Lord Shaftesbury 204. Bulwer-Lytton was elected with 217 votes. Dickens later said he had been put forward “against his express wish” and that “he did not seek election”. (49) Dickens gave readings in Glasgow from 6-9 October 1858 as part of a major tour, and again in 1861four readings from 3-6 December, and 17 and 19 December 1866, and 18 and 21 February 1867, and on the 9, and 15-18 December 1878, and 22 and 25 February 1869. Of Glasgow, Dickens remarked during a later visit in 1868:

“The atmosphere of this place, compounded of mists from the Highlands, and smoke from the town factories, is crushing my eyebrows as I write, and it rains as it never does rain anywhere else, and always does rain here. It is a dreadful place, though much improved and possessing a deal of public spirit.” (50)

In 1868 Dickens planned another reading trip to Edinburgh and Glasgow, where, against the advice of friends, he was determined to read the murder scene from Oliver Twist, and thought it would get a good audience in Scotland, where the atmosphere was just right, as he wrote from Edinburgh:

“As I have determined not to do the ‘Oliver’ murder until after the 5th of January, when I shall ascertain its effect on a great audience, it is curious to notice how the shadow of its coming affects the Scotch mind. It is a very, very bad day here, very dark and very wet. I am sitting at a side window, looking up the length of Princes Street, watching the mist change over the castle, and murdering Nancy by turns.” (51)


The Mansion House of Possil House was certainly no Bleak House. Built by John Forbes, it was described as “a new house, well furnished, with good gardens and enclosures.” A short history of Possil House from construction to demolition was provided by David Small in By-gone Glasgow (1896):

“The estate of Possil has passed through the hands of several renowned Glasgow merchants during the past three centuries. The mansion was built about 1710, and was then reckoned one of the best country houses in the neighbourhood. In 1808 the estate was acquired by Colonel Alexander Campbell, one of the Peninsular heroes who fought under Sir John Moore at Corunna. He lived at Possil House for some time after the estate was bought by him, but subsequently he made his other estate of Torosay (now called Duart) in Argyllshire his chief residence. His death took place in 1849. Fifteen years before that date, Possil House had been let to Sir Archibald Alison, Bart., Sheriff of Lanarkshire, author of the History of Europe from the French Revolution till the Fall of Napoleon. Charles Dickens visited Sir Archibald at Possil […] The Sheriff resided there till his death in 1867. He was the last occupant of Possil House, having lived there for thirty-three years. Colonel Campbell had acquired the neighbouring estate of Keppoch-hill in 1838, and added it to Possil. His son and successor, John Campbell, feued a hundred acres on the Possil estate (including the mansion) to Walter Macfarlane of the Saracen Foundry. This foundry had been originally started in Saracen’s Lane, off Gallowgate, a small street beside the famed Saracen’s Head Inn. The business extended so much that it had to be removed to larger premises in Washington Street. In 1868 Mr Macfarlane decided to build an extensive work at Possil, and he acquired a portion of the estate, demolished the mansion, and erected the new Saracen Foundry. He laid out the ground near the works in streets, and before 1872 there were numerous tenements put up for the accommodation of his employees. At the present time Possilpark is a thriving suburb, built entirely on modern principles. Besides the Saracen Foundry there are three large iron works here, and also chemical works and white-lead works, while the Possilpark Station on the City and District section of the North British Railway makes the place of easy access from the centre of the city. The streets are so planned that Possilpark will ultimately be in direct connection with Ruchill on the west side and Springburn on the east.” (52)

Sir Archibald Alison died at Possil House on 23 May 1867. An obituary appeared in the North British Daily Mail, with an abridged version published in the Scottish Law Magazine:

“Sir Archibald was Provincial Grand Master of the Freemasons of Glasgow for about twenty years, and, as such, laid the foundation stone of many public buildings in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, and presided at nearly all the important masonic gatherings within that district – particularly at the funeral of the late Duke of Athole, at which he delivered an oration eminently befitting the occasion. But not only as a P.G.M., but as one far advanced in the degrees of masonry, was the late baronet held in honour by his brethren, and considering the great interest he manifested in all that concerned the craft, he was justly regarded as one of the foremost masons in Scotland.” (53)

The country estate Alison had lived in for thirty-two years, where he had written his controversial conservative histories of Europe, where he had forged friendships with various dignitaries and celebrities, was now a forge of a different kind. The imposing gates of Saracen Foundry opened at its new address at 73 Hawthorn Street and became world-renowned for its architectural and ornamental ironwork. Saracen Foundry went on to make, among many other things, the canopy at the entrance to Central Station. Dickens might have found some irony in the fact that the mansion house and grounds he had strolled around during those dismal December days in 1847 would become the site of an ironworks, the kind of dark satanic mill that figured in his books. More than iron was forged in the foundry. The character of a community was carved out. The ironworks are long gone now, but the iron age lives on.

When the demolition of Possil House turned a rural mansion into an industrial hub it led to pollution which in turn led to demands for a park to be established at nearby Ruchill. The sensible thinking at the time was that parks provided both fresh air and recreation for workers who tended to live in overcrowded areas close to the factories and forges where they worked (this was long before the city planners of the 1950s and 1960s decided that motorways rammed through the city centre were much better than fresh air). But as Irene Maver points out, there was irony to be found in an ironworks that produced not just smoke but wrought-iron gates and other features:

“There was […] a profound twist of irony in the debate about the smoke nuisance in the north-west. Although the Saracen Foundry in Possil was one of the leading culprits, its proprietor (Walter Macfarlane) had built up a world-wide reputation for his extensive catalogue, which included wrought-iron bandstands and other park embellishments.” (54)

A description in The Gazetteer of Scotland of 1882 describes Possilpark as a thriving community with a population of four and a half thousand.

“POSSIL PARK, suburb, 1¾ mile north-north-west of Royal Exchange, Glasgow. It covers the site of Possil House, the seat of the late Sir Archibald Alison, Bart.; it is all quite recent; it consists chiefly of streets crossing one another at right angles; and it has a post office, with money order department, under Glasgow, and a chapel-of-ease. Pop. 4594.” (55)

Yet three years later a novel by William Black entitled White Heather portrayed Possilpark as a district down on its luck:

“And indeed Ronald found it so strange to be going out without some companion of the kind that when he passed into the wide, dull thoroughfare, he looked up and down everywhere to see if he could not find some homeless wandering cur that he could induce to go with him. But there was no sign of dog-life visible; for the matter of that there was little sign of any other kind of life; there was nothing before him but the wide, empty, dull-hued street, apparently terminating in a great wilderness of india-rubber works and oil-works and the like, all of them busily engaged in pouring volumes of smoke through tall chimneys into the already sufficiently murky sky.
But when he got farther north, he found that there were lanes and alleys permeating this mass of public works; and eventually he reached a canal, and crossed that, deeming that if he kept straight on he must reach the open country somewhere. As yet he could make out no distance; blocks of melancholy soot-begrimed houses, timber-yards, and blank stone walls shut in the view on every hand; moreover there was a brisk north wind blowing that was sharply pungent with chemical fumes and also gritty with dust; so that he pushed on quickly, anxious to get some clean air into his lungs, and anxious, if that were possible, to get a glimpse of green fields and blue skies. For, of course, he could not always be at his books; and this, as he judged, must be the nearest way out into the country; and he could not do better than gain some knowledge of his surroundings, and perchance discover some more or less secluded sylvan retreat, where, in idle time, he might pass an hour or so with his pencil and his verses and his memories of the moors and hills.
But the farther out he got the more desolate and desolating became the scene around him. Here was neither town nor country; or rather, both were there; and both were dead. He came upon a bit of hawthorn-hedge; the stems were coal-black, the leaves begrimed out of all semblance to natural foliage. There were long straight roads, sometimes fronted by a stone wall and sometimes by a block of buildings – dwelling-houses, apparently, but of the most squalid and dingy description; the windows opaque with dirt; the ‘closes’ foul; the pavements in front unspeakable. But the most curious thing was the lifeless aspect of this dreary neighbourhood. Where were the people? Here or there two or three ragged children would be playing in the gutter; or perhaps, in a dismal little shop, an old woman might be seen, with some half-withered apples and potatoes on the counter. But where were the people who at one time or other must have inhabited these great, gaunt, gloomy tenements? He came to a dreadful place called Saracen Cross – a very picture of desolation and misery; the tall blue-black buildings showing hardly any sign of life in their upper flats; the shops below being for the most part tenantless, the windows rudely boarded over. It seemed as if some blight had fallen over the land, first obliterating the fields, and then laying its withering hand on the houses that had been built on them. And yet these melancholy-looking buildings were not wholly uninhabited; here or there a face was visible—but always of women or children; and perhaps the men-folk were away at work somewhere in a factory. Anyhow, under this dull gray sky, with a dull gray mist in the air, and with a strange silence everywhere around, the place seemed a City of the Dead; he could not understand how human beings could live in it at all.” (56)

How did Possil go from “Garden of the North”, as it was once styled, to “City of the Dead” in so short a space of time?


Possil and the University of Glasgow have more in common than Sir Archibald Alison as former Rector or Dickens as unsuccessful Rectoral candidate. A procession of Glasgow Rectors paraded through Possil House. Sir James Graham, who succeeded Sir Robert Peel in the role of Rector, visited Sheriff Alison there in December 1838, where he met ‘the principal Professors’ of the University, as well as the Duke of Montrose and the Marquis of Douglas. (57)

Possil made a big impact on the city when a meteor landed there over 200 years ago:

“If you take the circular walk around Possil Loch, you will see a commemorative plaque marking the Possil High Meteorite, which fell nearby on the 5th April 1804. This was the earliest of only four known recorded meteorite falls in Scotland and the largest surviving fragment is held at the Hunterian Museum within the University of Glasgow.” (58)

When the University of Glasgow moved from the impoverished East End of the city at the end of the 1860s – taking flight from its medieval site – students on the new campus at Gilmorehill in the wealthy West End suburb that was to be its new home became involved in local charity work, and as Possil was a stone’s throw away and reminiscent of the old East End from which the University had fled, it became a place of interest:

“In 1889 the Glasgow University Students’ Settlement Society was formed with the stated object of carrying on social, educational and religious work. The Settlement consisted of a residence, club rooms and halls and was situated at 10 Possil Road, Garscube Cross. The work undertaken took various forms, including social clubs, Sunday meetings, a ‘Poor Man’s Lawyer’, medical dispensary and a savings bank. In the residence there was accommodation for fifteen students overlooked by a warden. The affairs of the Society were in the hands of a President, Warden, Sub-Warden, Secretary, a four-man General Committee and a five-man Finance Committee.” (59)

Possil has a more recent connection with the University. It is home to a major archive of scholarly resources:

“The Library Research Annexe contains important research material not in high demand. The collection holds runs of older journals and books as well as other materials including Parliamentary papers, microfilms and newspapers. The Library Research Annexe plays a vital role in storing valuable research material in a safe and secure environment. It has excellent on site consultation facilities and parking for visitors.” (60)


Rockvilla School built 1874-77, pictured in the 1970s.

What would Dickens make of Possil today, almost 175 years after his visit? As an actor and avid theatregoer, he might find intriguing the fact that the National Theatre of Scotland is now based close to Possil Road, near the site of the former Rockvilla Primary School. NTS is an institution Dickens would have embraced. (62) He would also be encouraged by community developments like Hawthorn Housing Association. (63) Dickens’s first publication was Sketches by Boz (1836), a pseudonym under which he observed London life. It was a nickname that served him well. The only sign of Dickens’s presence in Possil today is some graffiti at Saracen Cross that reads “Chasa Wiz Here”, and under that, “Big Boz is Pure Sketchy”.

National Theatre of Scotland at Rockvilla, Possil Road, 2021.


(1) William Power, The World Unvisited: Essays and Sketches (Glasgow: Gowans & Gray Limited, 1922), 119.
(2) Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, with illustrations by H. K. Browne (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1846-48), 44.
(3) I wrote about Dickens’s Glasgow visits in ‘A ghost of Possil past…: Charles Dickens’ investigation of the social condition in Victorian Britain took him to Possilpark’, The Herald (Weekend Living, 29 September 2001), 1; and in ‘Moulin Scrooge [on Dickens and Scotland]’, The Sunday Herald (Seven Days: Scotland’s Current Affairs Magazine, 16 December 2001), 11.
(4) On Alison, see Archibald Alison, Some account of my life and writings: an autobiography, by the late Sir Archibald Alison, ed. by his daughter-in-law, Lady Alison (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and sons, 1883); Anon, ‘Sir Archibald Alison’, Scottish Law Magazine and Sheriff Court Reporter 6 (1867): 37-44; Anon, ‘Alison’s Autobiography’, London Quarterly Review 60, 119 (1883): 230-234; Michael Michie, Enlightenment Tory in Victorian Scotland: The Career of Sir Archibald Alison (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1997). The first volume of Alison’s History of Europe was dated from ‘POSSIL HOUSE, LANARKSHIRE 8 October 1852’. Archibald Alison, History of Europe from the Fall of Napoleon in 1815 to the Accession of Louis Napoleon in 1852, vol. I (Edinburgh: W. Blackwood & Sons, 1852), xiii. In a letter to his sister dated 18 January 1857 Sir Gerald Graham gave an account of a visit to Possil House and described Sir Archibald as “a man of striking appearance, massive nose, high forehead, and dignified, kind expression” who “speaks with a broad Scotch accent”. R. H. Vetch (ed.), Life, letters and diaries of Lieut.-General Sir Gerald Graham … with portraits, plans, and his principal despatches (Edinburgh, London: W. Blackwood & Sons, 1901), 135-137. For his views on politics and economics see Archibald Alison, Free trade and Protection (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1844).
(5) On John Campbell senior of Morriston see T. M. Devine, ‘An Eighteenth-Century Business Élite: Glasgow-West India Merchants, c. 1750-1815’, The Scottish Historical Review 57, 163 (1978): 40-67; Anthony Cooke, ‘An Elite Revisited: Glasgow West India Merchants, 1783–1877’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 32, 2 (2012): 127-165; and Stephen Mullen, ‘A Glasgow-West India Merchant House and the Imperial Dividend, 1779-1867’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 33, 2 (2013): 196-233. For a brief biography of the son see ‘Alexander Campbell of Possil’, The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/person/view/10482. Colonel Alexander Campbell had his portrait painted by Sir Henry Raeburn, as did his wife, Mrs Campbell of Possil. William Raeburn Andrew, Life of Sir Henry Raeburn, R. A., 2nd ed. (London: W. H. Allen & Company, limited, 1894), 107.
(6) Archibald Alison, Some account of my life and writings: an autobiography, by the late Sir Archibald Alison, ed. by his daughter-in-law, Lady Alison, 2 vols. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and sons, 1883), Vol. I, 342.
(7) Archibald Alison, Some account of my life and writings: an autobiography, by the late Sir Archibald Alison, ed. by his daughter-in-law, Lady Alison, 2 vols. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and sons, 1883), Vol. I, 342-3. On Alison’s library see also the recollection of the Reverend Frederick Arnold: ‘I procured an introduction to Alison from a near relation of his, whom I met in a country house in England. I had a very civil letter from him, in which he hoped to name a day when I should dine with him at Possil House. But nothing came of it. To the best of my recollection, I met him once, but he did not impress me as did Macaulay. He was called the Sheriff, and used to try cases. I was in his Court when he fined a man ten pounds for stealing a watch, which struck me as a very unusual sentence for a felony. He used to go to a large second-hand bookseller’s shop which I was fond of haunting. One day he bought an edition, in some half a hundred volumes, of the “British Essayists” or “British Novelists;” and the bookseller told me that he stipulated with him that the parcel should not be sent home, but that he should call and carry the books away gradually, by twos and threes, in his pockets – I suppose for domestic reasons.’ Frederick Arnold, Reminiscences of a Literary and Clerical Life, 2 vols. (London, Ward and Downey, 1889), I: 68-9.
(8) Hugh MacDonald, Rambles Round Glasgow: Descriptive, Historical, and Traditional, 3rd edition (Glasgow: John Cameron, 1860), 353.
(9) Alison was the author of the History of Europe During the French Revolution, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood; London: Cadell, 1833). Critics mention Archibald Alison in relation to Dickens without alluding to Dickens’s stay in Possil or dwelling on whether the conversations he had with Alison informed his fiction. See Mark Philp, ‘The New Philosophy: The Substance and the Shadow in A Tale of Two Cities’, in Colin Jones, Josephine McDonagh, and Jon Mee (eds), Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009), 24-40, at 27; Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘The Redemptive Powers of Violence? Carlyle, Marx and Dickens’, in Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution, 41-63, at 43; David R. Sorenson, ‘“The Unseen Heart of the Whole”: Carlyle, Dickens, and the Sources of The French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities’, Dickens Quarterly 30, 1 (2013): 5-25; and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador, ‘Metaphorical Representations of the French Revolution in Victorian Fiction’, Nineteenth-Century Literature 43, 1 (1988): 1-23.
(10) Cited in Clare A. Simmons, ‘Disease and Dismemberment: Two Conservative Metaphors for the French Revolution’, Prose Studies 15, 2 (1992): 208-224, at 208.
(11) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, Vol. I, 564.
(12) Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, with illustrations by H. K. Browne (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1846-48), 537. The full title of his early essays on the London scene is Sketches by ‘Boz’, Illustrative of Every-Day Life, and Every-Day People, in two volumes, Vol. I (London: John Macrone, 1836).
(13) J. J. Stevenson, ‘Dickens in Edinburgh’, Dickensian 3, 10 (1907): 262-264, at 263. Dickens apparently declined to become an MP for Edinburgh in 1869. J. Stevenson, ‘Dickens in Edinburgh II’, Dickensian 3, 11 (1907): 293-295, at 294.
(14) Shannon Russell, ‘How a Slave Was Made a Woman: Dombey and Son and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass’, Dickens Quarterly 38, 1 (2021): 29-53.
(15) Michael Taylor, ‘Conservative Political Economy and the Problem of Colonial Slavery, 1823-1833’, The Historical Journal 57, 4 (2014): 973-995, at 984.
(16) On Dickens and slavery see Arthur A. Adrian, ‘Dickens on American Slavery: A Carlylean Slant’, PMLA 67, 4 (1952): 315-329; Diana C. Archibald, ‘Many Kinds of Prison: Charles Dickens on American Incarceration and Slavery’, Iperstoria 14 (2019): 43-53; Brahma Chaudhuri, ‘Dickens and the Question of Slavery’, Dickens Quarterly 6, 1 (1989): 3-10; Andrew C. Hansen, ‘Rhetorical Indiscretions: Charles Dickens as Abolitionist’, Western Journal of Communication 65, 1 (2001): 26-44; Sean Purchase, ‘“Speaking of Them as a Body”: Dickens, Slavery and Martin Chuzzlewit’, Critical Survey 18, 1 (2006): 1-16; Harry Stone, ‘Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12, 3 (1957): 188-202; and Jonathan Daniel Wells, ‘Charles Dickens, the American South, and the Transatlantic Debate over Slavery’, Slavery & Abolition 36, 1 (2015): 1-25.
(17) Dickens, Dombey and Son, 341.
(18) B. Duncum, ‘Chloroform for Mrs Dickens’, Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia 5 (1989): 31-33, at 32. Dickens would complain 20 years later that a journey on the Flying Scotsman to Edinburgh from London had given him 30,000 jolts. J. J. Stevenson, ‘Dickens in Edinburgh II’, Dickensian 3, 11 (1907): 293-295, at 294.
(19) Peter Ackroyd, Dickens: A Memoir of Middle Age (London: Vintage, 2002), 298. See John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens (London: Chapman Hall, 1872).
(20) Mamie Dickens and Georgina Hogarth (eds.), The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1833 to 1856, Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1880), 184.
(21) Cited in Tom Johnstone, ‘Decidedly This Side Idolatry: Dr. John Brown and Dickens’, Dickensian 74, 385 (1978): 96-102, at 98.
(22) Avi Ohry, ‘“Shake me up, Judy!”: On Dickens, Medicine and Spinal Cord Disorders’, Ortop Traumatol Rehabil 14, 5 (2012): 483-91, at 484.
(23) James A. Kilpatrick, Literary Landmarks of Glasgow (Glasgow: Saint Mungo Press, 1898), 229-30. The whole speech is reproduced in Richard Herne Shepherd (ed.), The Speeches of Charles Dickens, 1841-1870 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1884), 109-115
(24) James Lauder, The Glasgow Athenaeum: A Sketch of Fifty Years’ Work (1847-1897) (Glasgow: Saint Mungo Press, 1897), 14.
(25) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, 567.
(26) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, 568.
(27) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, 568.
(28) Cited in Maurice Milne, ‘Archibald Alison: Conservative Controversialist’, Albion 27, 3 (1995): 419-443, at 419.
(29) Ohry, ‘“Shake me up, Judy!”’, 486.
(30) Charles Dickens’s speech at the Glasgow Athenaeum, cited in James Lauder, The Glasgow Athenaeum: A Sketch of Fifty Years’ Work (1847-1897) (Glasgow: Saint Mungo Press, 1897), 19-22.
(31) Quoted in Shepherd (ed.), The Speeches of Charles Dickens, 1841-1870, 115.
(32) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, 487, 488.
(33) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, 495.
(34) Anon, ‘Alison’s Autobiography’, London Quarterly Review 60, 119 (1883): 230-234, at 231.
(35) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, vii.
(36) Anon, ‘Alison’s Autobiography’, 233-4.
(37) Anon, ‘Alison’s Autobiography’, 233-4.
(38) Willy Maley, ‘The Crosshill Railway Murder of 1840’, Unspeakable Scotland episode 5, https://www.thebiglight.com/unspeakablescotland, accessed 21 December 2021. See John Maley and Willy Maley, Gallowglass: The Story of the Glasgow-Edinburgh Railway Murder of 1840 (Glasgow: Clydeside Press, 1991)
(39) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, 469-70.
(40) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, 470-72.
(41) ‘Mr Charles Dickens on the Execution of the Mannings’, The Scotsman (November 17 1849), 4. See also The Bermondsey murder: a full report of the trial of Frederick George Manning and Maria Manning, for the murder of Patrick O’Connor, at Minver-place, Bermondsey, on the 9th of August, 1849. Including memoirs of Patrick O’Connor, Frederick George Manning, and Maria Manning. With their portraits, and several other engravings (London: W. M. Clark, 1849).
(42) Frederick G. Jackson, ‘Dickens as Actor’, Dickensian 3, 7 (1907): 173-178, at 173.
(43) Marvin Carlson, ‘Charles Dickens and the Invention of the Modern Stage Ghost’, in Mary Luckhurst and Emilie Morin (eds.), Theatre and Ghosts: Materiality, Performance and Modernity (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 27-45.
(44) Leigh Woods, ‘“As If I Had Been Another Man”: Dickens, Transformation, and an Alternative Theatre’, Theatre Journal 40, 1 (1988): 88-100.
(45) See Paul Schlicke, ‘Dickens and Shakespeare’, The Japan Branch Bulletin of the Dickens Fellowship 27 (2004): 84-98. See also Edward P. Vandiver, ‘Dickens’ Knowledge of Shakspere’, The Shakespeare Association Bulletin 21, 3 (1946): 124-128.
(46) Cited in T. Edgar Pemberton, Charles Dickens and the Stage: A Record of His Connection with the Drama as Playwright, Actor, and Critic (London: G. Redway, 1888), 104.
(47) Michael Stanton, ‘Charles Dickens: Used Up’, Dickensian 84, 416 (1988): 142-152, at 146.
(48) Paul Schlicke, ‘“A Sort of Spoiled Child of the Public”: Dickens’s Reception in Scotland in 1858’, The Dickensian 111, 495 (2015): 26-33.
(49) Norman Page, A Dickens Chronology (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1988), 102.
(50) J. J. Stevenson, ‘Dickens in Edinburgh II’, Dickensian 3, 11 (1907): 293-295, at 294.
(51) J. J. Stevenson, ‘Dickens in Edinburgh II’, Dickensian 3, 11 (1907): 293-295, at 294. Dickens apparently declined to become an MP for Edinburgh in 1869.
(52) David Small, By-gone Glasgow: Sketches of Vanished Corners in the City and Suburbs. Forty full-page drawings and twenty-three text illustrations by D. Small. With descriptive letterpress by A. H. Miller (Glasgow: Morison Bros, 1896), 173-4.
(53) Scottish Law Magazine and Sheriff Court Reporter 6 (1867): 37-42, at 40.
(54) Irene Maver, ‘Glasgow’s Public Parks and the Community, 1850-1914: A Case Study in Scottish Civic Interventionism’, Urban History 25, 3 (1998): 323-347, at 337.
(55) The Gazetteer of Scotland (Edinburgh: W. & A. K. Johnston, 1882), 377.
(56) William Black, White Heather, 3 vols., volume 2 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1885), 124-126.
(57) Alison, Some account of my life and writings, 442-3.
(58) ‘Glasgow’s Canals Unlocked’, https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Unlocking-the-Story-Glasgows-Canals-Heritage.pdf, accessed 21 December 2021.
(59) Leslie Lawrence Forrester, ‘The University Of Glasgow 1910-1930 with emphasis upon its participation in the First World War’, MLitt Thesis, Department of Scottish History, University of Glasgow (May 1998), 14.
(60) University of Glasgow Library Research Annexe, https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/openinghoursandlocations/libraryresearchannexe/, accessed 21 December 2021.
(61) The National Theatre of Scotland, https://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com.
(62) For a fascinating account of recent efforts at regeneration in Possilpark see Joanne Sharp, ‘The Life and Death of Five Spaces: Public Art and Community Regeneration in Glasgow’, Cultural Geographies 14, 2 (2007): 274-292.
(63) Hawthorn Housing Association, http://www.hawthornhousing.org.uk, accessed 21 December 2021.

