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. 

comedy book

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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Literary Smorgasbord: Lindsay Dunbar

Brimming with ideas and enthusiasm, and always questioning the status quo, Lindsay Dunbar is a creative force to be reckoned with. Artistic director of Play Pieces,  a company dedicated to supporting emerging theatre work in the Highlands, arts columnist for the Inverness Courier, and currently taking part in the Clore Fellowship, a programme of leadership tailored to the individual, she is also a thoroughly decent person.

 

LindsayDunbar

Hi Lindsay, thanks for agreeing to take part in the Smorgasbord. How did your involvement with Play Pieces come about?

When I moved back to the Highlands I became involved with rural arts promotion. Working with voluntary promoters is really inspiring because they have an excellent understanding of their audiences as well as what makes great theatre. Part of my work was to inform the promoters about work available to tour the Highlands and I began to wonder where the next Dogstar or Right Lines theatre company was coming from. I thought support was needed and explored a model based on A Play, A Pie and A Pint to make theatre more accessible to rural audiences and to support Highland theatre makers to create new work. It’s been a great success with sell-out performances, shows going on to tour around Scotland and perform at the Edinburgh Festival.

Would you describe theatre as your passion, or is it part of a bigger picture for you?

I’m passionate about stories. I like hearing them and sharing them. I think theatre is a great way to share stories whether they are political, funny, personal dramas or historical. It’s just storytelling and there is no end of amazing stories to share.

What difficulties have you faced and what is your proudest achievement?

So many difficulties – starting a new organisation from scratch is hard. I’ve learned so much but there have been many heartbreaking moments of disappointment which are hard not to take personally. It’s taken me a long time to come back from some setbacks. I continue to feel proud about Play Pieces when I see how well artists we have supported are doing – Nicholas Ralph performed in the first ever Play Pieces Shorts as well as 3 lunchtime performances and he has just performed a critically-acclaimed run at the Citizens Theatre. It reminds me why I feel so passionate about supporting emerging work by Highland theatre-makers, we have real talent up here and creating a supportive theatre sector is essential.

When writing your weekly arts column for the Inverness Courier, Arty Ness, how organised are you?

Sometimes I can be very organised and start the column very early on in the week. Usually, though it’s a Sunday evening task, a nice chance to reflect on the week. I know it’s a good column when I can write most of it fairly quickly, if it flows. If I’m struggling to get past the first paragraph then I start a new idea. Sometimes it takes three attempts to get a column that works but I always save the first attempts. You never know when they will come in useful.

Are you ever stuck for ideas?

It’s an opinion piece so sometimes I feel I’ve exhausted all my opinions, I don’t want to bore people. A good column is one I can imagine ranting to someone about. Usually, I rein that rant in a bit after a few drafts.

Is there anything you’ve wanted to write about for the column but couldn’t, because of politics or artistic sensitivities?

There are some subjects I’d like to explore more around gender inequality in the arts or the lack of support for arts and cultural organisations because they fall outside the creative industries sector. Public authorities don’t seem to see the social and economic impact of some art forms. I’d love to name names more but the Highlands is such a small place.

What were you like at school?

Probably a nightmare. I suspect I was quite frustrating because I didn’t really try as hard as I could have. I talked too much, far more interested in the social aspect of school than the education. That’s what happens when you are from a small village with not many other children around you.

You are the current Clore Leadership Programme Fellow. What impact has that had on your life?

It’s challenged the way I think about my work, myself and what I want from my future. It’s given me space to explore new ideas and given me support to work through issues. I’m currently in the middle of a sticky, muddy, difficult part of my journey but I’ll get through it. I don’t think I’m going to see the full impact for many years, I hope I have many Clore moments to come but right now it’s where I need to be.

What advice would you give to the young Lindsay Dunbar?

Whatever you are thinking of doing…just don’t.

Who inspires you?

My daughter Millie is by far my biggest source of inspiration. She is the most authentic person I know and I hope she never loses that. She has a clear sense of what matters to her and she is sensitive to others too. She has no shame, there is a real sense of freedom about her and she loves being outside. She has never been a great sleeper and yet she has boundless energy and enthusiasm for life. She questions everything and never accepts the first answer. She makes me demented but god I wish I could be more like her.

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?

I would want to spend it with the teachers who have made an impression on my life. I don’t think we take the time to tell them how much we appreciate everything they have done for us. I would some time of the day with Al Fraser from Achiltibuie Primary school and berate him for encouraging us to down tools on sunny days and get outside. I now spend a lot of time staring out of windows longing to be up a hill when I should be working. I would sing in a choir with Val Bryan from Ullapool High School who gave me many opportunities to perform and taught me that anyone can sing. It’s not just singing, everyone has the ability to be creative if you let them. I would take the time to sit and thank Mrs Askew, my modern studies teacher in Edinburgh who spent her free-time to take coach me through the coursework to take me from a failed exam to an A pass. She was a kind, dedicated teacher who knew I was capable of better, she believed in me more than I believed in myself. Sadly I never got the chance to thank her properly for profoundly impacting my future. Finally, I’d like to ask my University Professor about the world today. Prof Cathal Ó Dochartaigh was the smartest man I’ve ever met and like Mrs Askew, he saw something in me which I didn’t – he encouraged me to speak up and to ask questions. He made me realise that it’s ok to thinking something completely different to everyone else in the room and it’s good to speak up and challenge perceptions.  When you find someone who changes you I think we need to take the time to thank them and maybe take the time to help support others. I get very emotional at the end of The History Boys because of the profound effect the teachers have on their lives; “Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.

