The two great owls of poetry and rock ’n’ roll
SOME are born owls, some achieve owlness and some have owldom thrust upon them. The poet and critic Hayden Murphy has attained the status of wise old bird by his own efforts.
When he launched his latest collection of verse at the Irish Consulate in Edinburgh on Tuesday, his vibrant green tie might well have been selected to tone perfectly with the emerald banner in front of which he stood to read.
Plumage apart, however, he was a reserved and observant presence as is his custom, wherever his perch. Mark Hanniffy, Consul General of Ireland in Scotland, introduced him as the embodiment of cultural liaison between the two countries and no-one in the room – most of us quaffing a complimentary Guinness – would have considered that a bold claim.
Much of the contextual and historical background which has accompanied this newspaper’s coverage of the superb Irish drama that has been a feature of Fergus Linehan’s Edinburgh International Festival programmes has come from his archive, freely shared with his fellow critics.
Among the dedicatees of the poems in the new collection, In the Ear of the Owl, is the actor Barry McGovern, whose magnificent solo turn in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape was followed this year by Druid theatre company’s similarly Herald Angelwinning staging of Waiting for Godot, and that literary heritage runs through Murphy’s new work, with many references to the world of James Joyce, whose singular terrain he surveys with the experienced eye of a master navigator.
But In the Ear of the Owl is chiefly a deeply personal work, full of details of Murphy’s own life and loves, linked by a recurrence of owls of many shapes and sizes, and published a full halfcentury after his first collection.
There are evocative memories of childhood and of elderly relatives, as well as tributes to friends who have steered the course of his life since. It is also a beautiful little book, produced in partnership with the Dumfries-based artist Hugh Bryden, who has drawn the feathers that flutter down the edges of the pages and who also hand-stitched every copy of the limited edition from his Roncadora Press publishing house.
The independent effort of that production resonates with the ethos of punk rock, which brought forth songwriter Vic Godard, who was on a two-gig visit to Scotland last week, and on whom the status of wise old owl of rock’n’roll has now been thrust.
He seems to be both amused by that and revel in under-cutting it, with confessions of his familiarity with hard drugs and naivety about the sexual availability of fans when he and his band Subway Sect were on tour with Buzzcocks.
It is his association with the earliest era of British punk and then affiliation with Glasgow’s Postcard Records – Orange Juice songs Falling and Laughing and Holiday Hymn featured in his set in both Edinburgh and Glasgow – that have conferred on him elder statesman status.
That and an unmistakable crooning style, his periodic employment as a postman and singlet approach to stage attire.
Hayden Murphy’s book shares a definition of “A Wise Old Owl” as someone with whom you do not totally agree, but do respect, and that seems to fit Godard excellently well.
To reach an age when you can put things in context and draw wider lessons from them is a privilege, and careering through a chaotic lifestyle to be acclaimed as a great survivor of an exciting and fondly-remembered time is an achievement. Both are the more familiar ways to earn respect as a grand old owl of the arts.
Those who are born with an owlish wisdom beyond their years have a much tougher flight-path.