How Not To Be A Writer - Part Three: University

 


When I was seventeen, I headed off to Edinburgh University to study English Language and Literature, one of only two people from my school to go there, as far as I remember - and given that the other girl was on a completely different course, we never saw each other. 

I loved the university and the city, made some lifelong friends, and started to take my writing a lot more seriously. I was mostly focused on poetry back then, something I had written on and off since my early teens. This was when I began to submit to various magazines, take part in public readings and generally mix with other young poets who were just starting out on the long long road to penury. That's me in the picture, long hair, long skirts and - although you can't see it - a bell around my neck. 

After the first few spells of winter depression and homesickness, it was a happy time for me. I remember my dear mum coming to visit me and watching the students in their army surplus uniforms or smelly afghan coats with a mixture of astonishment and admiration. She was a talented seamstress and made me maxi dresses and a 'Lara' coat, in black wool, with fur around neck and cuffs, clothes I would never otherwise have been able to afford. We were a lucky generation. We didn't realise just how lucky. Took it for granted that our fees would be paid, that we would get grants to live on, frugally for sure, but that was fine - and accommodation would be available. 

In my Honours years, when I was specialising in Mediaeval Studies, three of us shared a big, beautiful, shabby and impossibly chilly flat in Great King Street, the heart of the New Town. Henderson's where we bought our wholemeal loaves or went downstairs to drink coffee and eat a fantastic concoction of fruit salad, Greek yoghurt and ginger, (the old hippyish restaurant and shop in Hanover Street, not the new terribly posh incarnation) was nearby. The Laigh Bakehouse owned by a waspish retired actor called Moultrie Kelsall, where we bought cakes, coming home in the early hours of the morning, was just around the corner. 

None except wealthy students would be able to afford this area now, but it was inexpensive, albeit spartan. The elderly landlord and his scary wife, all red nails and lipstick, would visit occasionally to check that we weren't ruining the place. We had to put shillings in the meter for heating and lighting and the payphone on the landing was extortionate. Mobiles weren't a thing. We had no television and didn't miss it. Nobody ever had a car.

I read my poems at a couple of big, well attended poetry festivals at the university, festivals that I had helped to organise, as well as at the Traverse, before it too became serious and posh. I had poems published in various literary magazines, in a little collection called Seven New Voices and in a joint collection with Andy Greig, called White Boats. I did a bit of reviewing for a few magazines. I earned almost nothing. 

Then, I had a story called Catch Two published in glossy She Magazine. It was a strange little tale about two people trapped in a lift and it earned me the unheard of sum of £10. I had been in the habit of drawing out £5 a week for general expenses so it seemed like a fortune. 

After graduation, I stayed on for a year with my flatmates, working part time in a small art gallery in Rose Street to pay the rent and to buy time to write. And at some point, I wrote to and managed to arrange a meeting with a Scottish Radio Drama producer called Gordon Emslie. I had been writing radio drama speculatively for years. All those periods of illness with books and radio drama for company had borne a certain amount of fruit. Gordon seemed to think so too.

He was kind, encouraging and above all a talented radio producer. Back then, if a producer was prepared to mentor a writer, give them the benefit of his or her experience, and if the aspiring writer was prepared to put in the work, a small production was more or less guaranteed. Radio Scotland had an actual drama department that produced and broadcast actual Scottish plays to actual Scottish audiences. Later, London would introduce something called 'producer choice.' In true BBC doublespeak, this meant that the producer would have no choice at all, unless London agreed. But that's for another, sadder chapter. 

Meanwhile, I was happy. I was earning just about enough to live on in a city of great beauty, I had an entertaining social life, I had good friends, and I was learning about the joys of a medium like no other. 


.

Old Titles, New eBooks, Gorgeous New Covers

 



Late last year, I received some welcome rights reversions from my publisher, Saraband, mostly of my fiction titles. At present, The Physic Garden, The Curiosity Cabinet and The Posy Ring are reverted in all formats, with the Jewel only reverted in eBook form. Saraband still has my two non-fiction titles, A Proper Person to be Detained and The Last Lancer, as well as the Jewel in paperback. However, these things take time, as you can imagine, while the publisher runs down previous stock as far as possible, so with the exception of The Posy Ring, the paperbacks are still available in their previous incarnation.

Over the past few years, I've published a number of  my older fiction titles under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, so - among other things - I'm hoping to re-release all my reverted novels under the same Dyrock imprint before the end of the year. 

