How was it for you?

February’s now here, so I thought I’d post a little update on how the ‘New Year, New Start’ has gone so far. Whilst the rest of the world feels like it’s falling apart thanks to the Tangerine Toddler, it’s been a creatively promising month in this corner of Fife.

First, I’m extremely pleased to announce that I’ve now got a literary agent, Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates. How did this happen? Well, it’s all thanks to the magic* of Twitter – and a great little initiative called Tweet Your Pitch. Organised by XPONorth, the trade network for writing and publishing in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, it’s a one-day open call for book pitches from writers across Scotland. The catch? Your whole book needs to be crammed into just one tweet. Mine was:

Jenny got in touch to say she’d be interested in finding out more; I sent through my proposal and a sample of writing, and a week or so later we met in Edinburgh to seal the deal. I’m beyond honoured to be represented by Scotland’s best-kent agent, alongside the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Alasdair Gray, and Gavin Francis.

Second, Tweet Your Pitch also got me in touch with Glasgow publishers Freight Books, who liked my idea for a book detailing the experiences I had nine years ago whilst living in Japan. Last week I meet with design guru and Freight head honcho Adrian Searle, who gave me a much-needed confidence boost, a reading list and several pointers regarding narrative construction – and introduced me to the weird and wonderful (?) world of Wool Fetishists. Go on, click on the link…

Third, I finished my first freelance copywriting and editing job – producing the School of Geography and Sustainable Development’s new magazine. It hits the newstands university website next week, and has helped me reach my January freelance earning target (phew). It also helped me to snare my second freelance job, copyediting a book on coastal rowing – which should keep me financially afloat through February.

On the book front, I’ve drafted the prologue and first chapter of the wool tome (you can keep up-to-date with this project over on This Golden Fleece) and am now rolling up my sleeves to crack on with chapter two. I had a great day’s research at the National Library of Scotland, combined with mornings mostly spent in the University of St Andrews library – cosy, spacious, and completely free! I’m also approaching the finishing line with January’s knitting project, a pair of intricate Dentdale gloves in Shetland wool. And my wool trivia is growing a-pace: who knew that Virginia Woolf was a literary knitter?

It’s been a busy month, but a good one – hopefully this momentum can carry me through the rest of the year…

*=reclaim Twitter from Trumped-up terror, says I

A Larsson Love Affair

One of the first biographies to fully transport me to a different world was a book belonging to my best friend. Her family were a bit of a rarity for Suffolk in the 1990s: they were half-German,  my friend’s mother having been brought up by her Berliner grandmother. The family spoke little bits of the German she learned as a child, peppering their conversation with words like ‘Bäuchlein’ meaning tummy, instead of the standard German ‘Magen’ for stomach. This caused no little embarrassment when it came to learning German at  secondary school; at the age of twelve nobody wants to be saying things like ‘My favourite animal is a teddy bear’ to their stern and rather austere teacher.

As well as giving us a head start in German baby talk, my friend’s mother also passed on her fascination with Northern European culture. She was a great appreciator of art and antiques, filling the house with books, pictures and other objet d’art with a distinctly European flavour. Once, rather thrillingly, she took us out of school for a day to help haul the family’s paintings and trinkets to a nearby stately home to be valued on the Antiques Roadshow. Alas, nothing was found to be of great financial worth, but her status as a connoisseur of culture was firmly established in our minds.

One of her favourite artists was the Swede Carl Larsson, not only because of the lifelike skill of his drawings but also for his idyllic depictions of family life. When visiting, I loved to sit with the family’s big hardback illustrated Carl Larsson biography,  spending hours pouring over the pictures. The book took the form of roughly chronological life-writing interspersed with beautiful reproductions of Larsson’s paintings. Larsson had a large, messy, happy, creative home and family, both of which provided the inspiration for almost all his work. It was always difficult to choose a favourite picture as I always wanted to be living inside his world, but three strong contenders were:

  1. Namnsdag på härbret, 1898 (“Name-day at the storage house“)

Namnsdag_på_härbret_av_Carl_Larsson_1898

Larsson’s picture highlights the Swedish traditions associated with ‘namnsdagen’ or name-days, the origins of which lie in the mediaeval calendar of Christian saints. Name-days are an important part of Nordic culture and are still celebrated in Denmark (navnedag), Finland (nimipäivä), Sweden (namnsdag) and Norway (navnedag).
If you look to the left of the picture, you will see a tray being carried into the name-day celebrant’s bedroom. On it would typically be coffee – look closely and you’ll just see the top of the pot – and a special cake, just as we would have for a birthday. The children are dressed in traditional costume and bear flowers and greenery and at the very bottom corner is a man accompanying the procession on a violin. I also love the lay-a-bed on the right-hand side: are they a guest who over-indulged the night before, or a teenager reluctant to rise? Either way, I’m very envious of their wooden recessed bed.
You can read more about how name-days came to be at My Little Norway and Watching The Swedes, and find your own Swedish name-day at Dagens Namnsdag. Mine falls on 31st March, a satisfying half-year from my actual birthday.

