About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

New Ventures and The Curiosity Cabinet on Audible.

Apologies to my irregularly regular readers for a rather big gap in posts to this blog. The main reason (other than seasonal distractions) has been that I have spent the last few months taking stock of where I'm at with my writing and perhaps more importantly trying to decide where I want to go next. Obviously, this is the right time of year to put some of those decisions into practice.
As I've said elsewhere on this blog, somewhere about mid 2007, poetry came back into my life. It was sudden and unexpected - a lightning strike really - and to be honest, I wondered if it would stay. But so far, fingers crossed, it has, and I find myself working on more poems than I have written for some twenty five years. Nobody ever made much of a living from poems, but I don't really care about that. I'm too busy thinking about the insights they bring with them.
Yet another change was inspired by a friend and excellent critic who read The Curiosity Cabinet and told me that - although he liked the whole book - he thought the historical sections were somehow better imagined and therefore more successful in many ways than the modern sections. On reflection, I reckon he's right, and this too helped me to see that the novel I have been struggling with for the last couple of years wasn't working too well because it is crying out to be a historical novel - and I was desperately trying to turn it into a contemporary solution to an old mystery - with marketing in mind.
I had written some 75 pages of it, very very slowly, and found myself disliking quite a lot of it. So I have temporarily shelved it - the basic theme and story is a good one, so I'll certainly be going back to it. But to give myself breathing space, I am now deep into a novel set in Glasgow a couple of hundred years ago. It's a reasonably literary story about a loving male friendship, a tragedy, and changing times and so far I'm enchanted by it. I hope that one of these days, some editors might be enchanted by it as well!
Incidentally, if you would like to read The Curiosity Cabinet you can now find a download from the excellent Audible - a very good unabridged reading from a reputable company.
Meanwhile, I have something for you to read - this week, and for some weeks to come - but I'll save it for a new post, later on today.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Scent of Blue, final version

For anyone who can't (or doesn't want to!) get hold of the poetry pamphlet, here's the last draft of the title poem, which seems to strike a chord with a number of people, particularly women. There's an earlier version of this somewhere on here - but this is the one that was published.


A concert in Edinburgh, years ago.
She manages to find a single seat,
sees a famous conductor,
silver haired, sharp featured like some
bird of prey, but smaller than you would
expect in evening dress.
On his arm a thin woman,
taller than he is, strides with
striking face and hair, a cloud of
grey blonde curls around her head.
Not a young woman but a
diva surely, inhabiting her clothes,
inhabiting her skin with such confidence.
She wants to be like that some day,
longs for self possession
and she remembers the scent of her,
musky, mysterious, a heavy, night time
scent, like flowers after dark.
The scent of passion.
The scent of money.
The scent of blue.

She searches for the scent for years.
Her mother wore Tweed.
Now she wishes she could
open a wardrobe door, and
smell the scent of Tweed, her
mother’s plain sweet scent,
almost as much as she
wishes she could tell her mother so.

As a girl, she wears Bluebell,
fresh and full of hope, or
Diorissimo, like the lilac she once
carried through the streets,
on her way from meeting a man
she desired and admired, thinking
Girl with Lilac, still so young,
self conscious, not possessed.
Later, she tries luscious l’Air du Temps and
Je Reviens and Fleurs de Rocaille
but they are none of them the scent of blue.
She wears Chanel, briefly, with
dreams of Marilyn,
loves to watch her, loves to hear her voice,
soothing as chocolate but
Number Five is not her scent,
never suits her, never will.

She discovers Mitsouko.
Some tester in some chemist’s shop somewhere.
An old, old fashioned scent,
syncopated, unexpected, not to every taste.
Whenever she wears it,
women ask her what it is,
I love your scent they say.
How strange the way scent lingers in the mind.
How strange the way scent
changes on warm skin.
On her it ripens to something peachy,
mossy, rich and singular.
But it is not the scent of blue.

She loses her heart.
It is an affair of telephone lines
more profound, more sweet and
bitter even than Mitsouko,
a sad song in the dark,
and the colour of that time is blue.

Afterwards, she searches through
Bellodgia, Apres L’Ondee,
Nuit de Noel, Mon Peche, Apercu
until drawn by nostalgia
she finds Joy,
dearly bought roses and jasmine,
a summer garden in one small bottle.
She marries in Joy.
But she wears Mitsouko
and she forgets the scent of blue.

Older, she discovers Arpege,
not just rose and jasmine but
bergamot, orange blossom, peach,
vanilla, ylang ylang,
one essence piled on another like the
notes on the piano she
used to, sometimes still does, play:
love songs mostly.
Oh this is not a scent for the very young.
It is too dark for that
a memory of something lost,
an unfinished story.
This scent has a past.

She sees him across a room.
Another woman ushers him,
this way and that, makes introductions,
a little charmed the way women
always did flutter irresistably around this man.
It used to make her smile the way
women flocked around this
wolf who walked alone who
belonged to nobody but himself.

She is wearing Arpege.
Not a scent for the very young,
vertiginous as the layers of time between.
With age comes wisdom,
but as when mud is
stirred at the bottom of a pool,
memories bubble to the surface.
Not wisely but too well they loved.
Now, they are waving across the
chasm of the years.
They speak, in measured tones,
they speak and walk away,
they speak again in careful words, that
every now and then
recall the scent of

It will not do.
Only in dreams
can one innocently recapture that
first fine careless

So much more is forgotten
than is ever remembered.
And the clock insists
let it be let it be.

One summer evening
a young man observes the way
twilight closes the flowers,
whose scent lingers on the last heat of the day,
the way the light goes out of the sky,
painting it dark blue, how
soon the war will tear this place apart.
How soon all things resort to sadness.

In a new century,
She finds among jasmine and rose,
vanilla and violet,
a dark twist of anise, like the
twist of a knife.
First last always.
The scent of the diva.
The scent of passion.
Fine beyond imagining.
She sees it is essentially
sad, sad, sad, a
sad scent:
L’Heure Bleue.
The beautiful bitter perilous scent of blue.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

November Blues

Almost the end of November, and what have I achieved this month? Sweet nothing, that's what.
Is it the time of year or the time of life? I don't know.
I have sat at my desk and tried to write, regularly, but the results have been something less than inspiring.
I have done a lot of thinking and the results of that have been a bit more interesting, but faintly depressing as well.
I am chasing my tail to make some money but the bills get higher and the earnings get lower, and after a while, you wonder what it's all about.
The mornings are dark and the evenings are darker and you work away but nobody wants what you have written...
Welcome to the world of freelance writing.
You may remember that - a longish while ago - I mentioned a play called The Physic Garden and how I was waiting to hear from David McLennan at the Oran Mor about it.
Have I heard from him? You bet your sweet life I haven't. Not a word, zero, zilch, nada.
BUT, having lived with William (the gardener) and Thomas (the botany lecturer) for all these months, I have begun to think that there is more to these characters and their relationship than meets the eye, much much more than I have been tinkering with in the play - and so I have begun to write their story as a novel. Thomas is the one telling it. And it suddenly seems to have the potential to be a serious, funny, moving and literary story.
All of which fits in with the doubts that have been besetting me with increasing regularity over the past couple of months. I think I have seriously short changed myself for years and years in the pursuit of the elusive will o' the wisp of commercial success. Nothing wrong, I might add, with a bit of commercial success. But when you find that you are increasingly tailoring what you write to the demands of some elusive market - and actually, you still aren't making any money out of it, however, professionally you behave - you do start to wonder. I must admit, that over the past few months, I have started to think that I have been selling myself short for years. I used to have the potential to be a writer of some consequence. One or two of my plays have shown the literary skills I used to have. So have a few of the poems. I should have been more true to myself all those years ago. I should have written what I wanted to write, explored all those ideas I wanted to explore, grown and stretched myself. Instead, I have the uneasy feeling that I have run up and down a series of dead ends, and the result has been that I am ill considered among people who used to admire what I did - and I still haven't made any money. Worst of both worlds really. This is a cautionary tale. Be true to yourself above all else. What I need to do (as a friend recently pointed out, succinctly) is 'fail better.' How right he is.
I'm about to give it another try.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Room With A View - TV Version

I was so irritated by the latest television version of this classic novel that I had to wait for a day or two, just to calm down, before posting about it. Have to say I mostly hated it.
This is a much loved book as far as I'm concerned, one I read over and over again - and always find something new in it. But what could have possessed the ubiquitous Andrew Davies to change the ending so radically and what could have possessed whoever was in charge to let him? Or does he now have so much power in television circles that nobody dares to question him ?
If you haven't already watched it, don't. Go and buy the excellent movie version instead.
There were other faults with the production too, although it seems like overkill to detail them here. But one did wonder whether the casting director had quite deliberately chosen plain Brits so that he or she could contrast them with beautiful Italians. Plainness would have been forgiveable. It was just that the young men in particular had a lumpish and underanimated quality that made you wonder why anybody could ever have fallen for them. George came across as just a bit of a lad instead of the wonderful, complex and troubled young man of the novel and the film. Plus the accents, particularly Cecil's (who is written to perfection in the novel) were dodgy in the extreme. But all of this pales into insignificance beside Davies' inexplicable and wrong headed decision to kill off our hero in the war and show us a last scene with Lucy and a young Italian (admittedly a much more beautiful Italian than poor dead George) picnicking in the Florentine hills with the implication that there might just be a bit of obligatory Davies bonking round the corner.
It was AWFUL and not just because it wasn't Forster's ending at all. Because the new ending was predicted right at the start of this adaptation, and then throughout, by various flashes forward to a shorn and short skirted Lucy alone in Florence, the whole lovely balance of the book and the movie, the inevitability of the ending which is at once romantic and revolutionary, the headlong rush of it all, was not just upset but completely and utterly destroyed. Which perhaps explainswhy it left me feeling not just upset but incandescent with rage. I'll have to go and watch the film again, just to get a sense of perspective!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Scent of Blue - Poetry Pamphlet

I've just published (or rather Wordarts has published) my own poetry pamphlet, called The Scent of Blue. In due course, it should be available from my eBay shop, The Scottish Home and from the Scottish Pamphlet Poetry website.

