Monthly Archives: October 2012

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The SRB Interview: Colin Will

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SRB interviews poet and publisher Colin Will 

 

SRB: What was your first published poem?

CW:  My first published poem came out of an experience when I was librarian at the Botanics in 1988. I got an enquiry from an American professor of botany who was researching rhubarb in cultivation. Edinburgh was one of the first centres where the rhubarb plants were cultivated, they came from Russia and China. The Regius Keeper then experimented with rhubarb extracts. And I looked at some correspondence and I found a letter from a military surgeon after the Battle of Culloden, where he had been treating the sick government troops (nobody treated the Highlanders). The doctors were treating them not just for their wounds but for illnesses. The extract of rhubarb was used as a purgative. And I read this letter, and I thought, ‘This is just amazing. I can’t believe what I’m reading’. So that sparked a poem and I sent it off to a magazine called Cencrastus, a very broad literary, political journal. I got a cheque for ten and six pence. And a little note from the publisher that said ‘You can now call yourself a professional writer’.

SRB: Can you talk a bit about the underlying themes in your new collection The Propriety of Weeding ?

CW: I became aware that I had a lot of poems about plants and gardens that needed to find a home. That’s one of the threads running through the collection. It’s not a themed collection by any manner of means. I’ve been involved with plants and gardens for a very long time and I was librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh for fourteen years. I’ve always loved gardens and I’m still involved in gardens, been trying to set up a community garden in Dunbar, where I live.

SRB: And you’ve written five books?

CW: This is the sixth. They’re all different. They show a progression in my ideas and in my skills as a writer.  I feel that if you stop developing, you should just give up. You have to see weaknesses in your own work and try to correct them. And you also have to open yourself up to new ideas and new experiences.

 That’s the way I approach putting a collection together. There are a couple of poems in here which reflect things I’ve never done in a book before.

SRB: In terms of topic matter?

CW: Topics and styles of writing. There’s one here called ‘Confessions’ which was written in the language of the street. I just enjoy picking up people’s voices onto paper. That’s a something I’ve never written about before, I may write more like that. The first line was suggested by something of WS Graham.

SRB: In one of your biographical blurbs you said you stopped writing for twenty years. Can you talk about that time?

CW: I was a bit of a Beat, I was a dropout in the early 60’s.  But then in 1963 I got a proper job in a library and I got engaged to be married. There were so many things happening in my life that I didn’t really have time to do any more writing. And so from the 1960’s to the mid-eighties, I wrote nothing. I didn’t even think about it. Twenty years.

And then it came back through writing pastiches for Christmas parties at the office for the British Geological Survey. Suddenly I realised I could do this. And I’ve never stopped since then. It just flowed on.

SRB: Where do your best poems come from?

CW: I don’t know. That’s my honest answer. Like Norman MacCaig, a phrase will come into my head. And I just tend to see where it takes me. And I never know, when I start to write, what the final poem is going to be about. If it works, it’s great, it happens very quickly. MacCaig was my primary school teacher. He taught us sarcasm, and Scottish country dancing.

SRB: How old were you at the time?

CW: That was from the ages of 8-9 until 11-12. MacCaig was still quite young. His first mature poetry collection came out in 1955 and he was about 32. His approach to writing was very much the same as mine, or mine is the same as his. I love his deceptively naturalistic poetry because when you read it more deeply, you see how it was carefully put together.

SRB: I noticed that the last lines of your poems are quite significant – like a bang!

CW: They just come out that way. I don’t aim to do that.

SRB: Is it a conscious decision to use repetition sometimes?

CW: Yes very much. I like to use some of the traditional tricks of the trade: repetition, rule of three, because they work for other people so why not give them a try.

SRB: Do you work slowly and incrementally, the same poem hammered out over time?

CW: No. I work fast. The poem is usually finished quite soon after starting it. It may be a little more than ten minutes but not much more.

MacCaig used to say that he wrote a one-fag poem or a two fag poem. Well what I say I can write a poem in ten minutes plus fifty years. I need to have experienced it, I need to have lived.

SRB: I noticed you write a lot about the domestic and the exotic. Is that how you see your life?

