Alec Finlay – Manifesto For Urban Crofts

Writing is like trusting language and going for a swim in it

Alec Finlay is no ordinary poet. You wont find him hanging in pubs in cliques or poetry circles, you wont find him reading at “spoken word” evenings. Yet his work has a reach beyond most poets, turning up in places where poets dont go, in conversations poets dont have, in ideas ignored by poets.

“As a poet I’m interested in different written forms and the styles of expression that go with them. In recent years I’ve been writing what I would call poetic manifestos. These are political and also playful; they make a claim on the world, but they don’t attempt the consistency of ideas intrinsic to a political manifesto, where the aim is a program of actions intended to make particular social change happen.”

Hi latest project Manifesto For Urban Crofts, commissioned by Push The Boat Out Festival, reflects on the importance of urban green space in the context of the pandemic – in terms of the political, cultural, and healing – with specific reference to the inspirational concept of the urban croft in Leith, Edinburgh.

“I was inspired by Leith Urban Croft, which was conceived by Evie Murray, and is a contemporary twist on the traditional allotment, with an attempt to encourage a more communal approach, as well as broadening the social activities, helping with wellbeing, and giving young people an experience of nature and nurture. Some of the growing plots are run by schools. There’s a wee cafe, they sell produce, and are developing a visitor centre. It’s used by parents and toddlers, there are beehives, and a chess club. I think in terms of pandemic culture and climate breakdown, every park and green space should have an urban croft. It aligns with the idea of a ‘culture of recuperation’, which I’ve been thinking about for the past few years, and more specifically, with a project I did in Glasgow, with the Walking Library, exploring ideas of urban rewilding. It could also be connected to projects like Locavore.”

I asked Alec about his practice, what always strikes me is that it’s only a few words yet they can say a lot more than many long-form poetry pieces.

“It’s difficult to explain a practice once it exists: it’s just the way that you work. I spent a day in the urban croft just watching how people interacted and enjoyed the characteristics of the place, and some of the poems are like simple transcriptions of that. I tend to make poem-labels as part of that practice, photographing the poems in the landscape they are about, and those function like a sketch. I’ve been growing a lot of plants at home during the pandemic, and some of the poems are fond or cheeky observations of that – cuttings are like a magical metaphor for how we can increase the goodness in the world without exploitation or commerce. The mown grass park that the croft sits within is rather dull, like an expanse of prose, whereas the croft itself contains humour, nurture, aspiration, and dinner, so it’s kind of like I think of the best poetry.

“Other poems might come from language itself, which reveals connections that seem to pre-exist, in sounds or meanings, whether that might be puns or metaphors. Writing is like trusting language and going for a swim in it. It’s also true that the few poems you start with will suggest others. You can see most of these pieces are pairs of poems, which began singly and then found one another, or even produced one another. The poems can be very modest, a few words, but once they belong in a series, or a family, then they make a context for one another, so the whole becomes more than the small ingredients, hopefully.”

Alec’s work is almost always, although not exclusively, outdoors. Sited not only in the framework of a political idea but within the natural environment.

“It’s not that my poetry has to be outdoors, but some of the biggest possibilities exist in the landscape, especially the wild landscape. I have been working on the disability access project as a way to come at rewilding from a fresh perspective – what does it mean to heal the land, to come at it from the thrill-based desire of hunting, or even climbing, and consider instead a culture of recuperation. If you consider Scotland’s wild landscapes then there’s a vast area dominated by the desire to hunt, and now that is in conflict with new desires, to heal. As an artist that excites me.”

Alec Finlay’s Manifesto For Urban Crofts – Fri Oct 15 1.30-2.30pm Summerhall 

Push The Boat Out is no ordinary poetry festival. The range of poetry covered the issues discussed and the imaginative events mean you can view Alec’s prints, attend a discussion on Class chaired by Jenny Lindsay, see exclusive new work by Hannah LaveryBeldina Odenyo or have a pint and a game of skittles with Michael Pederson. You can read more about it in the link below

Push the Boat Out

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Comments (17)

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  1. Mons Meg says:

    Should urban spaces not be held in common rather than enclosed as ‘crofts’?

    1. Time, the Deer says:

      As much as I hate to agree with the Pub Bore, it is indeed important to remember that crofting was a system of oppression imposed on the Highlands with a two-fold purpose: 1) to promote individualism as opposed to traditional communitarian agricultural systems; and 2) to ensure crofters had to work for the estate on the side – fishing, kelping and the like – as the allotted crofts were not substantial enough to support a household on their own.

      1. Mons Meg says:

        That’s interesting, Time. I didn’t know that.

        1. Time, the Deer says:

          Have a listen to Col Gordon’s ‘Farmerama: Landed’ podcast – episode two in particular deals with traditional Gaelic systems of landholding and agriculture, and is excellent:

          1. Mons Meg says:

            I made a few notes while I was listening:

            Very nostalgic and bucolic and pantheistic.

            But nostalgia is never – and can never be – what it used to be. The future can’t be gone back to. Onwards and upwards. Not traditions – precedents! The past can never be recovered, but can only ever be appropriated to the remix of our contemporary narratives. (Not assimilation – integration.)

