Sunday, 16 April 2017

A Fine Walk in Fife: Aberdour to Burntisland

I don't know how many times I've seen the coastal villages of Fife flash past from a train window. I've walked the better known parts of the Fife Coastal Path in the East Neuk, but until yesterday I'd never appreciated the wonders just across the Forth Bridge.

We started our walk at Aberdour, a very pretty little village with its own (ruined) castle (Historic Scotland - open every day in summer), two excellent beaches and a beautifully kept station. From the village the path heads first to the smaller, rockier beach of Black Sands, then up to Hawkcraig Point. It's a car park now, but in the First World War it was used for hydrophone research. Around 4,000 navy personnel were trained in this tiny place - you can find out more about it at the fascinating Museum of Communication in Burntisland.

The Coastal Path then descends to Silver Sands, a wider stretch of beach with its own cafe. On this sunny Saturday there were lots of families having picnics and intrepid (wet-suited) swimmers braving the water - but still plenty of room for everyone, because this, thank goodness, is Scotland, not the south coast.

Onwards to Burntisland; the path is very well kept and easy, with spectacular views across the Forth to Edinburgh. Half way along there's an impressive waterfall, and everywhere there are flowers - bright yellow gorse, bluebells, blossom, daffodils. A heron flies low across the rocks.

Burntisland might be a little less picturesque than Aberdour, but it has its own Blue Flag beach, some lovely old buildings, the second oldest highland games in the world, and fairs on the green at Easter and throughout the summer. The Potter About Cafe on the High Street is one of the friendliest tea shops I've come across - the staff are very welcoming and helpful, the cakes are great, the prices are low, and the cafe is very much part of the town; it collects food for the local food bank, offers suspended coffees to those who need them, and sells a small selection of local crafts and cards.

There's a great little greengrocer's, Macauley's - winner of the Central Scotland Fresh Produce Provider of the Year 2016, and stockist of lots of local produce.

The Museum of Communication (see above) is highly recommended - its volunteers are very welcoming and hugely knowledgeable, and there's plenty to entertain children as well as adults (tin hats to try on, a World War I trench to climb into, buttons to press...)

The wonderful Burntisland Heritage Trust hosts an annual exhibition - this summer's will be focusing on Mary Sommerville (1780-1872), local resident, mathematician, astronomer and campaigner for women's suffrage. Sommerville College, Oxford, is named after Mary, and her face will appear on new plastic Scottish £10 notes later this year. The Trust also offers free heritage walks every Wednesday in July and August (more information on their website here).

And so, fortified by far too much cake, we walked back to Aberdour, meeting lots of enthusiastic dogs en route. We were back in Edinburgh in half an hour; this lovely walk really is on our doorstep, and what's more it's all accessible by train from Waverley Station. At the end of April the Artline Group (formed in 2015 to showcase the restored art and heritage buildings on the railway through Fife) is holding an Open Doors Weekend, with open studios and exhibitions of paintings, jewellery, poetry and artifacts, plus interesting stories of restoration, at the stations of Burntisland, Inverkeithing, North Queensferry, Ladybank, Cupar, Kinghorn and Aberdour. You can visit them all without the car - and if you buy a cheap day return ticket you can break your journey en route. More information here.

I love Edinburgh, but sometimes it's good to get away from the city. A day out across the water is a day well spent.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Dr Neil's Garden: an Edinburgh oasis

‘Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves’ (John Muir)

The breeze is blowing through the reeds, ducks quack, swans trumpet, a heron slowly rises from a bank, spreading its wings wide. The sun is shining on the water.

And yet I am just a short bus ride from Edinburgh city centre, on a perfect Sunday afternoon in March, in a place I have wanted to explore ever since I moved to the city three years ago. It's at the edge of Duddingston Loch (part of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Bawsinch and Duddingston nature reserve); to the right Arthur’s Seat rises up, its steep sides covered in yellow gorse, but the garden in which I am standing is no ancient monument - it's just 54 years old.

In the 1960s this was a derelict patch of glebe land belonging to Duddingston Kirk. It had been used for grazing animals but it had never previously been cultivated, owing to its steep slope and rocky ground. Then in 1963 along came Drs Nancy and Andrew Neil. The Neils – both GPs working in Meadowbank - had had an allotment in Morningside, but had lost it to developers. They wanted somewhere else to garden; the kirk had no use for the land, and in a match made in horticultural heaven, Dr Neil’s Garden was born.

The Neils worked almost single-handedly on the garden until their deaths in 2005. They had a great interest in plants, and spent their holidays collecting new ones in Southern Europe – they even brought back young trees from California. 

The garden they created is a beautiful, peaceful place filled with birdsong and the cries of wildfowl on the loch. Hedges divide the slope into small ‘rooms’; you can sit and watch the birds on the loch or wander among the trees and flowers. From rhododendrons to redwoods, fir trees to fritillaries, the garden is full of life and beauty. Read your book, draw a picture; no-one will bother you here.

The Neils encouraged their medical patients to come and work with them in the garden; after the doctors’ deaths, volunteers developed a special Physic Garden featuring medicinal plants and herbs to commemorate their lives as physician and gardeners. 

