Smorgasbord 2020 | Joan Michael

From 2015 – 2018 an eclectic feast of authors, poets, songwriters, artists, bloggers, journalists and stand-up comedians shared their tales of dedication and inspiration, frustration and laughter on the Thrillers with Attitude Literary Smorgasbord. Five years on, it’s been fascinating to publish five new interviews, four of them featuring guests from 2015. My final guest for Smorgasbord 2020 is a face well kent on the Scottish – and international – literary scene. I am overjoyed to bring Joan Michael, dynamic founding member and chair of Ullapool Book Festival, to Smorgasbord 2020.

Hi Joan, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for Smorgasbord 2020. You’ve been the chair of Ullapool Book Festival since its launch in 2005. How did it come into being and what were your ambitions for the festival?

Ullapool Entertainments, a voluntary arts organisation, had been founded in 1982 to bring music, theatre etc to Ullapool on a regular basis. In September 2004 the committee (Liz Beer, Jean Urquhart and me) met in The Ceilidh Place parlour bar to draw up the next year’s programme which was to include an author event. I was just back from Edinburgh Book Festival and when there the thought went through my head ‘we could do this!’ So at the meeting we talked about maybe doing a half day of author sessions instead of just one event, then it went on to ‘maybe a day’ to ‘maybe a wee festival’. And I was asked to go away and organise it. And that was the start. Liz has been there as secretary ever since and Effie Mackenzie came on as treasurer in year 2.

Our thoughts were to bring to here what people in bigger places could access more easily – and to show size really doesn’t matter. We wanted to bring to bring quality writing to Ullapool.  At that parlour bar meeting we were excitedly naming some we would want- Ali Smith, Iain Banks, Val McDermid, Janice Galloway, Ian Rankin, Chris Brookmyre, AL Kennedy, James Robertson. And, yes, they have all been here with us. As have been another 220 –a mixture of well-known and debut writers/poets.  We book people solely on the standard of their writing. And we pay everyone the same fee and we charge the same for the sessions. We are known as being egalitarian – and that’s good.

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of running UBF?

Seeking funding to run the festival is definitely the toughest! Ticket prices alone don’t remotely cover all the associated costs.

What do you find most satisfying?

Seeing friendships develop over the weekend – whether between the writers or audience members or both; having such wonderful feedback from audiences and writers; the great camaraderie and teamwork among the committee and volunteers making the festival such a rich, fun experience. And comments like this from one writer make it all worthwhile – “So many things made it special, but most for me was that sense of everyone being enriched together – audience, writers, volunteers. The story does go on.”

What have been your favourite festival moments?

There have been so many. But probably the one that stands out for me was in 2008 when we had the late great Canadian author Alistair MacLeod as a guest writer – he spoke to Ullapool High School, did an amazing session in the hall, and did a writing masterclass. I had met him before in November 2006 when Highland Council invited over some crafts people from Nova Scotia/Cape Breton along with Alistair MacLeod and Peter Rankin who had illustrated his Cape Breton Christmas Story. I was a big fan so when I had heard he was coming I asked if we could have him here in Ullapool. So, he came and I chaired him. When he came to the festival in 2008, we were doing a BBC radio interview together and the interviewer, rather patronisingly I thought, asked him why he (the great Canadian writer) had come to Ullapool. “Because Joan Michael asked me” he replied. That was just so nice!

And your worst?

Apart from realising we were going to have to cancel this year’s festival? The three times writers fell ill and had to cancel once the programmes were out and tickets had gone on sale. In 2011 a writer had phoned me on the Friday lunchtime – he had been due to do the final Sunday session. So, a sold-out hour to fill or we’d have to refund an awful lot of people. A plan was very quickly hatched – get six people from the audience who were not on the programme to do 10 minutes each. It was easier than it sounds! I can tell you who they were. James Robertson was our honorary chairman at the time so he would do a reading and chair the hour. Margaret Bennett was here for the weekend as was George Gunn, Derick McClure, Mandy Haggith and the late Scottish poet Sandy Hutchison. Nobody wanted a refund – and everyone loved it. We even got asked if we could finish every year like that!

How did C-19 impact the festival?

We cancelled May’s festival. We took the decision just before all the programmes and posters went out (and just after we had packed all the envelopes!) and a week before the tickets went on sale. Other events on at the same time as us were holding out so we were rather nervous when we did it. No one knew then how devastating the virus was going to turn out to be. As we had already received some of our funding from Creative Scotland, we paid the fees to all our cancelled guests. We later decided, at very short notice, to put on a 2-hour taster showcase out on Facebook and YouTube on the Saturday of what would have been our festival weekend. We had three of the sessions we would have had as well as three poems written during lockdown by poets who had been previous guests. And instead of our coffee and cake breaks which we always have between sessions at the festival we had music breaks from an album by the fabulous Joseph Peach and Charlie Grey. I’m still trying to decide if that counts as our 16th festival and that 2021 will be our 17th!

How would you describe yourself?

That is a rather impossible question. Quoting Burns, “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!” But to try – friendly, political, community-minded – but I have stood down from everything apart from UBF. I’ve put in  45-year shift and feel I have paid my dues to society!

Who inspires you?

My late friend Bette Poor. She was a remarkable woman. She had a fine brain and was such a good person – we had wonderful conversations. I still ask myself “what would Bette say?” when deciding on what is right and what is wrong.

What were you like at school?

I’ll ignore my last 18 months of school – my father’s job had moved him to Edinburgh and I was absolutely miserable there.  But before that I was very happy in Inverness Royal Academy. I enjoyed school and did well academically, especially after I dropped science (!); I had good friends; played various sports; was well behaved and quite shy.

What advice would you give to the young Joan Michael?

 Listen to your mother!

How was your lockdown experience?

It has been OK. Loved the first 3 or 4 weeks as I felt had time to myself to do all the things I wanted to do – all the unread books etc. But that faded over time and I lost enthusiasm. My concentration diminished so there are still a lot of unread/partly read books on the shelves. Sorting the bookshelves was another planned occupation that never happened; in fact, they got even more chaotic as I realised today when I went looking for specific books.  But I have read, or reread, lots of short stories. Watched TV aimlessly – channel hopping to find something I fancied but seldom found much that inspired me. I am really missing live music gigs – it is usually such a part of my life.