Who would play Lindsay Dunbar in the film of your life?

I’d like a Studio Ghibli animation film please as someone growing up stuck between the real world and her imaginary one.

What’s next?

This could be written on my grave stone. I’ve always been a ‘what’s next?’ person. I am never content in the moment. Never. I tried mindfulness and couldn’t do it. I have accepted that I am never ‘in the moment’ because I’m always thinking ‘what’s next?’. I don’t think it’s a bad way to be. I like space and time to myself but only because I know I need to recharge for what’s next.

A few short questions to finish. Favourite:

Book: I read Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon when I was young and living in Edinburgh. I was missing the Highlands and everything I knew. The seasons, the land, the music and a young girl growing up all resonated with me. It’s just a beautiful book which I still quote and still has the power to make me cry.

Author: Frank Fraser Darling – although I’ve never actually read his books I collect them and I would love to develop a play around his work on Tanera Mor, near Achiltibuie. Fascinating man.

Drink: Black coffee in the morning, wine in the evening.

Food: I could eat pizza forever.

Film: Brazil by Terry Gilliam, I mean can you imagine a society driven by a pointless, ineffective, bureaucratic system dependent on technology, where the gap between rich and poor is growing, people become blasé to acts of terror around the world and women are stretching their faces unrecognisably in the name of beauty…

Music: I’m rediscovering Tori Amos and I’m delighted that the 14-year-old in me stills remembers all the words.

TV show: Oh so many, I love TV and we are in a golden age of box sets but Dr Who has been with me most of my life. I get quite emotional knowing that my daughter will have a female Doctor as her role model. Not many TV shows can make you feel like that.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve just finished Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which made me sad because I didn’t want to leave her world. I can’t find another book yet as good as that to start reading so recommendations very welcomed.

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

Find out more at the following Twitter accounts: Play Pieces, Arty Ness, and Lindsay Dunbar; and at the Play Pieces website.

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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Do The Right Thing

On June 12 2018, Ullapool High School tweeted the photograph below.

do the right thing

It’s a decent message containing one very powerful line:

Be the kid who does the right thing.

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy; it takes guts and a stout heart to stand up for what you believe in. Sometimes it means speaking out when all around you are silent, but it can just as easily mean giving someone a fair hearing.
In some countries, doing the right thing can lead to persecution and death. Of course, that kind of thing doesn’t happen here. We are lucky to live in a democracy where we vote to decide who represents us in the House of Commons.
My Member of Parliament is Ian Blackford. I don’t know him personally, but I have met him and when I had cause to contact him in his role as my MP, his office responded quickly and offered practical help and advice. Maybe I’m naïve, but Ian Blackford seems like a decent sort, the kind of person who would strive to do the right thing.
In the House of Commons on 12 June 2018, when Ian Blackford asked the speaker what options were available to Scottish MPs re the lack of debate on a Westminster power grab on Scottish devolution, Ian Liddell-Grainger, a Conservative MP, shouted “suicide”.
It is possible that Ian Liddell-Grainger thought he was doing the right thing by inviting colleagues to contemplate killing themselves. Then again, he has a track record of offensive and bullying behaviour just as Westminster has a track record of contempt for the people of Scotland. Perhaps Ian Liddell-Grainger has done us a favour by illustrating that contempt so very clearly.
Time to wake up, Scotland, and do the right thing.

Suicide heckle in House of Commons.

Literary Smorgasbord: Anthony Neil Smith

I hate almost everything in my Twitter feed. I mostly go there just to annoy myself when there’s not enough anger in my day already, but every so often a wee gem crops up in the form of a particularly amusing tweet, a great pic of a shark, or an interesting new connection. Anthony Neil Smith was one such connection. We share a publisher in Bastei Entertainment and, as I discovered in the course of this interview, we have the same scalpel-sharp editor, Allan Guthrie. I know most of my Smorgasbord guests in real life and I look forward to meeting Neil the next time he comes to the Highlands.

NerdyNeil

Hi Neil, after I invited you to take part in the Smorgasbord, I discovered that you are the author of Sin-crazed Psycho Killer! Dive, Dive, Dive! I couldn’t resist a title like that and downloaded it to my Kindle straight away. Was it as fun to write as it was to read?

Yes, incredibly fun to write. I think I stole a lot from Event Horizon, but that was the fun of it. War is Hell, after all. The title was inspired by men’s magazines of the 50s and 60s, before Playboy. Most of them had tough guy war stories in them. The only real issue is that I wrote it so fast and loose that it has a major error in it (I won’t tell you what it is) and lots of smaller ones. True pulp.

