My father was a poet. He made a world of his own within the world; he shared that world with us. Sometimes, when Ailie and I would walk back from school, Mum and Dad would come down the road to meet us, and we would set off together on the path round the moor. On the way we might dip our wellies in the burn and Dad would say, ‘you can never step in the same river twice’. (This was his Greek philosophy phase). We would protest, what a lot of nonsense, it’s the same burn as always, the same peaty water flowing by. But not to Dad. In that startling and yet ordinary way of his, the wee burn flowed with the waters Heraclitus wrote of.
He was the poets’ gift, of connecting words to things. He was a giver of names, casting his net over the world to make it familiar, safe. Did any other family here have pets with names such as Albers, Artemis, Serpelet; a wild hare named Cowper; a tortoise named after General Guderian?
Dad would say to Mum, Ailie and I, let’s walk up the hill to see the vale. I never did understand what this vale was; but off we trudged to see the sun setting over a heathery moor and, in the distance, Carstairs State Hospital. That was always his gift, to make a vale of the view.
Ian’s life was quixotic and paradoxical: he left school at 14 and ended up with a handful of honorary doctorates; he never left sight of home for 40 years, but spent the last few years of his life enjoying jaunts around Europe; he drank nothing but strong tea until Pia introduced him to good wines in his 70’s; he was an ardent Jacobin who accepted honours from the Queen. Why so? It is difficult to say whether as a child he lost, or had to forgo, or as an adult he simply refused, a conventional relationship to the world.
He had a stubborn strength of purpose and a poetic vision. We can list the little worlds that he embraced—the isle of Rousay, his ‘ black sheep’; the flat in Fettes Row; Stonypath, an ‘armoured farm’—and the world he made, Little Sparta, a ‘Raspberry Republic’.
Our father was someone whose generosity carried with it a darker requirement: as a friend you always had to be with him, for if you weren’t for him you were surely against him. He made people choose sides; he required our protection. One of his Detached Sentences on Friendship is telling: ‘Friends who abandon us may in fact have abandoned themselves’.
I remember reading some letters of his published in a little magazine in the early 1960s, when he was still unknown. He explained how he felt lost in the city, like a robin in a pine tree, he just couldn’t nest there. For many years the world was a space of doubt for him, but when he met my mother he found someone to protect him, to share his vision. Sue allowed him to live the life that he needed and, in a way, he was allowed a second childhood. He certainly seemed to have more toys than Ailie or I put together, and was never happier than applying decals to a freshly painted Messchersmitt kit or tying the hanky sails to a new toy boat.
This was also, as we recognise now, a time of incredible creativity. Little Sparta was where he could embed ideas in the forms of the world. Neo-classicism was his chosen style: but beneath it there lay deeper aspects of his personality. He had an incredible sensitivity to nature; to death-in-life and life-in-death; a need to admit the icy perfection of the stars; embrace the cold fixedness of stone; and, at the same time, he was responsive to delicate flowers, snow-in-summer, forget-me-not’s; would trace the passage of shadows and light; take tender delight in fishing boats sheltered in a harbour.
Having gained this safe haven, this garden, he needed to test it; to bring his little world into conflict with the greater world. Or did the greater world turn against his? Who can say, except to recognise that my father was like a lightning rod calling down storm upon storm. In a way, he was that same little boy with his secret hideaway; he made defences, formed his army, went to war. There are some ex-servicemen wearing the medals of those campaigns.
And so there came into our lives events that are part-myth, part-truth, when our day-to-day was dominated by his flytings. Some were brave battles of principle, others were foolish and wasteful, descending into mutual vendettas. My family knows the true cost of those years of conflict. We also recognise that there is no way to resolve the paradox of the poet who made a paradise and then ended up at war. Apollonian. Contradictory. Impossible. Stubborn. Delightful. Inspiring.
In old age Ian set aside feuding. If there is anyone who still bears a grudge or a wound from those times they should set it aside now, for he died a gentle man.
Ian was a man with his share of faults and bags of charm. Many peoples lives were enriched by the quality of delight that he could cast; many were invited into a seemingly magical world. Now the family home, Stonypath, and the garden, Little Sparta, have passed into the safekeeping of a Trust. The process has not always been smooth but it is resolved and, as long as it cares to, the world will have that special place to enjoy. We hope that you always remember that the garden is a love story and that it was once a home: as we affirm that it belongs to you all now. The king is gone. We are all visitors now—so let it be a true republic.
Ian Hamilton Finlay 28 October 1925-27 March 2006