Friday, 28 February 2014

Jolly good books

I have collected girls’ annuals for many years now, having never forgotten the excitement on Christmas morning of feeling the familiar shape of a parcel, knowing it would be a Judy or Bunty or June or Princess annual. I’d have it read before breakfast. Then I’d read my sister’s.

Now I have around 350 annuals, bought in second-hand bookshops and jumble sales, spanning a hundred years of girlhood. Thanks to Mr Handyman putting up lots of new shelves last week I now have the whole collection together and can display some of the lovely covers face out. The names are as brilliant as the pictures: Topping Book for Girls, Girls’ Golden Annual, Girls’ Merry Book, Jolly Days for Girls, Our Girls’ Tip Top, Splendid Book for Girls, Stirring Stories for Girls. I feel merry and jolly just looking at them.

Some are stand-alone and some are allied to weekly magazines – I love the Girls’ Crystal and Schoolfriend annuals.

But closest to my heart, the one I’d rescue if the house were on fire, is Princess Gift Book for Girls 1965,  falling apart because it was so pored over when I was the age in this picture.

Sadly, in the 1990s, when I had a daughter to buy magazines and annuals for, even those stalwarts Judy and Bunty were no more and what had replaced them were product/character-related publications none of which were topping or merry or jolly or stirring at all, just crassly commercial. The stories were banal and unambitious, apparently assuming that every little girl wanted to wear a pink dress and a sparkly plastic tiara and aspire to marry a Hollywood prince. And when girls were too old for the plastic tiara, the magazines/annuals were all about relationships, celebrities and worrying about your appearance.

Compare that narrow view of what life has to offer with Princess Gift Book for Girls 1965. Along with ‘Stories of Horses, of Islands, of Mystery, of the Circus’, there’s ‘The Tale of the Jackdaw of Rheims (in verse)’, ‘The History of the Fragrant Rose’, ‘How we made a film’, ‘Wendy’s year – full of things to make and do’ and much more.

However that varied list of contents pales into complete insignificance compared to The Girls’ Own Annual, Volume Fifty-Nine, edited by Gladys M. Spratt and weighing in at a whopping 620 pages. There isn’t a publishing date but the first item is ‘Earl Baldwin’s Call to Youth … delivered by the ex-Premier to ten thousand young men and women … at the great Empire Rally of Youth … May 1937’.

The contents list runs to three large pages in tiny type – dozens of stories and articles. Thinking about your appearance is catered for –  eg ‘Hair, Take Care of Your’ and ‘Keep Fit’ (by Dr Victoria E. M. Bennett, M.B., B.S. (Lond.), D.P.H. (Cantab.) no less).

But other articles include: ‘Try four-handed chess’; ‘How to form a harmonica band’; ‘Alpine sporting’ ‘Careers: Dental mechanics, What about science?, Why not try Massage, Medical gymnastics, Electricity, Flying as a career for Girls … ’; and so on and so on … and on.

It’s easy to mock its earnestness (and even after reading the careers advice I’ve no idea what medical gymnastics are) but here, thirty years before a bra was burnt, the focus was on what a girl could do and be.

The real world had its barriers but in the world of Girls’ Own Annual girls could do and be anything they chose.

And that sounds jolly good to me.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Interview with Jake Walker Curley

Glasgow Green by Edinburgh-based writer Jake Walker Curley was published at the end of 2013. A gritty thriller, it tells the story of forty-year-old Joe Ray leaving prison in 2006, after twenty years inside. Hoping to lead a good life on the outside from now on, he falls for Margaret, but Margaret is in danger. Her sister has just been murdered and powerful men want her out of the way too. Will Joe have to kill again to protect her?  At the same time, a cull of main players in Glasgow’s underworld is taking place. Everyone knows that Joe’s old school pal JJ McGuire is responsible, but why? Joe knows why, just as he knows the terrible secret McGuire has kept hidden for twenty-eight years. Now more secrets are about to be hidden on Glasgow Green.

I asked Jake some questions about Glasgow Green and about his writing.

Jake, congratulations on the publication of your first book. I believe that you came up with the idea when you attended a screen-writing class and had to write a fifteen-word strap-line. Can you tell us what that line was?

“A man leaves prison determined to make amends for the crimes he got away with.”

And how did it develop from there? How long did the book take you to write?

I had already written a short story “McGuire” loosely based on a well-known Glasgow gangster. When asked to come up with a fifteen-word premise for a movie I turned to McGuire’s childhood friend Joe who was in the same short story.  He had just completed a twenty-year sentence. That gave me two of the main players and when I introduced Margaret (Joe’s future love interest), the story took off, but JJ McGuire, demoted to supporting character, still dominates proceedings.
I have been writing the book off and on for about eight years. I wasn’t sure I could write a novel. I was consumed for a while with getting the word count up to 100,000 words and then it went to 120,000 before being edited down to around 80,000.  But the editing process was enjoyable and it definitely adds pace, taking in others opinions (those who’d read the original manuscript) was liberating. I found it very worthwhile making suggested changes because it is paramount that the reader get the story.

Have you ever known anyone like JJ McGuire?

Oh yes. McGuire is an amalgam of gangland figures, past and present.  I describe him as the equivalent of Alexander the Great born in Glasgow’s east end.  You grow up there among good people but there are some dangerous individuals in the mix.  They can laugh and joke with you, appear empathetic but cross them at your peril. This same is true of childhood to a lesser extent. People don’t just turn bad as they hit sixteen.

The book is told from various viewpoints, all the characters moving towards the finale on Glasgow Green. Did you plot it all first or work it out as you went along?

