Monthly Archives: October 2015

Clavel – A film by Shona Main

James Robert Sinclair with his sheep - image Shona Main

James Robert Sinclair with his sheep – image Shona Main

I must express a very emotional and personal interest in Shona Main’s film.  My Granny was from Bressay; I still have a significant number of relations living in Shetland, and the last time I was there in 2010 was not only the year my Dad died, but it was the last time I was able to travel on a plane with my Mum due to her deteriorating mobility and eyesight.  Shetland is a vital part of me and my heritage, and I am still overwhelmed with emotion when I think about that holiday 5 years ago, and the unexpected death of my Mum just 2 years later.

It was a beautiful summer that July, and we spent time driving round the most stunning landscape in the world, up to the sheltered sandy beaches of Yell and Unst; feeding Shetland Ponies with apples en route; out to the Voes and over to Bressay to see photos of our ancestors at the Heritage Centre, then on to Sumburgh Head to witness the amazing travails of young puffins as they made their maiden flights.  Despite my bias, I can assure anyone who loves the natural world, who longs for a slower, quieter way of life, and who appreciates the very best qualities and characteristics of humanity, that you will love this film.

Debut filmmaker Shona Main introduced Clavel by talking about the subject of her film, James Robert Sinclair being “always there”, from when she was growing up in Shetland, through the times she returned, after leaving to become a journalist.  This idea of a particular adult (often not a relative) we might remember from our childhood or our early lives, who has been a constant, an anchor of emotion, of time and of heritage, translates beautifully into the constancy and importance of place which is explored in the film itself.

Shona talked in her introduction of her return to Shetland in 2011 at a time of great personal loss, and her determination to then make a film about James Robert, after having already started to write a book about him.  She told us that, although she had little skill in and experience of filmmaking, she had a clear idea of what she wanted to do, and managed to finance the whole project through crowdfunding.  She also felt, that at the age of 45, her life experience would surely inform her craft, which I certainly felt was something I, and surely many others in the audience could identify with and feel inspired by.

So, Shona continued, she spent a whole year travelling to and from Shetland, with the support of her partner, and she developed a relationship and a certain level of intimacy and trust with James Robert, by following him everywhere and also by giving him carte blanche to stop the filming at any point, which he never did, as he said he enjoyed the company.

The hours they spent together were more like informal chats and conversations and the end result has James Robert telling his own story and narrating throughout.  Although Shona explained it is currently unfashionable to have the main character as narrator, she gleefully declared “I don’t really care for fashion”, which brought a ripple of applause, laughter and approving noises from the audience.

The music is a very important part of the film; it is beautifully synchronised with the cinematography, and enhances the viewing experience perfectly, as all good film music must do.  Shona talks more about the composers and musicians, Alice Mullay and Jonathon Ritch, who had also know James Robert all their lives.  The harmonium in Bigton Church, where he himself had attended christenings, weddings and funerals over the decades of his life, had been used to play much of the music on, and the final piece of choral music, Dagalen, is sung by the men of the village of Bigton – Shona also thanks the whole village for all their support throughout the filming.

This review has taken me the longest to write of all the reviews I have written so far, but it is amongst the shortest, as I felt it a near impossible task to convey such a visually moving experience in words.  Clavel, as it unfolded in front of me was a work of utter joy; the reflection of one man’s simple way of life, for which he expressed a quiet passion.  His continuing involvement with the sheep farming year was beautifIMG_1514ully filmed, and the long shots of Shetland’s unique landscape interspersed with more intimate moments and conversations with the people he is closest to, were perfectly balanced.

James Robert’s love for Clavel and his expression of his desire to die there was a moment among many in the film for which I cannot find the English language that adequately describes the emotion it stirred in me.  The only word which comes near is the Portuguese or Galician word “Saudade”, which has no literal translation, but has been described as a nostalgic or melancholic longing for something/someone which is beloved yet absent; “the love that remains” after someone is gone. Clavel is filled with saudade, but it is also filled with a series of sublime moments which warm the heart and send your spirits soaring into the big blue Shetland skies.

Lorna Hanlon

 

 

Dundee’s Four Marys, High Mill at Verdant Works – expanded review with photos, Friday 23rd and Sunday 25th October

Dundee's Four Marys (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Dundee’s Four Marys with American Mary (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Both performances of Dundee’s Four Marys at Verdant Works this week had sold out quickly.  It was apparent when large numbers of attendees started to assemble at High Mill, which has only just reopened after a beautiful refurbishment, that people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds had found great appeal in some aspect of the play.  Taking it on face value, with limited knowledge of the subject matter, I was initially intrigued by the historic voices I would surely hear, by how four late women of Dundee from different time periods (some overlapping) would be brought to life, and how they might interact with each other in Eddie Small’s play.

With everyone gathered, Eddie gave a brief introduction to the setting, talking of the history of the Dundee Mills, and introducing one of the curators who also gave us some detail on the refurbishment of  High Mill itself. We then took our seats on the main floor of the Mill.  The Four Marys themselves were standing on plinths, each inscribed with their name and dates: Mary Ann Baxter (1801 – 1884), Mary Slessor (1848 – 1915), Mary Lily Walker (1863 – 1913) and Mary Brooksbank (1897 – 1978). I was impressed by the actresses’ ability to stand very still for quite a long time as we the audience got ourselves seated and settled (tall ones at the back, which was anyone over 4 foot 3, according to Eddie’s instructions).

