Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The power of good writing

A Play, a Pie and a Pint

On Friday I bussed it into Glasgow to watch some lunchtime theatre at Oran Mhor. I may have featured A Play, A Pie and A Pint before but it is always worth a plug. I made an extra effort last week because the play was written by Denise Mina so it was sure to be a winner. I saw her first play Ida Tamson performed there last year and was gripped by the story of a granny squaring up to a Glasgow hard man.

Last week’s play was A Drunk Woman Looks at the Thistle which is an adaptation of Hugh MacDairmid’s poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.
When I arrived at Oran Mhor half an hour before the box office door opened, I was stunned to see a growing queue. I was informed that the play’s star was Karen Dunbar, a popular Scottish comic actress and that The Herald had awarded the play five stars.

It lived up to its reputation. Karen gave a virtuoso performance of this epic poem which analyses the Scottish identity and psyche and put a few hypocritical noses in the audience out of joint. It is a piece of Scottish writing that is well overdue and I applaud not only Karen Dunbar for performing it with such energy and fun, but Denise Mina for having the guts to write it in the first place.

A mention should also be made of Alison Peebles who directed the play. Every Alison Peebles play I have had the pleasure to watch has been executed with perfection.

You can read the script here, but be warned the language is strong and it is not for the faint hearted.

Just read

It’s been yonks since I featured a ‘Just Read’. That isn’t because I haven’t been reading; it is because either the book hasn’t been worth mentioning or because I have been reading tons of research material that no one else would be bothered about.

Brazzaville Charms

One research book is however worth a mention. It is Brazzaville Charms by Cassie Knight, subtitled ‘Magic and Rebellion in The Republic of Congo’.

I was fascinated by this book, firstly because, I am ashamed to admit, I knew nothing about The Congo and didn’t realise there was Belgium Congo and French Congo, which is pretty dim of me because I have stamps from both colonies.

The second major aspect about this book was that it made me angry and the more I read the angrier I became and will remain. Angry about Colonialism; angry about how oil and power seem more important than people; angry about poorly managed forestry and the destruction of the second largest rainforest in the world.
Angry that the world can sit back and watch oil, and forestry companies conspire with the Congolese government to allow a resource rich country remain one of the poorest in the world.

The writer may exert a certain amount of bias in this book but the facts are staggering in their simplicity. She uses a clear and unpretentious style to make her case of exploitation of a people and country she is passionate about.

Read it and feel as enraged as I was. Everyone needs to feel this anger before something positive is achieved here.

Cat’s Eyes by Margaret Atwood was also a research book but I would probably have worked my way round to reading it eventually.

Cat’s Eyes is a story of girls bullying girls and how this situation can affect all parties’ life choices. The story swaps back and forth in the life of one of the girls, Elaine. As an adult she returns to Toronto where she grew up and was tortured by her little class mate Cordelia. Although Elaine is now a successful artist she is still haunted by Cordelia, and this visit peels open old wounds.

The descriptions of the bullying are as subtle as real life girl bullying is, but there are a few episodes that bordered on criminal behaviour and I feel might have been better left out.

As always Atwood spins a good story with solid, well crafted prose. Every time I read one of her books I learn something about my own writing. She is a master.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

All the fours - 444

Happy Birthday Wullie

Today is the four hundred and forty fourth anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare.
I first encountered him when I was given Julius Caesar in first year at school. I thought it was rubbish and couldn't understand a word. I blame the teacher, who failed to point out the subtleties and fun in his work and that this great bard added more new words to the English language than almost anyone else, but maybe the teacher didn't get it either.

In second year The Merchant of Venice needed no translation, I was mesmerised by Portia and thrilled by the ending.

Macbeth was next and this time the school took us to a performance at the newly opened Macrobert Centre in Stirling (I am showing my age here!). We had great fun shouting out the name of the play to the cast while they tried to perform; it was all very juvenile.

They kept the best till last and gave us Hamlet for 'O' Level. I can't remember the play for the Highers, I suspect it wasn't Shakey.

