Through the literary keyhole
Sunday Herald 12 May 2007
I first met the man whose home I share when we’d been co-habiting for several weeks. I knew about him, of course: his poetry, his passion for the Scots language, his crippling illness and early death. I’d seen the two portraits of him: one as a watchful youth with choirboy good looks, the other as a middle-aged savant bloated by years in bed. But he wasn’t quite real to me until the day I opened The New Gresham English Dictionary and found every word on the page checked off with a tiny black tick. I turned to the next page, and the next: he had read the dictionary from cover to cover. On page 841 I found the inscription “completed my survey of this rather poor dictionary today, Dec 14th 1933. William Soutar.” It had taken him 12 years.
Deciphering that spiky, painfully miniscule handwriting, I began to understand what it means to spend nearly a third of a lifetime in bed. The endless days. The visitors he couldn’t escape (and felt guilty for wanting to). The frustration of the invalid life. The mocking answer to a poet’s prayer: plenty of time to write – and next to nothing to write about. Four walls, the changing seasons viewed through a suburban window, bittersweet memories of vigorous youth. I use a different dictionary these days. I can’t bear to look at those black ticks.
The term writer-in-residence is a bit of a fiction: mostly incumbents reside in their own homes. Unusually, the William Soutar fellowship comes with a three-bedroom semi-detached in the douce Craigie district of Perth. The Soutar House was donated to the city by John Soutar as a permanent memorial to his poet son. All Soutar’s books are kept here and, while the family possessions are long gone, there is a suitably old-fashioned feel to the replacement furniture. I am a guest in someone else’s house. It just so happens that my host has been dead for 64 years.
It’s a daunting responsibility, being the channel between a critically acclaimed but, to most Scots, unknown poet and the 21st century world. All the more daunting, when so many people feel such a personal investment in him. To the citizens of Perth, Soutar’s a local lad: son of John Soutar who had the joiners’ yard on Mill Street, an alumnus of Perth Academy who mapped their streets in verse. To Alexander Scott, his biographer, he was an exemplar of courage, bearing a cruel illness with fortitude and humour. To the Scots language lobby he’s a patriot whose delightful bairn rhymes have re-introduced generations of children to their linguistic heritage. To some academics he’s a peerless diarist; to others, a master of the short lyric. To his friend and literary rival Hugh MacDiarmid he was a minor poet – whose work was, nevertheless, threatening enough for MacDiarmid to omit many now highly-regarded poems from the posthumous collection he was commissioned to edit.
And to me? He’s the fleshy man in James Gilchrist’s portrait: that shock of dark hair rising above his domed forehead, those full lips betraying him as a sensualist and a flirt – but a thwarted sensualist, a fettered flirt, still living under his parents’ roof, his desires only realised in his dreams. There is disdain, too, in the set of that mouth, the droop of the eyelids: he suffered fools, but not gladly. (Despite rejecting his Calvinist upbringing, he was forever marked by its moral seriousness.) A bit of a peacock, dressing daily in starched shirt, bow tie and pyjama bottoms, but with a streak of subversive humour he was ever ready to turn against himself. An ambitious man, determined to make his mark in the world he was physically unable to enter, but prey to the corrosive depression of the chronic invalid. As he wrote in his diary “I can but blame some fatal flaw in my self’s self for the humiliation of a fine body.”
Would I have liked him? Undoubtedly I would have been charmed by him. He would have made me laugh. Listening to him reading his poetry, I would have been spellbound. But I’m not sure I would have wanted to spend too much time around him, just as I can’t bear to see the terrible thwarted energy of those ticks in the dictionary margins. Even now, separated from him by 64 years, I find him an uneasy house-mate.
Number 27 Wilson Street was built by John Soutar in 1924. The oak panelling, stained glass windows, ceramic fire surrounds and exquisitely-crafted bookcases betray the influence of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, but there’s a sober, Presbyterian quality to the house, too: its solidity at once comfortable and just faintly oppressive. Nowhere is this atmosphere more evident than in Willie’s room: a long panelled chamber with a window looking out to the back garden. When the novelist Candia McWilliam first entered it she remarked “It feels as if I’ll never get out.”
Here in 1930, having been diagnosed as suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritis of the spine, Soutar took to his bed, never to get up again. In the corners of the room either side of the window are two angled mirrors installed by John Soutar to widen his son’s field of vision as he became increasingly immobile, able to do little more than read, write, feed himself and smoke. Here David Low, Soutar’s GP and lifelong friend, told him that he had developed tuberculosis. Soutar responded by starting a new journal, which he titled the Diary of a Dying Man and kept hidden from his parents under his pillow. Here, in October 1943, William Soutar died. He was 45.
When I moved in to the house 18 months ago the only place you could eat a sit-down meal was Willie’s room. I went out and bought a secondhand table so I could enjoy my dinner elsewhere. The room is used for meetings and workshops, otherwise I stay out of it. It’s not that I’m superstitious, but I’m always slightly uncomfortable if the door is left open. This makes for the occasional disturbed night, but it also presents an irresistible opportunity to me as a tiro dramatist. Where better to stage a performance exploring the claustrophobia and frustration of Soutar’s life and the qualified release he found in his poetry?
Undoubtedly, Soutar’s illness influenced his work. You get to do an awful lot of daydreaming, spending 13 years in bed; and for me, Soutar is pre-eminently a poet of the dwam. No one is better at describing those trance-like, quasi-mystical moments when the everyday world is revealed as something much more rich and strange. As a reader, I can only be thankful for the existence of such poems as Reverie and The Halted Moment. But as a writer, I can’t dismiss the terrible price Soutar paid for them.