For now, I've published the above named four novels in eBook form, on Amazon, with the excellent assistance of Lumphanan Press in Aberdeenshire. I know this is something you may be able to do yourself - but like everything else in this world, it makes sense to use a skilled professional when you can. 

Although Saraband has kindly allowed me to use the old covers, it struck me that, for a couple of the novels at least, I wanted a change. It also struck me that The Posy Ring  - if not exactly a sequel to The Curiosity Cabinet - is certainly a companion novel, inhabiting the same small island world, with a similar structure, and with some of the same characters. I needed to 'brand' them together. 

Enter a Polish photographer friend called Michał Piasecki. This is one talented family! His wife, Iwona, had been incredibly generous and helpful with my research for The Last Lancer, doing some sensitive translation of family documents and letters, but she's a talented artist as well. Their son, Tom, drafted out complicated family trees for me, for the same book. When publication day came around last year, a dreich February day with no acknowledgment of the occasion, except from my lovely husband, not so much as a 'well done' postcard from anywhere else, Iwona and Michał arrived at the door with flowers and chocolates and we opened a bottle of 'bubbles' and had our own Polish celebration. 

Michał has his own Facebook page as Keen Photographer, and I had noticed how skilful and imaginative his landscape and night sky photographs were, but also realised just how good they might be as book covers. 

Here are two of them - perfect for pairing two titles that belong together. Read The Curiosity Cabinet first, and move on to The Posy Ring, to see what happens to some of the characters next, and to meet a whole new set of people. I love both these images, and for me, they seem to reflect something of the quality of both novels: dual time novels, where nobody goes back in time, but where in some strange way, the present reflects the past within this small Scottish island world. 

Michał created the perfect magical images, while Duncan at Lumphanan made them into gorgeous covers. 

We're not done yet. I'm about to publish a collection of my own poetry, Midnight Sun, spanning many years. This will be in paperback form with another Piasecki cover image. (I began my writing career as a poet, and carried on, intermittently, writing poetry.) And a little later this year, I'll be changing the cover of an older novel, using another perfect landscape image by Michał - just because I couldn't resist it. More as and when it happens! 






Was Heathcliff Irish? (And a Happy St Patrick's Day to you all!)

 




I've been re-reading my own book: A Proper Person to be Detained. Writers sometimes do this out of a certain curiosity, wondering how on earth we managed it. But in this case, it's because I've started thinking about a future fiction project and I wanted to check over some details about a particular story of which more later this year. 

Among extensive research for this book, I'd been investigating Victorian attitudes to insanity - how it was seen as a moral failing,and how disproportionate numbers of Irish women were placed in British asylums. In the course of that research, however, I came across another fascinating possibility and today - St Patrick's Day - seems like an appropriate day for blogging about it.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to give you an abridged extract from my own book. It had struck me forcibly that the Brontë sisters, Charlotte and Emily, displayed very different attitudes to insanity in their fiction. 

'Charlotte Brontë, in Jane Eyre, displays little sympathy for the plight of the madwoman in the attic, the first Mrs Rochester, but perhaps we can’t expect her to do so, since she would have perceived the lunatic in the contemporary light: a frightening, demonic person. There are hints of a belief in possession, even in the hospital notes of some mental patients at this time ... Charlotte was writing ... just as the asylum population was inexorably on the rise. Any understanding of Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester, was left for the Caribbean-born Jean Rhys, writing in another century and from quite a different perspective, in The Wide Sargasso Sea.

In Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, Emily Brontë’s extraordinary portrayal of what would certainly, in the Victorian era, have amounted to insanity in both Heathcliff and Cathy is at once more impartially, but more sympathetically (because less judgmentally), drawn than her sister’s depiction of Bertha Mason, locked in an attic for ten years by her husband. "Don’t torture me till I’m as mad as yourself," cries Heathcliff, when he sees Cathy for the last time, while sensible but partial Ellen Dean recollects that:

"the two … made a strange and fearful picture. Well might Catherine deem that heaven would be a land of exile to her, unless with her mortal body she cast away her moral character also. Her present countenance had a wild vindictiveness in its white cheek, and a bloodless lip and scintillating eye; and she retained in her closed fingers a portion of the locks she had been grasping. As to her companion, while raising himself with one hand, he had taken her arm with the other; and so inadequate was his stock of gentleness to the requirements of her condition, that on his letting go I saw four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin."

For a less original writer than Emily, both Cathy and Heathcliff would have been 'proper people for detention' in the nearest insane asylum. In a scene that seems to mirror the above, poor, mad Bertha Mason has been reduced to something less than a beast, not just by her sickness, but by her erstwhile lover, her voice turned to animal rantings – and Jane concurs.