 

2) Krebsfang (“Crayfishing with the family”)

Krebsfang
Outdoor crayfish parties are a big part of Swedish culture. For hundreds of years, friends and family have gathered together to catch and cook crayfish during August, when the summer sun starts to wane and the beginning of the new school year draws close. These parties take place in the late afternoon and early evening, sat outside those seasonal summer houses beloved of many Swedish families during the long white nights.
Larsson’s watercolour leaves no detail unrecorded: on the table is a pile of freshly-cooked crayfish, which have just been boiled in the big cauldron leaning against the tree by the water’s edge. A bottle of schnapps and a little glass for this strong liquor is to hand, and in the background the whole family is involved in catching the crustaceans with nets, line and pots. Mamma makes a pot of fresh coffee over an open fire, and there is an enticing loaf of bread ready to soak up the liquid in which the crayfish have been cooked. Who wouldn’t want to crack open a claw, raise a glass of schnapps and while away a few hours at the Larsson’s outdoor table?

If you want to get a better sense of what Swedish crayfish parties are like today, then take a look at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s visit to Sweden in his excellent Scandimania series http://www.channel4.com/programmes/scandimania/videos/all/s1-ep1-crayfish-party.

3) Julaftonen, 1904 – 1905 (“Christmas Eve”)

Julaftonen_av_Carl_Larsson_1904

‘Christmas Eve’ provides a seasonal counterpoint to ‘Crayfishing with the family’: everyone is gathered for a celebration, but this time the party is inside and lit by candles and firelight. As with other European countries including Poland, Christmas Eve is the main day for family Christmas celebrations in Sweden.

At the front of the picture is a young woman, her clothes covered with a maid’s apron and cap, holding out a lidded stein full of what looks like foaming ale. On the table are more jugs, mugs and glasses, ready to be filled from the ale cask on the right of the picture. Behind these is the smörgåsbord: a rich feast of dishes which includes a large glazed ham, ready to be sliced, boiled potatoes and what could be a plate of lutfisk, a dish made from dried ling – the cat under the table is raising her paw to signal her interest!

To find out more about Christmas celebrations in Sweden today, take a look at https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/christmas/

These pictures highlight a couple of aspects of Nordic culture which really appeal to me: a strong sense of the importance of family (and a work culture which supports this), traditions which reflect the Nordic seasons, and a love of a good party with plenty of food, drink and fine company.

One day I’d love to visit Larsson’s home Lilla Hyttnäs at Sundborn, but until then I’ll have to content myself with looking at Larsson’s pictures and the Larsson museum’s website (in English): http://www.clg.se/enstart.aspx

This piece was originally published on nordicnarratives.wordpress.com

Lives in a Landscape

One of my favourite types of life-writing is the exploration of a particular life through a person’s connection to the landscape. Wordsworth does it for the first time English literature in the Prelude, his posthumously published 10,000 line epic on his own life, though I prefer his Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon, which for me perfectly encapsulates both the continuity between a person’s life and the place they love and the fact that we become shaped by those relationships.

Duddon Valley, Easter 2015

Duddon Valley, Easter 2015

Valedictory Sonnet to the River Duddon

I thought of Thee, my partner and my guide,
As being past away.—Vain sympathies!
For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;
The Form remains, the Function never dies;
While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,
We Men, who in our morn of youth defied
The elements, must vanish;—be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.
You can find out more about Wordsworth and the River Duddon on the Wordsworth Trust’s excellent Romanticism blog.
The book was eventually called 'A Time of Gifts'

Patrick Leigh Fermour’s A Time of Gifts

On this blog I have already explored the place/person interaction for Hannah Hauxwell, Monty Don, Sarah Moss, and Patrick Leigh Fermour, but I haven’t really explored the potential for other media outside books to articulate those experiences. But to my unexpected joy, I have just discovered a wonderful radio programme that charts how a person’s interaction with a places shapes and chanegs them both – perfect.
Friday morning saw me dashing around to schools across Edinburgh, frantically delivering Nairn’s oatcakes to schools who had been highly commended in a competition I ran through work. From Newcraighall to Forthview, I zoomed about in my little mint-opal Honda Jazz (nick-named the Duchess), battling traffic jams and delivery lorries to offload the oatcakes. Usually I would have found this hugely frustrating, but because it was also Friday in the world of Radio 4, I was very happy to sit and listen to Desert Island Discs (which has to be my all-time favourite radio programme), then Woman’s Hour (another regular listen), and then – Lives in a Landscape came on, and I was hooked.

