Dialect and Diversity

When I noticed the hype about Graeme Armstong’s debut, The Young Team, on Twitter I was intrigued on several levels.

Firstly, as I write contemporary Scottish fiction featuring working class voices in local dialect, I was really interested in Graeme’s writing which uses Lanarkshire vernacular and I’ve blogged about dialect several times in the past.

Also, his novel is set in Airdrie, the same setting as, Sisters in Solidarity, the last novel I wrote but haven’t managed to find a publisher for, yet. AndThe Young Team it’s a coming of age story too, like my own debut, Talk of the Toun, which also explores the same themes of identity, belonging and defying the expectations of your social class.

So, when I saw that Graeme was appearing at the Aye Write book festival (little did I realise at the time that the opening night of the festival would also be the closing night due to coronavirus) in Glasgow it’s fair to say I’d high hopes for this event – nae pressure!

It’s always nice to meet the author in person.

I’m glad to report that although it turned out be the only Aye Write event that I’d attend this year, it was excellent as Graeme is very articulate and entertaining. The extract he read out had me hooked and I could imagine Kevin Bridges reading the audio book version.

Graeme has had great media coverage and the fact that the book is inspired by his own experience of gang culture ensures a juicy personal back story and adds authenticity to the narrative. In interviews, Graeme has acknowledged the influence of Trainspotting on shaping his literary ambitions and after reading The Young Team I think it’s a fair comparison. The cast of characters are as memorable as Renton, Franco, Spud and Sick Boy and just as Irvine Welsh used east coast dialect to bring them to life, Graeme has used Lanarkshire dialect for the voice of Azzy.

I found Graeme’s use of dialect interesting. For example, in my writing, I use ‘Ah’ instead of ‘I’ whereas Graeme uses ‘A’ which I found made the flow a wee bit confusing at times. Dialect varies from area to area, but it also relates to age group. I live only 15 miles from Airdrie, and I use ‘auld’ for ‘old’ but Graeme’s characters describe, almost everything, as ‘eld’, not a phrase used by me or my middle-aged characters. Also, the controversial ‘c’ word is littered across every page. This might offend some readers but it’s important to note that it’s often used by Azzy and his gang as a term of endearment, something which seems very much a Scottish trait in certain social groups.

I tend not to read in-depth reviews until I’ve finished a book, some of them give away too much detail and I want to avoid spoilers. After reading and very much enjoying The Young Team I looked up a few reviews online. Most of the media coverage indicated that Graeme’s novel was destined to be a success and that the Scottish literary scene now has a vibrant personality to champion underrepresented characters. I agree! There still isn’t enough diversity demonstrated in publishing.

The book is rich in Scottish banter and one-liners. “Broonie’s skin is armour-plated thick, tough-made n borne oot ae struggle. Survival expert since the age ae five. Bear Grylls doesnae huv a fuckin look in”. There are also some very good descriptive passages.

The most critical review I read was by Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman, “It is a strange concept, since it cuts both ways. On one hand it is a form of “poverty tourism”, where the higher classes indulge, at a distance, in descriptions of the ways of the lower classes. But it is also a genuine kind of nostalgia, where those who have broken out of a cycle of their designated station still feel a tug back towards their ain kind. The Young Team seems to exemplify this paradox. It is a novel which I feel many people will make their minds up over on scanning the first page, and some will be enthralled and some will be nauseated.
The irony is that the readers who might buy this are not the kind of people who might appear in it, and those whom it describes and anatomises and worries over, most likely will not buy it.”

The demographic of book festivals and many of the book buying public doesn’t mirror Azzy’s world, but I feel there is so much scope for Graeme to reach an audience of young males who are not engaged with reading or education. I warmed to Azzy and willed him not to press the self-destruct button. I can relate to his character on a personal level and so I would love this book to be used in schools as an example of hope and redemption when there seems no way out. Anyone working with young people, particularly males and especially in areas of deprivation, needs to read this book to understand and empathise with those living like Azzy and his pals.

 

Crowd Pleasers

After the festive season, it always seems to take ages before literary events get going again. So, it was great to finally get back out to book events this month. My first two events of 2020 were very different and yet quite similar in that both authors managed to take serious topics and deliver very entertaining evenings.

