How Not To Be A Writer - Part Seven: Finland

Teaching in Finland. I'm at the back, in red,
with short dark hair in the fashionable 'Purdie' cut.
Photograph by our fellow tutor, Wladyslaw Cieplinski

There I was, in the mid-seventies, back home in Ayrshire, with two degrees in - let's face it - pretty useless subjects where the job market was concerned and the urgent need to earn a living.  Don't get me wrong. Everything I've ever studied has been invaluable for my writing. I've used all of it, and still do. But was it ever going to help me to earn a living? Well, in a way, it did.

I'd been given a New Writing Award from the old Scottish Arts Council, more approachable and committed to the arts than its subsequent incarnation, Creative Scotland, but it wasn't enough to live on. I was always welcome at home, and I loved it there, but I was used to living independently. I'd published a poetry collection called a Book of Men, had a few radio plays under my belt, published some short stories here and there in literary magazines, and had written the occasional book review or freelance article, but none of these things paid very well, or at all. I needed a job that would bring in some income and allow me to write as well.

I did a summer school in teaching English as a Foreign Language, applied for and got a job at a private language school in Tampere in Finland and headed off to Turku, by cargo ship from Hull: much cheaper than flying, back then, and an experience in itself. 

I spent two tremendously happy years in central Finland. I loved it. The work was hard, with long hours and a not particularly high salary in a country where everyday living was expensive - but it was worth it. I taught adults, sometimes one to one lessons and sometimes groups. I travelled by bus to paper mills to teach executives and PAs there. I remember one very senior executive who had already rejected two teachers in quick succession. I was my boss's third and last attempt and I was nervous. As it turned out, his English was already very good. What he needed was recommendations for reading, books and newspapers, and a teacher who could discuss that reading with him. Thanks to my English Lit degree, we got along just fine.

It wasn't easy to begin with. Finnish people turned out to be warm and welcoming, but extremely shy and self contained. They were fine in one to one sessions, but groups were incredibly difficult. I soon discovered that the only way to cope was to make a fool of myself by - essentially - leaping about and making them laugh with daft examples. It worked. They soon relaxed and began to chat. This was an experience that would later prove invaluable when running writing groups where people may be understandably nervous of exposing their writing to other people. I've heard far too many tales of experienced writers humiliating beginners including people who were put off for years, before going on to ultimate success themselves. It's fine to make a fool of yourself - but never, ever of other people. 

Teaching in factories also taught me a lesson about the egalitarian nature of Scandinavian society. One of the CEOs I taught would turn up in his tracksuit, having cycled to work, and we'd have coffee in the staff canteen before starting. He knew everyone by name and there was no 'executive' dining room at all. This was back in the 1970s when the divisions between the workers and management in British companies was marked, and for all I know still is in some industries. 

I was invited out by my unmarried engineering students for meals, to ice hockey games, to try cross country ski-ing, or to watch car racing on frozen lakes. I learned how to walk on icy ground without falling over and admired the amazing skill of bus drivers who knew just when to put on the brakes, so that the bus would slide to a gentle stop at the head of the queue. I acquired lots of warm underwear, boots and hats. In Finland, at parties, a room is generally set aside not just for coats and hats and scarves but for the ladies to take off their obligatory woolly knickers. One or two of my older lady students took me under their wing and treated me to saunas and lake bathing, at their summer cottages. Another of my students flew me over the city in his little Cessna. In short, I had a ball. 

I also wrote. A lot.

In spite of working full time, I managed to finish a novel called Snow Baby, and a whole heap of poems. Most of the poems were published subsequently, and you can find them again in my new retrospective collection, Midnight Sun. The novel languishes in a bottom drawer, where perhaps it should stay, but I do occasionally look at it and think 'Hmm. Not half bad.' 

Celebrating Stella Gibbons and Avoiding Presentism.

I'm reading a novel called Enbury Heath, by Stella Gibbons. I'm working my way through the many excellent but largely neglected books that she wrote after Cold Comfort Farm, although I recently took a break to read some necessary political stuff, Marina Hyde in particular, to remind myself of just what shenanigans the government had got up to over the past few years.

