21 Feb 2016

Tessa Ransford

Tessa Ransford
Tesss Ransford in Conversation
Tessa Ransford - Conversations with Scottish Writers, No.3

FRAS Publications

Walter Perrie’s Conversations with Scottish Writers series may on first appearance to be something of a modest resource. This suite of pamphlets however has so much to recommend it to our finer senses, giving voice as it does to a generation of writers, some of whom have now passed. 

Better still, the booklets in the Conversations series always get straight to the point and cover questions of the place of literature in society, funding for literature (which seems to come up in most of them), and the influence of Scottish letters on the world, and world literature’s influence on Scotland.

Crucially none of this stated from a marketing perspective and any other form of cultural bias. Staff of what was once the Scottish Arts Council and is now Creative Scotland, should probably turn away now, to the many more establishment-affirming sources widely available to them!

Contained within FRAS' 'Conversations' series is a historic resource that will only become more useful as the decades pass, and a set of interviews that are not matched in any journal or book.

This is not just because what is presented in the Conversations with Scottish Writers series is more in depth than most are used to these days, but because of the intellectual freedom offered by Walter Perrie who presents these booklets as object lessons in literary art, as delivered by writers (in this case) who have a more complete vision for their art and society than we are used to.

Tessa Ransford’s story began in Bombay, where she was born in 1938.  There, her father was Master of the Mint, and the family returned to Scotland in 1948, when her father (now with a knighthood) became Bursar at Loretto School.

Tessa Ransford’s first introduction to poetry was as a teenager when she discovered the work of Rabindranath Tagore, and within this discovery she described ‘the Indian and the Scottish, the hot and the cold meeting and issuing in a new synthesis.’ The poetry she met in Tagore was in fact her first real means of escape and the admittance of what she termed ‘my Indian self’ which had been suppressed by the trauma of returning from India, and finding herself at a boarding school in St. Andrews, which she did not enjoy at all.

Tessa Ransford’s parents were however, as she explains, most enlightened for their day, and found the perspective in Edinburgh fairly narrow.  Her mother was an artist and had many artistic friends, including Patrick Geddes’ daughter Norah Mears. 

After marrying a missionary, Tessa Ransford lived in Pakistan for a five year period, returning to Edinburgh in 1968, where she became involved in what was a highly vibrant although male dominated literary scene. This Norman MacCaig anecdote from that period sums this up well:

Norman that evening gave what I later discovered was his usual spiel and said “When the urge comes upon me I light a cigarette and write a poem…” And I put my hand up and asked: “How do you account for the urge?” And he gave me, you know, that baleful look he could give and he said, “How like a woman!”

Therefater, Tessa Ransford began to write more, with two pamphlets coming out in the 1970s and a first collection appearing from The Ramsay Head in 1980.  Her work also included a long poem about the Peace People of Northern Island, a verse play about Teilhard de Chardin and a book called Towards a Theology of Art.  She was also in those days a regular attendee at The Heretics, and was a tireless promoter of internationalism and intellectualism. I'm not entirely sure what those two things mean anymore, but they were crucial in Tessa Ransford's day as the anti-intellectualism and seeming valuelessness of the Baby Boomer generation has served our current interim poorly.

Intellectualism, or the lack of it, Walter Perrie and Tessa Ransford describe as a problem in Scotland, in one of the most fascinating parts of the booklet, and while Perrie describes the terrible overtones of the word ‘intellectual’ in Scotland (“In Scotland to be an intellectual is to be a poseur, a fraud, a snob”, Tessa Ransford has of course an extra dimension of experience in this matter, being a woman.

“A woman intellectual seems to be rather threatening. Generally speaking women are expected to choose between their head and their body and not to live equally in both or in both simultaneously.”

Tessa Ransford’s object example of this prejudice as it appears in Scottish culture is quite brilliant:

“Yes, well Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off.  That’s symbolic of the whole thing. Medusa got her head chopped off because her head, full of snake wisdom, petrified men. I think to combine the two is difficult in our society for a woman.”

