Friday, 25 October 2013

Posts from BOOKMARK - And Now Raise Your Glasses

And Now Raise Your Glasses

Oct 24 2013
This is going to be my last post on the BOOKMARK blog and so it seemed fitting to include the event which concluded BOOKMARK 2013 – Charles Maclean’s whisky tasting session – or at least the session preceding it seeing as I didn’t take part in any whisky tasting because I’m slightly too young for that.

 Anyway, I sat down at the beginning of the session, thinking I could melt away into the background. I was wrong. I received a shout out (and so did the tech team), thanking me for being BOOMARK’s official blogger. This meant the entire audience turned and stared at me. Nonetheless, it was great to hear how much my work has been appreciated, and it’s also been nice reading the comments left on the posts, but there was someone else who I thought ought to have been mentioned. Without the editing skills of Hilda Reilly, my posts would, no doubt, be full of spelling and punctuation mistakes that I failed to pick up in the heat of writing. So thank you, Hilda.

 Throughout the rest of Charles’s session I picked up a huge amount of information on whisky (which I’m sure will be put to use in later life). The audience seemed hugely enthusiastic, judging by their response to Mr Maclean’s easy manner on stage and the amount of participation in the session which was unscripted and relied on questions asked by audience members. And, despite the lack of scripting, Charles managed to speak without faltering once. Hats off to him, I say. Unfortunately he happens to be the only person whose session I listened in on and didn’t get the chance to interview! We did share a few quick words, but he had to take charge of the whisky tasting session which started at 4.30pm, so I interviewed a few BOOKMARK volunteers instead.

 I met Jan and Heather outside the Hub and decided to pounce on them for their opinion of BOOKMARK (which I also used in an article for the Blairie).

“For a first year it’s been a great experience,” said Jan.

“It’s been great for those who have been helping too. It’s been enjoyable,” was Heather’s verdict.

 And you know, I couldn’t agree more. Helping out with the blog for BOOKMARK has been so much fun and has given me the opportunity to meet many well-known writers and, more importantly, has enabled me to take part in something that I know will benefit the community enormously. But what kick-started the whole concept of BOOKMARK in the first place?

I put the question to Christine Findlay.

“I belong to two reading groups in Blairgowrie and am an avid book festival goer,” she told me. “It struck me that Blairgowrie, a town working hard to regenerate its economy and its identity, might benefit from a new project such as a book festival. I had been to several other small book festival towns (Melrose, Wigton, Ullapool etc.) and seen the benefits which had come directly from hosting a successful book festival. So it was a combination of my own love of reading, a lifelong desire to encourage that love of reading in others (I had a long career as an English teacher) and a belief that bringing a book festival to Blairgowrie, Rattray and The Glens could contribute to the area’s regeneration programme which collectively motivated me.”

Thanks to Christine’s determination and the hard work of the BOOKMARK team, audiences were able to enjoy a brilliant first festival – long may that continue.

 I have to say, though, there was one thing that did disappoint me about BOOKMARK – I didn’t get the opportunity to interview all of the authors taking part! Nor was I able to listen in on all of the sessions, like Karen Campbell’s or Joan Lennon’s. But never mind, there’s always a next time.

Posts from BOOKMARK - Getting to the Truth of the Matter with James Robertson

Getting to the Truth of the Matter with James Robertson

Oct 23 2013
Before I begin on the main subject of this post, I just want to say – you have no idea what a relief it is to be writing this after doing a Grade 5 piano theory paper. The paper was only a practice (thank goodness) but it was genuinely enough to make my head spin.
So, on with the show…

This, in the context of Saturday 19th, meant that after a quick lunch, I was off to sit in on James Robertson’s session which began at two. If anyone is interested, lunch consisted of a bowl of mushroom soup and a few sandwiches while I sat at a table with James Robertson, Fiona Armstrong and Mairi Hedderwick, among other people. If nothing else, the whole experience was a bit surreal and if that wasn’t enough, I ended up chatting to Fiona Armstrong in the ladies!

 By the time I took my seat for James Robertson’s session, I was in a bit of a daze. I snapped out of it soon enough though and focussed on what was being said on stage. Fiona Armstrong (who was chairing the session) and James Robertson were discussing his latest novel ‘The Professor of Truth’ which is loosely based on the events surrounding the Lockerbie bombing told through the eyes of Dr Alan Tealing. ‘The Professor of Truth’ was described by Fiona as being ‘quite remarkable’ and ‘a wonderful and beautifully written, human story’ by Liz Lochhead, but it didn’t come without its fair share of controversy. This is a) because any book dealing with such a raw subject is going to be met with both applause and opposition and b) because James’s novel comes in on the slant which suggests Megrahi was not the guilty party. Although James has tried to ‘remove’ his storyline slightly from the events on which it was based, it is, for many who believe in Megrahi’s guilt, a hard-hitting novel. During the session, James stated that he thought that Megrahi’s innocence was a much more plausible notion than the idea that Megrahi did do it.