Enbury Heath is a semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1935. It's an engrossing story about three young siblings in the early 30s, trying to come to terms with their troubled past, trying to make their way in the world as adults. As so often with Gibbons, I find myself engrossed in a book that paints a picture of everyday life at that time. A rarity, I realise. So much (but of course not all) fiction about that time is written from a present day perspective. It often focuses on the wars, concentrates heavily on the dramatic, the big events and how they affect the lives of those experiencing them. Enbury Heath, only 'historical' because we are reading it from a perspective of now, with all our knowledge of what will come next, is essentially about how family background affects future life and how individual, even loving, siblings will respond quite differently to the influence of that background. . 

It's also, in a more general sense, a novel about life in pre-war London - acutely observed as ever, and with the author's ability to creep inside the minds of her characters, observing their joys and sorrows, bringing them vividly to life for the reader. It's not 'dramatic' in the current cliffhanger sense, but it's certainly absorbing. 

1934, when this book was written, was ninety years ago. The author was writing about the world as she experienced it. Sometimes we may find attitudes disturbing. But just as, as writers, we shouldn't make our characters think thoughts they could never have thought, we probably should try hard not to project our own mindsets back onto books that are very much of their time - and criticise them for it. Who knows what readers in 2114 will make of our current attitudes and preoccupations? What will it be, I wonder, that will need 'trigger warnings' or suggested cancellations? 

The curse of presentism doesn't only make our own fiction unreal and anachronistic - it prevents us from learning more about the past.

At one point, in Enbury Heath, one of the characters waves in a satirical manner. It is an imitation of the Nazi salute, but one that is deliberately mocked, deprived of its menace. The author observes - in a book written in the early 1930s -  that this mockery of  Hitler, with a version of this gesture, had spread among young people throughout the UK and the US like wildfire. Much like goose stepping that was subject to the same treatment. I remember my father doing it to make his little daughter laugh, back in the fifties. But it was also, I now realise, a pleasure for him, a mockery, a way of reducing the very real monsters of the Nazi regime, monsters he had experienced for himself, to something banal and foolish. 

When I read that casual passage about the salute, light dawned. I suddenly thought of the picture of the young princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret as children, supposedly 'giving the Nazi salute'. It was pounced upon by the tabloid press a few years ago, and spread far and wide on social media. What they were probably doing was using the gesture that - as Gibbons observes - had spread far and wide among young people. A gesture that deliberately mocked a perceived populist monster. She had probably used it herself.

There were plenty of Nazis in the upper echelons of British society - read about Edward and Mrs Simpson, read the Remains of the Day, to find out more. But I don't think the princesses or their parents were among them. 

There are populist monsters who walk among us today. To go back to where I started, read Gibbons to be entertained and enlightened. Read Marina Hyde when you find yourself trying to cope with statements like this: 'Britain would be in a far better state today had we taken Hitler up on his offer of neutrality, but oh no, Britain’s warped mindset values weird notions of international morality rather than looking after its own people.'

Predictably, this mindboggling statement comes from a Reform Candidate. Who wants his country back, but - like so many - seems blissfully unaware that he got it back in 2016, and hasn't known what the hell to do with it since. 

A Random Post About Violets.

Primroses and violets on Gigha

I've had violets on my mind for the past few weeks, and I blame Stella Gibbons for reminding me about them. I'm slowly but surely working my way through all of her superb (but largely unsung) novels, written after her youthful success with Cold Comfort Farm. If you love Barbara Pym as much as I do, you'll appreciate Stella Gibbons - perhaps even more. She's also as observant (and occasionally acid) as Austen, her work can be lyrical, and often surprising. It involves the female experience (yay!) it covers a period which from a present day perspective is historical and therefore very interesting, but without the preoccupations of so many male novelists of the time. Instead, she tells us a great deal about what ordinary life, especially for women, was like. She has been undeservedly neglected - but that's a post for a later date.

