Category Archives: Saturday 24th

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

 

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

Human Being, with Gavin Francis and Prof. Sue Black (3:30pm)

Human-Being-719x383

A Grand Tour from the Cranium to the Calcaneum

This event had the largest audience of all the Dundee Literary Festival 2015 events I’ve been to. It was held in the larger hall on the ground floor of the building, and almost every seat was taken by the time I arrived, five minutes before the starting time. As I quickly and quietly took my seat and unpacked my notebook, music began to play and Gavin Francis and Sue Black entered, walking up the centre aisle and onto the stage to take their seats. Laughing, Sue Black explained that the musical intro had been provided by “naughty people behind the scenes”. I forget the name of the tune, but she explained its personal significance, as it was a melody used as a “warm up” by her piano playing father. This kindly introduction set the mood for the entire discussion that contained laughter and light-hearted comments, as well as serious and somewhat emotional topics.

Having never read the book Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis, only the Literary Festival programme description (which captured my interest), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from today’s talk. Sue chaired the discussion, introducing Gavin (who is a practicing GP as well as a writer), who Sue playfully commented had studied, unfortunately, at Edinburgh and not Dundee. This remark generated laughs from the audience and was a reflection of her admiration for Gavin’s expertise. Sue then allowed Gavin to talk about Adventures in Human Being before beginning to ask questions about the book and his general approach to medicine and being a doctor.

The book is “essentially eighteen essays examining different parts of the body”, Gavin began. He explained how the approach is not only scientific, but also takes into account cultural and historical perspectives. He talked about two particular chapters in his book, namely the one concerning the heart and pulse, and the other the human face. Playfully, Gavin asked the audience to find their pulse, showing us how to do this, and everyone placed their fingers onto their neck as he demonstrated. He explained some facts about the pulse and explained that the idea of a pulse is relatively new – only three/four hundred years ago did the idea of the heart pumping blood come to light. He also touched upon the “exhilarating” experience of finding a baby’s heartbeat, particularly when the pregnant woman has visited, anxious that they haven’t felt the baby move for a couple of days. It was through moving comments like these that Gavin’s love for what he does became highly evident.

Although the discussion had a very factual, practical level concerning the human body and its functions, there were also strong emotional aspects to some of the topics touched upon, such as “bequeathers” (organ donars), and those who are terminally ill – how different people take the information and also how can you train a doctor to give fatal news? From questions such as these, the talk also took a slightly different direction – a somewhat more philosophical approach, peeling back the edges of questions such as what it is to be human and the complicated but fascinating relationship between the mind and the body.

I found the talk today with Sue and Gavin honestly fascinating and I feel no review (including this one) could do the event justice. Even though I have not read Adventures in Human Being, I am moving it to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

Frances Kelly

Future Book

Marginal Technologies: The Future of Books in a Digital Age
12pm

Claire Stewart from Electric Bookshop chaired the discussion today about print and digitally formatted books. She was joined by Reif Larson, author and academic at St. Andrew’s University, and our own Dominic Smith from the Philosophy department.

Reif kicked the event off with a presentation looking at the future of books from a writer’s perspective (as opposed to an editorial or publishing one). Focusing on his 2009 novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, released at a time when E-readers were blooming and readers feared for the fate of the printed book. Six years later, however, our fear has somewhat subsided – Reif comments on “the intimate relationship we have with print books and places that house print books.” In accordance with this, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was released as a print book which included all the boundless benefits of an E-reader or tablet by including illustrations and added information in the margins with arrow to the main text, effectively acting as a hyperlink. “The story demanded this form,” he tells us. From this, he moved on to discussing his next project which combined narrative with images from Google Maps, something which appealed to both guest speakers .

Dominic followed with more of a lecture than a presentation, including excerpts from several modern philosophers. He used these passages to show the differing metaphors that can be used to describe the Book: a finite resource (Lars Iyer), a thick collection of letters (Peter Sloterdijk), or as a device for the imagination (Vannevar Bush). His points were very academic and well structured; I confess I was at a bit of a loss in trying to understand his various arguments, philosophy never being one of my strong points.

