St Andrews, its place in time

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Iconic view from Kinkell Braes

St Andrews is a small place that for any of its ex students holds a hoard of memories, all of them inextricably linked to the time as well as the place. I remember going back a few years after my graduation and feeling mostly a sense of loss. People I knew had left, their places taken by new cohorts, all intent on making the town their own, just as we did back in the day. Visiting since then (Sea Life Centre with kids,  golfing holiday, last year’s Photofest ) I’ve felt a bit on the defensive, reminding myself it isn’t the same,  and every time I am caught out by some of the changes. I don’t suppose there were equivalents of FatFace, Prezzo or Molton Brown in the 70s, but if there had been, they wouldn’t have been in St Andrews! But despite these superficial developments, I have come to the conclusion that in most respects it hasn’t really changed and never will.

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Solitude in Freshers’ Week

Arriving late in the evening a few weeks ago, I took a stroll, only from Murray Place to the Scores for a quick sniff of the West Sands, then along as far as Butt’s Wynd, up past the Quad and back to my B&B. The streets were deserted. Pace the makes of cars on the pavements, I could have been in almost any decade in the last 50 years.  It was Freshers Week apparently but there was no raucousness on the streets.  Any partying going on was behind closed doors. Yes, it was always like this.

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Expect to pay top dollar for the view I had from here

That walk seemed to set the tone for the rest of my stay.  My old halls have been converted to luxury flats, but the exterior is the same. If I’d gone inside the views would have been too.  I’d forgotten how each of the main streets has its particular atmosphere, so Market Street the main shopping street, has changed most, North Street the least. South Street, always bridging commerce, church and academia is still a mixture that hasn’t been tampered with too much.

On my second day I walked from the war memorial to Kinkell Braes and back again and saw more similarities than differences to how I remembered everything. In the Quad, looking towards LCH where I stood for a graduation photo, I wondered how many people had been photographed there and how little the background would have changed.

DSC00752But there’s always something new to discover too, like the  University Museum (once curated by John Adamson) with its uninterrupted view of the West Sands and fascinating Disruption memorabilia, or Holy Trinity Church where I chatted to local photographers. I must have passed this countless times without ever going in and seeing the fabulous stained glass.

 

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Library treasures (with thanks to St Andrews Photography Festival)

The feeling of a place persisting in time was enhanced by looking at the early photographic treasures held by the University Library.  I was walking in the footsteps of Victorian photographers as well as students and townspeople of every era.  I was particularly taken by a calotype image of St Andrews harbour .  I could swear I had a reproduction of this print, or a similar one, on my bedroom wall as a student, bought in a local art shop. It had been printed in blue and I just liked it, oblivious to its history or the story of its maker.

So to round off this short nostalgia trip here are two photos to make you think about time and photography. pier_74

This is from 1974, taken, I think, with a conventional 35mm camera or maybe a Kodak Instamatic.

The next from 2017, a Victorian wet colodion tintype by Richard Cynan Jones in which I’m holding the new digital camera used for the other photos on this page.

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Finally, let’s not forget Rob Douglas whose  21st century calotypes constantly play with time. He had his  own exhibition this year. 

 

Next I’m off to my home town of Dunfermline where there are many more changes to contemplate including the amazing new library where I’ll be giving a talk about some of the real historical characters who feature in In the Blink of an Eye . I’m very privileged to have been asked along by the Dunfermline Community Heritage Projects to the Undiscovered Dunfermline conference on October 14th which promises to be a fascinating experience.

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Dunfermline Library and Galleries

But just to round off my St Andrews trip here are a few more photos from the festival.

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The Joy of Being Edited – and a festival in St Andrews

Amongst the many delights of signing with Linen Press has been the unexpected joy of having an editor. I’ve been in more than one writing critique group and learned lots from writing workshops, so I consider myself quite a good self-editor, but having lived with Blink for several years and in multiple versions, I hadn’t realised what a relief and pleasure it would be to have a fresh eye and another ‘ear’ when it comes to making decisions.

