Edinburgh Book Festival

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 wereThomasEdinburghFestivalStage 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 ThomasBookSigningHawick 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!

Selkirk FC vs the World!

Selkirk FC Vs The World CoverWith the new Lowland League season kicking off today, Selkirk Football Club and myself are awfy pleased to announce the publication of “Selkirk FC vs the World!”

“Selkirk FC vs the World!” is the end result of the first season of my poetry residency at Selkirk Football Club, and collects together twenty-five poems and short stories I wrote for the club throughout the course of the year. From a Subbuteo league in post-apocalypse Glasgow to the 1930 World Cup Final, these pieces are, I suppose, a wee mind-map to what I think about when I think about football; or, in other words, the whole book is a kind of 200-page paean to the act of being grimly resigned.

Not that I’m done thinking about football just yet, or writing about it, for that matter. But the residency has been a fantastic platform to write about the things I’m really interested in (i.e. post-apocalyptic Glaswegian Subbuteo leagues) and also to learn a bit more about how lower league football (i.e. the vast majority of football played in this or any country) actually happens. Huge thanks to Selkirk FC and everyone involved with for that.

You can pick up a copy of the book here – you can even review it, which would be lovely and make me feel as if I’m not just banging my head repeatedly on the dangerously low overhang of the Selkirk dugout. It’s nicer than macaroni pies, better for you than Bovril, and cheaper than actually going to a game. Best of all, if you buy it this weekend it’s completely gratis. There’s not a lot in Scottish football nowadays which is free, Kris Boyd apart. So you can’t really say much fairer than that.

An Evening With Ian McMillan

I love Eyemouth. I really do. It’s such a wonderful, picturesque town. My in-laws were up house-WP_20160603_20_35_52_Prohunting 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 IanMcnot 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.

PechaKucha and the Corridor of Uncertainty

Two things. Firstly, I am absolutely terrible at gauging likely audience numbers for events. PechaKuchaQuestionSecondly, 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.

Kiss Bigotry Goodbye

I had a fantastic time at Nil By Mouth’s “Kiss Bigotry Goodbye” event at Yarrow Park last Saturday.IMG_1681

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:


Stanger’s Chase

By the way, I don’t just write crap poems about football – I write crap poems about loads of things, including rugby. Here’s a Border ballad I wrote last year about Tony Stanger’s slam-winning try against England in 1990 – repeat on Saturday?

Stanger’s Chase

Slaw, as they maircht at Murrayfield,

Slaw, as the sons o Troy,

An fower o thaim war Borders men,

An ane wis but a boy.


Slaw, as the winds that flauchtert oot

The saltire’s pirlin waves,

Slaw, as the pipes an drums that dirlt

Thair readiness tae play,


Slaw, as the hair that rose oan necks,

Slaw, as the cloods that pairt,

Slaw, as the sun that lingrt oan

Young Stanger’s breelin hert.


Na lang syne, no faur awa,

A schuilboy haed he been,

The toast o Wilton’s rugby boys,

The star o Hawick Linden;


For greater things thay’d merkt him oot,

But thay coud no hiv kent

The weirdfu paith they set him oan

For Murrayfield wis bent.


Thair callant lad in Scotland blue!

It wisnae tae be guesst,

Camsteirious raiders tae repel,

An honours tae contest,


Thare up aheid, Calcutta’s cup,

O winnin unco dear!

Dug oot fae England’s huird o gowd

Whaur it haed languisht mony year,


Syne Stanger’d watcht as Leslie, Aitken,

Renwick, Calder, Rutherford,

Haed strampt the dirt that he nou stappt oan,

Wore the shirt that he nou wore,


Bled tae lift the prize nou dashelt

Dull as ony English trinket,

Bled tae see their kintra battert,

An watchin, nou… He dauredna think it.


That nicht the English, drivin northart,

Haed reakt the cross o Peebles toon,

An barrackt thair bi Reekie’s shaiddae,

An watcht Saint Andrew’s flag gan doon,


Thare held thair coort; thare stuid for shaw;

Thare ruis’t the Scots thair tent;

Thare gied bi smirl an glent o een

That nane o it wis meant;


Whaur Will, the English leader, fed

Oan leuks o jealousie,

A Hotspur o the modren day,

Formt Albion wis he.


