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Ian Hamilton Finlay in Little Sparta

A Birthday (for IHF), by Edwin Morgan

It is no use offering the gatekeeper a garland of seventy-nine
rhododendron petals. He can count.
Do not waste your time showing the guardian of the grove a

pretty book of eighty-one amorous pictures.
And as for that album of seventy-eight famous executions,

keep it for the next bonfire.
If you are tempted to photograph a convocation of eighty-two

midges thin with hunger and thirst, forget it.
Or if the cosmetic surgeon from Giacometti & Co. promises

to make you a new man on payment of only

seventy-seven pounds sterling, turn your pockets out

with a shrug.
But when at last you come across the ship with eighty

sails, oh what a sight that is to take to heart, with

the white canvas flapping and the rigging snapping as

she churns the ocean through a stiff breeze, and the

sailors sing out their seemingly inexhaustible store

of shanties, and the dolphins slice and gleam

and are ahead of the prow like protective things

from a world that is not quite ours, and the

playful captain out of sheer joy blasts his

horn eighty times into the misty morning, and

then with his blue eyes glittering be bangs the

rail—‘Steady as she goes!’

Commissioned by and first published in MAP, Summer, 2005.

Edwin Morgan, poet, became the first modern ‘Scots Makar’ in 2004


Little Sparta and Other Writings by Ken Cockburn

Ian Hamilton Finlay, who this year celebrates his 80th birthday, is best known for Little Sparta, the garden in Lanarkshire which he developed with his wife Sue from 1967. It is a small piece of the world amazingly dense with resonances, echoes, beauty. There are jokey references to the Kailyard and the Siegfried Line, ‘signatures’ given to chosen parts of the surrounding landscapes, inviting the viewer to see them as works by particular artists, references to the absent worlds of the sea and classical antiquity, and reminders, amidst its tranquillity, of the violence of revolution, war, and indeed Nature. It is open from June to September (Friday and Sunday afternoons only), when the summer leaf-cover creates the discrete spaces between works and areas of the garden necessary to its appreciation. In the garden, one experiences the works with all the senses, not just sight: birdsong and running water, flowering honeysuckle, yellow raspberries, weathering stone.

Little Sparta
Little Sparta

Finlay began his artistic career as a writer, of short stories, plays and poems. If the stories describe the types of landscape he later went on to create, the poems move towards a compression of language perfectly suited to the later epigraphical nature of his garden texts. In the 1960s, along with Edwin Morgan, he was acknowledged as a major contributor to the international Concrete Poetry movement. But as Morgan writes in ‘To Ian Hamilton Finlay’, a poem from 1966, ‘you give the pleasure/of made things’, and this fascination with text as object, and with made objects in their own right, led him to collaborate with artists of many disciplines, to produce a wide array of printed works, as well as works for Little Sparta, and sites around the world.

While a big book like Yves Abrioux’s Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer offers a valuable overview of Finlay’s work, such a compilation acts against its spirit, which is about specifics. Seeing photographs of cards and booklets is not the same as handling them, and seeing a photograph of a garden sculpture is not the same as approaching the piece in its particular and deliberate setting. This summer is your chance to do just that.

Ken Cockburn is a writer and director of platform projects
[1] Footnote amendment (21 January 2016). Ken Cockburn is a writer, translator, editor and writing tutor, based in Edinburgh.
the road north: a journey around Scotland guided by Basho’s oku-no-hosomichi by Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2014) is his most recent book.


Man of Letters by Alan Spence

It’s still there after all these years. The shop is at Notting Hill Gate, across the road from Finches pub and a few blocks along. Presumably it sells umbrellas, and the proprietor is a Mr Bland. But there’s something surreal about the sign, painted in big black letters on the gable end of the building. BLAND UMBRELLAS. It’s a found poem, an urban haiku, especially when seen through a drift of grey drizzle, like this. I always meant to photograph it, print it up on a postcard with a title on the back. But I never did.

It was Ray who first pointed it out to me. From the top deck of a Number 9 bus. Jabbed the air with his long bony finger. Drew my attention to the sign as the bus swung past.

Now there’s a poem for you.’

‘Could call it Rain in the City.’

