Tony McManus: An inspiring exponent of Geopoetics in Scotland
by Norman Bissell, Director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics.
Tony McManus was one of the finest men you could hope to meet. Highly intelligent and insightful, multi-talented and quietly dedicated, he was a man whose strong sense of justice and unquestionable integrity carried real conviction. These qualities shone through in his life and in all that he did as an exceptional writer, musician, teacher and educationalist.
Tony was a man of many interests who had read very widely and went deeply into various theoretical fields yet carried his learning lightly, but it was his discovery in the late 1980s of the work of Kenneth White and his concept of geopoetics that was to change his life and become its central focus. It appealed to Tony’s wry sense of humour that he first heard of this great Scottish poet-thinker not amongst the Edinburgh literary circles with which he was familiar but from his mother-in-law when he was on holiday in Tarbes in southern France with his wife Nanon and family.
He scoured the bookshops and read everything he could find of White’s work, which was mostly available only in French at that time, and was amongst very few back then who understood its world significance as a theory-practice for radical cultural renewal. In an article in the Scottish Book Collector Tony explained geopoetics in these terms:
“So, from diverse disciplines the forward thinkers see the need for the philosophical mind “to unite their perceptions, ‘to see life whole’ and to give expression to that complete vision. …. Poetry, here, is the expression of the human mind which has reached a perception of the world which it must express. In other words it is the natural and, potentially, universal expression of what White calls the ‘sense of world’.”
To develop his understanding of that complete vision Tony made direct contact with Kenneth White and worked closely with him over many years to raise awareness in Scotland of geopoetics and his work. He wrote articles about them for magazines such as Chapman, The Edinburgh Review and Cencrastus, interviewed White in depth for BBC Radio Scotland, provided the introduction to Into the White World, the Scotsoun cassettes of White’s reading of many of his poems, and argued persuasively from the outset for the need to have his essay books published in English, which eventually began in 1998 with the publication by Polygon of On Scottish Ground.
I first met Tony in 1989 at the Edinburgh College of Art at a Kenneth White lecture to mark the publication of The Bird Path and Travels in the Drifting Dawn and later that year he came to Glasgow to help set up the Open World Poetics group, which was very much influenced by White’s work, to give talks to the group, and edit and contribute to its Open World magazine. He also took an active part in some of our weekends of hill-walking, discussion, poetry readings and music making at Allershaw Lodge near Elvanfoot, and joined us in words and music nights at the city’s Scotia Bar.
When the International Institute of Geopoetics was founded by Kenneth White in 1989 Tony translated its first Cahier into English, kept in regular contact with the Institute and its centres in France, Belgium and elsewhere and participated in some of its international conferences. In 1995 (very appropriately on Burns Night) he took the lead in establishing the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, worked tirelessly writing and distributing its Newsletters and pioneered a series of lectures on geopoetics at the University of Edinburgh Office of Lifelong Learning which we have revived.
He was an excellent organiser who had the ability to work easily and well with others as was shown in 1996 when he organised The Radical Ground, a major international conference on geopoetics, and curated the White World exhibition for the National Library of Scotland which subsequently toured throughout Scotland and (in its French version) France. Informed by his researches in French and English, he became widely recognised as the foremost authority in the English language on geopoetics and the work of Kenneth White.
All of this work was crucial in spreading knowledge and understanding of the importance of geopoetics for renewing and revitalising the cultures of Scotland and other lands, but it was Tony’s thorough grounding in music, literature and education which superbly equipped him to do so and to speak with such real authority on these questions.
Born the second youngest of six children in Edinburgh in 1953 to teacher parents from a second generation Irish background, Tony learned to play the piano at an early age, took up guitar some years later, and in his twenties experienced the rich musical, poetic and radical mix that was Sandy Bell’s, frequented in those days by the likes of Hamish Henderson, Norman MacCaig and the Boys of the Lough. It was here too that he met Nanon Fourcade, who was then working as a French assistant in Edinburgh, and whom he later married in 1980.
In the 1970s and 80s, he and his friend John Greig took their traditional music and poems out to other Edinburgh pubs creating a series of ‘come all ye’ platforms long before performance poetry and Celtic culture became fashionable, and later joined The Shore Poets both as individuals and with their group the Birlinn Ensemble.
Tony wrote his own songs and poems in Scots and English, published tape cassettes of his translations of the songs of George Brassens and To Paint The Green Hill Brown of his own work, contributed to other cassettes like Songs From Under The Bed, and worked with John Greig, Gerda Stevenson and Michel Byrne on musical arrangements of some of the poems of George Campbell Hay.
