Friday, 31 December 2010

Out with the old; in with the new!

31 December 2010. The last day of the year: it's that moment when you're caught between looking back and looking forward. It's been a good year for me, on the whole. My 2010 horoscope told me Pluto would stir things up and make major changes happen and I kind of scoffed at that but for whatever reason, major changes did occur for me. The biggest was finding out I couldn't live without taking synthetic steroids to replace the ones my body's stopped making. (The official diagnosis came in a letter from Hairmyres Hospital yesterday - 'The test confirmed that your adrenal glands have stopped producing the steroid hormones'.) At first, I was a wreck when I tried to come to terms with that but now, after two and a half months, I've accepted it. I'm still a bit afraid of slipping on ice and breaking a bone, since that would bring on shock, then an Addison crisis, then ultimately coma if not treated promptly, but other than that, I'm back to 'normal'. Except that I'm salting crisps and savouring bacon, olives, sundried tomatoes, blue cheese and anything else that'll give me a salt kick, given I've a sodium imbalance in my blood.

Enough of that. Let's say I'll face 2011 with new confidence.

And what of the good things? Looking back, there were lots. In March, my daughter Alison became engaged to Lucas, while he was visiting her in Tokyo. In May, I attended my first Open University graduation ceremony, taking my place in the procession and sitting in my robe with the platform party. Great to see the students being rewarded. They work so hard, packing OU degree studies into the neuks and crannies of their busy everyday lives. One of my former students, Jenny, was among them. She did very well.

In June, Alison came back from her year spent in Japan and it was great to see her again. I saw her briefly before I left to spend the month of July in France on the RLS Fellowship. I've written extensively about that time; it was indeed a one-off, life-affirming experience for me and one I'll not forget.

In August, my wee cat died, only two weeks after I came back from France. That was a sad time because she and I had lived together here for over thirteen years. My daughter Mairi asked me yesterday would I be looking for another cat and I said, 'No.' I'm not ready for cat ownership again. There's a negative and a positive reason for that. One is that cats and other pets tie you down and I've decided I need to be free of restrictions for a while. I'm not ready to give love to a new pet, yet, either.

Two weeks after Willow died, life gave me another good experience: my oldest daughter, Ruth, came home from living in Mexico City and came to stay for a few months with her dad and me, bringing her partner and their new baby. It was so good to have her back to stay for at least some time. She's now moved into her own flat not far away. Technically, becoming a granny to Mhairi fell outside this 2010 review because she was born in October 2009 but being a granny became reality this year because she was here, not on Skype but in three dimensions, filling my, at that time rather gloomy, house with baby noises, most of which involved laughter and singing. And lots of cuddles.

In October, I took ill. I was so glad Ruth was here, then. I don't know how I'd have coped emotionally if she'd still been in Mexico. It felt as if she was given back to me - returned to me, and to Keith, Liane, Mairi and Alison.

Being ill brought so many consolations. I had meaningful conversations and contact with so many people at that time. My family became closer. One week after I took ill, most of us gathered to celebrate Mhairi's first birthday and that was a very special day, in the circumstances. That felt like the year's real end and beginning.

On the writing front, I've had a quiet year, if you discount the month at Grez in France. I gave up my agent and am looking for a new one. It's the same old story. Waiting for responses; waiting for something to happen. Since August, I've hardly written anything. Since October, I've been recuperating emotionally and physically. I've gone from throwing myself into applications for jobs I don't stand a chance of getting - just to make me feel alive - to despair at having to continue to live for yet more years. Amn't I finished yet? Can I not just go, now? One of my daughters told me I haven't done everything yet. I may have raised all my children to adulthood, had some successes with my writing, loved a man and been loved in return for over thirty years and lived to become a granny, but my daughter said, 'You haven't become a granny to my children yet,' so I think I'll try to stay!

So, what will be my projects for next year? In terms of writing, I'm going to have to push myself to create and to promote my work. For Christmas, Keith bought me Dragon voice recognition software, which I'm training to understand my Scottish accent. I'm hoping that will help me combine, very simply, the condition of being a layabout and all the images, thoughts and stories in my head. I'm also hoping to be able to go to visit my daughter Liane, who'll be travelling to France to spend an academic year there, after the summer. And I've taken up knitting for the grandchildren who might be born in the future.

To all who read this: please take care of yourself this coming year and try to fulfill some of your dreams. Or at least take a baby step towards them. Happy New Year!  

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The real story

The girl stood on the burning bridge.
Her lip was all a-quiver.
She gave a cough; her leg fell off
and floated down the river.
           child's rhyme

Okay, so forget all that 'woe is me' nonsense. A dose of reality. Here's how it happened.