I picked up on a couple but it was such a fast and entertaining read that it didn’t matter. Let’s get serious for a moment. Tell me about the evolution of the author, Anthony Neil Smith.

It started with the Hardy Boys in second grade. The librarian let me read it because I wanted to check it out so badly, even though I was a bit young. Then I discovered The Three Investigators series, even better than the Hardy Boys, and I knew I wanted to write. Between then and college, I swerved between wanting to be a lawyer, a computer geek, a comic book artist and writer, a rock star…but I eventually came back to my first love, sending out my first short stories when I was 19. Then I read James Ellroy’s White Jazz and was blown away. I didn’t realize you could do that in a crime novel. So I focused on creative writing classes, then grad school, where I received a PhD in creative writing, and now I’m a professor and a cult crime writer.

Having written noir crime, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and now, unexpectedly, historical fiction, I’m all over the book shelf. I think I’m correct in saying that you have specialised in dark crime books, but have you ever been tempted to cross genres? Is there a romantic comedy lurking in the heart of ANS?

I don’t think there’s a romantic comedy in me, no. Mainly, I think plotting is my weak spot, so it helps to have the crime or investigation aspect to centre on. I am interested in making sure each book feels different from the last, even if they are all dark crime. I also don’t think I’ll ever write fantasy or sci-fi.

Your latest book, The Cyclist, features a Scottish character. What’s your connection to Scotland?

I love Scotland, have been there twice, and I want to go again. I’ve long admired Scottish writers, made friends with quite a few crime writers of there, and I love the land and history as well. The beer, the haddock, the Highlands, the accents, all of it has had a big impact on me. I had a Scotsman, Allan Guthrie, as my agent, who then became my publisher for five books, and is now my editor at BE. He’s been my anchor in this business for a long time.

How would you describe your writing style?

Broken. One professor once said it felt like my sentences had been splintered apart and then nailed back together in a weird way. I just want it to be as “voicey” as possible, so that it flows in someone’s mind better than it does on the page.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

For me, it’s the fact that it takes a long time. I get impatient. I always do the math and think, I should be able to write a book in three or four months. But it always takes eight to ten.

And the easiest?

Not “easy” easy, but I think first chapters are not as hard as some people make them out to be. I love writing first chapters. It’s a new world, new characters, new possibilities, and I’m ready to let them all live in my head for a long time. I like the challenge of coming up with a great first line and last line for that first impression. All The Young Warriors is my best first chapter, I think. Everything worked, and it was a great hook for the story.

What were you like at school?

Like, middle school and high school? Awkward. Never comfortable in my own skin. College was a little better. It wasn’t until grad school that I felt I’d found my place.

But earlier, I at least think I was funny. I was always drawing, which impressed a lot of other students, but I never had a lot of friends. Always shy, with a close circle of them. And now I teach in front of full classrooms and read in auditoriums just fine, but I still hate calling people on the phone.

What are you working on right now?

I took a long time off after The Cyclist (five or six months) but finally rediscovered a story, based on true events, of someone I knew back in my church days – a guy who seemed like he’d turned his life around for good, but who later killed a man and chopped him into little pieces to get rid of the evidence. I found a way to get into that story as a novel (because I just can’t do it as true crime. That’s not me), and it’s coming along well, I think.

That sounds interesting. What has been your best writing moment so far?

The entire process of writing All The Young Warriors was a blast. From the outlines to the final product, everything was right. I really had high hopes for that one as far as finding a larger publisher, but we had a couple of close calls only. One editor originally wanted it, then changed his mind three weeks later (which was the WORST moment of my writing career). So instead, Allan began a digital publisher called Blasted Heath, and I decided to take a chance with them.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Don’t do it. There are already too many of us.

Kidding, kidding. The best advice is to read a lot of stuff you love to read, then try some literary fiction from the last fifty years, then read Chekov’s short stories. Find people who will give you a good read, usually other writers. Grow a very thick skin so that criticism doesn’t get to you as much (because it will always get to you a little bit), and be prepared to wait.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the young ANS?

That’s a tough question. Probably to not get so anxious about the future. Take things a little easier.

Who would play ANS in the film of your life?

He’s older than me, but I’d still go with Sam Rockwell. He is also who I would want to play my series character Billy Lafitte (with Johnny Knoxville a close second).

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why?  How would you spend the day?

My dad. He died when I was ten, and he was larger than life. Always smiling, always laughing. He missed out on the path I took in life, and if he had lived, I think I would’ve gone a different direction. I would like to hear what he thinks of me now – a professor and writer. We’d spend the day cruising the coast in his old Chevy van, listening to seventies rock bands.

Nice. A few short questions to finish. Favourite book:

White Jazz by James Ellroy. Wouldn’t be here without it.

Author:

Very tough one. But this week, it’s Walter Mosley.

Food:

Mexican. Tacos and burritos. Very spicy.

Drink:

Mexican beer.

Film:

Pulp Fiction. I saw it the same year I read White Jazz, and together, those cemented my choice to be a crime writer.

TV show:

The Shield.

Music:

Sammy Hagar.

What are you reading right now?

The Cuckoo Wood by M. Sean Coleman, and The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker.

