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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Literary Smorgasbord: Beth Robertson Fiddes

There are many ways to tell a story and, arguably,  one of the earliest was through pictures. When I recently visited Beth Robertson Fiddes in her studio, I was struck by how much of her experience as an artist I could relate to as a writer and I was inspired to invite her to take part in the Smorgasbord. She agreed, and so I am delighted to introduce the Smorgasbord’s first (but not last) visual artist.

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Hi Beth, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Smorgasbord. I’ll kick off with one of my favourite questions: what were you like at school?

Quiet mostly. I have nice memories of early primary on Tiree and I had a spell at school in Kansas which was interesting although maybe a bit overwhelming. I was fine in the school itself but used to literally get lost in the car park, too many buses, all yellow.

Later school years I enjoyed less. I did work hard, depending on the subject, and there were some good teachers there but I’m glad those days are over. I spent a lot of time on my own outside which was just fine. My report cards mainly focussed on whether or not I had shown signs of coming out of my shell or retreating back into my shell like some sort of indecisive snail. One teacher commented that she was unaware that I was in her class.

When did you realise you had creative ability?

I don’t think I had a conscious realisation of that. I think all children start out creative and that sometimes that is lost somewhere along the line. I just kept going. Everyone around me when I was young was making something, painting or drawing, it was a natural thing for me to continue.

What has been the evolution of Beth Robertson Fiddes, the artist?

I think as far as my evolution as an artist is concerned I have reached the stage of a hopeful sea sponge. I have always felt I was just beginning and I still do, I think that feeling is helpful in a way. I often forget how much work was involved and how long it has taken to get to actually just do this everyday.

What makes you paint?

I’ve always been driven to draw and paint. There’s a wealth of inspiration in the surrounding landscape and coast here. It’s memory and a sense of place I try to capture but maybe with subtle alterations. My work has been described on occasion as otherworldly and there is a sense of escapism both in the process of painting and in the finished piece. It is a way of transporting myself to a different world and time and if I’m away from it too long I feel uncomfortable. So that’s what makes me paint

How much of yourself do you expose?

I am not aware of myself while painting. I really do escape from myself and anything that’s going on around me. I’m not intentionally trying to reveal any particular aspect of myself but inevitably it’s a form of communication and it’s my individual view point so I guess there must be something of me in all of them.

Are you ever surprised by what is revealed on the canvas?

Thanks Beth, it’s been a real pleasure (and glad to meet a fellow loather of The Cone Gatherers). Find out more about Beth at her website, on Facebook and on Instagram.

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

Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.

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Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018

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A strange thing happened when I tried to write about the retreats I’ll be running on Isle Martin this year. As though possessed by the twin spirits of Brigadoon and the Scottish Tourist Board, I began waxing lyrical about the islands off the west coast of Scotland, using overcooked descriptions like the iconic whale-bone outline of the Outer Hebrides, and the haunting beauty of St Kilda, last outpost before the vastness of the Atlantic.

A soundtrack of evocative Celtic music played in my head as I wrote, and I swear I could smell the peat burning on the fire. As if that wasn’t enough, when I read it back to myself, it came out in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart accent. When I realised the spirits had me in their tartan-clad grip, I had a word with myself before I broke into the Skye Boat Song or worse, Donald Where’s Your Troosers?

Here’s the real deal. Last year, I ran Isle Martin’s first writing retreat and I enjoyed it so much, I’m doing it twice over in 2018. Isle Martin is stunning, the island is brimming with history and atmosphere, and it’s exciting getting in a boat and going to an island, especially one that’s off-grid, but here’s the really important bit:  amid all this breathtaking stunning magnificence, we’ll have a great time. There will be writing, lots of writing, but there will be laughter too, and plenty of it. And as if that’s not enough, Em’s food is fantastic and there’s a constant supply of cake.

Check out the links below for more details, and if you’re interested in joining me on a remote island for a weekend of writing, laughter, cake, and maybe a dram or two, email me at lgt@thrillerswithattitude.co.uk

I look forward to seeing you there.

Midsummer Write 22 – 24 June 2018 £210pp*

Above the Strandline 14 – 16 September 2018 £220pp*

*Price per person for the weekend, includes shared accommodation, meals, workshops, cake, and return boat trip.

Isle Martin is a community-owned island off the north-west coast of Scotland, approx. 3 miles north of Ullapool, run by the Isle Martin Trust. The amenities are simple, the island beautiful, the welcome warm. With over 18 hours between sunrise and sunset, great food, and inspiring company, Midsummer Write is the perfect opportunity to devote time to your writing. There will be workshops to help get you started and to keep you going, and an opportunity for one-to-one mentoring, otherwise you will be free to immerse yourself in your work. Above the Strandline will feature a mix of tutored workshops and free writing time For both retreats, you will have the option of a short 1-to-1 mentoring session. There is no electricity, on the island so leave your laptops and tablets behind and bring pens, paper and a sense of adventure. There is no hot running water so bring a flannel for a wash-down. We will however, have the luxury of flushing toilets, a warming fire and delicious meals cooked on the island using local produce.