Aye, herts at hame are glegsome things,

Tae vauntie wirds aft gien;

An whitna laund is furrin lang

Tae an emperour’s reivin een?


But o! Whan Flouer o Scotland skirlt

Wha o that ten an five

Lined up in white but thocht hissel

The anely Englishman alive!


Then Finlay Calder, tiltit forrit,

Breuk the English ranks,

The teemin Scots surged in ahint,

But Tony, oan the flanks,


Could anely watch as fortuin jinkt him,

Inches focht an won,

Men clung tae earth tae beir the gree

Thay’d pass oan tae thair sons,


While i’the sky artillerie sang

An vollied wi dreidfu speed,

The ominous boom o boot oan ba

Aback an up aheid,


An Guscott, blade o English steel,

Pierced in tae steal the try –

Young Stanger feart this game o crouns

Wad likeweys slip him by.


The match wis mair than hauf-gates past,

An Stanger’d still nae guid,

Thare wisna speed the wide warld ower

Tae jouk the gresp o Underwood,


But the English owerraxin knapt

The ba tae Celtic hauns,

An Jethart Armstrong snecks it up,

Like ane dumfoonert stauns,


The English closed; still Jethart stuid;

Then sprang a merry trap,

A hervest-shaw o English limms

The ba flung ower the tap,


An Hastings, waitin, reeled it in,

An presst it tae his kist,

Wi scarcelins blink tae heave it furth

Ayont the English midst,


Bi Hastings’ boot the ba wis hoist,

An Stanger unnerneath,

Bi Hastings’ boot the ba wis hoist,

A nation held its braithe,


Thare, whaur the thristy cloods contest

The skies wi hungert wund,

The birlin ba tae baith praisents

A gallus fechtin-grund,


Thare, while young Stanger stuid aneath,

An watched the waitin sky,

Jim Telfer rowst fae aff the bench

An yollert, “Tony, fly!”


Fly, Tony, fly! An Stanger flew

An Underwood turnt an wheeled,

An the air wis fou wi the flash o blue

An the din o Murrayfield,


Fly, Tony, fly! An the earth wis sheuk

Bi a thoosand egglin feet,

Fly, Tony, fly! An the ruff wis drumt

Bi the up-clap o unburdent seats,


Yet i’the mid o clamihewit

Ane boy wis stainch an calm,

His een war bent oan heivin,

His hauns war open palms,


He kent thare wis noise, an he haurd it,

The shaidaes war grandstands o derk,

But the square blue sky that he ran ablo

Wis the same ower Mansfield Park;


An he thocht as he ran o Auld Hawick,

He thocht o the place he wis born,

But maist o aw he thocht o the Chase

Oan a Thursday simmer’s morn,


When the Cornet’s men, oan horses,

Went streamin up the knowes,

Theretil tae race the common launds

Wi aw the haste that care allows,


An Tony, juist a Wilton lad,

Haed watcht thaim as thay flowed

I’the stour o dist an the brattle o cluits

Oan that lang an nairae road,


The Chase! Tae some it stuid for forebeirs

Pursuin thair stowen guids,

While ithers said it meant the flemin

O reivers fae border wids,


But maist fowk kent it bode the callants,

The orphants o Flodden field,

Wha rode tae fell the English raiders

Wi haurdlins a swuird nor shield,


Whit, tho the nicht wis pitch an gealin,

Whit, tho the best war boys,

Whit, tho thair faithers left thaim nuthin

But the lair o English ploys,


Whit, tho thay wistna ocht o fechtin,

Whit, tho thay wept guidbye,

Back thay cam hame wi strowds an whoopin

An the English banner hie,


That banner same each Cornet syne

Haed heezed abuin the Chase,

That banner same young Stanger kent

His hauns wad niver grace.


Thae hauns that reakt up then as noo,

Thair destinie tae try,

A soothren pensil, gowd an blue,

A teair-drap fae the sky,


Fly, Tony, fly! Ma bonnie lad,

Gan haste ye tae the prize,

For Underwood is but a man

An yow are mony Robbie Dyes,


Fly, Tony, fly! Yer boots are the feet

That wad win Calcutta’s cup,

Fly, Tony, fly! Yer hauns are the hauns

O a nation risin up!


