Displacement Activity.

I have taken this to new heights (or should that be depths) within the past few weeks. Here I am, with a full length book to finish. By the end of May. Actually, preferably, say the publishers who commissioned this a while ago, by the end of April. Please?
It's non-fiction. It will be called "God's Islanders"and it will be a history of the people of the Island of Gigha (just off the Kintyre Peninsula, on the west coast of Scotland, in case you don't know....) But not a big academic tome. Just an average sized, very personal and slightly poetic account of the history of this tiny (and most southerly) of the true Hebridean islands and the people who have lived there over the years. I want it to be accurate, but lyrical and evocative as well. The island has been an inspiration to me in fiction and plays, so I want something of that in the book. It can't be dry, it might sometimes be funny, but by the end of it, the reader has to know something of the island and its people. And I have been working on it, on and off, for a good while now. So not one of those quick inspirations then.
I am swamped with research and reference books. I have some thousands of words already written. Pages of notes and letters from people, and photocopies of interesting old documents. I even know what I want the cover to look like for God's sake. I have spent weeks and months of my life on this. But for ages I just haven't been able to get my head (and, face it, my body) round the idea of assembling it all into something readable.
I have ditched an old PC and acquired a new one. I have signed up to broadband. I have listed items on eBay. I have cleaned the kitchen, and changed the beds. I have watered the plants and written emails, and Googled for a million interesting items, all connected, of course, with my book. Or not, as the case may be. I have drunk tea, coffee, wine and (the last desperate recourse of the afflicted) whisky. Not much whisky, true, and it was Laphroaig, in the vain hope that the taste of the Hebrides would inspire me to get going. I have phoned friends. I have cleaned the cockatiels' cage. I have phoned my student son. I have chatted to my husband who is working on the floor of our new bathroom, and cursing quietly. I have made a fish pie. I have gone shopping. I have tidied my desk, and thrown away a heap of old papers and magazines. I have sharpened a pencil. I have figured out how to use the CD player my family bought me for Christmas, and played Bob Dylan endlessly.
But today, having exhausted every last possibility, I have sat down at my computer, and written 5000 words, the first chapter, pulling together some of that great multitude of notes and ideas as I went. And you know what? Suddenly, I thought, I can do this. Like riding a bike, or swimming in deep water. It's all there. Suddenly I know what I'm doing and how I should do it. Oddly enough, I don't think I could have done it till now. It's as though all this time, something was working away in my head, and now it's shuffled itself more or less into the right pattern, and...
Tomorrow, I will write the chapter about the Well of the Winds. And then I'll be absolutely certain that today wasn't just some kind of fluke....