Back to the violets!

I was reading one of her novels set in Cornwall - The Weather at Tregulla, first published in 1962. I can recommend it. It's essentially a coming of age tale . The protagonist lives (unhappily) on a 'violet farm' in Cornwall. Which got me wondering, are there still such farms? A quick online search reveals farms with 'violet' in the name, but whether they still grow violets I'm not sure.

Now, I've moved on to an even more strange and brilliant novel called Starlight, set in 1960s London and - here we are again.A rather self conscious young curate always buys himself (much against his better judgement because he thinks it frivolous) a bunch of violets in the spring. Gibbons seems to have been fond of these flowers.

That reference to a bunch of violets, encountered late last night, when I was reading on my Kindle,  brought several memories crowding into my mind. One was of little posies of sweet violets on sale in Leeds market, during my childhood. My mum was fond of them, and my dad would buy them for her. Sometimes he would vary it with mimosa. Another disappearing flower. Eliza Doolittle would have sold them too, but who sees them now?

Then I was reminded of buying myself a bunch of sweetly scented violets from a street flower vendor when I was teaching English conversation at Wroclaw University, back in the 1970s. I put them in a glass beside my bed and woke in the morning to find a little trail of red ants (Pharoah's ants they are called in Poland, I believe) leading to and from the violets. I left them to it. By then, I'd got used to them, knew their ways, and as long as I didn't leave any sugar on my kitchen surfaces they didn't bother me. They liked the violets as much as I did. Me, Stella Gibbons and the ants.

It suddenly struck me that I haven't seen violets on sale for YEARS. Decades in fact. They still grow in the woodlands near this village although not as profusely as on the Isle of Gigha, where I was enchanted by carpets of primroses and violets when we visited one year in May.

Given my love of vintage perfumes, I hunted for a true violet scent. I have a bottle of Paco Rabanne's Ultraviolet, and I like it very much, but it's an acquired taste, and the actual violet scent doesn't quite have the freshness of the real thing. Violet essential oil is nice, and Lidl (somewhat unexpectedly) do a lovely delicately scented reed diffuser called Lush Meadow, where a gentle violet scent predominates. 

It made me realise that the flower offering in our stores is very limited these days. It's probably different in high end florists, but I haven't been in one of those for a long time. There are lots of roses, rather boring carnations in bud, alstroemeria which I dislike, for some reason, lilies which I love, and buy for their longevity, mixing them with flowers from the garden, daffodils and tulips in season but even they are not what they once were, in terms of size and variety. This year, I couldn't find a scented paperwhite narcissus anywhere. Is this yet another dubious 'Brexit benefit' I wonder? I had planted bulbs and even they didn't flower at all. 

But what I really want - even though the season is now past - is a fat little bunch of sweet violets with the flowers nestling among those glossy green leaves. I've planted some in the garden. Maybe next year ...

Nice to have the memory though! 


How Not To Be A Writer - Part Six: Back to Leeds

A Moonlit Lane by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Leeds was a very different place from the city I had left aged twelve but it still felt strangely like home. I had managed to secure a room in a student house at the end of Wood Lane, the same long, dark lane where I had gone for my piano lessons at Leeds College of Music, all those years ago. 

My teacher back then was Miss Ingram. She was nice enough, but I was a little afraid of her. She wore a black velvet jacket and massaged her hands with Nivea Cream. The scent of it still reminds me of her. I remember the head of the school remarking to my parents that she had 'an iron hand in a velvet glove' . I was seven when I began lessons and even though I dimly perceived that he didn't mean it literally, there was some part of me that wondered about her hands. Especially since - although she wore no velvet gloves - there was that velvet coat ...

I remember little about the student flat apart from the fact that I wasn't in it very often, due to the nature of the course, which involved research elsewhere. I do remember that on our first night, we went into the shared kitchen to be met with a great commotion as what seemed like an army of mice scattered from the cooker. Investigation proved that it had not been cleaned for years, not even over the summer vacation when the authorities knew that the rooms were to be re-let. It was covered in deeply embedded fat. The previous tenants had been male students, and we blamed them vociferously, although the truth was probably that females would have been just as bad at cleaning up. 