Thanks Neil, it’s been a blast.

Follow Anthony Neil Smith on Twitter.

The Cyclist by Anthony Neil Smith was published by Bastei Entertainment on 8 May 2018.

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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Literary Smorgasbord: Calum Colvin

The Literary Smorgasbord is primarily about writers, but there’s more than one way to tell a story and for this most recent set of interviews I have invited a handful of visual artists to take part. I met Calum Colvin when we were students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. Though he’s long since become a well-established artist, I still get a kick every time I see one of his creations hanging in a gallery.

CalumColvin

Your work has a strong narrative feel, with images layered upon images, and stories hidden within stories. How does that process begin? 

I suppose there is an element of storytelling in there. I begin with an image, or an idea gleaned from a book, or simply a title. Then there are the ‘objects’ or props which inhabit the set and provide a framework for the picture. It kind of spirals from there!

 My work tries to evoke the worlds of the painter, the sculptor and the photographer. The combination of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ are what interests me and (I believe) constructed photography is a particularly apt way of exploring this. The objects in the photographs are ‘real’, they have their own history which interacts with the narrative of the painted element, which often has it’s own historical resonance (given that it is often a re-interpretation of an existing artwork/painting). I pursue themes and ideas in my photographs that very often relate directly to issues of ‘identity’, fine art practice, popular culture, crypto-political connections, and every variety of arcane symbolism meet in a collision of ideas and associations such that a kind of kaleidoscopic’ vision is created.

Do you have a clear image of how the finished piece will look, or does the picture emerge as you work?

I think the final image is a kind of accommodation between myself and the camera – we reach an impasse, or maybe a truce! The camera lens does not see the world in the same way as the human eye does. I try to make what I have in my mind fit what the camera sees, and we usually meet somewhere in the middle.

Themes of Scottish history and identity run through your work. Was that a conscious decision or natural evolution?

See above. I lived in London for a decade or so from the mid 80s during the Thatcher years, and this certainly made me aware of a growing political gulf in the UK. However I was reminded on a fairly regular basis of my linguistic ‘otherness’. There is a sense of an evolution in these concerns in my work specifically: simply because, like most people, my opinions and views have been shaped by experience of the political climate and by an increasing engagement with Scottish culture over the decades.

How much of yourself do you expose in your work?

Often artists both reveal themselves and hide within their work. In that respect I am no different from the rest, except sometimes I am physically present in the work – although always in the shadows and sometimes in disguise!

Have you ever been deeply into a piece only to realise that it isn’t working?

Not that I’ve been prepared to admit! I am nothing if not persistent!

How do you know when a piece is finished?

When I decide I can’t make it any better, or I run out of time, or puff.

Is there any piece you are particularly happy with?

No. I think the next one might be better.

We first met as art students in Dundee. I have a particularly vivid memory of you, me and Andy Crummy huddled around the fire in Andy’s basement flat, eating slices of cheese from a block of cheap cheddar. Oh, the glamour. I think it was the only thing any of us had to eat that day. You are now a Professor of Fine Art Photography at Dundee University and Andy has created the Great Tapestry of Scotland – changed days indeed. Looking back, what does the journey from student to professor look like?

I don’t think about life journeys and such too much. I tend to be too busy dreaming up the next wheeze. I’m still partial to a bit of cheddar.

What, if any, are the differences between art students then and now?

I think it is all a bit more professional now. Teaching is much more sober and structured, for better or for worse. Interdisciplinarity is encouraged in a way that was never before, and I would like to think I have been a part of that change. Students work very hard, and I am very proud of their achievements at Duncan of Jordanstone, which is now part of the University of Dundee. I went to the same institution at the age of seventeen and see the similarities and transformations most days.

What are you working on at the moment?

As ever, I’m juggling half a dozen or so short term and long term projects. Some of them will go by the wayside, and some will evolve. We’ll see.

I’m definitely making a commission for the British Academy in London. A group portrait of eight Honorary Academicians, past and present. A big job.

What advice would you give the young Calum Colvin?

None. I wouldn’t have listened.

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?

Robert Burns. A walk in the country, a meal, a drink.

Who would play Calum Colvin in the film of your life?

I’ve no idea. I wouldn’t watch it. Maybe Jacques Tati?

A few short questions to finish. Favourite book:

Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by Robert Burns 1786.

Author:

Philip Roth

Drink:

Malt Whisky – any. I’ll play the field.

Food:

Cheese. Unless it’s Andy’s Cheddar.

Film:

It’s a Wonderful Life

TV show:

Mad Men

Music:

Elvis Costello

Artist:

Diego Velasquez

Work of art:

Las Meninas

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

BurnsCountry2
Burns Country by Calum Colvin

You can find out more about Calum Colvin at his website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

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 Lübbe, is available online.

Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Jan Patience

In June 2015, I was invited to take part in the launch event of Scotland’s leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth. I hadn’t realised quite how much swearing was in Boyle’s Law until I prepared to read a chapter of it in public for the first time. There was so much cursing and it ran so fluently that I couldn’t edit it out, and so I decided to go for it big time and deliver. I rehearsed the hell out of that reading and my reward was a room full of people shaking the rafters with laughter.