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Editing – seeing the wood  and the trees 

In fact the smallest decisions can be the biggest bugbear.  Here I am with a complete work of fiction encompassing in its particular way, love, death and pretty much the whole damned thing. This doesn’t take away from the need to position every comma and paragraph break in just the right place. Doing this alone and at this juncture is a particular tedium. With publisher-editor Lynn Michell doing the initial line edits, I just have to respond and in 99% of cases, to quote a has-been politician, I agree with Lynn!

Of course it’s not all about nit-picking. Some parts of the Blink I submitted to Linen Press had been worked over ad infinitum, others had been added in a flurry when I saw what the shape of the book needed to be. As a result there are sections even I want to change and it’s invaluable having Lynn as a sounding board, ready to confirm or dispel those insidious doubts – ‘is this better or should I have left it as it was?’

At other times Lynn has pointed out places where there’s too much happening in too short a space for the reader to take in, or where I forget that the reader isn’t quite as au fait with my characters and their predicaments as I am myself. Some of Blink began life as short stories where word-count was at a premium. This is the time to let go and, where necessary, spell things out!

All editors come with the advantage over the writer of a certain detachment, and there are many well qualified editors out there with glowing references from authors. If I had self-published, I would have hired one. But having an editor-publisher comes with a built-in advantage and the crucial factor is trust. Not that I don’t respect every reader’s opinion, but Lynn has, literally, bought into the idea of Blink. She is familiar with the whole narrative and I know she likes the overall approach. Since signing the deal, we’ve emailed and talked via Skype and I sense we share a vision of how the book should turn out. If something doesn’t work for her, I know she is looking at it from a similar perspective.

Feedback from fellow writers, beta readers, and independent editors all have their place, but for the final MS, the publisher’s advice is head and shoulders above anything that I could get from elsewhere. Of course we’re not going to agree on absolutely everything, in which case Lynn is technically the boss. However, up to now she has never insisted on a change, only invited me to consider an alternative. As a result, she cunningly makes me feel it’s my choice rather than hers.

We’re not quite done and with some rewrites still on the cards I could be speaking too soon, but mostly it feels like I have exactly what I need to get the book into its final shape. Writing is a solitary pursuit but with an editor I am no longer alone!

standphotofest-ali-bacon-reading-2_smflipMeanwhile I’m taking off for Scotland and the St Andrews Photography Festival where  I read a programme of stories last year that became  In the Blink of an Eye. This time I have studied the weather forecast and have plenty of indoor activities on my agenda, chiefly an exhibition of Rob Douglas’ twenty first century calotypes and a look at the University Library’s photographic treasures. If I feel brave enough for the SSHoP Pub Quiz I’ll let you know

As for my baby, you can download a preliminary info sheet for In the Blink of an Eye here
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‘Poor Chattie’ comes to Novel Nights

D.O. Hill’s daughter Chattie is best known from the  iconic portrait  taken near the start of her father’s partnership with Robert Adamson, but we have very few further calotype images of her (calotyping was too expensive for regular ‘family shapshots’) .

All we know from the playful letters, notes and sketches her father made for her, is that she remained central to his  busy life and that her early death marked the beginning of his declining years.

When I was talking to other Hill and Adamson fans last year in St Andrews, one long-time aficionado exclaimed ‘Poor Chattie!’ and a  collective sigh went up in recognition of a father’s grief and a young life snuffed out to soon.

Of course in historical fiction, the less we know about someone the easier it can be to incorporate them into the story we want to tell, and I’ve been thinking for a while that Chattie’s voice could be a useful vehicle for her father’s story if only because she provides a unifying thread,  from the ‘Adamson years’  through the 1850’s, when she and D. O. shared Rock House with his sister Mary and an extended family of cousins. This  was also when D. O. Hill grew particularly close to the artist Joseph Noel Paton, an alliance that would  have repercussions on D.O.’s personal and professional life.

