Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Hamish Henderson

Hamish Henderson

From illegitimacy, a childhood in rural Perthshire, a spell in an orphanage from age 12, a scholarship to London, the study of modern languages at Cambridge University; to anti-fascist activism and exploits, helping Jews as a Quaker courier in pre-war Germany, life as a soldier in Italy during WWII, a war hero and poet..

A  Communist and Italianophile, he was first to translate theorist Antonio Gramsci ‘s Prison Letters into English. He received the Somerset Maugham Award for his poem Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica in 1949. A linguist, musicologist, singer and folk song collector, he is the author of the anti-imperialist song Freedom Come All Ye; he wrote the lyrics for John Maclean's March. He highlighted land ownership issues for the soldiers returning from war in the eulogy Men of Knoydart.

A makar, one of the founders of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, instrumental in creating the People’s Festival Ceilidhs in the early 1950s, founder of Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies and its folk society, vital repositories of our culture. There is a bust of Hamish in the Sandy Bells pub in Edinburgh, and there is still a Hamish Henderson folk club in Rome. Pino Mereu is the club's founder: a partisan, his father fought alongside Hamish.

Fourteen years in the making, Hamish is a new ground-breaking documentary exploring the life of Hamish Henderson. The film manages to capture and convey all of the fragments, activities and exploits of this exceptional, inspirational character. Hamish is a collage of archive footage and interviews with friends and relatives; a suitably kaleidoscopic tribute to a multifaceted man, as seen through a hundred pairs of loving eyes.

Hamish gives a sense of his complexity and contradictions - a pacifist who took up arms against fascism, a childlike father of two daughters, poet and Communist, a private school scholar living in an orphanage, an internationalist and advocate of independence, a singer, academic and drinker. Interviewees in the film seemed unwilling to criticise the drink problem across Scotland's folk scene, but they smile at mention of his bisexuality. One of the important interviewees in the film is his widow, Kätzel. Others include Tim Neat, his biographer, writer and poet George Gunn and founder member of the 7:84 theatre company, Gaelic singer Dolina MacLennan. Novelist Kevin MacNeil was co-writer and conducted the Gaelic interviews. Composer Jim Sutherland wrote the score. Produced by Bees Nees Media, Hamish was broadcast on BBC Alba in September 2016.

With his flair for languages and organisation, quirky nature, talents and famous charm, Hamish excelled in many eclectic fields; his keen mind adapted and shone through whenever he tuned into a project. His thorough work as a political strategist has contributed in no small way to much of the success of the Scottish left today. Like his friend Tom Nairn, he can be seen as one of the great Scottish political theorists of the 20th century, as well as a great cultural figure. Gramsci told us that they are one and the same.

Condensed and edited - a post by Green Party member Adam Ramsay, writing on the openDemocracyUK website
Hamish The Movie: Facebook page
Director Timothy Neat's Play Me Something. 'At The Glad Cafe in Glasgow on May 4th, there was a rare screening of Play Me Something, a hidden gem of Scottish cinema and winner of the Europa prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989, the year of its release. The film is set on the Isle of Barra in the waiting-room of the island’s airport, and features the writer and artist John Berger as a mysterious, Orpheus-like character, who enchants the waiting travellers with a tale set in Venice of love, politics and the clash between tradition and modernity. Alongside Berger, there’s a fine ensemble of actors and performers, including Tilda Swinton, Liz Lochhead, folklorist Margaret Bennett and Hamish Henderson – who plays a kind of Hebridean Prospero, riding magisterially across the sands on his horse and cart.'

'Hamish Henderson's work with the travelling people of Scotland is often regarded as his greatest achievement. He lived with them for months at a time, collecting ballads, songs and stories long ignored by more snobbish collectors. He collected a wealth of oral culture and provided public platforms for Scotland’s traditional and revivalist singers, bringing singers like Jeannie Robertson and Flora MacNeil to public attention. “He showed the world, particularly the academic world, that Scottish traditional culture was still vigorous and fermenting,” says obituary writer and friend, Raymond Ross.

His socialist politics did not endear himself to the establishment. He was banned from state radio for ten years. In 1983 he rejected an OBE in protest at the nuclear policy of the Thatcher government. He was voted Scot of the Year by listeners to BBC Radio Scotland. A tireless activist in the anti-apartheid movement and CND, he also campaigned for the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, dying three years later aged eighty-two.'

Edited article by Nan Spowart, writing in the National newspaper
Folk film festival examines different aspects of the working-class experience in cinema 
Nowt so queer as folk: Jamie Chambers
Folk film gathering: Jamie Chambers

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