In modern times the loch is unlikely to freeze over, but in the 18th and 19th centuries it was a major curling venue (though as skating became more popular, the curlers had a harder time gaining access to the ice. Henry Raeburn’s famous painting The Skating Minister depicts the Reverend Robert Walker gliding across the loch). Thomson’s Tower, a two story building in one corner of the garden, was designed by William Henry Playfair, and built in 1825 for the Duddingston Curling Society to store its stones. On my visit I was lucky enough to meet Ian, chair of the society and font of knowledge about the garden, the tower, and of course, curling. Ian showed me the cosy upstairs room – complete with its own fireplace – which was not only a meeting place for the curlers but also provided a sanctuary for the then minister of the kirk, John Thomson. 

Thomson was an artist as well as a clergyman. In his youth he had been taught by Allan Ramsay’s pupil, Alexander Nasmyth (designer of the temple at St Bernard’s Well, Stockbridge). Thomson, however – as befitted a good clergyman of the day – had nine of his own children plus four stepchildren; the manse was a busy place. Hiding away in the tower, Thomson could paint away to his heart’s content, though what his wife thought of this arrangement is unrecorded.

The ground floor of the tower is now Ian's Museum of Curling and well worth a visit – it has lots of memorabilia and has attracted donations of curling stones from all over the world. Meanwhile the upper room houses an exhibition about the garden and Duddingston Village. The tower is open to visitors in the summer months (Ian kindly gave me a private view), and it is also possible to hire the upstairs room, with its fabulous views of the loch, for small art shows and meetings.

After a walk - or even before one - the mind turns naturally to food, but there’s no need to leave the garden to find sustenance. The Garden Room (Wednesday to Sunday, summer only – it’s open now) can offer you tea, coffee and lots of lovely cakes, plus soup at lunchtimes. It’s at the top of the garden and is run by friendly volunteers from Duddingston Kirk.

And if, after your visit, you’re loath to leave, guess what? You can stay! No, you can’t pitch your tent on the sloping shores, but if you live in
or near Edinburgh you can volunteer to help in the garden. There are sessions every Tuesday and Friday at which you can have a go at watering, weeding, garden maintenance and repairs, meet new people and get some exercise and fresh air. You can come for the whole day or just a morning or afternoon, and you don’t need lots of experience either;

‘Whatever your reason, level of experience, age or ability, we will endeavour to make you feel welcome, to work to your strengths, to teach and encourage your progress with practicality and kindness.’

If you are interested you are invited to contact the Gardener via

Entry to the garden is free, though donations are very much appreciated. You can take Lothian Buses no. 42 from Hanover Street or Stockbridge, or you can walk to the garden
from the entrance to Holyrood Park behind the University of Edinburgh’s Pollock Halls – the road follows the edge of the loch to Duddingston Village.  If you’re going by car there is a car park adjacent to Duddingston Kirk Hall on Duddingston Road West. Please note that dogs are not allowed in the garden. Also note that the loch is not fenced, so anyone bringing young children would have to be extremely vigilant.

More than two weeks have passed since my visit, but I still think often of the afternoon I spent in Dr Neil's Garden, an oasis of calm and beauty in our busy city, and in our troubled world..

For more information visit

Friday, 18 April 2014

My week in Edinburgh: three writers, one woman, and far too many scones...

This week I've been entertained, challenged, fascinated and appalled.  It's amazing what writers can do to you.  Thank goodness I've also discovered another lovely café: a woman needs her scones after all that turmoil.


‘All writers are control freaks’

 – or so says Mark Danielewski.  He should know – last Hallowe’en he orchestrated a performance of his new novel The 50 Year Sword, with five actors not only reading the text but also completing one another’s sentences.  Danielewski  ‘musically stitched together their voices’, seeing himself as ‘Harry Potter in a different way’ and says that the read-through showed him just how the parts of the book fitted together.
On Monday, Danielewski was at Blackwell’s for the UK launch of this novel, his third.  In conversation with Mark Buckland of publishers Cargo, Danielewski explained that each of his works is an attempt to ‘remediate’ a different subject.  Previous books have looked at horror stories and music, whilst his current work-in-progress will remediate the TV series. The 50 Year Sword takes as its subject the classic ghost story, the story told around the camp fire.  A Thai seamstress who is getting over a failed marriage comes across Belinda Kite – her nemesis – at a party.  She thinks of leaving but stays, and the consequences of her decision form the book’s story.

Danielewski wants the book to be read straight through: with just a few words of text on each page,  it should only take an hour.  He thinks a great deal about how text will look on paper, and is much influenced by William Faulkner and Laurence Sterne, both of whom played with the colour and form of text. Danielewski sees himself as part of this experimental tradition, and explores the effects on his characters of changing colours, fonts and even margins.  For him, image and text become one, the shape and colour of a letter or word having as much influence as its literal meaning.  He talks about ‘breaking the vessel’ (of traditional forms) to allow language and meaning to pour out.  This can liberate meaning, freeing the words and allowing them to grow.

