Happy 80th birthday, Eddie Linden, poet, pacifist and Catholic atheist
John Cooney, who is writing a biography of the Scots-Irish poet and editor of Aquarius, profiles this complex and charismatic character – communist, Catholic and homosexual
Eddie Linden’s complex character is encapsulated by Gerald Mangan in a drawing of him arriving at the gate of heaven, accompanied by St Peter, who pleads with a bearded, grumpy God the Father seated on his celestial throne. “He says he’s a manic-depressive alcoholic lapsed-Catholic Irish working-class pacifist-communist bastard from Glasgow. And would you like to subscribe to a poetry magazine?” Photograph: Eamonn McCabe
May 13th will see an eclectic gathering of thinkers and literati assemble in London’s Mayfair to pay homage to the Scottish-born poet and retired poetry editor, Eddie Linden, on his 80th birthday. When all the speeches and toasts have been made by distinguished guests from all nationalities and strata of society, the highlight of the evening will be a recital by Eddie of his most celebrated poem, City of Razors, with its chilling snapshot of violence on a Saturday night as witnessed by frightened women in the tenements of the Gorbals district of a Glasgow riven by sectarian antagonism between Catholics and Protestants; a city where, as Catholics come from the evening confessional, Protestants become bellicose in cobbled streets littered with broken milk-bottles:
A woman roars from an upper window
‘They’re at it again, Maggie!
Five stiches in our Tommy’s face, Lizzie!
Eddie’s in the Royal wi’ a sword in his stomach
and the razor’s floating in the River Clyde.’
Born on May 5th, 1935 in Motherwell, Scotland, out of wedlock of Northern Ireland parents, Eddie was baptised John Edward Glackin but became Edward Linden when he was adopted by relatives Eddie Linden and his wife Mary Glenn with whom he grew up, regarding them as his father and mother. However, in 1944 Eddie’s happy childhood ended with Mary’s death and the remarriage of Eddie Senior, a miner, to a Scottish Presbyterian who disliked him. Having failed to have Eddie put in an asylum, his new stepmother insisted he be institutionalised in an orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity.
Aged 14 in 1949, Eddie was “released” to make his way in a harsh world, often sleeping rough. Without educational qualifications, he worked in menial jobs in the steel industry and as a porter / ticket-collector with British Rail at Hamilton West station. Determined to better himself and the world, he joined the Young Communist League, but after Moscow’s suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, he wavered in his communism.
In 1958 Eddie moved south to London where he sought freedom to explore his capabilities, away from what he felt were the dual Calvanist and Jansenist suffocations of the west of Scotland. His adventures in the metropolis were chronicled in Sebastian Barker’s 1979 book, Who is Eddie Linden?, published by Jay Landesman Limited and illustrated by Ralph Steadman.
When Eddie selected me to write his biography as a fellow Scot with Coalisland, Co Tyrone, antecedents like himself, I assumed it would be a literary life primarily revising and updating Barker’s book and using material from Eddie’s Own Aquarius, a Festschrift edited by Constance Short and Tony Carroll, containing contributions from writers and artists who featured in his acclaimed Aquarius magazine which he edited from his flat in Maida Vale for over 35 years from 1969 until its demise in 2004.
However, after Eddie gave me access to his archive and signed copies of the 26 issues of Aquarius, now rare collectors’ items, the volume and range of his contacts and Catholic activities directed the biography into the spiritual sphere. Eddie’s causes and enthusiasms included the Young Communist League, Catholic CND, CND and the Catholic Worker newspaper; on the social side, he enjoyed bohemian literary London and its underground gay scene in Soho despite even consensual adult homosexual acts being a statutory crime until 1967 in England and 1980 in Scotland.
Among the records was a cherished copy of Mossend Roman Catholic School, Golden Jubilee 1907-1957. While attending this primary school, Eddie spent hours in the parish church praying. A momentous day was making his First Holy Communion as recalled in the poem, Ave Maria.