I have tried to show the good and bad sides of all the characters and that includes Glasgow itself. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Glasgow Green is a place of outstanding beauty but after dark things change. The place holds bad memories and dark secrets for Joe, Margaret and JJ McGuire and it will hold a lot more.
I did not plot the book out at all, I had the starting point of Joe’s release and the difficulties life had thrown at the book's other main players. The story grew from there. When it came time to reach the book's climax, I went back to Glasgow Green and walked the same paths my characters would walk. It’s the perfect movie setting and helped so much in completing the book.

 The dialogue is very sharp. Do you read your work aloud to get that right?

Yes I do. Speaking the dialogue aloud definitely helps to strengthen their voices and bring conversations to life. I found it quite amazing how quickly a few lines of dialogue can move the story forward and how one character's reply can place a sudden twist in the plot.

Glasgow Green is a great title. Was the book called that from the start?

No, it was originally called “Best Hoorah”. Joe was a late baby, much younger than his siblings. Joe’s father would say that Joe was his ‘last and best hoorah.’ Then the book became “Amends to a Dead Man” a more plot-driven title.  It was only after completion that I came up with Glasgow Green. The Park itself is a major player in the main characters lives. At the end of the book the new title made perfect sense.

Some light moments in the book are produced by Joe getting to grips with a world where so much has changed over the last twenty years: for example, he tries to work out how to use a mobile phone, and wonders what ciabatta bread is. Did you enjoy looking at the world through Joe’s eyes?

Yes, it was good to look through Joe’s eyes. I did not want to labour the point of change, but the mobile phone was useful in that respect. Nearing the latter years of his sentence Joe would be aware of them. On the outside he would be wary of them. He would be astonished and puzzled as to how people could openly carry on such private conversations in public.

I do hope things worked out for Joe and Margaret … will there be a sequel?

Yes, there will be a sequel. I was surprised by the number of people, who having read the book, asked this question. So the sequel is under way.  As for Joe and Margaret I am looking forward to seeing how things pan out for them. They call Glasgow Green the lungs of Glasgow and the sprawling park will again be a major player.

Thank you for answering my questions, Jake. Look forward to your next book.

Glasgow Green is available in print from Waterstone’s and Blackwell’s in Edinburgh, and Kesley’s of Haddington at £6.99
It is also available from Tyne and Esk Writers and is on Amazon at £6.99 and Kindle at £3.79.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Eleven in January

So far I’ve kept to (one of) my New Year resolutions which was to record the title of each book when I’d finished reading it.

In January I read eleven books:

1. Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell
A Christmas present. I’d heard of Angela Thirkell, who was a best-seller in the thirties, but had never read her before. Virago has reissued three of her novels and this book of short stories in very pretty covers. The stories are a little mixed in their quality but do inspire me to put her novels on my wish list.

2.The Vault by Ruth Rendell
Good old Wexford, now retired, helps with a multi-murder enquiry. A sense of place is always a big part of Ruth Rendell’s writing and as Wexford and his wife are borrowing a house in London we get a guided tour of some beautiful and some seedy parts of the capital.

A timely and enlightening set of interviews with entrepreneurial Scots including Michelle Mone, Sir Tom Farmer, Muriel Gray and Graeme Obree.

4. The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
I find Alice Munro’s stories quite difficult to read, I must admit, which is why this book sat on my shelves for seven years before I got round to reading it, even though I knew that the ‘Castle’ was Edinburgh Castle. I wish I’d got round to it earlier. I absolutely loved it and will read it again. Partly truth and partly fiction, it’s the story of her family, from her Scottish Border ancestors (one of them was the Ettrick Shepherd James Hogg) and their early days in their new life in Canada. That was a brilliant read but even better is her own childhood and young adulthood in small-town Ontario in the forties and fifties – acutely observed, heart-breaking, droll, and sooo beautifully written.

5. Kept in the Dark by Nina Bawden
I bought a pile of books including two Nina Bawdens from the Christian Aid book sale last May and must finish them all to justify a visit to the sale this year ... This book is for older children. It was much darker than I expected, quite disturbing in fact. When their father is ill three children go to stay with hitherto unknown grandparents. A typical plot device to get parents out of the way – but here an unwelcome visitor turns up, a grandson of their grandfather’s by his first marriage, who, although not described as a sociopath, behaves like one.

6. Water’s Edge by Jane Riddell
Family conflicts, set beside a beautiful lake in Switzerland. I interviewed Jane about Water’s Edge here.

7. The Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden
A gentle read compared to Kept in the Dark but nonetheless dealing with realistic characters in difficult situations.

8. The Tailor of Inverness by Matthew Zajac
Hadn’t heard of this until recently although, in play form, it has apparently been a very successful Edinburgh Festival Fringe show. Actor Matthew Zajac investigates his father’s family history and traces long-lost relatives. His father grew up in what is now Western Ukraine, and the Second World War of course caused havoc in that region. He ended up having a happy life as a tailor in Inverness but some of the stories he told Matthew turned out to be not quite accurate …

9. Glasgow Green by Jake Walker Curley
A gritty thriller from a new Scottish writer. I will say no more now as I shall be interviewing Jake next week on this blog.

10. Nightingale Nurses by Donna Douglas
Nurses in the East End of London in the thirties. A satisfying read, the last in the trilogy, after The Nightingale Girls and The Nightingale Sisters.

11. Highland Doorstep by Kenneth A Macrae
A journalist takes a tour round a corner of Inverness shire in the early fifties. Thrilled to see an uncle of mine mentioned!