He sees language as ‘oscillating on the page’ - it is integral to our lives but also mystic, and he has come to realise that even language is small compared to the world around us, and only one of the tools we can apply to try to comprehend that world.  One part of our minds processes text, another images, and for Danielewski the best way to understand the world is to look between the two.  This, he says, leads to new experience.
Danielewski is interested in the tradition of oral storytelling – one that is of course still strong in Scotland.  Voices, he says, come together like ghosts within the speaker, so that sometimes a different story emerges.  He seeks to show that different voices will tell different versions of the same story.  We present ourselves as complete beings, but we are the product of many influences and experiences.  The 50 Year Sword includes many images of a butterfly; these were sewn with thread onto paper, then scanned.  The stitches were snipped out then re-sewn, to show how we cut our experiences apart and sew them together.  We need to take things apart to create a new whole.

E-books initially appealed to Danielewski , allowing as they do the use of many colours and fonts, but he found that after initial enthusiasm, sales have flattened out – there is a resistance to them, a failure to deliver something that readers still get from a traditional book.  He’s also tried an animated version of The 50 Year Sword for i-pad, but this has also had only limited success.   The book is clearly here to stay, though Danielewski will continue to push the boundaries, to investigate its potential, and to explore that exhilarating space between our senses.

The 50 Year Sword by Mark Danielewski is published by and available from Blackwell's, Edinburgh

This article first appeared on

My next writer is also pushing the boundaries.  A highly successful crime novelist, he is now breaking the rules by introducing elements of the supernatural into his books.  He says that, as a new generation of readers emerges - one that is open to fantasy and graphic novels - this is the only way for a genre to develop and grow.  


Writer John Connolly on moral heroes, mixed genres – and middle-aged men

John Connolly has updated his image.  He’s even bought a new waistcoat – ‘the middle-aged man’s gastric band’ – and on Tuesday he was at Blackwell’s to show it off, and to discuss his new novel, The Wolf in Winter, the thirteenth in his series about Charlie Parker, former detective and anti-hero.  In a hugely entertaining and fast-paced talk, Connolly switched effortlessly from jokes about failed Irish criminals to thoughts on the moral themes that inform his writing. 

Connolly is Irish, but sets these books in Maine.  He says it’s because Ireland has little history of crime fiction – but he also likes the US state’s environmental extremes; its vast forest; the contrast between its wealthy coast and less affluent interior.  Many US crime writers set their books in states other than their own, and Connolly feels that looking at a place from the outside ‘allows you to see the oddness of it.’
Rejecting the received opinion that crime writing is plot-driven, Connolly sees readers as far more interested in characters.  He challenged the audience to recall the plots of the last three thrillers they had read (I couldn’t, but proving his point, I could remember Hercule Poirot, John Rebus and VI Warshawski.)  Our affection for crime writing is, he says, tied up solely with its people, especially as it’s one of the few forms that allow a writer to return to the same characters time and again.  He admires the work of Ed McBain and Ross MacDonald, and sees James Lee Burke as the greatest living crime writer. 

Connolly writes in a variety of genres, including ghost stories and children’s books – he is all too aware that some crime writers trade on the affection for their characters by simply churning out the same book every year, good or bad; he likes Parker, and doesn’t want to waste his readers’ time, so he takes a break from the series to work on other projects and keep his Parker novels fresh.  He is also keen to thank his loyal followers; one way that he does this is to include a CD with each book - music that seems to match the story, either lyrically or musically.  He says only men define themselves through music: ‘it’s a fan boy thing.’  Ideas, he says, can be expressed through many different media - indeed, after having written another of his novels, The Book of Lost Things, he noticed that its story was mirrored in the film Pan’s Labyrinth.  ‘We are all pulling from the same pool of ideas, the same cloud of inspiration.’

Asked why his novels are bleak, Connolly replied that he did not see them as such.  Raised a Catholic (although no longer practising), he grew up with strong values of morality, justice, compassion and empathy.  His characters are all in search of redemption, and their stories offer the reader hope.  Parker is a moral being, this is his strength and his weakness, and for Connolly the books are about the importance of ‘not standing by.’

Breaking away from the purely logical traditions of classic crime writing, Connolly has now started to introduce a supernatural element to his writing.  Younger readers, he says, have grown up with fantasy and graphic novels and are far more open to experimentation: the genre advances only by people pushing the boundaries.  He is letting Parker age through the series because he hopes this will allow the character and the novels to develop; he is not interested in writing ‘rote books.’  He resisted hopeful questions about the plot of the next book, but said that he already has the series’ conclusion worked out.

A character who cares about his characters – and his readers – Connolly was a deserving hit with Tuesday night’s enthusiastic audience; the queue for the book signing afterwards showed that his books are every bit as popular as his banter.

The Wolf in Winter is published by Hodder & Stoughton and available from Blackwell’s, Edinburgh.

This article first appeared on

On Thursday, I was at Looking Glass Books to hear a writer with a story to tell as appalling as it is fascinating. This was without doubt the most thought-provoking evening of a week rich in ideas and entertainment.

THE GUILLOTINE CHOICE - a work of very little fiction

Michael Malone believes he was always meant to tell Kaci’s Mohand Saoud’s story.

Already a writer and poet, Michael was on his way home from the bookshop where he worked one night when he stopped off at a café in Ayr.  It was late in the evening, he was the only customer, and he got chatting to the North African owner.  Then he went home.  Two weeks later, the organiser of his local writers’ club told him that someone had been in touch, asking if Michael would write his father’s life story.  Michael said he was too busy.  Time passed; Michael gave a talk at the club: in the audience was that same Algerian, Bashir Saoudi.  Michael and Bashir met, but Michael was still hesitant; he had plenty of writing on his plate already.

