Lockdown Memories

I’m glad Twitter exists so that I can talk to the pals I can’t meet up with. This week I was talking to my friend, Rachel Rankin, about Dr Who. It reminded me of a piece I wrote ages ago for a Scottish Book Trust project, the name of which I no longer remember. I can’t even recall what the brief was. Anyway, here it is.

My daughters are now 24 and 21. Rosie is with her flatmates in Edinburgh and I haven’t seen her for weeks now. Juliet is stuck here with me and her dad and is desperately missing her pals and her boyfriend.

But, the sun is shining and we’re healthy and this will all be over eventually.

Regeneration Gap

The Stolen Earth is the first part of the finale in the fourth series of the new Doctor Who. It was first broadcast on Saturday 28th June 2008 on BBC1.

            The evening began well. We sat down to curry scooped from tinfoil containers after a day full of weekend chores and hobbies. Now there was a bowl of pakora to be dipped in fluorescent sauce and chilled white wine haemorrhaging into my glass. Rosie, our eldest, switched on the television and the whole family waited for the latest episode of Dr Who to begin.

            The familiar music started and we each had our own combination of excitement and anxiety that the souped-up piece of archaic electronica inspired. Whether it was John Pertwee, Tom Baker, Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant’s image that floated through our minds, we four were part of a collective experience – not just inside our kitchen – but in rooms with televisions all over the country for the best part of the last half century.

            As the music faded, it was Mr Tennant, the tenth doctor, whose face appeared on the screen and I noticed a huge grin emerge on Juliet’s face.  Few things display devotion as innocently as a nine-year-old girl in love with a fictitious time-lord played by a skinny young man from Renfrew.

            “Why do you like him so much?” I often asked her. She replied in evasive sound bites, “He’s funny,” or “He’s cute,” or “He’s Scottish.” I couldn’t understand her crush. True, her preferred Time Lord was given self-consciously amusing lines to say and, although he seemed to me to mug mercilessly at the camera using a strangulated, estuary English, Brit-pop accent he was definitely Scottish. Like everyone else in the West of Scotland, we were considerably less than six degrees of separation away from the great man himself. A friend of a friend lived next door to his sister and a neighbour’s work colleague had once sold him organic courgettes at a local farmers’ market.

            You couldn’t deny the new Doctor was good-looking and had more street style than the previous incarnation. I had been a fan, but admittedly, Christopher Eccleston’s brand of dour, Northern, leather-jacketed dad-chic had been an acquired taste. Juliet certainly thought David Tennant was perfect in the role. She adored his edgy Converse trainers, his sonic screwdriver, his increasingly precarious quiff and his ability to travel through time and space. In the early days, she had also adored his companion, Rose Tyler, an ordinary girl who was plunged into the Doctor’s thrilling world. If someone like Rose could meet him, then it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Juliet might grow up to do the same.

            That Saturday night, the plot revolved around a Dalek bid to steal Planet Earth and the subsequent mustering of the Doctor’s forces in an attempt to foil their evil plan. In a mind-bogglingly, convoluted story, the writers had conspired to amass our hero, his most unassailable foe and every companion of note from the last two series. Thus, as the Doctor battles to close the time portals that allow the Daleks to wreak havoc on Earth and threaten the very existence of the Universe itself, a motley crew of sidekicks gather for a timely reunion.

            The hype for this penultimate episode had been such that, even without her subscription to the weekly Dr Who Adventures magazine and borderline addiction to the official BBC website, Juliet knew that the end of this series would see a major character lost forever. We had discussed the possibilities at length over the last few weeks and every family member had a theory as well as a preferred character to be bumped off.

            It sounded like an exciting, engaging family-friendly adventure. The trouble was that we hadn’t counted on two crucial things. Firstly, the deep well of devotion that was our younger daughter’s love for the Doctor and secondly, the fact that the producers seemed to have decided that David Tennant should be the actor headed for the dole queue. By the end of the episode, the Daleks had captured and destroyed him and the only thing that could be done was for the Doctor to regenerate thanks to a body double and a rogue hand (don’t ask – it got complicated!). That meant, that when we tuned in next week for the final instalment, another actor would be playing the Time Lord. I looked over at Juliet and saw a mixture of shock and disbelief on her traumatised face. A few moments later she was sobbing – tears pouring onto her naan bread.

            I then discovered that in a situation like this, no amount of sensible chat about it being make-believe, the programme makers manipulating the audience in their quest for ratings, the actor being separate from his character and therefore not actually dead proved any help in alleviating the very real pain she was experiencing.

