All posts by thomasjclark

Mindin on McIlvanney

I’ve written a piece for Bella Caledonia about William McIlvanney. There isn’t too much to add to what I’ve said over there, except that there are countless writers in Scotland who would never have set pen to paper if it hadn’t been for Willie, and I’m one of them.

The piece is in Scots, as part of a new stream on Bella which is being stewarded by Billy Kay and Matthew Fitt. Given the current dearth (with a few honourable exceptions) of news or current affairs commentary in Scots, it would be fantastic to see this initiative pay off for Bella Caledonia and its readers. Billy’s call for articles and article ideas can be found here.

A langer spiel aboot the Scots leid is nae dout kythin – for nou, here’s ma wee bit blether aboot Scots fae ma beuk launch:

Read-a-licious Book Festival

I had a great day at Peebles High School on Wednesday talking to pupils about football and StevieMacleanwriting as part of the Read-a-licious Book Festival. Did a Q&A session with St. Johnstone striker Stevie Maclean as well, in which I contrived to ask a man who’s scored the winning goal in a Scottish Cup Final what the highlight of his career has been. The pupils were superb, very switched on and engaged – a real credit to the school and to themselves. Also caught a glimpse of the new sporting facilities at Peebles, where Stevie was taking a training session as part of the event – very impressive! Thanks very much to Ruth Fry of Peebles HS and Alex Emerson from the Eastgate Theatre for inviting me along – if you live locally, it’s definitely worth keeping tabs on what’s happening at the Eastgate!

Salman Rushdie and the Establishment of the Left

Couple of years ago, Salman Rushdie wrote a memoir of his time in hiding from the Iranian fatwa. It’s called “Joseph Anton”, and I had read two-thirds of it when I decided to give up. It wasn’t badly written. It was just depressing me a bit, and I couldn’t understand why.

Yes, Rushdie comes over as being something of a wanker. He is shifty and inauthentic and views himself and his books as actual bulwarks of Western literature – except when it doesn’t suit him, and he just wants to be an ordinary person again. He seems constitutionally incapable of acknowledging any other point of view but his own, and I don’t mean simply on the fatwa but on anything. His wives are wrong, the police are wrong, the public, the media, his publishers, all wrong. Apart from his son, an idealised portrait of beatific childhood lifted wholesale from one of those Victorian melodramas which end with the infant being bodily assumed into Heaven, everybody in the world is at best a coward and at worst a monster. The consistent leitmotif of the book is that anyone whose interests diverge however minutely from the agenda of Salman Rushdie gets it both barrels.

None of which I mind, by the way. The character of “Joseph Anton” (Rushdie’s pseudonym throughout his years in hiding, and a decent indication of where he sees himself in the canon) is a magical piece of comic caricature, right up there with Adrian Mole and Mister Pooter. Rushdie’s lack of self-awareness never quite grows endearing, but it is usually funny, except when he is being gratuitously mean to and/or about someone who has helped him but not enough, which he usually is. No, what I found depressing about “Joseph Anton” was the absence from its pages of any kind of ordinary person – by which I mean someone who is unlikely to have went to Oxbridge or to public school.

The ‘ordinary’ people in “Joseph Anton” are the kind of off-stage rabble you get in village hall productions of Les Miserables. You don’t see them, you rarely hear them, and if they play any significant part in the story at all it is in the nameless role of “the waitress” or “the driver”. They are invariably slack and incompetent, with the implication continually being made that Rushdie’s life is dependent upon the random bumblings of ‘these kinds’ of people. There are several moving passages in which Rushdie speaks about the indignity of having to hide in his room whenever a cleaner comes round. The indignity of having to clean other people’s houses for a living goes strangely unremarked upon.

And what makes “Joseph Anton” interesting is that, finally, it all boils down to human dignity, a subject about which Salman Rushdie has an awful lot to say. Specifically, the circumstances in which it is impossible to maintain one’s dignity. There are things, Rushdie comes to realise, which are basic human rights, and which it is intolerable to be expected to live without. These are some of the rights for which Rushdie makes fairly explicit provision.

  1. The right to freedom of speech.
  2. The right to spend time with your family.
  3. The right to live and work wherever you like.
  4. The right to go on foreign holidays, anywhere, anytime.
  5. The right to go to awards ceremonies, and receive awards.
  6. The right to have your book published to your exact specifications and timetable, regardless of the potential economic, moral or human cost.

