Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Planning for chaos

On my wall today there are thirteen sheets of paper with the names of the thirteen projects I am currently either considering or already working on. This is a blissful state to be in, at the end of one project and with the possibility of another twelve. But it’s a diabolical situation too. There is too much choice and if I examine the contents of my various notebooks I’ll find more projects to add. I know that what I need to do is explore these projects in turn to some depth, enough to be able to make informed decisions on each of them. But in the meantime deadlines for paid work loom. So I scribble my thoughts and ideas in mind-map style onto the sheets, muse on one of them for half an hour, scribble some more, then get back to the grindstone. They are undulating in the updraft from the radiator below as if they are jostling for my attention and shouting: Pick me!

But perhaps I have the wrong set of sheets. Maybe what I need are a new set of sheets about genres, styles of writing or readerships, or weighing up the possibilities of being wildly experimental or aiming for a bestseller, or finding an amalgam of all of these and more. Perhaps I should be examining the options of a return to visual art or music instead, or abandoning it all and returning to care work so I don’t have to sell my house to survive.

I need some dedicated time to explore all of this and what better place to do that than in a small campervan with spectacular views. Physical space is as valuable as time, as if living in a metaphorically grand landscape enables the enlargement of my ideas. This is what I long for. But sadly the weather is bl**dy freezing making day trips are the only possibility. So I am doing overdue domestic chores while mulling over these projects, returning every so often to the wall to scribble in a thought or phrase or feeling. I’m using ballpoint pens in a variety of pretty colours to make it more interesting. The music is a bit loud and it’s hard to write when you’re dancing. My head is over-full with random thoughts and ideas from which I’m hoping to knit something interesting.

So I have a question for all the writers who are reading this, or indeed anyone involved in creative ventures: How do you go about deciding which project to do next and to what extent, and how, do you plan?

Tuesday, 21 October 2014


Mavis's Shoe was the first new Scottish novel to come out simultaneously in Braille and print, so I'm very pleased that Rue End Street has followed suit. A couple of weeks ago, during National Braille Week, I visited the Scottish Braille Press in Edinburgh to celebrate National Braille Week and see round the press. While I was there I met Allan Balfour who is blind and who translated both books into Braille, and we read a section of Rue End Street together.
I can't describe what a lovely thing to do this was.

As you can see from the video Allan is moving both his hands and in two directions. This is because he reads ahead with one hand and makes sense with the other, or something like that. I realised that this is also what I do, in fact what we all do. We read by recognition and we read more than one word at once, and we read ahead to make sense of the word we are paying closest attention to, or something like that! It's hard to define. This is especially noticeable in people playing the piano. They are reading ahead while their fingers are playing the previous bar. It was quite amazing to see Allan doing with his hands what I do with my eyes. If I run my finger tips over the Braille 'cells' it's just texture on thick paper, completely random and with no individual dot easily discernible from the next. But Allan's fingers sense these 'cells' or small rectangular arrangements of raised dots, and they tell him something. They are not simply embossed letters like the twenty-six we read every day, but codes which tell the reader things like whether or not the word begins with a capital, and so on. I found the whole thing quite extraordinary, but actually if I think about what our brains do even when we have eyes, you realise how fantastic the human body is.

After reading together I was taken through to see the actual Braille press itself and meet some of the workers. Check out the giant roll of paper! For some reason such things give me great pleasure. So perfect and white and round and actually quite hard to lean on which is why I'm laughing. The paper goes into the machine and comes out the other side stamped with dots. The large format book in my left hand is the result, or is at least one volume of the seven it takes to make the whole of Rue End Street. Included are Braille descriptions of the cover and the various photos on the inside of the cover.

Then I was whisked off to the Royal Blind School to meet a group of pupils aged 12-17 who are all either blind or partially sighted. I read them a section from Mavis's Shoe and they followed in Braille or large print. I read quite fast and they all managed to keep up. Allan had already told me Braille is not something you can easily learn as an adult. Five year old learners pick it up far faster even than nine year olds. I was aware that all these young people had stories to tell. Fortunately at least one of them has already started writing and has not just one but two novel length projects already written.

They were an extremely engaged and engaging group of young people and were ready with questions from the moment I joined them until the very end. Deputy Head Teacher Sarah Hughes told me about a teenage boy in her last school who went with her to a show, I forget which kind. During the show the stage asked for a volunteer. The boy's hand shot up. His was the only hand, so he was chosen. Afterwards Sarah praised him for being so brave and told him he had been the only volunteer. He replied that he always said yes to any opportunity because he knew there were many which passed him by. It wasn't so much bravery as an excellent strategy for life, indeed for anyone's life.

I was then taken on a tour of the school which has recently been rehoused in a new purpose-specific building. Again, fascinating, and I got to see some individual Braille writing machines, which is what that blue machine is on the right here. I realised the main thing Braille has to offer a blind person is privacy. A Braille reader can do what sighted people do: sit in a room alone with a book and let the words wash over them without interuption. Reading is a direct experience between reader and writer. Reading in Braille is the closest experience to print reading a blind person can have. Without Braille, there has to be a third person either physically present or present in their voice in a recording. The consumption rate of the book is controlled by someone else's speed, not the reader's. The words are interpreted, however subtly, by the actor on the tape or the sighted person reading aloud, and not by the unsighted. This makes reading more passive and less involving, and therefore, to my mind, less pleasurable. And how do you immerse yourself in a book and have a good cry or laugh out loud without the privacy to experience that direct connection between you and the written word?

I loved every minute of this visit. Thank you everyone! And it left me with so many thoughts and ideas. But then, as Muriel Rukeyser once said, 'The universe is made of stories, not atoms.'