Next week  I’m reading the beginning of a story set in 1854 when Chattie would have been fifteen and attending the first ever  Edinburgh school for young ladies. By now she is old enough to take a view on her and her father’s situation. I wonder what she made of it all, and what D. O. made of her? I imagine her confident, articulate and well brought up. But we all know how teenagers can jump to conclusions …

nnaudienceIf you’d like to hear my version of the (not so poor) Chattie, Novel Nights is taking place on Wednesday Jan 25th in its new venue at The Berkeley Square Hotel, Bristol at 8pm.

Several other local writers will be reading their work and there is a talk by historical fiction expert Celia Brayfield (also mentioned here).

Don’t forget to get your ticket in advance.

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The Berkely Square Hotel, Bristol

Looks like a lovely venue.  I think Chattie will be in her element!

 

*Calotype of Chattie Hill by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson,  Scottish National Galleries collection https://art.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/42236/112194?overlay=download

 

More Photographic Treats

The white chocolate shortbread may be gone, but this week has been a good one for feeding my early photography obsession.

calotypepairFirst of all Rob Douglas, the contemporary calotyper who I met in St Andrews,  sent me prints of his own calotypes. I apologise for giving you a poor digital version of Burnside Farm and the Spindle Rock  taken exactly as they would have been by  John and Robert Adamson in 1843.   Rob’s originals, on plain paper of course, are much more detailed and evocative. Take a look at his website for bigger and  better versions.

I’ve also been deeply aware in the last few weeks or how long it is since I read Sara Stevenson’s Personal Art of David Octavius Hill, the definitive work on his calotypes and which I had at one time on (very) long loan from Bath Spa University Library. Surely no serious writer on the subject should be without this book.

So yesterday it arrived and even before dipping back into the text I was bowled over by the number and quality of the plates .

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No wonder it inspired me.  If only I’d had it before I went to St Andrews I could have got Sara to sign it (name-drop alert, I did meet her you know) . How amazing that would have been. But at least I have it in its rightful place on my bookshelf – some of the other books on it are  listed here. 

Finally yes, I did read Silver Harvest – inspired by the cover image of Sara’s book – on Monday evening at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and loved being there with the Stroud Short Stories gang. I’ll  put up a longer report later.  But for now I’d like to leave you with something Rob said yesterday in an email:

The sun shone this afternoon and I managed 3 decent Calotypes which are hanging up to dry now.

This gave me goose-bumps – as if  the ghost of John Adamson had  entered the room.

Magical –  and better than shortbread.

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To healthy obsessions

photo courtesy ASM Media-PR
photo by Alan Morrison, ASM Media-PR

Going to the first ever St Andrews Photography Festival was such a thrill, only part of which was having my first ever one woman show.  I’m happy to say the show was everything I wanted it to be with an attentive and appreciative audience. But in a way the real thrill was discovering I wasn’t the only one obsessed with the lives of a small group of people (all of whom died over 100 years ago) and their photographs. Which of course I knew to be the case. But it was quite something for my obsession to be making me part of something and to discover a shared obsession could manifest itself in so many amazing ways.

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Obsessives are undeterred by rain

On my first day, on a rain-soaked photo tour led by Rachel Nordstrom (head of University Photographic Collections, organiser of everything and everybody) I met a collector and producer of stereoscopic photographs who in a gap between showers whipped out an i-pad  and  treated us to some of his creations. At the evening talk by world authority Dr Sara Stevenson (mentioned here)  I was approached by someone trying to uncover the whole of D. O. Hill’s early (pre-calotyping) life.  Then at dinner,  (gulp – I was slightly star-struck to be in the company of several early photography luminaries) I sat opposite Rob Douglas who creates his own modern-day calotypes according to John Adamson‘s original instructions. Finally, at my own event on Friday evening there were people who had come to the same point from completely different angles:  a lady who was interested in Hill and Adamson because of  photographs taken by her great grandfather, and a descendant of one of  the ministers who sat for D.O. Hill’s Disruption painting.

