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Martin Currie

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

My late, lamented friend Martin Currie would have been 80 today. But Martin died barely two weeks after celebrating his 75th birthday over lunch with friends at the marvelous Shore Bar & Restaurant (with live jazz on Sundays) in Leith.

Martin was ... outrageous at times; joyful and passionate, deadly serious when he chose to be; a lover of life, of people, and of people working together to change the world. We were friends for over forty years and much of what I understand about how to shift power I learned from him (and Antonio Gramsci ... obviously).

Yvonne Strachan and Iain Reekie ended their obituary of our friend with these loving words. Even now my Scottish Presbyterian eyes well up. My friends knew him to his core.

Like all of us, Martin was not perfect. He sometimes drank too much, could be outrageous, thrawn and a bit of a rogue. He was also funny, generous, incredibly loyal and loved life. As a man, as a character and as a life force he will be sorely missed. For those who were lucky enough to know the man beneath the hat, to have been a friend or to have been in his lively and engaging company – sadly we won’t see his like again.

After I moved to Australia (in November 1999) it became our custom for me and Martin to speak on the phone each 12th January. This was a rare privilege. Martin's sometimes tangential relationship with the world's banking system resulted in a profound reluctance to answer calls (in the days before mobile phones became ubiquitous) unless he could be certain who the caller ... wasn't.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that since Martin's death I've not phoned the man whose life and friendship I will always cherish and want to celebrate. As I do now.

Instead of calling, I post a poem; one that I think expresses something that's in all of us (to varying degrees) but which, without a doubt, one found by the bucketful in Martin Currie.

I'm not entirely sure that Martin would approve of this year's choice: The Quality of Sprawl by Les Murray. A long time ago, Martin and I argued about the poem and the poet. In a bar on Rose Street, Edinburgh. Because that's what friends and comrades do at times.

We drink. And argue.

The Quality of Sprawl

by Les Murray

Sprawl is the quality

of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce

into a farm utility truck, and sprawl

is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts

to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.

Sprawl is doing your farm work by aeroplane, roughly,

or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home.

It is the rococo of being your own still centre.

It is never lighting cigars with ten dollar notes:

that's idiot ostentation and murder of starving people.

Nor can it be bought with the ash of million dollar deeds.

Sprawl lengthens the legs; it trains greyhounds on liver and beer.

Sprawl almost never says, Why not?, with palms comically raised

nor can it be dressed for, not even in running shoes worn

with mink and a nose ring. That is Society. That's Style.

Sprawl is more like the thirteenth banana in a dozen

or anyway the fourteenth.

Sprawl is Hank Stamper in Never Give an Inch

bisecting an obstructive official's desk with a chain saw.

Not harming the official. Sprawl is never brutal,

though it's often intransigent. Sprawl is never Simon de Montfort

at a town-storming: Kill them all! God will know His own.

Knowing the man's name this was said to might be sprawl.

Sprawl occurs in art. The fifteenth to twenty-first

lines in a sonnet, for example. And in certain paintings.

I have sprawl enough to have forgotten which paintings.

Turner's glorious Burning of the Houses of Parliament

comes to mind, a doubling bannered triumph of sprawl -

except he didn't fire them.

Sprawl gets up the noses of many kinds of people

(every kind that comes in kinds) whose futures don't include it.

Some decry it as criminal presumption, silken-robed Pope Alexander

dividing the new world between Spain and Portugal.

If he smiled in petto afterwards, perhaps the thing did have sprawl.

Sprawl is really classless, though. It is John Christopher Frederick Murray

asleep in his neighbours' best bed in spurs and oilskins,

but not having thrown up:

sprawl is never Calum, who, in the loud hallway of our house

reinvented the Festoon. Rather

it's Beatrice Miles going twelve hundred ditto in a taxi,

No Lewd Advances, no Hitting Animals, no Speeding,

on the proceeds of her two-bob-a-sonnet Shakespeare readings.

An image of my country. And would that it were more so.

No, sprawl is full gloss murals on a council-house wall.

Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind.

Reprimanded and dismissed,

it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail

of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth.

Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek

And thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl.

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