Monthly Archives: October 2013


Dundee Literary Festival: Rosemary Goring and James Robertson 26/10/2013


James Robertson and Rosemary Goring signing

photo credit: Dundee Literary Festival, image by Chris Scott


‘Compelling Stories’: Rosemary Goring and James Robertson

Dundee Literary Festival, 26/10/2013


Dundee is the new place to be. With its thriving contemporary arts centre and new V & A museum being built along the Tay, perhaps the city should be renamed Fundee.

Helmed by the formidable Peggy Hughes, the Dundee Literary festival is a kind and quirky celebration of books. Held in the University’s Bonar Hall, there is a makeshift cafe downstairs slinging tea in brightly coloured cups. Author names this year included Jenni Fagan, William McIlvanney, A L Kennedy, Lesley McDowell and several others. Many audience members looked well into retirement and that may account for the festival’s polite air. But that’s not too unusual these days.

A Saturday afternoon event featured Rosemary Goring, literary editor of The Herald and the Sunday Herald and Saltire prize novelist James Robertson. Though hampered by a few technology problems at the start, the event bloomed into a lively, even defiant discussion about an author’s responsibility to honour the historical background of a novel, but also to fulfil their own narrative agenda. Where, if any place, does the boundary lie?

Guardian journalist Antonia Senior said little by way of an introduction, which provided an abrupt segueway into Robertson’s presentation of The Professor of Truth. In a patient, grim voice he read from a rather tragic early part in the book. Alan Tealing, the main character, is an English professor who lost his American wife and daughter in the Pan Am 103 plane crash. The excerpt had some poignant notes: ‘the edge of the field where the nose of the aircraft lay like a fish head with men crawling over it like yellow flies…’

As Robertson read, it was difficult not think of Dr Jim Swire. Swire lost his daughter Flora in the Lockerbie tragedy and became a dedicated investigator of the incident. Parallels between the men surfaced, though Robertson pointedly stated that Alan Tealing is not based on Swire. In fact, Robertson did not conduct interviews with anyone related to the tragedy. He did, however, contact Swire after the novel’s completion and said: ‘Look I’ve written this novel. They’re going to assume it’s you’. It was ‘a matter of courtesy’, Robertson said, a fact which chimes with his ‘sensitive’ outlook on the novel. Yet the accomplished writer insisted that ‘people shouldn’t shy away from difficult subject matter’.

500 years after the battle of Flodden, Rosemary Goring read a similarly distressing episode from her debut novel. She has a crisp and eloquent style of reading.  After Flodden opens, appropriately enough, in the battle’s aftermath, with the Scottish king gone and the English victorious. Her anti-hero Patrick Paniter grieves at home: ‘This man who, when he stood up to speak in council rose above his peers like a mainsail mast, whose voice on a calm day could reach across the Forth into Fife, began to splutter and girn as if he were a child…’ Fortunately, Paniter’s misery is interrupted by a plucky young interloper, Louise Brenier. Goring’s book is an imaginative hybrid of what she terms as ‘the real and the unreal’.  Though Goring came across Paniter during her research, Brenier is her creation, conjured up one evening while Goring waited on Edinburgh’s Bridges for a bus.

Lockerbie is a fairly recent memory in many folks’ minds, but Flodden is not. Goring has been asked ‘What is a Flodden?’ and ‘Which Flodden?’ She is the first author to write about the ten years following the battle. Though an important position, her job is ‘not to give history lessons’, Goring said. Rather, she is revitalising an important period in Scotland’s past. Some historians  ‘still feel really raw about Flodden’, she added.

 In the final minute, the authors were handed a belter of a question: ‘Why should people keep the faith in literature?’ Robertson responded, ‘Literature may change its format, but it’s a human need to tell stories’. Goring said, ‘Why wouldn’t we ‘keep the faith’… when we enjoy it so much?’ Fitting responses, it seems, from two people who have given much to Scottish literature. 

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The Poets’ Pub


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.

