AFEW weeks ago I drew attention to some of the turning points in our literary history – which is to say, the most important turning points in our history – moments that mark a point at which things permanently change.

Allan Ramsay’s anthology The Ever Green (1724) brought back William Dunbar and other poets from the 15th and 16th centuries to an 18th-century readership, so when Patrick Geddes published an essay in his journal The Evergreen in 1895 calling for a “Scottish Renascence” and in 1922 Hugh MacDiarmid took up that call, a connection was established back from MacDiarmid, through Geddes, via Ramsay, to Dunbar, Henryson and the old Scots Makars.

“Things changed after 1724, and then again after 1922. A longer perspective was established.”

The crucial figure here is Patrick Geddes. And the point about his work is that it’s unfinished. Or better, ongoing. The Geddes Centre at Riddle’s Court, 322 Hugh Street, Edinburgh EH1 2PD (check the websites and is hosting a gathering on Thursday linking Scotland, France and India. It’s free but ticketed.

It promises an exceptional introduction to the work of the Geddes Trust, and what the international legacy of this phenomenal man continues to be.

Why bother? In an age of crass commercialism, the arts are disadvantaged, partly because the training needed to help us comprehend them is so vulnerable.

The vanity of rampant managers and the strafing heartlessness of advertising clog up the channels of contemplation, never mind prime ministers who want mathematics taught at the expense of the arts. (Who’s counting?)

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The Irish novelist Flann O’Brien is only mildly exaggerating a popular philistinism when he declares: “There is no excuse for poetry. Poetry gives no adequate return in money, is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by its form, and most of it is bad.

“Nobody is going to manufacture a thousand tons of jam in the expectation that five tons may be eatable.”

He has a point, hasn’t he? You can imagine certain government ministers of education trying the thing on without a trace of irony, and getting knighthoods for the damage they do to generations.

Bet then, there are others. Patrick Geddes was one of them. Who was he? In her 1975 biography A Most Unsettling Person: An Introduction to the Ideas and Life of Patrick Geddes, Paddy Kitchen tells us this: Geddes believed passionately that human beings are fundamentally co-operative creatures, and that the earth is a co-operative planet. He believed that “education, participatory citizenship, and appreciation of the natural world, would save industrial society” through sympathy for people and environment, synthesis of all the factors in the case, and synergy, or, simply, combined and co-operative action. He believed that “economics should be a matter of resources, not money” and that such an understanding needed to work internationally.

Geddes was born in Ballater, Aberdeenshire, in 1854, went to Perth Academy, and from 1874-77 was at University College London, where he met Charles Darwin. From 1880-88 he was Professor of Zoology at Edinburgh University. In 1886 he married Anna Morton and she helped him immediately in a project to help renew the environment of the Edinburgh slums.

In 1895, as noted, he published The Evergreen, the magazine calling for and announcing prophetically a “Scottish Renascence”. In 1897, Anna and Patrick were helping to organise aid for the 500 or so Armenian refugees from Turkey. Would that the present UK Government had some idea of what the priorities should be!

From 1888 through the First World War, Geddes held the Chair of Botany at University College Dundee. Before he gained the title, he was known as “The Professor”: “untidy, always hurrying, with a shock of wiry hair parted in the middle and a thick, reddish beard” and he was “invariably talking”: “When he did pause for breath, it was usually to savour the intricacies and beauty of the natural world – which had provided the background for his extremely happy childhood; and his rather large hands were once described as ‘hands that seem like roots that have not quite shaken off the earth’.”

He was a pioneer of environmental planning, a practical town-planner and an expert in civic renewal, bio-sociology, and the newly-created discipline of “geotechnics”.

The great Bengali poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore wrote of him: “He has the precision of a scientist and the vision of a prophet.”

He travelled to India when he was 60 in 1914, turning his back on Europe as the First World War broke out, a significant decision for a Man of Peace.

In 1919, he was in Palestine, in Jerusalem, commissioned by the Zionist Federation to suggest improvements to the military government’s extension plans and design a new university for the city. We might look back and consider the liabilities of such a role from our 21st-century perspective but his designs for an international university, “a dream with a concrete shape” might have pre-empted some of the worse things that were to come.

A university with buildings for staff and students, town and gown, crossing divisions, with its own market garden and urban renewal projects, might have brought together such contested claims that so readily, so often, burst into violence. It can be done. Consider the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra achievement of Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said and what it has achieved, against all the odds.

Geddes was primarily a conservation architect and town planner, and a major part of his life’s work was in India, providing and implementing plans for 50-60 towns and cities. He was in India for nine years and held the Chair of Sociology at the University of Bombay from 1919 to 1924. But already in 1923, he was resettling in Montpellier, France. And in 1925, he was in Edinburgh, chairing a meeting at Ramsay Gardens beside the Outlook Tower at the top of the Royal Mile, just below the Castle.

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Reading his poems at the meeting was CM Grieve, by this time “Hugh MacDiarmid”. MacDiarmid’s former schoolteacher, the composer FG Scott, who was to become a key figure of guidance and authoritative endorsement of the Scottish Renaissance movement, played piano settings of some of MacDiarmid’s poems.

In other words, precisely the kind of “Renascence” that Geddes had envisaged in 1895 was being initiated 30 years later, at this meeting.

The First World War had not only delayed it, but had forced it through, made possible life from the dead ground of its devastation. According to Geddes’s son Arthur, Patrick and he had read MacDiarmid’s poems in their home in Montpellier, in the French literary periodical Les Nouvelles Littéraires (which began publishing in 1922), and Patrick had written to MacDiarmid to introduce himself:. Hence the meeting: “I well remember the day in Montpellier,” Arthur wrote, “when we first read a few of MacDiarmid’s poems and my father wrote to him straightaway: the friendship began with poems and response to them!”

