The Republic of the Imagination

In August 2006, Allan Armstrong interviewed the literary critic and poet John Manson about his life and works

Could you please give us some background information about your life?

John Manson
John Manson

I was born on a croft on the coast of the Pentland Firth in 1932. My mother was widowed in 1941. Within that year, 1941-2, she lost her husband, my father, and his brother, who lived with us (both to pneumonia), and her own brother, a wireless operator, whose ship was torpedoed. She worked until 1968 with no pension, except the old age pension at 60.

In 1950 I went to Aberdeen University to study English Literature and Language and completed the first three years. In the winter term of 1952-3, I attended David Murison’s Extra-Mural lectures on Scottish Literature and must have heard of Hugh MacDiarmid’s work there for the first time. At the same time I became interested in Franz Kafka and have followed the two strands of Scottish and European (and World) literature ever since. At the same time, or perhaps a little later, I began to read articles from a Marxist point of view, although I wasn’t living in class-conscious circumstances. I started to do some writing. This was the period of the Korean War, the colonial repression in Malaya and Kenya, and the suspension of the constitution in British Guiana.

At home in the summer of 1953 I began to have a partial breakdown of health (psychosomatic) – no hospitalization – and this went on for a few years. In 1955 my mother and I moved to a smaller place in Sutherland and I recovered my health there to a large extent. For the first time, I felt free from pressure. Later I qualified as a primary teacher and taught in Fife, Edinburgh and Dumfries and Galloway.

I began to read widely in literature. Of the novels I read at that time, I expect the works of Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov would most stand rereading. I also read the trilogies of Konstantin Fedin and Alexei Tolstoy. When Dr. Zhivago, Lolita and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich were published I read these as well. MacDiarmid published some of the Zhivago lyrics in The Voice of Scotland and introduced a selection of Pasternak’s work in a translation by his sister, Lydia Pasternak Slater (she moved to Britain before the Second World War).

The poets I read at that time were Christo Botev, the national poet of Bulgaria, in Paul Eluard’s French translation; Nicola Vaptsarov, also Bulgarian, who was shot by the Fascists; Martin Carter of (then) British Guiana, whose Collected Poems and Selected Prose, University of Hunger, was published in early 2006; and Nazim Hikmet, who is now regarded as the major poet of Turkey in the last century. I also became aware of Louis Aragon’s poetry in 1956, through his weekly paper, Les Lettres Francaises; and then read two of his 6 volume series, Les Communistes, and other novels in French. I still have a copy of a letter from Collet’s, listing eight volumes of Antonio Gramsci in Italian. Some of the other writers in whom I became interested at this time will emerge during my answers. I read the early works of Alan Sillitoe and Arnold Wesker, nearly all Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, and at least one each of John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell.

How would you describe yourself in political terms?

A non-Party Socialist, since the dissolution of the CPGB

What do you see as the significance of the literary side of politics?

Politics is part of the public life of the times and it should be recreated as an important aspect of culture.

You see 1991 as forming a break in a certain period of literary politics. Why is this?

1991 witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s the end of an era in that sense, but not the end of other Communist Parties. It’s much more difficult to say how this affects the literary side of politics. The Portuguese Communist, Jose Saramago, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, for example.

You see Hugh MacDiarmid as the most important literary figure in Scotland in the 20th century. Why is this?

MacDiarmid was a great lyrical and satirical poet and he was also a national regenerator through his anti-imperialist writing. He had enormous influence on other people, mostly when they were young and this influence extended to the worlds of art, music, history, language, philosophy, politics and economics as well as imaginative literature. He made the greatest single-handed contribution to ensure that Scotland would not be, as in the line from Tom Buchan’s poem, a one-way street to the coup of the mind. He wrote instead:

For freedom means that a lad or lass
In Cupar or elsewhaur yet
May alter the haill o’ human thocht
Mair than Christ’s altered it

I never set een on a lad or a lass
But I wonder gin he or she
Wi’ a word or deed’ll suddenly dae
An impossibility.

(Complete Poems, 1, pp. 257-8, Hugh MacDairmid, Manchester, 1993.)

MacDiarmid was at the centre of a number of political and literary controversies:

a. His alleged Scottish fascist past

b. The ‘bomb London’ poem from the Second World War(On the Imminent Destruction of London, in The Revolutionary Art of the Future – Rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDairmid, edited by John Manson, DorianGrieve and Alan Riach, Manchester, 2003.)

c. His ‘flytings’ with Hamish Henderson and Ewan MacColl.

What are your views on these particular issues?