My last collection of poetry was published more than 25 years ago.
Since then, I've written plays for radio and the stage, novels, and histories. But this new collection comes as something of a surprise even to me. I hope that it will be the first of many. There are poems old and new here, one or two of which have already been published in magazines and anthologies including a poem called Thread, which was published in Antonia Fraser's anthology of Scottish Love Poetry. There are previously unpublished recollections of time spent in Finland and Poland And there are poems which reflect my passion for vintage perfumes and textiles, sensual, tactile things and how they can serve to reawaken memories as well as reminding us of milestones in our lives. Incidentally, if anyone is wondering about the cover picture, it's a piece of very old Chinese embroidery, slightly timeworn and rather beautiful - I'm hoping it's appropriate to the collection itself!
Meanwhile, just to give you a flavour, here's an example:


Is it day or night?
The city streets
clasp the heat fast and
late drunks tumble home to sleep.

Is it day or night?
In the warm forest
marsh marigolds jostle for a place,
small lilies crouch in hooded green,
confused thrushes chatter
like shattered glass.

Is it day or night?
Small creatures furrow
lightly on the lake in
random, purposeful lines.
Mosquitoes pilot in and bite.
Black beetles toddle to the
water’s edge.
The surface is streaked with
pollen, soft as a man’s hair.

Is it night or day?
The sun that makes a narrow angle
with the lake’s thin line
considers for a moment
along the slender
very rim of the dark
and rises again.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Art History

Have signed up for an Art History class at Glasgow University, partly because it's something I've wanted to do for ages, and partly because I have a hankering for somebody to teach me something, rather than the other way around! I looked for something closer to home, but all the local classes seemed to be vocational: modules with tests and homework. I wanted a bit of the real lifelong learning that the government is always banging on about. Except that they lie. They don't really subscribe to the idea of lifelong learning at all, or only insofar as it's a way of making people more employable. Which is all very worthy. But it's just possible that we may occasionally want to find out about something for its own sake, to learn for the sake of learning, and not for the sake of the piece of paper at the end of it.
The lecturer on this particular course is in his eighties. He is gentle, non didactic, and brimming with the wisdom of his years. This will be his last course, so I'm lucky to have signed up. In the first class he burst into song, in a beautifully melodic tenor voice - 'she was just the sort of girl me boys that nature did intend, to walk right through the world me boys, without a Grecian bend..' Did we know what a Grecian bend was? No but all of us knew the song, and all of us had wondered. He explained, and proceeded to use it as an introduction to a lecture on Greek art and architecture. Not sure what he's planning for next week, but I can't wait.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Windscale Accident

Having written a play about Chernobyl (Wormwood, produced at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh) I've been following recent radio and TV programmes which have been marking the 50th anniversary of the terrible accident at Windscale (now renamed Sellafield) with some interest. I was a very young child when all this happened, and knew next to nothing about it, although it occurs to me now, that my late father, a scientist, must have been well aware of it, and this was perhaps why - although he worked with radio isotopes for much of his (somewhat foreshortened) life - he still had a healthy scepticism about the nuclear industry and would ask searching and awkward questions about hidden costs, whenever he chanced to be at one of those 'ain't nuclear power grand' presentations.
What struck me most about last night's excellent BBC documentary about the accident (apart from the utterly superb and scurrilous last line, of course) was the way the scientists had been well and truly stitched up by the politicians of the time - and the press had more or less swallowed the whole lying story. That, and the fact that as the surrounding countryside was being showered with radioactive elements which included deadly-beyond-belief Polonium, the residents of nearby Seascale were treated like mushrooms, ie kept in the dark and fed shit. People only removed themselves and their children when workers at the plant managed to get messages home. There was no planned evacuation.
The news at the time was a cover-up that the soviets would have been proud of.
All of which leads me to wonder why so many politicians are now astonished to find that the media savvy population at large don't ever really believe a word they say. Particularly when that word is intended to reassure and prevent panic. Or as they say in Scots, the only language where a double positive can mean completely the opposite - 'aye, right!'

Friday, September 28, 2007

Cash in the Attic - Puns R Us

Have been watching Cash in the Attic, over lunch. This masquerades as 'research' though how much I ever learn from it about my particular branch of collectables (ie textiles, see The Scottish Home ) I wouldn't know. A couple of weeks ago, somebody wrote to the Radio Times about the number of puns in this programme and how it was driving them daft. Now I was vaguely aware that the pun count was fairly heavy, but you don't notice every single one until somebody points them out to you. So we sat there, today, over our yoghurt and fruit, and started counting them. Actually, we soon lost count. Every single comment, every single bit of whatever passes for a script was just a long succession of godawful smartass puns. Why do they do it?
Each programme has exactly the same structure. The participants and presenters are filmed 'discovering' things that just happen to be lurking in the front of cupboards, and then the participants are persuaded to sell these family heirlooms for what sometimes seems to be a mess of pottage. Well, I know they're all willing volunteers, but it does occasionally look as though some gentle browbeating goes on. Then, they do quite well with the first few lots, after which there is a short spell in the middle where a few lots don't quite make the grade (ooh, says the presenter, maybe Phyllis and Albert won't manage their sky diving trip after all) only for things to look up with the final few lots. Are they the final few lots? Doubt it. I've never been to an auction room yet where every sale followed the same rigid pattern.
So why do they do it? It's as if the programme makers somehow get into a rut that they simply can't get out of. The heavy handed structure - we don't need it. We won't complain if you shake it up and cheat us of our expectations a bit. We're only watching because we're working from home, we're having lunch, we're nosy, we like to see what other people have in their cupboards, and we quite like to listen to what the experts have to say about various pieces and without the awful lame puns. Please. Gonnae no dae that? Gonnae no?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Plays at the Palace

Still no news about anything, plays, novels, nothing. To be a writer, eventually, is to wait and wait, so you may as well get on with something else in the meantime, which is what I am doing: a new novel, a possible new play, some poems.
Went to the Palace Theatre in Kilmarnock, last friday, to see Tir nan Og and Walk in the Park, a double bill of plays which had already been on at Glasgow's Oran Mor as part of their Play, Pie and Pint season. Nowhere in any of the Palace theatre publicity did it state the name of the playwright. It turns out that Dave Anderson wrote (and acted in) both. I enjoyed the whole evening, but thought that Walk in the Park was superb: moving, funny, thought provoking. Afterwards, (googling to find the playwright) I saw it described as 'whimsical' but it didn't seem at all whimsical to me. A short, powerful piece of theatre is how I would have described it.
Sadly, the audience was very small. Where, I wonder, were all those people who come up to me at writer's events and ask about writing for the theatre, and more specifially for the Oran Mor? There are thriving writers' groups in Kilmarnock and nearby Ayr, so why did more of them not come along to see for themselves, especially since this was a 'pay what you like' event. Envelopes were handed out as you went in, and you put in them whatever you thought fit at the end of the production. It is a pity more professionals (politicians? builders? lawyers? doctors? ) are not paid in this fashion....
Anyway, there was no risk of feeling that you had wasted your money, but still very few people came. A shame.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Plays, Poems and Pictures

Looks as if the poetry pamphlet is going ahead. Waiting to get ISBN numbers. Waiting, and waiting and waiting. My life is spent waiting for people to make up their minds and do things. Meanwhile the printer called to say that he liked the photos which I was hoping to use on the cover. Seemed, in fact, extremely taken with them. This surprises me, since I'm a bit of a hit and miss photographer. Know zilch about the techie side, just point the digital camera and press the buttons. It's a close-up of an old piece of embroidery - Chinese I think. A bit ragged around the edges, which seems to me to be a good enough image for the poems too. Here's a bit of it.
Meanwhile, finally managed to speak to David McLennan by phone. I sent him a draft of a 'solicited' play, a potential Oran Mor play, many months ago, but haven't heard a thing since. He was, predictably, very busy. (This is true. The poor man is constantly busy, and constantly harrassed by playwrights, like me.) He promised faithfully that he would call me back in the middle of the afternoon. I waited in, specially. The phone never rang. Then, much later in the day, I realised that there had, in fact, been a problem with my phone itself. Aaaargh. I have missed my one window of opportunity, and I reckon it will never ever come again.
Later still, realise that this new season of Oran Mor plays includes one by my bete noir of last year, Tom Tabori. Shall I (a) go and see the play and heckle from the back (b) go and see the play and give it the same glowing - in the inflammatory sense - review as he gave mine or (c) ignore it completely? Of course I could go and enjoy it. There is always that possibility.
There is definitely too much seriousness going on at the moment.
We are writers. We make stuff up. That's about it. It is by no means a matter of life and death.
My horoscope for this month was astronomically excellent, but I see little evidence of it in the real world. Well, not as far as my career goes anyway. Perhaps it means something else altogether!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Poetry, Clothes and Other Things

Sorry folks, but I've had to re activate comment moderation, mainly because the magic word 'poetry' induced a flurry of strange and anonymous comments. I don't mind the strange bit at all, but I do mind the anonymous element, and won't ever post anything that comes in anonymously.

Late last night, I noticed that an American bookseller is selling a copy of The Curiosity Cabinet on Amazon for £127.63. I am gobsmacked. The rights to this have now reverted to me. I'm considering Lulu-ing it, but am kind of hanging onto it for the moment, in case (some day soon, I hope) I find another publisher, not Polygon, who - having published the new novel - may just possibly want to reprint it and give it a better innings.