Much of Walter Perrie’s Conversations with Scottish Writers pamphlet interview with Tessa Ransford is devoted to her establishment of the Scottish Poetry Library.  This project began when she went to Harvard in 1981, where she met other female poets, and experienced the sort of stimulus she had never felt in Scotland. It was there, in the Harvard poetry library where she decided on her plan:

“When I came back I thought, ‘I shall die, I can’t breathe, I’ll have to change my environment if I’m to survive.’ … And that’s why I started the Poetry Library, for myself, I wanted it for myself…”

The Scottish Poetry Library was conceived of as more than a library, at this stage.

“It was to be a milieu: a centre and an environment for poetry, for all Scotland’s varied poetries, a focus and a manifestation, a ‘field’ or a basecamp for the poetic expedition, as Tom Hubbard used to call it.”

Although the Scottish Poetry Library now thrives and is well funded, of course it wasn’t so at the start, and the struggles that Tessa Ransford had with the Scottish Arts Council are well documented, and eventually the money did come.

“By the end of the 1980s we were still receiving only £20,000 a year from the Scottish Arts Council. I remember this because Magnus Linklater became chair of the SAC and demanded £20,000 expenses for loss of earnings as a journalist. I sent a copy of John M. Caie’s poem The Puddock to the Literature committee.  This is about a puddock who is puffing himself up and boasting, when a heron gulps him down with the reflection, puddocks are nae whit they yased to be.”

As in the other productions in the Conversations series, the question of the state of literature in Scotland, and in particular its commodification arises. Tessa Ransford’s response is not simply critical, but offers philosophical conclusions, although these have arrived too late in the day to help any of us now:

“I dislike the festival mania. I feel there’s a miasma of festival which prevents the light. It settles like a fog around us and nothing can be done unless under the banner of some festival, for which you need sponsorship and thence the whole commercial tyranny under which we suffer.”

And

“Things are not allowed to grow naturally now. If they don’t have a subsidy from the Arts Council they don’t exist. Everything has to be limited and controlled by the Arts Council and grants are then given and a prize and another award and another fellowship, whereas the things that are wild are neglected.”

Tessa Ransford A Good Cause
Tessa Ransford (Luath Press)
This, and the discussion of the possibility (here mooted as a joke) of Edinburgh being a ‘city of literature’ leads in the conversation to discussion of autonomy and independence, which has always been important for Scottish writers, and tellingly Tessa Ransford notes that that in terms of poetry, “Carcanet, Cape, Faber and Bloodaxe are still the arbiters of Scotlit.”

This curious state of affairs, in which Scotland in the shape of the Edinburgh Festival and Book Festival is presenting itself as a tourist city, is failing in Tessa Ransford’s opinion, the indigenous culture. “It is a readership we need as writers,” says Tessa Ransford, “not a market.” 

Those who knew Tessa as a writer, and may have heard her reading will relish this opportunity to hear her in full flow.  This is a common theme with the ‘Conversations’ series, and Tessa Ransford, as with other writers in the series, is permitted full intellectual and critical flight and is given space to explain in as much detail as she wishes, her history and intellectual development.

It's a reminder that the conversation regarding Scottish letters, if it still exists to any degree, has moved online, and may be said to exist in places like the comment threads of Bella Caledonia, or on Twitter. The many writers’ blogs may admit of some ‘conversation’, but very few people look at these websites, and Facebook rants do not a conversation make.

Indeed, I expect much of what appears in the Conversations with Scottish Writers series may be considered too high-falutin or pretentious for the peeps of today. But Tessa Ransford in this interview is so good at clarifying points of philosophy in such normal language, that the effect is wonderful:

"I think I was mostly influenced by the German poetry I was studying: the tradition of dichten and denken, poetry and thought, which meant that I assumed poetry was a way of thinking. This is what Heidegger says, that the nature of thought is poetic. Perhaps I did my thinking through poetry."

To obtain copies of FRAS Publications "Conversations with Scottish Writers" series, contact Walter Perrie, FRAS Publications, 10 Croft Place, Dunning, PH2 0SB.  Impressive work, Walter. To be underground these days, all it takes is to have no website, no Twitter, no Facebook ... etc!

A.M.