Author Archives: Aileen Gilchrist

“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

Mlitt Writing and Practice Showcase

Every year, Dundee Literary Festival plays host to the MA Writing Practice and Study Showcase. It’s a chance for some of the new writing talent emerging in Dundee to show off their work. This year the event took place in Bonar Hall, the central hub for much of the festival. The environment was a relaxed affair. There were several tables spread around the room covered in various chequered tablecloths and a nearby stall to purchase drinks and an array of cakes. The overall effect left a relaxed atmosphere with the low hum of chatter picking up as more and more people filed in to the event. There were many friends of the writers and poets and the general feeling was one of support and friendship. It was a great place to be.

I snatched myself a seat towards the edge of the group and was immediately greeted by others nearby who, like the rest of the crowd, were enthusiastic and welcoming. Following some brief small-talk, Kirsty Gunn, Professor of Creative Writing at the University and a critically acclaimed author in her own right, opened the event. She talked about how much she enjoyed the event every year as a chance for the new talent to ‘totally showoff’ and of the uniqueness that each University year class of writers had; each with their own interests and skills. She briefly explained that each writer would approach the microphone and tell us a bit about themselves before reading from their work; either poetry or prose.

We were treated to a reading from a novel centring on the experiences of a Holocaust survivor, who has since become a Hollywood Director, recalling his experiences in concentration camps. The author was engaging and clearly very passionate about her work. The novel was haunting from the beginning, building a sense of foreboding and drawing the audience in. This was followed by the first poet of the night who dived into the concept of memory and the power of language. His refreshing humour endeared the audience to him. I feel he best summed up the night with the closing line of his second poem, ‘Love Language’. It felt as though it summed up the night completely, a night where a love of language and a creative passion could be celebrated and shared.

The second novelist of the night, Leslie Holmes, had written a post-apocalyptic novel set in Dundee, set after a plague had wiped out 99% of all men. The short section of her novel revealed the depth of the world she had built and the complexity of the female characters she had centred her narrative upon. She moved through several poems full of powerful imagery that brought a sense of the unknowable and the unchangeable. She held her own rhythm and her own style bringing the audience into the world of her words; like everyone else her rapport with the audience was unique, individual and enthralling.

The session closed out with two prose authors; one of whom created a world built on the mundane and wrapped in the extraordinary; the other who brought this Young Adult novel to life through stream of consciousness with an insightful look into the world of a teenager with too much on his shoulders.

To say the talent on display was diverse would be an understatement, each writer came with their own style and voice that set them apart from the others and the session benefited from this. There was no repetition; no speaker overstayed their welcome or failed to hold the crowd. The event was full of raw talent nurtured here in Dundee but still true to the roots it came from. Professor Kirsty Gunn was perhaps best at describing the event as she opened it: ‘Every year, it’s different, I’m never bored, there’s never been a year where I’ve gone “well they were a bit like…” They bring ‘themselves’ to this event: their skills; their own techniques, it’s their work, their talent.’ And that’s what the event showed: the authors and their work, diverse backgrounds, methods and ideas; brought together by a need to create and love of language.

John Paterson

‘Weaving a Poem’ : Poetry Workshop with Lindsay MacGregor

Having never attended the Dundee Literary Festival before, I was curious as what to expect from a poetry workshop, especially one held inside an old Jute Mill museum. After fingering the edges of the Mill gate assuming it was the only way in, I noted a modest sign on a door a little to the right of the gate “Lindsay MacGregor ‘Weaving a poem’Workshop – Please ring the bell!”Feeling a little foolish for my attempted break-in I rang the bell timidly to the surprising sound of a whistle blowing.

Lindsay herself welcomed me warmly and directed me towards the ‘Red Box’, a modern little room built within the Mill and inviting me to help myself to any of the refreshments. The room was set out in tables of five, clad with clipboards and paper, photographs and poems. Being 10 minutes early I assumed I would be the first in, but the room was already half full with eager poet weavers with more people still shuffling in around me so I quickly claimed a seat and waited for the workshop to begin.

Lindsay introduced herself and gave a little history about the Mill: built in 1833, it was named The Verdant Works because it was once surrounded by beautiful green pastures. She gave a summary of the people who worked there, the majority of whom were women and children . She then threw what could be seen as an horrifically enigmatic question to the floor: “What is poetry?”. Oh no, I panicked, my total lack of poetic knowledge is going to rumble me as a litfest newbie! However a relaxed conversation began between us as a group and we managed to come up with an answer by process of elimination with the aid of Lindsay’s suggestions.

The sense of team work was comfortable and of a genuine nature as everyone present had been engaged by Lindsay’s gentle guidance. Once we had all seemed to enter the flow of writing, we took a quick tour of the Jute Museum itself with a member of staff to inspire us further in our potential poem. Once back in the Red Box we were given ten minutes to write continuously – anything that came to mind whilst touring the building. Lindsay then announced that there were ten more minutes to create the work into a poem, giving helpful hints towards structure and language, advising that the last word of each line was the most important to think about.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d written a poem! Lindsay invited each of us to read the poem aloud, stressing that we did not have to if we didn’t feel comfortable doing so and that the work was our own piece to do with it as we pleased. Each read piece reflected a special part of the museum in mind.

“Weaving a poem” was a thoroughly enjoyable workshop and educational on both a historical and poetic level, with the chance to meet others in the community with a shared love of both the City and celebrating it in such a beautiful form. Definitely an event to keep an eye out for next year!

Aileen Gilchrist

Festwatch 2015 Introductions



AileenHello Everyone!

I’m Aileen and I’m currently studying Mlitt Writing Practice and Study at University of Dundee. If you’re like me and you’re a newcomer to the Dundee literary festival, that’s alright, you’re not alone!

There are some amazing events this year as the City welcomes big names from every medium from poetry to novels, plays to workshops and much more. The festival is not only used as a platform to boast a wide range of excellent works, it is a chance for us to meet the creators in person, to get those questions we’ve always wanted to ask an author answered and inspire us to create something ourselves!

The first event I will be attending is a workshop on Wednesday 21st, “Weaving a poem” run by Scottish Book Trust New Writer Awardee Lindsay MacGregor. This workshop cleverly entwines Dundonian history of Jute mills to encourage us to write a poem based around the Verdant Works Jute museum. Events such as these give us the chance to find our own creative flare, meet others in the community with similar interests and perhaps enjoy a glass of vino to boot!

Check out the Dundee literary festival website below for more exciting events such as these, they are opportunities not to be missed.

See you all there!