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3 April 2000

A voice with a vision

New Statesman Scotland - Liz Lochhead once said that being a working-class woman was what m

By Tom Pow

When I phoned Liz Lochhead last month, she was in hideaway mode. On her own admission, she can be a bit of a depressive, particularly after an intense period of work. What was concerning her at the time was the Inland Revenue. The problem wasn’t in paying – “I’ve got enough money to pay them” – but in organising her finances. Her husband, Tom Logan (an architect and energy source), had gone off to the pictures: “He’s fed up with me moaning.”

Lochhead was the first to question the validity of her depression. After all, she was about to go to London because Perfect Days, her comedy starring Siobhan Redmond, about a Glaswegian hairdresser “almost deafened by the ticking of her biological clock”, had been nominated for an Olivier Award; her version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters was about to open at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh; she had just fired off the second half of her script for Quelques Fleurs to the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh, and her version of Medea was in rehearsal, one of three new translations of Greek tragedies showing at the Fruitmarket in Glasgow. Though physically she may have been keeping a low profile, her name was emblazoned on posters across Scotland. So one might say that March was a good month for her to become an honorary fellow of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

“Actually,” she says, “I think I just need a holiday. I don’t want anyone else to pay me any more money for writing anything. Or doing anything I don’t want to do.” To those who know her, one of Lochhead’s most common sayings is: “Why do I say yes to all these things?” – to all the commissions and all the one-off gigs in remote (from Glasgow) corners of Britain.

It is her fulsome commitment to whatever she has agreed to do that is the other side of the coin from her temporary reclusive side. Those who see the performer will recognise a person of enormous energy and warmth. They may also see these qualities mediated through a persona realised in poems and monologues that can be brassy, experienced and not about to get fooled again, or else wistful and vulnerable. To her role as a performer – the head tilted back, the jewellery flashing – she brings the confidence of her unmistakable rhythms and a great deal of sheer charisma; but she points out that, while she works hard at making what she writes sound confessional, it may not be narratively true: “Poets don’t bare their souls, they bare their skill” (“A Giveaway”).

The energy and warmth, however, are certainly no act. Some time ago, we taught an Arvon poetry course together and I recall the generosity she showed the course members – in terms of time and encouragement. And how invigorating they found her attitude of “Have a go! You’ve got the right. OK, what you end up with may be shite, but you’ve got the right to try anything.” Applied to herself, it is an attitude that has led her to produce a substantial body of work as a poet, performer and playwright.

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The story of how she began is well known: the scribbles in the “margins” of the sketch pads while at art school in the 1960s becoming freestanding poems in their own right; the interest in the word finally triumphing over the purely visual (it didn’t stop Glasgow School of Art making her a Fellow last year). Her inception as a poet bears the seeds of two qualities that her future work would have: on the one hand, her first writings show her recognised love of narrative; on the other, her primary love of drawing and painting survives in her often overlooked ability to “draw” a scene for the reader, as she does here of an Outer Hebridean island:

sheep tug at the roots of everything
till it’s all baldness stones and droppings.
Hens scratch and pick.
The flagrant cockerel’s let crow
from the boss-eyed skull of a rusted truck.

(from “Islands”)

Her last collection of “recitations and poems”, Bagpipe Muzak, came out in 1991, “Dreaming Frankenstein” and Collected Poems in 1984 and True Confessions and New Cliches, her performance pieces, in the following year; so it is mainly as a playwright that she now commands our attention. Yet there is little sense of a talent unfulfilled or frustrated when one looks at the poetry: on the contrary, her range of achievements is formidable – and given respectful acknowledgement in Liz Lochhead’s Voices, a collection of essays published by Edinburgh University Press in 1993.

There is, to begin with, the voice. Taking a lead from Edwin Morgan’s readings of American poets, Lochhead developed a line and a rhythm that was unmistakably poetry, yet was pliable enough to register its immediate concerns in a recognisably speaking voice. Prodded by Stephen Mulrine, she added the inflections of jazz to her repertoire: “listen, you’ve got to be ruthless/if the rhythm’s not right, it’s not right” (“A Giveaway”). With this line, through the 1970s and 1980s, Lochhead explored, among much else, the configurations of love and of sex in the city:

So you demand response do you
right to the bitter end, you like
to see the credits roll?
I’m off.

(from “Fin”)

The city was Glasgow, where she lives with her husband and shows no inclination of leaving. Once there was a dalliance with New York (and earlier a stay in Turkey), but there was too much she wanted to do here. Nor, it follows, has she recently felt any compulsion to leave Scotland or sensed any stultifying lack of stimulation here. Her riposte to the suggestion of James MacMillan and Andrew O’Hagan that there is a “permafrost” over Scottish culture is dismissive; besides, her own achievements argue otherwise. This is certainly not to say that the issue of Scottishness does not interest her. Although she once claimed that living in a city and being working-class and a woman were more important to her than being Scottish, her work has shown for many years an obsession with ideas of Scottishness.

Lochhead has always been more than an occasional poet: her love poems were often an exploration of gender issues, as were her reworkings of ballads and fairy stories (“The Grimm Sisters”). They were also experiments with narrative and with voice: “putting new twists/to old stories” (“In The Cutting Room”). It was obvious that her voices and her monologues, performed with the Nippy Sweeties, were crying out to be answered and augmented; playwriting was a natural development. Now her intuitive concerns were explored through drama: we could watch the forces at work that drove or frustrated the act of “A woman giving birth to herself” (“Mirror’s Song”) in plays such as Blood and Ice, Dracula and, perhaps most memorably, in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, in which La Corbie famously remarks about Scotland: “national pastime: nostalgia.”

Although her poetry has always shown her to be receptive to new experiences and different cultures – she has written notably about North America – it is as a playwright that she has moved from being perceived mostly as a Glasgow writer to one whose representations of Scotland or Scotlands show a concern for the wider nation: from the historical reworking of Mary to the vitally modern Glasgow of Perfect Days. Moreover, her formidable creative intelligence is attuned to the Scottish possibilities in classic texts – thus we have her Tartuffe, Moliere’s acidity in the voice of Holy Willie, her Three Sisters transposed to a static postwar Scotland, where a longing for Oxford replaces that for Moscow and, most recently, her Medea for Theatre Babel, with an incandescent central performance by Maureen Beattie of a woman whose fierce senses of irony and humour only heighten her – and the audience’s – awareness of her pain.

Her commitment to Scotland and the lines of “Bagpipe Muzak, Glasgow 1990”, “So – watch out Margaret Thatcher, and tak’ tent Neil Kinnock/Or we’ll tak’ the United Kingdom and brekk it like a bannock”, obviously spurs the question as to whether or not she is satisfied with Scotland’s devolutionary arrangements. “Of course, the parliament’s disappointing in certain things, but I think it’s fantastic that it exists. It feels like you’re a country and not a region. We can’t say we’re a great country, but we can’t blame anyone else for that any more.”

Still in her early fifties, Lochhead has an assured reputation as a poet and playwright. She has let us hear ourselves, given us images of ourselves, while exploring some of the key issues of history, gender and identity. It is perhaps a surprise that Scotland’s film and television industries have not made more use of a writer with such a pure ear for dialogue and a strong sense of the visual.

Their loss. She is certainly appreciated elsewhere. Later this year, Dundee and Edinburgh Universities will be adding their doctorates to those of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Stirling and Strathclyde. Moreover, nothing will keep Lochhead in a hideaway for long. Holidayed, refreshed and with no deadlines hanging over her, it is always an excitement to see what she will choose to do next.