Showing posts with label BBC radio. Show all posts
Showing posts with label BBC radio. Show all posts

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. 


Marilyn Imrie: Another Sad Goodbye

David Rintoul and Paul Young in Kidnapped

This is the second time in a few months that I've found myself writing in sadness about the death of somebody who was not just a valued work colleague, but an old friend too. Hamish Wilson died earlier this year. Now Marilyn Imrie has left us as well.

When I first began writing radio drama, not long after I finished university, I worked with a BBC Producer called Gordon Emslie. After he died, tragically young, Marilyn and I worked together for many years and on many hours of radio, including original plays and mammoth dramatisations such as Stevenson's Kidnapped and Catriona.

When Marilyn moved south, I began to work with Hamish, but we maintained contact and still managed to work together from time to time. Like all such long distance friendships, we kept in touch, told each other news of our offspring, always meant to meet up 'soon' - but years passed and even when Marilyn and James moved back to Edinburgh, my visits to that city were few and far between.

I had stopped writing for radio by that time, although until a few years ago, Marilyn would still suggest putting my name to a proposal. None of them ever 'took' and besides, I had other creative fish to fry by then: novels and non fiction books. My radio days were over, but not our friendship.

When I think about Marilyn now - beautiful, kind, enthusiastic and inspirational - it's very hard to imagine that she isn't here. I have a kind of patchwork in my head, composed of vivid fragments of our shared history, but mostly of the hours, days and weeks spent in small, airless studios deep inside the warren of the Edinburgh drama department. I remember the script meetings, the editing 'on the hoof' that all radio writers must learn how to do, the frequent cups of strong coffee, the freshly baked BBC scones that helped to keep us all going.

When we were working on Kidnapped and Catriona, we spent a couple of days reading my scripts aloud in advance, all ten of them, so that we could spot the places where the cast might find themselves dissolving into giggles. Not that she ever minded laughter. We were a happy bunch. But this production involved ten hours of radio, some 600 pages of script, studio time was limited and we needed to be ahead of the game in every way.

We came into the little control cubicle one day, in the middle of this big, stressful production, to find that she had pinned up a quote from Kidnapped - 'Day and night were alike in that ill-smelling cavern of the ship's bowels.'

To appreciate something of her talent and patience, you need to know that radio productions like this, with large casts and complex scripts, aren't necessarily recorded in the order in which they are written. Actors often have other commitments, so will be booked for specific days. It is one vast juggling act. And it is the director/producer, with the help of a production assistant, who makes this impossibly difficult task look easy. The reality was that Marilyn could manage a complicated production like this one with grace, unfailing good humour and the most amazing skill.

By the time we were doing Kidnapped, we had already worked on my first big dramatisation: Scott's Bride of Lammermoor. I have a postcard beside my desk that she sent to me in 1982, purporting to be from the great man himself, congratulating me on the 'remarkably fine retelling of my own favourite tale'. Details. She always took care of the details.

She produced my play O Flower of Scotland that won an award for best original radio play of 1980 - entailing a day trip to London, big celebrations and rather a lot of gin, as far as I remember. She produced another play called Bonnie Blue Hen that won a Scottish Radio Industries Club award. And later, we fulfilled a long held mutual ambition to work together on Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. We both loved the book, but it took us some 20 years to get the BBC to agree to it. So much of the radio success I enjoyed then was down to the talents of both Marilyn and Hamish. So many plays, so much joyful work.

I remember her flair and her positivity. I remember her visiting us in Ayrshire when her elder daughter was little, and inadvertently melting a pair of wellie boots while drying them next to our wood burning stove. I remember staying with her in Edinburgh when I was in the middle of another kind of melt down, some years previously, and her kindness and encouragement on that occasion.

Recently, I found a cassette that my dad recorded for me before he died. He's reading fragments of a play called Noon Ghosts. It was inspired in part by my father's childhood in eastern Poland. Marilyn wanted the cast to hear an authentic Polish voice. Coincidentally, I'm about to start work on a new book about my father's family, and about the grandfather I never knew. I'm listening to Noon Ghosts as I write this, and thinking about that production, and the chocolate covered plums I bought in a Polish deli in Broughton Street, and how we ate them in the studio with more of the tarry BBC coffee that left you jangly for hours afterwards.

