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


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

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

Lunchbox Talks: Designing Stories (With Prof. Mike Press & Holly Scanlan, Friday 23rd, 1pm)

“Designing Stories” is a rather vague title, being one of the classic examples of an event label that have little to no relation to the topic actually discussed. What I attended, was in fact a discussion of blogging – highlighting its merits, including a short reading of a number of blog entries. These were presented by Professor Mike Press, Holly Scanlan (a personal blogger and hairstylist) and three other bloggers who, despite contributing rather interesting points, didn’t quite make it to the Literary Festival guide. These three were Linda Isles, Lauren Currie and Jennifer Jones. Although, it is quite possible that due to the lack of reference material, I have completely butchered the spelling of their names.

Each guest in turn read a short extract from their blog and then answered questions, which ranged from why they felt the practice was generally important to how an individual new to the world of blogging could proceed. Video presentations were integrated seamlessly without appearing forced, but whilst offering interesting insights into the work of Currie and Jones, they didn’t add much else of note. The rest of this review will focus mainly on Press, Scanlan and Isles. These three all read well, yet their chosen extracts and more general discussion of their work revealed a disjunction between the different speakers’ material. Press read a well-structured story about his childhood that gave the impression of time having being put in, and multiple drafts having been written. This is perhaps unsurprising as his usual material is of an academic nature, discussing aspects of current movements in art and design. Scanlan and Isles’ extracts, however, were far more spontaneous, almost in the form of diary entries that, while providing a certain amount of energy, made their work also appear somewhat unpolished. While I am sure the intention of these two very different writing styles was to show the variety of voice and options open to a blogger, I felt it made the event seem somewhat unfocused. This continued into the general discussion where Scanlan’s personal and emotional approach to her work seemed very out of place with the more academic points being brought up by Press, with Isles’ comments alternating between the two standpoints. The mistake, at least in my eyes, was to have Press as both a member of the panel and the moderator, which meant his points overpowered those of the other speakers somewhat.

More generally, the problem seems to have been a lack of direction to the discussion. While each speaker had interesting points to make about their own work, these never seemed to build towards any sort of conclusion, which at moments gave the impression of the event simply being a chance for the guests to advertise their blogs. Deeper questions about the nature of the medium were brought up but were quickly glossed over. These included the worry that blogging is the ultimate expression of narcissism, and whether it created a “cult of amateur”.

Perhaps I am being too harsh in judgement. It was a “Lunchbox Talk” and perhaps its aim was simply to entertain an audience over a lunch hour, which it, of course, did perfectly adequately, always staying enjoyable and never becoming dull.  Yet I feel that the subject matter of the talk was worthy of a little more intellectual probing and thus I left the event somewhat unsatisfied.

Chris Gerrard

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

Literary Cooties: Publishing and Prejudice (11:30am)

The Bonar Hall had a very calming ambience this morning, with soft, dimmed lighting. As the (what turned out to be mainly female audience) gradually entered, everyone was warmly encouraged to sit near the front where the first two rows were made up of chairs around desks. I think this was to create a more relaxed atmosphere, breaking down the typical forward facing rigidity of the audience, and to encourage conversation amongst attendees. However, never being one to optionally sit at the front of a classroom, I sneaked into a seat in the row second from the back.

This discussion definitely had more of a panel like feel, rather than an interview talk show. Sasha de Buyl chaired the conversation with author Zoe Venditozzi, Claire Stewart (Co-Founder of Electric Bookshop and Board member of the Glasgow Women’s Library), and Chitra Ramaswamy who is an Edinburgh based columnist and freelance arts and features writer. These women were at the Dundee Literary Festival today to discuss the gender issues that unfortunately exist in today’s book industry. Sasha began by introducing each woman and then led the conversation by asking, what is the “core of the problem”?

The perception of women writers appears to be one of the answers. Zoe began to answer this question by reflecting on her own experience of writing about domestic settings and how work of this type is not deemed “exciting enough”. She joked about how she felt if she were to write a book titled, “Sparkly Golden Vagina” that it would become more widely recognised because it shocks. But, (and rightly so) Zoe doesn’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, change what it is she writes about or how she wants it presented just to fit into what apparently sells.

This led the conversation towards the issues of literary prizes and reviewing. These are the main avenues through which books gain recognition, and both areas, as pointed out by Claire and the other speakers, are dominated by males (both male writers and male reviewers). I found out something today that surprised me, as I didn’t realise that publishers are the ones who put books forward for prizes, (embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure how selection was organised) and so the lack of women writers and books about women being recognised this way is partly due to the publishing houses in this respect. Claire (only part jokingly) suggested a new prize, something like, “the Women’s Voice book prize”. Even though this initially seems like it would only encourage the division of the ‘woman writer’ and ‘the writer’ (the male, yet non gendered, title), Zoe commented how we need to “push it [women’s writing] forward so it becomes normalised” because unfortunately, as it stands, it is not.

Although around 70% (I’m sure Sasha noted) of the overall readership is female, there is still something that is seen to be icky about women writing about normative women’s experience. Chitra herself has actually written a collection of essays on pregnancy but she told us these have been deemed “too woman-y” to be good sellers – as she rightly put it, “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”.

Today’s discussion on “Literary Cooties” (a term I believe to have been coined by Nicola Griffith) was a fascinating discussion that questioned the book industry and its norms, and attempted in offering solutions to the gender problems that exist within it. Although there is a long way to go before reaching equality, I feel that confronting the problem, and talking about it, making people face it, as these women have, is the first step towards some positive change. What we need now are more male attendees.

Frances Kelly

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