Roddy Lumsden – 1966-2020 – Struggle for Pleasure: Edinburgh Now and Then
Roddy Lumsden is dead. This isn’t the first time that phrase has been written down. With an upper-case ‘D’ on the fourth word, it was the title the St Andrews-born poet gave to his third collection published in 2003. The book contains a sequence of 42 poems under that collective title, which began with a piece called My Pain and ended with one called My Spring. This time, alas, it’s for real. The lower-case ‘d’ is the giveaway. It’s the sort of semantic detail that might have mattered to him. Either way, as of January 10th 2020, Roddy Lumsden is dead, and one of the greatest poets – some might say the greatest – of his generation writing in English has left the building aged a far-too-soon 53.
Roddy’s death isn’t much of a surprise. He’d been seriously ill for four years, and for the last two lived in a care home. But for anyone who knew him, read him or fan-boy-and-girled him from afar, it still hurts. Roddy’s poetry was a beguiling glimpse into the strange and complex world of a writer who squared up to himself and others with an unflinching honesty that left himself exposed while remaining every inch an artist. He did this over ten full collections that went from Yeah Yeah Yeah in 1997 through to So Glad I’m Me in 2017. There were several pamphlets besides, as well as a book on the relationship between poetry and pop called The Message, and a book of trivia lists, Vitamin Q.
At times, reading Roddy’s work felt like peeling back an open wound, where you could gaze in woozy awe at the highs and lows of his complex and elaborately bared soul, and all the fragile and beautiful psycho-drama contained therein that he’d stumbled on and kept hold of before turning it into something else. One of his contemporaries said his work was full of both heartbreak and hilarity, and they’re right.
Beyond his own writing, and just as vital, Roddy became teacher, mentor, editor, guru and friend to what, judging by the social media outpourings in response to his passing, seems to be an entire generation of poets, whose work has been changed forever by Roddy’s guidance. And if those writers are his legacy as much as his own work, for those of us who are older and dafter, and who knew Roddy back when we were young and stupid, we’re all – not Roddy’s children, because that just sounds silly – but marked somehow by that knowing.
Someone said something the other night about there being seven ages of Roddy, and how he kept all those lives separate from each other. This is what I think I know. Others might beg to differ.
The first time I met Roddy was autumn 1986. I’d just started first year at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh at the old Corstorphine campus, and was living in town with my then girlfriend having moved here a year earlier.
“You should meet my boyfriend,” my new college friend said. “I think you might have a few things in common.”
A few nights later she and Roddy came round to the flat in Oxford Street on the south side where we were living. In he came, this shy, slightly awkward figure in a long overcoat that was pure Joy Division. I’d had a coat similar. We all had. In those extended dole queue days, such charity shop vintage was the uniform of serious young men the world over. He was also probably wearing one of those short-sleeved military style shirts he always wore that we used to tease him made him look like a darts player.
And now here he was, this slightly strange guy with a baby-faced stare and facial tics I’d later find out were a side effect from the lithium he was still taking then, making an instinctive beeline for the comfort zone of my meticulously alphabetised record collection. I eyed him warily. This was both ice-breaker and deal-clincher that would decide if we were going to be mates or not. With his coat still on, he stared at the album cover spines in silent concentration. Occasionally he’d pick one out, checking my taste with the forensic and slightly snooty eye of a connoisseur, then gingerly put it back without comment.
“It’s very Manchester…,” he said at last, looking me in the eye, summing things up with a phrase that was neither praise nor damnation, but something you weren’t quite sure about. Like so much of what Roddy said during the years I knew him, his statement was indisputable, and impossible to answer back.
That was the start of a million and one nights that usually began with a phone call when I’d be staying in again in a terminal state of skintness that afflicted those of us who came of age in the ‘80s.
“Alright, Scouse,” he’d say on the other end of the line as I stooped in the hallway, where the pre-mobile-age dial-up phone was on the floor. “I’ve just won a few quid on the quiz machines and wondered if you fancied coming out? I can stand you a couple of pints.”
Roddy, of course, was a trivia genius, so off I’d go, from my room on George IV Bridge or Henderson Row, to pints at the Pear Tree or the Royal Oak, to St James Oyster Bar or Black Bo’s, Queen Street on Thursdays, and sometimes to the beautifully anagrammed Bare Story (work it out for yourselves). At various points over the next decade or so, this succession of late night dives became second homes, escape routes and salvation. Even more impressive, whichever bar he was in, Roddy always seemed to know the staff by name.
There we’d sit, drinking, smoking, spraffing and scowling till closing time with whoever else was about, Roddy letting me in to his various circles with strangers who would become good pals, and who join the dots between now and then as part of some dynastic cast of thousands. He’d like that. Roddy had this theory, something about being the centre of the universe, and letting the world revolve around you. Ego-mania came with the territory in those days.