CW: Oh yes, I am a domestic being and I’ve been happily married for 46 years. And my home life is very conventional and I like it like that. But I have an exotic imagination, and I can imagine other situations. There’s a thread in that book (The Floorshow at The Mad Yak Cafe) about relationships going bad and that’s not from experience – that’s purely from imagination. As I say, I’ve been married all that time.

SRB: Can you explain the title of your previous collection, The Floorshow at the Mad Yak Cafe?

CW: My wife and I were in Tibet in 2007. Our guide said I’ll take you out on a cultural evening. So we went to the place which was called the Mad Yak Cafe. After the meal a cabaret came on… and the dancers were the waiters and waitresses who had served the meal. They had dressed up in Tibetan costumes. And they started to sing and dance. And their singing was mimed to a very bad CD of Chinese music. They were not Tibetan, well a couple were, but the rest were Han Chinese. And it was so fake, it was just done for the tourists. When I left the evening and I said to her, that is the title of my next book!

SRB: Did you get altitude sickness while in Tibet?

CW: Yes… We were on the train. We went to nearly five and a half thousand metres. And they pump in extra oxygen on the train. But even then I had a headache and sore sinuses. What I did find difficult was walking up the steps to the Potala. I had to stop at every flight of steps. But that’s only about four thousand metres or so.

SRB: And to climb that in your mid-sixties is quite a feat.

CW: And I hit seventy this year.

SRB: That’s wonderful. How did you celebrate?

CW: Well it was actually two days after my mother’s death. My brother and I were there and we continued with the house clearing. We had a glass of wine and we allowed ourselves that time. I did intend to climb another Munro but I haven’t had the chance to do that.

SRB: What is like to lose a parent at your age?

CW: It was very strange. She was 92 when she died. And she’d been ill for the past two years I’d been caring for her. She lived a hundred miles from where I live. So I couldn’t be there all the time. But we arranged carers for her, they were terrific. And we both knew it was inevitable that she wasn’t going to last. But she loved life so much and had an active mind right to the last. We just jollied each other along, made jokes. I kept her amused and looked after her as well as I could. But it was… the way I feel about it now, every Sunday I used to phone her and we’d have a talk every Sunday. Now Sundays comes around and I’ve got nobody to phone and I miss that. But it was ok… she was ready to go.

 With my father he wasn’t ready to go. It was 9/11. And he got very agitated watching the TV footage of the twin towers. Two days later he had a massive stroke and died. I wasn’t expecting that at all. He was 84. He was in good health. So… that one was a shock.

SRB: I’m sorry to hear that.

Would you like talk about the 1962 Writers Conference… did you witness MacDiarmid calling Trocchi ‘scum’…

CW: I did. The thing I first noticed was someone had switched the water carafes to whisky.

SRB: Really?

CW: Yes. And I didn’t know until this year that it had been Jim Haynes who had actually done it. So a very clear whisky went into the carafes. I think it was Sidney Goodsir Smith who first noticed it and then everybody drank. I heard Trocchi saying that he’d written everything significant in the last twenty years. I didn’t go all the way with Trocchi, although I think his internationalist approach was closer to mine than MacDiarmid’s, I don’t very often write in Scots but when I do, I tend to write in the way people speak. I like the Doric, from Aberdeenshire because that’s the way the people speak. 

SRB: Do your use Scottish words in your everyday vocabulary?

CW: Yes I do. But I think in English, so I write in English.

SRB: Did you go to the Edinburgh Book Festival event on the 1962 conference?

CW: I did. I enjoyed it. I liked seeing John Calder and Jim Haynes again. I hadn’t met John Calder since 1962. I did know Jim Haynes quite well; I used to go into his shop. He would bring me coffee…you’ve never heard of that happening in a book shop anymore, the owner actually bringing you coffee! It was lovely, I really liked it. I bought a copy of New American poetry 1945 to 1960. And that started me off reading the important American poets… and I feel closer in affinity to a lot of American poetry than I do with Scottish poetry.

SRB: Can you say a bit more about that?

CW: A lot of them have that originality of thought that I like, and a direct form of communication which I liked as well. I used to like a lot of the original beat writers, and the beat poet that I admired was William Everson. He wrote under the name Brother Antoninus. He was knockout with the images. Again with an American idiom and an American voice. The idea that you can express a view of nature but you can still be who you are. I thought that was super. And I wanted to write like that.

