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Interview: Ron Butlin casts a spell with magic words

Ron Butlin says he's privileged to be part of a literary heritage

Ron Butlin says he's privileged to be part of a literary heritage

HE has cemented his place for a second term as Edinburgh’s cultural ambassador – in his own words: one of the great literary capitals of the world.

It is his hometown and has proven itself fertile terrain for exceptional wordsmiths.

Few cities have immortalised their men of letters quite as enthusiastically as Auld Reekie: its monolithic monument to Walter Scott dominates the skyline, and there are no fewer than ten nods to Robert Louis Stevenson scattered throughout its cobbled streets.

One might think this ancestral pedigree and burden of history could weigh heavy on Edinburgh’s poet laureate, or Makar, but over the last three years he has burrowed deep into the fabric of the city, acting as an arts champion and lyrical commentator of the hot topics of the day.

Named Edinburgh Makar in 2008, Ron Butlin has just become the first civic poet to earn a second stint in the role since it was created ten years ago.

It is a job without applicants – the right candidate is chosen without ever knowing they were in the running.

When the phone call came, it took Ron less than a second to blurt out an emphatic “Yes”. And for the next three years, he gets to do it all over again.

To mark the occasion, he is releasing a new book of poetry – Magicians of Edinburgh – a playful patchwork of verse that veers from surreal imaginings to the gritty reality of city life.

Poignantly, the creative spark for the title poem ignited during one of the most torturous times for Ron and his beloved wife, Regi.

Shortly after becoming Makar, Ron was invited to compose a poem for a Provost’s banquet on the theme “vibrant Edinburgh”.

“My wife had been diagnosed with cancer and it was a really bizarre time, a really confused time for me as you can imagine,” he said. “Regi was going in and out of hospital and I just couldn’t get my head round this at all. She had an operation that seemed to go fine, then she began haemorrhaging and was brought in to have an emergency operation at about midnight. I was brought in as well and put into a room to wait.

“In a kind of bizarre way, what was going on down the corridor was too unbearable to think about and I suddenly found the beginning of this poem coming in almost like a defence mechanism distracting me from things.”

Writing kept the trauma at bay while the horror served to focus his mind.

“It was very cathartic, I just could not write this poem. I could not get my head around vibrant Edinburgh when Regi was being so ill and having radio and chemotherapy and basically dying in front of my eyes. She is fully recovered now but at that point we didn’t know what was happening and the idea of her being operated on through the wall, the creativity and imagination, which is such a healing thing, seemed to step in and save me.”

If poetry has been a comforter for the Makar, its jaunty tone occasionally dons barbs to afflict the comfortable – mostly in a gently mocking way.

And Butlin’s chief gripe, it would seem, chimes with that city population.

The second act of his poem, 
Dancing in Princes Street, which scans to the rhythm of hokey cokey, serves as a succinct appraisal of Edinburgh’s tram works.

You dig a big hole here, you dig a big hole there,

You dig the biggest hole ever and another as a spare.

You shut the city down, take a six-month break & that’s what it’s all about!

Hey!

You plan a tram route up, you plan a tram route down,

You plan another plan for the centre of the town,

You rip the new line out and you start it all again

& that’s what it’s all about!

Hey!

Right at the beginning of his tenure, Butlin vowed to speak up for the arts, which he has done fearlessly in such challenging works as Not For Profit – a poem bearing the lines “Artists are not for sale, of course, but they come cheap”, which prefaced a government paper on arts funding.

The writer has also delved into politics and society, highlighting the plight of Edinburgh’s homeless population, domestic abuse, and probing the biggest question of our age – independence.

The last chapter, Virtual Edinburgh, is a surreal, almost hallucinogenic look at the city in which Butlin’s imagination wanders. Over a series of poems, the philosopher David Hume takes a dander on Arthur’s Seat, Sir Walter Scott pops into Holyrood and Edinburgh’s Disgrace regains some pride by being completed surreptitiously by helpful ghosts.

Living in Edinburgh, there is a comforting familiarity reading Butlin’s poetry, but this may also reflect some of his own affections for the city, which he views as akin to a metropolitan village.

“I live with my wife in Newington and literally I don’t think I have ever left the house in the last ten years without meeting someone I know,” he said. “Edinburgh is like that but I remember living in London and I don‘t think I met anyone I knew ever.”

Asked how he has adjusted to the role of city poet, he said: “I no longer take the city for granted. I feel that I live here and identify with it.

“Just like the different levels Edinburgh is built on, there are all these different levels of people: the legal side, government, artistic, commercial and financial. We are all the magicians of Edinburgh.

“In a strange way, having this position I’ve been invited to a lot of events from these different levels that I wouldn’t have a chance to meet in other 
circumstances.

“With this book it will be a kind of starting point [for the second term as Makar] and I’m hoping that through the book I will be able to do readings in libraries and schools because I’ll be reading things that people know about. If there’s one about Arthur’s Seat people can look out the window and see it.”

Over the next three years, Butlin aims to widen his creative parameters from Edinburgh to Scotland as a whole, as the thorny question of Scottishness and independence becomes evermore complex.

His best ideas bubble into his imagination when he’s relaxed or fully tensed, he “almost hums the words like music”, he says.

Citing Rowling and Rankin, the Edinburgh Makar said he was privileged to represent a city with such a rich literary heritage. He said: “I would think we are among the greatest literary cities in the world. Edinburgh is astonishing because it’s come from Walter Scott and Stevenson and right through to what we’ve got in present day.

“It’s no wonder that the first Unesco city of literature is Edinburgh.”

He added: “I’m really pleased to be part of it in a very small way.”

Ron Butlin will be launching his new book of poetry at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 8.30pm on Saturday, August 18. The Edinburgh International Book Festival runs from Saturday, August 11 to Monday, August 27.

 

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