Back to poetry. This morning, I woke up wondering if I should (a) spend my money on publishing a new pamphlet of poetry (which was last week's plan) or (b) spend my money on new winter clothes. Yes, I've been browsing through the Sunday Times's 'Style' section - which this week is dedicated solely to fashion, much of it reasonably affordable.
And I know which option looks most enticing right now.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Hard Day's Night and the Beatles

Started watching Hard Day's Night, on BBC TV, very late last night, and then couldn't stop. So many memories. I saw the film with my mum, the first time round. We stayed on in the cinema and saw it twice. Not only did I know all the words of all the songs, but I knew every nuance of every arrangement, ever quirk of the way they were sung, and most of the dialogue as well. I felt like a kid, who has to have the story told in exactly the same way every time....
As the Radio Times pointed out, this was a ground breaking film - until then movies made for the likes of Elvis and Cliff had been a series of lighthearted stories with the songs slotted in.
OK, so this was still a lighthearted story with the songs slotted in, but the way it was filmed was utterly and completely different from anything we had seen before, in the best possible way, and was the forerunner of a million arty pop promo videos.
The other thing that struck me about seeing this brilliant movie again, after a gap of a few years, was just how young the shrieking fans were - little girls who looked like little girls.
Everyone had a favourite Beatle. Mine was, and still is, John Lennon. I adored John, used to dream about him, and write stories in which he was the main protagonist - an early version of fan fiction - and I've since discovered that I wasn't alone!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Self Publishing and Poetry.

Since I've been thinking about self publishing a pamphlet of my own poetry - for reasons which I'll outline in due course - I thought it might be a good idea to talk about the process here on Blogger for the benefit of anyone who might be thinking along similar lines.
At this time of the year, perhaps because I seem to do more work in autumn, winter and spring, than in summer, when too many other things get in the way of writing, I always have the desire to take stock, think about what and where next.
I'm shelving plays for the time being.
Well, I say that's what I'm doing, but I have several proposals of one kind or another 'out there' and if somebody said 'yes' I wouldn't, of course, say 'no'! It's just that nobody ever responds at the moment, and unless I want to get a group of actors together, hire a hall and 'do the show right here' there's little more I can do, except carry on writing dramas that, in all likelihood, will never see the light of day. And much as I love working in the theatre, there is only so much on spec work that you can do. This is not, incidentally, aimed at beginners! Most beginners can expect to do nothing but on spec work for years and years. But there does come a point where you have had a number of critical successes, and many years of experience, but are still not getting any response to submissions, not even rejections, and at that point you have to wonder if you can - or even if you want to - carry on doing it for much longer.
This is, perhaps, a hallmark of just how dedicated you are to a particular medium: ask yourself if you would continue working in it (a) if nobody was responding at all and - perhaps more interestingly - (b) if you were earning so much money that you didn't have to do it. This last condition, alas, doesn't apply to me, but there are certain areas where I would still answer a resounding 'yes' - namely with novels, and poems - perhaps because I feel I still have so much to learn with novels, and am progressing further with each attempt, each rewrite. Well, that and the hundreds of ideas, buzzing around my brain. And then there are poems, where a long hiatus, and all those years of writing drama which seems to have become increasingly poetic, have brought their own rewards. I'm writing more measured poems, more surely, knowing what I want to say and how I want to say it.
Which is where self publishing comes in. Not for the novels of course. I still have hopes of finding a conventional publisher for those, particularly for the work in progress, which concerns a contemporary answer to a historical mystery, and seems pretty commercial to me - but certainly for the poems. I have a couple of pamphlet's worth and am writing more all the time. And the thought of sending them out and waiting and waiting, only to have inexperienced editors tell me what I ought to be doing makes my heart sink. A few years ago, before I stopped writing poetry altogether, I sent some poems to a literary magazine, which had better remain nameless. Back they came with the comment that the reader liked the 'livelihood' of the little boy in them, but not much else. She meant 'liveliness'. But the fact that I was being expected to take criticism from somebody who clearly didn't know the difference, astonished me. So I'm thinking about self publishing a couple of pamphlets partly for my own satisfaction, partly because the whole process interests me, partly to have something reasonably priced to sell at readings and workshops, and partly because I have other plans for some of the poems, but need something that looks professional to send out. And at the moment, I'm talking to printers. Of which more later.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Festival Disasters and Other Play Stuff

The Edinburgh Festival has not been what you might call a roaring success, as far as The Price of a Fish Supper goes. Well, actually, everyone who has seen the play has emailed or phoned, or called in person to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Unfortunately, very few people have seen it. Most of the time, poor Paul has, like the ancient mariner, been talking away to a handful of people - which actually isn't too much of a disaster as far as this play goes, because it is written in the shape of an intimate conversation with the audience.
The problem stems partly from the fact that it was a late decision to stage the play at all, and consequently it isn't mentioned in the official fringe brochure. That, coupled with the fact that the fringe is just so big these days, means that nobody has 'discovered' the play. They have had to be pointed very firmly in its direction. And even between several of us emailing friends, relatives and friends of friends, there's little we can do to muster a proper audience such as the play had for a whole week at Glasgow's Oran Mor. Hey ho. These little things are sent to try us. And my how they do.
Meanwhile, am waiting to hear something, anything, about my new play The Physic Garden, about which there has been a complete silence on all fronts.
I submitted another script, called The Locker Room, to a scheme whereby plays are read by 'experienced readers'. My heart kind of sinks when I hear such things, because I wonder just how experienced they can be. Are they, for instance, as experienced as me? But everyone, even the most experienced of us, sooner or later needs some editorial input. The first reader loathed it and said so at length. If I had really been the starter playwright he so obviously assumed I was, I probably wouldn't have put my head above the parapet for another ten years. The second gave it much more considered, sympathetic, as well as extremely useful and insightful feedback. The contrast was quite startling. Which goes to show something, but I'm not quite sure what!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Large Boys Rowing

A title to conjure with. Spent yesterday in Gateshead International Stadium, with large viking like son, who was doing a trial for the Sporting Giants project - they are aiming to find likely medallists for the 2012 Olympics, in sports such as rowing. Son filled in online form earlier in the year - the only absolute criterion was height, seemingly you have to be really tall to be a good rower, with no experience necessary - and then forgot all about it. To his amazement, he was invited to a three hour trial at the Gateshead stadium. That was yesterday and involved a three and a half hour drive along the side of Hadrian's Wall, and back again in the evening. We had a little interlude in lovely Corbridge while we bagged what my family like to call 'mum's piles of old stones' - in this case the remains of a Roman Town (and a truly enormous pile of old stones) just outside the new(er) town.
Then it was on to Gateshead. The boys, and the occasional girl, though there didn't seem to be many female applicants, had been invited in groups of about thirty, starting each hour through the day. There are trials in various places throughout the UK. It was a little like an X Factor audition though without the wailing. Large Viking Like Son was very pleased that he compared favourably with his group, since it turned out that so many of them were career sportsmen, doing degrees in Sports Science, or excelling in other sports. Suspect that of those who got through the initial selection process, a further few must have dropped out, alarmed at the idea of a 'trial'.
Charles has done Karate very seriously for years, plays squash, runs a bit, used to play ice hockey but - although he considers himself 'sporty',which is quite rare in a mathematician - never really thought of making a career out of it. He doesn't expect to be one of the tiny number eventually selected for 'Boot Camp' but will seriously look at the possibility of joining a local rowing club, since he enjoyed himself so much.
What struck me, though, sitting on the sidelines as a mum, was what a nice bunch of (toweringly tall) boys they were. And I kind of wished that the doom laden tabloids would for once come along and see all these lads who had made the effort to spend several hours exerting themselves in a worthwhile cause. But it wouldn't make very good copy, would it? Large boys rowing? Hmmm. Depends on who you think your readers are!
A final thought - Gateshead is lucky to have such a wonderful stadium. Speaking as one who has spent hours and hours freezing her backside off, while son did ice hockey training when he was younger - small ice pads tend to be murderously cold, even for the spectators - it made a nice change to sit in such pleasant surroundings.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Cut Glass (an old poem but one I'm fond of!)

Oh speak to me of things that do not matter.
Our friendship is a fragile thing.
Speak too loudly and
It will shatter.

Each self is patterned with
The other self.
We are similar but not the same,
Surrounded with a tissue
Of touches now and then
Or compliments.
The light shines through us
Is distorted.
We both pretend
Not to know
That this fragile thing
If subject to one outright blow
Would shatter.

Take care.
Oh speak to me
Of things that do not matter.

(From White Boats, Garret Arts)

I wrote this many years ago, but it still seems to mean something, even to this older changed me. And I suspect it will mean something to a few other people as well. Somebody once set it to music - it was beautiful. Could have just possibly been John of the cheekbones, here. Or George in the same picture. I seem to remember that John did the singing. But we've lost touch over all these years, and I can't remember anything about him, except the melody he wrote, and sang! If he's reading this I hope he gets in touch. They were from Fife, these guys, and they were brilliant musicians. I read my poems, they played and sang - now people seem to be 'discovering' this sort of thing again, as if it is quite new. Nothing's new. Ever. And meanwhile, we carry on speaking about things that don't matter....

