Introducing the March 2010 Readers – 3. Alan Riach

ALAN RIACH is the Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University and currently the President of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies. He is the general editor of the Collected Works of Hugh MacDiarmid (Carcanet), the author of Representing Scotland in Literature, Popular Culture and Iconography (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and co-author with Alexander Moffat of Arts of Resistance: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland, described by the Times Literary Supplement as ‘a landmark book’. His fifth book of poems, Homecoming (2009), follows Clearances (2001), First & Last Songs (1995), An Open Return (1991) and This Folding Map (1990). His radio series The Good of the Arts was first broadcast in New Zealand 2001 and repeated a number of times on Radio NZ Concert FM. Born in Scotland, in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, in 1957, he went to school in Kent and completed his first degree in English Literature at Cambridge University and his Ph.D. in Scottish Literature at Glasgow University, before working at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, 1986-2000. Since 1 January 2001, he has been living in Scotland.

Two Poems from the Ice

Christmas Night

When the gods decide to hit you, I’m telling you, it’s Greek. No warning, then:
Your life is not what it was, so you’re dealing with damage and into repair,
If you’re lucky. But it isn’t the Good Samaritan, who passed in the deserted street
In a car, saw the scene, took pity and stepped over, hoisted you and drove you home
That hundred yards; you’re thankful, yes, and miracles like that are goodness, true.
But it isn’t that that stays so much in the mind. What terrifies you, even now,
Is this long-lasting memory, of sitting on the ice, on the pavement, incapable
Of putting any weight on that leg, or getting any purchase with the other,
To stand; so, sitting there, the ice melting into your clothes,
As your young son stands and watches in equally helpless increasing distress,
And despair comes in like a wave from a height you hadn’t suspected.
Conscious in shock as intensely aware of the mercilessness we walk in,
All of us, around us, every day, in the world. The weather reminds us
What nature is exactly, and that it, nothing else, is in charge.


It’s not that you would ever recommend it,
Or ever think of doing it yourself, but
When you’re stuck in the house with your leg in plaster,
Your arms in crutches and hopping around, it helps
To re-read Treasure Island, and get to Chapter XIV. You remember it?
Long John Silver’s plot has come adrift, and the sailor Tom
Is asking him to give it up, come back in and do his rightful duty.
Tom gets nowhere, turns around, and starts to walk away…
(And young Jim Hawkins, looking from the bushes
Sees it all in wonder through the leaves, as fear and understanding grow.)
Long John holds a tree branch with one hand, lifts his wooden crutch up
With the other one, and with almighty strength, he throws it like a spear
To strike poor Tom with terrifying accuracy, square in the middle of his spine.
And finishes him off with a big sharp knife.
It’s nice to have the dream of such empowerment.
That’s what stories help with, at such times.
Thank heaven for fiction and pieces of eight.

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