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?

Alight Here: An Anthology of Falkirk Writing

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The iconic Falkirk landmark which inspired my short story.

In January, I went along to a writing workshop led by Alan Bissett which was organised to stimulate ideas on what it felt to be a bairn (the term for anyone from Falkirk). The group were encouraged to submit their piece to be considered for inclusion in an anthology which Alan was to edit.

There’s no doubt about it, out of the many anthologies I’ve submitted to over the years this one meant the most to me and I was chuffed to bits to learn that my short story, ‘Today’s Special at the York Cafe‘ was to be featured in the book, ‘Alight Here:An Anthology of Falkirk Writing.’

alight-hereThe official blurb states that, “this book celebrates the work of local professional and amateur writers from the Falkirk area. When we think of Scottish literature we think first of the urban grit which came from Edinburgh and Glasgow or the rural poetry of the Highlands and Islands. No-one thinks of Falkirk. 

The collection features established writers from the area such as Aidan Moffat, the lyrical genius behind the band Arab Strap; Gordon Legge, who was key to the ‘Rebel Inc’ movement of the 1990s; Janet Paisley, one of Scotland’s leading Scots language voices; and Brian McCabe, arguably one of Scotland’s most accomplished short-story writers. Alongside them are a host of new and young talents, as well as unseen poetry unearthed from Falkirk Archives. Together, these voices create a compelling picture of Falkirk.”

photoThe launch was a great night with readings from contributors Bethany Ruth Anderson, Paul Cowan and local literary legend, Janet Paisley. It was exciting to see my words in print and I feel honoured to have my writing published alongside the talents of Samuel Best, Peter Callaghan, Karyn Dougan, Lorna Fraser, Matt Hamilton, Brian McNeill, Gary Oberg, Constance Saim-Hunter, Lindsay Scott, Dickson Telfer, Paul Tonner, David Victor and Claire Wilson.

11181883_798627483566550_3105361756786451391_nThe event also included a preview of Alan’s excellent new one man show, ‘What the F**kirk’ which will be touring the Falkirk area over the next couple of weeks. He had the audience in stitches and I’m looking forward to seeing it again on Friday night with my two best friends and fellow bairns.

Last night was a proud moment for me as a bairn! Does your local area have a strong identity represented by the arts?

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

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?

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?

The Winner Takes It All

6ws400A few weeks ago, one Saturday night, I read about Magic Oxygen’s six word competition on Twitter. The guidance on their website was, “your six-word story should present the reader with a snapshot of an event with a pertinent happening and offer a suitable enough conclusion to deliver a sense of completeness within its brevity. In other words, make it short and great! The best ones should leave the reader pondering an array of side-shoot possibilities for why it occurred and for what happens next”.

downloadI love flash fiction and as the telly was rubbish as usual, I thought I might as well have a go in collaboration with my old pal Pierre Smirnoff. And then I forgot all about submitting my entry (often the way of things after spending the night with Pierre).

So it was a lovely surprise to be told that I’d made the final nine on a shortlist, drawn up from 1,722 entries from 38 countries. Also, my entry would be read out with the other shortlisted stories and the winner would be announced live on radio.  I’m off chocolate right now (too many Weight Watchers Pro Points!) and all this unexpected excitement replaced the usual sugar rush I experience over the Easter weekend.

Appropriately, ‘The Winner Takes it All’ by ABBA was played just before the result was announced. Hubby and I paused unpacking the shopping to hear that Dan Micklethwaite’s very clever story scooped the £100 prize. You can read Dan’s winning story and the others shortlisted here.

Of course it would’ve been great to win, I’ve managed a 2nd prize in a writing competition but never a first. But it wasn’t to be, not this time… Hubby is a sore loser and looked more gutted than me and he was surprised that I wasn’t more upset by the result. Maybe it’s because I know that rejection is more common than success in the writing game and as I’ve had plenty of experience of knock backs over the years, I honestly didn’t expect to win (and the other entries were really impressive).

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And although this will sound cheesy, I did win and here’s why: the competition was free to enter, it was a fun challenge, getting the email that I was shortlisted was exciting, hearing my story read aloud and discussed on radio was weird in a good way, listening to the other entries was inspiring. What’s not to like about that little list?

The word ‘winner’ has six letters in the word but my story has 6 words.

Cash withdrawn. Profile selected. Sperm deposited.

My story lost out on winning by a bawhair (recognised unit of measurement in Scotland) but there’s always next time…

Have  you tried to write a story in six words?

