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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Behind Closed Doors

Last year, hubby and I joined the National Trust for Scotland and over the summer, we made a bloody good job of getting our money’s worth out of our membership.

holmwood1Many of the NTS’s sites are only open from Easter until the end of summer so our season of cultural visits is back in action. Last Saturday afternoon, we took a trip to the south side of Glasgow to Holmwood House. The property certainly has the wow factor from the outside and didn’t fail to deliver on the inside.

article-2596529-1CD0DD9000000578-920_306x417This unique villa has been described as Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s finest domestic design. It was built in 1857-8 for James Couper, a local businessman. Many rooms are richly ornamented in wood, plaster and marble based on themes from the classical world. The decor is being uncovered thanks to the heroic efforts of the conservation team to remove the horrific woodchip (been there, done that so I could empathise!)

Holmwood passed through several hands before becoming a school, run by an order of nuns who used the house as their convent, with each set of folk leaving their mark, for good or bad.

The same thought crossed my mind on the ‘Lamplight Walk’ around Falkirk town centre that I went on with my wee sister and bestie. The walk was organised by The Stentmaisters, a local group of historians who lead tours around the town.

imagesOne of the most unusual buildings in Falkirk is the Tattie Kirk. It was built in 1806 for the so called Anti-Burgher congregation. Octagonal Churches, while unusual, are not unknown in Scotland and they are said to have been built this way so that there was no corner for the Devil to hide in!  Why the building is known as the ‘Tattie’ Kirk is uncertain, but it has been suggested that the site may have been a potato field before the church was built, or that the Minister’s stipend was paid in part in vegetables or that it was at one time used to store potatoes. The building is now used as a beauty salon, treating the bodies instead of the souls of locals!

Tcache_2411661739here were lots of other entertaining snippets of local history which our excellent tour guide, John Walker shared with us, in particular the alleged case of human spontaneous combustion. On December 16, 1904, Mrs. Gladys Cochrane, widow of the prominent local man Thomas Cochrane of Rosehall in Falkirk was found burned beyond recognition in her bedroom. She was found sitting in a chair surrounded by pillows and cushions which were not burned. She had not cried out, and there was no fire in her grate.

I don’t smell smoke when I hear paranormal stories, the cynic in me smells the stuff my dogs deposit in our garden. But there’s also the whiff of intrigue that no one ever really knows what goes on behind closed doors.

Have any buildings inspired an idea for your writing?

Illumintating Lives

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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.

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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.

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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.)

 

 

Special Effects

The hype in the Herald made it sounded like a not-to-be-missed event, “a stunning sound and light spectacular that casts a magical atmosphere over Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens.” I’m always up for anything new and interesting that could be inspirational and spark an idea for a story.

So me, hubby and our two close friends Anne and Gordon got wrapped up and queued for what we expected to be a magnificent setting for a Saturday night stroll – a tenner a napper worth of winter wonderland.

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The Magic Fountain of Montjuïc – now THAT’S what I’d call spectacular!

The Baltic weather was ideal, a dry crisp night but it turned out to be a damp squib. I’ve been to The Magic Fountain of Montjuïc in Barcelona and on home turf, the Enchanted Forest in Pitlochry and the Electric Glen in Rouken Glen so I’ve seen other light and sound shows. That’s why I feel qualified to judge The Electric Gardens and  feel totally underwhelmed by Glasgow’s lame effort. It felt as if someone had been sent to B & Q to relieve them of their unsold Christmas lights in the January sale and dot them around the park. My hubby described the ‘display’ as passive (he’s far more polite than me!) and I couldn’t have summed it up better. Anyone can visit the Botanic Gardens for free and all four of us left wondering where our money had been spent to create an added dimension. Yes, there was a ‘fire show’ but I’ve seen the same type of performance on Buchanan Street any day of the week for the voluntary toss of a coin into a hat.

So was it a crap night out? No! Because we made our way down Byres Road to The Sparkle Horse for a lovely meal. The conversation over dinner was far more illuminating than any of the trees we’d strolled past in the park. We covered a range of topics and one of them was the story of the bravery of my hubby’s grandfather in the First World War. There’s plenty of inspiration to be had from this heroic family tale.

