Saturday, 30 June 2018

Poetry competition win!

The creative writing class that I go to every Friday occasionally ventures outside its room in the Southside Community Centre. Among other excursions, we have: visited the Early Peoples Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland; walked the Edinburgh Labyrinth in George Square Gardens; sat on benches in the Meadows; looked at the buildings in the streets around the Centre; and watched tapestry being made at the Dovecote Studios.

We have also been to Surgeons' Hall Museum with its fascinating, gory collections. These include various items connected with the notorious 19th-century grave robbers William Burke and William Hare

After digging up newly buried bodies and selling them to the Edinburgh University anatomist Dr Robert Knox, Burke and Hare progressed to murder and are thought to have had at least sixteen victims. They invented a murder method, still known as ‘burking’, a kind of suffocation, and they picked on unlikely-to-be-missed people, on the margins of society.

Mary Haldane was a prostitute around the dark streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town. She must have had a bleak existence – and she came to a very bleak end at the hands of Burke and Hare.

I’ve never done this before or since, but when I came home from that visit I quickly wrote, in prose, how I imagined Mary’s life and death, while what I had learned in Surgeon’s Hall was fresh in my mind. Then I turned it into a poem called For Mary Haldane, a victim of Burke and Hare, 1828.

Now … tada … the poem has won a competition run by Grey Hen Press and is on their website here; I am gratified to learn there were 500 entries. It’s not cheery – you’ve been warned – but I see from the judges’ report (not that they mentioned my poem specifically) that any poem with an interesting title or an unusual subject was most likely to catch their eye which I thought good advice for next time …

Friday, 22 June 2018

Six in May

I read six books in May.

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner
A second police procedural with the terrific DI Manon Bradshaw. I read the first one Missing, Presumed and loved it; was not disappointed with this one and do hope there will be more.
As dusk falls, a young man staggers through a park, far from home, bleeding from a stab wound. He dies where he falls, cradled by a stranger, a woman's name on his lips in his last seconds of life. ...

Bought in Christian Aid book sale.
Years ago I read and loved Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by the same author. I liked this one less but there is something fascinating, when you live in a place that’s more often than not a wee bit wet and chilly (OK, ‘dreich’), to read about the Deep South of America when the intense heat and the fecundity of nature transfer themselves to the printed page – and you find characters with names like Calla Lily … Louisiana is a brilliant place to spend a few hours virtually, but I’ll stick with dreich for everyday.

Plotting for Beginners by Sue Hepworth and Jane Linfoot
Bought in Christian Aid book sale
In his fifties, Sally’s husband goes to build himself a cabin in the wilds of America, and live like his hero Thoreau for a year. Sally is happy enough anticipating all that time to herself and trying to make a success of her writing, but first her d-i-y obsessed brother in need of a temporary home disturbs her peace and then there’s her boomerang son and the local lothario and other distractions. Can her long-distance marriage survive?

Read on Kindle
‘Nine romantic novelists from Yorkshire and Lancashire, including best-selling and award-winning authors, have joined together to create this collection of uplifting stories guaranteed to warm your heart. This intriguing mix of historical and contemporary romances will make you laugh, cry, and believe in the happy-ever-after.’ What more can I add except that I enjoyed this collection – and every community should definitely have a Miss Moonshine.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Bought in Christian Aid book sale.
ES has been on my radar for a while but this is the first one I’ve read. Why have I waited so long? It’s a miracle, this book. Olive, a retired teacher, is looked at from the points of view of various people with whom she is regularly, or hardly ever, in contact with. In some chapters she barely appears. Sometimes she comes over in a good light, sometimes not. I didn’t really like her, not until the very end – not that that mattered at all because I think this is the most effective portrayal of a character I have ever read. It’s all beautifully written but the last chapter particularly – I read it quickly because it drew me in and then read it again to appreciate the language.

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty
A retired Irish couple take a break in Amsterdam and over the few days the fractures in their relationship are revealed.

This has been much lauded but my appreciation of it suffered because I read it directly after the Elizabeth Strout and any book would have paled in comparison … plus for me two authors, Anne Tyler and Carol Shields, have covered this territory more beguilingly.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

An island story

I have just come back from a holiday with friends on the Isle of Arran – ‘Scotland in miniature’ as it is deservedly known because of the variety of scenery contained within a circumference of fifty-five miles.

Last week there was no rain, only the gentlest of breezes, and glorious sunshine from morning to night, on this island off the west coast of Scotland (yes, really … ).

Having lived there as a teenager I know that the weather is not like that all the time … but it is beautiful come wind or rain. My three friends, two of whom had never been before, and I briefly entertained fantasies of abandoning our families, moving there and opening a tea-room.

 However, back in the real world … memories of working in an Arran hotel one summer holiday many years ago inspired a story in this collection:


It’s called Summertime Blues. Can you guess what the era is from the first paragraph?