"What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours. It snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face."

And a little later:

"the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek …"

Having subdued her ‘convulsive plunges’ by means of a rope, Rochester compares her resentfully to his Jane.

"That is … the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know!" he says. "And this is what I wished to have, this young girl who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell."

Both are fine pieces of writing, but Charlotte’s attitude to the prevailing belief in the moral nature of madness and its treatment seems quite different from her sister’s more nuanced approach, the voice of seeming ‘normality’ in Wuthering Heights always filtered through Ellen Dean, a narrator who is clearly not the author, so that various perspectives can be seen at once: the conventional judgment of Victorian society about morality and the need for control of degeneracy, the lack of self-control that excludes the madwoman from heaven, and the nature of an emotion so elemental that it overrides all other concerns.

And so we come to my original question. Was Heathcliff Irish?  Well, we'll never know - but it's a distinct possibility. 

'It is worth noting here that the Irish background of the Brontës, at a time when the migrant Irish were routinely described as lazy, foolish and filthy in their habits, "but little above the savage", was consistently played down by Charlotte. Yet Patrick Brunty, their father, came from a poor background. He had known prejudice, and the family still contended with fiercely anti-Irish sentiment. 

In Wuthering Heights, Mr Earnshaw’s discovery of Heathcliff, the dark, fey creature abandoned on the streets of Liverpool, babbling in a foreign tongue, may be Emily’s nod to her family’s past, since that city was the port of entry for many of the starving Irish who were so despised by their unwilling hosts, not least because some of them spoke Gaelic.

"We crowded round, and over Miss Cathy’s head I had a peep at a dirty, ragged, black-haired child; big enough both to walk and talk: indeed, its face looked older than Catherine’s; yet when it was set on its feet, it only stared round, and repeated over and over again some gibberish that nobody could understand." 

These Irish incomers, disembarking at Liverpool before moving on to work in mills and foundries, to build roads, to provide the 'hands' for Britain's Industrial Revolution, were some of my own forebears, and some of them would have spoken Gaelic, a language that would all too frequently have been despised as gibberish by their exploitative hosts. 



Top Withens, the site, albeit not the building, of Wuthering Heights.



How Not To Be A Writer - Part Two: School Days

 


Here's me, somewhere in the Galloway Hills, playing at Wuthering Heights. My companion's name was Andy and he was a gem of a dog, a Sheltie Border Collie cross who, fortunately, combined collie intelligence with sheltie good nature. He lived to be eighteen, and was one of the most loveable creatures I've ever known. 

We moved to Ayrshire when I was twelve, and dad - a research scientist by then - got a position at the Hannah Dairy Research Institute just outside Ayr, I spent most of my secondary school years here, first at Queen Margaret's School in Ayr and then travelling to St Michael's in Kilwinning for my two senior years. We spent a little while in 'digs' rented out by a peculiarly unpleasant elderly lady. I had a bedroom, but mum and dad had a sofa bed in the living room. The landlady had to come through this room to get to her kitchen, where she would cook her habitual meals of boiled fish. Looking back, I suppose she was strapped for cash and hated having to rent out rooms, but instead of knocking on the living room door, she would say 'knock knock' and come in. Dad swore that one day he would be stark naked when she did this. Unable to stand the smell of boiled fish any longer, we moved to a small caravan park outside town while my parents waited for completion on a house they were buying off plan. 

I made a couple of friends who lived nearby, which was just as well, because school was a different matter. I was an ungainly adolescent with the wrong accent. Everyone seemed to have known each other for years - which they had. The school had burned down just before we came north (I was yet to become familiar with the West of Scotland habit of burning down schools and any other inconvenient buildings) and half our classes were in portacabins. I didn't know that when the teacher asked a question, you were supposed to shut up and pretend you didn't know the answer. Which made me quite popular with some teachers, but not at all popular with my classmates. I also didn't know that when people asked you which school you went to, they wanted to know if you were a Catholic. All these years later this still happens. The response is always a sort of loaded silence. 

The other shock was how often teachers used the 'tawse' or 'belt' as we called it - a leather strap. I don't think I had ever seen corporal punishment administered till we moved to Scotland. At my primary school, we knew that the formidable head teacher had a cane in her office, and the 'big boys' might be sent there for terrible transgressions. At my girls' secondary school, it wasn't used at all. I recently came across early 20th century instructions from the Education Department in Leeds about the use of corporal punishment that seemed particularly enlightened - to be used sparingly, if at all. 

