The playwright and poet who wrote under the pseudonym Joan Ure was born Elizabeth Carswell (becoming Elizabeth Clark after her marriage to John Clark) in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear in 1918 and died in Mauchline in 1978. Although raised in Lenzie and Glasgow and living nearly all of her life in Scotland, her birth South of the border troubled Ure and led her sometimes to label herself only half Scottish: ‘as Scots as I am’…
Elizabeth (also known as Betty) had never had good health, having suffered as a young adult from the tuberculosis caught from her dying mother as she nursed her, while trying at the same time to keep the family together; there was a younger brother, Iain, and a sister, Joan. During the war, her ‘businessman’ husband John (‘Jack’) left to fight, leaving Elizabeth to raise their daughter Frances alone. In later years she suffered from shingles, bronchitis, emphysema, hypothermia and anorexia and the neglect of her work. Due to her physical frailty but great determination and intellectual dynamism, Ure was given the epithet the ‘Iron Butterfly’ which now seems old-fashioned and inadequate to describe her life and work, much of it taken up with the struggle to carve out a niche as a woman writer in Scotland.
Torn between her desire to create and her fear of being judged as an irresponsible wastrel for pursuing her dreams, particularly in the context of her strict Presbyterian upbringing (‘religion has me by the throat’), like many Scottish writers, Ure adopted a pseudonym in order to draw a line between a domestic identity and a creative one, and to protect one way of life from the other. Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Elizabeth Clark became ‘Joan Ure’, partly as a tribute to her tragic sister who died in mysterious, but most likely suicidal, circumstances, found drowned in a burn shortly after the war. From the 1960s onwards, as Ure began to practice and exercise her art, she became two people, Ure being Betty’s ‘protégé’. This duality between pride in her art and being ashamed of it created, in her own words, a ‘trapeze-walking existence’. She recognised that as a writer she needed a room of her own and the privacy that entailed but she was also aware that this was seen, in her time, as being inimical to family life. If one of her plays was performed then it was inevitable that in the press she would be described as an ‘intense young housewife’ to which her riposte was ‘I haven’t ever been married to a house […] Oh the unintentional atrocities we all perpetrate on each other, with the best will in the world’ and ‘At least the Scots “schoolteacher” who writes, no matter how tidily he keeps his room and scullery, is not called a househusband’.
Ure’s own relationship with Scotland was strained and on many occasions in her writings and letters she denounces it as a ‘blasting cold philistine land’, where to self-identify as a writer is to put yourself forward to be brutally cut down in size. When Ure published her polemical 1968 essay ‘The Scottish Soldier Myth’, about Scotland’s unhealthy obsession with the male warrior ego and how this filters down into and colours all walks of life, Willa Muir wrote to Ure to congratulate her but also to point out that it had been the same in 1912, which was why Muir ‘got out’ and escaped to Europe. For Ure there was no such escape. She was particularly moved by the plight of the poet Helen Cruickshank, who for her generosity in supporting writers worse off than herself, became typecast as a benevolent mother figure, and not a poet:
Helen Cruickshank’s importance was less that of the poems she made and more that she acted as a hostess to all the others […] It wasn’t so much the poems you made as that you made the tea, lass, as that you made the tea!
One of Ure’s most well-known poems is ‘The Tiny Talent’. Like many of her poems it operates as an ironic and thinly veiled parable. It takes to task the Scottish tendency to make everything diminutive, or ‘wee’, especially anything relating to women, including their artistic achievements and ambitions: ‘She had this talent that it happened to be death / to hide’. In her lifetime, Ure saw the publication of only one book of her own: Two Plays, a very limited edition that appeared in 1970 and contained two short plays: ‘Seven Characters Out of the Dream’ and ‘I See Myself as this Young Girl’. This was followed by the posthumous 1979 collection Five Short Plays (Scottish Society of Playwrights), also a limited edition. Ure also published a small range of work: poems, essays, stories and reviews in newspapers and journals of the era such as The Glasgow Herald, Scottish International, The Glasgow Review, New Saltire, Words and Glasgow University Magazine. As such, her total printed output is very slender and most of it is concentrated on her last decade, the 1970s. It is only in recent years that a small murmur of interest has attended Ure’s work, and her plays in particular have enjoyed a new life translated into Italian.
Ure’s work, in poetry and plays, interrogates the supposed male ownership of certain fields of experience, such as militarism and the ‘Scottish Soldier myth’ and how in Scotland there is more value attached to fact than fiction, that there is little distinction made between factual and artistic truth. As Alasdair Gray reminds us, Ure’s upbringing was one where the patriarchal power of men was upheld at all costs and where the desire to read and feed the imagination was regarded with great suspicion. Generations of men in Ure’s family had worked on the Clyde as shipbuilders and engineers:
Betty Carswell’s [Ure’s] grandfather, a foreman, often spent an evening seated alone in the best parlour of his house, consuming a bottle of whisky in perfectly orderly silence. Had he drunk in a pub with fellow-workers he would have lessened his authority over them and perhaps lost the confidence of his employer. Had he drunk with his wife and family he would have lessened his authority over them and lost their respect.