A few short questions to finish:

Recently read and enjoyed?

Natasha by David Bezmozgis (short story collection of course!)

Recently watched and enjoyed?

The National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes for Survival on Facebook. Again, they were short.  I re-watched The Thick of It which has really stood the passage of 15 years. I also enjoyed the film The Post about the Pentagon Papers on Channel 4 the other night. It was the longest thing I have watched in the months.

What was your go-to food during lockdown?

Pasta in various guises, probably.  At the start I was eating lots of oranges, though that went down to normal after a few weeks– probably because I got fed up peeling them.

What’s on your current playlist?

Phil Ochs, Warren Zevon, The Traveling Wilburys (especially love the lyrics of their The End of the LineWell it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey. Well, it’s all right, you’ve still got something to say. I play that track at quite high volume! Plus music of all the wonderful young musicians I had booked for The Ceilidh Place’s 50th birthday this year – and all who have been cancelled.  

A massive thanks to Joan for taking part in Smorgasbord 2020. I’m going to stick in a last word from a personal perspective. Joan said that UBF is known for being egalitarian; I can vouch that this is the case behind the scenes as well as on the stage. It can be quite a tricky thing to join a group of people who have been working closely together for a long time and so I was a bit nervous when I joined the team of volunteers at Ullapool Book Festival in 2019 but it soon became clear that I had nothing to worry about. What I experienced was a well-oiled machine fuelled by laughter, mischief, and a get stuck in attitude. I was immediately welcomed into the team and was struck by everyone’s willingness to get on with whatever needed to be done at that moment. Nobody thought themselves too grand or too important to do the unglamorous background tasks that make the UBF weekend happen – all the humping and dumping and fetching and cleaning and running of errands – and all of it done with energy and humour. It was a fantastic experience and although our 2020 virtual festival was a success, I know I’m not the only one hoping that we’ll be back to the real thing in 2021.

Find out more about Ullapool Book Festival here: website, Twitter, Facebook.

Books by LG Thomson are available online and from bookshops in the Highlands. Writing as Lorraine Thomson: The New Dark dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment, is available online. More info at thrillerswithattitude.co.uk

Smorgasbord 2020 | Drew Hipson

From 2015 – 2018 an eclectic feast of authors, poets, songwriters, artists, bloggers, journalists and stand-up comedians shared their tales of dedication and inspiration, frustration and laughter on the Thrillers with Attitude Literary Smorgasbord. Five years on, I’m delighted to publish five new interviews. The words sharp and eloquent apply as much to my next guest’s writing as they do to his wardrobe. I am more than delighted to welcome Drew Hipson to Smorgasbord 2020. I first interviewed Drew in June 2015 when he was working on his memoir. Drew and I have at least a couple of things in common. We both rate The Jam’s All Mod Cons as one of the best albums ever produced, and both of us grew up amid the Brutalist architecture of Scottish New Town, Cumbernauld.

Hi Drew, when we talked about doing a follow-up interview, I think we were both surprised that it had been five years since the last one. What changes have there been in your writing life in the intervening years? 

I have done an incredible amount of writing over the past five years; as well as working on the aforementioned memoir, I’ve also written 60,000 words of a Style Council biography, have written poetry and songs and had a piece on The Clash LP, London Calling, included in a book which was published last year. Three years ago I also – somewhat over-ambitiously – embarked upon writing an overview of Paul Weller’s 40 year career for a special issue of the magazine (All Mod Icon). My intention was to create literary rhythms and use specific language within the piece that would capture the essence of each period of Weller’s career. I initially intended to write a 5,000-word piece and include contributions and interviews; however, it ballooned into a 25,000 word feature, which I had to edit down to 15,000 words. I obsessed over the use of every single word and had many sleepless nights and semi-colon nightmares! Frustratingly, the piece lay unfinished as I worked on other less-laborious issues of the magazine; however, the lockdown afforded me the opportunity to finally finish it and I actually re-wrote huge parts of it having been inspired by what I had already written. It is without doubt the best thing that I have ever written, and to be honest, I don’t think that I could have written it five years ago; the sheer undertaking of it seemed to have propelled my writing on to another level completely. I’m immensely proud of it, and I also must give credit to my incredibly talented girlfriend, Julie, whose expert edits were crucial in the final editing stages of the piece. Writing the feature also rekindled my love and admiration for George Orwell and in particular his incredible command of the English language, which I used as a sort of reference-point throughout the creation of the piece.

In the 2015 interview, you talked about writing your memoir, Le Depart, how has that progressed? 

It has lain unfinished for some time, but I think that it is sometimes a good thing to leave a piece of work and return to it with fresh eyes. My intention was to have the writing style akin to a Jean-Luc Godard movie, with a sort of jump-cut effervescence to it, which of course ties in with the central location of the book (France). I also wanted to contrast the Eastern-block-like Brutalist structures of my hometown – the architecture of angst, which instilled a sense of emotional imprisonment – against the liberating cultural boulevards of France.

Can you give us some insight into your life as a modernist and how that impacts your writing style?

I much prefer the word modernist to mod; firstly, the former contains the full word, modern, and secondly, for me, the roots of modernism are in 50s culture and not 60s; I think the 1950s were probably the most extraordinary time as regards design; albeit it was the age of consumerism, however, designers like Raymond Loewy created the most aesthetically satisfying streamlined version of America; a graphic identity which would later inspire the American pop art painters of the 60s. My interpretation of modernism is the concept of building on classical templates by contemporising literature, art and music, just as the modernist writers, like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, designers, such as Le Corbusier, and jazz musicians, like Thelonious Monk, experimented with form and expression. As regards to my writing, the biggest influence of modernism is without doubt, the obsessive attention-to-detail.

Who would play you in the Drew Hipson biopic? 

Having seen a younger version of myself in the character of Oliver Tate in the film Submarine, I’d opt for Craig Roberts.

How was your lockdown experience? 

Lockdown did not differ much from what is everyday life for me – I work from home and don’t socialise much; though I missed my girlfriend, going to my local pub for the odd pint, and losing myself in existential daydreams in cafés and bookshops.