The next day, I was nursing an almighty red wine hangover when a woman approached me in the street to tell me how much she’d enjoyed my reading the night before. I remembered her because she arrived too late for a seat and had to perch on a window sill. Also, she had red hair and wore a Breton top and I’m a sucker for both. That woman turned out to be the very lovely Jan Patience. One day I’ll draw a Venn Diagram of all the people I’ve met through XpoNorth. In the meantime, please do enjoy this fab interview with Jan.

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How did you get started in your career as a journalist?

I left Aberdeen University in 1986 and applied for post-grad journalism courses in Preston, Cardiff and London. I didn’t get into any of them even though I had worked on – and edited – the university newspaper. My problem was that I froze in the interviews and came across like a gibbering wreck.

Unable to think of anything else, I kept applying for jobs in journalism. In these days that meant scouring media situations vacant in The Guardian on a Monday and pouring over small ads in The Glasgow Herald. After a few months I was offered a job working for a husband and wife who ran a magazine for the lingerie trade from their home office in the west end of Glasgow (I know what you’re thinking. It sounds well dodgy… but it was legit. I think!) I quit my job as a waitress in The Cue Ball nightclub in Aberdeen and moved home to rural Ayrshire to live with my parents for the first time in four years.

The job lasted less than two weeks. Half was spent at a lingerie trade fair in Harrogate, talking to women wandering around a draughty exhibition hall in bra and pants while I teetered in black patent stilettos and black and white dog-tooth Margaret Thatcher-style power suit from M&S which my mum, bless ‘er, had bought me. It was the 1980s, what can I say? Mum was always horrified at my sloppy garb and insisted that was how people dressed for “proper” work. I went to work on the Monday after returning from Harrogate and my boss asked me to go and research the history of hosiery in Hillhead Library. The next day I was told they couldn’t afford to keep me on.

My first proper job in journalism, was with a magazine called Business Scotland published by a small Glasgow-based company called Peebles Publishing. I wasn’t the only young would-be journalist searching for a job. The first two weeks was spent working alongside another recent graduate. We were told by the boss, an ex-sports reporter who had worked on the Glasgow Evening Citizen, that he would choose between us after a two week trial. I got the job. To celebrate, he took me up to a pub in Byres Road for a drink. It wouldn’t happen today.

How did your expectations of the job match up to the reality?

Well, it wasn’t the stuff of Lou Grant, the US television set in busy newsroom, which I watched as a teenager. In my head I was  Mary Tyler Moore. At Business Scotland, I was a newsroom of one and I had to fill an entire magazine using native guile every month.

Business Scotland, which was mailed out free to subscribers, relied completely on advertising. It was a mix of advertorial (paid-for content before it was called ‘content’) and interviews with businessmen. I say businessmen because it was actually mostly men I interviewed.

The company also produced a bunch of other publications; The Johnny Walker News, The Rangers News and the Celtic View, Packaging Scotland and the Licensed Trade Guardian. All the reporters were around my age and we sat together in a damp, cramped basement room. To keep ourselves amused, we used to phone companies we knew had funny-sounding receptionists answering the phone and put them on speaker-phone. The packaging giant, Metal Box, had a particularly hilarious receptionist, I recall. We also produced a weekly spoof newspaper called The Peebles News which was hidden from the bosses’ prying eyes. We laughed till our bellies ached every time we added a story, each more anarchic than the last. I used to do impressions of all the bosses and once, the production editor, a lovely woman who was from London and a wee bit Sloaney, walked in when I was in the middle of impersonating her. I still feel bad about that. One of my proudest moments in the three years I worked there was making sure a woman won the Businessman of the Year Award which we set up. Her name was Christine Latta and she ran an engineering company in Glasgow. She taught me a lot about what women could achieve against the odds.

I knew nothing about business but it taught me a lot about the gentle art of asking open questions with a smile. In other words bluffing like mad. One day I’d be writing 2000 words about scrap metal, the next interviewing the chief executive of The Royal Bank of Scotland.

After a year (because there was no-one else to do the job), I became the youngest editor in Scotland, aged 23. At the time I thought I hated the job because it was so boring and so poorly paid but looking back, it was fun.

You are a well-known arts journalist, how did that come about?

Like most things in my life I fell into writing about art. After spells on the staff of The Daily Record and a daily business newspaper (which went to the wall after a couple of years), I went freelance after I had my son in 2001. My daughter followed in 2003 so I juggled writing with being a mum and carer to my ailing parents. It was the tail-end of the days when newspapers had money to commission freelances to work on reasonable-sized projects and around 2006 I was asked to co-write a magazine spread on 50 Scottish artists to invest in. I threw myself into it and it re-ignited my interest in art which had always been there, but had somehow been placed on a back-burner.

