Brexit and the Cultural Sector

Brexit and the Cultural SectorI’ve written a piece in a volume published by Berlin’s The Literary Field Kaleidoscope and the Centre for British Studies at Humboldt-Universität, It’s not just the Economy, Stupid! Brexit and the Cultural Sector, edited by Sandra van Lente and Gesa Stedman.

My piece is called ‘Haud Oan to Europe’, and was inspired by Scottish textile artist Jane Hunter‘s work on the day after the EU Referendum. It also takes some inspiration from Innerpeffray Library in Perthshire, and the work that University of Stirling PhD researcher Jill Dye is undertaking there. The volume includes work from politicians, writers and academics, including Ali Smith, Ben Bradshaw, and Rachel Seiffert.

The volume is accessible via The Literary Field Kaleidoscope’s post here, with direct links to an EPUB version here (Dropbox link), and to a pdf here.

Passing Place

This week I’ve been on writing retreat, at the beautiful Moniack Mhor. I’m working on the beginning of a sequel (and consequently thinking about some of the changes that might need to be made to the first!). I’ve got a few, tentative words on the page, when not staring out of the window at the view…

PassingPlace2But while here I became intrigued by the number of PASSING PLACE signs (which, I later saw, illustrate the ‘Work at Moniack Mhor’ page – none currently available, I’m afraid). These diamond-shaped signs reminded me of a couple of other recent journeys, in Cumbria, Perthshire, and Shetland. The signs dot the landscape as the roads narrow down to single track, some faded, some only 50 metres away from the next, some a little further away.

I like passing places – they require a bit of negotiation between you and the oncoming car. Both must slow down, as one draws into the passing place. A wave of thanks goes between the drivers. Occasionally, on a sunny day with the windows open, a few words are exchanged. On a long straight road, the passing places are bulges on either side, pregnant ripenings along the way. At a few parts of the rail network trains, and their passengers, must also be patient. Recently, I saw a northbound train its southbound counterpart before it could proceed on the single track. One of the passengers called over to the platform, wondering how long he had to wait, perhaps wanting to sneak a cigarette in before the journey began again. Continue reading

The F Word

404InkI’m away on writing retreat at the moment (about which more here…), so it’s good to have something announced for publication in 404 Ink‘s second issue, The F Word.

I’m not a big fan of fancy dress-themed parties, and worry about the over-emphasis on dressing up during the UK’s World Book Day (yes, I know this sounds a bit bah humbug, but I’d rather concentrate on words for both events…). And so, somehow, this frustration has transmuted into fiction in a piece, inspired by those clever Oulipo types, called ‘Fucking Fancy Dress’.

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Dad

PortraitMy Dad died recently. This is the tribute my brother Mark and sister Julie and I read at his funeral near Kendal last Monday. It was a beautiful day, and the clouds put on a special display for him in the morning and evening:

Dad was, among many other things, a photographer. The photos on the front and back of the ‘batting order’ are his, taken in the French Alps, the Lincolnshire Wolds and from Scout Scar, only a few miles from here. As children, and as grandchildren, we spent hours being posed in front of mountain views, clouds, during family holidays, playing at home. Here’s one of his cameras, a (now vintage) Leica. The film took a seemingly unending amount of time to spool and unspool.

But one of the things you discover with a photographer in the family is that – while there are many photos of us – there aren’t so many of Dad. But we found a particularly nice one of him which we’ve put on the inside. He has his camera round his neck, and is outside, on a walk with our Mum at Silverdale.

Walking, with his camera round his neck, whether in the Alps, the Jura, the high fells, or a low-level stroll, taking pictures of unusual cloud formations, some of which became cover shots in the Royal Meteorological Society’s Weather Magazine, being able to read the landscape like a book, be it the Pre-Cambrian, Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous… Many of our fondest memories of Dad come from walks with him, and I’m sure that’s the case with many of you, as well. Once he’d realised you also had an interest in the skies and the rock formations beneath your feet he’d tell you about them with passion, knowledge and humour. He brought this into his teaching, too, as you’ve already heard from David and Juanita.

