John Purser – visiting Meikle Mochrum

As the latest in our growing collection of tributes to the writer Joan Ure, and reflections on her work, we’re delighted to present a remembrance generously contributed by the composer, playwright and author John Purser. Born in Glasgow in 1942 and now living in Skye, Purser is one of Scotland’s most important cultural ambassadors. His award-winning radio series and book, Scotland’s Music, is widely regarded as the essential authority on the subject. A champion of Scottish Gaelic, he continues to bring new passion to the Scottish cultural landscape. Further information on his work can be found at http://www.johnpurser.net/.

(It may be of interest that, as indicated here, Meikle Mochrum is the location for the well-known photograph of Joan Ure, motorcyclist.)

JOAN URE – BETTY CLARK

I used to give evening classes on classical music on consecutive nights in Kirkcudbright and Dumfries. Sometimes I would stay the night with Betty who was living in a remote farmhouse a good half-hour’s drive from Kirkcudbright. The narrow roads at night in midwinter were full of speculative shadows and the light from distant car headlights was reflected at improbable angles from the underside of the dark, low cloud-cover. It was a spooky drive.

I would bring things, but Betty enjoyed giving me food, though she ate little herself. She was the best of hostesses. She almost mothered me – full of care, affection and encouragement: and herself full of desperation, questioning her right to be living on her own trying to write, and desperately conscious of the weight and significance of everything she wrote.

We would go for walks and then her anxieties would find some release. You could have said she was demanding company. Needy. But she was a giver and always thinking of others, not least the actors in her plays. I have kept a letter from her. It was written at Meikle Mochrum in 1973 and it brings her back into my company.  In it she writes

Oh John I don’t want Helen and Ida to wish they hadn’t bothered! So let’s hope that somebody sees the play and gives them work from it. Forgive my spilling out to you how desperate I get. Things have to be said ‘on stage’ so that if there’s anything inside anybody in the audience which felt bitter or something, it can be cauterised maybe.

She wrote, too, to my then wife, Wilma Paterson, who composed music for Joan’s play Rehearsal. Christopher Small was not impressed with the production, and felt the company could not ‘be much blamed if they have not found quite the way to make all this asking intelligible.’ But he liked the music, as did Betty:

But Wilma I do appreciate your having made such magic music. Thankyou very much and forgive my not having written sooner – I had to caper around all the week so that Christopher’s bad review would not take the heart out of the cast, and that Putting on of The Act is very exhausting with nothing left over for the real things.

The publication of The Tiny Talent is a wonderful thing to have happened. It is just so sad that, as it re-awakens interest in Joan’s work, she is not alive to know that her voice is still heard.

I think of some of her writing in terms of Beckett. She has a precision that can be almost philosophical, and an existential awareness that is sensitive to the point of neurosis. And there are levels of irony which at times seem almost impenetrable. But she possessed and conveyed great tenderness – and this is in the writing. She may have been frustrated, angry, rebellious, with a hatred for cruelty; but her heart was a heart full of love.

John Purser
4/2/2019

SSP Newsletter – ‘The Vital Witness’

Thanks to our friend the poet and playwright Stewart Conn for drawing our attention to this feature on Joan Ure, the author of the poetry in our latest publication, and the topic of many of the posts below. The feature was published in the February 1979 Newsletter of the Scottish Society of Playwrights, and it includes three of her poems, along with a trailer for The Vital Witness, a BBC radio tribute to be broadcast that month on the first anniversary of her death

Joy Hendry responds to Joan Ure’s ‘Tiny Talent’

In an earlier post, we republished Alasdair Gray’s 1980 article on Joan Ure. As noted, this had featured in the Woven by Women issue of Chapman magazine. The favour was arranged only a week or so before the launches on December 11-12th, but as well as immediately agreeing, the editor Joy Hendry kindly offered to contribute to the launch at Blackwell’s: to read the title poem, which had also appeared in that issue of the magazine, and to speak to its context, culturally and personally.