The skies war wearit, drapt thair toy,

It tummelt tae the laund,

Whaur Scotland’s dirt the chancy ba

Lowpt straucht tae Stanger’s haun.


The rest is kent. Hou Alba leart

Thair skrimish haed been won,

Hou Bill McLaren chowkt back tears

(The boy wis mair a son)


Hou fitba grunds an shoppin malls

Made dunder tae the news,

An Will an England misbelieved,

A fecht thay thocht thay’d niver lose,


An Stanger walkt wi heroes,

An ramplt as they daffed,

An slawly maircht athwart the field,

He held the ba alaft;


Slaw, as they maircht at Murrayfield,

Slaw, as the sons o Troy,

An five o thaim war Borders men,

Tho ane haed been a boy.

New Signings

The Janice Forsyth Show did a wee feature on my residency at Selkirk last week. You can hear it here for the next month or so – it starts 1hr 30m into the show.

What’s been especially good about the residency so far is that it’s crossed the streams a bit in the way that we were all hoping it would. On one hand we’ve had artsy folks like The Janice Forsyth Show wanting to talk about the poetry side of things, and on the other hand there’s been Sky Sports and the like looking at the residency from a football fan’s point of view. That’s been great, and a nice wee challenge, in terms of trying to come up with poetry that’s both interesting and accessible – or at least only moderately boring.

I don’t know if I’ve actually succeeded in that, but what I have done is line up some fantastic poems to appear in the Selkirk match programmes this season, once our pitch recovers from its winter pounding. Transfer budgets are tight this weather, but a good loan signing or two can make all the difference, and I’m fair chuffed that Stephen Watt, Stuart Paterson, Andrew Blair, Lee Garratt, Chik J Duncan and Finola Scott will be amongst those making a guest appearance at Yarrow Park in 2016.

A few points would be nice in the coming months as well, and things seem to be moving in the right direction. We got beat up at Gala in our last outing, but looked a lot more dangerous after switching to a back four at half-time. Preston at home this weekend – it’s winnable. Onwards and upwards.

Mindin on McIlvanney

I’ve written a piece for Bella Caledonia about William McIlvanney. There isn’t too much to add to what I’ve said over there, except that there are countless writers in Scotland who would never have set pen to paper if it hadn’t been for Willie, and I’m one of them.

The piece is in Scots, as part of a new stream on Bella which is being stewarded by Billy Kay and Matthew Fitt. Given the current dearth (with a few honourable exceptions) of news or current affairs commentary in Scots, it would be fantastic to see this initiative pay off for Bella Caledonia and its readers. Billy’s call for articles and article ideas can be found here.

A langer spiel aboot the Scots leid is nae dout kythin – for nou, here’s ma wee bit blether aboot Scots fae ma beuk launch:

Read-a-licious Book Festival

I had a great day at Peebles High School on Wednesday talking to pupils about football and StevieMacleanwriting 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!

Salman Rushdie and the Establishment of the Left

Couple of years ago, Salman Rushdie wrote a memoir of his time in hiding from the Iranian fatwa. It’s called “Joseph Anton”, and I had read two-thirds of it when I decided to give up. It wasn’t badly written. It was just depressing me a bit, and I couldn’t understand why.

Yes, Rushdie comes over as being something of a wanker. He is shifty and inauthentic and views himself and his books as actual bulwarks of Western literature – except when it doesn’t suit him, and he just wants to be an ordinary person again. He seems constitutionally incapable of acknowledging any other point of view but his own, and I don’t mean simply on the fatwa but on anything. His wives are wrong, the police are wrong, the public, the media, his publishers, all wrong. Apart from his son, an idealised portrait of beatific childhood lifted wholesale from one of those Victorian melodramas which end with the infant being bodily assumed into Heaven, everybody in the world is at best a coward and at worst a monster. The consistent leitmotif of the book is that anyone whose interests diverge however minutely from the agenda of Salman Rushdie gets it both barrels.

