Anna broke down
by the back door of Arnotts –
she slipped to the pavement
Everyone simply passed her by
thinking that she was drunk.
Some threw money.
22 October 1978
I’ve never really considered myself a poet of place. I’m a Scot. I was born in Glasgow—pretty much in the centre of the city—and I’ve lived all my life in Scotland. But the vast majority of my poems are set in nameless places. Of course when I read them they invariably conjure up a place even where no location is specifically mentioned. This is one of the exceptions. Arnotts was a department store on Argyle Street in Glasgow and was a regular place of pilgrimage for my family in the sixties and early seventies. We parked the car on the other side of the Clyde, walked across Glasgow Bridge and headed for Arnotts. It closed in 1993 after trading for sixty years. The posher department store from that time, House of Fraser, is still there but it’s no Fortnum & Mason and never was. A branch of Arnotts—the main branch actually—still exists in Dublin and this poem would work just as well there assuming it has a back door.
Now here’s the thing: ‘City Scene’ is completely fictional. I had never seen anyone even begging outside Arnotts and I’m not sure that the back door which led onto St Enoch Square would be the best place although I imagine you’d be less likely to be moved on by the police. It was not a door we even used in fact I’ve only ever used it once, years after I wrote this poem and what do you think I saw? A woman sitting on the pavement and people throwing money at her. Never experienced anything like it before or since. I felt like I’d stepped into the poem. And here’s the thing I hate about memory: I can remember nothing about her, not even her age or what she was wearing or if she was drunk. Maybe she was ill. No one checked on her. I didn’t even check on her. And just as with the old drunk on Mitchell Street I’ve felt guilty about my inaction ever since.
If you walk down Mitchell Street (where ‘Street Games’ (#414) was set) you come out in front of Arnotts or at least what used to be Arnotts; it’s a Bank of Scotland now. So the two poems are set less than a hundred yards from each other. ‘Chains’ (#464) was written—worked on at least—just outside House of Fraser.
‘City Scene’ first appeared in Sepia #8.