Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Saturday, 17 December 2011


I chose today's photo because it is probably the most peaceful photo on my computer. This is Queens Park a couple of years ago about this time of year. However you may dislike the cold, it's hard to deny the tranquility which comes with snow. This is especially true if the roads are brought to a standstill, of course, but even without silent roads the stillness of a landscape frozen solid is a wonder to behold. It's worth donning jumpers, coats, boots, hats etc for a taste of that absolute calm.

If you don't fancy a walk in our snow-covered parks you can stay where you are beside the fire with your laptop on your lap and follow this link HERE. This will take you to an animation about how to meditate for one minute. The little video includes, at the centre, a one minute meditation. All you have to do is sit down in front of your computer, and the little pencil man will guide you through. He has a particularly gentle voice, so it's worth it just to remind yourself about how to speak gently and that gentle voices can actually be just as compelling as loud ones. Let's hear it for gentleness.

Of course sometimes gentleness is more difficult to acheive than at other times. And sometimes you can't stop even for that one minute, like for instance if you're Lenny, from Mavis's Shoe, while she is escaping through the streets of Clydebank and the bombs.

And of course there are wonderful things to be gained from longer meditations. I should know. I used to meditate for forty minutes every day of my life. But to be reminded to step out of your life for just one minute is like suddenly seeing doors, perhaps escape routes, which have been shrouded in invisibility cloaks. Close your eyes and they're there. Open them and the problem before you has either disappeared or at least faded.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Spring Cleaning

This is the place I've been working, a designated cosy spot in half a room I've been sharing with a large bookshelf containing Charlie's, Fred's and Emma's library. (That's Dad, Grandad and Great-Aunt.) The top half of the room has a large platform, hand-made by a friend, which is the general dump for anything no-one has a use for any more. As you can see, this place has seen some life. Note the mess. Obviously something really important is going on here to warrant such scant concern for order. There's also a little note stuck on the lamp which says 'WRITER' just in case I forget what I'm doing, and two USB's inserted for belt and braces. There's a mouse, surprisingly not the hairy kind, and it's sitting on a woman's bottom, again not hairy and not mine, I hasten to add, because it's a picture on a mouse mat given to a friend who didn't see the joke. Oh dear. And that's a clothes line above the chair, for emergencies, and my favourite cup with some non-plussed Lewis Chessmen on the side, from the British Museum. (Should be in Scotland.)

This is where Mavis's Shoe was written. I'm not very proud of this. This really is a complete mess. It is a corner of my bedroom or rather a side of it and it's clear I wasn't taking this writing business very seriously. Except that the blue chair which dominates is actually a very special chair known as 'The Magic Chair' partly because I painted it a rather magic blue and partly because it has a sticker on the front which is about fifteen years old and says in big letters 'MAGIC'. But perhaps because it seems like an act of magic that Mavis's Shoe was ever written at all, especially in the midst of so many drying towels.

The bar at the top of this blog is from another place I work, a little corner in Ironbbratz studios in the middle of Glasgow. Strictly speaking it's a visual arts community but they let me in anyway because I was so keen. And I do find, when I get lost, that visual art and music often bring me home to writing. They do wonderful things up there in Ironbbratz and a walk round the other studios is always uplifting.

However, the time has come for a change, so for the past three days I have been swapping my bedroom for my workroom. Some would call this prevarication. I am after all at the very early and important stages of putting fingertips to keyboard at the start of a new novel about Lenny and her pals and it is in fact just like exams: anything is easier than getting on with the job in hand.

Isn't this amazing? This is the Charlie-Fred-Emma library spread out on the floor in the same order they sat on the shelves. The two rows at the bottom are mine. There are about twice as many books on other shelves in all the wrong places around the house which are mine and certain others'. I just love books and I know I'll never get to read half of the ones I haven't already read unless I start now and do nothing else until I stop breathing. (Which might be soon - they're very dusty.) The shelves are now where my bed used to be and the books back in place. There is a wood-burning stove on another wall and a large window looking out through the trees. The walls, as you can see round the Mavis's Shoe table, are the green of new leaves on a lime tree. But the weirdest thing is that my desk is now where that table used to be, just as I'm saying hello to Lenny again.

The last time I was in the studio I grabbed a pile of poetry books to bring home and be inspired by. They were sitting on the corner of my desk when the great workroom-bedroom swap began. This one was on top. Spring Cleaning, by Jean 'Binta' Breeze. The poem of the same title is one of my earliest favourite poems in which a Jamaican woman is sweeping out her house. This is a poem I have read out loud to myself many times. It is a greatly calming poem and is particularly apt today, for which I thank the poet. Here are a few lines:

she watching
all de dark spirits
departing wid de dus

sunrise in er eyes

an ever

Monday, 28 November 2011

The cat that got the cream

I like this. I think the cat that got the cream is me and not Antonio Banderas, but I'm a red-blooded woman and don't mind sharing my front page with him. The pandas are kind of sweet too, but I wish I'd included the whole of their faces when I took the picture.

That's my Mum's thumb on the left, proud Mum. We were in Campbeltown in the howling gale of the weekend. I had slept like a top, admittedly with a pillow on my head to keep the noise out, while she got up in the night to examine the double glazing and reflect on the fact that some draft-proof windows are not, er, draft-proof: there is always the problem of the outside edges and how they fit with the building. But nothing would have kept the whistle out. It was a fierce storm, and when we emerged blinking into the light of another November morning, we had to stop on the track down from our clifftop B & B to gasp at the turmoil that was the sea and the deep band of froth and foam along the stretch of the western coast between Bellochantuy and Glenbarr. Islay was hidden behind the rain, as was the sun. Then a bolt of sunlight burst through and dazzled us, like a sudden joke, and vanished as surprisingly as it had appeared. We picked up some fresh veg and eggs from the road-side stall and headed into Campbeltown.

