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?

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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.

A-decent-ride

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?

Write Now! @ Aye Write!

I’m not a ‘morning’ person (some would argue that I’m not an afternoon or night person either) so I am relieved that my uni classes are timetabled later in the day. A slow start suits me best (my family know to stay well back until at least 9am) but I’d registered for the Write Now! Conference so I found myself on a train into Glasgow yesterday and Friday, long before it was safe for me to be near people.

It was well worth the effort of getting out of bed early. The conference was held in the Mitchell Library and was part of the Aye Write! Book Festival. The days were packed with guest speakers and by the end of the closing remarks, my bum was numb but my brain was buzzing. The blurb said. “The event is aimed at early career writers (folk like me) and scholars of all sorts and to allow attendees to share their research and creative output but also to foster a community of writers and researchers.

Did it do what it said on the tin? Yes! I certainly got my money’s worth out of the two days. An added bonus was getting the opportunity to meet up with the lovely Anne Glennie, a fellow writer I’ve met via Twitter.

The opening session was called ‘Publish and be Damned?’ and looked at the impact of digital publication and social media on the publishing industry. Scary stuff was aired about the global domination of cultural barbarians, Amazon and Google but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Independent publishers like Cargo and new literary magazines like Octavius mean that the Scottish publishing scene has never been more exciting.

The first day was a Skills Day and I opted to go to the http://www.WRITER session run by Cat Dean. Despite technical hitches, Cat did a great job introducing our group to the wonders of WordPress.com and helped me get this new website up and running.

Over lunch (I passed on the diced dried veg in dirty dishwater aka Scotch Broth and nibbled at the dullest sandwiches I’ve seen at a buffet since 1978), there were readings from creative writing students from Strathclyde University and the talent showcased was intimidatingly good! Watch out for names like Iain Ferguson, Craig Lamont, Mary McDonough and Bryony Stocker.

But the highlight of Day One for me was undoubtedly the keynote address by Christopher Brookmyre. The award winning writer inspired and entertained the audience with his frank and funny account of his writing career. I was heartened by the fact that he wrote four novels before being published so there’s hope for me yet!

I finished the day by attending William McIlvanney’s event at Aye Write! with my best friend Veronica. Wow! He was an engaging mix of humour and humility about his phenomenal talent.We were almost moved to tears when he read out snippets of his latest work. The man is a living legend in Scottish literature!

Day Two was a series of panel discussions. My favourite ones were’ What Happens when Elephants Teach Zoology?’  and ‘Teaching Creative Writing’ about the pros and cons of a creative teaching programme. The key thing that all of the speakers agreed on was that you can’t teach creativity but you can nurture confidence in writers.  The conference round-up was a great finale and threw up questions such as, is Scotland a vibrant creative culture or a provincial backwater for writers?

I left the Mitchell library hungry but full of confidence that Scotland’s literary scene is vibrant and ready to face the future.