The desk at which W.S. Graham wrote his poems has found a home in Edinburgh’s Poetry Library. His chair too, though the seat has been put away somewhere, “for the time being,”the man told me. More suitably described, I think, as a table, it looks like something from a farmyard kitchen as opposed to a study. It’s built for work, not idle distraction; composing, not posing. Age has made it all the more appealing. Wood and leather and musical instruments – they all improve with age, so long as they are used and some basic maintenance afforded them. The table is marked with cup rings strung out like planets, in various shapes and positions; there are a couple of larger half moon crescents burnt in, as though someone has set a hot copper pot down (stew? porridge?). It swirls with cigarette singes, black, deep and round with charred tails, like a muddle of tadpoles. A couple of cracks are beginning to deepen at joins in the planks. There are one hundred years of nicks and slices on the wooden skin, long scores that might be from a Stanley knife or a paper guillotine. Underneath it all are the base tattoos: knots from the unsealed wood, where the grain kinks and bulges like a stream furrowing a new path around a boulder. On the edge of the table, the long side on which I like to sit (for it is rectangular), is a small brass plaque with a three word engraving that reads: ‘UNTIDY DREADFUL TABLE’ and underneath it, ‘W.S. Graham 1918 – 1986’.
Born in Greenock in November 1918 this is Graham’s centenary year and is also the year in which his daughter donated his desk and chair to the Scottish Poetry Library. I would love to have seen it in its untidy state. I try hard to imagine. Typewriter, pens, ink, pencil, sharpener, paper, newspapers, journals, books, half drunk mugs of tea, a whiskey bottle, ashtray, half packet of Chesterfields, housekeys, scissors, reading glasses, letters not responded to, postcards and photographs, conkers and acorns his daughter brought home from a walk, a browning apple with a bite out of it (too bitter), the dog’s lead. Is that how it would have been? If so, I suspect the ‘dreadful’ label might have been bestowed by someone in the house who had to live with it, rather than work on it.
The untidy, dreadful thing has been temporarily moved aside for the duration of the Edinburgh Festivals. I am assured this is a short-term move and it will be lifted a couple of metres back across the room and soon I can return to working, reading, day dreaming there. For the next while, the space is needed for poetry readings, meetings, discussions — in short, the sort of thing that would never have happened in a library when I was young: noise.
I love sitting at his table, and (isn’t it the least I can do?) I have read many of his poems while seated there. There’s one where he is struggling to fall asleep, and, whispering into his wife’s neck, he uses the word ‘wheesht’* to calm himself down. It’s a word I grew up with. More letters and sounds than the command to ‘shh’; it’s emphatic, yet a soothing and gentle order to be silent. It’s a word my Nana often used when we went to the library. She would be in the adult fiction section searching under ‘H’ for a Georgette Heyer she’d not yet read. We’d be jabbering. From the other side of the stacks would come Nana’s threatening stagae whisper, “E., M., wheesht!” These were the days when libraries were temples of silence. We had two librarians back then; both women. F.: kind, gentle, very beautiful, soft on enforcing fines for late returns, and slow to request a hush. And M., who looked the part: specs, needlecord Laura Ashley drop-waisted dresses, efficient in collecting 15p when a book was overdue, and quick to screw the lid on our jabbering. Good cop, bad cop, I suppose. And, by and large, we kept quiet, just like nana bade us, with her favourite words, “Children,hold your wheesht.”
Excerpt from: ‘To My Wife At Midnight’ by W.S. Graham
Are you asleep I say
Into the back of your neck
For you not to hear me.
Are you asleep? I hear
Your heart under the pillow
Saying my dear my dear
Nessie Dunsmuir, I say
Wheesht wheesht to myself
To help me now to go
* ‘Wheesht’– Today I’m using W.S. Graham’s spelling of the word. Back in Ireland I might be more apt to write it as ‘whisht’.