Because the lane was long and dark, with high stone walls enclosing the gardens of large houses - exactly like the atmospheric painting by J A Grimshaw, above - we tried to make sure that if we were coming home at night we didn't have to walk alone. There was one occasion, however, a midwinter evening, when I got off the bus and realised that I would have to negotiate the lane all by myself. Reader, adrenalin kicked in, I slung my bag across my body, took to my heels and ran, not stopping to draw breath till I reached the front door. Years later, I realised that Peter Sutcliffe had frequented that area. His earliest attack was in 1969. I was in Leeds in the early 70s. Sutcliffe murdered a student, Jacqueline Hill, in November 1980, as she walked home from her bus stop at around 9.15 at night. He attacked her in Alma Road, which runs parallel to Wood Lane, presumably another lonely lane. Which still gives me a frisson of disquiet, whenever I think about it.

What possessed university authorities to house female students at the end of dark lanes? A recent question, asking women what they would do if there were no men in the world for 24 hours, was revealing. A large percentage of us would go walking at night, without fear. I can do that in the small Scottish village where I live. Women - especially older women - can often do the same in city centres with significant camera coverage. But I think most men have no notion of the ways in which most women police and prepare themselves, thinking the unthinkable, judging distances, walking briskly, keys in hand, middle of the pavement, seeking the light. And just occasionally, when instinct takes over, running like the wind from the monster behind us. Not all men are predators, but most sexual predators are male. 

I loved my time in Leeds. We were taught by Stewart Sanderson and by a fine lecturer called Tony Green. Among much else I wrote a poem about him called Sudden Man. It was published back then by Akros publications in a collection called A Book of Men, and I included it in my own more recent collection, Midnight Sun. The title is - I'm both moved and honoured to say - on Tony's headstone. I didn't meet him throughout all the years after graduation, but somehow, the poem stayed with his family and after he died, his wife contacted me to ask if she could use it at his funeral. She explained how vividly it seemed to characterise him. And yet - even though I appreciated his teaching very much indeed - I would never have claimed to know him well. 

Like most writers, I was a keen observer, deeply interested in people, in what made them tick, in how it might feel to be them. Interested in what fired my own imagination. I still am. So perhaps I am a writer after all! A piece of advice I was given very early in my career still holds good. 'The way to be a writer is to write.' 

This is not something people want to hear. I doubt if I did, back then, although I certainly loved to write. People often want the magic formula that will transform them. There isn't one. And it certainly isn't AI. We learn by doing, not by being. As Miss Ingram with her iron hand in her velvet glove would have said 'Practise, Catherine. You must do your practice.'  

Where writing is concerned, I have. I still do. Every day without fail. 

Breaking Eggs.

I've been reading political books over the past couple of weeks, possibly triggered by the fact that for the first time in my voting life, I don't know who to vote for. Hoping for inspiration. Maybe it's my choices:  John Crace, Gavin Esler and now the acidly funny Marina Hyde. But even though they've made me laugh, it's hollow laughter and I still don't know who to vote for. They've just brought back to me the hideousness of the past few years, and the general impression that whoever is in power, it's likely to continue, because we have a broken, undemocratic system, as corrupt and useless as any of those countries we used to mock. 

One quote from Marina Hyde struck me forcefully. It's a quote of a quote of a quote, but it's apt. 'There's something rather Stalinist about Brexit's wreakers of so-called creative destruction. In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Victor Serge quotes the Romanian writer Panait Istrati, when the latter visited the 1930s USSR of purges and show trials. "All right, I can see the broken eggs," he said, "Where is this omelette of yours?"' Hyde wrote this piece in 2017. Little did she know what was coming our way. 