A few months ago, when I heard that Marilyn was very unwell, I wrote to her. We were all in lockdown by then. She sent me a short letter of such loving kindness that it made me cry a little, because it seemed, as indeed it turned out to be, a valedictory letter.

I'll treasure it, as I treasure the memory of her.  But perhaps Stevenson's words are enough for now.

... and then we stood a space, and looked over at Edinburgh in silence. 'Well, goodbye,' said Alan, and held out his left hand. 'Goodbye,' said I, and gave the hand a little grasp and went off down the hill. 
Neither one of us looked the other in the face, nor so long as he was in my view did I take one back glance at the friend I was leaving. But as I went on my way to the city, I felt so lost and lonesome, that I could have found it in my heart to sit down by the dyke and cry and weep like any baby. 

Radio Drama: In Memory of Hamish Wilson

Hamish, second from the right: 'Running Before the Wind.'

My career as a writer began with radio drama. And one of the finest, funniest, most intelligent and creative producers I ever had the good fortune to work with, died last week. For his family, of course, he is irreplaceable. But the outpouring of sadness from so many people who worked with him over the years, both as a producer/director (in radio the jobs are conflated) and as an actor too, is genuine and heartfelt.

Quite simply, Hamish was one of the good guys.

Courtesy of the excellent Nigel Deacon who runs the Diversity website , keeping track of and celebrating radio drama, I acquired a list of all the productions I have ever done. My first radio production was in 1975 (I was pretty young!) and my last radio production was - incredibly, because it doesn't seem so long ago - in 2007, although of course the odd repeat crops up on R4 Extra. I felt tired just looking at it. I'm in the habit of saying that I have about 100 hours of produced radio to my name, including original plays and series, dramatizations, abridgments, readings and talks, but seeing the actual titles, the episodes, the actors and directors I had the good fortune to work with, the sheer time and effort involved in all of it, gave me pause for thought.

The majority of my work - albeit not all of it - was produced by two excellent producer/directors: Marilyn Imrie and Hamish Wilson. I began by working with another fine producer, Gordon Emslie, who died tragically young. Then I worked very happily with Marilyn on productions as diverse as Kidnapped and Catriona, and (perhaps my favourite of everything I wrote at that time) an original play called Bright as a Lamp, Simple as a Ring. But when she moved away from Scotland, I was 'passed on' to Hamish, who had moved to the BBC from Radio Clyde, where he had been making award winning radio drama, back when commercial stations still did that kind of thing.

We got on. And we immediately discovered that we shared a fascination for Scottish history, tradition and music. Of the various productions we worked on together, including several dramatizations of other work, the ones that chiefly stay in my memory are three original serials with very Scottish themes: The Peggers and the Creelers, about families of Ayrshire bootmakers and fisherfolk, and Running Before the Wind, about a fictional family of Clyde Coast yachtbuilders and the Curiosity Cabinet, which I eventually wrote as a novel. It's unusual for the drama to precede the book, but that's the way it was!

Hamish was a joy to work with. He was imaginative, perceptive and generous. He always understood your intentions as a writer. When you sent him a first draft of a script, he wouldn't change things. He would just ask you a series of extremely tricky questions - often about just those parts of the script that you had been unsure about yourself - and in finding the answers to them, you would make the whole thing better.

Hugely experienced in radio, he would never ever allow you to take the easy path of - for example - introducing superfluous narrators, to make things easier for yourself. 'Dramatise, Catherine!' he would say. 'Find a way to dramatise!' - which is advice I have carried with me ever since, even now that I'm writing fiction.

He loved his family and his pride in them was always obvious. He was a raconteur and his tales were funny. He was fascinated by all things historical, but military history in particular, and he would occasionally come out with the most bizarre anecdotes that always turned out to be true. Studio time is invariably limited and you are often 'imprisoned' in small spaces for hours at a time when you're making radio drama. Writers are expected to be able to edit on the hoof. Tempers can fray, but Hamish was adept at running a tight ship, while dispersing professional tensions by making people laugh. It was a gift, one that Marilyn Imrie possessed too.

He was kind to actors, giving them space to work their magic, and he was respectful to the technical staff without whom he knew that nothing good could happen. All drama is collaborative, and he was a consummate professional. The results were obvious in a string of fine productions. This was a producer who had won many awards and indeed had been a juror and jury chairman in the Prix Italia, Prix Futura Berlin and the Prix Europa - but he wore his distinction lightly.

