Switch Off to be Turned On

bbb 92BBB COVER016 has been a helluva busy year for me so far. Not only did I go into business with my close friend, Anne Glennie, to start Cranachan Publishing, I also joined her educational company, The Learning Zoo, as a literary consultant delivering teacher training in the Reflective Reading programme. As if that wasn’t enough on my plate, I also launched my second novel, Buy Buy Baby.
At the promo events for Buy Buy Baby, a common question was, “What are you writing now?” The honest answer was, “Nothing”. My wee brain can only cope with so much and I didn’t have the time or energy to write and even my personal reading was suffering as I used my bedtime reading slot for submissions to Cranachan.

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Parked up and ‘locked’ away for uninterrupted writing.

A drastic measure was required and when I read that Moniack Mhor was running an untutored retreat, I knew this was the answer. So much of my day jobs require me to be ‘on’ and operating in performance mode and active on social media. It was time for me to flick the dial to ‘off’ if I was ever going to get back to my own creative writing.

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Silence + stunning scenery = bliss

I’ve been lucky enough to go to Moniack Mhor twice in the past so I knew it was a very special place. The difference this time was that it wasn’t a course, there would be no workshops and set routine.

The freedom was good in one sense but also left scope for frittering away the week. But I’m naturally self-disciplined and I was also very aware that to be able to indulge myself in a week of uninterrupted writing is a luxury that should be respected rather than abused. I didn’t want to waste the opportunity and so before I went, I set myself a goal of reconnecting with an idea that first came to me over three years ago.fullsizerender-002
Previously, I’d made notes, done a bit of research and written a measly five thousand words but I hadn’t gone near the folder on my laptop for two years. There are lots of excuses for neglecting the idea but the main one was fear. I had no idea how to tackle the project and if I could pull it off. My aim for my week’s retreat was to dust off the folder and see if it still ‘spoke’ to me. Would the initial idea be as interesting as I once believed? Could I plan a structure for the novel so that it no longer scared me? And was it possible to add to the five thousand words? At the very least, I knew I’d come home with a steer on whether or not to develop it further or start from scratch with something new.

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Taking time to think and look closer..

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Taking time to think and look closer..

My first day was spent rereading the five thousand words, editing them and trying to reengage with the ‘voice’ again.

The good news was that I knew I still wanted to work on the idea. Day two was all about sorting out my notes and creating a framework as I needed to make sure that I had a clear idea of why I was about to commit to writing this novel. What was I trying to say and how could I best achieve this? By day three, I had a rough (very!) draft outline for the whole novel, all I needed to do now, was to actually start writing it! By the end of day four, I had added six thousand new words, created character profiles and even written a poem (not something I ever do!) that might feature in the novel.
Not only did I get stuck in to my writing, I also went for a scenic walk each day, read a book from my mountainous tbr pile and met a group of lovely people including fellow Scottish writers Zoe Venditozzi and Shane Strachan.  I came home more than happy with what I’d managed to achieve at Moniack Mhor and feel fired up and raring to go. Of course, reality will soon kick in and the demands of day jobs and life in general but I’m determined to keep the momentum going…

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Loch Ness in the distance on my way home – refreshed and recharged.

 

Have you benefited from going on a writes’ retreat?

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A Warm Glow from 26 Children’s Winters

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Situated on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile the Museum of Childhood is a great place to visit and is FREE!

As if Book Week Scotland wasn’t providing enough literary excitement in one week, I also went along to the official launch of the 26 Children’s Winters exhibition at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, appropriately on the 26th of November.

I recently joined 26, which is a diverse group of people who share a love of words and I was lucky to be chosen as one of 26 writers to respond to Museum objects in the form of sestudes (62 words). The sestudes are now displayed alongside the objects to explore the memories and emotions that the objects evoke.

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Mingling with fellow 26ers – Sara McQueen and Carol McKay.

 

If you can’t make it along to the exhibition, there’s a virtual online advent calendar revealing a new object and sestude each day in the countdown to Christmas. You can also read what the 26 writers thought about the winter objects they were given for this project here.

The Museum of Childhood is working with the charity It’s Good 2 Give in the development of this project, hosting a workshop for the children and families supported by the charity. It’s easy to understand why I’m delighted to be involved and it was a real thrill so see my words on display with my object.

 

Here’s my response to the sledge that inspired my sestude.

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Not quite all 26 of us but brilliant to meet with some of the other writers who were able to attend the launch.

I was chuffed to bits to be assigned a beautiful antique wooden sledge. I love scouring salvage yards and charity shops for vintage bric a brac and my collection has everything from a carpet beater to a chamber pot. But my interest in items with a past isn’t because I grew up surrounded by antiques. 

