Illumintating Lives

photo.JPG mitchell

The Mitchell Library in Glasgow lit up and looking spectacular.

In Andrew O’Hagan’s own words, Thursday was a “pishy” night but that didn’t stop my pal Anne and I from heading to the Jeffrey Room of The Mitchell Library to hear the writer in conversation with Stuart Kelly, literary editor of Scotland on Sunday, critic and writer.

I’d heard Andrew talk once before when he delivered a lecture at the University of Stirling on “Civic Memory: An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture” and he argued that civic memory binds us together and is the currency of Scotland’s cultural life so I knew we were in for a treat. On this occasion, he was in Glasgow to discuss his new novel, The Illuminations and was just as thought-provoking and insightful.


The Kitchen Sink by Margaret Watkins, c. 1919

In describing his new book, the analogy he used was that the characters in The Illuminations had lived inside him for a long time as tinder and the spark that ignited the story and inspired the characters was the life story of the photographer Margaret Watkins. Andrew was intrigued by a still-life photograph, The Kitchen Sink taken by Margaret and investigated her work further to discover that she was born in Canada but died as a recluse in Scotland in 1969, leaving her photographs to a next-door neighbour, Joe Mulholland. The idea of the secrets people keep fired him up to create the central character of Anne Quirk. The onset of dementia makes Anne feel as if her past is slipping away from her and yet in the other storyline we have the opposite scenario. Anne’s grandson, Luke, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers, who is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan is trying to forget memories, while Anne is fighting to keep them.


imagesAndrew read an extract from the novel and spoke eloquently on a range of humanitarian issues connected to the book. He also shared his views on the Independence Referendum and his hopes for Scotland’s political future which resulted in a rousing round of applause from the audience. I can’t resist the temptation to use the pun so it has to be said; Andrew illuminated a dreich February night with his sharp wit and passion for exploring the issues of memory and identity. The Illuminations is going straight to the top of my to-be-read pile!

Has a photograph inspired you to create characters?

(An exhibition of Margaret Watkin’s photographs of Glasgow in the 1930s is currently on show at The Hidden Gallery in Glasgow until 7 March 2015.)



Grey Hair and Graduation

Me, praying that I make it back to my seat without going head over heels down the stairs.

Twenty two years ago I graduated with a BEd in Primary Teaching and never for one moment expected to graduate again for a second time.  But last Friday, I was strutting across the stage of the Albert Halls (no, not THE Royal Albert Hall in London) in Stirling to receive my masters degree in Creative Writing. With Merit!

This time around I had a new surname (pronounced incorrectly at the ceremony. Grrr!!!) was much heavier, with wrinkles round the eyes and straight from an emergency hairdresser appointment to cover my grey haired roots. And yet, I still felt great.

There was a fantastic atmosphere at the ceremony and the Chancellor of the University, Dr James Naughtie delivered a thought-provoking and inspiring speech about his recent trip to Delhi where he encountered young children living in extreme poverty and yet they had high ambitions for their future careers.

Soppy caption alert! “Without your unconditional love and support, none of it would have been possible…”

It was a timely reminder for me that I am very lucky to have had the financial and the emotional support of my long-suffering hubby which allowed me to pursue my writing goals. He has been there for me every step of the way and almost never got to see me graduate when I somehow managed to lose his golden ticket for the ceremony, only to reclaim it at the ‘robing room’ with minutes to spare!

So now I can call myself Helen MacKinven BEd MLitt but I’m still wondering what I want to be when I grow up. When I left my day job to commit to the MLitt course full-time, I was never under any illusion that the qualification would lead to an amazing job in the literary world. But I did hope that it would mean that I could gain the credibility to call myself a proper writer, whatever that means.

My writing buddy, Anne Glennie likened the MLitt course as a sort of ‘kite mark’ for your writing skills in that it indicates a certain level of quality. Of course it doesn’t mean that because I’ve completed a uni course that I’m a better writer than someone who doesn’t have a formal qualification but it does mean that my effort to develop my writing skills has been professionally recognised.