A few short questions to finish: 

Recently read and enjoyed? 

As I previously mentioned, I re-read a lot of Orwell, and in particular, Coming up for Air and Books v. Cigarettes, however, I chanced upon one of the best books that I have ever read – Submarine, by Joe Dunthorne; it is an extraordinary piece of writing and is like a contemporary take on The Catcher in the Rye, with shades of Joseph Heller.  

Recently watched and enjoyed? 

My girlfriend took out a subscription to BFI Player, so we have been discovering and rediscovering classics of French cinema, such as Jean Cocteau’s, La Belle Et La Bête and Orphée, Jean-Luc Godard’s, À Bout De Souffle, and Jean-Jacques Beineix’s, Betty Blue.

What was your go-to food during lockdown?

Like many, the lockdown afforded me time for reflection, and I decided to virtually cut out dairy from my diet which has had definite health benefits. I don’t have exotic tastes, but as I writer and artist, my essentials are espresso, Earl Grey tea, croissants and red wine.

What’s on your current playlist? 

I got a copy of Paul Weller’s new LP, On Sunset, months prior to release and played it constantly during lockdown; for me, it is one of his best pieces of work and his voice is incredible on it. My two daughters got me an Amazon Echo for Father’s day, so I have been rediscovering a lot of music from my youth and in particular, the brilliant, Hats, by The Blue Nile, which has the same indefinable enigmatic quality as French artist Georges Seurat’s drawings (once described as, ‘the most beautiful painter’s drawings in existence.’) I’m a huge Richard Hawley fan and have been playing Lady’s Bridge and Truelove’s Gutter a lot and can relate to the that same sense of urban melancholy – the Northern notion of yearning to reconnect with nature by the banks of the canals in the shadow of Industrialism.

Check out Drew’s magazines and artwork here.

Books by LG Thomson are available online and from bookshops in the Highlands. Writing as Lorraine Thomson: The New Dark dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment, is available online. More info at thrillerswithattitude.co.uk

Drew’s 2015 Smorgasbord interview.

Smorgasbord 2020 | Jon Miller

From 2015 – 2018 an eclectic feast of authors, poets, songwriters, artists, bloggers, journalists and stand-up comedians shared their tales of dedication, inspiration, frustration, laughter, failures and successes on the Thrillers with Attitude Literary Smorgasbord. Five years on, I’m delighted to publish five new interviews. My third guest on Smorgasbord 2020 is the witty, warm, and wonderfully talented Jon Miller. Jon previously appeared on the Smorgasbord in December 2015.

Whats changed writing-wise for you in the five years since your Smorgasbord interview in 2015?

I’ve packed in full-time teaching which has given me more time for writing and other nefarious habits*. I have also been going down to Sheffield every few weeks or so to participate in an Advanced Writers Poetry Course run by Peter and Ann Sansom of The Poetry Business which has helped tremendously in having different perspectives offered on what I’m writing and how I’m writing. Whether this has made me better or more pompous is open to debate.

What themes get you fired up as a writer?

I don’t know if I’d be as explicit as saying I write to ‘themes’. I count myself lucky if an idea for a poem actually makes it out of my head onto the page and runs off by itself with all its limbs intact and speaking intelligently and which strikes others as somehow worth spending some time with. Like a thoughtful stranger you meet on a train. I only notice ‘themes’ – maybe ‘preoccupations’ might be a better word – with hindsight. And these preoccupations might change with time. They do tend to circle round ideas about the bewilderment of existing. Which includes almost everything. Which leaves neither of us any the wiser. Which is how it should be.

What does literary success look like to you?

A poem that I have forgotten I’d written which on re-reading years later makes me think ‘That’s good’. Or to somehow know there will be another poem.

If you could spend a day in the company of any writer, alive or dead, who would it be and why? How would you spend the day?

Probably Samuel Beckett or Don De Lillo – each for the same reason: the breathtaking construction of their sentences and paragraphs. I would like to ask them about how they do this. With Sam, the day would consist of sitting at some Parisian cafe with coffee and brandy in silence for hours with the occasional existential gasp escaping from our lips. With Don de Lillo I would stand on top of the non-existent World Trade Tower and listen to him predict the future as we stare out over the ruins of Manhattan.

How was your lockdown experience?

Generally fine. I read somewhere that lockdown suited people who were relatively content on their own, so I didn’t mind it too much and found the lack of choice, fuss and pressing necessity quite calming. Life is often better when a lot of the world’s stupidity stays well down over the horizon. You notice and appreciate what is right in front of you more. There was a pattern to moods though – there would be a period of time when everything was fine followed by some time when you sunk into weariness and melancholy….then felt better again and so on…..… Talking to people, this seemed quite common.

A few short questions to finish.

Recently read and enjoyed?

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Recently watched and enjoyed?

I May Destroy You (BBC iPlayer)

What was your go-to food during lockdown?

Didn’t really have one – but noticed I swore violently when there weren’t any biscuits in the cupboard.

Whats on your current playlist?

Joy by Idles.

*One of Jon’s nefarious habits is his presence in the The Experiment. The Experiment on Facebook. Jon Miller on Twitter.

Books by LG Thomson are available online and from bookshops in the Highlands. Writing as Lorraine Thomson: The New Dark dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment, is available online. More info at thrillerswithattitude.co.uk

Jon’s 2015 Smorgasbord interview.

Smorgasbord 2020 | Aoife Lyall

From 2015 – 2018 an eclectic feast of authors, poets, songwriters, artists, bloggers, journalists and stand-up comedians shared their tales of dedication and inspiration, frustration and laughter on the Thrillers with Attitude Literary Smorgasbord. Five years on, I have five fantastic new interviews to share on Smorgasbord 2020, the second of which is with the exceptionally talented Aoife Lyall, first interviewed in September 2015.

Hi Aoife, life has changed dramatically for you since your last Smorgasbord interview in 2015. You are now a mother and a published poet.  Congratulations on both counts. In what ways has one influenced or impacted the other?

Thank you so much! In truth, being a poet and being a mother are inseparable for me: I started writing my upcoming collection Mother, Nature (Bloodaxe Books, 2021) during my first pregnancy in 2015 and finished it a few weeks ago, shortly after my youngest turned one.

