Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 22 March 2015


City Scene

Anna broke down
by the back door of Arnotts –
she slipped to the pavement
and cried.

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.



Kass said...

That first stanza has a rhythm that I sang along with.

Your poem makes sense with or without the background.

Memory is a funny thing. I think we write fiction into the parts we're not sure of and emotionally it's probably pretty accurate.

Jim Murdoch said...

I remember being pleased with that opening stanza, Kass, but struggling with the second and I really don’t see why because I can think of a couple of variations that would flow better than what I eventually settled for, like:

        People passed by
        thinking she was

This isn’t the first time I’ve returned to an old poem and wondered about the choices made but I was young and what did it matter if I didn’t get a poem quite right. If it wasn’t a work of genius then it was nearly a work of genius and that’s not to be sniffed at either. I miss writing poems as often as I did back then but I don’t miss being as full of myself as I was.

Kass said...

Ah, the naiveté in younger years of thinking so much of what we thought, said and wrote was important.

I still think your poems are simple and direct enough that they don't come off as self-conscious.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think part of the problem, Kass, is that I was on my own. The only contact I had with fellow writers was the odd note from a kindly editor. So there was no one there to take me down a peg or two other than my family, friends and colleagues none of whom were particularly impressed with the fact I was a poet anyway but what did they know? I can never decide whether or not it was a good thing or not spending all those years in isolation and we’ll never know for sure. I had to believe in myself and luckily there was something to believe in. Maybe not genius, but certainly a facility with words. All I needed was practice and to grow up a bit.

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