- Collected Poems and Songs by Hamish Henderson, edited by Raymond Ross
Curly Snake, 163 pp, £9.99, March 2000, ISBN 1 902141 01 6
Old men can be buggers at hanging on. Hamish Henderson, who died last March at the age of 82, hung on firmly through three books, edited by others: his writings on ‘Song, Folk and Literature’, collected as Alias MacAlias (1992), a selected letters, The Armstrong Nose (1996) – both edited by Alec Finlay – and Collected Poems and Songs, edited by Raymond Ross. All three books reveal Henderson, by then in his seventies and eighties, as he chose to be revealed. His only other publications had been fifty years earlier: Ballads of World War Two, collected and sometimes also written by himself, in 1947, and Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948). This last, honouring the soldier victims of desert war, ‘our own and the others’ as his dedication put it, ends its tenth elegy with a pledge:
Run, stumble and fall in our desert of failure,
impaled, unappeased. And inhabit that
of canyon and dream – till we carry to the living
blood, fire and red flambeaux of death’s proletariat.
The iron in your arms! At last, spanning this history’s
apollyon chasm, proclaim them the reconciled.
The Elegies earned wide critical acclaim and the first Somerset Maugham Award; but the practically unnoticed Ballads heralded a lifetime of folksong collection, performance, encouragement, creation and scholarship.
You got your copy of the Ballads by joining ‘The Lili Marlene Club of Glasgow’, a device enabling Henderson to avoid being prosecuted for indecency for publishing unexpurgated texts – ‘The Ballad of King Faruk and Queen Farida’, for instance, with its chorus ‘O you can’t fuck Farida if you don’t pay Faruk’ (and that’s the least of it). To those of us who had served in the Forces and had heard such things, to have them collected seemed fun, not the start of a lifetime project. A student of modern languages at Cambridge before the war, Henderson had entered it already fluent in French and German – he had helped a Quaker organisation pull people out of Nazi Germany – and his Italian became so fluent during the desert campaigns that he was made the Highland Division’s chief interrogator of prisoners and was later seconded to liaise with Italian partisans after the mainland European landings. For the Ballads he could therefore scour the repertoires not only of his beloved Highlanders and other Allied swaddies, but of Afrika Corps prisoners and French (Tunisian Gaullist) forces. Spanish and modern Greek (he had the classics of course) were soon added, as well as smatterings of Balkan and Scandinavian languages: the Elegies hint at some Egyptian, too. This didn’t seem odd to the loose-knit gang around Our Time, the wartime and immediately postwar socialist journal to which both Henderson and I belonged. Among our seniors and mentors there – the First World War poet Edgell Rickword, Britten’s librettist Montagu Slater, the anti-racist francophile Nancy Cunard – was the folklorist A.L. Lloyd, who had swung about as collector through the whaling fleet, bushrangers in the Outback, American immigrants, mining communities worldwide, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Russian peasants. Even among ourselves the Australian poet John Manifold, also an ex-service linguist and ballad collector, would, like Hamish, return to his homeland and there collect and contribute to a tradition (his work was performed and published as Bandicoot Ballads). Our optimism was immense. After all, we had, against all the odds of conservatism, just won a war against Fascism. The Labour Government seemed, like nationalisation, a next step. In those heady days an interest in folklore didn’t distinguish Hamish: each one of us was obsessed with one or another means of popular communication. Probably what distinguished him most was his sheer size and energy.
He was big. Every photograph in Alias MacAlias and The Armstrong Nose shows him a clear head above soldiers, partisans, folksingers, family. Always, on meeting, he wore a gentle smile that would have flattered a kind old lady, an effect curiously enhanced by his carefully trimmed moustache, less curiously by his lilting manner of speaking which seemed to sing at you – more musically, I always thought, than his singing voice – and all this at the very top of a tall, rangy, manly creature, at the beginning boisterous, at the end rather shambling. Jeannie Robertson, the tough ‘traveller’ singer he discovered in Aberdeen, thought him ‘gentlemanlike’, and I’m sure he was. But, when young at least, he was something of a rowdy, both bawdy and scatological in wit and song. He would sing anywhere to illustrate some argument – not least in otherwise hushed restaurants. During those Our Time years immediately after demobilisation, I well remember an increasingly riotous evening with the Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand and Hamish swapping more and more outrageous lavatorial stories. And on another occasion, his rolling about on the floor with a soon to be famous female novelist during a party at Montagu Slater’s home while the rest of us formed a cordon sanitaire around them, presumably to protect the innocence of Montagu’s young daughters. While I am certain that Hamish grew diplomatic, I also know he didn’t change that much (barring the loss of most of his teeth). He married in 1959, had two beloved daughters – my wife remembers his fretting inconsolably, much later, that his false teeth wouldn’t arrive, as promised, in time for the wedding of one of them – but left to make a separate home, amicably, nearby. As Angus Calder put it in the most thoughtful and accurate of the obituaries, ‘a bisexual who kept folk-music hours was not a candidate for conventional domesticity.’
