Thursday, 3 December 2009

In search of a Scottish Writers Centre

Oh, for a warm and dry centre for Scotland's writers. Or several.
Earlier this week I attended my first DiScOmBoBuLaTe (or is it dIsCoMbObUlAtE? DiScomBoBulaTe?) at The Arches in Glasgow. It was a great show. I've rarely seen such a crowd at such a gathering. Probably having a proper bar, there, helped. Guest readers included Ryan Van Winkle, whose banter with the audience had me laughing (not just me, of course) and whose poems had the right kind of mix of attention grabbing wit and sincerity that are ideal for performance.  Headlining the evening was Bernard Mac Laverty, that most delicate of writers (despite his labourer's hands) who managed - though perhaps only just - to pull off that no-no of short story writing, a packed livingroomful of characters.

I've got so many bones I could pick with the event but that would be negative when my overall reaction to the content was positive. Oh, go on. I have to air them. Controversy is the haemoglobin of blogging.

First - why is it that so many Glasgow-based writers think the whole world should be measured by how poorly it compares to Glasgow? As a Glaswegian, may I just pass on this advice? 'Get over yourself! Everyone else shares the same emotions, the same big heart and small mindedness as Glaswegians, in equal measures, and everyone else is a mix of good and bad just like a typical Glaswegian! Get off your pedestal: you're just one city in a crowded world of cities; no better, no worse - just normal. Get yourself a bus pass, fellow Glaswegian writer, listen to your fellow travellers and look at the view from the windows.' Thank you.

Second - football is enjoyed by many people the world over. This grumble is closely related to the first one, so I'll stop here.

Third - what is it about people who grew up in centrally heated housing in privileged western society? Why is it that slummy venues like The Arches are popular? Mildew on the ceilings, bare brick walls, cracked cement floors whose only covering is the pebble dash of chewing gum? The chill of damp that seeps in through your clothing and the spores of mould that penetrate your lungs? Is it just my impression, or is there a manifest desire among those who grew up in comfort to relax in dirty, slovenly, shabby places? (While I'm on the offensive, let me also mention Tchai Ovna, a place which also celebrates live literature but whose soft furnishings give rise to repressed memories of squats and student flats and tatty, flea-infested, bug-infested housing. Not mine, of course. We were always clean *ahem*. As I'm sure theirs are, she said, worrying about libel.)

There seems to be some kind of reversal, here; it must be a generational thing. My parents were raised in crowded beds set-in behind doors or curtains in crowded rooms in crowded room-and-kitchen flats off wooden lobbies in crowded, TB and whooping cough infested tenements - in Glasgow, coincidentally (see first grumble). They yearned for cleanliness, clean lines and space. A square of carpet, perhaps. Cups that were shop-bought rather than exchanged in return for old clothes in a barter with the rag-man. Only two to a bed instead of three.

Now, two generations later, maybe each having their own bedroom with ensuite has led to a feeling of loss and isolation. Maybe that's why so many of today's twenty and thirty year olds seek out cheek by jowl crowding in damp, dingy dungeons like The Arches sub-railway-station.

Could be, of course, that they flock there because there's almost nowhere else to see established and establishing writers in performance. Fair point. So, what we need is a dry, warm, eco-friendly, modern, twenty-first century Scottish Writers Centre. Step forward the supporters with your money, your skills and your enthusiasm proffered in the palm of your hand...

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Not good, not bad - but different!

When you've been fed a diet of film and TV stereotypes about Mexico, from the innocent mouse Speedy Gonzales with his cry of 'Andale! Andale! Arriba! Arriba!', to the ubiquitous seedy, untrustworthy bad guy from spaghetti westerns, tipping his sombrero back from his face with the troublesome end of a gun, you have to blink a few times when confronted with the reality. Hey - Mexican people are just the same as my people.