By the time we'd arrived the rain was horizontal and the car door was whipped open taking my arm (and me) with it. Between the car and the newsagent's I was drenched down my left side. The shopkeeper whumped the Scotland on Sunday onto the counter. I resisted the temptation to poke a finger into Mavis's Shoe and say, 'that's me', but stuck it under my wet left arm instead and ran back to the car, soaking my right side en route.

Of course there are people who think this giveaway is madness, but I'm hoping more people find out about Mavis's Shoe. And now I can say I was on the front page of a national newspaper, and without murdering, stealing or lying either.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Read Raw Ltd

Read Raw Ltd have made me their featured writer. How nice of them. You can see what I've said there if you follow this link: Read Raw Ltd. I hope some of it is helpful and/or interesting. They've also included a little flash fiction on a Scottish PEN theme ie censorship.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Inky Black

The nights are fair drawing in, n’est pas? This is payback time for all those beautiful long days that merge into each other in June. The photo on the left is a night in November if you're in the middle of nowhere or if you're in the city and glance outside and your eyes haven't adjusted. Sort of. Some people don’t like it. Some people get all miserable and depressed at the sight of all that black outside. Some people long for the return of heat and daylight and deep blue skies without a single cloud in them. But some people find themselves longing for all that even in, well, June. So I want to disagree.

Okay, the weather in November is variable, but never hot, but the night is dependably long and getting longer and there is no question of working a ten hour day then going for a ten kilometre run in the park through a cooling breeze then returning home to make the dinner and still eat it al fresco at midnight. No, no, no, this is not going to happen. Instead the inky blackness envelopes us and invites us to work for eight hours (max) and return to hot soup and cheese on toast by the fire with a hot toddy for afters, and if you’re lucky, like me, a laptop on your lap to while away the hours, but only a couple of hours because the main point of winter is going to bed early with a hot water bottle, and ok, if necessary, another hot toddy, and a very good book. Mavis’s Shoe perhaps, but I’ve already read it.

This is very beautiful of course, Glencoe, but notice how it's taken from the inside of a fast, warm car. The cold outside is what we're trying to avoid.

Apart from the distractions of Christmas parties as they loom on the horizon and all the angst about what to buy the nieces and nephews, oh, and the kids, not forgetting the parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents and most importantly the mums and aunties (Hear that kids? You know who you are!), there is a great deal of peace to be had at this time of year and therefore the possibility for a great deal of dedication to writing. Perhaps this is why so many people I know are indulging in NaNoWriMo, aka Nation Novel Writing Month.

During the month of November, NaNoWriMo writers must produce 50,000 words by 23:59:59 on the 30th, not strictly speaking a full length novel, but very nearly. Certainly enough for a first draft. I think this is a great thing. I wish I had done it myself. As I lie fast asleep at 5am, I am profoundly jealous of my friend who is actually up and writing at that time before she puts in her eight hour shift for the council then comes home to feed her kids. I sound sarcastic but I’m not. I’m genuinely in awe of her stamina, although when my kids were younger a similar level of determined energy was required of me too. I’m also greatly impressed by her commitment to writing. She’s not actually a NaNoWriMo person. She’s been doing it for even longer. It’s become her ROUTINE. This is something I believe to be very important to successful writing, though to look at me at the moment you’d never guess it.

NaNoWriMo is a licence to write complete rubbish, to experiment, to forget about the finished product and concentrate on getting as many words on paper as you possibly can, to squeeze the words out and watch them fall into whatever ridiculous place they want. It’s probably best done with a bit of planning before the month begins, but that may be against the rules. I’m not sure. But it certainly fits with the way I like to work.

If I’m sitting down for a day’s writing, I have to write a minimum of 1000 words. I may write 3000 but I’m not allowed dinner, or the toddy, until 1000 words hit the screen. Sometimes this entails throwing down anything that comes into my head just to pass the finishing line, and sometimes it’s easy and the words just follow one another obediently into the blank space in which I want to corral them. And oddly enough, when I return to them the next day it often doesn’t matter how they went down there, quick, slow, easy, hard. It’s either complete rubbish or it’s not and often the act of forcing the ideas out produces something surprising and fun and interesting. Which is fine as long as I’m trying to write something surprising, fun and interesting.

But I do like the middle of winter with its silences and cool skies, cloudy breath and more dependable temperatures than any other Scottish season. My favourite is January. The madness of Christmas is over and there is an atmosphere of concentration which isn’t there at any other time, as if the world is one big library and everyone’s working very hard. Best month for geeks like me, I suppose, libraries being some of my favourite places.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Where are all the Seagulls?

The Braehead Maritime Museum has been shut. It looked disappointingly small anyway when I was down there this week on my bike, but I should have known that from the satellite picture I looked at online beforehand. Also in the satellite was a tall ship, masts and booms and all, which was one of the reasons I made such haste. (Once started, rain spurred me on.) Sadly the masts are in fact concreted into the ground but the whole still lent a mysterious nautical air, albeit a sad one, Ancient Mariner rather than Onedin Line.

Also in the satellite was the wreck of the Captayannis, a steel ship nearly 400 foot long. The Captayannis went down mid-way between Greenock and Helensburgh in 1974 having been swept there by a storm and then colliding with another ship’s anchor which drew a massive hole in its side. Initially I thought there was a fault in my computer programme or a mark on my screen but, on zooming in with gannet-like speed and determination, I found this perfect silver hull lying on its side with mast, rails and bridge clearly to be seen, like a discarded Monopoly piece. It lies on a sandbank which I never knew was there. Fabulous. Excuse this photo taken of it on my screen, which doesn’t do it justice.

Back on the real earth I found a pleasant walk/cycleway along the waterfront, behind Braehead and all its garishness, with views at various yards on the other side of the river, many of which are still operational. This was a surprise, the path and the activity. The path continued (via a small number of steps) along the river until it almost reaches the Renfrew ferry terminal. Here I turned up Lapwing Road, (near Redsnank and Whimbrel) along King’s Inch Road (love these names and being a tourist in my own town) and down Ferry Road, obviously.