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

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Literary Smorgasbord: Gayle Anderson

Jackie is a magazine so iconic, there’s even a musical about it. Some scars in life run deep and I still recall the bitter disappointment of going to the local shop one Thursday afternoon in the mid 1970s to collect my regular order, only to be told that they had sold every single copy of the magazine during a lunch-time stampede of teenage girls from the local high school. I wasn’t even all that bothered about the 8-page Osmonds pull-out special – it was the words I missed. I absorbed them all; everything from the Dear Sam letters page, to the tampon adverts where you could order free samples from Sister Anne*.  But without a doubt, my favourite part of Jackie was the Cathy & Claire problem page, and so you will understand that although I am hopelessly devoted to each and every one of my Smorgasbord guests, I am particularly excited this week to be interviewing the real, actual, Cathy & Claire

*Disclaimer: My memory fails me – I can’t remember what she was called, but despite having no connection to the Catholic church, I do remember thinking she was a nun and thought it was strange that a nun was giving away free tampons. It didn’t occur to me until an embarrassing number of years later that the Sister was supposed to be a nurse.

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Hi Gayle, thanks for agreeing to take part in the Smorgasbord. I’m fascinated by all my Smorgasbord guests, but as I was an avid Jackie reader back in the day, I’m particularly excited to be interviewing you.

Aww, shucks, thank you. It was a genuine privilege to work on and subsequently edit Jackie. It was a magical place. Like being at an eternal sleep-over party with your friends. Such fun! Such shenanigans!

Without a doubt, my favourite section of Jackie was the Cathy & Claire problem page. I remember one particular problem from the late 70s when a bride-to-be was worried about being overweight. The advice from Cathy & Claire was to imagine the wedding guests humming here comes the bride, forty inches wide, as she walked down the aisle.  Were you ever as caustic in handing out advice?

Ooh, that is horrendously harsh. I was definitely never as caustic. My stint as C&C was in the early 80’s. These were different times and PC as a term only applied to the local constabulary – but I would contend that your memory is quite a rare example of harshness. That is perhaps why you remember it so clearly. We tended to speak to readers as if they were our younger sisters. That’s really how we regarded them. We were answering these letters as youngsters ourselves. Often newly left home, in our first flats, coming from small towns all over the country. We understood how they felt as we’d just been through it. We understood about loneliness, not fitting in, the fear of love bites! We had a team of more mature freelance advisors to help answer the more complicated problems, pre-written advice sheets for the most common ones, and a doctor for the medical issues. I recently visited the wonderful Jackie archives at D C Thomson for research on a Cathy & Claire talk a former colleague and I gave at last year’s Dundee Book Festival . I was utterly delighted to discover that the vast majority of replies  given over the years – from the 60’s onwards -were warm and supportive and full of common-sense. Even on the most difficult of subjects, racism, sexuality, misogyny, they were in the main, answers I would happy to see given to young readers today.

What was the most unusual problem you dealt with?

Ooooh, that would be the half pence coin letter. I was sitting at my desk on Monday morning opening letters when a half pence fell out. I picked it up and began playing with it as I read the accompanying letter. It said, ‘Dear Cathy & Claire, I have a vaginal wart. I measured it with this half pence.’ Cue made dash to the toilets to wash my hands in the frantic style of Lady Macbeth…

Howling with laughter here. Did you have regular advice-seekers?

A few, but not nearly as many as you’d probably imagine. It was mostly different readers writing in every week. Girls didn’t talk to their friends about their worries in those days and in general  they most definitely didn’t discuss  emotional issues with their parents. There was no social media. No Google. We were their Google. Talking of repeat letters, I did like the fact when going through the archives that the Cathy & Claire page had the honesty to print a letter from a reader who hadn’t agreed with or liked the reply she’d been given! How many publications would do that today?

How many problems came in every week?

At Jackie’s peak, Cathy & Claire received up to 500 letters each week.  To seem hip and cool, we gave our Fleet Street address. The sack loads of letters were then transported by DC Thomson’s own lorries overnight up to our main offices in Dundee where we all worked.

Did you ever feel the weight of responsibility when dealing with the problems of a generation?

