Art and Opportunity


Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, a foot soldier in the British women’s suffrage movement

A woman’s role in society and social justice interest me and I like to explore these issues in my writing. Recently I went to the cinema to see Suffragette and I was pleased to see that the working class perspective was also highlighted, not just the work of the Pankhurst family and other wealthy women.

Films like Suffragette show how far we’ve come in the pursuit of the right to vote and yet one of the most poignant scenes for me was at the end when a timeline showed how it was much later that women finally achieved suffrage on equal grounds to men in other countries.

mswwebgraphic-470x664px-fa2The opportunities available to women was again on my mind when I went to Edinburgh to see the Modern Scottish Women exhibition at the National Galleries for Scotland and attended an excellent illustrated talk delivered by Alice Strang, senior curator, who selected the works for the exhibition. During the presentation, Alice explained that many of the extremely talented female artists had their careers cut short due to the Marriage Bar preventing them from continuing to hold a teaching post after their marriage.


Hard to pick a favourite but this stunning self-portrait by Doris Zinkeisen stood out.

This seems outrageous and quite shocking these days but although times have changed, I wonder to what degree women of all backgrounds have the same chance to make it as an artist. Many of the women artists featured in the exhibition had come from privileged backgrounds, with parents who were artists themselves and who could afford the tuition fees for art school and trips to Paris for life drawing classes, had access to studios and materials and no real necessity to earn a wage to support a family.


A dreich day made brighter by a fantastic exhibition.

Fast forward a hundred years to 1985, the era of my novel, Talk of the Toun, and the main character Angela is a gifted artist who desperately wants to go to Glasgow Art School. So what’s the problem? She’s hoping to leave the council scheme she’s grown up on and pursue a different path but her parents want her to get a job straight from school, just as they did.

‘Listen hen, ah enjoy making ma nail pictures but it’s a hobby. Ah ken you like tae draw and paint but that’s no something that’ll pay the bills.’

‘It’s mair than a hobby.’

‘It’s awright for the likes of Mr McDougall tae fill yer heid with ideas but he’s no living in the real world. What kinda of job could you get after art school?’

‘Ah could be a graphic designer or a portrait painter or an art teacher or…’

‘Wheesht, when was the last time you saw any of those jobs advertised in The Falkirk Herald?’

‘But there are loads of careers with a degree in art, you can…’

‘Look, yer dad kens what’s best for you, no Mr McDougall. Ah cannae see you in amongst arty farty folk. And ah wouldnae want you tae be disappointed when you couldnae fit in.’

Thirty years on, are things any easier in 2015? I’m not convinced that Angela’s dilemma no longer exists. The talk was free but to visit the exhibition I spent £9.40 on a train ticket and entrance admission of £9 so not a lot of change from a twenty pound note. I’m lucky that I can afford to indulge my interests but how many aspiring artists from a deprived area could access the event and be inspired?


Writing- the Ups and Downs

Scream or enjoy the ride?

Last week started with a high of one of my micro short stories got on to the longlist of the National Flash Fiction Day competition Woo hoo! But this was swiftly followed by a low when I didn’t make it to the shortlist. Boo hoo! The blip was soon forgotten by a much bigger high of receiving a Special Merit in the Inspired? Get Writing! Competition run by the National Galleries of Scotland in partnership with the English-Speaking Union and the Scottish Poetry Library. The competition was launched seven years ago and invites writers of all ages to have their imagination fired up by works of art in the NGS collection. This year, the competition attracted more than 1,200 entries from all over the world.

I decided to have a go at the competition following a visit to the revamped Scottish National Portrait gallery on a trip to Auld Reekie just before Christmas. I’d forgotten all about the story I’d entered so I was well chuffed to receive a letter saying that my story was in the top ten of the entries for the Adult Prose category. The letter also invited me to the NGS to receive my award and hear my story at a public reading of the winning stories and poems followed by a drinks reception, dahling!

Hubby and I decided to make a day of it with a trip to the galleries and a meal (any excuse to stick my head in the nose bag) before mingling with the Embra lovies. The event itself was brilliant!

Mwah mwah!!

I was presented with a certificate from Edinburgh’s makar, Ron Butlin then I sat back and waited for my story to be unleashed on to the public. I was nervous. Looking round the packed lecture theatre I worried that the rich vernacular language I’d used wouldn’t go down well with the cultured crowd. I was also concerned that if the story was read out in a RP accent it would curl up and die. I needn’t have worried. Lorna, a former actress who now works for the Scottish Poetry Library, ‘performed’ my story brilliantly and really brought it to life by creating comedy and pathos. The audience laughed in all the right places and I finally relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the evening, basking in the amazing experience of watching a highly skilled performer reading my words.

Davies has said that he wanted “to express feelings of repression and brutality, and the humiliating rituals employed by oppressors.” Scary stuff!

The other winning stories were stunning, a completely diverse mix of styles ending with the finale of the overall winner, Cat Dean’s, ‘The Doctor’ inspired by the disturbing work, ‘For the Last Time’ by John Davies. I learnt a lot just by listening to the other stories so it was a win-win evening all round.