Lives in a Landscape looks at ordinary people and their relationship with particular places. Each programme lasts 30 minutes and the series has looked at iconic British locations from Glastonbury to the River Cam alongside places which are important to their communities, but not widely famous: a primary school in West Yorkshire, the Fal estuary in Cornwall, a pub in Luton. Each little vignette beautifully articulates the importance of people and places, whether it be through farming, fishing, or simply living in and loving a particular environment. Community is at the heart of many of the programmes, giving the series a warm and inclusive feel, even when dealing with the most tragic of events.

The episode I listened to started with the harrowing tale of Claire Throssall, whose estranged husband murdered her children and destroyed the family’s home in a meticulously planned house fire, robbing her of her family and her future in one stroke. However, the programme focussed on the Penistone community’s response to this tragedy, from the church lending Claire their piano so she could play and thereby retain a certain sense of her identity, to hundreds of volunteers who have been working to rebuild her home so that she can sell what was a gutted shell (her husband had cancelled the insurance before the blaze) and rebuild some semblance of a normal life. You can listen via the BBC i-player here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06mv2nb

Although Claire’s experience is an extreme and upsetting one, the programme makes excellent use of interviews with the remaining Throssall family and the local Penistone population, so that it feels like they are really telling their own story, rather than going through the mouth-piece of a presenter. A little democratic gem on a Friday morning – or, thanks to the wonders of the internet, at any time you please – there are 21 series with 56 episodes!

Birthday biographies

October is always my favourite month, but I especially adored it this year because it was a Big Birthday and therefore meant a big o’ knees-up was due.

Yorkshire Dales birthday bash...and some very silly costumes

Yorkshire Dales birthday bash…and some very silly costumes

30 friends and family converged on a converted schoolhouse bunkbarn in the Yorkshire Dales for an Old Skool Bunkhouse Bash, complete with ‘old skool’ costumes, 4 cakes and 198 pints of beer. Not everyone was able to take part in lots of booze and silliness, but thank you to all my friends for their best wishes, cards, presents and general friendship. You guys.

As well as the party, I also went to the theatre (twice!) to see an adaptation of Daphne Du Marier’s Rebecca and a National Theatre Encore screening of Hamlet starring old Benedict Cumberbatch. Both theatre trips were preceded by dinner, drinks and lots of cards and presents. And some of these were books of biography. (Hurrah!)

Tove JanssonFirst, the latest biography of Tove Jansson. I had read Boel Westin’s Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words in January 2014 (and blogged about my journey through delight to disappointment as it progressed here) and knew that there was a new Tove book on the market, so was very excited to receive  Tuula Karjalainen‘s Tove Jansson: Work and Love from my good friend Stuck-In-A-Book, who followed this treat up with…

My Katherine Mansfield Project by Kirsty Gunn: a literary biography – sort of! SIaB loves KM, but (shush or he’ll hear) I’ve never read a word by her. Kirsty GunnThis might well be my perfect introduction to a new-to-me author, as it combines Kirsty Gunn’s autobiographical exploration of Mansfield’s (and her own) home town of Wellington, NZ, along with ‘the profound influence of Mansfield’s work on [Gunn’s] own creative journey’.

Can’t wait to get stuck in to both of these beautiful books. Thanks SIaB, and happy birthday for yesterday yourself!

Research, Live, Write, Repeat

I’ve not blogged much about the book I’m writing at the moment. Partly because there’s not much to say about it yet, partly because I’m not sure what shape it will finally take. But the process of constructing it (and at the moment it feels very much like the scaffolding’s just been put up) is quite fascinating in its own right – well, to me at least. It’s a little tricky to fit research and writing around the full-time job (and, you know, having a life) but I do find it interesting and absorbing. It also means I can honestly say ‘I’m writing a book’! So this is a little post about what I’ve discovered so far on my quest to become a fully-fledged biographer.

First, there’s the hours spent in the archives, riffling through boxes, reading old letters and trying to decipher generations of family trees.Basically, it’s being legitimately nosy.

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

Someone should have installed an inergen system (museum nerd joke)

I’ve absolutely adored it – one big surprise was to discover that the main archives that I’m using had a pretty serious fire in 2009, so several boxes of documents are singed and everything still smells of smoke, even six years later. An earnest archivist has done their best to neaten up the documents by cutting off the worst of the burned bits, but the trouble with this is that it makes any attempt at deciphering the damaged writing impossible, as the top part of each page is often missing entirely.

A little friend in the archives

A little friend in the archives

On the plus side, I’ve discovered some lovely little sketches in the margins of pages: look at this little chap!