I have been a regular in the Abbotsford for more than four decades. It is one of our three so-called poets’ pubs –  the others are Milne’s Bar and the Cafe Royal – which lie no more than a few hundred yards apart in the city centre. Only Milne’s, however, attempts to hook tourists with the bait that Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley MacLean once drank there. For its part, the Cafe Royal, the grandest of them, which was originally designed as a showroom for gas and sanitary fittings – hence the wall tiles celebrating famous inventors –  prefers nowadays to hymn its oysters rather than the poets of yesteryear.

As for the Abbotsford, its sole nod to its literary heritage is a quotation from John Dryden – ‘To die in a pub is my dearest plan’ etc – scrawled across the wall.  Now and then, I inquire of a barman what, if any, connection Dryden, who died two hundred years before the Abbotsford was built, might have had with the bar. To date, I have been rewarded with little more than a blank stare. Moreover, when I attempt pedagogically to explain its part in the history of Scottish literature and recite the roster of renowned poets who warmed their haunches at its coal fire in winter, the reaction is a non-alcoholic cocktail of pity and scorn.

It was Norman MacCaig whom I used most often to meet in it. ‘OK, OK, O blooming K,’ he’d reply by note to an invitation to what he called ‘a wee session’. Norman was tall and lean with a Roman beak and a croaky voice that could carry across a canyon.  He liked to talk but he was not loquacious. ‘Study brevity,’ was the curt instruction he would put at the end of a student’s essay after he had retired as a primary school teacher and become a creative writing professor at Edinburgh and Stirling universities. It seemed that I was always asking him to do something: give a reading, provide a poem for a magazine I was involved with, go for a drink or a meal. We rarely spoke on the phone. ‘I don’t like phoning you when you’re at your mind-bending labours [as a reference librarian] so here’s a scrawl asking how long (roughly) I’ll be expected to speak next Friday and where is the affair to be held. I know you’ve told me both of these things but I also know I’ve forgotten them. My memory! I can’t even remember when I had one.’

Norman was then 76 and would live ten more years. In Sandy Moffat’s celebrated Poets’ Pub painting, which is in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, he stands on the far left of the canvas, holding a cigarette in his left hand while his right is stuck in his trouser pocket. Asked how long it took him to write a poem, he’d invariably say, ‘Short poems one fag, long poems two fags’. In Sandy’s  painting, he’s leaning on a chair, on which is perched MacDiarmid, dressed in overcoat and beret, a diminutive volcano emitting – as  he said of himself – ‘not only flame but a lot of rubbish’. Around him are clustered a bespectacled Iain Crichton Smith, a ruddy-faced, beer-swilling George Mackay Brown, and Sydney Goodsir Smith who, though born and brought up in New Zealand, wrote in his own, sui generis version of Scots. In the background, looking not at MacDiarmid, indeed looking almost anywhere but, are Edwin Morgan, his glass empty (he wasn’t much of a drinker), a grumpy-looking Robert Garioch, and Sorley MacLean with his military moustache, not satellites (or acolytes) but distant stars. 

As summer’s lease was about to expire Sandy invited me to the department of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University where his friend Alan Riach, poet and professor, had arranged to be hung in a seminar room some of the preparatory drawings for the Poets’ Pub. One impressed me immediately since it was of Muriel Spark whom I doubt ever was to be found any of the aforementioned drinking dens. She was there, remarked Alan, stroking his beard ruefully, in response to female students who can’t help but notice that all the poets in Sandy’s painting are men. In his finished work there are four women but they are representatives rather than portraits of real people. One, for instance, is naked; perhaps because she’s an artist’s model. Another carries the Lion Rampant and could be interpreted as a standard bearer for the nationalist cause, while yet another may symbolise the poetic muse.