In 1996, we worked on a play about the writing of Robert Burns's epic poem Tam O' Shanter, to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet's death. This was followed by a trio of dramatizations of Ray Bradbury short stories, matched by another trio dramatised by Brian Sibley, first broadcast in 1997, I think. Ray himself topped and tailed the recordings. We were honoured to be asked.

I was married and living in Ayrshire, trekking through to Edinburgh for script meetings and productions, working in theatre as well. But we always had plans for future work simmering away. One of those plans involved a series of Scottish plays based around traditional occupations and social change. After all, we were both fans of Ewan MacColl, both keen on folksong too.

So what happened? Well, suffice to say, John Birt in London happened, and one of the BBC's finest Scottish talents quite suddenly became surplus to requirements. After that, I did some more productions with Marilyn, who was working in London as an independent producer, including fulfilling our long held desire to dramatise Tove Jansson's Summer Book. I also dramatised Ben Hur with the late, great Glyn Dearman who wanted to work with me and had the clout to ask for me.

But all too soon, I realised that for me too, it was time to go. It was sad, but it provided the push I needed to get back to writing fiction, which is mostly what I do today, still with a profound interest in Scottish history and tradition. For Hamish it meant a return to acting, and appearances in many popular shows. I saw him and his wife briefly at the Wigtown book festival last year, but had a meeting arranged and couldn't linger. Before that, when I had been invited to the town to talk about my novel, The Jewel, all about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, we had tea and cakes and reminisced about radio, and about the way in which the research for Tam O' Shanter had first triggered my desire to write about Jean.

It's impossible to exaggerate the positive influence he had over my work.
And it's sad to think of him not being there, even though we had stopped working together so many years earlier. As the actor friend who told me the news said, 'it's our Hamish.'
Hamish, wherever you are, here's to you. You were and remain one of the best.

The Archers: Why I've Stopped Listening.

I listened to the Archers back in the fifties, hearing the familiar signature tune as I lay in my bed as a very little girl, waiting for sleep. And then, when I was old enough to understand it all, I listened properly but intermittently. Sometimes I would absent myself for years, coming back, catching up, then leaving it again. Regretting the loss of Walter and then Nelson Gabriel. I loved Nelson. And I was very sad about Nigel but found myself giggling at the jokes too. Don't jump off the roof, Nige...

The Archers saw me through marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, various troubles with parental sickness and death - and lots and lots of my own writing. As a fairly sickly child, I had listened to plenty of radio drama and in my twenties, I began to write it professionally too. I had some thirty years of writing for BBC radio, more than one hundred hours of original plays, series, dramatisations. Oddly, I never wanted to write for the Archers. I was asked once, but I said a polite no. I knew I wouldn't enjoy having to stick to other people's constraints about overall plot and character development.

One of my early radio plays, O Flower of Scotland, was about rape - a rarely tackled theme back then. It won a major award. I think it worked because it was about the kind of assault that is not carried out by a stranger, but by somebody known to the victim and it didn't shrink from examining the horror of it, not least in the after effects.

When the radio work stopped - quite suddenly, as careers at the BBC are apt to do for no very obvious reason - I turned my attention with continuing success to novels, short stories, non fiction and some stage plays as well. I still run occasional workshops on writing drama, still know how to write - and how not to write - issue based drama in particular. My stage play Wormwood, written for Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, was all about the Chernobyl disaster and you don't get much more issue based than that.

Which is why I've been following recent events in The Archers - and the vast numbers of passionate and occasionally heated comments about what has undoubtedly become the 'Rob and Helen Show' - with interest. Listeners are pretty much divided. Some people, especially people who are all too aware of the reality of abuse, are praising it for its authenticity. 'It really happens like that. In fact it's much worse. It goes on for years,' they say. A significant number of people on the other hand assert that they have stopped listening. I switched off a little while ago but I dipped back in again a few times out of sheer curiosity, when a denouement threatened, only to switch off again more permanently. And now, I'm examining my own motives.

The relief was immense and that surprised me. The thought of not having to listen to it brings a little extra frisson of pleasure to my day. I didn't expect that, but it's true. Nobody, incidentally, should ever assume that people switch off a particularly distressing programme because they don't want anything to disturb the even tenor of their days. Life isn't like that. Radio, as I was always told back in the olden days, when working producers had the time to teach aspiring writers their craft, is incredibly immediate and consequently can be very shocking. Much more so than television. It happens right inside your head. Everyone has his or her own stresses and struggles, worries, challenges, miseries. So although we can and do care for others, sometimes we also have to be realistic about looking after ourselves and those close to us and the need to avoid piling on extra sadness.

