My First Library

It came to my attention this week that Kirkton Community Centre in Dundee is on the market and there is a petition to stop the sale. The building also houses the local library. I haven’t been in for years, but only because it’s the wrong side of town for me.

My grandad lived around the corner and he would take me there every week. This was the first half of the 1990s, so I would have been aged between about seven and 12. As such, this was also before the Internet, so there were only books, newspapers and a small selection of video tapes.

I did read the occasional novel, especially those by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but I don’t recall borrowing any from Kirkton library.

Instead, I always headed for the non-fiction section, where I’d borrow books about any and all subjects: building models from cardboard, how the weather behaves, running a shop, the ancient Egyptian way of life, &c. It never occurred to me to look at the catalogue system. My literary kicks came from simply rummaging around the shelves.

I could even find enjoyment in pure reference books. My grandad owned a thick Chambers dictionary from the 1970s that also contained a wealth of other data: the etymology of given names, ready reckoners for unit conversion, a guide to musical terms, &c. I still posess a copy, although mine is dated 1990. Even the BT Phonebook occupied much of my attention, with its pages of crisis helplines, or instructions about how to call a ship at sea.

All of which reminds me it’s been the longest time since I’ve visited my nearest library, just five minutes’ walk away. That’s only partly because of the lockdown; I’d used it only a handful of times even when it was open.

My favourite feature is the separate reading room, making it an ideal spot to work without the distractions of home. It would be entirely possible to set aside regular time to visit and to take out some books there once it’s open again. I could brush up on my knowledge of ancient Egypt.

Change of Scene

I started writing this entry in a Dundee pub called the George Orwell, a cosy neuk not far from the art college. I was waiting to meet my pal Lydia, whom I’d first met there in 2015.

Appropriately, the Orwell had been a gathering spot for a social event called the Literary Lock-In. Despite that title, it was held during regular pub hours and was an opportunity for writers and readers to mingle and drink without attending a formal reading or performance.

At another venue, which varied from time to time, there also was a silent reading party where participants would bring their own novels, read them in each others’ company, then chat afterwards.

These events, and many others, were run or supported by the University of Dundee under the banner of Literary Dundee. However, the department closed when its head Peggy Hughes moved to Norwich Writers’ Centre. We were left with something of a vacuum to fill.

Five years on, the literary scene has morphed into a different creature.

Last year, a couple of street poets began performing at locations around the city centre, an event that became monthly, then moved into a café for the winter. We also have a playwrighting evening that frequently ties in with the exhibitions at the aforementioned art college. There is also an arts collective set up by self-described queer writers and artists that runs a number of workshops.

While it’s lamentable that the lock-in and the silent reading no longer exist, I’m glad that the scene as a whole is still as strong as ever, and I look forward to what the next five years bring us.

Time and Motion

I’ve recently been placing a lot of effort into my Fun a Day project, which I talked about last month. It’s now been dubbed Junkuary, as it makes use of recycled materials.

This means that my writing has taken a back seat as I’ve made an effort to step away from using words and focus on visual art. However, this is only temporary, and I’ll go back to writing shortly.

Head over to my Instagram page to see what’s happening, and I’ll catch you here next week for more talk of prose and poetry.

Ready, Get Set, Stop

On this blog, I’ve been talking about Fun a Day Dundee, a project where artists and other creative sorts are encouraged to work on ‘something fun’ during January. For those who make a living from their art, this is traditionally a slow month after the chaos of Christmas.

For my previous two FADD projects, I’ve taken the opportunity to undertake writing projects. I’ve happily updated my Instagram page each day showing draft work, with a view to improving it at a later stage.

I’m at a point with writing where I don’t mind showing people half-done work. But I plan to use FADD to step away from writing and attempt something new, and I don’t want to reveal my pieces before I’m ready.

Nonetheless, there’s no requirement to show works in progress, and I will keep Instagram updated with something relevant to the project each day.

I also have a handwritten diary to log my process and progress, so when I’m ready to show my work, the details will be there.

Sailing By

Four weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about warming up for Fun a Day Dundee in 2020.

I’m pleased to report that a version of that entry has been posted on the official website. Be sure to click around the menu at the top to read more stories and information about the project.

Note that the post is under my legal name of Gavin Cruickshank, which I don’t normally use for writing since few people can spell it correctly.

I haven’t had a great deal of time this week, so I’ll be back next week with a fuller entry.

Two Festivals

There are two major festivals happening concurrently this week.

The first is the popular Book Week Scotland, an annual festival of books and reading across the nation. The organisers produce a promotional paperback containing short stories from contemporary writers that are given away at literary events. As such, I ordered a box for my open-mike night Hotchpotch, and we had just enough for each member to take one.

What is less well-known is the Being Human festival, a commemoration of the humanities across the UK, and it’s that one I’d like to focus on in this entry. Until Saturday 23 November, there will be events held in Lincoln, London, Sheffield and Swansea – as well as in my native Dundee.

I’ve previously mentioned my poetry circle, the Wyverns. In 2018, we created our first booklet as part of Being Human. This was inspired by the 200th anniversary of the novel Frankenstein, all the more appropriate since Mary Shelley was living in Dundee when she started to write it. The booklet was then launched at the University of Dundee.

We’ve now been given an opportunity to do the same with this year’s theme: discoveries and secrets. Our circle took inspiration from the nearby River Tay, more than a mile and a half wide at its mouth, with plenty of physical and metaphorical space for secrets waiting to be discovered. Incidentally, only one poet wrote about the obvious connection with the RRS Discovery, which was built in Dundee and visited Antarctica in the early 20th century.

To me, it’s lamentable that Book Week Scotland tends to grab the headlines and overshadow Being Human, as there are so many potential connections to be made between the two that they deserve an equal footing.