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Number Thirty Two

The house had once been an old farmhouse. Years later, I found it on a facsimile of a map from the seventeen hundreds, a small cluster of buildings in open countryside between the city of Leeds and the village of Holbeck. It felt like a farmhouse still, although by the time we lived there, the city had enclosed it; factories choked the air round about, the railways clanked in the distance and only the street names reminded you of a distant rural past:- Whitehall Road, Springwell Lane, names with a hint of green.
Number Thirty Two, Whitehall Road was where my grandparents lived. Next door was their shop where my mother helped out, selling boiled sweets and cigarettes to the workers who passed to and from the surrounding factories. And next door to that was the fishing tackle shop where my grandfather spent most of his time, fiddling with reels and rods and talking to little fat anglers in waistcoats and flat caps. “Ey up Joe” they would say to him and sit down to drink strong sweet tea out of china pint pots and reminisce about fishing trips to Tadcaster and York. He sold maggots for bait and kept them in a tin bath, flavouring them with sawdust and curry powder for enigmatic reasons of his own. When I was three years old I would run my fingers through them, fascinated rather than repelled by their constant motion. Nobody told me to be revolted by them so why should I mind?
As a very young man my grandad had sailed on the last of the tea clippers, and spent his free time making the intricate wool work picture of a sailing ship that hangs on our sitting room wall. My grandfather loved me unreservedly. I could wind him around the smallest of my small fingers, the way my mother wound my fat Violet Elizabeth ringlets and tied them up with red satin ribbons.
“My little queen” he would call me, using the old Yorkshire word for woman.
“Who sewed your hair on Gangad?” I would ask him, running my finger along the back of his neck where the sun deepened creases looked like stitches.
He was tattooed as well, and I would trace the pictures on his arms, loving his illuminated skin, reading him like a book.
Up above the shops was the two roomed flat where I spent the first seven years of my life, until my handsome Polish refugee father, managed to get enough qualifications to obtain a research fellowship at the university. At weekends my parents would take me on the bus to Old Farnley, to walk through bluebell woods, to see wasps’ nests and tadpoles and – on one memorable occasion – a grass snake curled up in a hollow. But most of my pre school weekdays were spent down in my grandmother’s kitchen at Number Thirty Two.
I remember every detail of that kitchen the way you always do when you’re very small. There was a big black-leaded range on one wall with a fire oven where my grandmother baked loaves and plain “oven bottom” cakes and sometimes curranty shortcakes, made with flour and the best butter and baking powder.The sink to the left of the range was set into the wall, and tiled in white. It smelled of bleach and more mysteriously of potatoes. To the right of the range was a big wooden bank of cupboards and drawers, a sort of early fitted dresser.
I remember the cool marble topped table where my grandmother rolled out her pastry, with the cupboard underneath where she kept Jacob’s cream crackers in a green coronation tin. There was a kitchen table made fancy with a ginger velour cloth and a brown leather covered stool, like a hovis loaf, which lived beside the range and always went by the name of “Rufty Tufty” like a person. My grandfather had made the brightly coloured rag rugs which softened the stone floor. “How about it on the rug Vara?” I would say to my mother’s sister, my Aunty Vera who used to sit on the hearthrug with me and read fairy stories and film magazines aloud while I picked at the tufts of cloth with my starfish fingers.
The house was a long, thin house with mysterious cellars beneath, and two rooms on each of the three floors above. Up in the attic was a “Galloping Scooter” a little carriage and horses, brought from London by my impulsive grandfather when my Aunt Nora (the eldest child) was a little girl. But it had only had one outing during which poor Nora was mobbed by curious children. Thereafter it was used indoors where it survived intact to become a later exhibit in York’s Castle Museum. I didn’t much like it back then. I preferred my teddy bears:- Mr Tubby and Teddy Robinson as well as Brown Dog Dingo, a morose woollen dog, who seemed very large because I was so small.
At the back of the house was a yard, where my grandfather had once tried to make a duck pond, but his ducklings had left their mother too soon and drowned, one by one. Such tragedies always beset his attempts at country living, here where the city hammered against all his walls.
Beyond that again was a washhouse, with a copper and a big mangle, and the pungent smell of soapsuds. And beyond that was the outside toilet, with its scrubbed warm wooden seat and the scent of bleach and whitewash. I was too young to go through the washhouse by myself at nights, so someone would always take me: my mother, or sometimes my aunty, and I would sit on the lavatory and pick the flaky whitewash off the walls, and watch the comforting glow of her cigarette in the dark.
The house was warm too and dusty and yeast scented and safe. Yet things were changing. Relentlessly, time claimed us. My grandfather was a diabetic with failing sight; and ulcerated legs that grew gangrenous. My grandmother had a series of small strokes that left her confused and vague. But so fiercely did my mother and father and my aunt work to protect me, queen of the household, from the adult world, that I was never fully aware of their misery. It only lurked on the edge of my comprehension. I wished things were as they had been, but didn’t know why they were not.
And now, in middle age, I know that I have never again felt so safe, and so universally loved as I felt within those rooms. After my grandparents died, the house lay empty for many years. Once, in my twenties, I went back but it was derelict and very sad. Brown Dog Dingo lay in a corner, but the moth had got into him, and besides, he was amazingly small. How could he have grown so small? And then Number Thirty Two was sold to the factory next door which promptly swallowed it whole.
I live in the countryside now and tell people that I’m a migrant from the city. But it doesn’t seem like that. Instead I had a blissful country childhood in a house which somehow kept the memory of a rural past buried deep within its walls. But still it haunts my dreams, and it, at least, has not grown small with the passing years. The house has changed subtly and Number Thirty Two grows ever more beautiful and magical. In my dreams the house has begun to spiral outwards into underground passages and tapestried rooms, all richly decorated, and peopled with both the living and the dead.

Son's Brilliant New Video Games Blog!

If you have a moment, have a look at my son's new blog, Gamesecosse. He's a mathematician (just going into his final year of an honours maths degree) who can actually write. And he's been mad about video games for years. OK, I'm biased, but I think he's making a good job of promoting this most exciting of new industries - having spent so many years trying to defend his choice of career/interest/obsession against the misunderstandings of those who believe that all games are (a) facile, (b) violent, and (c) mindless. I've a lot of sympathy with him, because it does seem to me that so many writers (and publishers) ignore the vast imaginative possibilities of the new technologies. He's intent on working in video games design but seems to have a real flair for writing about it - and a perception of just how exciting this developing industry really is. And if you've read some of the stuff out there on these topics, you'll know that the ability to put that across is something of a rarity!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Feeling really really morose

Could it be the many signs of approaching autumn up here? Nights getting darker, the advent of the coal man with several bags of smokeless fuel at alarming prices, (dear God, now the environment police will be after me, but we live in a listed building with chimneys and yes, it's very well insulated, because we're poor.) The garden looks tired and sad. Me too, me too.
Spend my working days robbing Peter to pay Paul in terms of time. Writing endless lists. Not doing half the things on them. Working late at night when I should be sleeping. And at the moment, not really taking the pleasure in the work that I should. When you're a young writer, I think you have this faith that one day it'll all happen. You think it'll be enough to learn your craft and work hard. You'll have a success, and be able to build on it.
Well I've been writing for forty years now. I've won awards for plays and poetry, had plays produced to rave reviews, had novels and non fiction books published, and I still find that nothing changes. There's no sense of a career progression. Not only that, but I think that the constant struggle to be produced, published and publicised has encroached on the very real joy in the work that I used to know. Oh. And I've got repetitive strain from using a mouse, and my shoulder is giving me gyp, so there. Does this explain the uncharacteristically jaded posts of late? Well maybe.
All I know is that I seem to have lost the knack of writing for its own sake. Well, maybe it's lurking there. And I know it'll come back again. Just that for the moment, I think I need to do the snail thing, retreat into my shell, and think hard about where next and why.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

More Hubris

Hell's teeth now Christopher Brookmyre is at it, attempting to disprove the existence of God and all things spiritual in his latest novel. Or at least that's how the Scotsman and the Beeb reported it. So maybe I'm maligning the man. But why would a writer of fiction assume that he was going to make any converts?
What is it with these people? Can it be that they overvalue the real scientific world in which corruption and bigotry sit side by side with the 'scientific method'. My late dad was a distinguished biochemist, so I write with the benefit of his experience. Scientists are as prone to all the faults and foibles of humanity as the rest of us. The best of them are open and imaginative. The worst are blinkered and self seeking. We are all of us looking for ways of describing, of coping with the world. And for sure, all things come to sadness in the end. But many people, perhaps a majority (and it is often, though not invariably, women) have an inkling that there is much more to life than meets the eye. Sometimes it can be an experience such a bereavement, which should be embittering, but isn't. Sometimes it comes as a side effect of a lifetime's observation of how people interact. But most of all, I think, I object so strongly to the assumption that spirituality is a sticking plaster which we poor blinkered souls use to protect ourselves from the more unpleasant aspects of life. And again I say hubris. Overweening pride that subsumes any sense of humility in its own certainty.
The person in my life who was perhaps the most 'spiritual' was the most generous person I have ever had the good fortune to know. Her faith was simple and uncomplicated, but she herself was not. She never proseletysed, and didn't even attend church very often, but simply lived her own beliefs. She had overcome more of what life had to throw at her than most, yet had no bitterness. She was perceptive and full of the wisdom of her years . She was a truly 'good' person, with a warmth that defied the world's sournesses, and to categorise her as among the deluded is to wilfully misunderstand the limitless potential of the human spirit.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Of Makeovers and Eyebrows

