‘Personality and energy’ – Stewart Conn on Joan Ure, and on the launch event at Blackwell’s, Edinburgh

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THE TINY TALENT: Selected Poems by Joan Ure

a postscript to the Edinburgh launch / Blackwell’s Bookshop 11th Dec 2018

Editor’s note: At the conclusion of the Edinburgh launch, which featured readings by Joy Hendry and Alison Peebles, we were surprised and blushingly delighted when Stewart Conn, the poet and playwright, rose from the audience to propose a vote of thanks. Here, Stewart generously shares his recollections of the occasion, with further remarks concerning Joan Ure’s poetry and his work with her as drama producer for BBC Radio.
The picture of Joan Ure (above) was kindly supplied by her daughter, Frances Wren.

Congratulations to Brae Editions, to Alistair Peebles and, in absentia, Richie McCaffery on their commitment to Joan Ure’s work, their assiduous research especially in Glasgow University Library’s Scottish Theatre Archive, and on bringing out this selection of her poems. Dipping into which instantly reminded me of Joan Ure’s physical presence and the clarity of her speaking voice in performing her own material.

Rather than one of an ‘inner circle’ of devotees, my friendship with her was professionally based on her identity as a playwright. As a radio drama producer I directed three of her plays – a commission for another sadly not bearing fruit. My main impression was of an enigmatic personality and febrile energy. Hand in hand with her strength of conviction went a sense of wonder relating, not least, to the magic of the theatrical process. Some writers regard the actors and back-stage staff presenting their work as mere puppets. But she seemed ceaselessly to marvel at what their combined skills and imaginations contributed – never taking it for granted or taking personal credit for it.

This in turn reminded me of the gulf between today and when she was writing. Not just in terms of then and now, but of here and there. The whole cultural milieu of Glasgow in the 60’s and 70’s made it, certainly from an Edinburgh perspective, very much ‘another country’. Given which it is worth considering the external forces she was up against. For a spell the artistic director of each of the Scottish Repertory Companies – the Citizens’, Royal Lyceum, Dundee, Perth and Pitlochry – was English, with all but one (Joan Knight) male. Along with a disregard for women writers went a belief that any play by a Scot – specially in Scots – would invite box-office disaster. Until Hector McMillan, himself a loyal colleague and supporter of Joan Ure, mounted and promoted his own play, The Sash. [Ed. – see note below]

And she faced an added dilemma. Her poems, which she preferred to think of as ‘pieces for acting’, spanned various lengths and genres. Similarly her plays not only didn’t conform with the expected full-length norm but their varied shortness would have made them difficult to programme in, for instance, the token Spring slot customarily on offer to local writers. Nor was there anything like today’s Fringe… no Òran Mór with a Play, a Pie and a Pint, or the all-the-year-round outlets and opportunities we now take for granted.

This put radio, as I saw it, under an obligation to bring on new writers – and poets in particular. It also explains the role of the Glasgow University Arts Theatre Group with whom Joan Ure was deeply involved, and which staged her work along with that of C.P. Taylor, Hector MacMillan, Eric MacDonald, Ian Hamilton Finlay and others… lending the Group a cachet and enabling it to exert an impact far beyond what any equivalent semi-amateur company would enjoy nowadays.

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The further pressures in her private life are hinted at in her switch from Betty Clark (or Carswell) to Joan Ure; and by her sadly deteriorating health. Her poetry didn’t bemoan this, but sounded a clarion call against the macho society that had so malign an impact. Consider the bitter hurt projected in I hate this city / and I reject it. / Love for it has tired / me out … / There is no gentle / place for a woman here. .. / It is a land of wee / hard men / and all / I am wanted for is to / stand and cheer. (‘GLASGOW, Easter 1968’). Her penchant for unflinching internal dialogue, and extended polemic, infuses the title poem. Other more lyrical pieces adopt an intimate whisper. Elsewhere is the poignant self-knowledge of I croak like a winter raven / but it’s only the flesh … / the words these hoarse sounds disguise / so successfully are the same / the blackbird effortlessly projected / at twenty five minutes to five / like a missile to the sky (‘Telephone Message’); the poem’s prefatory I have a cough; can’t see you again this week a reminder of how often in my office I’d receive that message.

Bravely in advance of fashion was the vehemence with which she expressed her views. In ‘HEADLINE’ the plea ALL I ASK IS FREEDOM / TO BE HEARD is itself in block caps. The extraordinary ‘SEX CHANGE (or the optimist)’ might have been minted in today’s vastly more liberated climate. While another title, ‘Anger flares up like a match’ for me invokes the flame of her personality, fragile but ever fiercer in the face of whatever bombarded it.