Becoming a mother has given a focus to my writing I previously lacked: it presents me with an inescapable, emotionally charged experience that is both singular and universal, infinitely slow and disconcertingly brief. It lets me capture small moments that could easily be lost in the milieu of the day and hang onto a sense of almost journalistic integrity in moments that threaten to overwhelm me. Becoming a new mother also meant I had much less time to write and edit, so both processes became much more succinct and purposeful: often I only had the time it took for a bottle to cool to write a first draft; other times I had to hold the entire poem in my head while one of the babies was asleep in my lap.

You said then that your writing was about making sense of what was around you. How would you describe your writing now?

It is important to me not to capture a significant moment, but to capture the significance of a moment. Poetry gives me a medium through which I can attempt to observe, record, and understand my children: by extension, my relationship to them is revealed to me, which causes me to consider how that is influenced by my relationship to the culture, society, and religion I was raised in and by which I am now surrounded.

You were working on a collection based on your experiences of being a teacher. How has that progressed?

In short, it hasn’t. The poems for that collection were very much exercises in observation, in as all-consuming an environment as I had known. Being pregnant and becoming a mother brought a whole new level of intensity and focus to my life, and they quickly became my grounding narrative.

What does literary success look like to you?

Being able to get up and fill the day, every day, with writing, reading, teaching, editing and reviewing. Being able to totally immerse myself in a world built on a love of language.

How was your lockdown experience?

I don’t know yet: I don’t feel it’s run its course yet. I was on maternity leave when All This started so I had the benefit of being used to being at home a lot, but also the disadvantage of having been at home so much before lockdown started. I was able to review and edit but did not write anything beyond a first draft for about four and half months. Overall, we have been very lucky, and have been able to enjoy the time we have had together as a family.

A few short questions to finish:

Recently read and enjoyed?

I decided to read Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell) while doing the final edits to my manuscript. The writing is so gentle and so achingly precise I wept through most of it.

Recently watched and enjoyed?

O Brother Where Art Thou– I enjoy films that ‘tell it slant’ and I liked its’ take on the Odyssey very much.

What was your go-to food during lockdown?

Lindt Excellence Dark Chocolate- especially with marmalade on toast and coffee.

What’s on your current playlist?

Nature sounds- the days are so full of music and singing with the children that, at night, I plug in and listen to the wind through trees, or a thunderstorm or rain on windows, all of which create nice atmospheres and pleasant associations for whatever I happen to be working on at the time.

Aoife’s debut poetry collection Mother, Nature will be published by Bloodaxe on 25 Feb 2021. Find out more about Aoife at her website and at the Scottish Book Trust.

Books by LG Thomson are available online and from bookshops in the Highlands. Writing as Lorraine Thomson: The New Dark dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment, is available online. More info at thrillerswithattitude.co.uk

Aoife’s Smorgasbord interview 2015.

Smorgasbord 2020 | Shona Macpherson

The Thrillers with Attitude Literary Smorgasbord began in 2015. Over the next three years, an eclectic feast of authors, poets, songwriters, artists, bloggers, journalists and stand-up comedians shared their tales of dedication and inspiration, frustration and laughter. Five years on, I’m delighted to publish five new interviews featuring four of the original Smorgasbord guests, plus a tasty new interview with someone I’ve been trying to pin down for some time. First up is the fabulously inspirational Shona Macpherson, first interviewed in August 2015.

Hi Shona, you’ve had some adventures (to put it mildly) since your last Smorgasbord interview in 2015. Would you like to share some of what you’ve been doing?

Wow – it feels like so much has happened in five years. I was in my late thirties when you last interviewed me. A year or so after was my 40th which was a major turning point. I started solo adventures. It started with cycling the Hebridean Way and then cycling home from Oban to Inverness, for my 40th. And each year since I’ve done a solo outdoor adventure: the NC500 on bike; the Cape Wrath Trail; and then last year I spent five months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (from the US-Canadian border to the US-Mexican border). The PCT was epic!! An adventure of a lifetime.

I’ve also transitioned from being a personal trainer to being a life coach and counsellor. I qualified as a counsellor 11 years ago and it feels amazing to have the confidence and updated knowledge and skills to be back in practice. It feels like I’m doing what I was always meant to. I’ve also started working part time for a local suicide prevention charity – Mikeysline. In October I’m doing some training on “taking therapy outdoors”. This fills me with excitement! 

What impact have these experiences had on your writing?

I’ve really enjoyed writing about my outdoor experiences and how connection with nature changes my perspective. I was doing this in the form of blog posts, and more recently social media posts. I was also very fortunate to win the Moniack Mhor Katherine Stewart award and as a result I participated in a nature writing course at Moniack (Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre). Whilst on the Pacific Crest Trail I developed the habit of writing a journal entry everyday which I published on Insta and my blog. I’m so glad to have this solid memory and it was lovely that others read and commented and in this way joined me on the journey. 

At the start of COVID I felt the need to take a break from social media for a few months and it’s been wonderful but now I’m going on a walking holiday from Fort William to Knoydart and then the Skye Trail, and I think I’ll start writing and posting again. It feels fun to share the journey. I took a break as I want to write from a place of fun and the authentic desire in sharing the story rather than feeling like I ‘should’ ‘create content’ for my business. (As a counsellor I now get most clients through the Counselling Directory so that has taken any away the need to write for marketing purposes. This feels like freedom). 

What writing plans do you have for the next five years?

I’ve started a short poetry course. I’m playing with trying to distil the things that interest me to their essence through this medium. My poetry is joyously terrible, so this leaves huge room for learning and improvement! I’m keen to just live this lovely adventurous life that I’m fortunate to have, with curiosity and wonder. Writing helps me notice and reflect – and it’s lovely when this feels connected to and with others. So, all that is to say – no big writing plans… just staying curious and trying to keep putting pen to paper- finger to key – heart to page.

Who will play you in the Shona Macpherson biopic?

Ha, no idea!! Someone short and lively? I loved Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky – there’s a scene where she’s standing up as she cycles her bike over the Thames, it’s pure joy. I lived in London at the time and cycled everywhere. I feel the most joy when I’m moving outside or goofing about. Yeah Sally would do a good job of acting Shona Macpherson! 

