Oam: Poems fae Govanhill Baths by Harry Giles
-Reviewed by Richie McCaffery–
The first sentence in the ‘Note’ to this pamphlet got me thinking about all the linguistic purism and essentialism which surrounded poetry written in Scots, or Doric, or Lallans during the various waves of the 20th century Scottish Literary Renaissance. I could imagine there might have been a drawn-out stramash in letters to the editor of the Scotsman purely based on Giles’ use of ‘wrote’ instead of ‘scrieve’ or ‘scrievit’, as ‘wrote’ surely introduces a more Anglicised air to the writing. But then I told myself off for falling again into this old trap, and instead embraced Giles’ Scots as a form of idiolect, similar to that of Sydney Goodsir Smith’s, or in Giles’ own words ‘a poetic (n syncretic) Scots’. Although locality is central to this work, I feel the Scots used here works as a vernacular sound-system and there is a lyrical, sing-song and occasionally anthemic quality to these poems. These old baths are haunted by spectral echoes of the generations of stressed workers who came in to quite literally let off ‘oam’ (steam):
throu twinty-three years o mairiage
throu fowerty-five years of strauchle
throu ninety-nine years of sweemers
til ye’ve naethin but soond
n the puil is naethin but soond
than let hit awa
n thief back a braith
(‘Somethin tae dae in an empie puil’)
Giles, then, is stealing back snippets of speech from the polyphony of voices that have been through the Govanhill baths over nearly a century. Similarly in ‘Blue ghaists’ the mists of oam mingle with these ghosts of Govanhill past and other poems such as ‘Nicht shift at the slipper baths’ elaborate the ritual of trying to let go and relax after work while still being in a prim and proper age:
That wumman wi the purse / sheu scowls
n wheeshts ye like ye’re in kirk bare-airsed /
ye turn yet pusses up n yowl /
n the sun stairts poorin throu the gless.
(‘Nicht shift at the slipper baths’)
Giles is to be praised for the variety of his approach to these baths and writing about them, from a series of haikus, to a concrete poem which depicts in words the layout of the baths when full of people is worthy of Edwin Morgan and impossible to reproduce in this review, all the more reason to get a copy of this pamphlet. Among the haikus, I particularly liked these three for their fusion of the man-made and the organic:
pent pirls awa
i the heat / rannoch sclims
flowes the ruif / fog unmortaring
wir hie reid waw
airn wreath, gowd pent /
forhoued wab catches time
fae the doun-heid-clock
One of the major points, or intentions, behind these poems, seemed to be to place great cultural value on the baths in offering glimpses of social history and verbal archaeology. I was particularly convinced by the idealist and egalitarian note struck in ‘In yer haunds thare are nae died things’ with its lines talking about the traditional ivory tower of the artist:
o a faur-kent sculptor wha can spy
the aungel in a block o stane,
n than o raggit fowk wha biggit
ceeties or raggit schuills amang
the shivers on his warkshap fluir.
The antidote to this way of thinking, for the speaker, lies in the baths and their ability to bring many walks of life together. That said, I was less sold on the East Coker-ish note the poem ends on: ‘the doors are appen, n in the auld / is new is auld is auld is new.’ In other poems Giles seems to be re-writing harmful stereotypes, or redefining the old in the new. For instance the Clydeside iron-girder hard-nut is presented as someone who has the power to do positive things in the community, in ‘The hairdest man in Govanhill’:
The hairdest man in Govanhill can gar Cooncillors tae tell
juist by turnin his een in their airt
fae up tae eleiven miles awa.
In ‘Lifegaird’ a kelpie, a figure of Celtic myth, is recast as a lifeguard at the baths and in simple touches the reader gets the impression that the poet is centring much of Scotland’s past and imagination on the baths as some form of meeting place or conduit. That said, the pamphlet is not just a piece of affectionate social history or celebration, it ends on a note of protest, where the enemy of the baths is the council that closed them down. In his flyting poem ‘Tae a cooncillor’ Giles is attempting to channel Robert Burns the radical (not least since the poem is written in Burns’ beloved ‘standard Habbie’) and the long tradition of literary protest in Scotland from Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s ‘Song for the Foxes’ through John McGrath’s ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ to Robert Garioch’s ‘wee man’ stance taking on the ‘high heid-yins’ of councils, companies and corporations in a poem such as ‘Glisk of the Great’. In Giles’ vision, the baths have the power to cleanse and purify a guilty conscience and the manner of verbally dunking the ‘cooncillor’ in scorn, and the fact that Giles is now poet in residence at the newly re-opened baths is testament to the power of the public:
Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart,
whit unco warld maks ye wir maister?
Whit glamour has ye risin fest as
Hit’s time tae gie yer feechie fouster
an honest soak.
Nou, Cooncillor, resign yer post
n get tae sweemin.
Note: There are English glosses to these poems available on Harry Giles’ website