MacDiarmid was never a Fascist in the sense of a supporter of a right-wing dictatorship; he didn’t belong to a Fascist group, for example. A study of his article in The Scottish Nation (1923), Programme for a Scottish Fascism, shows that he saw ‘a Scottish Fascism’ as Nationalist –

‘Scotland First’ for us as it was ‘Italy First’ for them’ – and Socialist – ‘… a Scottish Nationalist Socialism … will restore an atmosphere in which the fine, distinctive traits and tendencies of Scottish character which have withered in the foul air of our contemporary chaos, will once more revive.’

He thought that …Fascism in Italy must incline to the Left. He also quoted The Fascist Movement in Italian Life where Pietro Gorgolini says that,

Fascism understands the immense social importance of land, hence it condemns absentee and unproductive possession, which leaves vast tracts of land uncultivated that could be highly productive.

(Hugh MacDiarmid: Selected Prose, pp. 34-8, Alan Riach, editor, Manchester, 2000.)

Obviously, MacDiarmid thought this kind of ‘fascism’ could be applied to the Scottish Highlands but he failed to give weight to the fact that the Peasant Leagues were being broken up in Italy at this time. At the time MacDiarmid wrote the article he was a member of the Scottish Home Rule Association, the ILP and the No-More-War Movement through the League of Nations. He was also becoming interested in Social Credit.

Similarly, MacDiarmid took ideas from Wyndham Lewis’s book on Hitler (1931) which seemed to chime with his own.

Hitler’s ‘Nazis’ wear their socialism with precisely the difference which post-socialist Scottish nationalists must adopt. Class-consciousness is anathema to them, and in contradistinction to it they set up the principle of race consciousness.

(The Caledonian Antisyzygy and the Gaelic Idea in Essays of Hugh MacDiarmid, Duncan Glen, editor, London, 1969.)

He takes over the concept of ‘Blutsgefuhl’ or ‘blood feeling’. He equates Hitler’s attacks on ‘Leihkapital’ (loan capital) with Major Douglas’s (the main advocate of Social Credit). MacDiarmid was very impulsive and often wrote reviews and articles in great haste. MacDiarmid was certainly deceived by Hitler as a man in 1932-3.

Here are some quotations from his Free Man articles At the Sign of the Thistle:

In view of the recent discussion in Scotland of the necessity of militant action, readers should carefully weigh what [the poet] Mr [John] Gawsworth says:-[Hitler] is as much a prophet as Mahomet, Mussolini, or Lenin, but he is an armed prophet’.

Compare the mental calibre of the members of the Scottish Development Council with men like De Valera in Ireland, Hitler in Germany, Gandhi in India.
(9/7/32) The SDC had been formed in 1931.

… it is just this vital force, this resourcefulness and colour which attracts me in Hitler as, say, against the utter nullity of Sir Robert Horne or the horrible local preacherism, writ large, of Ramsay MacDonald.

I agree with Hitler in one thing – probably the only thing in which I do agree with him at all – and that is his doctrine that action must not negate propaganda.

b. MacDiarmid saw London as metropolitan city, the centre of empire.

c. MacDiarmids ‘flytings’ with Hamish Henderson were public. Ewan MacColl records his private discussions in his autobiography, Journeyman. MacColl writes:So why had he chosen to single out the folk revival as a special target for his venom? Because of the kailyard, the nineteenth century parochialism which had poisoned Scots literature and condemned it to a debilitated existence in the cabbage patch. MacDiarmid had rescued it and, with the help of a talented band of devotees, restored it to its proper role. And now it was being threatened again by vandals calling themselves folk-singers, by a movement which had within it seeds which, if allowed to germinate, would produce such a crop of weeds that the kailyard would triumph again. MacDiarmid’s fears were not entirely unfounded.
(Journeyman, an autobiography by Ewan MacColl, pp. 284-5, Ewan MacColl, London, 1990.)

Macdiarmid had positives as well as negatives. He drew attention to modern epics such as Pablo Neruda’s Canto General and Hikmet’s Human Landscapes.

Could you explain how you came to persuade MacDiarmid to fully publish his Third Hymn to Lenin?

On my first visit to Macdiarmid’s house, Brownsbank, in February 1955 I asked him if it had been published in full (one-third had already been published in Lucky Poet). I saw he made a mental note and he published it in the next issue of The Voice of Scotland in April. Almost fifty years later I discovered that it was originally written as part of The Red Lion project (in the mid-Thirties) and that he then realised that it could be regarded as a ‘third hymn’ – but it wasn’t directly conceived as a ‘hymn to Lenin’ like the first and second hymns. Although it does address Lenin in parts of the poem it is more of a ferocious attack on the housing conditions in Glasgow and on the modes of thought which allowed these conditions to exist.