Although this is a poet’s archive, a lot of the poet’s early manuscripts were written on medical notepaper or discarded hospital paperwork. Patient lists, notes between doctors, clinic timings: my subject was a medical receptionist so she had a lot of this kind of waste paper to hand to jot down ideas and drafts for her poems. It’s all over 30 years old now, but it does give one that eerie feeling of distant proximity to people’s private lives, even those who are only incidental, tiny players in the story of another life. Man Hat1The hospital she worked at in the 1970s and 1980s specialised in neurology so typed words like hydrocephalus, anosmia, and neurosyphilis show through the page, like ghosts under the drafts of poems. The fascination with the ‘neurologically deficient’ that Oliver Sacks describes (his words, not mine) in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat had a clear effect on my subject too: the first poem she ever wrote is one written in anger at a doctor’s treatment of his patients. [As an aside, you can read a brilliant review of that book over on Stuck In A Book!]

I’m also discovering that you can’t rely on books or newspapers or even obituaries to give you facts. To date, errors and omissions have included:

  • omitting someone’s life-affirming second marriage and mentioning only the first short-lived one, in a national newspaper
  • claiming someone went to a fairly famous school (which in its turn has absolutely no record of them ever having been there)
  • suggesting that someone was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, when the official court transcripts and lists of people present makes no mention of them

It remains to be seen whether I can unearth any truths behind these ‘untruths’, but I  have discovered a few surprises, from unexpected illegitimate children to family feuds spanning over 40 years. Trying to separate what really happened from what people say has happened is time-consuming and I’ll never be 100% certain that I’ve got it right myself, but I love being drawn down the biographical rabbit hole.

That’s about all I can say for now, but I have now at least completed a 5,000 draft of the first chapter: the beginning is begun, now only the remaining 95,000 words of its middle and end to go…

Hannah Hauxwell

A few years ago I was holiday in Shropshire with a group of friends from university, having a cheeky free holiday in a cottage belonging to one of their aged relatives. Hannah HauxwellOne wet day we went in to Shrewsbury, intent on warming ourselves up with the finest Shropshire ale. En route to a boozy establishment, we could not resist the lure of a charity shop (two of the group are ardent bargain rootlers) and there I found Hannah, a biography of Yorkshire woman Hannah Hauxwell. Although I had no idea who she was, a quick flick through told me that this was a rural history biography, a genre of which I am inordinately fond, so I parted with £2 and Hannah was mine.

Having grown up without a television in the house, popular cultural phenomena of the late twentieth century generally passed me by. This included Hannah Hauxwell’s landmark appearance on Yorkshire Television’s Too Long A Winter. If you too were similarly culturally deprived, or simply too young to remember 1973 (actually, this includes me), you can meet Hannah here:

Hannah’s life is unimagineable demanding by today’s standards, and even by those of the 1970s. No running water, no electricity, complete isolation, food hung in bags to keep the rats off: then in her forties, she looked decades older. But what charmed her audience, then as now, was the deep calm and sense of almost childlike wonder with which she viewed the world. She is almost Wordsworthian in her lyric connection to the landscape, her inflection and gentle turn of phrase belonging to a different era.

The book itself is a compilation volume written by television producer Barry Cockcroft over the thirty years that he worked with Hannah. It is interspersed with photos from Hannah’s family albumn, but also contains some wonderful images from Beamish, the living museum of the north, showing life in the Yorkshire Dales.

Walker children at Briars Dyke, Baldersdale (Beamish Museum's People's Collection)

Walker children at Briars Dyke, Baldersdale (Beamish Museum’s People’s Collection)

Many of them have been digitised in their ‘People’s Collection’ project – have a look for yourself here: www.beamish.org.uk/collections/. You can also see a selection of photographs of Hannah published by the Yorkshire Post on the occasion of her 85th birthday, and read about her in People of Yorkshire, volume 7.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the hardship she endured for most of her life, Hannah is still alive and has just celebrated her 89th birthday. She now lives at Cotherstone, a few miles from Baldersdale, and has travelled all over the world in the years since she moved there. But Hannah’s name lives on in Baldersdale, for when she sold her farm a conservation charity was able to buy some of the meadowland. They realised that because Hannah’s family had never used artificial fertiliser on the land, it was a haven of wild flowers, unusual grasses and rare animals.

Hannah's meadow, Baldersdale by Ashley Columbus

Hannah’s meadow, Baldersdale by Ashley Columbus

They called it ‘Hannah’s Meadow’ and you make a pilgrimage there thanks to the Durham Wildlife Trust: durhamwildlifetrust.org.uk/visitor-centres/hannahs/

I went a year or so ago, on a wet grey autumn day – and even then it was beautiful.

The Jewel Garden

I don’t read many books about gardening. Scratch that, I have almost never read a book about gardening. But I absolutely adore gardens, and the moment I picked up Monty and Sarah Don’s The Jewel Garden the photographs alone transported me to the type of country garden I love best: a little unruly, abundant and colourful.