And so she did, and although unable to participate in the CCA launch in Glasgow the next evening, as she’d have liked, and pressed for time, Joy texted us a version of her spoken comments, which were incorporated into the presentation. What follows, with her permission, is an edited version of those remarks.

 

The publication of The Tiny Talent – Selected Poems by Joan Ure, brings me a gratification and delight deeper than I can describe.

In my work with the Scottish literary magazine, Chapman, starting in 1971, I was essentially given an opportunity to learn about Scotland, and through that magazine, I had the privilege of sharing the fruits of that learning with a wider public. What I learned both thrilled me and filled me with anger – at the tiny talents (or not so tiny) buried everywhere in so many different ways.

I cottoned on pretty quickly that by using this tiny focus of energy – Chapman – in a discerning, targeted way, quite disproportionate changes could be initiated. This discovery led me to engage in compulsive editorial meddling in Scottish cultural affairs, tackling first the state of Scots Language across the board – attempting to reveal its true state and status in the Scotland of that time (No. 23-24, 1979).

Woven by Women (No. 27-8) followed close on its heels, looking at the contribution of Scottish women to our cultural life – again right across the board. Other like ventures came later – one devoted to asking whether ‘Scotland’ was or was not ‘a predicament for the Scottish Writer’ (pace Edwin Muir), and finally one on Scottish Theatre – which created a sea-change in the priorities of the Scottish Arts Council Drama agenda.

All of these left more than a mark on the soft, fat underbelly of the ‘establishment’, but Woven by Women prompted a particularly hot debate in the letter columns of Scottish newspapers – I knew I’d struck something like gold when I found myself being described (ambiguously) in a review by Alan Bold as ‘a formidable woman’.

Hector MacMillan – that pioneer among Scottish playwrights – had introduced me to the work of Joan Ure, and I felt it important to ensure her presence in that issueHer executor Christopher Small provided me with access to some of her pieces, and her friend Alasdair Gray wrote a superb article on her work. The leading light of The Scottish Society of Playwrights, Hector drove forward the publication by SSP of two of her plays – Something in it for Cordelia and Something in it for Ophelia. He was passionate about working for the benefit of all playwrights in Scotland – but most especially for the women, including of course Joan.

That title poem ‘The Tiny Talent’, however, reverberated with me from that point on in ways too numerous to list, but in my darkest of times – and in the last 15 years or so of my relationship with Chapman there were a lot of dark days – it spoke directly into my soul about many key concerns. And it did so in a way which, curiously in light of its exposure of constraint, ended up in being hopeful.

In 2016, when I had bottomed out of my slow-developing crisis, I learned that Sally Evans had started her blog Keep Poems Alive and I immediately sent her the poem to include there. When I was reading it last night, even after all that time (almost forty years since that issue of the magazine), I found fresh significances and resonances.

Maybe I owe my life to that poem.

And now at last, we have this beautiful booklet – a gem of loving design, down to the quality of the paper, the layout and the typography, and even the little ‘leaf’ (blossom) that lurks there, printed in the spine. All congratulations to Richie, Alistair and everyone involved in its publication. I hope it will lead, and soon, to more of her poems, and other work, appearing in print. I’m only sorry that I was never able to meet her in person and publish more of her work in the magazine – but I feel her strongly as part of my birthright as a Scottish woman writer, and this publication emphasises her importance to us all.

Nevertheless, Scotland in relation to the rest of the UK, and to the rest of the world, is still a tiny talent that it has been ‘almost death to hide’, and much remains to do to allow its talents to develop in clear, caller air. As I’ve said previously, for Scottish women there is a ‘double knot in the peeny’, with Scotland being deprived of its rights as a country, and Scottish women therefore doubly disadvantaged.

But those knots are loosening. May this publication thrive – and lead to further recognition of women’s talents everywhere, most particularly those of the author, and her brilliant, unique – and not at all tiny – Talent.