The Magicians of Edinburgh by Ron Butlin
Ron Butlin has come a long way from the relative obscurity that dogged his career as a novelist and poet in the 1980s and 1990s. After the rediscovery of his coruscating 1987 novel about alcoholism, ‘The Sound of My Voice’, Butlin has achieved something like elderstatesman status in Scottish letters. In 2008, he was appointed as Edinburgh’s ‘Makar’, the poet laureate of the city, and this new volume comes out of his experience in the role. Butlin deftly avoids the first trap for anyone writing about Edinburgh; that tired and boring trope about the city’s supposed ‘duality’, it’s Jekyll and Hyde/Deacon Brodie/ Old Town-New Town character. A seam that has been mined of all profitable ore, it’s cleverly sidestepped by a focus instead on three thematic aspects that reveal as much about Butlin’s interests as a writer as about the city’s real character.
Split into ‘Magic’, ‘Music’ and ‘Virtual’Edinburgh, the book moves confidently from humorous, absurdist poems such as ‘Oor Tram’s Plea tae the Cooncillors o Edinburgh’, which, from the trams’ perspective, vocalises the central failure of the city government in recent years, to unflinching depictions of the continuing scourge of homelessness like ‘eh1 2ab’ and ‘Edinburgh is a Thousand Islands.’ The title poem is unashamedly celebratory, cataloguing a change from the depression of the 1970s to the more vibrant present day that is so profound it seems almost magical. In the ‘Virtual’ section, Butlin concentrates on the illusory world of finance, connecting and contrasting it with the equally insubstantial ghosts of the Napoleonic Wars as they complete the unfinished memorial on Calton Hill, and the scepticism of Scotland’s greatest philosopher, David Hume.
The ‘Music’ section is probably the most successful part of the book. In the sequence‘Three Composers Respond to the Politics of Perpetual War’, which grew out of texts Butlin provided for the composer Edward Harper, he imagines the response of other major composers such as Schoenberg, Cage, and Stockhausen, to a situation where ‘New York and Kabul are suburbs of the same world.’ As well as being something almost material, music here is evocative of the distant past and the uncertain future, and a consolatory means of bridging the two. There is a danger for artists appointed to any official position, in that the demands of their patrons can override the demands of their art. With a foreword by the Lord Provost, Butlin could have felt constrained in his criticism, and it’s to his credit that he gives equal stress to the problems of the city as to its successes. In ‘Dancing in Princess Street’ for example, he uses Edinburgh’s main shopping street to dramatise the contentious ground at the heart of the city and the ongoing struggle between the municipality and the people, and in ‘Homecoming’ the disparity between tourists’ perceptions and locals’ in the 2009 Year of Homecoming is quite bitter. Politically though, the book takes the line of least resistance, assuming a straightforward, sentimental nationalism that seems slightly at odds with the inclusiveness implied by the title of ‘Makar’, or laureate. Butlin deftly weaves the sense of co-existing historical spheres into his poems, the sense of a city in which all times are happening simultaneously, but occasionally his observations have little meat on them and come across as no more than a catalogue of chance detail. Compare Butlin’s sense of history with a poet like Mick Imlah’s, and you will see where the breadth of his vision thins out.
On the whole though this is a successful collection. Playful, plain, unafraid of sentiment or of honesty, for the most part it works as a record of a poet’s changing ideas about his home city, as that city goes through significant changes of its own.
The Magicians of Edinburgh
Polygon, rrp £9•99, 112pp