A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 321


Poets who matter: No. 20 – William Blake

FARMINGTON  - Here we go a-scouring among the population, to find a poet laureate of Unstained reputation.

Unstained - that’s the tough part, and such a high hurdle ever results in the neglect of visionary genius. This was the case with William Blake, a poet (mystic and painter) who seemed to matter little back in his day, being glibly dismissed as “mad.”

We’ll get to Blake shortly. First, with current Poet Laureate Andrew Periale about to hang his laurels on a hook, it should be explained that a Rochester committee is once again going through the formal process of advertising for, and winnowing down applications from, prospective versifiers. (One dare not say rhymers, these days, for rhyme has largely been reclassified as a fad or fetish.) The deadline for P.L. applications is actually Jan. 9, but if you resolutely insist you are a poet, live in or near Rochester, have actually written some stuff, and most importantly, qualify as Unstained, I think the committee might still consider a late entry. Visit for an application form, post haste.

Anyway, this search, and a couple of other factors in the past week or so, have turned my mind back to  the Scottish city of Glasgow, over 30 years ago, where I worked as a police officer running the Easterhouse Project. It was a tin and cinderblock recreation center built by the Army to provide rudimentary amenities for many hundreds of gang kids in a sprawling housing estate of almost 40,000 people.

One reason for my flashback, has been the recent spate of burglaries in the greater Rochester area. No place is immune from break-ins, of course, and this included the Project. I got to work one day, and found a section of the corrugated tin roof had been ripped opened like a sardine can. Part of a Blake epigram runs:


Some men, created for destruction, come,

Into the World, and make the World their home ...


Not much was stolen, but repairing the damage looked daunting, and so I telephoned a friend, Danny Healy, who was a builder, living over on the west side of the city. Out he came within the hour with a truck-load of tools, bashed everything back into shape, resealed the bolts with washers cut from a deflated rubber soccer ball, and plastered the interior. And he would barely take a penny for his labor, because it was the Easterhouse Project.

The gang boys milling around took a liking to Danny. He was unconventional, one could say, with long twin beards straggling out of each side of his face, dark piercing eyes with a good heart that shone through them, and a frequent and extended maniacal laugh. Most people knew him as Mad Danny, partly on this account.

I sometimes recalled snatches of “Mad” William Blake’s Laughing Song:


When the painted birds laugh in the shade,

Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread,

Come live and be merry and join with me,

To sing the sweet chorus of ‘Ha, Ha, He!’


When Danny laughed, though, there were protracted gales of “Ha! Ha! He!” and this fascinated the boys of the Drummy, the Aggro and the Den Toi.

A tense time was approaching at the Project. The three gangs, after years of clashes (some of them murderous), were now in a tenuous state of truce, brought about by joint camping trips and rock-climbing adventures in the highlands, not to mention the discovery of magic mushrooms growing on neutral territory. Five-a-side soccer, though, played daily in the Project hall with astonishing fury, could quickly unravel any bonds. In just a few days time, the first ever official tournament involving the three gangs was scheduled to take place. There was an awkward number of teams – seven – comprised of three Drummy sides, with two from the Toi and one from the Aggro, plus a team of apprehensive cops from the local station. 

I had an idea to ease the tension, and asked Danny if he would enter a team, and thus Danny’s Bearded Wonders were cobbled together from West End drinking buddies. Sandy Blackwood was in the team, he who was mentioned in the very first Farmington Corner of Dec. 11, 1984, for those obsessed with historical minutia. Scout Lamont, who has actually visited Farmington, was recruited, plus Death’s Head Dougie who took the piano-smashing photos (See Poets who matter: No 13 – Percy Bysshe Shelley), and a quiet guy called Brian, roped in because they were one beard short of a quintet.

That Sunday, just a few days after Danny had fixed the roof, the Bearded Wonders, team number eight, saved the day by providing the comic relief needed to ease the threat of violence, beyond that enacted in the name of frenzied sport.


And now the raging armies rush’d,

Like warring mighty seas;

The Heav’ns are shook with roaring war,

The dust ascends the skies!