Scottish nationalist his unchanging socialism certainly made him, but he was never an exclusivist. His nationalism was rooted in internationalism. One of the best essays in Alias MacAlias boasts of the essential mongrelism of Scotland’s languages, sometimes improved by collision with English. Probably he meant it when he said that, if there had to be an international language, it should be Italian. While one great hero was certainly MacDiarmid, whose ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ he’d carried with him all through the war, another was Gramsci, introduced to him by Italian partisans, whose thinking on class and culture profoundly influenced him and whose Letters from Prison he was the first to translate: his series of enraged descents on old friends in search of a publisher for this volume, once John Lehmann had rejected it, enlivened much of the 1950s and 1960s.
At Sandy Bell’s, the Edinburgh pub in which he held court, you met folkpersons from Romania, Bulgaria, Cardiff, the States and Belfast as a matter of course. In the 1970s and 1980s, having work in Lauderdale, I managed quite often to meet him there, intending a lunchtime break, only to find myself hours later meandering off in a loose crocodile of the song-and-drink stupefied to Hamish’s nest in the School of Scottish Studies where, around his paper-laden desk, he would start up, or conduct, or otherwise produce a continuation of the concert begun at Sandy Bell’s or, commanding a proper hush, play the tape of some rare and special recording from the more than eight hundred hours of recorded folksong in the School’s archives.
In all this he was consistent and true to our old group traditions, however others might waver and qualify and so disqualify themselves. Yes, he would follow Blake – almost an article of faith at Our Time. After all, Blake was the only English poet noted in the Elegies, among Hölderlin, Goethe, Denis Saurat, Sorley MacLean, Dante and Ossian. Blake had written, ‘Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau’; Henderson:
Fuck on, fuck on, Verlaine, Rimbaud
You blissful buggers; fuck again –
For on my heart as on the town
The small drops of your poems rain.
Yes, he would of course refuse the offer of an OBE, but would also make sure the terms of his refusal were published all over Scotland – Thatcher’s ‘suicidal defence policy organised in collusion with the Americans and their crazy trigger-happy President’. Around such a figure myth and legend quite naturally swirled and, sometimes with his own help, stuck. Though he became central to it, he was not in fact a founder of the School of Scottish Studies. And despite his own claims and crucially important work, he did not edit the much-noted Scottish issue of Our Time in 1948: I did. (Heavy flak fell not on Hamish, but on me, for promoting MacDiarmid, Grassic Gibbon, Sorley MacLean, all then on Communist Party lists of the damned.)
Meanwhile, a quieter, more bookish poetry proceeded. For fifty years following Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica, Henderson was constantly asked what poems – which is to say, what printed, ‘bookable’ poems – he had written since. He gave two kinds of answer. First, he attacked the questioner for condescension towards folk poetry and an obsessive preference for printed over orally transmitted words, claiming rightly that songs and ballads by him had for years been in oral transmission chiefly in Scotland but also worldwide. Second, he would refer to three large works in progress – many of the component poems already existed in his notebooks. In 1968 he put the matter thus:
My aim is to write a long, unified, connected poem which . . . would no longer (like my desert war Elegies) be a poem of endurance, of in the main passive suffering; it would rather represent the moment of resolve, of transformation, of insurrection. It would leave the desert behind, and find a likelier landscape in Italy (or rather Italy and Scotland combined, as in ‘Banks of Sicily’). It would celebrate the ‘vulgar’ Italy so hated and despised by its bourgeoisie – its bounding voracious popular culture, its secrecy, its turbulence, its victorious gaiety, and above all its unbeatable lust for life.
He goes on to suggest that the heroes of this ‘connected’ poem were to be Gramsci and John MacLean. This passage was reprinted in 1985 and 1999, to act as an introduction to seven important poems, teased out of his notebooks, and published under the title ‘Poetry Becomes People’.
