How Poets See The World – Paisley Book Festival 2021 review by Pat Byrne

brian whittingham paisley

Paisley Book Festival At Home

With poets and writers: Brian Whittingham, Basia Palka, Sean McMenemy, Jim Ferguson and Kay Metcalfe

It was lovely to sit down with a coffee in my living room and catch this Paisley Book Festival event on YouTube. 

Brian Whittingham introduced the event by telling us that : ‘a poet’s job is to notice things’.  I would agree.  The ‘At Home’ audience members were transported from their living rooms to a variety of  thought-provoking worlds.

Kathryn Metcalfe

kay metcalfe

Kathryn Metcalfe, who has lived in Paisley her entire life, drew on her very apt poetry from the collection ‘Mill Girls On Tour ‘. She offered insight into the lives of the girls, firstly with a seemingly light hearted poem about Mill Girl’s Weddings  ‘What The Girls Talked About When There Were No Men To Hear Them’ … ‘that’s what I’ll miss’…. ‘Not crude just curious’ . The poem captured the chit chat between the girls on topics such as relationships and wedding nights – encapsulating excitement, curiosity, frivolity and concerns. Another of Kathyrn’s poems ‘May 1904’ conjured up a different aspect of the lives of the Mill Girls, and their involvement in industrial disputes over equal pay. This poem has very dramatic imagery painting the scene of 1000 mill girls defiantly walking out. It captures a very important part of Paisley’s social history.

Work eat sleep  – paid less than the men. A thousand mill lassies – defiant – ‘we’re nae dainty ladies’.

In ‘Personal Geographies’ is a beautiful poem where Kathryn unfolds the past through the sharing of her own and her husband’s knowledge of the places they come from. ‘My feet know every stone along the times cobbled spine’.   ‘We have entered each others intimidate landscapes seeing who we are.’

I loved the poem about her grandfather where in only one line she captures his character.  – ‘He could take a walk to the shops and return with a story’

I have long been a fan of  The Mill Girls on Tour Anthology and CD      featuring Kahryn Metcalf, Mo Blake, Tracy Patrick and Gwen McKerrel with music on the CD by Anna McDonald.

Jim Ferguson

have yourself a literary christmas jim ferguson

Jim Ferguson was up next, entertaining us with his usual excellent delivery and unique approach combining absurdity with a hard hitting message. He read from his book: Weird Pleasures’: ‘Alex Harvey Was Our Guide’ – ‘This is Hey Jimmy with a slice of Jacques Brel’ – having been lucky enough to see The Sensational Alex Harvey Band in concert back in the 70s, I found the image Jim conjures up remarkably accurate. Perhaps Alex inspired Jim’s penchant for his striped tops? 

weird pleasure cover

He moved on to sing the utterly outlandish but hard hitting ‘I’m So Hungry I Could Eat A Deep Fried Dug’ – definitely gets through to you as (not necessarily happy about this) I’ve been singing it all day.
He moved on to some very short phonetic West of Scotland  Poems ‘Friendship’ ‘Well, I’m no dayin it – nup no way’.

Jim dropped us into Thatcher’s world of poverty and hardship with “Strong Drink”. 

He finished his set with a very unsettling poem: ‘The Art of Catching a Bus” – which tackles prejudice, drug abuse and suicide. Jim covered a remarkably wide range of subjects and could have left us with the  vivid and violent imagery of the last poem – instead he chose to say an affable cheerio,  reminding us that ‘The Zoom World is Better than No World’.

Basia Palka

basia paisley book festival

Jim introduced, Basia Palka, whose poetry I am familiar with, and love. Basia read from the anthology, which she contributed to: Women Remapping the Territory: Our Way.

women remapping the territory - our way

I enjoyed her poem Fragile Pink Wings, which uses metaphor to great effect.

‘for wings to grow

the jump has to be made off the cliff edge that seems impossible

only then during flight in mid-air

feathers shall be added to keep you there.’

I was delighted that Basia included one of my favourite of her poems.

About Angels (an extract)

There are many who have considered the possibility
of the existence of angels.

Some have come to the conclusion
that they are elf or fairy-like beings.
As for me, I just somehow know that they are
I have absolute faith in their existence.

and there’s one I know that has your face.