Mary and Emily, image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works

Mary and Emily, (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

The Four Marys kicks off with Julie Reilly’s entrance, as Maisie the Cleaner, who is dusting round the four statues and does a great job of setting the scene.  Then the modern day Mary, along with her pal Emily arrive, the story being that they are US tourists who have been locked in Scotland’s Jute Museum by mistake.

Mary Brooksbank (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works

Mary Brooksbank (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works

When Mary Brooksbank starts to sing – (a spirited and engaging performance throughout by Jane Campbell), the story of the Four Marys begins, and we are drawn into their characters and their worlds by the dialogue which is at first driven by Brooksbank – “the chattiest one”.  She tells us that she was sent to work in the Mill when she was “too young”. She complains about the poverty in Dundee, the inequality between the rich mill owners and poor workers, and how she had to fight for a better wage; all the different types of workers got different pay, so it was very hard to get them all to strike and be united in action.  Whilst she starts by expressing a rather low opinion of her fellow “statues”, as more and more detail of their good works and sacrifices is revealed, by themselves, and by each other, by the end of the play, Brooksbank is in full complimentary flow towards  her fellow women o’ Dundee, as they are towards her.

We hear more from each of the other Marys.  Mary Lily Walker, who “shone a light on the very darkest of days”, in a suitably restrained and finely judged portrayal, by Holly Whitfield. We learn that Walker had a comfortable background, her father was a solicitor, and she herself attended University College in Dundee.  She travelled to London to bring back ideas on social improvement, as she despaired at the prevalence of cholera and typhoid in poor communities in Dundee, and the existence of  poor houses – as well as the unequal treatment of men and women in the society of the time.  We find our that Walker spent many months compiling a factual report on 6000 houses in Dundee; the statistic that 2/5 of children did not survive until their first birthdays and the details of the the shocking conditions shamed the city,  We later hear that amongst Walker’s other achievements was to set up a milk depot and she also funded holidays for poor and crippled children.

Mary Lily Walker, as Mary Slessor listens (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Mary Lily Walker (foreground), and Mary Slessor  (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

The choice that Mary Slessor had to make between the love of a good man and her calling to be a missionary in Nigeria is just one part of her story, and Lynne Binnie’s beautiful voice and gentle insistence of Slessor’s moral fortitude throughout a challenging life is a joy to behold. From the slums of Aberdeen, with an alcoholic father, Slessor went on to start at the mills aged eleven,  after moving to Dundee. She talked of the jute mills, “tainting your tastebuds” and the rancid fish smell in all the mills due to the jute being mixed with whale oil in the processing,  Slessor also explained how The Civil War in America helped trade in Dundee where the void for jute and linen for sailcloth, bags etc. could be filled due to blockading and lack of workforce in the USA.  In a moving and heartbreaking speech, Slessor talked of her time in Nigeria as a Missionary, when she eventually had nobody to send letters or stories to back home as her mother and sister had died whilst she was there.

Mary Ann Baxter talks of the 1830s in Dundee being a vibrant and exciting time, and further on in her lifetime, how The British Association for the Advancement of Science came to Dundee and delivered science lectures for workers – unheard of at the time. Baxter defends her family’s contribution to the setting up of the textile mills and offers an explanation of how the trade worked in Dundee – claiming that her family treated workers comparatively well.  She talks of the Dundee building boom in the 1850s and 60s, with 4 Railway stations in Dundee, and the Tay Bridge when it was built being the longest metal structure in world.  She also recognised the harsher conditions of the time – “diseases and pestilence….the drinking of spirits.”  There is also mention of her huge contribution to founding and funding the University of Dundee, and the part she played in having men and women educated in the same classrooms.  Marjory Robertson has a very hard job in presenting the modest character of Mary Ann Baxter, and it could so easily have become overplayed, underplayed, or just not credible.  Instead, her performance was an example in fine tuning; like a certain bowl of porridge, it was “just right”

Mary Ann Baxter (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Mary Ann Baxter (image by Erika Stevenson for Verdant Works)

The brief appearance by Gary Bottoms as the Guide who rescues the tourists from their historical lock-in is a finishing splurge of quality over quantity!

Essentially the play is an expositional exchange between the Four Marys, with the American tourists (ably and convincingly portrayed by Annie Bottoms and Gwen Teppett) providing links of steel between the bridges of history.  Whilst exposition is a tricky beast to tame or abandon in other forms of prose writing, the playwriting craft, in so many of its guises is often obliged to encompass the “e” word as an essential element, and it’s how the writer handles it that can make or break the finished work.  Along with the historic detail, we are shown the characters of the Marys through their words and the many excellent acting performances – in fact the dual layers of history and character are beautifully balanced.

Eddie Small has such a light yet deeply informed touch; the history of these four women, and, (at the risk of appearing in Private Eye),  Dundee itself is in his DNA, so we never feel as if the telling of their history is forced or contrived, instead we suddenly find, when the play is over all too soon, that we have learned a huge amount about the history of the city, and of course about the Four Marys.

I am not a native Dundonian, and I often find myself unable to remember where I put my keys or whatever was in my hand five minutes ago, but on the car journey back from Verdant Works, I was delighted to be able to regale my Dundonian husband with a slew of historical facts I had learned from the play, many of which were news to him.