I had seen the little ferry from a distance having only been vaguely aware of its existence until that moment, another silver boat but this time the right way up. The day was grey. The water was murky. There was flotsam and jetsam of all kinds catching anywhere it could against all the old slipways, jetties and docks and the broken stonework of the river walls. Some brilliant swans risked our progress as we backed in to the river, the only other sailing bodies to be seen. The ferryman was silent but not unfriendly. We reached the bank in no time at all and I pushed my two-wheeled friend up the cobbled slip past once-grand or at least functional buildings and an old boatyard full of boatyard debris. Bright new houses stood on the rise, gleaming fresh white paint and a brave new world.

My next stop was the site of John Brown’s Shipyard. It seems odd I haven’t been there before, given how much time I’ve spent in and around Clydebank. It was an odd feeling. Clydebank College, a truly courageous new building, stands on the eastern side of it with two simple plaques to mark the place where the Queen Mary and the QE2, amongst countless other fine ships, were launched into the Clyde opposite the Black Cart Water on the other side (for extra leeway). A rough track took me round the dock where these ships would have been finished, a desolate spot where all the buildings and trappings of greater days have been removed. A row of feral pigeons lined the edge, perched on metalwork whose working days are over, but no seagulls. Not a one. Which seemed strange. Continuing round I reached the base of the Titan, seen here through the same high fence which surrounds the whole area. Beautiful and giant and iconic, the Titan crane can be seen from a considerable distance and stood blue against the grey autumn sky of that day. It must surely be some consolation to the good Bankies (of Clydebank) that this fabulous structure was restored a few years ago instead of being taken down as was the Singer Clock Tower (bigger than Big Ben) even after it survived the devastating Blitz of 1941.

Feeling rather overwhelmed by the vast emptiness of the spot, I took a train to Dumbarton and visited the Maritime Museum there. Here was Denny’s Shipyard or the only part left of it, the Ship Model Experimental Tank (totally mental it was). Here scale models of proposed ships were made of wood or wax,then sailed down a long water tank with replicated sea conditions. Being rather geeky by nature I found the whole process fascinating. But probably the most meaningful part of the museum for me was a giant photograph of the entire yard in which Dumbarton Rock and Castle sit comfortably over the snaking arrival of the River Leven into the Clyde Estuary. The photo was taken at the end of WW2 and shows several large ships fanning out from the Leven, sitting on its banks being built from the ground up. The finishing dock hides in the shelter of the Rock. The yard buildings sprawl out from this central and curving natural arrangement, the tank building being dwarfed by the massive workshops around it. All gone now, and replaced by all the super-hyper-capitalist-markets of the day, and acres of windswept car park. One saving grace is the finishing dock, which has been filled in and holds a football field.

Do we really want all this leisure? Wouldn’t we rather have work, dirty and dangerous though it was? Where are all the seagulls?

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Stories a-go-go

This is Bowling Harbour with old boats rotting away, an outmoded form of transport which in its day was vital. I'm including it because today I made a long-overdue trip to the Transport Museum, otherwise known as the Riverside Museum on the side of Glasgow’s river. Foregoing any form of transport, I made my way there on foot along the walkway come cyclepath and then a rather inglorious and puddly track. It was a beautiful sunny, windy autumn day so this was in itself a joy. The car park was crammed to overflowing anyway and so was the museum.

Here is Aberdeen Harbour in May this year as seen from the top of the Orkney boat. A little different from Bowling, but fundamentally serving the same purpose. I loved the grandeur of these ships and their many colours, arriving from and going to who-knows-where and carrying-who-knows-what.

I’m old enough to remember the transport museum when it was in the ‘Tramway’ in Pollokshields, now an arts centre. I remember getting the 59 bus there with my dad and little brother. I’m sorry to say I found it dull back then, just a lot of dusty old buses and what was so interesting about cars anyway? As a result I don’t think I ever visited it when it was in the Kelvin Hall.

And let me wander a bit here: I do remember the Kelvin Hall when it housed the Circus and the shows at Christmas, though my English dad would have called it the Fun Fair. I’ll never forget the smell of elephants or being turned upside down in certain brightly painted machines with rows of coloured light bulbs whizzing past me.

Anyway, I’m here to recommend the Riverside Museum to everyone. I have a long list of favourite people I’d like to invite along on my next trip there. For those of you concerned about the loss of ‘the street’, never fear: it’s still there. And for enthusiasts of bike, boat, train, car and hearse, everything is included and all magnificently displayed in one of the most extraordinary buildings I’ve ever been in. It was only this morning, when I saw a photograph of it from above, that I realised just how extraordinary it is. And the inside doesn’t disappoint. It is a peculiar and rather refreshing shade of pale green and is made up of a series of strange angles and curves, a surprise round every bend.

The content of this building is complex and interesting too, although I did wonder why there were displays of dresses. Clothing is not transport and few of these dresses looked very practical for a ride on a bike or an open-topped car. Maybe in the midst of all that mechanics, there has to be something for the ladies. I’d like to claim ladyhood here and refute the need for dresses to keep my attention. I’d also like to add in my favourite quote. I’ll give it a separate line of its own because I deem it very important indeed:

‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms.’ Thank you, Muriel Rukeyser, for this.

