Finally the mystery of Jean Mackie comes to a satisfactory conclusion.
There has been a whole blog thread behind this one: first Another Lost Poet, then More about the Mysterious Jean Mackie, in which contact was made with Jean’s son Charlie. Then much more recently, The Mystery of Jean Mackie, in which Jim Brown probably tracked down the source of the title of Jean’s collection of poems.
Jean’s poems have now been published again, this time with an ISB number, a preface about the author, and an insert of poems by her (now grown-up) granddaughter, Susie Malcolm, who features as a child in one of Jean’s poems. Jean was a remarkable, strong, vital person and it’s a privilege to contribute, in a small way, to her memory being kept alive.
And of course the poems themselves—Jean Mackie’s poems are the sort of writing that’s accessible, emotive, passionately felt. They are mainly about old age—the way we continue to feel young as the body ages, the surprise that suddenly (or so it seems) the young friends we laughed with have turned to dust.
The publication is timely for me personally. I’m in that phase of life where my contemporaries are retiring from employment, or thinking about it. Some of them are galloping into the sunset cheerfully and healthily. Others are struggling with a variety of health issues. Some have parents in their nineties: the amazing new generation of active nonagenarians. One old friend of not yet 70 (George Laing used to write poems too) died only the day before yesterday.
George came to poetry late, in his early fifties, but he embraced it with energy and passion. The practice of writing was a joy to him. It seems no time at all since he was bombarding me with comic verse, short stories, satirical commentary on politics, and placing some of his work in worthy publications. He and his wife were running a small pet shop at that time, so Catworld became one of his outlets. One of his irreverent pieces of verse went into the HappenStance pamphlet Unsuitable Companions, now sold out.
Sometimes we forget the way poetry belongs to everyone. It’s not just for the profoundly literary, not just for esoteric intellectuals. You don’t have to do a degree in literature or creative writing to participate. In 2003, I was present at a discussion between small publishers at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. To me, this was a fascinating event, and one of many key links in the chain that led to me setting up the HappenStance imprint. Today, a particular moment comes back to me. Not the bit about the way the books stack up (unsold) under the stairs, though I do remember that most vividly as I glance downstairs and see the boxes, but the bit where one publisher said, “People shouldn’t write so much poetry!” And Michael Mackmin retorted, “Yes, they should. They should write all they want.”
As editor of The Rialto, Michael must have rejected more poems than most people. But that’s wholly separate from applauding the impulse to write. Those who love to read poetry, those who have loved it from their youth, or come to it in later life—those people may of course turn their hand to writing, especially when deeply moved by an event or occasion. The practice of ‘occasional verse’ is honourable. You don’t have to be poet laureate to write poems about Hillsborough. Anyone can contribute quietly to the long tradition of verse writing, issued from the heart and celebrated there. The poems may be preserved on scraps of paper, on funeral programmes, in diaries and notebooks, on the backs of photographs. These scraps are cherished and then—for the most part—lost.
But such poems are not written casually: they are deeply felt and may also be deeply private. Sometimes someone comes across them with delight, and feels that they deserve a wider readership. I am not alone in thinking this is true of A Little Piece of Earth.