Nobody had told Scotland. The vast majority of teachers belted pupils every day, sometimes whole classes, and often for the most spurious of reasons, such as wrong answers or lack of understanding. I encountered more sadists in those few years than I've ever encountered since, skipping up and down with glee as they wielded the tawse. It did no good. The lads who were belted most often were proud of themselves, their hands grown horny so that they felt very little. 

I can still remember the awful sensation of approaching breaktimes when we would be turfed out into the playground, and I would either find myself alone or grudgingly absorbed into some group or other. Listen to Janis Ian's 'At Seventeen' and you'll know exactly what I mean, although thankfully, by the time I myself hit seventeen I had escaped to university and a whole new group of genuine friends. Occasionally, talking to people who were my classmates back then, I find that their memories are quite different from mine. They have no memory of the little digs, the jibes, the rolled eyes, the giggles. I was an incomer. Would I have behaved any differently in their shoes? Well, perhaps not. 

Once again, I escaped into my imagination. When we moved to our new house in Castlehill, I would walk out to Burns Cottage on spring and summer Saturdays and daydream about the poet. We were an adventurous little family. Dad had acquired an elderly car by this time, and we drove out into the countryside, went hillwalking, went on camping holidays, visited castles and stone circles and all kinds of places, perfect for feeding the fantasies of somebody like me who still wanted to be a writer. 

I read avidly and I wrote terrible adjective laden poetry and short stories. I was in love with the Beatles, especially John, and wrote fan-fiction before anyone had invented the concept. I discovered Tolkien, via my father, who found old copies of the books in Ayr's Carnegie Library long before they became so popular. I read and loved Alan Garner's novels and wrote a fan-girl letter to him, but made the unforgiveable mistake of mentioning Tolkien which elicited a dusty answer. He didn't like the comparison at all. I was mortified. It didn't quite put me off his books, but it taught me the valuable lesson that not all successful male writers are prepared to be patient with eager aspiring females, even very young ones.

For me, I think it was the beginning of the perception of just how many people will confidently tell you what you ought to be writing and how you ought to do it, although it would be many years and many disasters before I was confident enough to act on that perception. 

We all need to learn. The very best editors - and I've had some - will question you closely about your work. In finding the answers to those often very challenging questions, you'll make the work better - but it will still be yours. The worst editors and directors  - and I've had plenty - will confidently demand the kind of changes they think you ought to make, unaware that they are trying to shape you in their own image, trying to force you to write the book or play they would have written - if they had the time.

Years later, somebody I had worked with on a couple of projects said to me 'you know - you were far too compliant. You should have argued more.' He was right, but why he didn't tell me this at the time I will never know. That's how not to be a writer as well. You learn your craft by reading and writing and polishing over and over again. Not by blindly following advice from people's whose credentials you're unsure of. If you don't believe me, read Stephen King's brilliant On Writing. That's more or less what he says too. 

How Not To Be A Writer - Part One: Childhood

 

Here's me with my plaits. My hair was so long that I could sit on it. Mum plaited it every day - I must have been one of the few kids in my school that didn't get head lice, probably because they couldn't get any purchase on the tight braids. 

I don't remember learning how to read and write. My school was a small Roman Catholic state primary, not particularly close to where we lived in Leeds. There were always books in our house, including a set of old Wonder Books that had belonged to my Aunt Nora, beautifully illustrated extracts from the classics, poems and short stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I loved them, but I don't remember when I moved smoothly from having them read to me (along with little Noddy and The Faraway Tree) and being able to read them for myself.

We had a good, kindly infant teacher called Winifred Burgess, one of the very few teachers I remember with real affection, but I would always rather be at home than at school. The 'big girls' bullied us every playtime, pretending to balance us on the school wall, but in reality threatening to topple us over. Ever since my school days, I've marvelled at the naivety of adults about children and schools and the low key nastiness that went on, and I'm sure still does go on. 

My wish to be at home was granted in terms of a constant stream of childhood illnesses, interspersed with serious asthma, so I spent a lot of time at home, mostly in my nana and grandad's house, at 32 Whitehall Road, sitting on the rag rug in front of their fire, listening to their wireless, and reading. My parents started their married life in a tiny two roomed flat above their adjacent small shops - a sweet and tobacconist and my grandad's fishing tackle shop. When I was well enough, I would take myself along to his shop and sit with him in there, bothering him with questions that he never minded answering. He called me his little queen, in the old Yorkshire - nay, the old English - way. His 'little woman'.  I was very much loved and wanted for nothing, except perhaps a pair of patent leather ankle strap shoes, and I'm pretty sure I got those as well. Mum and dad took me to the 'pictures' - the Gainsborough in Holbeck - to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Afterwards, I made the whole family reenact it, alongside all my toys, with myself in the starring role, of course. An early venture into theatre.