 I can’t claim to know much about the Lockerbie bombing apart from the fact that it was a terrible tragedy in which many people lost their lives in the aftermath of which one man was tried and convicted. Maybe because of that I found myself drawn to James’s ideas about what might have actually happened, though he never once claimed to know the true version of events, instead saying: “What I’m trying to do is not say ‘look, this is the real story’ because it is a novel, but to say ‘maybe we should all step back a bit and try and look at how these narratives get constructed and why, sometimes, they go askew’, and I think the real Lockerbie saga has gone very badly askew.”
Throughout the session, James remained calm in explaining the version of events presented in ‘The Professor of Truth’ (the second half of which is pure fiction) even when Fiona took a turn at playing devil’s advocate. James never once tried to force his opinions down the audience’s throats and was careful and considerate in all that he said on the matter. In fact, the audience was so absorbed in all of this you could have heard a pin drop. However, when the discussion was thrown open to the audience, a few people became quite vocal , asking James’s opinion on Lockerbie and in particular what he believed Kenny Macaskill’s motivations for ‘one of the most extraordinary political actions of the time’ might be.

 When I caught up with James after his book signing in the hub (you may be sensing a theme here) I commented on this and asked whether he found this often happened when introducing ‘The Professor of Truth’.

“Yes, it’s kind of inevitable in a way because it’s based on quite a contentious subject, so I’m not surprised really. It’s interesting because you don’t really know what questions you’re going to get asked, so sometimes you get quite a difficult question like the one that was asked today and when you don’t know the answer you have to say ‘I don’t know’. But I’m used to that. I expect there to be tricky questions.”

I nodded in agreement at this. You couldn’t really anticipate anything else after basing a novel, however loosely, on events like Lockerbie. I wondered if any of James’s other works had ever generated the same kind of response as ‘The Professor of Truth’.

“Not in the same kind of way, no, because they haven’t been dealing with anything quite as controversial as the Lockerbie bombing. You know, people will ask you quite challenging questions but usually they don’t have that edge to them that sometimes the questions around this book have.”
So why tackle something that is still so raw?

“Well, really because I think if you’re a serious writer and there’s a subject that you feel needs to be addressed, then you’ve got to have the courage to do it. Even though I knew it was going to be quite controversial I thought I just want to get among it and write about it.”

And I think this is true. You’ve got to have guts to do something like James Robertson has – thick skin too, and of course, a certain amount of self-belief. You need all of this in order to harness the ability to take the inevitable negative comments on the chin. Thankfully though, these ‘negative comments’ are balanced out by the overwhelming praise for this well written book. Hannah McGill of the Scotsman described ‘The Professor of Truth’ as ‘very good…powered by action and mystery’. Others like John Burnside of the Guardian described it as an ‘impressive study of grief’. And finding all these positive reviews is making me want to read it!

 After the great response James received from his BOOKMARK audience (this member having thoroughly enjoyed the session) I wondered what he thought of BOOKMARK compared to other book festivals he had been to.

“Well, given that this is the first one, I think it’s doing remarkably well. It’s right in a very central venue, there are lots of people coming and going, the audience seemed to be really enjoying themselves and so, I think, have the writers who have come. I think it compares really well and I like the fact that it’s very intimate and friendly.”

This, I had noticed, was something many of the writers had been saying and I agree with them. The audiences at all of the sessions laughed when jokes were cracked, ‘awed’ when Andrew Greig read out his poem describing his unerring love for his wife, and fell into enraptured silence when listening to James and Fiona discuss ‘The Professor of Truth’. This is the kind of festival where an author knows his or her work will be received with genuine interest, where they can get a telling response. The authors might be one of the things that keep people coming back to BOOKMARK, but the audience and hospitality of this book festival is what will attract the authors.

 Now that I’ve finished this post, it’s back to worrying how my piano teacher will react when he sees my attempt at that Grade 5 theory paper…

Posts from BOOKMARK - Having Fun with Mairi Hedderwick

Having Fun with Mairi Hedderwick

Oct 22 2013
After my interview with Andrew Greig I made my way up to the Conference Room where Mairi Hedderwick’s ‘The Making of Katie Morag’ session was about to begin as part of the mini-BOOKMARK festival for children.

 I met my neighbour who was peering curiously through the doors as volunteers organised chairs and made a few last minute adjustments. She told me that she had managed to book the last two tickets available for ‘The Making of Katie Morag’ for her daughters, but confessed she hoped the volunteers would let her listen in on the session. Why? Well, like me and so many others, she loved Katie Morag.

 Katie Morag was one of my favourite fictional characters as a child, and is still among my top ten even now. I think the feisty little red-head appeals to so many younger readers because she is their reflection (though probably not in appearance). She shares the same highs and lows, gets into the same kind of mischief and learns the same lessons from her experiences as any child would. This is also the reason so many adults enjoy Katie Morag’s adventures – she has the innate ability to bring people back to their childhoods.

 After chatting away for a good few minutes, my neighbour and I found a space at the back of the Conference Room, though unfortunately we had to stand as there were no chairs left.
What really amazed me more than anything during ‘The Making of Katie Morag’ was Mairi Hedderwick’s ability to hold the attention of a room full of children – not an easy thing to do by anyone’s standards. She later told me ‘eye contact is one of the tricks’. Of course, it didn’t just come down to a few glances here and there. The reason the children were so engrossed in what Mairi was saying was because of the way that she had created an interactive session. She allowed the children to have their say, to share their opinions and thoughts.