In 2018, This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay was one of my favourite reads and I’m not alone in loving this memoir of the author’s previous career as a doctor. The memoir is an international bestseller, so it was no surprise that the Kings Theatre in Glasgow was packed. I was intrigued to see how Adam would turn his book of diary entries into a show. I’d read an article he’d written in the Society of Authors magazine about how he’d learnt the hard way at the start of his book tour days that often he’d appear at a library or bookstore for no fee simply to get exposure for his book. This isn’t uncommon for new authors to agree to deliver an event for free and I know from personal experience that I’ve ended up out of pocket after covering my travel costs as the percentage of royalties from each book sale amounts to pennies rather than pounds!

Adam Kay is a smart man. He decided to create a different approach for his book promo tour and turned the event into a theatre show. At £25 per ticket he’s making a LOT of money on top of the millions of copies his book has sold. I wouldn’t attempt to charge readers to hear me talk about my novels but I’m not a bestselling author! Also, I’ve not got Adam Kay’s talent to entertain an audience with anecdotes that are funny and moving in equal measure. To break up sections of him reading aloud he even played a keyboard and sang medical themed songs which involved audience participation. It might have been cheesy but it worked and reminded me of Victoria Wood’s style of comedy. The most impressive aspect of the show was that he made serious political points about protecting the NHS but delivered his agenda with a perfect mix of humour and pathos.

Politics was the key theme too when I was back in Glasgow a few days later at the Mitchell Library to hear John Bercow discuss his autobiography, Unspeakable. It was another full house event with a lively audience keen to hear his life story and of course some juicy gossip about his time in the hot seat as the Speaker in the House of Commons. I don’t share his party politics but that aside, he’s a very interesting man and a true performer! There was no music this time, he didn’t need any props. He barely drew breath as he showcased his talent for sharing political anecdotes. The journalist, Ruth Wishart, attempted to chair the event but despite her many years of experience interviewing high profile figures she hardly got a word in edgeways. There was no shortage of hands in the air for the Q&A and I’m sure that John Bercow, who clearly loves the attention, would have talked for hours on end and the audience would’ve lapped it up. He ended the event with a ‘party piece’ of him performing a monologue whilst impersonating Tony Benn. My only tiny disappointment was that he didn’t treat us to his famous roar of “OORDEEEEERRRRR!” I haven’t read the book yet but after listening to this witty and clever man it’s sure to be a great read.

 

Viva Venezia! – and the Art of People Watching

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I got a bit snap happy as round every corner was another photo opportunity.

I LOVE city breaks and over the last few years I’ve been lucky to visit some of the most exciting cities in Europe. I’ll go anywhere to experience new sights and learn new things but there are particular cities that have always been on my travel wish list.

One of them was Venice and I finally managed to tick it off the list last weekend. With such high expectations it would’ve been easy to be disappointed but thankfully Venice lived up to its reputation of being one of the most stunning cities in the world. We only had three days to explore and this meant we could only scratch the surface of Venice’s many attractions.

But apart from cramming in as much sightseeing as time (and my feet!) would allow, one of the bonuses of the break was to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes – people watching (everyone needs a hobby!)

i_m_watching_you_Noticing the idiosyncrasies of those around you is an essential activity for a writer. Being aware of a person’s mannerisms and eavesdropping on conversations can prompt a story idea or descriptive scene.

I’ve recently dabbled again in one of my other favourite pastimes – writing flash fiction, and I’m sure some of my observations will find their way into a piece of writing. My most recent 75 word story was featured on Paragraph Planet while I was in Venice and appropriately enough it includes an Italian cheese! If you missed it online, here it is but be warned, it’s best not to read it before eating!

A Taste of Home

The door slammed, he was home. Drunk. Again.

‘Is the spag bol ready?’

‘It’ll be a few more minutes; I need to nip to the loo first.’

I smoothed Arinca cream over the purple yellow bruise on my arm. Sitting on the loo seat, I got busy with the nail clippers and file. I was pleased with the handful of powdery flakes my toe nails produced.

‘Some parmesan?’

I sprinkled generously.

My people watching expedition started at the airport and really went up a gear when a woman sat next to me on the plane and I witnessed an annoying habit that was a new one on me. She spent the entire flight pulling fluff from her mohair jumper. I was glad the flight was only 2 & 1/4 hours long!

