Alan Bold

Alan Bold (1943 - 1998)
Photograph of Alan Bold by Gordon Wright
Alan Bold © Gordon Wright (image used under strict permission)

Biography

Summary

Alan Bold was a poet, journalist, critic and editor, best known for his award-winning biography of Hugh MacDiarmid, with whom he had a long-standing friendship.  

Full Biography

Alan Norman Bold (1943-1998) was a hard-working and prolific literary journalist (for The Herald and The Scotsman), poet, anthologist, critic, artist, editor and freelance writer, and a scholar on many subjects. Although he published much poetry early in his adult life, it is for his independent scholarship on poet Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) that he is generally remembered nowadays. Bold met MacDiarmid in 1962 while Bold was still a student at the University of Edinburgh and they formed a lasting friendship. Of his generation of Scottish poets, Bold was probably the closest to MacDiarmid. In 1965 MacDiarmid provided a supportive introduction to Bold’s first collection of poems Society Inebrious and in the 1980s, Bold repaid his debt to MacDiarmid with a series of publications: MacDiarmid: The Terrible Crystal (1983), The Thistle Rises (1984), The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid (1984), Scots steel tempered wi’ Irish fire: Hugh MacDiarmid and Ireland (1985) and culminating with what many critics have termed Bold’s ‘masterpiece’, the substantial and balanced MacDiarmid: A Critical Biography (1988) which went on the win the McVitie Prize in 1989.

Bold was born and raised in Edinburgh, where his family lived at Gayfield Square at the top of Leith Walk. Bold’s father, William, was a ‘clerk of works’ for the Ministry of Agriculture in Scotland which meant he spent much time away from the family, often on Orkney. Family life was difficult and money was short and in 1956, at the age of 49, Bold’s father was found drowned in a flooded quarry. This devastating event gave rise to what is, by general consensus, Bold’s finest single poem – ‘A Memory of Death’, collected in the 1969 volume A Perpetual Motion Machine:

He left the land rover
And stared deep into the water
Thinking life offered nothing more than this liquid pit.
Everything shrunk to the need for action,
For decision. And the audacity of the stars.
Everything at such a distance, people, family,
Friends. And headlong he fell
Slowly into the water
And swore in bubbles
And his eyelids filled with blackness.

Shortly after his father’s death, Bold left Broughton Secondary School (the alma mater of Hugh MacDiarmid) at the age of 15 and found work, to which he was ill-suited, as a garage-hand and a baker’s boy. He was sacked by the baker for throwing bits of dough at his friends. After this point, he was urged by the Head of Broughton to return to school to gain the qualifications to get into university. It is worth noting that one of Bold’s friends, the composer Ronald Stevenson, was also a teacher at Broughton and a close friend of Hugh MacDiarmid. In 1961 Bold entered the University of Edinburgh for an MA degree. While at university he edited two literary magazines – Rocket (his own avant-garde magazine) and Gambit (a student magazine). At this time he also married and with his new wife Alice, the couple had a daughter. He had been friends with the artists Sandy Moffat and John Bellany since the 1950s and in the 1960s all three young men began to try and leave their mark (individually and collaboratively) on the arts, in music, painting and poetry. In 1962 Bold’s meeting with MacDiarmid put him in contact with other poets and he began to frequent the Rose Street pub scene where most anecdotes centre on Milne’s Bar on the corner of Hanover Street.

After leaving university, Bold projected himself onto the literary scene in Scotland with the fervour and determination that had characterised MacDiarmid’s rise to prominence in the 1920s. Following Society Inebrious, Bold published The Voyage (his translations of Baudelaire’s Le Voyage) in 1966 and backed this up with a further three poetry collections, published in rapid succession by Chatto and Windus, before the end of the decade: To Find the New (1967); A Perpetual Motion Machine (1969) and the ambitious book-length poem The State of the Nation (1969). At first, Bold was considered something of a rebellious wunderkind and he was not short of champions: John Berger, Cecil Day-Lewis, MacDiarmid and Christopher Ricks all endorsed his earlier works. This work is usually hotly polemical in nature, drawing on and being fuelled by the social injustices of his upbringing, and is influenced by his Marxist readings of MacDiarmid’s longer, more socio-philosophical work. The State of the Nation can be seen, in its many voices and its plea for global togetherness, as a serious attempt to answer Tom Scott and MacDiarmid’s call for the epic in modern times, or ‘giantism in the arts’:

And we chroniclers today miss much, miss almost all, see only
     Animals and affection
And we examine observed reality and bring back from it only
     Animals and affection
And we claim that the squalid aspects are too much: being
     Murder and massacre
And we forget that the people have only known and only know
     Murder and massacre.

This early poetry is inconsistent in quality, and ranges widely in form from villanelles to sprawling free verse. There are political poster-poems and more personal or reflective poems that are either successful or overly sentimental and drowned out by the volume of the more aggressive poems. George Bruce has perhaps most sensitively summed up Bold’s work: ‘Alan Bold has in the past sometimes worked beyond the reach of his arm, and this has produced failures, but that venturesome spirit has also produced some rare successes’.

Some of Bold’s longer, more rhetorical poems can be moving and startling, such as ‘June 1967 at Buchenwald’ which was written after a visit to the death camp. Here he urges the reader to confront what is in front of them, that ‘no one is free while some are not free’. The poem ultimately stirs the reader with its sparse, concrete, documentary details which hint at a lack of human togetherness or solidarity:

The bare drab rubble of the place.
The dull damp stone. The rain.
The emptiness. The human lack.

