FORTY years ago, he was accused of writing poetry in the lyrics for his band. Now Ron Butlin is Edinburgh’s Makar and, he finds, inspiration hits in the strangest places, even when his wife was critically ill.
THE city of Edinburgh has been around far longer than I have. All those cobbled-together streets, all those wynds, closes, courts and vennels, historic this and landmark that, the Georgian elegance – so much of it, and so often taken for granted on a daily basis. But not always. Not if we’re lucky, like I was recently when I found myself at the top of the Mound looking across Princes Street to the distant Forth. Standing there, with the Kirk to my left and the Bank to my right (between God’s Law and Man’s, you might say) I saw the city shaped by the sky and the sky by the city. For a moment, even heaven itself seemed possible.
For me it all began decades ago with a 1960s’ pop band. Remember Tangerine Dream? World-famous mega-group with multimillion disc sales? Well, we were called Tangerine Peel – the difference in name said it all. So near … and yet so far. The high point was an appearance on the Tony Blackburn TV show wearing tartan miniskirts, with clouds of dry ice billowing around the bare legs. That was the high point. Really.
The TV gig accelerated our collapse, big time. A few months after we split up, a visitor came across some of my newest song lyrics and accused me of writing poetry.
Fast-forward 40 years.
No fame, no riches, no multi-book deals – but at least no dry ice and tartan miniskirts. Then, to my complete surprise, I was given the great honour of becoming Edinburgh’s third Makar. It was only then, and so very belatedly, that I really began to appreciate the city I’d been born in. No bardic robe and quill of office, but a magic bus pass to help me perform my civic duties! One of my first events was a charity auction where I was to be sold off – the winner was to have afternoon tea with the new Makar at the Balmoral Hotel. After various vouchers for make-overs, weekend breaks, quality ornaments and the like had achieved quite astronomical sums, I was asked to stand up and let the people see what they’d be getting for their money. My wife Regi whispered to me that if things got really sticky, she’d bid. So, clearly, even she thought things were shaping up to be one big frost.
Finally, I went for £550, to an elderly gentleman. That’s showbiz, I thought. As it turned out, he’d purchased me as a gift for his charming granddaughter, Sara Sheridan, a writer herself.
Other events followed thick and fast. I had to learn to “say a few words”, as the phrase is – that is, address speeches of welcome, congratulation or whatever, to visiting foreign delegations and local dignitaries, and to speak at prizegivings, official dinners, Burns’ suppers and the like. Fortunately, my years of school visits as a writer (if you can survive a classroom of hormonally wired-up teenagers, you can survive anything) stood me in good stead. It was a quite unique opportunity, and a real privilege, to see behind the scenes of government and business. On the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, for example, I was imprisoned for Scottish PEN, the writers’ association, in an open cage outside the Scottish Parliament. At other times, I read a commissioned poem in the House of Lords, switched on the Christmas lights in St Patrick’s square, and spoke from John Knox’s very own pulpit in St Giles’ Cathedral. I was also auctioned again, for the Sick Kids Hospital. When Edinburgh turned into the Arctic, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme commissioned a short piece from me, as Makar, about conditions in the city. I was really chuffed when it made Pick of the Week. At the City Chambers I unveiled a plaque for Edinburgh Makars. Meanwhile, my wife had been diagnosed with cancer.
Public speaking aside, my initial worry was the prospect of having to write poems to commission. Pure art comes from pure inspiration – no? How wrong I was. Writing the occasional poem to order has allowed me to tackle subjects I would never have dreamt of, such as the Year of Homecoming, a round-the-world clipper race and so forth. Writing poetry to commission also helped keep me sane, near enough.
We’d been told Regi had cancer within a few days of the official ceremony to install me as Edinburgh’s Makar. The following months rapidly became a blur of hospital visits, consultations, radio and chemotherapy treatments, tests, and more tests. We entered a strange and frightening world where she was soon down to a very frail 37kg, and in constant and excruciating pain. She seemed to be dying in front of my eyes.
My approach to writing commissioned poems is simple – let the theme itself provide the inspiration. Let it find a voice within me, then leave that voice to get with it. Very much like writing a “normal” poem, except there’s no need to think up a subject. As Makar, I write poems that get published and read, and that I’m paid for. What’s not to like? Then came the poem on “vibrant Edinburgh”.
George Grubb, the then Lord Provost, was hosting a banquet and would I write some verses to celebrate “vibrant Edinburgh”? For several weeks I did my best to let the theme “hum” itself over, as it were, in my head. Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. Approaching banquet or not, on the home front, vibrancy was in very short supply. It was a truly agonising time – Regi had just undergone her first operation. Three days later, they realised she was haemorrhaging and rushed her back into theatre at almost midnight for emergency surgery. I was put into a rather bleak room nearby, and told to wait.
There can be such healing in creation, and such consolation. I was still trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, not to imagine what my wife was enduring in a room not far down the corridor – when, to my utter amazement, the first line about ‘vibrant Edinburgh’ announced itself. Then came the second. The third. I hunted around the pile of glossy magazines, found a sheet of discarded hospital notepaper, and began writing. The surgeon looked in, about half an hour later, to say that everything had gone well. Afterwards, I went home and slept, and slept. From then on, Regi began her very slow but more or less steady and complete recovery.
The future is always upon us, but never more so than now, when, here in Scotland, we will soon be called upon to determine what being Scottish really means. Whatever the outcome, nothing will be the same again, and nor will we. Each one of us is part of the debate – for myself as Edinburgh Makar, these are truly inspiring times.
My role has invited me take a fresh look at the city I’ve lived in for so many years, a world capital that still manages to feel truly personal. The result is The Magicians of Edinburgh (published by Polygon), a sometime surreal celebration of Edinburgh past, present and future, which is due out this week. A Fringe show based on some of these poems, has been devised by musicians Dick Lee, Anne Evans and myself, and runs throughout the festival at Valvona & Crolla’s on Elm Row (Venue 67) – and, I promise, there’ll be no dry ice and miniskirts this time round!
The Other Edinburgh
Sometimes Princes Street enjoys having a good long stretch
before settling down for the night.
The Scott Monument yawns, setting off Jenners,
the Balmoral … Rose Street doesn’t want to go home yet,
but then it never does. At Waverley, the trains sag on their axles,
their carriages gathering darkness to fill
the empty hours ahead.
Three floors up a Newington tenement we hear the street door slam
shut – that’s Dod come home. Woollen beanie, boots, vodka,
sleeping bag. After the stairwell allows itself one last turn
to get more comfortable, the flats begin slowly
tipping us over an edge we didn’t
even know was –
This other city’s history is our own. Its pitch-black vennels,
vaults, closes, wynds piled each on each
and in perpetual free-fall – these are the nights
we live through, set in stone.
When our time comes, shall we find ourselves washed up one by one
on an elsewhere shore? A very Scottish baptism.
So far north what else is there to live for, excepting kindness
– kindness and hoarded daylight?
The same repeated streets, the same clumsiness of hopes and fears –
this is our only destination, our only journey.
This is the once-in-a-lifetime of it all.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 2 C to 12 C
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