An enthralled audience (image by Erkia Stevenson for Verdant Works)

An enthralled audience (image by Erkia Stevenson for Verdant Works)

Dundee’s Four Marys is a play which I am compelled to see again – listening to some of the comments afterwards, it was clear that others shared my desire.  After a wee speech from Eddie, ending with an emotional request for the audience to now applaud the women o’ Dundee throughout the ages, he invited Professor Kirsty Gunn up to speak a bit more about the  Mlitt in Study and Practice of Writing at the University of Dundee.  Kirsty, in fact took the opportunity simply to thank everyone involved for the wonderful evening, and to enthusiastically express the many positive thoughts  she had for the performance and the writing.  The very able and helpful staff at High Mill at Scotland’s Jute Museum finished off the evening perfectly with their professional and caring attention – allowing everyone to wander through the Mill at leisure before we headed out into the night, with some wonderful memories and a desire to return.

Bravi tutti!

Lorna Hanlon

Suffragettes: Fact and Fiction

It’s my second night in a row heading for the High Mill at Verdant Works, Scotland’s Jute Museum, and it’s good to a be a little more familiar with my surroundings on this occasion.  At the wooden gateway I am greeted by Anna Murray, Learning & Audiences Officer for Dundee Heritage Trust, who has been heavily involved with the High Mill Project and the wonderful programme of events over the coming months as well as those planned for the coming year.

She is resplendent in full Suffragette costume. Bedecked with flags, banner and sash, she helpfully guides me to our starting point for the event, up the outside stairway into the Verdant Works Museum.  Other staff members are also fully engaged with the evening’s theme and appropriately dressed in the clothing of suffragettes.  We are offered refreshments and encouraged to wander round the fascinating exhibits at our leisure for a while, before we are summoned downstairs into High Mill for Suffrage pies (Vegetarian option thoughtfully also provided).

The atmosphere of the Suffragette era has been skillfully recreated and it spins through the High Mill like microscopic fragments of linen and jute dancing on the chilled air.  As we settle into our seats, I read that, as well as hearing more from Lucy Ribchester, debut author of “The Hourglass Factory”, the conversation will be shared with Dr Clare Gill and Professor Gill Plain (try saying that after a couple of Suffrage Ales) of St Andrews University, and, as introductions are made, another panellist, Sasha de Buyl, Reader Development Co-ordinator at the The Scottish Book Trust joins us.

Before I continue, I must offer an apology.  The venue was to have been provided with a PA System, which unfortunately did not materialise.  This meant that there were general issues with hearing the questions which were put to Lucy from some of the panelists, and I know this was felt by everyone who was seated further back than the first two rows.  It also meant that I missed some of what was said, although Lucy herself was always loud and clear in her delivery, so I hope that the following review doesn’t fail to mention anything important due to the acoustic issues!

I haven’t read “The Hourglass Factory”, so I sought a helpful description of the novel which the conversation was to encompass on Lucy Ribchester‘s excellent website:

1912 and London is in turmoil

The suffragette movement is reaching fever pitch, but for broke Fleet Street tomboy Frankie George, just getting by in the cut-throat world of newspapers is hard enough. Sent to interview trapeze artist Ebony Diamond, Frankie finds herself fascinated by the tightly laced acrobat and follows her across London to a Mayfair corset shop that hides more than one dark secret.

 After some brief introductions, Lucy stood to read (in her beautiful, clear voice) an excerpt from her novel, which was a finely-constructed parallel tale of Suffragettes (Mrs Pankhurst amongst them) going to hardware shops in different parts of the country to purchase a specific number of hammers (25) and being mistaken for teachers at boys’ schools. Who else, dressed as modestly as they were, would possibly want so many such items, supposed the initially perplexed shopkeepers?  Lucy later told us that this was based on a true story she had read in a newspaper article during her extensive research.

After her reading, during questions from the panel, we heard more about how the novel had started as a play, and how, as a dance journalist (amongst other titles), Lucy wanted to explore the physicality of the musical/circus  angle  and link it in to the physicality of the protest actions of The Suffragette Movement itself, which was the inspiration for one of the main characters in the novel, Ebony Diamond, a trapeze artist.  Lucy went on to explain how she had spent time looking at research material about a Suffragette-gymnast who had been active in Dundee – for a publicity stunt the young woman had hidden in the roofspace of the old Kinnaird Hall in Bank Street for many hours, and had descended into the hall to disrupt an event on the end of a 24 foot rope.

We heard more about Lucy’s literary inspirations, from reading Christopher Pike as a child and young adult to the works of Agatha Christie, Jed Rubenfeld and CJ Sansom, and more direct influence from Tracy Chevalier’s “Fallen Angels” and Sally Heathcote’s Graphic Novel “Suffragette” (the rest of the panel also made approving noises at this point).

Many interesting questions and points of discussion followed; Professor Plain talked about the many new technologies which were coming alive in the time period the novel was set in, and Lucy talked some more about the detailed research she had undertaken, including hours of poring over Sylvia Pankhurst’s The suffragette; the history of the women’s militant suffrage movement, 1905-1910, and looking at The Times Digital Archive for 1912, to decide in which month she might set the novel.

Other research included reading GK Chesterton’s The man who was Thursday, and Sam Bourne’s The Righteous Men – this latter, interestingly to analyse the plot and chapter structure, in order to tighten her own – a helpful tip for other would-be novelists!  Having said that, Lucy later mentioned that she had produced a meticulous chapter plan which was actually dispensed with before she came to the final version!