Yesterday, I was interviewed by a magazine for a 'life begins at fifty' feature, or to be more precise, about starting a whole new business at fifty. This was mainly because I decided, once I hit the big five-oh, to fulfil a lifelong ambition and open a shop dealing in the antique textiles which have been a lifelong passion for me. The fact that this isn't a real shop, but a virtual one, on eBay (the Scottish Home) only added to the magazine's interest.
Not that I've given up on the writing of course, just decided to divide my time between two absorbing jobs. Which was what the interview was all about.
I can't remember when I enjoyed myself so much. We had lunch in the kind of hotel that most poverty stricken writers can only dream of, a very friendly chat , and then came the pre-photo make-up... What a revelation!
Now I've always loved clothes, handbags (new and vintage) shoes, vintage perfumes (obviously, see The Scent of Blue below), girly stuff. It kind of goes with the territory. But I've never really been into make-up. On the night when my dear late mum first met my (incredibly tall, dark and handsome) Polish dad, at a dance, in Leeds, after the war, she was wearing no make-up and had her hair tied back with a bootlace. Or so family mythology has it. I find myself following in her footsteps. When I was a girl, I used to have long, ultra thick, dark brown hair - so long that I could sit on it. I loved it, and still sometimes dream about it, about brushing it, that feeling of being surrounded by this amazing, dark sea of hair that sparked with static when you brushed it.
I had it chopped it off, of course, while I was still quite young, had one of those shiny, bouncy, bobs that were so fashionable. I even had it henna-ed, when that was fashionable. (Like wrapping your head in something that smells of a warm hayfield). I don't know whether men ever realise just how much women mourn their long hair after it has gone. Now I spend far more on my hair than I ever used to. It's still thick and shiny, but it sure takes work.
And I've become a bit more interested in the make-up counters at Boots, shall we say?
So yesterday, this lovely, cheerful make-up artist sat me down, and looked at my face, and honed in on my eyebrows right away. She said 'if you take care of your hair, you should spend some time and money on your brows. It would make a difference.' Then she set to work on them with a will, as well as some clippers and some tweezers.
Once the make-up was in place, I glanced at myself in the mirror and hardly knew myself. How could somebody achieve so much in about fifteen minutes, including the eyebrows? I looked... well, let's say I looked younger.
Cue forward to this afternoon, when (after all the lovely war paint had long gone) my son came in after a night spent at a friend's house. 'Wow' he said, all unprompted, stopping dead in his tracks. 'What have you done to your eyes mum?'
'Why?' I asked.
'I dunno. They look different!'
'How different?' I asked, anxiously. 'Better, or worse?' Large Viking Like son is not noted for (a) observation or (b) compliments where his mum is concerned. As long as I don't actually scare the horses, pals, or girlfriends, he's usually fine with my appearance.
'Oh better!' he said. 'Yeah. Better.'
I looked at myself in the mirror. I could see exactly what he meant. How could ten minutes with clippers and tweezers make such a difference? I don't know. But it does. Only problem is, now (along with the hair) I'll have to keep up to it.
I seem to be becoming high maintenance. Rats.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dawkins Shmawkins (2)

Must have blogged about this before but he comes around with monotonous regularity. Can I be alone in finding the relentlessly self promoting, crusading, and all too ubiquitous Mr Dawkins, along with all his facile works and pomps, completely and unutterably intolerable?
There. That's got that off my chest.
The man must be peculiarly, nay culpably naive if he really believes that scientists aren't as prone to corruption as the rest of human kind. He who pays the piper invariably calls the tune, and good dog science follows after, briskly wagging its tail, in pursuit of ever more elusive funding. Or in Mr Dawkins case, in pursuit of book and TV deals.
But chiefly it's the hubris of the man that is so vomit inducing.
He isn't science's 'knight on a charger of reason' as some sycophant describes him in the Radio Times this week. To me he seems more like a cynic, with an eye to the main marketing chance. And about as blinkered in his own way as the more extreme religious proseletysers are in theirs.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

More Fish Suppers and Cattle Markets

Went through to Edinburgh to the Gilded Balloon, Teviot, to see the play. Strange experience. Had forgotten where the venue is. Which sounds mad, but what I suppose I mean is that this part of Edinburgh is so changed from the years when I studied here, that I tend to forget exactly how to get to places. The university campus, which used to be manageable, has grown big and - to me at least - seems to be increasingly cutting itself off from the rest of the world, and life as we know it Jim. Or are my prejudices showing?
The venue, where The Price of a Fish Supper is on for most of August, used to be the old Men's Union when I was a student. I wondered why it looked so completely unfamiliar and then remembered that it was because I have never been in it. I seem to remember that it was a men's club back in those peculiarly sexist days. The only time women were allowed in was when they were invited by some man, or to dances, which had the grim reputation of being 'cattle markets'. Neither I, nor any of my friends, went near the place. Which explains my complete unfamiliarity with it!
Paul turned in another astounding performance as Rab, the ex fisherman at the end of his tether. And this in spite of a small (but appreciative!) audience, and the fact that just as he was embarking on his tour de force, a smoke machine at the front of the stage (why? why?) gave a loud metallic graunch, and belched out a huge puff of theatrical smoke. That Paul didn't even falter is testament to his skills as an actor of the first order! The joys of live performance.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Price of a Fish Supper - Pass This On!

We need an audience for the Price of a Fish Supper, which is on at the Gilded Balloon, in Edinburgh, until the end of August. Can you help? Even if you aren't actually going to be in Edinburgh, if you know anyone who is already at or is going to The Edinburgh Festival, please pass on the details from the link above. It's a lunchtime show, 12.30 - and it doesn't cost the earth. But if you go, you will see a cracking performance from one of the finest actors working in Scotland today - Paul Morrow.
Our problem with the show is that - well reviewed as it was in its original production in Glasgow - and it was extremely well reviewed - it was a late entry to the Festival Fringe, which means that it isn't in the official fringe literature - and it's now competing with all those shows that are! Word of mouth is our best option - so if you think you can help, simply by passing on these details, please do!

Cloudberries - Another poem.

Cloudberries are rare these days.
You can search all day
among the marshes. Meanwhile
mosquitoes feed on you.

When you bring them in a pail
though you have picked for hours
fingers torn, face swollen, they will
subside slowly to fewer than
you would ever have believed.

Dreamberries dissolving between the teeth
with a faint golden taste of the sky.

(Started many years ago in Finland. Completed only recently!)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Lotte Lenya and From Russia With Love

Watched the last bit of From Russia with Love last night. Saw poor Vladek Sheybal get his come uppance all over again with a certain amount of satisfaction. He may have been an excellent actor but as a theatre director he was - how can I put this? - difficult. Challenging. Bloody awful to work with. Many years ago, I wrote a play about Solidarity (the original, Polish version of the movement!) and Vladek was asked to direct it. The whole experience was a nightmare.
Vladek rewrote my play. Then he shouted at the actors. Rehearsals were a constant battle. Not that the play didn't need 'development' because it did. I was a very young and inexperienced playwright. But Heroes and Others needed proper work, of the kind that my later play Wormwood got, in the skilled hands of Philip Howard, at the Traverse - a thoroughly enriching experience for me as a writer.
Back then, though, the whole miserable time was compounded by the fact that it was winter and we were rehearsing in what amounted to a derelict building, with lavatories that didn't work. Tension and dust triggered a severe bout of asthma. I can remember struggling through the Edinburgh streets, gasping for breath. With all the hindsight of age and experience, I should have made a swift exit stage left, taking my script with me, and (in view of my breathing difficulties) headed straight for the nearest hospital. Instead, I soldiered on, trying to rescue my original vision.
The play was not a success and the whole miserable experience put me off writing for the stage for some years. Now, however, when I look at the reviews, they were actually quite complimentary about my writing. It was the production they didn't like. Scottish theatre is a very small pool, and word had got out about the 'difficulties'. They were absolutely right. But at the time it seemed like the end of the world. All of which leads me to other 'end of the world' experiences.
At the same time as cheering Vladek's onscreen demise, I was trying to explain to my son about the wonder of Lotte Lenya (Rosa Kleb!) in her heyday. Somewhere, I have the Berlin Theatre Songs and the Threepenny Opera, on vinyl, with Lotte singing. Surabayah Johnny is my favourite: the most magical, heart rending track. And over the years, I've come back to it, from time to time, partly because it's so beautiful, but also because it's the embodiment of the outraged howl of every woman who has ever been loved and left by some man she thought she knew, which is probably all of us at one time or another!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Curiosity Cabinet (Again)

Have just had an email from Polygon to say that all the rights in The Curiosity Cabinet now revert to me, or at least are with my agent, who negotiated the original deal. 'There is no stock available in the warehouse' says the letter, which means that the print run of 1500 sold out in what amounts to quite a short space of time: not a vast number of books, for sure, but three times more than many a political memoir for which large advances have been paid. And demand is still there, particularly since I continue to give the novel a certain amount of online publicity with my blogs, my website, and linked in with my own flourishing eBay 'antique textiles' shop. (My largely female customer base always seems to contain potential fans of novels such as The Curiosity Cabinet!)
Latterly, there have been copies for sale on Amazon, for a whopping £18.00. Even allowing for Amazon Marketplace's own markup, this seems quite high, and yet they have obviously been selling at that price. But of course, there is a certain rarity value about these copies now, published in a well designed edition, and I only have a few of them left myself. I have decided to list the very few that I can spare on Amazon, at rather less than £18.00 - an almost ludicrously easy procedure - and meanwhile explore other possibilities.
I cannot for the life of me understand why publishers can't go down this route as well, keeping in print a back list for which there is a low but steady demand, so that they can take advantage of those inevitable little blips that will occur. There is a possibility that some of those seeing the play might just possibly want to read something else by me. Traffic to this blog is also growing. And I'm actively looking for a publisher for The Corncrake, which is a follow up (although not a sequel) to the Curiosity Cabinet, and would probably appeal to a similar readership. I know that some publishers, notably in the USA and Australia, recognise and take account of this Long Tail phenomenon. But not Polygon.
Before I go down the 'Print on Demand' route, however, I will almost certainly spend the rest of this year exploring other, more conventional, publishing options, particularly since I am already deep into a more commercial novel (with a Mary Queen of Scots theme), have a fully revised version of The Corncrake to sell, and now have the available rights in The Curiosity Cabinet to offer as well. All this, with poetry and plays and journalism too.
I sound like a good marketable proposition, even to myself.
If I sound like one to you, and you have publishing connections, do let me know!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Have set up a Facebook account. Major displacement activity. Now have several friends. Obsessively visiting site to see if I have any more. Somebody has written on my wall. Somebody has made me into a Zombie. Some days I feel like a Zombie. Engage in debates about relative merits of MySpace and Facebook and Bebo with Large Viking Like Son. Networking is looming very large in my life at the moment. Suspect that it's very much the way forward for writers and artists as well as musicians, who are already making the most of their opportunities. Doom laden sense of potential for timewasting vies with perception of all the exciting possibilities. Feel I am taking baby steps, in the dark. Absolutely fascinating.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Scent of Blue - a Poem about Perfume

Well, it's about much more than perfume, but I suspect a few people may identify with that aspect of it! I haven't consciously written poems for years, although I once published quite a lot of them, including a collection called A Book of Men, that won a 'new writing' award from the Arts Council. I used to do readings, as well. Enjoyed performing. Then the plays and the prose took over. The plays in particular seemed to use that part of my creativity that had inspired the poems and they just didn't come any more. Now every writer knows that if you wait for inspiration to strike, you'll never produce anything. And it's true that you can make yourself sit down and write prose, and plays. But I couldn't make myself write poems.