A Play A Pie and a Pint

Getting a stage play from an idea in the mind of the playwright to performance on stage is - like all kinds of writing - a long and frequently harrowing process. I've just had a phone conversation with the director of Burns on the Solway, which will be staged at Glasgow's Oran Mor Centre during the week beginning 20th February and is consequently about to go into rehearsal. It was a huge relief, because we instinctively seemed to be agreeing about everything - but he had his own exciting ideas about the look of the piece which filled me with enthusiasm. Also, he seems to like the play - a major prerequisite for a happy production! A lot of this is to do with the wonderful David McLennan, and his facility for pairing up people who might work well together - certainly it's one of the factors behind the success of his "A Play, A Pie and a Pint" season, sponsored by Orange.
David organises a series of short lunchtime plays, each lasting about 45 minutes. The price of the ticket includes a pie (literally - meat or veggie options are available) and a drink, alcoholic or otherwise. There are rows of seats with tables. The audience come in, eat, drink, talk, and then, once most of the dishes are cleared away, settle back to watch the play.
The first time I contributed a play, (The Price of a Fish Supper, spring 2005) I couldn't believe the size of the audience. It opened on a holiday monday, the university students were away and Glasgow's West End looked deserted. I had misgivings. But then, quite suddenly, the place filled up. And I mean filled. This is a big venue, but it's congenial and people like it. They also like the fact that they can fit it in around other things. A significant number of retired people enjoy coming out in daylight, people on flexi time come along from the BBC, and the surrounding hospitals and businesses - they even like the pies! They were a mixed, interesting, receptive audience.
This year's play - mind you - is quite different from the last one. So we'll see. In my experience, critics and reviewers often expect you to write more of the same, and sometimes get quite shirty when you don't, reviewing what something is not rather than what it is! Or maybe that's just my usual writer's paranoia surfacing ...
The play takes a fresh look at the relationship between Robert Burns and his wife Jean. I've always been more interested in Jean than in any of his other loves. Maybe because she so often gets a bad press. Miscellaneous academics down the years (mostly male) have gone on at length about Burns marrying someone whose intellectual capacity couldn't match his own. As if teasing Nancy McLehose was the last word in intelligence. One writer labels Jean "glaikit" a Scots word meaning stupid. They even manage to turn her own virtues against her. Because she uncomplainingly agreed to take on the upbringing of Anna Park's daughter, (she of the "gowden locks", the barmaid Burns bedded at the Globe Inn, Dumfries,while Jean was visiting Mauchline) one commentator pointed out that this compliance would have been a constant reproach to the poet and was possibly the reason for his unhappiness! Can't win, can you?
When you search Google for Robert Burns, you get about nineteen million hits. When you search Google for Jean Armour, you get just over one million, and that includes one or two high profile descendents. Highland Mary, on the other hand, gets a whopping three and a half million hits. Wouldn't you just know that the mistress gets more fame than the wife? Particularly when she dies before she can make any trouble!
So I've always had a soft spot for Jean, as well as a huge affection for the poet. I know he put it about a bit, but he was a man who genuinely liked the company of women. You need only read songs like "My Tocher's the Jewel" to know that here was a man unlike most other men of his time. To put such words into the mouth of a woman takes an amount of insight that few writers could match - now or then! And the real words to "Green Grow the Rashes" are not, "the sweetest hours that e'er I spent" - an old rake looking back on past love affairs - but a much more immediate, and quite different "the sweetest hours that e'er I spend are spent amang the lassies oh..." with a final, telling reference to Jesus Christ, usually omitted when the song is sung. "The wisest man the warld e'er knew, he dearly lo'ed the lassies oh."
So, Robert and Jean. That's what I wanted to write about. It's a love story - of course.
It's a short play about endings (and perhaps beginnings). It's a play about loss. And about inspiration. And about the complexities of the relationship between a husband and wife. But by the time it's on stage, I'll know more about it. That's what happens when actors and a director get their hands on your work. It's also one of the things that make theatre so exciting - and keeps this writer in particular coming back for more.

Of Plays and Things

Some time ago I conceived the idea of writing a play about the last few weeks in the life of Robert Burns. He was sent to a sort of “poor man’s spa” at The Brow Well, down on the Solway where his doctors advised him to try seabathing. The man was dying, but struggled to walk through the shallow waters to the point where they reached his waist. It seemed a dramatic and curiously neglected time of his life. I drafted out the play, but felt that it was a horrible mish mash of too many ideas. I kept shelving it, going back to it and shelving it all over again.

Then, last year, I had a play accepted for David McLennan’s inspired “A Play, a Pie and a Pint” season of lunchtime dramas at the Oran Mor centre in Glasgow’s West End. The Price of a Fish Supper was a dramatic monologue, about – among many other things – the state of the Scottish fishing industry, as seen through the eyes of an ex fisherman. It was beautifully directed by Gerda Stevenson and brilliantly performed by Paul Morrow in a tour de force of memory and interpretation: 45 minutes on stage, no breaks, a moving and magical performance. I counted my blessings because theatre is such a collaborative effort and I sometimes think that the writing is the least of it! It went down well with audiences, and the reviews were good. Enthused all over again about theatre, I thought about writing another play.