A small Edinburgh link. When quotes were sought for an inscription on the wall of Scotland’s new Parliament building, the one finally chosen was by Alasdair Gray. But also submitted, fittingly by Glasgow Women’s Library, were these lines from Joan Ure’s ‘Scarlet Mood’: A country makes the artists it deserves / As it makes its governments / Our artists shriek in paranoiac discords / When they are not just havering./ You hope they do not feel they speak for you.

In 1970 she’d gifted me Two Plays by Joan Ure (Scottish Theatre Editions 1). The inscription, in her distinctive hand, read ‘With love to Stewart xx’. But scored out were the words ‘to Archie and Eleanor’ and added below, ‘I’ll get another one for Archie and Eleanor’ – her close friends, the novelist Archie Hind and his wife. The idiosyncrasy was a typically endearing one. Typical of her, too, she’d put in the space between: ‘P.S. To read the plays isn’t so important, but, if you’d read the Introduction over & over till you nearly believe it that would be great for me.’, The Introduction, highly approving, was by Christopher Small, longtime literary editor and drama critic of The (then GlasgowHerald.

Alistair Peebles and Richie McCaffery are due not just our applause, as are Joy Hendry and Alison Peebles, for this evening, but the thanks of those to whom they hope this pamphlet will introduce Joan Ure’s work, while maybe surprising others who thought they were familiar with it. Plus those who, like Christopher Small, have championed her over the years. And most of all, perhaps, those of the resolute, resilient and restless spirit of Joan Ure herself.

Stewart Conn


Note: Ian Brown, praising this ‘terrific memoir/ tribute’ rightly suggests that Stewart is being
 ‘overmodest. His The Burning (1971) and Bill Bryden’s Willie Rough (1972) preceded Hector’s The Sash (1974) and were certainly at least as instrumental in enlivening Scots on stage…’

Ian Brown – Remembering Joan Ure

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Previewing the Glasgow launch for The Tiny Talent on 7/12/18, we suggested that what might emerge from all the possibilities available was a ‘Foy’ for Joan Ure. Happily this is pretty much what took place, the programme reforming itself over the final few days in response to general good will and the generosity of a number of individuals in particular. Thus Alison Peebles, having read from the new pamphlet the previous evening at Blackwell’s in Edinburgh, offered to participate once again, and the singer and songwriter Sheila K Cameron provided six songs of Joan’s that she’d previously set to music and recorded. In addition, Joan’s daughter, Frances Wren, provided a further batch of photos that were quickly added to the looped powerpoint that played throughout, and Joy Hendry, who had read and spoken at Blackwell’s, sent us a text in which she briefly developed that response to Joan’s work, in particular to the title poem, for her in many ways a touchstone.

The other speakers taking part included Jan McDonald and Richie McCaffery, as well as the playwright, poet and a theatre historian Ian Brown. Ian gave a touching tribute to Joan, and I’m grateful that he’s allowed us to provide a transcript of his talk here, followed by the poem that, as he goes on to say, he wrote when news of her death reached him in 1978 in in Antalya, Turkey. Ian is a former Drama Director of the Arts Council of Great Britain, and now Professor Emeritus in Drama at Kingston University, London and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Scottish Literature at Glasgow University. He was the first Chair of the Scottish Society of Playwrights from 1973 to 1975 and has been elected Chair for three further terms over the years.

I am delighted, and honoured, genuinely, to be here remembering Joan. The first time I met her was in 1973, and the occasion was when Hector MacMillan, who has just been mentioned, and Ena Lamont Stewart, the great Ena Lamont Stewart, and a playwright who’s slightly forgotten now, John Hall, circulated the playwrights in Scotland, and said we needed to get together – we needed to work together for the future of theatre and the future of playwriting – and called a meeting. This happened in the Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh in the early autumn of 1973. Only one person stormed out, which was pretty good going. And at the end of that meeting, the decision was made to establish the Scottish Society of Playwrights and, for some reason, I found myself Chairman: partly, I think, because I was the most innocent in the room at the time, which is not now often the case.

Joan became a Council member, and that was when I came to know her better. She was an excellent colleague. I remember trailing around North Fife with her – on buses, because Beeching had taken away the railways – to go and see AB Paterson at The Byre Theatre in St Andrews and Joan Knight at Perth. This was in order to negotiate benefits for playwrights who were members of the Society. Because actually up till that point, playwrights had not been given the benefits that, say, actors or stage managers, who were members of Equity, would be given in terms of, for example, access to the theatre, and tickets. And Joan was a superb negotiator. She was such a good negotiator that no one actually knew they were negotiating with her. She simply won people over.