Michael was at that time in touch with a psychic, Joan Charles, in connection with another book he was writing.  She called one day to discuss the research she was helping him with and told him that every time she tried to email him, she typed Martin instead of Michael.  She didn't know anyone called Martin. And the only Martin she could think of was Martin Bashir.  The next morning, in the shop, the only book on the counter was The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s classic text on the colonisation of Algeria.

Michael was hooked.

On Thursday, Michael was at Looking Glass Books to introduce The Guillotine Choice, a story that starts in 1920s Algeria and ends – if it ends at all – in modern day Cambridge, where Bashir now lives.  It is a story of a man’s, and a country’s, honour, suffering, oppression and ultimate liberation.

At the age of 17, Kaci was an assistant to the accountant of a hydroelectric station near his home in the village of Maillot, leading the Frenchman up into the hills on his visits to the plant.  The Frenchman was known to carry gold to pay the workers; one day he was murdered for it.  Kaci was the obvious suspect, and the lack of conclusive proof didn’t bother his colonial rulers; he was charged with complicity to murder, but told that he could walk free if he named the real killer. The Berber code of honour is strong; family ties are everything.  Kaci knew that his cousin Arab had committed the crime, but he also knew that if he spoke up, Arab would be sent to the guillotine.  He chose to remain silent, and was sentenced to 20 years hard labour on Devil’s Island, French Guiana.

In France at that time, any sentence of over eight years was automatically doubled.  For those sent to Devil’s Island, this was followed by ‘in perpetuity’ - men were freed, but not allowed to leave the island because the French wanted people to populate it.  Few others would choose to live there.

Devil’s Island was a notorious place.  Over 9,000 convicts were sent to it every year, but its population remained at that figure because so few survived.  Transported by boat on which they were kept in a cage with no sanitation (the stronger men acquired hammocks ‘an exercise in power’, the rest had to lie on the floor in pools of excrement), many died in transit.  On arrival, sent to barbaric logging camps in the interior, the lethal combination of yellow fever and starvation put paid to most of them within the first few months. It was, says Michael, a brutalising experience for all concerned, prisoners and guards alike. 

Algeria gave the French more trouble than its other African colonies, so they practised a policy of divide and rule, encouraging disputes between Algerians to deflect criticism of France itself.  They brought Moroccans to Maillot to work in the hydroelectric plant because they did not want the Algerian locals to earn any money; it is said that they wanted to turn the country into ‘a nation of beggars.’ 

Michael does not seek to demonise the French in telling this story, pointing out that many European countries including the UK committed similar atrocities in the name of colonisation and ‘development.’  Many French people have praised the book and urged him to publish it in France; they say Algeria’s story needs to be told, and France needs to examine its past sins.

Bashir was determined to tell his father’s story, and gleaned much of it from other family members on his frequent trips home.  Eventually his father relented and allowed Bashir to interview him, but there were still some things about which he never spoke. 

Michael has never been to Algeria, although he would very much like to visit.  In the ten years that it took Michael and Bashir to complete The Guillotine Choice, he immersed himself in research on the country’s culture.  He calls writing ‘an exercise in empathy’; the most important thing is to be able to stand in another man’s shoes.  He and Bashir eventually decided to write the book as fiction, even though at least 80% of it is true, because there were still gaps in the story.  Bashir had already written a hundred pages of the story before he met Michael, whom he chose because he admired his work ‘and I can’t put two sentences together.’  It is a work of collaboration; sometimes Michael had to rearrange the story to make sure it held the reader’s attention, but Bashir was always consulted over any changes.  He is delighted with the end product, as can be seen on Michael’s Facebook page, where a video clip show Bashir opening a parcel containing the very first copy:

Other books have been written about Devil’s Island.  Henri Charriere’s Papillon is perhaps the most famous, and was made into a film in 1973   Only one book, however, tells the story of Bashir Saoudi’s father, the story of the ultimate honourable choice made in a dishonourable world.

The Guillotine Choice by Michael J. Malone and Bashir Saoudi is published by and available from Looking Glass Books, Edinburgh.

Michael J. Malone’s other publications include Blood Tears, Carnegie’s Call and A Taste for Malice.  His next crime novel will be out in March 2015.

Bashir Saoudi is a computer systems engineer with Cambridge Silicon Radio.  He hopes to retire to Algeria one day.

This article first appeared on


My cafe this week is the Salt Yard, Dalry Road, which is run by Gorgie Dalry Church.  It is a fair trade establishment, serving coffees, teas, home baking , soups, sandwiches, 'savoury plates' and lots of delicious stuff. 

The interior is beautifully spacious, with cool blue and white decor, comfortable sofas, a children's play area and a fair trade corner selling gifts and homeware. 

The people serving are very friendly and helpful, and the atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful (though they did warn us that it can be a lot busier than it was on the day we visited - it's very popular.)  The scones were very good, as was the coffee, all served on pretty blue and white china.

The Salt Yard is uses eggs from Happy Hens, bread from, coffee from Indigo Valley and fair trade teas.  It is at 158 Dalry Road, and open Tuesday to Saturday, 10-4.