What all of us came to find was the sudden the ability to air or  unpick details of  St Andrews in the 1840s without having to explain or defend our interest. And we could learn from each other far more effectively than consulting a library or internet site. Rob Douglas – whose hands-on workshop I had missed – had already shone a new light on just what a painstaking business it is to produce a single calotype negative and  Sara Stevenson made a sincere plea for anyone to contribute any materials or knowledge they might have stored away in a dark corner.  And of course there were those special moments when a complete stranger echoes your own long-held thoughts – like the audience member who saw the image on my programme and sighed deeply,  ‘Oh, poor Chattie!’  As if Hill’s daughter were a family friend. Because, of course, to us that’s what she is.

In the word ‘obsession’ there’s a hint of the pejorative, and I guess the adjective most commonly used of it would be ‘unhealthy’. You can certainly recognise an obsessive by a certain gleam in the eye and a tendency to catch you by the sleeve if you try to walk away. Yes, they can become boring.   But I think we are mostly harmless and although some obsessions might have a touch of the dark side, most of them are good for us.  They give us a a reason to learn and to connect with fellow obsessives. They lead us to places and experiences that help us grow. I have a friend who’s into Lord Nelson and another hell-bent on discovering all there is to know about Lady Ottoline Morrell. Why? Well why not? Although I’ve tried to unpick the origins of my obsession, it doesn’t really matter where it came from. These interests give us, if not a reason to go on, something to fall back on at least. Maybe this is what they call a hinterland.

Since coming home from St Andrews I’ve been to see the  Painting with Light exhibition at Tate Britain where the  Disruption Painting has been on show.  The commission for this painting was Hill’s original motivation for trying out the use of calotypes and the beginning of his partnership with Robert Adamson, but having begun it in 1843 he didn’t complete it until 1866, close to the end of his life. I thought this journey might be a kind of final leg or even post-script to my research in to Hill and Adamson, but of course it might just be a new chapter.

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Rodger’s photo of Hill on a biscuit – unreliable evidence?

The picture raised so many questions for me, not least the troubling issue of the colour of D. O. Hill’s hair which I’d previously mentioned to  John Fowler, author of Mr Hill’s Big Picture, in which Hill is described as having ‘flowing blond locks’. Really? From the calotypes you would say that Hill is dark-haired, and in this Thomas Rodger portrait of 1855, possibly grey. In London I got as close to the picture as I possibly could to make my own assessment and I now I’m not sure. Brown with blond streaks I would say. Or has something been painted over?

Oh dear  I am boring you now, but these things matter to obsessives like us.  Mr Hill’s hair is definitely something to discuss next year in St Andrews.

 

St Andrews Photography Festival – being part of it

“Celebrating 175 Years of Photography in the home of Scottish Photography”.

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By invitation!

When I found out about the first St Andrews Photography Festival taking place this summer, I had a pang of regret that I wouldn’t be there to see it. However, in an unexpected  turn of events, I will actually  be part of it as I’ve been invited to read my historical fiction in a festival event on September 9th. I can’t think of anything more special than to take my work to the place where the story began, and present it to people who share my enthusiasm for early photography and its exponents.

I realise most of you will know about this via my outpourings on social media, but with the festival kicking off on August 1st (my event is Sept 9th) I thought it would be good to post about it here, especially for those who aren’t on Facebook where the festival has its main site.

Here’s a link to the full programme of exhibitions and events put together by the University Library Special Collections Department and running from August 1st to September 11th.

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Please share it with anyone you know who has an interest in early or contemporary photography, especially if they happen to be in or near Fife.

And here’s a description of my event.

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In Sunshine and In Shadow
Stories surrounding the photographs of Robert Adamson and David Octavus Hill, 1843-48

Fiction writer and St Andrews graduate Ali Bacon brings her own words to the calotypes of Hill and Adamson and lends a voice to those who sat for them.
In this series of readings you will meet Elizabeth Johnston Hall of Newhaven, Jane Adamson (sister to John and Robert) and literary critic Elizabeth Rigby, and hear how an encounter with early photography changed all of their lives.
Presented with illustrations from the University Special Collections.