None of which I mind, by the way. The character of “Joseph Anton” (Rushdie’s pseudonym throughout his years in hiding, and a decent indication of where he sees himself in the canon) is a magical piece of comic caricature, right up there with Adrian Mole and Mister Pooter. Rushdie’s lack of self-awareness never quite grows endearing, but it is usually funny, except when he is being gratuitously mean to and/or about someone who has helped him but not enough, which he usually is. No, what I found depressing about “Joseph Anton” was the absence from its pages of any kind of ordinary person – by which I mean someone who is unlikely to have went to Oxbridge or to public school.

The ‘ordinary’ people in “Joseph Anton” are the kind of off-stage rabble you get in village hall productions of Les Miserables. You don’t see them, you rarely hear them, and if they play any significant part in the story at all it is in the nameless role of “the waitress” or “the driver”. They are invariably slack and incompetent, with the implication continually being made that Rushdie’s life is dependent upon the random bumblings of ‘these kinds’ of people. There are several moving passages in which Rushdie speaks about the indignity of having to hide in his room whenever a cleaner comes round. The indignity of having to clean other people’s houses for a living goes strangely unremarked upon.

And what makes “Joseph Anton” interesting is that, finally, it all boils down to human dignity, a subject about which Salman Rushdie has an awful lot to say. Specifically, the circumstances in which it is impossible to maintain one’s dignity. There are things, Rushdie comes to realise, which are basic human rights, and which it is intolerable to be expected to live without. These are some of the rights for which Rushdie makes fairly explicit provision.

  1. The right to freedom of speech.
  2. The right to spend time with your family.
  3. The right to live and work wherever you like.
  4. The right to go on foreign holidays, anywhere, anytime.
  5. The right to go to awards ceremonies, and receive awards.
  6. The right to have your book published to your exact specifications and timetable, regardless of the potential economic, moral or human cost.

And so on. You will have no doubt have noticed that most, perhaps even all of these rights are currently denied to the average citizen of the United Kingdom. Rushdie doesn’t. For the vast majority of the book, Rushdie and his web of Oxbridge contacts are making strenuous appeal for the author to be allowed to live an ordinary life. The problem is, the disconnect between Rushdie’s idea of a ‘normal’ life and anybody else’s is so vast that it feels as if you are being personally insulted on every single page – which you probably would be, by the way, if you’d met him.

It is just an accepted fact that folk like, say, Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie are ‘men of the left’ – but what does it actually mean? Well, what reading “Joseph Anton” has made me realise is that it means exactly fuck all. It means that they are part of a familial squabble which, to the extent that it is happening at all, is taking place in an entirely different room and has nothing to do with the rest of us. Because the Establishment has a left wing as well. It’s the left to which writers, journalists, Labour politicians and the BBC belong. It is a left which is concerned with culture and heritage and being kind to animals and other such vague and worthy generalisations. It is a left which behaves as if the important battles against poverty and privilege have already been won, because, of course, those battles have been won, at least to the satisfaction of Amis and company; and they are therefore perfectly entitled to spend the rest of human history in public school debates about whether the Turner Prize winner is art this year or not.

To the Establishment Left, politics is basically extra-curricular. It’s something you do for extra credits instead of cricket. There’s nothing at stake. “Joseph Anton” is a book about a man who finds, to his horror, that everything is at stake; that his life depends upon the one box out of a million which an unseen bureaucrat might choose to tick that day, or might not. In other words, Salman Rushdie wakes up one morning to find that his life is now, well, ordinary.

Or almost. Rushdie still has his friends. He meets the Prime Minister. He meets the President. The Tory government are too busy dismantling the welfare state to talk to any of the people whose lives they’ve ruined, but they talk to Rushdie. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, presumably did not have the ear of the Prime Minister of Japan, and is stabbed to death. Rushdie has the same reaction to this as he does to every other tragedy that comes of the fatwa, which is one part unconvincing regret to four parts defensive insistence that it’s not his fault.

And it isn’t, of course. The Kafka parallels are obvious. For all his faults, Rushdie has not actually done anything wrong. But unlike Joseph K, ‘Joseph Anton’ affects to have no conception whatsoever that he might have done anything wrong, ever. And that’s interesting. Very few of us, except maybe psychopaths and leaders, have led such blameless lives that, when something terrible happens to us, we have no cosmic inkling that we might have had it coming. Is that, in the end, what separates us from the Establishment? Is that all it is – guilt?