Can you remember your first connection with literature?
I was a very early reader. Effectively I taught myself to read. I only had two or three books at home – I particularly remember Noddy and Big Ears! Luckily my mother knew I needed more challenges, and when I was four she took me took me to the library to get a library card. But the librarian insisted I had to be five and at school. The librarian clearly didn’t believe my mum when she said I could read. So my mum picked up a book and passed it to me, I read out loud from it perfectly, and that was it. I had my first library card. By the time I was eight or nine I was reading four or five books a week.
Where are you from originally?
A small ex-mining and weaving town called Kilsyth. Mid-way between Glasgow and Stirling. My background is working class. My father’s parents were from Northern Ireland, and my grandfather came over for work in the Scottish pits. My father was a slater and plasterer. Growing up, it never ever occurred to me that someone like me could be a writer or a poet.
We did do Burns poetry at primary school, we would learn and recite it. I loved the sound of the language and finding out meanings of words I didn’t know. At secondary school we studied poetry, but never were encouraged to write. I was good at English literature, I took to French very naturally and at the age of twenty I became a French and German language teacher. The orientation was always, you go out to work and you get a pay packet. Never that you could be creative.
Were you encouraged at all to write or pursue writing at school or at home?
The big thing for girls at the time I was growing up was to get a job at the Lovable Bra Factory in Cumbernauld. Even though I was considered a bright pupil and was put into a top stream at secondary school, I never aspired to going to University – I had absolutely no understanding of what that meant. No-one in my family knew anything about university. And my school – which was struggling at the time with staff shortages and an alcoholic head waiting for retirement – didn’t prepare us at all.
Despite that, I did end up at Glasgow University, purely because my exam results were good and it was the obvious next step. I studied French and German and planned to teach – something I was familiar with. At that time my horizons and those of everyone around me, were very, very narrow. It is one of the things I try to instil in people I work with in Adult Education that we need to widen our horizons – but if you don’t know what the possibilities are, if you’ve no guidance, no role models, how can you? I feel I had to work all that out by myself.
When does that approach you grew up with shift?
It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties, it slowly dawned on me that I was allowed to be creative. By that stage I had two young children and I had stopped working as a teacher. I had also lived in Paris for a year, and taught in more than one high school in Scotland, so my ideas of what might be possible had slowly shifted. I saw a course at the WEA (Workers Education Association) which was titled “Women and Writing” and for some reason I thought that meant it was a group where we’d read and discuss women’s writing, a bit like a women’s book group. And we did read women’s writing, but we were also expected to write ourselves.
The shock to my system was that I really wanted to do it, but still doubted my own abilities. My husband was very encouraging. One evening he said he’d sort the kids out for bed, and I locked myself in the dining room with some paper, a pen and a gin and tonic. I meant to write a story, but out came a poem, “Tupperware Torture”, quickly followed by another, “My Father’s Dungarees”. Two in one night! I soon discovered there was a lot of writing and creativity in me – like turning a tap on, it all flooded out. Even though I still had that idea that I was a working class woman and there was a certain station that I was not supposed to rise above. Being Scottish didn’t help – we’re a dreadful nation for thinking, “Who does she think she is?” about anyone who gets above themselves.
they found me in the corner
way at the back
of my mother’s wardrobe
at first they thought I was a button
broken loose from a frayed thread
or a mothball, happy in the dark
then as I grew, they thought I was
a shoe without a partner, but
they were busy folk – it was easier
to poke me back beside the fallen
jumpers and the missing socks
as for me, I was quite content
tucked up in the folds of mother’s frocks
from time to time she’d drag me out
wear me, dangled prettily
on the end of her arm – the ultimate accessory
a quiet daughter
How do you go on to write and publish?
It all happened very much by chance. I had gone to the women’s group both because it had a superb crèche and I had a 3 and a 4 year old, and I was craving intellectual discussion.Then it turned out that the group had funding for us to publish a small book of the work we’d produced. Those two poems I wrote that first night, along with some others, were published in it. And “Tupperware Torture” was also published by the Scotsman, a major paper in Scotland.
I was also asked to read a couple of my poems at an event to celebrate the contribution of the wives of the striking miners – the Stirling miners – during the Miner’s Strike; this was around 1985. One of the poems I read at that event, which had a bout two hundred people at it, was “My Father’s Dungarees”, a poem about my father’s work clothes, which hung on the back of the door at my house. The poem reveals a suppressed memory of how a girl at school was told not to play with me because my father came home dirty, unlike hers. That poem went down a storm; in fact they asked to put that poem up behind the bar for everyone to see. There was no stopping me after that.
See more of Magi Gibson’s work at the link below
Part two of this interview is here