Sure, there are differences. In my role as a woman on the doorstep of la troisieme age, the kinds of things that strike me as really different from my British upbringing are connected with home life. I present them here, these Mexican ways, not to say they're wrong. Just different. Examples:
  • Babies must not be exposed to the air. They must be obscured by a blanket when in the outside world. The blanket must be draped over the baby, e.g. if baby's in the mother's arms, the blanket will be draped over him from the mother's shoulder.
  • Should baby be outside in his pram, the hood must be up and the blanket - or a jacket, if no blanket is available - should be draped over the opening so the baby is hidden from view - and air.
  • Air is also dangerous in the cot. Blanket must be balanced across the cot sides, encasing the baby within a safe tent-like cocoon. It is acceptable to leave a gap at the top so that the parents can see the baby's head.
To a Scot like me, these practices seem bizarre. Maybe it's to avoid the sun; maybe it's to protect the children from Mexico City's serious air pollution. Or maybe it dates from before the virtual eradication of malaria-carrying mosquitos by DDT forty-odd years ago. I could see that protecting a baby from them would make perfect sense.

Here are some others:

  • A baby - no matter how new - who is not wearing earrings must be a boy.
  • Baby clothes must be washed by hand in a separate sink and kept separate from the adults' washing. You may use the washing machine to rinse and spin but not in the company of adult laundry.
I've clearly been spending a lot of time around a baby. And navel gazing. But there are other domestic curiosities. Examples:

  • Dishes are washed in the sink under running water.
  • Lunch is the main meal of the day and is eaten about three o'clock.
  • House windows can be opened to let in the heat. (But watch out for the air)
  • Ground floor windows are secured de rigueur with immovable iron grilles. Try importing that habit to Scottish tenement flats and see how long it is before another fire in tinderbox city leads to a landlord prosecution.

In addition to these cultural differences are some which seem to me to make perfect sense. Examples:

Cleanliness is paramount. The recent Swine Flu scare has led to an even higher campaign for people to wash their hands regularly. When visiting a selection of public toilets (I am a woman with her foot on the doorstep to la troisieme age, as I said) not one person coming out of a cubicle skipped out of the loo without first giving her hands a good scrub. Compare that with Glasgow's Buchanan Bus Station toilets and I know who will get my rosette.
  • Water is abundant and comes out of the tap; drinking water is sold and delivered in blue plastic water-cooler butts by men shouting, 'Agua! Agua pura!'
  • Apples and tomatoes can be washed in tap water before eating but lettuce and strawberries have to be steeped for ten to fifteen minutes in tap water supplemented by eight to ten drops of some kind of iodine disinfectant. (Ruth told me strawberries can have a bug in them that paralyses your brain but I think she was joking. I think she was.)
  • Fruit is so abundant and inexpensive that a blender becomes an essential everyday item, enabling the simple preparation of fresh papaya juice to drink with lunch, strawberry milkshakes (minus the brain-freezing bug, of course). And with entire stalls in the markets filled with red tomatoes, there's never any need to open a tin to make tomato sauce.
All in all, it's an interesting experience. I guess it's true what they say: travel broadens the mind. It certainly exercises it.

Perhaps the most interesting of all is the poor - a far cry from 'the improvident poor' of Britain's past, and probably even present (but I'll leave that discussion for another day). The poor in Mexico City work for their living. An endless, thankless round of labouring, hand to mouth.
Whether they're on the minimum wage of 50 pesos a day (£2.50), perhaps in a smart uniform, guiding you as you park your car in the posh new shopping centre underground carpark; or whether they're threadbare and threading their way between cars stopped at the traffic lights, offering for sale a selection of phone cards, disposable lighters or chewing gum; or whether they're spraying your windscreen with soapy water from a soft drink bottle then squeedgee-ing the foam away for a few pesos a car before the stampede begins as the lights change, they're working to earn their way. Even four and five year olds tout beads or simple toys round the restaurant tables, constantly appealing. In both senses. Surely someone must buy their charms.

As I type this, I can hear, in the near distance, sirens wailing, aeroplanes and helicopters passing and the spiky punctuation marks I've been told are probably gun shots. Perhaps some stereotypes may hold good.
But I haven't yet heard a mouse shout, 'Andale! Arriba!'


