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Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan

PART OF THE Edwin Morgan ISSUE

‘. . .they quizzed us, shared their cans of tea, felt our no muscles and laughed, surrounding us like a story of familiar giants we’d never be afraid of.’

James McGonigal’s brilliant biography of Edwin Morgan gives great insight into the poet’s life and work. Here we extract a section on Edwin Morgan’s childhood that shows how some of his artistic preoccupations were formed early on.

 

Extract taken from Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan
By James McGonigal
Published by Sandstone Books

 

GROWING UP IN GLASGOW

EM’s parents were united in matrimony and the family business from 1915 onwards. There was a gap of five years before their only son was born. This may have been because of the turmoil of war and the loss of family members. Madge Arnott’s older brother, George Arnott, was killed on 1 July 1916, fighting as a private with the Highland Light Infantry at Serre, one of the fortified villages held by the Germans at the start of the Battle of the Somme. He was 28 years of age, and EM kept his service medal with his own. On the Morgan side, the second son, Albert John Morgan, who had been working as a silk warehouseman in Leytonstone, London, volunteered for the Territorial Force at Fulham in March 1915, but was invalided out with ‘sickness’ a year later.

There is a mystery about the sixth sibling, Edwin James Morgan, born in 1884, who ‘disappears’ from public record after the 1891 census, when he was living at Clunie Bank Cottage. Was he a military man? There was an Edwin James Morgan who was killed in May of 1916, and recorded on the Plymouth Naval Memorial with the rank of Stoker First Class, but whose name is then said to be a pseudonym for the true family name of Harris. Or he might have been the James Morgan recorded in the 1901 census in England in the Army Service Corps at the Aldershot Military Barracks in Hampshire, and said to have been born in Scotland. His age, given as 19 years, is approximately correct for the birth of EM’s uncle and namesake. There may have been a family quarrel. Edwin James Morgan may have changed his name.

Almost as mysterious as his disappearance is EM’s claim that his parents never discussed the uncle after whom he was named. He had been Stanley Morgan’s immediate elder brother, and so there would have been a closeness there. EM’s father often talked about his next younger brother, Wilfrid Lothian Morgan, who had emigrated to Saskatchewan and worked in a bank. Wilfrid signed an attestation paper for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force there in 1916, but survived the war, dying in Vancouver in 1957. His relatives were in touch with EM into his old age.

But EM had no memory of his namesake ever being discussed. Was there some scandal – was he gay perhaps? EM thought that possible. Peculiar also is the fact that he himself, with a mind always full of questions, never seems to have raised this one to consciousness. Discussing the mystery, I teased him that this silence was all part of his own desire to be sui generis, selffashioning, the one and only Edwin – and he wryly admitted the possibility.

His father did not enlist, presumably because of his severe deafness. It is possible that the years that passed between his marriage and the birth of his son were also when some surgical attempts were made to improve his disability. EM recalled with a shudder his father’s description of the excruciating pain of these operations. Communication was clearly difficult in the home. Stanley Morgan often thought that people were laughing at him. One can wonder at the gap between the linguistic dexterity of the son and the misunderstandings and frustration of the father.

Broken communication is, of course, another theme in EM’s poetry, and some of his best known poems exploit it, humorously in ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’, ‘Canedolia’, ‘O Pioneers!’, ‘First Men on Mercury’ or ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, and more seriously in the Emergent poems (CP: 133–6, 159, 176) and the ‘Interferences’ sequence (CP: 253–7). He renders creative, playful and exploratory what must in reality have been difficult and, in a sense, shaming.

EM was born on 27 April 1920. Two years later the family moved to a substantial red sandstone semi-villa at 245 Nithsdale Road, Pollokshields, near where his parents had separately lived before they married. This was the place of EM’s first memories, not only of delight in the trees above his pram, but of terror when the dog belonging to the Hunters next door ‘flew at me once’. He had some happy memories of poetry there. Marshall Walker, writing in Unknown is Best to celebrate EM’s 80th birthday, recounted how ‘Your mother laughed when you danced round the house as a boy, chanting your rhymes’. Family photographs show him usually as the centre of attention among adults, happy to perform for the camera when very young, but seeming to isolate himself through self-composure or an aware gaze as he gets older. It is probably these earliest times which EM recalled in the 1990s in the poem ‘Days’. Typically we find him playing with a boat on dry land that his imagination transforms into sea:

I said the grass was waves, my toy boat bobbing.
To get the swishing sound I thought was sea was
steady tugs on the string.

(Sweeping Out the Dark: 53)

A childish pleasure in forbidden working-class male company is also evoked, exotic to a middle-class boy:

We’d hours with the roadmenders, their hut forbidden
and so a place of great resort, a dusty
sweaty sweary tarry magic caravan,
they quizzed us, shared their cans of tea, felt our
no muscles and laughed, surrounding us like a story
of familiar giants we’d never be afraid of.

The poem ends in a parental call to order, with:

[. . .] angry shouts from doorways, this minute,
come in, until we too could sense the shadows
advancing with what must be the end.

From 1925 he attended a private school run by Miss Mary Ross in a modest terraced house, ‘Roskene’, at 21 Larch Road in Dumbreck. He remembered plasticine and the taste of glitter wax; the medal on a blue ribbon awarded ‘if you were good’; and a girl called Violet. She was always vying for this medal of goodness, and at about the age of 6 the prize was divided between them: ‘Violet got the prize as well: she must have been very clever,’ he said, and this became a family joke. He stayed happily there until the age of 8 or 9, when they moved to Rutherglen, which was cheaper than Pollokshields, leaving such glittering prizes behind. This was the time of the Wall Street Crash.

They were also leaving his maternal grandparents, who lived at 11 Maxwell Drive in Pollokshields: EM remembered their ‘scented garden’ and wrote about it in old age in ‘Love and a Life’, remembering ‘the heady scents of other days – / Sweet pea mignotte wallflower phlox – recollection sees them shining in endless summer rays’. He writes about ‘their erotic haze’ and of himself in the midst of this: ‘When I dreamed of lands / Untouched by hands.’ Memories of roses came later, and possibly from another garden in Rutherglen, for the aging grandparents soon followed their daughter and her family there. EM’s grandfather died at 38 Stirling Street, Rutherglen in January 1936, at the age of 79. There is perhaps a contrast here, and later in EM’s life, between the ‘centrifugal’ Morgan and the ‘centripetal’ Arnott sides of his experience of family life, the former open to travel and trading, and the latter bonded within the industrial life of the West of Scotland. This may help us understand how basic to his life experience was the blending in his poetry of free-wheeling internationalism with constantly re-focused local engagement.

The Morgan family’s move to Rutherglen was dictated by the Depression, which had a disastrous impact on a Scottish economy that was still largely based on the pre-war industrial structures of coal, steel and heavy engineering, particularly ship building. Richard Finlay’s Modern Scotland 1914–2000 (2004) provides the clearest perspective I know on the cultural and political changes that have shaped Scotland in the course of the last century. Reading it while reflecting on EM’s life, I realised how literary study of the aesthetic or formal properties in his work has often ignored those elements of shared experience of national life that made his poetry accessible and relevant to readers. He reacted, as they did, to local and international events that affected Scottish lives, but found words or voices that could articulate a range of feelings and concerns – a sort of imaginary yet intense conversation with a history that twentieth-century Scots were living and sometimes making.

 

Beyond the Last Dragon: A Life of Edwin Morgan by James McGonigal is published by Sandstone Press, priced £11.99.

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