And so on. You will have no doubt have noticed that most, perhaps even all of these rights are currently denied to the average citizen of the United Kingdom. Rushdie doesn’t. For the vast majority of the book, Rushdie and his web of Oxbridge contacts are making strenuous appeal for the author to be allowed to live an ordinary life. The problem is, the disconnect between Rushdie’s idea of a ‘normal’ life and anybody else’s is so vast that it feels as if you are being personally insulted on every single page – which you probably would be, by the way, if you’d met him.

It is just an accepted fact that folk like, say, Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie are ‘men of the left’ – but what does it actually mean? Well, what reading “Joseph Anton” has made me realise is that it means exactly fuck all. It means that they are part of a familial squabble which, to the extent that it is happening at all, is taking place in an entirely different room and has nothing to do with the rest of us. Because the Establishment has a left wing as well. It’s the left to which writers, journalists, Labour politicians and the BBC belong. It is a left which is concerned with culture and heritage and being kind to animals and other such vague and worthy generalisations. It is a left which behaves as if the important battles against poverty and privilege have already been won, because, of course, those battles have been won, at least to the satisfaction of Amis and company; and they are therefore perfectly entitled to spend the rest of human history in public school debates about whether the Turner Prize winner is art this year or not.

To the Establishment Left, politics is basically extra-curricular. It’s something you do for extra credits instead of cricket. There’s nothing at stake. “Joseph Anton” is a book about a man who finds, to his horror, that everything is at stake; that his life depends upon the one box out of a million which an unseen bureaucrat might choose to tick that day, or might not. In other words, Salman Rushdie wakes up one morning to find that his life is now, well, ordinary.

Or almost. Rushdie still has his friends. He meets the Prime Minister. He meets the President. The Tory government are too busy dismantling the welfare state to talk to any of the people whose lives they’ve ruined, but they talk to Rushdie. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, presumably did not have the ear of the Prime Minister of Japan, and is stabbed to death. Rushdie has the same reaction to this as he does to every other tragedy that comes of the fatwa, which is one part unconvincing regret to four parts defensive insistence that it’s not his fault.

And it isn’t, of course. The Kafka parallels are obvious. For all his faults, Rushdie has not actually done anything wrong. But unlike Joseph K, ‘Joseph Anton’ affects to have no conception whatsoever that he might have done anything wrong, ever. And that’s interesting. Very few of us, except maybe psychopaths and leaders, have led such blameless lives that, when something terrible happens to us, we have no cosmic inkling that we might have had it coming. Is that, in the end, what separates us from the Establishment? Is that all it is – guilt?

Call for Submissions – Selkirk Match Programmes.

As part of my residency at Selkirk FC, the club and I have been looking for ways to involve more poets with the team. We’ll be doing a few things over the course of the coming season, but to kick things off we’re starting up a section in our match programme just for poems relating to football.

Picture credit - Dave Scott
Photo credit – Dave Scott

I’ve always kind of felt like football programmes are the zenith of Western literature, and it’s been a huge thrill to see my poetry published in them this season. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and so every home programme for the rest of the season we’ll be publishing a different football-related poem from a guest poet.

We have a few guests already lined up, but we’re on the look-out for more, so if you have a poem you’d be interested in seeing published, please do send it in to tommy.clark[at] In terms of length, 30 lines is probably about the limit of what we’ll have room for. Previously published poems are fine, and if your poem is relevant in any way to Selkirk, all the better. But the important thing (duh) is that it should be directly related to football.

Our next home game is on November 14th, so realistically that will be the deadline for submissions. We can’t offer any payment, but we will send a free copy of the programme to contributors! It’s a fine publication, which can hopefully only be made better by the inclusion of more poetry.

There’s nothing nicer than just happening across one of your own poems in a bookstore, or on a magazine rack. Unless it’s finding one of your own poems in a football memorabilia store. Well, here’s your chance to make that happen.

“Intae the Snaw” book launch.

The launch for “Intae the Snaw” – and my wife Sara Clark’s novel, “Summer’s Lease” went fabulously. In addition to a whole host of friends, family, and miscellaneous well-wishers, we were immensely privileged to be introduced by Paul Wheelhouse MSP.

