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Features

Posted by on in Features

Let me explain:

Should Scotland be an independent country? Well, yes, of course it should. All countries, surely, should be independent. Otherwise theyre provinces, not countries. But many countries, by choice, are not fully independent, for example if theyre member states of the European Union (or, as Ukrainians are so well aware, part of the Russian customs union or the former Comecon and Warsaw Pact).

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Harry and Puma at East Preston Cemetery, Edinburgh

 

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Book reviews are always good for a bit of controversy. There was some when we announced the use of reviewer pseudonyms with the launch of Gutter Issue 01. At the time, the concern was that our reviews would be too vicious – that our reviewers would dig the knife in from the comfort of their pseudonym shadows. I’m happy to say that didn’t happen. Now, as Issue 10 approaches, the concern has changed. In a recent SRB blog article Harry McGrath asked pertinently if in fact reviewers at Gutter, and throughout Scotland, are all just far too nice.

The glee with which people read Will Self’s scathing review of Mark Kermode’s Hatchet Job in The Guardian last October made me wonder if I should roll up my sleeves and get into a bar brawl just to increase our sales figures. But what did his hatchet job of Hatchet Job actually achieve. It’s generated a lot of attention – for Will Self, for The Guardian, and for Mark Kermode. A 1500 word review in the national press that gets everyone talking? Most writers can only dream of that kind of coverage, and the attention has probably ensured more sales for a book that doesn’t deserve them at the expense of those that do. Will Self comments that to “critique such a work strikes me as altogether surplus to requirements.” He’s absolutely right. Particularly interesting is his conclusion that the role of the critic, as we know it, is over. Perhaps he is right again, for what the publication of this review really shows is that no matter how “irritating” or full of howlers your book is, you can be the one to get in The Guardian at the expense of more deserving authors so long as it’ll generate enough gossip. Depressing, isn’t it?

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IT is advisable when in the Abbotsford in Edinburgh to stand at that part of the circular bar farthest from the main door. From there you have a periscopic view of whoever is about to cross the threshold. Thus you can choose to greet or avoid them as you please. Often, spying a bore or a sponger or the author of a book to which I have taken a scunner, I have ducked into the gents or made an electric exit by the side door.

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In July 1992, Muriel Sarah Camberg Spark, daughter of Edinburgh, returned to the city of her birth for the formal presentation of some of her papers to the National Library of Scotland at George IV Bridge.  Anyone granted access to the papers will be astonished at the bulk, range, and variety of the collection such as it is now (a substantial portion yet remains at her last residence in Italy):  letters, desk diaries, manuscripts, engagement calendars, grocery lists, awards, certificates and honorary degree papers, legal documents, book contracts, plays, betting slips, screenplays, notes for novels, holograph texts of several works, drafts of others, typescripts, cheque book stubs and receipts. . .on and on. . . .  Spark is certainly to be taken at her word: “since 1949 onwards I have thrown away practically nothing on paper,” she wrote in the Preface to her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae (1992).  As the National Library description notes, “no other author so deliberately and carefully preserved a record of their life.”

            Several recent, extended visits to the NLS archives with time to read a good deal of what is available, have yielded fascinating, if partial, insight into this remarkable woman, once described by David Lodge as “the most gifted and innovative British writer of her generation,” Lodge’s choice of “British” to modify “writer” is slightly problematic since Spark described herself as “English,” not “British.”   But considering herself English in no way denied her Scottish background; she was, she said many times, “Scottish by formation.”   And though she left Scotland in 1937 at the age of nineteen, never to return for more than occasional visits or holidays, she remained a Scot to the core, her character formed by a stringent code of values; her literary sensibility infused by the Border Ballads as well as the works of Scott, Hogg, and Stevenson; her habits of thrift, shrewd bargaining, and careful investment derived from her early years among the merchants of her native city; her cast of mind that of a thoroughgoing Scottish skeptic; and her speech lightened by the lyric musicality of Morningside to the end of her days.  In a short speech at the NLS ceremony she acknowledged her debt to the reference and lending libraries of Edinburgh, public institutions which had supplemented her first-rate primary and secondary education at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls.  She used the reader’s tickets designated for the other three members of the household and often returned home to #160 Bruntsfield Place with bundles of poetry books.  Endowed with this education and energized by a keen Protestant work ethic which remained with her (in a late interview – 2003 – she confessed, “I do feel guilty at the age of 85 if I haven’t done a day’s work”), she sailed from Southampton off into the unknown of Africa one summer’s day (13 August 1937).  Without a trace of bitterness, Spark echoed Joyce when she told an interviewer, “I think it’s necessary to leave Edinburgh.”

