Happy Birthday, Robert Burns

Ever since we moved to Ayrshire, when I was twelve, I have been a fan of our local poet, Robert Burns. When I was in my teens, we lived within easy walking distance of Burns' Cottage at Alloway, and I used to take myself off there on a Saturday morning. It was a nice atmospheric place then - hardly interpreted at all - and you could easily imagine yourself back in time. Or I could, anyway. I would lurk there for hours, conjuring ghosts which - sad to say - never appeared. But later, when I found that I wanted to write about Burns and his wife and his milieu, perhaps all that early daydreaming helped me.

The image above is - of course - the romantic portrait painted by Alexander Nasmyth. But this week, STV and David Heyman unveiled a more believable reconstruction of what the poet may have looked like. You can watch it  here - well worth a look. Scientists in Dundee had taken the existing cast of the poet's skull and - using up to date and fascinating methods - built up a more believable image. Well, I think it's more believable anyway. The picture has met with a mixed response. In fact the response has been rather like the response to a portrait, with people claiming to like it, not like it, or generally disputing whether it is in fact 'like him.' But nobody has seen him. Not in the flesh. Not even me, loitering in Burns Cottage, hoping for ghosts, all those years ago. Idealized 'poetic' portraits, like the one above - nice as it is - can't have told the whole story.

There's a silhouette which seems to have a rather heavier jaw than the neat little chin in the Naismith portrait. There's an old photo postcard of Jean Armour Burns Brown, the great grand-daughter of the poet, (above) who was said to resemble him. I have a copy of this in my own collection, and the eyes are very striking indeed. Contemporary descriptions often refer to his eyes as a noteworthy feature but these descriptions also stress that he was a countryman, the very image of a country farmer, albeit one who was singularly attractive to women. But we all know - don't we? - men who are deeply attractive but far from conventionally handsome. Often it's a question of energy, the ability to make you laugh, the ability to focus on you to the exclusion of all else, a talent for flirtation in a non threatening way.

And then comes the most recent image. At the point where it was unveiled, you can tell that - for some of those seeing it for the first time - the image was unexpected. It is one of those delightful 'sharp intake of breath' moments. And  even these reconstructions using sophisticated technology, are not the last word. But we've no reason to think that this might not be the closest we can come to seeing the real, true face of the poet. I'd love to know if Heyman interviewed the wonderful Ayrshire farmer and Burns devotee before or after the unveiling of the image, because the resemblance was pretty striking. Watch the programme and judge for yourself.

Looking at this image, people have remarked that the eyes are too close set (I don't know how much the structure of the skull would dictate this - but one assumes it would!) that the chin is too heavy (but then there's the silhouette to consider) and that it looks like a waxwork. To me, it also looks pretty much exactly like one of any number of the Ayrshire farmers who are my neighbours, here in this village some ten miles down the road from Alloway. There is an Ayrshire 'type' if it's permissible to say this: strong, stocky, very, very dark, thoughtful, energetic, intelligent, handsome rather than fine featured. You can spot them everywhere in Carrick. Although we know that Burns's father came from Kincardineshire, his mother, Agnes Broun, was a local woman. I've often wondered if Agnes conformed to that type as well - because if Rab loved his Jean (and I'm pretty sure he did!) she too was very dark, handsome rather than pretty, a fairly typical Ayrshire lass.

I've maintained a constant low key obsession with Burns and the women in his life for years. You can tell, can't you? Some time ago, I wrote a radio play about the writing of Tam O' Shanter - it was produced with the brilliant Liam Brennan as Burns and the equally wonderful Gerda Stevenson as Jean. For once, we got the right accent for Rab - Liam comes from Kilmarnock. You might be able to download it free, here although this seems to be a pirated version. But nobody else is doing anything with it, so if you want to listen, you might as well give it a try. Later this year, I will probably publish the script as an eBook to Kindle. I have about 100 plus hours of radio drama sitting about in script form, and some of the original plays, like this one, are worth publishing.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Robert and Jean
Meanwhile, I also wrote a short stage play called Burns on the Solway, for Glasgow's Oran Mor, A Play, A Pie and a Pint. It was directed by Michael Emans with Donald Pirie as an astonishingly believable - and ultimately heartbreaking - Burns, Clare Waugh as an equally heartbreaking and beautifully played Jean and Celine Donoghue providing music to die for: one of the most rewarding productions I have ever worked on. I loved what they did with it. You can download and read it on Kindle here in the UK and here in the USA. But meanwhile, you might like to read a review of it on today's Indie eBook Review, by my fellow playwright, Cally Phillips.

Robert Burns has become something of a constant in this family. My artist husband Alan Lees made a life size carving of Tam O' Shanter and his grey mare Meg. And then, when arthritis put paid to the carving, he painted a whole series of images of Tam, including this one above. (I particularly like the eyes under the bridge.) My new historical novel, The Physic Garden, due for publication in February, isn't about Burns, but it is set in Glasgow only a few years after his death, and the poet certainly gets a mention  I'm gearing up to tackling a much longer piece of fiction about the poet. But perhaps not this year!

Meanwhile, if you want to know a bit more about me, you could do worse than have a look at the interview I did recently for Tara Moore's lovely blog. It was a great pleasure to answer such an interesting set of questions.

Needlework, Wise Women and Kindles

Ayrshire Whitework in magical detail.