Not the least remarkable thing about Sandy’s painting is how it served to bind the poets as a group. Of course, they all knew each other and were friends to greater or lesser degrees. But it’s misleading to think of them as a movement. On the contrary, their differences were more marked than their similarities. MacCaig, for instance, may have loved MacDiarmid as a man but his poems – deceptively and philosophically short and simple and written in plain English – owe nothing to his older friend’s, which range in style from synthetic Scots lyrics to bombastic, multi-lingual panegyrics which seem designed to make their readers feel intellectually inferior. What the painting beautifully and accurately does evoke, however, is that amber  moment when Edinburgh reeked of breweries and and pipe smoke and rotting leaves and you could walk into a pub at any hour of the day and be reasonably confident of bumping into a great poet – or, more likely, someone who aspired to be one.

That, said Sandy, was what first gave him the idea for his painting. As a student at Edinburgh College of Art in the early 1960s, he used to frequent Milne’s. But by the time he began seriously to consider starting on his project he was aware that   the poets were ageing and that if he wanted to paint them he would need to get a move on. ‘How’s MacDiarmid getting on?’ he’d be asked. ‘Is he in hospital?’ in 1980, he travelled  to Orkney to paint Mackay Brown after the writer made and missed several appointments to sit for Sandy in Edinburgh. As alumni of Milne’s, the pair knew each other quite well. ‘We had a great reunion,’ recalled Sandy, ‘with endless cups of strong tea, chocolate biscuits, and the occasional mug of home-brewed ale.’ MacLean was painted on his home island of Raasay, Morgan in his jazzy flat in Glasgow. Garioch, who was to Edinburgh what Giuseppe Belli was to Rome, would fall asleep for a couple of hours during sittings. Then, when Sandy woke him up he’d say: ‘My, how the time’s flown by!’ He drew MacDiarmid in June 1978, three months before he died at the age of 86, at his cottage in Brownsbank, near Biggar in the Scottish borders. ‘There was lots of good-natured banter about the other poets.’ When Sandy told him he’d be tackling Sorley next, MacDiarmid quipped, ‘Oh, there’s not much to paint there.’

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Theresa Munoz and Anne Carson at Cove Park

[Anne Carson is appearing at the Vancouver International Writer’s Festival at the end of October. This is a feature that I did for the SRB when she was the Creative Scotland/Cove Park Muriel Spark Fellow in 2011. TM]

I first encountered Anne Carson’s poems at the University of British Columba’s Koerner Library in 2002. It was the year after Carson won Canada’s prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize for Men in the Off Hours. I sat by the window and turned the pages, moved by the ingenuity of form and allusion in her work.

            Almost ten years later, I take two trains and a taxifrom Edinburgh to Cove Park, an artists’ complex near Helensburgh where Anne Carson is in residence as this year’s Creative Scotland/Cove Park Muriel Spark Fellow. In 2006, Margaret Atwood got the job and in 2008, it was David Malouf. This year’s writer is no less established, having won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacCarthy Fellowship, the T.S. Eliot Prize and the aforementioned Griffin Poetry Prize. She has also published fifteen books of poetry, essays, criticism and translation.

            It’s a day of monsoon-like rain and Anne Carson greets me in jeans and welly boots, with a dark clip in her hair. She is tall and willowy, with high cheekbones and a gentle laugh. The wet weather doesn’t surprise her as she has lived in Scotland before. ‘I did one year of my Philosophy at St. Andrews, where I studied Greek meter and Greek textual criticism’, she tells me. It was a ‘rigorous’ year she remembers, though studying was broken up by runs in the nearby hills and once, a frozen dip in the North Sea.

            Readers familiar with Carson’s work will know that the classics provide much of her subject material. One of her earliest books, Eros the Bittersweet (1986), is a book-length essay on the text of Sappho. The acclaimed novel-length poem Autobiography of Red (1998) is a coming of age story about Geryon, a winged red monster. In her sequence ‘T.V. Men’ which is the central focus of Men in the Off Hours (2001), Carson interprets the lives of historical figures and intellectuals through the lens of television.

            As she explains in her light and even voice, her interest in Greek language and legend began early. She discovered a text of Sappho in a bookstore in Ontario, the province where she grew up. Translating the text was achieved with the help of a high school teacher who knew both Greek and Latin. ‘So we did Greek at lunch for a year’, she remembers, ‘and that’s how I learned it’.