My childhood home was modern and fashionable with the latest geometric wallpaper, macramé house plant holders and a smoked glass coffee table. This era of mass-produced merchandise meant that childhood toys were predominantly plastic; I took pride in my Sindy doll’s outfits,  lusted after my best pal’s Space Hopper and spent hours clicking together two acrylic balls called Clackers. 

The sledge bore no resemblance to anything I’d ever played on and that’s what inspired my 62 words. I doubted that many children would remember owning a sledge as ornate and skilfully crafted. Most folk wouldn’t have memories like a scene from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’; they would remember using a cheap substitute for a fancy sledge.  The ‘voice’ of my sestude uses urban Scots to shine a mirror on a childhood winter, which more accurately reflects the experience of many rather than a few.

My sestude for 26 Children’s Winters.

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A Sledge for Snobs

Only posh folk in the aulden days hud a fancy yin like that. Roond oor bit maist weans used a bin bag or tea tray but ah took the lid aff ma maw’s twin tub washing machine tae sledge.  It didnae look as braw as that wooden yin but it worked jist as guid and it couldnae half wheech doon the brae.

CVTTIX7WcAEQAbZClick here to watch a clip from STV news on the exhibition featuring some of the writers.

You can also buy a book featuring all 26 sestudes for £5 in aid of charity – it would make a great stocking filler!

 

What’re your favourite childhood memories of winter?

 

Walking with Words

If there’s a cultural event locally and It’s free then I’m all over it like a rash. The idea of ‘Walking with Words’ to combine image, word play and local heritage on a walk along the Forth and Clyde Canal sounded like the perfect way to spend a sunny September morning.

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Walk a mile in his horseshoes…

imagesThe walks are the brainchild of the Reader in Residence at Falkirk Libraries(a post funded by the Scottish Book Trust), Jan Bee Brown who invited the participants to “snap and natter, tweet and twitter, hike and haiku” to explore the theme of transformation.  The context for the event was set by an informative pre-walk presentation by local historian Geoff Bailey who used vintage maps and images to compare and contrast the past and present landscape around Falkirk and its connection to the ‘Great Canal’.

Fired up to see the ‘after’ of the area which oozes industrial heritage our intrepid group hit the streets of Falkirk to navigate from the town centre along to Lock 16 before finishing at the Falkirk Wheel.

On the way to the iconic landmark, Jan encouraged the group to look at the area with fresh eyes, as if we were viewing the canal through the eye of Falkirk’s newest tourist attraction, the Kelpies, modelled on the type of Clydesdale horse which once trod the tow paths.

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Falkirk’s very own Banksy!

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Power to the People!

The thing that struck me most was how the area had changed since I was at high school.  In my novel, Talk of the Toun, the main characters go to St Paddy’s High School, based on St Mungo’s High School in Falkirk.  One of the opening scenes describes the two main characters ‘dogging’ (truanting – not the meaning dogging has in the contemporary sense!) school and taking a shortcut to the town centre via the ‘Bleachy’.

Today, the area has been redeveloped as an industrial zone but this was how I remembered it and described it in my novel. Here’s the extract…

The Bleachy gave me the heebie-jeebies and I’d never walked it alone even in daylight hours. Mr Stanners told us in our first year History class that the land opposite our school was once used as a bleach field to let cloth dry out in the sun. It was hard to imagine anything in the area being clean and bright these days. The Bleachy was now a maze of boxy concrete buildings with corrugated iron flat roofs and lock-up garages. Round every corner, mad dogs strained on their leash until their mouths foamed if you dared go near the yards of the garages and workshops that lined the muddy path. We called them Bandeath dugs; they were usually a cross between an Alsatian and a wolf and they came from the Bandeath dog shelter in Stirling. No one in their right mind would buy a dog that looked as pig ugly as these brutes. They weren’t pets; Bandeath dugs were tougher than night club bouncers.

The puddles along the Bleachy were always oily and rubbish piled up in corners like multi-coloured snow drifts. It wasn’t the devil dogs and the filth that freaked me out. The Bleachy was always dark, even on a sunny day and then there would be the men on their tea breaks, overalls rolled down to their waist, greasy thumb and index finger holding a fag between them and blowing smoke rings.

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Maw, Paw and the weans.

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Falkirk figures – Robert Barr, the man who gave Scotland its other national drink – Irn-Bru along with Dr Harold Lyon founder of Strathcarron Hospice.