You most definitely felt a sense of responsibility. That was part of the fabric on Jackie. Our readers meant everything to us. I think they understood that and that goes a long way to explaining the magazine’ s incredible success. We understood the importance of being Cathy & Claire and we took the job extremely seriously. We were proud of the fact that every single letter that came with an accompanying address was answered. There was real job satisfaction in that.

You went from being Cathy & Claire to pop editor to editor of Jackie in a few short years – how did you get your start with the iconic magazine and what was it like to progress so quickly?

I started in Jackie as a junior doing the letters page and the horoscopes in 1981. It was general practice on magazines at that to start off writing the horoscopes. You could always tell what sign the junior was as she gave herself the best predictions! I then moved on to Cathy & Claire for a spell before becoming pop editor in 1983. It was always the job I wanted and I absolutely loved it. It was like a dream come true. From there, I went on to become Blue Jeans editor before becoming Jackie editor in 1989. In those days, there were wonderful opportunities to work hard and show your creativity and use your initiative. We were pretty much given free rein. Our only training was on the job. You were thrown in at the deep end and  learned your craft from the amazing staff around you. Some incredible women (and a few men too!) I feel incredibly sorry for young people trying to break into media today. There are so few opportunities to get in at ground level.  It’s all unpaid internships which is morally so wrong. Unless you have rich parents you will never be able to support yourself. My story of a wee Dundee girl from a council estate who ends up editing Jackie just wouldn’t happen today and that’s wrong. Oh, stop me before I go into full rant mode…

As Jackie’s pop editor, you met some of the biggest names from the 1980s music scene. Was there anyone who surprised you?

Listen in the world of 80’s pop – NOTHING surprised you! That was the secret to it all – expect the unexpected! I suppose I was most surprised by Andrew Ridgely of Wham! He was number 1 in the charts but still living at home with his mum and dad in his teenage bedroom. He invited me round and we watched Blackadder and ate Mr Men biscuits! He even posted me on look-out while he had a cigarette at the back door  – he may have been a pop icon but he was petrified that his mum would catch him!

Morrissey surprised me too. I thought he would be difficult but he was lovely – especially with a reader we took to meet him. He really got into the spirit of things and had her feeding him grapes in the photo-shoot.

Who did you particularly like?

I liked George Michael – a wonderful, generous and sensitive man. A real family man. The Spandau boys were always up for a bit of a wild night out and a laugh as were Bananarama and Jason Donovan always remembered you.

Was there anyone you didn’t like?

Let’s see…generally, everyone was  lovely  but I do remember  leaping on stage at Nick Kershaw’s soundcheck  at The Playhouse in Edinburgh and having a few words because he was being sniffy about a pre-arranged meet and greet with a Jackie reader. Again, it was all about the reader. She was crying and I lost my cool! I also found Paula Yates difficult.

What was your strangest and/or funniest encounter?

Interviewing Simon Le Bon whilst he was in his bath ranks right up there. Luckily, there were a lot of bubbles. He greeted me by shouting, ‘Captain Invincible!’

What were you like at school?

I was, much  like I am now,  a bit of a rebel,  a non-conformist.  I attended a Catholic academy and it was pretty strict. I was constantly being sent home for trying to wear cheesecloth shirts and no tie or non-regulation hippy clogs instead of sensible shoes.  I was a bit of a secret swot too though and stayed on until sixth year. I particularly loved English and the debating society which was run by Sister Mary Bernadette. She was a giant Irish nun who cruised the corridors like a scary black battleship, clipping wrong-doers around the lugs as she passed. She and I really got on. She had a deliciously dry sense of humour.  I remember   I was debating at the rather posh Morrison’s Academy in Crieff when my opponent  completely lost his temper and called me a, ‘communist bastard’.

Sister Mary Bernadette came  up to me after our win put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘ Sure, he got that wrong, Gayle…..you’re definitely not a  communist…’ There was definitely a twinkle in her eye as she said it.

What advice would you give to the young Gayle Anderson?

I’d say,  ‘ Be bold, be brave and enjoy every single second. Oh, and always remember to stick your taxi fare in your shoe before a night out.’

Who inspires you?

Strong, talented women inspire me . Arundhati Roy, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Kathy Burke,  Dorothy Parker, Jeanette Winterson, Toni Morrison,  Audre Lorde, Carol Ann Duffy, Joan Eardley, Frida Kahlo, Joni Mitchell to name but a few.

What are you working on just now?

