Pieces of Edwin Morgan: His closest friend tells his story

James McGonigal, Edwin Morgan's legal 'next of kin', friend and biographer on the genius and complexity of our national Poet

• Edwin Morgan with James McGonigal in February this year. Picture: Alex Boyd

His death was hardly unexpected. Edwin Morgan, the National Poet, was 90 years old, and had been suffering from prostate and other cancers for over ten years - defying the original prognosis of "six months, or six years". And yet his passing registered a definite shock.

He was a poet whom many Scots had actually encountered, in one or other of his varied voices. He might sound like the Loch Ness Monster, a Mercurian, Pelagius or a midge, or himself. Whether through poems taught in primary or secondary classrooms, or seeing him on one of the thousands of school and community visits he made, or through attending his lectures, plays or performances over the years, readers felt connected with him. For many, his great poem declaimed for the opening of the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood was a highlight of the day.

So the loss was felt keenly. No stranger to controversy or acclaim, Edwin Morgan would have been pleased to be making the headlines again. I was the last of his friends to see him, on the evening before he died, called to his care home in Glasgow's West End as his 'next of kin' in the legal sense. A gay man with no immediate family apart from a few cousins in Edinburgh, Canada and Tasmania, he needed someone to buy his shirts, accompany him on hospital visits, deposit cheques from literary earnings, or occasionally respond in writing to letters or requests. Even more occasionally, I helped him to draft poems that his hand was now too frail to write, but that his imagination knew should be written.

I was also writing his biography, with his assistance and approval. Just a few days earlier I had informed him that Beyond the Last Dragon had finally been dispatched. This was his first biography. Its subtitle, A Life of Edwin Morgan, suggests there will be others. In a sense, he had lived not just a double life, but a series of them - as artist and academic; as the mild-mannered radical republican who accepted royal decorations; as the avant-garde experimentalist in concrete and sound poetry who excelled in the sonnet form; as an extrovert and lively loner whose charm was matched only by an inner core of steely determination.

But how to catch that multiplicity in one story? When people learned that I was writing his biography, they sometimes said: 'That must be a labour of love'. Well, not exactly, or not always - you can come to know too much about another human being. My research and writing about all aspects of his life were combined with looking after the aging poet in practical ways as his strength ebbed and flowed.So elements of detachment and attachment were in tension over a long period.

It helped, of course, that I had known him over 40 years. He was my lecturer in the late 1960s in the University of Glasgow, my research supervisor in the 1970s, and a friend thereafter. In the late 1990s I became one of his literary executors, and was near at hand when, approaching 80, he began treatment for what he called 'the last dragon' of cancer. This was the final enemy, the one that he would combat for ten years with every creative sinew of his being.

That he remained lively, vital and, yes, still positive about the future in the face of unremitting struggle against pain and indignity made me admire him even more.

My research was carried out mainly in the huge Edwin Morgan collection in Glasgow University Library, gifted by the poet to the institution where he first studied and then taught. It details his contacts with all the major poets of 20th-century Scotland, with carbon copies of his own side of the correspondence. It holds photographs and diaries of his trips abroad, as well as surrealistic Scrapbooks, correspondence for journals such as Scottish International that he co-edited, film and radio scripts, letters to and from the widest range of people imaginable, and unpublished poems and translations. He filed not only letters but postage receipts, articles torn from newspapers, scribbled notes of telephone calls. It was all pieces of him, and so, potentially, of interest.

So prolific was Morgan as poet, dramatist, critic, broadcaster, reviewer and librettist that his output supports three archives in Scotland alone. There are 13,000 of his books, many with his annotations, in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. In Edinburgh there is the substantial Edwin Morgan Archive of first editions, rare journals, pictures and ephemera in the Scottish Poetry Library, opened in 2009. Both of these depended on the enthusiasm of Hamish Whyte, his bibliographer and Scottish publisher.

Work and family commitments left me little time for extensive travel or interviews. The University Library collection already held almost more than enough to cope with. From carbon copies, the poet moved on to a photocopier and fax machine big enough to sustain an independent business operation. Both sides of any correspondence could easily be tracked. Working from his own words allowed me to re-create something of his energy, sympathy, intelligence and humour - in every sense, he was a marvellous man of letters.