If there wasn’t a lock-in happening, sometimes it would be back to flats in Melville Terrace or Home Street or Montague Terrace for tins of lukewarm Tennant’s, coffee after coffee, someone else’s fags, and records. Always, always records.
He might play the Blue Aeroplanes or Monochrome Set; Microdisney, Kate Bush or Talk Talk; Nick Drake, The Beloved, Stina Nordenstam or Band of Holy Joy; Shellyan Orphan, Arvo Part, 10,000 Maniacs, all kinds of ambient or Scott Walker doing Brel. Years later, he’d lampoon Brel by changing the words of Jackie to a new song called Roddy, made, like everything else, in his own myth-making image.
Roddy was no indie purist, although he was a purist. Early on, we spoke about Wim Mertens, the Flemish composer who recorded as Soft Verdict for the uber-cool Belgian record label, Les Disques du Crepuscule. I only knew the works that had appeared on the Fruit of the Original Sin and Ghosts of Christmas Past compilations. Ahead of the game as ever, Roddy had at least one of his albums.
That was Usura, which featured a track called Struggle for Pleasure that he must have played me one night round at his. As the title suggests, the tune’s pianos and soprano sax seemed to be trying to push itself with a slowly pulsing intensity that built throughout its four minutes or so duration to get to somewhere else.
Later, Roddy explained that Struggle for Pleasure was used in Peter Greenaway’s film, The Belly of an Architect, in a pivotal scene towards the end when the architect sees all these pictures of himself on the wall, caught by the camera in ways which, in Roddy’s words, “weren’t possible.”
Roddy lent me his copy of Usura, which I kept for months, then gave it back, then loaned it again. Looking at my record shelf now, I see I have two copies of it, so I guess I never gave it back a second time. It was Roddy’s first accidental musical gift to me, but nowhere near his last.
Years later, he mentioned Struggle for Pleasure in My Post Mortem, a poem in Roddy Lumsden is Dead. He dedicated the book to his friends in Edinburgh and Stoke Newington, immortalising old gangs, bit-part players in his latest scene.
As I got to know Roddy better, and social circles got all mixed up in the way they do, he emerged as a character of charming oddity and life-or-death seriousness. Roddy loved Charles Bukowski (but not the poems), Betty Blue and Peter Greenaway films, but didn’t like reading novels or going to the Pictures. He’d read every Pinter play except one, but wouldn’t say which. He saw pre-Sarah Cracknell St Etienne play an indie club called Floral Riot. He sang Your Song by Elton John at karaoke. He could be petulant, pig-headed and stubborn. He could sulk for Scotland. The world. But he was full of mischief and gossip, and wickedly funny too.
Roddy and his mate Craig had a whole routine going as a couple of old duffers who would spar like a pre-cursor of Still Game. He had a pact with another mate that whenever The Beat’s song, Mirror in the Bathroom, came on, they had to dance to it, no matter where they were or what the situation was. On more than one occasion, in St J or somewhere, the song came on, and Roddy disappeared to the gents to presumably strut his stuff in a cubicle, or maybe in front of the mirror, lip-synching along as he threw shapes.
That’s Me in the Traverse / That’s me in the Pear / Tree…’ he’d sing to the chorus of REM’s Losing My Religion as we strode up the road to wherever we were going next. He wrote haiku for his dentist, and knocked out a piss-takey four-liner on the back of a post-it note based on my hopelessness at parties. And then there was the Finnish girl in the Oak he got talking to, and asked her what the word in her language was for ‘cheers’. She told him ‘kippis,’ and of course he got a poem out of that as well.
These were the summers of being part of a gang, living out of each other’s pockets but being out every night, at art openings at Out of the Blue on Blackfriars Street, or at readings in the Antiquary in St Stephen Street or the old Unemployed Workers Centre on Broughton Street. There were Subbuteo Saturdays, rooftop parties fuelled by high-emotion inducing marmalade wine, and middle-of-the-night taxi rides to Portobello Beach.
Roddy was the social glue. He was the explorer, the pioneer, setting the scene before he let anyone else in on the secret. It was Roddy who saw The Lost Soul Band first, when they played St James’ Oyster Bar every Sunday night, with Gordon Grahame Singing Coffee and Hope and You Can’t Win Them All Mum, songs that became our new anthems for a while.
He loaned me a copy of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love when I needed it. “Take something bad, and turn it into something good,” he said, quoting from Paul Haig’s song that he’d later put in a poem. Roddy went deeper than the rest of us like that, struggling for pleasure amongst the sadness.
