11 Nov 2014

The Evergreen Volume One

The Evergreen: A New Season in the North - The Word Bank - October 2014

It's a question we've heard before in the run up to this project, but what exactly is The Evergreen?  Is it a book, or is it a periodical?  Is it a seasonally themed collection of art, or do its contributions span a wider remit?  Does The Evergreen concern itself with urban renewal, or is is it a publishing and art showcase?  And does it feature new authors, established authors, or people form the community from which it springs, in this case Edinburgh's Old Town.

Before proceeding, be assured at this stage that The Evergreen is all of the above. This is credit to editors Elizabeth Elliot and Se├ín Bradley.  One should keep the reader guessing, bemused, and one should innovate, in this case with one foot in the future and one foot in the past.  More to the point, The Evergreen presents a balance of questions and answers with a devotion that is sincere, poetic and concerned with the more imperectible aspects of our daily environment.

You only need to watch people handling The Evergreen Volume 1 for the first time to be aware of this.  Aside from being the most beautiful book you will have seen this year, it doesn't exactly conform; so even before you've read a word, a strike appears to have been made against the conventional.  There are still some who will be confused.  Is it a book?  Is it a journal? Is this even an important question?

What The Evergreen is not is one of these themed anthologies that appear from time to time. While it does showcase various writers and artists, it does so with optimism and verve, and it promises much more than the average anthology, and is presented in a unified style, which imposes something quite specific on the contributors, none of whom are greater than the whole.

The prodigality of Scottish creativity is easy to harness and is often done, but not usually with such care. The look of The Evergreen is a large part of its charm, and its themes although various, are somehow presented not in its texts and images, but in the artful manipulations of its designers.

The Evergreen as it first appeared (or as Allan Ramsay had it The Ever Green) is exceptionally fertile ground for anyone interested in Scottish literature, and it has had various historical incarnations.  This 2014 Evergreen looks back to Patrick Geddes' 1894 publication of the same name, which in turn looked back to Allan Ramsay's Ever Green, which was a publication that reflected Ramsay's desire for cultural renewal and consolidation, combining as it did the work of academics, writers, artists and other professions.

The Evergreen Volume One April 2014
The Evergreen Vol. 1 2014, image by John Reiach, courtesy of The Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust

Allan Ramsay's Ever Green, the four projected volumes of which were never completed, was not as popular as his Tea-Table Miscellany (1724-37) but was nonetheless symbolic of his desire to nurture a new sort of intellectual community.  As Elizabeth Elliot states in her essay: "Ramsay's own title stakes a claim to enduring fame for the poems collected within his Ever Green, drawn from the remarkable Bannatyne Manuscript".  Finished in 1568, The Bannatyne Manuscript is an important source for the Scots poetry of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  It contains texts of the poems of the great makars, many anonymous Scots pieces and works by medieval English poets, and was collected by the Edinburgh merchant George Bannatyne who also slipped in some of his own writing.

In The Ever Green, being a Collection of Scots Poems wrote by the Ingenious before 1600, Ramsay had another purpose, and that was to reawaken an interest in the older national literature. Nearly all the pieces were taken from the Bannatyne manuscript, and so we have presented a lineage like no other which runs Bannatyne, Ramsay, Geddes and now the 2014 Evergreen, which is not so much associated with one person, as it is with The Word Bank, which is a project of the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust.

The Evergreen Patrick Geddes
Patrick Geddes' The Evergreen
The journal The Evergreen published by Patrick Geddes in 1895 was the principal mouthpiece of Geddes' Celtic revivalism.  Each of the four volumes he produced proclaimed a season of the year as a focus for a wide ranging series of studies, and yet the idea of the season, or indeed the 'new season' as in this most recent incarnation recalls it, was an expression of Geddes' belief in a 'Scots Renascence' in which cultural awareness was reborn, rooted in 'local tradition and living nature.'

So in part, The Evergreen of 2014 seems to point to this tradition, but it doesn't lean on it and in fact the contributors steer well wide of emulation, or advice on town-planning, unless you'd want to consider their input in the most tenuous of terms.


Of course, so comely is the finished volume of the 2014 The Evergreen,  that you may not want to read it immediately, so much as look at it.  But in reading there is, as Elizabeth Elliot suggest of the previous incarnations, a mixed bag.

In reading the compositions by Leila Aboulela, Stuart Kelly, James Robertson and Todd McEwen, it's clear we're in the company of time-served writers who are at the top of their games. These pieces stand out not so much for subject matter but because of the styles and voices these writers use with such panache.

Stuart Kelly's particular mountain to climb is that he is selling Sir Walter Scott to a highly sceptical modern readership, and the sweep of his argument in his contribution Reading Waverley Backwards is that Scott is generally seen as the inferior of those who followed him as opposed to the consideration that Scott's roots are firmly in the eighteenth century.  It means, he argues, that when Scott  is considered in light of those who came before him (Fielding, Swift, Smollet, Sterne et al) we can discover how complex, intricate and edifying his writing can be.

Kelly asks of Scott's reputation: "Could bellicosity, verbosity, casual sexism and a complacent belief in 'progress' come together in any more perfect storm?"  In this stylish 'backward reading', Stuart Kelly saves Scott not just from his modern detractors, but pumps some life into the old ouevre in a most helpful manner, even finding time to bemoan the fact that in terms of ambition, Scott has no equal in Scottish letters today.