What else? Well, I'm sorry to say that anyone who believes that producers only plan these kind of storylines from the purest possible motives knows very little about the ways in which media corporations function. It might be true to say that those at the top live or perish by audience response and happy endings do not equate to increased listener numbers. That's why there's added jeopardy. Trams fall off viaducts, cars are driven into canals and landowners slide off roofs. They aren't doing this just to drive home a health and safety message. Listening figures matter. Coverage matters. Publicity matters. The fact that the Archers has been covered across so many different media - I'm blogging about it now and in a small way, feeding into the craze - is so much jam for those in charge.

But I still have a whole heap of reservations.

One of the first things you tell aspiring writers, as an experienced playwright is that 'It really happens like this' is no excuse for poor storytelling or cynical manipulation of a set of pre-existing characters. It seems to me that the Rob and Helen story has thrown the balance of the whole programme out of kilter. 'It really happens like this' (and of course it does! It happens like this and like that and it goes on for longer, it goes on for years and people are scarred for life and sometimes they die) is paramount when we're talking about the accuracy or otherwise of a factual documentary.

But this isn't a documentary. And it worries me that people seem to have lost the ability or even the desire to distinguish between drama and documentary. It used to be that listeners would send wreaths when a much loved character in a soap died. We snigger at them, but at least that was down to naivety. Now there's a certain indignation if a playwright or novelist doesn't always adhere to some strict representation of the truth as the listener perceives it.

Which is more unreasonable? To assume the truth of fiction or to assume that fiction must always reflect your own personal truth?

The Archers is a drama and a well loved one. Made up truth if you like. So it must be 'true' but it must also be shaped and - you know - dramatised. To get to the truth of a situation or an issue, to involve people, to enlighten them, you have to do it sensitively and by that, I don't mean prudishly avoiding the issue. I mean that you must be aware of when you are dealing with complex and long established characters, when you are shaping reality to enlighten, inform, engage - and, by contrast, you must know when you are cynically turning the screw.

The structure of recent episodes seems all wrong to me. You involve listeners or viewers in a continuing drama by putting them on a switchback and skilfully orchestrating the issues in terms of the characters as we know them, rather than taking them on a long slow slide into hell - however 'realistic' that may be. The Archers could have done this by - for example - shifting the focus to Helen's parents, Pat and Tony, from time to time, as they gradually became aware of what was going on but were still powerless to stop it. There are plenty of people in Ambridge who, on the evidence of past storylines, are all too aware of 'what Rob is really like'. Rather than a wholesale - and faintly ridiculous, let's face it - isolation of Helen by giving everyone else a sort of collective amnesia or mass delusion (Rob's a demon, oh wait, what a nice man he is!) and rather than the introduction of Cruella in the shape of Rob's mum, the writers could have been allowed to explore those tensions. I'd lay bets some of them wanted to. Helen might have made several attempts to leave, resulting in an escalation of her husband's violence. It would have been infinitely more dramatic and credible than the current 'Free The Ambridge One' scenario. It would also have been 'true' to a great many incarnations of domestic abuse.

For every parent who has no idea what is going on with their beloved child, there will be another who knows exactly what is going on and is desperate but unable to do something about it. And if you really want to advise and instruct people as well as entertaining them, then you tackle that much more low key but equally challenging state of affairs by dramatising it and you take your listeners with you on that journey, rather than force them to shout 'you deluded moron' at the radio throughout more than one episode.

Here's a recent example, from television. A single brilliantly written and acted couple of scenes in Happy Valley told me more about the reality of coping with alcoholism in a loved one than any number of documentaries on the same topic. But don't you just get the feeling that if this had been the Archers, right now, the much loved sister who had fallen off the wagon would have been abandoned by Catherine and been found dead in a ditch the next morning instead of sitting with a sore head and a cup of tea? That too would have been 'true to life' but it would have evaded all kinds of sensitive and subtle issues that Sally Wainwright managed to explore in fairly short scenes that have - interestingly enough - stayed with me ever since.