            The bit about ‘epistemicide’ – the ‘clearances’; ‘colonisation’ – is very Boaventura de Sousa Santos. But it begs the question of why we should think that traditional Gaelic culture (or any ‘indigenous’ culture) is any more authentic in its episteme or storytelling or narration of the land than the ‘colonising’ culture that displaced it. What makes indigenous cultures ‘holy’?

            ‘Incomers are welcome, providing they don’t come as colonisers but assimilate instead to the ‘native’ nostalgic and bucolic and pantheistic culture of place.’ (Again: not assimilation or colonisation, but the integration/remixing of cultures to create precedents.)

            And anyhou: what’s Col proposing to do with his family farm? Return it to the commons? He doesn’t say in the end.

          2. Time, the Deer says:

            I don’t think it’s ‘nostalgic’ to look to the past for inspiration for the future – prior to industrialisation, we tended to work with nature rather than against it, because we did not have the tools to dominate the natural world to the extent we do now. This isn’t sentimental, it’s just common sense.

            I don’t think indigenous cultures are ‘holy’, but they are extremely precious. I do think that many indigenous cultures embody an attitude to the world that is regenerative rather than extractive – something we can all learn from.

            You’d have to ask Col what his plans for the future are.

            My original point was that crofting is a modern imposition designed to create poverty and dependence on the landlord. Things were different before. Why are you so reluctant to believe that in some ways they may even have been better? There is no such thing as Progress, Pub Bore – just ebb and flow.

          3. Mons Meg says:

            I’m not sure there is ‘ebb and flow’ in history, let alone progress. There’s the present moment into which we remember a past through the filter of our contemporary fears and from which we wish a future based upon our contemporary hopes. What’s ‘better’ or ‘worse’ depends on what those hopes and concerns are. Our nostalgia for the primitive communism of the Gaels and other ‘indigenous’ people, and our longing for some sort of ‘return’ to that blessed state of oneness with the land of our nativity and community, is an enactment of that narrative trope.

            My hope is for a society in which we’re continually deconstructing both the petit narratives of our own particular times and the grand overarching narrative of alienation and return that informs them.

            It’s all just a story we tell to content ourselves.

          4. Time, the Deer says:

            I’m more interested in practical solutions than pointless philosophising, Pub Bore, so I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree on that. Your use of the word ‘primitive’ is telling, btw.

          5. Mons Meg says:

            In what sense do you assume I’m using the word ‘primitive’, Time?

            ‘Primitive communism’ was coined by Marx to characterise ‘indigenous’ precapitalist societies in which a) resources were held in common rather than enclosed as property, b) goods were distributed among their members in accordance with individual needs rather than accumulated as capital, and c) had no corresponding hierarchical social class structure. Engels offered the first detailed elaboration of primitive communism in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It applied mainly to subsistence agriculture communities.

            It was ‘primitive’ because it was considered by Marx and Engels (and by later Marxists like Ernest Mandel, Rosa Luxemburg, Ian Hodder, Marija Gimbutas, Erich Fromm, and others, who took up and developed the concept in the 20th century) to be a more ‘primal’/less alienated form of life than capitalism. And anarchists, like Kropotkin and Reclus, believed that preindustrial/pastoral societies organised along the lines of primitive communism were exemplars of anarchist society.

          6. Time, the Deer says:

            Ah okay, I suppose I didn’t expect anyone to give serious credence to Marx’s view of the Highlands in 2021. The utility and relevance of a Marxist analysis to the region has been well-critiqued by this stage, you can do your own reading there. You’ve Pub-Bored me to sleep. Oidhche mhath, a bhodaich!

          7. Mons Meg says:

            And yet Col is contemplating the return of his family farm to the commons, inspired by the primitive communism that he perceives, in Marxian fashion, as having operated among the indigenous Gaelic population prior to its colonisation by ‘modernity’ (the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes, and practices that arose across Europe in the 18th-century and subsequently colonised the globe). I don’t see how you can argue exceptionalism in the case of the Highland experience.

  2. Bert Logan says:

    Poetry for a failing planet. But nice to think people like Alec are helping.

  3. Darby O'Gill says:

    I don’t think these are crofts in the traditional sense but allotments with additional facilities for social interaction. A splendid idea.

  4. Ben Yorkston says:

    Ah yes, the middle class island of gentrification in Leith Links (filled with the dreary little prosaic people) – which is only there because – SURPRISE! – expensive housing is being built on a grand scale and those with a few quid must be enticed.

    Kudos to Jim for delineating the parameters of his ‘socialism’ here.

    1. Ben Yorkston says:

      Also, places for a December stay at ‘sweeneys bothy’ – the Airbnb Alec designed on the Isle of eigg are going fast – get them while you can!!

  5. Paula Becker says:

    I wonder what Ian Hamilton Finlay would’ve made of the current lurch towards authoritarianism in so many countries round the world?
    How would he view the French Senate vote overwhelmingly against ‘vaccine’ mandates/passports whilst Macron dodges parliamentary democracy to extend his emergency powers until July 2022 (giving him the power to enforce ‘vaccine’ mandates/passports)?

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