During November and December last year, as respite from another project which is proving a bit of a struggle (of which more, much more, in a later blog) , I got out my meandering Burns on the Solway, and had a look at it again. This time, though, I came to it knowing that I had to cut characters, knowing that I had to write within definite time and space and budget constraints. It suddenly struck me what the play was really about - the relationship between Burns and Jean as perceived through the eyes of a dying man, and the wife who has soldiered on with him through thick and thin. I began to cut away all the rubbish – and found that I had a viable play on my hands. It’s scheduled for the new Oran Mor season, some time in February, it goes into production soon, and I’ll let you know what happens next. But I write this mostly to point out that essential constraints can be amazingly liberating. Sometimes too much time and space can be a curse. Sometimes, the need to write to a particular brief can be more rewarding than you would ever have anticipated.

Dawkins Shmawkins

I wanted to write something about this farrago of nonsense, but the incomparable A A Gill trashed the programme (and incidentally its presenter) so comprehensively in the Sunday Times that I needn't bother. The brilliant thing about Gill was that he instantly made the bizarre connection I had been struggling to put my finger on for two weeks: Malcolm Muggeridge. We expect a dramatic Dawkins conversion before too long, and believe me he'll be fierce. In the Catholic church people used to (and still do for all I know, though I'm not what you might call a regular churchgoer) talk in hushed tones about the intensity of the converted. Not long after little Malcolm saw the light, as then rector of Edinburgh University, he made students' lives a misery by his prolonged opposition, on moral grounds, to the installation of contraceptive machines in the union lavatories. I know it sounds a bit far fetched now, but back then it was AN ISSUE.
You know what bothers me most ? (About Dawkins. Though Muggeridge had the same besetting sin. ) It's his woolly thinking. And his complete lack of academic precision. Coming from a young male undergraduate it might be interesting; from a mature scientist and presumed expert in his field, it's unforgiveable. But then maybe - dare I say it? - that's biology for you.

Fighting the Good Fight.

When I was first going out with my husband - and we lived on opposite sides of the country - he turned up at my flat one weekend, en route to a tournament in full fencing get-up. (He never did make the competition, but that's another story.) The fact that he still maintains an interest in what he says is an art, rather than a sport, may serve to explain why he devoted two precious hours of his life, the other night, to watching something advertised as a British Drama on Hallmark. I was present but, after the first half hour, I buried my nose in a book and contented myself with the occasional peep - mostly at Robson. The premise was that our hero, fleeing the police, assorted criminals and his past, took on the coaching of a girls' fencing team at a posh boarding school somewhere near Oban. (Culzean Castle, as it turned out. Not THAT near Oban, really. You could see Ailsa Craig in some of the shots.) He had been offered the job after a gratuitous bonk with the headmistress, in a hotel room. Unlikely, but you never know your luck in a raffle...
The fact that the whole production was truly, deeply awful, should in no way be blamed on the actors who struggled manfully, and womanfully, with both script and fencing. It was when the credits rolled that I guessed the awful truth. There, but for the grace of God, went yours truly.
Once upon a time, after one of my stage plays had been well reviewed, I was approached by a script editor, bearing enticements. It was just after Ballykissangel, and they were looking for an idea for a Scottish rural drama. From my extensive experience of deepest rural Scotland, I obliged. In the meantime, however, a blistering drama called The Lakes (remember that one?) was doing rather well, so back came my outline, with the suggestion that I make it "darker." Perhaps they wanted The Lochs. I reckon my modified idea was a little too dark, because at the next meeting the editor suggested that I pitch it somewhere in the middle. More work, more meetings, more discussions. No money though. "They seem to think" said the script editor, apologetically, at what turned out to be our last meeting. "That it falls between two stools."
Beware of script editors or development executives or whatever they are calling themselves nowadays, bearing promises of jam tomorrow, if only you can "get it right."
You have to remember that in television, script editors may be only one step ahead of the writer in terms of experience. Or, come to think of it, some way behind the writer. Development is their job, their raison d'etre, the way they earn their living. The company must be seen to have various projects "in development." Mostly, as a writer, you won't be paid anything for that development work but the script editor will often be employed by the company. It stands to reason, therefore, that the development process will be lengthy, while the writer wastes weeks, months, nay years of his or her life on rewrites and revisions, always pursuing that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, until the initial idea crumbles away into dross. A few dried leaves. Just occasionally though, one of these productions actually makes it onto the screen. To encourage the others, perhaps? The fencing fiasco had the despairing air of something concocted by a committee of script editors and development executives. Somewhere in there was an excellent and original idea, twitching feebly, as it expired before our very eyes.
After a bit, you get wise to this process. But not before you have wasted far too much time, and far too many ideas. Every time I have had a reasonably successful stage play, somebody has approached me about television. The last person I spoke to was refreshingly honest about the whole business. If you want to get into television, you begin by writing for the soaps. You send in sample scripts, and if they are good enough, you get to serve an apprenticeship, learning your trade the hard way. That's how it's done. If you don't want to do that, then you don't want to write for television badly enough. So don't do it. Write what you want to write instead.
PS They were holding their "back hands" wrong in the fencing scenes as well. So said my husband . "They'd have got their fingers chopped off!" he muttered darkly, as he went to bed.