Much that I learned was intriguing. Surprising, rather than shocking, I suppose, although some readers may be shocked. He was always concerned to make available for scrutiny and reflection the whole truth of what it means to be a human being. Thus, where many would have exercised censorship or circumspection about what they made available, he mainly did not. Thus he continued to challenge the boundaries of normality.He liked to think radically, and to surprise others into thought by his own unexpectedness.

I was surprised, firstly, by the sheer struggle he had to become successful. His first major collection, The Second Life (1968), did not appear from Edinburgh University Press until he was 48. And they would not publish a second collection, despite the evident success of the first. Earlier, although well known as a translator of Russian, French, Italian, Old English and Hungarian poetry, he could only watch as rival Scottish poets secured contracts with London publishers.

Then the young, struggling Carcanet Press took him on. This was the start of a fascinating and often touching relationship of writer and publisher. Michael Schmidt excelled in re-shaping Morgan's first ideas for new collections. From Glasgow to Saturn (1973) and Rites of Passage (1976) in particular bear his stamp. Hamish Whyte at Mariscat Press kept the poet's work before Scottish readers through regular publication of shorter and more stylish collections. Together, these editors established a vital rhythm of alternating Scottish and UK publication which energised poet and readers.

Friendship, shared enthusiasm and humour make their correspondence a joy to read. Their (rare) fallings-out are all the more dismaying, as if the relationship suddenly runs into the stone wall of Morgan's determination. With Schmidt, it came when he established Poetry Nation Review, without realising that, to his Scottish poet, the idea of 'nation' bore no relation to the conservative Englishness that he abhorred in the journal's editors, Brian Cox and CH Sisson.

Morgan could be tetchy over literary earnings too, ticking off his publisher over royalties and contracts. This punctiliousness over money came from his family background. His father was chief accountant and then director of Arnott, Young & Company, a substantial firm of ship-breakers and iron merchants, established by the poet's maternal grandfather. Family involvement with the heavy industry of Clydeside through depression and post-war decline gave him an authority to write powerfully on the economic decay of the 1970s. His personal contacts with working-class young men gave authenticity to his later dramatic use of Glaswegian speech.

It was shocking to learn the depth of antipathy towards Catholics in his conservative, protestant childhood home. His father, a freemason, declared that he 'would never knowingly employ a Catholic' in the firm's yards. John Scott, the love of Morgan's life whom he met in the early 1960s, was a store-man who came from a large and easy-going Lanarkshire Catholic family. The poet, an only child, continued to live with his parents until the age of 42.

His relationship with John Scott altered Morgan's poetry forever, and he came to write some of the finest love lyrics in the language.This 1960s emotional awakening ran alongside positive dealings with people from religious life, such as Anthony Ross OP and the Benedictine concrete poet, Dom Sylvester Houdard - all part of a marvellous decade of change. Morgan's attitude towards Catholicism, however, altered in the 1990s. He was dismayed equally by the revival of Orthodox Christianity after the collapse of Communism, and by the attitude of the Church towards homosexuality around the repeal of Section 28 by the Scottish Executive. Yet even in his last years he was in regular contact with a Spanish Opus Dei Jesuit, discussing theology, philosophy and Scottish culture. He was rarely predictable.

John Scott may have been the love of his life, but it was not an exclusive relationship. I was surprised by what Morgan termed his own 'libertinism'. In the dark subculture of gay 1950s Glasgow, and later, he sometimes lived what he called 'a life of risk'. And his relationship with Scott ended in estrangement, before his early death from cancer in 1978. He never really forgave himself for that. How was I, as a writer, to handle aspects of vulnerability in someone for whom I was also in a caring role?

When the small Sandstone Press approached me with the idea I was slightly uneasy, but thought they were the sort of Scottish publisher that the poet himself had often supported. He himself was keen on the idea. Working with teachers, I could see merit in the challenge of creating an accessible biography that would yet reveal new things about a poet whose work was so widely studied.

There were indeed some fascinating finds. Edwin Morgan and I discussed the decades as they were researched and written. His memory remained sharp, if sometimes patchy. But so is mine. By the end, he was calling it 'our book', and looking forward to the story it would tell.