On October 19, 1925, shortly after the reading, Patrick Geddes wrote to Grieve: “More & more there is growing on me the possibility of strengthening all our scattered movements of synthetic & constructive & progressive character – whether regional, literary, scientific, artistic, economic or social etc, by trying to bring them together, & thus increasingly present them as each part of a synthetic movement, reaching out beyond the chaos-Babel of current action & thought so apparently predominant.

“The various Regional movements would all gain by this, alike in local appreciation & mutual aid & impulse, & so for our universities, research institutes, & all sorts of practical endeavours – like the regional town-planning movement in which my own work has for many years so largely lain. So your suggestions will be valued & I am sure helpful.”

In his autobiographical book of essays, The Company I’ve Kept (1966), MacDiarmid wrote: “This reawakening of the vital and the organic in every department undermines the authority of the purely mechanical. Geddes’s prime significance lies in the fact that he was one of the greatest prophets and pioneers of this change.”

The Geddes Talks on Thursday, from 10am-5pm at Riddle’s Court, will include six speakers, with visual displays and Geddes books for sale. At 10.30, Kenny Munro will introduce the Geddes Trust, events since 2004 and Geddes’s influence in India, Edinburgh, Perth and Ballater. At 10.45, there will be a presentation by Professor Dorian Wisznieswski (University of Edinburgh) focusing on Geddes’s “community participation” study linked to the Botanical Gardens in Kolkata, Bengal, and the relationship between Bengali scientist JC Bose and Patrick Geddes.

At 11.30, after some discussion, Will Golding and architect Malcolm Fraser will discuss the Geddes-inspired Bridgend Farm House community project at Cameron Toll, Edinburgh, a multi-faceted urban social resource centre, and working showcase encouraging other aspiring community groups. Then Walter Stephen introduces two decades of publishing with the Patrick Geddes Trust.

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This is where things get personal. For me, Geddes’s insistence on the inter-relationships between book learning and life beyond the libraries and buildings of the world is crucial. As with trees. Geddes was nothing if not interested in the priority of breathable air and fresh water. These are increasingly rare commodities, and they are two of the main reasons why England won’t let Scotland out of its trap.

But with both the world’s ecology and the value of book-learning in mind, we can maybe understand a bit better how oxygen and carbon work together, how flora and fauna and human understanding all depend upon each other, as in my poem “Trees”:

What are these trees for? Surely to help us to breathe.

The making of books out of trees is the test of whether the books

Are worthwhile: Do they really help people to breathe?

Because there are two ways, one is clear, material fact: the air.

The other is equally true but cannot be seen: the immaterial:

Mind. Both, inseverable. They cannot be subtracted from each other.

Air at its best is invisible, too. But I don’t find deep reading on screens

Can be done. How do you come to turn closed the cover?

How do you return to open the front one again? How do you gauge

The depth of what’s between them? How does your skin feel the bark?

How do you follow the trace of their scent? I tried it once. It didn’t work.

By leaves we live. Trees help. Breathe deep. These are the lungs of time.

Trees like books in a forest, one by one, all together, connected by branches and roots,

By earth and air. Jungles of trees, Tarzan’s domain: Take to them, pilgrims. Fly!

After lunch, along with a small display of Bengali students’ artwork, a short Indo-Scottish film, “Bengal Boats and Rickshaw Roads” (2004) will be screened and then at 1.30, Arunima Bhattacharya will introduce Ujwala Menon of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to talk about an urban community renewal project with Ratish Nanda of Nizamuddin, Sunder Nursery and Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. At the end of the afternoon, at 3.15, Marion Geddes, Geddes’s granddaughter, will speak about plans to celebrate the centenary of the Geddes Scots and Indian Colleges in Montpellier in 2024.

From Edinburgh Napier University, a co-funder of the Talks, Emerita Professor Bashabi Fraser will remind us of the importance of the role of Rabindranath Tagore in Geddes’s life and work. The Indian College in Montpellier sits 200 metres from the Geddes Scots College.

These are physical reminders of the proximity of “locations” and “ideas”: simple words for complex meanings. Geddes’s concept of “place”, developed after his years in India, including the unrealised American College, will be celebrated next year at a centenary event which Marion Geddes will describe at the Talks Event. The National Galleries of Scotland have also expressed interest in celebrating Geddes in 2024.

BBC Alba/Scotland might consider this an ideal moment for a new Patrick Geddes documentary. It’s more than 50 years since Scotland’s BBC filmmaker Jim Wilson (1923-2018) took a film crew to Montpellier in 1969 to make the marvellous documentary/drama with actor Leonard Maguire as Geddes, for the film: “An Eye for the Future” which was transmitted in colour on the young BBC2 channel in 1970.

Wouldn’t it be good to broadcast that again as soon as possible, across the UK and maybe even internationally as well?

The ambition of The Patrick Geddes Trust and a lobby group is to encourage the BBC Scotland archives to transfer a copy of this historic Geddes film and Jim Wilson’s more than 20 other documentary films, the whole collection, to the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive at Kelvingrove. It already has the original film tapes of interviews Kenneth Munro made with Wilson from 2004-13.

In 2016 Wilson received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Saltire Society. Such films as these should be in the public domain, and the BBC, one would think, has a responsibility not simply to make them public, but to help make sure that they are more widely known and appreciated.

Patrick Geddes’s work, as I said at the start, is ongoing. It would be good to think that The National is not the only mass media public presence that is engaged in carrying it forward. Come on, BBC!