*NEXT WEEK* - I hope to be seeing authors Joan Rowe at Morningside Library and Kirsty Logan at Looking Glass Books.  I'll also be celebrating World Book Night at Blackwells, with John Burnside, Jenni Fagan, Jim Crumley and Angela Jackson.  And I might just be eating a few scones - I'm always looking for new and lovely cafes, so if you know of any, please share!

Friday, 11 April 2014


This week, I've enjoyed seeing an artist who writes poetry and a novelist who writes libretti. I've also learned that there are more similarities between life in Korea and Scotland than I might have imagined, and that a 1940s childhood was pretty much the same whether it was lived in Arbroath or Acton.  And it won't surprise you to know that I've had an excellent scone (or two.)

Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin was in conversation with Scotsman Books Editor David Robinson at Blackwell's.

Butlin (right) says he is a lucky man,

‘I still wake up in the morning with the same boyish enthusiasm that I had in my twenties.  I can’t wait to get on with my work in progress.’

He’s been Makar for six years, counts Neil Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith amongst his admirers, has written novels, short stories, poetry, operas and plays, and is now launching his latest book, Ghost Moon, the story of Maggie and her son Tom.  It’s a story of cruelty, intolerance, shame - and ultimate redemption, of Edinburgh society in the early post-war years when ‘nothing was open on a Sunday and the swings were all locked up.’  A society that shuns a young pregnant woman, a woman who flees to the Western Isles only to have more doors slammed in her face. It’s also the story of Maggie now – back in Scotland and suffering from Altzheimer’s – and of how the disease allows her to confront her pain and come to terms with her past.

In conversation with David Robinson at Blackwell’s, Butlin described how the idea for the book came to him at a very difficult time in his life.  He heard an inner voice saying just a few words, about a woman walking up and down a ship’s deck.  Butlin has a great deal of time for inner voices, ‘the only thing in the world that is on your side’ – he listened, and realised that the woman was in fact his own mother.  Pregnant and unmarried, she had been thrown out by her own family in 1949; her desperation was such that she sailed to Canada to find distant relatives.  They opened the door, saw her and shut it firmly.

Butlin and his sister did not discover his mother’s past until he was in his thirties and already a writer. Photos of Canada were dismissed as ‘holiday snaps’, and his mother was always reluctant to talk about her past. He stresses that the novel is a work of fiction – many blanks remain in his mother’s story, blanks which he has filled in for Maggie and Tom. Writing the book gave him an understanding of his mother’s suffering, and of how magnificently she fought through it, but he is saddened that she died before he was able to share this with her.

Although Ghost Moon’s themes are sometimes bleak, there is plenty of humour.  Butlin is a happy person whose love of life is shines through in his animated readings and conversation.  Humour, he says, is fundamental, it illuminates dark moments and ‘takes you right to the heart of things.’

And the title? Butlin was once asked to suggest a name for the moon when it is seen in the daytime sky, when it is there but a little bit out of place and time, half seen but intangible. Ghost Moon seems a fitting term for that, and also for the touching story of one woman’s survival and ultimate peace.

Ghost Moon is published by Salt Publishing and available from Blackwell’s, Edinburgh.
The Scottish National Galllery's Hawthornden Theatre was packed for a lunchtime talk by Adrian Wiszniewski.

This article was first published on The Edinburgh Reporter

If you think modern artists are too full of themselves, you would have had that opinion changed at this entertaining talk.  A funnier, more self-deprecating, down-to-earth man then Wisniewski you could not hope to meet.

Adrian was in conversation with Senior Curator Patrick Elliott to celebrate the launch of a monograph by his friend Alex Kidson and a new exhibition of his work.  He is known for his huge and colourful figure paintings, which combine everyday life with images of fantasy and myth.

Born into a large, and largely non-artistic, family in Castlemilk, he recalls being fascinated by pictures of paintings and sculptures in the only books in the house, a set of encyclopaedias –  (the only colour plates were of the Royal Family – ‘I had a close acquaintance with Prince Charles from an early age.’)  His mother, when asked what he should draw next, replied:

‘Draw me a five pound note and see if we can spend it.’

After an initial foray into architecture, he applied to the Macintosh School of Art Painting & Drawing course, and was accepted straight into second year.  He remembers that time as one of great freedom and tremendous creative energy – students had carte blanche to do what they liked, and learned from one another.  In third year, he studied mixed media and conceptual art, working with fellow students Steven Campbell, Ken Currie and Peter Howson. He and Campbell staged their own show, ‘borrowing’ the refreshments from the rather more affluent fashion department.

The 1980s dawned; the arts were taking off in Glasgow.  Adrian felt he had nothing to lose by trying a career in painting (‘a great job because you can sit in front of the telly all day, ‘thinking’ ‘) He had no money, and had to abandon the use of oil paints because he couldn’t afford them.  His first painting after leaving college, ‘My Jewish Brother’, was rejected by the Scottish Society of Artists.  It is now one of his most celebrated works.

There followed a decade of rapid success, with exhibitions at the Compass Gallery, Third Eye Centre, Tate and MOMA.  Most of Adrian’s work from that time has ended up in the public domain, an outcome that pleases him greatly.  He acknowledges the influence of ‘hard core’ conceptual artists like Bruce Nauman and Bruce McLean, admiring the wit in their work. 