At one point the conversation turned to the Police, and their involvement in the way Suffragettes were treated.  Dr Gill talked of the number of sympathetic Police Officers who gave anonymous reports of brutalities and violent and inhumane acts meted out by the Constabulary and by other authorities on the Suffragettes.  Of course the main Police character in The Hourglass Factory is sympathetic, despite what his duty requires him to do; Lucy admitted that her Dad’s influence was a decisive factor in this – he told her that if she was going to write a feminist novel, there had better be a sympathetic man in it!

Amongst the other points raised for discussion were Victorian female detectives created in the time period itself, always having to have very good (and thoroughly sexist) reasons to exist at all, and always being called into play when expertise at dealing with servants, fashion, the emotions and the management of domestic situations was required.  Common sense in women was valued, but intelligence was the sole preserve of men!

The Suffragist (non-violent) vs Suffragette (physical and sometimes violent protest) movements were also discussed, and the practical failure of the former over the eventual success of the latter.

Questions from the audience at the end of the event revealed that Lucy had started writing her novel in 2009, and after working with a number of agents and through a number of drafts, it had taken years of work and rework before eventual publication at the start of this year – a hopeful story of evolution for all budding novelists!  Finally, Lucy was asked about her next novel, which she confirmed is entitled Amber Shadows, and is set at Bletchley Park, to be released in early 2016.  Sounds like a must-buy!

This was a great evening, a combination of fun, education, historical immersion and lively and interesting conversation about the realities and fictions of the Victorian/early Edwardian period linked to a wonderful debut novel – now at the top spot on my extensive “to read” list!

I would like to finish with a big thanks to the stunning venue for this event, and for Dundee’s Four Marys.  Despite having lived in Dundee for many years, these are my first visits to Verdant Works, but they definitely won’t be the last.  The beautifully preserved and reconstructed architecture in the Mills, the photos and interactive displays and the way history is brought to life combine to make a unique and fascinating visitor experience. I can’t say enough good things about Anna and the team at Scotland’s Jute Museum; here, history, and the people long gone who made it are a living, breathing entity are part of the heart and soul of Dundee.

Lorna Hanlon

 

Mother Tongue: Collette Bryce and Jen Hadfield

This was a slightly unusual event for the Literary Festival in two respects. Firstly, it comprised two poets performing consecutively, with only a vague theme of “deliberations of home” to connect them, in the words of Peggy Hughes introducing. Secondly, there was no opportunity for questions after the readings, meaning the poets’ only interaction with their captive audience was through their works. Fortunately, they did not disappoint.

Colette Bryce, performing first, won the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition in 2003, and was Dundee University’s Poet-in-Residence between 2003 and 2005. She read from her most recent collection The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, but opened with a separate poem entitled “Dundee”, describing the train journey up the east coast past Edinburgh, Kirkcaldy and onwards, and the hay bales in fields like playing pieces in a “golden board game”.

The collection speaks a lot of her life and experiences growing up in Northern Ireland; the long poem “Derry” opens, describing a city of “suicides and riptides”, and schoolchildren hand in hand “like paper dolls”. “Re-entering the Egg” is “playing with scale” amid “childhood landscapes”; “the smallest breath knits round her like a shell”. Growing up, “the Brits” refers to the Army, and a beautiful image in one poem sees the narrator imagine dressing toy soldiers in dolls’ clothes, clearly evocative of the hostile environment that was her home country during the Troubles, and the yearning for peace among her family, friends and neighbours.

Other poems explore more domestic memories – “a giant’s hands might practice origami” with a gigantic paper road map, while “Magi” constructs the poignant image of a “mantelpiece nativity”, assigning biblical characters to the different liquor bottles arranged above a hearth in an array of “whisky, liberty and prayer”. The collection strays out of Ireland to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to lament the closure of half of the city’s libraries in “A Library Book”, and Bryce returns to Dundee again outside the collection, with memories of learning to drive in a piece entitled “Car Wash”. A vein of wry humour runs through many of the pieces too – “Derry” assures us that Jesus was a Derryman, given that He was unemployed and living with his mum at the age of 33.

After a warm round of applause following her performance at the “cabaret mic” (in her words), Bryce ceded the stage to Jen Hadfield. A winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2008, her collection’s title Byssus comes from the fibrous tissue that “connects mussels to rock”, and, as such, represents “how we make ourselves at home in the world – how we anchor ourselves”.

The coastal theme continues with the opening poem “Lichen” – their “black and golden ears” and bivalves and puffballs are all fruitful sources of inspiration for the Shetland-based Hadfield. One poem recalls taking children from a school in Birmingham on a trip to the Devonshire hills, and how, when their iPhones were returned to them in the evening, they were “cracked open like geodes” beneath the “hot perturbations of Sirius”.

Hadfield’s soft, dulcet tones were haunting as she presented remarkable pastoral images – “Hydra”, on planting a garden, talks of “spades hewn”, and “turned roots parching”. A daisy is “one little sun against the sky”, standing up to being pulled by the “thread of wind”; a mushroom resembles a “severed head”, the moon “a bashed swede”, and a gate swings “like the chapped mouth of the wind”. “Wind turns like a great water wheel”, and “these acts exceed themselves like trout mouthings”. Poems, she said, are “little machines to remember themselves” – “themselves” being “something precious”.

