Agh, Agh, Yah, Boo

David Wheatley

  • Midway: Letters from Ian Hamilton Finlay to Stephen Bann, 1964-69 edited by Stephen Bann
    Wilmington Square, 426 pp, £25.00, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 905524 34 1

Writing to his friend Stephen Bann, then a graduate student, in 1964, Ian Hamilton Finlay outlined his plans to treat readers of his brash new journal, Poor. Old. Tired. Horse, to a free lollipop, sellotaped to the magazine’s cover. Like many of his plans from this period it came to nothing. In any case, sugar and spice weren’t really Finlay’s thing. When he started writing to Bann he was almost forty and an intermittently published short-story writer, playwright and poet. He had just published Rapel: Ten Fauve and Suprematist Poems (1963), his first foray into the new medium of concrete poetry, but most of his work as an artist lay ahead, as did the ‘avant-gardening’ of Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh; for the moment he looked to be entering middle age in a state of some isolation and financial precariousness. Five years later, at the end of the period covered by this book, he had suffered a crushing series of disappointments and breakdowns, warred with almost everyone in the index bar the editor, and given up on the idea of an avant-garde collective front; but, on the bright side, he reported on 22 December 1969 that he had ‘bought a lot of new trees’ and was ‘planting 2 little groves of birches’ to frame a marble sundial.

Little Sparta

Forty-five years later, Little Sparta is thriving (open three afternoons a week throughout the summer), but its founder remains an elusive figure: the Bond villain of the modern Scottish scene. More than a garden, Little Sparta was intended as a martial state – Finlay designed stamps for it, and a flag – and with a machine gun emblazoned on its entrance it did not seem overly keen to welcome visitors. When a Strathclyde Regional Council sheriff officer came to collect Finlay’s rates arrears in 1983, disputing his argument that as a temple to a pagan god (rather than an art gallery) Little Sparta was exempt, he encountered mock French Revolutionary armed resistance. Over the years Finlay repelled not just the sheriff officer but – even after his death in 2006 – biographers too; anthologists often don’t know what to do with him either. His experiences with publishers were not always the happiest, which was one of the reasons he founded Wild Hawthorn Press in 1961, allowing him to produce and distribute his own work. Booklets, cards, posters, medals, folders and ‘proposals’ duly poured forth. They are much sought after today (a print of his poster poem Le circus!! will set you back £4000), but it took the publication of Alec Finlay’s Selections from his father’s work (2012) to bring his activities as a writer and artist into proper perspective.

Selections begins with Finlay’s not exactly forthcoming ‘autobiographical sketch’, written in 1966. He was born in 1925, ‘quite inappropriately’, in the Bahamas, where his father was engaged in bootlegging. He was soon dispatched home, conscripted during the war, and began to write short stories and plays while working as a casual labourer. ‘It was at this time that I began to suffer from nervous anxiety,’ he says with some understatement of the agoraphobia that dominated his life for decades. Never one to pass on a good pun, he was now ‘settled (touch wood)’ in the Scottish countryside, engaged on concrete poetry, and a believer in ‘intelligence, not in “thought”’. And that’s it. Finlay junior supplies essential further context: terrified cowerings under the kitchen table during the Clydebank Blitz of 1941; expulsion from Glasgow School of Art for organising a student strike; travels through Holland with the Non-Combatant Corps; working as a shepherd with a dog called Finn MacCool; and the destruction of all his paintings at the end of the 1950s. This was followed by a stay on Rousay in Orkney, an island promoted to Finlay’s paradise lost when he was forced to trade it for a psychiatric hospital on the mainland.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Richard Burton’s A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting was reviewed by Michael Hofmann in the LRB of 9 January.