How was your lockdown experience?

I hope I don’t offend anyone by saying I had a pretty good lockdown experience. If it hadn’t been for the major elements – death, suffering, isolation, loss of livelihood for others, it quite suited me for a season. I’d only been back from my big trek for four months and I wasn’t enjoying how I felt. I was allowing myself to get sucked back into a busy and overly digital life. Lockdown felt like a big exhale. 

I’m very self-sufficient and enjoy time alone. I worked throughout and I did lots of running and cycling. Apart from not seeing people it was pretty much as I live now. I joined a ten-week writing challenge during lockdown which was fun. We wrote short pieces based on a weekly theme. I loved being creative again and I found that I revisited a lot of childhood memories of my parents. Mum was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer during COVID. Amazingly she’s all clear now. The experience made me feel closer and more appreciative of her. She’s a pretty special woman. 

COVID has felt like a small life. 

A few short questions to finish:

Recently read and enjoyed? 

Anne Tyler, Redhead by the Side of the Road.

Recently watched and enjoyed?

BBC i-player has some pretty addictive stuff: Normal People and I May Destroy You had me hooked.

What was your go-to food during lockdown?

I made lots of massive salads with grated carrots, avocado, seeds, rocket, apple and chicken breast and balsamic vinegar. I pretty much ate that for lunch every day. 

What’s on your current playlist? 

Ha – my running playlist has Kygo’s update of Tina Turner What’s Love Got to do with It which I’ll probably sicken of soon but love it just now. Also, random discoveries of old songs: We Shall Not Be Moved by Mavis Staples; Highwayman by The Highwaymen; and I was very excited to discover Highwoman by The Highwomen. I’m a lyrics girl! 

Shona Macpherson Coaching

Books by LG Thomson are available from online and from bookshops in the Highlands. Writing as Lorraine Thomson: The New Dark dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment, is available online. More info at thrillerswithattitude.co.uk

Read Shona’s 2015 interview here.

Do I laugh now, or wait until it gets funny?

A few days ago, I wrote on my personal Facebook page about the period of depression I’m currently going through. It was much more personal than my usual posts and made me feel quite exposed. I was worried about the reaction, that the depression would become the thing that defined me and, worse still, that people would start walking on eggshells around me. This would be murder for me as I hate having to decode words and actions and much prefer direct communication. But my worry was for nought; the reaction I got was quite incredible. People liked and loved the post, there were many comments in which friends shared their own stories of depression and anxiety, and most importantly, they also shared their coping strategies. I received private messages from other friends who didn’t want to go public, but who wanted me to know what my words had meant to them and to share some of what they had experienced, and I’ve had people talk to me in person. Not with a heavy hand, but with quiet acknowledgement and good humour. There’s no better time to laugh than when you’re in the depths of despair. As my favourite quote would have it, Do I laugh now or wait until it gets funny? (From Double Indemnity by James M. Cain.)

This time of year can be a real bastard for people and so I thought it would be worth sharing my words on a wider platform in the hope that they may be of some help to someone, somewhere. This time around, my depression has been fairly mild. Aside from some slightly odd behaviour such as turning myself into a human citadel when walking the dog (wearing headphones and shades, jacket zipped up to my nose, sending out fuck off vibes) and avoiding all social interaction whenever possible, I’ve been more or less functional. When I couldn’t avoid it, I’ve had a few people around me to act as a buffering zone: my husband, daughters, a trusted friend. I’m lucky to have these people in my life, even so, it’s really hard to talk about this stuff, especially if you’re in the middle of it and the more severe your depression, the harder it is, but please don’t struggle alone. If there’s no-one around you feel you can confide in, please see your GP or call one of the numbers at the end of this post.

People are more understanding than we think. More of us suffer from depression than we know.

If you don’t feel you can keep yourself safe, seek immediate help. Go to any hospital A&E Department. If you can’t do that, call 999 or have someone do it for you.

This is much more personal than the stuff I usually put on here. I’m writing it in case there’s anything useful in it for anyone else who suffers from depression.

A tendon injury in the summer meant I had to take a break from running. This was a double whammy, for as well as being an enjoyable way to keep my fitness levels up, running was one of the tools I used to keep depression at bay. Rowing has also been great for this, but the beauty of running was that I could just get up and go whenever I had the urge or felt the need. When I was forced to stop, the depression that had been nipping at my heels for a while finally overtook me.

Over the years, I’ve become quite adept at managing depression. One of the things we did this time was buy our own C2 rowing machine so that I could do some low impact exercise at times to suit myself. Even so the past few months have been quite difficult and I got into a couple of downward thought spirals, one of which was that I wouldn’t be able to run again (too fat, too unfit, too old, my ankles would snap, my knees would implode) so by the time my tendon healed, my head was in entirely the wrong place. And then my husband gently persuaded me to go on a run over the hill with him today. It was all going to be at my pace, no pressure. I was full of trepidation but agreed to give it a go thinking I’d probably walk most of it. And I did walk the very steep bits and the really boggy bits, but I ran about ¾ of the 8k course. These past months have been an upward struggle. I’ve been getting there slowly, but today I crested the hill, not just physically but mentally too.

Like most people, I don’t find this kind of thing easy to talk about, and while some people might have found my behaviour weirder than normal over the past few months, most won’t have had a clue. To the people I did tell, I want to say a heartfelt thanks for being so supportive. I’m not 100% yet (still dramatically overreacting to random non-issues), but right now 80% feels pretty good.

PS for anyone who’s interested, I run niko niko style. It’s a relatively low impact style of running and very relaxing. Look up Dr Hiro Tanaka to find out more.

This is me in all my windswept, mud splattered glory after running over the hill in the background. No make-up, no product, no filters, just the raw, unadulterated me.

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Samaritans / open 24 hours a day, every day / Tel: 116 123

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – for men / 5pm- midnight, every day / 0800 58 58 58

Papyrus – for people under 35 / 10am-10pm Mon – Fri, 2pm – 10pm weekends, 2pm-5pm bank holidays / 0800 068 41 41

Mind / 9am-6pm, Mon-Fri (not bank holidays / 0300 123 3393

Childline – for under 19s / 24 hours – the number will not appear on your phone bill / 0800 1111

If you don’t feel you can keep yourself safe, seek immediate help. Go to any hospital A&E Department. If you can’t do that, call 999 or have someone do it for you.