For a long while, every new poem I attempted seemed like cliched, stilted nonsense. Nothing worked.

So I wrote stories, plays, novels, non fiction. But not poetry.

Then, quite recently, a strange thing started to happen. The plays in particular became more and more like poems. The director who worked on The Price of a Fish Supper told me that she was reluctant to ask me to cut anything, because it was all linked so intricately together.

Now, each play I write tends towards poetry. Is this good or bad? I don't know.

A day or two ago, I got out an old folder of unpublished poems. Usually, that's a salutory experience. Going back, I mean. Novels that you once thought were brilliant, fall apart before your very eyes. Plays wither on the page.

But not the poems. I could swear that the poems are still good. It was like finding an old bottle of whisky in a shipwreck and discovering that it still tasted of itself.

And then I wrote something new. I wrote the Scent of Blue.
I'm not sure quite what it is, but I think it's probably a long poem.
There are still a dozen novels, and other books, lurking in my head, crying out to be written. There are still ideas which only seem to present themselves as plays.
But for some strange reason, ideas for poems are also elbowing their way in, demanding to be heard.
Perhaps it's a leap of inspiration.
Perhaps it's yet another red herring.
Perhaps it's just something else I have to explore.
But here it is. And I reserve the right to change it, or delete it altogether, because I think it may be part of a work in progress. Judge for yourself.


A concert in Edinburgh, years ago.
She manages to find a single seat.
Two people sweep past, ushered by the
front of house manager in his dark suit.
He's a famous conductor,
silver haired, sharp featured like some
bird of prey, but smaller than you would
expect, in evening dress.
On his arm a thin woman,
taller than he is, strides with
striking face and hair, a cloud of
grey blonde curls around her head.
Not a young woman but a
diva surely, inhabiting her clothes,
inhabiting her skin with such confidence.
She wants to be like that some day,
longs for self possession.
And she remembers the scent of her,
musky, mysterious, a heavy, night time
scent, like flowers after dark.
The scent of passion.
The scent of money.
The scent of blue.

She searches for the scent for years.
Her mother wore Tweed.
Now she wishes she could
open a wardrobe door, and
smell her mother’s plain sweet scent,
almost as much as she
wishes she could tell her mother so.

As a girl, she wears Bluebell,
fresh and full of hope, or
Diorissimo, like the lilac she once
carried through the streets,
on her way from meeting a man
she desired and admired, thinking
Girl with Lilac, still so young,
self conscious, not possessed.

Later, she tries l’Air du Temps and
Je Reviens and Fleurs de Rocaille
but they are none of them the scent of blue.
She wears Chanel, briefly, with dreams of Marilyn,
loves to watch her, loves to hear her voice,
satisfying as chocolate or olives but
Number Five is not her scent, never suits her, never will.

She discovers Mitsouko.
Some tester in some chemist’s shop somewhere.
An old, old fashioned scent,
syncopated, unexpected, not to every taste.
When she wears it,
women ask her what it is,
I love your scent they say.
How strange the way scent lingers in the mind.
How strange the way scent
changes on warm skin.
On her it ripens to something
peachy, mossy, rich and rare.
But it is not the scent of blue.

She loses her heart.
It is an affair of telephone lines,
more profound, more sweet and
bitter than Mitsouko,
a sad song in the dark,
and the colour of that time is blue.

Afterwards, she searches through
Bellodgia, Apres L’Ondee, Nuit de Noel, Apercu
Until drawn by nostalgia
She finds Joy,
dearly bought roses and jasmine,
a summer garden in one small bottle.
She loves Joy.
She marries in Joy.
She wears Mitsouko
and she forgets the scent of blue.

Older, she glances in her mirror and only
sometimes likes what she sees.
She finds Arpege,
not just rose and jasmine but
bergamot, orange blossom, peach, vanilla, ylang ylang,
one essence piled on another like the notes on the piano she
used to, sometimes still does, play.
Oh this is not a scent for the very young.
It is too dark for that,
a memory of something lost,
an unfinished story.
This scent has a past.

She sees him across a room.
Another woman ushers him,
this way and that, makes introductions,
a little charmed the way women
always were charmed by this man.
It used to make her smile the way
women flocked around this
man who belonged to
nobody but himself.

She is wearing Arpege.
Not a scent for the very young,
vertiginous as the layers of time between.
With age comes wisdom,
but like mud stirred at the bottom of a pool,
memories bubble to the surface.
Not wisely but too well they loved.
Now, they are waving across a
chasm of years.
They speak in measured tones,
they speak and walk away,
they speak again in careful words, that
every now and then
recall the scent of

It will not do.
Only in dreams
can one innocently recapture that
first fine careless

So much more is forgotten
Than is ever remembered.
And the clock insists
let it be let it be.

One summer evening
a young man observes the way twilight closes the flowers,
whose scent lingers on the last heat of the day,
the way the light goes out of the sky,
painting it dark blue, how
soon the war will tear this place apart.
How soon all things resort to sadness.

In a new century,
She finds among jasmine and rose
vanilla and violet,
a dark twist of anise, like the
twist of a knife.
First last always.
The scent of the diva.
The scent of passion.
Fine beyond imagining.
She sees it is essentially
sad, sad, sad, a
sad scent:
L’Heure Bleue.
All things come to sadness in the end.
The beautiful bitter foolish scent of blue.

Catherine Czerkawska

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Locker Room and the Specialist Reader

It serves me right. Absolutely and completely my own fault. But it's quite interesting. So here goes.
The back story is this. I have this play called The Locker Room which has been sitting in a folder in a drawer for several years. I wrote it with the Traverse in mind. It is a dark study of the effects of sexual abuse on a young athlete and, having revised it extensively, I eventually submitted it to the Traverse from whence it bounced back quicker than a speeding bullet. The artistic director didn't like it although he didn't feel there was anything technically 'wrong' with it - and their 'reader', whoever that was, I've never been able to find out - had been very enthusiastic indeed. I filed it away, as you do, and then sent it to one or two Scottish theatres, including the Ramshorn, at Strathclyde, but heard nothing. And by nothing that's exactly what I mean. Plays (much like manuscripts sent to Scottish publishers) simply disappear into black holes. They don't say yes and they sure as hell don't say no. Me, I think they use them to fuel their central heating boilers.
Anyway, cue forward several years, and I read about the Scottish 'Playwrights' Studio' and their 'Fuse' scheme. You can submit a play which is then read, anonymously, by a 'very experienced specialist reader' (reader, not writer) who delivers a judgement. The play is then forwarded - with or without the assessment, it's your own choice - to various 'partner' theatres within Scotland, a long list of them, some of whom I wasn't even aware of. Couldn't hurt, I thought, even though the scheme is probably not aimed at playwrights of my weary years of experience. So I printed out the full length play, sent it in, with the proviso that the assessment should not accompany it to the theatres - do you think I'm daft or what? - and went off on holiday for a week.
Somewhat to my surprise I returned to an instant response (so instant that I wondered what else the reader had had to do with his time, but hey, why I am complaining about speed?) Did he like it ? I'm saying 'he' because I suspect he is of the male persuasion, but I could be completely wrong on this one. No he didn't. S/he began by saying 'you clearly have an ability with language and some interesting ideas or intuitions about the ambiguities of love in its various forms'.
Well it's kind of nice to know after all these years that I still have an ability with language (sometimes you do wonder!) - and why do I think it's a man? - oh yes, it's the faintly perjorative use of the word intuition.
He thought there was no clarity of motivation - which I take issue with. Well, what I suppose I mean is that I take issue with that as a criticism. Show me the character who has clarity of motivation, and I will certainly be looking at a two dimensional character.
Nobody real ever has clarity of motivation. Do you?
He thought - strangely -that there was a contradiction between the 'single setting' and the 'poetic style'. Not sure why. I'm never averse to moving my characters around, but in this instance, I made a conscious choice to place my characters in one enclosed, claustrophobic, and slightly risky space. So no, the play won't ever 'move' in that sense.
His main gripe - much more helpfully in my book - was that there was an imbalance in the characters and 'no competition of energies' and he could be right. The Locker Room is, in essence, the story of my main character, a young ice hockey player called Matt. And perhaps that's all it should be. Another monologue. Or a dialogue between Matt and his 'ghost' - the coach who abused him, and who is now dead.
In this instance, the reader's observation was spot on.
But I wonder if - knowing who had sent it in - his response would have been the same. Well maybe it would. One hopes it would. But it does strike me that some of our better known playwrights and novelists might well benefit from the same treatment. Perhaps experience makes you lazy. Not, mind you, that I have ever found anyone reluctant to offer criticism where my own writing is concerned. Quite the opposite.
So what to do now I wonder? Is it worth my while expending the considerable effort involved in rewriting the play with a new kind of focus. Well maybe.
Or should I wait to see what, if anything, the various theatres make of it? But then this particular reader reckoned that it wasn't worth sending out to them - so perhaps that won't happen.
Or should I post it on here? But it's dark, and not altogether suitable for family reading.
And it is rather long.
And definitely poetic.
Hey ho.
At the moment, with a dozen other fish to fry, and not entirely sure myself about the play, I will probably return it to its drawer and do nothing.
But I'll let you know if I decide to do some rewrites - and how it goes!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Life, Literature and Sheep.

