Yesterday was the day on which, in 1796, Robert Burns was buried in Dumfries, in a simple grave in St Michael's churchyard. The big, ostentatious monument only came later. The funeral was far from simple. Invitations were sent out in Robbie, the poet's eldest son's name, as was the custom. The night before was showery but the day of the funeral turned out to be sunny, just in time for the grand procession. The weather this week, here in the West of Scotland, has been much the same. All those fine people who had crossed the street to avoid Rab a little while before, when the adulation had changed to small town disapproval, came out to show how much they had loved the great bard. And in spite of his wishes to the contrary, the 'awkward squad', the Dumfries Volunteers, not very efficient or soldierly, did indeed fire over him.
Jean was at home, giving birth to his last child, a son called Maxwell. The night after the funeral, Jean's husband came home, briefly. That's what she recounted later. And here's my version of it.
'The whole house was quiet, Maxwell swaddled in her arms, She had been singing to the new wean until he slept and she saw Rab coming into the room. He was as bold and clear as though he had still been in life and, she thought, rather more healthy than the last time she had laid eyes on him, a gleam in his eye and a flush of sunlight on his cheek.
She was not afraid.
When had she ever been afraid of him? Rather she felt the wee bubble of laughter, even in the most serious of situations, at the general absurdity of everything, even the worst of things. She looked up at him while he gazed down at her and, in particular she thought, at the baby. Well, why not? He had aye loved the weans best, loved the curve of their cheeks, the soft, vulnerable place at the back of the neck, their perfect wee fingers and toes. Then he shook his head sadly, as though regretting that he could not stay, and disappeared, so suddenly that it seemed like a snowflake, melting away in your hand.'
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Sunday, July 10, 2016
|Armour's the jewel for me of them all.|
Anyway, a good long while before I wrote the Jewel, I was so intrigued by the notion of drizzlers that I wrote a poem in the persona of one of them. I thought you might like to read it, so here it is.
The play’s the place for this game,
crowded halls, assemblies, balls.
I keep a pair of scissors in my
needle case, birds of steel, their
beaks as sharp as my tongue and
a spool for winding my booty on.
My skirts are a garden,
how my nimble needle flies.
A froth of smuggled lace at my wrist
hides my hand from prying eyes.
Peacocks are my prey.
Rich young men or old no matter
so long as their coats are fancy.
Roses, purls and picots are good,
dangling spangles are easy,
acorns are fine, fringes are better
but I have grown so bold that
I have slit silver buttons from their
waistcoats beneath their noses
and I remember one young buck who
wore medallions of beaten gold
with cupids and I had them I had them but
I was sorry to send such cherubs for melting.
Some women call their pillage flirtation.
What can their gallants do but submit?
But the covert assault excites me more.
I gauge them from behind my fan.
Up close, their hearts beat far too loud to
hear the slice of blade on blade.
They never see my work.
They’re watching the shady cleft
between my breasts, they never catch
the swiftness of my hand
between their baubles but
with their warm lips on mine
I’ll palm my shears and
clip their treasures one by one.
My mother died when I was
much too young to grieve.
My father pays lip service to thrift while
donning his powdered wigs, his velvets,
his hose, his ruffled linen shirts.
So I’ll take what’s offered elsewhere
snipping in secret, concealing my
rich pickings in my sleeve.
Later, I’ll tease my stolen gold from
silken thread and take it to the old woman
who weighs it on her scales and
hands me a few coins instead.
Pin money. It’s never enough
but the thought of this subtle robbery
makes me flush and catch my breath.
I’ll prick their vanity with my tiny shears.
A small piracy.
We are drizzlers.
We are buccaneers.
Monday, July 04, 2016
Sorry for the rather long silence between posts, but there's been an awful lot going on here in the UK. Wish there wasn't. Glad I'm in Scotland.
|Foxglove and fuchsia at Keill.|
This is an update on God's Islanders that was published some years ago, in hardback: a revised and updated paperback, just the right size for you to slip into your pocket and carry around the island with you. Gigha is one of my favourite places in the whole world, and I've set some of my fiction on an island not a million miles from Gigha as well. I'm already planning a new project with an island setting.
|Misty morning at the ferry terminal.|
Monday, June 20, 2016
|A room with a view.|
I do a lot of reflecting as I sit up here in my room-with-a-view, indulging in a certain amount of displacement activity before I get on with the next project. But regrets come when you wake up at four in the morning and can't get back to sleep, and fret over roads not travelled, decisions made or not made. Well, we do the best we can, and we forge on. I'm an optimist at heart.