            Carson’s use of the classics and her depictions of famous figures have not made her work inaccessible. Instead, readers become intrigued by Carson’s reinventions of legends and personalities. Carson also avoids writing in a high register but slips urban slang into the mouths of her characters. I ask her if this is a case of bringing these historical individuals into the present.She replies, ‘Not so much as to make them friendly to the listener.  It’s more about ease. Creating a space of space of ease for the listener to listen in. ‘Cause paying attention is hard’, she smiles. In ‘T.V. Men’, Carson introduces Antonin Artaud:

            Artaud is mad.

            He stayed close to the madness. Watching it breathe

                        or not breathe.

            This is a close-up of me driven to despair.


However, Carson’s repertoire is not limited to the classics. Other poem sequences focus on domestic and relationship issues. One of her devices in these poems is to incorporate texts that the narrator happens to be reading at the time. For instance, in Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’, a narrator reads Wuthering Heights on a visit to her mother’s, while privately nursing a broken heart. Carson writes:

            The little raw soul was caught by no one.

            She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage

                        success, a salary

            or a fear of death …


Why did she bring Emily into the poem, I ask. Carson replies: ‘Your life often conforms to what you’re reading. I guess it’s subliminally a choice to read that because your life is already like that. It’s an amazing book and helped me make sense of some things I was thinking about at the time.’

            Form is also an integral part of her work. In her 2005 collection Decreation, Carson includes short lyrics, essays, an opera libretto, the text of an oratorio, a list of cinematic camera views, and other long poems and sequences. The different forms respond to the collection’s theme of ‘undoing’. Carson tells me that, ‘Decreation’ means an undoing that’s not a destruction but a taking part of a form in different ways at different times, so the pages in all the genres presented in the book are taking apart ideas so that it adds up to a body… but a body that is reformed in different ways. It’s a good word, decreation’.

The visual arrangement of each poem on the page is a significant consideration for Carson when writing. In the poem ‘Guillermo’s Sigh Symphony’, the right-shifting text captures a wistful voice:  

            Do you hear sighing.

                           Do you wake amid a sigh.

                                    Radio sighs AM,



Carson arranges material until the text finds an appropriate shape. ‘Especially in that book I was very concerned with the visual aspect of each one on the page. And the visual flow of the images, of the shapes, of the text through the book from beginning to end’.

                This brings us to the strengths of Carson’s work. Each line of poetry feels deliberate and considered. Images are doled out sparingly and flare up in the reader’s mind. From sequence to sequence, Carson’s measured voice explores human conflict. Each stanza encapsulates a complete thought.  

            Of the fifteen books she has written, her favourite is her most recent Nox (Latin for ‘night’). The intricate box-shaped book is a tribute to her late brother. I ask her why she decided to arrange the book into a box. Carson replies: ‘I had this book that I made by hand. The box was Currie’s idea. He’s my collaborator-husband person. He figured out how it could be reproduced and still look like itself. He said that we should make it into an accordion-thing so that it’s all one page and folded out and we should put it in a box so it’s like a house. It’s an attempt to involve the reader in the intimacy of the experience of reading the thing.’

            For the past forty minutes, Carson has been receptive and kind. Her answers are brief, but thoughtful and precise. When my questions dry up and I comment that the interview was perhaps too short, she jokes, ‘There’s no such thing as too short of an interview.’ I am reminded that this is a writer whose biographical blurb once consisted of the single line: ‘Anne Carson lives in Canada’. At the door she says, ‘See you Friday’.


            Two days later, I attend a reading of Anne Carson’s and her UK editor, Robin Robertson at the CCA in Glasgow. Carson still has on wellies, but instead of a raincoat she wears an ivory jacket and different jeans. The soft lighting and red chairs in the auditorium establish a dramatic ambience. With the air of a seasoned lecturer, Carson takes the podium. She mentions that she had just finished a residency in Stykkishólmur, in a room under Roni Horn’s ‘Library of Water’, during a fierce Icelandic winter. ‘Indeed’, she murmurs with comedic timing. As she reads out a poem about her experience with poet Polly Clark, her husband Robert Currie creates string sculptures using the walls, the podium and Carson’s hand. The bright redstring unites the room.