SRB: Who else has influenced you?

CW: I have particular writers that I enjoy, people like Ruth Padel. She is one of my influences. And lots of other poets. I read lots of poets. I think you have to, as a writer. It keeps your own inspiration fresh. If you see other people out there who are interesting to read. And it makes you want to say interesting things yourself.

SRB: About Calder Wood Press… how long has the press been in business?

CW: It started about ten years ago. I was doing poem cards for the School of Poets, and I thought I could do some myself on my own work, so I put together some poem cards. And in those days you could get a hundred ISBN numbers for nothing. So I’m still working through that original block of 100. And it wasn’t until 2006 or around then that I had the idea I’d like to publish other people’s work. So it’s just grown from there. I love putting collections together.

SRB: How do you choose your poets?

CW: Well I go to a lot of readings. And I like to hear people read. I seek people out, I tend to do that. People do send me things, but I can’t cope with that.

SRB: What do you do?

CW: I tell them that I can’t accept unsolicited submissions. I got a letter from a very well known Scottish writer just a few weeks ago asking me to publish him. I had to say no. It’s just the way it is.

SRB: Are you funded by anyone?

CW: I subsidise the press from my pension because I love to do it. Love to get people’s work out there. I don’t get enough income from sales!

SRB: Which occupation has influenced you the most:  poet, publisher, librarian? 

CW: I would say it’s none of the above. It’s people. I love meeting people. I love interacting with people, listening to people, and that’s the main thing. I’ve always been influenced a lot by my scientific training, I’ve got a science degree and a Ph.D. in Information Science, that also affects my thinking… I tend to think in scientific terms quite a lot.

SRB: How do you feel about Scottish poetry at the moment. Are we getting more contemporary or are we turning around?

CW: There are many different poetries in Scotland right now. I’m heartened by the rise of popularity of performance poetry and slams although I could never do it myself.

SRB: Why not?

CW: I’ve drummed up the courage three times and been really embarrassed… it’s not me. But I love to hear performance poetry. I’m less keen on slams, because I don’t like the competition.  In the corner here [of the bar] there’s a group from Craigmillar, which I’m about to start tutoring in creative writing. That’s great fun.  In terms of books, economics are really hard now, we’re all going through it – even the big publishers. It’s unfortunate… a publisher like myself is dependent on mail order sales. They increased the postal charges and I have to absorb the extra costs. But that’s the way it goes.

SRB: Does writing poetry get easier when you get older?

CW: The actual business of writing on paper is the same as it always was. But the challenge is to be better than you were before. I’d like to set myself these challenges, to be absolutely economical with my words. My aim is to be as simple as possible.

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David Torrance’s ‘Great Scottish Speeches’

The end of the political conference season is a good a time to have a belated look at David Torrance’s edited ‘Great Scottish Speeches’, republished in paperback earlier this year. Torrance put the collection together by taking suggestions from Facebook and then adding a few favourite speeches of his own.

Even though it has a precedent in ‘Great Irish Speeches’, ‘Great Scottish Speeches’ is a tri-loaded title by any standards. Torrance uses the early part of his introduction to deconstruct it. A speech ‘is any piece or oratory that sources confirmed had been delivered by its author’ which can be anywhere from a paragraph to several pages in length. ‘Great’ is judged primarily on content though coherence, argument, brevity, delivery and moment should also be taken into consideration. ‘Scottish’ is a speech made by anyone in Scotland or a Scot anywhere else. Mercifully, ‘Scot’ remains undefined.

So is Renton’s “I hate being Scottish….” a speech given that it is only a few lines long and delivered by a fictional character? It is included here as a result of the editor becoming more ‘flexible’ as material was gathered. ‘A speech is a speech’ he says, ‘be it fictional or real, imagined or intended’. Perhaps it is, though Torrance doesn’t help his case by citing the speech he reproduces from the book ‘Trainspotting’ as if it were from the film. I’m pretty sure that one starts ‘It’s shite being Scottish…’.

The ‘all inclusive’ editing method of ‘Great Scottish Speeches’ and some subsequent carelessness don’t inspire confidence. A couple of paragraphs after referencing Irvine Welsh in his introduction, the editor writes of ‘searching in vein’ for speeches by suffragettes, which may be another subtle tribute to Leith’s heroin hero – or maybe not.