Last Supper’s Ready, or I Know What I Like about Genesis

‘The scattered pages of a book by the sea
Held by the sand, washed by the waves
A shadow forms cast by a cloud
Skimming by as eyes of the past
But the rising tide absorbs them, effortlessly claiming’.

These lines from ‘Can-Utility and the Coastliners’ sum up Genesis for me: literary, historical and mythical landscapes characterised by bookishness and, in the title, a propensity for punning. The album from which this track is taken, Foxtrot, also features the Peak Prog classic ‘Supper’s Ready’, a twenty-three minute banquet of sumptuous synthesisers and apocalyptic lyrics. I want that song played at my funeral.

On Thursday 7th October 2021 I watched Genesis play The Last Domino at the Glasgow Hydro, within ten days of seeing former band member Steve Hackett at another venue in the city. The last time I had this much Genesis action was in 1980 when I saw Peter Gabriel (28 February), Genesis (28 April) and Steve Hackett (14 June) at the Glasgow Apollo.

Genesis – where did it all begin? It began when my sister heard ‘Carpet Crawlers’ on the John Peel show in early 1975. Hearing that haunting refrain – ‘We’ve got to get in to get out’ – got my sister her into Genesis. I found out later that John Peel didn’t just play ‘Carpet Crawlers’; he also reviewed the single for Sounds on 26 April 1975, describing it as ‘a slow and reflective work, repetitive and yet with a certain intensity’. Peel went on:

‘Despite myself I found that I was being drawn into it, hearing echoes of such diverse folk as Roger Chapman and the Strawbs as I listened. I’m not clear what a carpet crawler is, but “Carpet Crawler” is a most satisfying release – although not one likely to ensnare the Bay City Rollers and Goodies fans who seem to be taking over the country’.

For the record, I took carpet crawlers to be social climbers, the aspiring class who keep the system going:

“There’s only one direction in the faces that I see
It’s upward to the ceiling, where the chamber’s said to be
Like the forest fight for sunlight, that takes root in every tree
They are pulled up by the magnet, believing that they’re free
The carpet crawlers heed their callers
We’ve got to get in to get out
We’ve got to get in to get out”

Whatever the song’s meaning, hearing ‘Carpet Crawlers’ led my sister to buy the next Genesis album, Trick of the Tail, when it came out in February 1976. That’s when I first heard the song ‘Ripples’ and I was hooked straight away:

‘Sail away, away
Ripples never come back
They’ve gone to the other side
Look into the pool
Ripples never come back
Dive to the bottom and go to the top
To see where they have gone
Oh, they’ve gone to the other side’

Genesis became a real obsession from then on. You could say I blind tasted them, since I didn’t know what they looked like. They were faceless to me – just the music and vocals. I started to buy the back catalogue, backtracking all the way back from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974) through Genesis Live (1973), Selling England by the Pound (1973), Foxtrot (1972), and Nursery Cryme (1971), all the way to From Genesis to Revelation (1969), where the only song that really stuck in my mind was ‘Am I Very Wrong’. By the time I got to Trespass (1970) I knew I’d been right all along.

For someone used to singles the Genesis album covers were works of art. I found out later that the cover for Selling England by the Pound was an original painting called ‘The Dream’ by Betty Swanwick, an artist in the English mystical tradition whose works included a portrait of Tolkien. She was a perfect fit for Genesis. ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’, the single from the album, is actually a lyrical expression of her painting. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was the first ‘concept album’ I listened to, and that was when I first really began to appreciate the visuals.

The cover was by Hipgnosis, the outfit who designed Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). It was a departure from the mystical-pastoral covers of earlier Genesis albums. With The Lamb I remember being struck by the gatefold sleeve, the black & white photographs, and the sleeve notes telling the story of Rael, Imperial Aerosol Kid. The male model who played Rael on the cover was credited as ‘Omar’. At first I thought he might be a band member, maybe Gabriel himself, since at this point I still hadn’t seen a photo of the group.

The first album I bought as a new release was Wind and Wuthering, in December 1976. I remember the slightly raised surface of the sleeve, the mist-shrouded tree shedding its leaves, and the by-now-familiar Mad Hatter logo of Charisma Records. The inner sleeve had the lyrics laid out lovingly with indented verses and italics. Genesis lyrics always looked like poetry to me, as well as sounding that way. There was a standout song on every album and on Wind and Wuthering it was ‘One For The Vine’, an epic tale of a follower who becomes a leader and then renounces both roles. That song got to me. When it came to Genesis I was a follower. I still know all the words by heart. Poetry in music. I bought a Wind and Wuthering sweatshirt in 1977, same design as the album cover but in different colours, a rich dark blue with that solitary tree now shedding red and brown leaves. When I was counting votes at Kelvin Hall for the General Election in 1979 an elderly gentleman who was invigilating saw my sweatshirt and said his son was a roadie for the band. I remember thinking that would be my dream job.

It wasn’t just the music. The band’s literary muse appealed to me. Wind and Wuthering, for example, drew on the gothic atmosphere of Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights (1847). I loved that book, especially the last lines in the graveyard: “I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” The album included two instrumentals called ‘Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers…’ and ‘…In That Quiet Earth’. As a reader, I appreciated those literary allusions. ‘Cinema Show’, the standout song on Selling England By the Pound (1973), riffed on T. S. Eliot’s great modernist poem ‘The Waste Land’. In Genesis my two worlds of reading and music met.

Genesis became the single most important thing in my life in my late teens. It might seem odd that a boy from a notorious Glasgow scheme was drawn to a band full of public schoolboys, but I needed to escape and they were the getaway car. And I wasn’t alone. Our house was always full of music. With five big sisters there was a wide selection of records to choose from, and beyond Radio 1 there was Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg for alternative listening. Outside, in the scheme, punk had never made inroads – nobody seemed to want to dress poorer than they were – but soul, disco, glam rock, reggae and yes, prog rock, were popular forms.

At school I found a small group of like-minded individuals and we’d swap Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Supertramp albums. I bought some of these records too, but Genesis was my first love and in 1977 I joined the official fan club. I made up a folder and started collecting the newsletters and other memorabilia.

By this time, the line-up had changed again. I wasn’t aware of Genesis at the time Peter Gabriel quit the band in the summer of 1975 but I felt sad when Steve Hackett departed in October 1977, just as the live double album Seconds Out was released (1). Hackett seemed a pivotal figure in the band. I loved his short acoustic piece on ‘Horizons’, a beautiful solo guitar instrumental on Foxtrot. When I found out it took him a year to write, and that it was influenced by two great composers, William Byrd and Johann Sebastian Bach, I wasn’t surprised. Another song, ‘Blood on the Rooftops’, from Wind and Wuthering, has a lengthy acoustic prelude. The song is about a father and son and a home life where culture consists of light entertainment on TV:

‘Dark and grey, an English film, the Wednesday Play
We always watch the Queen on Christmas Day
Won’t you stay?’

The programmes namechecked in that song – Batman, Tarzan, Name Your Prize, Be Our Guest, The Streets of San Francisco – are familiar to anyone whose childhood encompassed the 1960s and 1970s. The key theme was that the father wants to escape reality – ‘Let’s skip the news boy, I’ll make some tea’. The point of the song was that the father wanted to be entertained, and needed to switch off from politics. My own father never missed the news and couldn’t switch off from politics. But for me Genesis were an escape, an outlet. Watching tv was never enough – I needed books and records to survive.

The next Genesis album, And Then There Were Three, was released in March 1978, its title alluding to the fact that only three core members remained: Tony Banks, Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford. The time had come to see them live before they dwindled further and became a solo act. My sister had friends in London and I’d heard through the Genesis newsletter that they were headlining at Knebworth that summer, Saturday 24th of June. The concert was billed as ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and there was no way I was going to miss it.

The day of the concert the sun shone but it was bitter cold. Luckily the stage gave off a great glow. Devo, Roy Harper, Jefferson Starship, Tom Petty – these were just warm-ups for what would be the experience of a young lifetime. The hours dragged slowly and in the end Genesis came on later than anyone expected. For a lot of people that didn’t matter. They’d come prepared with tents or sleeping bags or late lifts arranged. But we had to catch the last train back to our digs. There was no way we could stay for the whole set. We had to make tracks and that meant missing tracks. We caught ‘Eleventh Earl of Mar’, ‘In the Cage’, ‘Burning Rope’, ‘The Fountain of Salmacis’, ‘Deep in the Motherlode’, and ‘Ripples’. But soon after that it was time for us to sail away. As we crossed the field heading for Stevenage station we could hear the first strains of ‘One for the Vine’ and then the chorus kicked in:

‘Follow me!
I’ll play the game you want me,
Until I find a way back home.’

My Knebworth experience was bittersweet but the fact that the concert was cut short for me only made me want more. I kept playing the albums, kept getting updates from the fan club, kept dreaming of more midsummer nights. The next album, Duke, appeared at the end of March 1980. That was a turnaround year for me. I saw Peter Gabriel at the Apollo on 29 February and caught Steve Hackett there on 14 June. In between, on 28 April 1980, I saw Genesis at the same venue, live and uncut. This time I had no worries about getting home and could stay for the encore. I’d had a letter via the Genesis fan club from a guy who followed them around the country and he asked if he could come up for the Glasgow gigs and kip on my bedroom floor in his sleeping bag. His ticket was for the first night – 27th April – so he was able to rave about them the night before I went. He’d been following them for longer than me, and in a more determined fashion. It amazed me that he could go from venue to venue like that so he knew the set inside out. He told me how Phil Collins had grown as a frontman, how easy he was with the audience. He’d seen them in their heyday with Peter Gabriel in his outlandish outfits so that stuck with me. My own experience was that Phil Collins was less of a showman but he had a great rapport with the audience.

Genesis got me through my late teens, from fifteen to nineteen. I spent a lot of time reading, daydreaming, listening to music on the record player. Outside my window the scheme sounds of sirens and screams were never far away but inside the language was lyrical, and the melodies were mellow. Those were golden years for all things Genesis.

1980 was when it all ended for me. The big prog rock event of that year was Pink Floyd’s monumental double-album The Wall, and by then I was already into The Clash, The Police, The Pretenders, Blondie, The Beat, The Specials, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and so many other bands, and I was out and about, dancing and socialising, not moping in my bedroom. My four-year love affair with genesis ended with Duke. It wasn’t so much a concept album as a breakup album, and it put a stop to my relationship with the band. It was the last album of theirs that I bought. Duke is now known as Phil Collins’s divorce album, and at nineteen I was just too young to appreciate the mature melancholy of it all. I didn’t like the title or the cover art either. Compared to the earlier covers, which were artworks, collectors’ items, the image by French illustrator Lionel Koechlin appeared cartoonish rather than atmospheric or intriguing or arty. The spell had broken for me. Yet listening to it now I can see why the band thought it was the album that best captured the quality of their live act in the studio. Songs like ‘Heathaze’ get to me now in a way they never did back then:

“The trees and I are shaken by the same wind but whereas
The trees will lose their withered leaves
I just can’t seem to let them loose.”

From 1980 onwards I got more and more into The Jam. Their revival of the sounds of the sixties took me back to the music I’d listened to when I was younger, especially The Beatles. The Beatles were also a big influence on Genesis when they started out. I was always aware that music was much more joined up than the artificial boundaries of fandom would acknowledge. I did try to follow Peter Gabriel into the 1980s. ‘Solsbury Hill’ (1977) was a stunning song, but although I bought the solo albums right up until 1986, I remained much more strongly attached to his Genesis years. Same with Steve Hackett. I bought Spectral Mornings in 1979 and loved the title track but for me the story ended there. I bought Tony Banks’s solo album A Curious Feeling in 1979 and original Genesis guitarist Anthony Phillips’s Wise After the Event (1978). But these were afterglows. The real fire for me was in the Genesis albums of the 1970s, not the ‘prog pop’ that followed.