Following on from the 50 artists feature, which caused a stir in the art world (of which I knew very little), I was asked to contribute to a regular art column in The Herald, writing about artists and exhibitions which were happening around Scotland. It was like a crash course in learning about the Scottish art scene. I never described myself as an art critic but it’s a label people are familiar with so it seems to stick. I always say I write stories about art and artists. Occasionally, I get into an almost meditative state when I am describing art and it pours out with the greatest of ease. I have become quite the expert at picking my way through the thickets of art speak, which art schools seem to put high up on the agenda. If you can’t say a thing simply, I say, don’t bother.

What were you like at school?

A mixed bag; funny, self-conscious and a wee bit geeky. I used to wear a badge on my duffel coat which said, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” It was a tough school and our year was HUGE. You had to fight your corner. Either that, or make people laugh. I chose the latter path! My dad was a minister, which put me into the ‘snobby’ category among certain peers so I started talking like Mary Doll in Rab C Nesbitt for a while, which didn’t go down well with mum.

I loved art and English and I was also in every choir the music department ran. And they ran loads! I was even in a wee girls’ choir which did Burns’ Suppers all round Ayrshire. We had quite the reputation but it did mean listening to lots of sexist jokes in Toasts to the Lassies’ speeches. I was into drama and loved being part of a drama group run by my English teacher, Mr Stott. I usually played the “character” who was old and eccentric. My first taste of journalism happened when I was in sixth year and part of the school magazine and I loved being part of it.

I was once told that every journalist harbours a secret desire to be a novelist.  The person who told me this was a newsman-turned-novelist.  How much truth do you think is in that statement?  

Show me the journalist who doesn’t want to write a novel and I will show you a big fat fibber. We are natural storytellers and embellishers. I get secretly irritated when I see yet another ex-colleague produce a novel. My husband always says: “Where’s your novel then?” which he knows will annoy me even more.

Have you ever written any kind of fiction?

I have an unfinished novel three chapters in sitting in my laptop and I’ve also written short stories. When I moved back from London to Scotland in the late 1990s I attended a week-long course in novel writing at Moniak Mhor, near Beauly. The tutors were Janice Galloway and Geoff Dyer. I went straight to the course from an interview with the owner of a randy dog who was terrorising the town of Tain for Take A Break magazine. Most of the participants were women and fans of Janice Galloway. The protagonist of her novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, struggles with mental illness and some of the would-be novelists were obviously drawn to that side of Janice’s work. I’d say several were teetering on the edge. By the end of the week, everyone seemed to be menstruating at the same time. Even the men.

I am a bit of a poetry nerd and in 2012 I wrote a haiku a day for a whole year. I used to walk about counting out 5-7-5 syllables out on my fingers when I was out walking with the dog or driving the car. The kids used to know when I was composing a haiku because I’d drum out syllables on the steering wheel.

How did the George Wyllie book come about?

I met George’s daughter, Louise Wyllie, in 2011 through a mutual friend, a journalist called Fiona Black. At the time George was living in a care home in Greenock and suffering from dementia. Louise was trying to stimulate him and to make him feel like his life’s work as an artist hadn’t been in vain. I think he thought everyone had forgotten him. I vividly recalled seeing his big ambitious “social sculptures”, the Straw Locomotive and the Paper Boat in Glasgow in the late 1980s and I couldn’t believe that he thought he had been forgotten. There was something playful and serious about his work which I loved. It wasn’t rarified art. It was art which connected with ordinary people at a deep level.

I got friendly with Louise and she roped me into helping on a committee called The Friends of George Wyllie. We ended up organising a year-long festival called The Whysman Festival in 2012. Just as the announcement was made that it was going to be happening, George died, which added a poignancy to the proceedings.

Louise is an inspiring person, even though she would laugh at me saying that. Like her dad, she is a naturally creative organiser who thinks big and the Whysman Festival was a resounding success. We even won a Creative Scotland Award.

As part of the festival, we staged a huge retrospective exhibition in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library and produced a book of George’s poetry, which I edited. There was also an education initiative which saw his work reaching out to a whole new generation of young people.

Louise jokes that she simply tipped out her dad’s house into the Mitchell Library space but it was astonishing to me that an artist who started working as a serious artist late in life had produced so much. It was clear looking around that exhibition that from the moment George Ralston Wyllie made his entrance into the world on Hogmanay 1921, he was a creative force to be reckoned with.

I said to Louise we should write a book about him and to cut a very long story short, that is how Arrivals and Sailings: The Making of George Wyllie came about.

What have been your worst moments as a journalist?

Where to start? There’s been a lot of highs but probably my worst moments came when I worked on tabloids. I often found myself in situations in which I asked myself, “how did I get here?” On housing estates being chased by angry relatives after asking for a picture of a recently-deceased loved one (the dreaded death-knock) or standing crying in an en-suite bathroom belonging to an AIDS victim in a hospice in Edinburgh after having prised his sad story out of him.

And your best?

My best moments were also on tabloids. The crazy camaraderie of day-to-day life on a tabloid at the fag end of the glory days of newspapers can’t be downplayed. It was a case of one for all and all for one. When I worked as a reporter at The Sunday Mail in the early 1990s, I was known to my mostly male, older colleagues as “the wean”. I learned a lot from these world-weary hacks. They worked hard and played hard and were incredibly generous with their time and their expertise. Once, I was struggling with writing a news story and a favourite colleague, Alex Scotland, read through my efforts. He pushed his specs up his nose and said: “Jan, get angry! You’re not angry enough… !” I became the Sunday Mail’s “Culture correspondent” in 1990 during Glasgow’s reign as European City of Culture and I broke a few big news stories which made the coveted front page. I had a knack of coming up with good shorthand handles for tabloid stories. One, The Casanova Conman, even found his way into criminal history.

