Category Archives: Writers

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

 

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

Dundee’s Four Marys, High Mill at Scotland’s Jute Museum, Verdant Works, Friday 24th October

 

four marys

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).

I am conscious that there is another presentation of the play on Sunday, and there may well be others in the future, such has been its success so far.  So do forgive me if this initial review has limited detail on the content of the play – I thought it only fair to hang back on the final version until after Sunday’s showing, which will also include a couple of better photos than my humble tech could manage!

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.

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”.  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.

Of course we learn a lot in between all that, as 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.  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.

Marjory Robertson has a very hard job in presenting the modest character of Mary Ann Baxter, and it could so easily have become overplayed or unbelievable.  Instead, her performance was an example in fine tuning; like a certain bowl of porridge, it was “just right”.  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 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.

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.

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

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

The Boy from Nowhere: Gregor Fisher and Melanie Reid

8 pm

My first introduction to the character Rab C. Nesbitt was as a young child when my brother dressed as the famous fictional Scot in our town’s annual civic week parade and won the first prize. However, Melanie Reid, the co-writer of Fisher’s memoir tells us that, “when you get to know Gregor Fisher you realise that he is a million miles away from Rab C. Nesbitt.” When people see Fisher, they ignorantly assume he is synonymous with the character, but like myself, they are wrong.

During the event there are three people on stage; Jenny Brown, a literary agent based in Edinburgh, Melanie Reid, a journalist and columnist for The Times, and Fisher himself. Brown chaired the event and asked several questions about the memoir, including a query into Fisher’s motives, as well as personal questions about his relationships with certain relatives and people growing up. But, she need not have been there. Fisher and Reid continually pushed each other and bounced back and forth in a humorous double act. Responding to Brown’s question asking when he discovered that he was adopted, Fisher replies that he was at a Christening when he was “about twelve or thirteen.” “You told me you were fourteen,” interjected Reid to which Fisher stared blankly. “It says you were fourteen in the book.” To which he responded comically, “I was about fourteen.” For all the ways in which their personalities seemed at odds (Fisher, laid back, playful, with a strong west coast accent and Reid, very composed and solemn, occasionally sarcastic in her comments), they perfectly balanced each other. It was obvious that they shared a real understanding of each other, extending to something more than a mere professional friendship. Another example of this is Fisher’s description of the unusual circumstances surrounding his birth and upbringing: “You could write this,” he jokes. “Now you know how I feel,” Reid cuts in, much to the amusement of the audience, one of the many laugh out loud moments that frequent the event.

Fisher and Reid’s relationship is not always harmonious, however, as Reid comments “you are quite difficult sometimes.” “In what way?” asks Fisher. “Tricky,” she replies. Fisher puts this down to his west coast upbringing and explains he has his own reservations about Reid, who he accuses of being “too emosh” and “girly”, much to the oohs and laughs of the audience.

Getting down to the book itself, Brown inquires as to why Fisher decided to write to the book, or have it written, as it were. He tells us that he wrote it in order to find out about his past, having been inspired by a conversation with one of his in laws, he dons a posh English accent (he tells us jokingly that he married above him) and impersonates the woman, shocked and thrilled at his upbringing. Reid confesses that she had never written a novel or tried her hand at ghost writing. Brown then describes the novel as both a detective piece and road novel, using one of Reid’s lines from the memoir describing Reid and Fisher on the road as “Dastardly and Muttley.” But it is Fisher himself who describes the memoir as “a great story of love and human kindness”, while Reid believes it to be “a story of survival.” Either way, I was completely sold, if not by the narrative, which sounds creatively written and fascinating in its exploration of Fisher’s turbulent childhood, then by the witty repartee of its two writers.

