CHAPTER SIX Morgan and the City
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101 CHAPTER SIX Morgan and the City Robyn Marsack To think about a city is to hold and maintain its conflictual aspects: constraints and possibilities, peacefulness and violence, meetings and solitude, gatherings and separation, the trivial and the poetic, brutal functionalism and surprising improvisation. Henri Lefebvre1 I feel very strongly about the immediate environment of Glasgow, you see, and have often written about that. I suppose this is partly natural because I live there, but there is probably also a little slice of the deliberate about that too, to let people in London or wherever know that here is someone living in and writing about Glasgow of all places! Edwin Morgan2 Edwin Morgan belonged to Glasgow, then Scotland, and after that, the universe: from Glasgow to Saturn the line was fairly direct. Sitting amidst his peers in Alexander Moffat’s Poets’ Pub painting, Morgan is at a slight angle to the rest and one reason must be the comparative indifference he showed to the rural Scotland that nourished most of the others in various ways. Even two poets (not in the painting) with whom Morgan shared a modernist sensibility – Ian Hamilton Finlay and W. S. Graham – were on the whole more concerned with their natural surroundings than he was: Finlay in his garden, and Graham on the Cornish coast. The city where he was born in 1920, lived all his life (except for his war service) and died provided Morgan with the multitude of contradictions that Lefebvre summarises, which inform and energise his poetry. In 1920 Glasgow was still a great manufacturing city – second city of empire – with the yards on the Clyde producing 672,000 tons of shipping 102 robyn marsack that year.3 At the same time, the MP James Stewart described the city as ‘Earth’s nearest suburb to hell’,4 with over sixty-six per cent of Glasgow families living in one- or two-room dwellings. The years of Morgan’s childhood were a massively unstable period in Glasgow’s history, responding to the see-saw of international relations: in terms of shipbuilding , a drop to 175,000 tons in 1923, back up to 600,000 in 1928, with a dizzying decline through the years of the Depression to a mere 56,000 tons in 1937, when unemployment levels reached thirty per cent of the insured population.5 Morgan’s father worked for the iron and steel merchants Arnott, Young and Company, and the family also registered some ups and downs. They never owned a car, and thus Morgan recalled from his earliest days travelling by public transport, where ‘your ear is attuned to the broadest kind of Glasgow speech as well as what you’re using yourself. I always liked listening to what I heard being spoken in the streets, in buses, and so on.’  6 Long afterwards he set down a rare childhood memory, of being on a tram with his mother and offered a sixpence: ‘Ur ye a good boay? Sure ye’re a good boay.’ I was not so sure. My mother hissed ‘Take it, take it, always take what a drunk man gives you!’ I remember how nicely he clasped my hand around the coin.7 The chance encounter and the touch of a working-class man are recurrent elements of Morgan’s Glasgow poems, sometimes benevolent, sometimes menacing. Morgan was a student at the High School of Glasgow from 1934 to 1937, and later suggested that the poetry of the Romantics on the English syllabus ‘wasn’t the kind of poetry I should have been reading as a person living in Glasgow in the thirties. […] It took me a while to understand you could write about anything – ugly things, dirty things, painful things.’ 8 Studying art at the High School, however, was a different matter: here he came across the architecture of Le Corbusier; he could relate that to his early fascination with Russian art, and it sharpened his observation of Glasgow buildings.9 103 morgan and the city By 1938, now at the University of Glasgow, he had discovered the French Symbolists, and ‘Baudelaire particularly … was a kind of revelation’: I got into [Baudelaire] before I got into Eliot, and it seemed to me that he was one of the few who had, at a very early date really, the sense in poetry of what was going to be a modern city and I liked that tremendously . I think subconsciously I had been looking for that and not finding...