On a stormy night
As I tossed and tumbled
And tried to think,
I remembered my first Holy Communion:
And that plastic ornament
And that halo of electric bulbs,
Would repulse any thought of holiness.
Wrapped up, my mind reverted to childhood memories,
Trying to trample that unrealistic
Madonna of clay,
With warmth of the sun,
Its rays penetrating
With a spiritual tranquillity
That imprisoned me
Glenn Patterson interviews Eddie Linden (part 1)
Glenn Patterson interviews Eddie Linden (part 2)
A further reflection on matters religious was offered by the late Seamus Heaney, who knew Eddie in London and dedicated A Found Poem to him:
Like everybody else I bowed my head
during the consecration of the bread and wine,
I lifted my eyes to the raised host and the raised chalice
I believed (whatever it means) that a change occurred.
I went to the altar rails and received the mystery
on my tongue, returning to my place, shut my eyes fast, made
an act of thanksgiving, opened my eyes and felt
time starting up again.
There was never a scene
when I had it out with myself or with another.
The loss of faith occurred off stage. Yet I cannot
disrespect words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’
or even ‘communion wafer’. They have an undying
pallor and draw like well water far down.
In an accompanying note to Eddie, Seamus wrote: “It struck me this poem (which I found in an unpublished interview) is as typical as it is autobiographical, and that there’s probably some truth in it for most people who grew up Catholic in the middle of the twentieth century -- people like Eddie and me. Alright, Eddie? S.H.”
Eddie’s competing childhood religiosity and offstage loss of faith were centred on his coming to terms with his homosexuality. He still speaks in awe of the late Dominican friar, Anthony Ross, who in 1958 received him at Blackfriars School near Corby and patiently answered Eddie’s questions. They arranged to meet regularly. During these talks, Anthony persuaded Eddie of the possibility that he was a homosexual, something which Eddie had suppressed. Anthony’s non-condemnatory attitude helped Eddie to accept that his homosexuality was natural and was not a moral disorder. A Highlander and convert from Wee Free Presbyterianism, Ross became British Provincial of the Dominican Order after years as chaplain and Rector of Edinburgh University. He appears as Fr Andrew Scott in Who is Eddie Linden? and Eddie wrote a warm obituary on his death. – Chaplain for Outsiders, The Guardian, June 7th, 1993.
Ross encouraged Eddie to take part in peace protests. Indeed, Eddie’s opposition to nuclear warfare was his gateway to friendships also with the ex-Communist turned Catholic writer, Douglas Hyde, and Tommy Roberts, the former Jesuit archbishop of Bombay.
Overlooked in Barker’s biography is Eddie’s role as a pioneering Catholic lay activist who helped bring an insular-minded English Catholic Church out of the ghetto and into the mainstream involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Simon Community’s work for the homeless.
It was an article by Hyde in the Catholic Herald on April 3rd, 1959 which sketched the origins of the Catholic Nuclear Disarmament Group, whose chairman was Brendan P Murphy, with Eddie as secretary. Further light on how this forgotten Catholic peace group became absorbed in one, ecumenical peace movement is shed by Eddie himself.
“It was some time at the end of the 1950s when I first came across a little bookshop in Glasgow called the Freedom Bookshop. This was run by an eccentric Cockney, Guy Aldred, who was then editing a paper called Freedom. I saw a book entitled I Believe by Douglas Hyde. Also that day in that shop I picked up the American Catholic Worker produced by a remarkable person named Dorothy Day. The paper identified itself with the cause of peace and reconciliation. The book told a story of a man who had dedicated his life to Communism. At the time I was disillusioned but was still loosely attached to the Communist Party and the Young Communist League. These two items were to lead me back to a reconversion to Christianity of much greater social awareness.”
