Glasgow Writers: Tom Leonard

tom leonard

Sadly Tom Leonard died on 21 December, 2018. He was a wonderful poet and fascinating ‘citizen of the world’.
PennSound Podcast: Tom Leonard in Glasgow 1978

Some Memories of Tom Leonard (1944 – 2018) – Richie McCaffery

Tom Leonard – Glasgow Poet

I admire Tom Leonard’s writing, his passion, his love of language and his fight against various forms of oppression. Yesterday (12 November, 2014) I went along to Bar Gandolfi, in Glasgow’s Merchant City, where he was performing as part of the Literary Lunchtimes Series. It was a full house and a very enjoyable event.

It’s very easy to empathise with this hugely talented and very down to earth man and I find myself in agreement with many of his views, for example: the value of someone being in the person and their worth coming from within rather than being created through educational achievement. I also like how he sees himself as a ‘citizen of the world’ and I’m in agreement that: ‘you don’t need to read an anthology from beginning to end.’  The first book he read from was ‘Radical Renfrew’, an anthology by local poets, which he researched and compiled when he was Writer in Residence at Renfrew Libraries. He pointed out that ‘Naebody in this book went to university.’

Among the many things he questions is why he didn’t hear about any of these talented local poets at school?


Language and status

Tom’s love of language is clear and a lot of his work is written in his own Urban Scots. He is firmly of the view that the voice is part of the message. The thing to grasp is that: ‘we own our language and our culture is no less important than anyone else’s – your own way of expressing your culture is as valid as anyone else’s’.

In his work he challenges the way language plays an intrinsic role within the class sytem. His poetry presents and applauds the richness of his own Scots tongue.

At Gandolfi, Tom read work from his book Outside the Narrative and I particularly enjoyed his poem An Ayrshire Mother, where he draws on images of his mother and a series of her familiar phrases: ‘A folding clothes horse’, ‘The Sacred Heart’, ‘red up’, ‘did you wash your neck?’, ‘my People’s Friend’, ‘up and doonstairs’, ‘look the sun’s oot – get some air aboot those legs’.

He peppered his readings with anecdotes and fondly recalled how his mother retained her sense of humour even when she was in hospital with a terminal illness and how when another patient complained of a draft, she responded: ‘a draft – lead me tae it.’

Outside the narrative publishes most of the poetry 1965 to 2009 including from the four Glasgow dialect series, poster poems and prose such as Honest and A Night at the Pictures. Amongst previously uncollected poetry are the sequences An Ayrshire Mother and Suite: On the Page.

Outside the Narrative

His mother was from Saltcoats, from Irish extraction, and his father was from Dublin.  Tom pointed out that most people in most countries have parents or grandparents from somewhere else and this knowledge has informed his powerful poem A humanist.

A humanist

The son of an immigrant, he had eschewed the culture of his father as also that

of the land into which he was born.


The religion of his father was once the religion of the indigenous natives, but

they had rejected and overthrown it.


And the son was yet seen as of that tribe which corroded the native culture and



An outsider, he felt at home with the art and culture of other outsiders, for

many years he found companionship across space and time.


But from within he came to realise himself as instance of the universal human.

The universal human is inclusive and absolute, there is no individual outside it.


This sense of the universal human is the home of all those who have won

through to become themselves.


And much trouble in the world is caused by those who remain self-sequestered

in their perceived province of the exclusive.

Another poem that I really enjoyed was written at the request of his son Stephen for his wedding – it encapsulates what marriage is about and it’s both humorous and very moving and talks about: ‘all the ups and downs, who does what.’ It’s about going to the shops, sitting on a bus and who you’re going to have your most important rows with’.

Mother Courage

Tom also spoke of his translation into Scots of Bertolt Brecht’santi-war play ‘Mother Courage’

‘Hawd yer wheesht there stoap yer drum,  it’s mother courage this way come… ‘

This was a hugely ambitious venture and a great success. I went along to see the event relating to it at Aye Write earlier this year, it was fantastic and included scenes from the play.  The full play was performed at The Tron Theatre in April, 2014.

Buy Mother Courage translated by Tom Leonard

I’ve previously seen Tom read his work at other events in Glasgow, including at the STUC and one of my favourites, probably because of my days spent working in community development, is Liason Co-ordinator. It provides a good example of his work written phonetically in the. Glasgwegian dialect.

 Liaison Co-ordinator

(from Ghostie Men)

efturryd geenuz iz speel

iboot whut wuz right

nwhut wuz rang

boot this nthat

nthi nix thing


a sayzti thi bloke

nwhut izzit yi caw

yir joab jimmy


am a liason co-ordinator

hi sayz oh good ah sayz

a liason co-ordinator


jist whut this erria needs

whut way aw thi unimploymint

inaw thi bevvyin

nthi boayz runnin amock

nthi hoossyz fawnty bits

nthi wummin n tranquilisers

it last thiv sent uz

a liason co-ordinator


sumdy wia digree

in fuck knows whut

getn peyd fur no known

whut thi fuck ti day way it

Tom Leonard’s poetry and his critical writings have had an undeniable impact on attitudes towards language and writing. He has made his living as a writer since graduating from the University of Glasgow in 1978.  In 2001 he was appointed, with Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, joint Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, he retired from this job in 2009.

(Photography by Carol Peacock:

Pat Byrne, November, 2014

Tom Leonard on Language and Social Status YouTube

Graeme Macrae Burnet - Glasgow Writer
Bernard MacLaverty: Glasgow Writer

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Avatar of PatByrne Publisher of Pat's Guide to Glasgow West End; the community guide to the West End of Glasgow. Fiction and non-fiction writer.

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