To be fair, Torrance does say early on that the question of inclusion is a kind of parlour game and it is certainly fun to play it. Finding ‘great’ speeches by sports people almost defeats him. There’s one, and even its inclusion is debatable. Jim Telfer’s speech to the British Lions before the First Test against South Africa in 1997 inspired them to win that game and, ultimately, the series. But on paper, devoid of context, voice, delivery and all the rest, it’s a bit – well – silly. There’s a few fuckings, a clichéd metaphor about Everest and a bit of Biblical stuff about few being chosen. Clearly you had to be there.

And that might be the biggest issue of all when speeches are collected. Once on paper and between two covers, they are likely to be judged as short essays rather than on how they sounded or the effect they had at the time. It is not really surprising that the ‘best’ speeches here, at least in terms of craft and readability, are by writers: Carlyle on history’s dependence on great men; J.M. Barrie on courage (which almost deserted him in the delivery); Compton Mackenzie and John Buchan on Scottish nationalism.

Scottish nationalism and independence (or something approaching it) are running themes in Great Scottish Speeches which is interesting considering the editor is generally regarded as indy-sceptic. In addition to Mackenzie and Buchan, there’s Lord Belhaven objecting to the Treaty of Union, Michael Davitt on Landlordism and Home Rule, R.B Cunninghame Graham, Robert McIntyre, John MacCormick, Wendy Wood, Mick McGahey (‘Give the Scottish Nation the right to decide their own destiny and their future’) and Alex Salmond who gets a foreword and a speech.

Against all this, Tam Dalyell is a lonely figure with his finger in the dyke and, anyway, he might be better placed in a book of great points rather than great speeches. His West Lothian question is hitched to a lot of embarrassing nonsense about coaches and roads, motorways and exits, log rafts and rivers.

At the end of the book, mysteries remain. The Scot who could give a great speech ‘anywhere else’ didn’t get further than London with the exception of George Galloway who produced a brammer before a United States Senate committee. From the mighty Scottish Diaspora (40 million or so by some estimates) there’s not a word. Nothing, for instance, from the great Prairie Preacher Tommy Douglas who convinced a reluctant Canada to adopt his universal health care system on the back of a series of impassioned speeches laced with the remnants of a Falkirk accent.

Torrance’s introduction was written in 2011 but the last speech included is Alex Salmond’s ‘Scotland has changed for good and forever’ after the 2007 Holyrood election. This means no place for Kenny MacAskill’s speech following his release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi which had an international audience bigger than all the speeches in the book put together. By contrast, some of those included were presented to empty seats in the House of Commons and of no great moment – easily discovered in the pages of Hansard but probably better forgotten.

Torrance indicates that there is a ‘Great Scottish Speeches Vol. 2’ in the pipeline. Some modifications in the collection process, a closer examination of the word ‘great’, a bit less parochialism, a tad more care from the editor, and that will be something to look forward to.

[‘Great Scottish Speeches’ is published by Luath Press] 

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David Torrance’s ‘Great Scottish Speeches’

The end of the political conference season is a good a time to have a belated look at David Torrance’s edited ‘Great Scottish Speeches’, republished in paperback earlier this year. Torrance put the collection together by taking suggestions from Facebook and then adding a few favourite speeches of his own.

Even though it has a precedent in ‘Great Irish Speeches’, ‘Great Scottish Speeches’ is a tri-loaded title by any standards. Torrance uses the early part of his introduction to deconstruct it. A speech ‘is any piece or oratory that sources confirmed had been delivered by its author’ which can be anywhere from a paragraph to several pages in length. ‘Great’ is judged primarily on content though coherence, argument, brevity, delivery and moment should also be taken into consideration. ‘Scottish’ is a speech made by anyone in Scotland or a Scot anywhere else. Mercifully, ‘Scot’ remains undefined.

So is Renton’s “I hate being Scottish….” a speech given that it is only a few lines long and delivered by a fictional character? It is included here as a result of the editor becoming more ‘flexible’ as material was gathered. ‘A speech is a speech’ he says, ‘be it fictional or real, imagined or intended’. Perhaps it is, though Torrance doesn’t help his case by citing the speech he reproduces from the book ‘Trainspotting’ as if it were from the film. I’m pretty sure that one starts ‘It’s shite being Scottish…’.