It was an autumn day. Carol was taking the train through town and country, through October landscape, through tree-heads tinted copper and gold, to New Lanark. She was heading for a conference of the OU Arts Fac in the lovely New Lanark Mills Hotel. She passed the new mosque at Holytown and was impressed with it as an object of beauty; she passed over the river gorges and through the site of the former Ravenscraig steelworks, now a forest of young trees; she passed through towns and farmland until Lanark, whereupon she took a taxi down into the river valley where Robert Owen and David Dale had built their massive cotton mills in the early 1800s,  providing for their workers a self-contained village with arts and education and quality of life for when they weren't required in the mighty river-fuelled mills.

The hotel was plush and yet homely. Colleagues were bright, not seeing one another from one year end to the next (all teaching work being done by correspondence or online). The tea tasted strange and Carol felt hungry but she'd had an early lunch and anyway, some chocolate bought at the village shop at closing time would help tide her over till dinner.

The sessions presented held her interest. She particularly enjoyed the 45 minute poetry reading, slides and chat by Chris Powici, a colleague in the creative writing courses and editor of the free magazine 'Northwords Now'.

The chocolate tasted funny, even though it was well within its sell-by date so she only had a few squares and then, during the quiet time before dinner, she took a walk alone around the grounds of the hotel and village. The pavement was wet with autumn rain. Dark evergreens and dying deciduous clothed the hills on either side of the river. She watched how the water pummelled down over the 'linn' waterfalls. White froth on black substance. The river vibrated through the rocks beneath her feet. The air was cool and moist but not uncomfortable and there was a lushness in the dank decay of pine needles and autumn leaves.

Dinner passed off well in chirpy conversation. The soup tasted a bit funny and she wondered if there was wheat in it. She regretted stipulating only 'gluten free' and not also 'wheat free'. She was hungry and ate every spoonful, having given away the bread. The fish came next. The food all looked so tempting, artistically set out on the plate and attractive through colour and texture. There was a bit of a strange flavour going on in the fish but everyone else was eating and she ate it all, too.

Buoyed up on two glasses of wine and good conversation, she climbed the stairs with the others and enjoyed the evening session in the conference room, where line manager Elaine entertained and informed about Aird, an 18th century Glasgow-based music printer. Thereafter, Carol went to the bar with Chris and Carol A, and both Carols caught up with chat in a table to the side (thanks for the malt, Chris - that's two I owe you).

On the way to bed, her stomach felt uncomfortable. Maybe the fish had tasted odd because there was a little shellfish sauce? Or maybe it had been the soup?

At three in the morning, Carol was sick. Everyone's been sick. Everyone knows what night-time ill-health is like and everyone gets on with it. So did Carol. But her arms and legs were so weak, now. She almost couldn't make it back to bed. And then, in bed, she almost couldn't make it out again. And the phone was dead. Something wasn't right.

Outside, in the darkness, the river pounded its way between the banks, cutting off the little island and dragging at torn-off twigs and branches.

By 8.30 on Saturday morning, Carol knew that something was wrong. She'd known for a long time. Now, she wanted to go home. She had no mobile signal in the valley and the direct line to the outside world wasn't working. Besides, there was her baby grand-daughter at home and if Carol had food poisoning, or a virus, she didn't want to take it home. But she wanted Keith. So she phoned reception and asked if anyone else had been sick. But no-one had. It wasn't the food. So she asked for an outside line and told Keith she needed him to come for her.

It was nearly an hour before he arrived. She almost fainted when she went to the door to let him in. Back in bed, she almost couldn't move. He helped her dress then on her insistence he fetched a wheelchair from the hotel staff. It felt ridiculous to make such a fuss over sickness but this wasn't right. She knew it. It wasn't normal. But what could it be? Food poisoning? Winter vomiting bug? No-one else was suffering.

Keith wheeled her to the car and then went back to sort out bills at reception and to leave a message for the conference organisers.

Carol slept for two days. All through Saturday and most of Sunday, while Keith and the others went to Glasgow to paint the new flat, Carol slept. She woke and slept again. It felt like a hundred years. She asked for water with sugar and salt in it and then fruit juice and tea. The two days passed.

Get a grip, she told herself. You've been sick, now get over it. She forced herself to get up late Sunday afternoon. She made herself a mug of chicken stock and felt better for it. She took it back to bed with her. When the others came back, she said she'd take some dinner. She ate a few mouthfuls. She sat up with them for half an hour then had to lie down again. She tried again later, picking at another few mouthfuls and staying up for an hour before going back to bed and sleeping through till morning. Almost peacefully. She must be getting better. It was only logical. She'd eaten; she'd sat downstairs with the others.