At some point, Roddy developed this idea about the ten-year-plan. It all tied in with his notion of the centre of the universe in some way, though I can’t remember how. According to him, in ten-years-time some of us would be successful in what we were doing, some of us would be doing something else entirely, and some of us would be dead. Putting it like that now sounds like stating the obvious, but Roddy invested it with a weight that made it and him sound worldly wise.
He was probably talking about himself more than anyone else. He had a drive and the sort of self-confidence and singular self-belief that can sometimes come across as arrogance in those who are shy like him. He knew he was good, and he worked at being better. Everything he did and everyone he met fed into that.
So when the back room of the Antiquary on a still bohemian St Stephen Street became our world for a while in the just-pre-Rebel Inc early ‘90s, he was in the thick of it. Where others ranted, Roddy read classically composed stanzas. Inbetween, he’d be making connections, bonding especially with the lost genius that was Paul Reekie, lovers of language and arcane knowledge both.
Much later, five years after we’d lost Paul, Roddy posted a poem on Facebook called Brandade de Morue, written in memorium for him. For all its sadness, the poem conjured up with vivid largesse the boozy roar of those Edinburgh nights of old that both of them helped light up in very different ways. Brandade de Morue ended up in So Glad I’m Me, a book loaded with elegies of one kind or another.
When Roddy won an Eric Gregory Award for poetry some time in ‘91, it showed he wasn’t messing. It gave him validation in a way that you could see him skipping inside with wordless delight about. He’d raised his game, and it was up to everyone else to follow suit. He went to New York not long after, and stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. He brought us all back cool designer t-shirts. Mine had a picture of Twiggy’s face on the front, and on the back the words ‘It’s a mod mod world, luv.’
And when Roddy’s first book Yeah Yeah Yeah was published six years later, that was him on the way. Everybody tells me the launch was upstairs in the Waverley, but I always thought it was Bo’s. It probably was at some point later, but I was drunk. Everybody was drunk, on the infectious elation of the occasion as much as the booze.
Wherever it was, the one image that lingers is of Roddy kneeling on the floor, holding uncharacteristically flamboyant court to a huddle of us as he signed copy after copy of Yeah Yeah Yeah with elaborate personal messages full of coded phrases that only its new owner would fully get. Or not. I remember him beaming, grinning from ear to ear and lapping up the attention like a rock star.
Roddy went to London shortly after, and things changed, for him more than the rest of us. He’d visit Edinburgh now and then, usually for a reading, and we’d go to the old haunts in a way he relished, but it was never quite the same. He was in the thick of the London scene now, with all the intense new friendships, conspiracies and intrigues he thrived on.
I called him a few times whenever I was down, one time when Scarlet’s Well, led by Bid from the Monochrome Set, were playing, once when The Blue Aeroplanes were on, but he had a new life now, and that was okay.
At some point, Roddy went from new kid on the block to elder statesman with little in the way of segue between. And in the thick of all that, and as has become dazzlingly clear since he died, he nurtured a brand new generation of bright, beautiful and brilliant baby poets, and helped them find their voices. They clearly loved him for it, and love him still. And I bet between them they have a million stories to tell about all the other ages of Roddy they lived through.
But in Edinburgh, two decades after the so-called ten-year-plan was supposed to be mission accomplished, despite never having been spoken of again, here we are. After thirty years of triumph, failure and everything else inbetween, Roddy’s penchant for self-fulfilling prophecy has been proved right again. We’re all older, and those of us that are still around keep on keeping on, and even though Roddy hadn’t lived here for donkey’s, he’s still the social glue. We’re still toasting him with pints, despite our better judgement. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The last time I saw Roddy was when he was in hospital the first time, a bastardingly long bus ride across London. At first he seemed woozy from the meds, but that’s what hospitals do to you. Once the penny dropped, his mind was as sharp as it ever was. At one point he sent me down to the hospital shop to get him a copy of The Times and some snacks. He wanted to do the crossword. Same old Roddy.
And now, sitting here indoors on a storm-battered Edinburgh January night, looking for clues about those other ages of Roddy in each of his books I’m buried in, I half expect the phone to ring like it used to in the hall of George IV Bridge an hour before closing time. And as I’m listening to Struggle for Pleasure and Coffee and Hope and You Can’t Win Them All Mum, I’d happily be led astray and tag along to some brand new dive I’ve never been to before.
Roddy will already be on first name terms with the bar staff he’ll grow to have a major crush on by now, and his next new favourite band will play their first gig there, little knowing who they’re about to become mates with for life. They might have to sort out their record collection first, mind. It probably won’t be enough to see them through, but it helps. Roddy Lumsden is dead. Kippis to that.
Roderick Chalmers Lumsden, May 28th 1966-January 10th 2020