The Saltire Society announced the winners of the 2019 Literary Awards at a glittering ceremony at the National Museum of Scotland. Kirstie Blair received the prestigious Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award for her Working Verse in Victorian Scotland: Poetry, Press, Community (published by Oxford University Press), and in a new award for 2019 Alasdair Gray was awarded the inaugural Saltire Society Scottish Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to Scottish literature. The Fountain caught up with Kirstie Blair to discuss the book in more depth, as well as winning the award.
TF: You not only won Scottish Research Book of the Year, you also won overall book of the year for the Saltire Society, you must be ecstatic?
It was extremely exciting and very unexpected, I know that a research book doesn’t often win, and in my academic field I was thinking of my book as relatively niche so it was just thrilling that people who aren’t academics had read it and really enjoyed it, and got the point of it, and thought it was interesting and relevant.
TF: What was it initially that compelled you to do a research project on Victorian working class verse, firstly?
I have been interested in popular Victorian poetry for quite a lot of my career, as I have always been fascinated by what people read, and by the fact that in this period we think of them reading Dickens but actually they were reading Tennyson and Longfellow and a host of other poets whose names we don’t remember. So that kind of slid into an interest in what working people were reading.
Back in 2013 I went to Dundee to look at the People’s Journal in hard copy in their archives because I had read that it had an interesting poetry column with lots of working class poets. The moment I opened it and looked at the first poetry column I thought this is the next five years of my research because I could see instantly it was full of material that people in my field would find really exciting and it was completely unknown.
TF: And what were the challenges with this type of project, there must have been many?
The main challenge is that there is so much material and a lot of it is not really known about. Although it might feel that there are lots of poets discussed about in my book, I must say that within it thats just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of writers there actually were. And as soon as you start looking at the local newspapers every town, sometimes every village had a local newspaper, sometimes more than one, every local newspaper published some poetry often by local working class writers in the area. To study all of those newspapers is an archive so vast that it is not in any way doable. So a big difficulty was selection, deciding where to focus, deciding which materials to include and recognising that I just couldn’t cover all of Scotland and all of the interesting writers that I wanted to cover.
TF: How did you filter that?
I decided that I wanted to focus on Glasgow and Dundee as primary centres for their production of working class writing because those were big key centres for the popular press as well. Also so that the book would be less Edinburgh – centric and it would be more about the big industrial cities. There is a lot in it about Lanarkshire, similarly because I was quite excited about what was happening in the new industrial towns. Because there’s been a persistent narrative that Victorian Scottish writers didn’t deal with the fact that Scotland became one of the World’s most industrialised nations, I wanted to use Lanarkshire to disprove that. And I reluctantly decided that I am just not qualified to deal with the amazing Gaelic writers who fortunately have been dealt with by people with much better expertise than me so I didn’t really go North of Aberdeen.
TF: What support did OUP offer when it came to this project?
Well mainly through their fantastic readers. We go through a process where we get anonymous readers reports but the reports were so enthusiastic and so helpful about a topic that as I said might be seen as obscure and they both strongly recommended publication. The press went with that which was great. Luckily for me this is my third book now, not my first. If it were my first I don’t know if the press would’ve been so keen but they’re very loyal to their authors and that’s a great thing. And they trusted that the book would be worth publishing.
TF: And what now after this accolade from Saltire Society, are you now working on a new research project and new publication?
Yes, well about a year and a half ago I was lucky enough to get a large collaborative grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a project called Piston Pen and Press and it expands this interest in writers and industrialism to look at Scotland and the North of England. So I would say that the book just scratched the surface. Since writing the book, we’ve found hundreds of fascinating new writers who were miners, railway workers, factory workers, in the locomotives works in Glasgow, in the Clyde ship yards, everywhere throughout Scotland and in Yorkshire and Lancashire and Cumbria and all points north so that is really exciting. We are developing publications, we are working on a database, we are doing creative events with a playwright and musicians based on the works that we’ve found. And I can already see that this project has such potential for expansion as well.