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Photo credit:Sweet P Photography

Earlier that afternoon, along with my best friend, I attended a tribute and celebration of Barbara Hammond’s life who died suddenly at the end of last year. The event was organised by The Write Angle, a platform for new writing by new writers and promoting work by other artists, musicians and craftspeople in the Forth Valley area. Barbara was a highly respected local writer who I met at Woo’er with Words, the excellent spoken word events organised by [Untitled] and held monthly in Falkirk. It was very moving to learn about Barbara’s role as a volunteer for many years in supporting adult literacy programmes. When Gemma, one of Barbara’s students from Skills for Life read out a poem there was no need for special effects. The power of people and their unique stories made Saturday a precious day. I spent it with good friends, sharing extraordinary stories told by ordinary folk.

Do family and friends inspire your writing?

2014 – A Year of Inspiration

As this blog is about my writing ‘journey’, I like to mention the people and places that inspire me along the way. Of course, things as simple as a walk with the dogs can fire the imagination but I also like to feed my creativity with getting out and about to see and do new things.

This year I’ve managed to pack in a fair number of outings and events involving words and pictures which gave me experiences that may or may not inspire my writing one day but definitely made me think and learn more.

Here’s my record of the inspirational stuff I did in 2014.

 

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The Kelpies are the largest equine sculptures in the world and can be found in Falkirk.              

10 x Events

Glasgow Women’s Heritage Walk at Necropolis, Electric Glen, Kelpies Tour, Falkirk, Tour of Glasgow Central Station, Open Doors Day- Stirling Sherriff Court, Secrets of Old Stirling Tour,Wooer With Words x 2 & For Falkirk’s Sake & Home Game (spoken word events)

 

9 x Visits to NTS properties

Alloa Tower, House of Binns, Culross Palace, Malleny Gardens, Burns Museum, Weaver’s Cottage, David Livingstone Centre, Battle of Bannockburn Experience, Crarae Gardens

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The stunning work of botanical artist Fiona Strickland

7 x Talks          

John Shankie, Artist, Janice Galloway, Writer, Doug Allan, Wildlife Cameraman, Alex Frost, Artist, Fiona Strickland, Botanical Artist, Shazia Hobbs, Writer, Jackie Kay, Writer

6 x Holiday/Trips      

Millport, Campbeltown, Zermatt & Geneva, Oslo, York

6 x Days Out  

Tower of London, The Shard, Gilmerton Cove, Jupiter Artland, Barony A Frame

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The Wendy Hoose was an outstanding piece of Scottish theatre.

4 x Theatre Shows  

This Wide Night, The Wendy Hoose, Three Sisters, Slava’s Snow Show

4 x Literary Festivals    

Boswell, Edinburgh, Dundee, Linlithgow

3 x Book Launches

The Last Pair of Ears by Mary McDonough Clark, The Busker by Liam Murray Bell,               21 Revolutions by Glasgow Women’s Library

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Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties by Alasdair Gray

2 x Exhibitions

Jack Vettriano, Alasdair Gray

2 x Research Trips

Chapelside Community Centre, Interview with Violet McGuire

1 x Workshop

Performance and Presentation with Alex Gillon

With only a couple of exceptions, these were almost all really positive experiences and I know that I’m VERY lucky to have the time and the money to do these things. I hope I stay lucky and next year I keep adding to this list and keep learning.

Have you been to see or do any of the stuff on my list? What did you make of the experience? Please ask if you’d like more info on anything I’ve featured, in the meantime, all the very best to you and yours for 2015!

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Bringing the Women of the Necropolis to Life

Any regular readers of my blog will know that I’m a big fan of the work of the Glasgow Women’s Library and have been on two of their heritage walks. I plan to go on all five of their walks and this Sunday I completed my third outing with their excellent tour guides – Anabel, Esther and Joyce.

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The Glasgow bridge’s name comes from the more famous crossing in Venice.

This time the theme was ‘Women of the Necropolis’. I’ve passed the Necropolis or City of the Dead, many times but I’ve never ventured inside so this was a real eye opener as I’d no idea that there were so many fascinating stories behind those ornate iron gates.

It may well have been the first day of ‘flaming June’ but what started as a light shower turned into torrential rain as we walked across the Bridge of Sighs to enter what is the earliest garden cemetery in Scotland.

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Corlinda reading a palm and surrounded by her clan.