But it wasn't normal. At five in the morning, panic speared her. All down - inside - both legs were tingling. She'd been aware of it earlier and had changed position but now it was stronger. Her legs were leaden and tingling. She could move her toes. So there was no need to panic. She sat upright on the edge of the bed and her arms were tingling, too. This was something she'd no experience of. Her body felt normal but her arms and legs were losing power. Keith said she'd been lying awkwardly. Lie down and go back to sleep. But it wasn't normal.

Keith's alarm went off at 6.30 and she was sleeping. He brought her tea. In the dark, when he'd returned downstairs, panic pierced her again, waking her fully. Her legs had gone. She couldn't feel them. As if the blood had drained out of them. Her arms were blunt as if her hands had gone. She couldn't move them. Well, she could if she exerted her will to do it. The skin round her mouth was numb and tingling. Her neck felt strange. Keith would be leaving for work. She had to stop him. What could it be? Botullism, e-coli, food poisoning. All the thoughts rushed through her. Addison's.


She'd read about it two weeks previously. She'd been trying to find out a connection between low blood pressure, weariness and coeliac disease, all of which she had. Yet the doctors had told her they couldn't find anything wrong and the coeliac was under control. She knew Addison's - and e-coli - were life threatening.

She listened; the baby was awake. She wouldn't disturb her.

Keith! she shouted. Keith! Keith! Keith! Keith! Keith!

He ran upstairs - she heard him. She batted him with blunt arms to make him move, to make him listen, to make him get her an ambulance. Confused, he couldn't believe her. Told her to calm down.

Get me an ambulance! I want to go to hospital!

But what'll I tell them? What'll I say is wrong with you?


He phoned the doctor. NHS 24 eventually sent round an ambulance because between them all they thought I'd had a stroke. My speech was slurred. The paramedic arrived and pricked my finger, soon determining that my blood sugar was low - 2.8 when the normal range was between 4 and 7 or so. Like in a diabetic hypo. He gave me a tube of sugary gel to suck (I could make a whole lot of little fairy tale and other suggestions from that little scenario but let's not go there) and I perked up a bit. The tingling stopped.  Two ambulancemen wrapped me in a blanket and took me downstairs in a chair, out into the new day's light to the ambulance, which was waiting there, cream and green against the blue cloud-streaked October sky. Children waited at the corner, thrilled at a break in the routine of going to school.

A and E at Hairmyres was jumping, filling up with doctor's Monday morning referrals. I was seen immediately then stabilized and put in a corridor. I would have waited in that corridor for ten years and have been happy. The registrar and consultant diagnosed me. 'Do you always have such a good tan, Mrs McKay?' 'Well, I spent the whole of July in France but that's two and a half months ago and my tan keeps getting darker.' I remembered peering at the whites of my eyes in the mirror, wondering if I was going to turn yellow and die of liver failure like my mother. Keith stood by my hospital bed, reluctant to leave me. 'I should've listened to you. I will from now on,' he said, voice shaking.

Addison's Disease. An auto-immune disease (i.e. like coeliac, thyroid and others) in which the body turns its immune system against itself. In this case, my adrenal glands were targeted. By the time an Addison Crisis happens, the cortext around the glands is 90% destroyed. The adrenal gland cortext supplies the body with steroid hormones that regulate defence against infection and other functions basic to life. Mine were now 90% depleted.

I had two injections of steroids and sparked instantly to life. I couldn't stop talking. I talked all over the registrar when she was testing me to see if the shortness of sugar and oxygen in my limbs had caused any damage. I couldn't find the tip of my nose to touch it. And I have a big target! Since that day, I've been practising!

So now I need to take these tablets if I want to live. My natural life ran out on that Monday morning, 18 October 2010. My life now is artificial. It's my old body but it's not my electricity that controls it. I'm lifeless. I'm a construct; a creation; a monster. But a cuddle still feels like a cuddle. A conversation with family still feels like a conversation. The steroids are making me crazy (bipolar mood swings). But I'm still me. And I'm born new again.


Carol would like to express her thanks to the staff at the wonderful New Lanark Mill Hotel, who showed her such kindness during her illness.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Growth cycle

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
            William Blake. Songs of Experience. 1794. 'The Sick Rose'

On Monday 18 October, 2010, my natural life ran out. A paralysis of weakness floored me; my legs and arms were not my own. By degrees, deadness moved from my feet, to take my legs, my hands, my arms, and teased filaments of numbness into my brain and jaw. If not for immediate medical help, my life would have ended that day, electrical power slipping away from me.

I have become a monster. Maybe I always was. I have become a monster powered by an electric charge which is not my own because my own ended: my body was no longer able to sustain it.

Within an hour of being taken to hospital, artificial life surged through me, rippling and crackling as the juice from two hypodermic syringes lubricated my circuits.

Electricity is a flower. Within an hour, new life bloomed through my arms and legs as the water of life irrigated my dry fields.