One of her strongest works is “The Plinky Boat”, containing striking lines like “the present is a fine line; a puff of air will destroy it”, “things meta-flower so readily into their present selves”, and it ends with  the profound observation, true of every piece of art: “the poem wouldn’t exist, but we couldn’t stay”. She ended her reading with the collection’s final piece “The Moult” – addressed to the animal in question, it instructs to “shelter in the hoodoos and pluck your fur”, and “scratch off your dream coat of silver  ”. Whilst Bryce’s verses tend to dwell in urban settings, and Hadfield’s in rural ones, they are united in their strength in capturing locations and their memories in words – a thoroughly entertaining revue.

Adam Learmonth

 

 

 

Dark Star: Oliver Langmead

“[Dark Star is] a love story for three genres – the originality is in how they’re put together.”

Oliver Langmead’s début novel was shortlisted for The Guardian’s Not-the-Booker Prize, and now, he revealed before an enthusiastic audience at the Bonar Hall, the story has been earmarked for a potential movie tie-in with the same creative group that produced Skyfall and American Beauty.

Dark Star was released in March – coinciding, conveniently, with the solar eclipse that month. Having undertaken so many press conferences and interviews in the preceding seven months, it seemed a challenge for the room to come up with questions that Langmead hadn’t answered a hundred times before.

Fortunately, for a change as much for himself as for the crowd, he chose to read an extract from the middle of the book, rather than the intro to which he and his audiences are accustomed (he has the opening stanzas embedded in his memory). Langmead meditated for a moment on the symbolic significance of trains and train journeys in fiction – the event covered in the extract – before the floor was opened to general questions.

The first concerned which element of Dark Star he had come up with earliest in its creation. The world came first , he replied; more specifically, the image of Vivian North – the university student found dead in a pool of luminescent blood in a dark alley, whose murder sparks the subsequent criminal investigation around which the story initially revolves. The police detective protagonist’s character developed from the language and dialogue – “Virgil was a voice,” Langmead explained, who then grew alongside the poetic meter in which the book is written. “How challenging was it to write in first person?” another question asked ; “You mean, how much of me is in there?” Langmead replied, wryly. He had imagined the dialogue between police partners Virgil and Dante as Sin City-esque, suggesting that a sequel from Dante’s perspective might be worth exploring.

A question regarding blending voice with verse asked whether he had made “linguistic concessions” when fitting authentic-sounding conversations into syllable counts. Langmead conceded that earlier segments flowed less smoothly, but that it got easier as the book progressed; the trick was to make it sound easy to read, and eventually counting the syllables became natural, almost subconscious. Another asked him whether his book, or any book, ever felt completed – “No-o-o-o-o…!” He recalled how Virgil (the real one, the epic poet) didn’t want his own work published as he felt it was less than divine, but that as an artist you never stop finding new ways of looking at the same parts of your own work. If someone had told Langmead their perspectives on particular elements of the book, he might have written them differently .

Asked for advice on publishing after writing, he encouraged perseverance – “Someone will be enthusiastic” (“someone” in this instance being Unsung Stories). Following up by returning to the subject of writing itself, he discussed how roleplaying plots within the Dark Star universe with friends allowed him to discover facets of its world he’d never have considered himself, e.g. without any light-emitting combustible fuels, guns would have no muzzle flashes. Langmead also suggested that writing to limits could, ironically, expand your imagination – “putting a lot of constraints on yourself is a good idea” as it means you “try new things all the time”, resulting in “crazy stuff” like the book in his hands – a “world that feels unlike any  ”.

Adam Learmonth

 

 

60 DEGREES NORTH:  Malachy Tallack

Dundee Literary Festival

Saturday 24th October

What does it mean to be ‘home’? Can we define home as bricks and mortar,  family and community? Or is there something far more elemental at play, an indefinable geographical sense of connection which links us to that dot on the map?

These are some of the fascinating questions posed by Malachy Tallack as we gather, rather fittingly, in the D’Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, a dot on the map where many world treasures have come to rest. Our host, writer and literary critic Stewart Kelly, describes Tallack as ‘a man who is interested in everything, and who makes everything interesting’.

Tallack is indeed a man of many talents: writer, editor, singer/songwriter and adventurer. His debut work, 60 Degrees North, has been a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ and is shortlisted for the 2015 Saltire First Book Award. One gets the sense, though, that having set his course to follow the 60th parallel of latitude, Tallack’s quest has always been about the journey, rather than the book. This line on the globe passes through his Shetland home; Greenland; parts of Canada and Alaska;  Siberia; the former Russian capital, St Petersburg; Finland, Sweden and Norway. The journey ends at the ancient broch on the isle of Mousa, exactly where it began.

Tallack speaks movingly of how he left home to find a sense of himself. Having settled in Shetland with his mother at the age of nine, he found it hard to come to terms with the move. Shetland never felt like ‘home’ to him, and he struggled with being the outsider. The tragic death of his father when he was sixteen further added to his disaffection. He was curious about how people are defined by their location, not just by the physicality of their surroundings, but by the way in which the land shapes their culture, art and spiritual beliefs.

A one hour slot doesn’t do justice to Tallack’s adventures, but he does share with us an exciting, and often humorous, passage from his book in which he was tracked by a large bear in Canada. Kelly asks him about the ‘man versus nature’ stereotype of the people living in the far north, but Tallack’s experience is that frontier life, for all its harshness and isolation, actually breeds a sense of community.

Kelly suggests that there is a sharp political edge to Tallack’s work. The book has shed new light on the issues of land ownership and  nationhood, and has served to challenge perceptions on the centrality of the north. Tallack argues that the northern islands have always been a place of ‘setting out’; for traders, whalers and fishermen – to them, it has always been a central location.