I heard Gabriel interviewed on the radio in the summer of 1980 after his third solo album came out. Paul Weller played electric guitar on one song, ‘And Through the Wire’, and Gabriel explained that he liked Weller’s open chords. He thought The Jam singer-songwriter had come much further than his punk roots. That confirmed my view that the branches of the family tree of rock were intertwined (2). On that same Gabriel album Kate Bush contributed vocals on two tracks, ‘No Self Control’ and ‘Games Without Frontiers’. She already had a connection with Genesis insofar as her first hit, ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1978), followed in the footsteps of Wind and Wuthering. In fact I had her poster next to the one for Seconds Out on my bedroom wall.

Kate Bush & Genesis on my bedroom wall

Genesis survived my departure, just as they’d carried on without Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett. The depth of talent in the band was clear from the fact that Collins and Gabriel would go on to become two of the most influential solo artists and distinctive male vocalists of the 1980s and 1990s. In Gabriel’s case his pioneering work in terms of sound proved influential for many later artists (3). While I gave up on Genesis my brother Eddy took over the reins from me, starting with Abacab (1981). I remember him playing Invisible Touch (1986) and only half-tuning into it. It didn’t reach in and grab right hold of my heart the way that earlier songs had.

Years passed. My pal Shug, expert on all things musical and literary, introduced me to a BBC mockumentary series about Brian Pern, former lead singer with fictional 1970s prog rock legends Thotch and the frontman who had ‘invented world music’. A good-humoured Peter Gabriel made a guest appearance as himself. Gabriel’s post-Genesis duet with Kate Bush, ‘Don’t Give Up’ (1986), was hilariously parodied. Brian Pern presented prog rock as an overblown dinosaur in need of deflation and by then I could kind of see why. I had always thought of prog rock as music that you listened to rather than danced too, classical-influenced and literary, and album-based rather than aimed at the singles market, but over the years prog rock had become a lazy label, shorthand for something stale, pretentious and past its best, ‘glum rock’ for loners in bedsits land.

Yet the story of progressive rock is as complex and varied as the music. As early as 1968 New York underground music magazine The East Village Other quoted community radio pioneer Larry Yurdin, who favoured free form music, where the DJ rather than the sponsor chose the playlist. For Yurdin: ‘The distinction between progressive rock and Free Form lies in the fact that progressive rock merely substitutes album cuts for singles while remaining in the context of the dry Top Forty format’. The East Village Other passed its own judgment on prog rock a few months later: ‘As progressive rock progresses out of the reach of its listeners, the rock-is-art schmucks try to turn their audiences into boring symphonic turds with tightly crossed legs and a polite handclap. The question of the music’s validity is being raised with an academic smugness that pigeonholes the sound into a dusty textbook’ (4).

I can see the force of these early criticisms. Prog rock’s artiness and its ostensibly uncommercial ethos concealed the fact that it was just another brand looking for an audience, but in the 1970s, I loved listening to the music and didn’t question its motives. For me it was about entering another world through long hours of listening. Since prog rock meant albums, not singles, it was less likely to be encountered on Radio 1, or on Top of the Pops, and more likely to be heard on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Genesis made their first appearance on TOTP with ‘Turn It On Again’ in 1980 from Duke, the beginning of a much more mainstream period and a shift away from prog rock as it had been envisaged in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Despite my gradual estrangement, Genesis still held a place in my heart, and it stung when British music journalists used the word ‘naff’ of Phil Collins. I take the same line on music as I do on culture generally: I hate snobs and sectarians, and most of all I hate people whose knowledge of the history of a particular artform stretches back only as far as the day before yesterday. I was glad so many American hip-hop artists sampled Phil Collins, and gave him the love his outstanding talent deserved. The only thing that’s naff is a cloth-eared or cultish attitude. Even though I hadn’t got into his solo stuff I could see what a talent Collins was as a singer-songwriter and as a drummer. As far as Genesis were concerned my fandom had been dormant, not dead.

It began to revive slowly. A few years ago, I heard that Genesis and Peter Gabriel were special subjects on Mastermind and that made me wonder how I’d have fared on the 1970s stuff. I’d not get many right answers on the later period. Around 2013, I started listening to Genesis again for the first time in years, on Spotify in the kitchen rather than on vinyl in my bedroom. The music sounded as good as ever. Then at the end of 2015 a friend got me tickets to see to see Genesisn’t, a tribute band that played the early stuff, at Òran Mór in Glasgow. It was the end of the year, that limbo time between Boxing Day and Hogmanay. When I walked into the venue with my sister I expected a very small audience because of the time of year and the fact that it was a tribute act, but the venue was absolutely rammed and the music was a revelation. When the band played the whole of ‘Supper’s Ready’, I realised just how much I’d missed the music. Genesisn’t? No, Genesis!

In October 2017 I heard that Bill Bruford was giving a lecture to music students at the University of Glasgow. I was really excited. I knew Bruford was a former drummer with Yes, King Crimson and, most importantly, Genesis. He now had a PhD in Music and gave a great lecture on percussion, examining the relationship between virtuosity and passion, expertise and creativity, discussing levels and types of drumming, using the example of the Australian Pink Floyd. It was fascinating but I had been drawn there as a Genesis fan. I felt like a groupie. I even managed to sneak a photo, the closest I’ve got to an invisible touch of Genesis. I look like I’m photobombing him.

In November 2019 I saw Steve Hackett play Selling England By The Pound at The Playhouse in Edinburgh. In 2020 my brother John bought me Mario Giammetti’s book, Genesis 1967 to 1975: The Peter Gabriel Years. It had interviews with all the original band members and in-depth reflections on all the albums of my favourite period in their history. I devoured it and laughed at some of the Brian Pern-like patter. For example, Tony Banks said of ‘I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)’ that it ‘probably would have been quite a big hit if it hadn’t had this wardrobe in the title, which no-one could understand’. Gabriel got his own back: ‘I never really loved the chorus; it was one of Tony’s melodies and after a while I got very bored of it’ (5). Band bitching at its best, with former members trading polite percussive blows. Giammetti’s book put me on the trail of other critical material on Genesis and I realised there was a whole seam of scholarship on the band waiting to be explored (6).

My fandom revival continued to pick up pace and I eagerly bought tickets to see Genesis in 2020 for what looked to be their swansong tour, aptly named The Last Domino. Then the pandemic hit, leading to the concert being postponed, not once but twice. Finally, on Thursday 7th of October 2021, for the first time in forty-one years, I got to see the band that had lifted my spirits and kept me sane in my youth. Shug, the prog rock guru, had got me a T-shirt with Peter Gabriel as a flower, a nod to one of his stage costumes for Foxtrot, and I wore that for this last throw of the domino. The line-up was Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Phil’s son Nic on drums, and long-time guitarist Daryl Stuermer, who had been with the band when I saw them at Knebworth in 1978 and at the Glasgow Apollo in 1980. It was a performance worth waiting for. Two and a half hours of pristine prog rock segueing into pulsating prog pop, starting with some songs from Duke, by now a record redeemed in my eyes and ears, some classics from the vintage years of the 1970s, including an instrumental section from ‘Cinema Show’, ‘Afterglow’, a new version of ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’, ‘Follow You Follow Me’, an excerpt from ‘Firth of Fifth’, and ‘I Know What I Like’. I liked the use of deconstructed songs and medleys to give a taster of stuff they didn’t have time to play in full.

What I appreciated most of all though was hearing some of the later stuff that had passed me by. While ‘Mama’, ‘Land of Confusion’, ‘Tonight, Tonight, Tonight’ and ‘I Can’t Dance’ still left me slightly lukewarm, as they had on first hearing, others struck me as beautiful and haunting, including ‘Home by the Sea’, ‘Fading Lights’, ‘That’s All’, ‘No Son of Mine’, and ‘Throwing It All Away’. Even ‘Invisible Touch’ finally got its hands on me. As an encore, the opening lines of ‘Dancing With the Moonlit Knight’, sounding very timely – ‘Can you tell me where my country lies?’ – gave way to the perfect ending, the song that started it all for me, the single my sister heard John Peel play way back in 1975, ‘The Carpet Crawlers’:

‘There’s only one direction in the faces that I see
It’s upward to the ceiling, where the chamber’s said to be
Like the forest fight for sunlight, that takes root in every tree
They are pulled up by the magnet, believing they’re free’.

Phil Collins took the role of MC and was engaging, relaxed, witty, responsive and generous. His teasing tambourine theatrics on ‘I Know What I Like’ were no match for the percussive dynamism I remembered from 1980 when he was playing throw-and-catch at the Apollo. But, sitting in his chair throughout, infirm but on form, Collins was the maestro. When he playfully tapped the tambourine off his elbow, knee and head I was reminded of Val Kilmer in Tombstone spinning that little whisky jug in front of Johnny Ringo. Collins riffed on the Domino Theory and invited the audience to demonstrate how it worked. We did, with increasing enthusiasm. As the last lines of ‘Carpet Crawlers’ rang out – ‘You’ve got to get in to get out’ – I felt time shift the way it did when I first heard that song, travelling from fifteen to sixty in a few minutes.

I began this blog, which is probably as overblown and self-indulgent as the music it celebrates, with a verse from Foxtrot (1972). I’ll end with one from We Can’t Dance (1991). It was an album I knew nothing about beyond that annoying single, ‘I Can’t Dance’. But when they played ‘Fading Lights’ from that album I heard echoes of ‘Ripples’, and felt a wavelet washing over me:

‘Like the story that we wish was never ending
We know some time we must reach the final page
Still we carry on just pretending
That there’ll always be one more day to go.’

I was fifteen when I first heard Genesis. I followed them, there and back again, from Trespass to Duke. I’m sixty now. ‘Ripples never come back’ runs the refrain. But they do, you know. That’s all.

1. I soon realised that bands can survive breakups just as people do. See Ronnie J. Phillips and Ian C. Strachan, ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: The Resilience of the Rock Group as an Organizational Form for Creating Music’, Journal of Cultural Economics 40, 1 (2016): 29-74.
2. See Sean Albiez, ‘Know History!: John Lydon, Cultural Capital and the Prog/Punk Dialectic’, Popular Music 22, 3 (2003): 357-374.
3. See Franco Fabbri, ‘“I’d Like my Record to Sound Like This”: Peter Gabriel and Audio Technology’, in Sarah Hill (ed.), Peter Gabriel, from Genesis to Growing Up (London: Routledge, 2010), 173-182.
4. Cited in The East Village Other 3, 34 (26 July 1968), p. 9; Bob Rudnick and Dennis Frawley, ‘Kokaine Karma’, in The East Village Other 3, 45 (11 October 1968), p. 7. See also Jarl A. Ahlkvist, ‘What Makes Rock Music “Prog”? Fan Evaluation and the Struggle to Define Progressive Rock’, Popular Music and Society 34, 5 (2011): 639-660; Chris Anderton, ‘A Many-Headed Beast: Progressive Rock as European Meta-Genre’, Popular Music 29, 3 (2010): 417-435; Edward Macan, ‘The Music’s Not All That Matters, After All: British Progressive Rock as Social Criticism’, in Jonathan C. Friedman (ed.), The Routledge History of Social Protest in Popular Music (New York: Routledge, 2013), 123-141; David Nicholls, ‘Virtual Opera, or Opera between the Ears’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 129, 1 (2004): 100-142; and Jay Keister and Jeremy L. Smith, ‘Musical Ambition, Cultural Accreditation and the Nasty Side of Progressive Rock’, Popular Music 27, 3 (2008): 433-455.
5. Mario Giammetti, Genesis 1967 to 1975: The Peter Gabriel Years, trans. J. M. Octavia Brown (Kingmaker Publishing, 2020), p.178.
6. See for example Sarah Hill, ‘Ending it all: Genesis and Revelation’, Popular Music 32, 2 (2013): 197-221; Kevin Holm-Hudson, Genesis and the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (Farnham: Ashgate, 2008); and Julian Wolfreys, ‘“Chewing through your Wimpey Dreams”: Whimsy, Loss, and the “Experience” of the Rural in English Music and Art, 1966-1976’, in Haunted Selves, Haunting Places in English Literature and Culture (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). For a herbicidal battering see Charles R. O’Neill Jr., ‘Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum): Poisonous Invader of the Northeast’, NYSG Invasive Species Factsheet Series 7.1 (2009): 1-4.

Some Notes on James McCune Smith

Some Notes on James McCune Smith (1813-1865), a complex character whose name is often invoked but whose work is not often discussed or appreciated.

A brief summary of what follows:
His neglect by literary scholars – parents and family – early education – acceptance in Glasgow – achievement of medical degrees and practical experience at the Glasgow Lock Hospital – scientific response to ‘scientific racism’ – emergence as a leading public intellectual and abolitionist – decrying of homeopathy as deadly quackery – the racism of the medical profession – being embraced by the Glasgow Emancipation Society – the importance of Glasgow in his developing political vision – his writing for Frederick Douglass’ Paper under the pen name of Communipaw – his elaboration of a theory of the social construction of race – disunity and oppression in USA – becoming the first black chair of a national political convention – Black nativism and Irish immigration – the whitewashing of history – his five children and their grandchildren being listed as white – the discovery of his descendants – the University’s class flight from the East End to the West End – the prejudice of Professor A C Bradley – McCune Smith’s status as the first experimental writer in the African American tradition

The official opening of the new James McCune Smith Learning Hub at the University of Glasgow, as part of a major campus redevelopment, marks an important point in the city’s history. The new Learning Hub named in his honour should make us eager to know more about McCune Smith, and there is still much to know and much to read. (1) As one recent commentator observes:

“McCune Smith was indeed an intellect with whom to be reckoned. Even though John Stauffer’s 2001 study, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, made an impassioned argument for the recovery of McCune Smith’s life and role in the abolitionist movement, in which he was a founding member of the Radical Abolition Party, he continues to be neglected by literary scholars. This neglect is particularly unfortunate given McCune Smith’s prominence in the nineteenth century: Douglass said that McCune Smith had more influence on his thinking than anyone else, and he was widely celebrated as the most highly educated African American of the nineteenth century before Du Bois.” (2)

James McCune Smith is truly a remarkable figure, a polymath and public intellectual celebrated as “the first university-trained black American physician” as well as an activist and world-changer. (3) Born into slavery on 18 April 1813 to a black mother, Lavenia Smith, (he described himself as “the son of a self-emancipated bond-woman”) and a white father, he was himself formally freed at the age of 14 in 1827 through New York’s Emancipation Act. McCune Smith later said of himself: “My mother is a mulatto, half white and half African – my father white; I am three-fourths white.” (4) According to one of his most recent biographers:

“We know Smith’s father’s name only from Glasgow University’s Matriculation Album for 1832, which lists ‘James M’Cune Smith’ as ‘filius natu maximus Samuelis, Mercatoris apud New York’ [first natural son of Samuel, merchant, New York]. This is the only known reference to Smith’s father”. (5)

Educated first at African Free School No. 2 on Mulberry Street in New York City, then attending evening classes while also working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, McCune Smith proved to be an excellent scholar, yet he could not get accepted to the colleges to which he applied in the States, including Columbia University. So “Smith’s abolitionist benefactors drew upon international connections in Glasgow, where the Glasgow Emancipation Society was active, and traditions were liberal with respect to university admissions”. (6)

Scotland beckoned, and McCune Smith sailed from New York to Liverpool on 16 August 1832 aboard a ship called the Caledonia. He was 19 years old. There had been other ships bearing the name Caledonia, including one that had carried would-be settlers to the ill-fated Darien Scheme in 1698, Scotland’s last-ditch attempt to get in on the act of Empire and the slave trade. McCune Smith was interested in the role of shipping in the history of slavery and on his trip to Liverpool and then Glasgow kept a travel journal recording his Atlantic crossing. It’s been said that McCune Smith’s “exploration of the ship and its tenuous relationship to the spatialized schemes of bondage and liberation in the Atlantic World began with the travel journal he kept during his voyage to Glasgow”. (7) In his journal McCune Smith laments the paradoxical nature of the American-built ship on which he sails, a vessel taking a free man from one slave-owning state to another:

“And that gathering something of the spirit of liberty from the ocean which she cleaves, and the chainless wind which wafts her along, she might appear in foreign ports a fit representative of a land of the free, instead of a beautiful but baneful object, like the fated box of Pandora, scattering abroad among the nations the malignant prejudice which is a canker and a curse to the soil, whence she sprung.” (8)

While in Liverpool en route to Glasgow McCune looked up an old schoolmate:

“Before leaving by the steamer Aliza Craig to Glasgow on September 15, 1832, Smith called on Margaret Gill, the new, English wife of his former schoolmate and star Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who was then performing on stage in London, and they strolled together in Liverpool’s garden cemetery, an interracial activity that would have been unthinkable in the United States at that time. Thus, it was in an atmosphere of relative racial tolerance that Smith began his five years in the United Kingdom”. (9)

The “Aliza Craig” is a misnomer for “Ailsa Craig”, a wooden paddle steamer launched in 1829. Aldridge, who was a senior pupil at McCune Smith’s school, was one of America’s foremost black actors. Among many distinguished roles he famously played the part of Macbeth , challenging audience perceptions and prejudices about Shakespeare, race, and performance. (10)

In choosing to study medicine McCune Smith was both leading the charge and following in the footsteps of some exceptional predecessors:

“The medical profession was an intellectual proving ground for 19th century blacks. Other African Americans had practiced medicine before and during Smith’s lifetime, but only a few received medical degrees in antebellum America, and none before Smith.” (11)

McCune Smith graduated BA in 1835, MA in 1836, and MD in 1837. Smith gained practical experience as a medical student at the Glasgow Lock Hospital for the treatment of venereal diseases. (12) Established in 1805 “for the treatment of unfortunate females […] many of them being very young girls”, the Lock was a notorious institution. (13)

McCune Smith had a brilliant mind and was a pioneer in every sense, a physician-scholar who became “the first African American to publish an article in a medical journal and the first black member of the American Geographical Society”. (14) But he was working at a time when medicine was still a developing field and at times got caught up in speculation. According to Thomas Morgan in his study of McCune Smith’s medical practice:

“Drawing on his experiences in the Lock Hospital, Glasgow, Smith had noted that discontinuation of opium tended to lead to return of regular menstrual cycles, which contradicted contemporary texts on the subject. Although the case series proved inconclusive, Smith speculated, ‘It may also be worth the inquiry, whether opium, in skillfully regulated doses, may not be used as a means to bear women safely through the critical disturbances which occur at the “change of life”.’ Like any of his 19th century peers, Smith was bound by the limits of available medical knowledge”. (15)

McCune Smith’s enlightened education meant that he was a steadfast opponent of so-called “scientific racism”, which drew on phrenology and respiratory biology to reinforce notions of white supremacy, and he had the medical expertise as well as the anti-racist credentials to demolish the arguments of apologists, which made him “an important figure in countering notions of innate black inferiority”. (16)