From that day, I'm not me. I'm a construct: an artificial life force of measured proportions, restlessly contained in decaying flesh and blood. I look at my hand. It's detached from me. It's part of the body I used to inhabit. An act of will moves it. I have to reconnect the life I've been given with the flesh I used to have. I can learn to do this.

But there are doubts.

I'm not me. I'm a Gothic monster created, not through the efforts of an inquisitive, solitary scientist experimenting with lightning, but through the perceptiveness, skill and commitment of medical teams based in Hairmyres Hospital. Good people, from the paramedic and ambulancemen who gave me first aid, to the highest consultants fusing with me through barrierless eyes, to the ordinary workers in all the wards, doing all the cog in the machine jobs, who took care of me.

And through the wonderful support of Keith and my family.

I'm not me. Not the me I was. But I am.

Friday, 20 August 2010


Today, my blog post is a mix of snippets.

First, some good news - my Open University students' results came through. I can imagine the bolt that hits them as they open the email. For me, the email informs me the results for the group are up on my OU homepage. I, no doubt like them, click on the link without hesitation. Then my eyes run down the list, checking one student's results after the other, holding my breath and sometimes gasping as the numbers reveal the final results. Funny how seeing each name brings back a visualisation of each student and what they've shared with me of their aspirations and their day to day life. I'm very pleased that they achieved their goals. There may be slight disappointment or even heartache for one or two but I'm confident all of us have taken away something good from the shared experience of A215 Creative Writing.

Next snippet is that my participation in the Scottish Writers' Centre event at Word Power Books in Edinburgh last week went very well. It's a lovely venue, intellectual yet intimate. Donal McLaughlin, as ever, was an expert host, generous in his praise and quietly assured in his manner. I was very pleased to see my daughter Alison and her friend Fliss in the audience, smiling with real delight. I kicked off the reading with two extracts from my draft novel A Spell in the South (of France), then Gerrie Fellows treated us to some of her poems spanning her early publishing in New Zealand, all the way up to poems she's working on now. Final reading spot was for Maggie Graham, who read from her novel 'Sitting among the eskimos' and from some newer material she's been working on. Her work was entertaining, uplifting and gave us something to mull over and wonder at, all in one go.

Less good this week was the demise of my wee cat, Willow, who had been full of health in May this year but slowly dwindled. She dropped from 4kg to 2.7kg then in her last few days she was nothing but fur and bones, wee soul. I can't believe how much I miss her. There are so many valid reasons for sorrow in the world yet I'm sobbing for my cat. Ah, Willow. She was thirteen and a half years old. I would tell you about the tarot readings I've done for her but you'd think I was a fool.


Here's something good to look forward to -

On Wednesday 25 August, my good friend Donal McLaughlin is reading at the Edinburgh Book Festival from 4.30 - 5.30. More info at 

Donal McLaughlin. Photo c. Marc Gaber, Riga
Sadly, I can't go. But the reason's good: my daughter Ruth is coming home from Mexico City after five years, with her partner and their baby. They're going to be staying with us (Keith and I - the family home) until they find a place of their own. Reasons to be cheerful!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Reading at the Edinburgh Festival

I've been involved with the Scottish Writers' Centre for about six months, now. We've recently been drawing up plans for our next season of events for after the summer, to be held at the CCA in Glasgow. More on that very soon.

On 18 August, the SWC presents a reading by 'some of its own' at WordPower Books in Edinburgh as part of the Book Festival Fringe. I'm very pleased to be invited to share the platform with two writers who've contributed substantially to the creation and success of the Scottish Writers' Centre - Gerrie Fellows (Window for a Small Blue Child) and Maggie Graham (Sitting Among the Eskimos). SWC stalwart, Donal McLaughlin, will do the introductions so I know this'll be a friendly and relaxed atmosphere and I hope to see some Edinburgh friends at the event, for an hour of poetry & fiction. There's more information on the Scottish Writers' Centre blog.

WordPower Books is at 43-45 West Nicholson St, Edinburgh EH8 9DB. Our reading will be held from 3 - 4pm and admission is completely free. Incidentally, the Word Power website gives full details of the Edinburgh Book Fringe programme:

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Towards an ending

Only a few days left of my stay here at Grez-sur-Loing. Twenty-seven days have come and gone and in three more I'll go home. I'll never have a garden like this one again; I'll never have this field of green and green water accessible through my window or a minute's walk away through the door. I've been taking film footage with my camera - too shaky to show it here. I've also taken sound recordings with it, documenting the morning wake up of the immediate neighbourhood of collared doves, jackdaws and wood pigeons.