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Recently the latest edition of one of Scotland’s bright new literary magazines dropped through the letterbox. Its arrival is something I look forward to. The magazine is not light reading - 170 pages dense with new poetry and short fiction, lots of black on white, writers of all ages and at all stages – but is well worth the effort if you want to know who is doing what in contemporary Scottish literature.

Eventually I will work my way through all of it and find (if past editions are anything to go by) good writers, promising writers, and a few whose work I’ll pass over rather quickly. I always begin my exploration, however, in medias res because that’s where the book reviews are. These pages would catch the eye anyway as they are the only part of the magazine that is in colour: a rather fetching and (as it turns out) appropriate sky blue in this edition.

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A friend once told me that he had a ‘world famous’ bakery round the corner from his flat in Glasgow. The fact that he couldn’t remember the name of it made me wonder how well known its rolls and pancakes were in, say, the Far East.

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Kirsty Logan, Paul McQuade, Carole Jones, Zöe Strachan, George Anderson 

Event Review: Kin, Summerhall 09/02/2013

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I grew up in Scotland and I’m a poetry buff, so it was about time I attended StAnza. Five years ago a reform of secondary school education in Demark made it easier for me to attend the event, as I was granted five days’ holiday a year whenever I chose. However, turbulence in my professional life (the reform wasn’t only about me being granted five days’ holiday) as well as in my personal life (I was forced out of my home of 16 years by an abusive neighbour) meant that I was preoccupied with other things. After StAnza 2010 was over, however, I was sent the programme by my sister, who lives just outside St. Andrews, and I took that as an invitation.

In the event, my Principal regards my attendance as being work-related, so in addition to my five days’ holiday he has granted me two days’ paid leave of absence. This means I can go over to Scotland the weekend before the event, attend it until it finishes on the Sunday evening, and catch a cheap flight back from Edinburgh on the Tuesday morning.

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From Tartan to Tartanry

Ian Brown (ed.)

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This week marks the second run of one of the most remarkable, if unsung, festivals in the land. Previously is Scotland’s history festival. Over the next two weeks more than two hundred events will take place in Edinburgh’s bars, churches and theatres, streets and coffee houses. The ambition of the organisers is to take history out of the university lecture theatres, museums and libraries and present it to the people in the places where they gather and socialize.

If the festival of 2011 is anything to go by, that of 2012 will be another stunning success story. Nearly 6000 people across a broad demographic profile turned out last time for 236 events held by 69 partner organisations in a city wide celebration of Scotland’s history. The audiences were educated, stimulated and entertained by a rich programme of original theatre, guided tours, film, historical re-enactments, poetry, family history workshops, comedy and debates involving public figures and renowned historians.

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SRB interviews poet and publisher Colin Will 

 

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A gannet suspended in rock. An invisible causeway shrouded in mist. A basement lined with catalogued boxes filled with eccentric objects. Rituals, signs, mysteries. Such are the protagonists of Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, in which he is inspired by a spectral host of literary wayfarers and coincidental characters whilst rediscovering often forgotten, ancient paths for his contemporary readers. 

Macfarlane’s book comes in the wake of a variety of likeminded pieces: Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Will Self’s Psychogeography and most recently Jennifer Wallace’s poetry and prose selection It Can Be Solved by Walking. Consider them as guides to putting one foot in front of the other, and our understanding of this movement through a matrix of time, space and imagination, and you join Macfarlane on his walk. Each writer approaches psychogeography – Debord’s theory of geography’s effect on our senses – in different ways. They each appreciate, however, Macfarlane’s supposition that “landscape has long offered us keen ways of figuring ourselves to ourselves”. 

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By Michael Russell

[September 11, 2012 was the centenary of Robin Jenkins birth. This tribute to Jenkins was originally presented as a lecture at Cowalfest] 

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First Published in the Sunday Herald

GORE Vidal never suffered from writer’s block and had little patience with anyone who said they did. His regimen -- as befitted someone born at West Point -- was military in its adherence to routine. “First coffee. Then a bowel movement. Then the muse joins me,” he once said in the tone of a doctor dictating a prescription. He was a man who did not invite contradiction, expecting his statements to be accepted as if they were papal pulls. As the self-appointed laureate of the rise and fall of the American Empire, as Gibbon was of Rome’s, he was imperial in manner and Caesarean in demeanour. What Vidal said went. It wasn’t too hard to imagine him in a toga.  

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