Obituary: Tom Leonard, radical writer who championed Glaswegian vernacular in his poetry

Tom Leonard, writer. Born: 22 August, 1944. Died: 21 December, 2018 aged 74

Tom Leonard writer  at Glasgow University as the Literary trio  are appointed to creative writing chair at the university
Picture ALLAN MILLIGAN  date taken  31st  May  2001 (electronic image)
Tom Leonard writer at Glasgow University as the Literary trio are appointed to creative writing chair at the university Picture ALLAN MILLIGAN date taken 31st May 2001 (electronic image)

Tom Leonard who has died aged 74 was one of Scotland’s foremost literary figures of the past half century. Best known as an acclaimed poet, he was also a prolific prose writer, essayist, playwright and political polemicist.

As writer in residence at Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities, Bell College of Technology and Renfrew District Libraries, he was a highly valued tutor and source of encouragement to many young and aspiring writers to whom he was generous with his time and input. In 2001 along with friends and fellow writers Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, he was appointed Joint Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University, a post he held till retirement in 2009. A very widely read and sophisticated experimental writer possessed of a fierce intelligence sliced through with a strong moral vein, he was held in the highest regard not only here but throughout the English speaking world.

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As a poet he first came to wider attention with his Six Glasgow Poems, initially published as an insert in the Glasgow University magazine in 1969. This series depicting Glasgow scenes was written in the local vernacular in phonetic spelling, using highly compressed language with his speakers’ voices providing impact to the poems. In doing so he was reinforcing the cultural validity of language other than perceived “Standard English” while emphasising his belief that poetry was intended to be spoken rather than read. When interviewed about this 20 years later, he commented,” I was sick to death of what I took to be cuddly toy representation of Glasgow speech . . . the phrase in my head was ‘we exist’ . . . I felt my voice was not being recognised,” later adding, “All livin’ language is sacred.” Following a similar theme was another outstanding work, The Six O’Clock News, published in 1976, which used the device of a Glaswegian speaking as a BBC newsreader, ironically underlining how perceived “properly spoken” English lent an air of objectivity to the content otherwise denied to the vernacular speaker. Asif Khan, Scottish Poetry Library Director stated: “His analysis of the way in which accent, grammar, spelling and pronuciation are used to sustain power structures is as penetrating today as the day the poem was written.”

The topics of power, class and the use of language were central to much of Leonard’s work, in which he railed against the power structure implied by the authority of “Standard English” and exemplified the worth of his own speech.

In 1984, his Intimate Voices, consisting of selected poems in Glaswegian Scots and English, earned him the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year Award, shared with David Daiches, but was banned from school libraries in Central Region in Scotland. Other published poetry collections included Access to the Silence and Outside the Narrative, while Reports from the Present featured political satires, essays and polemics and Definite Articles was a compilation of essays, articles, reviews and journal entries over 40 years.

In 1990 he compiled Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to the First World War, an anthology championing the work of 68 ordinary people, forgotten local poets he researched while local Writer in Residence. In his introduction he criticised formal education systems for excluding vast amounts of literature deemed inappropriate for teaching. One of his subjects was Alexander Wilson who before emigrating and becoming a pioneer ornithologist in America, was jailed for his poem The Shark, an attack on a local mill owner. In 1993 he published his biographical novel Place of the Mind on James Thomson, 19th century Scottish poet, author of the epic City of Dreadful Night.

Politically he was vociferous in his criticism of any hypocrisy and obfuscation and believed that politics “is part of the process of being”. He was against the Trident nuclear base in Scotland and in 1991 wrote On the Mass Bombing of Iraq and Kuwait, in condemnation of the American and British bombing raids.

He supported the Israeli scientist Morchedai Vanunu, imprisoned for revealing secrets of his country’s nuclear programme to whom he dedicated a poem Being a Human Being. When Vanunu was elected Rector of Glasgow University but forbidden to travel to the ceremony, Leonard recited it in his absence.

Tom Leonard was born in Glasgow where he was brought up in Pollok with his siblings. His father was Irish, originally from Dublin, and worked as a train driver while his mother, also of Irish descent, was from Saltcoats and prior to marriage had worked in the Nobel explosives factory in Ardeer. He attended St Monica’s Primary School before going on to Lourdes Secondary. After leaving school he worked as a bus conductor and in a bookshop till he matriculated at Glasgow University in 1967, leaving after two years but returning in the ’70s to graduate in English and Scottish literature, by which time he was part of a group of writers including Kelman, Gray, Liz Lochhead and others.

He wrote his first poems in his mid-teens, his love of literature being kindled at his local library where he started reading in the Five to Seven section before graduating through to the adult section. He also went by bus to Govan Library and reckoned he had read most of Dickens by age 16. At a time when cuts are affecting libraries, his comment “A free public library is the place where anyone can build his own relationship with the literary world, I built mine at Pollok Public Library,” is particularly noteworthy.

In the early 1970s he married Sonya, a teacher also of Irish descent with whom he enjoyed a long and happy marriage during which they lived in Glasgow’s West End and had two sons Michael and Stephen. His family meant everything to him and he to them. A sociable individual with a good sense of humour, he was highly principled and remained faithful throughout to his beliefs.

He is survived by his wife, sons and grandchildren, Alex and Joe.