I still have the books in my bookcase, I must have 'forgotten' to hand them back to the school along with the copy of '1984'. Even at that early age I had a tendency for hoarding books, but that is another story.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Old and New

Fifty First Timer No.12

Visit the Smith Institute, Stirling. (Now named Stirling Smith Museum)

It has been my ambition to visit this unique local museum ever since I attended a lecture by its Director Dr Elspeth King. That was twelve years ago, but it was worth the wait. The museum is housed in what looks like a Greek temple, a style much favoured in the eighteen hundreds. It was gifted to the city by Thomas Stuart Smith, whose family story is so similar to that of Kidnapped’s David Balfour, it is believed that Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired whist visiting the institute and dealt himself a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ card.

There are three exhibit rooms in the museum. The first, small room, is adjacent to the one cafĂ© I failed to try on my travels. This room houses a painting exhibition by Greer Ralston. All paintings are of horses and although I am not partial to animal paintings, I couldn't help be impressed with the emotions captured in each subject’s eyes, it is chilling.

The next exhibit is my favourite, the history of publishing in Scotland, how lucky. There is particular emphasis on Stirling Printers Eneas MacKay, who published many works by SRL and MacDiarmid, among others.

The last exhibit appears to be a permanent feature, with local archives reaching back to the Bronze Age. I was enthralled by a short film explaining the demise of the mining industry in the area.

Twelve years is a long time to put off a visit, but now I have witnessed what is on offer I will be pop in on the passing.


One lilac tree and buddleia; to encourage the birds and the bees and the butterflies into the garden.

One kerria and saxifrage, planted in an painted old fireplace. I saw a kerria while visiting my brother in hospital and fell in love with its delicate apricot flowers.

Two broom bushes beside the grasses. I love broom, the hedgerows sparkle with it at the moment. I suppose I could have gone out and dug a clump but if everyone did that there would be no hedgerows left.

One rowan tree. A friend gave me a tiny sapling in a plastic bottle. I planted it yesterday and already it looks at home. It is widely believed in Scotland that no home should be without a rowan tree. We left one behind when we moved here. Now I feel our home is complete.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Sun and Snow

The perfect combination? (not quite)

(photos Colin Baird)

Here is my sister Liz and me on the steep snowy slope of Sgurr Choinnich in the West Morar Forest, just south of Achnashellach.

We had planned to camp! Instead Liz found a great B&B in Lochcarron. The Old Manse B&B fed us up before our epic and provided roasting hot baths and squidgy soft beds to soothe our tired bones.

The planned walk through Achnashellach Forest, up and over munro Sgurr Choinnich, a short ridge walk to a second munro, Sgurr a Chaorachain, and the seven kilometre traipse back to the car, should have taken us eight hour max. What we were confronted with at the first sight of these monstrous hills was buckets of new snow. What was described in the book as a steep clamber up a ridge was at one time a grade one ice climb. The snow was so soft it crumbled beneath our boots leaving us digging ice axes in for extra purchase.

After hours of climbing we at last topped the summit ridge. Imagine our horror when, having thought we had the day cracked, we were met with a section of narrow ridge plastered with piles of snow. A huge cornice hung, cracked and ready to fall, on one side, unstable avalanche prone run out on the other and there was no way of knowing where the solid part of the ridge was. One foot forward could have meant either crashing through the cornice to fall two thousand feet into the corrie on the north side or tumbling down amongst tons of avalanched snow to be buried in the south valley. Not much of a choice.

It was too dangerous, we turned back, there is no point taking risks. We were scunnered but, after a careful descent down the ridge we had just climbed, we were safe. The hills are still there to be enjoyed another day.

The unexpected snow meant we were very late back to Lochcarron and had no choice but to eat in the local bar of the Lochcarron Hotel. The burger was adequate, but I will seek out a tastier alternative on my next visit there.

So near and yet so far

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Toys, books and blogs

My new toy

Fifty First Timer No.11

Build and stock a greenhouse

Before I receive another ticking off for stretching the truth, I have to admit I didn’t build the greenhouse myself. I was the labourer. Colin (the engineer) did all the tricky stuff, but we made a good team and on Sunday evening we took great pleasure sipping our G & Ts in the comfort of the ‘High Eave Elite’.

A greenhouse is not a cheap option but it is a concerted attempt on our part to grow some of the more exotic veggies. I love cooking with chillis and peppers and I go through mountains of tomatoes in a year. I will probably stick to these easy options for this year and experiment a bit more next. I am hoping it will pay itself off in enviromental and monetary terms in the next couple of years.

