City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Book Review: Johnny Aathin by William Hershaw

By Irene Brown - Posted on 26 January 2012


In years gone by, shops that sold a great variety of goods were known as Jenny Aathins. To advertise their mercantile miscellany, they were happy to huddle under the umbrella name that signalled their selling everything ‘from a needle to an anchor’. (Now we have similar shops, but I prefer the nomenclature ‘from the needless to anathema’ for some of these.)

When I was growing up in Glasgow, the queen of Jenny Aathins was Lewis’s in Argyle Street. In this colossus of an emporium, the smells of ham, cheese and the contents of a great conglomeration of biscuit bins greeted you as you entered the ground floor. From there, you went up the moving escalators that covered five floors each selling an eye watering array of goods – hats and haberdashery, suits and silks, toys and trinkets, furniture and flannels, scraps and scrubbers. You could even get your hair cut and at Christmas time, their Santa Grotto attracted queues that patiently circled the building and crept up the stairs to the magic.  As a child, it felt as though the whole world was in this shop.

The “…  shadowy, shape-shifting, regenerating figure …” that is  Johnny Aathin, the eponymous  voice in Hershaw’s latest collection,  is described by John Herdman in his introductory note to the book as being “…more than Everyman – he is Every Thing.” In other words, he is the whole world. Leastways, he is the whole world of the fictitious small Fife mining town that has inspired the poems in this collection.

The reader gets to know Johnny Aathin throughout the book by means of a series of prose passages that precede and set the tone of the poems where he is inter alia the voice of a poet, a bird, a seed, a tramp and even coal itself. I was reminded when reading the book of the Japanese Haibun form where prose and poetry sit together harmoniously.  For aficionados of Haibun, I am aware that Hershaw is doing something different in this work, but his departure from his usual style in this happy marriage of prose and poetry echoes, for me, the ease with which the two forms sit together in Haibun.

Hershaw employs various styles throughout, from the simple bairn rhymes of the Ice Cream Van Man or Jock the Coalman to the lengthy and complex The Holographic Dominie. A more anglicised version of this and the beautiful poem on the cycle of life, The Leddy o the Wuids, appeared in his 2003 pamphlet, Rising to the Light – A Poem for a New School whose proceeds went to Children’s Hospice Association Scotland.

In previous publications, Hershaw, while still writing in his Fife Scots, has provided a glossary to his work.  In Johnny Aathin, he uses what he refers to as “the stem cell leid of Scots”. This is less a new voice; more of a deeper one.  Hershaw, like the miners in his small town, has howked in the deep seams of the Scots language for this new work.  There is no glossary, and while some individual words were a challenge to my own urban Scots, the standard of the poetry and the deeply felt and honest sentiments that are Hershaw’s hallmark, ring through clearly in this moving hymn to humanity and to life.

I came across the heart felt poetry of William Hershaw a number of years ago and have had the pleasure of meeting this modest and generous man, whose poetry is full of sympathy, empathy and well placed humour.  A catalyst for this book was Hershaw’s being asked to write a poem for the David Annand sculpture in Lochgelly.  The result was God the Miner that features in the book as God (i the image o a miner).  This is a book worth reading and supporting on many levels, not least its assured use of the old Scots Tung.

Johnny Aathin is published by Windfall Books (ISBN978 0 726439) and has been edited by Lillian King.

Copies of the book are available for £11 from the Leukaemia Research website shop,  Lillian King, Windfall Books, 2 Railway Cottages, Westcroft Way, Kelty, KY4 OAT or William Hershaw, 39 McKenzie Crescent , Lochgelly, KY5 9LT

All proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to Leukaemia Research. (SCO37529)