We all went to the secondary school where Dad taught. Unlike what you might expect when your dad was a teacher in your school, being Mr Squires’ son or daughter actually had a certain cachet. For us as young children, his classroom at King Edwards was a thing of fascination – not least because he had some fossilised dinosaur poo among his collection. For Julie and Michael’s wedding last year, Dad had the superb idea of collecting some very rare fossilised hail stones (aka bird’s eye tuff) from a top secret Cumbrian location to serve as place markers.

Dad was also a keen sportsman: rugby and cricket, in particular, including bowling out Middlesex’s two opening batsmen in his first two overs at the age of 17 for Buckinghamshire Colts, playing for the Thames Valley Licenced Victuallers’ Association – and bombing around in a friend’s Messerschmitt car. A great highlight as a sports watcher was seeing Viv Richards score a half century for the West Indies at Trent Bridge with Mark. When Mum and Dad moved to Kendal, he became a member of Kendal Cricket Club, and would regularly head down to watch the match on a Saturday afternoon. We were really touched – and we know Dad would have been delighted – to receive an email to say that a flag would be raised for him at the Cricket Club.

As children we played many a game of back garden cricket, with the cry of ‘6 and out’ heralding another ball lofted into the back field. We played long games of catch – itself a competitive sport for Squireses. We’ve watched the final Six Nations games together these last two weekends, and missed Dad and Grandad’s presence.

There were certain things you shouldn’t do around Dad, though – speak during the weather forecast, or try to fill the dishwasher. Any attempt to do the latter would find your efforts quietly taken out and restacked. As Dad got poorly over the course of the year he started to leave dishwasher filling to others, but still recently he did a thorough clean of it.

One thing Dad kept until his dying day, though, was his amusement and engagement with people and with politics, and particularly his encouragement and love of children and young people. One of our friends said ‘I remember how his eyes lit up when he saw our children’; his last DIY job was to make a little ‘fairy door’ for another’s child. Dad’s favourite reading matter in recent months (alongside the Guardian, the New Statesman, Weather Magazine and Practical Photography) was the Screwfix catalogue. He’d always be heading out to get the right washer or nail, and not too long ago he sent Mum out to fetch hardware supplies. The tools in the garage are in immaculate order, each screwdriver, pair of pliers, and hammer in its place. His music collection is perhaps not quite so ordered, but he gave us instructions about the music we’d play today. His favourites were the soundtrack of our childhood.

Dad would regale us as children with his made-up tales of Flemish-speaking gnomes who lived in a room in our house dubbed the Glory Hole. He was a great storyteller for adults, too. Meeting the Beatles while at university (unimpressed), spotting the cricketer Jack Hobbs in his shop (lifetime highlight), lunch with The Nawaab of Pataudi, who went on to become ‘India’s finest cricket captain’, the adventures and sad demise of Jim the Ferret – these were just a few of the tales he told. I’m sure you know some more, and we’d love to hear them.

For Harriet and Tom, Dad’s youngest grandchildren, their memories are that their Grandad would play chase games with them round the house when they were little, take them walking to Arnside and to the beach café, and that he was always kind. Once, said Tom, ‘when we were playing chase I threw a marble that hit his foot, and he said no, we don’t throw things inside, and I knew it was a really serious thing.’ Harriet says her Grandad always asked her what she was reading, and when Dad and Philip and Colin would ‘go on about rugby or clouds or rocks and I didn’t really understand he would explain it in an organised sensible way so that it was easy.’ Even when he was poorly, says Harriet, ‘He told me stories about when Dad and Claire and Julie were little and made it sound like an important secret’. Their grandad loved people, Harriet says, and cheese, and knickerbocker glories. We adults would also add wine to that list…

Cheese and wine were, of course, two loves that went hand-in-hand with Dad’s greatest love, for Mum. Mum and Dad met while Mum was a French assistant at King Edwards, and they swiftly agreed to marry. Our aunt Marie-Claude, Mum’s sister, tells how Dad came into their French lives as a breeze of happiness, a ‘Prince Charmant’, always full of laughter, stories, and maps. He very quickly made Mum’s family his family, sharing wonderful summer holidays in France, under the August skies filled with shooting stars.