We used to meet as a Council alternately in Edinburgh and Glasgow, in my flat in Edinburgh, and in Ena Lamont Stewart’s flat in Glasgow – we didn’t have much choice in those days. And we had very noisy members of Council, although not Joan. Joan won her case by quiet persuasion. We had people like Hector MacMillan, Donald McKenzie – big men physically, big men with big voices – and part of my job as Chair was to try to mediate. I remember at one point being told by my wife that Joan had come through to the kitchen for a glass of water and said to her as she left, ‘If I were you, my dear, I wouldn’t let them in the house.’

She had that wonderful passion, however, and a talent that had worked on the edge, because – and it’s a shameful fact – so patriarchal was the theatre in Scotland in the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s (leaving aside wonderful exceptions like Joan Knight), that truthfully, had she been a man, her work would have been more respected and more widely produced. I have to say that: it’s a fact. One of the facts that makes me think that is that I had the honour of working with Alan Riach some years ago on a collection of essays on Scottish literature (The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature, EUP, 2009) and, when we came to ‘divvy up’ the chapters, we wanted to do one that looked at poet-playwrights. And who were the three people that we thought had to be in that chapter? Edwin Morgan, Stewart Conn, and Joan Ure. That’s not bad company. And if you think of the history of the productions that Eddie and Stewart have had, as opposed to the productions that Joan has had, we can see the injustice that I frankly believe she suffered.

This is why I believe this collection is so valuable, because it reminds us of her particular and special talent.

Her record as a playwright has been mentioned this evening already, but what I would say absolutely is that she writes powerfully, angrily and yet dramatically, theatrically. She has a play called The Lecturer and the Lady, which I refer to in the poem that I’m going to read to you in a moment – but her plays aren’t didactic. Her plays are often thoughtful – in the way that Brecht’s are, Shaw’s, or sometimes Wilde’s – but they aren’t didactic. And that’s a great strength. The other thing is that they are written very much from – I’m scared to use the term, but I’ll risk it – from a proto-feminist point of view. She was there ahead of them, and she writes very powerfully about the place of women, not just in relation to men but in relation to other women.

I admire her because, among other things that I remember her saying, when she was talking about some of the more programmatic, political playwrights that were around in the 70s, ‘The thing is, Ian, if you want to write about Lenin, you don’t want to write about Marxist-Leninism, you want to start from the fact that he wouldn’t have done what he did if his brother hadn’t been executed by the Tsarists.’ And that, it seems to me, an absolute insight that frankly I hadn’t come across, and truthfully some of our playwrights of the 1970s hadn’t come across, but it contains a truth. And that for me was what Joan was about, truth that others didn’t necessarily come to.

The poem was written because for a time in my life I worked in the British Council and I was lucky enough to be posted to Istanbul and to work there as Assistant Regional Director. It was then, as you will hear, that I learned that she had died. I was scheduled to go down to Antalya, the coastal town on the Mediterranean which, as some of you may know, has now become a bit of a beach resort. When I was there in 1978, it was a beautiful old Roman town, with many, many other later buildings.

At Antalya
Remembering Joan

(Joan Ure, playwright and poet, real name – Betty Clark, died in Scotland in February 1978)

Sitting at my office desk in Istanbul
Sifting mail I read you’re dead

Later in Antalya I walk
Through a worn Roman gate marked by a gable added
See a broken minaret on a temple once church once mosque
And by a Byzantine building on a cliff now Turkish
See a ruined Seljuk seminary and conserved Seljuk tomb

As through my own memory
I walk through a confusion of adapted contradictions

You in your disarming integrity, wicked ingenuousness,
Capacity to suffer pain and give
I see in the white earth-centring sea
Weightily frothing against dull red cliffs
And in the quiet cove
Full of craft

At Istanbul in my mail was your photo
Posing on a moped, wearing a long dress,
And I remembered your pseudonymic confusion and grace
No lecturer, no mere lady
Alive and no real pretence

No simple virtue ever

 

Ian Brown

The Tiny Talent: purchase information

The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure (ISBN 9781907508073, price £7.99) can be ordered through any bookshop, but it is currently in stock at the following:

Orkney

Stromness Books and Prints (distributor)

phone 01856 850565 / email grahamplace1@hotmail.com

The Orcadian Bookshop

Edinburgh

Blackwell’s, South Bridge

Glasgow

Aye-Aye Books

Good Press

Tell It Slant

London

James Fergusson Books and Manuscripts