New Blog

I am the proud mother of a new blog. As a new member of Erskine Writers I was coerced into helping them out with their website. This is managed externally and seems a bit of a ‘footer’, so I persuaded them a blog would be a good idea to bring news to the people in quick time. The intention is to have all these talented writers blogging and sharing their witty and clever observations with a wider audience.

What this space http://erskinewriters-uk.blogspot.com/

New website

Last week I heard about an interesting new website that is still in its infancy, but has the potential for greatness.

http://beta.booklamp.org/aims to find and recommend the right books for you. Using new analytical software the founder, Aaron Stanton, hopes to build a huge database of titles, analyse elements of each book and construct a sort of book DNA. Once this database is crammed full it should be possible to pick a book or books you particularly enjoy, and then start a search. Booklamp will give you a recommendation list. It is a bit like the recommendations Amazon do but based on the information you give Booklamp. No more being offered a crazy selection after you’ve Amazoned all your Christmas pressies.

Please be patient, Booklamp is still in its baby stages, they have only a short list on offer, mostly SciFi, but they aren’t claiming otherwise. They welcome people to join, have a play around and see their potential, and there is a forum that allows users to leave comments and ideas.

Book Heaven

The Bibliocafe, Woodland Road, Glasgow

This is a word of mouth sort of place, but now I know where to find it I am hooked. The Bibliocafe sits on the corner of Woodlands Road and West End Park Street in the vibrant West End of Glasgow.

The concept is easy. Before you leave the house, pick up those books you've read but won’t read again. Take books to the Bibliocafe. The lovely lady there will tell you how much the books are worth to her, you strike a deal. She gives you a credit note to the value of the books and you spend the next few hours drinking coffee, eating yummy cake and browsing the shelves for a quality second hand book to replace the ones you took along. If the value of your purchases does not meet the credit note, the note is marked up and you can use it next time around. Good eh?

I didn’t have any books to trade because I can’t bear to part with any printed material, but that didn’t stop me enjoying an organic ginger tea while people watching from the large picture window upstairs. Oh and I bought a book, well I had to. My request for The Poisonwood Bible has been in the library for six weeks and Bibliocafe had a once read copy for £3.00 – what would you have done?

Monday, 7 April 2008

Irrational Fears

Fifty First Timer No.10

Catch a spider

I know it may not sound much but it is for me. I suffer from arachnophobia. I have done since birth. I think my mother passed it on to me and my siblings. For people who don’t suffer there is no way to describe the cold dread that sweeps through me when, out of the corner of my eye, I first spot that black something on the carpet. It may be static or it may be wheeching along the skirting or worse across the floor towards me. I scream, I run for help.
A sighting in the bedroom is worst of all, especially when I am about to settle down into my cosy bed and there in the corner is a big black hairy legged creepy crawly. Can I risk leaving it; maybe once the light is out it will settle down? No way! It might head straight for me and clamber over the bedcovers to…To what?
Until last year, if there was no help at hand then I was reduced to dropping a heavy book on top of the poor wee thing. I am now only just capable of placing a large jar over the top of the spider and leaving it imprisoned until a knight arrives.
There is no rational explanation for my fear. I know spiders can’t hurt me, I even know that they can help. I didn’t realise this so much until I moved to the country. There are more flies in the country and spiders catch flies and eat them. Last year I decided the time had come to tackle this fear and be kinder to spiders.
I never kill them now. I let them alone to wander the house (out with the bedroom). I often startle a wee soul when I am hovering or washing the kitchen floor. ‘Go along little friend’ I say as I wait until they scuttle out of my line of vision.
Yesterday a medium sized intruder passed into the forbidden territory. There was no knight in sight. Right, I could do this I knew I could.
A large gherkin jar was carried forth and with sweaty palms and dry mouth I managed to coax Mr creepy crawly into the jar, I whipped the lid on and at arms length marched him out the front door to be spilled out onto the frozen path.
The next step for me is to tackle the monster species we attract in these parts. They wear balaclavas and tackity boots, but if left alone they die in a couple of days. I normally find them dried up behind the curtains waiting for the Hoover hose.
Maybe I will just leave them to nature.