All posts by Loretta Mulholland

Not Unfascinated

Michael Marra, Dundee’s local hero and musical legend, was a man whose life was deservedly celebrated by his city kin last night at the Bonar Hall, with the launch of his biography, ‘Arrest this Moment’.

I am no Dundonian, but having lived in this proud city for over twenty years, I could not fail to be aware of the Marra family and the talents that abound within it. But Michael took the biscuit. I saw him in his last-ever performance at the Dundee Rep and all the while I listened, I wondered why I had never heard his work before, such was the depth of his gravel voice and quality lyrics, not to mention his musical abilities.

Artistic, irreverent, outspoken, musical, wordy, political, gravel-voiced and opinionated, no-one could ever accuse this local hero of being boring. But what was even more impressive, was the unanimous accolade of his kindness, sincerity and care for all the people he came across (unless they were Aberdonians or Fifers, of course) and how he treated everyone as individuals. His great partner in crime, St Andrew (Andy Pelc to the uninitiated) joined author, James Roberston, on stage, and together they gave a real flavour of Michael as a man:

“Ye cid ca’ him Michael or Mick. Never Mike!”

But the real tribute to the great man of Lochee was the turnout for the launch of this book, with Dundonians from Fintry to Ferry, Lochee to West End, coming in droves, to celebrate Michael’s life, surrounded by family and friends. The opening performance by daughter Alice and her musical partner was moving and amusing all at once, but the final word went to Michael, who delighted us with a ‘live’ performance of his famed take on Ulysses S Grant’s visit to Dundee in September 1877, just after he had completed his term as President.

Dundee was Grant’s last stop on a long and exhaustive tour of Europe, and in Michael’s words, “They say he was ‘not fascinated’ by the city.”

I love that term, and expressed so eloquently in this context, the audience knew exactly what Michael was saying about this famous man of his time, and also what Michael was saying about his own home city.

He went on to explain how ‘we’ (Dundonians) “find that hard to understand,” but justified the man’s remarks by saying how, the guy “obviously had a different life from us.”

The man was so obviously ‘unfascinated’ by Dundee that nobody could remember anything he had said on the visit, apart from, “That’s a mighty long bridge,” referring to the Tay Rail Bridge, the longest in the world at that time.

Michael was so taken by this that he found an account of the visit in a book entitled, The High Girders by John Prebble and wrote a tongue-in-cheek song celebrating the visit, entitled, ‘General Grant’s visit to Dundee.’

The song had the audience laughing one minute and in tears the next. There he was, up on the big screen, speaking and singing to us, as though he were ‘on our shoulders’ as James had felt, when he was writing his book, going over his boxes of photographs and memorabilia and recalling their ‘kitchen chats’ over a long and drawn out cup of coffee.

I looked at my friend beside me who had got us the tickets, overcome with emotion; she had attended that very concert. I wondered how his daughter and the other members of his family who were there last night had felt on seeing Michael, so full of life and idiosyncratic humour, and for those few moments, I felt part of a privileged audience and an extended family.  Amongst other things, I’m sure they must have been filled with a great pride.

The evening ended with Michael taking a modest bow, smiling to his audience, and thanking us all for coming.

As St Andrew said, he could never be an Aberdonian or a Fifer – a Weegie, mibbe.

I look forward to reading more about our local hero, with his unique gravel voice and his irreverence for the Scottish Education System,  amongst other things, for I am not ‘unfascinated’ by Michael Marra’s life.

The Three Generations Rule

Despite my proximity to ‘Golf City’ I am not in any way even remotely close to being an ardent golf fan, my experiences in the sport being limited to a few rounds of pitch’n’putt round Kelvingrove Park with my dad, long, long ago. But golf was not the focus of the ‘Written in the Archives’ talk last night, as anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge would certainly be aware of.

History research is not something I am unfamiliar with and back in the good ol’ days of being a recent graduate and having not a care in the world, I had the privilege of being paid to read the Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland in the library of Strathclyde University as I undertook my background research on the History of the Brick and Tile Industry in Scotland. Riveting stuff, I hear you scoff, but there began my fascination with lives long past and ways people lived them.

