Michael Alexander speaks to Dundee street poet Mark Thomson about his recent tribute to the late musician Michael Marra.
When Dundee street poet Mark Thomson heard that mural artist Michael Corr had created a giant portrait of Michael Marra in Lochee, he knew he had to go and see it for himself.
Not only was Mark a fan of Marra’s work, he’d had the honour of working with him on a project at Grove Academy in Broughty Ferry not long before the musician died.
But as Mark drove towards the artwork at Aimer Square with the simple aim of soaking up its colourful grandeur, he suddenly thought: “What if I took one of his songs and turned it into a poem?”
Choosing the right song
Mark knew straight away which Michael Marra song would fit.
Several years before, he’d seen Chris Rattray’s The Mill Lavvies.
The play, which Michael Marra wrote the songs for and acted in, was first performed at Dundee Rep in 1998, before being revived in 2002 and again in 2012, just a month before Michael’s death.
Set in the early 1960s in a Dundee mill where most of the workforce are women, it’s set in the mill’s male toilets and dips into the lives of five men whose banter, tricks, petty cruelties and occasional kindnesses to one another reflect the changes going on in society around them.
One song that stood out was If Dundee was Africa – described as “a geography lesson in sound-pictures”.
At one point in the play, Erchie wants to know where North Africa is but, since he is unable to read or write, one of the other men has to find a way of explaining its location to him without the aid of an atlas or globe.
He does so with this song: “If Dundee was Africa, And Fife was Antarctica, If Arbroath was India, And Perth was Peru, In that darkest of continents How happy Eh’d be, Cause that would mean Aiberdeen Was deep in the Mediterranean Sea, And a’body would agree That’s a no bad place for Aiberdeen to be.”
Mark ended up creating a short video of himself reciting If Dundee Was Africa against the backdrop of the Michael Marra mural – the central piece of a new street art mural project instigated by Love Lochee.
However, Mark still finds it quite “bizarre” how the filming of his recital worked out.
“A couple of weeks after I had the idea, I was trying to learn the song because I wanted to memorise it,” explains Mark.
“I looked on Facebook and I saw a lassie I ken from Kirrie – who’s also a community education worker in Dundee.
“I told her about my idea and she thought it would work.
“She put me in touch with John Gill who filmed all the murals in Dundee. I pinged the idea to him and he was like ‘yep, I’m up for that’.
“So that was how it came about.
“Also the mental thing that did it as well was someone sprayed graffiti on the mural.
“Turned out the artist Michael Corr was coming up the next day to fix it, so I went and met the artist too. It was quite a bizarre thing to happen. It was almost like the graffiti was meant to happen so I could meet the artist.”
Mark, 54, and based in Kirriemuir, has built up a reputation over the years as a street poet.
A freelance writer for 15 years who used to work as writer in residence at Castle Huntly and Noranside open prisons, he’s had two books published, performed as far away as China and is currently working on a documentary in Aberdeen about fishermen and Travellers.
But the former Rockwell High School pupil, who grew up in the Ardler and St Mary’s area of Dundee, was 33 years old before he started writing.
Having left school at 16 with no qualifications, he spent most of the next 20 years working in factories or as a labourer on and off building sites.
It was only when he split up from his first wife and started living in a flat on Dundee’s Lochee Road that he started writing everything down that had always gone on in his head as well as what went on around about him in the schemes, in the pubs, in the city centre and on the streets.
“One of the first things I did when I split up from my wife and moved into the flat on Lochee Road was cut the plug off the TV because I was like ‘I do not want to sit and vegetate through the TV!’,” laughs Mark.
“So after I cut the plug off I thought ‘god what AM I going to do?’
“So I started writing and I started drawing as well.
“Eventually I started getting better at it.
“I joined a few groups. I used to go to a group on the Hilltown, then a couple of other writing groups.
“It just kind of grew from there. The more I got into it, the more I thought I quite like this – even doing it as a hobby.
“It was great just to off load stuff. But just to give myself a laugh as well.”
Passion for Dundee
Mark describes his poetry as a testament to his passion and love of Dundee, its people and its language.
Its authenticity comes from it being spoken in Mark’s broad Dundee dialect.
In 2009 he published two books – ‘Bard fae thi buildin site’ and ‘This 20:09’ which looked at the effect Scotland’s famous ancestors have had on us, and what they would think of Scotland today.
As a freelance writer, he started getting involved in various projects.
Perhaps some of his most formative experiences, however, came when he started working with prisoners at Castle Huntly and Noranside.
Working with prisoners across the board including murderers and paedophiles, his aim was, as part of their rehabilitation, to get them to write poetry then stand up and perform it.
“I ended up doing a couple of gigs in prison and people got to ken what I was doing,” he says.
“Obviously I went to Castle Huntly and Noranside and had a couple of gigs in there, and they were like all of a sudden ‘we could open a job for you’.
“I would do two days at Castle Huntly and two days at Noranside. Four days a week I’d work.
“It was about me getting them to write.
“But the prisons are quite hard to work in as well – dealing with all these guys.
“So what I did one time was say ‘look lads, I’m sick of coming here and telling you lads what to do when you’ve got 1000 stories in those halls. Take some of those stories and put them all together. You’ll not need to think about it because it’s already there’.”
Mark does a poem called ‘Try Being Me’. He would open up about himself and then give prisoners the title with the challenge – ‘now tell me about you’?
Mark says there was some “quite deep and dark stuff” that could come out in the prisoners’ poetry.
But there’s one amusing story that springs to mind when he thinks back to a visit he made to Inverness Prison a couple of years ago.
“One of the guys came in and said ‘I’ve got a thing to think about’. He said ‘What if all the words fell out all the books?’. I thought ‘oh, that’s quite interesting. Well we can get rid of the Bible and the Koran for a start!’
“So I told the guard, and the guard said ‘that’s because he wants all the words to fall off his f***ing charge sheet!’
“It was all about rehabilitation. It was for them to write about themselves and show some feeling as well and tap into what they were maybe hiding away.”
Mark, who now works as a postman, still writes.
As well as the Aberdeen-based documentary he’s working on, he recently performed alongside the Balgoni Boys at Cupar’s C in the Park as a tribute to the late slam poet, artist and musician Pete Cura who died in March aged 61.
“What a hoot we had – it was great just to be there and do stuff for Pete and that,” he says.
While he admittedly “stumbled” into being a poet, the words keep coming and it’s particularly important that his work can be heard.
“It’s really important so you can hear the sound of the voice – how you can play around with words,” he adds.
“You get the gist of how it goes – the rhythm of it as well. Anyone who read that would have their own voice in their head.
“The Dundee dialect is really important as well.
“I push people to use their own words. Old words. My granny was a Dundonian. I missed the way she spoke.
“She had old school Dundee voices way of saying things. I just loved it. I just loved how she played around with language, but that lives on in this type of poetry.”