No sign of the omelette so far. Lots of destruction, even in small ways. I posted three slim poetry books to Poland yesterday. It took about fifteen minutes, while the patient counter assistant weighed the little parcels, measured them, asked what was in them, looked up the customs number for books, typed in the Polish addresses, typed in my address three times, printed out stamps and bar codes, stuck them on, along with an air mail sticker, and then printed out three customs forms for me to sign. And don't even ask about the cost. As anyone who has tried this knows, it will still be touch and go whether they arrive at all. Don't blame the EU. We did this to ourselves. All this for something that pre-Brexit involved a small and very simple sticker of which I kept a stash at home. God knows what small businesses including small publishers do. Actually - I know what they do. They don't send to Europe. Or import from there. Well done, 'party of business'.  

There's a bit of fairly low key egg breaking going on in my world as well at the moment. Well, it IS  low key in that the vast majority of people won't give a flying you-know-what about it.  'Writers' (I use the word advisedly, because some of them seem to be more celebrities than actual working writers) have demanded that book festivals such as Hay divest themselves of their main sponsor, a company called Baillie Gifford. I should explain that unless you want to charge Taylor Swiftian prices for tickets without the added attraction of Taylor herself, most book festivals need help to stay solvent. The Edinburgh International Book Festival is next on their list. And more, since the company in question does a lot of sponsoring. The egg smashers call themselves Fossil Free Books. BG's investment in fossil fuels is minimal, and it's obvious that the FFB crowd don't understand much if anything about the rules surrounding investments. I'm seldom invited to book festivals, although whenever I have been, I've enjoyed the experience. And sometimes it has been very moving, like my gig last year at the excellent Boswell Book Festival, on the same platform as a traumatised young woman who had escaped from Ukraine, with her equally traumatised little girl. 

Mostly festivals are a significant pleasure for those attending, including middle aged and elderly women. Who buy a lot of books. And the organisers generally do excellent work promoting reading to children as well. But hey, the omelette brigade are gaily smashing eggs and celebrating their success, all while disclaiming any responsibility for finding replacement sponsors. 'Not our job,' they say. 'We've broken it. Now fix it.' It remains to be seen if the omelette ever materialises, or if they're simply left with egg covered faces. 

But here's a thing. The most cursory online search reveals that the UK's biggest book chain is now owned by a US hedge fund with a really significant investment in oil. Are all those writers who signed letters demanding that book festivals find new sponsors now going to approach their publishers demanding that they remove their books from this chain? And if not, why not? There's signalling virtue and then there's shooting yourself in both feet. Perhaps the foot shooting is the preserve only of Brexiters. 

All of which leads me back to my initial problem. I still have no idea who to vote for. Where are Lord Buckethead and Count Binface when you need them? 

How Not To Be A Writer - Part Five: Early Radio Days

Outside our flat in Edinburgh's Great King Street
with one of my flatmates, Eileen.

As I wrote in an earlier post, my first radio drama producer was Gordon Emslie. I don't have a picture of him, sadly, and he died far too young, while still in his 30s. Over my subsequent career in radio, a career that came to an abrupt end, for reasons I'll outline in a later post, I was lucky enough to work with many talented producers but Gordon was the first. 

Gordon was definitely one of the good guys. He produced my first short radio plays, The Hare and the Fox and A Bit of the Wilderness. I learned so much from him and began to hone my craft, finding out  what worked and what didn't. Above all, I learned something about the practicalities of production which in those days involved 'spot effects' that had to be co-ordinated with the movements of the actors around the microphones - sounds like the rustle of bedding, the clatter of teacups, the clash of swords - and background sound effects produced by supremely talented individuals rushing about between tape and record decks  - the 'FX' were often on vinyl -  mixing sounds to match the setting and performances. Contrary to popular perception, radio acting involves some movement, as well as the ability to visualise the reality of each scene. Spot effects are still used, of course although other broader background sounds are generally laid on digitally, afterwards. Sometimes these sounds are played to the cast, so that they can appreciate - for example - the volume of storm noise over which they may be pitching the dialogue!

