Edinburgh Makar

Latest Posts

Edinburgh Award

My first commission as Makar, just after I took up the post, was to write a poem in honour of the Edinburgh Award winner. Last year the award went to Sir Tim O’Shea, then Principal of Edinburgh University, who was just about to retire. Watch this space for a poem, later in the year, for the 2018 winner. In the meantime, here’s my poem for Sir Tim.

(for Sir Timothy O’Shea)

A shilling life? Just look it up online.
The internet will give you all the facts
(though facts are not the story – yours or mine –
the story’s in the words, the deeds, the acts).

Enquire within on (almost) everything –
the universe is at your fingertips.
Count angels on a pin, hear mermaids sing,
go back to the Big Bang, in youtube clips.

Just bear in mind a wise old poet spoke
of wisdom-lost-in-knowledge, knowledge lost
in too-much-information – it’s no joke.
Post-truth is where we’ve come to – that’s the cost.

But crank up your search engine anyway.
Results? Two hundred thousand at a click.
Refine your search, see what it has to say
about your subject – make it specific.

Our man’s a hybrid, international –
he’s German-Irish, Pole, (Silesian),
his family divided by the wall,
by politics – ugly, dystopian.

And born of that, a search for openness,
a world without walls, freedom to explore
our endless possibility, and yes,
our oneness, our humanity and more.

It started with a gift from his grandfather –
a big old taperecorder, reel-to-reel.
A machine with a memory – a wonder –
And there it was, his own, a miracle!

Fast-forward sixty years to where we are –
a nanosecond only, in real time –
but in that time he’s followed his own star,
a true original, a paradigm.

He’s primus inter pares, first among
his equals, unsurpassed, redoubtable.
His intellect is sharp, his will is strong.
The man’s hard drive is incorruptible!

His universe, the university –
Open it up! Invite the whole world in!
Welcome difference, diversity
push back barriers, boundaries – begin.

There’s innovation and good governance
to let imagination do its work,
the sciences, the arts joined in a dance –
light of the mind, a pure creative spark.

These massive online courses (moocs to you!)
a revolution – access open, free
available to all – can this be true?
(A million studying philosophy!)

So maybe information can still turn
to knowledge, knowledge grow into wisdom –
for that’s the hope, that we love what we learn
and what we love and learn we can become.

There is no end to what we still can know.
Infinity? Beyond? Let’s boldly go!

Poetry in New York

At the end of August I took part in the annual Sri Chinmoy Poetry Festival in New York. The event marked the forthcoming 70th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the keynote speaker was Ambassador AK Chowdhury, former Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN, who spoke eloquently on the long struggle, in which he played a major role, to have the Declaration recognised and accepted.


One of the highlights of the Edinburgh International Book Festival was hearing Yanis Varoufakis in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti – two sane voices in a world gone mad. The former Greek Finance Minister’s most recent book is Adults in the Room. Near the end of his session, in response to a question from the audience, he paraphrased Gramsci, saying we have to be pessimistic with the mind but optimistic in the heart. Sound advice!

August part one.

I returned to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, reading from my first book of short stories – Its Colours They Are Fine. The book was originally published over 40 years ago, in 1977, and has just been reissued by Canongate in a lovely new paperback edition as part of their Canons series of classics. I was due to read with former Makar Ron Butlin but he had to pull out due to ill health. I wish him a speedy recovery. (Ron was also due to read from his first novel, The Sound of My Voice, also recently reissued). In the end I read on my own in a session ably chaired by Brian Taylor, weel-kent political commentator for the BBC. It was intriguing for me to revisit my earliest work and re-establish contact with a younger self. For the most part, I felt it still held up, and here is a passage from one story (Auld Lang Syne) which might still serve s a kind of literary credo:

To walk along these streets is to stir so many memories.
A streetcorner. A shopfront. The texture of a stone wall. The way a girl’s hair hangs. The pattern on a dress. Everything brings back moments, trivial in themselves, beautiful and funny and sad. Bits and pieces. Fragments in a dream.
Sometimes I feel I know everything that has ever been, and will one day remember it all. All the fragments will make one great timeless whole. Then these moments remembered, this restless deja vu, seem part of an endless awakening, to something more.
Sometimes it seems the fragments contain the whole; and every moment is eternity, every little thing is infinite. And the moment itself is its own significance, its own meaning.