 I also couldn’t help noticing the smiles on the faces of the children’s parents! I think (and I’m on shaky ground here considering I have no experience in bringing up children) that when a parent sees their child happy and smiling, involved in what is going on around them, it creates a certain sense of joy. So, in that way, Mairi’s session benefitted not only the children taking part, but the adults as well.

 And as I leaned back against the wall thinking this, I found myself wishing that I too had an armchair as comfortable as Mairi’s to sit in. Armchair? Ah, yes, I’d better explain. The conference room had been cleverly laid out to mimic a grandmother’s lounge, right down to comfortable reading chair and old-fashioned lamp, with cushions on the floor for the children to sit on.

 Mairi explained to me the reasons for this after she’d signed her latest Katie Morag book (Katie Morag and the Dancing Class) for her young fans. “It’s a much more relaxed atmosphere for them. I always want the children to sit on the floor. Sometimes you go to venues and it’s all formal chairs and the children are expected to sit there and be lectured at. I try to get the children involved with questions and answers, so to have them round in a semi-circle, sitting on the floor is the right atmosphere.”

So what did she think of BOOKMARK?

“I think it’s wonderful and it’s always exciting when you’re part of the first book festival because it’s such an excitement and it’s been wonderfully organised. It’s been so good to come to it.”
Then she said something surprising…

 “I am so well known for the Katie Morag stories and that is wonderful because I know teachers get a terrific response. They use the books a lot in schools, but I actually do adult books and these are not noticed so much and I always find that a little bit sad. Of course, I’m delighted to work with the children but a lot of my colleagues are adult writers and there is a sort of separation between a children’s author and an author who writes for adults.”

In a way, I can understand how Mairi feels. She has lived with Katie Morag for almost 30 years now, and though she has written around five travel guides (for adults) they have not had nearly as much success or publicity as her tales from the Isle of Struay. And I got the sense she wasn’t being pessimistic; she was just telling the truth. Mairi is evidently pleased with the success of Katie Morag, but she acknowledges that success is a double-edged sword. In her case, it has almost trapped her within children’s literature. But there is always hope, and there are many authors who take on both adults’ and children’s literature, like James Robertson, creator of the Gruffalo and author of ‘The Professor of Truth’.

When I asked Mairi if she would be interested in doing a session on her other works (such as ‘An Eye on the Hebrides’ which was being sold at the BOOKMARK hub) she replied:
“Yes, of course. I want to do more of that.”
I hope that she will.

Posts from BOOKMARK - In Conversation with Andrew Greig

In Conversation with Andrew Greig

Oct 21 2013
I caught up with Andrew Greig, after his session chaired by Liz Lochhead, in the BOOKMARK hub. I stood in the queue behind a swathe of people holding copies of his latest novel, Fair Helen, waiting patiently for the author himself to sign them. During the session Andrew had read to the audience two excerpts from the novel, a bleak re-mastering of the border ballad Fair Helen of Kirkconoll Lea, told from the point of view of Harry Langton, a novel which had been flying off the bookshop stand in the hub.

 Songs also featured in Andrew Greig’s session. Yes, you did read that correctly, no, your eyes are not deceiving you. There was indeed singing at a book festival. Andrew Greig accompanied himself on guitar and banjo (not at the same time) over two songs – one he had written himself and the other the border ballad of ill-fated fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea. He also read a selection of poems from his ‘micro odyssey’ Found at Sea. And, of course, he had a bit of a haver with Liz Lochhead.

 As I waited behind my parents to reach the front of the queue, I realised that Andrew was taking time to speak to his fans. As he signed their books, they proudly told him why they could relate to his poetry about sailing and climbing. It was because they did those things themselves, either that or they knew someone who did. The fact that people were so taken by his work because of how relatable it was became my first question.

“I’m always surprised that people follow me through poetry and fiction and non-fiction,” he confessed, “but I can only think it is that in the end I write about things that are common to all of us: being alive, living in transience where everything you know is going to be lost and taken from you, where people die and get older, how we try to create meaning in our lives, how sometimes we lose it, how sometimes we get it back again. And nearly all my books are adventures of a sort. People relate to (even if it’s just an armchair reader) the adventure of going and climbing a mountain or going on a quest – lots of my books are quests – which is a universal human thing. So, you travel somewhere in an adventure to achieve something but above all to give meaning and drama to your life. Falling in love, that’s a quest, that’s an adventure. So yeah, I think that people do relate to it because of that. I’m very aware more and more that I’m writing about universal, what I like to call, existential stuff – what it is to be an individual human being relating to other people in search of meaning and enjoyment, confronted by loss all the time.”

It was quite a profound answer, and I made a point of telling him so as he sipped his coffee. Though I was slightly taken aback by the depth of his words, it was to be expected really. It was foretold in his poetry, his song and even excerpts from his novel. Through his work, Andrew creates something so human it could almost be an entity in itself. Then something Andrew had said earlier drifted to the front of my mind. He had commented during the session that he had ‘very few ideas’. I asked whether he found a lot of his work took inspiration from what is already written, like the border ballad of fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea.