“McCune Smith looked and saw clearly how white scientists’ new approach to man was willfully blind to the specificity of individuals. He could see that a black person represented through the lens of race prejudice was not a human being made of flesh, bone and blood, but ‘a hideous monster of the mind, ugly beyond all physical portraying.’ This monster, created with words and images under the protective covering of science, was ‘so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple, and to blot out shame and probity, and the eternal sympathies of nature, so far as these things have presence in the breasts or being of American republicans!’”. (17)

Fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass shared McCune Smith’s commitment to hybridity over and against claims to purity:

“Racial mixture did not weaken a people or society, he said, but strengthened it. This was the idea that Douglass borrowed from McCune Smith, an idea that greatly disturbed […] many others who maintained that miscegenation was a natural dead-end and a moral abomination. Douglass challenged the status quo when he declared that the black-white hybrid drew on the best of both races and strengthened the American people. Slavery, by contrast, hindered such progress. The United States was a great nation precisely because of its ‘composite character,’ but segregation threatened to hinder the natural development of its people. Douglass recognized ethnology for what it was, a proslavery argument. Common sense lost out because too many people had a stake in race inequality; too much money was being made off the backs of slaves. ‘By making the enslaved a character fit only for slavery,’ he told his young audience, ‘they excuse themselves for refusing to make the slave a freeman.” (18)

Even in his own era McCune Smith was recognised as a pioneering figure, both in abolitionist circles and in education:

“James McCune Smith became the most noted Black physician to receive a formal education prior to the Civil War. He had been a student in the African School in New York, and when he decided to study medicine, he found that there was no school in America to which he could gain admittance. He finally began his study of medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland; graduating from there, he returned to America and began practicing medicine in New York in 1837. He experienced more or less free association with white physicians in that city, and served with them as one of the physicians to Colored Orphan Asylum. His medical career was sacrificed to the abolition cause, to which he eventually gave himself entirely.” (19)

McCune Smith was already a celebrated figure by the time he completed his studies in Glasgow and returned to New York:

“An editorial in the September 9, 1837, issue of the Colored American welcomed James McCune Smith back home from Europe, praising him as a sterling example of individual black achievement. ‘As it is,’ the writer asserted, ‘all things are becoming new. The people who long sat in dark- ness, now have the Heavenly light, and intend to give ocular demonstration of the fact, in patronizing Dr. Smith.’ Although there were others, Smith was already emerging as an undisputed leader of New York’s black community. He could be found everywhere, and his voice could be heard at all times, proposing, arguing, counterattacking.” (20)

McCune Smith used his voice to considerable effect, emerging as a leading public intellectual before the age of thirty:

“Full of intellectual fervor, Smith struggled to define what he called the ‘destiny’ of his people in three major documents: a lecture, ‘The Destiny of Our People,’ delivered as part of the 1841 Philomathean Society lecture series that Peter and his colleagues deemed so significant they insisted on publishing it; some seven speeches on the Haitian Revolution printed in pamphlet form in 1841; and a series of articles that appeared in the New York Daily Tribune in 1843 titled ‘Freedom and Slavery for Afric-Americans,’ rebutting claims that blacks were worse off in freedom than in slavery. In his political speeches, Smith based his arguments on the universal rights of citizenship. In contrast, in these essays and lectures, he asserted that God had endowed African- descended peoples with a special destiny: the redemption of their race, their nations, and perhaps the world”. (21)

In his lecture on the Haitian Revolutions McCune Smith made connections with Greek and Scottish precedents:

“McCune Smith delivered a lecture at the Stuyvesant Institute for the benefit of the Colored Orphan Asylum in 1841 […] Comparing [Toussaint] L’Ouverture to ‘Leonidas at Thermopylae’ or ‘Bruce at Bannockburn,’ McCune Smith declares these events to be necessary study for ‘every American citizen’”. (22)

McCune Smith was much more than a medic. He was a moral force for change:

“Smith was broadly involved in the anti-slavery and suffrage movements, contributing to and
editing abolitionist newspapers and serving as an officer of many organizations for the improvement of social conditions in the black community. In his scientific writings Smith debunked the racial theories in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, refuted phrenology and homeopathy, and responded with a forceful statistical critique to the racially biased US Census of 1840”. (23)

Homeopathy was high on McCune Smith’s list of targets when he arrived back in New York from Glasgow:

“He was appointed a physician to the Colored Orphan Asylum of New York and became its only black Board Member. This led to an ‘Original Communication’ in The Annalist entitled ‘The Lay Puffery of Homeopathy’. The article examined the statistical claims to superiority in mortality rates at the Protestant Half-Orphan Asylum, made in an advertisement in the New York Evening Post by the New York Homeopathic Dispensary Association. Smith reviewed the asylum’s records and concluded that the statistics were contrived due to: ‘A custom of quietly thrusting away the very sick children, in order that they may die elsewhere … at least such will be a natural impression until the two-hundred odd children, sent away without record, are more satisfactorily accounted for’. This is the first ‘Letter to the Editor’ of a medical journal by a black doctor. Smith ended with a bitter statement: ‘May the regular practitioner of medicine battle against the most deadly quackery that curses the nineteenth century, in the form of Homeopathy’”. (24)

Ironically, as a sworn enemy of quackery, McCune Smith was himself prevented from pursuing his medical studies in New York due to the racism of the medical profession:

“While still attending the Mulberry Street School, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith, and after class he could be found ‘at a forge with the bellows handle in one hand and a Latin grammar in the other.’ Smith had aspirations to become a doctor, but there were obstacles to overcome: U.S. medical schools proved to be just as inhospitable to young black men as were seminaries. Medicine was still struggling to establish itself as a respectable profession. All too often, the public confused regular doctors with the ‘irregulars,’ and derided them as humbugs. So physicians policed their profession with care, determined not to admit anyone who might smell of quackery. Evidently, that automatically included blacks.” (25)

Writing from his home in New York in 1843 McCune Smith reflected on the part played by the judicial system in the perpetuation of racism:

“The laws they enact in regard to us are positive proof that our oppressors are getting more and more convinced that we are men like themselves; for they enact just such laws as the
experience of all History has shown to be necessary in order to hold men in slavery. Their opinion of our manhood, then, may be measured by the severity of their laws”. (26)

Carla Peterson suggests that “what made Smith so determined to become a doctor” against all the odds may have been “the terrible ravages of the cholera epidemic of 1832 on New York’s black community”. (27) And like other critics and biographers of McCune Smith, Peterson sees the broad Scottish education he received at Glasgow as vital to his intellectual and political formation. He was embraced by the Glasgow Emancipation Society and “found the atmosphere of freedom, the lack of ‘spirit of caste,’ intoxicating”. (28) He in turn embraced the diverse array of disciplines that were open to him:

“In his early years of study he followed a general curriculum that reflected the influence of Scottish Enlightenment thought: Latin, moral philosophy, natural history, and the like. These courses affirmed principles that Charles Andrews had already taught him – the importance of inductive reasoning, of literature and the arts, of moral sensibility. But they also introduced Smith to new forms of knowledge, notably statistics. Medical courses included anatomy, chemistry, materia medica, midwifery, surgery, and botany. Smith was given practical training as well. In anatomy classes, he dissected cadavers. At Lock Hospital, he learned about treatments for venereal disease. During his yearlong infirmary clerkship at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, he might well have worked with Robert Perry, who was studying the difference between typhus and typhoid fever”. (29)

Critics credit Glasgow as a transformative site for Smith’s developing political vision. It was there that he “absorbed Scottish Enlightenment ideals”. (30) Glasgow is viewed as the making of McCune Smith:

“McCune Smith kept his head in his books and his eyes on his studies at the University of Glasgow. He was generally in class from early morning through midafternoon, and then until late in the evening he studied Latin, Greek, Logic, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, mathematics, and eventually medicine and surgery. In Scotland he established himself as an intellectual who believed that the mind and heart together represented the most effective weapons against bondage and oppression”. (31)

The place of Glasgow as a platform for McCune Smith’s intellectual growth is a thread that runs through much of the scholarship on him:

“Glasgow was indispensable to McCune Smith’s development as a writer and scholar. He thrived at the same university that had educated Adam Smith and James Watt, and where Edmund Burke had held the ceremonial title of Rector. He absorbed the intellectual legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment. And he experienced a dearth of racism, enjoying a degree of freedom unknown to American blacks. He returned to New York City with as much training and confidence in his intellectual abilities as the most erudite white graduates, and he dedicated the rest of his life to educating and uplifting black and white Americans. He became a leading abolitionist, ran an interracial medical practice and pharmacy on fashionable West Broadway in New York City, and for twenty years served as chief physician at the New York City Colored Orphan Asylum, until racist anti-draft rioters burned it down during the Civil War.” (32)

McCune Smith maintained that intellect and moral force would win the day against slavery and the racism that propped it up:

“McCune Smith […] became a charter member of the Glasgow Emancipation Society in 1833, and his white colleagues were so impressed with his intellect that their belief in innate racial equality became ‘less a matter of abstraction to us’ than ‘a present living reality.’ In his work with the Emancipation Society, McCune Smith urged ‘the physically harmless, but morally omnipotent, weapons of truth and righteousness’ in the fight against slavery, adding that if physical means were employed, he ‘would be among the first to resist them.’ Moral weapons, he felt, would prevail in ending slavery.” (33)


Back in New York, McCune Smith was a regular correspondent for Frederick Douglass’ Paper, writing under the pen name “Communipaw”.

“Smith took the name Communipaw after a New Jersey colonial settlement—reimagined by [Washington] Irving in his writings— that brought together a mixed population of Africans, Native Americans, and Dutch settlers. Smith’s Communipaw was both himself – a mixed-race individual – and his lower Manhattan neighborhood, populated by socially diverse peoples.” (34)

According to Carla Peterson, what these writers were doing was creating a black public sphere: “Communipaw’s […] columns […] following the Anglo-American tradition, read like transcripts of coffeehouse conversations”. (35)

“Later Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, with whom Communipaw would have become familiar during his years in Glasgow, propounded theories of humans’ innate moral sense, or character, from which taste emanates.38 In a series of character sketches titled “Heads of the Colored People,” Communipaw sought to give bodily form to these abstract ideas. Like the earlier Anglo-American essayists, he endeavored to reform readers by promoting examples of self-regulation, modesty, and decorum. Yet, he also acknowledged the inadequacy of the earlier models to represent the complexities of nineteenth-century Black urban life, and so invented a modern form reflective of his community’s particular historical
geography.” (36)

In an exchange of letters in February and March 1852:

“Communipaw placed his faith in the laboring classes. […] Rejecting […] racial essentialism, Communipaw elaborated a post-Enlightenment theory of the social construction of race. By reinventing himself as Communipaw, Smith signaled his mixed racial heritage as a ‘Dutch negro,’ scoffed at the idea of racial purity, and insisted that racial mingling was a historical inevitability […] Our primary purpose, he wrote, is ‘to prove the human to be one brotherhood’”. (37)

McCune Smith was committed to an inclusive sense of who should count in black society, homing in on those engaged in manual and menial labour, and one particular piece, entitled ‘The Washerwoman’, published on 17 June 1852, encapsulates his insistence that a socially exclusive approach to community leadership is fundamentally flawed, and his determination to see race and class and gender as intertwined:

“From 1852 to 1854, a case was made in Frederick Douglass’s Paper for rethinking who ought to be dignified with the appellation Heads of the Colored People. James McCune Smith provoked this discussion via a series of nine short literary sketches collected under that title, all of which focus on the lives and liveli¬hoods of assorted free black laborers: bootblacks, washer-women, news vendors, and grave diggers, to name just a few. Largely set in New York City, where the author was a black resident of considerable prestige, Heads of the Colored People had a particular urgency in the years of its composition. McCune Smith wrote the series immediately following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, during a widespread depression among black laborers in New York City who were rapidly losing jobs to white European immigrants, and amidst the endemic racism of Northern U.S. culture. In choosing these particular subjects for literary representation, McCune Smith lent an aura of dignity to the increasingly desperate economic, political, and cultural circumstances of the free black worker. The series forced a reconsideration of what types of people should be viewed as the ‘heads’ of free black U.S. society.” (38)

On 26 August 1853 McCune Smith published a short piece entitled ‘National Council of Colored People’ in Frederick Douglass’s Paper. In another of his Communipaw pieces published in 1854, Smith, equally opposed to slavery in the South and racism in the North, commented on just how disunited the United States was, and how diverse in terms of community and experience and allegiance:

“the main reason we are not united is that we are not equally oppressed. … You cannot pick out five hundred free colored men in the free States who equally labor under the same species of oppression. In each one of the free States, and often in different parts of the same State, the laws, or public opinion, mete out to the colored man a different measure of oppression. … The result is that each man feels his peculiar wrong, but no hundred men together feel precisely the same oppression; and, while each would do fair work to remove his own, he feels differently in regard to his neighbor’s oppression”. (39)

McCune Smith chaired the inaugural convention of Radical Abolitionists on 26 June 1855, “the first time in American history that a black man chaired a national political convention”. (40)

By this time McCune Smith was recognised as a leading figure and as someone whose breadth of learning marked him out as exceptional:

“Among literary scholars, McCune Smith is best known as the author of the introduction to Douglass’s second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), the text that cemented Douglass’s […] turn toward radical abolitionism. But McCune Smith deserves credit as a writer in his own right, especially given the wide- ranging nature of his writing and the rich cross-fertilization of art, science, literature, and social commentary displayed across his essays”. (41)


In a fascinating essay on educated black resistance to European immigration prior to the American Civil War Jay Rubin points out that McCune Smith was one of those who objected to the attitudes of the new immigrants:

“James McCune Smith, a noted black physician and political leader, characterized the Irish mark on American institutions as almost entirely physical. ‘They dig canals, grade railroads, carry bricks and mortar, fight our battles, and fill the ranks of our standing army,’ he wrote. ‘Or they go to the polls in flocks at the bidding of their priests and by force of brute numbers help Rome establish a foothold among the ruling elements of our land’”. (42)

This seems odd, given that Smith spent five years in Glasgow’s East End, the heart of that city’s Irish immigration. Smith left Glasgow just before 10,000 Irish labourers constructed the Glasgow-Edinburgh railway line between 1838 and 1842, paving the way for the railway company to buy the land on which the University stood and allowing Smith’s alma mater to flit to its new site on Gilmorehill.

Rubin acknowledges that McCune Smith’s attitude to German immigrants was different:

“James McCune Smith urged his fellow abolitionists to seek to involve German immigrants in their cause. ‘We must awaken them from the hazy dream of physical content which beams from their countenances,’ he wrote. ‘We must talk to them of liberty and justice…. We must not permit them to sleep on, nor lie dumb while chains clank, and the lash resounds, and women shriek for help and freedom.’” (43)

The attitude to the Irish is explained by a perception of hypocrisy and self-interest. Rubin observes that Frederick Douglass questioned their political commitment:

“Black leaders regarded racial attitudes of Irish immigrants as a far greater problem. Strict adherents to the Democratic Party, they were viewed as a bulwark of the slave power in the North. ‘Deaf, dumb, and blind to the claims of liberty,’ they represented to Douglass ‘the enemies of Human Freedom, so far, at least, as our humanity is concerned.’ By what hypocrisy, he wondered, could they condemn English tyranny overseas while continuing to sanction racial oppression in America […] Black leaders voiced outrage at the speed with which newly arrived Irish people acquired the notion of white supremacy”. (44)

Frantz Fanon’s view of how easily the anti-imperialist can become the collaborator is relevant here: “The colonized subject is a persecuted man who is forever dreaming of becoming the persecutor”. (45)


In his poetic epigraph to Heads of the Coloured People, caught between the broad brushstrokes required of the essay form and the fine toothcomb of his own expertise and insight, McCune Smith writes: “Age Zographon ariste [Come, Best of Paint¬ers],/ Graphe Zographon ariste [Paint, Best of Painters],/ Best of Painters, come away,/ Paint me the whitewash brush, I pray”. (46) Rachel Banner sees McCune Smith’s appeal to the muse as a riposte to the whitewashing of a racist capitalist culture:

“Wide, flat, and made for broad, monotonous strokes, the whitewash brush is not a particularly refined tool. And yet, the paradox of producing nuanced, social-psychological portraiture of black ‘heads’ with the blunt whitewash brush makes sense in the context of these works, for the figure of the brush evokes both a resistance to a ‘whitewashed’ rac¬ist society, and an unabashed affinity for the tools common to members of New York City’s black laboring community.” (47)

McCune Smith’s views on education and history were the fruits of his own experience as well as his considerable professional expertise:

“While James McCune Smith believed in integration, he supported separate black schools that advocated a curriculum that reflected a black perspective. Having been educated in the African Free Schools in New York City, James McCune Smith believed that black teachers had more success than white teachers with black children. James McCune Smith also presented numerous suffrage petitions to New York’s state legislature and told white abolitionists that they were not suited to fight the black man’s battles, nor could they grasp his concern. In 1855, James McCune Smith joined his boyhood friend, Henry Highland Garnet, and presented suffrage petitions before the state. He participated in the Liberty Party (founded in 1839) convention and was elected chairman, an unprecedented act by Whites in electing a Black man, even among abolitionists”. (48)

McCune Smith was more than an anti-racist; he was a theorist of racism. According to one recent critic he was, among many other disciplinary strengths, an expert in the emerging field of anthropology. He was certainly someone for whom whiteness was an object of analysis and critique. In 1844 he spoke of “the facility by which colored men and women turn white in the North”:

“The keen and practiced eyes of Southern men can instantly detect the most remote admixture of African blood; and interest and pride urge them to exercise a rigid conservatism. But here in the North, the boundary line is less distinct; the colored white has merely to change his place of abode, cut out his old associates, and courtesy will do the rest – he is a white. … Of one hundred boys who attended with me the New York African Free School in 1826-7, I could name six now living – all white”. (49)

One of the issues of today – 2021 – is whiteness, its meaning and history. In this context McCune Smith’s legacy is a fascinating one, as a special issue of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2007 devoted to his life and work pointed out:

“Smith died just months after the end of the Civil War. As early as the 1870 census, all of Smith’s five children were listed as white. Smith soon passed into obscurity. His children and grandchildren’s desire to pass as white caused the records of the achievements of their black ancestor to fade into distant memories.” (50)

But memories can fade to black and come back. Three years after this editorial was published, McCune Smith’s great-granddaughter placed flowers on what had been his long unmarked grave. The newspaper report on this reuniting of McCune Smith and his descendants is characteristic of the complexity of history and the relative paucity of black and white narratives:

“Greta Blau, Smith’s great-great-great-granddaughter, made the connection after she took a course at Hunter College on the history of blacks in New York. She did some research and realized that James McCune Smith the trailblazing black doctor was the same James McCune Smith whose name was inscribed in a family Bible belonging to Martignoni, her grandmother. Her first response was, ‘But he was black. I’m white.’” (51)

The report concludes thus:

“Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and historian at George Washington University who has championed equal medical treatment for blacks, noted that Smith wrote articles in medical journals and the popular press debunking notions of black inferiority that were mainstream in his time. ‘As early as 1859, Dr. McCune Smith said that race was not biological but was a social category,’ Gamble said. ‘I feel that I am standing on the shoulders of Dr. James McCune Smith.’”

