‘It must be about time/ for a change’

In our notes to the publication The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure, Richie McCaffery and I allude to the circumstances that led to our joining forces on the project. That a writer and critic then living in Ghent, and a small publishing house based in Orkney should come together for the purposes of publishing the first selection of poetry by an author so strongly associated with her home city of Glasgow, and so long forgotten, might indeed seem curious. It’s not as though Brae Editions was even, on the face of it, still a going concern, but several years into what might have passed for dormancy.

We both had some previous association with Glasgow, of course, my own being rather more intermittent in recent years, and tending to concentrate on my PhD research (hence the inactivity, publishing-wise) at Northumbria University. This concerned the early career of the poet, artist and gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay. As noted elsewhere, I am now researching his life and work in order to write his biography. I was initially interested in Ure because she and Finlay had known one another from at least the mid-1950s, and I wanted, partly through her, to find out as much as I could about his rather obscure career over that period, up to the early 1960s, and its context. Among other things, like Ure, he was active then as a playwright. But I had grown to like what I was able to learn about her. I admired her work, when I happened to come across it, and I enjoyed her vigour and spirit personally and from what I knew of her as an artist. There wasn’t much in print, but there was that photograph on the moped. She intrigued me.

Richie’s connections with Glasgow are more substantial, in that although he comes originally from Northumberland, he lived and studied there for a decade. A Carnegie Trust Caledonian scholar at the University of Glasgow, he earned his PhD in 2016, his thesis being concerned with Scottish poets of World War Two. That focus implies only a small part of the very extensive range of interest he takes in the field. As his entry states on the Scottish Poetry Library website, ‘his essays, largely on Scottish poetry of the second half of the twentieth century, have appeared in The Scottish Literary Review, The Dark Horse, Northwords Now, Fras and Etudes ecossaises.’  His own website can be found hereRichie is currently in the final stages of editing a volume of essays on the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith, for publication by Brill, date to be confirmed.

Not surprisingly, we had never previously encountered one another. But at the start of November 2017, we both happened to be working at the National Library of Scotland, and we met under circumstances that, as noted in that editorial, ‘might seem improbable’. It was I who made the connection, but given how the project has unfolded since then, it rather seems as though circumstances themselves were behind the thing.

At the end of October 2017 I’d attended part of a weekend literary event being held in Glasgow (the Peter Manson Symposium, the first such). During a break I asked one of the speakers, who I’d heard being introduced as also recently having completed a PhD in the field, whether he knew anything about one or two now quite obscure Scottish poets of the post-War period. Well yes, he said, though probably not as much as Richie McCaffery, but he lives in Belgium. Ah, I thought. Next time I’m heading over that way… Yet perhaps I’d write, though it would be a rather vague inquiry, and nothing urgent, but anyway I looked him up on the SPL website.

Now, I’ve been describing this curious sequence of events, quite off the cuff, in the course of the two launches that we’ve organised, to date, for The Tiny Talent. Having come to write it down, however, and consult my diary, I find my memory has been at fault. What I could have sworn to, is that the very next morning I went into the NLS, and upstairs to Special Collections and there, diagonally across the large table at which I’d put down my stuff, was this chap who looked very like the photograph I’d seen on the SPL website. At which I was amazed, and (perforce) speechless. Could it be… He looked extremely busy, sifting though a folder of letters, and making notes, rather like, I thought, a man who’s only got a few hours before he must leave again for Ghent…

It is very quiet in Special Collections. You feel you will be remembered if you make an untoward noise. And I am glad of the silence. (Save a floorboard near the issue desk that slightly creaks.)

Yet in fact it wasn’t the very next day (which was a Sunday: Portobello and Duddingston), nor even the day after (General Reading Room), but on the Tuesday that I came, saw and waited my moment. I was hoping this familiar-seeming individual would soon get to the end of the folder and return it to the counter. For this would allow me to squint properly at the library card that was lying on his desk —at its postage-stamp corner, the one nearest me.

At length, he did. I leaned across…

‘Richie McCaffery.’