Todd McEewn's contribution describes the class, crass commercial and cultural damage done to Edinburgh via the holy medium of coffee, its consumption and rites.  Of particular interest to Todd McEwen is the necessary architectural and environmental damage we suffer because of this crazy modern cult.  In his subheading-titled MACCHIATO: THE SMELL OF FEAR he says:
The National Library smells not of morocco, which is to say of literature, but of cappucino, which is to say of money.
'Nuff said McEwen! The essay is a sly treat on everything that has been abolished and retired in our post-Capitalistic hell, and Todd McEwen has a particular fondness for jocular circumlocutions bedecked with curious details; perhaps that is Geddesian also.

Robert Morris writes an essay Professor Geddes' Cat, which is about the cat-like figure fixed to the roof of Ramsay Gardens.  This type of essay is quite typical of The Evergreen, as it attempts to slip the chains of description by dissipating the authorial presence into a proliferation of social and philosophical musings.  As this essay comes first in The Evergreen, it suggests that the volume may be presenting not just art, but the allegory of art, as transformative and informative; as if to say that making things beautiful is simple, uncomplicatedly good practice.  The decorative arts are in this sense, always in an impoverished state, and one only has to look at the dire effects modernism had on architecture to bear this out.  It's another reason why the book itself is so beautiful, and a rephrasing of the argument that everything should be done with craft and care.  Another of the simple arguments that the essay presents in terms of Geddes' streets, tenements and closes is that 'more colour meant better health and less crime.' 

Also to look out for are the poems of Peter Kravitz.  As an editor with Polygon in the 1980s, Kravitz brought on board James Kelman, Stewart Home and Frank Kuppner, among others, making him something of an unsung Scottish literary hero, and this is the first time that he has ever been in print himself.

As Patrick Geddes' project was about renewal, we have then in The Evergreen figurative glimpses of the happier world we might live in if artistry was inherent in everything.  Geddes himseslf was indeed a city planner with a poet's soul, but that poet's soul can be just as valued in book design, as in any other field. It was as visionary that Geddes perceived that everything around us is made alive by living people and made meaningful by artful things, and that is why we have for example, in Edinburgh today places like The Evergreen Studio. And I expect it is why we have this beautiful book.


The prose and pictorial work in The Evergreen are balanced by a large number of poems.  The standout contributions in the poetry are by David Herd who offers a meditative and untitled sequence, which is as much a modern metaphysic as it is anything else, and his poems make well-wrought turns around the subjects he faces, never settling, but always capturing moments of extreme self-awareness:
Up in the streets the underground
No unpaid debts
This evening in the universe.

The poems in The Evergreen are not in hock to any particular aesthetic and yet one emerges, perhaps even conjured into the world by the beauty of the book.  Poet Jock Stein takes on the possibilites of his own unflustered optmism in Referendum (April 2014):

Give me mongrel strength. No bigsy breeding,
no wracked, cracked genes, feeding cringe
or needing binge of drunken make believe.
If we have myths, let them ne kind and true,
to make us song and symbol, right and wrong,
so we can live and die for something strong.

The feel of Edinburgh's Old Town from where this volume originates is not so much evident in the writing so much as in the pictorial contributions. Photogrpaher Robin Gillanders includes some Old Town portraits, which straightforward essays, no matter how artfully done, could not surpass, and John Reiach sends some Postcards from a Hill Town which contrast the square facing depression of Dumbiedykes with the heights of edification in architecture suggested by the New College.


To return to urban renewal, there is a sense that this earnest endeavour does in fact exist within these pages, without being pressed too hard at all.  For a start The Evergreen is the first publication from The Word Bank a community publishing collective in Edinburgh, and one which points away from the clamour of the commercial publishing world, but which concentrates on among other things literacy projects.

Crucially, and in a most commendable fashion, The Evergreen does not appear to be available on Amazon, and so readers are instead urged to source it from their local bookshop, or buy it from the project's own website.  

Recall the statement that did not ever appear appear in Patrick Geddes' writing but which is often attributed to him: THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL

To paraphrase this, you might read about The Evergreen on the world wide web, but you are thereafter encouraged not to buy it in the ready-made One-Click fashion to which you have quickly become accustomed, but to put it on your shopping list and enjoy the experience of ordering it from your local bookshop.  Your local shop will be more grateful, you will be more satisfied and at once, you will have rediscovered something that is in danger of being lost.

Details are here at the Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust.


How to Not Buy The Evergreen from Amazon



Leila Aboulela, Dominic Cooper, Christine De Luca, Kate Downie, Elizabeth Elliott, Robin Gillanders, Alan Gillis, Peter Kravitz, David Herd, Stuart Kelly, Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, Richie McCaffrey, Ian McDonough, Andrew McDougall, Todd McEwen, John McGlade, Benjamin Morris, Robert Morris, Owen O’Neill, James Robertson, Mario Relich, John Reiach, Richard Rodger, Mike Saunders, Morelle Smith, Nancy Somerville, Jock Stein, David Tomassini, Samantha Walton.