Jack Withers – A Glasgow Lad
Taken over by Parkinson’s disease. Poet, dancer, walker, singer, political activist, tennis player, cross country skier, polymath. A lasting memory is Jack trudging through snow from his home in Kirklee to this very place, Maryhill Crematorium to Kay Carmichael’s funeral in mid-Winter 2009. At that time already beginning to be stricken by Parkinson’s – ever stubborn, determined – Jack walked. He walked and walked. He loved walking. And with Bea’s support he kept walking as long as he could, every day in all weathers. Glasgow born and bred, worked in factories, sometimes unemployed, Jack wrote and published many stories, poems, and plays for radio and tele.
I first met Jack in 1981 in the Third Eye Centre where I was working at the time to launch ProjectAbility. I heard that he had been one of the shakers and movers in the folk revival organising the first Glasgow Folk Festivals which eventually morphed into Celtic Connections.
Often bitten by the black dog, Jack howled into Survivors’ Poetry Scotland with the panache of a seasoned performer. Always memorising his poems and songs, he cajoled our members onto the stage. We played to mental hospital wards, day centres, festivals, even toured down to England. Once we were invited to provide the “sorbet” course between long keynote speeches at a conference in Dunblane Hydro about the Hospital closure programme (so-called Care in the Community). We devised short eight minute performances with placard photos of patients and staff from Woodllee Hospital. Each 8 minutes ended with a song such as:
We are crazy we are mad
and sometimes bad
Aint no doctor gonna detain me
Cuz ah got six personalities
Whichever one they lock up
The other five are gonna be running a muck…..
Performed in call and response with a marching rhythm, everyone joined in. After our first set, half the audience were in tears. By the end of the conference, we had raised more than £250,000 for Survivors’ Poetry Scotland. We wore black T-shirts with bold gold letter: GLAD TO BE MAD. Jack continued supporting Survivors’ Poetry for several years, publishing regularly in Nomad, our poetry journal.
Angry yes, and scared too: “…..Scared of repetition / Scared of destruction / Scared at never arriving at an end-solution / As to why you’re so scared.”
“and oh that persistent stink of dead bodies, shit and piss” Jack’s words are a silent scream: DON’T BE LAX AND PAY YOUR POLL TAX …. SPELL IT OUT FOR THOSE WITHOUT A CLOUT
On the back of his book Balancing on a Barbed Wire Fence, Tessa Ransford – founder of the Scottish Poetry Library and also recently joining the dead poets’ society – wrote about Jack: “a poet who cares about his community”; Edwin Morgan wrote: “reminiscent of rap but more irregular – dissidence and heresy make their own point”. And Alasdair Gray in his introduction to A Real Glasgow Archipelago, “these verses by Jack Withers crackle and spit with anger at the present state of Glasgow….” Some things don’t change. Jack’s anger was channelled into his writing and performing “with no fast slithering back to the womb / as it’s all well ahead of schedule our common planned womb.” With compassion for all of life, especially the downtrodden, he always heard “elsewhere the earth crying out for rain”. And to end this tribute to fellow poet, here is one of Jack the Lad’s well-remembered verses he’s often recited:
A message boy I am
And a message boy
And the message I bring
Is that I’m not alone
in being insane