Last night’s talk reminded me of the passion I once held for piecing together items of information and creating a story; letters, photographs, extracts from trades’ directories, extracts of births, marriages and deaths; diary extracts, newspaper articles, census material … you name it.  Anything goes.  Everything tells you something.  Everyone has a story.

And what stories were hinted at last night in the telling of the 175 Years of Carnoustie Golf Club or the history of a proud community and its ‘working class’ members, worlds apart from their aloof neighbours across the water in the Ancient Kingdom.  (Did they really pelt golf balls at each other as they crossed the Tay in the ‘Fifies”?)

What struck me was a phrase one of the researchers used, when he stated quite simply that he was aware that there were three generations of history within that Golf Club, and if they didn’t record it now, it would be lost forever.

I thought of an earlier conversation I had had in the union when someone asked me what had prompted me to write again and join the course.  It was that very same thought that the Carnoustie veteran had voiced – that three generations rule.

When I was clearing my mum’s house, after dad had died and she herself was literally going mad with grief, I realised that all their young lives, stories of their parents and grandparents, of communities they grew up in and were such a close part of, stories of myself and my brother when we were young – all those precious moments in time, could be lost in an instant, if no-one took the trouble to at least think about what to record, preserve and write down.  They could be tipped into the skip, and lost forever.

Archives need not necessarily be held in university basements or council chambers; we have them in our homes and our loved ones have them in their heads.  They don’t have to be stories of the rich and famous, the outstanding achievers of the world. They can simply be these precious moments in ordinary lives that become the extraordinary when read about or listened to in a different context, at a different time.

I even found some photos of one day, long ago, in Kelvingrove Park, as my dad wraps his arms around me, and patiently tries to teach me how to hold that stick and aim the ball at the wee hole with the flag in it. He is wearing a ‘James Bond’ suit, shirt and tie, with hankie in pocket – on a Sunday afternoon, in the park, with his family.

What an extraordinary picture of time

Something new and wonderful

I’m beginning to feel like a writer now.  It’s 23.50pm and I’m sitting at my kitchen table eating a macaroni pie and thinking wtf – I still have two blogs to do and poor Nic, my ever empathetic and totally talented writing buddy has just received a desperate plea from me to look at my attempt at the response to the A9 letter, even though it was due for the 8th but I got a bit of a reprieve cos I was going away for a few days and really felt that a piece of writing involving some kind of misdemenor on the A9 may well invite a jinx or two as I was heading somewhere away from Dundee which may well have involved the A9 but I am not sure as I leave all that technical work to my satnav. (Stop sniggering Marie; you are not off the hook – you’ll get your copy to review later; after the macaroni has kicked in and I’ve edited it at least another twelve times).

Anyway, isn’t that what authors are supposed to do?  Sit up through the night, eating crap and drinking beer, wine or spirits (the wine is nicely chilled by my side), gathering their thoughts and creating their masterpieces?  (Well, Ian; c’mon, create that masterpiece now!!)

I am convincing my cat that this is the case and this is why she is having to put up with me sharing her late-night kitchen cosy spot.

Of course, to all the young people on the course, I guess this might be early evening.  Being a right old git, I have no idea of the norms of study anymore.  My university days ran something like, from three in the afternoon to three in the morning but times may well have changed.  Mine have, for sure.

However, I have returned home from an evening’s entertainment, totally committed to getting something down on this blog.  And really, what I have been thinking this afternoon, is, ‘What’s all the panic about?’  All I have to do is write a poem, which I truly have not done since the days of writing into the ‘Bunty’ letters page, hoping to earn a fiver for pocket money (I was still in primary), write a review on  a Booker long-leeted novel and prepare to interview Chris Arthur!  Chris Arthur, no less.