My word count now is up to 27,000. I don't say it's perfect; it's anything but. Yet having written that makes me feel as if I've done what I came to do. All the other things - the trips to Paris (to see the catacombs, which we missed both times), Fontainebleau with its chic and glamour, Nemours, much more down to earth and friendly; the walks to Bourron; the long trek to Intermarché in the mid-day heat, then having a picnic on a bench between the shop's double set of doors and a crazy route home; the dinner at the long red dining table; the hours spent sitting by the green gloss of the river; the sharing of work and discussions over art and culture; tasting Doux-chene Fermier goats cheese with ripe figs and apricots; the marvelling at the flair with a foreign language which the Swedish and Finnish artists show - this is a bonus as big as the word count. Bigger. This is one-off life-enhancing experience.

Here are some final photos from Grez and the surrounding areas. There's a Gite de France property in the village, so maybe - like the swallows who've all fledged now? - I'll be back.

Carol outside the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. Marina and I climbed the 300 steps to reach the dome.

Les jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, just outside the French Sénat.

The living room at the Hotel Chevillon.

Idyllic writing room.

Carol and Marina in the red dining room.

I'd like to record my thanks to Creative Scotland (formerly Scottish Arts Council), the National Library of Scotland and all involved who gave me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by awarding me the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, 2010. With a nod to Lou and the others who wander here, too.

Friday, 16 July 2010

14 Juillet at Grez-sur-Loing

It's now mid-way through my 31 day stay at the Hotel Chevillon as recipient of a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. Mid-way and yet I feel as if I've been here all my life.

Keith stayed for almost a week but if he'd stayed longer, as we would both have liked, I wouldn't have given time to my writing and that is the point of being here, so leave he had to.

Since then, the paper journal I'm keeping has filled with various thoughts, impressions and musings. None particularly given by a 'muse', perhaps, but valid nonetheless as a record of my time here. I've also taken dozens and dozens of photographs of views ranging from the vast open plains to the tiny world of a grasshopper. Wild flowers, sewn (presumably) at the edges of the fields, also feature in my photographic record. Each photo is a souvenir but also a tool for research to draw on when writing.

For the last week, I've set to work on writing the novel, the idea for which won me this fellowship. I've taken a huge sheet of paper (A2?) and have plotted out the entire story on a time-line. I know what's going to happen, now, and how it's going to end. All I have to do is write it! I like to plan my writing because once the plan is done the writing comes a bit like following a recipe or a knitting pattern. Or maybe the instructions that come with flat-pack furniture from Ikea (whose furniture fills this house). With writing - unlike with furniture from Ikea - there's always room for a little spontaneity, so the story as it's planned may not be the story that appears eventually on the page. Those damned, insistent characters will go and do something their author doesn't expect!

So far, in the last four days, I've banged in almost 10,000 words. First draft stuff, sure to be whittled down, but it's good to see the numbers in the left hand corner of the screen mount up. And there's so much time, here, with so few distractions!

One distraction I did manage to find was the 14 Juillet celebrations. The little town of Grez-sur-Loing knows how to party. This photo shows the Place de la Republique early in the evening. After the majorettes had performed and everyone had eaten their fill of Moules Frites Fraiches and whatever the bar had to offer, the dancing began. Oh, the open air French family parties I remember from the past, when we lived to the south in Cap d'Ail! The air balmy but milder in the evening and heavy with lavender scent. The teenage girls unable to keep away from the dancefloor while the teenage boys are out of sight, frightening the townspeople by firing bangers, firecrackers, or whatever they're called. Then, the mothers and grandmothers dancing with the youngest ones while the fathers and grandfathers stand around, as strong a presence as the earth and winning points just for being there. And this Grez party was just like the ones I remember from the south, except that there was no Keith for me to dance with, along with the rest of the older couples, after the children had gone to bed!

At eleven o'clock, the crowds flowed over the bridge and through the forest, young ones carrying paper lanterns held out on canes, half a mile or so to the lakes where the fireworks that followed mirrored themselves in the placid water. While the swans and ducks, presumably, hid their heads under their wings and tried to sleep!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

At Grez-sur-Loing

And so we arrive, Keith and I, after the two day drive from home to here. Much delayed by two hours spent in 'bouchons' on the Paris road network - in 35.5 degree heat - we push our way through the heavy, double-height gates and into the courtyard. It's 8.30 in the evening; the stones of the raised terrace are hot from having banked the day's heat. Though we're still far from the river, the relative cool and shade on the terrace are as welcome as a dip there.

Dominating the terrace area is a tree whose crown of branches is so thickly packed with leaves that it looks like a great green pompom. The buildings on three sides of the terrace hold the upper garden like a sturdy chest with arms extended. Slightly dilapidated, slightly ageing, but with an air of permanence, the Hotel Chevillon welcomed us into its cour and its coeur.