“I find it really helps when I’ve got what I call a template, some kind of story line of characters given that I’m going to work variations on, like my book The Return of John Macnab, lifted directly from a John Buchan book called John Macnab, so at least when I started writing it I knew I had three characters and they had to do three poaching wagers. That much was given, and after that I could do what I wanted, and that helped. Quite a lot of my books start off from songs, or sometimes poems of my own. I wrote a book When They Lay Bare which was a mixture of a classic border ballad called The Twa Corbies and a poem I wrote about a friend of mine who was a PHD student and lived alone in a cabin in the woods, and those two things put together somehow gave me that. So, you’re right, I very seldom invent out of nothing and I tend to write from places I know quite well like Orkney, like the Himalayas, like the Scottish mountains and small towns. I write a lot about small towns. I’m a small town boy – Anstruther, St Ninians, Queensferry, Stromness – and I like writing about places that have not really appeared in many books before. That’s why I like coming to places like here because this is my size of town and I can totally relate to the people living here. It’s something to do with living in a society where so many people are known to you and you are known to so many people, and you either love that or hate that or sometimes both.” He picked up a shortbread and biting into it.

 I glanced at the plate piled high with those sugary biscuits, debating whether or not to nab one for myself. I decided against it, coming to the conclusion that if I tried interviewing Andrew whilst eating biscuits…well, there was plenty of scope for a disaster. Instead I dragged my gaze away from the temptation and thought about what Andrew had just said. So, really, he did have ideas, he just needed something to spark them. In some ways, writing like that is much harder than writing off the top of your head because your stories have to fit seamlessly into the original script, whether it be a ballad or a historical document. You have to make your version individual, your own, whilst acknowledging what inspired you in the first place. It is something that takes skill, time and patience. As with every story, you can’t expect your words to simply jump from your mind to the page. This means going through draft after draft, aiming to leave yourself with a piece of work that is as good as it can possibly be.

 When I asked Andrew what he thought of BOOKMARK he waxed enthusiastic.

“It’s great! I’m genuinely very pleased, chuffed, to be in on the first one. Liz Lochhead kicked it off last night, a great choice actually. She’s always unfailingly good, I mean she’s the Scottish Makar. We were talking about it last night and we said it’s kind of great being in on the ground floor on the first day of it,” he told me. "People like Liz and myself are asked to do a lot of things and we get quite choosy. And as I say, I’ve got a particular predilection for places that are not cities, that are small, interesting. They’ve got an emotional history for me. The first job I ever I ever did when I left home was in Perth, well, on the river outside of Perth, near Stanley. I used to come up here on my days off on my Vespa 90 and explore up to Glen Clova and Glen Isla. So I always see a field of ghosts of my 17-year-old self when I come up here. So that’s the kind of reason why I said yes. I thought – Blairgowrie? Oh yeah. I know it, like it, it’s my kind of place, I’ll do it. Whereas sometimes you go into bigger places where the audiences are much more sparse, less involved and less enthusiastic. It’s a great audience here, in numbers, in interest. It’s been brilliant. You know when people are into it. The thing about so called ‘out of the way’ places is people come partly because it’s a social occasion. They come to see each other as much as anything else. So if I do Ullapool, Lochinver or Cromarty, it’s a social occasion. People are excited to see each other as well as coming to see you and I like that, whereas if you do a reading in London, you get twenty people and they don’t know each other and they have no intention of knowing each other. So they come along and then they have somewhere else to rush off to and then they go. That’s not what I call a festival, whereas this is a festival.”

The fact Blairgowrie is a town, home to quite a tight-knit community, is something that seemed to appeal to most of the authors I spoke with. The very thing that most teenagers (myself included) complain about – the fact Blairgowrie is too small, the fact it isn’t a city – is actually what draws a lot of people here. When you live in a place like Blair you have a chance to be somebody who is greeted in the street by strangers, and as Andrew said, you are known to people and people are known to you. You don’t have to hurry about your business, stuck in your own little world. You can share experiences like BOOKMARK with your neighbours, your friends, and that is what makes this festival so enjoyable. It’s a community thing, and more importantly a community that is willing to welcome people in.

 I thanked Andrew Greig for his time before he hurried away to sit in on Karen Campbell’s session (I think) and mulled over all he had told me. I gave the biscuits one last regretful look and I was off, ready to listen to Mairi Hedderwick entertain a group of children with Katie Morag’s latest tale…

Posts from BOOKMARK - What an Evening!

What an evening!

Oct 20 2013
After the noise, chaos and excitement of the Dundee Olympia swimming pool, I was ready for a relaxing evening listening to Liz Lochhead read out a selection of her critically acclaimed poetry. The evening wasn’t exactly as relaxing as I had initially hoped it would be, but it was certainly exciting.
The moment I arrived at the Royal Hotel I almost managed to get myself lost. I failed to read the signs directing me to the right room and nearly headed up a flight of stairs following the sign marked ‘miniBOOKMARK’. Thank goodness I stopped to pause and think for a moment and, more importantly, ask someone where exactly it was I should be going. I was soon set on the right path, leaving me to marvel at the fact I had nearly got myself lost between the entrance and the foyer!