I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk a bit about the Scots language, which it always seems cheeky to do at ordinary readings – the video of my speech (and my reading) is below. The book itself also contains an introductory essay on Scots in the modern world, if you’re interested in finding out more!

Start-up Magazines and the Borders Writing Scene.

I’ve been writing and thinking a great deal about poetry magazines lately, and part of the reason for that is we seem to be going through something of a literary Golden Age as far as literary journals go. Certainly up here in Scotland, anyway, where there’s been a real proliferation of magazine start-ups attempting to cater to a different sort of audience. I’m thinking about mags like The Grind, The Poets’ Republic and The Write Angle, magazines with a DIY ethic/aesthetic, superb writing and, most interestingly of all, a definite regional identity. By this I don’t mean simply that they’re ‘parochial’ – what I’m getting at is that these kinds of magazines are at the heart of a particular local scene, whether it’s that of Falkirk, Glasgow or Stonehaven.

That interests me, principally because no such magazine exists in the Borders, or ever has, as far as I know. There are many possible reasons for that, most of which are too depressing to contemplate, but what I’d be most interested to find out is which way round these things are apt to happen – does a thriving local literary scene bring about the existence of a magazine, or is the magazine itself the prerequisite for bringing together a viable writing community?

This is not, by the by, a rhetorical question. If there’s anyone out there who has some thoughts, I would love to hear them. You see, I’ve been having a wee think lately about setting up a Borders equivalent to the kinds of magazines I mentioned above, and the idea, to me, seems like a good one. There’s definitely a ton of great writing out there which is currently going unpublished – I don’t think for one moment that the market is saturated quite yet. But a magazine would also be a great conduit for linking up the Borders writing scene with that of the rest of the country.

The Borders has a great deal to offer Scotland, in literary terms; there are some fantastic individuals writing out of here. And there’s a lot going on, albeit in an often piecemeal kind of way. But there isn’t really much in the way of overall cultural structure or strategy. A literary magazine could not only serve as a kind of focal point around which to cohere a community, but it would also open up the two-way conversation we need to be having with the rest of the country (that’s you guys out there) about what we could be bringing to your party, and what you could be bringing to ours.

So, that’s the plan. You’re probably safe to go away now and get on with a few things. Do the washing up. Get the mould out of the windowsill. But, you know. Somewhere along the line. Watch this space.

On Starting Out.

My first poetry pamplet, Intae the Snaw, comes out this month, and it seems like this is the point at which to start giving it the whole it’s-been-a-long-road shtick, talk about how deep into theIntaeTheSnaw fibre of my bones I’ve had to dig to excavate these poems, the editorial to-and-fro. But, in fact, the whole process has been relatively disappointing, as far as personal psychodramas go. From first contact to final product the entire business has taken nine months, and as far as editorial conflict enters into it, all that’s happened is that I’ve been very gently schooled by my editor, the fantastic Meirion Jordan, in the difference between putting together an actual collection and just jamming an armful of manuscripts in a tattered suitcase and jumping up and down on the lid.

So, in a sense, I’ve really got exactly zip to say about the process of putting together a pamphlet. I imagine the production of other collections in other places have been rather more fraught affairs, but that’s not my experience. My experience has been fun. Maybe Gatehouse Press are doing it wrong, or something. My suspicion is that I’ve been somehow short-changed, that there ought to have been more shoutings-at, more tears.

The main thing I’ve taken out of the process is the value of reading and submitting to poetry magazines. When you’re first starting out, you get this advice rammed down your throat, and it just seems like a pretext for other poets to bilk you out of your money whilst telling you how rubbish you are. Which it is. (No, not really.) There are a load of reasons, as a writer, to engage with the magazine scene – track record, peer feedback, yada yada – but the reason that many folk who are starting out submit to magazines is because they kind of hope something might come of it.

Which is not, by the way, an ignoble thing to wish for. It’s not even unrealistic, so long as you don’t expect anything to happen the first time you get into a magazine, or the fifth, or the five hundredth. If there’s something to what you’re writing, someone will notice, eventually. The problem is, you don’t know who or where those people are, never mind what magazines they edit and/or read.