Obituaries of Henderson in the English broadsheets were generous, moving, panegyrical. They were also, both properly and reasonably, Scottish – Henderson’s part in forming a sense of nation at the heart of the postwar movement towards nationhood is indisputable. In a way, though, a key moment in that journey was accidental. The folksinger Ewan MacColl asked Henderson to assist the American folklorist Alan Lomax put together a one-hour-per-country compilation of world song for Columbia records. The recordings that followed, together with others by Calum MacLean, formed the basis of the archive at the School of Scottish Studies. Henderson said that collecting material from travellers berry-picking in the raspberry fields of Blairgowrie, an area he had known since childhood, was sometimes ‘like sitting under Niagara with a tin cup’. Living with travellers, as he often did, led him to discover Jeannie Robertson and other notable singers; but he also performed, singing to a second source what he had heard from a first, acquiring variations, improvements, enrichments as he went. The excitement of belonging to a circle of socialists concerned with the existence of a ‘people’s poetry’ was immense. Another in that circle, and one who had also fought in Italy, Edward Thompson, wrote to Hamish in 1949. He was reviewing the Elegies for Our Time:
I greet you with humility, compagno, for you are that rare man, a poet. You have achieved poems out of our dead century . . . Remember always who you are writing for: the people of Glasgow, of Halifax, of Dublin . . . You, more than any other poet I know, are an instrument through which thousands of others can become articulate. And you must not forget that your songs and ballads are not trivialities – they are quite as important as the Elegies.
This letter was printed in the 1977 and 1990 republications of the Elegies, is much discussed in Alias MacAlias, provides the chief puff on the back cover of the Collected and was quoted in practically every obituary – though Edward himself spoke many times of his embarrassment at its constant reappearances. Experience in Dublin and Halifax – or rather Halifax, Leamington and Worcester, Edward’s chief homes – was not as in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Blairgowrie. And on the evidence of his own Collected Poems (1999), Thompson’s poetry took a different course from the one he had advocated. In England, with the exception of single-issue causes, nothing – not even cross-class, cross-ideology nuclear disarmament campaigns – remotely resembled the huge movements Hamish and our circle had grown with and through. Hamish’s great good fortune was that Scotland differed in possessing a vibrant popular culture – not that there was consensus, even on the Left, even there.
Controversy came at its furious best in letters to the Scotsman in battles known as flytings, chiefly the ‘Honour’d Shade Flyting’ (after the title of an anthology) in 1959-60, the ‘Folksong Flyting’ of 1964 and the ‘1320 Club Flyting’ of 1968. These were wonderfully brutish affairs, all involving MacDiarmid wielding a verbal cudgel against Henderson’s rapier-work. These were not simply duels, however, but affrays involving umpteen correspondents – ten or more before Henderson’s first thrust in the ‘Honour’d Shade Flyting’ – and it is to the credit of Alias MacAlias that other contestants are always well represented. The argument was what it had always been, even back in the Our Time days. Hamish, the linguist and erudite academic whose poetry had been grounded in Heine, Hölderlin, Eliot and the classics arguing that, since an abundant folklife existed in Scotland, the poet should place himself there, where an uncommercialised popular culture already existed; MacDiarmid, from a less privileged background, impelled to invent his own ‘Scottish’ language to express a rebellious politics, to dismiss folksong and poetry as ‘rubbish’, ‘the multiplication of mediocre writing’, ‘the ignorant droolings of swinish shepherds’ and to move steadily towards elitism (and, as it happens, English).
While Henderson often claimed that there was no greater joy than launching a song into folklore and having it come back to you altered, extended, improved, it is also true that he could get into a fine rage if something intolerable were done to a song. In The Armstrong Nose he chides a performer friend for daring to propose a two-voice performance of ‘The Flyting o’ Life and Daith’, an antiphonal song in which Life and Daith speak in alternate verses:
Quo life, the warld is mine.
The floo’ers and trees, they’re a’ my ain.
I am the day, and the sunshine
Quo life, the warld is mine.
Quo daith, the warld is mine.
Your lugs are deef, your een are blin
Your floo’ers maun dwine in my bitter win’
Quo daith, the warld is mine.
And so on through another nine beautiful, if simple, verses. The whole point of the piece, Hamish protested, is that the argument is internal, there must be one voice only. In a not dissimilar episode recorded by Angus Calder, an appalled Hamish discovered that the American singer Pete Seeger, attracted by both tune and strangeness of language, had sung his ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ – almost an alternative national anthem on public occasions in Scotland – at Carnegie Hall without understanding what the words meant.
Much of Henderson’s work is so exclusively for the air that it is hard to make any poetic claim for it at all:
They have sentenced the men of Rivonia
Rumbala rumbala rumba la
The comrades of Nelson Mandela
Rumbala rumbala rumba la
He is buried alive on an island
Free Mandela Free Mandela.
This worked notoriously well throughout the years of anti-apartheid campaigning, and Hamish himself led the singing of it by packed crowds welcoming Mandela on his visit to Edinburgh. But so did his ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, the opening lines of which are:
Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin
Blaws the cloods heelster-gowdie ow’r the bay,
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin
Through the great glen o’ the warld the day.