Thali Katori

Continuing the recap, in October I organised  a reading at Citadel Books to promote Thali Katori, a new anthology of Scottish / South Asian poems. Other poets taking part were Bashabi Fraser and Alan Riach (editors of the anthology) and former Makars Christine De Luca and Valerie Gillies, along with Indian-born poets Shampa Ray and Jameela Muneer.


I’m not an animal, I’m not a man,
I am a god – I Am since time began.
God of Beginnings, Guardian at the Gate,
I’m Lord of Thresholds, transcend time and fate.

What you see is the form that I assume.
Here I am, the elephant in the room –
proboscis, tusks, pot belly, flapping ears.
Light on my feet, I’ll dance away your fears.

Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles,
performer of everyday miracles.
Your children know me well, each avatar –
I’m Horton, Dumbo, Kala Nag, Babar.

But yes, those obstacles – who put them there?
Now, offer me your mantra, homage, prayer.
Aum Ganeshaya Nama – chant my name.
Aum Ganeshaya Nama – chant my name.



Makar appointment

Some catching up to do, posting my Makar-related activities over the last 9 months. We’ll start back in October with my appointment, which was confirmed in a ceremony at the City Chambers by Lord Provost Frank Ross. Here, below, is a photo from the event.

Also there were friends from the worlds of writing, art, publishing and diplomacy, including previous Makars Christine De Luca, Valerie Gillies and Stewart Conn.  (In the left foreground of the picture is the Japanese Consul General, Mr Daisuke Matsunaga)


Here’s a poem of mine I read out – a sonnet no less – not written for the occasion, but appropriate in terms of the season, the sense of passing time.



Sometimes you hear a perfect sonnet line,
spoken in passing, the word on the street
fall easily but as if by design
into that good, old, pentameter beat.
So on this late September afternoon,
summer winding down, shading into fall,
the day, the year, this life, passing too soon,
I almost hear the meaning of it all
as a young mother calls out to her son
running daft in this scrap of city park.
She calls, knowing this time will soon be done,
but as if love might yet hold back the dark,
‘Just play a while and then we have to go.’
Just play a while, and then we have to go.


More to follow, soon. Watch this space!

Alan (Spence)




Hello there…

At last! I’m in! Only 9 months after my appointment as Makar, I’ve managed (technophobe though I am) to open this web page and start talking to you about what I’ve been up to. (Many thanks for technical support to Rebecca at Edinburgh City of Literature office, where I’m writing this…)

My predecessor, Christine de Luca, did a wonderful job in her time as Makar, and I’ve been following in her footsteps and also taking wee diversions of my own.(Making-it-up-as-I-go-along!)  Over the next couple of weeks I’ll do a retrospective, letting you know about the various ploys I’ve come up with, or been co-opted into, and the amazing opportunities that have come my way.

Right now I’m gearing up for the Edinburgh International Book Festival where I’ll be reading with another former maker, Ron Butlin (3.45pm on 16th August).

Most afternoons I’m to be found at my wee bookshop, Citadel Books, in Abbeyhill. (41 Montrose Terrace). I’ve organised some events there too, and will let you know as more come up.

On we go…




A-Z Poems at the City Art Centre

Poetry at the City Art Centre

Booklet of poems by local poets for the exhibition

The final poetry reading to coincide with the Edinburgh Alphabet Exhibition at the City Art Centre took place today (27th September 2017).   There were lovely poems by Jenni Daiches, Dorothy Lawrenson, Patricia McCaw, LesleyMay Miller and a reprise from Jane Aldous.  We had beer & boots, the Forth Railway Bridge, makers of airships, ceramics and the Washerwomen on Calton Hill among other subjects.  The poems definitely captured the Z is for Zeitgeist!   Thanks are due to all the local poets who took part in these July and September readings in our wonderful city museums.

A-Z Poetry at the City Art Centre

Poetry at the City Art Centre

City Art Centre poetry reading

There are three short poetry events in September to highlight the current exhibition (Edinburgh Alphabet) and the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology: half an hour of gentle promenading round the exhibition at the City Art Centre, stopping here and there for a poem.   Gallery stools available if you need a seat.  Entrance is free and there’s a bonus – a free copy of lots of themed poems by local poets.  All welcome!

Dates and times are: Saturday 16th 11a.m – 11.30am;  Friday 22nd 11a.m – 11.30am;  Wednesday 27th 11a.m – 11.30am

The photo shows poets Jane Bonnyman, Kevin Cadwallender. Anne Connolly, Joy Hendry and Anita John with audience at the first reading.  We all enjoyed it!