 

Lorraine Thomson is the author of seven published books including noir thriller, Boyle’s Law, post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn and the The New Dark trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude

 

 

 

 

Unsporty Me

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School convinced me that I wasn’t a sporty person. I never understood the rules of netball nor the point of it. Many a time I experienced the sight of an object speeding towards me (tennis ball, volleyball, whatever ball), while people yelled incomprehensible instructions and all too comprehensible insults. Meanwhile, I dodged out of the way, thinking that it would be bloody sore if it hit me.

The defining moment of my school sports career took place one winter’s morning when I was in second year at high school. Catriona Meldrum (name changed) emerged from the fog, charging towards me across the frozen surface of the red blaes* pitch, hockey stick raised. She was a tall, strong, Amazonian of a girl and I was a big fearty. A single glance at her brought my well-developed sense of self-preservation to the fore. I dropped my stick and ran in the opposite direction. Running as fast as possible away from a potential source of pain was something I understood very well.

*If you’re not from Scotland, red blaes was made of spent shale (tiny, sharp splinters of stone), oxidised to a rusty red colour so that the blood of thousands of Scottish schoolchildren wouldn’t be visible to the casual observer.

Those labels from school have a habit of lingering and so although I did various things through the years to keep fit – aerobics, gym, swimming – these were solitary pursuits and I never thought of sport as being for me. Years later,  I discovered coastal rowing.

I tried it at a taster session and took to it straight away. I’ve always had a fascination for the sea and loved being on the water and so it was an enjoyable way to spend time, but what I didn’t expect was that I’d be good at it on a competitive level.

In the previous few years, I’d been in a bad place, emotionally, physically and literally. Rowing helped me to cast off the last of those shadows, and to shed a few pounds along the way. I felt fitter, stronger. My confidence, in and out of the water, grew.

Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, I’m not the most sociable of people. As an occupation, writing suits me. I like spending all those hours alone, but rowing is not a solitary pursuit, it’s a team sport. Team sport – two words that only a few short years ago would have had me running screaming to my hermit’s cave in the hills. Yet there I was, part of a team. I’ve made some brilliant friends through rowing; training, racing and winning medals with them. Yes, unsporty me winning medals, many of them gold.

Coastal rowing has been a gateway sport. Since taking it up, I’ve started running, often over hills, usually through mud, often in the rain. I’ve even been part of a triathlon team. In the winter, I run in the dark. John, my rowing pal, is also my regular running buddy. Occasionally, I run with my husband, Charlie. Mostly I run alone. I run out my stress, I do it to clear my mind. Often, I do it just for the sheer fun of it. Just because I can.

I’m not built like an athlete, I get hot and sweaty, my hair sticks out and my face glows like a Belisha beacon. The best part about all of that is that I don’t care. To begin with, learning not to care what I look like took as much effort as the running. Now I just get up and go.

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You need five people for rowing, four rowers and a cox, so it takes a little more organising, but it’s worth it. Racing is exciting and winning medals is delicious, but last year something clicked in my head. Just after crossing the finishing line, knowing that another medal was in the bag, I suddenly thought, okay, that’s that, but I wasn’t done with rowing. Instead of a 2k race, I wanted a longer rowing challenge, something that would test me physically and mentally. I also wanted to know what it felt like to row out in the swell, feeling the deep pulse of the ocean. The obvious answer lay in the body of water I look out at every day: I wanted to row the Minch from Stornoway on the Outer Hebrides to Ullapool on the north west coast of the Scottish mainland.

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At the same time as those thoughts were occurring, I was witnessing the slow physical decline of a friend suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. I felt frustrated and helpless and wanted to do something, anything, to show that I cared. If possible, I wanted to make a difference. Thus, Rowing the Minch for MS came into being.

I approached four of my rowing friends and, without hesitation, they each signed up to #MinchRow. On paper, we’re an odd assortment. Anthony is a former ballet dancer turned teacher. Kathryn ran her own HR consultancy. Gary was once a department store Santa Claus and now makes his living diving for scallops. John, who spent most of his life in the catering industry, now works part-time for Caledonian MacBrayne, the ferry provider between mainland Scotland and 22 of the islands on the west coast. And there’s me, the writer. Though we may look like as an unlikely bunch as you’ll get, one thing we haven’t had to work on is chemistry, that’s been there from the start. There’s a great energy in the boat arising from the trust that comes from knowing that every one of us will give it their all. Most importantly, though we’re serious about the cause and the challenge, we have a great laugh together.

It’s going to be a slog. 50 miles across open sea, taking 15 hours to complete. Shorter if we’re lucky, several hours longer if we’re not. Either way, there’s plenty of time to develop blisters in places you don’t want to think about.

We had our first crew meeting on 9 August 2018. A year of organising, fundraising and training later, we’re within days of setting off. Our target date is 10 August, but we’re at the mercy of the weather, so it could be then, or it could be the 11th, or 14th or any other day. The not knowing is part of the deal, but coastal rowers are used to dealing with ever-changing conditions. That’s part of the excitement. One particular thing that makes the Minch row so exciting, is knowing that we are raising funds for a revolution.

Although there is currently no cure for MS, revolutionary research undertaken at a world-class facility in Edinburgh means that it is highly likely that a way will be found to stop the disease within the next seven years. That’s a massive breakthrough and a huge ray of hope not only for people suffering from the disease, but for those who care for them. We are raising money to contribute to that research. Our target amount is £22,683, which equates to £1 for every stroke of the oars we reckon it will take us to make the crossing. If you would like to support our cause, you can make a donation via our Just Giving page. Donations will remain open until the end of the year.

Our target date for the row is 10 August 2019, but this is subject to change. For the latest news, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Once the row is underway, you’ll be able to track our progress using this link http://yb.tl/RowingtheMinch

 Coastal rowing is reckoned to be Scotland’s fastest growing sport, with clubs appearing all around the coastline. Ullapool Coastal Rowing Club members range in age from teens to 80+ and we’re not unusual in that respect. As well as training sessions, most clubs have social rows. Some rowers enjoy coffee and cake in coves only accessible by sea, others fish for mackerel, or simply use rowing as a way of enjoying our glorious outdoors. Seals often accompany us, and some have been lucky enough to spot otters or row alongside dolphins and porpoise.