            We spent the next couple of hours wrapped in conciliatory cuddles while manically surfing the web trying to find any information about the denouement of the story. Frustratingly, in a world of information overload, media saturation and proliferation of reliable spoilers, it became apparent that the Dr Who production team had actually achieved the impossible and succeeded in keeping the outcome of the story top secret. I could find no clue, anywhere, as to what had happened and how it would play out next week.

            A nail-biting week ensued until Saturday evening rolled around again and – what do you know? – David Tennant lived to travel to another galaxy. It had all been a trick and was rectified within a few minutes by a series of implausible twists and turns. Juliet was mightily relieved, the angst of the previous seven days shrugged off as she became entangled in the latest plot development.

            It had been a classic case of girl meets boy, girl loses boy and then girl gets boy back again. So much for originality, Russell T Davies!

Flashback Fiction

This week it’s been great to have my short story, The Blockcutter, featured at the historical flash fiction journal http://flashbackfiction.com. The editors at Flashback have been really supportive and helpful and I enjoyed answering questions about the backstory to the piece and what is it I like about historical fiction.

The story is a re-working of a poem I wrote years ago. Last summer, I met up with a bunch of MLitt students to get feedback on our work as we pulled together our final portfolios. One week, in the middle of a rare Glasgow heatwave, we decided to split into pairs and work on short pieces, giving each other feedback. My partner Claire looked at the scrappy kind of poem/kind of prose that I’d never finished but didn’t want to abandon and my enthusiasm for it returned.

The story’s about my Grandad, William Alexander Low, who worked as the titular blockcutter in the linoleum industry in Kirkcaldy. Lots of my ancestors were involved in floorcloth and linoleum work in the long 19th Century. It was dirty, messy and smelly but the blocks that they made are really beautiful and are still exhibited in the local museum. They made me wonder about who decides on the artistic status of an object.

The story has lots of details about my Grandad’s life. He was a trades union member before they were recognised and accepted, a runner with the Kirkcaldy YMCA Harriers, a keen gardener who grew all his own vegetables. Flashback Fiction were kind enough to use one of the photographs I have of him as an apprentice to illustrate the story. Here are a few others I feel very lucky have survived.

 

Islay Folk

I’ve been so busy writing for my course, haven’t had enough time to take stock. But this weekend I got the chance to take a trip to Islay in the Southern Hebrides, partly to research the backstory for a character, partly to go to the Islay Sessions in Port Charlotte and partly to hang out with my friends and their family who live on the island.

This was my first time on Islay. We arrived by ferry, ushered in by wind, spray and rainbows and headed for Port Charlotte. We had a weekend ticket for The Islay Sessions which kicked off on Friday evening. It’s a music festival in microcosm and proves that size is definitely not everything. I was blown away by the variety and quality of the musicians we saw, not only at each concert but in the bar of the Port Charlotte Hotel well into the early hours each night. I want to go back next year so that I can stay and see the Sunday evening performance too.

While the rest of our party were checking on sheep or practising their fiddle-playing at the workshop, I headed to the Museum of Islay Life to do a bit of research. The central character of the novel I’m writing as part of my MLitt course is a woman charged with murder in Glasgow in 1816. Her backstory is that she was born in Islay in 1785 and left in 1810. I’ve done a lot of research remotely and the museum’s website is great but, I still had lots of questions. The staff of the museum were good enough to open up specially for me on a Saturday morning. I spent a couple of hours there with one of the trustees who was able to show me archive material and explain the practicalities of life on the island at the end of the C18th and beginning of the C19th. The converted church is packed full of interesting exhibits showing the development of Islay from ancient times up until the 20th Century.

In between music and museums, I explored a few other places on Islay. We spent a bit of time in Bowmore, which was laid out in the late 18th Century and, as well as a handy Co-op, has a round church, built that way so that the devil couldn’t find any corners to hide in. And Finlaggan, the home of the Lords of the Isles,  has a small visitors centre and crumbled ruins in the most out of the way, windswept landscape. One of the stories I heard on the island was about the two WW1 shipwrecks of British craft transporting American soldiers aboard the Tuscania and Otranto.  Hundreds of lives were lost and the  museum details both those stories and the impact it had on the island. On Sunday morning we ventured to the American cemetery at Kilchoman to see the memorial to those lost.

A magical weekend full of music, history, soup, scones and scenery. Can’t wait to go back.

Settled

Four weeks in and I’ve established a rhythm of sorts. Mondays are chock full of creativity. Our course runs a regular event – Creative Conversations – in the University Chapel at lunchtime. So far, I’ve listened to interviewees Leila Aboulelah, Alasdair Gray and Ron Butlin talk in depth about their writing. The sessions are open to the public and you can bring your lunch. There’s more info on upcoming writers here. This week Joanna Walsh talked about her new short story collection, Worlds from the Word’s End, as well as her Object Lesson’s volume Hotel and a beautiful digital project called Seed. You can find out more about them on Joanna’s website.

