Marilyn Imrie: Another Sad Goodbye

David Rintoul and Paul Young in Kidnapped

This is the second time in a few months that I've found myself writing in sadness about the death of somebody who was not just a valued work colleague, but an old friend too. Hamish Wilson died earlier this year. Now Marilyn Imrie has left us as well.

When I first began writing radio drama, not long after I finished university, I worked with a BBC Producer called Gordon Emslie. After he died, tragically young, Marilyn and I worked together for many years and on many hours of radio, including original plays and mammoth dramatisations such as Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona.

When Marilyn moved south, I began to work with Hamish, but we maintained contact and still managed to work together from time to time. Like all such long distance friendships, we kept in touch, told each other news of our offspring, always meant to meet up 'soon' - but years passed and even when Marilyn and James moved back to Edinburgh, my visits to that city were few and far between.

I had stopped writing for radio by that time, although until a few years ago, Marilyn would still suggest putting my name to a proposal. None of them ever 'took' and besides, I had other creative fish to fry by then: novels and non fiction books. My radio days were over, but not our friendship.

When I think about Marilyn now - beautiful, kind, enthusiastic and inspirational - it's very hard to imagine that she isn't here. I have a kind of patchwork in my head, composed of vivid fragments of our shared history, but mostly of the hours, days and weeks spent in small, airless studios deep inside the warren of the Edinburgh drama department. I remember the script meetings, the editing 'on the hoof' that all radio writers must learn how to do, the frequent cups of strong coffee, the freshly baked BBC scones that helped to keep us all going.

When we were working on Kidnapped and Catriona, we spent a couple of days reading my scripts aloud in advance, all ten of them, so that we could spot the places where the cast might find themselves dissolving into giggles. Not that she ever minded laughter. We were a happy bunch. But this production involved ten hours of radio, some 600 pages of script, studio time was limited and we needed to be ahead of the game in every way.

We came into the little control cubicle one day, in the middle of this big, stressful production, to find that she had pinned up a quote from Kidnapped - 'Day and night were alike in that ill-smelling cavern of the ship's bowels.'

To appreciate something of her talent and patience, you need to know that radio productions like this, with large casts and complex scripts, aren't necessarily recorded in the order in which they are written. Actors often have other commitments, so will be booked for specific days. It is one vast juggling act. And it is the director/producer, with the help of a production assistant, who makes this impossibly difficult task look easy. The reality was that Marilyn could manage a complicated production like this one with grace, unfailing good humour and the most amazing skill.

By the time we were doing Kidnapped, we had already worked on my first big dramatisation: Scott's Bride of Lammermoor. I have a postcard beside my desk that she sent to me in 1982, purporting to be from the great man himself, congratulating me on the 'remarkably fine retelling of my own favourite tale'. Details. She always took care of the details.

She produced my play O Flower of Scotland that won an award for best original radio play of 1980 - entailing a day trip to London, big celebrations and rather a lot of gin, as far as I remember. She produced another play called Bonnie Blue Hen that won a Scottish Radio Industries Club award. And later, we fulfilled a long held mutual ambition to work together on Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. We both loved the book, but it took us some 20 years to get the BBC to agree to it. So much of the radio success I enjoyed then was down to the talents of both Marilyn and Hamish. So many plays, so much joyful work.

I remember her flair and her positivity. I remember her visiting us in Ayrshire when her elder daughter was little, and inadvertently melting a pair of wellie boots while drying them next to our wood burning stove. I remember staying with her in Edinburgh when I was in the middle of another kind of melt down, some years previously, and her kindness and encouragement on that occasion.

Recently, I found a cassette that my dad recorded for me before he died. He's reading fragments of a play called Noon Ghosts. It was inspired in part by my father's childhood in eastern Poland. Marilyn wanted the cast to hear an authentic Polish voice. Coincidentally, I'm about to start work on a new book about my father's family, and about the grandfather I never knew. I'm listening to Noon Ghosts as I write this, and thinking about that production, and the chocolate covered plums I bought in a Polish deli in Broughton Street, and how we ate them in the studio with more of the tarry BBC coffee that left you jangly for hours afterwards.

A few months ago, when I heard that Marilyn was very unwell, I wrote to her. We were all in lockdown by then. She sent me a short letter of such loving kindness that it made me cry a little, because it seemed, as indeed it turned out to be, a valedictory letter.

I'll treasure it, as I treasure the memory of her.  But perhaps Stevenson's words are enough for now.

... and then we stood a space, and looked over at Edinburgh in silence. 'Well, goodbye,' said Alan, and held out his left hand. 'Goodbye,' said I, and gave the hand a little grasp and went off down the hill. 
Neither one of us looked the other in the face, nor so long as he was in my view did I take one back glance at the friend I was leaving. But as I went on my way to the city, I felt so lost and lonesome, that I could have found it in my heart to sit down by the dyke and cry and weep like any baby. 

World Beating?