 As I headed towards the doors hiding the room in which Liz Lochhead was to direct her ‘meet the author’ session, I was greeted by Meg Luckins, a member of the BOOKMARK team in charge of all things money, and handed a press pass. I have to say I did get slightly over-excited about the pass and exclaimed something like: “This is so cool!”

I just couldn’t help myself – I suddenly felt ‘official’ and decided that all I needed to go with my new ‘press pass look’ was a massive quick-fire camera in one hand and a reporter’s microphone in the other. My substitutes for those two items were my bridge camera and a temperamental Dictaphone.
Feeling ridiculously important, I was then shown through the doors and found myself face to face with a few members of the tech team. This isn’t as scary as it sounds when most of them are in your year at school. To be honest, it was a bit of a relief as, although I was still feeling very ‘official’, I didn’t really have a clue where to start.

The tech team members I met were Daniel Duncan (a.k.a. Head Honcho and founder of JAM productions), Murray Baxter, Connie Ewans and Liam Bow. I decided that the best way to begin my interviews would be starting with the tech team, or Daniel at least. I asked him how he found out about BOOKMARK.

“Christine Findlay phoned me up and we had a meeting to see whether I was able to do the sound and lighting and then we sat down at the bar and had coffee and chatted a bit more,” he told me cheerfully. “We’ve been with BOOKMARK since the beginning. Christine first emailed me around January about technical coordination and wondered if we could do it. We started out in June with a sound set up that we already had and we’ve got to this point tonight where we have a lot more lighting which was funded by RBS.”

I was then invited to the tech team’s lair – or rather the bar turned sound booth/control centre. It was kind of like what I would imagine a refuge for the gadget obsessed might like, complete with microphones and headsets here and computer screens and amps there. I got the impression I would have to jump ship eventually as the team prepared for the evening ahead, so I decided to go and find a seat.

It wasn’t long until Liz Lochhead took to the stage, after being introduced by Christine Findlay who described her as an ‘entertainer’ at one point. She couldn’t have put it better – I found myself gripped throughout the whole session.

To tell you the truth, the whole experience was rather eye opening. Though I’m sad to admit I have very limited knowledge of Liz’s work (which will soon change, I promise!) I think that as a reader I had created a special sort of status for writers. They are there to be revered and admired and are untouchable and remote. This is obviously the only way they could be, right?

I’m more than happy to say that Liz proved me wrong. On stage she was chatty, down to earth and approachable – not the aloof ice queen the Liz Lochhead of my imagination was. She made the audience laugh, her poetry was enthralling and I could have listened to it for the rest of the night.
I don’t like to describe myself as being shy, but I certainly couldn’t do what Liz did that evening, what all the authors did today. They got up on that stage and they were at home and comfortable. But, more importantly, they made the audience feel the same way. You realise when the author, writer, poet has brought their talk to a conclusion, that you are slightly dazed. Waiting for more. That’s how I felt anyway, as well as slightly put out that Liz had to finish up.

This is what will keep bringing people back to BOOKMARK. It’s a way of escaping into that other world – one of creativity and imagination that I think we as humans need. If we lived life just taking in what was right in front of us, never daring to dream up stories, poems, plays, songs, life wouldn’t be worth living. Every one of us has that ability to imagine, even if we aren’t authors, poets or playwrights. It’s what keeps us sane.

After Liz Lochhead’s ‘meet the author’ session, there came the reception where drinks and canapés were readily available to the guests. This was when I decided to make a beeline for Liz who was sitting at a table signing books. As I waited to speak to her, the Lady Provost gave a small speech where she confessed to us that she was ‘really envious of the opportunity’ to take part in the rest of the book festival as she couldn’t be there. She went on to describe BOOKMARK as a ‘fabulous event’.

Now we come to another part of the post where I tell you why the evening wasn’t as relaxing as it could have been …

At this point, realising Liz was going to be busy finding a copy of one of her poems for a man who had been really quite taken with it, I decided to leave my Dictaphone and camera on the table beside her and sidle away to grab a glass of juice. Not my wisest move.

I returned to find my Dictaphone had vanished and immediately went into panic mode. I was positive that someone had made off with it and was planning to flog one of the best birthday presents I have ever been given (despite it refusing to turn off earlier that evening) on EBay. Thankfully, it hadn’t actually been stolen. Liz had given it to Christine after mistaking it for somebody’s misplaced mobile.

After retrieving my Dictaphone I sat down, or rather kneeled down, next to Liz Lochhead and began the interview. I say it was an interview, but it seemed more like a chat you might have with a friend over coffee (albeit in a very busy café). This completely stamped on my already wounded preconceptions of what a writer must be like.

As we talked, Liz took time to sign copies of her novels for guests at the session. In between signings I asked Liz what she thought of BOOKMARK.

“It’s terrific. It’s lovely to be in at the launch of something like this and they’re clearly the kind of people who will keep it going. And what an audience!” she told me.

I then asked whether Liz would come along if she was invited back to BOOKMARK.