The ‘all inclusive’ editing method of ‘Great Scottish Speeches’ and some subsequent carelessness don’t inspire confidence. A couple of paragraphs after referencing Irvine Welsh in his introduction, the editor writes of ‘searching in vein’ for speeches by suffragettes, which may be another subtle tribute to Leith’s heroine hero – or maybe not.

To be fair, Torrance does say early on that the question of inclusion is a kind of parlour game and it is certainly fun to play it. Finding ‘great’ speeches by sports people almost defeats him. There’s one, and even its inclusion is debatable. Jim Telfer’s speech to the British Lions before the First Test against South Africa in 1997 inspired them to win that game and, ultimately, the series. But on paper, devoid of context, voice, delivery and all the rest, it’s a bit – well – silly. There’s a few fuckings, a clichéd metaphor about Everest and a bit of Biblical stuff about few being chosen. Clearly you had to be there.

And that might be the biggest issue of all when speeches are collected. Once on paper and between two covers, they are likely to be judged as short essays rather than on how they sounded or the effect they had at the time. It is not really surprising that the ‘best’ speeches here, at least in terms of craft and readability, are by writers: Carlyle on history’s dependence on great men; J.M. Barrie on courage (which almost deserted him in the delivery); Compton Mackenzie and John Buchan on Scottish nationalism.

Scottish nationalism and independence (or something approaching it) is a running theme in Great Scottish Speeches which is interesting considering the editor is generally regarded as indy-sceptic. In addition to Mackenzie and Buchan, there’s Lord Belhaven objecting to the Treaty of Union, Michael Davitt on Landlordism and Home Rule, R.B Cunninghame Graham, Robert McIntyre, John MacCormick, Wendy Wood, Mick McGahey (‘Give the Scottish Nation the right to decide their own destiny and their future’) and Alex Salmond who gets a foreword and a speech.

Against all this, Tam Dalyell is a lonely figure with his finger in the dyke and, anyway, he might be better placed in a book of great points rather than great speeches. His West Lothian question is hitched to a lot of embarrassing nonsense about coaches and roads, motorways and exits, log rafts and rivers.

At the end of the book, mysteries remain. The Scot who could give a great speech ‘anywhere else’ didn’t get further than London with the exception of George Galloway who produced a brammer before a United States Senate committee. From the mighty Scottish Diaspora (40 million or so by some estimates) there’s not a word. Nothing, for instance, from the great Prairie Preacher Tommy Douglas who convinced a reluctant Canada to adopt his universal health care system on the back of a series of impassioned speeches laced with the remnants of a Falkirk accent.

Torrance’s introduction was written in 2011 but the last speech included is Alex Salmond’s ‘Scotland has changed for good and forever’ after the 2007 Holyrood election. This means no place for Kenny MacAskill’s speech following his release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi which had an international audience bigger than all the speeches in the book put together. By contrast, some of those included were presented to empty seats in the House of Commons and of no great moment – easily discovered in the pages of Hansard but probably better forgotten.

Torrance indicates that there is a second edition of ‘Great Scottish Speeches’ in the pipeline. Some modifications in the collection process, a closer examination of the word ‘great’, a bit less parochialism, a tad more care from the editor, and that will be something to look forward to.  

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Scot finally wins the Booker Prize (not)

A month back I posted a piece bemoaning the fact that no Scot had won the Booker Prize since James Kelman in 1994. It came as a bit of a surprise, then, when this morning’s twitter crowing seemed to suggest that this year’s prize had been won by Scotland’s very own Ewan Morrison for ‘Tales from the Mall’, especially as I don’t remember him being on the short list and the Booker announcement isn’t due until later today.

Closer inspection of my tiny Blackberry screen revealed that it is not the Booker Prize that Morrison has won but ‘Not the Booker Prize’, a ‘dubious and coveted honour’ organized by The Guardian. Morrison effectively hammered the opposition with the silver medal going to a book called ‘Pig Iron’ and the bronze to an author called ‘Ironmonger’. But as it turns out, it is Oor Ewan who will have to show his mettle.

