William Dixon Cocker was born on 13 October 1882 in Drumbeg Cottage in Rutherglen, the son of James Cocker and his second wife Jeannie Miller Gow. His paternal forebears had been Glasgow merchants for three generations, James being a stationer; his mother’s family were farmers in the parish of Drymen, near Loch Lomond. The Cockers had a small cottage on the family’s land there, which they used at weekends and holidays, William thus growing up with a close association with the agricultural life depicted in his poems, and a natural understanding of the Scots spoken in that area.
Cocker left school by the age of thirteen, at his own request, and started work in his father’s business; at twenty-three he went to the accounts department of Glasgow’s Daily Record, and continued to work for that paper and the Evening News for over fifty years. In 1914 he enlisted in the 9th HLI (the Glasgow Highlanders). Transferred to the Royal Scots in 1915, he was taken prisoner at the beginning of the Passchendaele offensive and incarcerated at Enger, near Minden; a handful of his poems deal with the conflict, though not directly with his captivity. They were difficult years for Cocker as he lost two brothers in the war, and both of his parents died around that time. But he returned to Glasgow, and to his former job at The Daily Record.
In 1929 Cocker married Margaret Davids Paterson; the couple were both in their mid-40s and had no children. They lived in Belmont Street in Hillhead, where they were remembered as ‘nice kind douce folk’. When asked for biographical information, Cocker replied that his life was not very exciting (he had a reputation as being a very modest, unassuming man). His literary output during that apparently dull life was large: seven books of poetry, a dozen plays, short stories, and several local history books. Cocker also served as drama critic of the Daily Record for over twenty years. He retired at 74 when the Evening News ceased publication, and died in Glasgow in 1970, at the age of 87.
Newspapers were the first arena for the publication of his poems, as well as The Scots Magazine and the volumes of the Glasgow Ballad Club. Cocker wrote in the Scots he knew from childhood, depicting rural life in Strathendrick in the years between the two world wars with a humour that endeared the poems to the reading public. He also re-told biblical legends and historical stories, many of which became popular recitation pieces, the best-known being ‘The Deluge’. The few poems written during and about the war are, as he himself said, some of his best in English, and have been included in several war anthologies. ‘The Sniper’ proclaims two of the truths of all wars – that killing is easier from a distance, and that all human life has the same value: ‘Fritz, the merry, is no more. / (Or shall we call him Jack? It’s all the same.)’ ‘The Phantom Platoon’ illustrates what is probably a third truth: the unbearable guilt of the survivor.
His ‘Portrait’ and ‘Farm Folk’ poems are kindly depictions of characters whose rounded way of life is lost to us now; respectful of the squads of Irish tattie-howkers and the tinkers, but less so of the minister who gives a dull or pompous sermon. There is always sympathy along with the humour; in his best poems he handles the enduring human condition with a deft touch and remains just the right side of couthy. But his popularity did not save him from the opprobrium of other poets of the time, who attacked his determined simplicity and ‘pawkiness’.
Cocker was President of the Glasgow Ballad Club in the 1940s and it was in this capacity that he was drawn into battle with some of the members of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, over the merits of natural versus ‘plastic’ Scots. The flyting started after the appearance of Douglas Young’s pamphlet Plastic Scots and the Scottish Literary Tradition, published by William Maclellan in 1946, and was carried on in the columns of the Daily Record, often in verse form. It rumbled on into the 1950s, with the occasional piece by Hugh MacDiarmid.
Although Cocker’s literary reputation has been subdued for many years, the poetry-reading public maintains a healthy demand for his popular numbers: there are many years when Cocker tops the count of most frequently requested poems at the Scottish Poetry Library.