After a couple of hours around Arthur’s Seat (or Arthur Seaton, as my literary Nottingham-centric companion called it) we dropped down to the Scottish Parliament, sitting in its shadow. The cost overrun and the fascinating architecture of the place have been rehearsed well enough, but it is worth a guided tour by anyone visiting Edinburgh. In its first year over around a million people, mostly Scots, went round their Parliament which probably makes Edwin Morgan’s “For the Opening of the Scottish Parliament, 9 October 2004” one of the best read poems going since every tour stops in front of it.
Edwin Morgan is the current “Makar”, the Scottish equivalent of the Poet Laureate, now in his eighties, a belatedly out gay man and a terrific poet. His Scottish Parliament poem is a celebration, but also a warning to the Members of the Scottish Parliament that it should not be a “nest of fearties” and worse of all not a place where the famous Scottish phrase “it wizny me” is used. Had more British Parliamentarians assented to his line “We give your our consent to govern, don’t pocket it and ride away” they might not be in the mess they currently are.
A hundred yards from the Scottish Parliament lies the Scottish Poetry Library (www.spl.org.uk) which proudly boasts the new Edwin Morgan archive (www.edwinmorgan.spl.org.uk). You can pick up some free postcards of Morgan poems like my favourite “Strawberries” or some of his sound poems, so loved by children. Morgan’s archive is not small as he, more than many, contributed to broadsheets, fugitive material of all types, as well as his main publications.
The Scottish Poetry Library is a rare calm space just off the Royal Mile, with a modest events programme, an annual small press fair and a very good broadsheet magazine, Poetry Reader. The library is well laid out with material to borrow or to examine, and some on sale. There’s a children’s area and an area for magazines. Naturally the coverage is slanted towards Scottish poetry, in all the languages of that country. On my visit there was a special exhibition of Ivor Cutler’s poetry and graphics. The same weekend there was a seminar on war poetry, with some current serving soldier poets attending and reading their work.
Without overstating the case, it felt to me that poetry plays a stronger role in Scottish life than here. Burns is never far away. And nor is haggis. I could not believe it at first but it does appear to be true that in 1984, when the Poetry Library first opened (in previous premises) the haggis manufacturer Mcsweeney’s made a vegetarian version that was so popular it went into general manufacture. I’ve bought it and enjoyed it a few times – never knowing its literary origins.
The Scottish Poetry Library produces a neat little pamphlet giving a history of the Library, on its 25th anniversary. £3 well spent.
Later, walking down a footpath by the Water of Leith we stumbled on the Dean Gallery, a building previously quite unknown to me. For the first time ever my jaw really did drop when I went into the exhibition recreating the studios of the Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. You have to see it. The literary interest is in the adjacant room, the Gabrielle Keillor Library where the work of the surrealist French poet Paul Éluard is on display, and is broadcast, backed by artists books and illustrated books from the Dada and Surrealist tradition. The Gallery as a whole specialises in Surrealism.
The final literary call was on the new Edinburgh Bookshop in Bruntsfield, a spin off from the children’s book in the same street. The shop had been open a few days when I called, with a small but carefully chosen stock of 3,000 books, mostly displayed face out in single copies. It will not replace my favourite Edinburgh bookshop Wordpower as my first port of call, but is another sign of the welcome return of confidence to independent bookselling.