Glesga fowk! Ah’m dottin ower tae gie ye some o ma Wimpy Wean chat at the Aye Write! festival on March 2nd! Jyne me at the Mitchell Theatre for an aw-singin, aw-dancin horoyally o Scots, scrievin, an boggin schuil dinners!
Some stray observations on speaking about Scots language and Flemish immigration at the Edinburgh Book Festival this week.
1) People are a lot more interested in the influence of Flemish immigration on Scots language than you would think. The event at the Garden Theatre was sold out, despite my earlier, gloomy prognostications. (Apart from three seats near the front, ostentatiously reserved for “Alexander”.) Interestingly, not many of the folk in the audience were of Flemish ancestry themselves, which means that either A) people were there just because they were genuinely intrigued, or B) Patrick DeWitt, who was on at the same time, had sold out.
2) I also met Scotland’s newest Flemish immigrant, who had just moved here on Saturday. He was very nice, and a much better argument in favour of Flemish immigration than anything I might have said.
3) An hour is a lot less time than you think. From having assumed that the event would incorporate a good half-hour of staring silently, pleadingly into the audience for somebody to ask a question, we went on to overrun by quite some time. The questions were very good, very interesting, and I learned quite a few things myself – someone suggested a possible connection between the French word “drache” and the Scots word “dreich”, and another audience member speculated about a possible Flemish/Dutch influence in the Hawick pronunciation of the word “mei”.
4) The Book Festival would not be the Book Festival without my getting a bit carried away telling someone how much I liked their book. This year’s victim was the aforementioned Patrick DeWitt, who I spotted in the Authors Yurt and proceeded to gush to about The Sisters Brothers until I was literally dragged away. (For a photoshoot, I should point out.) If I’d been permitted to stick around for a little longer, instead of having to go away and talk about Flemish or something, I might even have bumped into Gordon Brown behind the scenes, although I haven’t read any of his books so I’m not sure what I would have said to him. Something about how well Raith Rovers are doing, probably. I wouldn’t really know what to say about the prime minister stuff.
Thanks to everybody at the Festival for looking after me, and for inviting me in the first place, and also to my fine partners for the event, Roger Mason and Willie Kelly. Roger is spearheading some fantastic work in the field of Scots-Flemish relations at St Andrews, and I look forward to reading the fruits of his labours in the not-too-distant future!
I love Eyemouth. I really do. It’s such a wonderful, picturesque town. My in-laws were up house-hunting in the Borders last week, and when we brought them to Eyemouth at the weekend it looked like we weren’t leaving without at least a seaside bungalow added to our portfolio.
Of course, in this sunny spate of weather everything in the Borders is looking at its best. But Eyemouth is so often underappreciated and overlooked that it was particularly nice to see it on one of its prettier days, and especially to visit its new arts venue, the Hippodrome, gleaming by the side of the Maritime Museum down at the Harbour Road.
Ian and Paula Todd, whose brainchild the Hippodrome is, have done an incredible job in converting the former Fisherman’s Mission into one of the most impressive new arts venues I’ve seen in a long time. Not just that, but in the short time they’ve been up and running they’ve attracted some absolutely brilliant performers to the Borders, including – on Friday night – myself and none other than the amazing Ian McMillan.
Now, Ian is one of those rare, vital figures whose appeal cuts right across the artistic spectrum. Friends who I’d long assumed didn’t have a poetic bone in their body suddenly revealed themselves as raving verse-o-philes once they found out Ian McMillan was coming to the Borders. God knows how difficult it is to get folk out for anything nowadays, so to have a venue like the Hippodrome full to capacity for a poetry event, as it was on Friday night, is a wonderful thing.
I’m very glad that the convention is for opening acts rather than closing ones, because I would not have wanted to follow the poetic force of nature that is Ian McMillan. The guy is just a phenomenon, a one-man masterclass in taking an audience wherever he wants to go. I don’t know how many calories laughing burns off, but there’s no doubt folk were coming out lighter in every way than when they went in. Wonderful audience, fantastic venue, and an amazing privilege to share a stage with… Well, they say you should never meet your own heroes, but then they probably never met Ian McMillan.