What Gray describes is a tragedy playing out generation after generation and how all members of the household are held prisoner by the supposed mores of their time. Ure was born into a family that expected her to know her place and play her narrow role within this ‘tragedy’. ‘Depression was construed as ingratitude’, so Ure could never complain about having to care for her siblings and run the household during her mother’s illness, and reading for pleasure was thought of ‘as bad for a girl’. It is little wonder that her imagination offered her a way out, helping her to avoid becoming a ‘neurotic drudge or empty-headed puppet’. But it came at a cost and for the rest of her life Ure would be torn between the sentiments and strictures of her family history and her ambition to be a writer. She had already had to compromise on an earlier dream of becoming a teacher, instead leaving school early to train as a typist for the Glasgow Corporation housing department.
Although Ure is more readily associated with drama, she also wrote a great deal of poetry, much of which remains in manuscript form in her archives in Glasgow University Library. She herself had a lifelong dilemma about whether she wrote poetry or not and on many occasions in her letters she states emphatically that she is not a poet:
I don’t write poems. I write pieces for acting. Sometimes I type them with irregularly shaped lines, but that’s to help an actor to read them, for the sake of the sense, but I don’t write poems at all. I have to explain this to actors […].
Ure goes on to explain that she doesn’t write poetry, but if she did it would be ‘a failure – not intentionally, but because of the world’. Be that as it may, and the subtext her disavowal of poetry is that it is elitist and male-dominated and filled with rules about what and what not to do, Ure’s work in short dramatic form challenges our preconceptions of what constitutes a poem. Her work here thrives on the interstices between monologue, one act plays, prose poems, performance poetry and lyrical poetry. Ure takes free verse further than many of her contemporaries, and in doing this, and in putting women first and removing them from victimhood, Ure is, as Jan McDonald claims: ‘writing before her time […] she explores the fallacy of sisterhood and separate spheres models [and] was often shunned by the overwhelmingly masculine post-Calvinist oligarchy of Scottish theatre’. For Christopher Small this was exactly the point of her work – to move far away from any facile labelling as a ‘feminist writer’ to show that most labels and categories in life are ‘forced on women […] by law, custom and tradition’.
For Ure, most day-to-day human communication had become debased and meaningless and she claimed that we ‘hide real areas of human communication’ by reading newspapers that present everything in a reductive light. Her task was to restore eloquence and to write only ‘essential’ things. In 1962, publishing under the name Elizabeth Clark, she wrote an artistic statement in which she ‘believed in the sort of writing that forces itself up, even in contemporary Scotland, with its author’s soul showing’. But Ure’s individualism as an artist came at the price of loneliness, and her uncompromising stance meant that time and time again she clashed ideologically with others, as with her blistering monologue cum poem, a sardonic riposte to John Knox, ‘Answer on the Side Drum in 1963 to the Blast of the Trumpet in 1557, with less than respect’ which was designed to be read aloud during a theatrical revue. The actor who was to read the piece refused on the grounds that it was offensive to her religion, making Ure feel she was being censored: ‘even if I thought there was at this date a battle for Catholicism v. Protestantism, as Celtic v. Rangers, I wouldn’t have done it’. However, instead of being, as one might expect, an angry sectarian attack by a woman writer in the 1960s to Knox’s misogyny in the 1550s, Ure’s poem is instead witty, ironic and filled with forgiveness, which is surely one of the major tenets of any religion. Ure’s main point seems to be ‘there is such a despising of beauty in the puritan heart’ and that so much has been poisoned by this for too long, that Knox and his preaching would not be out of place in 1960s Scotland:
No, if Knox lived among us in the Sixties
he’d be worth his vote, his meat and potatoes
with the rest of us, for he earned it.
We could grant him our equality.
‘Our equality’ is a poisoned chalice of a gift, as Ure’s point is that such equality is very thin on the ground. Her approach to this contentious subject is completely novel and she brings her unique perspective to many pressing and contemporary issues in her poems. It is hard to understand why her work has been neglected for so long. It is worth looking at Ure’s poignant final letter to Christopher Small, written less than three weeks before her death. In it she comes across as desperately ill and lonely says she needs friends. In a hauntingly confessional but cryptic way she writes:
[…] there’s little I’m proud of about me just now and I need more acceptance than correction – I believe – to give me any appetite at all, for the long climb up for the toppled ecstatic to reach the beautiful, simple place on the earth’s surface which used to be good enough, as children know, is a weary way for the plain pilgrim.
It could, and should, be argued that Joan Ure was no ‘plain pilgrim’ but in fact a distinctive pioneer. She may well have baulked at that label, yet another unhelpful term in a world saturated with them. It is painful to think that she died with little taste of recognition for her work, with only her shaken confidence that what she had written had made her life worthwhile. It would be hard now to read her poems with anything but acceptance. Ure was writing ahead of her time and even now it seems we have some way to go before we catch up with her, but the gap is closing.