I Love My Kindle

There's a meme doing the rounds on Facebook all about books and reading. A nicely drawn little cartoon character is seen in all kinds of situations, contentedly reading his book or imagining other worlds, while screens of various kinds - some of them unmistakably Kindles or eReaders - are depicted as the villains of the piece. 

It is - let's face it  - nonsense. Mainly because it deliberately and quite irritatingly confuses the medium with the message. It reminds me a bit of the time when word processors arrived, and various writers resisted writing on them, telling me that they really enjoyed typing up five or six or more whole versions of a piece of work. Before that it was longhand, and I'm pretty sure there must have been people saying 'ah - but the smell of the quill pen. Nothing quite like it.'

I write books. I love physical books, especially old ones. I possess a lot of books. Thousands probably although I've never counted. I love the scent of old books - that slightly musty, slightly aromatic scent - just like I love the scent of old textiles. New books, not so much. Let's face it, they smell of paper. Open a packet of bog roll and you get much the same scent. 

I love my Kindle. My elderly Paperwhite that has been used every single day for years is slowing down, so I'm going to have to invest in another one very soon. 

I wouldn't be without it. I'm fairly insomniac these days, so my Kindle allows me to read on well into the night, or to wake up in the early hours and keep reading. If I fall asleep, it will power itself down, quietly, and when I switch it on, it will take me back to the place where I left off. I can change the font and I can adjust the brightness, so that if I'm reading in the dark, I can keep the light down so that I don't wake my husband. I can look up unfamiliar words, make notes, highlight parts I want to go back to, and if I finish my book at three in the morning and want to start another one, it can be there in seconds. 

Gorgeous herring bone bound tooled leather Old Testament
belonging to Elizabeth McLehose.

There is the book as a concept, a world I work on and enter into and spend months and sometimes years of my time creating. And then there's the book as an artefact. Some of them are very beautiful indeed, like the one above  and some of them are just handy containers for stories, ideas, concepts. My publisher designs and produces beautiful books. It's a skill and the covers are perfect for each of my books. 

But I still love my Kindle, especially for reading fiction. When I read in the dark, I'm there, in the world of the book. The better the book, the more this feeling seems to happen. I remember reading China Mieville's The City & The City, right through a couple of nights - dozing, dreaming about the book, waking to read more. The closest I can come to describing it is the way a good radio drama will draw you in, so that you are there, in the world of the play with nothing intervening. 

What's not to like about that?

Of Water Horses and Other Worlds

The Kelpies: photo copyright C. Czerkawska

Many people have heard of kelpies, mostly because of these spectacularly beautiful statues near Falkirk. What most people don't know though is that kelpies could be reasonably - albeit certainly not always - benign, or at least able to be controlled.

Back when I was very young, I briefly attended Brownies and among the sixers that pranced around the big plastic toadstool in the church hall were kelpies. I was a pixie. 'Here we are the jolly pixies, helping people when in fixes.' we sang. I think the kelpies were 'ready helpers'. A demonic and notoriously male water creature was perhaps not the best role model for little girls. Maybe that was why I ran away, hopped on the bus home and never went back. However, that's a story for another day.

Later on, I did a masters degree in Folk Life Studies and learned a bit more.

Essentially, the kelpie is a shape shifting 'water horse' inhabiting Scottish rivers and burns. They may seek human companionship, assuming the shape of an attractive black horse when out of the water, but you have to be wary of them, because they can also carry you to your death, if you're not careful!

The kelpie might be caught and harnessed, using a halter with the sign of the cross on it. As a last resort, 'cold iron' could kill it - as it could be the downfall of many other problematic supernatural creatures.

Occasionally, the kelpie might appear in the shape of a human being, but this is where the beliefs in these otherworldly creatures become confused and confusing, because while the kelpie can have a certain impish quality, the creature that you should never under any circumstances mess with, is the true water horse - the each uisge.