By the 90s, and again short of money, Adrian began to work with distemper because it was cheap.  He also recommends compressed charcoal - ‘it lasts forever’, and has experimented with paint pads as a change from brushes. He draws and re-draws his subjects, but then ‘just paints’, often not knowing how a work will turn out until it is finished.  Simple as he makes it sound, his work is full of complex imagery and symbolism – the purely decorative is not for him. He paints such huge pictures ‘because you’ve got to hog the space.’  Every exhibition entry costs money; it’s cheaper to submit one work and make a big impression.

Bored with developments in the late 90s art world, Adrian took a residency at Liverpool’s Walker Gallery – here he relished the opportunity to develop his own work without the pressure of selling, and later designed everything from rugs and wallpaper to a tower in Hamilton and even a Dundee car park. Damien Hirst was now in his ascendance, but for Adrian the corporate values of the Cool Britannia scene were unacceptable; he wanted to remain engaged with the real world.  Always looking for new ways to express his ideas, he also writes poetry, plays and books, and will ‘have a go’ at most things.  A recent interest is nature, particularly flowers.

After a very informative and enjoyable hour, Adrian was off to the Dovecot Studios for the first sight of a rug he has designed.  In the evening, his new exhibition opened, and will run at the Open Eye Gallery until 23rd April.  He is clearly a man of many talents, but also that rare thing in the art world, a man with both feet on the ground.

Open Eye Gallery, 34 Abercromby Place EH3 6QE:
‘Adrian Wiszniewski’ by Alex Kidson, Sansom & Co, 2014, Bristol:

This article was first published on The Edinburgh Reporter

The British Council, LTI Korea and LBF Korea are currently sponsoring an 18 month exchange programme between the UK and South Korea.  At the Central Library on Thursday evening, writers Kim Insuk and Han Kang took the stage with Glasgow’s own Karen Campbell to discuss themes of the individual, social alienation and migration.  The discussion was chaired by BBC Arts Producer, Serena Field.

Kim Insuk has won all three major Korean literary awards in the course of her career. She is part of Korea’s ‘386 generation’ – people born in the 1960s, who became students in the 1980s and who were in their thirties when the term was invented fifteen years ago.  The 1980s were a very difficult time in Korea – a military dictatorship was in power, and Insuk recalled that students spent more time protesting than studying.  Her most painful and powerful memory of those years was seeing a friend set fire to himself; as she watched him die slowly in hospital, she asked herself ‘what more can I do to after this?’ – yet she knew she had to do something, and that literature had to play its part in attacking the injustices in society.  This gave her a very clear remit.

The democratic election of a president in 1987 led to a huge feeling of positive energy in Korean society; young people believed that they could do great things, but as they have aged, Insuk feels they have become complacent and part of the ‘old guard’ themselves.  Korean society has changed beyond measure, and at a speed never seen in the West.  Insuk has to work harder to find the themes for her writing, and has become interested in how individuals become alienated from society.  Her story ‘Long Road’ is about a member of the 386 generation who, disillusioned  with Korean life, emigrates illegally to Australia.  Emigration and alienation are traditional themes in Korean literature; Insuk is, however, more interested in how an individual may alienate himself from society than in how gaps in income levels and the modernisation of society may alienate him.  Korean writing is now focusing on immigrants to the country and also considering the position of Koreans returning to Korea after growing up overseas, who may feel alienated in their own homeland.

Han Kang, a professor of creative writing in Seoul, is younger than the 386 generation, but still remembers the 1980s; she was aware of the Gwangu Massacre (in which up to 169 people may have died in protests against the military government), and from childhood she questioned how people could do such terrible things to their fellow men.  She writes to ask questions not to offer solutions, and says that she could not have started writing if she had felt that other writers had all the answers.  Her novel ‘The Vegetarian’ is about a girl who decides to live without harming others; she eventually believes she is a plant, and starts to starve herself to death. Meat-eating is used as a symbol for man’s violence and cruelty – Kang poses the question, is it possible to live without causing any harm at all, or will this in itself cause harm?  What is the individual’s role in society?

Karen Campbell’s new book ‘This is where I am’ looks at alienation through the life of Abdi, a Somalian refugee in Glasgow and his mentor, Deborah.  Although Karen has previously written crime novels, all of her work has been about identity; she writes about facades, what goes on behind closed doors and behind our personal barriers.  Just as people have preconceptions about police officers, so they make assumptions about refugees – people don’t have the time or interest to challenge this social shorthand.

Karen seeks to show how a person away from their own home can become an infantilised, truncated version of themselves – they may be defined by the word ‘refugee’, and feel that they can only share a small part of their lives with strangers.  We can all choose the identities that we present to the world, but refugees may have far more baggage and far less chance to unload it.  They may also find it too painful to speak about their experiences, especially to someone like Deborah, a woman volunteering for a charity and who has been told to keep some emotional distance.

With this new novel, Karen has had her best ever reader response - she was heartened to hear that the members of a rather conservative book group reported that it had ‘made us look at refugees in a different light.’

This was a fascinating and thought provoking evening.  The British Council is hoping to arrange further collaborations between the two countries before the programme ends in October 2014.