Kate McAuliffe

Do it like a Woman: Caroline Criado-Perez

Friday 2 pm

Speaking to a predominantly gendered audience (one man for every fifteen women or so), Caroline opens rather controversially by stating that she has been an “anti-feminist longer than a feminist,” believing women to be “useless underachievers.” Fighting with the screeching microphone, she decides to “go natural” as Zoe Venditozzi (who chaired the event) puts it. “I bet a man designed that” retorts Caroline much to the amusement of the audience. Carrying on with talking about her previous anti-feminist beliefs, she tells us that she was first challenged by Deborah Cameron’s novel: Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Studying English Literature at the time, it was Cameron’s focus on grammar which fascinated her. Thinking about how language shapes our world, Caroline was struck by Cameron’s discussion on grammar as being gendered. Now, this was an idea she was not unfamiliar with, the default pronoun always being male e.g. mankind and he, but what struck a chord with Caroline were the studies mentioned, which showed that when people heard this default ‘he’ or ‘mankind’, they pictured men. It was then that Caroline started looking into feminism and how women were represented.

The next section of the presentation involves Caroline reciting statistics which highlight the underrepresentation of women in society. One mentioned is that women in Hollywood films make up 28% of all speaking roles and 17% of all crowd scenes. “Why is it that the stories we tell ourselves shouldn’t be gender equal?” Caroline asks us. But she doesn’t just throw these statistics at us to shame without reason, she evaluates these results and looks into the theory behind them. She tells us that in a study of mixed gender groups composed of 17% female and 83% male, the male participants perceived the ratio as 50/50. It is studies like this which have highlighted why sexism is still very much apparent in society if 17/83 is regarded by males as gender equal.

It is reasons like this, Caroline tells us, that she was so anti-feminist in the past since she “never saw women in any position of power [she] felt like she could not achieve anything without pretending to be a man.”
She then talks about stereotype threats and role models, explaining that in another survey, it was shown that women who were made to tick a box stating that they were female before sitting a mathematics test statistically did worse. Another, showed that women who gave speeches in rooms with portraits of powerful women (e.g. Angela Merkel), were judged better by themselves and the audience, highlighting the self-belief evident in their gender. Looking at marketing, male is again set to default as Walmart advertises ‘Deodorant and Female Deodorant.’ Similarly, BIC pens were thought to be gender neutral until the female version was released, a new hot pink colour being the only difference. (It is at this time that I look down to my hand, holding a similarly pink ballpoint and horror floods me until I realise that I stole this pen from my boyfriend several days ago.) Yes, this marketing, while infuriating, does seem relatively harmless on the scale of sexism – at least until Caroline later comments on the symptoms for heart attacks. Pain in the left chest and shooting pain down the left arm, right? Yes, something we all know from television dramas and health warnings to look out for and beware of. However, Caroline tells us, shockingly, that these are the male symptoms and countless women have been misdiagnosed, their symptoms appearing as heart burn and indigestion. This is another example of men as default, but in this case it can result, horrifically, in female death.

Ending her presentation with the story of Sheryl Sandberg’s pregnancy at Google, Caroline told us how the walk from the car park became too strenuous for Sheryl in her condition, and so she asked for a car park closer to the building for pregnant women. The idea was instantly taken up by head office, who had never thought of it and Sandberg confessed it had never occurred to her before she was pregnant. In telling this story, Caroline ended her presentation, not with hate towards or shaming of sexism, but an understanding of it. She understands that it’s hard to see the world from another perspective, which is often learned only from experience.

Kate McAuliffe

First Writes

First Writes

Poetry Workshop with Lindsay MacGregor and Eddie Small

22nd October, 10 am

After some introductions and an enthusiastic welcome from Lindsay and Eddie, we were asked to write down an answer to the question: “What brought you here?”

As someone who has tried to write poetry in the past, this was an easy question to answer – I love reading poetry, I especially love hearing it read aloud, and it would make me happy, if at any time I could manage to write a poem that I would be content to read to an audience, without feeling that it was not quite right, or not quite good enough.

Eddie Small  began the workshop by reading a poem in Scots’ dialect by Harvey Holton, which described a once industrious area of the Dundee docks.  Perhaps some of us took inspiration or absorbed some nugget from that reading.  Lindsay then challenged us to think about what makes a poem, and what we all expect from the poetry we read or listen to; of course this produced a number of different thoughts and answers, which gave us more to think on.