Interspersed with this text are some photos we took in one city oasis called Parque Mexico.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

City of contrasts on the Day of the Dead

Mexico City - or DF as it's known here - continues to enthrall and perplex with its fast paced, pot-holed highways, its polished modern office towers and local streets strung with black wires and leafy trees. As much of a Jekyll and Hyde city as Edinburgh (on a much larger scale), it feels as if there's a battle going on in its streets between its colonial Spanish past (the monument above is to Christopher Columbus) and a will to use its major petrol resources to build a city to rival any in the lands of the major powers. TV adverts several times a night extol the virtues of the present government in its fight against drugs, the organised crime that control them, and to build a secure and prosperous nation for all of Mexico's inhabitants.

With baby Mhairi Itzel now more settled and sleeping peacefully whenever she's in the car, or out in the fresh air, we were able to spend a few hours exploring the city streets and ended up having a traditional Mexican lunch at the Cafe de Tacuba - a lavishly decorated dining hall with a vaulted ceiling, walls hung with ornate framed, full length portraits of eighteenth century Spanish worthies and wall panels painted in frescos or tiled with gaudy, glorious Mexican craftsmanship. It being Day of the Dead (when all the dead have come back overnight), the waiting staff were dressed as nuns.
After lunch, we drove to the main square - the Zocalo - but didn't find it festooned in orange from the marigold ofrendas to commemorate dead loved ones. The few that we did see had had their petals scattered by the tail end of hurricane winds that had hit the Pacific coast. Despite that, the vast Zocalo, thronging with people enjoying one of the few open spaces in this crowded city, is worth visiting for its ornate Cathedral and its traditional healers, whose rhythmic drums, aura-cleansing smoke and hopping dances alter the passer-by's mind state through a bewildering sensory immersion.

And back home, we had our own little ofrenda, commemorating my late mum, dad and brother - all Scottish - and Aldo's Mexican grandparents. Little would they have expected they'd be linked after they'd gone, in beautiful little Mhairi Itzel.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Greetings from Mexico City

One week into my three week stint in Mexico City. My daughter, Ruth, had her first baby ten days ago and I've come over to try to give her a bit of moral and logistical support.

It's wonderful to watch Ruth and her partner Aldo with their petite daughter (or should that be 'chiquitita'? Wonderful to see the tenderness and the patience. Little Mhairi Itzel (one name Scottish, one Mexican, as a nod to her heritage) is cuter than cute with her head of long black hair that won't lie still and the depth of those liquid, navy blue eyes. I've opened a book on whether she'll have brown eyes like her dad, or blue-grey like her mum, once her true colour comes in in a few weeks.

Like all new babies, she's finding her first few weeks of life a bit strange. So, she's at her most content at the breast and at her least content during the night when she finds herself alone and awake and doesn't know what she's supposed to do. Bath-time is a mix of fun and terror for her, I think. She adores the water - so close to what she knew for nine months in the womb - and has begun to be able to anticipate it, uncomplaining when 'sus padres' undress her in readiness for her swim, but can she squeal when it's time to come out and get dried! Ask the people on the floors above this flat!

Though, actually, the neighbours make their own share of noises. Dogs barking, clicking heels on the stone tiled floors, voices in the entrance hall. And, of course, the Elvis aficionado directly above us! Ah, Mexico City - home to 25 million people!
Crazy, crazy, chaotic city. A curious mix of poverty and excess. Of colonial hangovers in tree-lined streets and flat roofed houses with balconies, and ultra-modernity in the skyscrapers of the petrol and telecom giants.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Workshop at Clarkston Library

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival is running till 22 October. It's a super event, now in its third year, and already it's grown to be a significant cultural event with activities across the country. The aim is to transform attitudes to mental health and it's about time too. With headlines in the last two weeks about a vulnerable mother commiting suicide and taking her daughter with her because of constant derision and abuse by local bad boys, and two fourteen and fifteen year old care-home residents leaping, hand in hand, 180 feet to their death from the Erskine Bridge, it's clear that mental health issues often go unseen and that those suffering loss of hope or emotional pain often feel unsupported.

The thing that struck me when I was browsing the Festival brochure, though, was how up-beat the events are. The accent is on the positive: about self-expression through the arts and about having fun with it.

