‘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.


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…’