How to make an approach. Conveniently, Richie left to consult the catalogues. These are located behind a partition, relatively out of the way with respect to the room as a whole (and out of earshot, as I thought). I sped behind him and whispered my questions, he his answers. We talked more, the field of reference expanding in moments. Expression entered our voices, lent the conversation wings—

Swiftly chastised, we returned to our places, having arranged to meet the next morning downstairs.

I was impressed the next day, and the day following, by Richie’s close knowledge of his subject, and by his passionate interest, not least in the writers whose work had been lost, or as good as lost to contemporary awareness. And by his willingness to share what he knew. Perhaps he mentioned that he’d written a lengthy essay on the topic for the next edition of The Dark Horse: ‘Mither Tongue: Scottish Women Poets of the 20th Century’.

And so we got onto the subject of Joan Ure, a ‘Glaswegian poet and playwright … (1918-1978), real name Elizabeth Clark, [who] was the most outstanding voice of her time, still at risk of near-total neglect’ op. cit.

And as we spoke, I began to think about reviving Brae Editions in order to publish some of her poetry, and I voiced the suggestion. No one else seemed to be doing so; it is staggeringly good work, and still very much alive; Richie already knew it thoroughly, and had the title all prepared. It fitted my own research interests well enough to devote the time.

Further, from where we were sitting I could see the exhibition room entranceway all wonderfully well set up for the Muriel Spark Centenary. I’d heard of the WS Graham Centenary too, and lots about Margaret Tait, but where was Joan Ure being celebrated next year?

We agreed we would try and follow it through, if we could. For this rider of mopeds, this complex feminist, this non-poet, this ‘Tiny Talent’, Betty Clark/ Joan Ure.

from Woven by Women (Chapman 27/28, 1980) ‘Joan Ure: 1919-1978’ by Alasdair Gray

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Reproduced by kind permission of publisher Joy Hendry on behalf of Chapman Magazine, and by kind permission of the author, Alasdair Gray.

Cover image by Marion Thomson.

JOAN URE : 1919-1978

Joan Ure the playwright was called Elizabeth Carswell when born near Newcastle, where her father worked as an engineer with Vickers-Armstrong. On her father’s and mother’s side she came from three generations of small Clydeside shipbuilders and engineers, folk who had managed by hard work, thrift and steady, conventional behaviour to get free of the unemployment and poverty which threatens the less skilled or more reckless part of the Scottish workforce. Betty Carswell’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 and perhaps lost the confidence of his employer. Had he drunk with his wife and children he would have lost their respect. Betty was born into a culture which gave her good food, good clothing, a well-furnished home, a careful code of manners (only fools sneer at these things) at the cost of self-supression. In the nineteen-twenties, when the Carswells returned from Tyneside to Clydeside, bottle-parties and sexual daring were fashionable among wealthy people, but the lower middle-classes or respectable working-classes (call them what you like) placed on polite conduct an emphasis which recalls the world of Jane Austen. Betty now had a young sister, Joan, and a younger brother, John. They went to family gatherings where their mother presented them to her mother for a clothes-inspection, and reported their behaviour in the previous week, and got advice and approval for the rewards and punishments she had issued. After a meal the men conversed on one side of the room, the women on the other, and the children by turns gave recitat­ions in the middle.

When Betty was twelve, her mother entered hospital with tuberculosis, and Betty became her father’s housewife and working mother to her brother and sister. Mrs Carswell came home after two years and thereafter managed the house from her bedroom. It was important for Betty to keep looking happy. Depression was thought ungrateful to the mother who bore her, the father who nourished. How did she avoid becoming a neurotic drudge or empty-headed puppet? By imagination, by developing an inner world where, for a change, she had authority. It was not an exclusive inner world. When seven she had written a thirteen-page story and given it to her mother, thinking it beautiful. Mrs Carswell punished her for a misdeed by burning it, and was perhaps surprized by how much she cried. Before the days of television, literate children stocked their inner worlds with the help of books. In the Carswell home it was thought bad of a girl to read for pleasure with so much dusting and tidying to be done, so Betty liked school which positively ordered her to read poems and Shakespeare and good novels. Her English teacher wished her to continue to university. Her father did not. In 1933 there were no university grants, nobody felt safe in their job, there was no national health service and an invalid in the family was a financial burden. She wished to be a teacher. She left school at fifteen, nursed her mother a while, then became a typist in Glasgow Corporation housing department. Two years later she met and married a business man and became Mrs Betty Clark. The second world war began. Mr Clark was posted overseas and for five years she lived alone in Glasgow bringing up her young daughter.