I may have mentioned this quote before. This afternoon I was engulfed in stories and it was very exciting indeed. I think Rukeyser really meant that there were stories behind everything and everyone, everywhere we go, if only we choose to look. That’s a little of how I interpret it anyway. Museums are full of stories that could surprise you, I think, and this museum had me wondering about a myriad of objects all signifying different circumstances from my own and reminding me of distant times and places. A black shiny car with runner-boards for gangsters with guns, a padded leather seat in the back for the lovers and a large loose steering wheel for the getaway driver. Trams with wooden seats with little patterns of holes cut in them. How uncomfortable they must have been, but still pretty. Singer sewing machines: I saw two. Now, I know they involve wheels, but they’re not really transport either, are they? Not strictly speaking. But I confess I get lost when I see one, lost in love and one day soon I’m going to have one of my own. (I do actually own one but I found it on the dump and it is missing several of its parts, but then, according to its serial number it was made in 1897 so it deserves to rest on its laurels, or at least on my piano.)

And boats, lots of them, or models of them, all sailing past on a conveyor belt type arrangement. Fabulous. The romance of the sea with its secrets and dangers.

There was only one serious problem. Too many humans, as witnessed by the over-flowing car park. So it has been decided that this is a Tuesday morning event by which I mean I need to return there when no-one else is standing in front of the glass cases or jostling me off the subway, so that I can linger and linger and linger and listen to all the stories whispering in my ear.

But the most exciting part is that several storylines for Lenny Gillespie, of Mavis’s Shoe fame, came hurtling through the ether at me which I will now have to explore and research. Of course, this takes me back to the museum, and others like it, as soon as I possibly can. Yippee!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

'Nobody says my yoghurt is sour!'

A certain publisher has shown an interest in my work with Kusay Hussain. This is exciting news, although it’s only an interest, not a publishing deal, but it reminds me I was going to write here about what we’ve been doing all this time. Kusay is an Iraqi writer and a civil engineer who came here a few years ago because of the security situation in his country. He lives with his wife and children and, boy, does he have a few stories to tell.

Before leaving Iraq, there were attempts to kidnap one of his little sons. Kidnapping was, perhaps still is, a common tactic there for extorting money. Kusay was himself captured for a period. He also lived through several wars, lastly the invasion by US/UK troops, and endured the various privations visited upon his country as a result.

I am learning a lot. For instance, the quickest way to bring a country to its knees, especially a hot one, is to switch off the electricity. Turning it on provokes great gratitude. Our beloved sun can be a weapon. Different armies have different styles and some armies resemble prison camps. Mostly I’m learning about human endurance of one kind or another. (See my earlier post on Ingrid Betancourt for more on this.)

Kusay contacted the Scottish Book Trust who contacted Scottish PEN about help putting his stories into English. Scottish PEN contacted me. Kusay and I met for the first time in the Glasshouse in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, in March 2009 and continued to meet there for several months surrounded by cactus’s and close to a display of poisonous snakes and spiders, and a pond full of outsize goldfish. This place is well worth a visit especially if you have kids, and became a neutral haven for us to begin our work and build our trust in each other. We were invited to read our first story at the Scottish Parliament the following June.

Since then a great deal has evolved: our understanding of each other, our writing process, and the content of the stories he dares to write, because some of these stories re-awaken past events he might like to forget, and because the rest of Kusay’s family are still in Iraq and subject to the pressures and threats he and his wife and kids have been lucky enough to escape.

I know not one word of Arabic, and seem completely unable to retain even the little phrases that Kusay tries to teach me. But it doesn’t matter. He writes in his best English, which is, thank God or more likely Allah, improving, and I smarten it up. This involves correcting the language but also smoothing it out to make it more accessible to the English-speaking ear. There are all sorts of dilemmas in this, the most obvious difficulty being to know when it’s appropriate to retain Arabic phraseology or imagery and when it’s better to ‘translate’ it into something more common in English. Every phrase requires its own decision. It’s fun, trying to understand one another, especially that moment when we break through our confusion.

He writes in English because that is the language of the country in which he now lives and because he wants his stories brought to the West.
The best part is our meetings. Coming together are two cultures which we’re told are at odds with each other, but in fact are more similar than different. Coming together are two people who on the surface are vastly different, but who are in fact more similar that different. I have a new and very wonderful friend.

Of course having a friend brings obligations. Kusay keeps himself up at night preparing work for our meetings, and I worry about keeping up with his mass of ideas. Our meetings are fun, but the work itself can be time-consuming and there is all my own work to do too.

Our ventures have included many short stories but also poetry. This is particularly headachey for me because Kusay likes to use little short lines with rhymes that twine: this way is not mine, but it’s fine, some of the time. Occasionally they make no sense at all until we sit together and unlock them, which often means agreeing, with some difficulty, on compromises. Something has to be lost for something else to be gained. We have also worked on a plan for a book of common sayings from Iraq and also from Scotland. We gave up on the Scottish side of it as having been done, but the Iraqi ones were fabulous and included the origins of these sayings. Fundamentally it’s a book of fantastically quirky short stories and an insight into daily life in Iraq. My favourite saying so far is ‘Nobody says my yoghurt is sour.’ I like ‘Colder than the water porter’s ass’ too.

Kusay is also working on a couple of novellas and the big one: a co-written novel about an Iraqi exiled in Scotland and a Scottish soldier in Iraq. This last has proved very difficult indeed. After several weeks of planning it became clear that as writers our methods diverged radically. Kusay writes everything in his head, then puts it all on paper. I plan character, background, texture, beginning and end and perhaps a stepping stone or two in the middle, then I start writing and modify and modify and modify the plan as I go along. There were many misunderstandings until we saw this difference. He described it as having two people trying to drive the same car. So we stopped the car, got out and had a little picnic of short stories by the side of the road. What we now have is Kusay as driver but Sue as … well there is no driving equivalent; as creative editor or ghost-writer.

I used to call our process transmogrification, because I changed his writing only a little and added just a touch of English language writerly sparkle, not much, more of a sheen really. But this feels like something different. The creative aspect feels more mutual, like a proper collaboration, and not just taking turns with distinct tasks. Fabulous.