I don't remember learning how to read and write, but somehow I could and did. I listened to the wireless - Listen With Mother, then Children's Hour, and the terrifying excitement of Journey Into Space. I have another memory of what must have been an early dramatisation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and its haunting opening lines 'last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' - so vivid that I can still see it in my mind's eye. We had no television, nor would have for years, so the words had created the pictures long before I was old enough to read the book. 

At some point, I must have thought 'I could do that'.  

I was right. I could and, some fifteen years later, I did. On the whole, it was a mistake. It was a wonderful medium, but once television came on the scene, BBC radio drama was the poor relation. The cheap option. Of which much more later in this story. The talent they had accumulated was prodigious, but they neither knew nor cared just how extraordinary. It did, however, teach me how to write dialogue, and how to visualise things when I wanted to write about them, how to orchestrate. For some years, it would earn me a living of sorts, and even a couple of awards. All that, though, was far in the future.

When I was twelve, we moved to Ayrshire in Scotland. I was an incomer. An interlowper. I was an awkward adolescent and my accent was all wrong. Good experience for a writer-in-training, but not very comfortable at the time. No wonder I retreated into my head. It was a time that I still think of as 'bullying and Burns'. Great experience for a would-be writer though. 





How Not To Be A Writer - Introduction

Two cool cats

There are times, as a full time freelance writer, when  you think to yourself  'you're doing this all wrong.'  Rather a lot of times for most of us. More recently, as I start to take back control of what I do and don't want to write and publish, and how, that realisation, sometimes howled at the stars, mostly muttered sotto voce, changes into 'You've definitely been doing this all wrong.' 

This week, on social media, somebody asked me what was the title of my novel. Which novel? There are nine of them and counting. And three fairly hefty non-fiction books as well, involving a whole lot of research. Then there's half a lifetime of assorted plays, stories and poems, many of them still in print or regularly repeated on R4 Extra.. 

Have I, I wonder, been so careful about not over-promoting my own work that I've hardly promoted it at all? I can think of several writers who seem to be in positions of power and influence in the Scottish literary establishment (for want of a better word)  who have so little actual writing to their names that you begin to wonder if their relentless self promotion works. Those of us who spend most of our time writing can only look on in wonder at just how effective such promotion of so little substance can be. Very effective indeed, presumably.

It's doubly irritating, I think, because for the vast majority of writers, the very last thing we want to do is talk or write about what we're working on right now. If, as often happens, somebody asks 'what are you working on?' having first disguised the involuntary gasp of horror, you find some way of fudging it. You never go into detail. You're happy to talk about what you have written, but never about what you are writing. And that's because the more you talk about a project before you've finished it, the more it simply disappears, like, as our national poet describes it, 'a snowflake on the river, a moment white, then melts forever.' 

There are millions of blogs and websites and books out there full of advice about How To Be A Writer. When I look back at my long and varied career to date, most of it could best be described as How Not To Be A Writer. 

And you know what? I reckon that might be more helpful than 'how to' for a whole lot of people. I've been putting pen to paper for a long time.  More or less since I could read. Since I was the little girl in Clark's sandals, sitting on a doorstep in smoky Leeds, with my nana's cat, Jimmy. My late, very much missed Canadian friend Anna, a formidable lady with a stellar career in education, once asked me about what she called my 'inventory'. Everything I'd written, worked on, published, over many years. 'Why aren't you richer?' she asked. It's a question I and my artist husband have asked ourselves many times. I mean 'rich' would be lovely, but the question really should be 'why aren't you reasonably comfortable?' Or even 'why are you still struggling?' 

Clearly, we've both been doing it wrong. 

Come back soon for another thrilling installment of what not to do. 

A Memory of Burns (from someone who knew him.)

 

Old Mossgiel


When he was farming at Mossgiel, where our milk comes from, Burns employed a herd-boy called Willie Patrick. Many years later, in 1859, another William, a Burns enthusiast called William Jolly, went on a pilgrimage to Burns Country, visiting Mauchline and Mossgiel. While he was wandering about Mauchline, he met Willie Patrick and asked him about his memories of the Burns family. This formed the basis for a little book called Robert Burns at Mossgiel, with Reminiscences of the Poet by his Herd-Boy. You can still find reprints online if you hunt for them. Asked to do a brief Immortal Memory speech and toast at a small local Burns Supper, I dug out my copy and reread it, for inspiration.

