For our July #HoldHandsAmongTheAtoms video, we are sharing an archival film from STV’s ‘Off The Page’ series. It is an intimate interview between Edwin Morgan and director, poet and friend Donny O’Rourke.
We had the original programme available to watch for one month thanks to STV. It is now removed from our website, but you can still access the archive via the NLS Moving Image Archive. Below you will find a special captioned commentary video with the director, Donny – thirty years after the filming. Donny has also written a few words on the piece, which is available to read below.
This special feature provides rare footage of Edwin Morgan speaking candidly about his poetry, process, Glasgow and his outlook on life. We hope you enjoy!
‘Off The Page’, STV (1990) shorts with commentary by director Donny O’Rourke (2020)
This wee film was a seventieth birthday present for Eddie but I wanted to share it with STV’s audience in central Scotland (and anyone on Saturn who could get a signal!). As Head Of Arts I had already spent the department’s allocation for 1990, the (expensive, programme intensive) year Glasgow was European Capital Of Culture. Any tribute would need to be low budget, more accurately no budget. A strand and format existed called ‘Off The Page and thanks to bits of crew time stolen from our various other programmes and the generosity of my willingly redeployed colleagues, the gesture could be made. Cheap but cheerful. Everyone involved wanted to see Eddie honoured. Most of them had studied his poetry at school. So a labour of love, truly.
Eddie had featured on our syllabus too. When the convent school across the road invited the canonically examinable author of ‘Trio’, ‘In The Snack Bar’, ‘ Strawberries’ and ‘One Cigarette’ to give a reading, we were permitted to attend. Attired exactly as in Sandy Moffat’s iconic painting, ‘Poet’s Pub’, he modelled safari jacketed modernity. The see and be seen Dolce Vita glasses. His charisma was casual, muted, compelling, the voice, light, dry and breathy, all fidgety vowels and pigeon peck consonants, those plunging, plangent cadences, a kind of headlong hesitancy. A star that twinkled in daylight.
Poets could be like this? Glasgow could be like that? Scotland could be science fictional. As a matter of fact. His presence and example brought on a Joycean epiphany.
Just four months later I was listening to Professor Morgan lecturing, and within a week or two of his disquisition on Eliot, was contributing poems to university magazines and journals.
Upon graduation, I headed south, an elected post as a youth politician segueing into a career in broadcasting and journalism. I spread the words and word of a poet of whom few on the London literary scene had heard. In 1979, ‘Cencastus’ carried a rallying cry piece by Morgan in which he urged poets to return to Scotland to help create the open, sophisticated, inclusive, future facing, Scotland he had busily been conjuring up. By way of The BBC and then Scottish Television I found myself following this independence favouring socialist’s lead and trying to produce films and features that might broaden and deepen what I continue to call, ‘the compassionate consensus’. The anthology I edited in 1994, ‘Dream State: The New Scottish Poets’, took as its prompt and cue Eddie’s ardent but reasoned arument for culture created, and creating, holistic, Scottish internationalst self -determination.
When I was a tyro arts reporter, typing opposite me was Mike Grieve, son, and spitting image of Hugh MacDiarmid. Mike liked my poetry and asked for a selection, ostensibly to advise on a prospective pamphlet. In fact he passed the manuscript to Eddie who responded within the week with a comprehensive critique. Lightning could strike twice. I wrote a thank you letter. Eddie replied with a post card. Of course he had not yet become “Eddie’. But it was with Eddie that I would dine in The Ubiquitous Chip every couple of months, Eddie I’d go see films and exchange correspondence with, Eddie I’d visit in his flat, in hospital, in the carehomes.
When I chaired the panel of judges for the Scottish Writer Of The Year Award, at the post presentation reception, I circulated, as did Robyn Marsack, an impromtu petition to have Eddie installed as Scotland’s first laureate and Makar, an idea, it turned out, whose time had come.
Edwin Morgan was a great advert for the species. His was a protean talent. He would have been well worthy of a Nobel Prize. Adequately to grasp what the man and his polymath ouevre amounted to you would need to circumnavigate his world. Eddie’s pronounally discreet, ungendered love poems will be a highlight of the voyage. We talked often about sex. As far as I know I’m straight, certainly there was no flicker of venary interest from Eddie, though he was drawn to Irish Catholics by, as he saw it, their eloquence, spontaneity and warmth. In finally coming out as he had done in the documentary, Eddie liberated not only himself and other LGBT Scots, he freed Scotland. In our imaginatively viable, state -ready nation, we are living his truth.
With this modest televisual portrait I endeavoured to tell that truth.
I was thirty. By the time he died, twenty years later, more than any poet I can think of, his life’s work had been done. A half century’s second life.
In the edit suite I had half an hour.
Technically, you get what you pay for. The camera set ups are sometimes underlit. That celebrated, symbolic half in, half out balcony did not lend itself to clearly recorded sound. Other locations lacked point and purpose. Time is money. Eddie’s elegantly grateful note mourned that mildly. I only presented, produced, and directed because I could hire myself triply for nothing. My inspiration, teacher, mentor and friend deserved more than I could provide.
But there he was and here he is.Donny O’Rourke, July 2020.
Until I was asked to discuss the film for the centenary, I had not viewed it since it was transmitted. For all its flawed frugality, three decades on from the premier of that wing and a prayer programme, may the poems soar and the blessings abound in every grainy frame.