“Of course I would come along! There are so many great writers in Scotland so they wouldn’t invite me back really quickly, but I hope so. I hope in another four or five years they would invite me back, but it’s very delightful to be in at the start of something. It’s a huge honour. It’s actually only just dawned on me what a big deal it is for me to be here as the first person to read on the very first night of BOOKMARK.”

I couldn’t help pausing when I heard that. It had occurred to me that it was important for BOOKMARK to have writers such as Liz, Scotland’s Makar, attending the festival. I had just never thought it would be equally as important to the writers themselves. This brought me back to a thought I’d had at the beginning of the evening. BOOKMARK is a really important event and now it was apparent that it wasn’t just Blairgowrie that realised this.

I decided to see if I could get Liz to tell me what made her start writing poetry. The answer I received wasn’t what I expected.

“I just decided to do it.”

“It just happened?” I said, trying to keep the look of surprise off my face. I’d expected Liz to have some sort of secret she could share with me that might improve my own poetry and stories.

“It didn’t just happen. You pick up your biro and get to it. I think it’s reading that makes you want to write. If you don’t read, you can’t write. It’s reading stuff you love that makes you want to write yourself.”

This really struck a chord with me because, the fact is, it’s true. Reading is what can provide you with ideas and tips and is ultimately the way inspiration is found. It’s what got me into writing and I’m positive it’s what kick-starts careers like Liz Lochhead’s, Andrew Greig’s, Mairi Hedderwick’s, Karen Campbell’s and James Robertson’s.

The reception seemed too short. As with Liz’s reading session, I wanted more time to hear what she had to say. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, time flies and soon I found myself walking home (in the rain without an umbrella).
I realise I haven’t managed to fit in all the details of what happened on Friday evening into this post, but I want to leave you with this at least:

As I talked to Liz between book signings and other conversations (in which she declared to those she was talking to that I was writing the blog and would be doing a post about the evening) I told her that her session had been host to a sell-out audience.

Liz: “Thank you very much! Don’t tell any of the others that.”

Me: “I won’t.”

Liz: “…Why don’t you put it in the blog that I said ‘don’t tell any of the rest’?”

Posts from BOOKMARK - Loving Blair's New-Look Library

Loving Blair’s New-Look Library

Oct 17 2013
Nipping down to the Blairgowrie Library during my double free period on a Friday morning felt almost like a criminal act. I say almost because trotting off to a library hardly seems like an exceptionally rebellious thing to do. Rebellious would be taking a bus to Dundee and spending the day shopping instead of even bothering to show up at school. I would like to take this opportunity to clear my name here – I have never done the latter.

 Though visiting the library mightn’t have been a hugely dare-devil act, it could have proved somewhat dangerous. Why? Well, considering I was recovering from some sort of mystery illness and had nearly fainted the previous day whilst taking a walk (my first in two days) which barely saw me a mile away from my front door, I was a liability to myself.

 Luckily I arrived at the library without mishap and was ready to quiz Simon McGowan on all things BOOKMARK. What struck me when I walked through the door was how good the library looked. I had been in once before after the recent renovation but was too focussed on researching the Blairgowrie Advertiser archives to notice much else than what was right in front of me. I suppose I really should visit the library more often but I’m slightly afraid of the reaction I’ll receive when I tell them I’ve lost my library card for what must be about the fifth time.

 After a quick glance here and there, taking in the library’s new spacious and user-friendly appearance I made my way over to Simon and excused my borderline man-like voice (a remnant from the mystery illness) and then began my questions.

 I started by asking whether books by the authors featuring in the BOOKMARK Festival had become more popular since advertising of the events began.

“We’ve put up displays of the books, so we’ve been promoting them actively and people have been taking a big interest. We don’t know actual numbers but people have definitely been taking an interest in the stands.”

This was, if anything, a good start. And the mentioned stands certainly are hard to miss as they have been strategically placed to greet customers as they walk into the library. They caught my eye anyway, that’s for sure. Not content with just a few author-related stands, the library staff have also been busy distributing the festival programme, putting up posters and chatting about BOOKMARK to customers.

 I was curious to find out what age range of people visited the library looking for BOOKMARK-related things (like books by featured authors or information on events). My previous chat with Louise Gow told me that the majority of interest probably came from older people.

“It does tend to be the older readers,” Simon said. “There are one or two things for children; we’ve had people talking about the Gruffalo walk – it’s fully booked apparently. We don’t actually sell tickets here, if we had been selling them we would have probably got more engagement. But we have had children, or rather children’s parents, express an interest though.”

 “Would you be interested in selling tickets next year?” I popped the obvious question.

“I think we would prefer to do it the way it’s being done this year. You can’t have tickets being sold here, there and everywhere. It’s harder to keep track of that way. It’s better that it’s just the bookshop and online.”

I then asked whether more people had come into the library since BOOKMARK’s advertisement.

“I can’t say that I’ve noticed that they have but it might increase interest in the long run.”
Like Louise Gow, however, Simon is hopeful that BOOKMARK will have a lasting effect on the library.

“We’re hoping to have a presence at the festival to distribute some of our leaflets with opening times and contact details and maybe even sign up a few new customers.”

I asked one final question – whether Simon thought it would be a good idea if the library played host to a few events for next year’s BOOKMARK festival.