Sheep seem to be looming quite large for me at the moment. I've been watching Shaun the Sheep every afternoon - more displacement activity, the only justification for which is simply that I love it - so clever, so funny, and yesterday's episode with the bees was kind of sinister as well. So there I was, upstairs, which is where my study is, thinking 'Shaun the Sheep is about to start, better go down' when I heard this loud bleating and thought 'Did I leave the TV on?' Only it seemed very loud, and very realistic. I went over to the window which looks onto the village street and there was a small flock of sheep, running between the parked cars.
Every year a local farmer moves them from one field to another, and this entails taking them along the back road through the village. I remember turning up at the crucial moment a couple of years ago, and his wife asking me to stand in the middle of the road with my arms out, to stop them from making a detour down our road. Obviously, this year, they had decided to explore. They were cut off at the pass, so to speak, and headed back the way they were supposed to go. I watched out of the window as one of my neighbours stepped out of his front door to be met by a whole flock of Shauns trotting past.
Isn't it strangely satisfying when fantasy and reality coincide like this - and doesn't it happen rather more often than you would expect?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Plot versus Characterisation

Last night, I was reading an interesting piece by Alison Graham in this week's Radio Times, in which she talks about 'well constructed, gripping drama that tells good stories, something drama over here long ago sacrificed for the dreaded "characterisation." ' I found myself pondering this in the early hours of the morning - one of those comments that work away like yeast in the mind.
For years I've conducted writers' workshops, and people invariably ask me about plot and characterisation. I usually find myself repeating the conventional wisdom that character is what really matters, it is from character that plot springs, get that right, and everything follows on as night follows day, etc etc etc.
Which is true, most of the time! I write quite a lot of issue based drama, and there is nothing more boring than drama where the issues are firmly placed into the mouths of cyphers.
But it did start me thinking.
I've been watching Rome, addictively. Now I'm normally chicken hearted where gore and violence are concerned. But even when I have to watch this from behind a cushion, I find myself pinned to the sofa, unable to take my eyes off the screen. And when I think about it - apart from the acting which is exceptional, so many great performances that it would be hard to single any one out - the thing that has kept me engrossed has been the story. For sure, it wouldn't be so involving if the characters themselves weren't absorbing as well. But it is the way the story is put together that finally does it for me: the energy, the variety, the unexpectedness and outrageousness of so much of it.
So what does Graham mean by 'characterisation' I wonder? Well, if I'm honest, I know exactly what she means and I can remember the point where everything changed. Years ago, I used to watch a series called London's Burning, about firemen. It was good, solid entertainment, a new story every week, with a continuing group of interesting people. And then quite suddenly, one season, it changed. No longer was it a series of gripping adventures. It had become a series of personal dilemmas with the weekly 'story' only there as a vehicle for detailed explorations of ongoing relationships. Not only that, but these people were so obviously 'characterisations' - all back story and no substance. They were cliched, predictable, and irritating. I stopped watching. I stopped watching Casualty as well, just about the time when I found that I could predict exactly the way each week's story was going to go from the way everything was flagged up - by heavy handed characterisation - in advance.
So have we got the balance wrong, when as human beings we love nothing better than a good strong story, well told?
Take Doctor Who for instance. ( And what on earth will I do with my saturday nights now that the series is finished? Sad or what? I'll just have to buy the DVDs) We know enough about the Doctor, and his companions - enough to make us care about them all, but never so much that the back story dominates the drama of the present. There are other dramas that manage it as well, often, but not exclusively, American. But it would be interesting to know what anyone else thinks about this. And how does TV differ from other media in this respect?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Comment on this Blog and Interesting Times

A few friends have told me that they have had difficulty posting comments on Wordarts and presumably also on The Scottish Home. I have now tweaked the settings, so comments should be possible, particularly positive comments about The Corncrake/The Summer Visitor (Although the consensus at the moment seems to be veering towards The Corncrake as a title.)

We live, it seems, in interesting times, in the Chinese curse sense. Large viking like son returns from Europe next week, and I will be chewing my fingernails until he is safely home - but then for most of the year he lives in Glasgow, so there will only be a small respite. And life has to go on as near normal as possible, in spite of the fact that relatives dropping friends at Prestwick Airport this morning report that there were more police than passengers. Or should that perhaps be 'because of' rather than 'in spite of'?
In the face of such onslaughts - and who among us, hand on heart, can say that when they first saw that young man pinned to the ground outside the terminal building last night, they didn't think 'hope it really really hurts him?' - we strive to be normal and happy, which is, after all, the best revenge.

Consequently, a group of us had a barbecue in somebody's barn last night, while the swallows that nest there every year, flew in and out, feeding their young, twittering in a disgruntled fashion at being disturbed. Then, because it had finally stopped raining, we played boules or petanque, whatever you prefer to call it. Two jack russels and a pet lamb called Madser (as in 'madser fish') trotted about after us, getting in the way of the boules and in imminent danger of concussion. We drank about enough wine and came home feeling a bit less ragged. Friendship is a pretty good revenge as well.

This morning, Gordon Brown on the TV was oddly comforting, in the way that the familiar presence of a mountain (Ben Lomond? Ben Nevis?) is oddly comforting . Granite through and through.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

What's in a Name?

My husband has just thrown the cat among the proverbial pigeons, by telling me that he doesn't like the title 'Corncrake'. So I've spent a wildly unproductive night trying to come up with a better name for the novel. Choices so far are The Corncrake, the Tattie Howker (intriguing, but does anyone outside Scotland know what a tattie howker is - and wouldn't that be a bit offputting?) and the Bonnie Irish Boy. Which I kind of like, but feel that it does suggest a different sort of book. And finally, The Summer Visitor or The Incomer. Both of which I also kind of like. All opinions about possible title, on the strength of the first four chapters below will be gratefully received!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Sad Truth About Writing

There is a sad truth about the struggle to earn a living as a writer, and it is something that has been - exercising - me. That's probably the right word. It exercises me, usually at four in the morning when, to quote Marian Keyes, I wake up to have a bit of a worry.
This sad truth is that eventually, whenever you get a modicum of success, you know full well that you've been there before, all too many times, and it means very little in terms of your future ambitions.
Let me try to explain what I mean, because I don't want to sound cynical or unhappy or ungracious. I'm none of these things. I love writing. And I don't have many regrets.
Way back in the 1980s, I can vividly remember the phonecall from Philip Howard, the artistic director of the Traverse Theatre, in Edinburgh, telling me that he wanted to direct Wormwood, my play about Chernobyl, in the coming season. I can remember the elation, the sheer happiness, the feeling that I had finally arrived. There were other times: my first book of poetry, the notification that I had received an Arts Council bursary, finding an agent, finding a publisher for my first novel, winning a couple of major awards for radio plays. Then there was the film company who were interested in my idea for a television series about a group of unemployed Glasgow men, who got together to become male strippers. I'm not joking. That was years before the Full Monty, it was called They're Lovely and They Dance and I still have the scripts. We had meetings in One Devonshire Gardens in Glasgow. They were enthusiastic. I wrote and rewrote for no payment. Then, of course, nothing happened.
The sad truth is that for all but a tiny minority of writers (and it is infinitesimally small) each success is not some kind of milestone on the route to somewhere else. Most of the time, for most of us, in the long run, it makes no appreciable difference.
Wormwood had excellent reviews and there have been other extremely well reviewed plays. The Price of a Fish Supper was one of them. I still send plays out to no response. The Curiosity Cabinet was shortlisted for a prize, published, was well received, sold out. As I write this, there isn't even a single second hand copy available on Amazon. But I still can't sell the next novel, Corncrake. I could cite many more examples, but I won't bore you. There is no progression, no real continuity. Some you win, some you lose. That's just the way it is.
Which means - and this is the good bit - that it is the work itself in which any satisfaction must and indeed should lie. The immediacy of the work as you are writing it is what is really important.
I think I always knew this, or why would I have carried on writing?
But I don't think I saw it so clearly as I do now, with a modicum of age and wisdom.
All the other stuff, the stars, the ratings, the competitions, the cv only matter a little. The occasional payment is nice. It's good to get stuff out there. But you should never, ever write what you don't really want to write, just because somebody says it will look good on your CV.
Write because you truly, madly, deeply want to do it. Or failing that, write for money.
If you can manage to do both at once, you are one lucky person.
But believe me, in the long term, to write what you don't much want to write, solely because somebody tells you that it will be 'good experience for you' is probably useless, and will finally prove vexatious to the soul.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fish Supper at the Gilded Balloon

Well what do you know? The nice young man who phoned me before I went off on holiday, has got back to me to say that they do indeed want to do The Price of a Fish Supper at the Gilded Balloon, in Edinburgh, as part of their 'best of the Oran Mor' season. Maybe the thing is not to care too much. Then perhaps the cosmos drops things in your lap, just to remind you of who's in charge. Perhaps I could write a self help book about it...
He asks me if I have copies of reviews because they can't find any. Fish Supper was well reviewed. Joyce Macmillan liked it. Somewhere I have copies. But where? Since the play was reviewed I have completely renovated the room where I write (and got rid of about a third of my books, and a small Finnish forest of paper in the process.) Spend several hours hunting in all the usual places. Eventually find reviews in a folder in one of the unusual places, a shelf that involves a balancing act to reach it. Very good they were too. 'Blisteringly eloquent writing'. Why am I not more famous?
Get several emails about play but realise that nobody has yet given me dates, so I can't pass them on. More as it happens.