By this time she must have appeared as she did in the last twenty years of her life when I knew her: small, slender, fair-haired, with beautifully clear-cut features and always very young-looking, though sometimes too boney, because her guilt-feeling about being supported by someone else, implanted in childhood, lasted through marriage and led her to eat too little. She made her own clothes and dressed very well. She was eye-catching in a way that was too individual to be merely fashionable, too smart to be eccentric. Her manner upset some people at first, she was so ladylike, and polite, and anxious to be helpful and understanding in every possible way. And within this gushing manner was a gleam of desperate amusement amounting to laughter, because her intelligence was saying. ‘Yes, we must help and understand each other in every possible way, but it can’t be done. Yet it must be done.’ This manner greatly disturbed directors who mishandled her plays. She was not afraid of authority but she knew people in authority have very delicate egos, and it distressed her to hurt them by explaining why her work should not have some bits cut out and others grafted in. And it distressed them to find that, in spite of her eagerly submissive manner, she could not be brushed aside.

But at the end of the war Betty had not committed herself to being anyone but Mrs Clark. Her life so far, though rather sad, and providing all the insights a writer needs, had not been unusual for a woman. Then two very hard things happened. Her young sister Joan returned from the WAAF to live with her parents, and entered a religious melancholy, though they were not particularly religious. Joan was found dead under a bridge with her face in a stream, perhaps by mis­adventure, perhaps not. Then at the age of 29 Betty entered hospital with tuber­culosis. Lung-scars indicated she had contracted it while nursing her mother.

Later on, Betty wrote a story about a woman with a talent. She feels it is too small to matter, supresses it, and faints. She is pleased, for that suggests the talent is genuine. To be absolutely certain she hides it again. ‘Very soon she coughed up the first gobbets of blood. And there she saw, brilliant at last, the brightness of the tiny talent she had.’ The woman dies rejoicing. She knows her talent is genuine, for it was death to hide it.

Betty used the materials of her life as much as any writer, but was seldom autobiographical. The people she presents are alternative forms of herself, the ends of roads she had only walked some distance along. She decided not to hide her talent. She signed herself out of hospital against medical advice and lived for another thirty years. She took a pen-name: Joan Ure. It is a Scottish tradition. The writers of Waverley, The House With the Green Shutters, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle and Sunset Song all did it, partly to give themselves a new start, mainly to avoid embarrasing their relations. The lowland Scots suspect the creative imagination. John Knox, our national scapegoat, is usually blamed for this but the cause is poverty. The English middle classes know that imagination can be a way of managing things. Artistic wives and offspring can usually get a job con­nected with publishing, television or education. But where there is little wealth respectable people fear the future and are sure that only carefulness will help themselves, and wives, and children survive it. An active imagination excites the passions, expecially sexual ones, and breeds discontent and extravagant actions. And indeed, for those with few resources and connections, unimaginative careful­ness is a way of avoiding pain, in the short run. In the long run it makes us the easy tools of people with resources and connections, and when they have no use for us they drop us in the shit. As is happening now. So an active imagination, though painful, is our only hope, and by imagination I do not mean escape—fantasy. In Joan Ure’s play Something in it For Ophelia, a young energetic slightly stupid girl has been to a performance of Hamlet and recognized in Ophelia (ex­ploited and abused by a father and boyfriend who have no real interest in her) a possible form of herself. She is appalled. She feels such things should not be shown on a stage, and people should certainly not applaud them. After all, she has read in The Scotsman that the Scottish suicide rate is as high as the Swedish, only most of our suicides are women.