Have you ever felt intimidated by anyone you have interviewed? 

I interviewed a few criminals during my time at the Sunday Mail. Pre-internet, there wasn’t many outlets for jailbirds and along with other female reporters I regularly received heavily censored letters from prisoners. Presumably, they saw our bylines and had a lot of time on their hands.

I visited the famous Barlinnie Special Unit with my friend, the paper’s resident astrologer, Darling (Rita Madhok). That was an experience and a half. We went on a boiling hot day in summer and we all sat on the exercise yard watching the pet rabbits run amok. It was like a metaphor for confinement. One of the prisoners constantly canoodled with his posh young girlfriend during our visit and it turned out he was planning to marry her. Fast-forward six months and I am sitting waiting outside the gates of Barlinnie looking out for famous visitors such as ex-Special Unit inmate, Jimmy Boyle, sweep past in his Jag. I met Boyle a few months later outside Saughton Prison when he was campaigning for the release of one the inmates there and he was charm personified. “Don’t get dazzled,” my friend Alex advised… always remember what these guys did to get in the jail in the first place.”

On that note, probably the most intimidating one-to-one interview I did was with a man called James Nelson. He was a convicted murderer who killed his mother and on his release, became a minister of the Church of Scotland. My dad was a minister and he was a delegate at the General Assembly in 1984 when the Kirk debated whether or not Nelson should be allowed to be ordained. I recall the case clearly as it prompted much debate in our home. I interviewed him in the mid-1990s in Rogano in Glasgow for a woman’s magazine. He clearly enjoyed my discomfort in his presence and I was unusually tongue-tied. Intimidated, even.

What advice would you give to the young Jan Patience?

Don’t be such a feartie and trust your gut instinct. Also, you know a lot more than you think you know. Don’t give up. There’s always a way – you just need to find it.

Who inspires you?

People who keep on being creative despite all the barriers which spring up along the way. George Wyllie continues to be an inspiration. He became a full-time artist aged 58. That keeps me going! I have an artist friend called Annette Edgar and she is in her 70s and has faced a lot of ill-health and problems but she has an unquenchable thirst for creating art and a poetic spirit.

What are you working on just now?

I’d like to say I am writing my novel and cracking on with that factual book which everyone I talk to about it says is A Good Idea. But mostly, I footer about on Facebook, Twitter et al. That needs to change.

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?

You ask some hard questions, Lorraine!! I’d like to have just one day and night with my late mum and dad. My brother and I would take them to The Coffee Club in Kilmarnock and dad would have lemon meringue pie and we’d all tease him about it. We’d probably bicker but that’s fine.

Who would play Jan Patience in the film of your life?

I’d like to think Nicole Kidman but in reality it would be someone far less glamorous. Janette Krankie maybe?

A few short questions to finish. Favourite book

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I’ve re-read it several times but with all the Muriel Spark at 100 celebrations in the news (she was born on 1 February 1918), I’ve been thinking that I’ll re-read all 22 of her novels. She is so tart and spare in her storytelling and with her language.

Author

Anne Tyler

 Drink

Champagne – but not too much as I get very silly with it.

Food

A really well-made risotto.

Film

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Music

I am known for my love of moaney women singer songwriters with the queen of all moany women singer songwriters being Joni Mitchell in my eyes. I also love Carole King, Nanci Griffiths, KD Laing and Björk. I’d like It’s Oh So Quiet by Björk to be played at my funeral. I like to think it sums me up. Seemingly quiet but then… Zing boom!

I’ve also recently joined the Glasgow School of Art Choir, which is the nearest I’ve ever got to going to art school. It’s led by the charismatic, energetic and oh-so-young Jamie Sansbury. We’re going to be singing a Sir James MacMillan composition inside the GSofA’s Mack Building, closed since the fire in 2014 when is reopens. I love singing in a choir again.

What are you reading right now?

Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer by Alan Rowan. Alan is a former colleague from The Daily Record. His first book is a well-written meander through his long-running obsession with running up mountains in the dead of night after he’d put in a long shift on Record sports desk.

Thanks, Jan. Great interview.

You can follow Jan on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram           

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 Lübbe, is available online.

Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Andrew Crummy

When I was at art school in the 1980s, the world was a very different place. Thatcher was in power, the miners were striking, Reagan was in the White House, punk was dead and the soul had been ripped out of the city of Dundee, but the time I spent there was to echo through the rest of my life in ways that I could not imagine. Art school is the gift that keeps on giving, and one of the things it has given me is the many friendships that have endured and flourished throughout the intervening years. It’s been a thing of wondrous beauty to see the many paths taken by my contemporaries but it’s been a particular joy to witness the success of my friend, Andy Crummy.  (Andy also wins the award for world’s scariest selfie of a nice guy.)