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

Monty and Sarah Don, The Jewel Garden

The book is a dual biography, with the two author/subjects taking it in turns to tell parts of their story. Sometimes the narrative switches at every paragraph; sometimes you get pages of Monty followed by pages of Sarah. Incidentally, Monty is Don’s stage name, the moniker of his public persona; his family all call him Montagu. Him I recognised from the TV programmes, and I knew about Sarah from their book Fork to Fork, but what I didn’t know was that they had been fashionable jewellery designers in Knightsbridge before leaving the rat race for the good life in Herefordshire. They fell in love at Cambridge, where Monty was an older-than-average English undergraduate and Sarah already married to an academic biologist.

Clematis Niobe © RHS

The vivid jewel-like Clematis Niobe © RHS

She left her husband for the earthy charms of this passionate younger man, and their marriage has survived 32 years, the collapse of their business and Monty’s countless periods of depression. Their life together in the jewellery trade inspires the creation of the eponymous Jewel Garden, reflecting the ‘jewel’, ‘brights’, ‘pastels’ and ‘crystal’ of gem stones. The descriptions of creating their Herefordshire garden following the desperate years of the business’ collapse are lyric and uplifting. For me, these passages spark both memory and fantasy.

Farm Cottage as we knew it

The farm cottage as we knew it

The memories are of the great country house estate garden where my father worked and which his children were lucky enough to have as an outdoor extension of their imaginations. We lived in a tied farm cottage on the edge of the estate, but we nearly didn’t live there at all. Much like for the Dons, our move created triumph from disaster, but only just. In 1990 my father’s business went bankrupt (at almost exactly the same time as the Dons) and with it came the repossession of our house, surety against the  business loan. My mother was working part-time for a large country estate, and her employers took pity on the family, allowing us to live in the cottage and employing my father as a gardener. The cottage itself was nothing special – only the width of one room and perishingly cold in winter – but the real bonus was the proximity of the estate’s great Victorian walled garden.

The main estate house with garden

The main estate house with garden

Peach trees espaliered down the red brick garden walls, gooseberry bushes huddled in shallow border lined with ancient up-ended green glass bottles, and every section of the garden was edged in ancient box. A sunken greenhouse hunkered down in the middle, where my dad grew his prize-winning tomatoes with their sweet pungent summer scent, and by the gate grew an immense bush of lemon balm mint, through which I ran my fingers on the way to school and back each day. Although that garden was a hundred years or more older than the one the Dons created (and further east by the entire width of England), the feeling of being subsumed into the verdant Englishness of the country garden is the same.

Oriental Poppy © RHS

Oriental Poppy © RHS

This is where the fantasy side begins: I of course want to create something like the Dons’ Jewel Garden now, as an adult about the same age as the Dons when they first moved to Herefordshire. As someone born in the country but living in a city, I want to wake to feel the frost on the window pane, to be able to walk out into my own garden and pick the flowers and fruit I have grown. I want to have the space to create something organic and beautiful and a little wild. I’ve always been a sucker for The Good Life and this book encourages me further. Of course, like most armchair gardeners I have very little skill or knowledge when it comes to the practicalities of making a garden. Although I did spend a lot of time in the garden with my father as a child, it was to indulge in all the outdoor pursuits best-loved by children: picking raspberries, eating tomatoes fresh from the vine, and playing hide and seek behind the hedges.

Rosa moyesii ® David Austin

Rosa moyesii ® David Austin

At nearly 30, my vocabulary is the limited one of a town-dweller. A rose for me is just that, but for the Dons it is always a r. hugonis or a r. cantabrigiensis in the spring, or a r. moyesii or r. sericea pteracantha in the high summer.

Rosa Hugonis ®  David Austin

Rosa Hugonis ® David Austin

Poppies are opium, Welsh or oriental; clematis ‘Gipsy Queen’ or ‘Niobe’. The vocabulary is intoxicating in its precision; it embodies the history, imagination and passion of thousands of antecedent gardeners. Although I can’t imagine what each individual variety looks like precisely, I can imagine the sweetness of their scent and the giddy sense of sheer vibrant life that they give off. This is what The Jewel Garden enables its readers to do: build the beautiful imagined gardens of their memories and dreams, without any of the back-breaking hard work that would have to go into it in real life.

Rosa Cantabrigiensis ® David Austin

Rosa Cantabrigiensis ® David Austin

The Dons have done the groundwork for us, and the result is beguiling.

Sherlock, Invictus and pirates galore

Having finally settled in to the flat, unpacked the last box and had our first guests round for dinner, the time has come for a little literary update on my new surroundings. On Sunday the husband and I decided to go on a walking tour of literary Edinburgh, partly to get our cultural bearings and also because I had a job interview with UNESCO City of Literature Trust on Tuesday.

