Category Archives: At Dundee Literary Festival 2017

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.

Essays & The Reading Life with Chris Arthur

At the beginning of Chris Arthur’s session today, there was some time devoted to the tricky business of defining the essay as a literary form.  It’s worth discussing because the  association of essays with tedious school assignments appears to be impacting the marketability of the modern, creative essay, which remains a ‘minority interest.’ Publishers are largely reluctant to embrace the essay, in spite of the success of recent collections like ‘Nasty Women.’

So, what is an essay? Chris Arthur is reluctant to fully endorse the ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ label although he concedes that for the moment, it might well be the best compromise. His essay collection, The Reading Life, is a collection of fifteen essays based, not surprisingly, around reading – reading books, reading objects and responding to books as objects.

He says that he begins an essay with a symbol or object because objects are weighted ‘with astonishing cargo.’ It’s the unpacking of this cargo, the peeling back of the layers which drives the prose, taking the reader on a voyage of discovery. The essay is both expansive and introspective and to be effective, it must have an element of accident; it should surprise the writer as well as the reader.

He reads a section from his essay, Scrimshaw (reading a whale’s tooth).

‘One of the most treasured remnants from my childhood is a whale’s tooth. It was given to me in exchange for – and as a distraction for losing – a tooth of my own.’

The whale’s tooth, a gift from Mr Wilson the dentist, becomes the literary springboard for an examination of the art of scrimshaw, that is, drawings engraved  onto the teeth and bones of whales. From there we journey to the ocean and imagine the life of the whale whose tooth was gifted to the young Chris Arthur.

‘Astonishing cargo’ indeed. Objects have provenance and can open up a world of wonder if we only stop to look and allow our thoughts to unravel.

Over the summer I dipped into and very much enjoyed reading Lia Purpura’s lyrical essay collection, On Looking which is on the M.Litt reading list. Purpura says, ‘I called to things, and in turn, things called to me, applied me to their sight and we became each as treasure, startling to one another, and rare.’ Purpura beckons you close, whispers into your ear. Her work feels intimate, as if you have been chosen to go with her and look at the world through her eyes, for a little while at least.

I’m looking forward to reading Chris Arthur’s essays. He has signed my copy of The Reading Life with ‘Life is full of wonders’ and it strikes me that this is an echo of Purpura’s comment about treasure.

However you wish to define the non-academic essay, there seems to be agreement: what awaits the reader is wonder and treasure, wrapped up in beautiful, highly polished prose.