If the BBC wanted to run a piece of continuing, issue based, real time drama about domestic abuse - and it might have been a worthy project - then that's what they should have done. They should have had the courage of their convictions. Instead, we have an impossibly long drawn out melodrama imposed on characters we have known and lived with for years, changing them beyond all recognition. My willing suspension of disbelief was challenged weeks ago and is now gone beyond recall which is another reason why I've switched off. There's a way of tackling these things, of bringing in new listeners without alienating the old, of stitching them into the ongoing fabric of the drama that would continue to move people and involve them and might stand a chance of doing some good as well.

But I don't believe this is it.

Perhaps, too, it's as simple as recognising that a scant quarter of an hour at a time is much too short for such an exploration of evil, for such grim intensity night after night, day after day. The 'lighthearted' scenes in between seem forced and stupid by comparison - which is because they are. But pity the poor writers, because they don't stand a chance. Ruth, laughing for fifteen seconds over the profoundly unfunny stock cube in the shower is just one example. For me, the programme is bursting out of its format in no good way and it will be a brave and skilful producer who manages to get it back on track. But who knows, having jettisoned a heap of listeners, perhaps the new fans will stay. Which may have been what they intended all along.

All the same, they need to beware of what one of my old and very talented producers used to call the 'shit click' effect. It's when your listener says 'shit' and switches off. That's what I did. It'll be a long time till I go back.

The Curiosity Cabinet on BBC Radio 4 Extra

Earlier this week, a friend pointed out that my trilogy of plays, The Curiosity Cabinet, first written and produced for BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Theatre slot, some years ago, is due to be repeated on Radio 4 Extra on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of this coming week, 2nd, 3rd and 4th of October. You can read more about the plays and broadcast times here.  There are three episodes: The Brown Swan, The Mute Swan and The Swan on the Lake.

If you've read this story as a novel (currently available on Amazon's Kindle Store, here in the UK and here in the USA ) you may be surprised to learn that it was first written in dramatic form. It's generally the other way round. Novels are 'dramatised' as plays. But way back when I first thought about this story, I was writing lots of drama for radio and theatre and that was how I first 'heard' it in my head - as a series of plays. The novel came later.

Actually the idea for The Curiosity Cabinet had been in my head for a long time, ever since I visited an Edinburgh museum and happened to read the story of Lady Grange who was kidnapped to a remote Scottish island at the instigation of her husband. Like so many writers, I began to think 'what if?' What would it be like for a young woman (younger that the real Lady Grange) to be snatched away from all she held dear, not knowing why, and then to find herself plunged into a completely different culture? For Gaelic and Lowland cultures were very different and still are to some extent. The Henrietta Dalrymple of my imagination could not even understand the language, could hardly make herself understood, even in her state of panic and desperation. This was how the story began to take shape in my mind, but my Henrietta is nothing like the real Lady Grange. The story is set at a different time. The plot is very different. And my fictional island is a bit like Gigha and a bit like Coll and could be any one of a number of small Scottish islands.

I always knew that somehow the historical story would be intertwined with a modern day tale. I just wasn't quite sure what that story would be.  You can hear the tale in its first incarnation in the radio version but I was never very happy with the present day part of the story. This was, I should point out, nobody's fault but mine. The production was excellent and as always with the wonderful Hamish Wilson in charge it was a very happy time. But I knew I was going to have to revisit the story itself, knew I wanted to do more with it. Felt that it wasn't quite doing what I wanted it to do.

Paperback version by Polygon
When it came to the novel, the historical sections are pretty much the same but the modern day version changed a lot. I wrote the two stories separately, printed them out, and then did a literal cut and paste job of weaving them together, before replicating that on the PC. This was never going to be a real 'time slip' novel. That wasn't quite what I had in mind. My stories were always intentionally parallel. None of the characters move back and forth between past and present although the present day Alys (yes -  even her name was different in the novel version!) gradually becomes aware of Henrietta if only through some of her possessions. All the same, the stories are linked in subtle ways. This is a story about keeping secrets and learning to trust, about belonging, about motherhood and obligation. It's a story about the possibility of redeeming the past in the present. It's about the way small islands often seem to encompass past and present, layers of time, one overlain on another. It's a love story: not just the love between man and woman, but that between mother and child.

The novel was one of three books shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize and was subsequently published by Polygon. It's well out of print, but you can still find the odd paperback copy on Amazon and there's also an unabridged audio version by Oakhill, beautifully read by Caroline Bonnyman. In due course, I'll bring out a new paperback version with CreateSpace.