 

My pal Veronica and I followed our intrepid guides round the Necropolis to learn about women such as Corlinda Lee aka ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ who allegedly read Queen Victoria’s palm and toured the country to host ‘gypsy balls’, a Victorian version of T in the Park where folk could gather in an encampment to eat, drink and be merry gypsy style.

 

 

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Isabella would’ve needed more than a brolly to keep her dry on the GWL tour!

Another remarkable woman was Isabella Elder, a wealthy philanthropist who championed a better standard of higher education for women by financially supporting Queen Margaret College. The first woman to graduate from QMC in 1894 was Dr Marion Gilchrist and when Isabella died, it was a tribute to her that the female doctor she helped to gain her degree was the one who signed the death certificate.

The Necropolis was built to commemorate the great and the good of Glasgow and most of the women buried there are only acknowledged by their role as a wife or daughter. But if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll discover the stories of many fascinating women. If ever I need inspiration to write about remarkable women from the past, a wander amongst the tombstones would unearth tales of characters worth bringing to life. Who wouldn’t want to write about a night at a gypsy ball hosted by Corlinda or the struggle to become a doctor in a male dominated profession?

Has a graveyard or woman from the Victorian era ever stimulated an idea for your own writing?

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My favourite angel statue in the Necropolis – Glasgow style means a flower is an essential summer accessory.

 

Hidden Gems of Garnethill

-When you work from home, it’s easy to let your world become very small. Some days I realise that I’ve only gone as far as the wheelie bin (don’t you envy my rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?).

I’ve written about suffering from cabin fever before and how important it’s for me to get out and about and not to stagnate at home. I can’t complain, I’m very lucky to live in a beautiful countryside setting and there’s a lot to be inspired by on my doorstep.  But it’s healthy to meet new people and learn new things, especially about the past and how it has shaped the world we live in today.

downloadI studied Higher History at school and have always had a fascination for the stories behind people and places.  But when I was at school, the history lessons were as dry as a stick, copying from textbooks and basically being taught to pass a test. There were no field trips to bring the subject alive and it’s surprising that my interest in history survived a very dull school experience.

gwl-logoThat’s why I’m making up for lost time and looking for experiences that will educate and inspire me more than my schooldays. Thanks to Twitter, I came across the work of the Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) and was intrigued to see that they organise a series of heritage walks around the city with different themes.  I love Glasgow and history so it was the perfect combo.

imagesI went on my first heritage walk on Sunday afternoon with my bestie, Veronica and the added bonus was that it was a beautiful sunny day. We met up with the others and our tour guides on Sauchiehall Street to explore the, ‘Hidden Gems of Garnethill’. For those of you unfamiliar with Glasgow, Garnethill is at the heart of the city centre .  I worked for Glasgow City Council for 15 years and was based not far from Garnethill and I’ve read Denise Mina’s novel, ‘Garnethill’. But I knew little about the area and had never taken the time to stop and appreciate its grand tenements, painted gables, park chockablaock with public art, stunning synagogue and Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s world famous Glasgow School of Art (GSA) building. These are just a few of the fascinating landmarks which helped to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable achievements of women in Glasgow’s history.

Our brilliant tour guides told us about the women who pioneered European art movements, designed the banners for suffragette processions, created the first women’s Library in Scotland and made Garnethill the vibrant community it is today. I now plan to do the tour of the inside of GSA and visit the National Trust for Scotland’s Tenement House which is an amazing time capsule of life in the early 20th century.

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Our tour group learning about the talented ‘Glasgow Girls’ who once walked up the stairs of GSA.

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Scotland’s oldest synagogue opened in 1879 and is the country’s premier Jewish house of worship.

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Can you spot the ornamental ‘chookie burdies’ on top of the lamp posts? The birds were designed for a lighting project to enhance the area and relate to the city’s Coat Of Arms

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A close up of a nappy pin within the mural at Garnethill park dedicated to the International Year of the Child in 1979.

It costs £7.50 for a GWL walk which is excellent value for two hours packed with stories of inspirational women and a new perspective of Glasgow.

I aim to work my way through GWL’s other heritage walks so stay tuned…I’m booked to go on the East End heritage walk in August. I might see you there!

Do you feel the need to get out of the house and seek external inspiration too?