After easing myself into the week in the grandeur of the chapel, I have classes in the afternoon and evening. In the Creative Writing Workshop, it’s my turn to have my writing workshopped this week. As you’d expect it’s both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. I’ve submitted the first few chapters of the novel I’m working on. I did a lot of research and made a start on the first draft over the summer. I have an instinct that I’m finally approaching telling the story in a way that works but it’s difficult to be objective and I’m hoping I’ll get feedback from the group that’ll make me build up a head of steam with this project. Producing hundreds of words on a daily basis is bearable if you feel you’re broadly on the right track, if you feel like you’re swimming through a swamp of self-doubt before you turn on the laptop, it gets unpleasant. What I love about our workshop group is that everything I get from them is positive – not in a saccharine what-a-nice-story way – but in a pragmatic, constructive sense. It’s like taking your car to a trusted mechanic for a service and today I come out happy that, with some tweaks and considerations, my project is still roadworthy.

Moodled

It’s all about introductions this week. Getting to know the other students, figuring out who is in each group for classes, finding out what we need to read, submit, feedback on each week and, finally, trying to understand how Moodle works.

On Monday, I get my campus Wifi sorted and do a bit of work in the PostGraduate annexe in the Library. From the outside the Library looks the same as it did in the eighties but inside it’s full of extravagantly upholstered chairs, open access PCs, convertible seminar spaces with pull-down screens and electrical hook-ups. There’s been a wholesale shift from shades of beige and brown to primary colours. In the Craft & Experimentation class, the amount of reading I’m required to do starts to feel a bit overwhelming and I’m glad I ordered the first set of books in advance and had an initial read-through over the summer, despite my teenage daughter rolling her eyes in disgust.

The next day we find out what we have to do for our first Creative Workshop and meet those tutors for the first time. This bit is what I’m looking forward to the most. The idea that we can give and receive feedback on our writing is so exciting. The volume we have to submit means I can’t lose momentum. This seems more of an opportunity than a threat to me and I’m so glad that I’ve got work already drafted as well as lots of ideas stacked up in my mind’s filing cabinet.

That evening, the Creative Writing Department is hosting an interview with novelist Christopher Brookmyre. Technically, it’s part of our course but it’s not like hard work at all. I’ve read and loved lots of Brookmyre’s books and paid to see him talk a couple of times so being entertained for free is a treat. As usual, he’s really funny and interesting and talks in detail of what and how he writes. I like the fact that he’s irreverent and populist. It makes me feel at home.

And then, the taught part of the week is over and I have to knuckle down to preparing for next week’s sessions. This involves reading a novel, watching a movie, trying, and failing, to make sense of a literary essay, reading two submissions and writing my feedback on both and coming up with a couple of questions to post in advance of my workshop.

I still haven’t figured out how to sync my university email with my Mac and iPhone. I’m not convinced I’ll ever do it.

Inducted

Thirty years after I graduated, I’m back at the University of Glasgow. This time enrolled on an MLitt in Creative Writing. I’m feeling hopeful and that feeling is bolstered by a surprise appearance from the sun as I walk from my flat to embark on my first day.

I start with a general induction session in the Boyd Orr Building, a monolithic sixties tower where my first year undergraduate English Literature lectures took place. In the lift, a young woman asks her friend if she has any water. The friend laughs and says, sorry, no, are you really hungover? I’ve brought a water bottle filled to the brim even though I pursued a resolutely sober, early night in preparation for today. I’m smugly envious.

In the lecture theatre there’s an enthusiastic welcome and lots of useful advice. When the very helpful administrator takes us through the various Facebook groups and Twitter feeds that we might want to follow, a woman in the front puts her hand up to say she’s old and doesn’t do social media. Having spent chunks of the summer in the Apple shop, updating my skills and knowledge on MacBook and iPhone, I’m furious at her for letting the side down and resolve not to mention my age unless absolutely necessary.

The Creative Writing students have been invited to bring their lunch for another induction in the department’s building in Lilybank Gardens. On the way, I pick up a carton of soup from The Fraser Building opposite the library. In the 1980s, it was called The Hub and I suddenly have a mental picture of exactly what the interior looked like – all bleached wood and confusing geometric layout. If I was more of a sci-fi fan, I’d use this to write a story about time travel. This session is more relevant to the course I’m taking. We do a couple of ice-breakers, get told lots more useful information on the course itself and then go on a literary walk through the campus itself and beyond to the Botanic Gardens while the sun shines on us. We finish with drinks in Oran Mor on Byres Road.

I walk home fizzing with shandy and enthusiasm.