The MLitt course at Stirling University was recently featured in the Herald’s Scottish Review of Books where the course was described as “taught by writers for writers”.  This was one of the highlights for me as the course was led by award-winning fiction writer Paula Morris and during the two semesters I had the opportunity to learn from Andrew O’Hagan, DBC Pierre, Linda Cracknell, Eleanor Updale and Ewan Morrison. There’s no way that I would ever have had the chance to engage with such talented individuals so for that reason alone the course was invaluable.

But where to now? Getting the degree was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I’ve got the official rubber stamp to prove that I’m serious about my writing, it’s more than a hobby for me, but that doesn’t mean that I have a new career, well not yet. Like most other writers, I need a day job too and after a year out to indulge myself in pursuing my passion, I need to strike a balance between time for writing and contributing to the household income, well at least until I publish that best seller I’m working on…

Writing Exercises- Am I Fit Enough?

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain 

If there was such a thing as a set of jump leads for your brain, I could’ve used a set over the last few weeks! After doing the same job for six years, autopilot was my daily setting. At times this was a cosy comfort blanket that meant I never lost any sleep worrying about work but my flabby brain was in definite need of a work out.

My creative writing course has certainly kicked started my brain! Weekly writing exercises have challenged the whole class. One of our favourites has been to write a series of pieces which start with, “When I was seventeen…” and the results from my fellow students have produced a range of emotions from funny to sometimes quite sad. It’s been really interesting hearing everyone’s work. The exercise I’ve enjoyed the most so far was to meaningfully include the following 5 things in a 1000 word piece. The things were a tower of top hats, the Oxford Book of Saints, Nescafe, a child standing in water and Bermuda. It wasn’t easy! There’s 7 of us in the group and it was fascinating to hear the other completely different versions on the exercise.

A highlight for me was the chance to hear the award winning novelist, Andrew O’Hagan deliver an excellent  talk on, “Civic Memory: An Argument on the Character of Scottish Culture” to a packed audience.The talk was adapted from a provocative, insightful, and often comical lecture commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland and presented at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, exploring how our understanding of places in general and Scotland in particular depends on shared memories.

O’ Hagan argued that civic memory binds us together and is the currency of Scotland’s cultural life. Much of our sense of identity has less to do with politics and more about been shaped by fictionalised heroes. Whisky bottle mottos, such as, “Afore ye go” from O Hagan’s childhood memories were used to illustrate that the Scottish feeling of nationhood is largely a figment of our imagination but it creates a coveted vision of togetherness.

However, civic memory is not about nostalgia and referring to the works of writers such as Robert Burns. O’Hagan emphasised that modern writers such as James Kelman are bringing new energy to expressing a true history of what being Scottish means to most people. The positive side of this parochial instinct is that civic memory keeps politics alive and helps to change the cultural world. O’Hagan clearly celebrates the relationship between art and life and has an optimistic view of civic memory as a means to counteract defensive nationalism.

What struck me most was how our understanding of Scotland and other places is dependent on shared memories. For the majority of working class people this is based on verbal history. My dad was what O’Hagan described as a “real character” and was sustained by civic memory. When he died suddenly five years ago, I not only lost my dad but all his stories. Being raised in a deprived family with thirteen siblings made him the man he was and consequently there were many stories about his challenging upbringing as a Catholic boy in an impoverished mining village. O’Hagan’s passion for investing in today’s civic memory has made me keen to explore my own heritage in greater detail and perhaps try in some way to celebrate my dad’s life.

After 4 weeks at uni, my brain is now getting the work out it so badly needed and with all the writing exercises, reading list and inspirational speakers hopefully it’ll soon be in much better shape…

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain g

A BRAIN and a pair of jump leads walk into a bar. The jump leads take a seat and the brain gets the round in, but the bartender refuses to serve the brain.