Andrew O’Hagan travels with Seamus Heaney and Karl Miller
‘You’d better take an interest in the earth and the air, for your own poor body will go there some day.’ That was the sort of wisdom that used to come with free school milk at my Scottish primary school. I remember the blizzard around the classroom the day Mrs Wallace said it to me, a snow-scene dense enough to make the end of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ appear like a moment’s inclemency. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid had a feeling for the freezing lives of sheep, and he resurrected, or to some extent invented, the words that would capture the rude nature of the Scottish snowstorm, calling it the ‘yowdendrift’, when snow is blown across the fields at speed, or the ‘yow-trummle’, the ewe-tremble, when the shorn animals are seen to shiver and quake as they catch their death.
Two decades ago, when I came down from a suburban version of MacDiarmid’s pastures to work at the London Review of Books, the editor, Karl Miller, had a powerful sense of what connected literature to the land, and even the urban writers he liked – Kingsley Amis, for instance – were filled with a sense of hinterland, or winterland, of childhood places and beginnings. Many powerful writers, in Karl’s estimation, could reveal a country source, a little Scotland or Ireland or Wales, running from a high and forgotten place into the urban reservoir of their talent. MacDiarmid was crucial to him, and so was Seamus Heaney. The two names came together in the office one day when the paper was being put to bed. Karl is the only editor I’ve known who edited poems as if they were prose. It wasn’t beyond him to suggest the removal of lines or the scrapping of stanzas – even, on a good day, of an entire poem. On this occasion he was reading, with his nose about two inches from the page, a galley of Seamus’s poem in tribute to MacDiarmid, ‘An Invocation’. He asked me if I could see my way clear to getting Professor Heaney on the phone. (Seamus was teaching at Harvard.) I could only hear one side of the conversation, but it went pretty much like this:
‘Seamus, I’m very grateful to you for giving us the advantage of having your excellent poem in aid of my auld acquaintance Hugh MacDiarmid in the paper. We weren’t the best of friends or anything but he was certainly very good as a poet and so on, don’t you think? Yes. Well, listen, my dear. The problem is this. We’re delighted with the poem but there’s a mistake in it.
(‘A mistake?’ I imagined Seamus saying. ‘We can’t have mistakes in the London Review of Books.’)
‘Well,’ Karl said, ‘it seems like a mistake to me. The thing is you have this line about MacDiarmid’s “chattering genius”.’
‘Yes. That’s wrong. I’m from Scotland myself, Seamus. [They’d been friends for 30 years.] I’m from Scotland. You once said sheep chatter. And I can tell you Scottish sheep don’t chatter – they blether. Surely you mean MacDiarmid’s “blethering genius”?’
Amendments were duly made and the friendship continued, and continued to broaden, I would say, over the landscape that lies between Ireland and Scotland and London, where both men did their publishing work. Over the years they took on other passengers, of which I was one. I suppose it could be said that we each had an interest in the grounds of literature and in the ground itself. Since I first got to know these men, the landscape of these islands has been transformed. A few years ago I reported from the farms then witnessing a holocaust in their midst. Farmers in the Lake District were killing their sheep and burying them in Wordsworth’s hallowed sod for want of the fuel-money to take them to market. And the foot and mouth epidemic was wiping out herds bred over centuries in Wales. Small farmers, whelped on Common Market subsidies and John Constable idylls, were being priced out of existence by agribusiness and Tesco. In time, the three of us – Karl, Seamus and me – decided to go out there partly to see what we could see but also as a way of spending time in company with people who shared our quieter interests. We all live in cities, yet on our trips we dived into rurality, and we found new beginnings, fresh shoots, as well as a veritable cairn of endings. To my mind our journeys were filled with endings, along with the perhaps concluding notion that nature may be larger than memory. The hills of the Scottish Borders seemed to say so, as did the trees around Abergavenny and the stones of the Aran Islands.