Eddie arrived in London in August 1958 to work as a porter at St Pancras. “I contacted Douglas Hyde, who was then writing a column in the Catholic Herald. Douglas told me about two other people, who were about to come into my life, both of whom were remarkable. They had taken a Catholic Socialist position in the 1930s – Bob and Molly Walsh. It was from them that I learned about the Pax Christi movement founded in 1935 by a group of Catholics who took a pacifist position in relation to war.
“At that time I started to attend meetings at The Partisan which was a cafe run by the magazine of the same name. The Partisan was in the centre of Soho and this was a great meeting place. There I met three people who were to become important in my activities – Brendan Murphy, Sheila Mann and Angela Cunningham. They were all Catholics who had become disillusioned by the anti-political attitude of the Church. We felt that we wanted somehow to associate ourselves with the new and growing CND, not as individuals, but as a Catholic group.”
A year later, 1959, Eddie helped form the Catholic CND and arranged a meeting in Highbury Place attended by many notable people – novelist Pamela Frankau, Simon Blake OP, John O’Connor, then secretary of Pax, and Barbara Wall, the Catholic writer, who gave wholehearted support.
“We drew up a constitution and were affiliated to the national CND. Meetings later were to be held in our own homes. The whole idea was to publicise the immorality of the bomb. Dr Brian McGrath got up leaflets. Brendan Murphy and I organised a letter to General de Gaulle, protesting at the French test explosion. By 1959, the first Catholic banner could be seen on the Aldermaston march, together with some 200 people. We built the organisation up to the figure of 600 associate members. I started organising debates, and one of the first was in the columns of the Catholic Herald between Pamela Frankau and Paul Crane SJ, the latter supporting the bomb.”
At a later date, Eddie organised a debate at the Challoner Club between Archbishop Roberts and Bob Walsh. “For the first time as Catholics we were coming into contact with Christians of other denominations and this was a great ecumenical experience. Alongside the Catholics were the Quakers, Anglicans, pacifists, Methodists and others. We at that time felt that not only should we be active as a group of Catholics, but should try to get recognition from the Church.”
According to Eddie, a letter was sent to Cardinal Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminster, which was answered by Mgr Derek Worlock, the future Archbishop of Liverpool, pointing out that on no account could the group use the term Catholic CND, despite the support of Archbishop Roberts. Even so, the clergy in the organisation increased. Branches were set up in different parts of the country and these were associated with Pax meetings at the French Church in Leicester Square, where the priest was sympathetic.
“In 1962 we took the banner of the Catholic CND on a march at Holy Loch against the Polaris. We marched as far as Dumbarton where we were met by a large Irish-Scots community who came out to watch. I relished the fact that they mistook our papal colours for those of the Orange Order! These were the years of the Vatican Council whose deliberations were to change the course of events. In 1963, 500 people attended St Dominic’s Priory, where a conference discussed Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris. I had the support of a parish priest, the Rev John Poster, and the help of Simon Blake OP. Speakers that day were Anglicans, the Rev Dr Northcott and Archdeacon Harry Carpenter; also a Baptist minister, a Buddhist monk, Hugh Kay representing the Catholic press and the blessings of the Archbishop Canterbury, Michael Ramsay, and Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster. By 1966, the CND movement had started to dwindle. There was now a Labour Government. The Vietnam War had started which meant a complete change in people’s attitudes. I had gone off to Oxford to the Catholic Worker College and became less active. At last the Church had decided to take part in the peace movement for which the groundwork had been led by Catholic CND and Pax.”
Bruce Kent, the vice-president of CND and Pax, fondly recalls Eddie, then famous for his red hair and an incomprehensible Glasgow accent, on the Aldermaston marches and selling the Catholic Worker to surprised congregations on their way into Westminster Cathedral.
In particular, Eddie admired how Archbishop Roberts never wore an episcopal ring and if anyone asked him about it, he said with a grin and a wrinkle of his nose that he kept it in his back pocket! Although Roberts could not be silenced about his favourite subjects – birth control and the atomic bomb – at the Vatican Council, through various subterfuges he was never once permitted to speak.
