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.)