What will I do with my wednesday nights, now that Rome has ended? I know critical reaction to this has been mixed, but I've been hooked right from the start. And I managed to see every single episode, which is something of a miracle for me. There have been criticisms that the language was too modern. So what did they want? Ben Hur? That it was too violent. It was violent - horribly, realistically so, and I was sometimes reduced to watching it from behind a cushion, the way I used to watch Dr Who. Especially the last gladiatorial fight, which was - I'm sure - completely realistic! That it was too sexy. Well, it was jaw droppingly explicit. And you knew where it would all end (in tears of course). But none of that mattered. It was all endlessly entertaining. I loved the way Servilia turned into the villain. I loved the way Atia suddenly became (marginally) sympathetic. I loved the way Mark Antony managed to be both louche and honourable at the same time. I loved the look of it all. The shots that you just knew the director had been drooling over.
Besides, it had Kevin McKidd in it, who is one of the best actors to come out of Scotland in a long long time. I used to fantasise about writing a play for him to be in. Now, sadly, I expect he's too starry for the stage. I'll miss the Vorenus/Pullo double act. I'll miss all of it. Wednesday nights will never be the same.
My son's girlfriend (a classicist) has just reminded me what happens next. Ooh, I remember now. Can't wait for the next series....


Was anyone else, I wonder, disappointed by last night's "Rebus" incarnation - apart from the invariably watchable, and never disappointing Ken Stott? I love the books, but haven't read this particular volume. Rankin always weaves a skilful and involving tale, with Edinburgh as well as Rebus emerging as superbly multi-faceted in every novel. (Mind you, I must admit to having a soft spot for Mr Rankin because he was one of the judges who shortlisted my novel The Curiosity Cabinet for the Dundee Book Prize - a man of excellent judgement, of course!)
But this dramatisation didn't live up to expectations. I guessed whodunnit almost as soon as the character appeared onscreen - there were far too many loud clangers of clues, far too early in the programme. The director seems to have taken the decision to characterise the city by means of authentic but intrusive FX (traffic and street musicians). They were so loud that sometimes you had to strain to hear what the characters were saying. I kept comparing it in my own mind (perhaps unfairly) with Richard Jobson's amazing "16 Years of Alcohol" where the city manages to be only obliquely recognisable, enchanting, and hugely threatening all at the same time. Rebus and Edinburgh both seemed to have lost some of their beautifully written vulnerability in the transition to the small screen. Meanwhile, my grumpy husband complained about the plethora of long haired blondes. Too sunk in post festive malaise to appreciate the eye candy, he reckoned he couldn't tell which was which, so pretty much lost the plot within the first half hour.