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

I went out EU leafleting…

IMG_0731I went out EU referendum campaigning today, in my adopted home city of Glasgow.

I’m a passionate and instinctive Europhile (hard not to be, when one of your parents is French, aka an ‘immigrant’). I’m also convinced by the vast majority of factual argument, most of the conjecture about the future, and all of the socio-cultural claims (of which we’ve not heard enough) for remaining in the EU.

But I live in a bit of a bubble – in surveys, c90% of staff in academia, and c80% in publishing, intend to vote to stay in the EU. (Though seriously – if you’re one of those 10% or 20%, could we have a chat before Thursday, please?!). Like many, I’m profoundly depressed by the level of political rhetoric, and general knowledge of what the EU is and does, and the all-too real possibility that the UK might vote to leave on Thursday (even if Scotland does not).

So with just a few days to go I decided I had to do a bit more than speak within my very largely pro-EU circle of friends and colleagues. I headed out onto the streets, leafleting with Stronger in Europe. My afternoon started off in Sauchiehall Street (the city centre), then onto Byres Road in the West End. Continue reading


IMG_1284My alter ego, Central Belt Shuffler, reported a couple of weeks ago on a visit to the Tramway‘s Glasgow International exhibition.

One of the artworks on show is Amie Siegel’s Provenance. In the lushly-shot film, the (wordless) narrative works backwards from chairs, desks and tables in beautifully designed western homes to high-cost furniture auctions, and finally to the crumbling, arch-modernist buildings of Chandigarh, where the furniture is shown in everyday contexts: offices, a library, a classroom, abandoned in a store. The exhibition also features a shorter film about the selling of the film itself at Christie’s, and includes the auction catalogue in which it featured.

Inspired by this, and also Lawrence Lek’s work QE3, I signed up to do a workshop based around these artworks. We were asked to bring in an object with some sort of history, and a photograph of a place. I took in a fossilised rock, and a photo of the aptly-named Stair Street, which is round the corner from where I live.

Led by Tramway’s Public Engagement Coordinator, we quickly got down to a series of writing exercises that culminated in our own filming of the objects and their (semi-fictionalised) provenance, as if for an auction . My imagination quickly turned to the turn of 19th and 20th century Glasgow, and the bloodcurdling murder of a prostitute.

Here’s the video we made – my piece features at c4:40, but my disembodied hand makes a sneaky appearance manoeuvring some of the other objects at various points.

GI Provenance Workshop from Holly Rumble on Vimeo.


On the rooftops

It’s the turn of the year, from 2015 to 2016.

2015 saw the mass movement of refugees of Syrians, fleeing violence in their homeland (and their adopted homeland, in the case of Palestinian refugees who had already been forced from their homes). The images of perilous sea journeys, dead children, barbed wire at borders, welcoming crowds at train stations, are etched on our minds.

Part-way through the year, I wrote this response to the situation in Calais’s ‘Jungle’, and of my own experience volunteering with young refugees and asylum seekers who had made it to the UK. Despite the manifold suffering of people of all ages, it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s the images of the children: dead, living on the street, at last reaching a place of safety, that are the most heart-rending.

One set of images intensified the focus on the refugee crisis – that of Alan [Aylan] Kurdi, washed up, face down on a Turkish beach. The author Patrick Ness was moved to action, setting up (and promoting via Twitter) a fundraiser for Save the Children. Match funding offers from authors, illustrators and publishers (mostly from among the children’s and young adult writing community) meant that within a week, more than $1 million was raised.

I was one of the many who donated to the fundraiser, and hit lucky. The comic artist and illustrator Sally Jane Thompson had decided on a draw to win a commission from her, from among those who had donated. I was delighted when Sally contacted me to say she’d picked me – I like the clear lines and liveliness of her style. I asked her if she would draw an author portrait with a difference. The characters of the book I’m writing spend much of their time on the rooftops of Glasgow buildings, so I thought it would be great to have me up there too! Continue reading


This week I’ll be chairing a Book Week Scotland event at Stirling Central Library. It’s a ‘ThankBooks’ panel, featuring several writers (Alan Bissett, Lisa Ballantyne, Billy Letford and Shari Low) who will be talking about a book, author, character or library that made them what they are today.

C7 (2)Preparing for the panel has made me think about my own early reading and writerly inspirations. I was a bookish child: here’s me with my nose in a big book of fairy tales, one of my favourites when I was little. Perhaps no surprise that when I came across Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories as an adult I loved its exhilarating, weird, erotic feminist retellings. Who can forget the moment in the title story when the mother gallops, gun blazing, to snatch her daughter from the hands of the murderous Marquis? Or the ‘wily, perspicacious and resourceful’ Puss-in-Boots, who ‘can perform a back somersault whilst holding aloft a glass of vino in his right paw and never spill a drop’? (After reading this stuff, real life is always going to seem a little grey.)

My favourite book of all as a little girl was J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, which I read innumerable times. I had an edition with the Mabel Lucie Attwell illustrations, and my parents copied me out a flying Peter Pan on a big piece of paper, which I had stuck to the lampshade in the middle of my bedroom. In my head, though, the story was much wilder than the charming illustrations suggested: the interloper boy who steals the children away from the security of their home to fly across the skies to Neverland couldn’t be tamed. Many years later, I delighted in Geraldine McCaughrean’s official sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet (commissioned to continue the flow of royalties to Great Ormond Street Hospital) which perfectly captured Peter Pan’s wildness and prickliness. Continue reading

Teapots and Talismans

Teapot Lamp, by The Owl and the Pussycat

Teapot Lamp, by The Owl and the Pussycat

Towards the beginning of the book I’m currently writing, there’s a scene where my protagonist, Aly is sitting out in the back court of her tenement. She’s sorting through the metal that she and her Paw have collected (well, stolen, to be honest) from a West End rooftop the night before.

She finishes up her sorting, and picks up a small silver teapot. She turns it in her hands, then takes up a small hammer, and gently tries to work out some of the bumps in its surface. She’s careful not to damage the pattern on the surface of the teapot.

When I wrote this scene, early in the book, I hadn’t really thought about what the teapot was, and if it had a role other than as an object for Aly to be playing with, while her Paw comes out to have a slightly difficult conversation with her. Later, though, the teapot – which they never use to make tea, but keep as decoration – becomes an important place in which some objects (I won’t reveal which) are stored.

After writing a first draft of the book, I went on a craft workshop. The company that led the workshop, The Owl and the Pussycat, beautifully upcyles old objects. At the workshop, I’d had my eye on a sweet little copper teapot which had been made into a lamp, but didn’t buy it. When I got home, I emailed the company, who kindly said they’d put it to one side for me until I could pick it up.

Over a month later, I went to another fair where The Owl and the Pussycat were exhibiting to pick up my teapot. As I neared the stand, though, I saw another lamp. This one was silver nickel, with a pattern of flowers sprayed across its side. I stopped still. It wasn’t quite how I’d imagined the teapot when I was first writing about it, but this teapot was how it should look.

I said hello, and that I’d like the silver nickel teapot instead of the copper one which had been patiently waiting for me. My explanation was, no doubt, rather garbled, but The Owl and the Pussycat understood. ‘That makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,’ she said.

And now it stands on top of a beautiful writing desk I’m looking after for a friend. I switch it on when I’m writing in the winter, or at night. A talisman.