I was invited to run a creative writing workshop at Clarkston Library as part of East Renfrewshire Council's contribution to the Festival. What an experience! All good, from my point of view. Nineteen people turned up to the workshop, whose age ranged from Teenage to Third Age. Nineteen people is a massive turnout in creative writing workshop terms and with the workshop scheduled for one hour, an intensive - and I think entertaining - session followed.

Favourite of the evening was probably my collaborative writing exercise. This simple ice-breaking exercise has gone down well wherever I've run it, in university settings, Ladies Who Lunch writing groups and even among Spanish school children learning English language at the British Council School in Madrid. The principle is this: group the participants into threes or fours; give each person in the group a sheet of A4 paper with a different single line of prose on it, e.g. 'I jumped out of bed. Who was banging on the door?' or 'The smell hit me first.' (Although ' "My dear Lucinda," James said, tilting my chin ever so gently up towards the light' is also surprisingly popular!); tell everyone to read what's written and add the next sentence, then pass the sheet of paper to the person on their left; after about four or five sentences have been added, (depending on the time scale) announce that the next person to write on each sheet has to bring the story to an end.

After this, the group should read all the stories produced by their group and the facilitator can either ask each group to choose one favourite to be read aloud to the whole workshop, or if time permits, all the stories can be read out, e.g. all the 'smell' stories written by the different groups can be read one after the other.

This exercise works well as an ice-breaker because people are forced to engage with the others at the table. It works well in creative writing terms because it shows that stories can be generated out of nowhere, from random prompts. It also counters any reserve people have about showing their writing to others, and any fears of rejection, because these stories are all collaborative - so everyone in the group has played a part in any weak ones, but they've also all played a part in creating the strong ones, too.

At Clarkston Library, this exercise lasted almost twenty-five minutes but it was definitely the favourite of the night. After this, we looked at individual writing. I asked the participants to look at their hand and to write about it for a few minutes. This writing wasn't for sharing (I told them at the beginning). We discussed the kind of things they'd written about - i.e. how much was about observation of the physical 'object', looking for fine details, and how much the prompt made them delve into memories. Several actually looked forward through the generations, taking the connection of 'my hand' and linking it with the hand of a grandchild. In a workshop specifically geared towards mental well-being, this kind of exercise begins to open up the idea of discovery of 'self'. The short duration of the exercise (and the fact that it's followed a fun, collaborative one) keeps the introspection light.

After some discussion of observation and of sensory perception, I distributed a few signs of autumn to each table (wild rose twig with ripe hips, opened beech nut pods and fallen leaves, hawthorn, twig of elder berries) and introduced the group to Japanese haiku. Again, they were told that this next piece of writing wouldn't be shared, though time did allow a few volunteers to read aloud.

Writing about one's hand and writing haiku seem to me to work particularly well in writing groups where mental well-being is the theme. It's important, always, to gently warn against delving deeply into harmful memories. Writers are generally not qualified counsellors. However, it's clear that introspection can be a significant part of the desire to write. And part of the healing process. Writing helps us process our life experience and helps us come to terms with the past. It doesn't work when people become bogged down in going over and over old wounds and writing group facilitators should always warn against this. As the old song says, 'You've gotta accentuate the positive.' Keeping a writer's notebook can help with this because in it all the fleeting impressions of each new day can be jotted down. And the little observations of the natural world that are recorded there can be developed into haiku: an art form that encapsulates a moment of serenity and change. Of course, adhering to the strict form (17 syllables over three lines of 5, 7 and 5) and the care over word choice in such a restricted poem allow an opportunity to struggle to express an idea, an image, an emotion - in a vessel which is ultimately polished and beautiful: a little piece of perfection created by the writer alone.

My thanks to Gillian Hamilton and East Renfrewshire for inviting me to give the workshop. Thanks to her colleague Alison who helped out on the night. Thanks, too, to all the participants, whom I hope enjoyed the whirlwind tour we took of creative writing. And finally, thanks to Live Literature Funding, operated through the Scottish Book Trust, which operates a subsidy which enables local authorities and community groups to engage writers like me to take part in events like this with a professional level of remuneration.