There were other fascinating aspects to all this. Radio plays are seldom recorded chronologically. Studio time is always at a premium. So a script will be read through, then rehearsed and recorded all within a very short space of time. Depending on the availability of the cast, who may well be involved with other work commitments, the play is generally recorded if not randomly, then patchily, rather than in sequence. Productions with several episodes and an extensive cast will always involve this patchwork of scenes which are then edited together. It is, I think, the nightmare of every producer and production assistant to get to the end of a major production and find that a key scene is missing!

The producer/director is the magician at the heart of all this, making it work. As the writer, I was expected to be there for much of the production, because I might want or need to make cuts or do rewriting 'on the hoof'. Like all drama this is a collaborative medium, and if you don't enjoy the heat of collaboration, you're best to stay away from this particular kitchen altogether. 

It's a fascinating experience, because it's only when you hear your words in an actor's mouth that you can see where changes may need to be made. A good producer/director, like a director in theatre, has the last word. The actor can ask for, and the writer can suggest changes, but all of this goes through the producer who is responsible for pulling the whole thing together, maintaining the central vision, to borrow an expression from the world of video games.

You learn not just how to work with dialogue, but also how to orchestrate, including 'stage' directions about where people are in relation to each other, and what they are doing. I remember writing 'they fight' as one direction, whereupon my producer pointed out that this was something of a cop out. (It was.) The actors needed to know exactly how they were going to fight, so that they could move -and breathe - in relation to the microphone and each other and produce a perfect sound picture.

On the other hand, the writer should never be giving precise instructions about how actors should say their lines: those superfluous 'slowly, loudly, angrily, sadly' adverbs that often litter scripts from beginners. You need to let the actors practise their craft too. Besides, if it isn't already there in the dialogue, then - with one or two exceptions where the meaning runs counter to the actual text - you're probably not making a very good job of your dialogue. 

I learned so much and enjoyed the whole process. You can read more about my subsequent radio work on this blog, here. 

I was writing other things: short stories, poems and reviews, but although future radio commissions seemed a distinct possibility, I knew that I needed something else, something to broaden my experience. 

Having put out a few feelers here and there, I was called to a meeting with Professor Stuart Piggott, a scarily distinguished (and rather handsome) archaeologist at Edinburgh University. I remember that he had a stuffed owl in his office, but very little else about that meeting. His friend and colleague Stewart Sanderson was running a course in Folk Life Studies at Leeds University. He was offering me a place to do a postgraduate Masters degree there. 

I packed my bags and went back to the city where I was born.

Disability, Accessibility and Odd Attitudes.


Alan in his element

I don't often stray into such personal territory in my blog which tends to be about writing and publishing as well as the antique textiles and teddies that I 'rehome' and, of course, Alan's artworks. And gardening. That should be enough to be going on with, shouldn't it? But sometimes, you just have to make an exception.

Ever since I've known him - and that's a long, long time - Alan has been a seafarer. He was a trawler skipper for a while. I tapped into his knowledge when I wrote my play The Price of a Fish Supper which you can listen to in its best version with Ken O'Hara, directed by Isi Nimmo, here. Later, he became a charter yacht skipper, travelling to destinations such as the Canaries, the Azores, Norway and - on one memorable occasion - Russia. He's a well qualified and massively experienced ocean-going yacht skipper. He even taught sailing for the Scottish Watersports Centre in Largs

In the Canaries, we lived and worked aboard a big Catamaran called Simba. You can read about it on this blog, in several previous episodes, titled 'A Tale of Two Canary Island Winters.'

Unfortunately, a number of years ago, Alan's mobility gradually became worse, a condition which was eventually diagnosed as serious psoriatic arthritis coupled with osteo - i.e. wear and tear - arthritis. He has a good rheumatologist, and these days excellent treatments are available but some of them came too late to prevent damage. So, his upper body strength is fine, but his mobility is very challenged. And painful. He soldiers on. In fact last year, he managed a fundraiser for our local hospice, going round the village in his wheelchair and washing windscreens. 

There has been plenty written elsewhere about accessibility problems. The realisation of just how badly served people with disabilities are in this country only dawns on you when you're struggling with the shortcomings. 