Joan Ure became the name of an imaginative intelligence directing us to the passionate self-knowledge which can change us, make us harder to be managed and dropped by other people. I am not particularly speaking of women when I say that. She was a woman’s liberationist of course, but liked men too much to want the two main sexes divorced, and I doubt if she wanted a matriarchy. She had lived under one. Her plays handle the commonplace facts: that hard housework, factory-work, office work is unavoidable, but freedom is essential; that we could all be fairly free with a decent sharing of powers; that we are hardly ever free because our love is twisted by exploitation and sex-war, men oppressing women and other men with their greater economic strength, women exploiting men and other women with their greater emotional insight. But these plays are not dour, they are witty, moving, funny, and usually rather short. I’ll speak of those I like most.

I See Myself As This Young Girl. 40 minutes, 3 actors.

A middle aged woman left to mind a baby by her brisk student daughter, en­counters a lonely sales-clerk who has ‘adventured out in his shorts’. Each reveals the fantasies that keep them going. She imagines herself a young girl—not the actual daughter who exploits her—but someone more sentimental with nobody to help her. The play is about the need to soar above our responsibilities without abandoning them. The tone of it is funny and melancholy.

Something in it for Ophelia. 40 minutes, 2 actors.

A Scottish Hamlet and Ophelia meet on Waverley Station platform while waiting for a train and reveal themselves as incapable of love. Ophelia is the tougher of the two but less admirable. She leaves the more sensitive Hamlet prostrate. Funny and harsh.

The Hard-Case. 40 minutes, 1 actor.

A football fan, a small Glasgow businessman, is so appalled by the death of the children crushed at the end of that disastrous Rangers-Celtic game in 1970 that he deliberately smashes a shop window to get the chance of making a public state­ment about it. In the course of that statement he becomes his own judge, and binds himself over to keep the peace. At the time of writing it looked as if a new period of decency for Glasgow football was beginning. No other play has dealt with Scottish football, and injustice, and that disaster, so openly yet delicately. I don’t think other writers have tackled it at all. Too big for them.

The Lecturer and the Lady. 40 minutes, 2 actors.

In this play Joan Ure is confronted by Betty Clark. An ageing, conventional housewife approaches a young adventurous thinker, hoping she will receive the inspiration to leave the husband she loves. She does not get it. The thinker who has abandoned her child and husband—’Two terrible things! And not been struck down dead!’—is not prepared to advise everyone to do as she did. When they part the brave thinker is sadder for having met the lady, the lady is a little braver for having met the lecturer.

The foregoing is a very partial list, and I realize it includes all her plays which I have seen really well acted. Take Your Old Rib Back Then is a play I cannot read with pleasure, because the words on the page recall the gabbling voice of the only actress I heard play them. She was embarrased by the long speeches and spoke too fast. Joan’s plays had very few decent productions because:—She worked in Scotland where hardly any theatres used local writing; her plays were short, an evening would require two or three of them and the public aren’t thought to like that; her plays were clever, and managements are uneasy with new, local work which is cleverer than themselves. They think it’s probably stupid; her characters don’t lose their tempers and always talk in clear, polite, formal language. Restoration dramatists, great Irishmen and Noel Coward can do that, but here in Scotland? We are a violent people. O.K.?

So to get her work seen Joan directed small productions of it, performed by friends in an Edinburgh basement, sometimes acting in it herself. She made contact with amateur companies and worked hard, without pay, for organizations trying to change things, like the abortive Scottish Stage Company, and the succes­sful Scottish Society of Playwrights. Things are better for local playwrights in Scotland today, and she is partly responsible for that, but the wear on her highly-strung nature was a punishing one. Most writers grow a surface to protect their nerves, rhinocerous hide or porcupine bristles or slippery suavity. Joan Ure never did. What she showed you at anytime was all there was of her, so even the company of close friends exhausted her after an hour or two. And apart from one year when she got an Arts Council grant she had always too little money. Her combination of intense drive and intense fragility led some colleagues to nickname her ‘the iron butterfly’. Intellectually she was no butterfly and physically she was not iron. Instead of rusting and corroding like the rest of us she drove to breaking point, thank goodness. Her last months were painful and lonely. She refused to depend on friends, she loathed hospitals, but she had to enter them. Her lungs failed her at last.