We look a bit frazzled in these photos but that's because of the heat and the drive's long exhaustion. These two are taken on my mobile, just to record that we've finally arrived.

There's no one else here. The manager, Bernadette, has been in constant phone support while we were travelling but as we our delays grew longer and longer, she was unable to wait. The only other Fellow in the Hotel - a Finnish poet - is out. Imagine, then, walking through the doors and 'unpacking' the present that is Chevillon: the cool hall with its white walls and twisting, polished wooden staircase; the palacial sitting room with its blue and amber coloured glass and luxury furnishings that are a curious mix of antique and modern; the red dining area with its long and elegant table set with a red cloth and candles, and everywhere - on the walls, on the dressers - paintings and sculptures donated by the Fellows who've stayed here before us.

A note and an envelope containing keys and a welcome from Bernadette are on the bureau. Our apartment is on the first floor - up that grand but tired staircase and along the narrow wooden corridor. Our feet squeak on the seasoned wood as we walk past doors that are all locked. We arrive at apartment three, wondering if Robert Louis Stevenson himself might have lived here, and we step in to our two room flat, which is basic, clean and white. White walls, white bookcase and appliances, white painted French windows opening out on to the terrace and that tree, and white curtains. Two pine armchairs and a table that doubles as a desk (or vice versa) give the room some colour and the floor under our hastily kicked off shoes is cool blue. And of course, we are drawn to the window, opening it wide to let in the fresher air. Strange that that only picture I have to show this view is one taken two days later when the heavy rain came and removed all that excess heat from the air!

Perhaps the greatest surprise on that first day, after all the build up and all the expectation, is seeing the air filled with swallows. The garden is full of them, their flightpaths intersecting in what look like haphazard flightpaths without a control tower or collision. Graceful black and white birds slip through the air, crossing, rising and dipping, up into the height of the blue air till only a curve can be seen of them, then soundlessly down to feed their young in the wattle and daub nests clinging under the eaves and glued in to the corners of the window frames. They've come for the summer and so have we.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


So excited. I've won one of this year's Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowships and will be spending the whole month of July living in the Hotel Chevillon at Grez-sur-Loing, seventy kilometres S.E. of Paris.

The Fellowships have been awarded by the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council for the last dozen or so years and I've applied at least twice before, so I'm really thrilled that this time, I've been successful.

The Hotel Chevillon is run by a Swedish consortium as an artists' retreat now but in its nineteenth century heyday it was a hotel or lodging house which was often frequented by writers and artists. Robert Louis Stevenson met his wife, Fanny Osbourne, there and the Glasgow Boys (Scottish painters) also spent time there.

It's so daunting to set myself into anything approaching the category that these people fell into. Strange bedfellows, indeed. Two reasons - I'm neither a man, nor one from an upper class background. In the nineteenth century, my ancestors would only have been able to stay at Hotel Chevillon if they were making up the beds or seeing to the horses. It's a measure of how far society has changed that I can be awarded an expenses-paid stay there and it's in that spirit that I'll be approaching it.

What am I looking forward to most? Being there. Writing. Experiencing the French experience again. Walking by the river. The quiet and the leafiness. The forest of Fontainebleau. Visiting the chateau of Fontainebleau. Experiencing the French experience again. Writing. Being there.

I was awarded the fellowship to enable me to carry out research into a more northern French way of life than that I experienced when I lived in the South of France. I've written one novel set near Nice on the Cote d'Azur and this trip will help me write authoritatively about the region of France my main character is from.

More on this in another post.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Hieton Writers' Group, Hamilton

Once upon a time, when the days seemed longer and the weeks were full of promise, I facilitated writing workshops once a fortnight for a lovely group of writers in Hamilton. Lovely - but also talented, intelligent and warm-hearted.

Since that time, I've worked almost exclusively on teaching The Open University's creative writing courses online. Online teaching suits me very well: the OU's courses provide high quality learning; I can plan the working hours to suit myself; and I can break for coffee or eat lunch in front of the screen and no-one notices. It also suits me because I meet people from different parts of the UK and beyond. One element that is missing from most online teaching is face to face contact with writers - with only two dayschools a year on my OU courses.

For this reason, and to meet up again with old friends, I was delighted to accept an invitation by Hamilton's Hieton Writers' Group to run two workshops this April.

On an unseasonably bright April day, I took myself down to the grand blond sandstone building which is Hamilton Town House and introduced myself to the group. It was super to catch up on news with those I'd known previously and I was impressed at the way the group has developed, with a considerable number of new members, all of whom were keen writers and willing participants.

During the two classes, we looked at how to boost flagging language when writing about spring and summer, and how to boost our portrayal of momentous moments by using all five senses to help us visualise in close detail the people and places.

We worked on several exercises over the two weeks and I'm hoping to be invited to their end-of-year performance this June to hear them at their polished best!