Throughout his life, here in the UK, people would occasionally ask my Polish dad about his experience of fascism. His country had been overrun and carved up between Stalin on one side and Hitler on the other. Most of his family and large numbers of his friends had died. He had been in a labour camp before coming to the UK as part of a Polish unit of the British army and stayed as a 'refugee alien'. You can read a bit more about him in my book A Proper Person to be Detained

Throughout his life, he encountered a certain amount of prejudice, including in his career as a research scientist. He was the best qualified biochemist never to be promoted to head of department in the government institute where he worked, better qualified than most of his colleagues, holding a DSc, which is awarded only on career merit, as well as his PhD. Fortunately, his expertise was recognised before he retired when he spent a couple of years based in UNO City in Vienna, travelling the world as visiting expert in his field. My mother was Leeds Irish so she knew a bit about prejudice too. Somebody once asked her if she thought they should 'send all those Poles back where they belong now' - to which she responded that no, she didn't think so, because she had just married one.

My mum was a forthright, occasionally fiery person. Dad was more measured, wise and kindly. Dad had plenty of bitter experience of fascism and totalitarianism. But he would always say that it could happen anywhere and at any time, because nobody and no nation is ever immune.

How right he was. 

Yesterday, a respected political commentator said that there was no point in getting angry over those Brits who were jeering and cheering over the death of a 16 year old Sudanese refugee - such people had already lost more than they would ever realise. He had a point. My dad might even have agreed with him. But all the same, if we do nothing, remain silent, aren't we complicit? My mum - never one to hold her tongue - might have favoured anger. She might well have been right too. 

As Karl Popper says: 'unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed and tolerance with them.' 

Fascism doesn't arrive proclaiming itself in song, like the people in that chillingly beautiful scene from Cabaret.  It creeps in slowly and insidiously, with the willing connivance of the media. It labels other human beings as 'not like us'. Once they are 'not like us', once we have othered them, we can attribute all kinds of vices to them. We can see them as potential threats to our safety. We can easily slide from thinking of them as the 'enemy' to thinking of them as 'not really human at all'. 

The Daily Mail's moderated comments on the death of a sixteen year old included such gems as 'that's our kids safe from one of them' and 'one less we have to keep and pay for' and 'good enough for him' and 'cry me a river'. There were more, many more like that. Since first writing this, I've discovered that there are similar comments on Sky News, on the Metro site and elsewhere. If even half of them are bots or fake accounts, that still leaves plenty who aren't: people who actually typed the words 'cry me a river' about the untimely death of a young man whose entire life had probably been marked by hardship and horror. It's tempting to call these people inhuman but they are all too human. They walk among us. And our so called 'leaders' conspire in fostering the hatred - or at least do nothing to mediate it. 

I don't know what the answer to any of this is. I'm not a politician. But it's on my mind right now, because I'm writing a book about the Polish grandfather I never knew, and his extraordinarily tragic story. 

The truth is that history never repeats itself or at least nothing happens in the same way twice. All the same, if you have ever wondered what you might have done in pre-war Germany, in the years when Hitler was coming to power, you're probably doing it or something very much like it right now. Pretending that all is well. Hoping for the best. You might even have voted for him because you didn't much like the alternative, and he promised to restore prosperity, create civil order and make the country a world power once again. 

Of Blaeberries, Midgies and a Scottish Love Story


At the weekend, a couple of Polish friends living in Scotland posted pictures online of a place that used to be one of my dad's favourite hill-walking destinations: the Loch Cornish walk in the Galloway hills. We went there often when I was younger, and we would especially go there when it was 'blaeberry' time. These are the small, sweet, aromatic berries that grow on our hills, our islands, our moorlands and - as my friends reported - in Poland too, where they feature in many recipes. My dad used to make blueberry pierogi, which were particularly delicious. It is just a little late in the year now to find many of them. It's a short season and the birds and small mammals make short work of them. As far as I remember, we would go in late July or early August. 

Bajka who loved blueberries. 
 This also happens to be the height of the midge season here in Scotland. The Scottish 'midgie' has a deservedly fearsome reputation. I remember one year, when I was in my teens, heading for the hills with my parents. Knowing that we would be harassed by flies and midges, my father packed three old 'net' curtains along with the picnic. Draped in these, we picked pounds of the luscious berries. The dog had learned to pick them too, seeking them out and nipping them off with her small front teeth, although since she always ate them herself, she didn't contribute much to the hoard. I remember her finding a good patch and browsing contentedly while we picked. A few other hillwalkers passed us by and - seeing three people draped in white, crouching down and engaged in what must have looked like some primitive Druidic dance - gave us a very wide berth. 

Anyway, our blueberry/blaeberry/bilberry conversation reminded me that I had always wondered why the blueberries I buy in the shops never taste remotely like the blueberries we used to pick on the hills. They are big balls of sweet nothingness, whereas the genuine blueberry has a strong aromatic flavour. My Polish friends (who know all about these things) pointed out that the balls of sweet nothing are known as 'American Blueberries' in Poland. They are vaccinium corymbosum, (the Highbush Blueberry) whereas the luscious European berries are vaccinium myrtillus, the European bilberry, blueberry or - in Scotland - the blaeberry. Corymbosum look good. Myrtillus taste good.