The Right to Write

Unless you’ve experienced it firsthand, examining any other way of life is always difficult when you’re on the outside looking in.  Last week, I toured west Belfast in the area where ‘The Troubles’ were rife and although our guide was excellent in giving us an insight into the violent and turbulent times, there’s no way that I could claim to have a true understanding of the reality of being a resident on the Falls or Shankill Road.

I’ve also visited the ‘red light’ areas of London, Hamburg and Amsterdam as a tourist. Again, I was interested in the issues associated with these areas but I can’t begin to appreciate what it’s like to be a woman (or man) working in the sex industry just by walking down streets and gawping in windows.

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That’s why I was intrigued by Kirstin Innes’s debut novel, Fishnet, and me and my pal Jill headed into Glasgow for the launch to hear more about it. The novel is “about sex work, sisterhood and everyday economics, and is the result of three years’ worth of research.”

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Kirstin in conversation with Kaite Welsh.

During the Q and A, Kirstin admitted that she’s still not convinced that she has the right to write about such controversial subject matter with authenticity. But she did extensive research which challenged her notion of feminism and her preconceived ideas about prostitutes, or sex workers as she prefers to call them.  Words such as “empowered” and “choice” were used in the discussion but neither of these words sprang to my mind when I read The Herald newspaper report today of the brutal murder of Romanian-born Luciana Maurer and rape of two others by Steven Mathieson.

I haven’t read Fishnet so I can’t comment on whether it’s a true reflection of the world I read about in newspapers,  like Kirstin, I wouldn’t know. But to say that Kirstin doesn’t have the right to write about the complexities of being involved in sex work would mean that writers would have to stick to ‘write what you know’. If this was the case, the world of fictional novels would be a very dull place indeed.

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There seems to be a theme from this post and the last one – me in a stripy top and drinking!

The event was thought-provoking, it prompted Jill and I to reflect on labels such as ‘sex worker’ as opposed to‘prostitute’ and also our feminist stance on the way women and sex are depicted in fiction. But our evening wasn’t all about deep and meaningful discussions; we don’t see each other often as Jill moved to Michigan 12 years ago so we made sure there was time for lots of laughs over dinner and drinks.

Do you feel there are any subjects that are ‘off limits’ in your writing?

Playing a Part in Mixing the Colours

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The last time Scotland experienced a solar eclipse was in 1999 and I’ve no idea where I was at the time. But I doubt I’ll forget the eclipse I witnessed on Friday morning. Luckily, I had time to pause on my way to the Mixing the Colours conference so I joined the crowds gathered in George Square. For a matter of minutes a gap in the clouds appeared and a cheer went up in honour of the eclipse.

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It was a memorable start to the day and the buzz continued during the conference. I’m a huge supporter of the Mixing the Colours project and attended one of their writing workshops at Glasgow Women’s Library to encourage women to write about their experiences of sectarianism. I have been the victim of sectarianism and it’s a key theme in my debut novel, Talk of the Toun, so the workshop stimulated me to write a short story very loosely based on childhood experiences. As part of the GWL project, I was chuffed to bits to be asked to record my short story for a podcast for GWL. You can listen to my piece, Smelly Catholic, here.

10245368_993640317314535_4791309367103094624_nThe conference was a great opportunity to present the project’s findings through a Knowledge Café exploring sectarianism in the context of wider gender inequality, presentations by Mixing The Colour’s Project Development Worker, Rachel Thain-Gray, Rosie Kane and Dr Margaret Malloch of Stirling University as well as a premiere of the Mixing The Colours film and the launch of the anthology of short stories and poems.

For me, the highlight of the day was hearing readings from other women writers, especially my friends, Ethyl Smith and Emma Mooney whose writing was entertaining as well as thought provoking. Pieces by Julie Robertson, Leela Soma and Marie-Therese Taylor also inspired me and I also enjoyed Magi Gibson’s performance of her specially commissioned Mixing The Colours – A Dramatic Monologue, and a poem by Nicola Burkhill which could be a new anthem for women speaking out about sectarianism.  You can watch Nicola perform her poem here – it’s a powerful piece!

The day of collective action against sectarianism highlighted the need for the inclusion and engagement of women in dialogues around sectarianism in Scotland and I felt privileged to play a very small part.

Have you used your writing to explore sectarianism?

Free Your Mind

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For two years, all that connected Anne to the outside world was a single door that was hidden by a bookcase.