For instance, my friends Erin Farley and James Barrowman have been temporarily resurrecting The Poets’ Box in the Wellgate shopping centre. The original Box opened in the 1870s and stayed open for more than 70 years, albeit in different locations around the city. It not only sold poetry and sheet music, but had a printing press on the premises to distribute work by local writers.

Despite the overshadowing, I’m looking forward to taking part in Being Human this year, and if all other factors remain equal, in years to come.

Looking Ahead to January

Although it’s not until next year, I’m already gearing up to take part in Fun a Day Dundee (FADD) for the third time. This is the local chapter of a global project that encourages participants to undertake something creative during the month of January. It happens at a time of year when professional artists and creators often struggle after the Christmas rush.

I first learnt of FADD in 2017, although the group has been running since 2011. A few of my artist friends were taking part, some working on a different piece every day for the 31 days, others concentrating on one or more larger projects during this time.

Those friends told me I should take part the following year, but I had some reservations: I’m not a painter, a model-maker, a jeweller, nor anything similar. Rather, my craft is writing words in pencil or pen on lined paper.

Rationally, I knew I was welcome, while still feeling like a misfit. As such, I hesitated in signing up, only registering my interest on the first day: 1 January 2018.

I started off with the intention of producing one piece of prose or poetry each day of the month, with provision to create side projects if something else occurred to me that I wanted to try out. Four days into FADD, I created my first such side project and something extraordinary happened.

In late December, I’d ordered a watch strap from Amazon, and it arrived in early January with six wasteful feet of brown paper cushioning stuffed into a needlessly large box. But inspired by the artists of FADD posting their work on Instagram and Twitter, I straightened out the paper and kept it aside for the public exhibition. I then planned to invite visitors to write down their own stories of corporate waste on that sheet of paper.

With the addition of that piece and my other side projects, the exhibition display looked so much more colourful and engaging than simply a folder full of black or blue ink on cream paper, and visitors did indeed fill the paper with anecdotes.

But more than that, this piece in particular gave me a direction for my 2019 project, where I still wrote words, but on recycled material. The surfaces used included used envelopes, expired tickets, and even the sole of a worn-out Dr Marten boot; anything except fresh lined paper.

In 2020, I have every intention of taking the recycling theme one stage further. The finer details will be worked out nearer the time, but the project will include actively destroying some of what I wrote in 2018 and 2019, and encouraging the public to do the same.

Whatever happens, however, I will make sure I have fun doing it, just as the name suggests.

Where We Go from Here

Further to last week’s entry about our Hotchpotch venue, I’m pleased to report we’ve at least found a stopgap venue for July. I was out of Dundee at the time, so a big thanks go to our core group of regulars for helping me to take swift action.

As we look to August, we need to find somewhere that’s quiet enough to hear unaccompanied speech and that can host the group in the long term. Our old venue allowed us to use the basement every month on a Monday as it pulled in customers on what is traditionally a quiet day in the licensed trade.

The other consideration is whether to start charging members. Until now, entry has been free because our venues have let us have the space in exchange for buying food and drink. We attract around 30 people, sometimes more, per event and a charge of – say – £2 apiece would cover a £50 hire charge.

Whatever happens, I’m keen to make sure the evening sticks to the same principles: to give people a platform for their work with no judgement and no criticism.

Far, Wide and Deep

This blog primarily discusses writing and the performance of literary works. For the most part, this encompasses novels, short stories and poems.

But some of the entries touch upon films, TV series and rap music. What these forms have in common is that they almost always begin as a written document, from the musician who jots down lyrics in the notebook to the screenwriter carefully crafts a story arc.

In my view, it’s healthy for a writer to have influences from many different sources. Last week alone, I’ve been to see a 40th anniversary screening of Alien, I visited and participated in the StAnza poetry Festival in St Andrews, and I’ve been listening to the hits of Rizzle Kicks.

That’s not to say these sources will immediately influence my work. Rather, I might pick up a line of dialogue or a neat way of wrapping up a plot.

When I undertook my MLitt Writing Practice and Study course at the University of Dundee, I had the privilege of being taught by Dr Jim Stewart before his death in 2016.

If you came to him with a piece he didn’t understand, he’d ask you questions until it was clear to him or research it. If he felt something could be improved, he would guide you rather than make outright suggestions. I never once heard him dismiss anything.

And when a writer embraces an unlikely influence, the result can be eye-opening. Take P D James as an example. She was known for her detective novels, then at the age of 70, she wrote Children of Men, her only science fiction work.

The Weakest Ink

This month, I’ve been taking part in Fun a Day Dundee, a project to create whatever you like in or throughout January. Mine is called Line for a Walk, where I’m writing fragments every day to form a circular sentence by the end of the month.

Back in 2015, I made a post where I talked about my creative response to an exhibition where I wasn’t happy with my own work. This month, I’ve had a similar experience – particularly from Day 20 onwards – as I’ve realised my project is running out of steam. I did have a lot of ideas at the beginning of January, which I’ve now used.

I will finish the project as planned, but I’ve realised I need more focus. This doesn’t mean taking a prescriptive approach, merely setting some type of restriction or theme. A blank page is harder to tackle than a brief which reads something like ‘In 500 words, write about two characters on a boat’.

Where I have enjoyed some success is in my handful of side projects – those that are part of Fun a Day but don’t fall under Line for a Walk. These spontaneous side projects have included poetry and visual art experiments, but relying on spontaneity for a month is a tough request.

Meanwhile, I need to realise that I’ve yet to see the end of the project and that those perceived weak links might not be as flimsy as they now appear. I also need to remember it’s supposed to be a slice of fun.