Here is a short video made by Al Jazeera English News about our work.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Lenny's Recipe

I’m receiving blogs from exotic places, most recently from the Scottish PEN conference in Belgrade. Of course a place is only exotic before it has attained the contempt that comes with familiarity. And then familiar places, once unvisited for a certain period of time, offer us the comfort of the same familiarity when we return to them, and perhaps if we’re lucky a renewed spark of exoticism.

This comes to you from Glenuig in Moidart. Moidart seems exotic to me again, perhaps because of the mist, and comforting because I am visiting an old friend for her BIG BIRTHDAY (mentioning no numbers) in a place I haven’t visited for some time. So for a short period I can enjoy both feelings at once. My eyes are instantly rested, no longer gazing at the horizontals and verticals of Glasgow City but at the rocks and mountains and all the trees, greenery and early autumn singhed-ness of open, late-September northern countryside. The only straight line is the horizon and, due to the weather, even that’s a bit fuzzy.

Directly in front of me the sea is silver, pewter to my left and on the right a vibrant blue. The wind is blowing and the rain clouds moving fast, pursued by openings onto the great blue yonder. Patches of yellow sunlight appear momentarily on the tops of islands, or glow in the curve of sandy bays. Unfortunately I’ve parked my little van/office in the lea of a rocky outcrop and it’s cold and those sunny highlights are yet to hit me. A lone seagull appeared from nowhere when I threw my crust onto the beach and there are only a couple of gannets circling and plunging off in the distance, their white backs luminous in the intrepid sun.

Today, in contrast to all this, I’d like to write about Lenny, the girl from Mavis’s Shoe, because I want to write a sequel for her and have no less than three possible plots and can’t decide which one to go for. I’m here, in addition to celebrating my friend’s spectacular age, specifically to make that decision which for some reason can’t be made in the hubbub of normal life. I’m also here precisely because what I need to think about is so completely different from my surroundings. Sometimes such contrasts can help, but often have unforeseen consequences.

Once upon a time, while baking on a balcony in the French sun, I wrote a chapter about tattie-howking in a heavy Scottish mist. When I read it later, back in Blighty, I couldn’t gauge its authenticity because despite everything being drippy and cold on the page, I still re-experienced the heat of the Mediterranean. Lucky me. I’ll dig it out once winter sets in and the heating’s on the blink again.

But I digress. Or prevaricate. Or maybe I’m just cold.

Sometimes the ingredients of novels are a little strange. Occasionally people ask how I went about writing Mavis’s Shoe and I usually talk about the research, who I interviewed, how I tracked down records and so on, but never mention the long drives to exotic/familiar places in poisonously fumy vans, the healthy diet I often impose on myself while sitting there trying to find focus, or the arguments I have in my head to give up and find the nearest sweetshop or heater.

And still I digress because really I want someone else to make this decision about the sequel, or at least to help. I can’t tell you what the three plots are, of course, because that would break the spell. That’s another ingredient in the cake mix of novel-writing, arguably, and one which I also usually fail to mention because I don’t want anyone to think I’m whacky when actually, as anyone who’s read Mavis’s Shoe will know, I’m keen of portraying the realities of any situation.

So, any ideas on what Lenny does next? Or later?

Monday, 12 September 2011


The first draft of the stage version of Mavis’s Shoe has now been finished. I know there is a lot more work to be done, but it feels good to have reached THE END, at least for the first time. Perhaps drafts should be called laps, as in those on a running track, or would the idea of running in circles be too painfully close to the truth?

If you don’t have a complete first draft, you don’t have enough ingredients for your cake, aka play/novel/short story/screenplay etc. My ingredients are in the bowl and I am celebrating with some fizzy, by which I mean Lidl’s oversweet pear cider that some kind (unsuspecting) person has left in my fridge, and by lighting the wood-burning stove and leaving the curtains slightly open despite the darkness outside, so that I can still see the trees waving frantically against the pink city sky in the gale. I can hear my daughter and her friend giggling in the next room, not at me I hasten to add, though I wouldn’t care. Copies of this first lap have been sent to two parties for inspection, and the anxiety, not to mention dread, that sometimes accompanies the wait for feedback has not yet made its presence felt.

I am also celebrating the arrival of two copies of West Coast Line, a Canadian journal who have kindly published one of my short stories, The Love Bus, which you can also read on the International Literary Quarterly website. In addition to this, West Coast Line have published two stories that I worked on with Iraqi writer Kusay Hussain. We got paid for these stories too which is increasingly rare these days. The current journal’s theme is ‘Transnational Publics, Asylum and the Arts in Glasgow’ and its guest editor is Kirsten E McAllister, a Japanese-Scottish Canadian. I’m delighted to see the names of several people I know on the contents page.

But the other thing I am celebrating, Sue-no-friends in my room all alone, is my participation in the Vault art event over the last weekend. I know, visual arts: what was I doing there? I did ask myself that question a few times. I was doing an ‘art booth’. The booth was actually a table, itself a work of art with a variety of strange marks of glittery red and pastel green amongst others. There were three jars of sweeties on it (when I started) and a plateful of custard creams. Beside me at the table were a couple of visual artists offering instant art for a small fee. I was offering instant poetry, also for a small fee, based on OuLiPo techniques. I dreamt this up in a moment of optimism. Actually it was a moment of optimism about optimism. In other words I was feeling rather despondent and was missing feeling optimistic, so I faked it and hey presto! there I was making promises to the organisers that on reflection seemed a little difficult to fulfil. (I was under the auspices of Ironbbratz studios, who I love. If you are a creator of art of any description, Ironbbratz studios is a fabulous place to be.)

For an art venue, the Briggait in Glasgow has a lot of drips falling from it’s beautiful holey ceiling. Some of it landed on the booth-table. But spirits were not dampened and indeed I am celebrating the fact that the instant OuLiPo poetry exercise worked and was even, apparently, therapeutic for the customers who revelled in being able to talk for a few minutes completely uninterrupted on their chosen subject while I concocted poetry from their words. It was a heart-warming occasion for all, and one which I’d happily repeat.

