On Harry Smart – poet, geographer, artist etc.

There has been a bit of background chat in recent years about the correspondence between geography and poetry. A conference session was organised at the IBG in 2010. Last year, Royal Holloway inaugurated a new MA in Place, Environment, Writing with a lecture by Sir Andrew Motion.

One of the animating figures of this new programme is the geographer Tim Cresswell who has his own new collection of poetry out later this year.

And here in the parish of @EdinGeography, we hold our seminars under the mustachioed visage of poet and geographer James Wreford Watson – a doppelgänger of Bruce Forsyth – whose acclaimed landscape elegies in the 1950s were laced with an edge of genteel smut.

Much less attention, however, has been given to the geographer-poet, Harry Smart, who published three collections of work with Faber in the early 1990s – Pierrot (1991), Shoah (1993) and Fool’s Pardon (1995).

Fool’s Pardon, Faber, 1995

Admittedly, Smart is less of a geographer-poet than a poet who happens to have a PhD in geography. His thesis, submitted to the University of Aberdeen in 1984, was later published as a Routledge monograph – Criticism and public rationality: professional rigidity and the search for caring government (1991).

One suspects that geography was not, for Smart, a formative intellectual home; in any case, he left it behind sometime before the ‘cultural turn’.

Living in Aberdeen, and later in Montrose, Smart took some cultural turns all of his own, leaving academia to become an evangelical lay preacher, then a poet. Three collections with Faber can reasonably be called success.

After poetry, fiction: his political thriller set in 1960s Africa was titled Zaire (Dedalus Books, 1997), though the fact that the country of that name immediately declared itself as Democratic Republic of the Congo probably didn’t help sales.

In 2000, Smart enrolled in a Master of Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee where he undertook painting and photography – you can read some of his reflections on his art practice here.

Black Apple © Harry Smart

It’s fair to say that his visual art, like his writing, does not shy away from darker themes. His website – distinctly NSFW, as they say – is a fascinating labyrinth of essays, excerpts, poems, photos, art and erotica. Though it hasn’t been updated for many years, it is well worth a visit.

I was intrigued to discover some photographs in which the Montrose railway bridge – designed by the same architect as the ill-fated Tay Bridge – became a backdrop to some calendar shots. This is by no means the most surprising juxtaposition on the website.

The estuarine landscapes of Montrose and the east coast also appear in Smart’s poetry. The following poem, Praise, from Fool’s Pardon, is a particular favourite. A rendering of Scottish Calvinism and landscape, it takes the form of a modern doxology.

It has often come to mind when exploring the Firth of Forth in these dark January days.



Praise be to God, who pities wankers
and has mercy on miserable bastards.
Praise be to God, who pours out his blessing
on reactionary warheads and racists.

For he knows what he is doing;
the healthy have no need of a doctor,
the sinless have no need of forgiveness.
But, you say, They do not deserve it.

That is the point; that is the point.
When you try to wade across the estuary at low tide
but misjudge the distance, the currents, the soft ground
and are caught by the flood in deep schtuck,

then perhaps you will realise that God is to be praised
for delivering dickheads
from troubles they have made for themselves.
Praise be to God, who forgives sinners.

Let him who is without sin throw the first headline.
Let him who is without sin build the gallows,
prepare the noose, say farewell
to the convict with a kiss.


Wreford who? Will Self to the give the Wreford Watson annual lecture

On 27th September our annual Wreford Watson geography lecture at Edinburgh will be given by the novelist and essayist Will Self. His title, ‘Decontaminating the Union: Post-Industrial Landscapes and the British Psyche’, will doubtless give an audience of geographers in Alex Salmond’s Scotland plenty to chew on.

I’m looking forward to seeing whether my colleagues ‘savour it or spit it out’, to paraphrase Richard Rorty. Pretty fun either way, I suspect.

Will Self, whose latest novel Umbrella was last week shortlisted for the Booker Prize, will need little by way of introduction. The same can hardly be said for James Wreford Watson (1915-1990) in whose memory the lecture is held, funded in part by the Edinburgh University Club of Toronto.

Wreford Watson is probably better remembered as a poet than as a geographer and if this dual identity seems less unusual these days, Watson can be credited as something of a pioneer.

Born in China to Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, he spent the first half of his academic career in Canada eventually becoming ‘Chief Geographer’ – a enviable title, you have to admit – for the Canadian Government.

In 1954, Watson moved back to his alma mater here at Edinburgh where he took up the Chair in Geography.  That same year, he received Canada’s highest literary honour – the Governor General’s Medal for Poetry – for his collection Of Time and the Lover which, as with his other poetry work, was published under the name James Wreford.

Though Watson’s geographical work is by no means unimportant, his contributions were to fields that now seem rather obscure. Who now thinks of geography as ‘a discipline in distance’?

On the other hand one might find some correspondence with contemporary intellectual tastes – in affect and enthusiasm, for instance – which are evident in his 1983 Presidential Address to the IBG:

Geographers can’t afford to miss out on passion – far less dismiss it. Geography without passion is about as alive as a body without blood – ready for the grave diggers.

By far the most important of Watson legacies is his insistence on the centrality of literature. It was, he said, ‘the soul of geography’ and an essential part of a geographical education. He even boasted that he had ‘never written a [geographical] article or a book without an appeal to literature’.

The converse is also (mostly) true: his poetry usually bears the trace of his professional career, evident in poems such as ‘Cross Section’ and ‘Aerial Survey’.

Of Time and the Lover employs the language of geography to detail bodies in luuurve. By his own account at least, he seems not to have missed out on any passion.

It is earnest stuff: a suggestive topography of rivers; valleys; hollows; shallows; depths; days of summer heat and silken rain; surfs of passion; trembling leaves; and elms laden with drizzle.

Is it as bad as I’m making it sound? Probably not. To say that it is ‘of its time’ is to gloss matters that would make it a suitable subject for Gillian Rose’s critique of the landscape tradition in geography.

Try this, from ‘Identity’:

All his geography projects

on the mollweide of her hips,

and yet there is no map can trace

the well known frontier of their lips-

that war-torn boundary and bridge

O both their eagle is and dove;

themselves on this side, but on that

a greater than themselves they prove.

‘There are lapses of inspiration and of taste in Mr Wreford’s book’ wrote Northrop Frye, ‘but there is also a dignified simplicity and a sincere eloquence’. Allowing for the genre, that feels about right.

Much of Watson’s poetry tended towards pastoral, vaguely Christian elegies – a form which, like that of his geography, is now deeply unfashionable. It’s hard not to wonder what he would have made of The Book of Dave.

One might argue, at a push, that Watson set the stage for thinking of geography as a literary project or, more plausibly, for thinking of literature as a geographical project. And it is to this stage that we are pleased to welcome the geographically-inclined Will Self.