MacDairmid: a great lyrical & satirical poet
MacDairmid: a great lyrical & satirical poet

How did you discover the material which formed the basis for The Revolutionary Art of the Future – rediscovered poems by Hugh MacDiarmid?

In 1990 the National Library of Scotland purchased (for £250,000) the archive of material which Kulgin Duval and Colin Hamilton had been buying from him in his lifetime. An American University would have paid double. This has been classified into 246 folders and notebooks. As soon as I opened one of these I realised that some important poems had remained unpublished through lack of opportunities at particular times.

Other people had realised this before but perhaps I made a more thorough search than they did and recorded them in typescript. I had made several (more limited) discoveries of uncollected and unpublished poetry and prose on previous occasions, e.g. From Work in Progress in Penguin (1970), now retitled Kinsfolk, and the eight stories in Annals of the Five Senses(1999).

Your house contains many photographs and maps of places associated with MacDiarmid. Do you see ‘place’ as being important in his work?

Yes. Langholm, his birthplace; Whalsay, where he lived in the 1930’s; and also Liverpool and London. In Liverpool he wrote the poems in the abcbdd stanza (with the truncated sixth line) which he didn’t use before or after, when he was thinking back to Langholm; and in London he began The Red Lion project perhaps because he joined the CP there in August 1934 and had also just read Allen Hutt’s pamphlet Crisis on Clydeside.

Scott Lyall’s book, Hugh MacDiarmid’s Poetry of Politics and Place was published last year by Edinburgh University Press.

You have also located unpublished Lewis Grassic Gibbon writings in your researches.

Gibbon signed a contract with Faber to write a biography of William Wallace. He never completed it, but I found the first ten pages in the National Library of Scotland. Gibbon presents Wallace, At the head of a force that bore the significant title of the ‘Army of the Commons of Scotland’ and that after his defeat at Falkirk, not again, tell on tale, did the Commons of Scotland gather to battle under their ain folk till the Covenanting times.(William Wallace – Knight of Scotland, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, with introduction Braveheart in Kinraddie by John Manson, in Cencrastus, no. 61.)

In an important literary/political debate in the 1930’s Lewis Grassic Gibbon and James Barke seemed to reject a Scottish national identity. Yet MacDairmid later claimed that Gibbon had become a supporter of a Scottish Workers Republic. What is your view of this?

MacDiarmid may have drawn this impression from his last meeting with Gibbon in Welwyn Garden City in September 1934 but there is no evidence for it in Gibbon’s writing. Less than five months later he was dead.

You have spent some time recently working on James Barke. What do you see his significance was/is in the literary side of politics?

I think The Land of the Leal remains an important popular novel. Major Operation should also be republished though it is spoiled a bit by speeches like MacKelvie’s on materialism (in the context of the novel).

Jim White, a long time member of the Communist Party, has claimed James Barke was a Party member. Why do you dispute this?

Jim only had Bill Cowe’s word for it. I’ve rehearsed the evidence in my essay, Did James Barke join the Communist Party? (Communist History Network Newsletter, 19, 2006, published by Politics section, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, M13 9PL, website)

Why do you think James Barke was a member of the Freemasons?

I’ve no evidence here. Maybe it was the Burns connection? He was also a member of the Boys Brigade 1920-22 and spoke warmly of the Brigade in an article in 1956 (among other organisations).

Sorley MacLean doesn’t appear to have figured as much as MacDiarmid, Barke or Gibbon in your work on the literary side of politics. Is there a reason for this?

The reason is that I have no Gaelic and am therefore dependent on translations of his work. I’ve read his poems and his prose collection Ris a’ Bhruthaich (1985) and Joy Hendry and Raymond Ross’s Critical Essays (1986), the interviews he gave, and I’ve also heard him reading.

You have translated several European writers, particularly from the ‘God That Failed’ tradition, e.g. the Italian, Ignazio Silone; from dissident communists, like Victor Serge; and you have been interested in and sympathetic to non-Communists like the Icelander, Halldor Laxness. Why do you draw from these traditions?

A misunderstanding here. I’ve only translated one letter of Silone from Italian and though I’ve translated two books and a number of articles by Victor Serge I only became aware of him in the 1970s. But I’ve certainly been reading and rereading Silone from time to time since the late Fifties initially because he recreated the life of peasant societies and later because he reveals the debates within the minds of some of his leading characters with regard to the Communist Party.