For example, seems disinclined to ask hotels and guest houses to clarify whether rooms have walk-in or over-bath showers. Many disabled people don't need a fully wheelchair accessible room, but they do need small adjustments. Disabled parking spaces are often (and inexplicably) situated a long way from entrances for people who struggle to walk. Hospitals are some of the worst culprits but hotels are bad too. Accessible rooms are sometimes lightless dug-outs situated down long corridors. Disability friendly rooms are usually dog friendly rooms as well, so we're faced with choosing between accessibility for my husband or asthma for me. Crossing places in the UK don't give you nearly enough time to cross.Anyone with a serious mobility problem could add to the list. People with disabilities don't expect the whole world to change to suit them, but a modicum of imagination and consideration might help.

However, that's not the point of this blog. Those were anticipated problems. What we didn't expect was a different kind of problem altogether - and that was wholly unanticipated.

Since my husband was diagnosed all those years ago, I've watched the changing attitudes of some  relatives and friends. 

Not everyone of course. Not by any means. We have some good friends and among them are a couple  who are happy to invite Alan onto their boat. With a little help, he can manage to get aboard. He sits at the helm and they let him get on with it. That's their beautiful yacht in the picture above. He hasn't lost any of those skills and he hasn't lost his mind. Just his agility. And he's instantly in his element, using all his considerable experience, because there is more to sailing than leaping about with ropes. Sadly, these willing friends live a long way away, so sailing with them is a rare treat. 

But gradually, there came the realisation that other invitations had dried up. There were friends with whom Alan had sailed for years. Friends who wanted crew. What they clearly didn't want was to accommodate somebody with a disability. Not even for a short trip now and then.

It took me quite a while to acknowledge this, and I expect it's the same for other partners of people with disabilities. You don't want to believe it. But it creeps up on you, until it becomes so obvious that you can't ignore it any longer. I'm pretty certain people will have similar stories from other areas of life and disability. People deciding for you what you can and can't do. Because they don't want the responsibility, not just of accommodating you, but of what they perceive to be the responsibility of you. Not even for a day or two, very occasionally. Just pause for a moment and think about that. Think about how infantilising and hurtful that is. Right up there with 'does he take sugar' isn't it?

Back on the water at last thanks to a local coastal rowing club!.

How Not To Be A Writer - Part Four: Money Matters


This is a small diversion from the chronology of  previous 'How Not To' posts.  Whenever writers get together, we don't talk about what we're writing. We moan about money. 

It's worth pointing out yet again that, with a few starry exceptions, writers are at the bottom of the heap as far as payment goes. Full time professional writers earn, on average, £7000 a year. That means that vast numbers earn considerably less and payments are falling all the time. I wrote my last big project on a £500 advance. It took 2 years to research and write. 

If you look this up on Google, you'll be presented with wholly unrealistic salaries in the £35,000 plus range. Some deluded websites claim a staggering £45 - £55000. I don't know anyone who earns anything approaching this from their writing, even those you would think of as successful. Those who do, earn it from writing related work, such as teaching creative writing in universities, so that they can encourage more people to be poor. Or writing for television. (Lucrative, but also hard to get into.) Or specialised writing, such as technical writing, for large companies. Those who write for children can earn a living of sorts by doing schools visits and talks, but again, these are a diminishing resource. And as another writer friend pointed out recently, these are payments for actual work undertaken in the school or college, not for the books themselves.

As far as large publishing companies are concerned, creative writing and publishing is a massive pyramid scheme, with the writers beavering away for peanuts at the bottom, and literally everyone else being paid more than the people without whom there would be nothing to publish or produce. 

There is no real solution to this. The big corporations will always pay their top executives handsomely and the astronomical advances will always go to celebrities, who probably haven't even written the damn books themselves.  Those organisations that are supposed to represent writers can do little about the imbalance. Small or medium sized publishers struggle constantly with rising prices of resources like paper, which means rising prices of books, and a corresponding fall in quality of the end product.