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Hi Andy, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Smorgasbord. I’m going to plunge right in with The Great Tapestry of Scotland, a hugely ambitious project which has been described as a Masterpiece. The Great Tapestry is a major work by anyone’s standards: what impact has it had on your life?

It has had a huge impact, I am often now called “the Tapestry man”!  Looking back, I suppose it was the culmination of my involvement in community arts over many years and my own artistic skills. What was a surprise to me, was the interest in my drawing and design skills. What was amazing was not only the skill and creativity the thousands of stitchers, but all the other people who volunteered to help in its creation and its touring and exhibitions. The Great Tapestry of Scotland, The Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, Battle of Prestonpans Tapestry and the others have now been seen by over 700,000 visitors.

Although I am central to these projects, it is not about one person, it is about all these people coming together and being creative. When all these ladies start being creative with their stitching it is a very humbling experience. Of course, it is still evolving and growing. We are not at the end of the story.

What were you like at school?

I was really just a not very confident, quiet wee soul who looked rather depressed most of the time. I did not know what I wanted to do. My careers advisor at the time thought I should be a printer. The only thing I was good at was drawing and chess. I ended up going to Art College because it was the only thing I could do.

Tell me about the evolution of Andrew Crummy, the artist?

It was really when I got to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art that I suddenly found myself with lots of other people who were like me. I really enjoyed my time at Dundee. Of course, that is were we met all those years ago. I think we were all very lucky because everyone was so friendly, even to this day, as a group we keep in contact.

As an artist I just love drawing and painting and I just wanted to keep to it. It is really that simple. It is just the joy of being creative. I do not view myself as anything special, but I have had a lot of practice.

Community arts and collaborative work are important to you; what would your ideal project look like?

I was brought up in a community arts atmosphere through my mother and The Craigmillar Festival Society. But as a typical teenager rejected most of what my parents said, it was not  until well into my thirties when I realised that my mother was right, if you involve people in our own creative process, it opens many new doors.

Community Arts can be a very powerful movement, when many people come together through the arts to deal with issues within our society. The best example I have ever seen was The Craigmillar Festival Society, where it used the arts to help deal with the issues of poverty and inequality. It was a very clever model of working and I am still learning much from it.

I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but many years ago you told me you were planning on writing a book inspired, I think, by a box of old photographs. Did anything ever come of that?

I think that is one of many projects that never got anywhere.

You have created murals, drawings, paintings and illustrations, experimenting in many different styles and media. How do you decide which route to take for a project?

I think the important thing is to keep learning and trying new things, there is still so much to learn and look into. I don’t mind failure because it is through this you learn more. Throughout my life I have been fortunate that at certain points opportunities have come along, but I was always happy to take the plunge and give it a go.

Have you ever surprised yourself by what you have revealed in your art?

Some of the images I just don’t know where they come from, or what they reveal about myself.  I really don’t understand where they come from. I usually just enjoy the challenge.

I think over the years, learning the craft of drawing and painting is such a constant tussle. I often hear writers and artist talking about this. Sometimes you produce some thing and you think that is fab, then you come back to it a few days later and change it again. Then you think, I wish I had never changed it.

Which artists inspire you?

Well there are so many, in so many art forms. I was at the National Gallery recently and some of the paintings are like old friends. Over the years they become part of your life, and your relationship with them changes. I am a bit of a art groupie, I just love so many artworks. For drawing and painting I am very traditional in admiring Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, etc. In a Scottish context John Byrne, Joan Eardley and of course John Bellany, but I am loathe to pick out only a few as I admire so many. John Quinton Pringle is another, James Cowie….. the list goes on and on. Music is a big inspiration for me, I remember you like Devo…….gosh that whole period of music and beyond. The other art forms….. I could be here all night!

Best art-related moment so far?

For my own work. Standing in the two hour queue with my daughter to see The Great Tapestry of Scotland in the Scottish Parliament. I just wanted to experience people queuing to see my work. It will never happen again.

Any unrealised artistic ambitions?

Far too many to mention.

What are you working on at the moment?

More tapestries, book illustrations, paintings and venturing into sculpture and ceramics.

What advice would you give the young Andrew Crummy?

Be more confident, more ambitious.

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?

With Rembrandt or Turner, in their studio. I would learn so much.

Who would play Andrew Crummy in the film of your life?

Spud from Trainspotting, as he went to the same school as me.

A few short questions to finish. Favourite book?

Or what am I reading at the moment. I tend to read factual books like: Scotland, A History from Earliest Times by Alistair Moffat, Come out of the Wilderness by Bruce Kendrick, Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor.

Author

George Orwell.

Drink

A flat white

Film

Cinema Paradiso

TV show

Come Dine With Me

Music

Family, Undertones, Karine Polwart, Stevie Wonder, Debussy, etc.

Artist

Rembrandt, Ben Nicholson

Painting

A Group Portrait, James Cowie

The Box Meeting,  John Bellany

Thanks Andy, it’s been a pleasure.

Find out more about Andy at his website.

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 Lübbe, is available online.

Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.

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