George, Joey, Ian, Rita, Teresa, Jean and Eileen standing behind Sandra, Nan, Barbara and Jean.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


Very exciting event at the Scottish Writers' Centre last week. Entitled 40 Glasgow Voices, it celebrated a special focus on the area by prestigious e-zine International Literary Quarterly. Founding editor, Peter Robertson, travelled from his home in Argentina to finalise arrangements and co-host the launch, which took place at the CCA on Thursday 8 April 2010.

40 Glasgow Voices is a special feature within issue 10 of the magazine. As the home page says: This will be the first of many features, to be published in the review, exploring the literary vibrancy and scope of different geographic locales.

Glasgow-based writers invited to appear in this issue include Anne Donovan, Zoe Wicomb, Jim Carruth, Des Dillon, Rodge Glass, David Kinloch, Laura Marney, Edwin Morgan, Gerry Loose and Suhayl Saadi. Reading on the night were six writers reading the work of seven contributors. Sue Reid Sexton read from her own novel but also read from a piece she has been co-writing with Kusay Hussein, originally from Baghdad and now living in the UK.  Gerry Fellows, Alan Riach, Peter Manson, Sheila Puri, Jane Goldman and Ewan Morrison also read on the evening and all were warmly received. MC for the night was Donal McLaughlin, who has a Liam story in the feature. Full texts and fine visuals are available for all contributors on-line.

Also worth noting in InterLitQ is a feature called Volta: A Multilingual AnthologyVolta is a poem by Richard Berengarten. Over issues 9 and 10 of InterLitQ, this poem has been translated into 82 languages. This is truly something remarkable and surely a feat like this could only be accomplished by a magazine that spans the globe electronically and is international in its scope. And all of this, accessible without charge around the world.  Definitely a site to support.

Well done to all involved for such an animated launch night at the Scottish Writers' Centre!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Marching through 2010

Is it March which comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb?  I'm thinking of reworking this epithet and likening March to a cheetah - the fastest animal over a short distance. It's time for me to glimpse over the cheetah's sleek shoulder.

News: I've joined the committee of the Scottish Writers' Centre. It's interesting stuff. We've been meeting in Glasgow, for steering committee meetings and for the monthly events programme that's off and running this spring, featuring writers like Donal McLaughlin, Gerrie Fellows and a tribute to the late American poet William Stafford.  Forthcoming events include a celebration of Mexican poets and a look at the International Literary Quarterly's special Glasgow supplement. Looking forward to both of these. Hey, but that's me glancing forward rather than back! What we seek, as the Scottish Writers' Centre, is a focal point for Scottish writers and writing, the first dedicated literature venue of its kind in Scotland. Our aim is to provide a social arena where writers can meet and share ideas and experiences as well as a facility which can provide basic services for writers - performance and workshop space, writing pods, a cafe, a writer's flat and bookshop and to be at one and the same time national and international in outlook.

News: the Scottish Government's Literature Working Group produced its report on future literature policy in Scotland. In an act of admirable transparency, the entire report is available to all on-line. Published to great dismay, perplexity and provoking fiery debate among writers and publishers, the Goring Report (committee led by Rosemary Goring) calls for a network of dedicated writers' centres throughout Scotland. Wearing my former hat underneath my present one, I'm delighted to see their suggestion that public libraries be designated writers' centres - or at least a writers' centre should be designated within libraries in seven parts of the country, thereby providing fairly local centres.  As a former librarian, I'm thrilled at the proposals to reinvigorate our libraries and, in particular, to boost their provision and promotion of Scottish literature. As a writer (and as a former librarian), I'm perplexed by the suggestion that there should be seven centres. Why seven? Why not one in each of Scotland's local authorities? Another point that struck me as very strange is the suggestion in the report that Literature Development Officers be appointed to promote literature throughout these seven areas. At no point does the Working Group suggest (or even seem to consider) that this is - should be - a core function of the public library service.  I do support other proposals, such as making the teaching of Scottish literature compulsory within schools, with a compulsory question at Higher exam level.

These are my own views; the Scottish Writers' Centre will submit its response to the Report and welcomes input from those interested.

News: With my new found freedom (from self-imposed restrictions) I've now been attending montly meetings of Weegie Wednesday and great fun has been had, as well as valuable and exciting networking opportunities.  Weegie Wednesday is Glasgow's literary salon for informal sharing of interest and information. Held in the Universal Bar - a nice, sociable place for literary chit-chat and serious literary liaisons - Weegie Wednesday features two or three ultra-brief presentations and lots of time for flesh-pressing. All fully clad, perhaps I should add.  At February's meeting, the most valuable speaker from my point of view was Bob McDevitt from Hachette Scotland; March's meeting gave me an opportunity to meet Martin Belk of the innovative One Magazine, Willy Maley, who established the Glasgow University Creative Writing MLitt (with the late Philip Hobsbaum), and Ian Hunter of Read Raw Ltd, a writers' collective whose sole aim is to promote writing and writers in Scotland. 