At the moment I’m working on my autobiography – here’s a bit of blurb about what to expect…

“I learnt the true meaning of ‘beards’ and ‘handbags’ as a naïve 19-year-old pop editor partying with George Michael. Before that, as Jackie’s iconic agony aunts, Cathy & Claire, I’d  helped thousands of  teenage girls deal with love bites, loneliness and medical queries that all too often involved sending me their scabs stuck to Sellotape. But  it was many more years before I faced up to my own issues, addressed my shed-loads of secrets and lies and finally admit that I was gay. Join me on a riotously funny and at times painfully raw road trip to the end of my rainbow. You’ll discover that it’s never too late to  come out, or to wear double denim. Warning: an embarrassingly high level of name-dropping will be involved in the telling of this story.”

Can’t wait for the name-dropping. You write stand-up reviews, Gayle. Gary Little has been a Smorgasbord guest and I have an interview with another stand-up lined up – I wondered if you have ever considered taking to the stage?

No, never – I know as a reviewer just how incredibly difficult it is! I admire stand -up comedians  so much. Baring their souls on stage night after night – they are brave, talented people. I do love being a bit of a pub raconteur though and I would love to write comedy – either for TV or radio. I’m working on a  treatment for a six part female led comedy series. I’ve also appeared  on a few radio comedy quiz shows.

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?

It would be Maya Angelou – my heroine. We’d probably kick back in Barbados  at a beachside bar drinking rum with her reading her poetry to me and me reading Rabbie Burns to her. She loved Burns. I met her once after a poetry reading in Glasgow in the 1980s. She was charm itself. A 6ft vision in a gold lame frock…… and that voice!!

Who would play Gayle Anderson in the film of your life?

It would have to be Frances McDormand – especially like she is in 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.  Small, feisty, determined and allergic to bullshit.. Scary on the outside but a softy underneath.  A ball breaker par excellence!

A few short questions to finish. Favourite book:

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy or The Elegance of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.

Author:

Margaret Atwood

Drink:

Mount Gaye Barbados rum.

Film:

Some Like It Hot

Music:

Billie Holliday, Lauryn Hill, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen,  Bob Marley, Massive Attack,  George Michael, Curtis Mayfield. A mixture of hip and hippy!

TV show:

New comedy show  by Roisin Conarty – it’s a breath of fresh sit-com air. All time favourite show – The Wire.

1980s pop icon

Gotta be Debbie Harry.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. I got a signed copy as a Christmas present from my partner.

Where can readers find out more about you?

Oh, it would be great to hear from fellow Jackie fans. No problems letters though, I’m a bit rusty!! Good to hear from  other lovers of the arts and comedy too.

Twitter : @puffedtweet

Instagram: gayleandersonx

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

You’re most welcome –  I’ve had fun on your posh Pick ‘N’ Mix!

Books by LG Thomson are available from Amazon and from bookshops in Ullapool. Writing as Lorraine Thomson, the Dark Times trilogy is also available from Amazon.

Find out more about LG Thomson at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Beyond the One-liners

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Relentlessly upbeat people depress me. You know the kind – so full of pep they look like they’ll explode if they don’t burst into song or break into a tap routine. What are they hiding behind that let’s-put-the-show-on-right-here grin? Don’t they know that the seas are rising, the unicorns all died of syphilis and the world is going to hell?

For the past few years, my Christmas hat of choice has been a black and white Santa hat with BAH-HUMBUG stitched on the faux-fur trim. It was my one-woman protest against the insane spending frenzy of our mid-winter debt-fest and kick-back against the tyranny of the happiest-time-of-the-year jingle bells mob, but mostly I wore it just because I thought it was funny.

My relationship with cynicism started somewhere around my mid to late teens. There have been a lot of laughs along the way, but lately I’ve been thinking that beyond those knowing one-liners, cynicism achieves little and changes nothing.

Despite giant islands of plastic floating in the sea and images of bleached coral reefs, despite the rise of homelessness and the appalling necessity for foodbanks, despite the jaw-dropping sight of Trump in the White House, and May in No. 10, making Thatcher look like a tree-hugger, despite the appalling Johnson and everything else that stinks about the Westminster Government, despite it all – this Christmas, I’m choosing optimism.

Why the change of heart?

Maybe it’s because I know someone who saw a strandline of plastic waste on an island beach and very quietly, began to clear it up. Others noticed and joined in. One thing led to another and now a community-owned island is a thriving hub of growth and activity.

Maybe it’s because a bunch of local primary school kids decided they didn’t like what was happening to our seas and persuaded every business in our village to stop using plastic straws.

Maybe it’s because of someone who has decided to turn his garden shed into an Eco Shed, where people can buy wooden toothbrushes and refill plastic containers with environmentally friendly detergents. We pay cost-price for this service, plus 10%, all of which will be going to the local Men’s Shed.

And maybe it’s because of those Shedders. In the short time they’ve been together, they’ve produced props for the local youth theatre, constructed a floating duck house – the people’s duck house – and built feeding stations for the local red squirrel population.

