The Scotsman Sessions #286: Des Dillon

Welcome to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts sector still impacted by the pandemic, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, the poet Des Dillon reads from his new collection, Muscle Work, Alcohol and Blame

The title of Des Dillon’s new collection of poetry is Muscle Work, Alcohol And Blame; and like a short poem in itself, it gathers together three concepts that have been vital in shaping the life and work of one of Scotland’s most remarkable writers – a playwright, novelist and poet whose embrace of endlessly shifting forms and language is a source of huge delight to those who love his work.

Dillon was born in Coatbridge in 1960, the second child in a family of nine, brought up in a strong west of Scotland Irish Catholic culture. The men of his family traditionally worked as manual labourers or tradesmen, and he followed in their footsteps, working alongside his father on building sites in his twenties; hence the “muscle work” embedded in the poems.

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There was also a tradition of hard drinking, which the young Des embraced, spending most of his teens and twenties in the grip of addiction to alcohol and drugs; and then there was the blame, notably the self-blame, that came with the addiction, and that had to be dealt with once Dillon decided, in his thirties, to kick the habit.

Des Dillon

Yet there was always, behind it all, a powerful sense of his own gift as a wordsmith, poet and storyteller, someone who came from a great storytelling tradition, and – as he says – “knew the weight of words”. When he went back to college in his early twenties, to get the Highers he needed for university, he won the highest mark for English in Scotland that year; and he eventually survived the culture shock of university to graduate with a degree in English in 1989.

His first novel, the widely-acclaimed Me And Ma Gal – about a day in the lives of two young boys growing up in Coatbridge – was published in 1995; and since then he has published many collections of poetry and short stories, and half a dozen further novels, as well as working as a scriptwriter on Take The High Road and River City, and writing several major plays – including Singing I’m No A Billy He’s A Tim (2005), about sectarian bigotry and anti-Irish racism in Scotland, and Six Black Candles (2002), a powerful Lanarkshire black comedy featuring characters based on Dillon’s six sisters.

Earlier this year, Sparsile Press published Dillon’s remarkable novel Pignut And Nuncle, a brilliant fantasy in which King Lear and Jane Eyre meet on the same blasted heath, where their encounter is witnessed and described by a contemporary west of Scotland Fool; and now, Dillon is launching his latest collection of poetry, featuring around 100 recent poems. For this Scotsman Session, he selects and reads eight of them, on subjects ranging from a mighty poem about his father, to the sense of “fortress Britain” now closing its doors to migrants and refugees.

Today, Dillon lives in Galloway with his wife and dogs, and is a keen student of Scots Gaelic, the language that links his Scottish identity most closely to his Irish ancestry; and he still regards poetry as his first love. “I always come back to poetry,” he says. “For me, it’s the pinnacle of a writer’s work. Poetry takes you very quickly into that meditative world where you begin to catch the resonances of things, as well as the things themselves. It’s something indescribable – but then if you could describe it easily in prose, why would you write a poem?”

Muscle Work, Alcohol and Blame, by Des Dillon, is published by Foggletoddle Books, £12.99

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