Halfway along the route, Jan suggested we stop at a set of benches beside public art that I didn’t even know existed prior to the walk and she suggested that we write any words or phrases that popped into our minds. Some of my jottings included ‘transformational change’, ‘same but different’ and ‘coming and going’. Not exactly profound statements but who knows how the walk will fuel my writing once my brain has downloaded the sights and sounds.

This was the first of a series of ‘Walking with Words’ events and if you’re in the Falkirk area I’d highly recommend them to find all the inspiration you need on the hoof. You can book a place here.

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Any relation to Lady Gaga?

Do you find walking stirs your creative juices? Which walks are sensory rich for you?

As Easy As A Nuclear War

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I’ve been to Paul Cuddihy’s previous book launches to hear about his writing and also because one of my close pals is his sister-in-law so it’s a great excuse for a wee night out. Following Paul’s writing career has been an interesting ride as he’s the author of a trilogy of historical novels – Saints and Sinner, The Hunted and Land Beyond The Wave – as well as a non-fiction book, Read All About It, which charts his year of falling in love with literature again. As Easy As A Nuclear War is his first collection of short stories which link to the titles of Duran Duran songs. Not content with merely reading a few stories at the launch in Bishopbriggs Library, along with his specially formed band, PC and the Bookends, Paul treated his friends and family to a few of Duran Duran‘s hits. As a fan of Duran Duran, hearing songs like Rio took me back to 1982, all that was missing was the dodgy hairdo and leg warmers!

I was keen to learn more about Paul’s latest venture so I’ve fired a few questions at him…

What’s so special about the music of Duran Duran to inspire you to write a collection of short stories?

I have always been a fan of the band since I heard their first single, Planet Earth, back in 1981, and that has never wavered – I’m looking forward to their new album being released in the autumn and going to see them at the Hydro in Glasgow in December (I’ve already got the tickets). Like other bands from the ‘80s, their music takes me back to my teenage years, when I was younger, thinner and in possession of a full head of hair (which has now transferred itself to my chin!). I suppose nostalgia can be a positive or a negative thing. As long as you don’t look back with regrets or a longing for what might have been rather than what was and is now, then it can be enjoyable. I’ve had this project in mind for a long time, and it has taken me a while to write enough short stories to make up the collection, but it has been a real labour of love to complete, and I’m delighted to see it finally come to fruition.

What’s your favourite Duran Duran song and why?

Old PaulIt’s got to be Save A Prayer. There are a number of reasons for this – first and foremost because it’s a great song. It was back in August 1982 when it was released and it remains so to this day. As I mentioned about Duran Duran’s music, there’s also a real sense of nostalgia when I listen to it. I had just turned sixteen when it came out, and any time I hear the song, it does take me back to being in fifth year at Turnbull High School, Bishopbriggs, remembering all the people I was at school with, and the great time I had then. If I want to sound like a Duran Duran obsessive, I would also pick Secret Oktober, which was the B-side to their 1983 single, Union of the Snake, again, just because it’s a brilliant song.

What are the challenges of writing short stories as opposed to a novel?

I like writing short stories because everything’s contained within a very short form, and you can just offer a snapshot of what’s happening with the characters and then leave them. I think the best short stories are the ones where you feel you’ve stumbled into someone’s life and then you leave before anything comes to a definite conclusion. It’s a different discipline to writing a novel. For me, writing a novel involves a lot of planning before I actually start writing so that I know what I’m doing and where I’m going with the story, which gets more involved and complicated with every chapter. With a short story, I feel you can have the germ of an idea and then start writing and see where the story takes you.

What did you learn from putting a collection together and what tips would you offer other short story writers?

photo.JPG hhhhhIn putting these stories together, the common theme with them all is the fact they’re named after Duran Duran songs. The stories themselves don’t really have any other connection. When I was working out the order in which they appear in the book, I tried to vary the story lengths, so that after reading one that might be 4,000 or 5,000 words long, the reader would get a breather through reading something shorter, maybe about 1,000 words, or even shorter than that. There are also five stories in the book, each of which has a link to one of the original five members of the band, and they are all between 400-600 words in length.

I think short stories can be great in terms of practising your writing, being able to tell a full story without feeling like you’re going to run out of steam or get lost in some aspect of the plot. They’re also a good way of trying out different writing styles or trying to find your writing voice, and many short stories have subsequently gone on to be developed into fully-formed novels.

The market for short stories is supposedly booming. Do you think it’s because readers find them easy to digest and the bite sized chunks can provide an emotional buzz or epiphany in one quick hit?

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What’s your latest writing project?