McCune Smith had married Malvina Barnet in the early 1840s. After his death of heart failure on 17 November 1865 a distance had opened up between him and his family:

“The 1870 census noted that Malvina and four of their children were living in Ward 15, of Brooklyn. James W. Smith, the fifth surviving child, was living in a separate household and
working as a teacher. Malvina and the five children were classified as white. Their four surviving sons married white spouses; his unmarried daughter lived with a brother. To
escape racial discrimination, his family passed into white society. McCune Smith’s legacy may have gone unnoticed, in part, because his children refused to promote their father’s legacy and shunned their African-American heritage. It was not until McCune Smith’s great great great white granddaughter, Greta Blau of New Haven, Connecticut, discovered her family connection. She was taking a course in the Black History of New York City and completing an essay on McCune Smith when she discovered the name James McCune Smith inscribed in a family Bible belonging to her grandmother, Antoinette Martignoni. Together, the descendants determined that James McCune Smith was their direct [ancestor]. From this point on, they proudly promoted his remarkable legacy and their African-American heritage”. (52)

Greta and her grandmother posed with the family Bible. This was a good news story.

Frederick Douglass, who was of mixed race like Smith – he too had a white father and a black mother – spoke highly of his fellow campaigner and former correspondent in his memoir:

“Nor were my influential friends all of the Caucasian race. While many of my own people thought me unwise and somewhat fanatical in announcing myself a fugitive slave, and in practically asserting the rights of my people, on all occasions, in season and out of season, there were brave and intelligent men of color all over the United States who gave me their cordial sympathy and support. Among these, and foremost, I place the name of Doctor James McCune Smith; educated in Scotland, and breathing the free air of that country, he came back to his native land with ideas of liberty which placed him in advance of most of his fellow citizens of African descent. He was not only a learned and skillful physician, but an effective speaker, and a keen and polished writer. In my newspaper enterprise, I found in him an earnest and effective helper. The cause of his people lost an able advocate when he died. He was never among the timid who thought me too aggressive and wished me to tone down my testimony to suit the times. A brave man himself, he knew how to esteem courage in others.” (53)

It is important to bear in mind that the campus on which the James McCune Smith Learning Hub now stands is not the campus McCune Smith would have known as a student. The University of Glasgow moved from the impoverished East End to the affluent West End of the city shortly after Smith’s death. It was an act of class flight in keeping with the times, and Smith, with his lifelong commitment to the excluded and marginalised, would have viewed it with suspicion. A photograph of Glasgow’s East End entitled The Back Wynd (1899), probably taken by Thomas Annan’s son, John, depicts a black child wearing a tartan shawl sitting in a ruined back court in the wake of the University of Glasgow’s decision to go West and leave the squalor of the city’s slums behind it.

For a time in recent years there was a McCune Smith Café on Duke Street, a thoroughfare near the Old College campus which would have been a regular stamping ground for McCune Smith in his student days. Sadly it has now closed. The new Learning Hub is surrounded by cafes, in a part of the city McCune Smith would have known less well, as a place of privilege.


I mentioned Smith’s friendship with Ira Aldridge and I want to end on a Shakespearean note. On 2 March 2021 the University of Glasgow published a report entitled Understanding Racism, Transforming University Cultures. A key task in tackling racism as a University is decolonising the curriculum. Sixty years after Smith left Glasgow, Professor A. C. Bradley, the celebrated Shakespearean, was appointed to a Chair at the University. On 10 November 1892, Bradley wrote to his colleague and fellow professor Gilbert Murray, saying that he found the Glasgow students to be “a set of savages whom it is a loathsome drudgery to teach”. After his retirement Bradley reflected on his time in Glasgow, “the contact with the men kept me sweeter … but I remember the grind with horror”. (54) Best known for his book on Shakespearean Tragedy, Bradley had some interesting asides on Othello and race:

“If the reader has even chanced to see an African violently excited, he may have been startled to observe how completely at a loss he was to interpret those bodily expressions of passion which in a fellow-countryman he understands at once, and in a European foreigner with somewhat less certainty. The effect of a difference in blood in increasing Othello’s bewilderment regarding his wife is not sufficiently realised. The same effect has to be remembered in regard to Desdemona’s mistakes in dealing with Othello in his anger”. (55)

What reader is Bradley addressing? Saying he was of his time is hardly an excuse, since he was a professor at a University that had admitted a young man seventy years earlier who proved to be a far superior interpreter of bodily expressions than Bradley. Bradley goes further, digging a hole for himself in a further aside buried in another footnote:

“I will not discuss the further question whether, granted that to Shakespeare Othello was a black, he should be represented as a black in our theatres now. I dare say not. We do not like the real Shakespeare. We like to have his language pruned and his conceptions flattened into something that suits our mouths and minds. […] Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower our imagination and sink us below not Shakespeare only but the audiences of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”. (56)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called James McCune Smith a “pioneering polyglot”: “Fluent in Greek, Latin, and French, and proficient in German, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew, McCune Smith was a man at home with the world’s major tongues; he was both a citizen of the world and a citizen of the word”. (57) Long before the interdisciplinary field of Medical Humanities emerged as a collaborative and innovative research area, McCune Smith was demonstrating the strength of the kind of knowledge exchange and public engagement so much valued today. As Gates remarks, this Glasgow medical graduate was no observer of rigid disciplinary boundaries any more than he was a respecter of racial barriers:

“McCune Smith was the prototypical black modernist, half a century before modernism was born. He argued that ‘black’ and ‘white’ cultures were mutually constitutive; he was as comfortable reading Aristotle and Virgil, Montaigne and Shakespeare, Carlyle and Mill, Byron and the Romantics, as he was reading his contemporaries Melville and Whitman. He regularly quoted and reflected upon Melville and Whitman, as well as his upon fellow black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown […] Indeed, James McCune Smith was most probably the first experimental writer in the African American tradition, a premodern postmodernist, as it were, a writer who was as fascinated with language for language’s sake as he was with content, with the essay’s capacity to influence or persuade.” (58)

With the opening of the James McCune Smith Learning Hub and the University of Glasgow’s commitment to decolonising the curriculum – which also means decolonising a whole critical tradition –the role of the humanities in understanding racism takes on a fresh importance. In this regard we have more to learn from McCune Smith than Bradley. We should certainly read more by and about this remarkable man. He was a hub as well as a spokesperson. In a short film made by the New York Historical Society Danny Glover voiced McCune Smith in a manner that suggested there might be dramatic potential in a biopic.


(1) See John Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist, with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). This was one of the flagship volumes that launched Oxford’s Collected Black Writings series.
(2) Britt Rusert, ‘The Banneker Age: Black Afterlives of Early National Science’, in Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2017), 33-64, at 51. The facts of McCune Smith’s life are not entirely settled. There is a lot of inconsistency especially in the earlier critical tradition. In a tribute published in 1945, but written earlier, the author of a brief biographical sketch states that McCune Smith was “sent to Edinburgh, Scotland”, rather than to Glasgow, but this outline of his life adds that the woman he married, Malvenia Barnet, was “the daughter of James Barnet, Grand Master of Masons for the State of New York”. A. A. Schomburg, ‘James McCune Smith’, Negro History Bulletin 9, 2 (1945): 41-42, at 42. For a more recent appraisal see David W. Blight, ‘In Search of Learning, Liberty, and Self Definition: James McCune Smith and the Ordeal of the Antebellum Black Intellectual’, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 9, 2 (1985): 7-25. New work on McCune Smith will transform our understanding. See for example Carla L. Peterson, ‘Reconstructing James McCune Smith’s Alexandrine Library: The New York State/County and National Conventions (1845-1855)’, in P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jim Casey, and Sarah L. Patterson (eds.), The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 105-122.
(3) Thomas M. Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith (1813- 1865), First Black American to Hold a Medical Degree’, Journal of the National Medical Association 95, 7 (July 2003): 603-614, at 603.
(4) Craig D. Townsend, ‘The Chains That Bind’, in Faith in Their Own Color: Black Episcopalians in Antebellum New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 73-83, at 73. The context was a legal hearing in the wake of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act at which McCune Smith was attempting to debunk definitions of race designed to incriminate or intimidate.
(5) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 605.
(6) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 606. On the wider history of Africans and African Americans in Scotland see Ian Duffield, ‘Identity, Community and the Lived Experience of Black Scots from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid‐nineteenth Centuries’, Immigrants & Minorities 11, 2 (1992): 105-129.
(7) Jacob Crane, ‘“Razed to the Knees”: The Anti-Heroic Body in James McCune Smith’s “The Heads of Colored People”‘, African American Review 51, 1 (2018): 7-21, esp. 19-20, n.7.
(8) Cited in Crane, ‘“Razed to the Knees”‘, 20, n.7.
(9) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 608.
(10) See Bernth Lindfors, ‘Ira Aldridge as Macbeth’, in Scott L. Newstok and Ayanna Thompson (eds.), Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance, Signs of Race (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 45-54.
(11) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 604.
(12) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 608.
(13) C. F. P., ‘The Glasgow Lock Hospital, 41 Rottenrow’, Glasgow Medical Journal 30, 1 (1888): 48-49. The Lock has been the subject of important archival work by Anna Forrest, librarian at Glasgow’s Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.
(14) ‘Editorial Dedication: James McCune Smith (1813-1865)’, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 55 (2007): 1.
(15) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 610.
(16) Lundy Braun, ‘Black Lungs and White Lungs: The Science of White Supremacy in the Nineteenth-Century United States’, in Breathing Race into the Machine Book: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 28-54, at 30.
(17) Molly Rogers, ‘Scientific Moonshine’, in Molly Rogers and David W. Blight (eds.), Delia’s Tears: Race, Science, and Photography in Nineteenth-century America )(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 253-268, at 264.
(18) Rogers, ‘Scientific Moonshine’, 266.
(19) J. John Harris III, Cleopatra Figgures, and David G. Carter, ‘A Historical Perspective of the Emergence of Higher Education in Black Colleges’, Journal of Black Studies 6, 1 (1975): 55-68, at 57. For background see Axel C. Hansen, ‘Black Americans in Medicine’, Journal of the National Medical Association 76, 7 (1984): 693-695.
(20) Carla L. Peterson, ‘Community Building: Circa 1840’, in Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (New Haven: Yale University Press), 117-146, at 119.
(21) Peterson, ‘Community Building: Circa 1840’, 130.
(22) Ivy G. Wilson, ‘The Writing on the Wall: Revolutionary Aesthetics and Interior Spaces’, in Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby (eds.), American Literature’s Aesthetic Dimensions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 56-72, at 66. See James McCune Smith, A Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions; with a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L’Ouverture, delivered at the Stuyvesant Institute, (for the benefit of the coloured orphan asylum,) February 26, 1841 (New York: Daniel Fanshaw, 1841).
(23) Morgan, ‘The Education and Medical Practice of Dr. James McCune Smith’, 603. See James McCune Smith, ‘On the Fourteenth Query of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia’, Anglo-African Magazine 1, 8 (August 1859): 225-238.
(24) Leslie A. Falk, ‘Black Abolitionist Doctors and Healers, 1810-1885’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 54, 2 (1980): 258-272, at 260. Smith’s ‘Lay Puffery of Homeopathy’ appeared in The Annalist (1847-8): 348-351.
(25) Carla L. Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 114.
(26) Cited in Faith Marchal, ‘When Freeing the Slaves Was Illegal: “Reverse-Trafficking” and the Unholy, Unruly Rule of Law’, in John Winterdyk and Jackie Jones (ed.), The Palgrave International Handbook of Human Trafficking (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 51-66, at 54.
(27) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115.
(28) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115:
(29) Peterson, ‘The Young Graduates: Circa 1834’, in Black Gotham, 93-116, at 115.
(30) Carla L. Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste: Urban Modernities from the Tatler and Spectator to Frederick Douglass’ Paper’, American Literary History 32.4 (2020): 691-722, at 701.
(31) John Stauffer, ‘The Panic and the Making of Abolitionists’, in The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), 95-133, at 123.
(32) John Stauffer, ‘Remaking the Republic of Letters: James McCune Smith and the Classical Tradition’, in K. P. Van Anglen and James Engell (eds.), The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 220-240, at 222.
(33) Stauffer, ‘The Panic and the Making of Abolitionists’, 124.
(34) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 701-2.
(35) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 704. For another take on the black public sphere see Willy Maley, ‘Peripheral Vision: Black Public Intellectuals and the Postcolonial Paradigm’, in Alex Benchimol and Willy Maley (eds.), Spheres of Influence: Intellectual and Cultural Publics from Shakespeare to Habermas (Oxford and Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007), 295-317.
(36) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 709.
(37) Peterson, ‘Mapping Taste’, 712.
(38) Rachel Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things: Labors of Freedom in James McCune Smith’s “The Washerwoman”‘, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 59, 2 (2013): 291-328, at 291.
(39) Van Gosse, ‘Patchwork Nation: Racial Orders and Disorder in the United States, 1790-1860’, Journal of the Early Republic 40, 1 (2020): 45-81, at 49. Gosse is one of several critics who credit his Glasgow experience as key to Smith’s progressive radicalism: “McCune Smith began his Manhattan medical practice in 1837, after earning three degrees in enlightened Scotland” (81).
(40) John Stauffer, ‘The Radical Abolitionist Call to Arms’, in The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), 8-44, at 10.
(41) Rusert, ‘The Banneker Age’, 51.
(42) Jay Rubin, ‘Black Nativism: The European Immigrant in Negro Thought, 1830-1860’, Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture 39, 3 (1978): 193-202, at 193. See also David J. Hellwig, ‘Strangers in Their Own Land: Patterns of Black Nativism, 1830-1930’, American Studies 23, 1 (1982): 85-98; and Susan Roth Breitzer, ‘Race, Immigration, and Contested Americanness: Black Nativism and the American Labor Movement, 1880-1930’, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 4, 2 (2011): 269-283.
(43) Rubin, ‘Black Nativism’, 197.
(44) Rubin, ‘Black Nativism’, 197-8.
(45) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox, with commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K Bhabha (New York: Grove Press, 2004; first published 1961), 16.
(46) Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things’, 298.
(47) Banner, ‘Thinking Through Things’, 298.
(48) Haroon Kharem and Eileen M. Hayes, ‘Separation or Integration: Early Black Nationalism and the Education Critique’, Counterpoints 237 (2005), 67-88, at 76.
(49 Thomas C. Patterson, ‘An Archaeology of the History of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Anthropology: James McCune Smith, Radical Abolitionist and Anthropologist’, Journal of Anthropological Research 69, 4 (2013): 459-484, at 472.
(50) ‘Editorial Dedication: James McCune Smith (1813-1865)’, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 55 (2007): 1.
(51) ‘Conn. descendants of first African American doctor finally mark relative’s grave in New York’, The Middleton Press (27 September 2010).
(52) Heidi L. Lujan and Stephen E. DiCarlo, ‘First African-American to Hold a Medical Degree: Brief History of James McCune Smith, Abolitionist, Educator, and Physician’, Advances in Physiology Education 43, 2 (2019): 134-139, at 138.
(53) Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, Conn: Park Publishing, 1881), 568.
(54) G. K. Hunter, ‘Bradley, Andrew Cecil (1851–1935), literary scholar’, ODNB. Accessed 23 April 2021.
(55) A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1905), p.193, n.99. One critic speaks in an aside of “Bradley’s nervously footnoted anxiety about how ‘the aversion of our blood’ might respond to the sight of a black Othello”, which strikes me as quite a euphemism. See Michael Neill, ‘Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello’, Shakespeare Quarterly 40, 4 (1989): 383-412, at 391-392.
(56) Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p.202, n.105.
(57) Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ‘Foreword’, in Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith, x.
(58) Gates, Jr., ‘Foreword’, in Stauffer (ed.), The Works of James McCune Smith, x-xi.

James Maley’s Memories of Spain in 1937

“There was no good speaking of the menace of fascism and not going to fight it myself”.

New information about my father’s time in Spain has come to light. James Maley went to Spain in December 1936, took part in the Battle of Jarama the following February, and then spent several months as a POW. I grew up with two pictures from that time, frames cut from a newsreel from 23 March 1937 that I watched in its original format for the first time on the 27th of September this year when Tam Watters, whose father George was imprisoned alongside mine, sent me a copy. A few days later I came across an image online that must come from another newsreel that shows my father walking down a street with his comrades and fellow prisoners. I suspect there’s more material out there.

When my father died aged 99 on the 9th of April 2007 a military historian asked if he could see his papers. I had to tell him that my father had no papers, just those two photos taken from that newsreel. But I slowly became aware of an archive. On the 12th of July 2004, three years before his death, my father had given an interview to a friend of mine, Craig Curran, which was in a format I couldn’t access. Finally in 2015 Craig converted the video and I transcribed the audio with Dini Power, and posted on YouTube in 2015. My father was 96 years of age when he gave that interview to Craig. Although he was still as sharp as a tack he did wander a bit and was hard to pin down on some points. Then this year I got hold of another interview with my father, one he gave to the Imperial War Museum on Tuesday 9th of April 1991, when he was a youthful 83 years old. This was new to me. It was fascinating to hear my father’s voice from this time talking so intently about Spain to Conrad Wood, who, like Craig Curran, was an excellent interviewer, and he caught my father at a time when he had more anecdotes on the tip of his tongue.[I]

The interview was conducted a few months after my brother John and I staged a play, From the Calton to Catalonia, based loosely on my father’s time in Spain, taking the two frames from the lost newsreel as our starting-point. The thing is, John and I never thought to interview my father. We had heard some of his stories, but we knew very little about his time in Spain beyond the fact of his being there, his capture, and the images cut from the newsreel. When writing the play we drew on printed sources like Iain MacDougall’s edited collection Voices from the Spanish Civil War: Personal Recollections of Scottish Volunteers in Republican Spain, 1936-39 (1986), but James Maley’s voice wasn’t among the International Brigade members interviewed by MacDougall. In fact it was the absence of our father’s voice from MacDougall’s book that spurred John and I into writing the play. James Maley had shown a lifetime of commitment but was rarely recognised except locally. He had a habit of falling out with people and maybe this is why he never seemed to be included in rolls of honour.

I had attended an event with my father in 1989 to unveil a plaque to William Keegan, an ex-miner from Baillieston in Glasgow who had died at the Battle of Brunete on 18th July 1937, and at the civilised tea and biscuits that followed my father, still a communist, was arguing with the Labour Party members and representatives present who had organised the ceremony. One of them said, “Oh James, you’re like a bear with a burnt arse!”, which struck me as a very apt description of my father, and that line made its way into the play.

