In the final part of his survey of the early relationship between two giants of modern Scottish literature, Alistair Peebles takes us back to the early friendship between an Ian Hamilton Finlay and Hugh MacDiarmid, then looks forward to the soaring enmity between them

IAN Hamilton Finlay and Hugh MacDiarmid (CM Grieve) first met and became friends, despite the age difference, probably quite soon after the latter arrived in Glasgow from Shetland, in early 1942, to take up war work on the Clyde. MacDiarmid, age 49, was a major poet, and although still to receive the kind of attention that was properly his due, he was widely known in Britain and internationally for his writing and for his politics; Finlay was 16. He had left school a couple of years previously, following the outbreak of war, when for a time he had been evacuated to Gartmore, in Stirlingshire. That escape from Glasgow, where he was then living with his parents and sister in West Partick, Finlay long seems to have cherished as a key phase of self-discovery. Yet the following few years must have been no less formatively important.

So, what of the context in which they met?

In a 2002 obituary for the painter Pierre Lavalle, Alasdair Gray remarks that during WW2 “and for a few years after, Glasgow had a cultural exuberance that has not yet found a historian”. As well as MacDiarmid, Gray refers to the poet WS Graham and an important publisher of the era, William Maclellan.

The situation Gray describes has not changed. Yet the painters JD Fergusson, Jankel Adler and Josef Herman were also central, and the poet Dylan Thomas a prominent visitor. Such artists found themselves in company with many others displaced from Europe, or from the London Blitz, or attracted from nearby by the creative energy briefly available at the west end of Sauchiehall Street. This “exuberance” was sustained by means of various organisations including the New Art Club, formed under Fergusson’s impetus. Though relatively short-lived, this, like his wife Margaret Morris’s Celtic Ballet Club, did have an afterlife in the city. Among other venues of the time, the Unity Theatre provided an innovative focus in its own field.

MacDiarmid was immediately made welcome in that milieu, and it is clear that Finlay, despite the absence of his name from most of the few published sources, might not only be found at that time in the Mitchell Library, reading about cubism and surrealism, as widely attested, but out and about in Charing Cross, actually mixing with cubists, surrealists, theatre people, poets, and others. (He briefly enrolled at Glasgow School of Art during 1941.) It was in that remarkable environment that he found and so impressed MacDiarmid. The bookseller Edward Nairn (1918-2013) also met Finlay that year. He recalled being introduced by him to MacDiarmid, who offered him his hand with the courteous shipyard proviso that he hoped he wouldn’t find it “too dirty”. Himself a poet (Distances, 2010), Nairn remained a lifelong friend of both.

Beyond that period, Edinburgh University library’s small collection of letters from Finlay to MacDiarmid tells its own, intermittent story of relations between the two until the sequence ends in late 1957. Though obviously one-sided, it strongly conveys Finlay’s continued affectionate admiration and trust. Contemporary letters to other correspondents tell a similar story, at times adulatory of MacDiarmid’s pure and unyielding example. The poet and critic Derek Stanford, who met Finlay in the Army in 1945, refers to that Glasgow period in his literary reminiscences, Inside the Forties, saying that the scene had provided “a heady yeast to [Finlay’s] precocious intelligence”.

During his time in the Army, when he could get peace to do so, Finlay continued to work towards a literary career, though he remained interested in the practice of painting until the early 50s, and in reading about the subject long after that. He read, wrote, produced articles and reviews, and did his best to keep in touch. The business of working and keeping in touch were enduring priorities, but, along with an almost unfailing wit, so was a rigid severity on matters of artistic value. He embraced wholeheartedly, if not uncomplainingly, the implications of his life as an artist, as he understood them.

The National: Hugh MacDiarmidHugh MacDiarmid

READ MORE: The best of enemies – Ian Hamilton Finlay and Hugh MacDiarmid

IN the Scotland of the time (and more generally in the difficult context of “society” and its expectations of compromise) this commitment entailed poverty and marginalisation. An essay by the Canadian poet and critic Stephen Scobie, “The Side-Road to Dunsyre” (Akros, 1970), also implies that for nearly two decades Finlay continued to admire MacDiarmid’s capacity to endure on those terms. He regarded him during that time as having placed himself, as a poet, outwith the artistically corrosive “social” context, something against which Finlay, though disinclined towards “secular” prose, would later theorise in his open letter of 1963 to fellow concrete poet, Pierre Garnier.

Any implication that MacDiarmid might ever have gone along with Finlay in locating a “pure” aesthetic for the contemporary era in the “model of order” that the younger man found in concrete poetry, and described in that letter, would be well off the mark. Yet the impetus that led each in his chosen poetic direction was arguably (and however distinct the outcome) not dissimilar. Among other factors, it was the chronological mismatch between their respective oeuvres – MacDiarmid’s largely achieved and requiring consolidation at the historical point at which, like that of others, Finlay’s was urgently evolving – that led to the schism.

Thus, one feature that eventually made MacDiarmid so much more a target of Finlay’s antagonism (perhaps in part strengthened by a sense of personal disappointment) was his comfortable rise to social pre-eminence by the early 60s, fêted generally and buoyed up by associates in the bars and publishing houses of Edinburgh. Even as late as 1957, however, when Finlay’s eventual separation from his first wife Marion was well into its second year (they would not be divorced until 1961 – there were no children), a letter from Finlay to MacDiarmid implies that the latter may have helped persuade the eventual publishers to take on Finlay’s story collection.