Willie Patrick had been born in 1776, so was in his 84th year when Mr Jolly met him. He was short, and very bent, after a life of hard labour. Jolly describes him as being in good health, clear in his mind, shrewd and full of humour. He had a staff, which he leant on, although he could walk without it.
He wrote "When making any statement, he would turn quickly round and earnestly answer me that ‘it was as sure as death’ or ‘as sure as I knock the heid aff that thistle.’"

Willie spent four years at Mossgiel, working for Robert and his brother Gilbert, between March 1784 and April 1788. This meant that he started work as a little lad of eight, and worked there till he was twelve - afterwards becoming a shoemaker, before serving in the army and eventually working for the poet’s friend, Gavin Hamilton.

At Mossgiel, he was herd callant, watching over the herd, or occasionally gaudsman, accompanying Burns when he was ploughing, to help drive the four horses. However, in view of his age, he mostly did odd jobs about the farm. Willie remembered that the Burns family lived chiefly in the kitchen, as most farming households did and probably still do. Robert’s father had died at Lochlea, a rather unhappy place for the family. The two elder boys had actually taken on the Mossgiel tenancy before their father died, without telling him, reluctant to add to his worries. Their mother, Agnes – ‘a wee booed body’ as Willie called her - spent a lot of time sitting close beside the fire. Willie said that the house was largely kept by Isabel, known as Bell, the youngest daughter, although that may have been because she was closer in age, and very much his favourite sister. There were two older sisters, Agnes and Annabella, who were probably involved with dairying, and two younger brothers, William and the youngest son, John, who died aged 16, while Willie Patrick was working at the farm.

Gilbert was a year younger than Robert, but Willie observed that he took more charge of the farm, given that Robert was so taken up with his poetry. The family, especially the women, made Dunlop cheese, a sweet milk cheese, from the rich milk of the Ayrshire cows, no doubt learning from their mother, who already had the skill of cheesemaking .

Besides the sisters, there was a female friend who helped in the kitchen, and Rab’s ‘dear bought Bess’, his little daughter by Elizabeth Paton whom he had welcomed into his house. Latterly, this large household was joined by one of Jean Armour’s first set of twins, Robert, then only a toddler. There were no female servants at all – just friends and family. After a few turbulent years, after the marriage was formalised, Jean would walk up to the farm from her rooms in Castle Street, to learn dairying and cheese making from the Burns sisters. When Jean and Rab moved to Ellisland, Burns was supposedly the first to introduce the handsome brown and white Ayrshire cow to the county. All the household slept in the house, while the male servants, including young Willie Patrick, slept in the stable loft.

Willie did little jobs about the kitchen, as well as feeding and herding cattle, mucking the byre, and running into town on various errands, but most of all carrying letters – more of them than was at all common at that time for a farming family. The poet was a great correspondent and was always sending away for books.



Gavin Hamilton's House, Mauchline


In winter, mindful of Willie’s age, they would sit him down beside the fire, opposite Mistress Burns, peeling potatoes or doing other small domestic jobs, while the women worked and chatted or sang around him. There were far worse jobs for a boy at that time.

The whole household took their meals in the kitchen, and Wille remembered that Rab was ‘aye reading,’ even at mealtimes. Gilbert was a ‘douce and sensible man’ but Willie was more impressed with Rab. He described him as smart, manly and good looking, liked by everyone except a few of the ‘stricter sort’ (including Jean Armour’s father who hated him at that time, although he came round in the end!) – and those who feared his wild reputation. He says he never once saw him the worse for liquor. He over-indulged at times, but was never a drunkard.

Most important of all, he was a ‘good master' good natured and kindly towards all those who worked on the farm, even if he seemed distracted by things that other people never noticed. 'He was aye pickin up things and thinkin ower them for a lang time’ says Willie, adding that he was a special favourite with the lasses ‘He could aye speak up to them’ – a gift, and a charm that never left him throughout his too short life.

Lovely to read the words of somebody who had known the poet and worked with him on a day-to-day basis. Especially since he was remembered so fondly as a good man and a kindly master.

 
Mauchline many years ago


Here we go again ...

 


Can we knock on the head once and for all the belief that Burns was a drunkard and a 'crap father'? This was a view expressed yesterday in a Facebook group devoted - I kid you not - to 'Scottish Literature'! 