 Simon agreed. “We have one here, a children’s event on the Saturday morning,” he said, “but we would be willing to host more events.”

And with that I excused myself and hurried off (along with my hacking cough) back to school, nervously checking my watch as I went. I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to hear I made it to class on time without fainting or causing myself serious harm.

Posts from BOOKMARK


Hi guys! As promised, here is one of the posts I did for BOOKMARK. I'll be putting up a few more which will include interviews with authors such as James Robertson, author of 'The Professor of Truth', Andrew Greig, author of 'Fair Helen', Liz Lochhead, the Scottish Makar and Mairi Hedderwick.


The Importance of Bookshops

Oct 16 2013
I can clearly remember summers spent as a child in Scotland; a foreign world for somebody who has spent their childhood overseas. During the days I spent in Blairgowrie with my family we would often wander up and down the High Street, peering into the shop windows. One shop I would always look forward to visiting was the bookshop, owned by Louise Gow, which occupies a small corner of the High Street next to the Royal Bank of Scotland. It didn’t matter if my parents hadn’t brought enough money with them to buy me a book; I just wanted to see what was there.

 As you can probably tell, books are my passion which is what made Louise’s shop so important to me. Although I know people who share the same love of books as me, it seems that nowadays instead of picking up a book and delving into the imagination of an author, people would much rather switch on the telly or games console. I’m not trying to preach the notion that the written word is somehow endangered by modern day technology because the idea is, if not ridiculous, at least wrong. I’m saying that often we look at a book on the shelf and disregard it.

 Because of my love for stories I hold the hope that BOOKMARK will bring people back to those forgotten books and encourage them to pick them up. Louise Gow shares similar ideals.
What I didn’t really think about before I went to talk to Louise about BOOKMARK was the fact that books are quite hard to sell. To an avid reader, this thought seems laughable. In the world of my imagination, books fly off the shelves and people can’t get enough of them. This is (sadly) just a fairy tale idea of my version of a perfect world. Meanwhile, back in reality, Louise has had to diversify the range of items for sale on her shelves in order to keep her bookshop going.

You shouldn’t be surprised to find jewellery, hand-decorated wine glasses and skilfully crafted hats and gift-boxes jumping out at you from amongst the books. In fact, these items, which would have seemed out of place in a bookshop only five years ago, now seem to be making up the bulk of sales.

I asked Louise whether she though BOOKMARK would increase book sales in her shop.
“I hope the festival will increase sales of books but it’s a difficult one because bookshops aren’t selling anything like as many as they used to.”

This comment quickly brought me out of my fantasy world where books sell like hotcakes and everyone loves reading them. I then asked Louise whether she believed BOOKMARK would introduce more people to reading.

“I hope so,” she told me. “The events for children will certainly get the younger generation interested in reading.”

This was slightly more upbeat and I couldn’t help smiling at the idea of a child discovering the alternate world of a story, home to heroes and baddies, pirates, fairies, dragons and spies – the list could go on an on. Once that imaginary place is found, it’s hard to leave. That’s why, even as a teenager, books still appeal to me, and will continue to do so throughout my adult life.
After this brief respite from the doom of Britain’s bookshops I asked another pressing question relating to an issue which I know has been growing in regards to the actual physical book. Were ebooks responsible for the decrease in sales in Louise’s shop?

“EBooks, second-hand bookshops, charity shops, Amazon – that’s what’s done it. I’ve discovered that when a hardback book comes out, an ebook is brought out at the same time and then the paperback doesn’t come out for maybe six months to a year and then I’m finding that instead of re-printing a book they won’t do it because it’s cheaper just to have an ebook. That’s the knock-on effect unfortunately.”

So maybe my initial impression of people’s reading habits was a little off. There are many of us who love to read, a surprising amount in fact – we manage to fit it in alongside the TV, and even to integrate it into our technology. This desire to read and the current economic climate means we are not prepared to pay retail prices that haven’t been slashed in half and half again. This is what is forcing bookshops to close. It’s not a case of not wanting to read, it’s a case of feeding our habit on a budget.

 BOOKMARK does indeed look set to encourage our desire to read and discover that child-like world of imagination, but whether it will send us off in the direction of the local bookshop or towards Amazon and cheaper alternatives is debatable.

Loud and Quiet

On my recent trip to Manchester where I saw Brother & Bones (see related post) perform at a venue whose name I cannot remember (which seriously annoys me - I swear I have a sieve instead of a brain) I found something rather special. No, it was not the t-shirt I picked up in the Urban Outfitter's sale or the jumper I bought in a vintage shop on one particularly rainy day. It was something completely unrelated to clothing...

It was a music magazine, handed to me by a tattooed fifty-something-year-old man at the bus station while my friends and I waited for our megabus to arrive. The journey back home took about seven hours - not exactly swift by any means. 

Just as we were queuing to have our tickets checked, the man appeared out of nowhere clutching a handful of what I assumed were newspapers. He introduced himself as 'not a crack-head' or a 'crazy homeless guy' but someone who handed out music magazines to people waiting to catch buses so that their journeys were made slightly more bearable. The magazine was produced in order to help homeless people pay for a sheltered place to sleep at night, and all it required was a small donation of money.