Blake was penning Gwin, King of Norway but it pretty well described the opening games of the tourney.

But, on came the five Bearded Wonders and people speedily realized that even the weakest gang team would save face by winning at least one game. The “Hippies”, as they were dubbed, played earnestly but hopelessly; and when the Bearded Wonders goalie kicked the ball upfield, and by a fluke it struck an unsuspecting Sandy Blackwood on the head and shot into the opposing goal, the crowd cheered wildly, if a mite sarcastically.

For history fanatics, the Young Drummy eventually won the contest and captain Duncan Fletcher, in one of his rare amiable encounters with authority, was presented with a trophy by a police superintendent.

These memories had gathered a thick layer of dust in my mind until, just a few weeks ago, when Scout called me from Glasgow with a couple of news snippets.

“Mad Danny has a daughter, Siobhan,” he said, “and she coming over to Harvard. She wanted your number to give you a call. Oh, and Danny’s in jail in Morocco!”

On a whim, I googled “Mad Danny” and “Morocco” and there in 0.18 seconds were 1,100 results dating from September, 2011. The one below sums it up.

“Artist's vulnerable elderly father arrested in Morocco on drugs charges: The story of the drug arrest was major news in Scotland as 66-year-old Daniel Healy – or ‘Mad Danny’ as he is known - from (Ardfern in Mid Argyll) was arrested last week, as he went to drive across the border between Morocco and Sebta, the Spanish-occupied city enclave.
“Healy was traveling under the false name of John McLeish and was found by police to have 100kg of cannabis resin, said to be worth £500,000, hidden in the water tank of the campervan he was driving, protected in metal containers.

“Since his arrest he has been held in the Moroccan prison of Tetouan.
“Originally a Glaswegian, Healy has been a regular if erratic resident of Ardfern. When he arrived, he became an immediate local legend, turning up in the pub with a live parrot on his shoulder. His daughter, Siobhan Healy, a noted artist in glass blowing, a maker of quite breathtakingly beautiful objects, went to Ardfern Primary School.
“According to reports in today’s press, he has told an acquaintance in Morocco – who says that Healy had no idea what was in his van – that he plans to plead guilty at his trial, which appears to be scheduled for Tuesday. This decision seems to rest upon questionable assurances he has been given that this plea will bring him no more than a year’s prison sentence.
“The British Embassy and the Foreign Office say they are aware of his arrest.”

I will leave the reader to draw what they will from that account.

William Blake, among his Poetical Sketches, has a 24-line poem, called, believe it or not, Mad Song. To be honest, it expresses gloomier sentiments than I hope Danny is feeling. It starts:


The wild winds weep.

And the night is a-cold:

Come hither, Sleep,

And my griefs unfold.


Siobhan called me last week, back in Scotland from her U.S. trip. She has an exhibit of Ghost Orchids in the Harvard Museum of Natural History which can be seen through March. She had visited the museum in December to give a lecture.

An online review enthuses “Scottish artist Siobhan Healy creates a subtle and thought-provoking piece inspired by the Ghost Orchid, a rare British wild flower recently rediscovered after it was thought to be extinct for 23 years. Healy depicts the orchid in transient & ethereal clear glass, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the potential loss of this fragile species—one in five wild flowers that are threatened with extinction.”

I asked Siobhan if she knew how her dad was faring. Turns out that she calls him regularly, as this is the 21st century and cell phones seem to have a double meaning in Morocco. In a way, she said, this whole business is a positive, for he hasn’t had a drink since last September and is now reading a lot. I told her all about the Bearded Wonders, and wished Danny the best. I didn’t relate the time he had wrecked a piano in a trendy Glasgow coffee shop by ferociously pounding out an ad lib song lampooning an architect, seated nearby, who apparently owed him money.

She e-mailed the following day to say that her dad had been cheered by the memories of those bygone days, and I told her that I would let those folks who care about vanishing flowers, know of her exhibit. (Check out for directions and details, or visit

Meanwhile, I apologize to all the versifiers of greater Rochester for highlighting yet another poet who rhymes. How on earth did those ancient codgers ever get published, let alone matter, you must ask?


Jan. 8, 2012


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