Makar Ron Butlin pens ‘love song’ to the city

Ron Butlin, who is the outgoing Makar, has a new novel published called 'Ghost Moon'. Pic: Phil Wilkinson
Ron Butlin, who is the outgoing Makar, has a new novel published called 'Ghost Moon'. Pic: Phil Wilkinson
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THERE is, apparently, a book in all of us. In Ron Butlin’s case there have been 15 . . . so far.

There has been much poetry, as you’d expect from Edinburgh’s Makar, collections of short stories and blistering novels.

His first such, The Sound of My Voice, drew on his fraught relationship with his depressive father. His latest, Ghost Moon, is a love song to his mother and to the city which inspires much of his writing.

It’s a story which will resonate with many. Those who can recall post-war Edinburgh, when the sexual revolution wasn’t even a brief lustful twinkle in a Presbyterian eye, will remember when the idea of having a child out of wedlock was regarded as shameful. Given its skilful weaving of past and present, the book will also chime with those who are dealing with the care of a parent who is sinking into dementia.

Both scenarios are drawn from Ron’s life and that of his mother, Elizabeth. “It’s taken almost four years to write this book and the idea first started when I was going through a pretty bad time,” he says as he clambers over the bench seat of a wooden pub table in the Summerhall garden.

“My wife Regi had been diagnosed with cancer, and I was being sued by a former publisher for alleged defamation. I remember sitting thinking, ‘I’m a reasonable guy, I do the right things, I stick to my integrity . . . how can all this be happening?’ Then the words started coming into my head and I had a line, which is in the book – ‘walking the length of the ship and back again, alone . . .’

“I didn’t know who this person was at first, but as I thought about it I realised it was my mother going to Canada and that I had to go back to where everything started to get my head round things which were happening to me in the present.”

It all began in Edinburgh. His mother, in her early 30s, had become pregnant to a married man. With no support at home, she hoped to rely on family in Canada to see her through the tough time which lay ahead.

Ron says: “Like the character Maggie in the book, she panicked when she discovered she was pregnant with me. So she got on a boat to Canada, rather than the Hebrides, which is where Maggie goes. But the reception she received from her family is the same as Maggie gets in the book: they somehow knew she was pregnant and shut the door in her face.”

With no succour there either; his mother was forced to take the long sea journey home to Edinburgh again.

“But she had no job or any way to support us, so when she gave birth to me I was put into a home in Edinburgh, though I don’t know which one.

“She was given a stretch of time . . . told she could come back reclaim me within two years or I’d be put up for adoption. She pretty much went to the wire time-wise, but she finally got together with my father – he was married, but left his wife – and we moved to Dumfriesshire to get away from everything.”

Ron then lived in the village of Hightae, near Lockerbie, until he was 11 – with a year in Edinburgh when he was six – when his family moved to Dumfries. But as soon as he was 16 he left home for London.

He has described his relationship with his father, who died when he was 21, as “appalling”, saying that “he went for the soul rather than the body. He used to sit around being miserable and would rage at us”.

Unsurprisingly, Ron turned to books to escape before he could physically leave. But when he did he travelled south and worked at a variety of jobs from barnacle scraping to song lyricist for a distinctly unsuccessful pop group, before returning to Edinburgh, and “a life of intense unemployment” even life modelling at the art college to make ends meet.

It was then that he turned to writing, penned poetry, then fiction and even opera libretti and plays, becoming an award-winning writer along the way.

Edinburgh has been home for a long time. He lives in Newington with his “super clever” author wife Regi Claire, who is now clear of her cancer. That defamation case never progressed either.

He continues: “My mum didn’t tell my sister Pam and I anything about her life and what had happened until we were in our 20s. It came as an amazing shock.

“She felt really ashamed but we told her she was so courageous, so determined against the odds. Post-war, early 50s Edinburgh was a pretty bleak place. Even I can remember coming here as a child on Sundays to visit family and find that the swings were all tied up in the park.

“The book has been very hard to write. I’ve not been crying while writing, but it’s been difficult. I’ve had a lot of emotional responses from people who’ve read it – even my editor said he’d been crying. But it was a really healing
exercise for me.

“Writing a novel takes a lot longer than poetry but it starts the same way. I get a few words in my head and I don’t really think about them, just listen to them as if they’re like music and I see where it goes and what other words are suggested. I don’t plan it all which is perhaps why it takes so long,” he says with a laugh.

His time as Edinburgh’s poet laureate is also almost up and he says he’s thoroughly enjoyed all six years of it. He’s the only poet to have been asked to be Makar for two consecutive terms. “I don’t know who’ll be next but I’ve made a few suggestions,” he says. “I think it’s a marvellous post, and really raises the profile of poetry.

“I’ll have poems going up at all the tram stops which I think is a really lovely idea – though when I first wrote about the trams I thought I’d be de-Makared.”

He may be 64 but there’s no retirement in the offing. “I’ve been commissioned by Polygon for another book of poetry, some about Edinburgh, some about Scotland in the light of the referendum – though I’m still decidedly undecided,” he says. “And there’s a tour in Eastern Europe to look forward to and I’ve just finished an opera called Wedlock for Scottish Opera. I want to keep writing as long as I can.”

n Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin is published by Salt, £8.99.