Maybe it’s because people care about the squirrels.

It’s about all of these things and more. It’s even about the Scottish Government which has seen fit to provide baby boxes for newborns, and to run a pilot scheme which restores the dignity of young women on low incomes by providing free sanitary products.

It’s about seeing people trying to make a difference.

Before anyone gets excited, I’m not going all jingle bells and pep. There’s no danger of me breaking into a tap routine, but this year, the Bah-Humbug hat is staying in its box.

Cynicism is bad for the soul and relentless pessimism is depressing so why not join me in some quiet optimism. The laughs may be harder to come by, but they last longer and the colours are brighter.

Doing nothing changes nothing. Doing something, no matter how small, might be the something that matters. It could just be that it is possible to change the world one beach clean at a time. If not, we’ve lost nothing for the trying.

Wishing you all the best for 2018.

LG Thomson is the author of several books including noir thriller, Boyle’s Law, and the post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. In November 2017, The New Dark, the first book in her Dark Times trilogy, was published. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

Literary Smorgasbord: Debbie Mathews

I have interviewed an amazing range of writers on the Smorgasbord, but Debbie Mathews is a smorgasbord unto herself. Blogger, poet, author of short stories, childrens’ fiction, non fiction, and, appropriately for the Smorgasbord, cook books. if that’s not enough, Debbie is also a photographer, gardener and veg grower and is just completing her garden design course and RHS certificate.

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Hi Debbie, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on the Smorgasbord. That’s some list of activities listed in your introduction, but what are you most passionate about?

I’m passionate about a number of things: writing of course – I’ve written from the age of 5 –  and cooking goes without saying, although I suppose that’s really a passion for eating! My interest in gardening started around growing my own food.  I’m 110% passionate about the natural world which translates itself into being a green proponent, and is probably where the photography fits in too.  I’m also passionate about justice.  Inequality of any kind gets my ire up. I campaigned with Amnesty, Oxfam and CND in my early teens.  Aged 40, I gave up my well-paid full-time job and re-trained to be an advocate for young people with learning disability.  I worked as an advocate for 13 years and continue to champion the rights of anyone who is marginalised or disadvantaged.  I think you could call that a passion. As well as being creative, writing can be a brilliant and powerful tool for justice.  A blog is a great place to air ones views.

Where did you grow up, and how does it compare to your present home on the north-east coast of Scotland?

I grew up in South West London – about as far away from life on a farm on the north-east coast of Scotland as you can imagine. I was always an outdoor girl though.  We all were back then weren’t we?  We had tremendous freedom to roam about as kids, even though we lived on the edge of the big smoke.  We had a 100ft back garden which backed onto the rec (the local authority recreation ground) although we fronted a major road.  As you know, there are few mountains in greater London.  I used to cycle to Box Hill with a friend in the holidays (technically out of my allowable range) as well as Richmond Park (also not allowed).  We thought of Richmond and Richmond Park as the countryside!  Townies, eh?  In the summer my dad used to get us up early and we’d rattle down to the south coast.  I’ve always been happy by the sea.

What were you like at school?

Quiet.  I went to school relatively late due to having to wear calipers. I think my parents had to fight to get me into a ‘normal’ state school because of my various difficulties. I’d never really socialised with kids my own age. My mum was very poorly when I was young and spent a lot of time in hospital.  I think that had an impact on my stability as a little person out in the big-wide-world.

I didn’t mix much with girls.  I preferred to scuff about with the boys.  They seemed less complicated, and you didn’t have to talk too much with them, you could just do stuff.  An all-girls senior school was a bit of a shock, as you can imagine.  Most of my school reports from that time have reticent written on them.  Debbie has good ideas and is a capable student.  I wish she’d learn to speak up more.  She is very reticent in class.  I’m not sure my parents knew what it was, but it was clearly not good, so I always got told off for it.

When did you start writing?

As far back as I can remember.  My mum taught me to read and write before I went to school.  Initially books were my escape route, then writing.  I wrote poems and stories to start with, and letters.  Letters were a great discovery.  I had pen-pals from various places in the UK and abroad.  I also discovered you could write to MPs and councillors, and I harassed both my local council and the government about all sorts of things.  Aged 11, I got my first typewriter.  After that there was no holding me back.

Do you have any particular writing habits?

This is where I disclose the secrets about my special routines and impart great wisdom…… No, I don’t have any writing habits, I simply write.  I’m not being facetious.  Really. I write constantly.  It’s maddening.  Like all my fellow writers, I keep a pen and notepad with me at all times, and it gets used all the time. I always get ideas at inconvenient moments.  I’ve taken to making sure my phone is with me when I’m out walking or running, and I’ve learnt how to use the voice recorder so I can capture those ideas which would otherwise be lost by the time I got home.  I’m not much of a night owl, so I don’t tend to write in the evening, although I have often put the light back on, after settling down for the night, to write something in my notebook.  My writing habit is genuinely to write, write, write.  I’m very bad at keeping concentration on one thing, and worse at editing, so I’m a poor example for any writer!

