Alan Bold

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Alan bold terrible crystal cover.jpg

The name rarely comes up. Alan Bold - 1943 to 1998 trenchant critic of genius and poet of mean renown - his impact when he was alive was huge, but in death, his reputation has suffered from a mean mincing of anecdote and eulogy, making of him a most uncertain character.

The thing about reading Alan Bold in Scotland today, is that if you mention his name to anybody who may have been on the literary scene at the time - that would be anybody, say, over the age of 55 - they will probably tell you an Alan Bold story.

This has proved to be true, and the content of the anecdotes I've heard have of course been the polar opposite of what the obituaries say.

Sure, it is normal to praise and even tend towards hagiography in an obituary, but that often needs to be tempered with a few home truths, and Douglas Dunn attributes some of Bold's oddness and wildness to the literary establishment, and he is right to do so.

Douglas Dunn says:

It is sad to say, but Bold's reputation was vulnerable in a Scottish literary scene famous, or notorious, for what's been described as "back- scratching with a dirk".

John Bellany's obituary in Herald Scotland was not just fulsome in praise, but marked Alan Bold as several others have done as 'neglected', which is hardly surprising since virtually every author in Scotland today who is not either a poet with a public sinecure, or a crime writer is neglected also.

Alan's creative flow at that time was like a river in full spate with poems, essays, and his polemical magazine Rocket pouring out his philosophy and argument of erudition and challenge. He was taking on the world with all the vigour and courage of the young Dante or the young James Joyce in Dublin.

For John Bellany, Alan Bold was 'the most important poet of his generation' and it is fabulous to hear this opinion. If it is true, and it certainly could be, the subsequent generation are so up themselves that they barely know the man's name, far less his work.

Bold was however a rare species, insofar as he was a non-academic intellectual, with a greater list of critical credits than any poet. Think of The Penguin Book of Socialist Verse, The Cambridge Book of English Verse (1939 - 75) and The Picador Book of Erotic Verse - all edited by Alan Bold.

Then there are critical volumes on Smollett, Gunn and of course MacDiarmid, and works such as The Sensual Scot and Modern Scottish Literature.

Alan bold macdiarmid.jpg
Alan Bold and Hugh MacDiarmid - Photograph by Alan Hamilton

The above image (by Alan Hamilton) records Alan Bold's first meeting with Hugh MacDiarmid in Edinburgh in 1963.

The volume I am reading is The Terrible Crystal, which succeeds in taking MacDiarmid criticism beyond the traditional study of the contradictions and dualities in the poet's work, and raises MacDiarmid to the status many of us prefer to see him at - that of international modernist, ranking with Pound, Joyce and Eliot,

By every account then, at least among those who met him and worked in Scottish arts and letters in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Alan Bold was a great reviewer and was dynamite in conversation, especially of course if the drink was flowing, which it always was.

Of readers today, those whom as I say recall him, none have rated Alan Bold's poetry. In fact, Bold's verse seems to be almost cruelly dismissed, as if people would have expected better from such a giant, such a force and such a dynamic and creative man. Sometimes Alan Bold's poetry is described as too ambitious, and at other times too far in thrall to MacDiarmid.

In the last four days alone I have picked up no less than three Alan Bold anecdotes which I will relate. These are in effect drinking stories, pretty much from the streets of Edinburgh. I can't vouch for any truth lost in the telling, however they seem consistent in portraying a man hell bent on the bevvy - that side of the literary life at least.

Here are the stories I've heard this week, retold as best I can:

1. A friend tells me that he once witnessed Alan Bold at an Arts Council event, at which the alcohol supply had run dry. Bold, he says, upturned every bottle he could find into his mouth (dozens) and finding nothing more to drink wasted no time in telling everyone what he thought of them, before storming out.

2. A friend tells me that Alan Bold had reviewed his first novel, which was published in the early 1990s. The review was not favorable, but was nonetheless intelligent and incisive. Spotting Bold in an Edinburgh pub, two days later, my friend introduced himself and mentioned the review. No matter what my friend said to Bold about the recent review and the book, Bold could not recall the book, nor even reading it. My friend resorted to describing the cover of his book, still to no avail.

3. A friend tells me that he attended a performance of Writer's Cramp by John Byrne in 1976, and that Alan Bold was seated directly in front of him in the theatre. In less than five minutes, my friend tells me, Bold was fast asleep and even snoring. Alan Bold, he says, slept through the play and was woken at the end, and he left the theatre. Two days later, however, and true to form, a penetrating and clever review of the play by Alan Bold appeared in The Scotsman. Nobody knew how Bold had achieved this feat.

With that done then, I return to seeking out Alan Bold's poetry wherever I can find it. Of course The Scottish Poetry library waste no time in pumping their website full of the work of their staff and friends, but can't find the time or the inclination to place any Alan Bold on their site. Maybe this is a copyright issue, I sincerely hope so.

Of course, I bought this copy of The Terrible Crystal in a second hand shop - and I say of course because Alan Bold is completely out of print these days, and that goes for his masterwork, his mammoth, beautiful, detailed and raging biography of Hugh MacDiarmid.



“Although Scotland is not officially an independent state, Scottishness is a recognised state of mind: sometimes an independent state of mind, occasionally a theocratic state of mind, frequently a confused state of mind."

“The Scot is sufficiently unsure of his independence to assert it aggressively. The extremism of the Scot, which ranges from lachrymose sentimentality to vicious brutality and from cosy domesticity to disorderly drunkenness, is evidence of uncertainty. Scottish literature tries to make artistic sense of this confusion.”