A wide variety of myths and legends were explored last Friday night in Lerwick Library when national writer James Robertson and Shetland’s own Gordon Dargie launched their latest pamphlets.
In doing this they were accompanied by two local residents, James Sinclair and Nat Hall, who provided excellent support to the main acts on the night.
In his contribution, James showed why he is being increasingly seen as an authoritative and individual voice on the local literary scene; his work ranging from a brief glance at the contemporary realities of the White Man Van to the more traditional folklore of the trow – albeit one involved in Home Security. His verse provoking both thought and laughter, he commanded the audience’s interest and attention throughout.
As Shetland’s own trilingual poet, writing in French, English and dialect, Nat Hall also offers her own distinctive take on the world. She draws upon a rich historic and linguistic legacy in her writing, her vision sweeping across many aspects of our world. This included Storm Day, focusing on that potent force in Shetland life, the weather, and The Dark Side of The Beautiful, a piece on the First World War, a conflict that scarred so much of the country from which she originally came.
Yet the night belonged to the two poets whose work was being launched that evening. James Robertson read from his own new collection, Hem and Heid.
Robertson’s last novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack (a favourite of the Richard and Judy book group a series or two ago), showed why he is regarded as one of Scotland’s major writers and his work touches on many subjects. These included a surreal and comic take on Renne Magritte in Edinburgh, echoing – of all people – Ginger Spice with its view of “raining (business)men”. However, arrows also rained down in some of his other verse.
These featured in his work based on the death of the Christian martyr, St Sebastian, and an astonishing sequence of verse that had its origin in the tales of the American west and the Battle of Wounded Knee.
James also showed another of his great talents during the evening – his generosity of spirit in encouraging other writers.
He did this in his introduction to Gordon Dargie’s reading, telling the audience that, if they were short of money, not to buy his own pamphlet but Gordon’s A Tunnel of Love instead. From the moment the Shetland-based writer stood to read his verse, it was clear to everyone what had prompted this recommendation. This was work that was sometimes edgy and uncomfortable, but always powerful and incisive – a distinctive and uncompromisingly honest voice.
He explored one of Shetland’s myths, the tale of Maggie’s Geo in Burra, taking apart the legend associated with that locality and examining it for its truths.
Yet most of all, Gordon looked back at his own childhood in Lanarkshire in the late fifties and sixties, exposing, too, our own fictions and fantasies about these years. His inventive and remarkable collection of sonnets about his youth offered no rose-tinted vision but revealed instead an age that was in many ways as brutal and sexual as our own. In all its varied forms, sex, to contradict Philip Larkin’s famous claim, did not begin with Lady Chatterley and the Beatles’ first LP. Gordon reminded us that even at this time, there were men like his Uncle Davey’s neighbour, who did not behave according to the conventions of the age.
And in the course of doing this, Gordon also revealed another talent – that of a dramatic performer. He spiced up his poetry with a real theatrical sense, engaging with and gingering up his audience by showing both energy and concern for the written word. In both his writing and acting ability, he helped to underline how fortunate these islands are at present and how they act as host community to a number of Scotland’s most outstanding writers.
Standing, too, in the background were two of the people partly responsible for that phenomenon. These were the two emcees, Donald Anderson, literature development officer of Shetland Arts and Lerwick Library’s representative, Karen Fraser. These two people, and their institutions, should be congratulated for their role in this. To quote once again the Spice Girls, they help to give people “what they want, what they really, really want”.