Tom Leonard – an Appreciation

Colin Kirkwood remembers his friend, the poet Tom Leonard.

When I was growing up in Saltcoats in the 1950s, the protestant community had few connections with the catholic community. Except for the occasional fight. Another exception was going to cafes, such as the Café Melbourne and the Marina. Cafes were almost the only source of comfort and joy, and everybody went there. It was well known that cafes were owned and run by catholics, but that was a subordinate fact. They were seen as Italians.

It was not till I left school and went to Glasgow University that I got to know any catholics. A silent cultural shift occurred. Catholics were human beings, and you could talk to them. The most important catholics in my life have been Gerri Harkin, who married me, Bob Tait, our best man, Anthony Ross, the officiating priest, and Tom Leonard, who I first met in Stenhouse’s bookshop.

Stenhouses was on the corner of Gibson Street and Bank Street, in Glasgow. It was a good shop for poetry.

I remember my first meeting with him very well. There was some kind of staircase rising from the basement, and there was a human figure coming up it. The figure turned towards me. It was male. He looked at me directly. I looked back at him. We held each other’s gaze. He was holding in his hand a large white roll, in the middle of which I could see a thick slice of spam, irregularly cut. I mean, it was not geometrical, which I felt it should have been.

This memory is still strong. It is associated in my mind with the occasion in Sartre’s Nausea when the protagonist looks at a tree and sees it as it really is. In my opinion, Sartre is wrong about trees. They are not nauseating, but they can be very particular. This figure in Stenhouse’s had a very particular sort of nose: a Roman nose.

This person’s name was Tom Leonard. He didn’t actually sing it to me, as he has been known to do in his sound poetry performances: my name is Tom, my name is Tom.

I don’t want to get sentimental about our relationship, but I have felt a deep connection with him ever since that day. I wouldn’t then have been able to put it into words. Now, 57 years later, I would say that our relationship has several aspects to it: the first is instant identification. Another is physical liking, a kind of brotherly love. And a third is curiosity, a friendly wariness. I think Tom reciprocated these feelings. There was between us a mutual respect, which doesn’t mean we always agreed.

I want to say something about cultural context, which is deeply embedded in our relationship. The catholic and protestant thing is very important. Some people think that the labour movement has managed to overcome it, and that it is regressive and politically incorrect to go on about it. That is wrong. It is very important, and it is unresolved. It will remain unresolved till we know its full ramifications.

By knowing, I mean self-knowledge. And by self-knowledge, I mean knowledge of self, other, culture and world. These singulars are all plurals. And they are not nouns. They are processes. They are all interwoven in each of us, and in all our relationships. We are persons in relation, persons in communities, persons in societies.

Tom did a lot of work on himself. He called it inner-self work. And he was simultaneously politically very radical. There is no contradiction there. He was one of the most intellectually brilliant people I have known. All of us who knew him carry that forward from our relationships with him.

Tom wrote a dedication to the Vintage/ Random House edition of Intimate Voices Selected Work 1965-1983, which was published in 1995. Here it is:

To Sonya, Michael and Stephen –
On we go.

What a great dedication that is. On we go. We should all follow it now as an existential rallying cry.

I am not going to say any more about Catholicism and Protestantism and their sequelae right now, though more needs to be said. The screw arising out of that process has been turned further, for instance by the demand for a ridiculously narrow kind of evidence coming from the Universities, before the degree of REAL KNOWLEDGE can be conferred. This is a knowledge grab, a knowledge takeover, an act of knowledge theft.

Tom has stood against all that. And he has refused to be silent in the face of the deliberate creation (and intensification) of poverty through the policy of austerity. And in the face of truly disgusting attitudes to immigration that have been promoted by the British media and the British government.

This is the man who said to me as recently as two months ago, that millions of people are invalidated as soon as they open their mooths. Or as he enacted it – ironically – in one his poems:

yooz doant no
thi truth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right.

I want to pick up one of threads of our relationship. From the mid to late 60s, through the 70s and ever since, Tom has written a a lot of letters to me. They were all hand written till somebody gave him a typewriter as a present. They are all very interesting. They are in the donation Gerri and I made last year to the archives of Strathclyde University. In these letters Tom is addressing both himself and me. He writes his perceptions, feelings, thoughts and attitudes to people. He moves round, taking different angles on things. He moves closer and further away and back up close again. He moves on. He free-associates. He tells me what he’s reading He includes a new poem or poster by himself. Tom loved the poetry of Louis Zukofsky and William Carlos Williams. He loved Becket, especially Watt and Murphy. He loved and understood Ronnie Laing.

To me this is a restless and ever-resuming form of self/other/culture/world knowledge. He is not interested in getting to a single conclusion. He is not trying to formulate a correct line. He doesn’t go to the literature on the subject and modify his views accordingly. He is not at all like your average academic.

These letters are a great read. They’re a treasure trove.