When we were children, going with Dad down into the town would take an age, as he’d meet people he knew, and stop to chat. When Mum and Dad moved to Kendal after several years of retirement, it didn’t take long before the same effect started to happen. The house Mum and Dad moved to in Kendal is close to the river but is not – as Dad well knew – on the flood plain. When Storm Desmond hit, Dad’s excitement at extreme weather conditions was evident, although his vindication at buying a house away from the flood plain did not lessen his sympathy for all those affected by the floods.

Writing this on a day when the spring sunshine warms the skin and the birds sing through the air, we’re so sad that he won’t see this year’s spring flowers, the new lambs, and the longer evenings. Mark talked this week about cutting the grass, and how in the act of doing it himself (probably not quite so carefully or neatly), he remembers Dad pushing the old petrol-powered lawnmower, cutting the edges, lifting the swing from around the frame to mow underneath. It’s in these small, repeated, quiet acts – doing the crossword, filling the dishwasher, bending to pick up an interesting rock – that we’ll miss him most of all, and remember him best.

The ‘Batting Order’:

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Philip Pullman and The Book of Dust

fullsizerenderPhilip Pullman announced this week that he’ll be publishing the first in a new trilogy of novels based in the worlds of His Dark Materials this autumn. I wrote about the announcement in The Conversation, thinking in particular about the expansion of existing fictional worlds by both fans and authors, and also the contemporary political resonances.

I wrote a reader’s guide to Pullman’s trilogy in 2002, and a longer critical book on Pullman – Philip Pullman, Master Storyteller: A Guide to the Worlds of His Dark Materials – in 2006. The cover of my book was a design by a fan.

Like many other fans, I’m keen to see what he writes next!

On (Re)reading The Handmaid’s Tale

fullsizerenderInspired by the sales spike of certain books in the wake of Trump’s inauguration, I went over to my bookshelf. Not to pull off George Orwell’s 1984 (one of the books with a new urgency to it) but to find, nestled among piles of other Virago titles, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel’s 1985 dystopian vision of the Republic of Gilead, in which women are forced to breed for the theocratic ruling class, has found new resonance as a US president who has openly and repeatedly demonstrated his misogyny takes office. Atwood’s book is shortly to be released as a TV mini-series, and was plugged (along with several other adverts which seemingly expressed values in opposition to Trump’s) during the 2017 Super Bowl.

Time, then, for me to re-read the book. I have an ulterior motive, too – the book I’ve been writing displays a perhaps not-too subtle influence from Atwood’s novel (my alternate world features cloaked women and constraints – including on reading and procreation – placed upon particular sectors of society). My mum, commenting on an early draft, recognised the influence immediately.

Before starting to reread, I thought back to when I read the book, in the 6th form at school. I remembered lending the copy to a friend, who returned it with an apology and a coffee stain. More precious about my books then than I am now (perhaps because I owned fewer of them), I was cross. I checked, and the stain is still there, running along the top edge of the pages.

fullsizerender-2I opened it up, and saw the teddy bear bookplate: ‘I can’t bear to be without my books’. This childish hangover marked that I’d got the book on my 18th birthday. I suspect I chose the book myself, though I can’t remember. By that time, I’d already read several other of Atwood’s books after being introduced to Surfacing by a forward-thinking A-level English Literature teacher. We’d made collages in class to represent the psychological landscape of the protagonist of Atwood’s second novel; its wild world of madness, nationalism and feminism. The same teacher also set us Tony Harrison’s V, a long poem written after the author had found graffiti on his parents’ Yorkshire gravestones. Its obscene language – ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘nigger’ – caused great controversy when it was televised in 1987 for Channel 4, and was still creating debate when recorded for BBC Radio 4 in 2013. Thinking back, I was lucky to have a teacher so keen to teach us very contemporary, and political, literature.