This article was first published on The Edinburgh Reporter

I want also to mention an excellent exhibition that opened at the Doubtfire Gallery this week.  'Soor Plooms and Sair Knees' features the work of Bob Dewar, illustrator and cartoonist, and tells the story of a 1940s childhood in small town Scotland.  It's full of humour, with brilliant drawings of all those things we've forgotten - chimney sweeps, rag & bone men, sweetshops, family TV evenings (yes, those!), wet and windy seaside holidays; even if, like me, you grew up far from Scotland and a few years later, you'll find so much that is familiar in this hugely enjoyable collection.  There are free 'soor plooms' too, provided by the very nice gallery owner.

Sair Plooms & Sair Knees is on until 26th April at the Doubtfire Gallery, 1-3 South East Circus Place; Monday to Saturday 10-5.  You can also buy the excellent book of the same name from the galllery or for £12.99.

This article was first published on The Edinburgh Reporter

My featured cafe this week is Bon Papillon in Howe Street. 

 It's an art gallery and framers run by Ingrid Nilsson and Stuart Allan, and the front of the shop is a peaceful place to enjoy their wonderful home baking, soups,salads and rolls.  The scones are freshly made by Stuart, who is always experimenting with different flavours - this week I gobbled up my raspberry one so quickly that I only remembered to take a photo at the 11th hour. The hot drinks are served in very pretty mugs too - always a bonus - and of course you can take in the beautiful art at the same time, and even watch Ingrid working away in the back.   There's free wi-fi and they also offer a take-away service. Definitely my favourite place in the New Town.

Bon Papillon, 15 Howe Street -  open 9-5 Wednesday to Sunday (

It's been a busy week.  How was yours?

Friday, 4 April 2014

Edinburgh life

I've been neglecting this blog for a while, during which time I've moved from East Lothian to Edinburgh - and rediscovered what an amazing city this is.  With so much going on every day and night, I've decided to blog more about my daily life, the sights I see as I walk around town, the events that I attend - and of course, the tea shops that I find along the way.

This week I've had the great pleasure of seeing the author and journalist Damian Barr at the Central Library, the feminist, writer and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant at the university, and the new comic book creator and witty auctioneer Scott Davidson at Stockbridge Library.  All of these events were free, which just underlines what a great place Edinburgh is to live in - and what's more, I walked to each and every one, so eat your heart out London, I could never do that there!

Melissa Gira Grant spoke at the Edinburgh University Feminists Society.

She's written a book, 'Playing the Whore', which is an attempt to dismantle stereotypes - she says that some police forces in the US and elsewhere tend to have a set image of sex workers, and use the law relating to prostitution to target people that they may really want to apprehend just because they are different. Grant's view is that whilst it is all very well to discuss the rights and wrongs of the industry, the far more pressing issue is to protect (and increase) the rights of people working in it right now. Sex workers have the right to choose their occupation, and only want the same workplace rights as other people, but they are increasingly criminalised and marginalised, especially when the places that they can meet and work together (saunas, shared flats, etc) are closed. She draws comparisons between the situation of sex workers and domestic workers - again, the latter are nearly always women, and again they have few rights because both jobs are often seen as something that women should do for free. This was a powerful, well supported event which challenged many of the ways that we look at women's lives.

Damian Barr's hugely successful book is called 'Maggie and Me':

His first memory of Margaret Thatcher comes from the night on which he and his young sister sat with his mother on the floor of a grim flat in Motherwell, watching the news on a tiny portable telly.  They had just left the family home (his dad kept the colour set) and moved in with Logan, his mother's new boyfriend, a violent bully who from then on made Damian's life a misery.  On the TV, the Grand Hotel in Brighton was in ruins - the Tory party conference now a famous casualty of the IRA - but Mrs T stood firm.  'Shit doesn't burn' says Damian's mother, 'Maggie won't.'  Damian finds that even he is allowed to swear about Maggie without getting cuffed: 'that's how bad she is.'   With the support of great teachers and his then girlfriend's family, Damian eventually escaped Lanarkshire and arrived, via Edinburgh, Lancaster and Texas, in London. He wrote for The Times for many years, and is now a freelance journalist, also running a literary salon featuring the likes of none other than Armistead Maupin and Kirsty Wark.  He came out as gay some years ago, and last year married his partner: they live in Brighton, but Barr says even that isn't safe from homophobia - this weekend, the English Defence League will march through the town (they tried it last year and were defeated by the community playing 'I Will Survive' through loudspeakers until they begged for mercy.)  Last night, Barr was in conversation with the excellent Richard Holloway, former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh - he could not have wished for a better interviewer, and the combination of the two made for an entertaining, and often poignant, evening.

The highpoint of my week, however, was an event for World Autism Day.

Scott Davidson, a client of Art Link Edinburgh, has collaborated with celebrated writer Alan Grant and artist Robin Smith to create a wonderful new comic, Scott Vs The Zombies.  Set in Edinburgh, it tells the story of Scott the super hero as he battles zombies in locations as varied as the Castle and a Lothian bus, eventually saving the city and his Mum, Liz.  Liz spoke movingly about Scott's young life, which he lived largely through the characters of super heros as this helped him to cope with the everyday challenges of his autism.

Art Link is a charity that sees participation in the arts as a medium of social and personal change, and they encouraged Scott to be the hero of his own story.  Liz said that the whole experience has been brilliant for both of them, not only giving Scott much more confidence and self-belief, but also radically changing the way that he his perceived by others.  Scott himself also talked about the comic, how much he loves it and how he is now starting to think about plots for the sequel.  There then followed an auction of all of the original artwork from the book.

