Thursday, August 26, 2010

Edwin Morgan: a farewell

Edwin Morgan: last rites
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
The Bute Hall, Glasgow University. I haven't been in this place since the late '60s, but it looks unchanged. I'm here for the funeral of Edwin Morgan, whose photo hangs above the plain coffin on the dais - a coffin on which lies a single thistle. The face in the photo is the one I saw when I was a student - the big, black-framed specs, the thick hair, the unmistakable smile. It doesn't seem real, somehow, that he is dead - but the blue ranks of seats are filled with people come to say goodbye to the man and to say his words and remember.

It's an entirely secular funeral, and as others I've been to seems longer than the average church ceremony. Maybe there is felt a need to say more, to let everyone contribute in the absence of set ritual; most of the contributions are more wordy than the poet would allow in his work. The best moments glow - David Kinloch reading Strawberries; Tommy Smith's keening saxophone and sudden wolf-howl in front of the coffin; John Butt's organ playing Maxwell Davies' Farewell to Stromness. I sit on the hard seat, and think of the lightness and unassuming grace of the man we're remembering, and some of the Chapel Choir sing A Man's a Man and I long for a less pedestrian setting.

We're all invited to take a dram and a bit of shortbread in the University Chapel. There are also hot drinks, but I stick with the whisky and sip it as I suddenly realise that's Bernard McLaverty over there, and see Alex Salmond and Jack McConnell - and George Reid who was Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament and who spoke at length ...

There are folk, mostly men, who look as if they should be important, in a literary sort of a way, and there are the quietly ordinary ones who turn out to be seriously important but don't seem to have realised it. Sir Kenneth Calman, the Chancellor, has mislaid Liz Lochhead, and Jackie Kay passes and smiles. I realise I've still not had any lunch - a cereal bar eaten in the sunny Arts Quad before the ceremony doesn't really count - and feel it's time to leave. I walk down the chapel steps to the Professors' Quadrangle for the first time since my wedding day forty years ago, into the warm sun that never seemed to shine in term-time. I think of being young, and uncertain, and of how the wind whistled round the quadrangles as we queued for classes, and how unreal university felt, that first year in 1964.

Life is very short, really - even for a 90 year old. Thank God for the poetry.


  1. "Thank God for the poetry." Specific to the occasion, Chris, I know. Yet a one liner prayer from all of us who recognise the durability of words well spoken and well written, of life well lived, and of how in some people the well lived life and well written words coincide. And we are grateful.

  2. Jennifer and I have just read this. I was directing her to the earlier posting and came across this account. Thank you.

  3. Freddie Phillips9:16 AM

    Thank you for writing this fine account of the ceremony, I'm very pleased to have been directed to it...