The poets from whom I have translated the most are Pablo Neruda (Chile), Louis Aragon (France) and Paul Eluard (France) – Communists, though Eluard was out of the Party for a decade, roughly 1932 to 1942. They had lifelong careers as authors and wrote intensely personal as well as political poetry – Resistance poetry in the case of Aragon and Eluard, anti-Franco and anti- Yankee poetry in the case of Neruda. Another poet I have translated, Cesar Vallejo (Peru), was also a Communist. But I’ve also translated from poets whose political positions cannot be so easily identified, e.g., Eugenio Montale (Italian), Constantine Cavafy (Greek), Manuel Bandeira (Brazilian), Henri Michaux (Belgian), whose work appears in my pamphlets.

Again I’ve read and reread Laxness since the late fifties, initially Independent People, about Icelandic crofters, and Salka Valka, about fishing communities (along with the Latvian, Vilis Lacis’s A Fisherman’s Son). I have read Max Frisch (Swiss), whose novels deal with questions of identity and who was also a great dramatist; Elias Canetti, Nobel prize-winner (1981), for his three volume autobiography; Andre Malraux (France), for his novels of the political life of the Thirties; Albert Camus (France), for his stories and his posthumously published novel, The First Man, involving the search for his roots (Nobel prize-winner 1957); many of the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (France), and more recently, the novels of the recently deceased Pramoeda Ananta Toer, who spent many years in the Indonesian gulag.

What attracted you, in particular, to Victor Serge, who has been part of the anarchist and Trotskyist tradition in the past?

I was first attracted to Serge in the 1970s through his novels, of which six have been translated into English (and one is currently being translated – Les Annees Sans Pardon. It was through Serge’s literary and historical works that I first became aware of the Left Opposition in the Communist Party; and this led to a much slighter knowledge of other Oppositionist novelists like Panait Istrati (Romania) and Charles Plisnier (Belgium).

Why do you think there has been a resurgence of interest in Victor Serge recently?

I think Serge appeals because of his probity. But this doesn’t mean that I think he was right about all the positions he took up, particularly after the Second World War where he preferred the semi-dictatorship of the right to the Communist government which would have been in power if the ELASEAM hadn’t been defeated by our own forces (Carnets, p. 158, Victor Serge, Arles, 1985.). Recently I’ve heard that the well-known American essayist, the late Susan Sontag, wrote a preface to Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.

You are not just a literary critic and translator but also a poet. How important is this to you?

It is important to express my feelings but most of my poems are occasional rather than constructed to a theme. It’s only after they’re written that I begin to see the themes.

Why do you see the land as so important in a Scotland that has become very urbanised?

Simply my own experience.

I’ve lived the life and done the work. And it was also the experience of my forebears on both sides.

You have had a working relationship with the writer, David Craig. How did this develop?

I met David at Aberdeen University in 1951. In On The Crofters’ Trail (1990) which is dedicated to me as ‘poet and crofter’, David writes that … our discussions of literature and history have been incessant ever since.

How much influence have the places you have lived had upon you?

Caithness negative (as explained), Sutherland positive (my adopted county] West Fife positive, modern industry (then) and historical background, Edinburgh positive for its libraries and galleries.

You wrote to Emancipation & Liberation, in response to the article, Beyond Bayonets and Broadswords, which was trying to retrieve the revolutionary roots of Scottish Presbyterianism’s left wing. What prompted you to contribute to the wider discussion on Jacobites or Covenanters?

This was purely a literary interest, since the article made mention of MacDairmid’s literary use of the ‘white rose’. (Beyond Bayonets and Broadswords, Allan Armstrong, Emancipation & Liberation no. 5/6, and letter by John Manson, Emancipation & Liberation, no. 10.)

What is your view of the impact of Scottish Presbyterianism on society after your early experiences?

I found the impact of the particular brand of Presbyterianism with which I came into contact (when I was powerless myself) as harmful and repressive. I try to express this in my poem, To An Unconceived Child. Ian Macpherson’s Shepherd’s Calendar (1931) comes closest to my own experience. The author, Tom MacDonald (Fionn MacColla) called it nay-saying. (10 At the Sign of the Clenched Fist, p. 185, Fionn MacColla, Edinburgh, 1967.)

What literary projects are you currently involved in?

I’ve reconstructed the manuscript of Mature Art, which MacDiarmid hoped to publish with the Obelisk Press in Paris (before its occupation in 1940). After that he withdrew, and sometimes adapted, sections of the poem which he included in In Memoriam James Joyce (1955) and The Kind of Poetry I Want (1961). The poem has never been published in full and some parts remain unpublished. I’ve also found the plan of The Red Lion, but not all the parts.

A major project has been making a selection from the letters to MacDiarmid in the National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh University Library, which may well number fifteen thousand.