The poet was neither, and to label him so is to ignore both the context and the recorded truth of his life. 

He was no saint. He occasionally over-indulged (as which of us has not)  but the drunkard myth was a figment of the imagination of some 18th century idiot writing an obituary in a local rag, and in the process misrepresenting as alcoholism the illness that killed him - most likely chronic endocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle, which, when it turned acute, was a death sentence.

His wife Jean never forgot or forgave the misrepresentation. 

The glib judgments of his character I read last night seem to have one thing in common - a complete ignorance of historical context. Not surprising, really, since our own history is so neglected by our education system. 

For a man of his time, Rab was a good, loving and patient father, in verse and in action too. By all accounts he was content to work away with the children playing around him. There is evidence of his devastation at the death of his little daughter Elizabeth Riddell Burns at the age of three, as he and Jean desperately sought a cure for the unknown illness that caused her to waste away. Compared to the more aristocratic writers of the time who preferred to pretend that their children weren't there at all, he was a model parent.

He was a serially unfaithful husband, it's true. His wife, as one later biographer observed, was 'better than he deserved' but then she has been largely ignored by his other biographers. She was likened to an 'unfeeling heifer' by one female commentator, as though only a heifer would put up with him. 

In fact he loved women not wisely but too well and was just as likely to enjoy the company of older women as young women, something that is a rarity even today, when older women become largely invisible. He was a fantasist, like many writers, but had the sense to distinguish between the romance that inspired his poetry, and the real, abiding love he felt for his wife, a love that is present in so many of his poems and songs, if only we look for it.

Finally, when his first illegitimate daughter was born in 1785 he wrote a defiant poem in her honour. This, at a time when the Minister and the Kirk Session in every parish in Scotland would spend much of their time trying to get men to own up to the children they had fathered!

Welcome, my bonie, sweet, wee dochter!
Tho' ye come here a wee unsought for,
And tho' your comin I hae fought for
Baith kirk and queir;
Yet, by my faith, ye're no unwrought for --
That I shall swear!

If you want to know more, look for my novel The Jewel, all about Jean and her husband, their life and times.

Chilling and Spine Tingling


 

I'm never in the business of denigrating my fellow writers, so I don't usually give negative reviews. But it's depressing how many times these days I find myself downloading onto my Kindle a sample of a new novel with vast numbers of glowing reviews and recommendations. I read it, and think 'aargh no' and delete it. The last one was punted as 'the most chilling and spine tingling ghost story you'll read this year.' In this case, I did actually soldier on through the whole thing.

It wasn't (the most spine tingling etc)  and I'll tell you why. Because as I laboured on through a long novel that really wanted to be a novella or a short story, in a Scottish setting about which the author seemed largely ignorant, I suddenly realised that it was heavily inspired by one of the best ghost stories ever written: Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

And that really is chilling and spine tingling.

I've read this classic novella several times, including at university, but this time I decided that I would read it ultra closely, paying attention to every nuance, to every word. In fact, I read it as a writer, trying to decide how the author had done it. 

It was still chilling and spine tingling in every way. It haunted my dreams. But most of all (and if you haven't read it, this isn't really a spoiler) I still, after all these years, couldn't make up my mind whether the ghosts were real or not. And which of those two possibilities was the most horrific. Which was obviously James's intention. Genius. 

There is just too much hype out there. I know, because as a published author myself, the pressure to find glowing cover quotes is intense. We treasure positive reviews, knowing that we can quote them. I've done it all too often! 

But when those cover quotes don't seem to reflect the quality of the work, as a reader, you can feel cheated. For the last few weeks, I've felt very very cheated.

Sometimes, a good entertaining story well told should be enough, shouldn't it? Is that why so many crime stories are so popular? Because that's what so many of them unashamedly are? Good, entertaining stories, well told.





Mr Bates, the Post Office and Issue Based Drama

 

Anne Marie Timoney and Liam Brennan in Wormwood


If you haven't yet seen it, and you'd like to watch a perfect piece of 'issue based drama', seek out ITV's recent Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Written by the excellent Gwyneth Hughes, with a very fine cast, it tackles an injustice so colossal, so disturbing, so enraging that you'll be fuming quietly (or perhaps loudly) about it long after you've switched off your TV.

Here's the interesting thing though. I've been following this issue for years. There have been a number of hard-hitting programmes and articles about it, but this drama is the one that has 'cut through', the pebble (albeit a very fine pebble indeed) that started the landslide. 

