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.)

 

 

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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?