Tom McGrath Obituary


JOYCE MCMILLAN on TOM MCGRATH for Scotsman Obituaries, 5 May 2009

Tom McGrath
born Rutherglen, Glasgow, 23 October 1940
died Kingskettle, Fife, 29 April 2009

IN THE PLAYWRIGHT, POET AND JAZZ MUSICIAN Tom McGrath, who has died in Fife at the age of 68, Scotland has lost one of its true free spirits in the creative arts, and a man who – through his  own work, and through his unique personal mix of creative energy and sheer human kindness – exercised a profound influence on a whole generation of  Scottish writers and artists.

Born in Rutherglen in 1940, McGrath was one of that generation of   young British artists whose lives were transformed  by the social and conceptual revolution of the 1960’s.  As a schoolboy, he was shaken and stirred by the new waves of music that were flooding across the Atlantic into British popular culture; and by 1960, he had fled the relatively sedate life of a Glasgow school-leaver for a London underground scene already alive with the work of British and American beat poets and writers, from Allen Ginsberg and Adrian Mitchell to the famously tormented Scottish genius, Alexander Trocchi.

McGrath wrote poetry, and became features editor of the radical anti-war journal, Peace News.   In 1965, he took part in a poetry reading with Allen Ginsberg, at the Albert Hall, which is remembered as a crucial moment in the development of the transatlantic Sixties movement; and in 1966, McGrath became the founding editor of the seminal British underground journal, International Times.

By 1969, though – when some of his poems appeared in Michael Horowitz’s Children Of Albion collection of radical poetry – McGrath was becoming frightened by the extremes of late-Sixties drug culture in London, and was wrestling with his own heroin addiction.  With his wife Maureen and young family of daughters, he returned to Glasgow, where he quickly recovered his health.   He began to study English and Drama at Glasgow University, and linked up with other writers such as Tom Leonard, Alan Spence and Liz Lochhead to become a prime mover in the growing Scottish cultural revival of the 1970’s.  He was instrumental in the founding of Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre in Sauchiehall Street (now the Centre for Contemporary Arts), and was director of the centre from 1974-77.

During the Edinburgh Festival of 1972, McGrath’s relationship with the performing arts took a new turn when he became musical director of the legendary Great Northern Welly Boot Show, a stage celebration of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in which became the breeding-ground for a brilliant new generation of Scottish talent, including Billy Connolly, Bill Paterson, and future Royal Lyceum director Kenny Ireland.  From that moment, theatre played an increasingly important part in McGrath’s creative life; his first play, Laurel and Hardy, was performed at the Traverse Theatre in 1976, transferring almost immediately to London.

McGrath’s best-known play, though, remains The Hardman, which premiered at the Traverse in 1977.  Co-written with Jimmy Boyle, the Glasgow-born sculptor, writer and ex-criminal who had recently been released from prison after serving part of a life sentence, the play was an intense, stylised exploration of Boyle’s early life, and of the cult of male violence on the streets of Glasgow.  McGrath went on to write a series of major plays for the Traverse over the next half-decade.  In 1979, the Edinburgh International Festival presented his remarkable work Animal, a wordless exploration of the same impulses of violence and creativity, in the human psyche, that McGrath had explored on in The Hardman.  And in 1981, the Traverse produced his experimental trilogy 1-2-3, one of the boldest pieces of abstract drama ever seen there; it went on to play at the ICA in London, and at the Onstage Festival in Toronto.  Around this time, McGrath often expressed irritation at the way in which, because The Hardman dealt with working-class Scottish themes, it was often assumed that his work belonged to a tradition of gritty kitchen-sink naturalism; in fact, he was a confirmed abstract experimentalist in theatre, as in every other art-form.

In the early 1980’s, McGrath became a strong supporter of the founding of the Glasgow Theatre Club at the Tron, later the Tron Theatre, and contributed short plays to the early lunchtime seasons there.  He also wrote for television throughout the decade, contributing a memorable play, Blowout, to BBC Scotland’s End Of The Line series about the slow death of industrial Scotland.  He pursued his career as a jazz musician and a performer of his own poetry in venues around Scotland; and in 1989, his huge impressionistic show City, about Glasgow itself, was one of the early productions to be staged at the new Tramway theatre.

At the beginning of the 1990’s, he took on the role of Scottish Arts Council Associate Literary Director, based at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, and became a key figure in the development and encouragement of new theatre writing talent in Scotland.  Following the end of his marriage in the 1980’s, he formed a new and enduring partnership with Ella Wildridge, then literary manager at the Traverse Theatre, with whom he set up home in Fife; his work in supporting young playwrights led directly to the foundation of the Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland, and to the creation of the Traverse’s influential new writing cabaret, The Monday Lizard.

By the end of the decade, McGrath’s health was in decline; but he continued to write, producing Dream Train for Nicholas Bone’s Magnetic North company in 1999, and the elegiac My Old Man for the same company in 2005.  In the same year, he also took great pleasure in a highly successful revival of Laurel and Hardy at the Royal Lyceum.  During his last years, McGrath found great joy in his home life with Ella, and in the birth of his five grandchildren; and, as ever, in the battle of ideas, and the struggle for ever-greater creative freedom for everyone, that had shaped his life.   He is survived by Ella, by his daughters Julie, Sonia and Alice, and by his grandchildren; as well as by an army of friends and admirers, in Scotland and far beyond, for whom he was all that an artist should be – always questioning, never predictable, endlessly encouraging of the creativity of others, and a passionate international citizen of the postwar world that made him, as well as of a small country that he helped to make less small, by the sheer breadth of his imagination.


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