Another lost poet. Who was Jean Mackie, whose first (and perhaps only) pamphlet of poetry was published in Aberdeen in 1983?
Alan Hill, author of No Biography, sent me a photocopy of A Little Piece of Earth. The aging pamphlet had been lent to him and he thought the poems extraordinary.
I didn’t perhaps find them quite so extraordinary as Alan, but they grew on me. They grew enough for me to search out the original pamphlet. (I got the sole copy held by ABE books.) They are very strange little pieces of writing. Here is one:
They who had saved each thing they saw
or heard or thought
And brought it home to the other
Had nothing new but sorrow to exchange.
Since each had to excuse the loss of love
There was no cruelty they could not compass;
The untied shoelace and the broken nail
Vied with the troops of the other’s friends for hate,
The unfilled cheque stubs with the empty cradle.
There was no mercy, since they both were young.
She saw all this could translate into mourning
But he, who had courted doom since he was weaned
Could not connive at any kindly ending
So, the last unsayable thing said,
With what relief he reached
And pulled the roof about their heads.
This is an elderly pamphlet and I think it was written by an elderly person. But she had a youthful and uncompromising intelligence. There is a lengthy (over-lengthy) prose introduction by Cuthbert Graham, author of Living Doric, and then (I believe) editor of the Aberdeen Press and Journal. He points out all the bits we shouldn’t miss in the poems, and also finds them “full of proofs that the already-fragile elderly have profound, soul-shaking emotions”, from which I infer that the author was not young at the time of publication. He concludes, furthermore, that “the poet who writes about life from the stand-point of old age has one tremendous advantage. He, or she, can draw upon the entire range of human experience.”
So here is Jean Mackie drawing upon the entire range of human experience, and I still haven’t managed to find out much about her. I can’t even find a source for the quotation from which she draws her title: “Some ants carry their young / And some go empty / And all to and fro a little piece of earth.” I feel I should know it, but I don't.
She dedicates the pamphlet to John R Allan, sometime Glasgow journalist and author of Farmer’s Boy. He was born in Aberdeenshire in 1906, so I reckon perhaps a close contemporary of Jean Mackie. Needless to say, he is dead. She thanks RF Mackenzie for encouragement: this is Robert MacKenzie, Summerhill champion, free-thinker and radical educationalist. Lost and gone forever.
Jean Mackie knew some interesting people, people it’s easy to find more about, deceased or not. Not so easy in her own case. I phoned Rainbow Enterprises who printed the pamphlet (phone number via Sheena Blackhall via Lizzie MacGregor at the Scottish Poetry Library). Their current owner spoke to the previous owner who would have published this little verse collection in 1983. If anything was remembered, they would phone me. No phone call.
The pamphlet is not terribly well put together. Some of the punctuation must be erroneous, I think, and some of the direct speech (but not all) is set in bold, which is distracting and looks peculiar. The evocative feeling still comes through. She knew her Shakespeare. There’s one funny and satisfying conversation with Lady Macbeth, and a whole ‘Elegy’ which calls on the quotation from Cymbeline, “Golden lads and lasses must/ Like chimney sweepers come to dust”, as well as a hint of Wordworth.
Jean Mackie will be dust now. There is a feeling in her verse that she had outlived many of her contemporaries. The poems will be dust soon too. Here’s to keeping 'Elegy' alive a little bit longer:
Strange, to weep
For a draughty tearoom in a cold town
And some young men and a girl
Who could talk about poetry.
There were better things, I knew then,
To do with young men
And I do not suppose
The talk was all that good
Nor were we all that pretty.
Suspicion now is certain
All golden lads and girls
Have looked like chimney sweeps
And carried clouds of glory on their brow.
Today I held the grandson of that girl
Who is dust now.
There is no-one from whom I can ask copyright permission yet, but I can keep her words circulating. Also I do have a lead. Her sister was Catherine Aitken, and that leads me to Guardian journalist Ian Aitken, whose obituary for his wife Catherine was published in 2006. Catherine (I bet she was a younger sister of Jean) was a doctor. She was the daughter of an Aberdeenshire farmer, Maitland Mackie, who set his three sons up as farmers and sent his three daughters to Aberdeen University. My guess is Jean read English and was, at one time, one of the group of "young men and a girl / Who could talk about poetry". There is a surviving brother, says Ian Aitken: he is a Lib-Dem Peer. Now there’s a lead!
I reckon the survivor must be George Yull Mackie, Baron Mackie of Glenshee, former Chairman, and later President of the Scottish Liberal Party. Born July 1919, he will now be approaching 92. I have written to him, using the House of Lords online system. The confirmation tells me: Your message may be slow to deliver, because we do not have a direct contact address for Lord Mackie of Benshie. Instead we are sending the message via the House of Lords fax machine.
Will it work? Watch this space. I'll end with some of Jean:
I stood and held your hand
Putting on as pretty a show as I could
But no, I did not know you.
Thirty years since, you said
And did I not know you once?
I said I was ashamed not to remember
But I would give you tea and cake.
You sat there by the fire,
Made all the excellent old jokes
And then turned and said
You look exactly the same
And I shook my head
So as not to hear my voice tremble.
If I had known you were to die that summer
I’d have come over to your chair
And put my arms around the stranger sitting there
But I was too busy reminding myself
Of what is becoming in ladies of fifty.