One theme is trying to get a job, getting one, sticking with it for a while and then walking away when it has no interest left for him any more. One of the happiest letters is about when he was working with his brother as a brickie’s labourer, out beyond Uddingston, and the weather was terrific and he could wander off into the bushes at lunchtime. Another tells of dropping out of University, and then going back with a complete lack of enthusiasm. The only thing he really enjoyed was his job as editor of GUM (Glasgow University Magazine) and getting stuff into it that he liked.

One summer, after my first degree, I was doing postgraduate stuff, and I rented a room in a big old house near Gartocharn, on the south shore of Loch Lomond. Tom was in touch by letter, and he came down for a day. We spent it together on the Loch, actually on The Maid of the Loch. It was sunny and pleasant. A certain amount of beer and whisky was drunk. When we got back to Balloch, Tom got the train home, and I – having run out of money – walked back to Caldarvan House, nearly getting lost on the way.

A quick word on authority. Scotland was and is an authority-dominated society. This is not the place to analyse its roots and causes. When Tom was sharing the Creative Writing chair at Glasgow University with Jim and Alasdair, he discovered he was good with other writers and masters and Ph D students. In the one-to-ones, he would have the student in his flat at Eldon Street. He would listen attentively and then turn and take a particular book off his shelf and hand it to them. He had no ego with them. He was not coming from a position of authority. It was a sharing, a dialogue with the student.

Let me just add to that. The root of the word author is the Latin word auctor, from the verb augere, to originate or increase. An author is a writer, a creator, an originator. But when you look up the meaning of authority in English, which comes from the same root, it is defined as the power or right to enforce obedience! That is precisely what Tom opposed. He was for listening, he was for dialogue, he was for direct democracy. This other meaning of authority comes from Roman imperialism, despotism, feudalism and capitalism: from domination in particular and in general. And it is coming back into Scottish schools and workplaces.

In conclusion, Tom was a radical challenger. There are people who by their unique genetic mix, by their personal experience, and by their social and cultural and historical position, are challenged to challenge. That is Tom’s position. He was challenged to challenge. And his challenges usually hit the mark.

But Tom was also a tender, gentle and loving person. To demonstrate that, I have permission now to read one of his last poems, about his father and himself.

it is my father’s shade
that lengthens before me
then fades to the dark
where the shade has gone
and to which I walk on

With these, his own words, we say farewell to a cultural hero, farewell to a great cultural warrior: our hero, our poet, and our friend.

Comments (4)

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  1. Jim Ferguon says:

    Very poignant. Tom was and remains a world class intellectual. He was a beautiful person most of the time, and shared his knowledge and ideas with great generosity. His understanding and analysis of language as power is a vital ingredient in a humanist politics. ‘Places of the Mind’ his biography of James (B.V.) Thomson is both epic and intimate . Perhaps Tom’s greatest talent was in connecting historical process with intimately personal moments of significance; then making the whole thing beautifully and absurdly humorous.

  2. Fay Kennedy says:

    Thankyou so much for that Colin it encapsulates the man so well. I was a recipient of his generosity on a couple of visits to Glasgow where he made time to have a coffee and chat. I made contact from Australia after reading his 6oclock news which resonated like an echo from my early years growing up in Pollok. Those conversations I treasure and so honoured to have been in his company. One of Scotland’s best and his unique voice is needed more than ever wherever there is authoritarianism which as we know expanding world wide.

  3. Jim Bennett says:

    Hi Colin,
    Thank you for this. I didn’t know Tom Leonard personally, only through his writing. This is a lovely tribute.

    As a side note, you mention that “Scotland was and is an authority-dominated society”. Although I broadly agree, we have had some (minor) shifts since your time on Loch Lomond. That “authority” is the subject of a gradual shift away from opaque municipalism, more towards community leadership. Perhaps an indication of this is the fact that the Maid of the Loch, on which you took your Loch Lomond journey, is now owned by the local community! Labourist authority is being eroded (although I do also remember well your critique of “Community, community, there’s nothing like community!).

  4. William Bonar says:

    Thanks for this, Colin, it’s very good to have the personal memories and reflections of a good friend of Tom. I knew Tom’s poetry long before I had the pleasure of meeting him. As a working class (Presbyterian Atheist) his work was both revelation and inspiration and it still is. The “Good Thief” is surely one of the great works of Scottish Literature. Like your own childhood experience, my isolation in Port Glasgow from Catholics (including my many aunts, uncles first cousins) was almost total. As I entered my teenage years, I even lost day-to-day contact with the handful of Catholic neighbours with whom I used to play. I was on the Glasgow MLitt (Creative Writing) course 2006-08. Tom was still associated with the course as Regius Professor. He offered fortnightly workshops on Saturday mornings and individual editing tutorials. He was a marvellous teacher. Having your poetry edited by him was a genuinely collaborative experience and a sort of learning-on-the-job which has resonated and informed my work ever since. I dedicated my collection “Offering” ,” To Tom Leonard for the breath and the voice” and that still goes.

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