There was another reason that John and I were unable to interview my father: his mind was nearly always focused on the present and the future. Not that he never looked back, just that he was always watching the news and reading the papers, including the Beijing Review. Journalists who wanted to speak to him about Spain had to persist in order to get past Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the end Sudan. That’s why Conrad Wood’s interview for the Imperial War Museum stands out. He doggedly got him to stick to one subject and teased out some terrific vignettes.

With very few exceptions, my father never names his comrades. (There’s a passing reference to Charles “Cheeky” McCaig, from Garngad, of 1930s Glasgow street gang the Cheeky Forty). And my father never complains about mistreatment. That’s just the way he was. He recalls how he saw a man having his brains blown out right in front of him, was punched in the face himself, stuck in a cell with nine men and a dry toilet with no paper and very little to eat or drink, being infested with lice, and seeing the “death van” appear at the place where they were being held. Yet he can say he was “never ill-treated once”. That was the James Maley who would drink from the Irrawaddy River a few years later while dead bodies floated past. The James Maley captured at Jarama in 1937 and captured seventy years later in a song by Glasgow band The Wakes called These Hands.

Recalling his time as a POW in Spain he talks about being pulled up for singing republican songs on his way back from the toilet, laughs about the Capitan with the green hair, and recounts an interrogation in which he had to prove his Catholic faith by reciting “one or two of the Hail Maleys”. I let that slip of the tongue stand in the transcription. There will be other slips too – my father says he was interrogated by “Primo de Rivera” but since he died in November 1936 the interrogation is likely to have been carried out by Alfonso Merry del Val.[ii] This is a long read, but I’m glad this account is out there now. The Spanish Civil War has been fought over and sung about for over eighty years and there’s always something new to say or see or hear.

My father always spoke quickly, like a machine gun, and the transcription took time. There were 3 reels, the first two each about a half hour long, the 3rd half as long again. The first two reels covered my father’s time in Spain, while the 3rd reel moved on to his time in WW2 in India and from 1941-45. Since my father’s experiences in Spain had been recorded or reported in other ways Dini and I decided to transcribe the 3rd reel first, covering his years in India and Burma. We finally finished transcribing the first two reels this week. There were some words we just couldn’t make out no matter how many times we listened over, but we got most of it. My father’s story is just one among many, and the way he saw things in 1937, 1991, 2004 and 2007, the year he died, no doubt changed over time, as memory does. I’m glad this interview was done, grateful to Conrad Wood and the Imperial War Museum for giving my father a voice, and eager to see what others think of this account of events.



IWM 1991-04-09 [Tuesday 9th of April 1991]


Deposition no. 11947, Reel 1.

Interviewer: Conrad Wood.

Duration: 29:20


Conrad Wood: Mr Maley, Reel 1. Whereabouts were you born please?

James Maley: I was born in the Calton.

CW: Where’s that?

JM: In part of Glasgow. It’s actually in the centre of Glasgow.

CW: And what did your father do for a living?

JM: He was a corporation navvy. He worked on the streets, on the roads.

CW: Was he Scottish?

JM: He was Irish.

CW: He’d been born in Ireland?

JM: Yes he was born in Ireland. County Mayo.

CW: So were you brought up as a Catholic?

JM: Yes.

CW: And was you mother Irish too?

JM: No my mother was Scottish.

CW: And she was a Catholic?

JM: She was a Catholic, aye.

CW: Did you go to school in Glasgow?

JM: In Glasgow, yes.

CW: Whereabouts?

JM: St Alphonsus, in the Calton. Greendyke Street.

CW: Was this a Catholic school?

JM: Yes, a Catholic school.

CW: And how old were you when you left there?

JM: Fourteen.

CW: Did you get a job?

JM: Yes, selling rolls round the doors. And cakes. That was my first job.

CW: How did you come to be interested in politics?

JM: Well it goes back a long time. It goes back to when I was five years of age. I was at the pictures in the Calton and I was watching a film about the Yellow Peril, in 1913. And then in 1914 I watched all the soldiers marching away to the railway station in Glasgow, in 1914, and then I got to know that there were two ships being hurriedly built on the Clyde, war ships, and they were called the Invincible and the Inflexible, and in 1916 they sailed for the Colonial and Falkland Islands. And then during my time at school I got to realise that religion was the opium of the people, and that the Labour Party were also the enemy of the people. And when the young men came home from the first world war I heard them talking at the street corners about The Iron Heel. Although I didn’t know too much about what The Iron Heel was about I was interested in listening to them. And there was also a paper called John Bull that was fighting on behalf of the ex-soldiers after the First World War, and times were bad then. There were no jobs for the ones who came home from the First World War. Some of these men who came home in 1918 never worked except for two jobs from the dole, from the labour exchange. One was in Cumbernauld and one was in Glasgow here.

CW: When they were talking about The Iron Heel, were they talking about Jack London?

JM: Aye, Jack London. I found that out later on. But at that time I just didn’t know what The Iron Heel was about. That’s what they were talking about. Well one was Palace Riggs which was in Cumbernauld

CW: This was the job they were working on?

JM: …and the other job was the big hospital which I can’t just remember now. It’s in my mind but I can’t just remember the name of it now but they worked in that too, that was the two big jobs and they got a couple of shillings extra for working in these jobs, same with, like the unemployed schemes they’re talking about just now.

CW: So this is how you became interested in politics?

JM: I did become interested in politics.

CW: And did you join a party, or…organisation?

JM: Well, what happened was that my father died in 1929, and I’d relations in America and I went to America and the Depression was on. So I came back home in September 1931 and there was demonstrations, unemployed demonstrations taking place in Glasgow. So I joined the demonstrations and then I joined the Communist Party Tuesday 16th of February 1932.

CW: Whereabouts?

JM: In Glasgow, in eh Parkhead.

CW: At a public meeting?

JM: No what happened was, I knew if I joined this branch in Parkhead at the time I was going to have a lot of work to do. And I wasn’t just too keen on it. Then one night I couldn’t get The Daily Worker, so I went to where they met in this place and knocked at the door, and the man opened the door and said what is it you want? I said I want The Daily Worker. Oh he said come on in. I went in, sat down, that was me in. And two weeks later I was on the platform speaking.

CW: Which branch of the Communist Party did you belong to?

JM: Parkhead, at that time.

CW: Who was the secretary then?
JM: Oh…his name was…what was his name again…

CW: Doesn’t matter if you’ve forgotten. But what kind of work were they doing in the Communist Party then? Was it an active branch?

JM: Well actually I was the branch. I became the branch. They werenae doing very much till I joined them and I became the speaker.

CW: So they were at a low ebb?

JM: Yes and in any branch at all, if you haven’t got a speaker you’re at a low ebb. It’s the speaker that makes the crowd at the cross. I started to speak at Parkhead Cross and from there the branch more was done, more work was done and everything else was done.

CW: What kind of membership did you have?

JM: About fifteen was usually the most.

CW: So did you take over the secretaryship?

JM: I never took… I never had any job in the communist party in my life. I just became what you call the organiser. That was all but no official…

CW: And you enjoyed public speaking?

JM: Oh I enjoyed the public speaking. I’m not saying I was good or not but in 1933, August 1933, one man came up to me at the cross, Parkhead Cross, he said he was going to stand as the ILP candidate in Glasgow, Independent Labour Party, and he wanted to know if he could speak on the platform along with me. That was it.

CW: Was there much of a black shirt presence in Glasgow?

JM: No not too much in Glasgow.

CW: So you weren’t involved very much in fighting against the black shirts?

JM: No I never saw many black shirts in Glasgow.

CW: Can you tell me how you came to go to Spain, and why you went?

JM: Well you see, being in the Communist party and being a speaker I’d been speaking about Hitler from the time he took power in 1933, January. So I was, I was like a teacher in school, I learned things by heart all the time, every move that was made, the British Anglo-German naval agreement, the march into the Rhineland and all these things, and then Austria and the Sudetenland and then the Munich agreement, it was just like something just came, so I knew what I was talking about.

CW: But you weren’t forced to volunteer?

JM: Oh no, no, no.

CW: Why did you decide to volunteer for it?
JM: Well you see there was no good of me speaking of the menace of fascism and all this sort of thing, and not going to fight about it myself. But I mean I wouldn’t ask anybody else to do something that I wasn’t going to do myself. So I volunteered and went.

CW: When did you volunteer, do you remember?

JM: Well actually it was just about, nearly the end of the year. You see well the position I was in, I was staying in Shettleston although I was in the Parkhead branch, and the MP for Shettleston had went to Spain and came back and made a big attack on the Catholic church.[iii] So it didn’t go down too well with a lot of people in Shettleston, so he went back the second time and then he came back and made a big attack on the Communist party, but he didn’t retract what he had said about the Catholic church, and by a bit of bad luck for one of the three councillors, who was himself a Catholic, Councillor Heenan, he was standing at that time for the council, and they were held at that time on the first Tuesday of November, and for the first time in Shettleston the ILP candidate got beat because of the campaign against him. And he had never mentioned Spain. And it was after that that I went to Spain.

CW: So, had you become…you were an atheist by then, were you?

JM: Well, you might as well say I was an atheist.

CW: Were you opposed to the Catholic church?
JM: No, no I wasn’t opposed to the Catholic church, well I mean I never mentioned religion, if people want to go, go, but I mean eh it be kind of hard, see when I was at school I realised that I was asked to become a priest a lot of times at school but I realised to become a priest well it wasn’t an easy job to become or do, I mean if you believed in religion then it was something you’d have to… be different from other people. I mean you’d have to be, live different from the ordinary person, whereas at the present time if I stood at the corner, I realised if I stood at the corner and watched people passing by, even where I lived I couldn’t say that’s a Catholic, that’s a Protestant. I mean there was nothing to define them, they all just lived the same. But to be a priest you’d have to live different. And that’s something, well, I wasn’t prepared to do.

CW: What was the attitude of your comrades in the Communist party in Glasgow to you volunteering for Spain? Did they encourage you, or…?

JM: No, I never, actually I never told anybody, but there were quite a few from the district I was in joined after me, followed my example.

CW: Were you the first one in your area to volunteer for Spain?

JM: Yes, and where I lived. See although I was in the Parkhead branch I stayed in Shettleston which was just like being here and living down in Springburn and after…well what happened was this, was that although I was in the Parkhead branch in 1935, February, I moved to Shettleston, well I…I started a Shettleston branch, and started speaking in Shettleston, and for that year and a half before I went to Spain a lot got thing my too and I began to realise and after I went another half a dozen or so went. (11.17)

CW: How did you go about getting to Spain and getting yourself enrolled in the International Brigades?

JM: Oh it was quite simple. Actually when I went to Spain I left from George’s Square and there were three bus loads, three double decker buses together and they just all left George Square and right through to London, come off there and eh…

CW: Were they all volunteers for Spain?

JM: Oh yes, they were all volunteers. Just went quite simple, went to London. I went to the pictures that night, then we got the boat train to Paris and stopped in Paris, and then went through to Spain.

CW: Was this before or after Christmas in 1936?

JM: This was before.

CW: Before Christmas?
JM: Aye, aye.

CW: But in December?

JM: Uh-huh. It was quite easy going.

CW: Did you go to Communist Party headquarters in King Street in London?

JM: Well I can’t remember, I went to the headquarters in France.

CW: What happened there?

JM: Well, we just got…well whoever was in charge, got the instructions, you know, but well we just knew we were there and thingmy and we just went. I mean there…

CW: Who was in charge of the party?

JM: That’s something I couldn’t tell you now.

CW: Do you remember the names of any of the other chaps who were with you in the party?

JM: Oh aye yes, well there was some funny names, God there was some from Royston. Cheeky McCaig and some of them were real … well it was different once we got to Spain, some of them volunteered but they weren’t political. I mean, a lot of them didn’t just know, well they couldn’t have told you why they were going.

CW: So why did they go?

JM: Well I suppose some was for adventure maybe, but I mean I knew what I was going for.

CW: Do you remember the names of any of the others who were in the party who were going with you?

JM: Well see they were from other branches at that time. I would be the only one from Shettleston then.

CW: But it must have been a big party if?
JM: Oh aye, there were three double bus…well you see…well some of them came but weren’t in the party, or any party. But just had volunteered.

CW: But the group of you who were going, if they came from three buses, must have been a big group.

JM: Well they were a big group, but I mean eh, it’s like names, I never bothered much about names.

CW: And you had no trouble from the authorities?
JM: No trouble at all. No trouble.

CW: In France or Britain?

JM: No, just right through. It was just as easy as if I was going now with a passport. There was really no bother in going at that time.

CW: And how did you travel from Paris down to Spain?

JM: Just right through the same way, through Perpignan, Figueres, Albacete, into Spain, I mean there was no bother. No hassle. No walking, no nothing.

CW: And did you…you went by rail? Or by bus?

JM: Oh by rail. No, we had no bother at all in our bunch.

CW: Did you cross the Spanish frontier on the train?

JM: Well I don’t know much about frontiers but nobody stopped us, we had no trouble at all.

CW: Where did you go to in Spain?
JM: Well we went…well I need to look at the map. Perpignan then Figueres then Albacete, that’s where they all went to finally, Albacete. I think we were inside Spain…Perpignan is in France isn’t it?

CW: Yes.

JM: Then we went to Figueres.

CW: Yes.

JM: And then Albacete.

CW: Did any…

JM: Albacete was the place where they all went.

CW: Did any incidents happen on the journey? To Spain? Any anecdotes you can give?

JM: No, no…it was one of the fastest…you couldn’t have went any quicker. I mean there were no holdups. […] we had no holdup at all. It was plain sailing, at that time. I don’t know if it got any rougher after that but it was plain sailing at that time we went.

CW: What kind of reception did you get from Spanish people when you arrived?

JM: Oh, good. Good.

CW: What did they do?

JM: Well they were hospitable, you know, talking, everything else.
CW: What happened to you at Albacete?

JM: Well that was like a sort of big place where they all passed through gradually, so just in there, well, it was like the British army, we just left that to the generals, the leaders who were supposed to be leading. We got issued with uniforms, like, you know.
CW: At Albacete?

JM: I think it was Albacete we got issued. It was like a Czech uniform, you know, the khaki but the trousers had the elastic here and they just folded over the boots, like, like everything else we got rigged out.
CW: The elastic at the bottom of the trousers?

JM: Aye, sort of, trousers and elastic and it folded over the trousers, you know as if it had elastic and then it just all folded over.

CW: So they were like plus-fours?

JM: Well no, just at the bottom, they were only about four inches, or six inches of elastic. So it was just like you had elastic there and that just folded over the top.

CW: And you had shirts and jackets?

JM: Oh aye, we’d get shirts and jackets.

CW: And caps?

JM: Aye, and a cap, oh aye.

CW: What was the cap?

JM: Oh the cap, it was something like the photos here, only a different uniform, you know, and sort of a….

CW: And where did you get your arms? In Albacete?

JM: Well that’s what I’m just wondering. It was Russian rifles, you know with the thingmy and the sort of periscope sort of thing on the top.

CW: The sight?
JM: Aye, the sight. And for the bayonet. They were quite light, you know, they weren’t heavy, you know, the same as the old Lee Enfields.

CW: Were they new, or had they been used?

JM: They were new. The rifles were new.

CW: Were they good rifles?
JM: They were good enough. Of course it all depends on the man who’s using them. See I’d been in the Territorials.

CW: Where had you been in the Territorials?
JM: In Glasgow.

CW: And which unit had you belonged to here?

JM: The 58th Cameronians. So I could fire the gun, know what I mean. Some people are just natural at firing the rifle.

CW: What other training had you got in the Cameronians?

JM: Just the rifle.

CW: Had you been away to camp?

JM: Oh aye, Dechmont.

CW: To where?

JM: Dechmont Camp, Cambuslang.

CW: The camp is called Dechmont Camp?
JM: Aye, but it was in Cambuslang. It was Dechmont that was the name of the place. We called that bit Dechmont, you know. They all trained there, you know, the, all the units in Glasgow.

CW: Why had you joined the TA?

JM: Well, I just seemed to have taken a notion that it would be a good idea to join it. I just joined it at the right time. Actually I just joined it a year before we went to Spain.

CW: Had you joined it for the training, or for the money, or what?

JM: Well, you see, as they say, coming events cast their shadow before, and I knew the war was coming.

CW: Doesn’t the…don’t the Cameronians have a Protestant tradition in the unit?

JM: Yes but you see I’ll tell you…that’s right, it did, actually out of about twenty that were there that day, and passed the doctor, there was only myself and a young chap of seventeen got taken in. You see what it is, I’d done a lot of walking, and eh, even, I was known by my walk.

CW: How do you mean?
JM: Well I walked down to the Daily Record office when I was fifty years of age and the article was in the papers. He didn’t mention my name but he does describe me walking in, and people I hadn’t seen for a while said to me: we read about you in the papers, I said what papers, what do you mean? I mean how do you know? They said, when they described you walking in we knew it was you. Even when I married my wife, her granny called me the wee sergeant major. I had…see I used to do 25, 30 a day. Miles. I had the walk.

CW: Were you a good shot in the Cameronians?
JM: Well I’ll tell you a funny thing about being a good shot. I was a half-decent shot, but I always knew that I could kill the other man. It’s not, see, I knew what the other person was gonnae do. That’s the main thing. I had that kind of…when I went to America, well there was somebody to meet me in Cleveland Ohio. I left New York in the train. I didn’t know who the person was, but when I came off the train it was loaded with people and I walked straight over to this woman and she said: how did you know it was me? I couldnae explain it to her but I’ve got that…

CW: Instinct.

JM: Instinct. Aye, I’ve got that. I had that in the army too. I had that in Burma too. The major told me I was the only man who knew what to do. I’ve got that instinct, that’s the main thing.

CW: So the same instinct that told you it was me when I arrived at your flat?

JM: And I came down the stairs, aye. And I knew you’d be looking at the names up on the thingmy, and wondering, pressing a button and no getting any answer.

CW: In Albacete, in your group, were there any others who’d had any military training, like you?

JM: Oh yes there was one or two who had, well there was one that had been in the Scots Guards, and then there was another man who’d been in the First World War. And he told me, he said: remember, when you go up here, everybody in front of you is the enemy. When we went into action like, you know. Oh aye there was one or two but they never had, that was the only one who had been in the First World War, he was older than the rest. But the rest, some of them had been in the peace time army, well I mean, they hadnae seen any action, real action. Just like training.

CW: What happened to you after Albacete? Where did you go then?

JM: Madrigueras.

CW: What was that?

JM: That was where we were camped, that was our training place, we were going to train there.

CW: And what month was this, that you reached there, do you think?

JM: Beginning of January.
CW: Can you describe the training you had at Madrigueras?

JM: It really wasn’t much. It was only really marching and…we didn’t really get time to train because we moved up…we were only there five weeks then we got moved, started to move up to the front.

CW: So it was just drill?

JM: Drill and that, not really much training. We didnae get much time to train.