So, yes, I think smug is the word I’d use for myself right now. Not proud of it but it doesn’t happen often.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Strange Truth

Yesterday was the last day of the Auld Reekie’s International Book Festival and also the first day that I made it over there. Illness and other distractions kept me in Weegieland. But my trip was so worth it.

I went with a friend, bumped into my very own brother and then another friend, and together we hid the last remaining copies of Mavis’s Shoe from any prospective buyer. Not on purpose of course and not once we’d realised what our little huddle was doing. Then, after a brief short story in the Spiegeltent, I abandoned the crew and went to hear Ingrid Betancourt.

Has anyone else had the experience of feeling as if everything that is being said is suddenly massively important? It’s a feeling that makes the colours in the room more vibrant and, of course, you could have heard a pin drop. In that little hour I had that experience. Ingrid Betancourt was abducted by guerrillas while campaigning for the presidency of her native Colombia and spent six and a half years imprisoned in the jungle. I didn’t actually learn the nuts and bolts of what happened to her in captivity, only that it was unimaginably brutal, that her captives were increasingly savage towards her and that, despite this, still she hoped to find absolute forgiveness in herself for them. She is small and slight, speaks slowly and with deliberation, though I suspect sometimes this was true because the questions she was asked required her to dwell on memories that continue to cause considerable pain.

Before taking my writing seriously I worked as a counsellor and specialised for some time in trauma. The kind of counselling I offered often took my counsellee to the very centre of their existence. Does this make any sense to you? It’s the kind of place where the big questions of life roam, where people make decisions that change their lives completely, though their outward circumstances may seem the same, and where people decide the most central question of them all: whether to live or die. Hearing Betancourt talk took me into that strange and most important space where life and death decisions are taken. Most of the audience questions were about what had happened since her release, how she had dealt with it, what happened to her family relationships, how she felt about her captors and their organisation now, and so on. These are important questions because, unless you've lived through something like that, it’s hard imagine how you’d sustain yourself during your ordeal or how life might feel on your release. It’s that central question of so many stories, if not all, ‘What would I do?’ Perhaps we want to be reassured that we’d have the same resilience and compassion as Betancourt, that’d we’d survive with our integrity intact, that we’d survive. That we wouldn’t end up either mad or bad. But the truth is that there is no such reassurance. We just have to hope we never have to face those questions and if we do, that we behave in ways we can live with afterwards.

But for me, being reminded of those existential questions made me feel all the more alive. Something vital was being spoken about and that in itself is refreshing, so I bought the book and took it home. Late last night I read the first few pages and had to wonder whether I was as brave as I’d thought. It was the story of one of Betancourt’s many escape attempts and I had to leave her at the point of re-capture as she is surrounded by several brutal men charged with teaching her a lesson. This is not something to read last thing at night so I stopped. But perhaps the other reason I am drawn to this woman’s story is because I want to see the bottom of the barrel of human behaviour. I’m wondering if there’s a safety in knowing just how bad it can get and that people do rise from the ashes as Betancourt appears to have done.

Reading this also raises questions about fiction, truth being stranger and in this case more powerful. Mavis’s Shoe is about a horrendous real-life bombing episode in which thousands of people were killed, although the real figure is not known. Since writing that novel I continued my research into other war zones and then turned my attention to what happens next. All of this research involved reading personal accounts, many of which were gripping, fascinating stories in themselves. So why fictionalise? Why not just tell the stories? But that’s for another post.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Snakes Alive!

Until recently half the human population of this household was vegetarian, the other half only limited meat-eaters. Our reasons are as manifold as our habits. Of the carnivores, it seems, in the cold light of day, that the bigger the beast, the less likely you are to be eaten in this house; no cows or pigs, very occasionally sheep, chickens often, and fish oftener. Some of us claim a strong interest in Buddhism, famous for, amongst other things, its equal valuing of all sentient beings and therefore its vegetarianism. Mendicant monks, including the Dalai Lama himself, are allowed exception on the grounds that they can eat whatever they are given. If I applied that to myself I’d live on chocolate, booze and thin fresh air.

Following the Buddhist thread, I remember hearing of a large Buddhist monastery in America (I forget the name) who were invaded by cockroaches in big numbers. After many weeks of uncomfortable living cheek by mandible with the only probable survivors of a nuclear attack, and over many increasingly frequent discussion on the subject, the good monks decided mass-murder was their best option. This can’t have been easy. Especially for the roaches.

But it seems these decisions have to be made and everyone draws a line somewhere in the quagmire of moral living.

While in the local pet shop recently, I heard a sound that made me smile. It was the singing of some crickets, or cicadas to give them their prettier name, who were incarcerated in little plastic boxes on a high shelf near the window. I was transported to warm nights in foreign climes, or cinematic moments of intimacy as heroine and hero leave the company of others and step onto the balcony alone together and get to know each other a little better, swooning in the heat. Returning to earth I thought crickets strange creatures to keep as pets. You can’t take them for walks or cuddle up with them on the sofa or let them out in the garden for a run around. You can sing with them, I suppose, compose music around their backing vocals even, but wouldn’t you need a few other notes?

‘Snakes,’ said the shop assistant, when asked. ‘For people who keep reptiles as pets.’

The full horror was upon me. The realities of the fast food chain of life. The foolishness of my reveries. It was chastening to be standing there with flea foggers in my hand preparing for my own mass murder.

But, again, these decisions have to be made and everyone draws a line.

Life, surely, is to be cherished. Does that include bacteria? Is it ok to eat yoghurt? Or to bake yeast into bread? I’m saying yes to both, even though in baking bread I’m killing infinitesimal numbers of infinitesimally small creatures in doing so. And what about all those cleaning fluids that make life difficult for all manner of beasties including spiders, who after all eat flies (yuck!) that otherwise might infect us with those germs? And what about the fact that our body system grows stronger if it is exposed to low levels of bacteria? Bacteria are good for us. That yoghurt is only playing life’s game of one organism battling against another, the yoghurt gobbling up other bacteria in the war-zone of our stomachs.