The subtitle of 60 Degrees North reads simply Around the World in Search of Home. Has Malachy Tallack found the answers to his questions? I ask him if he has another journey in him. Where would he go, and why? After some thought, he replies, rather tellingly, that for now he is content to stay at home.

 

Sandra Ireland

Truths, Half-truths and Little White Lies: Nick Frost

A Little Touch of Frost

 

Mark Twain famously asserted that great humour was only tragedy plus time.  The latest creative output from Nick Frost acts as the quintessential example of this. From Spaced to the Three Flavour Cornetto Trilogy, and the odd Paul and Tintin film inbetween, I truly believed that I was a connoisseur on all that is Frost. But shockingly ladies and gents, there was a Nick Frost before Spaced.
Nick

The festivities began with a ‘Nick Frost: This is your Life!’ styled segment, with charismatic host and eager audience to match. But before the path that led to the 43 year old man sitting before us could be laid on the table, the big question had to be asked: why write a memoir? With the celebrity autobiography being the most unnecessarily oversaturated marker in modern literature (every Tom, Dick and Youtuber seems to want to have a crack at it) and with an estimated 75% of celebrity memoirs being ghost-written, the genre is hardly as credible as it once was. In his answer, Frost reminisced about not knowing important details about his parents’ lives (first date, etc.) and now with both no longer with us, these details are now lost. This memoir was for his son, to show him who his father really was: all beard, no filter.

Young Nicky Frost was more at home in the rugby field than in the classroom. Catholic schoolboy throughout, he had faith, but it just wasn’t in the realm of education and learning. His love for his parents was conveyed clearly; despite the adversity life threw at the family, reciting a past experience of answering the doorbell as a child to find a woman prepping for a fight with his mum with absolute glee, making the brawl between two working class gals akin to a clash of biblical Michael Bay action movie proportions. Frost did discuss the disastrous effect his mother’s alcoholism and father’s breakdown post-bankruptcy had on his family life. Living in the one bedroom of family friend with his parents and dog was no doubt a sobering experience for the actor, particularly with his mother’s illness. In order to escape the pressures of living with a loved one with addiction, a quasi-pilgrimage to Israel to work on a kibbutz was described by Frost as his university experience, with more Hebrew and political turmoil and less boozing and late coursework submissions. His respect and admiration for his partner in crime, Simon Pegg, was both touching and rib-achingly funny as he described how they would both bounce back and forth impressions of 90’s TV adverts at parties; impressions that would lead to a classic cinematic duo.Frost

The Q&A session was abundant with revelations. There will be no more Spaced. It turns out Mike Watt is dead. Nick Frost wants James Corden to play him in the film about his life, so he can play James Corden in the story of Corden’s life. His ex-wife did want some edits in the book: there were too many references to “shits and poos.” All in all, Nick Frost seemed to be a man equally proud of his past as his present, allowing him to script a truly insightful contemplation of a life lived. When asked what advice he’d give to his 16 year old self, Frost replied: “it will all be OK”, reminding me of that classic moment in Shaun of the Dead when at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, Frost’s Ed comforts Pegg’s Shaun over his breakup saying: ‘‘I’m not gonna say, you know ‘There’s plenty of fish in the sea.’ I’m not gonna say, ‘If you love her, let her go.’ And I’m not gonna bombard you with clichés. But what I will say is this. ‘It’s not the end of the world.’”

Patrick O’Donnell

Aftershock: The Untold Story of Surviving Peace: Matthew Green

4pm
Portobello Books Ltd, £16.59

There was a respectful hush in the room. An image of a soldier handling a mortar shell on the screen gave a hint of what was to come. Stuart Kelly began the session by confessing that he didn’t enjoy Aftershock. He found it difficult, harrowing and humbling and said that if it achieves one thing, it should effect political change.

Matthew began with a 90 second video. Technical glitches ruined the effect, but already the hairs on the back of my neck were beginning to stand on end.

There are two things, explained Matthew, which prevent discussion about this difficult subject of ex-soldiers re-adjusting to civilian life when they return home from war. One is the stigma of mental health problems and the other is our reluctance to talk about them.

To research the book Matthew embedded himself with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who came forward wanted to be helped and to help others to heal by sharing their stories.
Features of PTSD are inability to control anger, anxiety and panic attacks. Small triggers in everyday situations can cause flashbacks which the person believes to be real. Memories play out again and again in the person’s mind. This is a complex subject which is explored further in the book. Many ex-soldiers seek comfort in alcohol or drugs to numb their pain. However, health authorities are reluctant to treat them until they are free of their addiction.

Matthew told us a harrowing story of a fit young man of 22 who came back from Afghanistan after witnessing his friend being killed. The council gave him a house which had been occupied by an old man and fitted with ramps and rails. The young man killed himself seven months after moving into the house. Adequate housing is usually only provided after much lobbying by the ex-soldiers’ families.

Despite this, says Matthew, Scotland is on the whole better at providing help for PTSD sufferers than England. NHS Tayside is developing a fascinating new therapy where the patient is asked to choose a powerful animal as a companion to help them deal with difficult situations. But simple talking therapy doesn’t help. These soldiers are a danger to themselves and others. One traumatised young man tried to cut off his own hand.