Some of Tony’s many fine poems have been translated and published in France and can be found at Poesie Tony McManus along with the poem Lament for McManus by Kenneth White.
Others like Observations from a new territory, his deep meditation on life and death, deserve a wider public in Scotland. He wrote a series of reviews and articles on Scottish music for Cencrastus, and from 1989 onwards began reviewing drama, opera and dance for the Edinburgh Evening News. These formed the basis for a book on music (including its relationship with geopoetics) which would make most interesting and revealing reading were it to be published.
Tony McManus was also the most committed and inspirational of classroom teachers. For him no job in education was more important than that of teaching students to the highest standard possible. As a teacher of English at Deans Community High School and Assistant Principal Teacher of English at Queensferry High School he taught language and literature drawn from his own extensive reading, sang his students some of the poems of Robert Burns and others, and encouraged their own creative abilities.
Because he recognised the crucial importance of education to the future of Scotland, founded on the Scottish democratic intellect tradition of a broad-based and rigorous curriculum, he was determined not to let the Higher Still reform programme undermine the quality of that education. He and others initiated a petition signed by over 1300 teachers of English in 180 schools calling for the removal of internal assessment in Higher Still English. This led to the formation of the Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature (SATOLL) in February 1999 of which he became the driving force and leading spokesman. Its pamphlet Sense and Worth, which he wrote, is both a critique of Higher Still and a radical analysis of what education should be about. He said there:
“Our call in this pamphlet is for the restoration of genuine educational values traditionally associated with Scotland – intellectualism, generalism and breadth; knowledge, critical and imaginative thought; clear and strong expression; and fairness grounded upon the knowledge that no-one, whether through class, caste, colour or creed is incapable of educational achievement, but, equally, that everyone is responsible for achieving it for themselves with the aid of properly resourced institutions.”
The pamphlet was sent to all Members of the Scottish Parliament and by June that year the AGM of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Scotland’s largest teaching union, had adopted the SATOLL position of removing compulsory internal assessment procedures. In this hard-fought, and long-running campaign Tony drew on all his previous experience as a participant in the anti-poll tax, anti-apartheid, Troops Out of Ireland and other movements, and wrote cogently argued letters to the press, as a result of which he was invited to become a regular columnist in the Times Educational Supplement Scotland.
The Scottish Qualifications Agency debacle in 2000 proved him absolutely right, and there is no doubt that many thousands of students and teachers benefited from the changes to Higher Still which all the efforts of he and his colleagues brought about. It is a measure of his outstanding courage and determination that just two weeks before his death from a rare form of bone cancer in April 2002, he wrote a humorous and scathing critique of streaming and the misuse of language in education which was published in the TESS.
His students, colleagues, and friends paid affectionate tribute to him at his funeral and at celebrations of his life at Queensferry High School and in Edinburgh. One of his essays on education can be read here: Philistinism and Cultural Revolution.
Tony’s papers, which incude many unpublished writings on a variety of subjects, have been deposited in the National Library of Scotland and are an invaluable resource for those wishing to research the development of geopoetics in Scotland, the work of Kenneth White (many of whose papers are also there), and other significant cultural and educational matters.
In all that he did Tony McManus was the most modest of men, to such an extent that even his close friends knew only a fraction of the breadth and depth of his many-sided talents and activities. Yet in the way that he lived his life all of these were indivisible and were informed by and imbued with his theoretical work on geopoetics.
For him the study of geopoetics and creative living and work weren’t mutually exclusive alternatives, they were inseparable, each enriching the other. He believed passionately that geopoetics as an approach to thinking and living opens the way to creativity for everyone and can create the possibility of experiencing and expressing the world in a livelier, more perceptive way, thus providing the basis for the radical cultural renewal we so badly need today. That is why he spent so much time and effort studying and promulgating geopoetics and why we will always be indebted to him for the pathways which he opened for us.
After Tony died some members of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics decided that we could not allow all the work he did on its behalf to go into the sand and so it was re-launched in August 2002. Since then over 100 people have joined the Centre, a regular programme of talks, discussions and field work has taken place, its publishing imprint Alba Editions has brought out two books, geopoetics courses have been held at the University of Edinburgh and it now has its own website www.geopoetics.org,uk. Building on the firm foundations established by Tony, the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics has gone from strength to strength.
Before his death he completed The Radical Field which was published by Sandstone Press in August 2007. This study of the work of Kenneth White and geopoetics provides a comprehensive and indispensable handbook for realising the bold vision to which he devoted the latter part of his most productive life.