He is perilous indeed, this fiercest and most dangerous of the water horses. He lives in lochs or in the sea. He too may appear as a horse, on land, but will carry you off to the deepest part of the loch if once you so much as touch his mane. Even more dangerously, he can and all too often does appear in the shape of a handsome young man but when he rests his head in your lap, you'll find that he has sand in his hair. All in all, the each uisge does not get a good press.

But then, you come across old, old songs like this extraordinarily beautiful piece sung by Julie Fowlis: Dh’èirich mi moch, b' fheàrr nach do dh’èirich  in which the water horse turns out to be not so much the villain of the piece as the ... well, what is he? The abandoned lover? The heartbroken father? By any standards it's a deeply mysterious song, and I like things like that - things that challenge my view of the world.

It made me think.

Late last October I did an event in Tarbert with my new book, A Proper Person to be Detained and while we were there, I also listened to an excellent talk about overland cycling, and remote bothies. It struck me that for a woman alone, staying in such places might involve at least a frisson of nerves. It would for me, anyway, even though I have friends who would be absolutely fine with it. After that, we headed for the Isle of Skye to visit friends there, and one day, I clambered up by myself to a well preserved Broch. It was a wild, lonely, evocative place, and that too made me think.

Sometimes people ask me 'where do you get your ideas from?' This is where I get my ideas from. All kinds of places, all kinds of experiences that somehow slot together into a piece of fiction. I don't know how it works, but some stories just have to be written.

When we got home, in the dreich space between the onset of winter and Christmas, all these threads somehow wove themselves together in my head, and I wrote a long story - so long that it almost became a novella - called Rewilding

At 17000 words, it was a bit too long for a a short story, but too short for a novel. It presented itself to me in diary form, in the voice of a young woman, who has a perilous encounter in a wild place.

Or does she?

Well, you can decide for yourself. It's free on Kindle for five days, from 25th July till 29th July. If you're too late for the bargain, it still isn't expensive. So give it a go. One of these days, I might write the sequel that's lurking in my head, like the water horse, only just out of sight.
But it might have to wait till winter.

On 21st July 1796, Robert Burns Died in Dumfries.

Very early on the morning of 21st July, she had been dozing in a chair, so far advanced in her pregnancy that she could not comfortably fall asleep. The child was kicking and tumbling inside her, as it did whenever she rested. Jessie had come in with his medicine and tried to hold the cup to his chapped lips, tried to rouse him a little, but he pushed it away. His face was so thin now that he looked all unlike himself. Even his nose seemed to have become finer, sharper.
     Jean got up, steadying herself on the arm of the chair, and took the cup from Jessie. 'Rab, my dear, you need to take your medicine. It'll do you some good, ease the pain, if you can only try to swallow it.'
    She sat on the edge of the bed, stroked his forehead gently, stroked the dark hair shot through with grey. Suddenly she had the strangest feeling, as though this was all unreal, as though there might be some magical place where she could turn back time, make it all different, if only she could get to it, if only she could reach it. There, he would be as she had known him at first: her strong, young lover, her husband, her man.
    He woke at the sound of her voice, or perhaps her familiar touch, gazed at her, raised his head and drank a mouthful of the cordial, coughing at the bitter taste of it. He tried to say her name, recognition in his eyes for an instant, reached out his arms to her and then fell back on the bed.
    'Oh Jeany,' said Jessie Lewars. 'Oh dear Jeany, I think he's gone.'
    She was right.

On this day, 21st July, in 1796, Robert Burns died, probably from acute endocarditis, of which he had all the symptoms. 

You can read more about Rab and his dear Jean in my novel The Jewel of which the above is an extract. 

At Brow Well on the Solway

At Brow Well on the Solway, you walk to the very edge of the land and almost tumble into a mass of thrift, clumps of pink flowers fringing the shore, like some wild garden. They face the sea, looking outwards and when the wind blows through them, they tremble with a dry, feathery sound.

At all times of the year, the wind blows unhindered across these mudflats. There is nothing to stop it, down here, on the Solway. The sky is dazzling: high and bright with the glitter of a sun half hidden behind clouds. It is a place of endings, of dizzying infinities. A place where long horizontals constantly carry the eye outwards and beyond.

In June, when the thrift is still in bloom, it is as restful as it will ever be. There are wild roses in the hedgerows, white, pale and dark pink. There is a froth of bramble flowers with the promise of fruit to come. Oystercatchers and peewits patrol the mud. There are whaups bubbling in the peaty wastes. And you can hear the laverock, climbing higher and higher, to the very edges of sound and tumbling through the skies in an ecstasy of movement. Down there, in front of you, a burn meanders through the mud, fresh water meeting salt, while beyond that again is more mud and silver water, cloud shadows and the misty hills of another country. But it is still the loneliest sight you will ever see.

On the third of July in the year 1796, Robert Burns left his home in Dumfries and travelled to Brow Well on the Solway. It was, essentially, a poor man’s spa. There was a chalybeate or mineral spring with a stone tank built to house it and not much else. One Doctor Maxwell had diagnosed a wholly fictional malady called Flying Gout, and advised him to drink the waters in an effort to alleviate his symptoms. He was thin, he was weak, he could barely eat and he was in constant pain. He stayed in a cottage close by. He ate a little thin porridge, and drank some porter with milk in it. When the porter bottle was empty, he told his landlady that the ‘muckle black deil’ had got into his wallet, and asked her if she would accept his personal seal as payment but she refused it and brought him the porter anyway. 

In July, the thrift would have been dying. As well as instructing him to drink the foul tasting waters, the doctors had recommended that Robert should try seabathing. They were only following the fashion of the time. In the south of England there would have been snug bathing machines and separate beaches for men and women to indulge in the novelty of salt water against skin. One month’s bathing in January was thought to be more efficacious than six months in summer. But perhaps there was a sense of urgency in the poet’s case. No time to wait for winter.

He was, no doubt, in that state of desperation where you will try anything. He would have gone struggling and staggering and wading into the sea, half a mile every day, far enough for the water to reach up to his waist, because that’s what the doctors had advised. Did they know how shallow these waters were? How far he would have to walk? How bitter the struggle for desperate mind over failing flesh? His landlady would have gone flounder trampling when she was a lassie, kilting her skirts up and wading out into the firth, feeling for the fishes with her toes. Did he feel the Solway flounders slithering away beneath his unsteady feet? It was his last chance of a cure and he was full of fear. Fear for his wife who was heavily pregnant. Fear of debt. Fear of death.

Nearby is the village of Ruthwell. In the church, there is an Anglo Saxon Cross. It is so tall that the floor has been dug out to make room for it. Because it was judged an idolatrous monument with its intricate carving, its runic inscriptions, which must have seemed suspiciously pagan, it was smashed into pieces on the orders of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. That was in 1664, but it lay where it fell for many years and the good folk of Ruthwell used the stone blocks as benches to sit upon, while they yawned their way through interminable sermons. They had to destroy it where it stood, because the cross was there long before the kirk, which was built around it, an irony which seems to have been lost on these stone killers, as they were sometimes called. They would light fires beneath the stone and pour cold water on the cracks until they split apart.

Later the pieces were removed into the churchyard, which was where the poet may have seen them. In 1818, one Henry Duncan gathered the fragments together and restored the whole. The runes are a quotation from a powerful Anglo Saxon poem called The Dream of the Rood. It is a poem in two voices – the dreamer who relates his dream and the voice of the cross itself, telling how he – or perhaps she, for there is a certain sexual element in the poem - was cut down in the forest, how the young hero was sacrificed, struggling in blood and pain upon the body of the tree, both of them victims of a savage betrayal. Rod wæs ic aræred. Ahof ic ricne cyning. A cross I was raised. I lifted the mighty king on high. The poet’s voice calls to us down the years but only if we are willing to listen.

The seawater would have done some good only in that it numbed the pain. In July at Brow Well on the Solway, you can still hear how the laverocks climb to the very edges of sound while at his feet there would be the silvery meander of a burn finally finally

It would have been his last chance. 

He had been a week at the salt water and had secret fears that this business would be dangerous if not fatal. No flesh or fish could he swallow. Porridge and milk and porter were the only things he could taste. And how could he attempt horseriding, which the doctors had also ordered, when he could not so much as drag himself up into the saddle?

‘God help my wife and children if I am taken from their head with Jean eight months gone’ he wrote. He sent letters to his father-in-law, James Armour, begging him to ask Jean’s mother come to Dumfries, but Mary Armour was visiting relatives in Fife and there was only silence from Mauchline. His correspondence reeks of desperation.

From the middle of the month, the tides were unsuitable for bathing, so he went home, borrowing a gig from a farmer named John Clark, in Locharwoods. When he got back to Dumfries, he was too weak to walk up the Mill Vennel, let alone climb the stairs to his bed. 

Poor Burns had almost run his course. Still, he must struggle with the stream, till some chopping squall overset the silly vessel at last. Love swells like the Solway but ebbs like the tide. Life too. And all the sweet waters flowing by, the bonnie banks and green braes, all the soft flesh, pressed close, all these things come only to love and he was a poet who wrote of love.

It is not hard to see these things, here at Brow Well, on the Solway. He walks to the sea, and comes to the edge of the land and almost falls into a great mass of thrift, clumps of pink, fringing the shore like some wild garden. But it is already dying. You can picture him. You can see him in your mind's eye, as he goes struggling and staggering and wading through the water. It is July. The wind blows unhindered across the mudflats.

You come to the edge of the land. The thrift fringes the shore like some wild garden. But it is already fading to brown. When the wind blows through the flowers , they tremble, with a dry, feathery sound. You walk to the sea and there are laverocks singing. Who knows where sky ends and sea begins or where sea dissolves into sand? This is a place of endings, a place of infinities. He, who always sang of rivers and streams, is coming, at last, to the sea.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean

You can buy a copy of the Jewel here

The Jewel - Some Discussion Questions about Jean Armour and Robert Burns

With the anniversary of the poet's death coming up on 21st July, I've been thinking about some discussion prompts and questions for book  or reading groups. I know that many of my friends have been taking part in online discussion groups during lockdown, and I think it's possible that people in particular may decide to carry on with at least some of these get-togethers in the 'new normal' - even though nothing quite beats personal interaction and debate.

Anyway, here are a few questions that you might like to ponder, either for a group discussion, or even if you want to think about what you've read and perhaps do your own research in the future.

1 In her 1930 biographical novel about Burns, Catherine Carswell described Jean as a ‘homely and hearty' and 'a heifer’. Do you think she was right? How did your view of Jean (if you had one) change as you read the novel?

2 Why do you think that a pregnant Jean felt that she must go to Paisley when her parents forced her? What was it like for women at the time? What kind of resources would she have had?

3 Why do you think Burns got so very angry with Jean for her supposed ‘betrayal’ of him. What does that tell us about his feelings for her and his mental state at the time?

4 The so called ‘horse litter scene’ is very controversial now, especially given that Burns wrote about it quite graphically to a male friend afterwards. It was very hard to tackle in the book. What did you feel about it, and were you able to imagine yourself back to that time? Did you believe his subsequent bragging, or do you think he was feeling guilty about it and trying to justify himself?

5 The poet was, by all accounts, a ‘hands on’ and loving father. It is clear that a great many babies in rural Scotland were born out of wedlock at that time, and that the Kirk’s main aim was to get fathers to acknowledge and support their babies – a kind of social control that was actually quite good for mothers and children. Why do you think all this changed during the Industrial Revolution, so that for working women, pregnancy outside marriage was seen as disastrous?

6 When the Mauchline minister ‘Daddie Auld’ wrote that it is ‘aye the poor who maintain the poor in this parish’ what do you think he meant? What does it tell us about him? What do you think the author felt about him?

7 Highland Mary was much lauded by the Victorians. Why? Some of this still spills over into the present day, yet the evidence is that she wasn’t quite as saintly as later commentators and the poet himself made her out to be. What was it that was so appealing about her?

8 How do you think Jean contributed to Burns’s work, and do you feel this comes over in the book?

9 Did you get angry with Burns while reading the novel, or did you manage to maintain a soft spot for him? Did you understand why Jean fell for him? Do you think that if you were an 18th century woman, you would have felt the same? Were you aware of his charm across all these years?

10 Jean continued to lead a very full and contented life for many years after the poet’s death. She even had tea with Clarinda. She had several offers of marriage. Why do you think she turned them all down?

You can buy a copy of The Jewel here.

Willie's Mill, at Tarbolton, where Jean spent part of her second pregnancy.

Bird of Passage, A Labour of Love, Shame and Sympathy

My novel Bird of Passage is on special offer on Kindle this week. It's a big, chunky read, and it's going cheap, so it will see you through a few more days of lockdown!

When I was posting about this on Facebook recently, various people told me how much they love this book. The group included a professor of English Literature, which should tell me something. Not least that I have some lovely discerning friends. 

Somebody asked me if I thought that the potentially controversial subject matter had put publishers off since this is a book that has never been traditionally published. Well it could be so but the truth is that I've found it almost impossible to get publishers to read it. And that's in spite of many of my books being traditionally published by publishers I like and respect. So it hasn't been rejected for any intrinsic faults. It has just, somehow, along with another novel called The Amber Heart that I've been editing during lockdown, slipped through the net.  

I'm never sure why. One of the problems may not lie in the controversial nature of the subject matter but in the fact that it is a kind of 'homage' to Wuthering Heights, which I love, albeit with a (fictional) Scottish island setting. This seems to be problematic, perhaps because people think it's a retelling, when it's not. How would I dare? But it certainly is, as one reviewer says, a re-imagining of the novel in a modern setting. The novel explores the terrible effects of institutional childhood abuse; it is about what people have to do to survive, and how that in turn affects those around them. It is also an exploration of the destructive nature of obsessive love. 

The background to Bird of Passage involves an issue or indeed a set of issues that are difficult to write about, problematic, sickening and to some extent neglected or even suppressed. My second major professional stage play, Wormwood, was a piece of ‘issue based’ drama so I know all about the problems and pitfalls. I’ve even run workshops on it for the Traverse in Edinburgh. 

But Bird of Passage is – and feels – very different.

A lot has been written about the notorious Magdalene Laundries but not so much about the Industrial Schools to which youngsters were committed by the Irish state over a long period of time and – it has to be said – long after the UK had decided that treating vulnerable children in this way was a Bad Thing. The schools were run by religious organisations, and there was a capitation payment: a sum of money for each child removed from an ‘unsatisfactory’ parent or guardian and incarcerated.

These were vulnerable children, treated as young criminals. Sometimes they were the sons and daughters of the women sent to those Magdalene Laundries on the flimsiest of accusations. They might be orphans. Or seen to be 'out of control’ (which could cover a multitude of small crimes). Or just plain poor. Single parents and their offspring seem to have been fair game.

Once they hit sixteen, of course, the payments stopped, so they were effectively shown the door. But even then they were not free. Thoroughly institutionalised, they would be sent to work on farms for low pay, under the impression that they must stay where they were sent. In some cases, the police were alleged to have conspired in this belief, returning escapees to the forced labour they were trying to escape. Eventually they would realise that they were free to go.

Industrial schools continued in Ireland until the 1970s.

The extreme physical abuse was at least as appalling as the sexual abuse but really it was all part of a regime of unrelenting cruelty and almost unbelievable sadism. One of the survivors has pointed out that it was the absolute randomness of the physical cruelty that was so horrific. There was seldom any connection between the beatings and any misdemeanour. All of this is documented in various accounts as the survivors, even now, struggle to be heard and struggle for redress - although as I say, it's not widely publicised.

Some of them, unsurprisingly, turned to alcohol to drown out the pain. Some survived and made a good life for themselves against all the odds. Some – with few skills, because the ‘schools’ provided little in the way of real education – came to mainland Britain and worked as unskilled labourers until they grew too old and too troubled to function properly.

In Bird of Passage, Finn and his friend Francis are placed in the Industrial School system in 1960s Ireland. In the way of characters – well, the characters I write about – Finn and Francis took shape and form as I wrote. I didn’t set out to ‘make’ them victims of a regime of appalling cruelty so much as discover the truth about them. It seemed like a process of interrogation. Why were they as they were? Eventually they told me.

I read a number of accounts of the experiences of boys and girls in these 'schools' that were more like prisons and was moved to tears by them. I hope some of that horror and pity found its way into the novel. Of course, the novel is about much more (and also much less) than that. It’s a love story of a kind. It’s a story of obsession and damage and the destructive power of passion.

But the background is so appalling that I find it hard to write about it in any kind of promotion for the novel. It’s as though the fact that it is 'interesting' in the sense that these things should be known and discussed and brought out into the light of day feels somehow shameful. I’m invariably seized with a feeling akin to embarrassment. Within the novel – that’s one thing. It seemed all right and even desirable to write about it there. I have an Irish background on my mother's side, and have written about the truth of that elsewhere. The characters felt real, and I felt the most profound sympathy for them as I wrote about them. Finn's story moves me - as I hope it moves the reader.

It’s when it comes to writing about the story that I shy away from saying too much. Perhaps it isn’t my story to tell. But then, there’s a part of me that knows these stories must and should be told. And sometimes writers have to try to speak for those who don’t always have a voice.

Beware of Advice

From Wormwood, about Chernobyl, at the Traverse, 1979

While chatting on a professional Zoom meeting the other day, I found myself suddenly articulating something that has been growing on me for a number of years.

Looking back over a long switchback of a career as a novelist, non-fiction writer and playwright, I can now see that almost every piece of advice I've been given about what to write and how to write it has been wrong.

Let me clarify. I don't mean editing. In particular, I don't mean the intense editing that looks at style and structure. As a playwright and prose writer, I've had some wonderful directors, publishers and editors. (I've had a few appalling experiences too, but that's another story!)

We all need a fresh eye when we are too close to a project to see the wood for the trees. But the best of them shared a quality in common.

None of them told me exactly what to do.

Instead, they asked a series of tricky questions. They invariably honed in on aspects of a project where I felt uneasily that something wasn't right. 'What did you mean by this?' they would ask. And 'Can you clarify here?' and 'This seems somehow clumsy' and 'Can you look again at the structure here?'

In addressing these issues I always felt that I had made the piece of work better and I was grateful to them.

I don't mean practical advice either. We need to know about being self employed, using business bank accounts, budgeting, sorting out our taxes and a hundred other things.

So what kind of advice do I mean?

I mean advice about what to write. What to do and what not to do with that writing. How to shape a career. The sad thing is that writing is a lonely job. So we crave help and advice. I'm craving it now. We never learn. We expect too much. As William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade,  'Nobody knows anything.'

Many years ago, I had some success in a particular area of writing with what turned out to be a groundbreaking piece of work. And on the strength of it, I was approached by somebody in a related field, who wanted me to pick up that piece of work and run with it. Hesitant, suffering from imposter syndrome, I consulted a more senior colleague, who told me that it wasn't a good idea, pointing out all the drawbacks.

I took the advice and turned down the proposal. In retrospect, I can see that turning it down was entirely the wrong decision for me at that time. I was just too young and too easily swayed to see it.

I can think of many other occasions where professional people have confidently told me that 'nobody wants' this or that subject or theme or medium. They turned out to be not just wrong for me, but wrong in general too.

One of the very best things about the late, much missed David McLennan when he ran his A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor - and for whom I wrote three plays - was the way he responded to so many ideas with cheerful positivity. He would point out that success would be great, but failure would be OK too.

It was the trying, the experimenting, the exploration that mattered.