There was a question from the floor about whether ex-soldiers were more likely to commit crime. The answer was that there is a relationship between serving in combat and committing an offence, but what is shocking is that no figures exist to show exactly how many ex-soldiers are in prison.

What legacy did Matthew want the book to leave? He wants to paint an accurate picture of the suffering. He sees it as a manifesto – our current system for helping victims of post-war trauma is not fit for purpose. He hopes it will kick-start conversations and be a catalyst for change.

Why do some suffer and others not? Soldiers who have had trauma in the past are more likely to suffer PTSD. Matthew believes that the Government uses past trauma as an excuse, where actually they have a greater duty of care to these men.

Stuart closed the session by suggesting that Matthew sends a copy of the book to MPs to start conversations about this very difficult and complex subject.

Joanne Morley-Hill

“Reasons to Stay Alive”; Book Recital With Matt Haig

So we’re three days in to Dundee’s Literary Festival already! This evening I took a trip down to the festival’s hub, Bonar Hall, to hear Matt Haig speak about his newest Novel Reasons to Stay Alive. Although the title gives off a faint whiff of self help guidebok, it is actually Haig’s own account of his personal struggle with depression spanning over two and a half decades and how he dealt with the mental illness. With him onstage this evening was Jo Clifford, an accomplished playwright, musician Rachel Shermani and host Sasha, of whom I didn’t manage to catch a second name, a member of the Scottish Book Trust. Referring back to my trusted guidebook for the week, I did note that Linda Irvine from NHS Lothian was expected as present, unfortunately for reasons not given she was not present. However it did not detract from the evening as it appeared the evening was directed at the experience of depression and not the medical definition of such, a topic that arose in the talk and was clearly differentiated from.

Sasha welcomed us to the evening and began by asking Rachel to sing. Her voice resonated with unusual scales and melodies: calming and serene. After a deafening applause from a full audience, Matt began to read a segment from his newest work. He seemed a quirky man; confident in his speaking yet humble in his mannerisms, eyes only leaving the sight of his shoes to read from his book. He began by explaining that he had indeed attended many a book reading in which he chose the same two passages to highlight; one taken from his account of suicidal contemplation and another of “a bit lighter” nature. On this occasion, he had chosen to take another section in which he experiences a panic attack whilst making the journey to “the Londis for milk and marmite”. In his pre-amble he explains the fear and self-loathing that occurred in his mind ‘twenty four seven” and how the fear had manifested into an imagined future in a padded cell which brought about the agoraphobia. The piece was read with a quick and staccato like pace which set my heart to thump harder just as his must have on his walk. The recount was harrowing as his use of repetition and small, sharp sentences rattled around the room, recreating and conveying his sense of almost indescribable terror of the shop looming in the distance. He quipped that he should have named the chapter Indiana Jones and the Temple of Marmite”, an amusing, yet somehow plausible in this case, title.

Once he had finished his reading, he opened up about his experiences with mental health and depression, mystifying about the brain. “The brain can think about the universe, the moons around Pluto but it can’t think about itself and that scares me”. He spoke about how depression did not change his personality, that he was the same Matt Haig he always was; he was just ill. I found this point quite thought provoking and profound because as a society we fail to see depression as such, perhaps accepting it as a characteristic trait and maybe that is why it does not hold such as such a high regard as physical health. He then talked about the stigma around Suicide and how some people regard it as an ‘opt out’ or a selfish act. He uses the analogy of a burning building. “Its like being in a burning building and there’s no way out. If there’s no way out you might want to jump out of a window”. It is his external and physical representation of an internal, unseeing illness that brought the room to a silence of clearer understanding.

Jo Clifford then beings to speak. At this point I whip my head up in total surprise. Jo Clifford had not only attended the event this evening to give an excellent input of opinion of a literary degree towards Haig’s book but also to speak of personal battles with depression and Dysphoria. Jo was a child born into the wrong body as she recounts a memory of looking into the mirror and seeing the reflection of a little boy where should have stood a little girl. She recalls a train ride to school with her mother which passed a Gasometer surrounded by near by houses. She asked her mother how anyone could live around such a terrible smell of gas all the time in which her mother replied “You would just get used to it to the point of not smelling it”. This idea didn’t resonate with the child as she knew she would never get used to living in this boy’s body. The conversation opens up and both Haig and Clifford discuss how certain words didn’t exist in the times they lived in such as ‘mental health’ and ‘transgender’. It then brought up the importance of language and writing these struggles and emotions on paper as to relate as closely as possible as to how it might feel to be depressed. Both speakers agreed that they thought themselves the only people in the world who must have felt this way, completely isolated in their own minds yet how writing gave allowed them a sense of freedom – “words are a way out of yourself as mental health is internal’ said Matt as Jo responded with “writing saved my life. Think I would be dead by now without it”.

The floor was then opened as Sasha asked if anyone from the audience had any questions. One woman asked if Matt had any tips as to how to deal with a friend with depression to which he replied “Be there for them [and] not pressuring them into getting better”. Another woman asked what mental health treatment should look like in society to which the burning building analogy was solidified in its ideas. He spoke of how Mental and physical health should not be categorised separately but given an equal weight and regard and then maybe people will understand it better. “We’re not embarrassed [to talk to a doctor] about chest pain” Jo chipped in “so why should we be embarrassed to talk about mental pain?”.

Previous to this event, I thought I had a pretty clear idea about mental health but this evening has brought about a new vision to me of what it is to suffer such an illness. Because that’s what it is; an internal illness that can be treated just as any physical ailment can – not just treated in the medical sense, but treated by society and humanity as a whole.

