An evening with Charlie Gracie
We had a lovely evening last night, back in the Glenmhor Hotel’s Hanover Room where a log fire burned enthusiastically. The HighlandLIT AGM was followed by the main event, at which we welcomed writer and poet Charlie Gracie who lives near Stirling on the edge of the Trossachs.
Charlie, a former social worker, is a lovely guy with a warm, friendly personality. In the first half he read from his first novel To live with what you are, which visits the lives of the two main characters, Maura and James at three stages in their lives: as children, in their early 20s, and twenty years later as they bring up their daughter Sarah. The book Charlie told us, shows the couple trying to square a creative lifestyle (Maura is a gifted sculptor) with living as random serial killers. From what we heard last night, the book is astute and beautifully written, a novel which cries out to be read.
As a fellow-child of Lanarkshire, I loved Charlie’s descriptions in the novel of James growing up in Ballieston on the edge of Glasgow – some autobiographical material has crept into James’s experiences of living ‘on the edge.’ I too remember Bailleston in the 1970s, and the great wound in the landscape as A8 was transformed into M8 and the land cleared for the Ballieston interchange.
Though he grew up in Lanarkshire, Charlie also had Irish roots, and we learned of the importance to him of his Irish background as he read from his second poetry collection Tales from the Dartry Mountains. Half of the poems in this collection focus on the Dartry Mountain area in County Leitrim. We heard poems in which Charlie revelled in the Irish landscape, poems about the Troubles and, earlier, the Irish Civil War, and domestic poems too – I loved the one describing the Gracie clan ‘Going back to Saint Bridget’s Terrace’ (his grandmother’s house.) He remembers her vividly, ‘bow-legged on the doorstep / her tight mouth waiting to welcome me.’
He was asked what poets had influenced him: he mentioned Yeats, and Gerard Manley Hopkins whose verbal pyrotechnics stunned him and ‘who gave me permission to make up words.’ He mentioned Robert Burns, reading a poem describing himself sitting at the poet’s desk in Burns’s house in Dumfries, his hands warming its wooden surface which once knew the poet’s touch.
The poem segues into a childhood recollection of hearing ‘Tam O’Shanter’ read, and later fleeing to the safety of the bed away from ghostly hands reaching out in the darkness.
Among contemporary influences Charlie mentioned Iain S. Macpherson, Chrys Salt, and Maggie Gibson whom he praised for her ability to describe reality while drawing metaphorical significance from it.
Charlie also kindly invited and answered questions about his work and his writing practice. I was impressed by the technical skill he brings to bear on his work – pruning, editing, carefully weighing words to achieve the effected he is aiming for. He works words as a sculptor shapes wood. He spoke about turning everyday experience into poetry: ‘I use experience,’ he said, ‘but I contain it, distil it, and make it universal.’
But there is more than just skill in his work. He described how, when he was writing To Live with what you are there were days when he immersed himself in the character of Maura Weightman. In the course of this immersion he was working at the keyboard on the novel one day when it seemed as though Maura was standing behind him, just at his shoulder, saying ‘I would never do that!’ He smiled wrily, and deleted what he had just written. His subconscious knew Maura better than the higher levels of consciousness engaged in wielding words and shaping plotline.
Among the poems we heard last night which I found most memorable are three about people with dementia. In one, the poet describes taking his father, who had the condition, for a poignant walk beside the River Clyde; in another an elderly man with dementia stumbles across Hyde Bridge in Sligo, followed by someone whose face was a duplicate, only decades younger, an anxious face and troubled; in the third a woman reflects sadly on her husband’s decline into dementia – so strong their passion had been that were sure it would endure lifetime-long. ‘I would never have hoped to meet the end of love,’ she says poignantly.
And the other poem which touched me was very simple – the poet is walking at the bottom of Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow when he sees a woman standing still, looking up at the blue, blue sky above the city. He too stops , looks up and is stilled. Then the woman and he exchange a ‘hi’ and he walks on. So simple, so profound. A reminder to stop, to look up, to take time to play. An example of Charlie’s skill at taking an experience, containing it, distilling it, universalising it.’
Charlie is working on several pieces of writing which we hope will see the light of day in due course. He read us some ‘headings’ from one work in progress centring on childhood memories, and of course Ireland. He finished with one anecdote showing how his Roman Catholic father could separate strong political feelings on the one hand with his attentiveness to individuals on the other.
He and his dad were on the boat to Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, not long after Bloody Sunday in 1972. His dad often raged at the injustices visited on the Catholic community.
The boy went to the Gents to take a pee. He found himself side-be-side at the urinal with a burly British soldier in uniform. When Charlie went to wash his hands he saw there was a weapon lying on the worktop. His eyes widened. And then the voice boomed out beside him
‘Would you like to hold it?’
Slowly, he nodded his head.
The squaddy picked the gun up and placed it in his arms. Young Charlie felt the sheer, unexpected heaviness of it.
And then the toilet door swung open, and his father strode in. Charlie gasped. Now there would be trouble.
But his dad talked affably to the soldier, asked him about his life, about how things were. At that personal level, Charlie’s dad showed no enmity and that example was one Charlie never forgot.
A great evening then – our warm thanks to Charlie Gracie for sharing himself and his work so freely with us.