Almost everyone who writes, and most of those running small publishing companies, have to find other means of earning a living. I have colleagues who lecture, who teach in schools, who are alternative therapy practitioners, who follow quite different full time careers and write on the side. Creativity will find a way. I deal in antique textiles and toys from an Etsy store called the 200 Year Old House. 

And now, I self publish on Amazon under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, eBooks and paperbacks, with some excellent professional design and formatting help from a company called Lumphanan Press. I make no fortunes, but there's always the faint possibility that something will take off and bring in some real income.

I'll leave you with three things to think about. 

Getting an agent doesn't automatically mean that you will get a publishing deal these days. Don't waste years of good writing time submitting endless query letters to agencies and waiting for them to respond.
Most books don't earn out their advances. The system is designed that way. It's perfectly possible for a publisher to profit from a book while the author, even from a mass market success, is paid sixpence a copy, as part of the deal. It's going to take a long long time to earn out even a modest advance at those rates. 
When people tell you that there is 'no money in the budget' to pay the creatives, what they mean is that there is, in fact, a budget. They just expect that you'll work for nothing. I still do sometimes work for nothing, but these days it's only for local organisations, small charities, good causes. Places where I can sell my own books. And seldom in winter, when I hibernate. But for big media corporations? Book chains owned by US Hedge Companies? I don't think so. Not any more.

Midnight Sun - My New Poetry Collection


A little while ago, I published a collection of my poetry, written over many years: Midnight Sun. Interestingly, this came as a surprise to some of my friends who didn't realise that I had once focused almost wholly on poetry. I started in my teens, carried on through my university years, and for a long time after - so the collection is arranged chronologically, although those teenage poems remain firmly at home in the 'beginners' folder where they belong. 

When I look back over my poetry, it didn't dry up completely, although at the time it seemed like it. I was busy writing drama, first for radio and then for the stage, with a small excursion into television. At the same time, I was working on fiction, long and short. I had a couple of novels published, but then there was a hiatus while I focused on drama, and when that dried up, I went back to fiction, publishing nine novels, so far. 

From time to time, though, I would feel that only a poem would do, to express what I wanted to say. I've been told that some of my novels - the Physic Garden and Bird of Passage in particular - as well as some of my plays, are 'poetic' or 'lyrical', so perhaps part of the creative energy that once went into my poems had gone into those novels. 

When I started putting this collection together, I wondered how I would feel about these poems that cover so much of my life. I left out much more than I put in. Many are love poems, but none the worse for that. Many of them have already been published over the years in a variety of small literary magazines. One or two have even won prizes. Some of them reflect the fiction I was working on at the time - poems about Robert Burns, a poem about Clarinda for example. Some of them were inspired by family history research undertaken when I was writing a book called A Proper Person to be Detained, about a murder in my family in 1881. 

I didn't even consider 'submitting' these anywhere. In fact I won't be submitting anything ever again and what a relief that is! But I did engage some expert help. A Polish friend, Michał Piasecki, (he posts as Keen Photographer on Facebook) is a talented landscape photographer and I have been using some of his beautiful images for my book covers. The excellent Duncan Lockerbie of Lumphanan Press has worked on book and cover design for me here and for other books, and he has made a wonderful job of this collection. In fact people keep complimenting me on the design of the book as much as the poems  - which I'm happy about, because one of my reasons for 'going independent' with my work was to try to maintain the quality of the physical product. To be able to work with a professional to make the book as good as it could be within the financial constraints that exist. 

If you read the book and enjoy the poems I'd be grateful for a review. Even a few lines on Amazon would be helpful. But if you can't do that, I still hope the poems speak to you in some way, that you can find something to identify with, something that strikes an emotional spark. 

A friend remarked to me yesterday that we all have secret rooms inside us, areas of our experience, places that even close friends don't know about each other. Poetry often taps into those places and experiences. It can help us to understand that our similarities are more important than our differences and that even our differences are other ways of seeing the world, other ways of experiencing our common humanity.

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 an unheard of sum of money. 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