Last night, I went to a neighbouring village to give a talk to a group of ladies from the church 'Guild'. They were all what you might call older ladies, the kind of people easily dismissed by the young and cool. The meeting - in a warm, light church hall - began with a hymn and a prayer and ended with a hymn and a prayer. I've done this talk often before. I take my collection of examples of Ayrshire embroidery - along with a few other bits and pieces of interesting old needlework - some of it dating from 1840, one or two other pieces from 1800 or even earlier, and talk about the history of this magical embroidery, where it came from, how it was made, who did it and why. Even mixed groups of men and women seem to enjoy handling this work. It is, it has to be said, so beautiful, so microscopically fine, that you do find yourself wondering, as this audience so clearly did, just how women working by candlelight or oil lamps in dark little cottages, in the early 1800s, could possibly have created something so amazing. They would gather in a single cottage to share expensive candles, or work outside, sitting on turf or straw covered stones, to take advantage of natural light. Their health suffered, eyes and lungs in particular. The work - as so much 'women's work' - was undervalued. And remains rather undervalued even to this day, locally, although collectors in America will pay high prices for fine examples. Embroidery is on my mind at the moment, because one of the characters in my new novel, The Physic Garden, is a talented needlewoman, and her needlework figures largely in the story.

The ladies of the Guild were, as they always are on these occasions, interested, kind, positive, cheerful and hospitable. They could give lessons in how to treat a visitor to some other groups I've spoken to. The 'Rural' are the same. I always come home feeling inexplicably happy, although slightly worried at the average age of these groups, wondering who will come along to take their places. Mind you, the Rural, in farming areas like this one, seems to have no shortage of new, younger members.

At the end of the evening, when we were chatting over the tea and biscuits, one of the ladies reminded me about a trilogy of radio plays I wrote some years ago. It was called The Peggers and The Creelers and it was set here in the West of Scotland, a series of plays about the fishing families of the coast, the inland boot and shoe makers, and the traditional tensions between these two groups of people. I had done some of the research for my Masters degree and then written a series of plays about it. There was a certain amount of mistrust between the two communities and it fascinated me. When the plays were broadcast, people would stop me in our nearby town, to talk about them. One farmer told me how he had been listening in the cab of his tractor, and realised that he was in the very field where the characters were standing.

Last night, the lady told me she still had the plays on tape and listened to them from time to time, because she had enjoyed them so much. Last year, when I was sorting through all my old manuscripts, I found a big box of flimsy typescript. It was The Peggers and The Creelers, written as a trilogy of novels. I had forgotten all about them. Back then, I still did daft things like that. Thousands and thousands of words, just for love. And I remembered that my agent at the time - we're talking many years ago - hadn't even read them because, so she remarked, 'nobody wants historical fiction at the moment.' Last night I found myself talking about all this with enthusiasm. 'I'd love to read them,' my questioner told me. Oddly enough, she isn't the only person to have reminded me about those plays, those stories, over the past few months. And although back then, I could see that this might have been a niche project and something no traditional publisher would want, I can also see now that with the advent of Kindle, and Print On Demand, things might be different. Because the diaspora of people with Ayrshire roots is a large one.

So, when The Physic Garden is finished, and a few other projects are under way, I may well dig out that box of flimsy typescript and - in the second half of this year - see what I can do with the Peggers and the Creelers as a series of eBooks, for Amazon's Kindle, in the first instance. As I packed up my lovely whitework, last night, and got ready to leave, the lady who liked my radio plays said 'I hope you do publish them as novels. I'll look forward to it.'

Thinking, in that company, that I might well be among people who favoured paper books over eBooks (the smell, the feel, the permanence) I said 'Well, they'll be on Kindle first and maybe as paperbacks after that. )
'Oh no, dear,' she said.'I have a Kindle now. Wouldn't be without it.'

New Novel For A New Year - The Physic Garden

I'm deep into final revisions of a new historical novel called The Physic Garden. So far, only two other people have read it - well, three, if you count the young intern who read it for my last-but-one agent and dismissed it as 'just an old man, telling his story.' It was about that time that the agent in question gave me the push, having decided that she had bigger and more lucrative fish to fry. This was clearly true and I can't really complain about her decision. I was never going to come up with the instant blockbuster hit. But it's still a shock when somebody whom you have thought of as a supporter decides that they don't want you any more. Especially when, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I had actually been given the chance to leave her for other representation, but had elected to follow her to her new company just a year previously. Silly me.
The daft thing is the intern was right. It is an old man telling his story. His name is William Lang, he's a bookseller who used to be a gardener in the Old College of Glasgow University and he is looking back over a long life, well lived, telling a tale of youthful friendship and appalling betrayal from the perspective of old age. In the course of the story he reaches some surprising and moving conclusions. That first reader clearly didn't get it at all. And for a little while I set it to one side, disillusioned. Although why the crass opinion of a single person who I suspect only read a chapter or two should have meant anything at all to me, I don't know. But we are easily knocked off our perches, especially when a book is very dear to us. After a while, I saw that this novel was and remains very dear to me. And that it isn't 'just' anything. But it certainly is an old man telling his story and none the worse for that.
Of the two other people who have read it so far, one tells me she loves it and one finds it so harrowing, so desperately sad, that she can't 'like' it in the conventional sense, but that's OK. Because she 'gets' it too. She understands it.
It is a sad and challenging book, for sure. Even now, when I read through it, the sense of an inevitable tragedy runs through and through it, bring a lump to my throat. The narrator seems very real to me, a strong character who insisted on telling his story in his own voice.  It felt a little as though I were channelling somebody. An odd and uncanny sensation. The novel rushes headlong towards some unbearable denouement which I could do nothing at all to avert. No more could he. And yet, and yet, there is some kind of resolution and we are well aware that this is a fine man who has lived a good and fulfilling life.
My only reservation may be that some of my lovely, supportive readers who appreciate my other, contemporary novels may find this one ... quite different. I hope they bear with me - and William - enough to give it a try. We'll see. I have a feeling it might be a bit like Marmite. You'll either love it or loathe it. It's scheduled for publication some time in mid February. But in the run up to publication day, I'll try to tell you a little more about everything that inspired it, and the historical background to the story.