The photos and videos in this piece were the work of the Royal Blind School and the Scottish Braille Press.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Hutters Rally

Last weekend I spent half a day in the lovely Maryhill Burgh Halls in Glasgow at the Hutters Rally. The second half of the day was a trip to the huts at Carbeth, somewhere I’ve been many times and therefore didn’t tag along to. I’ve owned a hut in the past and have spent lots of time there researching for Mavis’s Shoe and Rue End Street, both of which spend a substantial amount of time there. The ‘rally’ was part of the Thousand Huts Campaign which is run by Reforesting Scotland, an organisation whose tagline is ‘restoring the land and the people’. Who could fault such a philosophy? And to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room where so much consistently good sense was spoken by so many people. I don’t know the true numbers but we were certainly well in excess of 100.

Here is the new definition of hutting on which laws can now be built:

"A Hut: a simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (i.e. not as principle residence) having an internal floor area of no more than 30 square metres;constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; built in such a way that it is removable with little trace at the end of its life."

I’m writing this from the Tak Me Doon road over the hills between Kilsyth and Carron Bridge, a view which is impossible to catch on camera because of its sheer size so I won’t bore you with a picture. Actually yes I will.
Here is the view west along a tiny bit of track beside the road. It certainly gives a sense of the enormity of the sky and reminds me of the ancient Gaulish chiefs whose greatest fear was that the sky would fall on their heads. (Remember Vitalstatistix of the Asterix novels?) More on that another time.

Go up Tak Me Doon with a good pair of binoculars and you can spend the afternoon spotting familiar places, or simply gazing out in wonder. Suffice to say all life is out there, Falkirk and Grangemouth Refinery; the Firth of Forth and the Forth Railway Bridge; wind turbines dotted in the middle distance and rows of them over to the West on the hilltops; also in rows, little houses in estates and high rises in a ring; field upon field, perfect cultivated and perfectly wild; thick dark bushy trees too distant to distinguish size let alone type; marsh reeds in the foreground along with the obligatory barbed wire and rusting sheets of corrugated iron: lots of space, lots of nooks and crannies and as far as I can see, no lack of opportunity for putting up huts, hideaways from the grit and grind of ordinary life, of individual travails in spirit-breaking environments; places for families to congregate, extended and nuclear. Room for all without really causing each other any harm, surely.

So what are we afraid of?

If you’re a hutter or a hut enthusiast, or if you’re just vaguely interested, you’re probably afraid of spending time, effort and money on building a hut, including the building of the relationship with the person who ‘owns’ the land, building your knowledge of how all this works, this living close to nature, and so on. The hutters movement is not about who can build the fanciest hut ie who can pay for the best. It’s about the land being available to everyone including people with not particularly good incomes, and it’s about living in such a way that little or no trace is left behind. In other words preserving what is around us, being respectful of our world. And all that stuff. But at the centre of it is family and community, which according to the research is the most popular reason for having a hut: getting together with kith and kin.

Hutting is an egalitarian sort of concept. Egalitarianism is by its nature counter-capitalist, and seeing as there’s a largely accepted norm now that capitalism is the only way (despite evidence to the contrary) it’s no wonder that most people feel some level of anxiety when they consider acting against those norms. Those who think they have a lot to gain from capitalism, and therefore much to lose, seem to oppose hutting the most. But really there’s more than enough to go round, even for some people to have a little more than others, if that’s what they want, just not the whole lot. So why not break out and have a little piece of the earth to sit on and call home-from-home?

Friday, 11 July 2014

Rue End Street

Rue End Street, the sequel to Mavis’s Shoe, is published and out there on the shelves waiting to be picked up. It is September 1943 and Lenny Gillespie, our heroine, is 12 years old, but growing up fast. The tides of war are turning and Britain is gaining confidence as Germany weakens. But disaster strikes Lenny's life again, propelling her the length of the great Clyde estuary, to the ports of Helensburgh and Greenock.

Known as 'Port Number One' during WW2, Greenock was a hive of activity, the main assembly point for the Atlantic convoys and the re-entry point for returning convoys carrying vital goods for the survival of Britain. Over two million US servicemen and many more from other Allied countries also landed there as well as the survivors of sinkings including the Arandora Star. Many of these various groups were herded immediately onto trains at Princes Pier Station (now gone) while others were stationed in and around the Lower Clyde Basin for lengthy periods. As is only natural with so many men in one place, trouble occurred, and Rue End Street was said to be the epicentre of such trouble. Hence the title of the book.

The people of Greenock have reason to be proud of what they gave and the hard work put in for the survival of the country. Winston Churchill himself said: 'the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war' was the U-boat peril'.

Publication of Rue End Street has followed several weeks of frantic activity which culminated in two launch events, one in Waterstones Argyle Street Glasgow, the other in Clydebank Library. Both included two short dramatisations of sections of the book. Those of you who came to the launch of Mavis’s Shoe at the aye Write! book festival in Glasgow may remember the dramatisation of that came with lots of bells and whistles, or at least explosions and sirens, and actors from STaG theatre company, or Student Theatre at Glasgow under the direction of the wonderful John May. For Rue End Street we were mostly in-house:

This is Liz Small, MD of Waverley Books, as the Leeds lass manning (womanning?) the desk of the Army Office in Greenock in September 1943. Liz sported a spectacular, if slightly exaggerated Leeds accent. Oh, and a rather attractive wig. Liz is actually naturally blond.

We also had these two, Ron Grosset (left), the other MD of Waverley Books, and Drew Campbell (right), President of Scottish PEN, playing sextons. That’s sexton as in grave attendant, not as in relatives of mine.

For our second launch we had Mark Mechan, the designer of the wonderful covers of both books, as gravedigger #2, a world debut performance of the same outstanding quality as the covers. A wonderful time was had by all.