Alexander Linklater | Antagonist: the life behind Hugh MacDiarmid

Published on: Author: CSCS interns Leave a comment

On the 31st of January, the Centre was delighted to host Alexander Linklater to deliver a paper on Hugh MacDiarmid, the pen name of, or perhaps more appropriately, as Linklater argued, the character created and played by Christopher Murray Grieve. Linklater is a journalist and editor who has worked across a wealth of publications, including The Herald, the London Evening Standard, Prospect Magazine, the Guardian, and the Ax:son Johnson Foundation. This was not the first time he explored Hugh MacDiarmid at the University of Glasgow, as he began work on MacDiarmid as a postgraduate student in the university’s Scottish Literature Department in the early 1990s. He is now writing a biography of Grieve, exploring the man behind the pseudonym. An overview of Linklater’s journalistic and literary career was given in the introduction to proceedings by Professor Gerard Carruthers, UofG’s Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature.

Linklater opened his presentation by acknowledging that Grieve, to whom he referred throughout as CMG, moonlighted under many pseudonyms, but the identity he wished to specifically address was MacDiarmid, the pseudonym ‘launched’ in 1922. Linklater stated that ‘CMG self-identified as MacDiarmid but had little desire to speak his own truth’. For Linklater, not only was and is MacDiarmid’s identity slippery, contested, and controversial, it has also made it increasingly difficult to pin down the realities of the lives of both CMG and his alias. He then questioned, however, whether the implication of a person’s ‘real’ life suggests also that they have a life which is ‘unreal’ and went on to explore this idea.

MacDiarmid’s nature was notoriously contrary, and this was accentuated by those who ruminated on his thoughts and actions. In many contexts, MacDiarmid was demonised by some and idolised by others: this can be seen in reactions to his writing, his nationalism, and his politics more widely. Linklater elucidated his contradictory identity through the example of MacDiarmid’s expulsion from multiple political parties: he was expelled from the Scottish National Party in the 1930s for his communist beliefs, and yet he was also expelled from the Communist Party for his comments on communism. From this, we may deduce that MacDiarmid’s views were not singular enough to fit in with either party. As MacDiarmid’s identity was comprised of contradictions, Linklater pondered whether this means that, ultimately, it is an implausible identity.

Drawing parallels between MacDiarmid and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, whose use of pseudonyms and personality disorders come across in his writing to portray him as a ‘haunted’ man, Linklater acknowledged that MacDiarmid was certainly not the only literary figure whose true identity is difficult to define. Not only is MacDiarmid difficult to pin down biographically through his writing, he, significantly, had no interest in having his lived experience interrogated for how it influenced his work. Linklater emphasised this perspective by discussing a conversation held between MacDiarmid and Scottish poet and literary editor, Duncan Glen, in which MacDiarmid dismissed his readers’ desire to use the biographical approach to interpret his writing. He wrongfooted his interviewer by asking, ‘where are they going to get the biographical facts from?’, as if he had no access to his own past, or, at least, was not willing to confirm aspects of his life as factual. Linklater went on to give various examples of MacDiarmid’s correspondence, including letters written to and by his former English teacher, George Ogilvie, to demonstrate that much of his writing contained inaccuracies and omissions. MacDiarmid often provided little information about his own life, or wrote with an absence of context and reportage, which left his readers attempting to fill in the gaps for themselves; the ways in which his readers filled these gaps created their own image of MacDiarmid, contributing to the mythologisation of his character.

Gaps in MacDiarmid’s biographical accounts are now documented in various edited collections. Linklater discussed his essay ‘Life in the Shetland Islands’, published in At the Sign of the Thistle (1934), which depicts MacDiarmid sleeping in a cave. He argued that, whilst it is unlikely that this event occurred physically, the suicidal thoughts implied in the writing likely did, thus, we can consider the essay as both a truthful and a falsified account of this moment in his life. Linklater believes that writing such as this is why the biographical discrepancies in MacDiarmid’s writing should not be considered as attempts at deception, but as clues to the intricacies of his life: they are ‘glimpses of self-portraiture’. Linklater ended his presentation with a reminder to the audience, using an analogy from The Wizard of Oz: do not be fooled by the façade of the MacDiarmid yellow brick road, but consider the person behind the scenes, pulling the levers.

Linklater’s paper highlighted the intrigue surrounding MacDiarmid’s identity, and this intrigue was very much shared by the audience, both in-person and online. The evening was rounded off with an insightful Q&A session, during which the link between MacDiarmid and Pessoa was further explored for the ways in which both writers played with identity, and this also brought to mind the allusive nature of Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. Ultimately, however, Linklater asserted that there is no one single comparison to MacDiarmid, as he feels that the way he worked was unique.

Laura MacDonald

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *