Loving Ayrshire


It's no secret that I love Ayrshire. We moved from Leeds, years ago, when I was twelve, and my biochemist father got a job in a research institute here. I never enjoyed school much, even though I did quite well academically - but I adored the countryside and history of this lush, green and, let's face it, rainy county. If you can put up with the rain, it's considerably warmer than the rest of Scotland, and warmer than much of Northern England. Winters are much milder than in my native Leeds. 

Holidaymakers tend to pass it by in the mad rush for the Highlands, but the scenery is spectacular and the history is fascinating. Not surprisingly then, it has featured in at least some of my fiction, in novels such as The Jewel and Ice Dancing, as well as in many of the radio plays I used to write, notably a couple of series: The Peggers and the Creelers and Running Before the Wind. I'm planning a new series of novels even as I write this, and guess where they are mostly going to be set? 

I was happy to be asked to record a reading for this year's Tidelines Festival and chose a passage from the Jewel, about an early encounter between our very own Robert Burns and the woman who was destined to become his wife, and who was quite clearly the love of his life: Jean Armour. I didn't much want to record myself just sitting on a rock reading and my tech skills weren't up to recording myself walking and reading on a smartphone - so I included a sheaf of my own pictures of Ayrshire, as well as some lovely watercolour images from a Victorian artist called Janet Muir, who lived in Mauchline. Nice to see that the person putting the video together worked a bit of magic on them all. 

Anyway - here it is. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and watch the whole Love Ayrshire video. You'll find me, and a sheaf of other Ayrshire writers too. 

Superior Spoilsports and Rotten Reviews

Straight from the horse's mouth! 

Way back in the days when newspapers had reasonable circulations, and therefore paid - albeit not much - for reviews, I used to do some professional reviewing. It was never really my thing, and I mostly did it for the money. Like all writers, we do what we can to survive. Sometimes I enjoyed it, and sometimes I didn't. I always took time and trouble with my reviews. 

Once or twice, I'm sorry to say, I indulged in what I now think were fairly   mean spirited reviews of books I hadn't liked. I cringe now, when I think   of it and I'm sorry about it. My excuse is that I was young, and hadn't had   my fair share of mean spirited reviews myself!

 I still, occasionally, review a book on Amazon, but only if I've liked it or   at the very least appreciated something about it. Then, I can   honestly say nice things about it. The better the book, the more I enjoy trying to   analyse why I've liked it so much. If I've hated it, or read 50 pages on   my Kindle and asked for my money back - as I've done a few times - I   won't review it at all, even though I will be pretty certain about   why I've   disliked it. 

We all get bad reviews from time to time. Sadly, a single bad review will stick in our minds and keep us awake being indignant for far longer than ten good ones. I don't mean mixed reviews, or thoughtful reviews that analyse a piece of work on its own terms. Those can be incredibly helpful. It means somebody is taking us seriously, debating with the piece of work, if you like. But they don't have to like everything about it. 

I mean those one star, bald and bold 'I hated this' kind of reviews that you look at and wonder if they've actually read the book, or seen the play or film. 

One of the wisest things somebody wrote about these occasional terrible reviews was to try not to take them to heart, but to simply imagine yourself saying to the reviewer, preferably with a shrug, 'then it's not for you. And that's fine.' And then mentally walk away.

You have to practise doing it, but honestly, it works.

Social media, however, seems to have encouraged the phenomenon of the superior spoilsport, especially where a popular book or film or TV show is concerned.

Here's how it goes. 

A group of people will be on, say, Facebook, happily discussing something they've enjoyed. Let's avoid getting embroiled in book critiques by using an example from the world of music. I've seen it happening twice recently, once with Abba and once with the Beatles. In both cases, people were having a good time sharing what these bands and their music meant to them, debating songs and memories, disagreeing a little, but enjoying the chat no end. 

And then along comes somebody who posts 'I hate Abba.' Or 'The Beatles were rubbish.' 

I wouldn't mind if they ever gave a valid reason why they think this. But they hardly ever do. I can give you dozens of reasons why I love the Beatles, and Abba too. Some of them are extremely personal, but some of them are to do with my appreciation of the music itself. If you try to pin them down, ask them why they think this - which they're perfectly entitled to do - they just dig their heels in. 'I hate them because they're rubbish' they say. Which doesn't make a lot of sense. 

There have been a couple of widely praised TV shows that I've disliked recently, but I know why, would be happy to say so, and equally happy to acknowledge that this may be down to me, and not necessarily a fault of the programme itself, which I know other people have enjoyed. If pushed, I could analyse this further, point out faults in the writing and direction. But in my experience, you can forgive a whole lot of faults if you find something entertaining. 

I've encountered the spoilsports so often now, that I'm forced to the conclusion that there's a kind of superiority about it. They don't ever want to be seen appreciating something that lots of other people like. So they'll pretend that they, and only they can see through it. 

They are spoilsports. What I really want to say to them is just leave us to our enjoyment. It's not for you, and that's fine. But you don't have to be here right now, telling us how much you loathe the thing we love. We don't care. It's not going to change our opinion.

So just for once, go play on your own page, write an online one star review if you like -but leave us alone to wallow in our fandom.  

Agents and Publishing - Some Further Thoughts

That last post about my disappearing agents was so popular, that I thought a few more random reflections  might be helpful. 

1: I would never want to deter new writers from going down the traditional route, or trying to. Once you've got a good portfolio of work under your belt, there's no harm in sending out query letters if that's what you want to do. Just don't be persuaded that an agent is the only way to publication. I've known people with fantastic agents, who have been instrumental in their success. I've known people who have got onboard with agents in the wake of success. And I've known plenty of people who have secured the services of an agent, only to realise that they spend too much time writing to the demands of their agent, who is often looking to predicate the next big success in terms of the last big success.

2: In the interests of balance, remember that agents and publishers all get horrible submissions all the time. Not just bad writing, but badly presented bad writing. Cobwebby documents that have sat in folders for years. Manuscripts printed out on two sides of pink paper, with single line spacing and coffee rings all over them. Entitled authors who want an immediate response and don't like it when they get it. So DO have a little patience and respect and - above all things - professionalism. 

3: Back when I was starting out on this long hard road, a good agent didn't expect to edit. That was the job of the publisher. If the manuscript was good enough, then the donkey work would be done between writer and publisher's editor, with some payment changing hands in advance, facilitated by the agent. This is not the way it works now. 

4: Now, the publisher expects the agent to submit an 'oven ready product' so in general, your agent is going to keep telling you to go back to the drawing board, in an effort to second guess the publisher and the 'market'. But those requirements will change over the course of the time it takes you to do rewrites. Also, many big publishers seem to have an informal 'three strikes and you're out' policy, so if an agent has three (possibly fewer now) projects by the same author turned down, they won't look at a fourth. To prevent this, the agent may keep sending you back to the drawing board. And this may mean that you finish up with several projects that you like and can self publish. (Like the nicely reviewed Ice Dancing above!) On the other hand, it can mean that you get stuck rewriting the same book over and over again. 

5: Finally, read Stephen King's On Writing. Best 'how to' book ever, although it's more of a memoir than anything else. Briefly, his advice is to read a lot and write a lot. I couldn't agree more. 

Disappearing Agents

'Just an old man, telling his story.'

As I've posted on here before, I've given up looking for an agent. I've done better without one over the past decade or more since last I had one. Although if somebody came along asking if they might try to sell my foreign and/or translation rights for me, I'd give it a go. 

It pains me when I see writers just starting out on their careers, firmly believing that once they've secured an agent, success will be practically guaranteed. The only people I know who continue to propagate this myth are agents. And in the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies, they would, wouldn't they? 

However, a recent online conversation with a friend prompted me to remember my 'disappearing agents'. Because I had three of them. I had more agents than that, and a couple of them were good. But I changed what and how I wrote over a long career, which meant that a change of agent wasn't entirely out of the question. 

Disappearing Agent Number One

My first disappearing agent head-hunted me from a previous agency, by promising me the earth. Actually, not quite the earth. But she did promise to kick start my career as a playwright all over again. I was doing rather well with stage plays at the time and with some television and plenty of radio thrown in for good measure. My previous agent, although very efficient in terms of increasing my rates of pay, was London based (as are most agencies). This new one had travelled from London to open an office in Glasgow, and promised to liaise with various theatres south of the border, facilitate introductions, find opportunities and so on. 

I liked my previous agent a lot, but the relationship seemed to have grown a bit stale. I think the tipping point was when I spent the best part of a year working on a proposal for and with a large Scottish media company, only to have them reject the project entirely. This wasn't an unsolicited submission. I had worked for them before, they had expressed interest in it, and had me working with a (paid) script editor for months on end. But they had paid me no development money at all, not a bean, and no kill fee either. It struck me quite forcefully that a new agent might at least widen my horizons. So I left my old agent, amicably enough, and waited.

She disappeared. So did the office. She wrote to me later to apologise. I sometimes think I have had more apologies for incompetence than rejection slips.

Disappearing Agent Number Two 

This involves a situation far too complicated and boring to go into in a blog post. In short, there was a great schism in the agenting world and a plaintive request to stick with her personally as she moved on. So I did. Unfortunately, within months, her situation changed to the extent that she inherited a number of starry (and lucrative) clients and guess who fell off the bottom of her list? My last submission to her was The Physic Garden, which an intern read and dismissed out of hand as 'just an old man, telling his story'. After that, as the saying goes here in Scotland, my bum was well and truly 'oot the windae'. 

Disappearing Agent Number Three

This one really did disappear. I signed up to a reputable small agency where he worked, only to have him leave to set up on his own account within the year. Nobody asked me if I wanted to leave with him. They just assumed I would. Eventually, he set up an office in Glasgow (Is Glasgow a sort of black hole for agencies, I wonder?) and I went along to a laughably named launch event, which involved a plastic cup of warm white wine in a chaotic little room, with one other person. Soon after that, he went completely incommunicado. There was no response to phonecalls or emails. Since the office was part of a complex of offices for rent, I eventually managed to call the main desk where somebody confirmed that nobody had been in for weeks, and the mail was piling up. I still have no idea what became of him. 

Going It Alone

After that, I decided to go it alone, and guess what? With a mixture of traditional and self publishing, I started to do rather well. The excellent Saraband published the 'old man telling his story' aka the Physic Garden, and went on to publish more of my fiction and non-fiction. 

Surprisingly enough, I have very occasionally thought it might be nice to have an agent. I even went so far as to send a couple of query letters. I got one or two nibbles, but nothing more. I'm too old for them now - they don't think they'll make enough money out of me and that's understandable. But in any case, perhaps because I am so much older and wiser, I'd want a different kind of relationship. A business partnership which doesn't cast me in the role of humble supplicant. Which is why I still think it might be good to find somebody who would undertake the specialised business of trying to sell the foreign and translation rights to the work I already have out there. I'm not holding my breath. 

Finally - why am I writing this? 

I remember chatting to another client of one of these disappearing agents, a new, young writer, whose hopes had been raised by all the promises, only to have them dashed by the grim reality. What really bugged me was that she was strung along for a couple of years. I was in touch with her and advised her to cut her losses, send a formal letter dispensing with the agent's (non existent) services,  and get on with writing something new. I don't know if she ever did it, but I do remember her disappointment. I was fine. I had a body of work, and options. But she had been counting on promises that were never going to be fulfilled. 

I only hope she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and carried on writing. 

Vegetables No More


One of my very few successes.

Anyone who has followed this blog in its various incarnations over the years will know that I'm quite a keen gardener, albeit not so keen that my garden could ever be described as 'manicured'. It's a nice old cottage garden, with lots of wildlife. I don't use sprays and pesticides, I tend to let things grow more than they should, and there's plenty of cover for the forty or so sparrows, among many other birds, beasts and insects that call this place their home.

This year, inspired partly by friends proudly displaying all their sumptuous home grown produce on Facebook, and partly by the likelihood of Brexit related food shortages (I'll say the bloody B word, even if the wretched BBC won't) we thought we would grow some veg this year. 

It hasn't been what you would call an unqualified success.

Crunch time came at the weekend, when we dug up two potato pots and harvested what looked like a pretty good crop of nice pink potatoes. Reader, I cleaned them and cooked them. What emerged was a large pan containing a small amount of wallpaper paste, in which were floating a few pieces of tough skin. I cried out of pure rage and frustration. 

There are times, plenty of them these days, when I wish I was Deborah Meaden. Quite apart from the fact that she always comes across as such a lovely lady, I remember her saying that she 'never cooks'. I too would love to be somebody who never cooks. A little light baking would be nice but that's all. 

Back to the veg. The garden is organised to make it easier to look after. We're neither of us getting any younger, or any richer, we're still working more or less full time and Alan's severe mobility problems make it all a challenge. So I thought I'd try growing vegetables, salad stuff etc in containers. We had plenty of good rich compost from the compost heap at the bottom of the garden.

It started off pretty well: tatties, spinach, chard, runner beans, courgettes, dill, salad leaves and, indoors, chilis and aubergines. The young spinach and salad leaves (especially something called senape) were very nice for about three weeks. The dill was good too and it's still growing out there. I've been using it all summer on the excellent Ayrshire tatties bought in one of our local farm shops, about a hundred yards along the road from there they grow them. We have mint and thyme and chives too. I'm actually quite good with herbs. 

I'm not so good with vegetables.

I've had three courgettes of which one was so small that it hardly counted. Lots of flowers, no courgettes. The beans got eaten, but not by me. The field mice got to a lot of the young plants in the cold frame, before ever they could be planted out. The chard bolted before it really looked like chard. The compost turned out to have a lot of weed seeds in it, so I've lost count of the number of nettle stings I've had from pulling out young nettles while trying to get at the spinach and salad. And if anyone tells you young nettle leaves don't sting, they're havering. As you can see from the picture, I have more chilis than any human being would use, or want to freeze, so I'll give many of them away. I also have two, count them, two tiny aubergines. 

Do not ask about tomatoes. We used to try to grow tomatoes until a couple of years ago when a nunber of lovingly tended, fed and watered plants yielded two tiny tomatoes. 

As a consolation prize, the old apple tree at the bottom of the garden is having a very good year, so there will be lots of apples, and a few apple pies and crumbles if I can bring myself to make them. 

As for the potatoes: well  after I had drained the pan, fished out the bits of skin and added a large quantity of butter to the miniscule amount of tasteless paste that remained, Alan said it was OK. I ate a few oven chips instead. 

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Two tiny aubergines

Identity Crisis

It was the Facebook ad for the supplements company that started it.

It bugged me all the following week. Which is why I'm writing about it. I suppose that's what writers always do. Try to get some perspective on disturbing things by writing about them. 

I thought at first glance that it was a spoof. It consisted of a Union flag, accompanied by a cartoon British Bulldog.  And essentially, it was advertising 'British supplements' made without all those 'nasty' foreign additives, of which it included a full list, most of which were harmless components of various herbal supplements. It only just stopped short of telling us that foreign supplements were (as my nana used to tell me about chewing gum, in an effort to deter me from wanting it) made of monkey bones. 

It had to be a spoof, hadn't it? 

Sadly, it wasn't. It was a jingoistic little ad from a jingoistic little country, and the comments were full of jingoistic little people saying how wonderful it was to have these unpolluted British supplements. It's out there, and I'm not going to link to it. Its strapline, unpolluted by commas, is 'clean strong no nasties'. It aims to promote 'British values' but it wants to 'open up a manufacturing branch in the USA'! 

This has been fermenting away in my mind, coupled with all those headlines about the EU supposedly 'blockading' poor little Britain, when in fact it's just about to enforce rules for non EU members that we helped to formulate back in those good old days when we were still in the club. The only country that might have been blockaded was Ireland, by England, but having bought some nice new ferries from Korea and opened up new routes, Ireland is doing just fine. 

Today, I saw a bunch of older people, on a Facebook group, making nasty, mean spirited, jingoistic comments about refugees from Afghanistan. It reminded me of those people who used to tell my mum that the 'Poles should go back where they came from', right after she had married my Polish refugee dad. 

The sad fact is that I'm a mongrel, a citizen of nowhere, and since 2016, although I was born in England, I've hardly felt British at all. I've lived in Scotland on and off since I was twelve and love this country very much. It's been good to me as it was good to my dear dad. Even now, people who used to know him will be at pains to tell me how much they liked him and, in some cases, how much he changed their lives for the better. 

But from time to time, I still feel like a foreigner here. More and more often, these days. And when I do, I find myself wondering if my dad felt the same - sometimes, often, never? He never spoke about it. I wish I could ask him now, when everything I thought I knew and felt about this disunited kingdom is open to question. 

Artwork: Free to a Good Home. (Or Else ...)


My husband, Alan Lees, painted this extraordinary crucifixion scene a few years ago. It's huge and heavy and the frame is hand made of Scottish driftwood. He titled it 'the Execution' and by any standards, it is an amazing piece of work.

He is now talking about chopping it up for firewood. He means it. 

It has been in his studio for so long, and is simply taking up too much space. Dear reader, we have tried to find a good home for it, and so far, we have been unsuccessful. 

The truth is that it took some six months to paint, but now, he would either be willing to accept any reasonable offer for it, or simply to give it away to a good home, a church, a religious foundation or similar. The only proviso is that the recipient has to be able to pick it up themselves. It is large and heavy, but it would fit into the back of a biggish hatchback, the kind of vehicle where you can tip the back seats down. Or a small van. By the same token, we can't parcel it up for sending overseas. If you or your organisation wants to do that, then it's down to you to arrange it. 

But if you'd like to save the picture, it would surely be a small price to pay. 

A couple of years ago we offered it to Christian Aid. They said they would look into it - but they can't have looked very hard, since nobody got back to us. 

Now, Alan has given it till Christmas. Then he'll get the axe out. He is, I have to say, perfectly capable of destroying this. More likely (if we twist his arm because it seems such a shame) is that he may just paint over it. Either way, a somewhat stunning piece of art will be gone, through sheer lack of interest. 

Is there anyone out there who can help?