In the beginning it’s easy to have the feeling that the whole of “writing” is one vast cohesive bloc which is leagued entirely against newcomers, i.e. you. Conversely, when you do manage to get something published somewhere, it’s very difficult to understand why news of your success hasn’t spread like wildfire across the entire literary scene. Once you’re in, you’re in, surely? But somehow, The X Journal don’t care that you were in the most recent edition of Y Quarterly. As in Kafka, the door that you were trying to get through, and the doorman you were wheedling your way past – they just lead to another door, another doorman. The party that’s happening somewhere within sounds just as distant as ever.

And all of the above, by the way, being best case scenario – which is to say, that you’re committed to writing and to improving as a writer. If you already think you’re the finished article, you probably gave up on reading this a few paragraphs back. You didn’t like hearing that your inevitable fame might take time or hard work.

For time and hard work will certainly be involved. Even if you one-hundred-per-cent enjoy writing one-hundred-per-cent of the time, you’d have to be some kind of masochist to enjoy submitting to magazines, and being rejected; sometimes kindly, more often facelessly, occasionally even, in a bizarre Hitchcockian nightmare, under the wrong name, for stuff you never even did. And yet submit you must, widely and often, to have any hope of finding readers who get what you’re on about.

I had no particularly good reason to send my stuff to Lighthouse, Gatehouse’s literary journal. Scots translations of Chinese poetry; that’s pretty niche, and not necessarily what you would expect to go over well with a relatively new literary journal based in Norwich. But it was a really good magazine – I enjoyed what they were publishing – and it was worth a spin that if their editors and I liked the same kind of poetry, my poetry might also be the kind that they liked. Without reading Lighthouse, I would never have submitted there, never have been published there, and never have wound up with a pamphlet being produced there.

Which is to say, reading magazines shouldn’t be a chore. No matter how disenchanted you might think you are with the poetry scene, there are magazines out there whose editors are on your wavelength. Finding them, submitting to them, hopefully being published by them – these are hugely exciting things. Reading a magazine you don’t enjoy – well, that bites, but it’s better than submitting to that magazine blind, getting back an impersonal rejection letter, and then being furious at being turned down by a magazine you now realise you don’t even like.

Submitting to magazines can feel like going to them cap in hand, but it needn’t. Sending something you wrote to a journal is the sincerest form of flattery you can give what are (no doubt) its hard-working and underappreciated editors. I like what you are doing and I want to be part of it. And it’s in your power to give. Whether your writing is ready yet or not, your support and interest is worth a lot to any magazine. Just make sure and give it to the right ones.

Sky Sports.

The final score was not what we hoped for, but there was some good publicity for poetry and for the club this morning, when Sky Sports News profiled Selkirk FC ahead of our Scottish Cup tie against Nairn. I read out some of my poetry, and talked a wee bit about the cup – cheers to Lawrie Dunn for catching a photo of it! Link to full video below:


30 Days Later – The Poetry Residency So Far

So, that’s the first month of my poetry residency at Selkirk FC done with. Lessons learned:

  1. Writing poems is by far the easiest and least time-consuming aspect of the whole business. I’ve written about half-a-dozen so far, ranging from elegiac poems about past glories and figures like Bob Mercer, to freestyle disses of upcoming opponents. Most of these (so far) have been written to go with a newspaper article or media piece. Sky Sports News, for example, asked me to write a poem for their feature about our Scottish Cup game at Nairn. Now, how many folk are ever going to get to read their poetry on Sky bloody Sports? None, that’s how many. None.
  2. BUT. It’s very challenging to combine writing the poetry, doing the publicity, working in an ordinary nine-to-five job, and doing other writing of your own on the side. Your own writing seems to be the thing that’s most easily neglected.
  3. Still, because of those pressures, a residency is very good at forcing you to identify what you actually want to get out of writing.
  4. Being continually fresh and spontaneous is a lot harder than it looks. I’m the first person to give it the big eye-roll when someone trots out the same old anecdote more than once, but when you’re speaking to a lot of different people who are all asking basically the same questions, it’s really difficult not to just give out an answer by rote. Even as you’re talking, you can feel your silent inner critic sarcastically mouthing your trite little speech along with you and making a yap-yap gesture with its hand. You feel like such a dad.

But the reaction has been fantastic. Ross Anderson, the chairman at Selkirk, told me that more publicity has been generated for the club by the residency than even the signing of ex-Scotland striker Garry O’Connor. Hopefully, there will be more to come, but in the meantime, tune into Sky Sports News HQ on Saturday, when a Scottish Cup segment about Selkirk will be airing throughout the day.