Luckily the value of a life is not in the end of it but in what the man or woman gave when at their best and most typical. Since I admire Joan Ure’s art I find it easy to see her life as a triumph. Joan Ure left several poems, an as yet uncounted number of short stories and essays, and over twenty-four plays and play-fragments. The earliest obtainable manuscripts, typescripts and copies of all these have been bought by Glasgow University Library. The Scottish Society of Play­wrights has copies of most of the plays. It has also printed a volume, the first of its playscript series Five Short Plays by Joan Ure, with an introduction by Chris­topher Small. (Regrettably, Joan’s bad luck still pursues her. Through trouble with the printer the book, though distinctly legible, is unevenly inked and contains some small, obvious, irritating errors. But buy it, it’s a first edition and nearly three-quarters sold out.) People interested in Scottish drama can therefore heave a sigh of relief. Her work is where ourselves, and directors, and scholars, can read and obtain copies without much fuss or expense. Her daughter, who is a doctor in Canada, and her brother John Carswell in Newton Mearns, have her personal letters, diaries and tape-recordings. I hope that the next Joan Ure book to appear will be a collection of her poems and prose.

Alasdair Gray

© Chapman Magazine, 1980

(Text uncorrected, as per the original.)

Launch of The Tiny Talent, at the CCA, Glasgow with Jan McDonald, & friends, Wednesday 12th December, 5.30-7pm.

First, some background.

Late last year, after Richie McCaffery and I had decided to seek to publish a centenary selection of poems by Joan Ure, one of the first people we contacted was Professor Emerita Jan McDonald, formerly James Arnott Professor of Drama at the University of Glasgow, and we are delighted to confirm that she will be our main reader at the launch on Wednesday. At that earlier stage, Jan was able to help us get in touch with the poet’s daughter, Frances Wren, who lives in Canada. It wasn’t so much a matter of permissions, for Richie had quickly secured the agreement of the poet’s executor, Christopher Small, but we wanted at least to let Frances know what we were planning. Happily, she was delighted at the idea, and wished us well, in due course supplying a number of photographs and providing further background information. As she wrote, in a recent email: ‘The poetry books arrived, and they are great. You did a great job […] Marvellous non-poems, by a very remarkable non-poet.’

The nice point of her irony can be understood with reference to the pamphlet’s ‘Editors’ Notes’, in which we discuss Ure’s own remarks, as made in a letter of 1963 to Christopher Small, then literary editor of The Glasgow Herald:

‘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 read them, for the sake of the sense, but I don’t write poems at all.’

Of course the contents of the new pamphlet are very much what anyone would recognise as poems, but the crucial way in which they lend themselves so readily to performance is suggested by Ure’s own ironic slant. Her main output was certainly as a dramatist, although as Jan McDonald reveals, in a note to her essay, ‘Is it not possible to have a Poem made out of Theatre?’ – An assessment of the dramas and dramaturgy of Joan Ure’, when she started to write as an adult, after a childhood marked by repression and self-denial, Ure began with poetry:

‘”Joan Ure” (1919-78) was the pseudonym of Elizabeth (Betty) Clark, née Carswell. She was the daughter of a Scottish engineering draughtsman and was brought up in Walesend, near Newcastle. From the age of twelve, she was obliged to look after her father and siblings when her mother contracted tuberculosis and remained a permanent invalid. “Betty” left school at sixteen and worked for two years as a typist prior to her marriage to John Clark, a Glasgow businessman. They had one daughter, Frances. Betty Clark contracted tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine and it was while she was hospitalized that she began writing, later joining Edward Scoular’s creative writing class at Langside College. She wrote poetry at first, but subsequently developed an interest in playwriting, supported by staff at the College of Drama, Glasgow, now part of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She chose her pseudonym to distance her ‘role’ as writer from that of wife and mother.’ (McDonald, J., 2002. ‘Is it not possible to have a Poem made out of Theatre?’ – An assessment of the dramas and dramaturgy of Joan Ure. International Journal of Scottish Theatre and Screen, 3(1).)

