Glasgow Writers: Willy Maley
Willy Maley, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Glasgow; literary critic, editor, lecturer and writer.
For a number of years I’ve been crossing paths with Willy Maley, not because I have a particular interest in literature from the Renaissance period but mainly because I am a big fan of the Scottish writer Muriel Spark. Often when I went along to events at Aye Write, the Glasgow Book Festival, where this Scottish writer was the focus, Willy Maley was the host or a panel member. I’ve also spotted him in the audience, as was the case when Spark’s book The Driver’s Seat was discussed at The Tramway.
Scotland and the Easter Rising – Aye Write, 2016
I’m a big fan of another Scottish writer, James Kelman, so this year when I saw he was appearing at Aye Write, 2016 as part of the panel discussing ‘Scotland and the Easter Rising’ (edited by Kirsty Lusk and Willy Maley) – a book looking at fresh perspectives on 1916 – I went along to the packed event in The Mitchell Theatre. It had been my intention to review this event but I got so absorbed in the complex discussion that I didn’t take any notes. James Kelman’s argument that most people have a lack of knowledge regarding Scottish History and social movements is right in my case so I thought the best idea was to read the book.
In his contribution to the book: ‘A Slant on Connolly and the Scotch Ideas” – Kelman writes:
‘Essential strands of our history are not generally accessed through popular media and ordinary educational resources.’ He puts forward the notion that this stands in the way of Scotland breaking away from sectarianism – one of the factors that curtails ‘the cross-cultural connections that united Scottish socialists’, including Connolly, who took part in the Easter Rising.
Apart from editing the book, Maley also wrote a chapter: ‘Pure James Connolly: From Cowgate to Clydeside’, where he considers Connolly’s background growing up in Cowgate in Edinburgh – known at that time as Little Ireland. He explains how Connolly ‘wasn’t just born in Edinburgh’ but grew up there – supporting Hibs as a young lad, ‘carrying the players’ kits’ and doing odd jobs around the ground. Apart from the information to be gained, I really enjoy Maley’s writing, with the detail that brings Connolly so much to life. He goes on to point out that Connolly was also aware of events taking place on Red Clydeside, and writing in the Workers’ Republic in 1915, he attacked the suppression of ‘Free Speech in Scotland. ‘ Kirsty Lusk, co-editor, and Willy Maley make the point that, although, many think of Connolly as an Irishman, he and his socialist politics were shaped in Scotland, where he lived until he was 28.
The book is certainly successful in bringing fresh perspectives, both with regard to our understanding of James Connolly and what the Easter Rising was about.
‘Not only was the Easter Rising an attempt at declaring Irish independence from Britain, it was also a statement of equality and equal suffrage for women and the first attempt to assert a Socialist Republic.’
I’ve never thought of it quite in this way. Although the Easter Rising took place one hundred years ago and ended in defeat, it can be argued that it opened the door to Irish Independence. The event at the Mitchell presented much to reflect upon and the collection of different perspectives certainly opens up discussion. It feeds into the notion that within a Scotland fresh from a bid for Independence, with ‘the loosening grip of English dominance’ – ‘the questions of independence and equality raised by Easter 1916 remain relevant today.’
Meeting with Willy Maley at St Louis Cafe Bar, Partick
I could go on and on about this book, which includes fresh and intriguing viewpoints. I also very much enjoyed chatting with Willy Maley. His enormous enthusiasm for his writing is palpable and he has the scholar’s inclination to look at things from new perspectives and examine neglected areas. He spoke of the pleasure he gained in editing this book and his admiration for those writers involved, including Ian Bell, (Jan.1956 – Dec.2015), to whom the book is dedicated. Also Peter Geoghegan, Billy Kay, James Kelman, Alan Bissett, Irvine Welsh, Des Dillon and Kirsty Lusk. Kirsty Lusk co-edited the book and wrote the section which brought ‘female voices back into the narrative of the Easter Rising.’ I particularly enjoyed Lusk’s contribution at the Aye Write event, where she spoke so vividly about the role of the Coatbridge woman, Margaret Skinnider and her beliefs in Irish Independence, gender equality and labour rights. The role this Scotswoman played in this historic event was a revelation to me.
Willy Maley’s next project is similarly concerned with revealing previously neglected matters, this time relating to the work of John Milton in the 17th Century. Most famous for his masterpiece Paradise Lost, little attention has been paid to Milton’s book ‘The History of Britain’ (1670). Maley describes it as ‘a strange book by a brilliant writer’ – dealing with politics, invasion, the empire, religion, colonialism and the possibility of revolution. It deals with the period up till 1066. It sounds like a fascinating project and Maley suggests that ‘things could have worked out differently.’
I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about it – no doubt it will be launched at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Aye Write or some other prestigious literary event. I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for another airing of the play ‘From Calton to Catalonia’ written by Willy with his brother John. The play, about Scots who fought Franco during the Spanish Civil War, was first shown at the Pearce Institute in Govan in December 1990. I have advertised the play, or readings from it, at various venues and I’ve watched it on YouTube. It’s very lively and entertaining and its popularity has not waned in all these years.
It’s remarkable that a boy from a working class background brought up in Possilpark, one of Glasgow’s more deprived neighbourhoods, and who started his working life in Strathclyde Regional Council’s Roads Department, ended up gaining a Ph.D. at Cambridge and then went on to become a Professor at Glasgow University.
I enjoyed hearing about Willy’s childhood and how he was influenced by his teachers and his parents, how he was the first of nine siblings to go to University and how he made friends with the Galloway boys, whom I also happen to know.
We met up at St Louis Cafe, another place where I’ve run into him and his wife, Dini, at the great Wee Literary Festivals they have there which we both seem to enjoy. I could have chatted to Willy all day and I didn’t even get round to asking him about how he came to start up the Creative Writing MLitt at Glasgow University along with the fabulous Philip Hobsbaum, whose lectures I so enjoyed as a new English Literature Student at the Uni back in 1978. I passed Willy a few times on the stairs when I was back there studying for the MLitt – I didn’t know at that time that he was the guy who initiated it. It’s a small world and I suspect that I’ll run into Professor Maley again before too long. If not in person then certainly in print.
Willy Maley’s contribution to literature has been vast. You will find extensive information on his publications on the University of Glasgow website:
Pat Byrne, May,2016.
Update: I’m looking forward to going along to Willy Maley’s party to celebrate 25 years as lecturer at Glasgow Uni (September, 2019)
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