Here is the sixth poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
THE LAST SOBER MAN IN GLASGOW
through open tenement windows
interminable football commentaries
filter to the street below
I pick my way through the discarded refuse
of abandoned fairs and offensive marches
past crumbling vacant houses
and boarded up churches
everyone I meet is staggering
or on their knees
collapsing lungs liver or heart
I watch the sky go salmon pink
pubescent girls queue for empty discos
laugh at my torn clothes
whistle after me
why have I nothing to say
when I have no money?
I cross the street to avoid a screaming madman
vagrant Negro asking for a goodnight kiss
broken pitiful world decaying into litter
twisted beer cans chip-pokes shattered glass
all the little scraps of love
have melted into piss and bile
extinguished dog-ends of hopes gone up in smoke
I am torn apart like yesterday’s newspaper
surrender me to the forgiving gutter
I am an embarrassed black taxi
destined to rattle through the streets forever
when the yellow light in my eyes says for hire…
I like this poem for its sordid honesty. Written around 1991 (I’d have been 24) it accurately depicts the state of my personal life, personal finances, and the environmental conditions around me at the time. Scotland was in the cold grip of London’s Thatcherism then, and poverty, anger and despair seemed to surround me. I’d won a national short competition and used the cash to help cover a mis-sold endowment mortgage on a flat in Bridgeton, then one of the “rougher” areas of Glasgow, and on something like £8k a year I was struggling to make ends meet. Soon my kind employers would make me redundant after 14 months of treating me like shit. “Doogy Dogsbody” was their nickname for me, which says it all. They went out of business a few years after that. Aw, Shame.
The streets of Bridgeton were then (and possibly still are) literally buried in discarded litter of beer cans and ‘chip pokes’ on a Saturday afternoon after an “Orange Walk” had been through. I should explain for people lucky enough not to come from these shores that an “Orange Walk” is an organised march on which Scottish Protestant bigots beat drums and demonstrate their hatred for Scottish Catholics. No, really, I am not joking. Incredibly, this has still not been banned in Scotland to this day, despite its dangerous resonance with the nearby ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. These marches (almost frequent in the summer) stop traffic and cause physical as well as emotional offence to the larger majority of right-minded citizens. Maybe that’s the point. The participants are a laughing stock and to ban them would only lend them some mystique. No, on reflection strike that, just ban them. If they were demonstrating against coloured or gay people they would not be tolerated, so why tolerate Sectarianism as if that is any better?
Having said all that, I loved living in Bridgeton (the heartland of the Orange Walks) for its atmosphere and sense of community, and its beautiful situation at a bend in the river Clyde next to ‘Glasgow Green’ park. My great grandfather was a blacksmith in Bridgeton until he kept his head down a few seconds too long and got a hammer blow to the back of his head as he stood around the anvil (his wife then died in the poor house without his financial support, but the children survived or I would not be here) but that’s another story. In ten years in Bridgeton, I only witnessed potentially lethal violence twice, although there was on average about a murder every month. How does that compare with New York anyway?
Maybe I should explain that Glasgow Taxi’s are black (for you yellow New Yorkers for a start) and ‘for hire’ is a reference to my then general loneliness, not that I was acting as a gigolo or rent boy to bring in extra cash at the time! I suppose the rattling blackness of British diesel hackney cabs has always also had something subliminally funereal about it… so our old friend Death is also clinging on there in the mental metaphor bank.
No contest as to what image to post with this poem: it’s “The Great Inhuman Human Hard City” by my brother Ally Thompson, one from my personal collection, it hangs in our hallway. It seems to me to evoke a very similar atmosphere to the poem: one of fertile chaos, shot through with the surreal.