Tributes paid to ‘pioneer’ Scots poet and writer Tom Leonard

Writer and poet Tom Leonard in 2001. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL
Writer and poet Tom Leonard in 2001. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL
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Tributes have been paid to the writer and poet Tom Leonard, who has died aged 74.

Described as “a giant of Scottish literature”, Leonard produced numerous poems, essays and critical works during a career spanning six decades.

From left, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard at the University of Glasgow in May 2001. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL

From left, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard at the University of Glasgow in May 2001. Picture: Allan Milligan/TSPL

Born and raised in Glasgow, his best-known poems often reflected the language and behaviour of his home town. His breakthrough publication, Six Glasgow Poems, was published in 1969 and is considered a landmark in post-war Scots writing.

Playwright David Greig was among those to pay tribute. “His work was a liberation for so many Scottish writers of written and the spoken word,” he said. “He was a working class, Glaswegian voice who never toed any line. He will be very greatly missed.”

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Kevin Williamson, the publisher and poet, described Leonard as “an inspiration who changed Scottish poetry forever and even how we think about our own language”.

Born in Glasgow in 1944, Leonard was educated at Lourdes Secondary School and the University of Glasgow. He later became a member of Philip Hobsbaum’s Glasgow writers’ group which included Alasdair Gray and James Kelman.

Leonard was known for his accuracy in capturing Scots language in his works and the Glaswegian vernacular in particular. In a 2003 interview, he explained his interest grew at a young age.

“I was aware that my mother spoke using a lot of words that were Scottish, but then she would tell me to speak ‘properly’, as she called it,” he said. “I think it’s a very common phenomenon, and not just in Scotland: you get it in different cities where the urban accent is looked down on, and there are parents who worry about their children not getting on in jobs or to university if they speak like that. So although they speak with a vernacular accent themselves, they tell their children to speak differently, and sometimes they might even punish their children for speaking the same way as they do themselves.”

Leonard’s work also attracted criticism as well as praise. His collection Intimate Voices: Selected Work 1965-1983 was banned from Central Region school libraries in 1984, the same year that it shared the Scottish Book of the Year Award.

“He was a pioneer committed to representing the language and concerns of his West of Scotland working-class community at a time when such representations were scant to non-existant,” said Asif Khan, director of the Scottish Poetry Library.

“The attitudes he exposed in his ground-breaking poem ‘Six O’Clock News’ remain relevant decades after its publication; his analysis of the way in which accent, grammar, spelling and pronunciation are used to sustain power structures is as penetrating today as it was the day it was written.

“He was also a champion of those who’d gone before him, his anthology Radical Renfrew uncovering a history of working class voices lost to history. His humour, his experimentalism, his commitment to his craft and untameable intelligence will be much missed by readers and the many writers he continues to influence.”

In later life he was appointed writer in residence at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, at Bell College of Technology and at Renfrew District Libraries.

In 2001 he was appointed, with Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, joint Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, from which he retired eight years later.

A tribute event organised by the Scottish Poetry Library is being planned for the New Year.

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