The auctioneer was a zombie himself, and Scott wielded the gavel with expertise, whilst keeping the enthusiastic audience entertained with his witty comments.  A great evening for a great young man and an equally great organisation.

Scott vs the Zombies is available for £1.99 at Forbidden Planet, Art Link, and Autism Scotland.

And finally, a cafe. This week I am singling out for praise the wonderful Piece Box, which is now dangerously near to my Edinburgh doorstep.

As a scone addict, I have to say that theirs are some of the best in Edinburgh - they are huge and totally yummy.  Last weekend they were filled with raspberries, which made them even more delicious.  The Piece Box is a cosy place, with armchairs, cushions and pink chandeliers.  Although I always have the scones, there is a groaning counterful of amazing cakes, and a full menu of soups, paninis, breakfasts, rolls, all sorts of stuff.  It's open till 5pm most days.

So that was my week.  How was yours?

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Poor but Happy?

Marion Pye married Howard Spring in 1920  He was a freelance journalist, she a secretary at the Manchester Guardian.  There followed over forty years of happy marriage, during which Marion and Howard moved first to London, then Cornwall.  Two sons were born, numerous cats came and went, and through it all Marion supported - one might even say worshipped - Howard, typing up his manuscripts (he was a popular novelist in the 1960s), letting him have the best study, even refraining from digging more flower beds in her precious garden because he only liked lawn.

Marion’s autobiography, Memories and Gardens, chronicles this time.  There is never a moment when she doubts Howard’s brilliance - she even quotes extensively from his books - nor her role as the obedient wife.  Howard and Marion clearly had a wonderful shared life, but at all times, Marion’s was lived around her husband’s - when asked to become chairman of the local flower arranging club, she agreed only on the basis that ‘husband, home and family always came first.’  

Marion’s book is an enjoyable read, with lots of fascinating detail about life in and after World War II, but for me it raises a fundamental question. Despite Marion’s frequent assertions that they were as poor as church mice, theirs was a very upper middle-class version of ‘poverty’ - on holiday (yes, they always have holidays) she watches the boys’ Princess Christian nurse taking them along the prom, she always has help in the house (the first one of which is bought with a loan from her father), both sons are packed off to boarding school, and when the Springs move to Cornwall (admittedly Howard is by then making good money from his books) the staff live in, and the full-time gardener realises all Marion’s horticultural plans - like many a posh ‘gardener’ before her, when Marion says ‘I planted twenty shrubs’ she actually means ‘I asked old Osborne to do it.’  

She meanwhile, spends her time perusing seed catalogues, furnishing dolls’ houses (handily built by the gardener) and flower arranging.  So long as it doesn’t interfere with her care of Howard, of course.  The couple make annual forays to London, always staying at The Savoy - ‘which became a second home to us.’  I’m sure you get the picture.  So what I wonder is, was it easier to have a happy marriage when money wasn’t an issue?  And if so, would that still hold true today?

We are frequently sold the concept of ‘we were Poor but Happy’ - perhaps never more so than in children’s literature.  At primary school, I lapped up Eve Garnett’s Family From One End Street books - Mr Ruggles the bin man and his huge family, Mrs Ruggles who takes in washing to make ends meet, Kate Ruggles who wants to stay on at school though the family think they can’t afford it.  

Somehow they all muddle through, a bit like their American counterparts The Waltons, who grew up Poor but Happy in rural Virginia, but somehow always sat down to a huge family meal twice a day.  In The Railway Children EE Nesbit reduces the Waterbury family to genteel poverty when they are exiled to the country after Father is falsely arrested, and in her wonderful entertaining Treasure Seekers, Oswald and his siblings get into no end of trouble when they try to raise some money to help their widowed father.  Both families still have ‘women that do’, and there is no question that the boys, at least, will be sent away to school.  It is just what happens.

Jump then to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell’s classic novel about painters and decorators in Mugsborough/Hastings, and we see the harsh brutality of real poverty and the hopelessness of unemployment in a pre-benefits era.  There is no money, little food, and nothing on the horizon. My father-in-law, who grew up in poverty in 1930s Liverpool, says it’s the most realistic book he’s ever read.  

Artwork © Jonathan Williams

Similarly, in one of the recent and excellent ‘What Do Artists Do All Day?’ programmes, Jack Vettriano spoke about his childhood in a Fife mining community, saying that the only people who romanticise ‘going down the pit’ are the people who’ve never gone down there.  In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck told the truth about the Depression - not for him the rosy glow that forever surrounded Walton’s Mountain.  

Poverty - real poverty - destroys people’s lives.  No matter how much people love one another, the constant struggle to put food on the table and pay the rent will wear away at their souls until they simply have nothing left over for anything else.  Relationships fail for many reasons, but how much easier to accept ones lot and be happy in one another’s company when that financial cushion is always there.  Fear of falling into the abyss of destitution is something that Marion Spring and all the other ‘middle class paupers’ will never have to face.  Is this still true in 21st century Britain?  And are relationships still made easier by money, or has it become irrelevant in a world where everyone, even the super rich, seem never to have enough and always want more?

What do you think?