Similarly, the poem ‘That’s Life’ from To Find the New is effective because of its documentary sharpness – it recounts in detail the death of a tramp in Edinburgh and how the world and its people carry on regardless, stuck in a solipsistic bubble:

[…] A peering crowd of blanket faces
Did not ponder if he loved,
Or had been loved, instead
They wondered at how far ahead
In life they were […]

From the 1970s onwards, Bold’s poetry began to slow down in the rate of its composition and energy and his work started to mellow, giving rise to a quieter, more reflective style. A number of factors in Bold’s life caused this. Firstly, he managed to support himself throughout his life as a freelance writer, and now began to earn more money for work other than his poetry, such as anthologies and critical texts like A Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (1970) and Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn (1976). Secondly, in 1975 Bold was invited, along with his small family, to take advantage of a writer’s house on the Balbirnie estate in Markinch, Fife. After this residency was over, Bold was offered a nearby cottage and remained in Markinch for the rest of his life. His newly rural environs began to inform his poetry and, after an eight year silence, he published This Fine Day (1979) which is filled with nature poems and poems of the Fife countryside and is, in fact, Bold’s last full collection in English. He also drew on the tall-tales and anecdotes he encountered locally in the pub, for his Scots poetry collection Summoned by Knox (1985) which additionally uses local lore to achieve a jokey supernaturalism:

An’ the devil says tae Knox, he says,
     “I thocht I’d juist gie ye a visit –
Tell Scotland it neednae fash wi me
     For if there’s a hell this is it!”

Although Bold’s poetry became less vociferous, that did not mean that Bold was reconciled to his lot and Scotland as it was. The poems in A Pint of Bitter (1971) were expressly published by Bold to prove his range through translations from the French to love poems: ‘Critics thought my verse abstract / Scientific, matter of fact / Now saw that it was sensuous’. This in itself suggests a challenge to readers and critics and shows that Bold was out to prove something, perhaps because he felt his reputation was at risk. His friend, Douglas Dunn, has said that his ‘maverick’ freelance stance meant that his reputation was vulnerable and poems like the mock-heroic ‘The Day I Committed…(suicide)’ show that while certain factions may have disliked Bold or his work, Bold was unapologetic and there to stay. In a particularly scathing interview with David Morrison for Scotia Review in 1973, Bold confessed to feeling an ‘outsider’ reliant on support from English, not Scottish, sources. He went on to say that he felt certain members of the ‘Lowland literati’ were conspiring against him and that his refusal to be patronised had prejudiced his chances of literary success in Scotland, which he referred to as ‘the land of the omnipotent No’.

Throughout all of his work, Bold remains close to the downtrodden and uncelebrated in society, from his translation of Jean-Pierre de Beranger’s ‘The Old Tramp’ through to the book length poem (which he illustrated) He Will Be Greatly Missed (1971) where a severely abused member of the working class (John) is worked up into a rage by an arrogant and abusive city councillor (Frederick) in a pub, ending up with John drunkenly beating Frederick to death. The morning after, Frederick’s colleagues all automatically utter the cliché ‘he will be greatly missed’. These poems show something of Bold’s deep, lifelong awareness of social injustices that manifested itself in a feeling of his own neglect by the ‘literati’.

In his later years he published little poetry, and in the early 1990s published a collection of literary essays An Open Book, his only novel entitled East is West and A Burns Companion. He was also said to be working on a biography of Robert Burns at the time of his death. Trevor Royle writes that he was essentially a ‘shy man’ and often drank to overcome that shyness, meaning he was ‘happiest in the pub’. Bold died suddenly in hospital in Kirkcaldy just short of his 55th birthday. In one of Bold’s later poems he makes a veiled reference to his role as a poet, as someone unafraid to go against the grain in search of artistic truths. ‘Stony Vision’ is like an Edwin Muir poem in its timeless quality – some people in the woods are looking for firewood when only one of them, the speaker, notices a stone in the shape of a book:

He looked again: was it a stone
In the shape of a book, or a great message
Sent directly down for him alone?

Commonsense told him the object was a stone,
Nothing but a stone, so like the others
He passed by. Next morning it was gone.

Richie McCaffery

2016

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Society Inebrious (Edinburgh: Mowat Hamilton, 1965)
The Voyage: a translation … from Baudelaire’s French (Edinburgh: Macdonald, 1966
To Find the New (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1967)
A Perpetual Motion Machine (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1969)
The State of the Nation (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1969)
A Pint of Bitter (London: Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press, 1971)
He Will Be Greatly Missed (London: Turret, 1971)
The Auld Symie: poems [under pseudonym Jake Flower] (Wick: Pulteney Press, 1977)
Scotland, Yes: World Cup football poems (Edinburgh: Paul Harris Publishing, 1978)
This Fine Day (Dunfermline: Borderline Press, 1979)
In This Corner: selected poems 1963-1983 (Edinburgh: Macdonald Publishers, 1983)
Summoned by Knox (Paisley: Wilfion Boooks, 1985)

Prose, criticism, biography:

Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes  (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1976)
George Mackay Brown (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1978)
Modern Scottish Literature (London: Longman, 1983)
MacDiarmid: the terrible crystal (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983)
MacDiarmid: Christopher Murray Grieve: a critical biography (London: John Murray, 1988)
An Open Book (Edinburgh: Macdonald Publishers, 1990)

As editor:

A Penguin Book of Socialist Verse (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970)
The Martial Muse: seven centuries of war poetry (Exeter: Wheaton, 1976)
Cambridge Book of English Verse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976)
Making Love: the Picador book of erotic verse (London: Pan Books, 1978)
The Bawdy Beautiful: the Sphere book of improper verse (London: Sphere, 1979)
A Scottish Poetry Book [for younger readers] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983)
The Letters of Hugh MacDiarmid (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1984)
A Second Scottish Poetry Book [for younger readers] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985)
The Poetry of Motion: an anthology of sporting verse (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1988?)
Dylan Thomas: craft or sullen art? (London: Vision Press, 1990)