Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Grand Literary Tour

“As from the hive where bees in summer dwell,
Sorrow seems here excluded; and that knell,
It neither damps the gay, nor checks the witty.”

So wrote the poet William Wordsworth on his visit to Greenock in 1833. During a very short stay, he certainly seems to have got the measure of the weather and the sense of humour so particular to Clydeside towns. It is not every town which can claim to have inspired one great poet let alone two.

It is worth taking the time for a quick stroll around Greenock’s forgotten literary heritage. As is so often the case with Inverclyde history, there are few physical remains, so just like our writers, you’ll be required to use your imagination, to see our streets through their eyes.

If we move away from the quayside, past where Wordsworth and his travelling companions would have disembarked, on past the Custom House and up towards William Street, here we would have found the disreputable – though very popular – Mince Collop Close, where tradition long maintained that Robert Burns “Highland Mary” died. In fact, she passed in a house on Upper Charles Street and was buried at the Old West Kirk. What would have been the final resting place of Highland Mary, a muse to Scotland’s national bard, is now commemorated by a wee sign in a Bingo hall car park. The original Old West Kirk and graveyard were uprooted and relocated. Interestingly, over the years, many of the business tenants in and around this area have reported ghosts and poltergeist activity. Perhaps we should have left the Kirk’s tenants to rest in peace.

Mary is of course more fittingly commemorated by a monument housed within the cemetery, sadly, the monument has seen better days and would seem an ideal candidate for restoration work.

If we walk back into town, the shop at the corner of West Burn Street and West Blackhall Street stands on another important literary site. It was here on 11th April 1839, that John Galt breathed his last. Galt was a pioneer in Scottish fiction, and is remembered fondly locally for his gentle satire “The Annals of the Parish”, but he was also a real internationalist. Following a period of employment in the Custom House he moved to London and from there he travelled to the Mediterranean to establish trade agreements. It was while journeying around the Mediterranean that Galt befriended that other giant of the Romantic movement – Byron. Galt accompanied Byron on one of his tours through Athens and Malta. Galt’s impressive literary output would have been enough to mark him out as someone special, but he also worked as part of the Canada Land Company, founding future cities and states, many of which would become home to emigrants from his adoptive home town. A city was actually named “Galt” in his honour.

After returning to Scotland in 1834, Galt’s death was a quetly tragic one. West Blackhall Street was as busy in 1839 as it is in 2011 – though the parking was marginally better – and Galt spent his last days by his window, sick and paralysed, able only to watch the world go by.

Galt was not born in Greenock, in fact he moved here from Irvine when he was ten years old. It has been suggested by some genealogy researchers, that Galt’s Ayrshire family were directly related to another writer, master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. Certainly, Poe did visit the West of Scotland and this may shed light on an often repeated local legend about the gothic author visiting the town. And of course Greenock also shares a folkloric link with Captain featured in Poe's tale The Gold Bug. The dots are all there for the joining should you so choose...

The magnificent Galt is commemorated locally by the Inverkip Street Cemetery which takes his name and also by a plaque and memorial fountain upon the Esplanade. Here is how it is described in “Innerkip 1798 – 1858”.

“Greenock, slow to recognise his worth, has a memorial within her walls in the shape of a drinking trough to remind the equestrian when watering his steed, that straight before his eyes is that man’s likeness in bronze.”

Patrick MacGill, an irishman, was living at 8 Jamaica Street, working on the Glasgow to Greenock railway, when he published his first collection of poems “Gleanings from a Navvy’s Scrapbook”. He published it himself and sold it door to door. As luck would have it, one of the doors he knocked was that of Neil Munro, author of Para Handy. Munro positively reviewed MacGill's book in his newspaper column, helping the young poet on his way to the international acclaim he eventually achieved. Only then was he invited to address the Greenock Philosophical Society. If there’s one thing we’re good at in Inverclyde, it’s making sure people don’t get too big for their boots. Heavily inspired by Kipling, he is now recognised as one of the 20th Century's genuine working class voices. Read more about MacGill here and then enjoy "Songs of a Navvy".

Galt, Wordsworth, MacGill, Burns, all great writers, justly celebrated, but Greenock has produced her share of homegrown talent. Proceeding up past the Galt Cemetery to Orangefield we pass the site of John Davidson’s home. Davidson, perhaps more than any other, captured what could be described as the “essence” of Greenock in his poem “This Grey Town”.

“This old grey town, this firth, the further strand…is world enough for me.”

Davidson attended and eventually taught in the Highlanders Academy. He struggled throughout his life to make ends meet, but did eventually find modest fame in London, where he befriended Conan Doyle – creator of Sherlock Holmes and J.M. Barrie – author of Peter Pan. However it all came a little too late for Davidson, who felt that his talent had not been recognised, he was found dead in September 1909. His works remain in print.

Greenock has a place in literary history, but more importantly, we have a literary heritage of our own. We have already lost the buildings which connect us to these individuals, let us at least make an effort to remember what they wrote.

Various texts from the above writers can be found in the Watt Library...go on...treat yourself.

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