Something different is happening here. A poet rich in the literatures of many languages has involved himself in popular traditions often liable to fixity, and made a flexible poem of philosophical vision out of everyday images. This is as near as I can think of to the kinds of interaction – if only one of many possible interactions – which, all those years ago, we used to work and hope for. And yes, you can sing it, much as Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ can be sung.
The trouble with Collected Poems and Songs is that while it brings together almost every known printed poem, plus a very few new ones, it puts them together with texts of no printed-page merit whatever. ‘They are all part of the same man, the same cultural commitment,’ Raymond Ross writes in his introduction. Worse is to follow. Ross writes that the order in which the pieces are printed has been determined ‘with regard to the time at which they were written and to the sometimes momentous events in the poet’s life which they evoke . . . capturing both the “inner” or spiritual and “outer” or experiential life of the poet simultaneously’. In simpler words, the actual date order of writing is not always followed and Henderson’s own suggestions about his intended longer epic sequences are wholly ignored. Ross gives as a first example of his method the case of the ‘Ballad of the Simeto’ which was ‘begun in wartime Sicily where it is “set”, but not completed until after the war’: he places it between Henderson’s desert and Sicilian campaigns. ‘The Ballad of the Simeto’ was central to the proposed ‘Poetry Becomes People’ epic and in none of its previous publications bore the epigraph now introduced by Ross, ‘for the Highland Division’. The poem is in four parts, deriving directly from wartime incident; but the feeling alters abruptly at the end of Part One. Part Two begins:
Take me to see the vines
take me to see the vines of Sicily
for my eyes out of the desert
are moths singed on a candle.
Let me watch the lighthouse
rise out of shore-mist. Let me seek
on uplands the grey-silver
elegy of olives.
This desire to be taken back and the images of ‘prophetic grief . . . Charge . . . concealed/in the sockets of these hills’, in the ‘parched trough of the Simeto’ clearly relate to the increasingly grievous troughs of belief in Hamish’s life at the actual peacetime of writing; the campaigning talk is resonant of later civil warfares. His war, his socialism, continued. Similar displacements work the other way about. ‘Ballad of the Twelve Stations of My Youth’ is placed at the outbreak of war, since the last of the stations described is the poet’s conscription in 1939; but this is clearly mature work:
Spring quickens. In the Shee water I’m fishing.
High on whaup’s mountain time heaps stone on stone.
The speech and silence of Christ’s world is Gaelic,
And youth on age, the tree climbs from the bone.
Possibly the worst misplacement is of a poem called ‘Under the Earth I Go’. This ends the book as if it concluded the poet’s life. While the temptation to treat the poem this way is understandable, it was actually written in the 1950s and occasioned by Hamish’s dancing with Old Oss during the annual ‘Maying’ at Padstow: it is a celebration of the Old Year/New Year death/life theme inherent in such ceremonies. I well remember the following lines from a drunken train journey with Hamish in the 1970s, which began in Edinburgh, myself alighting at Crewe, he en route for Padstow:
Change elegy into hymn, remake it –
Don’t fail again. Like the potent
Sap in these branches, once bare, and now brimming
With routh of green leavery,
Remake it, and renew.
I remember this because both he and I had, to our fellow passengers’ delight, some trouble with the phrase ‘with routh’ and with the ‘green leavery/remake’ sequence of sounds. What we are getting is Ross’s view of the past, not Henderson’s view of what was to him a continually unfolding present.
In his obituary, Angus Calder wrote, ‘the Collected Poems and Songs don’t constitute an oeuvre. That Henderson had somehow lost interest in being what one might call a “career” poet was confirmed on public occasions when he read work long published not from printed pages but from a battered notebook, as if it was semi-private or still “in progress”.’ This may be so; on the other hand, Calder’s ‘as if’ may be the truth. There was certainly more than a single battered notebook: the one from which we read on that lurching train in the 1970s was full, with twenty-five years or so still to come before his death. Those repeated claims to ‘works in progress’ – to ‘Poetry Becomes People’ in particular – may have been wishful thinking. There may be no more poems than those a gentlemanlike but fierce old bugger, hanging on, permitted Raymond Ross to print. But hanging on to what? That Henderson is among the great folk scholars of the last century is beyond dispute, as that his songs will live or die by oral transmission; but within the best of them poetic ambition lives. Now he is no longer here, the teasing out, the archaeology, the printing of findings (if sometimes of incompletion) must begin. There are moments in the Elegies when his subject, the efforts and deaths of soldiers in a cause, is interrupted by the sight of fragments from other civilisations. As just such fragments I regard the Collected. Of course, coming from where we did, I wish it so; but still I would like to believe there are more poems to find beneath the sands of the desert of belief we have now come to occupy.