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The ‘wow!’ factor.

We were in the right place at the right time in Venice when we got caught up in the celebrations of St Mark and Piazzo San Marco filled with flag waving locals chanting, “Viva San Marco!” The square was buzzing and when we reached the top of the campanile we witnessed an aerial view of a massive flag being unfurled. The most amazing sight though was right beside me, a father and son ignored this once a year spectacle to keep their eyes glued to their mobile phones. The boy played a game and the father scrolled through Facebook updates.

Felt I had to ditch the diet to support the local economy!

Felt  obliged to ditch the diet to support the local economy!

On the vaporetto to Burano, a man decided to treat his fellow passengers to a ‘song’ with no words, no tune and at a high volume. Only he and his pal who was filming it seemed entertained.

There were lots of other weird and wonderful behaviours on show that I took in while roaming around Venice and it’s certainly true that there’s nowt as queer as folk.

Only the week before our trip I went to hear Irvine Welsh at the Aye Write! Festival and he mentioned that he often does a complete circuit of a city’s subway route to see how folk act, dress and talk.

Do you also find people watching feeds your writing?

Character is King – Aye Write!

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This is the tenth year of the Aye Write! festival, my favourite book event in my favorite city, but due to work commitments and a holiday, I could only fit in one visit to Aye Write! this year.

photoOne of the headline acts I went to see was Irvine Welsh, a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed in books and films. The gritty urban Scots dialect used in Trainspotting gave writers like me permission to really go for it and give their characters an authentic voice.

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His latest novel, A Decent Ride, sees the return of one of the characters from Glue, with Juice Terry Lawson taking a lead role. Irvine didn’t just read an excerpt featuring Juice Terry and a new character, Jonty, he performed the scenes and it felt more like watching a stage play than a book event.  It’s because characters like Juice Terry and Jonty are so well drawn that although their behaviour and the wild scenarios they find themselves might be extreme, as a reader you believe they’re real people. And that’s what makes Irvine’s writing so powerful.

photo.JPG ccI also went to Karen Dunbar’s event at Aye Write. This was billed as ‘The Books That Made Me’ and as a fan of Karen’s comedy roles in shows like Chewin’ the Fat, I was interested to hear about the books she felt made an impression on her.  Again, this event was more like a chat show with Karen having the audience in stitches with her down-to-earth style and natural humour.

Karen has fond memories of receiving the book as a gift from her big sister.

The book was a gift from Karen’s big sister.

Karen took a linear approach to her book selection and as part of that ‘journey’ she told the story of her first open audition at the Comedy Unit.  The importance of great characterisation was highlighted again as Karen decided to attend the audition in the role of an old woman which made it easy to express her talent.

Both events were excellent; Irvine and Karen demonstrated that if you get the character right, the rest will follow.

Is character more important than plot in your writing?

The Power of Words

downloadLast weekend, I gave up my long lie to get up early on Saturday to head through to Glasgow with my pal to The Mitchell Library. We were lucky to get our mitts on a couple of day passes which meant we got four events for £10 – a bargain bookfest! The only negative was the ½ hour gap between each event meant we were stressed about café queues (access to food being the major success criteria of any of our days out).

downloadThe book events were the literature strand of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in partnership with the Aye Write! Book Festival. Each event had the theme of ‘reality’ and how our many ideas of ourselves can be wrapped up in words and how the written word has a unique role to play in exploring the many different aspects of mental health.

download (1)First up on the day’s programme was a writer I’ve read a lot about recently as Jenni Fagan was the only Scot on the prestigious 2013 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. I’ve also heard rave reviews of her debut novel The Panopticon so I was keen to find out if Jenni’s work lived up to the hype surrounding her success. I wasn’t disappointed!  Jenni is an engaging and inspiring writer and when she read an extract from The Panopticon, I knew instantly that I wanted to read it and see the film adaptation due to be made next year.

imagesThe novel is partly inspired by Jenni’s experiences of growing up in the Scottish foster care system, and the story, set in and around Edinburgh, revolves around 15-year-old Anais Hendricks – who is accused of assaulting a police officer – and her experiences in a young offenders’ institution. I can see why this gothic tale has shocked and affected many readers and I now have a signed copy which has been catapulted to the top of my mountainous tbr pile.