But just sometimes, I think that I ought to try to pass on a little of my own experience because the internet is awash with advice for writers and so much of it seems to come from people with not as much wisdom, to quote my beloved Robert Burns, as 'a midge could rest its elbow on.'
Bad advice. My biggest regret is that over the years, I've heeded too much of what turned out to be bad or inadequate advice, even when my heart was telling me to ignore it. Often, it came from professionals. Often, they were wrong and my instincts were right. I should have taken the leap of faith and done what my impulses told me to do.
So what do I mean by 'bad advice'?
I mean situations where I trusted a fellow professional, but didn't pause to examine their motives and didn't give enough weight to my own instincts, the small voice inside me that told me to think again.
Plenty, and not just about writing. But that's what this post is about. So:
Being advised not to go along with a request to adapt a piece of work for the stage because of the sensitive subject matter. I agreed with the advice, but it was the wrong decision.
Being saddled with the director from hell for a major stage production and being advised not to talk to the press and not to take my script and leave. Weeping in the loo was not a helpful option but it was the one I chose.
Was advised to stick my head above the metaphorical parapet on behalf of a certain organisation. Got shot down in flames. Said organisation decided there was nothing they could do about it.
Was advised by my then agent, producer and script editor, to work without any payment on a detailed proposal for a television serial because 'something' would come of it, it was such an original idea. Wasted the best part of a year on treatment, episode breakdown, pilot episodes. The whole thing was kicked into touch - then I saw the very same idea emerge as a successful movie for somebody else, years later.
Worked on another television idea, this time suggested by a large commercial organisation, again with no development money, revising it many times to suit their changing requirements, attended endless meetings, only to have it kicked into touch again. Unpaid because another adviser had told me that it would be worth it in the end.
I could go on.
Was I culpably foolish? You bet I was. Especially since in all these cases, the various organisations had approached me. I was still quite young. Very hopeful. Are writers doing exactly the same thing right now? Of course they are. A career in writing is always the triumph of hope over reality. The only way to avoid some of the pitfalls (you'll never avoid all of them) is to step back and assess everything on its merits for you, personally. Even then, you'll make mistakes, but perhaps not quite so many as I did.
The single most important thing you can do in all areas of writing, is to take charge of your own career, and make decisions based on what feels best for you. Expect to be a partner in any enterprise that involves your work. But remember that being a business partner involves significant responsibilities as well as rights: keeping to deadlines, keeping promises, not throwing toys out of the pram when you can't have everything your own way. In other words, you should be as professional as you can be.
Finally, take all advice with the largest pinch of salt possible. Including - I might add - this post!
Saturday, June 04, 2016
Last night was our annual village 'Car Treasure Hunt'. We've been doing these on and off for years. In fact it's a testament to the relative peacefulness of Ayrshire's roads, that they are still possible in these parts. For anyone who has never participated before, you pay a small sum towards whatever good cause has been nominated, get a sheet with a set of 'clues' and instructions - and off you go, filling in the answers to cryptic (sometimes very cryptic indeed) questions and directions as you go.
Last night there were four of us in a friend's car and the hunt involved an hour or so's drive along the winding back roads of Ayrshire, through the kind of countryside that Robert Burns would have known. It was a sunny night, and the countryside was looking its very best - in that wonderful time between spring and summer, when the verges are full of pink campion and a few remaining bluebells, where the hedges are creamy with sweet scented may blossom, and the gentle hillsides are ablaze with whin (gorse) blossoms. Everywhere, farmers were working hard at the silage while the weather was so congenial and the nights so long and light. It doesn't get dark till well past ten o'clock now and even at eleven there is still light in the sky.
In truth it seems very little changed in the 200+ years since Robert Burns roamed these hills and lanes with his current squeeze. It was a clear and very warm evening and it seemed as though around every corner was another stunning perspective across woods and fields, white farmhouses huddled into hillsides, and long vistas west towards the glittering sea and the hills of Arran, with Kintyre behind.
It often strikes me that the powers-that-be in Ayrshire do not know what they have in terms of scenery. If this kind of vista was anywhere else, it would be proudly promoted - the 'garden of Scotland', unspoilt landscapes of the Burns Country, and so on. I have no idea why there is, instead, a relentless focus on golf. I've no problem with golf, but there is so much more to Ayrshire and it's odd that even the people who live amid such beauty and such historical interest don't seem to notice it.
Anyway, there we were, driving slowly along yet another of the intensely pretty back roads when we passed an old farmhouse that seemed to be peculiarly sunk in time. It certainly leapt out at me and I couldn't quite say why. It wasn't part of the treasure hunt. There were no clues to be had here, and yet as we passed, I had the urge to ask our driver to stop so that I could go back, have a closer look, find out more. It just seemed ancient and interesting and for some unaccountable reason, it drew me. But, we were on a treasure hunt and we drove on.