Edinburgh's iconic streets

Edinburgh’s iconic streets

Nothing like a bit of interview prep that can be done whilst having a sunny city stroll! The tour was a fascinating 90 minutes of anecdote threaded through the city’s south side, and galloped through the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling – with a fair sprinkling of bookshops and publishers to boot.

My husband has spent much of the last five years working in the Geosciences Building on Drummond Street and was amazed to discover from our guide that not only had it once been a hospital but that W.E. Henley had spent nearly three years of his life there under the watchful eye of a certain Joseph Lister. Now, when we first heard the name Henley neither of us recognised it, but the guide soon brought it to our attention that this was the man behind the poem ‘Invictus’:

Henley had had his leg amputated as part of his treatment for TB, and together with his beard and crutch was the inspiration for literature’s most famous pirate, Long John Silver – Stevenson had apparently carried an armchair on his head through the streets of Edinburgh to sit at his friend’s bedside. But he wasn’t the only member of his family to be immortalised in literature: his daughter Margaret, who died at the tragically young age of five, was the self-anointed ‘Fwendy-Wendy’ to a certain J.M. Barrie – and thereby Peter Pan’s ‘little mother’ was born. We couldn’t believe that there wasn’t more made by of these connections by the university – how great would it be to have ‘I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul’ emblazoned on the gates of the building that hundreds of students and staff use every day?

Behind the Geosciences school lie the Old Infirmary buildings, ranging round a quiet and almost entirely hidden courtyard providing little more than bicycle storage for today’s university students. But 150 years ago this had been the haunt of Dr Joseph Bell, the renowned surgeon and medical lecturer – and was the alma mater of a certain Arthur Conan Doyle, who (like Stevenson) took direct inspiration for his fictional characters from the people he saw in that corner of Edinburgh. Sherlock Holmes, his characteristic coat and hat and his incisive diagnostic skill, were based on Conan Doyle’s old lecturer.

At the end of the Drummond Street we come to two further literary links: the bar Hispaniola (named after the barque in Treasure Island), which until recently traded under the name Rutherford’s Bar, and had done so since at least 1836. Just over the road from Edinburgh University Law School, it provided a handy watering hole for such eminent alumni as RLS (him again!), Conan Doyle (and him), and Walter Scott.

And then on to J.K. Rowling, William Topaz McGonagall, Alexander McCall Smith, Paperback Books: it seems like every corner of Edinburgh teems with literary life past and present. The tour is a great romp through Auld Reekie’s history, but it really only has time to scratch the surface: what of Burns, Ferguson, and those Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine boys?

And, just so you know, I got the job – so that’s a pretty good recommendation for the effectiveness of the tour!

Bens Lomond and Ledi, Weirs Molly and Tommy

From the summit of Ben Lomond

From the summit of Ben Lomond

This weekend I doubled my tally of Munros summited. Ok, so it was only my second 3000-footer: but it really was a doubling from my previous total of just Ben Wyvis! Ben Lomond was my second, all 3195 feet of it, and it was a glorious sunny spring day as we made our way up, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, all sweating and swearing and stopping to look at the beautiful views of the sunny loch with its sparkly surface and perfect little islands. The main path on the south ridge was heaving with folk all the way up, but once we’d reached the top and started down the Ptarmigan ridge they thinned out almost to nothing, and we had a lovely stroll down this subsidiary flank in the late afternoon sunshine. We’d already pitched camp at the Forestry Commission campsite in Sallochy in the morning, so hurried back home in the evening light to make dinner on our little camp ‘kitchen’. The evening was beauteous and the shoreline sparkled with campfires glimmering in the gloaming – we hadn’t sorted out anything to burn ourselves, so walked along the shore amid the woodsmoke to keep warm before burrowing into sleeping bags and blankets for a sound night’s sleep.

Ben Ledi before me

Ben Ledi before me

The next morning dawned bright and sunny again, so we consulted the map and headed for Ben Ledi – 30 feet short of true Munro status, but a big walk none the less. We parked by the roaring motorbikes on the road between Callander and Strathyre, and set off up the unpleasantly named Stank Glen: fortunately it did not live up to its name and instead was a sunny and fairly open cleft, with plenty of forestry trails crossing the valley and some long twin-force falls at the centre. Once we’d popped up above the corrie, we skirted just to the south of the Lochan nan Corp – tarn of the bodies! Keen not to add ours to it, battling on upwards in ever-increasing wind, barely staying long enough for a summit photograph before heading for a rocky outcrop to hide behind and eat our summit snack. As with the day before, the descent was much quieter and we swiftly made out way back down, and within an hour and half were back in Edinburgh.

Now, what does this have to do with biography, you may be thinking? Apart from being a snapshot of my life, it is part of my experiment to live fully in Scotland and immerse myself in as many parts of it as possible: geographical, cultural, musical, political. I so want to enjoy my time here and want to tread in the footsteps of writers and walkers like Nan Shepherd, exploring those psychogeographical relations between places and people. So for each excursion I make into the wilds, I am going to be reading a book by a Scottish author with a connection to that place.