That’s when the magic of this course hit me – and believe me, it will be magic if I get the time to read a sufficient amount of his work to make any sense at the interview.  However, I have started to do my research on this Irish bloke who has decided to settle in  our native Fife coast, and since doing so, I have been just a teeny wee bit overawed by the opportunities that are afforded to us on this course.  To tap into such amazing minds is a real privilege.  From the (very brief, so far) research that I have undertaken on Chris and his works, I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to interview such a profoundly philosophical person, who looks at life and objects with a pursuit of understanding that leaves me breathless.  How privileged are we to be able to tap into such talented minds and learn from such people?  In my moments of doubt, and there are very, very many of these, I have to remind myself that the prime purpose of me undertaking this course is to learn.  I have been teaching for the bulk of my working career.  What a privilege it is now, to turn that around, and learn from such a variety of people and such depths of talent and to open up an entirely different world.  I include you all in this, for every day, when I read your comments or listen to your work,  I learn something new and wonderful and feel my world expand.

Learning never stops.  That’s the excitement of life.

Breathe and Relax

Creating a blog was all so new and exciting that I had to leave the university that very moment and run away to board a ferry, catch my breath, breathe and relax.  I am rocking as I write.  It’s not the memory of the ferry; it’s the memory of the homework, the metre and the rhythm.  It’s seeing all my classmates’ blogs and remembering I have three of these to do over the next few days but I remember to breathe and relax until I read Rachel’s blog about the rest of the homework, so I’ll just have to have a bath instead.  I can read the ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ (Jean Rhys) there and do some homework as I breathe and relax.  Doing your homework in the bath is one of the best bits of this course, I have to say.

But then so is the mindfulness.  All of our lecturers have made us aware of attention to detail; listening to what people are saying, observing their movements, noticing mannerisms, interactions, hesitations and panic.  I noticed some necks around me gathering red patches as we talked about our impending interviews with authors and inwardly steadied my own heartbeat.  Breathe and relax.  Breathe and relax.

We are also being encouraged to look in detail at the world around us.  To take time to notice where we are and to reflect on detail.  It’s not enough to say the ‘champagne flowed and bourbon poured’ or that ‘people were dressed in all their finery’; we have to look at that champagne, describe that bourbon and how it was poured; allow our readers to see those sparkling dresses before their very eyes.  We have to look.

I thought about this as I crossed the Clyde and watched the wake as the lights from the mainland faded and the salty spray freshened my complexion and the wind slapped into my frowns.  A physical departure really can freshen your thoughts.  Calm the mind.  Help you to breathe and relax.

In my bag I had packed the ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and John Lennard’s ‘ThePoetry Handbook’. The former I had begun and couldn’t wait to get on with.  The latter I had begun and couldn’t wait to understand.  Stressed and unstressed syllables.  Why can’t I hear them?  Just practise, said Dawn.  Thank you Dawn.  At least you broke down the mathematical equations for me and that’s a start.  Breathe and relax.

I did.  West coast islands have that effect on me.  Something about that physical crossing that frees the mind.   Didn’t manage to finish my novel or open my poetry handbook.  I have continued my homework though.  My latest reads are ‘Mount Stuart:  Isle of Bute’ and ‘The House at Ettrick Bay’, by Myra Duffy.  The first is not only an informative guide to the majestic ancestral home of the Crichton-Stuarts but also an explanation as to why we see so many magnificent ‘Bute’ Buildings throughout Scotland and beyond, and an insight into what a remarkable human being the 3rd Marquess of Bute (and reputedly the third richest man in Britain) was.  The second is my first reading from The Isle of Bute Mystery Series.  This is a venture into a new genre for me, which had been initiated by the publicity surrounding the Bute Noir Festival and by inspiration from our highly enthusiastic ‘Crime Fiction’ colleagues.  Neither books are very intellectual but both are highly educational to me and, being mindful, there will always be something to learn from everything we read and do.

My writing is this.  I breathe and relax.

Blog Blues

So I’m Loretta and this is my first ever blog – just one of the wonderful things we are learning about in the Publishing Module for Writing Practice and Study.  This is a totally new venture for me – the whole post grad writing experience, I mean; not just the blog.