Tom Leonard

I interviewed the poet Tom Leonard

I’ve been a big fan of Tom Leonard for a while now, so I was very excited to interview him for the second edition of Post. I first became interested in his work after attending a reading at Word Power books a few years ago. I bought Outside the Narrative first and became a huge fan of his poetry, and after that started to read his essays and criticism. I highly recommend Definite Articles, his recently released collection of prose.

When we decided to focus Issue 2 of Post around a theme of ‘culture and democracy’ he was someone I immediately thought would be interesting to talk to, and he didn’t disappoint. I was fortunate enough to be able to chat with him for a couple of hours about a wide variety of topics, which I edited down to this:


Tom Leonard (photo by Dominic Charlton)
Tom Leonard (photo: Dominic Charlton)

You’ve written a lot about the effect of current education structures on culture, for example about how they create a canon of literature. You also talk a lot about how the teaching of literature is a essentially a form of acquisition, where the students acquire an understanding which is then ‘sold’ to an examiner in exchange for the currency of the degree certificate. So why do you think this is so important?

When I wrote all living language is sacred I believe it. I believe that existence is sacred. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what I mean by that, but I know I believe it. And I believe that art is part of the process of existence. Art is an instance of the human, and the human is not a commodity. Good teachers do facilitate children to become themselves. And that’s happening all the time.

The value is within, and to educere, education, is to lead out from within. That means a person-centred respect for the local, the universal which is within the local, within what the person can see, hear, touch, feel. That connects to the whole world. There is no break in the lines of knowledge.

But under the quality control system pervading education systems, everything has to be seen as an object first in order to be centrally evaluated. That includes the human as object. It includes the teacher. The teacher has to be turned into a kind of agent of pre-ordained multiple choice options. The moment of existence, the moment of potentiality, cannot be trusted. I once reviewed the memoirs of the Lord Chamberlain in Britain who until 1968 had to have every new play written in Britain submitted to him for approval regarding its political and sexual decency. An absolute no-no for the Lord Chamberlain was if a dramatist wrote in the margin of a script the word ‘Improvise’. No way could an actor be allowed to improvise, that was handing over the power of the moment of their own existence to them — and they might take off their clothes! There is a correspondence between the Chamberlain’s drive for control and Gove’s approach to education.

It seems the kind of approach to education and culture you were arguing against has become even more extreme in recent years. Perhaps more significant than the recent tuition fee rise is the increased marketisation of education that is happening alongside it. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely, that’s what is happening throughout education, across all the disciplines. It was d riving me insane when I was up there at the University. The income generation mantra. The way the whole model works is that you begin with a projected outcome. There is absolutely no way that you begin with the open power of the human. You begin with an outcome, and the outcomes have to be agreed by the market, because the outcome is what generates the source of funding. The projected outcome is the generator of the funding. This applies with so-called Creative Scotland as well.

The whole idea is to impose from above or outside, as if to create value where there i s no value. What I say is that everyone has intrinsic constant value which exists and remains unchanged before and after any art or that which would officially be called culture is poured into them. Culture is a process that is intrinsic not a valued object or series of such to be magically added to the valueless.

How do these recent developments contrast with your own experiences of university?

I went up to university in 1967 as a mature student. On my website journal just now I’m piecing together the geneological line of my Mother and Father, their Mother and Father, and so forth, using photographs and text. There seems a very big shortfall between the culture for instance of my mother’s paternal grand father, a man called Joseph Mulgrew born in 1850, who was a steamship stoker, coalminer, then latterly a worker at Ardeer dynamite factor — between all the culture that’s coming through him and the others in my lines, and the culture I found in university. It does not connect.

I went to university myself to read books and discuss, and in those days you got a grant. I feel almost sort of ashamed saying it, I can feel all the eyes of my forebears upon me, but I went in pretty well unemployable and I came out unemployable. By which I mean I always seemed to have difficulty holding down a job more than nine months, there was this sort of gestation process. This sort of talk can appeal to the Tories I know. All these working class people, they don’t need to be taught to think. Universities should teach practical jobs or else to run the fucking financial markets or something, then they’ll be doing something useful. The utilitarian concept. I like the idea of the university as agora, an open place for the discussion and open development of ideas.

As well as your views on the place of art in society, what about the place of the artist? Philip Pullman recently said that ‘piracy’ is tantamount to stealing his wallet from his pocket, so as someone who hasn’t made a living from their work as such and stressed the importance of libraries for instance in exploring literature, how do you feel about people downloading your work?

Well if they’re corporate, fuck them, I’ll screw them for every penny I can get. But if they’re a guy like you or me then I hope they enjoy it. But no one should be allowed to make money out of my work when I’m not making money myself.

I’m not completely anti-corporate, I’ll always try to support an independent coffee shop for instance, but I happen to like Costa Coffee, and I also happen to like that a Heinz tin of beans always tastes the same. Although maybe if I analysed the content I could be persuaded that I’m destroying the planet.

I run my website journal now online, that’s me sharing my work as far as I’m concerned. I’m aware that hardly anybody will read it and that’s fine. But if a publisher wants to use a poem and charge for the book they should pay a copyright fee.

One of the other things that Pullman said is that “if we want to enjoy the work that someone does, we have to pay for it”.

Yes in the particular instances I mention, but not as a given universal, that’s a different principle. That’s to accord the necessity of monetary value as prerequisite to aesthetic experience, conferring on it the status of acquisition. It’s like people speaking of culture as a commodity, as object, as other. But culture is not an object, it’s a process of which the human is part. Wherever there is human, or wherever there is something living, there is culture in that, in its context. When you separate culture to make it an object to be acquired, you’re playing away from home the moment you accept that argument. That notion of culture is something I not only don’t accept, but would say is inherently in opposition to what art and existence itself actually is. I don’t make culture, I’m someone who is part of a culture and is making works of art.

You wrote in your essay The Proof of the Mince Pie that ‘‘To be or not to be’ is something of a metaphysical luxury if you’re on a 40-hour week, with three nights overtime’. Are you sympathetic to the view that we as a society should be working much shorter working weeks?

It’s the opposition of leisure to work that is the nub, where in society as presently structured the former is really compensation for the latter. When you say we might be working shorter hours, you have to look at what is meant by we. Let’s start it in Bangladesh where folk are working huge long hours at pitiful wages to make clothes for people in the west. Primark might have to shut if you reduced those workers’ hours or gave them decent wages. The industrial revolution with its nineteenth century manufacturing horrors isn’t over. It’s just moved overseas.

There is a line in William Carlos Williams, ‘unless the ecstasy be general’. But I would like shorter hours ideally, yes, ‘the dignity of labour’ is a phrase that never did much for me. When I went to London just after I got married, we moved into a room and the landlord didn’t want to give us a rent book. I decided to join the Communist Party, not just because of the rent book but because I was becoming more politically aware. At that time one of the big slogans was ‘the right to work’. I remember one of the first questions I asked at the first meeting, I put up my hand to ask ‘what about the right not to work?’. That went down like a sack of cement of course. It was naive of me, but I think I know what I meant. The right not to be alienated from myself, the right not to feel myself a commodity.

Again, what I am talking about is why people like Gove and the government loathe the concept of public service. The concept of public service stands centrally against self-commodification, it stands against money as core determinant of value. If money is the core determinant of value, then those who possess it own all the values and own the right to determine what value is.

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