The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs till 22 October.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The academic year begins again

It's always such a buzz when the list of names arrives. Eighteen strangers, all with their individual histories, horror stories, happy times and hopes. The course I teach is managed online and there's a lot of technical 'stuff' to get through before the real studying can begin. Sometimes, students can be put off by this, yet, year after year, these same students look back with satisfaction not only for having passed the course but for having passed the ICT initiation, too!

Creative writing. Navel gazing? A way of making millions? A desire to express the thing that hurts the most (and maybe expunge it)? With creative writing courses so widespread now, the odds of all these students achieving fame are remote yet some will reach it. For the others, creative writing won't pay any bills but it will bring rewards and riches. The non-financial kind. The most important kind. The 'human' kind. Like all creative pursuits, writing should first and foremost be a way for all of us as individuals to explore this experience of being alive and being human, here, now, in this place and time. No other person has the same experience or the same view of the world and that makes each of those eighteen people whose names are on my list of new A215 students unique. I'm looking forward to reading about their life, experience and imagination over the next eight or nine months and to helping them take a step nearer achieving their writing dream.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Tides and currents and family

What a crazy week. On Saturday, my two youngest children moved into university halls forty miles apart. We moved them both on the same day and all went well till a lorry went on fire on the motorway. Hey, what's a couple of hours' detour and delay when the sun is shining on Airdrie and Armadale and your passenger is eager to start her new, independent life? And how empty was the house once we got home? I swear, I think I saw a tumbleweed blow by the empty bedrooms out of the corner of my eye.

Monday came and with it the disappointment of a too-thin letter from the Scottish Arts Council, posted second class. Yes, all that effort and emotional investment, only to find out there was to be no Writer's Bursary for me this time. I did receive one in 2002 and it made such a difference to me - financially as well as psychologically. This time, I was hoping to be able to drastically reduce the number of hours I work for the Open University so that I could concentrate on writing a novel set in the present but with historical mini-narratives within it. Needs a lot of research time. A lot of alchemical dream time to be able to integrate facts gleaned from historical sources with creative visualisation, imagining the character in his environment. What can he hear, smell, touch, taste, see around him? Ach well, nae luck. File 'Salt and sand' at the bottom of the pile for a wee while.

Yesterday (Thursday) we had a case of Facebook-inspired near hysteria after a fairly cryptic comment was posted by my son-in-law Aldo. Dear Aldo. It really wasn't his fault but those of us waiting for news of my daughter Ruth's pregnancy 7000 miles away interpreted it as meaning Ruth was in labour four weeks early. After many fairly anxious hours and several attempts to contact them - and some further inconclusive messages on Facebook - all was revealed. Indeed, it was a matter of fertility but only of the imagination. Ha! Well, the time will come and we will be waiting!

Sprinkled through the crazy week were many skype webcam calls to daughter Alison in Tokyo. Ah, poor Alison. Missing her man. How fate teases us! She met him and fell headlong down the well of love three or four months before she was due to spend her year in Japan. As Rabbie Burns said so much better than I can - the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley!

Throughout this week, while the ripples and swells of my daughters' lives have tugged and carried me, the deeper current has allowed me to make more of a return to writing. I'm working on a fairly light, contemporary novel set in the south of France and I'm aiming to write 5,000 words a week over the summer. Last summer I wrote 42,000 words of it and so far I've taken that up to 69,000. The target is 80,000 but as I always have to edit my writing hard to remove loadsa gibberish and flabbiness, I suppose I really need to aim at 100,000. Hmm. With OU work starting again late September I guess that's not going to be easy. However, until January I'm only teaching one of my usual two courses so I'm optimistic I'll be able to get there. More on 'A spell in the south' in a future post.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Writing tips - Do something different!

It's hard to be sparkly in your writing if you don't feel sparkly in yourself. If you're looking for inspiration or motivation to write, these tips might help you.

  • Do something different!
  • Go for a bus-ride to see what you can see (and smell, and touch, and hear).
  • Take a walk in the daylight.
  • Sit in a crowded fast-food shop to sharpen your ear to young dialogue.
  • Find a tree and hug it (and describe in your notebook exactly what your senses picked up).
  • Lie on your living room floor for five minutes. Ask yourself, 'what if...?'
  • Take a walk in the dark.
  • Read a short story.
  • Spend half an hour on a noisy station concourse.
  • Give yourself a break. No one can produce sparkly writing all the time!