CW: Did you get any political instruction at Madrigueras?

JM: No, there wasn’t much political talking.

CW: So what were you doing most of the time?

JM: Well just getting used to the place and the…it was a small place, you know, getting used to the Spaniards and just learning a bit of the language. And that was…

CW: Did you pick up much of the language?

JM: Well, as I told you before, the first day I was there a little boy spoke to me. I didn’t know what he was talking about but I knew what he meant and I got some food and went with him and took it to his mother.

CW: So he was asking you for food?
JM: Food.

CW: For his family?

JM: That’s right. He was asking me for food.

CW: Were they starving?

JM: Well they could have done with some food I think, yeh. Tins. I got them some army tinned stuff, you know.
CW: Did you have enough food in the International Brigade?

JM: Oh aye. We went into some of the big, what you call a public house here, and some of the Spaniards’ houses, and they all ate off the one dish, and usually it was vino they took instead of tea or coffee. And just one dish, they all took out the one dish. I mean nobody had their own thing for what they ate.

CW: So you were moved to the front because of the emergency?

JM: That’s right.

CW: Over Madrid?

JM: Aye.

CW: Can you tell me how it all happened? How you moved to the front?

JM: Well we went up in lorries.

CW: Were you in a unit by now?
JM: In a unit, aye.

CW: Which unit were you in?

JM: Well it was called the 15th Brigade. It was the 15th. I never really bothered much about units. The main thing was…the name doesn’t matter.

CW: But were you in a company?

JM: We were in a company, aye.

CW: Which company were you in?

JM: Machine gun company. The machine gun company. We had eight Maxim old Russian machine guns. The ones on wheels. You know the ones on wheels, and…

CW: Yes.

JM: Pre-war, you know, 1914.

CW: Who was in charge of this machine gun company?

JM: Well his name was…there were two of them, there was Harold Fry and Dickson [Ted Dickinson] was the name of the other one. Dickson.

CW: And were you in a platoon?

JM: Just the machine gun company.

CW: So it wasn’t sub-divided into platoons?
JM: No.

CW: So you went in lorries. Where to?

JM: Up to near the front.

CW: At Jarama?

JM: Jarama.

CW: What did you find when you got there?

JM: Well we found out…we came off the trucks and started to go forward, and after two or three hundred yards going forward the retreat was coming back and going down past us. And we were going through. There were soldiers running past us and we were going up. Actually there was soldiers out of the British battalion dropping, going up, without firing a shot, getting killed.

CW: Who were these soldiers who were retreating?

JM: Well it was other ones who’d been up there, different, well, Spaniards and there were also some international brigade who were holding the line a bit, the Franco-Belgians were away up further on than us on the right, though we didn’t know that at the time. And coming through the middle of us, Spaniards, you see the Spaniards I would say, are like the Italians, they’re not just like British or German soldiers in the fighting spirit or training or anything else, and eh…I think we made a mistake our lot was that instead of going forward when the rest were coming through us if we’d formed a line then and there, see? And tried to rally. Instead of that we went, we started to go through into a place that was getting cut, they were all coming back from. And some of our chaps actually going through got killed. Without having seen the enemy.

CW: Were these troops who were retreating panic-stricken?

JM: Well, well not actually. Just like a retreat, you know, when somebody starts to go, one part of the line starts to go then there’s a drift back, and…

CW: Were they taking rifles with them?

JM: Oh aye, they were taking rifles. Actually there wasn’t many, much heavy equipment with our side at that time. I mean we’d be about the best with the heavy machine guns, although they were old.

CW: Did these retreating troops say anything to you?

JM: Not a word was spoken. Naebody spoke. Actually we were running, we were running, but it’s something you’d hardly believe, we were running up the front line and pulling them with us.  And eh…

CW: Pulling the machine guns?

JM: As fast as we could go, running like the hammers of hell. And eh…we went as far as we could go and then we stopped and dug in a bit, and we could see the Franco-Belgians beginning to getting up, coming back and falling down, and coming up and coming back, and eh we just had a cross-fire right across us, then, and to try and help them, although we couldn’t actually see who they were retreating from. We knew that was the position but we held them up for quite a while you see.

CW: Where did you dig in? Were you on a hill, or a valley?
JM: In a valley. It’s only well, you see, you couldn’t choose any place. We didn’t get time to choose where we dug in.

CW: Were there any trees round you?
JM: Oh aye there was trees, there was trees.

CW: What was it, an olive grove?
JM: Aye an olive grove, what they call olive groves.

CW: Did you see the enemy?

JM: Never saw the enemy. We only saw…we only actually…I never saw another man in the battalion except…



Deposition no. 11947, Reel 2.

Interviewer: Conrad Wood.

Duration: 29:08


CW: Mr James Maley, Reel 2.

JM: Right.

CW: If you could repeat what you were just saying?

JM: Well actually, I never saw another man in the battalion once we’d moved doon and round into our position.

CW: Did you move up in the daytime, or the night time?

JM: It would be the afternoon.

CW: So by the time you dug in, it was dark?

JM: It was getting, aye.

CW: When you were digging in, were you under fire?
JM: No we weren’t under fire.

CW: When did the fire resume?

JM: Well, we could hear the firing on both sides of us, but the only ones we ever saw were the Franco-Belgians on our right. They’d be about 150 yards further on, on our right, a good distance away, but we were, we could see them plain enough, and we seen them getting up, falling back, down, up, falling back, slowly retreating. So we turned our machine guns on an angle right across in front of them. So firing at that range, in order for to slow down the ones who were chasing them, though we couldn’t get a right view of them. Just a cross-fire. But everything after that on the first day was an awful lull, as if there was nobody in the place. And we were there and we wondered what was up but we stuck there where we were. We stayed there and then we started to get shells down again. But the first morning, the next morning, they came up with food, some of them. It was big bowls like apple jelly and, like ham and that, and they told us that they were trying to form a line further back. So we stayed where we were. And it would be like a pantomime. We never actually saw all the day on the Saturday another soldier. Everything deathly quiet, until Sunday we got up now and again to go further back behind some of the olive groves to do a thingmy. And then we could hear the firing. And I went myself, but you’re sitting down and under a tree and the leaves were falling on top of me because they were starting to shoot then.

CW: You mean when this man went to the toilet?
JM: I…I…

CW: You saw him?

JM: Or me, me too. If anybody went to the toilet they would see them then and they would start to fire. Rifle fire. And the leaves were falling down on top of me, but you were just doing it and crawling back into the little trench we had dug. But then the shelling started after that. But we stuck where we were because we knew we had a good field of fire, but what we didn’t know was that they were coming on both sides of us they were coming through.

CW: You were in danger of being outflanked?

JM: Well we were outflanked. We could have removed but with staying where we were in a way we held up the through advance in front of us. And then we got captured on the third day, surrounded, but we heard when we were in prison that they had formed a line further, a good bit further back they had formed a new line.  They’d … more international brigaders had come up to stiffen the Spaniards.

CW: How many of you were there in this group that was being surrounded?
JM: 28.

CW: Who was in command of you?
JM: Well there was Dickson and Fry. We got captured and eh they lined us up and eh Fry and Dickson had what you call the Sam Brown so they pulled Dickson, Dickson got pulled out first and the two Spanish soldiers on the other side stepped forward and, eh, blew his brains out.

CW: Did you see it?
JM: Oh aye, it was like somebody just doing that. With somebody’s forehead, just doing that and opening it. Aye. Eh … somebody spoke and I heard a voice saying ‘Don’t shoot, they’re English.’ They thought we were Russians. With the uniforms. At first. And eh, Fry, only for that Fry would have been shot too, we would all have been shot one at a time.

CW: They said that in Spanish, did they?

JM: Aye, somebody shouted ‘English’. They heard us. Aye. English. Ingleses. In the line. Or else we’d all have been shot. But eh after that eh, the Moors came on horseback and eh they put our hands behind our back and they tied them with sort of wire, you know.

CW: Who captured you? Was it Spaniards? Or?
JM: Spaniards, but Moroccan troops came on horseback. They were there too but it was Spaniards had captured us.

CW: Do you know what unit of Spaniards captured you?

JM: I couldn’t say, no. But I know they were Moors.

CW: The Spanish troops, were they Foreign Legion, or … Carlists, or what?

JM: Well see, the uniform I don’t know what the Carlists, well they could be Foreign Legion, but eh the Moors eh were on horseback. They were the only ones on horseback and they got the job of taking us back behind the lines and away.

CW: So you hadn’t been bound until the Moors bound you?

JM: The Moors bound us. They came off their horses and lined us up and hands behind the back.

CW: When they captured you, how did it happen. Can you describe it?

JM: Well we just found them at our back.

CW: With rifles.

JM: Hmmm. They had actually, that was the only time we saw the Spaniards on the other side. They had come through the flanks on each side. We were only 28 men in a wee group, and as I said,  the olive groves was a big huge place. Everybody had moved back.

CW: What was their manner towards you when they captured you?

JM: Well the Spanish…the Moors were making gestures with…they had these wee sort of sabres, wee sort of curved, that they were going to cut the privates off us. Aye. [laughs]

And eh…I didn’t know what this one said to me but he punched me right in the face, aye he punched me right in the face.

CW: Why do you think he punched you?
JM: I think it was because I didn’t understand what he was telling me to do.

CW: What do you think he was telling you to do?
JM: That’s what I don’t know. If I’d known I would have.

CW: So … when the Spaniards captured you, what was their attitude towards you?
JM: Well they were going to shoot us. They were gonnae shoot us one at a time. We were lined up, oh aye, it would be one at a time but Dickson was just unlucky that he got shot. Blew his brains out right in front of us. And of course Fry would have been next.

CW: Were they shouting at you?
JM: Well you know how people just shout. But what the hell they were saying I couldn’t…

CW: Were the Moors amused when they threatened to castrate you?

JM: Well I don’t know.

CW: Were they laughing, or…

JM: Well I think they might have been trying to frighten us mostly, you know.

CW: Did they harm anybody?

JM: No, I think we were lucky in the sense that any other group being captured that wasn’t English, British, would have had a rougher time. I think that’s what saved us, that we happened just to be British.

CW: Why do you think they should have given better treatment to British people?

JM: Well maybe Britain had been with the policy of non-intervention would be more liberal, you see.

CW: So when the Moors took you away were you dragged behind the horses?
JM: No, we just walked behind one another and a horse, one horse behind each one’s back. They were right up against your back the men on horseback so you hadnae time to look around ye. It was one of those cases where you were going as fast as you could because the horse was at your back with the Moor on it, going as fast as he could, so you were going … each one…

CW: So you had to run, did you?

JM: Well we were trot … wur … wurnae.

CW: How far did they move you behind the lines?

JM: Well it was hard to say in distance when you were captured like that … See, everybody thinks different. We were taken to a place called Talavera de la Reina. Talavera de la Reina. Aye.

CW: Yes, I’ve heard of it.

JM: Have you heard of it?

CW: Yes.

JM: Aye.

CW: What happened to you there?

JM: Well we were nine to a cell. And eh, it was one big dish of food. And we all ate out of it with our hands. And there was a wee toilet in the corner that you couldn’t flush. And you couldn’t wash your hands. And there was no toilet paper. And the nine of us ate with our hands out of that dish all the time it came in. There was nothing to drink, it was a thick, a sort of mass of whatever it was, but we all ate off our hands. Hands were … which proves you can do a lot of things when you’re hungry.

CW: Did you get dysentery?

JM: Well I never had anything wrong with me once.

CW: How big was the cell that you were in?

JM: It was just an ordinary prison cell. Same size as we’ve got here in Britain.

CW: Were you able to lie down?

JM: Well, we were lucky because amongst the nine of us there was a South African Jew and he looked like a Moor, because the first day we were captured, about an hour after it the door burst open and two Moors came in with revolvers in their hands and they were looking at this South African Jew and they were saying to him “Moro, Moro. Moro, Moro”. He said “Naw, naw. South African Jew”. [Laughs] He was coloured. He looked like … well they thought he was a Moor. Well we all lay at night-time down and he lay down and we all lay down with our heads on his body. [Laughs] He was a kind of big burly chap, dark, and we all lay down like kittens with the cat. [Laughs] That’s where we lay, there was no beds, no nothing, just the floor. So, I think we were left to it.

CW: Were there any beatings?

JM: No, what they tried … two or three times they’d come in and throw wide the door, smashed open, and the Moors with the revolvers in their hands, you know, trying to frighten us, it was mostly intimidation, you know, but we got used to that.

CW: How long were you kept there?

JM: Well I couldnae say, but a couple of weeks.

CW: Were you interrogated?

JM: We got interrogated when we went to the next place. The next place was a … like a big … it had been a farm. It was a big barn. And in this there would be about a hundred men. Most of them were young Spaniards. And then there was our twenty-seven. There were two Germans. Dos Alemanes. And one Frenchman. And one Britisher who we didn’t know was British at the start, who had come off … he’d been on a ship, a merchant ship. And he’d got off at Spain and he was shouting to hell … he was saying to hell with Franco. [Laughs] And he was there too. It was after that we got interviewed in that place with Primo De Rivera.[iv]

CW: You were interrogated by Primo De Rivera?

JM: One at a time.

CW: How did you know it was him?

JM: Well that’s who they said it was.

CW: What did he look like?

JM: Oh, aye, it’d be hard to say. But he asked us what religion we were too. That was one of the questions.

CW: What language did he …?

JM: What religion we were.

CW: What language did he speak in?

JM: Oh English.

CW: Was it good English?

JM: Oh aye, aye. Aye. Oh aye, I could understand him.

CW: Did you tell him what religion you were?

JM: I just said Catholic. I’m a Catholic. So he asked me to say the .. the … one or two of the Hail Maleys and that you, I done that. I could say them. So that satisfied him.

CW: Can you remember what else you were asked?

JM: Oh, well [coughs] They asked me about this and that. You know, regarding the war and that you see but after he’d listened to me speaking I heard him say to the other ones who were there he knows F.A. He knows nothing. You see I gave him … see, you can know a lot of things and you can know nothing about the war, but you could be tortured for something you don’t know. Whereas I can give the impression that I don’t know.

CW: So you deliberately gave the impression that you…

JM: That I was stupid. That was …
CW: Were you ill-treated in the interrogation?
JM: No, no. No. No, no, no ill-treatment. That’s one thing I will say, I was never ill-treated once in the … I couldn’t complain, no.

CW: Were any of the others ill-treated?
JM: Naw.

CW: Why do you think that was?

JM: I think it was because we were British men, you know. I think if we’d have been some poor maybe Germans who had been politicians they’d have done something….
CW: What was this place where Primo De Rivera interrogated you?
JM: Well I can’t just remember the name of this place. It was a farmyard and it had been a big ba… we were in this big barn that held quite a few. It was one big barn where you’ve got boards from here to there right round it, about four feet out from the wall right round the barn. And there was, there was hens in the yard like, you know, in the farmyard.
CW: Was this place very far from Talavera de la Reina?

JM: And that’s what I couldnae … see when you’re traveling in a strange country you just cannae tell how long you’ve been on the …

CW: Did they say to you what was going to happen to you?

JM: No they never mentioned that, they never mentioned anything at all.
CW: What did you think was going to happen to you?
JM: Well, it never bothered me. But I tried to cheer up some of the rest. You know, and some of them got worried, but I was single and … well I knew what I was there for and I didn’t expect any good treatment or bad treatment.
CW: What happened to you after this interrogation?

JM: Just came back to the … the big barn. And then another one would go. Just went one at a time.

CW: And then after you’d all been interrogated what happened then?

JM: Well, we got a fright one time. The big van, there was a sort of death van. And it came this time and eh, we were all up and we were talking about making a go for it out the door, going to the door and saying “latrete” [?], and when the guard opened the door, when he was outside the door, we were going to make one rush. [Laughs]. But eh, it passed by.
CW: So there was one barn where they were executing people?
JM: No, well there might have been some of the young Spaniards getting taken away, you see, there was … thing.
CW: What happened next?

JM: Well after a while we got taken then to a big prison, Salamanca. Which was a real prison. And that’s where we were there for a while.

CW: How long were you at Salamanca?

JM: Oh, a few months. And then, see…
CW: And what were the conditions like there?
JM: Oh they were better there, they were better. You see in April 1937 we heard that there had been a big battle at, eh, Guadalajara. And the Russian planes had done that and the Italians had suffered a big reverse. And there was some talk later on that there were some of us … some of us going to be exchanged for some of the Italians. Aye. But we saw the British Consul before that, came to see us. How things were.
CW: What impression did he make on you?

JM: Well he just wanted to know if things had been … what we needed and how things were and that, you know, just a … turn-up.

CW: Was he of any help to you?

JM: Well see, we don’t … he could have been help, although we don’t know it. He could have been a help and … because we never saw him … It’s like a man coming to visit you and he goes away and he maybe gives … sees them above you again on the Spanish side and sees that there’s that wee bit of talking.
CW: Did conditions improve after he’d been?
JM: Oh aye, they were a bit better.
CW: In what way?

JM: Well the hygiene and everything else was better, you know.

CW: You said that it was better at Salamanca. In what way was it better?

JM: It was a real prison, you see. The other ones weren’t real prisons. Likesay, the one we were in, the big barn, we had to go out to the street with the big barrel, and put the suction down the well, in the street, and then bring up the water and the water was like, it smelt of petrol and that, you know. And then, in the big barn, with the hundred men, the Spaniards, including ourselves, we had a big, big drum, which was used for urinating in. And it lay there all night till the following morning, and two Spaniards would come in, guards, and carry it out, to empty it. And then the food would come in, in a big drum, for the whole lot of us. And we’d line up with our plate, and get it filled up. And in the morning you’d get what you called a loaf of pan, and that was for to do you for the following morning. But I’ll tell you what we could do. The Spaniards themselves, some of the soldiers, they didn’t have good footwear. I’m talking about the other side now. And we had got these good army boots. So some of them started to sell their boots – to the Spaniards [Laughs]. Oh they got, aye. And so they could buy something. Well I kept mine as long as I could. And then…

CW: Why did you keep them as long as you could?
JM: Well, my feet, good, then I decided one time I’d have a feast. And I sold mine. And I sat down one night to a big plate and it was filled wi goat’s milk and roe eggs. … And I ate that. […] I ate that. And then you could also get orange marmalade, maraca. See, you could use your boots that way. I mean actually the Spaniards could have took the boots of us. [Laughs] And gave us nothing. I’ll admit that was honesty, on their side. I mean the guards, they could have took the boots off us, what could we have done? Naw, that’s wan thing, I’ve never complained. I would never complain aboot being … aye, aye.
CW: What was the attitude of the guards towards you? Did they make any anti-communist remarks?