‘Make it a homage to Edwin Morgan. Or Ian Hamilton Finlay.’

Next time I’ll bring a camera.’

That must have been 1968. The year we left school. Our trip from darkest Glasgow was a quest, for the Golden City, the Wonderful Land, the End of the Yellow Brick Road. Our mission was to boldly explore strange new worlds, seek out new life. Here be dragons, and girls with kaleidoscope eyes.

That’s the opening to one of my short stories, entitled, appropriately enough, ‘BLAND UMBRELLAS’. I begin with it here because of that homage to Ian Hamilton Finlay (and to Edwin Morgan, of course). And it probably was around that time—1967–68— that I discovered the work of both men. I’d been just too young—in my early teens and still at school—to be aware of the stooshie kicked up over Finlay’s early work, the bitter diatribes against him by cantankerous Scottish writers who should have known better. When I came to Finlay’s work I came to it fresh. I picked up a copy of his GLASGOW BEASTS, along with some editions of POOR.OLD.TIRED.HORSE., which he edited, and a few of his Wild Hawthorn Press pamphlets and cards. Around the same time, I also got hold of Edwin Morgan’s THE SECOND LIFE and an international anthology of concrete poetry, published by London Magazine editions, in which both men’s work (play?) featured prominently.

Star, Lui Wei, 2005, monolights, digital cameras, motion detectors, courtesy of China Pavillion
Star, Lui Wei, 2005, monolights, digital cameras, motion detectors. Courtesy China Pavillion

It was an inspiration, and like the character in ‘BLAND UMBRELLAS’, I had my eyes opened by it, to a new way of seeing, a new way of looking at words, on the page and out there in the world. It was word as image, as ideogram, and the aesthetic experience it offered was something entirely new, full of unexpected delights. (An early lyric, called simply ‘Delight’, reads: Open / the little / hatch / Look in / the little / hold ). It’s lifting the lid on reality, for a wee peek inside.

And that’s something more—the work was Scottish, but set in an international context, and on an equal footing with some of the finest names in world poetry. In fact, not only was the work Scottish, some of it was precisely and recognisably localised. And much of the hostility here towards, say, Finlay’s GLASGOW BEASTS (AN A BURD, HAW, AN INSEKS, AN, AW, A FUSH) was its ‘gutter Scots’. (And if anybody wants to start that argument again, they can step ootside, pal!) Not only was GLASGOW BEASTS written in phoneticised Glasgow-speak, it was based on the Japanese tanka form and dedicated to Japanese poet Shimpei Kusano. It was clearly a predecessor to my own GLASGOW ZEN poems and opened up possibilities for Tom Leonard to explore in his own groundbreaking way.

Fast forward to the tail end of the seventies, when I found myself working as writer-in-residence at a school in Livingston, and editing a little poetry broadsheet called Things. It was a wee piece of self-indulgence—a paper boat pushed out on the waters. Its contents are interesting—new poetry by Sri Chinmoy and Norman MacCaig—and by way of manifesto I included a statement by William Carlos Williams—No ideas but in things—and a poem from Stevenson’s Child’s Garden: The world is so full / of a number of things / I’m sure we should all / be as happy as kings.

On the front cover was a photo of a piece by Finlay, installed in Livingston town centre, a poem carved on stone, a solid piece of sculpture, three-dimensional, out there in the real world of this new town. (The poem showed variations on the word WAVE, broken up by the wave-like proofreader’s symbol for reversing letters). It’s interesting, in retrospect, that I juxtaposed work by Finlay and Stevenson, and I was delighted, years later, when Edinburgh City Council commissioned a sculpture for Princes Street Gardens to commemorate Stevenson, and chose Finlay to execute the piece.

As might be expected, Finlay came up with something unorthodox. A row of stones form a pathway. (You can see them from the top deck of a bus up in Princes Street). The path leads to a little copse of birch trees, and in their midst is a simple stone, on which is carved RLS / A man of letters. I revisited it the other day, just to take a look, be delighted by it all over again. It has all the hallmarks of Finlay’s work—wit and charm, an elegant classicism, and above all – let’s not be afraid to use the word—it is beautiful.

I’d like to sample it, rework it as follows (a double-homage):