The calm, friendly manner in which the man introduced himself and told us about the magazines he was carrying immediately had me scrabbling in my pocket for whatever spare change I had left. I think I handed him 30 or 40p (I honestly which I'd had more to give him) and in return he gave me a magazine.  

The magazine was volume 3, issue 53 of Loud and Quiet, 'the alternative music tabloid' which, I'm happy to report, was surprisingly good. I enjoyed what I could manage to read on the megabus journey (without making myself too motion sick) and later finished the rest of the articles at home. I particularly enjoyed the piece on Conan Moccasin's new album, Caramel. The way Loud and Quiet's articles and reviews were written; intelligently whilst avoiding the pitfall many magazines get themselves into - pretentiousness, had me wishing the magazine could continue forever. I know that sounds like a slight exaggeration, but if you've read Loud and Quiet, you'll know where I'm coming from.

Besides making me hungry for more, Loud and Quiet threw a tonne of musicians in my direction, many of whom, I have never heard of before. Some might consider this a reason not to read such a magazine, but I saw it as a challenge, one that I wanted to accept. This challenge asked me to look into music that I am completely unfamiliar with and broaden my knowledge of the music world.

This leaves me with just one last thing to say...

Thank you tattooed, fifty-something-year-old, homeless man. Thank you very much!

Bros Do a Vlog...Of Sorts

I'm doing the broskis a favour by posting this. So, if you guys have any questions for them about free running, their videos etc, click on the video and leave a comment below. Also, I have a few posts that I will be putting up shortly - I've kind of been side-tracked from Miss B's by another blog - I know, how could I? Well, I was actually blogging for Blairgowrie's first ever book festival - BOOKMARK. I'll see if I can put up a few posts from the book festival blog here so you can check out what I've been doing.

Thanks guys! :)

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Brother and Bones

The one thing I don't understand about Brother and Bones is how they can be so good and yet not be hugely well-known! One thing is true though, their fans are definitely a dedicated bunch.

I'm happy to say that I fall into this category, just behind two of my friends. And how exactly can we judge that we are in the 'dedicated fan category'? Well, by travelling for five hours down to Manchester to see a Brother and Bones gig that took place on Monday (13th) night of course!

We arrived in Manchester on Friday evening and spent Saturday and Sunday shopping and sightseeing...and watching seemingly endless episodes of Friends. By the time Monday evening rolled round, we were thoroughly rested from our everyday lives and ready for a bit of music.

The venue was only a ten minute walk away from where we were staying - and can only be described as quirky; featuring Good Dolly/Bad Dolly wall paper in the ladies as well as a disappointing lack of hand soap. I'm going to take the opportunity now to point out something I probably should have put in at the start of this post - the tickets for the gig were cheaper than the fare for the Megabus which took us back to bonnie Scotland, totalling at only 8 each! 

The support act for the evening was a man (whose name escapes me unfortunately) in a farmer's jacket and a trilby, producing a melancholy acoustic sound which began to sound a bit 'samey' after a while. Though, that's not to say I didn't appreciate the lyricism of some of his songs - one line (I wish I could call memorable, but I can't recall exactly what it was) went something like "I wish the b***h had died". I think there was a "f**k in there somewhere. At the time it made me laugh so I'm pretty gutted I can't remember it correctly.
The man with the hat...

Then, what everyone had been waiting for happened: Brother and Bones took to the stage in all their three-guitarists-one-percussionist-plus-a-drummer glory.

The band in full swing

I had been told a few times beforehand that the band were a lot better live than they were on CD, so I was ready to have my mind hole blown because (in my opinion) Brother and Bones sound next to awesome on CD. And I'm glad to say they didn't disappoint, plus my mind hole was indeed blown.

Brother and Bones opened with the five tracks from their new EP To Be Alive which, although in keeping with their sound, clearly are progressive pieces. The most notable being the track after which the EP was named. Here's the YouTube video so you guys can check it for yourselves.  

The rest of the gig comprised of older songs, all equally, stunningly performed, led by Richard Thomas's soulful vocals.

I have to say though that the band member who really stole the show for me was the percussionist Robin Howell-Sprent (what a name!), who rocked his socks off and looked as though he was having almost as much fun as the audience!

The audience was fairly small (around thirty maybe?), but what we lacked in numbers we made up for in sheer enthusiasm for the brilliant music being played on stage. Every song was loudly applauded and every beat bobbed along to. I think it's fair to say that Brother and Bones are great performers but their audience are damn good supporters!

This was made even more apparent by the encore the band received and the way my friends and I had to fight our way through the crowd to the table selling band merchandise. That was where I bought Brother and Bones's new EP for a fiver and got it signed by all five members of the band!!! I don't know if it's hard to tell, but this made me very happy.

Then came the cherry on top of the cake. We managed to get our photo taken with Brother and Bones. This made me even happier.

I suppose that's another upside (for fans at least) when a musical act like a band isn't hugely well known (despite being mind-hole-blowingly amazing); they can connect with their audience. For example, Yiannis Sachinis (drummer for Brother and Bones) is following my friend on Instagram, and after the gig, the band stayed for drinks with the audience. You won't get that at a Sabbath concert, that's for sure.