I was back at the Hippodrome on Saturday morning, this time with my wife, Sara, for our creative writing workshop “Eye Write”. Some absolutely fantastic writing came out of the workshop, as well as (hopefully!) some great new writers. It was particularly lovely to see a real range in terms of age and experience – our youngest writers were primary school age, and the work they produced was impressive to say the least. If the writing bug catches folk that early on, the sky really is the limit for what they can achieve.
I was genuinely gutted to have to finish up the workshop when it had overrun by almost half an hour. Ditto to leave Eyemouth a wee while after that, heavier by the weight of a 99 flake and two shoefuls of sand. Yet without venues like the Eyemouth Hippodrome to draw folk in, and funding from Borders Live Touring to make these events viable, there’s so much about places like Eyemouth that would go utterly unappreciated. The Hippodrome is providing a vital service, not just to artists and audiences but to the town as a whole. Long may that continue.
Two things. Firstly, I am absolutely terrible at gauging likely audience numbers for events. Secondly, I always assume that anything that has me in it is going to be a flop, or worse, a fiasco. So I was awfully surprised and gratified to turn up for my wee stint at CABN’s PechaKucha event in Galashiels last week to find the fantastic Mac Arts Centre at the standing room only stage. Better – and this, I think, is the crux to the whole thing – it was full of people I didn’t even know. You can get awfully used to ploughing your own wee creative furrow in the Borders, and not really interacting with anyone outside the handful of people who are working in the same area; it was interesting to see and hear from folk who are engaging in other areas of the arts.
PechaKucha, in case you didn’t know, is a kind of presentation format where 20 slides are shown on-screen for 20 seconds each while the presenter talks about them. The emphasis, therefore, is towards snappy, energetic talks with relevant, interesting visuals. It might sound a bit gimmicky, but presentation skills are tough things to learn, and formats like PechaKucha are great ideas because they stop people from just, say, reading out PowerPoint presentations word for word with their backs to the audience. As someone (i.e. a writer) who is slightly predisposed to labouring the point, I got a lot out of working to the PechaKucha format, and to anyone who’s looking to learn a wee bit about the craft of presentation, I’d 100% recommend giving it a go.
Anyway, my presentation, “Corridors of Uncertainty”, was about the relationship between art and sport, which seems to be a relatively untapped source of inspiration in the Borders, especially when you look at our proud history in both areas. I talked a wee bit about my work with Selkirk FC – Bobby Johnstone, Nil By Mouth – and how much the creative community can learn from the initiatives of local clubs like Selkirk, Hawick Royal Albert and Gala Fairydean. I also tried to flag up the fact that, with the local culture and leisure trusts recently integrating to form Live Borders, it’s a fantastic time for creative professionals to start finding ways to engage with Borders sport. The opportunities are definitely out there, it’s just a matter of finding them.
The presentations aren’t up online yet, but they will be eventually. In the meantime, for a wee bit more information about the event and the other presentations, you can visit the Galashiels PechaKucha page here; or, if you’d like to come along to (or even participate in!) the next PechaKucha night in June, it’s definitely worth checking in with the indispensable CABN at their website.
Historian Daniel Gray (author of “Stramash”, amongst many other fine volumes) and Nil By Mouth’s Dave Scott are on the road for the next few weeks as part of a ten date tour of Scottish football – and we were hugely fortunate that the guys chose Selkirk FC as one of the stopping-off points for an evening of free pies and football banter.
And the banter – facilitated by our very own David Knox as MC – was brilliant. Daniel’s readings really set the tone – lively, light-hearted, but at the same time keenly observant of the places and characters which make Scottish football what it is. I read a few poems of my own, to what was without a doubt one of the friendliest and most receptive audiences I’ve ever encountered. And then there was the football quiz – which I regret to admit my team finished second in, despite the fact that Paul Wheelhouse MSP came through for us with some truly inspired answers. Know which football team is nicknamed ‘The Brewers’, or who the Scottish League’s most-capped manager is? No? Our Minister for Community Safety does.
