The Internationalism of Angus Calder
I had walked from Tollcross towards Princes Street. For once the sun was not sulking. The world seemed to have gathered in Edinburgh, a rainbow crowd ready to plunge itself into whatever the Fringe had to offer. It was August and the Festival was palpable. As I stood on the kerb at the Caledonian Hotel, I saw someone teetering on the edge of the opposite pavement. I knew that familiar tweed jacket and dark green corduroy trousers. I zigzagged my way through the gap in the traffic and walked towards him. One hand gesticulated to me urgently while the other remained firmly in his pocket. “This is outrageous! They are threatening to execute Ken Saro-Wiwa! They can’t do that!
Angus’s eyes were screwed up in utter indignation and his nicotine-stained fingers held a forgotten burnt out cigarette. I looked up and saw the banner on St John’s Church’ with Ken Saro-Wiwa’s name written boldly on it, defying the casual visitor and the easy banter of a careless populace that skirted our little island of Angus-driven anxiety. This was Autumn 1995. Four months later, Angus’ canvassing and pleas, to which many of his friends gave voice, could not stop the military regime from executing Ken Saro-Wiwa with fellow prisoners of conscience in Nigeria. Angus was disconsolate.
His teaching career had taken him to countries in Africa, and for him, his journey into this vast continent was not one into the heart of darkness, but one that resonated with his Scottish Enlightenment ideas, identifying with that igniting spark in people like his poet friend Jack Mapange, who could participate in an international dialogue facilitated by freedom of expression and educational opportunities and choices. I have seen Angus been drawn like a magnet to the only black woman/man in a white gathering, as if answering some inexplicable call from his inner depths to reach out and participate in that ‘third space’ that Homi Bhabha advocates. So when the G8 were meeting at Gleneagles in 2005, and Scottish PEN decided, since the focus was on clearing African debts, to have a seminar with voices from Europe’s neighbouring continent to speak of writing by writers from/in Africa, the obvious choice for the chair was Angus Calder. And he was at the heart of a historic dialogic session, filtering the discussion with his amazing mental agility, aided by his insider-outsider knowledge of the postcolonial writer.
I have seen him crying silently when working on his book on the forgotten Eastern Front in Second World War. The sheer waste of human life appalled him. The freshness of wounds left him drained. We need more Anguses today. Writers and historians who will not turn round and say ‘who cares!’
His ill health interrupted but did not stop his books from spilling out and surprising his readers. Whenever he had a new poetry collection, he insisted on not reading alone. He had fellow poets sharing his platform, not willing to be the pole star. And whatever his state, he never failed to turn up at friends’ book launches. He was like the indomitable Banquo’s ghost, loyal and present when wished for, but not quite finished.
He was not just a writer but a friend of writers. I remember, on one occasion, when the Scottish Poetry Library was crammed with an impossible crowd as there were three book launches happening in one evening. Angus arrived too late to find a seat. He chose the floor with ease and then blissfully spread out his legs and fell asleep and the readings were punctuated by his snores. Mine was the last event. He was up, as if a soft alarm had whispered him awake. He sat up, listened and his clapping was the loudest. It was both embarrassing and moving. But we were grateful for his presence.
If the phone rang in the wee hours and the call was not from India, I knew it was Angus, wide awake, oblivious of the time. He had a poem to read that he had just written. Some of his Horace in Tollcross Odes were read to me in sleep-ridden, underwater consciousness, I realised they were brilliant.
He did have some strange tastes. His favourite sandwich was a combination of bacon, pickle, lettuce, chutney, mustard and something else that I have now forgotten. But I forgave Angus for this since he was an unfaltering admirer of my Bengali cooking. However, there were many times when we watched helplessly as his animated conversation filled the room while the good food remained untouched. He was too ill to eat.
I think his food taste was just another facet of his internationalism, which was best reflected in his love of that colonial great game that the decolonised world has unabashedly appropriated – cricket! Books, music, curling, bowling, could wait in the wings while test matches were played out across the world, as Angus sat centre stage in his living room, moaning or exulting as his favourite batsmen missed/made a century or a dependable bowler failed to topple/toppled a star out of the match! This was another topic (and there were many with Angus) on which we spoke the same language as we both loved the ‘little man of India’ – Sunil Gavaskar – and cheered at every new score from Tendulkar. Angus did not have to work hard at being politically correct. It was his second language learnt through an innate liberalism.
The Angus I knew was a staunch Labour supporter. It came as a surprise when he told us he had turnd his loyalties to the SNP. At that time, I did not take the SNP seriously at all – a group of inconsequential dreamers with no solid offers for Scotland. When Angus said he was backing this party, I began to rethink. Like many a visionary, he was right once again. I saw the incredible happen as the SNP took power on the slimmest possible win. And as every day passes, they talk more and more in a language I understand. Sometimes I wonder: does Angus write some of their speeches? Well, now his hovering spirit will have to dictate the political wisdom he was so noted for, for all of us. I am sure he is celebrating Barack Obama’s victory, wherever he is now.