It’s Saturday night and I’m getting ready for the dance. Purple flares, white cheesecloth smock, strappy sandals, hoop earrings. Plum eye shadow, two coats of mascara, a spray of Aquamanda, and I’m ready.

Read on …

Friday, 1 June 2018

A writerly week

Didn’t get much writing done … but had a very nice writerly week nonetheless.

The last meeting of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club year was on Monday. The AGM followed by the prize-giving and a social event. I’ve been the membership secretary for rather a long time but I stepped down this year and was touched to be presented with these lovely flowers.

The Club year begins again on 24 September 2018, 7.30. Grosvenor Hilton Hotel, Grosvenor Street and meets every fortnight until the end of May. The 2018-19 programme will be up on the website towards the end of August. You can also find the Club on Facebook.

When I joined the Club I had never been published or even tried to be but I found people to be very friendly and helpful and it was so encouraging to get feedback in the competitions and from other members, and thus to think I might actually send a story out into the big wide publishing world.

Fourteen years on, although of course members have come and gone, the ethos of the Club is still the same – it’s a mix of published and unpublished writers who write in various genres (novels, short stories, poetry, drama, articles) but who come together in their shared love of the written word.

It is no exaggeration to say that joining Edinburgh Writers’ Club changed my life!

One of the encouraging members I met when I joined EWC was Anne Stenhouse. Now she and I and two other writers, Jennifer Young and Jane Riddell, all Edinburgh based, have come together as Capital Writers. The idea is to have a joint platform for promoting our writing. So we have a website, a Facebook page and are on Twitter @reekiewriters. We have produced a book of short stories, one from each of us, Capital Stories, as a taster of our work; a further anthology is in the pipeline for the end of the year.

And on Wednesday this week, Anne, Jane and myself (Jennifer was away) found ourselves on a writers’ panel at the Corstorphine Festival (Corstorphine is an area of Edinburgh), alongside crime writers Wendy H. Jones and Cecilia Peartree, and Ray Bell who was there to talk about his book Literary Corstorphine.

There was (almost) more panel than audience but what a lovely audience they were, really friendly and engaged and asking excellent questions. Capital Writers had a capital time and <hint> are available for similar events …

I have a story in the current issue (No 158) of The People’s Friend Special called What Would Jane Think?, my thirty-third for the PF. I do like the illustration they've had done for it.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Capital Writers in Corstorphine Festival

I am looking forward to being on a panel of writers, including two of my fellow Capital Writers, at the Corstorphine Festival (Edinburgh) on 30 May 2018 at 7pm.

If you are in the vicinity it would be lovely to see you - free, and no need to book.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Seven in April

I read seven books in April.

Hygge and Kisses by Clara Christensen
Bo is in a relationship – or is she? And she’s just been made redundant. So when her flatmate Kristen suggests Bo have a holiday in Kristen’s native North Jutland off she goes. She meets an annoying girl who calls everyone Babe, and a new love interest, and she makes chocolate muffins quite a lot. And that’s about it. ‘Bo’ is short for Boughay, apparently a family name but we’re given no clue how to pronounce it – Buffy? Boogie? I’m afraid I found this book ‘bo’ – short for boring.

The Button Box by Lynn Knight
Bought in the bookshop of the V&A in London and it kept me excellent company on the train all the way home to Edinburgh. Lynn Knight tells the story of three generations of her family, and the larger story of women at home and in work from the Victorian age to the 1960s, through the clothes they wore and the clothes they made. A book you definitely want to have a print copy of so you can admire the buttons on the cover.

Loved this! The characters have such depth – we are shown their back-stories which flesh them out and perfectly explain their contemporary situations and personalities. The opening of a (second-hand) bookshop is always going to be a subject that appeals to me, and I also loved the setting of the Solway Firth, a part of Scotland that is not as well-known as it should be. The descriptions, while not overdone, make it sound absolutely beautiful.

In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon
Really enjoyed this book set in Edinburgh in the days of the early photography pioneers, in particular D O Hill. I was sent an advance copy to review on the Capital Writers website. You can read the the review here.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Read on Kindle for book group; this has been long/shortlisted for the major literary prizes. A Muslim family find themselves divided by radicalism and politics. Told from several viewpoints, the siblings’ stories give more insight than any news report can, and make a gripping read.

Simon Brett was the keynote speaker at the Scottish Association of Writers’ Conference this year; he is extremely funny. He is also a very prolific writer. Mrs Pargeter is one of his sleuths, a most original creation. She is wealthy widow, on the right side of the law, which is more than can be said for her late husband. This means she has all sorts of experts who will come to her aid in an instant – safe crackers, bodyguards and so on. A hoot.

Lilian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney
This I just adored. It was inspired by a woman who was the highest paid female in American advertising in the 30s.