It was a great opportunity for Selkirk FC to showcase themselves as the fantastically friendly and hospitable club they are – but what’s particularly nice about the Nil by Mouth events is that they aren’t so much anti-bigotry as simply pro-football. There’s no finger-wagging, no pious lectures – just good crack and proper celebration of the beautiful game. And with plenty of dates still left on the tour, you would be crazy not to get along if you can. Check out the Nil By Mouth website for more details of the campaign and of the fabulous work they do:
I had a great day at Peebles High School on Wednesday talking to pupils about football and writing as part of the Read-a-licious Book Festival. Did a Q&A session with St. Johnstone striker Stevie Maclean as well, in which I contrived to ask a man who’s scored the winning goal in a Scottish Cup Final what the highlight of his career has been. The pupils were superb, very switched on and engaged – a real credit to the school and to themselves. Also caught a glimpse of the new sporting facilities at Peebles, where Stevie was taking a training session as part of the event – very impressive! Thanks very much to Ruth Fry of Peebles HS and Alex Emerson from the Eastgate Theatre for inviting me along – if you live locally, it’s definitely worth keeping tabs on what’s happening at the Eastgate!
So, that’s the first month of my poetry residency at Selkirk FC done with. Lessons learned:
- Writing poems is by far the easiest and least time-consuming aspect of the whole business. I’ve written about half-a-dozen so far, ranging from elegiac poems about past glories and figures like Bob Mercer, to freestyle disses of upcoming opponents. Most of these (so far) have been written to go with a newspaper article or media piece. Sky Sports News, for example, asked me to write a poem for their feature about our Scottish Cup game at Nairn. Now, how many folk are ever going to get to read their poetry on Sky bloody Sports? None, that’s how many. None.
- BUT. It’s very challenging to combine writing the poetry, doing the publicity, working in an ordinary nine-to-five job, and doing other writing of your own on the side. Your own writing seems to be the thing that’s most easily neglected.
- Still, because of those pressures, a residency is very good at forcing you to identify what you actually want to get out of writing.
- Being continually fresh and spontaneous is a lot harder than it looks. I’m the first person to give it the big eye-roll when someone trots out the same old anecdote more than once, but when you’re speaking to a lot of different people who are all asking basically the same questions, it’s really difficult not to just give out an answer by rote. Even as you’re talking, you can feel your silent inner critic sarcastically mouthing your trite little speech along with you and making a yap-yap gesture with its hand. You feel like such a dad.
But the reaction has been fantastic. Ross Anderson, the chairman at Selkirk, told me that more publicity has been generated for the club by the residency than even the signing of ex-Scotland striker Garry O’Connor. Hopefully, there will be more to come, but in the meantime, tune into Sky Sports News HQ on Saturday, when a Scottish Cup segment about Selkirk will be airing throughout the day.
So it’s the day of the first ever spoken word stage at the Stowed Out Festival, the first ever event of this sort that I’ve organised, and I’m looking out the window that morning at the bucketing rain and I’m thinking to myself Is this good? Is this bad?
Because I have no idea what to expect, or what omens to hope for. In disaster movies, there’s at least a few ominous warning shots – a straining girder, a meter’s pointer edging towards red – but what are the key indicators that a poetry event is about to go all Towering Inferno? Silence, and space, and strangers, perhaps, as Larkin wrote – but when we get to the festival and the first face we see is Rab Wilson’s (“Just writin a wee poem,” he says, arising from a bench) we know there’s only so badly things can go. One by one, our poets arrive hours ahead of schedule – Colin Will and his wife Jane, with an assortment of dark luggage which, over the course of the afternoon, will miraculously unfold into a tenor sax set – and within half an hour there is the quorum of a festival, eight, nine, ten performers flattening out folded bits of paper and pacing around from tent to tent.