Ever since it was broadcast, I've been mildly irritated by a string of social media posts wondering why 'they' - that perennial they, who ought to do all kinds of things - don't do a drama about a string of other issues. Everything from Brexit to migration. All of them disturbing issues with which we must sooner or later grapple.

Dear reader - and even dear writer, because some of my friends are aspiring dramatists and some are already fine playwrights  - that isn't how  issue based drama works. That isn't how you set about writing it. You don't look at a sort of pick and mix of current issues, and say to yourself 'I fancy that one' and then jam a set of characters into it.

Well, you can, of course, and people frequently do. Especially when they're starting out. The results are almost always dire. Boring diatribes about issues, with the characters purely incidental vehicles for the playwright's preoccupations or obsessions.

Back when I was writing plays, I spent a long time - years, in fact - with the idea of a play about Chernobyl nagging away at me. I'd been pregnant when the cloud drifted towards the UK so it had loomed large for me as for so many others. But it wasn't until the accounts from the people who had been most involved with it came filtering out from Ukraine that I suddenly saw the play I wanted and needed to write. The firemen and their families, the people living in Pripyat, the schoolteachers, the children, those who experienced it at first hand - those were the people whose voices and experiences mattered, and suddenly any 'issues' became secondary to those experiences. They mattered, of course, but they could only spring from characters whose lives were interrupted by that 'safety experiment' gone so disastrously wrong. 

The result was a play called Wormwood, written for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and staged there in  May 1997. It was a well reviewed but disturbing production. People cried at it. Occasionally, they fainted. If you want to read it, you'll find it online or in an anthology called Scotland Plays, published by Nick Hern Books. 

Many years later, the superb US TV series titled Chernobyl was equally focused on character.  It's hard to watch, and yes, many issues arise out of it. But first and foremost, we are captivated and horrified by what happens to the people most closely involved, from the 'party man' whose whole ethos is gradually thrown into question and destroyed, to the firemen buried in lead lined coffins. We watch and we identify with these people. Just as we identify with all these innocent postmasters and mistresses whose lives were destroyed in order to - well - to preserve a brand. We watch and we know that it could happen to us. And then, if we're honest, we also wonder if we too had been on the other side of that divide, with our livelihoods dependent on toeing the Post Office line- what we would have done differently. Would we have been brave enough to say thus far and no further? 

After Wormwood was staged, I ran a short course on issue based drama for young writers at the Traverse. So many years later, the central truth remains. The only way to 'cut through' is to focus on those most closely involved, people with whom we can identify. 

Last night, I watched a heartrending documentary about the 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in a container, before they could ever set foot in England. What made it so tragic was the recognition that these were people like us, human beings, many of them young people, with hopes and fears and dreams. The last messages they sent to their families, from within the hell of that container, were mostly apologetic. 'I'm sorry' they said. Sorry for wanting to improve their lives, for taking a leap of faith for themselves and their families. 

Now there's an issue that somebody could tackle. An issue obscured by the daily rantings of our politicians. But to do that would involve immersing yourself - as the detective who investigated the case clearly did, and has never got over it - in the ordinary, mundane, precious lives of those 'people like us'. Then, I reckon, the issue would take care of itself. 


Opening scene of Wormwood at the Traverse





Belated New Year Greetings!

 


The above picture is titled 'spring clutter' on my PC. Not quite there yet, but this week, I bought a couple of bunches of daffodils so we're getting there. This is the time of year when I try to buy a bunch of tulips or daffs, or sometimes both, every week, just to prolong my favourite time of year - spring. 

This year, too, I remembered to plant some bulbs back in the autumn, and they're all emerging. For the first time ever, I managed to persuade a couple of blue hyacinth bulbs to grow and - more to the point - flower, in a pair of lovely old glass hyacinth vases. Every year to date I've put them in these vases full of water, in hope, and every year I've been disappointed. Last year, I forked out for big expensive bulbs and hey presto - this year they're flowering! You obviously get what you pay for in this instance.

I've had a ridiculously busy, albeit happy, Christmas. Missing our son who works in Stockholm very much, now that he's gone back. 

But I'll also have some rather big news about my writing. Coming very soon. I've been gearing myself up to writing about this on here, but putting it off till I felt as though I had got 'all my ducks in a row.' Now, if not in a row, then at least they are swimming about where I can see them. 

Watch this space.

PS, the daffodil plate, my favourite, belonged to my mum who bought it in our local auction house back in the sixties. It looks like Moorcroft, but it isn't. Don't know what it is, but I love it.