Allan Armstrong interviews socialist activist and poet, Jim Aitken, about his life, politics and works.
Could you please give us some background information about your life?
I was born and raised in Edinburgh. My mother was from Wick, one of a family of six. She left Wick to work in service in London. She never saw the city because she was working all the time. She met my father in North Berwick. He was one of eight children raised in Edinburgh. His family originally came from Dublin. I consider myself a mongrel. I feel Celtic, it is part of my roots.
My mother was a member of the Labour Party, whilst my father was chair of the local branch of the old UPW, the posties’ union for 27 years. Uncles and aunts were members of the Communist Party. My aunt, Gertie McManus, was a stalwart of the Edinburgh Trades Council, as a delegate from USDAW, the shop-workers’ union. She was behind the moves to get the James Connolly plaque put up in the Cowgate.
I was brought up in a wider, literate, working class, socialist culture, which has largely disappeared today. It seemed natural to be a socialist and republican. When I rebelled as a teenager, it just pushed me further Left.
How did your interest in literature come about?
There were plenty of books in the house. There was also an atlas and I collected stamps. These all helped to arouse my interest in the wider world. This all contributed to my internationalism. I went to Portobello High School. I was fortunate that this was the period when comprehensive schools provided a real opportunity for working class kids. The teachers were committed to the comprehensive ideal, and some of my English teachers, in particular, provided me with good leads. I read Beckett in my sixth year. This led me to a whole lot of interesting existentialist writing, for example, Sartre, Camus and Kafka.
When I left school I worked for two years. I began to write poetry. I met Norman McCaig, along with Michael MacDairmid and Deidre Chapman in Milnes Bar. I became a friend of Norman’s and read my poetry to him at his flat. He did a lot to encourage me. When Norman got the readership at Stirling University I decided I would go there to study. I studied literature, fine art, philosophy and religious studies. I had some of my poetry published in the university magazine and did some readings there.
Somebody else who has had a great and continuing influence on me is Hugh MacDairmid. I recently read Revolutionary Art of the Future produced by John Manson, who was interviewed in your last issue.
How were your politics developing at this time?
I didn’t join any political party, although I went to some meetings organised by the Communist Party at the University. John Reid was the President of Stirling NUS at the time! I was more interested in particular campaigns and issues like Vietnam, Anti-Apartheid and CND.
Why did you decide to become an English teacher?
I decided that since I had personally benefited from the comprehensive system, I wanted to offer something to working class kids from a similar background. My love of English is tied up with the openings on the world which literature provides.
I taught briefly in Stirling, but since then, I have been teaching in Edinburgh. The English department I joined was a really good place, where, once again the teachers were committed to the comprehensive ideal. However, there was still the authoritarianism symbolised by the use of the belt.
Things really changed for the worse under Thatcher. She was a class warrior determined that her class should win out. She was vicious. Mass unemployment was used to discipline the working class. The schooling system was remoulded to better fit the economic system. There were fewer and fewer possibilities for real education, as everything was subordinated to continuous assessments. O grades became Standard Grades; Highers became Revised Highers (revised again and again) as more finely graded assessment procedures were imposed, to control both student and teacher.
English teachers were at the centre of the resistance to all this. I became a member of Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature (SATOLL). The late Tony McManus was the inspiration behind this. Many of those involved, like Tony, were themselves writers and artists. We had a considerable impact. I had articles published in The Scotsman and The Herald.
I was also quite heavily involved in the Edinburgh Local Association of the EIS. I was on the Local Executive, alongside other left-wingers from Rank & File Teachers. I chaired the English subject section. The Edinburgh LA was to give its support to various initiatives, like SATOLL’s Sense and Worth and, more recently, the pamphlet of anti-war poetry, Magistri Pro Pace, written by Scottish Federation of Socialist Teacher members, Allan Crosbie, Annie McCrae, Andrew McGeever, Linda Richardson and myself.
How did your politics develop through this period?
When Thatcher came to power I joined the Communist Party. This is where I believed I would find the best criticism of capitalism. Somewhat mistakenly, this is where I also thought the fightback against Thatcher would begin, because of the CP’s strength in the big industrial unions. But the big debate, which was taking place inside the CP, was which way forward – the working class or the new social movements. I was with the industrial working class-based wing. However, just when the wider labour movement needed the CP, it was tearing itself apart.