What are your writing hopes and ambitions?

My ambition for this year is to complete my first novel.  I’m just over 35,000 words in, aiming for 50 – 60,000.  I keep diverting myself with other projects and really need to focus.  I also have a non-fiction project which has been on the go for five years.  I have actually finished the text now, although because of how disorganised I’ve been in compiling it, I’ll have to spend some serious time getting the referencing organised.  I’ve also challenged myself to be braver with my writing this year and am making myself read publicly – a personal loathing – and enter some competitions.  I’m not brave enough to tell you if I’ve already entered any…

 My hope is that I will find a way for people to read and engage with my writing; that I will somehow connect.

Who has inspired you?

Corny as it may be, my mum is a complete inspiration.  She is uneducated: she bought up her younger siblings and skipped school for the most part. She had a dreadful childhood. She has been ill since she was first pregnant and has had all manner of operations and health issues. She’s been a wheelchair user for the past 20 years. In spite of everything, she has always remained cheerful, giving and creative.

Her spelling and grammar are so atrocious that getting a letter from her requires painstaking deciphering; in spite of that – and sometimes because of it – her letters are funny and touching.  She is a life-time letter writer and has written hundreds of letters to friends, family and strangers across the UK and beyond.

At 60, she learned to swim, despite a phobia of water (she saw her brother drown when she was 11) and she started reading voraciously in her 70s.  A few months ago, aged 82, she learnt to crochet. She has a personal good grace, humility and tenacity it would be hard to emulate.

It is the ordinary- extraordinary people that inspire me the most, in life and in writing.  Malala Yousafzai, Naomi Kline, Charlotte Bronte (whom I share a birthday with); Safia Minney  – Founder and CEO of pioneering Fair Trade fashion label People Tree; Charlotte Danks – a 21 year old who has opened 25p Food Shops in Cornwall to help struggling families; Hope Gordon, my friends daughter, who had her leg amputated last year after a decade of pain and suffering, and who rows, swims, fund-raises, and last year completed the Dubai 92km Cycle Challenge having only ridden a bike once in the previous 14 years!

What has been your best writing moment so far?

This?! Nah. I don’t know.  That’s a really hard question. I won an award at school and got a £25 book token – that was really cool, but best writing moment?  No.   I’ve had a bits and bobs published over the years, but I think my best writing moment is to come!  Something that probably comes close is submitting a manuscript to Emergents last year and being told that my writing was good.  That nothing much needed changing.  That was a good writing moment.  It’s only been surpassed by the moment that I wrote on my blog that I’m a writer.  It’s the first time in nearly 40 plus years of writing that I’ve had the confidence to call myself that.

If you could strap yourself into a time machine and travel back through the years to meet your fifteen year old self, what advice would you give her?

Ha!  I’ve done this! Well, not really you understand – although it would be pretty damn cool wouldn’t it – it was a writing exercise for the Wee Writers Workshop that I’m part of.  The exercise was to write a letter to your younger self.  I put it in the fiction section of my blog as it was technically a creative writing exercise, although it’s pretty much all true.

Here’s some of what I wrote to myself: I just wish you’d gained a bit more confidence earlier on; I wish you’d stopped trying to please your dad sooner– you knew in your heart of hearts it was futile – and got over your fear of failure.  Let me tell you this – It isn‘t a secret- you are going to fail.  You are not going to get through life only having succeeded.

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?

Hmm.  Another really hard question.  I mean, one person, out of all the millions of people… I’ll need to think about that one. I think all the famous game changers would be too scary, and possibly too boring.  I’d be tongue-tied.  So, much as I’d like to spend a day with Nelson Mandela or Shakespeare, I think it would be a waste of my time and theirs. Ooo!  I know!  I know!  Jean-Luc Picard.  Not Patrick Stewart, you understand, I’d be far too nervous, no, the fictional and fabby Jean-Luc Picard.  We would spend the day flitting at warp speed through the galaxy.  Well, our bit of the cosmos anyway.  I’ve always wanted to see the earth from space.  We would sip Earl Grey tea and talk about how the federation managed to get so many different species to collaborate.  We would beam down onto the moon and kick a ball about down there.  We’d could maybe take a trip in a shuttle around the planets.  I’d get him to introduce me to Chakotay…..no wait, getting carried away here; different captain!  Ah well.  It would be interesting anyway, and I hope we’d have some fun as well.