I’ve written elsewhere about traces of reading I’ve found in my Famous Five books. This copy of The Handmaid’s Tale revealed another history to me – the address of a young man, Laurie, who I’d met on the train home from an interview for a place at Oxford. He’d also been for an interview, and was heading back to Scarborough, I to Lincolnshire. I seem to remember I must have written to him, and we spoke on the phone after we had found out about our offers. In the age before mobile phones and social media, this was done self-consciously from the hallway of the family home.

I’d applied to one of the oldest and most traditional of colleges (mainly because I liked the buildings), and didn’t enjoy my interviews: one with an older tutor interrogated my understanding of a poem I was given to look at on the spot, and found baffling; and a second with two younger men who sat to either side of me so I couldn’t see them both at once. They’d asked me what I was reading outside of my set texts, so I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’d been reading on the train on the way down. They also seemed keener on getting a particular response from me to the text (that Gilead is the former United States, and Canada an escape route) than hearing about my opinions about the book, which I anyway hadn’t yet finished. Dissuaded by these men and their desire for me to utter a pre-determined answer to their literary questions, I chose instead to go to university in York, where my female interviewer seemed happily to listen to my appreciative description of the weather in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and its objective correlative role in character creation.

Life turns on such decisions, but the heat of their moment lessens as time goes on. Physical copies of books sometimes retain that heat within their pages, unfolding a previous life as the pages are turned once more. It’s one of the reasons why bookish people like to surround themselves with shelves of books, even if we know, rationally, we’re unlikely to read a particular copy again.

And yet today, though, I’m starting to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale:

I remember that yearning, of something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh.

We yearned for the future.

 

 

 

 

The First Pancake

fullsizerender-2Happy 2017!

I was staying at a friend’s over New Year, and on the morning of 1 January, she offered an egg-based breakfast: scrambled? poached? pancakes? I chose pancakes, of course, and she asked if I minded having the first pancake.

‘Of course not,’ I said. The first pancake is often not quite right – the pan not hot enough, the chef not quite reaccustomed to the required pour and turn. But how can you have pancakes two, three, four and five without that slightly sub-standard first pancake?

A different egg-based homily has it that you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg or two along the way. The seemingly innocuous saying – which came into English in the late 18th century from the French – has long been connected to political upheaval, with those eggs being broken bodies. It’s a metaphor, a Slate journalist argued in the dying days of 2013, ‘born of blood’, and one that we should dispense with.

To eat the first pancake is a softer metaphor, though, and one which could apply to any number of situations. The pan warms, the technique improves, the senses clamour for more.

fullsizerenderIn the writing life, no book could get written without the first draft. It will never be the best version, but it has to be made. In literal, pancake terms, you could simply throw it away, I suppose, though that would be a shame – it’s never that bad (and often, as was my case on 1 January, it was rather good). In metaphorical terms, the first pancake is entirely necessary. A bit misshapen, undercooked, the technique not quite yet there in the roll of the wrist, the joyous toss into the air, the gulping down (for me, always with lemon and sugar), mmmmm…

It takes a bit of practice, and a lot of redrafting, to write well.

Gangin on a Bear Hunt

photoI was on the annual, last-minute hunt for Christmas presents today. After a brief foray into Cass Art (where I mainly sat down and drew a couple of Christmas cards, see below), I headed over to Waterstone’s Argyle Street, site of some of the best launch parties for Glasgow writers.

The shop didn’t disappoint in its present possibilities, and in the good humour of its staff and patience of its customers in the face of the queues. (There was a teenage boy who declared his interest in conceptual art to his pals while examining a book of photos who also pleased me.)

But what charmed me most was a middle-aged couple I passed on the stairs; them on the way down, me on the way up. At the turn of the steps was a display of Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s We’re Going on a Bear Huntfirst published in 1989 and a perennial favourite of children and their parents ever since.

The women stopped, and read out the title in recognition, her attention perhaps attracted by the large toy bear next to it. Then, with a delighted intake of breath, she read the title of the book next to it, emphasising the second word for her companion. ‘We’re Gangin on a Bear Hunt‘.