Amazon Reviews & The Curiosity Cabinet

Have been reading reviews of The Curiosity Cabinet on Amazon. All writers do this, and most of us also compulsively Google our own names and work. If you are ever contemplating plagiarism, you can be fairly sure that your sins will find you out.
Read nice review which nevertheless says the book is 'not as deep as Emotional Geology.' Now I have read, and greatly enjoyed Emotional Geology, but have to take issue with the 'not as deep' bit. On reflection though, sometimes I think that the poet and playwright in me likes to pare down my writing to the nth degree and I'm not always sure that it does me any favours with the novels. I'm always reading other people's books and finding them slightly overblown, but I suspect that I do need to indulge myself just a bit more, otherwise readers may mistake simplicity for superficiality.
Every time I look at The Curiosity Cabinet on Amazon, I am filled with rage that it has comprehensively sold out, and that Polygon have refused to reprint even a small run, and yet as I write this, there is only one second hand copy available. I think I have the last few remaining books in my own possession. Am sorely tempted to ask my agent to reclaim the rights, and Lulu it.

Friday, June 08, 2007

More Thoughts about Working for Nothing - oh and a not quite gratuitous mention of David Tennant.

Just back from a week in South of France, staying with inlaws in their little flat in a holiday village on the Mediterranean coast. Weather windy and warm, then just warm. Scarcely an English accent to be heard, which gave us all the chance to try out our French. Reassured by how much came flooding back, mostly because I used to have to speak French to my Polish relatives, that being our only common language.
Came back to a week's worth of emails as well as
A phone message about The Physic Garden - will I call back? Yes, but I only get the answering machine.
Another phone message from a pleasant sounding lady who says she has met me. She edits a small literary magazine, and wonders if I would like to do a big interview with a famous writer for them.
Switch on the PC to be met by hundreds of emails, most of which are garbage. Check them however, since Norton has a habit of dumping the odd goodie in the spam box.There is one from the same nice lady. They would like me to do the interview in June, which suits the famous writer, and then write the piece (2000 words) before autumn. The snag is that the magazine is so small that there is no money for fees. She hopes that it won't put me off because she is sure I would make a good job of it. Too right.
I have some questions.
Foremost among which is
Who among us can honestly say that they would really love to do a week's hard slog on behalf of somebody else, for no payment whatsoever? I mean I do it all the time, of course, just about whenever I write, but then I'm doing it for me, and I'm doing it because my agent has a certain amount of faith in me, and I'm doing it because - really - I can't stop myself. Plays or fiction, I love it all.
Also, why does nobody ever ring me and ask me if I will - for example - do a good long interview with David Tennant. I might stretch a point. Particularly since I could ask him if he would like to be in my next play.
I would make a good job of that kind of interview as well
I stare at the email and the phone rings. It is the nice lady. I tell her, apologetically, that I can't do the piece. Besides, I have a book review and an article to write, both of which will result in a small payment: real money of the kind much encouraged by Tesco in exchange for food.
And then, oh then, I'm resuming work on the new novel. Of which more, much more, later.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Theatrical Ups and Downs

Have sent out several drafts of new play, The Physic Garden, to people who have asked to see it. Have irresistible impulse to tweak script in between times. Suddenly decide that the linguistic differences between the two characters should be more marked. One must be much more obviously Scots than the other. This seems to change the relationship between the two men significantly. Then decide that some of my changes are just too phonetic and would hinder rather than help actors. So tone it down, but it has served its purpose. Also, play seems much longer. An hour perhaps? Is it too repetitive? Is it, in fact, a load of old rubbish? I no longer know.
To add to my incipient paranoia, there has been no reply. Zilch, nada, nothing.
Suspecting spam boxes and deletions, I try again, but still no answer.
Attempt to print out hard copy.
Printer throws wobbly and starts printing out page after page of code. Decide that PC is definitely male. Have suspected this all along. It cannot multi-task.
Ink cartridge runs out. Find replacement at bottom of drawer.
Finally manage to print out hard copy and put it in the post.
In the evening, the phone rings. It is nice man who asked to see a copy of The Price of a Fish Supper some time ago.
They have chosen six of the Oran Mor plays to be staged at the Edinburgh Festival.
Fish Supper was the seventh on the list. Story of my life.
By now, though, I can see exactly where he is going, and why.
At the worst possible moment, from a publicity and planning point of view, the actor from one of the chosen six plays has had a better offer and has pulled out. Would I be agreeable to Fish Supper coming off the subs bench so to speak?
I would.
But of course all this depends upon (a) availability of director (b) availability of actor and (c) the final decision of the venue which may decide to go for an empty space instead of a play.
And there is very little money.
Which presumably means that the empty space costs less.
So bearing all this in mind, says nice man, would I still be agreeable?
Can he see my big shrug, I wonder?
Yes, I say. That's absolutely fine by me.
Which, of course, it is.
But meanwhile, I will not be holding my breath.
Would you?
More later, as it happens.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Poles and Poland in Translation

Have been asked to review a couple of books of Polish poetry, in translation, for a literary magazine. This means putting brain very much in gear, since this is demanding (but also rewarding) stuff. Wish my dad had taught me Polish when I was a child - especially now, when bilingualism might give me another source of income, since the UK is currently inundated with incoming Poles.
My dear, late dad came over here at the end of the war, via Italy, with a Polish (tank) unit of the British army. He had had a horrible bleak time of it,during a war which included the complete loss of house and home, the imprisonment and subsequent death of his own father, and successive occupations from West and East. There was a spell living in the forest, and at some time he acted as courier for the resistance. He was also in a prisoner of war camp for a time. He was a lovely lovely dad: patient, kind, optimistic and interested in everything. He almost never spoke about the war, although he did tell me plenty about his childhood in the Polish 'wild east' in what is now the Ukraine and wrote quite a lot of it down for me. Much of it was extraordinary - tales from a lost world.
He was stationed near Helmsley in North Yorkshire, and after he was demobbed, worked in a mill, on the outskirts of Leeds, which was where he met my mum. He was an economic migrant, I suppose. Later, my mum told me, somebody said to her 'I think they should send all those awful Poles back, don't you?' and she said 'No. I've just married one.'
He was trying to improve his English (and studying at night school - he subsequently became quite a distinguished research scientist) so when I came along, we always spoke English at home, although we did sometimes eat Polish food, and we did follow Polish traditions at Christmas and Easter.
Later still, I started to write a novel - a sort of Polish 'Gone with the Wind'. I didn't realise that, at the time when I began it, Poland was very far from being a marketable proposition.
Of which more, in due course!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Cutty Sark, the City of Adelaide and Living with Invisibility

In London, the Cutty Sark goes up in flames, and it headlines the national news. There is weeping and wailing, gnashing of teeth and much wringing of official hands. It is part of our heritage, it is a much loved vessel, it will be rescued come what may and cost what may.
Meanwhile, in Irvine, Ayrshire, the even older clipper, City of Adelaide (later renamed the Carrick) lies, as it has done for years, a mouldering wreck in the hugely underfunded maritime museum, another casualty of the curse of Ayrshire as well as the curse of our complete disregard for our maritime history, explored recently in the Scotsman
Expert Jim Tildesley comes on TV to say that the ship will almost certainly be 'deconstructed' - for which read dismantled under archaeological supervision, with large parts of it burnt to a crisp or sold on as souvenirs.
There was a time, a few years ago, when the harbourside at Irvine was a vibrant place, with a real buzz about it. There was the Magnum pool, ice rink and theatre, there was the Maritime Museum and there was the Big Idea science attraction. Now the Big Idea is a large white elephant, closed for many years, with the council determined to develop the land for housing. They want to move the Magnum so that they can build there too, so presumably all that will be left is an increasingly underfunded Maritime Museum full of mouldering vessels, surrounded by houses and flats.
Ayr is a particularly hideous example - read The Price of a Fish Supper below, to find out what can really happen to a harbour when the developers get their mitts on it - and now Irvine will follow suit. It would be OK if these developments included shops, restaurants and shoreside cafes. But they don't. They just include flats, and private walkways. The councils in Ayrshire have this strange skewed view of things. They want visitors to come and spend money in the area. They simply don't want to have to provide any kind of attractions for them when they get here. Well, only Golf. Meanwhile Prestwick Airport flies in screeds of tourists, who head north to the Highlands, without so much as a backward glance.
And why not?
There are times when living in this part of the world feels like living in Brigadoon, a place that is magical but invisible most of the time. Even the first BBC's 'Coast' programme completely ignored a vast chunk of picturesque south west Scotland, and only revisited it when they got a Scottish presenter. Sometimes it's as if there is a line drawn from Gretna to Glasgow, and anything to the west of it is a sort of non place which can safely be forgotten. And at one time, Ayrshire could safely be forgotten by our Labour politicians at Holyrood and Westminster, because it was such a sinecure for them. Somebody once said to me that you could have a fruit bat standing (or should that be hanging?)on a Labour ticket in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, and folk would vote for it.
There seems, thank God, to be a wind of change blowing, even in Ayrshire - but too late, perhaps, to save the Carrick /City of Adelaide from being recycled as a pitiful handful of museum exhibits and a million souvenir boxes.