A few short questions to finish with. What is your favourite book?

Nope.  I can’t do that one.  I don’t have a favourite book.  I’m fickle.  I have books I love at the time and perhaps never read again.  I have books I re-read, like Thomas Hardy, or Tolkien, usually on the train; although companionable, they’re not my favourites. I have books I would never get rid of – Catch 22, To Kill a Mockingbird – and others.   Recently I’ve enjoyed The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.  I like books that engage me – heart and brain – which could pretty much be anything.

Writer?

The sadly departed Iain Banks, and perhaps Nick Hornby, Anita Desai…No, can’t do that one either.

Meal?

Well a side-dish rather than a meal: potato dauphinoise.  Potatoes, garlic, cream.  What’s not to like?

Ha, that made me laugh. Cream is a no go area for me and I’m not a big fan of the spud, but that’s a whole other story. Back to the point – film?

Again, one is too hard!  The Graduate, Toy Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Shawshank Redemption, The Kite Runner, Dead Poet’s Society, You’ve Got Mail.  I’ll stop there shall I?

Music?

This is impossible! Everyone says eclectic don’t they?  It’s true for me too. I listen to everything and anything.  I’m not a big classical or country fan, although there are exceptions.  I like traditional jazz – New Orleans and Dixie – and am in love with the saxophone: think the intro to Baker Street Or Lily Was Here by Dave Stuart and Candy Duffer.  I was a bit of a rock chick in my youth and still love a thrashing guitar and heavy drumbeat.  I saw U2 when they first toured as spotty yoofs and still adore them.  I love Van the Man, Coldplay, Nina Simone, Elvis Costello, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd (pre ‘Wall’), Avicii and The Stranglers.  Currently I’m listening to Travis, Jack Savoretti and Calvin Harris.

What are you reading right now?

That’s easier!  A History of the Rain by Niall Williams, Spectacles by Sue Perkins and Great Garden Designs by George Plumptre (which I found in my dentist’s on Tuesday!).

Thanks Debbie. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you Lorraine.  It’s been great fun answering your questions.  Thanks for asking me to join your lovely tasty Smorgasbord.

You can find out more about Debbie on her blog and follow her on Twitter.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Pauline Mackay

This week’s Smorgasbord guest is children’s author, Pauline Mackay. Pauline is passionate about languages, a statement ably illustrated by the fact that her hugely successful Wee MacNessie books are available in 12 bilingual editions.

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Hi Pauline, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. You are best known for your Wee MacNessie books. How did they come about?

Hi Lorraine. Thank you for inviting me to take part in your Literary Smorgasbord. Knowing how much I love languages, you can probably guess I’m already smiling.

Wee MacNessie is like a member of my family now, with four books in the series so far. He’s a baby version of the Loch Ness Monster who came into existence while I was living with relatives on their croft overlooking Loch Ness. My whole life has been linked to this world-famous stretch of water and the croft, where my Mum was brought up, so much of what appears in the illustrations is true to life there. I can’t, of course, guarantee that Wee MacNessie is a faithful representation of the Loch Ness Monster!

Your books are available in several languages, including Gaelic, Scots and Arabic. Was that always part of the plan?

The first book in the series is available in English and 12 bilingual editions: English with Arabic, Dutch, French, Scottish Gaelic, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Russian, Scots and Spanish.

When I started writing my first Wee MacNessie book, I knew I wanted a story which would work for native English speakers but also be accessible to children learning another language. I studied French at the University of Glasgow, taught English as a second language in Poland and learnt Polish while I was there behind the Iron Curtain, so I was well aware of the importance and difficulty of language-learning. By the time Wee MacNessie was born, I was already running a bookselling business which specialised in bilingual and Gaelic books for children, so I knew there was a market for such books and that many of the existing titles were too complicated for beginners.

I studied illustration at art school, and although I have never worked on children’s books, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between author and illustrator.  How do you find the illustrators for your books?

I’ve used 3 illustrators on my books so far. Shelley Buckner/Mackay was recommended by a marketing consultant; Dylan Gibson caught my attention on an online children’s publishing group and I met Brian Robertson at the Dornoch book festival years ago.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I deal with illustrators because I am also the publisher of my books. Authors would not normally deal directly with illustrators unless they were self-publishing.

How much discussion do you have with an illustrator before they begin work on one of your books?

Before they begin, the illustrators receive an initial brief which describes my vision of the layout of the book and general composition of each page. I always have a little film of the story playing in my head which I try to get down on paper. Having an illustrator who can capture that vision never fails to amaze and impress me. However, the brief is not set in stone and sometimes elements change as the book takes shape.  With bilingual books there is the added challenge of leaving enough clear space for two sets of text. 

