MacDiarmid and his Maker

Robert Crawford

  • MacDiarmid by Alan Bold
    Murray, 482 pp, £17.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7195 4585 4
  • A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by Kenneth Buthlay
    Scottish Academic Press, 203 pp, £12.50, February 1988, ISBN 0 7073 0425 3
  • The Hugh MacDiarmid-George Ogilvie Letters edited by Catherine Kerrigan
    Aberdeen University Press, 156 pp, £24.90, August 1988, ISBN 0 08 036409 8
  • Hugh MacDiarmid and the Russian by Peter McCarey
    Scottish Academic Press, 225 pp, £12.50, March 1988, ISBN 0 7073 0526 8

Before 1922 Hugh MacDiarmid did not exist. And only Christopher Murray Grieve would have dared to invent him. Alan Bold’s valuable biography points out that when the 30-year-old Grieve began to write in the Scottish Chapbook under the pseudonym ‘M’Diarmid’, he was already editing the magazine under his own name, reviewing for it as ‘Martin Gillespie’, and employing himself as its Advertising Manager (and occasional contributor), ‘A.K. Laidlaw’. We tend to think of the subject of this biography as the greatest voice of modern Scottish literature; more accurately, he is the greatest chorus.

Born in 1892 in the Scottish Border mill-town of Langholm, Grieve, even before adopting the name Hugh MacDiarmid, was eager to give the impression that he was not just a writer but an enormous literary mill. Writing from World War One Macedonia (where he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps), Grieve tells his old schoolteacher, George Ogilvie, about his detailed plans for a hundred essays on Scottish Art and the Scottish Church. He is planning a Scottish Vortex, and is already fizzing with that energy which would make him a power-surge at the end of the Celtic Twilight: ‘I can think out novels and plays in odd half-hours, visualise every detail, see them published and played, anticipate their criticism in the Times, the British Weekly and the New Age simultaneously, write prefaces to new editions, sum up carefully on the business side, grant interviews and talk at great length and with indescribable sense and spirit ... ’

The Hugh MacDiarmid-George Ogilvie Letters have been edited and annotated in their entirety by Catherine Kerrigan, and they show how many of MacDiarmid’s attitudes and determinations were present in Quartermaster-Sergeant Grieve of Salonika. The young Grieve describes himself as being in ‘mental spate’; his intellectual life is ‘a debating society’, and he tells Ogilvie: ‘I feel like a buried city.’ These letters sizzle with energy; they also show an anxious desire to impress and, at moments whose scarcity only emphasises their significance, they reveal an insecurity. The Grieve who initiates the correspondence with Ogilvie craves companionship and support. In 1920 he skids into the doubt that ‘sometimes I think that I only think that I can think,’ and worries about struggles in his most private self that no one else will understand. This may seem at odds with the man who writes of his hunger for any sort of publicity, but throughout MacDiarmid’s career private anxieties and public pugnacity appear to have fuelled one another. The talented but vulnerable private individual could comfortably inhabit the noisy and polemical chorus.

From his earliest years MacDiarmid craved, deserved, but did not always receive, attention. Alan Bold’s biography presents Grieve’s childhood as rather lonely and biblioholic. The boy’s talent for verse was encouraged by his local Free Church minister, T.S. Cairncross, before Grieve went on to Broughton School in Edinburgh, where he met the remarkable and supportive George Ogilvie. In this first (and authorised) critical biography Bold has done important work in assembling details of Grieve’s early life, so that we see, not only Grieve the friend of Red Clydesiders John MacLean and James Maxton, but also the Grieve whose Scottish nationalism was encouraged by his rejection by English girls. Heady on his home-brew of Nietzsche, John Davidson, and almost any other literary material he could devour, this proto-MacDiarmid emerges as something of a sexual predator. 1918, for instance, sees a passionate affair with a Spanish girl in Salonika followed by a marriage to Peggy, his Scottish sweetheart, that rapidly gives way to ‘erotic abandon’ with a French girlfriend. A dozen years later, MacDiarmid would be deeply wounded when Peggy left him for another man. For all his deploring of Harry Lauder, MacDiarmid himself in some ways conformed at various times to the easiest Scottish stereotypes: the boasting predatory male, the political motor-mouth, the pickled poet.

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