Since internationalism was so important to me I continued to be active in a number of campaigns. These included Liberation (originally set up by Fenner Brockway), the Britain-Vietnam Association, Anti-Apartheid and Latin America Solidarity.
When the CP folded, I became a member of the Midlothian Peace Forum (I was living in Penicuik at the time), which combined CND, Peace groups and Anti-Apartheid. The leading figure was David Smith, a local Labour councillor, and also a committed socialist. We invited Canon Kenyon Wright of the Scottish Constitutional Convention to address one of our Burns Suppers. Scottish self-determination was becoming an important issue, under the hammer blows of Thatcher. Scottish devolution eventually came about as a response to Thatcher’s attacks.
This was also a great period of Scottish cultural renaissance. When political options run out, cultural renaissance can reach the parts that politics can not reach. World class writers such as Alistair Gray and James Kelman came to the fore. The artists, Ken Currie, Steven Conroy and Steven Campbell had a major impact.
When the EIS leadership accommodated to the Tories, and then to New Labour, they slowly strangled the teachers’ union as a vehicle of resistance, I dropped out of LA activity. I used the time to do a two year course at Edinburgh University, on Scottish Cultural Studies, led by Murdo Macdonald, followed by a two year course on European Studies. I also took a considerable interest in Latin American writers, particularly Jorge Luis Borges (despite his right wing politics) and Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. When I finally published my book of poetry, Glory, in 2001, I included an essay on Borges.
So let’s go on to your books of poetry. Was Glory your first to be published?
No, back in 1993, I had published Twelve Poems for Mikolaj. Mikolaj Januszewicz was a close friend of mine, when I lived in Midlothian. He had just died. Mikolaj was a remarkable person and a Communist in several European parties. As a Belorussian Communist he had fought with the Partisans in the Second World War, before moving to France to fight with the Maquis. After the war he moved to London, then Midlothian, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was a member of the old CPGB.
Glory was published in 2001. It was dedicated to my children and to the Irish granny I had never met. It included poetry I had written over many years. It deals with major political events in the world, but also with my own internal life and cultural interests, My most recent book, Neptunes’s Staff & Other Formations, follows this format too. It has been the most successful in terms of sales. This book has gone to a second edition and raised money for CND.
The book launch was very successful too. Sixth year students produced a musical accompaniment to the poem, Leroy’s Rapping Lament, which links events in Baghdad and Falluja with New Orleans. Teachers and students also made a film with images from these places.
I have always tried to have my work sponsored through wider labour movement bodies and campaigns. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to my writing of From the Front Line of Terror in 2002, and Another Line of Terror in 2003, and my contributions to Magistri Pro Pace in 2006. This was also dedicated to Tony McManus. The Herald printed a double page selection. My other recent book of poetry, Celta Arabica, 2004, was written with the Palestinian writer Ghazi Hussein. These were all written under the auspices of the Anti-War Movement.
Palestine is obviously very important to you. How did you become involved?
Palestine is the Left’s ‘Vietnam’ for today. Palestinians are the conscience of the world today, as the Jews once were. When I met Ghazi, who originally lived in Syria, as part of the Palestinian diaspora, he said that the Palestinians were
at the bottom of the barrel in the Arab countries too. This is why they are at the forefront of all the struggles against injustice.
The idea of organising poetry readings came in response to the fire-bombing of the Annandale Street mosque by racists in 2001. It was decided to hold a solidarity meeting in the damaged mosque. Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, Aonghas MacNeacail, and others, all agreed to read their poetry. It was so successful over 40 people had to be turned away. When ever have you heard of people being turned away from poetry readings!
This led to further events being held annually as an alternative Remembrance Day. It was at one of these events that I first met Ghazi. He had written the play One Hour Before Sunrise, about imprisonment and torture in Syria. We agreed to write and publish Celt Arabica. We have become close friends.
How did your politics develop during this period?
If Thatcher’s 1979 election victory prompted me to join the CP, then the Iraq war prompted me to join the SSP. The Scottish dimension of politics is important. However, I also joined the SWP, for the same reason I had earlier joined the CP. It provided the best critique of capitalism, especially in its new virulent imperialist phase. The anti-war, anti imperialist movement is very important to me.
Now that there has been an SNP victory in the election to the Scottish Parliament, I believe it is the job of the Left in Scotland to take on the same job, pushing the SNP, that the old CP once did, pushing the Labour Party. I’m involved in Solidarity and the SWP. We believe such pressure can influence events.