For a time, Eddie wanted to become a monk. He frequented the pre-Reformation Carmelite priory of Aylesford in Kent, wandered around the Benedictine ruins of Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, and even tested himself in the austere Cistercian life of Nunraw Abbey. Eddie, too, was a frequent attender at peace conferences in Spode House, Staffordshire, run by Dominican Conrad Pepler.
With Anton Wallich-Clifford, a probation officer at Bow Street Magistrates Court, Eddie co-founded the Simon Community, the charity helping homeless people. A landmark date was Simon’s Passport to Living Rally in 1963 which was vividly recorded by Eddie in an unnamed magazine cutting. Up early that morning of March 22nd, Eddie left his bedsit at 8.30 for St Martin-in-the-Fields, where Anton had set up his headquarters. “As I got off the bus at Trafalgar Square in pouring rain, my heart was full of joy to see the square and the streets around alive with Simon workers. At the gateway leading down to the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields stood Anton and a boy with a poster and leaflets. He told me he had been working right through the night, getting only three hours’ sleep, at the Newman Centre in Soho Square. The little office was busy with people coming and going, collecting Simon leaflets, and doing a dozen other things. By 2.30pm it looked as if God had answered their prayers. The sun came out and everyone cheered.
“Soon people started to assemble in the square. By 3.30 there were over 2,000 people. They came from all backgrounds and it was good to see that most of them were young. There were delegates from all over the country. Among them stood serious groups of people, probation officers, social workers, nuns, priests and monks – and, of course, the misfits, the down-and-outs. Last, but not least, there were members of CND and Committee of 100, who had come to support the rally.
The chairman Hugh Elwes opened the meeting with a recorded message from Fr Mario Borelli, the founder of the famous House of Urchins in Naples. On the plinths of Nelson’s Column stood Rev Austin Williams, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Dr Donald Soper, Douglas Hyde, Betty McCulloch from Christian Action, Sidney Burkett-Smith of the Simon Community and Wallich-Clifford. Others who joined the platform included Archbishop Roberts and Dr Bertram Peake, founder of the Golborne Centre, a home for ex-prisoners.
“It was the most genuinely ecumenical meeting I’ve ever attended,” recalls Eddie. The Passport to Living Rally, said Austin Williams, had been organised “to rouse the social conscience of the nation to the desperate need of the thousands of homeless, inadequate, people in Britain”.
On May 5th, 2015, Eddie will reach the same age as Roberts was on March 7th, 1973, when he recited his poem, Tribute to Archbishop Roberts, for him on his 80th birthday.
You were a beacon to my life
Fondling in the cradle of my catholicity
I who played like all children
With philosophy and ideas, trying
To reconcile the Body of Christ with the earth.
Imprisoned in a dogma of faith
While clouds of freedom
Flowed from the balcony
Of that majestic saint John XXIII.
Innocence still reigned in my mind
And from that brief moment conflict emerged
Yet unresolved in this tarnished world
Raging against the atom fumes
And into that arena did you emerge.
Eddie’s longtime friend, Sean Hutton, contends that the octogenarian has adopted an existential approach to mental and physical survival, and that poetry, not religion, put him “on the way to becoming the dapper, kindly, less troubled, still angular, unique individual he now is”.
Eddie confesses that starting Aquarius in 1969 brought an absolute stability into his life. “People started taking me seriously. And this was what I wanted.”
Eddie’s complex character is encapsulated by another old friend, Gerald Mangan, in a pen and ink drawing of him arriving at the gate of heaven, accompanied by Saint Peter who pleads with a bearded grumpy God the Father seated on his celestial throne. “He says he’s a manic-depressive alcoholic lapsed-Catholic Irish working-class pacifist-communist bastard from Glasgow. And would you like to subscribe to a poetry magazine?”
John Cooney, journalist and author, is preparing a biography Eddie Linden, Literary Bohemian and Roman Catholic Dissident. This article is reproduced, with permission, from Doctrine & Life, May 2015. www.dominicanpublications.com