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Elizabeth Roberts on Moffat’s Translation Transformed Conference

Translation Transformed conference in Moffat, south Scotland 20-22 Sept 2013

By Elizabeth Roberts, 

A galaxy of Russian literary stars – editors, authors and translators – descended on the historic spa town of Moffat in the south of Scotland for a conference organized by Scottish charity Moffat Book Events on translation 20-22 Sept 2013.  The delegation included Evgeny Reznichenko,  director of the Institute of Translation in Moscow, Dr Ekaterina Genieva director of the Library for Foreign Literature Moscow, the  directors of four Russian ‘literary museums’: Dmitry Bak of the State Literary Museum in Moscow (also a member of the president’s committee for the arts); Antonina Klyuchareva and Nadezhda Pereverzava of Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana; Tamara Melnikova of Lermontov’s ‘Tarkhanhy’ and Svetlana Melnikova of Vladimir-Suzdal, Natalya Ivanova editor in chief of the literary journal ‘Znamya’, Alexander Livergant chair and doyen of the Russian Translators Association, Alexei Varlamov biographer and novelist and a dozen more.

The British speakers and contributors included Robyn Marsak of the Scottish Poetry Library who, through the good offices of Moffat Book Events is supervising new translations of Lermontov by contemporary Scottish poets to be published by Carcanet early in 2014; Dr Peter France formerly of Edinburgh University, Dr Oliver Ready, Research Fellow of St Anthony’s College Oxford and director of Russkiy Mir programme, Alan Riach professor of Scottish Literature University of Glasgow, Dr Tom Hubbard, poet, Dr Irina Kirillova, University of Cambridge and Richard Demarco EU Citizen of the Year 2013.  The conference was opened by Cabinet Secretary of State for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop MSP.  Chair of Moffat Book Events Professor Andrew Wheatcroft made a speech of welcome and the conference moderator was Elizabeth Roberts, co-founder of MBE.

Among many highlights of the conference were presentations by Alan Riach, reading his inspired translations from the Gaelic into Scots, Chris Brookmyre on hilariously alarming exchanges with inept translators of his best-selling crime novels, Alexei Varlamov on his literary inspiration (based on a Soviet childhood), Natalya Ivanova on contemporary Russian fiction  – the list could go on.

The Russian delegation made flying visits on either side of the conference to Scottish literary destinations from their base at the elegant 18th century John Adams- designed Moffat House hotel, including to the Robert Burns Centre in Alloway and the Prince of Wales’s Dumfries House in Ayrshire; and to Abbotsford, the magnificent newly -renovated Borders home of Sir Walter Scott, to Kelvingrove in Glasgow and to Edinburgh.  Preparations were also made for a series of continuations during 2014 to mark the UK Year of Russian Culture and language, including an exhibition of photographs of Moffat people and places by Maria Buylova with interviews by Head of Exhibitions at the Library for Foreign Literature Tatyana Feoktistova to be opened in Moscow on Oct 22 2014, a conference on Lermontov in Moffat 26-28 Sept 2014 and a Russian strand in Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival and at other Scottish literary festivals.. An exhibition of the series of paintings by Richard Demarco of Scotland’s rural roads ‘The Road to Meikle Seggie’ will open in Moscow June 2014.

2014 is the bicentenary of the birth of Lermontov, whose Learmont ancestors came from Scotland. Artefacts and garments made from a bolt of Lermontov tartan were ordered from Moffat Mill, an outlet of the pan-British firm Edinburgh Woollen Mill for this year of celebration, to be sold at Lermontov museums and events in Russia and elsewhere.  Other Moffat products such as Moffat Toffee and Uncle Roy’s condiments, local cheese and smoked fish , pottery and other crafts will be in the exhibition which is intended to show Moffat as a microcosm of  rural Scotland today.

Elizabeth Roberts

Moffat Book Events

Millburn House


Dumfries and Galloway  DG10 9AX  tel 07968801178

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