We’re Gangin on a Bear Hunt is translated into Scots for the first time this year by Susan Rennie, and is published by the wonderful Floris Books (this year’s Saltire Society Publisher of the Year, which I had the privilege to be on the judging panel for).

photo-2The woman’s delight on the stair as she saw the book, shows why it’s such a good idea to translate classics, as well as originating texts in Scotland’s diverse languages. (I had to continue shopping, but I hope she bought a copy to revist the story with its Scots twist…)

Oh, and here’s a perky robin and tree from my drawings… Sláinte and Merry Christmas to you all!

 

Histories of (Famous Five) Reading

fullsizerenderMy academic work falls into the disciplinary fields of publishing studies and history of the book (you can find more about my research here). One of the sub-fields of the history of the book is the history of reading, the area that – as book historian Robert Darnton put it – ‘remains the most difficult stage to study in the circuit that books follow’ (from ‘What is the History of Books?’). Empirical reading histories can nonetheless be traced in a range of ways: through borrowing records of libraries, for example, such as those found in Perthshire’s Innerpeffray Library, or in accounts of reading in letters between correspondents or in private diaries (an excellent resource for which is the Reading Experience Database), or in marginalia (such as those in William Gladstone’s extensive collection of books housed in Gladstone’s Library). The excellent primer A History of Reading was put together by one of my Stirling colleagues, if you want to find out more.

A recent trip to my parents made me pull off the shelves old copies of Famous Five books. I was partly reminded by the publishing of Enid Blyton for Grown Ups parody titles in the run-up to Christmas (sample titles: Five on Brexit Island, or Five Go Gluten Free), but also by the memory of what I’d done with these books, which I’ve already written about briefly.

img_3022Like many bookish children, I’d tried to make my own library (though it was hard to persuade borrowers to visit), and the evidence of the ticket holders are still there (though none of the tickets – where did they go?). In some titles, I’d recorded where I’d got the books from (reminding me of the specific shelf where the books were stored in our local bookshop). In others, I’d ticked off titles I already had, and done sums to work out how many there were left to acquire.

I’d also marked all my books out of 20 (with quite a grade variation – from 8/20 to 20/20 in the copies to hand), and used my Puffin name plates to indicate that the puffins were engaged in the same activities as George (obviously an early crush). In the front of another, I’d also itemised which of the titles I owned, and which my brother. (I found some of the ones that belonged to my brother; they had less marginalia and no grading.) This – I am sure – was indicative of some sibling rivalry/internecine book-owning strife.

Looking at these material objects made a whole load of reading memories come flooding back, but also left me with some gaps in remembrance, and also a question as to what were my grading criteria. Some might say that Enid Blyton wrote to a formula, but to one child’s mind there was a high degree of differentiation.

Bath Books

fullsizerenderLast night as part of Book Week Scotland, I produced ‘Bath Books’, an evening of aquatic literary delights at Glasgow’s iconic Western Baths. I’m a member of the Baths, a glorious Victorian swimming pool featuring Turkish Baths, saunas and a steam room, and the evening was a great way for me to bring some of my literary work to an unusual venue.

The sauna suite was transformed for the evening into an events space, with audience members welcomed to bring up drinks from the bar below (passing on the way the Baths’ floor mosaic created by Alasdair Gray).

The evening featured a series of readings from works by Scottish writers, across poetry, fiction and non-fiction, including some by authors who are members of the Baths. We were also lucky to have contributions from actors, some of whom were also members of the Baths. The audience was promised murder, competition, and intrigue, as well as imaginative dives into the depths, encounters with magical aquatic beasts, and meditations on the restorative powers of water.

We kicked off the evening with a reading by David Anderson from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. In the section, Davie swims for shore after a wave knocks him off the boat. Next, we stayed outdoors but moved into the 21st century, with an extract read by Louise Ludgate of Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun, in which the author swims in the ‘gaspingly cold’ seas off Orkney. ‘One morning,’ writes Liptrot, ‘the sky is reflected in the flat water and I’m swimming in the clouds.’ Continue reading