If like me, you’ve never considered yourself to be a sporty person, why not give coastal rowing a go. At the very least, you’ll enjoy a new experience, but it may just change your life.

Minch Row Crew

 The crew is made up of five members from Ullapool Coastal Rowing Club. They are keen competitive rowers and have won many medals between them but rowing the Minch will be their greatest challenge yet.

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Kathryn Bennett, 57. A true northern lass from Wigan, Kathryn cut her teeth in the dance music scene. Though she has traded northern soul for northern lights, this keen Wigan Warriors fan still rocks that sharp mod style. Team speciality: logistics; the devil is in the detail.

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John Grant, 63. Originally from Drumchapel in Glasgow, John pitched up in Ullapool just in time to misspend his youth during the crazy klondyking years. He then misspent his entire adult career in catering. Team speciality: diet; freakishly fond of beetroot juice.

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Gary Lewis, 57. Hailing from Wallasey, Gary fled a short-lived career as a department store Santa Claus for his true calling as a scallop diver in Ullapool. Team speciality: hard core training all the way from this Celt Man Extreme Triathlon Champ.

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Anthony O’Flaherty, 61. Our Irish-rooted crew-mate from Auckland lends an international flavour to the crew. If he can make it as a ballet boy in New Zealand, he can make it anywhere. Team speciality: keeping it cool and to the beat.

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Lorraine Thomson, 54. Lorraine grew up in modernist new town experiment, Cumbernauld, before spending four years at art school tearing up paper. She’s now an author who loves sharks and loathes mayonnaise. Team speciality: an ideas woman; it’s all about The Big Picture.

Total Crew Years: 292

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Lorraine Thomson is the author of seven published books including noir thriller, Boyle’s Law, post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn and the The New Dark trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

 

 

 

 

The New Dark

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It’s been one year since the publication of The New Dark, a story that began with a one-line pitch: what happens if the world enters a new dark age? That simple, ten-word sentence gave rise to an epic tale of mutants and slaves, revolutions and war, love won, and friendship lost.

The New Dark explores a world where knowledge from the Before times has been lost. In the event of a massive catastrophe, such as nuclear war, this would happen within a generation. Without continual maintenance, buildings deteriorate, cars rot, and nature takes its course. We’ve all seen buildings in towns and cities with trees growing in gutters and shrubs rooting in wall cracks. It only takes one harsh winter to fissure a road. Imagine the change over fifty, one hundred or even two hundred years.

Now imagine a world where all the big animals have been wiped out and creatures once small have grown large. Badgers as big as bears, woodlice the size of lobsters, and you really don’t want to find yourself in the company of blood-sucking ticks. In this mutated world, even the plants can bite back.

Connectivity is gone, the strands of the web long-since snapped. Communities live in isolation, each with their own system of beliefs, but even in small villages, people are not always what they seem, and close friends make the bitterest of enemies.

Told over three books, The New Dark is a tale of betrayal, and vengeance and contains scenes of violence and bloodshed aplenty, but it is also about overcoming fear and challenging prejudice. Ultimately it is a story about the importance of friendship.

Published by Bastei Entertainment, The New Dark, The New Dawn and The New Day are available to download from Amazon.

 

 

Above the Strandline

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I’ve always enjoyed going to islands. There’s something exhilarating about crossing a body of water and knowing that it separates you from the rest of the world, especially if the mobile signal is dodgy or, better still, non-existent, and then you get the feeling of being completely cut off from the rest of the world. Anything could be happening out there from a zombie apocalypse to Elvis being found alive and well in Saltcoats, and you wouldn’t know a thing about it.

I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a few islands fairly well, the most recent being Isle Martin, a community-owned island just a few miles north of my home in Ullapool. It’s fair to say I’ve fallen in love with the place, perhaps even become a little obsessed, my excuse for the obsession being that my current work-in-progress finds me immersed in the island’s history.

It’s not my first island-set book – Erosion is a stranded-on-an-island thriller – but it is my first engagement with historical fiction. I didn’t mean it to happen, but when I went on a walk on Isle Martin with local archaeologist, Cathy Dagg, and heard some of what took place there, I couldn’t help myself.

Though she may be small, Isle Martin is a gem that punches well above her weight. From the howling of wolves and the layering of bones, to the Jacobite rebellion, herring girls, and a mother who gave all for her son, hers is a rich and fascinating tale.

I’m currently in the year 1778 and, I think, almost a third of the way through the first draft. My book will probably end near the start of the 20th century so I won’t be writing about the rich eccentric with his flour mill and no wheat to grind. Not this time round at any rate.

For anyone in the area, I’ll be giving a guided walk around the island on 11 August 2018. The ferry will depart from Ardmair at 11am. More details can be found below.

If you’d like to experience staying on Isle Martin and trying some creative play, I’ll be running a writing retreat on the island 14-16 September, 2018. Details of Above the Strandline can be found here.  Or feel free to message me about either event via Facebook or Twitter.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Logan Murray

I met Logan Murray when I took part in one of his immersive comedy workshops. I haven’t stopped laughing since. 

Logan Murray

Big old, adult Logan is a friendly, confident guy, always ready to laugh, but what were you like at school?

I was a classic underachiever at school. If a subject didn’t interest me, I couldn’t see the point of it. I honestly think all my education came from watching BBC’s Horizon. 

I worked out pretty early that classes were training us to sit still and feign interest when we were bored. Luckily, we had a brilliant RE teacher at secondary school, Mr. Davies, who was not religious and who’s wife ran a bookies. He always got us talking about ethics and ancient history. I did the least possible amount of work to gain two ‘A’ levels, as I knew that this (and a foundation course at a local Art College) was all I needed for a degree course and a full grant. A FULL GRANT! The State would pay me to educate myself. What a lucky time to be young. I chose the Creative arts. It was the height of the Cold War and I didn’t plan on making it past 25, so I might as well take it easy. 