Seems Ewan’s gold was somewhat tarnished by the way he garnered, nay solicited, his 135 votes. Fair to say that organizer in chief Sam Jordison isn’t happy with him. He doesn’t think that Ewan’s was the best book ‘or even in the top four’ (quite an insult as there are only seven on the shortlist and the last three scored 6, 3 and 0 votes respectively).

But it is not the fact that Sam doesn’t think Ewan’s book is much good that bothers him the most. What he is really beilin about is a late-in-the-day e-mail Morrison sent around asking ‘friends’ to vote for ‘us’ because all the other nominees had dropped out (they hadn’t) except for one who was ‘published by a big multinational company’.

There’s more, including detailed instructions on how to log in to vote, how to post a review of TFTM and some gratuitous insults concerning the judges. Eventually it becomes clear that by ‘us’ Ewan means himself and Glasgow’s rather funky Cargo Publishing and not the whole of Scotland which might have helped redress that other Booker issue. As a reward, Morrison promises a ‘humorous article’ about it all. Jordison is awaiting that with barely contained excitement.

All this was followed by an e-mail exchange starting with a suggestion from Jordison that Morrison should consider dropping out ‘to save yourself a bit of embarrassment’ and ending with Morrison saying that if there was any unfair play he would be ‘picking up the phone to [Jordison’s senior at The Guardian] and the Scottish media’. The latter sounds a bit like threatening a tiger with a tickling stick, but never mind.

All of which raises some interesting (though not really new) questions about on-line voting and to what degree support is still legitimate when it is pre-scripted. None of which matters much in this particular case as the prize is supposed to be a bit of fun – as will become clear when twitter announces when and where we can read the humorous article.

Incidentally, Not Booker titles 4 through 7 might be tracking Ewan. In order, they are: The Revelations (never good when someone puts your e-mails in a newspaper), Life! Death! Prizes! (speaks for itself), Paint the Town Red (should be his next move) and The Casablanca Case (‘Mysterious City of Sin and Intrigue’).

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Event Review: SPL Scottish Poetry Showcase: 11/10/2012

                                                   SPL Scottish Poetry Showcase

Spoken word evenings in Edinburgh happen every week, but rarely do three leagues of performance organisations converge in the same room. It was an extremely good idea, then, for the Scottish Poetry Library to unite Inky Fingers, 10Red and Neu! Reekie! in an up-tempo medley of mini poetry slams, readings, film and music on Thursday October 11th. SPL Programme manager Jennifer Williams hosted the event, recalling how ‘kind and welcoming’ the spoken word groups were to her when she moved from America to Scotland over a decade ago. Cargo author and Inky Fingers organiser Tracy Rosenberg, dressed in a topcoat and tails, launched the ‘world’s tiniest poetry slam’ in which four competitors went through the travails of competition in just twenty minutes. With her charmingly shy delivery and thoughtful images, winner Katy Ewing beat a trio of young men: Matt MacDonald, Frank Thompson and Miko Mysterio, though Mysterio proved an able competitor with his clever tirade on the optimistic philosophies behind Disney movies.

10Red did in twenty minutes what they normally accomplish over a leisurely space of a few hours. Kevin Cadwallender, the Scottish editor of Red Squirrel Press and customary host of 10Red at the Persevere Bar, kicked off the readings with a poem called ‘Thinking about insomnia is keeping me awake’. In the manner of a fashion show, nine other poets strode to the front of the room, paused to recite a quick poem, then pirouetted to the back. Poets included spoken-word enthusiast Sophia Walker, Red Squirrel poet Colin Will, Hardly Boys member Mike Dillon, Calder Wood Press poet Janette Ayachi, performance poet Fiona Lindsay, Edinburgh Fringe Slam Champ Jenny Lindsay, Australian-bred poet and novelist Lara S. Williams, and Glasgow-born Colin McGuire, whose rant on sectarian and homophobic attitudes in Glasgow reached a dynamic peak in the closing poem ‘Filthy Man’.