Which makes me wonder why some enterprising fruit farmer over here hasn't turned over some of his or her land to growing genuine native blueberries on a commercial scale. I'd buy them.

Finally - all of this reminded me of a rather sexy passage in my novel The Curiosity Cabinet in which Henrietta, exiled to the small Hebridean island of Garve, for reasons that only emerge at the end of the novel, is gathering blaeberries, and almost trips over her reluctant captor, Manus McNeill, 'lying full length on a bed of heather, staring at the sky, his arms pillowing his head.' For the first time they hold a genuine conversation about her background, and she finds herself touched by his anger on her behalf, without understanding just what lies behind it. For the first time too, they acknowledge a mutual attraction. And if you want to know more you'll have to read the book! 

It was one of my first published novels. I've gone on to use the same island setting in a couple more novels, but I find that I have a genuine lingering fondness for the people in this one - especially Henrietta and Manus who are not really a conventional hero and heroine. Looking at the many nice reviews, a number of other people think so too. 

The Deserving and the Undeserving Arts

Victorian workmen

My deserving great grandad, next to the man with the tar barrel.

Back in Victorian Britain, if you were in desperate straits, you had to prove that you were one of the 'deserving' as opposed to the 'undeserving' poor. Heaven help you if you didn't tick the right boxes in terms of general worthiness and conformity with the values of the time, because your bum would be right out of the window and you'd be heading for the streets or more likely the workhouse because 'sleeping out' was illegal too. 

When I was writing A Proper Person to be Detained, it struck me that there are now some correspondences between the deserving and the undeserving poor (at least some of my forebears would probably have been labelled undeserving) and the current state of the arts in this country, where professional creative people who find themselves down on their uppers can expect to get funding only if they are classed as 'deserving'. You have to tick all the right boxes in terms of the dreaded 'outcomes'. There have to be 'outcomes' and if these can be described by buzz words like 'community' and 'well-being' and 'inclusivity' and 'diversity', so much the better. We all have to do good, and prove that we're doing it. 

I can hear the outraged counter-arguments even as I write this. 'Why do you think you should get any funding at all?' But this isn't a post about me. I've done pretty well out of funding support and I expect to carry on working hard at what I do for as long as I physically can. Also it should go without saying that those charged with distributing public funds should certainly make sure that those same funds aren't going to be frittered away on - say - a new kitchen or a holiday. If public money is being distributed, the public should surely get some benefit out of the results. (Wish our politicians would play by those rules though, don't you?) And yes, diversity and inclusivity are well worth supporting. All of this is true.

But not all worthwhile arts projects have obvious or measurable 'outcomes'. And therein lies one of the problems.

I once tutored a writing group in an area of social deprivation in a small Scottish town. It was a pleasure from start to finish. We were inclusive and diverse and I think we fostered a whole lot of well-being. But at some point in its long history, we were told we needed an 'outcome' in order for me to get the vanishingly small sum of money I'd been paid for doing it. And by 'outcome' they meant something that could be weighed and measured. 'People enjoy it,' didn't come into the equation. 'It's good for people's mental health' might have swung it, but how on earth do you measure that? We soldiered on, producing end of year anthologies for a while, but in a mixed group of writers of all ages and stages and literary forms, it was a thankless task. I eventually did it for nothing so that we could jettison the official demands but the wonderful group voluntarily decided to pay a little each week and gave me some cash so that I was never out of pocket with the travelling. 

Over the years, when it comes to the arts, and the need for some kind of funding, I have come to believe that the bodies charged with distributing the cash should, in a good proportion of cases, focus less on 'outcomes' and more on the nebulous set of criteria that go to make up the kind of professional art or writing or music that can seldom if ever be defined in terms of stodgy dodgy box ticking. 

Wonderful writing, as with every other art, comes straight out of nowhere and practically hits you between the eyes with its quality. It doesn't have to be opaque or difficult or snobbish. It can be as popular as you like, but you know it when you experience it and it can be life changing. And it's often art or music or writing that nobody would have predicted beforehand would prove to be so absorbing for so many people. Or as William Goldman says, 'nobody knows anything.' 

Take Craig Mazin's extraordinary Chernobyl. Who could ever have predicted its success beforehand? 
Chernobyl? Who would be interested in that? (Well, I would, but that's another story!) Besides, they would have said, Mazin writes comedy. And I doubt very much if it would have ticked any boxes at all about community involvement or well-being. Definitely not well-being. It might have slid under the funding wire with 'environment' of course. But that would have told you very little about the quality of the writing, the acting, the production, everything about it. 

I don't pretend to know what the answer to this conundrum is, but I know it isn't what we've got right now. The power of professional arts to entertain and inform and enlighten and move and  - yes - to include is too often hedged around with constraints that seem to reduce those arts to very much less than they could be. Practitioners spend too much time jamming their fascinatingly diverse and imaginative projects into a set of uncomfortable one-size-fits-all holes. 

Why are we surprised when what often emerges is deserving but irredeemably 'square'.