Michael Marra: The Bard of Dundee and Modern Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, December 13th 2017

Michael Marra – musician, artist and force for good – was a precious Scottish gem. He was unique in his art but also in his delivery and style; singularly understated, modest and often humble to the extent that at times he hugely underpromoted himself and his work.

It is worthwhile celebrating that the writer James Robertson has contributed his time and intelligence to produce a biography of Marra – ‘Michael Marra: Arrest This Moment’. This is a fascinating book, and important beyond the subject of Marra in addressing music, the creative muse, the role of the artist and culture, and having something to say about his home town (and mine) Dundee – and contemporary Scotland.

Michael Marra was born in Dundee on February 17th 1952, the fourth of five children, and grew up in Lochee, then as now a working class part of the city. After an unhappy time at school and several routine jobs, Michael found his voice as a singer and songwriter.

From the late 1970s to his death in October 2012 at the age of 60, he produced a unique body of work unmatched in modern Scotland. He created songs about, and in the voice of, Scotland, some of which are widely known and cited – ‘Mother Glasgow’ (an unofficial anthem of the city), ‘Hermless’ (to some an alternative national anthem), ‘Hamish’ (about Dundee United goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine and strangely covered by Leo Sayer), and ‘If Dundee was Africa’ (with its gentle dig at Aberdeen being ‘deep in the Mediterranean Sea’).

But for me many of his lesser known songs are as enchanting: ‘Ananainganeania’ (under the moniker Saint Andrew about the attractions of Dundee bridies), ‘True Love’, ‘Under the Ullapool Moon’ and many more. Michael not only had a gift of writing songs about Dundee, people and places, but also about giving voice to the mosaic of human emotions and relationships, a trait arguably rare for Scottish men of his generation.

His work, found in a series of albums – ‘Gaels Blue’, ‘On Stolen Stationery’, ‘Candy Philosophy’ and ‘Posted Sober’ (as well as a host of EPs and tracks on compilations) – has a delightful off-field nature to it. He came at many subjects from unusual angles, delighting in seeing the funny and comical side of things. His work and character had a playfulness and irreverence, along with a surreal element and deep-seated seriousness.

Robertson writes movingly and with a great touch, affection and insight for Michael. The two knew each other as neighbours in the small village of Newtyle in Angus, outside Dundee, the Marras having moved there in 1975; Robertson and his wife in 2003. The two men frequently caught up, with Michael often popping into the Robertson household and chatting at length over the kitchen table.

This is not a conventional biography, but then Michael wasn’t a conventional man or artist. Rather than the book being divided chronologically, it is done by theme, covering Dundee, London, football and ‘the next thing’. It is a beautiful produced book, feeling like a labour of love, with exquisitely reproduced photographs of Michael and his family, his records and many of the paintings, sketches and images he created.

It includes a series of kitchen conversations where Robertson attempts to recreate some of the chats they had and to give Michael’s character back his voice. The most moving of these is an actual discussion with Peggy Marra, Michael’s wife, after his death. Peggy has long been a private person in public, and Robertson with skill and a sensitive touch, gets her to open up about Michael the man and their partnership.

The spirit of Michael unsurprisingly is everywhere in this book. His charm, his mischievousness, his inventiveness and constant imagination are all here. So is his quirkiness and maybe soft element of curmudgeonliness, or perhaps (more accurately) holding himself back in certain circumstances. In the late 1970s Michael signed to Polydor and rather like fellow Dundonian Billy Mackenzie, didn’t really take to the London music business. A constant strand in how he approached his music after this was to retain as much control as any artist could – even if it cost him in promotion and profile.

The book contains an understated strand about the kind of man Michael was and how Dundee, a city with a feminised culture from the jute industry of the 19th century, made men like him more possible. Dundee’s rich working class history, and even its geography on the Firth of Tay, and place in Scotland (not too far from Glasgow and Edinburgh, but far enough), all have played a role in its distinct culture.

Michael Marra isn’t a household name in Scotland. He has to take some responsibility for that. He probably preferred it that way. But this points to something about the state of Scottish culture which matters way beyond this book – how do we champion, celebrate, represent, live and enjoy culture in Scotland and best ensure it is vibrant, diverse and challenging?

In the last couple of decades Scottish culture has come more to the fore, from books, theatre, poetry, song and film. This has been rightly acknowledged by many, but at the same time, there is a worrying disconnect in our culture: namely, that for too many Scots their own culture is alien to them and something they know little of.

There are current developments which could be seen to be undermining the promotion of culture in Scotland. One is the retreat and hollowing out of the mainstream media. In the 1980s and 1990s, newspapers like ‘The Herald’ and ‘The Scotsman’ contained book supplements which have long gone, and similarly, the amount of space both give to theatre reviews is getting smaller. Broadcasters don’t do any better, with there being a few isolated oases on the BBC such as ‘The Janice Forsyth Show’, while STV in the 1980s used to champion culture, but is now mostly a barren desert. There is also a lack of championing Scottish culture in schools and education, which seems to have been a problem for as long as anyone can remember.

This raises thorny questions such as is the new found interest in Scottish culture something permanent or a one-off spike? Is it a generational account, possibly linked to the new left folk scene and CND in the 1960s, alt-theatre and culture in the 1970s, and opposition to Thatcherism in the 1980s? If so, is it something that might retreat in the face of global young Scots consuming culture in a manner which doesn’t recognise borders? These difficult issues at least need to be asked because for the last couple of decades, despite numerous constraints, one over-stated view of culture here has been to uncritically celebrate its renewal and renaissance. All of this matters more in a week when the Scottish Government announce their budget – and whatever fate the arts have, the cultural sector is facing lean times and significant restraints for the foreseeable future.

James Robertson’s book indirectly brings up all these concerns and more. It does so in a moving, reflective and deeply intelligent way. There is a rare richness to this account that is not surprising, because in effect, you get two cultural treasures for the price of one – the author and the main subject.

I read and ruminated over this book in a manner I rarely do. That is in part because I knew Michael as a man and as an artist, and knew his character and take on many things about the world. Nearly ten years ago I commissioned Michael to write a song about the American musician Gil Scott-Heron’s father Gil Heron who played for Celtic in the 1950s. The song called ‘The Flight of the Heron’ was a thing of joy and beauty, and I had the privilege of taking it personally to Gil Scott-Heron in his home in Harlem, playing it to him, handing him a note from Michael and taking back a letter from Gil to Michael. That story, along with many others, is in here, and I feel that experience with Michael and Gil is one many others had – of love, connection and being part of something precious.

At the onset of the 1990s, Ian Hamilton, the man who ‘stole’ the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in 1950, wrote that in the middle of the 20th century: ‘those who sang did not derive their songs from Scotland’ whereas: ‘Now everyone sings Scottish songs’. He concluded: ‘The people who make the songs of a country, have a habit of making the laws too.’

Those words caught something about the songs and stories of Scotland at the time, but there is in them also an element of wish fulfillment, romanticising and sentimentalising what are complex truths. The songs and stories we tell and champion are always changing, and rightly so, and we have to continually guard against believing there is any final destination.

Michael wrote some of the most important, evocative and unique songs about Scotland in the last thirty to forty years. They will be long remembered, irrespective of whether Michael is. This book is a fitting and moving tribute by James Robertson, remembering and honouring Michael, in which he tells Michael’s own individual tale, and does so in a way that makes it about all of us.