JM: No, no, no, no they never made any remarks, except at one time in the big barn, I’d went out, the toilet outside was like a big, I don’t know what it was but it was a big round place with an opening, and it was a lot of stones with a gap between them, and the smell of that stuff they put into a place and that was this condes [?] fluid or whatever ye call it …

CW: Yes…

JM: … the whole thingmy. Well that was where we did wur needs. And it was just a big, big thingmy and … It was bigger than this room, that, roundabout and two bricks, two loose, two bricks, two loose, and that’s what you used for the toilet. And the smell that came up from it was that condes [?] stuff they put doon it would have overpowered ye. And then down in the yard there was the hens and the geese, well I was coming back one time from the toilet and the guard was at the door and I, without knowing it I was singing the Spanish songs [Laughs]. And I just, I got to the door. [Laughs] I looked, and he’s looking at me. He probably thought I was mad. [Indecipherable], he says. And jist no thinking. Aye. Naw but they … The Capitan was a laugh, he had his hair dyed green.

CW: He had what?
JM: His hair dyed green. It was green. Aye, the Capitan. Naw, I had a lot of good laughs in Spain, aye, a lot of good times tae, even as a prisoner.
CW: What were the Spanish songs which you learned?

JM: Whit? Oh, Bandiera Rossa, and then there was that other one, da-ra-de-diddly-di-da-de-dum-de-diddly-dum-de-dum-de-diddly … I’m not a marvellous singer, jist….

CW: Do you remember the words of it?

JM: Aye a wee bit. Ah cannae jist mind ae them noo. Aye, jist a … [indecipherable] Naw, good times.
CW: Coming back to Salamanca prison, em, you said that you were there a few months.
JM: Hmm, hmm.
CW: What condition were you in by the time you’d finished there?

JM: Oh I was always in good condition. I kept myself, I told ye, I kept myself, with all my walking, aye he was fit, pretty fit.
CW: So you weren’t sick.

JM: Naw, I was never sick. Naw.
CW: Did you have lice?

JM: Lice was the only thing we had in the barn. Where the farm was you used to waken up through [coughs] [indecipherable] … You’d  lie down, ye see we had wur uniform. The only thing we had on was still wur uniform, all the time, we never had them off.  And this barn, down each side of the barn and along the top was boards that came out to about five feet, boards out from here to there, right up the sides, round the back, and down the other side. Well we lay on that wi our legs, feet, half off it. Well ye’d waken up through the night wi somebody standing above ye. Lying next to you. And you just felt up the legs of your trousers, and your trousers off, hundreds a lice.
CW: And did you still have them in Salamanca?

JM: Naw. No, but well we had … We didnae hiv the lice, in Salamanca.
CW: How did you get rid of them?

JM: Well, I jist … well … we killed them actually, but we … See wi lying on the boards, the boards were never swept or nothing. The boards were dirty. They were never swept or never cleaned but the other one was a clean prison. We didn’t have the lice in Talavera de la Reina. Course it was a lovely cell, just the stone floor, and nothing else.

CW: Who else was in the Salamanca prison apart from the British International Brigaders?

JM: Oh, I never seen anybody … I never saw anybody else, for-bye our own crowd when we were there.
CW: No Spaniards or foreigners?

JM: Well they might have been there but I never saw them.
CW: How did you come to be released from Salamanca?

JM: Well we got out … We got word we were being exchanged … Well as far as we know we got exchanged for some of the Italians. And we left there just quite simple, quite easy. We never had any bother leaving there. We came right through … Aw well Burgos, Valladolid, and right through to Irun. And from Irun we got off there and we lined up and we marched across the bridge. And Christ I could walk tae. They were telling me tae slow doon, the Spaniards, but I was going like the hammers of hell in front. And when we got halfway across the French met us. That was from Irun into Bayonne.

CW: Do you know the dates that you got out of Spain?

JM: Oh it was July. I was actually … It was July ’37. So actually we were only five months in prisons altogether. And we went out just the same as … Actually, the only thing … See … It’s like everything else … I realised the difference when I went into the British Army. I’m not saying that the officers were geniuses but it was more of a … disciplined at the start. Whereas the Spanish thing … It might have got better after we … we left and as the other ones came in but at the start there was none of them had the experience of real warfare. Or anything like that, you know, whereas in the last war, although the First World War was finished some of the generals and that had been in the First World War and had that experience and the accoutrements and the organisation. That was the difference.

CW: Did you have to give an undertaking to the Franco authorities that you wouldn’t go back?

JM: Yes, we were fingerprinted. And eh, actually, there was a couple went back. When I came home, I was asked to go to London to do a bit of speaking. As a speaker, you know.
CW: Who asked you to do that?

JM: The Communist Party. See, me being a speaker, but I didn’t go to London because, eh, the one I was going to go wi… to London with … I didn’t fancy him too much. While we’d been in prison. And eh…
CW: What was the problem with him?

JM: Well he’d been trying tae make out that, well, we’d been sort of kidded on when we went over there that our side was winning [laughs]. And I told him that if our side had been winning we wouldn’t have been going over there. Told him we only went because we were needed. But that’s how things go. But I did all my own speaking where I lived. In Shettleston and that. I mean I believe in speaking locally. If everybody does their own place then …
CW: What kind of speeches did you give?

JM: Well, why I went to Spain, Help for Spain, and the situation of the war and … that even if we didn’t win we could delay the war …till, eh, delay … make the war in Spain last longer to give us more time to get ready when it did come.

CW: But did … When you were giving these speeches in Glasgow, eh, did you raise the question of other people volunteering to go?

JM: No. I’d leave that to themselves. So there was half a dozen at last volunteered for Spain.
CW: But did they come to you and say “Look, I’m thinking of going, eh, what advice do you give me?”

JM: Naw, they never came, they jist went. Ones actually you might not have thought would have went, but they went.
CW: What would you have said to them if they had asked about advice about the …

JM: Well it’s hard to give the advice to people who are going to a war. I mean, what can you tell them? You can only tell them that they’re fighting…

[Reel 2 breaks off here]


Transcribed by Willy Maley & Dini Power, and completed 6th November 2020.


[i] The Imperial War Museum had by the early 1980s completed an initial project on Spain: “Thirty-five interviews with British volunteers who fought with the International Brigade and with informants who served in other capacities during the Spanish Civil War”. See Conrad Word [Wood], ‘Ten Years of the Department of Sound Records of the Imperial War Museum’, Oral History 11, 1 (1983): 9-12, at p.10. The interview with James Maley was among a later batch.

[ii] See Daniel Gray’s excellent book on the Scottish International Brigaders, Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2008), p.62. Alfonso Merry del Val published a pamphlet in July 1937 entitled The Conflict in Spain: Communistic Misstatements Refuted (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1937). I have not yet been able consult this work but imagine it will be of interest.

[iii] John McGovern, Why Bishops Back Franco: Report of Visit of Investigation to Spain (London: Independent Labour Party, 1936).

[iv] This is likely to have been Alfonso Merry del Val.

Daddy Made Me A Communist

In 2005 I chaired a session of Glasgow’s Book Festival, Aye, Write!, entitled “Franco, Glasgow and Anarchism”. I was interviewing Stuart Christie, author of Granny Made Me An Anarchist. This was a new single volume version of Stuart’s 3-volume memoir, the other two volumes being General Franco Made me a Terrorist and Edward Heath Made me Angry. It was exciting to get the chance to meet Stuart, not just because I was an admirer of his remarkable story but also because both he and my father had something very significant in common: both men had been imprisoned for fighting Franco, thirty years apart. James Maley was captured with comrades of the International Brigade at the Battle of Jarama in 1937 and served time as a POW in Salamanca. Stuart Christie was arrested in Madrid in August 1964, aged eighteen, and charged with being part of a plot to blow up the Spanish dictator at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium during the final of the Generalissimo’s Cup. The penalty, had it been carried out, was death by garrotte, which involved slow strangulation by an iron collar, topped off by a bolt through the back of the neck.

Stuart recounted that while awaiting trial he was given some dog-eared Agatha Christie (no relation) paperbacks to read. Somebody had a sense of humour. And as I found, he has a great sense of humour himself. Billed in the blurb for this brilliant autobiography as “Britain’s most famous anarchist”, he is also one of Scotland’s funniest and fiercest political commentators. Granny Made Me An Anarchist is infused with the spirit of John Maclean, Matt McGinn, and Billy Connolly, a great Glasgow story that offers a superb overview of twentieth century – especially post-war – Scottish radicalism. It’s an explosive tale full of patter and polemics that offers sharp insights and angles on twentieth-century activism across the generations. And Christie’s fascinating story, like the long struggle it is part of, remains urgent in its relevance today.

Stuart, as an anarchist, has always been critical of the role of the Communist Party in Spain, and for obvious reasons highly critical too of Stalin and the Soviet Union. He and my father would not have seen eye-to-eye on a few things. But appearances can be deceptive, as can affiliations, including party membership. Stuart and my father both shared an antipathy towards the British state. And neither was sectarian in their political outlook. My father took no prisoners in arguments, but nor did he assume someone was in the right because they talked the talk or wore the right badge. Likewise Stuart is a no-nonsense activist and intellectual who can spot a fraud or a state agent a mile off. And he doesn’t feel the need to include the rank and file of the communist party in his condemnation of Soviet history.

When he reviewed Daniel Gray’s book about the Scottish volunteers for Spain, Homage to Caledonia, in 2009, Stuart demonstrated characteristic generosity of spirit. It would have been easy for him, given his strong anarchist sentiments, to call out the communists as dupes or stooges, as some anti-communist commentators are wont to do. Instead, rather like Orwell at the end of Homage to Catalonia, the book whose title Daniel Gray borrowed, he was able to see the ordinary heroes behind the bigger political frame. Orwell, in a passage critical of the Communist Party, had written “Please note that I am saying nothing against the rank-and-file Communist, least of all against the thousands of Communists who died heroically round Madrid … those were not the men who were directing policy”. Stuart took a similar tack when reflecting on the commitment and sacrifice of men like my father: “The selfless men and women who fought in Spain for the idea of liberty against the reactionary priest-, gun- and prison backed, medieval ideology that was Francoism are the forgotten dead and a now-dying generation to whom we have an obligation of remembrance”.

In 2011 I organised a one-day colloquium at the Mitchell Library to mark the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, an event which drew together relatives of International Brigaders as well as Scottish actors, writers and filmmakers to discuss all aspects of the struggle, from volunteers for liberty to support for refugees. Speakers included award-winning poet and novelist Jackie Kay, as well as Mike Arnott, author of Dundee and the Spanish Civil War, and Chris Dolan, author of An Anarchist’s Story. The event was called “Fighting Fascism, Fighting Franco”. Stuart was the only speaker there that day who had actually fought Franco in his own lifetime.

At the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 I found myself on the same page as Stuart. While the Communist Party line was anti-independence, Stuart saw that the breakup of Britain was in the best interests of the working class. That same year, on the 50th anniversary of his arrest, Stuart’s story was featured as part of the BBC World Service series “Witness History” in an episode entitled The Plot to Kill Franco.

In 2016, when I edited a collection of essays on Scotland and the Easter Rising, Stuart contributed a chapter detailing how his own family history was woven into the fabric of that anti-imperialist insurrection. In an echo of his reading of the Spanish Civil War he contrasted ordinary heroism with the politics of complicity and compromise.

More recently, I have had fairly regular contact with Stuart as part of  “Pertyck Cooncil”, an informal gathering of friends with common artistic and political interests. He brings gravitas but also a light heart that has carried him through some tough times. Stuart seems to have inherited his granny’s “apparently unending resources of wisdom common sense, level-headed practicality, energy and ability”.

I never had a granny like Stuart’s, a fiery character who inspired him and filled him with a passionate sense of community and a deep loathing of injustice. I suspect my father’s mother, who died when I was ten, could probably have given Stuart’s granny a run for her money. But it’s her son, my father, whose politics helped make me who I am, so I can say “Daddy Made me a Communist”. And in fact I wrote a wee poem after he died, aged 99, in 2007, with that very title borrowed from Stuart’s inspiring memoir:


Daddy Made Me A Communist
(after Stuart Christie)

Not because he was a fully paid-up
Card-carrying member of the CPGB
From the hungry thirties
Till the walls came tumbling down
And yes, beyond the beyond
(He never left the far Left)
A lifelong activist, International Brigader
Ex-POW in Spain, soapbox speaker
From Glasgow Green to Govan Cross
Who had his little helpers posting
Leaflets through letterboxes
On doors scarred by more names
Than a phonebook
Into closemouths dark as cellars
He drove us with cries of:
‘Start at the top landing!’
Dogs dogged our faltering footsteps
Through the tenements of youth
Nor because he had us
Into dialectal materialism when other kids
Were into Daleks and Maltesers
Or took us to the Socialist Fellowship
On Fridays, making us miss Mike Yarwood
Impersonating Wilson and Heath
With a wig and false teeth
Or filled the house with left-wing papers, pamphlets,
Patter, raging at the news, the government, empire, monarchy
Authority in all its shapes and shadows
The walls and bars of social norms
A teetotalitarian intoxicated by ideology
High on the craic of his Irish father
Stuck in that wild red neck of the woods
That we called home, bereft of hope
But thinking back, that was solidarity
That handclasp for a broken stranger
Hunched in a doorway
The way his father hunched on his arrival
A hundred years or more before
Despairing, defiant, clutching his collar
Yet I remember him walking
Himself one of nine, later sole survivor
Father of nine, father of mine, provider
Not sole, but solitary, pacing
In solitude through streets paved with gum
Carrying The Morning Star
In a hand that would move hot coals around
The fireplace like chess pieces while we pleaded
‘Use the poker, Daddy!’
Stepping, striding, whistling
Bunnet pushed back, eyes aglitter
As the evening star stared down
On dead-end lives of misery and mess
And I wish I had been, not son
Or seventh child, as was
But comrade, friend, supporter
Of a living cause.



Portraits and Prefaces


Alasdair Gray’s The Book of Prefaces was published 20 years ago. I first heard of it as work-in-progress in the summer of 1998 when I received “a begging letter”, as he put it, from its beleaguered author. Alasdair said he was literally begging various writers and academics to help him complete the book which he was contracted to produce for Bloomsbury and had been working on for a decade. It was to be “THE BOOK OF BOOKS” in that it brought together prefaces to their own work by great writers throughout history: “Mostly the mighty dead whose copyrights have lapsed.” Alasdair had a great sense of humour and in calling The Book of Prefaces “A BOOK FOR TODAY” he added “Only the rich and illiterate can ignore our anthology. With this in their lavatory everyone else can read nothing but newspaper supplements and still seem educated.” The idea of the book was to give a history of literature, specifically great books, in the introductory words of their authors.

In his letter Alasdair attached a list of works that still required entries. Payment for help was to comprise a portrait by Alasdair. Who could refuse such a request? I had just finished lecturing on two writers on the list, so I wrote back saying I would be glad to take on William Wycherley and William Congreve. I drafted two critical contributions on those two 17thcentury Restoration playwrights. As overall author of the volume, Alasdair reserved the right to edit these pieces as he pleased, and in the event he completely rewrote my entries.

In my lecture I had challenged the view of Restoration comedy as frivolous “Fun with Wigs”, to quote the title of a 1995 David Baddiel documentary on the subject. My lecture used contemporary documents, the writings of John Milton and the work of Michel Foucault to suggest that these Restoration dramatists were not reactionary fops. For me there was continuity between Milton’s divorce pamphlets of the 1640s and the plays of Wycherley and Congreve: both were critical of the institution of marriage.

When it came to the contributor’s portrait I told Alasdair that there was really no need, thinking of how precious his time was, but he absolutely insisted. I was duly booked in for the afternoon of Friday 4th of December 1998. I can be precise because Alasdair dated the portrait. I had imagined a sitting for a portrait to mean staying still for an hour or more, a thing I found almost impossible to do, but Alasdair allowed me to relax and chatted away, asking me questions while he was drawing. We shared stories about Glasgow’s East End back in the day. Alasdair grew up in Riddrie, and my father – who was a lot older – was raised in the Calton. I remember Alasdair seemed a bit wheezy and I asked him if he had an inhaler. He said yes, but he didn’t like to overuse it. I told him I puffed away on mine whenever I felt a wheeze coming on. I couldn’t imagine sticking to the recommended dose if it meant being breathless. Alasdair laughed; he obviously had more sense. We talked about Glasgow, Irish and Scottish literature, and Scottish independence. I suggested to Alasdair that what he was doing was telling a story about literature through prefaces. I said I was interested in Jacques Derrida, a philosopher who was fascinated by the marginal texts that framed major works. Derrida was writing a history of philosophy through prefaces and postscripts and minor texts that shone a light on larger ones. I felt Alasdair was engaged in the literary equivalent. He was curious when I made the comparison, but remained resistant to Derrida’s approach to literature, which he considered to be too theoretical.

Alasdair made two versions of my portrait, one tinted and one black and white. I never realised at the time that the portraits would appear in the book. When The Book of Prefaces was finally launched in 2000 it included an “Index of Helpers” and a section entitled “Portraits of Contributors” with 21 postage-stamp sized images, most of them done especially for the book, although he had made a couple earlier, such as Archie Hind’s in 1970, and Elspeth King’s in 1977.

The dustjacket described this unique volume as “A Short History of Literate Thought in Words by Great Writers of Four Nations from the 7th to the 20th Century Edited & Glossed by Alasdair Gray Mainly”. The publisher’s blurb included a paragraph on Alasdair’s little helpers: “While Alasdair Gray has chosen and edited all the prefaces and written most of the commentary, he has been assisted by some thirty authors who have also written commentaries. These include James Kelman, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Bernard MacLaverty, Liz Lochhead, Roger Scruton and, indeed, Virginia Woolf.”
I can’t speak for any of the other contributors, not having seen their original submissions, but although I’m credited with “glosses on WYCHERLEY’S THE COUNTRY WIFE and CONGREVE’S THE WAY OF THE WORLD” the entries themselves are entirely Alasdair’s. I found it interesting that he chose to focus more on biographical information and on what seemed to me a quite conventional way of seeing these writers – as conservative rather than subversive.
The original portrait is drawn on the cardboard backing for a pack of Marks & Spencer recycled paper. In characteristic Alasdair fashion he annotated the portrait around the frame with the words “WILLY MALEY FRIDAY 4.12.1998. This is the original drawing, untinted since I suspect that colour would obscure the purity of the line: or (if not purity) clarity…”

I never got dressed up for the portrait, it being just a headshot, but I had on an old sweatshirt that was a rich red colour and Alasdair remarked on it. When it came to making the tinted version Alasdair took the rich red colour out of the sweatshirt and put it into the background.

The Book of Prefaces is dedicated “TO PHILIP HOBSBAUM POET, CRITIC AND SERVANT OF SERVANTS OF ART.” In that case, I must be a servant of a servant of servants of Art because, as Alasdair’s helper, I was helping him, as critic, to help the artists whose work was gathered in the book. It is the most eccentric and most interesting project I’ve been involved in and the one where I feel I was paid most handsomely for the least labour.