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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Friday, May 01, 2009

Tom McGrath obituary

Published in The Guardian.

Tom McGrath obituary

It must have been about 1990 when I first interviewed the poet and playwright Tom McGrath, who has died from cancer of the liver aged 68. It was in his Edinburgh office at the Royal Lyceum, where he was the Scottish Arts Council's associate literary director. Some time around the point when I turned the cassette tape over, I asked my second question. McGrath did not do soundbites.

Such loquaciousness would be indulgent in some, but with McGrath - genial, generous and quick to laugh - it was just the way his mind worked. Each thought would trigger a new idea, each allusion a digression, each digression firing another set of mental synapses. Conversation with him was like navigating through a sea of possibilities; it took time to reach the destination, but the journey - always logically plotted - was fascinating. In a 1973 poetry anthology, his biographical note describes him simply as "explorer". It was a job title he never relinquished.

This was no less the case in 2005 when I met him near his home in Kingskettle, Fife, to talk about a revival of his debut play, Laurel and Hardy, and what would be his final stage work, My Old Man. This was two years after he had suffered a stroke; his recovery aided by physiotherapy, prolific writing and a subscription to the New Statesman ("the writers are very predictable but it did give me a point of attack"). Sneaking in a lunchtime drink against doctor's orders, he engaged in a conversation that ricocheted from Billy Connolly to Arnold Schoenberg, William Golding to Oscar Peterson, Liz Lochhead to serial music.

Born in Rutherglen, a suburb of Glasgow, McGrath was the son of an electrician and a housewife. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, he instinctively looked away from the repressiveness of Scottish Presbyterianism and towards the freedom offered by American culture, in particular Charles Olson, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac and Charlie Parker. His first poems were published in 1962 and, by 1965, he was reading at the first international Poetry Olympics at the Royal Albert Hall alongside Allen Ginsberg.

While supporting a family in Bermondsey, south-east London - bringing up four daughters with his wife Maureen - McGrath was drawn to the burgeoning underground scene. A CND supporter, he had been features editor on Peace News when, in 1966, he was asked by John Hopkins, Jim Haynes and Barry Miles to be founder editor of the counter-cultural International Times (IT), brought together with what he called "the fervour of a revolutionary movement and the mystique of Zen". He stayed for 12 issues before "the story turned sour", and he left "on the edge of a breakdown".

True to the times, he experimented with psychedelic drugs and was a heroin user for two years. He would revisit his experiences in The Innocent, staged by Howard Davies for the RSC in 1979. At 28, disillusioned with London and "sick with heroin", he returned to Scotland, came off the drug and took a place at Glasgow University to study English and drama.

A gifted pianist, he was musical director on Billy Connolly and Tom Buchan's The Great Northern Welly Boot Show (1972), a riotous celebration of the Upper Clyde shipbuilders' work-in. Two years later, having already brought Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Glasgow, he set up the Third Eye Centre, a shrine to the avant garde, which is still in operation as the Centre for Contemporary Arts. By the time he left in 1977, he was establishing his name as a playwright with close ties to Edinburgh's Traverse, but also found time to establish Glasgow's Tron Theatre at the turn of the decade.

In 1976 Laurel and Hardy, a touching portrait of the double-act, was a popular hit, yet, like The Hardman, which he wrote with the convict Jimmy Boyle, it bore the hallmarks of his interest in jazz, improvisation and poetry. In 1979's Animal - his favourite - he produced a script consisting almost entirely of stage directions and the grunts of a shrewdness of apes.

His other plays include The Android Circuit, 1-2-3 and Buchanan as well as a two-part adaptation of Tankred Dorst's Merlin - translated by Ella Wildridge, his partner of 20 years. As important as these was his work supporting a generation of playwrights - among them David Harrower, David Greig and Douglas Maxwell - and it is thanks to McGrath that the Playwrights' Studio, Scotland was established in 2004.

Never one to trade on past glories, he was restlessly inquisitive to the end. No epitaph better sums him up than his own lines from Laurel and Hardy: "Growing old/My jaws unfold/My face is wrinkled/Starting to crinkle/But we'll be bold/Before we're old/We'll show them what we're made of."

He is survived by Ella and three of his daughters.

© Mark Fisher, 2009

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