It’s on Friday September 9th, 5.30 – 6.30 pm,
Martyrs Kirk Research Library
80 North Street, KY16 9 Saint Andrews

Again, I know very few of you can be there, but do spread the word. If you can be there, please register for a free ticket.

This post will be top of my blog page for a few weeks to come!

 

St Andrews in a New Light: the Adamson family

DSC00905Every now and then we go back to St Andrews and always find things have changed. I already knew  my old hall of residence had become luxury apartments (!) but it was somehow even more of a culture shock to find Fatface , Costa  and Waterstones rubbing shoulders with more – um, traditional establishments. But  each time we go we have a new purpose and see the place in a new light. This time I was on a bit of a research mission.

standrews_flickrRight from the start, my interest in Hill and Adamson was piqued by knowing the places where they lived and worked, especially St Andrews where many early calotypes were made, some of them without the help of D. O. Hill.

 

Because if Robert Adamson was the unsung hero of their partnership, his brother John was also a strong influence. It was John who took on the development of the calotype process from Sir David Brewster, and roped in his brother who was unsuited to outdoor work. Together they perfected the technique and set up the business in Edinburgh where Robert was to fall in with Hill. Although John remained in St Andrews and never worked as a professional photographer, he continued to make calotypes and other forms of early photographs long after his brother’s death and had a longer association with the medium than either his brother or D. O. Hill.

I also had a desire to see Robert Adamson’s grave, which I knew to be in the cathedral churchyard but had never been able to find a picture of. And so last week, as part of a holiday in Scotland, I decided to see if I could find anything relating to John or Robert in the town. I haven’t been actively researching this for quite a while and stupidly didn’t think to bring any of my old notes along with me (doh!) but I’d recently turned up a description of the family grave  in Robert Crawford’s fascinating The Beginning and End of the World . So all I had to do was find it!

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St Andrews cathedral today

Arriving in the early evening the omens were not good. The cathedral grounds were closing for the night, so no chance to go searching,  and a close examination of a good stretch of South Street gave me no clue as to where John might have lived. In the morning we’d already had a fruitless visit to Perth Art Gallery where none (none, what’s that about!) of Hill’s work is on public display and I was suddenly less than optimistic about finding the grave or anything else.

the Adamson restaurant
the Adamson restaurant

But back in our B&B  I did some Googling and discovered John’s house had been pretty well staring me in the face, in the shape of The Adamson – Scottish restaurant of the year, no less! –  occupying 127 South Street, just past where I’d given up looking earlier on! So no problems of knowing where to look next day.

 

 

Returning to the cathedral was equally problem free, as after a five minute wander I stumbled on just what I’d been looking for.

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Adamson family grave

 

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So, mission accomplished in more ways than one.

 

 

North Street, St Andrews
North Street, St Andrews

Along the way I also noticed these houses at the east end of North Street which bear a resemblance to Hill and Adamson’s Fishergate pictures and answered a question in my mind as to why fishermen and women would have lived and worked in North Street which to me was closer to the golf courses and rugged cliffs than the harbour.

But of course this far end of the street  is much closer to where boats would have put out, so suddenly these pictures make more sense.

DSC00914I’ve always had a soft spot for John Adamson, of whom D. O. Hill wrote,

‘his brother the doctor … has watched him as a child during his long illness. I have seldom seen such a true and manly sorrow’

and so I’m glad he’s been acknowledged by his home town – not to mention the fine dining community! But it does seem odd that Robert, in many ways the more famous brother, isn’t recognised here at all, unless of course there’s something else I missed …

St-Andrews-exhibition-e1465483542589This is John’s later picture of the house.  And as I write this blog I discover her’s going to be a St Andrews photography festival later this year. Fantastic!

 

 

 

adamsonsglaThe Adamson family  in an earlier calotype by D. O. Hill. John is top left, Robert seated. There’s a better version on the National Portrait Gallery site. 

 

 

 

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