Neu! Reekie!, the spoken word, music and animation triad once held in the Scottish Book Trust headquarters but now moved to the new arts venue Summerhall, gave a taster of what they do on the last Friday of every month. Multiple-pamphlet poet Michael Pedersen read ‘Ex Marks the Spot’, a lively work about the narrator’s girlfriend suspiciously checking for bad deeds on his phone. Then with the projector already set-up, Pedersen showed a rude but whimsical ten-minute animation made after hours in the Walt Disney studios and rumoured to have been shown at a bachelor party in 1924 where Walt was the best man. Lead singer Craig from the folk punk band Emelle closed the evening with the quirky tune ‘Another rainy day’, a fitting song which matched the torrential downpour outside.  

Though most of the crowd in the room seemed to know each other already, it was interesting to see these organisations in energetic union. Hopefully this inner circle will continue to let outsiders in.

 

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‘Tomorrow you die: The Astonishing Survival Story of a Second World War Prisoner of the Japanese’ by Andy Coogan

Andy Coogan is Sir Chris Hoy’s great-uncle, but you will find no mention of that in this remarkable book. Judging by the way Coogan presents himself, he is far too humble to play on such a lofty association.

In fact, Coogan is a somewhat reluctant memorialist. At 95 he is just telling his story now, inhibited in earlier years by the possibility that he might offend family and friends. He even seems concerned about an undertaking he signed with the British Government at the end of Word War Two not to talk about his imprisonment or what he saw of the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

Though his publisher and others have focussed on his experiences as Japanese POW, the book is really a kind of triptych in the sense that it paints three separate but connected pictures. The first is Coogan’s upbringing in Glasgow’s Gorbals; the second his experiences in Malaya and Singapore and his subsequent imprisonment; and the last his miraculous delivery back in to the arms of his family in Scotland.

Nothing could prepare for the inhuman cruelty of the middle frame, but Coogan’s upbringing the Gorbals defined him in ways that carried forward. The desperate urban deprivation that obtained there in the 1920s and 30s could lead to individual empowerment or destruction. In Coogan’s case it was the former. While not shirking the negative aspects of Gorbals life (in fact he lists them), his own circumstances were mitigated by community togetherness and a natural athleticism which eventually saw him come second to world record holder Sidney Wooderson in the 1940 Ibrox Mile. Above all, there was his family’s Irish Catholic faith with a suffering saviour at the centre of it who acted as example in the trial that Coogan was about to be subjected to.

Comradeship, residual body strength and plain faith sustained Coogan through his war years. The sheer barbarity of the treatment he endured is dreadful to read. Sent to Malaya and in Singapore when it fell, he survived a ‘hell-ship’ voyage to Japan only to wind up in the notorious Changi Camp and then a slave mine in what was Formosa. In a life defined by starvation, disease and executions, cruelty was ubiquitous even if its application was often arbitrary. For instance, Coogan was forced to repeatedly punch his priest and mentor Father Richard Kennedy, a Maximilian Kolbe-like figure in the camp though he (unlike Kolbe) survived it.

Coogan’s journey from liberation back to Glasgow involved such diverse experiences as seeing the aftermath of Nagasaki and enjoying the hospitality of Scots-Canadians in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. He returned to running with his unusual ‘on-your-toes’ style even though the intervention of the war years had vanquished his dreams of becoming an Olympian. If Coogan feels any resentment concerning the loss of these dreams (and their replacement by nightmares to this day) he doesn’t say so.

His refusal to pass judgement is remarkable in all three phases of his story. Rat infested accommodation in the Gorbals followed by humiliating family means testing and ‘Fresh Air Days’ when children were issued with Union Jacks, are recorded as a sequence of events rather than an exercise in social and political irony. An angry policeman who intercepts him on the way home from visiting his dying father gives way to a kind one who takes the trouble to find out what is happening and leads him to his house. The evil inflicted by his Japanese guards can’t trump his sympathy for ordinary Japanese civilians and the burn victims of Nagasaki. If, as Solzhenitsyn wrote of another prison camp, the battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man, there is no doubt which side won over Andy Coogan. 

[This review first appeared in The Herald]

Tomorrow You Die: The Astonishing Survival Story of a Second World War Prisoner of the Japanese is published by Mainstream

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Robert Macfarlane – The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot

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”. 