People voted SNP to punish Labour over the war, privatisation and social neglect. So far, Salmond hasn’t really put a foot wrong. When, however, the SNP members, in the Edinburgh City Council coalition, initially backed the 22 school closures, Left pressure, organising the strike and other protests, was able to force them to back down. Salmond probably also pressured them, since his eyes are on the next election, so he wants to remain popular.
My main political activity, though, remains with the anti-war movement and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. Back in the 1970’s I had supported Palestinian Medical Aid, when it was the only organisation of any sort providing support for the Palestinians. Edinburgh now has a very active Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, which has brought prominent speakers from all over the world. They have done a great deal to raise the level of debate in this city.
The Palestinian issue prompted your first foray into play writing. How did this come about?
This arose because of the opportunity provided by the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. There is a close link between Scotland and Palestine. Arthur Balfour, the UK Foreign Secretary who wrote the original Declaration in 1917, promising Palestine to the Jewish people, lived at Whittinghame, outside Haddington, in East Lothian. Scotland has to know of its participation in British imperialism.
Due to the considerable confusion surrounding present day events in Palestine, many people just see the conflict as a war between two tribes. I wanted to get back to the source. This was British imperial sponsorship of Zionism, which then represented a small minority in the worldwide Jewish community.
This is why I wrote From Haddington to Palestine. The play imagines the ghost of Balfour confronting a present day Palestinian at Whittinghame. The actors were all activists from the Edinburgh branch of the Palestinian Solidarity campaign. The Theatre Workshop helped with the direction. It was well received by the Palestinians living in Scotland.
Your most recent book of poetry draws from your trips to Ireland and the Highlands.
This reflects my love of these two places. I visit both regularly. Joyce and Beckett are my favourite authors. One contemporary author whose writings I enjoy is Niall Williams – a sort of Irish magic-realism. I also enjoy Seamus Heaney’s poetry. The Highlander, Neil Gunn, is one of my favourite Scottish authors, whilst Sorley Maclean’s poetry is up there with Macdairmid’s. I support anything to keep the Gaelic language going.
My poem, A Drink in Doolin, is set in Gus O’Connors Bar in County Clare. It is a cultural magnet for Celts from all over the world. The Leith-born singer, Dick Gaughan, another socialist, also with Irish and Highland parents, has produced a TV programme, set in the same pub, showcasing folk music with common Irish and Scottish roots.
Since my regular visits to Skye, I have also made friends with, of all people, an Edinburgh banker, who originally hails from Uig. The Uig Banker shows the redemptive capabilities of the awesome scenery of Skye, away from
crazy, crowded Liverpool Street.
The cover of your book has a plug by the well-known Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton. How do you know him?
I don’t know Terry Eagleton well, but I wrote to him. I was taken with Eagleton’s idea of extending the language of the Left. This does not mean a return to religion, but a turn to ontology, or our reason to exist. He points out that the “Left is at home with imperial power and guerrilla warfare, but embarrassed on the whole by the thought of death, evil, sacrifice or the sublime.” Even if you have a socialist revolution tomorrow, people will still have to confront the ontological and existential situation. You can’t ignore religion. It has been part of all human cultures. I am interested in Buddhism and Islam because I am interested in the world. This interest comes from my socialism.
Jim Aitken’s poems are a delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness, Terry Eagleton
Interesting to see dad’s name mentioned. Been a long time.Much water under the bridge.
Mr Aitken was my English teacher,he was more than a teacher he was a role model ,he encouraged pupils who some in society would write off ,I know I was one of them,I’m not paying lip service it’s true ,a huge influence in my life still ,and I’m grateful he was my teacher ,all my friends loved his classes too. Learning about Liz Lochead and Seamus Heaney ,empowered me still to this day ,As a person I developed a voice and a passion for politics ,I’m reading about the Balfour treaty and it’s impact on my people while developing a passion to fight social injustice ,Mr Aitken I had no idea on what made you tick in terms of politics ,but the more I read about you and your voice ,I know I was right to count you as a good influence in my life ,You were engaging ,passionate,kind ,loving ,I wish all my teachers were like you ,instead I will say there is only one MR AITKEN thank you sir ,Rachid Benmoussa Mediouni Edinburgh