Being the seventies, I caught the tail end of counter culture. At fifteen I grew my hair long, became vegetarian (cake- etarian, really as I didn’t like vegetables. I got very fat…) and generally became a humorless arse. I hoovered up any half-baked theory as fact and wrote terrible, self absorbed poetry. Quite rightly, most girls avoided me. I blossomed (a bit) by 18. 

How did you evolve into Logan Murray, stand-up comedian and comedy guru?

Totally by accident. I thought I’d be a fine artist, but signed up to the wrong degree (I found myself doing performing arts (dance, drama and music) instead of performance art (installations and stuff). But, I loved it. 

Then this thing called Alternative Cabaret in 1983 came along and loads of us started doing weird things to entertain audiences. I wrote some deliberately bad poetry and found that clubs paid me cold, hard cash to perform them. My intros became longer and longer until I found myself morphing into a stand up (this would be the early ‘nineties). 

Because comedy is a part time job that pays a full time wage, I had loads of time off and went back to college to do a part time MA. That got me interested in comedy theory. 

Meanwhile, I started picking up all sorts of weird TV and radio jobs because of my gigs. If people see you perform, they assume (quite rightly) you can write for other people, present game shows, appear on panel shows, be trusted with tiny parts in TV shows and possibly direct. Someone even asked me to be ‘the comedian in residence’ at a Uni – not as posh as it sounded – which is how the workshops began. 

Can you tell me something about the process of how you write a stand-up routine?

Almost all my writing comes out of mucking around. I’m a great believer of Wynicott’s aphorism that ‘all creativity comes out of play‘. 

My only constant ground rules are (1) don’t worry about being funny on the first draft – just mine the subject for information and (2) turn off your internal editor and create. Plenty of time to blue pencil ideas out once you’ve filled up a page. Also, the comedian should (in my opinion) always look for the wrong answer that still fits as a solution. 

How do you get a feel for what’s going to work?

You have to try it out. If it fills you with glee as you come up with the idea, you are probably on the right track, but until you’ve seen how several audiences take to the new stuff, you don’t really know if it will fly. 

As a practical tip ALWAYS audio record new stuff. Your back brain is much cleverer than your conscious brain and will always knock it into better shape during performance. It will also come up with extra bits which will be lost to the aether unless you have a record of them. 

Have you ever got it really badly wrong – as in tumbleweed moments?

Loads. And it is a sad fact that you learn far more from these moments than the times when the crowd ‘get’ you. Usually, the bits where I lose the audience boil down to me not being clear in my subject matter, or I am being emotionally vague. If they are thinking then they are not laughing and I need to sharpen it up. 

All comedians agree that this is pretty much the only job where you have to rehearse and refine in front of a live crowd. 

What’s it like to die on stage?

Some deaths are brilliant and worth talking about. Most are mundane and soul sapping. We talk about the memorable ones in dressing rooms. They are like badges of honour. But the everyday deaths can only be used for personal, educational purposes: how did that happen? What did I do wrong? How can I minimise the chances of that happening again? That sort of thing

Your book, Get Started in Stand-Up Comedy is one of the best books on writing I’ve read. It’s full of fantastic exercises which I’ve stolen adapted for my own workshops. Do you have any other major writing projects on the go?

I occasionally get asked to ‘gag up’ people’s work, which is great fun – but I’m not allowed to talk about individual people. 

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Your comedy workshops are hugely successful, and you’ve worked with some of the biggest names in the business. A new one might even emerge from the workshop I attended. I particularly enjoyed the exercise where we had to sit in a circle insulting each other – has that ever gone spectacularly wrong?

Not with that one, no. I think that’s because I ask them to compliment and insult something incredibly specific (like someone’s shoelace), so it seems quite ridiculous. I do love the way people tend to whisper afterwards that they didn’t mean it, to the person they’re insulting. Very sweet. 

Any favourite stand-up moments?

There is no better feeling than making a bunch of total strangers laugh, so it’s difficult to choose. 

One moment that stands out though, is thwarting a bunch of persistent hecklers by getting the whole audience to follow me to the theatre bar, where we continued the show. We left the four hecklers very confused and perplexed in a massive auditorium. 

What are you working on at the moment?

For someone never infected with the Protestant Work Ethic, I seem to be doing an awful lot this year. I’ve got three days off in the next two months – mostly workshops. But, I shouldn’t moan – just come back from a lovely, intensive comedy weekend in Leeds. And there are comedy writing weeks to look forward to France and Greece this Summer. 

In my down time (none! How did this happen?) I love to make chunky silver jewellery. 

None of the things that I’m known for (comedy and teaching) seem like work though. Occasionally, it might be hard. But, you don’t mind because it’s your craft and your passion. We could not do anything else. 

What advice would you give to the young Logan Murray?

Go vegan sooner. 

Who inspires you?

It sounds really cheesy, but whatever group I’m working with at the time. They always surprise and delight me. 

If you could spend a day hanging out with any one person, past or present, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

Gosh. So many. I’d love to hang out with the Great great (times 3,000) Neanderthal Grandmother to see how her people thought and did stuff. 

Who would play Logan Murray in the film of your life?

I’m too old to play me, now. Could I get Studio Gibli to animate it, then get a Japanese actor to voice the part? I’d watch that with subtitles. 

A few short questions to finish. Favourite:

Book: Jerusalem by Alan Moore

Author: Geoffrey Ashe or Francis X King. 

Drink:  Water

Film: Kung Fu Hustle or Magnolia (please don’t make me choose). 

Music: Wardruna and most stuff by Jeremy Soule

Stand-Up: Spencer the Herbert, Tina T’urner Tea Lady, Fred Ferenzci George Carlin, Paul Foot and Anna Crilley & Katy Wix (when they are in a double Act). Loads more, too.

TV show: I’m quite enjoying ‘Preacher’. 

What are you reading right now?

Geoffrey Ashe’s ‘Merlin: The Prophet and his History

 Thanks Logan. It’s been a real pleasure having you on the Smorgasbord.

Find out more about Logan at his website. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Books by LG Thomson are available from Amazon and from bookshops in Ullapool. Writing as Lorraine Thomson, the Dark Times dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment, is available online.

Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.

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