(See the full poem)

Basia dedicated this poem to all those angels – ‘workers in the hospitals whom we have depended on so much during the pandemic:  ‘cleaning ladies, those who make tea, the nurses and the doctors’.

One poem that I had not heard before I found absolutely gripping and I could relate to every word

Cloaking Device (extract)

‘You wear your condition like a spiked metal cloak

But beyond the cloak is a gentle you

One that wants to be hugged

I have to catch the moments between your decloaking

Here’s the strange thing

As the cloak is part of you

With time

I have come to love it too’..

I was so happy to see Marianna Palka, Basia’s daughter, contributing to the chat from Los Angeles. Zoom can be a beautiful thing.

Sean McMenemy

sean mcmenemy

Next up was the writer Sean McMenemy

Sean read his short story Highs and Lows about Mackenzie, a young footballer with a hangover. He’d been out drowning his sorrows after being dropped from his football team only to get the chance of training with the big team the next day.

What I enjoyed so much about Sean’s story was the mixture of great imagery with brilliant dialogue in the Glasgow vernacular. In the first half of the story, and the game. Mackenzie messed up with every touch and we were heart sorry for him – sick, tired and bullied off the ball, ‘I felt like ah wis towin a caravan.’

There was no sympathy for him – when he complained that he thought he had a virus he was taunted. ‘Mer like a crisis’.

The second half was a whole other story as reinvigorated with an energy drink, Mackenzie, got stuck in. The language took us right onto the field and into the action ‘Inside, outside he didnae know where he wis’.  We were right there with the youngster experiencing his excitement and glee. Sean deftly built up to the highlight of the game for Mackenzie – ‘The only thing ah hudnae done was score’– ‘Ma goal came jist before the end’ ‘I curled it up intae the far top corner’. ‘The keeper was rooted tae the spot  – didnae move a muscle – the ball in past him before he knew it’. 

Wouldn’t be surprised if some folk were running round their living rooms with their jumpers pulled over their heads shouting ‘Ya beauty’.

Well done, Sean. His story made me think how much I am missing visits from my grandson, Ryan, and his friend, Anthony, or as I call them ‘The Midfielders’.  First time they are able to come to see me I’ll be playing them Sean’s story.  Loved it.

Brian Whittingham

Finally, we had Brian Whittingham, the Tannahill Makar for Renfrewshire

Brian is certainly a poet with the ability to make us look at the world differently.

Love Isn’t and What Love Is’ a poem triggered when Brian was watching couples looking at rings in a jeweller’s shop window.

‘Love isn’t a high priced diamond ring …love is sharing the stirring of your soul with a friend’

How is that for cadence and beauty?

walking between worlds

Brian read from his collection Walking Between Worlds – sharing a poem that he seldom reads – German Head, Glaswegian Heart. 

‘Maybe I should as sometimes I feel my emotions lean towards another nation’. It’s an intimate poem capturing the essence of his background with a German mother, English father, Brian born and reared in Scotland and as a young man working as a welder.

German Head, Glaswegian Heart

‘My German Head, a lifelong stranger to surface emotion,

practical in its universal procedures, each one in black and white

It pays scant attention to shades of grey

My Glaswegian heart is male, it comes from the West,

It built ships of iron when it was young

It gets on famously with my German heart

Yet, while it has little time for romantic mush and slush and gush

When my German head is otherwise occupied

My Glaswegian heart will sniff the fragrance of lavender dancing In Kelvingrove air

Will wonder at the perfect droplet of rainwater

perched  on the point of the downward turned leaf, glinting in the evening sun

Will anticipate the sweet taste of a cuddle as my German Heart watches on.’

He should definitely read the poem more often. It’s beautiful and brilliant in the way it emphatically ditches some ethnic stereotyping.

In his role of Renfrewshire’s Tannahill Makar Brian has written a variety of poems about Renfrewshire. Sometimes inspired by his own experience. This includes a poem he recently finished drawing on his experience working as a welder in a factory in Inchinnan.

We were the first to hear this poem:

Moriarty’s Dilemma  

‘Moriarty who knew a thing or two about the bevvy’ was ‘still nursing a big heid’

The poem creates a fantastic image of the welder’s job and some of the urban ‘myths’ we hear about the skiving that went on.