The genesis of each human life itself is a battle: the ovum secretes vile chemicals in the face of approaching sperm, chemical war-fare of the womb, the survival of the fittest.

And now I begin to scare myself, but to find a shadow of that line I was looking for too. Survival of the fittest seems to me one of the most repugnant popular notions of these post-modern days. It's the lazy alternative and we can do better. Going forth with care and consideration, even cherishing, for other beings as much as humanly possible, seems much more satisfying and carries less risk of hubris. Buddhists try to leave as little trace of their existence as they can, to limit the damage they cause to other life. As a writer of historical fiction this is tricky. As a human being, it's still tricky, but also rather obvious.

To quote one of Muriel Spark's favourite words (apparently) 'Nevertheless' ... where's that flea fogger?

(These and other dilemmas of the tiny world of beasties are a feature of a novel I am working on. You can read the opening few paragraphs on my website.)

Monday, 8 August 2011

Labour of Love not Lost

What a delight! Shortly before Mavis’s Shoe was accepted for publication by Waverley Books last October and I was immediately caught in a whirlwind of fast track re-editing and cover blurb, I was cooking up the latest draft of another novel. This work-in-progress was variously filed as ‘Hopping the Twig’, ‘Strange Fish’, ‘Essentials’, ‘Elementals’, ‘Stranger Fish’ (a later version) and ‘This Book Smells’, (its first title - a warning seemed in order). It was simmering on the back burner while I ignored it and tried to get some distance. The exact distance I took was from Glasgow to the south of France via the airwaves plus the 400 kilometres on my beloved old bike along the Canals de Garonne and du Midi. This took me from the Garonne in Bordeaux to Port La Nouvelle on the Mediterranean, effectively linking the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. Being flat, it wasn’t difficult and took less time than you’d expect, despite a couple of days of head winds and one of heavy rain; nine days in all plus a couple spent with family and then the journey home. I have to admit to some smugness about this at the time, although it’s greatly tempered now by limited exercise since those heady days.

Anyway, in total only two weeks had passed, not enough for any mental distance to have worked its magic. Due to the furore over Mavis’s Shoe it is only recently that I have returned properly to this multiply-named novel. Today I reached the end of my read-through with a tear in my eye. The obvious reason for weepiness is that this book is partly about death and what counsellors (which I used to be one of) call ‘complicated grief’. The tear was eyestrain too, but the main cause was writer’s terror. It is always worrying going back to a piece of work that has been left. There is the fear that you were deluded when you wrote it and that it’s actually not worth the computer chip it was written on and you’ve wasted a year of your life, or more if you’re Garbriel Garcia Marquez or Donna Leon to name but a couple who allegedly take a decade. The tear is for fear unfounded, a sigh of relief, that despite the still considerable editing task ahead, all is not lost and the thing was worth doing whether it is ever published or not. Unfounded fear is a great delight, a variation on ‘Better to have loved and lost’ etc. Only a seriously worried person can experience that kind of relief.

I saw a documentary recently about Peter Howson, the Glasgow artist famous for being brave enough to go to Bosnia as a war artist and being so seriously disturbed by what he saw there that his life fell to tatters on his return. Whatever you think of the whole strange idea of a ‘war artist’ or of Howson’s dark portrayals of disturbing events, he is astonishingly prolific. Apart from a certain commission which seemed to stop him in his tracks for a quite a period, I wonder if any of his paintings ever took a year, and doubt it. And although paintings can take some artists even longer to complete, I doubt there are any novelists who finish a book in a couple of weeks or a day, and if they do, whether it is their best work.

I’m not as brave as Howson and have never been in a war zone, apart from once wandering with a friend through Armagh (I think) in the dead of night and suddenly being surrounded by soldiers with big guns and being asked what the hell we thought we were doing. ‘Hitching,’ I said, wide-eyed and very young, and they escorted us to the edge of town where we erected a tent beside the border post.

But Howson and I share a common subject in war and its effects on ordinary people. Howson, as an artist, takes snapshots which don’t tell stories but suggests them, in the way a poet might provoke an image in a reader’s mind. The beauty of novels is their very length. There may be ugly brutal scenes but a good book will throw them into contrast with hope or generosity or humour then throw you back into despair and on further to disgust or love. You stay with it for hours at a time being moved through all the different experiences a human can have. Quite a bargain really for as little as £7.99 a pop.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Festival Melting Pot

‘Scuse my absence. I have neglected my post for two weekends in favour of two music festivals: the Wickerman near Kirkcudbright in Dumfriesshire and WOMAD in Wiltshire, indie-ish and world music respectively. I have done very little writing of any kind, but this has been just the ticket. When I get stuck and my writing makes no sense even to me, music or visual arts or dance bring me back refreshed. While I’m busy avoiding the keyboard, I wonder vaguely what the word equivalent might be of, for instance, the last movement of Dvorak’s cello concerto (massively heroic tale of tortured love with much horseback riding) or a Joan Miro painting (quirky, strange, elemental haiku or something about liquorice allsorts) or the floor of a festival dance tent (young men trying to catch birds or, of course, big fish, little fish and cardboard boxes.) As I write this, heading north in the train home to Glasgow, it feels like the night before Christmas (only without the cooking and troubling relatives). When I open the parcel of my writing mind, what will be in there? Jewels or just a pair of old socks.

Briefly and before this happens and the writing desk grips me again, here’s a summary of the festivals:

The Wickerman was beautifully formed in size and layout, but the music not very interesting. However its main feature was the friendliness of the people who all appeared to be essentially happy and came from all over Scotland, from the north of England and from Ireland. A cheerful party, it was worth it for the location alone.