I love a view with my reading

I love a view with my reading

So, what was I reading this weekend? The actor Molly Weir’s Trilogy of Scottish Childhood. Hardly the obvious companion for a hill walk, but it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of being there. It was pure chance that a lovely friend of mine had bestowed on me a copy of this memoir just the day before, after I had begun to read it at her house, and that as soon as we arrived at Balmaha I spotted the new statue of her brother, the writer and climber Tom Weir, leaning brazenly in a red woolly hat placed boldly on his head by a visiting pilgrim. I have not yet seen any of the Weir siblings’ broadcasts – something to rectify – but I was so pleased that the book and the place were connected in this small way.

The Trilogy is pure 20th century memoir: it bursts with little stories of life growing up in Glasgow’s tenements and its humour and tone are warm and understated. Molly Weir was born in 1910, Tom four years later, and as children lived with their mother and grandmother in what seems like grinding poverty. The narrative follows Molly’s success at school and as a shorthand typist, and then covers her early years of life as an actor. Glaswegian Scots was the children’s first tongue, and the humour of that Springburn community is familiar to anyone who has seen Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle: tinged with darkness, full-blooded and self-deprecating. Our narrator bounces and bubbles along beside us, bringing the Co-operative shops and the trams and the tenements back to life beside us, with a terrific ear for a smart turn of phrase or a detail of domestic life. Anyone who believes Hallowe’en as an recent American invention cannot fail to notice how important a part it played in the life of these Glasgow families at the turn of the last century – its roots are deep in Scottish culture, and it provides a platform for the performances musical, rhythmical and spoken which are such an intrinsic part of Scotland’s life. Molly WeirSomething I was amazed at when I first moved to Ayr a few years ago was how everyone I worked with seemed to have a party piece – or several! Singing, dancing, playing the fiddle or flute, telling stories, putting on a party: these talents were shared at Burns Suppers and house-warming parties alike, and I loved that these folk performances were embedded into people’s social lives. Admittedly we were working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, so perhaps it attracted a higher than average number of performers, but the standard was superb and I wished that English folk culture was still a much greater part of people’s lives.

Storytelling is a much more prominent part of Scottish culture than it is in England. The Scottish Storytelling Centre sits proudly on the Royal Mile, and there are storytelling festivals up and down the country. Storytelling is at the heart of life-writing, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable at the overly folksy associations that ‘storytelling’ sometimes has: vague middle-aged women drifting about in tie-dyed dresses warbling tales of birds and beasts getting damp-eyed over rescued birds and brave bold boys. Building and transmitting interesting narratives is such an important part of everything most of us do every day – being it persuading people to buy, invest or donate money, shaping partnerships for new projects, helping people find the resources which best fit their needs, whether those be physical, financial or cultural – that the skills of storytelling should belong to everyone. And no-one who has ever sat through a school lesson, university lecture or staff training day will underestimate the importance of someone who can make the story of their subject matter interesting, whether it be the life cycle of the frog, Middle English poetry or the importance of maintain accurate accounts!

Molly Weir’s autobiography will probably never rate among the literary greats, but it is a perfect example of punchy Scottish storytelling and is fascinating even if you know nothing about Molly Weir. It is peppered with the dialect of Glasgow – again, living in Ayr had helped me ‘get my ear in’ to those west coast vowels – and its central characters are engaging and strong, from Grannie with her insistence on hard work and perfect manners, to Mother with her busy life at the rail works and love of dancing. The stereotyped Scot is often dour, but nothing could be further from the reader’s mind as she steps back a hundred years into those lively and rambunctious Glasgow streets alongside her curly-headed ‘Flying Scotswoman’, racing everywhere and meeting everyone and soaking it all in.

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Edinburgh’s Union Canal at night

 

Following Footsteps

Life-writing has always fascinated me because it connects lives and narratives in such creative ways. Fact and fiction are often blurred, and it always reminds me how anything we read is the product of some biased brain, to be absorbed by our own biased brains. This is not to condemn it; merely I find it useful to remind myself that all narratives and texts are subject to these same pressures. These post looks at a group of texts which very consciously explore those two realms, taking the same point of inspiration in three different directions of life-writing.

John Craxton designed the covers of almost all PLF's books

John Craxton designed the covers of almost all PLF’s books

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s almost uncompleted trilogy of travelogues detailing his walk from Rotterdam to Istanbul is one of my favourite-ever autobiographical series. If you have never come across them, I insist that you do so right away. Completed years later, it details the fantastic pilgrimage he made as a man in his late teens and early twenties. Overflowing with charisma, energy and great charm, PLF’s narratives have the glossy sheen of the experienced writer with none of the depressing nostalgia for youth which so often overshadows memoir. PLF’s infamous ‘embroidery’ technique is so skilful that it serves merely to add glamour and beauty to the rich fabric of his narrative, and one is only occasionally aware of feeling a snag of annoyance at realising it would be impossible for a 20 year old to have the historical knowledge and linguistic skill which PLF claims to have displayed.