Aileen Gilchrist

 

“Heard It. Seen It. Done It” A Cultural Showcase

What’s next on my list of things to see at Dundee’s Literary Festival? Well, what better an event than a showcase of different art forms? Heard it. Seen it. Done it. was advertised in the Dundee Literary festival guidebook as a “One-off cultural showcase of live music, spoken word, animation […] conceived, curated and performed by voice hearers from the HaVeN, Dundee […]” The blurb went on to explain that the HaVeN charity based in the City was an organisation seeking acceptance of voice hearing being a valid experience. I was left a little puzzled in what was meant by ‘voice hearing’ and so I grabbed my coat and made for Bonar Hall.

Upon arriving, and after a quick detour to the downstairs bar, I had found a seat. Some chairs were placed around tables with pens and paper, other chairs lay dotted around the room bizarrely. Was it interactive? Did I need a pen and paper or a table to lean on? Were they reserved for specific people who did need pens and paper? I wasn’t sure and so I found a chair close enough to a table that I could shimmy to in the event it was needed, but far enough away in case it was indeed reserved. With reasons unknown, the showcase began forty minutes after its scheduled time. A man dressed in bright, patterned clothes jumped on stage and brought the spirits of the waiting crowd back to life. He told us he was part of NEU! REEKIE!, a duo who bring literary culture to the masses by holding events using technology and their bright enthusiasm for The Arts. He explained how they had given workshops at HaVen to inspire poetry among other mediums to express their experiences as either voice hearers or mental health issues. The informal chat was cheery and informative, although I was rather hoping the term “voice hearing” would be explained as he had obviously chosen to categorise it differently to that of mental health struggles.

He then introduced a short film directed, created and written by Ainslie Henderson portraying daily battles with mental health. The lights went down. The short was narrated by the main character, a man about to face a crowd and sing at an open mic. We watch as the character breaks down and his doubting inner voice materializes as a younger version of himself. The film’s subject matter talked about how childhood experiences may linger and cripple our self-confidence in future life and how we must fight it by finding peace with ourselves. The film ended as the character and his younger self walk on stage together and begin to sing. As the lights went up the sheer silence of the room before the roar of applause said everything. It had moved every single member of the audience to reflection and thought as well as appreciation of the beautiful and flawless stop motion.

The host, only known to us as NEU! REEKIE!, quickly brought on the second act of the night, three musicians under the names of Loki, Becci and Marissa. Loki seemed the foreman of the trio as he welcomed us in his broad Glaswegian accent. He spoke about how he too had run workshops with groups including HaVen, mental health support groups and nderprivileged teenagers. He spoke of vaguely of personal traumas as a younger man and how these experiences had caused a sense of depression and isolation within himself. Without further ado, Becci strapped her guitar round her chest whilst Marissa rested her violin under her chin and they began their first song. Fully expecting Loki to sing, my eyes widened in delight as the lyrics spilled from his mouth; he was a rapper! Each piece they performed sang of his dark experiences alone with his mind and his struggle with drug use. “Tell me something good to shout about, ’til then its mood swings and roundabouts”.

His elegant play on words, rhymes and rhythm accompanied by the sorrowful tones of the violin and constant strum of the guitar had successfully personified his struggles into sound. The group thanked the crowd at the end of their set and left us with a beautiful and comforting thought “some of you here might represent the mental health community, some of you might represent the literary community and others are part of the local community. Tonight, we ARE the community. One community together.” I found myself looking around the room at the crowd and no longer felt in limbo at my table-less, scattered chair.

The next performer was Kevin Swinyard, a member of HaVEn, who had prepared two of his own poems written in a workshop with Kevin McCabe, a spoken word artist. The poems described the poet’s face and repetition peppered the piece with “you have a boxer’s nose like me” giving an even and lulling rhythm and tempo. He spoke with passion and commitment for his work whilst giving a convincing performance of the words he spoke. His ode to Kevin McCabe suited the event perfectly as the poet himself was welcomed onstage to perform his own pieces.

Again, the spoken word was set to music, a Rhythm and Blues tribute from the lone guitarist as Kevin performed his pieces, inspired by Dundee, with elegant musicality. Unfortunately, it was here that I guesstimated the reasons for such a long wait for the show to begin. During the last of McCabe’s pieces the sound crackled with deafening screeches. I mention this in my review not as a negative point but to applaud both McCabe and the following performers as they continued with confidence and strength as the sound misbehaved intermittently throughout the rest of the night.

Margaret Mackay, another member of HaVen, was next up, reading her own poems also created in a workshop with NEU! REEKIE! What struck me most about her poems was not the content itself, but how her personality shone out of them, like the rainbow she spoke of in her first piece.

Last to perform were a duo named Panda Su, a singer songwriter and her drumming companion who stunned the crowd with her melancholic and unusual sound. Not for the first time during the evening, the crowd applauded with genuine appreciation and recognition of their talents.

I walked home that evening with a sense of wholeness and a new respect in humanity, something that is often lost in a bustling, busy City. No, I still wasn’t completely sure what the term “Hearing voices” meant, but it wasn’t the point of the evening. The showcase, as Loki had pointed out, had brought communities together to form a whole; to acknowledge talent and skills from every point of life – how you can put the worst and darkest nights of your life to use and turn them into a celebration in happier days.

 

Aileen Gilchrist