“I couldn’t find the place. It was lashing down. So I arrived late and wet.”
Not the most auspicious arrival in London for our Makar. Kathleen had been requested, as National Poet, to create a new poem specifically for the launch of a Scottish Government report. The report was to be launched at Scotland House, a meeting place for Scottish organisations, individuals and business folk in central London.
Governmental reports are, perhaps, not a natural source of inspiration. Glass offices by the Thames are perhaps not a natural space for poetic debuts, either.
“At first I thought ‘this is ridiculous’,” Kathleen told us. “How do you write a poem to a report?! But reading it, I realised that the experience of artists and writers and musicians was very distinct from that of government officials, or of business types. So I wrote from that. And we all [as artists] know what it is to be underpaid, not paid, forgotten to be paid…”
The report in question had gathered Scottish and international perspectives on Scotland’s arts and cultural scene. There were some interesting answers in there, responding to the question of what do we do in the Scottish arts and culture sector that is distinctive?
“This was a different kettle of fish to my first trip abroad as Makar [to Ireland],”
“We were in London, at the Scottish Government’s office there, discussing Scottish Culture abroad with an audience of managers and movers and shakers.
As a humble artist, you don’t always get access to the managerial class.
Artists are the bottom of the heap. So when you’ve got a chance [to speak to government officials, middle managers], three minutes in the room with them, you’ve got to make the point that artists are often forgotten about, and financially it really isn’t always sustainable.”
Our average income is twelve grand a year. It’s worth reminding them of that.”
The poem that Kathleen wrought for the occasion was Shoestring, and here she is reading it to her audience of middle managers, with the text below.
Shoestring with thanks to Louis MacNeice and Liz Lochhead It’s all go the boarding pass, it’s all go the ‘international stage’ it’s a folk band crammed in the back of a van on the low road to Mallaig. It’s Medea in the village hall, Black Watch in Cambuslang, it’s a lad rehearsing his couplets for the high school poetry slam, for art’s the breath of human life, we are, therefore we create - though we manage it all on a shoestring, or a three-way share of the gate. We never rhyme for the bottom line, we don’t sing from a balance sheet we’re here for that sob in the pibroch that wad gar a grown man greet, we’re here for the gym hall aria, for the couthy fireside story, for the Screen Machine showing Duthchas on the pier in Tobermory, for art’s the breath of human life, we are, therefore we create - though we manage it all on a shoestring, or a six-way share of the gate. ‘Come aa ye’ said Hamish Henderson, as founded the Embra Fringe - let’s reach to global arts and airts saying ‘Welcome, come awa ben!’ (But it’s no go the Filmhouse, it’s no go Modern 2 the “nailed and boarded window” ’s back in the heart of our Festival Toun.) But art’s the breath of human life, we are, therefore we create - though we try to survive on a shoestring, or ten-way share of the gate. There’s words that ding in a’bdy’s lugs fi a novel set in a scheme, - but the whaups are gone from Gibbon’s Mearns, the speugs from Glasgow Green, so the windswept shores and snow-capped bens that inspire film or ballet need us think again what we’re daein - we need art to heal the planet, coz art’s the breath of human life, we are, therefore we create - though we try to survive on a shoestring, or a sixeenth share of the gate. So gie’s a haun, ma trusty fiere, be ye Auld Scots, or First Generation – it’s oor turn for a turn at the dizzy reel where experiment birls wi tradition, where a culture raised this side the Tweed - a nation within a state- dances across its boundaries, says what needs to be said: that art’s the breath of human life, we’re alive! therefore we create. We do it for the love of it, and a wee bit share of the gate.