The book was eventually called 'A Time of Gifts'

The book was eventually called ‘A Time of Gifts’

Telling, too, is the fact that they were written and published many years after the event they describe: 1977, 1986 and 2013 respectively, all referring to events which took place between 1933 and 1935. Even the author was aware of this and felt he should make reference to it, however obliquely: PLF suggested calling the first book Parallax, a word meaning ‘the difference in the appearance of an object seen from two different angles’ (Artemis Cooper, p.325). The result is a tantalising trilogy possessed of a narrative which is impossible to resist, either as a reader, biographer or traveller.

As with any purported autobiography, there is always the desire to know the ‘reality’ behind it. In 2012 Artemis Cooper, who collaborated with Colin Thubron on midwiving PLF’s final manuscript into the posthumous The Broken Road and who knew PLF from girlhood, produced Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, a biography which attempts (in part) to answer those almost unknowable questions. She obviously adored PLF – as did almost everyone, particularly women, with whom he came into contact. Her father and grandfather were part of his vast social circle, and her biography feels very much like a welcoming voice from ‘inside’, calling us into his world and checking everyone’s names at the gate. Peppered with beautiful little anecdotes (gathered in ways devious and wise – you can read about it here) the book is almost as riproaring a read as PLF’s own narratives, but very much aware of constraints of biographic form, waggishly disregarded by those original texts.

Nick Hunt's stylistically similar cover

Nick Hunt’s stylistically similar cover

Another response to the books is Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water (2014): an attempt to recreate the magic of that journey by physically retracing PLF’s every footstep. Well, almost – 78 years, one world war and the Romanian Ceauşescu-led genocide separate these two pilgrims; the changes wrought on the landscape ache with inevitability. Hunt describes a ‘cultural amnesia’ he finds in the former Soviet countries, where people will not talk about recent history which has wrought huge changes to their lives and landscapes. One poignant passage described Hunt’s search for the castle where PLf played bicycle polo and smoked an elaborate chibook alongside counts and archdukes – now it is ‘as broken as a building can be, smashed to smithereens’ (Hunt, p.170). This felt eerily familiar to me too – a few years ago I had spent a fortnight in Slovakia on a cultural exchange looking at museum interpretation (the adventures of which you can read about here), and I was very aware of the silence which surrounded Slovakia’s 20th century history, combined with the pride evident in the history of centuries and millennia before: ‘the gruesome nature of the distant past was much easier to represent than the horrors of more recent times’.

PLF’s narrative is, I think the greatest: not only because it provides the basis for the existence of the other two, and is thereby the more original, but because it actively benefits from the parallaxing between the young man and the old. Hunt’s journey is derivative by nature, and although he captures moments of Fermorian joy and beauty, it is overshadowed by the awareness that much of what PLF delighted in is gone, and therefore a sense of nostalgic loss permeates the narrative. Cooper has the Herculean task of trying to condense this immensely varied and complex life into a few hundred pages, whilst keeping up the brio associated with PLF. Both do, though, have something of the magician about them: Cooper in her ability to weasel stories from PLF’s omissions (as well as his admissions); and Hunt in being able to summon the great-granddaughter of Count Teleki, one of PLF’s genial hosts, to join him on his journey. From this point onwards, and the further East he walks from here, the more that nuns, farmers, shepherds and Roma remerge from the shadows of memory into full-bodied reality.

However, Walking the Woods and the Water, whilst ostensibly talking about the romanticisation of European history, does neatly sum up the allure of PLD’s writing:

‘…accuracy wasn’t the point. This mythologised affinity with suppressed ancient cultures spoke of a similar yearning for a long-lost age of greater freedoms, unbounded by rules, that bubbled under Europe’s surface like a buried river.’ (p.184-5)

18th century Slovakian church graffiti

18th century Slovakian church graffiti

Those yearnings and freedoms and buried cultural rivers – those are the things which PLF’s own particular brand of life-writing so vividly captures. Accuracy, whilst useful and taxonomically satisfying, is not the only goal of any writing, not even biography. Narratives drawn us closer to freedom, the hidden mysteries of other places and peoples, and it is through that we can find ‘Gemütlichkeit’ – ‘snugness, warmth, the feeling that you are accepted’. It is remarkable that our yearning for travelling and apparent freedom seems to stem from this need for acceptance, this desire to find your own kith or kin or kind and know: ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Slovakian painted house

Painted house, Slovakia (2011)