Liz Lochhead: Competent at Peever

March 2013

Publication: The Times

The game of ‘peever’ or ‘peevers’ is also known as ‘pallalls’ and ‘beds’ but perhaps most commonly as hopscotch.


As if to drive home the point a series of numbered squares has been permanently drawn on the floor of Scotland Street School ¾surely one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s most elegant creations. The school, now a museum run by Glasgow City Council, is one of the few buildings of note in Kingston, on the south side of the Clyde.


Once a thriving community, Kingston was almost completely cleared of its ‘unacceptable’ tenement housing to make way for the motorways which sliced up the city into random segments in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 


Indeed, it seems a minor miracle that Mackintosh’s work of genius was spared the wrecking ball, wielded so zealously elsewhere by the urban ‘improvers’.


Now the grid system of semi-anonymous streets is characterised by the kind of urban blight ¾in hock to the car and hostile to the pedestrian and cyclist ¾which characterises so many US cities.


Good luck in finding this wonderful architectural diamond, for it is only sparsely signed in the immediate vicinity. This lack of information is just as rife within the building, which hosts an exhibition of writing, painting and installation (the fruits of a year-long residency) by one of the country’s most prominent cultural figures, Scotland’s Makar, or poet, Liz Lochhead.



Although Lochhead, who was born in 1947 did not attend Scotland Street, one imagines that hers (Newarthill Primary School in Lanarkshire) was similar in atmosphere and culture, if not architecture.


Lochhead, who studied at GSA from 1965 to 1970 has held education, or rather Scotland’s education system as a matter of concern throughout her career as a writer, and now as a visual artist. A project completed in 1972 documents her primary school and cites the rhyme common at the time “oor school’s a good wee school / built o lime and plaister/ the only thing that’s wrang wi it/ is the baldy heidit maister”.


It was not uncommon then (and even now) for the children’s language, the language of the street, the home and the work place, to be described as ‘slang’ ¾a kind of debased, second-class English. However, as many people are becoming increasingly aware, the language is Scots, currently being recognised, not before time, as an important part of the curriculum in our schools.


As is the case with many minority languages there was a systematic attempt to discourage the use of Scots in schools, as Lochhead’s poem Bairnsong/ Children’s Poem makes clear:


it wis January 
and a gey dreich day
the first day Ah went to the school….


….tae the place Ah'd learn to say
it was January
and a really dismal day
the first day I went to school….


This linguistic theme is one of Lohhead’s most persistent tropes, and is even embedded in the title which strikes up an opposition between the language of the report card (competent) and the language of the children (peever).


Despite her training, remarkably, this is Lochhead’s first exhibition of visual since leaving GSA . Various vitrines contain the instruments of pedagogy and punishment which formed the backbone of Scotland’s education system. A tawse sits next to readers and spelling aids; and a report on ‘backward children’ nestles among topic books from Cowboys to Robert the Bruce.


Lochhead has worked the idiom of the primary school art class ¾big, bold, colourful creations often accompanied by written text in the Makar’s unmistakable hand:  "Handwork is for boys sewing is for girls..";  "Still life, Still life, still life"; "the meaning of green..."  "Oh but this was such a happy night around our kitchen table..."


Although these are untitled works, the words lend a context to the images which en masse, together with the vitrine objects and schoolroom installation, form a visual mix which in turn is reinforced by the makar’s words “memory is collage’


The collaborative nature of this project is reinforced by the inclusion of writing by Jackie Kay, James McGonigal and others, as well as exhibition designers Pauline McCloy and Sha Nazir.


Lochhead is passionate about her field and engaging in her words and images. Although clearly underpinned by a strong sense of the drawn line, Lochhead’s visual imagery can be as bright and clear as her written word.


If this is a work in progress then it a fine, delicate and forceful one, without sentimentality. There’s a strong sense also that Lochhead’s mind is overflowing with imagery ¾verbal and pictorial. If the latter can match the former for popularity and quality, the we can expect to see the work of gifted emergent artist ¾forty years in the making.