BOOKS CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
_ Poetic patter
Fiona Shepherd talks to Hamish Whyte, editor of a new Glasgow poetry
There are eight million stories in the naked city, but somehow the same ones keep cropping up, rendered by poetic voices, in the dear green place. Mungo's Tongues, a revised version of the I983 Glaswegian poetry anthology I Noise and Smoky Breath, expanded to ' include pre-20th century material, contains repeated variations on the ominous advance of industry. the polluting effect it brings (especially to the Clyde — the water of life running through the town centre), then further on in Glasgow’s growth the blight of bad housing. the demise of tenement life, the resilience of the people no matter what their abode, the naive child's whining, and frequent dissections and mutations of the Glaswegian motto and coat-of-arms.
‘There seemed to be a number of poems which did play on the motto and coat- of-arms. The original legend
is all about life coming back. Glasgow’s history is a history of regeneration.’
If there’s one motif that binds together the strands in Mungo's Tongues. it‘s one that ﬁnds itself most pithily explored in the stanzas which close the collection:
i ' 53‘. '3 “‘35 :" 5”}? “, 5"." ’ ’ ' [14,6 e, . V v . ‘ I 6
‘So Glasgow's alive and flourishingj
Bells ringing, birds singing/Fish
swimming. trees growing/In spite of the bastards‘ from Cath Craig’s I992
poem ‘Glasgow‘s Alive'.
It seemed to be a number of poems which i : did play on the motto and coat-of-arms. ?
‘I wanted some sort of thread running through the book,‘ says editor Hamish
Whyte, ensconced in ‘Poet's Corner‘ in i
Glasgow‘s Mitchell Library, ‘and there
‘ The original legend is all about life
coming back. Glasgow‘s history is a history of regeneration. There‘s very little surviving of the old Glasgow. It's
a Victorian city. and even that‘s getting
demolished: with the comprehensive
development plans oi‘the I96()s so
much of Glasgow vanished. lives were changed. people were uprooted to Castlernilk and places. Glasgow seems to have had this thing about knocking itself down and building itself up.‘ So that‘ll be where the self-deprecating
, humour stems from.
I Whyte‘s sources for the older poems. I dating from the late l7th/early I8th
! century. were pamphlets. newspapers l
and magazines. Several items are . anonymous. Many are outsiders’ , impressions. what Tom Leonard
describes as ‘forgotten voices‘. However, Leonard himself and other prominent 20th century voices — Edwins Muir and Morgan. Liz Lochhead, Tom McGrath, lain Crichton Smith. Carl MacDougall — are also included, many of them eager to berate Hugh MacDiarmid in verse for his assertion that Glasgow was in its buildings, not its people. These polar ideas are knocked about later in the anthology by popular verses. from ‘The Jeely Piece Song' to Alan Jackson‘s pithy observation that ‘glasgow‘s full of artists/they‘re three feet tall/and eat sherbet dabs.‘
Reluctantly. Whyte makes an attempt to define the driving force behind the city and its poetry. ‘Edwin Morgan used the phrase “perverse optimism". People will not be shut up. As with every city. there’s a feeling of life that pulses through it.‘
M (mgr) 's 'l'mtgucs.‘ Glasgow I Menu 1630—] 990 is published Irv Mainstream a! £9. 99.
Mary Macarthur, 1842
l trod thy streets, proud city of the Clyde!
Great mart of commerce! and on every hand Were sights and sounds to trade alone allied,
Yet fraught with dreams of many a distant land. Thou art, — as cities from remotest time,
Tyre, Sidon, Babylon, and all have been, — A very world of wretchedness and crime;
At once rich, poor, magnificent, and mean: Still, there are human hearts within thy walls,
So purified, so broadly stamped with ‘Heaven’, That thou - ’tis known on high, whate’er befalls -
Hot wholly to idolatry art given; And works of mercy have been done in thee, That towns and nations might repent to see!