Moriarty puts on ‘his ovies, leather jacket, legging, mitts and baseball cap with wee polka dot patterns’. ‘His heart wisnae in it’  The poem encapsulates the roll of the welder with vivid imagery as Brian effortlessly merges colloquial and lyrical language: ‘He takes a draw on his roll up’ ‘watching green glowing molten puddles, inhaling iron dust particles, wi sparks bouncing aff him’  ‘ bypassing burning his ankles, or not, spittin molten metal beads into the air’. 

He takes in the relationship between the gaffer and the worker – how ‘Big Peter, the welder’s foreman, had empathy with Moriarty’s Dilemma – ‘being an exponent of having a big heid’  – ‘he let Moriarty spend the morning sitting in the rod oven shed’ – ‘as if in his own private sauna, Moriarty tried to fast track the DTs from his system.’

Brian’s gift for capturing the imagery of a place, the atmosphere and the mores is perfectly portrayed in Moriarty’s Dilemma. 

He explained how he was asked to write a poem about pipe bands and invited to Kilbarchan Pipe Band as Guest Chieftain. He read his poem The Kilbarchan Pipe Band to an audience of 5,000 pipers.   

The poem conveys the sound and the spectacle of the band but it goes further to make us think of those things underpinning the wonderful band – that we don’t see:

‘They beat with assured authority’ …

‘Intimidating as any approaching army marching into battle

and at the same time

gentle as any summer breeze skimming over the waters of Castle Semple Loch’

We don’t see the practice, we know little of the technicalities, the support of family and community. ‘Mammies daddies and paradiddles.’ We don’t see the nurturing.

Because On the day we have:

‘Senses engulfed by the Kaleidoscope of tartan finery

and the emotion pumping through our veins to our tapping toes .

and soaring into the pride and place of our souls

Each and every one of us will take that emotion home

As if a bottled souvenir that we can open on tap whenever our souls demand’

The Dancers of Craig Linn – is a short, sad poem about two young men – the poem captures the joy of them dancing on the Glennifer Braes (that on a good day I can see from our balcony)  but unfortunately  one of them slips and falls to his death.

Brian finished off very appropriately with a thought-provoking poem  ‘A Breeze of Good Fortune’ about Robert Tannahill and how he went in search of his grave.  He told us that Robert Burns’ grave was moved to a family mausoleum and asked the question. ‘If you become more famous do you become more important?’

 ‘A Breeze of Good Fortune’

In this poem we are told that: Tannahill’s remains are buried beside other workers including weavers, painters tinsmiths, coopers, grocers farmers, dyers, bakers, shoemakers, masons, cotton spinners, tailors, brewers, labourers, pawn brokers also cholera victim and the Paisley poor) – he could only get buried in non consecrated ground because he took his own life.

The poem paints a sad, unexpected and powerful image of a neglected cemetery – the resting place of Robert Tannahill.

With ‘a padlocked gate’ like a ‘prop for a horror movie’ with ‘decay’ and ‘mud’, ‘headstones consumed by moss’ and ‘thorny undergrowth’ that ‘grabs at our ankles’. The imagery is bleak.

It presents the morbid thought that trees growing in the graveyard are ‘Trees of Death supping nourishment from the corpses’. Immersed as we are in this grim and gloomy image – the surprise comes with the notion that Tannahill’s work may then be ‘regurgitated’ with:

’airs from his flute and poems that danced to the hum of his whirring loom into the air

whenever the breeze of fortune had a mind to travel

to touch the hearts and souls and ears of any far flung Paisley buddies pining for a taste of home.’

What a wonderful, poignant poem to finish on. An amazing tribute to Tannahill and his importance to the people of Renfrewshire. 

Brian is certainly right about the power of language – thoroughly demonstrated through his talent and that of  Kathryn Metcalfe, Jim Ferguson, Basia Palka and Sean McMenemy, A really excellent, stimulating and life affirming event.

Pat Byrne, February, 2021

Pat and Jim’s West End Chat

Jim and Pat’s West End Chat – Podcast with Jim Ferguson

Paisley Book Festival continues until 27 February, 2021

Thereafter, you can watch events on Paisley Book Festival YouTube Channel

How Poets See The World – Paisley Book Festival 2021  on YouTube 


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