Later, back at home (we didn't win, but we didn't do too badly either!) I followed the route we had taken on a map - not easy because we had been on a road that I didn't remember driving along before, even though I've lived here for many years - and there it was. To my amazement, I discovered that the house was Mount Oliphant. Which was the place where the Burness family moved from the cottage in Alloway where the poet was born. Rab later changed his name to Burns. It hadn't been a particularly happy place for the family - the land was, as ever with these small tenant farms, particularly bad. Landowners would rent them out and the poor tenants would be responsible for 'improving' them, often at the expense of their own health and strength. It was this kind of work in conditions much less warm and congenial than last night, that the poet described as the 'toil of a galley slave'. And so it must have been. It helped to destroy his own and his father's health.
The place is, of course, changed. But there is still something recognisable about it when you look at old pictures such as this one.
If you want to know more about exactly what I have been researching, you could seek out a copy of my most recent novel, The Jewel - all about the life and times of Robert Burns's Ayrshire born wife, Jean Armour. It's available in all good bookshops, as they say - and on Kindle of course, and in other eBook forms as well.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
|Burns House Museum, Mauchline|
Just as an aside, one or two people at various book events, have mentioned to me how pleased they are not just that Jean has been given her due, but that for much of the novel, the poet himself is depicted in summer. Not exclusively, of course, since the novel covers many years. But it's a sunny, spring and summer book and there is a sense in which Rab was so often a sunny spring and summer poet. He wrote about winter, for sure, but it's clear that he wasn't at his best in the winter months. I reckon now he'd probably be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder!
One of my favourite Burns songs is O Were I On Parnassus Hill, here in a delightful version by Ceolbeg. 'My muse maun be thy bonnie self,' he says, of his wife. 'Then come sweet muse, inspire my lay, for all the lee lang simmer's day, I couldna sing, I couldna say, how much, how dear I love thee!'
This poem has been dismissed as a 'vapid lyric' - by a man, obviously. I've read it to largely female audiences, all of whom seem to appreciate it immensely as a 'honeymoon poem' which is exactly what the poet intended. You know, that intense feeling when you can't bear to be apart from the beloved for any length of time? But perhaps modern men prefer more stately and intellectual muses.
(in Greek and Roman mythology) each of nine goddesses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who preside over the arts and sciences.
synonyms: inspiration. creative influence, stimulus.
"the poet's muse"
a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist.
noun: muse; plural noun: muses
Anyway, I got to thinking - what about women? I've never had a muse. Have you? As a writer, I've had - and still do have - a very supportive husband. Before that I had a wonderfully supportive father. On the other hand, I've known men who have been downright counterproductive as sources of inspiration although female friends have sometimes inspired me.
But I never felt the need of a muse and wouldn't know where to begin searching for one. Maybe it was a good excuse for writer's block. The man could blame the woman (or muse) for deserting him. All the fault of her indoors as usual.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
'You look very comfortable in here,' he remarked.
I studied at Edinburgh University and I lived in Edinburgh for five years in total, two of them in a big, shabby, cold, but beautiful flat in the New Town, and I still love the place. One of these days, I keep promising myself, I'll move back there.
Truth to tell, I love the book events as well. What's not to like about chatting to nice people about a subject you love? And this time, the questions have been fascinating, perhaps because so many people know about Robert Burns, have wondered about his wife, and are now really interested to hear more about her.
But it's also good to have a breather this week, if only to catch up on the mountain of paperwork that seems to have accumulated on my desk in a short space of time - as well as tackling the garden that was awash with mare's tail and ground elder. Besides, I have letters to write, books to post, people to email. And a husband with an art exhibition coming up next month to add to the confusion.
The book is going very well, I'm pleased to say. It is Scottish Book of the Month for May in Waterstones and Blackwell's Book of the Month too. I feel an extraordinary sense of pride in Jean, my long neglected heroine. You can't live with such a fine character for so long - a couple of years of intensive research and writing - without growing to love them. I feel as though Jean is a friend. Rab too, although you'd find yourself coping with the warm blast of his charm.
Next week I've an event in Ayr and then what promises to be a really fun evening at the Globe Inn in Dumfries - where the poet bedded Ann Park - on 22nd June. (In conjunction with Waterstones) I use an academic year planner - August to August - so yesterday I pinned up a new one because I'm beginning to be booked for autumn and winter and even a few dates for next year.
In between, there's a new project or two nipping at my imagination. Meanwhile, I've been thinking about muses. Of which more in the next exciting post!