The organisers are up first – Bridget Khursheed gets things going with a flawless “no paper” performance, and by the time I get up we’ve already been joined by the first members of a continual thoroughfare of audience. Sara Clark finishes off the first set with some superb readings from her book “How to Destroy”, and although the rain beats briefly against the plastic squares of windows in the tent, everything seems to be turning out quite bright.
Anita John and Dorothy Alexander are next, with some brilliant pieces inspired by their work on various collaborative projects, chiefly “Scott’s Treasures” and “The Written Image”. Then it’s Pat Miller and David Holmes, two of the competitors in the Stowed Out Poetry Slam. We originally only had room on the timetable for the slam’s top three, but the standard was so high that we were delighted when the vagaries of music festival organisation opened up another slot, and we were able to fit in another couple of our slammers. Both Pat and David give performances at the festival even more impressive than they had at the slam, and as more and more people turn up to the festival the audience numbers continue to swell.
After the break, it’s the first of our three headliners, Rab Wilson. Rab starts off with a few works from his upcoming book “Zero Hours”, which bids fair to be his best collection yet, if these poems are anything to go by. Rab is just such a superb performer, really accomplished at taking audiences with him wherever he goes, and the emotional journey his readings take the listener upon make it seem impossible that only twenty-five minutes have passed when he finishes with a couple of ribald reflections on MacDiarmid and the status of the Scots language.
Colin Will, who has probably single-handedly boosted our audience numbers by 33% just by the presence of his sax, performs next. His sequence of sea poems, separated by some improvisational sax, are both haunting and beautiful. Colin tells us it’s something he hasn’t tried before, and it’s to be hoped that he adds it to his permanent repertoire, if only for the benefit of everyone who wasn’t there. It’s certainly the most powerful combination of poetry and music that I’ve encountered in a long time.
By now the tent is filling rapidly, and the biggest crowd of the festival is in attendance for the performances by our slam winners. Stuart Jones gives maybe the best performances of his career, and has passers-by stopping by in their droves to witness his lively and hilarious set. David Hendry’s quiet and reflective imagery brings a hush to the assembled and appreciative crowd, before Calum Bannerman unveils a new work of real imagination and intimacy, a superb way to bring the curtain down on this year’s spoken word stage. There is still more to come, of course, but it will be on the main stage, where Harry Giles, fresh from Fringe success, gives the kind of performance which makes it a privilege for anyone else to have shared a bill with him.
Poetry, performance poetry – they’re tough rackets, especially here in the Borders, where the support networks, if they exist at all, aren’t always apparent. Workshops and writing groups and the like are fine, but unless they’re very carefully managed they can still result in people being left out. We’re really chuffed at the way the Stowed Out Festival gave so many people a chance to be involved – over the course of the festival we had thirteen people perform, ranging from old hands to veritable first-timers. We had folk who’ve only performed once or twice in their life before alongside people who make a living out of it. And we had the start of an event which can surely only go on to be bigger and better as the years go by.
I’ve been bitten by that dog many times before. No sooner have you proudly announced that X is the first event of its kind to happen in the Borders than you are swamped by an angry deluge of letters to the editor informing you in no uncertain terms that the first X was held in Morebattle in 1972. Nevertheless, I’m going to put my neck on the line and assert that the Stowed Out Poetry Slam in Gala yesterday was the first poetry slam ever to be held in the Borders. Which, when you think about the popularity of performance poetry (even in the Borders) is amazing, and something for all involved with the slam to be incredibly proud about.
Trying out something new down here is always a nerve-wracking proposition, because you never have any idea at all whether it’s going to take. It’s about fifty-fifty whether the place will be jammed to the rafters or nobody will show up at all, and there’s no reliable indication whatsoever which one of those things will occur. So it takes a certain amount of faith as a performer, too, to turn out for these events. Eight was the number of entrants we were hoping for, and eight was exactly what we got, though we could never have banked on the variety and quality we actually ended up with.
