Though not a household name, poet Paul Reekie inspired many big names in the 1990s Scottish literary scene. Now, a year after Reekie took his own life, they tell Peter Ross of plans to preserve his remarkable legacy
Paul Reekie in 2008 at Easter Road
ON Sunday 6 June last year, at the tail-end of the final weekend of his life, the poet Paul Reekie walked into the Artisan, an old-fashioned pub on Edinburgh's London Road, one of his favoured locals. Reekie was, according to those who met him that evening, his usual gregarious self. He had a few pints and went home at around half-ten to his Waverley Park flat, where – at some point over the next few days – he killed himself. He was 48.
Reekie's body was discovered on 10 June. He did not leave a note. He laid out on a table two letters from the Department of Work and Pensions. One notified him that his housing benefit was being stopped. The other announced the end of his incapacity benefit. It would be a sad end for anyone, but perhaps especially so for a man Irvine Welsh calls a "lost genius" and who, though largely unknown, embodied and shaped the mischievous, cussed, antic, libertine spirit of Scottish literature in the late 20th century.
"The guy was the very definition of an important writer," says Barry Graham, who in 1992 appeared alongside Reekie in the poetry collection Three Edinburgh Writers. "He was a phenomenon, which is why everyone's still talking about him."
He was a Fifer who adopted Scotland's capital, and in particular Leith, as his personal fiefdom and pleasure garden. "I see him as the poet laureate of Leith," says Irvine Welsh, a friend for many years. "He had this amazing flat at 374 Leith Walk, which was a legendary stop-off place. Everybody ended up there at some point."
Reekie referred to the flat, which he shared with his then partner Rosie Savin, as The Original Anything Goes Joint. During the 1990s, after a session in the pubs and clubs, it wasn't unusual for anyone from poets and painters to Mani from Primal Scream to be sprawled asleep on the sofa. "If you went for a night out in Edinburgh and you didn't end up there, you've never really had a night out in Edinburgh," Welsh says.
"It's still very sad," says Rosie Savin. Her romantic involvement with Reekie ended some years ago, though they remained close friends. "He's left a huge hole in the lives of all of us who loved him. I've never met anyone like him and I don't think I ever will again."
Remarkably, given the influence he appears to have had on other writers, notably Irvine Welsh, Reekie's own published output is minuscule. There was Three Edinburgh Writers and the next year his own limited-edition chapbook Zap – You're Pregnant. His novella, Submission, featured in the seminal short fiction anthology Children Of Albion Rovers in 1996. Probably Reekie's best known work is the poem When Caesar's Mushroom Is In Season, which appeared as a frontispiece to Welsh's book The Acid House in 1994 and was read by the actor Tam Dean Burn at the poet's funeral.
All of Reekie's work was put out by Rebel Inc, the cult publishing house founded in Edinburgh in 1992 by Kevin Williamson, the third poet in Three Edinburgh Poets. Rebel Inc started as a magazine, became an imprint of Canongate Books, and was responsible for establishing the fashionable Trainspotting-era notion of the Scottish literary scene as a druggy, dark and darkly comic underground peopled by inky-fingered, acid-tongued autodidacts. Yet according to Kevin Williamson, "Rebel Inc wouldn't have gone beyond being a magazine if Paul's influence hadn't been there. He opened up my eyes to so many things. Irvine and I were both familiar with the counterculture and the avant-garde, but not like Paul. He lived and breathed it 24/7. There was nothing he didn't know."
Through Rebel Inc, Reekie has had an influence over the present generation of Scottish writers including Ewan Morrison, Alan Bissett and Doug Johnstone. At the time, he was the tastemaker to a scene which was itself shaping public taste. He introduced Kevin Williamson to the then obscure Scottish beat of Alexander Trocchi, whose novel Young Adam was subsequently reissued by Rebel Inc and made into a highly regarded film. He turned Irvine Welsh on to Shakespeare and Wilde. Tam Dean Burn recalls "trying to discuss Nol Coward at six o'clock in the morning when you were both off your heads on E". There didn't seem to be a poet, no matter how arcane, whose work he did not know.
"He would never compromise," Welsh recalls. "If he wanted to talk about obscure Czechoslovakian poets to a pub full of jaikies, he would just wax on. Real hard men who would punch a pretentious student for coming out with that crap actually loved Paul because they knew he was being completely genuine; there was no affectation. You could be in the stand at Easter Road watching a Hibs game and suddenly he's f***ing rabbiting on about Proust."
Reekie was born on 23 January, 1962, and grew up in Leslie, near Glenrothes in Fife, the eldest of four children. His father Mick worked at the paper mill. The family home was a council house at 8 Paterson Park, a part of town which today feels calm and quiet, all lawnmowers and roughcasting and birdsong. Back in the 1970s, however, it had a reputation as being a bit wild but vivid and full of characters.
One near neighbour was known as The Pink Panther. He had a beard, long hair, 27 televisions and had wallpapered his front room with centrefolds from porno mags; one evening, while busy pleasuring himself, he was knocked unconscious by a turnip thrown through an open window from the street. Another local was reputed to keep a leprechaun in a bottle. For a fledgling writer, exposure to these locals, to these crazy stories, must have laid a bedrock in the imagination.
Innes Reekie, head of the record label Mayakovsky Produkts which last year put out the Spectorbullets album on which Paul Reekie features, was no relation but a close friend during their teenage years. He first became aware of him around 1974 when his nickname – "Peekie" – was spray-painted on what seemed like every wall in the area of Glenrothes where Innes lived. Reekie was, according to Innes, involved in the gang culture of the time – "These were the days when you used to take nunchakus in your Adidas bag to school" – and was in serious trouble for headbutting the headmaster.
