Obituary: A tribute to Lollie Graham, teacher, poet and scourge of capitalist life
Lollie Graham, teacher, poet and activist, has died in his family home at Veensgarth, aged 85.
Born in his grandfather’s home in Stromfirth, in 1924, a twin, he moved with his family to Veensgarth two years later. Their new place was an unusual Shetland community: it came into existence almost from scratch, created for ex-servicemen after the war from an old sheep farm.
Life at Tingwall wasn’t a picnic. Barbara and Andrew Graham and their four boys slept in two rooms and lived in two others. They had 13 acres of arable land and a hill right for 60 sheep. Lollie’s childhood was depression time. Andrew shipped lambs to Aberdeen, but he hardly got enough from the sales to pay the freight. Once he and his neighbours clubbed together to charter a vessel for themselves, to break the North of Scotland Company’s monopoly. But the company retaliated, by dropping their charges momentarily to lure the rebels back, and the venture failed. “It was a very early intimation,” Lollie observed to me once, “of the free play of market forces. I certainly wisna very impressed.”
Lollie loved books. Every now and again he escaped from the croft work, or from delivering milk, the Grahams’ speciality, to read in the loft. After the Second World War he went to university in Edinburgh, and revelled in the literary scene there. Poets like Sydney Goodsir Smith, Willie Soutar and Alex Scott, active in the town, inspired him. In his digs he met another Shetlander, Danny Leisk, a baker. Danny introduced him to socialism, dragged him to meetings and plied him with books. One of them was Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song trilogy, Lollie’s favourite novels for the rest of his life.
His socialism wasn’t a matter of theory. He trained as a teacher, and taught for a while at a school in South Bridge in the city. He was shocked by the poverty he saw there. “I was appalled,” he reminisced later, “by that drab, dingy classroom, shabby, neglected lookin bairns, teachers stridin amongst dem wi da strap on der shoulder, just ready for action.” He also got a part-time job, as a tutor to the children of a well-off woollen manufacturer, and was sickened by the contrast between those Edinburgh communities.
Peter Jamieson launched his New Shetlander magazine in 1947, when Lollie was still south, and he and his brother John immediately became contributors. It was a time of renaissance in Shetland letters, and Lollie threw himself into the new movement. Back in Shetland, teaching at Urafirth, he produced plays, part of that little Shetland renaissance, and he went on supporting Peter with his magazine, which was never far away from financial crisis. He co-operated with Archie P Lee of the BBC to make programmes about Shetland.
He also joined the Labour Party. Impressed by people like Alex Morrison, Bob Anderson and John R Smith, he wanted to change things in Shetland. They discussed Shetland’s post-war economic plight earnestly, and the Labour councillors tried to change things, especially in the town. Lollie eventually became chair of the party.
But he didn’t regard their struggle as a matter of politics alone: for him and his colleagues it had a cultural component. That’s why he, John and others founded the Althing Social Group in Tingwall. The lively debating society, unlike anything that had existed in Shetland previously, brought people together to discuss Shetland’s future and to examine its foibles. These “debates in dufflecoats”, as Jack Peterson styled them, were a zany feature of Shetland life from the early 1950s onwards, and Lollie’s own contributions in the Tingwall hall were popular.
Things didn’t get better, though. One of the potential victims of Shetland’s economic downturn in the 1950s was the New Shetlander, and Lollie and John intervened, just in time, to save it from extinction. They took over as editors in 1956, and began to use the magazine as a tool in a campaign to transform life, economically and socially, in the islands. In the same way, Lollie collaborated with Hugh Bowie and others in 1961 to form a local branch of the Crofters Union. Once again the inaugural meeting was in Tingwall. Gradually, these campaigns bore fruit. Shetland in 1970 was a more prosperous and more confident place – and a fairer place – than it had been a decade earlier. Lollie played his part in that.
Complications ensued. “Oil an its cuttanoy,” as Lollie called it, and Thatcher, created new problems for Shetland. Colleagues who once had co-operated found themselves arguing about tactics, sometimes violently. Lollie and John found themselves on opposite sides of the table in debates in the Labour Party: one more and more committed to socialism, and the other to a form of home rule. Like others, Lollie found the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament a congenial movement in the 1980s. At one point the historian E P Thompson paid for him to represent Shetland at a disarmament conference in Iceland, a moment he found inspiring.
When he retired from teaching, in 1984, he found more time for literary and editorial work. He edited a fine collection of essays on Shetland Crofters, to celebrate the centenary of the Crofters Act of 1886, and wrote the smashing poem What ken dey, ribbing some reactionary scholars who were pouring cold water on that legislation at the time. A few years later he and I edited another collection, this time celebrating the sojourn of the modernist poet Hugh MacDiarmid in Shetland in the 1930s. I much enjoyed that joint work.
In 1996 Lollie gave a lively lecture on “Shetland literature and the idea of community” to a conference of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies. And in 1998 he and his brother John edited A Shetland Anthology, a glittering anthology of Shetland verse from the earliest times to the present.
Lollie Graham played an important part in Shetland’s public life in the second half of the 20th century. But he wasn’t a remote figure. I saw him in action on hundreds of occasions, from the 1960s onwards, as teacher and later as comrade. Tonight, some of those scenes flit through my memory.
As an English teacher he was a believer in what was called choral verse. His pupils didn’t always share the enthusiasm. I recall an occasion when he was urging us to recite Burgess’s poem Boocin Babie. We were lacklustre. Suddenly Lollie seemed to leap off the floor, and roared, in fury: “Class two, you’re like a lot of nonagenarians!”
In 1977 some malcontents established a Marxist study group in Lerwick. Lollie was a keen attender, turning up regularly with his friend Robert Leask. I remember him declaiming from Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxism and Freedom, and introducing scenes from Brecht into the debate. And there were umpteen discussions at Veensgarth, with books on every side of us, or on the phone. I associate Lollie with the orange covers of Penguin fiction.
Like others, I remember his driving. One dark night we came out of a Labour Party meeting at Islesburgh. Declaiming about some issue, he backed right into Martin Dowle’s car. “Christ damn!” he exclaimed. I think it was Jonathan Wills who told me about the time that Lollie drove him to a political meeting at Nesting. When they got there Jonathan was too frightened to speak.
And who can forget Lollie’s inspired recitation of verse? When he fell silent, two or three years ago, the absence of his voice was palpable here.
Lollie married Mary Tait, from Vementry, and they had a large talented family. They feature in his poetry and they made him happy. (Search on Google for a video of his poem Waanderin fram, read by the author and dedicated to one of his daughters.) The best thing to do, if you want to understand Lollie Graham and his remarkable career, is get his collection Love’s Laebrack Sang, published by the Shetland Library in 2000. It’s crammed with jewels.
I like For a birthday, addressed to Mary; the poems tearing Thatcher and her creed to shreds, especially Holy Maggie’s prayer, a masterpiece; Aald Maalie, portraying Shetland’s 17th century witch-panic; his verse tribute to his friend Jack Peterson; and Windy nycht and Peerie guizers, two of his poems for bairns.
The book is inexhaustible, the subject-matter diverse. But at the heart of it is one idea: that men and women will only flourish when they and their governments lay aside capitalism and its cruelties.
Lollie said a resounding “No” to “da steeket nev o greed an strife/Grinndin da poor among da stoor”. He celebrated
da open hand at heals da wound
An lifts war’s curse fae dis wirld o wirs,
Da human hand, unwearied, kind –
Da gifts a life an love in its löf.
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