Things moved on apace (90 minutes is all too brief!).  We were presented with a set of four images; as each one was displayed, we were given time to free-write on anything which came to mind, and this was followed by another wonderful poem reading from Eddie, this time by local poet John Glenday, which provided further inspiration

Now it was time for us to start writing our poems. Lindsay asked us to scrutinize all the writing we had produced  in the last hour, then to use the  lines which gave us something that we could form our final piece of writing from.  After a while we were asked to begin polishing our work, firstly by looking at the verbs – were they working hard enough? –then the nouns – were they the right ones;did they convey the right meaning?

So all of us had now written a poem, which nearly all of us felt brave enough to read out to the audience of our workshop peers , with Eddie and Lindsay’s encouragement.  Some of those poems will live on, exactly as they were when we read them out, some will be rewritten or edited into new life, and some will be discarded; perhaps new thoughts and poems will replace them.  That’s the heart and the joy of writing poetry, it evolves, or it stays the same, it swells or it shrinks, but in a very short time you have something complete which lives with you, or something incomplete which grows with you.

Lindsay and Eddie had skilfully organised the event to make best use of the all-too-brief time, and with their infectious enthusiasm, considerate support and shared wisdom, they certainly inspired me to believe that one day I will write a poem which I think is good enough; I do hope that day will be soon!

Lorna Hanlon

 

 

Another Kind of Writing: Peter Davidson in conversation with Kirsty Gunn

Intimate and cosy, the Bonar Hall is warmer than is has been in previous years as Kirsty Gunn chairs a conversation with The Idea of North author Peter Davidson. Kirsty’s voice is clear and confident, commanding the room’s attention easily without the use of a microphone. She opens by telling both the audience and Peter about her first experience with his work and travelling while pregnant to Perth to attend one of his readings. However, arriving late she was too shy to attend, intimidated by the sound of applause she could hear from outside the building. But now, sixteen years later she tells us that she has the honour to chair Peter Davidson here at Dundee. The last of teh light

Davidson then introduces his work with a reading from The Idea of North. Charming and funny, Davidson’s voice is slow, calm and composed, beautifully accentuating the ‘lyrical sensibility’ (as Kirsty call it) of his work. A perfect introduction to Davidson’s writing the piece includes all the aspects Kirsty attributes to his work: miracles, a deeply informed world, a poetic sense of the self and a very cinematic aspect. Description plays heavily into Davidson’s work in what Kirsty deems the ‘exquisite pleasures of seeing and responding.’ This integral preoccupation with the visual in his writing is later attributed, , to his time as an art historian. Davidson tells us of his fascination with landscapes and in turn landscape paintings, to which Kirsty notes his writing is a ‘painter’s dream.’

After a second reading Davidson then comments on one of his favourite artists; a woman from Aberdeen, who’s landscape paintings are a huge inspiration to his writing. He credits her as producing ‘a perfectly eloquent painting of Scottish winter’, that succeeds in capturing the last bit of light the eye can perceive before nightfall. This then inspired Davidson to think of the time in history when people began to paint Scottish landscapes as they are, misty and brooding: ‘a land who has more damp than it knows what to do with.’ He then discusses his new novel The Last of the Light: About Twilight. Returning to the last perception of light captured in the artist’s paintings, Davidson’s latest text deals with the history of twilight, as well as using it as a metaphor for those who run away from the light and become ghosts of themselves, as well as a moment of change.

Focusing on his fascination with a sense of north and cinematic attention to the metamorphosis of the ‘five Scottish seasons’, Kirsty spends the last few moments of their conversation discussing the ‘carnival sense of expectation at the lengthening of the days,’ and the ‘Persephone moment of seeing everything growing.’ It is this business of seeing and possibility of light which pervades Davidson’s work and steers the conversation to its close. Davidson, like Burn’s before him would describe this time of year, not as autumn, but something more Scottish: when the leaves fall and the twilight comes earlier. A time of the perpetual dampness captured in painted landscapes of the north and Davidson’s evocative descriptions of nature.

Kate McAuliffe