A few years ago, I went with my pal Katy on a city break to Amsterdam. At the top of our ‘must see’ list (along with every other tourist there!) was a visit to Anne Frank’s house. The lengthy queue was worth the wait as the experience was very moving. Katy and I had also been to Auschwitz on another trip so we left Amsterdam with an even greater understanding of the horrors of being victimised and hunted down by the Nazis.

This period of history has always interested me and so when I recently went on a tour of Stirling University’s art collection I came across their latest exhibition, ‘Anne Frank: A History for Today‘. As part of the programme, the university were offering a free creative writing workshop, ‘Living in Hiding’ so of course I signed up.

 

download (1)The aim of the workshop was to “examine Anne Frank’s desire to become a journalist and novelist and how these aspirations would have been tempered by the daily fear of discovery.” 

Whilst discussing Anne’s diary with the group, it made me think of the theme of feeling trapped and how your home can also be your prison.

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Burying victims of Leningrad’s siege in 1942.

I’ve made a tentative start on my next novel which refers to the Seige of Leningrad. Thankfully there’s lots of historical information available as authentic and poignant as Anne’s diary. These documents will help me imagine the reality of not being able to leave your city and suffering starvation, stress and exposure resulting in civilian losses at around 1.1 to 1.3 million.

 

download (3)Being denied freedom is a common theme in books and one that was executed brilliantly by Emma Donoghue in Room.  The bestselling book tells of Ma, who has been kidnapped and locked in a room for seven years by “Old Nick”.  Ma and Old Nick have a son, Jack who also lives in the room without being able to leave. Ma tells Jack,“Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing.”

I may reread Room and Anne Frank’s diary as a reminder of how the smallest of worlds can represent the biggest issues.

Have you used source material such as diaries and first-hand accounts to inspire your writing?

 

 

 

 

 

Exceptions to the Rule

As a rule, I don’t tend to read crime fiction. But I always make exceptions for two of my favourite writers – Kate Atkinson and Christopher Brookmyre.  Both writers have created characters who are lovable rogues and it’s hard to resist the charms of Jackson Brodie in Kate’s novels and Christopher’s protagonist Jack Parlabane.

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Not my usual book choice but undeniably a heart-warming tale.

I’ve read all of the books which feature Jack Parlabane but not all of Christopher’s novels as he’s dabbled in other genres such as sci-fi which I very rarely read (although I’ve just read Matt Haig‘s book The Humans which has an alien narrator and much to my surprise I enjoyed it). The character of Jack has been well rested and due a another adventure so it was great to hear that Christopher had written a new novel with the main man back in action.

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Jack and his gallus banter is a sharp as ever.

I go to lots of author events and often after the event I feel that once is enough and I can cross them off my list of ‘must see’ writers. But I’ve been to hear Christopher talk several times as I’ve always come away inspired and entertained by his dry humour. So when I heard that Waterstone’s had organised a free local event to promote Dead Girl Walking then it was a no-brainer to get myself along to Behind the Wall in Falkirk with hubby in tow.

I had high expectations and I wasn’t disappointed, as on previous occasions,  Christopher was his usual witty self. My hubby had never seen Christopher perform his work and was quite shocked to hear the ‘c’ word being used in his introduction. Christopher made no apology for the strong language, his style is not for the easily offended and along with every swear word I can think of I’m sure by the end of the event the ‘c’ word had been aired at least half a dozen times. But that’s what makes Christopher’s work so real, characters like Spammy couldn’t talk in any other way. Hearing this no holds barred reading gave me confidence to be just as authentic in my own work and to stop worrying about causing offence.

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Chris could swap careers and do stand-up comedy!

At times, although it was a book reading, it often felt that we were at a comedy night. Christopher has a quiet confidence in his dead-pan delivery and had the audience in stitches with his short story, ‘Puck Knows‘ about a group of teenagers at a performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow. He’s also happy to share cringe-worthy anecdotes like the time a member of the audience in Dundee used the Q and A session to tell Christopher he wasn’t a fan of his work, he was only there to get a book signed for his daughter and could he come up to the stage for it to be signed to save him waiting in the queue at the end! Of course, Christopher was able to laugh this off and proved that while he takes his writing seriously and is a well established Scottish literary figure, he isn’t big-headed at all and is one of the most entertaining writers I’ve had the pleasure to hear talk about his work.

Christopher’s anecdote reminded me of a question I was asked recently in my day job during a training session on Maths for primary school teaching staff. I primed myself for a tricky question on differentiation and the teaching of core numeracy. The question was, “Where did you get your shoes?” At least it was an easy one to answer!

Who’s the most entertaining writer you’ve heard at an event?