What’s particularly interesting about poetry slams is how different they are from any other kind of spoken word performance. A little experience goes a long way, and it was obvious to me that the standard of the performances actually improved as the slam went on, as poets grew in confidence within the slam setting and the supportive environment. The variety of poets resulted in performances which really played off each other, showed participants actively influencing and being influenced by each other’s styles. It was amazing to see.
The major downside, of course, is that there have to be winners, particularly when the field is as close as it was yesterday. There were only a few points in it from top to bottom, but we wound up with three hugely deserving winners.
In third place was David Hendry, a Hawick-based poet and novelist. David’s performances were controlled and nuanced, perfectly pitched to the miraculously rich imagery of his poetry. Poetry slams are not usually associated with quietness, but when David read his poems against the remarkable stained-glass backdrop of the Mac Arts Centre, you could have heard a pin drop.
In second place was Stuart Jones, a performance poet from Selkirk well known to those in the creative communities of the Borders and beyond. Poetry slams really reward the combination of strong poetry with entertaining performance, and Stuart was able to get this balance absolutely right. He demonstrated huge commitment and confidence throughout the three rounds, and was an extremely worthy runner-up.
But our winner on the day was Calum Bannerman, who blew the audience away with his smart, edgy, and ultimately touching reflections on life and love. Calum’s incredible performances were evidence that a huge amount of work has gone into not just his poetry but his own individual style, which formed a perfect, emotionally-honest conduit between the content of his work and the listeners in the audience. A fantastic champion for our first ever slam.
My co-conspirators (Sara Clark and Bridget Khursheed) and I are also particularly delighted that all three of our winners have agreed to perform again at the Stowed Out Festival itself on August 29th. Our spoken word headline acts will include the fantastic Harry Giles, Rab Wilson and Colin Will. Don’t miss it!
For a town so small and so comparatively remote, we get a lot of good stuff coming our way in Hawick. Whenever a big arts organisation decides to get their show on the road, it’s always a decent shout that the Grey Auld Toon will feature somewhere on their list of community centres and village halls. Only thing is, though these barnstorming tours are great and all, the product as you experience it is rarely comparable to the sort of thing you’d expect in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Everything is shortened and stripped down, the performers are reserves, and though you’re not exactly disappointed you do come away with the feeling that what you’ve just participated in was Diet Culture rather than the real thing.
So, naturally, you do what grown-ups do and you moderate your expectations. When you see that Neu! Reekie are coming to Hawick on the second last date of a countrywide tour, you go along more out of gratitude than actual hope. It probably won’t be that riveting, but it’s just nice to have some visitors.
Because the other thing is that, even if the event turns out to be quite good, it won’t be anything new. Chances are it’ll be some little greatest hits revue, a few crowd pleasing standards. Nothing you’ll be in danger of remembering the next day.
Well, it’s the next day but three, and my recollections of Neu! Reekie are still extremely clear. I remember Michael Pedersen’s poetry, those intricate little boxes of surprise, and the spoken word of Hollie McNish, whose performances are so powerful that they seem to derive from some, like, totally original art form, as yet undiscovered by mortal men. I remember the stupendously grouchy Kevin Williamson, growling about ‘No’ voters (in the Borders, of all places), the hilarious films of Ainslie Henderson and Will Anderson. And then there was the amazing Stanley Odd, a Scottish hip-hop group previously (and inexplicably) unknown to me, and who were so good that their presence on a stage in Hawick three metres away seemed like some unaccountable glitch in a video game, Lionel Messi in an Accies shirt.
We get a lot of good stuff coming to Hawick, but we rarely get anything which runs the risk of failing. By the time it gets to us, most stuff has been gone over so many times that it could run equally well without an audience, and sometimes does. On Friday night Neu! Reekie respected its audience enough to give us an event rather than just a performance. Spread the word.