As I write, surrounded by thousands of books I have collected over the years, I’m conscious of how much I’ve read: biographies, novels, short stories, poetry, autobiographies and memoirs, books about art and science and war, histories of humanity and of times long before there were humans. And despite all of this, I’m conscious of how much I have not read. I’m always chasing an impossible dream: to read everything. Like trying to empty an ocean with a mug.
It’s only in those times when I forget about books and mugs and oceans – that I feel able to focus wholly on the words on a page in front of me. In those very precious moments, time ceases to make demands on me, and my eyes and breathing and mind work to the same rhythm. I see through the words to the universe they allow me to explore.
When I was at school, a teacher read to us a poem by Edwin Morgan, called: ‘GLASGOW 5 MARCH 1971’. The first lines were: ‘With a ragged diamond/ of shattered plate-glass/ a young man and his girl/ are falling backwards into a shop window.’ It quickly becomes even more gruesome. In the anthology Worlds, Morgan explained where such poems came from: ‘I like a poetry that comes not out of ‘poetry’ but out of a story in today’s newspaper, or a chance personal encounter in a city street, or the death of a famous person: I am very strongly moved by the force of what actually happens…’ He kept scrapbooks of some of the many stories and fragments of stories that struck him as important. I later read that these scrapbooks are stored in Glasgow somewhere and you can arrange to see them. I’d like to do that one day.
I too enjoy writing about things which have happened or might. Yet, part of me is usually thinking about things which I desperately wish had never happened. And I don’t know how to write about those things. Things just as sad Morgan’s pair of doomed souls falling through a plate-glass window, but perhaps more upsetting because I generally knew the people who were injured or killed. In fact, I often mention some of these sad stories, of people who have become – victims of a brutal welfare system, victims of the plagues of drugs and alcohol, or damaged minds who tried to get help and were turned away or were never seen, until it was too late. So, I suppose I know something about how to write of these things. But I often feel as if I’ve said hardly anything at all.
Perhaps, soon there will be a change of government; and some of the damage done by a decade of austerity can be fixed. Perhaps, there will be no change, and more of the poorest people will be forced to suffer and die. Whatever happens, I’ll try to help people. And I’ve realised that by writing I can sometimes do a bit of good for some of those souls in danger of injury or annihilation. Ultimately, it will be those who fight to change society who will end the suffering. Now, I can write things to help: to remember the fallen, to give hope to those who struggle against mighty cold winds.
At times, it seems like putting up posters of hope in a blizzard. Who will see the words anyway? Won’t it all just blow away? Yet, we can challenge powerful politicians to answer for their crimes. Yes, they may ignore us for a decade. But that doesn’t mean we give up. We can always envision possibilities which once seemed impossible. Run the film backwards in Morgan’s news story poem and the two young people are walking out of a window made whole again by the power of their own dreaming – of a better future. Like them, we can walk forward and act together to end unnecessary suffering. Why not?
It is good and it is important to write from life. It is also sometimes essential to acknowledge our greatest power: the strength to dream. We do not always know what to do or say to change the world. Yet, we can always learn.