images (2)After a rushed lunch, (luckily we got served quickly and can eat fast!) we heard from Denise Mina who spoke passionately about the concept of guilt and innocence and the difference between illegality and immorality. I’d been to see Denise at an event a few years ago and was impressed by her quick wit. And she was on top form again on Saturday with her thought-provoking statements on everything from the Scottish Independence Referendum to the Tommy Sheridan court case. There is no doubt that Denise is one of Scotland’s finest contemporary crime writers who never shies away from dealing with the complex questions of psychology and society.

images (3)I strongly believe in the power of words but when I read in the programme that Ella download (3)Berthoud claims that she can cure everything from pessimism to PMT by prescribing a book, I admit to feeling slightly cynical about the concept of bilbiotherapy. However there is no doubt that a book can make you feel better and I was impressed by Ella’s encyclopedic  literary knowledge and ability to delve into her The Novel Cure: an A-Z of Literary Remedies to make a book diagnosis for members of the audience.

images (1)The finale of the day was the living legend, Alasdair Gray who is a novelist, poet, artist, short-story writer, and essayist and has explored trauma in both personal and political terms through his work. As always, Alasdair performed his reading in his unique eccentric style and was humble about his status as a polymath and major figure in the Scottish arts world. He talked about his new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy but when an audience member asked if he would be illustrating it himself he replied that at as he’s nearly 80 years old, he won’t live long enough!

For me the highlight of a great day was Jenni’s event (the baked potato from the café was excellent too, even if I had to wolf it down at speed!) and the chance to enjoy a diverse programme with top class authors in a favourite venue. And all for £10, you cannae beat it with a stick!

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The funny dog pic has no relevance whatsoever to the post except that this play on words made me smile so that was a good enough reason to include it!

Aye Write!

download (1)The name of Glasgow’s book festival, Aye Write!, is a clever play on words and derives from the Glaswegian phrase, “Aye, right,” a double positive which actually means a negative as in me saying,

‘I’m gonna run a marathon.’

‘Aye right!’

With one glance at my shape and size, that would be a Glaswegian’s automatic reply.

I’ve been a fan since Aye Write! started in 2005 and although it may not have the same international status (not yet anyway) as its big sister in Edinburgh, you’d find it hard to beat Aye Write! for bringing a better range of quality world-class writers to Glasgow or indeed Scotland. It also has the added bonus of being held in the landmark venue of the Mitchell Library ( I was lucky to go on a Behind the Scenes tour recently) so there’s no need to worry about your high heels sinking in a quagmire of muddy grass at outside venues.

In Planet Helen, I have unlimited time and money to attend every Aye Write! event that I fancy but unfortunately, in the real world where I’m forced to live, I have to be selective. This year, I was sneaky and guaranteed the company of my best friend Veronica by buying her tickets for her birthday.

images (1)download (4)I chose one of the events for personal reasons as my good friend, writer Karen Campbell was officially launching her latest book, This is Where I Am. This is Karen’s fifth book and as I’ve been at every other launch, there was no way I was missing this one. This new book is an exciting and brave departure from Karen’s previous series of novels and I’d recommend reading the review by Isabel Costello to find out more. I haven’t finished my copy but on what I’ve read so far, I promise that you won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for a poignant account of the awkward relationship between Abdi, a Somali refugee and his mentor, newly widowed Debs when they meet once a month in a different part of Glasgow. But don’t worry that it might sound heavy on social issues, there’s plenty of the legendary Glasgow banter to make you smile too.

download (6)download (5)Karen was appearing alongside Kerry Hudson who was talking about her book, Tony Hogan Bought Me and Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. I blogged about Kerry’s event last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Needless to say, Kerry was just as interesting and entertaining this time too and I’d highly recommend her debut novel which tells the story of a traumatic childhood but in a funny and heart-warming read. And I’m looking forward to reading her next novel, Thirst which will be published early in 2014.