He found schoolwork easy and did well in his O-Grades, but left before sitting his Highers to become a butcher's apprentice. This was a short-lived career move which Innes Reekie says ended when Paul threatened the butcher with a meat cleaver. Though he is remembered as being generous, charming and deadpan funny, there is no question that Reekie could also be challenging company. Tam Dean Burn shakes his head at the memory of introducing him to his partner. "He f***ing bit her. I let him away with it, really, and I couldn't grasp why I let him away with it, except that he was intimidating in some way."
Everyone who knew Reekie well talks about him having demons. Barry Graham remembers seeing him cursing at and exposing himself to a nightclub bouncer. "Sometimes you would run into him and he would be absolutely exuberant, but at other times he would have this field of blackness about him."
Reekie moved to Edinburgh in 1978, keen to get closer to the punk scene, and found a job working in the city's first sex shop. He played bass and sang in a band called The Thursdays. Their cover of Otis Redding's Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay was played at his funeral. "It's gorgeous," says Burn. "He was only 17 at the time, but he sounds so world-weary and wise."
It was during the punk period that Reekie met many of the friends with whom he would remain close for the rest of his life. "You would see these mad bulging eyes," Irvine Welsh recalls of their earliest encounters. "His eyes kind of walked into the room ten minutes before the rest of him." In the early 1980s, he got married, but the marriage did not last long.
A decade on from punk, Reekie embraced acid house with the same abandon. He also built a strong reputation as a performance poet, appearing at Edinburgh venues including The Antiquary Bar and the Unemployed Workers Centre. Sometimes he'd turn up wearing a flying helmet, goggles and a kimono, or some other motley outfit. The popular memory of his theatrical appearance, and the unavailability of published poetry, have meant he is often misremembered as a rather goofy and marginal figure, the joker in the Rebel Inc pack. He was, however, deeply serious about his work and approached it with academic rigour.
"He was an absolute master of classical form," says Barry Graham. "In Scottish poetry, where he belongs is alongside Edwin Morgan, who thought he was great. If you wrote something in classical meter, he would be able to say to you, after hearing it, that there was one beat too many in the second line."
The great mystery around Paul Reekie is why he did not publish more work. He had a bruising experience in 1996 when Submission, his novella in Children Of Albion Rovers, attracted a lawsuit from his ex-wife. Canongate was forced to pulp 10,000 copies of the book, withdraw others from sale, and pay damages. It would be unsurprising if this put him off the business side of the books industry. However, those close to him speculate that the real reason he didn't submit work to publishers was a strange mixture of fear of success, fear of failure, fear of rejection and fear, perhaps, of losing part of his soul. This was real psychological complexity which made him appear thrawn. As Innes Reekie puts it, "Paul did almost everything he could to derail his own writing career."
He never stopped writing, though. In his flat, following his death, a large box was discovered to contain unpublished poetry and prose, mainly handwritten in block capitals. Williamson intends to go through it with Welsh and Rosie Savin. Between them they will decide what might be suitable for publication. "Paul lived for his poetry," says Williamson, "and I don't want to see it die with him."
The thinking is that Reekie desired posthumous publication and would have destroyed any work he didn't want in the public domain. It is likely that an announcement about the discovered manuscripts will be made during this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival; a Paul Reekie event is scheduled to take place at the Spiegeltent on 28 August. "I think he will be regarded as this lost genius," says Welsh. "The cult of Reekie, which is a local cult, will go national and even global once that stuff comes out."
The question of why Paul Reekie chose to take his own life is not answered easily. The information that his benefits were being stopped, and that he had laid out the DWP letters, appeared on Williamson's website Bella Caledonia. Since then, Reekie has become something of a welfare cuts martyr and his suicide inspired the formation of the Black Triangle campaign against work capability assessments.
"I don't think Paul killed himself because he had his benefits cut," Williamson says. "It may have been something that tipped him over the edge, but it was more complex than that."
Reekie suffered from poor health, having undergone heart surgery in recent years. He was recovering from an attack outside a pub which friends speculate had left him feeling vulnerable. He is also said to have felt terribly lonely at times despite a wide social circle. He was sick, he was sad, he was skint. His own favourite poet was John Berryman who killed himself in 1972. It sounds like a combination of factors.
"I'm sure from Paul's point of view he took a very pragmatic decision," says Welsh. "I think it was the wrong one. He's a very dear friend and I miss him terribly and I just wish he was here for us. But there's something very brave about it as well. I don't want to glorify or glamorize that kind of act because it leaves such an emotional mess behind, but I think there is a tremendous mental courage required to do something like that."
One of the last people to spend time with Reekie before his death was Mark Hay, a friend and fellow Hibee, one of a crowd of pals who would go to most of the matches, always standing in the Dunbar end of the East Terrace at Easter Road. Hay didn't know Reekie as an artist, really; it was all about the football, the pub and the craic.
In the week before Reekie died, Hay had him down to his place in Leith for mince'n'tatties and a few beers. Reekie had asked if he could visit, which was unusual, and he had hugged Hay on the way out the door at 2am, which again wasn't like him. Looking back, Hay believes his friend was saying goodbye. "I wish he'd said he was struggling. There's so many people that would have dropped everything and done something to help. But he didn't want to bother you that way. He would just thole it on his own to give folk peace."
That was Paul Reekie. He would talk and talk but he wouldn't talk about himself. He was enigmatic, a closed book, a blurred persona with undefined edges akin to one of the mobile phone photos of him posted on Facebook. Almost a year he's been gone now, and in his absence his presence continues to grow.
Though almost unknown by the public at large, he touched many lives on a personal level and had a cultural influence which continues to be felt in Edinburgh and far beyond. "He really is," says Barry Graham, "this ghost that haunts us all."