I’m working on a couple of things just now – a novel which involves a road trip from Glasgow to Benbecula with three generations of the same family, and a book of poetry called ‘Life Is Just Like The Jeremy Kyle Show’, with each poem the title of a Jeremy Kyle episode. For example, ‘Why would I tattoo your initials on my face if I’d cheated?’ Now, who wouldn’t want to read that poem!

You can contact Paul via www.paulcuddihy.com or on Twitter @PaulTheHunted. You can also email him at duranduran@paulcuddihy.com
And if all this talk of Duran Duran makes you want to relive your youth, sit back and enjoy the original version (no offence Paul!) of Rio…

26 Children’s Winters by 26 Writers

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Me outside 26, Skene St, Bonnybridge, my home for the first 23 years of my life.

The number 26 is special to me. It was the house number of my childhood home so the address is hardwired in my brain. 26 is now special for an entirely different reason but still related to childhood.

A while back, I saw an advert for a project called 26 Writers and the number alone hooked me. That set me off to learn more from the ‘about’ section on the 26 website…

26 is a diverse group of people who share a love of words, and believe their potential is hugely underestimated. Individuals, businesses, charities and government bodies all have compelling stories to tell – and we hope to show them how experienced and imaginative writers can find new and credible ways to engage their audiences. But we also want to open hearts and minds to the wonderful diversity of writing, to savour and enjoy words in all their many guises… and to have some fun. We chose the name 26 because there are 26 letters in the alphabet – the DNA of language.

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A room full of dolls at the museum – cute or creepy?

I decided that this was something I’d love to be involved with and immediately sent off my application. And waited… As you can imagine, I was chuffed to bits to find out that I was chosen to be one of the 26 writers to write a piece for their latest project – 26 Children’s Winters exhibition at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh. The museum is a treasure trove of children’s objects and curators have selected 26 of them, which capture the spirit of winter.

The 26 written pieces will all be ‘sestudes’- 62 words long, 26 in reflection – and will be online in December and available to view at the museum from October through till March 2016. The exhibition will be raising money for It’s Good 2 Give, in case you needed another reason to come along.

Each writer has been given an a brief description of an object to write about and mine is…

A ‘Firefly’ Sledge

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Getting up close and personal with my object.

sledgeTraditionally a sledge would have been used as a practical mode of transport in many cultures for centuries, and evidence of one has even been found in a Viking ship burial. Children know sledging as a fun activity and the promise of snow in the Winter brings much excitement and searching at the back of cupboards. Today most sledges are plastic and simple constructions. This sledge was made in the USA, but bought in Glasgow in 1909 and used by the same family until recent times.

As I’ve never been to the museum, it seemed like a great excuse to make a visit and ‘meet’ my object.  I went along with one of the other 26 Writers, Sara McQueen, and together we explored the collection. I also got a bit more information about my object from Lynn, one of the museum’s curators who told me that the sledge was originally owned by the children of a well-known doctor who lived in Gourock.

Now all I have to do is write 62 words…

Have you ever been inspired to write about an object you’ve seen at a museum? Would you find the word limit of the sestude easy or difficult to work with?

Debauchery and Deviance on the Streets of Glasgow

SSWC_Standalone_BlackDebauchery and Deviance‘ – the title of the walk was enough to hook me! Who wouldn’t be intrigued? I certainly was when a writer friend, Suzanne Egerton posted on Facebook that she was leading a tour around Glasgow city centre.

The walk was part of an eclectic programme of events organised for the national Sexology Season in Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow incorporating live performance, films, salons, archives, talks and literature events. I couldn’t resist investigating further…

The blurb stated, “the mischievous walking tour uncovers the debauched history of Scotland’s most populated city with tales of sex in all its guises, from the scandals of Victorian society, burlesque and queer lives to ‘adult’ cinema. We’ll also take a look at the Church of Scotland’s influence on sexual attitudes”. 

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Some buildings look better after dark!

I booked a place on the free event faster than the crack of a dominatrix’s whip and last Wednesday I met up with the tour group outside the infamous Barrowland Ballroom.

Along with Suzanne, there was another tour guide who was clearly recognised by the rest of the group and caused a ripple of excitement. I’d no idea who she was but I was soon informed that it was none other than highly respected singer-songwriter, Horse McDonald who was there to share her own experiences of performing at the iconic venue.

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Horse posing beside a Barrowland poster of Horse!

Much to the surprise of my friend, Anabel, who’d joined me on the walk, I’d never been to see any bands at the venue so everything was new to me! Suzanne and Horse gave us a fascinating insight into stories associated with the Barrowland, such as the case of ‘Bible John’ who frequented the dance hall in the late 1960s to lure his victims and murdered three young women. Horse took us on a back stage tour and it was an eye-opener to see that areas like the dressing rooms weren’t ‘shabby chic‘, they were simply ‘shabby!