Macfarlane’s book is divided into four parts, subtitled, in keeping with his spare and elegiac style, with single words – ‘Ice’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Print’, ‘Peat’. These subtitles are as elusive as Macfarlane’s quarry – the footprints of the past that are revealed only as ghosts along the way. ‘The Old Ways’ is a study of haunting, or the haunted nature of memory, where, via W. H. Hudson, Macfarlane notices “ghost gulls or spirit birds that merely ‘lived in or were passing through the world’”, and recognises that, on the way, we exist in a space of transition. Macfarlane’s wayfaring is an act of “border crossing” – borders of time and memory, as well as the physical borders of land and sea. Macfarlane encourages a fresh-seeing approach, such as his inverted map of Britain that recognises the ocean ways as uniting a wider network – and thus converting notions of highland wildernesses into areas of flux through which we travel. Equally, his passage along the Broomway, a causeway off the Essex coast, conjures the visible out of the invisible, the legible out of the illegible. We are surrounded, suggests Macfarlane, not by barriers, but by (often elusive) portals.  

So, a book clamouring with ghosts – or rather, a book that recognises that human experience is made up of a limitless, unknowable flurry of ghosts that know no borders, or recognise borders we have misrecognised. Macfarlane, through his love of poet Edward Thomas – one of the principle spectral literary influences in Macfarlane’s book -, would have these paths and borders “folded together”, a palimpsest of time visible, if one were to look, along the way. Time, for Macfarlane, moves back and forth like the tide; uncovers, for example, 5000-year-old footprints that the reader may walk beside. The undulation of time in Macfarlane’s book allows these footprints to become our footprints, and the ‘old ways’ he follows to take on deep, questing significance. Paths meander “oddly, or perhaps time compressed”; when he walks, it is “as if time had pleated back on itself”. The ancient Icknield Way, for example, is “not like a two-dimensional track but part of a greater manifold, looping and weaving in time even as it appeared to run singularly onwards in space”. Macfarlane is determined for walking to be as academic an experience as it is physical, looped and transgressive despite, perhaps, its basic forward motion.

How, then, as readers, can we follow these strange traces “between the conceptual, the spectral and the personal”? Macfarlane encourages his readers to readjust their notions – of time and space, particularly – and reenvisage, as Walter Benjamin did before us, our lives as a map, and to consider our progress through life “an act of biogeography”. For Macfarlane, the contours of the land offer up aids, or symbols, to help unravel existential questions, or at least to address them. Through England, Scotland, Wales, and further afield – to Palestine, Spain – the path becomes a mirror, and for Macfarlane, wayfaring elicits questions from the elegant codex of the path, with which one is somehow bound. 

This process of walking as mirroring is revealed by Macfarlane in various ways: through his strong grasp of etymology – families of words and his journeys through them; his recognition of spirits, literary and more quotidian; and the sense of spirituality that Macfarlane is able to gain from the psychogeographical. 

Clearly, the physicality of the path is not necessarily, for Macfarlane, the way itself – but the arching form of time (and the ghosts it holds in its matrix) that he encounters along the way. This, in turn, in its very immateriality, gives Macfarlane clues as to what the path could represent: namely a quest, or question. The manner in which Macfarlane presents his findings is both erudite and eccentric. By focusing on what seems far-flung, even unreachable, Macfarlane encounters surfaces and spaces that are “overwhelmingly legible”. These are ways where the traces of others’ passing tease with “disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness”, where we read “ghosts, dark doubles, and deep forests in which paths peter out”. The liminal space of psychogeography explored by Macfarlane, whilst being quietly confident in its assessment of literary antecedents, embraces a very human sense of questioning, a secular reading of faith. This space – reflecting the otherness of self when confronted with the memory of people within their environment – is found to be in constant flux and transition.  

  Macfarlane’s lilting prose affords the reader much entertainment along the way. His exacting imagery – the grouse with a “drag-queen slur of red” above its eye – personifies the landscape vigorously, something Macfarlane’s ghosts have been doing for centuries. In this sense, too, ‘The Old Ways’ is an extremely agreeable book, one the TLS suggested was startling for the “bristlingness” of its prose. But also perhaps more mysteriously startling: for its reading of the liminality hovering on the edge of recorded texts, and the text legible in the footprints of human experience.    

Robert Macfarlane exhibits words alongside Scottish artist Andrew Mackenzie’s paintings at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art in London in Silver Beyond the Falls this autumn.

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