on 7 November 2009
For anyone not fortunate enough to have known this extraordinary man - and his circle of acquaintances was amazingly wide - this book is a marvellous introduction to one of the great spirits of his age, a scholar, soldier, poet, political agitator, and not least a bon vivant whose company always enlivened whatever gathering he was part of.
As`a poet, his proudest boast was that collectors of folk music would bring to him a song they'd discovered - and it was one he had composed! One of his was arguably the most popular 'dirty' song of WW2, sung by thousands in the African desert during the battle to stop Rommel.
The book also provides a valuable glimpse into scottish life and letters, and records the attitudes of his times.
on 23 January 2008
A CLEAR DAY DAWNING
By IAIN FRASER GRIGOR
THE THREE GIANTS of twentieth-century Scottish culture were Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain), and Hamish Henderson. It is Henderson - poet, translator, song-writer, radical nationalist and world-class folklorist - who is the subject of Timothy Neat's insistently readable and profoundly well-informed biography. The book is the first volume of a projected two-volume work, and represents a major contribution to the cultural history of Scotland, as well as to cultural and political debate in the Scotland of today and tomorrow.
Neat's preface quickly establishes the tone of his work. Henderson was much more than an extremely talented poet and translator, for he set in train - was indeed part of - many of the cultural and political forces that have transformed modern Scotland. He understood poets and `seers' to be artists who could direct the future, "and had long foreseen that the historical apostasy of the Scottish elite made new forms of cultural and political activism absolute necessities".
Neat's early chapters remind us of just how talented the young Henderson was. Born in Gaelic-speaking Glenshee, he would spend most of the next 20 years at school and university in England and on active military service in North Africa and Italy. It was clear early that Henderson would go far: by the age of 17 he had contrived to meet Yeats in Dublin, watch Hitler drive through Berlin's Tiergarten, view Picasso's Guernica in Paris (long years before return to its rightful home), and direct his own production of Lady Gregory's great little one-acter, The Rising of the Moon.
At Cambridge, to which he went on a State Scholarship, he quickly made the acquaintance of Frank and Queenie Leavis (and was intimidated by neither), and in 1939 - on the eve of war in Europe - he went on undercover work to Germany for the Quakers. In Gottingen, he overheard the view that "Scotland was that part of England where Chamberlain goes fishing".
By the autumn of 1940, he was a private in the Pioneer Corps, and training for extended military service in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. It was in Sicily - in the space of thirty minutes - that he drafted his great Banks o' Sicily (the ballad of The D-Day Dodgers would follow shortly) while putting his command of German and Italian to good use alternately as an Allied intelligence officer and anti-fascist partisan in the Italian mountains.
But in May 1945 the Germans surrendered in Italy. And almost at once British Labour won a landslide victory in the General Election. Of this new government, Henderson (among many others) expected much. As Neat puts it, without a tremor of presentiment, "he was confident that it would commit itself not just to coherent socialist policies but to a serious review of the `Scottish Problem' and devolved government in Scotland".
Back in Scotland, Henderson soon encountered MacLean (who had been wounded at El Alamein) in Edinburgh and MacDiarmid in Glasgow, and started training as a teacher (teaching being one of the few professions open to those judged to be communists). Henderson also became involved in the National Assembly of the Scottish Convention, in preparations for a People's Festival, and generally in nationalist and leftist politics.
But the post-war world was a nasty one, and Scotland was no stranger to the vicious eddies and deeps of the Cold War tides. While the communists in Scotland conducted themselves admirably with regard to Scottish culture, Labour in Scotland slunk into the embrace of Anglo-American imperialism. In this endeavour, were many friends. One journalist on the Scotsman, for instance, was in fact a British Intelligence agent with responsibility for recruiting students at Edinburgh University. (How many others of these, one wonders, oozed then - and since - in the sleekit citadels of Unionist hegemony in Scotland?)
By the early 1950s, most radical organisations in Scottish politics and culture had been infiltrated by informers and agent provocateurs. And in the winter of 1952-1953, the (British) Labour Party and the (Scottish) Trades Union Congress placed the Edinburgh People's Festival on its list of proscribed organisations.
Still, there was work to do. Henderson translated Gramsci, though he could not find a publisher until 1974, in the form of New Edinburgh Review, published by the Edinburgh University Students' Union (to their eternal credit). And throughout it all - in the wake of Erskine of Marr and Willie Gillies half a century earlier - "he saw Gaelic culture as the cornerstone of Scots culture and a crucial component of the wider National Question".
In this period he also wrote the John Maclean March (the BBC banned it), which was first sung (by William Noble) in 1948 at a meeting to commemorate Maclean, and that autumn Henderson was supporting the Knoydart land raid with his ballad of the Men of Knoydart.
And he was quick to applaud the recovery of the Stone of Scone from Westminster: an event which was at the time regarded by the British Establishment, "as a despicable act of treachery. Indeed, King George VI believed that its non-return would presage the end of the Hanoverian dynasty" (and who is to say that His Majesty, in the long run, was wrong?)
Henderson was also involved in the small-scale bombing campaign against post-boxes which alleged that the present queen was Elizabeth II of Scotland (an historical impossibility) - "levels of surveillance were stepped-up and a host of informers and agents provocateurs recruited" - as well as in the subsequent Scottish Treason Trial, which led to four men being gaoled.
But by now, as the first volume of Neat's biography draws to a close, the School of Scottish Studies has been established at Edinburgh University, with Henderson as one of its first researchers. In the coming years, Henderson was to be one of the School's distinguished corps of folklorists.
We must await a detailed account of his contribution in that field. Already, however, Henderson, had achieved much. Still in his early `thirties, he had already reminded Scotland of how much it looks culturally to the European mainland; already, he had illuminated Scotland's ragged 20th century quest for a rebirth of national identity.
But the real work was still to come. For Henderson, if not yet for his country, it was indeed the start of A Clear Day Dawning: and the chronicle of that dawn we may confidently expect to encounter in the second volume of Neat's triumphant biography.
on 20 June 2008
"Nobody in particular" is absolutely right. This book is too uncritical of Henderson to be taken seriously as a critical biography. Neat was clearly in awe of Henderson, and elevates him to the alpha male position in every walk of his life - usually with no supporting evidence - and fails to see the negative aspects to him and his behaviour.
So we find juvenilia described as major ballads, on one page Henderson is praised for his wisodom and gentleness, and on the next he uses his huge frame to hit a man in the face and knock him to the floor just because he didn't like a supercilious smile that was directed at him. But he is also said to be the recognised intellectual leader of a group at Cambridge which included E.P. Thompson. Recognised by whom? The man he just convinced of his position by assaulting him? Henderson was also, apparently, tutor to Ewan MacColl in Scots folksong and had suggestions to MacColl and Joan Littlewood which were fundamental to the development of the artistic style of Theatre Workshop. This may be true, but Neat presents no evidence for it, and they are not claims I have ever found made anywhere else. Similarly with his wartime exploits. Grand claims with no support. For example, Henderson had the idea to launch the battle of El Alamein by making two searchlights cross in the night sky. No one has ever claimed that idea as their own, including Henderson, so why not ascribe it to him? And there is supposed to be a legend in central Italy about the big man in his jeep. Well, I used to live in Italy, and never heard any talk of it in Bologna, for example, where pictures of dead resistence fighters decorate the walls of the main square. They have legends, they don't need others making up for them.
The prose style of the book is excellent, a real pleasure to read, and the bare biographical details are fascinating. But ultimately it is too fawning to be a good biography.