Now aged 85 in the 1980s, Lilian is at a bit of a loose end on New Year’s Eve. She’s been invited to a party that won’t start until midnight and although it is in an unsalubrious part of New York (more dangerous then than now for the late-night wanderer) she decides to walk there. As she travels through familiar and unfamiliar areas, she meets and charms a variety of characters, and she recalls her life. It’s a potted history of her beloved city as well as of Lilian herself. The book is cleverly constructed; I loved the writing and Lilian herself is an inspiration. Go read!

Friday, 13 April 2018

Seven in March

I read seven books in March.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
Read for book group. What I like about Helen Dunmore, apart from her fabulous writing, is that she never writes the same book twice. Her previous one, Exposure, was a spy novel set in 1960. This one is set in Bristol in 1792 but it also has the background of the turmoil in Europe and the French revolution. Lizzy’s family are Radicals (her pamphlet-writing mother is based on a real person) but her new husband, a property developer of what are now Bristol’s grandest houses, has everything to lose from the reality of social upheaval.

I enjoyed it but was puzzled by the first chapter which is contemporary and involves <spoiler alert>an interesting narrator we never hear of again. And there was a major aspect to the plot that I would prefer not to have known about so early on. But it was a fascinating period (‘bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven’ as Wordsworth said) and Helen Dunmore shows us a different side to it through the resourceful Lizzy.

How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster
Knowing I was going to be reading Margaret Forster’s schoolgirl diary for the book group at the beginning of April, I went on a little MF jag after seeing this and Isa and May in a charity shop.

Tara/Sarah has moved from London to the north of England, changing her name after a shocking event in her life. Although determined not to get involved with anyone she does find herself sort of friends with her rather lonely, older neighbour (who was brought up on a farm, hence the title). I thought it petered out towards the end and wondered if I’d got to know Tara any better than I had at the beginning.

Isa and May by Margaret Forster
Isa and May are the narrator’s two grandmothers: Isa is the posh one and May is plain speaking and working-class. The narrator, Isamay, is called after both of them. She is trying to write a thesis on grandmothers in history but as she talks to her own two she begins to find out family secrets.

Relationships are Margaret Forster’s big thing and although I like her novels I prefer her non-fiction on the same theme such as Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir.

This book made a stir when it came out last year, with some reviewers claiming that it ‘explained’ why the current president of the United States got elected. The author (in his early thirties) was brought up in Ohio, in ‘hillbilly’ country. His mother, although alcoholic and changing husbands frequently, instilled a love of learning in him. For day-to-day parenting though he relied on his maternal grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw). But while there was real love and the feeling that family, however dysfunctional, always had your back, there were also physical and verbal fights of the most ferocious nature between any combination of people, and Mamaw’s gun was never far from her hand.

Joining the Marine Corps changed Vance’s life and he ended up studying law at Yale University. But it seems you can take the boy out of hillbilly country but not all the hillbilly out of the boy. Despite his extreme change in lifestyle his loyalty to his roots is unwavering. He is clear-sighted about the problems in what is known as ‘rust-belt’ America, acknowledging, for example, the issues that some of the population have in sticking to a job when they have one, and bemoaning the disappearance of the industries that once were major employers.

Whatever your Democrat/Republican preferences are, do read this book – because it’s terrifically written and as gripping as any novel.

My (not so) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella
Katie, from deepest Somerset, is determined to make a life for herself in London. But the glamorous photographs she puts on Instagram do not reflect her ghastly commute, the tiny room she rents and her weird flatmate, and the lowly admin job she has in a PR company. When she is ‘let go’ she has to slink home to her dad’s farm and try to pretend that it’s just a temporary measure.

Sophie Kinsella is the absolute best at mixing serious with spluttering hilarity and this is no exception.

Diary of an Ordinary Schoolgirl by Margaret Forster
Margaret F died two years ago. Although they never read them while she was alive, her family knew she kept diaries as they were referred to, to check events or dates. But they didn’t know that the diary keeping had started early until they found ones she’d kept as a schoolgirl, including this one in 1954 when she was fifteen. It’s been reproduced most beautifully. There were no big revelations – she was a very enthusiastic scholar, with no interest in boys or make-up (‘soppy’). Brought up in a council house in Carlisle, she helped a lot with the housework; made some of her own clothes; went on long walks, sometimes by herself; loved listening to radio plays and going to the library. Ordinary stuff maybe, but a glimpse into someone else’s life is always of interest to me.

But you won’t ever read my teenage diary.

A Colonial Experience by David Allison
As the author says: a ‘colonial experience was the somewhat derogatory term that was given to young men who made their way from the UK to Australia in order to gain worldly and practical experience working on remote sheep and cattle stations.’ David Allison had his ‘colonial experience’ in the 1970s, going out from Scotland to work in the Australian outback – and then as an overseer on a coconut plantation in Papua New Guinea, a time full of drama to say the least.

David is my cousin and I was spellbound when I heard him talking about his Papua New Guinea adventures; he is a great storyteller. Much of that verve has been transmitted to the written word here.

It was interesting too, to read the last chapter in which he tells of a recent visit back to Papua New Guinea, finding much that was changed and much that was the same.