Friday, 28 August 2009

A (temporary) farewell to Alison

Curious mix of emotions this week. My second oldest daughter, Alison, sets off for Japan on Sunday morning. She's studying Japanese at Edinburgh University and it's compulsory for her to spend third year abroad, so she's going to university in Tokyo for ten months.
She's always been lured by Japanese culture and it's been her ambition to travel there since she was in Primary School. Or even earlier. In my mind's eye, I can still see her sitting in front of the TV as a three or four year old, watching the Japanese animé Dragonball Z. She's been hooked ever since.

So - safe journey, Alison. Bon voyage and when you think about all the loved ones you've left behind, remember the metaphor from that John Donne poem I sent you - 'Our two soules therefore, which are one, Though I must goe, endure not yet A breach, but an expansion, Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate.' (A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning)
Or, hey - why not think of Leonard Cohen's words? 'You know my love goes with you, as your love stays with me. It's just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea.' (Hey, that's no way to say goodbye).
Looking forward to hearing all about it and seeing all the photos!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

I'm very pleased about the new Gutter magazine, partly because it looks so ... literarily respectable (?) but also because my story is the first, immediately after the editorial! That feels very special and is a great boost. Thanks, Adrian Searle and Colin Begg!

The launch night went well. Loads of people were there and Mono was buzzing. I actually saw a couple of friends, too, which was fun. In particular, I saw David Bell and Catherine Baird, two writers I've worked with through the OU and North Lanarkshire Council. I also chatted briefly with Elizabeth Reeder but couldn't stay for a long catch-up.

On another note, last week brought lots of other good news. My seventeen year old twins, Liane and Mairi, got their exam results. Having already secured their places at university through their fifth year (Higher) results, their sixth year (Advanced Higher) results were less essential but of course if you put in the work, you want to do well. Anyway, Liane got Advanced Higher Music and Advanced Higher French, both at band A, and she got an A for Latin Higher, too (and passed philosophy and classical studies 'units'). Mairi got A bands for Advanced Higher Maths and Advanced Higher Physics, too. She also got an A for Higher Chemistry and for Higher French at the same sitting. So, their results couldn't have been any better and my heart couldn't be more happy for them. Well done, girls!

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Looking forward to Thursday because that's when the first edition of Gutter Magazine comes out and my story Frozen Waste is due to appear in it. Launch is to be held in Mono, the vegan café-bar-restaurant in King's Court in Glasgow at 6.30pm. Big names like Scar Culture writer Toni Davidson and Ewan Morrison were asked to write stories for this first issue and people like Alan Warner, Kirsty Gunn and Kathleen Jamie are on the editorial board, so here's hoping the mag attracts lots of critical attention. Freight Design are publishing it and they do a great job with everything they touch. They did the 'Knuckle End' anthology a few years ago, too.

Anyway, the launch will have some free drink and nibbles, some short readings and socialising. Looking forward to it. 'Frozen Waste', incidentally, was written as a first draft about six years ago but every now and then I pulled it out of the drawer and tidied it up, cutting it down from its original 4000 words to try to squeeze it into various shapes of magazines and competitions. When I saw Gutter's mission statement and requirements, it struck a chord with me as it fits a lot of the themes and socio-political issues I'm interested in so I gave the story another little spring clean, slimmed it down to 3000 words and sent it off.

Here's the Gutter website:

Monday, 3 August 2009

Hey, well, here we are. Summer 2009 and I've finally got round to setting up this blog, which I signed up for months ago. What does that suggest for the future? Regular posts or what?
I've chosen this photo because it looks like a kindly me, maybe a slightly granny-ish look, and that's probably appropriate. But never judge a book by its cover!
Over the next wee while, I hope to be able to use this blog to keep in touch with friends old and new, including former students from my classes with The Open University. So, if you're reading this, why not get in touch and let me know how you're doing? I'd love to hear.