imagesdownloadWe also went to see Louise Welsh and Maggie O’Farrell to hear about their new books. I’m a massive Maggie O’Farrell fan and can’t wait to get stuck into her new book, Instructions for a Heatwave which is a portrait of an Irish family in crisis in the heatwave of 1976. Maggie specialises in writing about dysfunctional families, and from the snippet she read, the Riordans sound as if they have their fair share of troubles. During the Q and A session, Maggie was witty and very inspiring about the writing process, especially when she quoted Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” With two novels written and neither of them published, this certainly struck a chord with me!

download (2)download (3)Louise’s latest, a psychological crime thriller, The Girl on the Stairs also interests me as it is set in Berlin, a city I visited a couple of years ago and found it a fascinating place. The taster she read out gave us a glimpse of the main character, Jane, a Scot living in Berlin who decides to turn detective and this has devastating results when her own past collides with the past of the building and its inhabitants.

Aye Write! was as good as ever this year with three interesting events, four top authors and two great meals out with my best pal (my love of eating out might help explain why I’m unable to run a marathon or even just run at all!).  The book festival is on until April 20th so maybe I could squeeze in another event or two…

What’s your favourite book festival? Which writers have inspired you at book events?

Behind the Scenes at the Mitchell Library

imagesLibraries: where shhh happens! And I know better than most as I worked in a library during my years as a student. I’ve been told that I have a touch of OCD, so the Dewey Decimal System appealed to my anally retentive sense of order. And with my love of books and hobby of people watching, it was the ideal job for me (I’ve even got the ideal specs!).

downloadI’ve professed my love of libraries in a previous blog post to celebrate National Libraries Day and because I’m very nosey, I was keen to go on a Behind the Scenes at the Mitchell Library tour with my good friend Katy. I’ve often visited the library for events such as the Aye Write Book Festival but I’d never spent much time actually looking at the building or having any real appreciation of its history.

The Mitchell Library is one of Europe’s largest public libraries with over one million items of stock and is the hub of a city-wide information service. With its distinctive green copper dome, the building has been one of the city’s iconic landmarks since it opened in 1911 and our tour guide, Myra Paterson did a great job of bringing its story to life. It was fascinating to learn more about the library and its special collections including over 5000 items relating to Robert Burns and the Jeffrey Reference Library of rare first editions.

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I’ll stick with my favourite Chanel Allure perfume.

I wish technology made it possible for this blog post to somehow have a ‘scratch and sniff’ function for me to share the library’s most memorable impression on me. Behind closed doors, the library reeks! Ancient books have a unique smell and whilst I did notice some of my fellow tour guests inhale deeply and let out a satisfied sigh, ‘Eau de Bibliothèque’ is not a fragrance I’d like to douse myself in.

Our group also got the chance to tour the basement of the library where old newspapers and magazines are stored. The stinky minky smell that greeted us was one of dampness and decaying paper so the feeling of being in the bowels of the building was very apt. The basement has retained The Herald from its first edition but unsurprisingly, The Sun has not been kept for future generations! There’s a massive amount of reference material stored but in the digital age, I wonder how long paper copies should continue to be archived and take up an enormous area of space.

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Stunning artwork and poignant messages.

One of the advertised highlights of the tour was access to the Leningrad Album. I’d never heard of the album so not wanting to look like a complete ignoramus, I managed to lose hours on the internet  when I was sucked into an amazing story of solidarity in the face of extreme hardship and suffering.

In 1942, the women of Airdrie and Coatbridge sent an album containing over 6000 messages of support to their beleaguered counterparts in Leningrad who were besieged by fascist forces. Leningrad writers and artists responded by posting an album back to the people of Airdrie and Coatbridge but this was delivered to Glasgow in error in 1943 and is now kept in the Mitchell.

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Me (bottom right-hand corner) with the group learning more about the  Leningrad Album.

Whilst it was great to see this historic artifact, an important social document, I did feel that it shouldn’t be kept in a Glaswegian library. It belongs to the people of Monklands so surely there’s an ethical obligation on Glasgow City Council to return the album to its rightful owners? I hope one day it makes its way east to its true home.

For a book lover and library geek like me, it was great way to spend a Wednesday afternoon. I’ll definitely look at the Mitchell with fresh eyes and a better appreciation of the secrets it stores on my next visit and I’d recommend touring a jewel in the crown of Scottish libraries. But just remember to bring a clothes peg for your nose!

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 Do you share my love of libraries? Have you also visited any landmark libraries?