This was then followed by a discussion and questions from the floor, which soon got quite heated. The first question stated rather than asked that E-readers, like Google Maps and the surveillance it incorporates, are an invasion of privacy. The man’s point, to his credit, is that when reading a kindle it monitors your reading speed and how long you spend on certain pages, relating this feedback to Amazon, demonstrating a grim irony of how books are now reading us. However, reflecting back on a point made by Dave Gibbons on Thursday, E-readers and digital print can in some ways offer more privacy. For example, the book cover is hidden from the public, thus allowing more discretion for the individual reader. The second question, which is again not a question and just as aggressively presented as the first, is that the fear of digital reading is only an issue of the moment, as not too long ago reading was an entirely public event as families would read aloud to one another, and even the roots of storytelling are oral. This again disputes the question of privacy as well as the future of books, which is an ever changing dilemma. A solution Dominic offers is to remove the idea of privacy from the Book.

The final question, which is again infuriatingly not a question, is that the “technologizing of literature is dehumanising.” These are strong words, and like the statements before them (from both audience and panel), they reveal a strong passion for both digital and print books. People seem greatly polarised on the subject, attacking and defending digital books in equal parts. What seems an optimistic solution, that the panel have identified, is to use the boundless possibilities of digital formatting within narratives or to derive narratives. This is why, they agree, Google Street View is interesting and complicated as it offers another perspective by capturing (voyeuristically) the everyday life of other people.

Kate McAuliffe

Pamela Butchart: Spies and Vampire Rats

24.10. 10 am:
Taking the suitable for ages 7-10 as a mere suggestion, I walked through the doors and was handed a blank page of paper (which of course I took) and sat on the end of the back row, trying to look as inconspicuous and non-shady as possible. Yes, I was the only person attending not accompanied by at least one child, but I hope my scribbling of notes confirmed my identity as a reviewer and kid at heart. Pamela opens by asking for a show of hands to indicate who saw her at the Literary Festival last year. Many eager hands shoot up and stay held as she asks who has read her previous books and who has read her new book My Head Teacher is a Vampire Rat. She then asks a young girl in the front row, Isla, to stand at the front and demonstrate what Pamela means by “a round of applause.” Isla has been here before and she knows the drill, smiling eagerly at the front she proceeds to clap her hands in an arc to which we all join in.

Pamela then talks about the first book in her Izzy series: Baby Aliens got my Teacher. Showing photos of famous film and television teachers and aliens, Pamela starts a competition putting one side of the room against the other. This goes down very well, as the keen and well behaved kids each raise their arms to answer, some hopping on their seats and squirming with anticipation at being picked, full of beans the way only kids can be so early on a Saturday morning. Excitement is peaked as a photo of Yoda flashes onto the screen and all the young arms in the room raise skyward, with a couple of adults’ enthusiastic nods.

We then move onto a reading from Baby Aliens got my Teacher in which hero Izzy finds a “crisp twin” of her neighbour and posts it to her accordingly. This moves us on to the next bit of fun and audience participation as Pamela asks for some volunteers to come out front with her. Not a single child who enthusiastically steps forward is refused and soon nearly every child in the Croppedroom is huddled shoulder to shoulder at the front. Alex, a young boy, is given the job of “crisp inspector”, and, with that title not seeming official enough, is given an old teacher hat to wear. Alex crunches a bag of crisps, opens it and pulls out a triangular shaped crisp. The volunteers then stand in a line and are told that one by one they are going to add a part to the story of how this crisp (which wasn’t always a crisp) became a crisp. This is lots of fun and the kids really take to it, some adding lots and others shyly saying only a few words, helped along the way by Pamela’s guidance (her being a teacher as well as an author). At the end, Pamela tells them not to let the story go to waste and encourages the children to go home and write it down, maybe even in groups.

The event ends with more engaging participation as Pamela shows us how to draw a “vampire rat”, using the blank pages we were offered at the beginning. At the end the proud children held up their illustrations with beaming faces, and I succeeded in refraining from joining them (though I do admit to having drawn my own copy). Pamela was a treat to watch and listen to, all the children and parents were engaged right from the very beginning, but most importantly, the event was fun and encouraged creative interests and outlets, be that writing or illustration.

Kate McAuliffe