As I’m in National Novel Writing Month mode at the moment. As such, my entries will be shorter than usual until next month.
In my podcast-style entry a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d been to see The Maids at The Rep in Dundee. I’d walked out at the interval as I wasn’t engaged by the first half. It’s rare that I would do that.
However, after independent recommendations by friends, I went back to see it on Saturday and stayed for the whole show.
What I liked is that the play didn’t tell you what to think, but presented itself unfiltered and allowed the audience to make their own interpretation. It delivered a number of genuinely surprising plot twists too. However, there was an attempt at ennui rather than action, which can be effective in the right hands, but I feel it wasn’t quite carried off here; I’d happily have cut it down to an hour.
It serves as a timely reminder about the importance of engaging the audience early in the performance, as it was ultimately worth staying until the end.
On Friday, I attended the premiere of a play written by John Quinn, whom I’ve known for several years.
In O Halflins an Hecklers an Weavers an Weemin, he tells the story of the jute industry in Dundee. The play was staged in the round within Verdant Works, which used to be a functioning jute mill and is now a museum dedicated to the manufacture of the material. I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, particularly the satirical in-jokes that only locals understand.
A large portion of the dialogue is in local dialect; in fact, even the title seems like gibberish to those who aren’t familiar with the vernacular. Helpfully, however, the programme contains a glossary of the terms used in the production. The title translates as ‘The Mother Tongue’:
In everyday life, I speak and understand standard English. I also understood almost every word of the play without looking at the definitions, and I’d be able to decipher the dialect’s parent language: Scots. But to say anything in dialect or Scots, I would have to make a conscious effort to work out my sentences.
That’s why I say I’m fluent in 1½ languages.
There’s a long tradition of English as a written language, with dictionaries and grammar guides going back centuries. Scots, on the other hand, is more of an oral language and there’s no commonly-accepted way to render it on paper. As such, I find it easier to catch what’s being said than if it’s written down.
The problem is most apparent with the sound at the end of the word ‘loch’, which is pronounced like ‘huh’, but said from the back of the throat; a similar sound appears in German. This guttural noise is usually written as ‘ch’, but in English, those letters are pronounced as in the word ‘church’. There are also less obvious issues. The word ‘yes’ can be translated as ‘aye’ or ‘ay’, but depending on the context, the word ‘ae’ might mean ‘always’.
In modern times, there’s been a revival of the Scots language. Perhaps it’s down to the formation of the current Scottish Parliament in 1999; perhaps it’s because Scots speakers can now easily find one another online.
In my experience, there’s a minority of people who use the language merely to show off or to exclude non-speakers. But spoken for the right reasons, it’s full of rich expressions that often have no direct translation.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, owned by the city’s university. Within its 21 acres, there are plants and trees from around the world and educational areas where you can learn more about them.
That day, the Gardens had been opened up specifically for writers, artists and photographers to respond in their chosen media for an upcoming anthology by the organisation who maintains them. A botanist even led us to many of the noteworthy spots, from tropical plants that change gender overnight to hardy shrubs that live on a limited water supply.
I’ve long believed that going for a walk helps to sort out any thoughts a writer has. In this case, there was a lot of input from the botanist’s talk, from discussions with other participants and indeed from my own observations.
Yet there was so much input to process that it took several days to form any meaningful output. During these days, I was taken by the idea that some trees can survive forest fires while other trees actually rely on fire for their seeds to germinate. I made drafts in free verse with internal rhymes, but the narrative was ultimately going nowhere.
Some friends, also poets, were on the same tour. One of them writes poems around the length of a haiku, although he doesn’t use the haiku form itself. Looking at my own work, I realised I liked the opening line and the conclusion, and I felt that to include other details would simply be filler and distract from the message I wanted to impart. So, borrowing his style, I kept only those parts: two sentences enjambed over four lines.
After leaving it aside for another few days, I came back to my verse yesterday morning and decided to enter it for the anthology. For that reason, I’m unable to publish the finished product online, but you’ll be the first to know if it’s included.
Which brings me to an event happening this coming Thursday. I’m having a poem published in Dundee Writes, a pamphlet distributed by the University of Dundee. I’ll report back on the launch event next week.
Over the next couple of months, I’ve been asked to read poetry at a few events. Each one is free to attend. Here’s a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to them:
Livewire; Wednesday 19 October; Bonar Hall, Dundee. I’ve just finished an MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee. This is one final showcase for our class, where I’ll be reading a piece called Sir Madam from my dissertation.
Launch of Aiblins; Monday 21 November; Underdog, Castlegate, Aberdeen. This launch is for the same book discussed above, but in a different city. The event is still being finalised, and I’ll give you more information when I have it.
I’m pleased to report I’ll have two poems published in the forthcoming Seagate III anthology. The title is a reference to the oldest street in Dundee, Scotland, as each poet in the book has a connection with the city.
And what a line-up. I feel privileged to appear in the same volume as local poets that I know and admire. But what happened to Seagate I and Seagate II? The former was published in 1975 and the latter in 1985, so the trilogy has taken more than 40 years to complete. Yet in some ways, its timing couldn’t be better.
The Dundee waterfront is undergoing a major redevelopment that has brought in investment such as a new railway station, a five-star Malmaison, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. This sense of willingness has also seeped into other areas, including the literary scene.
2016 marks the tenth year of the Dundee Literary Festival, featuring poet Liz Lochhead, and X-Men actor Alan Cumming. But I believe you can have a richer experience at any festival by taking time to support less well-known authors and even taking a gamble on something you might not like. I can think of only two disappointments out of the dozens of events I attend each year, and neither of them were unknowns.
Most of the Dundee events take place in the Bonar Hall. No laughing at the back – it’s pronounced bonner. But an appropriate location can really bring out the flavour of the topic.
Yesterday, for instance, I was up a hill with a fantastic view of the city hearing poetry about the places we could see. And on Wednesday, Sandra Ireland went to Stockbridge in Edinburgh to launch her debut novel Beneath the Skin since that’s where it’s set.
And on Friday, I attended the launch of The Voyage Out, containing narratives of journeys, and featuring some of the Seagate III poets. The event was held on board the RRS Discovery, the ship which took Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic.
As this blog is about fiction and poetry, my chosen title is a correction of the phrase Think global, act local. Since think and act are verbs, I’ve added -ly to the other two words to change them from adjectives to adverbs. Now both clauses are paired up nicely.
The phrase has been around for decades, however you choose to word it, but it gained new currency at the dawn of the 21st century as more and more people had access to the Internet. For the first time, ordinary individuals could type a message and potentially have it seen instantly by a worldwide audience.
One problem this throws up is relevance. Unless I’m writing only for local folks, I somehow have to make my blog relevant to an audience much further afield, and that often means overlooking what’s happening in my own city to concentrate on our shared mass culture.
Today, however, I’ll be turning the camera on my own city of Dundee in Scotland, with a population of around 148,000. This place has made its mark on the wider world in several ways. Grand Theft Auto was coded here, James Chalmers introduced the adhesive postage stamp, and the Beano is printed five minutes from my house.
Mondays are a particular bottleneck for reading and writing events, with the Literary Lock-In at the end of each month, my own group Hotchpotch near the middle of the month, and a Silent Reading Party fitting in between the two. Literary Dundee helps to coordinate these, plus the regular author visits, not forgetting the major Literary Festival in October.
Altogether, Dundee is one of the best places for a writer to be at the moment, with a more active literary scene than its population figure might suggest. Later this year, two of my poems are also scheduled to appear in Seagate III, continuing from volumes I and II published in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. You can bet I’ll be telling you all about that when it happens.