So, lots of good things, keeping me busy this month. Add to the mix my continuing to work with the Open University, encountering much in the way of thought-provoking and moving writing from my students in A174 and A215, my own studies in Spanish, and you have the reasons I've been absent from my blog page. Though being addicted to Facebook comes top of that list.

To end, I'll pass on my happiness at the announcement, yesterday, of the engagement between my daughter Alison and her beau, Lucas. He presented her with a white gold and emerald ring at Yasukuni Jinja shinto shrine in Tokyo, with the cherry blossom just beginning to open on the trees around them. Cherry blossom represents love in Chinese culture but in Japan it represents the importance of understanding the transience of life. Like the blossom, life buds, blooms and fades. Like the blossom, it's finite: precious; to be lived and cherished. Emeralds represent luck and enduring love. Amen to that.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Reading and writing (events)

I've had some interesting discussions with fellow writers recently about my views on venues for creative writing and reading events. Following on from these, I had the pleasure of being invited to take part in the 'Reading the Leaves' event at the café Tchai Ovna in Glasgow's west end.  It was a good company and a good night. Thanks to Dave Manderson for organising it. I met and chatted with fellow writers Jim Ferguson, Sue Reid Sexton and Graeme Fulton, whose readings held the audience's attention.

It's a funny thing, reading aloud. Especially when the audience comes to the writing cold, i.e. without a copy of the text in front of them or in their memory.  I'd love to be a performer who can capture the audience's attention and also parry with them, bringing in a bit of playfulness.  It always feels too serious when I do it but then that's the way I am, I guess. At Tchai Ovna, I read the short piece I have in the Luath Press anthology 'Written Remedies' about a woman who finds creative expression and satisfaction through dance, despite being blind. During this reading, I enjoyed that lovely sensation of having the audience in the palm of my hand. Or, if you will, of seeing myself as the conductor of their emotional response. A nice feeling! And powerful! 

For my second piece, I read a short extract from 'Frozen Waste' - my story in the first edition of Gutter - and while that started well, I could feel the audience drifting when it came to the dialogue section, though also, perhaps, because the illustration of the character's psychological split was a little too difficult to get across in what was just a glimpse of the story.  There's definitely a difference between writing that succeeds on the page and on the stage.

A few days later I went to a book launch held at the Glasgow Print Studio gallery. Lovely venue - even if the photos on display at that time were a little mawkish as they documented the artist's coming to terms with death.  The writing event was to celebrate the publication of Fugitive Bullets. As always, I find Jim Ferguson's work entertaining, intellectually satisfying and emotionally fulfilling. Jim really has talent. He's a clever performer, too, who works one to one with each audience member, though they're sitting in a group.

Last week, I attended the first of the new monthly events staged by the Scottish Writers' Centre, this one in the CCA in Glasgow. The spotlight for this inaugural session was on Donal McLaughlin, whose short story collection An allergic reaction to national anthems is published by Argyll. Donal may have lost his childhood's Irish accent but his voice has lost none of that purring quality.  He draws on his Irish-Scottish childhood experiences for his stories but much else besides. Given what I've said, above, about my own reading, I found it interesting that he was able to differentiate clearly between the voices of multiple characters in his stories: that's a true gift, as all the textbooks unite in warning writers away from using more than two or three characters in a short story (other than mentioning very minor characters, of course).

Particularly interesting in Donal's session was the variety, given that he works as a literary translator as well as author. So, he read his translations of poems written by one of the Second World War's many displaced people: Stella Rotenberg, a woman who has lived in the UK for seventy years and is now in her nineties but who still writes in her native German. Moving poems, simply expressed and direct, and beautifully translated. We can express so much more truth when we write in our mother tongue, I believe - which is why I encourage my students to experiment with writing in their own dialect, whatever it may be. Writing in our own tongue opens up areas of our experience which we have overlaid and suppressed through adult life. A talented literary translator must enter into that other writer's experience, adopt it as his own, then express it through the heart. As a displaced person himself, in a sense, Donal seems able to identify with the original writer's quest for expression. He ended his session with a reading from a novel by the recent Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Herta Muller.

Friday, 8 January 2010


Four weeks of snow and bitter cold. Today, the temperature at 9am was -13c.  I've gone into a state near hibernation. Good time for thinking, eating, drinking sloe gin. I took this photo at 4pm on 31 December 2009 from my bedroom window. Moon rise over Lanarkshire. Full moon on the last day of the year. I like it!