Alasdair Gray also discusses some of those circumstances in his foreword to The Tiny Talent, and in longer essays that he has published from time to time. One of these appeared in 1980, in an issue of Chapman magazine, entitled Woven by Women, in which the title poem of the present pamphlet first appeared in print. I am pleased to say that with his permission, and with that of the publisher Joy Hendry, we will providing the text of his appreciation of Joan Ure in a further post on this blog.

Now, to Wednesday’s Launch.

As an undergraduate, Jan McDonald belonged to the university’s dramatic society, and thereafter became involved with Theatre Group Glasgow, a semi-professional group with close links to the university, which owed much of its dynamism and ambition to actor and director Robert Trotter (1930-2013). Through this Jan met Joan Ure, performing in a number of her plays, including Scarlet Mood, which she discusses in the essay referred to earlier. Among many other public roles in the arts in Scotland, Jan was involved in the Scottish Society of Playwrights, of which Joan was a founding member.

Also taking part, as well as Richie and myself, we will be pleased to welcome Professor Ian Brown as a speaker. Ian is a freelance scholar, playwright and poet, and Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. Like Jan, he knew Joan Ure, and he will be sharing his thoughts about her and her work, and reading a short elegy. Further, we will be playing recordings of some of Joan’s words for music, as kindly provided by singer and songwriter Sheila K Cameron, another friend and colleague of the poet’s, as well as a slideshow featuring a few images of Joan that we have assembled, together with illustrations of the manuscripts from which The Tiny Talent was largely edited. Last but very not least, we are looking forward enormously to being joined for the event by the writer and artist, the inimitable Alasdair Gray.

A ‘Foy’ for Joan Ure?

Finally, then, to take an Orkney view of the foregoing for a moment, one of the responses that Marjorie Linklater made to the St Magnus Festival, when it began here in the late 70s, was to organise a ‘fringe’. This comprised a short programme of local song, stories, recitation, poetry and music, to which she gave the name, The Johnsmas Foy, a ‘foy’ being essentially a feast. Swiftly incorporated into the Festival itself, the event has continued to feature, year-in year-out, since that time. I had an inkling, when starting to organise these launches, that what was wanted, in Glasgow especially, was a ‘foy’ for Joan Ure. Well, we shall see…

Launch at Blackwell’s, Edinburgh, with Alison Peebles, Tuesday 11th December, 6.30pm

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Alison Peebles is an award-winning Scottish actress and director in theatre, film, and television in a career spanning over thirty years. Trained as an artist at Edinburgh College of Art, she co-founded the celebrated Communicado Theatre Company and was noted for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth in Michael Boyd’s seminal production of Macbeth at The Tron Theatre. She was nominated for Best Actress (BAFTA Scotland) for the Feature Film Where Do We Go From Here? Recent work includes Richard III at Perth Theatre, and she is currently appearing in Molly and Mack (CBeebies) and River City (BBC Studios).

Happily, Alison is also my cousin, and I am delighted that together we will be introducing the new title at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh on Tuesday evening. The significance of this publication has been acknowledged informally by many people, and reviews will surely soon follow. We couldn’t wait before bringing it to the public, however, for this year is the centenary not only of WS Graham, Muriel Spark and Margaret Tait, but also of our author, the highly individual and uncompromising Glasgow playwright and poet, Joan Ure (1918-78).

‘Unfairly neglected,’ is how her friend Alasdair Gray describes her in his Foreword to the pamphlet, and this selection of poems has come as a revelation to many, including several who knew her, and thought they knew her work. But like almost everyone else, they had never seen these poems before, because although a small number appeared during her lifetime and thereafter, mainly in magazines, they have never previously been published between covers of their own.

The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure, edited by Richie McCaffery and myself, will, we hope, help restore her work to the prominence it deserves. Come along if you can, on Tuesday, and hear her story.

‘Ah, at last, not afraid of such language!’ (from ‘Mary’)


It’s free to attend—but please book in advance through Blackwell’s Eventbrite page.

We acknowledge the support of several individuals and organisations in the production of this pamphlet, including Creative Scotland.