WOMAD was far bigger and the toilets and showers nowhere near adequate, so we cheated and bought spa tickets so we could avoid the hour long shower queues while our tent was raided and the booze taken. Lessons learnt. But the music was a fabulous treat with sounds from all over the world and many moods and styles to match. This year’s favourites were Anda Union from Mongolia and Barrunto Bellota of Spain via Eastern Europe.

Honourable mention goes to, who wasn’t playing this year but should have been. Her album Harpaphonics is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I think I’ve ever heard and is played mostly on a nyckelharpa, a Scandinavian stringed, keyed instrument. Let your heart soar.

But I have to confess a bias. Griselda and I are old friends. We were five when we first met but lost each other for a couple of decades until last year. Artists in different genres now, our creative processes and experiences of collaboration have many cross-overs, the needs and tricks that keep us going, the things we put up with for the sake of our work, the joys and so on, are more similar than different. She is collaborating with Juldeh Camara of Ghana, and I with Kusay Hussain of Iraq (more on this another time). We both spent the day before WOMAD losing our glasses and having almighty panics as a result. Without mine I can’t read, so no menus, timetables, operating instructions and all those other essentials of modern life can be negotiated, never mind the reading of great literary works or indeed any actual writing. Griselda’s have still to appear. Mine turned up in my daughter’s tent which I hurriedly and rather tetchily folded for her because she was late (again). Said glasses slipped quietly out of the neck of my tee-shirt into the green folds of her Vango and thence the tent-bag and so to my mother’s house for major tent repair, returning to me via the kiosk of the Grosvenor cinema in Glasgow’s West End where Harry Potter was showing. The logistics of their return were long and tedious so this incident will not be repeated. Meanwhile it pleases me to think Griselda is wearing my old, little-girl-pink, glasses which I took to WOMAD as emergency backup. Glasses, friendship, music and the written word are for sharing.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Too many vag**as

Just back from a cultural weekend in London with friends, swinging past the Tracy Emin show at the Hayward then on to the BP Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery. Four of us went to the Emin but only two survived the experience well enough to continue to the portraits, interestingly the two moderates. The other two hated/loved all of it.

I'd recommend going to both exhibitions, being one of the moderates, as long as you don't mind too many vag**as at the Emin, which was the opinion of three of us. Of course, the Emin cost money to see, whereas the portraits were free and therefore much better attended, and there were wi**ies there instead and a few ni***les. Perhaps that was why. Hard to tell and to be honest the portraits were, to a writer, a bit like a large box of chocolates to a fat person: I had to be dragged away, because the fun thing about portraits is that they don't tell stories, they hint at them and you have to guess the rest.

Perhaps the trouble with the Emin was that it was all one person's story and some of it plainly told. I did love her gigantic blankets/wall-hangings. They were beautiful objects in themselves, skillfully put together, and made me want to get my sewing machine out. (But then I'd have to fix it before I could use it.) These wall-hangings had lots of words. I'm never quite sure about words in visual art. Mixing-medias can confuse and is too like asking the audience to multi-task, which not everyone is good at, if it's not done well. The problem was these words was that some of them were mis-spellt, which upset the sensibilities of my moderate friend (also a writer). But Tracey Emin suffers from dyslexia, which as one who clearly revels in words, like myself, must be a painful affliction. My favourite mis-spelling was PYSCO. Some would say rather hauntingly apt, but I think that's unkind. It made this fierce woman fragile, just like the rest of us.

And in a corner as far as possible from the front door there were some beautiful spirals made of pieces of old wooden panelling with deliciously flaky paint. I could have stood in front of these for hours, photographed them from all angles and papered my room with the results if I'd been allowed.

I love the Hayward, weird space as it is. I saw an Ansel Adams exhibition there a while ago and fell in love with Marc Chagall in its rooms at the exhibition during which he died (I think, correct me if I'm wrong) and by association fell back in love with art because his paintings made me laugh. I didn't know art could be funny.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Missing in Action

It occurs to me (too late) that there are some missing characters from Mavis's Shoe in addition to Mavis. Hens. Surely back courts would have been full of them as part of the Dig for Victory drive? And Carbeth would have been over-run and Lenny, my main character, would have had a field day in the fields with them. I'm reminded of this by the presence of four hens in my own back court who, as a staunch advocate of free range eggs, I must tolerate as they scratch my little bit of grass to pieces and gobble all my grubs. I do not begrudge them the grubs, on the contrary, they are welcome to them and I will shortly be laying a trail of small beasties to entice them into my kitchen. Not to turn them into chickens for the oven, no, no, but to introduce them to my pet slugs which I'm told is a great delicacy if you're a hen. They're very sneaky and shy these slugs and tend only to come out at night, but then to crawl over every surface (ceiling included) and to avoid the compost bin under the sink. (There were twenty five of the little darlings when I first discovered them through half shut eyes at 3am a few years ago on my way for a glass of water.) They have recently discovered the shower where they are even bolder and are often there in the mornings. I've issued several eviction orders and now need to call for some hen-chmen.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Past the First Post

Mavis's Shoe was published in March this year by Waverley Books and is a novel about the Clydebank Blitz as seen through the eyes of young girl. It's about what war is really like, what it means to be going about your business when suddenly bombs come raining down all around you. And it's about the importance of family and community and belonging. I love this book and I loved writing it. I hope everyone who reads it loves it too.

The story is, well, a story, but the background is all historically accurate right down to where the bombs dropped, and after the bombing it goes to one of my favourite places, Carbeth, which is a hut community not far from Clydebank where a lot of people ended up after being bombed out. Carbeth has a great story to tell too, but that's for another blog. I wrote the book so I could keep going to Carbeth. That's not true, by the way. But it's not far off it.

Here's the beginning of Mavis's Shoe:
'For those of you that don't know, this is my story of the bombing. There was trouble before it even started.'