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“Roll up, roll up, for one night only!”

We then visited  the world’s oldest surviving music hall – the Brittania Panopticon. I’ve walked past the exterior of this building many times but knew nothing of the history of this amazing hidden treasure. The Brittania is famed for the debut of Stan Laurel in 1906 and since opening in 1857 the venue has played host to a carnival, wax works, a freak show and even a zoo in its basement! Our group was very lucky to learn about this fantastic piece of entertainment and social history from Judith Bowers who founded a charity to rescue this historic building and continues to campaign to bring the music hall back to life.

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The notorious Madeleine Smith.

These ‘behind the scenes’ tours were the highlight of the afternoon for me but we continued our walk to the art deco Classic Grand which was formerly a porn cinema, the Waterloo Bar which claims to be Glasgow’s oldest gay bar, some say the oldest in Scotland. We then hiked uphill to Blythwood Square, an area once frequented by prostitutes and also home of a former resident, Madeline Smith. In 1857, the young woman was tried for the murder of her lover Pierre Emile L’Angelier, although the verdict was not proven the salacious story scandalised Scottish society.

The hype of the walk’s title didn’t disappoint. My knowledge of Glasgow’s seedier side is much richer and I’m not short of writing ideas now!

Have you been on any guided tours with gory or gritty details that fired up your creativity?

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Me with the excellent tour guides Horse and Suzanne.

The Journey is the Reward

imagesIn the build up to Book Week Scotland 2015 in November, the Scottish Book Trust has posed the question, ‘Have you walked a new path, taken the road less travelled or been faced with a crossroads?’

SBT have provided an opportunity to share a personal story on their website and become part of their national campaign to get Scotland writing.

Here’s the challenge…

Write about a journey in your life. This could be a real journey or an emotional journey, the day you stepped out into the unknown. Did you end up where you planned to go? Did the experience mark a turn in the road or show you the way forward?

download (1)To trigger ideas for the ‘Journeys’ theme, SBT organised a series of free writing workshops across Scotland and when I saw that Jenni Fagan was the writer leading a workshop at the Central Library in Edinburgh I rushed to book a place. I LOVED Jenni’s book, The Panopticon and have previously heard her talk about her writing so I was really keen to take part in her workshop.

Jenni set the scene with some quotes connected to the theme of ‘Journeys’ and my favourite was, “The only journey is the one within” – Rainer Maria Rilke.  This quote related to the Five Dials piece Jenni shared with us that she wrote on letter writing and her life’s journey.

To get us thinking about our own writing, Jenni asked the group to write about why we write and also our earliest memories of reading and writing. The questions made me reflect on how I have developed as a writer and a person. When I was wee, I was a ‘teacher’s pet’ and used my reading and writing ability to fulfill my desire to be a ‘people pleaser’. This need for validation to feed my self-confidence lasted well into my adult years and seeped into my writing. It meant I held back for fear of upsetting or offending a reader until finally I realised that I can’t please everyone and that my writing had to be truthful. This has been an emotional and intellectual journey that’s taken years and one which I’m still on.

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Close up of my favourite tile on the wall of the Central Library. The letter ‘H’ is from a quote from the Book of Proverbs and states, “‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom and with all thy getting, get understanding”. Very apt for a learning journey in a library!

But from the writing prompts which Jenni provided, the one that immediately inspired me was, ‘Write about a journey that starts with fear‘. I remembered a physical journey I took when racing to A & E after my youngest son was injured at school. The emotions from that day are still vivid and as Jenni suggested I will write 100 words on this memory to see if I’m fired up to continue writing. If not, then I’ll dabble with the other writing prompts such as, ‘Write about a journey you were forced to take: grief, separation, illness‘ which instantly reminds me of the trauma of my dad’s sudden death.  Or I’ll try something more light-hearted like my ‘journey’ to lose weight. Who knows yet which path the workshop will lead me down…

As well as spending an afternoon meeting other lovely writers such as Catherine Simpson and Marie-Thérèse Taylor,  I made the journey home energised and keen to write about a journey which meant a lot to me.

Fancy writing about your journey? You can submit your entry here. And if you’re looking for great examples, I recommend reading the submissions by Stephen Watt, Angela Hughes and Nicola Burkhill – a talented trio of writers.

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* Postscript*

It was hard to choose a journey to write about but in the end I settled on the one involving my son’s emergency admission to hospital. If you’d like to read, Burn Rubber, it’s now online on the SBT website.

http://scottishbooktrust.com/writing/journeys/story/burn-rubber