Beyond the obvious, what does the illustrator bring to the project?

No matter how good the story, no matter how good the brief, the illustrator is the one who brings the book to life. Visually representing the author’s story is only part of their job. Every page is a treasure trove of potential stories. Also, and very importantly, a picture book has to appeal to two totally different audiences – the adult who is buying the book and the child. This is incredibly challenging for any illustrator, even an experienced one.

What were you like at school?

I worked very hard at school. This made absolutely no difference to my ability to do science!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Inverness and returned here with my son when my marriage broke down.

What books did you enjoy reading in your childhood?

I was obsessed with Enid Blyton books when I was young.

When did you start writing?

My Mum tells me my wonderful Primary 1/2 teacher liked my stories so it sounds like there was something going on even then. I also remember sitting at my Gran’s table watching the passing trains and writing stories, fuelled by raspberry ripple ice-cream. When I was a teenager I started writing songs because I wanted to be a singer. It wasn’t encouraging that my wee brother insisted on flushing the toilet to try and drown me out when I practised!

What is the Pauline Mackay writing method?

I don’t seem to be one of those incredibly disciplined writers who sits down at a certain time every day and produces at least 1000 words. Most of my stories are short, but the amount of time devoted to moulding them into picture books is enormous. I also spent a great deal of last year creating additional teachers’ resources in English, French, German and Spanish to complement my Wee MacNessie books.

What are you working on right now?

Kitty’s Scottish Safari is my latest picture book. This is a completely new project which I hope the public will find fun and educational. My little cat character, Kitty Purry, travels round Scotland with her family visiting animal statues and knitting something different for all of them. I visited the statues as part of my research and was fascinated by them, especially the penguins, the giraffes and the elephant. Brian’s illustrations are truly brilliant and we have a cheeky stowaway mouse for children to spot. There are five language versions but they are not bilingual – English, Gaelic, Scots, French and German.

If I’m guessing correctly, the penguins are from Dundee, the giraffes from Edinburgh, but I’m stumped on the elephant.
Well done on the penguins and giraffes!  The elephant is a recent addition to Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. When I discovered it was made from old trains which were originally built in Glasgow and shipped to countries like India and Pakistan, I was hooked.
Please tell me Kitty Purry visited Greyfriars Bobby and the T-Rex at the Hunterian in Glasgow…
Greyfriars Bobby makes a brief appearance at the end but is not part of the main story. I was pretty sure I’d be in trouble if he didn’t feature somewhere in the book, so I like to think this is a neat solution and creates an interactive finale. As for the T-Rex, dinosaurs weren’t going to get a look-in this time after four Wee MacNessie books. However, I love the fact that this story gets people thinking about other animal statues and where they are located. Did you know there are rhinoceroses on the outskirts of Dumfries? 
 
I didn’t know about the Dumfries rhinos, but the stowaway mouse is a great idea. I loved little illustration in-jokes like that when I was a child, and then again as a parent.
Brian worked for Usborne so he loved the idea of this mouse too. It’s not hidden like those famous little yellow ducks but right from the beginning I laughed at the idea of a cheeky wee mouse hitching a free ride with the Purry family and turning up in all the pictures. It’s a toreador in one of the illustrations, so what’s the statue?

Hmmm – I’ll get back to you on that… What has been your best writing moment so far?

It’s almost impossible to pick one moment but the positive feedback from customers who have sent my books all over the world is particularly precious. One lady told me the Arabic version of Wee MacNessie had been a huge hit in a nursery in Beirut and that the children referred to him as The Scottish Monster.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

There is so much advice out there, I’m not sure I can add anything new. Being truly objective about your own work is impossible but I find that a little time away from your manuscript is a surprisingly powerful quality control tool.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar would look rather nice with my name on it!

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?

I think a day spent in the company of multilingual Mary, Queen of Scots would be a revelation. Given her French husband’s mother was Catherine de Medici, she could probably reel off a few good mother-in-law from hell stories!

A few short questions to finish with. Favourite books?

Pride and Prejudice, The Tobacconist, Kidnapped.

Authors?

Jane Austen, Daphne Du Maurier, C.J. Sansom, Matthew Pearl, Tracy Chevalier.

Children’s author/illustrator?

David Melling is very talented.

Meal?

My Dad’s cauliflower cheese takes a lot of beating.

Films?

Walk the Line; Chocolat; Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang, and Matilda.

Music?

André Rieu, Johnny Cash.

What are you reading right now?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (The Amazing Adventure of Translation) by David Bellos.

Thanks Pauline.

You can follow Pauline on Twitter and find out more about her books at Ablekids Press.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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