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One day I came home from school and found, propped on the mantelpiece, a copy of a Secret Seven story by Enid Blyton. My mother had bought it for me. From the ages of eight to ten or eleven I read Enid Blyton. Nothing else. I hated (and still hate) Alice in Wonderland. Paddington Bear was just silly.
It is inexplicable to me why I should be a poet. Why me, and not the girl next door? Why not my classmates, whose lives were so similar to my own? Why are poets still born at all? There must be some reason, that poets still occur.
I began writing poetry as a teenager, and found my way into Edinburgh where there was a writers’ group, and there met writers just half a generation older than me. Brian McCabe, Andrew Greig, Ron Butlin, all in their mid 20’s. They were impossibly sophisticated, had been to university! And they were living bohemian, writers’ lives.
As a teenager I cleaved to writing because it offered an alternative to the meagre lives held out to us. The world seemed wide and glorious, beautiful, challenging...to be alive in it for the brief span of our years was then (and still is) astonishing and wonderful. And yet, we were expected to spend our lives in offices, or working in shops, or changing nappies...intolerable. At school, university wasn’t mentioned to me as an option, I wasn’t a star pupil. But I knew there had to be another way of living a human life, and being a writer seemed to offer an alternative.
I think that to become the writer I am now took a lot of overcoming and ground-clearing. More, possibly, than it would for a man, there being so few female role-models, though men from unliterary backgrounds make a similar journey. I had to show my parents that I would be okay, even though I wouldn’t be a secretary, a librarian, a radiographer, all the sound decent jobs they suggested to me. It must have been difficult for them to understand, especially when I was confused and penniless.
I had to work through the expectation to write ‘as a woman’ or ‘as a Scot’. Those issues were fashionable then, and our gender, background, identity all need negotiating with, but they’re not the be-all and end-all.
Writing was necessary to me, and I published young, but for years I felt almost ashamed to be making a spectacle of myself. Ashamed that I had a talent or speciality which others didn’t. A very Scottish cringe! I was well into my thirties, had already published two or three books when a new friend (poet Don Paterson, now my editor) took me by the shoulders and shook me. He said ‘ talent is a responsibility, not an unearned privilege.’ He meant I had a duty to develop it, push it. Before that I’d felt a bit like a charity case, humiliated by the special pleading required.
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