There's another thing about the novel. Before I was a playwright and a novelist, I was a published poet (I know, I know. Couldn't settle to anything!) and I found myself pruning and polishing this book in much the same way as I used to work at my poems. But now, I'm not entirely sure it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, you can polish a little too much. There's a fine line between the simple and the facile. With later novels, I gave myself permission to prune less. But as ever, the trick is in knowing when enough is enough and I'm still learning!

Perhaps because of this, The Curiosity Cabinet has occasionally been called a 'bit of froth' and a 'guilty pleasure' at the same time as John Burnside was describing it a 'powerful story about love and obligation.' You pays your penny, as they say...  But of all the many very nice comments and reviews this book has received, (when readers like it, they like it a lot) the one that probably pleases me most is the US reviewer who remarked that the book is 'so tightly written you could bounce a quarter off of it.' That one made me very happy indeed!

I find it hard to listen to Radio 4 Extra, here in deepest rural Scotland. I can only get it on my television. But if you are around next week, why not give it a try? It's a lovely, evocative production and it may also give you some insight into how ideas can change and evolve - sometimes quite drastically - over time.

Needlework, Wise Women and Kindles

Ayrshire Whitework in magical detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury.

Some years ago, while I was still writing radio drama, and having already worked on a serial based on a little known Sci Fi novel by Zenna Henderson, called Pilgrimage, I was asked to dramatise some of Ray Bradbury's short stories for a radio series called Tales of the Bizarre. My fellow playwright was Brian Sibley, a fine writer and a friend of Bradbury's who has written his own tribute to the great man here. The series was produced by award winning producer/director Hamish Wilson, with whom I was doing a fair amount of radio work at the time.

There was no prescription about the work. I was simply handed a huge volume of Bradbury's collected stories and asked to pick the ones I liked best. The only difficulty was in choosing, because there were so many wonderful stories - and not all of them 'science fiction'. Some of them could more accurately be classed as 'horror'; some of them were simply bizarre.  But all of them were beautifully written and often poetic. I loved them. And fortunately, Brian and I chose different stories, so there was no haggling!

There were two series and my choice included I Sing The Body Electric, Skeleton, The Man Upstairs, The Day It Rained Forever, Have I Got a Chocolate Bar for You and And So Died Riabouchinska. All of them were quite different, but all were a pleasure to dramatise.

I've written plenty of original drama, but when I was working in radio, I was sometimes asked to dramatise classics and contemporary fiction. I've also found myself turning my own radio plays and series into novels and stories, reversing the process. My novel The Curiosity Cabinet began life as a trilogy of radio plays, also directed by Hamish Wilson. The act of dramatising a work of fiction, of finding the drama while staying true to the original, is a peculiar and quite difficult skill, not to be undertaken lightly. It can be especially challenging when the work of fiction is well loved. And - unexpectedly - the dramatist can find a piece of work dissolving in the transformation. It has happened to me on one occasion and it can be disturbing to realise that a widely acclaimed novel seems to be all style and no substance.

This, however, never happened with Bradbury. These stories were all brilliant combinations of style and substance.

Although I enjoyed the whole process, there were two stories which stand out in my memory, perhaps because both of them were uniquely suitable for radio. One was Skeleton, a truly horrific tale of a 'bone specialist' who turns out to be a little more sinister than a simple osteopath. Think vampires, but fixated on something quite different from blood, and you get the drift. It was fun to do from start to finish, including our bone specialist, played by Liam Brennan, crunching on breadstick, to get the sound effects just right. Oh, and there was a bowl of jelly somewhere in the studio. The result was both revolting and riveting.

The other story which worked very well as radio drama was The Day It Rained Forever. This is a magical story about so many things that you can't pin it down. It's about drought and rain, about sterility and fertility, about death and life, about age and youth, about poetry and rejuvenation. I still think about it sometimes, with that little kick of pleasure that a great story gives you, even in retrospect. Oh, and it involves a woman who plays the rain on her harp: a delicate and beautiful tale, quite the opposite of Skeleton. And therein, I think, lies the genius of this writer.

Bradbury introduced each episode of Tales of the Bizarre in his own inimitable and generous way. I remember being very happy that he approved of my dramatisations, and also being touched by the fact that - unusually - he always pronounced my surname accurately, without having to ask! Somehow, that little courtesy seemed to encapsulate the man I knew only from his stories.