Despite that long-desired success, and Finlay's achievement in selling his plays (with misgivings) to the BBC and elsewhere, and despite being long inured to difficulty, the end of the 50s and start of the 60s was hard, in psychological, financial, marital and emotional terms. His crucial Orkney sojourn of spring 1959 aside, the absence of those years from his “myth”, as his biography effectively became, is hardly to be wondered at. Wit helped, of course, but he was sustained by the support of friends and lovers, and by an indomitable sense of purpose. This was not in the service of his personal interest, but for the sake of art, as he understood it – and not simply for art’s sake, but for its ethical priority as regards human experience – and in acknowledgement of cultural, especially Scottish cultural tradition.

Here lay one of the chief sources of Finlay’s eventual complaint against the rupturing effects of MacDiarmid’s “Renaissance”: that it overlooked so much, including the widely abjured, but (for Finlay) congenial example of the Kailyard.

And then there was the rapid continuation in formal development in Finlay’s work and his increasing acceptance in the USA and England – and at home, by Edwin Morgan and Alan Jackson, for example, and indeed Elizabeth Clark (Joan Ure). His largely Orkney-inspired lyric poetry in “The Dancers Inherit the Party” (including the delightful tail-twister, “Mansie Considers the Sea in the Manner of Hugh MacDiarmid”), was followed by his metempsychotic synthesis of Japanese tanka and Glaswegian patter in “Glasgow Beasts an a Burd…” (an influential 1961 production, taken as an affront by the “Lallans boys”), and the eclectic poetry-sheet Poor. Old. Tired. Horse, 1962-68, evidently taken by MacDiarmid as an eponymous affront.

Beyond all these instances, from early 1963, and essentially unconnected with any animus against the Scottish old guard, there was the heady fulfilment of Finlay’s long creative striving to date in his discovery of concrete poetry. A pared-down, minimalist form, this could patently not be weighed in the same aesthetic balance as that to which MacDiarmid subscribed in “The Kind of Poetry I Want”: “poems de longe haleine – far too long / To be practicable for any existing medium”.

Cue further division.

By that time, disagreement had provoked fiery correspondence in The Scotsman, complaints of Renaissance exclusion of new forms of writing, and outraged rebuttal; Edwin Morgan’s 1962 essay “The Beatnik in the Kailyaird” – which noted with irritation that “‘Scotland’s heritage’ is hung about our necks like a taxonomical placard”; and (at least the myth of) Finlay and Jessie McGuffie’s Wild Hawthorn Press Protest March against MacDiarmid. The latter was timed, in that “allagrugous [sic] auld city” as Karl Miller branded Edinburgh that year in the New Statesman, to coincide with the International Writers Conference at the McEwen Hall (in Grieve’s 70th birthday year, the occasion of grand presentations, Kulgin Duval’s Festschrift for Hugh MacDiarmid, and the first appearance of MacDiarmid’s Complete Poems). The proposal was (unusually) banned by the city magistrates. These and more were further goads to the old boy in his eventual pamphleteering rebuff to “those (in their own view) frozen-out and frustrated young writers”.

That pamphlet, disdainfully entitled “the ugly birds without wings” (1962) was sensibly withdrawn, but not before it had helped raise the volume, if not the level, of argument, while doing no lasting harm to the cause of those whom MacDiarmid had slurred as espousing, in Pushkin’s phrase, “barbarism, villainy, and ignorance”. MacDiarmid, pre-eminent as he was at this time, loftily dismissed claims that he took a domineering attitude towards other writers, but the accusation stuck.

FOR all that he relished the flyting, and understood its value as publicity, the serious points at issue weighed heavily on Finlay, whose commitment was total, as ever.

By contrast, and despite the ferocity of the argument, these events appear to have left much less lasting an impression on MacDiarmid (though there was still sniping: a jibe, aloofly inexact, at Ian Hamilton “Findlay” in The Company I’ve Kept (1966), for example). Though probably not directly in consequence, Finlay makes no appearance in Alan Bold’s biography of MacDiarmid – nor for that matter does any of the brouhaha make it into the Garnier letter – but for some time thereafter the antagonism crops up regularly in accounts of Finlay’s work, deployed to help define his achievements within an unsupportive cultural climate.

Such difficulties, and their impact on Finlay, should not be overlooked in recalling the dramatic surface of events (however irresistible: Finlay’s broadside “Pan Loaf Provincialism” for instance, a 1962 counterblast to The Glasgow Herald’s reviewing policy) for they do indeed help characterise Finlay’s achievements of the 60s-70s, and herald later, more complex hostilities that significantly inform the work.

But in personal terms, who knows?

It’s characteristic of Finlay that what mattered centrally in his disputes were not personalities but principles, and in the aftermath of even the most bitter and protracted battles, one can find him sunnily prepared to resume friendly relations. It seems much later he may even have written to his old mentor, though whether he received any answer is unknown.

Long after Chris Grieve passed away in 1978, Finlay said that while he doubted the lasting importance of MacDiarmid’s work, he still thought of him with affection (as James Campbell, writing in The Guardian, noted in 2003), admiring in particular his personal fearlessness. He still loved him, indeed, and was sure that his old friend felt similarly. For all the vicious enmity of the past, one imagines he will have had good reason for holding to that view.