Johnny Cash wasn’t the only poet in San Quentin prison – Steve Cardownie

Johnny Cash ' no stranger to trouble himself ' often entertained inmates. Picture: Getty
Johnny Cash ' no stranger to trouble himself ' often entertained inmates. Picture: Getty
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Johnny Cash played a concert in San Quentin prison to rapturous acclaim from the inmates. Steve Cardownie tells the story of how the poetry of one inmate, Ed ‘Foots’ Lipman inspired an Edinburgh man to compile a book of his verse.

‘San Quentin, I hate every inch of you/You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me through and thru/And I’ll walk out a wiser, weaker man/Mr Congressman, why can’t you understand?’

So sang the legendary Johnny Cash at his concert in that famous penal establishment in 1969 on a bleak February night. The inmates met this song with rapturous acclaim and applause as they ­immediately ­identified with the sentiment expressed in the lyrics.

Fast forward to a conversation in a local hostelry last Sunday where a ­fellow patron, Scott Lawrie, told me that he had recently sent a cheque for more than 1000 dollars to the charity that supports the creative writing class at San Quentin.

This was generated from the ­proceeds of a book Scott had ­compiled called Only by Flashlight, which ­featured the poetic works of a former San Quentin inmate Ed ‘Foots’ ­Lipman, who had spent nearly half of his 34 years behind bars before dying of natural causes in 1975.

Lipman committed his first offence at the age of 17 when he stole a ’57 Buick Sedan from the Iron and Coal Company in Wichita Falls.

He drove it 6000 miles across country, narrowly evading capture on no less than eight occasions. After further run-ins with the law, including ­robbery and several escape attempts, he was finally granted parole from San Quentin in March 1975 and he died later that year in September.

Lipman began writing poetry in prison and Scott revealed that “I have never been so affected by poetry . . . I looked up his name on the internet, found little to nothing, and felt compelled to change that”, which he did by publishing Only By Flashlight which features 55 poems written by Lipman and which was reviewed in an edition of the San Quentin News.

“I knew that I could never profit from another man’s work and that sales from the book, however small, should go to a good cause of which Lipman would hopefully have approved so I arranged for the monies to be paid to the creative writing class at San Quentin and Folsom Prison,” said Scott “where I am sure that it will be put to good use as funding ­cutbacks are taking their toll.”

Scott originally hails from ­Dunfermline but now lives in the Broughton area of Edinburgh with his wife, Laura, who shares his ­passion for literature. At 32, he has a good number of years ahead of him to continue ­working on his poetry and short stories. Although he has not been published in his own right so far he is hopeful that that day will not be too far off.

Scott is actively seeking ­funding for a proposed trip to San Quentin, where he hopes to give a reading, not only of his and other Scottish poets’ works, but those of ‘Foots’ Lipman, to the 3500-plus inmates who are ­currently incarcerated in that Californian establishment.

“May all the world forget you ever stood/And may all the world regret you did no good” sang Johnny Cash about the prison.

Scott is relishing the prospect of playing some part, however small, in shedding a little light on Lipman, the inmate and poet, who would have endorsed Cash’s lyrics.

Council has taken its foot off the pedal

A couple of columns ago I wrote that the City of Edinburgh Council was right to adopt a bold approach when dealing with traffic pollution in the city and commended the initiatives that it was deploying to meet the very real challenges that it presented.

What a pity then that the council administration looks set to step back from this strategy as it prepares to advocate a two-tier Low Emission Zone (LEZ) for the city.

While motorists will be given five years to meet the demands of the city centre LEZ they will be free to drive air-polluting cars elsewhere in the city and no pollution restrictions will apply.

Not only that, but the city centre LEZ will not even cover Tollcross, Haymarket or Queen Street. The plans will be put out for public consultation so pedestrians, drivers, businesses and other interested parties will all have an opportunity to express an opinion.

But it would appear that this is a missed opportunity and that the bold leadership that is needed to make an impact and drive the whole issue of city traffic management forward has, unfortunately, taken a back seat.

Birds of a feather...

A penguin walks into a bar in Leith and says to the barman “My brother’s no’ been in the day, has he?” The barman looks at him and says “Ah dinnae ken, what does he look like?”