[— East meets West
Virtual reality and 17th century Moghul India may seem unlikely sleeping partners, but in her new novel Bharatl Mukherlee strides across the centuries with the same self confidence that she strides across the continents.
The Holder Of The World, narrated by contemporary Hew York asset-hunter Beigh Masters (note Mukherlee’s own initials), Is the story of Hannah Easton, a Hew England Puritan, who, having accompanied her merchant husband to london, and then South East India, discovers a new realm of passion and sensuality In the harem of a Hindu prince. Having lost her position as favoured one, she turns her thoughts from love-making to peace-making, and heads for the court of the Hala’s enemy, Aurangzeb, the Moghul ruler of most of the subcontinent. Her efforts In India fall, but she returns home, pregnant, to Salem, to become symbolic mother to Mukherlee’s ideal of a thoroughly mongrel America.
It is clear as one fantastic event follows another, that Hannah Easton is fictional: but It Is crucial to Muitherlee’s unashamedly explicit
; f consciousness, even in simple money
i terms: the namesake of Yale college,
i for example, endowed it with the
; proceeds of twenty years spent on India’s Coromandel coast, first asa
3 factor for the British East India
| Company, then as Governor of what is
3 now Madras.
. Mukheriee sees herself as a new
I pioneer - she arrived in North America i from Calcutta in her twenties - whose f duty it is to rewrite American history,
5 to re-orientate the Eurocentrlc literary a canon. But she reiects what she
l describes as ‘the easy polemics, the
3 setting up of victims and victimisers’
i of much minority writing, as
; vehemently as she relects “the current pattern of mosaic ethnicity, each group pretending that their heritage
Bbaratl Mukheriee: advocating ‘a new fused national identity' for America message that there were women who transcended their culture and their age in this way. Hannah Easton was actually inspired by a 300-year-old Moghul painting depicting a blonde woman in the court of Aurangzeb,
1 which caught Mukheriee’s eye in a E New York auction. As she explains,
Hew England is full of artefacts bearing testimony to the great deal of
., interaction that went on between India and America in the latter
: country’s formative years. Asia made i an enormous contribution to the
founding of the American
. ' has never been touched by others and ‘ hanging on to it in an exclusivist way.’ According to Mukheriee, the right way i for authors is ‘compassion, largeness : of spirit, understanding for all sides,’ and for America ‘a new fused national ; identity,’ based on the aforementioned : racial and cultural mongrelisation.
If Mukherlee comes across as
dogmatic, she is motivated by urgent
3 concern over the ‘potentially
j extremer bloody’ state of Inter-racial l hostility In the US today. In the novel
’ though, a similar irony to that of the adamant individual advocating
i tolerance becomes somewhat
f problematic. Hannah Easton is
l depicted as a ‘woman apart’. In fact
' she is a woman of such unique
experiences, honed sensibilities, and exceptional talents she could rival the heroine of the average romantic blockbuster. But more significantly, were it not for her residual colonial arrogance, her sense of invulnerabllity - something which Mukherjee herself acknowledges - she would never have had the gall to attempt a grand reconciliation between two fighting foreign potentates.
But perhaps the most serious flaw in this ambitious novel is exposed by the use of virtual reality as an analogy. When, with the help of a computer, Beigh Masters finally ‘interacts’ with all the information she has gathered about the life of Hannah Easton, we are supposedly presented with the culmination of a more vivid, empathetic approach to history and the proverbial ‘other’. In fact, what Is emphasised is that whilst Mukheriee’s language is as rich and lush as a Hale’s jewel-encrusted robe, It offers merely a detailed description of the places and events In Hannah Easton’s life, rather than a convincing evocation of her experience of them. Consequently, Hannah never comes alive for the reader and, by failing to see through the eyes of her heroine, Mukheriee has lost her most obvious way of practising what she preaches. (Catherine Fellows)
The Holder Of The World is published by Chatto G Windus at £14.99.
78 The List I9 November-2 December I993